Allow me to begin with a confession. I had to see Mad Max: Fury Road… MoreAllow me to begin with a confession. I had to see Mad Max: Fury Road again. I knew minutes into the film that my appetite would not be quenched and I needed to see it again, which I did less than 12 hours later. A week later I saw it a third time in the theater. The reason I did this is obvious in one regard - it's a highly enjoyable, pulse-pounding, amazing spectacle of first-class stuntwork and mad genius so rarely accomplished on such a large, splendid scale of destruction. The other reason, from a writing standpoint, is that I needed to see the movie again or else my review of Fury Road was going to consist of nothing but an unending stream of positive adjectives vomited upon the page in excitement. And for you, dear reader, I wanted to do better. Also, I wanted to see Mad Max: Fury Road again and I honestly wouldn't mind in the slightest seeing it again.
In the post-apocalyptic future, Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne) is an aging warlord with his own fiefdom. He controls the water supply and has an army of gearhead warriors to enforce his rule. His trusted driver, Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), is leading a caravan for supplies when she goes rogue, driving off into the desert. Furiosa has taken Immortan Joe's "property," namely his five wives. Enraged, Immortan Joe gathers a posse of death vehicles and riders and heads off to reclaim his "property." Max (Tom Hardy) is a drifter thrust into the middle of this conflict when he's strapped to a car and driven out into the desert, part of the Immortan Joe rapid response forces.
There are few things more exhilarating in the realm of motion pictures than a well-executed, well-developed action sequence, and Mad Max: Fury Road is a blistering, awe-inspiring masterpiece of brilliant carnage. What director George Miller has achieved onscreen is visionary. The level of execution is so rarely seen at such a large scale, and with so many moving parts, that I was delighted and curious how something this extraordinary could escape the risk-averse studio system. I'm trying my best to restrain myself from sheer hyperbole, but this is an instant classic in the world of action cinema and a definite top five all-time action film (for those keeping track, I would say last year's Raid sequel would also qualify for that status). The movie provided me a font of joy that did not let up until the end credits ushered me out of the theater. The action sequences are epic in their scale, with dozens of different vehicles in hot pursuit, and yet Miller brilliantly orients his audience to every moment of his symphony of demolition. There are so many different parts to the action but the audience knows everything that happens. The sheer sense of momentum and pacing is overwhelming and giddy. The action sequences develop organically, with new consequences throwing our characters into different and dire directions. There's also a startling amount of variety with the action sequences. Fury Road has been described as a two-hour chase film, and that's accurate to a degree, but there are breaks in between the sequences, small moments to catch your breath and learn more about our characters and their hostile world. Each sequence is different enough that the action doesn't ever feel redundant, even when the third act literally requires the characters to backtrack. The adrenaline just doesn't turn off from the get-go, and Miller keeps throwing out new tricks, new stunts, and new cars to astound and amaze. Simply put, Fury Road shames other American film releases.
The stuntwork is another facet that just raises the bar when it comes to action movies. Miller emphasized practical effects whenever possible, and the emphasis pay off with a heightened sense of realism onscreen. It's real cars being smashed to real bits, real stuntmen being tossed around. In an age of CGI over saturation, it's all too easy to become numb to big screen spectacle because of how hollow it all comes across visually. Just this past month with the Avengers sequel, I knew that all the fight scenes were mostly CGI or actors against green screens, and it eases off the enjoyment of the moment. Don't even get me started on the deluge of CGI carnage in the last Hobbit film. Real physical objects and physical interaction offer so much more believability in an age of increasing disbelief with special effects. With Miller's focus on practical effects first and foremost, it brings that sense of crazy excitement back and it ensures that Fury Road will hold up better over time.
I also appreciated just how much thought Miller and his team put into crafting their world. Every detail feels like it adds to the overall richness of Miller's vision. The designs of the cars, the use of scrap, the fact that a pulley system is operated with children running up giant wheels, it all contributes to making the world better realized and more alive. The level of thought put into weird and deadly concepts in this movie is fantastic. Once the main characters pass through a bog of land, we see people dressed in cloaks traversing the land on stilts, and it's little passing details such as this that make the movie feel more complete. I enjoyed that one of Max's heroic attributes is that he's specified for his blood type, being O the universal donor. The fact that Miller finds a satisfying way to bring this attribute back as a payoff is also appreciated. I also enjoyed how Miller expands upon the family of Immortan Joe, with his bevy of freakish sons and brothers and peculiarities. I enjoyed the fact that Miller isn't afraid to embrace the weird of his dystopia, symbolized best by a blind guitar player attached to a roaming wall of speakers who can shoot flames out of his instrument. Every time the movie cut back to this guitar playing pace setter, I smiled, and I smiled a lot during this movie.
Some have grumbled that Max is a supporting player in a movie that bears his name, but I would argue he is a co-lead and the real star is rightfully Imperator Furiosa. Max is not replaced with Furiosa, rather they have an inter-dependant relationship where they're both vulnerable and they both come to trust the other but without a romantic mingling. These are both wounded, shaken, mistrusting, and volatile people, and to watch their shared sense of teamwork and the gradual opening and reliance upon one another, it is itself an affecting and emotionally satisfying relationship. But back to Furiosa, it's really her story because she is the one with the personal connection o the mission. Max has always kind of been a wandering warrior who finds himself in other people's battles. Consider him a post-apocalyptic Man with No Name. Furiosa is the leader who has planned and implemented the escape from Immortan Joe, and it's she that deserves our attention. I enjoyed the fact that Miller doesn't even have to explain her past. We know she's suffered trauma, physical and likely sexual, and he assumes the audience does not need Furiosa's past abuse spelled out specifically for them, or seen in grisly flashback. She's a strong woman who is far from helpless with one arm. This is a story about women liberating themselves from sexual slavery under a corrupt patriarchy (more on the thematic relevance below). Theron is our leader and the ferocity in her eyes is all you need to know you believe that this woman will do whatever it takes for freedom.
