Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016)

★★★

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Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice PosterDirector: Zack Snyder

Release Date: March 25th, 2016 (UK & US)

Genre: Action; Adventure; Fantasy

Starring: Henry Cavill, Ben Affleck, Gal Gadot, Amy Adams

It’s not ideal when Warner Bros’ DC-Extended-Universe-launching Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice opens with the murder of Bruce Wayne’s parents, something we’ve seen a million times. And when shortly thereafter a bat levitation sequence greets the screen, you start to wonder how much hassle it’d be to squeeze past the people in your row while heading for the exit. Fortunately, it transpires the bat levitation horror is part of a dream sequence and, fortunately, better things start to happen. Wonder Woman shows up, for one. Also known as Diana Prince, she is fuelled by a magnificent grunge-rock theme, her steely identity reinforced by Gal Gadot’s very believable sense of authority.

Conversely, authority is what Lex Luthor lacks, and this quality trade-off sums the movie up — as good as it is bad. In simple terms, the film revolves around Luthor’s war manifesto: he wants Batman and Superman to destroy each other so he can rule the world, or something. Luthor is an oddball played with typical eccentricity by Jesse Eisenberg, a blend of James Franco’s Harry Osborn and a young Steve Jobs, but madder. Violin strings squawk whenever he appears, rambling about this and that, rarely making sense and never really cementing himself in any sort of cohesive way. He fulfils the usual big-corp-honcho-posing-as-a-philanthropist remit, unavoidable given the nature of adapting iconic comic book characters, but nonetheless tired by this point.

Eisenberg does try to mask Luthor’s commonality: there’s hardly a moment when the actor isn’t sparking vocal idiosyncrasies and, if you’ll excuse the faint praise, this at least gives the character a strange watchability. Luthor suffers from a lack of focus because there are so many moving parts, too many for writers Chris Terrio and David S. Goyer to mould legibly. See, character-wise, those present aren’t the only ones afforded set-up time. A Joker reference nods towards the upcoming Suicide Squad film. We see other future players too, though I would be remiss to give away the game in a review. Such a scattergraph approach attests to the film’s overarching problem — unbridled messiness. This is as much a franchise player as any Marvel jaunt, perhaps even more so since Snyder has to colour the narratives of so many bare pawns.

The mess extends beyond personnel; some moments appear hastily written, including an exchange right at the beginning where Wayne orders an employee to evacuate everyone from a building on a collision course with Superman and General Zod (surely everyone would have already scampered). It’s a return to the conclusion of Man of Steel but from Wayne’s ground zero perspective. Sure enough, the building tumbles — a Bruce Wayne building — and we have our central conceit: Wayne blames Superman for the destruction and, like Luthor, wants to end the Kryptonian’s apparent clumsiness. Yet the dust cloud that forms following said collapse ushers in a more interesting discussion than anything levied by the Bat of Gotham versus Son of Krypton action-fest. It’s a physical manifestation of the domestic terror that has threatened urban centres with impetus since 9/11, a theme the film runs with for an hour, swapping 9/11 for Metropolis duel.

There’s anger too, primarily on the Bat front. Christopher Nolan’s Batman had a streak of grounded and gritty reality, whereas this Snyder incarnation abides by something more militant: the steely armour, the bulked up costume, the egregious surveillance, his branding of enemies. And while Nolan’s version felt less ‘idealistic superhero’ and more ‘corruption crusader’, a man truly immersed in his surroundings, the version Affleck portrays here has only a single broad stroke to work with. Affleck hasn’t had the time to embed his version of the character into the prospective DC landscape, therefore it is difficult to understand his psyche and run with his arc. We only really see him for what he is: a vigilante with weapons and a bone to pick.

It is worth noting Batman does carry some allure and Affleck is good in the role. Henry Cavill is too, though his protagonist is significantly less interesting. The key idea surrounding his Superman threatens intrigue — he is the alien, the immigrant, the other targeted by Batman (the homegrown defender, the familiar in an unfamiliar world) because of his undemocratic power. Few comic book characters are more symbolic than Clark Kent’s alter ego, but he exists at a time when people cannot stand for anything because “it’s not 1938”. Moral righteousness has no place in this tainted wasteland and some don’t trust Superman, nor his upstanding mantra, for that reason. Anti-alien rallies cosy up with real life immigration debates, a comparison that gains further traction when we see Mexican Day of the Dead revellers side with their saviour.

But as a standalone character, he isn’t all that compelling. It’s probably a personal thing but I don’t quite see much attraction in an almost indestructible hero. We watch as Superman saves civilians from floods and fires and you wonder why anybody would hold a grudge against the guy — he is almost too good, too successful. And for someone who spends his spare time in a newsroom, it still boggles the mind that none of his colleagues are able to connect the Kent-Super dots. Lois also feels like a bit of a fifth wheel; she gets some reporting gigs and Amy Adams is fine, but there isn’t anything new going on. Her relationship with Kent advances little, for instance — she still believes in him and he still loves her.

Despite a promising first act, Snyder falls foul of his Man of Steel misdemeanours and throws caution to the CG wind via the film’s inevitable big battle (which, by the way, is sold on a falsehood). The physical saga feels bloated and is tough to engage with as you don’t yet believe in those doing the punching. Whereas the opening hour soars visually across scorching desert locales and through symbolic shots of Batman watching over his city, the second half of the movie gorges on disorienting and choppy action, both dimly lit and loudly enacted. It’s probably not as bad as the Man of Steel disaster but only because Wonder Woman is around on this occasion.

