Tag Archives: Captain America

Marvel’s Avengers: Age of Ultron Review

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*Warning – this review may contain spoilers for earlier films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.*

Marvel’s superhero team-up event is back for round two and comes out of the gate fighting. A strong opening action set piece joins all of the team mid-action fighting established villains Hydra; clearly Joss Whedon knows what we’re all here for. The scene’s quick fire succession of quips and arse-kicking sets the pace of the film. This movie is fast, sometimes too fast, performing a cinematic sleight of hand to make sure we don’t question too much while we enjoy the thrill ride.

The biggest question for me was – how did we get to here?

Iron Man 3 saw Tony Stark destroy all of his Iron Man suits, but here he is battling Hydra with his buddies. Captain America: The Winter Soldier saw S.H.I.E.L.D. ripped apart by Hydra and no longer trusted by the American public. Marvel’s TV series Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. sees S.H.I.E.L.D.’s work continue undercover as a necessity, with S.H.I.E.L.D. agents essentially becoming outlaws.

Clearly, some sort of time jump has occurred and I can understand the filmmakers not wanting to spend costly narrative time assembling the Avengers all over again, but a little explanation wouldn’t have gone amiss. After all, Stark tower now has a gigantic ‘A’ on the side and is serving as a very visible Avengers HQ, which doesn’t really follow neatly from the subterfuge of The Winter Soldier. It feels as if a lot of the more interesting developments of earlier franchise instalments have been cast aside.

It’s understandable that a few details need to be streamlined for the sake of expediency. The Avengers’ biggest selling point is also its biggest threat – there are a lot of superheroes in it. That’s a lot of characters to give time to, a lot of franchise properties that come with their own fans and expectations. Each hero needs screen time, a hero moment, a fully developed character, a progression from their last appearance and a plotline outside of the action. Add to that the weight of some villains and new faces, returning secondary characters and all of the various plot ‘beats’ to hit to provide an action movie experience as well as plant the seeds for future installments and you have a lot to shoehorn in. As you can guess, this leads to some rushed story developments, and the occasional exposition dump, particularly when it comes to the twins who suffer the most from the film’s lack of breathing space.

That’s not to say that the film doesn’t deliver. It’s a superhero movie and on that front it gets the job done. The action is exhilarating with great fight choreography and special effects. There’s a lot of fun to be had here. When the script isn’t weighed down by back-story it provides a lot of laughs and for the most part presents us with three dimensional, flawed characters with differing opinions and viewpoints.

Stark

Tony Stark continues his streak as the Avengers’ own Peter Venkman, winding up Captain America in particular and possibly laying some groundwork for the upcoming Captain America: Civil War. Creating Ultron in his quest to perfect artificial intelligence, Stark unleashes a monster upon the world that proves to be a formidable opponent for the team.

Black Widow softens and gives up some information about her mysterious past. I have mixed feelings about her character’s use in the film and I may need a follow up post to explore the intricacies of the issues at play. With all of Joss Whedon’s recent talk about sexism elsewhere in the industry, I was surprised to see Black Widow relegated to the roles of love interest (thereby becoming a character defined by her relationship to a man) and a hostage (unable to free herself and instead having to wait for the men to locate and rescue her). Black Widow is a tough and secretive character, it is a logical progression to grant her a softer side, it’s just unfortunate that that needs to cloud her status and agency within the film. The superhero genre is a boy’s club and as one of the few prominent female characters in the MCU, Black Widow carries the burden of representation.

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Hulk broods, pines and repeats his usual “Hulk smash, Banner feel bad” refrain. There’s a sense that Hulk’s smashing will have wider ramifications for the MCU going forwards, but two movies in, Ruffalo’s Banner already feels like he’s stuck on repeat.

Hawkeye

After drawing the short straw in Avengers Assemble, Hawkeye gets some much needed character work. He’s the only Avengers team member not to have appeared in any MCU films outside of the Avengers, and we know little about him. Gaining a background humanizes Hawkeye and raises the stakes for him. In the final act, Renner gets a great speech about being the guy with no superpowers and his vulnerability enables us to respect his courage. The film is quick to play on our affection for the character though and is a bit heavy handed in toying with our expectations of what will happen to him now that he has something to lose.

Beefcake

I’ve saved the beefcakes for last in my character round-ups as they actually have the least going on in terms of subplots. Captain America argues with Tony a lot and Thor takes a bath. It’s appropriate for these two characters to take a bit of a back seat as they’ve had the room to grow in their own headlining franchises. Cap’s work here serves to lay the groundwork for his upcoming movie and Thor’s bath time discovery sets him up for the mission that will inevitably continue in Thor: Ragnarok and clearly plants the seeds for Avengers: Infinity War.

