Sundance Film Review: sex, lies, and videotape (dir by Steven Soderbergh)


The Sundance Film Festival is currently taking place in Utah so, for this week, I’m reviewing films that either premiered, won awards at, or otherwise made a splash at Sundance!  Today, I take a look at 1989’s sex, lies, and videotape, which won both the Audience Award at the 1989 Sundance Film Festival and the Palme d’Or at Cannes!

The directorial debut of Steven Soderbergh, sex, lies, and videotape is considered by many to be one of the most important independent American films ever made.  Not only was it a  success at the box office and nominated for an Oscar but it also won the Palme d’Or at Cannes.  According to Peter Biskind’s Down and Dirty Pictures, the success of sex, lies, and videotape is what convinced Hollywood that independent films could be big business.  The marketing of the film would set the template for almost every independent release that followed.

(One person who was definitely not a fan of sex, lies, and videotape was director Spike Lee.  When Lee’s Do The Right Thing lost the Palme to Soderbergh’s film, Lee was informed that the Canne jury felt Lee’s film wasn’t “socially responsible.”  “What’s so socially responsible about a pervert filming women!?” Lee reportedly responded.)

sex, lies, and videotape tells the story of four people in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

Ann (Andie MacDowell) has a nice house, a successful husband, and an absolutely miserable marriage.  When the film opens, she’s having a session with her therapist (Ron Vawter) and talking about how unfulfilled she feels.  When the therapist asks her questions about her sex life, Ann laughs nervously.  She says that she likes sex but she doesn’t like to think about it.  She says she doesn’t see what the big deal is.  Later, she reveals that she’s never had an orgasm.

John (Peter Gallagher) is Ann’s husband.  He’s a lawyer.  He’s also a materialistic jerk and … well, that’s pretty much the sum total of John’s entire personality.

Cynthia (Laura San Giacomo) is John’s mistress.  She’s a bartender at a rather sleazy little establishment, where she apparently spends all of her time listening to a local drunk (Steven Brill) do a Marlon Brando impersonation.  She is uninhibited and fiercely sexual.  She’s the opposite of Ann, which is why John likes her.  Of course, she’s also Ann’s sister.  Cynthia and Ann have a strained relationship.  Ann describes Cynthia as being “loud.”  Cynthia views Anne as being judgmental.  Secretly, both wish that they could be more like the other.

And then there’s Graham (James Spader).  Graham was John’s friend in college, though it’s difficult to understand why.  Graham has recently returned to Baton Rouge and John, without talking to Ann, has invited Graham to visit them.  Graham is apparently a drifter.  (Ann describes him as being “arty.”)  While Ann is helping him find an apartment, Graham informs her that he’s impotent.  He can’t get an erection if anyone else in the room.

Ann subsequently discovers that Graham deals with his impotence by videotaping women discussing their sex lives.  The video camera allows Graham to keep his distance and not get emotionally involved.  (Of course, it also serves as a metaphor for directing a movie.)  Ann is freaked out by all of Graham’s tapes.  Cynthia is intrigued.  And John … well, John’s just a jerk.

sex, lies, and videotape is a film that’s largely saved by its cast.  Graham is a role that literally only James Spader could make intriguing.  Meanwhile, Peter Gallagher actually manages to bring some charm to John, who is the least developed character and who gets all of the script’s worst lines.  That said, the film really belongs to MacDowell and San Giacomo, who are totally believable as sisters and who, again, bring some needed depth to characters that, as written, could have been reduced to being mere clichés.  (In the scenes between MacDowell and San Giacomo, it was less about what they said than how they said it.)

