Ooga-shaka, I’m hooked on a Marvel Cinematic Universe franchise and it keeps getting better. Owen Hughes reviews James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.
“This, right here, is heaven. We fucked it up.”
From Ben Affleck, the director of Argo and The Town – and starring Ben Affleck, the star of Argo and The Town – comes an early competitor for most infuriatingly boring film that should never have been so infuriatingly boring: Live By Night.
Maybe my expectations were set a little high? Maybe I was hoping for a little too much? Maybe, the pedestal I’ve put Ben Affleck on in recent years is too lofty for him? But this film – a film that stars Affleck, Chris Cooper, Elle Fanning, Sienna Miller, Zoe Salanda and Brendan Gleeson, to name but a few – and Affleck on directorial duty; this film disappointed in such a massive way that I felt crushed as I left the screening on Saturday afternoon.
After a stint in prison for his part in a bank robbery, long time petty crook Joe Coughlin (Affleck) hits the streets of Boston a free man with money, power and revenge on his mind. Aligning himself with the head of the Italian mob, the Irishman is sent to Florida to remove certain entities from power and start making the boss some money.
Coughlin uses his smarts and is quickly the top dog in the sunny state, making a fortune selling dark Cuban rum in the height of prohibition America. Of course, working your way up from nickel-and-dime hood to being the most powerful man in Florida brings you an enemy or three and now Coughlin’s found himself on the wrong side of some very powerful people.
Pretty much “30’s Gangster Movie 101”
Based on the novel of the same name by writer Dennis Lahane – writer of books like Shutter Island and Gone Baby Gone (Affleck’s directorial debut) – Live By Night is surprising in its awfulness considering just how good its inspiration is.
Whilst it’s not the worst film Ben Affleck has starred in (not by a long shot) Live By Night is most certainly the weakest of his directorial efforts. By quite a margin. The man has no one else to blame but himself.
Writer, producer, director and star may have been too much for the current Batman to do all by himself this time around as every role that he took responsibility for in the creation of this film suffered a lack of care and attention: This, considering The Town is one of my favourite crime thrillers (I’ll forgive it being an ADD, Boston based remake of Heat), a film I think is beautifully made and superbly paced with excellent acting all around. Affleck’s latest seems to have forgotten all the skill that made his 2010 crime thriller great and has decided to make himself a paint-by-numbers prohibition movie in an age that includes Boardwalk Empire having once been a thing.
Lacklustre, badly paced direction and a beyond poor script do little to take away from the terrible acting in this film. Not just from Affleck, but his whole cast.
Chris Cooper’s police chief, who a penchant for burying his head in the sand, looked bored on screen. As did Elle Fanning – fresh from an excellent performance in The Neon Demon – as the chief’s daughter: A woman with Hollywood bound aspirations. Both Sienna Miller and Zoe Salanda are neither convincing (nor apparently convinced) in their roles as Coughlin’s fancy pieces at various stages. The whole ensemble seem like puppets with someone’s hand up their arses doing the talking. Only their puppet master is asleep at the wheel.
Live By Night takes a tremendously long time to get to its wholly predictable conclusion. Considering how much good quality strong coffee I get through on a standard Saturday and the venti double shot Americano I take in with me to almost every screening, there is no way I should have been dozing off whilst watching this. Yet there I was, nodding off in my chair like your old man after Christmas dinner.
Not bad considering I don’t remember feeling tired when I went in.
In the run up to the latest hotly anticipated Marvel blockbuster Avengers: Age of Ultron, Steve and Owen have been busy putting together a series of short 20-25 minute long minisode podcasts. With clips from the films, trailers, retro reviews taken from our archived podcasts as well as brand new retrospective reviews featuring a varied mix of different guests for each episode, we’ll be running through all of the MCU movies thus far in chronological order.
Welcome to the very last episode in our Avengers Minisode series! Here we take a look back on the second best film of 2014, as voted for by you in our Failed Critics Awards. I am of course referring to the spectacular space-adventure, Guardians of the Galaxy, the tenth film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
First conceived as a movie to enter the franchise back in 2009, when writer Nicole Perlman pretty much hand picked it herself, it wasn’t until 2012 that the ball really started rolling on production when director James Gunn was attached to the project. Released two years later, the film was a huge success for Marvel Studios, nearly quadrupling its budget by grossing approximately $774,000,000 worldwide – most of those ticket sales courtesy of our special guest for the retrospective review, Mike Shawcross, who saw the movie 23 times at the cinema!
