Saturday, 9 August 2014

'Guardians of the Galaxy' - Review

Guardians of the Galaxy is the latest instalment in the Marvel cinematic universe, starring Chris Pratt as Peter Quill, a galactic outlaw who was abducted from Earth as a child. Whilst on the hunt for a mysterious orb, Quill (referring to himself as ‘Star Lord’) is caught up in the midst of several other interested parties, notably assassin Gamora (Zoe Saldana), who is sent to retrieve the orb for Ronan the Accuser, a tyrant who plans to use its secrets to destroy the planet Xandar.  

Based on one of the oldest Marvel properties, featuring a talking raccoon and from the director of the live-action Scooby-Doo­ movies, there is an awful lot that could make Guardians of the Galaxy a whimpering cinematic disaster. But somehow, James Gunn has managed to rope everything together almost perfectly, and the key has to be the tone of the movie. Unlike an awful lot of the super-hero movies of late, it doesn’t feel the need to play everything with a straight face. Sure, it has its emotional moments, but the fast-paced and often very funny script prevents it from being too serious.

Our ragtag collection of leads – as well as the aforementioned outlaw and assassin – contains Vin Diesel as the voice of Groot, a walking tree serving as bodyguard to Rocket, a raccoon voiced by Bradley Cooper, and Dave Bautista as walking muscle Drax ‘The Destroyer’. The combination of leads are the greatest strength the film has to offer, bouncing off each other eclectically and likeably, their personalities never sacrificed for (but rather enhanced by) the script. Vin Diesel as Groot manages to be the beating heart of the film, despite only ever having one line of dialogue to speak, and Dave Bautista is a revelation in comedic timing. The five guardians combined create what is fast becoming one of my favourite on-screen ensembles, that I actually think will have more re-watch value than Marvel’s runaway success Avengers Assemble.

The film is handsomely shot, the frame oozing colours in every shot, the palette keeping a cheerful aesthetic to match the sensibility of the script but restrained with a slight filter to prevent it from slipping into cartoon territory. The cinematography pack a real punch, and often comes to the rescue during the non-comedic highlights, including one visually astounding and quite emotionally powerful set-piece set in the vacuum of space. The soundtrack is a cracking collection of 70’s/80’s hits, including everything from the Jackson 5, Blue Swede and David Bowie. Established very early as a key part of Star Lord’s character, it isn’t just a selection of songs thrown in for want of a better soundtrack, and if you don’t find your feet tapping along at any point then frankly there’s no hope for you.

Whilst the film carries itself with vigour, and doesn’t waste time devolving into a romantic subplot, the ending drags on for about five minutes too long, and there are a select few elements in the final action sequence that are flat-out ridiculous even by the standards of a movie that features a talking raccoon. The talented Karen Gillan as villainous Nebula feels very over-shadowed in the finale which is a real shame, and Benicio Del Toro is criminally underused save for spouting some exposition here or there.

Guardians of the Galaxy is the result of placing the A-Team at the controls of the Millennium Falcon. It’s a much-needed injection of fun into the drab, gritty landscape of summer blockbuster season and – despite stumbling a little along the way – knows that the key to saving the future lies in the past. So wind up your best mix-tape, don your battered old Sony headphones and dance to its tune like the fate of the world depends on it.

4 stars

Saturday, 2 August 2014

'Blazing Saddles' - Retro Review

Released in 1974 but set 100 years previously, Mel Brooks Western-comedy Blazing Saddles holds many accolades, including three academy awards, a place on four of the AFI’s prestigious ‘Top 100’ lists, but most notably it was the first major studio picture to contain a fart joke (seriously, look it up). And if that isn’t enough to catch your attention, then there’s really no hope for you. So don your cowboy hats, load your six-shooters and whoopee cushions to revisit a comedy classic.

The film tells the story of Bart (Cleavon Little), a black railroad worker who is employed by Baron Hedley Lamarr (Harvey Korman) as the new sheriff of Rock Ridge in order to scare off the townsfolk so the Baron can purchase the land. However, upon arriving in the town, the sheriff quickly proves his value to the townspeople and they begin to rally behind him and his partner Jim (Gene Wilder).

Little is likeable and charming in his role, bouncing off Wilder well, just managing not to be overshadowed by him through a selection of key scenes, the majority of which I’d rather not give away if anyone reading has never seen it (shame on you), save for a moment in which he turns to a pair of Klu Klux Klan members and exclaims ‘Where the white women at?’. Harvey Korman as Lamarr steals the show whenever he’s on screen, alternating between tight-lipped sarcasm and pants-on-head insane whilst perfectly offset by Slim Pickens as Taggart, his slow-minded crony. Mel Brooks makes an appearance as Governor Lepetomane and is instantly hilarious. There is just something about that cross-eyed, cigar smoking face gawping towards the camera that will never be anything but funny.

