The Journey Continues: Skeptical Inquiries into Family Cinema- Happy Feet / Rango

HappyFeet-Rango

The following is an installment in an ongoing series of blog posts analyzing contemporary family films that the author has previously resisted seeing.  This series is a sequel of sorts to a previous series called Finding Pixar: A Skeptics Journey, which applied the same treatment to the films of the Pixar Animation Studio.

I can’t help but wonder if the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences realized that they introduced a category for animated features just in time for a sort of golden age in the form.  It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to guess why it took so long for them to introduce the category in the first place: up until very recently it was kind of a foregone conclusion that Disney would just win every year.  Yeah, maybe Don Bluth or someone might have walked away with the award every once in a blue moon, but Disney’s dominance in the field was pretty much uncontested for decades.  Hell, even with this renaissance of diverse animation voices the award has still been won by Disney, Disney subsidiaries, or foreign movies distributed by Disney in ten of the fourteen years that the award has existed.  Still, it’s a fairly fascinating category in many ways and in recent years it’s actually been producing one of the most diverse and adventurous nominee classes of any Oscar category.

That wasn’t always the case of course.  The very first year the award was given out proved to be somewhat indicative of their M/O for the first decade or so.  That year they nominated Shreck, Monsters Inc., and Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius… yeah, one of these things is not like the other (hint: it’s the one no one has ever thought about since 2001 when not looking back at this award category).  Generally speaking the category tends to have Disney/Pixar battling it out with Dreamworks at the top of the ticket, semi-profitable but slightly artsier movies by companies like Aardman and Ghibli hoping to squeeze in, and all too often some second rate kiddie flick that gets haphazardly thrown in to pad things out.  Very recently we’ve also seen a number of more obscure foreign projects getting in, but that pleasant trend has not been prevalent in the category through most of its history.

That having been said the category has, generally speaking, been a pretty reliable indicator of which animated films have entered the zeitgeist.  In fact, despite my general apathy for family movies I’ve still managed to every single one of the movies to win this award between 2001 and 2012 with only two exceptions: 2006’s Happy Feet and 2011’s Rango and those two films will be the subjects of today’s article.  Outside of their basic identies as large budget CGI animated family movies, these two films would seem to have very little in common on the surface.  One is seen to be one of the most adventurous and exciting high profile animations of the last decade and the other… isn’t.  And yet curious, if perhaps irrelevant, similarities to exist between the two films.  For one, both movies were made outside of the usually dominant Disney, Pixar, and Dreamworks systems.  Happy Feet was made by the Australian visual effects studio Animal Logic and distributed by Warner Brothers while Rango was animated by Industrial Light and Magic and distributed by Paramount vis-a-vie Nickelodeon Movies.  Also, the films were not helmed by career animation directors and were instead directed by a pair of filmmakers who are perhaps best known for making live action adventure movies. And of course both films are about talking animals living in extreme environments, one in the arctic and the other in a desert.  Between the two I want to get a good idea of the right way and the wrong way to go about winning an Oscar for Best Animated Feature.

Happy Feet (2006)

Generally speaking, I’ve tried to make this essay series a sort of trial by fire for films that have been heavily hyped.  An attempt to take a skeptical look at the films that many people claim to be modern classics of the type but which I had reason to think had been given a free pass.  Happy Feet, on the other hand, is something a bit different.  The movie got mildly positive reviews when it came out in 2006 and it was a box office success (having famously come in ahead of Casino Royale in its opening weekend), but the people who praised it mostly did so in a shrugging “eh, it’s an inoffensive way to entertain children” kind of way.  This is not one of the “cool” family movies that end up on top ten lists and were 2006 not an incredibly weak year for the category I doubt it would have won its Animated Feature Oscar (it was up against Cars and Monster House, the former was noticeably below Pixar’s usual standards and the later just wasn’t seen by enough people).  In the years since it came out the film’s reputation has only shrunk and it generally only comes up for the purposes of mocking the Academy and pondering just what the hell happened to George Miller’s career in the years between Mad Max movies.  Still, I have my reasons for wanting to see the movie beyond just checking off an Oscar winner.  The thing is, I think part of the reason my reaction to some of the family movies I’ve seen is that I’ve only really seen the ones that are really well regarded and I wonder if that has thrown off my standards a little.  If I’m really going to survey this genre I feel like I do need a better idea of just how bad these movies can get, or at least get an idea of what would be considered a mediocrity and this movie seems like just the thing to do that.

Happy Feet came out one year after a rather curious phenomenon where a French nature documentary called March of the Penguins had become a sleeper hit at the box office.  I think box office pundits are still scratching their heads about that one.  The film, which did have some really beautiful nature photography, seemed to have hit some sort of nerve in middle America because it showed penguins having a strong family bond despite being wild animals.  However it happened, that documentary was a hit amongst family audiences and when Happy Feet came out a year later the public was in the midst of penguin-fever.  This probably helped the movie to gross $200 million but it was a bit of a mixed blessing because it sort of made the movie look like a hastily made cash-in.  Obviously that perception was a bit off, large scale animated movies don’t get made that quickly and George Miller couldn’t have known about March of the Penguins when Happy Feet was green-lit, but the optics were still kind of poor and that’s probably part of the reason that the movie is sort of considered the worst choice the Academy ever made in the Animated feature category.

