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Failed Critics Podcast: Age of Ultron

hulkWelcome to another episode of the Failed Critics Podcast as we use our words to describe the eleventh and latest entry to the Marvel Cinematic Universe in Joss Whedon’s Avengers: Age of Ultron! This week we also celebrate our third birthday (hip hip!)

Joining Steve and Owen for this extravaganza is the returning Carole Petts, for the first time on a proper feature podcast this year – although she has appeared on our Avengers Minisodes and reviewed Age of Ultron on the site of course! Also on this episode is Matt Lambourne, fresh from the humiliating defeat in our very own Quizcast.

We start off the podcast as always with a short quiz (shorter than last week, anyway), followed by a very special triple bill. The team were each assigned a random actor from Age of Ultron and pick the three films featuring those actors that they’d like to share. We also have the return of Spoiler Alert at the very end of the podcast. But don’t worry if you’ve not seen the film yet! We retain our usual spoiler-free review before that if you’d just like to know if the film is any good or not.

Join us again next week as we take a look at what else has managed to miraculously squeeze its way into the cinema whilst Marvel have a film out.

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Avengers: Age of Ultron

by Carole Petts (@DeathByJigsaws)

url2 Let’s not mess around here – if you’re a Marvel fan, two things are all but guaranteed.  Firstly, you will have likely loved Avengers (in the UK it was called Avengers Assemble, but my version just says Avengers, and AA is a silly name, so there) and rated it high in Marvel Studios’ output so far, if not top of the pile.  Following on from that, you will go and see Age of Ultron regardless of what anyone says.  That’s fine!  But I need to say something straight away – you will not get the same giddy thrill from this film that you got from Avengers.  Save for a shot (shown in the trailer) of the entire team flying towards an unknown enemy in the first two minutes – a nod back to the climatic battle of Avengers – this film is about moving the team and the universe forward, for better or worse.

The film opens with the afore-mentioned battle, a mission to retrieve a artefact we’ve met before in the series.  Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr) realises the implications of this – the idea of Avengers has always been to eventually render them surplus to requirements by seeing off all threats.  Throw in a little encounter with a pair of newcomers along the way – Wanda and Pietro Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen and Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and the need to protect the world before any of the team perish becomes more urgent.  With the help of an unconvinced Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) he creates probably his most impressive invention yet, but quickly realises he is out of his depth as his creation threatens the world.  Thus the stage is set for an epic battle which takes in mind control (pitting Avengers against each other to divide and conquer) and some truly mighty action sequences.

And the sequences are huge.  The action scenes in Avengers felt slightly small in scale until the climatic Battle of New York, but here they are amplified, taking in whole cities and towns at a time.  The much-vaunted Hulk vs Hulkbuster smackdown is an excellent piece of fight choreography, never spilling into Transformers territory (“I don’t know what’s going on”, “Why can’t they fit the whole robot into the screen”, etc.).  There’s a great sense of scale here – this is a global threat being realised globally, not funnelled through the metaphor of one city as shorthand.  The action travels from the fictional Eastern-European city of Sokovia to South Africa, South Korea and rural America.

In between big fight scenes, however, we do get a decent amount of character development.  This is especially concentrated around the Avengers who aren’t the subject of solo films – Black Widow, Hulk and Hawkeye all get significant amounts of screen time.  Hawkeye benefits the most, making up for his side-lining in Avengers with a fully realised back story.  This does mean that the big three of Iron Man, Captain America and Thor feel sidelined – there is a Thor sequence which sorely feels like it was chopped for running time, ultimately having no impact on the film but setting up Ragnarok instead.  In a film with at least 15 named and principle characters, this is going to be an occupational hazard.  It was managed well in Avengers, but that was with less leads – this can feel overburdened at times, with everyone from War Machine/Iron Patriot (Don Cheadle, making the most of some very limited screen time) to Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders) popping up in slightly beefed-up cameos.  This leads me to my main gripe with the film – Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch feel like the chips you still have to eat after you’ve finished your burger.  It was a good idea when you ordered them, but now you’re looking at them and wondering if they were necessary.  Scarlet Witch does redeem herself somewhat during the final battle, and provides a handy jumping-off point for the creation of Ultron, but these beats could have been allocated elsewhere.