The other aspect that's very clear is that Fury Road is a decidedly feminist film but it never stoops to preaching or even directly calling attention to its efforts. It's a ruined world where men with unchecked power have exploited the vulnerable, where women are treated as "property" and valued for breeding purposes. Our heroes are by and large women who have rejected their roles in this society or are fleeing their impositions. And with Furiosa as lead, it paints a more than convincing picture of women being just as capable and badass in the post-apocalypse (I want to go as Furiosa for Halloween). It's a movie that portrays women struggling against an unjust system that devalues them but Fury Road doesn't wallow in their suffering. It doesn't have to in order to get its points across. It also treats the wives in a manner that lacks sexualization. Immortan Joe has treated them as property but Miller treats them as human beings, even going as far as to give them distinguished personalities. I'm not saying they approach three-dimensional characters but they're certainly not just eye candy. There's a sequence where they wash each other with a hose, and you could see the myriad ways this moment would go tawdry for some cheap titillation. What the Men's Rights Activists (sadly this is actually a thing) seem to have lost in their caterwauling is that feminism is not a zero-sum game; one person gaining stature and opportunity does not mean it's taken away from another. Just because Furiosa is strong it doesn't make Max weak. Furiosa being a compelling lead character does not diminish Max. It makes him an even better character because he recognizes her value and his own limitations, like a scene where he voluntarily hands over a rifle because he knows she's the better marksman. No one has to explicitly point and say, "Girls can do it too."
There's also a fascinating commentary on the danger of religious fundamentalism with the war boys. These powder-white young men are Immortan Joe's armed forces and they are promised a swift appearance at the gates of their paradise if they die in battle ("Witness me!" is their exclamation before sacrifice). They spray paint their faces chrome ("Eternal, shiny and chrome") and then go in for the kamikaze kill. Again, the theme is ripe and obvious but without requiring characters to comment. Nux (Nicholas Hoult, wonderfully deranged and then sincere) actually has the closest thing to a character arc, going from hopeful martyr to independent thinker. He begins as a clumsy yet determined antagonist and becomes a resourceful and unexpected ally.
This is practically a flawless film on a technical level. The cinematography by John Seale (Cold Mountain) is bright with lush colors that pop on the big screen. We've been treated to far too many color degraded films, so it's nice to view a movie that wants to use all the colors at its disposal. The musical score by Junkie XL (300: Rise of an Empire) is stirring and pulse-pounding with its heavy percussion, but there's a languid melody that returns again and again that is emotionally resonant. It's surprising how the score will punctuate the bombast and wailing guitars with a lovely string arrangement, like when we rush into the sandstorm and a car is blown into the sky. The editing is outstanding by Margaret Sixel (Happy Feet) and she keeps the audience informed with every new twist and turn, and with so many moving parts and changing dynamics, that is a miracle itself. The production design by Colin Gibson beautifully expands and informs this strange world. There isn't a department in Fury Road that wasn't at the top of their game.
If I had to quibble, I could accept the argument that Mad Max: Fury Road lacks the substance to be much more than an exhilarating action ride. The dialogue can be a bit on-the-nose, Hardy mumbles through a majority of his miniscule lines, and the characters aren't as fleshed out as they could be and the plot is rather bare bones. However, I view its narrative economy as a virtue, as there isn't a moment or scene wasted in telling this breakneck tour de force of post-apocalyptic demolition. Rarely does an artist get to work at this level in the studio system let alone succeed with a final product that still manages to be strange, mordant, uncompromising, and completely riveting. This is a near-perfect action movie and a thrilling high-wire act of practical filmmaking bravado. Mad Max: Fury Road is the standard I am going to judge all summer movies by for the rest of the year, and I imagine many will be found wanting. I could continue to heap praise on the movie but the most persuasive stance I can make is that if you fail to see Fury Road on the big screen, you will always regret this decision. I am a disciple of Fury Road and witness my brethren and me. This movie was made for the biggest screen, the loudest sound system, and an endless bucket of popcorn.
Nate's Grade: A
What happens when you mix the films of Douglas Sirk with a heavy dose… MoreWhat happens when you mix the films of Douglas Sirk with a heavy dose of magic realism? The results might just look like The Age of Adaline, a throwback with a science fiction twist that's surprisingly appealing and intelligently developed. The titular Adaline (Blake Lively) has a freak accident in the early twentieth century that stops the aging process. The premise and the trailer had me scoffing about how hokey it all seemed, and yet I found myself retracting most of my prejudicial broadsides. While focused primarily on the topic of romantic love, the movie credibly explores Adaline's hardships and how she must keep reinventing and moving to a new home so often, lest people suspect. She's purposely stopping herself from making deeper human connections. She's afraid of being abducted and experimented on but she's also afraid of her cursed condition harming those she cares about. Her daughter (Ellen Burstyn, now playing two consecutive daughters older then their parent) poses as Adaline's "grandmother." They have conversations dealing with end-of-life care. The film doesn't duck the more grueling aspects of immortality and it provides a degree of substance to go along with the more fleeting fairy tale aspects of the plot. It's the third act where the movie gets even better, when Adaline unexpectedly reunites with an old boyfriend played by the unexpectedly great Harrison Ford. He's convinced he's seen her face before. It's driving him mad, and even though it's decades hence, he still has yet to fully get over Adaline. Lively gives her best performance since 2010's The Town. She has a beautiful melancholy that she carries with the character that doesn't overplay the tragic elements. It's clearly a melodrama, but it's far more measured and tame that the larger elements feel grounded and sincere. Not everything works, including the superfluous narration from a future historian and the all-too-neat ending. There are probably more interesting stories that can be told with this premise since much of it is Adaline hiding from the world, and the specific focus on her romantic entanglements feels a little myopic for the material. And yet, I found myself engaged and wanting to see what happened next, appreciating the earnestness and the focus on the consequences of choices made and choices avoided. If you have to choose one "Age of" movie this summer, maybe try Adaline instead of Ultron.