If the film has a saving grace it’s probably the animation, which is a little dated today but still looks pretty good most of the time.  The snowy Antarctic environments look really good and could almost be mistaken for genuine nature photography at times.  The adult emperor penguins at times look a little too smooth and also lack certain features that would allow the audience to distinguish between them.  The younger penguins look pretty good though and the animators do a really good job of adding textures to some of their fuzzy feathers.  At times the action director in George Miller also lets loose and you can tell that he’s having a lot of fun with the freedom of camera movement that animation allows him.  The highlight of the film is a chase scene where a young penguin tries to elude a leopard seal and Miller does a great job of making this otherwise incredibly cute animal look like a frightening predator.

I might go so far as to say that Happy Feet would look like a great movie if only it was on mute the whole time.  The problems set in whenever the penguins open their mouths (er.. beaks) and start to speak.  The film’s voice cast looks pretty good on paper but there are some really misbegotten decisions that were made when directing some of these performances starting with the rather bizarre decision to make a father penguin played by Hugh Jackman sound like a bad Elvis impersonation.  Yeah… and that’s not the only strange accent choice in the film.  A rather large number of the voice performances here seem to take the form of ethnic stereotypes.  This is especially problematic when the protagonist comes across a group of Adelie penguins who all have Latin accents and all have fiery passionate tastes (except for their leader who sounds like an African American preacher for some reason).  I get what they were going for, these were supposed to be the equivalent of foreigners in the story (much as the Elephant seals are made to be Australians and the flock of predatory birds sound like Italian-American gangsters), but the broadness of the performances are really jarring.  The worst of the voices almost certainly come from Robin Williams, who voices the fieriest of the Latino Adelie penguins and the inexplicably black preacher penguin.  Williams does both of these voices in his usual caffeinated improvisatory way and it really just doesn’t play very well at all.

The movie’s other auditory sin is almost certainly the music selection.  A plot element of the film is that penguin society is based around singing as a form of mating call.  To the audience this translates to a number of musical sequences, but instead of featuring original songs this movie takes the form of a jukebox musical.  As a general rule of thumb I think jukebox musicals are kind of horrible ideas.  They take popular music, remove it from the context that made it popular to begin with and has it performed by milquetoast musical theater performers.  Even if I was in the mood to see popular hits sung by flightless arctic birds the song selection here is really random and terrible.  For whatever reason Hollywood has long operated under the assumption that young children are really crazy for disco music and movies like this frequently end up with a bunch of music from the 70s in them.  I’m hesitate to say that this, or any, movie would be made better if it had been filled Disney style original ballads, but it at least would have been more dignified than what they went with.

Beyond that this is really just kind of a typical animated kids movie.  The movie is about a penguin who’s a misfit because he likes dancing more than singing, the other penguins used to laugh and call him names.  They never let poor mumble join in any penguin games.  Then as tends to happen in these movies, mumble comes to learn that he is special in his own way and everyone learns a lesson and shit.  At least that seems to be how this is going to go, but the movie takes a turn for the cray-cray about a third of the way in, stops being about the usual self-acceptance shit and starts being about penguins using their magical anthropomorphic powers to start dancing and thus convince the humans to stop fishing in their waters… yeah, that happens.  It’s a rushed and kind of messy ending that kind of feels like it was added late in production when everyone realized that the self-acceptance stuff was kind of boring.  I remember this being a minor controversy with the Fox News set who thought Hollywood was trying to brainwash their kids or something.  I don’t personally care that the movie is trying to teach kids about the environment, but I care that the movie seems oddly split between two sets of themes.

Anyway, yeah, this movie is pretty bad.  Truth be told it wasn’t quite as painful as I thought it would be, then again my expectations were positively subterranean.  At the very best you could say that it’s a mediocre movie made that was rendered pretty terrible by some disastrous and decisions along the way.  It’s probably a coincidence, but I do find it telling that the next two movies that Pixar made seem like a response to it given that they were respectively a movie about a talking animal misfit with a talent his brethren don’t appreciate (Ratatouille) and an environmental parable about a plucky little thing saving the world (Wall-E).  I also don’t have the slightest clue why George Miller decided to do this.  He was the producer of Babe and the director of Babe: Pig in the City before this, so I guess he hit a point in his career when he just wanted to make movies for his kids, or maybe he just wanted to go for the easy cash-out.  Either way it’s kind of fucked that this is what he ended up winning an Oscar for.  In a weird twist of fate 2006 is one of only two years where I’ve seen all of the movies that were nominated for Best Animated Feature and I can conclusively say this is the worst of the three nominees, yes, even worse than Cars.

