Marvel’s The Avengers: Age of Ultron

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Release: Friday, May 1, 2015

[RPX Theater]

Written by: Joss Whedon

Directed by: Joss Whedon

In the chaotic and climactic final twenty minutes a wistfulness arose within me, and though I didn’t let it fully disengage me from one of the year’s most ambitious CGI spectacles I was annoyed I let it happen. I knew it was going to, though. That feeling that, after all of this battling against the hype machine, this was it. This was all it could have been.

And of course it was; it makes sense. Marvel’s The Avengers: Age of Ultron may be the much-anticipated follow-up to that most grandiose uniting of superheroes from far-flung corners of the globe but in the end it is still just a movie. At two hours and twenty minutes it’s a lot of movie but even that kind of length ends up shortchanging those who have built this up in their heads as some kind of singular event. I honestly put the blame on Joss Whedon, though. Maybe if he hadn’t made Marvel’s The Avengers such a spectacular escape little old film fans like me wouldn’t have unfairly begun wielding our hopes and expectations like a shield of vibranium against which the man would have little hope of defending himself.

The one thing he won’t have to hope for is a solid box office presence, though. That’s perhaps the only thing that’s guaranteed about his new film.

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AGE OF JAMES SPADER

Age of Ultron arrives at a time when superhero movies have . . . okay, forget that. Instead: yay, summer! Rather than detangling the network of superhero film reel that’s enabled this one to happen, I think it’s best to cut to the chase and talk all things artificially intelligent and Hydra-related. Whedon wastes no time in appealing to our appropriately elevated adrenaline levels by introducing the gang kicking ass and taking names in the remote European nation of Sokovia, the location of a Hydra outpost. Baron Wolfgang von Strucker (Thomas Kretschmann) has gotten a hold of Loki’s scepter and is using it to experiment on humans. His most notable creations become Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor Johnson) and the Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), who take pleasure in being the collective thorn in the Avengers’ collective side.

Following their successful stand against some of Hydra’s henchmen, the Avengers return to headquarters and celebrate, but only briefly. Given Stark’s affinity for constantly tinkering with his creations he uses the A.I. he and Banner discover within the scepter to jumpstart his long-dormant and secretive Ultron project, a program he believes will be humanity’s best chance of living in a safer world.

Amidst one of the more memorable scenes — Thor ribbing his companions into trying to lift his hammer knowing full well none of them will succeed, only to be gobsmacked by Steve Rogers’ ability to actually influence it ever so subtly — a worst case scenario rears its ugly head as Ultron’s sentience rapidly exceeds Stark’s ability to control it. Ultron (voiced by James Spader) quickly deduces people are no good; that the only way Earth will be safe is to eradicate them. One thing I was impressed by was how my cynicism was put in perspective in the face of a vengeful, ten-foot tall robot with evil red eyes.

If there’s anything that bundles together Age of Ultron‘s dizzying number of thematic and physical ambitions it’s the notion that not everything created by a billionaire genius can be controlled. Not by him, and not even by Whedon. The arrival of a one-of-a-kind android in Spader, whose own image rather disappointingly supersedes that of his on-screen counterpart, heralds an age in which over-ambition, even born out of purely good intentions, very well might mean the downfall of everything. That’s obviously not going to be the case for the MCU. Still, this bloated sequel is not the joyride its predecessor was.

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SUPERHERO FATIGUE V. SUPERHERO INDIFFERENCE

In propelling the complex mythos and relationships that have endeared millions to this lone property into the future, Whedon has incidentally obligatorily spawned an environment in which everything is expected to get more and more extreme. Unfortunately that’s kind of an issue that can be traced back to the Avengers’ cinematic birth in 2012. How the Infinity War sequels are supposed to top this is anyone’s guess, but there is no doubt Marvel will demand it from the Russo brothers. I suspect we are yet to enter the darkest days facing our fearless heroes, and if this middle film is a barometer of anything, it’s solemnity.

