Posts Tagged ‘paul bettany’

Somebody, please, tell me : where’s all the hate coming from?

Okay, maybe a better way to put that would be — why is all the hate coming in the first place because, strictly speaking, we know where it’s coming from : just as the gaming scene was disrupted mightily by right-wing trolls who didn’t want any women around and coalesced into a toxic stew known as “Gamergate,” and the comics scene has recently found itself fending off a broadly anti-diversity rump of retrograde fans who have taken to labeling their harassment and intimidation campaign “Comicsgate,” the Star Wars scene has been besieged by an as-yet-untitled, but damn noisy and annoying, group of right-wing ostensible “fans” who have decided that their (again, ostensibly) beloved franchise has been besieged by “political correctness,” and that the films are now loaded with so-called “SJW messaging.”

It’s all bullshit, of course : if anything, the Star Wars films are as obliquely pro-war as ever (hell, it’s right there in the name, so maybe it’s not so “oblique” after all), but that never stopped a bunch of noisemakers aligned with the “alt-right” from trying to gin up a controversy where none exists for the sake of hopefully making a few bucks. To date, actress Kelly Marie Tran has gotten the worst of it, her turn as Rose Tico in The Last Jedi — hell, her very existence — pissing off the troglodytes to the point where she has literally shut down all her social media accounts after getting understandably sick of literally hundreds or overtly racist messages and comments being flung at her every day, but for reasons I can’t fathom, these same douchebags also decided well in advance of its release that the spin-off film Solo : A Star Wars Story was going to suck.

Again, though, as always, the dipshit brigade was dead wrong.

And, again, that hasn’t shut them the fuck up, and at this point it’s worth noting that the crossover between the various “gates” is getting pronounced — not just in terms of their vile politics and their even more vile tactics, but even in terms of the very people involved : noted “Comicsgate” shit-disturber/untalented hack artist Ethan Van Sciver, for instance, has recently been migrating over Star Wars fandom and has made thousands of dollars selling bootleg “Soylo” t-shirts (“soy,” like “cuck” and “SJW,” being favored derogatory terminology deployed by “alt-right” types against their philosophical opponents) that I’m thinking Disney’s lawyers might want to take a good look at being that they use the exact same logo as the Solo film.

Tell you what, though — even if Van Sciver justifiably finds himself getting his ass sued off, he’ll probably still claim a pyrrhic victory : Solo, you see, has been the first legit box-office disappointment in Star Wars history, and the “anti-SJW” crowd is taking all the credit for it.

Which, say it with me now, is also complete BS, as there’s nothing even remotely “SJW,” or even political in any way, on offer in this flick. I don’t know why this movie hasn’t done so well — although it’s worth noting that when all is said and done it’ll probably still turn a healthy profit — but I do know that politics has nothing to do with it. Solo is essentially what any Han Solo “origin story” should be : a space western suitable for all ages, races, genders, ethnicities, and political persuasions. A 12-year-old kid who cried with his mom the night Trump won the election and a crusty 60-year-old in a “MAGA” hat can each find plenty to love here, because the film’s enthusiasm is absolutely infectious : Alden Ehrenreich is a pitch-perfect choice in the title role; Woody Harrelson’s rogue-ish Tobias Beckett is a fantastic foil/mentor; his partner in crime and life, Thandie Newton’s Val, is equal parts tough as nails and achingly human; Paul Bettany cuts a genuinely menacing and mysterious figure as chief villain Dryden Voss;  Donald Glover is spot-on stupendous as a young Lando Calrissian; Emilia Clarke is coolly intriguing yet eminently relatable as Han’s love interest, Qi’ra; hell, even Joonas Suatomo seems to approach the role of Chewbacca with a little extra heart. I guess what I’m trying to say here is that all the principal players flat-out nail it in their roles.

I’m thinking this all flows from the top down — veteran blockbuster director Ron Howard was brought in approximately halfway through to rescue what by all accounts had been a flagging production, and armed with a screenplay by old Lucasfilm hand Lawrence Kasdan and his son, Jonathan, the air of tonally perfect professionalism established is unmistakable : the humor (of which there is plenty) is well-timed and genuinely funny, the battle scenes and their attendant special effects spectacular, the various subplots compelling — seriously, this is a “popcorn movie” that’s firing on all cylinders all the way through, and more importantly, it has everythingStar Wars fan could possibly want, and nothing they don’t.

