Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

rogue-oneThe most eagerly anticipated and needed Star Wars story dropped into cinemas at 00.05 this morning.

The cinema was bustling when i arrived, and I expected to have to pick my way to my seat. This was not the case for the 3D showing I had selected, the screen was nicely filled. Perhaps people had chosen the 2D performance instead.

The story was well worked, providing tense drama and humour. The cast was well chosen and unless you’ve been locked in some sort of imperial facility, you’ll know the general gist of what’s to come. In my opinion, this is an important story to tell. It’s set just before episode IV, and they’ve done really well in fleshing out the story into something tangible in the Star Wars universe. We have no mention of some of these characters before or after. This is a really organic story, built from the ground up, and this really pays off. Expect to see Vader (if that’s a spoiler shame on you). The film has a good pace, and about the mission at hand. It also gives us a better insight as to what the empire can do. The death squad troopers are rather odd, but not only the way they look. The AT-AT scenes are rather dramatically thought out.

Introduced some nice characters to the film and just a few cameos by familiar ones. A real treat for the eyes. The drama was built at a steady pace, and did not leave you wanting to see more. Jyn Erso is the heroine (reluctantly) of the piece and she is a classy act to follow. visually spectacular, totally feeling original but bringing much newness to the screen. Sets are a real treat (especially inside the Death Star). It really tries hard to be Star Wars, but it’s not about any Skywalker as it’s lead. By the time you get to see the first glimpse of Vader you’ll already be rooting for the Rebels. Nonetheless, you’ll want to see Vader most menacingly striding across the screen, look out for his last scene and you’ll get the meaning of the word menacing. Fans will also rejoice as James Earl Jones supplies Vader’s voice, I don’t think that’s a surprise.

I really can’t get over Mon Mothma, and in some ways it’s a shame she fell on the cutting room floor from episode III. The blind monk seen in trailers taking out stormtroopers with his stick just brilliant! I rather enjoyed the ground battles play out, couple that with star wars battlefront bringing out Scarif (YouTube game trailer https://youtu.be/J48gd0GZGWk) to coincide with Rogue one, so you actually play out an interesting scenario. This has topped off the year nicely. We await Episode VIII….

Just a smidgen over 2 hours and not a dull moment to be seen. Star Wars has been given new life, and to sound cliché a new hope.

I’ll give this film 5/5 stumps

Robocop 2014 – Is it any good?

Robocop 2014
Robocop 2014
Robocop 2014

If the original Robocop was MS-DOS, then Robocop 2014 is the App Store. This will be a good or a bad thing depending on your tastes and how nostalgic you’re feeling.

The newer version does still have a satirical edge, but it’s somehow managed to become downplayed by making it more explicit. Rather than showing how the world has changed through regular news broadcasts, we have Samuel L Jackson (who is clearly having an absolute ball) playing a Fox News style presenter, giving very biased news coverage. It’s fun, and reminiscent of Glenn Beck, but it doesn’t quite feel like it has the same edge.

While it’s unlikely to be loved in the same way that the original movie is, it does have some teeth and it does have some interesting points to make. After all, we now live in a world with drones, which makes perfect sense as a military and robotic starting point for the kind of technology that leads to Robocop.

If the original film was about a robot remembering what he was when he was a human, the remake is slower and (unexpectedly) more subtle. We watch his humanity being taken away from him in the name of compromise and corporate necessity, which also means that we get more of an idea who he actually is. While his home life is more than a little too perfect, it works better than it did in the original, where we get far more of an idea of Murphy as a cop than we do as a person. It helps that Joel Kinnaman is strong in the lead, and plays a more rounded character both before and after his robotification than Peter Weller did.

One interesting thing that the update manages to do is to take the visual language of first-person shooters smoothly and comfortably enough that you shouldn’t be surprised if you find yourself wanting to reach for a joypad at times. Considering one of the ideas in the movie is that of Murphy being made to think he’s more in control of what’s happening than he actually is, that’s actually a particularly nice touch.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t notes that miss wildly. The sleek new black design just isn’t anywhere near as iconic as the original, which is something the filmmakers appear to be very aware of – the film is topped and tailed with an updated version of the original design, as if they’re aware that it’s the one people want to see. Also, the black design is just unmemorable. It looks like a prototype action figure that hasn’t been painted yet. Also, when Robocop is on his new bike, it’s difficult not to think of the batpod with all the black armour on display.

It’s frustrating at times, because it feels like it was almost really good, whereas it keeps hampering itself by not quite going all out. There are some scenes that definitely work, but there’s just not the sense of loss that there was with the original. Because the battle scenes are so fast, it’s difficult for much to have time to settle, and while the satire is definitely there, it feels like it was trying to be careful not to offend any of its targets too much either, which makes it feel rather muted at times.

It took me a while to realise, but Michael Keaton is essentially playing Steve Jobs, which makes for some entertainment, and gives a little extra bite to the proceedings, but it doesn’t quite work as a target in the same way the original did. The original was about corporate ladder-climbing and greed, and this one is more about trying to meet targets and popularity ratings. But while it means that there aren’t quite as many annoying, suited bad guys, there’s still plenty to think about.

At the end of the day, everyone seems like they’re having fun with the movie (especially Keaton, Jackson and Gary Oldman, who appears to be channeling Dave Allen of all people), and it’s well enough made to be worth your time. It’s certainly not a lazy remake, and there’s been a lot of thought going into it. I think that a lot of the critics that have been tearing into it since the first pictures came out would give it a lot more time if it simply wasn’t called Robocop.

But as it is, it’s a reasonably good film that probably deserves better than to be dismissed out of hand. Whether you go to the cinema or wait for it to turn up elsewhere down the road, it’s a flawed but fun and interesting remake. It’s not going to grab people like the original did, but it’s a more than servicable update that primarily suffers from seeming a little bland in comparison to the rougher original. My biggest criticism is that I ended up wishing it could have just been a little sillier.

