Avengers: Age of Ultron review

And so, Marvel’s quest for domination of box office dollars and moviegoer’s time continues. This may sound like I’m starting cynical but I’d like to point out I’m a fan and did enjoy Avengers: Age of Ultron immensely. But… I am starting to feel blockbuster burnout.

First though, the good stuff.

It’s great to have another Avengers movie and the gang back together, they’ve got an easy chemistry and work well as a unit. The story kicks off almost immediately with a slow-mo money shot of them attacking a Hydra base – one to get the fanboys screaming. There’s wisecracking all round and Hulk smashing stuff, yay.

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The team are after Loki’s sceptre which carries a great deal of power. Once retrieved, Stark and Banner think they can use it to create artificial intelligence to put in a robot that will protect the earth so the Avengers can effectively retire. With Captain America the strongest opposed to this plan (more on that later) it backfires producing a rather hateful and sociopathic Ultron (voiced with verve and menace by James Spader).

And so the team have a new foe to face, typically one they created themselves – but let’s not get into that. For those that haven’t been living under a rock the past decade you should all know these characters by now – and no time is wasted picking up where they left off in the first film (and indeed all the other individual films they’ve been in).

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Moving things along a bit director Joss Whedon does provide some nice character moments, in particular Scarlett Johansson’s Natasha Romanoff and Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner developing as a couple and Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye showing another side as a family man.

There’s also new characters.

Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s Quicksilver and Elisabeth Olsen’s Scarlet Witch make an intriguing pair – and it’s nice that their loyalties are torn during the film rather than them being clean cut heroes throughout. In terms of powers (his, speed; hers, telekinesis and mind control) they’re brought to life effectively, although hers does mean that we veer pretty closely to X-Men territory. (There’s lots of crossover in the comic book world but on the silver screen I’m not sure I’d like the Avengers and X-Men to meet/fight/team up really, but that’s another discussion.)

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Where this film falls over a little is down to the fact we’ve seen it all before. And before. And before. The film’s final third is yet another battle in the skies, which now seems to happen in every Marvel film. Also, even though we do want to see the team smash bad guys to bits it doesn’t feel like there’s ever much at stake. Maybe I’m starting to care less about the characters, or maybe I know that they’ll never kill off any of the major ones, but it just makes it all seem a little too… safe and pedestrian. Which is ridiculous given all the explosions and fights and whatnot.

Also, it never seems to take that much effort to outwit the bad guy. Well, mental effort. Physical effort the team have aplenty. Making a clumsy comparison to The Dark Knight for a second, the Joker laughs at Batman as he pounds him saying he has nothing to threaten him with. It feels like that here. Other than brute force to solve problems it never feels like the Avengers have any other way of doing things. Is avenging just different ways of punching someone? Maybe their enemies will get more complex in the future, who knows. The teaser (spoiler, ish) at the end of the film suggests Marvel are drawing all the strands of their portfolio together, perhaps for forthcoming Civil War where we see the differences of opinion of Captain America and Tony Stark (on how to protect the masses) come to a head in a monumental scrap.

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Back to Age of Ultron though. Despite what I’ve just said, all in all it’s a lot of fun. There’s lots of meat for the geeks and comic book fans to chow down on, we get a bit more character development and a lot more smashy smashy bad guys but – and it’s a big but – are we reaching saturation point? Are audiences getting tired of these characters? I am a little. Still love them, but I’m getting a little jaded.

Maybe less smashy more talky is the order of the day. There’s a section in Age of Ultron where Scarlet Witch pretty much floors the team with her mind control skills. That was intriguing. More of that please. Same goes for Paul Bettany’s The Vision – another nice addition, and a more thoughtful one to boot. Perhaps my ponderings are immaterial as, from the film’s final scenes, it looks like they’re trying to move the world onto other characters, which is good. I love the old gang as much as the next fanboy, but maybe it’s time to call time on them?

Anyway… I could go on and on but you get the idea. Go watch it and judge for yourself. Do you feel the same way?

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Trailer park: Lucy, a messenger and a dame

scarlette-johanssen-lucy-trailerDing, ding! The time has come for another trailer park breakdown. If you’re unfamiliar, this is the latest in a series of posts where I provide my pick of upcoming films with a little bit of info to set the scene and, of course, the trailer to get you all fired up.