For all that, though, very little feels forced, there’s no sense a “checklist” Howard and the Kasdans are working from is having its various boxes ticked off : yeah, how the hell Solo became such a good “space cards” player is never really explained and just needs to be taken as a given, and they do rush on pretty quickly from a central character’s death, so much so that it feels downright callous, and sure, the third act contains a bit too much set-up material for a sequel that will now probably never happen (although there’s a real jaw-dropper among these foreshadowings that ties this flick into Lucas’s much-maligned prequel trilogy) — but apart from that, everything here really flows from scene to scene quite nicely.

And speaking of “flow,” the entire film positively flies by, it’s two-hour-plus runtime over with all too soon. But you know what? You’ll be smiling the whole way, because Solo : A Star Wars Story isn’t just the franchise’s best outing since The House Of The Mouse took over (well over 12 parsecs ago now), it’s the best since The Empire Strikes Back.

So, where’s all the hate coming from? Well, when I put the question out to twitter as to where the supposed “SJW messaging” in this movie was to be found, I only got one response, that from a person I recognized as being linked with “Comicsgate” (some of them follow me out of sheer spite, I think), who opined that the “problem” with it was that it featured a “miscegenation relationship” (Harrelson and Newton) and “acted like it was perfectly normal.”

The hate, then? It’s coming from racist fucking assholes. And any movie that pisses them off is probably pretty damn good — this one certainly is.

 

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.

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Writing reviews of these Marvel flicks really ought to be fairly easy at this point since they can more or less all be summed up with “if you like this sort of thing, then you’ll like this one, too” — and while that’s as true as ever in the case of the just-released Captain America : Civil War, there’s plenty on offer here worth commenting on in a bit more depth, much of which isn’t taking place on the screen at all. So let’s dive into that first, shall we?

Make no mistake — the latest entry into the so-called “MCU” had a big opening weekend and looks set to make its parent company plenty of money. But a number of box office websites projected it to do considerably more business right out of the gate, and keep in mind that those figures are usually adjusted downwards thanks to pressure from studio executives. As just one example, boxoffice.com was going with a projected figure of $214 million for opening weekend, and you can bet that means their initial, un-publicized projections were more in the neighborhood of $220 million. As receipts started to be tallied up, they revised that figure down to $185 million, then down to $181 million come Sunday evening. Final score once actuals were totaled up? $179 million, good enough for the fifth-best opening weekend of all time, but lower than both Avengers and Avengers : Age Of Ultron. This final figure is certainly nothing to sneeze at, of course, but frankly much more impressive is how the Disney PR machine immediately leapt into action, emphasizing that it was a 90% stronger opening than the previous entry in the series, Captain America : Winter Soldier (which opened on a Wednesday in fucking April), rather than comparing it to the opening numbers for the two Avengers films, which is what they were saying the first-weekend box office take for this one would be more in line with before it, ya know, actually opened.

So, the good news for Dis/Mar is that Captain America movies (although this is one in name only given that Cap is hardly anything like “THE” central character — he’s more “A” central character) keep on making more money every time — the bad news is that Avengers movies (which, they were right, is essentially what this is) keep on doing incrementally worse. To provide some recent context (that also shows the efficacy of Disney’s largely-unpaid internet “spin” legion): the March 25th weekend opening of Batman V. Superman took in only $13 million less than did Captain America : Civil War, and all the talk within X-amount of days was about how that “under-performed” compared to expectations — even though its $166 million take was well ahead of the $140 million-ish figure most of the box office sites were projecting. I know that six weeks is ancient history in today’s world, but the simple truth is that Batman V. Superman was considered a rousing success — for all of about a week. It wasn’t until it suffered a 71% decline in its second week thanks to negative word of mouth (some sincere, some orchestrated by Disney brass) that talk of what a “failure” it was began to be taken seriously. For the record, to date BvS has made almost $870 million worldwide, and while Civil War is currently sitting around $700 million after just two weeks of release (it opened in many European and Asian markets before the US/North America — go figure) and will almost certainly pass Zack Snyder’s blustery-but-stylish romp within a week or two given that its week-to-week dropoff will almost certainly be much smaller, chances still seem fairly good that it also may not make it to a billion during its theatrical run (in fact, I’m betting it tops out around $930-$940 million) — and given that BvS will probably squeak just past $900 million between the few weeks it’s got left at the first-run theaters and its inevitable follow-up stint at the discount houses, there’s a very real chance that less than $50 million will be all that separates the “amazingly successful” Civil War from the “disappointing” Batman V. Superman. Considering that both films had budgets reported to be in the $250 million range and that each studio is said to have shelled out somewhere around $200 million on publicity to hype their product, Disney is still going to come out ahead of Warners on their big-budget superhero mash-ups for 2016, but not by a whole lot. Still — it’s funny how the “spin game” works, is it not? Once again, a few free preview passes and a few empty promises about “potential future visits to the set of one of our movies!” aimed in the direction of the right “opinion-shapers” is all it takes to make one studio look like champs and the other look like chumps.

