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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)
This 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)
Another 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 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)
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)
A 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.
It is often the case that lowered expectations leads to a better than expected response. Such was the case with The Amazing Spider-Man 2, due both to mediocre reviews and 2012’s The Amazing Spider-Man being less than amazing. But I was pleasantly surprised and found the film to be an intriguing and emotional exploration of identity, esteem and choice. I was thrilled at several points, laughed and even cried. While Marc Webb’s first Spider-Man film felt somewhat underpowered against Sam Raimi’s trilogy, it did provide a solid foundation on which to build, most importantly the relationship between Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) and Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone). Superhero dramas live and die on the tension between the super and everyday identities, and Peter’s attempts to reconcile his life as Spider-Man with his love for Gwen provides a consistent emotional throughline for the film. Nor is the angst of this throughline overplayed, as Peter and Gwen are a sparky and amusing couple (perhaps fuelled by the actors’ off-screen relationship), and Spider-Man slings as many jokes as he does webbing. Also, beautifully, Gwen is far from being a damsel in distress as, much as in The Amazing Spider-Man, she and Peter make a great team in combating the supervillains that New York throws at them.
With the romance taking centre stage, the villains could be left somewhat short-changed. The Rhino/Aleksei Sytsevich (Paul Giamatti) only appears briefly, Harry Osborne (Dane Dahaan) spends more time being ill than goblin-ish and Max Dillon/Electro could be little more than an evil version of Watchmen’s Doctor Manhattan. The different narrative threads often seem disconnected and the film could be accused of set-up syndrome – mainly existing to set up a sequel as well as the spin-off The Sinister Six. While it is easy for any filmgoer to suggest that they know how the film “should” have been put together, surely true appreciation is assessing whether the way it is put together actually works, and in the case of The Amazing Spider-Man 2, the disparate nature of the different narrative strands does work, because they are thematically resonant. The film is an exploration of identity, esteem and choice because these themes fuel the major characters, their development and the collisions between them. The film’s exploration of identity runs through the four major characters, each of whom make significant choices that relate to their own senses of self and how others view them.
Peter is not Spider-Man because he has to be but because he wants to be, he enjoys it, it provides meaning to his life, and so strong is this meaning that he is willing to give up Gwen for it, while the haunting presence of her father (Denis Leary) serves as a grim reminder of the great responsibility that comes with great power (if the writers won’t use the phrase, I will). Gwen makes a number of significant choices both relating to herself solely and to her relationship with Peter, which prove to have significant repercussions that are dramatically satisfying and emotionally powerful. Harry’s initial bitterness is replaced by desperation, whatever sense of identity he may have had replaced with a craving to live.
Most interestingly of all, Max only wants to be noticed, recognised and appreciated. Rather than being power mad, Max expands a brief moment with Spider-Man into an obsession that is both pitiful and endearing, before his unfortunate accident grants him immense power. The first confrontation between Spider-Man and Electro highlights the film’s concern with esteem, as Electro (who has not yet adopted this monicker) is terrified of the police but fills with delight at seeing his face on all the screens of Times Square. He only turns EVIL when his face is replaced with that of Spider-Man, this moment of recognition and attention twisted into murderous rage by being so fleeting. Yet even after he is imprisoned and tortured in an extremely dubious institute for the criminally insane, Max, now Electro, remains desirous of other people’s attention to him – what persuades him to help Harry is the plea “I need you!” Electro does go on a rampage concerned only with power and revenge, but his desire for recognition remains pertinent throughout, best demonstrated when his face is reproduced in light on the side of a building. Previously, Max was replaced on billboard screens with Spider-Man – now he creates his own screen for his image.
The conceit of how we decide who we are is so prevalent in popular culture as to be almost a cliché. It is testament, therefore, to the continued creativity of storymakers that new and exciting explorations continue to be produced, such as The Amazing Spider-Man 2 and the recent Divergent. Combinations are key to this continued innovation, as we see the quest for self-identification tied in with how others view the central characters. Furthermore, the film understands that these questions are never really answered. There is doubt, loss, revelation, rejection and heartbreak, but none of these experiences provide final resolution. As the final sequence demonstrates, even when it looks to be over, it’s good to be home.
