31 December 2014

Favourite 10 Films of 2014

So here it is... another year. It seems like a pretty decent twelve months of film even if I have been increasingly slack with my viewing and review writing. I will do a better job summoning the requisite inspiration and bursts of creativity next year. In the meanwhile, below are stats for 2014, thanks to my endless desire to maintain a viewing list on Letterboxd - everything watched in order of viewing here: http://letterboxd.com/davidhunt14/list/2014-films-watched/

221 - total films watched
75 - films watched at the cinema (the lowest since 2009)
100 - films released in 2014 watched
0 - films watched more than once in 2014

And so, in alphabetical order, these are my favourite 10 films of 2014 (favourite does not objectively equate to being the best, rather these are the films I liked the most:

12 Years A Slave

Off the bat this has to be said - Steve McQueen is easily one of the best directors operating in the business today. I was making such bold claims when lamenting his inexplicable lack of awards nominations for his superb work with Shame, but 12 Years A Slave finds McQueen in a more broadly appealing mindset, tempering some of his wilder creativity, but knowing exactly when to make things challenging for the viewer (one scene with a tree, rope and unflinchingly static camera still lingers after almost twelve months). Chiwetel Ejiofor superbly guides this man through utmost likeability, anguished pain and desperation. The power comes from avoiding that Hollywood righteous nobility that's usually applied, whilst letting the rawness take hold and making the audience work too. Again, I cannot wait to see what McQueen does next.

Birdman (or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

There's a cadence to Birdman. You can feel its pattern pounce around the scenes of Michael Keaton, Edward Norton and Emma Stone superbly sparring through some of the best dialogue of the year. There's wit, humour, intelligence and a pacing that never lets up. You can see its presence as the camera stalks its way around the backstage area of the theatre setting, constantly in motion, always voyeuristically following and shifting the focus of its attention. You can hear it through the incredible score of loose, free jazzy drumming, constantly modulating to the rhythm of the scene. It's a style like very little you've heard in a film before. This all coalesces into a roiling nest of creativity that's thrilling to experience, much like most of the films of director Alejandro González Iñárritu. Birdman marches to its own beat and that sets if loftily above almost every other film released this year.


Much has been made of director Richard Linklater's decision to film Boyhood over a twelve year period in order to keep the same cast, and sure it's a gimmick and a hell of a marketing angle, but it's key to making the film work. Why? Because you know you're watching the same cast and not another child actor of the right age, inserted at the right time to mildly distract. It gives the film the weight it deserves, even when much of what we see feels oh so slight. It's a snapshot of youth. The fleeting ennui of every year of our existence as we shape, grow and never really know it. The insouciance of Ellar Coltrane makes this all the more effective, as does seeing his parents gradually morph their own lives. It's a quietly affecting film that slowly creeps up on you and takes hold.

Cold In July

Three small, dark, somewhat under the radar thrillers stood out this year. I was a fan of Blue Ruin's brooding revenge plotting and The Guest's confidently obfuscating bluster, but the one that stood out the most, that I regularly recommended to people, is Cold In July. It's a film of two halves that's equally as good either side. Anchored by Michael C. Hall playing a nervy against type to the character that he's renowned for, it's pervaded by a gripping darkness that feels unclean as it reveals itself. Yet it operates with a confident slickness and an in-your-face eighties synth score that really drives all this home. The presence of both Don Johnson and Sam Shephard only adds to the quality that's on display here.

The Grand Budapest Hotel

Hands down the best cast of the year. And quite probably the most fun film of the year. Of course Wes Anderson's films can be an acquired taste for some, being an overload of quirk and whimsy, but with The Grand Budapest Hotel he just completely nailed that mysterious je ne sais quoi he possesses. A highly enjoyable story that plays up to his screwball sensibilities and fits this strange European mountainous setting of another era, there's the usual manner of weird antics and impressive technical skill. But where it really comes alive is in Ralph Fiennes' M. Gustav. This might just be the role Fiennes was born to play, darling - an indomitable character who you can't imagine any other actor coming close to bringing to life in such a fantastically convincing way. He is the glue that holds everything together, making this quite possibly my favourite film of the year. 

