2015: Part 1

Avengers: Age of Ultron. Directed by Joss Whedon. I waited until a month and a half after the Avengers sequel opened before I finally saw it. The latest mega-Marvel extravaganza is a necessary theater experience, but not because it’s a masterpiece; there are enough explosions and quick cuts to keep your eyes and ears well-occupied, even as your brain scrambles to piece together the absolutely ridiculous plot, so it’s undoubtedly more enjoyable on the big screen than on TV. None of the characters seems tremendously bothered by the fact that the film’s robot supervillain, Ultron (voiced by the luxuriously sarcastic baritone of James Spader), was created by Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) and Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), two of the main Avengers, although it is particularly fun to watch Stark’s and Banner’s mad-scientist montage if you hum the Wayne’s World theme in your head with new lyrics: “White guys! White guys! Bein’ cool! Buildin’ stuff!” The film does not bother to explain many of its most crucial elements, like who Baron von Strucker is or why he poses a threat to the Avengers at the beginning of the film (also: it’s a shame that an actor as good as Thomas Kretschmann was cast in that role since he is dispatched rather quickly). The most effective acting in this overblown, big-budget adventure is done by Linda Cardellini, who plays the wife we never knew Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) had until now, and Andy Serkis as a South African-accented baddie whose purpose is not clearly explained, but you don’t care as long as you can watch Serkis leave his fellow actors in the dust just by sharing the same space with them.

Ex Machina. Directed by Alex Garland. I’m glad that I saw Ex Machina less than a week after seeing Under the Skin because I think they would make a perfect double bill: nonhuman characters inhabit human skin and assume heterosexual female characteristics to different degrees. The protagonists in both films operate within our world by learning that most human of traits, manipulation. I’m glad that I came to Ex Machina with relatively fresh eyes since I never watched a trailer and had only recently watched part of a scene (from early in the film) when Alicia Vikander was interviewed by Conan O’Brien back in early May. (Apparently the trailer gives away quite a bit, so I dodged a bullet.) Vikander’s performance is certainly the best of the three main characters in the film, making you believe 100% that she is a robot who is beyond capable of artificial intelligence; Oscar Isaac has quite a lot of humor and a certain enigmatic darkness as the genius creator of the android, while Domhnall Gleeson’s character functions in the same way that his protagonist from last year’s film Frank did: a starstruck young guy in awe of the brilliance that he is witnessing… and always one step behind what is going on. Ouch. It is Vikander who is the most intriguing of Ex Machina’s main trio as Isaac’s A.I. creation. As with Under the Skin, Ex Machina forces the viewer to question what it means to be mortal, what it means for a facsimile to appropriate human characteristics and whether those beings can ever truly understand and replicate human emotions within their own selves. The score composed by Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury is the nerve center of the narrative, providing much of the agitation and thrill, while Rob Hardy’s cinematography is striking in the red-soaked power-cut scenes. Ex Machina does not affect me emotionally in the same way that Under the Skin did (and still does), nor do I have any burning desire to see Ex Machina again any time soon, but I would be glad to continue discussing Ex Machina to work out some of the kinks in the plot and figure out some answers to the questions I have.

Pitch Perfect 2. Directed by Elizabeth Banks. The only rule that a movie has to follow is that it must be entertaining, and contrary to what most film scholars probably assume without having any knowledge of the franchise, this follow-up to Pitch Perfect has a lot going for it as glossy Hollywood spectacle. In this sequel the surprise hit of 2012, American a cappella singing group the Barden Bellas struggle to get back on top after a disastrous performance costs them their championship title. Elizabeth Banks (who has played commentator Gail Abernathy-McKadden in both Pitch Perfect films) does a decent job in her feature film debut as a director, doing her best work in the climactic World Championships scenes set in Copenhagen. Those scenes, which includes hundreds of extras, are impressive because of the effort that must have gone into controlling the huge number of people in the audience and also in coordinating the choreographed music and dance happening on the gigantic concert stage. Another of the film’s bright spots is the casting of DJ, YouTube personality and all-around treasure Flula Borg as one of the co-captains of Das Sound Machine, the German a cappella team that threatens to take the spotlight and the world championship away from the Bellas. Otherwise the film falls prey to sophomore slump and there are only so many US-can-beat-Germany jokes (not to mention other cringeworthy racist and sexist stereotypes) that a film can utilize before the tired humor fades.

