Thursday, April 30, 2015
Good Adventure Fun...But Not Great
The Avengers: Age of Ultron
By Jonas Schwartz
It’s ironic that the theme of Frankenstein and his creation runs through Marvel’s Avengers: Age Of Ultron because the plot has been cobbled together by old tropes like Ghost in the Machine, Lawnmower Man, Stephen King’s IT, Mary Shelley’s classic, and several episodes of the film’s director Joss Whedon’s landmark Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
There’s a lack of inspiration in the second Avengers, or at least that patented Joss Whedon genius that made the first film so lively is missing. The action scenes lack punch. Luckily the script still contains Whedon’s witty dialogue, and the film contains a wicked performance by James Spader.
After a complicated mission leaves the team frazzled, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) decides this is the perfect time for a robotic savior, one who can keep the planet safe. He and Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) bring Ultron on-board, but immediately, the Artificial Intelligence (Spader) declares war on The Avengers. Believing that the world would work better without humanity, he makes it his mission to destroy the planet. His army of robots put each member to the test.
The film’s energy cranks up every time Spader speaks. His voice -- knowing, angry and a bit afraid -- is both menacing and childlike. The animation and mechanical engineers responsible for Ultron’s look and movement capture Spader’s subtleties. The robot’s features moves like Spader’s would, so that the audience forgets there is no man in the machine. Though only a voice and scrap metal, Spader’s Ultron towers over all the other characters.
Ruffalo and Downey Jr. have always brought realism to their characters, not allowing the comic book tales to dissolve into cartoon. They bring that same aplomb to this film. The rest of the cast seems tired in their roles. Their line readings are wooden. Of the newcomers, Elizabeth Olsen brings pathos to Wanda Maximoff, the medically enhanced agent filled with hatred for the Stark family, who can manipulate memories, yet her Eastern European accent wavers.
Whedon directs the many battles with clever camerawork and editing, but the scenes get monotonous. The plot feels inconsequential. Even with the human race in jeopardy, the stakes have no gravity. On the positive side, Whedon’s trademark quips and asides brings levity to even intense action sequences. He allows his characters to be silly without selling them out.
Avengers: Age Of Ultron can claim to be one of the better Marvel Sequels. With the exception of Iron Man 3, which may actually be better than the first Iron Man, most of the sequels were directed by second-string directors (like Thor 2’s Alan Taylor). Avengers 2 has more spark than those films. However it also lacks the fan boy euphoria that Joss Whedon usually brings. He normally creates a new universe but here he’s retreaded old territory. It’s enjoyable a first time, but it doesn’t make you want to rush back and see it again. Grade: B
Jonas Schwartz is a voting member of the Los Angeles Drama Critics, and the West Coast Critic for TheaterMania. Check out his “Jonasat the Movies” reviews at Maryland Nightlife.
For my money, the late Robert Wise (1914-2005) remains one of the most underrated of all genre directors.
Wise gave the world remarkable horror films including The Haunting (1963) and Audrey Rose (1977), and sterling science fiction pictures such as The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979), and, of course, the adaptation of Michael Crichton’s best-seller, The Andromeda Strain.
Underlining all these disparate efforts is the sense of a curious and engaged guiding intellect, an artist determined to treat his material with intelligence. Wise's films are cerebral, open to new possibilities, and rife with visual imagery that skillfully reinforces the content of their narratives. Throughout his genre canon, one can detect how deeply Wise respects both his material and his audience, and this quality is a rare gift, for certain.
The Andromeda Strain showcases this Wise style or approach to a significant degree. It is pitched at a high-level, features no spoon-feeding, and creates a flawless, impeccable sense of "reality" even when dealing with futuristic hardware and the "sci-fi" threat of an alien bug landing in an American town. The film seems frighteningly plausible.
Similarly, The Andromeda Strain's actors actually look and sound like real scientists, not super models or super-stars, and so nothing is allowed to shatter the film's sense of authenticity or, similarly, suspense.
I decided to feature The Andromeda Strain (which I have reviewed before -- in at least two books)) here on the blog today not only because I am a steadfast admirer of Wise's films, but because earlier in the week I reviewed Contagion (2011): a film also concerning a disease or virus.
