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Avengers: Age of Ultron

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***

He’s fast. She’s weird.

The quotation, from Maria Hill—Cobie Smulders, Robin on “How I Met Your Mother”—demonstrates the level of simplification this movie has. Still, Age of Ultron was almost as fun as it was expensive. As with the first Avengers movie, this one tried to be everything in one. Yet while the first one was the culmination of years of planning, this feels like a stop gap measure. See the below picture for an example. This is a cute scene where the rest of the Avengers fail to lift Thor’s mighty mjolnir, as none are worthy! At least Captain America was able to make it budge a little! It’s amusing to watch, but upon closer scrutiny has glaring flaws. Two lifting should be better than one, but what possible good is wearing a glove and gauntlet? They’re not trying to crush the hammer or shoot the hammer, so just wearing it does nothing but add the weight of what those two mortals had to lift.

Cute, but so dumb.

Tony Stark (Iron Man) and James Rhodes (War Machine), trying to lift Thor’s hammer, mjolnir. Robert Downey, Jr. and Don Cheadle in Avengers: Age of Ultron, © 2015 Marvel.

The villain, Ultron, seems like an immortal since he was an artificial life form, but the voice and digital actor was James Spader—Stargate. He was Lore. We all know Lore, right? Lt. (Cmdr.) Data’s twin brother. Lore has emotions and all the failings that human beings with them have. Brent Spiner played both of them and while his Data was excellent, his Lore tended to be a bit over the top. And Ultron was over the top and inconsistent. Sometimes he was fun, or moving, but most of the time his actions and speeches seemed simply arbitrary. Perhaps if there had been some indication that Iron Man had been working on creating Ultron, this would have felt more important, but him telling Bruce Banner—The Kids Are All Right‘s Mark Ruffalo—that he has been working on this for years feels untrue as he never mentioned it in the prior four movies.

The raison d’être¹ of Avengers 2 is clearly money. But excluding the financial motivation behind the creation of any movie, the motivating factor is a metric shit ton of money. Yet if we can truly look past that, then it serves the purpose of setting up more Marvel movies. For those who were not aware of the grand scheme of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, as revealed to comic book nerds in the mid credits scene from The Avengers, it is to have Thanos attempt to create the Infinity Gauntlet with ultra powerful objects, known collectively as the infinity gems.² If successful Thanos could make or even unmake the universe as he saw fit. In the comics this happens and when the Avengers times ten show up they are hopelessly outmatched. So this film helps move closer to that point, as much as the last season of “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” helped Avengers 2—by about 30-45 seconds of screen time. There is one other reveal, just a reference really, to set up the introduction of the Black Panther, which was nice, but similarly worthless beyond the intrinsic pleasure of its recognition.

Infinity Gauntlet #1, cover art by George Pérez, © Marvel.

Infinity Gauntlet #1, cover art by George Pérez, © Marvel.

The two of the new characters I was most excited for were Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver—Elizabeth Olsen and Kick Ass (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). Still, Paul Bettany is my favorite actor of the new four, but his performance as the CGI character the Vision had less potential than Taylor-Johnson’s Quicksilver. If Quicksilver sounds familiar then you probably watched X-Men: Days of Future Past. He is the fastest man alive in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the Marvel Universe, and the X-Men franchise. That particular power creates major cinematic challenges, similar to Superman’s. In X-Men DoFP, Evan Peters’s Quicksilver gets two scenes, both in the 1970’s. One of them stole the show. I used a screen grab of it as the first image in my review thereof. Eschewing ultra slow motion, director Joss Whedon–”Firefly”–opts for “zoom-zooming” shots where a blur represents Quicksilver and then a reveal shot to show the result of his zooming. At the time I was not impressed, but thinking over the whole film Whedon actually varied it up more than I thought. For instance, sometimes the reaction shot would be the same frame, like Captain America getting punched or something. Yet for all the difficulty that speed presents, Scarlet Witch presents even more. Avengers 2 describes her powers as similar to the X-Men’s Jean “Phoenix” Grey’s telekinesis, but truly, her powers fluctuate. In the comics they are called “hex powers” and they basically can increase or decrease the probability of something happening. Or she can shoot red beams from her hands. Also, she once took away 99% of the world’s mutants powers by merely saying “No more mutants.” Got it?

And that sums up the 141 minute movie. It is fine for what it is, but it is also a step back for Marvel. Or at least not the step forward that Cap 2, Thor 2, Guardians and the first Avengers made.

¹ I could not figure out how to say this in English, but we use raison d’être in English too, so, well, here we are.
² I am fact checking none of this. So please leave corrections in the comments so that I may correct this review and give you credit in this space here. Also, from the cover here are some of the characters you might recognize: Thanos in the middle, then upper right is Mephisto, then Silver Surfer, Gamora, Adam Warlock, Firelord, Hawkeye, Sersi, Hulk, Captain America, Nick Fury, Spider-man, and Dr. Strange.

The Beauty of Film: Seven Samurai

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Seven Samurai — Asaichi Nakai (photography) & Akira Kurosawa (director):

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Takashi Shimura takes aim as Kambei in 1954’s Seven Samurai.

 

St. Vincent

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So this Irish guy knocks on this lady’s door and says, you know, “Have you got any, uh… Any, uh… work for me?” And she says, “Um, well, you now, as a matter of fact, you could paint the porch.” But two hours later, he comes back and says, “I’m finished, ma’am, but just for your information, it’s not a Porsche, it’s a BMW.”

Find that amusing? If so, then you will probably enjoy the film. If not, then you will need to hang in for about an hour and forty minutes until the film becomes sufficiently emotional to get you to like it on that level instead. With a name like “Saint Vincent”, judgment is immediately going to be in your mind, so Vincent, telling his joke in a smoky bar in Brooklyn, kind of sets you on the path of thinking the term “saint” is used ironically.