As I already stated, this was Steven Soderbergh’s feature debut.  Soderbergh was 26 years old when he made this.  Seen today, it’s an uneven but ultimately intriguing film.  There are a few scenes where Soderbergh’s inexperience as a filmmaker comes through.  For instance, John is written as being such a complete heel (and, in his final scene, he wears a ludicrous bow tie that practically screams, “EVIL,”) that it occasionally throws the film off-balance.  You never believe that Graham would have been his friend, nor do you believe that Ann would have spent years putting up with his crap.  The film’s final scene between Cynthia and Ann also feels a bit rushed and perfunctory.  That said, this film shows that, from the start, Soderbergh was good with actors.  Visually, Soderbergh takes a low-key approach and allows the cast to be the center of attention.  It’s an actor’s film and Soderbergh wisely gets out of their way.  In particular, Spader and San Giacomo have a way of making the most heavy-handed dialogue sound totally and completely natural.

It’s hard to imagine Soderbergh directing something like sex, lies, and videotape today.  If the film were made today, Soderbergh wouldn’t be able to resist the temptation to use overexposed film stock and to give cameos to George Clooney as Ann’s therapist and Matt Damon as the drunk.  sex, lies, and videotape is a film that Soderbergh could only have made when he was young and still struggling to make his voice heard.  It’s a flawed by intriguing film.  If just for its historical significance, it’s a film that every lover of independent cinema should see at least once.

Previous Sundance Film Reviews:

  1. Blood Simple
  2. I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore
  3. Circle of Power
  4. Old Enough
  5. Blue Caprice
  6. The Big Sick
  7. Alpha Dog
  8. Stranger Than Paradise

A Movie A Day #282: Jack’s Back (1988, directed by Rowdy Herrington)


When med student Rick Westford (James Spader) is found hung at the free clinic where he worked, the police say that he committed suicide.  Rick’s estranged twin brother, John (James Spader), does not agree and launches an investigation of his own.  With the help of Rick’s co-worker, Chris (Cynthia Gibb), John discovers that Rick may have learned the identity of a serial killer who has been copying the crimes of Jack the Ripper and murdering prostitutes in Los Angeles.  However, the killer knows that John is getting close to discovering his identity so the killer sets out to frame John not only for the prostitute murders but for the murder of his brother as well.

Jack’s Back is a movie that deserves to be better known than it is.  James Spader gives two great performances, as both Rick and John.  He and Cynthia Gibb make a good team and Jack’s Back actually does some unexpected things with their relationship.  Jack’s Back was directed by Rowdy Herrington, who is best known for Roadhouse and Gladiator.  Jack’s Back is part murder mystery, part action thriller, and part horror movie and Herrington does a good job of switching back and forth through Jack’s Back constantly shifting tone.  Because this is a low-budget movie with a small cast, there really are not enough suspects to make the murderer’s identity a surprise but Spader, Herrington, and Gibb always keep things interesting.

This is a film that really does deserve to be better known.

What If Lisa Had All The Power And Picked The Oscar Nominees: 2015 Edition


oscar trailer kitties

With the Oscar nominations due to be announced tomorrow, now is the time that the Shattered Lens indulges in a little something called, “What if Lisa had all the power.” Listed below are my personal Oscar nominations. Please note that these are not the films that I necessarily think will be nominated. The fact of the matter is that the many of them will not. Instead, these are the films that would be nominated if I was solely responsible for deciding the nominees this year. Winners are starred and listed in bold.

(You’ll also note that I’ve added four categories, all of which I believe the Academy should adopt — Best Voice-Over Performance, Best Casting, Best Stunt Work, and Best Overall Use Of Music In A Film.)

