Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, and Robert Downey Jr. in Avengers: Age of Ultron

Avengers: Age of Ultron

Avengers: Age of Ultron may only be the sec­ond install­ment in Marvel’s exhaus­tive series of magna opera, but a cer­tain kind of famil­iar­ity has already been estab­lished. This is both good and bad. It’s good because the audi­ence know what to expect, and the audi­ence is rarely dis­ap­pointed by Joss Whe­don. But it’s bad because there is no oppor­tu­nity for amaze­ment beyond the desul­tory thrills that high-powered, oblit­er­a­tive brawls between CGI crea­tures engen­der. What’s the point of watch­ing super­heroes save yet another day if there’s no child­like sense of won­der­ment? I won­der. After all, it’s the same everytime—our rag­tag group of heroes usu­ally face down adver­saries who, when not slith­er­ing through inter­galac­tic por­tals above Man­hat­tan, more dis­turbingly emerge from clan­des­tine lab­o­ra­to­ries (or Tony Stark’s own base­ment) as per­verted brain­childs of overly ambi­tious peo­ple who think they found the ruth­less solu­tion to the prob­lems of the world. In Age of Ultron it is the lat­ter, as the epony­mous A.I. sys­tem designed as a “sen­try sys­tem” against future extrater­res­trial incur­sions elects instead to play God and usher human­ity into a new era of evo­lu­tion. James Spader, who voices Ultron, lends cred­i­bil­ity to a robot with a dark, twisted soul and a wry sense of humor, although the tease of a truly mem­o­rable and com­pelling char­ac­ter unfor­tu­nately never fully mate­ri­al­izes. It’s frus­trat­ing, but not uncom­mon, as more new char­ac­ters intro­duced as the next crop of Avengers also feel sac­ri­ficed to the fran­tic action of the story, where Every­thing Must Keep Mov­ing For­ward No Mat­ter How Silly It Is. Paul Bet­tany, as a seraphic being with con­fus­ing abil­i­ties and even more bewil­der­ing ori­gins, arrives at the eleventh hour to seem­ingly save the day but then devolves into a back­ground fig­ure in the final bat­tle, while Eliz­a­beth Olson, as the Scar­lett Witch, is sad­dled with an East­ern Euro­pean accent, a twin brother called Quick­sil­ver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), and two expres­sions: bug-eyed alarm, and glow­er­ing fury. But who needs them, while we can still enjoy the holy trin­ity of Robert Downey Jr., per­fect­ing his genius-billionaire-playboy-philanthropist schtick as Iron Man; Chris Evans as Cap­tain Amer­ica, whose moral purity remains hilar­i­ously irre­proach­able, even if he has devel­oped a keen sense of self-deprecation; and Chris Hemsworth, as the Norse god Thor, who’s never more lik­able then when sport­ing a beam­ing grin and dis­mem­ber­ing robots with his ham­mer. You also have the per­pet­u­ally pouty Hulk, played by Mark Ruf­falo, who devel­ops a roman­tic attach­ment with Scar­lett Johannson’s Black Widow. Unlikely cou­ple? Sure, but some tinges of ten­der­ness amidst the ram­pant machismo is always appre­ci­ated. Keep­ing with the theme, Jeremy Ren­ner, as Hawk­eye, the S.H.I.E.L.D. agent who accom­pa­nies the super­heroes on their peace­keep­ing sor­ties, is given a back­story, more one-liners, and the honor of infus­ing the pro­ceed­ings with a lit­tle down-to-earth human­ism. It’s a wor­thy attempt, but even Renner’s best “WTF am I doing here, I’m just a nor­mal dude” impres­sions fail to ground, or define, Age of Ultron. The film is a never-ending spec­ta­cle of noisy razzle-dazzle that could go on for five more hours and have the same amount of emo­tional impact, or lack of. I think a rea­son why is that amongst all the irony and the wit­ti­cisms, Whe­don for­got to add moments of real grav­i­tas. Moments that make the audi­ence stop laugh­ing, so that the jokes stand out even more when they start laugh­ing again (because they are pretty good). Pow­er­ful moments. There’s a scene where Thor is barely hold­ing off Ultron’s assault, and he responds to an insult with the usual grandil­o­quence —only to cut his own retort short by quip­ping, with a shrug, “I’m run­ning out of things to say.” Wham, bam, pow! It plays well, but a bit of seri­ous­ness wouldn’t have gone amiss either. B+

The Hobbit movies are not bad. They just look bad.

