Monday, 27 April 2015

Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)

I've enjoyed most of the Marvel films I've seen, but I don't embrace them all equally.  The Iron Man films were all excellent, and my opinion of 'Guardians of the Galaxy' (2014) is identical to everybody else's opinion of 'Guardians of the Galaxy'.  I found 'Captain America' and 'Thor' (both 2011) to be flashy but ordinary, and 'Age of Ultron' shares one of the main issues I had with 'Thor' - in both cases, the central conflict looks to be morally complex, but the villain, after a short period of seeming to have an interesting motivation, decides to be entirely, overtly, evil.  Both films promised to be dramas, and both gave way to something less challenging.

'Avengers: Age of Ultron' is a film full of punching.  Iron Man is a very cool person, whom money and technology have blessed with super punching powers; he's better served by his own films, and the fact I'd seen the superlative 'Iron Man 3' (2013) so recently probably injured my opinion of this movie.  The Hulk is a very nice guy, with an interesting central conflict - the same as in the last Avengers film (2012), so it's hard to be quite so engaged by it this time around; technology has given him super punching powers too.  Captain America is an all-American hero, and a bit boring, and technology has given him super hitting-people-with-a-shield powers.  Thor is a Norse space-god, and space-magic indistinguishable from advanced technology has given him hitting-people-with-a-mallet powers.  Then there's Black Widow, who doesn't seem to have any technological advantage, and seems to kick people more than she punches, and Hawkeye, who's really good at shooting really good arrows.

They're all incredibly attractive, but in different ways.  They kick ass, and especially much they punch ass.  Most of them have had films of their own, showing that they're all individually capable of bringing down vast, blockbuster-sized enemies, so once they're all working together, the obvious problem is finding an enemy that takes them two hours to stop.  Thankfully the legion that confronts them this year is one that can be affected by punching, but one great enough in number that the punching can go on for at least twenty minutes unabated.

Ultron, whose age it is.
The side of evil is given a number of assets, making this Age of Ultron seem a relatively tricky case, but as more and more of the villain's forces defect to the side of good, a victory for the heroes looks ever more likely.  The film seems to keep promising that nobody is safe, that this fight will have a terrible cost - and so it should!  A villain as powerful as Ultron would seem more of a credible threat if his plot had a body count.  I was disappointed when 'The Return of the King' (2003) saw all its main heroes survive - I'd hoped for a bloody hobbit-massacre to show the extent of the threat Frodo faced, and when everybody lived it made the 9-hour struggle feel cheap and easy.  I didn't hold out any such hopes this time around - but I won't say any more, for fear of spoiling the film.

'Avengers: Age of Ultron' is pretty exciting to watch - explosions, set-pieces, familiar characters doing their thing, witty exchanges and reasonable angst - but as you may sense from the paragraphs above, I wasn't quite satisfied.  Part of the problem was that there were no ordinary people in the cast of characters.  All the major players are well-versed in superheroism and high-octane showdowns.  There's no young Steve Rogers, no Pepper Potts, no Foggy Nelson, and none of the heroes even need to pass for normal - these are heroes who have given up their secret double-lives.  I think I've really been spoiled by Marvel's other 2015 project, 'Daredevil', which has recently shown up on Netflix - a hugely satisfying masked vigilante story, with dozens of interesting, human characters to care about.  'Age of Ultron' tries to put Hawkeye at its emotional core, and shows him to be ordinary and American and handsome, but this doesn't make him especially interesting.  He's no Matt Murdock.

The only real people in this film, with lives as humdrum as our own, are the huge crowds of potential victims.  The Avengers work to save these hapless lemmings, and it makes ordinary humanity seem a real drag, a hindrance without merit.  I like that these superhero films spend time showing the heroes rescuing people - it worked well in the recent Batman movies, and it was a nice feature of 'The Avengers Assemble' (2012), but here I spent my time wishing the villain would do his thing, wipe out these troublesome extras, and move the narrative on a bit.

Check it out in cinemas now (or in cinemas next week, if you're American).  Despite my complaints, there's plenty to enjoy here.

Wednesday, 22 April 2015

Kids (1995)

Despite no particular plans in this direction, my film-watching project has encapsulated a lot of films set in New York - from 'Shaft' (1971) and 'Beneath the Planet of the Apes' (1971) to 'Taxi Driver' (1976) and 'Party Monster' (2003), and 'The BQE' (2007) and 'Mary & Max' (2009), and six others besides.  It's a very interesting set of movies, but taken together they present a vision of a formidably ghastly city, full of cars and violent woe, not somewhere you'd particularly want to live or visit.

