Avengers: Age of Ultron

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Glancing at a “news” article recently, I read that Avengers: Age of Ultron is the highest-grossing U.S. film release of the year. In other news: water is wet. For God’s sake, this is a non-story considering the drivel it was competing with during Q1. According to Wikipedia, Age of Ultron is the eighth highest-grossing film of all time but, as we know, just because something is successful doesn’t necessarily mean it’s good.

After the heart-stopping success of the first Avengers film, Joss Whedon reprises his position as both writer and director. If you’ve seen The Avengers, you’re essentially in for more of the same; that is, a heavy emphasis on frenetic, computer generated action sequences. Indeed, they deserve an in-depth focus because that’s basically all that’s on offer. Like The Avengers, we’re treated to a slew of highly choreographed, fast-paced, but ultimately superficial fight scenes, all of which fail to disguise the fact that the plot is an insipid, go-nowhere sightseeing tour of exotic locations.

The problem with a lot of the fight scenes in Age of Ultron is that there’s no weight or impact to what we’re seeing. The heroes dispatch the enemies with such expediency that it hardly makes a difference whether the bad guys are there or not, meaning that any dramatic tension dissolves right before our eyes.

Before the advent of CG, there was a school of thought that dictated that superhero movies were an unwise proposition because even with the most intricate practical sets, it was still a tall order to capture the larger-than-life spectacle of comic books. Now, however, I can’t help be feel that we’ve gone too far in the opposite direction as we find ourselves living in a time when the average superhero movie can be made of ninety-five percent green screen.

Chunks of rubble and smashed scenery fly around like they’re made out of cotton, and the over-reliance on computer generation means that everything has a weirdly clean, unreal-looking quality to it in a way that reminds me unsettlingly of the Star Wars prequels. I noticed a significant visual downgrade as soon as the action sequences started up, although I did have the misfortune of seeing the film in gimmicky RealD 3D bullshit vision—which inevitably makes everything look atrocious—so I’m willing to give the film the benefit of the doubt there.

So, the action is more of the same, but what about the characters? Well, that’s where Whedon really decided to knuckle-down and ruin everything. A critic I like once made the observation that Whedon has no conception of character voice, meaning that the dialogue of each character is virtually interchangeable with the others. And more to the point, enough with the fucking quips, Whedon! Not every character has to make some pedantic retort or vapid observation every time they open their mouths!

I felt like I was watching an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer where every line of dialogue is some smarmy insipidity that makes you want to kick the offending character’s teeth in. It’s almost like Age of Ultron was written by the same amateurish, ham-fisted—oh, wait. Come on, Whedon. Give us a little substance, for God’s sake—not the adventures of the Bland Brigade.

A big problem with the film is the introduction of the new character, Vision. He’s some kind of android, I guess, infused with the power of one of the infinity stones, but despite establishing that the Avenger’s couldn’t possibly defeat Ultron without Vision’s help, he contributes nothing during the final showdown. Excuse me, that’s not entirely true. He punches him. Once. Ultimately his presence would have meant precisely as much whether he was there or not, apart from Disney having a new toy to sell, obviously.

There’s also been an attempt to characterize Black Widow and Hawkeye, and while I can appreciate the intention, Natasha Romanov’s character seems to have done a complete 180 in between films. From uttering the line, “love is for children,” in The Avengers to “I adore you,” in Age of Ultron, she didn’t seem to undergo an arc so much as Whedon decided to arbitrarily fuck around with his own canon for the sake of poignancy.

I mentioned the plot a moment ago, so let’s refocus our sights. Weirdly, the events of Age of Ultron are decidedly scaled-down compared to those of the first, mainly due to a reliance on telling rather than showing. The alien invasion of New York is swapped for a rouge AI trying to do…what, exactly? Kill everyone, presumably—but his motivation for doing so seem incredibly poorly justified, despite multiple villainous monologues filled-to-bursting with meaningless pseudo-philosophical bullshit.

We’re told on multiple occasions that if the villain succeeds, billions of people will die. The most we see in the film, however, is one little town being terrorized via some kind of anti-gravity device. My point is that it would have helped if we had seen or heard a demonstration of the destructive capability of this plan (like the destruction of Alderan in A New Hope, for example) instead of just having to take Captain America’s word for it. There’s also an early setup about a growing anti-Avengers sentiment among the populace, complete with anti-iron man graffiti on some walls, but that aspect of the plot is quietly dropped and never referenced again.

