The Expendables 3 (2014)

The Expendables 3In need of a medic and a fifth member, Barney Ross (Sylvester Stallone), Lee Christmas (Jason Statham), Gunnar Jensen (Dolph Lundgren) and Toll Road (Randy Couture) mount a daring mission to extract Doctor Death (Wesley Snipes) from military prison. They soon cross paths with Conrad Stonebanks (Mel Gibson), the team’s co-founder turned arms dealer, who once betrayed Ross and left the rest of his team for dead. Reluctant to lose any more friends to the man, Barney recruits a new team of rookies (Kellan Lutz; Ronda Rousey; Glen Powell; Victor Ortiz) only for his plan to fail and the youngsters to be captured by Stonebanks. He has no option but to put the old team back together and go after them.

Throw in Arnold Schwarzenegger, Antonio Banderas, Harrison Ford, Kelsey Grammer, Jet Li and Terry Crews and you have the series’ most diverse cast yet. Faced with rounding off his trilogy and outdoing the two previous instalments, Stallone — who once again holds a story credit — has amassed not only some of the most kick-ass action stars in cinema history, but some of the best actors too. Given that it’s his third time around the block (this particular block, anyway) it’s impossible to see how The Expendables 3 could be anything but the best one yet.

Sadly, the film is anything but. Patrick Hughes, Stallone’s “new blood”, who has taken over directing duties from Simon West (who in turn took over from Stallone himself), doesn’t seem to have any visible grasp on the story, characters or tone of his film. It’s not entirely his fault — the decisions to rely on CGI, pander to a younger audience and overcrowd the cast were all likely out of his hands — but he’s got to be at least partly responsible for the failure of the action, jokes and emotional beats to have any sort of identifiable impact. With the exception of one gag (“I’m the knife before Christmas”) the film is essentially a laugh-free zone.

As for the story, the less said the better. The Expendables 3 is a trilogy in itself, basically repeating the same narrative with three separate but indistinct generations of the team. You’ve got the two founders, a member of the first team, the cast of first and second movie, the new recruits and a new-new line-up that consists solely of Antonio Banderas — or rather archive footage of Antonio Banderas’ outtakes on Shrek The Third. The film is little more than a single looped sequence involving a seemingly endless cycle of captures and rescues.

Not even the cast can save it, with every newcomer bar perhaps Mel Gibson failing to make a mark. Wesley Snipes is clearly out of practice, Kelsey Grammer is still in Transformers mode, and Harrison Ford looks like he might genuinely kill someone. Oritz doesn’t even get a role, Rousey barely gets a character, Lutz is so forgettable that you’re never entirely sure he’s been introduced yet, and Banderas is just plain embarrassing. Of the returnees, Crews is by far the most entertaining and he spends almost the entire film in a coma.

By skewing young, updating the effects and playing it straight the filmmakers have left the Expendables feeling a bit, well, expendable. The Expendables 3 is confused, lethargic and just a little bit sad. It seems strangely apt that the film was leaked online, undermining its box office performance: Stallone and co are outmoded, both on screen and off.

2-stars

Lucy (2014)

LucyTalked into delivering a locked suitcase to an unfamiliar businessman, Lucy (Scarlett Johansson) is abducted on arrival and surgically implanted with an untested drug. She and four others are then given twenty-four hours to transport their cargo to destinations across Europe, their families threatened should they not comply. Before she is dispatched, however, Lucy is punched in the stomach for spurring the sexual advances of her captors, and a large quantity of the drug is absorbed into her system. She finds herself able to control her body in new and unprecedented ways, and with the added assistance of scientist Professor Norman (Morgan Freeman) and police officer Pierre Del Rio (Amr Waked) uses her abilities to track down the man responsible: Mr Jang (Choi Min-sik).

It was obvious from the get-go that Lucy was going to be preposterous. The trailer alone propagated the myth that humans only utilise 10% of their brains, or cerebral capacity as Freeman puts it, and presented a heroine able to change the colour of her hair at will, control objects with her mind and read rainbow data streams being emitted vertically from mobile phones. Witer-director Luc Besson has previous with the implausible, obviously, but even taken on its own Lucy looked to be a particularly feverish offering.

