Avengers: Age of Ultron

Cast: Robert Downey, Jr., Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Don Cheadle, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Elizabeth Olsen, Paul Bettany, Cobie Smulders, Anthony Mackie, Andy Serkis, James Spader, Samuel L. Jackson

Director: Joss Whedon

Writer: Joss Whedon


Usually when I review a film from a series I like to briefly discuss my thoughts on the films that came before to provide context. However a discussion on the Marvel franchise could take up an entire article so instead I’ll settle on just discussing the first Avengers film. For me The Avengers is the perfect superhero film. While earlier films like Spider-Man 2 and The Dark Knight had already perfected the superhero formula, The Avengers took the genre onto a whole new level. It was the first film to ever bring together an ensemble of heroes who had already been introduced and developed in their own films and it pulled it off beautifully. It brought together all of these brilliant characters and, by allowing them to interact and work off each other, created a dynamic quality that no film had ever really done before. It was an incredibly well executed film that had the perfect amount of action, the perfect amount of humour and the perfect amount of character. I couldn’t wait to see the Avengers’ second outing together.

The film opens with the Avengers, Captain America (Chris Evans), Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), leading an assault on a Hydra base to recover Loki’s sceptre. There they encounter the orphaned twins who were subjected to Hydra’s experiments, Pietro (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), who has superhuman speed, and Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen), who has the power to manipulate minds. Wanda infects Tony Stark’s mind and gives him a vision of his worst fear come true. Stark sees a dark, forlorn future; one where he stands alone surrounded by the corpses of his fallen comrades as the Earth falls to the alien threat they failed to stop. Stark is deeply affected by this vision and resolves to prevent it from ever happening.

Upon studying the sceptre’s gem, Stark and Banner discover an artificial intelligence that Stark believes could be the final piece they need to create the Ultron program. Stark envisions Ultron as a global defence program designed to protect the Earth from the alien threats that the Avengers would be unable to fight themselves and convinces Banner to help him complete it. Ultron (James Spader) becomes sentient and turns on his creators. Ultron sees himself as the next evolutionary step and thus believes that the only way for world peace to be achieved is for humanity to be annihilated. The Avengers band together to stop him but are then overcome with fears and doubts that threaten to divide and destroy them.

Like its predecessor, Avengers: Age of Ultron delivers on the action, the humour and the character. However the inherent weaknesses of the Marvel franchise become more noticeable in this film as they become more difficult to manage. After the way The Avengers developed the Marvel franchise and set it up for further growth, the success, acclaim and demand that followed meant that the sequel was inevitably going to try and go even bigger and further still. This means more characters to juggle and more interactions with the other Marvel films. So, with a gigantic line-up of future films already in development and a large ensemble of major characters played by actors who are contracted to appear in them, Whedon thus doesn’t have the creative freedom to take the risks and tell the story that he might otherwise have done in a perfect world. In addition to this we the audience are becoming so accustomed to these massive blockbusters that they’re almost starting to feel a little generic and the action is starting to look a little familiar. Still, with all of that weight and pressure bearing down on this film, Whedon, being the master craftsman that he is, just manages to create a worthy sequel that is entertaining and exciting to watch even if it didn’t amaze us in the same way that The Avengers did.

With such a gargantuan number of characters to feature and develop, the film is able to provide a balance between them and allows each major character a moment or two to shine. While Captain America, Iron Man, Thor and Hulk remain the stars of the show characters like Black Widow and Hawkeye (who many felt were underused in the first film) are given extensive roles and compelling arcs this time around. The film also has a number of new characters to deal with, most notably Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch. Despite a limited amount of development and screen time these two characters are nevertheless able to create a memorable impression complete with motivations and distinctive personalities, if little else. There is also the titular villain to consider who (thankfully) is one of the Marvel franchise’s more entertaining and memorable villains. Ultron is strangely emotive for a sentient being and shows an indignation and a fallaciousness that is very… human. Spader’s voice is both menacing and sardonic and complements the character perfectly.

I liked this film a lot but I didn’t love it. As good as it was, it was missing that little bit of magic that was present in The Avengers and Guardians of the Galaxy. Maybe this is because the film had so many different characters and arcs to balance that it was never really able to find a clear and distinct focus. Maybe it’s because my expectations were overly amplified by the incredible quality and success of this franchise. Maybe (hopefully not) it’s because the Marvel franchise is starting to collapse on itself and that this film marks the beginning of the end. Whatever the reason, Age of Ultron is nevertheless a good, entertaining film that offers plenty of thrills and plenty of heart. There is some great action, there is a good amount of humour, and the characters are as enjoyable as ever whilst delivering a decent amount of development and emotional moments. The challenge of running the Marvel franchise is only going to get more difficult from here and so I hope that the Russo brothers are up to the challenge.

