Sunday, May 3, 2015

MOVIE REVIEW: AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON


Without a doubt, Avengers: Age of Ultron delivers on action, adventure, characterization, and wit. It’s probably a little less “new-user friendly” than its 2012 predecessor, which means key story points may end up confusing some in the audience who aren’t particularly acclimated to Marvel Comics-style storytelling. But once again, writer-director Joss Whedon does an impressive job balancing spectacle with small moments, delivering a movie that makes you care about all of the members of the dysfunctional superhero team—even the CGI ones.

Set a few years after The Avengers, we discover right off the bat that the team has gotten back together to take on the remnants of Hydra, the evil organization that had infiltrated S.H.I.E.L.D. and brought about its downfall in 2014’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier (which may well be the greatest superhero movie ever made—it’s certainly Marvel’s best thus far). Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is along for the ride to recover the Staff of Loki, which has fallen into the hands of Baron Strucker (Thomas Kretschmann), Hydra’s current leader. Strucker is using the staff in his experiments to create super-powered humans he can control. Thus far, only two subjects have survived the experiments: “The Twins,” more formally known as Pietro and Wanda Maximoff (Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen, respectively). During the showdown with Hydra’s forces, Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) gets a taste of Wanda’s mind-control powers and experiences a horrifying vision of the future, one that compels him to complete his secret project: Ultron, an Artificial Intelligence program that would protect Earth from otherworldly threats and perhaps even render the Avengers unnecessary. Working with fellow scientist Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), Stark forges ahead, using an unorthodox power source that leads to the successful launch of Ultron . . . who immediately builds himself a towering, invulnerable robot body—with countless spares—and promptly decides that humanity has had its day and must be wiped out of existence. 


That’s about all I can tell you without getting into spoiler territory. Suffice to say there’s a lot going on in the film. Some might even say there’s too much going on. Certainly the plot is not as streamlined or as straightforward as that of the original Avengers movie. But there is a deepening of the characters that is wonderful to watch. Downey’s Stark is even more arrogant and self-righteous now. Ruffalo’s Banner has become so fearful of the destruction he can cause as the Hulk—and as seen briefly in the trailers, he’s absolutely right to be afraid—that he dismisses the notion of ever finding happiness, of ever falling in love again. 


Which is a bummer for Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), because she’s developed a real affection for the mild-mannered scientist—and she may now be the only person on Earth who can calm the big green guy down. Captain America (Chris Evans) is doing a fine job leading the team, but after discovering in The Winter Soldier that he couldn’t trust many of his colleagues in S.H.I.E.L.D., he fears that he’s living that experience all over again when he learns of Stark’s secret activities. 


Of all the Avengers, the one who probably gets the most attention is Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner)—perhaps Whedon was trying to make it up to Renner for giving his character such a limited role in the original film. We are given a glimpse into Barton’s civilian life that surprised even this lifelong comic-book reader and former Marvel staffer.  

Other denizens of the Marvel Cinematic Universe show up in supporting roles, most notably Cobie Smulders as former S.H.I.E.L.D. agent and current Avengers ally Maria Hill, Idris Elba as Heimdall and Stellan Skarsgard as Dr. Erik Selvig (both from the Thor movies), Don Cheadle as James Rhodes/War Machine (from the Iron Man movies), and Anthony Mackie as Sam Wilson/the Falcon (introduced in The Winter Soldier). Expect to see more—a lot more—of these last two.  

Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen are fine additions to the cast. There’s nice chemistry between them, perhaps owing to the fact that they played husband and wife in last year’s Godzilla. As Pietro (whose codename, Quicksilver, is never uttered onscreen), Taylor-Johnson exudes much of the arrogance of his comic-book counterpart. Note that Evan Peters played the same character in last year’s X-Men: Days of Future Past, though it was a completely different interpretation—and, I must say, Peters’s version was more fun. But Whedon does something with Pietro that should raise plenty of eyebrows, among both longtime fans and the uninitiated. Olsen’s Wanda (codenamed the Scarlet Witch, also a name never used in the film) displays both menace and vulnerability. My only real quibble is that her powers are not fully explained, other than the fact that she can manipulate minds and move objects without touching them. But it seems there’s more to them than that. I did appreciate the fact that the siblings both speak with European accents, which is only appropriate, given their backstory. 