I’ll tell you what, though — I don’t care how they spin in, the $179 million opening weekend for Captain America : Civil War was a good $30-35 million less than the Disney “suits” had been both hoping for and expecting. They’re hedging their bets a bit by claiming that the Mother’s Day holiday put a little bit of a dent in their business, but funny — BvS opened the same weekend as a holiday, as well : it’s called Easter. Maybe you’ve heard of it. Not traditionally known for being a big day at the movies.

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Of course, Civil War‘s (weird as this may sound) “soft” opening shouldn’t be taken in any way as a reflection on the film itself. Plenty of great movies have absolutely tanked at the box office, while plenty of shit ones have made hundreds of millions — and in the final analysis (which I’m getting to, I promise), this one falls somewhere in between. Directors Anthony and Joe Russo seem to have a bit more free reign here, stylistically speaking, than previous MCU directors have been given, and the end result is a flick that doesn’t start to ape the “big-budget TV episode” look of, say, Joss Whedon’s Avengers flicks or Jon Favreau’s Iron Man flicks until — oh, I dunno — about halfway through its two-and-a-half-hour-plus runtime. Frankly — and hard-core Marvel fans are gonna slap me for saying this — given the keen eye they show for shot composition in the early going (and again during some parts of the movie’s purportedly “climactic” final battle), Civil War often looks more like a Zack Snyder film than it does a Marvel film, and that at least goes some way toward keeping a person’s eyes glued to the screen. The story, sadly, is somewhat less engaging, revolving as it does (in case you didn’t already know) around a bunch of heroes falling in line behind Captain America (played, as ever, with a reasonable amount square-jawed heart by Chris Evans) and another bunch falling in line behind Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) as they take opposite positions on a bill to sanction, approve, and essentially regulate all super-hero work being advanced by the US Secretary of State (portrayed by a gaunt and sickly-looking William Hurt). “Team Cap,” which is opposed to the new legislation,  consists of The Falcon (Anthony Mackie), The Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), while “Team Iron Man,” which is in favor of it, has The Vision (Paul Bettany), War Machine (Don Cheadle), Black Widow (the preposterously-un-Russian as ever Scarlett Johansson), and newcomers Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) and Spider-Man (Tom Holland) in its ranks. The battle lines are drawn, one character will definitely get the worst of it, the MCU will supposedly change forever — you know the drill.

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Of those just-mentioned newcomers, Holland’s Spidey is getting all the hype, but it’s Boseman’s Black Panther who is far and away the more impressive. He’s sleek, silent, calculating, and even-keeled, and his forthcoming solo movie might just be interesting (as opposed to his newly-relaunched comic series, which is off to a truly risible start). Holland, by contrast, seems a bit too youthful and, to be brutally honest, wet behind the ears to be an effective Peter Parker/Spider-Man, and his origin story looks like it’s going to be a rather revisionist, or “retconned,” one, with a lot of Stark Industries influence, and constant references to how “hot” his Aunt May ( played by Marisa Tomei — who, I’m sorry to sound like a pig, has certainly looked a lot better in other films than she does here) is. We’ll see how that goes, but his role here essentially boils down to being the first bit of  comic relief in a film that frankly has none until he shows up just past the halfway point (if you really want some fun, though, add up the number of critics online and in print who have said that BvS was too “dark” and “joyless,” then turned right around and extolled the virtues of Civil War‘s  “serious” and “mature” tone). To Holland’s credit, his character’s comic relief shtick at least works, which is more than you can say for the flat, forced “humor” on offer from Paul Rudd’s Ant-Man — the less said about which the better.

