Film

Disassembled – Avengers: Age of Ultron

The below is my initial thoughts on Avengers: Age of Ultron, pulled together into some vague order. Warning: It’s pretty damn’ spoilerific. Let’s start with the kind of brash prediction I have absolutely no business making: Age of Ultron will not break the same box office records as its predecessor. As I understand it, the only way a film makes as much money as The Avengers did is from people going more than once, more than twice, to get another hit of whatever emotional reaction seeing it elicited in the first place. Age of Ultron just isn’t that kind of film. In fact, much like Thor and Loki, the film is more or less the opposite of its older brother. Back in 2012, I wrote about my search for meaning in the original Avengers. My feeling then was that while the movie was a remarkable achievement of craftsmanship – bringing together at least four disparate universes and styles and transforming the rote last-half-hour punch-up of the Marvel formula into one my all-time favourite action scenes, the dopamine hit I reckon brought people back to the scene over and over gain – it wasn’t the piece of art I was hoping for. Age of Ultron, on the other hand, is full of meaning and metaphor and all that good stuff, but (at least on a first viewing – and let’s get two disclaimers out of the way here: 1, that the first Avengers only really came together for me on the second watch, though frankly that’s not something to commend it for, and 2, that the cinema screen we watched the film in had the house lights on throughout, and horribly muddled sound, so thanks for that Streatham Odeon) the plot is borderline incomprehensible. I often found myself adrift, lost among the mass of plots and characters. The origin of the Vision, whatever the hell Thor was up to for the majority of the film’s running time, Ultron’s evil plan – each of these seemed to require its own synopsis. Worse, there aren’t as many jokes. Much of Age of Ultron is leaden in this way, like the film hasn’t yet completed the alchemical process of editing, like it has been presented to us still halfway through transmuting into gold. But there are still plenty of nuggets which shine through. I often found myself with mouth open and eyes wide, drinking in the sheer childhood-fantasy-realised spectacle. The moments of superheroes leaping into action, the emotional arcs that the film manages to find for an impressive (though not total) number of its gigantic cast, Ultron’s philosophising soliloquies – each of these landed perfectly. There still aren’t enough jokes, though. These two halves can co-exist in a single scene. I remember a point during the climactic brawl, my internal monologue (rarely a welcome presence in the dark of the cinema) still trying to work out how exactly we’d gotten to this point, while in the other half of my cerebellum, something was shifting. The shape of the entire film fell into place. Not the plot, unfortunately, but the patterns of everything we’d been shown, how the stories of various characters cast shadow and light on one another – what I would call, if I wasn’t trying to convince you this was actually a fun read about a blockbuster superhero movie, the subtext. This is the stuff I really love about the film, and so with all the caveats already mentioned, I’d like to talk about the ways Age of Ultron tickled my brain, and the shape I saw in that moment. Which, to borrow the pithy tweet-sized thought that popped into my head then, is: Age of Ultron is the biggest-budget movie about how hard it is to make a big-budget movie I’ve ever seen. Let’s start with Hawkeye. After a difficult first film (mind-controlled, bed-bound) that had Jeremy Renner reportedly threatening to quit, this time round he gets a role that you could argue makes Hawkeye not only the primary protagonist of  Age of Ultron, but an author surrogate for Joss Whedon himself. Let’s grab a quote from the recent Buzzfeed profile of Whedon, which I read a few days before sitting down in the cinema and, honestly, heavily influenced my thinking on the film: By March, as he sat down to dinner near Disney’s Burbank, California, studio lot, where he had been living as he worked with two editors to finish Age of Ultron, that guilt was weighing especially on his mind. “I didn’t feel it was right to spend that time away from family, even before I had kids,” Whedon said. “I felt like if it wasn’t the headline experience, that I was being self-indulgent in being there, and it was frustrating.” Around halfway through Age of Ultron, Hawkeye takes his teammates to a safe house, where it’s revealed that there is a Mrs Hawkeye, and two baby Hawkeyes, and a third on the way. A family that live, in secret, away from the kinds of cities where those big super-hero/villain battles tend to take place. A family that, Black Widow excepted, none of his work friends know anything about. A family that he rarely sees because he’s so busy Avenging. Those dots aren’t exactly hard to connect. But if Age of Ultron was entirely a autobiographical story about how hard it is to be a writer, it would have failed its audience dramatically. Luckily, I think the film stretches itself much wider than that, reaching for something we can pretty much all relate to. See, for Hawkeye at least – and this is something he explicitly references a few times in dialogue – being an Avenger is a job. (And this is part of the difference between the character’s solo films, where they combat problems that threaten them personally, and their appearances in the Avengers.) It’s an unusual job, for sure, but one with a familiar challenge: balancing it with the rest of your life. The revelation that Hawkeye […]