As ready as you might be to dismiss it out of hand, however, Besson for once seems to be one step ahead. Choosing to open not with Scarlett Johansson but an early hominid, the director is likely to have even the most unassuming of audiences on the back foot. What’s more, these early scenes show promise; Johansson’s introduction is inter-cut with an array of apparently arbitrary scenes — early life and a mouse approaching a trap, to name but two — and you find yourself unexpectedly engaged as you work to connect the dots. Surprisingly apt, really, for a film about neural networks and inter-cellular communication.

As convincing as the illusion of intelligence might seem, however, there’s not really any denying that Lucy remains an assault on sense and reason. Besson isn’t making leaps of logic so much as leaving it behind altogether — the last twenty minutes make for some of the most incomprehensibly narrative of the year so far — and moments of lucidity or only few and far between. That said,  it is so enthusiastic and ultimately harmless that you can’t help but be somewhat disarmed by it. Johansson is great, particularly during an early phone call to her mother, and the rest of the cast are pretty decent too. What’s more, Besson continues to surprise throughout, and when violence so quickly gives way to discourse you have to give him his due.

Lucy‘s every bit as ridiculous as you might expect, but it’s so mind-numbingly daft that it might just convince you that there is also the merest shadow of intelligence to it. It may be unintelligible, but that doesn’t mean it’s unwatchable.

2-stars

 

The Inbetweeners 2 (2014)

The Inbetweeners 2After a disastrous night on the town in Bristol, where one of their number now attends university, Will (Simon Bird), Simon (Joe Thomas) and Neil (Blake Harrison) resolve to spend the rest of their vacation in Australia, where Jay (James Buckley) is believed to be living out his gap year in luxury as a celebrated DJ at one of the country’s most renowned nightclubs. When they arrive, however, the find him working instead as the club’s bog-goblin, sleeping in a tent in his uncle’s front garden and ruing the day he broke up with Jane (Lydia Rose Bewley). Striking a compromise between Will’s wanderlust and the rest of the group’s desire to visit Splash Planet, they embark on a road-trip to Byron Bay, travelling alongside a friend from the former’s childhood who may just want to sleep with him.

Having opened to glowing reviews and strong box office returns, The Inbetweeners Movie was never going to be the last we saw of Will, Simon, Neil and Jay. Three years later, the foursome are back for a sequel, this time leaving Malia behind for the Gold Coast of Australia. Of all the relationships established at the close of the first film, only Simon and Lucy remain together, essentially resetting the score and leaving the others to court disaster once more. Narratively, only a few months have elapsed since the friends returned from Crete, and they are much and such as we left them. Writer-directors Damon Beesley and Iain Morris may pursue marginally more depth than Ben Palmer did last time, but it’s essentially a retread of the same lads abroad story as before.

Rather than embrace their new medium, the filmmakers are still treating their movie as a double-length TV episode, and the sequel’s road-trip formula arguably makes the franchise feel even more episodic than it did last time. Having dispensed with the cliches withing minutes of Jay’s reintroduction, the film doesn’t then bother to explore the real Australia but rather ignore its setting altogether. The supporting cast is almost exclusively British (though it’s possible that Harry Potter‘s Freddie Stroma was going for an Aussie accent), while the major set-pieces occur out of context in universal holiday camps and generic theme parks. It makes the scenarios more relatable, perhaps, but simultaneously leaves setting seeming completely redundant. How did two students and a bank teller manage to afford last-minute return tickets to Australia anyway?

As a result, the opening act feels overly familiar and more than a little forced. Thankfully, however, once the four friends are reunited the gag rate increases sufficiently to compensate. There are some big laughs in The Inbetweeners 2, and while it might not be as consistently funny as the original it boasts a scattering of set pieces that manage to be both bigger and better than any individual jokes from its predecessor. Compromising campsite situations, lols on the log flume and an attempt at desert rehydration will likely have you crying with laughter, while more nuanced characterisation might leave you tearing up in earnest too. After three seasons and a movie the creators have finally got to the heart of Jay, and without making him any less crass or cretinous Beesley and Morris have succeeded in making him considerably more complex.

It’s not entirely clear where The Inbetweeners might go next — as with 22 Jump Street the credits sequence preemptively rules out a number of the more obvious possibilities — but the latest film leaves things open-ended enough for some sort of continuation. The format might have run its course, but the characters still have their whole lives ahead of them.