Star Trek Into Darkness (J. J. Abrams, 2013) constitutes a variation in the practice of re-launching previous texts and franchises. Whereas Star Trek (Abrams, 2009) was a re-launch of the Star Trek franchise as a whole, Star Trek Into Darkness combines features of both the sequel and the remake (Semake? Requel?), that repackages elements from previous Trek instalments into a new form that is influenced by its 21st century production context. STID’s narrative follows on from Star Trek, developing the relationships between Kirk (Chris Pine), Spock (Zachary Quinto), Uhura (Zoe Saldana) etc., and also expands the universe established in Star Trek, especially the aftermath of the attacks of Captain Nero (Eric Bana) and the destruction of Vulcan, as well as the Federation’s uneasy relationship with the Klingon Empire. But STID also remakes Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (Nicholas Meyer, 1982), updating it with 21st century sensibilities and re-interpreting the mythos around Khan (Benedict Cumberbatch). This repackaging creates particular tensions within the film text, leading to frustrations for viewers and interesting areas for consideration.
Henry Jenkins and Billy Proctor give in-depth (and very funny) critiques of the film, and Rob Bricken writes highly inventive criticisms of STID’s relationship with Star Trek in general and with TWOK (two can play that game) in particular. These writers demonstrate both dissatisfaction with the film on its own terms, and its perceived besmirching of a treasured text. I consider myself a dedicated Trekker, but TWOK never seemed that great to me, which might explain why I was less bothered with the earlier film being referenced in STID. Let us not forget that referencing or remaking or even contradicting an earlier text need not impinge upon the integrity of the original or one’s enjoyment of it. TWOK stands on its own whether you consider STID or not, much like the originals of Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Hills Have Eyes, Friday the 13th, Psycho, Ocean’s Eleven, Get Carter, Alfie, The Italian Job, Ringu and other films that have been remade (there are a lot). Even if the remake is terrible, it need not tarnish your enjoyment of the original. I have never understood the obsession with the original, that which must not be distorted or besmirched because it constitutes some form of sacrilege. The responses to STID have been thankfully moderate, at least in comparison to Star Wars fans who protest that their childhood was somehow raped by Yoda’s pinball act in Attack of the Clones (George Lucas, 2002). They’re just films, people.
Sorry, got side-tracked there. There is much to criticise in STID. The shot of Carol Marcus (Alice Eve) in her underwear is gratuitous and annoying (no, I will NOT stick a picture of it on here). Many of the plot conveniences and gaps in logic are nonsensical, such as the Enterprise being hidden underwater to avoid being seen by the local inhabitants. Would it not have been better hidden in planetary orbit? In addition, the naivety of Starfleet in relation to “John Harrison” is rather striking. Harrison is perfectly placed to take advantage of Starfleet protocol in order to attack its command elite, yet no one thinks of this vulnerability until Kirk does just at the most dramatic moment in order to demonstrate that he is ahead of the curve. Later, the Enterprise as well as the dreadnought vessel Vengeance are heavily damaged and fall into Earth’s atmosphere, despite not having actually been in orbit. I don’t expect scientific accuracy, but would it have killed them to have the ships actually fighting in orbit?
The falling-out-of-orbit leads to the biggest absurdity of the whole film, which is that the correct process for warp core realignment is well-placed kicks. That’s right, an enormously powerful, dangerous, already damaged and unstable nuclear reactor is put back into working order with repeated, well-placed kicks. Maybe they should have tried that at Chernobyl. While Spock had to perform a similar task in TWOK, he had to rearrange some handheld objects in a delicate operation. (Actually, both instances of radiation contradict general Star Trek science – the warp core is run by matter-antimatter infusion, not nuclear power, so there should be no radiation anyway. It can be unstable, breach and cause a massive explosion, as seen in Star Trek: Generations [David Carson, 1994], but radiation is a pure plot convenience to allow agonising sacrifice.) STID’s intercutting between Kirk kicking the core and the ship spiralling through the clouds is very dramatic, but if you stop to think about it, it’s actually very silly.
