Tag Archives: Marvel

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2 posterWhen James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy was released in 2014 it was a breath of fresh air in a rapidly expanding Marvel Cinematic Universe that was already beginning to grow somewhat stale.

Now, three years later, its sequel has appeared with far more anticipation and again the hope that it would help add something new to the now apparently inescapable MCU juggernaut.

From the start Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is very much more of the same as Gunn, once again in the director’s chair, subverts standard action movie expectations as a big action scene takes place as the background to a dance sequence from Baby Groot (Vin Diesel) accompanied by yet another nostalgia heavy musical choice.

While this is all fine and entertaining it sets up something that becomes a bit of a frustration, particularly in the first half of the film. The use of vintage pop songs and irreverent punchlines was a highlight of the first movie but here they often seem a bit too forced and it almost as if nothing can happen without a joke being thrown in at the end.

guardians of the galaxy vol 2 - baby groot

Baby Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel)

Some of these are great but some miss the mark and it starts to feel like Gunn is feeling the need to live up what was most notable about the first film (something that looks to have spread to not only the new Thor film Ragnarok but also the upcoming DC superhero mash-up Justice League, judging by the trailers).

Because of this the first half of the film does drag somewhat, despite a few perfectly serviceable action sequences, as it takes a while for the story to really get going as we are reintroduced to the Guardians and their particular corner of the galaxy, along with a vague maguffin about stolen batteries.

Once Ego arrives though things do pick up.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 - Kurt Russell - Ego 2

Ego, The Living Planet (Kurt Russell)

Played by Kurt Russell in a way that is at once one of the film’s biggest 80s nostalgia trips and a genuinely effective character, Ego is something of a rare thing in Marvel’s films of feeling like something a bit different.

Known as ‘The Living Planet’ he expands on the more sci-fi end of the MCU in both visual and character terms and there are some genuinely impressive moments focussing on him that do a great job of translating comic book ‘splash page’ style imagery onto the big screen.

While this leads to a big smash bang action sequence as is the Marvel standard, the connections between the characters, old and new, give this something a little different to keep it interesting enough, if not truly ground breaking.

Much like the first film one of its strong points is in the design of the MCU extraterrestrial world.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol.2 - Chris Pratt

Peter Quill, aka Star Lord (Chris Pratt)

With ships clearly strongly influenced by artist Chris Foss and a somewhat psychedelic sense to its space-scapes it builds in what was set up first time round as well as in the Thor and Doctor Strange films and suggests the upcoming Avengers films that it would seem will focus on Thanos have the chance of some epic visuals.

Laced through with cameos and a strong sense of 1980s nostalgia Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 may be not feel as fresh as its predecessor and be hampered by trying to live up to its own hype, but is entertaining and really picks up in the second half to be one of the better films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

I think this is helped by still being totally separate to the ongoing Avengers saga it seems destined to collide with sooner rather than later and having a solid directorial vision from Gunn (who has already been announced as directing the third Guardians film) rather than the often slightly too homogenised feel of the rest of the series.

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Doctor Strange

 Doctor Strange poster Marvel Studios’ output has, over the last couple of years, become somewhat erratic – for every fun adventure like Guardians of the Galaxy there had been a plodding smash em up retread like Age of Ultron, so with the arrival of the Sorcerer Supreme and the Cosmic Realm in Doctor Strange, how have they done?

From the start it’s a bit of a mix as we are introduced to Mads Mikkelsen’s antagonist Kaecilius and his band of Zealots using their mystic powers while we then meet Benedict Cumberbatch’s Dr Stephen Strange as an arrogant neurosurgeon using his more scientific powers.

While throughout its clear Mikelsen and Cumberbatch are both having a great time and there are suggestions (I won’t dwell on them as really they are only suggestions) of more grown up themes the basic plot is more of the same – we get Strange’s origin story with some not so subtle references to other Marvel movies thrown in and a big cgi bad to face off against in the climax.

Despite this however the design and visuals make this a lot of fun. While the city folding is a bit sub-Inception it is the tour de force introduction to the cosmic realm and then later forays there that really stand out. 

