Posts Tagged ‘Mark Ruffalo’

Just when I thought the MCU might be getting somewhere —

About the only person more surprised by just how fucking much I loved Black Panther than a regular reader of this site was — well, me, but love it to pieces I did, and it’s an opinion I still stand behind 100% and then some. I’m not sure how much of the credit for its artistic success is down to the studio “suits” simply allowing Ryan Coogler to do something different, to break the mold, and how much was him actively wanting to while other directors remain content to serve up more of the same, but whatever the case may be, it was the first Marvel Studios flick that had a distinct look, feel, and personality all its own. It stood out, then, not just for its frankly profound cultural significance, but for its ambition and its quality. It wasn’t a two-and-a-half-hour episode of “Superhero TV,” it was something altogether more. Altogether different. Altogether better.

Say it with me in unison : ” but you knew it wouldn’t last.”

And maybe it couldn’t last. The strictures placed on an “event” film such as Joe and Anthony Russo’s Avengers : Infinity War are, after all, stifling at best, suffocating at worst. I mean, this is “The Big One,” right? The one they’ve all  been leading up to, and consequently (almost) all hands are on deck : Robert Downey, Jr’s Iron Man, Mark Ruffalo’s Hulk, Chris Pratt’s Star-Lord, Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow, Chris Evans’ Captain America, Chadwick Boseman’s King T’Challa, Chris Henworth’s Thor, Zoe Saldana’s Gamora, Don Cheadle’s War Machine, Paul Bettany’s Vision, Elizabeth Olsen’s Scarlet Witch, Tom Holland’s Spider-Man, Anthony Mackie’s Falcon, Robert Downey Jr. — sorry, Benedict Cumberbatch’s Doctor Strange (I get them mixed up because they’re the exact same goddamn character just with different powers), Karen Gillan’s Nebula, Sebastian Stan’s Bucky Barnes, Dave Bautista’s Drax, Pom Klementieff’s Mantis — they’re all present and accounted for, as are Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel in their voice-over roles as Rocket Raccoon and Groot, respectively.

Even most of the “big-time” supporting cast members from prior films/franchises are here, albeit for pretty cursory “check-ins” : Gwyneth Paltrow’s Pepper Potts, Tom Hiddlesont’s Loki, Idris Elba’s Heimdall, Benicio Del Toro’s Collector, William Hurt’s Secretary of State Ross, Benedict Wong’s — uhhhmmm — Wong, Letitia Wright’s Shuri, Danai Gurira’s Okoye — hell, even Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury puts in an appearance if you hang around through the end of the credits. If you like ’em, chances are they’ll turn up just long enough to make you happy.

Which means, of course, that there’s little room for anybody new — the “Big Bad,” Thanos, has made some brief-ish some cameos in some of the lead-ups to this, but by and large this is the first time we’ve seen him take center stage (and Josh Brolin actually does some interesting things with the character, portraying him as more dispassionate and calculating than outright menacing), so I guess we can call him kinda “new,” but the only semi-major player we absolutely have never seen before is Peter Dinklage in the role of Eiti, and ya know? He’s pretty damn good. But then, he always is.

So the story goes something like this : Thanos is out to assemble the six all-powerful “Infinity Gems” so he can place them all inside this big, fancy gauntlet and wipe out half the living beings in the entire universe, thereby insuring that the half who survive can have it good what with less competition for resources and the like. But not so fat, the re-grouped Avengers, the Guardians of the Galaxy, the Wakandans, and the heroes who usually go it alone are all going to join forces to try and stop him, because that’s what they do. Big fights ensue. Big moments occur. Big conversations are had. And it all leads up to a big third act that changes everything forever. Really. The whole course of the MCU is altered. It’s momentous. It’s gargantuan. It’s the most hitherto-unimaginable thing to ever go down.

Unless, ya know, you’ve ever read a comic book at any point in your entire life. In which case you’ll know that nothing really happens that can’t, well, un-happen.

