The Babadook – A Review

 

The Babadook

Like a beautiful, dark-angel burning away the premonition that the genre is dying, standing tall above a sea of over-budgeted yet underperforming witless torture porn and jump-scare tat; The Babadook is more than just scary, it’s horror. True horror.

So what constitutes a horror film? In my opinion, horror movies should instil a sense of dread or angst that we can feel rising so much so that we, the audience, just for an instant contemplate having to leave before it becomes over-whelming. If I don’t get that hit, that “Thank God this is Netflix and pausable”, then it just isn’t horror. I felt it several times recently during Under the Skin and I’ll never forget the hair-raising elation of Max Schreck/Klaus Kinski looming over their respective Harker interpretations or just about any time Michael Myers bursts into shot in Halloween.

As alluded to then, The Babadook strikes these notes cleanly without rushing or dragging (Whiplash reference) and comes together as a really solid piece. The story is relatively straight-forward; Australian actors Essie Davis and Noah Wiseman play mother and son Amelia and Samuel. We’re shown through flash-back and dialogue sequences that the father of the family died in a car accident whilst driving to the hospital for Samuel’s birth, an event Amelia subconsciously and unfairly partially blames Sam for. On the days approaching Sam’s 7th birthday, or the 7th anniversary of her husband’s death, Amelia reads an unexpected bedtime story to her energetic, apparently odd-ball son; a story called The Babadook and unfortunately tumbles into a world of paranoia and grief.

Set in modern Australia, yet looking like dreary suburban England, we watch as Amelia shrinks away from society and into her mind in a similar fashion to Ellen Burstyn’s character in Requiem for a Dream. Amelia is a carer for the elderly by day too, something known to be incredibly emotionally draining, so we feel for her even more when her sister can’t relate to her or help her and Sam’s outbursts at school escalate her stress and initiate a bout of insomnia.

The film’s scariest moments are at night as Amelia and Sam are stalked from the inside and out by what I can only describe as grief personified. On almost every establishing shot of the large, melancholic blue decorated house (Top marks – set design crew) the light reduces just a hair to accentuate night’s imminence, like a yawn or shuddering of the eye-lids hinted at falling asleep in Nightmare on Elm Street. Close-ups are used sparingly and instead shadow is used masterfully not just to fleetingly reveal our monster (and fully reveal it, RIP my boxers) in classic horror fashion but also to  showcase Amelia’s transformation as she releases 7 years of bottled up grief.

The performances are great, Noah Wiseman is definitely one to watch for the future, director Jennifer Kent pushes him into creating a loving child struggling with life without a father figure whilst trying to survive around a psychotic mother. A scene where he cowers against a dresser is so distressing it could quite easily be cut-pasted into an NSPCC charity ad.

The Babadook is an original, well-written and truly scary Australian film. If you’re a fan of Horror I’d definitely recommend it as it honestly will stick with you. Anyway, I’m off to watch Ouija again, fucking love that film, can’t believe the Oscar snub.

Birdman – A Review

Birdman

Birdman is the kind of film Woody Allen would recommend you if you liked his Bullets over Broadway classic but wanted something more self-aware and cerebral but just as funny. Directed by the hugely talented Alejandro González Iñárritu, Birdman is the first mainstream film since last year’s Her to attack multiple deep-rooted themes of human life in such a beautiful, subtle yet funny way and better yet be consolidated with multiple Oscar (nomination?)-worthy performances.

My favourite kind of film is one that’s seemingly a script built around thought-provoking ideas and concepts. In an age where we stare more into Gorilla glass than our lover’s eyes Her worked as social commentary; another example could be Interstellar which I thought made an interesting case for love as a force that could transcend time and space. Here, we’re watching the most meta film about the state of the arts possibly ever made that touches on and pokes fun at themes of celebrity, art criticism, mental illness, self-acceptance and how that can be affected by how one is publicly perceived.

