Joy (2016)

★★★★

Joy PosterDirector: David O. Russell

Release Date: December 25th, 2015 (US); January 1st, 2016 (UK)

Genre: Comedy; Drama

Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper, Robert De Niro, Édgar Ramírez

Hey, look. Another film starring Jennifer Lawrence and another star turn from Jennifer Lawrence. The can-do-no-wrong actor is back alongside Bradley Cooper and Robert De Niro in Joy, all three under the familiar guidance of director David O. Russell. This is better than their last collaboration, American Hustle, solely because it pits Lawrence in the driver’s seat. It’s not better written, nor better shot. It is simply better shepherded by its central player, whose is clearly one of the best performers cinema currently has to offer.

She plays Joy Mangano, a multifaceted individual struggling to keep her domestic life on the straight and narrow. Her grandmother Mimi (Diane Lane) narrates in parts, telling us about Joy’s childhood and what the youngster had before divorce sent things by the wayside: family, pets, love, a non-idealistic attitude (“I don’t need a prince”). Now a grown women, Joy still doesn’t need a prince nor is she an idealist, but the inventor could do with a degree of leeway in terms of luck.

Mum Terri (Virginia Madsen) is obsessed with television, unwilling to interrupt her bed-based viewing for anything apart from the bare essentials. Like the lone passive smoker living in a cigarette guzzling household, you can see the obsession rubbing off on Joy. In Terri, O. Russell seems to be highlighting our inherent desire to live vicariously through others, and why this can be both good and bad (which is rich coming from a movie). We learn early on that Terri’s TV-induced laziness -cum-ineptitude meant she failed to get her daughter a patent for a potentially profit spinning invention years back.

See, Joy is an inventor. At least she should be. Unfortunately, her house has taken the form of a hotel for relatives. Whenever she visits her father’s (Robert De Niro) vehicle repair shop, the ideas woman walks past men taking aim at empty glass bottles. It’s as if her dreams and aspirations are shot to pieces every time she spends time with her family: Joy does the washing; Joy does the plumbing; Joy does the bedtime reading; Joy does the cooking. Joy even has to mediate verbal jousts between dad and ex-husband, Tony (Édgar Ramírez). Home life is a mess.

And yet there isn’t that same underlying darkness present in O. Russell’s latest offering that was there in, say, The Fighter. This threatens to leave the story hanging, particularly during the opening hour when the family shenanigans bear a fun streak despite boasting life-halting ramifications — heck, Joy and Tony are “the best divorced couple in America”. Lawrence does wear exhaustion well though, allowing only brief bursts of spark to shine through. It is obvious that Joy is the level-headed one, admirably unshowy despite having the intuitive capacity to back up any arrogance. The rest of them are oddballs.

De Niro’s recent filmography doesn’t exactly reflect his irresistible earlier stuff, but he does work well alongside present company. The veteran is as good here as he has been in a while, snarky and showing pinpoint comedic timing. Tony grates a little, especially when we see him in his basement setting without any character depth towards the start, but he fares better as the film advances. He is a singer and, like Joy, the screenplay wants to protect him — O. Russell has penned a celebration of creativity after all.

The film trundles along appealingly, though without too much in the way of bite or real depth. That changes in the second act, when the Miracle Mop takes shape and sales pitches are invoked. Cooper turns up as a distanced TV exec with more business acumen than generosity. Energy levels heighten as he shows Joy around the QVC studio. The piece comes to life and starts to really feel like a David O. Russell production: Melissa Rivers barters before our eyes as her late mother (uncannily by the way); words suddenly have urgency; a western twang sounds out; the camera swoops left and right as ringing telephones carry the frantic calls of seduced customers.

Real life Mangano has the spotlight but the film is really an amalgamation of many exceptional tales (“Inspired by true stories of daring women” are the first worlds we see on-screen), and as such you sometimes get the sense our central character is too good to be true — when she needs Miracle Mop personnel, Joy hires a bunch of female immigrants and turns her father’s male workplace into a sort of gender-balanced haven. Lawrence absolutely makes it work though: like her character’s family, the camera relentlessly pesters the actor, worried it might miss a moment of her brilliance.

Linus Sandgren’s cinematography is crisp but the film does parade an idiosyncrasy in the way it is structured. We get flashbacks that serve to fill some life gaps, but then there are these silly dream sequences dressed up as episodes of a melodramatic soap opera. They feel more suited to American Hustle than Silver Linings Playbook, and given Joy falls tonally on the side of the latter, the sequences don’t really mesh well with the surrounding drama and are ultimately superfluous.

