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Star Wars 3.0 Finds Its Footing
Star Wars has been an interesting ride since the Disney acquisition, mixing financial success with timid artistic expression. Thank George Lucas for creating a universe that is very hard to get right, and for personally demonstrate how horribly wrong it can all go when one strays too far from the winning formula of the original trilogy (by creating the lamentable prequel trilogy). Disney has struggled so far to tell a compelling new story while remaining on safe ground: episode VII captured the tone perfectly but felt like too much of a reboot in terms of plot, while Rogue One tried something new and got bogged down in a dour mood peppered with weird fan-service. Measured against those two offerings, The Last Jedi is another step in the right direction. It still contains a bit too much that is familiar, but, for the most part, succeeds best when it tries to be different.
Plot-wise there is still a bit of confusion. Judging by our catch-up with Luke and Rey, we kick off the minute Force Awakens ended, but the opening crawl and action scene imply time has passed, mostly to the First Order's advantage (and on that front, there is still much confusion as to why there was a Resistance when there was a Republic, and why those resistance always allude to themselves as "Rebels"). From the opening seconds, though, it is clear that a new hand it as the wheel, and one soon understands why Disney seemed so impressed with director Rian Johnson's work here. The visual language is more poetic and effective than Abrams' anonymous work in VII and more appropriate to the universe than Gareth Edwards' more visceral experiment. Between a kamikaze jump to light-speed and Luke Skywalker showing us what a Star Wars Mexican standoff would look like, This is the first film in Lucas' galaxy far far away to carry images that will sear themselves into your retinae.
The plot, in Disney fashion, tries to offer us comforting beats from Empire Strikes Back, our reference episode from the original saga, but, more often than not, this is to subvert our corresponding expectations. A grand second-act mission does not go as one would expect, and, thankfully, potentially groan-inducing revelations are either handled very well or, thankfully, simply do not occur. Not all is perfect, and this film specifically suffers from issues with the Great Disney Plan: clarity of context, as with the First Order thing, clarity with the villains, some of which, such as Snoke and particularly Phasma, do not register as hoped... But the new ingredients, particularly the new lead trio of Rey, Finn and Poe, are definitely winners. Daisy Ridley carries most of the film's emotion on what turn out to be very solid shoulders, while Oscar Isaac is given more to do this time around. In the baddie camp, we're still missing someone with the cold killer poise of Peter Cushing (the real one, not Rogue One's CGI abomination), but Adam Driver continues to knock it out of the park in unexpected ways as Kylo Ren. It is the kind of part that could have gone either way - and, in the hands of a Lucas directed Hayden Christensen, went truly bad - so kudos to Driver for making us care for his conflicted antagonist.
Just as much of the early word on Episode VII was about a great return to form from Harrison Ford, so the internet has been on fire about Mark Hamill burning through the screen. I find the comparison unfair. While Ford merely tapped into that old magic - something he can do very well, admittedly - Hamill's turn as Skywalker here is something else. There are still deep, buried traces of the earnest farm-boy many of us grew up with, but when Master Skywalker decides to throw his weight in, Hamill unleashes a presence and charisma he had never hinted at previously, and it is a jaw-dropping joy to behold. The late Carrie Fisher also glows throughout, her gentle warmth giving the film a lot of its more touching moments.
All in all, this might be looked back on as the one where the new generation of Star Wars films finally decided what they wanted to be, and which language they wanted to use. It does not reach the lofty heights of Empire, nor does it slavishly adhere to that classic's structure. In fact, it offers a cleaner ending, one that opens a fresh horizon with new, established and compelling characters. It will be intriguing to see what happens next.
Blade Runner 2049 (2017)
Imperfect but Haunting and Memorable
It is fascinating to see parts of the audience replay reactions to the original Blade Runner. You've heard grievances about plot holes, false set pieces and style over substance, no doubt, as well as something of an open-ended ending? While all these points are true in part, they also all constitute strengths within the context of this particular film, and do justice to its forebear.
Blade Runner 2049 opens as Agent K (Gosling) hunts down remaining Nexus 8+ replicants, against a backdrop of ecological collapse and mega-corporate rule. Tyrell Corp is gone and replaced by a bigger, more ominous force manufacturing a more obedient synthetic workforce. When the seemingly impossible happens, it sends K on a disturbing investigation with severe implications about whether these robots really are, as the original Tyrell tag-line promised, "more human than human".
Much has been made of the stunningly oppressive cinematography. Is it maestro Deakins' career best? It is hard to say, given the extent to which the phenomenal production design and the cinematography complement each other, along with effects that - save for one smartly played uncanny valley-leaning revival - make you wonder what is digital and what is practical. Director Dennis Villeneuve forges another mighty link in a very impressive chain of meticulous films, and while the film can never aspire to be as era-defining as its predecessor, it does convey more emotion and manages infinitely superior chemistry between its characters.
Ryan Gosling anchors and carries the film, despite the emotional distance deliberately placed between him and the audience from the onset. His is a quieter, more subdued tragedy than Rutger Hauer's fallen angel in the original, but his anguish and its pay-off resonate just as deeply. Harrison Ford bares his heart like never before, and his pairing with Gosling works wonders. The rest of the cast often acquit themselves very well despite sometimes limited screen-time or development, with the exception of a slightly underwhelming Sylvia Hoeks as the antagonist's hench-woman. For all his good work as a nightmarish version of a machine-linked Elon Musk, Jared Leto makes you wonder what original choice David Bowie might have done with the role.
In terms of collaborators, the only weak link, at times, is Hans Zimmer, who goes balls-to-the-walls with the more oppressive parts of Vangelis' concepts, but fails to blend those and the quieter moments into a cohesive whole. The music is, when present, also menacingly loud in the sound mix, and while this does reenforce the oft- present and appropriate sense of dread, it sometimes sets up summer blockbuster expectations, which this decidedly - and thankfully - is not. One wishes Villeneuve regular Johan Johansson had been given a chance to play in Vangelis' sandbox.
This is a rich and oppressive work, which refuses to answer all your questions, while evoking many fascinating ideas. It more than does justice to the original, and whatever throwbacks occur and, more often than not, thoughtful - even a reprise of the tears in the rain music theme, which Zimmer comes within inches or overplaying. What worked in the 1982 film still works here, and what didn't is actually improved, from the chemistry to the fact that our detective actually, you know, does some detective work for a change. It is that rare event film that has confidence in a more languid sense of pacing and textured atmosphere.
Imperfect, yes, but undeniably haunting. Much like the original.
Alien: Covenant (2017)
Ridley Through The Looking Glass
They told me it was bad, but I went anyway. It's hard for me judge Ridley's work objectively, you see: two of his early masterpieces traumatized me as a kid and had a lasting effect on me, so I'm prepared to forgive a lot, perhaps too much. Except now, after 30+ years, I think I finally understand him.