As for the new faces –

ultron

Ultron serves as a menacing villain and one who presents a more tangible threat than whatever it was Loki was trying to achieve in Assemble.

Twins

Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver have a lot to accomplish in a short space of time, with an arc that feels a little rushed and contorted but is improved by their believable emotional bond. Elizabeth Olsen in particular delivers a raw emotional performance that makes her character stand out as an exciting addition to the MCU.

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The Vision is introduced in a messy scramble of a scene. His character is a hard sell. He is one of the most fantastical additions to the Earth-based Marvel adventures in origin and appearance (he’s kind of like a bright red Kryten) but Paul Bettany’s charm and presence make him likeable.

The film ends with some potential new Avengers in training, which could be interesting (and necessary) heading into Phase Three. There are also some characters hinting at goodbyes (a few of the actors’ contracts will be up for renegotiation soon) so a period of change is on the horizon. This is reportedly Joss Whedon’s last movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. After having a key role in developing many of Marvel’s recent outputs it will be interesting to see what impact his departure will have. I’d be happy to see a bit of a change in tone in order to keep things fresh.

Overall, Age of Ultron is a great adventure and a fantastic episode in Marvel’s grand superhero soap opera. Marvel Studios is at the top of it’s game for slick, shiny action set pieces with jaw dropping stunts and special effects. The non-stop pace of the film is exhilarating, jumping from one action sequence to the next and taking in a number of international locations along the way but this relentless speed means that the script suffers from a lack of breathing room. Some of the character introductions and plotlines lack subtlety and sometimes the sheer number of players onscreen can make scenes feel jumbled. There’s so much to fit into the film’s running time that the strain is often evident. I rarely feel that a film could benefit from being longer, but in this case I’d be willing to bet that the film’s extended cut for home release will be a smoother, more coherent version.

In its final act the film benefits from a greater emphasis on saving lives amidst the fighting, a concern that seemed lacking in Avengers Assemble‘s Battle of New York. There are also hints of a more empathetic appreciation of the consequences of city crushing superhero smackdowns. My betting is that Captain America: Civil War will see a rising level of animosity towards superheroes and the collateral damage of their heroics.

 

About the Author:

Evan Wilkinson is a Community Filmmaker based in Brighton. As well as producing videos and community film projects, Evan teaches workshops in filmmaking, script development and animation. For more information please visit: http://evanwilkinson.co.uk

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The Best Films of 2014

So here we are again!

2014 has been a great year for film. As usual I’ve yet to see a fair few of this year’s ‘Best Of’ contenders (Nightcrawler, Maps to the Stars, The Babadook) and some of the others have been omitted by choice (I belong to the minority who didn’t love Boyhood). Having scanned through some of the main Best of 2014 lists it occurs to me that a lot of the films critics are raving about aren’t films I’ve missed at all. I haven’t had the chance to miss them yet. For instance, eight films on the BFI’s list of the Best of 2014 are yet to have a general release in UK cinemas, and another is only just out this week. That means that of a list of 20 films, nearly half of them won’t have been seen by the general public unless you made it to a handful of screenings at festivals across the country. That’s great for getting a heads up on what films to look out for in 2015, but I’ve compiled a list of the best films you may have actually seen this year. So, here are my top ten picks:

10. The Double

Director: Richard Ayoade

Screenplay: Richard Ayoade & Avi Korine

Based on Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Double

UK Release Date: 4th April 2014

 

A Gilliam-esque dystopian nightmare (my favourite kind) set within a labyrinth of beaurocratic offices and dull apartment blocks where outside light doesn’t even seem to be found outside. Jesse Eisenberg is perfectly cast as the pallid non-person Simon, whose life is shaken up by the arrival of James (also Jesse), a man who is identical to him and yet more successful in every way. Their initial friendship soon becomes a rivalry as Simon struggles to prevent James from stepping into the life that Simon had previously been too meek to live. The subterranean production design is strikingly effective in creating the claustrophobia of a world that is systematically and stringently ordered and where every man should know his place. Mia Wasikowska provides a breath of fresh air in the otherwise stifling environment and the film operates with a surrealist dream logic that injects energy into the proceedings.

9. Pride

Director: Matthew Warchus

Screenplay: Stephen Beresford

UK Release Date: 12th September 2014

Pride tells the true story of gay activists in London who in 1984, during the miner’s strike, formed a fundraising group to support Welsh miners, forging an unlikely alliance with the residents of a small Welsh town in the process. It’s an interesting story and although the film is formulaic and resorts to some well-worn tropes, it’s still great to see queer history in the mainstream. I admit that it’s not a perfect film – for instance, Dominic West is completely unconvincing as an eccentric femme and I would especially have liked to see the film’s secondary lesbian characters get a less stereotypical representation. On the positive side – Faye Marsay gives a great performance as Steph, Imelda Staunton is her usual fantastic self and a touching scene where an elderly character comes out to a completely nonplussed response is nicely handled. The film for the most part, is rousing and triumphant. There are some bittersweet moments and not all of the events of the period are easy for the gay community to relive and reflect upon, however, the film manages to end on a moment that we can all be proud to have in our cultural history.