Like American Hustle, it is a film that ages well; certainly, there were moments that had me feeling a bit blasé about the whole thing, but then it won me over and continued to do so even hours after the credits had rolled. Sure you can telegraph certain plot points, but you aren’t really paying for plot: you’re paying for Joy and Jen. The movie is about a functional mop. Isabella Rossellini appears as a bonkers love interest. There is a hotel room standoff involving a guy wearing a cowboy hat for goodness’ sake. What’s not to like?

Joy - Jennifer Lawrence

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright: 20th Century Fox

Crash of the Titans: The Decline of the Actor

Stars - J Law 2

Following a dour weekend stateside for new film releases, that ever-intrusive question is banging around the cinemasphere again: What has happened to our movie stars? Now more than ever films are sold to audiences through an expertly crafted marketing gaze, and it seems the most effective marketing strategy for studios these days is to repeat that which was once successful.

Through no fault of their own, actors are no longer truly bankable; even the biggest and best have financial flops lingering in their back catalogues like an unwanted infection. The same could be said for directors, many of whom have helmed a financial disappointment. If you’re not Steven Spielberg or Martin Scorsese, chances are you’re not getting top billing on the poster. In fact hiring less well-known directors to oversee large productions is becoming an increasingly popular trend in Hollywood.

Instead, distributors are all wrapped up in promoting a marketable product these days. It’s partly why franchises are in vogue; they have a ready-made narrative structure in place and are therefore easier to sell. Skyfall currently flies the most successful British film ever made banner and, as good as his performance is in the film, chances are people didn’t scramble to their nearest cinema to catch a glimpse of Daniel Craig. They went for James Bond, the character, the familiar entity. Jennifer Lawrence is arguably the world’s most in demand actor, a reputation she has carved out for herself by being very good in two huge movie series (The Hunger Games and X-Men).

In the US, this past weekend saw name-value take another hit: Bradley Cooper and Sandra Bullock both had films released, and both films succumbed to poor box office returns. Cooper stars in Burnt, a culinary drama that took as little as $5 million, while Bullock’s vehicle is the political comedy Our Brand Is Crisis. The latter only managed to recoup $3.2 million of its $28 million budget. As those films struggled, grander ventures such as The Martian continued to reign supreme — thankfully, Ridley Scott’s sci-fi jaunt is one of the year’s best (another, in fairness, is franchise reboot Mad Max: Fury Road).

Stars - Sandra Bullock

While middle-of-the-road outings such as Burnt and Our Brand Is Crisis feel the weight of their franchise-less, big budget-less predicaments, the past 12 months have brought us this lot: Jurassic World, Fast & Furious 7, Avengers: Age of Ultron, and Minions, four sequels (or prequel in the case of Minions) that greatly emphasised their pre-existing worlds during the sales pitch. Heck, Jurassic World went full throttle and unveiled distinctly recognisable posters to the world before incorporating an updated version of John Williams’ wonderful score in its trailer. Those movies, incidentally, are four of cinema’s largest ever grossers.

If the waning power of the actor wasn’t so explicitly obvious before, Suffragette may well have totally pulled the plug. Focus Features heavily promoted Meryl Streep’s involvement in the project alongside main players Carey Mulligan and Helena Bonham Carter, even though the iconic actor only appears on screen for a handful of minutes. Presumably, the studio expected her name-value to grasp the consumer’s attention and subsequently increase viewership. Unfortunately, the film has only grossed $11.6 million up until now (it’s in its fourth week), $2.4 million short of its initial budget.

There are pros and cons to our present age of sequel-dom. On the one hand, we get to see exhilarating and smart blockbuster outings such as the aforementioned Mad Max: Fury Road and also Marvel’s Ant-Man, these films succeeding in spite of their pre-established identities. But we also have to sit through monstrosities such as Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, a film that when issued back in 2009 arrived on the silver screen warmed by the security blanket of a guaranteed audience. A film, sadly, that hardly values quality.

