28 October 2014

White Trash of the Week: The Avengers: Age of Ultron

It's a trailer joke!

I'm talking about the new Avengers: Age of Ultron trailer. White trash.

Let's move on - I never do this. Like, I never ever talk about trailers. I hardly even watch trailers. See? But something about this just necessitates discussion. Maybe it's that ultimate nerd laying deep down inside me that will watch virtually whatever this studio puts in theaters regardless of quality, which has been FAR more hit and miss than most of the Internet would indicate to you. Or maybe that when a film like the The Avengers (2012) steps up and changes how studios make big movies forever, it's worth talking about.

Seriously - in ten years everyone will realize that The Avengers was a more important film in the history of cinema than JAWS (1975). It's created this entirely new discussion of how people should be drawn to theaters and it's spawned this need for studios to throw ridiculous amounts of money at shared universe pics that aren't going anywhere. No, Dracula Untold (2014) should not be the impetus for a modern Universal Studios Monsters Shared Universe. No, Ghostbusters should not have a "Marvel-style shared universe." Why am I hating? Because these idiots don't know what they're doing.

Marvel does. You better believe that in 2006, when these cats were plotting Iron Man (2008) they had a conceptual idea for how to forge the next ten years of their releases and build a cinematic universe that truly replicated their dense interlocked source material. It's just worked out for the best that since these things make crazy money, that universe has attracted top-to-bottom talents in the industry in directors, writers, and actors, along with a sustainable and reliable game plan for future developments. Marvel didn't set out to change the game, they just did what they wanted to do with their properties.

That isn't the case with a Ghostbusters series of movies, or a Sinister Six movie. You know, it's funny, there have also been Sinister Six (2016...or is it '17?) announcements made this week, but no one gives a shit. Look at the websites reporting them. A Google News search for "Marvel" yields headlines from CNN, IGN, and the Huff Post. Not the Franchise Herald. Other studios don't seem to quite understand what it takes to pull this off - you can't just cram a bunch of mildly popular heroes together and wait for the cash to roll in. At first glance at only The Avengers, that's what Marvel seemed to do. But The Avengers isn't just The Avengers. It's Captain America: The First Avenger (2011), THOR (2011), and a pair of down and up Iron Mans that all did pretty well. It's also a franchise that never backed down from its purpose, and yeah, all the Avengers set-up in Iron Man 2 (2010) bogged that film down a ton - but ultimately, Iron Man 2 wasn't Marvel's endgame. It was a $200 million advertisement to go see another movie that made $1.5 billion. Sound investment, even if the movie sucked.

Now, I often think to myself, as a lover of film and a being of sound mind, how can I actually say this? How can I sit here and excuse a movie as terrible as Iron Man 2 that did exactly what its creators wanted it to do, which was really just manipulating an audience into seeing a marginally better movie? I guess I don't care. As long as it's not winning Oscars, The Avengers isn't the death of cinema. Oh fuck please don't let any of these films win an Oscar. I think there will always be adult fare out there that can make us think.

Or fuck it - let's have more Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) which is the perfect paradox - a space opera based off a doofy comic intended for children that pulls off some of the best character work of the year with a soundtrack that had no right ever to reach #1 on the Billboard 200. So that's an old debate I have with myself all the time that I don't think a lot of other people get - a movie doesn't fail if it does what it was trying to do.

The Avengers was trying to make money, which it did a nice job of doing. It was also basically an extended proof of concept to demonstrate that this shared universe idea, never before done on this sort of scale, was a feasible idea. In this regard, it also succeeded. That's a good thing, because as a film, it utterly failed. Let's check out that trailer again:

Isn't that the most typical trailer, ever? There's no real sign of demonstrable conflict or stakes beyond "Loki is bad and ESPLOOSION!!!" I hate that song, too, NIN's "We're In This Together" is just so on the nose, and the trailer tends to skip over the challenging metal-y parts anyway. It's an attempt to go super, super-broad and fill as many seats as possible. Okay, it succeeded there, too, but The Avengers was so frustrating. Hang with me - let me explain why and then why also that's not a bad thing:

Whedon is known for a few things: 1) strong female characters, 2) heartfelt character moments, 3) little concern for character safety, and 4) High-Quality nerd deliverance. He teases us with all these parts within The Avengers, but then pulls the rug away before they're really delivered, which is again, an attempt to fill seats. Scarlett Jo's Black Widow has a nice bit of agency until you realize that the film doesn't pass the Bechdel test and still confines itself mostly within a white dude's world. There's strong character moments that are really just excuses for characters to fight each other. We get a truly powerful death in Agent Coulson, which is reneged in the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. TV show. And let's talk about the king of all nerd moments - Thanos.