The warp core sequence demonstrates both the strength and weakness of Abrams’ directorial approach. His aesthetic is highly dynamic, with extensive use of mobile, handheld camera with a slight wobble, and the ubiquitous lens flare that he is seemingly in love with. The screenplay by Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman and Damon Lindelof may have holes you could fly the Enterprise through, but with the plot whipping by at warp speed it is easy to miss these gaps in logic. But is this not rather patronising on the part of the filmmakers? The implication is “Don’t worry about the plot, kids, just look at the shiny-shiny while we shoot through space and everything is so coooooooool!” STID is certainly entertaining, but the care and precision of Gene Roddenberry and especially Ronald D. Moore, Michael Piller and Ira Steven Behr is missing. This is a difference between television and film – the contained narrative of a movie frequently does not have the space to develop fictional worlds and their infrastructure. When Star Trek movies have inconsistencies, like everyone in Generations forgetting that the warp core could be ejected, they are only apparent to dedicated Trekkers. With Abrams’ films, I don’t start questioning the gaps in logic until afterwards, because I am enjoying the film too much to care. When I do think about it, it is rather patronising, but not so much that it makes me die a little inside. The previous Star Trek movies have a more coherent internal logic, but they are a rather more sedate.
Not that they lack in action (despite the derogatory term, Star Trek: The [Slow] Motion Picture [Robert Wise, 1979]). Several of the earlier films feature spectacular space battles, including The Undiscovered Country (Nicholas Meyer, 1992), First Contact (Jonathan Frakes, 1996), Nemesis (Stuart Baird, 2002) and The Wrath of Khan, just one of several elements of that earlier film that are repackaged in this latest offering. In TWOK, the badly damaged Enterprise battles another Starfleet vessel, the Reliant, commandeered by Khan; in STID, the badly damaged Enterprise battles another Starfleet vessel, the Vengeance, first under the command of Admiral Marcus (Peter Weller) and then commandeered by Khan (notice a pattern emerging?). Cunning and guile are the key weapons used to achieve victory in both cases, although STID features more lens flare.
A strength of Abrams’ warp speed approach to visual storytelling, however, is that it does allow for moments of world-building that previous Star Trek films neglected, as the vast majority of action in earlier films is confined to the Enterprise. First Contact and The Voyage Home (Leonard Nimoy, 1986) largely take place on Earth, but these are both time travel narratives and do not feature the infrastructure of Starfleet or Earth in the 23rd or 24th centuries. Abrams’ version spends more time on Earth, indeed in interviews Abrams mentioned that after making Star Trek, he wanted to spend time in the cities. Star Trek and Star Trek Into Darkness depict Earth in the 23rd century, the utopia of Roddenberry’s vision as there is no indication of poverty, class or even capitalism (although commerce is neatly avoided). But there is still trouble in paradise, as some diseases cannot be cured except by Khan’s super-blood, and men like Admiral Marcus still possess defensive mentality.
