Avengers: Endgame review

AVENGERS: ENDGAME

Directors: Anthony and Joe Russo
Cast : Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Don Cheadle, Paul Rudd, Brie Larson, Karen Gillan, Danai Gurira, Benedict Wong, Jon Favreau, Bradley Cooper, Gwyneth Paltrow, Josh Brolin
Genre : Action/Superhero
Run Time : 3 hours 1 minute
Opens : 24 April 2019
Rating : PG13

The following review is spoiler-free.

Following the catastrophic events of Avengers: Infinity War, earth’s mightiest heroes have been crushed. Thanos (Josh Brolin) achieved his goal, wiping out half of all living creatures in existence. Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), James Rhodes/War Machine (Don Cheadle), Nebula (Karen Gillan) and Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper) are all reeling from this loss.

Our heroes must regroup to fight to restore what was so cruelly taken from them. Scott Lang/Ant-Man (Paul Rudd), who was thought to have been among the decimated, was lost in the Quantum Realm. He returns, meeting the surviving Avengers to tell them he might have an idea. What follows is an epic mission to mend what has been broken, one that will take its toll on the Avengers, but a mission which they must complete.

Avengers: Endgame marks the end of the Infinity Saga, a 22-movie cycle comprising the first three phases of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. There is a lot on this movie’s shoulders, since it must address the events of Infinity War and function as a satisfying conclusion to the first 11 years of MCU movies. There will be MCU movies after this, of course: Spider-Man: Far From Home is being released in July. However, audiences know Avengers: Endgame must be far from just another MCU movie, and it is.

The ending of Avengers: Infinity War was an audacious mic-drop, a cliffhanger which audiences had to wait a year to see the resolution of. The villain won: it was like The Empire Strikes Back, but orders of magnitude more devastating for the heroes. The intervening year was filled with speculation and theories. Avengers: Endgame packs in the surprises and twists and turns from the very beginning of its three-hour runtime. It’s an extremely clever piece of writing from screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, and a massive logistical ordeal overseen by directors Anthony and Joe Russo.

Without going into any details about the plot, it reminded me of how Eric Heisserer described writing The Thing (2011). That film was a prequel to John Carpenter’s 1982 film of the same name, and writing it involved reverse-engineering specific aspects of that film to show audiences how things got to that point. Heisserer called it “doing it by autopsy”. The writing of Avengers: Endgame must have been a similar process.

This is a movie which is constructed to reward fans who have stuck with the franchise since the beginning. It is mostly fan-service, but “fan-service” has taken on such derisive connotations that it hardly seems fair to call it that. This is a movie which will break box office records and it’s absolutely not a standalone movie – audiences are expected to have a strong familiarity with not just Infinity War, but practically every single MCU movie preceding that, because many of the character arcs trace their way back to the beginning. It’s no coincidence that after Thanos’ snap, the original six team members who formed the group seen in The Avengers remain.

The characters of the MCU and their journeys have earned considerable cachet with audiences, and Endgame is intent on leveraging that for maximum effect. By turns heart-rending and triumphant, there are moments in this film which will feel like moments that fans have been waiting for ages to see onscreen, and other moments that are so sad, fans will hope they never had to witness. The film does tend towards the melodramatic, but perhaps this is justified given the operatic scale of the MCU.

The MCU’s original trinity of Iron Man, Captain America and Thor all figure heavily into the plot. Endgame sees Tony taking the loss of Infinity War especially hard, while Steve finds his usual optimism flagging in the aftermath of the snap. Some of the film’s best, most honest moments are quiet dialogue scenes, including when Steve participates in a support group meeting for people coping with the loss of their loved ones in the decimation. The gigantic battle sequences, while cheer-worthy, can feel a little bloated and synthetic as they are in many lesser comic book movies.

While there is a necessary bleakness to Endgame, there are still moments of levity which, unlike in many earlier MCU movies, do not infringe on the emotional heft. The MCU started out with Iron Man, a movie which depicted fanciful technology, but was a safe distance from all-out sci-fi or fantasy. Things have changed since then, characters from the cosmic and mythic corners of the MCU openly interacting with the earth-bound ones. “I get emails from a raccoon, so nothing sounds crazy to me anymore,” Natasha remarks.

