Friday, 24 April 2015

Avengers: Age Of Ultron - Review

In 2012's The Avengers, Nick Fury and Joss Whedon were both faced with an impossible task:

How do you solve a problem like Maria Hill? Just kidding.

No, I obviously meant how do you bring together Marvel's greatest individual superheroes together into one successful and cohesive unit?

Well thanks to Whedon's writing and directing skills, the answer was... "Very easily" because it became the most successful comic book movie of all-time.

It couldn't have been easy coming back to try and achieve the impossible one more time. Particularly when Marvel Studios have really raised their game in Phase 2, with them on their best run of movies so far with Iron Man 3, Winter Soldier and Guardians Of The Galaxy (we'll skip over Thor: The Dark World).

Thankfully Joss is up to the task, delivering a film that simultaneously feels bigger in scale but more intimate in terms of character development.

Following an attack on a HYDRA base, Tony Stark is haunted by a vision of a world (and Avengers) defeated by the return of the Chitauri army.

He creates the Ultron program, designed to be "a suit of armour around the world", but as anyone who has ever seen a movie about artificial intelligence would know, it is not the best idea as any Skynet-esque defence system will soon realise the best way to protect the Earth is to rid it of its most destructive force... Humans.

And so Ultron is born. Brought to life (so to speak) by a fantastic vocal performance by James Spader who brings charisma, humour and villainy in spades.

He recruits two "Enhanced" characters, whatever you do don't call them "mutants", in the form of super fast Pietro and telekinetic Wanda Maximoff to take down the Avengers whilst preparing his masterplan.

As if that wasn't enough for them to deal with, the Avengers all have their own issues going on:

Stark is faced with the Frankenstein-esque guilt of his creation. Black Widow and Bruce Banner are getting close but the Hulk keeps getting in the way, with them sharing one particular exchange reminding us of Whedon's work in Buffy. And it nice to see Hawkeye finally get a proper story arc with a surprise reveal as to his past.

As mentioned before, the action set pieces are HUGE and while at the end it once again falls into the third act trap of people fighting metal men but interestingly there is continuous mention of how Captain America and the gang focus on saving lives and minimising damage.

Was this a deliberate middle finger to Man Of Steel? I for one like to think so.

Every single member (of the ever expanding team) gets a chance to shine with the movie's most crowd-pleasing moment going to new character Vision.

On first viewing there is just so much happening in Age Of Ultron that it seems overwhelming and certain bits can feel lost in the overall mix but it could benefit from repeat viewings.

Overall Whedon has once again assembled a great movie out of Hollywood's biggest and busiest franchise and his absence going forward will be sorely missed.

In the meantime with Marvel Studios advancing to Phase 3 and rumours of the fall-out of this film affecting the plot of Captain America: Civil War does this make Age Of Ultron technically aka Ul-Tron Legacy?



4 stars

Tuesday, 7 April 2015

John Wick - review

John Wick is proper old-school filmmaking. The kind of movie that can be described and pitched in one sentence:

"Keanu Reeves kills everyone associated to the Russian gangster who murdered his dog".

Or even more succinctly, "Don't get on John's Wick"!

This is a throwback to the action movies of the 80's and if filmed back then, would probably have starred someone like Arnold Schwarzenegger or Steven Seagal.

Reeves is arguably an actor who, as Ronan Keating might put it, "says it best when he says nothing at all", and it works perfectly for the character for whom actions speaks louder than words and starts off as a man consumed by the loss of his wife and sees a glimmer of hope in the form of an adorable puppy called Daisy.

I can legitimately use the word "adorable" as I experience an entire audience at my Unlimited preview collectively "Awwww" when he stared at him with those puppy dog eyes... and the puppy stares back.

When Russian gangsters attack Wick, take his car and kill his dog, slowly but surely the real John Wick begins to emerge as he returns, step-by-step, kill-by-kill, into the world he left behind.

The movie takes it time with the slow reveal of exactly who Wick is and what he did... most of it revealed in a great monologue about the Bogeyman by one of the film's trump cards Michael Nyquist, who delivers a terrific deadpan comic performance as the gangster whose son unleashes the beast in Wick.

Directors Chad Stahelski and David Leitch are former stuntmen who worked with Reeves on The Matrix and have crafted action scenes that utilise the skills he has learnt over the years ("I know Kung Fu") and have developed a new style of fighting involving weapons that could be deemed "Gun Fu".

