Avengers : Age of Ultron

It’s what NASA uses.

Avengers : Age of Ultron (2015)

All of Marvel’s movies are treated as big event movies, but Age of Ultron is a special case. Perhaps it’s the wrong way of thinking, but people automatically want to know if Age of Ultron is better than the first Avengers. My answer is an annoying “kind of”.

Born out of Stark A.I. meddling, the Avengers have to face a new threat to global safety, a rogue program calling itself “Ultron” (voiced by James Spader) that has concluded that humanity’s extinction is the only logical outcome. He recruits two superhuman experiments in the form of the Maximoff twins, Pietro and Wanda (Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen), better known as Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch, to aid him in stopping Earth’s Mightiest Heroes. As is often the case with sequels, Age of Ultron is darker than the first. It explores the personal fears of each Avenger and leaves them broken and scarred. That’s not to say it tips the balance into all-out ludicrous grimmery. At its core, the film is still a fun, comic-book adventure with plenty of gags and moments of levity.

Age of Ultron certainly starts better than the original Avengers did. We open in medias res, with the team waging an assault on a Hydra castle deathbase to retrieve Loki’s series-important mind-control sceptre. It was so comic-booky and fun, it immediately brought a smile to my face. Loathe as I am to use the word, the banter between the team was like putting on a comfy pair of slippers. I genuinely love these characters and it’s great to hear them bounce off each other. As someone who has sunk many hours of the Marvel: Ultimate Alliance games, the little team-up attacks will always delight me on a level I can’t quite explain. In comparison, Avengers 1 took a while to get up to speed. The first 20 minutes or so feel weirdly low-rent and out of place when held up against the rest of the film. Lessons have been learned with Age of Ultron and it shows.

After being shoved to the sidelines in the first film, Age of Ultron finally spares some focus for Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye. Joss Whedon delves into the character’s personal life and he becomes the heart of the film. What I love about this is that he’s used as the necessary humanity in a team full of overpowered supermen. You can have your big personalities doing loud and awesome things, but you still need something to ground it. There’s a surprising budding relationship between Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow and Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner. It’s a strange pairing but it makes total sense. I found it all to be rather sweet. There’s one scene at the Avengers HQ bar where Romanoff flirts shamelessly with the awkward Banner that completely sold their relationship to me. It’s like a film noir exchange and the Whedonness of the writing came through strongly. He loves damaged characters and putting unlikely couples together and having you root for them is kinda his thing. I have to say, I’m liking Tony Stark less. It’s completely intentional too. Stark sees the Avengers as a stopgap solution to Earth’s problems and is working on an endgame. He’s trying to cut the barbed wire again. His shortsightedness leads to Ultron. Although it isn’t directly his fault, he definitely has to shoulder some of the blame. His talk with Cap whilst chopping wood definitely shows the fissures appearing in their ideologies that will lead to Civil War. I can’t wait.

Ultron is a fascinating villain. He has Stark’s wit hardcoded into his programming and so he ends up with just as many one-liners and witticisms as our heroes. His monologues are perfect for James Spader’s amazing voice and as a result Ultron is utterly compelling. The film has a running theme of evolution and Ultron embodies that. There’s one scene where Ultron destroys his body mid-speech with a newer, more powerful form without pause that is just a fantastic moment. This is an odd sentence, but despite Ultron’s desire to wipe out humanity, he didn’t seem that evil to me. Part of it is his cold, robot logic. He’s not evil because he enjoys it, but because it makes sense to him. Part of it is the fact that he’s so damn entertaining. It all adds up to him being insanely misguided rather than straight-up evil. I can appreciate that it’s a more interesting take on villainy, but it didn’t have the immediate, visceral appeal of someone who is an out-and-out bastard. However, I expect this to become less of a problem on repeat viewings.

Whedon is a master of the ensemble piece. He manages to accommodate a whole bunch of new faces whilst keeping things balanced with more familiar ones. Nearly all the characters are well served by the script and they all get moments to shine. Reviews have already levelled their few criticisms of the film at there being too many characters, but I think it’s a lazy criticism. It’s like the similar “too many villains” problem that is often brought up. For me it doesn’t get to the root of the issue. Game of Thrones manages to balance a crazy amount of characters and plotlines each week. The execution is the problem, not the idea.  Age of Ultron does incredibly well with sharing focus. The only real casualty (and there’s bound to be one in a film like this) is that the film has to set up more universe building things with teases for Black Panther and future Avengers films. Thor gets a largely pointless subplot to find out about the Infinity Gems and to me it took away from the main narrative. It fucks with the pacing sightly and makes the film baggier. Having said that, I liked Andy Serkis turning up as Ulysses Klaw, an arms dealer with a deep fear of cuttlefish.