Avengers: Endgame is about a clash between good and evil on a cosmic scale, promising blockbuster spectacle and expensive entertainment. While it delivers all that, its greatest asset is its soul. It’s a movie about endings and beginnings, the past and the future and about parents and children. It’s a movie about what we take with us and what we leave behind. There is tremendous catharsis to Endgame and it’s a testament to how Marvel studios constructed something objectively impressive with the MCU, but above all it’s a “thank you” to viewers who have joined the characters on the journey.

RATING: 4.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Wind River movie review

For inSing

WIND RIVER

Director : Taylor Sheridan
Cast : Jeremy Renner, Elizabeth Olsen, Gil Birmingham, Jon Bernthal, Julia Jones, Kelsey Chow
Genre : Crime/Thriller/Mystery
Run Time : 108 mins
Opens : 23 November 2017
Rating : M18

Wind-River-posterWriter-director Taylor Sheridan takes audiences into the frozen wilds of Wyoming with this sombre mystery thriller. The setting: the Wind River Native American reservation. Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner), a U.S. Fish and Wildlife service agent, comes across the body of 18-year-old Natalie Hanson (Kelsey Chow) in the snow. Natalie’s parents Martin (Gil Birmingham) and Annie (Althea Sam) are inconsolable. Natalie appears to have been raped and murdered, and rookie FBI agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) arrives to assist Tribal Police Chief Ben (Graham Greene) with the investigation. Far outside her comfort zone, Jane must summon her wits and resourcefulness to catch the perpetrator and avenge Natalie’s death.

Sheridan is a former actor who has quickly become a sought-after screenwriter, penning Sicario and the Oscar-nominated Hell or High Water. This time, he is directing in addition to writing. He has a knack for crime thrillers with a socially conscious bent, and with Wind River, Sheridan seeks to highlight how female Native American victims of murder or kidnapping often go unnoticed. This intense story unfolds against the beautiful desolation of the American northwest, with Park City, Utah doubling for Wyoming. The surroundings hammer home the bleakness of the story, emphasising the sense of being forgotten by society at large, far from the creature comforts of the city.

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Wind River is a slow burn, and requires the audience to stick with it before things heat up. This isn’t a movie that’s intended to be entertaining or even particularly thrilling, and as such, it might be difficult for some audiences to sit through. When it gets brutal, Wind River is uncompromising and raw. There is a scene of sexual violence which is difficult to stomach, and there are a few bloody shootouts. The title card at the beginning of the film stating the film is “inspired by true events” refers to not one specific incident, but thousands of stories about sexual assault of women on Native American reservations, where few outside the community notice their plight.

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This is one of Renner’s best performances, and the Cory Lambert character is a finely-realised hero. Renner’s turn is understated and strong, and he is convincing as a rugged guy who lives off the land, rifle in hand. The character could easily have come off as generic, especially since he has lived through a personal tragedy, but Renner commands the audience’s attention. He balances out the steeliness with quiet humanity – Cory is depicted as a devoted father to his young son Casey (Teo Briones). Cory comes across as someone who values human connection but who has been burned by past experiences, hence his detachedness. While Cory was married to a Native American woman, he will always be viewed as an outsider in the community.

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Olsen looks like she’s out of her depth, which is exactly what the role calls for. Jane Banner recalls Emily Blunt’s Kate Macer character in Sicario: the principled newcomer who is about to undergo a trial by fire. The dynamic that develops between Cory and Jane is satisfying to watch, in part because Cory acknowledges Jane’s strength and isn’t deliberately giving her a hard time about not knowing her way around the territory. It’s also fun to imagine that we’re watching Hawkeye and Scarlet Witch teaming up on their own adventure.

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Birmingham’s performance as the grieving father is honest and affecting, but the Native American characters take a backseat in a story that’s ostensibly about Native Americans. While the film consciously avoids the ‘white saviour’ narrative, it is a valid criticism that a movie about the injustices suffered by Native Americans has two white people as its protagonists, and focuses on Native Americans as a group rather than as individual characters.

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Wind River keeps in line with Sheridan’s penchant for thought-provoking films which aren’t necessarily all that exciting on their face, but which bring attention to social issues in a non-preachy manner. This is yet another auspicious indicator that Sheridan has a stellar career behind the camera ahead of him, but audiences should take note that Wind River is sometimes punishing, thanks to its painful subject matter.