Soderbergh's more recent effort also trades, largely, on its sense of non-exploitative realism. In both efforts, there seems to have been ample opportunity to dial up the hysteria and melodrama, and in both cases, the directors resisted the temptation to make sensationalist works of art.
The Andromeda Strain imagines a future of science and high-tech computerization that today may seem dated, but underneath those bells-and-whistles the film -- much like Contagion (2011) -- is really about people. Specifically, The Andromeda Strain involves the ways that humans can sometimes erect barriers to success through miscommunication or personal foibles; barriers that, in the end, threaten civilization itself.
"Establishment gonna fall down and go boom..."
A satellite from Project Scoop carrying an alien micro-organism crashes in Piedmont, New Mexico, and exposure proceeds to kill all but two denizens of the town.
The U.S. government quickly marshals an emergency response, and two scientists, Jeremy Stone (Arthur Hill) and surgeon Mark Hall (James Olson) explore the contaminated town in bio-hazard suits. They rescue the two survivors: an old drunk, and a crying baby.
Later, at a state-of-the-art, subterranean scientific facility called Wildfire, Hall and Stone are joined by other scientists including Charles Dutton (David Wayne) and Ruth Leavitt (Kate Reid), and together the group attempts to determine if the strange alien micro-organism could threaten human life throughout all of America, and indeed the world.
Studies reveal that the alien micro-organism, code-named “Andromeda” is 2-microns in diameter. Possessing a crystalline structure visible only under electronic microscope, the ever-mutating Andromeda can also grow in a vacuum, and its development is accelerated by energy discharge.
Bad news soon reaches the base about their newly discovered “bug”: a super-colony of Andromeda has formed over the Pacific Coast and is growing larger by the moment. It could kill millions of people in days.
The scientists race to avert a nuclear strike on the colony that they recommended and that was subsequently ordered by the President of the United States, realizing that the energy involved in such a detonation would only impel Andromeda to grow even larger.
Meanwhile, Dr. Hall studies his patients -- the old sterno drinker and the crying infant -- and determines that Andromeda can only survive in a narrow range of pH levels.
Before this knowledge can be applied to destroy Andromeda, however, Wildfire is contaminated, and the base’s computer initiates a timed self-destruct sequence.
Now Dr. Hall must race through the many, self-contained levels of the Wildfire complex to avert total annihilation.
"Enemy? We did it to ourselves!"
Mankind enters the “future age” of ascendant science in director Robert Wise’s impressive techno-thriller The Andromeda Strain, and the film ultimately proves that technology and scientific know-how can battle a deadly space “bug” to a stand-still.
Accordingly, Wise and his film itself -- an adaptation of a Michael Crichton best-selling book -- seem to worship at the feet of machinery, medicine, and science, not to-mention provide a reverent near-religious litany of techno-talk. In this world, ordering up a computer test is more like quoting Scripture.
The film’s assessment of mankind, however, may seem less gracious. Here, mankind’s failings get in the way of progress, slow-down the process of stopping Andromeda, and nearly destroy the entire world. The film’s final message, diagrammed in a computerized “601 Error” is that machines are ultimately only as good as their users.
In other words, we are the weak link. If computers fail, it’s because of us.
From The Andromeda Strain’s dynamic opening credits, Wise takes pains to present new technology as a vivid brand of modern art. The colorful credits reveal overlapping, multi-colored images of schematics, inter-office communiques, top-secret documents, and the like.
These seemingly non-romantic dispatches are cut together and blended into new patterns (via superimposition) for the remarkable montage. These swirling and dazzling images are also accompanied by Gil Melle’s machine-like electronic score, and the final effect is both staggering and thematically daring.
We might very well be watching a computer program’s vision of art. This imagery conveys the idea that machines aren’t just tools, but capable of moving into terrains that man has long reserved for himself: artistry, creativity, imagination.
In assembling the blueprints, maps, graphs and other images for the purposes of this montage, the film’s opening credits take a step beyond Jackson Pollock, forging heretofore unseen, unconnected patterns out of dot matrix scans and the like, in the determined synthesis of something new and bold.
The implicit message: technology is your friend.
This pro-automation approach runs deliberately counter to one of the most common ideas of 1970s science fiction cinema, as related in films such as Colossus: The Forbin Project (1970) or Demon Seed (1977), that technology will prove man’s undoing.
