Monday, 30 December 2013

2013 – My Top Five

Without wanting to give you too much of a life story, unless something goes drastically wrong, I will be studying film at university come September. And I know it may be wishful thinking, but I like to think the success of my application was due, in part, to the site. I love writing reviews and I love it even more if some of you lot read them. So thank you to all of you who have read anything over these past 12 months, I really appreciate it.

A big thanks must also go out to my family and girlfriend who have remained supportive, as always, and have had to put up with countless unwanted cinema trips. Thanks, aswell, to Messrs Dan Wilshere & Ernie Jackevic, my most vocal and dedicated fans. It means a lot.

But that’s enough niceties for one year, now to the nitty-gritty of my top five favourite movies of 2013 . . .

5. The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug Last year’s return to Middle Earth was serviceable, but ultimately disappointingly baggy. This middle-third, however, is far more focused and, though it tails off towards the end, the two hours leading up to it are rip-roaringly entertaining and finally make Tolkien seem epic again. Who’d have thunk it?

4. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire - Benefitting from some excellent source material, this sequel to 2011's box-office behemoth, 'The Hunger Games', improves upon the first instalment in pretty much every way. It's superbly well-played and gives us one of the most well-realised and engaging film-worlds in recent memory. Understandably, it lacks some of the surprise of the original but, for sheer visceral thrills, Catching Fire was virtually unmatched this year . . .

3. Despicable Me 2 – Minions, minions and more minions are what make this animated sequel stand apart from its family-friendly peers. The little yellow tic-tacs are totally irresistible; delivering side-splitting laughs and internationally appealing cuteness, all while remaining a deceptively simple creation. The human characters also stand up well, as do Pharell Williams’ joyous pop songs written to accompany a number of excellent montages.

2. Gravity At number two, we have the movie that finally satisfied my childhood desire to go to space. Alfonso Cuaron (director), who’s long been lauded for his directorial flair and inventiveness, pulls out all the stops to create one of the most technically brilliant films I’ve ever seen. However, despite its reliance on special effects, Gravity remains emotionally engaging and paints a rousing picture of the power of human endeavour.

1. Les Misérables My most watched movie of the year also happens to be my favourite. First time round, I loved certain sections but felt that the film wasn’t consistent enough overall. The second time, it evened out and seemed to flow better. Then, on a third watch, it was truly extraordinary, rightfully cementing itself as a soaring emotional epic that delivers an extraordinary sense of scale and political and social importance. A glorious piece of cinema.

I’d also like to give honourable mentions to Star Trek Into Darkness, Zero Dark Thirty, Pacific Rim, Maniac, The World’s End and Lincoln; all great films, but not enough to make it on to my list.

It’s been an interesting year at the movies, really. As a superhero-nut, I’ve been disappointed by the comic book offerings. Similarly, I was left wanting more from ‘Monster’s University’, which fell quite a way short of Pixar’s stellar benchmark. Even the really rather good ‘Star Trek Into Darkness’ left me ultimately disappointed because it could have been incredible.

That being said, there were no surprises with my least favourite movies of the year, with both ‘A Good Day to Die Hard’ and ‘Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters’ living up to their terrible titles. But, remarkably, they were two of only three or so ‘bad’ movies.

So, on reflection, it seems like it was a year of disappointing blockbusters. Or maybe not . . .

‘Pacific Rim’ was a big surprise and all of my top five were absolutely huge at the box office. In fact, that’s one of the reasons I feel so uncomfortably mainstream with my choices. But what can I say, all five movies were both critical and commercial darlings. So, for that, I’d like to congratulate you all for having excellent taste.

Until next year,
Benedict Seal

Friday, 27 December 2013

The Wolverine – Something Old, Something New

Whether you like it or not, superheroes are big bucks . . . really big bucks.

We now live in a world where upwards of five or so comic book movies are churned out every year. So it’s a jolly good job the genre has undergone a vast diversification in recent times.

I'm not sure exactly what proportion of the audience is aware, but there are a number of different companies each delivering their fair share of comic book flicks every year. There’s the big two – Marvel Studios (home of the Avengers) and DC (Batman and Superman) – then there’s a number of Marvel properties under the guidance of Sony (who made it big with Spider-Man) and Fox (X-men and The Fantastic Four). And, in order for all of them to survive, they each feel the need to try and offer something slightly different.

At the moment, it’s Marvel leading the way, thanks to some smart world-building and a humdinger of a blockbuster in the form of The Avengers. However, with The Wolverine, the latest offering in the now-sprawling X-men universe, Fox has taken off some of the neat edges of the Disney-owned Marvel Studios movies. True to the character, The Wolverine is far gruffer and more personal than Marvel’s shiny productions.

It also offers a welcome culture-change, with the majority of the film set in Japan; a far cry from the great Western cities of LA or New York. It’s the first time Logan’s fabled time in Japan has made it to the big screen and it really suits the character. It’s a culture defined by its views on honour and power, and Wolverine fits into that beautifully. There are a number of very effective uses of Japanese imagery, and it’s moments like these that make the film stand apart from its Western-orientated peers.