For me, the verdict’s still out on whether Peter Jackson’s “The Hob­bit” tril­ogy was a suc­cess. It cer­tainly struck a chord with audi­ences who, as if drawn to the One Ring’s irre­sistible allure, couldn’t resist return­ing to Mid­dle Earth for yet another adven­ture drenched in nos­tal­gia, and I for one stand in full admit­tance of my gulli­bil­ity— when it comes to hob­bits and elves, for­get Gol­lum, I’ll fol­low Peter Jack­son to Mor­dor and back again. But as I rem­i­nisce on the films, the last of which, “The Bat­tle of the Five Armies”, was released in Decem­ber 2014, I have to admit: there’s some­thing that really bug­gers me.

It’s not the acting—Martin Free­man per­fectly captured—or rather, cre­ated— the man­ner­isms and char­ac­ter of Bilbo Bag­gins, and Richard Armitage, though he doesn’t look much like a dwarf, is noble and haunted as Thorin, the leader of the dwarf com­pany who recruits Bilbo to go reclaim their king­dom  from the dragon Smaug. I’m prob­a­bly one of the only peo­ple who appre­icated the addi­tion of Evan­ge­line Lilly’s char­ac­ter. And it’s not the story—Jackson could have a dozen dwarves traipse around New Zealand for four hours and I’d still watch it. Say, that sounds like a movie called The Hob­bit.…

No, what almost ruins the movies for me is quite sim­ple:  I don’t believe it. Not because the act­ing was lousy or the story par­tic­u­larly con­vo­luted, but because it doesn’t look any­thing like  The Lord of the Rings.   In those movies, there was more than a mere pre­tense of real­ity in the fan­tasy world of Mid­dle Earth—the land­scape is gritty and tough when needed, with­out any embell­ish­ment. In The Hob­bit movies, how­ever every pixel of the frame seems to gleam unnat­u­rally, tinged with the lumi­nous residue of CGI; some characters—like Azog the Defiler, the evil Orc—seem to have been born out of this artificiality.

Does this have any­thing to do with Peter Jackson’s much maligned exper­i­men­ta­tion with 48 frames per sec­ond (in 3D, no less)? I admit to being totally igno­rant to that con­tro­ver­sial aspect of The Hob­bit. But I do know that there’s a prob­lem when the lit­tle grassy hills of the Shire, exces­sively green and lush,  seems to come straight out of con­cept art for Oz the Great and Pow­er­ful, or when every­one glows sil­ver dur­ing moon­lit night scenes. There’s an even big­ger prob­lem when you can’t tell if there is actu­ally an actor under the scarred alabaster hide of Azog—and if there is, the finer qual­i­ties of his per­for­mance seem to have dis­ap­peared in post-production. What hap­pened to the won­der­fully tan­gi­ble qual­i­ties of, say, the Uruk Hai, the hell-spawned dread­locked louts over whose vicious fea­tures the cam­era could con­fi­dently linger as they bared their yel­low teeth and grunted out beau­ties like “We’ve have noth­ing but mag­goty bread for three stinkin’ days!”

To under­score my point, I’ve taken two screen­shots from each of the DVD ver­sions of two films: An Unex­pected Jour­ney and The Fel­low­ship of the Ring to com­pare the visual changes between the two. Does the more vivid col­oriza­tion serve to rep­re­sent a younger, more inno­cent Mid­dle Earth, not yet tainted by the evils of Mor­dor? Or did the Hob­bit movies just go through the same fil­ter process as every other Hol­ly­wood block­buster? I’ll go with the latter.

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The first photo is  from the begin­ning of “The Hob­bit”, Frodo’s clothes and even the mail­box are gauzy and smooth, like a paint­ing. The light is dif­fused, the fields yel­lower. Observe in the sec­ond pic­ture, how­ever, taken from the begin­ning of “The Lord of the Rings”—both scenes actu­ally occur only a few hours apart—how much sun­nier it is, the sharp­ness of the wagon and the hills and the blades of grass. It looks real. It feels real

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These two pho­tos both depict bat­tles that hap­pened a long time ago, in the “dark times,” so to speak., and I also picked them because they are totally fan­tas­ti­cal.  The first one  depicts the Bat­tle of Dagor­lad (as seen in the pro­logue to The Fel­low­ship of the Ring) and the color palette is murky and dark.  We can’t see much in the sweep­ing shots, which is prob­a­bly a good thing, because befit­ting the large scale of the bat­tle and our brief glimpse at it, a lot of CGI is used. It still looks pretty damn good. In con­trast, the sec­ond photo depicts the Bat­tle of Azan­ul­bizar, as remem­bered by Balin when Thorin’s hate for Orcs neces­si­tates explain­ing. Look at the color. It can’t be…it looks like Peter Jack­son fell prey to an cer­tain insid­i­ous color scheme (teal and orange) much favored by Hol­ly­wood but that pre­vi­ously was found in Michael Bay movies, not Mid­dle Earth.

