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.

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!).

5 things you can expect from Christopher Nolan’s sci-fi epic, Interstellar.

That time has come around again guys. It’s been two years since the release of The Dark Knight Rises and, like clockwork, the promotion machine for Christopher Nolan’s latest has begun to slowly ramp up. Emphasis on the slow. True to form, cast and crew have had their mouths zipped on major plot points while trailers have been typically vague, showing McConoughey’s Cooper sadly driving through fields in a greyish hue. Where are all the wormholes and spaceships? While I am just as clueless on the story as anyone else, I feel it is my duty as a self-proclaimed Nolan expert to tell you what else you can expect.

(Please note that any light digs at Nolan are not malicious but come from the deep well of love I have for him in my heart.)

 

1. It will focus on a young troubled white guy.

As seen in: Every Christopher Nolan film except Insomnia, in which Al Pacino plays an old troubled white guy.

Hopefully Chris will one day decide that he is ready to step outside the safe bubble of protagonists that look like him. Hollywood’s diversity problem means that the overlap in the Venn diagram of currently successful actresses and women of colour is pretty small right now so Zoe Saldana should keep her eyes open.

 

2. It will not be funny.

As seen in: Memento, The Prestige, Batman Begins.

Nolan isn’t exactly known for cracking up his audiences. Sure, there are some exceptions to the rule: Heath Ledger’s Joker injected some twisted humour into The Dark Knight, and even Inception managed to drop the meme-friendly line ‘You mustn’t be afraid to dream a little bigger, darling’. But in general, expect the usual po-faced plot labyrinth.

 

3. The McConaissance will continue.

As seen in: Magic Mike, Mud, Dallas Buyers Club.

Some say that he finally finished his Joaquin Phoenix-style meta role as an actor that would only make mediocre rom-coms. Others reckon he managed to find the source of Ryan Reynold’s star power back in 2011 and stole it. Whatever the cause, Matthew McConoughey’s career resurgence shows no signs of faltering with his next sure-footed step into the arms of Interstellar. How long will his winning streak last? I’ve no idea. If nothing else, it means there’s still hope out there for Reese Witherspoon.

 

4. It will feature a starry cast.

As seen in: The Prestige, Inception, The Dark Knight Rises.

Newbies McConnaughey, Jessica Chastain and David Oyelowo join Nolan regulars Anne Hathaway and Michael Caine, resulting in one blinding ensemble. It’s gratifying to see Brit and one-time Spooks actor Oyelowo bagging another solid part after prominent roles in Jack Reacher and The Butler, while lucky charm Michael Caine is always a highlight.

 

5. Hans Zimmer will be taking care of the soundtrack.

As seen in: The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Rises, Inception.

Yes! Hans ‘BAAAAMMM’ Zimmer is teaming up with Nolan once again to make each ream of exposition and every set of furrowed eyebrows EPIC.

Interstellar is released in the UK on the 7th November.

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On why Summer is no Manic Pixie Dream Girl.

(500) Days of Summer is my favourite film. I get a lot of stick when I tell people that. Old-school romantics hate (500) for its assertion that we can grow as people through our relationships, even if they aren’t made to last; feminist bloggers just hate our protagonist Tom’s unrequited love interest Summer.

I want to stick up for Summer, because I don’t think she is the product of lazy writing. With a screenplay as smart as this, no line that drops from a character’s mouth is accidental. So why is it that, aside from the small hints dropped that betray a deeper, more conflicted Summer (her dream confession to Tom, her distress on watching the ending of The Graduate), there seems to be so little to her beyond her general kookiness?

One word: perspective. This particular story happens to be told from the perspective of Tom. A male protagonist in the world of romantic comedies is still a relatively rare occurance, and so provides a contrasting POV to your standard run-of-the-mill Katherine Heigl flick. So, let’s analyse Tom as a character.

Tom believes in true love. He believes that when he meets ‘the one’, his life will be given purpose and therefore he will be complete. He works for Clark Gregg as a greetings card writer (hello, novelty movie job!) though his real passions lie elsewhere, in architecture. Tom also happens to be pretty selfish, though you might not have noticed. I’ll let Joseph Gordon-Levitt explain:

“I would encourage anyone who has a crush on my character to watch it again and examine how selfish he is. He develops a mildly delusional obsession over a girl onto whom he projects all these fantasies. He thinks she’ll give his life meaning because he doesn’t care about much else going on in his life… That’s not healthy. That’s falling in love with the idea of a person, not the actual person.”

Is it any surprise that Summer wouldn’t want to be with a guy that treats her as an accessory with which to complete himself? A guy that seems to display no interest in her own life plans? A guy that talks about her as a set of pretty features and quirks?