But, like so many of the superhero films this year, these greats scenes are let down by the film’s uninspired storytelling. It’s the long spells in between such sparks of creativity that bring the whole thing down and remind you that all you’re really watching is a glorified cartoon.

But one thing this film has over its Saturday morning counterparts is the man of the moment, Hugh Jackman, who delivers yet another gripping performance as Wolverine. Possibly as a result of his totally un-Wolverine-like aging, he is given more to do emotionally and he delivers some excellent growly angst. But that isn't to say that, even in his mid-forties, he doesn't look damn impressive when he’s hacking yakuza to bits.

But, in the end, The Wolverine is yet another mildly disappointing superhero movie in a year full of them.


Sunday, 22 December 2013

Homeland – Season 3 Review

As a show, Homeland definitely has its ups and downs and its third year was a clear example of that. This season started solidly, then suffered through a weak third episode, was reinvigorated by a stunning middle section, followed by a slight regression before the moving finale. But, like season three, the show’s lows can be pretty low but its highs really high.

At its best, Homeland is a challenging drama that remains bitingly relevant in the post-9/11 world we live in. It asks challenging questions of those in power throughout the Western world, especially with regards to the CIA. But, more importantly, it is open about these questions and includes moments that shine a harsh light upon American’s international affairs.

On the other hand, I can only presume that a degree of artist licence is taken with some of the more action-packed sequences. It’s hard to believe that things are really that dramatic amongst the upper echelons of international crisis management, though I may be wrong. But, even if the drama is actually totally unrealistic, it still makes for some truly nail-biting sequences.

But far more clear-cut is the sheer quality of the production. The direction is well-measured and the hand-held camera work is incredibly effective, while still remaining unobtrusive throughout. Then there are the performances, which are as strong as ever. Damian Lewis (Brody), Clair Danes (Carrie) and Mandy Patinkin (Saul) are all excellent, as are much of the supporting cast. There are a number of weak links, but the characters in question are pretty much kept to the sidelines throughout.

Like the final moments of season 3, Homeland has its wobbles, but that does little to tarnish the shows undeniable power.


Saturday, 21 December 2013

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. #1.10 – ‘The Bridge’ Review

This week sees Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s first cliffhanger episode and, though it took a while to get there, the final moments were suitably action-packed.

Mike Peterson, the centipede patient from the pilot, is back after being called upon to support the team’s latest mission. But, other than a fun training sequence, he seems oddly out of place; a problem only made worse by a poor performance from J. August Richards.

However, in the build-up to the finale, there is an effective emotional scene between Coulson and Peterson, which draws obvious comparisons with the moving ending to the pilot all those weeks ago. This chat also marks Coulson out as an interesting father figure for the rest of his team and, even though he’s been serving that role from the start, it was only now that I realised how engaging that aspect of his character is.

Shoddy writing and some weak performances towards the beginning of episode 10 are ultimately overcome by a manipulative, but gripping final few minutes . . . that we have to wait weeks to see resolved.


Monday, 16 December 2013

The Desolation of Smaug – Now That’s More Like It

This middle third of Peter Jackson’s (director) new Middle Earth saga does a lot to rectify the problems of last years ‘An Unexpected Journey’. Most importantly, this second film is far more nimble and rattles along at quite a pace . . . with no time wasted on bloody tea parties.

In fact, the welcome sense of urgency means this chapter feels far more like a Lord of the Rings film. The same can be said of the films impressive scope and, like all the best fantasy, the characters felt like they were part of something far greater than the action on screen. Their quest takes them across a vast world – complete with complex politics and ancient mythologies – and every new character they come across seems to have life beyond the mission in hand. This was something distinctly missing from the first film which, in comparison, felt flimsy and emotionally barren. ‘The Desolation of Smaug’, however, succumbs to far fewer pitfalls and instead feels far more muscular and grand.

The increased prominence of the ring also means this instalment shares a far greater tonal resemblance with the original trilogy. It benefits greatly from a well-measured selection of ring-based corruption scenes, most notably a terrifying encounter with some spiders. The corruption continues throughout the film, and there is a constant sense of unease created by the rings newfound influence. These moments are made increasingly effective by some wonderful work from Martin Freeman (Bilbo Baggins), who totally inhabits his character in a career-defining role.

‘Desolation’ also sees a thrilling return for Legolas, this time partnered up with Tauriel (Lost’s Evangeline Lilly), who’s character-motif seems to be an arrow flying across the screen. So whenever an orc receives an arrow between the eyes, you know the two elves will soon come bursting into the scene with arrows a-flying and blades a-dicing. In fact, they are both utilised brilliantly by Jackson, who manages to avoid overusing them, and, in the end, they elevate every action scene they’re in; the best example being a joyously exhilarating barrel-based chase sequence.

It’s still too long and relies a tad too much on CGI, but ‘The Desolation of Smaug’ is a vast improvement over last year’s ‘Unexpected (and too often unwanted) Journey’. Roll on part three.