8. Inside Llewyn Davis

Writers/Directors: Joel & Ethan Coen

UK Release Date: 24th January 2014

I think that the Coen brothers are just going from strength to strength at the moment. I love that their range of work spans all kinds of genres and styles, yet each one is also recognisably theirs. Inside Llewyn Davis is a melancholy film with a beautiful soundtrack of mellow folk music. A colour palette of greys, browns and muted blues really makes you feel the cold winter of the film’s New York setting and long for the warmth and comfort that homeless Llewyn seeks on doorstep after doorstep. Whether your sympathy for Llewyn extends beyond that is another matter. My partner and I saw the film in opposite ways – he saw Llewyn as a struggling artist who just can’t get a break, whereas I saw Llewyn as very much the cause of his own problems with an attitude that slowly erodes the goodwill of his friends. The film starts, and ends with Llewyn being punched in the face outside of the Gaslight just as an artist with a much bigger destiny is taking the stage. In life, love and his career, Llewyn repeatedly bears the frustration of being the other guy, destined to remain out in the cold.

7. Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Directors: Anthony & Joe Russo

Screenplay: Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely

UK Release Date: 26th March 2014

 

Chris Evans is easy on the eyes, but even I found the First Avenger an extremely dull affair. Burdened with a lot of set-up, not just in providing Cap’s origin story but also laying the groundwork for the Avengers, there wasn’t much room for plot and there wasn’t much fun to be had. Free of all of that, Captain America 2 is a much more confident offering and one that began to show the wider scope of the Marvel Universe, along with Guardians of the Galaxy, the studio’s second release this year. The Winter Soldier is an accomplished action movie with a grittier, more current feel than any of the Marvel movies to come before it, taking inspiration from 70s conspiracy thrillers. The film also provided an opportunity for more adventures with Scarlett Johansson’s arse-kicking Black Widow who continues to steal the show. The AV Club has an interesting discussion of Black Widow’s agency as a female character here. Can she get her own movie already?

6. Guardians of the Galaxy

Director: James Gunn

Screenplay: James Gunn & Nicole Perlman

UK Release Date: 31st July 2014

I had very low expectations for Marvel’s second release of the year. The first trailer seemed to be trying hard for laughs and the tone seemed off. I assumed that this one would be just for the kids. I wasn’t even planning to see it at the cinema until I started hearing about it from friends who’d loved it. As it turns out, I loved it too. Guardians of the Galaxy is really fun. I can’t remember the last time science fiction has been this funny. It’s a change in tone for the Marvel Universe and it’s interesting to be seeing some of the more fantastical worlds and characters that six decades of comics have to offer. This film has a few nods to space operas of the 70s and 80s in its design – particularly Starlord’s ship – and watching it reminded me of the excitement and thrill of seeing big event blockbusters as a kid. There are also some beautiful visual effects on display, particularly the planets and spacescapes that deserve a second viewing to really appreciate the background detail.

5. The Lego Movie

Director: Phil Lord & Christopher Miller

Screenplay: Phil Lord & Christopher Miller

UK Release Date: 14th February 2014

 

I was so incredibly skeptical about this movie that it took a lot of convincing by my friends to actually get me to watch it. It’s a really fun film. The Lego Movie has a great script that’s extremely funny. The animation is really impressive, combining predominantly CG 3D animation with some stop motion and actual Lego sets composited in. The attention to detail is astounding. (Screencrush has an interesting look at the making of the film here. ) The filmmakers digitally created thumbprints, dust, dandruff and scratches on the Lego pieces and characters to give them a worn, played-with look. The overall effect is a film that looks as if it has been painstakingly created brick by brick from a child’s Lego playset with pieces that we all recognize from our childhoods and yet is brought to life in ways that extend beyond the limitations of the real world. The film also operates with a child’s logic that gives it an anarchic and eccentric feel that pays off as the greater plot is unveiled towards the end. This time last year I would not have believed that I’d be giving The Lego Movie my recommendation, but here it is, quite possibly the best animated film of 2014 and a hot contender for the Best Animated Feature Oscar.