3-Stars

Hercules (2014)

HerculesTormented by the screams of his young family, and uncertain of his own role in their deaths, Hercules (Dwayne Johnson) is nevertheless worshiped the land over as the demigod son of Zeus and the champion of the legendary Twelve Labours. Although widely believed to work alone, Herucles in fact leads a band of mercinaries including prophet Amphiaraus (Ian McShane), thief Autolycus (Rufus Sewell), warrior Tydeus (Aksel Hennie), archer Atalanta (Ingrid Bolsø Berdal) and storyteller Iolaus (Reece Ritchie) who assist him in his battles. Bought by gold, the mercinaries ally themselves with Lord Cotys (John Hurt) of Thrace, agreeing to help train his armies against the invading forces of Rheseus (Tobias Santelmann). Hercules, however, is plagued by dreams of Cerberus, the three headed hellhound that guards the gates to the underworld. But does it herald his own death, or signify something else entirely?

The latest film from Brett Ratner, and based on the graphic novel Hercules: The Thracian Wars, Paramount’s Hercules is the second film based on the demigod to arrive in cinemas this year, after Summit’s poorly reviewed The Legend of Hercules. A slightly less predictable take on the myth, Ratner’s movie posits a hero of great PR rather than of divine destiny; a man whose reputation doesn’t so much precede him as put him on an unearned pedestal. The people of Thrace see him as the champion who slayed the hydra, when in fact he and his men merely slaughtered an army of soldiers in elaborate headgear. Unfortunately, this isn’t the film that was sold to audiences through it’s multi-million dollar marketing campaign, and anyone drawn in by the promise of giants boars and invulnerable lions will likely be disappointed when they both debunked and dispensed with during the opening salvo. Alternatively, anyone put off by the trailer’s frankly awful special effects needn’t worry that they might blight the entire movie.

Sadly, that’s where the surprises end. The problem with Ratner is that rather than rubbish his own scripts he routinely chooses to sully the work of others. As with Red Dragon and X-Men: The Last Stand, the script for Hercules isn’t entirely without merit. Ryan J. Condal and Evan Spiliotopoulos go to some unexpectedly mature places with their screenplay; not just the infanticide that robbed Hercules of his children but the fact that the film’s hero is little more than a liar and a cheat. The dialogue isn’t anything particularly special, but nor is it completely trite either. If the pair have written a dark drama, eschewing humour in favour of taking their characters seriously, Ratner has directed a comedy, which has the unfortunate effect of inviting laughter at said characters rather than with. The sets look fake, the costumes look cheap and many of the characters look terribly miscast. Close your eyes and you could be watching 300, plug your ears and This Is Sparta is more likely to come to mind.

For once, not even The Rock can save his film from failure. Johnson looks a little lost in the main role, his usual presence and charisma only evident in fleeting glances and occasional snatches of levity. He’s undoubtedly a physical fit for the character but then so was Kellan Lutz; Johnson has proved himself not only as an action hero but as an actor, and his abilities are sadly wasted here. Hardly anyone makes much of an impression, with John Hurt phoning in the exact same performance he used previously in Immortals and Joseph Fiennes relegated to the sidelines, so much so that until he reappears you’ve all but forgotten he was even in the film to begin with. The only actor who seems to be having any fun is Ian McShane, who steals every scene he’s in as a prophet who has foreseen his own death. It’s not just the character’s comic value (he stands in front of a barrage of arrows already knowing that he will survive) but his capacity for pathos. As he walks through a field of corpses he admits that he hates being right all the time. It’s as poignant as Hercules gets.

Although it may play down divine providence, Hercules is nonetheless destined to disappoint. Whether you’re in it for the monsters, the comedy or the Grecian tragedy, Brett Ratner has ushered you in under false pretences. It might not be the worst Hercules film of the year, but that doesn’t stop it from feeling like hardest Labour of all.

2-stars

Begin Again (2014)

Begin AgainStruggling music exec Dan Mulligan (Mark Ruffalo) is living alone in New York City, estranged from his wife (Catherine Keener) and daughter (Hailee Steinfeld) and no longer employed at the independent record label he helped create. While drowning his sorrows he overhears Gretta (Keira Knightley), a musician who is goaded into performing by her friend and fellow singer-songwriter Steve (James Corden). Together they decide to record an album on the streets of New York, recruiting a disparate group of musicians — including Steve and Dan’s daughter Violet — to help them do it. Unlike her boyfriend, Dave Kohl (Adam Levine), who has signed with a label and gone on tour around America, Gretta isn’t interested in fame or fortune, though through the process of recording her album she grows more comfortable performing in public.