★★★★

The Tale of the Princess Kaguya

Cast: (voiced by) Chloë Grace Moretz, Darren Criss, James Caan, Mary Steenburgen, Lucy Liu, Hynden Walch, George Segal, James Marsden, Oliver Platt, Daniel Dae Kim, Dean Cain, Beau Bridges*

Director: Isao Takahata

Writers: Isao Takahata, Riko Sakaguchi


I must confess that when I went to see this film, I wasn’t all that sure whether I would actually enjoy it. Even though the film was released by Studio Ghibli, a studio that often and consistently releases good films, I initially thought that I was going to find the animation style off-putting. The Tale of the Princess Kaguya employs its own distinctive animation style consisting of simple sketches set against a watercolour background, a style that I thought might not be able to fully illustrate the incredible imagination and creativity that goes into these films. Thankfully my concerns were alleviated by the beauty and elegance of the animation and I did not find the style to be at all a hindrance when watching this film; although at the same time I didn’t think the animation was utilised to its fullest potential, a point I will explore in greater depth later.

The story, based on the Japanese folktale The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter, starts off with the discovery of a small woman within a glowing bamboo shoot by the local bamboo cutter. The small woman is of royal birth and emanates a divine aura. After she transforms into a baby, the bamboo cutter and his wife figure that the woman is the figure that she will grow up to become and so they decide to raise her. While the mother wants nothing more than for the child to grow up happy, the father bestows upon her the title of ‘Princess’ and believes that she should be treated as such. The girl grows at an accelerated rate and lives a simple and modest life with her parents; a life that the father feels is unworthy of her. When the bamboo cutter comes across a vast collection of gold and fine cloth in the same spot where he found their daughter, he takes it as a divine sign that she must be brought up as a princess and sets out to build a palace for her where she will want for nothing.

Despite being bestowed with a large palace, the finest clothes and everything that a princess could ever want, Kaguya finds herself unsuited to a life of nobility. Even though she shows a clear gift for all of the practices that is expected of a princess, she resents the endless rules and restrictions that she is expected to live by and longs for the days of her early childhood when she was free and happy. As word of her beauty, grace and charm spread throughout the land, an army of would-be suitors arrive to try and win her heart. When five of the noblest and wealthiest suitors in all the land come and ask for her hand, Kaguya is expected to choose one of them to be her husband despite not knowing or loving any of them. As her life becomes more insufferable and overbearing, Kaguya is then suddenly presented with a revelation that reveals her true destiny.

The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is a very slow film which is fine for the most part because the story and characters are compelling enough to be engaging. The beginning and the ending of this film are both done very well. Where the film struggles and drags the most is in the middle. The whole idea of the princess who is dissatisfied with her life and longs to be free is hardly new (how many Disney films have we seen that tell that same story?) and so the amount of time that the film dedicates to that aspect of the story proves trying. This is where the animation style starts to lose me. As the story dragged along, the stillness and plainness of the animation did little to captivate my interest. When I watched The Wind Rises, another Studio Ghibli film with a slow story, I never lost my interest for a second, not even in the parts where there wasn’t much happening. This is because the exquisite animation of The Wind Rises was able to create a mesmerising atmosphere that had me thoroughly absorbed. In The Tale of the Princess Kaguya there is much beauty to be found in the graceful simplicity of the animation, but not much atmosphere.

There is one scene I recall which for me is undoubtedly the strongest scene in the film. It takes place at a point when the pressures of the noble life prove too much for Kaguya. She finds herself in a repressive and overbearing state and longs to break free. When she overhears a conversation and has her feelings hurt, she finally snaps. She makes a run for it, breaking down the palace doors and discarding her expensive robes as she does. She runs away from her home, away from all the pomp, the oppression and the misery, and runs aimlessly into the woods as she seeks to finally have a moment to herself free from the rules and the repression, a moment to cry and to express her despair. It is only a minute long but is highly effective, in large part due to the animation. As Kaguya runs away from the palace the animation becomes sketchier and more distorted, reflecting the turmoil and anguish in her heart. It is a moment that transcends the animated style of this film as the entire world is reshaped in order to reflect her feelings. This is a technique that could have transformed The Tale of the Princess Kaguya into a much more effective film, had it been more fully realised. Unfortunately this scene is the only one in the entire film to utilise that style. The rest of the animation, while pleasant, seems almost lifeless in comparison.

