Avengers: Age of Ultron

So it’s finally here. After all these (three) years and Marvel’s most forgettable (IM3, Thor 2) and best (GotG, TWS) films we’ve arrived at the latest massive franchise crossover destined to siphon children’s pocket money the world over. Joss Whedon, returning to the world of blockbuster filmmaking from his famous Much Ado About Nothing adaptation, has crafted his grandest, most ambitious and apparently final Marvel opus, and while it’s in many ways a step up from its predecessor I can’t help but feel a little underwhelmed.

Age of Ultron is the story of the roughly three-week age of Ultron, a global peacekeeping AI project built by Tony Stark, who having never seen Terminator forgot AI’s exist only to enslave or kill mankind and assumed his world-controlling supercomputer would be all sunshine and rainbows. Shockingly, Ultron decides to kill mankind and it’s up to the Avengers to track down and defeat him. His given motivation is something about helping mankind evolve and meteors but it feels like half his scenes were left on the cutting room floor (the film was pared down almost an hour before release) and for all his pseudo-philosophical monologuing he rarely feels more than Generic AI Supervillain #4325.

The remaining cast fare a lot better though. Stark, as always, takes front and centre to mope about creating a monster and Downey Jr does a fine job selling his character’s distress, but the film spends most of its character moments developing its less popular Avengers. Hawkeye gets some genuinely heartwarming scenes with his wife and kids, and a (fairly believable) romance blossoms between Black Widow and Hulk, though the former suddenly announcing she’s sterile is one of the most tonally incongruent things I’ve seen since I spliced five minutes of A Serbian Film into Spirited Away.

We’re also introduced to the two new Avenger siblings Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver (sadly not the Ultimate versions), played with the finest Russian accents since The Hunt For Red October by Elizabeth Olsen and Kick-Ass, respectively. They hail from the generic Eastern European nation of Madeupia, a country populated exclusively by screaming refugees and which we’re never properly introduced to in a way that suggests Whedon was wading knee-deep in film by the end of editing. Quicksilver is fun, though less so than his X-Men counterpart, and Scarlet Witch’s powers are seemingly random depending on the plot, which puts a damper on the drama when we don’t quite understand the stakes.

On a technical level this film far exceeds its predecessor. Whedon’s direction has vastly improved from the televisual style of the first film, and he’s developed a fondness for snazzy tracking shots, one of which kicks the movie off in spectacular fashion through an equally improved action setpiece. It’s much more even overall as well, keeping its excitement and pace throughout whereas the first film took an hour to really take off, and this time the potential end of the world actually feels like a threat. For all that works here though, something feels missing. The first Avengers felt like the culmination of all that preceded it, the climax of its story. But Age of Ultron just feels like a stepping stone to Avengers 3 (teased in the credits), an episode of something bigger. This makes it much less dramatic and memorable (as well as lacking individual moments as memorable as say, Hulk smashing Loki), and as a result it’s a less satisfying experience. It’s still worth seeing, don’t get me wrong, but it’s no Avengers 1, and the seams of this universe plan are showing.

Cinderella

You’d never think it, but despite a mediocre and disappointed reception Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland completely reinvented Disney’s movie output after making a billion dollars (being the first post-Avatar 3D blockbuster helped). Once the house that Mickey built sensed monetary blood in the water every animated classic is receiving a fresh coat of reboot, beginning with the bizarre Sleeping Beauty/I Spit on Your Grave crossover Maleficent and soon to continue with live-action versions of Mulan, Beauty and the Beast and Anastasia (yes, really). So Cinderella is something of a vision of the future.

Unlike Maleficent however, Kenneth Branaugh (or his Disney handlers) has elected to simply reiterate Cinderella’s story for a new audience instead of putting a fresh spin on the material, leading many speculators to wonder what purpose its existence serves (besides padding Disney’s coffers). This is something the film seems to struggle with as well, it clearly expects audiences to know the story it’s telling, so it rushes some parts and feels like it’s going through the motions for others. There are also many jokes at the original story’s expense, but they feel out of place as it’s not offering any new take on the tale.