But like Man of Steel and The Amazing Spider-man, just because the story takes a darker turn — these properties are, after all, reflecting a reality that seems to be growing ever more hostile — this doesn’t discount Age of Ultron‘s potential to be an enjoyable summer getaway. Rather, I have found it easy to forget about that potential, and much more challenging to be as enthusiastic as Whedon’s canvas continues spreading to include lesser-known players, heroes who are admittedly cleverly worked into the picture, but who don’t mean as much if you haven’t done your Avengers homework. (And I am referring to the comics.) There’s something about the hatred Ultron directs primarily towards Tony Stark and secondarily to the human population at large that screams ‘classic movie villainy,’ yet the same can’t be said about Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch’s decision to shift loyalties.

Perhaps my detachment from the Maximoff twins, in particular, stems from my failure to be entertained by Elizabeth Olsen trying on a Russian accent. Equally distracting is Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s Beach Boys hairdo. These two needed their own cinematic introduction before showing up in ostensibly pivotal roles here. The Vision means little to me, although his . . . odd genetic make-up is something to behold. If this all sounds like a personal problem, that’s because it likely is. Whereas some are experiencing the inevitable ‘superhero fatigue,’ I find I may have accidentally banished myself to the realm of superhero indifference.

What Age of Ultron ultimately assembles (and stop me when this sounds familiar) is an overstuffed extravaganza that tries, mostly succeeding, to incorporate as much of the popular Marvel legacy as a single film can handle before breaking and before turning off as many of its several hundred million viewers as possible. It’s the epitome of blockbuster in a blockbuster age. It’s a mighty compromise between getting really technical and remaining lowest-common-denominator entertainment. I feel as unique as the Avengers are, they deserve something not quite as mundane.

At the same time, what else could I have expected out of a summer movie? While I don’t feel like my expectations turned on me as drastically as Stark’s program did him, like him I am reluctant to admit it was pretty much my fault. . .

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3-5Recommendation: Featuring Whedon’s trademark comic relief and ability to weave together multiple story lines, Marvel’s The Avengers: Age of Ultron unfortunately might signal what has been coming down the pipe for a long time. It’s a film of excess but also a film that minimizes enjoyment to pack in as much information and spectacle as possible. Diehards will no doubt lap this up. Anything less though, are sure to find things that could have been much better. A recommended watch in the large format, but unlike the first one I can’t say you need to see it twice in such a fashion. There is a mid-credits scene that you should stick around for.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 141 mins.

Quoted: “Everyone creates the thing they fear. Men of peace create engines of war. Avengers create invaders. Parents create children, that will supplant them.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.moviepilot.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Much Ado About Nothing

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Release: Friday, June 7, 2013 (limited)

[Theater]

From Marvel’s The Avengers to. . . . . . a Shakespearian play? Joss Whedon makes the jump in genres seem all the crazier when I tell you that I believe that his vision might be the one that tops Kenneth Branagh’s incredible 1993 film by the same name. And of course, these aren’t the only folks who have had their hand in reshaping one of the great playwright’s most beloved comedies. It’s also hard to imagine that the best version of Much Ado About Nothing will be anything besides the original, when it was played out on stage by the Lord Chamberlain’s men. Still, subsequent versions have proven worthwhile and immensely enjoyable experiences. Fortunately Whedon’s new project — one that won’t require so many popcorn bags to be purchased — does not buck the trend.

His camerawork in this is so unlike his ability to capture the epic and the iconic structures of the superhero world; indeed, the slight and whimsical storyline of Much Ado requires virtually the complete opposite treatment, which Whedon manages to great effect. This is a film that is both intimate and elegant in setting — it was shot in a total of 12 days, exclusively at Whedon’s Santa Monica residence — and has cinematography worthy of at least a nomination. It’s gorgeous and strengthens the presence of every character in the frame.

Some could find the visual contrasts a little jarring in the very beginning, admittedly. You first see these characters and if you are like me, you are caught off guard at first by just how they speak. The muted color saturations, coupled with Shakespearian prose is juxtaposed against the habits and customs of 21st Century living. Bottles of beer are being clanked together; fists are bumped rather than hands shaken; iPods now the sources of music at parties; Counts and Lords garbed in Giorgio Armani.

