Avengers: Age Of Ultron

I was tempted to start by saying this was not the best of the Avenger’s movies, but that might give a false impression, this is a classic Avengers/Marvel movie, what it lacked was the sense of something new, which the others had. Written & directed by Josh Wedon (Cabin in the Woods, 2012). Set post the battle of New York and the disintegration of SHIELD, the Avengers team essentially continues where SHIELD left off. While the operation is financed by Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr. (The Judge 2014) it is lead in the field by Steve Rogers/Captain America as they battle the forces of Hydra under Count von Strucker (Thomas Kretschman, Dracula 3D, 2012).

Indeed the opening scenes set the tone for the movie – set-piece action sequences, interspersed with some dry comedy from the team. The comedy is verbal, rather than situational slap-stick.

As expected the team, win the day and capture their prize, but only after learning of the existence of two new “enhanced” humans, the Maximoff twins; Pietro/Quicksilver with his speed (Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Godzilla, 2014) and his sister Wanda/Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olson Red Lights, 2012). Whedon gives us an interesting play with these characters and works them well into the story line and set-up the narrative for the ever increasing numbers.

The plot to the movie is nothing strenuous, while hunting down Hydra and recovering various artifacts, they recover Loki’s staff and Stark decides to use it for tests and to see if it can be used to restart a dysfunctional planetary defence system, he enlists the help of Dr. Banner/The Hulk (Foxcatcher 2014) but keeps the work quiet. This of course queues up the inevitable disaster and low and behold a super AI is created who – first sets-out to destroy the digital mind that is Jarvis (Stark’s AI)takes over the body of one of the fighting legion of Iron robots which fight with Iron Man. The creation is revealed to the world when it basically gate-crashes the Avengers and friends having a party.

What continues is the usual high-octane Marvel-fest of graphics, stunts, disasters and battles. As Ultron continues on his way to destroy the world using Hydtra assets, he works to transform himself from an electrical circuit to a living electronic being with a mind. He will do this using technology Dr. Helen Cho ( Claudia Kim, Marco Polo 2014) is developing to help the Avengers recover from injury using cell regeneration. This is interrupted as the team take back the initiative and out of the mess is created Vision, who is the “solidification” of the virtual mind that was Jarvis. The robot/AI has developed from being a comic foil for Downey to being an Avenger. The part is excellently played by Paul Bettany (Priest 2011), who having given the character voice now gives it form.

Needless to say, after much near death, a few heavy soul-searching moments and lots of near impossible stunt work the team eventually get their way. What is important is what happened along the way. We learn that Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner Kill the Messenger, 2014) has a private life outside of the Avengers, and also of a possible growing relationship between Natasha Romanoff and Dr. Banner/The Hulk.

The humour is laugh-out-loud in places while in others it is definitely for the fans with the occasional “in-joke” which works. It is clear from the start that this is a movie which knew it could not take itself too seriously and so deliberately added the necessary humour. Being part of a greater narrative means that they have quite a support cast to call upon. Don Cheadle, Idris Elba and Stellan Skarsgard all reprise their roles to support while we also have appearances from Anthony Mackie; Sam Wilson/the Falcon (Pain & Gain 2013) and Heyley Atwell’s Peggy Carter. (The Sweeney 2012).

I recently learned that there is actually no set number of Avengers (there is about 50 of them in total) and we see hints of this with the ever increasing number of Avengers and their supporters.

Judging by this movie, there is no hint of the franchise slowing down anytime soon, it might be picking up if anything.

7.5/10

Big Eyes

I bought this movie a while ago and not looking too closely when I put it on over the weekend I had it in mind that it was a Coen brothers film, rather, it is courtesy of Tim Burton; either way we sat down expecting something a little different. We had to sit back and think when was the last live-action (relatively mainstream and not involving too many dead people) movie Burton made, it has been a while and all compare to what I consider an under-appreciated classic; Big Fish (2003).

