Avengers: Age of Ultron

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Joss Whedon’s second Avengers movie may be the most ambitious thus far committed to film. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it succeeds in some aspects of its ambition while others are left undernourished. On the negative side, the sheer number of characters both familiar –Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.), Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johannson), Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie), James Rhodes (Don Cheadle), et al – and new – Pietro and Wanda Maximoff (Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olson), Ultron (James Spader) among others – results in a jumble of motivations, back stories, hallucinations, flashbacks and abilities, and few characters get time or space for development. It also lacks the strong sense of humour of The Avengers, as the bickering between our heroes is much reduced now that they are friends. It may not reach the super seriousness of DC’s superhero antics, but Age of Ultron is the most po-faced entry thus far in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The film is explicitly not self-contained, with multiple references to other parts of the MCU past, present and future, and this sometimes makes the film unfocused. Whedon has publicly spoken of his creative struggles with Marvel, which perhaps explains why the film is sometimes uneven and discordant.

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When Avengers: Age of Ultron does succeed, however, it does so with verve and aplomb, Whedon demonstrating that he has the nous to manage a behemoth of this scale. There are effective character moments such as touching interactions between Romanoff and Banner as well as the Maximoffs, and the film’s biggest surprise is domestic rather than spectacular. The range of superpowers allows for varied set pieces, especially the opening action sequence when he delivers one of his trademark long takes showcasing the various abilities of the Avengers. As the ranks swell yet more powers join the mix, but Whedon, along with DOP Ben Davis and editors Jeffrey Ford and Lisa Lassek, keeps the action coherent, drawing the viewer into the mayhem where we experience both the Avengers’ exhilaration and their fear. Fear is key to this film, as it explores the dichotomy between fear and faith. Both of which fuel the intimate and the epic in this superpowered slobberknocker. The inevitable question is where can the MCU go from here, but the franchise has consistently risen to the challenge of outdoing previous spectacles, and this reviewer at least is confident that future films will continue this trend.

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Child 44

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Child 44 first caught my attention from the side of a bus with the large names and faces of its cast, and the BBFC consumer advice piqued my interest further: “Contains strong violence, sex, strong language, child murder theme”. Being a sick bastard, this looked right up my street. The trailer increased but also slightly marred my keenness for two reasons. Firstly the faux-Russian accents, completely unnecessary in a film set in a non-English speaking country but with only non-English speaking characters. If it is really too much hassle to have Russian dialogue and English subtitles, then have these fine actors speak with English accents, as in the similarly Russian-set Enemy at the Gates. The second factor that gave me pause were the talent behind the film, as director Daniel Espinosa and DOP Oliver Wood previously collaborated on the infuriating Safe House.

Despite these reservations, Child 44 does live up to the promise of its initial publicity. I quickly got used to the accents and Espinosa and Wood largely avoid the excessive shaky cam that robbed Safe House of any tension. The unsteady aesthetic does appear, but it is used judiciously in action sequences, creating a sense of disorientation for the viewer as the characters are plunged into danger. Beyond these sequences, a mood of grim oppression pervades the film, as military police officer Leo Demidov (Tom Hardy) investigates traitors against the Soviet Union and confronts his superiors over a murder case that cannot officially be murder, because “There is no crime in paradise”.

tom hardy and gary oldman CHILD44Strikingly, the murder investigation is almost secondary, pursued by Leo along with his wife Raisa (Noomi Rapace) and General Mikhail Nesterov (Gary Oldman) despite opposition and indeed persecution from fellow officers Vasili (Joel Kinnaman) and Major Kuzmin (Vincent Cassel). Espinosa and screenwriter Richard Price (adapting the novel by Tom Rob Smith) craft a detailed and compelling vision of life under an oppressive regime, where the only justice and order are those approved the state. Key to this milieu is the train, which serves as a visual metaphor for the implacable state machinery and is also key to the murder case. Hope and redemption are in short supply in Child 44, making it a largely uncomfortable watch but, if you have tolerance for bleak grimness, it is still a rewarding one.