This film also serves as a great example of why Disney’s original ran a mere 74 minutes. While the protagonist’s childhood is glossed over in montage her adult years are stretched out beyond reason, with pointless subplots only highlighting how thin the central story is. The characters aren’t given much to flesh them out either, Ella (the film spends five minutes explaining her titular nickname as if it’s embarrassed by it) is little more than a kind and gentle Mary Sue, though Lily James acts well enough to prevent her being irritatingly so, and while Cate Blanchett’s evil stepmother gets a token motivation for her villainy it’s rather nonsensical (her husbands died so she’s evil and never remarried for some reason).

Richard Madden makes a decent Prince Charming, and the two have enough chemistry it took me until the ninety minute mark to question what they have in common besides physical attraction. The remaining cast are alright if rather unmemorable, given how little the story gives them to work with, and that sums Cinderella up really; it’s exactly what you’d expect and nothing more, two hours of pretty dresses, smiles and cinematic candyfloss. The most interesting thing about it is probably the weird contrast of preceding it with a Frozen short, given how that movie summed Cinderella’s entire premise up in ninety seconds of For the First Time In Forever, and then deconstructed the hell out of it. As a result I spent Cinderella’s entire runtime expecting someone to tell the Prince “you can’t marry a girl you just met”.

As a film, Cinderella is moderately entertaining if completely forgettable, but as a vision of the future it’s a little bleak. If this is the standard for what’s to come, and with over $400m worldwide it certainly is, then we can expect little more from Disney than pretty but pointless stories identical to what came before.

Jupiter Descending

Aww shit. Even after the six-month delay, rumours of reshoots and re-edits, a poor preview showing at Sundance and reviews charitably described as ‘savaging’, I was still looking forward to this film. The Wachowskis hold a special place in my generation’s hearts, being responsible for our childhood classic The Matrix, which may just be the perfect action movie for teenagers (though that discussion’s for another time). While the sequels were less than great and I still haven’t seen Speed Racer, Cloud Atlas was a modern classic and in my opinion their magnum opus. So when they announced a $175m space opera starring Mila Kunis, with Channing Tatum as some sort of wolf-man I was intrigued, their blend of crazy and optimism seeming like a bright spark in a world where Superman destroys cities. A spark I just watched being pissed on for two hours.

So, the plot. Jupiter Jones, a toilet cleaner and second-generation illegal Russian immigrant, finds out she’s actually the genetic reincarnation of the matriarch of the Abrasax family, an interstellar human-farming business which minces people to provide life-extending drugs (are you getting this subtle anti-capitalism message kids?) and she’s targeted by bounty hunters sent by her three heirs (as she left herself the earth in her will). One wants her dead, one wants to marry her and you can see the problem with this already, can’t you? So much happens in this movie, it collapses in on itself almost immediately. Every possible idea is thrown at the screen: genetically-engineered animal people, robots with human faces, people refineries hidden inside Jupiter (the planet, Mila Kunis is sadly not eating people), space weddings, Russian family comedy, egg-donation hijinks and it’s all too much from the get go. The first five minutes show Jupiter’s parents meeting, discussing what they’ll name her, dad getting shot by the mob and mom’s emigration to America in a shipping crate. It’s like if someone tried condensing Dune into two hours – oh wait.

The first half hour feels hacked down and I’m not sure it’s for the worse. I reckon there’s a 2 1/2 hour cut out there somewhere, but I can’t begrudge Warners for saving us from the wacky comedy hijinks of Jupiter’s Russian family, who act like no human beings in existence. I’m guessing Tom Tykwer directed the funny parts of Cloud Atlas, as this film has no sense of comedic timing. The latter acts feel more complete, but nothing could make up for how disjointed everything is. We never get a feel for the greater picture here, and so the universe feels paradoxically tiny and condensed. We only ever hear of the Abrasax clan, so are they the only power in the galaxy? Well no, because we also meet the space police (or rather one space police cruiser), siding with the heroes for some reason, but do they have power over the villains or is this a Chinatown situation? There’s a galactic bureaucracy in an extended Brazil homage, complete with Terry Gilliam cameo and few laughs, but how does this factor into the grand scheme of things?  For all the endless detail thrown our way there’s very little worldbuilding, despite the endless expository dialogue on that very subject.

