Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Mad Max: Fury Road

I am fighting back tears as I write this. Tears of joy, you ask? Or tears of wonder and amazement? Sadly, sadly, no.

You all know I love post-apocalyptic sci-fi as much as anyone (as long as there are no zombies).  And Mad Max: Fury Road certainly has a post-apocalyptic sci-fi feel to it. The atmosphere is great. Tom Hardy, my favourite actor of 2014? Also great. Charlize Theron, one of my all-time favourite actresses? Also great. The score? Perfect for the story. The ride? As wild as one could hope for. The special effects? Unobtrusive and adding nicely to the atmosphere. 

So why the tears, Vic? You have a wild and amazing ride through a beautifully-rendered sci-fi desert landscape, with hardly a moment to catch your breath, and you have two heroes played by favourite actors fighting against all odds to bring hope and redemption to humanity. And you have a particularly sympathetic character (unexpectedly so) played by Nicholas Hoult. Surely you can’t ask for more than that! So what’s with the tears?

I suppose they are tears of loneliness as well as sadness. Every one of my favourite film critics, including Gareth Higgins, loves Mad Max: Fury Road. Based on what I’ve read, I believe the critics were blown away by the awesome and endlessly-exciting spectacle, and by the brilliant filmmaking that was no doubt required to create such a spectacle. I get that. 

But here’s the thing: While I found the action in Fury Road much less boring than the action in Age of Ultron, I still find action boring. And Fury Road is at least 90% action. And it’s very violent action. And very repetitive action: I can only handle so many exploding cars and trucks in one film, not to mention the bodies flying all over the place. I was not only bored, I was repeatedly disgusted. Any positive messages (and I’m willing to admit there were some) got lost in the endless violent spectacle before me. I call it a failure of the imagination, but others will challenge that. 

Is Fury Road a feminist version of the Mad Max story? Perhaps. But, if so, it’s not a type of feminism I can support. The turning point in the film, for me (spoiler alert!), was when our heroes meet up with Furiosa’s people. At that point in the film, one of the characters, when talking about killing, says: “I thought somehow you girls were above all that.” If that were true, it would represent a feminism I could support (though the use of the word ‘girls’ is hardly feminist). Unfortunately, it is not true, and the women in the film are ultimately persuaded by a man to undertake a course of action which leads to what was, for me, the worst part of the film (the last half hour or so). 

And then there’s the way the 3D (I watched the 2D version) botched what could have been exquisite cinematography (some moments still shone through), especially early in the film. But then, I believe 3D poisons virtually everything it touches, so what can you do? Sigh.

So: I’m sorry. I’m sorry, Gareth. I’m sorry, Jeremy. I’m sorry, Kenneth. I’m sorry, Paul. I’m sorry, Rachel. I did not like Mad Max: Fury Road and would never want to see it again. **+ for the acting and the atmosphere. My mug is down. 

Monday, 11 May 2015

The Avengers: Age of Ultron

Yeah, I know I said I had no interest in watching The Avengers: Age of Ultron, but since almost everyone else in Winnipeg has seen it, I need to talk about it. If I do so without first seeing the film, I lose my credibility as a critic. So I found a coupon in my wallet and went to Grant Park to watch the 2D version of the film. Needless to say, I went in with the lowest of expectations. As a result, I enjoyed Ultron more than I thought I would. 

I mean that last sentence literally, because it was the character of Ultron I enjoyed most about the new Avengers film. More to the point, it was James Spader (one of my favourite actors), who provides Ultron’s voice, that made Ultron such a fascinating character to listen to, though it didn’t hurt that Ultron had most of the film’s best lines.

