Sunday, 26 April 2015


(Joss Whedon, 2015)

This is a film which is so dense and crammed - with gags, one-liners, action sequences, characters, easter eggs, plot twists and cgi - that it is curiously exhausting. It feels like watching an entire season of a tv series in one sitting. But crucially, it's a really entertaining, fun tv series, made by a writer-director who understands and loves the genre he's working in.
Setting the Avengers up against a villain partly created by Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr, as comfortable and funny in this role as ever) and Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo, still finding new depths in this character), Whedon manages the tricky job of balancing storylines and arcs for each of his principals while also keeping an epic, propulsive guiding narrative in ceaseless motion.
That involves Ultron (nicely voiced by James Spader), an artificial intelligence with multiple bodies whose ultimate goal is the usual destruction of the world. He enlists twins Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and the Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), who give the Avengers a bit of trouble with their respective "he's fast, she's weird" abilities before eventually switching sides to fight against Ultron.
Whedon loves and understands these characters, which is why this film is always better during their conversations and exchanges than it is during the many cgi-heavy action scenes studded throughout the two-and-a-half-hour running time.
Perhaps most interesting is the relationship between Banner and Scarlett Johansson's Black Widow. She talks him down out of his Hulk state, and reveals an unexpected vulnerability to his dorky integrity, which terrifies him, so afraid of hurting anyone around him. Their tentative romance is the emotional core of the film, and gives the ending much of its sting. Jeremy Renner is given much more to do this time around, revealing a solid, warm, normal home life with a wife and children, while also acting as the human glue bonding the "Gods" around him together. Evans and Hemsworth as Captain American and Thor do more of what they have done with aplomb across three films each at this point, their highlights mainly coming in their banter with Stark as Whedon ensures much of the focus is on the trinity at the heart of any decent Avengers story. There is a little set-up done for the next big film involving the characters, as the idealogical differences between Cap and Iron Man are emphasised, the battle lines subtly drawn.
That is the strangest thing about the Marvel films: because they are all part of one big ongoing narrative, it sometimes feels like nothing can ever really matter. We know another film is just around the corner, another villain, another threat, another epic battle. This is written in the DNA of the comics, but they are structured around it, whereas the architecture of a motion picture is different and built to supply a certain amount of third act catharsis or satisfaction that the Marvel films by necessity are unable to deliver.
Another problem is action. For an action genre, super-hero films generally don't handle action all that well. It is the achilles heel even of Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy (which do splendid spectacle but fudge combat consistently until the third film), and has been uncertain in most of the Marvel films so far. Captain America: The Winter Soldier perhaps fares best here, but Avengers: Age of Ultron struggles. Whether it is down to Whedon's limitations as a director - unlikely, given that the fight scenes in Serenity are pretty good - or, more likely the overuse of cgi and accompanying spectacular camera movements to track it, many of the big action sequences here are visually incoherent and chaotically choreographed.
Luckily: there are ancillary pleasures and many of them.
Whedon has always had a gift for one-liners and Avengers: Age of Ultron is stuffed with them, from the others chiding Captain America for his dislike of bad language, to Thor and Vision discussing the perfect balance of Mjolnir. Of the newcomers, Bettany is most arresting as Vision, ably handling some great gags and action beats, while Olsen and Johnson act as crucial new blood to the mix.
The details here are crucial and brilliant: from the Irish accent (Voiced by Kerry Condon) of F.R.I.D.A.Y to Stark's asides during his battle with Hulk to Ulysses Klaw (Andy Serkis) being involved in supplying Vibranium from Wakanda, to Stark and Thor bragging about their girlfriends and War Machine's (Don Cheadle) angst that his story does not impress the Avengers they all play well and give the story and the world more texture and life.
The cast is filed out with some unexpected class in tiny roles: Linda Cardellini, Julie Delpy, Idris Elba, Anthony Mackie and Hayley Atwell all pop up alongside Serkis and Cheadle, again making this world feel populous and lived-in.
For all its flaws, as summer blockbusters go, this is a sumptuous piece of purest entertainment; funny, exciting and consistently impressive.

