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Edge of Tomorrow (2014)
Original, Intelligent and Thrilling Sci-FI.
"Edge of Tomorrow" (2014), directed by Doug Liman, is a military science fiction film that revolves around Cruise's character endlessly repeating the same day, always dying, to explore his evolution from coward to hero. By deftly showing Cruise's changing responses to the same people and events in the run-up to landing in the battle zone, he undergoes a subtle metamorphosis. From attempting blackmail on General Brigham (Brendan Gleeson) in order to avoid action to eventually realising he alone can combat the alien threat, it's a well-written character arc. He is allowed to handle a complex role which can switch deftly from seriousness to black humour (stemming from him being able to predict what other characters' are about to say and do due to his multitude of deaths). It's his best performance in a long time, benefiting from the intelligence of the material he has to work with. It's also a testament to the script that the time loop never becomes tiresome, but instead is constantly inventive in its repetition, the storytelling enlivened by the elliptical editing of James Herbert and Laura Jennings. Scripted by Christopher McQuarrie, Jez and John-Henry Butterworth (based on the Japanese novel "All You Need Is Kill" by Hiroshi Sakurazaka), they handle the variety of plot threads and main duplication of the same day very well.
Emily Blunt, playing a renowned warrior, has the more limited role, her character 'reset' every time Cruise dies, but nevertheless shows her ability to project external strength and an admirable lack of sentiment in her training of Cruise. Bill Paxton as a tough Sergeant Major is fairly one-note, but it's a fun note all the same, Paxton clearly enjoying himself in his constant admonishing of Cruise.
Director Liman is able to deal with kinetic action scenes as well as quieter, character-orientated moments, whilst cleverly altering how he films repeating sequences. The main battle scene on the French beach is a good example, initially staying with Cruise's point of view, but gradually revealing more information each time, until around midway through, Liman pulls his camera back and reveals in a long shot the enormity of the military operation. Visually, he and his cinematographer Dion Beebe are aided by the interesting production design, in particular the exoskeletons the soldiers wear and the design of the aliens themselves, which creates a neat dichotomy with the contemporary appearance of much of this near-future world.
If its final act is slightly weaker, preventing it from becoming truly excellent, this is certainly a far sharper, original and more intriguing sci-fi action film than is normally found.
Exciting but Unoriginal Fantasy Film
"Willow", directed by Ron Howard, who won the Academy Award for "A Beautiful Mind" (2001), is a fantasy film that seems to have been influenced not just be legends but by various veins of filmic popularity in the 1980s. In a way, the films and books it 'borrows' from (or steals, depending on your point of view) paint a picture of Hollywood's landscape in the late eighties and was considered a blockbuster.
Starring Warwick Davis as Willow Ufgood, the titular dwarf, and Val Kilmer as a mercenary swordsman, the script written by Bob Dolman is based off a story by George Lucas. The screenplay is very obviously inspired J.R.R. Tolkein's novels of Middle Earth and Lucas' own "Star Wars" trilogy (1977 1983). From the hobbit-like characters in Davis' village to the design of Bavmorda's castle, one can trace Lucas' frustrated attempts in the eighties to make a never-realised film adaptation of "The Hobbit". Kilmer's cynical but ultimately loyal swordsman is heavily redolent of Han Solo from "Star Wars", as is the mask-wearing supporting villain (played by Pat Roach) suspiciously similar to Darth Vader and the horse-and-cart chase is reminiscent of the speeder chase in "Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi" (1983). The episodic, quest-nature of the overarching story shares common traits with both of them, while the initial hunt for the baby by the Queen's soldiers seems to be inspired by the New Testament. So, coming as it does near the end of the 1980s cycle of sword and sorcery films like "Dragonslayer" (1981), "Krull" (1983), "Legend" (1985), and "Labyrinth" (1986), this is not an original film, but one that incorporates a myriad of influences.
However, this does not limit its ability to entertain. Shot on location in Wales and New Zealand by cinematographer Adrian Biddle, it captures the epic scope of the fantasy genre, while the special effects by Industrial Light and Magic are of a very high quality, creating a believable world of massing armies and fearsome monsters.
Howard's direction though, is remarkable only for its lack of dynamism: he just lets each scene play, sticking close to the script. Only the scene at the crossroads where Davis and Kilmer see an entire army march by displays any directorial panache in capturing the armoured hordes. Nonetheless, the journeyman direction never tarnishes the fun and the leads carry their roles well. It might not be Peter Jackson's "The Lord of the Rings" (2001 2003), but for those who want a film in a similar vein, this delivers effectively.