Vincent and Oliver (Murray and Lieberher) in the Weinstein Cos.' St. Vincent, © 2014.

Vincent and Oliver (Murray and Lieberher) in the Weinstein Cos.’ St. Vincent, © 2014.

After a rocky start, Bill Murray demonstrates that there is more to playing Vincent than typical grumpy-late-career-Bill-Murray. Perhaps it comes from Theodore Melfi’s screenplay. Or perhaps it comes from Theodore Melfi’s directing. Either way Theodore Melfi elicits Murray’s best performance since Lost in Translation. Moving next door to him is Maggie—Melissa McCarthy, Bridesmaids—a medical technician whose custody over her son Oliver–Jaeden Lieberher–comes into question as Maggie’s ex-husband fights for partial custody. Thus the unlikeliest of role models, drunken gambler Vincent, gets roped into watching over Oliver. Complicating things is Vincent’s “lady of the night”, Daka. Naomi Watts plays Daka, but in spite of Watts’ skill as an actress—she shone in this same year’s Birdman—Daka comes across as a character from a cheesy comedy. Her Russian accent is terrible. Her manner is humorously brusque. Ah well, one bad bite a bad meal does not make. ***½

The Beauty of Film: Ong-bak

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Ong-bak — Nattawut Kittikhun (cinematographer) & Prachya Pinkaew (director):

Tony Jaa being amazing in Ong-bak.

Tony Jaa being amazing in Ong-bak.

This is as good a time as any to say that I will be making a list of the best foreign films. Please leave you recommendations in the comments below.

The Beauty of Film: L.A. Confidential

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New name. Good bye “Daily film beauty” and hello the more honest title of The Beauty of Film. I prefer that to semi-weekly film beauty, or occasional film beauty.

L.A. Confidential — Dante Spinotti (cinematographer) & Curtis Hanson (director).

This reminds me of Sin City, both the comic books and the films. Spinotti received an Academy Award nomination for Best Cinematography, but lost to Russell Carpenter for Titanic.

At the Victory Motel. Guy Pearce and James Cromwell, L.A. Confidential.

At the Victory Motel. Guy Pearce and James Cromwell, L.A. Confidential.

Sunset Blvd.

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****½

I was way ahead of the finance company. I knew they’d be becoming around and I wasn’t taking any chances. So I kept it across the street in a parking lot behind Rudy’s shoeshine parlor. Rudy never asked any questions about your finances… he’d just look at your heels and know the score.

Joe Gillis (William Holden) in the pool, © 1950 Paramount Pics.

Joe Gillis (William Holden) in the pool, © 1950 Paramount Pics.

 

Hard to imagine that a classic like this would have voice-over, considering what I have said about voice-over in the past. Yet, Shawshank Redemption has it and is rated number one over all on imdb.com. Still, that one has Morgan Freeman, who has an amazing voice. This lowly film is only ranked #48 on imdb’s top 250, and voice is only that of Academy Award Best Actor winner William Holden. And Holden’s failing screenwriter, Joe Gillis, gets some great lines, but not as good as some of Norma Desmond’s.

Joe Gillis: The whole place seemed to have been stricken with a kind of creeping paralysis – out of beat with the rest of the world, crumbling apart in slow motion.

Joe Gillis: You’re Norma Desmond. You used to be in silent pictures. You used to be big.
Norma Desmond: I am big. It’s the pictures that got small.

Norma Desmond: You are, are you? writing words, words, more words! Well, you’ll make a rope of words and strangle this business! With a microphone there to catch the last gurgles, and Technicolor to photograph the red, swollen tongues!

Norma Desmond: There once was a time in this business when I had the eyes of the whole world! But that wasn’t good enough for them, oh no! They had to have the ears of the whole world too. So they opened their big mouths and out came talk. Talk! Talk!

Norma Desmond: The stars are ageless, aren’t they?

Joe Gillis: There’s nothing tragic about being fifty. Not unless you’re trying to be twenty-five.

Joe Gillis: They got a couple of pruning hooks from the garden and fished me out… ever so gently. Funny, how gentle people get with you once you’re dead.

This is a meta movie, but it comes from a vastly different era than the current one. For instance, Birdman had voice-over too, but only in Michael Keaton’s head. So this is the tale of a silent film star twenty years after the advent of talkies, instead of twenty years after a costumed crimefighter’s last hit. In the role of that fallen star, Norma Desmond, Gloria Swanson snugly fits the bill as a former silent film star herself. I have never seen her films, but Queen Kelly, and Indiscreet sound familiar. She has a mad look. A look that is so superficial that it seems true to someone like Ms. Desmond. Her story and Gillis’s story are tragic ones. They tackle youth versus age, star crossed love, and evoke something of Citizen Kane’s hubris.

Now before I leave you with the most famous ending line in film history, here is a personal note—I love organ music. I have a Pandora station for the Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto. Pipe organs make a great sound and create an amazing mood. This has a great scene with Norma Desmond’s manservant, Max–Erich von Stroheim–playing Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor. On the whole, what a wonderfully executed film with respect to moods. Every scene grasps you, or caresses you as it see fit.

Norma Desmond: All right, Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up.

 

 

 

Daily Film Beauty: A Fistful of Dollars

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A Fistful of Dollars, or Per un pugno di dollari — Massimo Dallamano (Jack Dalmas) & Federico G. Larraya (cinematographers) & Sergio Leone (director).

Did you know that this is an unofficial adaptation of Yojimbo?

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Gian Maria Volonté as Ramón Rojo, in A Fistful of Dollars.

 

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