Wednesday, 22 April 2015

Avengers: Age of Ultron

WRITTEN BY: Joss Whedon
DIRECTED BY: Joss Whedon
STARRING: Robert Downey Jr, Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Elizabeth Olsen, James Spader, Cobie Smulders, Samuel L. Jackson
RATING: 5 stars

When Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr) and Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffallo) try to jump-start a dormant peacekeeping program using Loki's sceptre, they accidentally create the villainous Ultron (James Spader) who wants to wipe out the Avengers and humanity.

Just like the first Avengers film, the sequel has a lot of action, funny moments and great character development. There is something for everyone in this film. Despite having a running time of more than two hours, Avengers: Age of Ultron never drags. Some parts of the plot are quite technical but it is not very hard to follow. There is no doubt that writer/director Joss Whedon is an excellent filmmaker. His timing is brilliant with every arc in the story mapped out precisely.

It is also great to delve further into each character's personality and background, particularly Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) who has a fuller role this time. Banner, as opposed to the Hulk, is also given an opportunity to shine and his complex relationship with Natasha Romanoff (Scarlet Johansson) is handled well. There are also some fantastic cameos in the film that tie together loose strings from the individual films. The addition of Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Quicksilver and Elizabeth Olsen as Scarlet Witch to the cast works perfectly and the way they use Paul Bettany's Jarvis is interesting. Meanwhile, Spader makes a great villain who is very different to Loki while still being menacing and witty. Interestingly, the origin stories for several of the new characters are different to the comics but Whedon connects the dots well. The remaining original cast including Chris Hemsworth as Thor and Chris Evans as Captain America continue their fine form whether they are butting heads, cracking one-liners or working as a team.

Avengers: Age of Ultron is not quite as solid as its predecessor but it is no less enjoyable.

Tuesday, 21 April 2015

Ex Machina

WRITTEN BY: Alex Garland
DIRECTED BY: Alex Garland
STARRING: Alicia Vikander, Domhnall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac
RATING: 4 stars

Eccentric genius Nathan (Oscar Isaac) invented Blue Book, the world's best search engine, and now lives on a remote estate accessible only by helicopter. His latest invention is Ava (Alicia Vikander), a beautiful and intelligent robot. Programmer Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) is chosen from among Nathan's employees to visit his home and be the first person besides Nathan to interact with Ava. Caleb's role is to partake in a test to determine if Ava's personality is indistinguishable from a human.

Alex Garland has written several screenplays but this is his directorial debut. He expertly explores the human side of artificial intelligence, rather than making robots automatic evil adversaries to humanity. In fact, Ex Machina starts out as a science fiction tale with a hint of a bromance and a romance, before inevitably becoming a thriller. The film is certainly never boring despite confining the story to one place and three people. Garland's examination of sexuality is also unique as he looks at the bigger picture of how people experience and feel love and whether artificial intelligence can ever reach that level.

The characters are all so complex and intriguing. Nathan is strange in the way he tries to relate to Caleb as a friend but is actually more interested in getting drunk every night, exercising and playing with his inventions. Isaac is wonderful in the bratty role and he has a memorable dance scene that is both impressive and embarrassing – in a good way. In contrast, Caleb is an insecure geek who openly admires Nathan as a hero. Gleeson portrays him with a sweet naivety despite his technical abilities and he is relatable. But it is Vikander who steals many scenes with her facial expressions and mannerisms. Ava is at first shy but also curious and at times quite manipulative. Even as the story takes a more sinister turn, her character remains sympathetic.

Ex Machina is creepy, fascinating and thought-provoking. 

Friday, 17 April 2015

Testament of Youth

WRITTEN BY: Juliette Towhidi 
STARRING: Alicia Vikander, Kit Harington, Taron Egerton
RATING: 3.5 stars

Based on Vera Brittain's (Alicia Vikander) famed memoir, Testament of Youth chronicles the heroine's formative years during World War One including her romance with Roland Leighton (Kit Harington) and close relationship with her sweet brother Edward (Taron Egerton) who both defer their university studies to join the war. Meanwhile, Vera begins studying at Oxford university but soon takes time off to work as a nurse during the war.

Although it is a war film, Testament of Youth shows very few battle scenes. It is focussed more on the daily struggles of the women left behind in England as they continue their education, work in hospitals and agonising wait for the men to return home. At the time of the book's release, it was considered a ground-breaking and insightful examination of life for women during WWI, and Brittain remains an important figure for feminism and pacifism. The film is bittersweet, made all the more heartbreaking because it is based on a true story and many of the key plot points are accurate. The film is also visually lovely in its depiction of the English countryside and the period.

Vikander's beauty is captivating enough, but her performance is also very strong. Her character experiences a gamut of emotions and there are a lot of close-ups allowing her face to express her feelings. Her final speech is also incredibly moving. Harington shows he has a future after Game of Thrones and Egerton is also paving the way for a successful career. The trio have great chemistry too.