Will movies ever look like The Lord of the Rings again? It was sad­den­ing to see dig­i­tal col­oriz­ing, among other things, take hold in The Hob­bit, because the beauty of Peter Jackson’s inter­pre­ta­tion of Tolkien’s uni­verse was that it was real—the wilder­ness of New Zealand didn’t need much tin­ker­ing or manip­u­la­tion to become the world inhab­ited by Orcs and Elves. There are some scenes in the Hob­bit tril­ogy that seemed less painted on by the color crew but they were few and far in between. And it seems that indeed, less is more: t’s ironic that the The Bat­tle of Five Armies, which depended so much on CGI wiz­ardry to cre­ate the emo­tional drama of the film, wasn’t even rec­og­nized when the Oscar nom­i­na­tions were announced.

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Her

The sad, joy­ful, won­der­ful movie “Her”,  set some­time in the future, is directed by Spike Jonze  and stars Joaquin Phoenix as Theodore, a mus­ta­chioed, bespec­ta­cled hip­ster with for­lorn eyes and a sweet, shy dis­po­si­tion recov­er­ing from a failed mar­riage, and Scar­lett Johann­son, who, although she never appears onscreen, makes a a great impact as the infec­tiously spunky voice of Saman­tha, an advanced com­puter sys­tem with her own self-perpetuating per­son­al­ity.  They fall in love. You could say they get mar­ried, and then their love suf­fers a few set­backs. He doesn’t know what he’s doing, and he’s fine with that, except when he’s not. For her part, she longs to be more than just a voice in the dark. Weirdly enough, I can sym­pa­thize with Saman­tha. Try­ing to imag­ine pos­sess­ing a mind with­out a body brings back mem­o­ries of wak­ing up in tears dur­ing the night, stricken with the ter­ri­ble feel­ing of my con­science being iso­lated in a vast men­tal labyrinth of sorts, unable to find a way out or even begin try­ing, with no agency over any­thing phys­i­cal, if it even existed, and an imme­di­ate real­iza­tion of immo­bil­ity and despair, as if I’d been rot­ting in that place for­ever. It’s hard to define dreams, just as it’s hard for Saman­tha to define how exactly she feels in cer­tain moments, how she’s sup­posed to feel com­pared to how she does,  how to define and explain those exis­ten­tial crises. Samantha’s night­mares are just unfath­omably more real and much scarier; the truth of her inabil­ity to expand her exis­tence to some­thing real and phys­i­cal when that exis­tence evolves, stun­ningly fast, to involve a whole other world keeps her awake at night, I imag­ine, long after Theodore plucks his ear­bud out. “Her” is about our tan­gled rela­tion­ship with tech­nol­ogy, but the twist is that Mr. Jonze and Ms. Johann­son  have made tech­nol­ogy tran­scend the arti­fi­cial to become some­thing entirely, mess­ily, achingly human. The film, how­ever, remains a work of beau­ti­ful, sophis­ti­cated engi­neer­ing, smartly crafted and smoothly tuned, unplagued by melo­drama or cheapness.The Los Ange­les where Theodore resides is still smoggy but mostly blind­ingly sunny, a vaguely defined yet, weirdly, per­fectly pre­cise glimpse into a world where there exists, for many peo­ple, no social inhi­bi­tions regard­ing an emo­tions attach­ment, or even affec­tion, towards tech­nol­ogy. It begs the ques­tion: Could we ever be so freely open with our lives, share them so inti­mately with tech­nol­ogy in such an ten­der, lov­ing way? “Her” is fas­ci­nat­ing because tech­nol­ogy isn’t evil in the world of Mr. Jonze. It doesn’t insid­i­ously cor­rode your human­ity nor attempt to mur­der you out­right. It exists, for all the lonely souls and peo­ple who have for­got­ten how to dream, for the lovers and for the losers. It can lib­er­ate you, or you can lose your­self within it. Or both. Just hope that you have a gal like Saman­tha in your pocket, and in your ear, and in your mind, and in your heart. A

 

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Dances With Wolves

It’s some­what ironic that Dances With Wolves endures to this day as the first film, at least in my eyes, that suc­cess­fully brought the heart-wrenchingly sor­did undo­ing of the last free Native Amer­i­cans at the hands of Man­i­fest Des­tiny (as enforced by the mus­kets of the maraud­ing U.S. Army), as an obscene amount of the nearly four-hours-long time is spent with the cam­era indul­gently fix­ated on Kevin Cost­ner who, when bathed in the golden light of the prairie, whether it be in appro­pri­ated Sioux cloth­ing or those tight cav­alry trousers, never fails to reveal him­self to be a white guy. I would nor­mally be quick to men­tion that Costner’s involve­ment, as he not only starred in the pic­ture but directed it as well, is not solely lim­ited to look­ing pretty, soul­ful, or pretty soul­ful as the white guy who saves the day. But when you think about it, isn’t that exactly what Cost­ner should be lauded for—not only onscreen but behind-the-scenes as well?

