Film Review: Cinderella

On Christmas day MWF and I settled in to watch this, slightly surprised we’d missed it at the cinema despite MWF being a massive Disney fan.

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I was sceptical, as the current trend of Disney making live action remakes is not one I support. Especially as Maleficent was a massive waste if time and effort.

You know the drill, Cinderella (Lilly James) is a sweet, lovely girl who has to live with her wicked stepmother (Cate Blanchett) and ugly sisters (Holiday Grainger and Sophie McShera) after her father dies.

She becomes their skivvy, but despite this remains kind and good. The local prince (Richard Madden) throws a ball and with a little help from her fairy godmother (Helena Bonham Carter) she goes to the ball. Has to leave by midnight, loses slipper, yadda yadda.

Kenneth Branagh deserves props for giving it a fair go, and to its credit the film does make Cinderella and the Prince’s relationship a bit more substantial than that they just dance, as they talk more and form a genuine bond even before the ball.

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This aside it’s the same old story, and while great for kids it doesn’t impress adults. There’s a halfhearted attempt to make the stepmother more rounded, but this fails to make an impact and Blanchett is wasted in the role.

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And HBC is her usual overly quirky self. King’s Speech aside everything she’s done recently is painfully OTT.

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James is fine as Cinderella, but the character is a nice it’s rather dull and the whole film feels simplistic and old fashioned. Best stick to the animation, or panto, I reckon.

Verdict: Branagh tries but the cast are wasted and its all a bit dull. Nice enough but nowt special. 6/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.

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Film Review: Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Firstly, the good news, this is no Phantom Menace, and despite the hype surrounding its release this movie works and fits with the original Star Wars trilogy in terms of tone and story in a way the prequels never did.

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Set many years after the victory over the Empire the story finds Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) is missing and the Republic is in trouble from the threat of the First Order who seek to return the Empire. General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) despatches her best pilot, Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) to recover a map leading to Luke’s location. On the planet Jakku Poe gets it but the Order catch up with him.

He sends off the details in his droid BB-8, before being captured by Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) the dark Jedi who works for them. During the attack on the village the civilians are slaughtered and stormtrooper FN-2187 (John Boyega) who refuses to go along and is horrified.

He aids Poe in escaping, and Poe names him Finn. They crash and wind up back on Jakku, separated. Finn finds BB-8 who has been found by Rey (Daisy Ridley), a scavenger who scrapes by on Jakku. Finn pretends to be in the resistance and they flee aboard an ageing ship they find at the junkyard.

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Finn and Rey in trouble

The ship turns out to be the Millennium Falcon and they are soon tracked down by the former owners Han Solo and Chewbacca (Harrison Ford and Peter Mayhew, respectively). Finn just wants to get away to safety, while Rey, despite her desire to join Solo and travel the galaxy, feels she must return to Jakku to wait for her family to return.

But both find themselves drawn deeper into the resistance and have to decide what role they will play. Will they join the fight or run? What is Kylo Ren’s link to the original characters? And where is Luke?

For me this movie really worked, because it successfully bridged the gap between Return of the Jedi and this new trilogy. The old faces do their jobs well, particularly Ford who exudes the same roguish charm that made Solo a favourite and Fisher, who convinces as an older, slightly jaded Leia.

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Fisher on fine form

Their relationship hints at the difficulties that developed after the Empire fell and that it wasn’t the happy ending they hoped for. In their scenes together they capture a realistic sense of a couple divided and reeling from hard times, but still deeply in love.

But what gives a new hope (sorry) is that the new characters work well. Rey is a tough, resourceful heroine and the main character, and Ridley makes her likeable and easy to warm too. It’s also cool to see her stand up for herself and reject Finn’s well-meaning, if sexist, attempts to protect her. Throughout she appears capable, independent and a true hero.

Equally strong is Boyega’s work as Finn, as he manages to capture the former Stormtrooper’s inner conflict, with the character having to fight his instinct to run to do the right thing. He also has serious comedic chops and gets most of the film’s laughs. Oscar Isaac is the least used of the three, but makes Poe a swaggering, self assured hero and he shares good chemistry with Boyega.

The villains do well too, with the First Order capturing the menace of the Empire with a hint of fanaticism which makes them more dangerous. The other strong point is that Kylo Ren clashes with General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson), hinting at divides and that Ren doesn’t have the reputation or standing that Vader held in the Empire.

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The bad guys

Ren, who’s been plastered over the merch does make a solid villain and his lack of control makes him distinctly different from Vader and his raw anger makes him unpredictable. The back story reveals more and sets up some of the film’s key moments.

It’s not without flaws, some of the plot points have been seen before and a few events are easy to see coming. The final attack is almost an exact retread of the attack on the Death Star.

One character’s speech about “the same eyes in different faces” feels like a lazy explanation for repeated ideas and characters acting like others.