I’m going to spend a paragraph talking about The Vision because I can. The stakes feel higher when Paul Bettany steps up. He’s such a great character. He’s the opposite side of the coin to Ultron. He’s got the robot logic, but he also sees the value of humanity. Bettany plays him as a gentle, ethereal being and it completely works. As I watched the caped Vision float in mid-air, delivering beautiful monologues, I came to a bit of a realisation. Vision is a better Superman than the current version of Superman. That’s not a tough feat, but Vision embodies everything I like about a God-like figure trying to teach humanity rather than destroy it. His final dialogue with Ultron is also incredibly well-written and it shows you can have your huge, destructive setpieces as well as have time for simple conversation about differing ideologies.

Those destructive setpieces I mentioned? Age of Ultron has bucketloads of them too. My favourite was the scrap between an enraged Hulk and Iron Man in his purpose-built Hulkbuster suit. The finale is the single most comic-booky thing I’ve seen on screen to date and I loved it.

Age of Ultron falls just shy of The Avengers’ greatness for me. It’s a better made and certainly a better realised film than the first, but I didn’t experience as many air-punchingly great moments as I did with the original. However, that’s not to say the film fails because it doesn’t. It’s another excellent Marvel film. The cast are great, the film is visually spectacular and it’s very well-written. It’s funny, but when I’ve discussed Age of Ultron with people, it’s the little character beats that I talk about rather than the impressive action sequences. More films should be made like that. Character resonates for so much longer than explosions do. I’ll give it four stars, but will qualify it’s a very high four. As I feel that half the country has already seen it, it seems moot, but the film gets a huge recommendation from me.

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang

 
Black Christmas
 

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005)

As every other reviewer covers their personal favourite Christmas films at this time of year, I felt duty bound to talk about one of mine. I could have picked any of the plethora of Christmas classics ranging from It’s a Wonderful Life to Elf, but just wasn’t feeling any of them. I was going to do Die Hard, but I think the whole “Die Hard is the best Christmas film ever” stuff is played out and stale. Luckily for me, the brilliant Shane Black loves Christmas and it features heavily in nearly all of his films. He even made summer blockbuster Iron Man 3 all festive an’ shit, one of the many problems whining nerds had with what I think is one of the best superhero films ever. I was introduced to this film a few years ago and it was a revelation. It’s not only one of my go-to titles for this season, it’s one of my favourite films period. Whilst it enjoys some notoriety, it’s still not reached the “required viewing status” I feel it deserves. So, if you’ll indulge me, allow me to wank lyrical about Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.

“You don’t get it, do you? This isn’t “good cop, bad cop.” This is fag and New Yorker. You’re in a lot of trouble.”

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang tells the story of Harry Lockhart (Robert Downey Jr.), a chancer thief who gets whisked off to Hollywood to screen test for a film. Whilst in Tinseltown, Harry reunites with his highschool crush Harmony (Michelle Monaghan), also an aspiring actor. Harry goes on a ridealong with private detective Gay Perry (Val Kilmer) to research his part and the pair get embroiled in a murder mystery case with twists and turns abound. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is often seen as the film that kickstarted RDJ’s renaissance and put him on a path to the top of the A List. It’s blindingly obvious to see why. He’s genuinely fantastic as Lockhart. We all know that he can handle fast paced, witty dialogue but there’s a brilliant nuance to his performance. What could have easily been a smug, too-cool-for-school type arsehole of a character in the wrong hands becomes a three dimensional person you care for thanks to RDJ and Black. Same goes for Michelle Monaghan who is the heart of the movie for reasons other than the patronising one of her simply being a woman as seen in most shitty films. She’s initially portrayed as a standard unattainable dream girl for our hero to pine after, but things run so much deeper than that. Monaghan is the best she’s ever been and really gives as good as she gets as Harmony. She’s truly multi-faceted and ends up incredibly endearing. I dare you not to fall in love with her. Val Kilmer has recently become a bit of a joke on the Internet, especially after playing Batman in ’95, which is a crying shame. He damn near walks away with this film, despite the stiff competition from RDJ and Monaghan. Gay Perry is one of the most complete and memorable characters I can think of. He gets nearly all the best lines and acts as a sarcastic mentor to Harry. I can’t get over how damn good he is in this film and as such will always defend him when it comes to people slagging him off.

