Guardians of the Galaxy  (2014)    70/100

Rating :   70/100                                                                     121 Min        12A

An odd film, in that the entire first half is completely flat but the second is the polar opposite – ultimately transforming itself into a reasonably soulful and entertaining sci-fi adventure. Certainly, if you’re going to tell a tale of two halves then that is the right order to do it in. Guardians is the latest from Marvel Studios and the first outing on the big screen for some of their lesser known superheroes, namely ‘Star-Lord’ (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Rocket (Bradley Cooper), Drax (Dave Bautista) and Root (Vin Diesel), lesser known, perhaps, because their escapades are set in our current time frame but in another galaxy, allowing access to previous story threads in the Marvel film universe involving Thanos and Benicio Del Toro’s ‘The Collector’, both seen in post credit sequences at the end of ‘Avengers Assemble’ (12) and ‘Thor : The Dark World‘ respectively.

Star-Lord (Peter Quill is his somewhat less egotistical name) was abducted from Earth when he was a kid in the eighties, and he still religiously listens to the mixed tape he had with him at the time whilst conducting his present occupation of scavenging rare goods and then flogging them. One day, he is sent to collect an orb which will see a bounty put on his head and Gamora, daughter of Thanos, sent to retrieve the item from him by force, just as bounty hunters Rocket (a raccoon genetically modified to be really sarcastic) and Root (a tree) also come across their prey, all resulting in them being lumped together by the authorities in prison where they can begin to bond with one another and meet the final cog in their increasingly unlikely ass kicking outfit – Drax, who interprets everything literally and is built like the proverbial brick shit house.

This protracted and other worldly backstory is the film’s major setback, and a lot of it fails initially. It’s not really until they form a group and meet The Collector, also linking everything to what fans of the previous films will be familiar with, that it starts to cohere together and become more interesting. Thankfully, this still leaves a lot of time for things to pick up, as the action becomes more lively, the jokes funnier, and the characters more, ahem, root worthy, with a suitably dramatic finale and wonderfully villainous performances from Lee Pace and the demoniacally sultry Karen Gillan (who committed to having all of her hair shaved off for the role).

It’s directed by James Gunn (see the wonderful ‘Super’ 2010), who also co-wrote the screenplay alongside Nicole Perlman and, all in all, it is a worthy addition to the Marvel canon, but for a while it looked like it was heading for disaster. As usual, there are two new post credit scenes, but unusually the last one has a reference that most of the audience didn’t appreciate – it relates to a certain old superhero film that was so badly received it ended the careers of many of the people involved with it, Tim Robbins being one of the few to rise from its ashes (The Red Dragon, incidentally, passed him on the street in Edinburgh a few months ago – he didn’t recognise me), although I kind of remember it as funny, maybe for the wrong reasons, but I would love it if Gunn were to integrate it into the sequel to this, which has already been greenlit by the studios with him to take on the reins once more …

The House of Magic  (2013)    65/100

Rating :   65/100                                                                       85 Min        U

Animated adventure aimed at younger children and featuring an abandoned ginger cat, later nicknamed ‘Thunder’ for no especially good reason, who ends up taking refuse within a spooky old magician’s house. Once inside, the magician turns out to be able to do real magic, not just conjuring, and has a small devoted retinue of animated trinkets dotted around the house, all de facto led by the performing mouse and rabbit who do not take kindly to the arrival of the newest member of their troupe, the former primarily concerned she is about to become a tasty snack at any moment. Thunder is put upon to prove his worth to the rest of them and try to find a place for himself within this new family, and although it would have been most amusing if he had achieved this and then turned around and ate the mouse anyway, before turning his attentions toward the rabbit, this is not the direction the film goes in.

The primary villain is the magician’s nephew – who once loved magic but has since become a real estate agent and is now only interested in money, tsk tsk, eyeing up the old manor with dollar signs in his eyes. The animation is a little basic and rudimentary, but it is quite likeable, and similarly the automatons in the house initially seem garish and liable to scare little ones but they are quickly humanised and presented as friendly creatures, greatly ameliorating their image. Not a huge deal of magic is performed as the owner of the house ends up spending most of the film in the hospital, leaving the other occupants to fend off the nephew, and although there is nothing in here for adult viewers it should prove to be a pretty decent film for the intended audience. A conspicuously large number of famous names provide small voiceover parts – including Emily Blunt, Ewan McGregor, Kiefer Sutherland, Ron Perlman and William Shatner.