With that in mind I still enjoyed the film a great deal. Even though the animation failed to grasp me, it was still an elegant and charming style that was pleasant to look at. Even though the story dragged in the middle, it still had me invested. I liked the central character a lot and I was interested in watching her journey and in seeing what would happen to her. I enjoyed watching her grow up and seeing how her arrival affected those around her and the bond that she formed with her adoptive parents, and I also enjoyed watching her struggle to accept her destiny. The ending of the film incorporates the supernatural fantasy elements to create a dream-like state that works very well. It is an ending that is rich in imagination and tone that builds up to a bittersweet pay-off. It is an overall pleasant and emotional film, and its only real flaw is its unrealised potential.

★★★★

* [I should probably note that the version of the film that I saw was subtitled and not dubbed, therefore I cannot account for the voice-acting in the English dub. However Studio Ghibli films do tend to be well-dubbed so I’m sure it’s fine.]

Wild Tales

Cast: Ricardo Darín, Oscar Martínez, Leonardo Sbaraglia, Érica Rivas, Rita Cortese, Julieta Zylderberg, Darío Grandinetti

Director: Damián Szifron

Writer: Damián Szifron


The film is about as unconventional as it gets. ‘Film’ may not even be the right word as Wild Tales is actually a collection of six short-films, each about twenty minutes in length. These short-films are all linked thematically as they each portray a tale of violence and vengeance. ‘Wild’ is definitely the word to describe these stories as they all contain wildly erratic characters doing unbelievably crazy deeds. These are deeply dark and disturbing stories that could easily have been told in unsettling and deranged ways. However they are instead told with such a strong sense of madness and absurdity that they end up coming across as hysterical. This is a viewing experience unlike any other.

Each story starts off with a simple concept that is then carried away by the sheer madness of it all. Amongst these stories are the airline passengers who discover that they all have something in common, a waitress who comes across the man that ruined her life, two men on the road who have a quarrel with one another, a mild-mannered engineer who is tired of being taken advantage of by the corrupt system, a rich father who seeks to save his son from serving time in prison, and a newlywed bride who has suddenly become aware of her husband’s infidelity. The main drawback when it comes to anthology films or shows (Saturday Night Live for instance) is that the viewing experience tends to rise and fall depending on the viewer’s reaction to each individual story. In the case of Wild Tales there are certainly some stories that work better than others (my personal favourite was the wedding story) but they’re all still enjoyable in their own ways.

What makes these stories so striking is how batshit insane they are. While they all start off simply they quickly and erratically develop out of control and take many unexpected twists and turns along the way. Watching these stories as they develop in the most irrational and unpredictable ways is almost like watching a twisted version of Roald Dahl’s Tales of the Unexpected. You never know what is going to happen next, you only know that it will be something fanatical and depraved. Each second is one of intense anticipation as you await the outcome to these morbidly strange stories. What unites these six stories is that they recount the tale of someone who has been wronged and how far those people are willing to go to make things right. These people all become more irrational and more volatile the longer the situation is drawn out and the thinner that their patience wears. Although their situations are all vastly different, their motivations are strikingly similar. They all seek balance, retribution and justice (although these characters would likely disagree over what exactly those three ideas actually constitute).

The numerous characters in these stories are all interesting and engaging in their own ways. The central character of my favourite story is Romina (Érica Rivas), the aggrieved bride who seeks to destroy her husband following the discovery of his infidelity. The diabolical depravity she portrays combined with her wounded vulnerability make her a thoroughly entertaining and sympathetic character. Equally compelling was Simón Fischer (Ricardo Darín) the disgruntled engineer who declares war on the system. After an entire lifetime of following the rules and doing as he is told only to be taken advantage of and to experience injustice after injustice, this quiet, unassuming man harbours a deep volatile nature that is unearthed in his moral crusade. Other great characters include Mauricio Perayra Hamilton (Oscar Martínez), the wealthy father whose stubbornness proves upsetting for three men; Concinera (Rita Cortese), the furtive chef with a violent temperament; and Gabriel Pasternak, a character whom we never actually see or hear from in this film but who still leaves a resounding impact. There is no shortage of entertaining characters to root for, to root against, and to just enjoy.

Wild Tales is without question the strangest film I’ve seen in recent months and I loved every second of it. It is incredibly difficult for a film with such disturbing ideas to be entertaining and this film pulls it off beautifully. Each story is crazy and absurd enough to be funny and therefore to distance the viewer from the brutality and violence, but is also interesting enough to engage the viewer and command his attention. The advantage of the short-story format is that the film does not drag and it never gets tiring. Each story lasts only as long as it needs to and then moves on before the viewer can get a full handle on what is happening. This film is understandably not for everyone. Some might find it too squeamish, others might find it too disturbing, and others still might find it too weird. For me, however, it was an outrageously entertaining film filled with dark humour and harrowing sequences, all of it riotously unconventional.

