Moving Pictures

Thoughts on movies, big and small, that I’ve seen recently:

  • Avengers: Age of Ultron – Last year, I fully bought into the whole Marvel mania. Cap 2 and Guardians of the Galaxy were wonderful, and after the dozenth rewatch of the first Avengers, I have to admit that it does some extraordinary things. But that’s the thing with the first Avengers. It does some things very poorly. It has low lows. But it dos some things so well, the highs are so very high, that the lows are drowned out by the awesomeness of a single, perfectly placed line of dialog (“Hulk… Smash!” or a dozen other high points). Age of Ultron, by contrast, is a more even movie. The lows aren’t as low, but the highs aren’t as high either. It remains to be seen whether or not this will be as compulsively rewatchable as the first Avengers, but I suspect it will improve on further rewatching… and as Marvel continues their run through phase 3.

    Here’s the thing with these movies: they’re really leaning into the comic-bookness of it all. Where phase 1 and most of phase 2 were mostly isolated, standalone movies with some connective tissue weaved in, this movie seems more intertwined and less independent. The never-ending serialized nature of comic books are coming to the screen, fraught with all the attendant baggage that entails. Age of Ultron has a core thread, but dozens of other threads are weaved in, some so blatantly unnecessary that they must have been mandated as setup (see Thor’s incomprehensible little detour to some weird underground memory lake), some more seemlessly incorporated. These movies have been going on long enough that many of the things people complain about with comics are starting to emerge. Characters die, but does anyone ever really die in the comics? How does that impact the stakes of the movie you’re currently watching? For now, I’m going with the flow, but I can see the strain. How long can they keep this up? Only time will tell.

    I really loved the opening of this movie, with the Avengers already assembled and taking on a Hydra base, followed by an absolutely delightful party at Tony Stark’s apartment (where, among other things, several heroes try and fail to lift Thor’s hammer – a seemingly throwaway bit that is actually called back later in the film to tremendous effect, a very Whedony thing). Hawkeye, of all people, gets a great little spotlight this movie (it’s about time) and that’s just another one of those comic bookey things – a character who seems superfluous in the extreme, but turns out great when you give him something to do. Some of the other character stuff is not as fleshed out or contianed. Then things devolve a bit, and we get conflict within the team (seemingly the seeds of Civil War) and a sorta muddled climax. In the end, I still had a ton of fun with this movie, and I suspect it will only get better upon rewatching, and as various unfinished plot threads get resolved or expanded upon in future movies. Some may complain about the comic bookeyness of all this, but they’d be missing the point. The reason Marvel has been so successful is that they’ve really leaned into that and created something we haven’t really seen on film before. I’m looking forward to seeing more.

  • Maggie – An Arnold Schwarzenegger zombie movie that entails approximately nothing like you’d actually expect from such a description. There aren’t really any action scenes, no hoards of zombies (only a handful are really seen), no explosions or histrionics. Instead, we get a father/daughter relationship piece. The daughter (Abigail Breslin) has been infected and will inevitably become a zombie, and the father stands by her side during the transformation, torn by impossible choices (Deliver her to quarantine? Give her painful medical treatment that will only delay the inevitable? Put her out of her misery?). It’s something that we’ve seen as a beat in a lot of zombie movies, stretched out to feature length. Unfortunately, while an admirable approach, it’s perhaps a little too dour and drawn out. Still, it’s artful and well done, and Arnold gives a surprisingly tender and effective performance. It’s funny, I was reminded of the opening scenes of Commando… if Alyssa Milano was turning into a zombie. Or something. It is otherwise nothing like Commando, of course, so I probably shouldn’t have brought that up. It’s certainly worth a watch, but don’t expect anything too exciting.
  • Mad Max: Fury Road – Holy hell, I need a cigarette or something. This is the most propulsive action film of the year, and probably the past few years. There’s not much explicit plot, and the dialogue is functional at best, but who cares, the pursuing hoard has something called the Doof Wagon, a giant truck that has a bunch of stacked speakers and a guitarist who is bungie corded to it so that he can provide a diegetic heavy metal soundtrack for the militia’s attacks. His guitar doubles as a flame thrower. If that sort of thing appeals to you, you will love this movie. It’s one of the more visually impressive films of the year as well, relying primarily on practical effects and communicating more through action and visual cues than dialogue or exposition (which is why the dialogue and exposition that does make its way into the film feels a bit stunted). It could almost work as a silent movie… if it wasn’t for the impact and bombast of all the revving cars and explosions. The world is so detailed that the visual approach works shockingly well, and it also means that the film can support many readings in terms of thematic depth. I mean, it’s an action movie, through and through, and it works perfectly on that level, but many have searched for and found deeper meaning, from the simple plot of women attempting to escape their sexual slavery, to redemption and survival, to the way Charlize Theron’s Furiosa relates to Tom Hardy’s Max, and more. Whatever, the action is so engrossing and so intense that it scarcely matters. As long as you care about our intrepid heroes, and how could you not, you’ll have fun going along for a ride. And what a lovely ride it is! See this on the largest screen possible, as soon as you can.
  • What We Do in the Shadows – I almost don’t want to say anything about this movie because it’s possible that you could have a great blind viewing of it. It’s about a group of vampire roommates in New Zealand, but it’s a comedic faux documentary. It works really well and is definitely recommended!
  • Tomorrowland – Not to cop out on you here, but Matt Singer wrote a great intro that nails my feelings on the movie:

    The best argument for Tomorrowland is its release date; one week after Mad Max: Fury Road, a film about a world destroyed by an oil war, and a week before San Andreas, in which an apocalyptic earthquake destroys half of North America. Less a blockbuster action film than a stern but well-intentioned lecture accompanied by an elaborate audiovisual presentation, Tomorrowland argues that rampant cynicism is actively poisoning our future. People become so convinced by movies like Mad Max and San Andreas that the world is doomed that they start to believe it really is. So they give up, and dystopia becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Tomorrowland tries, through sheer force of will and a heaping helping of bright, shiny special effects, to reverse that trend; to convince people that there’s hope for tomorrow. It doesn’t want to entertain; its goal is nothing less than to inspire an entire generation. But it might have been easier to achieve the latter if it had worked a little harder to accomplish the former.

    A lot of people are kinda down on the movie, and it’s true that it’s too didactic in its execution, but it is still a Brad Bird movie, and there are bits when you can see his personality come through. Not as much as, say, his animated work (and I was never as much of a fan of MI4 as everyone else either), but there are some isolated moments here and there that hit really well. It’s funny though, this movie has a sorta dystopic premise… one that is subverted, to be sure, but it’s still not all that different from, say, Mad Max – a bunch of characters are just trying to survive. Tomorrowland certainly engages the problem with more optimism, but it does so in such a direct manner that it almost opposes itself. Still, it’s very much worth watching, despite what all the haters are saying about it.

That’s a pretty fantastic run of movies, even the ones that I don’t love are things that are trying new and adventurous things and are always interesting to watch and discuss.

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