The Monuments Men (2014)
Missed Opportunity, but Still Entertaining
"The Monuments Men" (2014), directed by George Clooney, his fifth film behind the camera, makes use of an irresistible premise: recover art works looted by the Nazis during the dying days of World War II. Not only is this a story never told before in the cinema (leading to an aura of uniqueness not often found with Hollywood studio pictures), but Clooney has assembled an enviable cast alongside himself with Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin, Bob Balaban and Cate Blancett.
Yet as a war film about art, it rarely seems too concerned about the specifics of the paintings and sculptures they're trying to rescue. Jan Van Eyck's Ghent Altarpiece and Michelangelo's "Madonna and Child" are the main focus of the film, providing a narrative thread for the script (written by Clooney and Grant Heslov), but the thousands upon thousands of other pieces of art (emphasised by frequent shots of warehouses or mines stacked with canvases) are generalised into anonymous cultural property in the need of preservation. It's frustrating, as are many parts of the film.
It lacks a strong narrative drive, being, until the last third, very episodic some are fine, like Murray's and Balaban's encounter with a young German soldier at night, but others, such as discovering barrels of gold teeth taken from Jews exterminated by the Holocaust, show the film's inadequacy dealing with the horrors of war. The pathos of members of the team dying and the mass destruction of art in impromptu bonfires lit by the German army are themes it finds hard enough to grasp and make the audience appreciate their impact. It keeps bumping into these big, important topics, the occupation of France and the role of collaborators say, pursuing them for a little while in subplots before backing away, unsure how to proceed, like over the use of child soldiers by the Germans, which is turned into almost an amusing anecdote.
This dichotomy between seriousness and a lighter, caper feel, reminiscent at times of late sixties and early seventies war films (think "Kelly's Heroes" (1970) and their ilk, a feeling reinforced by Alexandre Desplat's bass-heavy music score) leads to an uneasily balance not solved by Clooney's at times uncertain and uneven direction. It always looks good thanks to cinematographer Phedon Papamichael's eye for framing, but the characters' speeches, justifying the importance of art even during wartime, sits awkwardly with the more cinematic moments, particularly the climactic race against time to liberate a huge storage of art.
It remains entertaining and well-acted throughout, but it's clear that this is a film which could have been a more powerful exploration of its subject than it is. A missed opportunity then, enjoyable though, despite its failings.
The Lego Movie (2014)
The Building Blocks of Animation Greatness
"The Lego Movie", directed by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, is a 3D animated film that exists in a world created out of Lego. This Danish company, 65 years old, is an iconic favourite and perennial feature of the children's toy market. This might be a reason for cynicism, fears of a 100 minute advertisement perhaps well founded. However, instead, it is a clever, sly subversive comedy that keeps the innate charm of the toy, while having fun at mocking business and a consumerist society of uniformity. The animation style is slightly clunky, replicating with striking fidelity the limited articulation of the original figures and the almost stop-motion quality aesthetic of the world created. The computer generated imagery is extraordinary in mirroring the plastic blocks' texture and helping make the Lego city a wonder of imagined production design.
This would all be without point though, if it were not for a very witty and humorous script, written by the directors, Phil Lord and Christopher Miller. They gleefully send-up the corporate world and the Lego brand's film tie-in ranges such as Star Wars and D.C. superheroes. They're ably abetted by a talented vocal cast, featuring Chris Pratt, Will Ferrel, Morgan Freeman, Liam Neeson and a whole host of guest voices, from Jonah Hill to Billy Dee Williams. The jokes range from popular culture to very specific references to past Lego ranges, slapstick to in-jokes, satire to one-liners, in a melange designed to appeal to all ages. Lord and Miller know well that the finest children's movies are ones that attract adults as well, and here they achieve their goal with aplomb.
Still, the film never quite avoids a sentimental, good-intentioned moral which so many films of this genre are saddled with. Its plot twist, influenced by "The Matrix" (1999), whilst initially surprising and amusing does eventually lose some of its ingenuity. Some of the action scenes go on far too long, excessive demonstrations of versatility that are never as fun as just the pure moments of comedy. The script eventually has to resolve the conflicts it sets up, leading to a slightly weaker second half overall.
Yet this is never enough to sour "The Lego Movie", which, on the contrary, is mainly a delight, always funny and far cleverer than any movie based on a children's toy has any right to be.
