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2. Gary Oldman
3. Robert De Niro
4. Sean Connery
5. Willem Dafoe
6. Sam Rockwell
7. Ian McKellan
8. Jack Nicholson
9. Hugh Jackman
11. Alfred Molina
12. Nick Stahl
13. Brendan Gleeson
14. Michael Clarke Duncan
15. Don Cheadle
16. Morgan Freeman
17. Christian Bale
18. Tom Wilkinson
19. Robert Downey Jr.
20. Eric Bana
21. Anthony Hopkins
22. Jack Black
23. Johnny Depp
24. Bill Nighy
25. Geoffrey Rush
26. Simon Pegg
27. Vinnie Jones
28. Kevin Spacey
29. Dustin Hoffman
30. Ben Foster
31. Steve Buscemi
32. Tim Robbins
Evan Rachel Wood
Last Vegas (2013)
You can practically smell the taglines bandied about in the marketing meetings: 'The Hangover for geriatrics!' 'They're here to party like it's 1959!' 'Old guys get lucky.' One of those may have even been used in the film's actual marketing; it's that forgettable.
Nonetheless, though the reflection behind such (low) concept sentiment may have been typically underdeveloped (were any audiences actually clamoring for a 'The Hangover with old guys'?), the main plot twist inherent in Last Vegas is that it isn't actually as insipid as you'd expect. Yes, the film boasts a tiresomely contrived plot, replete with the requisite amount of stale 'lookee! they're old! old people are funny!' cracks droll fish-out-of-water moments, and inevitable casual sexism (the four, including grumpy Robert De Niro, have to judge a bikini contest! They get to demonstrate how harmlessly lecherous they all are! Aww, isn't that sweet). Yet lurking underneath the banal tackiness there are moments of surprising heart, warmth and, yes, even humour (Kline and Freeman get most of the laughs simply by being themselves), that help pass the time agreeably enough. If nothing else, it's comforting to see certain situations that could have quickly descended into tastelessness Kevin Kline accidentally hitting on a drag queen comes to mind instead get resolved in a surprisingly pleasant fashion.
Indeed, pleasant is the operative word for the majority of the watch. It is odd to think of a word such as "inoffensive" as a compliment, but the film trundles along with such minimal hardship (fleeting conflicts are quickly and painlessly resolved) that the respective concerns associated with each protagonist (in a typically neat fashion, one concern each) are given more space to at least hint at resonance. While the stunt casting does saddle each of the film's stars with one-note characters, the mere presence of the caliber of talent at hand does elevate the mediocre material into something at least vaguely more substantial. Indeed, there are hints of a commentary on the predictability of 'late-life crises' and an undercurrent of gentle melancholy about aging, and learning to do so in a fashion both vibrant and graceful, that occasionally sparks to life when resting behind the eyes of four such veteran players.
And indeed, how better to sell a clichéd "Where did all the time go?" speech than through Michael Douglas allowing a surprisingly raw break in his voice? How better to embody a 'live enthusiastically rather than being restricted by fear of illness' than through the ever reliable gravitas of Morgan Freeman tempered by an uncommon goofiness (who, apparently, can still prod a move if not bust one)? If nothing else, the film is worth it to see Kevin Kline back in a comedic role, and he infuses his 'married man given a free weekend pass and a condom' stereotype with such wide-eyed cheeriness that it somehow works as entirely endearing. Even Robert De Niro, the most restricted by a 'cantankerous widower' rut, manages to commit a decent amount of presence. His curmudgeonly interplay with Douglas based on an old romantic altercation somehow emerges as oddly poignant in spite of it all. Finally, the ever- fantastic Mary Steenberger proves an equally welcome presence, ably supplementing the film with warmth and wry humour.
To compare Last Vegas with a stay in its titular city tacky, overdeveloped, yet somewhat enjoyable in a bland way with low expectations ¬ would be about as subtle as the film itself. Yet the film, while nowhere near as raunchy or mischievous as its marketing elusively hinted at, does prove cheerful and open-faced enough to pass the time not-disagreeably. Chances are, if the prospect of each star gently riffing on past personas ¬ De Niro briefly 'does' Raging Bull, and Kevin Kline gets to yell "Asshole!" again doesn't leave you regurgitating your cheap champagne knock-off, Last Vegas has a couple of indulgent smiles to offer for you.
Tranquility and tentacles
Within the first two minutes of director Gareth Edwards' cinematic debut, audiences should already have a clear idea of who the eponymous 'monsters' actually are.
Provided, that is, they are willing to pay close attention.
This is not to say, however, that Edwards' film is 'easy'. Nor is it redundantly obvious, purloining the hackneyed moralism present in many of the 1950s giant monster B-movies the film lovingly winks at. In spite of its campy source texts, Edwards' film is far more comfortable settling upon a dreamlike, distinctively artsy (or, dare I say it, "indie") aesthetic, clearly drawing on a variety of influences towards a much vaster agenda. It is no coincidence that an Apocalypse Now intertext pops up within the first minute of the film (it is not the last).