Evil Dead Blu Ray (2013) Review Release 12th August 2013

Evil Dead Blu Ray Cover
Evil Dead Blu Ray Cover

Five young people go to a cabin in the middle of the countryside. Once there, things start to get weird. Once they discover a book bound in human flesh, things become worse. Lethally so.

The Evil Dead series has always over-delivered. The big question going into the 2013 version is whether it’ll be able to do the same. Thankfully, it does. It’s a big ludicrous rollercoaster ride, which has all the signs of a big hit.

As stupid movies go, it’s very smart. It takes the original movie and gives it a far more solid grounding, with far more believable character motivations. Why are they in the middle of nowhere? Because one of their group is trying to give up heroin. Why don’t they believe her when she undergoes insane experiences in the woods? Because she’s trying to give up heroin, and is likely to be lying, self-harming or delusionary.

It also uses the demonic book to good effect, by using it to show you exactly what’s going to happen to certain characters, which means that you start anticipating it more when you watch it. This gives a different tone than the all-too-common ‘jump shots’. They’re still there, obviously, but the variety is nice.

  View large image  Evil Dead - Zavvi Exclusive Limited Edition Steelbook (Includes DVD) Blu-ray
Evil Dead – Zavvi Exclusive Limited Edition Steelbook (Includes DVD) Blu-ray

Also, it isn’t a straight remake. There’s an intentional feeling with this that these experiences have happened to people here before, much as there was in the original. “You will die, like the other before you”. Very smartly, there’s no Ash in this film. There’s a character that could be like Ash, but the simple fact that they’re not recasting the most central character in the franchise means that all bets are off when it comes to the well-being of any of the characters.

A certain scene involving trees (which will be familiar to fans of the original) is there, but it feels less gratuitous and more justified in terms of plot development. Also, there’s an extra element involved that means that, while it’s still unpleasant, it isn’t quite as unpleasant to women as the original was. The original scene feels somewhat leering, which this one mostly avoids, which is a definite improvement.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t problems. There are major problems with it, but the overall enthusiasm of the movie means that they’re not the issue they would otherwise be.

The most obvious one is that the cast are fairly dislikeable for the most part. In the original film, the characters were less well-defined, but there was the definite idea that they liked and cared about each other. Also, there’s the point that Bruce Campbell is a difficult person to recast. He carries an innate likeability and trustworthiness, combined with a manic energy, that none of the cast in this film are able to replicate, which means that there’s a lot of heart missing from the movie.

This Evil Dead Review was originally written for the UK cinema release
This Evil Dead Review was originally written for the UK cinema release in March 2013

There’s the issue that for quite a lot of The Evil Dead, it appears that the central message of the film is “women: not useful in a crisis!”. Thankfully, this doesn’t end up being as bad as it appears, but there are long stretches where this seemed to be the case, which made for uncomfortable viewing. Rewatching the original, this is more of an issue there, but it makes a lot of the new version awkward at times.

It’s extremely well shot, and learning that there was an intentional attempt to use as little CGI as possible makes it all the more impressive. The sound is also an important aspect, as it is with most horror films, and it’s very well handled here (interestingly, Bruce Campbell was involved with the sound, primarily in finding sound to use from the original film).

It’s an astoundingly assured feature debut from Director Fede Alvarez, and he’s done particularly well in updating a well-loved film.

The amount of gore and sheer exhuberation in displaying it means that this is going to be fairly heavy going for a lot of audiences, but I think this is going to lead to it being more popular amongst audiences. It’s the first horror film in quite a long time that I could see people talking about in a ‘you’ve got to see this’ sense.

Overall, it navigates its flaws and challenges with flair, and delivers a wildly entertaining horror movie, if not as likeable as the original.

From Up On Poppy Hill – Studio Ghibli Movie

From Up On Poppy Hill
From Up On Poppy Hill
From Up On Poppy Hill

A new film from Studio Ghibli is always an exciting prospect, but this one came with, for me, a certain degree of hesitancy. A post-Korean War slice of reality directed by Goro Miyazaki…could Ghibli deliver their usual magic in a non-fantastical setting, and could Goro-san improve from the utter disappointment that was “Tales From Earthsea”? The simple answer is yes, on both counts. The more complex answer is…well, there really isn’t a more complex answer. “From Up On Poppy Hill” is sublime, wondrous, heart-warming, thrilling, emotional, exhilarating, life-affirming, beautiful and so many other things I could just cut-and-paste a dictionary of positive terms here and be done with it. Out of five stars this is a 10 star film. This is Ghibli at its very best and it was an absolute pleasure to sit in that screening room and experience their stunning tale unfold over and hour and a half.
Written by the legendary Hiyao Miyazaki and Keiko Niwa, and based on the 1980 manga by Tetsuro Sayama & Chizuru Takahashi, the story revolves around Umi Matsuzaki, a 16 year old high schooler in the Port of Yokohama. It is 1963 and she lives in a boarding house with her grandmother and several female residents, looking after their needs every morning and evening, and heading off to school during the daytime. Her mother, a professor, is on an extended trip to the US, and her father was killed during the Korean War. Every morning Umi raises signal flags hoping to reach the spirit of her drowned father. One day, the school newspaper prints a poem about her flags and she heads off to the clubhouse to find out who is responsible. It is here she, with her younger sister Sora, encounter Shun Kazama, a young man who is part of the journalism club and popular with the girls at the school for his antics trying to save the clubhouse from closure. Umi is instantly drawn to Shun, and volunteers to help with the paper, and encourages the boys in the clubhouse to tidy it up as a tactic to saving it from demolition. Through her involvement, the girls at the school rally to help the boys tidy, clean and renovate the building. Meanwhile, Shun visits Umi’s boarding house home and discovers (without her knowledge) that her father might also be his. This throws him off centre and builds a wall of silence between them, much to Umi’s distress. Finally she is able to get the truth from him, but even though they now believe themselves to be brother and sister, they still profess their love for each other, and they suffer with the pain of having to put that love to one side. As this melodrama unfolds, the school clubhouse, now beautifully restored to its European splendour (it is called the Latin Quarter) is condemned by the school board. Umi, Shun and their friend Shiro head in to Tokyo to petition the school board’s chairman to come see the building and save it. Elated by her trip to Tokyo but saddened by the change in her relationship with Shun, Umi heads home to find her mother returned. She reveals all to her mother and…well, let’s not ruin the final act, eh?

