Wednesday, 31 May 2017

Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)

The Avengers Assemble to take on robotic villain Ultron

Director: Joss Whedon
Cast: Robert Downey Jnr (Tony Stark), Chris Hemsworth (Thor), Mark Ruffalo (Bruce Banner), Chris Evans (Captain Steve Rogers), Scarlett Johansson (Natasha Romanoff), Jeremy Renner (Clint “Hawkeye” Barton), James Spader (Ultron), Samuel L Jackson (Nick Fury), Don Cheadle (James Rhodes), Aaron Taylor-Johnson (Pietro Maximoff), Elisabeth Olsen (Wanda Maximoff), Paul Bettany (JARVIS/Vision), Cobie Smulders (Maria Hill), Anthony Mackie (Sam Wilson), Hayey Atwell (Peggy Carter), Idris Elba (Heimdell), Stellan Skarsgard (Erik Selvig), Thomas Kretschmann (Baron von Strucker), Linda Cardellini (Laura Barton)

The Marvel Cinematic Universe: with the wrong director, it can be top a heavy mess, but Whedon showed with the first Avengers film that the right writer/director can weave the competing plotlines into a story that win overs an audience and leave them thrilled and entertained. His problem here was repeating that trick with the sequel.

After (it seems) finally defeating HYDRA, the Avengers relax at last – little knowing that Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jnr) is using multi-film-macguffin Loki’s staff to explore the possibility of creating an intelligent army of robots to defend the Earth. Instead, he creates Ultron (James Spader), a deeply flawed robotic version of his own personality, who grows to believe the best way to save the world is to wipe out mankind. Time for the Avengers to saddle up once more!

The greatest nemesis the Avengers faced here was that the first of these superhero smackdown films (2011’s Avengers Assemble) was far better than anyone had a right to expect. It was witty and had a plausible script, a very good villain in Tom Hiddleston (much missed here), and a winning structure that saw our heroes initially far apart and later drawn together into a family. On top of that, it gave all the jaw-dropping action and geeky thrills of watching iconic characters fighting together (in every sense of the word) that the fans expected. It worked so well that, consciously or not, Whedon ended up imitating it its structure here.

Both films open with a piece of shady alien tech: it’s stolen, and our heroes’ noble intentions for its use which   backfire. The villain is an outcast with a personal (familial) connection to one of our heroes (Ultron is, to all intents and purposes, Stark’s son). A first attempt to take on the villains ends in chaos as no-one works together, leaving the gang disheartened. Hulk is unleashed, causes chaos and needs to be restrained. A pep talk from Fury perks the gang back up. They head back into a battle over a city, against overwhelming odds, where they finally work together and turn a weapon of mass destruction into their salvation. With some small thematic twists and some adjustments to the plot they are fundamentally the same movie.

This might be connected to the greater studio interference Whedon dealt with. This conflict of visions results in a wonky balance between pay-off from past films and build up to future ones, and several plot lines being poorly developed. Most obviously most of Thor’s sub-plot ended-up on the cutting room floor. What was meant to be a series of revelations about infinity stones turns into essentially Chris Hemsworth sitting in a puddle. Whedon confirmed that the studio instructed he delete either this sequence or the sequence set at Barton’s log cabin (the emotional heart of the movie) so it’s not surprising that this paid the price. Needless to say, not a frame of the terrifically dull and overextended Iron Man vs. Hulk battle was allowed to hit the cutting room floor.

This confused cutting down of ideas is present throughout the movie. Villain Strucker, introduced with fanfare at the end of the last movie, is unceremoniously bumped off off-screen. Andy Serkis pops up to serve as an introduction to a future movie. The creation of Paul Bettany’s Vision is only vaguely explained. Ultron is never really given time (despite a pitch perfect performance of cold smarm from James Spader) for his plans to fall into shape, or for the audience to really understand him as a character. A backstory for Natasha is fitfully sketched out – but with hardly any time to explore it, the final product was so clumsily done that the film drew heavy (unfairly personal) criticism from the Twitterati, claiming Whedon was denouncing any woman choosing not to have children (“I’m a monster” says Natasha remembering her brutal education, which included GBH, murder and her voluntary sterilisation). He clearly isn’t, but as the plotline is rushed, it becomes easier to read an unintended message in it.

The area Whedon does handle well is juggling the huge number of characters he needs to keep tabs on at any one time – with careful plotting and some decent, fleet-footed scripting, he manages to allow each of the heroes a moment in the sun and a chance for the actors to breathe and perform. Those moments where the film takes five and doesn’t worry about the explosions and comic lore are the ones that work best – and also, perhaps, the ones most warmly embraced by the fans (never the best judges of what they think they will like – in advance they would probably have named the bland Iron Man-Hulk battle as the movie’s big sequence). 