But JJ Abrams does his job well and the characters feel more real and natural than anything in the prequels and there’s genuine humour and thrills. MWF was more impressed than I was, but I still left happy and keen for the saga to continue.

Verdict: Abrams makes this more fun and engaging than the prequels and the balance between new and old faces is about right. Some of it gives a feeling of déjà vu but for the most part it succeeds. It has warmth and a sense of scale which will please old fans and win over a fresh generation to the series. 8/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Film Review: Lava

Last week I saw Inside Out and loved it, and before the film there was a short film. Being a short movie, this will be a short review.

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The cute, adorable short follows a lonely volcano who, witnessing other couples being happy sings a song, hoping for a love of his own.
As the years pass he loses his hope and his lava and size dwindles, however, an underwater volcano hears his song and decides to go to the surface to meet him.

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Is she too late? Or will they find happiness together?
Based around a simple, glorious Hawaiian style song which puts a grin on your face. The animation is typical of Pixar, full of warmth and character and in a few minutes it manages to be more heartwarming and genuinely affecting than many features manage.
I loved it, making me smile like an idiot and appealed to me as a soft git. It’s full of charm and an easy, light touch which stops it from being too sickly.
Verdict: Brilliantly cheerful and the right kind of sweet, it’ll warm the cockles of your heart. 8/10.
Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Film Review: Inside Out

This might have been the year I turned 30, but so far my top movies of the year list is topped by cartoons. This movie joins Big Hero 6 as one of the best cinematic experiences I’ve had this year.

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As with most Pixar movies this is based on a simple, but clever premise, taking us inside the head of a young girl, Riley (Kaitlyn Dias), and showing us the emotions who run the show in there.
First and foremost is Joy (Amy Poehler), who’s usually in charge of keeping the others in line and Riley happy.

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Joy at work

The others are Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Fear (Bill Hader), Disgust (Mindy Kaling) and Anger (Lewis Black). Joy accepts they all have a place, apart from Sadness, who she can’t quite work out.
So far Riley’s life has been happy and simple, and the happy core memories she’s formed have helped form the islands of personality that make her who she is.
But when Riley’s dad gets a new job and they have to move to San Francisco things start to get harder and Joy reacts badly to the fact Sadness causes Riley’s first sad core memory. Joy, Sadness and the core memories wind up thrown out of HQ and lost in the memory banks. Realising that if they don’t get back Riley will never be happy and that her personality can’t stay the same without her memories to inform them they set out across Riley’s mind to get back to HQ.
Can they survive and make it back? How will Fear, Anger and Disgust manage? And what will happen to Riley?
This movie is just flat out great, and should be really cool in helping kids (and adults) understand emotion better. It shows how each emotion can effect us and why they are there.
It’s also, like most Pixar movies, chock full of invention. The design of Riley’s mindscape is glorious, with HQ and the memory banks clearly designed on different parts of the brain. It also reflects how our minds work in clever visual ways, like a Train of thought that meanders and changes route frequently or the fact the memory workers who clear the forgotten ones and delight in randomly sending up an advertising jingle to HQ.
But there’s real substance here amidst the crazy visuals and a consistent stream of laugh-out-loud jokes. For one Riley is an engaging character and believable, with the writers capturing genuine emotions and relatable situations. From embarrassment over well meaning parents to the desire to be cool, there’s lots here that most of us will have experienced.

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Embarrassing parents, familiar for many of us

The emotions, despite having one major characteristic are well done and involving, especially Joy who over the course of the film gains new perspective and understanding. The movie shows us that each emotion serves a purpose and that Sadness isn’t always a bad thing.
What I especially liked were glimpses into different characters heads and their emotions, particularly a boy who meets Riley and who’s emotions we’re shown being thrown into utter panic as a “Girl” alarm sounds. It felt painfully real remembering my own experiences in my early teens.
And it wouldn’t be Pixar without an emotional body blow and a sequence about Riley’s almost forgotten imaginary friend, Bing Bong (Richard Kind), had me a little bit teary.

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Bing Bong, Sadness and Joy

All in all this movie is an utter delight, funny, moving and clever, it manages to both show how we grow as people and a simplified way of how our minds work with real wit and an engaging, captivating story. It easily ranks among the best of Pixar’s movies which is saying a lot.
Verdict: Pixar knock it out of the park with a movie that bursts at the seams with clever touches, invention and warmth. Over the course of the movie it had me laughing loudly, almost in tears and thinking about pretty big concepts. A gem of a movie and I already want to watch it again. 9/10.
Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Film Review: Ted 2

I really dug the first Ted movie (review here), liking the combination of the Disney premise, cute title character and the foul mouthed, crude and edgy humour that’s Seth MacFarlane’s trademark. I also liked that under the swearing and close-to-the-bone gags, it was quite a sweet flick about friendship and growing up, with John (Mark Wahlberg) having to take some responsibility and move forward in order to develop his relationship with Lori (Mila Kunis).
So, I was looking forward to checking out the sequel with MWG and some mates this week.