Nate's Grade: B
Unfairly cast out like some unwanted vermin, Child 44 is a police… MoreUnfairly cast out like some unwanted vermin, Child 44 is a police procedural based on a best-selling novel that the studio simply wanted to get rid of quietly. It was "dumped" into theaters and, as expected, began its disappearing act. That's a shame, because it's actually a rather involving mystery and an especially fascinating perspective into a little known world of being a cop on the other side of the Iron Curtain. Tom Hardy plays Leo, a member of the Soviet state police who is tracking a serial murderer preying upon orphaned children across the countryside in 1953. His wife (Noomi Rapace) is terrified of him and secretly a rebel informer. The two of them get banished to a Soviet outpost when Leo refuses to turn her in; he also refuses to accept the state's conclusion over the dead children. In a weirdly perplexing turn, the Soviet Union believed murder was a Western byproduct. "There is no murder in paradise," we are told several times, and since the U.S.S.R. is a communist worker's "paradise," whatever reality that doesn't jibe with the party line is swept away. The murder mystery itself is fairly well developed and suspenseful, but it's really the glimpse into this bleak and paranoid world that I found so intriguing. Child 44 is a slowly paced film thick with the details of establishing the dour existence of Soviet Union life. You truly get a sense of how wearying and beaten down these people's lives were, how trapped they felt, how justifiable their paranoia was. The husband and wife relationship grows as they're forced to reevaluate their sense of one another, and it genuinely becomes a meaty dramatic addition. Child 44 is a slow movie but the pacing serves the deliberate and oppressive tone of the film. It's a film with some problems and missteps (certain antagonists make little sense in their motivations), including some incoherent action/fight scenes (fighting in the mud? Way to visually obscure everybody, guys). However, this is a better movie than the studio, and a majority of critics, would have you believe. It's engrossing and taut and ambiguous and consistently interesting, with another standout performance by Hardy. Like many of the characters, this movie deserved a better fate.
Nate's Grade: B
Indie horror is always looking for the Next Big Thing, and at the… MoreIndie horror is always looking for the Next Big Thing, and at the start of 2015, that movie was It Follows. Coming out of relatively nowhere, the second film by writer/director David Robert Mitchell was dubbed the real deal, and audiences flocked to see what all fuss was over. I would have been intrigued before the positive word-of-mouth namely because Mitchell made one of my favorite films of 2011, the understated and perfectly yearning ode to adolescence, The Myth of the American Sleepover. I dearly hoped that Mitchell was not another flash in the pan. In retrospect, I did not have need to fear. It Follows is unsettling, suspenseful, and borderline ingenious with its concept, but it also has some faults that mitigate its concluding power.
Jay (Maika Monroe) is a normal 19-year-old girl going to college in Michigan until the night she sleeps with her object of desire, Hugh (Jake Weary). In her post-coital mediation, he drugs her, ties her to a wheelchair, and then waits. He wants to show her something, or more accurately someone (perhaps something is actually more appropriate). A woman slowly trudges toward them, the embodiment of a curse he passed on to Jay through sex. It will keep following her until it gets her and kills her. The only way she can protect herself is to sleep with someone else, to pass the curse onto a new recipient. Then the monster goes after them; however, once this newest curse-holder is murdered, the monster moves back up the ladder, attacking the next curse-holder. Once you have it, there's no getting rid of this curse, only delaying it.
The top question with a horror movie is whether it provides enough suspense, spooks, and scares to jolt an audience, and in this regard It Follows is quite good; not as unsettling as last year's Babadook but still plenty unnerving and extremely well executed and developed. The opening is engrossing, with a teen girl constantly looking in the direction of the camera and clearly scared out of her mind. The camera has adopted the identity of the monster. The central premise is wonderful, rich with thematic potential about the alienation and anxiety of being a teenager navigating the world, but also intriguing enough that I always wanted a large expository info dump scene just to learn more about the rules or its history. Rare is the film, let alone a horror film, where I'm left desiring lengthy exposition. One of the clever developments of its monster is that it can adopt the appearance of anyone, including people close to you (though it rarely does this for an unexplained reason). That means anyone can be your doom and the only way to know is to double-check whether other people can see this menacing phantom as well. Imagine going the rest of your life always having to look over your shoulder, always having a little nagging doubt in your mind about whether or not this person or that person is real. The premise is well developed with sequences that draw out the tension and make us dread what's coming next or what may or may not be real. Now, slow-trotting fully naked people might not be a scarier monster than, say, Leatherface, but it's still alarming.
The premise also allows the audience to imagine what course of action they would do if they were stuck in this situation. Would you doom an innocent human being to protect yourself? If so, would you be upfront about it and the ensuing danger? Would you formulate a plan like Hugh and drive long distances to provide further distance? If you thought you were being followed, would you immediately find a sexual partner? The clever premise gets your brain thinking of what you would do to survive and at what cost.
