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Avengers: Age of Ultron — 5/10

AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON (2015, Joss Whedon)

There’s only one name in the credits of the AVENGERS movies for screenwriter and director, but somehow they don’t feel like the sole personal vision of Joss Whedon, or any one person. Even more than the first installment (which was itself the sixth episode in Marvel’s theatrical TV series), AGE OF ULTRON feels like the product of a conglomerate; it’s a loud, messy, chugging, smoke-belching cacophony of computerized dust and foley effects. Whedon is the man who nearly killed himself making this monstrosity, and his sweat is on every frame of the movie: two hours and twenty minutes of hard work, aching with effort and sore muscles, endless rounds of notes and fixes, and compromises galore — but it’s the powerful odor of Franchise Stability that turns it into something impersonal and ultimately forgettable. Box office aside (which will indeed be gargantuan), this may be the biggest movie in history — it has the most shit happening for the most time, yet it’s only good when it slows down. Which isn’t often enough.

Paradoxically, AGE OF ULTRON feels too long at 141 minutes, but might have felt shorter (and a lot better) at three and a half hours. Overstuffed with plot to the point where I’m not even going to bother getting into it (at least they never say “tesseract” in it), it’s a piñata whose bat is a budget; whose candy is lights, colors, and exploding dirt; and whose birthday party is a comic book. If only it took the time to investigate its themes, it could have been more coherent and less like a headache-inducing Cuisinart. Because when its characters are just hanging out, it’s a funny and wholly endearing film. Downey has been the star of this franchise since its inception in 2008, but Chris Hemsworth wrestles the crown away in this one. The scarcely hidden anxiety on Thor’s face as he fears that Rogers might be able to lift the hammer is priceless, as is his petulant last-word greed in saying “But Jane’s better.” It seems Whedon has more fun when the stakes are low; the beats are allowed to breathe (even the charmless Jeremy Renner manages some good moments) and the actors get to use their faces instead of green screens.

Unfortunately, the stakes get high for most of this metal-clanging amusement park ride. As usual, no less than the fate of the human race is on the line, as entire cities are destroyed, massive ships ruin massive buildings, and the very fact of what it means to be a hero is questioned. This means chases and explosions, flames and robots, arrows and guns, swinging hammers and green fists. You’d think the best fights would be heroes vs. villains, but the best fight in this movie is Hulk vs. Iron Man.

And for most of the movie, Hulk is saddled with a botched romance with Natasha, completely pointless, sexless, and irritating. James Spader is having a blast as Ultron because he knows the tone this movie should take — but Ruffalo still thinks he’s in FOXCATCHER, and Johansson is at the mercy of a story that doesn’t know what to do with her. Also, what kind of a dick is Stark that he gives Don Cheadle an Iron Man suit but won’t even give Nat so much as a bullet proof vest? Same goes for Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Elizabeth Olsen, and Renner — they could all use a little armor, right? Thanks, Tony.

AGE OF ULTRON is a curious beast: it’s a massive, massive experience, raising the bar to unheard-of heights for all things blockbuster. Nothing has had more effects, more noise, more characters, more plot, more stakes, or more muscle. Even Michael Bay has to take his hat off. But when you take the heavy 3-D glasses off your bruised nose and emerge from the theater into the piercing sunlight of the real world, you don’t feel like you’ve been challenged to contemplate humanity, villainy, artificial intelligence, heroism, technology, or good will; you’ve been grabbed by a giant green monster, picked up by your ankles, thrown back and forth until you’ve nearly been given a concussion, and then been told that because you ate popcorn and saw a colorful light show, you had a good time. That’s not necessarily my idea of fun. I don’t need to see another AVENGERS movie. I just need some peace and quiet, and a drink.

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Django Unchained — 8/10

DJANGO UNCHAINED (2012, Quentin Tarantino): 8/10

It’s end-of-year catchup time, and I’ve been watching a ton of movies, as the 11 of you reading this know if you’ve kept up with my flurry of posts lately. And I’ve started watching even more than I’ve written about because I didn’t finish a few (e.g. THE TURIN HORSE, the first 30 minutes of which I found beautiful and potentially devastating, but plodding and depressing and grueling to endure). Furthermore, Michael Haneke’s AMOUR tops my list as the best of the bunch — and it’s a slow, relentless march towards decay, death, and nothingness.

Well, there’s only so many more AMOURs and TURIN HORSEs a man can take before he blows his brains out, and my antidote came just in time — and who better to bring the medicine than Quentin Fucking Tarantino. Here’s a guy who’s never made anything close to a bad film, and two of them (KILL BILL & PULP FICTION) are singular, timeless masterpieces. So why am I not surprised that DJANGO UNCHAINED came as an adrenaline surge of entertainment — rip-roaring, howlingly funny, seductively visual, and primally satisfying.

Critics of the film will say, okay yeah — but it’s all surface pleasure, and there’s no “there” there. First of all, you can probably say that about a few other QT films (even the best ones like KILL BILL) but even still, superficial does not mean disposable. Secondly, I would disagree regardless — there is some “there” there, it’s just broad and jagged, much like the whip-scarred shoulders of the opening image: a slave marching in step, something that can boil our blood with moral outrage instantly.