One would be hard-pressed to find another sci-fi monster film anywhere near as replete with jaw-dropping scenic long shots of the central characters walking alongside exquisite pink sunsets, tranquil rivers, jungles or Mayan ruins (all evidently shot on location, and all the more stunning because of it), accompanied by a serene musical score, and the occasional distant explosion, roar of jet plane engines, or soft, plaintive alien call. Likewise, few such genre entries would prove as moving with sequences of devastatingly skeletal slums, with every tranquil scene punctuated with discarded, ruined planes or tanks betraying countless similar past narrative snippets of extreme destruction and tragedy. The average monster film would be an unlikely source for some of the most beautiful scenic beauty and imagery seen on screen in years. Attack of the Giant Alien Octopi! this ain't.
At first glance, Edwards' film appears puzzlingly simple a familiar road trip narrative of a mismatched pair braving daunting odds to return home. But such preconceptions dissolve as quickly as the expectations of a traditional genre piece do. Monsters is more prone to gentle allusion rather than aggressive exposition, its simplistic structure belying its wealth of ideas and backstory. The viewer is instead left to fish out such hidden depth from the film's teasingly brief expositionary title cards, almost indiscernible televised news reports, or from reading between the proverbial lines of the devastated scenery, or background dialogue murmured furtively by the film's cast of non-professional extras (who, again, are all the more credible for it).
To read allegories of U.S./Mexico border control into the film would hardly be overstepping boundaries (arr arr arr) - though the film's most daring dalliances with such sociopolitical critique do lead to the occasional spotty or overstated moment (in one scene, a shell-shocked elderly woman hobbles along amongst suburban ruins with a tattered American flag draped over her shoulders. Yes, okay, we get it). Ultimately though, such subtext is not essential for enjoyment of the film. Instead, there is sufficient joy to be found in the relationship between the central pair (played by real- life couple Scott McNairy and Whitney Able), whose naturalistic chemistry, largely improvised dialogue, and appropriately understated performances make their inevitable growing attraction to each other amidst unfortunate circumstances feel enjoyably clumsy and credible.
Moreover, once the titular creatures, largely treated with Jaws-style subterfuge, are finally granted their 'big reveal', they vibrantly appease expectations. Astonishingly detailed and unnervingly credible, Edwards' aliens are simultaneously achingly familiar yet deeply unknowable an ideal depiction of a fundamentally alien life form.
As commendable for its judicious subtlety and stunning visual beauty as for its creature effects and vibrant subtext, Monsters is likely to defeat expectations of all sort across the board. Yet, in its own quiet, pleasant way, the film might just prove to be the most unexpectedly satisfying and peaceful film of its kind. Not at all, one might hazard, unlike its central creatures.
Pacific Rim (2013)
Small pleasures in big things
Pacific Rim is an extremely small movie about extremely big things hitting each other extremely loudly.
Small in terms of scope, ideas, characterization, script rewrites, concise editing, cliché- avoidance you name it. Those moved to tears by maverick director Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth the polar opposite on all aforementioned fronts may find this perplexing at best, and infuriating at worst. How could a writer-director capable of such depth make a film so (contrary to its title, to use up the supply of droll turns-of-phrase) shallow?
The trick is to treat Pacific Rim as the world's most expensive B-movie, and all its shortcomings as intentional camp. This almost works. Indeed, there comes a gleeful sense of triumph at one of the most acclaimed working directors finally gifted with the kind of budget that has always eluded him and using it to expensively homage the tacky, under-budgeted monster movies that wowed him as a youth. However, as is common with big-budget pastiche, the tension between low-budget sensibility and big-budget expectations is never fully resolved, and the film losing its nerve in owning up to and overplaying its purposeful stupidity makes for an often-unsettling watch. Sequences of lengthy, drawn-out, predictable clichés treated as gasp-worthy plot twists occupy the dreaded purgatory between "good" and "so-bad-its-good", satisfying neither.
The film opens with a smirking, concise and electric guitar-fuelled montage, which establishes not only the mythology and cursory science behind 'alien attackers vs. giant robot suit defenders', but the consequences behind it the sociocultural ramifications behind Earth being invaded, logistics of humans relocating, jaeger pilots becoming "rock stars", even toys and other merchandise created in tandem with the conflict. Here, with a World War Z (the book, not the film) approach to the monster genre, spectacle and smarts are effortlessly blended Godzilla circa Jurassic Park and hopes are immediately set high, with no reason to expect the film to falter from this point on. But, inevitably, it does, and such momentary intelligence is quickly jettisoned for a succession of Hollywood clichés hammered loudly by stale acting. Again, it is hard not to see this approach as intentional, and the film is loud and often unexpectedly funny enough to make the ride worthwhile. It is simply no longer as fun.
But, as with many del Toro projects, the beauty lies in the images. Or, in this case, the violence. On these fronts, Pacific Rim does not disappoint. The special effects, wedding del Toro's rubbery, stone-hewn aesthetics with CGI, are flawless. The alien kaiju are the most visually innovative monstrosities to rampage across screens in years staggeringly large, covered in sharp edges, and throbbing with an intriguing blue light. The defenders giant robotic exoskeleton jaegers (though subtext of German "attackers" versus Japanese "monsters" is best avoided), are equally fun, equally winking at clunky, diving-bell robots of vintage Japanese science-fiction. The film's best (and, effectively, only) plot twists lie in finding steadily more imaginative ways for the two titanic combatants to fight.