There's a distinct Stanley Kubrick and John Carpenter vibe with the filmmaking, which will enhance the overall mood of the film or drive certain viewers crazy. The camera movements fall into very few selections, mostly slow pans, slow zooms, or long tracking shots with the subject routinely framed in the center. It's hard not to evoke feelings with The Shining, an all-time great horror film that likewise built a sense of foreboding terror. You're conditioned to feel that something bad is about to happen as the camera turns or hovers, waiting for the creepy thing to pop around the corner. It plays into second-guessing everything you see, taking away the illusions of safety, and the steady and controlled camerawork enhances this mood. The entire movie feels vaguely out of time, notably a capsule from the 1980s save for one strange inclusion of a wireless reading device. The musical score by Disasterpeace (nee Rick Vreeland) is another throwback to the 80s, and its fuzzy synth-drenched soundtrack smoothly blends in and enhances the atmosphere.
If anyone caught Mitchell's previous film, you'll know that besides a wonderful eye for framing visual compositions, the guy has a very natural feel for developing realistic teenage characters milling about their relatable existences. It Follows is no different, and while I would stop short of saying that the characters have depth to them, they are realistically drawn and portrayed by actors who look and act like scared teenagers. The relatablility of unrequited feelings, or going out on a limb and getting your heart broken, of trusting the wrong people who have ulterior motives, is a universal pain that makes it all the easier to put ourselves in these unfortunate character's shoes. It also helps that, up until the final act, the characters defy the arc of rampant stupidity in horror. After realizing the danger she's trapped in, Jay actually seeks out the one person who she can get answers from, even if he's the same person who doomed her with the curse.
It's unfortunate that the movie loses steam when it creeps into its third act and forces a solution and showdown with the monster that makes no sense whatsoever. I understand the need to feel like the teens can regain the upper hand or somehow outsmart the curse that doggedly follows them, but with everything presented, it's just not believable. For the entire movie, we've seen that this supernatural force doesn't really have a loophole in its system of rules. The only way to stave off annihilation is to pass it along and create a series of firewalls as protection with other sexual partners. Otherwise, it's relentless and like zombies the eventuality is what helps magnify the sense of dread. We even see it get shot in a hasty defense from the teens and the gunshots do nothing. And yet, this vital information doesn't seem to register with our band of teenagers. Their third act solution (spoilers): they're going to lure the following terror into a pool and... electrocute it. Huh? Why would a supernatural entity that has no shown any weakness to electricity, or any mortal dangers, be able to be killed? This plan makes no sense and not one character voices a counter-argument to what is proven to be a very bad plan. Maybe the point is that it's supposed to be bad, that it's an example of how desperate these characters have become that they would hold out hope for something that is completely inaccurate. After this failed plan, Jay does exactly what you'd expect with the boy who's been itching to jump her bones for the entire movie. He gets what he wants (physical copulation, being the white knight), she gets what she wants (flimsy security), and then the movie just kind of peters out and ends. I understand that Mitchell's extended point is that there is no happy ending possible and the characters will have to uneasily look over their shoulders for the rest of their lives. However, the point could have been made even without the third act. I wish It Follows could have found a better landing than just shrugging and saying, "Well, what are you gonna do with curses, you know?"
Before the movie hits the skids in the third act, I was pondering the greater implications and logistics of its sexually transmitted curse. Does "passing" it along require some form of genital contact? Does it require fluid exchange? If you wear a condom, does the prophylactic also protect your sexual partner from the transmission? Does the curse function relatively the same for same sex couples? What about people with non-functioning parts below the waste? Can someone who suffers from erectile dysfunction pass the curse along? Can it be transferred onto inanimate objects? Can men ejaculate into some sort of container and then send the container into space via the space shuttle and be protected? Actually, banging an astronaut who's about to live on the space station or go to Mars might be the smartest move. I enjoyed thinking of a stratagem to best protect myself if I was caught in this scenario; even after passing it along and providing a buffer, you still always have to be on guard for the curse to move back up the ladder. My solution: have relations with a prostitute. This is probably a guarantee that the curse will be passed on within a 24-hour period, and even if that john is found and killed, chances are this prostitute may have already passed the curse along to a new client. If one cannot inoculate themselves from a supernatural STD-like curse with the aid of prostitutes, then there's no hope for the rest of us poor mortals. Anyway, my mind wandered a tad.
It Follows may suffer due to the hype, the inconclusive resolution, and a third act that deflates, but it's still an extremely well executed horror thriller with a terrific concept at heart. The sense of dread is stark and the camerawork and storytelling draw out the tension until you feel you're about to break. It's more unnerving than traditionally scary, but it has a power that does stay with you, particularly its fascinating premise and the natural relatability of the characters and their choices. I don't know if this premise could sustain a sequel, especially with a villain that appears to be unstoppable, but that hasn't thwarted the horror genre before in its stampede at cashing in on success. It Follows is a solidly entertaining and creepy movie, but it's even more confirmation for me that David Robert Mitchell is going to be a filmmaker who has staying power. I'll be following him.
Nate's Grade: B+
The Avengers wasn't just a blockbuster it was a mega-blockbuster and… MoreThe Avengers wasn't just a blockbuster it was a mega-blockbuster and rewrote the Hollywood playbook in the summer of 2012. It wasn't just about powerful franchises anymore. Now it was about franchises that would link into a super franchise. Sony got anxious to expand their Spider-Man universe in a similar fashion as Marvel had done in buildup to The Avengers. After one poor movie, that plan was scuttled and now Spider-Man is being rebooted for the second time in five years, this time with active help from Marvel itself (look for Spidey to appear in Captain America 3). Writer/director Joss Whedon (TV's Buffy the Vampire Slayer) was the mastermind behind the jaunty smash-em-up fun of The Avengers and was quickly signed on for a sequel after the billion-dollar mark was crossed. With great success comes great risk of upsetting that continued success. It feels like Whedon's hands were tied to the greater forces at work. As a result, I shouldn't be surprised but I'm still disappointed with how muddled and overstuffed as Age of Ultron comes across.
