Thursday, 30 April 2015

Avengers: Age of Ultron - A fantasy in more ways than one

Why don't civilians ever die in Marvel films?

For all the destruction on screen, both the superheroes and the filmmakers shooting and choreographing the explosive set-pieces go to great lengths to ensure that no innocent bystander is ever harmed amidst the chaos.

The obvious answer is that these films are mere light blockbuster entertainment, and that seeing civilians drop dead here and there would be tonally out of place with their sense of escapism.

But that would be to do the Marvel studio a disservice, Theirs are sophisticated and smart films, on one-hand full of hilarious zingy one-liners and fun interactions between their many charismatic characters, and on the other insightful and moving character studies with thoughtful plots featuring interesting real-world parallels.

The plot for Avengers: Age of Ultron, for example, speculates on the futility of using technology for the morally good purpose of protecting the world; the AI Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr) implements to complete the global defence program he has been working on in order to defend earth from future alien attacks promptly goes rogue and turns against the Avengers, aiming instead to wipe out humans and start Earth over again.

Yet despite this philosophical premise, any sense of moral ambiguity and the potential difficulties of protecting the world through such destructive warriors is trumped by the invincibility and infallibility of the superheroes. Even when, in one intriguing scene, Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) loses control and wreaks havoc on a city as the Hulk, Iron Man comes to the rescue and miraculously manages to contain the Hulk's fury whilst simultaneously ensuring that no civilian comes to harm.

These scenes of hectic violence that kills the bad guys with no consequences for the innocents feeds the American fantasy of solving the world's problems through heroic force. Aptly, on the day Age of Ultron  was released, news broke that a US drone strike targeting al-Qaida accidentally also killed a US and Italian citizen who were being held hostage. From Vietnam to the War on Terror the US has seen itself as the world's superhero, but the realities of war means that thousands of innocent civilians are killed as collateral damage in the name of making the world a safer place- an uncomfortable truth that would rather be ignored, as in Age of Ultron.

Again, to apply such sombre moral concerns onto films that are harmless, unpolitical fun may be seen as taking popular escapist entertainment too seriously. But escapism and political ambiguity can coexist - just look at that other huge pop culture phenomenon of recent years, Game of Thrones. With its exotic landscapes, names, creatures and outfits Game of Thrones is certainly of the fantasy genre, but is far more willing to involve itself with grubbiness of reality. No well-meaning action it seems is ever free of negative consequences, and consequently moral complexity abounds. There is never one simple moral decision to be made, and its characters feel all the more human and relatable for having to choose between courses of action that will all have undesirable consequences.

As fun as Age of Ultron and other superhero films are, they'll never do justice to the intriguing premises they introduce without embracing such moral ambiguities. With so many Marvel films to come over the next few years, the studio would do well to take not of Game of Thrones' popularity and add a little more complexity - even if that does mean killing a few civilians.

Sunday, 19 April 2015

Wild Tales

The Icarus of new cinema has finally begun to feel the trickling of hot wax along his spine. Damian Szifron’s latest film is too perceptive, too real, to escape the grim turn of current events. 

The opening scene of this macabre series, told with honest comedic intentions, strikes a raw nerve by its eerie similarity to the recent Germanwings tragedy in the Alps. While the rest of Hollywood seemingly suffers a dearth of originality, this piece of celluloid prophesy holds a dangerous excess of it. The imagination of this script - written long before the airline disaster - bites uncomfortably close to the last tethers of our social fabric. Surely it would have been better, for filmmaker and public alike, to delay the release for longer? Instead, burying it in the post-Oscars lull has not benefited anyone.

For all that doom and sorrow, Wild Tales is actually a fairly pleasurable film. Even so, it remains totally unmarketable outside of its native Spain.  To state the obvious, Blighty’s box office does not traditionally favour subtitles. Its scattered vignette structure, moreover, proves a turn-off for the casual viewer. And so it seems that even if the dialogue were in our primitive mongrel parlance, the investors would suffer financial embarrassment anyway. Amongst their names with a producer credit is that irrepressible stalwart of liberal Latin cinema: who else but Pedro Almodovar?

Artistically speaking, no matter how sweetly these narrative hors d’oeuvres can be consumed, they lack the emotional significance and narrative panache of an arcing tale. Szifron is an accomplished storyteller but this is no All About My Mother. There are six pieces in all, each of which varies in quality to a slight degree.

Like the old critics’ line about sketch shows, this is a hit and miss affair. The wedding reception of a psychotic couple (including Iberia’s answer to Bradley Cooper as the groom) is a baffling triumph. In contrast, a crossover between Goodfellas and Diner seems prematurely rushed towards its hollow conclusion. A case of road rage, on the other hand, is middling fare.

On the whole, it’s an impressive assortment that benefits from slick performances and directing. And when, as in the sequence featuring a man frustrated by oppressive bureaucracy, the script scours the scab of common cultural anger it carries a definite appeal. Szifron’s best is his penultimate tale, for once told without the desire for laughter. Alas, if only the foresight had been available to treat the opening setting with the same sensibilities. To do so, nevertheless, is asking the impossible. But the cold talk of money, to which all films (even these arty ones) aim for, pays no heed to such sentiments.