Thursday, May 28, 2015

Pitch Perfect 2: Straining to Hit Those High Notes Amid New Lows

Anna Kendrick and Rebel Wilson lead the way in "Pitch Perfect 2"
The dirty little secret of Pitch Perfect is that, as delightful and refreshing as it may have been, it wasn't a good movie. (In this, it was essentially the musical equivalent of Love Actually.) Its characters were one-dimensional, its romance was insipid, and its story was inane. Yet isolated parts of the movie—the riff-off, the "Since You Been Gone" auditions, anything involving Rebel Wilson's Fat Amy— were so transcendently joyful that it became a classic anyway, an irresistible send-up of the sports movie transplanted to the goofy arena of competitive a cappella. It may have been familiar, but thanks to its inspired staging and tap-your-foot singing, it also felt fresh. Now, Pitch Perfect 2 attempts to repeat the first film's formula; almost axiomatically, it is only half-successful. The unaccompanied musical numbers once again range from robustly enjoyable to deliriously fun, but the element of novelty has vanished. It's hard for your movie to feel fresh when all of your material is recycled.

Anna Kendrick again stars as Beca, the too-cool-for-school member of the Barden Bellas who has embraced her role as the group's primary arranger, even as she's also covertly pursuing her dream of becoming a music producer via an internship at a record studio. She's still dating Jesse (Skylar Astin), and to the movie's credit, it doesn't manufacture any lame complications between the two lovebirds and instead just shunts Beca's bland boyfriend to the sidelines. (Astin does get to show off his vocal chops in an early scene.) That makes room for a far more interesting romantic pairing: Fat Amy (Wilson remains the franchise's strongest asset, which is saying something, given that Anna Kendrick is involved) and Bumper (Adam DeVine), the buffoonish villain of the original who is now both pathetic and strangely endearing. Their love story is extravagantly goofy and commensurately enjoyable; there's a funny scene in which Bumper feebly attempts to court his intended via forced grownup talk ("So, there's a war, and also, the economy."), but it's dwarfed by the sight of Fat Amy subsequently serenading him with Pat Benatar's "We Belong" while standing in a rowboat.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Mad Max: Fury Road: On the Dusty Road, with Revved-up Engines

Tom Hardy stars in George Miller's explosive "Mad Max: Fury Road"
At various points in Mad Max: Fury Road—George Miller's outlandish, unpretentious, frequently glorious action epic—an electric guitar suddenly reverberates on the soundtrack. It's a playful sonic touch, but the musicality of the riff is beside the point; the real story is that the composer, Tom Holkenborg (credited here as Junkie XL), seems to be taking his cues from an actual character in the film, a red-clad, masked musician armed with the biggest double-neck six-string you've ever seen. Credited as Coma-Doof Warrior or the Doof Warrior (and played by the Australian instrumentalist iOTA), whenever he slashes his right arm across the strings, not only do bolts of noise blare on the soundtrack, but giant flames shoot out of the guitar's headstock. And if that isn't enough, the Doof Warrior spends his entire time riding on the roof of a massive 18-wheeler (the Doof Wagon, naturally) that's barreling at top speed through the Australian Outback.

The Doof Warrior, the movie's grandest flourish
The Doof Warrior is the most memorable thing about Mad Max: Fury Road, but he is also the embodiment of its zany, carefree spirit. This is, after all, a movie that features a host of pursuing ATVs adorned with bristling spikes, resembling a motorized prickle of mutant porcupines. When bald, emaciated underlings aren't sailing through the air on tall pieces of wood like demented pole-vaulters, they're scrambling onto the hoods of speeding cars and spitting gasoline into open engines. Big rigs crash into one another, characters leap from vehicle to vehicle, and everything always seems to be on fire. (It's hardly surprising that Verdi's iconic "Requiem" figures prominently on the soundtrack.) Yet as crazed as Fury Road is, it is also lovingly intimate, the work of a director who cares deeply about his fictional dystopia. Miller may paint on an enormous, chaotic canvas, but he's still an artist.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Sad Men: Does Don Draper Finally Find Peace in the Mad Men Finale?

Don Draper loses himself in the "Mad Men" finaleA
And at long last, Don Draper has died.

No, he didn't fulfill a popular fan theory and jump out of his office building as pictured in the long-running opening credits. He didn't die in the middle of a pitch, as his friend and mentor Roger Sterling had predicted. He didn't die of lung cancer (though his ex-wife soon will). And, most mercifully, he didn't get shot in the back of the head like what maybe happened to that other guy Matthew Weiner used to write about. But while the final scene of The Sopranos—the show on which Weiner cut his teeth, writing episodes as far back as 2004—will be debated pointlessly until the end of time, Mad Men's finale demonstrates the insignificance of that discussion. The Sopranos possibly ended with the death of Tony Soprano's body. Mad Men concluded with something far more terrifying: the death of Don Draper's soul.

That, of course, is just one interpretation. Undoubtedly, a pocket of viewers will insist that Don didn't dream up the Coca-Cola ad that played this majestic series off the air, that he's still meditating peacefully out in Big Sur, that the show's final image of his lips curling into a smile proves that he finally found true enlightenment, not that he'd just experienced an epiphany on how to sell soft drinks. And maybe they're right. Maybe that final chime wasn't the sound of another lightbulb going off in Don Draper's head, the instinctive response of a man who built himself into an executive of such towering potency—the man from the opening credits who tumbles from the top of a skyscraper, then suddenly reemerges, sitting confidently in his armchair—that he reflexively transforms human feelings into ad sales. Maybe Peggy wrote the Coke ad.