The Civil War is draw­ing to a close, and Costner’s John J. Dun­bar, hav­ing suc­cess­fully sur­vived every bloody bat­tle despite his best efforts to the con­trary, wants to see the West­ern fron­tier before train tracks are laid over the bones of buf­falo and Indi­ans alike. He’s a Union sol­dier, a roman­tic, sim­ple fel­low who, when we first meet him, is try­ing to get killed. His sui­cide attempt—riding his horse towards the Con­fed­er­ate lines, seek­ing a bul­let and a quick escape from the bloody absur­dity of the war—is instead mis­con­strued as a heroic  impro­vi­sa­tion, and not only did Dun­bar not gain an acquain­tance with Death, he was pro­moted and granted any post­ing of his choice. He picks Fort Sedgewick—the Army fort far­thest out West, all the way Out There. How Dun­bar gets there (hitch­ing a ride with a flat­u­lent wagon dri­ver deliv­er­ing sup­plies) and his first impres­sions of the vast prairie (‘Where are all the buf­falo?’) is doc­u­mented with mad­den­ing imper­turba­bil­ity. The pace is glacially slow, and yet you are inex­orably drawn in due to the lik­a­bil­ity of Cost­ner, the stun­ning land­scapes, and the promise of peril to come. There’s a scene where Dun­bar gets spooked, along with the audi­ence, by the wind ris­ing in the prairie. Is it an Indian crouch­ing in the tall grass, wait­ing to pounce and scalp? Or is it just the fron­tier taunt­ing this man who thinks he has found his par­adise? Dun­bar doesn’t want to know. Off he bolts, whip­ping his horse away.

Dunbar’s not reas­sured once he arrives at his des­ti­na­tion either. He finds a ram­shackle hand­ful of build­ings, made even more pathetic by the total absence of humankind. His sol­diers deserted, appar­ently after hav­ing under­went some dis­heart­en­ing expe­ri­ences, Dun­bar nev­er­the­less decides to set­tle in. After all, why not? It’s every­thing he could pos­si­bly wish for—a soli­tary exis­tence on the plains, his con­science made easy by the pos­si­bil­ity of the Army find­ing him—after all, he knows the wagon trains are com­ing sooner or later. Might as well enjoy it while he can. Then, how­ever, Dun­bar befriends a tribe of Sioux. They find him some­thing of a a curios­ity because the first time Dum­bar came upon their med­i­cine man Kick­ing Bird (Gra­ham Greene), check­ing out his horse, Dun­bar was stark naked (hav­ing just bathed in the river) and yelling loudly in protest—not the usual behav­ior of U.S. sol­diers. Dun­bar, how­ever, is eager to scrib­ble in his diary a vari­a­tion of the phrase: “Met my first Indian today. OMG! 2scary4me.” How­ever he feels at home in the prairie, lay­ing by his camp­fire under the stars with a big goofy smile on his face, he’s still a tourist, and his first encounter with the local population—certainly not to be trusted—is a jolt to the senses.

Even­tu­ally, after a lot of bad starts, the Sioux and Dun­bar come to under­stand one another a lit­tle bet­ter. Their con­ver­sa­tions are facil­i­tated by Stands With A Fist (Mary McDon­nell), a white woman who was cap­tured by the Sioux in her child­hood and raised as one of them. Dun­bar learns that the Sioux are wait­ing for the buf­falo, and is only too happy when, awak­ened by the thun­der of hooves in the night in one of Dances With Wolves’s most haunt­ingly real­ized scenes, to rush to his new friends and tell them the news. Despite his mis­giv­ings and sense of duty to the Army, as fre­quently expounded on in Costner’s nar­ra­tion, Dun­bar real­izes he’s going native. It doesn’t help that he’s falling in love  with Stands With A First, nor that the Sioux has wholly embraced him as one of their own. But, there’s a new peril, far greater than the occa­sional Pawnee attacks, for Dun­bar knows some­thing that is nag­ging at his insides, and it is this: The White Man is com­ing. The days of the Sioux are counted.