My biggest issue with The Avengers is this scene. See, Loki and Stark were Marvel's two most interesting characters up to this point, and two of the biggest reasons why The Avengers was so successful in the first place. The Avengers roll call is really more of a trailer moment, but Stark has a point. In addition to stalling for time, the scene is really all about him trying to understand what the hell Loki is thinking. Why is his plan so terrible? Loki's a smart guy, it doesn't make sense.

That is, until the end of the film, when it's more apparent that this isn't Loki's plan at all, but rather that of Thanos, who couldn't care less about Loki's thirst for power and is much more into just pleasing death, which he got in spades by trying to invade Earth. The Loki/Stark scene is a frustrating made more so by the fact that you have to spend a lot of time reading comics in the dark to actually understand what the hell the entire point of the plot of The Avengers is. A film that relies on nerdism to understand is inherently incomplete.

Again, again - what's the point? The Avengers was a placated film that sought to amuse the lowest common denominator of people, everything about it was designed to fill seats, etc, blah blah blah. Well, the point is now. RIGHT NOW. Look at how bad all the Phase One Marvel movies were. Be honest. You've got Iron Man, but after that we tend to get all these cookie-cutter kind of superhero origin tales. I kind of think of that "Meet the Howling Commandos" bar scene from Captain America that isn't really a scene that belongs in this movie, but is instead a scene that belongs in movies like this. It's crossing checkboxes. That's Phase One.

Slowly, and by slowly, I think I mean today, the brilliance of this dawned on me - because now with all these people on board in the broadest, blandest way possible, Marvel is able to really stretch outside the box with Phase Two. I don't think it's a coincidence that I'd consider Marvel's best films to be Iron Man 3 (2013), The Winter Soldier (2014), and Guardians. They're by far the three boldest, most unique, memorable, and outstandingly produced films in the studio's canon, and they could only really exist that way (while still making a ton of money), if they owe their existence to the bland yet surface-level dazzle of what came before it. The mere fact that these films keep getting better and better by way of their encouragement of daring talent at this point is only fueling the positive energies of Marvel's brand. How did they launch Guardians to such success this year? Because despite its boffo premise, people trusted the brand, and it delivered. It's the opposite reason why Green Lantern (2011) plummeted a few years back.

Speaking of DC...nevermind. I'm not sure it's even worth it. DC is so far behind. It must suck seeing a rival like this do so well while you shuffle around like an idiot. Not only that, but I love how as this article puts it, Marvel announced their slate of films at a private yet hyped event for fans and press. DC announced theirs at a Warner Bros investors' meeting. Who's the jackass?

Now, I suppose I should ask forgiveness, because I'm finally getting to that trailer. With the knowledge of all the preceding behind you, take a gander at this:

What do you see? I see thematic consistency! Who the hell dug up that creepy version of a fucking song from Pinocchio (1940) is amazing. An obscure, tonally-efficient song that's also relevant in expressing a metaphor for the origins of the film's most important new character? That's damn efficient marketing! Now, only if Ultron will turn into a donkey after drinking Stark's beer! Meh, I have a feeling the extent of a Stark/Ultron Pinocchio-relationship will be more like this.

So while I'm jazzed up about this trailer and the hope of a Marvel future that already has its seats filled with fans who will see whatever crap they tell them to (see? Broad early = good. Now all those fans don't have to be won over and they can be exposed to more creative storytelling, which [and holy shit] - gets a more mainstream platform than ever before. Fuck I hope I'm right), I'm less jazzed for the future. The unfortunate thing is that more and more studios will attempt to imitate the studio's monumental efforts without laying down this groundwork or earning its fanbase.

I also find it curious to glance upon that just-announced release slate, particular the notion of The Infinity War (2018 and 2019, apparently) being presumably the big culminating coup-de-grace of this whole endeavour. For one is the simple fact that there's suddenly all these "What Are the Infinity Gems?" posts out there, which got me thinking - do we really need a movie based on a great comic that's freely available and has been for twenty years? Actually it wasn't even that great. It's just significant in-universe. And don't those big comic crossover events work mostly because there's no need to delineate equal storytelling time to dozens of different characters at once when you can publish across ten different serials simultaneously? And spend as long as you want on each page, soaking in each panel and taking time with your favourite characters all afternoon? Aren't comics far better suited, by the nature of their medium, to telling this kind of story?