(Click on the links to see my nominations for 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, and 2010!)

best picture

Best Picture
Brooklyn
*Carol*
Clouds of Sils Maria
Ex Machina
The Final Girls
Inside Out
Mad Max: Fury Road
Room
Sicario
Straight Outta Compton

George Miller

Best Director
John Crowley for Brooklyn
Alex Garland for Ex Machina
F. Gary Gray for Straight Outta Compton
Todd Haynes for Carol
*George Miller for Mad Max: Fury Road*
Denis Villeneuve for Sicario

Jacob Tremblay

Best Actor
John Cusack in Love & Mercy
Gerard Depardieu in Welcome To New York
Johnny Depp in Black Mass
Leonardo DiCaprio in The Revenant
Michael B. Jordan in Creed
*Jacob Tremblay in Room*

alicia vikander

Best Actress
Katharine Isabelle in 88
Brie Larson in Room
Rooney Mara in Carol
Saoirse Ronan in Brooklyn
Amy Schumer in Trainwreck
*Alicia Vikander in Ex Machina*

Del Toro

Best Supporting Actor
Michael Angarano in The Stanford Prison Experiment
Paul Dano in Love & Mercy
*Benicio Del Toro in Sicario*
Idris Elba in Beasts of No Nation
Arnold Schwarzenegger in Maggie
Sylvester Stallone in Creed

MA

Best Supporting Actress
*Malin Akerman in The Final Girls*
Elizabeth Banks in Love & Mercy
Cate Blanchett in Carol
Jessica Chastain in Crimson Peak
Jennifer Jason Leigh in The Hateful Eight
Kristen Stewart in Clouds of Sils Maria

amyp

Best Voice Over Performance
Jon Hamm in Minions
Richard Kind in Inside Out
Jason Mantzoukas in The Regular Show Movie
*Amy Poehler in Inside Out*
James Spader in Avengers: The Age Of Ultron
Steve Zahn in The Good Dinosaur

EM

Best Original Screenplay
Clouds of Sils Maria
*Ex Machina*
The Final Girls
Inside Out
Sicario
Trainwreck

mara_blanchett_carol

Best Adapted Screenplay
Brooklyn
*Carol*
The End of the Tour
Love & Mercy
Room
The Walk

Inside_Out_(2015_film)_poster

Best Animated Film
*Inside Out*
The Good Dinosaur
Minions
The Peanuts Movie
The Regular Show Movie
Shaun The Sheep

Amy_Movie_Poster

Best Documentary Feature:
3 ½ Minutes 10 Bullets
*Amy*
Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief
Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s The Island of Dr. Moreau
Prophet’s Prey
The Wolfpack

The_Tribe_poster

Best Foreign Language Film
The Connection
Gloria
The Mafia Only Kills In Summer
Misunderstood
A Pigeon Sat On A Branch Contemplating Existence
*The Tribe*

Brooklyn

Best Casting
*Brooklyn*
Carol
Mad Max: Fury Road
Sicario
Straight Outta Compton
Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Sicario

Best Cinematography
Carol
Clouds of Sils Maria
The Green Inferno
Mad Max: Fury Road
The Revenant
*Sicario*

carol3

Best Costume Design
Brooklyn
*Carol*
Cinderella
Ex Machina
Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Suffragette

MMedit

Best Editing
Carol
Ex Machina
*Mad Max: Fury Road*
Room
Sicario
Straight Outta Compton

Arnold-Schwarzenegger-in-Maggie

Best Makeup and Hairstyling
Black Mass
Brooklyn
Carol
Mad Max: Fury Road
*Maggie*
Star Wars: The Force Awakens

bl

Best Original Score
*Carol*
The Hateful Eight
It Follows
Mad Max: Fury Road
The Revenant
Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Spy2015_TeaserPoster

Best Original Song
“Love Me Like You Do” from Fifty Shades of Grey
“See You Again” from Furious 7
“Better When I’m Dancing” from The Peanuts Movie
“Flashlight” from Pitch Perfect 2
“Feels Like Summer” from Shaun the Sheep
*“Who Can You Trust” from Spy*

Compton 2

Best Overall Use Of Music
Furious 7
The Hateful Eight
Joy
Love & Mercy
The Martian
*Straight Outta Compton*

cp

Best Production Design
*Crimson Peak*
Ex Machina
The Final Girls
Mad Max: Fury Road
Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Unfriended

sicario-emily-blunt-trailer

Best Sound Editing
Avengers: Age of Ultron
Furious 7
The Revenant
*Sicario*
Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Straight Outta Compton