The Rundown / Welcome to the Jungle  (2003)    67/100

Rating :   67/100                                                                     104 Min        15

A surprisingly fun action film with equally surprising audacity when it comes to the set pieces. Dwayne Johnson (or, ‘The Rock’ as he was billed as back then, before a transitory period of Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson, and now just Dwayne Johnson) stars as a debt collector for a local personage who you do not want to get involved with, but he wants to get out of the racket. No problem, but he has to do one last job – go get his employer’s son, currently faffing around in the Amazon jungle (played by Seann William Scott) and drag him back home. Upon arrival he’ll meet the local hottie (Rosario Dawson), the gringo exploiting the land and its people (Christopher Walken) and realise that the son in question is actually looking for a rare, and thought to be lost forever, treasure, whereupon things get more complicated.

The fight scenes are good fun to watch, as pretty much everyone wants a piece of Johnson but he stoically refuses to use any firearms, instead relying on being awesome together with a little bit of wire fu. Some parts are just plain silly, and the editing is often borderline woeful – especially in the opening fight (which is immediately preceded by a cameo from Schwarzenegger just before he entered the world of politics, in an almost ‘passing of the baton’ moment with his real life friend Johnson) situated in a nightclub which has the worst excessive use of strobe lighting I’ve seen … well, ever I think, but armed with low expectations this can still be a little known, entertaining action frolic in the Brazilian rainforest.

The Purge : Anarchy  (2014)    56/100

Rating :   56/100                                                                    103 Min        15

The sequel to last year’s ‘The Purge‘ from Blumhouse productions (with James DeMonaco writing and directing again) who don’t waste any time in getting the next installment in their franchises out. It retains the good basic story from the first one – that at some point in the very near future the U.S. Government sanction one day of violence and wanton destruction when people can ‘purge’ themselves of their baser inclinations and not face any recriminations (until the next Purge possibly), thereby theoretically creating a society largely free of crime for the rest of the year. Here, the concept is advanced a little and more politics come into it, which was a good idea and works quite well, but its critical sin is that four of the five main characters are terribly written and just as terribly acted.

Frank Grillo (‘The Winter Soldier‘, ‘End of Watch‘) plays one man on a mysterious mission – driving around on purge night in a bullet proofed car with a small arsenal with him for company, but focused on his goal rather than engaging in the bedlam around him. The character is the strongest element of the movie. Unfortunately, he stops to help out some strangers and ends up with a small entourage of completely hopeless gibberlings that shackle him for most of the film. I mean, you really feel sorry for this guy, as the others waltz around in plain sight, scream and shriek at every possible opportunity, talk when they shouldn’t, tell him killing is wrong but ask him to kill everyone around them so they can survive, just generally break his balls and cover constantly. It picks up dramatically for the last twenty or thirty minutes, and if the rest had been like this then it would have been possibly better than the original, but as it is the very people we’re supposed to empathise with effectively destroy the entire core of the film.

Hercules  (2014)    68/100

Rating :   68/100                                                                       98 Min        12A

Dwayne Johnson stars as the titular hero of Greek mythology (it should be entitled Heracles though, Hercules being the romanised version of the demigod) and he was pretty much the perfect choice for the role. He’s come a long way since the days of ‘The Scorpion King’ (02), delivering a slew of entertaining performances to become a dependable leading man and command one of the highest fees in Hollywood (Forbes currently places him in second place overall) and here his onscreen presence serves the character perfectly, as he stands on two tree trunk legs, each wider than the nearest warrior behind him, wielding his giant olive-wood club and adorned with the skin of the Nemean lion.