2014: Film of the Year

Happy New Year! Why not celebrate the start of 2015 by spending a bit more time looking back over 2015? I’ll be posting a Best Of thing every day for the next week or so, starting today with a spoiler-rich piece on…   My favourite film of 2014 was much easier to pick than my favourite game, album or any of the rest. Of all my selections, though, it was also the one which gave me the most pause. I’m aware of how few films I saw at the cinema this year, and how that affects my decision. I have no problem with naming a kids’ film as my favourite, but there is the fact that The Lego Movie is now the cornerstone of a big lumbering franchise about which I’m not too excited – and, you know, the whole argument that it’s a feature-length advert. I think at the time of The Lego Movie‘s release, people focused far too much on that last thing. The number of reviews which locked the film down into ‘good for what it is’ – meaning, good for a film produced as a piece of marketing, or good considering it had to negotiate the whims of a major corporation. It feels like a typically grown-up way of approaching something that’s so full of joy.   It’s hard to deny that this in the mix, and one of the many things that is interesting about The Lego Movie is how it puts that conflict at its core. After all, the film’s main villain is named ‘President Business’, whose nefarious plan involves drawing strict lines between each world, separating cowboy Lego from castles-&-knights Lego from Star Wars Lego – pretty much Lego’s business model over the past decade. People have accused Lego of stifling kids’ creativity as its sets become increasingly reliant on building a single thing, with instructions and exact quantities of serial-numbered pieces. That’s right there in the film too, with the contrast between the freedom of the Master Builders’ creations and main character Emmett’s inability to stray from the instructions. So, yeah, it’s kind of impressive that Lord & Miller managed to use Lego’s license to create a 90-minute review of the product that isn’t entirely positive. But if that’s as far as you get with The Lego Movie– either boo consumerism or yay sticking it to the man– I’d say you weren’t paying enough attention.Even if you insist with engaging with the film purely on that level, it’s not just the Lego corporation that is under examination here: it’s the users too. The whole film engages in this, showing three distinct ways of playing with Lego through the Master Builders, Emmett, and President Business, but by the time it switches to live-action, this isn’t even subtext any more. Let’s just grab some sample dialogue from the Lego-enthusiast dad (and Lord Business alter ego) played by Will Ferrell in these segments: “This isn’t a toy! … It’s a highly sophisticated inter-locking brick system! … The way I’m using it makes it an adult thing!” Yeah, it’s not exactly subtle, and at this point we could branch off into a rant about the insecurities of fans of games, comics and a thousand other niche nerdy pursuits, but again I think it would be missing what’s actually important about these scenes, namely the father-son interactions. Initially, the ‘real world’ is shot like a surreal horror film, but it slowly morphs into a low-key family drama which manages to be incredibly heart-warming given the short amount of time we spend with the characters. That it’s just a secondary strand of the narrative, which doesn’t undermine the reality of the animated Lego world and characters, is much more impressive to me than the biting-the-hand-that-feeds stuff. This third-act twist, if you can call it that, makes absolute sense. The entire film has the joyful energy of a child at play, constantly wanting to show you the latest thing it’s come up with, so it makes sense that it would turn out to be authored by an eight year old boy.   Here’s an amazing vista rendered in coloured plastic bricks! Oh, here are some police alligators! Hey, you might want to freeze-frame this bit to check out all the background jokes! Oh look, here’s Superman and Shakespeare and Gandalf and Milhouse from The Simpsons all just hanging out! Cool! This seems like an apt time to mention that the film is gorgeous. It uses deep focus in a way that’s reminiscent of photography, so that I had to check whether the animation was entirely computer-generated or if it used stop-motion models. It has endless fun with the restrictions of Lego, both for gags – characters pulling off their hair to put on a new hat, horses that leap around without moving their legs – and for spectacle – meticulously constructed fight scenes; handmade title cards; the way that the Lego sea moves. The Lego Movie is absolutely packed with these moments of unique spectacle, and if pressed, I’d probably identify spectacle as the single thing I want most from cinema. …No, wait, Batman! That’s the main thing I want from cinema. I’ve heard people point to Will Arnett’s Batman as the best depiction of the caped crusader ever seen on the big screen, and it’s kind of hard to argue with them. I love that the film’s Bruce Wayne is more Christian-Bale-in-American-Psycho-businessdouche than Bale’s actual portrayal. Plus, the self-centred older boyfriend with his own car who writes songs about his tortured soul is an excellent unspooling of the ‘Batman should be grim ‘n’ gritty’ argument. (You can make your own connections back to the “The way I’m using it makes it an adult thing!” here, if you wish.) At the same time, though, The Lego Movie also shows what is great about Batman. It features probably the best-ever version of That Scene where the whole Justice League gets taken prisoner but Batman escapes to save the day later […]