The reason Avengers : Infinity War might be said, in purely technical terms, to “work” — and why so many people are leaving theaters all over the world in a state of absolute shock — comes down not to anything in the film itself, but to a clever advance marketing ploy, and that’s it. Ya see, early on it was announced that this was the first of a two-part story. Then Marvel seemed to backtrack on that and say, no, it’s not, we’ve re-worked this a little bit and now it’s a stand-alone film. And if you go into the flick believing that, then yeah, this is the gut-punch to end all gut-punches. But it’s all bullshit.

Seriously. This is no more a “one-off” than any of these things are. The status quo has been re-set in a very big way, no doubt, but who are we kidding? It’s only temporary. There’s one major-ish development involving the demise of a character (and that’s all I’m gonna say) that occurs before the balls-out climactic finale, and in theory I suppose that could stick, but everything else? Like Stan Lee infamously once said, “how much do you charge for a quick hand —” sorry, “don’t give them change, give them the illusion of change.” And that, friends, is precisely what this is. An illusion. A big, bold, brash, jaw-dropping illusion, to be sure —but at the end of the day, an illusion nonetheless.

For my part, what can I say? This hustle stopped working on me when I was about 12 years old. I need something more. And that’s simply not on offer here. This is a film that exists for the sole purpose of hoodwinking you into thinking that nothing will ever be the same again — and when you turn around in, I dunno, two years’ time, guess what? It’s gonna be like it never even happened.  So enjoy the re-arranged interiors while you can, because everything, minor window dressings aside, is gonna end up right back where it’s always been — and always will be.

This is what audiences want, though, and while that’s perfectly fine and dandy on the most obvious and liminal level — different strokes for different folks and what have you — when you spend any time thinking about it, actually it’s kind of depressing. Like Trump, Avengers : Infinity War (and, really, the entire MCU in general) is one big con job, and it’s a con job that’s winning. Once the initial shock of this film’s ending wears off, there won’t be a soul left wondering “oh my God, what did they just do?,” but there will be legions of people wondering”oh my God, how are they going to reverse all of that?” And I really don’t care what the answer to that question is.

2B89064B00000578-0-image-a-25_1440115471750

Occasionally, a critic — even one of the strictly amateur variety such as myself — is compelled to offer an opinion that makes them feel like a bit of an asshole. Maybe there’s a flick you didn’t care too much for, but you’ve gotten to know one or more of the principles involved in its production either via social media or, in rare instances, the real, actual world, and they seem like genuinely nice folks who you’d hate to piss off. This has happened to me more than once and I take no particular joy and/or pride in it, trust me. Or maybe there’s a new film out from a director whose work you genuinely admire but his or her latest project just isn’t up to snuff. This is much more common, and you can generally let it roll like water off your back. Or perhaps there’s a movie making the rounds that’s so well-regarded among everyone else that your own negative review on it will mark you as something of a pariah among the rest of the “critical class.” This, frankly, shouldn’t bug you in the least.

These scenarios can all be dealt with to one degree or another and needn’t leave a stain on your conscience for very long, but damn — once in the deepest, bluest of moons, you don’t just offer an opinion that makes you feel like “a bit of an asshole,” but like a major asshole. Today, I’m sorry to say, is just such a day.

06spotlight-master675

Director Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight was the surprise winner of the “Best Picture” award for 2015 at the most recent Oscars ceremony, and is certainly an important, topical, and highly accurate procedural story that’s well worth seeing — even though I didn’t see it myself until well after it took home the biggest prize the Academy can bestow on a film (I saw it this afternoon, to be specific, at the neighborhood discount theater). So it’s not that I didn’t like the flick — please don’t get me wrong. But I’m kinda glad that I waited to see it “on the cheap,” and to be honest, I probably could have kept waiting until it hit DVD or even Netflix. That’s because my first thought upon leaving the theater was — well, why don’t we just save that for the end, since it’s what made me feel like a, as I described it, “major asshole.” Which plenty of folks will say I am anyway, but still —

