Sunday, May 24, 2015

Avengers: Age of Ultron (Joss Whedon 2015)

Seems like every review opens with "I enjoyed it but...." and who am I to toss aside a week-old tradition?  Because Age of Ultron is entertaining in a loud-fast summer blockbuster way but lacks much of Whedon - where's the first film's humor and sense of real conflict?  Where's the feel of character and that smart dialogue?  I also find it odd to complain that it's too much like the comics but really that's more an issue of book elements that work there but weren't translated properly to film.  Seriously, levitating an entire (if small) city works on paper but seems a bit silly here.

When we left the Avengers at the end of the first film they had separated and Fury stated they would be back when we needed them.  That sense of desperation (and religious overtone) is absent - the new film opens with them having been together for a while though it's unclear why exactly.  Yes, Hydra clean-up duty but is that all?  By the end, we're shown a way for the franchise to move forward even if the current actors leave.  Comics readers are familiar with frequent line-up changes (or for that matter multiple concurrent Avengers teams) but it's not certain if movie audiences will be as open-minded.

Ultron appeared to be a good choice for an opponent - smart, tricky and almost impossible to defeat.  On film though he becomes more a generic villain.  Why does he do bad things?  Well because he's the bad guy of course.  There is reasoning - he's programmed to defend the planet and thinks the best way to do that is to eliminate people - but it's tossed in.  Consider how much more effective it would have been to have a scene where the newly created Ultron fights alongside the Avengers and we see him reasoning along that path.  Instead it's just a given and unconvincing, perhaps one reason he embarks on such a bizarre mad-scientist scheme.  (Not to mention that Ultron's plan is remarkably inefficient and would take thousands of years to kill humans but at least it's visual.)

Ultron also becomes something of a faceless entity and the struggle against him is either technobabble or smashing robots.  Think of the first film where numerous people argue with Loki, try to reason with him, bring him to a different view, trick him.  The closest this film comes is the Avengers trying to guess what Ultron is doing - hardly the same and resolutely undramatic.  (Just as the sudden appearance of a helicarrier at a needed moment is sloppy writing.)

The film also barely exploits Ultron's biggest strength in the books - that he's an AI and since independent of a physical host nearly impossible to eradicate.  The film briefly has a bit where Ultron jumps bodies but otherwise he's in the same one throughout.  It's easy to see why - because fully using his AI state not only would turn the film into a computer hacking story where most of the Avengers have nothing to do (even if set in a Tron-like visualization of cyberspace) but that would make a sense of closure at the film's end hard to achieve.  As it stands the ending is still a bit ambiguous and I wouldn't be at all surprised if Ultron is brought back to help fight Thanos in the Infinity War.

Age of Ultron is almost overstuffed with characters.  This isn't much of a problem in the books since comics writers have decades of experience dealing with large numbers, in fact that might be a unique writing experience since maybe only soap operas even approach the same situation.  Some of the techniques used are rotating characters, breaking them off into smaller teams, focusing stories on subgroups within the larger one, etc.  But a movie is locked into a cast of actors and expectations from the previous film.  All have to get a certain amount of screen time and things to do but then again this works against showing a larger picture - this same story in comics could easily show dozens of other characters fighting Ultron across the globe in just a few panels.

Which brings us to the Hulk problem.  Why is he here?  Clearly it's because he was in the first film but in story terms there's no purpose.  In the first film Fury manipulated him just as Fury manipulated all of the Avengers and in the end the Hulk provided something of a wild card status and needed combat heft.  In the first sequence of Age of Ultron he's out of place in what's basically a military operation.  (And speaking of that it's clear why the others kept their costumes but Hawkeye and the Widow really should have been wearing white camo.)  The Hulk's next appearance shows how much of a liability he is - more importantly the Avengers are aware of that and prepared Hulkbuster armor (called Veronica in the film for an oblique reason - Banner dated a Betty and in the Archieverse Betty's nemesis is often.....)