Rango (2011)

 After the much derided win by Happy Feet it would be another five years until another non-Pixar film would win the Best Animated Feature Academy Award.  That film was Gore Verbinski’s Rango and by the time the award was handed out it was pretty much a foregone conclusion that it would be the victor.  Pixar’s movie that year was the much-derided Cars 2 which had the dubious honor of being the first Pixar feature not to garner a nomination in this category since its inception.  With that studio out of the way Rango’s only competition that year were a mostly forgotten Shrek spinoff (Puss in Boots), an underwhelming Dreamworks sequel (Kung Fu Panda 2), and a pair of respected but underseen foreign productions (A Cat in Paris and Chico and Rita).  Rango was the only nominee with anywhere near the combination of critical respect and popular support to have a shot at this award and when it won it was mostly celebrated.  But why?  Honestly I wasn’t sure what to expect from the film, it didn’t seem to fit in many of the other trends in animated family films and I didn’t really remember the specifics of why it was so well received.

Unlike most other movies I’ve looked at thus far this movie was not released by an established animation house.  The logo in front of the film is for “Nickelodeon Movies” but as far as I can tell that isn’t actually a production company per se so much as a brand name.  They are primarily a film arm of the children’s TV network of the same name which releases theatrical spinoffs of that network’s shows, but it’s also a brand name that Paramount Pictures slaps on to any given family film they happen to put out.  There’s no real “house style” among their output and the logo can be seen in front of everything from Spielberg’s The Adventures of Tintin to the Michael Bay produced Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.  For all intents and purposes this film instead seems to have been assembled and financed more in the way a live action studio film is with Verbinski’s Blind Wink production company being the main creative force and the animation itself being provided by the famous ILM special effects company.

Gore Verbinski was not exactly a stranger to making family entertainment.  His first Hollywood production was a live action 1997 family film called MouseHunt, which wasn’t overly well received when it first came out but which has gotten something of a cult following over the years as the kids who saw it in the 90s have grown up.  Aside from his mostly forgotten 2001 film The Mexican and his underrated 2005 film The Weather Man he has mostly made a career of walking that PG-13 line between family entertainment and movies for adults.  His 2002 film horror film The Ring (probably his best work) wasn’t exactly marketed as a family film but did cannily widen its audience by avoiding the gory violence previously associated with the genre, making it something of a Poltergeist for the aughts which has almost certainly made for a number of memorable slumber parties over the years.  Then his career really took off in 2003 when he worked with Disney to turn one of their theme park rides into a large scale action movie.  The resulting film, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, was a huge hit and the ensuing ten plus years have mostly seen him make bad sequels to that film and of course the disastrous effort to recapture that magic in the form of The Lone Ranger.

Rango in many ways seems like an oasis in the middle of an otherwise very disappointing and very Johnny Depp dominated decade for the director.  Johnny Depp is of course on board for this project as well and is probably one of its weakest elements.  I’ve mentioned before (while reviewing The Corpse Bride, which was directed by Depp’s other BFF Tim Burton) that hiring Johnny Depp to be a voice actor is kind of insane.  The guy’s entire appeal is rooted in his vaguely Keaton-esque physicality and his commitment to odd makeup choices.  Vocally, his performances are middling at best and he’s completely out of his element when he can only work with his vocal chords.  I can sort of see what they were thinking by casting him given that the Rango character is kind of meant to look like Depp’s take on Hunter S. Thompson, but he really doesn’t do much to give the character a likable personality and the character as written kind of needed as much help as he could get because he has a fairly clichéd arc and doesn’t have much of a personality beyond his rather transparent attempts to act tough.

As a whole, the film’s story is nothing too special.  We’ve seen these movies where characters sort of accidentally fall into being treated as saviors by communities before being revealed to be frauds only to then save the day anyway through their strength of personality or whatever.  The element that almost certainly made the film stand out is the strange world it takes place in and the creative ways that it’s brought to life.  The film is an extended riff on the western genre, especially the spaghetti western, but with a handful of other cinematic references as well which for the most part actually seem clever rather than cheap.  The catch of course is that all of the characters are desert animals like lizards and chickens and buzzards rather than humans and they all live in a little mini town out in the Nevada desert.  These character designs are really quite good with just about every American desert animal being incorporated into the film as some sort of western trope whether it be a crow Native American, a turtle which resembles Noah Cross from Chinatown, or a rattlesnake that somehow manages to be a spitting image of Lee Van Cleef.

From a purely visual standpoint Rango himself is also a very interestingly designed character in part because he’s pretty ugly for a Hollywood protagonist.  It doesn’t take a lot of courage to make a family film about a cute animal like a penguin or a panda bear but it does take some cajones to make an animated film about a reptile with oddly uneven eyes.  It’s actually instincts like that which in many ways account for the film’s success, it’s doesn’t have the same pandering sensibilities that family movies of this kind usually do.  It pushes the PG rating pretty far to the limit and isn’t shy about engaging in innuendo and gunplay or killing a couple of characters off.  The film also garnered some controversy in 2011 because a handful of characters are seen smoking in it, which is something that has generally been scrubbed even from movies that are decidedly made for adults.  Also, with the obvious exception of Johnny Depp the film is pretty restrained with its voice cast, opting generally to use characters actors like Bill Nighy and Ray Winstone rather than movies stars.