2012’s Finest: THE CABIN IN THE WOODS

THE CABIN IN THE WOODSPeople talk about The Cabin in the Woods as a post-modern horror film, and it sort of is, but the word I keep coming back to is ‘maximalist’. That makes it hard to write about. The film is essentially its own essay. Taking into account the fact that talking about anything, even its opening scene, could outright ruin the experience of watching The Cabin in the Woods, and it’s almost impossible to know where to start. So I’m just going to just spoil everything. Consider this fair warning. It’s a film worth seeing, and worth seeing with as few preconceptions as possible. A lot of the joy of Cabin in the Woods lies in discovering it. If you haven’t seen it yet, I hope the fact that I singled it out of a great year of movies is all the encouragement you’ll need to check it out. If you have… well, I hope you’re sitting comfortably. Drew Goddard (director, co-writer, of Cloverfield, Lost, Buffy fame) and Joss Whedon (co-writer, of being Joss Whedon fame) apparently wrote this film over a furiously creative weekend, locked in a rented bungalow until it was finished. That feeds noticeably into the film’s feel, its tone and density, but really I’m really just bringing it up as a historical sidenote. Going into the cinema, I was excited to see a new Whedon film, but that was quickly jettisoned in favour of just trying to keep up. Cabin in the Woods constantly delights in pulling out not just the rug but the entire floor out from under you. The film’s 90-minute running time is divided into rough thirds. It’s actually a pretty great American Pie-style teen comedy for its first half hour, mixing up gross-out humour with genuine wit: Five College Kids. One RV. The Holiday of a Lifetime. Then a hatch opens up in the floor of the cabin, and the five of them step into the basement, and accidentally raise the dead. The Buckners, to be precise, a “zombie redneck torture family”. The kids start to get picked off, one by one, in a variety of gruesome ways, as they try and escape the cabin. Then, just as it looks like they’re all dead and we can all go home, the film takes a left turn into sheer insanity. The two surviving kids find a hidden underground hatch, and step behind the curtain, and help bring about the end of the world. Each half-hour segment could almost be its own film. It’s standard slasher-film business, I believe, to set up the characters in a non-murderous status quo, but I really would pay to see that Goddard/Whedon teen comedy. And it’s impressive how close to the half-hour mark each act change comes. …Except it’s not that simple, even structurally. The whole film jumps between these kids and an entirely different set of characters. They’re actually the first characters on screen, as the film cuts from its credit sequence showing various historical depictions of human sacrifice to two guys discussing their wives over a coffee. Pull back: they’re in a lab of some variety. Pull back: they’re monitoring the kids. Over the course of the film, we pull back and pull back (it’s here that Goddard’s Lost pedigree shines clearest) until the full truth of the situation is apparent. They’re the guys who make the horror movies – manipulate the kids, prep the locations, and drop in the killer clowns/zombies/unicorns until all the kids are dead. They’re making them for the benefit of the Old Ones, world-destroying demons whose hunger for human sacrifices apparently got a whole lot funkier circa 1968. It’s easy to see where the post-modern thing comes from. We’re watching the film from over these guys’ shoulders – they’re the filmmakers, checking conditions are just right on their banks of monitors, and the audience, cracking a beer and whooping as the blonde pulls her top off. On its own, that could make for a reasonably interesting film, but nothing particularly new – a combination of Scream and Michael Haneke’s Funny Games. Trying to force the audience to question why they’re here watching these acts of unspeakable violence is a bit of a well-worn furrow for horror films. And I think that, for people who found the film a bit clever-clever or less original than it thought it was, this is where they stopped. But I think that misunderstands the film a little. Yes, it plays with horror tropes, to varied effect. The clichéd ‘creepy old guy at the gas station’ is played for laughs, but the way the kids are sorted into ‘whore/athlete/scholar/fool/virgin’ archetypes, while making it clear that none of them really fit that role, is a serious criticism. But Cabin in the Woods isn’t that interested in making a single argument, about horror or otherwise, as much as revelling in the joy of just arguing. It’s a film about pretty much everything. The catharsis of violence in movies, yes, as both a good and bad thing. How that ties into our need to see people punished. The way the older generation can view the youth in tabloid-simplistic terms. How young beautiful bodies are commoditised. Reality TV. The fact that the younger generation genuinely are arrogant and selfish. Whether it’s right to force people to sacrifice themselves for the greater good. Whether it’s right to say no. How quickly we can become desensitised to that question, and to graphic violence. The rise of ‘torture porn’. How we cope with a violent world. How we cope with our jobs, unethical as they might be. The banality of evil. How we cope with boredom. Pause for breath. It’s a film which tries turning on every switch, is what I’m saying. Even better, it’s on everyone’s side. There are, at least, ten characters in this film, and Cabin in the Woods is interested in all of their viewpoints. The guys behind the curtain aren’t depicted as straight-up bad guys – they’re sympathetic and, […]

It’s the End of the Year as We Know It: THE FILMS OF 2012

I suspect that 2012 was a really exceptional year for film, if only because the list of films I regret missing in cinemas – The Raid, Skyfall, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Dredd, Sightseers, Silver Linings Playbook, Moonrise Kingdom, Life of Pi, Beasts of the Southern Wild – is far longer than the list below, and I was more than happy with the year of films as it was. For me, though, 2012 was all about Joss Whedon. Three out of the dozen times I made it to the cinema this year were down to Whedon, who released two films (of the three it looked like we might be getting at the start of the year, boo hiss Much Ado). One of them was the year’s biggest grossing; the other was my personal favourite experience in a cinema all year. We’ll get to the latter in another post, but (Marvel’s) Avengers (Assemble) was exciting because of the amount of influence and money it seems to be putting into the hands of one of my favourite directors – but also because it’s a truly great blockbuster, one which inspired me to write 3,000 words back in August. Six months on, what I remember about it most is: -Containing a whole bunch of moments which caused my jaw to drop – the helicarrier, Black Widow kicking guys in their heads, the vast majority of the final action scene. -Being a great and colourful introduction to a sprawling family I want to spend more time with – probably the way in which Avengers is truest to the (very best of) its source material. -Geoff being absolutely wrong about Hulk, something we fight over in pubs to this day. He argues Hulk is treated too lightly, with too much comic relief given over to this monstrous being. But of course, Mark Ruffalo is the best Hulk ever, including the pencil-and-ink one, and it’s a totally Whedon thing to get that the Id isn’t a completely bad thing. Denying a whole part of you – the funny bit, the sexy bit, the bit that likes to dance – is where the sickness really starts (for all people who haven’t taught The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde to an A-Level English class, now would be the time to go and reread it). There are maybe some continuity issues with the previous film, but for me these films are so much about stripping these characters back to their core metaphors and letting that interpretation run rampant for two hours that it doesn’t matter too much. Oh, and it of course absolutely stomped all over the highly misleadingly titled Amazing Spider-Man, which had thirty seconds of great fight scene and Emma Stone in high socks. How it compares to that Other Superhero Film of the Year, Dark Knight Rises, I sadly can’t answer, as I still haven’t seen it – something which owes a lot to the deflated reaction that followed its incredibly hyped release, and a conversation with Tim ‘Person of the Year‘ Maytom in a Camden pub in which he described trucks of cash being driven up to Chris Nolan’s front door in a borderline threatening manner. As seems to be the official line on it, Brave wasn’t Pixar’s best, but it was still a non-Cars Pixar film, and therefore pretty great. It took a standard-issue fantasy setting and set of tropes, along with a rather broad sense of humour, and made something beautiful (though it was out-prettied by the accompanying La Luna short) and engaging, with the rare achievement of fight scenes that had me rooting desperately for the good guys. Also, it was yet another reminder that the combination of sweeping scores and parental relations in a cinema can put a very big lump at the back of my throat. “THIS DECADE’S THE MATRIX,” the poster screamed. The chorus of early reviews roughly concurred. I went into Looper thinking it might be my film of the year, which is never a healthy expectation, and given that, it handled itself very well. Looper is a neat package – a smart concept, neatly executed, and full of neat moments I won’t spoil here. It’s set in just the right kind of sci-fi world, one that is rarely pushed in your face, but rather gives you the pleasure of hunting through the background details and piecing together a history of the future yourself. It toyed with other film’s visions of the future, but found its own identity in the wide open spaces that surrounded the futuristic city. There’s also a full essay on how cleverly it presents and contrasts Willis and Gordon-Levitt’s firearms, to characterise the differences between them and to help define the plot, and what we can all learn from that. But that’s a story for another time – and besides, what’s most important, more than how stylish and smart it was, is that how surprisingly emotionally involving Looper was. Watching it the week after Brave, its climax matched that film in the ‘nearly making Alex cry’ stakes. Beyond that, I’m finding myself having to score the release schedules to remember what I actually saw. Young Adult was a downbeat, volume-turned-down follow up to Juno from Cody/Reitman, swapping that film’s primary colours caricature for something more muted and aching. Something a bit more adult… but not quite grown up. It was great, and just the right level of tough, and deserves a spot on everyone’s DVD shelf. Cosmopolis left me cold despite taking the approach to sci-fi I described above, and despite the great line-up of talent involved. Seen on a whim, Red Lights was very pleasant, if unspectacular, company for two hours. American (Pie: The) Reunion left me wandering around Tesco’s feeling strangely desolate about growing up.