I also have to mention the Vision, played by Paul Bettany, who has voiced Tony Stark’s “Jarvis” AI program since the first Iron Man movie in 2008. Here, we finally get to see Bettany in the flesh (with a lot of CG assistance), as a highly advanced android developed by Ultron. The Vision doesn’t have a lot of screen time, but he’s used extremely well and I took an instant liking to him. It’s actually quite remarkable just how quickly and easily he fits in to the storyline and how well he meshes with the other characters. 

As for the title villain, James Spader, in a motion-capture and voice performance, delivers all of the creepiness, superiority, and contempt for others that you would expect and want from him. I’ve only read a handful of the many comic-book stories in which Ultron has appeared, and the character never made much of an impression on me, but the movie version is fun, and sometimes, quite funny. However, I think it would have worked better and would have been more dramatic if he had been a bit more of a blank slate at first—an AI program that observes humanity for a little while, that poses no threat and seems to be working exactly as intended, thus giving Stark and Banner an initial feeling of victory and success. But then, as a result of its observations and interactions with humans, Ultron would come to decide that we need to be exterminated. As presented in the film, Ultron comes to that conclusion right away, so there’s no real arc for the character. He’s a threat pretty much from moment one, and as such, he’s a bit too one-dimensional. As of now, Loki remains the top Marvel Movie Villain, and it doesn’t seem like that will be changing anytime soon.   

I must also note that Whedon goes out of his way to show the Avengers taking the time and making the effort to protect and rescue as many innocent bystanders as possible. I can’t help but think this is a sly little stab at Warner Brothers, who, in 2013’s Man of Steel, depicted Superman—Superman, of all characters—never once showing any concern for the people of Metropolis as he engages in a skyscraper-toppling battle with General Zod that surely killed thousands. Clearly, Whedon believes it’s important to have heroes who can truly inspire hope. Good on him.     

There’s a bit of an Empire Strikes Back feel to Age of Ultron, especially at the conclusion, where several plot threads are left unresolved and a new status quo is put in place. With the steady flow of Marvel movies coming over the next few years, featuring many of these characters and leading up to the third and fourth Avengers films, it won’t be too long of a wait to find out what happens next. Given Marvel’s track record thus far, it should continue to be a fun ride. Fun, and at times, as with The Winter Soldier, downright spectacular. Age of Ultron doesn’t quite surpass The Avengers, but it stands tall among the Marvel films and is a fitting end of one era and an intriguing start of a new one. Be sure to stick around during the end credits, during which you’ll get a brief tease of what’s to come.   


© All text copyright Glenn Greenberg, 2015.

Friday, February 27, 2015

LEONARD NIMOY (1931-2015)


February 27, 2015 didn’t start off as a damned sad day, but it surely became one, once the news got out that Leonard Nimoy had passed away. For those of you who know me, it is very obvious why this news hit me fairly hard. But beyond the obvious, I am finding that in a very small way, it’s like losing my father all over again. They were the same age, born within a few weeks of each other, and Star Trek has been such an important part of my life since I was very young. So as much as I have been thinking about Leonard Nimoy, and what he has meant to me, I find myself also thinking about my dad, now gone nearly two years.  

I was interviewed earlier today by the radio station at Hofstra University and asked to provide some comments, because of my (albeit limited) connection to Star Trek—as many of you know, I wrote a series of Star Trek comics for Marvel back in the late 1990s, in which I was able to put my lifelong love for the franchise into some character-driven stories that I really wanted to tell. In answering, I said that the passing of Leonard Nimoy signifies the true end of the original era of Star Trek. More than anyone, even William Shatner, Nimoy was the face, the voice, and the soul of Star Trek. With just a few exceptions, he appeared in every single iteration of Star Trek ever produced: The original pilot, starring Jeffrey Hunter as Captain Christopher Pike; the second pilot, which introduced Shatner’s Captain James T. Kirk; the entire original television series; the animated series; the first six movies; two episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation; and, most recently, the two reboot Star Trek films directed by J.J. Abrams. I would say that pretty much debunks the notion that he hated Star Trek and the Spock character, wouldn’t you?