There are exceptions to rule — some may call them diminishing lights amongst the bleak darkness — and one of those might be The Revenant. Granted the upcoming film will be riding the Oscar wave, particularly given its director Alejandro González Iñárritu is fresh off a golden statuette victory himself. But even films touched by the shiny sheen of an Academy Award nomination rarely yield monster returns — the 2015 crop harvested a circumstantially low intake — and it’s worth noting that these often host the flashiest names too. Steve Jobs, starring Michael Fassbender, is another potential awards-hauler performing poorly.

Stars - Leo DiCaprio

But back to The Revenant. There is an argument to be made that any financial success incurred by The Revenant will lie solely at the feet of its genuine A-list star, Leonardo DiCaprio. One of the last original flicks to make any real cash was Christopher Nolan’s Inception, also starring DiCaprio, though to claim that movie’s monetary success was exclusively down to said actor’s involvement would be a stretch. A genuine exception might be Spring Breakers, starring Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hugdens who, at the time, were Disney starlets. It made over $30 million on a $6 million budget.

A24 Films delivered Spring Breakers to audiences back in 2013 and since then the studio has prioritised freshness (though its movies don’t always boast big names). Its highest grossing picture thus far is Ex Machina, which featured relative newcomers Oscar Isaac, Domhnall Gleeson, and Alicia Vikander. Conversely, Under the Skin starring Avenger Scarlett Johansson failed to regain even half of its initial outlay. American Hustle, of the non-A24 Films variety, done well at the box office under the guidance of a conglomeration of star power: Christian Bale, Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper, Amy Adams, and Jeremy Renner were all involved.

Is it a good thing? Recent history suggests that the demise of the actor as a wholesale draw has meant most studios see the establishment of a brand as the only way forward. If true this approach cannot be healthy, as it would almost certainly encourage a lack of diversity in cinema (many will claim cinema is already lacking diversity). You might argue Gravity, starring Bullock and George Clooney, is an example of a film that was beefed up by its two major stars, but even that was marketed largely as an immersive and stunning cinematic experience. Clooney himself felt the brunt of ebbing clout when audiences opted not to see Tomorrowland: A World Beyond this past summer.

None of this should come as a surprise. The days of the star system are gone and in their place we have a society that subscribes to Netflix not to see a particular film, but because it’s Netflix. A Will Smith-led Bad Boys can no longer make over $140 million based solely on Will Smith’s appearance. The solution, if there is one, is an entirely different matter, though perhaps actors don’t need one. Perhaps studios and audiences just need to have more confidence in original movie-making.

Stars - Bradley Cooper

Images credit: Metro, Collider

Images copyright (©): Warner Bros. Pictures, 20th Century Fox, The Weinstein Company

American Sniper (2015)

★★

American Sniper PosterDirector: Clint Eastwood

Release Date: January 16th, 2015 (UK and US)

Genre: Action; Biography; Drama

Starring: Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller

The problem with American Sniper is not necessarily that it’s controversial — though that train of thought is somewhat justified — but that it’s rather dull. In regurgitating a story set almost entirely during the worst of the conflict in Iraq post-9/11, and one based upon real events, you’d expect director Clint Eastwood to have something potent to say about war. At the very least, it’d be fair to expect a consistently taut human drama. We get neither from American Sniper, a film weighed down by overt patriotism and silly writing.

Bradley Cooper (now the recipient of three consecutive acting nominations at Academy Awards) stars as US Navy Seal Chris Kyle, a former rodeo cowboy so pained by news reports of terrorist attacks on his home soil that he enlists to fight abroad. It’s nothing more than a solid performance from Cooper, certainly not one on the same level as his two previous Oscar nominated stints in both Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle.

As the film progresses the bulked up actor’s role becomes an increasingly emotionless one, and consequentially quite thankless. Buying into the personal struggles of a man who spends his time in a place littered with death and despair — he, frankly, contributing to the mess — is a struggle in and of itself. This isn’t a critique of the real Chris Kyle, nor Cooper, and instead of the poorly conceived writing underpinning proceedings.

Adapted from Kyle’s own autobiography, Jason Hall delivers a screenplay severely lacking in nous or subtlety. Bearing no stance on the Iraq War that hasn’t already been exhausted on the big screen, or any screen, what we’re left with instead is a film trying desperately to convince itself that war is necessary. Men, women and children are all cast under the same umbrella marked “our enemy” and though this non-discriminatory outlook may well be a sporadically accurate reflection of reality, the film never suggests such a thing. Many of those whom the US soldiers meet in Iraq are carrying weapons with a view to kill. The suggestion is all civilians have been evacuated from the area of conflict, thus the ones who remain aren’t innocent. The fact that this wholesale evacuation hasn’t taken place compounds a lazily devised screenplay; as such, locals are placed on a morality gauge ranging from untrustworthy to terrorist.