Featuring the likes of Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper, Lee Pace, Michael Rooker, Karen Gillan, John C. Reilly, Peter Serafinowicz, Glenn Close and Benicio del Toro, it had an enormous ensemble cast that rivaled even that of Marvel’s Avengers Assemble some two years earlier. All of whom were fantastic in their individual ways as the MCU ventured into the realms of space-opera, with the Starlord and his “group of wrong-uns” attempting to stop the psychopathic Ronan the Accuser from getting his hands on a powerful orb containing an infinity stone and thus destroying the Nova Empire.
As through the rest of our Avengers Minisodes, this episode will feature clips and trailers, as well as retro review taken from an archived podcast released last year when we were joined by Carole Petts. As mentioned earlier, the brand new retrospective review sees occasional writer and podcast guest Mike Shawcross share his educated opinion on the film.
We’ll be back next week with a review of Marvel’s Avengers: Age of Ultron, released here in the UK tomorrow!
Warning: these minisodes may contain spoilers
So here we are then. We are at the literal half way point in the decade, albeit the final point in our Half A Decade In Film spin-off mini-series. Yes, the fun ends here (well, about 2000+ words on from here) as Andrew, Paul, Liam, Mike and Owen each pick their favourite film of 2014.
Anybody who listened to our End of Year Awards podcast released not three months back will know just how much Failed Critics loved last year’s selection of movies. From the disturbing and eerie sci-fi Under The Skin, to the disturbing and eerie thriller Gone Girl and all the disturbing and eerie films in between, it was a hell of a year for disturbing and eerie movies, as voted for by you people.
Still, we’ve managed to find five more films to talk about, not all of them dark, violent, disturbing and / or eerie. Well, maybe one or two. Starting with…
Directed and co-written by Yoon Jong-bin, of Nameless Gangster fame, Kundo is a Korean action packed drama set in the middle of the 19th Century.
I’m not a fan of Action films in general but I do love a good Western and thoroughly enjoy Martial Arts fight-fests. Kundo manages to combine the look, feel and sound of the former with the thrills and messy spills of the latter.
The basic story is not overly original in its theme. Jo Yoon, the illegitimate son of a nobleman, is knocked down a rung of the ladder when a fully legitimate heir is born. When he starts to show resentment toward to the new heir he is disciplined and eventually packed off to a life in the military. Many years later the nobleman’s son is killed and Jo Yoon returns to the family as a bitter, corrupt, evil and violent despot hell bent on claiming his birthright and milking his subjects for all he can get.
He hires a lowly butcher, Dol Moo Chi, to kill his dead brother’s pregnant widow to prevent the birth of a new legitimate heir that could challenge his claim as head of the dynasty. When the hitman fails in his mission, Jo Yoon’s vengeance is so brutal that Dol Moo Chi joins a secretive clan of mountain dwelling warriors and monks dedicated to righting the wrongs of despotic nobles and saving oppressed peasants from a life of slavery.
The story then follows the to-and-fro battles between the heartless Jo Yoon’s army of mercenaries and the altruistic mountain clan with Dol Moo Chi in the front line.
Although the basic plot cannot be said to be breaking new ground as a story, the way it is told is thoroughly enjoyable. The best analogy I can come up with is to imagine Quentin Tarantino (at his peak), Sergio Leone and Ennio Morricone getting together and deciding to retell the Robin Hood story.
It is beautifully shot, the acting throughout is superb, there are some fantastic fight scenes and just the right number of humorous little interludes.
There are a few issues with it though. The quality of the CGI used is pretty poor. They are not pivotal to the story but are glaringly clunky. One horseback chase sequence, in particular, is terrible. It’s less convincing than those stock moving backgrounds you see out of the window of a car in old black and white movies. There are a few countryside scenes where flocks of birds have been overlaid. They make Hilda Ogden’s “Muriel” look a masterpiece. Even little touches as insignificant as glowing embers drifting away from a fire look like afterthoughts.
