So the blockbuster season is over and after all the excitement I’d say that we had quite a good collection of films that came out and assaulted our senses with action, explosions and other tomfoolery. Of course there were some disappointments (Green Lantern) and some expected rubbish (I’m looking at you Transformers and Pirates) but all in all it seems on reflection a very good blockbuster season. So with out further ado these are the top 5 of the season (of course people will disagree but that’s what the comments section is for)
5. Captain America: The First Avenger
Looking back before the film was released it would easy to write this one off as a bit of a dud. A hero who basically wears a flag on his chest that may not seem marketable in certain areas abroad, who’s mere mention brings up images of Primark boxer shorts (in this writers head) and other camp paraphernalia and then you look at casting of the title hero, a pretty face who was in another quite terrible comic book film. However when you sit down and take in Joe Johnston’s film you can’t help but be swept up in all the fun pulpy adventure. A solid origin story backed up with some wonderful performances from both the lead and supporting cast (Tommy-Lee Jones and Stanley Tucci) and a sense of hope that you can only really get from Captain America. Also it has a great show tune!
Now lets put this film in context of its comic book origins. A Norse God with flowing blonde locks comes to Earth to help people as a superhero, sounds a little silly right? Well Kenneth Branagh brings the concept to life with such admirable vision that by the end of the film you won’t even bat an eyelid at how ridiculous the concept is. Taking the source material and crafting an equal mythic tale, Branagh plays a dual narrative of Thor on Earth after his banishment and the machinations of his brother Loki (a scene stealing performance by Tom Hiddleston) on Asgard. Chris Hemsworth brings us a Thor who is both petulant and arrogant when we first meet him and humble and heroic by the end of the film. But it is the interplay between Thor, Loki and their father Odin (played by the suitable authoritative Anthony Hopkins) that is the backbone of the narrative. Branagh brings with him his love of Shakespeare and he infuses the scenes between the bickering family members with a sense of grandeur. Not only this but when Thor is set on Earth there is a warm charm about it. Both Branagh and Hemsworth relish the ‘fish out of water’ scenario and it brings some great humour to the film. On top of all this the action scenes are well staged and seem to have some weight behind them, which allows it to show how powerful these Gods are. Together these elements make a truly fun and thrilling experience.
3. Super 8
Arguably a love letter to Spielberg and the 80s films of Amblin Entertainment, J.J. Abrams film brings with it a sense of nostalgia, which is hard to ignore and not get swept up in. However the film is not just all wide eyed nostalgia and nothing else, it brings a enormous amount of heart to the screen and characters you can really get behind. This is due to the wonderful cast of child actors, notably the two leads Joel Courtney and Elle Fanning who bring something special to both their roles. Courtney brings a great sense of vulnerability to the character of Joe Lamb and his progression through the film into the hero is both compelling and believable. Fanning is the stand out here stealing almost all the scenes she’s in, a strong female love interest who conveys a tortured up bringing and a sense of strength all at once. But we can’t ignore the fantastic Kyle Chandler who plays the father who hasn’t had to raise his son perfectly.
Thematically it has all the hallmarks of a Spielberg film and it brings a sense of wonder that is lacking in mainstream blockbusters of late. A child like wonder, which is captured in the eyes of the young actors and transfers perfectly to the audience. It is a great kids film and possibly the best one in a long time, it has scares, wonder, humour and heart in equal measure which bring back warm memories of time gone buy (see Jurassic Park). It also has one of the most impressive and immersive action sequences that have been put on the big screen, with the train crash truly being the best action scene of the season. It may not be perfect, it begins to loose its self near the end, but it is a worthy of the praise it has garnered and is truly a unique film in between all the sequels, reboots and comic book movies of the season.
2. X-Men: First Class
Matthew Vaughn resuscitates a flagging franchise with an injection of intense character portrayal, imaginative action uses for warn out powers (the use of a anchor comes to mind) and a sense of style that can only be found in the films 60s setting. This Reboot/Prequel focuses the action on the fledging careers of Xavier (James McAvoy) and Magneto (Michael Fassbender) and the first class of X-Men. Arguably this is Magneto’s film and Fassbender steals it with an intense portrayal of revenge, a man haunted by his past. He is utterly compelling and his emergent friendship with Xavier is carefully crafted and then ripped apart as the inevitable conflict between the two characters takes them on their separate destinies.
Fassbender and McAvoy have wonderful chemistry and this makes the bromance doomed to fail all the more bittersweet. But it would be remiss to just focus on those two as the rest of the cast bring something to the film. Nicholas Hoult and Jennifer Lawrence do a fine job as Beast and Mystique and truly help the film establish the core concepts of X-Men and in many ways they are the heart of the peace each picking a separate side in the ideological stand point of how bigotry should be countered. Kevin Bacon brings his best bond villain impression as the impressively deadly Sebastian Shaw (his home base is a submarine!) and January Jones (heavily criticised) is just the right amount of fem fatale for the tale. The two montage sequences, the recruitment drive and then the training, are a joy to watch. It isn’t perfect but it truly captures what the comic is about and strikes the right tone. It is not just a comic book film with lots of bombastic action (though it has quite a bit), it’s a character piece just as complex and thrilling as The Dark Knight.
1. The Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes
The film with the ridiculously long title is actually the surprise success of the summer. After a failed attempt to revive the series by Tim Burton in 2001 (personally I don’t mind it), it would seem bizarre to go back to the series. The film seemed to come out of nowhere with little fanfare and it has been word of mouth which has created it’s success and it fully deserves this success. The film takes an approach which could seem to undermine the film as a blockbuster, it makes it personnel. Director Rupert Wyatt focuses the story on Caesar (played by mo-cap guru Andy Serkis) from his birth to his rebellion. It traces his life with such emotional resonance it is hard to not be sympathetic to his cause. Serkis and the folks at Weta do an astonishing job with Caesar, proving that it is in the subtly of movement and not dialogue that can convey the most intricate emotions on the big screen.
A far more compelling protagonist than most of the films this year and I wouldn’t be the first to say that Serkis should be recognised for his work and given perhaps a certain award (I can dream). To be honest the rest of the characters are quite serviceable (James Franco does a good job), but the only stand out human character is John Lithgow as Franco’s dad. His interactions with Caesar are perfect and there is a kinship on screen, which is a testament to everyone involved in the film. What truly elevates this film is that it makes you think, not just about how cruel we can be to animals but to each other as well. It is not a preachy parable but it easily evokes ideas of racism and slavery, which will strike an emotional core with a lot of viewers.
For the most part the effects are flawless and the ending fight on the bridge is beautifully realised and executed, showing the ingenuity of the Apes as they fight on three levels as well as the flare of the a director who can handle action and drama with the same deft confidence. Not only that but the final action scene may not be as epic as some would want but it is backed up with a great emotional undercurrent which gives utter reason for their actions and even a sense of mourning when all of Caesars troops don’t make it across to freedom. This is Sci-Fi at it’s best using its narrative as allegory while still delivering the usual excitement of the genre, but it is all stuck together by a central performance (by an ape) which brings so much heart that it is truly a unique beast indeed.