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A Little Chaos

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A Little Chaos is an acutely observed and exquisitely judged costume drama, that takes time and care to create the extravagance of France in 1682 while also critiquing the absurdities of its rigid class structure. Co-writer and director Alan Rickman also plays the supporting role as King Louis XIV, while the central performance comes from Kate Winslet as Sabine De Barra, a landscape gardener selected by André Le Notre (Matthias Schoenaerts) to contribute a little chaos to the construction of the new gardens at Versailles. Winslet is on typically fine form, conveying Sabine’s resolve as well as her evident suffering. Careful use of flashbacks hint at Sabine’s past, the audience learning more as André does. André has his own problems, both with his loveless marriage and with the absurd prospect of creating the gardens in the first place. Yet while the film highlights this absurdity and the general nonsense of the French court’s conventions, it never feels mean-spirited or cruel. The tone is more affectionate than acerbic, allowing the viewer to feel a part of the world on screen rather than taking a cynical distance. The film’s triumph is its placement, using the development of the gardens at Versailles as a backdrop for dramas both personal and political. While a costume drama about landscape gardening in 17th century France may not sound like the most dramatic material, the film is both charming and engaging, and in places quite moving. At times ornate, at others (literally) rough and muddy, this is a garden well worth strolling through.

Cinderella

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A well-known story poses the challenge of how to tell it in a way that is fresh and engaging. The further challenge of a fairy tale is how to make it relevant. Director Kenneth Branagh and screenwriter Chris Weitz complete these challenges admirably with Cinderella, an unapologetically traditional and gloriously romantic reinvention of the classic tale that pays homage to Disney’s animated feature while also creating an identity all of its own. The essential elements of the story are present: the cruel stepmother and stepsisters, the fairy godmother and pumpkin coach, the ball and the glass slippers, as are the more specifically Disney elements including Cinderella’s (Lily James) animal friends and the famous “Bibbity-bobbity-boo”, brought to charming life by the Fairy Godmother (Helena Bonham-Carter). Branagh handles these elements brilliantly, especially the magical transformation scene and the glorious ball sequence. Where this live action version really shines though, is in its expansion of the story. Cinderella’s stepsisters Anastasia (Holliday Grainger) and Drisella (Sophie McShera) are not ugly but vain, stupid and spiteful, while her stepmother (Cate Blanchett) is beautifully nuanced – not simply cruel but bitter and more than a little desperate. Similarly, Prince Kit (Richard Madden) and his royal contemporaries are far more than the ciphers one might expect, concerned with tensions between tradition and progressiveness as well as their own political agendas. The Prince and Cinderella share far more than simply seeing each other at the ball, drawing closer as they discover they have a surprising amount in common. Meanwhile, the Grand Duke (Stellan Skarsgård) emerges as more of a villain than the Stepmother, who is almost as much a victim as Cinderella. Nor is Cinderella passive and simpering, guided as she is by the principles of courage and kindness. Even at her lowest ebb, she offers forgiveness and generosity at every turn and, similarly, the film’s sweeping joy is its own form of magic, enrapturing the viewer with gorgeous production design, ravishing costumes, a splendid score and fluid editing and cinematography. Only the stoniest of hearts could fail to be bewitched by Cinderella, a reminder of the romance and hope that fairy tales and movies alike can inspire.

Insurgent

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Insurgent posed high expectations because I enjoyed Divergent very much, finding the dystopia as metaphor for teenage isolation compelling and effective. Unfortunately, Insurgent falls apart in its expansion of the central premise into a wider society facing a growing insurrection. Inevitable comparisons with The Hunger Games highlight the problems with the Divergent series. In The Hunger Games, the titular games are only a part of the wider oppressive society, and through them the narrative moves into a broader tale of rebellion. In the Divergent series, the conceit of a faction society based on personality types (Dauntless, Erudite, Candour, Amity, Abnegation) sustains a single film that is concerned with one young woman finding her place in the world, but proves too flimsy for a second film with a broader tale of rebellion. Shailene Woodley remains a very engaging screen presence and the presence of Kate Winslet, Naomi Watts and Octavia Spencer in non-gender specific roles, make the film interesting from a gender perspective. But in spite of some competent action sequences, Insurgent lacks enough dramatic material to sustain its running length.

