Monday, 31 March 2014

20 Feet from Stardom – Infectious Enthusiasm

Many people claimed the Academy Awards went soft when they opted for the feel-good music doc, ’20 Feet from Stardom’, over ‘The Act of Killing’, the grim story of Indonesian war criminals, for last year’s ‘Best Documentary Feature’.

To be honest, they've got a point. Whereas, ‘Killing’ was a deeply disturbing exploration of the depths of human inhumanity, albeit an ultimately unsuccessful one, ‘Stardom’ deals with something a whole lot more heart-warming; the untold story of African American backing singers throughout the 20th century.

Most of the movie conforms to this. The filmmakers effectively blend (occasionally mega-famous) talking heads with archive footage and moving reunion sessions, and the incredible personalities on show ensure it’s both insightful and entertaining.

However, they also overcome the soppiness by including a set of conflicts and, though small-scale, some of them really hit home. But, it’s the feel-good sections that really shine because, ultimately, it’s a movie about the soul of singing and the thrills that can bring. It may touch upon politics, both racial and sexual, but ‘Stardom’ is a movie defined by its charming leads. Even when they linger slightly too long on any particular issue, the movie pulls it back with smile on its face and music in its heart.

Deserving of its Oscar? On this evidence, absolutely.


Thursday, 27 March 2014

Captain America: The Winter Soldier – The Eagle has Landed

Marvel Studios is one of the great cinematic success stories of recent years. You only need to look back to the late 90s and they were selling off all their movie rights to 3rd party companies in a desperate bid to raise funds. But, since Disney acquired them in 2009, they've been slowly reclaiming all their properties . . . and making one hell of an awesome franchise of their own.

Kevin Feige’s name gets thrown around constantly but, as the uber-producer/orchestrator of this new superhero movement, he can’t be praised enough. Not only has he developed one of the most cohesive and integrated movie universes to have ever hit our screens, but he continues to make fantastic movies; ‘Captain America: The Winter Soldier’ being the latest.

Cap's first big-screen outing was most notable for its gloriously realised classic war movie feel and, in a strange way, ‘The Winter Soldier’ aims for something similar. But, instead of the Second World War, this sequel deals with 21st century conflicts. Gone are the black and white bad guys, and in their place is something far more subtle, far more complex and, ultimately, far more modern.

S.H.I.E.L.D. has been compromised, as Nick Fury reveals early on in the movie, and it’s up to Cap and his band of surviving S.H.I.E.L.D. operatives to neutralise the threat as close to its source as possible. Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely, the writers, take this template and use it to deal with issues of terrorism, corporate crime and international subterfuge, resulting in much of the film playing out as a superpowered political thriller.

But that’s where Feige comes in . . . because the Marvel universe is so well-established, the film can exploit the audience’s relationships with these characters to devastating effect. Most of these characters have been in at least three movies now, and the threat suddenly feels that much more real when these seemingly-immortal figures are in danger. Not since ‘The Joker’ has a superhero movie featured such a terrifying villain and The Winter Soldier, and his bosses, aim straight for the heart with soul-destroying accuracy.

I felt genuinely shaken up by some of the early action scenes because the directors, Anthony & Joe Russo, ratchet the tension up to unbearable levels with their kinetic camera work and their bone-crunching portrayal of violence.

Even the mildly campy reveal of the true evil is handled with care and a sense of old-school charm and, when the finale goes on for one or two explosions too many, everything is brought back by Steve Roger’s admirable, and refreshing (*cough* 'Man of Steel' *cough*), moral compass.

In fact, Chris Evans makes for a truly captivating screen presence, as does newcomer Anthony Mackie who is given plenty to do . . . and deservedly so. His character is a welcome introduction, partly because we've finally got an African American Avenger, but also because his origin story, while tragic, isn't drowned in self-pity. In a way, he just seems to be out for a good time and that makes him great to watch.

In fact, there are a number of superior performances. Scarlett Johansson is now so confident in her role, and she tears it up in the best portrayal of ‘Black Widow’ so far. Robert Redford also pulls off his character with aplomb, and he’s one of the reasons the political thriller elements seem so well-judged.