Rather than following in the footsteps of the likes of ‘Clash of the Titans’ (10) and ‘Immortals’ (11), this is more concerned with Hercules the man and how the myth is wrapped around him, and it is essentially a battle film with pretty decent set pieces and costumes – there’s nothing outstanding or brilliant about the movie but it is pretty good overall, notwithstanding the cheesy dialogue and historical inaccuracies (Athens is shown to have a king, for example, when at this time, circa 350 BC {which is actually way too late for Heracles’ era anyway}, her democracy was flourishing and kings had been done away with, and indeed they are using the misplaced king, Eurystheus, of variously Argos or Tiryns depending on which source you read) that we expect to find anyway. It’s based on a graphic novel and it has that kind of feel to it – similar as well to ‘King Arthur’ (04) in that we follow Hercules and his friends as they are hired to help defend the kingdom of Thrace from an usurper (Hercules is a mercenary, one tormented by a brutal personal event in his recent past), and we don’t get to know them in any great depth – but well enough to like them and care if they get cut to pieces or not.

There’s a host of good supporting actors – some of them regulars of the genre such as Rufus Sewell, John Hurt and Ian McShane, but also Peter Mullan, Aksel Hennie, Reece Ritchie, Joseph Fiennes and Ingrid Bolsø Berdal – playing the Amazonian Atalanta and looking very much like a young and super fit Nicole Kidman. It’s good fun with some nice locations and sets and it’s a lot better than the likes of the Conan reboot and the aforementioned ‘Immortals’ (truly, an episode of ‘Total Spies’ is more worthwhile than that film), and although it is lacking any kind of spark to really ignite it, enough has been done to merit a sequel and it probably won’t disappoint if you’re in the mood for a weekend action film.

Oddly, Johnson’s real life buddy Arnold Schwarzenegger had his first movie role playing the same part in ‘Hercules in New York’ back in 1969 (one of Schwarzenegger’s inspirations, Steve Reeves, also played the Grecian hero on two occasions). The two friends managed to share a brief onscreen moment together in ‘The Rundown‘ 03, which is also worth a watch incidentally.

Earth to Echo  (2014)    57/100

Rating :   57/100                                                                       91 Min        PG

The handheld genre finds its way into the family film market here, with very similar results to previous experiments with it: contrivances to always have multiple cameras on the go (bizarrely including a hidden camera in one of the kid’s specs, which seems like a particularly nifty bit of kit for them to have access to) and fairly irritating central performances as they constantly try to sound excited, telling us we should be too. The plot has us following three young boys (played by Teo Halm, Reese Hartwig and X-Factor contestant Brian ‘Astro’ Bradley) around on their bikes as they trace a mysterious map that has appeared on their phones – a map which leads to the discovery of a small alien, Echo, that they will try to help collect the fragmented bits of his spacecraft so he (or she I suppose, its sexual organs are not noticeably examined) can go home before some evil ADULTS find it, play football with it and dismember it.

Echo has no real personality, it essentially looks really cute and can beep once for yes and twice for no, and that’s it, so the focus is on the adventure of the kids with at least an attempt to explore the strength of the bond between them, but mainly just watching them track down things and trying to avoid capture, with the very typical fantasy of the hot uptight girl from school (Ella Wahlestedt) somehow getting involved and coming along with them . For kids around the age of the main characters (fourteen?) it might be quite good, but for anyone else it’s a far cry from E.T. (82). One of them learns to drive a car in, literally, ten seconds. That’s the sort of level of production and believability you’re looking at here.

Senna  (2010)    81/100

Rating :   81/100                       Treasure Chest                     106 Min        12A

An absolutely seminal moment in documentary filmmaking and indeed easily one of the best films of 2010. This masterful film follows the rise to fame of Brazilian Formula One driver Ayrton Senna, focusing on his time with the sport and, unusually, it only uses footage from the time rather than filming interviews now and cutting back and forth, feeling much more like an unfolding drama than a conventional documentary. Personally, I’m not in the least bit interested in F1, so the fact I loved this already speaks volumes. The story it tells has all of the best ingredients that true legends are made from, with high drama that you couldn’t artificially create and a very, very human element at its heart.

In essence the film asks two questions, what to do when you find yourself in a corrupt environment (as Senna does with the FI setup), whether that be a social group or a place of work, and what does it take to be happy, something which is hammered home by Senna telling us he enjoyed himself the most when he was racing for pleasure, with no money or politics attached to it, and we see him constantly chasing the next title never really seeming completely fulfilled – something which is common in many walks of life, certainly to the average person winning even one world title is enough to be pretty satisfied with and yet the reality for the individual can be quite different. Similarly, we watch him fight against the system, but it invites discussion about how to do that effectively without perhaps it getting to you more than you it – is it better simply to leave and walk away?