Where the comedy is concerned, there are great swathes of gags in all varieties, from simple visual jokes (a hangman placing the noose around a horse and the man sat upon it), to surrealist comedy (a pair of World War 2-era German soldiers making friends with the outlaws), to downright toilet humour (the famous beans around the campfire scene). The jokes are plentiful pushing the boundaries of what was deemed ‘good taste’ back in the 70’s, but they don’t all rush over themselves in an attempt to get quick laughs like many comedies nowadays. By placing an in-joke here, a farting scene there, then going completely for broke in the finale, it is clearly written by people who understand that the essence of comedy is timing, and Blazing Saddles has that down to a tee. Even the social/racial satire (though not always particularly subtle) is well-done, and at its heart is the idea of securing equality in a mainstream movie as a positive force in the mind of American audiences who – merely ten years previous – would have balked at the idea of a black protagonist.

One of the more striking things one notices upon re-watching the film is that, despite its comedic nature, it is still made like a traditional Western. The cinematography echoes the camerawork of classic movies such as The Searchers and the musical score carries a strain of epic motifs as well as the more traditional harmonica pieces one would come to expect. It might be conformity to stereotype but it helps sell the setting of the movie and therefore serves only to increase the audience’s bewilderment when the more surreal elements come into play (and trust me, when it gets to that point you’ll wonder if you've accidentally taped another movie over the film).

With its mixture of bizarre anachronisms, racial satire and toilet humour all played with a – nearly – straight face, Blazing Saddles is a remarkable comedy that has stood the test of time, and whose DNA can be clearly seen in everything from the Monty Python movies to Family Guy (Seth MacFarlane appears to have built up most of his back catalogue simply by ‘referencing’ or downright ripping-off the comedies of the 70’s and 80’s). Everything that A Million Ways to Die in the West does spectacularly wrong, Blazing Saddles did (albeit haphazardly) side-splittingly better forty years before. 

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

'Dawn of the Planet of the Apes' - Review

From director Matt reeves (Cloverfield) comes the much-anticipated sequel to 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes, a re-boot of the classic film saga depicting a world in which intelligent simians have become the dominant species of the planet. Set ten years after the events of Rise, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes sees a world in which human civilisation has been reduced to ruins by the breakout of simian flu, while the apes themselves have made their home amongst the forests with Caesar as their leader. When a group of humans searching for a power source inadvertently stumble upon the apes’ city, the struggle for control of the planet begins. 

Perhaps the greatest strength Dawn has to offer are its characters, and the film-makers have daringly decided to have the apes form the central roles, and have the humans as the sideshow. Whereas in Rise and films like Avatar where the creatures are the focus but always depicted through human eyes, this film takes the complete opposite route: all the key events are from the apes’ viewpoint; the emotional highlights take place within their struggle, and does the inevitable carnage. All the philosophical and moral questions normally discussed by humans are delivered by Caesar and his companions, more tears are shed by the simians, their pain and anguish demonstrated by sign language and developing speech.

The motion-capture work used to transform actors such as Andy Serkis and Toby Kebbell into Caesar and antagonist Koba respectively is a work of art by itself. Never for one moment do you doubt that the apes are anything but real, their interactions with the human characters not only visually tangible but visceral on an emotional level too. Not to be overshadowed by the effects, Serkis provides a terrific performance as the ape leader struggling to keep the peace he knows is doomed to fail, and Kebbell is a sight to behold as the scheming opposite, grinding the dialogue ferociously between his teeth.

In terms of human performances, Gary Oldman – though given little screen time – delivers the most emotionally powerful presence in the entire film as military commander Dreyfuss, moving seamlessly from unshakeably determined to broken and hopeless in a world spiralling out of his control. Jason Clarke is also reliable as Malcom, leader of the group sent to find a new power source, but Keri Russell as his wife Ellie gives a stronger yet subtle performance.

Whilst the philosophical and political nature of the past Apes films are still recurrent, the musical score also appears to have taken a step back into the 1960’s, a string of drum-based and choral pieces appearing alongside the more modern-sounding motifs. Composer Michael Giacchino has taken his experience in reviving the music of 60’s staples such as Star Trek and applied it expertly here, drawing on the originals and his contemporaries for inspiration. The film is shot magnificently, presented in a full-frame aspect ratio that causes the action to burst from the screen more than 3D ever could, displaying the inventive cinematography and stark colour palette beautifully.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is an intelligent, thought-provoking and incredibly powerful science-fiction film that lives up to the series’ legacy and has the audacity to allow non-human characters to take centre stage, treating the audience as intelligent and trusting them to invest in the apes as much as – if not more than – the humans. Featuring terrific performances, special effects that will take decades to age and an attitude that is cinematic in its purest form, it will stand the test of time as a remarkable achievement in blockbuster film-making.

