Friday, 1 August 2014

'Guardians of the Galaxy', 'Dawn of the Planet of the Apes', 'Edge of Tomorrow', 'Maleficent', '22 Jump Street', 'Of Horses and Men', and 'Grace of Monaco'

First post here in a very long time and likely my last for an even longer while, as I'm moving to Spain - and to a place with no cinema. Before I do, I'm going on a road trip around the US this month, so maybe I'll use this blog as a place to keep some kind of travel diary. Haven't decided yet. At any rate, my film watching has really slowed down this year to the point where I'm not even seeing a film every week. This review round-up represents every new film I saw at the cinema between now and that previous update in May (although I did somehow find time to watch 'X-Men' three times!).

'Guardians of the Galaxy' - Dir. James Gunn (12A)

Representing the biggest risk for Marvel since their shared movie universe began, 'Guardians of the Galaxy' is hardly based on household name characters considering the company's deep bench of well-known characters. In fact, until relatively recently Star-Lord (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Rocket (a gun-toting raccoon voiced by Bradley Cooper), Drax (wrestler Dave Bautista) and Groot (a tree-like creature voiced by Vin Diesel) were not even especially well known to superhero comic book fans, with that incarnation of the space-faring anti-heros not appearing until 2008, coincidentally the year Marvel kicked off their own movie studio with the first 'Iron Man'. Yet the movie, directed and written by a similarly left-field choice in James Gunn, looks set to be a huge hit with audiences due in no small part to a whip-smart and irreverently funny screenplay and fine comic performances across the board. It goes without saying that's in addition to some great, hi-octane action and immersion into a colourful and imaginative world.

It's primarily about a group of misfit characters coming together with the villain of the piece Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace) only a couple of steps up from Christopher Eccleston's forgettable Malekith in last year's 'Thor: the Dark World', but the baddies and fantastical, world-threatening mcguffins work as required as the loose framework around which to pin a hugely enjoyable combination of strange characters. By the end you not only understand who each of these people is but also believe they've been through enough together to form deep bonds of camaraderie and friendship. It's also the funniest Marvel movie yet, very much accentuating the latter part in action-comedy even more so than Shane Black's frequently hilarious 'Iron Man 3', with a lot of really fun character business between the scenes of colourful, awesome stuff exploding.

When the film was announced a couple of years back, it was regarded as a make or break movie for Marvel's growing cinematic universe: can the studio that started with the (relatively) gritty and grounded 'Iron Man' convince us of a talking raccoon and tree double-act? There was no going back and I'm sure the spectre of Jar Jar Binks must have loomed over the project, at least for nervous studio executives. Well they've more than gotten away with it and, after this, you'd have to wonder if there's too much in the company's comic book continuity they couldn't now bring to the screen with well-placed confidence.

'Dawn of the Planet of the Apes' - Dir. Matt Reeves (12A)

Not as tightly focussed or emotionally satisfying as Rupert Wyatt's 2011 'Rise of the Planet of the Apes' - the prequel movie for which this is the direct sequel - as it broadens the focus from one rapidly evolving ape, Caesar (Andy Serkis), to a whole array of primates and significantly less interesting human characters, but Matt Reeves' 'Dawn of the Planet of the Apes' is exciting and filled with great moments. The opening 20 or so minutes are particularly breathtaking, as the film opens on an organised and socialised ape hunting party communicating in sign language whilst chasing deer through the Muir Woods near San Francisco. All the scenes between the apes are really well done, technically and in terms of storytelling, with Caesar and his brethren clearly compelling enough to carry an entire film if Fox so wished, even though it would be a clear break from the apes versus humans formula of the series.

The human characters, led by Jason Clarke and an underutilised but perfectly cast Gary Oldman, are not bad by any stretch of the imagination, but they suffer by comparison to the more charismatic and fascinating apes. Also upstaging the human cast is a brilliantly realised post-apocalyptic San Francisco, which looks seamless and very real, almost as if they'd trashed the real city even if it must in reality be combination of sets and CGI. My only real criticism of the thing is in the way the central rivalry between Caesar and the abused former lab chimp Koba is resolved, which is impossible to discuss here without major spoilers. That aside, it's an entertaining, large scale sequel which lives up to its predecessor in terms of visual effects and scope even if it doesn't surpass it in terms of character development and heart. Which isn't to say it lacks those things either: I just like 'Rise of the Planet of the Apes' a lot.

'Edge of Tomorrow' - Dir. Doug Liman (12A)

Criminally overlooked this summer by audiences who've become increasingly sick of Tom Cruise over the last decade or so, 'Edge of Tomorrow' is a genuinely smart and thoroughly entertaining piece of high concept sci-fi which takes its cues from video games and features Bill Paxton at his sarcastic, army man best. It also stars Emily Blunt as a highly capable and supremely badass soldier who used to have the strange alien power since acquired by Cruise's combat-shy press officer: an ability to come back to life after being killed, waking up in the same point about a day earlier a la 'Groundhog Day'.

It's slick and fast-paced and it even features a gratuitous scene of Cruise riding a motorcycle through London - something which might have been annoying once upon a time, at the height of his popularity and star power, but which is now so clearly ridiculous that it's swung round into near greatness. It comes unstuck in the finale, which ditches the gimmick in a misguided attempt to up the stakes, when all you really want to see at that point is a sort of perfect playthrough of the entire day, but it gets far more right than wrong and takes itself the right amount of seriously to work.

