Gravity

Director: Alfonso Cuaron (2013)

George Clooney and Sandra Bullock are lost in space and out of this world in this gripping, transcendental sci-fi thrill-ride.

Excellent performances from the charismatic actors combine with suffocatingly tense action sequences and incredible visuals.

Dizzying camerawork (Emmanuel Lubezki) and elegantly restrained editing (dir. Alfonso Cuaron, Mark Sanger) thrust us into the heart of the electrifying action.

Astronauts Lieutenant Matt Kowalski (Clooney) and Dr Ryan Stone (Bullock) who are on a spacewalk working on their space shuttle when disaster strikes.

They are cast adrift when their craft, orbiting 372 miles above Earth, is destroyed by a storm of debris.

Roped together, their hope for survival rests on a dwindling supply of fuel in their jet packs. They pray it is enough to propel them to a nearby abandoned Russian space station before their oxygen runs out.

To add to their problems, the hail of debris had become trapped in orbit and will return to punish them every 90 minutes.

There’s humour in the sparse dialogue and chemistry between the stars as they struggle to deal with the physics of their situation.

Having lost radio contact with Mission Control, the astronauts become angels flailing in limbo between the cold, dark heavens and the inviting warmth of the earthly paradise below.

Gravity’s finest moment is a single, sexy, sublime shot when Bullock does a free-fall striptease that climaxes with the birth of hope and the possibility of redemption. It’s a journey within a journey – think Barbarella (1968) meets 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).

As a Hollywood action thriller this is exceptional entertainment; as an exploration of what makes us human it is, quite simply, divine.

Postscript.

Gravity received a 10 Oscar nominations and won 7.

Best Director: Alfonso Cuaron

Best Cinematography: Emmanuel Lubezki

Best Visual Effects: Tim Webber, Chris Lawrence, David Shirk, and Neil Corbould

Best Film Editing: Alfonso Cuaron and Mark Sanger

Best Original Score: Steven Price

Best Sound Mixing: Skip Lievsay, Christopher Benstead, Niv Adiri and Chris Munro

Best Sound Editing: Glenn Freemantle

Kowalski (Clooney) is the name in an urban myth involving astronaut Neil Armstrong. But it’s far too rude to print here.

* in some versions it’s Gorsky.

Star Trek Into Darkness

Director: JJ Abrams (2013)

This spectacular looking but disappointing sequel to 2009’s brilliant franchise reboot is a bumpy retread of the best Star Trek film, The Wrath of Khan (1982).

It’s shamefacedly self-referential, surprisingly violent and riddled with plot-holes.

The cosmic cast returns with Chris Pine as Kirk, Zachary Quinto as Spock, Zoe Saldana as Uhura, Karl Urban as ‘Bones’ McCoy and Simon Pegg as Scotty.

After breaking Starfleet protocols on an alien planet, Kirk is recalled to Earth where former agent Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch) is conducting a terror campaign.

Harrison escapes to Qo’noS, the Klingon home world, and Kirk hunts him down only for the Enterprise to be stranded, powerless on the edge of the Neutral Zone.

Photon torpedoes, phaser fights, space battles and armour-suited Klingons zip past in a blur of CGI.

As Kirk and Spock’s bickering bromance continues, Cumberbatch’s purring villain brings much needed intelligence and depth.

Director JJ Abrams has difficulty juggling his large cast and some are wheeled on and off at warp speed to pay lip service to the character.

Alice Eve is particularly ill-served as a scientist required to get her kit off to defuse bombs.

Plus the irritating Pegg has far too much screen-time, his comic delivery is laboured and light on humour.

As it’s played at a breakneck speed throughout, it demonstrates Abrams has little time for, or possibly understanding of, dramatic relief.

Abrams is happy to fly at lightspeed past the emotional hub of the film in order to pursue a far less interesting – and over extended – fist fight.

Abrams may wish to be considered the new Spielberg but this appropriately, is more worthy of a latter-day George Lucas.

Pacific Rim

Director: Guillermo del Toro  (2013)

Giant battle-robots stomp through the most thrillingly monumental sci-fi film of 2013.

It’s powered by winning performances, tremendous design and brilliant special effects. The script scatters plenty of humour that is broad and wry and dry.

In the near future, reptiles called Kaiju – the size of skyscrapers – have emerged from a fissure in the Pacific seabed and set about attacking the world’s advanced cities.

Earth’s resources are pooled and colossal two-man robotic fighting machines called Jaegers are built to combat their cataclysmic threat.

But then global governments change their defence policy and the Jaegers are retired in favour of a massive wall to keep out the fearsome Kaiju.

Because history demonstrates how well a wall-building policy worked for the Chinese, Romans and Soviets.

Research scientists are ignored after they predict ever more intense attacks – and the defensive barriers are breached under the terrifying onslaughts from the creatures.

In his military base in Hong Kong, military commander Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba) has a plan to save the world. He recommissions the four remaining Jaegers to go on the offensive.