Keaton plays himself if he used to be Birdman, not Batman, and instead of deciding to continue being a film actor like he did, took a dive into the world of theatre. Birdman was prolific back in the day and Riggan (Keaton) is haunted by his alter ego’s voice every day as he strives to perfect the piece he adapted from a novel, directs and stars in. Why though? Is it because he’s worried he won’t be successful? Does he even want to be on Broadway or is all his effort simply a cry for help, an attempt to escape a degrading, money-grabbing franchise that controlled his life for too long?

Like any film there are highs and lows for Keaton’s character which flesh him out nicely and truly make you invest in his brilliant performance. Early on, Mike (Edward Norton), a driven, outrageously cocky (maybe cocky isn’t so appropriate in hindsight..) young actor who’s only truly alive on the stage, and Riggan have a brilliant improvisation session that transforms their wooden script into something real and dynamic. Later, Riggan isn’t so happy after confronting his neglected wild daughter (Emma Stone) and we wonder how real Birdman really is and consequently lots of spoilers happen.

If you want to talk Birdman though you have to talk style and direction. Iñárritu’s fellow Mexican countryman Emmanuel Lubezki, the film’s DP, is without doubt one of the most decorated and talented geniuses of film working currently with credits such as The Tree of Life, Y Tu Mama Tambien and Children of Men to his name among many others. Similar to Hitchcock’s Rope the film plays primarily as one single shot with masterfully hidden cuts. Imagine being on the “It’s a Small world” ride in Disney except the annoying puppetry is replaced with a screen and you just flow, seamlessly through the film. It’s wonderful, some might say a little exhausting. The floaty-cam and over-the-shoulder shots do feel very Tree of Life too. The rhythmic drumming score feels momentous and important, usually without overlaying dialogue similar to Wong Kar-Wai’s In the mood for Love did and will likely also be recognised at this year’s Academy awards. The film is an clear amalgamation of the work of talented people working how they want to, including the correctly casted actors, just how film should be.

And well that’s exactly why the film is written like it is. It documents the struggle of people searching for prestige over celebrity and vice-versa in an incredibly fickle world where a critic’s review can destroy your life’s work when art is supposedly subjective. It’s a darkly funny truth.

A thing is a thing, not what someone says about that thing. Well, I say this thing is brilliant but that’s just like, my opinion, man.

8.5/10

Horns – A Review

If Daniel Radcliffe in fancy dress performing a Twihard’s adaptation of Gone Girl makes you horny then you’re in for a treat (Not a trick… Halloween pun). The latest film from Alexandra Aja, director of The Hills have eyes, Horns is a 2 hour fantasy crime drama with unnecessary elements of modern horror films.

The plot is straight-forward; the female half of an apparently smitten couple winds up dead and the male, Radcliffe playing Ig, is ostracized by his small town’s bored-looking community as well as the media. A struggling Ig wakes up the next morning to find he has sprouted devilish horns which supernaturally force people he converses with to share their innermost thoughts as well as allow Ig to see people’s memories as a series of flashbacks when he touches them physically.

My biggest gripe with the film, and I suppose is therefore more to do with the book it was based on, is that the horns feel entirely without purpose throughout. First of all, there is no explanation as to why the horns are consigned to him. I expected in an all too lengthy scene with younger versions of the main characters that when Ig has a close call with death some kind of soul-selling would occur… just some kind of explanation would have sufficed! All the other gimmicky horny scenes were just for comic effect (fighting journalists, outing gay cops etc) or video-nasty style out of the blue horror elements for example setting up jump scares or causing characters to self-induce drug hallucinations so we can see a bowl of maggots on screen (no effect on character arcs or storyline).

This is why I believe Horns would have been considerably better as a crime drama. Radcliffe’s performance was strong, apart from a few passionless cringe-worthy screams and lines, he really portrayed the fear and guilt needed for this type of role. His accent, like Emma Watson’s in The Perks of Being a Wallflower, was adequate to my ear and non-distracting. Replace horn forced witness flashbacks with interrogation (Radcliffe strong-arms a couple of confessions anyway), generally improve screenwriting to reduce the painful dialogue instances, especially between kids (thought I was watching Boyhood again at times) and a lot could be taken from this for future genre-adjusted projects.