Testament of Youth feels drawn-out in some parts, but it will certainly tug at the heart strings. As we mark the 100th anniversary of the Anzac spirit, this film is worth seeing. It has nothing to do with Australia directly, but it has everything to do with the legacy of WWI and its effect around the world.

Tuesday, 14 April 2015

The Gunman

WRITTEN BY: Don MacPherson, Pete Travis, Sean Penn 
DIRECTED BY: Pierre Morel
STARRING: Sean Penn, Jasmine Trinca, Javier Bardem, Ray Winstone, Mark Rylance
RATING: 2 stars

Based on Jean-Patrick Manchette's novel, The Gunman introduces audiences to mercenary Martin Terrier (Sean Penn) who is hired to assassinate the Congo's head of mining. When the job is done, Terrier must flee immediately, leaving his oblivious aid worker girlfriend Annie (Jasmine Trinca) behind with their friend Felix (Javier Bardem). Years later, Terrier is trying to make up for his past when he becomes a target for assassination, thrusting him back into his old life.

Director Pierre Morel gave the world Taken, so action is definitely his forte. Unfortunately, that is all we really get from The Gunman because the plot is far too thin to make much sense at all. Perhaps it is because Penn – famed for his serious and thought-provoking roles – is the lead in this film that I automatically expected more depth and was therefore even more disappointed when there was none to be found. Penn certainly looks better than he ever has, with his slim frame bulging with muscles. Every opportunity is taken to show off his ripped body too, apparently to distract the audience from realising there is nothing else worth paying attention to in this drawn-out film. Idris Elba has such a minor and uninteresting role, it is a wonder what even attracted him to the part. A chance to work with Penn perhaps? Ray Winstone is his typical smart, tough guy self and is perhaps the most sympathetic character in the entire cast, playing Terrier's trusted friend. Mark Rylance is two-dimensional as Terrier's co-assassin and Bardem is so over-the-top it is embarrassing to watch. Trinca is alluring and has good chemistry with Penn, but her character is inconsistent. Ultimately, The Gunman is too long, nonsensical and its action sequences are unoriginal. 

Thursday, 9 April 2015

Black Sea

WRITTEN BY: Dennis Kelly 
DIRECTED BY: Kevin Macdonald
STARRING: Jude Law, Scoot McNairy, Ben Mendelsohn, Bobby Schofield, Grigoriy Dobrygin
RATING: 3 stars

When he is made redundant from his job in submarine salvaging, Captain Robinson (Jude Law) takes on a new secret mission to search the Black Sea for a sunken World War Two submarine rumoured to be full of gold. He creates a team made up of Britons, Russians and an Aussie. What begins as an exciting adventure, soon turns to a fight for survival as Robinson's crew start to unravel. 

Black Sea is far-fetched, too long and drags in some parts, but other scenes are intense and suspenseful. There will surely be a few times when you will feel slightly claustrophobic. The film is certainly not original in its themes, but it is still an interesting psychological thriller as the characters are pitted against each other when things start to go wrong. For some, racial tensions flare, while others become greedy for the treasure after years of bitterness about working for the man. Law's character is the most developed and he is very good as the commanding leader. Ben Mendelsohn plays a thrilling wild card diver named Fraser, who is great at his job but ruffles a few too many feathers along the way. Scoot McNairy is the weasel “banker” sent along on the mission by the financier, while Gregoriy Dobrygin plays the sympathetic Russian go-between and Bobby Schofield is an 18-year-old expectant father who is just trying to make some quick money. Unfortunately, most of the characters become totally unlikeable as their personal layers are peeled back. Nonetheless, considering most of the film takes place within the confines of a submarine, it is impressive that director Kevin Macdonald keeps Black Sea so gripping as paranoia and chaos ensue. 

Wednesday, 8 April 2015

The Longest Ride

WRITTEN BY: Craig Bolotin
DIRECTED BY: George Tillman Jr
STARRING: Scott Eastwood, Britt Robertson, Alan Alda, Oona Chaplin, Jack Huston
RATING: 3.5 stars

Luke Collins (Scott Eastwood) is a competitive bull rider making a comeback after a severe injury. When he meets Sophia Danko (Britt Robertson) they immediately start to develop feelings for each other. The only problem is that Sophia is planning to move to New York for an internship in two months. While on a date, the pair spot a car crash and pull elderly man Ira Levinson (Alan Alda) from the wreckage. Sophia starts to spend time with Ira in hospital and they bond as he recounts his own love story as a young man (Jack Huston) with his now deceased wife Ruth (Oona Chaplin).

