Monday, 28 April 2014

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. #1.17 – ‘Turn, Turn, Turn’ Review

An expert, if exploitative, blend of crosses and double crosses provides the driving force for this week’s episode. After a swing this way and major swing that, ‘Turn, Turn, Turn’ develops, and maintains, a heightened sense of confusion. Just like the characters, I had no idea who to trust . . . and, just like the characters, it ended up being no one.

And talking of trust issues, Brett Dalton (Agent Ward) gives what is probably his most impressive performance so far . . . and all in the final few seconds. I never thought he had it in him, but he left me absolutely devastated.

While the pace may not be quite as relentless as last week’s heart-racing instalment, ‘Turn, Turn, Turn’ is another thrilling post-Captain America episode and I cannot reinforce enough just how exciting it is to see TV and movies blurred together like this.


Thursday, 24 April 2014

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 – Too many villains spoil the broth?

Spider-Man has always been the kid of the superhero world.

That was Stan Lee’s aim when he created the character way back in 1962. Spider-Man wasn't a secretive billionaire or an alien; he was a teenager, just like any other . . . but with one great big secret.

And ‘The Amazing Spider-Man 2’ certainly does it’s darnedest to honour that. Although Andrew Garfield still looks a good few years older than the supposedly college-age Peter Parker, he’s clearly written as a teenager; he listens to indie music, he’s occasionally whip-smart and he spends most of his time worrying about his girlfriend. All that stuff is good, but it’s the less appealing ‘teenage’ traits that bring the film down.

Every time new villain, Electro, is on screen he’s accompanied by a strange dubstep theme and, while it may be all hippity-hop and ‘down with the kids’, it just ends up seeming rather ugly. Especially when integrated with Hans Zimmer’s somewhat bland, but occasionally stirring score.

The film’s also as messy and disorganised as a teenager’s bedroom. There’s some self-discovery going on over here, a Saturday morning cartoon over there and a great deal of rushed world-building trying to tie the whole thing together.

In an attempt to capture some of that Marvel magic, Sony have crammed as many character set-ups as possible into the totally unnecessary two and half hour running time. They go hell for leather throwing everything and the kitchen sink at the screen. Electro, The Green Goblin and The Rhino all make appearances, and there are multiple hints towards the wider Spider-Man rogues gallery. It’s all a bit much, frankly.  

It’s a shame, because having gathered a trio of such high calibre actors to play the villains (Jamie Foxx, Dane DeHaan and Paul Giamatti, respectively) you would have thought they’d each have been given some space. Giamatti, in particular, is given just a sliver of screen time and, for now at least, they could have hired any old bald guy. As for DeHaan, he makes a better Harry Osborn than James Franco did all those years ago, but he lacks the chilling menace he’s delivered so effectively in the past. The same can be said for Foxx; although he gets the most attention, his origin story is rushed, goofy and ultimately inconsequential. He feels invisible and becomes envious of Spider-Man’s fame and, with this, the writers aimed for a single tragic character trait for him, but it never truly strikes a chord and he’s left feeling wafer-thin.

That being said, his zip-zapping fights are distracting enough, but they flash from the memory as fast as he does and, instead, it’s the small moments that stick. The interplay between Garfield’s Parker and Emma Stone’s Gwen Stacy has been much lauded, and rightly so because they bounce off each other delightfully. They’re charming and thoroughly wholesome characters played by a pair of magnificent young actors. So why did the emotional bombshell leave me feeling cold . . .

Weak performances? Not a chance. The overly-computerised visuals? Maybe. Crash-bang-wallop fatigue? Most definitely. The mass destruction just moments before had dulled me to the deafening sound of a teardrop, and that’s hugely disappointing.

‘The Amazing Spider-Man 2’ is an over-stuffed superhero movie, but the core values of the character remain resolute and I can’t think of any better actor to bring that to our screens.


Monday, 21 April 2014

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. #1.16 – ‘End of the Beginning’ Review

‘Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’ really zips along when it gets going, and this week’s episode is probably the best example of that so far.

‘End of the Beginning’ is forty minutes of pure espionage thrills. The hunt is on for The Clairvoyant and the scene is set for a number of impressive action scenes, crosses, double crosses and a few moments of sheer delirium.

The first tremors are felt in the aftermath of Captain America 2 and there look to be some major shocks down the line. In fact, shocks so big Marvel felt that a post-credits sting was unnecessary . . . which is a major break from tradition.

By the end of the episode, these characters have no idea what’s going on and it’s glorious. Agent Coulson, a man usually so restrained, is totally in the dark for probably the first time in his S.H.I.E.L.D. career and his breakdown adds real weight to the finale.

Anyone who’s seen 'Captain America: The Winter Soldier' will have been waiting with bated breath, but it's finally arrived and ‘Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’ will never be the same again.


