Avengers: Age of Ultron Movie Review 0 52

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Note: This reviews contains some spoilers for the previous Marvel movies but no spoilers for Age of Ultron.

It’s hard to believe that it was only as recently as 2008 that were first invited into the Marvel Cinematic Universe on the big-screen. Iron Man and nine other movies later and here we are at the second big team up movie for our eclectic group of human and not-so-human heroes. They say that sequels should try to do everything bigger and better or else, what’s the point? Well Age of Ultron is certainly the former but it will depend solely on what you want out of a superhero blockbuster whether you think it achieves the latter.

The last time we saw The Avengers teaming up together it was to save New York (and in Hollywood blockbuster terms, by extension that means the world) from Thor’s mischievous brother Loki and his army of aliens. This time the stakes are inevitably even higher, with the world coming under threat from a previously dormant and thought-peaceful artificial intelligence program known as Ultron who is awoken by Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) in a misguided attempt to protect the world. It’s then up to Iron Man, Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) and the rest of The Avengers to team up once more and stop Ultron from exacting his terrible plans.

The brilliance of the first Avengers film was how it paid off all the build-up of introductions and explorations of the individual characters in single movies, making it truly mean something when we finally saw them battling enemies together. Age of Ultron doesn’t quite have that, and plays more like another monumentally bombastic sequel more than a culmination of what’s preceded it. But while it may not be as burdened with glorious purpose, to quote a certain God of Mischief, it’s a heck of a lot of fun.

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It’s directed with an energetic, visual inventive bravura by the one and only Joss Whedon who, while this is certainly a much darker outing for the team, still brings that same lightness of touch in the sense of humour and interplay between the characters, whether it’s the gang trying but sublimely failing to lift Thor’s hammer at the newly appointed Avengers home base (formerly Stark Tower) or during one of the film’s many city-wide action set-pieces that give the Man of Steel finale battle a run for its money in terms of sheer on-screen destruction.

One of the things Age of Ultron does very well is how it uses the previous mythology and personal quandaries of the characters to further the plot, as well as giving time for certain “lesser” characters to feel like they are a definitive, indispensable part of the team (namely Hawkeye). The entire plot is quite literally jumpstarted by Stark’s views about the direction the world should take in terms of protecting itself from new galactic threats, planting the seeds of discord particularly between Stark and Chris Evans’ Steve Rogers which will no doubt have an impact on the forthcoming Captain America: Civil War and beyond. There’s also a very clever scene that, not to give too much away, involves the team delving back into their past in their minds that helps deepen their motivations and explain why they are the way they are.

While it’s mostly the same faces brought back for a bigger, globetrotting adventure, there are some new cast members to help freshen things up. Firstly there’s James Spader who menacingly provides the voice for the formidable Ultron who really makes sure we sit up and pay attention to whatever he’s saying. At the same time, one of the biggest pleasant surprises of the film is just how funny he is, spouting sarcastic putdowns as much as he threatens everyone with his cold, calculated plan for humanity’s extinction. He is truly a worthy foe for The Avengers.

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The other big additions are Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen (pictured above), playing wonder twins Pietro and Wanda Maximoff AKA Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch whose powers of super speed and telekinetic/energy manipulation powers, respectively – “He’s fast and she’s weird,” as Cobie Smulders’ Agent Maria Hill quips – provide some unique and beguiling visuals to counterpoint the ones we already know and love. The film also ties them into the mythology in a way that, without giving too much away, comes back around to Stark’s questionable past behaviour. There’s also another big new addition that will impact on the films to come but I won’t go into that here for spoiler avoidance purposes.

There’s a lot going on in Avengers: Age of Ultron, probably more than most blockbusters in recent memory and Whedon does an impressive job of weaving the wildly differing tapestry of characters and plot threads together across its fairly hefty 141 minute runtime, one that pays dividends to those who have stuck with the Marvel saga thus far. It’s not quite as streamlined as the last one or many of the individual movies, taking a more scattershot approach, but nonetheless this darker, more menacing and visually spectacular sequel delivers the goods when it comes to the all-important action sequences – a couple in particular are fan joy personified – as well as the character interactions in the various calms before the storms. It’s pure, unadulterated mega blockbuster fun with a healthy dose of self-awareness about its own ridiculousness and plenty of heart and soul.

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I’m a freelance film reviewer and blogger with over 10 years of experience writing for various different reputable online and print publications. In addition to my running, editing and writing for Thoughts On Film, I am also the film critic for The National, the newspaper that supports an independent Scotland, covering the weekly film releases, film festivals and film-related features.

I have a passion for all types of cinema, and have a particular love for foreign language film, especially South Korean and Japanese cinema. Favourite films include The Big Lebowski, Pulp Fiction and 2001: A Space Odyssey.

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Movie Review: Home Again 0 420

This review was previously published at The National.

Despite an obviously talented leading lady in Reese Witherspoon and a family pedigree behind the camera in making this sort of rom-com flutter sweetly off the screen, Home Again struggles to finds its way out of cloying cliché and narrative contrivance.

