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.

 

Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

Guardians of the GalaxyAbducted from Earth in the year 1988, mere minutes after the death of his mother, Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) has grown up in the company of space pirates. While trying to retrieve a mysterious orb from an abandoned planet, Quill is interrupted by a group of Kree hunters under identical orders from Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace). He escapes — just — only to run into a couple of bounty hunters and an assassin who want him for a variety of reasons. As Rocket (Bradley Cooper) and Groot (Vin Diesel) attempt to capture Quill in order to claim a reward and Gamora (Zoe Saldana) chases the orb they are all arrested by Nova Prime, an intergalactic police force lead by Nova Prime (Glenn Close). They manage to escape — just — before Ronan and Nebula (Karen Gillan) can arrive for the orb, having recruited a fifth member in Drax (Dave Bautista), who seeks revenge on The Accuser for murdering his family. Having struck an uneasy alliance, the Guardians of the Galaxy set out to do something good, something bad, or a bit of both.

The tenth instalment of Marvel’s long-running cinematic universe, James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy is the first origin story of Phase Two. Although not quite stand-alone (a Dark Elf is glimpsed in The Collector’s gallery and Thanos makes his first appearance since The Avengers), it still marks something of a departure for the studio. A space opera featuring a talking animal, a walking tree and an arrow guided by whistles (not to mention an exclusively 80s soundtrack), Guardians of the Galaxy is out there even by Marvel’s standards. An inherent weirdness isn’t all it shares with Gunn’s previous films, as Michael Rooker, irreverent humour and moments of real, occasionally certificate-pushing gore add to the film’s oddball personality.

Things get off to a strong start, as Quill is bequeathed a final present by his dying mother only to be moments later plucked from the fog outside the hospital by a visiting alien. Having nodded to Spielbergian sci-fi, Gunn then homages Indiana Jones with a bit of high-stakes tomb raiding. When the title card finally appears, our hero is dancing around an ancient alien ruin to Redbone’s Come And Get Your Love, carelessly kicking womp rats as he goes. Gunn treads the line between nostalgia and iconoclasm beautifully, referencing a number of classic movies and pop culture phenomenon without ever doing so in a way you might anticipate. The film even has its own R2D2 and C3PO, only the former has been reimagined as a bad-mouthed, gun-totting raccoon (just don’t call him vermin) and the latter as a walking tree with a spectacularly limited vocabulary (“I am Groot”).

It’s an astonishingly tough call, but Rocket and Groot arguably steal the show. Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel, despite only being cast in the last seven or eight months, give two of the best vocal performances of the year, breathing real depth into special effects that are just as impressive in their own right. Andy Serkis might — deservedly — be getting all the praise for his work on Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, but what Rocket and Groot lack in nuance and photo-realism they make up for in personality and presence. Rocket — whether he’s fixing a gun or, erm, himself — is a sardonic, short-tempered delight, while Groot gets one of the funniest scenes in the film — though to say any more would be to spoil the surprise. Pratt, Saldana and Bautista are great too, the latter (actually a WWE wrestler by trade) making a huge impression as Drax the Destroyer, a badass who takes everything at face value. Even John C. Reilly has his moments.

Like the rest of Phase Two, however, Guardians of the Galaxy is not without its problems. Having so expertly established their shared universe in Phase One, it’s disheartening to see Marvel so clearly struggling to maintain it. The joy of Iron Man, Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger was the sense of cohesion and momentum which increased with every new, cross-pollinating instalment. When The Avengers rolled around its story followed directly on from each, furthering various character arcs while introducing new relationships. With Avengers: Age Of Ultron due for release next year, there is little urgency or sense of purpose for what should be the big event of 2015. That’s not necessarily a problem with Guardians of the Galaxy itself, but the tangential nature of it can’t help but slow things down even further. Even the re-appearance of Thanos does little to further the over-arching story, with the character limited to a mere cameo in favour of Ronan and Nebula, two of Marvel’s least engaging villains to date.