The destruction is appealingly vast (it is no coincidence that I heard no fewer than three separate audience members leaving the theatre griping "But where were the Avengers already?!"). However, unlike many of the plethora of other apocalyptic releases this year, del Toro keeps the focus immediately on the seismic fisticuffs of the monster fights, rather than extending his focus out to fetishize the wanton destruction. This lends Pacific Rim a curious intimacy, and one which, in a strange way, is far more effective than any of the script's fumbling attempts at humanizing its carbon-copy humans.
Indeed, it is no surprise that, in the fiendish mind of del Toro, the most imaginative aspect of any character is their names. It isn't every movie in which characters named Stacker Pentecost, Hercules Hansen, Hannibal Chau, Newton Geizler, and Raleigh Becket exchange dialogue, and this in itself almost excuses the largely flat (but not flat enough) or cartoonish (but not uniformly cartoonish enough) performances. In many cases, del Toro simply supplants eccentric costuming as a shorthand to interesting character development (poor Clifton Collins Jr., being out-acted by an unfortunate bow-tie/suspenders/sideburns ensemble). And, inevitably, critiquing acting here is almost as redundant as stopping to reflect on the script's scientific liberties and purposeful misdirections (dinosaurs have how many brains ?).
Nonetheless, Charlie Hunnam is earnest, but snooze-worthy and instantly forgettable as the latest entry in "generic white American male sci-fi leads 101". Idris Elba stealing the show as Marshall Stacker Pentecost (a name worth repeating twice) is a given, as Elba mines unexpected reserves of gravitas, pathos, heart, and often humour out of his steely military stereotype. His "Do not mistake my calm exterior !" reprimand is just as likely to be belted out triumphantly in quoting wars as his already clumsily iconic "Tonight we are CANCELING THE APOCALYPSE!" pump-up speech. Rinko Kikuchi, while a pleasantly unexpected piece of casting, is still too underwritten to have much to do, and the script's frequent infantilization of her reads as too tiredly patriarchal to even be played for laughs or genre convention. On the cartoonish side, Charlie Day and Ron Pearlman have oodles of fun, though Burn Gorman, who sounds like a del Toro name himself, as the requisite twitchy German(?) scientist is less welcomely so.
A curiosity in its ambiguous simplicity, del Toro's Pacific Rim, while always trashily fun, could easily have been 40 minutes shorter (and at least 40% better), had it bothered less with plot and characterization, which it only does begrudgingly anyway. A true triumph would be to see an alternate cut which wilfully embraces its campy stupidity and cheerful pastiche, milking the true enjoyment of its sublime creature effects. Still, for all your "monsters vs. robots" needs (and, let's face it, who doesn't have them?), del Toro proves a cheerfully triumphant dealer. And this is enough.
Man of Steel (2013)
You Will Believe
Superman is Jesus. This thematic subtext is hardly new. But Superman as a Jesus who only reluctantly accepts his mantle of saviour of humankind, and inwardly harbours a childish bitterness and resentment? A Superman who maliciously enjoys the secret thrill of being able to let loose and finally hit back, channeling decades of repression and bullying trauma into a succession of world-shattering punches, released with gleeful abandon? Much more Scorsese Jesus than Jesus Christ Superstar. This, as the inevitable comparison has it, is a far cry from the venerated days of Christopher Reeve.
To say this is a Superman who speaks to this day and age would be retreading a cliché already ground into redundancy from overuse. The temptation to run rampant with clichés such as "More 'Superman Begins' than 'Superman Returns'" is overwhelming. And, yet, such clichés are the stock that heroes are born of, and continually validated by. Zack Snyder and David S. Goyer are both certainly fearless in tapping into the essence and mythos of the character, navigating clichés of classicism and 'dark and gritty reboot' ethos with grace and tact. Indeed, to say this the first Superman film that fully, satisfyingly, explores not only the cultural function of Superman but plumbs the depths of Kal-El/Clark Kent himself would not be an overstatement.
Man of Steel is, if nothing else, overwhelming. The film is a relentless sensory overload, a breathless symphony of dazzling special effects, staggering scope of destruction (The Avengers now takes second place in collateral construction damage), and brutal, kinetic and frequently airborne fight choreography. From the first minutes, boldly opening with Russell Crowe's Jor-El riding a space dragon amidst the explosions of the dying planet Krypton undergoing a military coup. Already, Man of Steel has delivered one of the best (albeit microcosmic) sci-fi films in years. And, by this point, there is more than another two hours to go.
It scarcely slows down, only hitting the pause button to allow dual dads Crowe and Kevin Costner (both as good at frowning and grunting as ever) to deliver stern monologues ratcheting Kal/Clark between divine purpose and personal choice. It also scarcely quiets down, as Hans Zimmer's magnificent score continuously bludgeons the audience with horns, drums and strings enough to leave the most desensitized audience member gasping for breath. Stunning is the word at hand, as seldom before has watching a movie felt so much like a workout. This is far from a bad thing, but hardly a relaxing watch.
Nor, as most reviews have taken great pains to express, is levity on the table. Gone is the frivolity of Gene Hackman's prancing Lex Luthor and the bumbling slapstick of Reeve's Kent. This is a Superman prone to gritting his teeth rather than flashing toothy grins. Again, this is not a bad thing. The 'Nolan influence' is overwhelming, as the film even echoes the non- linear flashback structure of his seminal Batman Begins. Equally, intentionally or not, the film alludes to countless offerings from rival company Marvel, from the 'enhanced senses overload' purloined from Daredevil to the palpable glee of experimenting with powers of Spider-Man to military banter reminiscent of Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer to flying shots lifted directly from Iron Man.
