Posts Tagged ‘James Spader’

What in the world is more likely to get a sequel than a movie with a $1.5 billion box office? A movie with a $1.5 billion box office that’s a keystone of a sequence of over a dozen movies which has already made $7 billion. Yes, it’s time for the unstoppable colossus that is Joss Whedon’s Avengers: Age of Ultron. I tell you, folks, there’s something almost unsettling about the sheer aura of implacable self-confidence that this extraordinary film gives off: it’s almost as if it doesn’t care whether you like and enjoy it (or even understand it) or not, it’s still going to make more money than the GNP of most African countries. Resistance feels useless.


As things get underway, the Avengers are in the process of sorting out a HYDRA base in the obscure Balkan nation of Fictionalakia, which they do with a reasonable degree of alacrity: this is more an excuse for the director to get all flashy with the camerawork than a source of genuine conflict, though HYDRA’s pet superhuman pawns the Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) and Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) give it a good shot.

This looks like the final victory in the team’s current campaign, and it seems to offer the opportunity for a significant step forward in the cause of global security: for Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr) thinks he can use captured alien technology to create a sentient robotic security system encompassing the entire planet. He decides not to mention this side-project, codenamed Ultron, to the rest of the team, because what could possibly go wrong? To the surprise of nobody but Stark himself, Ultron (voiced by James Spader) turns out to be an indestructible genocidal maniac with a snarky line in repartee, and after delivering an admonitory spanking to the team flies off to set about his plan for global destruction, recruiting Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver along the way. But will they ultimately prove to be heroes or villains? One thing Marvel Studios’ lawyers are very clear on: they’re definitely not mutants.

While waiting for the film to start, I did find myself observing to a friend that it would be interesting to see how Joss Whedon coped with making a film with nine actual Avengers in it, and that’s before we even get to the villain or supporting cast. The answer, clearly, is to make a film which is almost ridiculously massive in every respect. It opens with a hugely lavish special effects action sequence and just gets bigger and bigger and (in true comic book style) sillier and sillier as it goes on. The crash-bang-wallop-zap-kapow is relentless, reaching an early peak in the long-awaited Iron Man-vs-Hulk fight, which brings new meaning to the word blockbuster, and proceeding all the way to a notably untrammelled climax. (One character even shouts ‘This is crazy!’ in the middle of the concluding chaos, which probably counts as an example of Whedon’s noted self-awareness.)

It does go on for a remarkably long time, but this is because in addition to the actual plot and his nine Avengers (in addition to the original cast and the two non-mutants, the ever-watchable Paul Bettany finally gets some proper screen-time as the Vision), Whedon also opts to include a coachload of other characters, either ones from previous movies, or ones destined for more signifcant roles in future projects: Don Cheadle has a surprisingly beefy role, and also present are the likes of Anthony Mackie, Stellan Skarsgard, and Andy Serkis. We even get to see what an Avengers works do looks like – needless to say, the world’s most famous nonagerian comic book writer puts in an appearance.

Also in true comic-book style, the lavish property damage is leavened by some slightly histrionic soap-opera style interactions between the principal cast, but I would honestly argue that finding a space in a film like this one for actors to genuinely find their characters and act is as impressive an achievement on Whedon’s part as any of the technical wizardry or plot-wrangling on display elsewhere. Whedon’s stated intention was to favour the characters who don’t appear in movies of their own, especially the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), and he pretty much pulls this off – although his attempts to wrong-foot the audience are somewhat undermined by Marvel’s fondness for announcing the cast lists of future movies several years in advance. Personally I could have seen a bit more of the Vision, but there is a huge amount to squeeze in and on the whole the film does the best it can in the circumstances. Elsewhere, I found that Whedon’s brand of self-aware knowingness was getting a bit predictable – I was able to more-or-less guess what some of the jokes would be, so perhaps it’s just as well that this film marks the end of his association with the Avengers films, at least: I suspect the writer-director would agree, because to be honest the film sometimes feels like a monumental contractual obligation – it’s never less than competent, but (not inappropriately for a film largely about androids) it often has a curiously mechanical, joyless feeling to it.

At least the sense one sometimes gets watching Marvel movies, that of characters being laboriously shunted around in order to facilitate the launching of the next instalment, is less pronounced this time. But I do wonder how this film will play with some sections of the audience: if you know who Baron von Strucker and Ulysses Klaw are, get all the other references, and have been meticulously keeping track of the meta-plot about the Infinity Stones, you’ll be in some variety of heaven, while if you’re a non-discriminating partaker of overblown CGI action you will find nothing here that disappoints you either. However, if you’re a normal, mature person who expects a film with a bit of focus and a recognisable beginning, middle and end, this may not be your best choice of night out.

