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Column Fri May 01 2015

Avengers: Age of Ultron, The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness, Tangerines & Hyena

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Avengers: Age of Ultron

Not that you need reminding, but Avengers: Age of Ultron is not a sequel to the 2012 Joss Whedon-written and -directed film that gave the moviegoing world a taste of just what Marvel Studios grand design was all about and what the studio was capable of. Age of Ultron is actually the sequel to the four Marvel films that happened between the two Avengers movies (Iron Man 3, Thor: The Dark World, Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Guardians of the Galaxy), and there's nothing wrong with that kind of ambition. But the resulting film is actually a composite of three different types of scenes.

The first are hardcore action sequences, some of the most elaborate and dense I've ever seen, and while they rarely further the plot, Whedon has actually staged them in such a way that they feel like moments ripped right out of a comic book page. The poses, the way the heroes work together, combining their strength and powers to make a new type of assault on whatever villain they are defending the world from — in this case, our primary baddie is Ultron (voiced by James Spader), with a Starkian smarm that kept me off my guard in the best possible way. You never know what he's going to say next. Instead of simply spouting off villainous platitudes, he draws from the classics with commands like "Just stop!" as if he's being annoyed by a flying insect. The action in Age of Ultron is epic, and, even more than the first film, the stakes and the threat against both humanity as a whole and individual humans in the direct vicinity of the battle seem far more real.

The second type of scenes in the new Avengers film are those that forward plot and character, without action. And perhaps not coincidentally, the characters who benefit the most from these moments are the ones without their own franchises — Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) and most delightfully, Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), whose personal life is blown way out into the open in completely unexpected ways. I love that Widow and Bruce Banner/Hulk have an emotional impact on each other and a bond that is both a blessing and a curse to a possible future together. When the members of this team get together is less stressful circumstances — such as a party sequence near the beginning of the film — it's pure joy to watch personalities emerge and evolve in a way that makes their battlefield teamwork more fluid. In fact, when character development sequences flow into action, Age of Ultron becomes downright perfect.

The third are scenes that either pick up from, or will lead to, other films, and I have mixed feelings about these moments. While they certainly gave me a full-on charge of recognition and anticipation about where things are going, but they sidetrack the main story to such a degree that the entire film feels uneven — not wildly so, but you'll feel it nonetheless. The entire opening action sequence picks up where the last Captain America movie left off, with the assembled Avengers storming Baron von Strucker's (Thomas Kretschmann) eagle's nest to look for "enhanced" people and effectively destroy the last major bastion of HYDRA. That sequence is actually tremendous.

But other drop-ins feel squeezed in, like a throwaway line from a character I didn't even know was in this movie at the party to Captain America about his ongoing search mission (which presumably is for Winter Solider, to be a part of Captain America: Civil War, coming your way May 6, 2016), or a vision Thor has about Asgard that sends him back there at film's end (and presumably straight into Thor: Ragnarok, November 3, 2017), or quick side trip to the African nation of Wakanda, homeland of Black Panther, July 6, 2018. Not to mention the appearance of another Infinity Stone, one of five that will form the cornerstone of the two-part Avengers: Infinity War films (May 4, 2018 and May 3, 2019). You get the idea. It's cool, sure, but it doesn't help Age of Ultron feel like its own entity.

What does work, however, are themes that are, in many ways, carried over from Winter Soldier — the idea that the world is now in danger from within and without, and someone assigns themselves to be its protector, whether the world asked them to or not. This time around, it's Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) who is given a nightmarish vision of a world to come, in which all of his fellow Avengers are killed by an unseen force, and he is left standing alone with survivor's guilt. Of course, this vision actually comes courtesy of Wanda Maximoff (soon to be Scarlet Witch), one half of "the twins" along with brother Pietro/Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johson, who was once Kick-Ass). Wanda's powers are a little indescribable; she seems to have telekinetic power, but more importantly, she can implant your worst nightmare into your head and it lingers for quite some time, effectively paralyzing you from acting or defending yourself. But Iron Man and Thor (Chris Hemsworth) seem to see something closer to an actual peek into their respective futures, while Black Widow and Captain America (Chris Evnas) get gut-wrenching images drawn from their pasts, and the Hulk just gets meaner.

The vision drives Stark to mess with the retrieved scepter of Loki, and work with Banner to create a "suit of armor around the world" with his Ultron project. But the hidden powers of the scepter kidnaps Stark's bodiless helper Jarvis (voiced by Paul Bettany) and becomes the robotic force of destruction known as Ultron. And the set up is all you really need to know, since the rest of the film is a sometimes-fluid, sometimes-stumbling series of scenes that involve fighting, rescuing, and resting up for more fighting.