The Avengers are cleaning up the last remnants of HYDRA, taking them to a castle in a fictional Eastern European country. The HYDRA doctor has been genetically experimenting on volunteers, birthing Wanda "Scarlet Witch" (Elizabeth Olsen) and Pietro "Quicksilver" Maximoff (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). She can tap into people's minds and he can run super fast. They've got a grudge against the Avengers, particularly industrialist Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.). Stark takes a piece of alien technology and plugs it into his home system to build a super fleet of automated robots to patrol the world. In no time, the A.I. has taken form in the shape of an insane robot named Ultron (James Spader) whose mission is to save the planet by eliminating mankind. He builds an army of robotic soldiers with the assistance of the Maximoff twins. Tony, along with Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), and Bruce "The Hulk" Banner (Mark Ruffalo), must stop Ultron while not destroying much of the world themselves with their collateral damage.
Eleven movies into the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), a movie of the size of an Avengers sequel cannot simply be a movie. It's too important to the overall vision of the MCU, and so it has to set up and establish other characters, franchises, and the many monetary tributaries that keep the world of superheroes going. It's already got a slew of superheroes and it adds even more new faces into the mix (I guess we needed an Avengers B-Team). The development of Ultron is also far too rushed; it's literally minutes from being plugged in that he's already settled into kill-all-Avengers mode. The movie barely has any time to even contemplate the perils of artificial intelligence before Ultron is already proving their fears correct. While Ultron is a fun villain (more on that later) his plan feels quite haphazard. His biggest strategic advantage is his duplication, the fact that he can exist without a physical body and can inhabit many bodies at once. Except for a hasty escape via the Internet and a climax stuffed with CGI robot mayhem, this advantage isn't really explored. Why does a self-replicating creature beyond the bounds of physicality need or even desire a physical body? If you're made from a nigh indestructible metal and can control numerous beings at once with a hive-mind intelligence link, why would you want to be turned into flesh thanks to what amounts to a 3D printer? The introduction of The Vision (Paul Bettany, this time in the flesh) is quite muddled and confusing. The incorporation of the Maximoff twins is awkward and they feel more like accessories than needed additions. This Quicksilver doesn't come anywhere close to the memorable prankish Quicksilver from Days of Future Past. The pacing of the film is so ramped that it feels like the movie is falling over itself to get to the next large-scale action set piece. At 140 minutes, they could have removed one or two action pieces and devoted more time to streamlining and cleaning up the narrative.
And the action sequences start off with a bang but they invariably fizzle out. The opening sequence begins with a Birdman-styled tracking shot to connect all our fighters, and it's a fun way to kick things off while visually tying together the team. The Hulk vs. Iron Man brawl is fun for a while, partly because it harkens back to the pleasures of the first film, namely watching our heroes battle each other as much as the villains. After a while, the CGI onslaught becomes overwhelming and just dulls the senses. You're watching CGI smash into other CGI and then keep smashing, with little variation. The disappointment with the action is that it too often feels weightless and hollow. It has glimmers of fun but it can't hold onto these glimmers because the action doesn't change. It gets bigger and more chaotic, yes, but it doesn't develop with organic complications and real attention to setting. These big battles could happen anywhere because they almost all descend into simply fighting amidst rubble. Even Iron Man 3 found ways to spice up its action set pieces through complications, limitations, and clear differentiation. Perhaps this is a larger outcry of fatigue with the overall state of CGI overkill in effects-driven films. The concluding fight versus Ultron and his many copies just feels like the same scene on repeat but in slightly different locations. Whedon has shown an affinity to coordinate exciting and satisfying action sequences, but you just feel like the pressure and demands get the better of him.
However, every moment with Ultron onscreen is a highpoint because of the malicious cattiness of Spader (TV's The Blacklist). He's a perfect fit for a character who is at turns childish and petty, bonkers, and condescending. In some ways he's like a giant robotic teenager who thinks he's just above the rest of these so-called adults. It's such an enjoyable villain, an area of real need in most MCU films (Loki can't be everywhere for every movie), that I wanted more and more of him. My friend and critical colleague Ben Bailey describes Ultron as the villainous alternative Tony Stark, and Whedon does a fine job of laying out the parallels, especially with regards to ego. It's a weird reunion for the stars of 1987's Less Than Zero.
The most boring characters, i.e. the humans, are the ones that get the biggest expansion for character development, with mixed results. Let's face it, Hawkeye is never going to be anyone's favorite Avenger. I think even he acknowledges this in a moment that almost breaks down the fourth wall ("None of this makes sense. I'm fighting with a bow and arrow."). Hawkeye's personal life is given a spotlight and it sets up an obvious worry that he's going to bite it by film's end. If there was an expendable member of this team, it would have to be Hawkeye. The added attention and personal attachments seem like a dead giveaway that he's going to be dead. I don't think I was any more invested in his character knowing about his hidden life outside the Avengers, but I certainly played a game of, "Is this gonna be it?" as the film continued. Black Widow started as an interesting character, a spy trying to make amends for her bloody past, or the "red in [her] ledger," as they referred in the previous film. Her budding romance with Banner makes some sense but it still feels like the character is being forced into Romantic mode not because of her character but mostly because she has a vagina. Any romance with a guy who turns green and monstrous seems like it might be best as unrequited. She's also defined by a past trauma that, while upsetting and cruel, is also a bit too tied into her identity as Woman/Mother. It's an unfortunate positioning for what is an inherently interesting character (the slut shaming of the character in promotional interviews by certain Avengers cast members is also highly unfortunate). Can't we get a Black Widow movie yet, Marvel?