Saturday, 14 December 2013

Halo 4: Forward Unto Dawn – Probably the Greatest Video Game Movie of All Time

In the lead up to last year’s launch of ‘Halo 4’, the latest instalment of one of the world’s most popular video games, the franchise finally made the big step into the movie world with ‘Forward Unto Dawn’.

Originally released online in five parts, Forward Unto Dawn sees Tom Lasky, a rookie cadet for a the UNSC (United Nations Space Cadets), training to be sent out to fight the inter-galactic insurrectionists. We then follow him through some clichéd military scenes, complete with grossly stereotyped characters and uninspired dialogue. In fact, it’s a good job Lasky didn't copy his buddies because he’s surprisingly watchable, due mostly to a sympathetic and well measured performance from relative newcomer, Tom Green.

However, everything changes as we get to part three and find out who the real enemy is. Sirens sound as Covenant (the alien race that act as the primary antagonists of the series) ships descend on the training facility and start blasting away at all the vastly under-prepared troops. But, as luck would have it, Master Chief, the super-soldier protagonist of the games, arrives just in time to save the day.

These scenes with Chief really shine and prove that incredible action can still be pulled off with minimal resources. The effective use of the budget stands as a refreshing reminder of the series’ origins and the whole movie embraces all that is great about internet-based content; the idea of passionate people coming together to create something tailored-made for its audience, without any of the cynicism or greed of the modern studio system.

I'm uncertain if it would play as well to non-Halo players, but I still think it has enough visual flair and excitement to appeal to a wider audience. Now, you know that movie you were talking about . . .


Monday, 9 December 2013

Texas Chainsaw 3D – Not the Sharpest Tool in the Shed

Last year, ‘The Cabin in the Woods’ took that classic kids-alone-in-a-remote-house-for-the-weekend set-up and created something fresh and exciting. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said of Texas Chainsaw 3D . . .

Whereas Cabin did something truly subversive and engaging, Texas Chainsaw just doesn't. Instead we’re left with horror cliché after horror cliché, dutifully following a well-trodden, and totally unforgettable, path.

However, the third act team-up that surprised absolutely nobody kind of worked and I actually rather enjoyed watching some particularly horrible townsfolk getting brutally squished to bits. I don’t even think it was due to any kind of sympathy built up to that point, it just seemed a bit more interesting than anything else before it.

Texas Chainsaw never feels cynical, just pretty stupid . . . kind of like Leatherface, really.


Friday, 6 December 2013

Maniac – Mesmerising Depravity

This remake sees Elijah Wood putting in a career-best performance as Frank, a messed up mannequin store owner who spends his nights stalking young women through the streets of L.A.

From the opening moments, the film pushes you towards the edge of a towering cliff and then spends 90 minutes dangling you over the seedy darkness below. This bone-chilling quality is wonderfully balanced and is most effective when the action on screen gets so depraved that you want to hide behind your pillow, yet the film never lets you. Instead, you are left glued to Frank’s steadily fall into the abyss.

Wood’s performance is made even more impressive by the fact he spends most of the running time off-camera, with the vast majority shot from his sociopathic point-of-view. This creates a disturbing emotional connection between the audience and Frank, with the former coerced into an uneasy sense of empathy that exposes us to mind-numbing pangs of guilt.

Like all the best horror films, Maniac also has a message, giving some kind of justification for all the skin-crawling bloodshed and sleaziness. Admittedly, it’s nothing you won’t have seen before, but it shines a light upon the darkest recesses of our twisted society causing us to re-evaluate the effect we could be having upon certain unstable and vulnerable individuals.

Through all the bleakness, Maniac is impossible to ignore and even in its trim running time it manages to deliver a real emotional punch that leaves you winded, but hungry for more.


Monday, 2 December 2013

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. #1.09 – 'Repairs' Review

In a way, this week’s episode was a far more relevant ‘Thor: The Dark World’ spin-off than last week's lame excuse for a crossover. This week actually expanded upon some of the ideas brought up in Marvel’s latest big screen offering, and did what Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. does best by making them seem that much more personal and relevant.

That being said, it took a while for it to get to that point and the intrigue of the first half of the episode was rather marred by some weak comedic sequences. But these were soon forgotten about, with the focus instead being turned to some horror-inflected tension.

Admittedly, the framing drama for the action was a bit patchy and uninteresting, with some rather misjudged religious discussion, but fortunately that did little to detract from my overall enjoyment.

Episode 9 took a while to get going, but was brought to life by some thrilling action scenes and some effective CGI. And, the hints towards a rebirth for Agent May’s character look to be a welcome addition after weeks of her scowling.


Friday, 29 November 2013

G.I. Joe: Retaliation – Featuring The Stig’s Kung-Fu Cousin

G.I. Joe: Retaliation is probably the most expensive cartoon ever. In true Saturday morning fashion, it features an evil organisation trying to take over the world, complete with bad guys spouting terrible speeches about world domination and nonsensical super-weapon mumbo-jumbo.

However, it still has some of their unadulterated fun. There are some cool gadgets and kudos must be given for creating one of the year’s most entertaining action sequences that takes the term wire-fu to whole new levels.