'Kids' joins this tradition, but takes a new perspective, looking at the great teen nineties of baggy clothing and public urination.  It's a rampantly heterosexual movie, opening with an abrasively long and noisy teenage snog, and going on to follow the sex and lives of a pubescent gang.  Bored, horny children, raping and mumbling and laughing.

"I have no legs," sings the man.
I didn't know anything about the film when I bought it.  I picked it up from a charity-shop because I found its spine interesting - normally DVD-spines are printed so you can read them when you tilt your head to the right, but this one was like the DVDs of continental Europe, where you have to tilt your head the other way.  The design made it look like 'world cinema', a vague, arty term that I don't often hear applied to American movies, but this is a film seemed to fit both categories.

It's thrillingly disorientating, shot largely in very close-up close-ups and highly saturated colours.  A cast of untried actors overlap their dialogue, and compete with the sounds of traffic and loud music.  It has a documentary feel, a spontaneity.  It feels oddly like real life, rather than performed drama, and it makes other films feel staid and artificial.  I'd expected 'Kids' to be bleak and hard to watch - it's a film full of HIV, romanceless underage sex and other widely-protested content, but it proved to be full of energy and vitality - a much more visceral and important piece than, for example, 'The Titfield Thunderbolt' (1953), the last film I'd looked at.  It passed quickly, and it troubled me.

Friday, 17 April 2015

Herostratus (1967)

The main reason I came to watch 'Herostratus', other than liking the title and cover, is that it came out in the BFI Flipside series of DVD/Blu-ray dual format releases.  It's a run of obscure, interesting British films from the archives, forgotten marvels given a chance to shine again.  'The Bed-Sitting Room' (1969), which I very much enjoyed, was one such release, and on the basis of it and BFI's release of 'Winstanley' (1975), I find the line very encouraging.

Then, of course, there's the film's basic idea.  In short, a young man goes to an advertising agency to get maximum publicity for his act of suicide.  It's an unpleasantly interesting concept, grim, but ripe for satire and social commentary.  I'd say the film grapples with both of these, but fares less well as a drama or comedy.

So, we follow Max, the main character, as he approaches the advertising man Farson, a very sixties businessman who comes across like a Number 2 from the same year's psychedelic stand-out 'The Prisoner'.  Farson puts Max up in luxury and sets about publicising a sellably bland version of him to win public support.  The film then intercuts Max's reclusive days in a comfortable black void with archive footage of Ginsberg, Roosevelt, Churchill and Hitler, and juxtaposes sexy dancing with swirling offal, while making ironic comparisons between Max's herostratic desire for suicide and the conspicuous death of Jesus.

It feels like an investigation of ideas, rather than a narrative- or character-led piece.  A discussion, and quite a long one, at two-hours and forty minutes.  At times I wished the film would hurry itself along.  Perhaps I'm too impatient to really engage with this kind of art, or perhaps the film was making its point more slowly than necessary.  I'm inclined toward the latter, as the release also features director Don Levy's 'Time Is' (1964), which wants to wow its audience with the suggestion that time, as we understand it, is a human construct, a point that it makes quite effectively in the first five minutes, but persists with for another 25 - perhaps appropriate, given the content.

'Herostratus' has a chilling lack of glossiness, making it resemble Eastern and European films more than the American sort that I've come to think of as cinema's default.  The blood red and golden lighting, and the frequent cuts away to black, made me think of the then-recent Ukrainian movie 'Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors' (1964).  (I feel pretentious comparing this art-film you probably haven't heard of to another art-film you probably haven't heard of; I'm only aware of them because I'm doing this film-based blog, and have deliberately sought out some obscure items in the hope of finding treasure.  Somehow it feels like it would be more acceptable if I was doing this with novels, because everybody knows books have an inherent cultural value).

I didn't find a lot of pleasure in 'Herostratus'.  It interested me, but stretched that interest very thin, and I found myself wondering whether I have too much love for the easy comforts of commercial cinema to really get on with art films.  Or maybe I just didn't like this one.  Never mind.

P.S. Herostratus, if you're curious, was an ancient Ephesian who set fire to the Temple of Artemis (one of the Seven Wonders of the World) purely because he wanted to be famous for something.  It worked, and his name lives in infamy, as 'herostratic fame' today means fame at any cost, even fame for atrocities.  Anything to make one's name linger in the public mind.