Instead, The Andromeda Strain’s dialogue reinforces the notion of a world in which science will save the day. The film is dominated by tongue-twisters like “Red Kappa Phoenix Status,” and the scientists eat “Nutrient 2-5” while ordering up a test called a “7-12.”
Although these phrases seem like meaningless jargon in simple human terms, in this world they are vital symbols of man’s ascent to a more evolved plateau.
The science-talk reflects Wise’s uncanny ability (also seen in Star Trek: The Motion Picture) to forge a documentary-like or “realistic” tone in science fiction, but also suggests that in the first space age emergency, space age lingo is a necessity. Advances in computers, science and medicine will change the world, and they will also change how we talk, the film indicates. Our words will change, in their very nature, as we embrace the machinery of the future age.
It’s difficult to deny that this is actually the case, and in 2015, laypeople talk about “wireless routers,” “diagnostic updates,” “system restores” and other once arcane-seeming phrases with the enthusiasm and knowledge of the scientists portrayed in The Andromeda Strain. The revolution in technology involves not just what we can achieve with computers, but how we speak about them, and relate to one another over them.
The tools used by the scientists in The Andromeda Strain are often the focus of Wise’s intent directorial sight, and electron microscopes, computer scans, “electronic diagrams” and other visuals are regularly highlighted by the camera. The idea, of course, is that in the dawn of a new age, machines will make the difference between life and death on planet Earth. Robert Wise even once called his film’s setting -- the Wildfire Base -- the real star of the movie.
And of course, he’s right. Without the resources of this subterranean base, man would not be able to stop the spread of Andromeda.
Wise’s treatment of man himself is far less generous in The Andromeda Strain.
For example, Dr. Ruth Leavitt is an epileptic, and she hides that vital knowledge from her co-workers and hence from the computerized databases in Wildfire. So when an important computer screen transmits its data to her in red-blinking lights, Leavitt cannot receive it. She seizes instead, and has no memory of having seen the crucial data.
Thus a personal embarrassment or foible nearly ends the world. Ruth's sin, perhaps, is vanity. She does not wish to be seen as weak, or incompetent in front of the other scientists, but her plan to hide her illness nearly has catastrophic impact.
Again, no one can blame this series of unfortunate events on the computer, which accurately tagged the “no-growth” medium for Andromeda that Leavitt sought. Instead, user error -- human error -- is the culprit.
Similarly, the scientists at Andromeda order a nuclear strike at Piedmont before they have all the facts. They make an assumption that a nuclear blast will wipe out an alien organism, and this is -- again -- proven catastrophically wrong. In fact, the opposite would have been true. A nuclear blast would have spread a super-colony of Andromeda across the entirety of the North American continent.
In this case, the scientists are prevented from causing global-scale catastrophe only by a machine failure: a paper jam in a printer-like device. So again, even inadvertently, the machines of The Andromeda Strain save man from himself.
And, of course, Andromeda comes to Earth in the first place as part of a secret plot by the U.S. government to harness it as a bio-weapon, and then develop it at the Wildfire installation. Man brings about his own near-death by his self-destructive tendencies, by his jingoistic desire to defeat enemies.
Other Wildfire denizens seen in The Andromeda Strain are not much more self-aware than Leavitt is. Trained scientists panic and flee when they believe that Wildfire is contaminated with the alien organism. They do not act rationally and attempt to help Hall, who has -- dangling around his neck in the form of a key -- the capacity to save everybody from nuclear apocalypse. Instead, they resort to fear, paranoia and terror. Once more, we must consider that our machines are not susceptible to such influences.
But the screaming ninnies of Wildfire don’t consider this reason; don't measure their actions against the consequences of their actions.. Instead, they run around like chickens with their heads cut-off, and higher-reasoning appears completely short-circuited. After all, if the base is contaminated, as they fear, then it is going to self-destruct, and no amount of running or screaming is going to get them to minimum safe distance following a many-megaton blast. So why panic?
All of this material comes late in the film, but Wise hooks the audience early (and permanently) with his staging of the Piedmont reconnaissance.