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Unfortunately for me, early on John and Lori’s relationship is shown to have died off screen. This seems a bit rushed and poor considering the first relied on you buying into the relationship and because Wahlberg and Kunis had good chemistry.
While John is now divorced Ted (voiced by MacFarlane) is tying the knot with Tami-Lynn (Jessica Barth). But a year in and their marriage is struggling, Ted follows the questionable advice that a baby will save their relationship.
The problem, as a Toy bear come alive is that he can’t actually have kids. So they decide on a sperm donor, first choosing Flash Gordon star Sam J. Jones before going for NFL player Tom Brady, both attempts go awry as does a disastrous attempt by John to visit a sperm bank.
Going for adoption poses problems, as Ted is not technically a “person” in the eyes of the law and the his life unravels quickly. With John in support they decide to fight it and enlist the services of Samantha “Sam” Jackson (Amanda Seyfried) to challenge the ruling.
When this fails the three decide to go to New York to meet a famous civil rights lawyer (Morgan Freeman) who’s interested in their case. Unbeknownst to them Ted’s obsessive fan Donny (Giovanni Ribisi) wants to use Ted’s new status to steal him and find out while he’s magic and try to make more Teds.
Can they evade Donny? Will the famous lawyer take their case? If he does can he win it? And is Sam the answer to John’s prolonged dry spell since his divorce?
First of all, this is the kind of movie where it all hinges on how you felt about the original. If Ted made you laugh, then you’ll most likely enjoy this, but it won’t win over folks who weren’t fussed on the first outing.
The humour is still a mix of the profane, stupid and shocking, with a few jokes that prompt shocked gasps before the laugh arrives. For me, it worked and I laughed pretty consistently throughout, even if some stuff doesn’t quite work (a running gag about Patrick Warburton’s angry, violent gay friend didn’t work at all for me).
Most of the jokes hit the mark however and the plot is simple but handled well. The strongest asset is the chemistry between John and Ted, their friendship feels natural and relaxed, and Wahlberg impresses again with his comedic chops.

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Seth MacFarlane’s voice work is on point and Ted continues to be an oddly likable character, and the contrast between his cuddly appearance and what comes out of his mouth continues to amuse.
The rest of the cast do their jobs well, and their are plenty of cameos along the way.
Replacing Mila Kunis as the female lead Amanda Seyfried is sweet and funny as their pop culture illiterate lawyer. Her interplay with the others works, but her character is a bit underwritten and the relationship with John is rushed. It also doesn’t feel as real or involving as the relationship in the first, and the casual away this is cast aside in the movie is a real sore spot for me.
But this aside it’s still a very successful comedy that had me chuckling throughout and has some genuinely shocking lines in. May be too rude and crude for some, but it worked for me.
Verdict: Not as good as the first, with a less involving plot, but MacFarlane, Wahlberg and Seyfried all do well. Not for all tastes but for those who like their comedy a bit more risqué this won’t disappoint. 7/10.
Any thoughts? You know what go do. BETEO.


Film Review: Ex Machina

This is a movie I really wanted to see in the cinema but missed out on, so I was stoked that I got to catch it recently.

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Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), a programmer at Bluebook, a tech company wins a staff lottery. The prize is to travel to the secluded research facility of the CEO Nathan (Oscar Isaac), a reclusive genius. Despite initial awkwardness Nathan encourages Caleb not to view him as his boss, just as a guy. He also reveals that he wants Caleb’s help in performing the Turing test on a robot he has made.
The Turing test is basically a way of testing an artificial intelligence to see if it can convince as a human. Normally performed anonymously so the person doesn’t know who or what they’re talking to. Here, Caleb knows its a robot, but can it still convince him it has proper intelligence.
Caleb then begins a series of sessions with Ava (Alicia Vikander), and is impresses. Their meetings continue, with Nathan observing, and over time Caleb finds himself oddly attracted to Ava. She seems flirtatious at times and Caleb struggles to work out how she operates.

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Ava and Caleb having a chat

Things become even more complicated when during a power cut Ava warns him not to trust Nathan.
Who can Caleb trust? The eccentric and slightly creepy Nathan or Ava, a machine? What secrets does the remote house contain, and was Caleb really a random winner or has his presence been engineered? And if it has, why?
This movie really blew me away, essentially a three hander (there is one other, mute character in the house) it boasts three amazing performances. Gleeson impresses as the nerdy Caleb who finds himself out of his depth and struggling with how to proceed. He’s our eyes into the world, and like the audience he’s constantly trying to work out what’s going on.
Alex Garland proves himself an accomplished director, shooting this in a cold, detached way which enhances the feeling of being on the outside and makes everything eerie and tense. His script is wonderfully minimal, with long silent stretches capturing the isolation, but the dialogue sparkles, with the tension and unease building nicely throughout.
As Ava, Vikander impresses playing the role with disconcerting calmness, but with occasional flashes of humour, flirtation and character which leaves the audience trying to figure out what she is. Are the emotions she shows real? Or is it just mimicry to trick and manipulate Caleb?
She keeps you guessing throughout, and the “what is humanity” and “can a robot feel” themes, sci-fi tropes are done well. You start wondering about Ava, and watching her closely for clues as to what’s going on under the surface and it’s to her credit that under this scrutiny Vikander’s performance holds up.
As the third lead Oscar Isaac is a powerhouse as the weird, enigmatic Nathan.