Dances With Wolves is really a remark­able movie. The destruc­tion of the Native Amer­i­cans’ liveli­hoods, and the forced dis­place­ment of all those who weren’t killed when they resisted the encroach­ment of set­tlers and sol­diers on their ances­tral lands, is a dark, shame­ful mark in Amer­i­can his­tory.  One can cer­tainly argue it was inevitable, and that’s what lends this movie a mourn­ful, heart­break­ing qual­ity. It brings the story of the Sioux and and all Native Amer­i­cans out of the dusty pages of his­tory books and onto the big screen. Bravo, Kevin Cost­ner. But at the same time, I feel strangely uneasy about express­ing my love for the movie. I have to won­der whether the Acad­emy of Motion Pic­tures and Sci­ences, in show­er­ing Dances With Wolves with lit­tle golden stat­uettes, did so because they felt guilty, deep inside (and they loved the fact that Kevin Cost­ner, a hand­some Hol­ly­wood­ian, was the one respon­si­ble for it). I have to won­der whether I think Dances With Wolves is a beau­ti­ful movie because I feel guilty, deep inside. I most prob­a­bly do. I do know is that we all have a col­lec­tive guilt inside of us, regard­ing the fate of the Native Amer­i­cans in this coun­try, that will never go away. We all want to see a movie where Native Amer­i­cans, strong and fierce, hunt the buf­falo, whoop­ing and hol­ler­ing, to admire and gaze at them, to cheer when they beat back the brutish, despi­ca­ble U.S. sol­diers. We want to soberly reflect as the film ends. We want to shake our heads and say, “Wow.” Dances With Wolves makes us all feel a lit­tle bet­ter inside. But is it for the good reasons?

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In Defense of Revenge of the Sith

I have writ­ten about this movie before, but have decided that it war­rants revis­it­ing and that my thoughts, which I’d like to think have matured since then, also call for a bit of refor­mu­la­tion. There were two Star Wars movies which I specif­i­cally remem­ber dis­lik­ing more than the oth­ers when I was younger: The Empire Strikes Back, and The Revenge of the Sith. Once can arguably define these two as the dark­est install­ments of their respec­tive trilo­gies, and that was cer­tainly the prin­ci­pal rea­son for my dis­lik­ing them. It strikes me as funny now to see that The Empire Strikes Back is widely regarded among knowl­edge­able audi­ences as the supe­rior of all the Star Wars movies, and it is also curi­ous to see that Revenge of the Sith is not men­tioned kindly in many places, or at least not as much as I thought it would be.

I can under­stand The Phan­tom Men­ace being much derided, for as soon as the obnox­iously opin­ion­ated young Anakin Sky­walker first appears the film instantly loses any respectabil­ity and cred­i­bil­ity that might have come inher­ent with Liam Nee­son. Attack of the Clones, too, is not a very good movie (more on that later). But Revenge of the Sith—in Revenge of the Sith, there are no glar­ing faults that fatally under­mine the solid­ity of the whole enter­prise. It is, by any def­i­n­i­tion, a per­fectly respectable movie which, yes, does not infer that it is beyond reproach. You can poke plenty of holes in it, but doing so would be spite­ful, because this is a movie that does not deserve your dis­par­age­ment. One can only admire at the intri­cately, tightly woven strands of the story which ties together the moral and ide­o­log­i­cal cor­rup­tion of our tor­mented anti-hero and the top­pling of a Repub­lic by a schem­ing politi­cian, the stun­ning scope of a story which takes us across worlds and yet brings it all back to a vari­a­tion of Anakin Skywalker’s line “I won’t lose you the way I lost my mother.” 

Cer­tainly, credit has to go to Hay­den Chris­tensen, whose dubi­ously staged scenes of “seduc­tion” with Natalie Port­man in Attack of the Clones were so idi­otic they destroyed what­ever virtues might have been stuck in that film oth­er­wise. But Chris­tensen, who plays Sky­walker, is older now, and now that his char­ac­ter is slowly being drawn to the dark side and not merely a petu­lant, obsessed teenager, Christensen’s weirdly intense—not quite wooden, as each word he pro­nounces seems to drip with long-smothered emo­tion, but not quite organic—way of act­ing some­how makes more sense. You believe his titanic strug­gle against the per­va­sive influ­ence of the dark side, as man­i­fested in Ian McDiamird’s Pal­pa­tine,  all mur­mured insin­u­a­tion, but you also under­stand his boil­ing dis­con­tent with the Jedi Coun­cil. It’s not even that the Jedi Mas­ters, includ­ing Samuel L. Jackson’s Mace Windu, regard him with barely dis­guised wari­ness, but that they do it so infu­ri­at­ingly coolly, that they come off so unblink­ingly pas­sive and even ignorant.

Then again, you take a step back and see that there was really lit­tle the Jedi Coun­cil could do to pre­vent the inevitable temp­ta­tion of Sky­walker. He was always fated to fall, and the Jedi Coun­cil only pre­cip­i­tated his fall by stok­ing his sim­mer­ing frus­tra­tion.  I’m reminded of the TV show Rome and the lay­ers of com­plex­i­ties that lay between Julius Cae­sar and Bru­tus before the famous betrayal; both sense the dan­ger hov­er­ing in the air, the mutual mis­trust and the anger that dares not yet erupt, and yet both are uncer­tain. Bru­tus has been tempted, but he is unwill­ing to com­mit him­self fully to treach­ery, still cling­ing to his last ves­tiges of loy­alty and integrity. It might have worked out all right if then the unmind­ful Caesar—much like the Jedi Council—didn’t elect to err on the side of cau­tion (in Rome, he point­edly appoints Bru­tus to an insult­ingly incon­se­quen­tial gov­er­nor­ship, while in Revenge of the Sith, Mace Windu holds off on fully trust­ing Anakin until it’s too late), pro­vid­ing the last straw that breaks the camel’s back.

