Rating: The Good – 73.8 Genre: Science Fiction Duration: 132 mins Director: J.J. Abrams Stars: Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Benedict Cumberbatch,
The young crew of the USS Enterprise are back for their second outing in J.J. Abrams’ reimagined universe as they face Benedict Cumberbatch’s ruthless Khan, a genetically engineered superhuman recently awoken from a long cryo-sleep. Throw in a gung-ho Admiral in the form of the always great Peter Weller, some marvellous action scenarios, and the usual personality clashes between Chris Pine’s “Kirk” and Zachary Quinto’s “Spock” and the stage is set for one of the better movie instalments of the franchise. Abrams brought a lot back to the series in his 2009 “Star Trek” and, in most cases, he ups the ante here. A striking visual profile and immaculate visual effects provide the movie’s backbone while the cheeky script adds several layers of enjoyment throughout its long duration. The plot is rudimentary enough, the usual rehash of several past episodes, but Abrams’ trump card once again makes up for it. That card, of course, is this new series’ cast of actors which, as was the case in the 2009 movie, bring huge amounts of personality to their roles. And though the links with their characters’ previous incarnations are all maintained with tongue firmly planted in cheek, if truth be told, this new generation is far more talented than their older counterparts. This quality adds a sheen of professionalism to the new films that was often missing from the earlier movies. At the centre, Pine and Quinto are fantastic value as space’s endlessly quarreling “odd couple” and, while playing yet another “super-genius”, Cumberbatch makes for a memorable Khan. Sure, he doesn’t possess the cheesy greatness of Ricardo Montalban, but his more furious brand of egomania adds to the movie’s overall darker demeanor. Best of all, however, is that man Weller whose booming voice and gritty presence brings an added edge to the proceedings.
Rating: The Good – 73.4 Genre: Science Fiction, Fantasy Duration: 121 mins Director: James Gunn Stars: Chris Pratt, Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper, Benicio Del Toro
Yet another comic book blockbuster from the Marvel stable of sci-fi fantasy. Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, and the voices of Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel are the eponymous heroes whose self-interests bring them together against a common foe who, like every other super villain these days, will settle for nothing else but the destruction of the galaxy. What saves this film from the black hole pull of a mind-numbingly familiar genre is the fresh sense of fun James Gunn brings to the script and its direction. The characters are drawn and played out with a care-free irreverence that drives the movie as a whole. There are no erroneously earnest pauses in tone to allow for some heavy handed emotional button pushing – well, none that aren’t cleverly rescued in time. Guardians of the Galaxy is a joke and everyone’s happy to play it that way. It all lays the groundwork for some genuinely side splitting humour, most of which, involves Cooper’s talking and brilliantly mental space rodent.
Though Pratt is a wonderfully unassuming lead with lots of self-deprecating charisma and Bradley is in rich vocal form, most of the credit must still go to Gunn. Making a funny movie doesn’t just require you to write funny but to direct funny and armed with his anthology of vintage pop tracks and a very wry sense of editing, he rocket propels the humour in his script. Okay, so a few of the jokes are taken a step too far but most are delivered with polish. And when we’re not laughing, the simply astounding visual effects ensure that we have something impressive to look at too and, while it never escapes the CGI look, the movie remains an immaculate piece of visual artistry. On this canvas, Gunn (particularly early on) crafts some dazzling action sequences and the ceaselessly fantastic gadgetry and conveyor belt of amazing aliens adds handsomely to their enjoyment.
Where the movie inevitably falls flat however, is in the wearingly repetitive plot that seems no different to that which the likes of Thor, The Avengers, or any number of the endless comic book adaptations (that we’ve been utterly plagued with these last five years) have offered up. Plots that seem to serve no other purpose than to provide a platform for endless battles and flashy explosions. For all the good this movie does with its character construction and comedic dialogue and for all the ingenuity of Gunn’s action, the brain eventually just switches off during these protracted sequences because the premise is too flimsy to support them. It’s part of Hollywood’s magic formula so it won’t soon change but anyone who doesn’t have the hormonal constitution of a 14 year old boy, is liable to find this movie’s visual narrative veering towards 3rd act tedium. Thankfully, Guardians of the Galaxy wraps up at just under two hours and while still perhaps 15-20 minutes too long, it’s a damn sight shorter than most other modern comic adaptations. Alongside its richer character and dialogue base, that saving grace, gives Gunn’s movie a significant edge on the generic horde of superhero vehicles.
Rating: The Good – 65.3 Genre: Thriller Duration: 116 mins Director: Scott Cooper Stars: Christian Bale, Casey Affleck, Sam Shepard, Willem Dafoe
Scott Cooper’s down and dirty small town revenge drama is a sometimes interesting film made with all the right intentions but also a lack of directorial savvy. Christian Bale and Casey Affleck are brothers struggling to get their lives on track after a jail sentence and traumatising tour of Iraq respectively. Bale is the more sensible elder brother who’s back at the local steel mill which is threatening to close for good while Affleck has taken to underground fighting to pay his debts. When the latter gets mixed up with some mountain folk and their bare knuckle and meth dealing rackets, he disappears leaving his brother and uncle, played by the evergreen Sam Shepard, to track down the vicious maniac responsible.