For the two or three of you who don’t know, Ultron (the character) is yet another consequence of the brilliant but stupid actions of the world’s favourite superheroes - the Avengers. This time, we have Tony Stark (Iron Man) and Bruce Banner (The Hulk), our two resident genius scientists, deciding that the best way to bring lasting ‘peace in our time’ to our violent planet is to create an artificial intelligence, in robot form, who will permanently keep the peace, allowing the Avengers to rest up or take a vacation. The result is Ultron, an artificially intelligent robot whose mission is indeed to bring lasting peace. Ultron wants to be the Earth’s saviour, just as he was created to be. Unfortunately, for those living on the Earth, Ultron’s analysis is that such lasting peace can only be attained by ridding the Earth of those most dangerous of lifeforms known as humans. Leading the way in protecting those destructive humans are a group of monsters calling themselves the Avengers, so Ultron will have to get rid of them as well.

Given that a number of the Avengers in Age of Ultron refer to themselves as monsters, there seems to be some consensus emerging here. But no, while the Avengers do spend some of their action time fighting each other (due to the influence of a young woman who'll become known as Scarlet Witch), they eventually focus their fighting energies on destroying their latest creation even when that creation is simply trying to save the planet from the scourge of humanity. Poor Ultron! So unfair! Just because James Spader has a reputation for playing sleazy characters (or cold-blooded fellows like Raymond ‘Red’ Reddington in The Blacklist) doesn’t mean Ultron isn’t a nice guy. 

Alas, it is the Avengers (monsters though they may be) who are supposed to be the superheroes in this film and they attack the poor villain and his robot minions with wild abandon. I suppose we should be relieved by the fact that most of the countless creatures killed (destroyed?) by the Avengers in Age of Ultron are lifeless robots. But are they really lifeless? And while we are led to believe that Ultron’s opposite number is an artificial intelligence called The Vision, what does it say when The Vision, who thinks it’s wrong to kill, nevertheless decides that the only course of action in this situation is to kill Ultron (just as Ultron’s only course of action was to kill humans)? 

Sigh. To say I’m disappointed with Joss Whedon’s writing and direction of The Avengers: Age of Ultron is an understatement. I know he’s capable of better than this. As enjoyable as Ultron is, the film as a whole is  waste of time and talent. The plot is thin, the interminable action is as boring and repetitive as superhero action can get and there are fewer moments of fascinating and/or funny dialogue between the Avengers than in the first Avengers film. There is still some of that, and you can tell the actors (far too many in this ensemble cast to mention by name) are probably having fun here, but mostly Age of Ultron seems to be an excuse for same old same old pointless action and special effects. Kenneth Turan, one of my favourite film critics, summarizes the film well when when he says: “the ideal vehicle for our age of immediate sensation and instant gratification, it disappears without a trace almost as soon as it's consumed.” There’s nothing here for the masses to be wasting their time and money on.

Though there is Ultron, who is given such fascinating lines as: 
  • (to the Avengers): “How could you be worthy? You're all killers. You want to protect the world, but you don't want it to change. There's only one path to peace... your extinction.”
  • “Everyone creates the thing they dread. Men of peace create engines of war. Invaders create Avengers. Parents create … smaller people? Er … children! I lost the word there. Children! Designed to supplant them. To help them end.”
  • “They put the building in the middle of the city, so that everyone could be equally close to God. I like that, the symmetry, the geometry of belief.”
  • (when asked why he killed someone): “Wouldn't have been my first call. But, down in the real world we're faced with ugly choices.”
Good stuff, though the words often ring hollow (e.g. Ultron’s ‘change’ is a world devoid of humans, hardly what anyone would endorse). Somewhere in this film there may be an attempt to satirize the military-industrial complex, but it all gets lost in the endless violent action which is obviously aimed at a young audience that has become utterly desensitized to such violence. Still, if we think of Ultron as the victim, and the Avengers, who have brought so much misery and mayhem to the planet (and then worked tirelessly to undo the damage they have caused), as the villains, maybe there is some potential for thoughtful discussion here. So I’ll give Ultron: The Age of the Avengers (:-)) ***, though my mug is nowhere to be found. 

Saturday, 9 May 2015

Ex Machina

I so much enjoy sitting down to watch a critically-acclaimed intelligent sci-fi film about which I know absolutely nothing. Great fun! If only Ex Machina had allowed me to sustain that enjoyment a little longer.