But I can't accept that reading, because it doesn't square with the Don Draper whom I've followed over the past seven seasons. That Don didn't even start out as Don—he was Dick. But then a cigarette lighter collided with a puddle of fuel, and from the ashes sprang Don Draper, advertising genius. He knew he was living a lie, and he was forever haunted, not just by the terror of being discovered (recall the opening dream of the penultimate episode, when the cop bluntly informs Don, "You knew we'd catch up with you eventually"), but by the possibility that all of the monumental effort he'd expended to build his life anew was meaningless. "I took another man's name," he confesses to Peggy, his protégé and most faithful friend, "and made nothing of it."

That's a matter of opinion—Peggy vehemently disagrees, and if nothing else, Don fathered three kids with Betty, the oldest of whom is pretty awesome—but Don certainly believes it. It's why he recently decided to repeat history and reinvent himself once more. These last few episodes of Mad Men involved Don stripping himself of the artifices that he accumulated upon his return from Korea. He quits his job. He gives his Cadillac to a hustler and admonishes him, "Don't waste this." He tracks down Stephanie, his de-facto niece, and offers her Anna's old ring, a family heirloom. But he isn't getting the rebirth he wanted; instead, he's overwhelmed with grief and regret. "You're not my family," Stephanie spits at him, and the words are like a knife to the gut. Betty has already told him, quite accurately, that their children are accustomed to his absence, that his return home would only upset them. So, what now? If he isn't Don Draper anymore, who is he?

Enter Leonard.

The finale's show-stopping moment came from little-known actor Evan Arnold
Now, every season of Mad Men has featured memorable monologues, but they've invariably belonged to Don, that artful manipulator of language. Whether he was filtering images of his home life through Kodak's Carousel in "The Wheel" or revealing his impoverished origins to the Hershey's execs in "In Care Of", Don's eloquent dialogue formed the backbone of Mad Men's biggest moments. But he was almost always talking, not listening. So it took some serious stones for Weiner to write one of his grandest, saddest speeches for the finale, then give it to someone we've never even met before. And while I can't pretend that I expected a significant portion of Mad Men's final episode to take place at a California ashram, my bafflement proved unfounded once a soft-featured, middle-aged man shambled to an empty chair and started talking. As Leonard speaks—about how he's invisible to his colleagues, about how his wife and children ignore him, and about his strange, vivid, metaphorical dream in which he's an overlooked item sitting on a shelf in a dark refrigerator—Don finally achieves the catharsis he's been searching for. This isn't isolation, it's kinship: another man living out his greatest fear of meaning nothing, of being nothing. Don breaks down and bear-hugs Leonard, and in that moment—the rawest and most vulnerable we've ever seen him—we sense that he might finally have broken through and found peace with himself.

And that's why Don's final smile—beautifully sculpted by the great Jon Hamm—is profoundly tragic. He came so close to escaping the advertising world forever, but he got sucked back in by the vortex of his own creative talent, and his ego, and his inability to do anything else. "I want to work!" he memorably barked back in "Shut the Door. Have a Seat." Turns out, that's still true. This season, Don deprived himself of everything—his money, his property, his family—but he just can't resist his own genius.

Still, even if this ending may be the wrong one for Don Draper (to be fair, that's hardly a given), it's the right one for Mad Men. If Don had actually reached nirvana on that remote beach, it would have felt like a cheat, a betrayal. He had simply built himself up too high to knock himself down. Yet it's still a terrible irony. That relentlessly cheery Coke commercial is all bright sun and beaming smiles, but my own knowledge of its (fictional) genesis—of how it was made by a broken man who tried to heal himself by breaking, only to discover that he'd made himself indestructible—makes me deeply sad.

But there was, surprisingly enough, plenty of happiness to go around in the finale for the show's subsidiary characters. Joan loses the impossibly selfish Richard, but she seizes the opportunity to build her own production company. Roger practices his French as he's putting the finishing touches on his courtship of Megan's mother, Marie Calvet. (Predictably, he also delivers the line of the hour in confessing his pending nuptials to Joan: "She's old enough to be her mother. Actually, she is her mother.") Meredith gets fired, but she's confident that she'll land on her feet, because she always does. (By the way, let's acknowledge that Stephanie Drake absolutely crushed her part as Meredith; sure, she was ditzy, but she was also loyal, funny, and charming.) Sally assumes the mantle of motherhood, teaching Bobby how to cook and determinedly acting in her brothers' best interests. Even perpetual grouse Pete Campbell seems to have a decent shot at reinventing his life in Wichita (his wife certainly seems pleased with the private jet). And then, of course, Peggy finally finds love, realizing that it was in front of her all along. The ultimate union between Peggy and Stan is one of the most conventional story beats Mad Men has ever delivered, but even if it felt a tad forced, I can't begrudge Peggy Olsen a moment of romantic bliss.