“So what does a rock have to do with homeland security?” asks Holly Hunter’s Kentucky Senator June Finch early on. Well, the film does devolve into a clash with a large Golem-like creature, where concrete buildings again suffer and gravelly terrain floods urban zones. And sure, that type of thing regularly happens in Marvel land, but Marvel land is also home to a multitude of richly-imbued characters. There is this idea sewn throughout Batman v Superman that power and goodness cannot coexist. The film has a lot of surface power and it’s no better than quite good, though there are artefacts worth salvaging.

Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice - Henry Cavill

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Warner Bros.

Gone Girl (2014)

★★★★★

Gone Girl PosterDirector: David Fincher

Release Date: October 2nd, 2014 (UK); October 3rd, 2014 (US)

Genre: Drama; Mystery; Thriller

Starring: Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike

Somebody encourage Rosamund Pike to clear her schedule for early next year. By many accounts — relative superficiality considered — the awards rounds that take place in January and February can manifest as quite the gruelling undertaking, particularly for those nominated without much hope. I bet the endeavour is worth it though, all the glamming up and invariably rigorous speech preparation, when your name bellows around LA’s Dolby Theatre and that egregious Academy countdown begins.

Should she get there (and she should) Miss Pike will be an Oscar newbie come February 22nd. It’s early, granted, but the performance(s) she delivers in Gone Girl will take some beating. Gillian Flynn’s spotless adaptation of her own novel to screen might also take some beating. Heck, David Fincher may well find himself in another directorial gong joust. Gone Girl is not fun and games, just games. It’s downbeat and harsh and at times painfully glum. It’s intelligent and gripping and oddly satirical. It’s very, very good.

On his fifth wedding anniversary Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) returns home to find a toppled table and smashed glass all over the floor, but not his wife Amy (Rosamund Pike). Upon subsequently reporting her missing, the bar owner plummets into a media frenzy fuelled by accusation, exoneration and consequence. Exactly what has happened to Amazing Amy?

Fincher refers to his back catalogue for inspiration, a method ultimately met with total vindication. Gone Girl refuses to settle on one genre platform and instead deftly mingles around a number of areas from which the director has previously thrived. The taut tension felt in Panic Room returns with a vengeance in tandem alongside Zodiac’s murky mystery. Much of what unfolds during the two and a half hour runtime does so in a mellow-ish manner; solemn, yet clawing away underneath the surface. We don’t really know what to believe or who to trust and Fincher works hard to emphasise that point. Historical diary entries penned by Amy are interspersed between the present, where husband Nick is battling the elements. Revelations come unstuck and we become part of the evolving saga, our minds constantly mobilising.

The director does this brilliantly, teasing us with character faults that we simply cannot ignore and that resultantly challenge our moral head space when nastiness arises. A coating of mystique, irrespective of its level, remains throughout all three acts — each of which vary in agency. What begins as a simmering thriller re-emerges as a social commentary on cultural norms, before climaxing in a fit of peculiarity and deceit. (Fincher himself has used the term “absurdist” to describe part of the story, and he is obviously spot on).

A lack of narrative jarring ought to be admired too, as each element works cohesively with the one before ensuring that there is no lull in proceedings. Don’t bring a watch, you won’t need to check the time. Perhaps the most interesting train of thought is the film’s exploration of a self-created image; this idea that we generate an idyllic version of ourselves to parade in front of others, when we’re in public. What happens, then, after five years of marriage? Script writer Gillian Flynn has an answer, and you get the sense that her adaptation to the big screen has come at an optimal time — the novel was only released in 2012, therefore the themes remain wholly tangible.

Another of those themes is one that seems to go hand in hand with personal façade: an exploration into the role of media. Specifically, media grossness. We watch the aftermath of Nick’s press conference where he outlines the brief details behind his wife’s disappearance, and the fallout is quite cruel. People become puppets via talk show hosts and public photographs and, to an extent, the film becomes less about finding Amy than it does Nick attempting to revitalise his own tarnished image. Ben Affleck paints Nick as a flounderer to a degree, but still as someone you’d fancy getting along with. The engulfing news storm is a usurping force of nature that strives to internalise the character’s prerogative, so much so that we doubt him relentlessly.

Navigating Rosamund Pike’s role as the eponymous gone girl is akin to traversing a recently laid mine field, and that is to the credit of Fincher and company. The actress is truly marvellous, a sentiment echoed in passing by Tyler Perry’s charismatic fixer Tanner Bolt: “Aww, she is good.” She is. Perry himself is one part of a diverse cast sustained by precision and efficiency, but it is the interaction between Affleck and Pike that engages most. Conversations between the pair relived through Amy’s diary entries are somewhat disoriented by a peculiar, haunting ambience. It is a haze struck up masterfully by the combined efforts of cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth and music men Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, all three well versed in Fincher lore. Cronenweth’s visual sheen resembles the pristine surface and texture of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and, backed up by a disquieting score, relays a melancholic haze.

It’s worth pointing out the satirical infusion brought forth by the film’s final act, at a time when proceedings really begin to marshal around the absurd. Though we spend moments throughout the film tickled by characters’ comical reactions (an early police interrogation, for example) as proceedings start to unravel what might have seemed amusing an hour ago morphs into a manifestation of discomfort. Events on screen are obtusely elevated, of course, but at a base level there lurks a degree of potential reality.