An aspect of Age of Ultron I did enjoy was how conscious the heroes are about mitigating collateral damage and especially human casualties. At every turn, the Avengers are thinking about saving those caught in the cross-hairs first. They go out of their way to save those left behind. I think, and I'm not alone in this conclusion, that Whedon is directly responding to the disaster porn that was Zack Snyder's miserly Man of Steel. The latest Superman movie bothered me with how callous it was with human life, treating devastating city-wide 9/11-style destruction as mere entertainment. As Superman and Zod were colliding through every damn building in Metropolis, you knew thousands if not millions of unseen people were perishing in this rather pointless melee. Whedon's band of heroes places a priority on human life regardless of region.
It would be disingenuous of me to say Age of Ultron is not entertaining. Whedon is still a terrific storyteller and that still shines through the troubled areas and spotty plotting. The action makes good use of the various heroes and their abilities, providing fun combos like Cap hurling his super shield so Thor can redirect it further with his hammer. The use of humor was one of the bigger enjoyments of the first Avengers, and while it's still abundant and enjoyable here as well I'd say it's overdone. When every character is cracking quips every fourth line of dialogue, it pulls you out of the movie and the stakes feel lesser. The running joke where the Avengers make fun of Captain America for his prudish sensibilities on profanity is a joke that works at first but then loses all sense of fun as it's pounded into the ground on repetition. The larger set pieces each have their moments to delight, especially the opening and the Hulk vs. Iron Man battle. Age of Ultron isn't a bad movie and it has some truly great moments and great character moments and payoffs, but it's only moments. The plot meant to connect the dots is too labored with the burden of setting up several Marvel franchises. In the MCU pecking order, I'd place Age of Ultron right around Iron Man 2 quality (another movie compromised by the extra burden of setting up other movies, namely The Avengers).
It's sure to set box-office records and I imagine fans of the original will happily lap up another super team-up, but Avengers: Age of Ultron is something of a disappointment for me. The more I think about it the fun parts become a little duller and I find more areas of criticism. It's just not as fun a movie experience, and that's due to the rushed and muddled story and too many characters. After the critical and commercial success of the first film, I doubt that Whedon could have produced a film that would live up to the sky-high expectations, but that doesn't excuse the finished product. It feels like Whedon had to struggle to pull this one off, especially with the added demands, and I can't blame him for wanting a break from the MCU. The Russo brothers who so dazzled audiences with their direction of Captain America: The Winter Soldier will be stepping in to direct the next Avengers sequel(s). I hope they're up to the task because the burden of carrying a billion-dollar franchise with its tendrils connected to other franchises appears to have been overwhelming for one of the greatest storytellers of a generation. Enjoy Age of Ultron but be wary of what the future holds for the larger MCU.
Nate's Grade: B-
Alex Garland is a screenwriting staple in Hollywood. He's a science… MoreAlex Garland is a screenwriting staple in Hollywood. He's a science fiction specialist, adapting everything from Kazuo Ishiguro's wrenching Never Let Me Go to the Halo movie. He's worked with Danny Boyle, adapting his novel The Beach, and then on 28 Days Later and Sunshine. If you've noticed a theme with the titles, Garland tends to subscribe to a pessimistic view of human nature. And yet each film is grounded by the humanity of its characters no matter the extreme circumstances. Garland's gift is making the fantastic grounded on a recognizable human level. Ex Machina is his latest and his directorial debut but you'd never have guessed it with how controlled and polished the film comes across. It's a cerebral sci-fi film that haunts, enchants, and consistently engaged the imagination.
Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) wins a corporate contest to spend a week's vacation in the home of a reclusive Google-esque tech billionaire, Nathan (Oscar Isaac). Caleb is here to test out Nathan's newest invention - artificial intelligence. He's built an android woman named Ava (Alicia Vikander) and he wants Caleb to interview her.
Ex Machina throws you right into the hook within minutes, and it was mere minutes for me to get hooked. Garland does a glorious job of teasing an audience with his story and unlocking further mysteries that develop intrigue. At the start, knowing the Turing test, we're just as interested in Ava as Caleb is, trying to figure her out and how lifelike she may be. But then the conversations start to linger and, during a brief power outage that cuts the feed to the omnipresent cameras, Ava warns Caleb that his host is not whom he thinks. As soon as the power is back and running, it's as if the comment never happened. The pristine underground quarters have an eerie tranquility to them, almost as if Apple is designing high-end prisons. Garland's movie becomes consumed in paranoia. Is Ava being honest? Is Nathan being honest or underhanded? What's in some of those "off limits" rooms? What is the true test at hand? Who is the silent Asian assistant? At one point, Caleb slices open his own arm to search for circuitry, and you completely understand his reasoning. This mounting sense of paranoia and dread, tagged with Garland's mysterious and well-developed storyline, are enough to keep your eyes glued to the screen and rapidly second-guessing and triple-guessing your shifting loyalties.
Garland also smartly doesn't dance around the obvious plot device of having a beautiful robotic woman, namely the inevitability of romance to bloom. What is it about android women that science fiction seems to love so much? From Blade Runner to Fritz Lang's Metropolis, the genre loves the concept of robotic women. Perhaps this is merely a byproduct of a genre written by a majority of men, or perhaps it taps into something more unconscious about the desire to control women, or a fear of women, but that's a conversation for another day. Ava is certainly a stunning creature, thanks to Vikander, but also from the sleek production design that makes her feel like the world's most gorgeous Mr. Potato Head with her lycra-like skin for easy detachment. Her exposed stomach of bolts and bulbs is also a constant reminder of her "other-ness." There's an obviously sexual dynamic to the character, and while she's technically nude for most of the film, watching her slip out of stockings and a dress has a strange erotic quality. Thankfully, the percolating would-be romance between man and machine actually plays a vital part throughout the script and especially with the end. There's even a darkly comic yet disconcerting reveal about why Ava looks as she does. Is Ava capable of feelings? Is she falling for Caleb, or does she merely view him as a means to an end?