In between head-scratching scenes that show Kyle conversing with his wife in the middle of a war zone — his attention should probably be on shooting all those baddies, right? — there’s a cat and mouse game playing out. An enemy shooter referred to as Mustafa (Sammy Sheik) is essentially the domestic Chris Kyle. Granted, the film is called American Sniper and therefore isn’t a piece that was ever going to pay as much attention to the non-American sniper, but the lack of dispersed humanisation is off putting. Kyle’s rapidly burgeoning Call of Duty kill count is celebrated with gusto amongst his peers whereas any damage done by Mustafa is vehemently denounced as the work of a “savage”. Of course it’s savagery, but there’s hardly even a nod towards the ambiguity of Kyle’s actions — when the film does venture down this route it only juggles the immorality of child-killing as opposed to people-killing.

The picture is at its most tense and best when Kyle is staring down the barrel of his deadly weapon, honing in on said infants and fuelled by uncertainty. Unfortunately any good work is undone by a laughably glorifying final sniper showdown. Intrigue edges up a tad when we’re back on home soil, where the military man feels more and more out of place as each tour ends. Sienna Miller plays his wife but doesn’t get enough to do as the narrative always chooses to follow Kyle when he goes overseas. She’s good though, infusing a bit of steel into Taya whilst also relaying the mental and physical exhaustion brought on by her husband’s constant displacement. Miller just about manages to overcome her unnecessarily bit-part function.

It’s this lack of urgency that hampers American Sniper, more so than any controversial portrayal or underwhelming performance. You’d expect it to be well made, and it is, but it doesn’t have the musky atmosphere of a Hurt Locker or the gruelling presentation of a Fury, nor does it bear the rich characterisation of those films. Tom Stern’s projection of a war zone is almost conventional, which is surprising given the cinematographer’s accomplished portfolio (Mystic River, Million Dollar Baby, The Hunger Games). Eastwood doesn’t do an awful lot to alleviate this encroaching mundanity, he generating a tone that stops short at implying the possibility of danger lurking around every pile of rubble.

American Sniper has done extremely well at the US box office and, despite a more conservative reception over here in the UK, has undeniably been a success — particularly when its financial clout is coupled with awards recognition. This review is a bit superfluous in that regard, but I don’t think it’s without merit. It is entirely probably that the patriotic element is something that works well in America but not as well elsewhere. We all suffer as equals through blandness though, and this is bland filmmaking.

American Sniper - Bradley Cooper

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Warner Bros. Pictures

The Place Beyond the Pines (2013)

★★★★

The Place Beyond the Pines PosterDirector: Derek Cianfrance

Release Date: April 12th, 2013 (UK); April 19th, 2013 (US)

Genre: Crime; Drama

Starring: Ryan Gosling, Bradley Cooper, Eva Mendes

The film that almost instantly springs to mind when watching The Place Beyond the Pines is Drive. Ryan Gosling stars in both, and in both he plays an outsider, a semi-vagrant. The Driver is a suave customer on the surface; he steers people away from danger in his glossy 1973 Malibu. Luke Glanton, on the other hand, trundles towards peril atop a motorcycle, common sense not in tow. For him it’s either a spherical cage of imminent perpetual risk or a bank robbery. Unlike Drive, Derek Cianfrance’s ambitious picture widens its berth to include a host of other characters. The result is an end product that is nowhere near as chiselled as the 2011 indie, at times detrimentally so, but one that should absolutely be applauded for its scope.

Luke Glanton (Ryan Gosling) is a stunt motorcyclist who travels from state fair to state fair earning a wage. Upon rekindling his relationship with a previous beau, Romina (Eva Mendes), the marauder ventures into a life of crime. That’s where he encounters Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper), a police officer whose moral head space is struggling under the weight of a corrupt department.

Primarily, this is the story of two people and the incessant reverberations of their actions. We meet Luke from the off, and follow him as he strolls into a bowl of hell. His job, as a stunt motorcyclist, perfectly embodies his unconventional lifestyle. The quiet, edgy nomad is someone for hire and when we first meet Luke his already dirty attire fields smatterings of blood. Instantly we feel detached, yet the revelation that he has a son enshrouds our lead with some semblance of humanity. A church scene that pits a worn out Luke as a self-realised squanderer is powerful. The constant circle of danger that flares throughout the film — the cage, his annually reloading lifestyle — succumbs to a strive for rehabilitation.