Upon hearing earlier this week that his health had taken a turn for the worse, my first thought was that I really truly hoped that he would at least live to see the 50th anniversary of the franchise that he was so instrumental in building. And, if the rumors circulating several months ago were accurate, that he would be able to share the screen with Shatner one last time, in the next Star Trek movie. But it was not to be. Time—and nature—had other plans. 

Leonard Nimoy and his work have played a key role and have been a major influence on me throughout my life, and I have no doubt that they will continue to do so for the rest of my days.

I thought I would end this with something of a treat. This is the closest I ever got to Leonard Nimoy. It was June 22, 1985, in New York City, at a Star Trek convention in what at the time was called the Penta Hotel (now the Hotel Pennsylvania). Mr. Nimoy was the guest of honor. He had recently been announced as the director of Star Trek IV (the subtitle had yet to be revealed). I had set up camp as close to the stage as I possibly could, but my camera was so primitive that I knew I wasn’t going to get good shots of him unless I moved closer. I practically had to climb over this really annoying heavy-set kid—and nearly got my rear end kicked—to get close enough to get some decent shots. These two were the ones that came out the best. Nimoy’s shirt says “Star Trek IV in ’86.”

Photo by Glenn Greenberg (1985)

Photo by Glenn Greenberg (1985)

Not much else to say, other than: Godspeed, Leonard Nimoy. We will always... remember

© All text copyright Glenn Greenberg, 2015.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

SNL: 40 YEARS, 20 THOUGHTS


Sorry Ive been away for such a long time. Between my full-time job, a freelance gig writing an original X-Files story for an upcoming prose anthology, and starting graduate school—Im going for a Master's degree in Creative Writing—Ive been more busy than usual since the end of last summer.

But with Saturday Night Live having begun its 40th season, and the three-and-a-half-hour special airing tonight on NBC, I realized I had enough thoughts about the show as a whole to jot them down in a list and use it to get back into the blogging waters. 

Overall, while I’m impressed that it’s lasted for so long, I have no great love for Saturday Night Live, especially these days. Its gone through rough patches before, certainly worse slumps than the show is in now. But I think the most frustrating thing is knowing that there's genuine talent putting the show together, and yet there is still so much garbage that gets on the air. After 40 years, the show is still far too erratic in quality, it's filled with missed opportunities, and the writing is often lazy, dumb, and uninspired. And in recent years, the musical performances have become too reliant on pre-recorded tracks and vocals—thus demonstrating just how untalented todays music stars are compared to those of decades past. 

And yet... when the show is firing on all cylinders, its a joy to watch.

So here are my thoughts. Feel free to contribute your own in the Comments section.

Favorite Cast Member: Phil Hartman



From Ronald Reagan to Bill Clinton to Frank Sinatra to Phil Donahue to the Anal-Retentive Chef to the totally-obscure-but hilarious Giant Businessman, it seemed like there was nothing he couldn’t do. Even when a sketch was bombing, he was almost always the best thing about it, and always managed to maintain his dignity. I think I enjoyed watching Phil Hartman more than any other cast member in the show's history.


Favorite Host: Alec Baldwin



No matter how bad a season is on the whole, if Baldwin is hosting, I have to watch. And I'm rarely disappointed.


Favorite Sketch: A two-way tie—
The Sinatra Group,” starring Phil Hartman as Frank Sinatra, Sting as Billy Idol, Chris Rock as Luther Campbell, Jan Hooks as Sinead O'Connor, Mike Myers as Steve Lawrence, and Victoria Jackson as Eydie Gorme—here's just a taste:


  

And “Carl Sagan’s Global Warming Christmas Special,” starring Mike Myers as Carl Sagan, Tom Hanks as Dean Martin, Jan Hooks as Crystal Gayle, Phil Hartman as Isaac Asimov, Dana Carvey as Paul McCartney, and Chris Farley as Dom DeLuise




Favorite Weekend Update Anchor(s): Tina Fey and Jimmy Fallon



I enjoyed their chemistry, and the fact that they genuinely seemed to love with that they were doing, and that they were doing it together.