Guardians of the Galaxy

The other film competing for most fun of the year... Guardians of the Galaxy is the film Marvel has been needing to make for the last three years. A deliriously entertaining space adventure that offers the inevitable hyperactive glossy action, but really flies thanks to the superb characterisation. That we're made to care about a talking racoon, a tree and other misanthropes, is testament to the writing and perfectly judged humour. Not to mention the casting and voicework. Ignore the plaudits misdirected at Captain America: The Winter Soldier (lots of words on that here), this is Marvel finally cutting loose again in the exciting manner of their first films from 2008 -2011. The best big-budget blockbuster of the year.
[Read my full review here]


Her represents something of a dystopian nightmare for the future - that is if the continued prospect of actual physical interaction and engagement with people offers any kind of importance for you. It's really a love story, buried within this perfectly utopian world of sunlight, comfortable success and technology intended to control our everyday existence. Joaquin Phoenix's sad-hearted susceptibility is equal part sympathy inducing and sweet, as Scarlett Johanssen's voice mellifluously worms it's way deeper into his being and around our ears. Spike Jonze orchestrates this balance with finesse as we can only ponder if this is a future we're setting ourselves up for - and if it's one we even want. If only more future based films (under broad strokes it can be called science fiction) were to strike such an appealingly low-key approach.

[Read my full review here]


Arguably the most anticipated film of the year, yet inevitably one of the most divisive. Regardless of your thoughts on Christopher Nolan, he is a director intent on making thoughtful, original, hugely-budgeted features and for that he should be applauded. Interstellar goes heavy on the spectacle with it's stunning visual approach and the most impactful sound design heard all year (honestly, what dialogue issue??), with 70mm IMAX experience mandatory. But thankfully it also elects to go heavy on the story and the physics. Is everything always completely understandable without a scientific degree? No. Do you have to suspend your disbelief at times? Yes. Is it emotionally overwrought? Sure. Would it be as good without all these aspects? Probably not. I came out the cinema feeling pretty much blown away. All these weeks later and I'm still a little in awe. 

Only Lovers Left Alive

Films that exist as a mood piece can either be devastating when they connect, or frustratingly boring when they don't. Only Lovers Left Alive bit me. It's slight gothic vibe married to the wastelands of Detroit and the exotic alleys of night-time Morocco present a different flavour for the vampire genre. This is the ethereal longing of hundreds of years lost in the darkness. The literate, suicidal emptiness of excessive existence when it's forever hampered by loneliness and the limitations of your power. Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton are perfectly cast, whilst Jim Jarmusch's typically laid back direction lets us wallow in this woozy atmosphere. The haunting soundtrack by Jarmusch's band SQÜRL and Jozef van Wissem lingers with a precipitous weight for a long long time. This is the romantic epithet of vampyric existence.

The Sacrament

As a horror fan it's fair to say this year has been exceptionally lacking, but The Sacrament offered something related to the genre that impressed. My severe appreciation of Ti West's The House of the Devil is well documented (read that here), whilst the more subtle ghostliness of The Innkeepers satisfied too, so it's pleasing to see West shooting for something different. The Sacrament is pitched in a totally different environment, utilising a docudrama, found footage-esque approach (it works), yet he retains the very best element of his work - that masterful slow, slow, turn the screw tension. The best approach is of course to watch knowing absolutely nothing and let it do it's work. To say more would be a crime, other than this was the most disquieting film I saw all year, packing a punch like nothing else. Chances are, you will hate it.


To be considered, films must've been released in UK cinemas (or direct to home entertainment channels) within the calendar year of 2014. Birdman, although widely receiving a 1st January 2015 release in the UK, was released in a small handful of London cinemas on 26th December 2014, justifiably allowing it's inclusion on either years list. Leave a comment below if you want to tell me your favourites or commend / berate my taste. 

15 September 2014

Review: The Guest

(Dir: Adam Wingard, 2014)

It’s curious how a film that doesn’t fully work can you leave you with a certain amount of hope for that director’s next film. That was definitely the case with Adam Wingard’s You’re Next, a well shot and mostly well executed horror film that too easily succumbs to genre tropes, frustrating plotting and tendency to throw in comedy at the very great expense of the horror. (That latter point is something that always frustrates as ‘horror’ and ‘comedy’ are two words that don’t go together.) But depsite those issues there was definite hope that something very good could come from Wingard. Say hello to The Guest, which happily proves that point to be so.

As with You’re Next, there’s a very satisfactory build up that wastes no time. We’re introduced to David (Dan Stevens) and although the Peterson family are welcoming when he says the right things and can prove what he’s saying, the audience always feels like this is a veneer, yet we’re not sure exactly what we’re looking for beneath it and how dark it might be. This is a strength that allows the film to take the viewer in whichever direction it chooses and where it eventually goes may frustrate some but it’ll inevitably delight others. Stevens imbues David with this beguiling appeal where you want him to be your friend, family member, partner, anything. The electrifying bar scene is the perfect example of this, offering an impudent confidence alongside the dutiful protectorate nature. Yet when he's on his own you never quite know what you're going to see. The character is engaging from his first appearance on screen until the last.