Another comic book element that's a bit grating in the film is all the tosses to upcoming movies, at least four (Black Panther, Captain America: Civil War, Thor 3 and the Infinity War).  Comics are often narratively porous, referencing not just a current storyline but referring to numerous other series, older events, classic images and even elements from other companies.  (Just think of the government hit team based on the Avengers who appear in The Authority.)  This web of references don't work as well on film and here only the Black Panther bits seem workable because most viewers won't realize that's what they are.  But Thor heading off for a mystical bath that's conveniently driving distance from a college?

The Scarlet Witch's powers are still about as vague as in the books but she comes across fairly effectively (and even has a "look" towards the Vision).  Dream sequences and mental visualizations such as showing a character's fears are not only cheap writing tricks but rarely even a minimally effective one.  Here it seems less than useless.  So Stark is afraid of his friends dying and having survivor's guilt?  We need a fear trip to reveal that?  Thor is apparently afraid of parties and Captain America of swing music.  I think we're supposed to read this as something Thor deals with in his next film but it really just seems a reason to give him screen time.  And apparently Steve misses Agent Carter though again we already knew that.  Natasha on the other hand seems to have memories more than fears though this isn't made particularly clear and none of it shows how brutal her training was like the talk she has with Banner.

Why even bother killing Quicksilver?  He has the fewest lines and least personality of all the main characters so I doubt many people cared.  Which clearly is also a reason - the film shows the fight as having consequences but not that bad.  (Unlike the Daredevil show which had a genuinely unexpected death.)  If Whedon really wanted to make an impact it should have been Hawkeye but that gets to the point above that many creative decisions in a film like this are made for contractual and business reasons.  (Though on the other hand comics at times kill off characters willy nilly confident that they can be brought back when needed - we can guess the movie Civil War won't end with Captain America dying because we know he's in the next Avengers films.)

And by the way, Captain America's little speech about innocent people dying every time - every time - somebody tries to stop a war before it starts is quite rousing.  But stop a minute.  Cap is telling us to never try to prevent wars.  That's a little harsh and short-sighted even for a professional soldier.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Library sale

Today's haul from the library sale:

Rube Goldberg vs the Machine Age
Koch - The Rise of Modern Warfare
Solomon - Existentialism
Warren - All the King's Men
Oates - The Stoic & Epicurean Philosophers (Modern Library)
Edel - Henry James: A Life
Williams - Henry VIII and His Court
Meyers - Great Martial Arts Movies (revised edition)
Perelman - Swiss Family Perelman
Perelman - Westward Ha!

There was also a copy of Seven Storey Mountain that I almost picked up just because today was Merton's centennial but it was fairly beat up and the layout seemed more cramped than the current edition.  I'm unlikely to ever read it anyway so there's that.  Last time there were volumes two to four of Anthony Powell which I skipped but this time there was volume one with the others gone.

Somebody had donated a fair number of oversized military history books but they didn't seem to be that substantial.  I got the Koch because it's about 16th and 17th century warfare which is under-represented.  I don't think the Perelmans are firsts but they're certainly fairly close and even though these are his most common books the illustrations are nice.  I don't particularly want to read anything else about Henry VIII right now but the Williams book is more about the people, objects and locations around him.  I have the first edition of Meyers martial arts book somewhere but the revised is good to see.  I'm not sure I'll get through all of The Stoic and Epicurean Philosophers but had been considering re-reading Lucretius before I read The Swerve and anyway I have a weakness for these Modern Library editions.  All the King's Men is something else I've been wanting to read - this is just a nice condition paperback.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Some documentaries

Sight & Sound released a poll of the all-time best documentaries this summer so I decide to fill in some of the gaps.  (The poll is here but a warning that the website for this is poorly designed.)

Sans Soleil (Chris Marker 1982) - I first saw this about 20-25 years ago and didn't think much of it so I watched the Criterion DVD earlier this year.  If anything it's less impressive.  The biggest surprise over time is that I now see that this is mondo film - I don't mean similar to one I mean it's exactly a mondo film.  There's the same disconnected flow of scenes, the focus on oddities and strange behavior from outside the filmmaker's culture, the faux philosophical narration to tie that together.  The only difference is that Sans Soleil is lower on the sex and violence than most mondo films.  But even if that's mistaken Sans Soleil remains a tedious film and the annoying thing is that it's the type of film that I should love.  There is sometimes an interesting play between narration and image but for the most part it's far too slight and generally almost laughable.