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Powerhouse- Isaac as Nathan

You find yourself questioning his motives and his initial weirdness transforms into something more menacing, but is this because of him or Ava’s accusations. Are we being influenced by her just as much as Caleb is?
The weirdness continues, and Isaac is an unsettling presence. It seems that Nathan may have lost it in his isolation, and he takes part in a weird, incredibly awkward dance sequence, which only enhances the audience’s confusion and the sense of weirdness.

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Awkwardness

A few plot developments I guessed early, but for the most part it keeps you guessing and is an engaging movie and the ending is powerful and well done. Garland should be applauded for crafting a solid science fiction piece and the three leads are amazing.
Verdict: A wonderfully done sci-fi movie that boasts three great central performances. It treads familiar genre ground, but in a mesmerising, engaging way. It keeps you thinking and wondering right until the end, and doesn’t disappoint. 8/10.
Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Film Review: Jurassic World

Despite it scaring the pants off me as a small child, the original Jurassic Park has become a personal favourite of mine, but I was left disappointed by the sequels, how would a fourth installment measure up? Excited and hopeful  after some cool trailers, MWG and I headed off to see it the first chance we got.

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Set over 20 years later the dinosaur theme park has been restarted and thrives on its island location. It’s all run by tense control freak Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard), who takes a rather cold, dispassionate view of the beasts under her care.
In order to keep the park interesting and the customers coming the park needs new beasties, and having exhausted their dinosaur finds they’ve decided to create their own using dinosaur using gene splicing. CEO Simon Masrani (Irrfan Khan) visits the new creature, named the Indominus Rex and has reservations, because he’s clearly the only person to have seen a sci-fi movie ever.
He tells Claire to consult Owen Grady (Chris Pratt), the velociraptor trainer who’s not happy with the fact shady military tech suit Hoskins (Vincent D’Onforio) is sniffing around his raptors, keen to use them as living drones.
Grady is not impressed with the gene splicing, or the way the Indominus has been raised in solitary confinement, and wants to know what, along with a T-Rex it’s been mixed with. This is classified.
The Indominus or I-Rex turns out to be smart and able to hide from thermal scans and busts loose, ditches its tracker and rampages across the island killing its way through anything it meets as, to quote Grady “it works out its place on the food chain”.
To make matters worse, Claire’s nephews Zach and Gray (Nick Robinson and Ty Simpkins respectively) are on the island and have wandered into the woods. While they try and stop the I-Rex, keep the customers safe she and Grady head off to track down the missing kids.

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Lost in the woods

Can they find and keep the kids safe? Can the I-Rex be stopped? What’s Hoskins planning? And why does nobody ask why the scientists would be this bloody stupid?
Here’s the thing, this is a solid, extremely entertaining blockbuster which ticks a lot of boxes. Sure, it can’t match the original but it leaves the other sequels in the dust.
The premise requires a leap of faith- it’s asking a lot for the audience to believe that despite the initial disaster that the park would reopen and go ahead, and even more of a stretch that the scientists would decide to breed a giant, intelligent dinosaur who can camouflage itself and hide from thermal scans. Seriously, a lot of films gave scientists making daft decisions that backfire but there’s usually an upshot. Here the risk outweighs any potential reward.
That being said, if you go with it, the movie rewards you.
The script fizzes along and it gets going pretty quickly and it doesn’t feel 2 hours long. There are some decent set pieces, even if one is a pretty blatant Aliens ripoff. The dinosaurs are impressive and there are more on the roster, not just the I-Rex. The raptors, villains of the first film are here changed to being Grady’s pack, joining him on the hunt for the I-Rex, although the film should be applauded for always having tension surround these beasts.

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Grady (Pratt) and the pack on the hunt

The finale is pretty impressive with a massive dinosaur battle royale, and its truly epic and gripping.
The film’s other trump card is the cast, which is pretty solid across the board. Pratt, continuing his rise, excels as the lead, with Grady being a tough, charismatic bloke who knows his animals and has a healthy suspicion for the corporate side of things.
Early on he voices concerns and warns others, and he’s proved right. Pratt’s easy charm makes him likeable and he handles the action sequences brilliantly. He has a few quips along the way, but Grady’s a more serious, jaded character than Star-Lord and it’s good to see Pratt build on his leading man potential.
Also on fine form is Bryce Dallas Howard, who captures Claire’s icy detachment perfectly and who does a great job of slowly revealing the person beneath, and the character develops nicely. She also has good chemistry with Pratt and it’s good to see her take charge and save the day a bit herself towards the end.