You already know the two sides won’t stay at each other’s throats forever, of course, and that they’ll team up to fight a bigger threat (a cliched non-twist that BvS  was, again, panned for but that Civil War is, also again, being praised for) before all is said and done — the problem is that said “bigger” threat here is, in the end, just a guy. Daniel Bruhl’s Zemo character (who bears precisely no resemblance to the Baron Zemo created by Jack Kirby) is certainly manipulative and all, but on the whole he’s a decidedly un-menacing bad guy. Granted, previous MCU films have set the bar for “villain quality” amazingly low, but this clown is small potatoes compared even to the bog-standard CGI alien invaders of The Avengers or the laughably incompetent Loki from the Thor flicks. In all honesty, Sebastian Stan’s Bucky Barnes/Winter Soldier seems a more pressing danger than Zemo ever is, and we know from the outset that he’s being manipulated/impersonated and doesn’t really mean anyone any harm. I don’t know how an entire fucking commitee of screenwriters couldn’t manage to come up with a better “evil mastermind”-type character than the one we’re served up here — unless they weren’t really trying. The only thing that might be more lame than this is Cap’s wooden “romance” with Sharon Carter (Emily VanCamp) — who just so happens to be the niece of his first love from back in the 1940s. Nothing creepy about that.

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If you’re getting the impression that I found Captain America : Civil War to be something of a mixed bag on the whole, hey, you’d be exactly right — the plot has a bit more thematic depth to it than most MCU fare and it’s a more appealing package visually (until it gets all “point-and-shoot” later on), but it suffers from all the usual flaws these things do, as well, the largest being that it exists more for the purpose of selling audiences on the next two or three films in this “universe” than it does for creating a truly memorable and “game-changing” viewing experience this time around. The Russo Brothers seem to be getting a more effective “hang” on this whole “blockbuster thing,” which is a good sign given that they’ll be heading up the next two films in the Avengers series, but if current patterns hold — and at this point there’s no reason to believe that they won’t — even those “tent-pole” releases will continue to promise that the best, biggest, baddest, and coolest thing ever is just around the corner. It would be nice if, for once, it actually arrived — but Disney studio execs (and I’m sure the same will be true for their counterparts at Warners as the so-called “DCEU” progresses) have no real reason to give audiences the “steak” rather than the “sizzle” as long as these two-and-a-half-hour “teaser reels” for future films continue to make money — even if they’re starting to make less money than they used to.

 

 

 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Don’t look now, but the “mindfuck” subgenre appears to be alive and well in Hollywood after all. Hot on the heels of the critical and commercial success of Christopher Nolan’s Inception, it seemed as if every major studio was hot to trot out product designed to play with our collective perception of reality, and  from the runaway blockbuster Bradley Cooper “starring vehicle” Limitless to Duncan Jones’ eminently forgettable Source Code to the surprise hit Looper, no linear view of time, space, or human history was safe. High weirdness was definitely the flavor of the month for a good little while there.

And then things got kinda quiet. It’s almost as if the powers that be decided they wanted us firmly grounded in “the way things are” after all. But apparently not everyone got the memo.

Perception-bending seemed like fertile ground for ace cinematographer Wally Pfister to explore in his directorial debut — after all, he won a well-deserved (and frankly overdue) Oscar for his work on Inception — and so here we are again, with another big-budget, big-name production designed to make us question all we know about what it means to be human, how immortality might be achieved via electronic means, what constitutes conscious “life,” how an individual with limitless power might affect the world, etc. By now, you know the drill.

The funny thing is, though, that there seems to be another memo that Pfister didn’t get, either — namely, the one that says movies of this sort are already played out, irrelevant, and passe — because this here flick he’s come up with, Transcendence, is actually pretty good.