However, Man of Steel is far from a derivative mess. In lieu of jokiness is enough sentiment to flood Metropolis. Melodrama too, granted. It is interesting to notice the film's unabashed embracing of the character being appropriated as an American cultural icon (one jaw- dropping Freudian slip minimizes Superman 'acting in the world's interests' into 'acting in America's interests'). But it is hard not to be pounded into willful submission by the film's incessant pace and noise into full embracing of the deluge of big, loud sentiment and purpose. Man of Steel hits hard, but hits undeniably true.
It will be quiet the challenge to un-see Henry Cavill as Superman, as with past examples of the role resulting in extreme-typecasting-turned-career-stunting (poor Brandon Routh). However, Cavill's sublime embodiment of one of the trickiest characters to sell demonstrates an actor of extreme talent rather than limited range. As much as Cavill owns every angsty grimace and serene smile, it is the gleeful abandon he shows when 'letting loose', whether flying around the planet at top speed or bludgeoning Kryptonian adversaries, that truly calcifies his humanity. Amy Adams does her considerable best with feisty reporter Lois Lane, but is still limited by underwritten characterization that leaves her inclusion often feeling like an afterthought. There is no doubt, too, that audiences will take some acclimatizing to Michael Shannon's screaming, spit-spewing performance (his "I WILL FIND HIM!" scene, while fated to become almost as meme-worthy as Terrence Stamp's "Kneel", is still a bit much), yet there is no doubt his unflinchingly resolute Zod is entirely right for the film, and a more than worthy adversary. Diane Lane's quiet performance, conversely, is a tremendous asset, providing much needed warmth and whimsy to the film as Clark's beloved 'Ma'.
Man of Steel is not a perfect film. The pacing and exposition often stumble over themselves (how exactly does Crowe's space-ghost work exactly ? Never mind), and, ironically, the moments of attempted, shoehorned-in humour are often the film's weakest (Lois' thoughts on first kisses proves an unintentionally comic non-sequitar). But, as Snyder and Goyer are careful to stress, Superman is not perfect either. And, like Superman, it is easy to get swept up in the overwhelming desire to invest in the iconicity of a hero, and forgive the inevitable shortcomings. You will believe a man can fly. You will believe a hero capable of unspeakable violence. And you will believe in him, and his movie, nonetheless.
Blood Drawings, Creepy Kids, and Ghoul-Masks Softly Lit by an iPhone
Few horror films are bold enough to not only root their cause of frights in an obsession with screens both the computer and cinema variety but also incriminate audiences (by proxy) as predominantly responsible for horrific happenings through their inability to tear their gaze away. Such audacious self-reflexivity should be difficult to execute without the film unraveling, but director Scott Derrickson instead alludes to recent genre trends erring towards 'found footage, documentary style realism', without skimping on the old-school supernatural scares and jumps. As such, Sinister cannily blends 'old and new', a post-Paranormal Activity thriller unafraid to exploit the genre's roots in melodrama and excess.
Indeed, Derrickson, like his first foray into horror, 2005's The Exorcism of Emily Rose, proves adept at marinating in genre conventions while subtly riffing on them to tweak expectations just enough. The premise (a 'true crime' writer who moves his family into the house of the recent murder victims whose case he is documenting discovers a box of 'home movies' that suggest a chain of interconnected serial family murders) is just outlandish enough to be original, yet just grounded enough to fly.
Equally, Sinister flourishes atmospherically, with its scores of documented murders adopting a surreal, grotesque beauty, rendered operatic through Christopher Young's exquisitely cacophonous musical score. Anchored through Ethan Hawke's magnetic, jittery performance and a couple of refreshing plot twists where (gasp!) characters actually result to horrific happenings sensibly, Derrickson nonetheless quashes such baited hope through an unflinching fatalism. Sinister's horror is fast, furious and relentless, and sure to spook hardened horror-vets and casual thrill-seekers alike.
Attack of the Crab Monsters (1957)
"Once It Was Marginalized Now It Is A Land Crab."
How a film called Attack of the Crab Monsters could ever not be celebrated amongst the cinematic greats is beyond all sense and reason. The title alone is so evocative and exciting that it would hardly be more noteworthy if every word were followed by an exclamation point. What's more, this glorious title does not even mislead its audience no false advertising with this titan of excitement, this goliath of grotesquery. Make no mistake, the crab monsters do attack and then some!
Director Roger Corman, immortalized in film history as the man pivotal in kickstarting the careers of Jack Nicholson, Dennis Hopper and Robert De Niro, as well as the creative force behind recent masterpiece Sharktopus, here delivers his opus, his most decadent gift to the industry and viewers alike. Who could forget those blaring opening title cards?
"You are about to land in a lonely zone of terror! You are part of the second scientific expedition dispatched to this mysterious bit of coral reef and volcanic rock. The first group has disappeared without a trace! Your job is to find out why!"
The very assembly of words is more shocking and chilling than a jellyfish popping up in the midst of one's swim trunks. Indeed, the film becomes all the more horrifying through the weight and responsibility it bestows upon the viewer. Who would dare to fail to find out where and how the first group disappeared?! No idle watching here!
