Thursday, April 30, 2015

'Avengers' strikes again -- but not as deftly

Still, summer's first comic-book movie probably will connect with fans.

Avengers: Age of Ultron is the first of summer's bona-fide comic book movies. As such, it surely will score with fans of the series, as well as with those who've awoken from winter's hibernation hungry for another helping of their cherished Marvel superheroes.

Here's a list for those keeping score: Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Captain America (Chris Evans), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner).

These are the same actors who helped turn director Joss Whedon's The Avengers (2012) into an entertaining megahit.

This time out, Whedon and company provide a demonstration of what happens when a culture begins replicating itself, doling out the latest version of the same-old-same-old. The movie plays like an echo of its predecessor -- albeit a very loud one.

Also directed by Whedon, this edition alternates dull exposition with slam-bang action, some of it spectacularly created by the movie's welter of CGI geniuses. For my money, these unseen artists qualify as the movie's real stars, although they probably have been called upon to create more battles than any single movie needs.

The movie opens with an action-packed prologue set in the fictional eastern European country of Sokovia. The commotion has something do with invading the headquarters of Hydra. If you're an aficionado, you need no further explanation. If you're not, you probably don't care anyway.

The story's stakes, of course, are both high and par for the comic-book course: Our superheroes square off against Ultron (voice by James Spader), a super-intelligent robot (or at least some sort of metalic creature) created by Tony Stark, who's also Iron Man.

Uninspired by what he sees of humankind, Ultron decides that he wants to wipe out all of humanity.

Although it has been engineered to give each superhero time in the spotlight, the movie ultimately delivers a message about the importance of team work. The superheroes must use their unique individual skills to accomplish a joint task; i.e., rid the world of Ultron -- while delivering one-liners, of course.

The movie introduces several new characters, two of them twins played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen. Taylor-Johnson's Quicksilver is lightning fast; Olsen's Scarlet Witch has some kind of out-sized mental powers.

A few subplots also peek through the action, notably a digression into Hawkeye's civilian life and suggestions of romance between Hulk and Black Widow.

Paul Bettany shows up late the movie as a character named Vision: He reassures us that an invention with artificial intelligence can appreciate humans, despite not being one of them.

All of this tumult results in a somewhat confusing entertainment that still manages to wring a bit of sentiment out its finale.

Before the screening, I was mentioning to a companion that I'm starting to wear out on Robert Downey Jr.'s smart-and-smug act. Ultron did nothing to change my mind.

I enjoyed some of the big set pieces, but at 2 1/2 hours, my biggest reaction upon conclusion of Ultron was relief.

I also wondered whether Whedon and some the principal cast members might not feel the same way. These mega-productions definitely can wear you out.


Life is tough -- even for stars

Clouds of Sils Maria examines the woes of an aging actress.

There are two important characters in Clouds of Sils Maria -- and only one of them is human.

The latest collaboration between director Olivier Assayas and actress Juliette Binoche revolves around an aging actress who's being pushed from center stage. She's the obvious human in this drama.

Then there's the other character: time, a relentless accumulation of years that's pushing the actress out of the spotlight.

Binoche plays Maria, an accomplished middle-aged French actress who spends most of the movie in the company of her impressively efficient assistant (Kristen Stewart).

In addition to handling Maria's affairs -- everything from an impending divorce hearing to press requests -- Stewart's Valentine also interprets an increasingly youth-oriented culture for a skeptical Maria.

The movie opens on a train with Maria and Valentine headed for a tribute to the director who launched Maria's career. In the midst of the trip, they learn that the director has passed away, turning the pending tribute into a sad affair.

At what was to be a celebration, Maria meets an actor with whom she once had an affair, but on whom she has soured. The movie then slips away to Switzerland, where Maria and Valentine ensconce themselves in a mountain home owned by the late director's wife.

Clouds of Sils Maria has backstage allure. Assayas takes us into Maria's private world. She's capable of putting on good front, but her laugh reveals a bit of desperation, as well as the wear of too many cigarettes.

Despite various digressions, Clouds revolves around a single event. A hot-shot director (Lars Eidinger) offers Maria a part in a stage production of The Maloja Snake, the movie that established her career.

This time, though, Maria must play the older of two women engaged in a love relationship that falls apart as the younger woman becomes increasingly assertive.

The more incendiary role has gone to Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloe Grace Moritz), a youthful actress who can't seem to keep her face out of the tabloids. Jo-Ann, who has appeared in sci-fi blockbusters, is either a Hollywood A-lister or about to become one.