Not knowing the details of the story makes this all the more compelling so I won’t say anything more, other than give it a go and let its significance play out for yourself …

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes  (2014)    65/100

Rating :   65/100                                                                   130 Min          12A

The sequel to 2011’s very successful, and very good, ‘Rise of the Planet of the Apes’ continues with the story a decade further down the line, with Caesar and his motley bunch of intelligent apes living free in the wild whilst humanity attempts to deal with the deadly ‘Simian Flu’ virus unleashed at the end of the previous film. In a nutshell, this is nowhere near as good (although it is still a country mile better than Tim Burton’s take on the story back in 2001) but it does just about enough to pass mustard as the next chapter in the franchise.

This has a significantly increased action quotient compared to its predecessor, and in terms of the script it’s much more, ahem, primitive – at times it even feels like scenes must have been omitted that were necessary to explain certain things, and at various points the characters feel a little forced and silly. The plot centers on what’s left of the human populace in San Francisco trying to access a hydroelectric dam in the ape controlled forest in order to restore power, which proves to be a diplomatic nightmare for both sides, eventually setting precedent for relations between the two species in the future.

The human protagonists are played by Jason Clarke, Keri Russell and Gary Oldman, with Andy Serkis returning to play Caesar and Toby Kebbell (who’s slated to play Doctor Doom in the Fantastic Four reboot, incidentally) giving a very good performance as the other main monkey, I mean ape, Koba. This has a similar feel to the original series of films which started with the magnificent ‘Planet of the Apes’ (68) and kind of then went steadily downhill with ‘Beneath the Planet of the Apes (70), ‘Escape from the Planet of the Apes’ (71), ‘Conquest of the Planet of the Apes’ (72), ‘Battle for the Planet of the Apes’ (73) and a couple of TV series before the eventual appearance of Burton’s aforementioned attempt which choked and died instantly. Interestingly, the original film is based on a novel by French author Pierre Boulle, who also penned ‘The Bridge on the River Kwai’, which of course then inspired another of the most famous movies of all time. This particular outing in the Apes series is reasonably entertaining, but I think it’s best to go in with pretty low expectations …

Begin Again  (2013)    75/100

Rating :   75/100                        Treasure Chest                    104 Min        15

Keira Knightley’s latest sees her as a young singer/songwriter, Gretta, somewhat awash in New York City after a break up with her long time boyfriend, played by Maroon 5’s Adam Levine, who has just been singed to a prestigious record label and whom she herself helped launch into stardom by writing many of his songs. Enter down on his luck record producer Dan, played by Mark Ruffalo, who is at the bottom of a particularly destructive curve after the break up of his marriage and the parallel nosedive of his career, when he hears Gretta play one of her songs and something in it stirs up long forgotten hope within him. This is where the film opens, as we watch Gretta reluctantly being pulled onto the stage during an open mike night to perform, and as anyone who has ever played or sang in front of people for the very first time will know – you feel like a TOTAL KNOB, and Keira plays out the scene with the perfect mixture of nerves, anxiety and the frustration of being put on the spot.

It is her actually singing throughout the film, with a combination of live and dubbed recordings (she has sung on film before in ‘The Edge of Love’ (08), and was due to play Eliza Doolittle in a modern version of ‘My Fair Lady’ before the project fizzled out), which was a tremendously brave decision and although her voice is soft and tinged with uncertainty, The Red Dragon LOVES IT – it is affectionately sweet, and it also fits her character perfectly, as we learn Gretta simply writes and sings for her own pleasure and has no real interest in putting her work on the likes of Facebook and so on for commercial purposes, preferring to simply entertain her cat with it instead.

Herein lies a central aspect of the film, and one which I really love – the idea of taking music away from the stranglehold of large record companies and back into the hands of the musicians themselves. It’s revealed that the standard rate of return for an artist is about ten percent with their label taking the rest, and a comparison is made with the publishing industry where authors get about the same. This always seemed outrageous to me – in reality I’d be surprised if it weren’t below ten percent, and it’s great that the internet and technology in general have started to dismantle this monopoly. Keira herself is uniquely placed within this scenario as she’s married to the Klaxons’ keyboardist and co-vocalist James Righton.