New York, New York (1977)
Evocation of a Golden Age
Director Martin Scorsese is best known for his searing portrayals of urban life and its corruptions, as detailed in acclaimed films like "Taxi Driver" (1976), "Raging Bull" (1980) and "Goodfellas" (1990), but here, in the first of many directorial moments where he demonstrated his verisimilitude, he lovingly crafted a musical with a twist. "New York, New York" (1977) has the glorious look of an MGM Technicolor musical of the late forties or early fifties, from the plentiful sets recreating the artifice of the Big Apple in large sound stages in Hollywood, to the costumes and makeup, Scorsese flawlessly imitates the style, the look of another era of cinema. Yet if this was all there was, the film would be an empty, hollow stylistic exercise; instead, the characters that populate this entirely synthetic world are completely real, De Niro and Minnelli creating complex, fascinating characters. Working like the great improvisatory director John Cassavetes, Scorsese coaxes flowing performances from his two leads, detailing their relationship and the conflicts that stem from their deeply musical, creative personalities. Lionel Stander has a memorable supporting role, his distinctive, strong New York accent dominating his scenes. However, this film is defined by the trio of Scorsese, De Niro and Minnelli who collectively define the film.
The production design by Boris Leven, who himself had designed "West Side Story" (1961), is excellent; the cinema's view of the Big Apple circa 1945 once more brought to the screen and counterpoints the realism of the characters in a satisfying contrast. Famed Hungarian cinematographer László Kovács shoots in the characteristically Baroque style of the forties while employing some incredible crane shots to remarkable effect.
However, one of the key facets for any musical to be a success is its score, and with songwriters John Kander and Fred Ebb, who wrote the music for the original stage productions of "Cabaret" (1966) and "Chicago" (1975), the film achieves magnificently. The title song, subsequently covered by Frank Sinatra, is justifiably iconic, but "The World Goes Around" and the lavish ironic musical number "Happy Endings", invoking the extravagant set pieces of Busby Berekly in the 1930s musicals also help assure the picture's position as the finest original musical of the last forty years.
A passed over classic, a forgotten great of New American Cinema of the 1970s, this deserves to be seen once more and appreciated for its tremendously fresh achievement.
An Incredible Evocation of the World of Middle Earth.
"The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug" (2013), directed by Peter Jackson, is the middle film of the three part adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkein's novel "The Hobbit", first published in 1937. Surprisingly, it manages to avoid most problems associated with a second film of three, such as a sense of redundancy, maintaining interest throughout and actually surpassing "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" (2012), the first part in the series. The prolonged introductions and establishment of the major plot line of the first film, while embraced by some, where criticised by others. Here, with the clarity of a straightforward aim for the multiple characters, there is a new sense of direction and lucidity in Jackson's storytelling. Jackson's aided by the script written by himself, Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Guillermo del Toro.
While the acting throughout is never less than fine, and Martin Freeman continues to impress as Bilbo, the true star is Middle Earth, a world that Jackson has managed to transform into a living, breathing environment that thanks to the wonders of modern special effects, never looks less than real. From the dark Mirkwood forest to the seemingly 15th century Northern European inspired architecture of Lake-town, this is an incredibly rich and diverse setting for any tale that like all the great fantasy films, transports you into another world, another time, helped in part by the high frame rate 3D. The production design, by Dan Hennah, and the costume design, by Bob Buck, Ann Maskrey and Richard Taylor, is extraordinary in realising and texturing Jackson's world (which is filmed on location in New Zealand).
The screenplay however, isn't quite as perfect as one would wish, superior though it is to the first film, continuing the introduction of elements not present in the novel. A divisive move that does tend to reinforce more conventional action elements along with an underplayed romantic triangle concerning Orlando Bloom (reprising his role as Legolas from "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy [2001 2003]), Evangeline Lily (as the Wood Elf Tauriel) and Aidan Turner (as Kili the dwarf). This perhaps reveals a lack of confidence in the source material stretching across three films.
These doubts don't dispel Jackson's major directorial achievement on display here and it is his grasp of Middle Earth, taking it from J.R.R. Tolkein's imagination to the silver screen that leaves this one of the best films of 2013.
The Long Goodbye (1973)
"I even lost my cat."
