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Monday, 27 April 2015

Avengers: Age Of Ultron

(M) ★★★★

Director: Joss Whedon.

Cast: Robert Downey Jr, Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson, Mark Ruffalo, Jeremy Renner, James Spader, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Elizabeth Olsen, Paul Bettany.

Super-awesome friends fistbump!
THE Marvel Cinematic Universe has come a long way since Robert Downey Jr first strapped on the Iron Man suit in 2008.

Through an interweaving web of 10 films we've seen Norse gods, super-soldiers, alien attacks, a mono-syllabic tree and a gun-toting raccoon, with the high watermark being 2012's The Avengers, which brought most of these things together for the third-biggest grossing film of all time.

It was the culmination of what is now called a "mega-franchise" - something comic book rivals DC are desperately and hurriedly trying to mimic - but it set the bar impossibly high for every MCU film that followed.

It's a bar that the 11th film, Avengers: Age Of Ultron, can't quite reach, but that doesn't stop it from being an action-packed rollercoaster punctuated by some cool character moments and ruled by a great villain.

After some individual adventures (Iron Man 3, Captain America 2 and Thor 2), the Avengers re-assemble to track down Loki's sceptre - a left-over MacGuffin from their first team-up.

But Iron Man longs for a time when he doesn't have to strap on his battle armour, so he and Bruce Banner (Ruffalo) set about using the staff to create a super-smart super-suit to protect the entire world from intergalactic threats.

The result is Ultron (Spader), a robot who sees the world's biggest threat as coming not from space, but from humanity itself.

Whedon's wit and way with words, such a highlight in The Avengers, are back in full force for Age Of Ultron and are particularly evident in the titular robot, where Spader's delicious delivery (and some motion-capture wizardry) help create an android with attitude that's unlike any we've seen before.

The character of Ultron also sets up some interesting themes about gods and evolution - there's some intriguing science-meets-spirituality ideas at play here, but nothing too heavy as Whedon's humour ensures a nice mix of levity and gravity.

In fact it's the script's talky moments that are the real highlight, perhaps more so than the bash-and-crash spectacle. Most notable is a scene where the Avengers just hang out and play a party game of "Try to Lift Thor's Hammer" - it's this kind of stuff that sticks in the memory more than most of the action.

Not that the action is bad though. There is a tendency for it to whiz by in too-quick edits and blurs of CG imagery, but some parts are outstanding, such as a single-take opening shot and the much-previewed Hulk vs Iron Man showdown.

Another highlight, especially for the fans, is the introduction of new characters. We get the super-powered Maximoff twins (Taylor-Johnson and Olsen), the aforementioned Ultron, and The Vision (Bettany), with the latter being a fascinating prospect for future films. There are also a few "hey it's that guy" moments for some returning characters.

Where the film struggles is juggling such a big cast evenly. It seemed a Herculean task in The Avengers with six characters (one that Whedon pulled off amazingly well) but here we're up to at least 10 characters and it's near impossible to keep track of them when they split up for the final battle. They each get their moment to shine, but it's occasionally too many balls to juggle in the editing suite.

Even less successful is a seemingly out-of-nowhere romance between two characters, and a few strange plot points, including one which is best described as "Thor goes for a swim". These elements stick out as "huh?" moments but are not enough to drag the film down.

After all, this is a comic book movie, and there is a fair amount of comic book insanity and MacGuffin mumbo jumbo involving alien technology and "computer magic", so the best idea is to just strap in for the ride because it's a fun one, filled with plenty of laughs, great spectacle, and more cool characters than you can poke Loki's sceptre at.

Thursday, 16 April 2015

Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2

(PG) ★½

Director: Andy Fickman.

Cast: Kevin James, Neal McDonough, Raini Rodriguez, Eduardo Verastegui, Daniella Alonso.

Andre Rieu had let himself go.

THE fact this film exists is baffling.

