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.