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang‘s script is a goddamn masterpiece. It’s tighter than a miserly drum. It’s like a wonderful kind of metronome. Set-up, pay off, set-up, pay off. Even seemingly incidental things end up playing a part later on in the narrative. Nothing is there by chance. That’s not to say it’s mechanical. There are plenty of great interactions, endlessly quotable lines and brilliant character beats. The murder mystery shenanigans aren’t really the film’s focus, although it is the goal our leads are working towards. The characters actively drive the plot, rather than the plot dictating their actions. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang ends up being a satisfying watch because it knows how to tell a good story and has the confidence to play around with conventions. It takes basic pulp novel noir clichés and has fun with them.The fast-paced funny dialogue is the film’s bread and butter and it’s as smart as a whip. It’s densely written. It reminds of The Simpsons, not in the sense of humour as such, but more in the way that I’ll find myself laughing at different lines on each rewatch. The way that Black plays with words (including a discussion on the difference between the usage of “badly” as an adverb) is just preaching to my personal choir. The writing is delightfully meta too. We have Harry narrating the film and cocking it up, forgetting to show scenes etc. He will occasionally stop the film and spool it back to show us a plot-important flashback.There’s even a scene early on which ends with Lockhart remarking on how expositional and functional it is.

What makes a good Christmas film? If you asked that question you’d get a thousand different answers from a thousand different people. In my book, a Christmas film has to have genuine affection for the season and feature goodwill and love (in some form). It’s a short list, but I’ve seen films featuring Santa Claus, elves and all the other Christmas shit you can imagine fall at one or both hurdles. Using my self-imposed criteria I think Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is a great Christmas film. Our heroes don’t really get into the spirit of things because they’re often in danger or pursuing clues but you can tell there’s a love for the traditions. Christmas makes a great backdrop for stuff like this partly because it makes the dark shit seem darker due to the irony of the setting and partly because it makes the cheery parts more genuine, tying in to the general sense of fun and goodwill. I’m surprised (but actually kind of glad) that more films aren’t set at Christmas for these reasons.

“Well, for starters, she’s been fucked more times than she’s had a hot meals.”

“Yeah, I heard about that. It was neck-and-neck and then she skipped lunch.”

I would usually go into spoiler territory here and discuss my favourite scenes and the like, but as I said in my opening paragraph- it’s not exactly the most widely seen film out there (although I’m guessing that RDJ’s profile over the past couple of years has helped with that). If you’re sick of mawkish animated crap or shitty films in general around this time of year, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is just the ticket for that. Even if you have seen it, it’s always worth a rewatch.

Iron Man 3

It’s been a while since I’ve done an honest-to-goodness film review and what better way to break that lazy streak than to weigh in on Iron Man 3, arguably the start of 2013’s summer blockbuster season.

Iron Man 3 (2013)

Circa 2008, the first Iron Man film found itself in a similar position to this year’s Man of Steel, having the weight of not only a franchise, but an entire interconnecting universe on its shoulders. It’s not entirely the same though, as Iron Man was and still is nowhere near the cultural icon that Superman is. As you know, Iron Man did ridiculously well at the box office thanks in part to its snappy dialogue and being a fantastic showcase for Robert Downey Jr., all of which kicked off Marvel’s Phase One (which would eventually culminate in The Avengers four years later) with a bang. Iron Man 3 on the other hand, has Phase Two to launch- a move that will end in The Avengers 2. It’s all go at chez Marvel, I tell thee.

You’re nothing more than a maniac. I’m not afraid of you. No politics here: just good old fashioned revenge!”

After his traumatic experiences in New York, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) can’t sleep and has anxiety issues. Live-in girlfriend and Stark CEO Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) tries to help Tony with his mental health but is finding herself pushed away by Stark’s suit-building obsession and constant technological tinkerings. Same goes for pal Rhodey (Don Cheadle) who finds himself donning a more jingoistic, red, white and blue version of the War Machine armour dubbed the “Iron Patriot”. Soon, a couple of people from Stark’s past show up, including sleazy businessman Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce) and brilliant scientist and one night fling Maya (Rebecca Hall). This is all capped off with the terrifying presence of the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley), a terrorist leader who threatens the U.S. over video broadcasts and carries out seemingly unpredictable bombings with no trace of any device used. When one of these bombings puts long time bodyguard and friend Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau) in the hospital, Stark takes it personally and issues a challenge to the Mandarin. The story is great. It takes Stark back to a state similar to where he was in the first film, alone and forced to rely on his own wits and ingenuity to survive. Tony is genuinely vulnerable in this film, rather than Iron Man 2‘s Stark who was a smug, wackier-than-thou dick who then had a woe-is-me poisoning thing going on which didn’t work. Everyone here puts in a killer performance, especially Downey Jr. who reminds us exactly why he’s an A-Lister. Of the new recruits, Guy Pearce is bloody brilliant. Rebecca Hall is underused in the interesting role of Maya, but she does a lot with what she’s given. It’ll be Ben Kingsley who will set most tongues wagging though. He absolutely walks away with the film tucked under one arm. It’s an interesting take on the Mandarin and I wonder what hardcore comic book fans will make of it.