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Claire takes charge

The one weakness are the kids. Simpkins as the younger brother is rather annoying, and I found myself sympathising with his older brother, stuck babysitting him. Also the character feels uneven, giving the impression that things changed over different drafts. I found it hard to care about the kids, and their plotline seemed a bit obvious and under developed.
Luckily, the action moves along and everyone else does a good job, and the script has some clever, funny touches which slyly play on conventions.
All in all, a solid blockbuster and very good fun.
Verdict: Largely well done and hugely entertaining, its the strongest instalment of the sequels. The action is gripping and the performances strong, particularly Pratt and Howard. The kids are a bit weak, but on the whole a quality blockbuster. 8/10.
Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Film Review: Pitch Perfect 2

The first Pitch Perfect was a massively entertaining comedy which included a career making turn from Rebel Wilson as Fat Amy. The story of the all female a capella group was well written, funny and featured a great ensemble cast, I’d loved it (it made #4 of my films of 2013 list) and so had MWG, so we were pretty keen to check out the sequel as part of my birthday weekend.

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The movie picks up the story of the Bellas two years later. They’re now three time national champions and there’s an end of an era vibe with many of the team including captain Beca (Anna Kendrick) and Fat Amy. They’re riding high until a disastrous performance for the President. The fall out leaves them banned from defending their title, auditioning new members and stripped of their national tour, which is given to world champions Das Sound Machine (DSM).

Das Sound Machine

Das Sound Machine

They decide to go to the world championships, despite being warned that no US team has ever won and gamble on winning in order to save the club. The only new Bella they can accept is Emily (Hailee Steinfeld), who’s the daughter of a former Bella and an awkward, nervous freshman who writes her own songs.

Beca’s focus is divided as she struggles to make an impact at her new internship at a record label and worries she isn’t talented enough to succeed. Meanwhile, the Bella’s problems are stressing out Chloe (Brittany Snow), who has deliberately failed graduating numerous times in order to stay in the club, and their attempts to outdo DSM cause more trouble, weakening the team unity and causing them to lose confidence.

Can the Bellas find their sound again? Will they be triumphant at the world championships? Will Emily ever feel like a true Bella and enjoy her time in the club? Does Beca have what it takes to succeed in the music industry?

The Bellas in action

The Bellas in action

I did enjoy this movie, and it does have several positives, but it falls far short of the original, which I feel maintains a more consistent gag-rate. The first movie also benefited from the relationship between Beca and Jesse (Skylar Astin), which was sweet and part of what helped Beca realize that she needed to open up and embrace the Bellas.

Luckily the filmmakers avoid the traditional sequel pitfall of throwing needless relationship drama into the mix, and Jesse is relegated to a minor, supporting and supportive character. This is quite refreshing as it allows the focus to remain on the ladies and I always find it annoying when a movie gets you to buy into a couple only to then mess with them in the sequel just for some drama.

With the ladies centre stage the major story is the Bellas and the friendship it creates. The team are breaking up as they all plan to go their separate ways after college and we also get to see it from a fresh perspective, with new character Emily arriving as things appear to be disintegrating and struggling to find her place in the group.

The movie is entertaining enough to keep it going and there are plenty of laugh out loud moments, but as is to be expected with a sequel it doesn’t feel quite as fresh as the original. The music is still good, full of catchy, toe-tapping versions of familiar songs and the villains, DSM, are a delight. Caricatures of ruthless German efficiency they’re not necessarily evil, just the Bellas’ rivals and it’s quite entertaining watching their ice queen leader Komissar (Birgitte Hjort Sorensen) runs ring around the confused and intimidated Beca.

Anna Kendrick is on fine form, yet again, as the Bellas’ leader who’s still pursuing her dream of being a music producer, but who begins to struggle and worry about whether she’ll succeed. It’s an understated performance which captures the fears many people experience as they near the end of their time at university.

The rest of the Bellas do their jobs well, especially newcomer Steinfeld, who’s sweet and charming as the nervous new girl. Her budding romance with nerdy Benji (Ben Platt), is also rather adorable.

Emily with Benji

Emily with Benji

It’s also nice to have director Elizabeth Banks in front of the camera again as one half of the hilarious commentating duo, partnered with John Michael Higgins’ terribly un-PC chauvinist. This partnership gets some good laughs throughout the film as well, especially as Banks’ character Gail calls him on some of his comments.

The true star of the show is still Rebel Wilson, who delivers several of the best lines and gives the impression of having made up lots of things on the fly. Fat Amy is a fabulous creation, all sass and confidence, and one of the film’s strength is her relationship with Bumper (Adam DeVine), as the two share fantastic chemistry and bounce off each other to great effect.