Tortured artists are a Hollywood staple, but musicians seem to receive the most attention of all. The Coen Brothers recently received praise for Inside Llewyn Davis, a film that sought to capture the loneliness and frustrations of an aspiring musician. The film was unrelenting, driving home the fact that Llewyn was self-destructive, down on his luck and most likely doomed to fail. For a while it seems as though Begin Again is going to follow suit and be another joyless pity parade of missed opportunities and terrible life choice — when we meet Dan he too is self-destructive, down on his luck and most likely doomed to fail — it isn’t long before director John Carney’s breaks the cycle and sends his character down a different path.

Gretta may love to sing, she may even have flirted with the big time thanks to her boyfriend Dave’s success, but she is very much a realist at heart. She is relatively stable, sensible and secure, and is under no illusion that her hobby is going to pay the rent or lead anywhere at all. When Dan offers her a contract — admittedly a contract that he is in no position to honour– she doesn’t rush to accept but politely declines and, when pressed, asks for some time to think. Both characters have their ups and downs, but throughout the film there is a level-headedness to each that is as unexpected as it is endearing. Gretta is heartbroken and homeless, but she doesn’t dwell on either, while Dan and ex-wife Miriam may be separated but are still civil to one another. You brace for melodrama and histrionics but for the most part they never come.

Whereas Llewyn Davis was a slave to music, Gretta is a master of it. She uses song to communicate with people, to express herself and — in one of the film’s funniest scenes — to get back at those who have wronged her. It’s not a chore, a calling or a cross to bear but a gift. This is reflected in the songs themselves; written by a team of songwriters including Carney himself, the songs are incredibly catchy but by no means key to the film’s success. The songs are written offscreen, the band is formed without fuss (CeeLo Green donates a drummer) and the tracks are recorded at the musicians’ convenience, meaning that the narrative is able to concern itself with more important things. Knightley and Ruffalo have terrific chemistry, but this is no romantic comedy; free from agenda or dramatic tension, their encounters are wonderfully flippant and informal. Again, they seem to favour sense over romance.

Sweet without being sentimental, moving without being miserable and offbeat without being offputting, Begin Again is a refreshingly laid-back look at the life of an artist. Likeable performances from Knightley, Ruffalo and even Corden coupled with a catchy soundtrack and witty script make it a joy to watch.

4-Stars

The Purge: Anarchy (2014)

The Purge AnarchyIt’s Annual Purge Night in America, a state-sanctioned holiday for law-enforcers and civility in general as citizens are invited to engage in a twelve-hour melee of no-strings-attached criminal activity. Those not willing to participate have little option but to barricade themselves in their own homes and hope their neighbours are doing the same. In Los Angeles, waitress Eva Sanchez (Carmen Ejogo) and daughter Cali (Zoë Soul) are plucked from their apartment by masked men, only to be saved from their assailants by Leo (Frank Grillo), an ex-police sergeant who is momentarily distracted from his own personal purge. They are joined by Shane (Zach Gilford) and Liz (Kiele Sanchez), a couple who were stranded and are now being stalked by the teens who sabotaged their car, as Leo seeks revenge for past crimes against him.

 

 

Ostensibly a sequel to 2013’s The Purge, Anarchy in fact shares little more than a premise — and what a premise it is. Set in the near future, in an over-populated America governed by The New Founding Fathers, the film posits a somewhat extreme solution: an annual purge in which violence is not only legalised but actively encouraged. The lower classes go to war while the elite pay out vast sums of money for the opportunity to indulge their most debased desires from the comfort and relatively safety of their own homes. The concept is not above scrutiny, but it’s not inconceivable either.

With the first film already under his belt, writer-director James DeMonaco wastes little time in setting up the sequel’s story. The first act is both efficient and effective, as DeMonaco introduces the new ensemble and re-establishes the premise. Young Ghoul Face and his gang of youths may have lead the marketing campaign, but the film itself favours its character over its criminals. We learn that Eva’s father is a financial burden to the family, that Leo lost a son to a drunk driver and that Shane is struggling to come to terms with the breakdown of his relationship with Liz. Unusually for a horror movie such as this, there’s nobody you’re actively willing to see die.