Having said that, the best new character doesn’t even exist for the first two-thirds of the film.  We’ve heard Paul Bettany as JARVIS for years, but he’s finally rewarded with a physical presence as Vision.  I really like Bettany and it was a real delight to see him here – Vision could look a bit more ethereal, but he nails the tone of the character completely and again makes the most of a small amount of screen time.  It probably helps that he gets the best “HELL YES!” moment of the entire film as well.

The main plaudits have to be saved for James Spader as Ultron.  Created to protect the world, he quickly realises the best way to do that is to eliminate the Avengers.  Spader’s crafty delivery is wonderful, and Ultron has the swagger of his motion-captured performance down – if you’ve ever watched Spader in anything, it’s easy to picture him instead of the menacing robot.  His wisecracking delivery makes him the son that Tony Stark has never had, and is a real highlight.

There are parts that don’t work.  A blossoming romantic subplot feels slightly unnecessary, and the whole thing at times feels overburdened by what it has to set up in context of the wider universe (the events of Civil War, Infinity War and the aforementioned Ragnarok are all foreshadowed here).  But ultimately it’s lots and lots of fun, despite being much darker than the first outing.  And that’s all we can ever really ask for from Marvel – it’s what they’ve done best for years, in print and now on film.

Lincoln

Lincoln

Spielberg and Day-Lewis combine to produce a worthy, in every sense, Oscar-contender.

Another week, another film about America’s murky history of slavery. Although Lincoln touches on similar themes to its Oscar rival Django Unchained, it is as far from Tarantino’s exploitation Western as you could possibly imagine. Daniel Day-Lewis stars as the eponymous president, and tells the story of his struggles to end the American Civil War and abolish slavery.

A week is a long time in politics, and while Lincoln doesn’t feel quite that long, its 150 minute running time is going to be a sticking-point with some members of the audience. Especially as the film is less an epic biopic of ‘America’s greatest president’, and more a political procedural that spans a mere few months after Abe is re-elected for a second term. Lincoln best describes himself, and the film, early on when telling a young black soldier who has just fought at Gettysburg, “I’m used to moving at a deliberate pace”.

Thankfully, the slow pace of the film gives the performances time to breathe, like a fine red wine. And make no mistake; this film is packed with excellent performances. Day-Lewis is far more introspective and restrained as Lincoln than in his Oscar-winning performance in There Will Be Blood; the subtlety and exhaustion he brings for the part is arguably even more impressive than his turned-up-to-eleven histrionics as Daniel Plainview. The supporting cast are also very impressive; particularly Tommy Lee Jones as the radical who has to compromise his beliefs for a smaller victory in the House of Representatives, and James Spader as the oily lobbyist demonstrating that politics has always been a dirty game of favours and threats.

This is Spielberg’s best film in years, in no small way due to his decision to treat his audience as adults who can follow a convoluted political plot with a host of characters. At times Lincoln feels like an educational history programme with exceptionally high production values. Lincoln’s predilection for solving arguments in his cabinet by telling folksy anecdotes never tires, and one in section he quotes Euclid’s first common notion that “things which are equal to the same thing are equal to each other”. A lot of credit should go to screenwriter Tony Kushner for allowing the audience to make the comparison to equal human rights without it being spelled out to them.

However, the film is not flawless. Sally Field feels wasted in an underwritten role as Lincoln’s wife Mary, and the role of women in this film generally seems to be one of quiet obedience. It also suffers from bouts of sentimentalism which has long been a problem with Spielberg’s work, and which reach their nadir in an epilogue with more endings than Peter Jackson’s Return of the King. Minor issues aside, this is a welcome return to form from one of Hollywood’s great directors.