All that being said; the film is visually attractive and really locks you into the Truman Show-like globe of a town that we follow Ig around in. The film’s ending is spectacular and satisfying and several big name cameos help to light up parts of the film that might of otherwise dragged on too much more than they already do.

If you’re looking for something scary, look elsewhere. This is not the Halloween film that the release date might imply and that could be something that leaves you disappointed in itself. Horns has no strong themes, nor interesting characters but it does have enough gags and storyline to keep you interested and maybe see its potential too.

Rating: 65/100.

Up in the Air – Late To The Party

UP in the air

TL;DR: A groom on his wedding day cowers terrified before the enduring, towering thoughts of the rest of his life as a married man, a potential father, grandfather and unavoidably an eventual dead man. Initially, he’s stricken with cold-feet but considering the alternative of being alone (potentially forever) he returns to the service. “Up in the Air” is a jet-setting story about the value we place on our freedom as individuals with next to no film-making turbulence, plane and simple.

With the emotional yet funny “Juno” being the only other film of Jason Reitman’s work that I’d seen I had reasonably high hopes for “Up in the Air”. Ryan Bingham (Clooney) works a niche job probably more publicly despised than tax collectors; he’s a professional personnel terminator a.k.a Bingham fires people for a living. Bosses America-wide are too scared of confronting their long time employees so Bingham’s employers whisk him around for over 300 days a year doing their dirty work. He’s good though, a renowned public speaker on the importance of avoiding tying oneself down, Bingham is able to highlight the positives and opportunities in losing a job with a tactile yet professional face-to-face manner.

That’s until Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick), a young high-flyer fresh out of college, revolutionises the company by proposing to ground Bingham and his fellow fuel-guzzling termination agents and create a Skype-like digital firing squad. Ironically, this would leave Bingham out of a job, something he wouldn’t be too happy about especially as he’s come to like this lone wolf lifestyle as he nears his life-time goal of 15 million Airmiles and his name on a plane. Meanwhile, whilst Bingham teaches Natalie how firing people in person is more humane, Bingham engages in a saucy hotels-only relationship with another jet setter and behind all this his sister (played by Melanie Lynsky or Rose from Two and a Half men) is about to be wed. There’s definitely a lot going on in this film and thankfully it never feels cluttered partly due to the plane journeys themselves and their accompanying overhead cityscapes and titles acting as location- and thereby act/plot markers.

George Clooney is great as the lead man with his suave smooth talking he really looks like someone who’d fly across the country just to fire you though could do with releasing himself into the role a little more. This time though, Anna Kendrick is the shining light, she pulls off the ambitious grad looking to make an impact with ease and is great to watch. Her comedic timing (especially during the boat party) and emotive face is exposed magnificently through dialogue that cuts through Clooney’s no-frills character, right to the core of the film’s message.

But what might the message be? Well, there’s a few in my opinion that all end in a similar argument to Sean Penn’s “Into the wild”; an event shared is infinitely better than if it were spent alone. Clooney’s character struggles with commitment, opting for a lighter free-roaming lifestyle that even escapes contact with his own family because this is how he feels safest. He has an apartment but he’s really a rich homeless man; his work is his life even more so than the poor people who he fires who still have families to go back to. In contrast, Kendrick’s character is only in her early twenties yet craves a relationship enough to follow a boy across the country into a job she isn’t suited for. “Wouldn’t you just like someone to talk to?” asks Natalie, “I’ve got hundreds of people all around me I could talk to” says Jack, in an airport. Slowly, the two characters unfurl one another’s guard, trying to expose and dissect our instinctive human need for interaction.

Above all, “Up in the Air” is a superb example of what modern “mainstream” cinema should be. This film is a success because: we look into the world of an interesting person that isn’t too far from reality not to be believable, the film doesn’t stray from its foundations nor overly delve into its message and become too schmaltzy and the screen-writing is hilarious enough to carry heavy themes subtly into an uplifting, enjoyable and classy dramedy.

A real high-flyer, 8.4/10.