But, to be brutally honest, I’m a real grump when it comes to CGI and rarely miss a chance to moan about it, I seriously doubt these issues would bother the majority of normal people.
A genuinely enjoyable film, it may lack originality but is both beautiful to look at and fun to lose yourself in.
by Liam (@ElmoreLTM)
Another late comer in the film year that I had little or no expectation for. Director Matthew Warchus hadn’t done a feature film for 15 years (his previous film, Simpatico, I’d never even heard of) but this managed to push all my buttons. The soundtrack was for me: Heaven 17, Dead or Alive, Tears for Fears, The Smiths; this was so absolutely in my wheelhouse. The period setting, the 80s, I grew up in the 80’s and it’s always portrayed poorly on film. All that miserable Shane Meadows stuff. I was born in 1970, that was a miserable shit decade, the 80’s were fucking awesome!
We get to meet two very different groups in Pride. Gay activists and striking miners. So we get a double dose of fish out of water, elderly working class Welsh ladies going to gay clubs and party boys going to a working men’s clubs for a spot of bingo. Joyous, absolutely joyous. There’s so many jokes to be had right there.
The cast are all first rate, and mainly unknown to me, though Imelda Staunton, Paddy Considine & Bill Nighy all pop up and do a turn. There’s a decent coming of age story, the mad culture clash to explore, issues of bigotry and discrimination, and yet it all hangs together beautifully and made me laugh, a lot. Proper belly ache, tears down the face, laughter. Looks great, sounds amazing, and absolutely the best of British – oh and to quote Imelda Staunton….. ““We’re just off to Swansea now for a massive les-off!”
by Paul Field (@pafster)
As a series of films, the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) was always just a bit of fun. I’m not denying the quality, not at all. What I’m saying is while they are all good films, I never saw any of them as “great”. Until Captain America: The Winter Soldier rocked up and smacked me around for making such stupid statements.
For the most part, the story of Steve Rogers teaming up with S.H.I.E.L.D and fighting the bad guys, all while trying to find himself in a world he doesn’t know or really fit in to, foregoes the fantastical elements of previous Marvel films and the universe they created. Instead choosing to ground itself in some kind of reality and weave us a tale of conspiracy rivaling that of most other espionage thrillers.
Make no mistake, this is an MCU film through and through. But this time around the Marvel universe feels more like a way to get some of the sillier ideas onto film. Ideas that haven’t really been acceptable since early 90’s James Bond. You know? Mechanical wing suits, hover-carrier thingies and, well, super soldiers!
Cap 2‘s greatness comes when you realise that you can take all those elements out and still be left with a top-notch spy film. A complex and engaging espionage film about shady little men trying to take over the world by using their own little terrorist army headed by a larger than life super-bad-ass bad guy. All of which can only be stopped by one man. Jason Bourne. No, James Bond? Nope. I got it, Ethan Hunt? Oh. Well, you get the idea.
My favourite part though? The fighting. I’ve said it a thousand times. A well choreographed and filmed fight can make a film great. Cap 2‘s fights hurt. Every hit is a bone crunching treat for fight fans that ramps up the stakes and forces you to feel every single punch. Captain America’s confrontation with UFC legend George St. Pierre and the first fight with the titular Winter Soldier are particularly great examples.
It’s Bourne with extra toys. Old school Bond with the ability to still have old school fun. Most importantly, it’s a brilliantly built thriller that’s grounded itself in the real world and, at least as far as I am concerned, is the best MCU film yet.
by Andrew Brooker (@Brooker411)
Some of you may have already read my review on the main site about Dan Gilroy’s atmospheric thriller. There’s not too much point in me running through the film with a fine tooth comb again, except to say that it is still my favourite movie of 2014. I had a blast watching Guardians of the Galaxy on the big screen, big tub of popcorn in hand. I loved Kundo for all the reasons Liam has stated above. Under The Skin, The Attorney, The Raid 2, Inside Llewyn Davis, Moebius; it was just a fantastic year for film. But none of those that I saw during the year, none of those that I’ve caught up with since the turn of 2015, seriously, none have bettered this expertly made, tense, psychological dark masterpiece.