Where the story ends up is satisfying by playing back to the horror roots, whilst the explanation is less edifying, but that can be forgiven because the film still manages to deliver. It’s all shot with a warmth that makes it welcoming, but the score/soundtrack really adds a huge amount to the overall effect, channeling the classic synth work of the 80's it’s cleverly edited around the film and to see Steve Moore as the man responsible for that is hugely satisfying (check out the driving synthscapes of his band Zombi or his more ethereal synth based solo work). This all completes the package of a continually interesting and very entertaining film that wouldn’t be half of this if it wasn’t for the magnetism of the lead. The Guest is a very welcome visitor.

14 September 2014

Review: Sin City: A Dame To Kill For

(Dir: Robert Rodriguez & Frank Miller, 2014)

Some films just leave you begging for a sequel. Some films leave you begging for a sequel that you think will never happen. Sin City was just that film. The closest anyone has come to replicating a comic on screen, with every frame looking like the panels from the page explicitly brought to life. It’s a visual tour-de-force that manages to resurrect the hard-boiled noir of a bygone era and supplant it into a hellhole full of corrupt cops, hookers and hideous hard-men with hearts. Nothing quite like it has come along in the nine years since it was released and director Robert Rodriguez long teased it would happen but continually failed to deliver. Suffice to say, the day Sin City: A Dame To Kill For arrived in cinemas, I was there for the first showing. 

Some films leave you a little disappointed when they don’t live up to their predecessor. The challenge for Sin City: A Dame To Kill For wasn’t a hard one – deliver more of the same and fans will be happy. It aims for that with gusto but manages to somewhat miss the mark. The distinctive visual style remains fully in place and watching the black and white, colour accented scenes unfurl on a big screen is a joy to behold. Thus the problem lies with the stories. Mickey Rourke’s Marv is a huge asset and his recurrence kicks the film off nicely, but none of these stories offer anything close to those in the original film. 

New character Johnny (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) offers the next most interesting story, probably because Gordon-Levitt is an actor perfectly suited to the noir style. Yet Josh Brolin, here reprising Clive Owen’s Dwight from the original, should work in this setting but struggles. Partly because the story is far weaker this time, but he lacks the electricity of how Owen played off both Benicio Del Toro and Rosario Dawson, and a lot of personality is lost in the process. It's a blunt imitation not aided by him having to work with Eva Green’s over-played and overly naked femme fatale (yes I’m complaining about a very attractive women being too continuously naked on screen). Whilst the less said about the new/continuing story with Jessica Alba’s Nancy the better, as it proves having the focus on Bruce Willis' Haritgan last time is what really made it so engrossing.

It's unfortunate that Sin City: A Dame To Kill For becomes a somewhat tiresome watch as none of these new stories offer the punch or intrigue of the original film and you quickly end up wishing it was that that you were watching instead. That’s not to say it’s bad, it’s just... lacking. Stunning visuals aside, having nine years to get everything right, rich source material to hand and the involvement of its creator, makes you wonder what got lost in translation. Some films leave you wishing you hadn’t built up a certain level of anticipation.

13 September 2014

Review: Guardians of the Galaxy

(Dir: James Gunn, 2014)

What Marvel needed to do next was change up the pace a bit, mostly because the so called "second wave" of Marvel films have been struggling somewhat, with none of Iron Man 3, Thor: The Dark World or Captain America: The Winter Soldier getting close to matching their predecessors, either in quality of storytelling or overall entertainment value. The inability to sustain the high was an inevitability. The prospect then of a new picture based on a little known comic with downright unusual characters that originated nearly fifty years ago, and of course a mild fear of the ensemble angle that failed to cohere as successfully as envisioned with The Avengers, meant approaching Guardians of the Galaxy with a certain level of cautious expectation. Cautious expectation that it seems was not remotely needed, as this film blows the entire second wave (and The Avengers) out of the water.

Perhaps a fundamental reason why this is so is the very nature of the film - it's out and out sci-fi, no two ways about it. It never feels like a superhero film even though the characters inevitably enter world-saving mode (maybe it's the name that implies it'll be the ultimate superhero movie?). It's a key point of differentiation that means we see different worlds and creatures with Earth only ever proving relevant in the prologue and through the cleverly applied music choices. Spaceships are the norm, as are dazzling battles in the sky amidst a background of dramatically beautiful nebulae. Lately there seems to have been a dearth of science fiction films approaching the genre with such a sense of glee, making this all the more satisfying.