Director Derek Cianfrance then violently cuts from intense, loud robberies to sweet family days out. It works. The desperation in Luke becomes apparent; here is a character whom we’re not necessarily encouraged to get behind, nor is he somebody tarred with pitch black strokes. His criminal exploits are stark but they’re not isolated, a notion that vividly rears during a home altercation. As he, Romina — Eva Mendes is an amiable foil for Gosling, but her character suffers from a lack of clear definition — and their child are having a family photo taken, Luke relays his instructions to the taker: “Just capture the mood… the bike’s part of the family.” It is one of his few moments of solemn happiness.

On the surface, Avery Cross is different animal. He is a do-gooder, a fresh faced police officer. Avery spends his days protecting people from the likes of Luke Glanton. However, the reverberations of an incident leave him shaken, more or less infecting Avery with the same ceaseless moral dilemma prominent in the mind of his criminal counterpart. Work also becomes his escape, and his workplace is one wrought with wrongfulness too. (“But that’s the job” is a phrase of resignation constantly thrown around). This is where the film runs into its first problem. Avery is part of a crooked police department led by the viciously enrapturing Ray Liotta, but we don’t really believe it. Is the whole division corrupt? The virtuous cop’s aversion to corruption paints him with a gloss of goodness but we’re left to ponder why he is the only impartial officer.

This is the first in a chain of coincidence that ends with a major bang, though by then we’re willing to forgive. Whereas the corruption layer is a similarly fortuitous addition installed by Cianfrance and co-writers Ben Coccio and Darius Marder, it is one that rings less true, less authentic than the rest. In a sense, the director’s ambition suffers a tad as it becomes warped by sheer scope, but it shouldn’t be shot down as a result. Somewhere approaching the midpoint, the director unleashes quite the narrative swerve. The sequence is unexpected but ultimately rewarded because it endeavours to further the story, adding depth in the process. Regardless, the move signals the inception of a stunningly constructed piece of cinema.

Ryan Gosling’s work as Luke might be his best to date. The star manages to balance a controlled ferocity originating from struggle and toil, with a slice of unorthodox compassion. The Place Beyond the Pines does occasionally resemble Drive — a film whose slickness helped to paper over any cracks, a luxury not afforded here — but it is more rugged, and by proxy so is Gosling’s portrayal of Luke. As Avery, Bradley Cooper contributes with equal effort. It is true that his character follows a more recognisable and perhaps, therefore, more relatable path, but Cooper ensures there’s nothing generic about the police officer; in fact the further along we go, the meatier his role gets. Dane DeHaan’s performance is another worth singling out for praise, his stock on a seemingly unending rise.

Other factors are complimentary too. For instance, we get the raspy echoes of Bruce Springsteen rather than the melancholic waves of Kavinsky. At these points the outing hints at Scoot Cooper’s Out of the Furnace, a sentiment that gains more weight in tandem with Sean Bobbitt’s crackling cinematography. The camera stalks characters, firmly placing us amongst the people on display and invoking another degree of personableness. It’s guerrilla filmmaking finely executed.

Derek Cianfrance’s follow-up to his uncompromising hit Blue Valentine retains the same empathetic tendencies as said flick, but ambitiously rolls them out over a vaster blanket. The story presents two sides of the same coin, both engaging and effective. There are dips conjured by happenstance, but nothing catastrophic. Rather, we’re attracted to Cianfrance’s portrait of life, work, consequence and connection, and it’s a well-founded attraction.

The Place Beyond the Pines - Gosling

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Focus Features

Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

★★★★★

Guardians of the Galaxy PosterDirector: James Gunn

Release Date: July 31st (UK); August 1st (US)

Genre: Action; Adventure; Science-fiction

Starring: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Bradley Cooper, Vin Diesel

As far as pure cinema goes, Guardians of the Galaxy has all the boxes covered. Sure, we’ve been running on the fumes of superhero momentum for a few years now and with a behemoth such as Marvel Studios behind the film, entering expecting entertainment is an entirely justifiable frame of mind. But James Gunn’s picture never rests on any laurels, it is not satisfied with simply entertaining. Guardians of the Galaxy sets out to interact with the paying customer, to re-establish the genre whilst also refining it. There are laughs, plenty of ’em. Societal threads designed to make us think. And real characters, most importantly. This isn’t just a great addition to the Marvel ranks, it is also a great piece of cinema.