The sequel biggest problem is that, despite its subtitle, it’s actually quite conservative. DeMonaco doesn’t seem to want to kill off his characters either, and as a result any sense of suspense soon starts to dissipate. You know the kid is safe, and you can’t imagine DeMonaco killing off Leo before he has at least had a chance at revenge. As a result you expect any new character introduced to meet their maker first, which rather reduces the tension as the narrative becomes more and more predictable. The story also becomes increasingly convoluted as it loses sight of the simplicity that made the first so successful — instead aping everything from Hostel to The Hunger Games. Thankfully, the satire stays just about on target even if the plot loses its way.

At times really quite tense, The Purge: Anarchy sadly never graduates to full-blown terror. Miss-sold as a ground-level survival movie, the film is instead far more concerned with subjects such as surveillance and subjugation. Interesting, sure, but nowhere near as urgent or visceral as a machete-wielding skateboarder.

3-Stars

Boyhood (2014)

BoyhoodMason Jr (Ellar Coltrane) has never known stability. His father (Ethan Hawke) is nowhere to be seen, an aimless wanderer, and his mother (Patricia Arquette) no less nomadic, moving him and his older sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater) to a new home every time one of her rebound relationships goes awry. Eventually, Mason Sr begins to take more of an interest in his children’s lives, picking them up at weekends and taking them on camping trips in the school holidays. Meanwhile, having become romantically involved with her lecturer, Olivia moves in with Bill (Marco Perella), who has a son and daughter of his own. As Mason Jr matures, he takes an interest in photography and works towards a college scholarship.

Shot over the course of twelve years and co-starring his own daughter, director Richard Linklater’s Boyhood is about as personal as a film can get. What’s most amazing about the film, however, is that rather than feeling indulgent or exclusive it feels achingly familiar and has as a result been adopted by almost everyone who has seen it. It’s not the first time a child has grown up onscreen — many a child star has gone off the rails over the course of their filmographies, while Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint matured during a single 8-film franchise — but Linklater’s film is one of very few to genuinely capture what it feels like not only to grow up, but to watch someone transition from boy to man.

It’s still a lot to ask of any seven-year-old, and though Ellar Coltrane has to do little more than play himself in the early stages of the film he soon shows signs of genuine talent. As he navigates puberty and settles into his own skin it is hard not to feel a vicarious sense of paternal pride, whether you have children of your own or not. Whether it was prescience on the part of Linklater or simply blind luck, he has filled his cast out with actors who are as gifted as they are dedicated to the cause. Linklater’s daughter also shines in the role of Samantha, at first belting out Britney Spears songs as her brother tries to sleep and later blushing as her father elucidates her on the birds and the bees.

The parents are great too, with Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette changing almost as much as Ellar and Samantha over the course of the film — most years the latter’s hairstyles change more visibly than her children. At first flippant and irresponsible, Mason Sr slowly learns from his own mistakes until he is ready to become a father again, even if it’s to someone else. Olivia, meanwhile, is almost too eager to settle down, and finds herself trapped in a number of loveless relationships as she embarks on her own journey of self-discovery. Hawke gets many of the film’s best lines, but it’s Arquette who is responsible for the most emotional scenes. One in particular, in which she helps her son pack his things for college, is absolutely devastating. “I thought there would be more.”

Linklater’s directorial decisions don’t just mean that you get to watch a family evolve over time, however, but to see the world develop around them. Set between 2002 and 2013, the film acts as a time-capsule for the naughties. It references everything from Dragonball Z to Star Wars, Blink 182 to Soulja Boy, Gameboy to Nintendo Wii. It also covers the war on terror, McCain vs Obama and the midnight Harry Potter book launches. It’s a film that would be remarkable for its logistical feats alone, but which also offers characters that are almost unprecedentedly rich, a story that is endlessly relatable and a script that is as naturalistic as it is whip-smart.

Boyhood is an almost singular achievement in filmmaking, unlike anything that has come before and through its extremely personal nature unlike anything which will ever be. Linklater’s film isn’t one to enjoy, or admire or analyse, however, but one to love unconditionally — like one of your own.