D'est (Chantal Akerman 1993) - This film is a series of extended takes by roadways or public spaces alternated with occasional portraiture shots mostly of women inside apartments, all done in what appears to be Russia.  (There is no identifying text or voiceover and I deliberately didn't research the film.)  In other words basically a structuralist film and if it's labelled as documentary that's probably more for marketing reasons.  Maybe it's an attempt to document daily life but apart from a few shots of field work and cooking there's almost nothing of that.  If anything the film documents the connections between daily life - driving, waiting for a bus, walking, sitting.  I don't know how much this could be considered a comment on the state of Russia (didn't research but I did see the Netflix comments) because basically the same film could have been made in Detroit.  Though this sounds a bit negative I do think this is a strong film despite being wayward and somewhat unfocused.  Overall it reminds me of James Benning's 1982 Him and Me complete with an unedited musical performance towards the end (though I consider the Benning film a much stronger one).

Primary (Robert Drew 1960) - A landmark in the development of verite this still frequently maintains interest as a kind of road movie long after the politics have gone.  (Though perhaps not too much - the farmer's issues briefly mentioned are still far from settled.)  The two surprises are that it's not what I would consider pure verite since there's some narration and a few instances of blatant use of non-diegetic music as commentary.  The other is that Humphrey comes off more personable than Kennedy which I'm not sure was the intention.  That the film often has dull spots is more that we're half a century down the line but nevertheless dull spots they remain.

Man on Wire (James Marsh 2008) - This is also only partly a documentary and not in a productive sense (as say with Close-Up).  Much of the film is recreations of a wirewalker's successful attempt to cross between the WTC towers but unlike with a TV doc about, say, Bunker Hill where the recreations are obvious the attempt here was to duplicate that era.  So even where there are some genuine photos from the actual event they're merged with the fiction.  And this story is clearly fictionalized since the filmmakers rely far too much on the wirewalker's animated and polished account.  For instance he claims when he was 17 he visited the dentist and saw plans for the yet-to-be-constructed WTC in a magazine which he then ripped out and left the office.  We're treated to scenes of that event both in the office and riding his bike afterwards.  Did this happen?  Seems quite unlikely since the wirewalker is clearly not a reliable source and here he's telling a well-worn story that's a bit too dubious.  Even apart from that fiction-issue the bigger problem is that the bulk of the film concerns the mechanics of the stunt presented in much incredibly boring detail.  It's also odd to me when some of the talking heads refer to wirewalking as beautiful.  I'm willing to grant that there are plenty of things I don't quite get but probably do have value (baseball let's say) and maybe this is just another.  But really it seems like a category error of some kind, like saying pouring water into a glass is beautiful.  It's not whether that action is or is not beautiful, it's that the concept of beauty simply can not apply to it.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Book sale

I've missed the AAUW book sale the past three or four years but made it this time.  The haul was

Malcom Cowley - After the Genteel Tradition
Kingsolver - The Poisonwood Bible
Brooks - The Flowering of New England
Oates - The Whirlwind of War
The Best of Sholom Aleichem
Brecht - Seven Plays
Donald Harington - Let Us Build a City
Flannery O'Connor - The Habit of Being
Rose Macaulay - Pleasure of Ruins
Chubb - Dante and His World

There was an interesting book about the Pre-Raphelites but it was a QPB edition so I passed.  Also a collection of French wartime writings and another about 19c realists but I realized even for $1 I'd never read those.  There was a Modern Library edition of Life of Johnson but I didn't need another and couldn't think of anybody else who would want it.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

My new blog Discoveries & Oddities from the Digital Library

Coming soon

pirate stories
a month of Halloween
lurid 18th century chapbooks
a fantastic illustrated 1840s guide to Asian entomology
1920s guide to US for Jewish immigrants
French revolutionary satire
early design books
imagist poets
more kook literature

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Russell x2

Silver Linings Playbook (David O. Russell 2012) – Mystifying why this is so well-regarded since it’s a routine romantic comedy, not roughly but exactly.  Not a revisionist romantic comedy or one that infuses the genre with new emotion or whatever critical blurbspeak you might prefer but one that’s absolutely by the rules and absolutely with nothing to say.  Even a film like 27 Dresses shows more imagination and life but that’s not even a particularly good film.  I checked out the first couple of pages of the novel and that has a wry, self-aware tone that’s completely missing from the film (or at least the novel appears that way from only a couple of pages – for all I know it’s even more bland).  Bradley Cooper’s talents run towards farce so he can acquit himself passably in the Hangover films but here seems like he’s just starting to struggle in the deeper end.  Jennifer Lawrence is today’s Kim Novak but has yet to encounter a Hitchcock who knows how to make her essential hollowness the focus of a film. I guess if you're a De Niro completeist this might be worth checking off that box.