Lucy
(US release 8 August, UK 22 August)
What if we could access the full processing power of our brains? Writer-director Luc Besson explores this theme via a kick-ass heroine. In the past he’s given us Milla Jovovich and Natalie Portman and now, a lady enjoying a fine run of form, Scarlett Johansson. Her character, Lucy, is forced by the mob to be a drug mule. Unfortunately the drugs get into her system… with interesting results. This could, potentially, be Besson’s best film yet.


Kill the Messenger

(US release 10 October, UK 28 November)
Based on a true tale that saw a journalist stumble onto a story involving cocaine, the CIA and rebels in Nicaragua. From the prisons of California to the corridors of power in Washington this looks an epic ride. And if story alone isn’t enough there’s also a cracking cast which includes Jeremy Renner, Michael Sheen, Ray Liotta, Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Andy Garcia.


Sin City: A Dame to Kill For

(US and UK release 22 August)
Good lord this has been a long time coming. But good things come to those who wait, they say. And wait we have. But this also means that this Robert Rodriguez directed prequel needs to be as good as the original… Or better, if they can manage it. Some old faces return for this tale, but new additions – Josh Brolin, Eva Green and Joseph Gordon-Levitt – look the part and seem to fit nicely into Frank Miller’s sinful world.

American Hustle: another stone cold zinger from David O. Russell?

Big hair, big actors, big performances and small dresses. That’s what you get from this latest offering by writer-director David O. Russell – the man behind award winning films, Silver Linings Playbook and The Fighter.american-hustle

Set in the ’70s and loosely following the FBI Abscam operation, we start with our main character, conman Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale), sporting a hairy paunch and possibly the best combover since Bill Murray in Kingpin.

He meets Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) and the pair fall for each other, becoming a successful con artist couple until getting busted by Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), an FBI man trying to make a name for himself.PDC - Best Films - American Hustle DiMaso convinces the pair to set up various politicians, including Mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), which then leads his operation onto bigger fish, namely mobsters.

There’s the setup. There’s a lot more but suffice to say that films featuring con artists often have numerous double crosses, shady backhanders and ambiguous motives galore. It’s essentially the director playing the three cups game with the audience. Just when you think you know which cup hides the plot twist, boom, deception!

That said, the con part of this film isn’t hugely tough to follow, the plot ticks along nicely. The whole Abscam thing almost more of a backdrop to allow O. Russell to showcase a host of interesting characters. In short, this is a character study.

Indeed, it’s a character driven movie with Irving front and centre as the driving force. Plaudits already seem to be going to Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence – the former Irving’s mistress the latter his unhinged wife, Rosalyn – yet it’s Bale who anchors the whole thingAmy-Adams -American-Hustle--02 with a commanding yet vulnerable performance; as a man who recognises his place in the criminal world and feels control gradually slipping from his grasp.

Amy Adams’ Sydney is partly responsible for Irving’s loss of control. Blaming him for getting her busted in the first place, she puts herself in the centre of a love triangle between Irving and Bradley Cooper’s DiMaso. Is she conning them both? Does she have genuine feelings for DiMaso? Huge credit to Adams for leading us down this sexy garden path with a fiercely seductive performance yet… she’s similar to Irving. The deeper she goes the more she feels things are spinning out of control.

Enter DiMaso. Cooper’s portrayal of an ambitious – and possibly quite naive – FBI man is yet another feather in O. Russell’s cap – and Cooper’s too. He charges about the place, manipulating Irving and Sydney, intimidating his boss (brilliantly played by Louis C.K.) yet he’s the same… never quite in control, mentally or emotionally.

And if we’re on the subject of emotional control, Jennifer Lawrence’s Rosalyn gives a masterclass in how to be an unmanageable wife. Jennifer-Lawrence -American-Hustle--04Furiously demanding Irving’s attention and love, setting fire to the science oven (microwaves were just coming out), getting him in trouble with the mob. Perhaps this is all summed up in one beautiful scene where she sings ‘Live and let die’ whilst furiously cleaning.