Compton

Best Sound Mixing
Avengers: Age of Ultron
Furious 7
The Revenant
Sicario
Star Wars: The Force Awakens
*Straight Outta Compton*

MM Stunt

Best Stunt Work
Furious 7
Kingsman: The Secret Service
*Mad Max: Fury Road*
Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation
Spy
Star Wars: The Force Awakens

star-wars-force-awakens-official-poster

Best Visual Effects
Ant-Man
Avengers: The Age of Ultron
Ex Machina
Mad Max: Fury Road
*Star Wars: The Force Awakens*
The Walk

Films By Number of Nominations:
11 Nominations – Carol
10 Nominations – Mad Max: Fury Road
9 Nominations – Sicario, Star Wars: The Force Awakens
8 Nominations – Ex Machina
7 Nominations – Brooklyn, Straight Outta Compton
5 Nominations – Furious 7, Inside Out, Love & Mercy, The Revenant, Room
4 Nominations – Avengers: The Age of Ultron, Clouds of Sils MariaThe Final Girls
3 Nominations – The Hateful Eight
2 Nominations – Black Mass, Creed, Crimson Peak, The Good Dinosaur, Maggie, Minions, The Peanuts Movie, The Regular Show Movie, Shaun the SheepSpy, Trainwreck, The Walk
1 Nomination – 3 ½ Minutes 10 Bullets, 50 Shades of Grey, 88, Amy, Ant-Man, Beasts of No Nation, Cinderella, The Connection, The End of The Tour, Gloria, Going Clear, The Green Inferno, It Follows, Joy, Kingsman: The Secret Service, Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s The Island of Dr. Moreau, The Mafia Only Kills in Summer, The Martian, Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, Misunderstood, A Pigeon Sat On A Branch Reflecting On Existence, Pitch Perfect 2, Prophet’s Prey, The Stanford Prison Experiment, Suffragette, The Tribe, UnfriendedWelcome to New York, The Wolfpack

Films By Number of Oscars Won:
4 Oscars – Carol
3 Oscars – Mad Max: Fury Road, Sicario
2 Oscars – Ex Machina, Inside Out, Straight Outta Compton
1 Oscar – Amy, Brooklyn, Crimson Peak, The Final Girls, Maggie, Room, Spy, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, The Tribe

Will the Academy be smart enough to agree with me on these picks?  We will find out on Thursday!

Lisa and Evelyn at the Oscars

Lisa and Evelyn at the Oscars

Embracing the Melodrama Part II #88: Dream Lover (dir by Nicholas Kazan)


Dream_Lover_FilmPosterThe 1994 film Dream Lover is almost as strange as Zandalee.

Dream Lover opens with Roy Reardon (James Spader, giving a very James Spaderish performance) in the process of getting divorced.  Sitting in court, he announces that he’s fired his attorney and that he’s no longer contesting the divorce.  The judge informs him that, if he did contest the divorce, the final judgment would be in his favor.  Roy says that doesn’t matter.  He doesn’t want to contest the divorce.

In the next scene, Roy’s ex-wife tells him that he’s a great guy and that it’s too bad that they couldn’t make the marriage work.  They agree that they were just too different.  She apologizes for cheating on him.  Roy apologizes for hitting her.  They agree that Roy has trust issues.

Over the next few minutes of the film, we follow Roy over the course of his new single life.  We discover that Roy is a successful architect who is always attracted to brunette artists with troubled backstories.  We also discover that Roy’s best friend is an obnoxious yet strangely likable guy named Norman (Larry Miller, who brings some unexpected depth to an obnoxious character).  Norman begs Roy for money.  Roy refuses to give it to him.  Norman invites Roy to an art gallery and offers to set him up with a woman he knows.  Roy agrees.  And, seriously, the first 20 minutes of the film are so dominated by Norman that you’re kind of surprised when the film moves on and he’s no longer in every scene.

