Friday, 29 August 2014

A Great Summer of Film

It’s been very widely reported that 2015 has the potential to be the greatest year in blockbuster film history. Joss Whedon returns with a second Avengers film, J.J. Abrams serves up the first in an already lengthy list of new Star Wars films. The Terminator and Jurassic Park franchises are both getting reboots/sequels, there’ll be a new Bond film with Mendes at the helm again after the triumph that was Skyfall, and the Hunger Games quadrilogy of films will come to a hopefully fitting end. Mission Impossible 5 and Fast and Furious 7 will almost certainly rake in impressive box office figures. Ant Man and Fantastic Four have the potential to prove as wise a gamble as Guardians of the Galaxy was this year. The Wachowski siblings will bring us the delayed Jupiter Ascending, which looks absolutely barmy but potentially great fun. There’s the adaptation of Assassin’s Creed which might provide a rare videogame-to-film adaptation worth watching. Michael Fassbender is in that one and will also be lining up opposite Marion Cotillard in a promising looking version of Macbeth.

I could go on and on, but the promise of next year is not what I wanted to write about right now. It’s the fact that the much less heralded summer of 2014 is one of the best I can remember in a long time. There’ve been disappointments along the way; The Amazing Spiderman 2 had great moments and the chemistry of Emma Stone and Andrew Garfield going for it but wasn’t the triumph I was hoping for. Transformers by all accounts delivered exactly what you might have expected, and the less said about Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles the better.

For me there were 6 great summer movies this year.
  • ·         Captain America: The Winter Soldier
  • ·         X-Men: Days of Future Past
  • ·         Edge of Tomorrow
  • ·         How to Train Your Dragon 2
  • ·         Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (the names might not get any less clumsy but the films get better)
  • ·         Guardians of the Galaxy.

I’ve written reviews of Captain America and Guardians so I won’t go into too much depth about them here, but it is a sign of why Marvel are as dominant as they are right now, that two of their less high profile projects, which could easily have felt like placeholders to tide us over until Avengers 2, were as good as anything they’ve produced so far. The Winter Soldier is possibly my favourite Marvel film apart from The Avengers, and the new Star Wars will do well to capture the gloriously fun, space opera, joy of Guardians.
So onto the other four films that made this summer so memorable for me:

X-Men: Days of Future Past (Bryan Singer)

This film is a definite contender for greatest cast list of all time, but even with such talent assembled, the time travel plot and ambition could easily have resulted in a muddled and underwhelming mess of a film. I loved First Class and McAvoy and Fassbender were the perfect choices for young Charles and Eric but I was a little worried that this film might end up trying to do too much, getting bogged down in its own complicated macguffin (I’m looking at you Luc Besson’s Lucy) and failing to develop any characters enough (Amazing Spiderman 2’s villains suffered from this).

I needn’t have worried because Days of Future Past delivered on my hopes and more. Smart, funny and well controlled throughout it was an absolute triumph. The time travel elements were well handled (and some of the ret-conning of previous X-Men films will be for the best in the long run), and for a film with such potential to become cluttered it feels remarkably clear throughout. Magneto (whether Fassbender or McKellen) remains one of the most interesting villains in superhero history, his motivations understandable if not condonable. Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine continues to be one of the best things in any film he’s in (whether or not he saves his individual films is up for debate) and Jennifer Lawrence is great as the angry and confused Mystique.

It is a film that focuses more on the newer 70s based cast than the old guard, but most of the familiar faces get a good amount to work with. There are a few characters I suspect will feature more in deleted scenes (and it’s been confirmed that Rogue, who doesn’t make it into the theatrical cut, will feature in an extended addition as plenty was filmed for her storyline) but overall the balance is well maintained.

It will be interesting to see how Avengers 2 approaches the character of Quicksilver, who through some sort of contract loophole is available to both the X-Men and Avengers films, though the latter can’t call him a mutant. Quicksilver in DoFP steals nearly every scene that he is, a rebellious and comedic element in a film that has a number of intense, dramatic scenes (Magneto and Xavier’s conversation on a plane a particular highlight).

The action is well staged throughout with Blink’s portal opening power a particular highlight, delivering a fresh type of action sequence as she and a number of other mutants combat the chillingly unstoppable sentinels.