I honestly cannot speak highly enough of this film. The story is compelling and incredibly moving. I don’t think I’ve ever seen tears in the eyes of fellow press reviewers before, but there were a few at the end of this sublime movie. We were fortunate enough to see a subtitled Japanese original version (I know, subtitles aren’t for everyone, but I am a Ghibli purist and whilst I always enjoy the dubbed versions, I do appreciate seeing the original and hearing the original Japanese actors) so I can’t comment on the UK dub (although the previous dubs for Ponyo, Arrietty, Howl and Spirited Away were all superb) but I am sure it will be as good as you would expect from Ghibli. This is a nostalgic film, seen from a teenager’s perspective, with a fairly predictable plot but which nevertheless leaves you feeling elated and uplifted. It doesn’t do anything radical or shocking, which some may feel is a little disappointing, and it doesn’t have the same visual flair as Spirited Away or Howl’s Moving Castle. But then this film isn’t a fantasy epic. It isn’t escapist wish-fulfilment. It is a slice of life drama with a strong comedic vein running throughout. It is a moment in Japanese history that few outside of the country are aware of, and it is an important coming of age tale that works because its female protagonist is someone we can instantly empathise with. Once again Studio Ghibli, under the leadership of Myazaki-san have offered us a strong female lead in whom we can see some of ourselves but more importantly through who we can learn about this very specific time and place in Japanese history. No, the story doesn’t take us anywhere new, but I, for one, was happy to be cocooned in the warm world of Ghibli, to be entertained, moved and entranced.

Visually the film is nothing short of sumptuous. Ghibli fans will love the hand-drawn style so reminiscent from Ponyo, Totoro and so many others. Every frame is stuffed with fine detail, depth and variety. From sweeping seascapes to winding narrow roads, from bustling ports to hectic schoolyards…everything is beautifully animated, with a slightly soft tone but vibrant lighting. Within five minutes I was sighing with pleasure at feeling so at home in this world. Much like Only Yesterday, Ocean Waves or Whisper of the Heart, this is the real world through the lens of Ghibli’s unique eye…at once recognisable and precise, yet at the same time ever so softer and more inviting. In this instance, we experienced a more grown up version of the port town in Ponyo, a teenager’s view of a busy Japanese town changing in the post war boom. I know I wasn’t the only person at the screening to be entranced by these wonderful images.

The soundtrack was equally nostalgic, sadly not by Ghibli go-to-guy Joe Hisaishi (if you’ve not heard his soundtrack to the game Ni No Kuni you are missing out on a real treat), but instead a mix of new tracks by Satoshi Takebe and Japanese versions of some period songs, some European, some American. It works very well for the style and tone of the movie, but I did miss Joe’s input, and the film doesn’t have an immediately memorable theme. Overall though, the music only adds to the brilliance of the movie.

Audio-wise you can expect the usual high-quality sound effects and sound balance. There’s nothing too bombastic or ear-shattering, but the sound designers have clearly had a lot of fun bringing the school and clubhouse scenes to life. And the soundscape of the port, and that of pre-Olympics Tokyo are vibrant and dynamic without sounding like a pastiche.

My only negative with “From Up On Poppy Hill” is that I can’t watch it again, right now. I would happily beg the lovely folk at StudioCanal for a preview BluRay…if I had a first born (I don’t) I might even offer a trade! No, seriously, if they are reading this, let me know what I have to offer to get a copy.

Hyperbole aside, this is just about the perfect (non-fantasy) Ghibli film to date. I am a real fan of slice of life anime, and to see Ghibli take the genre and do something so perfect with it was a real joy. I left the screening smiling, excited and desperate to see it again. It is a film Ghibli fans will thoroughly enjoy, but more importantly it is a film to introduce non-Ghibli fans to anime and Studio Ghibli. If you know someone who is averse to monsters and fantasy, and thinks anime is just for kids, get them to see “From Up On Poppy Hill”…it will show them just what great storytelling can be done using animation, and how anime in particular, and Ghibli specifically, can tell tales in way no-one and no other medium can manage.

My score out of 5: 10 (and maybe another 10!)

Man of Steel – “best Superman film in the last 34 years”

Man of Steel Henry Cavill as Superman
Man of Steel Henry Cavill as Superman

While it’s easily the best Superman film in the last 34 years, Man of Steel could put off some longer-term fans due to playing fast and loose with what they may be expecting. Which is particularly interesting coming from Zack Snyder, whose Watchmen movie suffered from trying to stick too closely to the source material.

The film constantly raises and subverts your expectations, and as a result, at times, feels like a sequel rather than a reboot, as it deals with storyline points you wouldn’t normally expect from a film that also has to act as an origin story.

As a result, the film hits the ground moving and barely stops for breath. Disconcertingly, this means that it feels partially like Casino Royale (in slowly establishing the important elements of the character, until we finally get the recognisable and complete character) and partially like Star Trek Into Darkness (in having lots of action, with not much time to let anything settle).

There are brave story choices here, which means that you’re going to have to drop your preconceptions of what you’re looking for from a Superman movie. This may well be partially a reaction to both Watchmen and Superman Returns, both of which were overly reverent.