The Avengers – What’s The What, How’s The How, and Why’s The Why, Part Three

Here we are at last, the final piece of the puzzle.  If you’ve made it through parts one and two of this overly in-depth look at Marvel’s record-breaking, block-busting summer team-up behemoth The Avengers, then I am genuinely grateful. If you haven’t … well, don’t you think you’d better catch up?  III. The Why “I don’t like to create something that doesn’t say anything.” –Joss Whedon The Avengers is, more or less, an almost-seamless machine for producing childlike joy. Given how fully it succeeds in this respect, it seems churlish to ask of it what I’m about to ask. But I’m a man who owns a 500-page book of essays on Whedon’s work and… well, see the above quote. Is it meant to make you feel anything, being awesome? Is it about anything except the maths of Iron Man + Hulk = AWESOME? Does it have anything to say? Yes. Maybe. No. Kind of. Emotionally speaking, all you’ve got is the trad. Whedon death. But here, it’s explicitly worked to fuel the plot. As well-worked into the public’s affections as Coulson is, his passing isn’t really worked for emotion the way any number of Whedon characters are (e.g. [REDACTED], [REDACTED], and, of course, [REDACTED]. Boy, that one was really something, wasn’t it?) The story, intermittently, is about a lot of the usual modern-superhero-film things – America as a superpower; the military-industrial complex; image and perception; all adding up to the question of how superheroes function in a realistic, modern world. It’s about a lot of the usual Joss Whedon things, too – outsiders vs. authority; the cost of victory; and, perhaps most of all, building a family out of what was previously just a disparate handful of people. It’s not especially about those things, though. So maybe it’s a character study? After my first viewing, I was a bit disappointed there wasn’t more attention given over to each character. You know, just time chilling with the heroes, maybe a little peek at how Whedon reckons each of their minds work. It seems likely a lot of that may have ended up on the cutting room floor, but there is still plenty there – it’s just under the surface. It’s in Ruffalo’s fidgety faux-calm performance, and little throwaway lines, and how we meet each character. I was left craving their characters’ company (Which I reckon goes some way to explain the millions of people who apparently have come out of the theatre, bought a ticket and maybe some overpriced salty snacks, and just gone right back in. They’re not, I think, going back in to see the same dozen explosions.) Really – and this should come as no surprise – the characters are what The Avengers is all about. And what the character stuff wants to talk about, mostly, seems to be control. Look at Loki. Like all the best baddies, the threat he poses isn’t solely violent, though obviously with all the explosions and the alien invasion, there is that. It’s a philosophical threat. Loki doesn’t want to destroy the earth, he just wants to impose his worldview on it – that, as a god, he is superior, and as such they should relinquish their free will. Which is precisely what he does to Hawkeye and Dr Selvig at the start of the film. (Interestingly, though, they’re not quite empty-eyed drones. Rather than being fully stripped of their sense of self, they’re just reduced to their roles as scientist and soldier – and Selvig especially seems to be really enjoying himself.) But Loki, it turns out, is part of a larger chain of command – he’s bossed over by the slightly naff-looking alien, who himself turns out to be a lackey of Thanos. And that echoes the one on the Avengers’ side, of the World Security Council – who are trying to exert power over people because They Know What’s Best (rarely a good sign in Whedon’s work) – and Nick Fury – whose most heroic moment in the film is simply resisting the control of his shadowy superiors and letting the Avengers go free. It’s a chain of people trying to exercise control over one another – and mostly failing. Control over oneself, though? That’s quite different. It’s pretty much Black Widow’s superpower. Twice in the film she shows her ability to remove herself from her emotions, and weaponise them. That that self-control is only broken by her fear of the Hulk sets up a fascinating dynamic between the two and, in breaking her outer shell a little, provides a way in for any future filmmakers dealing with her. Tony Stark sits at a balanced midpoint, having had time in two solo feature films to run through most of his self-control issues. That’s great, because it stops Downey Jr from stealing the whole damn show like he threatened to in the trailers, and because it allows him to bond with the character around which the film naturally finds its fascinating centre. The Hulk. If ever there was a character about the questions of self-control, it’s the Hulk. It’s built into his verdant DNA. Whedon finds a fresh spin on it, something more nuanced and subtle than most interpretations of the Hulk, and Ruffalo sticks the landing effortlessly. He’s treated like a poorly-stored nuclear weapon by most of his teammates but, for the most part, Banner’s pretty damn chill about everything. It doesn’t fit with our basic perception of the Hulk, but then you start to notice Ruffalo’s ever-busy hands, and then he casually drops the littlest of big reveals: “I’m always angry”. The first time, it knit my brows. It’s such a throwaway line, but in its implications – embracing that life isn’t a clean break between calm and anger, that anger perhaps isn’t such a bad emotion – those three words manage to make the job of the next Hulk director a whole lot harder. All that control stuff is built into the structure, too. It’s a byproduct of the way The […]