★★★★★

Cinderella

Cast: Lily James, Cate Blanchett, Richard Madden, Stellan Skarsgård, Holliday Grainger, Derek Jacobi, Ben Chaplin, Sophie McShera, Hayley Atwell, Helena Bonham Carter

Director: Kenneth Branagh

Writer: Chris Weitz


Live-action Disney remakes seem to be on the rise now with the confirmation that such films as Beauty and the Beast, Dumbo and Mulan are about to get their own. While I’m not against the idea of updating these classic films per se, I do think that that the execution has for the most part been underwhelming. This has mostly been due to either the filmmakers changing what doesn’t need to be changed or not understanding what made the original a classic in the first place. I don’t think Alice in Wonderland worked because it tried to introduce logic and reason to a world that is supposed to defy those conventions and I don’t think Maleficent worked because it tried to change the one part of the film that I didn’t think needed to be changed at all, its villain. Therefore I wasn’t really expecting much from the Cinderella remake.

Cinderella is, of course, the classic story of a young girl who is forced into servitude by her evil stepmother but who is then given the chance to go to the ball and meet the prince after being visited by her fairy godmother. The updated version offers an account of Ella’s exceedingly happy childhood which is cut short by her mother’s tragic death, during which she imparts onto Ella her greatest lesson: “have courage and always be kind”. Ella (Lily James) takes this lesson to heart as she never allows her sunny disposition to ever be diminished, not even by her new, unwelcoming stepmother (Cate Blanchett) and stepsisters (Holliday Grainger and Sophie McShera). When her father passes away Ella is gradually revoked of her status as a daughter and instead becomes a servant to the household. As life gets harder for her Ella maintains her sunny disposition and never forgets the words that her mother spoke to her.

In Disney’s attempt to update this story there is a lot that works better than the original but also a lot that does not. Perhaps the biggest downgrade from the original film is Cinderella’s character who, rather than a determined, strong-willed girl trying to make the best of the life she has been given, is reduced to an irrationally cheerful dreamer who greets adversity with apathy rather than resolve. Her struggle becomes less believable and less compelling because, at the risk of sounding heartless, she doesn’t really suffer enough. The first ten minutes of the film, which I found to be a cringingly schmaltzy ordeal, show Ella and her parents living this excessively joyful life in which everything is sunshine and rainbows, a temperament that Ella maintains for the remainder of the film. Therefore her attitude towards any hardship that she encounters is to greet it with a smile and to hope for something better, an attitude that I felt diminished the oppressive nature of the life she had been subjected to. As opposed to the original character, who suffered a great deal at the hands of her wicked stepmother and in turn became all the more determined not to be dispirited or defeated, this Cinderella never seems to suffer all that much due to the excessive complacency she exhibits and her inability to feel any sort of pain or sorrow.

Another character who I felt was a step down from her original counterpart is the stepmother. Although the film does give her a few deliciously evil moments (and Cate Blanchett relishes every second of them) they are far too little. The film attempts to add a bit of depth and complexity to her character by providing her with a backstory and a motivation behind her actions, but the personality is a sheer downgrade. This stepmother is not nearly as threatening or as menacing as the original character nor as enjoyably evil. I found this villain to be far too silly and camp to be at all intimidating and not in an entertaining way.

With all that in mind, there were plenty of things about this film that I did like. One character who is a vast improvement over his original counterpart is the prince (Richard Madden) who in this film has an actual personality. This time around he and Cinderella actually meet beforehand and are able to form a bond with one another. Additionally his story-arc about succeeding his father (Derek Jacobi) as the king and being pressured by him and by the Grand Duke (Stellan Skarsgård) into marriage is actually quite a compelling one. Cinderella is also a gorgeous film to look at with its stunning sets, magnificent costumes and enchanting visual effects. Helena Bonham Carter provides a breath of fresh air in her quirky cameo as the Fairy Godmother.

What really bothered me about this film was Cinderella’s character and the way she affected the story. The incessant chirpiness that she maintains in light of the adversity and oppression she undergoes negates any sense of suffering and so I was less invested in her struggle. Her hardships do not seem at all tragic because she refuses to acknowledge them as such. Rather than try to make the most of her difficulties, she instead accepts them as they are and smiles as she bears them. Such an attitude is much too naïve and foolish for the smart, independent character that she is clearly supposed to be and betrays what the original film stood for. When Cinderella finally gets her reward at the end, it doesn’t really feel like she’s earned it. All of this is supposed to hammer in the film’s moral about having courage and being kind, a moral that gets repeated often but that is never actually taught (or at least isn’t taught very well). I did not hate this film, far from it, but I do think it is a failure as an upgrade to the original tale. What it attempts to add in reason and logic it loses in character and emotion.

