April 2015 Film Viewing Round-Up

Herewith some brief thoughts about films I saw in April which I didn’t review in full. It includes a couple of films I actually saw in March but had thought I’d write up in their own posts (I didn’t).


Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)

Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015, USA, dir. Joss Whedon) [Sat 25 Apr at Cineworld Wood Green]. Look at how crowded that poster is and you’ll get some sense of the film, assuming you haven’t already seen it. I enjoyed it perfectly fine, but I get the sense that whereas for the average punter, it’s a long film, for fans of yr Marvel Cinematic Universe and those who are heavily invested in these characters, it’s probably not long enough. They even add new characters (one of whose superpowers I’m still not clear about, but perhaps it’s the power to do whatever’s required by the narrative at any given point). The crowdedness of the ensemble cast is evident in the number of scenes where everyone’s just standing around, stepping forward periodically to deliver their line and then stepping back. Whedon does the best he can and adds those nice little self-aware lines which define his work (like Linda Cardellini’s “I’ll always support your avenging…”, not the mention the snarky asides) but it’s still a big pummelling superhero film that has a protracted denouement, a nonsense evil villain plan (though James Spader is always dependable in such a role) and lots and lots of CGI effects (which are at times so indifferently executed I thought I was actually watching a video game, as in the opening sequence). YMMV. ***


The Book of Life (2014)

The Book of Life (2014, USA, dir. Jorge R. Gutiérrez) [Mon 6 Apr on a plane]. A film I missed when it came out was available on my trip over to the States, so I availed myself of the opportunity, and even given the small size of the screen, it still impressed by its artful and gorgeously-coloured use of Mexican motifs in its story of rival suitors for a lady’s affections. It nods towards female empowerment, even if it has an old-fashioned adventure feel, but ultimately it’s the richly textured design that saves it. ***


En duva satt på en gren och funderade på tillvaron (A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence, 2014)

En duva satt på en gren och funderade på tillvaron (A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence) (2014, Sweden/Norway/Germany/France, dir. Roy Andersson) [Thu 30 Apr at Curzon Soho]. Its pace is slow and deliberate, constructed in a series of tableaux-like images which frequently fade to black before the next image commences, and in many ways it takes its cue from that first scene, in which a tourist couple examine birds in glass cases, one of which is the titular (stuffed) pigeon. The humans throughout the film are themselves as waxy and pallid as dead creatures placed on display, and the sets are deliberately minimal in a depressingly beige way. But while Roy Andersson’s film is nominally a (black, deadpan) comedy, it’s really a cautionary moral tale of the bleak dangers inherent in capitalism, as our two Beckettian like heroes wander through a glum dyspeptic world retailing their ‘comedy’ joke items to little interest. There are restrained outbreaks of weirdness — jaunty songs, alternate realities, dreams — which suggest something deeper is going on, and indeed I think this one will work in most people’s minds afterwards, even if it sometimes seems a little inert while it’s going on. ***


Insurgent (aka The Divergent Series: Insurgent, 2015)

Insurgent (aka The Divergent Series: Insurgent) (2015, USA, dir. Robert Schwentke) [Sun 29 Mar at Cineworld West India Quay]. Having enjoyed star Shailene Woodley’s work elsewhere, I decided to watch the first film in the Divergent series in anticipation of this new one (and reviewed it in my March roundup). Usually the way these kinds of series go is that they drop off in quality with each successive instalment, but the first set up such a ridiculous and unbelievable world (dividing everyone into mutually-exclusive castes based on ability) that the bar wasn’t too high, and indeed has been cleared by Insurgent. I’m not saying the second film is a triumph — the world is still constructed along weirdly rigid lines, and the test that evil leader Jeanine (Kate Winslet) sets for Woodley’s Tris is a bit confusing — but it opens up its world in interesting ways and sets up a next episode that I’m actually looking forward to.


Notting Hill (1999)

Notting Hill (1999, UK, dir. Roger Michell) [Sun 19 Apr on a plane]. I’m probably not supposed to like this, but what can you do. Every time it comes on — and I only tend to watch it when it’s there right in front of me — I end up watching the whole thing, and this has happened more than once, so it’s not just some kind of momentary weakness. I’ve not been sold on all screenwriter Richard Curtis’s films, though I’ve liked more than I’ve disliked, but Notting Hill just seems to work despite all its inherent naffness. Julia Roberts plays a big-time Hollywood star, Hugh Grant is a diffident English bookshop owner, they meet cute, one things leads to another, there are some funny setpieces, and well, it passes the time very pleasantly. **½


Pitch Perfect (2012)

Pitch Perfect (2012, USA, dir. Jason Moore) [Fri 24 Apr at a friend’s flat]. I’ve reviewed it before, and it’ll probably show up on this list many times more in the future, because I do love Pitch Perfect. It’s not just Anna Kendrick, whom I’ve recently had cause to hymn once again for The Last Five Years, but the ensemble cast and the time-honoured building-to-a-big-showdown narrative construction, not to mention the hummable music. ****


Premium Rush (2012)