It’s a film about trust and faith. Now, this is where it departs from this reviewer’s usual reasons for liking Superman. The main thing I like about Superman is that he aspires to be human. Clark Kent is someone he desperately wants to be, and he sees a potential in us to be more magnificent than he can ever be. This film doesn’t have that – he is repeatedly told as he’s growing up that he’s better and more important than the rest of us. But, the film pulls it off, by turning it into a theme where Kal El desperately wants to trust us, and for us to trust him. In the moments where this works, it works magnificently. At the moments where it doesn’t work, it feels like the tagline for the movie could be “Super-Jesus is here to save us!”. But it’s more the former than the latter.

This is due, in no small part, to Henry Cavill. He inhabits the role of Superman more completely than any actor has inhabited a superhero role since Robert Downey Jr’s Iron Man. It’s also due to Zack Snyder, who has often felt like he was all about the visual over the heart, but here delivers a film with a solid emotional core. This is backed by Hans Zimmer’s score, which is generally beautiful, if possibly not quite iconic (although it may be a grower, much like his Batman scores).

This doesn’t mean there aren’t problems. Amy Adams is as watchable as ever, but she didn’t quite feel like Lois Lane. And this is important, considering that Lois Lane is one of the most iconic fictional women of the 20th Century, and not just in comic books. In early scenes, she’s tracking down this mysterious man, and it feels like, in an early draft, she was the viewpoint of the audience, and her journey would be our introduction to the character. But somewhere, it was decided that we needed to balance this with the origin of the character, which means that it doesn’t work quite as well. She’s good (it’s Amy Adams – you don’t need me to tell you that she’s good), but it didn’t feel like she lives and breathes the role quite as well as Cavill does.

Richard Schiff is, likewise, as watchable as ever, but he’s given a rather thankless role. The same with Laurence Fishbourne. In places, it feels like casting great actors has been used as a replacement for writing great characters. And be warned – you may get sick of Russell Crowe. He’s in it a lot.

Also, while there’s a scene that shows that buildings are being evacuated, it’s impossible to ignore the fact that, realistically, a lot of people die in this movie. A lot of people. Like, 9/11 level. And the film plays up that association. It’s uncomfortable at times, although it’s also fair to say that it doesn’t flinch from showing the devastation two super-powered beings fighting in a major city would cause.

If this is the start of the new DC movie universe, and if it is indeed the first step towards a Justice League movie, it’s an exciting one. Overall, it’s a bold movie which is exciting to watch, suprisingly dark in places, but centres around hope and love. It’s a fitting 75th birthday present to Superman – updating him, and allowing a lot of people to love him again.

Maniac

MANIAC
MANIAC
Told entirely from the point of view of a crazed serial killer, a young man kills women and scalps them in order to add to his collection.

Maniac has benefitted from a very strong poster, and being picked up for contention in various awards. It’s created some buzz that this remake of the 1980s slasher of the same name is actually something new and interesting, even innovative.

Sadly, it isn’t. It almost is, but it ends up delivering relatively little of interest.

Elijah Wood performs strongly, and the direction is done well enough that we get the character even despite the lack of screen time for Wood. It looks good throughout, and the special effects are very well done. There are a couple of moments of genuine tension as well.

However, there are fundamental flaws – not the least of which is the wholesale ignorance of CCTV. There’s a scene where Wood follows a girl from the Subway up through the large station, into the streets and into a car-park. It’s established that this is fairly close to the city centre as well. She’s aware he’s following her, and she’s screaming constantly. And it’s not that late either. Somehow, they don’t pass another person. It’s a long scene, too. It would appear that she’s running away from him for a good five minutes. I actually thought that it was going to turn out to be a fantasy sequence or something, but it isn’t. It’s just badly done.

This happens again and again. He’s the least subtle serial killer in a supposedly realistic stalk/slash movie I’ve ever seen. It’s a problem because it’s an update of an ‘80s movie, not a period piece. This should absolutely be taken into account, but the film hasn’t bothered doing so.

It’s a flaw in the scripting which is a consistent problem thoughout the film. It doesn’t help that it has some difficult portrayals of women throughout. They are very much there to be victims, to look pretty and to show their breasts for the most part. And, to be fair to the film-makers, none of them could complain that they haven’t been made to look good – it’s a very well shot film. But all the female roles are paper-thin, which is unfortunate, since they seem to have got some good actresses to play the parts.

There’s also the problem that Elijah Wood is somewhat miscast, although he is working hard in it. The scene mentioned above where he stalks the woman shows why. The victim is a dancer/gymnast, who is first shown doing some ribbon suspension work that suggests that she must be in phenomenal shape. And yet she runs in terror from Frodo. And she’s not the only one.

You can’t cast someone as being utterly terrifying and also cast them as someone who is mocked for being short, slight and assumed to be gay. Unassuming and terrifying is a difficult combination.

At times, it seems that serial murder is being played as an addiction. And it flirts with getting interesting when it does this. It also goes into the delusions the main character faces, and again, at times, flirts with being something new. But it ends up being rather unsatisfying.

It’s unfortunate, because it’s fairly well done, but defeated by its own lack of structure, believability and consistent tone. It’s an unpleasant, somewhat misogynistic film, but it almost does something really interesting in putting us in the killer’s point of view. It does have something of a voyeuristic thrill, but it never feels like it looks back at us and challenges us.

There are three films that have done this better, and one of them isn’t even a horror film. Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, American Psycho and the more recent Shame all deal with addiction and attitudes towards women in a far more interesting way, and all of them keep the main character front and centre in a similar way.

It may well be that I’ve overestimated the intentions of this film, but if that’s the case, they’re mis-selling it as something new and innovative, when it’s actually just a fairly well-made remake.