Alex Garland’s Ex Machina is definitely one of those films about which the less you know the better. I was appalled to hear (after I watched the film) how the review in our local paper gave away an important plot twist. Inexcusable! I will therefore not reveal much of the plot here, other than to provide the setting: Caleb, a young computer programmer (played by Domhnall Gleeson), wins an opportunity to spend a week with Nathan (Oscar Isaac), the very wealthy and mysterious recluse who owns the company Caleb works for and creates robots on the side. Nathan wants Caleb to give his latest creation, Ava (Alicia Vikander), the Turing test, analyzing Ava’s responses during conversations (sessions) to see if the robot qualifies as possessing artificial intelligence. The fact that the robot has been created to look like an attractive young woman adds an important ingredient into the mix.

The atmosphere in Ex Machina is the film’s greatest strength. It’s a dark, creepy slow-moving film in which you’re never supposed to be sure what is really going on. I love that. But, of course, whenever I watch such films, my mind can’t help trying to figure out what’s going on, and I did predict at least one major twist. Nevertheless, I didn’t predict everything, and the dialogue was sometimes riveting, so the potential was there for Ex Machina to become my second Wow! film of 2015. But for me the denouement felt neither original nor imaginative, and not the least bit satisfying. In the end, this film should have been much more suspenseful, shocking and haunting than it was (though it certainly was all of those things). 

Part of the problem is that the story never felt convincing to me. Is that because I’ve never really believed in the possibility of artificial intelligence or is it  because I didn’t find Gleeson’s performance sympathetic enough? I did think Gleeson was well-cast, as was Vikander, who steals the film. And Isaac, who is one of the great young actors of our time, is made for roles like Nathan. Great job! And the production values were solid enough (creating that atmosphere I liked so much). 

Gareth mentioned to me that he felt Ex Machina had a misogynist edge and I wouldn’t argue with that. Not only did one nude scene feel gratuitous, I felt uncomfortable, throughout the film, with the way women were portrayed. So I was disappointed with Ex Machina. But I love this kind of film so much, and did enjoy most of the film enough, that I’m going to let it slide over the line and give it ***+. My mug is up, but the brew inside is a little too dark and cool to be really tasty.  (see my comment below for a brief reassessment - I have decided to give Ex Machina ****, like Walter) 

Wednesday, 6 May 2015

The Age of Adaline

With The Age of Ultron showing on four of twelve screens at the cinema we visited, another “The Age of” film was among eight films trying to attract the handful of moviegoers who had already seen Ultron or couldn’t get in. Just kidding - I’m sure there were at least a dozen of us who have absolutely no interest in seeing The Avengers. (sigh)

Generally panned by the critics, The Age of Adaline is an unusual romance directed by the young Lee Toland Krieger. Blake Lively stars as Adaline Bowman, a woman who has a freak car accident in 1937 that results in her remaining forever 29 years of age. To avoid attracting the unwanted attention of authorities and scientists, Adaline changes her name and moves every ten years. Jumping ahead 78 years, we see she has resigned herself to never leading a normal life. But then she meets the brilliant and charming Ellis Jones (Michiel Huisman) and all bets are off.

I won’t reveal any more of the plot, except to note that, along the way, we meet Adaline’s daughter (Ellen Burstyn), as a woman old enough to be her grandmother, and we meet Ellis’s parents, William and Kathy (Harrison Ford and Kathy Baker). I mention this because I am giving The Age of Adaline a half-star extra just for the remarkable understated performance by Ford. He has always been one of my favourite actors, but I never thought of him as a particularly good actor (that may sound contradictory, but my ‘favourite actors’ include those whom I enjoy watching even if they aren't great actors). Ford’s performance in The Age of Adaline may be the best of his career. Burstyn, of course, is always wonderful and she shines here. And, to my surprise, I was quite impressed with Lively and Huisman and the chemistry between them.

