Guardians of the Galaxy

Marvel are one of the few studios whose brand is itself a selling point. Whereas punters are unlikely to see the next Warner Bros. or Twentieth Century Fox film purely on the basis of the studio, Marvel gives a strong impression of what to expect. Furthermore, Marvel’s commitment to a single mega-franchise aids the consistency of their productions, which have maintained tone and continuity across ten films, a TV series and several Marvel One Shots.

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Despite Marvel’s continued success, Guardians of the Galaxy is a tough sell. None of the characters have the cultural familiarity of Captain America or the Hulk, and none of the stars have the proven draw of Robert Downey, Jnr. The setting is outside that of previous Marvel instalments, a cosmic adventure with only the opening sequence taking place on Earth. Thor and Thor: The Dark World featured other realms and The Avengers an inter-dimensional portal, but the narratives always centre on Earth. In GOTG, multiple alien planets, cultures, technologies and histories need to be introduced, as well as an ensemble cast of fairly wacky characters. These include human thief Peter ‘Star Lord’ Quill (Chris Pratt), assassin Gamora (Zoe Saldana, looking as accomplished in green as she did in blue), Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista), cybernetic experiment Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper) and sentient tree Groot (Vin Diesel). Compared to these oddballs, the Avengers look almost pedestrian.

Despite the inherent weirdness, co-writer/director James Gunn and co-writer Nicole Perlman opt for recognisably human characteristics and cultures. This may be conservative and unimaginative, but it ensures that the viewer is not confused about the societies of Xandar and the Kree, or the villainous motivations of Ronan the Accuser (Luke Pace), which are established early on and also create a link with The Avengers. Our bunch of misfit heroes – or ‘A-holes’, as one law officer describes them – are efficiently established and their relationships develop naturally from antagonistic to mutually beneficial to comradeship.

These relationships form the heart of the film, as the interplay between the Guardians is warm and very funny. Peter is a cheeky chappie who recognises the humanity in his companions, while Gamora and Drax gradually warm to the rest of the team (pleasingly, the only suggestion of romance between Peter and Gamora is quickly abandoned). A particular source of amusement is Drax’s non-comprehension of metaphors and symbols, as his species are very literal. The relationship between Rocket and Groot is quite moving – Diesel manages to express a significant range of emotions through different enunciations of ‘I am Groot’ while Rocket delivers as many barrages with words as he does with weapons. The bickering between these two is very funny but also betrays a deep affection, culminating in a tear-jerking climax.

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Humour may be the film’s strongest element. While the production design of the various alien worlds and creatures is impressive and the action sequences spectacular, the abiding memory of the film is amusement, the filmmakers fully embracing the film’s absurdity and having a lot of fun with it. Thankfully, the film is well-disciplined enough to avoid self-indulgence and strikes the perfect balance between horse-play, character and action, often all at the same time such as in the climactic dance-off (no, really). Guardians of the Galaxy is more reminiscent of Star Wars or Serenity than The Avengers, but it is still a recognisably Marvel movie with its attention to detail, warmly rounded characters and laugh-out-loud humour.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

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Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a superb film. It is intelligently written by Mark Bomback, Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, skilfully directed by Matt Reeves (who effectively uses several of the techniques that worked to great effect in Cloverfield and Let Me In), well acted by a talented cast, beautifully shot by Michael Seresin and features truly astonishing visual effects by Weta Digital. The best compliment that can be offered to the effects is that they do not look like effects – at various moments one could swear there was actually a chimpanzee or orang-utan on screen or, at the very least, a performer in a physical suit rather a digital one. And what performers: Andy Serkis rises above Gollum, Kong and his previous performance as Caesar to deliver an astounding portrayal of familial devotion, loyalty, power and violence.

These themes are also central to The Godfather saga, which DOTPOA echoes in its exploration of family tensions and seemingly inevitable violence. We see two communities in conflict, with aggressive survivalists on either side: Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) among the humans and Koba (Toby Kebbell) among the apes, both of whom see only danger in the Other. Equally, there are diplomats who want the two communities to co-exist: Malcolm (Jason Clarke) for the humans and Caesar for the apes. These protagonists are all devoted to their families, Caesar and Malcolm fiercely protective of their respective mates and offspring. Similarly, Caesar, Koba and Dreyfus all give impassioned speeches to unite and motivate their communities. Great loyalty exists (initially) between Caesar and Koba as well as their fellow founders Maurice (Karin Konoval) and Rocket (Terry Notary), as it does between Dreyfus and Malcolm. But each side vies for power in the post-simian flu world of the film, their pursuits fuelled by fear and hatred of the Other, and the film effectively explores the tensions and violence bred by this fear.