So… coming back to my title, is this a zinger? Well, mostly. It’s a great film, lots of fun. It doesn’t have the emotional wallop of The Fighter or the intricate nuances of Silver Linings Playbook, but there’s no doubt it will pick up a stack of awards. And it shows that, with O.Russell we’ve got a director who’s found his ’70s flair and shared the secret with his mad, bad cast. Groovy baby.

Ben Affleck: a directorial phoenix emerges!

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I’ve had a disastrous morning. Not the most upbeat way to start a post, but hang in there. I dropped a full jar of honey on the floor which shattered. Honey and glass is impossible to clean up. Then banged my heel in the shower, spilt hot tea on my leg, lost half my breakfast in the toaster – the part I salvaged I managed to push off my plate onto the table with aggressive cutting!

And so, on to this post. As you might guess it’s about Affleck’s rise from the ashes of an acting career to become a directorial force to be reckoned with – much to the surprise of many. The reason for mentioning my morning mishaps is I hope this piece becomes my salvation – that I rise from the flames resplendent, with no more disasters for the rest of the day. I want to become the phoenix! Ahem, let’s move on.

So last night I watched Gone Baby Gone – another ‘been on my list for a while’ film. As expected, it’s really good. I’ve ended up watching the films Affleck has directed in reverse order, having seen The Town a while ago. Both are set in Boston and deal with crime and family. Both are brilliant – suspenseful, thrilling and wholly engrossing throughout.

gone baby goneGone Baby Gone (2007)
If you’ve not seen this, it’s a crime mystery drama based on a book by Dennis Lehane – author of two other titles that have been turned into impressive films, Mystic River and Shutter Island. The latter superbly directed by Scorsese and features a career-high performance by DiCaprio.

In terms of plot, it features Casey Affleck (Ben’s younger brother) as a private investigator hired to find a missing girl. Faced with the challenges of working with distrustful cops (Ed Harris and Morgan Freeman), drug dealers and other lowlifes – his relationship with his co-worker and partner Angie (Michelle Monaghan) becomes strained as the investigation progresses. There are twists, turns and revelations and, whilst the plot is complex, it’s worth paying attention to the end.

Affleck (senior) gives the Boston setting a grittiness and believability and gets a great performance out his younger brother. Who said siblings can’t work together? I’ve had my doubts about Casey Affleck, he’s always seemed quite a closed book in terms of being an expressive actor. Now I understand his appeal. He gives a truly impressive performance, particularly showing suppressed emotion – one of the hardest things to convincingly portray for an actor. He’s also highly believable as a normal Boston guy in a tense, dangerous situation. The action never feels fake or Hollywood, a lot of this is down to Casey’s talent as much as older brother Ben’s direction.

This film suffered a little on release due to the subject matter and art imitating life, particularly in the UK where the disappearance of a girl that looked almost identical to the one in the film meant release was pushed back. This should take nothing away from it, this is a well told, well acted, well directed film – particularly from a debut Director.

Incidentally, if we’re talking Lehane adaptations, it’s worth noting that it’s less depressing than Mystic River and not as thrilling or scary as Shutter Island – sitting perhaps inbetween the two as a good, solid crime mystery. Worth your time.

The Town (2010)
Is this a companion piece to Gone Baby Gone? Maybe it should be packaged up as a Boston crime trilogy boxset with The Departed? Anyway, Affleck’s directorial debut set him up nicely to direct this tale of bank-robbing in the heart of Boston’s Charlestown – a place that accounts for over 300 robberies a year.

As well as directing, Affleck starred as the leader of the gang who decides to keep watch on bank manager (Rebecca Hall), as she could potentially identify him following his gang’s last job. As he begins to fall for her romantically he has to deal with volatile partner (the excellent Jeremy Renner) and evade capture from FBI detective (John Hamm).

the townFor me, this film had a lot of similarities with Michael Mann’s Heat, or the opening robbery sequence in Chris Nolan’s The Dark Knight. At least in terms of epic, realistic gun battles in broad daylight and the cat-and-mouse game between cop (Hamm) and robber (Affleck). High praise you might say, but justified.

How Affleck found the time to act in this as well as get great performances out of a cast including Blake Lively, Rebecca Hall, John Hamm and Jeremy Renner I’ll never know. Renner was astonishing – all coiled up, explosive rage and intensity.