RATING: 3.5 out of Stars

Jedd Jong

Arrival

For F*** Magazine

ARRIVAL

Director : Denis Villeneuve
Cast : Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, Michael Stuhlbarg, Tzi Ma
Genre : Sci-fi/Drama
Run Time : 1h 58min
Opens : 12 January 2017
Rating : PG-13

arrival-posterIt’s Close Encounters of the Learned Kind: aliens are greeted not with a barrage of laser fire, but by academics seeking to understand their motive for travelling to Earth. When 12 extra-terrestrial spacecraft appear hovering above Earth, US Army Colonel GT Weber (Whitaker) ropes in linguist Dr. Louise Banks (Adams) and theoretical physicist Dr. Ian Donnelly (Renner) to head a team that will attempt communicating with the aliens. The arrival of the 12 ships throws society into disarray, with other countries’ handling of the situation posing the threat of all-out war. Louise and Ian enter the ship, making contact with the aliens, which come to be known as ‘heptapods’. Louise studies the heptapods’ language, a series of complex circular shapes, gradually figuring out how to speak to them. In the meantime, tensions escalate worldwide, with many Americans calling for a show of force against the heptapods after the aliens convey that their purpose on Earth is to “offer weapon”.

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Arrival is based on Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang, a Nebula Award-winning novella. Director Denis Villeneuve, currently working on the Blade Runner sequel, had wanted to make a science fiction film for some time. Meanwhile, screenwriter Eric Heisserer had been unsuccessfully pitching an adaptation of Story of Your Life and was about to give up on it. Producers Dan Cohen and Dan Levine eventually united Villeneuve and Heisserer, with the result being a towering achievement in the genre. Villeneuve’s approach of measured stillness gives this first contact story considerable gravitas, while keeping it intimate and personal in that the events are largely seen from one character’s point of view. Aficionados of the genre will recognise certain elements in Arrival, but the way they’re assembled and presented is unlike any sci-fi film before it.

arrival-shipVilleneuve refrains from flashy stylistic flourishes, with the aliens and their ships deliberately under-designed. Much of the atmosphere comes courtesy of Jóhann Jóhannsson’s score. Its ominous electronic tones are contrasted with the stirring strings of Max Richter’s On the Nature of Daylight, which opens and closes the film.

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Arrival’s premise is built on the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, the concept in linguistics that one’s worldview is intrinsically shaped by the structure of one’s language. While Arrival does require its audience to be engaged in the story, it doesn’t drop one off in the deep end to drown in dense techno-babble. Several sci-fi/fantasy TV shows and movies have boasted entirely invented alien languages, but this has generally been done as a world-building move to give the fictional civilisations more texture. In Arrival, the heptapods’ language is the backbone of the story rather than a detail, with the structure of the language demonstrating the heptapods’ transcendent perception of time. By the time we get to the mind-bending conclusion, we were fully invested in the plot. As trippy as the ending is, it does not break any of the earlier-established rules.

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Villenueve’s films can generally be described as “cold”, but Adams’ performance anchors Arrival with warmth and humanity. Adams’ ability to convey a rich range of emotions while remaining understated is an invaluable asset here. We are presented with a back-story for Louise that seems emotionally manipulative, but Adams’ performance gives the character great depth, and we are later provided context for said back-story. Louise is analytical, but not condescending in the way academics in movies often can be. She is shaken by her initial encounter with the aliens, as anyone would be, but she forges ahead to make sense of the information she’s been given.

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Renner’s Ian serves as a foil to Adams’ Louise, with Renner bringing just enough roguish charm to the part. Ian takes a back seat to Louise for most of the film, but in the middle of stressful circumstances, they find solace in each other. In Ian’s introductory scene, he disagrees with Louise that language is the foundation of any culture, contending that science is instead. Louise and Ian’s relationship is symbolic of how the ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ sciences intersect. By working together towards a common goal, Louise and Ian overcome the obstacles in their path instead of getting in each other’s way, making the duo one that is easy to root for.

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Whitaker plays the military man whose every action is governed by orders from on high, and who baulks at some of the unorthodox methods employed by Louise and Ian but is ultimately supportive of their efforts. The film lacks nuance in its portrayal of how other countries are reacting to the alien ships stationed in their backyards. Louise and Ian are spearheading the American effort to establish contact with the heptapods and as expected, Russia and China are seen being the most aggressive. Still, “lacking nuance” is relative, since most the film is complex and sensitively realised. It is disheartening to think that the current U.S. President-Elect would likely nuke the heptapods into oblivion as a knee-jerk reaction instead of sending a linguist and a physicist to deduce the aliens’ raison d’être.