The larger story, furthermore, is rife with plot holes, mostly concerning Ultron’s evil plan. For example, consider the impossibility of destroying a true, adaptive AI that’s been established to already be inside the Internet, replicating itself. Tony Stark brings it up at one point, but seems to forget about it just as quickly. And again, was Ultron not forward-thinking enough to station one, or five, or ten robots outside of the town that his consciousness could inhabit as a contingency? The devil is in the details, Whedon. Perhaps with a little more polish, the script wouldn’t seem like it was rushed out in a week in an attempt to capitalize on a pre-existing franchise.

I think the reason that the first Avengers film worked was because we were all collectively taken in by the massive lead up, and were mostly happy to see the characters that we had come to love play around in a big, explosive blowout of a film. As cathartic as The Avengers was, it was totally inept when it came to actually telling a story—a problem which is compounded to a rather worrying degree in Age of Ultron.

Some might respond to the points I’ve raised by saying “it’s a superhero blockbuster. What did you expect?” But to them I would respond by saying that excuse doesn’t brook with me when Avengers: Age of Ultron exists in the same world as The Dark Knight.

Disney has the luxury of having no real competitors in the superhero genre at present, but if they keep pumping out more toothless work like this, then I wouldn’t be surprised if the public eventually recognizes it for the schlock that it is.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5

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Andrew’s Top Ten Movies of 2013

While at times I did feel like this was a weak year for movies, I found it surprisingly difficult to put this top ten list together, simply because there were so many films I wanted to include. After giving it some thought I was finally able to whittle my list down to ten, but for those of you interested in the movies that didn’t quite make the cut, here are the honorable mentions in no particular order: Stoker, Saving Mr. Banks, Mud, The Bling Ring, Captain Phillips, Kings of Summer, Blue is the Warmest Color and Nebraska.

10. The Wolverine

While this may seem like a somewhat weird way to start off the list, I actually enjoyed this movie immensely. For me, it satisfied everything I was looking for in a nice self-contained action/superhero movie. The Japanese setting actually added a lot of character to the movie, and the film still showed some restraint in not completely drowning the movie in typical Japanese action film clichés. While the climax is, admittedly, somewhat problematic, it was still satisfied with the film as a whole.

9. Much Ado About Nothing

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While this movie does suffer from being a bit too cutesy at times, but I can pretty safely say it is one of, if not the best Shakespeare film ever made. Joss Whedon’s sense of humor matches perfectly with the play, and he is able to make a Shakespeare movie which doesn’t feel forced or clichéd, and is genuinely funny, something that has been tried and failed more than a few times. It is easy to blow this film off as cute and inconsequential, which it is, but it has more than enough charm to earn a spot on the list.

8. Blackfish

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It is rare that I am blown away by a documentary, but I have to give credit to Blackfish for doing just that. While there has been some controversy surrounding this movie, as it clearly takes aim at the beloved and well established company Sea World in a way that does seem very biased, I think the evidence in the movie speaks for itself. More than a film about the mistreatment of Killer Whales kept in captivity, Blackfish is an interesting look at the danger these animals present to their trainers, and the extremely preventable deaths and injuries caused by the animals that until now have been ignored by the public. It is powerful, and sometimes hard to watch, but is a documentary I feel like everyone should see.

7. Rush

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The only reason this movie didn’t end up higher on my list is that nothing about it was particularly unique or interesting. However, giving credit where credit is due, Rush is still a fantastic film.  It captures an intimate conflict between two larger than life figures risking their lives to claim superiority in a way that felt genuine and believable. Rush is an airtight movie, expertly handling climactic beats throughout the film and ending up as perhaps one of the most well rounded films of the year.

6. The Way Way Back

I am usually not one for feel good movies, but I have to say I was quite taken with The Way Way Back. It has a great cast and is a genuinely sweet and funny coming of age story. It is nice to see Steve Carell out of his comfort zone, playing the antagonistic boyfriend of the protagonist’s mother; however the real stand out for me was Sam Rockwell who once again proves he is a force to be reckoned with as a top comedic actor. Written and directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, the Oscar winning duo behind the script for The Descendants, this film was definitely a stand out in a year saturated with coming of age films.

5. American Hustle

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While in a lot of ways I felt like this should be my number one movie this year, there were a few glaring details that kept it lower. The way the film was put together felt awkward in a few places, and some of the scenes in the movie just didn’t seem to work well within the film as a whole, not to mention the ending which I thought was a little weak and very rushed. That being said, the performances in this movie are easily some of the best of the year. With an actor nominated in each of the four major acting categories for the Golden Globes, and likely for the Oscars when those nominations are released, American Hustle definitely has a lot to bring to the table. It’s stylish and fun, but it’s the characters and their relationships that really solidify this movie as one of the best of the year.