Fat Amy in action

Fat Amy in action

It’s a solid movie, and it will keep you entertained but it never quite matches the original and there are a few gags that feel played out by the end. It’s predictable as well, but so is the first and so it never causes to many problems knowing how it’s going to end. Fun, but suffers in comparison with its predecessor.

Verdict: It’s great fun and Wilson is on fine form again, but it falls short of the original and lacks some of the freshness and charm. Still, it will keep you entertained and chuckling, and the music is rather well done. 7/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Film Review: Avengers: Age of Ultron

The first Avengers movie was such a success that you suspect afterwards Joss Whedon and Marvel might have been a bit scared, having built up their cinematic universe they delivered a grand slam which united several of their key characters for a team up and it won great reviews and took a bunch of cash. The movie was pretty much a flawless blockbuster which managed to include crowd pleasing action sequences with some great dialogue and characterization.

They’d raised the bar so high that a sequel was always going to be even more challenging.

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The bad news is that Age of Ultron isn’t as good as Earth’s mightiest heroes’ first outing, it’s still a hugely entertaining superhero flick, in fact, leaving the cinema MWG asked me what I intended to score it today and agreed with me on it being worth a “solid eight”.

But the script doesn’t have the same zing and some of the plot is a little convoluted. But these flaws aside it still manages to deliver action, laughs and jaw dropping spectacle while also succeeding in moving the Marvel cinematic universe onto it’s third stage.

The movie kicks off in some style with the Avengers in action against Hydra forces. It transpires that they’ve been chasing and dismantling Captain America’s (Chris Evans) old foes and are trying to reclaim the mind controlling sceptre previously wielded by Loki, brother of Thor (Chris Hemsworth), the God of Thunder. During the mission the whole team represents, including a fantastic shot which seems like a comic book splash page come alive.

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During the attack two new superpowered enemies enter the fray, Hydra operatives referred to as “the Twins” Wanda and Pietro Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen and Aaron Taylor-Johnson, respectively). Pietro is gifted with extreme speed while Wanda has telekinetic powers and also the ability to mess with people’s minds, which she puts to good effect conjuring a nightmare scenario for Tony Stark aka Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr) as he sees a world at the mercy of alien invasion and his teammates dead.

The Twins

The Twins

The Twins flee as the Avengers win the day, although Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) is injured. We also see that Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) have formed a bond and it is her responsibility to calm him down after missions, returning him to Bruce Banner. Their bond is also shown to go beyond this and there’s a mutual attraction between the two.

Widow calms the Hulk

Widow calms the Hulk

Back at the Avengers HQ and in possesion of the sceptre, Stark talks to Banner about using its power and the Hydra tech to create an artificial intelligence that will govern Tony’s robotic legion and protect the world from future alien threats.

Before you can say “Terrible idea”, it’s all gone a bit wrong and the artificial intelligence Ultron (voiced by James Spade) has gone rogue, identifying the Avengers themselves as a threat and escaping online. Ultron begins building an army of robots, all of which are him in essence and teams up with the Twins, who have beef with Stark after his weapons killed their family, and they set about trying to eliminate the Avengers.

The first encounter in Africa goes wrong, with Thor, Black Widow and Captain America having their brain scrambled by Wanda. Ultron escapes with the rare metal he requires to “evolve” and Iron Man has to intervene against the Hulk, who has been sent into a rage by Wanda. They square off as Iron Man initiates his Hulkbuster suit and they smash about for a bit before the Hulk is subdued.

avengers ultron hulkbuster

On the run they have to work out what Ultron’s next move is and how they can hope to stop him. They also have to deal with the issues raised by the hallucinations Wanda gave them and also rebuild the trust which has been shattered by Stark’s secretive movements in creating Ultron.

Meanwhile, Ultron himself creates an android form, using the gem from the sceptre, which will grant him greater power, although Wanda begins to question his motives. When he tries to link with the android form she sees his true plan and the twins flee.

The Avengers head to South Korea get the android body, but Black Widow is taken prisoner. Returning to New York, Tony wants to implant Jarvis (voiced by Paul Bettany), his computer butler/assistant into the android to give them an extra weapon against Ultron, although Captain America opposes this and tensions flare.

Can the Avengers overcome their differences and stop Ultron? What is his plan? With the android in their possesion are they right to create another AI to attempt to stop Ultron, or is this a bad idea? What role will the twins play in the final showdown?

As you can tell the story jumps around the place quite a lot and there’s a fair amount going on. For the most part it’s easy to follow, but there are a few times when I had to take a beat to remind myself of what was going on and where. That being said, it is engaging once you remember where you are and the film has many strengths, most notably the cast.