Let's zoom out a bit. Ever since the first Alien sequel came out, Scott had been musing about what a sequel involving him might be about. Rather than continue Ripley's journey, he would rather investigate the Alien's origins, especially the colossal race briefly shown in 1979's Alien - in a massive, eerie set Fox almost had canned because it was pricey and did nothing to advance the plot. Think about it: had Fox had held a slightly tighter purse, there would be no Prometheus. Hardly a heart-breaking prospect for most people, myself included.
Fast-forward three decades and Scott got his chance. The answers to the questions nobody really cared about - since when does answering questions help a horror film? - were more puzzling than thrilling, and while you can commend Prometheus for trying something different, it didn't always do so successfully, chiefly in terms of design. Beyond the stupidity of the one-dimensional crew and the confusion of Damon Lindelof's rewrites, one of the greatest disappointments came from changing the engineers from Gigerian nightmares into gigantic blue Jason Stathams.
So Prometheus came and went. Ridley went from saying it wasn't an Alien film, to admitting it had Alien DNA. Audiences cried foul when they realized it totally was an Alien film but didn't feature the illustrious xenomorph. When the inevitable sequel came, it looked like audience feedback weighed heavily in pretty much every respect. You can be the judge of whether or not this turned out to be a good thing.
Alien Covenant reads like a wish-list of disgruntled Prometheus viewers. It fits in everything you liked last time around - Fassbender's android especially - and adds all the things you thought were missing, like the xenomorph (or is it still a prototype?), some brutal killings and echoes of the original film galore.
A new crew gets diverted by a rogue signal (ring a bell?) and discovers a terraformed world with weird idiosyncrasies. Before they can investigate bad things happen and synth human David (Fassbender) comes to the rescue. He is immediately fascinated with the crew's own android Walter (also Fassbender) and we see what he's been up to for the past ten years with engineer technology. Playing God on his lonesome, only a version of God that makes the Old Testament maniac come across as a choir boy...
From the get-go, Covenant goes out of its way to draw parallel's to 1979's Alien. Yes the prologue is pure Prometheus (in the best sense) but, form the way the titles pop up to plot beats, down to reuse of Jerry Goldsmith's score and the rehashed final 25 minutes, this really plays on your sense of nostalgia. It's a pity because while a lot of the newer ideas are a bit silly if you think about them for too long, they are the best things about the film. Them and Michael Fassbender. If you wonder why I haven't mentioned anyone else in the cast, it is because they are interchangeable and forgettable, but Fassbender is just so fantastic and put to such great use that he barely just about redeems the situation.
Quick aside on the music: the Alien saga is unique in the variety of its aesthetics, but it's worth adding that each film had its own distinct musical identity, with no effort ever made to carry over even the slightest theme. This has led to some fantastic music: from Goldsmith's understated eerie original to Horner's martial classic, all the way to my favorite, Godenthal's apocalyptic Gothic opera for Alien 3. Prometheus had a solid, inspiring theme as well, but still made no attempt to unify the saga. While it comes at the expense of creating anything new and memorable, it is commendable of Jed Kurzel to so successfully bridge the gap for a change.
Not all is perfect of course, for every awe-inspiring moment - a ravaged forest of giant trees, David's necropolis and attempt to "pet" a new alien, or his unleashing of deadly plagues - there is another of sigh-inducing stupidity: most of the crew's early decisions, a three-stooges-style alien VS rappelling proto-Ripley duel, or a twist you can see coming a mile away... and that shower scene alluded to in trailers is what you'd expect to see in Paul W. S. Anderson's Alien, down to its surprisingly inept execution.
My expectations were low going into this, mainly because of word-of-mouth, but then I saw it, and suddenly everything made sense. You have to think of it this way: before it was a phenomenon, Alien was a B-movie. Yes it was the best-looking B-movie of all time, but a B-movie nonetheless. That is also, in a way, what Ridley Scott has always been: a hack with a golden eye, who makes the most heartbreakingly gorgeous B-movies you can feast your eyes on. If you go into Alien Covenant expecting that, you just might love it. I can't say I did, but it did adjust my appreciation for it.
There are moments when it's a 1. Others (scarcer) where it could well be a 9 or 10. On the whole, I'll give it a 6.
M. Night Comes Full Circle
From prodigy to punchline, M. Night Shyamalan has had fascinating highs and lows as a filmmaker. The man once hailed as the heir to Hitchcock or Spielberg was soon compared to Ed Wood and Uwe Boll... I always found this a bit unfair, due to the tasteful notes sprinkled throughout even his most inept films. But he's finally crossed a line.
Celebrated as a return to form for the creator of the Sixth Sense and Unbreakable, Split follows damaged teen Casey (Anja Taylor-Joy) and 2 cliché bitchy teenager friends, who get abducted by Kevin (James McAvoy). The catch being that his disturbed cranium houses 21 conflicting personalities, with the promise of a very sinister 22nd on the way. Intriguing concept. What might the twist be?
There are - contrary to what you might have heard - two twists in Split. The first is that it mostly does exactly what it tells you it's going to do. And boy is there a lot of telling rather than showing in this overdrawn yarn! The beats are telegraphed in advance and the jumps predictable. The second twist plays squarely in the current trend of exploiting viewer nostalgia: in what might be his most forgettable film, Shyamalan dares to shove in a horribly contrived parallel to his greatest work. If Split is meant as a parallel sequel to that other film, then it shares none of the stylistic identity, which makes the forced kinship feel unnatural.
Speaking of style, the filmmaker has also sadly broken with his earlier aesthetic in most of the ways you could imagine. The visual elegance and fluency of his first 3-4 films is gone - as, sadly, is longstanding collaborator James Newton Howard. After plumbing the depths of found footage in his previous film, Shyamalan delivers a film that is often bland and sometimes downright ugly to watch.
Any positive commentary on this film has to do with its cast, so let's give them their due: McAvoy has a ball with his various personalities. It's never subtle stuff, but he throws himself at it and hops effortlessly between all 21 personalities in Kevin's head. Taylor-Joy, a revelation in The Witch, is, once again, luminous, transcending a half-baked part and giving these dreary proceedings what little believability they have. Her partners in confinement barely register, and, hamstrung as she is with terrible expository dialogue, poor Betty Buckly as the caring psychiatrist manages to deliver the worst performance in a M. Night Shyamalan film - yes, even one that features the customary terrible director cameo!
By now the irony of this review's title - and of the situation itself - should be obvious. Shyamalan would have you believe he's come full circle, back to the glory days of his debut. The truth is much sadder: pushed to the limit and with nothing left in him, yesterday's wunderkind is left scraping the bottom of the barrel for echoes of past glories. In that sense, he is sadly representative of an entire industry with a crisis of creativity.
Mindenki transports us to a strict girl's school in Hungary, where our newcomer protagonist tries out for the renowned choir. Only there's a catch, and the reason she ends up making the list turns out to be a bit disturbing. To say more would be to spoil the story.