However, trying to pin this all on the genre is somewhat disingenuous. The real reason Guardians of the Galaxy works so damn well is the sharp writing and what that means for these hitherto unknown characters. We get to learn who they are, see them grow, bond and we feel for them as all this progresses. Joss Whedon should really take note for The Avengers: Age of Ultron, it was the lack of character development that really hurt the first film and James Gunn has proven here how things should be done. We feel pathos for a tree that can speak only three words, laugh with a gun-touting raccoon that possesses genuine feelings and sympathise with a muscle bound hardman who looks like he'd be happy to break you in half. Then of course there's the lead, Peter Quill (aka Star Lord) played by Chris Pratt in a typically inspired piece of Marvelian casting. He is instantly likable and is the easiest for us to sympathise with as the Earth man-cum-renegade outlaw. In fact, of these core characters the only one who seems unable to really light up the screen is Gamora (Zoe Saldana), who despite being given more back story than most and excelling at kicking ass, seems to offer less for us to cling onto. Maybe it's the uptightness of the character, or perhaps we're never really sure if we should actually like or trust her.

The quality of the writing extends to the comedy. Marvel films never seem to shy away from adding a layer of humour (think Stark's caustic put-downs or Thor's fish-out-of-water Earth bound experiences), but the comedic aspect feels integral to this film. It's bristling with little one-liners and jabs, alongside the odd look in a cut away or just plain funny visual gags. It feels natural and feels right as part of the growth of this disparate group that have bandied together and must learn to trust one another. Pratt, with his background in comedy (Parks and Recreation, etc), is suitably relaxed and full of playfulness, whilst Bradley Cooper's delivery of Rocket's lines totally brings the cynicism and biting snark right out. Also from a voicework perspective it'd be entirely wrong to overlook Vin Diesel's contribution to Groot, adding much more personality than one might expect from his continual repetition of the same three word phrase, but considering the sheer quality of his similar work in the superb The Iron Giant it comes as no surprise. 

The one place in which it feels like something is possibly lacking is the realm of the villains. There never seems to be one truly unifying bad guy - there's Ronan (Lee Pace) who is pretty perfunctory in the villain stakes, who might not actually be as bad as Thanos who we see very little of, whilst we have to consider the somewhat comedic Yondu Udonta played by Michael Rooker, who also offers some mild threat and is the more interesting of the three. Yet in the universe of comic book villains none of these come close to being memorable. Thanos clearly has a bigger role to play somewhere in future Marvel storylines but in some sense none of this matters when your actual heroes walk the line of being anti-heroes, in a milder sense of the term. The villains just give the film it's narrative drive, nothing more.

The actual story does very little that hasn't been seen before but plenty of extremely good films are able to make themselves work in such scenarios. And that's the point - Gunn does a superb job of shepherding this awkward band of misfits through a story that introduces characters we likely have never heard of before and bringing to them life in an entirely effective way as we quickly care about them. Guardians of the Galaxy works on a character level, works as an action film, as a science fiction movie and as a comedy. At no point does it ever feel like a spoof or unnecessarily derivative. Like the first handful of Marvel films it sticks to its convictions entirely and it's this belief in what it is presenting that turns it into what may just be the best film of the summer, if not one of the years most fun.

25 August 2014

Review: The Purge: Anarchy

(Dir: James DeMonaco, 2014)

As if by magic the real issue with last year's The Purge is immediately dissolved in The Purge: Anarchy. Okay, not magic, but someone involved with the production was paying attention. These pair of films are grounded in a sci-fi concept that's ever so eerily plausible whilst gleefully ticking the high-concept box labelled "why has no-one thought of this before?".  So to waste this concept - once a year all crime is legal for a twelve hour period to allow citizens to purge themselves - on a bland home invasion story really misses the scope of what could be achieved. The Purge: Anarchy recognises this, shoots for better, and gets halfway there.

This time round we get to experience the streets during an annual purge. This is what our cruel sense of curiosity wants to see. There's the couple whose car breaks down at the worst possible time; the mother and daughter forced to flee onto the streets; the lone man with a very defined purging purpose. Sure it's another survival piece, but one on a grander canvas with all manner of ghouls living out their sick and twisted fantasies as this group desperately band together. The situations they walk into are inevitably rife with the cliché but that's never stopped something being an entertaining watch. Frank Grillo's lone man on a mission, armed to the teeth with more than just his sombre purposefulness, is far more intriguing than the rest of the cast combined. Why? Because he carries a no-nonsense man-of-action essence about him with a certain underlying cool. In an alternate story he could've made an awesome avenging angel taking down the worst purging perpetrators (perhaps in the vein of The Punisher's Frank Castle).

Without being remotely revelatory this core story is entertaining and is more of the ilk of what this idea deserves. But it unnecessarily loses it's way when determined to bring the classism and heavy-handed societal issues back into focus. Absolutely there's something interesting about the juggernaut with a man and a giant gun in the back and the mystery as to why it's on the streets. But shift to how the rich want to purge and how that affects our protagonists and it feels like the awkward shoehorning of ideas into the film. Couple that with fleeting hints of the resistance fighters who want to see an end to the purging (surely this is setting-up for a third film?) and some of this feels like a different film. Of course an over-arching idea like this deserves exploration, but in this world of creepy face-masks and over-the-top ideas of how people might approach killing, a different tact would've worked. So the overall concept is improving and we're getting more of what we want, but there's still a way to to go make it something special. This will do for now.