Benedict Cumberbatch as Doctor Strange

Cumberbatch as Doctor Strange

 Combining Steve Ditko’s psychedelic artwork with aspects of the 2001 ‘stargate’ it expands on things glimpsed in Ant-Man to great effect and discovering it along with Strange is very well handled.

Also well handled is a fairly standard act three which, at one point, I worried it was all going a bit Suicide Squad but a last minute contrivance actually made it slightly more interesting than it might otherwise have been.

Most of all though, a little like Ant-Man, I think my favourite aspect was that at no point did Doctor Strange take itself too seriously. Strange himself could easily have been tiresome but was suitably lampooned as ‘an asshole’ whenever necessary while Mikelsen’s sense of fun slightly elevated his character above the likes of Guardian’s Ronan The Accursed – though it’s fair to say Marvel still don’t have the strongest rogues gallery. 

Mads Mikkelsen as Kaecillius

Mikkelsen as Kaecillius

 With hints and suggestions of more interesting things to come (as well as some inevitable, likely tiresome, team ups) Doctor Strange is an entertaining watch with a slight twist on the old formula. It’s not going to break any boundaries like its hero does but it’s a diverting addition to the Marvel archive slightly outside the main Avengers narrative.

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X-Men

x-men movie poster16 years ago, in the wake of Blade, the first bona-fide Marvel comics based blockbuster movie hit the screens in the form of director Bryan Singer’s version of X-Men. Since then the franchise has gone on to become a long series of sequels (some good; X-Men 2, First Class, Days of Future Past, Deadpool – some less so; X3: The Last Stand, X-Men Origins: Wolverine – some a bit average; The Wolverine), but what was its origin like?

The film traces the story of what seems to be the X-Men’s first clash with The Brotherhood of Mutants and their leader, Magneto (Ian McKellen), through the eyes of new recruit Logan, aka Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) and young mutant Rogue (Anna Paquin). This structure cleverly offers an audience potentially unfamiliar with the comics an easy way into this already established world on two levels, though both with the sense of the outsider.

This outsider nature is one that Singer laces heavily throughout, making it into something of a motif from the opening prologue showing us the origin of Magneto in the Nazi concentration camps of the Second World War, to the introductions of Wolverine and Rogue to the whole notion of Xavier’s School for Gifted Children.

Anna Paquin as Rogue

Anna Paquin as Rogue

Echoing the comic books’ 1960s origins that, supposedly, dealt with issues surrounding the civil rights movement, Singer incorporates a broader version of this theme more suited to a millennial audience, showing the two sides of the divide on the argument of integration and isolation/hostility that is still relevant now.

At barely an hour and 40 minutes Singer doesn’t deeply explore these issues but they are evident, what he does do in that time though is create a fast paced action movie. Unfortunately the short run time (something of a blessing compared to some of the over long movies that now populate this genre) means the large number of characters are, for the most part, underdeveloped; Wolverine, Magneto and Professor X (Patrick Stewart) get a decent amount of time to become slightly more than 2D but really the rest of the pack are fairly weakly painted hero or villain types.

Hugh Jackman as Wolverine

Hugh Jackman as Wolverine

A highlight scene comes early on that sets the ground for Magneto and Professor X as they attend a debate on mutant rights and meet afterwards outside the meeting hall. Here the chemistry between McKellen and Stewart that has become the stuff of legend sparks and they certainly provide the most convincing aspect of the film and are amazing to watch just talking – though McKellen does go on to ham it up a bit too much later.

The action across the movie feels like a hybrid of what had come before, with a particularly physical feel often in the vein of an 80s action movie (prior to these things becoming almost entirely computer generated spectacles) and what was to come later with hints of the CG smash-fests of more recent movies. This gives it a split feel that isn’t entirely effective, but serves its purpose and we get great signature moments from all the main heroes and villains even if these do feel a little gimmicky.

The film’s climax, based around the Statue of Liberty, lacks a certain weight within the story which is something that marks the whole of this first X-Men film giving it the feeling of being at best the start of something, at worst a hyper-extended trailer for the franchise. That said, its enjoyable enough on its own merits and certainly at the time was successful enough to warrant the superior sequel that really allowed the characters and story more room to breathe than they had here.