Yes, the 2009 original made a surprising amount of money - about seven times its budget - but who was clamouring six years on to see the further adventures of this overly passionate and unfunnily disillusioned security guard?

In fact, who clamours to see anything starring Kevin James, an actor whose primary skills involve falling over and not being funny?

If you're thinking "I do!" then you're in luck, because Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2 is full of James falling over and not being funny.

James returns as the moustachioed mall cop, who was riding high on his segway at the end of the first film, having saved the day and got the girl.

At the start of the sequel, he's lost the girl and the glory of his heroism has faded.

But when he attends a security guard conference in Las Vegas, Blart stumbles upon a team of thieves stealing priceless artworks from one of the casinos and an opportunity to be a hero once more.

There are three, maybe four laughs across the 90 minutes of Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2, most of which are in the final half hour, so you could almost say the film gets up a head of steam in the home straight. Almost.

Conversely this leaves long stretches without much to chuckle about, and given that the film is supposed to be a comedy (because we're sure as hell not in it for the tantalisingly plot twists, superlative performances or thought-provoking subject matter) it's not unfair to call this a near-total failure.

As a result, when a joke actually lands successfully you get not so much a feeling of mirth, but of surprise.

In trying to find pluses for this film, aside from the three or four "LOLs" in the last half hour, the best that can be said is there's a fight sequence toward the end that's done pretty well and Raini Rodriguez is admirably plucky in her performance as Blart's daughter Maya.

Another plus is that it's better than some of the other titles in the Kevin James back catalogue, namely Grown Ups and Zookeeper, but that's like saying one bout of syphilis was better than another bout of syphilis - the fact remains you still had syphilis.

Friday, 10 April 2015

The Longest Ride

(M) ★★½

Director: George Tillman Jr.

Cast: Britt Robertson, Scott Eastwood, Alan Alda, Jack Huston, Oona Chaplin.

"You're laugh now, but seriously, I've seen the mosquitoes here carry away a small child."
WHEN the name "Nicholas Sparks" appears on a movie poster, you know what you're in for.

It's going to be a romance. It's going to feature bad dialogue being said by incredibly attractive people destined to fall for each other. Its themes will involve love enduring against the odds. And there will more than likely be a scene where the main characters kiss in either the rain or a lake. Or both.

The only question that remains is where on the Sparks adaptation scale the film sits. Is it up there with the so-so Nights In Rodanthe, or in the middle with the highly over-rated and morally bankrupt The Notebook, or is it somewhere down the bottom near the abysmal The Best Of Me?

The Longest Ride is probably in that middle range. It's certainly not as bad as The Best Of Me and it shares some similarities with The Notebook.

But in terms of quality, it's more like Safe Haven in reverse. Safe Haven starts well and wins you over before ruining everything with the dumbest final act twist ever committed to celluloid - The Longest Ride starts poorly but slowly grows on you somewhat as its two stories intertwine, with the affection you'll feel for the stronger story slowly bleeding into the lesser one.

That lesser story involves rodeo star Luke (Scott "Son Of Clint" Eastwood) falling for bookish art student Sophia (Robertson). He's recently back in the saddle after a serious injury so he can save the family ranch; she's leaving for New York in two months and doesn't have time for a rural romance.

But during their first date they cross paths with Ira Levinson (Alda), an old man who recollects his relationship with his wife Ruth.

The hokey start is hard to get past, despite the best efforts of Robertson and Eastwood. We get a heavy dose of rodeo, bootscooting, cowboy hats and that terrible plastic type of country music as Sophia and Luke make doe eyes at each other and fumble with small talk.

Even as their relationship blossoms it's still not compelling viewing. "Every girl wants a cowboy," intones one character, and even as the reality of that situation - they have absolutely nothing in common and want completely different things in life - sinks in and the problems arise, the storyline is, to quote Lisa Simpson, kind of "meh".

It's the relationship between Ira and Ruth that is the saving grace of the film. As it unwinds in the '40s and '50s, the emotion and drama in that story actually makes Sophia and Luke's tale become more interesting by association, as well as giving the movie a serious helping of heart.