Everyone seems more comfortable in their roles and it’s nice that the film takes the time to expand on certain things, and the relationship between Banner and Natasha is handled wonderfully and quite touching. Johansson does a great job of making the Black Widow believable and real, meaning that we understand why Banner appeals to her and their similarities, both haunted by their past and fearful of putting others in danger. Ruffalo is, as ever, extremely likable as the awkward, geeky Banner, haunted by having to unleash the beast within, even when it’s in a good cause and a scene where the human Banner threatens Wanda feels totally in keeping with the character. His rage at Wanda for causing his rampage reflecting his issues with the Hulk being used by others.

Best of all, for me, was the fact that Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye has a lot more to do this time around. Aware of his limitations compared to his superpowered teammates, Hawkeye’s background is fleshed out and we see his driving force- professionalism. He’s there to do a job, and he’s dedicated to it, almost fearless when confronted with danger and, barring Black Widow, the most vulnerable, he nevertheless joins the charge. It’s nice that they’ve expanded on the character, although I still doubt we’re going to get a Hawkeye movie, or even a Hawkeye/Black Widow movie.

Hawkeye in action

Hawkeye in action

Evans, Hemsworth and RDJ are all on top form, particularly RDJ, who continues to make Stark the most engaging character. The superficial suave air from the first Iron Man movie has been stripped away, and we see more of the man inside the suit, scared and worried for the future, even if he does still hide behind the quips (needless to say, he gets many of the best lines in the movie).

As for the newcomers, they do pretty well. The twins are pretty cool in the power stakes, and it’s a credit to Olsen and AT-J that they convince as being close, loving siblings. ATJ, after boring me senseless in Godzilla, is back on fine form here, conveying both sides of Pietro’s personality- the angry, vengeance seeking young man and also the big kid who revels and enjoys his powers.

Olsen is wonderfully cold as Wanda, single minded in her quest for revenge and remorseless in messing with the minds of others, although she does show flashes of decency and even at the start she and her brother believe themselves to be the good guys against the imperialist Americans.

Doing a wonderful job at the mic for Ultron, James Spade is a delight. The product of Tony Stark he has much the same sarky manner as his creator, and an even less secure grip on his ego. One of the things the movie does is have clear similarities between the two, they deliver the same quotes and make the same jokes. It’s all rather well done and Ultron is quite a menacing presence, especially given his unpredictability and rages.

Ultron

Ultron

The one downside with Ultron as a villain is that he’s made an army of Ultrons, meaning that some of the fight scenes, particularly with Iron Man, are a bit confusing and it almost tips into Transformers territory of metal hitting metal with no idea what’s what. The other problem is that despite their numerical advantage we see far too many Ultrons go down easily- if Thor or the Hulk smashes one, we’re impressed, but if they can also be taken down by a single arrow or shield throw they’re not massively intimidating.

It would help if the Ultron Prime was even more impressive, stronger and evolved than his minions, but the difference isn’t great enough and so his threat isn’t quite as pronounced. Still, his plan is fabulously OTT and the fight scenes do succeed in capturing that comic book feel, where everything is going on at once. Rather than cutting from one throwdown to another Whedon uses camera moves and flying debris to weave between the battle, picking out individual moments in the melee.

All in all, Whedon succeeds in making a sensational blockbuster and superhero movie, and the MCU continues to grow and impress (the final Avengers line-up looks pretty boss, and it’s nice to see some of the smaller characters get screen time). It doesn’t match the first, but that was always unlikely, but it’s still a solid movie and puts more pressure on DC’s Justice League reveal.

Verdict: Not as solid as the first, but still hugely entertaining and fun. The film expands on it’s characters and as with previous Marvel flicks leaves you eager for more. Roll on phase three! 8/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Film Review: Kingsman: The Secret Service

Warning! Spoilers Ahead! I’ve tried to avoid them where possible, but some have snuck in, apologies.

Halfway during this film Colin Firth’s character, Harry Hart, is asked if he likes spy movies, to which he replies “Nowadays, they’re all a little serious for my taste. But the old ones….marvelous. Give me a far-fetched theatrical plot any day.” It’s pretty much voicing the film’s intent, which seems like a reaction against the more serious Bourne and Craig era Bonds, and delivers on the far-fetched theatrical plot front.

Of course, this is from the team that brought us Kick-Ass so we’re a long way from Roger Moore territory. Once again Matthew Vaughn directs a script he co-wrote with Jane Goldman based on a Mark Millar comic book, and the result is essentially what you’d expect from the above quote and that team: a plot from an old Bond movie but served with a heavy dose of profanity, hyper violence and hilarity.

kingsman pos

Colin Firth plays Harry aka Galahad, the sharp suited gentleman spy who works for Kingsman, a privately owned and run spy agency. Harry is investigating the death of a fellow agent, Lancelot (Jack Davenport), killed while on the trail of mercenaries connected with several incidents involving terrorist groups being taken out by being exposed to something which made them violently turn on each other.