Stewart's character occupies a middle ground between Maria and her youthful challenger. She respects Maria, but appreciates Jo-Ann's gift, an admiration that's revealed when Maria and Valentine go to a theater to watch one of Jo-Ann's 3D, sci-fi extravaganzas.

When Maria and Valentine run lines from the upcoming play, it becomes clear that they're also acting out portions of their complex relationship, sometimes in ways that seem too on-the-nose.

It may help to know that the movie has an insider component: Binoche and Assayas worked together on Rendez-vous (1985), an Andre Techine-directed movie that Assayas co-wrote and which helped bring Binoche to prominence. They also teamed for 2008's Summer Hours.

After her fine work in the Alzheimer's drama Still Alice, Stewart continues to impress. She plays the least defined and, therefore, most interesting of the three women.

Assays is no speed demon when it comes to pacing, and he isn't exactly breaking new ground here. Clouds sometimes seems to be drifting, and the insular world of these performers can narrow to the point of off-putting self-absorption.

It's also not clear why Assayas made Binoche, who's 51, into a 40-year-old for his movie. Perhaps he wanted to emphasize that show business so values newness and youth that 40 is considered old for an actress.

As for Maria and Jo-Ann, they're jockeying for position -- not only with each other -- but, in Maria's case, with the inevitability of advancing time. Her tragedy, one supposes, is that she's smart enough to know that she's not going to beat the clock.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Does a robot have a mind of her own?

Ex Machina may not be great, but it has a lot going for it.

Here's a lesson Hollywood would do well to learn: Smarter trumps bigger when it comes to sci-fi films. For a long time, smart is precisely what we get from director Alex Garland's debut move, Ex Machina, the story of two men and a robot.

The movie begins when a computer programmer named Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) is summoned to spend a week with his boss Nathan (Oscar Isaac), a reclusive genius who runs a Google-like internet company that has given him shameful amounts of wealth.

Reachable only by helicopter, Nathan's home seems to have been carved into the rocky cliffs of a lush landscape. The place is part retreat and part laboratory, a location that's at once ominous, alluring and so design-dominated that it seems to have had every ounce of humanity wrung from it.

It took me more than half the movie to remember that Isaac, an actor who manages to look different in every role, is playing Nathan.

In last year's A Most Violent Year, Isaac portrayed an impeccably dressed, upwardly mobile businessman who was trying to grow his oil delivery service amid gangster-like competition in the New York metropolitan area.

Here, Isaac portrays a billionaire recluse, a manipulative guy who throws off sparks of danger. Nathan works out on a heavy bag, and often wanders about his home shirtless. He regards himself not only as the smartest guy in the room, but maybe in the entire world.

In a way, Gleeson has the more difficult role; his Caleb is an open book, a normal guy trying to keep pace with a genius, a job that we sense may be beyond his skill-set.

Nathan tells Caleb that he wants help in testing one of his inventions, a robot named Ava. The task: To determine whether Ava has developed consciousness independent of her creator's programs. Can Caleb come to regard Ava as he would a human?

Played by former Swedish* ballet dancer Alicia Vikander, Ava seems to have her own personality. She's built to reveal the high-tech workings that keep her operating, but also to be subtly sexy.

Ex Machina isn't without deficiencies, but its setting and premise are so encompassing, we feel as if we've been transported into an alien world -- not exactly forbidden, but not entirely comfortable, either.

Garland -- who also wrote the screenplay -- gives himself lots to work with: That's hardly surprising because he also wrote the screenplays for 28 Days Later, Never Let Me Go and Sunshine, all movies with juicy subtexts.

As the characters in Ex Machina interact, they keep us guessing about their motivations, but it's Isaac who gives the movie its tension: His Nathan can be hospitable, but he's controlling, secretive and scary.

As the story develops, Caleb begins to be drawn into Ava's world. This, of course, raises questions about what it might mean if he falls for Ava. Can man and machine find happiness together? Can Caleb get Ava out of what has become her mountain prison? Is Ava really a machine?

Directing with a sure hand, Garland keeps us off guard for a long time. In the end, though, Ex Machina can't quite carry its intelligence across the finish line for a truly resonant finale. At just the moment when the movie should enlarge, it seems to shrink and get smaller.

Still, the performances are strong, and at its best, Ex Machina serves as a cautionary tale about what can happen when men are left alone with their very expensive toys.
*In an earlier posting, I misidentified Vikander as Danish. My bad.

'Water Diviner' dilutes its power

Russell Crowe moves behind the camera for his first directorial effort.

World War I cost Australian farmer Joshua Connor everything he held dear. Three of his sons were killed in the Battle of Gallipoli. His beloved wife was so crippled by grief and shock that she took her own life.