Having lived twenty-six years of his life aboard a scavenger spaceship, Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) somewhat innocuously finds in his possession a universe altering orb. The artefact is highly sought after, by none more so than Thanos (Josh Brolin). In an attempt to scupper the success of a threatening deal made between Thanos and Kree radical Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace), Quill joins forces with an alien, a warrior, a tree humanoid and a raccoon. Chaos? Ensue.

Balance is pivotal, just ask the bloke in prison with only one leg. Gags, thrills and seriousness are all elements that see plenty of daylight under the astute guidance of James Gunn, a decision that wholly benefits the director’s film. It is tough too, cementing each individual strand without compromising the whole, a concoction Iron Man 3 failed to measure correctly (and look what happened there). Guardians of the Galaxy never stumbles into said pitfall and instead thrives on variation. If the essence of tip-top filmmaking is versatility, we’re looking at a lofty outing. As an audience overly saturated with superhero escapades, we need more. A divergence from the, albeit rather fun, company line. We need space adventures and fresh motives, and both are on the menu here.

As Peter Quill and co’s gallivanting adventures scamper between wondrously constructed civilisations, it becomes increasingly difficult to decipher what might happen next. Mystery and intrigue swivel in and flurry around proceedings, at which point our minds are buzzing with a thirst for more. 10 films into Marvel’s Cinematic Universe, this burst of authentic suspense is truly welcome, particularly at a time when the formula is beginning to wane. And it’s not just the raucous air that commands a sense of thought; Gunn and co-writer Nicole Perlman also include a frequently rearing class allegory, pitting different species side-by-side in disharmony and challenging social boundaries.

And if you’re just here for a laugh, you could do a whole lot worse. The film is hilarious, and it knows so. There’s a prevailing camaraderie between audience and filmmaker; collectively, we know this is all a bit absurd — a tree with a conscience, a raccoon with a rocket launcher — so why not revel in the madness? Brilliant one-liners (“Pelvic sorcery”) make way for equally funny banterous group deliberations. Despite oozing a retro vibe, the film still bears more than a semblance of accessibility. Newcomers will leave filled to the brim on “bro” lingo, whereas the more mature amongst us can lap up Footloose references — of all people, Kevin Bacon becomes one the best running gags on screen this side of 2014. Or, like me, you can inelegantly giggle at everything. Guardians of the Galaxy has a heart, one that beats for all-comers.

At the epicentre of its heart is a ramshackle gaggle of misfits. Forget cookie-cutter characters, these five are dense to the nth degree. Chris Pratt plays Peter Quill — though he prefers Star-Lord — and is the glue that holds the guardians together. Pratt is on a mission to stardom himself, and his performance here is another indication of the leading man’s talent. He injects Quill with some soul and, rather than becoming the conventional male hero, embarks down a slightly less glamorous yet equally loveable path. No doubt buoyed on by his Parks and Recreation experience, Pratt also has comic timing down to a T. Zoe Saldana is Gamora, the kick ass alien who is sort of Thanos’ daughter but sort of not. Saldana has already proven her worth on the blockbuster stage and her mystique is integral as it affords the group an ambiguous streak.

Perhaps the most impactful performance emerges from wrestler turned actor Dave Bautista. No doubt, his skills inside a ring prove handy when it comes to fulfilling a number of exciting fight sequences, but it is the big man’s sincerity that really shines through. Drax takes everything literally — a trait that often tickles the funny bone — but he is never presented as stupid. He’s had a tough time in life and he is a tough guy, but Drax is also an endearing presence and Bautista deserves huge credit for ensuring that this is case. Groot is the Hodor at large, partnered alongside the spitfire raccoon, Rocket. Bradley Cooper’s voice work is both persuasive and energetic. A wit-off between Tony Stark and Rocket must be in the pipeline. The aforementioned quintet mesh together like a rugged patchwork quilt: rough and probably a bit dirty, but entirely warming.