It's essentially a sci-fi play with limited locations and three primary actors. The power is on Garland's effortlessly engaging script, which is far more cerebral and philosophical and nuanced than you might expect from its premise. This is a film that allows its characters to breathe, to organically develop relationships and doubts. The concept of A.I. has been explored in many sci-fi stories before but Garland finds fresh resonance by paring down his story to a manageable trio. Nathan's reclusive home is like a twenty-first century version of the haunted house and full of fun detours begging to be explored. Garland's cinematography and production design are reminiscent of the cool artifice of David Fincher's films. The world feels like a small step into the future but constantly unsettling. Garland's story always has another mystery to unlock, always driving the story further as Caleb's weeklong stay is coming to a close. Garland has a natural eye for images and composes several startling sequences that can equally evoke beauty as well as disquiet. There's a moment where Ava passes a wall of faces as if they were simply a row of hats. Simple moments like Ava "dressing up" are given a gentle poignancy that isn't overplayed for effect. Garland's film is what I wanted 2014's Under the Skin to be. Both of them are unsettling, moody, and atmospheric with striking Kubrickian imagery, but Garland's film is less purposely oblique.
The trio of actors provides strong work, especially Swedish actress Vikander (Seventh Son, A Royal Affair). As the film is told from Caleb's prospective, she has to find a very exact balance with her performance with elements of innocence, uncertainty, and ethereal curiosity. She's rather placid but you always feel like there's more just under the surface, whether it's the ache of sentient realization or something more sinister. She's a test subject, a captive, and a possible romantic interest. Vikander hits every right note to remain mystifying and beguiling. Gleeson (Unbroken) is becoming a go-to young actor for Hollywood. His awkwardness and enthusiasm to be part of history is an easy channel for the audience, but as Garland's script spins along, Gleeson's enthusiasm ebbs to concern, for Ava and then himself. The source of Ex Machina's surprising font of humor is Isaac (A Most Violent Year) as a too cavalier tech genius. He's so nonchalant and chummy, usually soused, that you start distrusting his amiable nature.
It's a shame then that the film couldn't quite hold onto these ambiguities to the end. Garland has had third act missteps in many of his films, some tone-altering and simply losing momentum like 28 Days Later, and some as disastrous as Sunshine's blurry slasher killer, which ruins a perfectly good-to-great sci-fi thriller. Ex Machina too exhibits its own share of third act issues, namely a confluence of contrivances with the characters. There are certain revelations you should already be suspecting giving the nature of the film, and if you've watched other movies before. Those reveals work in relation to Garland's plot; however, the climax feels a bit too forced and obvious for a movie that has been, up to that point, expertly keeping the audience on its toes. Nathan spilling the beans on all the different levels of the experiment comes across not as an outlet of his character's blasť narcissism and more a need for the script to force a confrontation. The different levels of intrigue fade away to what is a rather conventional climax that feels poorly developed and woefully inadequate for the story being told. I will credit Garland with the courage of his resolution, though, which provides deliberate decisions that cast the rest of the film in another dimension. It also feels completely right, while still allowing for Garland to work his Kubrick fetish fully to its eerie erotic ends.
Ex Machina is a hard movie to pin down because it balances various genres with delicacy, providing a little something for every sci-fi fan. It's a well-developed mystery that constantly unravels new layers that only hooked me further, but then I was hooked from the immediacy. The relationship between the main three characters is enough to hold an entire film thanks to Garland's scripting. I started doubting my own senses and that i a testament to Garland's artistic vision. It's a nice antidote to the louder bombast of Hollywood, especially with science fiction films that confuse shrill and busy with appealing and satisfying. Here is a film that doesn't forget to entertain but respects an audience enough to take its time to properly develop its mysteries, tension, and characters. Ex Machina is a stellar debut for Garland as a director and I wouldn't be surprised if he starts shifting more of his attention to getting back into the director's chair. It's not a perfect film, as it too suffers from Garland's streak of third act troubles, but it's a remarkably assured, sleek, and absorbing movie that gets under your skin.
Nate's Grade: B+
What is it about old stories that we enjoy so much? I pose this… MoreWhat is it about old stories that we enjoy so much? I pose this question after watching a commercial for the TV movie, Killing Jesus, based upon Bill O'Reilly's best-selling novel. While it's based upon a popular book, what can possibly be told with this newest rendition of the death of Jesus that hasn't been shown a thousand times in other movies? There was even a movie that was released in theaters last year, Son of God, which covered the same territory with equal reverence. There's something to be said for good stories and the universal appeal of the familiar, but why do people constantly pay more money for new renditions of the same old same old? That question leads me to Disney's live-action Cinderella, a fairly faithful and warm-hearted rendition of the oft-told tale. I can't exactly muster many reasons for an audience to dust off their best glass slippers and run out to the theater, but if you're looking for the comforts of old and some family-friendly entertainment, then Cinderella will charm with its modest and achievable goals.
Cinderella (Lily James) is the titular put-upon heroine suffering under the cruelty of her two stepsisters and her new Stepmother (Cate Blanchett). Cinderella thinks back to the advice her mother gave her at a young age, to always be "kind and courageous." One day she rides off into the countryside and comes upon a handsome man who just happens to be the Prince (Richard Madden). He's smitten with their exchange and convinces his father to open the royal ball to all members of their kingdom, in order to see his special someone once more. His advisor (Stellan Skarsgard) is against such matters because he wants the Prince to marry for a political alliance, not for love. Cinderella is forbidden from attending the ball by her Stepmother, but luckily she has a Fairy Godmother (Helena Bonham Carter) who, with a pinch of magic, will make sure Cinderella attends in style and steals the Prince's heart. None of this should be rather new to you, dear reader.