Saturday, 18 April 2015


(Gerard Barrett, 2014)

You need to have directorial chops to find the visual poetry in a place as un-lovely as the nothing suburbs on the edge of Dublin. But Gerard Barrett does it in Glassland, finding beauty and lyricism in what looks like an autumnal Tallaght. That goes some way to lightening the experience of watching Glassland, for this is an unapologetically, at times almost unbearably intense drama.
The elliptical storytelling allows the mood to settle in before we really appreciate what the story is about. John (Jack Reynor) is a young taxi driver, who lives at home with his mother (Toni Collette), an alcoholic close to liver failure. He has a younger brother, Kit, who has Downs Syndrome and seems to live in a home. His best friend, Shane (Will Poulter) is struggling with paying child support and feeling as if his life is going nowhere, and has booked flights to travel or work abroad.
That isn't much of a story, really. And yet: our first encounter with John's Mam finds her unconscious in a pool of her own vomit and we watch him struggle to get her to hospital, where a doctor tells him either she quits drinking, or she dies. That acts as a clock under the rest of the action. John lives his life - doing his job, seeing his mate - and tries to figure out how to help somebody who doesn't want to be helped.
That seems to be his thing. An almost saintly presence, John helps everyone around him, and the film is really a quiet, slow, extraordinarily subtle character study of a little boy in the body of a man. Being a good boy, doing the right thing, John often looks lost. Most scenes find him gazing soulfully into the middle distance. He supports Shane, visits and obviously loves Kit, cleans up his Mam. He resists Shane's offer to leave with him. His emotional explosion in the car with his mother outside a clinic is all about him, and reveals the needy, frightened child inside him: he can't do it anymore, he wants his Mam back.
Reynor is exceptional here, his sensitive eyes and hunched, tight body language showing us John's real feelings through the smile he often wears. Collette matches him. Her accent is wobbly (though she always sounds Irish, it moves from county to county throughout) but emotionally she is frighteningly raw and honest, and her long monologue to John on how she got to be where she is is absolutely hypnotic. Poulter and Smiley are great in support.
All of them are nicely directed by Barrett, who looks a young director with a big future. His work here is precise and nuanced, with a fine, sensual feel for texture and atmosphere. Few films have captured Dublin suburbia in the milky light of autumn as well as this one does, and to combine that with a grip on storytelling like the one shown here is no small achievement.

Friday, 10 April 2015


(Noah Baumbach, 2015)

This film has almost too many ideas. Baumbach wants to say things about ageing, culture, being hip and what that means, creativity, our attitude to art and who owns it, parenthood, friendship and marriage. And he does, but with so much going on, sometimes the film feels contradictory and even confused.
That isn't necessarily a bad thing; it means that While We're Young is never boring, and there are interesting things going on in most scenes. Not just thematically, either - Baumbach has always excelled at mixing comedy with drama, and while this is more comic than most of his work, it still contains a series of effective dramatic and emotional beats. Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts play a New York couple in their early 40s who meet another couple (Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried) in their 20s, and this new friendship re-energises them. The younger couple seem everything they are not - generous, spontaneous, excited. They have democratic taste - when Driver plays Stiller "Eye of the Tiger", Stiller says, "I remember when this song was just considered 'bad.'", deliberately use retro technology (vinyl, VHS), refuse to look up facts that they can't remember on their smartphones, and shop in second-hand shops, while simultaneously exploiting technology in a casual way.
Knowing them sends the older couple - Stiller particularly - on a journey to try to recapture something they feel they may have lost, until they begin to see Driver's budding documentarian in a different light.
Baumbach is perhaps a little too forgiving of his male protagonists. Stiller's character here is basically an arsehole, and yet the film seems wholeheartedly in his corner in the eventual battle with Driver (who multiple characters claim is selfish and insufferable). And yet on occasion it seems self-aware enough to acknowledge that perhaps both these men are less than sympathetic. It is a thematically conflicted film, a by-product of its having a surfeit of themes. That doesn't matter so much when there  is such richness of ancillary pleasures. There are a few great gags and comic scenes here, a few wicked barbs aimed at culture and bourgeois society and a clutch of fine performances. As is so often the case, Naomi Watts is the best thing in the film, and her reaction to finding herself in a hip-hop dance class is beautifully played. But Stiller, Driver and Seyfried are all good too, and though this may be minor Baumbach, that still makes it an essential film.

