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AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON REVIEW: The Road to Nowhere

Avengers Age of Ultron PosterThe knock on the films of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) has been that despite how well they might be made, they are still treated more like product than art.  But in 2012, writer/director Joss Whedon did what many thought was impossible: he made real art out of all that product by bringing The Avengers to the big screen in mighty fashion.  With Avengers: Age of Ultron, Whedon has once again done what many thought was impossible: he has taken a watershed installment in a monstrosity of a franchise and turned it into something of remarkable insignificance.

As the story opens, the Avengers – Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) – are out to recover Loki’s scepter from Hydra.  They locate the item in the Eastern European country of Sokovia, secure it, and return home victorious.  With a few days before Thor is to take the scepter back to Asgard, resident geniuses Tony (Iron Man) Stark and Bruce (Hulk) Banner examine it thoroughly and discover signs of artificial intelligence within the scepter.  Stark hopes to leverage that A.I. to create thinking iron robots that will act as a global defense unit, thus opening the path to world peace and affording the Avengers the opportunity to disband.

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Their attempts to integrate the A.I. into Tony’s iron corps repeatedly fail until, when they aren’t paying attention, Ultron (voiced by James Spader) is created.  But there’s a glitch.  As evidenced in the past, the power of the scepter is all-consuming, and it drives Ultron to see “protecting the planet” differently than Stark; Ultron wants to eliminate humanity to protect the earth.  He recruits Hydra experimentation subjects/Sokovian twins Pietro and Wanda Maximoff (Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen) to aid him and his army of robots in world domination.

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Avengers: Age of Ultron is not a bad film; it’s just terribly pedestrian, and so much of it seems to have been constructed based on suggestions made in the Superhero Film Playbook.  Consider the antagonist, Ultron.  Despite having perfect vocals from Spader, he is a wholly forgettable villain, created as a conflict instead of a character.  Although teased as a techno-Pinocchio, his robot construct prevents any opportunity for him to connect to the audience the way Loki (Tom Hiddleston) has done in past MCU films.  He’s ultimately nothing more than a shiny thing with a smoothly-voiced sound card programmed with a collection of clever quips, something more fitting for a Sharper Image catalogue than a major superhero motion picture.  He’s supposed to represent Stark’s dark side, but Stark’s dark side is far more interesting on Stark, not a Stark-bot.

Ultron is also hellbent on destruction, something that sets up the film’s other major flaw: the action sequences.  Almost every action scene suffers from one of two problems: it is ether completely unnecessary to the story (see: Hulk vs. Hulk-Buster Iron Man) or it’s more of the same (see: the climactic battle, which looks remarkably similar to the climactic battle in The Avengers).  The only difference is that the scenes are greater in scope, thus greater in destruction, than they have been in previous MCU films.  It’s as if Whedon forgot that size doesn’t matter, and the only thing going bigger does is expose his surprisingly unsure direction of those sequences.  Whedon relies heavily on chaos as a surrogate for choreography, and the net result is action that at times is annoyingly blurred, and often cannot be followed.

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However, the film is not entirely without merit.  In fact, when it isn’t cranking its action knob to 11, it has many great moments.

Through clever use of Wanda Maximoff’s powers, Whedon offers haunting insight into Black Widow’s past – insight that makes an even stronger case for the need for a stand-alone Widow film.  There are numerous scenes where characters are paired-off that work incredibly well: Stark and Banner, Stark and Cap, and the highlight of the film, Banner and Widow.  The film flirts with an unlikely romance between these two characters that gives Johansson and Ruffalo the room to put on an acting clinic.  I could have watched these two help each other work through their troubling, deep-rooted issues for two hours and been perfectly happy.

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There is also a sequence in the film, one that takes place at a country house (to say any more is to spoil), that is a highlight reel moment – possibly the best in the entirety of the 11-film, 24-cumulative hour MCU.  It hits remarkable human spots for every character, and presents unique juxtaposition at the character level almost across the board.  More of this, or more moments like it, could have done more good for the advancement of the MCU than any battle scene could.  Unfortunately, the next cacophony of explosions couldn’t wait any longer.

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After recently watching Iron Man 2, I noted on Twitter that that film – easily the worst of the MCU – held the distinction of being the only film of the ten to have a repeat director; Jon Favreau directed the One That Started It All, 2008’s Iron Man.  I also wondered then if that was a bad omen for Whedon’s return.  I think it was.  Like Iron Man 2, Avengers: Age of Ultron manages to do some good things for the overall franchise (mostly character introduction and some posturing for the future), but it is burdened with a sense of obligation.  There is this heavy, looming pall over the film that makes it feel like it was made only because that’s what you do next.

The MCU is mapped out for another 10 films that will go into 2019.  That’s a long road to travel, but this leg of the trip goes almost nowhere.