The Avengers – What’s The What, How’s The How, and Why’s The Why, Part Two

Being the Second Parte of our examination of The Avengers motion picture (J. Whedon, esq.) The first is available for your perusal here. II. The How “And there came a day, a day unlike any other, when Earth’s mightiest heroes and heroines found themselves united against a common threat. On that day, the Avengers were born—to fight the foes no single super hero could withstand!” –Folklore …And there’s your movie, more or less. That silver-age elevator pitch, turned into two and a half hours of cinema. There’s never any more plot than that, really – but why would you need any? That means it’s all about the execution. The whole thing hangs off a familiar skeleton of a story, and so – like everything in life, really – it’s all about the people you spend your time with. We’ve already met Clint “Hawkeye” Barton (Jeremy Renner) in the opening. It’s one of those choices I mentioned finding fascinating. The order, pacing and details of each Avenger’s introduction is masterful. Such a mish-mash of down-to-earth army men, semi-plausible science heroes and alien gods requires no small amount of disbelief-suspension, and Hawkeye’s a great example of that. On one hand, he’s the easiest sell of the movie – no powers, just an extraordinarily talented commando. (File alongside Bourne, Rambo, and the now-thrice-invoked Daniel Craig Bond.) On the other… A man with a bow and arrow in a world of gods and robots? One who the general public have never heard of, except for the briefest of glimpses in Thor? Whose wardrobe oscillates between garish purple and leather fetishwear?  Frankly, his inclusion in the Earth’s Mightiest Heroes is a bit of a headscratcher. So the Great God Whedon (or, technically speaking, the Evil God Loki) takes Hawkeye and turns him. A touch of mind-control magic, et voila, you’ve got yourself Evil Hawkeye. It’s a brilliant way of setting up a character who is essentially Robin-Hood-in-a-wifebeater as a credible threat. Seeing how much he puts the fear up our super-powered heroes makes it clear he’s no joke, so that when he’s finally brought back and turned against the baddies, it feels like a powerful weapon is being drawn. Throw in some incredibly cool gadget moments, and Hawkeye becomes someone you could actually imagine the kids fighting over getting to be the next morning in the playground. The introduction of Natasha “Black Widow” Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) comes next for similar reasons – she had low-level powers, little brand awareness, no film of her own and, worst of all, is a girl. (Urghhhh!)  And so Whedon, rather predictably, luxuriates in her introduction, which subverts a damsel-in-distress cliché into a scene-controlling badass with all the ease of a chair to the face. When we meet her, Natasha is tied to a chair, being interrogated by three Russian men. It’s not hard to spot the sexual power balance there. It’s played for just long enough to be convincing then – bam – it turns out she’s not helpless after all, but was in control all along. Plus, suddenly she can move like the deadliest ballerina not featuring in Black Swan.  And we should have known, not just because it’s Whedon but because it’s so clearly coded as a performance – the spotlight falling so perfectly on her, the use of mirrors, the contrast between set (ruins of a Soviet car park) and costume (little black dress). It’s pure theatre, and peppered with enough jokes that it doesn’t seem like it has any agenda to preach. And, once we’ve gotten past the intro of a new Bruce “Hulk” Banner (Mark Ruffalo) – possibly the biggest brand in the whole cast, but with his face, behaviour and body having undergone an appropriately mysterious transformation, from a fairly one-note performance by Ed Norton to Ruffalo’s hand-wringing suppressed brilliance – and Steve “Captain America” Rogers (Chris Evans) – straightforward super-punchy leader, bit jingoistic, but brushed away with a quick “maybe we need a bit of the old fashioned” – we’re back on easy street, with the People’s Favourite, Tony “Iron Man” Stark (Robert Downey Jr).  But Whedon still takes care to set up each scene, borrowing just enough visual elements from the characters’ disparate movies to sell them as a cohesive unit – settings, camera work and, most noticeably, colour palettes. Banner in India is all muted oranges and dusty browns, with green lifted subtly out of the mix. Tony lives in a world of his own construction, all translucent screens and glaring chrome, light by neon. Cap, until he steps out into the world, inhabits a worn, slightly sepia-toned piece of film. As the characters are brought together, those palettes are mixed. The four-colour world of the more superheroey superheroes is tempered by the midnight blues of the military elements. It means the film ends up with something that doesn’t have all that much visual style of its own, except the house style. Whedon relinquishes control as director to help sell the idea of these characters co-existing in a way that’s logical. From there, it’s time to start showing how they work together – starting in Stuttgart, which we’ll come back to – but there’s still a piece missing. The film has still got to sell the audience on a Norse God of Thunder in a bright red cape. Thor “Thor” Odinson (Chris Hemsworth). For the duration, Thor is the one character that is kept lowest in the mix. He has his share of wonderful moments – Hemsworth is an incredibly charismatic and funny actor, who brings something to Thor that I’ve never really seen in the comics – but it’s often the case that they are his moments. Segments featuring Thor and Loki rewrite the script into, as Stark puts it, “Shakespeare in the park”. It couldn’t be truer – the complicated relationship, the family ties, the wordplay, the Iago-ness of Loki cast against the Othello-ness of Thor. And that’s great, but it doesn’t quite fit, and so Thor is […]