This mentality manifests as the covert organisation Section 31, an entity that appeared in several episodes of Deep Space Nine. This unsavoury agency of the Federation was responsible for very questionable activities during the Dominion War story arc of DS9, in which the agency was described as having existed since the birth of the Federation (it also features in a number of Star Trek novels). Its presence in STID is a demonstration of a less-than-perfect future, and a further element in the repackaging of Star Trek. Another element is Khan’s age of over 300 which would place his birth in the late 20th century. In his original incarnation, Khan Noonien Singh (Ricardo Montalban) led a revolt against humanity in the 1990s, the revolutionaries sentenced to cryogenic exile in deep space. I didn’t notice Eugenics Wars in the 1990s, so the mention of this piece of 1960s future history is anachronistic to the 21st century viewer. But its inclusion demonstrates fidelity to the original, the wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey relationship between Star Trek á la Roddenberry and Star Trek á la Abrams. Proctor comments that Star Trek 2009 was not technically a reboot, since its narrative connects to that of the original Star Trek, rather than working as a completely independent narrative like Batman Begins (Christopher Nolan, 2005), Casino Royale (Martin Campbell, 2006) or The Amazing Spider-Man (Marc Webb, 2012). Khan’s history is a further demonstration that this narrative is not separate from previous Trek, and that STID’s repackaging is a hybrid of sequel and remake. Much as Spock Prime (Leonard Nimoy) told Kirk that he and Spock are destined to have a great friendship, it also seems that Kirk and Khan are destined to clash.
Casting Khan as a wronged terrorist, rather than a revenge-crazed despot, articulates STID in a post-9/11 framework. Admiral Marcus justifies his militarisation of Starfleet as a response to the terrorist attack of Nero – Earth needs to be prepared against future attacks and the looming threat of war with the Klingons. You might therefore expect Marcus to be a little more paranoid about the 20th century superman he has been blackmailing, but again, only in so far as it serves the plot. Marcus resorts to extreme measures after Khan’s attack, sending Kirk and the Enterprise off to kill Khan before arriving in the Vengeance to kill them as well, but maybe he should have kept Khan on a tighter leash to begin with. But as Hitchcock said, then there wouldn’t be a film.
Marcus and Khan’s relationship though does create a further dimension which TWOK lacked – making Khan sympathetic. Ricardo Montalban’s Khan is crazed for revenge – the tagline informs the viewer of what to expect: “At the end of the universe lies the beginning of vengeance” (the name of Marcus’ dreadnought may be a further inter-textual reference). But Benedict Cumberbatch’s Khan has been coerced into developing new weapons and defence systems. Placing Khan under duress makes him more sympathetic and interesting; his main motivation is to protect his people and at one point he and Kirk form an alliance against their common enemy Marcus. This was one of the most satisfying elements of STID for me – take the original clash between Khan and Kirk and turn it around. It made Khan (perhaps ironically) more human, especially as the key to defeating him was his compassion for his own people. Some elements of TWOK were repackaged less successfully, such as the death of Kirk and Spock’s anguished roar:
It may be emotionally powerful, but perhaps it is an inter-textual step too far.
The treatment of Khan encapsulates the repackaging of TWOK that STID performs. STID repackages the iconic moments of TWOK with a different emphasis. This emphasis comes from the film’s concern with terrorism and violence, the Darkness that is Trekked into. Adam Ericksen discusses this in a fascinating reading of the film as the antidote to terror, rather than the War on Terror (which is apparently over). Kirk is initially committed to finding Khan and avenging the death of Captain Christopher Pike (Bruce Greenwood), but contravenes Marcus’ direct order (Jim Kirk, insubordinate? Shocking!) and takes Khan into custody, after punching him ineffectually a few times (violence solves nothing). Spock is consumed by grief and rage over the death of Kirk and attempts to kill Khan, but crucially Khan must live so that Kirk can be resurrected (sparing us Star Trek: The Search for Kirk). Marcus’ journey was into darkness because he saw violence and militarism as the solution to threats like that of Nero and the anticipated war with the Klingons, and he exploited Khan in serve this end. Khan’s journey into darkness is motivated by a massive superiority complex and fuelled by anger and, initially, Kirk and Spock both seek retribution. But crucially, when both of them could kill Khan, they do not, because killing is never the answer. STID may journey into darkness, but there is light at the end of the torpedo tube.