Magic in the Moonlight – A Review

magic in the moonlight

TL;DR: Quirky periodic opening credits music; check. Assorted quotes from history’s great thinkers; check. Neurotic yet likeable lead (often male) and beautiful supporting actress; less agreeable than usual lead, but check. “Magic in the Moonlight” is Woody Allen’s newest addition to his Euro-tripping new-wave that’s as funny as “Midnight in Paris” but not as sober as “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” or “To Rome with love” and therein finds its happy medium.

Allen’s “Love and death” is one of my favourite comedies, “Annie Hall” one of my favourite Rom-Coms and “Manhattan” is simply one of the best films of all time. The way Allen wrote himself into his characters and now into the characters of other actors is brilliant for fans of his neurotic, well-read, pessimistic, self-deprecating and cunningly insulting sense of humour and “Magic in the Moonlight” is no exception.

The notion of the subjectivity of nostalgia he raised in “Midnight in Paris” was superb in my opinion. The idea of whether to love the artist or the (wo)man first in a relationship or the compromise of visionaries in theatre, Allen can put his character and ideas into many actors and interesting plots making him one of the most adaptable yet stylistic directors in the business today.

Here Allen possesses Colin Firth who plays Stanley, a travelling magician whose masked impersonation of Wei Ling Soo has made him internationally famous though unmasked he remains reasonably publicly anonymous. Stanley is well-read, heavily opinionated and rather pompous but also enjoys a happy engagement and lives out of a large home in Belgravia, London. After an almost perfect performance including the Elephant-Vanish and transporting from a sarcophagus across the stage to an empty swivel chair, an old friend visits with a proposition. He’s informed that in the South of France Sophie Baker (Emma Stone) is playing a rich family for fools with her “act” as a very loveable, believable psychic/medium. Always-right Stanley, a well-practiced debunker of the dark arts, agrees to try to force her hand when his fellow magician colleague could not.

Firth is great as the cynical, smirking Stanley. A few scenes in particular where he is observing Sophie Baker’s powers are hilarious because he’s simply in the background, out of focus, yet you know what he’s thinking and it includes the words codswallop, malarkey etc. The film is beautiful, set in the South of France and with beautiful costuming, Emma Stone is elevated to angelic prettiness despite having to pull silly séance faces now and again.

For all the praise, unfortunately I must say the final 20 minutes felt out of control like the director was trying to throw too many ideas at me at once. “Midnight in Paris” delivered its message in a brief exchange between two characters. “Magic in the Moonlight” raises notions about the relationship between blind faith and happiness and our understanding of the unknown; unfortunately we also have two extremely superfluous long word vomit extravaganzas that seem a little too inconsistent with their characters for my liking to further force this down our throats.

A refreshing change of pace and direction for Allen and lovers of his work, a film I’d take a pretty lady along to.

7.2/10

Lucy – A Review

Lucy

 

TL;DR: “Lucy” requires a reasonable tolerance of creative licence. If accepted, it’s a great action flick that takes a standard MacGuffin chase plot, snorts a line of Darwinism and doesn’t care if you’re going to check if its bibliography is legitimate or full of made-up theory-crafted references.

I thought Luc Besson’s “Lucy” would have been perfect for me. I’m a big fan of Korean cinema, “Lucy” has Min-Sik Choi (Oldboy, I Saw The Devil). I think Scarlett Johansson is on particularly good form as of late (Her, Under the skin). A compact and ambitious movie is my cup of tea, “Lucy” is 90 minutes long and grasps haphazardly into the abyss that some might describe as “out-there”. The film is very enjoyable (more and more so as the film progresses), unfortunately, it’s also a pseudo-intellectual, unrestrained script loosely fastened down to this dimension with slightly better than mediocre performances, a thin plot and an apparently narcoleptic editor.

Some of the popular opinions before the film was released were that it rips off “Limitless” as well as disdain towards the film’s central premise of increasing brain activity being proportional to the acquisition of super powers you’d find 4 generations down from a cross of Professor Xavier and a lucky dip of three of his students. In a recent Reddit AMA Besson draws comparisons with Peter Parker being bitten by a spider and how that could never logically birth Spiderman, he’s absolutely right and I believe “Lucy” should be believed blindly in much the same way.