The story is based on the life of the artist Margaret Keane (Amy Adams, American Hustle, 2013) who leaving a destructive marriage sets off to the San Francisco bay area where she tries to get by with the help of friends such as DeeAnn (Krysten Ritter, Search Party, 2014) selling her existing paintings and sketching people without much success. Then one day while she and her daughter were selling her work at a flea-market they are met by the charismatic Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz, Carnage 2011). Keane recognises a certain something in her works, while he essentially discards his own works of Parisian Street scenes. As their relationship develops he takes the opportunity to sell her work along-side his at a jazz club. By this stage they have married (rather quickly) As they are married, both sign their works “Keane” and pretty soon people start to take notice of the works, with the Big Eyes paintings selling at the expense of his.

Walter had always sold himself as an artist, who having had a career, gave it up and became an artist living in Paris, and so now his speciality is Parisian street scenes.

Rather than tell the world that they are his wife’s (“women’s work does not sell”) he passes them off as his own. When Margaret finds out about this she is not too happy but he convinces her to go along with it. As it happens Walter is a superb sales man and engineers the sales of her works (as his) . the works take off and to the world Amy does not paint, it is Walter. As the years progress and they become more successful, the pressure builds with Amy. What does not help is Walter’s engineering of sales and publicity opportunities ably assisted by his gossip-columnist friend Dick Nolan (Danny Huston, Masters of Sex, Dr. Douglas Greathouse, 2014) . Walter is a celebrity and uses his celebrity status to further advance the sales of their/his works. Amy eventually feeling the frustration starts to paint in a new style so that she can be seen in public as an artist, but these works are not as successful, partly because she is not as good a sales person.

As they progress with the big-eyes works, with the gallery and image licencing rights bringing in the money, the edges start to fray around Walter’s grand deception. He needs to bring out a coffee book, but for that he needs a back story. And so was born the fiction of the starving children in 1949 Berlin with their big sad eyes. His art is not without his detractors, none more so than John Canady (Terrance Stamp, Valkyrie, 2008) who has been a strident critic of the works form the start – they are not proper art in his view. This comes to a head when Walter promises a large work to the UN for their stand at the New York World’s Fair. This of course has to be painted by Margaret, much against her wishes. Just as his professional career is coming to a head so is his home life.

Canady, learning that the painting for the Un is about to be exhibited, gets a preview. Upon seeing the work he writes a critique of it which totally destroys it. The picture is later removed from view. Alongside this is Margaret’s growing unease at keeping her talent a secret from everybody, but then she makes a discovery – Walter has been faking even his own paintings for years, he has been buying landscapes from a particular artist in Paris for years, then painting his name over the original artist’s name, Margaret discovered a crate of the originals, that of course sparked the great reveal.

Having had enough, Margaret and daughter run away to Hawaii and begin to make a new life for themselves. Trying for a divorce Walter makes it clear that if she tried to divorce him on terms other than his own (he keeps the rights and she has to present him with 100 more paintings), he will reveal she was part of the fraud by letting him sell the paintings.

Finally having enough she sues Walter and his media supporters, arriving to court Walter is certain he is going to win, given his media company backing, however they quickly remove themselves once they are cleared of any defamation on their side. What follows is Walter’s attempt to use is show-boating to sway the court, the judge is having none of it and orders certain activities to determine who the real artist is…

A very engaging, funny and at time poignant movie, it is well worth watching and enjoying, and other reason why Tim Burton is in a class of his own. 8/10