"The Long Goodbye" (1973), Robert Altman's deconstruction of Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe by placing him in a strange, bizarre environment, LA of the seventies, is an excellent film, probably the best that I've seen from Altman. As an adaptation of the source novel, it of course fails, as it intends to, for as ever with this director, character takes precedence over plot. While on paper, apart from the updated setting, it might sound fairly faithful, the elimination of characters, the reducing in importance of others, and the final inversion of the novel's original climax serves to underline that the now much reduced, actually quite straightforward plotting is really only there so Altman can explore this man Marlowe. Aided by a superb Elliot Gould in his best performance, he gets under the skin of him, the mess of contradictions that define him and his resolute refusal to change with the times, leading him ultimately to failure (it's hard to see the finale as a triumph for him). His "other time" characterisation results him in being the only moral person in the film, Altman using Marlowe's utter disbelief at what the world has become to also transform into a critical commentary of America during this time period, a world populated by Terry Lennoxes and Marty Augustines (Mark Rydell whose shocking "That's someone I love. You, I don't even like." scene is the most powerful in the picture).
Vilmos Zsigmond's unique cinematographic appearance, all diffuse, soft lighting, that looks "blown out" is incredible and gives it a haze of the past, as if it were Marlowe's sleepy, laidback "It's okay with me" view of life that we're seeing. Yet it would be wrong to deny that it's a perfect film; the friendship with Lennox that the film pivots is never established very convincingly. It's hard to see this Marlowe liking the sleazy Californian charm of Terry Lennox (Jim Boulton) here, and Nina Van Pallandt, while not as bad as I feared, doesn't stand up to roaring Sterling Hayden as the alcoholic writer Roger Wade or Gould himself. Still, these unbalances don't sabotage the film, and while I'm far from an Altman fan, this is certainly one of the essential American films from the seventies, a decade full of them.
"Gravity" (2013), directed by Alfonso Cuarón, is at its heart, a film of survival, of battling an inhospitable environment against all odds, with no help and little chance of success. Framed like this, the film looks less like a science fiction film and more like a tale of survival. Cuarón has endeavoured to make the space environment as realistic as possible, from the interior of space stations to the movement of the human body in zero gravity. Imaginatively utilising 3D, he shoots the many scenes set in the deathly silence of space to simulate the appearance of the camera "floating". The audience feels like they too are in the midst of space, buoying alongside Clooney and Bullock. This creates a sense of credibility throughout and makes the peril the characters face even tauter. Cuarón has crafted a milieu that is ideal for showing the fragility of humanity against the vastness of the cosmos; writing the screenplay with his son Jonás, they populate the drama with only two characters to reinforce the emptiness of space.
These two characters though, are the audience's anchor, and are refreshingly well-written, recognisably human, reacting to events in a way that conforms to reality. Both Clooney and Bullock are excellent, never letting the extensive CGI dominate, while being appropriately ordinary enough to allow the viewer to identify with them, particularly Bullock. This is crucial for a film that concentrates on so few characters.
The cinematography by five time Academy Award nominee Emmanuel Lubezki perhaps acts as another character in the film, being the prism through we which enter the drama. Starting with a bravely held shot of Earth, it permits us to slowly make sense of the conversation over the radio between the astronauts and NASA (represented by an un-seen Ed Harris, one of the stars of "Apollo 13" ). It continues with an extraordinary, thirteen minute long, continuous shot that is supremely virtuosic, their incredible duration carried on throughout the entire film. Yet this isn't done for its own sake; in doing so, Cuarón brings you into the film and introduces a sense of claustrophobia with people stuck inside their spacesuits and the cramped interiors of escape shuttles and space stations. This had to be worked out in immense detail far in advance of shooting, meaning cinematography and editing (by Cuarón and Mark Sanger) is intimately linked.
The music by Steven Price is very good, allowing for silence where there needs to be, and overall this exemplar of pure cinema, with no villain except the harshness of the universe, is probably the best original film of the year. It masterfully builds tension and character simultaneously and remains resolutely human throughout.
Hollywood can still surprise.
Ender's Game (2013)
Engaging Science Fiction
"Ender's Game" (2013), directed by the South African Gavin Hood, is a military science fiction film based on Orson Scott Card's cult novel of the same name from 1985. It's a film that is more complex than it initially appears, the exposition-leaden opening thankfully not an indicator of what is to come, with Hood using cinematic techniques to tell the story rather than using any trite narrative clutches such as voice-over. Instead, the script (also written by Hood), introduces the figure of Ender, played by a marvellously cold Asa Butterfield, and his submergence into a future world of complex military strategy. The presence of many other child actors, even the Oscar-nominated Hailee Steinfeld and Abigail Breslin fail to make much impact. Yet this isn't a downside as much as it appears; Ender is supposed to be isolated and withdrawn, and it is appropriate for a film seen through his eyes that we scarcely get to known anything more than the broad strokes of personality from his compatriots in "Command School".