Dogberry spews his hilarious lapsus linguae to his small staff who have flat screen Dell computers.

But as the film unfolds it becomes easier to adjust. The more we see of the characters interacting, it’s all very natural and we are reminded once again of the genius in Shakespeare’s writing and romanticism. The atmosphere is light; the mood slightly silly but perpetually energetic. The cast, though not well-known, is definitely a strength. This time around we have Ami Acker as Beatrice, and Alexis Denisof plays Benedick, who make up the central romantic affair. Surrounding them are Fran Kranz as Claudio and Jillian Morgese as Hero; Clark Gregg goes from manning SHIELD to playing Hero’s father Leonato; and we have Reed Diamond playing Don Pedro, Sean Maher replacing Keanu Reeves as the Bastard Prince Don John; and Spencer Treat Clark taking on the role of Barachio. . . that sleaze-bag. Not Clark, but. . .well, you know what I mean.

As Dogberry, Nathan Fillion has an absolutely wonderful supporting role. He oversees a squad of semi-competent, but fully overzealous night watchers, of which two were actually successful in curtailing the plotting and scheming of the shadowy duo, Barachio and Conrade (here played by Riki Lindhome). The moments with them and Dogberry serve as the funniest moments in the film undoubtedly, but are also very well-acted and reproduced in a contemporary setting. That was the case with a lot of the material in this film.

The story may be well-known, but to bring everything and everyone up to speed. . . . Much Ado is the comparison of two love affairs — that of Beatrice and Benedick who essentially are lovers in denial who must endure a battle of wit and of carefully calculated ‘rejection;’ and the other is quiet but fierce love affair between young Claudio and Hero. Benedick and Beatrice are tricked into confessing their loves for one another by waves of gossip, while Claudio is tricked into thinking his soon-to-be-wife is not faithful and their relationship seems to trend the other way. But this all is found to be the scheming of the envious Don John, who seeks revenge on his brother Don Pedro. He instilled in Claudio the idea that he was wooing Hero secretly. Then Barachio commits an act before an open window in the presence of Claudio, convincing him to think that Hero really was cheating. The malcontents eventually receive their comeuppance thanks to The Watch and Claudio is reunited with Hero in the end after all truth is revealed. I won’t add more info than that, although it’s, again, well-known territory I’m skipping over here.

There’s also a very rich soundtrack flowing throughout the piece that ties both the romanticism of the Shakespearian era to the Messina we have portrayed here in the present-day. Party scenes are lavish and look very fun. The moments of darkness and drama, as light-hearted as this comedy is, are overhauled with the appropriate overture that seems to give as much life to the movie as the script and acting do.

Going into the film I really had no preconceived notion about how Whedon might be able to handle this material. I can’t remember the last time I did see the Branagh one, so I was unable to accurately have a picture in my head as I sat down (in an empty theater!) Frequent YouTube visits after the fact have jogged my memory and reminded me that it was indeed infectious and it was indeed endearing; Branagh’s was a fully-realized portrait of what Shakespeare was trying to say about the nature of pride and honor, of courage and conviction and speaking truthfully. Whedon, using the original text, is similarly successful in that he’s been able to adapt the story so as to not make a carbon copy. The title may suggest that there’s a lot of fuss being kicked up over nothing here, but there’s no shortage of reasons to go see this latest adaptation.

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4-0Recommendation: Joss Whedon has successfully created an undeniably accessible version of the famous comedy, and it plays out as breezily as you think it ought to. For anyone who is a fan of anything Shakespeare, this is a film you cannot miss. For fans of film in general, this is also going to be a high priority. It’s another Shakespeare play to fit our times, and will likely join the ranks of appreciated contemporary overhauls like Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet and certainly Branagh’s version, which was some 20 years ago now.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 109 mins.

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited. 

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com