Like all art-forms, cinema has its fair share of "golden rules" aimed at steering filmmakers clear of potentially catastrophic mistakes: don't shoot at sea, don't use animals, don't use children... The secret being that if you can transcend the challenges each rule poses, you can make a film that is pure magic. Director Kristof Deak's cast is almost exclusively comprised of 10-11 year-old girls, and he plays them like an elite orchestra. Because the performances are so pure and natural, the storytelling so liquid, this comes across as effortless filmmaking, when in fact it pulls off some of the craft's most daunting challenges.
It will be very interesting to see what Deak and co do next, especially after whatever happens on Oscar Night where, if there is any justice, this little gem will walk away with a little golden statue.
Rogue One (2016)
As Misguided As It Is Redunant
Following a motley gang of rebels on the hunt for the plans to a planet-destroying super- weapon, Rogue One, the fist "stand-alone" Star Wars story, finally lands with a loud thud on our screens. Two films in and Disney's management of this golden franchise is already showing very troubling signs of laziness and risk-aversion. If you've come looking for something a bit more original than The Force Awakens, this will be a a very strange disappointment.
By now the consensus is in that Episode VII, while entertaining, is basically a soft reboot of Episode IV, weighed down a bit by a Mary Sue heroin (despite a personable and able actress in the role). What that installment did do right, however, was nail the tone, and perform at its best when offering new ingredients. Its original characters were, for the most part, interesting and fun to be around, and you wish there were less fan-service to distract you. I mention all this because, strangely enough, Rogue One has the exact opposite problem.
After a title that enigmatically promised X-Wing action, then a trailer campaign implying a kind of Dirty Dozen meets Star Wars, the resulting film is more a limp, flavorless war in space movie with bland, under-cooked characters embarking us on a mission we all know the ending to, and them peppering it very heavy-handedly with enough fan service to handicap any attempt at an original story.
An intriguing new villain is introduced... but the fans want to see Darth Vader (and, supposedly Grand Moff Tarkin from episode IV), even though they have nothing to do beyond look cool and menacing and defang the main villain. Each new character stumbles in and has to be introduced with words: so much for the visual fluency of the original saga. Everyone kinda pouts their way through this, and the mood varies through different grey shades of "subdued" in an effort to be edgy and dark... and instead coming across as completely joyless, a real first for the Star Wars saga.
Unlike Episode VII, the fan service moments will be the only ones to quicken your pulse, never mind their narrative redundancy or lack of sense. Cool! That's Vader's castle... but wait, why are we here? Wasn't Vader established as kinda subordinate to Tarkin in Episode IV? Yeah! We get to see the Death Star fire the big gun up close... Except wasn't Alderaan in Episode IV meant to be a huge surprise? Hey, there's Vader again... dispatching people nobody cares about... And on, and on... Everything "new" in between barely registers, with the exception of Alan Tudyk as K-2SO as a welcome but underused touch of vague humor.
On the strength or these two films, we can expect much of the same coming up. More of the same with fan service coming at the expense of a satisfying narrative. This isn't as inept or ghastly as the prequels by any stretch of the imagination, but boy is it just bland.
See it if you must, but if it's Star Wars in war mode you want, you'd be better off getting a used copy of the Battlefront video game, which probably has more character development and narrative cohesion. At least that will spare you the horrific site of dreadfully CGIed Carrie Fischer and Peter Cushing.
The Jungle Book (2016)
We've hit a point of no return in terms of remakes: the recent announcement of yet another Indiana Jones film, Disney's intention to produce a new Star Wars film every year, and a mooted reboot of Peter and Elliot the Dragon (!) go a long way to showing the complete inspirational bankruptcy of blockbuster filmmaking. And in case that picture isn't sharp enough for you, along comes Jungle Book to crystallize the issue.
The original is among Disney's most perfect creations, and simply reissuing it in theaters might have accomplished what the present abomination did financially, without any of the wasted effort. What we have here is a deconstruction of the original, where every spin on an old idea misses the mark and every new "idea" turns out to be pointless and predictable.
In true flop-fashion, the problems can be traced to before a camera was even unleashed: the casting becomes and end unto itself, despite a weird mismatch between voice and animal or performance. That blend manages to be less convincing than Homeward Bound (and they used real critters). Ben Kingsley barely pulls off Baghera, but Murray and especially Christopher Walken are embarrassing, especially during the latter's cringe- worthy rendition of "I Wanna Be Like You". The real disappointment is poor young Neel Sethi as Mowgli, who is hung out to dry, too often betraying the digital fakery around him.
The throwback moments are mostly appalling, and the additions, all padding, are yawn- inducing: King Louie has a huge temple? Of course it will crumble during a by-the- numbers chase scene, with none of the humor of the original. The film also awkwardly acknowledges its own pointlessness: since the only way to "improve" on the original is to make everything faster, louder and bigger, serpent Ka is bigger than even Anaconda's titular joke was, and Louie could take King Kong in a fight, while the climactic jungle fire setting the scene for Mowgli's showdown with Khan could probably, in this incarnation, be visible from space.
So there you have it, a tale full of sound and fury, told by idiots etc, as the poet said. White noise. Meanwhile, it hardly registers as a blemish on a more recent poet, original author Rudyard Kipling, who would simply be appalled.
Less Fun Than Anyone Could Have Imagined
Five films into their stewardship of the Batman legacy and DC expanded-universe-in- waiting, and we are seeing the serious limits of Christopher Nolan and his team's abilities. What is the most striking is that those flaws stem from what, in any other genre, would constitute a strength (as evidenced by the recent Interstellar): a profound sense of pathos, and fixation with characters who are obsessive and frail.
Batman V Superman is three things in one, and already that should be a bad sign for anyone expecting a satisfying experience beyond mere fan service. It is a new Batman. It is a sequel to Man of Steel. It is also the first Justice League film. it's hard enough to pull even one of these off properly, as Man of Steel sadly demonstrated, but three? Those can hardly be fair expectations, and yet, team DC believes we wanted all this in one helping.
Man of Steel was the dourest Superman film ever made. You could even argue this isn't Superman at all, given his constant scowl, anger and fear, and his apparent disregard for human life, as showcased in a final city leveling rumble that was spectacular as it was non-sensical. Except without it, you could never have this film...
If you thought our new Superman was an emo sad sack, wait until you meet the new raging, nightmare-crazed Batman. Ben Affleck does wonders with slim material, and at least the plot, contrived as it is, gives him genuine reasons to hate the man in the red cape. If you're even awake 90-minutes into this bleak, depressing mess there's even some joy to be had in watching them go at each other, and the moment many people had dreamed of one day seeing on the big screen often comes close to justifying all the effort and expectation... and then suddenly things veer back to a generic climax. The design is a bit of a letdown, especially an underwhelming CGI baddie with unfortunate resemblances to Lord of the Rings' trolls, but the writing is what crucifies the film: if you thought Batman's reasons for hating Superman were a bit flimsy, the moment that brings them together is beyond contrived and ridiculous.