Unfortunately, although the kung-fu scenes are really fun, the more traditional American-style action is far less exciting and often uncomfortably violent. But, as we all know, if there’s no blood, then you can pretty much get away with as much brutality as you want and still keep a family-friendly rating. Though this is common fare in Hollywood blockbusters, for some reason G.I. Joe’s portrayal of violence didn't always sit right with me, probably due to the fact that it’s undoubtedly a kid’s film . . . or it should be anyway.

And, on top of that, we have Bruce Willis playing the same role he’s played throughout the last decade or so and, true to form, he does it awfully. Any fun brought by the younger cast members is totally dashed whenever he turns up, which is a crying shame as Channing Tatum is actually enjoyable . . . not that he sticks around for long. I just wish people would stop fuelling Willis’ appalling greed when he asks for as much as he does cash without putting any effort in.

This big budget toy-based sequel is suitably ridiculous, but not without some thrills of its own.


Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. #1.08 – 'The Well' Review

Though Marvel’s claim of a ‘Thor: The Dark World’ spin-off was totally unjustified, this week’s episode achieved something far more worthwhile; it broke down some serious barriers to Agent Ward’s character. I’d got so used to his two-dimensionality that it rather took me off guard when he was finally provided with a bit of depth. It also gave Brett Dalton a rare chance to show off his acting chops, and I was really drawn in by his unashamedly human performance.

Another star performer was this week’s guest star Peter MacNicol who did an excellent job playing an expert in Norse mythology. Unlike many of the additional cast members up until now, he seemed totally comfortable in his role, even when things got a bit wacky. He showed a welcome respect for the source material by treating it seriously, while still maintaining an off-beat, and thoroughly charming, tone.

Episode 8 was a pretty useless Thor crossover, but it told an engaging new story elevated by some good performances.


Saturday, 23 November 2013

Saving Mr. Banks – Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious

I know it’s a strange place to start, but let’s begin with some conceptual physics.

Imagine that time runs concurrently between the past, the present and the future. That everything is happening all at once, all the time.

I know, it’s a ridiculous idea.

But that doesn't stop ‘Saving Mr. Banks’ from adhering to it.

In fact, the film does it rather well. We start in the narrative past – Australia, early 20th century – with the story of a family moving from the city to a small house in the country. Then onto the narrative present – London, and then Los Angeles, in the 60s – where ‘Mrs Pompous’ herself, P.L. Travers, is in the middle of contractual agreements with regards to her set of novels about a magical nanny, known as Mary Poppins. And finally, totally away from the film, we have the narrative future – which happens to be right now – in a world where Mary Poppins remains a childhood staple even fifty years on.

However, these all soon become intertwined to create something timeless; where the past references the present, where the future effects the past and so on and so forth.

It must be said, though, that all three timeframes have their own individual issues; the Australian scenes become somewhat overwrought, the American scenes suffer a minor lull towards the middle with the plot slowing down slightly, and the ‘future’ is most rewarding if you know Mary Poppins like the back of your hand. There is also the issue of having moments of sentimentality that fall dangerously close to being saccharine, however the film has enough bite to offset these with some pretty harsh truths about the complex nature of family life.  It’s at these moments, actually, that the film really stands out for being too emotionally-driven for a younger audience. Contrary to its family-friendly PG rating, it is the more mature viewers that will get the most from it.

But, aside from all that, it’s about time I mentioned the supremely wonderful ensemble cast. Though it’s Emma Thompson (Travers) and Tom Hanks (Disney) whose names are plastered over all the posters – unsurprisingly, of course, as they are both brilliant – Bradley Whitford, Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak bring real comedy and charm to the Disney writers & musicians and Paul Giamatti is excellent as Travers’ driver. Then there’s Colin Farrell, as Travers’ father, who plays a deeply challenging role with aplomb . . . until the script kind of falls apart for him.

Despite its flaws, ‘Saving Mr. Banks’ stands as a joyful celebration of youth and imagination and provides a warm smile to those willing to give it a chance.


Monday, 18 November 2013

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. #1.07 – 'The Hub' Review

You know all that stuff I said about Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. sticking too close to stereotypes? Well, yeah, I take it back.

This week sees Fitz being very un-Fitz-like and I don’t like it. Instead of giggling away in the lab, he’s off with Agent Ward attempting to disable some kind of goofy doomsday device in Russia, complete with gun firing and ass kicking. But rather than being a refreshing piece of character development, he just becomes a bit unlikable, really. Even to the point that I suddenly cared way more about Ward than I did about Fitz, which is saying a lot seeing as the former is still basically a chiselled cardboard cut-out.

That’s not to say there isn't some decent stuff happening back at ‘The Hub’, because there is. Skye’s lack of conformity is predictable – but refreshing, nonetheless – and the changes Agent Coulson is undergoing/has undergone are interesting and seem more challenging and complex than most of the drama at the moment.

Overall, episode seven felt too much like filler and focused far too heavily on a mission that totally lacked any tangible danger and, therefore, any excitement.