But what about Don Draper? Is he happy? It hardly matters. This is simply who he is. He made himself, and he can't escape himself. I find that heartbreaking, but I'm not sure Don would want it any differently. And hey, maybe in writing that Coke ad, he will finally find the happiness that has so long eluded him. But as a brilliant ad man once said, what is happiness? It's just a moment before you need more happiness. Sadness, though? Sadness lasts forever. And so will Mad Men.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

The Best Performances of Tom Hardy, Star of Mad Max: Fury Road

Tom Hardy in a scene from Christopher Nolan's "Inception"

Tom Hardy has arrived. With today's release of Mad Max: Fury Road, the English actor is officially a movie star, headlining a big-budget Hollywood production for the first time. I've yet to see the movie—something I intend to remedy this weekend (a review should be up in this space next week)—but to fans of Hardy's work, his presence in the lead is both highly gratifying and rather surprising. The 37-year-old's brief but extraordinary career has thus far been characterized by a superior slipperiness, an uncanny ability to slide from one role to the next, submerging himself so deep into each performance that the actor disappears and only the character remains. It is odd, if nonetheless intriguing, to envision him plying his trade in a high-powered reboot of an age-old franchise, a genre that typically exalts star power and relies on brand recognition. (Hardy has of course appeared in summer tentpoles before, but only those directed by Christopher Nolan, an auteur masquerading as a blockbuster filmmaker.)

Not that I'm critical of Hardy taking the part, or accusing him of selling out. On the contrary: I'm thrilled that he's certain to gain increased exposure, and I'm eager to see how his brand of peerless subtlety might mesh with George Miller's darkly explosive style. (Also whetting appetites: He's starring this October as the murderous Kray twins in Brian Helgeland's Legend, and then Christmas heralds the arrival of Alejandro González Iñárritu's The Revenant, in which Hardy plays opposite Leonardo DiCaprio.) But I also want to take the opportunity to see how we got here by highlighting some of Hardy's brilliant performances in films that mainstream viewers may have missed. To that end, I am excluding his slyly comic turn in Nolan's Inception, in which he effortlessly pilfered a number of scenes in the context of a large ensemble, because that movie needs no introduction. And because I'm restricting myself to cinema, I am also omitting his delightful performance in Season 2 of the BBC's Peaky Blinders, in which he devours scenery as a violent and treacherous Jewish gangster.

With those arbitrary criteria in place, allow me to present the Manifesto's five favorite Tom Hardy performances. All of these are wildly disparate portrayals—differing dramatically in tone, physicality, and vocal affectation—but they are nevertheless threaded together by invisible technique, as well as a gifted actor's commendable commitment to his craft.

5. Bob Saginowski in The Drop (2014). Right from his opening voiceover ("I just tend bar"), Bob Saginowski presents himself as a blunt, uncomplicated bartender. But just as there are no simple characters in The Drop, there are no straightforward performances in Hardy's filmography. His turn here is a cunningly layered portrayal, initially establishing Bob as a taciturn everyman before gradually revealing the dangerous underworld figure beneath. Yet the pleasure of Hardy's performance lies not just in its inherent mysteriousness, but in its warmth. His hunched stride eventually gives way to a coiled, menacing muscularity, and his slow Brooklyn drawl camouflages his intelligence and intimidation. But he also exhibits true tenderness, imbuing quieter moments opposite Noomi Rapace and John Ortiz with color and curiosity. Bob is a remorseless killer, but he's also a pretty nice guy who respects his church and stumbles to rehabilitate a wounded pit bull. That's a lot to handle, but Hardy makes the character work, somehow spinning seemingly contradictory qualities into two halves of the same whole.

4. Michael Peterson/Charles Bronson in Bronson (2009). Nicolas Winding Refn's Bronson is not an especially good movie, but it does house Hardy's first powerhouse performance. As Michael Peterson, a career criminal who rechristens himself Charles Bronson (after, well, you know), he is a hurricane of destruction, terrorizing everything and everyone in his path. Most frequently, that means prison guards, whom Peterson brawls with repeatedly, greasing himself up and taunting them before erupting with utter ferocity. Hardy's physical transformation is astonishing; with his bald head, full mustache, and rippling torso, he looks like a Greek God cast down from Mount Olympus. Yet he also makes Peterson weirdly charming, a man nobly committed to the pursuit of violence as a higher calling. He fights not because he's angry, but because he enjoys it. And Hardy takes evident glee in essaying such a wild and deranged figure, in the process turning brutality into art.

3. Bane in The Dark Knight Rises (2012). OK, you might have heard of this one. But because the dominant figure from Nolan's Dark Knight films remains Heath Ledger's Joker, Hardy's thrilling turn as the villain of the trilogy's capper often goes overlooked. That's a little crazy, because it seems impossible to look past Bane, with his bulging biceps and freaky mask that obscures his face and, more importantly, muffles his voice. It's the latter quality that received the most attention, with many critics grumbling about the difficulty of discerning his dialogue. They weren't listening. Hardy's elocution is masterful, an immaculate burble that poisons every carefully chosen word with whispery malevolence. Combine that with his robust physique—Hardy is only 5'9", but he seems to tower over everyone else in The Dark Knight Rises—and he fashions Bane into one of the most mesmerizing screen villains in recent memory. At one point, a lesser character limply asserts, "I'm in charge here," to which Bane responds, "Do you feel in charge?" The question is obviously rhetorical. With Hardy around, everyone else is subservient, to the point where even the audience feels compelled to bow.