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Blade

Blade movie posterAround the release of Deadpool in February 2016 a lot of fuss was made by some about its ‘R’ rating in the USA (15 in the UK). This ranged from surprise at a ‘comic book movie’ being given such a certification, to claims that it was the first of its kind.

Long before Deadpool though, before Marvel’s Avengers assembled and even before Fox launched their still ongoing X-Men franchise actor/producer Wesley Snipes and director Stephen Norrington unleashed what could be credited as the first new-style Marvel movie on the cinema going audience, Blade, in 1998, with its own hard R rating (18 in the UK).

First appearing in comics in 1973, Blade is a vampire hunting half-vampire, leading to his nickname ‘Daywalker’. Snipes and Norrington realised him here in the midst of a kind of race war between the vampires, who have existed in a loose peace with humans for thousands of years, and Blade and a few (largely unseen) humans fighting to maintain the peace while an upstart vampire, Deacon Frost (Stephen Dorff), is hell-bent on shattering it and the tradition of the blood suckers.

Wesley Snipes as Blade

Snipes as Blade

The story is pretty run of the mill for this kind of thing; Frost claims leadership of the vampires from ‘pure blood’ leader Dragonetti (the always eccentrically marvelous Udo Kier) and sets out to turn himself into legendary ‘blood god’ La Magra.

Blade is out to stop him while at the same time constantly seeking vengeance for his dead mother while being assisted by Whistler (Kris Kristofferson) who makes his weapons and it all ends up pretty much as you’d expect.

What really makes the film though is the style it is made with. Placed almost equidistant between the heyday of shoot ‘em up action in the 1980s and the emergence of the MCU, it somehow seems to fill this space perfectly.

Stephen Dorff as Deacon Frost

Dorff as Frost

As Blade, Snipes is all moody poses and action hero quips (complete with a suitable amount of ‘f-bombs’) while the fight sequences are based around martial arts in the way of the action stars that began with Bruce Lee and continued (with lesser success) with Chuck Norris, Steven Seagal et al but has become a bit passe these days.

Alongside this Norris paints a gritty and dark city that may be Detroit (though it’s never explicitly stated) and looks like visions of New York seen through the 1970s and 80s that, for me, is highly reminiscent of Russell Mulcahy’s Highlander. This gives the film a great setting that I can see as something akin to the Hell’s Kitchen seen in Marvel and Netflix’s Daredevil and Jessica Jones which in a loose way connects it with the current MCU.

Within all of this it seems the film wants to deal with a few issues, specifically to do with race and drugs, but it never really pays these anything more than lip service. I think this is to the movie’s benefit though, and keeps it more in the sphere of a pure action film without getting bogged down in anything more.

Blade and Frost

Blade and Frost

As the film reaches its climax some early CGI does give it something of a dated feel but, with the expectation of this it didn’t spoil it for me (you can’t expect a film from 1998 to have special effects as good as today and I’m sure in 20 years we’ll be saying the same about Captain America: Civil War and its ilk).

Alongside Tim Burton’s Batman, Blade stands as one of the clear building blocks that led to the glut of comic book movies we have today (for better or worse), but still stands strong not only as an exponent of that genre but also as a great, supernatural, hyper-violent, action movie in its own right that has clearly influenced films like The Matrix and others since.

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Captain America: Civil War

Captain America: Civil War posterThirteen films in to the series, how much more is there really to be said about Marvel’s ongoing output?

Well, looking at Captain America: Civil War (the third Captain America film, thirteenth MCU film and arguably, third Avengers movie) there are two sides to this; one is that its very much more of the same, the other that it’s a genuine attempt to put a twist on the now fairly well-worn formula. In honesty the final result lies somewhere between.

The story is two-fold as well, being the next in the direct Captain America series (after The First Avenger and Winter Soldier) it continues the story of The Winter Soldier and Hydra that was left off at the end of the preceding film.

The other side deals with the aftermath of the Avengers films, in particular the collateral damage caused in Manhattan and Sokovia.