Regarding characters, the film is all over the place. Channing Tatum’s dog/human hybrid hunter Caine (subtle) gets his dark past relayed to us and that’s about it, which is true for pretty much all the good guys. Everyone speaks in flat exposition or attempts at humour, leaving bugger-all room for character development. Two of the three villainous heirs are completely superfluous, one existing to exposit and show off her rear end before disappearing after five minutes, and the other just for a retread of Shrek, with Caine and Sean Bean (whose death I can only assume is on the cutting room floor) having to crash the wedding before she says ‘I do’. Eddie Redmayne’s makes surprisingly little impression as the main villain, despite a performance you’d expect to be a camp classic, but the weirdest is Jupiter herself. Despite supposedly ascending over the course of the film she has no real agency in it. She’s kidnapped repeatedly and tossed between bounty hunters, has to be rescued before marrying Lord Farquaad and doesn’t even really get a final confrontation with Redmayne, who just kinda drops out of the movie. She’s more of a human MacGuffin than a lead.

This movie is a perfect example of what happens if you have no limitations while making a film. When every idea in your mind can be realised on an unlimited budget, your imagination just runs away with you. It’s the Wachowski equivalent of Sucker Punch, where Warners hit it big with a director and just threw money at their pet projects to try and recapture that success, climaxing with disastrous, indulgent sci-fi mashups of whatever the director thought was cool at the time (though with great action scenes). This film marks the nail in the coffin of the Wachowskis getting this kind of creative freedom and budget again, and I think it would be good for them to make a small, $15-20m movie set in the real world, just to regain a sense of perspective. Given Snyder’s track record though, I think it’s more likely we’ll be seeing a Wachowski Aquaman in three years time.

Kingsman: The Secret Service

Matthew Vaughn is a man permanently caught between being a twelve-year-old who just discovered ultraviolence and his interest in girls, and an adult with the self-awareness to frame his baser instincts within a more mature framework. What results is this interesting mishmash of films constantly walking a tightrope, between adolescent, laddish fantasy on the one hand and more intelligent, ‘ironic’ (as I believe cretins call it these days) examinations of that on the other. Kick-Ass’ teenage fantasy was juxtaposed with the hero getting way out of his depth and repeatedly almost murdered, and First Class’ political commentary teetered over into bizarre cheesecake, as if Vaughn had been dared to disrobe every actress at least once. It’s all rather like if Zach Snyder dropped his artistic pretensions.

Kingsman: The Secret Service is his latest such blend, adapted from another Mark Millar comic (after Kick-Ass, which was far nastier than its film version) which I won’t pretend to have read, and tells the story of Eggsy, a chav recruited from his dead-end life by Colin Firth into a secret, elaborate and remarkably snobbish spy agency his dad worked for years before. He finds himself caught in the throes of an elaborate, world spanning conspiracy and you can predict half of what follows just from reading this sentence (and the rest by the 30 minute point).

The plot (and much of the cast) are a bundle of spy clichés, played with a winking nod and smile that brings an anarchic sense of fun to the proceedings, but which makes the running gag of setting up clichéd bond scenarios before a character quips ‘this isn’t that kind of movie’ feel a little hypocritical. Firth is the only real stand-out performance here (also getting an action scene on par with anything in The Raid 2), and while the action and humour are very solid so much of the rest is rather mediocre. Samuel L Jackson plays the requisite supervillain determined to succeed where hundreds of shitty nineties anime villains failed (although his henchwoman’s prosthetic sword legs are officially the coolest things I’ve seen in some time), but he consumes scenery like this in his sleep and his gimmick of being a genocidal psycho who can’t stand blood could’ve been played funnier. The weirdest role however, goes to the the female lead played by Sophie Cookson, another Kingsman trainee and training rival to Eggsy. Not in the sense her character is unusual in any way, but that she’s probably the most thankless female role outside of Nolan’s dead wives collection. The story would play out identically in her absence, and her baffling amount of screen time makes the finale really weird when it dispatches her on a narratively pointless side-mission and then completely forgets about her.

Kick-Ass is the most obvious comparison and I’d say it’s probably the better movie, largely by being more even. It’s highs were never as high as Kingsman’s (even Hit Girl’s best moments never approached Firth’s shootout here) but the lows were never as mediocre, and the comic book nerd power fantasy was nicely balanced by Hit Girl inflicting most of the violence. Strangely though, the filmgoing experience Kingsman most reminds me of is Skyfall (whose seriousness it mocks at one point), as once the initial stratospheric emotional high came down, the central uncomfortable re-affirmation of a violent and sexually creepy form of masculinity became painfully obvious, with Kingsman ending on a misstep like walking off the Grand Canyon, by closing on what’s essentially Skyfall’s infamous shower scene but played for laughs.