Thursday, 14 November 2013

Gravity – Mind-Blowing

Alfonso Cuarón (director) has referred to Gravity as a story about overcoming adversity . . . but there’s a whole lot more to it than that. Gravity is a film about life and, quite fittingly, it’s exquisitely beautiful. From the extended opening shots looking out over Earth to the nerve-shredding debris showers, it’s absolutely mind-blowing and unlike anything I've ever seen before.

Put simply, the film is a monumental achievement, not only because it does something totally unprecedented, but because it pushes the technical boundaries of cinema further than they've ever been pushed before. It sets a new benchmark for photorealistic CGI, both in regards to scenery and physics. Thousands of people dedicated years of their life to this project and you can tell. It’s due to these people’s hard work and ingenuity that Gravity stands as such a milestone in effects work.  In a way, it’s the cinematic equivalent of the moon landing; one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.

However, on its surface, it’s still just a film about a space mission gone wrong. And that’s part of the beauty of it all because, as you may have realised by now, astronaut Stone’s immediate mission is inconsequential . . . and, at times, even predictable and cheesy. Instead, it’s her emotional development that stands as the true driving force of the film. Her determination, portrayed so powerfully by Sandra Bullock, is the reason why everything looks so stunning and it’s the reason why I found myself holding my breath and clawing at the arms of my chair when her spacecraft started getting torn apart by spinning debris. Her character stands as a testament to the power of human endeavour, and a message as powerful as that can make up for any shortcomings.

Space: the final frontier . . . well it used to be, anyway.


Monday, 11 November 2013

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. #1.06 – 'F.Z.Z.T.' Review

Fitz-Simmons take centre stage for this emotionally charged episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

After two weeks break, the team are back, this time facing some of the repercussions of the Attack on New York from ‘The Avengers’. But rather than anything too cosmic, this small-scale problem is made incredibly human and ends up providing some truly moving moments.

Ex-‘Lost’ writer, Paul Zbyszewski, also does a good job of sharing the emotion out between the characters with most of them getting their own teary-eyed moments. However, though most of these work surprisingly well, there are still a number of instances that are less successful, seemingly due to the lack of week-to-week consequences. This episode, like some others, just seems to tie up too nicely and lacks some of the rough-hewn, but undoubtedly more thrilling, endings of serialised television.

To support the character-focused nature of this episode, the actors are also asked to do slightly more than just play along to stereotypes, which is suitably refreshing. Too often have Fitz-Simmons purely been restricted to sciency-waffle, so it was a pleasant surprise to see them being called upon to deliver something a little different.

Episode six sees an effective change in tack for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. with the emphasis placed far more on the emotional side of things.


Monday, 4 November 2013

Thor: The Dark World – One Man and his Hammer

I'm still holding out hope that one day someone will have the guts to make a superhero movie set entirely away from Earth, but unfortunately that day has yet to pass. Thor: The Dark World was Marvel Studio’s best shot at creating something entirely cosmic, yet it still feels the need to crawl back to Earth every so often.

The most disappointing part is that it’s utterly unnecessary. Presumably there to keep the action grounded and relatable, these scenes are ineffectual and go no way to injecting any extra humanity. Not that it’s needed . . .

In a way, it’s a shame that Marvel don’t have enough confidence in their characters. Thor and Loki are so joyously entertaining and they themselves would laugh at the feigned necessity for other characters. Yes, they’re larger than life, but they are daring, adventurous, scheming and totally brilliant. Their scenes eclipse anything else in the movie and there are multiple moments of jaw-dropping emotion; some humorous, some evil and some downright dark.

Then the brakes are slammed on for a jarring cut to Earth. The momentum built up by the epic off-world scenes is drained of all its life, leaving an empty husk to stumble around London being boring and annoying. It’s at these moments when you start asking questions; about the plot, about the writers and about the whole thing, really. But, fortunately, these don’t all last that long and our two favourite God-siblings soon swoop down to rescue it from its exquisitely rendered embers.

One element that can’t be questioned, however, is the movie's sheer production values; especially the incredible design. Asgard has never looked so majestic and the costumes fall just the right side of the sublime; most notably the Dark Elves, whose masks will haunt my nightmares for days to come.

And, as is common for modern superhero movies, there are a couple of post-credit sequences. So, stick around until the bitter end for a few hints towards future adventures. However, these scenes are superfluous, muddled and lacking the perfectly measured cliffhangers of some of Marvel’s recent efforts.

Thor and Loki are a lot better than this, but Thor: The Dark World still stands as an enjoyable superhero romp.


Friday, 1 November 2013

1408 – Clinically Insane

The first half of psychological horror, ‘1408’, is suitably disturbing. Its cheap pulpy thrills manage to successfully worm their way into your psyche, twisting and contorting to induce a satisfying sense of unease.

It’s just a shame the film doesn't end there. It just seems to run out of contortions, playing the same hand over and over again. Admittedly, these hands often remain disguised for a time, but it isn't long until they are exposed for what they are; pretty darn ridiculous. In their desperation, the writers throw everything they've got at the screen in hope that at least some of it sticks . . . but very little does.