Guardians of the Galaxy‘s sheer disregard for logic and reason is often joyous (and even a running joke among the characters themselves), but it’s also at times incredibly frustrating. The first half an hour sees the audience bombarded with gobbledegook, as comic book mythology is introduced but never explained. Nouns like Xandar, Knowhere, Nova Corps, Ravagers and Kree are likely to go right over your head, and unless you’re completely au fait with Marvel’s comic book universe you are unlikely to pick up on a number of references — not just Easter eggs, but plot points too. You can no longer delineate characters solely on the basis of skin or costume colour; there are a number of blue characters in Guardians of the Galaxy, and it’s almost impossible to determine the relationship between them. There is precious little sense to the wider universe, at least beyond Asguard and Midguard, and it becomes particularly problematic during the closing battle when you’re supposed to be fearing for the lives of supporting characters you barely recognise let alone care about: random pink girl, for instance, or that alien with the eyebrows.

Guardians of the Galaxy is nevertheless a very entertaining space romp. It’s funny, exciting, beautiful and — given the preponderance of profanity, the dubiousness of the ethics and the occasional grisliness of the special effects — suitably edgy. Add to that the quality of the cast, the quotability of the script and general awesomeness of the soundtrack, and you have a film that it is destined for greatness. Sadly, however, your enjoyment will likely be marred somewhat by an incomprehensible plot, weak villains and moments which stretch your goodwill a little too far. The whistle-guided arrow, for example.

3.5-Stars

Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes (2014)

Dawn Of The Planet Of The ApesTen winters have passed since Simian flu devastated the human race and left a new generation of uber-apes to inherit the Earth. They are ruled by Caeser (Andy Serkis), the chimpanzee indirectly responsible for both man’s demise and the ape uprising, who leads alongside Koba (Toby Kebbell), his trusted second in command. When a small number of humans are found to have survived, however, the relationship between Caeser and Koba begins to fray; mindful of the friendship he once shared with a human Caeser pushes for peace, while Koba insists that they eradicate their one-time abusers once and for all. There is disharmony in the human camp too, with Malcolm (Jason Clarke) wanting to work alongside the apes in order the restore power to San Francisco and Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) determined to declare all-out war on Muir Woods.

It speaks volumes about the legacy of Tim Burton’s ill-fated reboot that even after the unexpected success of Richard Wyatt’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes audiences are still skeptical of the franchise’s modern-day reimagining. This year’s sequel, despite all evidence to the contrary, was widely expected to undo Wyatt’s good work and reinstate the series’ standing as a laughing stock. In reality, however, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is perhaps even better than its predecessor; the title may be just as cumbersome, but everything else is sleeker and even more satisfying than before.

Following a brief newsreel hinting at the scale and severity of the initial ALZ-113 outbreak, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes eschews humanity in favour of ape-kind, checking in with Caeser and the family he has raised over the last decade. The original film was remarkable for a number of reasons, the most obvious being its portrayal of Caeser himself. Serkis is once again exceptional, combining well-observed behavioural ticks and intuitive sign language to give Caeser unmistakable personality. He is this time joined by a number of other talented motion-capture artists too; Kebbell and Greer are terrific as Caeser’s advisor and mate, but it’s newcomer Nick Thurston who ultimately impresses most as his wary son, Blue Eyes.

Despite bravely shifting the focus to Caeser, the emotional centre of the previous film was arguably John Lithgow’s Charles, the Alzheimer’s-stricken father of Caeser’s human guardian. Here, however, the human characters barely feature (though Keri Russell still manages to distinguish herself as a grieving mother), and on this occasion it’s the relationship between Caeser and his son that grounds the film emotionally. The corrupted youth trope is hardly a new one, but the unique setting and singular characters nevertheless lend it an element of novelty, if not originality. Their relationship is as nuanced, touching and sympathetic as any you are likely to see this year.

