Summer 2015 Progress Report (Part 1)

Hello, all! Today I’m going to be doing something a little different, and circle around to some of the films I haven’t gotten around to writing about this summer. These are the films you’ve actually seen, too. I’m keeping these thoughts spoiler-free for those of you who haven’t had a chance to see everything yet.

We all knew going in that 2015 was going to be a big year for mainstream movies. Even after Batman v. Superman (*gag*) got pushed back to 2016, this year was still projected to be a record-breaking year and it’s exceeded most expectations. The biggest winners in terms of box-office power (Avengers: Age of UltronJurassic World) are both a bit pedestrian, but this summer has also yielded three films which could very well stand the test of time.

NOTE: These films will be discussed roughly in order of release date. Ex Machina was a gradual wide release so I slotted it in where I felt appropriate. I haven’t seen Furious 7 or Spy, so I’m not going to talk about those. This first section will cover Avengers: Age of Ultron, Ex Machina  and Mad Max: Fury Road. Next time, I’ll take another look at Tomorrowland because I can’t let it go, as well as Jurassic World and Inside Out.

AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON

Avengers: Age of Ultron

More than any other film this year, Avengers: Age of Ultron had a job to do. A film with the Avengers moniker bears some responsibility as the capstone to a phase of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The MCU is an exercise in serialization the likes of which have never been seen before in cinema, and watching a Marvel movie is, in many ways, more like seeing an episode of a TV series or reading an arc of a comic book than watching a movie. Each film is part of a larger whole and beholden to the narrative thrust of the larger story happening across the entire series, and no film has had more plot to get through than Age of Ultron.

Eleven films in, many of the Avengers characters can hold down their own films, so a team-up film is going to be crowded by its very nature. Joss Whedon manages to give every character a moment and the dialogue crackles like you’d expect from a Whedon picture, but the film stumbles under the weight of its myriad plot machinations and raucous superhero mayhem. The film stretches for 141 minutes, but still feels rushed and a bit truncated. It was announced before the Ultron was even released that a three-hour cut would be forthcoming on Blu-ray; this announcement may have served as an acknowledgement of some of the film’s mechanical issues. In particular, a detour in the second act involving Thor and Stellen Skarsgard makes no sense in the theatrical cut but it’s widely acknowledged that a significantly longer version of this scene exists. The shorter version of this scene that made the theatrical cut serves strictly as an exposition dump for the larger Infinity storyline and adds very little to the movie it’s in.

This scene gets to the core of what Age of Ultron really is: the summer team-up event in Marvel’s cinematic comic book. These events have a lot of ground to cover and are rarely interesting on their own. They serve as a way to get a lot of characters with their own stories together, and collectively move them from one point to another. These event books usually tie together stories that have been happening across individual characters’ books, and don’t make a lot of sense out of context. Marvel Comics runs one or two big events each year and while the current event (Secret Wars) is actually pretty interesting, these event books usually aren’t much fun. Age of Ultron is fun, but it’s also one of the densest and busiest blockbusters ever put to film and after a while can begin to feel like work. It also includes a major third-act revelation that only makes sense if you’ve been watching Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.  

In another year we might still be talking about this movie, but there’s an embarrassment of riches to get to that have left Marvel’s big summer extravaganza in the dust. Including one that tackles the subject of artificial intelligence in a very different way.

EX MACHINA

Domnhall Gleeson and Alicia Vikander in Ex MachinaYou may not be familiar with the name Alex Garner, but if you’re a fan of sci-fi you’ve probably seen his work. Ex Machina marks Garner’s directorial debut, but he’s been writing interesting sci-fi movie and is best known for his screenwriting work with Danny Boyle (Sunshine28 Days Later). Ex Machina is very different from Garner’s earlier sci-fi horror work and instead represents a small, tense chamber piece. The film only contains a handful of actors and takes place mostly in one location, and relies less on special effects than the interplay between the characters and fantastic performances across the board.

Ex Machina’s occupies a world of cold, flat brutalist architecture, gleaming glass surfaces and unforgiving right angles. The sparse setting and slow, deliberate pace help punctuate the bubbling underlying tension as it becomes increasingly apparent that the story can’t end on a happy note. The camera’s almost constant motion also emphasizes this; often the camera is zooming almost imperceptibly or panning just enough to be noticeable if you’re paying attention. 

All three leads turn in nuanced and thrilling performances, especially Oscar Isaac’s tricky, multi-lasted portrayal of a tech executive trying to play god and Alicia Vikander as his cybernetic creation. All parties are playing on several levels and the virtuosity of these performances is not clear until the film has reached its very satisfying conclusion.

It’s hard to unpack Ex Machina without going into spoilers, but I don’t want to ruin this great film for you. It’s now available on VOD.

MAD MAX: FURY ROAD

 

This is the big one. Expectations were all over the map for Mad Max: Fury Road, based in particular on an exceptionally long post-production cycle and toxic buzz from insiders and those on set. No matter what it took to finish this film, the end result is not just the best film so far in 2015 but among the best action films in the past decade alongside The Raid and The Raid 2. It’s the antithesis of Avengers: Age of Ultron: fast, dirty, and told with an economy of storytelling that leaves so many plot- and mythology-heavy summer franchise films looking saggy and bloated.

Beyond the fantastic (and mostly practical) effects work and cinematography, it’s the way in which the film’s story unfolds that makes Fury Road so remarkable. Every shot, every beat and every line of dialogue is essential and any filler or extraneous detail has been excised. The story is conveyed through action and not words; this is not a silent film or wordless art piece like the first act of WALL-E but dialogue is kept to a minimum and is only used to convey critical information.

Fury Road boasts strong performances all around especially from Charlize Theron as the troubled but determined Imperator Furiosa. There are two brief shots in the first act of the film in which Theron’s face very briefly betrays inner turmoil and fear as she first pulls the massive War Rig off the road. This fleeting moment of vulnerability says more about her character than an entire scene of exposition could ever hope to.

Rarely is vehicular mayhem captured more deftly than in Fury Road. Every action beat makes sense and the spatial relationships between vehicles and characters is almost always effortless to follow. The chase sequences, which take up about half the film, are almost balletic in their construction and intricacy. The production design is also top-notch, everything is disgusting in the most wonderful way. I plan on writing more about about Fury Road so I’ll save some more spoilery thoughts for then, but you owe it to yourself to see this film.

Next time, we’ll tackle Jurassic World and Inside Out, and probably put the final nail in Tomorrowland‘s coffin.

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