The Avengers: Age of Ultron

May 14, 2015 by  
Filed under Movies

The Marvel Universe is getting more and more crowded, and in some cases, cloudier and cloudier. I haven’t followed all of them, and some of them I’ve forgotten–but I plod along and try to keep up. 2012’s “The Avengers” seemed to be the best of the Universe, pitting fine actors in fine getups against interesting and entertaining villains for a 2 and a half hour long joyride. I thought Joss Whedon was the perfect guy to bring all of that together, and he’s called upon again to make lightning strike twice.

The Avengers are brought back together, this time to stop a genetic experiment headed by Hydra, a terrorist organization that exists in the Universe. They discover two new mutant kids (which gets dangerously close to “X-Men” fodder) from a place called Sokovia. The new kids are twins, Pietro and Wanda Maximoff. Pietro can move at the speed of light, and Wanda can manipulate people’s thoughts and also send out bursts of red energy. They’re somewhat effective but also raw since they haven’t been properly cultivated yet.

While the Avengers are crashing this mission, Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr., always appealing) is hit with a “vision” by Wanda, projecting the Avengers’ deaths. He believes the world needs a “coat of armor” to shield us from evil. With that, he wants to create something called “Ultron”, which is artificial intelligence harvested from a scepter. Ultron (voiced by James Spader), becomes the Frankenstein’s monster and main villain of the film, breaking off from the idea of protecting the world by thinking it has to destroy it. Everybody, including Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo, the best of the Hulk/Banner actors thus far), sort of blames Stark for this new issue that they all have to stop. Meanwhile, Natasha Romanoff aka Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) has begun to have feelings for Banner, and the two of them share a few moments of reluctant passion–but Banner has cold feet due to his wild and unpredictable counterpart.

The other subplots include ace archer Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) revealing he has a family, Steve Rogers aka Captain America may feel unnecessary when a war isn’t being waged, and Nick Fury from S.H.I.E.L.D. still wants to be part of the gang. Ultron wants to destroy the Avengers before destroying the world, and enlists the help of the Maximoffs, who at first are compliant with his idea.

But, an unexpected thing happens as Ultron tries to improve itself with something that turns out to manifest itself as another potential hero. Vision (Paul Bettany) turns out to bear one of the Infinity Stones on his brow, but wants to help for good rather than help Ultron once he is unleashed by Thor. Vision becomes somewhat paternal to the Avengers, even though every scene he’s on screen I keep thinking someone’s going to ask him, “Who are you and what are you doing here, noob?”

Ultron clashes with the Avengers throughout the film, causing massive destruction to poor Sokovia, but loses the Maximoffs to the good side eventually. By the film’s climax, it’s pretty evident whoever wins, Sokovia loses big time. That place gets absolutely demolished.

It brings me to an epiphany that I first had while watching “Man of Steel”–shouldn’t superheroes have just a little bit of regard for the place they’re saving? I know that these movies have to keep upping the ante–but really, there’s not going to be an earth enough left to save if these guys (and gals) don’t show a little bit of restraint when it comes to destroying bridges and building structures. It’s also amazing that barely any Sokovian gets hurt during the deluge. They keep finding ways to survive out of massive earthquakes–I guess it speaks to their strength as a people, but it’s a bit…you know, hard to believe.

Most of the film’s running time is packed with action, explosions and noise. In the first film, this formula seemed to work better. Maybe because there was a central narrative at work, focusing on the right characters and giving everybody a good amount of screen time. Here, the characters seem rushed into the next action sequence, barely given enough time to breathe–and when they are, it’s not that interesting. Everything from the first film is copied here, as a sequel would, and it just seems to be more retread than refreshing. While the first film was a rip roaring adventure with a lot of laughs, this one dulled by its third act.

It’s not that the characters aren’t appealing–and Whedon does get a lot of out of them. But we’ve seen all of this before, and Ultron just doesn’t come through as a great villain. He’s got all the tropes, but sometimes he’s silly and unconvincing.

The Universe will keep expanding, but the more things expand, the closer it gets to snapping and falling apart.

My rating: :?

Lincoln

November 30, 2012 by  
Filed under Movies

The passage of the 13th amendment, which freed all slaves, is pretty much the first passage of Civil Rights in this country. Abraham Lincoln was the man behind it, and he’s always been seen as one of the greatest presidents of all time because of it. It’s a great story, because it was far from easy. The country was locked in a Civil War that in a large part was due to the issue of slavery, and even in the North, Lincoln had his detractors. Even in his own party, Lincoln was not considered a great leader. This is the story that Steven Spielberg intends to tell in his latest film, “Lincoln”.

Unfortunately, the film is so cloying, so pandering, so preachy, that what should be a riveting drama about how one of the most important bills ever passed in this nation, is really just a two and a half hour long sermon with the effectiveness of a loud dog barking in the middle of the night. There is no drama here, no real conflict. There are only a bunch of scruffy, rat-faced, or whiny old white men against the noble, do-no-wrong Messiah, Honest Abe (played by Daniel Day-Lewis).

The film begins with a scene between Lincoln visiting troops and is approached by two black men from different regiments. One black man is practically bowing at the feet of Lincoln, while the other piles on exposition to berates Lincoln on not being sincere. From that moment, I sensed trouble. Kushner’s script is so afraid of being misconstrued or taking the risk to be the least bit fair minded, and instead makes sure we all know how wrong slavery was, and how great it was that this bill was to be passed. Well, the whole audience this film is made for is well aware at how wrong it was, and how great the bill was. So, tell a story. But neither Kushner, nor Spielberg, are interested in doing this. They seem more interested in beating us over the head with nobility and sentimentality that, by the last shot, is beyond nauseating.