Johansson plays Lucy. Lucy unwillingly falls into the role of drug mule for a Korean mob headed by Min-Sik Choi’s character. A bag of CPH4 is surgically inserted into her stomach area in order to bypass security. CPH4 is the new party drug all the kids in Europe will love, apparently. Lucy’s bag ruptures inside her and courses through her circulatory and nervous system like something out of a Spiderman opening credits sequence. This causes her to rapidly experience fulfilment and the full potential of her brain but at the cost of her physical form.

Luckily for us, this is all put in context by Freeman in the very fitting role of university professor as he reels off highlights of my first year BIOL101 classes interspersed with kind-of science about dolphins and evolution. It works, if you want it to work. It’s like explaining black holes with knowledge gathered from a Brian Cox programme when he does those simplified schematics in the sand with stones and twigs, except the sound cut out right there and you’re spewing out what you think he would have said.

Johansson transitions seamlessly from ditsy party girl to an omniscient being that’s fully integrated with time and space which I’m grateful for as at the beginning of the film I got “Don Jon” flashbacks and nearly fell asleep. Freeman and Min-Sik Choi are both convincing as their respective roles but aren’t remarkable. The film’s real problems lie in its lack of control. Generic footage of human achievement and nature (including a sequence of entirely unnecessary X-rated animal footage) cut into Freeman’s lecture make the first 30 minutes feel like an usher accidentally broadcast broadening his horizons with YouTube videos to the audience. Several scenes are long-winded or completely unnecessary including a Korean-English translation with suitcase opening, visiting a friend to use a laptop and 3 identical airport arrests. Every second of “The Fifth Element” had cool, futuristic visuals or a good laugh so why is “Lucy” a 65 minute film in a 90 minute’s body?

That being said, it’s hard to take your eyes off anything going on. An Inception-like skitter over every wall in her jail cell (similar to Leeloo in her regeneration pod in “The Fifth Element”), a massacre of henchman that would make Darth Vader jealous and a clever twist on the car chase are just a few examples of excellent CGI and stunts showcased in “Lucy”. The Sci-Fi elements are all handled well with us watching through Lucy’s eyes as she puts those cocky dolphins and their 20% brain usage to shame. The film is also very funny, in fact, I’d say I involuntarily exhaled the same volume of air through my nose here as I did in “Guardians of the Galaxy” though that definitely wasn’t the case for everyone in my theatre.

All in all, Luc Besson’s “Lucy” is definitely worth a watch. It’s nothing on his early work, but it is fun in an abstract, all-encompassing “2001: A Space Odyssey” with more guns kind of way.

And Scarlett’s in it.

7/10.

A Separation – Late To The Party

A Separation

TL;DR: Watching good people struggle through painful, complicated situations is no easy feat. “A Separation” tenderly plants the viewer in the centre of a certain Iranian family’s dilemma, asks you politely to care about them and follow their arduous emotional traipse through unforeseen consequences where no-one and everyone is to blame.

I’ve seen more than my fair share of foreign cinema but never an Iranian film, until now. Asghar Farhadi’s “A Separation” cleverly lifts the veil on daily life in a place relatively misunderstood by the western world to be a warzone and particularly underdeveloped.

The film opens with Simin (Leila Hatami) and Nader (Peyman Moaadi) presenting their cases for divorce to an official. Simin wants to leave the country in search of a better future for their family, particularly their daughter Termeh (Sarina Farhadi) whilst Nader is obligated to stay and care for his elderly father who is suffering end-stage Alzheimer’s disease; a heart-wrenching predicament in itself. No agreement is established thus Simin moves out and stays with her parents meaning Nader has to hire someone to look after his father while he’s at work and Termeh is at school.