That being said, against all odds, John Cusack still remains watchable. He does an admirable job of grounding the anarchy and ensuring the whole thing doesn't totally collapse in on itself. His performance remains confident, almost to the point that I considered whether he had any idea how ridiculous the whole thing is.


Monday, 28 October 2013

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. #1.05 – 'Girl in the Flower Dress' Review

After the first four episodes entertaining – but shallow – skim across the surface, this week finally sees Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. delving a little deeper.

The writers have started to try and tie all the action together by revisiting some of the plot lines from the pilot. But, unfortunately, they are only partly successful and the extremis arc at the forefront of this episode still feels shallow and inconsequential, even with all the hints towards its wider significance.

Instead, it’s Skye’s story that’s the most engaging, providing an interesting twist on the age-old double-agent plot. It’s an interesting move to disrupt its quiet blooming behind all the explosions and begin to bring the character development to the foreground, but it works.

So, even with some underwhelming action, this week’s episode remained enjoyable and emotionally satisfying.


Saturday, 26 October 2013

Real Steel – Champion

‘Real Steel’ is a superb modern take on a classic underdog story. Whether by chance or supreme insight, Shawn Levy (director) has made one of the greatest sports movies of all time . . . by taking out the sport. 

The action is all the same, the plot turns are predictable and every emotional swing is dutifully ticked off; but instead of being terribly formulaic and manipulative, the movie is somehow turned into something moving and totally exhilarating.

The balance between spectacle and heart is maintained exquisitely, with the film remaining light on its feet throughout every brilliantly rendered and excellently choreographed upper-cut. Meaning every fight brings something new to the table, both physically (a second head, for example) and emotionally.

Fortunately, the emotional centre of the film is just as strong, with the father & son duo played to devastating effect by the universally adored Hugh Jackman and the equally impressive Dakota Goya. Their relationship swells and falls in all the right places, delivering moments of perfectly weighted emotion.

Real Steel stands as a devastating one-two to the heart-strings. A beautiful, heartfelt blockbuster.

Oh, and if Atom isn't the most adorable robot you've ever seen . . .


Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. #1.04 – 'Eye Spy' Review

Good news, everybody . . . Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D has finally got its humour right!

After the misplaced ‘laughs’ of the first three episodes, the writers have finally found a satisfying balance of comedy and action. Gone are the barren wastelands moments after a joke has fallen flat on its face; instead the laughs subtly sit alongside the action to deliver a very enjoyable fourth episode.

The techy set-pieces (or, ‘tech-pieces’) also see an improvement over last week’s clunky, and ultimately disappointing, gravity-shifting. Instead, the use of x-ray vision is understated, yet surprising and damn entertaining.

Episode 4 is a return to form for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D due, in part, to its delicate balance of humour and its clever use of futuristic technology.


Friday, 18 October 2013

Cowboys & Aliens – Much Better than the Title Suggests

With a terrible title and a dodgy genre mash-up, it’s easy to see why ‘Cowboys & Aliens’ bombed after its release back in 2011. But, it’s a shame audiences didn't really give it a chance because there’s some unashamed fun to be had.

Daniel Craig plays Jake Lonergan, a man who wakes up in the desert with no idea who he is or why he’s wearing a strange bracelet. However, Harrison Ford’s Woodrow Dolarhyde seems to recognise him and Lonergan’s soon arrested for a crime he has no recollection of committing. But, as luck would have it, he’s the only one who can save the town when a squad of spaceships start wreaking havoc.

What the film is basically saying is ‘who cares about Indians, why not have cowboys fight aliens, instead’; a set-up which sounds like the brainchild of 12 year old and, at times, it shows. But this stupidity is pretty much limited to the sci-fi side of things, with the monster’s design and motives being all over the shop.

Instead, it’s the western-side of it all that really shines through. Though cowboys have been a hard sell in recent years, the film does an admirable job of capturing the excitement of rooting-tooting gunslingers, while attempting to tweak conventions to appeal to modern audiences . . . even if, as its box office seems to show, it didn't really work. The landscape cinematography captures the beauty of classic westerns and the cast does a solid job of making it all feel authentic, with Sam Rockwell’s barman being the standout.

The film also has its heart in the right place . . . mostly. It never feels cynical and stands as an admirable celebration of human endeavour, especially with regards to the relationships with the Native American characters. It must be said, though, that there are moments when the film drifts away from its family friendly rating with bursts of overly harsh violence but, fortunately, they are few and far between.

In the end, a wacky premise and boring enemies are ultimately overcome by an enjoyable sense of old-fashioned adventure.


Monday, 14 October 2013

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. #1.03 – 'The Asset' Review

Episode three of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. takes us back to the watchable, but uninspiring, world of the pilot with the team attempting to rescue Dr. Franklin Hall, a brilliant physicist who’s been kidnapped by Ian Quinn, a businessman who needs help exploiting a new element.

But, unfortunately, due to a combination of uninspired writing and lazy acting, both Quinn and Hall were incredibly dull. Which is a shame, really, as we’ll probably see from one, if not both, of them again.

