Reviews

The Superhero Film Bubble Continues to Grow With 'The Avengers - Age of Ultron'

As deft in its dialogue as it is predictable with its action sequences, Age of Ultron is a frustrating experience, forever hinting at depths that it can’t be bothered to explore.


Avengers: Age of Ultron

Director: Joss Whedon
Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, James Spader, Samuel L. Jackson, Don Cheadle, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Elizabeth Olsen, Paul Bettany, Cobie Smulders, Anthony Mackie, Hayley Atwell
Rated: PG-13
Studio: Marvel Studios
Year: 2015
US date: 2015-05-01 (General release)
UK date: 2015-04-23 (General release)
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Trailer

A sturdy piece of inessential workmanship, The Avengers: Age of Ultron begins where it ends, with Joss Whedon shooting the works. In "Sokovia,” another made-up slice of the Balkans, the Avengers are assaulting a mountain fortress controlled by Hydra. That would be the world-spanning network of bad dudes discovered at the end of the last Captain America to have infiltrated the S.H.I.E.L.D. network. It’s not entirely clear what their motivations are besides being evil. Perhaps they’re ticked off at not having quite as cool a name as Cobra Command.

The gang’s all here, deities and beasts like Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), super-suited heroes like Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) and Captain America (Chris Evans), and regular old humans like Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson). Between Cap’s magic shield, Hawkeye’s all-purpose arrows, and Iron Man’s ability to fly anywhere and do anything, they’re cutting through the Hydra lines like a warm knife through butter. The Avengers trade quips as they leap, dart, and crash their way through the snowy Sokovian woods. All in a day’s work.

What’s the purpose of all this seamless teamwork? A couple of the usual gleaming MacGuffins. Some Hydra baddies with grim faces and vaguely Germanic or maybe Russian accents (one even has a monocle) are doing terrible things with Loki’s scepter. The Avengers get there in time to get the scepter but not to stop the escape of two Sokovian twins with custom-built superpowers. Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) and Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) have had it in for Tony Stark ever since their family was killed by Stark family munitions. Later on, a pesky Stark-created artificial intelligence named Ultron (voiced by James Spader) will get his hands on the scepter and start creating an army of robots to do what every villain in the Avengers films wants to do: destroy the world. There’s also another one of those all-powerful Infinity Stones that keep cropping up whenever a Marvel film needs a reason for people to start smashing things up.

The best thing that can be said about Avengers: Age of Ultron is that it moves more swiftly and more enjoyably than its fun-free predecessor. Everyone ends up in a gigantic air-borne set piece that rumbles on three times as long as necessary, but at least the script sets us up for why it’s happening, unlike the alien ex machina conclusion of the first film. Whedon dashes the between-action moments with light comedy and the glimmerings of a romance between Black Widow and Hulk. Like Jon Favreau in the first two Iron Man films, Whedon brings his A-game to the dialogue scenes, understanding that if we don’t connect with characters before they’re in danger, we won’t care when they are in danger. It’s the sort of formula that used to be de rigueur in the movie industry, but now seems like a quaint relic from a time before CGI took over everything.

It’s a bad time to be a regular old human being on the silver screen. The Marvel and DC empires, along with the surprisingly agile newcomer Lego, have inserted their tentacles into seemingly every aspect of the business like a virus hatched by one of their bad guys. The release dates, story beats, character introductions, product rollouts, and marketing pushes for the overpopulated Avengers team, along with ancillaries in the X-Men universe, the Justice League films, and all the scattered pinpoints of comic-book light (Guardians of the Galaxy, the upcoming Suicide Squad) are now adding up to an entertainment juggernaut that feels either like the dawning of a new era or a bubble about to burst.

With Marvel having plotted out its films through at least 2019, it's possible to see an entertainment future fully dominated by origin stories and reboots, youth-skewing TV shows and X versus Y showdowns, most of them accompanied by timpani-heavy Hans Zimmer scores and breathy trailers promising -- again and again -- the end of human life as we know it. Who knows? Maybe by 2020, even NPR will be on board, podcasting superhero adventures in old-timey serial format, with narration by Ira Glass and a soundtrack by the Kronos Quartet.

Come to think of it, that might be good challenge for The Avengers franchise. Whedon had bigger creative and technical hurdles to overcome with Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog. But he’s already said that he won’t return for future Avengers installments. This leaves hope that he might return to more quick-witted, and honestly entertaining, work like his Much Ado About Nothing adaptation. Robert Downey Jr. as Hamlet? Chris Hemsworth as Henry V? Maybe Chris Evans could play Richard III.

More likely, though, the Avengers films will grind on into the cross-pollinated Captain America versus Iron Man storyline that this entry all too clumsily establishes. More Infinity Stones will be found, more threats to Earth vanquished in the nick of time. That sound you hear is the bubble getting near to bursting.

5

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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