2 June 2014

Review: A Million Ways To Die In the West

(Dir: Seth MacFarlane, 2014)

Comedy is the most difficult genre to be critical about because, quite frankly, what makes one person burst into fits of laughter might barely elicit a mild upturn of the mouth from someone else. Hence exiting the cinema after A Million Ways To Die In the West and the inevitable “what did you think?” question gets circulated, I found myself in the minority by saying, “not the best”. I might otherwise have said “meh” – hardly the most eloquent or incisive of critical thoughts, but it’s a film I struggled to feel much about. In fact I might have otherwise forgotten most of it already if it weren’t for a desire to put something down on paper, so to speak. On the plus side it’s a stream of gags, both visual and verbal, so there’s plenty going on, but this barrage of jokes is much like the shooting ability of Seth MacFarlane’s Albert in the film – the target rarely gets hit. The sight gags tend to work better and there are the occasional quality one-liners, but you have to trudge through a literal upturned hat of shit to get to them. Maybe it’s just the dumbness of scatological humour that I’ve never been a fan of, or the tiresomeness of the uninspired sexual jokes, or too much of this irritating IF I SHOUT IT THEN IT’S AUTOMATICALLY FUNNY modern approach to comedy.

It’s not just those things though. MacFarlane seems thoroughly out of place in a western – everything about his clean Hollywoodised look, his voice and his presence screams “I do not belong here!”, which is obviously jarring. Plus he’s not exactly the greatest actor. Sure his voiceover work is pretty superlative, but in the flesh I’m not convinced. In fact the only actor who really seems to make sense is Liam Neeson – a man whose ruggedness perfectly aligns him to play a badass, outlaw gunslinger in the wild west. Yet his character seems to operate almost entirely away from the comedic side of the film making it frequently appear as if he’s wandered in off a neighbouring set. There was a trailer for A Million Ways To Die In the West that was introduced by MacFarlane and his character Ted, which included the quality line “Does Liam Neeson even known he’s in this?”, which rings strangely true. None of the other characters stand out apart from perhaps Charlize Theron’s Anna, who on the one hand seems lovely but on the other can’t shed her modern edge. But then neither can the film as a whole, which rather than seeming incidental ends up overshadowing as it sits awkwardly.

Aligning the film to MacFarlane’s Ted was an undoubtedly wise marketing decision, even if the film hasn’t had a great opening weekend, yet modern audiences don’t seem to care about westerns so there’s always that struggle. Ted is the vastly superior film thanks to the novelty factor of a foul-mouthed talking teddy bear and it's relationship with Mark Whalberg, whilst A Million Ways To Die In the West isn’t able to offer anything equivalent. Well, maybe it does – it features one of the best cameos I’ve seen in any film ever (saying which would be unfair). But that aside, if tiresome, dumbed-down humour in an excessively long package is your thing, you’re in for a treat. Sure I laughed a bunch of times, but never in that substantive way that ripples through you uncontrollably, making your face ache and head pound. It’s not that type of film. “Meh” still feels about right.

31 May 2014

Review: Godzilla

(Dir: Gareth Edwards, 2014)

There's a formula to big budget movies centered on some sort of monster / alien / strange mechanised creature (delete as appropriate), threatening to destroy the Earth and mankind. You may have noticed it in the past. Mankind is usually in some way responsible for this threat arising. It appears and destroys without much warning. There's some sort of scientific solution which only one hero can manage to impossibly deliver and save us all, inevitably with bare seconds to spare. So it's nice when conventions are playfully and positively tweaked. Say hello to Godzilla, a film not content with merely being a by-the-numbers destructathon.

That last statement sums up the divided reaction Godzilla has been met with. There are the people who inevitably only want to see a ridiculous amount of destruction and firepower aimed at this monster whilst he's doing his darndest to level our cities. These people appear to have been less than happy with this film as a result, but I suspect the forthcoming Transformers: Age of Extinction will do enough to satiate that desire they hold. Epic decimation of cities is a secondary concern in Godzilla. The focus and framing is on the actual characters which quite frankly is how any good film should be. But, if you've ever seen Gareth Edwards superb debut film Monsters, this should come as no surprise. In that case the character-centric approach was a result of the miniscule budget, but here on this grander scale, well it's just such a pleasant surprise for the audience to be trusted in such a way.