Honestly, I don’t really have a whole lot to say about Rango.  It’s well put together and I certainly had some fun with it but there’s really not a lot there beneath the surface even when compared to some of the family movies out there.  It’s a movie with Pixar-like attention to detail, craftsmanship, and general dignity but more of a Dreamworks level of actual storytelling.  Had this story been told as an actual live action western with human actors there would simply be nothing there of interest at all, everything to be enjoyed about it are rooted in the execution.  Still, I did like a lot of what Verbinski was doing with this world and he does a  much better job of conjuring the spirit of the old west with this film than he would go on to do with The Lone Ranger.  The animation in it is great and that rattlesnake is pretty fucking dope.  In general, animation seems to suit Verbinski, a fact that probably shouldn’t be surprising given how cartoonish the Pirates of the Caribbean films were (in a good way, mostly) and I wouldn’t be surprised to see him making another animated film in the future.

In Conclusion

I’ll be the first to admit that this was kind of a random pairing.  I guess I found quite a few commonalities between the two, at least on paper, but really they aren’t movies that are linked together at all in the public eye.  I will however dig up one last thing that seemed to link my experience watching both of them: the effect of expectations.  I expected Happy Feet to be dogshit but was somewhat pleasantly surprised to find it watchable and I expected Rango to be a real cut above and was consequently disappointed that it was just kind of another family film (albeit one with a handful of pretty cool elements).  In the grand scheme of things I don’t know that either movie have that much of a legacy.  Happy Feet is a joke that no one cares about anymore and while I’m sure there are still plenty of people with nice things to say about Rango, I don’t see it isn’t a movie that seems to come up much in film discourse and doesn’t seem to have the staying power of some of the better family films I’ve seen thus far over the course of this little journey.  As far as the Oscars they won, well; let’s just say George Miller and Gore Verbinski are the only people on the planet over the age of ten to be thankful for the Cars franchise.

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Clouds of Sils Maria(5/9/2015)

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In a recent interview with Cahiers du Cinéma’s current editor, Stéphane Delorme, he said “French cinema has produced extraordinary films but [is] in a fallow period now, despite certain filmmakers who stand out.”  I certainly don’t have the proximity to French cinema that Delorme does, but I definitely see where he’s coming from.  France still probably makes more great movies per capita than any other country in Europe but there isn’t really a unifying drive behind their best auteurs right now.  The filmmakers at the forefront of French cinema like Jacques Audiard, Abdellatif Kechiche, and Arnaud Desplechin have all made some damn good movies, but they aren’t necessarily kicking down the cinematic doors and turning over the tables.  Even when a particularly daring French film like Holy Motors comes along it often feels more like an isolated voice in the wild than like a call to arms that will be readily followed by the country’s national cinema.  No director seems to exemplify this generation of French auteurs quite like Olivier Assayas, a filmmaker who at this stage in his career makes some really great and artistic films but who maybe isn’t out start a revolution.

Assayas’ latest film is a predominantly English-language production called Clouds of Sils Maria and is about the day to day life of a prominent European actress named Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche).  Enders is a movie star of sorts and apparently just finished an arc in a series of superhero movies, but she first became famous as a stage actress.  As the film begins she’s traveling to Zurich to present an award to a playwright named Wilhelm Melchior, who penned the role that made her famous in a play called “Maloja Snake.”  This award presentation takes on a new tenor when its revealed that Melchior has passed away.  At the event of the melancholy tribute/wake she’s approached by an up and coming young director named Klaus Diesterweg (Lars Eidinger) who wants Enders to star in a revival of “Maloja Snake,” this time playing a different role, with a hot young actress named Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloë Grace Moretz) taking up the role that made Enders famous twenty years ago.  Enders reluctantly accepts the role and retreats to the titular town in a hilly region of Switzerland along with her faithful assistant Valerie (Kristen Stewart) to prepare for the role.

Generally when “backstage” movies like this are made the “film within the film” or the “play within the film” doesn’t really matter very much but here it does.  “Maloja Snake” is a fictional play but over the course of the film we get a pretty good idea of what it’s about: a middle aged business executive who has an affair with a young assistant and is driven to suicide when this younger woman spurns her affection later on.  This matters because the play seems to mirror a number of the themes of the film, specifically what it means to age (especially among women), how generations interact with one another, and what it means to be both an employee and a friend.  Maria Enders is ultimately the main character here, but central to the film is the rather fascinating relationship between her and her assistant Valerie.  Movies about assistants like this are usually of the bitter Swimming With Sharks and The Devil Wears Prada variety, but the relationship between Enders and Valerie seems remarkably friendly, almost to the point of being unprofessional.

There is no real suggestion here that there is any sexual bond between Enders and Valerie like there was for the characters in the play, but it’s certainly no coincidence that the play at the center of this film is also about a relationship between a mentor and a mentee.  In fact, when the two are rehearsing scenes from the play in some of the later scenes it becomes oddly difficult to tell when they’re merely reciting dialogue from the play and when they’re simply talking amongst themselves.  Part of this is because Valerie seems, at least superficially, to be a rather odd match for this job.  She’s an American, she dresses casually, has a vaguely punkish haircut, and speaks freely.  She’s a highly independent person who doesn’t seem overly fearful of “speaking truth to power” around her boss and in this way seems to mirror the assistant character from the play, albeit with much more positive attributes.  That Enders would have an assistant like this might not be a coincidence, it’s possible that she’s unconsciously building her life to mirror the play that she’s become so readily identified with and has surrounded herself with people who remind her of her younger self.

