‘Ender’s Game’ (Gavin Hood, 2013)/‘Thor: The Dark World’ (Alan Taylor, 2013)

I read, and enjoyed, the Orson Scott Card novel of Ender’s Game some fifteen years ago, though any residual affection hasn’t really passed over to this competent, albeit unremarkable, adaptation. I’m not sure how long the development process has been going on for, but I can’t help feeling this film probably should’ve been shot in the eighties, with plastic sets and dodgy wirework giving a nostalgic sheen that slick, modern special effects will never share. I feel bad for director Gavin Hood, the pressures of a sizeable budget forcing a thoughtful text to conform to audience expectations of a visually punchy seasonal blockbuster. Elysium, another troubled late-summer mixed bag, had similar problems – on that occasion the heavy-handed commentary was layered on too explicitly, and it felt swamped by the mess of interesting ideas fighting for space over its limited runtime.

Thor: The Dark World (aka – character actors play dress up) is every bit the pantomime of the first. A couple of years ago I praised Kenneth Branagh’s confident troupe for embracing the theatricality of this nutty universe and getting away with playing it so broadly with their OTT costumes and ever-so-slightly exaggerated accents. Replacement director Alan Taylor, like Branagh, combines his skill as a dramatist with a certain lightness of touch that continues to help this fantasy/comicbook hybrid franchise ride its wave of innate silliness without so much as a flicker of doubt. For their unashamed silliness, the Thor films are probably my favourite of the current Avengers standalones. May they never mature.

‘Captain Phillips’ (Paul Greengrass, 2013)

Paul Greengrass is the master of these intense, docu-dramaesque pieces. His two Bourne sequels succeeded not just because of Tony Gilroy’s screenplays or Matt Damon’s charisma, but because Greengrass, beyond those cynical accusations that handheld is an easy mans game, brought a grubby legitimacy to a Hollywood thriller so keen, as they all are, to unteather itself from any sort of reality. Whether it’s Damon leaping between buildings or a real-time 9/11 re-enactment in United 93, Greengrass is there, dropping the audience right into the action. His work doesn’t quite have the breadth of vision Mark Boal’s scripts bring to Kathryn Bigelow’s similarly taut combat dramas (but then Zero Dark Thirty operates on levels few films in a lifetime dare to reach), however as a master of re-enactment, as a pop purveyor of tension in nail biting contemporary thrillers, there’s no one else out there quite like him.

Working with a bona fide auteur like Greengrass might be the smartest move Tom Hanks has made in some time. With the exception of Cloud Atlas (which I kinda loved – in spite of itself), Hanks has been slumming it for years, bubbling along nicely on the Robert Langdon paycheques and neglecting his quite unique rapport with audiences. It’s a sublimely effective, perfectly cast role, that catapults him back to relevance and the inevitable awards season circus. Greengrass, for all his concern with the propulsive, immediacy of unfolding events, allows his leading man loose on the full playground of his range in a way I don’t think I’ve seen since the Robert Zemeckis collaborations.

Hanks, for all his poster-topping status, has always been a terrific team player and works well with the unknown Somali co-stars, finding common ground together in the (accurate) view that Somalia is generally pretty rubbish unless you’re Mo Farah or a khat-chewing gang boss. The young Barkhad Abdi as the head pirate is especially strong, expressing the strange sort of buried humanity a lesser performer (or director, for that matter) could quite easily ignore.

‘Machete Kills’ (Robert Rodriguez, 2013)

Robert Rodriguez’ production style doesn’t always lend itself to coherence. About a decade ago, the freedom of a backyard studio and work-hungry Texan troupe pushed the talented writer/producer/director/editor/composer into a world of indulgence where bringing on board his children to co-write suddenly seemed a smart idea. Prolific to the point of madness, a sequel like Machete Kills ends up having more in common with one of those Friedberg & Seltzer parody movies than the B-pictures of his youth, quickie ideas thrown together on cheap sets with a cast largely composed of friends. Now, Rodriguez is too naturally gifted for any of his work to deteriorate to Disaster Movie or Meet the Spartans levels of inanity, but its increasingly clear that beyond the tremendous Trejo (who I have a lot of time for), these Machete pictures lack the authenticity or fun of true Z-trash. I just can’t help thinking a badass like Machete would fit better into the Expendables or Fast & Furious teamups than carrying his own franchise. Machete Kills Again…in Space? Well, if anything’s going to win me back, space sequel is the trick.