All of this considered it certainly seems that Marvel have almost entirely given up on the idea that people would come to these films cold as there is a lot going on relating back to previous films – while this was fine for me, it certainly could be a problematic way of making movies going forward.

Winter Solider, Iron Man and Captain America

Winter Solider, Iron Man and Captain America

With all of this combined and the arrival of at least two brand new superheroes (Black Panther and Spider-Man) there is a lot going on, which explains the films two and a half hour running time.

While certainly on the long side at no point did I find Captain America: Civil War drag with a good balance between fairly earnest talky scenes and the kind of big action set pieces that are Marvel’s stock in trade.

With Joss Whedon having moved on from Marvel it seems this is, in a way, Anthony and Joe Russo’s dry run for the next Avengers films they will be directing and, if I’m honest I preferred their take on the relationships between the main characters.

Whedon’s banter-like dialogue was lightly amusing but generally ultimately empty, while here Captain America (Chris Evans) and Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) felt more natural… well as natural as comic book movie dialogue is ever going to be.

Team Cap

‘Team Cap’

On top of this the new Spider-Man (Tom Holland) provided the film’s light relief in a genuinely satisfying way and in the manner the comic book version of the character is known for that has previously never quite been demonstrated on-screen.

The highlight of the film comes in the middle with the ‘Civil War’ set piece of Cap’s group of heroes facing off with Iron Man’s. While it’s certainly a lot CGI characters hitting each other, it contains some inventive new twists on the old formula.

After this we are very much more in Hydra/Winter Solider territory again and really the two stories rarely properly join together, but as a ride it all slots together enough to make it watchable as long as you don’t think too hard.

The marketing for the film hinted that the Civil War side of the story might deal with some political ideas to some degree but this isn’t really the case with it all apparently boiling down to personal issues between the characters.

Iron Man's team

Iron Man’s team

This being a US election year though it could be argued that, in general terms, Tony Stark represents the Democrat view of gun control, while Steve Rogers is on the Republican end, but this would probably give too much credence to the film’s political ambitions.

In the end Captain America: Civil War was more entertaining that I had anticipated, while still being essentially more of the same from the MCU and, while all painted in very broad strokes, it seems Anthony and Joe Russo have at least found a tone that works; somewhere between flippant and melodramatic with just enough weight to make the story worth investing in (even if you do know who’s going to come out on top even before the lights go down).

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Deadpool

Deadpool movie posterOnly a week after its release, watching the latest offering from the X-Men line of Marvel movies, Deadpool, comes with a surprising amount of baggage. First there’s the hugely positive response it’s received from movie-goers (with a few exceptions), and secondly the fact that, apparently against all expectations, the 15 rated (R in the U.S.) film has had the most successful opening weekend of any of the movies in the X-Men franchise.

Because of this I will freely admit to having done my best to maintain level expectations as, despite the positive notices and word of mouth, I found it hard to comprehend quite how ‘The Merc With The Mouth’ could be successfully realised on-screen. This approach led to me having a great time in the cinema, but certainly noticing that Deadpool is far from a perfect or totally successful film.

As is de rigueur for new superhero movies (though actually this is at least the second time we’ve seen a version of Deadpool on-screen, as he also appeared, played by Reynolds, in X-Men Origins: Wolverine) this is a fairly formulaic origin story tracing, in a round about way, the transition of ex-special forces operative, Wade Wilson, into the titular mutant mercenary assassin. In doing so it hits pretty much every expected convention bang on with a lost love, a tortured transformation sequence and ultimately culminating in a CGI heavy confrontation between the hero and the villain who had a hand in his creation.

Ryan Reynolds as Deadpool

Ryan Reynolds as Deadpool

So far so standard, and it is this that has led to the criticism that there is of the movie. For a film that set its stall as being a subversion of a now very well-known, potentially over saturated, genre, it’s sticks hard and fast to what has come before and, in many ways, other films have already added twists to these conventions without sending them up.

However, what Deadpool does pull off, for the most part, is to be genuinely fun – whether that comes in the form all out jokes, over the top (compared to standard superhero fare) violence or just plain joie de vivre varies. With the exception of a few genuinely brutal torture scenes it had me laughing throughout and, even when it was trying a bit too hard to be ‘meta’, things never quite fell into the tedium that is always lurking around that word.