Alda's presence adds gravitas, the film is beautifully shot, and Eastwood is probably destined for stardom, but that's not enough to truly redeem The Longest Ride, possibly because the moral within, while not as bad as The Notebook's, is not very good.

As much as the movie is trying to tell us that true love endures and that it can overcome pretty much anything, its ending inadvertently adds the tag "... if you've got lots of money".

What the hell kind of romantic message is that?

Friday, 3 April 2015

Fast & Furious 7

(M) ★★★

Director: James Wan.

Cast: Vin Diesel, Paul Walker, Jason Statham, Dwayne Johnson, Michelle Rodriguez, Jordana Brewster, Tyrese Gibson, Chris Bridges, Kurt Russell, Nathalie Emmanuel.

"But there's only six of us....?"

DESPITE what Vin Diesel thinks, Fast & Furious 7 is not going to win next year's Oscar for best film.

The fact that Diesel said such a thing in an interview is indicative of what this film means to him and his fellow cast and crew.

For them, this is more than just another instalment in the astoundingly popular series that began in 2001 as a movie based on an article about illegal street racing and somehow morphed into a high-octane heist-action franchise. This is their eulogy, farewell, and tribute to late co-star Paul Walker, who played the likeable hero Brian O'Conner in all-bar-one of the films and who died in a car crash mid-way through production of F&F7.

Walker's passing certainly haunts the movie. There will be a slightly morbid fascination for many, intrigued by how the franchise deals with his death. There is also the subconscious game of "Spot The Stand-In/CG Face" that you can't help but play from time to time.

All of this weighs heavily on the film, which stirs up the emotions a couple of times when Paul Walker's reality seeps into the Brian O'Conner's reality.

But no, sorry Mr Diesel, F&F7 is not going to win the best film Oscar.

However if there was an Academy Award for the film with the most preposterous, impossible, implausible, illogical and insane moments in it, then F&F7 would totally be in the running.

This time Toretto (Diesel) and his team are being hunted by Deckard Shaw (Statham, whose presence was teased at the end of F&F6), who is seeking revenge for what happened to his brother Owen (Luke Evans) in the previous film.

Meanwhile a shadowy government agent known as Mr Nobody (a scene-stealing Russell) offers Toretto and co the means to take out Shaw if they retrieve a kidnapped hacker (Emmanuel) from a group of terrorists.

The series has slowly evolved from its surprisingly humble beginnings into something equivalent to a nitrous-fuelled, roided-up motorised (read: American) version of the Bond franchise, with its exotic locales, insane villains, hot girls, covert operations, insane action sequences, and cool cars.

All of that is on show and, in typical franchise fashion, F&F7 attempts to up-the-ante on the previous films' stunts, such as the bank vault drag from #5 and the longest runway in the world in #6.

So here we get the utterly bonkers parachute drop seen in the trailer and a CG-heavy sequence involving a trio of Abu Dhabi skyscrapers, both of which have to be seen to be believed (or rather disbelieved because they defy physics, logic and reason).

This level of insanity is not an issue - this is what you sign up for when you purchase a ticket to a Fast & Furious movie.

What is an issue is the on-going soap opera elements - the amnesia, the various secrets - that just feel clunky and awkward as the script struggles to find anything close to character development amid the car crashes and explosions. There's also a near-death recovery in here that ranks as one of the dumbest ever committed to film, and the old "it's all about family" theme which has been a part of the last four films gets wheeled out again (although ironically the good guys are fighting a bad guy who is after revenge for what happened to his family).

But it's hard to write-off F&F7 because it does what it says on the box - big, dumb car-based action, although this time it's infused with some genuine heart as it pays its respects to Walker.

Be warned though. "Over-the-top" doesn't cut it as a descriptor for these movies any more - there needs to be an adjective for whatever is above "over-the-top", because that's what F&F7 is.