The Avengers: Age of Ultron (3D) ***


The world of the Avengers just got darker, more complicated and more extended in a sequel that although contains many  of the key ingredients of its predecessor fails to rise to its exhilarating and entertaining heights.

The problem with The Avengers: Age of Ultron lies in its convoluted plot and writer-director Joss Whedon trying to pack everything including the Marvel kitchen sink into this non-stop action packed two and a half hour long 3D adventure. The film hits the ground running from the start with Thor (Liam Hemsworth), Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr), Captain America (Chris Evans), the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) Black Widow (Scarlett Johannson) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) fighting as a cohesive force.

When Tony Stark tries to restart a dormant peacekeeping program it leads to the creation of Ultron (James Spader) a villainous artificial intelligence hell-bent on global domination with the aid of his newly acquired army of robots. The Avengers are faced with a formidable foe, superbly played/voiced by Spader, who is joined by evil twins Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), who is super-fast and Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) who can control minds.

Downey Jr is on wisecracking form as Stark while Hemsworth and Evans have little to do as Thor and Captain America who are relegated to providing the muscle here. Unlike in the previous film our heroes are not given equal screen time instead the Hulk, Black Widow and Hawkeye are awarded more prominence.

The blossoming romance between the Hulk and Black Widow feels oddly forced and doesn’t quite ring true along with her ability to lull him back into Bruce Banner with her whispering ways. Hawkeye’s back story is also a bolt out of the blue. However it is good to see Paul Bettany morph from Stark’s computerised buddy Jarvis into the meatier Vision and he is indeed a vision to behold.

Despite everything Whedon  does know how to deliver an eye popping spectacle which will bombard your senses. It just needed more light and shade including more banter and killer one liners.   The scene where the Avengers let their hair down in a night club is fun and inspired. The only thing that is missing is Loki while they do very cleverly explain the absence of Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) and Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), Thor’s human girlfriend.

This sequel isn’t as fun or as captivating as Avengers Assemble, which set the bar incredibly high, but you will get your money’s worth and it does lay the groundwork for the new up and coming members of the Avengers and their numerous films.

3/5 stars

By Maria Duarte

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LFF 2014: The Salvation ***


Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen was made to be a cowboy – handsome, brooding, fearless and unforgiving. In The Salvation he puts those qualities to the test. It’s a Danish Western by Danish writer-director Kristian Levring and co-writer Anders Thomas Jensen set in the wild, Wild West (1870s America) that’s as ruthless as it’s sumptuous to look at. It offers nothing new to the genre, other than it’s aesthetically pleasing to the Western buff.

Mikkelsen is Jon a former Danish soldier relocated to the land of the American Dream with his brother Peter (a similarly striking-looking Mikael Persbrandt). He sets up some farming land for his family to come and live with him on. After collecting his wife and son from the station, the family is forced to endure a harrowing stage coach ride with a couple of thugs, resulting in Jon being forced out of the carriage and separated from his wife and child. When tragedy strikes, Jon takes revenge that puts him in the direct path of sadistic local gangster Delarue (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) who holds the developing town to ransom.

The filmmakers’ dig at the American Dream concept is certainly not lost on anyone watching, as well as America’s present-day obsession with oil control. However, The Salvation is technically beautiful to view – some digital effects aside – and there is a great attention to detail that other Westerns lack in their impatience to get to the punch-ups and shoot-outs. This film also has its fair share of brutality, best illustrated by Delarue’s execution scene of townsfolk after no-one can tell him who killed his brother – one of the hoodlums from the stage coach. Added to the action are beginning scenes that are Film Noir-ish in style evoking a growing sense of foreboding.

Mikkelsen is as solid and visually fascinating as ever, playing a character that is Clint Eastwood-esque in manner, never squandering words in his deadly quest as Jon. Persbrandt says even less, but both have a great screen chemistry that relays their thoughts at any one moment. In fact, this Western is sparing with the dialogue, allowing the setting to first impose the brewing tension to come.

Eva Green who we are used to hearing firing back bold retorts in many of her previous roles plays a sultry mute called Princess ‘imprisoned’ by Delarue. This role shows just how versatile she is when she has to convey her character’s thoughts through expression and little else, often stealing the scene. The dialogue is reserved for Morgan who is both shocking and wildly entertaining as villain Delarue. Even former footballer-turned-actor Eric Cantona as his henchman Corsican is given more than one comical line to say and revels in playing a cowboy and all the traits that go with it.