Yet it's not quite as simple as that. The characters we're presented with are perfectly watchable but don't give many reasons for us to really care what happens to them. Really anyone could be in the shoes of either Aaron Taylor-Johnson or Elizabeth Olsen. It's the likes of Bryan Cranston, who is always fun, and Ken Watanabe's kind of intriguing one-note performance that bring personality to the table. The story runs the course of predictability (the scientist no-one wants to listen too, the hero continually in the right place, etc), yet in doing so still manages to take a route that feels more akin to the original films. I'd imagine most of the people complaining about the approach here have never seen one of these, although admittedly it has been many years since I watched the likes of Godzilla vs Megalon, Mothra vs Godzilla and Godzilla on Monster Island, but this new film is definitely hewing far closer to those than the likes of Roland Emmerich's bastardized 1998 film. And all the better for it.

Godzilla is really a feast for the eyes and ears thanks to some fantastic cinematography and the use of sound and music. Take the HALO jump scene of soldiers parachuting into the dusky, dust-choked, monster-ravaged city, to the haunted strains of Ligeti's Requiem, whilst very cleverly utilising the heavy breathing first person perspective. That is the pure viscera of cinema. Edwards has found himself a massive toolbox to play with so across the whole film has amped up what he'd previously tried to achieve on such a limited scale. The creature reveal is effectively done too. Sure it takes a long while to see the world's most famous kaiju in all his splendor, but the tease is exactly part of the fun as parts of him slowly come to light. There's been criticism that he's a bit too fat looking but honestly, so what? This feels like Gojira and that's what matters.

By refusing to stick to formula and frustrating people in the process, this latest version of Godzilla stands out in the best possible way amongst the pantheon of big-budget films intent on leveling this world we've built. Sure it could use some better characters and writing, but please, give us more films where the monsters and destruction they cause are the background to actual characters. It's the kind of film where the camera pulls away when other films might be having their money shot and I applaud that. Haven't we seen enough films that devolve into an hour of mindless destruction and explosions? Less is more and that's something that's frequently forgotten in this modern age - just look at how the most effective horror films tend to be those that let your mind run amok rather than those that bare all quickly. The same applies here. Mix in the stunning visuals, sound and sense of faithfulness to the history of the character and we're left with a hell of an enjoyable film. Writing this has really made me want to watch it again - what does that say!?

17 May 2014

Review: Transcendence

(Dir: Wally Pfister, 2014)

The idea of the singularity is nothing new in filmic terms. Terminator 2 may have couched the omnipresent fear of artificial intelligent self-awareness in the threateningly didactic term "judgement day", whilst hammering the point home using the crushingly iconic image of gun toting silver mechanical skeletons clambering over human skulls, meaning this is something we should fear. Or is it? If you choose to believe how Transcendence frames this idea, using that very word as an alternate descriptor weighted with positive implications, you might believe it's a friendlier proposition. Or perhaps it just seems that way when the sentience in control is Johnny Depp.

This is the core idea that frames Transcendence, serving as a catalyst for a handful of other intriguing ideas, not all of which are worth focusing on, resulting in a film that finds itself becoming too easily lost. As time progresses and we find ourselves deeply ensconced in this century with technology taking an increasingly prescient role, the reality of machine based self-awareness feels strikingly close. Take the fear created by Skynet back in 1991 - we've always seemed at least a lifetime away from that happening, whilst comparatively the artificially appealing Samantha in Her seems not only attainable rather than fantastical, but desirable in the impact it could have on our lives. If that concept hadn't been set as an alternative love story, surely dystopia would've reigned supreme. The point is we're getting a lot closer to making this fear real so we should be exploring it more now. Yet there's something reductive about imagining this coming from a person whose had their consciousness uploaded so they exist beyond the corporeal. Or perhaps it just feels like a fantastical step too far. Early in the film we're introduced to an A.I. called P.I.N.N. and I can't help but wonder if letting that run amok would've been more satisfying instead, rather than the resulting nano tech and it's slightly odd dispersal method which continually feels like a step too far. At least there's a little bit of intrigue to come from the different perspectives of is "he" bad or is "he" actually good, even if the ending leaves you with mixed levels of satisfaction.

To my eyes the most interesting idea within the whole film is a sorely underexplored concept seemingly only to exist as a function of the plot: the rebel group R.I.F.T. led by Kate Mara's Bree who are inspired by the words and ideas of Paul Bettany's Max Waters. This is a group who see where the ship is heading and will do what they must to halt its inevitable progression. Dissolution of the internet and our perpetual connectedness is a realistic solution for them, and it's here the film could've used more focus. The internet appears to be the greatest creation of modern times but do we still even appreciate the deleterious effects it may have on us, our children or society as a whole? It's intriguing to think how we might cope going back in time an equivalent twenty plus years by having such unparalleled access to information and expression yanked from us, whilst living with technologies no longer capable of fulfilling most of their intended functions. Would it be a positive for society and how desperate would the scramble to get it all back look? How lost would the youth weened on this feel? Beyond the initial fear of losing all this "something" that doesn't really exist, it's hugely fascinating. Thus it's frustrating that the film touches on this concept but really chooses to keep it at arms length in favour of a failed human story and generic thoughts of control.