Thursday, 9 April 2015

The Titfield Thunderbolt (1953)

Having watched ‘Ben-Hur’ (1959) on each of the last eleven Easter weekends, I’ve developed something of an intimate understanding of it; tiny details that I didn't notice at first now seem obvious and familiar - a few odd seconds where a line of dialogue has been partly redubbed, or small quirks to actors’ deliveries, like Jack Hawkins decision to stress the first syllable of ‘reward’ (a word he says twice).  I’ve no great desire to learn about the film’s production, and I’ve never listened to its commentaries - but repeated consumption to get at the story has made its ingredients, its composition, even the performance of its most minor roles, seem like bosom friends.

This year I thought I’d spend a little time looking up the CVs of the film’s cast.  As long-term readers may recall, I’m already well-versed in Charlton Heston’s filmography, but I thought I’d look up what Haya Harareet and Frank Thring did next.  I’ve seen Finlay Currie as Magwitch in ’Great Expectations’ (1946), and the aforementioned Jack Hawkins as the man in ‘Bridge on the River Kwai’ (1957) who wishes to explode said bridge (though I’ll need to re-watch that film to see if he gets to say the work ‘reward’ at any point) - and we’ve all seen John Le Mesurier, a grim surgeon in a scene after the famous chariot race, as Sgt Wilson in ‘Dad’s Army’ (1968-77).

Dan Taylor (Hugh Griffith) and Walter Valentine (Stanley Holloway) get drunk.
In my researches, I discovered a film which featured two of the cast of 'Ben-Hur’ together.   And the same day I learned about ‘The Titfield Thunderbolt’, it popped up on BBC4.  The movie stars George Relph, who had two scenes in ‘Ben-Hur’ as a rather avuncular Tiberius Caesar, a role in which he shows off his strikingly memorable teeth.  In ‘The Titfield Thunderbolt’, he plays a country vicar who decides to buy up a railway station to stop it being closed down.  He also drives the trains, accompanied in the engine by a surly poacher, played by Hugh Griffith, who six years later won an oscar as Best Supporting Actor, for his unfortunately blacked-up but otherwise highly enjoyable performance as Sheikh Ilderim, a major player in Ben-Hur’s second half.

So, let’s turn our attention to ‘The Titfield Thunderbolt’.  It is, in short, a nice film about a train.  Will the vicar and the poacher be able to run their train safely, and on time?  Will they be able to beat those villainous men from the bus company?  Probably!  It’s an Ealing Comedy, from the writer and director of ‘The Lavender Hill Mob’ (1951), so has a charming humour and a particularly British gentleness.  (I’d say a particular English gentleness, except that Hugh Griffith is always so very Welsh).  It features some fine works of engineering, and some ingeniously concocted solutions to the problems that arise, and it has enough mild peril to keep the audience thoroughly engaged for its 80 minute duration.  It also features a physical fight between the vicar in his stream-train and Sid James on a steam-roller - surely a sight worth seeing for yourself.

...and then who should turn up but the Bishop! (Godfrey Tearle)

Do excuse me resurrecting the Penciltonian to tell you about this small, gentle adventure.  I've seen plenty of exciting films over the last year, and have often wished to crack open the blog to tell you about them - you very nearly heard about 'Wings' (1927), a very engaging silent film that you can find on Netflix, and 'Twelve Angry Men' (1957), which lived up to its reputation.  But it's 'The Titfield Thunderbolt' that's brought me back.  It's a pleasant feature, with a very sunny optimism that seems to suit the current season.  I occasionally mean to come back and comment on another film from each decade.  I wrote up a late-sixties film many months ago and never posted it, so that may happen.

And since I've covered each year from 1913-2014, I'll certainly be back with a 2015 film in a month or so.

P.S. Other films featuring two or more actors from Ben-Hur include ‘Bridge on the River Kwai’ (1957, as mentioned earlier) which features Sextus and Quintus Arrius, and ‘El Cid’ (1961), which features Judah Ben-Hur and Pontius Pilate.  If you can think of any others, I’d be glad to hear from you.

P.P.S. It seems I really enjoy tales of vicars having light-hearted adventures.  See also, Father Stanley Unwin in 'The Secret Service', Reverend Charles Bentley in 'The Mundane Egg', and the kindly bishops (of Digne and Tatchester) who get involved in 'Les Miserables' and 'The Box of Delights' (the latter of which also involves a number of unscrupulous curates who fight magic with guns and flying cars).