The “pluses” on offer here are many, of course, but most fall squarely on the shoulders of the cast. Michael Keaton plays Boston Globe editor Walter “Robby” Robinson, who’s been tasked by his new boss, Marty Baron (portrayed by Liev Schreiber) with digging into the Catholic clergy sex abuse scandal with a bit more vigor than the paper has in the past. Grinding the shoe leather in a concerted effort to break the story wide open are the ace reporters of his “Spotlight” unit (hence the title and all) Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), and Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James), who are all given various opportunities to shine throughout the course of the film and duly make the most of them, particularly Ruffalo. Overseeing matters is John Slattery as legendary newsman Ben Bradlee, Jr., and a trio of lawyers played by Stanley Tucci, Billy Crudup, and Jamey Sheridan each impact the case, for good or ill, from their respective positions. It’s a superb group of actors that’s been assembled here, and McCarthy is to be credited for getting terrific work out of each and every one of them.

spotlight-2

What I’m not prepared to give him credit for, though, is having any discernible directorial style to speak of (even the tired and overused faux- “guerrilla filmmaking” or “street level” tropes would have been preferable to the dull, “point-and-shoot” approach that he takes throughout here), nor for mining any of the quite obviously rich human tragedy that underpins this frankly ground-shaking series of events for dramatic effect. We only see a couple of victims for a very short time, only meet one of the accused priests (who’s both disturbingly confessional and even more disturbingly obtuse) for about two minutes tops, and the rest of the flick is just pure nuts-and-bolts newspaper work that McCarthy and co-screenwriter Josh Singer  are serving up. It does an okay job with that material, sure, but it’s not going to make you forget All The President’s Men or anything — what’s really remarkable, though (and I don’t mean that in a complimentary sense) is how it’s pretty darn hard to feel a genuine sense of emotional detachment from a film about one of the most wealthy and powerful organizations in the world covering up for a bunch of friggin’ child molesters within its own ranks, yet somehow Spotlight manages to pull it off. I’d be tempted to call it a perverse sort of miracle, even, but the Catholic church might be tempted to take credit for it, so I won’t. Towards the end they attempt to imbue each of the reporters and editors with a bit of a personal connection to the story they’ve spent, by then, literally months working on, but it’s a case of “too little, too late,” and it both feels forced and falls flat.

spotlight-movie_Fotor

And so we’ve arrived at the “why I feel like an asshole” moment that I started talking about roughly 800 words back. And it all comes down to that thought in my head as I left the theater. I’ll give you the exact words that ran through my mind in a moment, but the reason I hated myself for even thinking them is because the Catholic clergy sex abuse scandal is an absolutely devastating story whose size and scope is almost beyond comprehension at this point. It’s a genuine worldwide epidemic that has destroyed countless lives when its victims turned to drugs, alcohol, or even suicide to either mask or end their suffering. It’s been going on for God only knows how long, it continues to go on to this day, and even after paying out who knows how many millions (not nearly enough, if you ask me) of dollars in settlements, the same church leaders who spent the better part of their lives and careers sweeping it under the rug still don’t seem to grasp why it’s such a big deal. I might be a major asshole, but these guys are unconscionably major assholes.

So, yeah — this is a story that needed to be told. And I’m glad it was. And no one should ever forget it. The victims deserve not just financial settlements or some vague and amorphous sense of “closure,” but outright fucking justice, and the perpetrators and their enablers deserve to be dealt with not just by their fictitious God, but by real, human courts of law and penal systems. The work that the Boston Globe did to report on this epic tragedy in important. The work that Tom McCarthy and his cast and crew did it translating that story into film is important. But — and it’s a big but — that nagging thought I had as the credits rolled on Spotlight, and that I’ve had ever since, is (insert sarcastic drumroll if you must) : “this felt like a made-for-TV ‘Movie of the Week’ with an overqualified cast.”

I wisely ditched out on the Catholic church (and all religion) in my mind and heart when I was about six years old and physically as soon as I flew my parents’ coop, but some remnant of good, old-fashioned “Catholic Guilt” must still be lingering in the dark corners of my subconscious because I feel like I should burn in a Hell that I don’t even believe exists just for thinking that. But my conscience would bother me even more if I expressed anything other than my absolute, honest assessment of this — or, heck, any — film to my readers, so there you have it.