The plot kick-starts from this point and snowballs into an argument with the hired carer over stolen money and consequently a heated scuffle results in a push which leads to a fall and apparently a miscarriage. The rest of the film is a steady, un-biased investigation into who should be rightfully sentenced, everyone is interrogated as to what they knew at exactly what time (Nader’s knowledge of his father’s carer’s pregnancy is cleverly contained as a single line of dialogue in a conversation he wasn’t involved in, just near to, leaving us unsure if he was aware he could commit murder by causing a miscarriage) and finding out who’s telling the truth becomes the primary focus though for plot purposes some of this is hidden from the viewer as it happens.

This plot is stitched onto the marvellously interesting fabric of Iran and everything that entails. The family apartment is modest yet decorated and maintained stylishly and culturally appropriately. Termeh is dropped off through a flurry of dusty cars each morning to a busy modern school. Furthermore, there are clear indications of the nation’s religious nature which in turn shows us a snapshot of the roles of men and women. An example, Nader invites a woman to care for his father as social care is considered more womanly though problems arise when the father soils himself and the carer has to consult her religious advisor as to whether helping (or not helping) the man is an act of sin on her part. She also doesn’t tell her husband that she’s working in another man’s house without his wife being present, another breakage of Muslim values.

The crux of the film is that every single important character is a relatively good, well-rounded person who is devout to their religion but their conscience and the nit-bits of information they care to share with each other don’t allow the judicial system to find a particularly fair judgement. In the middle of it all Termeh is pulled back and forth, weighing her alliances to her mother and father so selflessly but never letting her dream of their reunion die.

Moments like these happen all the time in real life. Often a series of unfortunate events during difficult times and an act of madness under extreme stress or pressure can change one’s life drastically and it’s even worse when the only people involved are honest, good and un-deserving of potentially harsh judicial punishment. “A Separation” is a touching, humanistic drama focusing on the difficulties of family-orientated decision making and how law and religion don’t always complement one another.

A wonderfully scripted piece, 8.6/10.

Blue Ruin – Late To The Party

Blue Ruin

TL;DR: Clichés and misuse of motive maim most western revenge thrillers. Thankfully, “Blue Ruin”’ is the epitome of the “show don’t tell” mantra, laying the groundwork for 90 minutes of sensical character arcs, consummate action deliverance and everything being done so right even the Korean-revenge-masters would approve.

Most of my favourite revenge genre flicks are Asian films such as Chan-Wook Park’s Revenge trilogy, “The Man from Nowhere”, “I Saw The Devil” to name but a few. Nobody ever wins in a game of revenge, apart from the viewer and that’s what I love about the genre. These films are dark, often have extended torturous sequences and explicit violence; things which Western audiences and subsequently production companies tend to avoid. They’re also slow-burning which when used properly especially in such a short film as “Blue Ruin”, gives the director massive control over the ambient, inescapable tension but also when he can deliberately overdose you.

Much like how Hitchcock found such great success in re-using the civilian-turned-spy ploy, here Saulnier throws our almost-regular guy into the deep-end as a fumbling, inexperienced yet incredibly vengeful killer. Macon Blair, writer turned actor, plays Dwight our protagonist. We find out through a completely speechless opening sequence (apart from a police officer saying “He’s getting out…” or words to that effect”) that Dwight is strung up and living in his car, bathing in strangers houses when necessary, scavenging bins for food and oh, that his parents’ killer is now loose on the streets. Macon Blair’s face is a picture here and throughout the film, that was his tipping point though. Something has to be done.

The film, though on a fairly low budget of roughly $1m, is made and shot expertly with plenty of sweeping panning shots and dolly shots, certain in-car snippets reminiscent of Refn’s “Drive”. I think calling the film violent is also an injustice as at no point were on-screen scuffles messy or unnecessary; if it were a porn, people would call it tasteful. The film’s gore hits hard with crunchy, targeted editing when it needs to in isolated CGI/make-up jobs similar to certain kills in Gareth Evans’ “The Raid 2: Berandal” in turn economising effect funding to comply with the aforementioned budget.