Brought to fruition by a supremely talented cast also including the likes of Neil Patrick Harris and Carrie Coon, and guided magnificently by a director whose work has finally struck an impenetrable balance, is a film not afraid to break the mould; one that defiantly stands beside the courage of its own convictions.

Evidence hardly ever amounts to clarity during Gone Girl, but Gone Girl most certainly is evidence that David Fincher is on the top of his game.

Gone Girl - Affleck

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): 20th Century Fox

Runner Runner (2013)

★★

Runner Runner PosterDirector: Brad Furman

Release Date: September 27th, 2013 (UK); October 4th, 2013 (US)

Genre: Crime; Drama; Thriller

Starring: Justin Timberlake, Ben Affleck, Gemma Arterton

At some point near the beginning of Runner Runner, Justin Timberlake’s snappy student Richie Furst says, “Make no mistake, if you’re betting something, you’re gambling”. In this solitary sentence the character sums up the film within which he aimlessly meanders. It’s such a throwaway line, one that is so obvious it becomes irrelevant. Much like the whole of Brad Furman’s utterly conventional outing. But more than that, the words resonate with truth. Runner Runner isn’t betting on anything other than the knowledge that its audience is well-versed in poker lingo. There is no gambling going on here, only playing it safe. And safety is really boring.

Having blown his big break in Wall Street, Richie Furst (Justin Timberlake) is now ploughing his way through college. Unable to afford the master’s jump, Richie gambles all of his savings in a game of online poker and comes up short. Though, it turns out he’s been conned by Ivan Block (Ben Affleck), a rich business tycoon whom Richie endeavours to tell off in Costa Rica.

For a film centred on gambling — a concept pillared by unpredictability — Runner Runner is endlessly predictable. It relies on cheap normalities more often than not, and subsequently fails to sizzle in any way. Proceedings kick-off with yet another montage comprised of news reports, an introductory method that is becoming increasingly common in contemporary cinema. It’s too easy. Writing partners Brian Koppelman and David Levien contribute a screenplay bereft of originality and stained by familiarity; we watch the typical story of a guy with a gift (this time it’s intellect) who decides to throw everything away by dabbling in unethical stuff. Where does this bustling need to be edgy come from? A troubled parent of course (this time it’s the father), a dad who lived beyond his means and not with his son’s best interests at heart.

We struggle to engage with the film then, primarily due to the trampled road down which it blindly ventures, and behind many better pieces that have gone before. Timberlake himself has starred in a more focused slick-fest, The Social Network, a flick that Runner Runner seemingly aspires to be. That film had Aaron Sorkin’s witty script and David Fincher’s scintillating direction, whereas this would claw at the chance to boast half of the aforementioned duo’s inventiveness. Unless we’re quoting lines to demonstrate an incessantly plodding nature, the dialogue is severely unmemorable. It is a shame too, for a more enterprising approach might have made this a sleek addition to The Social Network or even Ocean’s Eleven brand. Yet, it’s not even on 21’s table.

And it is not as if the filmmakers aren’t trying to add a stand-out quality, they just frequently miss the mark. Richie wanders into a nightclub fairly early on where there is an obvious attempt to infuse events with style. Camera glued to the travelling student, an array of luminous colours give way to a myriad of energetic tunes. What should be glossy instead feels forced and unnatural. The moment is too music video-esque. In fact the whole presentation is laced with this sense of unimportance — chopping a few scenes wouldn’t make any difference. Nor would the addition of Kanye West miming lyrics to his new song.

When we’re not being bogged down by uneventful narrative, we’re still challenged to fend off relentless onslaughts of casino lingo. The entire opening poker scene is a verbal tennis match, Timberlake constantly serving to our body with language that is either too difficult to grasp or too boring to care about. Furman and company revel in the speech. As do their characters, who collectively spend large periods of time explaining the plot and, in doing so, don’t really condone gambling. Just the illegal side of it. Betting is an inherently negatively regarded activity, which presents a problem in so much as there is a resultant air of deceit that surrounds all of the characters from the start.

Ben Affleck is the one who phones it in most often. And who can blame him? Post-Argo, and probably still basking in that rich, dense frame of mind during filming, it is no wonder that he gives off the impression of someone memorising and then robotically regurgitating lines. He plays Ivan Block. Block calls his boat ‘The House’ because “the house always wins”. He’s a millionaire. Even the imperiously charismatic Justin Timberlake’s attempts to overcome the dreary script are unfounded. His character is a bit rubbish too — Richie is so desperate to gain a master’s degree that he gambles away all of his tuition money and then leaves college forever. When the filmmakers remember she is on the payroll, Gemma Arterton appears. Like the others she’s much better than the stinker of a role afforded to her, but Arterton does make an effort and is quite amiable.

Runner Runner is an intuition vacuum. By the time any shallow complexities begin we’ve been too dazed by convention and a superfluous insistence on casino-tongue to figure anything out. It’s not necessarily a badly made film, or even a bad film at all. It’s just really dull.

Runner Runner - Ben and Justin

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): 20th Century Fox

Preview: The 2014 Cinematic Landscape

Who invited January over?

Yep, the most miserable month of year has reared its ugly head again. However for film fans (and let’s be honest, who isn’t?) the arrival of the dreaded January means two things: One, it’s awards season, so watch out for the heavy hitters making their way around cinemas, and two, it’s time to look forward to another calendar year choc-a-bloc with films ready to burst loose and onto our screens.