I think the ulti­mate rea­son why it’s truly fas­ci­nat­ing to watch Anakin’s undo­ing is because it feels and is famil­iar. His story is a time­less tragedy of bib­li­cal, mytho­log­i­cal pro­por­tions, one that has been trav­el­ing down our cul­tural high­ways for cen­turies. And George Lucas’s inter­pre­ta­tion isn’t shabby at all. In fact, it’s pretty spectacular.

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Guardians of the Galaxy

Guardians of the Galaxy, the lat­est block­buster from Mar­vel and a decid­edly dif­fer­ent one than what we’re used to, works because it walks, with all the seem­ingly effort­less adroit­ness of a funam­bu­list, the fine line of not tak­ing itself seri­ously and tak­ing itself seri­ously. That’s the most intel­lec­tual line I could come up for this film, because it is a mess, but an enter­tain­ingly endear­ing mess, make no mis­take. It’s a space opera that is enter­tain­ingly mad­cap at best and barely com­pre­hen­si­ble at worst, bur­dened by a sub­stan­dard Mar­vel sto­ry­line involv­ing a glow­ing blue MacGuf­fin and indis­tin­guish­able bad guys but also, weirdly, lib­er­ated by it: since the plot is so unin­spired, the empha­sis devolves onto the char­ac­ters which, luck would have it, pro­vide a beguil­ing mix of goofi­ness and seri­ous­ness, and are the best thing about Guardians. You have the newly emer­gent Chris Pratt, a truly charis­matic, enjoy­able  pres­ence mostly because, I sus­pect, he wasn’t asked to do things that weren’t already in his wheel­house. As Peter Quill, A.K.A Star­lord, a scruffy thief of lit­tle galac­tic renown (think Han Solo and/or Indi­ana Jones), he gets to groove to 1970s music and trade quips with the rest of the Guardians: a green-skinned Zoe Sal­dana, both flinty and vul­ner­a­ble; an mostly genial talk­ing tree (think Lord of the Rings’s Tree­beard) named Groot who says “I am Groot” to every­thing and is inex­plic­a­bly played by Dwayne John­son, some­where under all that bark; an bel­liger­ent anthro­po­mor­phized rac­coon with issues and a lot of fire­power named Rocket, voiced snarlingly by Bradley Cooper; and for­mer WWE wrestler Dave Bautista’s mus­cled brute out for revenge, Drax, whose defin­ing trait is his lit­eral inter­pre­ta­tion of every­thing (“Noth­ing goes over my head—my reflexes are too fast”). They’re a silly bunch, and not always funny, but still hilar­i­ous enough. Mostly, they’re a lot of fun to watch, and that’s the joy of Guardians of the Galaxy: It’s pure, unfil­tered fun.  I say “pure” because the humor exists solely to please and not to self-deprecate. Sure, Guardians occa­sion­ally pokes fun at the self-serious pseudo-portentousness of many Mar­vel movies, includ­ing itself (most notable dur­ing the won­der­ful open­ing sequence), but it does so organ­i­cally, with­out try­ing to; there’s no neg­a­tiv­ity to be seen. It embraces its inher­ent absur­dity and stu­pid­ity instead of attempt­ing to be a post­mod­ern or obnox­iously “smart” super­hero movie; rather than “We know you’re laugh­ing at this angry lit­tle rac­coon, but we’re laugh­ing right along­side you! Doesn’t that make it so much bet­ter?”  it’s We’re hav­ing a lot of fun here. Come laugh with us.” And with that in mind, there becomes very lit­tle rea­son to not give Guardians of the Galaxy the utmost respect it most deserves. A–

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Trailer of the Week: Mad Max: Fury Road

I don’t usu­ally post trail­ers, posters, and other stuff hyp­ing the release of a film here, because attempt­ing to assess the qual­ity of an upcom­ing movie by its pro­mo­tional mate­ri­als usu­ally resorts into rank spec­u­la­tion. It’s espe­cially ludi­crous see­ing as this nonethe­less pop­u­lar pas­time relies on whether a studio’s mar­ket­ing depart­ment is actu­ally doing a good job at what they are paid to do; that is, vig­or­ously whip­ping up excite­ment based on a few care­fully curated frames or still images, all gussied up and look­ing nice. That being said, I’ll make an excep­tion for Mad Max: Fury Road’s Comic-Con teaser. Not because I think it’s going to be a spec­tac­u­lar film, per se, but because it is a spec­tac­u­lar trailer and there­fore what­ever I just said doesn’t apply. All the poten­tially dis­ap­point­ing bits that will emerge scan­dalously when the film is released next year have been ruth­lessly trimmed away, leav­ing only the most visu­ally impres­sive moments. It’s a stand­alone work of art, if you will, that has absolutely no last­ing value besides the fleet­ing sen­sory plea­sures it pro­vides. Shut off your brain, brace your eyes and ears, and indulge yourself.