Ryan Reynolds clearly gives his all in the lead role and, while we rarely see his face without either the iconic black and red mask or thick ‘scar’ make up, he delivers one of his least grating performances to date. As well as the physical nature of the performance with some great stunts mixed in with the CGI, he gets the tone of the delivery of Deadpool spot on with a real sense of irreverence rarely seen in the often over earnest world of superheros.

Deadpool, Colossus and Negasonic Teenage Warhead

Deadpool, Colossus and Negasonic Teenage Warhead

A clever little addition to the mask really helps bring the character to life as his eyes and ‘eyebrows’ move and contort, a bit like a more sarcastic version of Watchmen’s Rorschach, and save the movie from having a star with a perpetually blank face.

As well as sending up elements of the genre that have already been surpassed there are a couple of other problems with Deadpool that, it seems, many are forgiving with the argument that it all comes with a knowing nod and wink. Unfortunately that doesn’t make jokes at the expense of the protagonist’s ‘blind old lady’ roommate any easier to stomach or the fact that Wilson’s love interest is about as generic a damsel in distress as you can get (despite a potentially more interesting start).

The only real link to wider ‘X-Universe’ comes with the inclusion of Colossus and Negasonic Teenage Warhead from the X-Men and a few shots of Professor Xavier’s school. This makes for a few nice touches both comically from Deadpool’s ‘meta’ asides to just the simple fact of seeing other familiar characters reacting to these asides and giving the whole thing something of a grounding in this world – though quite how Deadpool can fit in to the wider series I can’t quite fathom.

Deadpool and Ajax (Ed Skrein)

Deadpool and Ajax (Ed Skrein)

For all its evident faults Deadpool remains a very entertaining and funny hour and forty minutes and (other than when it got a bit nasty) I was rarely not at least smiling, though mostly laughing, even if the humour was far from the most intellectual and at times reminded me of the teen comedies of the late 90s.

When compared the self-consciously ‘real’ likes of the DC movies and the often somewhat earnest Marvel franchise films (Ant-Man and Guardians of the Galaxy excepted) Deadpool remains great fun and a nice diversion from the main features of the series which continue in the not too distant future with X-Men: Apocalypse (following on from Days of Future Past) and a third solo outing for Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine.

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Avengers: Age Of Ultron

Avengers Age of Ultron posterJust a short time after watching a bona fide sci-fi classic focused on artificial intelligence in Blade Runner, my next cinema trip was to see another, somewhat different, sci-fi movie including artificial intelligence, Avengers: Age Of Ultron.

Continuing the story of what has become know as the MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe), Age of Ultron throws us right into the heart of the action as the titular super team are attacking the Hydra compound of Baron Von Strucker and it rarely lets up from there.

When it does let up the film does have some nice character moments, in a comic book style, with the relationship between Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) and Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansen) forming the back bone of this, along with the bickering between the team members that formed a lot of the first movie’s down time.

There are, within the Banner/Romanov scenes, some really good acting performances that actually manage to convey a sense of emotion within the melodrama of the rest, while the rest of the team do what they do, and continue to do it well and in entertaining fashion.

Banner and Romanoff

Banner and Romanoff

What makes this work better than in the first Avengers movie is that it seems a lot less frivolous and is more about people trying to find levity in the heart of a serious situation.

On top of the characters who we’ve come to know across the series thus far, a few new ones come into the fray while others are further expanded upon. So Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) becomes more central and helps the film along and new Avenger, The Vision (Paul Bettany), is genuinely very well executed and interesting (to say more would be a bit too much of a spoiler).

On top of this we get Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen) and Pietro (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) Maximoff who were also a breath of fresh air and genuinely interesting new characters.

Wanda works her 'magic'

Wanda works her ‘magic’

While this adds even more characters to the mix and risked making the movie a mess of superpowers, I found that the balance remained between them so it never really felt too overcrowded and they were all used as well as could be expected.