10869325_591589580977275_2778898650041679518_o

Like many an armchair movie critic, once I decide that I’m gonna review a particular film, I browse the web for some pictures of said film to include within the body of my write-up/rant so that you, faithful reader, aren’t just confronted with a “wall of text” if I’m fortunate enough to have your attention long enough to read whatever shit I’ve decided to blather on about. I usually opt to include four or five images with a standard-length review — sometimes more, sometimes less, but generally I find that four or five spaces things out nicely and gives a review a good “look.”

What’s this boring “behind the scenes” info got to do with Avengers : Age Of Ultron? Simply this : when I did a Google image search for pics related to writer/director Joss Whedon’s latest Marvel Studios mega-blockbuster, it was virtually impossible to tell actual film stills (which I prefer to use) apart from  heavily-airbrushed, digitized promotional art issued by Dis/Mar and/or fan-made photoshop art. Seriously. Try this yourself and tell me I’m not wrong — go to Google image search, type in “Avengers Age Of Ultron” and see if you can tell the difference. Even if you’ve seen the movie, I’m tellin’ ya, in many cases you can’t. I know that all film — yes, even documentaries to some degree — is artifice, but seriously : when you can’t discern an “actual” movie still from a promo mock-up, it seems to me that we’ve silently crossed some sort of line and are in new and uncharted territory. How many actual “sets” were used in Whedon’s CGI “epic”  vs. how much was shot entirely in front of a blue-or green-screen I couldn’t say you with any certainty, but, as with last summer’s Guardian Of The Galaxy, which saw Vin Diesel credited as one of the flick’s “stars” simply for doing the equivalent of animation voice-over work, here James Spader is credited prominently for “starring” as the villainous Ultron despite never actually, ya know, appearing on screen at all.

Ultron-Arrives

Now, if you’re at all familiar with my previous appraisals of so-called “MCU” movies, this is probably the point at which you expect me to launch into some diatribe about what a piece of shit this thing is. It’s no secret that, apart from Joe Johnston’s Captain America : The First Avenger, I really haven’t liked many of these at all. I find them to be dull, predictable, repetitious, uninvolving, way too heavy on spectacle at the expense of characterization, you name it. And while Avengers : Age Of Ultron is certainly guilty of all those things, let me let you in on a little secret even though it may threaten to completely ruin my reputation as a loud-mouthed cinematic contrarian — I really didn’t hate this flick as much as I did the last several Marvel offerings and, in fact, I may not have even hated it at all.

Which isn’t to say that I really liked it either — I’m still getting all that sorted out in my head, but this is by no stretch of the imagination a good movie. Maybe I’ve just given up (finally), accepted these things for what they are, and am willing to make some kind of peace with the fact that the public at large seems to really dig the hell out something that I don’t. It wouldn’t be the first time, and it won’t be the last. But who knows?  Maybe — just maybe — this movie is, in fact, marginally better than the rest of its brain-dead ilk. It’s a possibility I’m willing to at least consider.

avengers-126042

 

Detailed plot recaps of these things aren’t really necessary, of course, because Marvel movies don’t have detailed plots, but if you must know the basics here they are : Robert Downey, Jr.’s Iron Man, Chris Evans’ Captain America, Scarlett Johannsson’s Black Widow, Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye, Chris Hemsworth’s Thor, and  Murk Ruffalo’s Hulk all return as “Earth’s Mightiest Heroes!” to battle a problem of Tony Stark and Bruce Banner’s own creation, a power-mad artificial intelligence “virus” called Ultron that inhabits a bunch of robotic bodies and wants to save the world by — yawn! — destroying it. Newcomers Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) and her twin brother, Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) — who can officially appear in Marvel Studios product now that it’s been revealed that they’re not Magneto’s kids and therefore don’t fall under the umbrella of the X-Men properties owned, cinematically speaking, by Fox —switch sides about halfway through the action and join the team, Don Cheadle’s War Machine, Anthony Mackie’s Falcon, and Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury all pop up later to varying degrees when the obviously lily-white (okay, and green) makeup of the main team becomes so obvious that even Marvel can’t ignore it anymore, and Paul Bettany gets to graduate from a disembodied voice to an actual character when a variation of the Jarvis A.I. program he’s been dubbing in lines for takes on  physical (albeit android) form as the MCU’s version of The Vision.