And then. Tension, so thick, it feels ready to crack like an overcooked crustacean leg, as the smouldering scientists sear the screen, steadily speculating that the seemingly idyllic island is not as tranquil as it seems. What are those mysterious noises at night? Why does the voice of the French (?) professor continue to be faintly heard by the intrepid heroes, nights after his tragic and mysterious disappearance? Is he a ghost? Or have they merely descended into the bowels of madness?
The twist, of course, is as elementary as it is cunning: the professor has been absorbed into the psychic hive mind of the giant, radioactive land crabs, which also absorbed the essence of the former expedition crew! Whether this classic scene has been watched once or a thousand times, it never loses its raw poignancy, its emotion, its numbing fatality an effect none of its countless imitators and parodies through the ages can do justice to. Indeed, as the intrigue continues, the crabs craft an increasingly persuasive argument to the benefits of being part of their psychic hive mind. No more feeble physicality, only a mass of mercury! No more moral quandaries, only some mighty impressive claws! Who could argue for tiresome autonomy and humanity, when faced with the prospect of having claws like that? Even the absurdist fretting of Ionesco pales in comparison to the existential torment embodied by Corman's masterpiece.
As such, the film's genius lies not in its cutting edge special effects (groundbreaking even today), but in the psychological fearlessness of its narrative. Why be human, when you could be a crab? Such a message lingers long after the film's (surely purposefully) jarring ending, haunting one's thoughts, like the murmurs of oh so many psychic crabs. Like the man whose hand is pointlessly severed by a falling rock, all we can do is gape in stunned horror that Corman's treatise on the human (and crustacean) condition has yet to attain its rightful recognition.
Behemoth the Sea Monster (1959)
Enthusiastic and unusually clever stomp at a well worn template
While the 1950s giant monster movie genre remains almost exclusively dominated by American cinema, The Giant Behemoth marks a rare (and welcome) caper set in Britain. The unconventional setting is what largely helps the film stand out from the ranks of its competitors of the time, as, apart from allowing for some wry tongue-in-cheek quips at the Americanization of the genre (particularly a witty 'ending twist'), the film benefits from an infusion of more (relatively) serious and classy sensibilities, as if leaning more towards breaking ground as opposed to rehashing ground oft-tread.
In actuality, the film emerges as a thinly veiled remake of director Eugene Lourie's prior genre staple, 1953's The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms. However, the comparison is not a negative one. Like 20,000 Fathoms, Behemoth boasts comparatively superb production values for the genre, including gorgeous, highly photogenic location shooting, particularly in the film's Cornwall-set seaside opening, as well as impressively gruesome burn prosthetics administered to the titular Behemoth's victims.
Additionally, like 20,000 Fathoms, Behemoth devotes particular care to the 'scientific research procedural' aspect of tracking and classifying the creature and determining means of stopping it. This 'science-babble', delivered fast and furious from under a succession of grimly furrowed brows, is largely convincing, even if the film's attempts to seemingly trump all genre competitors sometimes overstretch the limits of plausibility the 'Behemoth', effectively a radiation-saturated dinosaur, proved surprisingly 'sellable', until the abrupt and never-explained revelation that it is electric as well ("like an eel!"). Conversely, the film's focus on radiation and its unanticipated environmental effects on all aspects of the ecosystem proves in many ways grimly insightful and prophetic for an entry in a genre normally dismissed as escapism. Indeed, the film, particularly in an opening didactic address, proves chock full of facts about radiation and its varying concerns, almost suggesting it as a strange kind of educational film on the possible outcomes of atomic warfare for a Cold War anxiety- riddled culture. With this in mind, it is interesting to note the thematic effect of the Behemoth itself, being somewhat of a fusion of 'old' and 'new' threats a dinosaur mixed with the very modern threat of radiation as if conflating the two to further stress the dire seriousness of atomic power as just as menacing as any primal fears.
Nonetheless, the construction of the Behemoth itself is somewhat of a mixed bag. When brought to life through masterful work by stop-motion icon, King Kong's Willis O'Brien, the Behemoth, particularly in a climactic sequence rampaging through London, its impressively textured trunk-like dinosaur legs flattening cars, teeth bared and tongue sweeping back and forth like a murderous serpent, the Behemoth is a delightfully foreboding and captivating adversary. Nonetheless, the creature itself is more often than not betrayed by the film's evidently low budget, with instances of laughably poor continuity (the Behemoth fluctuates in size and shape, occasionally undulating, serpent-like, despite having the physicality of a stocky dinosaur, and in one laughable instance a ship with a deck one second filled with screaming passengers suddenly empty when the Behemoth sinks it in the following shot) and some overly obvious work with miniatures (when the Behemoth sinks into the sea, the water droplets that fly up are curiously nearly as large as its head) undercutting the usual veneer of sustained tension.
Cast-wise, while the film does retain the seemingly inescapable (yet unintentionally entertaining) genre staple of wooden acting, it is, again, in general several cuts above many of its contemporaries, as the acting remains largely credible enough to maintain suspension of disbelief. Gene Evans and André Morell offer a satisfyingly sturdy one-two protagonist act as grim scientists from America and Britain respectively. In addition, particularly worth noting is the scene-stealing performance of Jack MacGowran as a loopy, bug-eyed paleontologist, whose (all too brief) presence greatly enhances the film's entertainment factor.