(But then again, that’s the type of film that Dream Lover is.  Characters appear and vanish at random.  Plot points are raised and then abandoned.)

Anyway, Roy’s date is disastrous.  (“You don’t like me,” the woman says as tears stream down her face.)  However, during the date, Roy meets Lena (Madchen Amick).  When first they meet, they fight.  Then they run into each other again at the grocery store and they hit it off.  They go to dinner and, despite having a good time, Lena makes a point of not inviting Roy up to her apartment.  The next night, Roy shows up unannounced and Lena does invite him up.  At first, she’s cold towards him.  Then they’re making love.  And then they’re getting married.  And then the clowns show up…

Oh yes, there are clowns in this movie.  Roy is haunted by visions, where he’s at a carnival and random clowns pop up and say cryptic things to him.  “How’s the family?” one asks.  Another one continually reminds him that he doesn’t know much about Lena.

Years pass by.  Lena and Roy have two children but it continues to nag at Roy that he doesn’t know anything about her.  He worries that she’s cheating on him.  He fears that the children are not his.  Roy’s friends tell him that he’s being paranoid.  Roy argues that paranoia is just a heightened form of consciousness.

Roy starts to investigate Lena’s past and here’s where I really laughed out loud.  Roy finds out that Lena is from North Texas and goes down to her hometown.  As Roy arrives in this tiny country town, the camera reveals a huge mountain in the background.  Really, Dream Lover?  A mountain in North Texas?

Anyway, for me, this film never really recovered from that mountain but, if you can overlook that geographic mistake, Dream Lover is occasionally enjoyable because it is such a weird film.  James Spader is hot, Madchen Amick is beautiful, and the entire film features one of those huge and improbable twists that you simply have to see for yourself.

And you can see it because it’s currently available on Netflix!

Embracing the Melodrama Part II #83: Bad Influence (dir by Curtis Hanson)


Bad_Influence_Film_PosterThough it may seem like a lifetime ago, it’s only been 6 weeks since I started on my latest series of reviews.  I am currently in the process of reviewing, in chronological order, 126 cinematic melodramas.  I started with the 1927 classic Sunrise and now, 82 reviews later, I have finally reached the 1990s.

(Of course, when I started this series of reviews, I somehow managed to convince myself that it would only take me 3 weeks to review 126 films.  Instead, it looks like it’s going to take two months.  So, I was only off by 5 weeks.)

Let’s start the 90s by taking a quick look at a 1990 film called Bad Influence.  I have to admit that, when I made out my list of films to review, Bad Influence was not even on my radar.  I was planning on launching my look at the 90s with a review of Ghost.  But then I saw The Avengers: Age of Ultron and I was so taken with James Spader’s performance as Ultron that  I decided to add a few James Spader films to Embracing the Melodrama.

In Bad Influence, James Spader is cast somewhat against type.  He plays Michael, who has a good job and is engaged to marry the wealthy and overbearing Ruth (who, I was surprised to learn from the end credits, was played by a pre-Desperate Housewives Marcia Cross).  Michael should be happy but instead, he feels oddly dissatisfied with his life.  He’s shy and meek and spends all of his time trying to do the right thing and conform to the petty demands of society.

One day, as he’s sitting in a bar, Michael makes the mistake of trying to flirt with a woman who is obviously having a bad day.  When the woman’s boyfriend shows up, he tells Michael to leave.  When Michael mutters that it’s a free country, the man responds by grabbing Michael.  However, before the fight can go any further, handsome and charming Alex (played, somewhat inevitably, by Rob Lowe) pops up out of nowhere, smashes a bottle, and scares the man off.