The film, like its title character, is lean, mean and doesn't outstay its welcome.

At one point Wick remarks "People keep asking if I'm back and I haven't really had an answer, but yeah, I'm thinking I'm back."

Not only is Reeves back with a bang, but in a world that features so many great ideas like a hotel just for assassins with "house rules" and a cleaning company that specialises in the clean up of murders where everything is paid for in gold sovereigns, there is so much more to explore that I for one hope that John Wick is back for good.

5 stars

Tuesday, 10 March 2015

Millarworld: The Proving Ground for Superheroes

With Spider-Man recently finding his way back home to the MCU (well joint custody at least between Marvel Studios and Sony), talk has turned to who will play Spider-Man in the upcoming film Captain America: Civil War in which the character has a pivotal moment in the comic written by Mark Millar.

One of the names mentioned has been Taron Egerton who recently starred in Kingsman: The Secret Service, directed by Matthew Vaughn which is also based on a comic book series by Mark Millar.

If they do go with the character of Peter Parker for the latest reboot of Everyone's favourite neighbourhood Spider-Man (rather than Miles Morales) then Egerton stands a very good chance of landing the role.

It's not just because he is British. Lots of America's top superheroes have been played by Brits (Batman = Christian Bale, Spider-Man = Andrew Garfield, Superman = Henry Cavill).

It is actually due to an interesting trivia fact that proves that Mark Millar comic book adaptations are the proving ground for future Marvel and D.C. Heroes.

Example 1) Wanted (2008)

Millar's first comic to be adapted for the big screen was Wanted which starred James McAvoy in the lead role of Wesley.
McAvoy would go on to play Professor Charles Xavier in X Men: First Class and X Men: Days Of Future Past.


What people might not remember is that Chris Pratt aka Star Lord in Guardians Of The Galaxy played Wesley's friend in the film...


Which led to this incredible moment where Professor X knocked out Peter Quill with a keyboard!

Example 2) Kick-Ass (2010)

The first Kick-Ass film was directed by Matthew Vaughn (who would also go on to direct McAvoy in X Men: First Class) and starred Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Dave Liewiski and Evan Peters as his friend Todd.

In a very strange coincidence, both actors would later be cast as the same comic book character.
Evan Peters would play Pietr Maximoff aka Quicksilver in X Men: Days Of Future Past and Aaron Taylor-Johnson would play Quicksilver aka Pietr Maximoff in the upcoming Avengers: Age Of Ultron.

Taron Egerton should keep his webbed fingers crossed because starring in a Mark Millar based comic book adaptation directed by Matthew Vaughn can lead to great things as a quick look through his back catalogue further exemplifies.

Vaughn's 2007 film Stardust starred then unknowns Charlie Cox and Henry Cavill...


Who would go on to play Daredevil and the Man Of Steel himself Superman.


And let's not even get into Vaughn's directorial debut Layer Cake which featured Tom Hardy aka Bane in a small role but is even more bizarre for featuring a scene where James Bond steals Q's girlfriend!

If comic book movies operated in the same terms as Scottish Football, Marvel and D.C. would be due Millar and Vaughn several large Bosman-style payouts for scooping up the young talent nurtured by them on previous projects.

It would be fair to say that based on the evidence they have that adamantium touch when it comes to spotting superhero potential.

Monday, 2 March 2015

Top 21 Horror Films since 2000

Following the release of the 5 star It Follows, the best horror film of 2015 and destined to be a cult classic, I've decided to look back and pick the 21 best horror films of the last 15 years.
I was initially going to limit it to 15 films (i.e. the best horror film of each year) however 2012 proved a particularly strong year so upped the limit to 21 films.

The list contains 9 American, 5 British, 3 Japanese, 2 Spanish, 1 Australian and 1 Swedish film.

Interesting to see how my tastes have varied across the years going from an Asian Extreme vibe through body horror to European then a resurgence of UK/US horrors, in particular those that pay homage or deconstruct the genre.

2014 - The Babadook

Heed my advice. Just take a look. You'll be thrilled and scared by The Babadook.

2013 - Maniac

Elijah Wood butchers the memory of Frodo and stuffs the remains into a bin in this first person horror which draws the audience into the mindset of a killer and makes them complicit in his gory actions.