I guess we should start looking then…

(All release dates are subject to change, so don’t be booking your holidays around them. Because I know people do that. What? Just me?)

 

January

The Wolf of Wall Street – Director: Martin Scorsese, Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio

That’s right, having spent the best part of a decade working together, Scorsese and DiCaprio are remaining true to form and battering out another collaboration. This time Leonardo DiCaprio is Jordan Belfort, a New York stockbroker who got rich overnight in the late 1980s. The Wolf of Wall Street is based on a true story and by all accounts, it’s a pretty hectic tale. Jonah Hill and Matthew McConaughey are part of this brash comedy that apparently didn’t go down too well with a few elderly Academy members, as reports suggest Scorsese and the cast were severely heckled after a screening. Sounds like a lot of fun then! Out January 17th in the UK.

Inside Llewyn Davis – Directors: Joel and Ethan Coen, Starring: Oscar Isaac

From the outrageous to the harmonious, Joel and Ethan Coen have rustled up another helping of their highly sought-after Kool-Aid. Set around the wintry Greenwich Village folk scene in 1961, the film depicts a week in the life of Llewyn Davis, an aspiring musician out of luck. This has earned rave reviews on the festival circuit, and could springboard Oscar Isaac into Hollywood stardom. The Coen Brothers are often meticulous in their film-making – details matter as much as one-liners – and with T-Bone Burnett orchestrating the music production, Inside Llewyn Davis may well cause one or two Academy Award-shaped upsets come March. Out January 24th in the UK.

 

February

Dallas Buyers Club – Director: Jean-Marc Vallée, Starring: Matthew McConaughey

It’s only February and here we are looking at Matthew McConaughey’s second film on the list (and it won’t be his last)! The true renaissance man of cinema has knocked role after role out of the park in recent years, be it as a gritty lawyer in The Lincoln Lawyer, an eccentric stripper in Magic Mike or a pact-making fugitive in Mud, and this is shaping up to be another home run. After being diagnosed with AIDS, hustler Ron Woodroof sees life in a new light, shining brightly on giving back to those in need. Dallas Buyers Club has an air of Milk about it, which can only be a good thing. Also watch out for a supporting performance from Jared Leto that is generating quite a helping of Oscar buzz. Not bad for a singer. Out February 7th in the UK.

The Monuments Men – Director: George Clooney, Starring: George Clooney, Matt Damon

Argo meets Inglorious Basterds. Now that doesn’t sound half-bad, does it? Only, replace stranded United States embassy staff with some art masterpieces, and Diane Kruger with Cate Blanchett, and you’ve got yourself George Clooney’s next directorial venture. It’s quite a change from running for president in The Ides of March, although some political elements look set to remain. Clooney and company are going to have to do exceedingly well to usurp Quentin Tarantino’s take on World War II, however with a cast including Bill Murray anything’s possible. Out February 21st in the UK.

 

March

The Grand Budapest Hotel – Director Wes Anderson, Starring: Just about everyone

Wes Anderson and that distinctive directorial style returns with a story about a heralded concierge, a young lobby boy and a stolen painting set in a hotel between World Wars. Anderson must have a phone book brimming with Hollywood stars, each of whom is in his debt. Or maybe he just makes interesting films (yep, probably this one). Bill Murray – hooray again – is joined by Saoirse Ronan, Jude Law, Ralph Fiennes, Tilda Swinton, Edward Norton, Jeff Goldblum and a whole host of other people you’d want to have round for dinner. There’s no doubt this’ll have laughs, but without the naive innocence on show in Moonrise Kingdom, will those laughs be enough to win over audiences? Maybe Anderson has another trick up his sleeve. Or in his hair. Out March 7th in the UK.

The Zero Theorem – Director: Terry Gilliam, Starring: Christophe Waltz

The man behind Monty Python has turned his head to existential science-fiction in this odd-sounding fantasy-drama. About a computer hacker’s search to uncover why and how human beings exist (he should check out The Meaning of Life, by the way), The Zero Theorem even tends towards comedy by the sounds of it. The hacker’s bosses, succinctly named the ‘Management’, strive to distract him by sending a lusty love interest to his place of work. This ‘Management’ lot obviously don’t understand the first rule of um, management – getting results. Surely Christophe Waltz (who plays our lead) won’t deliver results with his attention diverted elsewhere?! This could throw up anything really. Out March 14th in the UK.

 

April

The Double – Director: Richard Ayoade, Starring: Mia Wasikowska, Jesse Eisenberg

After his coming-of-age debut Submarine was well received by audiences and critics alike, the stone-faced Richard Ayoade has decided for his second film, to direct Jesse Eisenberg… twice. This peculiar outing about a man stalked by his doppelgänger won over viewers when it premièred at the Toronto International Film Festival, and then carried much momentum onto The Culture Show with Mark Kermode during its life at the BFI London Film Festival. Mia Wasikowska is included in the Jennifer Lawrence and Elizabeth Olsen future of cinema party, and if that’s not enough to clinch your attention, Eisenberg versus Eisenberg in a wit-off is something you have to see in 2014. Out April 4th in the UK.