I understand this is all an attempt to go a bit darker and more realistic than the Marvel universe, a willingness to try something different that, in principle, I can only applaud. But must these films be so dull, so charmless? Batman and Superman can only play off each other if they are a bit different. Here there is so much angst on both sides they cancel each other out.
The only moment that conveys any real excitement is the introduction of Gale Gadot's Wonder Woman. Not only does it ratchet up the silliness a bit but it also delivers a real sense of fun that is sadly missing from the rest of the film.
A lot of that is down to Zach Snyder's confused direction, treating each scene as if it were trailer material and strangely mangling the action scenes, none of which have the precision and clarity of Nolan's outings (or even Superman Returns for that matter), but the story on display is also clumsily told. As a result, much of the fancy effects and choreography fall flat because of dramatic stakes that are either murky or downright inexistent, in a way reminiscent - frighteningly so in the case of one dream sequence - of Snyder's own vacuous Sucker Punch.
Please D.C. universe, lighten the tone a bit next time.
Xi you ji: Da nao tian gong (2014)
A Laughable Waste
Loudly heralded by flattering headlines and a record-setting budget (and box office in China, supposedly), The Monkey King crashes onto our screens and torrent servers in all its kitsch glory. Will the verdict be kind? Of course not.
First, let's get back to basics: the legend of Sun Wukong, the Monkey King, is a cornerstone of Chinese folklore and literature, and deservedly so. It is one of the great written human myths, and a large part of its appeal is universal, which would make it an ideal flagship project for a transnational production effort. You could adapt only select bits and end up with a great crowd-pleaser, as was done to hilarious results by Stephen Chow's A Chinese Odyssey.
The present effort aims to tell us the whole thing + prequel-style expansion in the form of a trilogy of 3D blockbusters. Ye shall be judged by the expectations ye set! Though the budget sets a record for China, the quality of the result in terms of effects (be they digital or makeup) is woefully sub-par, and the art direction is a mess, making this a frequently incoherent eyesore.
Then, let's look at the talent involved: Chow Yun-Fat and Donnie Yen's charisma and comic sense (respectively) eclipse anything else thrown up on screen, and might have gobbled up most of the budget. Yen gets away with it, wisely playing it both ways and seemingly the only person involved who knows this is all a big joke. Another contributor who barely gets mention in the comments section is Christopher Young, who's marvelous score annihilates anything composed that year and is worth discovering on its own.
It's worth pausing the sarcasm and shedding a regretful tear, for this whole enterprise could have amounted to something more tasteful - an animated feature could have been stupendous! - yet behold: the worst kind of fiasco, one that escapes financial disaster and thus runs the risk of spawning a whole host of similar horrors. But the real Monkey King is stronger than all that, and since filmmakers can't stay clear of his gravitational pull for long, one can hope in a few years time someone will do him justice.
Avoid this garbage and read the source, preferably while listening to this film's unbelievably great score.
Knight of Cups (2015)
An Embarrassment With Flickers of Genius
Terrence Malick continues his quest to become an increasingly acquired taste, making up for the discrete decades between his second and third films with this hastily conceived latest offering.
Once more assembling an impressive cast, Malick follows a hollow shell of a man in an existential crisis, and here we have the biggest flaw, an unfortunate combination of subject and sensibility: whereas other masters like Scorsese take the otherworldly and make it grounded and relatable, Malick's strength is precisely the opposite, taking the ordinary and injecting it with grace and ethereal majesty that, at its best, can be a profound experience. At worst, it comes across as pretentious and arty for the sake of it. The combination of aloof character and aloof style makes this a hard one to relate to, and the stream-of-consciousness "structure" falls flat, when it soared in Tree of Life, a film grounded in a relatable, primal fear (the loss of a child/sibling).
Everything is left to rest on cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki's virtuoso shoulders, and were he in rookie in need of a show-reel, this would provide him with a never-ending list of shots any lower-level DPs would kill for. But he isn't, and he's worth better than this slim material, and even his great work experimenting with wide-angle-only lenses and the odd GoPro doesn't make this indispensable viewing. You can see a maturing of this style in The Revenant, or put to playful use in Birdman.
Here's hoping that Malick doesn't lose the plot and instead manages to reconnect with more human stories. Rumor has it that the upcoming - at the time of writing - Weightless has more immediacy. One can only hope.
Sad to say you can pass on this one.
Oscar-Bait Crumbling Under Its Worth
Spotlight is based on the true story of a Boston Globe editorial team's efforts to uncover systematic child abuse and abuser protection by the Catholic Church. Hardly fresh news, and a topic that will raise strong emotional reactions, and rightly so. But how does it hold up?
Given the weird emotional volatility surrounding this one, allow me to qualify this review (and its writer): the scandal revisited here is unarguably heinous, as are the many people who took part in perpetuating it. My own feelings about organized religion mean I was only mildly surprised, but then perhaps the subject of the clergy's hypocrisy is worth revisiting, as it has been in entertainment since Moliere's Tartuffe. But this is a film website, the medium is narrative film, and so Spotlight should - and shall, in the longer term - be judged.
This is a film that owes its success and Oscar nominations to its topic and, to a lesser extent, to its ensemble cast. It is also a throw-back to harder-nosed journalism-based films like All The President's Men - a much better, less self-righteous film. The end result however is a bit awkward: first, the structure is wobbly, throwing us in headfirst and assuming perhaps too much familiarity with the events. The character introductions are very rushed, which means it takes more time to build empathy, especially when it comes to the victims. The climax, such as it is, and ensuing denouement are a bit limp culminating in the obligatory white text on black background to tell you succinctly with words what the filmmakers could not achieve with visuals. It makes you wish, as many reviewers have, that this were a documentary.
The cast are uniformly good, with Stanley Tucci and Mark Buffalo the stand-outs, but these are solid, seasoned turns, nothing that cries out "best performance of the year". Technical credits are closer to a TV-movie than a major Hollywood release.
I can't give it credit merely for tackling an easy target from such a safe distance, but I would concede more points if it told its story more fluidly and dared to explore some of the more dangerous angles a bit more, such as police collusion, or that one memorable scene where a guilty priest rationalizes what he did in a way that hints at even worse events. Sadly, this chooses to play things way too safe.
At The Intersection of Taxi Driver and Network, You Have...
There's something very 70s about Nightcrawler, in the best way possible: an anthropologist's fascination for a difficult protagonist (played masterfully by Gyllenhall), a seedy world where everybody is, at best, a shade of grey, and a deeply concerning look at modern consumption.
While it has one foot in the gritty past, technically and thematically, Nightcrawler is very much a creature of the times, from its fascination with gory breaking news, and the technical wizardry on display. Frequent PTA-collaborator Elswitt's nocturnal photography is both stunning and a perfect fit to the story. The supporting cast are all old pros doing their best work in years, not just Paxton as a condescending rival but Renee Russo as a fading news honcho. The latter will make you mourn her recent absence from our screens.