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The detail of the physical and digital mise-en-scene (supported by on-location performance capture) effectively creates a difficult world to survive in, and this makes the suspicion of the apes and the desperation of the humans palatable. As a result, we are drawn into the escalating tensions until they erupt with terrifying violence. Rather than being a welcome release however, the battle sequences are presented as tragic. Once again, this is reminiscent of The Godfather, which features the steady damnation of Michael Corleone as he gives terrible orders. In DOTPOTA, we see the decline and eventual destruction of two civilised societies, a tragic loss of peace and harmony that the apes had and the humans could have had. Strikingly, the apes become more aggressive and destructive as they become more like humans, increasingly speaking with words rather than sign language and using technology (mainly guns and fire). The swift collapse of the two societies is unmitigated Elizabethan tragedy, DOTPOTA resonating as much with King Lear or Hamlet as previous entries in the POTA franchise as well as other post-apocalyptic dramas such as The Road (John Hillcoat, 2009) and The Book of Eli (the Hughes Brothers, 2010) (which also featured Gary Oldman). It is the grimmest of blockbusters, beginning with the collapse of human civilisation in its startling opening animation, and ending with the first skirmish in (presumably) the War of the Planet of the Apes.

 

How To Train Your Dragon 2 – SPOILER WARNING

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I don’t like the term political correctness, nor do I appreciate commentary that is solely or even primarily motivated by it. So here it is: How To Train Your Dragon 2 is sexist. I’ve commented on problematic gender politics before in reference to Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol and Skyfall, but in those cases there was plenty of high quality material to engage with so the sexism was less prominent. The fact that the sexism in HTTYD2 was such a problem highlights the weaknesses in the film overall. The film has a number of great set pieces, including dragon aerobatics, battles between new villain Drago Bloodfist (Djimon Hounsou) and our heroes, and the death of a major character that delivers genuine emotional impact. Furthermore, the central relationship between Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) and Toothless is warm, engaging and affecting. But the introduction of an important female character, Valka (Cate Blanchett), is an expansion of the promising female element provided by Astrid (America Ferrera) and suggests the importance of the feminine in Hiccup’s development as well as the film’s world as a whole. Valka is as accomplished a dragon-rider, not to mention as compassionate, as Hiccup, and as fierce a warrior as Stoick (Gerard Butler), so to have her side-lined and ultimately subordinated is a rather depressing conservatism on the part of the filmmakers. Children’s animated films have long propagated the ideal female character as a passive princess who waits to be rescued from some form of imprisonment, and while there have been some progressive alternatives (Fiona in the Shrek franchise, Elsa and Anna in Frozen), HTTYD2 seems to take one step forward and then two steps back. This is disappointing as the film’s promotion of patriarchy is neither necessary nor consistent – Hiccup’s dramatic arc could have easily continued on its initial trajectory with a more prominent role for Valka. Instead, we are left with a few impressive set pieces that add up to less than the sum of their parts, undercut by a discouraging assertion of patriarchy.

Expanding and Continuing Part Three: Transforming to Extinction

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I always like to see the positive in movies. Whereas others bemoan the death of narrative cinema (which is nonsense) and complain about overreliance on CGI (which is overly simplistic) or whinge that sequels and remakes have squashed originality, I find plenty to enjoy in mainstream cinema and rarely leave the movie theatre disappointed. But I confess that Michael Bay’s latest entry in the Transformers franchise did that rarest of things – left me bored.

I’ve been a fan of Transformers since I was a child (although I was a bigger fan of M.A.S.K. and Centurions – can we get a big screen adaptation of one of those please), and this has made me sympathetic to the current film franchise. In fact, I loved 2007’s Transformers, which combined 80s nostalgia with contemporary aesthetics and delivered some of the most blistering action sequences of that year (which also included The Bourne Ultimatum, Spider-Man 3, Die Hard 4.0, Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer and Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End). Since then, the franchise dipped with Revenge of the Fallen (2009) that not only featured racist stereotypes but pointless mysticism and a story that went all over the place before collapsing into incoherent noise (even the director described it as “crap”). Things got slightly better with Dark of the Moon (2011) that was at least more coherent but still suffered from too much in its final (hour long!) battle sequence. Age of Extinction continues the trend of ever-longer films (respectively, the four movies have lasted 144 minutes, 150 minutes, 154 minutes, 165 minutes), and demonstrates the law of diminishing returns as more proves to be less.