Feeling that his existence had lost all purpose, Connor decided to travel to Gallipoli to search for the bodies of his sons. He had promised is late wife, he would bring the boys -- or at least their bodies -- home.

Russell Crowe found Connor's story interesting enough to move behind the camera and direct his first movie, The Water Diviner.

Perhaps knowing that Water Diviner would be a hard sell without a star, Crowe also plays the lead role. He's Connor, a character who appears in nearly every frame of a film that's trying to be ... well ... many things: a robust adventure, a grim story about the horrors of war, an encouraging look at friendship across a cultural divide, as well as a romance.

That's a bit much for any movie. The overload may explain why The Water Diviner turns into a mixed bag of movie that works better in some parts than in others.

Connor, by the way, gives the movie its title. He's unusually adept at discovering water, using divining rods to show him where to dig wells.

The story gets rolling when Connor reaches Turkey. The British army (hated in Turkey) doesn't want Connor to travel to the ravaged battlefield of Gallipoli to search for his sons' bodies. He must fight the military bureaucracy while dealing with the culture shock of being in a country that's entirely foreign to him.

Upon arrival in Turkey, Connor finds a hotel where he's befriended by the son (Dylan Georgiades) of the hotel's owner (Olga Kurylenko). Crowe keeps the romance between Connor and Kurylenko's Ayshe at subdued levels, but it's still a pro forma affair and not nearly as interesting as the brutal war footage (shown in flashback) or the adventure that ensues when Connor hooks up with a Turkish officer (Yilmaz Erdogan) to travel deep into Turkey.

This Turkish officer helps Connor, and paves the way for the movie's big twist, which is both horrific and heartbreaking.

If you know nothing about the Gallipoli Campaign of 1915-16, you may find the movie's politics a bit confusing. British and French troops fought at Gallipoli along with Australian divisions and the New Zealand Army Corps. The Ottoman Empire was allied with the Germans.

Whatever you know, you certainly can follow Connor on an adventure that's layered with grief over a war's massive casualties.

Crowe's well-crafted period piece would have done well to dispense with elements that feel as if they've been added to make the movie more user friendly: The romance between Connor and Ayshe and the surrogate father/son relationship between Connor and Ayshe's son deplete the movie's power rather than adding to its richness.

Crowe isn't afraid to temper his portrait of Connor with bitterness, but as I watched The Water Diviner, I couldn't help wondering whether he too often flinches from the story's hardest truths with the introduction of obvious movie ploys.

'Age of Adaline' turns gooey and soft

Blake Lively holds this romance together, but the movie is too sentimental for its own good.
Soft and mushy, nearly everything in The Age of Adaline stands in stark contrast to the crisp performance given by Blake Lively, who plays the movie's title character, a woman who stops aging at 29.

This situation -- let's call it an "age freeze" -- arises after Lively's Adaline runs her car off the road during a rare California snow storm. With help from lightning, water and a half-baked explanation from an off-screen narrator, Adaline is reborn as a person who'll never see 30.

Age of Adaline is an adult fairy tale, but the movie winds up avoiding its more perplexing aspects, apparently so that it can turn out a conventional romance mixed with a bit of cheerleading about embracing life's greatest possibility; i.e., love.

Obviously, a woman who's never going to age must be wary about her choices. If Adaline falls in love and commits to a relationship, she's going to watch her beloved age and die.

Aside from a series of cute puppies, Adaline studiously avoids involvement. Adaline does, however, have a daughter from before the life-changing auto accident.

Director Lee Toland Krieger better hope that audiences fall in love with Lively because there's not a whole lot more to enjoy in a movie that eventually finds a wary Adaline establishing a relationship with Ellis, (Michiel Huisman), a wealthy San Francisco-based philanthropist who made his fortune in the high-tech world.

Of course, the relationship can't progress because Adaline refuses to tell Ellis (or anyone else for that matter) that she's approaching 107. Only her daughter -- now an aging woman played by Ellen Burstyn -- knows the truth about Adaline. Adaline works hard to keep it that way.

Whenever she thinks someone might recognize her from a past encounter, she bolts. Even if nothing like that happens, Adaline changes her identity once a decade, switching residences and taking on a new name.

About midway through, Ellis takes Adeline to meet his parents (Harrison Ford and Kathy Baker), where additional complications ensue.

The movie arrives wrapped in the gauze of a sentimental story that wants to reach a destination that was predictable from the moment Adaline and Ellis first exchanged looks across a crowded room.

Ford looks professorial and unheroic, which is of some interest, and Lively certainly holds the screen for the movie's 110-minute length.