San Andreas. Directed by Brad Peyton. If your city or town has a good IMAX screen, then San Andreas is definitely worth seeing in that capacity. Steve Yedlin‘s cinematography is one of the true stars of the show, along with the numerous special effects artists (including 3D) who create the unbelievably terrifying imagery of California and the Hoover Dam going haywire. For the most part the cast isn’t bad: Dwayne Johnson (who will always be The Rock to me) is likeable as both a nice dude and a great action hero, as well as some surprisingly tender emotional moments. The best performances in the film are by Carla Gugino as the Rock’s wife; she has some super awesome moments, like essentially saving herself from a crumbling building and also driving a speedboat into another building. (Way better than the usual worried-wife/damsel in distress roles for actresses over 40.) Paul Giamatti is also excellent – as any fan of his should guess – as the seismologist whose predictions and other knowledge help save way more people than anyone could have hoped. Young Irish actor Art Parkinson is also very good in the film, not at all cloying like most child actors; Hugo Johnstone-Burt is a little too Hugh Grant-lite as Parkinson’s older brother, but he’s decent enough. This brings us to Alexandra Daddario, who plays the college-age daughter of the Rock and Gugino. The shots of her in a bikini at the beginning of the film were totally unnecessary, but at least there was a point to her taking her shirt off later in the film (to fashion a tourniquet that saves Johnstone-Burt‘s life). It’s nice to see a woman being the smart, sensible character and a male damsel in distress – is there a masculine equivalent for that? – for a change. I’m miffed that Archie Panjabi didn’t get to do much more than ask questions in her role as a reporter who helps Giamatti get his warnings out to the world, but a little visibility for a woman of color playing an intelligent, dignified character is better than nothing for a Hollywood blockbuster, I guess (and the director could just as easily have cast a white woman). Speaking of color: why was San Francisco so white? Would it have killed San Andreas to have more than one Asian character with a speaking part? (Will Yun Lee, who plays Giamatti’s ill-fated research partner, deserves better.) And then there’s Kylie Minogue’s cameo as Gugino’s boyfriend’s sister, casting which is random and strange but also highly entertaining. Interesting casting choices aside, you’re not going to get good dialogue out of San Andreas, nor does the science probably make sense, but the film is entertaining enough (especially in IMAX) to make it worth the ticket purchase. It’s not great cinema, but if you love disaster movies like I do, it’s got everything: a little Towering Inferno, a lot of Earthquake and just a touch of The Poseidon Adventure. And Sia’s cover of “California Dreamin’“ is the icing on the cake. (P.S. Part of the PG-13 rating is for “mayhem.” Yes! So much mayhem!)

The Wolfpack. Directed by Crystal Moselle. Director Crystal Moselle lucked out by finding such interesting subjects for her first feature film, but it is evident that the film is constantly looking for a voice that it doesn’t quite have. At times very funny but also often heartbreaking, The Wolfpack is bursting with a combination of love, conflict and oppression in the Angulo brothers’ home situation, the relationship they have with each of their parents (as well as the relationship between the parents themselves) and how movies shaped the boys’ lives as they grew into young men is all worthy material, but I think it needed a surer hand to guide the story. Obviously Moselle could make the film because she discovered the guys and had a connection with them that no one else could get, but when I heard her talk about how she had hundreds of hours of footage and it took six months to figure out how to edit it all into a coherent story (and first to figure out what that story would be), I felt that it made sense given how I felt while watching the movie. You feel for these characters, who are real people and deserve to have the chance to get out there in the world and learn about everything that culture and art and whatever else have to offer. The nice thing about New York is that just when you think you’ve heard or seen it all, you discover a person or people who have a different way of growing up or living and that can change your perspective of (and/or appreciation of) life too. The three brothers who attended the Lincoln Center screening that I went to and they were articulate and eager to share their passion for filmmaking with the audience (they hung around in the Walter Reade Theater lobby afterwards, chatting with people who came up to them). If anything, I’m glad that I got the chance to learn about the brothers’ collective story and I look forward to their projects in the future. The Wolfpack is definitely worth seeing for the extraordinary and unusual protagonists, but I can’t call the film amazing if the storytelling is not on par with its inspiration.

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