This is far from a subdued melodrama, however, and Matt Reeves — who directed Cloverfield prior to the rather less successful Let Me In– certainly knows how to stage an effective set piece. This being a prequel we already know roughly what is going to happen, but Reeves still manages to invoke a sense of suspense by keeping the stakes personal and the characters interesting. After a moment of light relief in which Malcolm et al manage to generate enough electricity to power a gas station radio, war returns to San Francisco as the horse-riding, gun-totting apes lead a charge on the virus-resistant human resistance. Chaos erupts as battles break out — human vs. human, human vs. ape, ape vs. ape — and each conflict is as compelling as the one before.

Given the law of diminishing returns, whereupon sequels — let alone sequels of prequels of reboots — regularly fail to live up to their predecessors, it’s all the more remarkable that Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is as good as it is. With its state-of-the-art special effects, quasi-satirical subtext and measured character study, this is undoubtedly one of the strongest competitors for best blockbuster of the year.

4-Stars

The Infinite Man (EIFF 2014)

The Infinite ManOne year on from an apparently perfect anniversary, Dean (Josh McConville) and Lana (Hannah Marshall) return to the same hotel only to find it abandoned and in ruin. Lana shrugs it off, more than happy to go to the beach instead, but Dean — who had planned on recreating their itinerary down to the finest detail — insists that they stay and make it work. It’s a disastrous decision that leaves Lana in the arms of ex-boyfriend Terry (Alex Dimitriades) and Dean desperate to win her back. So desperate, in fact, that he builds a time machine, and one year later invites Lana back to unveil his creation. Over the course of multiple visits to the past, however, the hotel becomes crowded with Deans, Lanas and even Terrys as they compete for control of the past.

Unlike About Time, Richard Curtis’ 2013 timey-wimey rom-com in which Domnhall Gleeson accidentally retconned his relationship with Rachel McAdams (and proceeded to groom her anew), writer-director Hugh Sullivan does not expect us to root for McConville’s overly possessive Dean. He’s a tragic hero, of sorts, but while you may occasionally sympathise with his nostalgic pangs you never for a moment will for him to succeed. The fact that you feel anything but uncomfortable about his attempts to avoid change and stunt the development of his own relationship is testament to the comedic talents of McConville, who deftly tackles the often nuanced differences between temporally distinct but visually indistinguishable Deans.

The rest of the cast are great too, and even though there are really only three actors the film never feels like it is lacking in characters. The contrast is clearest in the two iterations of Dimitriades’ Terry, who is introduced as a disgraced, down-on-his-luck Olympic athlete but is later revamped as a suave businessman who is very much in control of his future. It’s Marshall who impresses most, however, despite having the straightest role of the three; her arc may not be as pronounced as those of her male co-stars, but she is by some margin the easiest to empathise with. Never just the subject of Dean’s affections (and manipulations), she soon takes on a larger role in the time-travelling shenanigans to push for a say in her own future.

Sullivan has clearly put a lot of effort into working out the temporal mechanics of his movie, and right up to the last ten minutes or so manages to convince you that it all just about hangs together. His film is smart without being ineffable, funny without being ridiculous and emotional without being sentimental. It might not be quite as thrilling as Triangle, that other Australia-set paradox, but neither is it as frustrating. Unfortunately, however, Sullivan arguably pushes his story a twist too far, as by the end you have little option but to take it on trust that it all makes sense. That said, the cast are so compelling, the themes so strong and the setting so striking that you don’t mind having to take just that little bit extra on faith.

The Infinite Man is a meticulously planned, confidently performed and imaginatively staged that strikes an impressive balance not only between romance and comedy, but science fiction too. At a film festival otherwise lacking in Antipodean entries, Sullivan’s film does the country proud.

3.5-Stars

 

 

Chef (2014)

_DSC9034.NEFCarl Casper (Jon Favreau) is head chef at a popular Los Angeles restaurant, where he works alongside sous chef Tony (Bobby Cannavale), line cook Martin (John Leguizamo) and hostess Molly (Scarlett Johansson). When owner Riva (Dustin Hoffman) vetoes a planned menu change and condemns him to a negative review by influential food blogger Ramsey (Oliver Platt), Carl storms out in a fit of rage that is filmed by a number of the diners. Now jobless and a laughing stock online, Carl swallows his pride, takes his ex-wife’s advice and travels down to Miami to buy a food truck — christened Le Jeffe — from an ex of her own called Marvin (Robert Downey Jr.). He also agrees to take his son along for the ride, finally getting the opportunity to spend some time with him.