Oz The Great and Powerful – Review

Oz, The Great and Powerful is crammed full of the sort of visual mania you want to see from Raimi
Oz, The Great and Powerful is crammed full of the sort of visual mania you want to see from Raimi

The idea of a prequel to The Wizard of Oz isn’t a new one with Wicked already a huge success but we’ve not seen one focus so completely on the wizard before. It makes sense too, given that the wizard is so central to the plot of the original movie. Therefore, with Oz The Great And Powerful, Sam Raimi and scriptwriters Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire tell us the story of the wizard, his initial journey to Oz and wrap the origin of the Wicked Witch up in the plot for good measure.

Sam Raimi really is starting to look like a director with no front to him, a man who leaves everything on the field. If he’s happy, then you get crash zooms and visual jokes and the sort of frantic cinematic wit that has made his career ever since Evil Dead.

When he’s not happy, you get Spider-Man 3.

It’s a pleasure to report then that Oz, The Great and Powerful is crammed full of the sort of visual mania you want to see from Raimi. Even better, he clearly adopts the cinematic grammar of the time a little, opening on a boxed in black and white sequence in Kansas before expanding the frame out when we arrive in Oz, showcasing a glorious pseudo-puppet show set of opening credits and cramming the movie with moments of glorious cinematic eccentricity and some wonderfully black humour, especially the China Girl’s incredibly large knife.

The film is an absolute pleasure to watch, and the design is frankly astonishing. The moment where the soundtrack is played by musical plants the Wizard is passing is wonderful, as are the crystalline plants seen later, the Emerald City itself and the genuinely disturbing shattered remnants of Chinatown. The skewed perspective that L.Frank Baum’s original novels had is clearly something Raimi can and does connect with to tremendous effect.

The script also works well, combining a relatively standard Coming of Age plot for the Wizard with an ending which is essentially an extended love letter to theatrical magic. This is a particularly nice nod to the original movie, and also a completely fitting workaround for how you can have the traditional ‘boss fight’ at the end of the movie whilst still maintaining Oz’s inherent pacifism. The Wizard, who in the real world is a magician, uses his experience to con not only the witches but the people of Oz into thinking he’s something other than mortal. He becomes exactly what he wants to be; a great man, and the only price he has to pay is anyone outside his circle of friends ever seeing him again. A hero’s journey ending with a hero’s price and Oz newly decorated and ready for the arrival of a certain young girl in a few years’ time. It’s a smart, coherently plotted script that hits every beat and plugs seamlessly into the original. There’s just one problem;

James Franco.

   OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL Rating: PG  UK Release Date: 8 March 2013  US Relase Date: 8 March 2013  Formats: 3D and 2D

OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL
Rating: PG UK Release Date: 8 March 2013
US Relase Date: 8 March 2013
Formats: 3D and 2D
What becomes apparent very early on in the movie is what Franco is trying to do; play the role in the style of the period, crossed with the traditional Disney leading man. He’s all massive, fixed smiles, raised voices, shrieking and arm flailing and were this a few decades ago he’d fit right in. There’s something of the Dick Van Dykes to his wizard and you can’t say he holds anything back because believe me he doesn’t.

Unfortunately, none of it works. At all. The Wizard is constantly the dimmest, least likeable, loudest character in the room and after a while you just get sick of looking at him. Johnny Depp or Robert Downey Junior, originally attached to play the role, would have brought that unobtainable combination of humour, cowardice and arrogance to the role they both excel at. Franco just brings the cowardice and arrogance and it kills very nearly every scene he has stone dead. The Wizard’s a dick, it’s really that simple and when his redemption comes you’re so used to seeing him gurn and preen and wait for applause you’re waiting for it again. I’ve honestly never seen an otherwise sound movie with such a horrifically broken leading performance in it and the result is actually kind of fascinating. There’s an empty space at the middle of the movie, the smoke billowing, the curtain closed but no one behind it. As a result, you can’t help but look around at the other cast and, thankfully, they’re more than up to the task. Mila Kunis as Theodora feels a little stilted at times but her transformation is genuinely chilling and for a relatively simple set of prosthetics renders her all but unrecognisable. Likewise, Rachel Weisz as Evanora is fantastic, every inch the plausible big sister until she turns and her eyes go dead. She’s arguably the most interesting of the three and it’s a shame she doesn’t get a little more screen time. Michelle Williams initially looks like she’s fallen into the same trap as Franco, her whisper-voiced Glinda the Good Witch seeming as ephemeral as the soap bubble her kingdom is protected by. However, as the movie goes on she reveals a playful, mischievous strength to the character and even provides Franco, and the Wizard, with their single good moment when she calmly explains that she knows he’s a con man but believes in him anyway.

However, the stand outs in the cast are, oddly, both voiceover artists. Zach Braff, as Oz’s assistant in the real world and Finlay, a talking monkey who swears a life debt to him in Oz, is fantastic and holds together every single one of Franco’s scenes. He’s laconic and hysterical by turns, cheerfully off kilter and completely charming, taking a one note character and turning it into something rich and fun and interesting. Similarly Joey King, who appears as a paralyzed girl in the opening and a girl made of China, or China Girl, in Oz, does great work. It would be very easy for her to be one note once again but King brings a combination of slight mania and cheerful manipulation to the role that makes it work without ever seeming broad or once forgetting she’s a child who saw her entire village literally torn apart. If there’s an emotional heart to the movie it’s with these two and each of their scenes is a pleasure to watch, as is the excellent support work done by Bill Cobbs as the chief of the Tinkers of Oz and Tony Cox as Knuck the world’s grumpiest munchkin.

 

Finlay, a talking monkey who swears a life debt to him in Oz
Finlay, a talking monkey who swears a life debt to him in Oz

But there’s still Franco. Or rather, the lack thereof.