‘Sunshine on Leith’ (Dexter Fletcher, 2013)/’Prisoners’ (Denis Villeneuve, 2013)

Knowing next to nothing about The Proclaimers, I’m ill equipped to assess whether jukebox musical Sunshine on Leith satisfies the hardcore that’ve pined over every syllable of their back catalogue for thirty years. My emotional baggage, for better or worse, limited to a spike of delight whenever the camera glosses over the Edinburgh scenery, I found this something of a voyage of discovery, engaging with the songs simply in the context of Dexter Fletcher’s film without worrying about omitted favourites or oversight. On this level, I found it inordinately satisfying, charming and a reminder of the quite unique pleasures the movie musical can offer. After being so down on Tom Hooper’s over-wrought and mangled stab at Les Misérables this spring, it’s nice to be reminded that when enough is done early to forge those essential emotional connections, there’s much delight to seeing well-drawn characters break into song.

Prisoners reminded me of those crisp, frosty Scandinavian thrillers that keep blessing TV and film, director Denis Villeneuve bringing a little French-Canadian charm and some sharp old Roger Deakins photography to the North American setting. It’s long, satisfying, but ever-so-slightly generic with the central moral conundrum conflicting somewhat with the pulpier elements.

The cast are uniformly excellent and get to dig in deep, Jackman growling through the opportunity to indulge in his dark side whilst Gyllenhaal builds on strong recent work in End of Watch and Source Code. I was impressed by how relentlessly dour Villeneuve’s film was, giving good reason to believe Paul Dano’s torture victim is a culpable party in the abduction whilst ceaselessly questioning the ethical implications of Jackman’s conduct. Solid.

‘Rush’ (Ron Howard, 2013)

Ron Howard gets a lot of slack for allegedly being a ‘vanilla’ director, bereft of any particular distinctive style or interest, firing out bland, sanitised studio product at intervals. I’ve always felt this unfair. Many faceless journeymen fulfil that role in the studio system, but to pick on the likeable Howard for crimes against style is to wrongly condemn one of Hollywood’s most reliable, functional filmmakers to the dustbin when he’s proven, time and time again, that his eye for projects is first class.

Apollo 13, Frost/Nixon and now Rush, beyond betraying Howard’s passion for 70s dramatisations, show a razor-sharp instinct for high-stakes character drama, never sacrificing tension or suspense despite our familiarity with the outcomes. These may be formulaic pictures, hitting the requisite emotional beats at the expected moments, but Howard always finds the hook that makes them work. Even when I can see the artifice, it’s impossible to doubt his probity and good intention. There is, at the heart of these films (even the underwhelming Cinderella Man or A Beautiful Mind), a positive, optimistic voice that brings these stories to screen with great performances and impeccable period detail.

Rush, given the relative restraint of Howard’s other work, morphs periodically into a kinetic, aggressively edited and exciting racing film, more in common with vintage Tony Scott than any staid or stodgy biopic. It’s an unexpected and appealing development for Howard, showing the possibility of flair outside his usual comfort zone and boding well for his Dark Tower adaptation, assuming it ever finds financial backing. I can’t pretend to any particular expertise in F1 history, but Chris Hemsworth and Daniel Brühl nail the Hunt/Lauda relationship, bouncing nicely around Peter Morgan’s script and proving equally adept at handling both the nuance of their rivalry and the intensity of the setpieces.

‘Insidious: Chapter 2’ (James Wan, 2013)

Picking up immediately where the first film left off, and drawing the story of the central family to a close, this new Insidious movie feels like a fledging horror franchise carving out that brave first step beyond the original to a world of opportunity ahead. Call me a maniac, but I’ve a great affection for the bizarre self-contained mythologies of the best multi-part horror series. When I think of these Insidious films, astral-projection and their foggy soundstage ‘further’, I’m taken back to the whacked out fun of Hellbound: Hellraiser II and A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors.

Following The Conjuring – one of the year’s best – director James Wan could be accused of over indulgence, or maybe just a ramped up work ethic that’s enabled him to slam out a quickie Insidious follow-up for his second 2013 release, but I really believe he’s firing on all cylinders here, sucking the scares from Leigh Whannell’s soggy script and grabbing the opportunity to expand his oeuvre into a little body horror to supplement the requisite creaking floorboards and floating furniture. Surely by now, several films into a career, we can officially exalt Wan as the master of the scary wardrobe!