Having somewhat struck out with Cowboys vs. Aliens, Jon Favreau is only now — three years later, after serving as executive producer on the most recent Iron Man film and taking a couple of small screen directing gigs — bouncing back. Not without his own critics, there are distinct parallels running between Casper and Favreau, and it doesn’t exactly take too much of a leap to imagine his comments on the blogosphere applying to film as well as food criticism. Fortunately, Favreau (as director, that is) doesn’t dwell on the subject — in fact, he arguably comes down on the critic’s side — but instead gets on with the business of putting together a pretty decent road movie, easily his best film since the first Iron Man.

There is a fair amount of prep to get through before the director seems ready to dig in, however, as Favreau throws just about everything and everyone he can get his hands on into the mix. Hoffman, Johansson and Downey Jr crowd the first act, threatening to unbalance the film as they jostle for attention. Of the supporting cast it is probably Sofia Vergara who impresses most as Carl’s ex-wife, which may come as something of a surprise if you only know her as the Colombian actress from The Smurfs, New Years Eve and The Three Stooges. Eventually, however, Favreau remembers to pour off the fat.

The film finds its focus almost as soon as Carl, Percy and Martin leave Miami. This new, more relaxed Favreau is much easier to sympathise with, and his efforts to share his interests with his young son are incredibly touching. It’s Percy who is ultimately responsible for the endeavour’s success, by recognising the potential of social media and embracing his father’s infamy to raise El Jefe’s profile around the country. This particular gimmick is handled very well, with Tweets represented by little blue birds fluttering noisily into the Twittersphere. Even when Percy compiles a Vine of their experiences — comprising footage from every day of the trip — the film never comes across as manipulative or try-hard, but instead invokes a genuine emotional reaction.

Favreau ultimately proves his critics wrong, both in front and behind the scenes, not only showing incredible technical proficiency (he chops vegetables like a natural), but also a love and appreciation for the art of cooking himself (he’s clearly done his research). It’s too long and a little overcrowded, but for the most part rather than making a meal out of it Favreau has let his ingredients speak for themselves.

3.5-Stars

Transformers: Age Of Extinction (2014)

Age of ExtinctionYears after the Battle of Chicago, the Autobots have been forced into hiding by CIA officer Harold Attinger (Kelsey Grammer), while sister organisation the KSI are using Megatron’s decapitated head to create their own robot army, to be lead by prototype Galvatron (Frank Welker). Attinger has enlisted the help of alien bounty hunter Lockdown (Mark Ryan), and together they trace Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen) to Texas, where he is being rebuilt by inventor Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg) and his daughter Tessa (Nicola Peltz). The three escape thanks to Tessa’s boyfriend Shane (Jack Reynor), and soon reunite with Bumblebee, Hound (John Goodman), Drift (Ken Watanabe) and Crosshairs (John DiMaggio). They are each called upon by Prime to help storm the government facility and put an end to scientist Joshua Joyce’s (Stanley Tucci) work.

Of course, running in at a truly astonishing 165 minutes this only begins to scratch the surface of Transformers: Age Of Extinction‘s plot. The film opens during the Cretaceous Period, where The Creators put a premature end to dinosaur life with the aid of Seeds, devices which “cyberform” planets by exposing them to “Transformium”. One botched jump cut later and all that remains of this extinction event is a metal T-Rex skeleton, unearthed by a character who we will not meet again for hours. You see, Attinger is helping Lockdown track down Prime in exchange for one such Seed, for unknown reasons. Everything in this film happens for unknown reasons.