Plasma-cannons blitz acid-spitting monsters as terrifically exciting battles take place at sea in thunderstorms – which may explain why the dialogue is a little rusty.

Whenever the film threatens to topple under the weight of its preposterous nature, Elba’s titanic personality heaves it back on to its feet.

Charlie Hunnam stars as pilot Raleigh Becket and is an efficient rather than overly charismatic lead.

But he shares a nice chemistry with Japanese actress Rinko Kikuchi who plays Mako, a military technician with a tragic past.

This dazzlingly entertaining, hugely engaging heroic adventure keeps hitting the audience with unexpected punches. The final knockout blow leaves you reeling with enjoyment.

The Wolverine

Director: James Mangold (2013)

Hugh Jackman returns once again as the adamantium-clawed superhero in a movie that barks loudly but has too little bite.

Wolverine has left  the X-Men and is now known simply as Logan. He living a hermits existence in the wilds of Alaska when he is visited by the dangerous punk haired samurai Yukio (Rila Fukushima).

She transports him to Tokyo where he is introduced to her mentor, the dying Yashida (Hal Yamanouchi) whose life Logan once saved.

When Yashida’s beautiful daughter Mariko (Tao Okamoto) is attacked, Logan becomes involved in a dangerous battle of rival clans involving political intrigue and betrayal.

The film starts brilliantly and ends in a huge fight but the middle sags as Logan battles his inner demons.

There is a terrific fight on the roof of a bulllet train but the many ninja’s can’t execute the simplest attack without somersaults, pikes, twists and triple salchows – which must be exhausting and possibly not even neccessary.

They also insist on wearing their trademark all-black costumes when fighting in the snow. This isn’t displaying the requisite discretion these stealth warriors are famed for.

Jackman is an engaging screen presence and is most fun when he’s angry. He never shirks an opportunity to demonstrate his monstrously buff physique.

Okamoto is a graceful willow to Jackman’s hefty oak. But she lacks animation and there’s not a great deal of chemistry.

Much more fun are Yukio and Viper (Svetlana Khodchenkova). One is a fiesty and flirtatious foil for Logan, the other a glamorous poison-spitting mutant adversary.

This Wolverine is neutered by the 12A rating.  With his bladed hands slashing through his enemies,  the original comic turned to soggy pulp from all the red ink used in the fight scenes – but this is a noticeably bloodless affair.

As is the passionless romance which suffers from Logan mooning over his dead lover Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) while distractedly wooing the insipid Mariko.

This is an honourable and diverting attempt to bring depth to a familiar character but isn’t hugely rewarding.

World War Z

Director: Marc Foster (2013)

Max Brooks’ brilliant zombie apocalypse novel has been crunched into an action movie template, given a tremendous blockbuster gloss and lit with Brad Pitt’s star wattage.

There is little humour and not much sentimentality but the performances full of conviction and provide an anchor for the action.

It keeps the real world sense of the book while shedding its multi-storied narrative.

Pitt remains a charismatic screen presence but beyond generic action man qualities, no great acting range is required of him.

He plays Gerry Lane, a UN investigator on a mission to save what’s left of the human race after a sudden, devastating zombie attack.

No one knows where or how the zombie pandemic originated but the globe’s cities are abandoned after the lightning fast and murderous onslaught of the undead.

Leaving his wife Karin (Mireille Enos) and daughters Connie (Sterling Jerins) and Rachel (Abigail Hargrove) in the supposed safety of a US aircraft carrier, Lane flies around the world looking for a cure for what is assumed to be a virus.

Moving swiftly from the US to South Korea, Israel and Wales, the blockbuster’s action sequences keep tumbling over one another like the many frenzied zombies at the walls of Jerusalem. That is one of the many thrilling sequences that are tense, violent and guaranteed to make you jump.

With much twitching, convulsing and moaning, the teeth-knocking monsters operate at two speeds: in the absence of prey they are in a moaning and shuffling semi-hibernation. When they attack they become a scary, swirling, swarm of flesh-hungry predators.

Some smart dialogue is scattered among the skin-crawling sound effects. This helps generate tension by hijacking your imagination to do the film’s dirty work for it.

Among the helicopters, transport planes and aircraft carriers, it unusually features soldiers who can shoot straight. Plus it presents sidekicks to provide fresh meat so we’re never sure who will survive.

Driven with a frantic energy and technical prowess, World War Z is is a exciting action adventure.

Though it’s preposterous by nature, the conviction of the players keep the spectacle grounded.

The plot holes widen alarmingly as the film struggles to conclude and though it struggles to maintain its ferocious pace, Z still keeps you interested until its surprisingly low-key ending.

Frozen

Director: Chris Buck & Jennifer Lee (2013)

Wrapped up in sisterly love, this snow-filled Disney animated adventure is exciting, funny and even moving – but sadly never in sufficient qualities to justify it’s being nearly two hours long.