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While Will Smith welcoming an extra-terrestrial marauder to Earth with a swift punch to the face might be the pop culture conception of first contact with aliens, sci-fi abounds with more contemplative approaches to this hypothetical situation. As Arrival draws to a close, it becomes clear that this film deserves a place in the sci-fi pantheon alongside the very best examples of the genre.

Summary: As intelligent and thought-provoking as it is moving and profound, Arrival’s approach to the scenario of mankind’s first contact with beings not of this Earth is powerful and sublime.

RATING: 4.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation

For F*** Magazine

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – ROGUE NATION

Director : Christopher McQuarrie
Cast : Tom Cruise, Jeremy Renner, Simon Pegg, Rebecca Ferguson, Ving Rhames, Sean Harris, Alec Baldwin, Zhang Jingchu
Run Time : 132 mins
Opens : 30 July 2015
Rating : PG13 (Violence And Brief Nudity)

These days, it seems that every year is the “year of the superhero” at the multiplex. From Kingsman: The Secret Service to Spy to The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and Spectre – not forgetting the fifth instalment in the Mission: Impossible film series – 2015 is well and truly the “year of the spy”. 

Here, we find CIA director Hunley (Baldwin) disbanding the Impossible Missions Force (IMF), leaving our heroes Ethan Hunt (Cruise), William Brandt (Renner), Benji Dunn (Pegg) and Luther Stickell (Rhames) in the lurch. Ethan crosses paths with the enigmatic Ilsa Faust (Ferguson), supposedly an MI6 agent deep undercover. Ethan uncovers evidence of the Syndicate, a “rogue nation” comprised of secret agents thought to be dead, the dirty underbelly of the dirty underbelly. With the treacherous Solomon Lane (Harris) in charge, The Syndicate’s tendrils reach far and deep. Pressed on all sides and with dangerous enemies in pursuit, Ethan and his associates embark on their most crucial mission yet.

In an age where hype counts a great deal, Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation has not been hyped as much as other summer blockbusters. It also faces heady competition at the cinemas this year – Paramount shifted the film up from a Christmas release date to late July to avoid facing Bond film Spectre head-on. Helmed by Jack Reacher director Christopher McQuarrie, Rogue Nation proves the franchise has wind in its sails yet. This film series is unique in that there have been five different directors over five films, counting this one. McQuarrie manages to quickly find his footing, acknowledging the events of the previous film, tying it all together quite nicely (though there’s curiously no mention of Ethan’s wife). This is an exhilarating, superbly constructed action thriller, a palpable affection for and understanding of the genre evident throughout. 


          Structurally, perhaps it is a misstep to pile all the action set-pieces on to the front end of the picture, meaning the pace lags a little as the film nears its conclusion. That said, the set-pieces are uniformly marvelous, so credit to stunt coordinator Wade Eastwood and second unit director Gregg Smrz is due. Right out the gate, McQuarrie and star/producer Cruise show they mean business with an opening sequence in which Ethan clings precariously to the exterior of an Airbus A400 M, a stunt Cruise performed for real. The film doesn’t feature globetrotting so much as “globe-galloping” – From Belarus to Austria to Morocco in addition to the United Kingdom and the United States, the exotic locations and the scale of the film lend it a very appealing throwback quality to the heyday of spy-fi. The scene in which Ethan grapples with a Syndicate operative in the rafters of the Vienna Opera House while Puccini’s Turandot is in progress on the stage below is pure class. A white-knuckle sequence with Ethan swimming into an underwater data storage facility called the “Taurus” while holding his breath the whole time is strikingly unique, adding a futuristic touch that makes it seem as if Cruise has temporarily stepped back into Minority Report. There’s also the motorcycle chase that’s far less silly than the one in M:I II. All this is wrapped in Joe Kraemer’s electrifying musical score, which weaves in both the iconic Lalo Schiffrin M:I theme and Nessun Dorma

           His peculiar personal proclivities notwithstanding, Cruise has held his own as a megastar for decades while others have come and gone. From the moment he enters the movie – sprinting, of course – the 53-year-old shows no signs of slowing down whatsoever. The charisma, intensity, spry athleticism, it’s all intact. Cruise has had several duds in recent years (the baffling sub-Mission: Impossible flick Knight and Day comes to mind) but with Rogue Nation, his trademark star vehicle franchise remains right on track. 