With an agent dead, Harry’s boss, Arthur (Michael Caine), asks Harry to suggest someone to compete against the selection of the other agents. Harry’s unlikely choice is Eggsy (Taron Egerton), the son of a former colleague who sacrificed himself to save Harry’s life. Eggsy lives on a rough council estate and doesn’t fit the traditional suave spy type, but Harry sees the potential he has squandered.

Eggsy in turn is impressed by Harry’s abilities as a fighter and his suave, restrained demeanor and agrees to engage in the training programme. Here he must compete against the other candidates, all of whom are posh toffs and he faces judgment and mockery from many of them, although Roxy (Sophie Cookson) does befriend him. The training is overseen by Merlin (Mark Strong), who also knew Eggsy’s father and was present at his death.

Odd man out- Eggsy and his fellow trainees

Odd man out- Eggsy and his fellow trainees

As Eggsy goes through his training, Harry investigates Lancelot’s death, which turns out to be connected to tech billionaire Valentine (Samuel L Jackson), who seems to be plotting something big and is assisted by Gazelle (Sofia Boutella) an assassin who uses bladed prosthetic legs as her weapon of choice. What is Valentine’s plan and how is it connected to the free SIM cards he’s giving out?

Will Eggsy stick to the course and become a Kingsman agent? Will he and Harry be able to work out what Valentine’s up to and stop it?

This movie is an utter gem, filled with laugh out moments and hugely entertaining OTT action sequences. MWG and I laughed throughout and left the cinema extremely impressed and entertained, as did all of the people we went with. It plays with the spy genre conventions, ribbing and reveling in the excesses and ridiculousness of it.

At the centre is a fantastic performance from Colin Firth, who you can tell must have had a ball playing with his traditional persona. He doesn’t look threatening or badass, but throughout the film he carries himself with this taut restraint and posh mannerisms that suggest great personal control, which ensures that when he finally cuts loose in the fight scenes it’s incredibly entertaining.

Harry in action

Harry in action

Firth’s performance generates a lot of laughs and his stiff nature is the island of calm in the middle of the ridiculous OTT film that unfolds around him.

The rest of the cast are on fine form too, Egerton, who was a new face to me is wonderful as Eggsy, making the character believable and likable. He may front with swagger and bravado, but Egerton allows us to see the softer side and the fear which has hampered him from fulfilling his potential. Eggsy is an engaging character, guided by an inner sense of decency but also having a ball with the high tech gadgets and adventures that await him.

Egerton’s transformation from chav slacker to suited gentleman spy is well done, and best of all he maintains his grinning, life loving verve throughout, meaning that even when he’s an ass kicking spy there are still flashes of the jokey, loudmouth youth. He might have the suit now, but it’s clear that he was always a hero and that being a gentleman isn’t about where you’re from or who your family is, but how you carry yourself.

Eggsy transformed

Eggsy transformed

Of course, a lot of the scenes get stolen by Samuel L Jackson, who still has great gravitas even with the bizarre character he plays. A man with a plan for world domination who can’t stand the sight of blood and speaks with a lisp, it’s to his credit that SLJ manages to still make Valentine a mesmerizing and charismatic on-screen presence. It plays slightly with his usual type of character, as Valentine is far from a “bad ass mother f**ker”.

SLJ playing with his on screen persona

SLJ playing with his on screen persona

Valentine’s plan is a treat, the kind of nutso idea that old Bond movies would go for, a plan to save the world by culling the population by turning the masses into rage fuelled maniacs who’ll take each other out. This leads to a fantastically excessive sequence of extreme brutality as Harry takes on the congregation of a far-right church who have all gone crazy. It’s a fast paced, extreme sequence which mixes black comedy laughs with some wince inducing, bone crunching violence.

The movie zips along with a great sense of fun and while some developments are easy to see coming it still manages to surprise and amuse with little touches that toy with Bond movie tropes and builds to a crazy, but satisfying conclusion.

I also loved Gazelle, Valentine’s henchwoman who with her bladed legs is like a throwback to the colourful henchmen of Bond movies past and she’s a cool character, with a steely look in her eye and the perfect compliment to the squeamish Valentine.

kingsman gazelle

Vaughn’s direction is on point, with great comic timing, fast paced action and a joyous delight in the film’s daft touches. All in all it’s a hugely entertaining movie and left me with a big dumb smile on my face, and dare I say it, it even beats Kick-Ass.

Verdict: A magnificently overblown spy movie pastiche/homage complete with colourful villains, outlandish plots and insane gadgets. Vaughn and Goldman’s script is chockablock with laughs and the performances, particularly Firth and Egerton are extremely well done. The violence and swearing won’t make it everyone’s cup of tea, but for me it hit the spot and I found it a real treat, because I like my action movies to be a bit OTT and my spy movies on the silly side. 9/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.