There’s a reason why most people would probably remember sequences like the party scene, where our heroes playfully take it in turns to lift Thor’s hammer: they feel real and they deal with emotions and friendships that we can understand and relate to, in a way we can’t with a giant robot man hitting a big green guy for no real eason (can you tell I didn’t like that bit?). It’s why the sequence Whedon fought so hard to keep in the film – Barton’s log cabin – feels genuinely rather sweet and moving. These are sequences where our characters behave like human beings, and they are the sequences that make us connect with the film.

Anyway take a look at these two scenes - which is more interesting and engaging? Make up your own mind!

The best Marvel films have always had an eye for the incongruous insertion of our heroes into a real world. And by placing Barton (an empathetic Jeremy Renner) front and centre as the moral cornerstone of the film, contrasting his (albeit well-trained) normality against the Gods he fights with, Whedon allows elements of relatability to anchor the film. Renner makes an awful lot of Barton’s wistful longing for something away from Avenging, while his relationship with his wife (who “fully supports your Avenging”) is one of the first relationships in these films that feels like it could be from a regular movie.

It’s strengths like this that Whedon brings to these films. It’s not directorial vision – at heart Whedon is quite a televisual director, using simple camera set-ups without much visual flair. The action the film provides is entertaining enough, but in truth we’ve seen all this super action before, and few of the set pieces are really memorable. Even a few days away I’m struggling to remember them all. Which is not to say they are badly staged at all – they’re just nothing new or special, and in many ways just higher budget developments of things from the first film. Whedon’s real visual strength is in his instinct for a comic beat or sight gag – and the film delivers several of these.

Whedon also crucially forced through (against studio objections) the death of Quicksilver. Marvel strongly urged a cop-out final shot of Quicksilver either in a hospital bed or in recuperation, but Whedon wisely stuck to his guns. It was an important struggle, as it forces a sense of peril into this world and gives the viewer the sense that sometimes things might not always turn out well. This is particularly important, since Stark’s entire plot about his fears would make no sense in a world without stakes or consequences. It also allows Whedon to do some very neat audience misdirection with Barton – how many of us, watching Barton solemnly promise his wife that this will be ‘one last mission’, were expecting him to bite the big one later in the film?

Avengers: Age of Ultron is a compromised film, but still a decent one. It’s not in the top five Marvel films, let alone the top five superhero films, but it’s entertaining, has some decent action – and, above all, Whedon manages to put a bit of heart in heart, enough for us to care about the characters. It’s this factor so many of these films miss out on – and it’s a reason that, while Age of Ultron is flawed, it’s not fatally so, and will continue to entertain for a good many years yet.

Tuesday, 30 May 2017

The Mummy (1999)

Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz face off against their undead nemesis in The Mummy

Director: Stephen Sommers
Cast: Brendan Fraser (Rick O’Connell), Rachel Weisz (Evie Carnahan), John Hannah (Jonathan Carnahan), Arnold Vosloo (Imhotep), Kevin J O’Connor (Beni Gabor), Jonathan Hyde (Dr Allen Chamberlain), Oded Fehr (Ardeth Bay), Erick Avari (Dr Terrence Bey), Patricia Velasquez (Anck-Su-Namun), Omid Djalili (Warden Gad Hassan)

The Mummy came out so many years ago that it’s being “rebooted” again as a Tom Cruise vehicle, as part of a Universal “Monsters Cinematic Universe” (oh dear God, even writing it sounds terrible). I’ve no idea what the new Mummy is like, but I am pretty certain it won’t match this film for fun, excitement, wit or (most of all) honest, gee-shucks B-movie charm.

In ancient Egypt, High Priest Imhotep is cursed and buried alive after his affair with Pharaoh’s mistress; should he rise again, he will do so as an unstoppable monster. Flash forward to 1926 and adventurer Rick O’Connell (Brendan Fraser) is hired by Egyptologist Evie Carnahan (Rachel Weisz) and her chancer brother Jonathan (John Hannah) to guide them to the hidden city of Hamunaptra. There, in competition with a rival American team of explorers, they find the body of Imhotep, read aloud from the book of the dead, bring Imhotep back to life – and all hell breaks loose.

I’ll say it straight out: I think you’ve got to have a pretty hard heart not to have a soft spot in it for The Mummy. Tonally, it’s one of the few Hollywood family-action films that doesn’t have any major miss-step. It’s a silly, rather warm-hearted, B-movie action with intensely likeable leads and a series of entertaining set-pieces. Every frame has been shot and framed like an epic, old-school adventure movie – and the plot knowingly runs with its clich├ęs. It’s a film with literally no pretensions, which embraces its status as a piece of entertainment. And, I’d say, it succeeds magnificently at doing that.