It says a lot then that for all the talent on display and refreshingly unapologetic sleaze of the story, this remains the Jake Gyllenhall show. He gives his all to this weird creature, making him unique and real, but never judging him.
Definitely one of the best films of the year, and a shoo-in for best performance.
The Hateful Eight (2015)
Near-Pitch Perfect Tarantino
It's 10 Little Indians in the snow, except it's a Western and there's 8 of them (so the title suggests) and, 8 films into his career Tarantino has almost made peace with the kind of films he really makes: wonderfully clever B-movies. There is no shame in that, quite the contrary, and the only blemishes on his latest - and undeniably most focuses - opus, are the moments when it tries to be something else.
Hateful Eight is a very claustrophobic chamber piece, locking us up in a suffocating space with some interesting, complicated and unnerving characters that will not be to every audience member's taste. The pure innocence of Basterds' Shoshanna or Django are nowhere to be found, and the closest we come is tough-to-love Hangman Kurt Russell and a top-of-his-game Samuel L. Jackson.
If you came here looking for Django's Mountain Cabin, you're in for some initial confusion. This is a much more intimate, restrained (until the bonkers last hour) beast, and all the better for it. There is dark fun to be had, but there is also a very real anger that makes it more interesting. You will laugh, but often, shortly after and by design, you will wonder whether you should have, and that is the sign of a mature, well-crafted piece of work.
This being Tarantino, his overbearing swagger does intrude once or twice: first, with chapter headings that arguably serve only to break the mounting tension, and second, with the over-hyped use of the Ultra-Panavision format. Though DP Robert Richardson's work here is faultless, the use of the format itself is little more than a gimmick, and neither makes nor breaks the film (unless you've seen the roadshow version in one of several reported instances where the projectionist screwed up). Ennio Morricone's score is effective, but don't go into this expecting the great man's twilight masterpiece, particularly as his most memorable cue is recycled from 1982's The Thing.
In the end, this is one of the best modern screenwriters we have embracing the range of his talent, and applying a more disciplined and patient focus than ever. The result is, in this era of dime-a-dozen prequels, sequels and reboots, a thing of beauty.
It's Our Fault, We Asked For This!
After 10 years - or 32, depending on your regard for the legitimacy of the prequel trilogy - Star Wars is back, and, in the spirit of times, as Giuseppe DI Lampedusa would have put it, it was necessary for everything to change in order for it to remain the same: new studio, new team, new characters... new expanded universe even (more on that later). It's funny then, and sadly not at all surprising, that so many things remain the same as in 1977.
The Empire has survived, in the form the The First Order, and the rebellion is now the Resistance, led by General Leia Organa. A soul-searching stormtrooper (Boyega) saves ace resistance pilot Poe Dameron (Isaac) and important info stored in a droid and stages an escape to a desolate desert planet... Well, if echoes of Episode IV are already a bit startling, it gets worse. It quickly becomes clear why so many directors turned down this dream assignment, as Episode VII isn't as much a chance to play in George Lucas' sandbox as a remake of his original opus. Blame Disney. Blame J. J. Abrahms, he's certainly done this before... the fault, it turns out, is yours.
After the dismal prequels, chock-block of new ideas, some good, some bad, most of them executed horribly, we've howled for movies that resembled the originals more that Disney would have been suicidal to approve anything more original than this, and history will judge Episode VII on how much it emboldens the studio to be more daring, or whether it just confirms the need to just "give fans what they want", more of the same. Time will tell, but, to quote our heroes, I have a bad feeling about this.
What is annoying this time, after the utter cluelessness of Episodes I-III, is the very real talent on display here. The old characters could have stood silently in the background, paychecks safely cashed, but they make a mark, particularly Harrison Ford as Solo, more touching and involved here than he has been for at least a decade. The new characters are just as involving and appealing, particularly John Boyega's Finn and Adam Driver's Kylo Ren. Andy Serkis also makes an impression. Otherwise, the humor is back and it's a thrill to see J.J. Abrams work a scene after the inane telenovela-like blocking of the prequels.
And still, this could have been much more, and our only consolation will have to be that it could have also been worse. The greatest question is, what comes next?
Tonally, we are squarely back in original trilogy mode, the only limit will be the appeal of the characters (mostly successful here) and the caliber of the stories (not so much). It is a bit worrying that Disney has jettisoned all the expanded universe, both because it might set an ugly precedent, and because it does show a fear of risk and cynical approach to a very valuable brand.
And yet... we might be wrong: what little transparency has been displayed so far might be completely honest. It was George Lucas himself who, in an interview, said Disney had rejected all his outlines saying that they wanted to make "one for the fans". Well, this describes Episode VII perfectly. If we could have some fresh ideas with our next helping, we'd truly be thrilled.
« Inspired By » Never Rang Truer
In an age overcrowded by reboots and remakes, re-imaginings and derivative products, it's heartening to see such a creation as Fargo, the TV show. Did this need to exist? Absolutely not, and it smartly avoids any commonality with the original Coen classic beyond the setting and the tone. It is « inspired by » Fargo, in the best sense of the word, because it somehow captures the essence of the Coen's snowy surreal thriller and applies it to arguably a more interesting story.
Season 1 begins in deceptively comfortable territory, very close in spirit to its predecessor and following an underachieving loser with a convoluted, slightly nasty scheme. Here, the winning ingredient, once you get past the perfect emulation of tone and language, is the starring combination of Martin Freeman and Billy Bob Thornton. The former's unfortunately named protagonist is less pathetic than William H Macy's inspiration, and develops a meaner edge. The latter is simply terrifying. It is a strong testament to these two actors' great work here that they manage to outshine the amazing turns from the rest of the cast.
Season 2 goes the True Detective route by starting fresh with new characters and story. Unlike that other show, free from its source, it reaches even greater heights of originality, poetry and madness. The highest compliment one can probably make is that, in an age of quality television, it raises the bar significantly. If it only meets its own standards next year, the upcoming season will be a real treat.
The best thing on the small screen right now.
Terminator Genisys (2015)
Low Expectations Won't Save You
Terminator Genysis is not the worst movie you will ever see, not by a long shot. It often contains what could reluctantly be acknowledged as technical proficiency. It is not the worst movie of all time, but it certainly tries hard to be the stupidest, and is among the most cynical.
Before we move on, we need to rewind, as befits the Terminator saga. With each installment, this originally streamlined story grows more needlessly complicated. The first one was a simple enough tale of a machine set back in time to kill its nemesis before he was born. Brilliant high-concept idea executed beautifully. Terminator 2 threw in a weird paradox we chose to all ignore (Skynet originates itself, which makes very little sense) but everything else was so perfect it hardly mattered. Terminator 3 tried to be a remake of Terminator 2, which is sad because its finest ideas, including a very bleak epilogue, were both original and scarce. Terminator Salvation could not have chosen a more unfortunate title and showed us how much « cooler » Black Hawk Down would have been with robots thrown in and now this.