As well as feeling like a wholly satisfying stand-alone movie, ‘The Winter Soldier’ also sets up some thrilling crossovers down the line. Particularly for 'Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.' which is left in a really interesting place as it heads towards this season’s finale . . . I just hope a TV budget can do it justice because there’s some real dramatic weight there to play with. And, as always, stay for the entirety of the credits because both stings brought me out in fits of gleeful geek-giggles.

Marvel has done it again. ‘The Winter Soldier’ is gripping popcorn entertainment and one of their best efforts so far.


Monday, 24 March 2014

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. #1.12 – ‘Seeds’ Review

You know those complex emotions I was talking about in last week's review? Well they nailed it this week . . .

Like so many episodes, ‘Seeds’ starts out as a generic mystery-of-the-week but, unlike many of its predecessors, that’s just the beginning.

The team are called to the S.H.I.E.L.D. academy to investigate some near-murderous freshman pranks. However, they soon discover there are some sinister forces at work and, for once, the links back to previous episodes are effective and feel well-integrated. Which is good news, because the post-credits sting suggests we’re in for a whole lot more of that stuff.

The writers also take a moment to address Skye’s past and we’re finally given some actual information, rather than the hazy teases up until now. It’s this sequence that delivers on the emotions the show has been missing, and the relationship between Skye and Coulson is blossoming into something truly intriguing. It’s also only helped by their ever-improving performances and Clark Gregg (Coulson), in particular, is somehow still finding new depths to a character he’s been playing for years.

‘Seeds’ feels self-contained but also part of something far greater and, as a result, it stands out as one of the better episodes so far.


Friday, 21 March 2014

The Devil’s Rejects – A (Mixed) Bag of Bones

If Rob Zombie’s The Devil’s Rejects lacks anything, it’s consistency; consistency of tone and, more importantly, consistency of morals . . .

It all starts well enough as we’re introduced to a family of, apparently real-life, psychopaths getting their farmhouse raided by the police. The shootout that ensues is a suitably bombastic opening, and it results in two of the family members escaping. They then get in contact with the utterly evil Captain Spaulding (Sid Haig), who spends most of the movie plastered in freaky clown make up, and head off away from the cops. This section really shines as a surreal and totally twisted road-movie, especially thanks to Zombie’s unconventional, but often inspired, musical choices. It also gives the three escapees a chance to have fun with their roles, and all three of them deliver remarkably accomplished performance. And kudos, especially, to Haig's eyes, which are as creepy as anything in the film.

But, if the scariest thing in a horror movie is a guy’s eyes, you know something’s going wrong and the film soon descends into sheer depraved sadism. In particular, one scene of extreme, prolonged police brutality leaves a sour taste in the mouth.

But then everything’s back to normal for the finale. The final sequence showcases everything great about The Devil’s Rejects; it’s terrific to look at, features a great choice of music and just oozes style. It’s really, really impressive.

I just wish Rob Zombie would kick his habit of wasting his talent on sickening sleaze.


Monday, 17 March 2014

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. #1.11 – ‘The Magical Place’ Review

After a three-month hiatus, Marvel’s blockbuster TV show is back on our screens and, whether you like it or not, everything’s pretty much as we left it; Coulson’s been kidnapped by Centipede and our team are out to find him.

In a way, it seems like they used the break to temper our expectations after the bombastic finale of episode 10, because this week’s instalment takes far too long to get into its stride and many of the real cliffhanger shocks are left unexplored. That being said, the revelatory final ten minutes are surprisingly moving, even if the writers pretty much stick to the easiest possible route.

The production values are still impressive – especially the much-improved shots of ‘The Bus’ – but the writers are yet to solve many of the underlying issues. But, if they continue to address increasingly complex emotions, I still think they can get there.


Friday, 14 March 2014

12 Years a Slave – Understated to a T

There are two types of movies in some people’s eyes – Oscar contenders and everything else – which makes differentiating between the two groups easy. Oscar movies are worthy, moving, insightful and important. Everything else is . . . less-so. When playing by these rules, 12 Years a Slave seems like perfect Oscar-bait, but I’d like to think Steve McQueen, the film’s director, wasn't so cynical.