Premium Rush (2012, USA, dir. David Koepp) [Sat 4 Apr at home]. At a certain level this is a fairly slight premise — Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s bicycle courier must deliver a package across Manhattan by a deadline, hotly pursued by Michael Shannon’s corrupt cop — but this is essentially an action film, and you don’t want to complicate the purity too much. That said, the filmmakers weave in a story of immigration and bureaucratic corruption without overwhelming the central chase motif, which is handled with a great deal of vigour and momentum. It also (as far as I can tell) charts a realistic depiction of New York geography as Gordon-Levitt frantically switches up routes to his destination. ***½


Wild Card (2015)

Wild Card (2015, USA, dir. Simon West) [Tue 31 Mar at Cineworld Wood Green]. The great Jason Statham returns in another action romp which as per some other recent outings, shows just a hint of actorly character development around the edges, as he essays the role of Nick Wild, Las Vegas security specialist. Most of the big name cast members (and there are a few: Jason Alexander, Stanley Tucci, Sofia Vergara, Hope Davis, Anne Heche) are there for single scenes only, leaving the main showdown to be between Statham and Milo Ventimiglia as a narcissistic, abusive gangster. If you’ve seen a Statham actioner before, you’ll probably recognise the broad contours, but in the tightness of the filming and the polish of the script this one is probably his best since Safe. ***

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Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW || Seen at Genesis, London, Monday 4 August 2014 || My Rating 3 stars good


© Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

You can’t deny that Marvel Studios have done a good job at shaping their film presence over the last decade, in a way that goes well beyond just giving Stan Lee his surely contractually-obliged cameo (and yes, there’s one here too). It just seems, though, as someone who is coming over time to appreciate a well-written screenplay, that there’s an overabundance of detail (of plot, characters, worlds, special effects, music and noise): a sensory overload at times. Maybe that’s to do with the source material, but for a two-hour film, there certainly are a lot of distractions. Partly that goes with the fantasy sci-fi setting, but the opening half hour features plenty of breathless cross-cutting between all-but-identically-named worlds, blathering on about nonsense with silly names, trying to sketch out various tribal allegiances that you need series TV (or a comic book) to really do justice to. At the core of the plot, though, is a mysterious orb, a classic MacGuffin whose purpose and power is fairly redundant. After all, the point is surely the journey of the five outlaw protagonists, led by Chris Pratt’s likeable goofy Andy Peter “Starlord”, as they pursue this orb — and at that, the film succeeds.

Continue reading “Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)”

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW || Directors Anthony Russo and Joe Russo | Writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (based on the comic book Captain America by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby) | Cinematographer Trent Opaloch | Starring Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Anthony Mackie, Robert Redford, Samuel L. Jackson | Length 136 minutes | Seen at Cineworld West India Quay (2D), London, Wednesday 2 April 2014 || My Rating 3 stars good


© Walt Disney Studios

There’s a point that can be reached in any serial work of art where it becomes so baroquely self-referential and so enveloped in the minutiae of its own mythology that unless you’ve been following it across all its media appearances, tracking its development, and discussing it in detail, you can feel lost. It’s not a point that I think film series often get to, and is more the preserve of cult television and (one assumes) comic books, so perhaps that makes Captain America: The Winter Soldier something of a Rubicon for so industrialised an art form. It undoubtedly has already hugely pleased the (very many) fans of the Marvel franchise, but for the casual cinemagoer — even me, who has seen almost all the recent Marvel films — it is baffling. I don’t mean to say it’s bad, for there’s plenty to recommend it, it’s just quite exhausting.

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Marvel’s The Avengers (aka Marvel Avengers Assemble, 2012)

There have in recent years been a lot of comic book-based superhero action films, most of them ‘reboots’ of older film series, but with a few new characters brought into the filmic fold. With this film, called Marvel Avengers Assemble in the UK, four of the Marvel superhero film series were brought together, along with a few extra characters who hadn’t had their own films, in a blockbuster which was much trailered and anticipated (indeed, many of the most recent individual films had included a post-credits teaser for just this collaboration) and surely all-but-guaranteed to do well at the box office. The surprise, then, is that it’s quite a jolly enterprise, even if, as expected, it’s far too long.

All these superhero films run a range of styles from the dour (take a bow, Man of Steel) to the, well, comic book, but it’s fair to say that Joss Whedon has done what he knows best from his previous TV work, which is to say self-knowing media-literate jokiness. It’s an angle that probably works best for Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man character, who has now had three of his own films, and who stands out in this ensemble piece too, if only by virtue of being most in tune with Whedon’s script.

That’s not to say that the other characters aren’t honoured, with Captain America (Chris Evans) retaining his mien of humourless patriotism and Thor (Chris Hemsworth) his petulant anger, though Hulk impresses in his dual persona thanks to new recruit Mark Ruffalo as harassed scientist Bruce Banner (the Hulk films never did well at the box office, which may account for Edward Norton’s absence). Added to the mix is a rather superfluous Jeremy Renner as Hawkeye, and Scarlett Johansson returning from Iron Man 2 (2010) as the persuasive Black Widow, neither of them superheroes exactly (at least, not ones with superpowers).