Terminator Genysis manages to be the worst offender because of three egregious sins (about to be repeated by the new Alien films, so sit tight, fans!): first, it erases « shameful » episodes by throwing parts 1 and 2 into a blender and creating a future exempt of parts 3 and 4. Second, it establishes a cinematic universe, promising future films only die-hard fans will be able to enjoy fully (if at all, as evidenced by this sad effort). Third, it shamefully exploits our nostalgia without even understanding the foundations of what made its inspiration great. The Terminator films are high-concept at its finest. How does this convoluted mess even relate? You need a full page and five flow-charts to summarize the plot, and it still doesn't make sense.
« Genysis » - a landmark in, among many things, Hollywood's abusive relationship with spelling and the English language as a whole - falls flat on its face every time it evokes the older films, which is almost all the time. Every new thing it introduces is worthless and jars with the internal logic of the saga, every old thing it rehashes is recycled appallingly, starting with a woefully miscast Emilia Clarke and Jay Courtney. And, in true flop fashion, the best things about the film are the things that are NOT in the film, such as Grampa Terminator's decades-long undercover stint in the construction industry.
It's a film that thinks it's smart and sophisticated, but isn't. A rehash of a seminal action classic which has nothing new to offer in the action stakes. If as much passion - however misguided - had been put into making this film as went into promoting it, not least by a baffling James Cameron, himself stuck in recycle mode until the end of time now, then perhaps we'd have something decent on our hands. But we don't.
Find something else to do with those two hours of your life.
This is not Mary Poppins' secret spell, or a rare skin condition. It's a graceless blending of words describing the dominant trend in blockbuster filmmaking these days, and its effect is either a gleeful geek-out or 360 degree eye-rolling and fatigue.
In this ocean of remakes and reboots we find ourselves adrift in, it was inevitable that Ian Fleming's 007 would be reborn for the 21st century. Reforged, remade, rebooted, not just continued, even though he had never really left, his longest hiatus being before the seminal Goldeneye. Casino Royale offered a return to basics after the lapses of the late Brosnan outings and the madness of Roger Moore's heyday. Timothy Dalton bond but with slightly less dour charm than that of Timothy Dalton, and even this last proposition is one you can debate at this stage.
So after rebooting Bond with Casino, Bourning him with Quantum of Solace, and throwing Oscar-pedigree crews at him for Skyfall, what can SPECTRE do to charm us but plunder the back-catalog? The clue was in the title, which speaks volumes to fans of Connery-era Bond, but like many nostalgiaspoitation flicks of late, this Bond outing fails to be the many things it wants to be to many audiences. Is it a culmination of the overall narrative that began with Casino Royale? Is it a convoluted and loose remake of the Blofeld-Bond duel films of the late 60s? Or is it an attempt to create a Bond expanded universe that would have a rigid chronology, turning these into cumbersome interlinked episodes rather than discreet treats you could enjoy on their own merits? Or are we just mining the repertoire for nostalgia value?
SPECTRE wants to be all of these things, stumbling more often than not, which is unfortunate because it is at its best when charting its own path, as shown by an ingenious pre-credits sequence. From the opening song, tune included, things dip dramatically, and never quite recover. Nods to the past tend to miss the point, as does a mean but pointless train fight, and a revelation about the key villain which is about as surprising as the Khan reveal from Star Trek Into Darkness. Christoph Waltz does what he can and rises above the material, but there is only so much even he can do. Otherwise Daniel Craig is pretty charmless - veering on the wrong side of rapey at one point - and the Bond girls barely register. Director Sam Mendes managed to get a lot right on his previous outing, but this is probably not one of the Bonds you'll care to revisit anytime soon.
In an age of remakes and reboots - and with the returns of Star Wars and Alien just around the corner - it will suffice to sum this up as « inoffensively » bad. There is skill on display, and the odd idea or two, but we, the audience, deserve better.
Raging Bull (1980)
Craft VS Content
Raging Bull is a portrait of boxer Jake LaMotta, and is often hailed as the greatest film of the 80s. Tellingly, it is most commonly revered by people who have a certain knowledge of or interest in the craft of filmmaking. What could possibly be wrong with that?
Martin Scorsese is the most enduring New Hollywood director after Steven Spielberg, and, unlike the latter, managed to more often than not succeed commercially without giving in to audience tastes and expectations, hence the higher level of respect he receives from critical circles. His earlier work in particular was a perfect combination of raw, powerful storytelling with an encyclopedic knowledge of filmmaking technique, and in Robert De Niro and Paul Schrader he found worthy, reliable collaborators with the talent to create these rage-infused films. It is strange to consider that this particular project was not one he originally wanted to make.
Robert De Niro nursed a fascination with La Motta and threw years of energy into convincing both Schrader and Scorsese to make a film about him, often to the confusion of those around him. During one story meeting, a studio exec asked the dream team why they wanted to make a film lionizing this "cockroach". That is perhaps the heart of the divisive issue.
Raging Bull is a masterpiece of direction, one of the most alluringly shot films you will ever see, and contains some of the best performances ever committed to celluloid. But, expert character study that it is, it is that of a truly repugnant individual, whom it does indeed lionize beyond reason, and upon whom it forces an awkward and undeserved absolution ("I once was blind but now I see"?), the result of a, at the time, personally burnt-out Scorsese forcing his own Christian sense of renewal onto an incompatible character.
Raging Bull is, and should be, mandatory viewing for anyone interested in filmmaking or performance. However, it is more "important" than enjoyable, almost more significant for its technical virtues and the bygone creative era it represents, easy to admire but very hard to love. Its points of contention are the same that feed such heated debate around other classics, most notoriously 2001 A Space Odyssey, worlds apart yet similar in that it succeeds as a work of art while failing as a story and piece of entertainment. Love it or hate it for what it has to say, there is beauty and artistry in how it says it.
To film historians and a majority of critics, Raging Bull ended 80s cinema by opening it, saying all there was to say. But to me, its fellow black-and-white best picture nominee that year (also containing the resounding cry "I am not an animal") is a more affecting, more enduring statement about human nature than Raging Bull turned out to be.
Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
Dante's Inferno, Distilled and Spiked with Cocaine
After a few deceptively fluffy and kid-friendly outings, George Miller returns to the Mad Max universe, 30 years after Mel Gibson turned in the keys to the tune of Tina Turner's "We Don't Need Another Hero". The question on everyone's mind before the first trailer unleashed an internet frenzy was, in this age of needless reboots, has Miller sold out or has he used this opportunity to finally realize his full vision for the famous saga?