There is no conviction in the storytelling of this film–it’s more cartoonish than it is historical. The facts are all there, but they’re delivered so simply that it’s hard to believe this is how it really went down. And, with something as urgent as this time was, it’s disingenuous. Lincoln needs votes to secure the bill’s passage–he doesn’t want to wait for the war to end in fear of the South not voting for it. Even as it stands, he won’t get it passed; but he thinks he has a better chance. And the time is “Now, now now!” So 3 men are ordered to “bribe” delegates that are either on the fence, or completely against it. This could’ve been an effective way of showing the power of conviction that Lincoln and his supporters had for the bill–instead, it’s treated as some kind of fun little adventure complete with banter between characters played by James Spader and Tim Blake Nelson, and accompanied by a plucky soundtrack by John Williams.

In contrast, any time we see the people against the bill, they’re in dark light, such as the scene with the Vice President of the Confederate States (played by Jackie Earle Haley). His scenes make him look like some kind of dark serpent, or evil creature. He’s lit so we only see one eye, one evil looking eye. Scary. Yes, we get it Spielberg. These are the bad guys. But is that really fair to history? Were they all bad guys? Was everyone for the bill good guys? Isn’t this kind of simplifying of sides what got us into the war in the first place? The reality was that there were no good or bad guys; there was a lot of ignorance, and a lot of intolerance. Lincoln’s intentions initially were to keep the country together, no matter what. Whatever his personal views on slavery were, he did have some in the White House.

But Spielberg doesn’t respect the fact that this was how it was done at this time. Sure, we’re 150 years removed and we know how wrong it is. But we’re going back in time here, and there is not one credible character on the other side of the fence. There’s a scene where one of the weak-minded senators says he’s against slavery but he can’t tolerate this bill because it will lead to women voting. Now, I’m sure that mind-set was a lot more prominent than only coming from this one meek individual. But the scene comes across as easily trying to point out how wrong this character was. Well, no kidding! But why trivialize this event by trying to make it so easy to be on one side or the other? What was at stake for the entire nation if the bill was passed or not? None of that is really explored, leaving everything to easy conclusions that couldn’t possibly be accurate at this time.

There are other problems with the script, too. Robert Lincoln (dutifully played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) wants to join the Union, but his parents are against it because Mary (Sally Field, in her most Oscar-wringing role yet), doesn’t want to lose another son, after their middle son had died due to illness. She comes off as a raving lunatic, while Lincoln is stoic, and strong. This subplot goes absolutely nowhere and doesn’t have anything to do with the main story, nor does it strengthen the theme of the film either.

Lincoln spends a lot of his time in this film making speeches. He comes in a room, he makes a speech. Everyone who is a good guy loves it, everyone who is a bad guy hates it. It goes on like this for the entire duration of the film. His speeches are all the same. He wants what’s best for the country. Yes, we get that. Everyone against him, even at times his friend and his Secretary of State (played by David Strathairn), tries to convince him with horribly unconvincing arguments. I’m not actually even sure why this film is called “Lincoln”. In early drafts of the script it was going to be more of a biopic of Lincoln’s life. But by its final revision, it was narrowed down to passing this amendment. So why isn’t it just called “The Amendment”?

The last scene that shows Lincoln “alive” is the most aggravating. One of his servants looks on as the Great Man in his Top Hat walks down a corridor, admiring how great this man is. Not only do we not ever need to see this shot, but if you haven’t been bludgeoned enough by this time at how Christlike Lincoln is in this film, this scene leaves no doubt.

The simplemindedness of the script is what is most disappointing, though. Is this how far we’ve come intellectually after 150 years that we still can’t bear to look at what the conflict was really about? To be able to look at the other side and be challenged at what they believed as well? I look at the current situation with gay rights. Do you look at everyone who’s against gay marriage and gay rights and say they’re evil? And vice versa, do you look at anyone who is for gay rights and gay marriage as unforgivably bad, or unmistakenly good? Can you tell me every person that’s represented in this film reflects what’s ongoing nowadays? People can be just as ignorant as they were 150 years ago, we have plenty of evidence of that. But we also have come a long way at tolerance. On both sides of the country, you had good and bad, ignorant and educated. If this film was released in the 50’s or early 60’s, the worst I could say about it is that it’s dated. But at least, at that time, we still as a nation were not comfortable with race relations. Sure, racism still exists and always will; but even in films like “American History X”, we get a much more real, cunning, and educated look at how it affects us as a society. That was a powerful, adult film about racism. This film’s almost aimed at children with its simple message that “racism is wrong”.

And if that’s the case, why have all the strong language then? This film is littered with profanity that neither enhances the characters nor gives any scene more flair. In fact, hearing Lincoln use the “s” word almost makes him sound dumber and vulgar. There are scenes that show too much blood and guts for kids to comprehend and handle; and yet, as I said, I can’t see anyone beyond the 5th grade needing to see something like this to shed light on racism.

On top of that, no 5th grader is going to want to spend 2 and a half hours watching old men yell at each other. They have Thanksgiving dinners for that.

My rating: :?