Transcendence – Director: Wally Pfister, Starring: Johnny Depp

He’s the reason most Christopher Nolan films look as wholesome as they do, but now someone else has to do the same for Wally Pfister (good luck Jess Hall!). Transcendence is his first venture into the directorial chair, and therefore could go either way. Given the extraordinary standards set by his previous work though, don’t expect anything to be left to chance. This story of death, life, and uncompromising power has morality at its heart and a string of Nolan’s acting repertoire to provide the beat. Johnny Depp meets Morgan Freeman, Rebecca Hall and Cillian Murphy in what is quite simply a exceptional line-up. Out April 25 in the UK.

 

May

Frank – Director: Lenny Abrahamson, Starring: Domhnall Gleeson, Michael Fassbender

Frank hasn’t been released anywhere yet, therefore we don’t know an awful lot about it. Abrahamson’s last film, What Richard Did, garnered positive reviews from critics, but doesn’t seem to share many similar characteristics with his upcoming piece. About a young musician looking for a break and finding solace in a mysterious, enigmatic band leader who invites him to join, Frank is described as a comedy, a drama and a mystery on IMDb (which is fitting really, because its content certainly is unknown for the most part). Domhnall Gleeson charmed 2013 and Michael Fassbender has developed a reputation greater than most, so we’re in good hands here. It’s also nice to see Scoot McNairy involved, who excelled in Gareth Edwards much talked about debut Monsters. Out May 9th in the UK.

Godzilla – Director: Gareth Edwards, Starring Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Elizabeth Olsen

Speaking of Gareth Edwards, his triumphant 2010 debut has landed him at the helm of the most anticipated blockbuster of the coming summer. Roland Emmerich butchered more than just the Japanese monster in his take on Godzilla fifteen years ago, he also tarnished the immediate legacy of the giant mutant lizard. It looks like Edwards is delving back into the franchise’s original backbone – the trials and tribulations of human nature and greed – which is a good idea in an era where blockbusters have to be intelligent, or its bust. Aaron Taylor-Johnson is a solid lead and Elizabeth Olsen has done a whole lot of right so far in her young career. It must be wary of high expectations, however those expectations are only lofty on the back of Edwards’ previous successes. Out May 16th in the UK.

 

June

22 Jump Street – Directors: Phil Lord and Chris Miller, Starring: Channing Tatum, Jonah Hill

After the surprising critical and commercial success of the first film, it’s time for Jump Street: The College Years. Undercover cops Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill are set to return and after their prior personal triumphs, the pair find themselves surrounded by fraternities and hipster clubs in college. Joint directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller have two highly marketable films out in 2014 – the first being The Lego Movie – but both have difficult obstacles to overcome. For 22 Jump Street it’s all about bettering the predecessor, and that will be a big ask. Out June 6th in the UK.

A Million Ways to Die in the West – Director: Seth MacFarlane, Starring: Seth MacFarlane, Charlize Theron

Ted worked out well for Seth MacFarlane, so why not turn his head towards the west? After losing the love of his life to cowardliness, a man finds bravery in the form a gunslinger’s wife, only now the gunslinger wants his wife back. This one sounds like referential humour in abundance. Expect many a cowboy gag and acoustic twang. MacFarlane does blunt comedy very well in animated form, and his cross-over into live action was a successful one. Only time will tell if he can strike an even better balance second time around. Out June 6th in the UK.

 

July

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes – Director: Matt Reeves, Starring: Gary Oldman

Cloverfield director Matt Reeves tries his hand at an Apes sequel, and will do well to live up to standards set by the first. There’s no James Franco (he’s too busy doing weird indie stuff), nor does Freida Pinto return. However, Gary Oldman has been lined up to take the reins and there can be absolutely quarrels with that appointment. Set eight years after Rise of the Planet of the Apes, human survivors of the virus unleashed at the end of the first film bond together in a movement against Caesar’s growing forces. The Picasso of motion-capture acting, Andy Serkis, is back as Caesar in an outing that pertains to being far more action-packed than the first. Out July 17th in the UK.

Jupiter Ascending – Directors: Andy and Lana Wachowski, Starring: Mila Kunis, Channing Tatum

In what appears to be 2014’s Cloud Atlas (and hopefully not 2014’s After Earth) Jupiter Ascending will be strung together by mythology, scintillating visual landscapes and probably some croaky language not-of-this-earth. The human species has fallen mightily, and exists near foot of the evolutionary pyramid, where Mila Kunis cleans toilets for a living. Her unfulfilled existence is about to change however, as she is targeted for assassination by the threatened Queen of the Universe in an attempt to ensure her own longevity. You’ve got to hand it to the Wachowski’s: they’re not afraid to dream and do big. In the same vein as their previous films, this’ll likely split opinion. Out July 25th in the UK.

 

August

Guardians of the Galaxy – Director: James Gunn, Starring: Lee Pace, Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper, Zoe Saldana

The Avengers’ cousin, this will be Marvel Cinematic Universe’s second offering of the year after Captain America: The Winter Solider, and the first in its own particular superhero story strand. A group of misfits including a warrior, a tree-human hybrid and a squirrel are recruited by a stranded pilot in space as he attempts to fend off a number of cosmic threats and ensure the galaxy’s survival. Guardians received an electric reception

Guardians received an electric reception at the 2013 San Diego Comic Con and there’s a large degree of buzz surrounding the film. With very little exposure in the run up to its release – unlike The Avengers which was preceded by feature-length films for each character – it may not make as big an impact as expected. Out August 1st in the UK.