This is in part a film about showbiz and in some ways it almost feels like a more chilled out European version of Birdman.  Both films are about aging actors and both focus on said actor’s responses to the modern media environment.  Neither Maria Enders nor Riggan Thomson are very fond of the “twittersphere” and both lament Hollywood’s current obsession with effects driven blockbusters, but the tone is very different here.  Where Thomson was openly angry about these 21st century trends and actively resisted them, Enders is a bit more resigned to the current state of things.  This might be because she’s less invested in the Hollywood system than Thompson is but it may also be because she has a more mature approach to aging even as she’s conflicted about it.  Aside from that the two movies are pretty different , especially on a visual level.

As far as I can tell Olivier Assayas doesn’t seem to have a particularly distinct visual signature for his films but he does know how to shoot a movie with a sort of effortless skill and he also knows the value of a good location.  Here he uses this remote Swiss location to really give the film a different vibe from what we usually see.  I’m a little less enthusiastic about the film’s editing, which has an odd tendency to fade to black at odd moments (not really sure what Assayas was going for with that) but otherwise this is a very nicely crafted film.  The movie also has a somewhat curious ending which does a good job of wrapping up Enders arc but also sort of abandons another character in an interesting if somewhat disappointing fashion.  I’m still not quite sure what to think about that and will have to ponder it for a while, but otherwise I found this to be a pretty engrossing movie and a really nice palate cleanser after all the summer blockbusters I’ve been watching recently.

**** out of Four

Avengers: Age of Ultron(5/2/2015)

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Longtime readers will know that, while I’ve enjoyed a lot of Marvel movie, I’ve always had grave reservations about their overall strategy.  Long story short: I think their crossover stunts are basically just crass cross-marketing techniques disguised as clever fan-service and that their in-house style and formulaic writing usually stifles any chance of creativity.  And yet, even I had to admit that they delivered the goods last year.  Their box-office triumph Guardians of the Galaxy wasn’t exactly high art and it shared some of the same weaknesses of some of the other Marvel movies, but it was probably their wittiest effort to date and was a really fun romp overall and it was only the second best Marvel movie of 2014.  The real crown jewel was Captain America: The Winter Solider, which managed to simultaneously function as a completely badass action movie, a clever (if on the nose) allegory for U.S. foreign policy, and move forward the overall Marvel mythology in a meaningful way without making it feel like a crass commercial for future movies.  In short, the studio has been riding high off of a lot of well-deserved success last year and couldn’t be in a better position going into their biggest event yet: the sequel to the highest grossing non-James Cameron directed film of all time, The Avengers.

The film begins mid-action-scene as the whole Avengers team is seen assaulting a Hydra base in a fictional Eastern European country called Sokovia.  Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Captain America (Chris Evans), The Incredible Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) are able to take down the base without much trouble even after Hydra releases a pair of superpowered siblings named Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen).  Having routed this threat, the avengers confiscate Loki’s scepter (which Hydra has for reason that I think are explained on the “Agents of Shield” TV series), and return to New York to celebrate.  While back at the base, Tony Stark gets an idea to use the scepter to augment an artificial intelligence that he’s been developing that is intended to act as a sort of protection system for Earth.  Shortly thereafter, while the Avengers are celebrating their victory, this A.I. comes alive and inhabits the body of a discarded robot and becomes an evil robot named Ultron who wants to take over the world.

The first Avengers movie was one of the most anticipated movies in recent memory but there was a lot of concern that it was going to end up collapsing under the weight of its own ambition.  After all, how do you fit four different major characters into one movie and still have enough time to tell a decent action story.  For the most part that movie was able to avoid most of the pitfalls people thought it would fall into and while I wasn’t as in love with it as some people were I did think it was a pretty damn solid action movie and probably Marvel’s best effort yet at that point.  That does not, however, mean that Joss Whedon was going to be able to pull off the same magic trick twice.  Low and behold, The Avengers: Age of Ultron is exactly what everyone was afraid that the first film would be: an overstuffed mess.

The problems begin with the first act, or perhaps I should say they begin in the second act because the first act seems to be completely missing from the movie.  Well, maybe not the entire first act, but the film seems to have taken a lot of misguided narrative shortcuts in the first thirty minutes which get the film off to a very shaky start that it never really recovers from.  The decision to start the film right in the middle of an action scene without so much as a briefing beforehand is… odd.  I’m not exactly sure what led The Avengers to that castle and while this is a bit disorienting there was plenty of time to recover from that.  The much bigger problems set in when Ultorn is created and almost immediately starts going on a rampage.  It’s not at all clear what this A.I. that Tony Stark was making was supposed to be or why he was able to use a magical scepter to augment it.  Worse than that, it seems like a manner of minutes before this A.I. has transformed into Ultron with minimal explanation and only a few more minutes before Ultron has become a full on supervillain which Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch are loyal to for some reason.  Ultron’s exact motive is pretty damn unclear as well.  I guess we’re all just supposed to remember the Will Smith movie I, Robot (in which the robots attempt to enslave humanity because a misinterpretation of their programing leads them to believe they need to save humans from themselves) and apply the same logic to Ultron, but the movie does very little to actually establish this motive and even less tor really explore it.