As is only appropriate for ‘The World’s Mightiest Heroes’ the situation they find themselves in is one that threatens the safety of the entire world and this is where we get one of the main issues with the movie. This comes due to the fact that we already know there is at least another Captain America film and two more Avengers films to come, so the world isn’t going to end here and certain characters can’t be killed off. This does somewhat lose some of the tension.

That said, the movie’s big bad, Ultron is, for the first chunk of proceedings an impressive piece of work. On a technical level the wholly CG character is hugely impressive and we now seem to have reached a point where a conversation between such a character and a live action one can take place without it seeming at all strange and Ultron fits in perfectly into every such scene.

Ultron, Mk 1

Ultron, Mk 1

Unfortunately, in the third act we revert to what seems to be an MCU staple of a horde of robots in a big action scene – though it is again well executed, just has a feeling of deja vu.

Of course what this movie really is, is the culmination of Marvel’s second phase so, really, it is like a two-hour long third act of spectacle and in that it really delivers as we get a greatest hits of Avengers style set pieces with each having its own inventive twist.

Particularly impressive is Iron Man’s ‘Hulkbuster’ making its long-awaited debut in a genuinely inventive battle scene, the interplay between Thor and Captain America with hammer and shield combos and the final stand-off between the whole team and Ultron which could easily be a comic book splash page.

Hulk and the Hulkbuster

Hulk and the Hulkbuster

This spectacle is all very impressive and, on first watch, it seems the movie has struck a balance to make it an enjoyable stand-alone film in itself. My only concern here is that I thought the same of the first Avengers and it has failed to stand up to repeat viewing in spectacular fashion.

In the end I can’t help but shake the feeling that what Joss Whedon has delivered here is a marvelous spectacle (pun intended), but the films from the MCU I will go back to won’t be the Avengers team ups but more the likes of the ‘quirky’ Guaridans of the Galaxy or the more thriller based Winter Solider.

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Films of 2014

So, before I begin this will be short as I haven’t seen nearly as many new movies this year as I’d like, but none-the-less here are my thoughts on things based on what I have seen.

Guardians-of-the-Galaxy-Prison1As seems to something that’s going to continue well into the next decade Marvel took a big chunk of the blockbuster release schedule this year, but, unlike the last few years they actually lived up to the hype.

Following on from the sugary but ultimately unsatisfying confections of The Avengers and Iron Man 3, and the frankly rubbish Thor: The Dark World, Marvel studios stepped up their game in 2014 with the thriller-like Captain America: Winter Soldier that re-established some sense of intrigue in the ongoing Avengers storyline and the massively enjoyable and fun Guardians of the Galaxy that was one of the most enjoyable things I saw all year, whether new or not.

Quicksilver

Quicksilver

The X-Men also re-established themselves as a group of Marvel characters worth watching as Bryan Singer returned to the director’s chair for Days of Future Past which built on the great work Matthew Vaughan did in First Class to be a great action adventure and set up some exciting prospects for the future.

Sony’s other Marvel property, Spider-Man fared less well in the bland follow-up to the almost ironically named The Amazing Spider-Man.

WyldStyle and Batman

WyldStyle and Batman

Family films were broadly catered for from the usual places but for me the stand out was The Lego Movie.

Like Guardians of the Galaxy it was a massively entertaining ride with enough smart jokes to make it something far more than any pre-release talk could have suggested.

It also added another great take on Batman to the cinematic canon that looks set to get his own stand alone follow-up.

Interstellar - Mackenzie Foy and Matthew McConaughey

Mackenzie Foy and Matthew McConaughey

One of the most anticipated movies of the year was Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar. I was very glad I had avoided most of the pre-release hype and bluster when I went to see it and enjoyed it hugely as it combined a sense of adventure with ideas and thoughts akin to 2001: A Space Odyssey.

While it was divisive with audiences, for me it perfectly balanced the two kinds of sci-fi, with spectacle standing alongside science and including one of the best pieces of stand alone world building I’ve seen in a long time.

The Imitation GameSomething of a wild card entry for me was The Imitation Game as, while its subject (Alan Turing) was one that greatly interested me and it starred Benedict Cumberbatch, who is generally a great performer, it had something of the look of an Oscar-bait biopic come English costume drama to it.