2. Ivan Locke in Locke (2014). Perhaps the most actorly performance on this list, Hardy's work in Locke is necessarily visible—there is no other way, given that he is the only figure who appears on screen, never budging from the driver's seat of his cloistering BMW. But where a less confident thespian might have felt compelled to mug for the camera in order to compensate for Locke's demonstrable lack of action, Hardy somehow retreats further inward. Ivan Locke's life is an absolute disaster (and one of his own making), but rather than appearing sniveling and pathetic, Hardy invests his wounded antihero with a quiet, helpless dignity. Locke is a man who relies obsessively on absolute precision in all phases of his life—his job as an architect, his home life, even his driving—which makes Hardy the perfect choice for the role. Never before have the actor's meticulous diction and haunted eyes been put to such devastating effect. As the movie progresses and Locke continues his solitary journey down the motorway, you can practically see his soul dissipating into nothingness. It's Hardy's greatest magic trick yet: The camera never loses sight of him, yet he still manages to disappear.

1. Tommy Conlon in Warrior (2011). Hardy is a charismatic screen presence by nature, which is what makes his acting so amazing; every time he vanishes into a role, he imperceptibly suppresses that charisma. But I'll concede that, if you try hard enough, you can occasionally catch a glimpse of the remarkably talented performer operating beneath the surface.

Not in Warrior. There is no actor here. There's barely even a character, just a husk of a former fighter shuffling through his day. Then, one morning, Tommy Conlon walks into a fighting ring, and a demon comes out, a blur of violence and hostility. Hardy's physicality has always been striking, but here it's downright scary, with six-pack abs that are less sexy than admonitory. Don't come near me, his sculpted body announces. You'll get hurt.

But this is only part of his performance. The most revealing moments in Warrior are not the fight scenes, which are ably choreographed but undistinguished, but the loaded conversations that Tommy shares with his brother (Joel Edgerton) and father (Nick Nolte). Tommy doesn't say much—when he does talk, he speaks in a gruff Philadelphia snarl—but in his sullen silence, Hardy evokes a man shouldering an enormous burden and tormented by an unspeakable past. This renders his occasional flashes of compassion raw and powerful, searing shards of emotion that land with devastating impact before Tommy withdraws into his self-made shell.

Warrior, then, features the quintessential Tom Hardy performance. It is a marvel of physical and vocal technique, but also an illustration of his unrivaled ability for inhabiting his characters as a second skin. Yet the most exciting thing about his career is how compressed it is. Consider that all five movies on this list came out within the past six years. This suggests the impossible notion that Hardy, as great as he may be, is just now entering his prime. We do not know what he yet has in store for us, but it is safe to assume that we will be amazed, even as we struggle to spot the actor himself, the man working hidden miracles in plain sight.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

The Water Diviner: Searching for Sustenance, and the Dead

Russell Crowe cast himself as the hero in his directorial debut
The Water Diviner, the directorial debut of Russell Crowe, is a tumultuous mishmash of tones: part Indiana Jones adventure, part fish-out-of-water comedy, part Nicholas Sparks romance, all mystical goop. A throwback historical epic that's as overwrought as it is uneven, it is almost redeemed by Crowe's evident passion for his subject matter, which involves the Battle of Gallipoli and its woeful aftermath. Crowe clearly felt compelled to tell this story, and his ambition is admirable. His execution is another matter.

Crowe stars as Joshua Connor, a hardscrabble farmer whom we first see prowling the barren Australian landscape, searching for signs of water. It is 1919, four years after the wartime events at Gallipoli, which are presumed to have claimed the lives of Joshua's three sons. After his wife, disconsolate from her children's death, drowns herself in a makeshift pool of her husband's own construction (oh, the irony!), Joshua resolves to travel to Gallipoli and locate his sons' remains. When he arrives in Turkey, however, he learns that securing passage to the ruins is no easy task, and he takes up temporary residence in an Istanbul hotel operated by a fetching proprietor, Ayshe (Olga Kurylenko, stiff).

From there, The Water Diviner pursues an astonishing number of subplots, most of which range from unconvincing to ludicrous. On the romance front, Ayshe—a somber widow who is expected to re-marry to her gregarious brother-in-law—initially regards Joshua with a xenophobic mistrust that gradually mutates into affection. Her defenses are softened in part because Joshua quickly develops a strong bond with Orhan (Dylan Georgiades), her adorable moppet of a son. Meanwhile, Joshua seeks help in his task from the British Army, which inexplicably views him as an interloping threat and responds with brusque hostility. Undaunted, Joshua finds his own illicit passage to Gallipoli, where the Australian Lieutenant Colonel Cyril Hughes (Jai Courtney) is currently mounting an effort to scour the battlefields and identify all of the dead. Grudgingly assisting him are two native Turkish officers, Major Hasan (Yilmaz Erdoğan) and Sergeant Jemal (Cem Yilmaz, best in show). And throughout, Crowe intersperses flashbacks to the battle itself, chronicling the doomed adventures of Joshua's sons.

Those flashbacks, with their sepia-toned lighting and slow-motion photography, are emblematic of The Water Diviner's failings. Crowe shoots them with a solemn gravity, a quality that's only magnified by David Hirschfelder's soupy score. There's nothing wrong with a director amplifying his characters' anguish, but Joshua's sons are barely characters at all. They're just ciphers, blandly attractive victims of a war that Crowe is less interested in examining than exploiting. (For a far superior take on the battle, viewers are advised to check out Gallipoli, Peter Weir's excellent 1981 war film.) Crowe's intentions may be noble, but his technique is shamelessly manipulative, constantly goosing the proceedings with swelling music and frantic editing. Some epics warrant elevated grandiosity, but The Water Diviner never earns its flamboyant stripes, which makes it less stylish than suffocating.