As I think more and more about this, I'm torn. I really do think that comics are the best way to tell these nutty outrageous stories with tons of characters and crazy stakes, not because of any defining or inherent goodness or badness to one medium over another, but by the simple fact that a particular medium may be better suited to telling these kinds of stories, and that medium has been pumping away with great success for years now. Just because we can doesn't mean we should, although that advice in Hollywood is taken as often as the "Maybe we shouldn't rely on Ryan Reynolds to anchor this blockbuster" advice is taken.

I'm mostly thinking about this more and more, because by that point, if it's indeed an ultimate, culminating-style Marvel film, the Guardians need to run into the Avengers. And no one's going to get screentime. The only way this will actually work is if the movies ARE exactly like the comics - like, literally if Captain Marvel (2018), The Inhumans (2018), and Infinity War all tell facets of the same grand battle with different characters filtering in here and there across all four movies. Will this make them four good movies? Who knows. My guess is that they'll each have their necessary focus. But until then, I'm just going to read comics and be pretty happy.

And to be honest, I still contend that this shared universe / team-up anticipation genre all actually originates in a small film called The Fast and The Furious: Tokyo Drift (2006). I'm done.

First Impressions: Gone Girl

Alright, time to stretch those typing fingers a bit -

It's been a fun hiatus there, doing just about nothing for the month of September after the culmination of Summer Jam Utopia, but now it's time to get gritty. It's October, after all - it's a month of hard-nosed ghouls and determined, complex adult-themed films to round out the year after the previous ten months of nonsensical broad fair. Shit, October's almost over, too. Let's get on with it.

First, let's address some tricky caveats in that previous paragraph. Nonsensical films aren't necessarily broad films and adult films aren't necessarily good films. One need only to look at Chris Pratt's two 2014 star-making vehicles, The LEGO Movie (2014) and Guardians of the Galaxy (2014), two of the most fun and the most character-heavy mainstream flicks of the  year, to realize that. But for some reason when the leaves start to change and everyone whispers "Oscar" in hushed tones, the cinema turns to these dark, ruthless, brooding contemplative features, even if recent buzzing fair has been significantly more airy, if not in subject matter, than at least in tone, such as Djano Unchained (2012) or The Wolf of Wall Street (2013). This is all to say that a dark, brooding, introspective film isn't necessarily a good film or even a prototypical Oscar-winning film anymore.

Good films are simply good films because of plot and character, hopefully with more of the latter than the former. They also hopefully have a tone and intention that matches said plot and character. What makes good films great is when even the editing, direction, and acting lines up with and enhances these aforementioned artifices. Gone Girl (2014) is a film where all of this matches and creates a fantastic piece of cinema. SPOILERS will shoot out everywhere from here on out, people, so be warned. It's like three weeks old so, so screw it.
Who doesn't love a good snog amongst the tomes?

A lot of this in this case comes down to Dave Fincher, who seems at equal times overrated, underrated, ignored, or loved by mainstream and independent-minded cinephiles. Tony Zhou captures better than I can how Fincher knows his way around a camera with more ease of interesting storytelling than many of his contemporaries, but with Gone Girl, he's going for broke. There aren't heads in boxes, trippy journeys through nervous systems and gun barrels, or miraculous aging effects to support the narrative here. Most scenes are just people talking and yet, this contains some of the greatest tension of the year captured on film and no scene is visually uninteresting. The palette screams The Social Network (2010), but it fits, so what the hell.

I've actually been really curious about the visual potency of cinema recently, from this video about Edgar Wright's rare ability to use the camera itself along with careful editing to enhance visual comedy, to Steve Soderbergh's recent attempt to strip down Raiders (1981) in order to examine the near-perfect blocking. I oftentimes have a difficult time understanding what really makes a good director, but in addition to the simple personnel management, execution of vision, and the canny ability to navigate between personal artistry, mainstream audience desires, and the whims of studio executives, creating a purely visual dialogue to complement and even enhance a film, from not only the content of a scene, but the themes and narrative is nothing short of brilliance. Most of Gone Girl may be watched with the sound off. Which is incredible.

Affleck and Pike help. Remember when Ben Affleck was a joke? Too such an extent that I wrote this? To all of the jokes and has beens in Hollywood, this is how you repair your image - win a Best Picture Oscar! That may be a bit of a stretch, but the man has done a tremendous job rehabilitating and enhancing his image to the extent that his casting as Batman is scene as a huge boost in the credibility of the film instead of a cringe-worthy expression such was the woes of Daredevil (2003). You know, I miss the age of Daredevil. Why can't there be shitty crummy grungy superhero films that no one cares about anymore? Everything's got to be some big event, it sucks. I digress.