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Okay, fair enough — it’s hardly great, but it certainly deserves better than the woeful 23% (last I checked, at any rate) score it received at Rotten Tomatoes, and the subsequent cool reception it got at the box office is kind of a shame, too. Think of it this way : this film, which actually asks relevant questions about life after death, has struggled to find an audience, while “the punters,” as the Brits would say,  have positively lapped up the feel-good pablum of Heaven Is For Real (even though, sorry, it ain’t). Are you depressed yet? Because I kinda am.

One thing Transcendence has going against it is the fact that it does, in fact, feel rather dated — not just because the “mindfuck” is supposedly over and done with, but because the cast is peppered with a few folks who were supposed to be the “next big thing” a few years back, but never quite hit it big (look for supporting turns from Paul Bettany and Cillian Murphy, for instance), but I’m not going to knock Pfister too hard for that, given that they actually do a pretty good job for the most part.

Johnny Depp, on the other hand, does seem a bit uneven as Dr. Will Caster, our protagonist who gets shot with a radiation-laced bullet by “Neo-Luddite” activists who aren’t exactly keen on his artificial intelligence experiments. His devoted wife, Evelyn (Rebecca Hall, who turns in a really nice, and very human, performance) finds a way to use her old man’s own tech to keep him “alive,” in a manner of speaking, as a disembodied, semi-discarnate series of electrical impulses, and it’s when Depp has to basically play an A.I. simulation of himself that he runs into a little bit of trouble.

It’s not that his sudden even-keeled blandness is a problem, per se — hell, I’d be kind of flat and listless if I were “living” inside a fucking machine, too — it’s just that he never seems entirely synched up with the scale of his own ambitions after his “rebirth.” He decides to pretty much fix every problem in the world by thinking his way around them, and seems oddly resigned to the fact that nothing can really even threaten, much less stop, him, and is therefore just playing out some pre-destined role as the “guy” who’s going to elevate humanity out of all of our various dilemmas simply because, well, he can.

I’ll grant you, the megalomaniac sci-fi computer overlord bit has been done to death, but some kind of emotional affect would have been welcome here, rather than Depp just playing Caster 2.0 as, essentially, Dr. Manhattan minus not just the blue cock, but the whole entire body. To say audiences are going to have a tough time connecting with this character is an understatement of epic proportions.

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Still, both the aforementioned Hall and Morgan Freeman, playing the couple’s one-time friend and colleague, do a nice enough job providing points of entry to/identification with the admittedly far-fetched proceedings, and House Of Cards‘ Kate Mara is eminently believable as the anti-A.I. crusader/”terrorist’ who eventually wins over the Casters’ closest ally. Bettany, to her cause. The ethical and philosophical tug-of-war being played out as Caster keeps on ‘transcending” us, whether we want or need him to or not, is indeed very palpable at least among the supporting players, who are asked to carry a lot of the weight here given that the film’s star is, for the most part.  a digital re-enactment of himself.

And it’s when it’s asking those tough philosophical and ethical questions that Transcendence really shines. Sure, all this may seem like the kind of movie that would have been more at home ha it come out two years ago, but given that no less an authority than Stephen Hawking (hardly a technophobe) just said earlier this week that artificial intelligence could prove to be “our biggest mistake ever.” the themes that Pfister and screenwriter Jack Paglen are exploring here remain, in my view at least, as relevant as ever. Some form of this shit is coming down the pipeline at some point — what that means, and how we deal with it, could very well determine whether our species has any sort of future, at least in any form that we recognize,  or not.

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If I were to compare this film to any other recent offering, though, I might not look in the direction of Inception (even though, stylistically, this is very much recognizable as coming from the House of Nolan) so much as I would Spike Jonze’s unjustly-celebrated, and frankly downright offensive, Her — the main difference being that whether or not Evelyn Caster “loves” her now-electronic husband is already settled from the outset, and that Pfister has the guts to actually answer the questions he’s raising rather than cop out like Jonze did. Best of all is that his answers actually make sense, as well, and demonstrably show, as Alan Moore managed to do 20-plus years ago in the pages of Miracleman, why a perfect world is the most frightening one of all, especially if the guy (or consciousness) trying to “give” the rest of us that perfection is unaware of what’s so damn scary, and frankly wrong, about it.