Apparently ‘inspired’ Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen, it too often evades the dark icy heart of the fairytale.

Unapproachable Elsa (Idina Menzel) is the queen with the power to create snow and ice. She is a misunderstood and feared character who falls out with her sweet and ditzy sister Anna (Kristen Bell).

After Elsa accidentally uses her power, a summer instantly turns to permanent winter. She struggles to control her own magic so she is accused of being an evil sorceress and driven away into the mountains.

It is left to Anna to trek into the wilds, reconcile Elsa with her subjects and subdue the weather.

The animation is brilliant and the ice palace building sequence will send shivers down your spine. Lighthearted comic buffoonery balances the action which mostly involve being chased downhill by ice monsters and hungry wolves.

Along the way they make friends with comedy sidekicks including a mountain man called Kristoff (Jonathan Groff), his reindeer named Sven and Olaf (Josh Gad) a snowman. He’s the the most fun character on show but also the most inconsequential.

The annoying dialogue is, like, totally California teenspeak, except for Sven the reindeer, who is mute but a far from dumb animal.

The script has problems, not least the lack of a readily identifiable, hissable villain. Yes there’s a giant snow troll but the drama rests on Elsa changing her mind. A nicely dark opening chapter is followed by a long and middling middle section.

Plus Frozen has two feisty female characters but doesn’t make the most of them. We see too little of the more interesting Elsa and spend too much time with Anna contemplating her romantic interests.

 Elsa belts out the excellent song ‘Let It Go’ but two weak and unnecessary songs (yes I’m talking to you Olaf the snowman and you, tiny trolls) slow the pace and lengthen the running time.

Everything heats up for the finale and delivers the film’s heartwarming message that love is more powerful than fear. Awww.

Elements of Frozen suggests someone at Disney saw the record-breaking worldwide box office returns of the theatrical production of Wicked and decided they wanted a piece of the action.

Based on Gregory Maguire‘s novel  Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West in turn based on The Wizard of Oz by Frank L Baum. The success of Wicked the show was due to tapping into the under-exploited market serving young teenage girls. Frozen methodically sets out to exploit the same rich profit seam.

Her undoubted talent notwithstanding, it’s no coincidence Idina Menzel played the role of powerful but misunderstood witch Elpheba in Wicked before playing the powerful but misunderstood witch Elsa in Frozen. Nor is it a surprise Frozen’s signature tune Let It Go could easily be slipped into the Wicked songbook. In fact more than one song could be – as the Honest Trailer recognises.

Since this review was first penned Frozen has become a global phenomenon. A sequel is on the way and of course there’s the short film Frozen Fever being shown in cinemas before Disney’s Cinderella. Which I enjoyed more.

Godzilla

Director: Gareth Edwards (2013)

This handsome reboot of the Japanese sci-fi classic is monstrously poor, resurrecting the giant lizard with dazzling computer graphics but failing to create any excitement, tension or fun.

Characters are thin and lack humour, the dialogue is banal and the story needs focus. It lumbers from Japan to California creating plot-holes so deep they could hide a massive mutant reptile.

Nuclear physicist Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston) loses his wife in a mysterious explosion at a Japanese power plant. Fourteen years later and he has become a conspiracy theorist trying to establish what really happened.

When his estranged son, naval Lieutenant Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), visits they are arrested investigating the quarantine zone where his wife died. Taylor-Johnson can be excellent but here he is a dead-eyed, muscle-bound charisma bypass.

They are taken to a secret base where scientists are keeping a huge radiation-eating insectoid called a Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism. It promptly buzzes off to the US to mate with another escaped Muto.

Scientist Dr Vivienne Graham (Sally Hawkins) has nothing to contribute except listen attentively to Dr Ichiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) bang on about the balance of nature. He displays a surprising amount of Godzilla background knowledge considering it’s the first time he or anyone else has ever encountered the beast.

Elizabeth Olsen plays Ford’s wife Elle who has very little to do. Director Edwards must shoulder the blame for his poorly written characters being absent-mindedly picked up, toyed with and forgotten about.

With no-one to empathise with we fail to care what’s happening on screen, regardless of the marvellous work of cinematographer Seamus McGarvey.

Meanwhile Godzilla appears and swims across the Pacific to fight the Mutos. The US navy manage to lose sight of him despite his size.

A dog is put in danger in a shameless attempt to generate tension. Then children are put in jeopardy in a school-bus on a bridge. I haven’t seen that happen since ooh, The Dark Knight Rises.

Military Intelligence decides to attack the radiation-eating monsters with a nuclear weapon. This is clearly stupid so Lieutenant Ford must parachute in to defuse the bomb, ending the film with a whimper not a bang.

The name Godzilla comes from the  Japanese word Gojira and is made of two words; Gorira, meaning gorilla and kujira meaning whale. So not so much a giant lizard. But it would probably have made for a more fun movie.

☆☆☆☆