5 stars

Saturday, 19 July 2014

'How to Train Your Dragon 2' - Review

Riding high on the universal success of its predecessor, How to Train Your Dragon 2 continues the story of young Viking Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) and his dragon Toothless. Set five years since the Viking town of Berk made peace with their former foes – a swarm of dragons – Hiccup is faced with inheriting the mantle of chief from his father Stoick (Gerard Butler) and escapes into the wilderness, but soon finds himself at the centre of an approaching conflict between a mysterious Dragon Rider (Cate Blanchett) and warlord Drago (Djimon Hounsou).

The first thing to grab your attention during the film is the extraordinary animation. In a time when 3D animation flicks are churned out en masse – usually aimed at kids whom the studios believe are easily entertained – it is a wonderful breath of fresh air to see something so meticulously detailed and lovingly crafted. To those of us that were once amazed at being able to see each of Sully’s individual hairs in Monsters Inc., the work that has gone into this film has taken things to a whole other level, and I think you’d have to be very cynical to find it anything but beautiful. 

But a great film is nothing without great characters, and How to Train Your Dragon 2 has that in droves: the friendship between Hiccup and Toothless evolves well, with both now committed to protect each other no matter the cost, Hiccup having matured greatly from the bumbling nobody of the previous film, and the dragon providing enough charm to fill three whole human characters. Stoick and Gobber (Craig Ferguson) still carry a bickering but dependent relationship with each other, and greater attention has been paid to the role of female characters, notably the twists that emerge from Cat Blanchett as the mysterious newcomer, and Hiccup’s partner Astrid, who feels less of a hanger-on in this film and is given a lot more to do. 

The film romps along at a great pace, delivering impressive action sequences but also taking its time to develop characters, and dish out a fair share of set pieces which carry real emotional depth that will have you grinning from ear-to-ear one moment, and then reducing you to tears the next. Those of you – like me – who never expected anything to match the beautiful moment in the first film where Hiccup finally reaches out to Toothless will be proven wrong in the best possible way. Much like the first film, a great deal of the emotional weight is carried by returning composer John Powell’s rich and unashamedly fanfare-heavy score.

How to Train Your Dragon 2 is probably best seen as an antidote to Transformers: Age of Extinction. It is a film which has great big battles between gigantic evil monsters but instead of just throwing things at the screen, it takes time to flesh-out characters, to make the audience care about what happens to them and earns the right to end with a bombastic, adrenaline charged finale that (despite feeling a little rushed and jumbled) leads to a satisfying conclusion. It is a dragon-breathed fireball of pure-spirited adventure, and delivers on everything a great sequel should.

4.5 stars

Thursday, 10 July 2014

'Transformers: Age of Extinction' - Review

An explosion is an incredible thing; an expanding ball of superheated gas that can turn metal to molten slag, incinerate human flesh, and reduce entire buildings to heaps of unrecognisable rubble…and Michael Bay has found a way to make them boring. I bring this up as my main problem with Transformers: Age of Extinction because not doing so would mean facing the many, many others seeping from the films’ every orifice like bubonic pus.

The plot of the film (as much as there is one) is this: five years since the events of Transformers: Dark of the Moon, aliens both good and evil have been outlawed from Earth, and an elite task force of government agents aided by a mysterious figure known as Lockdown are tasked with finding and killing those that remain. Aspiring inventor Cade Yeager (a name that will go down with ‘Cypher Raige’ from After Earth as one of the most ridiculous names in film) discovers a beaten up old truck that he intends to scrap for parts is in fact Optimus Prime, leader of the heroic Autobots. With the government determined to hunt them, and a new alien threat emerging, Cade and Optimus join forces.

The main issue that makes Age of Extinction such an unbearable mess is the million different subplots clambering over each other, desperate for screen time. These range from a conspiracy by humans to create Transformers of their own from the element known as ‘Transformium’ (original, right?) to a prison ship full of bizarre aliens to Cade (Mark Wahlberg) arguing over the statuary rape laws of Texas with his daughter (Nicola Peltz) and her boyfriend (Jack Reynor). The film is 166 minutes long, and rather than using that time to make an effort to develop a proper story, throws in as much as possible in the hopes of entertaining even those at the back whose brains switched off many minutes ago.