So what’s the “there?” Take the progression of the two leads in this film and follow the shift in focus, shift in power, and ultimate importance. In the first act, the white guy is the protagonist — Schultz teaches Django this and that and is the instrument of the quiet, subservient Django’s every move. In the second act, Django picks up steam and confidence, and soon becomes Schultz’s equal — both in screen time and story dominance, and almost in dialogue as well. In the third act, Django the protege surpasses Schultz the master, and becomes the archetypal hero, reducing Schultz to a mere bystander (or worse) in his mythical journey through hellfire to rescue his princess.

Tarantino has used the progression of Django’s power to mirror the black man in American culture, as overt racism has dissipated and allowed blacks to achieve every bit the importance whitey has. Take the NFL — in the ’50s and ’60s, blacks were predominantly defenders and rare skill position players. In the ’80s, black QBs like Warren Moon and Randall Cunningham were anomalies. Now, the likes of Brady, Brees, and Rodgers have met their equals in Vick, RG III, and Wilson. This is thanks to the end of anti-black-QB prejudice by owners and coaches. (Speaking of which, the black head coach has also become less and less of a rarity). Should we get into the fact that the leader of our country, the most powerful political position in the free world, is black? Didn’t think so. I’m not saying QT is comparing Django to Obama; I’m saying by showing us the huge arc of power-grabbing this lead character occupies, he’s able to cause the audience to consider the sheer horror that slavery (in not too distant a past in this country) really was, and how far we can come when people are allowed the freedom to pursue. This is something Kushner and Spielberg’s LINCOLN was telling us (over and over again), but it’s something Tarantino is showing us.

(Added: wanted to say something about the over-the-top repeated use of the N-word here; something tells me QT is of the mind that if you repeat a word often enough it loses its meaning — and I think he wants to de-thorn the slur. But I can’t be sure, really).

Record scratch. On to the filmmaking.

There’s a reason Tarantino has used so many cover songs on his soundtracks (think of the Blue Swede version of “Hooked On a Feelin'” or the Bedlam version of “Magic Carpet Ride” in RESERVOIR DOGS, or the Urge Overkill version of “Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon” in PULP FICTION); he likes when some newer artist does a take on older, established classics. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Well, Tarantino makes cover movies. Whether he’s overtly remaking CITY ON FIRE like with DOGS, or paying homage to stuff like SEX & FURY and comic books with KILL BILL and VANISHING POINT with DEATH PROOF, Tarantino takes cinema’s past and reinvents it with his unique, wildly original eye and ear. (Yes, an artist can be original even when they’re covering something). Here, he’s covering Spaghetti Westerns, blaxploitation films, and even his own INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS. So I don’t mind the familiarity (he uses just the right amount of snap-zooms and Leone cues; enough to remind us what he’s doing, but not so often we’re sick of it). As long as it works, and holy shit does it.

Robert Richardson, one of the best DPs alive, almost outdoes himself here — capturing John Fordian vistas of the wide shots as well as the hot-lighted shootout reminiscent of the House of Blue Leaves bloodbath. The soundtrack is as lively as ever, and although QT must miss the exacting editorial touch of his late collaborator Sally Menke, the pacing of this thing — even at 165 minutes — is still sharp. Then there’s the performances — as sensational and revelatory as Christoph Waltz was in BASTERDS, he’s nearly as amazing here. Jamie Foxx is strong and fascinating when he’s quiet and observing, but heroic and likable when the guns blaze. It takes a while to adjust to what DiCaprio is doing as the heavy, but from the way he holds his cigarette holder (choking up on it like a pencil) to the way his voice cracks when he shouts, Calvin Candie is a juicy villain, cartoonish and one-dimensional, but perfectly detestable. It may be a limitation of the exploitation genre to refuse to draw shadings in characters like Candie, but it didn’t bother me because of DiCaprio’s extraordinary talent.

Finally, there’s Sam Jackson. A Tarantino regular, his appearance here is both unsettling in its anachronism and absolutely perfect in its depiction. In the character of Stephen, QT implies there’s something even more vicious and tragic about the blacks who kept slavery humming than the whites. And nobody relishes Tarantino dialogue like Jackson. It’s a treat for the ears. Unfortunately, Kerry Washington is supremely ineffective as the object of Django’s affections. In a nearly wordless role, she’s there to act as an object to be rescued, but doesn’t get to express the passion necessary to get invested. (Aside from a jokey bang-against-the-wall between DeNiro and Fonda in JACKIE BROWN and some uncomfortable rape scenes, Tarantino simply does not do sex scenes — the most chemistry and love to come from his pen was directed by Tony Scott in TRUE ROMANCE). I don’t mind the lack of a Beatrix (turning this 19th century slave revenge tale into one of feminist power would be fairly absurd), but he needed to either re-cast Broomhilda or give Washington something more identifiable to do.

And let’s just not speak about Tarantino’s own role as an Australian. Seriously.

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