Review: Avengers: Age of Ultron

This post was originally written for York Student Cinema.

The long-awaited follow-up to 2012’s Avengers Assemble has finally arrived in the UK, a week before US release. Awkward press tours have been had, actor workout regimes have been discussed and premieres have been held. We finally get to find out the answer to the question hanging over its big, super-powered head: how can it possibly live up to its predecessor?

Age of Ultron kicks off with an impressive opening shot that sees the camera pan between the heroes as they embark on a mission to take out the last HYDRA base. The action is spotted with Joss Whedon’s trademark humour, bringing out the increased sense of unity and camaraderie in the team since we last saw them. Of course, this is not to last. Tony Stark and Bruce Banner (Science Bros!) team up to try and create a peace-keeping force to keep Earth protected. It works, Earth is safe, the Avengers disband and Stark and Banner settle down to binge-watch Mythbusters on Netflix. Except that last part doesn’t happen and the scientists instead end up birthing a disturbed, psychopathic AI who will stop at nothing to obtain world peace by bringing about human extinction.

It’s impossible to talk about Age of Ultron without comparing it to its forerunner. This film is bigger than the first Avengers film, and it fits an insane amount of plot, world-building and character development into its 141 minutes. One suspects that some hard decisions had to be made over cuts, and certain strands would have made more sense had they had more time to breathe. But the sheer scale and ambition of the film is tempered by the humour and the small human moments that Whedon is adored for. And while there is a temptation in today’s blockbusters to ‘go big’ and throw money at massive city-felling CGI battles (here’s looking at you, Man of Steel), there’s a concerted effort here to show the heroes going out of their way to protect civilians. It’s nice.

Having had more than our fill of the tentpole characters, happily the focus is often drawn towards Black Widow, The Hulk and Hawkeye. Scarlett Johansson and Mark Ruffalo are both solid, building on their chemistry from the first film as their superheroic counterparts strike up an unlikely relationship. Hawkeye, Marvel’s most neglected Avenger, gets to stretch beyond his previous role as a convenient plot device. Jeremy Renner spent much of his screen time in Avengers Assemble possessed, and now we finally get to see more of his backstory (whether that’s a good thing or not is up for debate).

Whedon has admirably tried to address the gender balance in Ultron by introducing the powerful Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olson) alongside her lightning-fast brother Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). Their powers make for a visually interesting contrast to the standard ‘strong guy’ powers of the other leads. The sketchily outlined abilities of Scarlet Witch include bringing trippy hallucinations out of other characters, which opens an interesting little window into the psyches of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes.

An effort has also been made to tackle Marvel’s villain problem. With the exception of Loki, the studio has turned out a series of increasingly underwhelming baddies; a massive failure when villains are generally considered to be one of the most memorable parts of any great comic book film (see: The Dark Knight’s Joker, X-Men’s Magneto). AI Ultron is refreshing- delightfully unhinged, but with a believable origin story and clear motivations. He has inherited some of the wit of Stark, and is imbued with a deep voice that can fluctuate between comedy and malice, courtesy of James Spader. This individuality helps to differentiate him from the Sentinels, the other self-replicating robot force that recently caused havoc in X-Men: Days of Future Past. He doesn’t quite scale the heights of the best comic book villains, but he’s a massive improvement on what came before.

The main problem, then, is the Marvel end-game. Age of Ultron will, of course, be followed up with 2016’s Captain America: Civil War. It appears that Tony Stark himself will be playing a villain of sorts, pitted against his former ally Steve Rogers in a political (and presumably physical) battle over the rights and liberties of superheroes. It’s a conflict that will force heroes to choose sides and decide between regulation and resistance. It seems like a step backwards to follow that up with a big purple alien trying to collect MacGuffins to destroy the universe. But Marvel has a good track record for working with talented teams. I think they’ll figure it out.

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Why the new Ghostbusters reboot might not be terrible

It’s no secret that Hollywood has gotten cagey with its money of late. Piracy is the problem that just won’t die and online content providers (namely Netflix) have been taking a large slice of the collective film pie. Unsurprisingly, this has resulted in less of the innovative risk-taking that resulted in the original genre classics, such as Star Wars, Terminator and Spider-Man. Instead, the studios are churning out sequels, reboots and prequels to Star Wars, Terminator and Spider-Man. So let’s get something straight: they were always going to cash in on Ghostbusters. Everyone loves Ghostbusters! So, studio logic goes, let’s give the people more of what they love! Don’t forget Sony’s two main tentpoles are currently the uneven Amazing Spider-Man (now entering the Marvel universe) and *shudder* The Smurfs, so of course they’ve been raiding their archives in search of a franchise to reanimate.

Let’s get past the bit where we all groan about how the original was so great and the new instalment is doomed to be a disappointment. Let’s assume something crazy. Let’s assume it might not be bad.