John Wick

This seems to be getting great reviews , personally I have to say I was not inspired by it, in anyway. This is an old-fashioned “shoot-em-up” directed by Chad Stahelski (300, 2006) and written by Derek Kolstad (The Package, 2012). The film opens with the scene being set: John Wick (Keanu Reeves, 47 Ronin) is a man grieving for his recently departed wife. Helping him get over this grief is his puppy which was a gift from his wife. For anybody else this would be possibly enough to get back on track with life, but Wick is retired and just getting on with life.   It is in getting on with life that everything goes south. His luxury home is invaded by some Russian thugs who want to clear it out, of Wick has different ideas and defends his home, in the course of which his dog is killed. It turns out these protagonists are Russian mafia, indeed one of them is the son (Alfie Allen, Game of Thrones, 2011) of the mafia head (Michael Nyqvist. The Girl with The Dragon Tatoo, 2009). Now this is where things go East (or South) very quickly. Having defended his home with more than a little noise, the local police call over after getting a report of a disturbance at the house. The Police officer at the door see inside to bodies lying on the ground, and just confirms with Wick that it is work and leaves him alone. Wick is out for vengeance now so he digs up the tools of his trade – from the floor of the basement. Kolstad tries to give us something different. Wick was no ordinary mob- enforcer he was one of the best hit-men in the business and the thug who attacked his house is the son of one of Wick’s former employers. Wick announces his intention to get revenge against his former employer, who although respecting Wick is forced to put a price on his head to defend his son. As Wick gets back in to the groove we see that there is a certain guild of assassins with Wick quickly making contact with old fellow assassins to determine the game ahead. He bases himself in a down-town hotel which is actually a “neutral ground” for people in his business. All expenses by the way are paid for by gold coins – everything from clean-up crews to hotel bills. Viggo knows what’s coming for his son and explains that Wick is not the Bogeyman, he’s the guy you call to kill the bogeyman. The supporting cast is good, with people like John Leguizamo (Moulin Rouge, 2001) as the garage owner who recognises Wick’s stolen car and refuses to have it in his Chop-shop and Ian Mc Shane (The Pillars of The Earth, 2010) who plays the hotel owner, keeping the peace among the underworld figures assembled. This movie involves a body count, with the usual vengeance plotline, however it is done in a fairly original manner and is not as hammed as many others of this genre. It is a night-in modern day western for the boys. The plot is wafer thin, but manages to work. It could be a lot worse. 6/10

The Guest

Directed by Adam Wingard (V/H/S/, 2012) and written by Simon Barrett (also V/H/S), the production stars Dan Stevens (Downton Abbey, 2012) as a soldier returned from “The war”, this one in Iraq. The film opens with a young man, David, jogging in to town with a full pack. We then see him calling to a house, it is the home of the Paterson family. He is met by the mother, Laura, (Sheila Kelly, Matchstick Men, 2003) who while initially sceptical of the stranger at her door, she allows him in and begins to relax, especially when he shows himself in a photograph the family have, he is posing for a group picture next to their dead son.

Over the course of the afternoon the mother invites David to stay with them for a few days. This of course is not greatly received by the rest of the family, most so with the father, Spencer, (Leland Orser, Taken, 2008), however once they start talking they get on well. Over the course of their talking David learns that Spencer has been passed over for a regional manager’s job. In the end they all get on and are glad to have somebody there who knew their dead son/brother. The Petersons have two other children, Anna (Maika Monroe, Labor Day, 2013) and Luke (Brendam Meyer, Mr Young, 2012). Anna is the self-assured 20 year old still living under her parents’ rule at home, balancing a waitressing job with a boyfriend, who as far as her parents know is history. Luke on the other hand is being bullied at school.

Pretty quickly, David begins to “help” the family. He sets up a situation with the boys who bullied Luke where he quickly inflicts sharp violent pain on them and subsequently advises Luke not to hold back when dealing with bullies. As the film goes on we also learn that the person who took Spencer’s job mysteriously commits suicide. Against this background Anna is suspicious and makes some phone calls only to learn that officially David was killed in a fire at a military hospital he was in. In the course of doing this David is red-flagged and a dark shadowy official is notified, he quickly pulls a team together and heads to Texas to find David.

Various bodies die in mysterious ways up to when the official, (Lance Reddick, Fringe 2008), who we learn is military police, raids the home. Once this happens the body count multiplies.

It turns out David was the subject of failed medical experiments, in short David will do anything to protect the family from danger or difficulty, this is his mission. At once both charming and polite while also a cold killer when his mission mode “kicks-in”

I’m not sure if this is one of the worst movies I ever saw or one of the smartest, I’m tending to the latter. The film overall has the feel of an eighties thriller even down to camera styles and soundtrack. Not only is the soundtrack a very eighties style the recording is also of the time with the soundrack abruptly breaking as a scene changes. As we prepare for the denouement we even get, wait for it; smoke.   In a number of places the movie tends to play to stereo-type but always manages to rescue itself from becoming a train-wreck. One of the reasons for this is Dan Stevens himself – his face is pure rubber. He has a stare which could burn through brick and a facial range which many actors would envy.

It is a subtly stylised movie which could have easily have failed but for some very tight direction and of course for Stevens’ own acting ability.