Burstyn has a nice cameo as Adaline's daughter, a woman who's now old enough to enter a retirement community. The movie's mother and daughter exchanges are odd but convincing -- and something the movie could have used more of.

The Age of Adaline needed to get the stars out of its eyes, and wake up to what it actually might be saying, as opposed to the message it delivers, which is: Wake up and embrace life. Take a chance.

If you follow this advice, let me know how it works out for you. I'll be sitting in the safety of my room waiting to hear.

A movie or a sitcom episode?

Adult Beginners: Just one more indie comedy.
About half way through Adult Beginners, I began to wonder whether I wasn't watching a sitcom about a failed entrepreneur (Nick Kroll) whose reduced economic circumstances force him to move in with his sister and her husband (Rose Byrne and Bobby Cannavale). To make matters even more humiliating for Kroll's Jake, his sister and her husband live in the suburban house where Jake grew up. Stripped of his upscale Manhattan lifestyle, Jake is asked to earn his keep by taking care of the couple's young -- and sometimes difficult son. The comedy revolves around various additional indignities that are heaped on Jake, who suddenly finds himself sleeping on an air mattress in his old room. Cannavale gives what's becoming a familiar performance for him, the gruff but good-hearted guy who's a little wayward. As the pregnant Justine, Byrne splits the difference between comedy and drama, and Kroll -- perhaps best known for his work on Parks and Recreation -- alternately annoys and amuses in a comedy in which director Ross Katz focuses on two siblings who re-establish their childhood bond. The movie's title stems from the fact that neither Kroll nor Byrne's character ever learned to swim. At some point, Jake must leap into the pool of adult responsibility and also get his priorities straight. Fair enough, but when it comes to expanding the world of indie-oriented comedy, Adult Beginners seems to be treading water.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

The perils of life on-line

The unexpected results of cyberbullying.

If you spend much of your day staring at a computer screen, you'll either be put off by the new horror film Unfriended or sucked in by its user-friendly familiarity.

Set in Fresno, Ca. -- or rather in a variety of semi-sloppy bedrooms in Fresno -- Unfriended is an unapologetic gimmick movie that gets much further than you might have thought possible considering that the movie confines itself to a single computer screen.

The characters in Unfriended -- six teen-agers engaged in a SKYPE call -- simultaneously chat, send messages to one another, look stuff up on Google and show their dexterity at multitasking.

The amazing thing about the movie (which does, I think, eventually wear out) is that director Levan Gabriadze and screenwriter Nelson Greaves actually keep you watching: Of course, they toss sexual tensions, jealousy, teen posturing, tech savvy and horror into the mix.

If you're looking to be scared out of your mind, you may be disappointed by what amounts to a horror sketch that takes place in real time, and which eliminates the need for great camera work. We are, after all, looking at SKYPE images on screens.

Oh yeah, the story:

It seems that a teenager named Laura committed suicide after being humiliated by the posting of an on-line video that went viral.

Early on, a stranger horns in what appears to be a typical on-line session of the movie's teen ensemble. The stranger says she's Laura, the kid who committed suicide.

This ghost in the machine is out for vengeance and even the most technically proficient of these young people can't get rid of her.

The way in which Laura (or whoever is behind all this) arranges for these youngsters to be knocked off are decidedly low-tech and not particularly inventive, even when judged by low-budget horror movie standards.

OK, I've told you the kids, who may be implicated in Laura's humiliation, are knocked off, but this information only can be regarded as a spoiler if you expected the departed Laura to provide her former classmates with links to scholarly articles on cyberbullying.

Credit director Gabriadze with being smart enough to hold his movie to an 82-minute length and for daring to do this at all. I've read about (but never seen) last year's Open Windows, which evidently used a similar gimmick to lesser effect, earning a paltry 33 percent on Rotten Tomatoes.

Whatever you think of either movie, it's probably a good bet that we'll see more of this or at least some creative variations, providing, of course, that we can tear ourselves away from our computer screens.


Seeking the truth behind a murder

James Franco and Jonah Hill get serious in True Story.

In True Story, Jonah Hill and James Franco put on serious faces to tell a story about journalistic ethics and murder. But before we get to how well they do, some background may be helpful.

True Story is the big-screen adaptation of Michael Finkel's 2005 book, True Story: Murder, Memoir, Mea Culpa. Let's begin with the "Mea Culpa" of Finkel's title.

Finkel's journalistic career hit a major snag when he was fired for fudging facts in a New York times magazine cover story about the use of slave labor on African cocoa plantations.

In search of a more compelling read, Finkel created a composite character without telling readers that he was combining the stories of a variety of young men who'd been terribly exploited.