Further frustration is bred from the presence of Mr. Depp. There was a time when the prospect of seeing Depp in a film was a reassurance that it would be intriguing and quirky, but damn has he overplayed that card now. This may be a contentious opinion for his fans out there, but he has not been good in anything since the turn of the century. Just look at his filmography on IMDb and you'll realise that the only satisfying work he's done in the last 14 years is voicework (The Corpse Bride, Rango & Frankenweenie). His physical presence on screen has become a reason not to watch something, and when he loses the annoying quirk he's just bland. Transcendence is no difference - his character is irritating from the outset and when he's later traversing the line of is his digital self actually good or bad, the smug, righteous, self-satisfaction he oozes makes you wish you wouldn't see him on screen in anything again. The rest of the cast is a mixed bag. Neither the aforementioned Mara or Bettany get enough screen time, whilst Morgan Freeman feels well out of place as some sort of tech / AI guru. Rebecca Hall is usually an interesting actress but her character suffers from a myopia that makes her feel too one dimensional. Another case of good bunch of actors not adding up to much thanks to the material.

The one strength of the film, which was always expected thanks to director Wally Pfister's pedigree, is that it's visually very enticing. But when you're Christopher Nolan's go to cinematographer that's the least we should expect from your first film. But it shows that Pfister has yet to work out how to actually tell a story. It's clear why he'd choose this as a directorial debut as there are good ideas lurking within, but they're never fully realised whilst the structure and way the story evolves always feels unfocused. It's a shame as prior to release Transcendence showed all the hallmarks of a film worth getting excited about. If and when it happens, the singularity will inevitably be a lot more memorable.

6 April 2014

Review: Captain America: The Winter Soldier

(Dir: Anthony Russo & Joe Russo, 2014)

Note: Unusually for reviews I write, this one contains spoilers. If you care about not knowing important plot details for both Captain America films, don't read!

Captain America is not a man for this modern age. The Avengers obfuscated this reality thanks to the assembled ensemble, but Captain America: The Winter Soldier makes this strikingly clear. Unfortunately it's not exactly a surprise as it was a fear left lingering from the end of Captain America: The First Avenger. Joe Johnston's film was the anomaly in the run of first Marvel films, set in the 1940s many decades behind where this universe was elsewhere establishing itself, but absolutely the right period in which to play, with this era being the defining essence of the character. The First Avenger plays out like a classic, fun, adventure serial, albeit with a slightly shiny gloss and tech that's unbefitting of the time, but this nature forms its core strength. It feels a step aside from the soulless, generic cgi-worshipping modern action films that are now frequently thrust upon our screens, with the effects actually serving the story rather than being the story. And this classic edge makes a tangible difference.

The stoicism exuding from Cap (Chris Evans) alongside his core belief that he can make a difference even in his weedy Steve Rodgers frame, and not just can make a difference but should try regardless of the consequences, define him. This was a prevailing attitude of the time, where service to your country was duty and honour of the highest order. But attitudes change over time as the horrors and falsities of war truly reveal themselves and it becomes a diminished notion shaded in futility. And so the character's unwavering commitment to this ideal starts to feel almost alien in this day and age. Even his name now represents an ideology of patriotism that's looked upon in derision in a century defined by perpetual globalism. Where is his place now? This feeling lingers. Winter Soldier could've made things worse by running with the whole fish-out-of-water schtick but it wisely downplays this, not least because Thor so thoroughly nailed it. But the few small jokes only remind that this is a man stuck in the wrong time who can never make it home. Likewise a thread of love life jokes never sit right thanks to the weight of the continually burgeoning relationship with Peggy (Hayley Atwell) from The First Avenger, with it's sweet tentative steps coming from a place of genuine hope and subtle longing, rather than the shallow seeming implications here.

A compounding problem of bringing Cap into today's world is that here and now he seems like nothing more than a glorified strongman. Back in the forties he was a game changer. No-one else out there was like him or could do would he could do. He was unique, the definition of a hero and the villains he had to go up against felt similarly matched to his abilities. In the context of his modern compatriots, what does he offer compared to the technologically and firepower enhanced Tony Stark or the radiation / biologically induced craze of Hulk, let alone an actual god? Hell the cunning and guile of both Black Widow and Hawkeye are at least on a par with him, never mind their combat skills. Where does he really fit in this team? What's unique about him except for perhaps the positive attitude he brings? And then there are his new enemies who are next level in their dedication to technology. Sure this was also the Red Skull's forte, but put into context what was available to that megalomaniac compared to the sheer scale of what Cap needs to take down in Winter Soldier. Seventy years of the world growing and developing and he's moved forward how? The ruthlessness of a powerful, mechanically adorned foe feels about the only suitable match-up here.