Michael and Alex become fast friends, with Michael viewing the extroverted and confident Alex as being everything that he wants to be.  (Meanwhile, Alex seems to appreciate the fact that Michael has money and a nice apartment.)  Under the influence of Alex, Michael starts to stand up for himself and even manages to get a big promotion at work.  At the same time, he also ends up cheating on his fiancée (while Alex films them) , helping Alex hold up a series of convenience stores, and beating up an obnoxious co-worker.

Ultimately, Bad Influence is a lot of sordid fun.  It’s a bit like Fight Club, minus the satire and the big identity twist.  (Michael and Alex are differently separate characters.)  Director Curtis Hanson (who is perhaps best known for L.A. Confidential) brings a lot of style to the film’s tawdry fun and keeps the action moving quickly enough that you don’t have too much time to obsess over what doesn’t make sense.

Finally, James Spader and Rob Lowe are just a lot of fun to watch.  Spader turns Michael into a sympathetic protagonist and Rob Lowe seems to be having a blast going full psycho in his role.

Bad Influence is a well-made B-movie and it’s a lot of fun.  You can watch it below!

Embracing the Melodrama Part II #71: Cocaine: One Man’s Seduction (dir by Paul Wendkos)


CocaineNow, I originally saw the 1983 made-for-TV movie Cocaine: One Man’s Seduction on Netflix so I have absolutely no first hand knowledge of how this film was advertised.  However, I have it on very good authority (i.e., I read it on another blog) that the image above is from the film’s VHS packaging.

Just looking at this image, you would be justified in thinking that Cocaine: One Man’s Seduction was an early David Cronenberg film.  Seriously, it looks like a deleted scene from Scanners and Dennis Weaver’s head is about to explode.

But no!  There are no scanners in Cocaine: One Man’s Seduction.  David Cronenberg did not direct this film.  As far as I can tell, it wasn’t even filmed in Canada.  Instead, Cocaine: One Man’s Seduction is about one man who gets seduced cocaine.

You may have noticed that I enjoy reminding you that this film is called Cocaine: One Man’s Seduction.  That’s because that’s a great title.  If the film had just been called Cocaine, you might watch the film expecting it to be set on a 1970s film set.  And if the film had just been called One Man’s Seduction, viewers may have watched the film expecting a Double Indemnitystyle film noir.  But Cocaine: One Man’s Seduction leaves no doubt about what we’re about to see.

Add to that, it’s a very melodramatic title and the name of this series of reviews is, after all, Embracing the Melodrama Part 2!

Anyway, Cocaine: One Man’s Seduction is about a real estate agent named Eddie Grant (Dennis Weaver).  He’s the type of semi-successful white-collar suburban guy who you just know is going to have a really over-the-top midlife crisis.  He has a wife (Karen Grassle) who loves him.  He has a son (James Spader — yes, that James Spader!) who wants to put off going to college for a year.  Eddie also has a job where he’s viewed as being an over-the-hill relic.  People looking to buy a new home simply are not impressed with Eddie’s cheap suits, mild manner, and old-fashioned scotch-after-work style.

What Eddie needs is a new wardrobe and aviator sunglasses.  And, as we all know from watching movies set in the 70s and 80s, nothing gets you into aviator sunglasses faster than snorting a line of coke.

Soon, Eddie is driving a fast car, he’s wearing nicer suits, and he’s keeping a lot of secrets.  Then, one day, his son — JAMES SPADER! — happens to look inside Eddie’s shave kit and discovers where dad has been hiding his cocaine.

Now, this is where I was expecting Jeff VanVondern to show up and say, ” I see a bunch of people that love you like crazy and they feel like they are losing you. And they wanna fight to get you back.”  But apparently, people in the 80s did not need an intervention to get them to go to rehab.  Instead, they just needed to have a dramatic nose bleed at work and nearly overdose on someone else’s kitchen floor.  They also needed to be called out by James Spader.

