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‘The Wolverine’ (James Mangold, 2013)

Could expectations have been any lower? A second solo outing for Frankie Swordhands after the unwatchable 2009 picture with some unappealing tv ads and trailers selling us topless ninja slicing and the Jackman growl. Consider me shocked. For all the dire pre-release material, director James Mangold’s film is refreshingly non-shit, avoiding the generic path and pushing the boundaries of its 12A certificate as Logan swears, drinks, kills, and pulls the crap usually prohibited by that crucial family rating.

At the heart is story. Whereas X-Men Origins: Wolverine cobbled together some predictable gap-filling nonsense, baiting continuity-fans whilst indulging in the worst, and least necessary, tendencies of the prequel format, The Wolverine exists not as some late-series hack job but as a thoughtful, standalone adventure – set chronologically after the previous entries but tight, focused and exclusively concerned with its own two-hours. Fox’s original X-Men franchise soon lost its way after Bryan Singer’s departure, but Mangold’s film brings it crashing back to relevance by dropping the silly baubles and telling a purposeful, human tale amongst the mutant mayhem. The disconnect between the actual film as produced and as sold suggests it’s fallen victim to some astonishingly poor marketing, marketing that seems to have ignored the small soulful reality of much of the film in favour of the flash and spectacle that (somewhat taints) the final third.

In further credit to Mangold (and the multiple screenwriters), The Wolverine smashes the Bechdel test, with a string of prominent women characters with relationships and histories beyond Logan. For a film so concerned with the mental anguish of its buffed lead, they never skimp on giving the wider (internationalist) cast something to chew on, with layers to the ensemble more in line with those first two X-Men then the messy, confused Origins. I never thought I’d find myself saying it, but this is a franchise saver.

Brit flicks: ‘A Field in England’ (Ben Wheatley, 2013)/’The World’s End’ (Edgar Wright, 2013)

The fourth film a piece for two very English, yet wholly different, filmmakers, both alike only in their riding of the auteurist wave to popular acclaim and critical respect. Both, coincidentally, include performances from Reece Shearsmith and Michael Smiley.

A Field in England strips back to black & white, seventeenth century rural England in the midst of the civil war. There’re no sets, no interior sequences, and only a small group of characters to sample the wild country mushrooms and explore their spiritual conflicts as war rages in the backdrop. Kill List, Wheatley’s second feature, asks some of the same questions of its characters, delving into moral conundrum in search of the answers. That film was more conventionally narrative than this, and very much the highpoint of Wheatley’s career thus far, but where A Field in England really works is in similarly finding that compelling place where the hallucinogenic meets earthy reality.

The World’s End, Edgar Wright’s farewell to the Pegg/Frost ‘cornetto’ trilogy, never goes for the cheap laughs, using its superficial sci-fi exterior as effectively as its predecessors in aid of the exploration of friendship, growth and youthful nostalgia. Like Wright’s previous directorial work, and (his additional production credit Attack the Block), this is the best sort of genre picture, using the expected tropes and thrills to tread into weighty, thematically resonant areas with maturity and thoughtfulness. It’s been quite something watching the evolution of this group since Spaced, with Wright at its heart pushing forward his stylistic ambitions whilst keeping the work grounded, touching and indelibly English. At the very least, no other comedy this year is likely to feature the combination of alien robots, teenage decapitation and reckless alcoholism.

Mid-Summer Catch-up (June, July)

Sorry, falling a bit behind here, I have a few brief thoughts to air:

Now You See Me was never quite the sum of its parts. The cast had a decent rapport, the opening act was breezy, caperesque, and hinted toward adequately diverting escapist entertainment. Sadly, sloppy screenwriting and an unsatisfying by-the-books twist derailed the spark of those opening scenes and the once fun Eisenberg/Harrelson banter was lost amidst unnecessary car chases and convoluted plotting.

This is the End is probably the best possible version of its concept the talents involved are capable of producing, with a laughter hit-rate generally high enough to compensate for the self-aggrandising nature of the premise, a premise that could’ve so easily tipped over into unwatchable levels of self-satisfied smuggery. Fortunately, though it doesn’t add up to much, I found it as surprisingly sweet as the best of its Apatowniverse affiliates, with an effective two-per-minute laughter track and a string of decent set-ups and cameos.