 

Make no mistake, Oz The Great and Powerful isn’t a bad film by any stretch. In fact it’s a very good one in a number of ways but it’s hollow, there’s absolutely no engagement with the central performance and no emotional connection at all. The Wizard smiles, screams, lies, panics, lies some more, seduces women and says ‘Zim ZALA BIM!’ roughly 800 times more than is funny or charming. I’m not even sure it’s Franco’s fault, I think he and Raimi may have aimed for a specific kind of performance and utterly, utterly failed to get near it.

Regardless, if you can get past that, and you really should, it’s a movie that’s definitely worth your time. In fact, the lousy central work is almost an incentive. After all, it’s even weirdly appropriate that for a film about the man behind the curtain, we should find no one there when we look.

 

Alasdair Stuart


The Truth About A Good Day To Die Hard

Alasdair Stuart Is A Reviewing Genius
Alasdair Stuart Is A Reviewing Genius

It’s not a Die Hard movie. Don’t worry this isn’t the lazy ‘God someone has paid me to sit on my arse and watch a movie and it’s SUCH A DRAG because it wasn’t a heartbreaking work of genius’ bullshit that some critics are especially prone to. A Good Day To Die Hard features Bruce Willis, Jai Courtney and the woman with the most anime initials ever, Mary Elizabeth Winstead as various members of the McClane family. There is punching. There is hitting. There is a tremendous amount of shooting and explosions. Blood is spilled. F bombs, 12A be damned, are well and truly dropped. It’s, some wobbly CGI aside, massive fun.

But it’s not a Die Hard movie.

It’s a Mission: Impossible movie.

And I can prove it.

Exhibit A:The Garden Ring

A crucial plot point in the movie is the lousy traffic in Moscow. You get a nice little exchange between McClane and Pavel Lychnikoff as a taxi driver about this, and how the Garden Ring is always crammed with traffic. Later, McClane realizes someone else is lying when they tell him they got somewhere quickly by using the Garden Ring. Hence, traffic saves the day.

But why is it so slow? There’s a throwaway line about how the road’s being renovated in the movie but, why is it being renovated?

Oh that’s easy.

Because of the explosion at the Kremlin in Mission:Impossible:Ghost Protocol.

The Kremlin is at the centre of the Garden Ring and it makes perfect sense that the huge destruction wrought there would still be being cleaned up. It also goes a long way towards explaining the belligerence of every Russian driver we see. They’re driving as fast and as hard as they can because they’re far too used to the city being under attack. Or asteroids falling from the sky…

Exhibit B: The Extraction

The mission Jack carries out is vintage IMF; he’s arrested and works a deal with the authorities to get near the man he’s supposed to be extracting. It’s classic IMF operating procedure for three reasons:

-Misdirection-IMF agents specialize in hiding in plain sight and taking bold, decisive action to stamp an apparent identity on the op. That’s exactly what Jack does, making no effort to cover his face, or lose a papertrail. He’s working to get caught, just like Ethan in Ghost Protocol.

-Using the system. Jack cuts a deal to be put on trial at the same time and place as Kamarov. This way, suspicion is moved away from in two ways; firstly by the fact he’s already in custody and secondly by the fact the decision to place him in the room isn’t in his hands. Oh certainly he manipulates the authorities so they have no choice but to put him there but it’s still their call, or at least, they think it is.

-Reduced Circumstances. The safehouse Jack is forced to reroute to through the interference of his father is staffed by precisely one agent. CIA would have extensive assets in the city, far more than one safehouse, one extraction point and one backup agent. IMF, still reeling from their temporary dissolution, would still be operating out of temporary safe houses like the train in Ghost Protocol and the abandoned house here.

Exhibit C: The Tradecraft

Jack McClane is a ghost, a man clearly trained to disappear into the Russian infrastructure and he does so, more than once. Over the space of the movie we see him set up a hit plausible enough to be real but without any real danger to it, lay down an escape route at minimum 24 hours before he needs it, raid a Chechen thug’s car because he knows it contains weapons and most tellingly, use a Plan C when we’ve been expressively told there is not one. Jack’s back entrance to the safehouse smacks of something only he knows and that self-reliance is absolutely what we’ve seen IMF agents without a field team demonstrate time and again.

Exhibit D: The Lack of a Field Team

We’ve already talked about how the CIA would have more assets on the ground, but IMF traditionally operate in units too. With the Kremlin disaster still fresh in their minds, Russian authorities are understandably clamping down hard on spies in town and as a result the IMF have minimal resources to deploy. Hence Jack is either operating alone, or with a CIA handler.

Exhibit E: The Target

Yuri Komarov isn’t the normal Die Hard villain by any means. He’s not a thief, exceptional or otherwise, a drug lord, a former special forces officer or an unbalanced intelligence analyst. He’s an oligarch, a Russian billionaire who got rich not just off exploiting his fellow Russians but actively killing them. He left  a scar on the Earth’s ecosystem thanks to his actions at Chernobyl and his choice to follow up on that and retrieve the weapons grade Uranium shows he’s fully prepared to do it, and worse, again. Komarov is that perfect storm; a clear and present threat to anyone he feels like. An impossibly unpredictable foe. A perfect target for the IMF.

Also, bear in mind how Mission: Impossible 3 revolves entirely around the frantic attempts to secure the Rabbit’s Foot, even though no one knows what it actually is. The IMF, much like Global Frequency, are in the business of diffusing unexploded bombs from the last century, and you don’t get much bigger than uranium from Chernobyl.

Exhibit F: Jack McClane

Jack McClane is the most insanely well trained CIA field operative in recent fictional history. We see him plan and execute a hit, construct an exit strategy, locate weapons and resources in the field, gather intelligence, engage in offensive driving, hand to hand combat, close quarter battle, fire small and heavy calibre weaponry and speak fluent Russian. He’s also clearly in extraordinary physical condition.