However, it wasn't all bad, and the episode still had a few standout moments. But even some of those never really came to fruition; case in point, missing out on the opportunity to do a huge a gravity-shifting set piece. Admittedly, it probably has a lot to do with the special-effects budget, but it was disappointing nonetheless.

In fact, it seems all the budget was spent on the impressive opening sequence which worked as a really fun hook. It’s just a shame the rest of the episode couldn't follow it.


Friday, 11 October 2013

Adventureland – Perfectly Captured Nostalgia

‘Adventureland’ is quite obviously semi-autobiographical . . . its drama just rings too true to be fiction.

This means that, yes, I think writer-director, Greg Mottola, spent a summer working at a shitty theme park, just like Jesse Eisenberg’s James, and, yes, I think that experience changed his life . . . and it shows.

Both his writing and his direction are poised and under-stated, as are the wonderful performances he brings out of his cast. The oft-maligned Kristen Stewart and Ryan Reynolds carry their roles perfectly, and Eisenberg is excellent, as usual. There are also some excellent performances from the secondary characters, including Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig’s tragically wacky couple.

Their wackiness is only made more enjoyable by the beautifully realised time period. The 80s setting is used so effectively that it gives the film a real emotional resonance and authenticity. It says that even though their music and their clothes are different, teenagers have always and will always be the same; that they’ll always have to get through the same worries and the same self-doubt.

In a way, this is the anti-American Pie. This is a story about cherry-popping with minimal sex jokes. A beautiful, moving piece of cinema.


Monday, 7 October 2013

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. #1.02 – '0-8-4' Review

Though last week's pilot was far from bad, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has come on a long way in this second episode.

This week's instalment sees the team dealing with an unknown, possibly alien, piece of tech buried deep in the Peruvian jungle. Though this is an early hint at the show's international scale, most of the action takes place on 'The Bus', S.H.I.E.L.D.'s spy-plane hub seen in the pilot. This has the effect of making this episode feel far more compact and the plotting is tight, leaving more room for believable character moments and occasional bursts of action.

David Straiton has taken over the director's chair from the big man himself, Joss Whedon, and he adopts a more assured and far less flashy visual style which stands as a great improvement over last week's distracting visuals.

The jokes have also been sharpened up and fit far better with both the individual characters and the action going on around them. We also have the early promise of some great musical work from famous TV composer Bear McCreary, whose score really starts to flourish in some late celebratory scenes.

This episode also sees the first cameo from the wider Marvel universe which is wonderfully played and left me with a huge grin on my face. The success of this scene bodes really well for future guest stars, even though this was the obvious place to start.

Two weeks in and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D has seriously got into its grove, delivering a terrifically enjoyable second episode.


Friday, 4 October 2013

Zombieland – Guts and Gags

Fun is contagious, and that’s something Zombieland is aware of. If actors look like they’re having a whale of a time, then the audience probably is too. It’s a simple rule that films so often miss . . . Zombieland being an exception.

To be honest, it’s not surprising that the four leads – Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Emma Stone and Abigail Breslin – look like they’re having a ball, as they spend the entirety of the film shooting at zombies and smashing stuff; with their delight being most apparent during the films gloriously inventive zombie-based massacring.

However, there is some time set aside for more thoughtful moments, and this is balanced well. As all good zombie movies do, it takes a moment to reflect upon society as it is now. It’s just that when Zombieland does this, it’s while on a rollercoaster headshotting zombies. Though this may sound ridiculous, and it is, the films messages end up blending seamlessly with the action.

But, in the end, it’s the superb cast and the filmmakers’ wit and ingenuity that make Zombieland such an entertaining addition to the horror comedy genre. 


Monday, 30 September 2013

Atlantis – Episode 1 Review

It may be that I'm just too old, but it’s been a long time since anything in BBC One’s Saturday tea-time slot has managed to hold my attention. Though ‘Doctor Who’ did, up to a point, ‘Robin Hood’ and ‘Merlin’ left me pretty cold and, unfortunately, so has their latest offering, ‘Atlantis’.

Maintaining the BBC’s strange fixation with mythological retellings, Atlantis, tells the story of Jason who’s zapped away to the famous lost city whilst in a submarine searching for his supposedly drowned father. Why and how that happened is set up as the show’s key mystery and, as expected, it involves a lot of talk of ‘chosen ones’ and ‘prophesies’. This very basic premise is understandable, as a similar set-up worked so well for Merlin, whose viewing figures remained impressive right through its run, but it's pretty dull.

However, to keep things fresh, we have a new setting – Ancient Greece, to be exact – which entices me far more than Medieval Britain. But even that didn't manage to draw me, with the writers choosing to play so fast and loose with the mythology that it lost a hell of a lot in translation.

So, all in all, I was left disappointed. I mean, it wasn't terrible, just totally uninteresting.


Friday, 27 September 2013

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. #1.01 – 'Pilot' Review

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has finally arrived . . . and it’s a promising start.

There’s a lot of set-up in this opening episode; the bringing together of the team, the first threat etc. etc. and that is done efficiently, but rather mundanely. But the benefit of pacing through foundation-building is that by the second half of the episode we can finally get to the nitty-gritty Saturday morning cartoon-style villain of the week. This structure, though simplistic, actually works surprisingly well and the second half is thoroughly entertaining.