“I’m in love with Summer. I love her smile. I love her hair. I love her knees.”

That’s very sweet Tom, but is there anything beyond the superficial that-

“I love this heart-shaped mark she has on her neck.I love the way she sometimes licks her lips before she talks.  I love the sound of her laugh. I love the way she looks when she’s sleeping.”

I guess not.

Over the course of the movie, Tom comes to two realisations: A) He can’t put his happiness in the hands of anyone else; he needs to take control and find it himself, and B) His fantasy woman does not exist. While he starts the film believing that Summer will swoop in and save him, ultimately she doesn’t. She gets on with her own life. Does her rejection then give him the motivation needed to pick himself back up and set out on the right path? Yes. And that’s how life works: shit happens and we try to learn from it.

So stop calling Summer a Manic Pixie Dream Girl. Summer doesn’t fit the MPDG mould. She breaks it.

goodbye 2013.

New Years Eve! Which means I can finally link back to the most adorable duet of all time:

Anyway. 2013 has been pretty good to me. It’s been pretty good for film too, as evidenced by Gen Ip’s (possibly last!) annual filmography (though she does have an amazing knack for showing the beauty in even the most generic Hollywood films). Joining the student cinema has meant I can pick out a lot more this year. I loved The Place Beyond the Pines and The Way Way Back despite their flaws. Sequels Catching Fire and The Desolation of Smaug managed to better their predecessors, while Avengers follow-ups Thor 2 and Iron Man 3 lived up to expectations. Working behind the scenes has been interesting and I have mixed opinions about the gradual move into digital (on the plus side, it means film is more accessible and easier to show. But somehow it does lose a little of that old movie magic). But change is coming, so we can only embrace it.

Hope you have a lovely 2014.

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Why Clooney is on top (and Depp needs to get a grip).

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This was something I wrote for the Student Cinema blog at my uni (for those of you that don’t know, I’m learning to be a projectionist). As it’s been a while since I’ve put anything up here, I thought I’d transfer it over if you fancy giving it a read. It’s something I’m oddly passionate about.

George Clooney has never been one to sit back and kick his feet up. Not content with being one of Hollywood’s most bankable stars, in recent years he’s also taken a step back into the less showy realms of writing, production and direction, to much acclaim. He’s the only person to have been nominated for Academy Awards in six different categories; Argo, the film he co-produced with Grant Heslov and friend Ben Affleck, won Best Picture in 2013. He has also been known to take pay cuts to get smaller films made, most notably for The Descendants, the Hawaii-set family drama for which he got a Best Actor nomination (and he’s rumoured to keep a picture of himself as Batman on his office wall as a sorry reminder of what can happen when he makes a film purely for the money).

I could say more. I could tell you that George is an advocate of gay rights, and refuses to dispel rumours about his sexuality: “I think it’s funny, but the last thing you’ll ever see me do is jump up and down, saying, ‘These are lies!’ That would be unfair and unkind to my good friends in the gay community”. I could add that he had a punch-up with David O Russell (of Silver Linings Playbook and The Fighter fame) after getting fed up with the celebrated director mistreating and talking down to his crew. Or that he was arrested for taking part in a demonstration outside the Sudanese embassy to raise awareness of the escalating tensions between north and south Sudan. I could. But that would just be gilding the lily.

General loveliness aside, let’s compare his recent career trajectory to that of one of his few superstar contemporaries, Johnny Depp. While Clooney has been soaking up praise after starring in what has unanimously been described as one of the best and most technically innovative films of the year, Gravity, Depp’s wannabe-blockbuster The Lone Ranger dramatically flopped. Not only that, but when critics declared it a stinker he was arrogant enough to put it down to lazy journalism. Johnny, I love you but you’re not above criticism.

Can we get back the fearless J. Depp of Donnie Brasco, Edward Scissorhands, Benny & Joon? Heck, I’ll even take Chocolat! Instead, a quick flick through his upcoming film roster throws up some vaguely uninspiring stuff including additions to both the Alice in Wonderland and Pirates of the Caribbean franchises. I’m as big a fan of Cap’n Jack as the next person, but he really needs to step up his game before people get fed up with his big-budget kooky schtick.

Clooney could easily have fallen into the same trap. He could rely on his old ER fanbase, effortlessly coasting on his famous charm and good looks, snapping up the jobs with the biggest pay packet and refusing to step outside his comfort zone. To the contrary, it seems that he has one very simple ambition: to make good films. And he does. A man with passion, talent and drive? I know who I’d want to be stranded with in space.