Brooker touched on Jake Gyllenhaal’s resurgence in our 2011 article, yet as good as he’s been in films like End of Watch, Prisoners, Zodiac and Source Code (and that crazy violent slightly NSFW music video thing he was in), it’s definitely with Nightcrawler that he reached his apex as an actor. The sheer ludicrousness of his omission from the Academy Awards list last month was bafflingly moronic. How he could’ve been overlooked for a Best Actor award is quite frankly beyond my understanding. As the crime-scene videographer Lou Bloom, living out his twisted version of the American dream, it was arguably the best performance of the entire year.
It managed to tread that very thin line of being both sickeningly realistic and uncomfortably amusing. Not just Gyllenhaal’s performance, although that obviously is the central piece in the jigsaw, but the film as a whole. He has a suitably talented cast of actors around him including Bill Paxton, Rene Russo and Riz Ahmed; a director/writer who appears to have hit the ground running with his debut feature as a director; and some excellent cinematography courtesy of the very experienced Robert Elswit. It’s a film that has gotten even better the longer time has passed since I last watched it and I can’t wait to see it again.
by Owen Hughes (@ohughes86)
Over the last few years I’ve watched quite a lot of films at the cinema, and the ones I’ve enjoyed I’ve gone back to see again, sometimes more than just twice. When 2014 came along, there was a film which I was looking forward to seeing. Another entry in the Marvel universe. As usual I had avoided seeing any trailers or even any footage for this film. On my first viewing I was blown away at how much I enjoyed it. Even on a 2nd and 3rd viewing I was enjoying it more each time, my kids loved it, and so I embarked on what turned into a marathon number of watches of Guardians of the Galaxy.
Oh go on then, I saw it 23 times in the end! “Why” I hear you cry? Mainly because (I have a Cineworld card and 3 kids who loved it as well) I just enjoyed the hell out of it. Everything about it entertained me, from the characters to the score and the soundtrack which was rather cool. It had action, it was lots of fun and had some fantastic looking spacecraft and it was just 2 hours long, a decent run time for once. I missed – or rather never got on board as Star Wars changed the world of films, and while I’ve seen films that have blown me away, they have disappeared into my collection only to see the light of day once in a blue moon. Maybe Guardians is my Star Wars, or even my kids Star Wars..? I’m not sure, I just know I really wasn’t expecting to like it so much.
James Gunn has produced a Marvel film like no other. While the other films tend to return to earth for some or most of the film, Gunn left Earth way behind. Taking his hero Peter Quill as a child into space and with some back story to give Quill a little character, just enough for us to like him, Gunn just lets the film fly. With a great opening sequence, the film powers along, and soon we are introduced to the full team, though they don’t know it yet. Rocket, a talking Racoon; Groot, a tree, who doesn’t talk much, Gamora a green assassin and Drax a beast of man looking for revenge. Really with that line up of characters this should fall flat on it’s face or at best just about hold together. Yet Gunn and his cast breathe so much life into the film that it soars. Chris Pratt is superb as Quill, he might be a rogue be he is extremely likable. Zoe Saldana is also great as Gamora, while Rocket and Groot and both voiced well by Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel. It is Drax played by Dave Bautista who really steals the show; his deadpan delivery is wonderful and nothing goes over his head (his reactions are too fast!) As for the rest, Karen Gillan gives a solid performance as Nebula and Michael Rooker (a constant in Gunn’s films) is also excellent. Lee Pace continues to impress as Ronan and his one of Marvel’s better villains.
The design of this film is also superb; the look of the space crafts, the clothes, the outer space sequences are all stunning to look at. The chase sequences are exhilarating and the final battle is superb leading to a one of the best moments of the film, the dance off! Yet while the plot is rather weak it does add some weight to Thanos and may give some clues to wear Marvel are taking the films. Even so it’s still a pretty strong origins film, as it relies on its energy and the energy of the cast to get us through it. Gunn’s trick is to continue this with the sequel, it’s a big ask, but I think Gunn and his cast might just pull it off again.
by Mike Shawcross (@Shawky1969)
And there we go, we’re done, no more new Half A Decade In Film articles to go (until perhaps five year’s time when we attempt the same thing again perhaps?) You can catch all of our prior entries here, or even click this link to view the entire back catalogue of features for the Decade In Film series. As always, let us know in the comments below if you think we’ve crucially overlooked or overrated any films so far.