Friday, 3 April 2015


(Alex Gibney, 2015)

Based on Lawrence Wright's book, Going Clear is a sober portrayal of the Church of Scientology from inception to the present day. That means it is often hilarious, often chilling and generally fascinating. Gibney's usual expository style is in place; mixing talking heads with archive footage and voiceover. The best material is in the first half, which portrays founder and pulp sic-fi writer L Ron Hubbard (LRH to his followers) as a cynical, troubled man who founded a religion because he saw it as the best way to make money and not have to give any away to the IRS. His foibles and sometime monstrous behaviour are part of this portrayal, which is lent credence by the testimony of people who served in his "Sea Org" back then and witnessed him in all his charismatic, cruel glory. His ex-wife's account of their relationship is utterly damning.
The second half shifts to an expose of the state of modern Scientology - run by a paranoid egomaniac, obsessed with enemies and money, and much of this half of the film is made up of interviews with the old members of the leadership of the Church, who now seem horrified about what they have done. Spread across both parts is an explanation of the practices of the religion - the various levels, "auditing", the actual belief in "Xenu" and the thetans. Much of this is delivered in a bemused state of exasperated embarrassment by ex-believers, though Gibney does well to never stoop to outright mockery. The odd cases of Tom Cruise and John Travolta, the two most high profile celebrity scientologists, are investigated, as is the organisation's long battle with the IRS to be recognised as an official church, thereby securing non-taxable status.
For all that there is an extraordinary density of material here, it feels a little workaday, especially in the second half, as the church begins to splinter at an executive level, and people explain why they left and what they have realised since. It's hard not to think that this should be more, should hit harder, should hurt it's subject more obviously.

Wednesday, 1 April 2015


AKA Relatos Savajes

(Damián Szifrón, 2014)

A set of six short stories, each a pitch black comedy of violence or quiet horror, Wild Tales is a tremendously assured and confident film. It begins with the shortest tale, when a meet-cute on a Buenos Aires to Spain flight leads to a dawning realisation that every single person on board the plane is there because they know and have upset the same man. That ends with a big laugh, then the credits are droll too, and we already know we are in good hands.
Szifrón can do slick, he can do stylish, but his storytelling is economical and classical, and that is what really sells Wild Tales. Each story establishes itself with efficiency within a minute or so, and then each is gripping, funny, and wonderfully made. Best is probably the second, a story of road rage in the Argentine desert, which starts off with shades of Spielberg's Duel, but ends up in horrible if hysterical violence by way of the Road Runner. But the others are of similarly high quality: most notably the worst wedding party in history in the last tale and Ricardo Darin locked in a Kafka-esque battle with the bureaucracy of the parking ticket system in Buenos Aires in the third.
It never feels monotonous, either. If Szifrón reworks and revisits some overarching themes (these stories all turn on people trapped in one way or another, claustrophobia and revenge), then he always makes sure that each story has a radically different setting and visual scheme. The first takes place almost entirely within an airplane, the second in a roadside restaurant late at night, the third in the desert and two cars, the fourth all over the Argentinian capital (but mainly in it's bureaucratic offices and queues), the fifth inside the modern house of a seriously wealthy family and the last mainly inside the function room of a huge hotel. Each location is rendered with a great eye for detail and mood, which alters impeccably as these tales fade to black and and a new one begins.
The cast contains a few Argentine big-hitters (Leonardo Sbaraglia and Maria Onetto will be most recognisable to International audiences) but everyone is excellent, the photography is lovely, and Gustavo Santaolalla seems to be channelling 1980s Ennio Morricone for his score.