Of course, it also helps that Eddie is friends with a recovering cocaine addict who is played by a very thin-but-already-bald Jeffrey Tambor.  Jeffrey Tambor is already something of a hyperactive actor (and that’s why we love him!) so when you combine that natural tendency with a character who is supposed to be coked up, it’s something that simply has to be seen.

Anyway, Cocaine: One Man’s Seduction is a fairly good example of the-worst-that-can-happen-will-happen cinema.  If nothing else, it has some worth as a time capsule and it’s undeniably interesting to see James Spader play a role that one would normally never associate with James Spader.

Cocaine: One Man’s Seduction is currently seducing viewers on Netflix.

Film Review: The Avengers: Age of Ultron (dir by Joss Whedon)


AGU

In some ways, I think I may be both the worst and the best possible person to review the latest installment of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, largely because I’ve seen all the films but I don’t know much about the comics on which they are based. As a result, I can judge each film solely by what is on screen but, at the same time, I know that there are a lot of references that go straight over my head. For instance, when we saw Avengers: Age of Ultron earlier tonight, I had to get my boyfriend to explain to me why certain members of the audience got so excited when Iron Man mentioned an African country called Wakanda. But what’s important is that I would have still enjoyed Age of Ultron even if I had never known why Wakanda was important. The MCU has, so far, managed to maintain a balance between keeping the Marvel fans happy while also remaining accessible to viewers like me. The MCU has created its own separate reality, one that even someone like me can feel comfortable exploring and reviewing.

However, before I get around to giving you my feelings on Age of Ultron, let’s be honest about something.

There are a lot of critics out there who have been waiting for a chance to attack the latest installment of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Some of them have disliked the MCU since the very first Iron Man film. They have been lone voices in the wilderness, arguing that the entire franchise is overrated and, in some cases, creatively destructive. Much like the Old Testament prophets, they continue to warn of the future while other filmgoers ignore the pillar of fire forming over the nearest theater. And then there are other critics who have praised previous MCU efforts but have never really been comfortable about it. These are the critics who resent having to write positively about a mere genre film. These are the critics who still haven’t gotten over just how good Guardians of the Galaxy truly was. They have been waiting for an MCU misfire so that they can do their penance for suggesting that Robert Downey, Jr. deserved Oscar consideration for Iron Man 3.

avengers-age-of-ultron-trailer-hulkbuster

These critics are going to watch The Avengers: Age of Ultron and they are going to pounce. They are going to point out that Age of Ultron puts too much emphasis on action over nuance and, as impressive as the CGI may be, it’s impossible to deny that Age of Ultron almost robotically follows the classic action movie formula. They’ll point out that none of The Avengers really develop as characters over the course of the film. Depending on how they’ve felt about the MCU up to this point, some of them will point out that Age of Ultron feels a bit like a step backwards. It doesn’t have the political subtext of Iron Man 3 or Captain America: The Winter Soldier. It lacks the satiric edge of Guardians of the Galaxy. And, ultimately, it’s just not as much fun as the first Avengers film.

And they won’t necessarily be wrong. I mean, let’s be honest. I write this as someone who has enjoyed (and, in some cases, loved) the previous MCU films. Avengers: Age of Ultron is not going to be remembered as one of the best of the MCU films. This is a flawed film that never reaches the heights of the original Avengers. All of the criticisms listed above are perfectly valid.

But, with all that in mind, I still enjoyed Avengers: Age of Ultron and I happily recommend it without a bit of hesitation.

film-review-avengers-age-of-ultron

Age of Ultron opens with the Avengers attacking a HYDRA base and we quickly discover that the Avengers are exactly the same as we remembered them. Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.) is cocky, self-destructive, and torn by guilt over his past as a weapons manufacturer. Captain America (Chris Evans) is earnest and idealistic. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is … well, he’s a God. Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) is scared of what he becomes when he transforms into the Hulk. Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner) is still shooting arrows and feeling out-of-place. Natasha (Scarlett Johansson) is still flirty, enigmatic, and apparently in love with Bruce Banner.