Big Hero 6

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Due to various pressures, my recent posting has not been as frequent as it was previously, for which I apologise to anyone who noticed. But that doesn’t mean I’ve been shirking in my viewing, so here is my review of Disney’s winner of the Best Animated Feature Oscar, Big Hero 6. I went into Big Hero 6 with both high expectations and trepidation. Any film that receives high praise from critics, audiences and the Academy has a lot to live up to, and I was sceptical that BH6 would satisfy me. I am delighted to report that not only did the film succeed in living up to expectations but it surpassed them, providing laughs, thrills, lumps in the throat and punch-the-air delight in equal measure. Boasting some dazzling animation and the most adorable movie robot since Wall-E, Big Hero 6 demonstrates once again that Disney Animation knows its stuff and continues to push the envelope it helped develop many years ago. 2015 is proving to be the Year of the Robot, with Big Hero 6 joining Chappie and Ex Machina, while Avengers: Age of Ultron and Terminator Genesys are forthcoming. Thus far, the robots are reigning rather respectably.

Still Alice

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It is somewhat surprising that the only awards Still Alice has attracted are for Best Actress. Julianne Moore won the Golden Globe, the BAFTA, the Screen Actors Guild and her long-overdue Oscar for her performance as Dr Alice Howland, a linguistics professor who develops Early-onset Alzheimer’s Disease. Moore’s awards are well-deserved, but it is a disservice to the film to only credit her, as Still Alice is a deeply moving portrayal of a life ravaged by disease. Nominations for Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography, Editing and even Directing or Picture would not have been amiss. Indeed, in many ways it is more impressive than a more-lauded film (at least in terms of nominations) of the recent awards season, The Theory of Everything.

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Cynically, one could argue that The Theory of Everything attracted greater attention because it focuses on a man dealing with a debilitating condition rather than a woman. Equally cynically although less accusingly, perhaps The Theory of Everything got more attention because its subject is a real person, whereas Still Alice is a fictional story adapted from the novel by Lisa Genova. Regardless of the reasons of the award-givers (which need to be considered in context), for my money Still Alice avoids the problems that I identified in The Theory of Everything. Not least among these is the attention to academia, as the scientific discoveries of Stephen Hawking are little more than background in The Theory of Everything. In Still Alice, the academic environment adds to the sense of loss, as Alice’s deteriorating mind is something she previously developed and which has helped to define her. What do we become when we lose crucial parts of our identity? This is one of the questions that Still Alice explores in detail.

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What is most impressive about the film is writer-directors Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland cinematic rendering of the protagonist’s experience. Early in the film, there is a wonderful sequence where Alice goes running and suddenly becomes disorientated. The image loses focus, expressing her confusion and fear, while the camera pans around her so that we also feel disorientated. Later, Alice becomes lost in her own home, the camera remaining with her as she searches in vain for the bathroom she not only knows must be there, but that she knows she should remember. Sequences like this run the risk of being simplistic or even cruel, but Glatzer and Westmoreland avoid this pitfall by never slipping into mawkishness. Nor are there moments of histrionic melodrama, as restraint is a great strength throughout the film. It is telling that the most moving scene (for me at least) is not one of the more flashy sequences but when Alice delivers a speech to an Alzheimer’s support organisation. For much of this scene, the camera rests on her face, Alice’s brittle voice simultaneously expressing her fear and her resolve. This expression continues throughout the film, ensuring that we are not alienated from Alice’s struggle. The film is a bold and affecting portrayal of a life falling apart, all the more heartbreaking because we are there every step of the way.

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