Hercules: The Thracian Wars – Director: Brett Ratner, Starring: Dwayne Johnson

Much like the battle of White House destruction supremacy that played out in 2013, this year will have its own inter-Herculean duel as two re-imaginings of the Greek demigod come to fruition. The second and more anticipated of the two will be directed by Brett Ratner and will star the franchise re-energiser himself, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, alongside film veterans John Hurt and Ian McShane. Can The Rock layeth the Smacketh-down on both a monstrous warlord and a February release of the same name? Out August 8th in the UK.

 

September

Posh – Director: Lone Scherfig, Starring: Sam Claflin, Natalie Dormer

At the time of writing, September is looking pretty starved in the film front. It’s sandwiched amongst that awkward post-summer blockbuster, pre-awards season gap, when many people are heading back to work, school or uni. However Danish director Lone Scherfig has this upper-class thriller lined up to hopefully quench our end-of-holiday blues. Sam Claflin and Game of Thrones’ Natalie Dormer will star as new members of the Riot Club at Oxford University. With very little known about Posh, let’s place it somewhere between National Lampoon’s Animal House and Pathology for now. Out September 19th in the UK.

 

October

Gone Girl – Director: David Fincher, Starring: Rosamund Pike, Ben Affleck

David Fincher has accumulated quite the portfolio of films throughout his career, along with a fair few fans too, so it’ll be interesting to see how this seemingly more straight-forward narrative will go down. Based on a novel of the same name, Gone Girl sees conundrums take precedence as a woman disappears on the day of her wedding anniversary. Fincher doesn’t often disappoint his supporters, and the mystery-thriller element here should be enough for him to juggle with and embroider his own spin. Heck, he’s got Batman as his lead for goodness sake. Out October 3rd in the UK.

 

November

Interstellar – Director: Christopher Nolan, Starring: Anne Hathaway, Matthew McConaughey

In his first film since neatly wrapping up the trials and tribulations of Batman for a while (oh… right) Chris Nolan is taking to space for his next voyage. Hey look, Matthew McConaughey is back again! And this time Double-M is joined by Nolan archivees Anne Hathaway and Michael Caine, plus Jessica Chastain, in a sci-fi tale about discovering the bounds of life and surpassing the un-surpass-able. Ahem. Expect wormholes aplenty and probably even some dimension-hopping, time-travelly stuff too. Nolan hasn’t made a bad film in, well, ever, so Interstellar will open with very high expectations. Will it be stellar? Out November 7th in the UK.

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 – Director: Francis Lawrence, Starring: Jennifer Lawrence

It’s becoming a late-November outing to be thankful for, but with two excellent predecessors, the less-well-regarded Mockingjay (Part 1, to ruffle even more feathers) has hype, expectations and box office records to live up to. Jennifer Lawrence will reclaim the bow for a third time as she helms the rebellion against President Snow and his viscous Capitol. Francis Lawrence infused Catching Fire with more politically current themes, and created an altogether bleaker but better film than first time around – and first time around was pretty damn good. Going by the material in the third book, Francis Lawrence has an even bigger task on his hands here. Part 1 is out November 21st in the UK, with Part 2 to follow a year later.

 

December

Dumb and Dumber To – Directors: Bobby and Peter Farrelly, Starring: Jim Carey, Jeff Daniels

Anchorman 2 by association, and we’re not off to a great start with the title. Much like the return of the Burgundy-brigade after nine years in December 2013, the dimwits are set to return in December 2014 after twenty years doing absolutely nothing. Not really, both Carey and Daniels are far bigger stars these days, raising the question: will it be harder for audiences to acclimatise to their characters’ now Hollywood stupidity? Fortunately, the Farrelly brothers are once again fronting up the sequel which does actually sound quite funny: the duo are on the hunt for a new kidney, so now is probably a good time to find that long-lost child. Out December 19th in the UK.

The Hobbit: There and Back Again – Director: Peter Jackson, Starring: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen

And finally, we once again end the year at the end of the Hobbity adventure. Peter Jackson’s extended extension of J. R. R Tolkien’s ‘The Hobbit’ has improved with age, but will probably never please the hardcore Tolkienati. We’ve been there twice and it’s time to go back again as the world finds out the fate of Bilbo, Gandalf and their company of dwarfs, in their joust with Smaug. The amount of book pages remaining is wearing thin, so it’ll be interesting to see how Jackson expands this final instalment across almost three hours (which he’ll surely do). The Hobbit films haven’t really been a patch on The Lord of the Rings trilogy, but I’ll certainly miss Jackson’s endeavours into Middle Earth when the franchise finally nestles up. Out December 19th in the UK.

 

 

Some more potential hit or misses:

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (Kenneth Branagh): This year’s Jack Reacher, only Tom Cruise is younger and cooler. Out January.

Non-Stop (Jaume Collet-Serra): Taken on a Plane. Out February.

Nymphomaniac (Lars von Trier): Wherever von Trier goes controversy follows, and this has controversy smothered all over it. Along with a lot of other… stuff. Part I out February, Part II out March.

The Amazing Spiderman 2 (Marc Webb): Three and Four are already confirmed, and although the first regeneration was a success, counting chickens is a dangerous game. Out April.

Chef (Jon Favreau): Favreau’s Iron Man set a yet-to-be-reached bar for the franchise, and he’s back with RDJ in this tasty comedy. Out May.

The Fault in our Stars (Josh Boone): It’s probably time for a summer weep-fest. Out June.