4. Wolf of Wall Street

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A manic story of riches, corporate corruption, and missed chances for redemption, Wolf of Wall Street manages to be far from the typical cautionary tale about wealth. It is raunchy, perverse, even sickening at times, but boy is it a fun movie to watch. Leonardo DiCaprio is fantastic as Jordan Belfort, a man on a drug fueled rampage up the corporate Wall Street ladder. The film has a great sense of humor, and is one of the best “truth is stranger than fiction” movies I have seen in a long time. It’s an unbelievable story, and even manages to keep the viewer engaged throughout the monstrous 3 hour run time.

3. 12 Years a Slave

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My bet for Best Picture this year, 12 Years a Slave is nothing short of an incredible movie. What really makes this movie stand out is that it’s not just the movie about the horrors of slavery that seems to get made every few years, but also an incredible character driven story. All of the acting in the film is fantastic, the conflict between Michael Fassbender and Chiwetel Ejiofer was extremely tense, and every single character in the film was well fleshed out and distinct, which is a nice change from the typical flat slave owner characters in similar movies. Expertly directed by Steve McQueen, I look forward to seeing his work in the future now that he is gaining mainstream recognition and success.

2. Place Beyond the Pines

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I knew this movie would end up high on my top ten list immediately after I walked out of the theater. Place Beyond the Pine comes in a close second for my favorite films this year, as I loved nearly everything about this movie. The setting, powerful performances and distinct three part narrative gives a profound amount of weight and importance to an intimate tale about family, father-son relationships, and consequences. The movie shifts effortlessly between protagonists and still manages to make the viewer care about all of them, as the film almost feels like three shorter films tied together by themes and shared characters. The third act of this film received some criticism as it is a bit bizarre, but I thought it fit perfectly and Dane DeHaan’s performance is in many ways what made the movie for me.

1. Inside Llewyn Davis

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Calling this movie a dark comedy would be an understatement, as it would be one of the most cynical movies I have seen if it wasn’t so damn funny. It is an interesting character study of Llewyn, a fledgling folk musician and a bit of a jerk, whose life starts out bad and gets progressively worse as the film goes on through a serious of misfortunes that befall Llewyn.  Despite its melancholy outlook, Inside Llewyn Davis offers a lot in terms of personality, style, and memorable moments and is my favorite film of 2013.

Much Ado About Nothing Review

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Experience has taught us that pulling off contemporary Shakespeare adaptations are phenomenally hard to do as evidenced by the device opinions on both Baz Lurhman’s Romeo and Juliet and Ralph Fiennes’ Coriolanus. This week, Joss Whedon of Avengers fame steps up to the metaphorical plate as he tackles Shakespeare’s comedy Much Ado About Nothing.

Several things are remarkable about Much Ado About Nothing purely from a production standpoint. For instance, the film was shot entirely at Whedon’s personal estate in Santa Monica, California. Additionally, and due in part to the very intimate scale of the production, filming was completed in just under two weeks- a remarkable timeframe- during Whedon’s contractually obligatory vacation after post-production of The Avengers. 

The film is beautifully directed, and one can tell that Whedon approaches the story with incredible enthusiasm. As is the case with much of Shakespeare’s work, the tempo of the piece is hugely important. Whedon proves that he has a clear vision of not only what the piece is supposed to look like, but he also gives special attention to the rhythm and the beauty of the spoken word. His actors, for the most part, do a masterful job of giving special emphasis to the language of the piece and the many complex and sometimes subtle exchanges between characters.

Starring an ensemble cast and featuring the talents of Amy Acker, Alexis Denisof, Clark Gregg, Reed Diamond and Fran Kranz, the film is a beautiful looking, light-hearted comedy with a fanciful, pseudo-noir feel. The trifecta of Denisof, Gregg and Kranz steal every scene they’re in and bring a fundamentally human element to Shakespeare’s sometimes unintelligibly highbrow dialogue. Performances were generally exceptional all around and were only dimmed by the only slightly stilled portrayals of the antagonists, Don John and Borachio.

I’ve heard it said that the style of the film- black and white with some chic and jazzy aesthetics- did nothing to serve the narrative and ultimately detracted from the experience. My thoughts, however, are the opposite. To me, it seems as though Whedon’s choice of a monochromatic color scheme is intended to allow the audience to focus more on the language and dialogue of the piece, rather be distracted by the set dressing. Speaking from my own personal experience, Shakespearian dialogue is often devilishly hard to understand, especially when we’re being introduced to new characters. Another possible reason for the aesthetic choices are to establish a tone of semi-fantasy- almost to a degree of magical realism. If you’re unfamiliar with the plot of Much Ado About Nothing, you’ll find that some pretty incredible things end up happening- things that might make more sense within the context of a sort of fanciful, magical world. Therefore, I believe Whedon’s choice was not only innovative, but practical as well.