The Salvation is a highly visual Western, one that bathes its star, Mikkelsen, in a compelling light. Even though the plot is a no-brainer, it does feel wanting in places, something that would be even more obvious if it wasn’t for its equally captivating star cast. It stops short of being ostentatious, purely due to the abrupt brutality or grittiness of certain scenes, but will primarily be remembered by Mikkelsen fans as the actor’s venture into the Wild West.

3/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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John Wick ****


What do you get when you cross Keanu Reeves and two ex-stuntmen-turned-directors? The answer is one hell of an action movie with a star that may well be 50 years old, but shows absolutely no signs of slowing down. John Wick has rebooted Reeves in action-man mode, and possibly given him another franchise to sink his teeth into. At 90-minutes, it’s a sleek, energising revenge juggernaut with a touch of comic-book chic.

John Wick (Reeves) is forced out of retirement and back into the intense, murky assassin underworld, after the vicious son of a Russian gangster (played by Girl With a Dragon Tattoo’s Michael Nyqvist) and his thug pals take away the last of everything Wick holds dear. Wick does not stop until he gets his target.

Debut directors David Leitch and Chad Stahelski bring their impressive stunt expertise – honed in the Matrix films – to the table, never shying away from actual choreographed sequences. They generally avoid employing the standard jerky camera movements and snappy edits to heighten the action. Hence it’s a far more invigorating experience, and our respect for Reeves’s physical prowess increases as the emphasis is on the actors to perform.

These engrossing stunts are played out in some strikingly lit shots that heighten the tense mood and surreal environment – take the club/spa shoot-out, for example, where Wick is on the prowl and very close to his target. The cinematography is at its finest in the film’s fantasy underworld of New York, complete with an elegant assassin bolthole called The Continental with its in-house rules, insider jargon and quaint underworld currency. It’s a wildly intriguing film noir existence dreamt up by screenwriter Derek Kolstad that has a lot of mileage to tap into for future John Wick tales.

Reeves plays the aggrieved killer like a wounded, poised predator, ready to pounce after the ultimate outrage is committed in Wick’s abode – cue audience yelps in horror. Initially, we have no idea how ugly Wick’s past is, but this atrocity plants us firmly in his camp. Reeves’s stoic stance is perfect in this role, keeping us guessing as to his every move – but you don’t have to wait for long.

The supporting acts each react to Wick’s presence in various, often ambiguous ways, all superbly cast, from Nyqvist as a satisfying caricature, old-school Soviet gangster, Viggo Tarasov, Willem Dafoe as fellow contract killer, Marcus, and Ian McShane as Winston, the shady but wise resident ‘godfather’ at The Continental. Alfie Allen offers the biggest surprise turn as cocky, sadistic Iosef, ‘Tarasov Junior’, almost unrecognisable in the part.

John Wick’s plot may be simple enough and smack of every kind of revenge/gangster flick trope out there, but there is something tangible and more sophisticated about this one, in both production and execution that makes it stick long in the mind after viewing. Wick may be an unlikely antihero, but one who will no doubt develop quite a fan base after this.

4/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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Fast & Furious 7 ****


It’s the long-awaited follow-up that unleashes (a p****d) Jason Statham on the franchise, but also, sadly, says goodbye to Paul Walker, an actor who made his name in the series with surprisingly average acting skills but just all-American good looks. Fast & Furious 7 puts horror’s James Wan (Insidious 2 and The Conjuring) in the director’s seat this time – instead of Justin Lin, but it feels like the same gloriously over-acted offering with fast cars, crazy, gravity-defying stunts and half-dressed women as ever. In fact, ‘crazy’ just got crazier with some action pieces just so nonsensical that you won’t do anything but whoop with sheer delight. Watching this on an IMAX screen is definitely worth the money too.

After his brother, Owen (Luke Evans), is placed in a coma, following his ‘evil’ feats in Furious 6, big (nastier) bro Deckard Shaw (Statham) wants revenge on Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) and his motoring crew. However, Shaw Senior is a trained special ops assassin, a ‘shadow’, who is not easily defeated. Shaw pays Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) a visit at his HQ one night, causing chaos, and hospitalising the ‘man mountain’ (who is ever bigger in this film). This sets off a chain of events that sees Toretto and co trying to bring down ‘the shadow’ while saving the world from a new tracking system that has dire global consequences if it falls into the wrong hands.

The best bet is to suspend disbelief with each new Fast & Furious film that comes out. The stunts are ballsier and more thrilling, with carnage the order of the day. The series makes no apologies for its chauvinistic nature; beautiful ladies are there to ogle, even when they fight dirty in evening frocks – much like latter-day Bond flick, really. What this franchise has is a beauty of another kind – four wheels for petrol heads out there, and it never fails to deliver, even if the cars would never withstand that kind of rigorous road testing in real life.