The pity is that, when he isn't trying so hard, Crowe flashes some ability suggestive of a good filmmaker. There's a striking sequence in the distant past where Joshua rides his stallion headlong into a sandstorm, the late and great cinematographer Andrew Lesnie capturing the image in traditional, unglossed widescreen glory. And an early scene of Joshua silently digging a well is efficient and engrossing. Crowe's handiwork isn't bad when it isn't outrageous.

One of the more stirring sequences in the film
Unfortunately, The Water Diviner is outrageous most of the time. The movie is purportedly "inspired by true events", a label that attempts to ascribe credibility to Andrew Knight and Andrew Anastasios' preposterous screenplay. As you may have, ahem, divined from the film's title, Joshua is almost supernaturally skilled at locating the presence of water. Turns out, that's not all he's good at finding. In one of The Water Diviner's more incredulous moments—which is already setting the bar rather high—Joshua wanders over the sands of Gallipoli before stopping at a certain point and proclaiming, with mournful confidence, that this is the precise spot where two of his sons are buried. (No points for guessing whether he's right.) But what of his eldest? Is it possible that Major Hasan might have a clue to his whereabouts?

Thankfully, yes. The Water Diviner features its share of peculiar pairings, but the wary friendship that blossoms between Joshua and Hasan is the strangest relationship in the movie, which also makes it the least predictable. The scenes where Joshua cautiously negotiates with Hasan's Turkish soldiers are, for the most part, nuanced and intriguing. Sergeant Jemal, in particular, is a welcome fount of energy and humor.

But there is simply too much else going on. Crowe crams the movie with material, but he never streamlines it, resulting in an overstuffed stew of clashing genres. The compulsory romance between Joshua and Ayshe is ridiculous, the scattered action scenes—particularly one involving Joshua's flight from the British Army—equally so. And the film's final act is pure schlock, featuring one final flashback that strains so hard for pathos, it squanders what little good will Crowe managed to cultivate.

Olga Kurylenko as the most attractive hotel proprietor in Turkey's history
And so, The Water Diviner is largely a disaster. But it is at least a watchable disaster, frequently exasperating but rarely boring. In other words, while it may be drippy, it's never dry. And its unabashed earnestness is its own reward, which makes it less an entrant in the "so bad it's good" canon and more of a "so sincere it's pitiable" curiosity. It's unclear whether this was a one-time digression for Crowe or if he intends to step behind the camera again. I might suggest, however, that if he does direct another movie, he first summon Joshua's mystical powers and use them to miraculously locate a decent script.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Avengers: Age of Ultron—Heroes Assemble, then Cower, then Fight

Your Avengers, from left: Black Widow, Captain America, Thor, Iron Man, and the Hulk

It seems ludicrous that I should pity Joss Whedon. A visionary so accustomed to having his magical creations snuffed out by the pitiless forces of commerce and TV ratings, he has finally ascended to the summit, piloting the most unstoppable comic-book franchise in cinematic history. Yet after watching Avengers: Age of Ultron, which Whedon both wrote and directed, I cannot escape the feeling that he is exhausted, browbeaten, defeated. He has acquired an unlimited budget and a top-notch cast, not to mention the adoration of legions of fans. But in his feverish efforts to satisfy those fans, he has made not so much a movie as a bloated, hulking anthology, a cluttered collection that dutifully affords screen time and subplots to each of its many, many heroes. There are few films where more happens, but in this movie, more is somehow less.

This is not to say that Age of Ultron is entirely lacking in personality. Whedon's dialogue still sings, and his gift for witty, easygoing banter remains evident. There are numerous character-driven scenes in which the film's noisy, explosive bedlam surrenders to pensive, welcome quiet. The problem is that rather than forming the fulcrum of the movie, these human moments feel shoehorned into the larger narrative, stolen respites wedged between the obligatory scenes of violence and spectacle. I am not suggesting that Age of Ultron should have been entirely bereft of action. I simply wish that its action served a greater purpose beyond sating hungry viewers' appetites with such rote sound and fury.

For a time, it seems like it might. When Age of Ultron opens, our heroes are invading the fictional European country of Sokovia, attempting to recover the mythical scepter that Tom Hiddleston's Loki (sadly absent from this installment) left behind following the events of the first film. The details hardly matter, except one: During the assault, Iron Man, aka Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr., flashing some depth), dispatches a fleet of automated Iron Man clones to the city's square. They bear messages of peace, urging the locals to evacuate for their own safety, but the citizenry are none too pleased, hurling objects at the robots and clamoring for a riot. In the age of Ferguson and Freddie Gray, of Syria and drone warfare, this is a dangerous and provocative image. Could Age of Ultron serve as an allegory to our modern turmoil of police power and global unrest?