I understand that the prospect of sitting through a two hour, black and white production filled with Shakespearian dialogue may be off-putting for some viewers, but I assure you that your fears are unfounded. Whedon’s interpretation of this classic comedy is smart, fun, expertly paced, beautiful looking, brilliantly acted, and genuinely funny. Much Ado About Nothing has made it’s way, quite unexpectedly, to my top films of the year and fully deserves and resounding recommendation.

Rating 4.5 out of 5

Gabriel’s Favorite Films of 2012 (So Far)

As the third illustrious member of our merry crew, I’m expected to give you lovely people my three favorite movies of the year, and being the responsible man that I am I’m going to do exactly that. So prepare your minds for some genuine cinematic excellence, and remember to leave all of your comments below.

3. The Cabin in the Woods

There are few films I can say just fill me with pure joy. They reduce me to a state of unadulterated glee from which nothing can take me. Cabin in the Woods is one of these films. It may at first seem like a generic slasher flick, but in reality, it’s one of the most imaginative, creative, and brilliant horror film I’ve seen in years. There’s little more I can say other than that I left the theatre with a smile plastered to my face and in utter awe.

2. Monsieur Lazhar

Monsieur Lazhar is a film about death and the ways we deal with it. It shows us a fourth grade class dealing with the cryptic suicide of their homeroom teacher, and Bachir Lazhar, who takes it upon himself to replace that said teacher. At first glance this may seem like the typical teacher-saves-troubled-kids movie, but it’s much more than that. There is an irrefutable emotional reality here that gives it a profundity found in very few films. I just couldn’t help but be drawn into this touching and beautiful portrait of grief.

1. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia

I will not deny the fact that this is a difficult film. At a goliath two and a half hours, it’s hard to imagine how this movie could be worth it. But, I assure you that this will be hands down the greatest experience you will have all year. Under the guise of a conventional police procedural this is actually a remarkable exploration of truth and perception in the face of a morally gray world. Nuri Bilge Ceylan, the director, gives us a film that, on a purely visual level, may even surpass Prometheus. Sure it’s challenging, it’s slow, it’s long, it’s obtuse, but I do not doubt for a moment that the reward is worth the challenge. So if you feel up to it you won’t be disappointed, and if you don’t, well, you’re missing something truly amazing.

Most Anticipated: The Master

Paul Thomas Anderson ranks among my favorite directors of all time. For a reason look no further than his incredible filmography. He’s responsible for masterpieces such as There Will Be Blood, Punch-Drunk Love, and Boogie Nights, and now he wants to make a film about Scientology. Not to mention that he’s casting Philip Seymour Hoffman as a pseudo-L. Ron Hubbard. So, in summation, P. T. Anderson: please take my money now.

Andrew’s Favorite Films of 2012 (So Far)

2012 is almost halfway over, and it seems timely to put up a short list of my favorite movies from the first half out the year. It is important to mention that I am not saying these are the best movies to come out so far, they are just the three films I have enjoyed the most. Feel free to leave your opinions in the comments.

3. Bernie

The most recent film by director Richard Linklater, Bernie tells the true story of small town funeral Bernie Tiede and his relationship with a rich widow, Marjorie Nugent. Funny, smart, and simple, this movie perfectly captures the small town feel of Carthage, Texas while raising some interesting moral questions about justice.  In addition, Jack Black’s portrayal of Bernie Tiede is probably the best role he has had in his entire career.

2. Cabin in the Woods

This is just my kind of movie. In Joss Whedon’s mock horror movie, five oblivious teens take a vacation to a cabin in the woods that goes horribly wrong. A wonderful twist on the classic horror story, this movie offers plenty of laughs, great dialogue and does a perfect job of paying homage to the horror genre while having a few laughs at its expense.

1. Oslo, August 31st

Maybe a controversial pick for my number one, but Oslo, August 31st is just a fantastic film. This Norwegian movie shows a day in the life of a recovering drug addict as he leaves his rehab center to meet with old friends and acquaintances in Olso. A visually impressive and personal film, Oslo, August 31st is a well thought out look at addiction and the effect it really has on an individual and those around him.

Most Anticipated Film of 2012: Looper

The third film from writer and director Rian Johnson, Looper, is my most anticipated movie of the year. After multiple viewings of Brick and The Brothers Bloom, I have grown to love Rian Johnson’s unique directorial style, and I am confident that he will do great things with Looper. The strong cast and kick-ass trailer have further added to my excitement for this film, and I have high hopes that this film will turn out to be spectacular.