The Mission: Impossible television series from the 60s had an emphasis on teamwork. The movies have certainly been all about Cruise, but it is great to see the returning IMF members back in the field. This film gives Simon Pegg’s Benji in particular a meatier role – since the character’s introduction in the third movie, he’s gotten a nice upgrade from the designated techie comic relief, an evolution which continues ahead in this film. Ving Rhames’ Luther Stickell, this team’s original techie, is back as well. While Jeremy Renner has a little less to do, spending the first half of the film duking it out with Alec Baldwin in front of a senate oversight committee, he gets his moments to shine too. Speaking of Baldwin, it was a little difficult for this reviewer to see him as anything but Jack Donaghy in some spy movie-inspired fever dream of Liz Lemon’s on 30 Rock. In future movies, it would be great to see some of the female IMF agents return – Maggie Q and Paula Patton on the same team would be awesome! 

Swedish actress Rebecca Ferguson, best known for her leading role in period series The White Queen but otherwise not a big-name star just yet, was apparently hand-picked by Cruise to star in Rogue Nation. Her Ilsa Faust is meant to remain an enigma throughout, ostensibly an ally yet someone we are never sure whether or not to fully trust. There’s a femme fatale element she doesn’t overplay, as well as a sophistication and intelligence that Ferguson balances out the requisite sex appeal with. Still, she doesn’t quite stand out as strikingly as, say, Eva Green did in Casino Royale. We’ve seen villains like Sean Harris’ Solomon Lane many, many times in this genre – he’s the quietly menacing guy pulling the strings, playing everyone from a distance. It’s not an outstanding character, but he’s functional and his part in the grand scheme of things makes sense.

McQuarrie, who co-wrote the screenplay with Drew Pearce, weaves an intricate plot of gambits and double-crosses which the audience has to make a conscious effort to follow, but which stops a safe distance from being pointlessly convoluted. It harks back to a bygone era of stylish spy movies, but is also a straight-ahead contemporary thriller rather than self-reflexively playing with the tropes of the genre the way Kingsman and Spy do. The chases, shootouts, fisticuffs, daredevil Houdini escapes, ticking bomb suspense and Cruise’s unwavering star power – Rogue Nation has it all.

Summary: Carried by a propulsive momentum and packed with meticulously-assembled thrills, going Rogue has never been this entertaining.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Avengers: Age of Ultron

For F*** Magazine

AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON

Director : Joss Whedon
Cast : Robert Downey Jr., Chris Hemsworth, Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, James Spader, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Elizabeth Olsen, Paul Bettany, Samuel L. Jackson
Genre : Comics/Action/Adventure
Run Time : 141 mins
Opens : 23 April 2015

(The following review is spoiler-free)

Earth’s mightiest heroes boldly step forth into a new age in the closing chapter of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s second phase. The Avengers, comprising Tony Stark/Iron Man (Downey Jr.), Thor (Hemsworth), Steve Rogers/Captain America (Evans), Bruce Banner/Hulk (Ruffalo), Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Johansson) and Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Renner) have unfinished business to attend to. Loki’s sceptre is being held in a Hydra stronghold, and in the process of retrieving the otherworldly weapon, the team confronts the twins Pietro (Taylor-Johnson) and Wanda (Olsen) Maximoff, the products of Hydra genetic enhancement experiments. Stark and Banner have an experiment of their own, the artificial intelligence system Ultron (Spader), intended as a security net for the world. However, the sentient robot has nefarious plans of its own, violently rebelling against its creators. The Avengers’ only hope may lie in Vision (Bettany), an old friend in a new form. 

            2012’s The Avengers was a monumental event, the glorious apex of Marvel Studios’ diligent world-building. Now, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has truly earned the right to call itself a “universe”, Age of Ultron uniting a multitude of familiar faces while introducing new players. There’s the welcome feeling that the gang’s all here, but not just for the sake of it. This is a significant achievement on multiple levels; writer-director Joss Whedon taking on the Herculean challenge of topping the first Avengers film while charting a course forward for all of these characters. Once again, Whedon demonstrates a remarkable command of the tone, peppering the screenplay with delightfully zippy witticisms (Stark references playwright Eugene O’Neill and the practice of Prima Nocta) yet establishing the stakes and delivering genuine drama when it is required. 

