Tuesday, 28 April 2015

Avengers: Age of Ultron

The Avengers are back, and on top of the world! Here we find them raiding a Hydra outpost in search of Loki's sceptre. However, they come across two Hydra experiments: Twins Pietro, who is very quick and dresses in silver, and Wanda Maximoff, who dresses in scarlet and can manipulate minds like a witch. The twins get away though, and the Avengers come away with the sceptre. Once back at HQ, Tony Stark realises the sceptre contains an artificial intelligence which he and Dr Bruce Banner can extract and use within their idea for their global defence programme: "Ultron". Very quickly though, things escalate and the Avengers receive an unwanted, and unknown, guest at their celebration party...

And that, ladies and gentleman, is the end of Phase 2. Feels like just yesterday the MCU was born, doesn't it? Seven years since Iron Man came out and changed how we viewed the superhero film (a few months before DC's The Dark Knight did so again), we've come through two 'eras' of Marvel superhero films, bookended by an Avengers film at both. So what have been the main differences between Phase 1 and Phase 2? What makes Avengers 2 a different beast to Avengers 1, if anything? And where do we go from here? I mean, we all know, Marvel have mapped out the next half decade with an array of talent new and old, but what about the tone and direction of each of the planned films? How will everything tie together? Will we ever reach a conclusion to the MCU or will it continue for time immortal? SO. MANY. QUESTIONS. Somewhat frustratingly, Avengers 2 only has the slimmest of answers to not that many questions in regards to the future, and even then, there's so much wiggle room...

So you might have guessed that this will not just be a review of Avengers 2, but a look into the future of the Marvel Cinematic Universe itself, because, as Marvel will so regularly tell you, #ItsAllConnected. So Age of Ultron is the maxim of Phase 2, much as Assembles capped Phase 1, but has much changed? I've said through the array of Phase 2 films (every single one I've written a review for on here) that I like the direction the films were heading; they seemed more intent on storytelling rather than character establishment, which is a given since the introductions made up Phase 1, and seemed to finally be telling a larger story instead of simply building up to the next Avengers adventure. Well now we've reached Avengers 2, I can safely say that something bigger is building. At least, I hope it is, because as and "end of an era" film, this was somewhat disappointing.

Avengers 2 broke no new ground, and didn't use its recent history to explore the MCU on a larger scale. In Avengers 1, it used a pre-established villain who even by the end they didn't kill off. Avengers 2 creates and kills its 'bigger bad' creation in the space of 2 hours. There's no relation to any other films, other than the small inclusion of Hydra at the beginning, and the constant ongoing references to "aliens coming out of the sky" in 2012. There's no sense of history, and every sense of getting this out the way so they can focus on new things. I got the feeling throughout this film that Marvel Studios have grow weary of their heroes. That can be good, as weariness can act of motivation for evolution, except Marvel has Cap America 3 and Thor 3 and Avengers 3a and 3b lined up. The question can now be asked regarding film on this scale; Is a trilogy too much? Can we say all we need to say without getting tired in 2 film rather than 3? As far as Avengers go, definitely, as they seem to be running out of answers for the scarce few questions it asks.

There were good points throughout, don't get me wrong; Joss Whedon's script is very Whedon; humour running through the serious action throughout, running jokes included. The action is spread out too, it's not a constant gunfight. However, there's problems here too. I feel like superhero films have reached their ceiling in terms of action sequences. The Chitauri battle in Avengers 1 was epic, and absolutely spot on, and the best you'll ever see. Superman vs. Zod in Man of Steel was about the worst you'll see. We get to see both of these in Avengers 2. As cool as it was to see the Hulkbuster armour on screen, the action is extremely OTT and the destruction is causes is far too epic (I can't believe I wrote that; I've become jaded). Now, at least there's a point to the OTT action and destruction in this unlike the mindlessness of Man of Steel, but you can't help but feel Zack Snyder's ruined it for everyone now. The final standoff in Sokovia is extremely reminiscent of the final standoff in New York from Avengers 1; there's no ramping up of the action and that's probably for the best, but it still carries a three-year old taste in the mouth.

To be perfectly honest, Avengers 2 feels very similar to Avengers 1, so much so that it does not feel like a sequel, it feels like a sister film. A twin sister film. Same characters, same basic story, same humour in the script, similar big bads. The only differences? They introduce more characters so that it's not a carbon copy of Avengers 1, and they've shaken up the Avengers line up by the end so that we won't be facing the exact same film again in 3a and 3b. There's also a lot of underutilisation in this film too: Nick Fury is back from the (not) dead, but no way is enough of a big deal made about this. Of course, I reserve judgement until I see how #ItsAllConnected because, somewhat frustratingly, Age of Ultron made it to the UK before America, which means we won't see the impact it has on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. for another couple of weeks. There's also not nearly enough Ultron, brilliantly voiced by James Spader (can we all take a moment to appreciate the career and silver vocal chords of Mr Spader?) but then that's hard to do when you don't establish the character until the end of the first act and kill him off by the end of the third.  There's also not enough Vision for my liking, but you know there's more to come with him.

Overall... Avengers: Age of Ultron was never going to be the film it had to be. Never. Even for a two and a half hour film, it had too much to do and skips a few steps in character and plot development, it has too many heroes for one film, but surely that's why there's an entire Cinematic Universe, too avoid crushes like this? I understand it's an Avengers film, and they're supposed to 'assemble', but they've overcooked it, which is sad, but recoverable. There's a massive array of Marvel film between now and Avengers 3a and 3b featuring a whole host of new characters. Now, they don't all necessarily have to appear in Avengers 3a and 3b, similar to how the Guardians never showed up here; sometimes they don't have to assemble because sometimes it just won't make sense and won't work. The outline of the Avengers team by the end of the film looks promising for its future though, and shows Marvel at least aren't afraid to shake things up. Also, there's a traditional mid credits scene which is VERY similar to the mid credits scene from Avengers 1. It's clear there's a bigger plan at work, and Avengers 2 is a surprisingly small cog in that particular machine, but hey, at least this was better than Iron Man 2.