All in all, while the film hardly revolutionizes the template for the giant monster genre (it falls particularly prey to the frequent complaint of substantial pre-climax lagging), The Giant Behemoth does prove an unconventionally fun and smart monster camper, and unquestionably a cut above most contemporaries. Indeed, for all monster enthusiasts, the film, whether for the sheer number of antagonistic tropes amalgamated into a single foe, its comparative class or its generally substantial stop motion work, is definitely worth a watch.
Beats the odds
Cancer sucks. There is no denying it. And, as such, the prospect of a mainstream 'comedy' revolving around a young man who contracts cancer would appear a dubious sell at best, whether for fear of it being melancholic or flooded with saccharine "laughter is the best medicine" tripe (interestingly, it appears the subject and blended tones have become somewhat of a trend of late, as director Ian Fitzgibbon's equally fantastic Death of a Superhero illustrates). Nonetheless, co-star Seth Rogen's proposed (and rejected) tagline for the film accurately and succinctly conveys the film's approach to its subject matter: "F*ck Cancer". This is not to suggest that the film gears wholeheartedly towards Rogen's usual ribald humour (though there is more than enough to keep the film gleefully enjoyable), but rather its refreshingly straight-shooting approach to a universally dreaded illness that has already been rendered redundant through a succession of banal, pseudo-profound Hollywood weepies. Conversely, director Jonathan Levine and writer (adapting his own autobiographical experiences with cancer) Will Reiser opt for an honest, human, tasteful (yes, even that), and necessarily funny mediation, making 50/50 not only on the effects of cancer on those suffering it but how those close to them find ways to manoeuvre meaningful relationships around it.
The autobiographical elements in Reiser's screenplay are what truly sell the film, as the film offers countless moments too strange not to be real, and come across as just downplayed and natural enough to provide all the hilarity, tragedy and poignancy that grandiose Hollywood set pieces could never approach (wait for a fleeting moment when Gordon-Levitt's Adam discovers a tenaciously annotated book in Rogen's apartment for a joyfully distraught emotional meltdown). 50/50 functions as one of the best 'tearjerkers' in years, because it is clearly more interested in making audiences laugh, thereby making the sadness all the more genuine and affecting in contrast. Equally, it feels all the more inspiring an optimistic to have a cancer film with a positive bent be based on true experience, as it serves to sell the film's optimistic approach as ultimately more credible than mere Hollywood contrivance even a romantic subplot comes across as tentative and offbeat enough to function admirably within the scope of the film.
However, the true joy is watching 50/50 explore all of the figurative 'elephant in the room' circumstances revolving around cancer that most other films would either lose sight of or balk at. Pivotal concerns such as the infuriating dismissal of constantly being told "Everything's going to be fine", how friends and family being alternatively overbearing or absent can lead to an overall sense of alienation (watch, too, for the film's skillful editing and cinematography echoing these contrasts) and whether a bald head could offer the silver lining of a sympathy one night stand are all addressed frankly and honestly, and feel all the more effective for it. If there is a single concern to be made, it is that the film's pacing may feel ever so slightly off, giving less of a sense of a steadily mounting sense of urgency as Adam's condition worsens, but this too could be attributed to the disjointed sense of impending morality of cancer (as Adam suggests, everyone is dying, some simply faster than others), and thus comes across as a minuscule concern at most.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt only furthers his reputation as one of the most interesting contemporary stars, by cementing Adam as a human first and a cancer patient second. Blending a clipped, controlled approach to emotions with steady, fumbling attempts to reach out (as well as a laudable foregrounding of Adam's less than redeemable features, both before and after his diagnosis), Gordon-Levitt is as charming and hilarious as he is heartbreaking, emerging as one of the most compelling protagonists of the year. Equally, while his presence may have largely functioned to help greenlight and publicize the film, Seth Rogen channels his standard brand of bawdy humour through a far more sympathetic lens, as most of his character's quips (telling Adam "C'mon, let's go get laid" on the night before a life and death operation) come across as defense mechanisms preventing him from going to pieces. The two share an easy chemistry, and their buddy act makes for a truly enjoyable spectacle.
However, Anna Kendrick effortlessly matches (if not surpasses) them with a stellar turn as Adam's awkward, over earnest young therapist. Kendrick's unique charm and odd, irreverent portrayal of pathos mark her character as undeniably lovable and Kendrick herself as one of the most gifted rising talents in the industry. Bryce Dallas Howard emerges less favourably, being unfortunately typecast as Adam's neglectful girlfriend, though it is admirable that the script and Howard herself work hard to ingrain the character with some small vestiges of truth and balance, and Howard delivers a strong performance nonetheless. Finally, Angelica Huston steals scenes with remarkable aplomb as Adam's frantic, overprotective mother, and Philip Baker Hall and Matt Frewer make a delightful double act as Adam's cantankerous but good spirited chemotherapy buddies.
50/50 may not be an out-and-out comedy or tragedy, but it is certainly one of the most hilarious yet upsetting films of the year. It may not be a 'feel-good' film, but audiences will inevitably leave feeling fantastic. And it may not even be the singular most definitive cinematic treatment of cancer, but there is no question that it is certainly one of the most fresh, enjoyable and human mediations on the subject.