Despite the light touches, everything about Avengers: Age of Ultron feels more serious and dour, which in the context of this story and these hellish nightmares that a couple of the characters are dealing with seems appropriate. But the film's greatest achievement is Bettany in physical form as the Vision (whose name is given to him almost by accident), an android created by Ultron to be the perfect, most human robot on the planet. Ultron's plans are thwarted, and Vision becomes not a good or bad character but one whose philosophical code is pure and protective. Ultron's personality is born from Stark's paranoia and fear, while Vision takes the best parts of Stark and makes them better. It's a character I can't wait to see down the line in these films because I have no idea where his storyline might take us and Bettany is perfectly weird and angelic at once.

I'm not spoiling anything to say that, much like the first Avengers film, the team disperses at the end, only this time it feels more final (I know it's not, but it feels like it is). A big reason for that is that we get a glimpse of Avengers 2.0, and it's actually a major rush to know that the master Marvel plan seems to have a life beyond the original team members (and their actors' contracts). That closing shot is as close to genuine hope as these movies get at times, and Whedon knows just how to feed it to us and make it taste damn good.

With a healthy sprinkling of familiar faces in smaller roles (hello former agents Fury, Hill and Carter) and a few new characters played by the likes of Andy Serkis and Claudia Kim, Avengers: Age of Ultron sometimes feels like Times Square about 30 minutes before all the Broadway shows start on Saturday night, but there's also something of a graceful coordination going on that is admirable to a point. I'll need to watch it a couple more times to really examine the pacing and see if the dead zones and plot holes are as irksome as I remember, but mostly I really liked Whedon's apparent exit from the Avengers world. There are more of his touches here; that's a very good thing, and they will be missed going forward. But it's the film that also makes the idea of what's coming next something exciting. It reminds me of when I was a kid, waiting for the next comic issue of whatever hero I was fixated on that year. Nothing wrong with that feeling.

The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness

One of the greatest privileges ever bestowed upon me in my many years doing this job was getting the chance to interview the great animator/director Hayao Miyazaki (Kiki's Delivery Service, My Neighbor Totoro, Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away) in 2009 on my first trip to San Diego Comic Con. He was as personable and insightful as you'd hope, and few things have topped that experience. But I acknowledge that it's one thing to spend 15 minutes with someone like Miyazaki on a press tour and another to observe him over the course of a couple of years as he works to finish The Wind Rises, which he admits might be the most difficult film to complete in his career as an animator, primarily with Japan's legendary Studio Ghibli. The aptly titled documentary The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness isn't just about Miyazaki; it's about all of Ghibli, from its most creative members, to its merchandizing and marketing teams, to the producers (primarily Toshio Suzuki) who attempt — and often fail — to keep things on schedule.

Perhaps the most fascinating aspects of the film (from director Mami Sunada) is how it features Ghibli's other great creative powerhouse, Isao Takahata (Grave of the Fireflies), as he attempts to finish his latest work, the recent Best Animated Feature Oscar nominee The Tale of Princess Kaguya, which was supposed to be released at the same time as The Wind Rises (they ended up being released only a couple of months apart in Japan). Takahata clearly didn't want cameras in his workspace in a different Ghibli office, and the two masters rarely speak and maintain a friendly rivalry that seems to fuel them both to do better work. It's a delicate balance that has resulted in some tremendously influential work. (The fact that the only project the two worked on together — the highly lauded 52-episode "Heidi: A Girl of the Alps" series is still not available in this country is a travesty.)

The primary focus of Kingdom of Dreams and Madness is Miyazaki and his team attempting to finish The Wind Rises, and watching the process is extraordinary in its deliberate inefficiency. Unlike most mainstream animation, in which the voice work is done before most of the animation is worked on, Miyazaki doesn't have a script as he does his storyboarding. He writes the character's dialogue at the side of the storyboards as he's drawing them, and that's the script. On The Wind Rises, Miyazaki took two years to complete the storyboards/script. But once that part of the process is complete, things start to kick into gear with the animators and voice recordings.

Perhaps because there's a camera in the room, a great deal of the workplace tension is undercut with nervous laughter, but there is definitely a sense of how much is expected of the Ghibli team, who are encouraged to leave if they find the work too hard or not creatively inspiring enough. Tales are told of Miyazaki getting mad and yelling at people, but we're never shown that. Perhaps as a man well into his 70s, his days of overt displays are done.

One of the most honest and unguarded moments (and there are many) happens when Miyazaki and producer Suzuki stumble upon the idea of using animation director (and former Miyazaki animator on Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind) Hideaki Anno as the voice of the film's main character Jirô Horikoshi, the airplane designer who created the Zero long-range fighter aircraft — the primary attack plane used to destroy Pearl Harbor. But far more telling are the scenes in which Miyazaki is tormented about how anti-war he should make The Wind Rises (for the record, he wants to make it lean into the anti-war theme). As a child of World War II, he also finds ways to weave into the story early memories of his father, both good and bad. It's rare to see a creative process laid as bare as it is here.