What stands out as the most impressive element of this blockbuster isn’t the wham-bam spectacle, it’s the character development. While many action movies are marketed as being “character-driven”, more often than not, the plot seems like a minor inconvenience at best, fiddly bits of story standing in the way of stuff blowing up. This isn’t the case here. Whedon cleverly builds upon the relationships established in the previous films, including the “science bros” bond between Stark and Banner and the dysfunctional family dynamic within the team as a whole. Whedon is unafraid to have sizeable stretches of the film driven solely by drama or comedy in between the action, without the movie feeling like it’s spinning its wheels until Hulk next smashes something or Cap tosses his shield. The conflict has its place, there is angst but not moping and the bristling tension that arises from disagreements within the team is balanced with the sheer satisfaction of seeing our heroes work in conjunction with each other.
This is not to say that the spectacle is in short supply – far from it. This is a major tentpole release that was guaranteed to do gangbusters even before a single word of the screenplay was written, but if Avengers: Age of Ultronis anything to go by, producer Kevin Feige and the folks at Marvel Studios are not about to rest on their laurels or just let these movies “make themselves”. The film’s opening, which involves the Avengers storming Baron Von Strucker’s (Thomas Kretschmann) mountain fortress, reintroduces viewers to our heroes in the thick of it with a slick, unbroken long take. There’s also a fair bit of globe-trotting, the story taking the team from their home base in New York to the fictional Eastern European city of Sokovia, South Africa and South Korea.

The movie’s signature set piece is the battle between Iron Man in his heavy-duty Hulkbuster armour and the Hulk. Stark is reluctant to fight Banner, shading the knock-down drag-out brawl with more emotional hues than a typical beat ‘em up. The climactic showdown, while familiar in the sense that it’s the plucky good guys against a horde of bad guys while trying to get innocent citizens to safety, is sufficiently different from the “big fight in a big city” finales that have become the norm in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

After defeating Loki, the Avengers’ primary adversary in this sequel is the titular Ultron, voiced by James Spader, who also performed some motion capture work to play the 8 foot tall robot. Ultron is both a physical and intellectual challenge to the Avengers and his motivations are set up quickly and efficiently. Malevolent artificial intelligence is something of a hoary sci-fi trope and one could argue that 2001: A Space Odyssey’s HAL 9000 still stands at the top of the heap, but Ultron certainly fulfils all the big bad pre-requisites. Spader is a casting coup; his sonorous, supercilious line delivery both threatening and entertaining. There’s also the appeal of the “I’ve got no strings” motif, even more amusing given that Robert Downey Jr. is rumoured to be playing both Geppetto and Pinocchio in an upcoming live-action version of the story.

Whedon has put admirable effort into improving the characterisations we were presented with in the first film. Hawkeye in particular gets his moment in the sun; Renner having voiced his disappointment that the character spent most of the first Avengers under Loki’s mind control. Paul Bettany finally steps out of the recording booth to play cyber-butler JARVIS’ corporeal form, Vision, lending the character an elegant combination of strength and serenity.

The character of Scarlet Witch, with her ability to play dangerous mind games as she enters into the memories and feelings of those under her thrall, presents the audience with an opportunity to explore the deepest, darkest fears of our heroes. Elizabeth Olsen is a haunted, ethereal presence as Wanda, her powers taking their own toll on her psyche. The hallucinatory scenes also shed light on Black Widow’s past, these unsettling sequences feeling straight out of a horror movie.

Much was made about how Fox’s X-Men: Days of Future Past beat Marvel Studios to the punch when it came to putting speedster Quicksilver on the big screen. While Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s Pietro doesn’t quite have a bit as memorable as the “Time in a Bottle” kitchen run from DoFP, his Quicksilver is still pretty cool. The bond between the twins is conveyed convincingly by both Taylor-Johnson and Olsen. Mark Ruffalo continues to be an excellent Bruce Banner, this film showing how the character is at once Dr. Frankenstein and Frankenstein’s Monster and the inner turmoil that results from this dichotomy. There’s also a romance between Banner and Romanoff which can feel a little forced at times but is for the most part really quite sweet. A scene early on in which Black Widow tries to calm the savage beast reminded this reviewer of the interaction between King Kong and Ann Darrow.