Get the DVD or stream it, you should enjoy it – 3.5/5, 7/10

Short Term 12

At first glance one might be tempted to write off the movie as potentially just another case of teen hardship and angst as they are confined to a place the y do not want to be in and watched over by social workers who are little more than prison guards, but if you did you would be wrong. Written and directed by Destin Daniel Cretton, this is only his second directorial feature (the first being I Am Not a Hipster, 2012), but it certainly benefits from being previously a short story which he filmed in 2008.

What we have are a number of carers or social workers including one new to the short-term facility, who to be brutally honest are not much older that the teens in their care. The stars of the show are Grace (Brie Larson, Don Jon, 2013) and her fellow carer/boyfriend Mason (John Gallagher Jr. Jonah Hex, 2010). Her introduction to the kids comes in the shape of Sammy on one of his many attempts to run away (Alex Calloway, 50 Kisses, 2014). This is an example of the stress children and adults are under, however there is one kid, Marcus (Keith Stanfield, Selma, 2014) who is now coming to an age where he will need to leave the system he has been in for so long, he has anger issues and you can’t really blame him. There are also a number of other kids with their various issues which challenge the staff physically and emotionally. The relationship is supportive and caring from the adults, it is a refuge not a prison.

Even with this we see how the work influences the counsellors, the older members of the team have come to terms with many of the pressures of the job, while the newer, younger counsellors come to terms with their charges and how to deal with them. This is not a TV movie where the kids’ lives are transformed in to a world of happiness. No, there are issues, some cannot mix, some won’t; some are leaving but are not ready, others might be. This story is told through the kids in the facility but it is as much about the carers and how they grow into the role; how it shapes them. Although the centre is essentially the centre of all their lives, we do get glimpses of the Grace’s and Mason’s lives at home, they live together. We learn their own histories and see the motivators that brought them to where they are today and which will drive them to make the decisions they need to make, especially after Grace’s unplanned pregnancy

The ground covered by Short Term 12 is well travelled and could have been a lot less effective except for the sharp script, snappy edits and Cretton’s ability no know just…well actually his ability to do his job well. He gives us characters we can engage with, who we want good things for. This is an engaging and entertaining offering well worth the time. Each of the stories, whether of the carers, the kids under care or even all of them, has some sort of a climax, maybe not a clean ending but a climax.

Beasts of the Southern Wild

I had to stop and think about this one; not so much as to the quality of the film; it is excellent, but rather its nature. I’ve come to the conclusion that this is a movie for its own sake. BSW (for obvious reasons) is the story of life in the Bathtub as told through the experiences of a six your old girl called Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis, Annie 2014). Drawing its inspiration from her play “Juicy and Delicious”, Lucy Alibar co-wrote the movie with director Benh Zeitlin. This is Benh’s first feature length movie, and it does not show.

On one level BSW allows us to experience life through Hushpuppy’s eyes but on another level it also show the complex relationship between her and her hard drinking, independent father. By extension we also get to witness the lives, interactions and even society of those who live in the Bathtub. The Bathtub is an area of forgotten and neglected swampy, bayou, or at least it was. The locals are under orders to remove themselves. There are no big houses or estates here, this is the land of the dispossessed, what homes are here are those cobbled together by their inhabitants.

The people are proudly independent of the city. Indeed the sense of independence and social isolation is reflected in the child’s own living arrangements. She lives with her father, Wink (Dwight Henry, 12 Years A Slave) however they live in two separate “buildings” she in the shack on stilts and he in the wreck of a bus. The whole community is somewhat similar, even down to her education. The community here are essentially Cajun hippies, but that does not do them justice.

The background and cinematography is excellent and indeed just as the characters endear us to them, so too does the camerawork to the place and time, we get to experience some of what it is like to live there and experience some of the hardships. Life is not perfect for them. Pressure is on to remove them from the area and this looms large in the background. There is drama in the relationship between Hushpuppy and Wink and the others living there.

When we see the storm strike there is a very tangible sense of dread and foreboding, this continues to dread and nervousness during the storm to be followed by a certain sense of relief. The people of the bathtub are still alive. Wink in his makeshift boat/raft visits round his neighbours as he does they slowly come round or meet him. There is no “woe am I” from the community, this is life. This is what these people signed-up for.