Yes and no. Turns out, this preoccupation with the rightness of military might is just one of many story threads that Whedon attempts to weave throughout the picture. Every character has his own crisis to grapple with, her own backstory to overcome. Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans, steady), for example, ponders his value as a soldier, wondering if he must subjugate his personal desires for happiness to his solemn, unceasing duty to save the world. Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson, sowing the seeds for the inevitable spinoff) is tormented with visions from her dark past, even as she is cautiously pursuing an awkward, tentative romance with Dr. Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo, quiet and persuasive), which is complicated by the latter's tendency to transform into The Hulk. Meanwhile, Thor (Chris Hemsworth, still born for the part) is also worried about, er, something. (An actual god, Thor is undoubtedly the strongest of the Avengers, which also makes him the least interesting, although his fabled, immovable hammer proves a reliable source of laughs.) And then there is Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner, excellent), who seems to have miraculously located the balance that eludes Rogers, ably doing his job as an avenger while also living out a modest, untroubled life on a remote farm with his wife, Laura (Linda Cardellini), and their children.

That's enough material for at least four standalone movies, but in Age of Ultron, the rest of the Avengers are mere sidekicks to Tony Stark, at least from the perspective of the plot. Stark, who in an early scene confronts a glimpse of a dystopian future where his comrades are all dead (Captain America's iconic star-spangled shield is even cleaved in two, an obvious but effective visual metaphor), is paralyzed with the fear of failing in his duty to protect the planet from alien invaders. And so, he convinces Dr. Banner—the two of whom spend an inordinate amount of time staring at holographic screens—to help implement the Ultron program, a massive artificial intelligence that functions as a disembodied planetary defense system, one Stark characterizes as "a suit of armor around the world". Surprise: Things go wrong.

Or very right, at least in terms of entertainment. Rather than doing Stark's bidding as an incorporeal sentinel, Ultron springs to glorious, metallic life as a sneering, malicious robot, given inimitable voice by James Spader. I'm sure Ultron is derived from Marvel's comics, but he feels like a pure Whedon creation, all withering sarcasm and terrifying malevolence. There is nothing especially unique about Ultron's brand of megalomaniacal villainy; he's basically a garden-variety nihilist who seeks to annihilate the Avengers, plus wipe out the rest of humanity for good measure. But his swaggering arrogance, combined with his caustic humor and Spader's chilling intonation, make him magnetic. When he saunters into a late-night revelry, aluminum skeleton clanking, he casually informs the Avengers that their age is at an end, and the message is clear: The games are over. It's time for war.

The Age of Ultron, indeed

This is all highly promising, and the potential only deepens when Ultron recruits to his cause the Maximoff twins: Pietro, aka Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson, miscast), and Wanda, aka Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen, perfectly cast). Quicksilver's power is self-explanatory—he's essentially a meaner version of Dash from The Incredibles—but Scarlet Witch is a more insidious and inscrutable villain; when she nears another person, tendrils of crimson light creep out from her fingers, allowing her to alter her foe's mind. (As Cobie Smulders' Maria Hill sums up the twins: "He's fast and she's weird.") The twins have a long-simmering vendetta against Stark, which teases the possibility for real conflict, and their collaboration with Ultron is initially tantalizing.

Which makes the latter part of Avengers: Age of Ultron all the more disappointing. The second half of the film is essentially a series of extended action sequences, each of which feels thuddingly impersonal and obligatory. Whedon is a world-class writer, but his credentials as an action filmmaker are less certain. There is nothing inherently wrong with CGI-assisted carnage, provided that it is ably choreographed. But apart from the movie's tremendous opening sequence—a fluid tracking shot that adroitly shifts perspectives from one Avenger to another—the battle scenes in Age of Ultron are lumbering and familiar. Sadly, Whedon's greatest miscalculation proves to be Ultron himself, or rather, his decision to allow Ultron to propagate into an army of indistinguishable robot clones. As a single entity, Ultron is charismatic and mesmerizing, thanks to Spader's snarl and Whedon's wit. (Sample quip: "I'm glad you asked that, because I wanted to take this time to explain my evil plan.") But multiplying him only dilutes him. Watching one Ultron trade barbs and blows with Iron Man is compelling. Watching 50 mini-Ultrons get swallowed up in an explosion feels like dental work.

Five Avengers, captured in flight

Ultron's multiplicity also holds up a mirror to the fatal flaw of any superhero movie: the plight of the helpless civilian. Just as our heroes must fight valiantly in order to save faceless extras, here they must also destroy faceless robots. It is all loud and impressive and thoroughly lacking in distinction or flair. (A late-film interlude, in which the Avengers briefly retire to Barton's farm, feels blissful in its warmth and intimacy, which only makes the action scenes seem duller and more lifeless by comparison.) It is not quite that Whedon is an unskilled director of mayhem; it's just that he seems bored. You sense that he's straining under Marvel's mandate, a directive to supply as much chaos and spectacle as possible. And so, there is an interminable fight between Iron Man and the Hulk, in which many punches are exchanged, much property is destroyed, and nothing of consequence actually occurs. There is a single moment of charm in that sequence—when Iron Man repeatedly pummels the Hulk with lightning-fast jabs as Stark rapidly mutters "Go to sleep, go to sleep"—but it is ultimately drowned out by the cacophony of blockbuster mundanity.