The film almost feels like it did flow more naturally at one point but that it had to be aggressively cut down to avoid being three and a half hours long and exposition was deemed less important than the many action scenes and bits of banter.  I suppose I can see how that would happen given the many storylines they need to incorporate, however, given that there have been no fewer than ten previous films and three TV series in the Marvel franchise I kind of feel like inadequate time to set up just shouldn’t be an excuse.  If Marvel was serious about using their system as an actual means of storytelling rather than a branding gimmick they should have done a lot more to make the transition into this movie a lot smoother than it was.

Of course there really are way too many storyline to fit in this movie and who the film decides to prioritize can be somewhat baffling at times.  Iron Man and Captain America, arguably the two most popular Marvel characters, certainly have their share of screentime but don’t really have much in the way of an arc outside of their occasional bickering on the sidelines about Stark’s role in creating Ultron.  Still, the movie serves them a lot better than it does Thor, who really doesn’t do much at all in the movie aside from go on one really strange side mission involving a cave which only seems to be in the movie in order to explain infinity stones to people who didn’t see Guardians of the Galaxy.  The film actually seems to give even more screentime to side characters like Hawkeye, a hero who frankly doesn’t seem all that “super” to me and who we’ve been trained as an audience not to really care about on the basis that he doesn’t have his own solo film.  Black Widow and the Hulk also have a decent amount of screentime and the two characters have apparently formed an unrequited romantic bond in the time since we’ve last seen them.  This relationship might have evolved a little more naturally had the Hulk had his own solo film since 2008 and that might have gone a long way in clarifying the characters powers.  So far the series has been wildly inconsistent about whether or not Bruce Banner is able to control his powers and this movie is no exception.  He’s able to control them in the first action scene, unable to control them in the second, and able to control them again in the third, it’s completely inconsistent.

At its heart Avengers: Age of Ultron’s biggest sin is that it just fees perfunctory.  Ultron seems like he was solely created in order to give our heroes something to fight and the character arcs are largely miniscule, but as shallow as the movie is, it does deliver more often than it doesn’t in its action scenes.  The movie opens on a pretty cool assault on a mountain lair, has a well realized fight between a rampaging Hulk and Iron Man, features a cool sequence where the heroes chase down a van that Ultron is hiding in, and ends on a big battle scene which certainly has its moments.  The film wisely focuses on teamwork during these battles and has the heroes combining their powers in interesting ways throughout.  Still, I think there was a bit of a quantity over quality approach to some of this action and I’m not sure Whedon had the action chops to really push any of these sequences into the upper echelon of action filmmaking.  Instead it’s clear that Whedon’s real passion lies in comedy rather than action, at times almost to a fault.  I’m not a fan of Whedon’s television work and think his brand of self-referential humor can be borderline cringe inducing at times.  Fortunately he toned it down considerably when he made The Avengers and while there’s a little more of it this time around it still isn’t too bad and a decent number of his zingers do hit their target and help propel the film.

The above average actions scenes and the one-liners that do land are almost enough to save Avengers: Age of Ultron from its many, many, many narrative shortcomings.  Taken moment for moment this is a fun movie, it’s only when you take a step back that you realize how much of a misguided mess the movie is.  All too often I’ve reviewed Marvel movies, pointed out the many ways that their crassly commercial bullshit holds them back, but still given them a pass at the end because of how fun the ride was in spite of that.  That’s not happening this time, especially not when we had two Marvel movies last year that showed so clearly how much better these movies could be.  Guardians of the Galaxy was a much funnier romp, Captain America: The Winter Soldier was a much better action movie, and frankly this movie gives me a better appreciation for how cleanly told a lot of these Marvel movies have been, especially the first Avengers.  A lot of Marvel loyalists are going to find excuses for this one (hell, I still run into people who have convinced themselves that Thor: The Dark World is a good movie) and there are also going to be some spurned Marvel fans who are going to make this into a bigger disaster than it really is.  Really, this is a highly flawed movie with some highlights that do elevate it but make not mistake, this is not quality filmmaking.

**1/2 out of Four

Ex Machina(4/25/2015)

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Robots can be used for a lot of reasons in science fiction, but their most common use has traditionally been to act as a sort of means of exploring the exploitative elements in society.  Many science fiction writers have questioned the morality of using self-aware machines as servants and slaves and have often used that as a means of examining humanities own inhumanity towards man.  In the 21st Century we seem to have a new question about human-robot interaction: how long will it take before people start fucking their robots?  Given how quickly it took for the internet to become a leading depository of pornography it would take a pretty naïve mind not to assume that carnal relations between humans and their robotic counterparts wouldn’t commence almost immediately once someone invents an automaton that is “equipped” for such encounters.  Exactly what the morality of this state of affairs will differ.  The Stanley Kubrick conceived A.I.: Artificial Intelligence with its gigolo-bots seemed fairly neutral on the issue, viewing prostitution as a sort of tragic existential destiny for those programed to such a fate, one that’s not worth fighting agains.  Spike Jonze’ Her by contrast seemed to envision a healthy relationship between a human and an A.I. as being possible if somewhat difficult, not because of the limitations of the A.I. but because of the limitations of the human.  Here to weigh in on the debate now is Alex Garland, whose views on humanity as expressed in the screenplays for films like 28 Days Later and Sunshine will probably leave audiences in the know without much suspense on where he falls on the issue.