Thankfully it avoided this and ended up being very entertaining while also tackling some serious issues and taking a look at an only recently revealed part of second world war history.

PrideIn the end though, my favourite film of the year has to go to Matthew Warchus’ Pride. With its story of gay rights campaigners in London supporting striking Welsh miners in the mid-80s it could have been a very worthy film, but, instead it took a huge load of exuberance and positivity, along with all the issues surrounding both sets of characters, and created the most all-round entertaining and engaging movie I saw all year.

At no point did it shy away from anything, but at the same time it didn’t preach or posture and, while it encouraged tears along with the laughter, Pride made for the best time I had in a cinema in 2014.

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Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Captain America: The Winter Soldier posterFollowing the massive disappointment that is Thor: The Dark World and the massive sense of let down I felt on re-watching The Avengers it was going to take some work to get me back onside with Marvel Studios output.

Certainly Guardians of the Galaxy went someway to achieving that, but, with its irreverence and general lighthearted air, and the fact it exists mostly away from the main run of “the cinematic universe” there was still some work to be done.

Well, I’m very happy to say that, now I’ve caught up with Captain America: The Winter Soldier on Blu-ray, I am back onboard (if still a bit nervous about another big mess of Avengers: Age Of Ultron on the horizon).

Anyway, down to business of Cap 2.

Starting off with Captain America (aka Steve Rogers) in fish out of water mode, it isn’t long before the plot kicks off. There’s not a lot more that can be said about the plot without hitting some fairly massive spoilers, so, onto what really wins this film over, its delivery.

captain-america-winter-soldier-robert-redford-chris-evansRather than feeling like another cookie-cutter big action adventure the action scenes (which are still numerous and huge) are interspersed with a story of double-crossing and espionage that harks back to a glossy version of paranoia-rich 1970s cinema.

This part of the movie is centred around Robert Redford as Alexander Pierce, the political leader of S.H.I.E.L.D, essentially Nick Fury’s (Samuel L. Jackson) boss, and he does an excellent job in his role and really helps give this side of the movie the uncertain feeling that it seems the directors were going for.

Captain-America-The-Winter-Soldier-Sebastian-StanThe other side of the movie deals with the titular Winter Soldier (a long-standing on-off foe for Cap in the comic books, here played by Sebastian Stan). While he maybe doesn’t appear enough to warrant the sub-title of the whole film, this aspect, combined with the espionage angle, helps to make the character of Captain America (Chris Evans), who can be bland and clean-cut, into something more interesting, conflicted and questioning.

This combination of styles works very well, along with the inclusion of other characters like The Falcon, Black Widow and Fury and the American city setting, to actually make this movie feel like many of the Captain America comic books I’ve read where grand schemes mix with typical comic book action. Captain America: The Winter Soldier actually holds the plot together better than many of the comics as the film, by its nature, has something of an air of climax that is often lost in the monthly instalments.

Captain America and Black WidowWhile the final part of the film does head into the standard territory of a huge action set piece, the hand-held feel and the focus on the story within these scenes makes them far more engaging than the enormous but characterless battles seen in The Avengers, Thor 2 and even parts of Guardians.

In the end, where Captain America: The Winter Soldier really works is in adding a sense of drama and (relative) unpredictability back to the Marvel Cinematic Universe while also bringing it back down to earth – though I remain skeptical as to how this movie will fit in with Avengers 2.

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Guardians of the Galaxy

Guardians_of_the_Galaxy posterBefore I launch into this I’m going to make it clear that a sense of trepidation still remains lurking in the back of my mind due to the effect The Avengers had on me upon re-watching it… basically, I loved it in the cinema, as my review testified, but future re-watches (two so far and likely no more) have left me entirely cold to what charms I thought it had – so with that in the back of my mind, onto Marvel’s most risky movie to date… Guardians Of The Galaxy.

Starting off with a flashback to earth in 1988, as soon as the titles have rolled we thrown to 26 years (and countless light years) later to meet Peter Quill, aka Star-Lord (Chris Pratt) on a daring, Indiana Jones style raid for the movie’s chief maguffin. That then leads to the coming together of a band of misfits and, as it is a Marvel movie, them saving the day in a big smash-bang-wallop of an action sequence in the final third.