Pacific Rim has the sort of exhaustive mythology ripe for cross-medium exploration, priming it well for the embrace of a young audience that’ll obsess over every detail. The concept, design and sheer craftwork of the universe building was superb. I never doubted the reality of Guillermo Del Toro’s battle-scarred Earth several years into an alien war, and found the narrative wrapped around this exercise confident, rousing and refreshingly optimistic. Del Toro shoves up two fingers at misanthropy with the most humanistic blockbuster of the year, the scale of its expertly executed carnage never overwhelming its hopefulness, the cookie-cutter, template characters energised by their directors infectious passion for the material. Brief glimpses of historical kaiju battles leave a thirst for further films set in this world, ideally making up for the regrettable lack of daylight sequences, but that’s a minor gripe for a blockbuster that fully delivers on the kicks, thrills and awe of crazy budget filmmaking.

Lastly, onto furrier, funnier monsters, Disney’s Monsters University, another entry in the rung of what I tend to think of as second-tier Pixar efforts. It’s an enjoyable movie, with pristine animation and a neat riff on sports/coming-of-age pics, but there’s the nagging feeling that whereas Pixar were once unbeatable, complacency has set in and they now operate at no higher a level than any other mainstream animation studio. Toy Story, Up and Wall-E marched over the industry as giants, but with Cars, with Brave, with Monsters University they’re no longer world beaters, merely an outlet for fine, unremarkable children’s entertainment. It’s hard to know whether the natural downward slope is inevitable when hitting such heights so quickly, or whether the slow migration of their finest talents (Brad Bird, Andrew Stanton etc) from the writers table and directors chair has resulted in a lower standard of filmmaker. Certainly, for all the strength of the Toy Story sequels, the trend of smashing out follow-ups (Cars, Monsters, soon Finding Nemo) stinks of market forces and studio pressure. Perhaps the problem is that I’d come to expect too much?

‘Stories We Tell’ (Sarah Polley, 2013)

Sarah Polley’s second feature Take This Waltz was one of my favourite films of 2012. Improperly marketed as a psychedelic pop romance, I’m not surprised its roaming, thoughtful examination of marriage and adultery failed to find a wide audience. Following her (equally excellent) debut Away From Her, Stories We Tell marks Polley’s third voyage into the world of infidelity, slicing deep as she turns the focus to her own life and family in a documentary that melds reconstructions, archive footage and interviews in order to explore the mysteries of her late mother’s extramarital affair.

This film examines the constructed truth of individual memories and how we craft meaning from our own interpretations of events. It’s beautifully structured, tinkering with our perceptions of the principal players as Polley drops in new details and revelations that radically alter our understanding of these people. This is the work of a filmmaker completely engaged emotionally and intellectually with a topic, digging into the sensitive area of her parentage with the rigour of a journalist and the delicacy of a painter.

5/5

‘World War Z’ (Mark Forster, 2013)

If ever there was a property crying out for a Band of Brothers style TV miniseries, it’s Max Brooks’ World War Z. With the best long-form storytelling taking place in that format anyway, Brooks’ novel with its unconnected recollection-of-the-week fictional histories would’ve made for tremendous entertainment. Even now, after a film adaptation that does little more than steal the title, I’d hope Brad Pitt’s Plan B production company make the wise move and revert to television for any further exploration of the world. They’ve blown studio-killing money on their I Am Legend alike bastardisation of a well-liked text, now’s the time to make amends by offering up a more faithful interpretation in a 12-part TV series. I’ll accept their apology on Netflix come 2016.

I’ve been simultaneously amused and horrified as this films now infamous difficulties moved to the forefront over the last couple of years. All talk, for better or worse, is clouded by the knowledge that country-buying money was blown in one of the great nightmare productions, dollar-bills thrown to the furnace as the project exploded out of control. Bust-ups, reshoots, endless writers and producers picking up paycheques…it’s a miracle a finished film even reached cinemas, let alone one that isn’t entirely awful.

World War Z, I suppose, signifies the arrival of the bloodless PG zombie, hijacking Brooks’ title to serve up a generic disaster picture that in name, if not content, pays lip-service to that favourite of movie monster. Pitt remains a true star, guiding us through expensive, globetrotting mayhem with easy charisma, but it’s not until the (entirely re-conceived, re-written and re-shot) final act that the film slows down enough to allow for the intensity absent from those sluggish action beats. For all the impressive scale, the swarms of CG zombies have none of the impact of the contained, focused, goal-driven drama of that final section, and in this regard enormous credit must be afforded (the unfairly maligned) Damon Lindelof and Drew Goddard for their work on the re-write, which gives the film (in the eleventh hour), the drive and purpose missing from those bigger setpieces.