2012 - Sinister

Ethan Hawke delivers a great performance as a writer who may or may not be driven crazy as he investigates a series of brutal killings for a book he is writing. "Lawn Work" provides the biggest jump scare since the bus moment in The Orphanage.

2011 - Kill List

A film that descends into a darker and darker place as it goes on and prompted me to exclaim "What. The F*ck?" when it ended.

2010 - Black Swan

An Oscar-winning horror film? Indeed it is, certainly from my perspective. This is a "Were-Swan" horror with echoes of Polanski as a ballet dancer is driven to the edge of madness as she struggles to cope with the pressures of the dual roles in Swan Lake.

2009 - Let The Right One In

Devoid of sparkle, this was the perfect antidote to Twilight and one of the best vampire movies in years, along with being an incredible love story.

2008 - The Orphanage

A brilliant old-fashioned ghost story that, like The Babadook, explores the darker side of maternal loss.

2007 - [*REC]

Before Paranormal Activity caused every horror film to be filmed from a found footage perspective, this Spanish horror breathed life into a sub-genre that hadn't really been exploited since The Blair Witch Project in 1999.

2006 - Slither

This is body horror at it's most body orientated and most horrific (as well as its funniest). James Gunn created some of the most revolting scenes committed to film since David Cronenberg's Eighties heyday.

2005 - The Descent

It would have made this list for that "Night Vision" camera jump scene alone but it is a tense, gripping horror in two halves with claustrophobic cave crawling scenes at the beginning before giving way to a traditional horror once the group discover they are not alone in the caves. Also receives bonus points for having an all-female cast.

2004 - Saw

It gave a jump start to the body horror genre, and prompted several sequels which all tried to outdo the previous entry by coming up with even more inventive traps to kill people, but the first Saw remains a great horror that genuinely surprised me with the twist at the end.

2003 - Ju On: The Grudge

2002 - 28 Days Later

The film that reinvented the zombie genre... even though it is not technically a zombie movie. It have given the world fast moving zombies... even if they were just people infected with a rage virus but even more terrifying than that were the scenes of deserted London.

2001 - Audition

I first saw this film late one night on Channel 4 and thought I was watching a Japanese romance until the moment when the bag moved. Then there is the final segment which I won't spoil here but suffice to say I can never here the phrase "kitty kitty kitty" in the same way again!

2000 - Ringu

Going full circle (hah) from It Follows, Ringu is the earliest film on the list and also centres on a curse that must be passed on in fear of death. It was one pf those films that came to me through word of mouth, introduced me to Asia Extreme films and one of the first horror films since The Shining to truly frighten me and make me scared to turn on my VCR!

The Best Of The Rest

Berberian Sound Studio
The Cabin In The Woods
Hostel
Oculus
Paranormal Activity
The Woman In Black

Sunday, 1 March 2015

Glasgow Film Festival: Closing Gala - Force Majeure

The 2015 Glasgow Film Festival drew to a close this evening with their Gala film premiere of the Oscar-nominated Swedish film Force Majeure.

Described by Festival Co-Director Allan Gardner as "Bergman on skis", this is a darkly comic story that sees a family nearly torn apart due to the actions (or inactions) of the father during a crisis.

While on a skiing holiday in France, a family witness an avalanche. As it rolls towards them, the dad makes a run for it while the mother protects the children.

No one is hurt but the damage is done as the relationship between Tomas and Ebba begins to crack and fracture when Tomas is unwilling to admit that he ran away.

It becomes a battle of the sexes with a rich vein of black humour running through its heart as family arguments broaden out to bring in friends and they are forced to pick sides.

For a while, it looked like the film was snowballing towards a bleak ambiguous ending with no real resolution (because let's face it, sometimes an argument is never really finished. How many times has something you've done in the past been brought up against you?) but the optimists out there will see potential for redemption.

It is a film that is guaranteed to generate debate/discussion/arguments on leaving the screen as to what you would do or what you think others would do in that situation.

Snow joking around, Force Majeure is a darkly comic force to be reckoned with.

4 stars

Saturday, 28 February 2015

It Follows - review

Now and again, a horror film comes along with a central concept that is so simple yet so devilishly brilliant that you'll be kicking yourself for not thinking of it first.