There were still a number of rough edges, though, most notably the dodgy hit-rate of the gags. Some worked well, keeping the mood light and playful, but some fell totally flat, which is surprising as Joss Whedon (co-writer, director and the man behind ‘The Avengers’) is usually an expert when it comes to witty quips. And it’s not that the jokes were always that bad, it’s just that some of them felt totally out of place. But that is something that can easily be fine-tuned as time goes on.

I also had an issue with the over stylised look of the episode, with the lens flare feeling totally unnecessary and, ultimately, distracting. Admittedly, the show has a lot to live up to aesthetically because it’s big-screen counterparts look so damn gorgeous, but I would prefer that Marvel owned up to the fact that a network TV show is never going to look like a $200m blockbuster.

But, despite an uninspiring first half and some minor niggles, the balance of action and emotion in the second half set up a world of gods and men that I can’t wait to explore.


Thursday, 26 September 2013

Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back – Pure Escapism

The Empire Strikes Back's legendary status is unquestionable. Its glorious blend of action, adventure and romance has rarely been matched, before or since, rightfully earning its place as one of the seminal blockbusters in movie history.

We join the action post-‘A New Hope’ and Darth Vader is on the search for Luke Skywalker. What ensues is joyously pulpy sci-fi so far removed from the politically po-faced prequels; instead of mind-scrambling galactic conferences we have space cowboys blasting their way across the galaxy. Pure, simple and inescapably exciting.

However, through all this escapism, there are a firm set of morals and, though unsophisticated, they promote an admirable message of nobility and honour to younger viewers; something so often lost in the blockbusters of today.

The effects are impressive, the music extraordinary, the characters charming and the twists and turns memorable; making for one of the most popular films of all time . . . and deservedly so.


Monday, 16 September 2013

Planet of the Apes – Important Science Fiction

Archaic direction can so often make old films hard to watch for people used to modern cinema. Even great films fall prey to this and, consequently, struggle to find a 21st century audience. However, the original ‘Planet of the Apes’ does a damn fine job of avoiding this pitfall; Franklin J. Schaffner’s direction is assured and, even by modern standards, the film features some beautiful cinematography.

This is all supported by an engaging and thought-provoking plot of three men crash landing on an alien planet that puts forward social questions that remain relevant over forty years on. This stands as a great testament to the films writers and, taking it even further back, Pierre Boule, the author of the 1963 source novel. The film balances its argument exquisitely, in the sense that any message never becomes preachy and it never overshadows the action and the drama.

Striking visuals, charming characters (both human and simian) and a thoughtful social commentary combine to create what can certainly be considered a landmark of science-fiction cinema that still remains watchable to this day.


Friday, 13 September 2013

A Nightmare on Elm Street – Seeing as it’s Friday the 13th . . .

Even now, nearly thirty years after his introduction, Freddy Krueger still has some serious scare-power. 

This mainly stems from the work of writer/director Wes Craven, who managed to tap into some of the society’s most primal fears when he created this jumper-wearing, dream-stalking monstrosity.

Watched now, the original film could be easily be considered laughable, but instead it gloriously blends visceral horror with an old-fashioned playfulness which makes for a thoroughly enjoyable watch.

Craven’s intelligence shines through in his understanding of human fear and he perfectly tapped into it with this 80s horror classic in which the traditional rose-tinted dreamscape is transformed into a terrifying, soul-encompassing nightmare.


Monday, 9 September 2013

Mean Streets – A Classic This is Not

‘Mean Streets’ is a far cry from most of Martin Scorsese’s work and stands as an early black mark on his otherwise extraordinary career.

His inexperience is most apparent when dealing with the films misjudged religious undertones. The movie opens with a lesson in forgiveness (‘you don’t make up for your sins in church’) and then regularly revisits Harvey Keitel’s character’s prayers to God. However, the film does nothing to make you either agree or disagree with that opening statement, which negates the whole driving force of the film. Scorsese seems to want us to have an opinion on the matter, yet he never gives us any justifiable reason to because the films so dull and uninvolving.

Mean Streets does little to hint at Scorsese future greatness, especially in the crime genre, but he must have learnt a thing or two from the films failures . . . and thank God he did.


Tuesday, 3 September 2013

Point Break – Kathryn Bigelow is Amazing

There’s something magical about flicking through channels late at night and unearthing a hidden gem. It adds a sense of surprise that is too often lost when watching movies in this day and age, and probably the greatest example of this, for me, has been Point Break.

The first hour or so is amazing; it’s exciting, funny and beautifully shot. Kathryn Bigelow (director) brings a real sophistication to the action, with some beautiful camerawork paving the way for some truly exhilarating sequences. But the film also has a message, of sorts – a message of living life to the full – which is admirable.

Admittedly, the second half does tail of a bit, but it does nothing to nullify the one lesson I learnt from the film; that Patrick Swayze is one cool dude . . . and that sky-diving’s awesome.