Least Favorite Weekend Update Anchor(s): Seth Meyers


Never liked this guy, never found him funny, always found him exceedingly smug, arrogant, and self-satisfied—not just on Weekend Update. In ANYTHING he appeared in. 


Cast Member Who Started Off Okay But Got Really Annoying Really Quickly and Became Overexposed to the Point of Absurdity: Kristen Wiig



She’s undeniably very attractive, and had some genuinely good moments when she first got on the show (her Megan Mullally impression was hilarious) but given her overall limited range and her abundance of awful characters (Gilly? The Target Lady? Aunt Linda? Judy Grimes?), I figure Executive Producer Lorne Michaels was madly in love with her, or she had photos of him with a goat. In her last few seasons, you would think there were no other women in the cast. 



Favorite Unscripted Moment:
The camera catches Ian Mckellen sitting on the side of the stage, bopping away joyfully, as Kylie Minogue performs “Can’t Get You Out of My Head”




All-Time Least Talented Cast Member: Horatio Sanz



Couldn’t do decent impressions of the celebrities he played, couldn’t read off the cue cards convincingly, couldn’t get through sketches without cracking himself up, always came off as woefully underrehearsed. It’s a show-business crime that he was on the show for as long as he was.    


Most Successful Cast Member With the Least Amount of Talent: Adam Sandler 




I enjoyed one—and only one—sketch this guy starred in: “The Denise Show,” in which he played a guy with a talk show in which he would spend the whole time talking about his ex-girlfriend Denise, then calling her and hanging up, and then he would call her new boyfriend and tell him in a threatening voice, “I'm gonna kill you.” That was pretty funny. He went on to make a string of some truly moronic movies that somehow became big hits. More power to him—but I am not, nor have I ever been, a fan.


Most Talented Cast Member Whose Talents Were Wasted on SNL: Chris Rock 



I thought this guy was a real waste of space... until I saw his 1996 HBO comedy special “Bring the Pain,” and I realized that he was one of the best stand-up comedians the world has ever seen.



Favorite Musical Performance: Paul Simon and George Harrison duet on “Here Comes the Sun” and “Homeward Bound”






Stayed With the Show Far Too Long: Tim Meadows



It was starting to get a bit sad.


Didn’t Stay With the Show Long Enough: Chevy Chase



This is a no-brainer. Even HE admits it now.


Should STILL Be On the Show: Martin Short

This is based on his absolutely STELLAR appearance hosting the December 15, 2012 episode. I’ve watched it at least four times. He killed in every sketch. This man is a comedy treasure.





Never Performed on SNL, Surprisingly Enough: The Who, or any member of the Who


You would think they would have by now, given that the Rolling Stones, the Kinks, three ex-Beatles, and Eric Clapton all turned up at one time or another.  


Performed on SNL, But Probably Shouldn’t Have: Brian Wilson



Oy vey. Happily, Brian is doing MUCH better these days.

Never Appeared or Performed on SNL, But Probably Would Have Eventually: John Lennon



All the other ex-Beatles made memorable appearances on the show, so it’s unthinkable that John would not have shown up eventually. Unfortunately, he probably would not have come alone:





All-Time Most Valuable Player: Eddie Murphy



He practically single-handedly saved the show when it came closest to being cancelled, during the disastrous 1980-1981 season. His “James Brown Celebrity Hot Tub” sketch still cracks me up. 


Cast Member With the Most Impressive Career After Leaving the Show: Bill Murray



Ghostbusters. Rushmore. Lost in Translation. Groundhog Day. Quick Change. Kingpin. Zombieland. Saying no—repeatedly—to Ghostbusters III, thus ensuring it would never see the light of day. Need I go on?    