3Star

THE RECONSTRUCTION OF WILLIAM ZERO Review: Absolute(ly) Zero

Reconstruction of William Zero PosterIn the independent film community (and by “independent,” I don’t mean films with megastars produced under boutique shingles hung by major studios; I mean family-borrowed, friend-begged, crowd-funded productions starring and directed by people ready to be the Next Big Thing), 2014 was a banner year for horrors and thrillers.  There truly are too many to list here, but horror’s glowing examples include The Babadook, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, Honeymoon, and Lyle, while thrillers list Blue Ruin, The Guest, and Cheap Thrills among its ranks.

This train has continued to roll in 2015, with Spring, It Follows, and Nina Forever reporting from the horror camp, and Man From Reno representing thrillers.  But where is science fiction in this Pure Indie genre film renaissance?  Last year’s Apocalypse Kiss is a great example, but other than that, titles don’t flow from the memory the way they do for horrors or thrillers.  That’s about to change thanks to The Reconstruction of William Zero, a film worthy of a seat at the table with the hot genre indies listed above.

William Blakely (Conal Byrne) is a brilliant geneticist married to his career as much as – if not more so – he is married to his wife, Jules (Amy Seimetz).  After another night of crashing on the couch surrounded by research, the scientist, husband, and father gathers himself quickly, gets on the cellphone with the lab, and races out of the house.  But in his haste to get back to work, he doesn’t notice his young son on a bicycle in the driveway.  A rushed shift of gears into reverse spells tragedy.

Four years later, William finds himself newly emerged from a coma and in the care of his twin brother, Edward (also played by Byrne).  He doesn’t know how he wound up in a coma (Edward must tell him he was in a car accident two weeks earlier), he has no memory of his wife (they have been estranged since the accident), and he has no recollection of his role in the fate of his late son.  In fact, his mind is so devoid of memories, even from his own childhood, he doesn’t remember the most basic things, like how to eat cereal.  Edward must reteach him all of this.  But as William works towards rebuilding his memories, with his ultimate goal being a reconciliation with Jules, he learns that Edward has secrets – dark secrets – about his past and his relationship with his twin brother.

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To divulge any more would be to deny you the joy of discovery – and what a joy this discovery is.  The Reconstruction of William Zero is a dazzling independent science fiction film from director Dan Bush, who co-scripted with Byrne.  The writer/director and writer/star are so successful because they offer an incredibly strong three-point foundation.

The first point is a core concept that remains quite true to the sci-fi genre (yet without getting too lost in the granularity of science).  Integrated within and around that core concept are other thematic elements that allow for a greater depth of emotion and an overall broader appeal.  This film isn’t just about the double-edged sword of science and the great responsibility its great power comes with.  It’s also about love and despair and loneliness and regret and sacrifice and redemption.  The slick sci-fi candy shell of the film has a dense and substantive center that offers a significant emotional heft I didn’t see coming.  Because of this depth, the film never feels gimmicky.

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The second point is the pair of powerhouse performances given by Conal Byrne.

The first performance is that of the fully grown man with the blank slate for a brain.  Byrne plays William with an incredible balance of frustration and hope.  The man with so much tragedy in his past refuses to let the absence of basic knowledge – how to ride public transportation, what an ice cream sandwich tastes like – stand in the way of the chance of reconciling with Jules.  He knows he is both at fault and with faults, but he remains undaunted.

The second performance is that of the caring twin brother who might appear to have all the answers, but who always leaves new questions in his wake.  Byrne plays the mysterious Edward as the antithesis of William.  Yes, the dominant twin cares for his brother, but there is always a question of why.  As the story unfolds and William begins the process of discovery, Edward grows more mysterious, more bitter, and more angry.  This, at times, calls for a certain physicality to the part, and Byrne delivers here too.

In two unique roles that play against each other for most of the film, Byrne invokes the best elements of character acting and channels those elements into a stellar lead performance.

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The third point – and really, the most impressive – is Dan Bush’s direction and his remarkable editing (a job he shares with veteran editor Darrin Navarro).  This film is, at its easiest points, an intricate one.  At its most challenging points, it’s quite complicated.  Bush, through bold choices that exploit (in positive ways) the fact his lead characters are twins, uses a dizzying array of flashbacks – in whole chunks, in tiny flashes, or deftly woven within present-day action – to create a much larger picture that spans years.  He also blocks and frames scenes shared by both William and Edward so well that it is easy to forget the characters are played by one man.  (Kudos to the sound team for making all of this work, too.)

Only towards the end, when William and Edward scuffle, does the staging look a little rough.

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The film is not without its flaws, though, most a result of too much happening at one time, which allows action to spiral out of Bush’s ambitious creative control.  The film also has an ending that belies the rest of its indie freshness to offer stale Hollywood resolution.  Still, The Reconstruction of William Zero presents its strengths with such surgical precision and thrill-ride excitement that I wanted neither the surgery nor the ride to end.