Exquisitely gorgeous, full of heart and refreshingly free of pop-culture gags, The Book Of Life is only kept from excellency by rushing its finale.
by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)
I am not going to waste any time or beat around any bushes, so let’s get straight to the point: it’s good. It’s really good. I went into The Book Of Life with unreasonable expectations, as anyone who follows my Twitter will more than know, and yet this film managed to fulfil them near-totally for so much of its runtime. It is incredibly beautiful, in both the visual and metaphorical sense as the film’s sublimely wonderful visuals are complimented at every turn by strong characters in a story whose formulaic beats are spruced up and justified by said strong character work and that Mexican aesthetic influencing a lot of the film, not just visually.
I’ll get to my one issue in a short while. For now: our plot, related to us by a museum tour guide (Christina Applegate) looking after detention kids, tells the tale of three childhood friends: heartfelt and peaceful wannabe singer Manolo (Diego Luna), swashbuckling Joaquín (Channing Tatum), and the girl they are both also openly in love with, María (Zoe Saldana). They end up becoming the participants in a bet made between the rulers of the festive and wonderful Land Of The Remembered, in La Muerte’s (Kate del Castillo) case, and the desolate and rotting Land Of The Forgotten, in her husband Xibalba’s (Ron Pearlman) case; a bet over which boy will end up marrying María and with control over each ruler’s respective lands and the ability to meddle in the affairs of humans on the line.
Said bet ends up lasting a good decade after María is forcibly sent off to a boarding school in Spain. During their time apart, Manolo is forced by his father to take up the family tradition and become a bullfighter, albeit one who morally objects to killing the bull. Joaquín, meanwhile, has become a well-renowned defender of the people throughout Mexico, thanks to a special medal that Xibalba gave him at the outset of the bet that makes the wearer invulnerable, in a desperate attempt to live up to his famous father. The return of María also heralds the return of Joaquín to their village and the re-igniting of the relatively friendly competition to win the hand of their childhood sweetheart, with the situation being complicated by María’s father attempting to forcefully arrange a marriage between his daughter and Joaquín, in an attempt to keep the latter around to defend the town from bandits, and the fact that Xibalba is a very poor sportsman.
Now, yes, this set-up does carry worrying overtones that we should be rooting for María to get with The Right Man, seeing as there are worrying stakes at hand if she picks wrong. Fortunately, although it doesn’t do so overtly, The Book Of Life cuts off any such unfortunate implications by making all involved participants well-drawn and consistent characters and keeping Xibalba as a trickster and overly competitive entity who has no actual malicious plans for The Land Of The Remembered. So whilst the central tenant of the film is in hoping that Manolo ends up with María, it comes from Manolo and María being right for one another, chemistry and all that.
That is not to say, however, that the film demonises Joaquín. There is a point where it seems like it will go that way, there’s a reunion dinner with María where Joaquín accidentally comes off as a sexist pig (don’t worry, the film is aware of this fact), but it keeps these moments in moderation. Joaquín is flawed, but not horrible. He’s a little ego-centric and macho, but he also has deep-seated insecurity issues and is still fundamentally a good person, still remaining friends with Manolo deep-down even when their battle for María’s affections overrides common sense, and really not buying into the whole arranged marriage deal. Again: flawed, not horrible.
The main trio are all extremely well-rounded and well-defined characters whose bond is believeable and whose personality traits are consistent and well-conveyed – a small early scene of them as kids trying to stylishly get to the bottom of some street steps has María slide down the railing, Joaquín jump from the top step to the bottom step in one fluid flip motion, and Manolo trips and falls flat on his face but doesn’t let his failed attempt at being cool get him down. And that’s what drive the story, the characters. Admittedly, María doesn’t get quite the level of development that Manolo and Joaquín do – most likely caused by the film’s big problem that we’ll get to in due course – whilst Xibalba and La Muerte’s marriage isn’t quite fleshed out enough for my liking, but these didn’t start becoming an issue for me until after the credits had rolled.