"I've knocked out Adolf Hitler over 200 times."
Considering how fundamentally 'safe' the superhero action film has become in terms of box office and reasonable standards of entertainment, selling Captain America, age-old icon of American propaganda on cinema screens in cynical and economically unstable times could hardly have been a more difficult endeavor tellingly, the film was marketed simply as The First Avenger in Russia, the Ukraine and South Korea. Indeed, skepticism and uncertainty have riddled the development of the project, which was first pitched as a Jon Favreau "action comedy" and later as a brutal, gritty, self-critical postmodern war epic. Such tonal fluctuation mirroring the social/political climate demonstrated that having a successful film with such a politically entwined protagonist, was anything but 'safe' it's hard to imagine Peter Parker being subjected to the scrutiny of "military propaganda" or "patriotic cheese" that beset Steve Rogers.
With this in mind, all the more credit can be given to Spielberg-cohort Joe Johnson for delivering what is ultimately the first comic book film that properly feels like a cartoon brought to life. Pitching strictly for nostalgia, Johnson bravely girds his film with the unabashed gee-wiz charm and heart of a 1940s Saturday morning adventure serial. In the process, without consistently tripping over political correctness, Johnson neatly circumvents concerns of propagandistic exploitation by delivering a film too bombastic, too colourful, too cheerily old-fashioned to be taken seriously enough as any kind of coy ideological manipulation. It's hard to imagine any contemporary audiences, cine-literate or not, being swayed to join the army by witnessing Captain America's hilariously cringe-worthy war bonds tour, arguably the film's strongest and most self-aware sequence. Even a couple of brazenly Spielbergian montages - conflating Captain America's early triumphs or the Red Skull's past crimes into a series of dramatic snapshots - somehow function as endearing and in keeping with the boldly cheerful feel, as Johnson keeps the pace whipping along with an engaging sprightly bounce, accompanied by Alan Silvestri's soaringly heroic musical score.
Indeed, Captain America comes across as more of a vintage science-fiction adventure than war film, as Johnson channels the sort of deliriously cartoonish aesthetic, weapons and technology of 1940s serials, including lavish set design that would do any James Bond evil mastermind proud. Curiously, Johnson's film works in some surprisingly intense action, (including one of the more unexpectedly gruesome deaths in a comic book film), exploring Captain America's comparatively 'grounded' superhuman abilities to the effect of some of the most gripping fight scenes in recent memory, alternating tightly choreographed beat downs while adding the intriguing new dimension of his ricocheting shield to keep the action nuanced. Between the tidily doled out combat (including unique, visually dynamic showdowns between Nazi-scientist sect Hydra and the US army) and the film's encompassing virtually every form of chase scene (car, foot, submarine, motorcycle, train, helicopter, airplane and even zip-lining), there is ample material to appease any expectations for summer spectacle.
Nonetheless, Johnson's film is not, despite its glossy cartoon finish, without its faults. Despite the thundering action, the film may prove too over-the-top for those disinclined to filter through a haze of charming nostalgia. Similarly, throwback cartoonish fun and self-aware irony aside, some viewers may still find it impossible to shake the notion of watching a distasteful two hour army recruitment video. Additionally, like predecessor Thor, the film does lose its footing somewhat as it approaches the climax, and its juggling the emotional demands of a stand-alone narrative while still bridging the transition towards the upcoming superhero epic The Avengers may prove unsettling for non-comic fans. Nonetheless, Johnson admirably reconciles the two, grinding the whiz-bang cheerfulness of his film to a halt with a jarring, quietly tragic ending that, miraculously, proves oddly appropriate in spite of its discordance. Either way, if ever there were a film this year worth sitting out the ending credits, this would be the one.
Chris Evans as the iconic "star-spangled man with the plan" proves the film's greatest boon. Muting his customary swagger without sacrificing his overflowing charisma, Evans concocts an effortless blend between earnestness and underhanded humour, that makes his transition from good-hearted scrawny loser to unexpected patriotic icon somehow feel incredibly believable, sympathetic and appealing, thus selling the whole film. The fact that Evans can tackle moments such as a "this is why we fight" speech, saddled with a nearly absurd CGI- shrunken body, with a straight face and without a false note, and transition to asking his best buddy "Are you ready to follow Captain America into the jaws of hell?" with a perfect a quiver of world-weary, witty, self-mockery in his voice, demonstrates a masterfully conscious and nuanced performer delivering his most assured work yet.
However, Johnson wisely surrounds Evans with a truly impressive supporting cast, each inhabiting their cheerfully one-note characters with enthusiasm to spare. Hugo Weaving masticates scenery with appropriate preening oiliness as the dastardly Red Skull, and Hayley Atwell and Sebastian Stan inhabit love interest Peggy Carter and best buddy Bucky Barnes with laudable presence and credibility. Tommy Lee Jones has a ball wryly clashing with the film around him as Rogers' military superior, and scene-stealer Stanley Tucci infuses the film with warmth and wit as the scientist behind Rogers' super soldier transformation. Dominic Cooper triumphantly bubbles over with charisma, charm and quirky humour worthy of his superheroic son as master inventor Howard Stark, while Toby Jones slithers with welcome relish as the Red Skull's chief scientist Arnim Zola.