Admittedly, I went into this one with decidedly low expectations and that probably helps Transcendence in terms of coming off as a “pleasant surprise,” but even if I knew nothing about it, I think I’d be impressed (albeit with some reservations, obviously). This is smart, gutsy film-making, and Pfister takes a hell of a lot more risks than most established directors would ever dream of doing. He forces us to confront all the possible ramifications of a forced utopia, and both what it will mean for us if we play along or if we don’t. He has a definite point of view, and isn’t shy about expressing it, but he’s honest enough to show the issue from all angles, and to let us decide for ourselves.

Confident without being brash, opinionated without being preachy, intelligent without being overbearing, dramatic without being overly (or worse yet nauseatingly) sentimental, Trasncendence is, much like the humanity it ultimately embraces and champions, full of flaws but nevertheless worth experiencing.

"Legion" Movie Poster

I don’t know about you, but God has always struck me as being one sadistic SOB. I mean, who but a true sadist would create such an inherently flawed species a humanity to begin with? Then send his own son to live amongst us knowing full well from the get-go that we’d end up killing him?  And that his death, supposedly meant to “redeem” us through blood sacrifice, would quite obviously backfire, since it didn’t change human nature one bit? Think about it : I could see plopping your son down here and letting us kill him if it meant we’d get our shit together, but the supposed death and resurrection of Jesus didn’t bring about any change for the better on our part whatsoever : war, greed, depravity, selfishness — all the problems that plagued our kind before God’s purported son was sacrificed to save us all didn’t exactly go away after Christ (again, supposedly) died and was resurrected, did they? We’ve got as much of all that today as ever — hell, we’ve got MORE of it than ever. So if God’s only begotten son dying was supposed to have some sort of profound effect on us all, I’d say it’s “mission unaccomplished” all the way.

Of course, basic biology is God’s cruelest trick of all, is it not? I mean, who but the ultimate sadistic mastermind would trap us in living, breathing tombs that deteriorate  and decay more the longer we’re here? The more we learn, the less time we have to use that knowledge, since every passing moment brings us one small step closer to our inevitable end. I would think a TRULY loving God would have created humanity to age in reverse or something, so that the longer we’re here, the healthier, stronger, and more vital we become. So me, I think God’s had it in for us from day one, and things like killing his kid probably just added to the animosity he had for us from the very beginning (not that he seems to have been in that big a hurry to take his revenge on us for that one — and again, he apparently saw it coming the whole time anyway), and according to visual FX guru Scott Stewart’s feature directorial debut, “Legion,” (not to be confused with William Peter Blatty’s fine third “Exorcist” film, also titled “Legion”) he’s finally had enough.

The Lord of Hosts has sent a plague of angels to wipe our sorry kind out once and for all, but there’s a catch : the Archangel Michael  (well-portrayed by Paul Bettany), a respected  General in God’s army, still thinks we’re worth keeping around for some reason, and he’s come down to Earth to try to save us from his the destructive horde unleashed by his boss.

The scene of the final battle of the biblical apocalypse is a suitably curious one(even if the name of the locale in which it takes place is almost painfully obvious : “Paradise Falls”) : a crummy truckstop cafe on the outskirts of the Mojave desert, where a pregnant waitress named Charlie (Adrianne Palicki) is about to give birth to a child that will supposedly save us from God’s wrath. With her in this last stand are the cafe’s owner, Bob Hanson (Dennis Quaid, who’s sure been doing a lot of genre work recently), his son Jeep (Lucas Black), who’s sweet on Charlie even though the kid’s not his (in fact, the exact identity of the father is never mentioned — but we’ll get to that shortly), short-order cook and Bob’s best buddy, Percy Walker (Charles S. Dutton, who it’s always great to see), a guy with a purportedly “Shady” past fleeing the devastation in Las Vegas (probably the first place I’d destroy if I were God) named Kyle Williams (the ever-odious Tyrese Gibson), and the seemingly well-to-do Anderson family of  father Howard, mother Sandra, and quasi-rebellious teenage daughter Audrey (Jon Tenney, Kate Walsh and Willa Holland, respectively), who are moving to a new town and have gotten lost along the way.