I can also find no fault with the cinematography and score. As for the bizarre story? Well, I enjoy bizarre stories and (again to my surprise) found this one quite compelling. Many of the critics had a problem with the film’s ending, but I think that’s because the film did such a good job of making its unbelievable tale feel real. Personally, I found the ending to be consistent with the rest of the film. Which is not to say that the screenplay (written by a number of people) was a work of art. At times it felt quite weak and unimaginative. But there were other times, especially in scenes involving Ford, that I thought the screenplay was much smarter (and wiser) than average. 

I also can’t complain about the film’s rather clear message (only a very minor spoiler) that the fountain of youth is a curse and growing old is a good thing. As someone who has passed the midpoint of his life (quite a few years ago) but always felt a lot younger than he is, I appreciated that sentiment and found it well-argued. So The Age of Adaline gets a surprising ***+. My mug is up and I’m sure I enjoyed this film much more than I would have enjoyed the film playing next door, even if the critics disagree with me.

Tuesday, 5 May 2015

TV19: Two British TV Updates: Downton Abbey and Doctor Who

Downton Abbey

Two seasons on (Kathy and I have now watched five seasons), I am prepared to declare Julian Fellowes’ British saga the best pure soap opera in the history of television (and I don’t use the words ‘soap opera’ in a derogatory way; I have always liked good soap operas). Note: When I say ‘pure’ soap opera, I disqualify superior shows like Six Feet Under. 

The ensemble cast is superb, the writing is almost flawless (despite being written by a Conservative Lord, no less) and the production values are as good as any in TV. Best of all, Downton Abbey is, overall, about humanization and the struggle to become a better person. Wonderful television that should not be missed (unlike a host of others I could name). **** all the way. My mug is held high.

Doctor Who

Three seasons later (we are now halfway through season seven), my opinion of Doctor Who has changed. While there are some major problems with the morality of the eleventh doctor (played by Matt Smith), I was surprised to find him utterly irresistible. And the writing around him is, in my opinion, much funnier and smarter than the writing in the previous four seasons (though there are still far too many episodes that don’t withstand close scrutiny, in terms of making logical sense). Blink (from the fourth season) remains my favourite episode, but, in general, I have enjoyed the Matt Smith episodes much more than those which preceded him. I quite enjoy the entire River Song storyline and, for reasons I can’t describe, like Amy Pond and Rory Williams more than the doctor’s previous companions. As a result, Doctor Who is now firmly in ***+ territory and all those who had been encouraging me, for years, to watch this show can now consider me a fan. My mug is up. 

Monday, 4 May 2015

While We're Young

As the masses flocked in to see Ultron, Kathy and I slipped quietly into an almost empty theatre featuring that rare thing: an intelligent comedy drama. That's the age we live in (sigh).

Noah Baumbach, the writer/director behind Greenberg and Frances Ha, has given us another wise, witty and thought-provoking satirical drama for adults. This time it’s about a forty-something couple (Josh and Cornelia, played by Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts) whose lives intersect with a twenty-something couple (Jamie and Darby, played by Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried), with both positive and negative results.

Josh is a documentary filmmaker who’s been working on his latest film for eight years and Cornelia is bored. When Jamie and Darby show up at a class Josh is teaching, the two couples start a unique friendship that provides all kinds of social commentary on the age we live in (e.g. exposing the problems and deceits of both the young and the middle-aged as they search for an authentic lifestyle). But when Jamie begins filming his own documentary, Josh becomes jealous and then discovers that not everything going on around him is at it seems.

While We’re Young has some great dialogue (and some silly dialogue) and offers a lot to think about on subjects like our current smartphone culture. The documentaries in the background provide some additional food for thought. I was surprised by how much of the film was about making documentaries, but, as someone who watches a lot of documentaries, this only enhanced my enjoyment of the film.

Watts is always great, and Driver and Seyfried were well-cast, but I’m not so sure about Stiller. Either the casting was off or his performance wasn’t as good as the others (a little over the top, as usual for Stiller?). Either way, I had occasional trouble finding him believable, especially near the end of the film. There were a couple of scenes in particular that didn’t work for me at all, like the overly-long one involving a Peruvian root juice. Nevertheless, this satire is still a major step up from most comedy dramas these days, so I’m giving While We’re Young ***+. My mug is up.