Unlike The Avengers, Guardians of the Galaxy is not an all guns blazing affair. There are a lot guns and they do embark on a hefty amount blazing, but that comes with the territory. We get the sense that the engine is only revved half-way, that the future is dangling the promise of a whole lot more. And that is thrilling. We’re only in the introductory phase of this particular relationship and, while the sparklers are sizzling now, fireworks undoubtedly lie ahead. The comparatively small-scale feel, then, is really charming and quite emotive. Subsequently a deeper connection with the characters ignites. The film’s mischievously dated soundtrack has a hand in generating this personable aura. Its compilation is a masterstroke, making for a number of unorthodoxly funny mishmash sequences — Cherry Bomb is particularly rollicking.

Going forward, one thing is a certainty: if this is Marvel’s new prerogative, then rest assured that next time the comic book logo appears on screen we’ll be in good hands. “If there’s one thing I hate it’s a man without integrity,” rings out early on. I’d like to think that Guardians of the Galaxy is gender-neutral and I’m convinced it is bursting with integrity. It’s also Marvel’s best film to date.

Guardians of the Galaxy - Cast

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Oscars 2014 — Early Predictions

On March 2nd the film industry will pay tribute to the greatest cinematic achievements of the past year. The best of the best. The cream of the crop. For the most part, anyway. The Academy Awards always generate a hefty amount of hype – with Harvey Weinstein on the prowl there’s no surprise there! – and perhaps more so this year than in the recent past given the relatively open landscape in just about all the heavy-hitting categories.

The Academy announced their nominations for each category earlier today, so let’s go through some of them and pick out a few potential winners.

I haven’t seen all of the films listed yet, which means a portion of the following bout of foreshadowing will be partly down to instinct and partly taking into consideration where the main bouts of buzz are landing. Heck, we can come back and amend stuff nearer the time… once I’ve consumed all the films. Ahem.

 

The Nominations

Best Picture

American Hustle

Captain Phillips

Dallas Buyers Club

Gravity

Her

Nebraska

Philomena

12 Years a Slave

The Wolf of Wall Street

– What will win: 12 Years a Slave

– What I want to win: Undecided

– What should’ve been nominated: Blue is the Warmest Colour

 

Best Actor

Christian Bale

Bruce Dern

Leonardo DiCaprio

Chiwetel Ejiofor

Matthew McConaughey

– Who will win: Chiwetel Ejiofor

– Who I want to win: Leonardo DiCaprio

– Who should’ve been nominated: Tom Hanks

 

Best Actress

Amy Adams

Cate Blanchett

Sandra Bullock

Judi Dench

Meryl Streep

– Who will win: Cate Blanchett

– Who I want to win: Cate Blanchett

– Who should’ve been nominated: Adèle Exarchopoulos

 

Best Supporting Actor

Barkhad Abdi

Bradley Cooper

Michael Fassbender

Jonah Hill

Jared Leto

– Who will win: Jared Leto

– Who I want to win: Barkhad Abdi

 

Best Supporting Actress

Sally Hawkins

Jennifer Lawrence

Lupita Nyong’o

Julia Roberts

June Squibb

– Who will win: Jennifer Lawrence

– Who I want to win: Undecided

 

Best Director

David O. Russell

Alfonso Cuarón

Alexander Payne

Steve McQueen

Martin Scorsese

– Who will win: Alfonso Cuarón

– Who I want to win: David O. Russell

 

Best Original Screenplay

American Hustle

Blue Jasmine

Dallas Buyers Club

Her

Nebraska

– What will win: American Hustle

– What I want to win: American Hustle

– What should’ve been nominated: Inside Llewyn Davis

 

Best Adapted Screenplay

Before Midnight

Captain Phillips

Philomena

12 Years a Slave

The Wolf of Wall Street

– What will win: 12 Years a Slave

– What I want to win: Undecided

 

Best Documentary Feature

The Act of Killing

Cutie and the Boxer

Dirty Wars

The Square

20 Feet From Stardom

– What will win: The Act of Killing

– What I want to win: The Act of Killing

– What should’ve been nominated: Blackfish

 

On an interesting side note, every year the Oscars devote a part of the ceremony to a certain theme. Last year for instance, a variety of musical numbers were unfurled on stage (remember Seth MacFarlane’s “Boob Song”?) paying tribute to film music.

This year the theme is ‘Movie Heroes’. That’s everyone from the normal person on the street, to the surgeon saving a life, to those larger-than-life superheroes we’ve come to know and love.

His film won Best Picture last year… I wonder if a certain newly appointed masked crusader will unveil his bat-wings this time around.

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!