By now you will know that the latter is true, but you might not appreciate to what extent, and how little this implies that you are guaranteed to actually like the result. Miller hasn't just provided an update of Mad Max, or even a reboot. In fact this plays like just another episode in the wild life of his antihero, relegating back- story or origins to one or two short opening lines and brief flashes of past violence. It's also much more than a modernized take: it is early 21st century filmmaking taken to its furthest possible extreme.
Since most blockbusters today are at least partially bathed in Michael Bay's patented orange/teal palette, Fury Road pushes that beyond its aesthetic limits, to quasi-fluorescent territory, creating the impression of a very violent Tex Avery cartoon, or at least one viewed while doing some serious drugs. Plot-wise, it doesn't get any more streamlined than this, or economical, and what you're left with is a hellish landscape populated by astonishingly inventive grotesques, conflicted heroes (our protagonist Max is arguably not THE hero of his own film) and a sustained action sequence.
If this sounds like something you wouldn't enjoy, don't waste your time. If the trailer had you hyperventilating though, what awaits is pure nirvana. The action - most of it the result of practical effects and stunts - sets an unprecedented standard, as does the level of perverse originality in the baddies' physical and moral decrepitude: even in the hallowed company of other Mad Max entries, these are some weird freaks. Finally, the lead duo is pitch-perfect. Most of the attention has fallen on Charlize Theron's fearless Furiosa, but special mention should go to a very subdued Hardy, who beautifully anchors the film and gives it an almost calm, simmering center. Whether grumbling at sights of his stolen gear or fighting for his life in one of the meanest brawls in cinematic history, he makes us believe in this twisted universe, and feel the pain.
This is a journey through hell, Dante's inferno without the sanctimoniousness: distilled to its essence and spiked with cocaine. A wilder ride you will not find this year, perhaps even this decade.
Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014)
Subtle Brilliance or Fatal Indecisiveness?
Ridley Scott seems to be on an odd roll, one that perhaps has been foreshadowed by the rest of his career for some time: ideas have now come before structure. This is the root of why people seem to be very conflicted about Prometheus, The Counsilor and now Exodus, and while the later is by far the better film, its religious component makes it an obvious magnet for controversy.
But forget about theology, how does it measure up as a film, as entertainment and art? Easy question, difficult answer. Bale does an unexpectedly tender and likable Moses, and the always-dependable Edgerton might well be the best Ramses I've seen so far. For all the epicness unleashed at times and implied by the advertising, it is a very intimate film, much more-so than any version of this tale we've seen to date, and that is a good thing. It is beautiful to behold, but in a way that screams of a seasoned hand at the tiller, mostly absent self-conscious pyrotechnics. The presentation of the plagues and more supernatural occurrences allows you to believe, but also strongly doubt, and are perhaps all the more terrifying for it.
On paper this has all the makings of a stellar masterpiece, but... what happened during editing? At 144 minutes, the film manages to feel both overlong at times and too short, and we can safely assume that an earlier 4 hour cut has something to do with this. This is most keenly felt in the film's first half-hour, where Moses (Bale)'s relationship with adoptive parents Seti (Turturo) and Tuya (Weaver) is hinted at but very rushed, as are these two fine actors' screen times, proportionally to their billing, another sign of problems in post-production. There's a longer, and better film in here, much like there was with Kingdom of Heaven, and hopefully we will see it one day. If we do, the result will surpass even the aforementioned film, unhampered as Exodus is by a weak leading man.
Finally, a word on the religious orthodoxy of it all. As an areligious viewer - one who really liked the much more conservative Prince of Egypt (1999) and Ten Commandments (1956), by the way - it's easier for me to take the events as presented here at face value, and to accept them within the context of a very real world, whereas the two other cited films seemed firmly rooted in legend or myth. And fundamentally, the film accomplishes that by virtue of sticking close to its main character, whose development a longer, richer cut would have further emphasized.
This is nowhere near the fiasco many claimed it to be, nor is it a 100% satisfying experience. It is a very intriguing portrait with some interesting ideas, one that would be much easier to accept were Scott to play his cards with the frankness of say, Peter Jackson, and pick his battles in editing more decisively.
Keep your fingers crossed for that extended cut then.
A Beautiful Void
Samsara picks up where filmmaker Ron Fricke left off over a decade ago with his landmark Baraka, and is arguably every bit the equal of its esteemed predecessor. Before you wonder at the apparent mismatch between this comment and my rating indulge me...
Both Samsara and Baraka contain haunting imagery. In the former case, whether it be a human swirl in Mecca, the clash of modern and primitive of African tribesman staring into the camera with an AK47 in hand, or, best of all, a nightmare-inducing performance by artist Olivier De Sagazan, parts of it will stay with you for a long time. On the whole, nobody can fault the visuals, largely justifying their rare and unforgiving capture-format, not to mention the ordeal it must have been to plan this multi-continental shoot.
Sadly, Fricke fails to make it all amount to something intelligent. We've already seen odes to nature in the wake of destructive industrialization, most effectively in the Fricke- lensed Reggio-Glass Qatsi films. The argument was already rather simplistic then, it is dangerously muddled now: Fricke seems very partial to the beauty of nature and tribal ritual (with a strong positive bias towards Buddhism) and dead-set against modern isolation/Western industrialism. Yet some of his finest images contradict his own values: in the aforementioned case of bushmen holding machine-guns, which part of the image is meant to horrify us? The modern weapon ravaging a "pure" culture, or the idea of humans living in such prehistoric squalor and superstition in the 20th century? And are the monumental swarm around the Kaaba or the indulgence-sponsored interiors of the Vatican meant to be celebratory or cautionary? These questions might be provocative, but then that means doing the heavy lifting for the filmmakers.
It all amounts to a collection of first-rate images, each of which asks an often interesting question, edited into an often confused and immature muddle. But is it worth seeing, if only once? Absolutely.
The Killers (1964)
A Lean Mean Piece of Work
Much like the 40s Lancaster vehicle, this Don Siegel-directed flick takes Hemingway's short story as a starting point to a noir classic. On paper, the differences are relatively minute, but in execution, these could not be further apart.
Gone is the scale and class of the gorgeous B&W original, and in comes a gritty, grainy, dynamic cinematic pit-bull. It's not Siegel's most polished work, but it might just be his most inventive and playful, from a cringe-worthy opening scene in a clinic for the blind to a coldly pessimistic ending by way of racetrack madness and hanging femme fatales out of windows. Siegel makes the most of a modest budget and, as in most of his work, uses it to create a pedestal for his cast and their performances. And what a cast...
It takes too many expletives to praise Lee Marvin in general, and especially here, so if you have any interest in him, go see this now. What you also get but hadn't bargained for, is a superbly reptilian villain from Ronald Reagan (!?!), who also shares a scene for the ages with a scheming Angie Dickinson. Much of the fuss around this film tends to be made in regards to a psychotic Clu Gulager, and it is well deserved, but that would be overlooking the man who anchors the whole show: John Cassavetes. Beyond giving the proceedings a strange aura of respectability, he generously gives it a tragic sense of reality that makes the surrounding characters more believable.