What people have been describing the film as is “solid”, rightly, and bluntly so in my pseudo-expert opinion. Apart from minor, possibly inevitable (I’m not a filmmaker) annoyances such as “How can they not see him tailing them, he’s literally right there!” there isn’t half a line that shouldn’t be in this film, a result of stringent scripting and work in the cutting room. Action and subtle dark humour is intertwined with the storyline soundly as Dwight fights to survive and confront in multiple Virginia-based locations. Not all the characters are fully developed but they don’t all need to be. Dwight’s gun-toting pal Ben (played by Devin Ratray a.k.a Buzz from Home Alone) is an example, his aid to Dwight is justified by an old photo of the two of them partying; he’s also killed 2 men but do we really need to know why? No.

“Blue Ruin” is an example to most modern action/thriller films. Maybe it’s hiked cinema ticket prices (£12.00 for me) that obligates filmmakers to tack on 30 extra minutes of faffy dross to make people feel they’ve gotten bang for their buck. Maybe those minutes wouldn’t be needed if CGI were used more creatively for effect thereby lowering production value, lowering ticket prices and giving people what they really want. I know what I want. “Sympathy for Mr. Blue Ruin”.

Loved it, GIMME MORE. 8.4/10.

Fun-gettable – Guardians of the Galaxy – A review

GotG

TL;DR: I am Groot. I am Groot, I am Groot… I am Groot.

After having taken a hiatus from superhero films after the atrocity that was “Man of Steel” I felt James Gunn’s latest, “Guardians of the Galaxy”, was a perfect opportunity to swan dive back into the comic book multiverse.

Brandishing some less widely known characters (I only knew Rocket from MVC3) from a more comical comic book series, Guardians of the Galaxy does an excellent job in presenting most of them to the audience but compromises a little in its scripting and universe establishment across the entire film; definitely a launch pad for sequel success.

One of the first scenes, Chris Pratt’s masked Star-Lord gaily strolling through a reptilian ridden wasteland to “Hooked on a Feeling” peeled back the critical barriers I subconsciously erected in order to pick holes in the film. The film doesn’t ask any questions of its audience, it’s pleasantly unimposing, all it wants is that you let yourself be swept away and enjoy the view as you go; a pre-requisite I was happy to conform to along with the rest of the theatre.

The characters carry the film 100%. Without the snappy lines of dialogue from Star-Lord, Rocket and well, excellent delivery of the one line from Groot, GotG would fall flat on Drax and Gamora’s poorly written, uninteresting faces. Literally, Drax and Gamora had about 3 cool moments between them whereas our other protagonists had about 20 each; it felt like the writers didn’t have enough time to write them in properly. I understand their backgrounds are vengeful and darker but unfortunately between their bouts of complaining about our uninspired villain and Drax being smashed around for half the film when he’s meant to be strong I just stopped caring. They look cool, I’ll give them that.

The other 3 though, damn. Pratt is so hot right now. I liked the bad-boy, pseudo-responsible Captain Kirk vibe he emitted throughout the film. Bradley Cooper should continue voice acting on projects where his characters are so awesome. I always thought Vin Diesel’s acting was wooden so he grew well into Groot’s roots and… stop. No more. Groot is excellent though which begs the question why the writers can make a monosyllabic tree likeable yet not do anything for Gamora or Drax? Maybe it’s a source material thing and they are developed more in the sequel? I can’t say, I don’t know much about this particular universe. There are a lot of jokes and cool one-liners, though there’s also a lot of self-aware cheesiness. There’s a scene where they all stand up and confirm that they are indeed friends and that they are willing to fight and die together which is great for us otherwise the film and their existence would end pretty early. Rocket then points out that they all look like idiots standing up for no real reason, this felt a bit like how in “22 Jump Street” it’s pointed out that they have “to do the same thing over again…”, is this forth-wall break style audience mind-reading a thing now? To me it feels cheap and lazy.