Instead, we meet Cade Yeager, a character who is even more preposterous than his name might have you believe. He’s an inventor who specialises in crap, and who seems to think that a world populated by futuristic alien robots will be interested in a beer-retrieval machine that only occasionally works. After all, it’s not like advanced synthetic life has literally only just been shown to have predated humankind by 65 million years. He is father to Tessa, who is only notable for wearing a skirt that is so short you can see the lining of her pockets against her naked legs — often that is all you can see. It’s a relationship that fails to convince on just about every level possible, particularly with the introduction of Shane, an Irish racer who is hilariously dubbed Lucky Charms by Wade.

If the human characters are insufferable then the Transformers are just plain inexplicable. Despite having now directed four feature films on the subject (four very, very long feature films), Michael Bay still doesn’t seem to understand his titular aliens. We’ve already had girl robots, urban robots and even robot testicles, but Age Of Extinction only confuses things further by introducing robot cigarettes, techno-organic space wolves and prehistoric robots that transform into dinosaurs — you know, just in case they had to blend in with those animals their forebears had already eradicated. Most baffling of all is Drift, a Japanese alien robot who refers to Optimus Prime as sensei and wears a robot cloak into robot battle. Despite being aliens who spend most of their time as automobiles, their exchanges make regular references to chess, ballet and fortune cookies. For unknown reasons.

There really are an astonishing number of characters vying — unsuccessfully — for the audience’s attention. The first film involved a handful or Autobots fighting a handful of Decepticons, while a handful of humans avoided being squashed underfoot. It too was awful, but while the visual effects were completely incomprehensible the story at least made some sort of sense. This latest film boasts Autobots, Decepticons, a new handful of human characters (including a second Hong Kong-set ensemble during the last act), human-made Transformers, The Creators, inter-galactic bounty hunters, a car which seems to exist for the sole purpose of giving the Transformers paint jobs and Dinobots, which may star in the promotional material but in reality only play a pitiful role in proceedings. Even with nearly three hours at his disposal, Bay can’t even begin to make sense of his own story. That said, given how terrible Ehren Kruger’s script is (“I know you have a conscience because you’re an inventor like me”) you can’t help but wonder if he ever even tried.

Nobody makes a film as bad as Transformers: Age Of Extinction by accident; Bay has spent the last seven years honing his craft, methodically weeding out every redeeming feature the first few films may have had until he is left exclusively with the worst aspects of contemporary feature filmmaking. Transformers: Age Of Extinction, with its interminable action scenes, cynical product placement and overwhelming contempt for its audience, doesn’t refer to the end of prehistoric or modern life, but the death of cinema as we know it.

0.5-Stars

 

The Fault In Our Stars (2014)

The Fault In Our StarsIn Indianapolis, sixteen-year-old Hazel Grace Lancaster (Shailene Woodley) is struggling to cope with a terminal thyroid cancer that has metastasized to her lungs. Despite having long given up on her cancer support group, she surprises herself by hitting it off with Augustus Waters (Ansel Elgort), an amputee who has been in remission for osteosarcoma for a number of months. They agree to trade books — Hazel’s cancer-inflected An Imperial Affliction for Augustus’ violent video game novelisation — and after having corresponded with the author (Willem Dafoe) of the former set off for Amsterdam, courtesy of a sympathetic make-a-wish organisation.

It has been a good few years now since maudlin Jodi Picoult adaptation My Sister’s Keeper gave cancer movies a bad name. In the intervening years films like Now Is Good and 50/50 have approached the subject with rather more sensitivity and even-handedness. Josh Boone’s The Fault In Their Stars — based on John Green’s astonishingly successful novel — falls somewhere in between, getting the teenage angst just right while also exploring the subject for comedy, often by highlighting certain well-observed absurdities that come hand-in-hand with a diagnosis.

The cast is exceptional, with Woodley and Elgort in particular — having earlier this year played siblings in Divergent — proving considerably more convincing as lovers. Both are incredibly sympathetic, and their initially cautious courtship is played beautifully. Their fears transcend their particular set of circumstances, and anyone can relate to having worries about being forgotten and leaving people behind. The supporting cast are arguably even more impressive, with Dafoe stealing every scene he’s in as the book-within-a-book’s aggressive author and Laura Dern playing something of a symphony on your heart strings as Hazel’s mother.