The final outcome of the decidedly non-dramatic “drama” here is never, of course, in doubt — one way or another The Avengers are bound to win — but what I at least found somewhat noteworthy is that between the film’s frankly stupid-as-shit first act and predictably bombastic third, Whedon manages to squeeze in a second act that almost threatens to be actually interesting at times.

From what I gather, it’s this second act that a lot of hard-core Marvel fans have problems with, given that The Vision’s origin is basically nothing like its printed-page progenitor, Hawkeye is given a completely different backstory to the one that’s been established for him in the comics, and the Black Widow/Hulk romance that’s introduced here is a wholecloth invention on Whedon’s part. For my part, I felt most of this was rather plausible enough — okay, apart from the origin for The Vision, which is just plain staggeringly dumb — and certainly found this section of the film to be of far more interest than the CGI extravaganza that both precedes and usurps it, but is it enough to make Age Of Ultron something I’d actually watch a second time? I gotta admit, probably not — but at least it kept me from completely tuning it out the first time I saw it.

Of course, in addition to over-reliance on special effects, many of the same problems from the first Avengers flick are still on glaring display here — Johansson is the least-convincing Russian spy ever and exudes a kind of “negative charisma” as The Black Widow that literally sucks out whatever scant traces of life most of the scenes she appears in might have; we get way too many shots of Downey inside his Iron Man helmet; Ruffalo’s facial expressions run the shortest gamut you can possibly imagine (his looks can best be described as “concerned as shit” and “self-pitying plus concerned as shit”); and at the end of the day the only remotely sympathetic character (Tony Stark, incidentally, graduates from “more or less and asshole” to “complete asshole” as events unfold here) of the bunch is Renner’s Hawkeye. But whatever. As far as two-dimensional ciphers go, Hemsworth and Evans at least appear to be having fun as Thor and Captain America, respectively, and I’ll give Spader some credit for sounding suitably menacing and nuts in his “turn” as Ultron.

n-AGE-OF-ULTRON-large570

In the end, though, Avengers : Age Of Ultron‘s greatest success in an entirely inadvertent one : the Ultron character him/itself is, you see, a pretty effective metaphor for the Marvel Cinematic Universe as a whole. Think about it — like the robotic bad guy here, these movies exist not so much to be themselves, but to replicate themselves. An astonishing amount of time in this flick is devoted to foreshadowing/set-up for the forthcoming (and apparently two-part) next Avengers extravaganza, which will finally see them  fighting Jim Starlin’s Thanos character for control of the so-called “Infinity Gems.” And you can bet that once that conflagration takes place, it will be loaded with “hints” about the next big Avengers “spectacular” slated to follow it. And whatever that ends up being will probably be weighed down with “spoilers” for the next. And the next. And the next —

And so it goes. Look, I’m not a sucker (at least, I don’t like to think that I am).  I might have found Avengers : Age Of Ultron to be marginally more to my liking than both its predecessor and most of its “sister” films — and it was nice to see Jack Kirby’s name displayed prominently in the credits this time (even if Stan Lee’s, as always, comes first) — but the creative bankruptcy of Marvel Studios as a whole, as well as the overtly cynical nature of their cash-grabbing ways, are as plain to see as ever here. These aren’t movies that even give a shit about being good, they’re movies that are designed to get you to keep on coming back for more. Fans might argue that “well, if they weren’t so good in the first place, people wouldn’t be coming back for more, so you’re negating your own point, asshole!,” but I don’t buy it. All the public really wants from these films is a sort of easily-digestible, not-too-taxing status quo. Marvel has been succeeding at giving them just that in the pages of their comics ever since true visionaries like the aforementioned Mr. Kirby, Steve Ditko, Wally Wood, and (a little bit later) Steve Gerber left the fold and succeeding generations of “fan creators” with no greater ambition than to tell bigger, noisier versions of the same stories they loved as a kid took over. Now the same thing is happening on celluloid, with bigger bucks behind it and bigger audiences consuming it, but the basic hustle remains the same. As “Stan the Man” himself might put it in that nauseating faux-Shakespearian way of his that people insist is “charming” and “fun” : ’twas ever thus, and so it shall remain.