Perhaps I’m not the best person to review superhero movies, which in the past decade or so have taken on a lot of the characteristics of the action movie. I do like a good action film, but the bigger and louder and more pummelling the action setpieces — and there are plenty of these in Marvel’s The Avengers — the more the film needs to be grounded in real human characters you can care about and identify with, and that’s always been a problem for me with superhero movies. Whedon does his best to humanise these characters, and there are lots of nice quiet scenes — by far the best in the film — when they are around each other, sharing jokes, and making fun of some of the absurdities of the genre. And yet, it’s never quite enough to make me care for those long stretches when yet another major American city is being destroyed by monsters sent from an alternate plane of existence by a shadowy evil overlord.

It’s a good film, though, and for those who count themselves fans of the superhero genre, there’s a lot to enjoy in it, not least just the simple fact of having all these disparate characters interacting with one another. This, after all, is at the heart of the movie (as the British title recognises) and Whedon’s script shows great affection for all of them. But at times, as the film ticks on into its third hour, I do find myself getting a bit misty-eyed for the olden days of the superhero film, when villainous plans could be foiled with rather less sound and fury.


© Walt Disney Studios

FILM REVIEW
Director Joss Whedon | Writers Zak Penn and Joss Whedon | Cinematographer Seamus McGarvey | Starring Robert Downey Jr., Tom Hiddleston, Mark Ruffalo, Scarlett Johansson, Samuel L. Jackson | Length 143 minutes || Seen at Vue Islington, London, Sunday 29 April 2012 (and at home on Blu-ray, London, Thursday 27 June 2013)

My Rating 3 stars good

Iron Man Three (2013)

I have rather pedantically used the fully written-out title as it appears at the start of the credits sequence, though the posters stick with the number.


As far as I’m concerned, when watching a superhero action film such as this one, the key question is whether you feel immersed in the mythology and are swept along by the story sufficiently to put out of your mind quite what the villain’s motivations are, or how conveniently elements of the action setpieces come together. For surely those would be caveats if it weren’t for the fact that I enjoyed the whole enterprise enough to not really worry about them. Along the way there were also enough purely comedy moments which made me laugh (mostly thanks to Ben Kingsley’s character) that I consider this a good film, and certainly an excellent sequel.

The central characters are well enough established from the previous two films and the ensemble piece The Avengers (aka Avengers Assemble, 2012), but for the sake of getting up to speed — which is done in this film via an opening sequence set in 1999 — they are Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), massively wealthy playboy and inventor of the title’s robotic iron suits (which of course he wears to fight crime, foil plots, et al.), and Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), initially his business partner, but by this third film far more his life partner. They now live together by the Californian coast, but Stark is dealing with fallout from the previous film, unable to sleep and suffering from periodic panic attacks whenever the life-threatening events in New York are mentioned (which they are, by several characters, such is his media profile). His character is ever more wisecracking, mumbling and bumbling along to fulfil some version of the eccentric inventor stereotype, while still being a supercilious dandy (on which point, my friend Mark over on Freaky Trigger has provided a handy guide to the Marvel universe’s male characters). Paltrow has less to do, as ever, though looks suitably alarmed/threatened/threatening as the film’s plot requires, and at the very least has a far more active role in several of the sequences.

The antagonist for this film is another character seemingly hewed from the ‘mad scientist’ mould, Aldrich Killian (played by Guy Pearce). In the opening sequence, he is a stooped, lank-haired presence consumed by delusions and labouring under some kind of unstated disability, for which it is implied that the shadowy Extremis project of Dr Maya Hansen (Rebecca Hall) promises a cure; thirteen years later he returns, rejuvenated and apparently well-adjusted. Undoubtedly there will in future be theses written about the Extremis programme of genetic mutation to ‘cure’ disabilities and the resulting strain of fire-breathing superhumans, but for the film’s purposes it’s a convenient way to get Stark to refocus his energies on saving America and defeating the public face of the enemy, Ben Kingsley’s Bin Laden-like ‘Mandarin’.

The heart of the film is the tensions between Stark, Killian and the shadowy ‘Mandarin’ figure, and how these develop. There’s a constant jokey comedic undertow which leavens the slightly stultifying action scenes, and as ever Downey is the actor who really carries the film through. He is assisted in this in a few memorable sequences by a 10-year-old Tennessee kid (Ty Simpkins) and less memorably by an under-utilised Don Cheadle. In the end, that lightness of touch to the characterisations carried me through action sequences that at times threatened to be deadeningly thudding displays of mechanised destruction, and I left largely satisfied. Plus, the post-credits sequence also reminded me how much I enjoyed Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner character. To see the two of them together again properly would be a treat.


© Walt Disney Studios

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director Shane Black | Writers Drew Pearce and Shane Black (based on the comic book Iron Man by Stan Lee, Larry Lieber, Don Heck and Jack Kirby) | Cinematographer John Toll | Starring Robert Downey Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, Ben Kingsley, Guy Pearce, Don Cheadle | Length 130 minutes | Seen at Cineworld West India Quay (2D), London, Tuesday 7 May 2013

My Rating 3 stars good