The Avengers: Age of Ultron — There are too many Avengers in this latest installment and not enough interesting ones, kind of like Marvel movies. Joss Whedon did an admirable job of meshing the clumsy super hero universes in the first Avengers, even if the movie itself ultimately felt bland and overdone. Whedon’s knack for playing off the different screen personas of his stars can’t save the overstretched Age of Ultron, though. Almost every element of this latest installment, from the story to the obnoxious editing during the action sequences, induces an unpleasant amount of whiplash. Ultron somehow manages to be both overwhelming and boring; too sanitized and controlled to do anything but occasionally amuse.
Thor, Captain America, Hulk, Iron Man, Black Widow, et al. don’t work nearly as well together on screen as they did the first time, and the verbal wit from the first movie is in much shorter supply. For every good scene like the one where the other characters try (and fail) to lift Thor’s hammer, there seem to be two or three lengthy, generic combat sequences with the dull turd of a villain. (I do give James Spader credit for bringing at least some mischief to the voice of the rogue A.I. Ultron, though). At this point Marvel movies can barely keep my attention as stand-alone installments, so I don’t anticipate my headache getting any better when the next Avengers rolls around. Grade: D+
The Age of Adaline — The Age of Adaline spends quite a lot of time defining the title character by what she doesn’t do; she doesn’t age, she doesn’t love, she doesn’t stay at a social gathering for longer than two minutes. Yes, we see her work and eat, but the details of her ageless existence are left in the hands of a clumsy narrator and an actress (Blake Lively) who can’t convey the torment we’re meant to sympathize with. And yet, director Lee Toland Krieger has made an eerie, moody and often beautiful-looking film out of the generically conceived narrative.
After a freak accident turns her immortal, she becomes a lost soul doomed to walk the Earth while everything and everyone she knows and loves grows old, changes or dies. She meets an impossibly sexy, charming man (Michiel Huisman) who withers away at the decades-old brick wall she’s made out of her emotions. He brings her home to meet his parents and (spoiler alert) his dad (Harrison Ford) recognizes her instantly as a woman he met and fell in love with nearly 50 years ago in Europe. Ford is incredibly good here; he brings a level of nuance and emotional complexity to the character that is sorely missing in many of the other performances. The Age of Adaline felt like a pretty if one-dimensional character study until that plot twist jolts it to life. Grade: C
Child 44 — It’s shocking to me that a ’50s Soviet Russia-set child serial killer drama managed to procure an estimated $50,000,000 production budget (it completely bombing at the box office may or may not have contributed to that shock). What’s even more surprising to me is the critical pile-on on the film adaptation of Child 44, which, while certainly messy, is nowhere nearly as terrible as a 23% ranking on Rotten Tomatoes would suggest. (I suppose that’s what I get for looking at Rotten Tomatoes). I found quite a bit to admire in Daniel Espinosa’s film, most notably how it highlights the oppressive Soviet government working against those trying to solve the murder mystery.
The phrase “There is no murder in paradise” appears on screen before the movie and is repeated by many characters throughout. The government doesn’t want to acknowledge that there is man slaughtering young boys and leaving their bodies along the railroad tracks. Enter the decorated war hero Leo Demidov (Tom Hardy), who is just respected enough not to get executed for trying to solve the crimes. Him and his wife Raisa (Noomi Rapace) eventually become enemies of the state for their relentless dedication to the case. Espinosa keeps the characters’ conflicting impulses to the their country and to justice front and center, and the drab, suffocating atmosphere carries the movie through some shoddy plotting. Rapace also gives a devastating performance here, playing Raisa as a woman who refuses to be side-lined and teaches her husband she is more of an asset than a liability. Grade: C+
Clouds of Sils Maria — Olivier Assayas’ The Clouds of Sils Maria is an astonishing examination of performance and perspective. Centered on the off-kilter intimacy shared between an actress (Juliette Binoche) and her personal assistant (Kristen Stewart), Sils Maria chronicles their shifting opinions of each other amid a series of personal crises. (Sound familiar?) Those crises mostly belong to Maria Enders (Binoche), whose wealth and fame don’t protect her from the sadness of an old friend’s death or the bitterness that comes with aging.
Assayas places both of those at the center of the movie: Maria is set to star in a reimagining of her late friend’s play, the one that launched her career. However, this time, she will be playing the miserable, middle-aged woman rather than the young, sinister seducer she played 20 years ago. Rather than toying with the obvious parallels between the play and the two main characters, Assayas hones in on how Maria and Valentine (Stewart) interpret the play (and many other things) differently. Valentine pushes her boss to examine things in different ways, though Maria is often dismissive. The natural beauty of the mountains in Sils Maria, Switzerland give perspective to the otherwise insular drama; winding fog doesn’t give a shit how famous you are. Grade: B+