American Hustle (David O. Russell 2013) – A watered down Mamet tale of con artists and their schemes undone by a script that veers from blunt drama to an overly pat crowdpleasing ending.  The entire first 30 minutes or so are pointless prologue – as a character study there’s no real character and as part of the story it’s literally useless.  Trim all that out and it would make no difference to the film. Russell again proves to be no director of actors.  Amy Adams seems to understand the Mamet angle and uses that direct, uninflected tone he prefers.  (Since her character isn’t based on a historical person then her costume is more the result of a male director but when the camera starts moving to follow her backside the whole thing becomes creepy.)  Bradley Cooper seems lost and Jennifer Lawrence apparently thought she was in a Saturday Night Live skit.  The horribly miscast Christian Bale does manage to make some impression as do some of the supporting cast like Jeremy Renner.  De Niro appears in a bit of stunt casting that just underlines how little substance there is to the film but by that point it's clear that we won't be getting anything better so might as well toss in any half-baked idea that pops up.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Food books x2

David Sax - The Tastemakers: Why We're Crazy for Cupcakes but Fed Up with Fondue (2014)

This is a journalist’s book, mainly a slapped-together collection of articles related in some way to food trends.  Sax did the research, interviews and pulled that together into stories but there’s nothing to synthesize them and barely even a connection among them.  For instance he opens with a chapter about the cupcake trend, locating the start at a bakery in New York that accidentally became a hotspot then the NYC-based media picked up the story, fed each other’s interest and that spilled out to the rest of the country.  It’s a familiar story and seems likely to be true but that familiarity and nothing new means that the story feels a tad dubious. I wouldn’t be surprised if it turned out that this started in LA or Minneapolis but NYC gets the credit because that’s where the journalists are.  More importantly the chapter doesn’t get into why this became a trend – after all not everything pushed by NYC media hits the rest of the country.  Sax does offer the idea that cupcakes appeal to people because it reminds them of childhood, something that makes sense, is easy to believe and is obviously wrong.  That he doesn’t see how his stories are just more gloss means the book becomes mainly one to be mined for stray bits of info and background.  I didn’t realize for instance that one reason bacon started appearing on fast food menus is because they began to overcook them from fear of lawsuits and consequently needed a flavor boost.  The book has bits like this but tends to lose sight of its purpose.  When he gets to food trucks for example Sax spends most of the chapter on their legal battles which is interesting (well ok it’s not at all interesting but let’s just say it is) without getting to the point of why something that can offer only convenience and the probability of inferior food became trendy.  The Tastemakers is a book that touches on various trends offering little of substance about them.

Michael Pollan - Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation (2013)

Pollan had the idea to explore what he considers the four approaches to food preparation – heat, liquid, baking and fermentation.  Like the Sax book he’s done the research and in this case even gone out to do this first-hand.  And like the Sax book he doesn’t really bother to pull together the material.  Though it feels like a stronger editor could have helped, for all I know the book was even more a mess and the editor did make it somewhat readable.  Let’s just give Pollan his basic idea however unlikely or even silly it might be.  (Tying these approaches to the classic four elements?  Really?  You know that’s a European thing that won’t explain other cultures right?)  The bigger problem is that going hands-on meant he only uses historical information in scattered bits though he certainly gets more substantive material than Sax apparently even thought to do.  With this ready then he gives us a lopsided book that jumps from watered down academics to overly detailed descriptions of baking.  When talking about barbeque he even spends pages on the biography of one cook for no real point.  That’s what an editor or Pollan himself should have done – cut the book by about half.  Trimmed and focused this might have been something worth reading.