In It Follows sexually promiscuous teenagers are stalked by a mysterious figure who slowly walks towards them. They can run, they can hide but it will always find them and like the curse in Ringu the only way to get rid of it is to pass it on to someone else through sexual intercourse.

That's right, It Follows not only refers to the 'It' that follows the victims to their deaths but also it can refer to the world's most persistent STD that not amount of pills or creams will be able to treat!

The modus operandi of the film's monster is one of the best in recent years, arguably the best since the Weeping Angels in the Blink episode of Doctor Who.

The film's tagline is "It doesn't feel. It doesn't think. It doesn't give up." and reminded me of Kyle Reese's warning in The Terminator: "Listen, and understand. That terminator is out there. It can't be bargained with. It can't be reasoned with. It doesn't feel pity, or remorse, or fear. And it absolutely will not stop, ever, until you are dead."

The way that 'It' slowly and silently stalks its prey (along with a retro synth score that has also featured to great effect in recent horrors like Maniac, The Guest and Cold In July) brings to mind the infamous 'The Shape' aka Michael Myers in John Carpenter's seminal Halloween.

Not only that but the leafy suburban setting of the film is reminiscent of Haddonfield and Carpenter's horror was one of the first to look at the correlation between sex and death, with those who indulged in pre-marital relations being punished for it by being brutally murdered.

Indeed following on from last year's excellent The Guest, Maika Monroe is in a prime position to become this generation's "Scream Queen".

Writer-Director David Robert Mitchell has crafted a movie that not only delivers a message but also plenty of scares, and in a bold move he is not afraid to set many of its most unsettling scenes outside in broad daylight. The entire film has a calm, assured execution and direction that hints at a bright future in the horror genre

Just like the figure that stalks the protagonists, It Follows will haunt you for many days after you see it, unable to shake off this horror masterpiece.

5 stars

Thursday, 19 February 2015

Glasgow Film Festival - Opening Gala: While We're Young

The 2015 Glasgow Film Festival kicked off in style last night... well, the type of style that includes pork pie hats and skinny jeans because the film chosen to open proceedings was While We're Young by Noah Baumbach.

A couple in their forties (Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts) are growing restless and treading water. Stiller's character is still working on a documentary project he started ten years ago. Unable (or unwilling to have children) they are losing touch with their friends who are having kids, etc.
When they meet a young hipster couple at one of Stiller's lectures, they embrace their "joie de vivre" spirit and start embracing the "hipster" lifestyle but it starts to put hitherto unknown pressures on their work and relationship.

Baumbach's last film Frances Ha was centred around a group of New York hipsters and alienated a lot of viewers who just didn't particularly like or understand this "scene" and there was some initial hesitance going into this film that it would be more of the same.

However, Baumbach's screenplay is very much written from the point of view of the older characters and therefore whilst it paints an alluring picture to convince you that a world of homemade ice cream, street cookouts, pork pie hats and hip hop dance classes would appeal to a couple going through a mid-life crisis, it is not afraid to call the hipsters on the "oh aren't we cool, we use a typewriter" bullshit.

As the gloss starts to fade on their newfound "lifestyle" and friends (Adam Driver plays his role well coming across as appealing yet also a bit of a douche), Josh rallies against it. Bemoaning the fact that there are bands ironically named after adverts he saw as a kid. Or having a massive vinyl collection because it looks good in the oversized loft apartment where for Josh it was essential as a young guy as it was the only way to listen to music.

Stiller's Josh is from a generation of documentary filmmaker, inspired by his father-in-law (a nice cameo by Charles Grodin), where truth is paramount. Adam Driver's Jamie is of the generation where truth is "nice and all" but not if it gets in the way of telling a good story.

The first two thirds of the film are very funny, with a slight Nathan Barley-feel to its critique of a culture (amplified by great performances from Stiller and Watts as the fish out of water) but once an actual "plot" comes in and Stiller tries to expose his protege Jamie (who has now exceeded Josh's success) as a fraud, it feels rather weak and underwhelming.

Indeed, Josh's final rant and speech comes across as anti-climatic yet perhaps this is the point. The world is changing and people have to accept that and embrace the change... although they themselves do not have to change and instead be comfortable in their own skin.

After all, I myself am 34 years old and own a few trilbies but found myself agreeing with the viewpoint of the 44 year olds.

Perhaps Huey Lewis and the News were right and it IS hip to be square these days.

3 stars