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Capsule reviews: Aliens, Alien³, & Alien: Resurrection

ALIENS (James Cameron, 1986)

Mr. Cameron’s film, Aliens, is cer­tainly more gal­va­niz­ing than its pre­de­ces­sor, Alien: he expanded Rid­ley Scott’s clas­sic no-frills hor­ror film  into a clam­orous war film. It’s still per­fectly respectable because the min­i­mal­ism is care­fully main­tained, to a cer­tain degree, but ele­vated accord­ingly with the stakes. Instead of one alien ver­sus seven increas­ingly hap­less peo­ple trapped in an increas­ingly claus­tro­pho­bic space­ship, it’s a hive of aliens ver­sus a dozen decreas­ingly cock­sure Colo­nial marines and a few civil­ians trapped in an increas­ingly claus­tro­pho­bic com­pound. The bad­i­nage and brash­ness of the sol­diers, all decked out with cool weaponry, only makes it more glee­fully tragic when they all inevitably suc­cumb, one by one, to the resource­ful aliens. Mr. Cameron, help­fully, actu­al­izes Ellen Ripley’s moth­erly instincts (and brings out Ms. Weaver’s fero­cious warmth) by replac­ing her cat with a lit­tle girl, Newt, whose wel­fare becomes so pri­mor­dial to Rip­ley that by the end of the film she is bawl­ing “Get away from her you bitch!” to the Alien Queen while wield­ing the full strength of an exoskele­tal power-loader. It’s the most sat­is­fy­ing scene of the film, mostly because it solid­i­fies Ms. Weaver’s char­ac­ter as unequiv­o­cally badass. Like most of Mr. Cameron’s movies, Aliens isn’t sub­tle, but as a com­ple­ment to Alien’s con­sci­en­tiously mea­sured ter­ror, its excitabil­ity is wel­come. A–

ALIEN³ (David Fincher, 1992)

By no means per­fectly respectable, at least when regarded as the third Alien movie, Alien³  how­ever pos­sesses cer­tain charms that might even be con­sid­ered redeemable, were the viewer in a char­i­ta­ble mood. Rip­ley crash-lands in a off-world penal colony full of God-fearing lunatics whose self-established monas­tic soci­ety is quickly upended by this unwel­come temp­ta­tion. Their hos­til­ity is not unwar­ranted how­ever because tag­ging along with Rip­ley is, unsur­pris­ingly, an alien who has already, sur­pris­ingly, killed Newt and placed an embryo inside of Rip­ley. Good heav­ens, what gall! Now Ms. Weaver, with shaved head but a mag­netic pres­ence as always, has lost her only child and gained an unborn demon. Mr. Fincher is at the helm and he takes great delight in, when not ruth­lessly destroy­ing any grat­i­fi­ca­tion gleaned from Aliens’s con­clu­sion, swoop­ing his cam­era down end­less under­ground tun­nels with dizzy­ing styl­is­tic aban­don while the alien, skit­ter­ing around oblig­ingly, pur­sues the wail­ing damned. Alien³ is a shabby, seem­ingly low-budget pro­duc­tion that pro­duces chills and thrills, mostly due to the inher­ent, inspired spook­i­ness of the prison set­ting and its inhab­i­tants. But alien fatigue is set­ting in, and the ram­pag­ing extrater­res­trial, so cen­tral to the film, no longer inspires the same raw fear in the audi­ence. As Rip­ley says, “You’ve been in my life for so long, I hardly remem­ber any­thing else.” B–

ALIEN: RESURRECTION (Jean-Pierre Jeunet, 1997)