The older members of the cast though, disappointingly, don't register as much as they need to. Harrison Ford's Colonel Graff is rather one-note, only Ben Kinsley's unconventional character Mazer Rackham being memorable. The script fairly abandons them all to the sidelines and favours Ender above all else; thankfully, Butterfield is more than capable to meet that challenge, delivering an excellent child performance for a none too likable character. He's the film's strongest point.
The direction is good, even exhilarating in the scenes of stimulated zero gravity battle. The $110 million budget has been well used, credibly creating orbiting space stations and ships. The future imagined isn't so far from are our world, the suspension of disbelief on the part of the audience not so great. It follows the path of films as diverse as "2001: A Space Odyssey" (1968) and "Minority Report" (2002) that realised the future is made more plausible by having ties to the present.
Unfortunately, the ingenious twist ending, which probably works better on the page than it does on the screen, has, by necessity, almost to mould the movie in reverse leaving a curious sense of distance and lack of tension to the climax, while the epilogue goes into a bizarre realm which feels out of tone with the rest of the film.
The film is still an enjoyable science fiction movie, professional and well-made, but it suffers from the feeling it may have even been better had it been braver in adapting the source novel and not felt so obliged to try and translate aspects of it that don't work on the silver screen.
Pacific Rim (2013)
"Pacific Rim", directed by Guillermo del Toro, is a science fiction film that takes a long dormant genre, the Japanese Kaiju monster films of the 1950s and 1960s. They featured such creatures as Godzilla and a variety of others, del Toro not so much reinventing it but bringing it right back up to date. George Lucas' special effects company, Industrial Light & Magic, has created a world that is in the near-future but feels like tomorrow, the textures of the both the giant "jaegers" and monsters so realistic that even without 3D, you can feel that you can even touch them. The effects are simply put, outstanding and so far the best this year.
Yet del Toro, who directed the acclaimed Oscar-winning "Pan's Labyrinth" and the pair of "Hellboy" films, and his scriptwriter Travis Beacham, know that for the film to be more than merely "mecha vs. monsters", real characters need to be created and invested with real emotions. In interviews, del Toro said "We cannot pretend this is Ibsen", so the characters like Becket, Pentecost and Mori are strongly defined people who, through the equally powerful performances from Charlie Hunnam, Idris Elba and Rinko Kikunchi give us a film where we care what happens and mean the final climactic sacrifices are actually poignant, as opposed to manufactured drama with little thought behind it.
Charlie Day and Burn Gorman, who play a pair of bantering scientists along with Ron Perlman, who is a black marketer in Hong Kong dealing in kaiju organs, are vividly sketched supporting characters who provide an antidote to the seriousness of the main plot. The humour isn't cynical or used to self-consciously comment on the film, but instead springs naturally from the characters. For a film with such a potentially risible concept and execution, it's a pleasant surprise to discover it to be so well written.
The art direction and design of the mechs and monsters is superb, as is the envisioning of Hong Kong, a strangely beautiful world of iridescent lights of all colours, like a pop art version of "Blade Runner". The cinematography of the Oscar winning Guillermo Navarro is excellent too, capturing the nuances of the oily, technical world the film lives in while also bringing out the colours for the maximum dramatic effect. The editing by Peter Amundson and John Gilroy in collaboration with del Toro wisely chooses to go for slower cuts, in particular in the many and frequent action scenes, so as to render them intelligible and to allow the audience not only to understand what is going on but also so that they know the geography of the situation.
The major flaw, apart from Ramin Djawadi's blandly generic score, is perhaps the action scenes themselves. Taken individually, each one is shot and edited very well, but by the end, there is a slight, creeping sense of audience fatigue. This is compounded by the fact that the film's most memorable scene is Kikuchi's flashback, which deals with the impact and aftermath of the monsters, rather than a long, extensive battle scene.
Despite this, taken as a whole, "Pacific Rim" is a whole lot of fun and easily the best summer blockbuster of the year. Oh, and stay through the credits: there is a nice little post-credits scene that deals with the fate of a certain character.