It pains us a little to say this and we don’t want to come off as dismissive of the efforts of the army of visual effects artists who slaved away on this film, but the CGI does border on the excessive. It’s not sloppily done and there are a mind-boggling number of visual effects shots, but at times during the Hulkbuster vs. Hulk fight, the two computer-generated characters going at it seem like just that, as if one were playing a video-game. Still, this is a minor quibble and if the film were nothing but pixel-heavy battles, then we’d have a problem. Instead, we have a compelling, dramatic story, characters that are fleshed-out and easy to get invested in, plenty of morsels for hard-core fans and lots of quotable lines and some imagery courtesy of cinematographer Ben Davis that’s destined to become iconic. While there is no post-credits stinger, there is a tag after the main-on-end titles sequence that’s as tantalising as ever. Bring on Phase 3!
Summary: Avengers: Age of Ultron can boast that it’s about the Avengers as characters and Joss Whedon’s ability to deliver excellent dialogue and moving storytelling in addition to earth-shattering spectacle remains unparalleled.
RATING: 4.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong 

Kill The Messenger

For F*** Magazine

KILL THE MESSENGER

Director : Michael Cuesta
Cast : Jeremy Renner, Rosemarie DeWitt, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Oliver Platt, Paz Vega, Michael Sheen, Ray Liotta, Andy García
Genre : Biography/Crime/Drama
Rating : NC-16 (Some Drug Use And Coarse Language) 
Run time: 112 mins
The archetype of the “intrepid reporter” has always had its allure and while we’re gripped by thrilling stories of journalists who will chase a story at any cost, it’s easy to forget that in real life, situations like this don’t often end well. It is 1996 and Gary Webb (Renner) is a reporter for the San Jose Mercury News who uncovers a shocking connection between the CIA and drug-runners in Nicaragua. He writes “Dark Alliance”, a three-part exposé for the newspaper that grabs the nation’s attention. The African-American community in particular is angered by the possibility that the CIA intentionally introduced crack cocaine into their communities. Soon, the scrutiny that comes from life in the spotlight proves to be more than Webb, his wife Susan (DeWitt) and their three children can take as he feels his life is in danger.

            Kill the Messenger is adapted from Nick Schou’s book Kill the Messenger: How the CIA’s Crack-cocaine Controversy Destroyed Journalist Gary Webb as well as Webb’s own Dark Alliance: The CIA, the Contras, and the Crack Cocaine Explosion, an expansion of his articles. Like other conspiracy thrillers that examine the cost of uncovering the truth, Kill the Messenger is driven by a righteous indignation and has the David and Goliath aspect of a reporter from a small local newspaper going up against the CIA. Director Michael Cuesta has dealt with similar subject matter directing episodes of the TV series Homeland. There is a sense that he is striving not to over-sensationalise the actual events that took place but perhaps as result of this, the second half of the film lacks the propulsive urgency promised in the first half.

            The film places a fair amount of focus on Webb’s family life and how his pursuit of the truth behind the CIA’s alleged partnership with the Contras in Central America affected them. We see his exuberance slowly fade as he slides towards a meltdown as much of the journalism community turns against him and the big boys at the L.A. Times and the Washington Post become ravenously envious of his scoop. It feels as if a good chunk of what made the real-life case so compelling has been omitted from the film. Ideally, a thriller should pull one in deeper and deeper as it progresses, but Kill the Messenger hits a disappointing plateau midway through.

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            Director Cuesta claims that in this film, Jeremy Renner delivers his best performance since The Hurt Locker and he’s pretty much right. Renner can’t quite seem to attain A-list action hero status despite appearing a number of popcorn movies over the last few years and perhaps projects in this vein are what he should be pursuing. There’s a charisma and hunger as well as a dash of idealism that Renner doesn’t overplay and it is truly crushing when we see things start to collapse before Webb’s eyes. The supporting cast is studded with semi-recognizable-to-pretty-famous faces including Oliver Platt, Ray Liotta, Tim Blake Nelson, Michael Sheen and Andy García. Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Rosemarie DeWitt, as Webb’s editor and wife respectively, are especially convincing and their performances contribute to Kill the Messenger’s credibility as an account of actual events.

            Kill the Messenger brings an event and a personal story that has been largely forgotten by the public back to the forefront. Gary Webb died in 2004 from being shot twice in the head; this was ruled a suicide. There are still lessons to be learnt from Webb’s story, particularly for those interested in investigative journalism. While Kill the Messenger is admirable in how it doesn’t turn the whole thing into an overblown melodrama, it slides a little in the opposite direction, rendering its subject matter not quite as compellingly as it could have.

SUMMARY: While Jeremy Renner puts in an excellent performance, Kill the Messenger doesn’t dig deep enough into its subject matter and falls short of being a searing account of journalist Gary Webb’s ordeal.

RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars
Jedd Jong