We are led, by two relatively staid scientists, through a ghost-town of sorts, the aftermath of a grisly disaster. And yet Wise doesn't linger or wallow in the terror.
Instead, his camera again adopts a documentary approach, so that we are asked to observe the events in all their stark, clinical horror, but largely without editorializing. He reports, and we take note, coming to conclusions ourselves about occurred to Piedmont. Wise sticks with this restrained approach as, in the finale, the countdown to annihilation occurs.
As a result, the film's denouement is extremely anxiety-provoking and suspenseful. We feel we are watching real events unfold from a distance, and with no guarantee that things will turn out as we would prefer.
There may be some viewers who watch The Andromeda Strain and seek a more human-centered story about resolving the first biological crisis of the space age. But the film’s glory is that this is not the story it tells at all.
Instead, Wise tells the story of man’s amazing machinery solving the problem, and this is a creative, counter-intuitive approach to the material.
If we can just get out of our own way, the director seems to suggest, we'll be all right.
This idea is also -- in its own weird way -- optimistic.
After all, who built all these great machines in the first place?
Wednesday, April 29, 2015
In “Alice in Disco Land,” David Banner gets a job as a bus boy at Pandemonium Disco, and meets a runaway teen, Alice (Donna Wilkes) whom he knew as a child.
In fact, David has fond memories of taking care of Alice as a girl, and reading to her from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland.
Now, however, Alice isn’t doing so well. Virtually abandoned by her wealthy mother, she is adrift and alone. And although she is a great disco dancer, Alice is also an alcoholic. She can’t go a day without drinking, a fact that David gently reminds her of.
When David attempts an intervention, however, the disco’s ganger owner, Ernie (Marc Alaimo) thinks that Banner is compelling her to testify in a Federal case against him, and sets out to punish him. But Ernie hasn’t counted on the fact that David can transform into the Hulk.
Before long, the denizens of Pandemonium Disco meet the Hulk on the dance floor, and terror ensues.
I had forgotten, before watching a few The Incredible Hulk (1978 – 1981) episodes this week, just what a time capsule for the 1970s the series is.
“Alice in Disco Land,” which aired on November 3, 1978, derives all its energy from the ascendant disco culture of the era, including the blockbuster film Saturday Night Fever (1977). To wit, most of the action takes place inside Pandemonium Disco, and under a glitter ball.
While David works as a bus-boy, hairy men in tight polyester pants and flowery shirts and ultra-skinny women (sans bras…) gyrate on the dance floor to songs you never heard of (including a disco-fied version of the series’ piano theme).
Underneath these disco trappings, however, it’s clear that “Alice in Disco Land” actually concerns alcoholism, and the story attempts to draw a signficant connection between David and Alice. At one point, late in the action, Alice notes of her drinking problem: “You don’t understand, this is something in me. I need to control it.”
Clearly, those words resonate with David. The purpose of his life now is to control that thing inside himself, the rage that brings life to his alter-ego, the Incredible Hulk. Both he and Alice must fight internal urges if they are to succeed against the odds, and be whole once more.
“Alice in Disco Land” is one of the episodes of The Incredible Hulk I vividly remember watching during the series’ original run. I was eight years old at the time, and I remember that my older sister and I attempted to re-create the disco milieu (using a Bee Gees album on the record player), and I would pretend to be the Hulk, smashing and throwing sofa pillows in our family room.
That personal story is no weirder, I promise you, than the events of“Alice in Disco Land.” It was a strange time.
Tuesday, April 28, 2015
In “The Sky Pirate,” a human space pirate (with a robot parrot on his shoulder, no less), lands on the Robinsons’ planet, Priplanus, and begins to make trouble for the family.
He captures Will (Bill Mumy) and holds him captive until John (Guy Williams) and Don (Mark Goddard) agree to repair his stolen alien ship for him.
Soon, however, Will and the pirate become friends, and the man even has Will take “The Pirate’s Oath.”
As the Robinsons soon learn, the pirate, Alonzo P. Tucker (Albert Salmi), left Earth in 1876 -- when he was abducted by aliens -- and he has been making his way in space ever since. Although Dr. Smith (Jonathan Harris) is deathly afraid of him, Tucker proves his worth by confronting a strange blob creature from another world, and saving the Robinsons from it.