I chose to cover Days of Future Past first in this blog because it is perhaps the best example of what made this summer great. Films which were not guaranteed successes taking risks and showing ambition, and precisely because they did so, delivering a great end product.

Edge of Tomorrow (Doug Liman)

It’s a damn shame that this film wasn’t more of a success than it was. It didn’t even break $100m in the U.S and only made $364m worldwide, off of a $178m budget. It’s not hard to pinpoint some of the reasons; it’s a film based on a little known in the west manga called All You Need Is Kill, with the Groundhog Day meets Starship Troopers plot making it a challenge to market and it is the only film of the 6 I’ve highlighted that isn’t a sequel or adaptation.

The problem is there are so many reasons it should have been more popular.

There’s the central cast of Tom Cruise, delivering an entertainingly comic take on his action hero persona, starting off as a much more cowardly character than most he plays and Emily Blunt, clearly enjoying a fully fledged action role. Both are convincing in the action sequences while delivering reasonably complex, not always likable characters. I’m not a massive fan of Cruise, he’s delivered some great performances and films (Collateral, Minority Report and Interview with a Vampire standing out), but there’s also been a lot of generic action hero performances along the way. I am however a huge fan of Blunt, whether she’s in an action thriller (Adjustment Bureau) or low key drama (Your Sister’s Sister). Both are excellent in this and fully committed to the role so it’s a shame the film didn’t get the attention it deserved for them.

There’s the original concept, of an alien attack experienced over and over until Cruise’s character Lt. Col. Cage gets it right, an experience familiar to gamers everywhere. He has to learn when to fight, when to run and when to duck. The director Doug Liman has great fun with this element, adding a darkly comedic streak to otherwise excellently delivered action sequences. I have my issues with some of the decisions made by Liman, which I’d need a spoiler section to go into, but overall he does an excellent job of making an alien invasion movie feel fresh and original.

There’s some entertaining supporting work from the likes of Bill Paxton (who get’s arguably the best line of the whole film when he responds to an escape attempt from Cage), Brendon Gleeson and Noah Taylor.
The alien grunts themselves remind me of the Sentinels from the Matrix, refreshingly un-humanoid and are entirely believable as a species that would have the human races combined military power on the ropes.

It’s not one of the greatest films of all time by any stretch, but it deserved so much better than it got from the box office. It was a smarter, funnier and more exciting action thriller than most and it’s a damn shame that the studio will probably look at the return on their investment and lump for safer, established options in the future. It’s originality was perhaps it’s biggest asset and crippling flaw, which is not a promising indication for blockbusters in the future. Hopefully it will do well on home cinema options, but I’m not going to hold my breath.

How to Train Your Dragon 2 (Dean DeBlois)

For me, the first How To Train Your Dragon is the best non-Pixar animation of the last 20 years (I acknowledge that I need to give Miyazaki’s films a fair go before that statement carries a lot of weight). It had the heart, wonder and emotional clout that all the best animated films can capture. There was also a maturity to it, a sense of consequence sometimes lacking from all but the best films of the genre.

The sequel manages to capture much of the same sense of wonder and emotion while also feeling like a fitting progression. It’s darker (numerous interviews with DeBlois have touched upon the comparison between this and The Empire Strikes Back, for its potential thematic place in a trilogy) but remains kid friendly.

The influence of Roger Deakins as a consulting cinematographer is felt as much here as in the original, Dragons continues to be one of the most beautifully staged animations ever, with the flight sequences a particular delight. Disney defined how to do animated films well, Pixar embraced their approach and developed it, delivering more emotional depth and animated complexity, but with the Dragons series DreamWorks have set the standard for the epic within animation.

Hiccup and Toothless’ relationship develops naturally as both begin to mature and look outside of their own friendship. It’s a dynamic rarely realised more effectively and it’s complimented well throughout by themes of parenthood, responsibility and ambition.

I grew up with the Toy Story franchise and its growing maturity; I hope a lot of children are growing up dreaming of a dragon for a best friend.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (Matt Reeves)

Out of all the films I’ve featured in this post, it’s a testament to the achievement of Reeves and the team he’s assembled that a film which heavily focuses on a group of apes who primarily communicate via sign language are motion captured imagery, delivered perhaps the most intense, emotional performances of any of them. As a side note I’m trying to think of any big budget summer film that relied as heavily on subtitles as this does.