While the true make-or-break of the character will depend on his exploration in a contemporary context by Joss Whedon in The Avengers, it is hard to imagine a more appropriate or enjoyable character introduction. Consider Captain America as Indiana Jones' square-jawed uncle bold enough to demonstrate, by example, the role and function of a national icon, yet retrospectively wise enough to stick to its guns and striving for pure entertainment. Such an unabashed dash of fun is worthy of 'recruiting' viewers everywhere.
Stranger tides? Nay still waters.
There is a beautiful irony in the newest installment in Disney's ongoing plundering of the seas of box offices worldwide being titled On Stranger Tides, as there is virtually nothing in any way strange about it. Indeed, it is worth noting that the working title was Pirates of the Caribbean: The Fountain of Youth, as the entire film carries such a sense of borderline- irritating straightforwardness and linearity. Hawked as an antidote to the labyrinthine narratives of the second and third installments by providing a stripped down narrative with more focus on story and characters, the only promise that On Stranger Tides makes good on is that of being stripped down. Despite having jettisoned many of the franchise's ever growing cast of familiar faces and subplots and clearing room to start anew, the latest Pirates escapade unfortunately comes across as lukewarm and benignly pleasant rather than any sort of infectiously fun adventure on the high seas like its predecessors.
As if mortified at the prospect of confusing audiences once again, the film proves frustratingly content to play it safe throughout. There are certainly no 'rocks into crabs afterlife hallucination' sequences to be found here, but nor is there a surplus of jaw-dropping set pieces or scenes of visual majesty designed to deliver the sort of escapist spectacle the genre was designed for, lending credence to the purported budgetary restraints. In fact, only a chillingly tense mermaid attack midway through the film stands out amidst a slew of half- baked chases, brief swordfights and other such near successes (the living ship rigging of Blackbeard's vessel, while a decently interesting conceit, still pales in comparison with the sight of Bill Nighy's face covered in wriggling, independently moving tentacles as Davy Jones), all coupled with the spirited droning of what is surely Hans Zimmer's most uninspired musical score to date.
New director Rob Marshall, more renowned for overseeing musical dance numbers than swashbuckling, continually scrabbles for predecessor Gore Verbinski's joyful fusion of dark- tinged but overall lighthearted adventure, yet his film feels perpetually neutered. There is a continuous sense of the plot being driven by familiar tropes (double-cross leads to skirmish leads to witty banter leads to Sparrow buffoonery and repeat) more than any overriding notions of character or narrative development, while the film functions to namecheck an appropriate medley of iconic components without doing any of them justice (it is hard to imagine a more boring take on the high concept of zombie pirates). One could speculate that loosely adapting the story from Tim Powers' fantasy novel proved a hindrance to innovative plotting in the film, yet the sense remains that the film would have felt equally stilted and forced no matter what central story.
That said, there are dashes of amusement to be found even for more skeptical viewers. The film's daringly cartoonish portrayal of the sparring political powers of the time (both Richard Griffith's nearly drooling, uncomfortably scene-chomping English King George and the comically robotic Spanish) can't help but suggest some sort of ambiguous contemporary political satire of childishly warring over desirable goods. Nonetheless, any such hinted subversion is easily overridden by the mawkishness of a forced missionary/mermaid romantic subplot that comes across as nauseatingly traditionalist and a final act riddled with unrealistic character motivations and actions. It's enough that by the climax, rather than pining for a plot that made sense, the viewer is left pining for a plot with any spark of enthusiasm or intrigue intact.
It feels almost redundant to say that Johnny Depp's Captain Jack Sparrow saves the day, but there is no question that his eccentric yet uncanny blundering remains simply a joy to watch, even if the woeful writing leaves his character awkwardly poised between driving the plot along with unconventional lucidity and haphazardly tossing off one-liners more often than not. Fellow franchise veteran Geoffrey Rush equally struggles against the script but manages to infuse Captain Barbossa with his standard roguish twinkle, extracting welcome comedic mileage out of a recently acquired peg leg. Penélope Cruz is less fortunate in attempting to combat the shoddy writing of her femme fatale character (even her murky past with Sparrow feels irritatingly inconsistent), and Cruz is given little more to do than sulk, rather than offer her characteristic sultry charisma. Similarly, Ian McShane's take on legendary pirate Blackbeard feels entirely mishandled, consistently contradicting the character's peerlessly evil reputation by coming across as oddly vulnerable, sympathetic or simply bland, with McShane given no chance to let loose any trademark snarls or villainous scene-chewing whatsoever. In the same vein, Keith Richards' reprised cameo, apart from one priceless wisecrack ("Does this face look like it's been to the fountain of youth?"), feels particularly pointless, though an unexpected Judi Dench cameo is far more fun, and definitely worth keeping eyes peeled for.
While it would be false to say there is no pleasure to be extracted from the old Pirates formula being dusted off and rehashed, but the film carries such a sense of willful mediocrity to it throughout that it is hard to ever properly buy into the fun. Indeed, On Stranger Tides does function as a pleasant enough temporary distraction, but any further longevity to the franchise would require a substantial return to the energy and inventiveness of the earlier films, and soon. Forget stripped down, this pirate ship needs fleshing out something fierce.