4stars

INSURGENT Review: She Needs to Wash That Man Right Out of Her Hair

Insurgent PosterIn July 2014, a question was posed on Twitter as part of the “Movie Talk on Sunday” weekly event.  That week’s topic was “Women in Film” and the final question was, “To show boys and girls a strong female character they can aspire towards; which films would you use?”  This was my answer, as Tweeted:

“A10) As a father of 2 girls, I’ve never guided them to aspire to be a character in a film.  I’ve guided them to aspire to make films. #MTOS”

I meant it back then.  I meant it yesterday.  I meant it this morning.

And now, having seen Insurgent, the follow-up to 2014’s Divergent, I really mean it – perhaps more than ever before.

Picking up soon after Divergent‘s end, the film opens with its core four characters – former Dauntless members Tris (Shailene Woodley), Four (Theo James), and Peter (Miles Teller), along with Tris’ brother (and Erudite member) Caleb (Ansel Elgort) – living in hiding among the people of Amity on their farm/commune.  Not only is the foursome wanted in connection for the events at the end of the first film, they (and all other rogue Dauntless members) have been framed for the mass murder of all members of Abnegation – a genocidal act orchestrated by Erudite’s megalomaniacal leader, Jeanine (Kate Winslet).  Also being smeared in the Jeanine-controlled media are all Divergents, whom the villainess claims are a threat to life inside the walls of Chicago.

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In reality, Jeanine wants all Divergents rounded up and brought to her because an ancient box discovered in the ruins of Abnegation holds the key to the city’s future, and only a Divergent can open the box.  What Jeanine quickly learns, though, is that not all Divergents are alike, so not just any Divergent can open it, only the right Divergent can open it.  While her troops, including returning characters Eric (Jai Courtney) and Max (Mekhi Phifer), hunt Divergents, Four and Tris are left to manage the aftermath of the decisions made by Peter and Caleb, strike an alliance with the newly-organized Factionless (aka The Homeless), and deal with the introduction of someone from Four’s past.

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There are many problems with Insurgent, including Robert Schwentke‘s uninspired direction; a script (co-written by three men based on a woman’s novel) saddled with overt and tired dialogue, which follows a path that seems specifically designed not to advance a story, but to get to a particular gigantic set-piece near the end of the film); and a leaden performance from Winslet, whose attempt at icy evilness feels more like she’s indifferently detached.

Another doozy is the repeated use of fake-outs – those scenes that have heavy, sometimes plot-changing moments, only to learn a minute later that the heavy moment was actually a nightmare Tris was having or a scene from a simulator she’s attached to.  Like the jump-scare in horror, the fake-out can be an effective device on the audience.  To use it too much, though, breeds viewer apathy.  If something can be revealed as fake at any moment, why should anyone care what happens?

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But the film irreparably damages itself – and quite possibly whatever sequels are left – in how it handles Tris’ character.  When decisions need to be made, Four makes them, not Tris.  When there is a fight (and there are several) and the two are in the fight together, he protects her.  (There is even some subtle blocking of the actors that goes on where Four is in the foreground and on-point for action while Little Suzy Franchise is left watching or following.)

It’s rampant throughout the film.  He leads, she follows.  He acts, she reacts.  There’s even a scene where, faced with being turned over to Erudite by Candor (just trust me), Four insists he and Tris subject themselves to truth serum to prove their own innocence.  Tris has what she believes to be good reason to object to this plan and object she does (albeit passively).  She’s essentially ignored and given the truth serum anyway because it’s Four’s plan.

If I knew nothing of this franchise and saw this movie first, I would bet the house that Four is the centerpiece of the whole thing.  Even his character gets some nice development while her character just does stuff … like cut her own hair.  Tris, you’ve come a long way, baby.

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I couldn’t help but make a quick mental comparison to the other female-led, young adult, dystopian film series, The Hunger Games.  In those films, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) is not only the target for the bad guys, she’s the inspiration for the good guys.  In those films, Katniss is protected when she needs protecting, but she is also told to fight when it is time to fight.  In those films, Katniss is the strongest because it’s her story.

In this film – hell, in this franchise – Tris, as a Divergent, is the most special of the special ones, the one who holds the key to what happens next.  But rather than take control of her own destiny (coif-cutting aside) until the end, where even then she can’t just bark an order but instead has to convince Four with, “Just trust me,” she is relegated to playing (essentially) a damsel in distress.  Granted, she’s got a mean right hook when she’s given the chance to use it, but that occasional flash of aggressiveness cannot overcome the way her character is so passively drawn.

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Thinking back to that day Twitter question, I don’t think there is any merit to anyone aspiring to be a character in a film.  I do think, however, there are opportunities to learn things from characters in films, and perhaps aspire to adapt certain positive behaviors, jettison bad ones, or make smart choices in specific situations similar to those situations a character has faced.  Fiction has always been a fertile ground for this sort of thing.  The sole lesson I would teach my daughters after having seen Insurgent?  Ignore everything Tris does.

And then I would tell them to pick up a camera and go do the whole thing better.

1halfstar