Affleck constantly walks a very difficult line in this movie. It's not a big expression-y role by any means, which means it will probably get ignored by pundits and critics come Award time, but this stuff is really hard to do! There is this insane amount of internal conflict constantly pulsing through his mind - it's basically a show of restrained jubilation on his part, after he believes his wife is either dead or kidnapped. He balances this shlub of a man against this unrighteous indignation against truly not knowing what to do in the situation his character finds himself in. One of the more difficult things to do as an actor is lie in character, which he does constantly, while continuously selling himself as both the victim and the possible murder suspect. From the start we know he didn't kill his wife. There's no reason his character would walk around calling for his wife when she first disappeared if he didn't think anyone would be watching. The rub is then how much the film sells him as the killer, or at least a man ambivalent to his wife's death, which piles on as we learn that he beat her and cheated on her with a younger woman while she was pregnant.

This leads us to Rosamund Pike, who becomes an unreliable narrator that Fincher so loves, who does pull off the kind of Academy-friendly spastic big acting that makes her really shine. If this is another leap forward in the Affleck legitimacy argument, it's a huge boost for Pike, who you may remember as a Bond girl back in the day (Die Another Day [2002]! Suddenly you remember Miranda Frost as being one of the best parts of that shit, right?), and has had a string of good shit recently, but this is her arrival as an A-list actress. She plays obedient housewife, faux rape victim, master manipulator, innocent bystander, and effortless "cool girl" (more on that later), all in one fell sweep with effortless execution, insight into a dangerous yet understandable mental state, and inescapable charm. It's unbelievable to watch these two play off each other, even if most of their battle becomes a psychological game of chicken played instead across media outlets balancing popular opinion against each other.

The rest of the casting is marvelously random and delightful. I will never get tired of Tyler Perry in non-Madea roles, if only because it tends to be crazy against type for him. I do miss when his one non-Madea credit was as the Admiral in Star Trek (2009), but this and Alex Cross (2012) are doing as good a job of rehabilitating his image and expanding his appeal as The Town (2009) did for Affleck. Or was it Gone Baby Gone (2007) did for Affleck. And there's Doogie Howser? I guess he's officially Neil Patrick Harris, now. That throat slit scene ought to be the best / most iconic of the year that won't be re-broadcasted on TV or at Award shows. And Pat Fugit? And guess what, Carrie Coon is a star, now. Oh, and then there's Mary Ratajkowski, who ought to know a bit about media image manipulation, who appears in an out as a temptress, whore, and then innocent, taken-advantage-of teenager.

That brings us to what is simultaneously most interesting and problematic about this film - who do you cheer for? Like I said, you know that Affleck is not the murderer. But he's still an asshole. But Pike is also still clearly psychotic. The film perfectly switches perspectives at the nadir of Affleck's doomed douchiness, but the instant it becomes clear that Pike's seemingly valid diary is all a fake and we actually have no idea what any of their past relationship was like is a stunning moment. It's also stunning that we totally get where Pike is coming from.

See, a movie about a woman faking rape cases and creating entrapment scenarios for white males is inherently problematic. There's an awful lot of victim-blaming in our culture already without a mainstream movie so convincingly throwing doubt on the situation. The brilliance of Gone Girl, though, is how we can examine the execution and motives of these actions, where we find that it's really got more to say on the matter.

Pike's character speaks at length at basically not knowing who the hell she is. She feels compelled to be this "cool girl" in the wake of meeting Affleck, and exists in this mind-bending balance between societal expectations, her husband's expectations, or at least her perceived expectations, and her own degrading mental stability, which seems like wasn't great to begin with, if her earlier relationships are any indication. See, the film is really good at showing sides. Because no one just makes up a rape accusation, but at the same time good guys don't just become rapists for no reason. There's this dialogue between the box that Pike feels herself trapped in with these male relationships and the men in her life who aren't really consciously setting these boxes, but rather just acting how society suggests they should.

The film lays our gender roles bare. Affleck and Pike's relationship isn't healthy by any stretch, and though it's weighted heavily towards Affleck, Pike never really feels comfortable confronting him. Her problems don't end with him, though, her parental relationship is toxic and manipulative as well, and she doesn't have anyone to turn to. She's lost all agency in her own life. Affleck's not a wife-beater, but he's emotionally negligent and his expectations of his wife's beauty and "coolness" is interpreted as a stigma against Pike ever developing into a full human being. Now, regardless of whether or not these are immutable societal constructs or really just exist in Pike's head (I'm always a fan of just...talking about your feelings instead of you know, framing your husband for your own murder), or whatever, the point is that she never felt safe or comfortable in some sense, even if not physical, to bring this up to her doddling, video game-playing, bar-owning, Missouri-failure of a husband.

