Wednesday, 3 September 2014

A Good Start

Unsurprisingly, I’m pretty damn happy with the season so far. It’s been a dramatic shift in mood since March, when I sat in the pub wanting to cry into my steak and chips as Derby demolished us and the bar staff laughed at me.

A lot of that shift has to do with the man in the dugout; we are no longer hostage to Davies’ one man war against anyone who looks at him funny and the painfully inconsistent performances that characterised both his spells in charge. Instead we have Stuart Pearce at the helm, a man who is so iconic to Forest fans that fans of my generation and younger who never got to see him play in the Garibaldi in person are raised to understand that he is THE legendary player.

His track record in management is not the most illustrious (if he was available Martin O’Neill would be the former Forest player I’d most want in charge on that basis), but his commitment to the club and affinity with the fans is hard to underestimate. The noise when he walked out at a full City Ground before the Blackpool game was up there with the most incredible atmosphere’s I’ve ever been a part of, genuinely rivalling the dramatic promotion from league one on the final day of the 2007-2008 season. He’s a man who captained the club for the best part of a decade, scored 92 goals from left back and famously said he’d rather go on the dole than manage Derby.

He’s also a man who prides himself on honesty and humility, a quality present in his interviews since taking over the job. This was highlighted in the wake of the sales of Darlow and Lascelles to Newcastle (they’ve since been loaned back and now the dust has settled it looks like a good bit of business for the club). Pearce was scheduled to answer fan’s questions for an hour on BBC radio Nottingham that evening. Some managers would have made excuses and declined to show up for the interview, others might have turned up but answered very guardedly, giving away little and leaving the fans nervous and uncertain. Davies and managers of his ilk might have come out with an ill-considered attack on Fawaz that would have doomed the relationship.

Instead Pearce answered questions honestly for the entire hour, explaining what had happened from his perspective, expressing disappointment with how the deal was handled, but making great efforts to reaffirm his commitment to the club and otherwise strong relationship with the chairman. It was such a refreshing experience after the paranoia and aggression that characterised so much of Davies’ interactions with fans and the media, to hear Pearce come out and answer questions openly and calmly. How he handled it certainly left room for the details of the deal to become clear and Fawaz’s to explain his side of the story, which seems to have allowed both to move on and continue a promising relationship between them.

The passion that earned him the nickname Psycho is still there, bubbling under the surface (as an unfortunate linesman at Hillsborough found out the hard way after a dodgy offside decision), but for all the joy it brings to see Pearce’s iconic clenched fist punch the air after a goal, it’s the calmness with which he has handled his return to the club that is encouraging. Hopefully that controlled passion will rub off on the players.

Pearce’s interview brings me onto the other man central to Forest’s strong start to the season, Fawaz Al Hasawi, chairman and owner of the club since 2012. It’s not been a smooth road between then and now; there’ve been numerous incidents, before the Lascelles/Darlow incident, that have been indicative of the fact that this is his first experience of running a football club. The harsh sacking of Sean O’Driscoll with Forest in the play off positions at Christmas 2012, the seemingly doomed from the start hiring of McLeish and then his eagerness to support Davies allowing him to create a toxic atmosphere around the club were all misjudgements in my eyes, but made with good intentions.

This latest incident, with the full details available now, is suggestive of a man understandably used to being the final decision man when it comes to the business, a situation that is more complicated in football because of the importance of the manager. There needed to be better communication between him and Pearce, something that will hopefully be helped in the future by the appointment of the experienced Paul Faulkner as Chief Executive.

One thing that has been clear from the start, even amidst his worst decisions, is the good intentions of Fawaz. He is clearly passionate about the club and his interactions with the fans show a desire not just to be an effective chairman but a popular one as well; someone who keeps the fans informed and is one of them rather than a straight forward moneyman. At several games last year the City Ground reverberated to chants of “We love you Fawaz, we do”, not the kind of chant many chairmen get to enjoy.

He has backed each of his managers in the transfer market, breaking the club’s previous record fee to sign Britt Assombalonga (whose 4 goals in August suggest that could prove to be a wise investment) and building a squad that can truly challenge for promotion to the Premiership. This is the first year I can remember that I spent August transfer deadline day genuinely believing we didn’t need any signings. It looks likely that in the near future we might have to consider something like a change to the stadium name in order to attract the big money sponsorship deals that can help us meet FFP restrictions, but I’m reasonably confident that Fawaz won’t consider doing anything like Tan has done at Cardiff or Alam plans at Hull. It would be out of character from what he’s shown us so far.

So we’ve got good people in charge that are passionate about getting Forest out of the Championship and are loved by fans. But good intentions and popularity don’t win football matches, we’re unbeaten because the players have fed off the optimism around the club and delivered a series of passionate, disciplined and frequently entertaining displays. The most promising thing perhaps is that we’ve made it through August unbeaten despite never playing to our full potential for 90 minutes. The first half against Blackpool was strong, as was the second against Reading. We showed a spine and fight against Bournemouth and Sheffield Wednesday that saw us come away from two tough away trips with 6 points when we could easily had 2 or less.

Another element of our start that has pleased me is the nature of most of our goals. Last season, partly due to the lack of in-form strikers, we relied heavily on goals from the midfield trio of Lansbury, Reid and Paterson, which though entertaining and frequently spectacular, highlighted a weakness in the set up. This season the majority of our goals have come from wingers or wing backs getting near the box and whipping in a dangerous cross for a striker or midfielder to tap in. It’s a pleasingly straight forward, almost old fashioned, approach and its reaping great rewards so far. We still have the same potential for wonder goals but the partnership of Assombalonga and Fryatt looks like it has the potential to be a reliable source of goals throughout the season, something we clearly lacked previously. It’s incredible to me that Paterson can’t get into the first 11, considering he was arguably the best player of last season, but Antonio and Burke have started so well it’s hard to argue with Pearce’s selections so far.