It’s helped by a hugely charming performance from Brendan Fraser as a combination of Indiana Jones and Humphrey Bogart in The African Queen. Fraser’s got the chiselled good looks, but also a great deal of timing. The film gives him plenty of bon mots (“Patience is a virtue” Evie cries while decoding hieroglyphics; “Not right now it isn’t” Rick replies, staring at the hordes of possessed Egyptians heading their way) and he delivers them with a perfect 1930s matinee idol charm. It also helps that he has terrific chemistry with Rachel Weisz. 

Weisz plays her part with a sweet comic charm, but adds a growing toughness to the character that prevents her from being a damsel in distress. John Hannah is pretty good value as her comic relief brother, while Oded Fehr makes such a great impression in limited screentime as the representative of a group of ancient guardians, you are surprised he hasn’t had more opportunities since then. Arnold Vosloo plays the Mummy with a tinge of sadness round the edges that humanises a man who is literally a monster.

Stephen Sommers directs the film with a witty sense of visual humour. This ranges from the obvious comedy (a 360 shot that takes in Evie knocking over a series of bookcases) to the satirical (he has a lot of fun with the gun-toting, ill-fated American explorers throughout the film). He also keeps the film barrelling along, without overlooking opportunities for character development. Despite the constant stream of action beats you always feel you understand exactly what motivates Rick and Evie – and their growing attraction to each other feels carefully developed.

Perhaps in a way The Mummy shows how films have changed in the last 17 years. When it was released, it was denounced as a big, dumb action film. However, compared to some of the fast-cut, poorly scripted rubbish churned out now, it looks rather sweet, well structured and focused more on character than on effects. As such it’s a really enjoyable and charming film, miles head of crap like Batman vs. Superman. Release exactly the same film today and I think many would call it a breath of fresh air, without the wearying self-important tone that weighs down so many modern blockbusters.

No it’s not a work of genius and no it’s not perfect. Omid Djalili’s character sails perilously close to racial stereotype. The killing scarab beetles in particular sometimes go marginally too far for its family audience. The special effects look a bit dated at points. Logically of course the plot barely stands up to thinking about: who on each curses someone with a terrible curse that makes them invincible and immortal? Why not just punish Imhotep by killing him badly eh?

Sommers is no master film maker – later Mummy films would largely fail to recapture this magic – but when he gets his boys-own, B-movie style bang-on, as he does here (and in The Rocketeer), he is a wonderful entertainment merchant, who makes engaging, entertaining films. No it’s not going to win any awards or trouble any top ten lists, but it’s always going to put a smile on your face.

Monday, 29 May 2017

Total Recall (1990)

Arnold Schwarzenegger goes for a trip into his memories in Total Recall

Director: Paul Verhoeven
Cast: Arnold Schwarzenegger (Douglas Quaid/Carl Hauser), Rachel Ticotin (Melina), Sharon Stone (Lori Quaid), Ronny Cox (Vilos Conhaagen), Michael Ironside (Richter), Mel Johnson Jnr (Benny), Marshall Bell (George/Kuato), Roy Brocksmith (Dr Edgemar), Dean Norris (Tony)

Perhaps in 2084, they will look back on Schwarzenegger’s career and wonder what on earth we were all thinking. He was the figurehead of the 1980s fashion for muscle-bound leading men, defined more by physicality than acting ability. Since then, fashions have changed: movies are led by actors who go through hours of physical training, rather than weight lifters taking acting classes. Would Schwarzenegger be a star today? Quite possibly not: compare him to his nearest modern equivalent, Dwayne Johnson. Schwarzenegger doesn’t have an ounce of Johnson’s ability, wit or even charm. Would the world of twitter embrace an often one-note performer with a paper thin range? 

Schwarzenegger got where he was because, for all his lack of acting skill, he is a very clever man: he could spot a script and worked with people who got the best out of him. He turned himself into a brand: “Arnie” the pillar of strength, the master of the one-liner. It worked for films, it worked for politics. Which is all a long intro to say: in his best work, he put himself into decent roles in films from distinctive filmmakers, like Total Recall.

Total Recall is a semi-smart sci-fi action thriller, directed by Paul Verhoeven with his usual Dutch excess: part social satire, part wallow in extreme cartoonish violence and grotesque, Flemish-painting style imagery. Douglas Quaid (Arnie) is a construction worker in 2084, who dreams of escaping his humdrum life and visiting the Mars colony. He decides to visit Recall, a memory implantation centre which promises to give him memories of visiting Mars, with a twist: he’ll visit as a secret agent. However, the implantation reveals Quaid has hidden memories – he may in fact be rogue agent on the run, Carl Hauser. Before he knows it, everyone from his own wife (Sharon Stone) to a brutal intelligence operative (Michael Ironside) is hunting him with lethal force – and Quaid must head to Mars for answers about who he is.