All the usual Bay-isms are there, but turned up to eleven: Cade makes a comment about his daughters shorts being too short, that men might leer at her, and the camera literally cuts to about an inch away from her bottom. One of the worst female characters (if one can even use the word ‘character’ to describe her) in recent memory, she is constantly in need of saving, screaming and crying, and at one point – very uncomfortably – has a probing alien tongue wrap itself around her inner thigh. The rampant product placement has reached interstellar levels of ridiculousness, to the point that the only part of a bus that survives an explosion is the Victoria’s Secret advert wrapped around it, and massive firefights between robots and humans are set against the backdrop of Georgio Armani and Budweiser billboards.

An alien robot sporting the voice of Ken Watanabe refers to everyone as ‘Sensei’, is armoured like a Samurai and spouts almost as much pseudo-philosophical nonsense as Optimus Prime, who swings back and forth between contemplating the ‘soul’ of a Transformer before yelling “I’ll kill you all!” at approaching enemies. Oh, and once the ‘action’ moves to China, even random innocent bystanders know Kung-Fu. Why is ‘action’ in inverted commas, I hear you ask? Because by that point in the film, explosions have as much effect on the brain as a light breeze, you can barely tell which robot’s hitting which, and the ones you do recognise you just want to get blown up because they keep spilling out dialogue that could be improved by a five year-old playing with his toys…which is what Transformers should be about.

All charm has been sucked from the franchise, and the one small glimmer of hope amongst the cinematic carnage being vomited from the screen – the giant robot dinosaurs – have passed through the Michael Bay machine and had their personalities removed. Even composer Steve Jablonsky (who I wish would just take his considerable skill somewhere better), whose epic score underlies the whole film gets his part ruined by a cringe-inducing vocal pop/rock track that fades in and out of the sound mix whenever it pleases.

There is one sequence towards the beginning of the film that really sums it up: Cade is searching for spare parts in an abandoned cinema, and the owner is complaining about how all the movies nowadays are sequels and remakes. In the hands of anyone else, this would be humorous in a self-mocking, satirical kind of way, but in the hands of Michael Bay, it is a hollow, vacuous display of just how far down the pan things have gotten. Bay is not comically observing the problem, nor is he merely a part of the problem: he is the problem.


Sunday, 6 July 2014

'Star Wars' - Retro Review

Reviewing a film like this is always a difficult thing. Just how do you review such an enormous cultural phenomenon? It’s like asking a musician to review Beethoven’s 9th or a video gamer to review System Shock 2. Something that big is incredibly difficult to critically analyse, especially when it has had such an impact on entertainment today, can only easily be critiqued in the simplest form: as a film, a piece of cinematic entertainment, making sure – despite a very large amount of personal investment in the film and its successors – to judge it by the same standards by which I would review any other release.

And taken on those standards, it stands up remarkably well, because in terms of sheer cinematic spectacle, it is near-perfect. Whatever people say (and have said very loudly) about writer-director George Lucas, one cannot deny that he is an incredible world builder, and his collaboration with concept artist Ralph McQuarrie results in a tangible, ‘used universe’ aesthetic that created a believable world, perfectly complimented by Gilbert Taylors simple, unobtrusively classical cinematography. The model space-ships created for the special effects sequences and the hugely detailed sets also carry a remarkable degree of realism, and even in the technology a clear distinction is drawn between the heroes and villains: contrast the cobbled together look of the Rebel Alliance tech and the cold, clean-cut industrial aesthetic of the Imperial warships.

Before one even delves into their performances, the line-up of characters is, by itself, one of the most unforgettable ensembles in film. Whether you like Mark Hamill as an actor (and many argue whether his performance is well-balanced or simply the baleful whine of ‘tortured youth’), his appearance as Luke Skywalker conforms to the archetype of the young hero so perfectly that his name is now synonymous with the great heroes of ancient Greek or Roman legend. We relate to him not because he is perfect, but because he (like many of us) strives for great things but is held back by family duties and the mundane tasks of everyday existence. 

The role of the hero’s companion is filled by Harrison Ford, who is gleefully smug and self-centred as the smuggler Han Solo, a character that – despite his best efforts to display the contrary – we all know is a hero at heart. His loud-mouthed reluctance to join the fight until a reward is mentioned probably taps deeper into some of our psyches than we’d like to admit. Offset by his gentle giant of a companion – the Wookiee Chewbacca – Han is thrown into something he didn’t ask for but is eventually won over by Luke like the rest of us. His final decision to throw in his lot with the Rebel Alliance during the pulse-pounding climax is a wonderful moment and a highlight of the film.