Our guy (errr—okay, our angel) Michael has showed up in a cop car he “appropriated” when he first landed in LA loaded with a veritable arsenal of formidable automatic firepower, and intends to see that Charlie gives birth no matter what, but lined up against our ragtag band of survivors-who-are-not-all-destined-to-survive is an endless horde of murderous zombies (well, technically they’re people possessed by the spirits of avenging angels) lead by another archangel we’ve all heard of,  Gabriel (Kevin Durand).

So essentially what we’ve got going here is another new twist on the zombie genre, one that’s unique enough in its own right, I suppose, but hardly makes for super-compelling viewing for a variety of reasons. While the CGI effects are uniformly effective and at times even downright creepy, and the same can be said for the atmospherics of the film in general (for instance, when an ice cream truck driven by a possessed zombie good-humor man comes driving up the lonely dirt road to the cafe in the black of night with its headlights shining and that annoying ice-cream truck music blaring, it’s genuinely unsettling), but these small saving graces (no pun intended) can’t make up for the fact that the movie itself is a rather discombobulated affair with too many ideas that go unexplored and too many that are explored giving way to cop-out explanations.

Which brings us back to the unmentioned father of Charlie’s baby and why its birth is supposedly going to save us all. In a movie wearing this much religious iconography on its sleeve so blatantly, you’re probably thinking “aha! Virgin birth!” or something, but no — this is no second coming she’s carrying in her womb, and the baby isn’t going to save us all because it’s the new messiah and that’s what messiahs generally do — you see, Charlie was thinking of having an abortion, decided against it, and now is determined to give the kid up for adoption. However, her going changing her mind and going ahead and having the baby will supposedly change everything in terms ofthe whole universal equation because the baby “wasn’t supposed to be,” and hey, ifshe decides to keep it and raise it herself, that REALLY screws up the natural running order of the universe! Oh, and as for who the dad is — they never say, but it stops really mattering, anyway, once you realize he’s probably just some interchangeable white trash bar pickup.

Another big cop-out lies in the fact that this super-powered zombie horde powered by the very wrath of God’s avengers themselves can be killed just by being shot. And not even shot in the head like ordinary zombies, just kind of shot anywhere. Come on, God can do better than that if he really wants us out of the picture!

Yet ANOTHER magnificently huge cop-out comes at the end of Michael and Gabriel’s big head-to-head battle royale that the whole movie’s been building up towards, but I’ll skimp on the details of that one so as not to be too much of a “spoiler jerk.”

Then we’ve got the finale itself, which we get too after some seriously befuddlingly nonsensical plot acrobatics that see Jeep inheriting some of Michael’s powers and taking over the role of Charlie and her baby’s protector from him now that the child has been born. I seriously have to wonder if this is a new, tacked-on ending that was shot after preview screeners gave a thumbs-down to the original finale or something, because for a movie that’s relatively high-quality CGI effects and suitably authentic sets for its first 90 minutes or so, suddenly we find ourselves on an all-too-obvious sound stage standing in for a high cliff (even the boulders look visibly phony) and the standard of the visual FX goes from pretty-near-top-of-the-line to the digital equivalent of painted Hollywood backdrops. The dialogue starts to seem pretty forced and rushed, as well — not that it’s ever too terribly realistic at all, but exchanges like Jeep to Michael “Will we ever see you again,” Michael to Jeep : “Have faith,” feel like they decided to tack on an opening for a potential sequel almost as a quick afterthought. So yeah, all in all the ending feels like a do-over that they shot in one afternoon after all the money had run out.

All that being said, I didn’t hate “Legion,” or anything close to it. There are a lot of neat ideas in here, even for a non-religious guy like myself, but it feels like they’re trying to load too many concepts on us in one go and haven’t really thought any of them through, at least not in a way that has any teeth. the gore effects are solid and there are some genuinely grotesque kills for those of you interested in such things (as most readers of this blog probably are), but all in all I have to say its somewhat frustrating that the best thing about this film turns out to be the window dressing, because Bettany delivers a solid turn in the title role and there are a lot of intriguing concepts at the core of the proceedings here, they just either go nowhere at all, or go nowhere interesting.

“Legion” is a movie with lots of wings, but it doesn’t really end up flying anywhere.