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Friday, June 27, 2014

Transformers: Age of Extinction

I would write a snappy introduction but I'm currently busy working out just how many hours I've wasted of my life on these bloody movies...

Oh. Bloody hell.

This review is also up at Channel 24.

What it's about

Five years after the Battle of Chicago, an amateur inventor and his teenage daughter make a startling discovery that soon makes them the targets of rogue CIA agents, alien bounty hunters and an all-new breed of man-made Transformers - with the future of both the Autobots and the earth itself hanging in the balance.

What we thought

After three awful Transformers movies, I went in to Age of Extinction fully expecting the worst but, at about half an hour in, I was starting to wonder if perhaps I've always been too hard on Michael Bay and his mega-budget updates of this beloved 80s toy/ cartoon franchise. Or, at the very least, I was starting to think that maybe, just maybe Bay had finally learned something from his past mistakes and would finally deliver a moderately OK Transformers movie. After all, in the interim, he had made the perfectly captivating slice of trash-cinema, Pain and Gain, so maybe he had finally learned the basics of storytelling again, while at the same time working all the nastiness out of his system once and for all.

Not so much, as it turns out. Despite the film's passable opening act and in spite of having a few halfway decent elements to work with (a much improved leading man, more plot, a fine supporting cast, better robot designs, less blatant misogyny and frickin' dinosaur transformers!), the film's remaining two-and-a-quarter hours (!) did nothing but confirm Bay's title as the worst big-draw director working in Hollywood today.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Edge of Tomorrow

All You Need is Kill! All You Need is Kill! All You Need is Kill!!!!!

No. I will not drop it.

This review is also up at Channel 24.

What it's about

As the endgame of a long and brutal war with an invading alien force quickly approaches, humanity's last and greatest hope lies in the unlikely form of PR Officer and overall coward, Major William Cage. Cage has spent his military career doing whatever he can to avoid any actual military action and when he is forced to join the frontlines of humanity's most desperate battle yet, all of his fears and cowardice proves true as he is summarily killed in action by a particularly strange alien aggressor. This turns out to be only the beginning for Major Cage though, as his death causes him to be stuck in an apparent time loop where every time he dies, he “resets” the day. What at first seems to be nothing more than a painful source of aggravation, soon becomes humanity's most powerful weapon against the invaders, as Cage teams up with Rita Vratski, humanity's greatest soldier and a past possessor of Cage's extraordinary powers.

What we thought

Mirroring this past weekend in the US, this coming Friday will see cinemas throughout the country involved in what must surely be the year's most intriguing box office battle. On the one side, we have The Fault In Our Stars, a beautiful, funny, thought provoking and endlessly moving adaptation of a YA literary sensation. On the other, we have this dementedly entertaining sci-fi actioner, headlined by that most dementedly entertaining of Box Office cash cows, Tom Cruise, that is itself based on a beloved novel – though, admittedly, of a distinctly more cultish (not to mention Japanese) stripe. Sexists would no doubt boil this down to a battle between “one for the boys” and “one for the girls”, but, personally, I think this is two for everybody. It doesn't matter which one ultimately does better at the box office (though for the record Stars is the clear winner in the US) because, in this battle of the box office giants, it's audiences who are the true winners.

If you're in the mood for something with loads of heart and soul then you could do little better than the surprisingly wonderful Fault in Our Stars. If, however, you're not quite ready to bust out the tissues and are looking for something that is more escapist than heartbreaking then, boy, do I have the thing for you. Edge of Tomorrow may have a truly terribly generic title (it basically just means 11:59 PM, surely?) that was inexplicably changed from the source novel's much more memorable and content-appropriate moniker of All You Need Is Kill, but it more than earns its place in the long tradition of time-loop and/ or time travel movies. And alien invasion movies too, for that matter.

The Fault in Our Stars

I mentioned this film a lot in my Edge of Tomorrow review so I might as well take a quick look at it. It also happens to be really, really good and is easily this year's biggest cinematic surprise, as far as I'm concerned. I effin' loved this movie - and I don't care how much of a girl that makes me!

Also, I should mention that I have not read the book on which this was based but now I think I might just have to.


Hazel Grace Lancaster (Shailene Woodley) is a teenage girl whose terminal cancer may be being kept at bay by a miraculous new experimental treatment but she knows it's only a matter of time before her time finally runs out. Augustus "Gus" Waters (Ansel Elgort) is a teenage boy who survived cancer by having his leg amputated but who tries to make the most of his new lease on life. When the two have a chance meeting at a cancer support group, sparks quickly fly and what follows is a tragic, star-crossed love story that not only includes plenty of YOLO sentiments but whose great romantic climax is a passionate kiss in - get this - Anne Frank's attic.

If this isn't enough to make you want to slit your wrists (or at least throw up a little in your mouth) then how about the fact that The Fault in Our Stars is based a mega-selling, teen-romance book and one that wears its "tearjerker" label as a source of great pride? It's like Twilight but with terminal cancer patients taking the place of glittery vampires.

Going in, everything about The Fault in Our Stars looked utterly unbearable and though I've always been significantly quicker to embrace good "chick flicks" than most males (hey, if you can't appreciate the brilliance of When Harry Met Sally, that's your problem, not mine), this one in particular looked set to test my gag reflexes from its very first frame. I mean, honestly, would you just look at that poster!

How the hell then, with all this in mind, did this slice of weepy, teeny-bopping "misery porn" turn into one of my favourite films of the year so far? No, you know what, scratch that: how did this slice of weepy, teeny-bopping "misery porn" turn into one of the best films of the year, period?

The answer, as it turns out, is all in the execution.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Transcendence

Transcendent? Not so much. But hey, at least it tries...


Wally Pfister has spent years becoming one of the most renowned and sought after cinematographers in Hollywood - he started off making straight-to-video erotic thrillers and ended up as Christopher Nolan's right hand man on Inception and the Dark Knight trilogy - so it's rather disheartening to see just how quickly he crashed and burned in his first time in the director's chair. This isn't to say that he won't go on to great things (the raw talent is clearly there) but Transcendence was savaged by most critics and greeted with deafening apathy by audiences in both the US and the UK. Things are hardly much better here. Despite opening up against no real competition, the film has stalled at number 7 in its opening weekend.

As for whether the film deserves the reception it has received, well, it's complicated. It is not, for a start, anywhere near the worst film as the year. Hell, it's not even remotely close to being the worst science fiction movie of the year. What it is, is a disappointment. It's a film with a strong cast, an interesting premise and a director who brings more technical skill and know-how to the proceedings than most first timers, but it is ultimately incredibly unsatisfying and, dare I say it, more than a little dull.

The story it tells is, admittedly, hardly original. Will Caster (Johnny Depp in understated, perhaps even uninteresting form) is a brilliant scientist who specializes in artificial intelligence and comes to realize that the only way to survive a particularly vicious case of radiation poisoning, is to allow his body to die but to live on by transferring his consciousness into an advanced computer. It's a sci-fi premise we've seen plenty of times but there's a reason why it is as well trod as it is. This quite simple idea opens up plenty of rich themes to delve into as it questions the nature of humanity, explores the relationship between consciousness and the soul and draws a line connecting the relationships between man and machine and man and God.