Friday, 18 April 2014

The Place Beyond the Pines – Three for the Price of One

Derek Cianfrance’s ‘The Place Beyond the Pines’ is essentially made up of three extended vignettes. The first sees Ryan Gosling playing a taciturn anti-hero drawn into a life of crime (. . . again). The second sees Bradley Cooper playing an upstanding New York cop who sets off on a one-man mission to expose the vice-ridden corruption in the force. The third, and final, section sees Dane DeHaan as a young delinquent trying to come to terms with his past.

Each segment is led superbly and it would have been hard to pick a better triptych of actors. All three more than hold their own and they each bring something new to the table, whilst maintaining a through-line of classical performance. Cianfrance also draws equally impressive turns from his diverse cast of secondary actors. He provides them all with the same naturalistic dialogue he wrote so well for his previous film, ‘Blue Valentine’, and they deliver it exquisitely.

The three parts are blended well and they feel cohesive, whilst all having a distinct feel to them. Though the quality remains immensely high throughout, the final third feels the least polished. It often wanders off track and it lacks the brooding nature of the Gosling scenes and the moral conundrums of Cooper’s segment. That being said, it was always going to be the most difficult to pull-off. DeHaan’s Jason is troubled (to say the least) and, for that reason alone, the consistency was destined to fluctuate.

With this and ‘Blue Valentine’, Derek Cianfrance is shaping up to be one of the most promising young directors working today. I can’t wait to see what he tackles next.


Monday, 14 April 2014

Locke – The Concrete Enigma

It’s not often that I'm caught completely off-guard by a movie, but Locke did just that.

Going in expecting a gruff British gangster thriller, Steven Knight’s (writer & director) reflective character study came as quite a shock.

Tom Hardy plays Mr Nice Guy, Ivan Locke, who decides to drive off into the night on his way home from the building site he’s working on. And, before we really get a chance to know the man, his whole world is turned upside down as we realise he’s got a serious mess to clean up.

From the moment Locke gets into his car, the camera never leaves the vehicle – or Hardy’s side – for the following 90 minutes. Just like ‘Buried’ a few years back, Knight remarkably manages to find endless angles in such a restricted space. He transcends the confines of Hardy’s vehicle and makes the whole piece feel infinitely larger in scale. It really is a remarkable technical achievement.

In fact, Knight also perfectly captures the monotonous beauty of night-time motorway driving. Those roads seem endlessly mundane, but almost hypnotic, and his use of street lighting is really effective.

With Hardy being the only actor on screen for the entirety of the movie, the narrative plays out in a series of phone calls. The vocal performances are variable in quality, but they deliver a select few moments of real pain and anguish. However, in the end, their sole purpose is to give Hardy something to act against and, while his accent wobbles, his physical performance is truly impressive. He makes particular use of his eyes, and a number of facial tics are devastatingly effective.

While Locke’s strange fixation with all things concrete is understandably rather difficult to relate to and even though his behaviour is often erratic, there’s a great deal of shared ground with the character. And it’s when the tears start to flow that you finally realise you’re on this guy’s side. He’s got some major issues, but he seems to be a nice guy and it’s empowering to see him tackling his problem head-on. It’s this exploratory character study that stands out as the crux of the whole movie.

Don’t let the poster, the title or the star fool you, Locke is no British crime thriller. It’s a movie about concrete, motorways and Tom Hardy’s beard . . . and it’s quietly wonderful.

Friday, 11 April 2014

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. #1.15 – ‘Yes Men’ Review

‘Yes Men’ stands as the third Thor crossover episode and, like 'The Well' and 'Repairs' before it, it’s great seeing the nine realms colliding onto on screens. That being said, the links don’t quite seem as relevant this time round and the fun, but fluffy, adventure comes as quite a disappointing change of pace considering the momentum the writers have worked so hard to build up over the last few weeks . . . but it was never going to last forever, I suppose.

Lady Sif, the badass warrior seen beating up the Destroyer in ‘Thor’ and falling for the big man himself in its sequel 'Thor: The Dark World', beams herself down to Earth (very spectacularly, I might add) in order to stop Lorelei, the evil seductress we met at the end of last week’s episode.

The Skye-rescue plot strand seems virtually wrapped up, save for a few lingering mysteries, and the team instead focus on this new threat. The action’s impressive and it’s great seeing Sif working alongside the team. But this week also lacks the dramatic heft of the recent episodes and, while some of the humour is thoroughly enjoyable, very little of the drama felt all that important in the grander scheme of things . . . but I may be wrong, of course.