Undoubtedly, comic-book fans will be euphoric at the notion of an Iron Man-Hulk brawl. That sounds cool! But that call-and-response mindset is symptomatic of the larger issue that submarines Age of Ultron: There is simply too much movie here to go around, and too many pockets of fandom to service. Consider, for example, the sheer size of the film's cast. Not only must Whedon grant each of his primary heroes their own moments in the spotlight—and I didn't even mention the introduction of Paul Bettany's Vision, who immediately challenges Thor for the title of most boring Avenger—but he must also make time for subsidiary characters from the satellite franchises that populate the ever-expanding Marvel Cinematic Universe. And so, also present are Iron Man's James Rhodes/War Machine (Don Cheadle); Thor's Heimdall (Idris Elba) and Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgård), Captain America's Sam Wilson/Falcon (Anthony Mackie) and Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell); and, of course, the ubiquitous Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson). These are all excellent actors—Marvel hires none but the best—and they do what they can to infuse their glorified cameos with vigor and whimsy. But their presence nevertheless feels perfunctory, a clumsy attempt to incorporate as much of the MCU as possible. Hell, even characters who aren't in the movie, such as Iron Man's Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) and Thor's Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), must be discussed by others, the better to explain away their absence and stave off the resentment of enthusiasts.

Those enthusiasts will presumably be satisfied by the movie's slog of a climax, in which all of the Avengers return to Sokovia and do battle against countless Ultron clones, all while attempting to rescue thousands of anonymous civilians from imminent disaster. An awe-inspiring finale is, of course, standard-issue in all Marvel movies, which is why the typicality here inspires less awe than gloom. It also encapsulates the central conflict between Age of Ultron's fanciful director and its inflexible corporate overlord. Whedon likes to operate with a light touch, but this mega-sequel groans under the weight of franchise expectations. He jazzes up the movie with bolts of humor and eccentricity where he can, but he's ultimately hamstrung, the submissive purveyor of a ruthlessly calculated product that crams so much comic-book material into its two-plus hours, it has little room to breathe. As a result, despite its creator's best efforts, Age of Ultron is less a fully realized story than it is the artifact of an unstoppable marketing machine. Selling tickets is by no means an ignoble goal, but it is nevertheless lamentable that Marvel's crown jewel is primarily an instrument of commerce, not art.

"There are no strings on me," Ultron taunts the Avengers at one point. It's a cute reference to a song from Pinocchio, but it's also a bitter irony. Whedon may not quite be Marvel's puppet, but he's still not really in charge. And Age of Ultron, as consistently dazzling and occasionally delightful as it may be, is nevertheless suffused with the rancid scent of obligation—that of an artist obediently following a carefully constructed studio blueprint. Whedon's best works feel liberated and gleeful, but this movie is a labor, not a joy. Turns out, when Marvel gives you the keys to its kingdom, strings are most definitely attached.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Ex Machina: Of Gods and Men, and Their Beautiful Machines

Domhnall Gleeson and Oscar Isaac in Alex Garland's "Ex Machina"

"Deus ex machina," the literary term used to describe the contrived resolution of a complicated plot, translates as "God from the machine". You might think, given that the title of Alex Garland's arresting, deeply promising directorial debut is merely Ex Machina (sans "deus"), that there are no gods to be found here, only hubristic men and their miraculous machines. You'd be right, but only from a literal perspective. The two characters at the center of Ex Machina may be men, but they act like gods (one even proclaims himself as such), and while they play different parts—one fancies himself the benevolent savior, the other the impassive creator—they each seek to manipulate the fates of others. They soon learn that playing God comes with a cost.

Of course, they themselves are behaving at the whim of their own maker. Every director is the god of his own movie, and Garland hurls a Zeus-like thunderbolt in the film's very first scene. His camera opens with a close-up of Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson, nicely cast and effectively blank), with rivulets of electronic-blue light dancing across his face as though constructing a topographical map. An email with the subject "Staff lottery: WINNER" flashes across his computer screen, his cell phone blows up with congratulatory messages, and then without a word he's off, flying via helicopter over the frigid lands of Norway. Garland conveys a reel's worth of exposition in a few silent seconds, and this extraordinary economy demonstrates that Ex Machina isn't interested in second place. It wants to be great, and it mostly is.

Caleb arrives at the home of Nathan (a tremendous Oscar Isaac), the brilliant and reclusive CEO of a monopolistic search-engine company called Google Blue Book, where Caleb works as a coder. It isn't just any house, but a sprawling subterranean estate ensconced within a Utopian slice of nature. Ex Machina is about, among other things, the intersection of the natural and the mechanical, and Mark Digby's production design bears out that duality gorgeously. Nathan's underground house is actually a state-of-the-art research facility, and it's cool and antiseptic, all long corridors and sharp angles. But rock outcroppings jut out of some walls, while others are adorned with Jackson Pollock paintings, and the surrounding outdoors is a Shangri-la of verdant forests and rushing waterfalls. Upon arrival, Caleb can't help but think he's just stumbled into geek paradise.

That impression is both reinforced and upended by Nathan, whom Isaac plays with supreme confidence and nonchalant genius. Nathan doesn't initially scan as a tech wizard; with his shaved head, full beard, and turrets for arms, he looks more like an aging body-builder than a computer nerd. He doesn't talk like a programmer either, disdaining jargon in favor of bluntness and profanity, not to mention the word "Dude". Yet despite his frat-boy mannerisms, Nathan exudes a fearsome and undeniable intelligence, and you sense that Caleb is in the presence of a man who is his superior in more ways than just the company flowchart. Nathan's intentions in Ex Machina are always questionable, but his dominance is undisputed.