Cooper takes a meditative approach to Out of the Furnace, employing an extended yet concealed introduction of the main characters. Lots is alluded to but, with sparse dialogue and an abundance of secondary characters, nothing is for sure. For a film that moves as slow as this, there’s actually a lot going on in the way of character dynamics and what Cooper is trying to say about the daily lives of his working class protagonists. And with a cast like this, one would expect some powerful drama. Unfortunately, it all runs a little flat save for a handful of scenes as Cooper’s incompatible ambitions see it fall between two stools. In the first place, there’s just too many characters in play to justify that meditative style. Taking time in the buildup can be a virtue (and a rare one these days) but it hurts this movie as its focus constantly bounces around from one of the many characters to another. Furthermore, long periods without dialogue with only brief interludes of character interaction make it difficult to engage with even the main characters despite the wealth of acting talent behind them. Setting the characters amongst some palpable conflict or anxiety can offset this but Cooper and co-writer Brad Ingelsby simply allude to their troubled backgrounds and keep them completely separate from their current travails. This itself can often be an elegant approach to storytelling but again the wrong choice here as it compounds the first problem. And finally, when Cooper finally gets around to colouring in between the lines, he paints a fairly bleak picture making it yet more difficult to stay invested. On paper, he may make all the right moves but the final cut unsurprisingly fails to add up to the sum of its parts. Matters aren’t helped by some overfamiliar motifs and the equally worn metaphors used to tease them out – does cinema really need another moment of personal revelation involving a seasoned hunter’s sudden inability to shoot a cute deer?
Regardless of Cooper’s slip ups in shooting his script, the sterling cast ensures a reasonably entertaining if frustrating watch. Bale is terrific as usual and despite having to do most of it in silence, he inhabits the soul of his character in the manner we’ve become accustomed to. Affleck does what he can though both he and Bale alike would’ve benefited from a few substantial scenes together. Ditto Sam Shepard. Willem Dafoe tantalises with an extended cameo as Affleck’s bookie but Forest Whitaker’s turn as the local chief of police is utterly wasted. Woody Harrelson has won most of the plaudits as the crazed yokel and Cooper does his level best to raise the intimidation factor including a needless and unimaginatively violent introduction at the opening of the film. To be fair, the star reborn gives it plenty of oomph but again, we have to ask: is it anything we haven’t seen before?
Ultimately, it’s this level of over-familiarity that may wear most on the viewer and it doesn’t stop there. Though apparently written in 2011, the story bears strong resemblances to 2010’s Winter’s Bone, 2011’s Warrior, and 2012’s The Place Beyond the Pines right down to Masanobu Takayanagi’s moody photography. However, though it may lose points for unoriginality, following the formula set forth in those sleeper hits reaps some rewards for Cooper’s film because, like in those movies, Out of the Furnace comes alive during its tenser moments. It’s also in these moments where the actors’ contributions pay off most effectively. The inevitable showdown at the end is itself quite well handled and Bale in particular is brilliant in a scene defined by a more everyday act of heroism than those that revenge films typically play out to. And even if it does sign off with another (lets say) “nod” to The Deer Hunter – the final shot is a decent attempt to satisfy the story both narratively and thematically.
A paraplegic Marine takes his brother’s place on a mission to integrate with the indigenous life on dangerous planet. However, after becoming attached to a particular tribe he finds his former loyalties to the military tested as they take command of the mission and with it, a much sterner approach to the aliens.
Before anything else, one must firstly acknowledge the quality of this mega-blockbuster’s visual effects. With or without the 3D this film looks spectacular. The world of Pandora and the indigenous tribes are brought to life in such rich detail that you really do get the feeling that you are right there in the middle of everything. The action is also very good and there are some really well crafted action scenes that use the expanded physical possibilities of the alien world to great effect. Add the 3D experience on top of all that and this movie becomes an awesome visual experience.
However, despite all this, when one is forced to objectively review Avatar as a film, there can be no escaping the realisation that there are some fundamental and critical problems which even the visuals cannot compensate for. In many ways, Avatar is “Dances with Alien Wolves” but with inexcusable writing problems. The characters are all uninteresting (despite Sigourney Weaver’s best efforts) and are all variations on cliched action movie themes. The dialogue is clunky at the best of times and downright awful at others. The story is wafer thin with seriously trite plots and sub-plots. Concerning the wider plot, there are gaping holes in the logic and, as if to confirm the audience’s suspicions that the story was indeed an afterthought to an otherwise technological project, they come up with the idea of a magic tree to encapsulate a crudely conveyed hack environmental “message”. This hack emotionality and the battle sequences which attempt to drive it home like a rusty nail are certainly the most jarring problems with the movie. One of the most unforgivable things a film-maker can do is to disrespect the audience by trying to dupe the them into thinking the film is of weight when it’s really just a crass load of nonsense. It could be argued that Avatar imparts a simplistic “message” in far too childish a manner to be guilty of that crime and that the writers simply devoted too little attention to the script to be aware of the mistakes they were making. However, given that it took almost a decade to make this film, there can simply be no excuses for having overlooked something as crucial as the story.