Months after his New York Times debacle, Finkel learned that an Oregon man who had been arrested for murdering his wife and three children had been posing as Finkel while hiding from the law in Mexico.

Seeing a path to possible journalistic redemption and a book contract, Finkel visited Longo in jail, wondering why the accused murderer had tried to steal his identity.

Simple, Longo told him, he very much admired Finkel's writing. He was an ardent fan.

Finkel developed a relationship with Longo, who proceeded to tell him his story, claiming that he was innocent. But he also refused to tell Finkel what really happened, asking instead that Finkel teach him how to write.

For his part, Finkel thought he was a good enough reporter to induce Longo to spill whatever beans need spilling.

Although not without interest, the resultant movie never fully realizes the mind-bending possibilities that result when a journalist (Hill) whose work has come under question meets a prisoner (Franco) whose account of events immediately qualifies as suspect. Facing the death penalty if convicted, Longo had plenty of reason to lie.

British theater director Rupert Goold directs in competent but conventional fashion as he presents the story of a writer (with an agenda, of course) who collaborated with a prisoner (with an agenda of his own).

Hill and Franco worked together in the comedy This is the End, but are paired here in a dramatic effort that's sprinkled with brief flashbacks to the crime.

Franco brings low-key calm to the role of an accused murderer, as well as a bit of rumpled charm.

We know that Hill can act (see Moneyball and The Wolf of Wall Street), but I couldn't quite buy him as an avid, ambitious and ultimately desperate reporter, perhaps because the script makes Finkel too much of a one-note character. Having screwed up, he now wants to restart his career.

Almost everything that transpires between Finkel and Longo in the pivotal jail scenes clings to the surface; their one-on-one exchanges lack the kind of subtext that would have given the movie's ethical issues more dimension.

The screenplay by Goold and David Kajganich tells us that Longo's a horrible narcissist, but doesn't really dig into his personality. Half the time, the movie doesn't even seem interested in whether Longo actually committed the crime.

Felicity Jones appears as Finkel's wife, but doesn't have much to do other than pop up for a jail house visit with Longo, delivered with more conviction than anything else in the movie.

And that's the rub here. Goold's movie says many of the right things, but doesn't always dramatize them in compelling ways. The fact that both men are acting out roles should have resulted in a dizzying look at how men in high-pressure situations are called upon to create themselves. Besides, we needed to know more about both these guys.

True Story is a decent enough movie, but it should (and could) have been brilliant.

There's trouble in these woods

Backcountry succeeds by doing exactly what it's supposed to do.

Nothing in director Adam MacDonald's Backcountry qualifies as truly surprising. Then again, nothing in Backcountry has to be especially novel because it's a movie in which skill trumps originality of vision.

Set deep in the Canadian woods, Backcountry begins when a couple goes camping.

Let's be real here: When a couple goes camping in a movie, you can bet that they won't be spending their time enjoying the pleasures of forest solitude. Something awful's bound to happen -- and in Backcountry it does.

Alex (Jeff Roop) and Jenn (Missy Peregrym) are the couple in question. Passing himself off as a skilled woodsman, Alex wants to impress his girlfriend by sharing the beauty of a spot he claims is worth any discomfort they might experience.

Jenn doesn't like being separated from her Blackberry, but she's game enough to give camping a whirl.

The first signs of trouble arrive when Alex and Jenn meet a loner (Eric Balfour) who's hiking through the woods, after what appears to have been a successful fishing trip.

It doesn't take long for Balfour's Brad and Alex get into a bit of mano-a-mano jostling over Jenn's attentions.

Brad departs, but he has shaken things up for Alex and Jenn and for us.

After an uneasy night, Alex and Jenn move deeper into the forest. Already warned not to leave well-marked trails, an overly confident Alex veers off the path as the couple heads toward Alex's supposedly idyllic destination.

MacDonald does a good job of keeping us on edge. Understanding that we already know something terrible will happen, he astutely plays with our expectations, attuning us to the potential danger in the crack of every twig and the darkness in every shadow.

At 92 minutes, Backcountry isn't over long, but the movie takes its time bringing Alex and Jenn into contact with the danger that awaits. All I'll say is that we're talking about a large and extremely unfriendly animal.

MacDonald eventually doles out an appropriate amount of gore, which I mention here because Backcountry may challenge the sensibilities of those who are squeamish.

It's not fair to say much more. MacDonald effectively pushes the right buttons, creating a good deal of anxiety as he takes us on this bare bones, stomach-tightening walk in the woods, which (a title card tells us) was based on a true story.

Real or imaginary, Backcountry did enough to persuade me to avoid camping, which (to be perfectly honest), I've had little trouble doing for most of my life.