You often find people compare this to Pulp Fiction when grasping for film references. This probably sets up unfair expectations, not least of which the idea that a streamlined, 90-minute film noir might have anything in common with a 150- minute "epic". But it is indeed pulp, and of the highest order. It is also, arguably a better film.
A little diamond in the rough, worth seeking out.
The Desolation of Nostalgia
Peter Jackson finally caps his nearly 2-decade stint in Middle Earth (not counting the odd hiatus here and there) with his shortest film since the late nineties, two and a half hours of "pay-off". I use brackets because the narrative foundations are much less solid than they were in The Return of the King.
In terms of action, Jackson outdoes himself, mostly foregoing the epic sweep of the Rings trilogy for a big messy brawl, though with a sense of geography that helps you keep track of who is where and trying to do what. His inventiveness in these scenes also gives you glimpses of what the Hobbit could have been had it chosen to be a more compact, fun and silly adventure story: dwarf lords riding battle-pigs, war-goats climbing a mountain-fortress, Legolas using a giant bat as a parachute and a demented fight on a collapsed tower (this one is worth the price of admission alone) are all sights to behold, pure entertainment... Jackson certainly has not forgotten how to direct movies. Only how to write them.
Part 1 made a whole fuss about dragons and teased us with shadows and a giant eye, while wasting time in Hobbiton and Rivendel. Part 2 committed the even greater sin of giving us a bit of dragon and denying us his titular desolation, while throwing in a useless love story and more Rings setup intrigue we didn't need - and the less said about Beorn, the better. Along comes part 3, swiftly dispatching the great Smaug before titles even appear on screen to focus on a battle right out of the book's footnotes. Even the title is disingenuous - again! - as of the five armies, two are of orcs and count as the same, and another isn't an army but a crowd of refugees.
The spectacle might be near faultless, but the structure is fatally flawed, cramming in more Lord of the Rings setup and more minor characters devoid of payoff. Now that it is all said and done, making two films out of the Hobbit could have worked, and produced tight and fun experiences. Stretching it to three has resulted in a completely indulgent narrative mess, which allows itself to lose sight of its strongest assets. It's mind-boggling how little of Martin Freeman's Bilbo you actually see in films named after him...
More and more, I hear people compare these films to the Star Wars prequels. While the Hobbit installments are nowhere near the complete artistic disaster that those films where, it does underline the utter pointlessness of prequels. We might want more of the same, especially if it moves the story forward and shows us new things, but we don't need setup for things we've already seen, and perhaps this was inevitable with Jackson at the helm: an irrepressible, natural desire to "tie it all together". Every little thing that turned the Hobbit into a prequel saga to Lord of the Rings made it suffer, and you can't help but imagine what Guillermo Del Toro and a fresh perspective might have done.
Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
A Glimmer of Hope, However Faint...
Despite its smart casting and often undeniable craftsmanship, the Marvel Cinematic Universe (TM) has really been testing my patience of late, and what was fresh in 2008 is starting to feel stale and contrived. Marvel has its story lines so tightly intertwined that every film feels forced to reference at least 2 others in the franchise at this point, and we've reached a point of suffocation. Not helping matters any is a sense that they're basically making the same film again and again, even if they're mostly making it very well.
So, on the Guardians of the Galaxy... finally a universe mostly divorced from the Avengers (back to that in a minute) and feeling worlds away from that studio's recent output. Fun, cheeky, self-aware and with much more memorable characters (Groot and the Raccoon being the standouts) than your standard superhero fare, Guardians is at its best when it really lets go and embraces its silliness. It also boasts an endlessly hummable soundtrack.
Marvel being Marvel, however, the result is much less perfect than the current IMDb rating would have you imagine. Reused plot tropes are legion, from a distant demigod underwritten super-villain (+ an arch-villain confusingly introduced with no bearing on the plot) to yet another "destroy-a-city" climax, Guardians is often handicapped by its narrative similarity to preceding films, and you can't help but wish it had been released before all its mostly inferior cousins. Thankfully though, it is denied the cruel fate Captain America was given, force-projected as he was into the Avengers time period for the sake of corporate synergy.
Is this a great film? No. But it is an often very entertaining one, with hugely likable characters, and it offers a glimmer of hope, however faint, that Marvel might relax its centralized creative hold and allow for more original ideas to break through. If that ever happens, the age of superheroes will truly be one of movie magic.
A Flawed But Awe-Inspiring Film
Christopher Nolan and CO have done it again: this is undoubtedly the event movie of the year. Hyped, magnificent to behold, brazen, emotional and filled with ideas. For all that though, and despite its many qualities, it is closer to The Dark Knight Rises than it is to Inception.
First, the good, and - lucky us - that means "great": McConnaughy effortlessly anchors this sprawling cosmic story and makes you care every inch of the way, without being too perfect a hero. Visually this is often a feast without being suffocating, due in no small part to a very clever camera-anchoring aesthetic which makes the space scenes both breathtaking and believable. You believe you are watching NASA footage of the future. Special mention to Matt Damon and Anne Hathaway, whose characters might have come across as silly caricatures in lesser hands. Emotionally too, this is an often touching, sometimes heartbreaking film.
What really seems to strike a cord with audiences around the world, is how the film tackles the mind-bending issues of relativity and our insignificance as a species, while never losing track of its emotional core. To its credit it chooses to focus very intently on the idea that what is best for an individual and what is best for a species as a whole can be very strongly opposed.
The film harks back to 2001 and Solaris (two very different films) in some of the ideas it addresses, but manages to have more humanity than the former, and more scope than the latter. In fact, in warning us of our folly and celebrating our ingenuity in times of desperation, it manages to have its cake and eat it to. No mean feat, and all the more satisfying an experience for it.
Now, for the bad, and perhaps this takes multiple viewings to sink in: cleverly crafted as the film is, this comes more as an afterthought. If one chooses to scratch a bit beneath the surface, there are glaring plot and logic holes (one involving an obviously doomed choice of planet, the other a classic chicken/egg time travel paradox which is unfortunately central to the plot). You could look past these and even explain them away, but they could easily have been addressed, as well as one or two incredibly stupid things Nolan makes his characters say and do. Hans Zimmer's score is also at times overbearing and awkwardly loud in the mix, making one wonder what this could have been in the hands of someone like James Newton Howard or even Philip Glass.
Anyone who has read Yukinobu Hoshino's peerless "2001 Nights" manga will have already seen many of the same ideas and settings explored better elsewhere, and perhaps that is partially the point, to fan the flame of curiosity, and get people to seek such sources out. A blockbuster that can make you both alarmed and proud as a species, while making you thirst for more about quantum physics, cosmology and the possibility of space travel deserves every accolade it gets.
This is not the flawless masterpiece many would have you believe, but it touches brilliance more than once, and its rewards are immense. As an event movie, particularly in an age of dull sequels, this is so much more than we could hope for!