If you compare Affleck’s two directorial outings so far, I prefer The Town. It’s a simpler story than Gone Baby Gone, but more exciting and thrilling. Both are very good films though. Which leads us on to Affleck’s latest…

Argo (2012)
Hard for me to say too much about this as it’s only just come out at the cinema. The plot tells the story of a real life CIA mission in 1980 to rescue six American diplomats from revolutionary Iran, by posing as a Canadian film crew and staging a fake film in the country.

It’s got an interesting cast. As well as Affleck, it includes Bryan Cranston (from TV show Breaking Bad), John Goodman and Alan Arkin. Quite a departure from Affleck’s first two films, so it will be interesting to see how he handles it.

I’ll finish with the trailer below so you can judge for yourself. First impressions suggest it’s positioning itself as a serious thriller with comic elements. Almost like a grown-up version of Ocean’s Eleven. What do you think?

Who are the top 20 most intense actors of recent times?

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I do like an intense character and performance when I’m watching a film. Someone who literally rivets and welds you to the screen, look away at your peril. Some people probably like their films bright and breezy. I don’t mind those too, but there’s something about intensity that leaves a lasting impression. You remember those performances.

As such I thought I’d offer a couple of lists of actors and actresses that have had me mesmerised, entranced and – at times – a little frightened. I’ve most likely left off a lot of vintage performances and characters, but this is MY list so I’m allowed. Let me know your thoughts. Who would you have liked to have seen included?

In these lists I’ve put links to clips from some performances you might not have seen before, or maybe just want to revisit. Remember though, best not watch alone though, these lot are intense!

The guys

  1. charlie bronsonDaniel Day Lewis (Bill ‘the Butcher’ Cutting, Gangs of New York; Daniel Plainview, There will be Blood)
  2. Heath Ledger (The Joker, The Dark Knight)
  3. Tom Hardy (Charles Bronson, Bronson)
  4. Christian Bale (Patrick Bateman, American Psycho; Batman, The Batman Trilogy)
  5. Kevin Spacey (John Doe, Seven)
  6. Christopher Walken (Vicenzo Carcotti, True Romance; Frank White, King of New York)
  7. Javier Bardem (Anton Chigurh, No Country for Old Men)
  8. Christopher Waltz (Col. Hans Landa, Inglourious Basterds)
  9. Vincent Cassel (Jacques Mesrine, Mesrine)
  10. Liam Neeson (Bryan Mills, Taken)
  11. Jeremy Renner (Sergeant William James, The Hurt Locker; Jem Coughlin, The Town)
  12. Gary Oldman (Drexel, True Romance)

The gals

  1. helena bonham carter harry potterHelena Bonham Carter (Red Queen, Alice in Wonderland; Bellatrix Lestrange, Harry Potter)
  2. Cate Blanchett (Galadriel, Lord of the Rings)
  3. Marion Cotillard (Mal, Inception)
  4. Angelina Jolie (Lisa Rowe, Girl, Interrupted)
  5. Melanie Laurent (Shosanna Dreyfus, Inglourious Basterds)
  6. Charlize Theron (Aileen Wuornos, Monster)
  7. Famke Janssen (Xena Onotopp, Goldeneye; Jean Grey, Xmen: The Last Stand)
  8. Noomi Rapace (Lisbeth Salander, Girl with the Dragon Tattoo)

So, there’s my list. You’ll notice there’s more men than women, I’m not sure why. I think, perhaps, there’s a tendency – particularly in Hollywood – for studios to shy away from films with intense, female leads. I wonder if they are more of a risk commercially? I don’t think that’s the case. I think it’s more to do with a lack of decent scripts for women, ones that don’t play to stereotypes.

One thing I’ve noticed is how top actors portray intensity – for me – it’s in the eyes. I think it’s what separates great actors and actresses from the rest. If you allow yourself to be drawn into their gaze, there’s so much depth there. Depending on the character they’re playing, it can be equally exciting, captivating and terrifying. Watch Pacino in The Godfather, making the decision to kill with his eyes. A lesson in intensity.

Right, I need to go watch some comedy now to level out. It’s all got too much. I’ll finish with artwork of Marion Cotillard, not because it’s intense, but because it’s simply beautiful – and that’s all the reason you need.

Marion Cotillard artwork