Set over a series of months, their romance is nevertheless a refreshingly slow burn. While nowhere near as phlegmatic as the love story in Twilight, there is a reluctance to hurt the other that sets it apart from most whirlwind romances. Hazel states at the outset that this is no traditional relationship drama, and rather than showboating displays of affection it is the smaller moments of intimacy that really hit their mark — a romantic dinner; a morning stroll. It’s not without the occasional misstep, however, and an otherwise promising scene set in Anne Frank’s apartment is sadly spoiled by a saccarine show of spontaneous public support that wouldn’t feel out of place in a Spider-man movie. That said, the atypical Amsterdam setting remains one of the film’s biggest assets.

Moving without being manipulative, The Fault In Our Stars is a more than your average Young Adult adaptation. Funny in places, devastating in others, it is a successful examination of young love in exceptional circumstances.

4-Stars

 

June 2014 – I’m your best night…I’m your worst nightmare

HTTYD IMAXYou might not know it from my relatively sparse updates, but June was a pretty busy month, all things considered.

Putting aside real life demands on my time like ending one job and starting another, much of this last month has been spent commuting from one cinema to the next. I’ve never spent so much time on a train in my life.

I began June in Glasgow with press screenings of Grace Of Monaco, The Young And Prodigious T. S. Spivet and Belle, before returning to Dundee in order to mop up at the multiplex with 22 Jump Street and a second viewing of X-Men: Days Of Future Past.

That, however, was just the calm before the storm. On the 17th I made the first of six trips through to the Capital for the 68th Edinburgh International Film Festival. Having picked up my press pass on arrival, I kicked things off with Manakamana, a Nepalese fly-on-the-wall documentary that followed worshipers as they pilgrimaged to a remote temple…by cable car.

Overall I saw sixteen films at EIFF 2014, only some of which I found the time to review, either for this blog or for HeyUGuys. These included Greyhawk, Palo Alto, X/Y, Zip & Zap and the Marble Gang, We Are Monster, Snowpiercer, A Most Wanted Man, Something, Anything, Night Flight, I Believe In Unicorns, Parents, A Practical Guide to a Spectacular Suicide, The Nut Job, The Infinite Man and The Green Inferno, for which I interviewed director Eli Roth and star Lorenza Izzo.

The best film I saw in Edinburgh was not a festival film at all, but How To Train Your Dragon 2 (in IMAX 3D). The original is one of my favourite films — if not my favourite film — of all time, and having initially been slightly underwhelmed by the sequel I was relieved to find myself warming to it on second viewing. I have since downloaded the soundtrack, and plan on seeing the film again at the nearest opportunity.

With July approaching I have a lot to catch up on. It looks like I’ve missed Oculus and The Devil’s Knot, but there’s hopefully still time to see Jersey Boys, Walking On Sunshine and The Fault In Our Stars before they disappear from cinemas. Otherwise I’ll have no option but to swallow my pride and go see Mrs. Brown’s Boys D’Movie, or whatever it’s called. Feckin’ right.

Film of the month: How To Train Your Dragon 2

The Green Inferno (EIFF 2014)

The Green InfernoJustine (Lorenza Izzo) is a young idealist studying in New York City when she becomes involved with student activists campaigning for conservation in the Amazon. Together with Alejandro (Ariel Levy), Samantha (Magda Apanowicz) and Daniel (Nicolás Martinez), she departs for Peru, where they stage a successful demonstration against contractors cutting down acres of trees. On their way back, however, the plane they are travelling in malfunctions, crashing in territory belonging to the tribe they were trying to save. Unbeknownst to them, the tribe practices cannibalistic rituals.

Having attended last year’s Glasgow Film Festival on behalf of Nicolás López’ Aftershock, in which he starred, Eli Roth is back on the Scottish festival circuit with The Green Inferno, his first directorial effort since Hostel: Part II in 2007. Shot on location in the Peruvian rain forest, and featuring genuine tribes people from the local area (though their cannibalistic tendencies are purely fictitious), the film is rather different from his other efforts. It’s beautiful, for one thing, and unexpectedly funny, for another.