Transformers 4 (Michael Bay): Let’s not even kid ourselves. Unfortunately, out July.

Sin City: A Dame to Kill For (Frank Miller and Robert Rodriguez): The next chapter in this graphic novel-driven saga. Out August.

Search Party (Scott Armstrong): Matthew Abbadon from LOST is in it. Out September.

The Maze Runner (Wes Ball): Brimming with youthful potential, will this be the next Hunger Games? Out October.

Horrible Bosses 2 (Sean Anders): The first was pretty average, but Christophe Waltz has been snapped up for this one. Out November.

Exodus (Ridley Scott): Scott’s movie-making binge continues with this account of Moses, played by Christian Bale. Out December.

 

What are you looking forward to seeing in 2014? Comment below!

CBF’s Genre Toppers: Thriller

Today I am focusing on some of my favourite films in the thriller genre. Just before I begin, I would like to be clear on how I make the distinction between thriller and action, because sometimes they seem to mesh into one. This is just my own personal way of telling both genres apart and there really is no right or wrong answer here — you may think something completely different!

Firstly, the main similarities between the two genres are the typically a fast-paced plot and, more often than not, a heroic character fighting off a villainous one in one way or another. For me, the separation tends to occur in the tone of the film. For example, a thriller seeks out suspense and jeopardy as the driving force, whereas an action film is all about excitement and liveliness. Also — and again this is just the way I see it — action films tend to be more light-hearted than thrillers (not always, but generally).

Anyway, on to five greats!

Skyfall (2012)

The newest film on the list, Skyfall was released in October 2012 and declared instantly by the vast majority of viewers to be the best Bond film ever. Helmed by Sam Mendes and with Daniel Craig reprising his role as James Bond, the film follows Bond’s relationship with M (Judi Dench) throughout his investigation of a violent attack on MI6 at the hands of former agent Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem) who is out for revenge.

“Looks like it’s gonna rain.”

As I mentioned earlier, Skyfall has been touted as the best Bond film ever by audiences and critics alike, and has now grossed well over $1 billion which makes it — as of writing — the eighth highest grossing film of all time. That tells you that Sam Mendes done something right. In fact, he done just about everything right in this emotional roller coaster ride. For the first time, the audience is invited into the ins and outs of the relationship between Bond and M which makes this instalment more weighty and heartfelt, yet it still maintains that slickness that has always been associated with the franchise. Mendes has a stellar cast at his disposal — joining Daniel Craig (who plays his best Bond to date opposite Judi Dench, in my opinion) in Skyfall are newcomers to the franchise Ralph Fiennes, Ben Wishaw and Naomie Harris who each add their own nuances to the film (Wishaw is particularly good as Q). However, the star of the show is Javier Bardem with his charismatic, extravagant portrayal of villain Raoul Silva. On a par with Mads Mikkelsen in Casino Royale (we will just ignore Quantum of Solace for now) Bardem is hugely effective opposite Craig and the two flourish as a result.

Although Bond has become a genre on its own essentially, Skyfall claims a spot in my top thriller films for its crisp, free-flowing script and interesting characters.

No Country For Old Men (2007)

“Do not insult my hair again.”

No Country For Old Men is an Academy Award winning 2007 film directed by Joel and Ethan Coen (or just the Coen brothers). The plot surrounds Josh Brolin’s character, hunter Llewelyn Moss after he uncovers over $2 million worth of cash at a drug deal gone wrong and is pursued as a result by vicious hitman Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) who has been hired to recover the stolen cash. Meanwhile, almost retired sheriff, Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) finds himself thrust directly into the cat-and-mouse chase between the two.

It is not often the Coen Brothers get it wrong and, true to form, No Country For Old Men is a knockout. This marks Javier Bardem’s second appearance on my list, and for the second time he steals the show. Bardem is excellent at portraying a psychotic, emotionless killer and his aura throughout the film adds to the creepy, on-the-edge, thriller-ish atmosphere. Both Josh Brolin and Tommy Lee Jones are terrific in their depictions of a desperate war veteran and a straight-to-the-point county sheriff respectively. The 1980s Texas setting truly adds to the grit (wink) and once again proves just how good a pair of eyes the Coen Brothers have at selecting locations for their films — have a look at Fargo and O Brother, Where Art Thou? if you do not believe me.

No Country For Old Men is captivating and intense, just two of the many characteristics which make it a very enjoyable thriller.

Argo (2012)

“Screw the Oscars, man”

Ben Affleck’s third directorial feature, political thriller Argo, opened in cinemas a few weeks before Skyfall in October 2012 and stars Affleck, Alan Arkin and Bryan Cranston. The film is a dramatisation of the Iranian hostage crisis in the 1980s where six fugitive American diplomats require assistance in the form of extraction out of Iran from CIA specialist Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck).

I cannot wait for Affleck’s next film, because this one is absolutely outstanding. Argo defines the thriller genre — every characteristic required to make this film a success is in there. Gripping, intense, polished and stylish, Argo delivers on all fronts. For a political thriller, the plot is not difficult to follow, yet it remains shrewd and without any glaring mishaps. One of the more surprising elements here, particularly following the terrifying opening sequence, are the pockets of dark comedy splattered throughout the film which by no means feel out of place. Affleck manages to equate the frantic goings-on with enough dark humour to ensure the film does not become too lifeless or overbearing. Each of the performances from the cast are solid, with Alan Arkin standing out in particular, but the constantly flowing nature of the plot is the key to this film’s success.