The film is set in a near future and almost entirely in a remote estate owned by a multi-billionaire tech mogul named Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac).  Bateman has kept this estate isolated except for an Asian mistress/servant named Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno) who doesn’t speak English, but for one week only he’s decided to invite one random employee named Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) to be the first visitor to this remote Alaskan getaway in order to examine his latest invention.  That invention as it turns out is a very lifelike robot called Ava (Alicia Vikander) with a very lifelike human body but without skin on its torso or neck (allowing the audience to see the wiring beneath), but with a highly advanced and lifelike artificial intelligence.  Bateman is confident in the artificial body he’s created but wants Caleb to give an unbiased test of its artificial intelligence but the more Caleb talks with Ava the more that Bateman seems to be up to something, perhaps something sinister.

From the moment that Caleb lands in Nathan’s Alaskan getaway Nathan quickly establishes himself as the alpha-male in the house.  The character is pretty different from the quiet and contemplative roles we saw Oscar Isaac take on in movies like Inside Llewan Davis and A Most Violent Year.  I wouldn’t say it’s his best performance but it is one that better establishes his range and perhaps make his work in those other films all the more impressive.  I was a little less impressed by Domhnall Gleeson, who’s made something of a career out of playing gangly doormats like this, but I suppose he does what’s called for by the script. Alicia Vikander doesn’t really re-write the book on robot performances either but then again I don’t really know how much she has to work with.  Ava as a character just doesn’t seem like all that interesting of a robotic creation.

Early on Caleb suggests that he’s going to give Ava the Turing Test and Nathan suggests that she’s already past the Turing Test and that their testing needs to go deeper.  Here’s the thing though, Ava doesn’t even come close to passing the Turing Test.  That famous test suggests that an artificial intelligence needs to be able to interact with a human observer without the human being able to identify that the A.I. is in fact artificial.  Ava though is clearly a bit too robotic in her mannerisms to pass this test.  For example, early on she’s asked if she knows what an “icebreaker” is and responds by more or less reciting a dictionary definition of the term rather than giving the imprecise response an actual human would give.  A more mindblowing robot would be one who really truly was indistinguishable from an actual woman and I think that Garland maybe should have pushed harder to make Ava into something that really does seem like a next step in robo-evolution.  Spike Joze presented a much more fascinating A.I. in his 2013 film Her (a film that I initially found off-putting but am maybe coming to respect in the ensuing years), which also did a lot more to explore the murky and somewhat disturbing possibilities of a human and a computer forming a romantic or sexual bond.

Ex Machina works best if you think of it less as some kind of bold sci-fi vision and more as a sort of chamber drama about three characters engaged in a sort of battle of wills.  I don’t want to talk too much about the various double-crosses and surprises that occur in the film, but to be frank they aren’t too hard to see coming.  Overall, I’d say that Ex Machina is a pretty well made but generally unexceptional film.  It has some neat set decoration, some cool performances, a handful of interesting conversations and it builds to a climax that is very Alex Garland.  What it doesn’t really have is the thematic weight and originality that it seems to think it has.  Today we’re pretty desperate for intelligent sci-fi, and to some extent we have to take what we can get, but I also can’t help but feel like I’ve seen this movie a number of times before.  The drama unfolds interestingly enough for me to give the movie a light recommendation but the whole “should robots be given human rights” question has been posed so many times before that I really kind of needed a new twist on it in order to justify the existence of a film like this.

*** out of Four

Furious 7(4/5/2015)

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To think that Fast and Furious movies have suddenly become billion dollar propositions is absolutely mindblowing to anyone who’s been with this series since the beginning.  It’s like going to your high school reunion and learning that the amenable loser you hung out with a few times before he dropped out had somehow turned things around and become wealthier than anyone else in your graduating class.  This was a series that was never meant for greatness and it’s current form is almost unrecognizable when compared to the series modest roots.  I mean that first movie in the series, which was based on a newspaper article of all things, was an instantly dated relic of the early 2000s complete with a Ja Rule cameo.  That movie was sold on a two second shot of a car driving underneath a semi-truck, who would have thought that nearly fifteen years later this series would still be around, be bigger than ever, and involve a scene of a car launching itself between three skyscrapers?  Hell, there’s actually a callback to that semi-truck moneyshot from the first movie in this seventh installment and it barely registers as a blip within the insane action scenes on display.  Why does this series still exist, and more importantly why do I keep enjoying them?

This installment of the series picks up more or less where Fast and Furious 6 left off, with a heretofore unseen villain named Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham) being revealed as the man who killed Han (Sung Kang) in the third film (which is chronologically set after the sixth film… long story).  Shortly thereafter a bomb is sent to the doorstep of Brian (Paul Walker) which nearly injures his family and Agent Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) is also attacked and left in the hospital.  Realizing that Shaw is going after his crew and Dom comes to realize that staying on the defensive isn’t going to be a workable strategy against Shaw, so instead he makes a deal with a government agent who calls himself Mr. Nobody (Kurt Russell) to help recover a device called the God’s Eye which can use common devices to surveil anyone.  The deal is that as soon as this device is recovered Dom can use it to find Shaw before Shaw finds him.