ultron

One of the reoccurring themes of the MCU is that whenever Iron Man tries to make the world a better place, he instead ends up nearly destroying it. His latest attempt leads him to create Ultron (voiced quite chillingly by James Spader), a robot who has Tony’s personality and who has decided that the only way to bring about “peace in our time” is to destroy all of humanity. Ultron’s motives are as close as this film gets to any sort of thematic subtext. Ultron stands in for every ideology that would take away a person’s individual freedom in the name of the greater good. Age of Ultron doesn’t explore this subtext as much as I would have liked it to but, at the same time, I appreciated that it was at least there. That’s more than you can say for a film like Man of Steel.

Ultron is not the only new character to show up. Andy Serkis has a small role as a character that will undoubtedly be a villain in a future MCU film. After voicing JARVIS in several films, Paul Bettany finally gets to actually appear onscreen. I can’t talk too much about his character without spoiling the film but Bettany makes good use of his limited screen time.

And then there’s Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen. Previously, they played lovers in Godzilla. In Age of Ultron, they play siblings who just seem like lovers. Taylor-Johnson is Pietro, who can move at super speeds. Elizabeth Olsen is Wanda, whose powers are a bit less defined but mostly seem to consist of being able to do whatever the script needs her to do at the time. (As the film explains it, “He’s fast, she’s strange.”) In the past, I’ve had mixed feeling about Taylor-Johnson. I thought he was brilliant in Nowhere Boy and Anna Karenina but, in other films, I found him to be excessively mannered and a little dull. But, in the role of Pietro, Taylor-Johnson really shines, achieving a good balance of arrogance and vulnerability. As for Elizabeth Olsen, she is perfectly cast as the angry but sensitive Wanda. At the very least, Age of Ultron better serves both of them than they were served by Godzilla.

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(Add to that, Wanda and I share similar tastes in fashion, which will make it easy for me to dress up as her for Halloween.)

Director Joss Whedon does a good job with the film’s many battle scenes, especially the final one. And, as someone who hated the mindless destruction of Man of Steel, I appreciated that, as characters, the Avengers spent as much time trying to protect innocent bystanders as they did battling Ultron and his henchrobots. At the same time, it was hard not to feel that the film’s emphasis on action did sacrifice some of the character moments that have made other MCU films so memorable. Early on in the film, there’s a great scene where the Avengers simply hang out at a party. They dance, they dink, they laugh, and eventually, they all take turns attempting to pick up Thor’s hammer. It’s a fun scene because it brings these heroes back down to Earth and, for a few minutes, we get to relate to them in the way that we would relate to our best friends. Age of Ultron could have used more scenes like that.

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That said, the cast of Age of Ultron provides enough old fashioned movie star charisma that they overcome the script’s shallow characterization. In many ways, it’s like one of the old Frank Sinatra rat pack movies, where you forgive a lot because you enjoy hanging out with the cast. They’re just fun to watch. Robert Downey, Jr., Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, and Mark Ruffalo; at this point they are so identified with these characters that the actors and their roles might as well be interchangeable.

(And, at this point, if it were revealed the Robert Downey, Jr. owned a suit of armor, would you really be surprised?)

Ultimately, Age of Ultron feels a lot like one of the less acclaimed James Bond films. It’s flawed, it’s imperfect, but fans of the franchise will find a lot to enjoy. Much as you wouldn’t introduce someone to James Bond by showing him Moonraker, you probably wouldn’t want to introduce someone to the MCU by showing him or her Age of Ultron. If, somehow, you’ve managed to exist without ever seeing any other MCU films, then Age of Ultron will leave you confused and wondering what the big deal is. But, if you’re already a fan of the franchise, you’ll find a lot to enjoy here.

And, flaws and all, you’ll walk out of the theater looking forward to the next installment.

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