The acting has not got any better – Statham appears practically thespian-like in comparison here. However, it’s part of the whiff of cheese and self-mockery that makes these Neanderthal male characters so endearing – plus Toretto constantly reminding us of what a committed ‘family man’ he is. It seems there may be honour among thieves.

The only thing that is far-fetched and seems a tad ‘throwaway’ in Furious 7 is the addition of your standard international crime lord, played by Djimon Hounsou as Jakande. He gets very little explanation in terms of his motivation, and seems like an empty threat, when really, the film could have just had Shaw as the only villain – however ‘samey’ as the previous film that might have been.

For fans wanting a fitting tribute to Walker, this film yanks hard on the heartstrings at the end – again, shamelessly, and without apology. There will be a lump in every fan’s throat, maybe even a tear shed, but it’s a nice ending for the actor. It also settles the question of what to do next with Bryan, if there is another future film to follow.

Fast & Furious 7 serves up the same as before, only bigger, louder and bolder. Revel in its silliness and its big heart and let it simply entertain you – all it ever tries to do.

4/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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While We’re Young ****


Noah Baumbach makes poignant dramas about characters at a turning point in their lives, and While We’re Young is no exception. It’s about the painful reality of trying to stay youthful and go against societal grain of what you should be doing at fortysomething – a poignant project for Baumbach, himself 45, as well as the rest of us of the same age.

Ben Stiller – who starred in Baumbach’s 2009 film Greenberg – returns to play another middle-aged man in mid-life crisis here as 44-year-old ‘failed’ documentary film-maker Josh (a character not far removed from Woody Allen’s role in Crimes and Misdemeanors). He is married to wife Cornelia (Naomi Watts), the daughter and producer of a celebrated documentary film-maker, Leslie Breitbart (played by Charles Grodin). As all their friends are now parents to young kids – a sore point for Cornelia who has gone through painful IVF with no success, the pair decide that their ‘freedom’ of choice to do as they wish is a far better predicament to be in.

After teaching a lacklustre continuing education class, Josh meets young hipster, married twentysomethings, wannabe film-maker Jamie (Adam Driver) and his wife Darby (Amanda Seyfried) who makes strange-flavoured icecream. They have a passion for life, art and simple living, something Josh and Cornelia tap into very quickly. Soon the older pair is trying out all kinds of new activities with their new younger buddies, while Jamie uses Josh’s knowledge – and contacts – to make a documentary. But what are all their true intentions in the end?

While We’re Young has a wonderful mixture of stark reality that hits home and slapstick humour in measurable portions. There are moments that make you laugh – like the trippy shamanic ceremony attended by all – and then other times of sobering reality that brings you down to earth. What Baumbach achieves is a film that continually questions what is the right way to be in this situation without having societal norms burdening down – the danger point is always trying to avoid them to find self fulfilment. He also creates a little twist at the end that has you questioning all kinds of ethics and morals of all the characters – again, who’s right?

Stiller, Watts, Driver and Seyfried play their parts with easy, confident flare, aware of the complexities of their characters’ personalities. This is a film very much about what the males want, so the females do tend to tag along, but they reference this in the film, and ironically, are the power behind their men. It’s another interesting angle to contemplate.

While We’re Young is definitely very Allen-esque for those not familiar with Bauchbach’s other work like Frances Ha, Margot at the Wedding and Noah and the Whale, but it does speak fluently to those with similar concerns as its characters, making it a surprisingly holistic watch, even in the most outrageous situations.

4/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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The Spongebob Movie: Sponge Out Of Water 3D ****


Trying to explain why a talking yellow sponge is a hilarious concept to the uninitiated is quite impossible (speaking from experience here). That’s why it’s best to just expose them to the insanity that is Spongebob SquarePants and let the chips fall. It’s not to everyone’s taste – and certainly implies the makers are on something far stronger than the strongest coffee, but if you’re looking for a bonkers laugh, letting everything just come at you like a colourful, senses-pounding rush, look no further than the second Spongebob film, Sponge Out Of Water.

In film number two, everyone’s after the delicious Krabby Patty recipe that Bikini Bottom residents live for, including evil, scheming Plankton (again), Spongebob’s notorious, microscopic enemy. But when The Krusty Krab owner, Mr Krabs, finds Spongebob and Plankton next to an empty safe that contained the sacred recipe – after it mysteriously vanishes in front of them, both Spongebob and his mini nemesis are blamed.