With his ship repaired, Tucker prepares to leave the Robinsons, and a heart-broken Will behind…
One of the absolute weakest entries in the canon thus far, “The Sky Pirate” is an eminently forgettable and disposable installment of Lost in Space.
Nothing about the episode makes much sense, and the emotional connection the writer and director hope to forge between Tucker and Will isn’t expressed well, or in a fashion that gives the last act any emotional heft or importance. There’s sort of a “boy’s adventure” vibe to the enterprise, as Will dreams of being a pirate, but sees his hopes squashed.
For me, this is just too silly to contemplate. A couple of episodes back, “Return from Outer Space” featured Will desperate to get back to his family, even while he was safe on Earth. And in “Invaders from the Fifth Dimension,” he wept about leaving them behind while he navigated an alien ship.
Now he’s just going to up and leave the other Robinsons to travel through space as a pirate? With some guy he just met?
Pretty much all the negative comments people make about Lost in Space are actually true of this episode.
Dr. Smith is a scene-stealing fool (and now he’s afraid of pirates, too?), a visitor comes to the planet but doesn’t help the Robinsons escape their plight (though his ship is big enough, certainly to house Will and Penny…) and all the drama arises when one of the children, in this case Will, is ostensibly endangered. The whole thing is like a catalog of Lost in Space clichés. It’s essentially a weird re-do of (the superior) “Welcome, Stranger.”
I have so many questions about this episode, and I think they are all somewhat indicative of the fact that no one working behind-the-scenes on the series was paying close attention to continuity, at least no on a regular basis.
For example, we learned a few weeks back, in “Return from Outer Space” that the Robinsons are stranded on Priplanus. Here, Will says explicitly that he doesn’t know what planet they are marooned on.
Similarly, Alonzo demands cigars from the Robinsons. Are cigars standard-issue on Earth spaceships in 1997? After all this time on the planet (the year is 1998, according to this episode…) the Robinsons haven’t smoked them?
And why did the aliens abduct Alonzo in the first place? Why hasn’t he attempted to return to Earth?
Why does he take on the dress and appearance of a terrestrial, 19th century pirate?
Why does Tucker believe that John and Don can repair an alien spaceship, considering they have less experience with than he does…and he’s the pilot?
The deeper you dig into “The Sky Pirate,” the more you see it just doesn’t hold together. It’s silly and inconsequential, and adds nothing to the overall mythos of the series.
Still, Alonzo gets at least one thing right. He tells the Robinsons that they should “really do something” about Dr. Smith. Unfortunately, they don’t act on his eminently-reasonable advice.
Next week, a marginally-better segment “Ghost in Space.”
Monday, April 27, 2015
A reader named Jason writes:
"Summer's just around the corner, which makes it the perfect time to ask: What is your favorite superhero franchise?"
Jason, that's a great question.
We are definitely living in the age of Superheroes Triumphant, and superhero films are more popular now than at any time in cinematic history.
My tastes are pretty out-of-step with the vast majority of fans, I suspect.
I hope I won't sound (or read...) like a curmudgeon when I note that two of my favorite superhero franchises are defunct in the format/approach that I appreciated them most.
I hope I won't sound (or read...) like a curmudgeon when I note that two of my favorite superhero franchises are defunct in the format/approach that I appreciated them most.
I loved the original Superman film franchise of the 1970s and 1980s, particularly Superman: The Movie (1978) and Superman II (1981).
I respect, too, what Bryan Singer attempted to accomplish with Superman Returns (2006). For the old timers like me, that film was a nice send-off in tone and style to the hero of the 1970s and 1980s as we loved him.
But I deeply disliked Man of Steel (2014).
Still, I look forward to the Batman/Superman smack-down in 2016. I have no doubt that Henry Cavill can be great in the role of Superman, so I'm still very open to seeing how the franchise plays out.
I was also incredibly fond of the Sam Raimi Spider-Man franchise, particularly Spider-Man (2002) and Spider-Man 2 (2004), and -- mea culpa -- I have not watched the recent re-boots.
If ever the meme "too soon" seemed apt, it was in the case of that superhero series going back to the beginning just a decade after Raimi's extraordinary origin tale and fantastic follow-up. I saw absolutely no creative or artistic reason for one middling movie (Spider-Man 3) to scuttle the whole universe Raimi and Tobey Maguire constructed so lovingly.