A reboot like this can only be successful if it brings something to the table that its predecessor didn’t. Though darker tonally, the revived Planet of the Apes and Batman franchises are good examples of this; they both nodded to their roots whilst managing to be innovative and interesting, and that’s why they worked. Had Sony managed to plough on with its initial plan of reuniting the original cast, Ghostbusters 3 might have just been an inferior rehash of the original. Instead they’re attempting to start off fresh by rooting a load of new characters in the Ghostbusters universe, which is certainly a good start.

Speaking of which, the cast is looking good. Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, Leslie Jones and Kate McKinnon will all be donning jumpsuits in 2016. Sticking with Ghostbusters tradition, our leads are Saturday Night Live alumni (all four, if you count McCarthy’s hosting gigs). And while Wiig and McCarthy have already broken into the mainstream with Feig’s Bridesmaids, anyone keeping up with SNL will tell you that Jones and McKinnon are breakouts. The team is all-female, which might go some way to make up for the raw deal women got in the original (did anyone else feel uncomfortable when Sigourney Weaver was possessed by that weird sex demon?).

And if you don’t trust Sony, trust the director. Paul Feig’s CV is short but impressive. He made his small screen debut as a creator of the sadly short-lived Freaks and Geeks, and went on to direct one of the great Mad Men episodes, ‘Shoot’, as well as a number of episodes of The Office and Arrested Development. That was all before Bridesmaids even came along. This is a guy with remarkably few critical duds under his belt. If I had to entrust anyone with this beloved 80s comedy, it would be him.

So yes, the Ghostbusters reboot is the result of a broken system that prizes reliability over originality. The critics began sharpening their knives as soon as it was announced. But if you give the talented team behind it a chance, it might just surprise you. And let’s not forget, no reboot can ever stop the original from existing. If it’s crap, we can just pretend it didn’t happen and carry on as we always did. It worked with Indiana Jones.

And so the time has come to say goodbye to our Victoria 5

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It’s been a long time coming. Film has been on the way out for years, as studios have increasingly turned to cheaper, easier and more efficient alternatives. Only now has it finally dropped down the chain to York Student Cinema. Yes, after a long year (and at least 3 showings of Frozen) we have finally scraped together the money to install our new digital projector!

And it’s very good. The brightness and the clarity of the picture is just incredible. I almost feel sorry for our old Victoria 5; the company’s tagline, ‘Realer than reel’, adds insult to injury. Now trailers come in the compact form of a memory stick, while whole films will be posted to us on hard drives we need only plug in, and hunting down tape for splicing reels together has been replaced by playlisting capabilities.

Many people feel that 35mm has a sort of old-timey romance to it that cannot be replicated with pixels. Perhaps the nostalgia emerges from the inevitable break with the glorious cinematic history of film. The idea of the breathtaking period glamour of Gone With the Wind having been captured on anything other than celluloid is unthinkable, and who can help but admire the ingenuity required to create lightsabers without the use of modern special effects? The transition to digital provides a marked departure from the the safe rolls of film that have provided us with comedy, drama and wonder since the days of Georges Méliès.

The list of directors mourning the death of film includes Christopher Nolan, Quentin Tarantino and Stephen Spielberg. We, the projectionists, have no idea what it’s like on the front line. We just show and appreciate the end result, marvelling at how someone managed to fit such a wealth of beauty and visual spectacle into such tiny frames. We are very privileged to have seen movies like very few people get to see them- as physical things to touch and hold. We run it through our hands, chop it up, stick it back together, mangle it, and (after much work and a lot of swearing) put it on display for everyone to see. It’s an under-appreciated job, being the final cog in the machine ensuring that the long process pays off, and that the film gets the showing it deserves.

Certainly, there are things I’ll miss. There was that one time we tried to identify a woman in a frame of The Counsellor (it was Brad Pitt with long hair). And the moment when the projector decided to burn the film just after Johnny Depp said an embarrassingly bad line in The Lone Ranger, as if it had just given up. Or the day I officially qualified as a chief projectionist, a happily uneventful showing of Don Jon.

But do not expect me to swing a bell about the city, pronouncing that the end is nigh. I have experienced the difficulties with film first-hand. I know it takes up a lot of space. I know it requires a lot of preparation. I know it has the tendency to mangle and burn at the slightest mistake in setting it up. It’s tricky but has an undeniably unique quality, and I don’t think this is the end of the road: many directors are still actively committed to shooting 35mm and, among others, J.J. Abrams’ untitled Star Wars instalment will be hearkening back to the franchise’s pre-digital days by using film stock.

It’s given us many years of mostly good, if occasionally frustrating and unreliable, work. Time for our old Victoria 5 to take a step back and and let one of those new digital whippersnappers pick up the slack.

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To anyone amazed by my suddenly brilliant photography skills, I should add that these gorgeous photos were taken by someone at York Student Cinema (I know not who!).