How Ben Affleck was snubbed by the Oscars (he did not receive a nod in the Best Director category) is beyond me. Argo is a must-see film and definitely one of the best released in 2012.

Inception (2010)

Directed by Christopher Nolan, the summer blockbuster of 2010, Inception, stars a jam-packed ensemble cast lead by Leonardo DiCaprio, who receives his support from the likes of Ellen Page, Tom Hardy, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Cillian Murphy and Marion Cotillard (the list goes on). DiCaprio plays Dom Cobb, an extractor — or plainer terms, a thief — who enters his subject’s dreams in order to carry out an extraction. When he is offered the chance to see his children again, Cobb must assemble a team of specialists together in order to plant an idea into his target’s (Cillian Murphy) subconscious — a process known as inception.

“My bad.”

I am probably going be referring to film critic Mark Kermode a lot during this next paragraph, because his review of Inception is one of the best I have heard. Massive summer blockbusters are sometimes tarred (often justifiably) as being big money-making schemes with very little for their audience, who have become accustomed to seeing films where absolutely nothing happens other than some pointless, soulless action sequences (I am looking at you Michael Bay). Kermode attributes this to a small percentage of filmmakers perhaps assuming their audience is too ‘dumb’ to be able to watch a film and at the same time… think. Yes, think. It really is absurd, but it does appear to happen. Look at Transformers for example: the whole franchise is nothing more than robots hitting each other, which is fine once (I suppose), but not over and over again until it becomes so intolerable it hurts to watch. Inception, however, is a perfect example of a massive blockbuster that provides enough action and thrills to appease everyone, but also makes its audience think during the film — and it worked, because the film has taken over $825 million. Why? Because people appreciate that Christopher Nolan is looking out for his audience and making films that will challenge them, but that are also highly enjoyable (The Dark Knight trilogy being another example). Also, because Inception had a number of different layers to it (both literally and figuratively) and because people enjoyed it, some then had to go back and see it again in order for them to fully understand it! That does not mean those people are dumb, quite the opposite in fact: it means they are thinking.

But I digress. Inception is a show-stopping thriller stuffed full of ideas, great performances, amazing visual effects, comedic moments and even some emotion (look it up, Bay).

Blood Diamond (2006)

“Is my accent really that bad?”

The oldest film on my list (albeit not very old), Blood Diamond is another political thriller starring Leonardo DiCaprio. This time he accompanied by Djimon Hounsou and Jennifer Connelly in a Sierra Leone setting. At the height of the Sierra Leone civil war (1996-2001), smuggler Danny Archer (DiCaprio) teams with a local fisherman (Hounsou) and a reporter (Connelly) in an attempt to seek out and gain possession of a large diamond, with each of the three boasting different motives.

Leonardo DiCaprio (incidentally, my favourite actor) gets a bad rap for his South African accent in this film — it sounds great to me, but maybe I am touch biased. I doubt that. The performances are very strong, with all three protagonists providing a combination of fury, optimism, emotion and anguish to accompany the desperate situation they find themselves in (particularly DiCaprio and Hounsou). The story moves at greater-than-steady pace which provides the thriller-ish aspect which the film has in abundance, with Edward Zwick’s narrative ensuring the audience remains grasped throughout. Part of the formula which contributes to Blood Diamond’s success in my eyes, is its realism as it depicts some of the hardships most civilians staying in Sierra Leone (and elsewhere) were going through during the civil war. A few of the scenes are harrowing, not in a particularly gory way, but because they dramatise atrocities occurring around the world. I would say, however, that Zwick does not make these scenes exploitative in away way — they are an essential part of the story. On a last note, the African setting is absolutely stunning and almost becomes a character itself during the film.

Blood Diamond really hits home in its realistic nature, and at the same time serves up a gripping tale of two very different men with one common goal.

 

And now for some honourable mentions:

Se7en (1995) — This is a very accomplished horror story about two men tracking down a serial killer who leaves them clues in the form of the Seven Deadly Sins… only, with people involved. Morgan Freeman and a young Brad Pitt excel in their roles.

The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999) — At times you get obsession, then you get Matt Damon in The Talented Mr. Ripley. What opens as a fairly innocent thriller closes with just enough menace to fill anyone for a day. Or a lifetime.

Inside Man (2006) — A very underrated film in my opinion, Inside Man sees the charismatic Denzel Washington tasked with rescuing a bunch of civilians caught up in a bank robbery masterminded by Clive Owen. Very intriguing action with a wonderful twist.

Taken (2008) — I think just about everybody has seen Taken — it’s on the TV at least once every week (and weirdly, it costs exactly three pounds in just about every shop in Scotland). Often brutal, always entertaining and the birth Liam Neeson: action star.

Wrecked (2010) — A small, independent thriller starring Adrien Brody as a man who wakes up in the middle of a forest after a car accident he cannot remember anything about. Interesting, dramatic and unique.

Source Code (2011) — This may make an appearance on another list, but as a thriller it just about misses out my top five. Therefore, I will refrain from saying much more for now (but it is very, very good).

What are some of your favourite thriller films?

 

(Note: Mark Kermode reviews each week’s new film releases between 2-4pm on Fridays with Simon Mayo on BBC Radio 5live, so check them out if you like films, or flappy hands. You will not regret it.)