Through its engagement with violence and retaliation, STID repackages the features of TWOK in relation to its 21st century context. Much of Star Trek’s ideology, such as the platitudes espoused by Captain Picard in First Contact, can seem naïve in an era of violent clashes all over the world. Earlier decades were not necessarily more peaceful, but we had not seen planes fly into buildings back then, a contemporary trauma echoed in STID when Khan pilots the Vengeance’s death plunge into San Francisco. Furthermore, we did not have hatemongering assailing us from every other website, even if it is satirical. STID demonstrates that even in today’s cynical and embittered times, there is still a place for Gene Roddenberry’s optimistic vision of the future. Kirk and Spock both turn away from violent revenge, and Kirk’s speech at the end of the film emphasises the importance of and need to turn away from violence. For it is when we put aside violence, and encourage life instead of death, that we can truly go where no one has gone before.
3D provokes a lot of debate, more so than other changes in cinema format. Digital takes over from film and few notice. IMAX films and cinemas become more common and there is little complaint. 48 frames per second arrives and we ask “What does that mean?” 3D however is a cause of constant debate, as some praise the format, others criticise it, and others shrug and say “So what?” Critics and filmmakers have objected to the format, saying it adds nothing and no one really likes it.
I’ve gone through all three of these reactions. When Avatar came out in 2009, I was hugely excited and thought the 3D element of that film was a wonderful, integral part of its meaning. Since then I was pleased with other 3D films, especially Hugo and, to a lesser extent, Tintin and the Secret of the Unicorn, Prometheus and some of the retro-fitted offerings like Thor and John Carter. Then 3D became just another feature and while it was OK to see it, it did not seem that important. When The Avengers came out, I opted for 2D simply because the timing was more convenient. The Amazing Spider-Man was, sadly, far from amazing in three dimensions, and I recalled Sam Raimi’s 2D Spider-Man films being far more dynamic than Marc Webb’s.
This year though, 3D started to hurt in that most important of places, the wallet. Cinema tickets are expensive enough, but 3D can add more than £2 on top of the original price. Furthermore, cinema prices in general increased towards the end of the year, and the increase in 2D prices may be to aid the expansion of 3D, so even those of us who don’t see 3D are paying for it. To be annoyed by this is understandable, and as a result, I haven’t seen a 3D film since The Amazing Spider-Man, as I don’t think it’s worth the money. This meant I missed out on some releases, the most notable among them Dredd, or Dredd 3D as it was advertised. With the majority of screenings being in 3D, I could not find a 2D screening at a suitable time, and not being prepared to pay extra for 3D, missed the film altogether. I would not be surprised if this was a common experience, and other cinema-goers may have avoided or neglected Dredd 3D specifically because of the third dimension, either due to price or just a preference for 2D. It is notable that Dredd was a box office flop, kyboshing fans’ hopes for a sequel.
What makes a predominantly 3D cinema release especially contradictory is that any distributor needs one eye on the home release. While 3D Blu-Rays and televisions do exist, the majority of home purchase will still be in 2D, so the 3D is largely wasted. Cynically, this may have been the plan of distributors Lionsgate: Dredd’s predominantly 3D theatrical release was intended to maximise ticket sales, and served as a promotion for the DVD release. Distributors make far more from DVD sales than box office take, so the poor theatrical takings of Dredd may not be a concern as DVD sales will cover the loss. Like earlier releases The Shawshank Redemption, Donnie Darko and Hard Rain, Dredd may enjoy a second life on home release, but crucially this is (primarily) without the third dimension. Is the primarily 3D release to blame for Dredd’s box office failure? Perhaps. It could equally be credited to the restrictive certificate, 18 in the UK and R in the US, so family audiences who flocked to The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises did not see it. Or perhaps those who saw The Raid thought it unlikely the similarly premised Dredd would measure up, and indeed comparisons between the two generally put Gareth Evans’ surprise hit ahead of Pete Travis’ comic book adaptation. It is perhaps worth noting that two of the year’s highest box earners, The Dark Knight Rises and Skyfall, were only screened in 2D, although the year’s highest earner, The Avengers, had 3D and 2D screenings, so who knows?