The unlikely pair are ostracised by the community, but set about teaming up to find out just who has the recipe. This involves coming out of water into the real world – and a pirate called Burger Beard (Antonio Banderas) who is up to no good.

Unlike the first film in 2004, this one brings you up for air into the live-action hemisphere, and constantly changes tune in animation style, probably to stretch out the frenetic Spongebob formula into feature film length, when it’s usually only watched in bite-sized TV episode chunks. There is plenty for both adults and kids alike to be thrilled by, with lots of adult action-flick nods, including the arrival of the apocalypse to Bikini Bottom that sees every one in Mad Max mode – and dressed in leather.

Sponge Out Of Water’s plot is simple, but it gets away with wayward tangents, the funniest being the introduction of a celestial, space-aged dolphin called Bubbles (voiced by the brilliant Matt Berry of The IT Crowd fame) who has one of the funniest (albeit, toilet humour) gags going. The reasons for his arrival do become apparent, but it shifts the gear of the film once more, rendering the viewer utterly in awe of where things will go next? Another consistent giggle are the snails, a gag repeated in the finale that will have you crying with laughter as the ridiculousness of it.

Where the film falters a little – where it loses the trademark absurdity – is actually the live-action sequences. Sure, there is a thrill at seeing ‘life-sized’ versions of our Bikini Bottom heroes battling it out with the real culprit of the Krabby Patty theft, but this action-packed battle becomes a little ‘samey’, even if the kids’ gleeful smiles make it all worth the while.

There are also the odd, tonal moments involving semi-clad females and the animated characters on the beach that feel awkward in a kid’s film, even if it’s all done in saucy, tongue-in-cheek humour – quickly recovered by another bonkers scene involving Spongebob, Patrick and a large amount of candyfloss.

The Spongebob Movie: Sponge Out Of Water offers far more craziness than David Hasselhoff could in the first film, with Banderas just having fun dressed as a pirate, like a kids’ party entertainer, complete with talking seagull sidekicks, who’s had too much sugar. It may still not convince those who are not already fans (indeed, they may question your sanity), but if you want to tire out the kids this Easter holiday, without doing several laps around a park, this film is an alternative answer – be prepared for the catchy tune sticking in the brain a long time after too.

4/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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LFF 2014: The Face Of An Angel ***


Those expecting some sort of ‘yet undisclosed’ revelation into the murder of exchange student Meredith Kercher and the guilt of Amanda Knox will be sorely disappointed and may be further perplexed by The Face of an Angel. From director Michael Winterbottom, the film actually uses the case to demonise media behaviour around such murder trials, with lead protagonist, film director Thomas Lang (played by Daniel Brühl) acting like judge and jury. The irony is Lang is also ‘using’ the sensational goings-on around that time for inspiration into his next film project.

As with every Winterbottom film, there is never anything linear to grasp onto. This is a complex journey charting one man’s moral compass. Lang is initially seduced by the media hype and possibility of carving something creative from the aftermath, but he soon realises – through having a daughter of his own – that something more positive must arise from such ugliness. It is this part of Lang’s journey that indulges Winterbottom’s arty side, as his character chases parallels with great academics to pursue a film about love – enter model-come-actress Cara Delevingne as that guiding, youth light.

Brühl (Niki Lauda in Rush) takes on the troubled presence that is Lang, a divorcee and artist having a serious case of writer’s block, with his usual serious gusto and panache, making a damaged Lang as personable as possible, but keeping empathy for him at arm’s length. He is never a character to like or dislike. In fact, like the mystery of Kercher’s killer, Lang remains a kind of turbulent enigma, which keeps the ambiguity of the whole film ticking over.

Delevingne is loved by the camera lens in her modeling line of work, and as Melanie, a carefree spirit full of opportunity, this is further enhanced. Indeed, Delevingne appears to be a natural actor in the right part – this being a fitting debut, delivering an accomplish performance. As Melanie she pacifies Lang and brings him back into the light.

The Face of an Angel is a mixed bag; beautiful to look at in stunning Italian surroundings, and morose as we are dragged into the darkest enclaves of Perugia’s architecture as Lang implodes, personally and professionally. It also champions some great acting, among the strands of bewildering and self-indulgent script. It is an artist’s take on a murder mystery in fact, making sure love shines through as the final saviour.