At the very least, the world will forever be thankful to Hollywood for giving us Eastwood's naked chest and backside in The Longest Ride. At the end of the screening I attended, people cheered and clapped but it was perhaps more to do with Eastwood's sex appeal than the film itself. That is not to say that the film was not good. In fact, it had all the typical Nicholas Sparks romance and sweetness that we have come to expect from film adaptations of his novels. So, if that is appealing to you, then you will surely enjoy this film. The two sets of couples had great chemistry too, and Chaplin in particular gave a captivating performance. However, unlike the book, which made me cry, the film only had me shedding a few brief tears. That is probably because a lot of the substance and depth of the characters' struggles were lost in the film as writer Craig Bolotin tried to crunch the story down for the simplicity of film. It was also told in a different way to the novel and some sub-plots were left out completely. Despite all of that, director George Tillman Jr. stretched the film out to just over two hours and that was more than it needed. Nonetheless, the cinematography captures the beauty of the landscape and the story itself is romantically uplifting. 

Tuesday, 7 April 2015

While We're Young

WRITTEN BY: Noah Baumbach
DIRECTED BY: Noah Baumbach
STARRING: Ben Stiller, Naomi Watts, Adam Driver, Amanda Seyfried
RATING: 3.5 stars

Josh (Ben Stiller) and Cornelia (Naomi Watts) are a childless couple in their 40's who are becoming increasingly estranged from their baby-obsessed friends. Josh was once a promising documentary film maker but has been struggling for the past 10 years to produce a second film, while Cornelian continues to work as a producer with her big-shot father. After lecturing a class on documentaries, Josh is approached by aspiring film maker Jamie (Adam Driver) and his girlfriend Darby (Amanda Seyfried), who seem to provide a breath of fresh air as they work their way into Josh and Cornelia's lives.

This film is not the Stiller comedy his fans might be expecting. While We're Young is definitely funny, but it also has a lot of depth and explores serious issues. There are a lot of hilarious and poignant moments when you will be thinking “that is so true!” and it is a testament to writer/director Noah Baumbach that he is able to speak to the audience in such an honest way. Stiller and Watts make a great comedic and romantic pair, while Driver and Seyfriend epitomise the young carefree spirit of today's youth well. Each of the main characters are well-developed and complex so that the audience cares about them and the decisions they make. While We're Young says a lot about ageing, the integrity of documentary film making, life choices and family. It is a great way to spend 95 minutes. 

Friday, 3 April 2015

Fast and Furious 7

WRITTEN BY: Chris Morgan
STARRING: Vin Diesel, Paul Walker, Jason Statham, Michelle Rodriguez, Tyrese Gibson, Ludacris, Dwayne Johnson
RATING: 3 stars

As Dom (Vin Diesel) tries to reconnect with Letty (Michelle Rodriguez), who is still struggling to remember their life together, Brian (Paul Walker) is finding it difficult to adapt to suburban family life with Mia (Jordana Brewster) and their son. British assassin Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham) soon arrives to ruin everything, hunting down the car racing crew who put his little brother (Luke Evans) in hospital. So, Dom and his team join forces with the US authorities to snatch an ingenious tracking device from a mercenary named Jakande (Djimon Hounsou), and in exchange, the authorities promise to help them take Shaw down.

Fast and Furious 7 is one of the most ridiculous films I have ever seen, but it also left me an uncontrollable blubbering mess at the end, and it is all thanks to director James Wan and writer Chris Morgan. It is hard to imagine a more fitting conclusion for Walker's character in a way that still allows the franchise to continue, which is possible given the box office success this instalment has already achieved. Walker had filmed some scenes before his untimely death and the rest of the film was completed with some rewrites, editing and CGI on the faces of his stand-ins. They included Walker’s brothers, Caleb and Cody, and John Brotherton. While the effects are not perfect, they are as close as possible and it is only if a person is examining Walker in every scene that a viewer will notice it is not him. Meanwhile, the dialogue, which included Walker's voice as well as his brothers, were equally impressive. The film also had several touching references to Walker throughout, plus a lot of general nods to the previous films in the franchise including jokes about beer and Mia's sandwiches. But it was the very emotional tribute to Walker at the end that brought tears to many people's eyes. Dozens of audience members could be heard sniffing and there were some puffy eyes outside the cinema.

While it must have been a difficult task for the cast and crew to complete Fast and Furious 7, fans will be glad they did. The film is outrageous with action scenes including cars flying and people surviving miraculous crashes and falls. But by now, we all know what we are going to get from a Fast and Furious film. Statham is a welcome addition as the villain who seems to be as tough as the Terminator and as resourceful as MacGyver. Kurt Russell also has a memorable role as the covert Mr Nobody and Dwayne Johnson is used well as the one-man cavalry. Housou seems to be playing a caricature but at least he is having fun with it. Diesel and Rodriguez get to further develop their romance but it gets a little too sappy at times. Meanwhile, Tyrese Gibson and Chris “Ludacris” Bridges are reliably entertaining.

Fast and Furious 7 is mindless fun and more family-oriented than ever. Fans will love it.