The thing is, 12 Years a Slave isn't the movie I expected at all. I’d anticipated, and kind of wanted, a film about slavery to be loud and forceful in its messages, to be a damnation of such a heinous disregard of human rights. But, McQueen avoids this sense of urgency in favour of something far more sedate. The film meanders through Solomon Northup’s tale and takes it’s time to instil an air of spiritualistic reflection.

Much has been said about McQueen’s unfaltering eye when it comes to violence and, like many others, I found it shocking; unbearably so, in some instances. But, for some reason, it never made me feel angry and I never felt the urge to fight back  . . . unless Northup wanted to.  

In fact, the film builds a remarkable connection to its lead character. Northup is a good man, that much is true, but is he a great one? It’s remarkable that he lived to tell the tale but he wasn’t much of a fighter, he never wreaked holy vengeance on his captors, he just survived.

But whether he was a great man or not, this is Northup’s story and McQueen makes sure it stays that way. His camera remains distant, yet ever-watching, and it spends just as much time skirting nearby lakes as it does focused in on bloodied backs.

So, in the end, 12 Years a Slave isn't a film that demands your attention, instead, it’s a film that merely suggests it may be worthy of it.


Monday, 10 March 2014

Jarhead – If we don't end war, war will end us*

As is seemingly so common with war, what starts out as a bit of a jolly soon gets super serious, super quick in Sam Mendes’ (him of ‘Skyfall’ fame) Gulf War movie, ‘Jarhead’.

Jake Gyllenhaal plays Anthony Swofford, a small-town joker who is rapidly straightened out by the robotic routine of the military and later by the interminable boredom of the early stages of that particular conflict. The films also uses Swofford’s character development as a tonal blueprint and, from the off, a sense of reflection and world-weariness slowly creeps across the picture. This is accompanied by an ever-growing air of mysticism, thanks to some increasingly obtuse imagery.

Such imagery is brilliantly captured by Mendes’ exquisite eye and he draws a dramatic beauty from the deserts of Kuwait in the movie’s second hour. A combination of the pitch-perfect costume design and the use of a sand-coloured filter does a really effective job of dropping you right in the action.

But what action? And that’s the point, really. For all the hype and jingoism, Kuwait was a tough time – both for the governments involved and for the troops on the front line – and ‘Jarhead’ brings those troops’ stories to life. There are moments of real humour but, ultimately, you’re left with a sense of melancholic deflation. An experience best summed up by Jamie Foxx’s Staff Sgt. Sykes. Foxx does a barnstorming job of delivering the comedy but, towards the end, his character’s true nature is revealed. He’s a junkie, a junkie for that most destructive of drugs; war.


*as said by H. G. Wells

Friday, 7 March 2014

Masters of Sex – Season 1 Review

Airing on Showtime (and Channel 4, in the UK) last autumn, the first season of ‘Masters of Sex’ detailed the trials and tribulations of William Masters (Michael Sheen) and Virginia Johnson (Lizzy Caplan), the research team whose ground-breaking study into human sexuality in the 50s led the way for a cultural revolution.

It all starts well enough and the first few episodes are suitably engaging, but they’re most notable for a keen eye for period detail and a selection of very accomplished performances; Caplan, in particular, who acts as a real fulcrum for the drama. But, it’s only in the fifth episode when the drama begins to match the pitch-perfect production values.  The tragic events of ‘Catherine’ hit me unexpectedly hard and suddenly made me realise just how much I cared about these characters.

It’s remarkable because, on paper, it seems to be a story lacking any obvious drama. But the writers draw out some effective twists and turns from the otherwise history-book structure of the narrative. However, even with these major plot-points, the show is mostly left to its own devices, ebbing and flowing through its tale.