Mention of Indiana Jones really does sum up the tone of this movie as that, along with the better parts of the Star Wars series (and other lesser 80s sci-fi), are clearly major touchstones that director James Gunn (and no doubt producer and overlord of all Marvel movies, Kevin Fiege) were going for.

Rocket Raccoon

Rocket Raccoon

So, yes things are a bit derivative, we have an edgier take on Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia in Quill and Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Han and Chewie’s place is filled by the excellently done Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) and Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel) and to mix things up a bit a hulking angry guy hell-bent on non-metaphorical revenge, Drax The Destroyer (Dave Bautista).

But, despite the derivative nature of this, and let’s be honest Lucas wasn’t the first to use these archetypes, the film barrels along at full force and in fine fun style that swept me along with it.

Also much like Star Wars it does a good job of setting up the breadth of its ‘galaxy’ with visits to a few less than reputable locales reminiscent of the Mos Eisley Cantina, that make it clear this is a vibrantly populated universe only hinted at in the past Marvel movies.

Star-Lord

Star-Lord

Ok so, Star Wars comparisons out-of-the-way, what really made the story of Guardians work for me was that it didn’t dwell on its maguffins more than was necessary so we got what they were but I didn’t feel it was over done like it is in some similar movies (to be honest I was bored with the Tesseract before we even really saw what it could do) and, while we do have scenes that clearly set wheels in motion for the future (most noticeably our first proper introduction to Josh Brolin’s Thanos) these don’t over complicate things.

The performances are generally good and the CG characters fit in very well with the real life performers, so much so that soon after they appeared I stopped marveling (excuse the pun) at Rocket and Groot and just accepted them as characters, so huge credit to Framstore for a lot of that.

Ronan The Accuser

Ronan The Accuser

While I don’t think Dave Bautista should be pushed beyond this kind of role and Karen Gillan didn’t really show a lot of promise as cybernetic henchwoman Nebula, they still fitted the parts they were playing.

Chris Pratt on the other hand absolutely hit the nail on the head with his anti-heroic mix of well-meaning bad boy, cocky space hero and child of the 80s that while filling the Skywalker role, had plenty of Solo (and a bit of The Last Starfighter) to him to keep things interesting.

Ok, so far so much about what I enjoyed, what about the other side?

The approach to Knowhere

The approach to Knowhere

As with many of Marvel’s movies (worst of all The Avengers) there was little genuine sense of threat for the characters as despite a few happenings, I never really felt any of the antagonists were going to be enough of a threat to cause much bother.

While Thanos remained a distant threat the main ‘bad guy’ here was Ronan The Accuser (Lee Pace). While he looked great (far better than Christopher Ecclestone’s Malakith in Thor 2, though with a similar vibe) he never really felt that threatening, despite his ‘Space Bin Laden’ style back story, and it was what I can only assume will be the maguffin for the next Guardians movie that thwarted him in surprisingly obvious fashion.

Guardians-of-the-Galaxy_5It’s clear when you look at director James Gunn’s past work where the sense of fun comes from. He is a graduate of Troma films and, while much of their output is grotty and downright bad beyond belief, his work on Tromeo & Juliet is one of their high points and its kitschy irreverence is present here in spades, as well as a great little blink and you’ll miss it cameo that pays nicely pays tribute to this past.

So, in the end, Guardians Of The Galaxy may not be an excellent movie, but it is great fun, knows what it’s trying to be and do, and has restored something of my faith in Marvel after the The Avengers and frankly God-awful Thor 2 and some of the production design, courtesy of artist Chris Foss, is excellent and a bit different to other Marvel fare.

Guardians-of-the-Galaxy-Prison1I just hope Guardians stands up to re-watching and Marvel can keep up this kind of mix of quirky and interesting while still fitting their formula – though Edgar Wright being dropped from Ant-Man isn’t too promising on that front… oh well, role on the inevitable Guardians 2 and hopefully another spin-off hinted at in the post credits sting (though I know that one’s wishful thinking more than anything else).

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