Visually, GotG is excellent. From the animation of Rocket Raccoon to desktop wallpaper worthy wide space vistas there was not an effect that felt particularly out of place or inappropriate from a storytelling perspective (something many films do not achieve, I’m looking at you “The Hobbit”) which kept the film concise and free from unnecessary distraction. The action sequences are exciting, maybe even gripping, using each characters strengths and weaknesses cohesively and innovatively as they work as a team. The extras are really great too, the creatures in the background of the jail sequence I thought looked like what you’d get if you tipped half the MIB office into that bar in Verhoeven’s “Total Recall”.

Overall, I do think the film felt more like an amusement park ride through the universe than a deep sea dive into it but what do you expect for a film essentially trying to pitch itself for a sequel to people that already love Marvel movies. It’ll stay with me considerably longer than Man of Steel, that’s for sure but I’ve already forgotten every single place name and half the characters.

Better than most of its kind, 7.6/10.

Little Miss Sunshine – (Late To The Party)

Little Miss sunshine

TL;DR: Little Miss Sunshine sneaks up on you like a few rays poking through the clouds. The race to the beauty pageant is a wonderfully subtle, hilarious façade employed by directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris to disguise multiple melancholic themes and leave us in a warm, happy place.

Winner of 2006’s Best Original Screenplay Oscar, Little Miss Sunshine packs every second of its 101 minute run-time with slapstick VW Bus-thrashing, expressive odd-ball family moments and plenty of lessons being learned. Admittedly I was not expecting what I was eventually contentedly surprised with when I started watching, the bright yellow “sunshine” poster had me forecasting more of a lacklustre song and dance ditty than a self-aware and tightly-strung comedy drama.

The film follows Olive, 2nd place at the Little Miss Albuquerque pageant and all-round cutie, and the rest of her family: her Dad (Richard Hoover) who resembles a less exuberant version of Tom Cruise’s character in Magnolia, her loving and slightly pushy mother (Toni Collette), her monk-like silent yet mysterious brother (Paul Dano), the seemingly vulgar grandpa (Alan Arkin) and her post-suicide attempt scholar of an uncle as they meander across America to attend Little Miss Sunshine, Olive’s next step to becoming future Miss America.

In the beginning Mum lays down paper plates, produces a takeaway and calls out for Olive and Grandpa. This shows us that they’re a busy family, possibly struggling financially and that O + G can often go off into their own world. This excellent screenwriting shuns obvious and unnecessary dialogue seen in so many modern films (and continues to do so throughout the film for comedic and storytelling effect) opting instead to establish the family dynamic through actions. This only works because the characters are interesting with their own defined personalities, here mum earns the main income and Dad is all promises, Brother has taken a vow of silence, Grandpa got himself thrown out of his old people’s home for living vicariously and Steve Carell’s uncle, though the most educated is the most helpless. Such defined characterization opens the door for clear and believable personal development giving the audience the feeling they’re watching people worth giving a toss about.

Actually, that’s about it. If you hear a father suggesting persuasively his daughter can’t eat ice cream because she’ll get fat and won’t be a winner, and the daughter responds by spilling her heart out to her Grandpa (Alan Arkin also won an Oscar, in my opinion for this particular scene) whimpering “Daddy only loves winners”, wouldn’t anyone want to see that relationship improve? If you knew the nation’s greatest Proust scholar lost his job over a homosexual relationship scandal, attempted suicide and subsequently was embraced by his loving sister who coaxes him back towards happiness, wouldn’t you want to see how it all happens?

On top of all the great characters, the superb pacing and the scale of it all… Little Miss Sunshine is really, really, genuinely funny. All kinds of humour are present from purely visual gags to subtle conversational intonations, in fact one of my favourite moments (which for most was probably absolutely nothing) was when after an unexpected departure, the grievance councillor sees our family into a curtained hospital booth with the FAKEST smile you’ll ever see and speeds off, completely forgetting about said family IMMEDIATELY after the last person enters. The timing was perfect. To me, it was beautiful. I laughed. Aloud. Incessantly.

All in all, Little Miss Sunshine is a really enjoyable, easy to watch film where one can laugh at the absurd nature of child pageantry, absorb a parenting lesson or two and dwell on the importance of family.

It brightened my day, 8/10.