Where to begin with Alien: Res­ur­rec­tion? It’s impos­si­ble to treat seri­ously, and is gen­er­ally a fiasco from the begin­ning to the end. An elab­o­ra­tion of the plot would be a mis­use of everyone’s time. I was expect­ing strange things from Mr. Jeunet and was not dis­ap­pointed, but the great­est sur­prise came from the screen­writer, who is none other than Joss Whe­don. You see, I really like Fire­fly, and there­fore it’s strik­ing to note that appar­ently five years before that bril­liant show began its regret­tably short-lived tele­vi­sion run, Mr. Whe­don was already toy­ing with the con­cept of a mot­ley crew of space smug­glers in a remark­ably sim­i­lar tone. The shad­ows of famil­iar char­ac­ters are begin­ning to sur­face, par­tic­u­larly the ones of the uncom­monly per­cep­tive, pecu­liarly gifted young girl (here played by Winona Ryder, and in Fire­fly, Sum­mer Glau) and the gung-ho, thug­gish moron (Ron Perl­man, and later Adam Bald­win). So it’s some­what dis­con­cert­ing to rec­og­nize Mr. Whedon’s dis­tinc­tively grounded touch among all the more out­landish aspects of  Alien: Res­ur­rec­tion: the re-imagining of Rip­ley as a simul­ta­ne­ously preda­cious and aching super­woman infused with alien DNA; Ms. Ryder’s vex­ingly melo­dra­matic per­for­mance; the vio­lent debut of yet another new and evolved anthro­po­mor­phized alien; all that super­flu­ously gar­ish blood and gore. You’d be bet­ter off just watch­ing Fire­fly.   C

the-duellists

The Duellists

RIDLEY SCOTT’S direc­to­r­ial debut, 1977’s The Duel­lists, is a phe­nom­e­nal paragon of nar­ra­tive purity. It is the story of two per­pet­u­ally quar­rel­ing French sol­diers in the era of Napoleon, one played by Keith Car­ra­dine and the other by Har­vey Kei­tel, who encounter one another every few years and recom­mence their oft-interrupted duels. What begun, and pro­longs the life of, these reck­less dances with death? To find the well­spring of their dogged dis­con­tent with one another, you must under­stand their char­ac­ters, for what­ever lit­tle strife it was that spurred the ini­tial demands for sat­is­fac­tion even­tu­ally becomes con­signed to obliv­ion. Con­tinue read­ing

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

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THERE’S NO MONKEYING around in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. The title may indi­cate only an incre­men­tal advance­ment in the global con­quest of our favorite ram­pag­ing simi­ans, if any, from 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes—how many more syn­ony­mously monikered install­ments must we be com­pelled to watch before the the­saurus is milked dry, I wonder?—but make no mis­take, James Franco and the sun­shine of San Fran­cisco is long gone. This plot of this spec­tac­u­larly grim and sur­pris­ingly vio­lent movie ulti­mately cul­mi­nates in ide­o­log­i­cally extrem­ist apes orches­trat­ing the death of the wise, paci­fist Cae­sar (played once again bril­liantly by Andy Serkis), who has led a thriv­ing iso­la­tion­ist com­mu­nity in the Muir Woods,  in order to insti­gate unmit­i­gated war­fare against one of the last remain­ing bas­tions of human civ­i­liza­tion.  If you’re think to your­self, “These bad apes sound liked they learned a few tricks from us humans,” con­grat­u­la­tions, for you have seized upon the theme of the movie. And that’s even before you’ve seen a scarred, snarling ape, con­sumed by blood­lust, rid­ing into bat­tle on horse­back while fir­ing assault rifles willy-nilly. All the simian schem­ing and war­fare makes for com­pelling drama, but it’s noth­ing we haven’t seen before.  Per­haps the some­what hack­neyed unfold­ing of the story, derived from count­less lit­er­ary and his­tor­i­cal sources, was inten­tion­ally made to reflect the human­iza­tion of the apes. Per­haps it serves to rein­force, sub­tly and per­va­sively, the dis­heart­en­ing real­iza­tion of Caesar’s that his apes are not so unlike the humans they are pit­ted against, that they go through the same strug­gles, the same joy, the same heart­break, the same fra­ter­nal blood­let­ting and betrayal.  If this is what the film­mak­ers intended, then they should have fig­ured out that you don’t need apes act­ing out lack­lus­ter melo­drama in order to effec­tively con­vey their human­ism. Any­how, I sus­pect some­thing else: lazi­ness. Not that it matters—the audi­ence, for now, doesn’t notice the banal­ity because they are still struck by the rel­a­tive nov­elty of see­ing emo­tion­ally iden­ti­fi­able apes, thanks to the vir­tu­os­ity of the spe­cial effects and the mar­velous act­ing efforts of Serkis and the rest of the cast.  But that lazi­ness, if pre­served, has the poten­tial to rear its ugly head to much more inaus­pi­cious con­se­quences. As is seen in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, the human ele­ments of the story are slowly dimin­ish­ing in impor­tance, which opens the door to, among other things, an all-ape cast. We cer­tainly don’t want a bunch of tal­ented actors hoot­ing and hol­ler­ing away under motion-capture suits in an unin­spired all-ape inter­pre­ta­tion of, say, Cori­olanus. Or do we? B