There’s real heart bleeding out of every facet of this film, which is what makes its more formulaic moments easier to accept and swallow. The standard plot beats are occasionally hit, with the frequency of said hitting going up as the film progresses, but the film is so sincere in its deployment of them – not once does it feel like they’re being hit because that’s how successful animated films are supposed to go – that they work. More than nearly any other animated film that I have seen this year, The Book Of Life feels like a labour of love. Practically everything in this film is done because its main creative force, first-time feature-film director Jorge R. Gutiérrez (best known as the co-creator of the short-lived and criminally underrated Nickelodeon cartoon El Tigre: The Adventures Of Manny Rivera), wished it so. Or, at least, that’s the impression I got.
Especially from the jokes. Now, disregard what other critics have said, the film’s jokes are not heavily steeped in pop culture. When they say that, they are likely referring to the film’s soundtrack and one particular scene that takes its cues from said soundtrack. See, the film’s soundtrack primarily consists of Mexican-style covers of songs from non-Mexican countries and one scene involves Manolo’s friends trying to help him romantically serenade María, but the friends keep playing songs that are decidedly un-romantic, like Biz Markie. Now, admittedly, on one level, the joke is “we all know that Biz Markie song!” But the joke goes deeper than that, instead also working to show that Manolo’s friends (who disappear from the film shortly after this scene, endemic of a larger pacing problem I’ll get to soon) have no concept of romance and no real understanding of the songs they’re singing. It’s a pop culture joke rooted in character work.
It’s also practically the only time that pop culture gags invade the film, or at least to such a blatant degree. Most of the jokes are of the fast-paced physical humour variety, with plenty of sight gags, one-liners and facial reactions thrown in for good measure. The film’s best gags, though, compliment the mood without overpowering it. As an example, an otherwise sad scene caused by Manolo’s public refusal to kill a bull has a quick cut to the bull itself shaking its head disapprovingly at him before slinking off. Whilst the film’s most unquestionably heart-breaking scene gets two cuts back to the kids being told the story reacting with the exact kind of “This story is messed up, we’re kids!” reaction that I imagine a lot of younger audience members might be going through. Neither one ruins the intended mood, they instead enhance it, providing a counterbalance without coming off as obnoxious or ill-fitting.
Going back to the soundtrack, there is a full-on score by Gustavo Santaolalla, but it’s relatively generic and fades into the background. The pop songs will be what sticks out, be they original (which are fine, but rather unmemorable), or covers. Both are highly influenced or re-worked to have a distinct Mexican flavour. For example, Mumford & Sons.’ plodding, coldly-calculated-for-radio-and-festival-playing “I Will Wait” is transformed into a cheery, bouncy number just bursting with knowingly cheesy energy, whilst “Creep” by Radiohead is played as straight as humanly possible with a near-total lack of awareness to the actual meaning of “Creep”’s lyrics that almost works. Also, a very minor remix of “The Ecstasy Of Gold” backs Manolo’s bullfight and that song can make pretty much anything amazing. I dug the soundtrack, even the out-of-place, but not-unwelcome, deployment of Le Tigre at the very beginning.
As for the animation… the only words that I feel get close to my thoughts on it can be arranged in an order that reads “best looking animated film all year”. It’s all down to the outstanding art direction and character designs. Almost every shot practically bursts with colour and little individual details that once again demonstrate the sheer amount of heart put into the film. It’s a distinct visual palette that genuinely looks like nothing else on the animated market right now and lets the film get away with the occasional cost-cutting measure, like making a foregrounded crowd that our heroes ride past at a very high speed a dark blob that resembles a foreground prop in a puppet show, because it absolutely fits the storybook aesthetic of the film.
Speaking of, the story that the kids are told is illustrated in their world with little wooden figurines, which is also how that part of the story is presented to us viewers, wooden figurines whose joints, boxy edges and paint lines are clearly visible – I may have even seen some scuff marks at points, too – and the effect is just delightful. It’s unique in the most wonderful way, a look that takes full advantage of the visual treats that animation can provide, and I haven’t even described how cold and desolate The Land Of The Forgotten is in comparison to the you-need-to-see-it-for-yourself Land Of The Remembered. This is one of the best looking animated films that I have ever seen, almost all thanks to outstanding visual design, and I wish I had a Blu-Ray of the film right now so’s I can appreciate its beauty in all of its majestic glory on my terms.