Verhoeven’s sci-fi work adds a level of social satire to high concept stories. In Total Recall he mixes in his critical denunciations of big business and corporate ethics (also a major theme of Robocop) with an everyday acceptance of brutal violence that is so neck-breakingly, blood-spurtingly extreme in places it could only be social satire. Total Recall mocks our own ease with violence as entertainment, by setting itself in a world where the news broadcasts government troops machine gunning protestors (while a newsreader cheerily comments on the minimum use of violence), and the representatives of the Mars Corporation have literally no compunction or hesitation in inflicting huge numbers of civilian casualties in the crossfire.

A lot of this cartoonish violence spins out of the movie’s own playing around with the nature of reality. It leaves open the question of whether Quaid is really a spy in disguise, or if the film’s events occur only in his fractured brain suffering a terminal meltdown from an upload gone wrong. At Recall Quaid is promised his new fantasy memories will be full of action, he’ll get the girl and save the world. Needless to say he achieves all these things by the film’s end. Rachel Ticotin even appears on a screen in Recall as his “fantasy” woman. Is Quaid dreaming or not? It’s a question that is of more interest to viewers I suspect than the filmmakers (other than a few cheeky bits from Verhoeven), but it does tie in neatly with the almost dreamlike hyper violence Quaid dishes out: necks snapped, bodies spurting fountains of pinky red blood, dead bodies used as shields ripped to pieces by bullets. It’s all so extreme that it deliberately feels both not quite real and a mocking commentary on the bloodless action in other sci-fi films.

Schwarzenegger fits surprisingly well into all this. On paper, he’s completely miscast as an innocent discovering a hidden past, the future Governator anchoring a film with satirist leanings. But Verhoeven gets something out of Schwarzenegger in this film that works surprisingly well. Like James Cameron recognised, Verhoeven saw Arnie had a sort of upstanding sweetness amidst all the macho posturing. Arnie is surprisingly effective as Quaid, suddenly shocked at his capabilities for violence (as well of course or physically selling the action). Verhoeven taps into Arnie’s likeability (what other action star could sell “Consider this a divorce” as a punchline as he shoots his fake wife in the head?) and runs with it throughout the film.

As such, Schwazenegger makes a decent lead. It helps that he is willing to be a figure of fun at points. He wears a wet towel round his head to block transmissions. His face contorts ludicrously as he pulls an enormous probe from out of his nose. He infiltrates Mars dressed as an old woman. Most of this material fades away in the second half of the movie when Schwarzenegger reverts to the more typical heroic action (I suspect negotiations over the script shifted the film into a halfway house between a standard action movie and Verhoeven’s more satiric bent). But it’s all still there and helps humanise Quaid, so that we are on board with the slaughter he perpetrates later. Quaid is probably one of the best roles Arnie had – and Verhoeven does very well to fit a man so serious about himself into a world of self-parody. Saying that, the role is in some ways beyond Arnie’s reach – I’m not sure he is really plugged into or understands the dark comic tone of the movie, and he doesn’t really have the wit as a performer to do much more than deliver killer lines, certainly not to contribute to the dark satire Verhoeven is putting together.

As a whole the film doesn’t always deliver. Schwarzenegger seems at sea during scenes with his feisty, independent love interest played by Rachel Ticotin (this does her no favours, as her role hardly connects). Sharon Stone similarly has little chemistry with the Austrian Oak – although at least she has the second best role in the script as a vicious woman not afraid to use sex as a tool. The actual plot fits in nicely with the possibly dreamlike nature of what we are seeing, but the villain’s aims seem rather unclear, and the film lacks a strong enough antagonist (neither Michael Ironside or Ronny Cox have quite enough to make their thin characters come to life).

This plays into the film as being semi-smart: it’s a curious mix of smart and stupid. It’s got enough brains to poke a bit of fun at corporate America, and to make moral comments on our treatment of minorities (here represented by the mutants who inhabit Mars). On the other hand, it’s a schlocky action cartoon, that revels in ultra-violence while creating a world where, in universe, it is not considered extreme enough to comment on. 

Total Recall is a fun movie that allows you to read more into it than is probably really there. Verhoeven peddles themes around the nature of reality, and introduces satiric comments on corporations and violence in the media that don’t hit home so heavily that they become wearing. I also have to say I like its empathy with the vulnerable and weak – the mutant resistance on Mars is engagingly grounded and humane, particularly in contrast to the ruthless heartlessness of Mars Corp. It’s not a masterpiece, but as a smarter piece of popcorn fun it works really well.

For Schwarzenegger himself, this was his final non­­-Terminator hit. Terminator 2 (a year later), an undoubted work of genius, was his high watermark. Three attempts since to relaunch the Terminator franchise (all with mediocre or worse directors), demonstrate Schwarzenegger’s awareness his time was fleeting and dependent on his roles rather than his skills. Total Recall was Schwarzenegger doing something completely different, to great success – but also one of his last hits-. His run of good scripts, and pulp premises, came to an end here – but it was a good end. California awaited!