I have to recommend Kingsman in the end as it is a damn good time at the movies, but it’s the kind of film I doubt I’ll watch again (though I will watch Colin Firth murder the shit out of the Westboro Baptist Church on Youtube from time to time).

Civilization: Beyond Earth

If there’s one series that’s stayed with me throughout my life, it’s Civilization. Star Wars faded from memory, Spyro fell into the shitter and Mass Effect – well, there’s a reason it’s got a restraining order against me. But Civ’s been my constant companion, from babbling toddler tactical advice at my dad’s Amiga Civ 1 games, learning words and history from 2 and spending so much of my youth leading crusades in 3 and 4 for power, science and lebensraum. But it was Alpha Centauri that captured my heart, Firaxis’ 2000 spinoff when they didn’t have the rights to Civ proper, an epic tale of survival and human endeavour on a new world and the wonders and horrors that await us. So when I heard Firaxis was returning to the idea I couldn’t have been more optimistic.

After Beyond Earth is built on Civ V’s engine and the civ management and combat is so similar it feels more like an expansion or a really professional mod (of the kind the company includes with Civ re-releases). If anything it seems stripped-down, missing that game’s happiness and religion systems with little take their place beyond a generic questing system (which removes much of the series’ feeling of freedom). This feeling extends to the rest of the game, with a limited number of units (whose modification system barely qualifies as such) and only three victory types: conquest, science (contacting aliens) or re-invading earth. The latter has variations depending on which cultural ‘path’ you picked, but functionally they’re identical.

And that’s Beyond Earth’s problem, a lack of personality. Alpha Centauri was a masterpiece of economical storytelling, building a wide variety of fictional cultures and a vision of the future both fascinating and terrifying (seriously, it’s a 4X horror game). Every technology, building or wonder was instantly understandable from name alone, and each delivered with a quote that – whether real or fictional – summed up what it was and what it meant for humanity (I can quote many to this day)*. Despite only seeing the world from above or chatting with other leaders (also well-defined and memorable – Fuck you Miriam!), a brilliantly compelling vision of the future (and storyline) was created in a game that looked like this:

Beyond Earth has none of that. Every leader and faction is interchangeable; I can’t recall anything about them. The main Civ games didn’t have this problem as the real countries, leaders and techs are immediately recognisable with the most basic historical knowledge, but a sci-fi spin-off needs something the player can connect to. I have no idea what any of the techs, buildings or wonders are even meant to be, or what they achieve beyond slightly better units or resource bonuses (I don’t know what the new resources are either). It’s all just a big pile of blandness.

And that’s Beyond Earth in the end, a spin-off without enough to differentiate itself from its predecessors or enough personality to stand on its own. I had to look this game’s wiki up to remember enough to write this review, and in a year I doubt I’ll remember it exists until I check my steam inventory, see its name, and release a heavy sigh.

*Alpha Centauri’s The Cloning Vats wonder video, for comparison:

The Imitation Game

The phrase ‘Oscar bait’ is starting to lose all meaning. Does it mean film’s made solely to win Oscars, like The Iron Lady? Is it a label applied to anything fitting the academy’s pre-existing tastes, like Schindler’s List? Or just an cheap putdown for anything you consider pretentious?

The Imitation Game is exactly the sort of film this label gets attached to, being a relatively light and easy take on a difficult subject matter, featuring great performance from its leads who will undoubtedly go on to gather nominations and coming hot on the heels of the last ‘this only won because the academy has no testicles’ film The King’s Speech (which for the record, I thoroughly enjoyed). But is it fair?

The film is the story of Alan Turing, the late mathematical genius who cracked the German Enigma code, helping the Allies to win World War II, but who was prosecuted a decade later for being gay and killed himself not long after. A very delayed pardon came from the British Government last year, but it remains a deeply shameful chapter in British history.