It is not fear that Roth evokes with his panning shots of the jungle, but wanderlust. Bulldozers are tearing down trees long before cannibals get to tear into human flesh, and when the activists set out to protest deforestation you are right behind them. Even when things go awry, the arrival of multicoloured tribesmen is just as likely to bring to mind vivid Xperia adverts than your deepest, darkest nightmares. It adds to the heightened sense of absurdity, and while it may undermine the atmosphere of suspense it does little to diminish the inevitable gruesomeness.

As for the humour, that follows from the absurdity. Roth pokes fun at student activism, questioning the effectiveness of hunger strikes and ridiculing many of their chosen causes. Once Justine and co. arrive in the Amazon things only get more surreal, with the activists boarding rickshaws named after celebrities such as Madonna and Brad Pitt and fine dining while they wait for their plane into the jungle. The strongest juxtaposition is between the horrific nature of the cannibals’ actions and the mundane manner with which the treat them. Unexpectedly, the film isn’t judging their customs, but the students for not doing their research.

There are scenes in The Green Inferno that are just as squirm-inducing as the shaving sequence from Cabin Fever and the bit with the Achilles tendon in Hostel, but there is much more to this one that simple schlock. A clever film with a dedicated turn from up-and-coming scream-queen Izzo, The Green Inferno is quite possibly Roth’s best film yet.

3-Stars

22 Jump Street (2014)

22 Jump StreetWhen their undercover sting operation is foiled by an octopus, Morton Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Greg Jenko (Channing Tatum) are swiftly reassigned to Jump Street by Deputy Chief Hardy (Nick Offerman), where they are once again answerable to Captain Dickson (Ice Cube). This time, however, they are sent to college, though the specifics of their assignment are much and such the same: they must identify the individual supplying WHYPHY to the student body, a drug which has already claimed one life on campus.

A meta-sequel to their meta-reboot, Phil Lord and Christopher Miller’s 22 Jump Street continues in the vein of its predecessor, subverting the traditional buddy cop movie format while also taking swipes at everything from sequels in general to the film’s own plot holes. Nothing is safe, with veiled references to Ice Cube’s rapper persona, Tatum’s extant filmography and even The Benny Hill Show making sure that there is at least one decent gag in the film for just about everyone.

21 Jump Street was the film that first made audiences re-evaluate Channing Tatum, with later 2012 releases Magic Mike and Haywire helping to recast the actor as a serious dramatic talent with excellent comic timing. He’s arguably even funnier in the sequel, particularly in scenes where he’s required to improvise (something that his character at least is absolutely terrible at) or show any intellectual capabilities whatsoever. His constant confusion of words and phrases (WHYPHY/WiFi; homophobe/homophone) are a constant delight.

Hill and Ice Cube are great too, particularly when Schmidt starts dating Dickson’s daughter, Maya (Amber Stevens), leading to a stand-out showdown in the Captain’s cube of ice. It’s relative newcomer Jillian Bell as Maya’s roommate, Mercedes, however, who ultimately steals the show. While it would be a spoiler to reveal the character’s true role within the narrative, her early antagonism with Schmidt is a real treat, as she immediately calls him out on account of his apparent old age. One particular skirmish may well go down as the funniest of the year, though Dickson vs. the buffet cart gives it some pretty tough competition.

That said, it’s not quite as funny as the first film, and a number of refrains fall particularly flat. The partners once again find themselves dosing on the drug they are supposed to be removing from circulation, and though the effects are explored in a different way it just doesn’t have the same impact. While perhaps less likely to make you laugh out loud than the first film, the satire this time around is often much cleverer than you might expect. A running gag involving the project’s out-of-control budget will at least have you smiling, while a novel use of the end credits ups the laughs quotient considerably.

It’s not entirely clear whether this franchise has anywhere left to go, but thanks to the talents of its directors and stars this sequel is a worthy follow-up to 2012’s original. It’s certainly far better than anyone could reasonable expect for what is after all the sequel to a rebooted TV show.

3.5-Stars

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