I went into Age of Extinction with low expectations because of poor to mediocre reviews, and often find that low expectations are surpassed. I wanted to enjoy the film and it certainly delivers on scale, with huge spaceships looming over Earth and the return of favourites Optimus Prime (voiced again by Peter Cullen) and Bumblebee. These are combined with some decent new Transformers including Hound (John Goodman) and Lockdown (Mark Ryan), although I could have done without the horrible Japanese stereotype Drift (Ken Watanabe). An alien robot with a personality out of human samurai culture, including swords and helmet, that speaks in haikus and calls his leader “Sensei”? Really? If anything, this was more offensive that Skids and Mudflaps in Revenge of the Fallen. The much-touted appearance of the Dinobots was pleasing when it arrived, but they only turned up in the last half hour by which time I’d stopped caring.

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This was the main problem with Age of Extinction, as, despite my goodwill, the film failed to maintain my engagement. My attention wandered over its 165 minute running time, my reactions reduced to “Uh-huh”, “Uh-huh”, “Yes”, “Um-hum”, “How long have we been here?”, “Why did you do that?”, “Hmm”, “There’s still half an hour to go?!” There are some nice concepts, but again and again Ehren Kruger’s script and Michael Bay’s direction flog ideas to death, resurrect them and beat them to death again, or just abandon them. Early in the film, the Transformers are presented as illegal immigrants being pursued by nasty government agents, and this demonstrates that you can include political parallels in mainstream entertainment cinema. Similarly, the financial troubles of the Yaeger family, father Cade (Mark Wahlberg) and daughter Tessa (Nicola Peltz), allow for real world resonance. But these ideas are quickly abandoned in favour of over-designed alien robots that waste your time messing about. The bickering between the Autobots is tedious and serves no purpose, and the number of moving parts on the Transformers quickly becomes distracting. A robot that transforms into a vehicle is fine, but to have every little piece of them in constant motion actually becomes annoying. Worse, there is a bizarre attempt to humanise the robots and make them somehow biological, which includes blinking, breathing and bleeding. I don’t need Optimus Prime to leak green fluid to know he is injured – he has large holes in his body and has difficulty standing. That makes it pretty clear. This excess reaches its apex during the second act aboard Lockdown’s ship, which features some sort of robot guard dog-hyena type creatures. When those appeared all I could think was “Why, why, why?” Minions fair enough, but savage robot beasts is going way too far.

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Repeatedly, the film suffers in comparison with 2007’s Transformers, which featured running battles that kept things moving. In Age of Extinction, battles occur, chases occur, and they go on and on and on and on. It is always very easy for a film critic, or indeed viewer, to say what would make the film better. It’s incredibly arrogant and presumptuous to assume that I know better than a professional filmmaker about how to do his job. But there is a glaring moment in Age of Extinction when the film could have moved into its climax. Instead, that is only the end of the second act and we have a torturous extension into China (which comes off as remarkably benevolent, clearly the producers had an eye on the lucrative Chinese market). I will not go so far as to say the film should have ended in Chicago (like the last one did), but I would have been happier if it had. I was already bored by the Chicago act, but that may have been because I knew there was more to come so the stakes were too low to excite me. More can be more – I will happily watch the three-hour cut of Avatar – but Transformers: Age of Extinction can best be described as a tedious, bloated, messy headache of a film.

Top Five of 0.5

We’re half way through 2014 so it’s time to see what’s impressed me the most in the last six months. As always, many films come and go that are doubtless entertaining, but did not quite necessitate shelling out for them. The following are the five films that impressed and entertained me the most. Will they be in my top films of the year in six months’ time? Come back then and find out!

To clarify, “Films of 2014” are defined in this case as films that went on general UK theatrical release from January 2014. While some of the films I discuss are officially recognised as 2013 releases, they only played at festivals are previews and therefore the majority of cinema-goers could only see them in 2014. Release dates are taken from the IMDb.

5. The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (release date 16 April 2014)

TMSM posterThis was a genuine surprise for me. After 2012’s reboot was decidedly less than amazing, I went in with fairly low expectations. They were significantly exceeded as Marc Webb’s follow-up provided a touching central relationship, explored questions of esteem and choice and even prompted tears. Other superhero outings (Captain America: The Winter Soldier, X-Men: Days of Future Past) failed to successfully merge their disparate elements, but much like the web-slinger himself, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 came out on top.