Carrie Fisher is also an absolute joy, proving that being a Princess need not be the damsel in distress, and after her initial rescue she takes the lead from the two men with an air of no-nonsense, quick-thinking resourcefulness still rarely displayed by female characters in mainstream movies. The chemistry between the three leads is wonderful to watch, each one of them using the other two to build their character, and all three complimented by a string of colourful side characters including but not limited to: Alec Guinness as the wise and venerable Ben Kenobi, who spends the film with a permanent twinkle in his eye and a temperate smile on his lips, the two droids R2-D2 and C-3PO whose bickering and undeniable affection for each other transcends their mere mechanical origins, and of course the evil Darth Vader, who – certainly in terms of appearance – almost overshadows all others, supplied with an imposing physicality by Dave Prowse and an incredibly imposing voice by James Earl Jones.

Even deprived of the imagery that cannot fail to become iconic, the film is a marvel: John Williams provides quite possibly the most famous musical score in cinematic history, a shamelessly brash and courageous symphony that – surrounded in the 70’s by harsh realism and today by never-ending electronic scores – soars through the stratosphere with an ensemble of memorable themes. To those who have a love for film music, even the motifs and segments that hold the score together are memorable in their own right. Ben Burtt – who now holds one of the highest positions in Hollywood post production – begins his journey into sound design with an array of incredible sound effects that have passed into epochal movie legend, and, perhaps most extraordinarily of all, were drawn from the most mundane or bizarre objects and creatures.

All these separate elements used alone would be remarkable, but combined they have created one of the most incredible cinematic experiences of all time. With a timeless story of a young hero setting out to prove himself – against the legacy of his father, the backdrop of a galaxy at war, and insurmountable odds – thrown into this eclectic mix of audio-visual mastery, a legend is born. Whilst some believe – myself included – that the sequel (The Empire Strikes Back) is a better movie, taken on its own merits, and held up against not only the films that surrounded it back in 1977 but also the contemporary Hollywood fare of today, it is simply extraordinary. A common phrase batted around today with regards to much mainstream action schlock is ‘turn off your brain and enjoy’. For Star Wars, my advice would be ‘fire up your heart and love’.

Friday, 27 June 2014

'Chef' - Review

Directed by and starring Jon Favreau in the lead role, Chef centres on Carl Casper, a restaurant chef who loses his job thanks to a food critic (Oliver Platt) and his conservative boss (Dustin Hoffman). Estranged from his son Percy (Emjay Anthony) and divorced from wife Inez (Sofia Vergara), Carl decides to ditch the restaurant scene and strike it out on his own with a ramshackle food truck in order to reclaim his creative passion and piece his family back together.

Taking a break from directing mega-budget action fare such as the Iron Man movies, Favreau appears to be taking himself in an entirely different direction with this simple, cheerful comedy. The colour palette is bright and bursts with colour, which lends itself well to the subject matter, and there’s barely a character to be seen without a beaming smile on their face.

A healthy and enjoyable sprinkling of comedy is scattered throughout, relying very little on toilet humour and instead using a variety of gags based mostly around Twitter and the snowball effect of the internet, and the obvious jokes about food. The good natured tone of the whole film is nicely topped with an energetic and vibrant soundtrack that ranges from soft rock to heavy rhythmic samba pieces that come into play during the scenes of actual cooking which should not – under any circumstances – be watched on an empty stomach.

Favreau himself is believable in his lead role, and for the most part appears to actually be cooking most of the food himself rather than using a double, which adds to that believability. Sofia Vergara is sparky and fun as she always is, and Emjay Anthony adds a nice touch of innocence as the tech-savvy son desperate to connect with his father.

The supporting cast is littered with a few of the directors past associates, Scarlett Johansson faring well as head waitress and close friend of Casper, and Robert Downey Jr. more or less plays himself as Marvin, a cleanliness-obsessed businessman who hands over the truck. The film also stars John Leguizamo in what must be his least irritating role to date as Carl’s best friend and sous chef. Whilst the character arcs do become very predictable and by-the-numbers as the story progresses, the audience is having so much fun that it’s very easy to just dismiss the writing issues as merely a side effect of the extravagant charm with which the film handles itself.

A film that just wants everyone both involved in it and watching it to have fun is a rare thing, and that’s exactly what Chef is. In culinary terms, it is perhaps best compared to an 8oz steak: big, hearty, with one or two side dishes to add a little variety and that one predictably uneaten piece of garnish that you never really ask for but forgive the restaurant for anyway. Tuck in and enjoy.

4.5 Stars