4. 20 Feet From Stardom

Writer/Director: Morgan Neville

UK Release Date: 28th March 2014

 

This documentary beat out my favourite film of 2013 to win the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature. While I personally feel that The Act of Killing was the better film, or at least the most impactful, 20 Feet From Stardom is a vibrant and uplifting documentary and a hugely enjoyable experience. The film shines the spotlight on some of music history’s unsung heroes – the amazing backing vocalists who contributed to some of the biggest hits of the last 50 years. Powerhouse talents such as Darlene Love, Merry Clayton and Lisa Fischer discuss their careers, their hits, their highs and lows, as well as returning to the studio to lend their wonderful voices to the film’s soundtrack. An absolute pleasure to watch.

3. Gone Girl

Director: David Fincher

Screenplay: Gillian Flynn

UK Release 2nd October 2014

 

A dark thriller reminiscent of 90s domestic thrillers like Single White Female and Sleeping With The Enemy. Gone Girl weaves a twisted tale of suburban marriage and the roles that partners play for each other and the outside world. Having no prior knowledge of the book, I found this film gripping, surprising and darkly fun. Gone Girl’s ever shifting trial by media is a fantastic dissection of image consciousness and lives lived and performed in public that feels very current. I don’t want to say much more for fear of spoiling the plot as I think a lot of the film’s entertainment value comes from sitting back and letting it take you for a ride.

2. Under The Skin

Director: Jonathan Glazer

Screenplay: Jonathan Glazer & Walter Campbell (Based on the novel by Michel Faber)

UK Release Date: 14th March 2014

Under the Skin is a film that stayed with me for days after I watched it. The film has very little dialogue and what little plot there is is mysterious and meandering. Ordinarily I’d expect this to make it a difficult film to watch, and while I’ll openly admit that there were often moments when I wouldn’t have been able to explain what was going on, the sense of tension and overwhelming dread made me feel that on some instinctual level, I understood it acutely. It is utterly gripping from start to finish.

Scarlett Johansson gives a career best performance as an alien that stalks men in Scotland. She is all at once enticing, enigmatic, cold, predatorial and entirely alien. There’s no better word to describe it. Her performance and Jonathon Glazer’s direction capture the essence of being a stranger in a strange land so thoroughly that it needs no explanation or set-up. Johansson studies humanity as a curious and lonely outsider. We are often presented with individuals whose speech is difficult to understand clearly, whether it be their thick regional accents, the rage with which they are shouting or the crowd that they dissolve into. Humanity is seen at times as pathetic, humble, caring, aggressive, violent, an indecipherable mob. With these touches, Glazer enables us to feel alien from our own kind and sympathetic to Johansson’s character despite the veiled threat she poses. Perhaps this is the most disturbing element.

I also want to mention the technical brilliance of the film – the beautiful cinematography, particularly in showing the remote natural landscapes, the use of diegetic light to give a raw, documentary realism to the visuals and sound design that isolates and distorts minor details to skin tingling effect when paired with the film’s uneasy score. It’s science fiction but in a world that is very recognizably our own. I don’t want to spoil the ending but I will say this – it doesn’t provide a satisfying release of tension in the traditional sense. It satisfies the expectations of the genre but in a way that makes the viewer feel dirty, complicit, like the instant guilt you feel after the blind panic that makes you crush a spider. This film taps into something primal and disorienting, leaving you with a lingering unease.

1. The Grand Budapest Hotel

Director: Wes Anderson

Screenplay: Wes Anderson (Inspired by the writings of Stefan Zweig)

UK Release Date: 7th March 2014

An absolute masterpiece of a film and Wes Anderson’s best work to date. It’s no secret that I’m a huge fan of Wes Anderson so many won’t be surprised to see this on the list. That said, I felt somewhat underwhelmed by Moonrise Kingdom, which I felt unable to truly connect with, and so I was all the more pleased by this return to form. The film is dripping with sumptuous detail – stylish period features, Anderson’s trademark pastel colours, an aspect ratio that changes to suit each time period of the film’s timelines, gorgeous miniatures and stop-motion animation flourishes. Ralph Fiennes is a delight as M. Gustave, the Grand Budapest Hotel’s famed concierge and the script sparkles with humour and invention. This is hands down my favourite film of the year – madcap, fun, charming and entertaining, it’s perfect cinema.

The film’s stop-motion animated ski chase is my favourite scene. If you’re interested in how it was put together there’s an interesting interview with the animator and puppet fabricator here at Dragonframe’s blog.  Anderson is quoted as saying “The particular brand of artificiality that I like to use is an old-fashioned one.” You’ll find that interview and also get a look at the film’s miniatures in this New York Times Article.

 

As usual, I’d love to hear your thoughts – what were your favourite films this year and what are you looking forward to seeing in 2015?

I’m planning to be a bit more active in my blogging this year so be sure to follow me for more film reviews, lists and updates on my own filmmaking projects. Happy New Year everyone.