Monday, 7 April 2014

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. #1.14 – ‘T.A.H.I.T.I.’ Review

Like 'T.R.A.C.K.S.' before it, ‘T.A.H.I.T.I.’ carries straight on from last week’s episode. Skye’s condition is critical and Coulson’s only option is to try and do to her what S.H.I.E.L.D. did to him after his death during ‘The Avengers’. Their search takes them to a secret facility known as ‘The Guest House’ and, while searching for a cure, Coulson soon discovers that he’s still a long way from knowing the truth about his magical recovery.

Though saving Skye is the primary objective throughout the episode, it’s Coulson’s journey that provides the real driving force. Clark Gregg, again, delivers another nuanced performance and the writers perfectly balance satisfying answers with a whole set of new mysteries.

This week’s episode also delivers one of the best supporting characters so far. Bill Paxton’s Agent Garrett is a seasoned S.H.I.E.L.D. operative and he fits into the team seamlessly. His rapport with each of the characters is supremely well-handled and his return can’t come round soon enough.

The ‘small’ moments are moving (Skye) and the ‘big’ moments are breath-taking (the superb special effects) in what is quite possibly the most-accomplished Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. episode so far.


Sunday, 6 April 2014

Noah – The Bible just got Biblical!

Controversy gets people talking. I mean, would Noah be the film on everyone’s lips if the studio and the director (Darren Aronofsky) hadn't each fought so fiercely for the final cut, or if they hadn't gone in search of that all-important papal blessing? Probably not, but fortunately we can finally focus on the movie now.

In a way, Noah’s a film that says ‘you know the story, but what of the man?’ However, that’s the least interesting part of the film. Russell Crowe's Noah is fiercely passionate, but stuck in his ways. He’s a perfectly normal, and totally flawed, individual caught up in ‘The Creator’s’ master plan.

And what a plan . . . from the glorious forests springing up out of the barren wasteland to the mesmerising fast-track evolution sequence, the film really hits its stride when the humans are left out of the equation. The visuals are often stunning and they speak louder than any of the drama. Throughout the course of the narrative, we come to learn that humans are the weak link on Earth . . . just as they are in the movie.

That isn't always the case, though, and many of early scenes do a good job of balancing the epic with the personal. At first, Noah tries to avoid drinking from the poisoned cup of modern society, with all its depressingly damning, vice-ridden filth and Tubal-Cain and his people are kept at arm’s length. It’s during these early scenes that the antagonists seem at their most threatening. However, when Ray Winstone's Cain finally makes an appearance, the threat is somewhat diminished, and  the film starts losing track.

Pretty much the entirety of the second half is set on the ark and, while the haunting cries for help seem promising at first, Cain’s influence is unwelcome. The whole dramatic ark (no pun intend) crashes down to Earth. Gone are the tragic, and effectively animated, ‘Watchers’ and the terrifying dream sequences, and in their place we’re given a misjudged procreation parable. The film finally tips over into overly preachy territory and a great deal of the magic is lost. Sweeping cameras and rousing scores are replaced with mundane family bickering and many of the performances lose their focus, as a result. It’s telling that, in the end, the most well-rounded performance comes from Anthony Hopkins as Noah’s grandfather, Methuselah, who’s pretty much forgotten about in the second half.

The morality tale is also often uncomfortably harsh and what starts out as a delicately handled environmental message soon runs dangerously close to alienating brutality. And guess when this pessimism kicks in? Yep, the second half . . . got it in one.

It’s a shame that a film with a first half as bold, brave and beautiful as Noah’s confines itself, both physically and philosophically, to such a muted final hour.


Thursday, 3 April 2014

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. #1.13 – ‘T.R.A.C.K.S.’ Review

Although I've tried my best to avoid any S.H.I.E.L.D. spoilers, the fact that Channel 4 are a good month or so behind the ABC broadcasts means it’s so easy to pick up little titbits here and there.

While I've managed to avoid most of the plot spoilers, I've been helpless when it comes to cast interview snippets. Iain De Caestecker, in particular, made one comment about the show becoming more serialised and drifting away from its procedural roots. But, until now, I hadn't quite known what he was going on about . . .

For only the second time, episode 13 kicks off straight after the events from the end of 'Seeds' last week; the team are on the hunt for Quinn, the one person they’re certain can lead them to the mysterious Clairvoyant.

Their search takes them to Italy, where a mysterious package is being transported on a cross-country train. The team are soon forced to split up and the first half of the episode explores each character’s individual adventure. In a twist on the standard formula, this section plays out in non-chronological order, which develops an interesting sense of mystery. We’re left to piece all the strands together and it provides a mildly distracting sense of audience involvement, however the stakes don’t feel high enough to make the audience really work for the answers. Instead, each reveal is more of an ‘oh’ than an ‘oh my God!’

While ‘T.R.A.C.K.S.’ was undoubtedly interesting, the one-off non-linear narrative didn't produce any notable thrills . . . but at least the final reveal means I'm still looking forward to what’s in store.