Rating: **1/2

Saturday, 4 April 2015

Wild Tales (Relatos Salvajes)

From the mind of Damian Szifron comes an anthology of 6 short films with no overlapping characters or plot lines, only a consistent theme of violence and revenge. "Pasternak", "Las Ratas (The Rats)", "El Mas Fuerte (The Strongest)", "Bombita (Little Bomb)", "La Propuesta (The Proposal), and "Haste Que La Muerte Nos Separe (Until Death Do Us Part)" each offer a different exploration of the film's overarching themes, each with different outcomes. For such a unique film, a unique review is deserved. Let's do this segment by segment...

Part 1: "Pasternak"

This is how to begin a film. Two strangers meet on a plane, and begin to realise they know the same man: Pasternak. However, they're not the only people who know Pasternak... This is the shortest tale of the 6, and by far the funniest. It doesn't exactly set the tone for the rest of the film, as you'll find out, but it certainly piques an interest immediately. The premise is simple and the humour is based on the ludicrous nature of the premise. The nature of the segment means that with almost every line of dialogue, there is yet another plot reveal, but it's never overpowering and adds to the insanity. I cannot think of anything to compare this opening segment too; it's in a league of its own.

Segment Rating: 5/5

Part 2: Las Ratas (The Rats)

Our second short is certainly short; what you'll notice is the segments grow in length as the film continues, something which adds a disconcerting aspect to the viewing as you're never sure when the film will reach its climax. Two women work at a quiet diner, simple passing time, until a customer comes in who the waitress recognises immediately. The customer is a loan shark. A loan shark who destroyed her family. The waitress doesn't know how to deal with it, but the chef does: Kill him. The second tale carries on the black humour of the first (the subject matter is pitch black, but dealt with extremely humorously) but adds an element of character development we're unable to get in the first, short segment. This segment is a strange hybrid of humour, discomfort, and shock. For the most part it works until the end, which unfortunately leaves the viewer empty and dissatisfied.

Segment Rating: 3.5/5

Part 3: El Mas Fuerte (The Strongest)

A businessman drives down a country road alone until he meets a hill billy unwilling to let him pass. Finally, the businessman passes and offers an insult or two as he does so. Further down the road, our cocky businessman gets a puncture, and is forced to pull over in the middle of nowhere. He does his best to fix it himself, but the longer he's off the road, the more inevitable it becomes that someone will catch him up... This segment is probably the lightest of the 6, the humour isn't black but rather laugh out loud. There's an element of discomfort which is borne of the confrontation between the two drivers, but any and all tension is resolved through comedy, making this one of the most entertaining segments of the 6. The resolution seems a little forced though.

Segment Rating: 4.5/5

Part 4: Bombita (Little Bomb)

This is where things take a turn for the blacker. A simple story of a man becoming frustrated with the world because his car was towed ends up with him becoming a celebrated terrorist. It's pitch black, there are little to no laughs in this one, perhaps this segment runs a little too close to the edge? It would balance out if there were enough tension to carry the plot through but there's little to none of that either. This one is really character driven, focusing on Simon played by Ricardo Darin, "coincidentally" the biggest star in the film who's given more screen time than any other character in the film. The ending fits the segment's plot for once, but the theme of revenge is really played out here and is stretched to its limits.

Segment Rating: 2/5

Part 5: La Propuesta (The Proposal)

The Proposal moves us into an altogether different beast of a segment. There are no laughs derived of humour in this one, only of sheer bewilderment as to the extremes the characters are willing to go to. A young man runs down and kills a pregnant woman whilst drunk, and his parents attempt to bribe their gardener to take the fall via their lawyer. Hilarious premise, no? It becomes clear in this one another theme Szifron is exploring in these segments is the extreme lengths humans will take to self-protect and self-serve. This segment is the living embodiment of this principal... In Szifron's eyes. It goes to great lengths to depict the most deplorable of human natures, but weirdly this is the only segment which finishes with any kind of justice being done. It's engaging, and provides a sharp contrast to the overall tone of the film.

Segment Rating: 3/5

Part 6: Haste Que La Muerte Nos Separe (Until Death Do Us Part)

Then we come to the sixth and final segment. After 4 and 5, you'd be allowed to think things are beginning to drag. 4 and 5 are long, dark segments, so when we're presented with a wedding, things are looking up. Except it's the wedding from hell. After the darkness of the previous hour, segment  is joyous, uplifting, endlessly entertaining, and a fantastic way both to end the film, as well as bookend it as it accompanies the first segment wonderfully. The direction and camera work are exceptional in this; possibly because the action stays mainly in one setting and the limits of the room are fully explored. The acting of the two leads is fantastic, and the writing is so ludicrous it just about works. The ending works too, because the alternative is seemingly unthinkable and most definitely would have provided a jarring finale.

Segment Rating:4.5/5

Overall... The film, like any film, has its weak points. It also has its strong points. The only difference between this film and any other is that the segmented nature of this film highlights where its high and low points are. The writing is generally sharp, though it seems at certain points it struggles in achieving its aims and the segments lose their way, meandering to their drawn-out conclusions. It's hugely entertaining though. I haven't seen a film like this since Four Rooms, and perhaps I should. Perhaps more people should take the lead of this film. Inevitably someone will with the inevitable American remake of this film.

Overall Rating: 4/5