Gretta and Dan decide to record their own album (the latter having effectively been kicked out of his own company) using creative guile and various locations around the city as backdrops, which is a great idea, and on the way they rediscover how to enjoy themselves and what music means to them, minus the pretension that can sometimes accompany films about the industry. The acting is universally great, including from supporting players Hailee Steinfeld, James Corden, Catherine Keener, CeeLo Green, Mos Def and the aforementioned Levine. I actually appreciated this more the second time around (I admit it, I’ve seen it three times now – each time it feels like a different movie somehow), and it managed to not only convince me to dust down my guitar (it was practically white) and finally put some playlists into the ‘Song‘ section, but also consider sorting out the large digital blob which is my music collection.

Written and directed by John Carney, the creative talent behind the indie favourite ‘Once’ (06), this is an uplifting film in which it looks like the actors had as much fun as the characters themselves, further advancing Keira’s penchant for choosing varied and interesting roles, in this case one that absolutely made The Red Dragon fall in love with her just a little bit more …

(for the film’s official website click here, and you can also currently download Keira’s version of ‘Lost Stars’ for free from Amazon)

 Begin Again 2

Boyhood  (2014)    63/100

Rating :   63/100                                                                     166 Min        15

Writer and director Richard Linklater’s study of childhood that took twelve years to make – focusing on central character Mason growing from the age of five to eighteen and unusually actually waiting for Ellar Coltrane, who portrays him, to grow himself before filming the sequential scenes. This is what the film has garnered a lot of attention for, and it is interesting to watch all the actors age in time with the story – the other members of his immediate family are played by Lorelei Linklater (the director’s daughter) as his sister, Patricia Arquette as his mother and Ethan Hawke as his biological father.

It’s a fictionalised drama, and follows various sociological important events in Mason’s life, from the mundane (his sister tormenting him and then bursting into tears when their mother comes to investigate, for example, will be something a lot of people can relate to) to the dramatic for someone that age, his first break up and exposure to various amounts of peer pressure and so on. Alcohol and alcoholism play a strong role throughout, and the film very successfully shows the potentially devastating effects of both.

Other areas, however, don’t stand up so well – we learn that his father is massively against the war in Iraq and is a huge supporter of Barack Obama, but then years down the line he is taking his kids out to shoot guns in the countryside as a nice family thing to do. Now, given the film was edited together after Obama publicly asked the movie industry to take more responsibility over how it portrays the use of guns in the wake of various horrific massacres in the States, this scene not only doesn’t really make sense for the character but also seems in pretty bad taste, it’s not like Linklater is making a documentary on contemporary views toward guns in American culture, it’s all far too casual.

Similarly, once Mason makes it to college he is shown to immediately make some new friends and one of the females pops what appears to be some kind of sweet into his mouth, but then she says ‘I’ve timed them perfectly to kick in once we’re up there’, referring to the small mountains they are about to climb. He’s totally fine with this, not in the least concerned with ingesting a mysterious narcotic, and the ensuing scene plays out in an idyllic fashion where they all ‘bond’ and he gets to share a moment with a ridiculously hot girl, heavily suggesting he can now ‘find himself’ and his life will be all roses and violets as he’s made it to college and can have drugs for breakfast and encountered the people he was always ‘meant’ to meet. In reality, the situation could easily have been ‘four freshman students plunge to death in horror accident after tripping balls for hours and thinking rocky summit was bouncy castle’, and although I’m all for going into higher education and hopefully meeting like minded people that can be friends for life, the scene is just cheesily ill conceived.

The acting is consistently very good, and there is a lot in there of value concerning the difficulties one can encounter in life, not just boyhood, but overall there is a distinct depression to the film with fairly mixed messages, especially on the issue of drugs, and rather than feeling like a genuine encapsulation of contemporary living, it just feels like the personal stamp of the director and his own agenda. Maybe if filmmakers like Linklater weren’t so overly concerned with how ‘hip’ they think doing drugs is, then they wouldn’t have developed such a negative view of life in general, and then felt the need to bring that across in their work like some kind of secret truth that only their egos had the insight to unearth.