The Avengers – What’s The What, How’s The How, and Why’s The Why, Part One

The first of a three-part analysis of Marvel’s The Avengers or Avengers Assemble or Los Vengadores, or whatever name it was released under where you live. I. The What “These people shouldn’t be in the same room, let alone on the same team. And that is the definition of family.”  –Joss Whedon Most people came to The Avengers as fans of Iron Man, and the glut of not-quite-as-good Marvel films that have followed it. A lot came as fans of Avengers comics, whether Stan Lee’s or Brian Bendis’. Me? I came to it as a fan of Joseph ‘Joss’ Whedon. For me, at least, it’s fascinating to observe all the choices made by Mr Whedon (even though it’s impossible to know what part each of the army of people – and it truly is an army, as anyone who has sat all the way through the credits will attest – is responsible for all the choices and elements that make The Avengers work, who really had control. So for the sake of ease, let’s refer to all the invisible people – not the actors, but the producers, cameramen, special effects people, best boys – all the people who exist only behind the camera, as “Joss Whedon”. It’s a handy amalgam). It’s through that lens we’ll be examining the film – starting at its opening which, having dived straight into the sci-fi-fantasy elements, brings them immediately to earth. To a top-secret SHIELD base in the US desert base, being more specific. And so, that spark of supernatural – which, let’s be honest, with its slightly naff alien baddie and questionable physics, is a bit of a hard sell – grounds itself in the familiar reality of this militaristic set-up. All the bases, helicopters, jeeps, tight-fitting leather uniforms and dark muted colours place us in a comfortingly recognisable genre – the post-9/11, post-24 military blockbuster. For the first ten minutes or so, The Avengers is essentially a Craig-era Bond film. The message is clear. This is the world that is going to be hanging in the balance – our own. (Or, at least, the modern cinematic version of it). But then there’s that pesky supernatural spark I mentioned, which earths in plot terms, too, in the form of Loki (Tom Hiddleston), Thor’s Big Bad and Thor’s little brother. Being a magic-stick-of-deadly-blue-energy-wielding alien god, he’s the one element that’s out of place in this world, and genre. Accordingly, his arrival overturns it, literally and bombastically – as SHIELD’s highest-tech, most-prolifically-satellite-dished base collapses into sand in a matter of minutes. Again, there’s a clear message – not only is Loki a big threat, but his very existence disrupts the natural order of the world he’s in (reminder: our world). Even Daniel Craig couldn’t stop this one. We’re going to need something new. Read part two – The How(or skip to Part Three, if you’re that way inclined)

The Great Blog Crossover – Having Favourites is Just Favouritism

Sam Willet is a hairy-faced love god. He also runs a rather fine blog, the excellently named Escape Rope, in which he talks everything he loves, including music, sport, and food. It’s a scattershot approach I respect and encourage heartily. Given our mutual admiration, we decided it might be time, in the fine Amalgam Comics tradition, to enjoy a bit of a crossover between our two blogs. It’s the Summer Event You Never Asked For! So here’s Mssr Willet – with italicised interjections from my jerkish self – coming onto my blog and spitting on its illustrious tradition of Having Favourite Things. Spitting on the idea, spitting and spitting, until his salivary glands run dry. It’s always really riled me when people ask me: what’s your favourite… band/song/film?. How the heck do I know? It’s like being asked to some up your life in one sentence. Feelings towards media and culture are conditional on what’s going on in the rest of your life at the time. So, I’ve come to a decision. From this day forth, whenever I get asked the dreaded ‘What’s your favourite (insert cultural product here)?’ question, I’m going to either: a) Walk away, gleeful at shirking my social responsibilities.b) Say ‘I don’t know’ and smile dumbly.c) Hastily change the subject.d) Fall over and feign injury.e) Shout ‘NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!’ into the questioner’s face until they flee or dissolve. And I’ll tell you for why, using an example: My most recent favourite album, when asked, was In the Aeroplane Over the Sea by Neutral Milk Hotel. This was largely based on the fact that I believed that the record elicited from me a particularly strong emotional response, one which I greatly appreciated. I believed I had a special relationship with that album, and I truly treasured it. But more recently I have come to question this, for a few reasons. In no particular order: I gradually realised that the band were a bit better known than I had thought, and their popularity went beyond that of a small, cult following. It is common enough to feel more strongly for that which is known to few, rather than that which is known to many, but I still occasionally feel guilty about this, as it carries with it the suggestion that most people are idiots – cultural elitism. I also read and heard the band described as ‘Indie’, a genre label that grinds my gears in a very acute way, and discussion of which I will save for another time. But crucially, I also found that the more I told people this was my favourite record, the less I believed it, and the more that the unfathomable magic dust which had bound this album and I together seemed to ebb away. If you have a favourite film, then you probably don’t appreciate film as much as you could*. The same goes for music. There are so many reasons to enjoy these things, so many positives and negatives to be taken away from them, all surrounded in each individual’s unique personal culture and context, that I just can’t understand how someone would be able to name their favourite, or why they should be compelled to. The instant I single out a cultural product as my favourite, the main emotion I experience is regret. What about all the options I didn’t consider? Somebody’s probably heard that and thinks I’m an idiot! Sherbert! [–Politeness Ed] So I’m not a person suited to having favourite things. I think my favourite food is curry, but what about all the other tasty dishes out there? It’s just not fair. Not since primary school have I considered anyone to be my best friend – sad maybe, but it’s a concept which has never sat well with me**. Is it too cynical to suggest that it’s childish to have a best friend? It’s certainly an arrangement that feels weirder to encounter as you get older. People aside, the best solution is to write lists. I have a predisposition for lists – I have a worrying tendency to resort to them for all of my decisions. But for films and music, it would take a huge investment of time an effort to create lists which I would be even close to happy with. I can just imagine the proud completion of my lists, showing everything I enjoy in genre categories and rank order, pinning them up on the wall and then someone walking into the room and saying ‘why isn’t The Big Lebowski under your favourite comedies – I thought you loved that film?’. There is a moment or two of silence before I tear the wretched paper from the walls and run out of the house into the street, blubbing horrifically. I haven’t listened to In the Aeroplane Over the Sea in its entirety for ages. I await my next listen with trepidation. I fear it won’t feel the same. There is certainly a strong link between this fear and my big mouth. *Or you have devised a completely watertight way of empirically measuring the goodness of films, as this blog obviously has.**Even having met the impishly handsome proprietor of this blog. The man is incorrigible, dear readers.