This is the directorial debut of Hallie Myers-Shyer, daughter of genre stalwart Nancy Meyers (The Holiday, What Women Want). It focuses on the life of Alice Kinney (Witherspoon), a single mum who has just turned 40 and tries her best to raise her two daughters Isabel (Lola Flanery) and Rosie (Eden Grace Redfield) in Los Angeles with her job as an interior decorator.

Freshly separated from her British music mogul husband Austen (Michael Sheen), she embarks on a drunken birthday night celebration that leads to her meeting a trio of 20-something lads – Harry (Pico Alexander), George (Jon Rudnitsky) and Teddy (Nat Wolff) – who are trying their best to break into the Hollywood movie business.

The young men improbably end up staying in Alice’s guest house while they work on finishing the script for their first film. Before long they become an integral part of her life, from Alice embarking on a romantic relationship with Harry to George helping out Isabel with her school play. To quote the title of the director’s mother’s 2009 film – it’s complicated.

Except the film mistakes the kind of enjoyably frothy complexity exemplified by the best of the genre for skin-clawing convolution that renders much of the romantic and comedically-tinged drama of Alice’s life lacking in authenticity. Not that it needs the ring of truth that comes with, say, a Ken Loach picture but you need to be able to invest and believe in these characters’ lives as presented.

The approach to gender and generational relationships is simplistic which, of course, is nothing new to a genre that, at least in its Hollywoodized state, so often throws up films meant to be taken as easy-going fluff. But it’s particularly frustrating here when it squanders the potential thrown up with the initial concept of a woman trying to find herself again once she’s out of a stale relationship by entering into one with a much younger man.

It strangely seems far more interested in the plight of the three young men working as three cogs of one creative machine – director/producer, writer and actor – to get ahead in the movie business.  But even then it smacks of implausibility, like a cheap rom-com version of the bromance found in Entourage but without any of the snarky wit or Hollywood satire. Despite decent chemistry between a likeable assembled cast, Home Again is a tough pill to swallow as it rings false through and through.

3.5 out of 10

Movie Review: Goodbye Christopher Robin 0 452

This review was previously published at The National.

The world of celebrated children’s author A. A. Milne and the creation of his beloved Winnie the Pooh stories are chronicled in this frightfully polite biopic from director Simon Curtis (My Week with Marilyn) that flirts with dipping its toes into darker waters but steadfastly clings to safe tropes and always with its top button firmly fastened.

We start off in 1941 where we find an ageing Milne (Domhnall Gleeson in questionable make-up and greyed hair) and his wife Daphne (Margot Robbie) living on their secluded East Sussex farm. They receive a telegram informing them that their son, C.R. Milne, is missing presumed dead after heading off to fight in World War Two.

We then jump back in time to Milne on the front lines of the First World War. He returns from the fighting a changed man; suffering from PTSD (popped balloons evoking sudden gunfire et al.), becoming increasingly sick of just making people laugh with his West End plays and the general hustle-bustle that comes with big city life.

He convinces his reluctant wife to move to the country for some peace and quiet and where his infant son, Christopher Robin (played by Will Tilston at the younger age, Alex Lawther as he gets older), can go on the childhood adventures he deserves with the support of loving nanny Olive (Kelly Macdonald).

Settling into the kind of serene life he craves, he is inspired to create Winnie the Pooh and the rest of his soon-to-be-beloved friends inspired by the stuffed animals with which his young son has become so enamoured. Unfortunately for Christopher – referred to by everyone as “Billy Moon” – his father uses his real name in the stories, turning him into one of the most famous boys in the nation.

Despite the obvious attraction of it exploring the world famous Pooh stories, it’s a film much more interested in the effect it has on a fractured family clinging on to peacefulness, not least the unwanted attention thrust upon a young boy who simply isn’t equipped to handle it and how his parents carry on oblivious.

If anything it takes a curiously bleak outlook on what these stories mean to the world once they’ve been put out there, conveying a somewhat confusing message for a film that ultimately wants us to celebrate these stories as immortally cherished tales; that the Winnie the Pooh embraced immediately by the public and has now stood the test of time for almost a century is in some way missing the point of what it truly means to the author and a son who, inadvertently or not, was used as a tool of innocence to sell the idea of an idyllic childhood in Milne’s Hundred Acre Wood.

It’s bolstered by almost uniformly moving performances; Gleeson plays Milne with a kind of damaged empathy that makes you feel like you get to know the author beyond the public persona. Macdonald is oftentimes heart-breaking as Christopher’s devoted caregiver and Tilston walks away with the film as the adorably sweet-natured young Christopher. It’s only with Robbie that the film makes a misstep; she’s miscast as Milne’s wife and never stepping out of the shadow of cold motherly cliché.

In spite of its darker leanings, the film remains too buttoned up to properly wrestle with those themes in any sort of lasting way, far too polite to ever dive head first into the murky waters into which the drama intermittently peers.

Wrapped in Ben Smithard’s handsomely old-fashioned cinematography and soaked in Carter Burwell’s perpetually swelling score, it’s an aesthetically and emotionally appealing but nevertheless fairly vanilla period biopic best suited to being enjoyed on a rainy Sunday afternoon with tea and biscuits.

6.5 out of 10