I had two fears when it came to this film. One, Black wouldn’t be allowed to do his own thing and would be shackled to established canon and genre conventions and two, it was going to end in the same way the first two films did with an uninspired metal-on-metal thumpfest. Thankfully, Iron Man 3 allays those concerns. From the very beginning, the film sets out its stall. It’s clear that this is very much a Shane Black film. The film opens on a very Kiss Kiss Bang Bang note with some unreliable RDJ narration over slow footage of Iron Man suits being torched. Then, the film completely wrong-footed me by scoring the opening credits with one hit wonders Eiffel 65’s  one hit “Blue (Da Ba Dee)”, a song I haven’t thought about in around 15 years. The incredulous, confused reaction this got in the cinema was delicious. This is one of many rug-pulls the film contains and in a genre plagued by predictability and cliche, it’s very welcome. If you pop open the film’s hood you’ll find more evidence of the film’s Black-ness beyond these superficial elements. The dialogue is fast, sharp and packed full of one-liners. The whole film is like a spiritual sequel to Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, with the film unspooling like a Johnny Gossamer-esque tale, complete with bombastic and kick-ass end credits (which you should know by now you have to stay to the end of, you douchetools.)

Iron Man 2 isn’t the worst film ever, but it serves as a handy comparison point. Practically everything that IM2 did wrong, IM3 gets right. Where the War Machine angle didn’t really convince in IM2, Iron Patriot works beautifully in IM3. Black and Drew Pearce have managed to finally do something with Rhodey and convinced me to join Team Cheadle after being unimpressed by his performance in Iron Man 2. The Patriot side story runs parallel with Tony’s and is completely compelling in its own right. When the two storylines finally cross, Iron Man 3 becomes the best buddy picture around, with shades of Riggs and Murtaugh coupled with Harry Lockhart and Gay Perry. I loved the third act of this film. It was slightly sloppily executed at times, as most of the suits were red and gold blurs rocketing around, but by gum, is it fun. It’s kinetic with being disorientating and epic without being nonsensical. Basically the exact opposite of a Transformers finale. Plus, most importantly, it’s not a yawnsome suit-on-suit scrap. In fact, a lot of the action is incredible inventive. My personal favourite fight is when Tony has to defeat a large number of hired goons using only one glove and one boot from the Iron Man suit. Also, the falling-out-of-a-plane, “barrel of monkeys” sequence glimpsed in the trailer is truly astounding.

Despite having spunked out all the glistening praise above, Iron Man 3, like so many things in life, is not perfect. I really liked this take on the Mandarin, but I can’t help but wonder what a slightly more faithful interpretation would have been like. Maybe I’m just a massive hypocritical meathead who likes seeing the same things over and over again, but I suppose this isn’t a big concern. I have a feeling both Pearce and Black don’t really rate comics much. The film is based on the fantastic Extremis run of comics (a storyline that both previous Iron Mans borrowed from) but deviates pretty heavily from them. The film does well with it as a framework and maybe it wouldn’t have worked on the screen, but I would have loved to have seen Extremis done justice. Also, I wanted to see more of the Hulkbuster suit.

“Nothing’s been the same since New York.”

Iron Man 3 rocks the shit. It’s the best one of the trilogy and puts part 2 to shame.  It’s funny, the actual act of writing really gets to the bottom of how I feel about a film. Say I saw an underwhelming film. I’ll start off with an idea of a few points I want to make and the final star rating and during the process start feeling incredibly annoyed and revise my writing accordingly like in my Burt Wonderstone review. Here, it’s the exact opposite. I enjoyed the film hugely but was happy seeing it just the once. However, all this talk of snappy dialogue, daring story decisions and cracking action has made me start planning a second visit to the cinema to see it again. If that isn’t a sound endorsement I don’t know what is. Much like nearly all of Shane Black’s back catalogue (especially Kiss Kiss Bang Bang) this is highly recommended.