He’s not CIA. Or at the very least not the level of CIA he claims he is. Because whilst it’s possible that Jack is a CIA attack dog, it’s far more likely he’s an IMF pointman. After all, that exact same set of skills, and mind set, is one Jack shares with another famous fictional spy; Ethan Hunt. Of course you could also make an argument that, given his background, he’s an offshoot of one of the more humane Treadstone derivatives from the Bourne movies but that’s a whole different column…

A Good Day To Die Hard is a Mission:Impossible movie, or at least, it could be. It’s one of the things I love about modern fiction, its malleability. Die Hard and Mission:Impossible could happen in the same universe as the Bourne movies, which, in turn, take place in the same universe as David Mamet’s various dabblings with espionage fiction, Alias, and of course Chuck as well as some other unusual IMF ‘consultants’. Then on the other side of the Atlantic there’s the legacy of George Smiley, kept alive through the various Ms, the 00 section, D Section, the inimitable Harry Pearce and Tara Chace of Queen and Country. It’s the thing no one remembers about spies. They’re all so busy hiding in the shadows, none of them realize they’re all hiding in the same shadow…

The Hobbit – An Unexpected Journey – Review by Neil Gardner

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

It is Sunday evening at 6pm, and for most of the afternoon I have been sitting uncomfortably in the Odeon Leicester Square in London watching a screening of Peter Jackson’s new LOTR movie, The Hobbit. Uncomfortably not just because the film is long (too long by far), and not just because the Odeon’s seats are ruthless on your nether regions (some padding towards the rear of the seat would be nice, guys!), but because as I watched this ‘epic’ I knew I would have to write the following words:

The Hobbit is a pretty bad film

Phew, there, I’ve said it. So, let’s start with Mr Jackson’s much vaunted 48fps HFR 3D technological breakthrough. Oh dear lordy, for all that is good in the world, let this technology die right now! I am a real fan of 3D movies, thinking they often have a certain additional depth to them that helps make the movie-going experience more immersive. But guys, what the heck went wrong with The Hobbit? Are you telling me that someone has sat down, watched the film on a big screen and signed off on it?! If they have then they deserve the sack, because this film looks bad, very bad. Now, let me discuss the 48fps issue. There have been accusations from early part-screenings that this process made the film look like an HD TV series, pristine and shiny. Jackson et al claimed this was because the film hadn’t been graded, coloured, and generally ‘film-ified’ yet. “Don’t worry” they said, “it’ll look epic and grand on final release”. Well my friends, we have been duped. It looks like the shiniest of shiny things ever. Pristine is a good word for it, but STERILE is a far better one. There is rarely a scene with any ‘filmic’ feeling to it, everything is just so goddamn clean and crisp and perfect. It really DOES look like a top end HD TV production. There are a few saving graces, such as the battle scenes and the Gollum cave sequence where things get better, mostly due to interesting lighting and darkness. But overall it is all way too clean to feel like a LOTR movie. Is this the end of the world, or the very start of a new one? Who can tell. It doesn’t destroy the movie but it does lack warmth and flavour and the heightened sense of reality forces you away from the film rather than bringing you closer to it.

But that’s not the real bugbear I have with 48fps, oh no. There was a much greater, more aggravating issue. Now, it may have been a technical fault with the Odeon’s brand spanking new equipment. Possibly they don’t have it ‘run-in’ quite correctly. But throughout the screening we were subjected to sudden and terrible speed-ups, where a person would be moving across screen and suddenly speed up for a second or two. Or when they were talking. Or during a battle scene. Or…well, so often I lost count. It was as if the film were buffering and catching up with itself. A symptom of 48fps technology and all-digital prints & projectors? I know not, but it really did destroy the film for me, it was like adding a Benny Hill sketch into an epic Western. Utter technical failure. End of story.

Dwarves - THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY, a Warner Bros. Pictures release.
Dwarves Group Shot

So what then of the Jackson claim that 48fps would enhance the Real3D experience and make the movie more immersive? Well, it might have if not for all of the above and the fact that it seems WETA allowed the work experiencers to do the CGI and blending. The Hobbit never once achieved what the previous LOTR films managed 90% of the time, and that was to blend the CG with the real and make it all seem as one. In scene after eye-sapping scene the CGI backgrounds and creatures looked like badly layered early 2000’s computer game characters. In fast moving scenes actors appeared completely disconnected from their surroundings. Feet floated above and away from CGI landscapes, and as for poorly matted and layered…don’t get me started. Who cleared this film for theatrical release? Technologically the 3D (except in close-ups and real landscape shots), looked cartoonish and low resolution. The blending of real and CGI was cringe-worthy, and the sense that you were watching a 10-15 year old computer game cut-scene built throughout the movie. If you HAVE to see this movie, see it in 2D, because the 3D print is truly lamentable.

So that is the technology considered, but what about the story, the plot, the purpose of the movie? Well, it’s not terrible. I honestly can’t say it is epic, or thrilling or life-changing. The sense of scope and proportion wanders between small and personal to grand and majestic. But it does so with stops and starts, stumbles and staggers. Rarely does The Hobbit flow from scene to scene. It is as though everything we loved about Peter Jackson’s vision and style in LOTR has been erased by The Lovely Bones and replaced by whip-pans, juddery camera moves and just-a-fraction-too-early editing style. Add in some often-wooden, occasionally forest-like acting (sorry Sir Christopher and Sir Ian!) and a dearth of believable side-characters and you are left with a movie that is an hour too long, and a soul too missing. Not to say there aren’t some good performances…Martin Freeman owns the role of Bilbo and is immediately loveable and relatable. King Thorin and a few of the dwarves are likeable and well-rounded. But Gandalf feels lacking in purpose or reason, Sir Ian offering a muted and not altogether weighty performance. Hugo Weaving appeared to have phoned his Elrond in from another film-set (while doing his best to sound like David Bowie in Labyrinth), and Sir Christopher Lee’s CGI’d in Saruman was so lacking in spirit it was a geek-tragedy. But in all this there was one shining light…the brilliant Sylvester McCoy as Radagast the Brown was pitch-perfect, mysterious and loopy yet courageous and outrageous. A true Tolkien character brought to life with flair and charm. If only the rest of the film could have been populated by such well-crafted and well-acted characters.