It's instantly clear that Caleb is in over his head, but he's too excited to be worried. Nathan has just finished building an A.I., and Caleb's assignment is to administer the Turing test: He must interact with this artificially intelligent creature and assess whether it can legitimately pass as a person. This leads to the ostensible meat of the movie, which involves a series of "sessions" between Caleb and Ava (Alicia Vikander), the supple machine of the film's title. After their first Q&A, Caleb is hooked, astonished by Ava's lifelike appearance and enchanted by her high-functioning CPU. But as he gushes about Ava's programming—her natural language processing isn't deterministic, it's stochastic!—Nathan waves him off. What he really wants to know is this: "How do you feel about her?"

Caleb feels that she's "fucking amazing", and so do I, if not quite for the same reason. Ava, with her visible metallic ribcage and peelable humanoid skin, is a stunning and forceful repudiation of the notion that special effects are incompatible with good storytelling. She is, of course, portrayed by a real person (Vikander's performance is appropriately stiff and robotic), but her computerized circuitry is almost always in view. Yet watching her, it's impossible to distinguish where Vikander's body ends and the digital and practical effects begin. More crucially, the FX work is so seamless that it isn't distracting. Garland undoubtedly could have paraded Ava in front of his camera with greater flair—he certainly has the talent, as when he struts his stuff with a high-speed montage demonstrating how previous incarnations of Ava were assembled and then decommissioned—but he's too committed to his story of double-dealing and intrigue to waste time showing off. And so, like Caleb, you find yourself marveling in amazement how Nathan created Ava, but you never wonder how Garland made her.

Alicia Vikander stars as half-robot, half-woman

Unfortunately, how Ava looks and moves is more interesting than what she says. The repeated tête-à-têtes between her and Caleb should be Ex Machina's highlight, the opportunity for a smart writer to dissert philosophically about the ever-vanishing boundaries that divide man from machine. But while Garland is a brainy and ambitious filmmaker—he wrote the screenplay for Sunshine, the underrated, mind-tickling Danny Boyle sci-fi flick—his dialogue here lacks the frisson needed to truly electrify the screen. The scenes certainly look cool, with Caleb and Ava separated by unbreakable glass (I was irresistibly reminded of Jodie Foster questioning Anthony Hopkins in The Silence of the Lambs), but they somehow feel small, missing the necessary significance. It is unfair but almost unavoidable to compare this movie to Spike Jonze's Her; unlike that transcendent film, which grappled heroically with the knotty complications of love between human and computer, Ex Machina teases at fascinating questions but never really tackles them. It's like Her's CliffsNotes.

Still, even if the chats between Ava and Caleb lack real pep, they help elevate the movie's thrumming tension and propel the plot forward. During their second session, the power goes out, the screen becomes bathed in the blood-red light of an auxiliary generator, and Ava suddenly drops her conversational tone and whispers to Caleb that he can't trust a word Nathan says. From there, Ex Machina ripens into a spine-tingling war of wills. Caleb, having inevitably developed feelings for Ava, resolves to free her from her luxurious prison. This, of course, requires deceiving Nathan, who monitors Caleb's actions via closed-circuit cameras with the indifferent countenance of a bored predator playing with his food.

That's bad news for Caleb, but it's great news for us, because every moment spent with Nathan is a treasure, thanks to the actor playing him. If there were somehow any doubt after his remarkable performances in Inside Llewyn Davis and A Most Violent Year, Isaac has officially established himself as one of our finest actors. (In terms of burrowing into his characters and articulating their very core, his only competition may be Joaquin Phoenix and Tom Hardy.) His work here is revelatory yet again, as he makes Nathan both terrifyingly powerful and indecently blithe. His screen presence is so dominant that he doesn't need to snarl or sneer to be scary—he just oozes menace like it's sweat. At one point, when addressing the repeated power cuts plaguing the facility, Caleb asks Nathan why he doesn't consult with the technicians who laid the fiber-optic cable; Nathan carelessly states that they knew too much, so he had them all killed. It's a credit to the brilliance of Isaac's performance that we have absolutely no idea if he's kidding.

It's just a brain, dude. It can't hurt you.

As a result, the best scenes in Ex Machina occur when Nathan undercuts the film's chilly mood and high-concept babble with scabrous humor, whether it's commenting casually on Ava's sexual capabilities or—in the movie's single grandest sequence—leaping into a magnificently choreographed dance routine to an '80s R&B number along with his mute maid, Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno). Unexpectedly hilarious moments like that only deepen the film's oppressive sense of dissonance, which Garland ruthlessly effectuates via arrhythmic editing, plus an uncomfortably invasive score from composer Ben Salisbury and Portishead's Geoff Barrow.

Ex Machina is so insistently gripping that it's easy to overlook its essential silliness. This is a very talky film that's primarily about four people living in a fancy house, even if it's also obviously about much more than that. But while its considerable execution cannot quite match its even loftier ambition—it comes tantalizingly close to earning its coveted status as a landmark science-fiction picture but never quite gets there—its sheer breathlessness and energy is aspirational. Besides, given its alarming message about the inexorable march of the machines, perhaps its minor human failures are a blessing. I can remain comfortable knowing that Ex Machina, as electric and entrancing as it can be, is just another good, flawed movie made by a mortal man. Garland may be a magician, but he isn't a real deity—he's just playing God. As for Isaac? I'm not so sure.