5-Stars

Step Up: All In (2014)

Step Up All InHaving relocated to Los Angeles with The Mob in order to appear in a Nike commercial, Sean (Ryan Guzman) and Eddy (Misha Gabriel) are struggling to secure steady funding for their dance crew. After their umpteenth rejection, Eddy heads back to Miami with the rest of the dancers, leaving Sean to press on alone. Unable to afford rent, he contacts fellow street artist Moose (Adam Sevani) — now living with girlfriend Camille (Alyson Stoner) and working as an engineer — and arranges to stay at his parent’s dance studio while earning his keep as a janitor. Together they plan to compete in The Vortex, a televised dance competition which is offering a three-year dance contract to one lucky group. Starting with Andie (Briana Evigan), they put together a new crew and head out to Las Vegas for the event, where Sean now finds himself competing against Eddy and The Mob.

Following on from the events of the original trilogy, in which dance crews across America entered a variety of streetdance competitions, and the previous film, Step Up: Miami Heat, which saw The Mob protest a planned redevelopment of the slums in which they lived, Step Up: All In asks what comes next in the life of a dancer? The answer, it seems, is poverty, rejection and dissolution. The fifth instalment revisits characters from across the series, finding Sean cleaning toilets, Andie assisting on photoshoots and Moose recording readouts for an engineering firm; they are variously suffering from heartache, injury and boredom, and each takes little convincing when they are faced with the prospect of dancing once more.

Although undoubtedly formulaic (something this new film doesn’t shy away from, with Moose at one point asking “Does it always have to end up in a big, giant dance battle?”) the series is nowhere near as repetitive as you might expect: characters, setting and theme have changed from one film to the next, with the franchise so far framing dance as a platform for romance, crime, friendship and activism. The main constant throughout the series has been the power, importance and beauty of rhythm, and while each film focused on a slightly different style or genre it is ultimately a celebration of performance in general. For a Hollywood franchise it is unusually celebratory, inclusive and diverse, promoting old-fashioned values such as family, teamwork and loyalty in a cinematic landscape that is increasingly cynical, separatist and bleak. The latest film might satirise celebrity culture and reality television, but it doesn’t need a dystopian future or gladiatorial infanticide to do it.

Step Up: All In is predictable, preposterous and perfunctory, not to mention garish and badly acted, but it is so overwhelmingly positive that you can’t help but forgive the film its flaws. There is an underlying sweetness to it that is incredibly endearing, and beneath the stage personas and endless posturing of its characters there is a real tenderness and warmth. Sevani and Evigan are two of the series’ strongest assets, both in terms of dance and dramatic arts, and they are redeployed and further developed here to great effect; but it is not just former glories that director Trish Sie welcomes to the stage. The Step Up franchise has always been a showcase for fresh talent, most famously launching the career of Channing Tatum, and it continues to do so indiscriminately. The showstopping dance numbers are more elaborate than ever (the final showdown is likely to be remembered as one of the best set pieces of the year) but the smaller moments are just as impressive, whether it’s children cutting shapes on the dancefloor, lovers courting on an abandoned carnival ride or Moose’s parents sharing a dance in their living room.

Whether this is the final instalment or merely the end of Phase One of the Step Up saga, Step Up: All In is a perfect precis of everything that makes the series great. You may cringe at the jokes, be unconvinced by the drama and see everything coming a mile off, but the moment the music starts and the characters take to the stage you can’t help but enjoy the show regardless. Everyone’s welcome.

3-Stars

July 2014 — Ain’t no thing like me, except me!

Boyhood PosterSo, full disclosure: films took a bit of a back seat this month, while I focused on other important things like packed lunches and mocking the Commonwealth Games’ opening ceremony on Twitter.

There were no film festivals, no press screenings or interviews, just sporadic trips to my local multiplex to watch How To Train Your Dragon in every format available. (Bog-standard non-IMAX 3D is still the best.)

I did, however, manage to squeeze in the odd new release as well. I saw Transformers: Age of Extinction, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and Guardians of the Galaxy on or before their opening weekends, and caught up with The Fault in Our Stars and Chef before they vanished from cinemas.

I also continued my Edinburgh Film Festival coverage with a review of The Infinite Man, though I’m still nowhere near finished with the films seen at this year’s festival.

It was a surprisingly strong month, though that’s likely because I had  to be slightly more discerning than usual in my film choices. I missed Pudsey: The Movie, Mrs Brown’s Boys D’Movie and The House of Magic, so my relatively fond memories of July are bound to be biased.