One cannot help but wonder if the real message of the film is that we can be happy with nothing except our friends and neighbours around us and the most basic of shelter and food. Indeed the feeding regime differs little between human and alligator, chicken carcass or fresh fish.

Not overly burdened by script but beautifully shaped and presented. This is certainly worth a couple of hours of your time, time you will not miss. The plot is simply life and how we deal with what we have in life.

American Sniper

It took me a little while to get in to this film and indeed even at the end I was trying to rate it, my initial score now seems harsh after some time to digest the film. Having read some of what has been written about the movie I was interested to see what it would come out like.   What I got was in some way a movie which is very different from much of what Clint Eastwood has produced previously, while at the same time very much the same. The cinema style is different , the wide airy shots are replaced by close-up almost claustrophobic scenes, smooth flowing scenes are replaced by the ragged, clipped fight scenes and tension . There is some of this also to be seen in his earlier work Letters From Iwo Jima (2006) with its own stylization and the telling of the story trough the person of   and his men even down to their dysentery.

Whatever of the style, the sense of detail is still there, we see this from the start. While competing in a local rodeo event he hurts is hand and in the shots that follow we see him use an ice bag. Seeing this I wondered if it would have an impact of the story; no, it was just how Eastwood details a film. The initial story-line may seem different from much of what else Eastwood has done, but at closer inspection it is much in line with previous efforts.

We are told a story about a young man who has a gift, a gift which he knows comes with responsibility and must be controlled. The film is based on the book by Chris Kyle and co-written by Scott McEwen and James Defelice, with Jason Hall writing the screenplay. Bradley Cooper (Silver Linings Playbook, 2012), play the part of Chris Kyle. WE quickly learn that Chris was brought-up with a string sense of justice and the need to protect the weak “the sheep” from the “wolves”. After floating about as a “cowboy” in his native Texas he realises there is something more to life and he want to do something with his life so after seeing the aftermath of a terrorist attack on the news he decides to sign-up. Joining the Navy SEALs he discovers and develops his skill as a sniper.

From the start of his mission we see a man willing to use the great power he has to kill, but only if he has to. Will he shoot a child or mother? What is their risk. Not long after deploying we learn that there is an Iraqi sniper, Mustafa (Samy Sheik, Lone Survivor, 2013) a Jordanian mercenary fighter who is killing US troops and it soon becomes a recurring theme of his time in Iraq, the hunt for his nemesis. Cooper’s character is haunted by the need to do something, to contribute, this is a driver which we see he takes home with him and it is on his return from his first tour that he meets Taya (Sienna Miller, Foxcatcher 2014) with whom he quickly develops a relationship and marries.

As the movie progresses through his tours we begin to see the personal effect on him and the troops around him. Returning to his second tour, he meets his brother, Jeff also deployed. Jeff is a shadow of his former self, clearly shaken to the core by what he has witnessed. There is a certain shock to Kyle in this. As the years progress and we see his life punctuated by tours of duty and spells home the pressures mount. He is a person still struggling. He is driven by an absolute certainty and any diminishing of this certainty will cause a person to question themselves, what they are doing and ultimate lose their focus and concentration, ultimately paying the price for such with their lives. He feels comfortable back “in country”, there is a certainty to what he is doing.

While home he cannot shake the effects of Iraq. Cars are watched in case they are following him. The attitudes of people back home acting as if nothing is happening all weigh on him. On his last tour he recognises the self-doubt and exhaustion he has seen in others, in himself; it is time to get out. When he eventually leaves we see how he has difficulty adapting back to civilian life until he finds his calling helping other returned veterans, those with physical and mental injuries arising out of their time in Iraq. Indeed this is the last thing we see of him is preparing for another day’s journey, this time with another veteran, presumably Eddie Ray Roth . The last scene being his funeral scenes, returning his body home.

This is very much in the tradition of Eastwood’s movies; we see a young talented individual lost but with a gift that can allow them to find meaning and direction in the world. As with many gifts there is a price to pay, often a deep personal one.

This as it turns out is an excellent movie and the first time I have been able to watch Bradley Cooper in a role without wanting to leave the movie early. You will either love or have this movie. Is it the 4 or 5 star production many say it is, I am not sure. It is certainly a 3star and possible a 4 grade movie. Watch it, it is a cut above the rest and really focuses on the personal aspects of the conflict.