2 June 2015

Review: Exodus: Gods & Kings

(Dir: Ridley Scott, 2014)

If there's one thing we learnt from Darren Aronofsky's Noah (and I don't mean that he should stick to the challenging, creative type of film that's been his raison d'être so far), it's that biblical epics don't seem to work when run through the now standard, modern, fantasy mill. I guess it was too late for that lesson to be learnt by Exodus: Gods and Kings - Ridley Scott's stab at the story of Moses. Having spent a whole two and a half hours in it's company, like the aforementioned Noah, I'm really wishing I hadn't bothered.

The film falters thanks to it's belief that spectacle is everything. Now it's impossible to deny that Scott has a superb eye for the visual - that can be seen within just about every film he's made. And there's no shying away from the fact that Exodus: Gods and Kings looks stunning. As the camera moves over the under-construction Egyptian city of Memphis and the slave town of Pithom it's hard not to be awed, likewise when we see chariots racing across the barren lands and round mountain passes. It only falters visually with some of the water based effects work. But all this aside, the rest of the film feels hollow.

Christian Bale's casting as Moses still doesn't totally sit right. When taking on certain weighty aspects of the role he feels wrong, overplaying things and almost pulling you out of the film as you focus on the actor rather than the character. But on the other hand he remains an engaging watch. The same could be said of Joel Egerton's Rameses, except he doesn't get enough screen time. But the most interesting aspect of the film, essentially where it starts but mostly jettisons after thirty or so minutes, is the relationship between the two as their comfortable world of power is blown open. Thereafter their interactions are minimal and the dynamic and interplay between the pair lingers over the far less interesting remainder of the film.

Now of course it's all tied to the biblical story so opportunities to deviate are heresy (to some), but it felt like it was really going through the motions with the plagues bestowed upon the Egyptians, whilst building to a very anticlimactic parting of the red sea. The latter particularly plays out like some grandly epic event as Moses goes through the inevitable crisis of faith but it's all so very "so what?". You also have to wonder why such a good cast were recruited for such irrelevant roles. Did Sigourney Weaver and Aaron Paul have lots of dialogue left on the editing room floor? At least Ben Mendhelson gets to play out his standard creepy menace in an intriguingly different manner.

Ultimately a film like Exodus: Gods and Kings should live by the message and ideas it wants to convey, in a similar manner to the purpose of the original story. But, like Noah, it gets weighed down by spectacle and the occasional, protracted, awkwardly shoe-horned in proselyting. There's no meat in the epic grandiosity and the message side feels forced. At least with the modern fantasy films we've become used too there's a more natural synergy between the epic scale and the message. It feels like this got made solely to one up the likes of The Ten Commandments and create the most epic film of all time. I honestly can't see any other reason why Scott or Bale are involved, and even then that's a poor reason. Shame this doesn't even result in a half decent film.

1 June 2015

Review: Avengers: Age of Ultron

(Dir: Joss Whedon, 2015)

There was a point about an hour into Avengers: Age of Ultron where I got up and left my seat for five or so minutes. The duration was determined by the queue at the concession stand, which was slow moving. I was desperate for a drink, most likely thanks to the delicious cheeseburger, jalapeño poppers and strawberry milkshake that I rushed down for dinner a couple of hours earlier. It’s rare for me to briefly leave a film mid-way for any reason, but I needed that drink, and when I returned amidst a seemingly important scene of exposition with a familiar recurring face having finally popped-up, it was clear I was still missing nothing of consequence. That pretty much sums up Age of Ultron. And who gives a damn about my dinner, right? But I mention it because ordinarily any trip to the cinema is a highlight of my day, but this time the food beat it hands down and that was still only the second most exciting thing to happen that evening (the first being buying a copy of James Ellroy’s new book Perfidia – the man is my favourite author by many a mile and you will know him for writing the books L.A. Confidential and The Black Dahlia, which the films were based on). Age of Ultron is just that uninteresting, but here we go anyway...

Unfortunately this is where we’ve gotten too with the second wave of the Marvel universe. I’ve been very vocal in previous reviews about the noticeable decline in the quality of these films heralded by The Avengers. If that, in my eyes, was easily the weakest of the first wave, the trick has (unsurprisingly) been repeated with the second wave. Last time it felt jarring coming off of high quality films with rich character development and little concern for blowing shit up, to a CGI overloaded mêlée of characters just thrown together to see what inevitably happens without subtlety. This time round the teaming up of these individually interesting characters has just become predictably boring in almost every way. Which, coming off a run of lackluster character sequels, doesn’t hold much hope for what’s still to come.

Age of Ultron struggles primarily because it feels so uninspired. It’s content to just throw cgi at the wall, which at times looks utterly unconvincing, and is just more of the same old generic fighting and spectacle we’ve seen a million times now. It’s not thrilling. The conclusion is never in doubt so there’s a distinct lack of jeopardy. The piece lacks a convincing villain – Ultron is really just a confused-looking hunk of metal projecting the voice of Raymond Reddington. You can’t argue with James Spader’s solid vocal performance, and even some good moments of animation to match his face, but generally any time Ultron was talking I felt like I’d rather be watching The Blacklist. And when you compare him to Loki, who was absolutely the best bit of the first Avengers film, disappointing is the only word that comes to mind.

Wisely there's an attempt to give a couple of the "lesser" members of the team some backstory and attention, a definite failing of the previous films, but it never feels enough and I reiterate my point from three years ago that a Hawkeye / Black Widow origins film has so much potential. Alas Whedon and co clearly can't think what to do differently with their main female character other than shoehorn in an attempted, awkward romance. Apparently it's clear that the rest of team have had enough character attention in the past, so here they're left with little more than vacant soul searching and a touch of bickering as they take on their latest foe. Of course that allows for far more time to cut to the type of blandly generic, CGI heavy action that is so unedifying. Having watched the hugely superior Mad Max: Fury Road a few days beforehand, that point feels like it was driven home especially hard whilst sitting through Age of Ultron. There's just no real creativity. No passion. It's all so achingly formulaic that the whole endeavour just feels like a contractual obligation for Robert Downey Jr, Chris Evans, Joss Whedon et al.

To some the following might sound like a reactionary statement, pissing on one of the golden calves of geekdom, but I cannot grasp why Joss Whedon is so continually venerated. Sure, Firefly and Buffy the Vampire Slayer are seminal pieces of television that understandably inspire a certain degree of worship, but that was more than a decade ago. A couple of average at best superhero films, a not-as-good-as-the-show filmic version of Firefly and a mostly uninteresting modern Shakespeare interpretation do not, in my opinion, give Whedon a pass as unimpeachable. The point is, both Avengers films could've been so much more in more capable hands. Look at what James Gunn did with a far more obtuse proposition in Guardians of the Galaxy. To end up with such an utterly boring film when Tony Stark, Thor and Captain America are three of your leads, proves the wrong person is in charge and highlights how blinded to reality those clinging to the past with desperate adoration really are.

Marvel appears to be rapidly forgetting the lessons learned from their first wave of films, and particularly Guardians of the Galaxy. It's the characters and a sense of personality that makes the difference, rather than just putting these heroes together and letting a computer vomit shockingly bland action sequences all over the screen. Based on the money these films rake in it's obvious Marvel are doing something very right, but I don't think it's too much to ask for a big budget superhero film to give some credence to artistry and creativity. Or hell, to even be remotely fun. Turns out Age of Ultron is the second worst film I've seen so far this year, which is something I did not see coming.