However, I get a strong sense that Avengers: Age of Ultron doesn’t really care about that as it cruises merrily toward the various box-office records it will reduce to smithereens. This doesn’t feel quite like it’s raising the bar on the comic-book movie in the same way that the first film did, nor does it really seem to be intent on allowing the franchise as a whole to regroup: it just looks like another attempt by Marvel to see how crazy they can get before they lose the audience. I suspect they still haven’t reached that point. Depending on your point of view, it’s either a bloated carnival of absurd empty spectacle held together by ridiculous soap-opera plotting, or a grandiose monument to Marvel’s ambition and skill in growing their world-conquering franchise-of-franchises, but either way it’s going to be more or less unavoidable for some time to come.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published September 4th 2003:

‘Now the world don’t move to the beat of just one drum – what might be right for you, might not be right for some.’ So wrote Al Burton, Gloria Loring, and Alan Thicke in the lyrics of the theme tune to the TV show Diff’rent Strokes, and the same sentiment gets heartfelt expression in Steven Shainberg’s slightly unorthodox new romantic comedy-drama Secretary.

With a cast list that screams ‘high quality indie flick’, this stars Maggie Gyllenhaal from Donnie Darko as Lee, an awkward young woman living in her sister’s shadow. Partly, one suspects, to escape from her overbearing parents (Leslie Ann Warren and Stephen McHattie), she learns to type and gets a job with eccentric lawyer Edward Grey (the ever-reliable James Spader). Gradually, the relationship between Lee and her boss deepens and intensifies until she has choose between him and her nice but geeky fiancé Peter (Jeremy Davies)…

It sounds a bit run-of-the-mill, doesn’t it? Yes, but this is Two Weeks Notice as directed by either David Cronenberg or the Marquis de Sade. The rather offbeat nature of this film is signposted from the first scene, where a cheerful Lee goes about her office duties, seemingly oblivious to the fact that she is manacled to a yoke. As the story unfolds, we learn of her pathological self-harm problems – cutting and burning her arms and legs. Her involvement with Grey only really begins when he ‘liberates’ her from her need to do this to herself by putting her on a strict regimen of spanking, submissiveness, and, er, lots of other things I can’t go into much detail about in a family newspaper.

The subject matter is quite intense and this is an occasionally explicit film, but the script and direction have a wit and lightness of touch that keep it from being sleazy or pornographic. And a lot of credit must also go to Maggie Gyllenhaal, who gives a subtle and quite brave performance which makes it quite clear that Lee is far from an oppressed victim or sex object – she’s a woman slowly coming to terms with an understanding of what she really wants out of life, and an equal participant in her relationship with Grey. James Spader, a very fine actor who seems happy to work outside mainstream cinema, is equally good in what’s if anything an even trickier role. He takes a character whose mood seems to alternate between reptilian obsessiveness and libidinous distraction, and makes him weirdly vulnerable and endearing.

There is a sense, though, in which the film compensates for its more extreme elements. Rather than the spartan flat-packed limbo that so many offices these days consist of, Grey and Lee work in a warm and vibrant set of rooms complete with art deco stylings and wood panelling – then again this may be making a virtue of the necessity of Grey’s unusual working practices (this is the only lawyer in modern America who doesn’t use a word processor – a crucial plot point). The film’s structure, while a bit twisted and slow to get going, is fundamentally that of many female-led romances – girl starts job, falls for boss, finally he notices her, etc. I’m not sure whether such conventionality is entirely compatible with the film’s subversive message, and the clash between them may be the cause of a brief wobble near the end where the story threatens to unravel entirely. But the movie redeems itself almost straight away, by exploding into a lush and erotic romanticism of remarkable power: more so than any more conventionally-styled movie I can remember.

For, at its heart, this is quite a warm and sensitive film, but one that’s not afraid to make its’ point. Freedom of choice is a fundamental right and one to be valued, but some people are at their happiest when freely surrendering it. The film anticipates objections to this by including a scene where Lee encounters a far-from-impressed feminist, but on the whole it argues its case wittily and persuasively. Secretary is a funny and perceptive adult fairytale, and shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand.

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