The show’s structure is also unconventional for its selectiveness. Episodes are often set months apart and these narrative gaps remain both unexplained and unexplored. In fact, the writers could have taken this even further and dismissed a number of inconsequential and misplaced subplots, particularly a couple of character miss-turns early on in the season. In the end, you almost get the feeling the writers wished they had because the vast majority of these plotlines are forgotten about by the time we reach the finale. As a result, a 10-episode season would've been more than adequate, especially compared to the slightly flabby 12-hour beast we were left with.

One thing the writers didn't slip up on, however, is the laughs. Thanks to some masterful character work, they've crafted a delightful vein of humour to run throughout the drama. Side-characters drift in and out of focus, sometimes delivering drama and sometimes comedy, and it’s great to see such a large cast all feeling fully fleshed out. It’s also a relief to see so little of the humour focusing on the cruder elements and, instead, it all plays out very naturally.

‘Masters of Sex’ is a tragic tale of a man who can read a woman’s orgasm better than he can read her feelings and, when it eventually gets going, that turns out to be a damn good set-up for a TV show.


Wednesday, 5 March 2014

The Burning Times – My psychology teacher’s written a book!

. . . Sounds like a slightly pointless public information pamphlet.

But, no, he actually has. And, it’s not even a mind-numbing research paper, it’s a fun book full of derring-do and witches and stuff.

In the past month alone, he’s published the first two instalments of an ongoing five-part fantasy series known as ‘The Burning Times’ . . . all while teaching full-time.  And, so his immensely enviable productivity doesn't go totally unnoticed, I’d like to tell you about it.

I was one of the first in line to download ‘Tinderspark’, the first book, and I’d planned to review it on the site to try and spread the word a bit. But, for the past few weeks, my ‘Kindle for PC’ app has been left hovering on the ‘34% read’ mark. Now, this isn't due to any negative feelings towards the book – it’s a thoroughly enjoyable, tightly-woven romp through the fantasy-tinged forests of central Europe during the witch-hunts – instead, it’s a failure on my part. I've just got so bad at reading. Why is watching movies so easy!!

But still, I planned on waiting until I’d reached that 100% mark . . . until a day or two ago, when I was called to arms by this;

An article detailing Mr Rowe’s futile struggle against the hopelessly unambitious and achingly hypocritical local paper; a publication that has repeatedly turned down my request for a work experience placement . . . not that I'm bitter or anything (I'm not, honest!). It’s just such a shame that when they finally have something interesting to talk about, they dismiss it as being too repetitive.

So, instead, I would like to give Jonathan Rowe a ringing endorsement. It’s hard writing five full-length novels, and it’s even harder building an audience.

I may only have a fraction of the readership of the Spalding Guardian, but please take a moment to lose yourself in the world of Quality Durrand, the fire-haired Tinderspark.

And sorry to bombard you with links but here goes . . .

Jonathan Rowe’s Twitter, Facebook and Weebly

Book 1, ‘Tinderspark’, can be sampled and purchased here and book 2, ’Hexenfire’, here.

Monday, 3 March 2014

Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol – Why doesn't it work?

There’s a lot to like about the latest Mission Impossible movie. It’s action-packed, features a strong cast and looks absolutely incredible, but its globetrotting escapades left me feeling pretty cold. So what on earth is the problem?

It may be Tom Cruise; someone who I've never bought as any kind of action hero . . . especially not when he’s pushing fifty. He’s just too po-faced to be enjoyable and you get the feeling he’s trying just that little bit too hard. Yes, it’s remarkable that he’s still up for throwing himself out of buildings just for a movie, but his effort can’t make up for his total inability to balance the action and the laughs.

That being said, the writers must take some of the blame. They write a damn good action set-piece, but they really seem to struggle with character-driven moments and both Cruise’s Hunt and Paula Patton's Carter are hopelessly ill-fitted. Admittedly, they fare better when it comes to Simon Pegg's Dunn, and his charm is one of the most enjoyable things about the movie.

If there’s going to be a part five, I just hope they finally make the move to drop Cruise and promote Jeremy Renner's Brandt into the lead role. He’s far better suited to the tongue-in-cheek thrills the series has always strived for. If that happens, I'm in . . . if not, then thanks, but no thanks.