23 April 2015

Avengers: Age of Ultron

Disclaimer I: I was spoilers-free for this movie. Minimal news, no trailers, no teasers, as blind as one can get in this day and age.

Disclaimer II: I watched this as part of an Avengers Marathon, so the first part was very fresh in my head which helped a lot.

The real star of this sequel is Joss Whedon. Specifically, his script. The Russo brothers are going to have a really hard time topping Whedon. And yes, there was no end-credits Easter Egg this time round.

This is a sequel that is simultaneously smaller (more intimate with closer focus on the core group and its dynamics) and larger than the first one (world annihilation! again...), and Whedon was absolutely brilliant and on fire here. As a writer, he really is incomparable. He has given us a masterful ensemble piece, but yet he does not forget that this is still a superhero movie and large action pieces are required. His script was filled with the right mix of drama, humour and pathos. Although the casual movie-goer might lament the lack of action and awe-striking images/sets/action.

Whedon is a master of the words, continuity and misdirection. He excelled in the group banter and catching the emotional crux of the moment between two characters. He serviced the fanboys and the critics. There were in jokes, jibes, quips and wit aplenty, not only self-referentially to The Avengers, but also to Disney, Buffy(!!), and the rest of Marvel.

Most importantly, Whedon brings you to unexpected places and that was key to keeping the movie's pace tight and the audience engaged.

However, despite all the above effusiveness, Whedon - and this movie - does have faults.

With such a large cast and a comparatively short running time, things/scenes/moments would definitely have to be cut. But for the more attentive audience that can be rather jarring. Characters would appear and then disappear, and you would wonder what they had be doing before they reappeared again.

As a director, Whedon excelled in the quieter moments. There were some good directing choices and it was excellent that the movie started in media res  and got into the main plot/action quickly, but the larger action sequences tended to be messier and the blocking rather problematic. The one-one-one combats were much better.

Although he did take a leaf from Innaritu's Birdman in that pseudo-one shot opening sequence.

As said earlier, Whedon is a master of misdirection, and kudos to that in his directorial skill. He also knew really well how to diffuse tension and undercut drama, but sometimes a bit too much such that we end up expecting a moment. Thankfully, there were more moments where such occurrences were unexpected which were great.

And ultimately this does feel more like a Joss Whedon movie than a Marvel movie.

Great job by Whedon in introducing the four new characters: Quicksilver, Scarlett Witch, Ultron and Vision. We actually do know them a bit better without sacrificing the core Avengers, and it is interesting how this time around, Whedon focused on those without their own franchise. That was refreshing.

A few words about the cast:

Robert Downey Jr has finally toned it down. He still gets most of the good one liners, but at least his characterisation is now less annoying and smarmy. I would like to think that this is more Whedon than RDJ.

Chris Evans sadly has less heroics to do here than in his own vehicle. However, Evans has now truly owned the role of Captain America.

Same thing for Chris Hemsworth, and he does get some much better lines here than in Thor.

Mark Ruffalo nailed Bruce Banner again, although his Hulk here is more enigmatic and sadly a victim of editing and running time.

Scarlett Johannson's pregnancy is too distracting. Although I must admit that Black Widow's storyline started off a bit too left field, but Johannson sold it.

Jeremy Renner finally had a much better storyline and way better lines. Definitely most improved character.

James Spader nailed Ultron. Ultron would never have worked if not for Spader. His delivery was spot on and possibly the next best thing to Whedon's words. Although as a villain he was thin with his machinations and motivations swept under for wisecracking mania.

Paul Bettany as Vision remained an enigma, and no doubt will play a bigger role in future.

Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olson had the strangest pesudo-Russian accent. Olson had the stronger character but Taylor-Johnson had the better lines. Their back stories would have been rather interesting to explore. Although they are now enhanced rather than mutants, so their powers have been tweaked a wee bit.Taylor-Johnson's Quicksilver is more rounded here than in X-Men: Days of Future Past, but there was not a standout moment for him unlike in X-Men.

Hayley Atwell was a sight for sore eyes. Cobbie Smulders and Samuel L. Jackson resumed their roles, although that would be interesting for the series Marvel's Agents of SHIELD. 

Marvel really needs to invest more in better music and cinematography. Brian Tyler and Ben Davis were good but there really wasn't anything spectacular or outstanding.

As usual there was a mid-credits scene, but nothing at the end this time round. No spidey.

This movie would definitely be worth watching it again after the initial hype has died to better appreciate the script. I lacked the surprised, untested, unknown magic of The Avengers and it has its expectations laden against it, but in the end, this is a brilliant character ensemble piece with one of the wickedest scripts in Marvel's history.

IMAX is worth it but not really necessary. 3D is optional.

8 April 2015

The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

Unlike good wine or cheese, this franchise, unfortunately, did not get better with age, but at least - again like good wine or cheese - it still maintained a certain level of standard. Some good laughs and some good bits of dialogue and witty one-liners, but it lacked focus and ultimately sincerity and heart.

With the same writer and director as the first installment, one would expect big things, but unfortunately, the difference here is that this is an original story as compared to the first which was based on Deborah Moggach's novel and so the characters were unfortunately less well written.

Like most sequels, Ol Parker and John Madden had decided to go bigger: more stars/characters, more storylines, longer running time! But for all that they sacrificed what made the first part such a big hit: the excellent chemistry between the core cast: Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Bill Nighy and Dev Patel.

The few scenes that Dench and Smith had together were easily the highlights of the show, as were Smith's biting one-liners.

As much as we loved the other characters, they were unfortunately bit characters. Hence, their expanded storylines had less emotional investment for the audience. This is also unfair to all the brilliant actors that make up this wonderful cast.

Even the underlying "core" story of Patel and his fiancee was less interesting this time round as Patel became almost caricature-like and that plotline unconvincingly predictable.

Thankfully, we still had Dench, Smith and Nighy, but all three of them spent too much time apart - they burn so much brighter together than apart. Also, Dench and Nighy's characters - especially the former's - deserved a much closer examination. Think Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones in Hope Springs.

Perhaps if they had shorten the running time by about a quarter and trimmed some of the other story lines this could have had been another big smash. Now it is just a little splash.

Stephen King's Doctor Sleep

This was unexpectedly good. It was not Oscar-winning good, but it was a thoroughly entertaining horror-thriller. Kudos to writer/director...