In fact, just feast your eyes upon the character design for La Muerte and the sheer detail that went into it. Yes, that is skin designed to resemble sugar, representing the candy skulls synonymous with the Day Of The Dead. Study it real hard. The whole film looks that outstanding.
So, it’s funny, it’s heartfelt, exquisitely and unfathomably gorgeous, and full of characters with depth and personality. Where’s the kicker? I’ve been building up through this review that The Book Of Life has one central overriding problem that keeps it from excellency and it’s about time to reveal it. See, by the time we get to The Land Of The Remembered, an aspect that a lot of the marketing has been based around (understandable, the place is stunningly beautiful), the film is about 50 minutes to an hour done. The film runs a strict 95 minutes, and that includes credits. I think you already know where I’m headed with this.
It’s not that those first 50 or so are too slow or anything – if anything, they are absolutely perfectly paced – it’s that the remaining 45 are way too fast. As soon as we enter The Land Of The Remembered, the film screams its way through plot point and character and beat after plot point and character and beat with pretty much no breathing room. You know those pauses in a well-paced film, where the action slows down and lets the viewer get their bearings on events and deepen characters before the next big segment happens? Those are present in the first 50 or so minutes, but they are pretty much gone in that last third.
Consequently, many scenes are robbed of much of the impact that they would have had – most jarring of which is a reunion that should have been emotionally devastating, but instead carries zero weight because the film screeches past any of that potential weight, as if it looked at the clock and realised how little time it has left. It’s the equivalent of taking a drive to the supermarket in your dependable low-cost Corsa only for it to, at the two-thirds mark, suddenly switch into a Lamborghini without warning and your steady peddle work now translates to 200MPH all the time.
It doesn’t feel like a creative decision, either; I got the impression that this part of the film was edited to hell and back, as if studio interference from upon high decreed that “animated films rarely last longer than 90 minutes, so we’re cutting your mics in 30, OK?” Maybe the budget ran out, maybe there are significant half-finished scenes on the cutting room floor waiting for a release on home media, maybe it really was a creative decision designed to get us just as confused and “taking it all in at once” as the character we’re following – I don’t know. What I do know is that the film needed to be longer. It needed those gaps, those pauses, and it could have gotten them if the film were longer, even if it were just by 5 or 10 minutes.
There’s also the relatively minor issue of Chakal, the film’s true Big Bad. Yes, there actually is one and the reason I forgot to mention this is because he feels nearly-completely ancillary to the film. Oh, sure, his reputation and presence in the world are necessary, but his actual appearance in the finale and the way the film deals with him, as well as the complete and total lack of any character other than his name, feels… pointless? It does give a very good pay off to everyone’s arcs and little plot teases set up at various points, but his actual turning up carries pretty much no weight. It could have just been a horde of his bandit minions and the effect would have been the same. Instead, he turns up presumably because these films need a Final Boss and, as mentioned, Xibalba isn’t truly evil, so he fits the bill. Again, his total lack of character is what hurts him; I remember exactly zero things about him as I type these words.
So it doesn’t quite stick the landing as well as it should, but otherwise The Book Of Life is a full-on triumph. Considering the fact that I had such unreasonable expectations for the thing prior to its release, the fact that I am 80% satisfied with it could probably and not unfairly be considered a goddamn miracle. But I am. I am very much satisfied and happy with The Book Of Life. If its last third weren’t so rushed, this would be the best animated film of the year. As it stands, though, “very funny, indescribably beautiful, and bursting with heart” is still an opinion-summing up to be very proud of. I hope Jorge R. Gutiérrez has many more animated features planned for further down the pipeline because his creative voice, as also proven by his co-creating work on El Tigre, is one that this medium needs to hear more of as soon as possible.