But nothing of the villainous aspect in Winter Soldier feels right. What it did not need was a rehashing of seventy years ago, especially arising in a contrived way for only Cap to deal with, despite it's fundamental impact on S.H.I.E.L.D.. Modern day Hydra, the unnecessary return of Bucky as the titular Winter Soldier - are Marvel feeling that devoid of ideas despite the wealth of source material available at their fingers? Hydra was ultimately defined by the Red Skull / Johann Schmidt, creating an iconic villain that unequivocally radiates maleficence. On what level is Robert Redford's Alexander Pierce remotely comparable, let alone a compelling bad guy? The clichéd undercurrent of is he / isn't he bad doesn't help allowing motivations to appear hazy, but then there's always something about watching the magnetic Redford. The biggest crime is bringing back Toby Jones' Dr Zola as a bizarre all-knowing digitised head-on-a-screen - the reveal is the epitome of facepalm, utterly awkward plotting. Hydra's presence is a distraction. It's an unnecessary plot device to allow connection to the first film. It flat out does not work.

The First Avenger revealed a rich history surrounding the Marvel universe, with Howard Stark being integral to the initiative that created Captain America. He and the core team from this film are, as is inferred in Winter Soldier, the ones who ultimately established the organisation of S.H.I.E.L.D., but this inexplicably gets rapidly skated over. What's most frustrating is that there's so much great potential for storytelling within this idea, from both the perspective of the characters and the setting, that to leave us with such a bland story with stupid plotting is just squandering your assets. Cap doesn't feel like the most important part of this film, S.H.I.E.L.D. does. The attempts to set up this aspect of the universe in Iron Man 2 may have felt overdone, but here it just bogs everything down. As there's now a tv series bearing the name S.H.I.E.L.D. it's only an inevitability that focus drifts that way, but who other than the most hardened geeks are really concerned about their politics? I'm not when it comes at the expense of the storytelling. It's arguable that a benefit of this direction is the increased focus on Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), who has always been a semi-intriguing if fleeting character of the series. This gives him probably the most screen time of all the films, yet nothing is really revealed and he still feels like an enigma devoid of personality. Is he dead or is he really alive? Does it matter when the only reason we have to care is that he's played by Samuel Motherfuckin' Jackson?

Ultimately it appears we have The Avengers to specifically blame for how Captain America: The Winter Soldier has turned out, since this feels like an attempt at creating a mini version. And that's not a good thing. Cap clearly can't work alone in this modern age, so he has an assembled team - this means more Black Widow (Scarlett Johanssen) but she proves to be less interesting here (I still stand by my assertion that we need to see a Black Widow / Hawkeye back story film), whilst Anthony Mackie's Falcon serves as a very basic imitation of Iron Man but also fulfilling the inevitable drama and symbolism of Bucky's return and Cap needing a partner. Cobie Smoulder's Maria Hill comes out to play again and still seems to be there solely to move the plot along. Then there's the very nature of Winter Soldier - the blandness that typifies a lot of modern big budget action films that also fail when it comes to offering decent character development, which is basically The Avengers summed up. Of course the special effects look amazing and the destruction of the heliships is fantastic work, but that alone does not make an action scene more enjoyable. If the destruction feels soulless and the stakes seem forced then so what. This was endemic with The Avengers and continues here, but more importantly the essence of fun that was prevalent within The First Avenger is sorely lacking. It's all too po-faced leaving a taste of casual indifference.

That there is a lot of criticism laid at the feet of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, but that's not say it's actually bad. It's still an enjoyable couple of hours and Cap remains one the most likeable characters within the Marvel universe. The problem is that being such a fan of The First Avenger and seeing all its strengths laid to waste is just so frustrating. In an ideal world the end of that first film would not have forced Cap into freezing as he stops the Red Skull, allowing more time to develop interesting and fun stories in his rightful era before he ends up on ice, including the establishing of S.H.I.E.L.D.. But alas it's not to be. This is bland, easy entertainment lacking the richness of both setting and characterisation that the first offered. Unfortunately it's like The Avengers all over again, and further proof after Iron Man Three and Thor: The Dark World, that perhaps it's the more unique and out-there Marvel characters like Ant-Man that we should instead be looking forward to seeing on screen.

Read my short reviews of the first wave of Marvel films here.

Read my review of The Avengers here.
Read my review of Iron Man Three here.