The movie digs a little into Miyasaki's personal life, but we never see his wife (or if we do, I don't remember her being identified), and we only see his son Goro (From Up on Poppy Hill, Tales from Earthsea) in the context of a meeting in which the Ghibli producers are attempting to get him to direct a project that doesn't seem to interest him. There's no getting around the fact that The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness is meant to be primarily a glorification of Ghibli, while still showing the very flawed, emotional process of birthing a new film. As an unbridled admirer of all Ghibli films, I couldn't ask for a better peek behind the curtain of this magical workshop, and for that reason alone, it's worth seeing.

The film is periodically showing in Chicago over the next month at the Gene Siskel Film Center beginning today, May 1. Check the Film Center website for showtimes and tickets.

Tangerines

The last of the most recent crop of the Academy Award Best Foreign Language Film nominees to get a stateside release is Estonia's Tangerines, an anti-war story told in a devastating whisper by writer-director Zaza Urushadze (Three Houses). Set in 1992 during the still-escalating clash between Georgian and Abkhazian groups shortly after the Soviet Union split apart, the story tells the tale of elderly Estonian farmer Ivo (Lembit Ulfsak) and his closest friend and neighbor Margua (Elmo Nüganen), who has a harvest of tangerines that will bring them both lots of money, so they'll be able to flee the region as their fellow Estonian friends and family have. Ivo made hundreds of wooden crates for the tangerines to be carted off in, and all they need is a small group of men to help them harvest and load the crates, which is easier said than done since most of the able-bodied men in the area are preparing for a war that is literally on their doorstep.

A skirmish between the warring sides occurs right between the two farms, leaving two wounded soldiers from opposite sides of the fight in its wake. Ivo takes them both in, nurses them back to health, all the while the two bicker and threaten to kill each other as soon as they're healed enough to do so. Their insults would be downright hilarious if the whole situation weren't so tragic. As is often the case in films about foes getting to actually spend time with each other, these two blood-thirsty men actually start to enjoy the verbal jousting and see each other as something like a fellow human being.

What's most interesting about Tangerines is how much isn't explained. We know this is a war about land, but it feels like something that has been going on for centuries. It's a fairly straight-forward work in terms of the way it's shot and edited, but the depth of the drama comes from a combination of the burned-out landscapes and the well-worn faces of the characters, especially the extraordinary Ulfsak, who is something of a superstar in Estonia. His composure and grace is a remarkable thing to behold. The film doesn't attempt to make a political statement or even draw conclusion about who the audience should be favoring. Filmmaker Urushadze simply wants the fighting to stop, and he gives us plenty of tragic reasons for wanting the same. Tangerines opens today in Chicago at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Hyena

I've seen my fair share of British gangster and crime dramas over the decades, with works like The Long Good Friday being among the most brutal. But director Gerard Johnson (2009's Tony) has given us one of the nastiest pieces of work to every come out of the genre from the UK. Hyena is just as gritty and mangy as its namesake, and many of the characters maintain the animal's predatory vibe as well. The film zeroes in on vice officer Michael Logan (Peter Ferdinando of Starred Up and High Rise) and his team of like-minded, fully corrupt partners who think nothing of raiding a drug dealer's place of business, just to make off with his cash and stash, giving no thought to actually bringing these criminals in. If they did that, who would they steal from a month from now?

Logan plans to use his cut of the money to invest in a Turkish drug route that promises to bring in so much product that he will make a mint, but when his connection to this deal is mercilessly hacked to bits by the Albanian Kabashi brothers (Orli Shuka and Gjevat Kelmendi), he loses everything and sets out to take his revenge by getting close to the ruthless pair and double-crossing them. His situation is made all the more difficult when a nosy internal affairs officer (Richard Dormer) begins tailing him, an old friend-turned-rival (Stephen Graham) pops up again as the new vice boss, and his girlfriend (MyAnna Buring) basically hates him all the time.

Hyena is essentially just one dirty deed after another. Even when Logan is trying to do good — like when he attempts to save a young woman (Elisa Lasowski) being trafficked by the brothers — he uses the nastiest methods at his disposal. But, as I've said before, there is something noble in watching someone on film who is this good at their job, and Logan is a master manipulator who knows about five ways into and out of every bad situation. He turns on a co-conspirator as quickly as he joined them in the first place, and he's equally capable of being your loyal partner as he is being your assassin. Hyena is not a place to go if you're looking for good people and a happy ending (or any ending at all), which might be the most satisfying thing about this film.

Infected by a searing soundtrack by The The, Hyena eschews slick camerawork and polish for simple, sometimes deliberately ugly lighting and angles to give us no doubt that this is not a world where the innocent will last long. The acting is all about capturing tainted souls, and while you may find yourself siding with one character over another, there are no good people on display here. The film still finds ways to inject humor into its darkness, but the laughs don't last long. Here's hoping director Johnson finds new ways as he moves forward of tapping into the ugly corners of the world; he's quite talented at telling these types of stories. The film opens today in Chicago at Facets Cinémathèque.

 
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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »

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