“Undeniably an origin story but it works so well I would have been happy to sit through a sequel there and then.”
by Carole Petts (@DeathByJigsaws)
I must admit to being slightly apprehensive about this film. Even Marvel Studios, the behemoth responsible for most of the box office take since 2008, seem to have got ants in their pants about this film – we’ve had a more formulaic trailer, a tagline change (from the smart-arse “You’re Welcome” to the schmaltzy “All Heroes Start Somewhere”) and tonight I’m sitting in Crawley, as part of a nationwide premiere event presumably designed to get social media buzz a-going.
They needn’t have worried. From the credits sequence (Marvel’s only to date, and therefore the best by default), it’s clear this is going to be a winner.
The film is essentially the origin story of the titular band of misfits; a thief (Chris Pratt), an Ent (voiced by Vin Diesel), a creature who looks an awful lot like a raccoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper), a green-skinned living weapon (Zoe Saldana), and a chap who wouldn’t look out of place in a wrestling match watched by Doctor Who (Dave Bautista). They are thrown together in the pursuit of a mysterious MacGuffin which could make them all rich. Problem is, others also want said object for nefarious reasons of their own, and the stage is set for an interstellar jousting match between good and evil.
Guardians is immediately up against it because the group are, to be frank, not Marvel’s best known commodities. It’s difficult to remember a time when the cinema-going public at large didn’t know much about Iron Man, Captain America and Thor, but they did at least have a large following devoted to their source material before laying waste to multiplexes. Guardians doesn’t really have that luxury, and also has to introduce (and make us care about) five whole characters in one film. As a result we are given crib notes on each character’s past – Peter Quill’s tenure on Earth lasts mere minutes in the film before he’s abducted, most of the other back stories are explained in a few sentences, but you still end up caring about them. (This can be said less about the antagonists of the film – we are introduced to the baddies and told they want to destroy stuff without ever really being told why.)
In a Q&A this evening, James Gunn said that Guardians of the Galaxy may be “the most James Gunn film ever”. The fact that he’s accomplished this on a major studio’s tentpole release, rather than the low-budget fare he has made his name with, is nothing short of amazing. The film looks wonderful, bringing to life alien otherworlds and star systems with the visual flair of a much more accomplished director at this level. The script zips along with Gunn’s trademark vim and vigour, albeit slightly sanitised for his newly-found PG-13 audience. Everyone involved is clearly having a lot of fun; Pratt brings his likeable everyman persona to a leading role for the first time and succeeds hugely, Saldana is quiet but pulls out some excellent fighting technique when required; Cooper channels the most smart-arse New York cab driver you could ever meet, and hits the emotional mark more frequently than you’d expect from a talking rodent. Even Diesel brings the vocal pathos he first displayed in The Iron Giant to Groot, infusing a talking tree with warmth and humour. The real revelation, however, is wrestler Bautista as Drax, a man with a sad story to tell. He takes his time but eventually becomes the source of some rich comedy (standing up to accomplished laugh merchant Pratt with ease), as well as some surprisingly emotional moments. It’s the interplay between the five characters which makes this such a fun watch. It does mean that other characters are under-served as a result of developing this chemistry – Benicio del Toro and Glenn Close are woefully underused in their roles, and Ronan the Accuser probably has a good reason for his scheme, but we never find out what it is. The biggest disappointment is probably Thanos – who seems to have been rendered with the leftover CG money that wasn’t used to make Rocket and Groot look amazing. It’s an incongruous appearance from one of the great all-time Marvel baddies and doesn’t really serve the story at all.
This is very much an origin story. I got the same feeling walking out of this film as I did walking out of X-Men – that of the start of the story being told very well, but also feeling that there were greater things to come. And despite being slightly rushed at times, this is a great origin story, setting up the group of misfits as an entity currently separate from the rest of the Marvel Universe (save a couple of Easter eggs thrown in for those who are paying attention) and thoroughly deserving of their own adventures. I would have happily sat through a sequel right then and there, I had so much fun in the universe that Gunn has created. And I can’t wait to go back.
Guardians of the Galaxy is out in cinemas nationwide on Thursday 31st July 2014.
Carole is the latest permanent edition to the Failed Critics Podcast team and can usually be found roaming the streets of London on the look out for unwanted Nic Cage DVD’s. Or on twitter.