If Dawn’s success was purely down to the technical achievement in the realisation of the apes and their interactions it would still deserve a lot of credit. I’m not sure I’ve ever had to put so little effort in suspending disbelief for this kind of film and the initially staggering C.G.I is quickly accepted because it’s so incredibly executed. I’m fairly sure several of the key apes have more naturally expressive faces than I do.

The film is so much more than the technical though. It’s a top level action thriller, full of entertaining set pieces (a 360 degree spin on the top of a tank is up there with the best action sequences in recent years) and complex characters. The performances from the human cast are strong with Jason Clarke (who will appear as John Connor in next year’s Terminator film) and Gary Oldman presenting convincing, flawed individuals. The questions about the desire for survival and the uncomfortable truths it reveals about us are well handled, mirrored with great control between ape and human society.

It’s probably the most morally complex film out of the 6, because it takes the time to give even the villains of the piece solid motivations (“Human work” is one of the great lines of the year, delivered and animated with impressive conviction and complexity). Similar to the How to Train Your Dragon franchise, it endorses the idea of peaceful collaboration without taking a simplistic view on the reality of that. I’m all for summer blockbusters venturing into the morally grey, the most interesting stories often reside there.

It will be interesting to see where the series goes from here, both in terms of plot and titles (Battle for the Planet of the Apes perhaps?), but the first two efforts have managed to largely erase memories of Burton and Wahlberg’s attempt.


Basically it’s been a great year in film for blockbusters and I’m practically giddy at the thought that next year could be even better.

Sunday, 3 August 2014

Guardians of the Galaxy (Gunn, 2014)

It’s a bit of a stretch to refer to any cinematic offering from Marvel as a risk; the brand name alone will get people to watch the film regardless of it’s quality, but Guardians is undoubtedly one of the boldest moves in their grand plan. Not only are they new characters to the Marvel cinematic universe (MCU), but they are new to a lot of casual fans like me, with none of the established cultural weight of Thor, Hulk or Captain America. It’s set out in space, jumping from new planet to new planet, throwing character names and entire races at you every few minutes.

After so much box office success (and a substantial amount of critical acclaim too) there has been a lot of speculation that the studio might end up regretting green-lighting the adventures of Starlord and co. I’ve felt that much of this has been blown out of proportion simply because I don’t think it will matter in the long run if Guardians fails, it will simply be seen as an unfortunate mistake, quickly forgotten once the publicity blitz for Avengers 2 gets into gear.

If it was a gamble, it’s one I suspect is going to pay off handsomely, for Marvel and for fans, because Guardians of the Galaxy is excellent.  It is a rebirth of the space opera sub-genre, full of unlikely heroes, space battles and aspiring galaxy conquerors for villains, that manages to feel fresh and slightly retro at the same time.

Guardians is the story of Peter Quill, aka Starlord, played by Chris Pratt (Andy from Parks and Recreation) and the rag tag bunch of allies who team up to stop Ronan The Accuser from destroying an entire planet. Quill is a cross between Han Solo, Indiana Jones and Captain Kirk, the classic scoundrel with a heart of gold and the audiences’ way into a story that includes a talking raccoon and a tree-creature with an extremely limited vocabulary. Taken from earth as a young child with only the contents of his back pack to remind him of home, he’s a character who clearly loves his adventurous lifestyle but still longs for a lost sense of home. Chris Pratt is excellent and is clearly bound for big things, already cast as the lead in the new Jurassic Park film next summer. He sells the comedy and the action well, and while he will always be Andy Dwyer to me, he has the potential to be a major player in big budget blockbusters over the next decade.

The casting of an actor most well known for his comedy work was surely a deliberate move by director James Gunn, because Guardians is great fun and often extremely funny. The moments that risk straying into melodrama or cheese are offset by a sarcastic joke or a comment that feels entertainingly crude by Marvel standards; it’s an entirely different animal to the latest Captain America (which I loved and reviewed here) and I am fairly certain that it’s not an accident that Marvel scheduled their most serious and their most comic efforts in the same year.