4. The Raid 2 (release date 11 April 2014)

The-Raid-2-Mosaic-PosterAnother sequel that surpassed its original, Gareth Evans’ epic crime tale combined a complex plot with the brutal ballet of its fight sequences, while also incorporating themes of honour, loyalty, courage and ambition. I anticipated much of what I got in The Raid, and The Raid 2 not only provided this but so much more. If there’s a more intense visual ride this year, I look forward to seeing it.

3. Godzilla (release date 15 May 2014)

Godzilla_(2014)_posterGodzilla has long been a favourite of mine, and the character’s 60 year history has had its ups and downs. This was a triumphant up, as Gareth Edwards’ reboot pays homage to the original while also declaring its own identity. Operating both on a macro and micro scale, Godzilla 2014 is not only a bombastic disaster movie with a looming sense of dread and gigantic battle sequences, but also a intriguing exploration of humanity’s need to commune with nature. Any film that features monsters beating seven bells out of each other and incorporates philosophy is OK with me!

2. The Wolf of Wall Street (release date 17 January 2014)

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Easily the funniest film I’ve seen this year, and also a slightly terrifying one. Martin Scorsese’s biopic of Jordan Belfort is a rip-roaring rollercoaster of debauchery, debasement, drugs and money, money, money. It boasts a career-best performance from Leonardo DiCaprio as well as magnificent supporting players Jonah Hill and Margot Robbie, and uses its relatively sedate visual style to draw the audience in and encourage self-reflection.

1. 12 Years A Slave (release date 10 January 2014)

12-years-posterA worthy winner of its Golden Globes, BAFTAs and Oscars, Steve McQueen’s third film is a searing portrait of cruelty, resilience and humanity/inhumanity. Both mesmerising and at times extremely hard to watch, 12 Years A Slave features great performances from Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong’o as well as the rest of its case, and shows the sheer raw power that cinema is capable of. A story of historical importance, a superbly crafted piece of cinema, and the finest film so far this year.

The Fault in Our Stars

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As a 35 year-old male, I am not the assumed audience for The Fault in Our Stars, much as I am not the assumed audience for P.S. I Love You, 10 Things I Hate About You, Definitely, Maybe, Crazy, Stupid, Love, or indeed Titanic (which I rate as one of my favourite top ten films). Despite belonging to a different demographic, according to some at least, I loved all of these films, including Josh Boone’s adaptation of John Green’s tear-jerker. This tale of two cancer-ridden teenagers makes no secret of its goal to draw water from its viewers’ eyes, and does so through slow, careful development of its characters, their relationship and their predicament. I have said before that character engagement is not a major concern for me, but when the focus of the drama is the characters themselves (which is not always the case), it certainly helps if they are engaging. Shailene Woodley as Hazel and Ansel Elgort as Augustus are a sweet and plausible pair of protagonists to spend two hours with, and their relationship is all the more charming for the looming spectre that never goes away. While the plot developments are not surprising, when they occur they are effective, thanks to the time and care the film has spent crafting the relationship to make it plausible and emotionally felt. As I have noted before, a year ago crying was not nothing something I did at films, but since Captain Phillips, I have shed tears at 12 Years A Slave and The Amazing Spider-Man 2, and now The Fault in Our Stars. I have no shame in this, indeed I applaud the film for affecting me so much.

Edge of Tomorrow

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The challenge for science fiction film is that viewers have probably seen it before. When I reviewed Looper in 2012, I listed the various films that it references, intentionally or otherwise. A similar familiarity is found in Edge of Tomorrow, which feels like a combination of Groundhog Day, Starship Troopers, Source Code and The Matrix, with a bit of Saving Private Ryan, yet still manages to declare its own identity. This is partly due to director Doug Liman blending the comedic and dramatic elements of Christopher McQuarrie, Jez Butterworth and John-Henry Butterworth’s script, making the film’s first act very funny. Secondly, Liman gives the film a fast, urgent, visceral energy, placing the viewer in the midst of the action sequences that are both explosive and suspenseful. Tom Cruise’s star image receives a playful treatment, as his character William Cage is initially a hopeless coward who must learn both courage and comradeship. Emily Blunt makes for a convincing badass, her presence as well as the motley squad Cage is drafted into (especially Bill Paxton) resonating with Aliens. But rather than feeling derivative, Edge of Tomorrow evokes these other films with a sense of fun (without being overly referential), inviting the viewer to share its knowledge and understanding. Just as Cage sees each repetition of the same day afresh, so do we see these familiar elements with fresh enjoyment.

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