My other favorite superhero is Captain America, and I have very much enjoyed Captain America (2011), and Captain America: Winter Soldier (2014). Looking forward to Civil War tremendously.
Also, I feel very enthusiastic about the possibilities of The Fantastic Four (2015), not only because I have always loved that property in comic-book form, but because Josh Trank, the talent behind Chronicle (2012), is directing.
I suspect his creative vision is going to be dangerous and different, and with so many superhero movies hitting theaters in the coming months, dangerous and different might be just what the doctor (Doom?) ordered.
Going down the line, I loved the original Iron Man (2008) ,but have found the follow-ups, the Hulk and Thor movies -- and even The Avengers (2012) and Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) -- to be largely over-praised.
I realize that my viewpoint offends the sensibilities of many, many film fans who love the Marvel Film Universe. That is not my intent.
I keep watching these movies, note-pad eagerly in hand, and keep coming out of them with nothing of real substance to write about. The big set-pieces feel interchangeable, and somehow oppressive in their utter sameness.
And the meaningful ideas underlining the action are so basic and simple they can be categorized in a simple sound-byte or catchphrase. Unfortunately, the films last for three hours in many cases. The ideas in them, frankly, tend to be thin.
What would make these superhero films great, in my opinion?
Cut their budgets by fifty percent, and force the filmmakers to tell a story about the characters as flawed, feeling people, instead of creating these too-big-too-fail, industrially-extruded "event" films with obligatory, world-shattering action scenes.
I'm not sure how, but Marvel has managed to escape this fate in some cases, particularly with the Captain America films. So far, they feel individual and human to me in a way the other movies simply don't. They don't look or feel like film-making by committee and focus groups.
The Nolan movies aren't my favorite interpretation of the Batman mythos, but I could never draw the same conclusions about those films: there's a lot to critique and discuss there, culturally and aesthetically-speaking, even if they doesn't suit my personal preference in superhero movies. I liked Batman Begins (2005) quite a bit.
Right now, I must admit, I am tremendously enjoying the Arrow TV series. I feel that it has balanced character, action and narrative in nearly perfect fashion, and without growing tiresome or stale.
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The camera is a mechanical eye of sorts, an optical device that can record images both still (photographs) and moving (video). A camera is often light and portable, so it can be taken to remote or unusual locations.
The camera has played a crucial role in cult-TV history in no small part because many series' protagonists are journalists or reporters and thus carry cameras out on assignment.
Jimmy Olsen -- a character appearing on Adventures of Superman (1951 - 1958) Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman (1992 - 1996) and Smallville (2001 - 2011) is one such example
Other camera-toting characters include wire service reporter Carl Kolchak (Darren McGavin) in Kolchak: The Night Stalker and Mike Donovan, photo journalist in V (1983) V: The Final Battle (1984) and V: The Series (1985).
Cameras have also been prominent fixtures in many horror anthologies. In The Twilight Zone (1959 - 1964), for example, an episode "A Most Unusual Camera" involves a device that can take photographs from the future...approximately five minutes ahead, or so.
Rod Serling's Night Gallery (1969 - 1973), similarly, features a story called "Camera Obscura" involving a photographic device that transports a miser to a kind of Hellish version of Dickens' London.
More recently an episode of the anthology Black Mirror (2011 - ) called "White Bear" involves an amnesiac woman who awakes only to find that strangers everywhere seem intent on filming her with their iPhone cameras.
"Tithonus" meanwhile, a sixth season episode of The X-Files (1993 - 2002) involves a photographer -- who is seemingly immortal -- hoping to photograph the face of death and end his own life.
On Space:1999 (1975 - 1977), mankind takes cameras to the stars with him. The denizens of Moonbase Alpha chronicle their journeys to other worlds with cameras in at least two episodes "Testament of Arkadia," and "Matter of Balance."
The Star Trek universe's tricorders also appear to have a "record" function used on landing parties as evidenced from the episode "And the Children Shall Lead."
“Come now on a far journey…a journey that takes us millions of miles from Earth…” - - Adventures of Superman: “Superman on Earth...