'Maleficent' - Dir. Robert Stromberg (PG)

If all you want to 'Maleficent' is Angelina Jolie chewing the scenery and doing a strange British accent then you'll be very happy. However, as a huge fan of the 1959 Disney version of 'Sleeping Beauty' - which this purports to be a retelling of from the point of view of the iconic villain - it felt like a missed opportunity. Particularly as it takes the position that the original was propaganda and straight-up lies perpetrated by the evil king (the only genuinely bad performance ever from Sharlto Copley), thereby retelling the story with major differences rather than merely colouring in the edges and adding depth to the baddie. It also removes iconic elements, such as Maleficent turning into that awesome dragon in the last act (instead a shapeshifting familiar played by Sam Riley does that bit, to underwhelming effect) and, though at odds with the more sinister tone of the piece (the breaking of the title character's wings plays like a truly horrific date-rape scenario) the movie retains the comic relief fairy characters - here played with unsettling motion capture technology that renders them unintentionally disgusting and frightening.

Another massive problem is that by seeking to add depth and explanation to a fairytale that only works because it's vague and features characters who are broad archetypes the movie renders Princess Aurora completely annoying and simple-seeming in her constant, fairy-mandated happiness, whilst King Stefan's decision to protect his daughter by sending her far away from the palace, to a cottage right on the border with Maleficent's forest domain does not hold up well to even minimal scrutiny. It's also a sad fact that, as great a character actor as she is, nobody has ever seen Imelda Staunton and thought "there's somebody whimsical and fun", with her casting as the main kooky fairy particularly jarring. Though she undeniably looks the part - something this whole projected seems entirely predicated upon - Jolie is also not at her best here, turning Maleficent even more resolutely into a cartoon even as the film wants so desperately to flesh her out. The whole thing also has that ugly, over-designed Tim Burton's 'Alice in Wonderland' production design that is a far cry from the minimalism and stylistic elegance of Eyvind Earle's work on the classic animation.

'22 Jump Street' Dir. Chris Miller & Phil Lord (15)

Coming directly off their huge success with 'The Lego Movie', co-directors Chris Miller and Phil Lord have now firmly established themselves as two of Hollywood's top talents in the realm of comedy movies. Adding to their earlier success with the original 'Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs' and break-out live action hit '21 Jump Street', the duo clearly understand funny, whether it's an animation for children or sex, violence and expletive ridden fare for adults (or at least older kids). '22 Jump Street' is another great example of the sort of smart, joyful and zany (in a good way) thing they do, subverting cliches and making self-aware jokes about cop movies and sequels along the way. Much like the original film - a re-tooled adaptation of a widely reviled Johnny Depp TV series from the 80s - this sequel is comfortably better than it has any cause to be.

Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum are again really fun to watch as two cops sent undercover to infiltrate a college for a sting operation and unlikely BFFs. Like the first one, this is primarily the story of a sweet and sincere friendship and that's where most of the fun comes from. Tatum in particular is hilarious and charmingly dumb as the football playing jock of the team. Ice Cube also returns in scene-stealing form as their ballbusting boss, whilst relative unknown Wyatt Russell is perfectly cast as the easygoing ball player who nearly breaks up the central bromance.

'Of Horses and Men' - Dir. Benedikt Erlingsson (15)

A series of tangentially connected short stories revolving around, naturally enough, humans and their relationship with horses in one isolated Icelandic community, 'Of Horses and Men' is downbeat with an odd sense of humour. It also contains far more sex and death than you might expect, with most the characters, horse and human, not surviving their story unscathed (if at all).

At first, the opening story seemed to me to be a savage critique of the way men treat women, as trophies and extensions of their own pride and ego, as one horse owner struts around the village on his favourite female horse before shoot that horse after she is set upon by a randy stallion from another field. It's the idea that women can be seen as damaged goods, sullied by sexual contact, whereas the male who initiated the encounter is not punished or in any way demeaned by the ordeal. There's also a really refreshing and progressive story about a young, Swedish woman who is depicted as the most competent and dedicated horse wrangler in a community otherwise populated by self-destructive drunks and irate farmers. But then the end credits proudly state that the film is made by horse owners to express a love of horses, so maybe it's really only about horses after all. It's an odd one.

'Grace of Monaco' - Dir. Olivier Dahan (PG)

It's the terrible, car crash movie you heard bombed with critics at this year's Cannes Film Festival, but the worst thing about 'Grace of Monaco' is that it manages to be bad without ever being particularly funny with it. This is no 'Diana' in terms of providing derisory sniggers, though I'd argue it is a worse movie. Certainly in terms of narrative structure. For all its faults and however dubious it is as a work of supposed biography, 'Diana' at least has a coherent structure and tight focus, which sees that particular tabloid princess falling in love with a surgeon in the lead-up to her premature death in 1997. But 'Grace of Monaco' is a confused affair, spending an equal amount of time with Tim Roth's Ranier III (as he fights against Charles de Gaulle's bid to make the principality pay taxes to the French state) as it does with Nicole Kidman's pouty movie star-turned-royal. With the exception of Parker Posey's "why is she in this?" turn as a sinister French maid, the film is just utterly boring.

An anti-tax, hilariously anti-French (all the Monacans are played as English, whilst de Gaulle and his compatriots are almost Pythonesque in their Frenchness) screed in which an American celebrity has to learn to become a model princess, it ends with Kidman giving a rambling speech that somehow averts a war between France and Monaco by utterly charming de Gaulle, which is not only unearned but makes no sense at all. Roth and Kidman are phoning it in, the sets look sparse and lifeless, the cinematography is like something out of a bad perfume ad and it also boasts one of the worst big screen portrayals of Alfred Hitchcock ever seen - which is saying a great deal. 'Grace of Monaco' is horrendously awful. A film where nothing is right at any level of the production, even by accident. Avoid it.

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