Incidentally, my favourite part of the film comes during that final sequence, during which Pitt’s character, in need of mid-zombie-fighting refreshment, slams down a Pepsi and lets out a satisfied whimper. It’s the sort of gratuitous, on-the-nose moment that, in a strange kinda way, sums up the whole endeavour.

2.5/5

‘Man of Steel’ (Zack Snyder, 2013)

David Goyer’s screenplay steals wholesale from his own Batman Begins, cannibalising the Russian doll flashback structure that worked so perfectly for that story and roughly grafting it onto this Superman origin. As a result what should be lean and propulsive feels flabby and befuddled. I’m not necessarily advocating that a linear-as-an-arrow approach was necessary, but between the lengthy prologue and spectacular final battle there’s ninety minutes of imperfect storytelling, neatly filmed little segments and ideas jumbled about to highlight the wrong feeling at the wrong moment. To compound these problems, Goyer underwrites the supporting cast, giving a string of terrific actors next to nothing to play with. Some overcome this by force of personality (Michael Shannon), others by fitting the role like a glove (Kevin Costner), but when the music stops it’s the likes of Amy Adams and Laurence Fishburne who’re left without anything to chew on. That ignorance to all outside the lead character is damaging to Man of Steel’s ability to fully cohere beyond a series of great moments. In this respect, Snyder is also due some criticism. His Watchmen adaptation was ruthlessly faithful to Alan Moore’s graphic novel, practically a verbatim transfer from ink to celluloid, deviation from the source or ignorance of the ensemble never optional. With Superman he’s guilty of dutifully executing Nolan and Goyer’s story, a story with no time, place or interest in the motivations of its supporting cast, many of whom – two fathers aside – don’t seem to serve much narrative purpose whatsoever beyond the expectation that these characters should be present because they’re significant figures in the wider Superman mythology. For the function they serve, I’m tempted to think it might’ve been braver to simply jettison Adams, Fishburne and the entire Daily Planet operation to focus the story exclusively on Smallville, the Kent family and the Kryptonian threat. The ending, at least, neatly tees-up the possibility of Metropolis playing a role beyond battleground in further films, those characters given more to do than standing around in the background as incredible action dominates the fore.

And it’s those crazy sequences that save the day. Snyder, for my money, remains one of the best visual stylists/action choreographers working in the mega-budget realm. His successes (and failures for that matter) are underpinned by the strength of the material available, but when he grabs the right project (Dawn of the Dead, Watchmen) he’s capable of greatness. The final half-hour of this film feels like the culmination of a career thus far, confident and impressive in both scale and ambition, blasting away any uncertainty as to the mixed success of the rest of the picture and solidifying Snyder as one of the finest action directors of his generation. For its numerous failings, those sequences alone mark down Man of Steel as one of the more worthy offerings in an underwhelming summer.

 3.5/5

‘The Great Gatsby’ (Baz Luhrmann, 2013)

Julie Taymor, Baz Luhrmann, Terry Gilliam; I have a lot of time for the visualists and crazies – those distinctive, style-centric voices that shoot out the striking images even where the drama can’t quite keep the pace. Luhrmann luxuriates in the debauchery and mania of the 20s party, crafting these enormous, audacious events with fireworks flying and champagne on tap. For the first half hour it’s Moulin Rouge at its wildest, all set-dressing, sound and costumes with crazed edits zipping amongst the revelry as Tobey Maguire’s Nick Carraway, and we the audience, is immersed in this world.

From the spark of DiCaprio’s entrance the film begins to wind back, remembering that Luhrmann isn’t permitted to just play self-indulgent, but is expected to produce a half-decent adaptation of a great novel. I’m not convinced he ever quite achieves this, or fully understands the breadth and ambition of Fitzgerald’s Gatsby. The result is a frivolous treat, more rewarding than the dry, staid 1974 run-through, but superficial, and ultimately unsatisfying relative to the quality of the source material.

3/5

‘Byzantium’ (Neil Jordan, 2013)

Even in a market saturated with inadequate efforts, there’s always room for a unique and worthy contribution to the vampire picture. Made for a slight budget by a director well-versed in the genre, Byzantium picks and plays with pertinent vampiric archetypes and carves out its own little seaside mythology as mother and daughter survive through the centuries against a patriarchal vampire hierarchy.

The Sean Bobbit photography (The Place Beyond the Pines, Shame) scrapes at the fuzzy edges of the grimy Hastings setting, with his soft digital frame convincingly capturing these women in danger as they struggle against the pressing threat of discovery.  Very enjoyable.

