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.