Favourite Films on Friday: #01, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

This is my favourite film. It will probably remain my favourite film forever, and now I am etching that onto the stainless steel face of the internet, where it will stay as long as I pay my URL fees. How’s that for commitment? It’s one of the few films on this list that I’d also argue is in the running for the Best Film of All Time. That’s not something I’d ever say about last week’s #2, Fight Club – its importance is too personal, too tied to my own history. But I have very few memories tied to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind which, luckily, stops this from straying anywhere too autobiographical like some entries have tended to. Eternal Sunshineis a film firing on cylinders, every element hitting every note perfectly at the same time, in a way I’ve never seen since. Actors, director, writer, photography, soundtrack, effects … all objectively perfect. Fact. It starts out looking like an indie romance film. Joel Barish wakes up bored with his life – as narrated in a gravelly, remorseful whisper – and impulsively ditches work to go somewhere beautiful and desolate. There he meets the quirky Clementine Kruczynski, and they, awkwardly, fall for each other. Nothing particularly special there – this first 20 minutes is an actor’s piece, director and writer waiting for their time to show off, and Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet sell it perfectly. It’s not an easy task, as proved by all the other indie slice-of-life romances I watched afterwards, to make a relationship interesting and convincing so quickly. Then, with a flourish, we jump back and suddenly Joel is in his car, crying and listening to Beck’s cover of Everybody’s Gotta Learn Sometime. The film is structured non-linearly; roughly speaking, it rewinds through Joel and Clementine’s relationship to show us first how it went wrong and then later, why it worked. Unlike the tight formal structure of Memento, though, it’s not that simple – the rewinding takes place inside Joel’s head, as the men he has hired to wipe all his memories of Clementine do just that. It’s all interwoven with segments arranged in order,  with a b-plot telling the story of the guys doing the memory wiping. And, it turns out, the start of the film is also actually the end – Joel and Clementine are meeting again, by apparent chance. The split between internal and external allows Michel ‘le réalisateur’ Gondry, and Charlie ‘the author’ Kaufman chances to shine. Gondry is another director with a background in music videos and adverts, one of my favourite creators in any medium who has never quite found another cinematic vehicle for his tremendous imagination. The fantasy world of Joel’s memory provides Gondry with a chance to play his trompe l’oeil tricks – characters disappear and reappear wearing different clothes, apparently in the same take; streets endlessly mirror themselves; remembered locations blend into one another – and fiddle with cinematic techniques to reflect the process of memory loss. Meanwhile, Kaufman finds a clever sci-fi concept – of a company who can wipe your powerful memories, Lacuna Inc, who can unremember it for you wholesale. It’s an idea which can dig under your skin, so you find yourself wondering in idle moments what exactly you’d delete from your past. But then, even better, he finds the mundaneity and reality in it. Lacuna’s offices are reminiscent of a trip to the dentist; the memory-wipers enjoy a few beers, a joint, and the contents of Joel’s booze cupboard while he sleeps. It matches up with the slightly wonky sci-fi tech that Gondry conjures – the upturned-colander that sits on the patient’s head, the slightly retro computers – and gives it all sense and meaning, reigning in his excesses. In return, Kaufman’s writing is lent a rare warmth and humanity. It’s the classic odd couple – sloppy meets clinical – and the contrast makes both stronger. Notably, neither has another film on this list, and very few of the actors involved appear in any of the other 49 either. The ensemble cast, far beyond Carrey and Winslet – both cast against type, playing the role the other would traditionally fill, and proving they should have been doing this all along – is flawless. Elijah Wood, as ever, benefits from being cast as a character with a bit of a sleazy dark streak; Mark Ruffalo is one of cinema’s most loveable slackers; Kirsten Dunst was always meant to play the confused young girl in love; Tom Wilkinson is never anything less than fantastic. Each of those parts – clever indie romance, surrealist dream sequences, inventive but grounded sci-fi – would be enough to guarantee a place on this list. But they form a whole more than the simple sum of its parts, creating a world with a whimsical sense of unreality, but exactly as much reality as is needed to sell the emotions. Oh, the emotions. Joel and Clementine quickly feel like a real couple. As we rewind through their past (at least, in one strand of the film) it becomes clear, through the fog of all the arguments, why they’re together in the first place. In one of the most freeing moments I’ve ever seen in a film, the two accept that, yes, it will all go horribly wrong, but it’s worth it. And then the endless, beautiful futility of it all is played out in a moment repeated over and over, skipping and eventually fading into purest white. And that’s all enough to catch in my throat, but the stakes are higher than the traditional romantic threat of the two being parted – the permanence of memories and feelings are in jeopardy too. There’s something sacred about memory, a lesson I’ve been bludgeoned over the head with over the last year, and Eternal Sunshine reaches the only logical conclusion – in the end, for all our follies and humiliations, our past – every last awful part of it – is as […]