Where Insidious: Chapter 2 may lose fans is with screenwriter Whannell’s obsessive focus on retroactive continuity and nods to the first entry. His three Saw scripts were similarly guilty of jumping around timeframes, however this goes further, playing the Back to the Future II game of using a time travel device to interact with the events of Chapter 1. For me, that’s fine, I love that sort of shit, but for all but the most eagle-eyed genre fan it’s a decadent and irritating departure from the restrained spooks and jumps that defined the first hour of that first film. No longer are the team content to let the simple scares suffice, this is a crazed, silly universe now of beardy psychics, transsexual serial killer witches, and smiley ghosts.

‘Insidious VIII: University demon and the space poltergeist’ (2021). I want it now!!

‘Riddick’ (David Twohy, 2013)

For anyone who thought the Fast & Furious franchise was Big Vin’s paean to his closeted homosexuality, his five films as Dominic Toretto don’t even come close to the penchant for man love displayed over two hours of this third entry for Dicky B RideDick, cutely titled after its rapey lead. When Riddick isn’t whispering seductively at muscle-bound mercs or trying to chat up hardass lesbians, he’s casting his memory back to the overwrought ambition of 2004’s Chronicles of Riddick, ignoring the allure of a bedfull of Necromonger escorts in favour of more time with Karl Urban’s buff military commander.

I’m staggered this film exists. Chronicles crumbled under its own pretensions, losing a small fortune on cinema release, a significant enough financial failure to (under other circumstances) banish the character forever to late night ITV2 screenings of Pitch Black. A revitalised career and a slashed budget go a long way though to heal the wounds of commercial failure, and the Diesel/Twohy power team are back for a third stab, stripping back to the culty, B-movie heart of their strange mythology and pumping out a workable, meaty little genre picture. This allows for a sense of fun completely absent from the previous film, letting Diesel’s peculiar sense of humour off the leash and dropping quips as he dispatches bad guys in a film that best resembles a madcap combination of an 80s slasher picture and Robert Zemeckis’ Cast Away. Diesel, in a move built to later tear out hearts, even has an animated alien dog thing as a pet. Yes, it’s really that level of crazy silly. I’m there already for Riddick IV: Generic Subtitle.

Final Weekend of Summer: ‘You’re Next (Adam Wingard, 2013), ‘The Way, Way Back’ (Nat Faxon & Jim Rash, 2013), Pain & Gain (Michael Bay, 2013)

You’re Next successfully operates as a piece of entertainment, with little attempt made to unsettle or scare. The family conflict, as established over the opening quarter, is vivid and engaging enough in its own right to sustain a straight drama without the arrival of masked maniacs, survivalism and synthy 80s horror beats. Adam Wingard’s film has confidence and energy, an innate understanding of the genre and how to tick the various boxes. It lacks the self-referential or deconstructive qualities of Cabin in the Woods, but rolls down toward its audience, an expanding snowball of inventive kills, fun characters and expert exploration of spatial geography. As an exercise in mining the home invasion siege picture for maximum enjoyment, it’s the sharpest, most re-watchable American horror film since Sam Raimi’s Drag Me To Hell.

The Way, Way Back sits comfortably alongside The Perks of Being a Wallflower and Adventureland as amongst the better coming-of-age nostalgia fests to recently hit screens. Nat Faxon & Jim Rash’s film is refreshingly quirk free and lacks that tiresome, grating quality that spoiled the likes of 500 Days of Summer and Juno. For the first thirty minutes or so I was a little uncertain about lead actor Liam James, who seemed a bit stiff relative to the truly excellent support, not least Toni Collette (troubled mother) and Steve Carell (prize cunt). As the film opened up into something less stylised, but possibly more broadly accessible than Alexander Payne’s work (the last of which, The Descendants, scooped Rash & Faxon a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar) the dramatic necessity of James’ performance became more apparent and my tolerance of it grew. The real star here though is Sam Rockwell, grabbing one of those parts that offer up a slideshow of all an actors best qualities and stealing away the film from his capable co-stars. His role is in turns hilarious, poignant and makes a wholly likeable film into an almost loveable one.