After all, it was the month I saw Boyhood, a film so profound and prodigious that I’m no closer to coming to terms with my feelings about it than finally getting them down on paper, let alone onto this blog. While not my favourite film of the year, it will undoubtedly prove one of the most memorable.

This month I also yomped a section of the Cateran Way and wrote about my feelings towards Marvel’s Phase Two. But mostly it was packed lunches and mocking Tweets.

Film of the month: Boyhood

 

Why Thor: The Dark World Is Marvel’s Best Phase Two Film

Marvel Phase TwoThe following contains spoilers for The AvengersIron Man 3, Thor: The Dark WorldCaptain America: The Winter Solider and Agents of S.H.I. E.L.D., as well as light discussion of Guardians of the Galaxy.

It’s been six years since Marvel unleashed their cinematic universe on cinemagoers, and in that time they have released a total of ten films, structured into a series of multi-film phases of which there are currently two, though plans exist for many more.

Phase One began in 2008 with the release of Iron Man, and continued through The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, Thor, Captain America: The First Avenger until these four sub-franchises were finally brought together for The Avengers (renamed Marvel’s Avengers Assemble for UK audiences).

Nothing like it had ever existed in Hollywood before. There had of course been sequels, prequels, spin-offs and franchises before, but never separate long-standing sagas running parallel with interlocking stories that shared characters and a common goal. It was a real game-changer, and its influence is still being felt in cinemas today.

Right from the off it was clear that Marvel had a uniquely ambitious plan: Iron Man introduced playboy billionaire philanthropist Tony Stark and his self-sustaining arc-reactor, as well as referencing both S.H.I.E.L.D and The Avengers; The Incredible Hulk featured Bruce Banner and a cameo from Stark; Iron Man 2 fleshed out Agents Phil Coulson and Nick Fury, and introduced Natasha Romanoff, aka Black Widow; Thor established Asgard, Loki and Hawkeye; and Captain America: The First Avenger teased Steve Rogers, Hydra and the power of Tesseract.

By the time Joss Whedon’s The Avengers rolled around, every one of its members (excluding Black Widow and Hawkeye) had at least one stand-alone movie to their name. The film brought them all together in a way that felt perfectly organic, and in the process marked the beginning of a new age of blockbuster filmmaking: the mega-franchise. Not only was The Avengers a great film in its own right, with its own clearly defined beginning, middle and end, but it concluded a number of storylines from the previous films, continued others and set up more still. It was the end of Phase One, but the beginning of Phase Two.

The second phase of Marvel’s Cinematic Universe began with Iron Man 3, and the problems were apparent from the get-go. After the ever-increasing forward momentum of Phase One, in which every plot beat or character introduction somehow fed into the larger narrative, Iron Man 3 seemed strangely rudderless, self-contained and inert. Like most of the films which proceeded it, the film started with a flashback, retroactively introducing a villain that felt at once extraneous and expendable. Having parted ways with Jon Favroux, Marvel instead hired Shane Black, an auteur who put his own creative fulfillment before the good of the franchise. Rather than revere the canon, the thing that makes the MCU so special and valuable, Black took liberties with it.

These are problems that recur throughout Phase Two: tangential stories, weak villains and indulgent directors. When Marvel should first and foremost have been exploring their shared universe, exploiting their biggest asset, they instead fell back on traditional, stand-alone storytelling while rival studios were catching up and putting the concept to better use. Captain America: The Winter Solider was conceived as a political thriller by directors Joe and Anthony Russo, and concerned Steve Roger’s reanimated friend’s manipulation at the hands of Hydra. There’s no denying it had a huge impact on the series (spelling the end of S.H.I.E.L.D., for one) but it all but ignored the destruction of New York, Miami and London, instead opting to level Washington DC as well. It also felt too self contained.

The MCU had enormous potential to change the way that stories are told on the big screen. By establishing a shared universe Marvel and CEO Kevin Feige had the opportunity to revolutionise the traditional three act structure and pursue long-running narrative arcs not possible in other less secure and less focused franchises. Instead, it reverted to formula, introducing a fresh conflict for every movie and ending on a big effects-laden battle for the future of mankind. When it was first announced, a tie-in television series focusing on the day-to-day operations of S.H.I.E.L.D seemed like a no brainer; it would allow Marvel to explore their cinematic universe from a new angle, to expand the mythology and continue to push the envelope of multi-media entertainment. Where the films largely ignored the wider universe, Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D unfortunately became slave to it, reacting to Coulson’s death, Extremis and Hydra when it should have been branching out into new territory.