Most Notorious Guest Host, in Retrospect: O.J. Simpson




Hosted the show on February 25, 1978 — “Uh... LOOK OUT!”


© All text copyright Glenn Greenberg, 2015.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

THE GEORGE TAKEI INCIDENT


Since I started this blog back in 2010, I’ve been waiting for the right time to share this story. And with the upcoming release of the documentary film To Be Takei, about Star Trek actor and frequent Howard Stern Show guest George Takei, along with his ongoing status as a pop-culture icon, and his much-publicized recent appearance on Real Time With Bill Maher, during which he launched yet another attack on his former co-star William Shatner, it seems that time has finally come. So here’s the tale of my one and (thus far) only face-to-face encounter with the man best known as Mr. Sulu.   

It was July of 1998, and I was writing the five-issue limited series STAR TREK: UNTOLD VOYAGES for Marvel Comics, which featured adventures of the original crew set after Star Trek: The Motion Picture and before Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.  


For issue #4, I wrote a story about Mr. Sulu taking command of the Enterprise when Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock, and Dr. McCoy leave the ship on a diplomatic mission. An emergency situation arises that Sulu must confront, and he is forced to take the ship into combat. Sulu, with the help of Scotty, Chekov, and Uhura, manages to save the day, and we get to see the beginning of his ambition to command a starship of his own. Longtime Star Trek fans know that we finally got to see Sulu as a starship captain in the film Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, in which he is the commander of the U.S.S. Excelsior. This promotion of Sulu to the rank of captain was something that had been lobbied for by the actor who played him, George Takei, for many years.  

Okay, so here’s the incident. I had recently finished writing STAR TREK: UNTOLD VOYAGES #4 when I was sent by Marvel to Chicago, to represent the company at the annual Wizard World comic-book convention during the Fourth of July weekend. On the Saturday night of the convention, I was heading out to dinner with a Marvel contingent that included my friend and fellow staffer Bill Rosemann, artist extraordinaire Adam Kubert, and Marvel’s then-publisher, Shirrell Rhoades. Walking through the hotel, we passed by one of the conference rooms, and Bill noticed that a party was going on inside, and that Star Wars actors Peter Mayhew (Chewbacca), David Prowse (Darth Vader) and Jeremy Bulloch (Boba Fett) were there. Bill wanted to check it out for a few minutes, so we all went in.

As we were leaving, Bill pointed out to me that Mr. Sulu himself, George Takei, was standing right near the exit, and nudged me to say hello. “Come on,” Bill said, “didn’t you just write a story about him? You gotta tell him that!” 

I shrugged my shoulders and casually made my way over to the actor, who was chatting with a group of fans and hangers-on. Bill and the others waited for me outside, and I patiently awaited my turn to speak with Mr. Takei. Then I got his attention.

What follows next is the exact exchange between me and George Takei, which I immediately committed to memory. 

“Mr. Takei,” I said, “I’m Glenn Greenberg from Marvel Comics.”

“Ahhhhhhhhh,” he replied in his rich, distinctive voice. “Marvel Comics . . .”

“Yes,” I continued. “We have the Star Trek license now. I’m one of the writers, and I just finished writing a story about your character!”

“Oh?” he said with interest. “You’ve written a story about Captain Sulu?”

“Yes,” I told him enthusiastically. “But he’s actually not a captain in my story.”

He looked puzzled. He said to me, “Well, you know, I am a captain now.” (Please note that he said “I am a captain,” not “Sulu is a captain.”)

“Yes, I do know that,” I told him earnestly.

He continued, “I became a captain in Star Trek VI. I was supposed to become a captain in Star Trek II, but the scene got edited out. With each film that followed, I pushed to be made a captain: Star Trek III, Star Trek IV, and Star Trek V. But each time, it didn’t happen. I thought, ‘Well, that’s it, I guess.’ So when I got the script for Star Trek VI and saw the words ‘Captain Sulu of the Starship Excelsior’ on the very first page, you can imagine how delighted I was!”

I knew all of this already—he’d related it in numerous interviews over the years—but I didn't want to be rude, so I just let him go on uninterrupted.