Favourite Films on Fridays: #02, Fight Club

  The first thing about Fight Club is, it’s not subtle. This is a film which uses every opportunity to beat you senseless, which fills your ears and eyes, loud and brash and unapologetic. Look, here’s a Simpsons-esque cutaway to a fantasy sequence. Now we’re zooming in extreme extreme close-up through the interior landscape of a bin, or a brain. Here are cigarette burns – have you ever heard of cigarette burns? – and slipping frames. Subliminal images. A man being beat to bloody hamburger. It’s absolute sensory overload. Fight Club can never quite stay still. It starts out as a film about the boredom of being a modern middle-class male, with touches of black humour. Then it’s about the pleasures of male company. The joys of two men hitting each other really hard. It’s the story of how one becomes a terrorist, that becomes a psychological thriller. (And all the while, hidden underneath is a love story, or maybe two.) The second thing about Fight Club is, it’s very, very far from subtle. And there are a few good reasons for this: One, for the sheer joy of the thing. I often talk about how much I love Ideas in film. To anyone who’s been following this list closely, you’ll probably notice that this ranks about concerns like Narrative for me. I’m talking about those big pop Moments where you’re presented with something you’ve never met before – the way a song intersects with a scene, or the way a camera moves, or observing something about life you’d never considered before, or the casting of Meatloaf in a supporting role. Director David Fincher had come to films from adverts and music videos, and Fight Club feels almost like a patchwork of three-minute experiments in style, stitched loosely together. Which – two – is more or less exactly how the novel it’s based on was written, with Chuck Palahniuk collecting together all the stories he’d heard or lived and finding a framework. In this sense, it’s a perfect adaptation, changing and cutting where necessary but keeping the spirit. It’s the same in the dialogue, which is not quite real, and full of loose slogans and Did You Know?s, but is enchanting for it. Three: Tyler Durden. Cinema is brilliant at crafting characters like Tyler Durden. It’s a medium where charisma rules and, looking back over the list – Ferris Bueller, John McClane, Jeff ‘The Dude’ Lebowski, Samuel L. Jackson, Ash Williams – it’s clearly something I’m susceptible to. Brad Pitt makes Durden the absolute bottled essence of cool. He’s fidgety, angry, attractive – even when he’s delegated to the back of the frame, swinging nunchuks or flicking away a cigarette, he’s the centre of the attention. He’s the hot centre the film crowds around, and like an impressionable youth, Fight Club copies its hero. And also, four, his philosophy. Fight Club is about nihilism and anti-consumerism and anarchism, always the coolest standpoints, in that sixth form-y kind of way – screw buying stuff, eff the man! Those slogans the characters talk in really are slogans. The film itself is a manifesto, a doctrine, propaganda, and like any piece of propaganda, you can’t give the audience a moment to think about what they’re being fed. But it’s (five) not necessarily the film’s philosophy. Really, Fight Club is a satire on all that, and satire is by necessity always an exaggeration. It pushes all the arguments of the above to their logical extreme, to show us how ludicrous they become. The slogans echo and, coming from the mouths of Durden’s mindless followers, become uglier, climaxing in the horror of a houseful of idiots chanting “His name is Robert Paulsen” like it’s scripture. All those big issues it deals with – whichever side of the fence you’re on – never really touched me, though. I liked the swagger of Durden, and some of the lines struck a place in my young lyrics-quoting heart, but the core of Fight Club for me is the friendship. (It’s actually not that different from Fincher’s Social Network in that regard, but that’s a discussion for another time.) The love between two men that, like the Romans believed, could be the greatest and purest love of all, and whether it’s compatible with a heterosexual relationship with a woman. For all its messiness, the story can be thinned down to: boy meets girl, refuses to admit he likes her, boy meets boy, tries to navigate relationship with both, chooses girl. And that choice is celebrated with literal fireworks, as some triumphant Pixies plays us out. It can’t resist a last big wink, though, a big fat screenful of penis for one moment. This is still Fight Club, after all. It’s that lack of subtlety that has often made me fearful to revisit Fight Club. It was the single piece of culture that had most impact on me as a teenager, and probably has the most responsibility for the person I am now – pushing me towards certain films and especially (via the original novel) books, and subsequently towards writing, and it made me think about cool, and the roles I’ve played in friendships, and I probably still cop some of Tyler’s swagger occasionally, especially when I’m drunk. To borrow the bit of Phonogram I always borrow, it was the fuel I burnt to become me. And, as he’s mellowed out over the last decade into one of the greatest filmmakers we’ve got, I’d suggest maybe the same is true for David Fincher too. Perhaps Fight Club is meant to be grown out of. Those youthful relationships, forged in the early hours. Thinking you could change the world. Being able to laugh off losing a tooth. Being angry with the world in a way you don’t think anyone has thought about before… It’s embarrassing  to look back at those moments, isn’t it? But that never makes them more worth regretting than celebrating. Why shouldn’t it be the same for the […]