Turing’s life is depicted here in three chapters: Alan at school falling in love for the first time, his work cracking Enigma at Bletchley Park during the war, and his conviction for ‘gross indecency’ in 1953. The final chapter is mostly used as a wraparound story, with Turing revealing his life in the interrogation room (with the movie beating ‘this guy is the audience proxy’ into our heads with a piledriver) but it’s all for naught as the voiceover only tells us only what we could easily infer from the images onscreen, the framing device never mentions his school days and it catches up to itself 3/4 of the way through, but the film keeps jumping timelines until the final scene. It almost feels like a reshoot out of fear the audience wouldn’t keep up with the chronology.

The approach to each chapter is disappointing to say the least. His school days and falling for his classmate are portrayed decently, with a standout performance from newcomer Alex Lawther who is largely why this sequence has any meaning. It could be easily cut from the film entirely as the only way it informs the other chapters is telling us why Turing named his codebreaking machine Christopher. Or it would, were that not a blatant fabrication by the writer. Any cursory research (or a tour of Bletchely Park that you come away from with an Alan Turing Monopoly set motherfuckers!) tells you the machine was named the ‘Bombe’, making this section not only pointless but a little insulting in its blatant attempts to tug on heartstrings.

It also brings up another major problem with the film, which is that it’s so fucking chaste. Turing’s sexuality is a major part of the narrative but while it’s spoken of repeatedly it’s never felt. There is no sexual tension and aside from the school section you never see Turing in a remotely intimate situation with anyone. When your film is less sexual than a Christopher Nolan picture, it’s not a good sign. The film actually tries to play his sexuality as a reveal (thankfully before the half-way point) and the Bletchley section is largely focused on his (non-sexual) relationship with a female colleague. Turing’s actual openness about his sexuality (source: my tour guide) is ignored in favour of him him keeping it secret (and being blackmailed by a man he likely never met), which is taking the old 90’s ‘not too gay’ route if I’ve ever seen it.

Bletchley Park makes up the majority of the movie as we see Turing and the other codebreakers of Hut 8 build his Enigma-cracking computer. This section most embodies the film’s greatest flaw, which is just how unambitious and unexceptional it is. Graham Moore’s script leaves no cliché unturned, and his attempt at the next ‘life is like a box of chocolates’ is like sandpaper to the eardrums. Director Morten Tydlum started working in Scandanavian television and he makes everything feel like a TV movie. Nothing about the direction stands out or is notable in any way, save for the constant cutaways to anonymous scenes of warfare in a desperate attempt to raise the stakes.

It almost goes without saying that Cumberbatch is excellent here and if he wins his Oscar for this I will not begrudge him. His natural gift for introversion works for the solitary character, whose extreme literalism he makes believable despite the sheer weight of jokes trying to crush that (he comes across like Drax). In the final part of Turing’s story he conveys the loneliness and despair of a man whose life is crushed before his eyes well, though much of the 1950’s segment is rather pointless. It’s framed as a detective story of a policeman investigating a mysterious break-in at Turing’s flat, furthering the script’s insistence on crowbarring this into a closet story by making the burglar a prostitute Turing was seeing, who he refuses to discuss with the police. In reality the burglar was an acquaintance of Turing’s boyfriend, and Turing’s free admission of that relationship to the police was what got him arrested. Aside from this point there is little to say about the sequence save for the ending, as it largely functions as the previously-mentioned framing device.

But now we get to that ending, because when faced with the telling the story of a man who was destroyed by the country he helped save, the filmmakers have decided to cop out. The film’s closing scene has Turing’s friend Keira Knightly visiting him following his conviction and chemical castration by the courts, and amidst his despair over the ruination of his life she consoles him with the reminder of how much he brought to the world. A reasonable statement you may be thinking, but she’s talking to the audience as well. Yep, the filmmakers have decided to end this on an inspirational note. Turing’s suicide is relegated to text at the end, a little ‘Oh by the way, he killed himself’ so as not to offset the upliftingness of it all. This is nothing short of a disgrace, as if Grave of the Fireflies ended with the kids playing by the riverbank, with nothing but a title card to say ‘Everything went to shit later’.

The Imitiation Game is an uninteresting, unexceptional and at times insulting retelling of the life of one of the 20th century’s greatest geniuses. It is a film sure to be talked of on release in worthy, admiring terms, win a bunch of awards and then vanish into the collective ether within five years. There is little of any lasting value here and so, in the end, it is nothing more than Oscar bait.