Alright, so I it’s not too hard to see that the basic setup there is pretty silly.  Going on a dangerous government mission just to find someone who is just going to find you anyway is kind of a ridiculous plan, especially considering that Deckard Shaw doesn’t seem to be all that much of a threat.  Like the T-1000 he kind of serves the purpose of showing up at random points of the movie, causing chaos without actually killing one of the good guys, then retreating.  So, yeah, clearly this whole plot is just a setup for a handful of the series signature set-pieces.  Make no mistake; this is a very silly movie.  The plot is thin, the plausibility is nil, and the series’ bullshit about “family” is as shallow as ever.  Here’s the thing though: it totally gets away with all of it.  For some reason it’s really easy to laugh off the many flaws that course through this series and it’s very easy to forgive it for things I would never tolerate if they popped up in a Michael Bay movie.

Part of it is that the action scenes here are as effective as ever in their insane over-the-top way.  There are three major set-pieces here.  The first and best of them is a car mission in the Caucasus mountains in which the crew try to rescue a prisoner from a bus convoy.  The series has a long history going back to the first film of on wheels hijack sequences like this and this sequence is probably the best iteration yet of this set-up and it ends on an amazing stunt which feels like an answer to the famous cliffhanger at the end of The Italian Job.  The scene that features most prominently in the film’s advertising of course is a nutty stunt in which a super expensive sports car is jumped out to window of a skyscraper, lands through the window of another skyscraper, only to then be jumped into a third skyscraper… yeah, really.

I’m going to avoid talking about the film’s third set-piece, but I will say that it’s probably the least memorable of the three.  It’s a little too busy for its own good, almost more like a battle scene than an action scene, but let’s go back to that skyscraper jump.  The other audacity of that stunt and the fact that they had the audacity to conceive of such a thing kind of sparked a eureka moment for me which perhaps explains why these movies manage to get away with so much: these are basically the James Bond movies of the 21st century.  I mean, obviously the actual James Bond series is alive and well but it currently exists in a very stripped down way.  You might see the Daniel Craig Bond run on top of a train here or there, but you’re not going to see him jumping a car through skyscrapers.  Rather, this series is carrying on the tradition of the Roger Moore/Pierce Brosnan James Bond, the one who was liable to ski-jump off a mountain with a parachute or jump a motorcycle off a cliff in order to board a plane that’s in freefall.

Of course the Mission: Impossible series has also been trying to use insane stunts to fill that James Bond void, but there’s a reason why that series has only had limited success at doing so: no one gives a shit about Ethan Hunt beyond his ability to dangle from high places.  There’s nothing distinctive about that guy beyond his typical Tom Cruise swagger and his crew isn’t very interesting either.  This is not a problem that the Fast and Furious movies share.  Dom, Brian, and co are not deep characters by any stretch of the imagination (neither is James Bond for that matter) but they almost all have personality and within an action movie that goes a long way.  For example, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s character could have easily been a strong silent muscle-bound action star in the Schwarzenegger mold, but instead he was made into the cocky swaggering cop who everyone calls out for his silliness even while respecting his abilities.  Vin Diesel’s Dom does come closer to that strong silent prototype, but as corny as the character’s obsession with “family” is, it does elevate the character and give him a code to fight for.

This running theme of family is also where the Fast and Furious series diverges strongly from the James Bond series.  Where Bond was an upper-class sophisticate whose number one priority 90% of the time was queen and country, the F&F crew are a multi-ethnic and working class bunch who are consistently more loyal to their friends and their immediate community than they are to “the man.”  At this point in the series they seem to be on good terms with authority figures and in this movie they do go on a mission for the government, but it isn’t because they have some deep-seeded need to fight crime or protect America, it’s to protect “the family.”  We believe this bullshit because the movie believes it and shows it.  The bromance between Brian and Dom is palpable and it’s been built over the course of seven films and when the movie goes into corny Paul Walker tribute mode at the end it actually feels earned rather than forced.  Speaking of which, the movie has done a shockingly good job of working around Paul Walker’s death mid-shoot.  The character doesn’t seem to really disappear at any point in the movie and they do a good job of building in a sub-plot that explains his departure from the later entries of the series in a natural way.  Were it not for the Wiz Khalifa accompanied goodbye sequence at the end you’d have never known something was amiss.

So, yeah, I definitely enjoyed Furious 7 a lot and I’ve got to say I’m pretty shocked that it turned out as well as it did.  The film has a new director taking over for Justin Lin (who directed the last four movies and is largely responsible for the series return to relevance), had to deal with the death of a major cast member, and had to turn around a slight dip in quality in the last movie.  That it managed to over-come all that and be probably the second best entry of the series just behind the widely loved fifth entry is kind of amazing.  All that said, I don’t want to over-sell this thing.  This is exactly the kind of movie that’s like “for what it is.”  If you haven’t like the last two Fast and Furious movies you probably aren’t going to like this one, but if you’re already a fan, rest assured that this will probably have more of what you’re looking for.  Now we just need to worry about the 8th movie in the series, which will somehow have to top this one.  Sports cars in space perhaps?

*** out of Four