Congratulations to the Gollum team who produced another unsurpassed moment of movie magic

Once again, Andy Serkis comes to the rescue (although possibly not in his role of second-unit director). The scenes with Gollum and Bilbo under the mountain playing a game of riddles are superb. The CGI is magical, the setting exquisite, the lighting and blending spot-on. Why oh why couldn’t the rest of the film have been made with such love and care? Gollum is a whole new creature here, expressive and exciting, terrifying and unstable. You feel the threat he poses, and yet you continue to sympathise with him. His look of pain, anguish and sadness at losing his precious is heartbreaking. Congratulations to the Gollum team who produced another unsurpassed moment of movie magic.

While in no way perfect, the story is certainly interesting and stays pretty close to the book. The additions of some Dwarf/Orc history are superbly handled (with some of the better CGI work employed here). It is to the film’s credit that the backstory to the Dwarf’s quest is explained so well and so succinctly. I’m not so sure about some of the ‘fan service’ additions, such as lines repeated from the original trilogy, and knowing nods and winks. But all in all the film trots along its trail without too many stumbles. Sadly, our return to Rivendell is marred by it looking like a matte-painting taken from a late 80s kids TV show. In fact a lot of the film feels oddly akin to a Russell T Davies CBBC series…lots of running around in front of green-screen and a set of CGI backgrounds that feel like updates on the old Captain Zep early 80s technology. My over-riding thought throughout The Hobbit was that I was hankering after watching some classic Knightmare episodes, rather than wanting to keep watching the film. I might just do that, or put Labyrinth on…something with way more character, soul and sense of the epic.

I really was looking forward to The Hobbit. While the book is certainly a classic, it has never been a rip-roaring adventure tale. However, the masterpieces that were the original LOTR trilogy had me believing Peter Jackson & co would pull something special out of their knapsack. Unfortunately all they’ve done is tire my bottom out, give me a sense of loss and annoyance, and made me want to go find the person who is pushing 48fps Real3D technology and introduce them to the words ‘Over my dead body!’

With the Hobbit we return to Middle Earth, but it isn’t how we remember it. It is all shiny and computery and cut-sceney. It is full of pixels and cartoonish speed-ups. It groans with the weight of expectation and falls flat on its need for putting technology before storytelling. Please Mr Jackson, re-grade and re-colourise the film, put it in 2D and turn the volume down just a tad…cut about 40-60 mins from it and sort out the lack of scope. THEN I’ll be the first in line to buy the Blu-ray edition!

The Expendables 2 Review

The Expendables 2 Poster
Stallone. Statham. Schwarzenegger. Willis. Van Damme. Norris. Lundgren. Li. Crews. Couture. Somewhere, Steven Segal is sitting looking at his phone, still waiting for it to ring.

The Expendables 2 is a deeply, deeply stupid movie in which any problem that cannot be solved with a gun can be solved by using a bigger gun. It’s also a very smart movie, that uses the fact that you already know what the movie is going to be and delivers it.

I’m going to mostly avoid spoilers, however the movie is as predictable as the McBain films from The Simpsons. The character who, twenty minutes in, you just know is going to die at some point? Yeah, of course they die. Because it’s that kind of movie. And you know it’s going to happen pretty much the first time you see them. But that’s fine, because what The Expendables 2 is selling is predictability.

If you’ve seen the first movie, you’ve more or less seen this one. Some bad guys take over a place, and Sylvester Stallone, Jason Statham, Bruce Willis and…well, lots and lots of action stars commit unspeakable acts of violence until everything is okay again.

The main difference between this one and the last is that they’ve stopped even pretending to be taking it seriously. Any of the ‘dark’ scenes are done with tongue planted so firmly in cheek that they were getting some of the biggest laughs in the audience. It’s a film in which even the vehicles appear to have tattoos with phrases like ‘Lock and Load’ on them. It’s a film in which, as seen in the trailer, two major action stars get into a small electric car and fire machine guns out of the windows. It’s a film in which Jean Claude Van Damme kicks a knife into someone.

We also get to learn a little more about some of the characters, and the same easy charm continues from the last film. The stuff we learn doesn’t really mean anything, but that’s not important.

The biggest trick they really use is to use what we know about the actors as a short-hand for character. Stallone plays Stallone. Arnie plays Arnie. Chuck Norris plays Chuck Norris, along with jokes about Chuck Norris Facts. Dolph Lundgren plays Dolph Lundgren, even to the point of making jokes about his chemical engineering qualifications.

Is it a good movie? No, not at all. It’s stilted, it’s predictable and it’s deeply stupid and bordering on sexist. But is it fun? Yes. It’s a lot of fun, in exactly the same way as the McBain movies are. Imagine a film-length version of them, except with many more film actors other than an Arnie character. Then you’ve basically got The Expendables.

Nobody is going to see this expecting it to be anything other than what it is. And in terms of delivering what you expect, it succeeds perfectly. The opening scene is more over the top than anything from the previous movie. And there’s a lot of meta-humour going on. And the violence is dealt out in an entertaining way, and the new cast members mesh well with the returning ones.

So, if you liked the first one, this is more of the same. If you didn’t, it’s silly enough that you may prefer it, but it’s probably going to annoy you in the same way.