★★★

[On a side note: The film opened with a showing of Frozen Fever which I liked a great deal. It was fun and enjoyable and the perfect way to get an audience into the Disney mood.]

Mommy

Cast: Anne Dorval, Suzanne Clément, Antoine-Olivier Pilon, Patrick Huard

Director: Xavier Dolan

Writer: Xavier Dolan


Selected for the Jury Prize at Cannes, Mommy is a harsh, provocative film that is ceaseless in its unflinching brutality. It is a film that depicts the turbulent relationship of a troubled mother and her volatile son from the touching, tender moments to the ugly, vicious outbursts. The film tackles the theme of motherhood as it asks difficult and complex questions as a mother with her own fair share of demons and flaws is faced with the task of raising, loving and nurturing a problem child. It asks whether a mother’s love is indeed unconditional. It asks if there is a limit to what a mother can endure from her own child. It asks what it means for a mother to give up on her own child and whether there are circumstances in which such a choice, no matter how dreadful or painful, is the only viable option left.

Die (Anne Dorval) is a widowed mother who has been informed that she must collect her fifteen-year-old son from the institution he was housed in after he set a fire that landed a boy in the hospital. After having seen him get thrown out of succeeding institutions, Die must now take Steve (Antoine-Olivier Pilon) home and raise him herself. Die is clearly not the ‘perfect’ mother; she is hot-tempered, she swears like a sailor, she wears trashy clothing, she doesn’t have a permanent job and she leads an unhealthy lifestyle. However, whatever she may lack in skills and etiquette, her love and devotion to her son are never in question. She brings him home, adamant about making changes to their lives and determined not to take any more shit from him. We can tell that this will be a difficult task immediately upon meeting Steve. He has a hyperactive energy that is almost inexhaustible, he is unapologetically rude to everyone he meets, he swears as indiscriminately as his mother and he shows absolutely no remorse for any of his actions, least of all the fire that got him kicked out of the institution. However he also displays a clear sense of love and devotion to his mother. The complex, fascinating bond that they share is the heart of this film.

That these two are devoted to each other is never questioned. When Steve is kicked out of the institution Die is approached about the possibility of surrendering him to a juvenile detention centre and renouncing all responsibility to him (now made possible through a new (fictional) piece of legislation), a thought that Die refuses to entertain. She resolves herself to raise Steve single-handedly and so it very much seems like it is the two of them against the world. Although Steve shows a severe lack of respect for his mother’s matriarchal authority in terms of doing his chores or being home-schooled by her, he nevertheless stays with her because he recognises that Die is the only person in the entire world who will still have him. However their bond is nevertheless an unstable one and the two of them often turn on each other, engaging each other in shouting matches. Their outbursts are somewhat tempered by the inclusion of a neutral third-party in the form of Kyla (Suzanne Clément), a shy neighbour who suffers from a stammer. Upon befriending her, Die learns that Kyla used to be a teacher and appeals to her to school Steve. Kyla, unlike Die, is kind, warm, gentle and patient. Although Steve proves to be a difficult student, Kyla is nevertheless able to reach through to him. When Steve’s performance and conduct starts to improve, the possibility is raised that perhaps the obstacles inherent in raising him can be overcome after all.

Cinephiles will doubtless be fascinated by the film’s unusual 1:1 aspect ratio. The window it creates conveys a sense of claustrophobia and restraint. There is a sense that these characters are all trapped in their own ways. Die is trapped by the burden of raising her son. Steve is trapped by a compulsive nature that he cannot control. Even Kyla is trapped by a disability that almost renders her voiceless. The aspect ratio emphasises this by boxing these characters in, thereby reinforcing the notion that these characters are all confined by circumstances that they cannot escape. The significance of this perspective is further emphasised in one fundamental scene towards the end when the box disappears. It is a harsh and oppressive aspect ratio that plays a key role in shaping the tone of this film.

This film is unflinching in how far it is willing to go to portray these characters in their imperfection. Showing how flawed and unpleasant these characters can be highlights the film’s honesty and reinforces the struggle that both of these characters face. Some critics have observed the presence of an Oedipus complex in the relationship between Die and Steve, an idea that provides an insight into just how simultaneously loving and unhealthy their relationship can be. Mommy is both engaging and difficult to watch. It is a harsh and uncomfortable film that provides an unnerving and painful account of motherhood from a non-judgemental viewpoint. Members of the audience might resent Die by the end of the film, but none more so than she does herself.

★★★★