4/5

‘Fast and Furious 6’ (Justin Lin, 2013)

Five or six years ago a masterful decision was made by Justin Lin, Neal Moritz and Universal Studios to reconfigure their flagging Fast and the Furious films beyond competitive street racing, boost budgets significantly and broaden appeal by aiming for as wide an audience demographic as possible. In achieving this, they’ve taken a franchise destined for declining returns and found a way, at the stage most series are in their death throes, to deliver impressive, enormous entertainment that, through its multi-racial international cast, recognises and celebrates American diversity and offers a sky-high platform for the best stars modern muscleploitation has to offer

With its crunchy practical effects sequences and thick undercurrent of on-the-nose homoeroticism (Nightmare on Elm Street II put to shame), the tag team of Fast Five and Fast and Furious 6 are massive, legitimately great, action pictures with scope, ambition, Gina Carano’s leg lock, The Rock’s clothes-line move, Vin Diesel’s gay growl and the vacant, somewhat confused mid-distance stare of Paul Walker’s blue-eyed hero. I struggle to think of another series that has found its groove so late in the game.

 4/5

‘Star Trek Into Darkness’ (JJ Abrams, 2013)

JJ Abrams’ 2009 Star Trek was a tremendous achievement, rebooting the moribund franchise with spark and vigour whilst respectfully nodding its head in the direction of the fanbase by cleverly sidestepping elements of their precious, original continuity. Where the 2009 film found that balance, and tightrope walked it to precision, with this sequel Abrams falls victim to those temptations his first film so adroitly navigated.

Never is the gulf between fan and filmmaker more apparent than when that relationship is misunderstood and too much is done to satisfy the superficial demands of disciples. George Lucas’ latter two Star Wars prequels remain the guiltiest examples, ramming scene-after-scene with kooky callbacks and insufferable references, never succeeding as films in their own right as we’re sucked out, again and again, by the crude insertion of a dialogue riff or inexplicable cameo (Chewbacca, anyone?) Lucas never understood, as Abrams’ first Star Trek did so perfectly, that you best pledge allegiance and show reverence for a fictional mythology by engaging with it and producing good content, not by fourth-walling like a bitch and slowly sapping the passion of your acolytes.

Moving onto Star Trek Into Darkness, Abrams and his writing-team have, I fear, made many of the mistakes their first film avoided. By admission, my knowledge of the series is shaky at best (the full set of feature films and an inconsistent mix of the five tv-series), but I’m familiar enough to draw questions as to some of the unusual decisions Into Darkness makes in regard to its central threat. The identity of Benedict Cumberbatch’s villain is as conceptually flawed as to sink an otherwise serviceable adventure, the ultimate, hubristic ‘fanbaiting’ by creatives to whom the possibilities of a forward-thinking, fresh sequel suddenly seems a distant memory as they cannibalise and replicate elements of the best of the series, 1982’s The Wrath of Khan.

Though the racially questionable ‘white-up’ casting is distasteful, the biggest crime is merely that it makes no sense in the context of the timeline tangent Abrams and co have established. If they can’t abide by their own internal logic, how are we to stay on board this adventure through films three, four and beyond? Using the Khan character again is endlessly frustrating, but worse still is the decision to ape George Lucas’ awful example and jam pack the second half with the dreaded fanbaiting, clogging up the screen with endless moments designed solely to elicit a response from anyone who either likes, or has the slightest recollection, of that ’82 film. The Kirk/Spock death reversal annoyed me immensely, but it was Spock letting out a guttural ‘Khaaaaan’ scream like he’d spent all day mainlining Shatner YouTube vids that really killed any emotion. Throw in a purposeless Leonard Nimoy phonecall (used so successfully in the 2009 film), in which he appears primarily to synopsise Wrath of Khan and the lingering, distressing feeling takes grip that Paramount have sunk their fresh, new space adventure with the misplaced desire to satisfy a fanbase that hates this sort of shit anyway.

Now onto the good.

Momentum. Abrams is a much better director than this script deserves. Beyond a practically genetic understanding of how to conceive and construct a big, effective setpiece, he knows how to keep the action snapping along and the characters bouncing and bantering off each other as though they’re real, breathing people rather than overpaid, preening thesps. The result is often joyful, with the film bounding along at a good old pace packed to the rafters with great, funny performances and exciting special-effects sequences. If Star Trek Into Darkness fails to reach the heights of its predecessor, it does, for those able to resist the baggage of annoyance, often thrill and excite as only the boldest blockbusters dare. It’s just a real, real shame that shitty, lazy decisions made early in development prevent the film from flowering and realising the true potential for a follow-up to the 2009 Star Trek. Maybe next time?

3/5

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