3/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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The Gunman ***


Perhaps Sean Penn is hoping that Taken director Pierre Morel will help turn him carve out an ‘aging action hero career’ – like he has Liam Neeson – in The Gunman, based on a novel by Jean-Patrick Manchette? Penn certainly has hit the gym for the part (and a tanning salon), never missing a beat to get torso-naked in this latest action flick. And you can’t deny the 54-year-old the exposure – he looks super fit for it. It’s just the film’s credibility lets him down, rather than Penn’s physical presence.

Penn plays Jim Terrier, a former Special Forces op, turned security personnel (Gunman) for hire, tasked with protecting mine workers in the Congo. After turning mercenary assassin and killing the country’s minister of mines for an undisclosed multinational, Terrier goes into hiding, leaving behind medic girlfriend Annie (Jasmine Trinca). Fast forward a few years and Terrier is now security for a quango on the same continent. One day he is hunted down by a hit squad in connection with the former minister’s killing. Terrier goes on an international hunt of his own to find who is behind the hit. Meanwhile, ex-girlfriend Annie is living with the dubious Felix (Javier Bardem) in Spain, himself involved in the whole assassination plot in the Congo, but now a businessman.

The combination of corruption, money and power is always a powerful film aphrodisiac, as The Gunman proves and relies on. Kind of like a cross between Taken (for the revenge part) and Blood Diamond (starring DiCaprio, for the location), the film portrays the whole dangerous setting at the start and introduces Terrier to us as someone who hasn’t quite got his moral compass working. Penn is suitably twitchy in the role, suspicious of everything and obviously not completely straight as a die.

It’s after the assassination, a few years later, that things make you pause for thought and think, ‘Hang on? What’s made Terrier a changed man all of a sudden?’. Is it a bout of guilt? He’s still carrying a gun but now he’s on the peace-keepers’ side. Maybe the implication is Terrier goes where the cash is, which makes you ask the question that surely he’d be doing something for bigger bucks than for a quango? Still, the pace of the film – which never has a dull moment in the first half – never lets you dwell too long and find such inconsistencies, or it has Penn get naked to through such thoughts off course.

It’s Bardem again in another ‘throwaway’ role that allows him to go crazy (as usual) before he is disposed of. As much as Bardem plays one of the best ‘crazies’ it feels a touch samey for the talented actor in this. Even more shocking is the albeit brief appearance of Idris Elba whose part could have been played by any bit actor of any cop drama fame as Elba is totally underused.

Still, if you can’t get enough Bond/Bourne-style shoot-outs, escapes, booby traps and punch-ups, The Gunman delivers more than enough to delight in, accumulating in the bull ring at the end with a very ‘abrupt’ demise. There is also an even more dubious finale that has you counting on your fingers just how old Terrier could be and how being away has made him even more youthful (and possibly toned). It’s a Penn vanity project, an action-revenge, ‘by-the-numbers’ offering that could have been more credible and deeper in purpose with better writing. After all, its mature star is more than willing to throw his weight around to portray its energetic protagonist.

3/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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LFF 2014: X + Y ****


A film about an autistic maths child genius is not the most marketable affair, and is in danger of being gushy. However, made by British documentary maker Morgan Matthews with a touch of Brit pragmatism and subtle humour, these qualities render it endearing and very affecting. X + Y doesn’t try to give answers but just shows people evolving to cope with a situation they all find themselves in a holistic manner.

Asa Butterfield (of Martin Scorsese’s Hugo fame) gets to stretch his acting muscle in this, playing young teen Nathan who loses his beloved father in a tragic accident, and must then live along with mum (Sally Hawkins) who tries in vain to connect with her maths genius son. A breakthrough comes when Nathan gets extra coaching from lonely maths teacher with MS, Mr Humphreys (Rafe Spall) who realises his potential and enrols Nathan in a maths Olympiad. This opens Nathan up to new possibilities – and love.

X + Y is grounded by the main character’s quiet indifference as we awkwardly try to read and relate Nathan, just as his mother does. There are no miraculous, Hollywood breakthroughs, just something that feels ‘realistic’ as small steps are taken. There is a sense of progression but nothing ultimately schmaltzy. No one character is completely comfortable in their own skin so there are imperfections throughout acted by a near perfect cast. This allows us to empathise but never judge.

The fact that Nathan enters a world of equally ‘socially challenged’ maths whiz kids when he arrives in China and still wants to hide his disability adds a certain credible charm and makes him not that different from any other young teen. Note the touching talents of Jake Davies as Luke, a complex nerd the rest of the group turn on. Nathan’s first love story is about the only thing that feels ‘manufactured’ as the story goes and not as believable as the other parts. Still, for a debut, Matthews has achieved quite a remarkable feat and revealed Butterfield’s true talents.

4/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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