The first aspect of Cinderella I enjoyed was how it attempts to ground the story without losing a sense of magic to the proceedings. It's still a fantasy film under director Kenneth Branagh (Thor), but there's a concerted effort to place these characters in a world that resembles more of our own than the animated landscape from Disney's original 1950 classic. Thankfully, half the movie isn't spent with anthropomorphic mice wearing clothes and escaping the clutches of a house cat. There are a handful of helpful mice but at least they don't talk and are mostly kept as cute accessories rather than co-stars. The reality of Cinderella's hardships, especially after the death of her parents, is given an appropriate degree of solemnity. I also appreciated that the Prince is given an entire character to portray, one where his pursuit of a bride is placed in a political context about the security of his kingdom. He's pressured to marry several available ladies for various political reasons, but he's smitten with the girl he saw in the woods one fine day. The movie also succeeds in advancing a stronger, more developed relationship between Cinderella and her Prince. Instead of love-at-first-sight, they interact before the ball, and there is terrific chemistry between James and Madden (HBO's Game of Thrones). There's also a rather nice subplot between the Prince and his father (Derek Jacobi) that opens up their relationship. It's a subplot that could have just as likely never existed and yet there's something touching about the love shown between father and son. These moments, and the care to develop them, allow the characters to feel like flesh-and-blood people and to charm us all over again.
Another tilt toward greater narrative realism occurs with the villains, played by Blanchett (Blue Jasmine) and Skarsgard (Thor 2). While she's still an arch villain, the treacherous Stepmother, who has no actual name, is given a generous treatment by Blanchett and especially writer Chris Weitz (The Golden Compass). The movie actually attempts to articulate her position, one where a woman of her age is left with few options to secure her family's stability after the death of a husband. She clearly knows how society sees her waning value and Blanchett does a good job of casting that bitterness in way that you're still reminded why she's so furious and devious. I was so pleased I wanted more. I wanted the Stepmother to break down and admit that Cinderella is proof that her father will never love the Stepmother the same as Cinderella's mother; she'll always be second place to a ghost, and Cinderella is a constant reminder of this. Blanchett is also deliciously dishy as the wicked stepmother every moment she's onscreen. Skarsgard can't compete with the main attraction, but he provides an interesting secondary antagonist as he schemes behind the scenes to ensure the Prince marries a specific maiden with a reliable family name. He's seemingly devoted to strengthening his kingdom, and he can't let something as important as a marriage securing an alliance to fall aside because the Prince happens to be in love with a commoner. The extra dose of political intrigue is further attempt to ground and humanize the fairy tale, and it mostly succeeds.
That's not to say that the movie is without its fantasy pleasures. It is still a Disney movie about a famous Disney princess, and as such it maintains a bouncy, exuberant tone that keeps the heavier moments of drama from getting too heavy. Carter (Les Miserables) works wonders as the Fairy Godmother; she's only in the movie for a solid ten minutes but she makes every second count. She has a silly nature that provides a welcomed jolt of scatterbrained comedy. Carter is clearly having a ball of her own with the role. The magical coachmen and assorted helpers supply extra cuteness. I also appreciated the quick fix of just creating a spell so that Cinderella's stepfamily doesn't recognize her at the ball. However, I never understood why all the artifacts of magic disappear at midnight but the shoes are left behind. Are they not magic too? Maybe only one of them happens to be magic and that was the one left behind. As presented, the shoe fitting is merely a ceremony rather than the missing clue toward finding the absent Cinderella.
So with all that said, does the new live-action Cinderella justify retelling what is one of the most retold stories in cinema history? I'd conclude a mild affirmative. It's a charming adaptation that develops its characters with greater attention to detail, providing flights of fancy but also further humanizing the good guys and the bad. It's no a deconstruction of the fairy tale, nor is it a revision, but it's a faithful attempt to take what works but ground it in a slightly more realistic context, and it works. It's at turns magical and touching and fun and buoyant and heartwarming. The casting all around is excellent, with every role impeccably chosen. Blanchett and Carter are great fun, and James and Madden have a winning chemistry. The technical merits are up to the same challenge, as the costumes and set design are gorgeous. Of course the aims of a new Cinderella movie are modest. Even if it benefits from a reworked attention to detail, we're not reinventing the wheel here. It's still the same story with the same major plot beats and the same ending we'll all expect from the moment the Disney logo appears onscreen. The greatest achievement of Branagh's Cinderella is that it makes you ignore these impulses. You find yourself once again returning to a familiar world and enjoying it all again.
Nate's Grade: B
A return to the world of Divergent yields little forward momentum, in… MoreA return to the world of Divergent yields little forward momentum, in fact just enough to end on the point that I thought where a sequel would naturally begin. Turns out we needed a whole other movie, Insurgent, to arrive at this obvious narrative next step. Insurgent picks up with Tris (Shailene Woodley) and company on the run following the coup of two of the five social factions. Tris is a Divergent, able to apply herself to multiple factions, and she and her kind are the only ones who can open a secret box left behind by the founders of this post-apocalyptic civilization. The film does enough to hold your attention and we get to visit the other two factions we missed the first time, providing further shape to what is still a confusing world. I think the Divergent series will always fall short of the YA pacesetter, The Hunger Games, but they offer their escapist moments of entertainment. The second film is a bigger, louder, and more heavily coated CGI affair, especially the magic box's mental trials that amount to a repeat of the first movie's psychological trials of fear. Woodley is the strong center of the film and she processes her own PTSD over being forced to kill friends in order to survive; you do start to sense that Woodley is growing restless with the franchise. The third book is, as required by the mandate of milking YA franchises, being split into two movies, and while it served little to the Hunger Games, I hope better for the Divergent series, a group of movies inferior and somewhat mystifying but still interesting enough. For now.
Nate's Grade: C+