When he was done, I said, “Well, my story actually takes place a number of years before you became a captain.” (To be exact, as per Star Trek’s chronology, my story took place about 14 years before Sulu was given command of the Excelsior.) I continued, “But it shows how you decided that you wanted to become a captain, and how you gained the experience necessary to eventually become one.”

He thought for a moment, and finally asked me, “Well, do I become a captain at the end of the story?”

I looked at him and said simply, “No.”

He replied, obviously bewildered (and perhaps even a little offended), “Well, who wants to read about that?” The fans and hangers-on surrounding him burst out in laughter and spurred him on. “I am a captain now! You should show me becoming a captain!” I felt very much alone at that moment. 

“Yeah, but—yeah, but,” I stammered. How do I explain this to him more clearly than I already have, I wondered. But I just gave up. Time to get out of this conversation, I told myself. So I politely took my leave of Mr. Takei and rejoined my colleagues, who of course were having a great laugh over my encounter with Mr. Sulu—I mean Captain Takei—I mean Captain Sulu—I mean . . . oh, whatever.

You know, reflecting on this incident again, I’m now inspired to come up with a sequel to that story—one in which Sulu gets bumped down to ensign. That’ll show him!


© All text copyright Glenn Greenberg, 2014.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

LATER, LOUIE


So Louie aired its season finale this week. And based on this season as a whole, I don’t think I’ll be back next time around. I found it pretentious, preachy, overly moralistic, disjointed, self-indulgent . . . and perhaps most egregious of all, not funny

Somewhere along the way, Louie C.K. seemed to buy into all the glowing press about him and decided he was now an auteur with something IMPORTANT to say. What was once one of the funniest shows on TV, with a little seriousness and pathos sprinkled in every now and then (the Afghanistan episode, the Parker Posey episodes), and occasional lapses into self-satisfaction (an entire segmented devoted to him singing the Who’s “Who Are You” as he’s driving his two daughters upstate) has become a full-blown drama with half-assed attempts at humor once in a blue moon.

A 90-minute flashback episode about Louie’s childhood, complete with brutal bullying, theft, drug use, an adversarial relationship with his mostly absent father and a disintegrating relationship with his overworked and stressed-out mother, topped off by him in the present realizing that the way to deal with his daughter—whom he found smoking pot and who LIED to him about it, insisting that she hadn’t done anything even though he SAW her doing it—is to simply tell her that he loves her. I guess the message there is that any parent who doesn’t handle it that way is doing it wrong.

Episode after episode of him romancing an utterly uninteresting woman from Hungary who speaks no English. His completely disfunctional—even disturbing—relationship with the extremely unpleasant and downright unlikable character played by Pamela Adlon. (Did he or did he not actually try to sexually assault her in his apartment in a recent episode?) His younger daughter displaying very troubling behavior. The seemingly endless lecture he received from a date about how society treats overweight women. It was all just . . . not enjoyable to watch. Not for me, at least.       

It kind of reminds me of the situation with M*A*S*H. The first few seasons were often very funny. But as the show progressed, Alan Alda gained more and more creative control and decided that it was no longer to be a straight-out comedy. Now it had to make big, meaningful statements, it had to bring home just how horrible war really is, and it had to give the cast opportunities to show off their dramatic acting chops. Uh, okay, but as an audience member, that’s not what I signed up for. 

There is very little I remember about the last few seasons of M*A*S*H. I may have stopped watching by then. But I do remember that I watched the final episode with my dad the night it aired, and neither of us laughed once. And I remember that Alan Alda, who co-wrote and directed the episode, gave himself the juiciest of parts, with Hawkeye having a nervous breakdown brought on by witnessing a mother killing her own baby to prevent being discovered by enemy troops in the middle of the night. Hilarious stuff, huh?

I know this season of Louie has many supporters and defenders, people who genuinely enjoyed the direction it went in this season. But in my opinion, when it reaches a point when Maron is actually the funnier show, it’s probably time to give up on Louie.

If the comedy part happens to make a comeback next season, let me know.


© All text copyright Glenn Greenberg, 2014.