Whereas streamlined Phase One built momentum by converging on a single point, Phase Two has spread itself far too thin over dead end characters and pointless plot developments. Subplots such as The Mandarin, Extremis, Hydra and Centipede ultimately went nowhere, and with less than a year to go until Avengers: Age of Ultron we are no closer to understanding why our heroes would ever need to join forces once more — leaving Whedon with a hell of a lot of explaining to do before he can get on with his own story. All we really know about the film so far is that it will feature Scarlet Witch, Quicksilver and Ultron, but rather than setting up superheroes or killer robots Marvel have convoluted matters by introducing random fire people (seriously, WTF?) and a completely separate homicidal AI (which was since destroyed) instead. The post-credit teasers, handled so well during Phase One, have all but fallen by the wayside, ceasing to foreshadow future instalments and instead ending things on a hollow joke.

The final film before Age of Ultron is perhaps the most removed of the lot. Guardians of the Galaxy, however entertaining it might be in its own right, is little more than a footnote in the grand scheme of the MCU. Again opening with a flashback (this time to the 80s), the film sees human Peter Quill zapped to the other side of the galaxy. This isn’t the universe as seen in Thor, however, a vast array of realms connected by the world tree and accessible only by Bifrost, but a completely new section of space policed by the Nova Corp. Right at the point where it should all be coming together (at this point in Phase One Captain America was forming S.H.I.E.L.D, losing the Tesseract and offering his services as an Avenger), audiences are instead watching a talking raccoon and a walking tree attempt to save a distant planet. With hindsight, this may well be essential foreshadowing, but at the moment it all seems a little bit redundant.

The only film to truly recognise and embrace its place as a small piece in a much larger puzzle is Thor: The Dark World. It may not be the best film in the world, but at least it does its job. At once picking up from Kenneth Branagh’s origin story (Asgard is almost as we left it in 2011, while Jane Foster, Darcy Lewis and Erik Selvig have relocated to London to continue their research), spinning off from The Avengers (Thor and Loki return home to face the repercussions of their actions on Earth), telling a story of its own (involving Malakeith and his search for the Aether, like the Tesseract another Infinity Stone) and planting seeds for future instalments (the film ends with Loki on the throne of Asgard). Director Alan Taylor brings his own sensibilities to the tone of the piece (it’s more George R. R. Martin than William Shakespeare), but his direction never dominates the piece. Style and ambition are all well and good, but when you’re dealing with something as sprawling and ultimately quite delicate as the MCU caution and respect for the established canon is key. Marvel don’t need risk-takers, they need utilitarians.

Although it suffers many of the same failings as the other films in Phase Two (namely an unremarkable antagonist and a big, effects laden finale) it makes up for in stakes, drama and character-driven humour. At times it feels like a direct sequel to The Avengers, and the fact that together with the first Thor it plays out as one cohesive trilogy makes the character deaths, betrayals and cameos all the more resonant. Thor, Loki and even Selvig have all been through a lot together, and the relationships have a far greater resonance as a result. Stark may have had bad dreams after New York, Captain America may still be reeling from the loss of Peggy Carter, but it’s Thor and Loki who have the most pressing (and interesting) issues. The finale may be big and brash but thanks to the involvement of Foster, Lewis and Selvig it has much more personality than automated robots fighting one another in Iron Man 3 or automated helicarriers fighting one another at the end of The Winter Soldier. At the end of the film Thor is back on Earth ready to be called upon once more, whereas Phase Two leaves Tony Stark without a suit and Steve Rogers chasing ghosts.

Again, there is every chance that I may have spoken too soon, and that next year Age of Ultron will show each movie to have been key in its own, unpredictable way. If Whedon pulls it off, Avengers 2 will likely trump The Dark World as the highlight of Phase Two. Even if that’s the case, however, there are still lessons for Marvel to learn if it wants to make Phase Three a more satisfying and all-round successful experience. A balance between style and substance is essential, as is a balance between the intimate and the epic, and the current model — hiring singular directors to branch out in new directions before overriding them for a far more generic last act — isn’t working. There are other ways to be bold and boundary-pushing, like following through with their promise of a shared universe and entering not just a new phase of stories but the next phase of superhero storytelling.

 

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