And that's the tricky part, right? That her husband's sins against her were as equally damaging to her eventual sins against him. Affleck's first lines about cracking her skull open and figuring out what the hell she is thinking is both a chilling double entendre to open the film and an honest appraisal that he's living with this woman who mystifies him in every possible way, and without consciously attempting to do so, has set this impossible expectation for her that is driving her insane. Needless to say, this movie so thoroughly dripping with character and complex motivations for every single action that are slowly unpeeled throughout the whole mystery that it provides an extremely satisfying viewing experience.

Maybe it's my own man-ness, but I also have trouble understanding the "cool girl." I get the speech, and the problems with it, but I don't see the "cool girl" as really a bad thing if that's just how the girl acts, right? I mean, the whole point of feminism is that women should just become actual human beings instead of objects that exist to serve the purposes of men. When you chastise the idea of the "cool girl" as being this bro-like ideal female to hang out with, yeah, that's understandable, but the other extreme, the doting, delicate matron of proper femininity isn't really an option, either. I would say that "cool girl" is problematic to me the same way that an all-female Ghostbusters is problematic - distaff counterparts aren't really feminist; we should be pushing for something original and feminine, not something derivative of a previously male-dominated cultural focus. "Cool girl" to me sounds much more human than the stuffy princess we usually see in film, but maybe that's just because I'm just as much a perpetrator of that awful male expectation as Ben Affleck is. "'Cool' is effortless to me, so why shouldn't it be to the fairer sex?" is the thought running through my head, and I suppose the problem is that that's still not really true femininity - there's a balance in there that hasn't really been explored. Something neither derivative or obliquely sexist that extols actual humanity rather than object stereotyping.

I'm not sure if I nailed that one. Feel free to comment, I'm curious about the conversation that one generates.

Gone Girl brings all this conversation up. Another huge part of it, though is this concept of media transparency and manipulation, along with some insight into the ruptured lives of people suffering horrible yet public ordeals. It doesn't seem a coincidence this is all set in small-town Missouri in the wake of Ferguson, but of course, the book was written well before any of the violence there. There are ruminations of public image, the powerlessness of victims and perpetrators against pundits starved for ratings, and how easily swayed the public is for or against these people. Everyone really just wants a good story. How well you can craft that story, regardless of validity, is how you win.

In terms of technical aspects, I already mentioned Fincher's direction and palette, but big props need to be laid down for the frenetic editing, which includes what needs to become one of the more underrated opening credit sequences in recent memory (it's far too early for this to be online, especially because at first glance it seems quite ordinary, more so in light of Fincher's penchant for extremely memorable opening credits). But the subtle use of quick editing, and flashing titles that flash by just fast enough to create an uncomfortable urgency in the compulsion of reading them while placed against an idyllic suburban dawn is the perfect opening for this sort of movie. It's terror lurking not in the shadows, but right in front of you. Your husband. Your wife. Something's off and it's stressful without really knowing what's behind it. It's incredible. The editing and the score (by Trent Reznor again, give him another Oscar, why not?) lift this film throughout and add those little things that makes a film with good acting and interesting themes into a great, cohesive whole.

Finally, Gone Girl proves itself to be ultimately be a feminist work, despite the victim blaming, and the "my wife is crazy" stereotypes it endures, because of its ending. The final scenes finally create this abusive, fear-based relationship that places Affleck in a position that echoes the relationships of women everywhere - he's sleeping next to a monster, too afraid to stay, too afraid to leave, and completely supplanting expectations of gender roles. His sister pleads with him to leave, but he's been completely brainwashed now - the true victim of an emotionally abusive spouse. He thinks it'll get better, that she'll change, that her manipulations of him are somehow a sign of her love. Of course, he's completely delusional and has convinced himself of this despite all rational thought otherwise. It's why Rihanna keeps getting with Chris Brown. Love is mixed up with abuse and the victim is mistaking negative attention for genuine care. It's not that often that a film spends so much time to merely construct in the mind of a pretty bro-like dude exactly how it feels to fear for your life every night while living with your significant other. Gone Girl does it, and the downer note it ends on is incredible.

What do you think of Fincher's latest? Leave it below.
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