Pain & Gain, Michael Bay’s latest, is evidence (if ever needed) that the forty-something director is burdened with the maturity of a slow-witted teenage boy. It’s either a complete disaster or the funniest film I’ve ever seen. Maybe both. Without venturing into the minefield of morality, I’m not entirely certain his movie coheres as an actual feature film, working best as a series of baffling, interconnected comedy sketches that indulge live-action re-enactment of Bay’s late night cocaine dreams. Dildos, drugs and protein shakes assault every frame of this bodybuilding action pic, any social comment present in Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely’s screenplay long since washed away by Bay’s crassness, misogyny and tendency to distraction. My long-held desire to see Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson play a born again Christian was satiated though…

Late Summer Catch-up: ‘Elysium’ (Neill Blomkamp, 2013)/’Kick-Ass 2’ (Jeff Wadlow, 2013)

Neill Blomkamp’s District 9 was an electric debut; schooling larger productions on efficient spending whilst dropping genre tropes into a believable, politically mature landscape. I look back on it fondly as the anti-Avatar, providing all the thrills and excitement of Cameron’s film but with a sturdy backbone of iron supporting its vicious, satirical core.

So far as Elysium is concerned, Avatar again crops up as an interesting reference point, not only as a benchmark for the relative failings of both pictures, but an indicator of shared qualities. Blomkamp and Cameron both excel at bold, conceptually exciting design work, both fall short in complementing their spectacular world building skills with engaging, muscular storytelling. Though it makes for an entertaining watch, Elysium’s rich vs poor social commentary, certainly stacked against District 9, feels a little glib and undemanding, taking me back to the inelegance of that eco-message drilled into my brain during the seven hours of Avatar. I don’t think it’s trite, and Blomkamp can hardly be guilty of grabbing the lazy coin when he’s so fully immersed himself in another modestly budgeted, wholly original production, but the lingering feeling remains that a little Verhoevenesque black comedy and another run around the shooting script would’ve turned a merely decent film into a very good one.

I can’t deny having minuscule expectations for Kick-Ass 2. I was an enthusiastic supporter of the first film, but the prospect of an unwanted follow-up a couple of years too late provided about the same (lack of) appeal as further forays into almost any comicbook universe in this agonisingly oversaturated marketplace. Throw in a poor marketing campaign, new creative team and generally downbeat buzz from the critical community, and expectations were not so much low as non-existent. To my surprise, this was not just okay, but actually a pretty respectable stab at expanding the Kick-Ass world beyond the cheap thrills and throwaway genre deconstruction of Matthew Vaughn’s film. Jeff Wadlow’s greatest triumph is in finding a tonal consistency with Vaughn’s work, effortlessly catching up with the characters and tidily replicating the style and irreverence of that film. I’m not convinced there’s much mileage in the franchise, and Wadlow can hardly be credited with being a great original, but to damn with faint praise – when expectations are rock bottom, a few funny setpieces and a decent violence quota are a reasonable return on my £11.50.

‘The Conjuring’ (James Wan, 2013)

It’s been pretty incredible watching the evolution of James Wan over the last decade. Saw; admire it though I do for the discipline to which it, as a seven-film franchise, maintained a consistent continuity, operated at the polar opposite side of the spectrum from his more recent haunted house pictures. The cheap tricks of frenetic editing and hyper-violence are now toned down in favour of a slow-burning elegance and focus on character, ably accompanied by the sort of playful direction and expert sound design that sold us all on Sam Raimi thirty years prior.

Wan, with Insidious, The Conjuring and (next month for Mr Prolific) Insidious Part 2 is pumping out A-grade ghost stories with their own self-contained mythologies, decent actors and a sense of restraint and class that some genre films never attain by either disrespecting their subject matter or aiming too much for the boozed-up Friday-night crowd. Hollywood shoots off a lot of junky possession pictures, very few avoiding the sloppy pitfalls of dissatisfaction, even fewer elevating (or maybe that should be levitating…) to a quality befitting the genre at its pristine best. Insidious, for its many strengths, felt somewhat restricted by the limitations of its paltry budget, but The Conjuring, with far more coin in the old bank, wisely blows the greater resources on impeccable production design and period detail. The result is a complete triumph of its type, and the most pleasing horror film so far this year.

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