I was fairly confident going into the cinema that Guardians would be fun from the trailer and the interviews with cast and crew, but I was pleasantly surprised by the heart it has. It’s a credit to the CGI work, vocal performances of Vin Diesel and Bradley Cooper and the script by Gunn and Nicole Perlman, that we are able to connect with Groot (the tree) and Rocket (the raccoon) so effectively. While Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (review coming soon, hopefully) will rightly take the majority of the gongs for visual effects come awards season, both films boast extremely well realised characters, with a level of subtlety and complexity that would have been impossible a decade ago.

The remaining two members of the Guardians are Zoe Saldana’s green skinned assassin Gamora and former wrestler Dave Bautista’s Drax the Destroyer. Both are solid in their roles, given enough depth and back story to avoid being one-dimensional, and Bautista reveals an impressive comic timing to go along with entirely convincing action chops. His dead pan delivery is responsible for several of the biggest laughs in the film, no small achievement in a film that counts Pratt, Peter Serafinowicz and John C. Reilly amongst it’s cast.

When the sequel rolls around I’d like to learn more about Gamora, because with the tragic and complicated back story the character has a lot of potential and the MCU would benefit from a strong, complex female character being an equal rather than a sidekick or straight forward love interest.

The good guys of the film are entertaining, well cast and fleshed out, but sadly the same cannot be said of the villains. Lee Pace as Ronan the Accuser, Karen Gillan as Gamora’s sister Nebula and Djimon Hounsou are all a little under-served by the script. Ronan and Nebula are fun enough but are given neither the motivations nor the characterization to be particularly memorable. Michael Rooker’s Yondu is more interesting, a character who raised Peter Quill and exists in a grey area between good and bad that is almost always more interesting than either extreme.

Guardians’ strengths lies in the relationship between the central five and there are several scenes that rival the Avengers Assemble chemistry that Joss Whedon achieved (cards on the table I’m a massive fan of Whedon after growing up on a steady diet of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, so this is high praise for me).

Where the film stumbles a little is in the big action set pieces. There are great moments, especially the moment revolving around a prosthetic leg and an abrupt display of loyalty from Drax towards Gamora, but overall the ground feels well trodden already. A dogfight over a major city is well realised but familiar and the Marvel formula of a giant set piece aerial battle is starting to feel a little tired. I love a lot of spectacle in my summer blockbusters and Guardians delivers as well as any, but there is part of me that would love to see a Marvel film hand the final 30 minutes over to Gareth Evans so he could direct a small scale but mesmerising finale (see either of the Raid films to understand what I mean.) Small scale needn’t mean underwhelming and done right could be a perfect counterpoint to the C.G.I exhaustion that the Marvel films can occasionally trigger.

It’s a complaint about the genre as much as this specific film and I can’t help but wonder if Marvel wanted a traditionally cinematic ending as a compromise for the freedom the rest of the film enjoyed. I hope Guardians proves to be the success I believe it should be, because it’s an excellent film and because it will encourage the studio to keep being ambitious with their film and director choice. Much as I like Robert Downey Jr. and Iron Man, I’d much rather see another Guardians film than another Tony Stark tale, simply because the possibilities are so much more open and varied.

To finish the review with one of the many things I loved about this film, I adored the soundtrack. Framed by the concept of a mix-tape given to him by his mum before he left earth, the film runs to a backing track of classic 60s, 70s and 80s music that offers Guardians a distinct sound. Too few films end with “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” and as the trailer showed there is something joyous to space escapades being soundtracked by Blue Swede’s “Hooked on a Feeling”. I regularly end up getting the scores of films, but it’s a rare film that leaves me wanting the official soundtrack.

Guardians is a triumph, not perfect, but full of the sense of fun and wonder that defined the films it’s protagonist Peter Quill probably grew up watching in the 1980s. The ambition of introducing a whole universe of new characters in one film pays off handsomely and in my opinion the MCU will be stronger for the risk. In fact I enjoyed it so much I’ve already arranged to go see it again.

As a brief post script, someone I worked with at HMV a few years ago, Matt Ferguson was hired to produce a lot of the artwork for this film and it’s been great to see him get the praise and profile he deserves. A top artist and a good guy too. You can check out some of his work here -