We also look like we’re getting gradually more solid at the back as players come back from injury. On the displays so far, my first choice back four would be (from left to right), Cohen, Hobbs, Mancienne and Lichaj, but the fact we have strong cover in each of those positions is encouraging after so many seasons where we seemed to be constantly running out of square pegs.

After the international break we play Derby at home, looking to confirm our promotion potential and maybe get a little bit of revenge on our fiercest rivals. It’ll be a close game and our toughest test so far, but hopefully we will go into it with a fully fit squad, something we rarely had last season. We’ve also got an exciting game against Tottenham to look forward to in the League Cup; a game where there’s no shame in losing but a good chance to build momentum with a cup shock.

All in all, I’m not sure I’ve ever been more optimistic about Forest after the first month of the season and though there will inevitably be rocky patches I’m confident we will be around the play off pack this year and who knows maybe we can sneak an automatic spot. 

It’s a strong Championship this year definitely and it’s been a dramatic opening month for a lot of clubs.

My thoughts on the start for a few other clubs

It’s getting to the point where I can’t bring myself to laugh at Leeds anymore, it just feels cruel, as the club’s fans are the victims of yet another terrible owner. The appointment of Dave Hockaday seemed bizarre when it happened and his dismissal, while arguably not a shock, only adds to the chaos at the club. They’re a big enough club that surely eventually someone fit to run the club will arrive, but for the time being it’s hard to see this being a happy season for them.

Just down the M1 it’s a different story as Wednesday, despite some takeover uncertainty, have started the season looking stable and threatening. I’m sure a lot of Wednesday fans felt frustrated they didn’t get anything out of the game against us at the weekend and on the basis of what I saw I imagine very few clubs will get an easy game at Hillsborough this year. Nuhiu looks more dangerous than last year and Stuart Gray has them well organised.

Watford have made a great start on the pitch, but manager Sanino’s sudden departure suggests that behind the scenes not everything is going so well. They’ve held onto Troy Deeney which is important and the appointment of Oscar Garcia is a solid, if not exciting choice. If the new manager can settle in reasonably quickly and there’s no more backroom drama, then they have a good chance for at least the play offs.

My pre-season favourites for promotion of Wigan, Derby and Norwich, are all starting to show some real form while Rotherham, Brentford and Wolves have proven they won’t be pushovers to go back down.

Fulham have started poorly and Magath needs to turn things round quickly or he’ll be out of a job, but I can’t see them going down. Similarly Ipswich will improve over the season, McCarthy’s a good boss at this level. I doubt Millwall will keep pace with the play off pack over the course of the season, but plenty would have said that about Holloway’s Blackpool, so who knows. Jose Riga’s Blackpool are a different question entirely and I’d be amazed if he’s still in the post by Christmas.

So from my perspective it’s been a great start and I’m feeling positive about the season, but the beauty/nerve shredding cruelty of both this league has a tendency to make anyone who puts too much faith in predictions look very stupid indeed.

Friday, 29 August 2014

A Great Summer of Film

It’s been very widely reported that 2015 has the potential to be the greatest year in blockbuster film history. Joss Whedon returns with a second Avengers film, J.J. Abrams serves up the first in an already lengthy list of new Star Wars films. The Terminator and Jurassic Park franchises are both getting reboots/sequels, there’ll be a new Bond film with Mendes at the helm again after the triumph that was Skyfall, and the Hunger Games quadrilogy of films will come to a hopefully fitting end. Mission Impossible 5 and Fast and Furious 7 will almost certainly rake in impressive box office figures. Ant Man and Fantastic Four have the potential to prove as wise a gamble as Guardians of the Galaxy was this year. The Wachowski siblings will bring us the delayed Jupiter Ascending, which looks absolutely barmy but potentially great fun. There’s the adaptation of Assassin’s Creed which might provide a rare videogame-to-film adaptation worth watching. Michael Fassbender is in that one and will also be lining up opposite Marion Cotillard in a promising looking version of Macbeth.

I could go on and on, but the promise of next year is not what I wanted to write about right now. It’s the fact that the much less heralded summer of 2014 is one of the best I can remember in a long time. There’ve been disappointments along the way; The Amazing Spiderman 2 had great moments and the chemistry of Emma Stone and Andrew Garfield going for it but wasn’t the triumph I was hoping for. Transformers by all accounts delivered exactly what you might have expected, and the less said about Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles the better.

For me there were 6 great summer movies this year.
  • ·         Captain America: The Winter Soldier
  • ·         X-Men: Days of Future Past
  • ·         Edge of Tomorrow
  • ·         How to Train Your Dragon 2
  • ·         Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (the names might not get any less clumsy but the films get better)
  • ·         Guardians of the Galaxy.

I’ve written reviews of Captain America and Guardians so I won’t go into too much depth about them here, but it is a sign of why Marvel are as dominant as they are right now, that two of their less high profile projects, which could easily have felt like placeholders to tide us over until Avengers 2, were as good as anything they’ve produced so far. The Winter Soldier is possibly my favourite Marvel film apart from The Avengers, and the new Star Wars will do well to capture the gloriously fun, space opera, joy of Guardians.
So onto the other four films that made this summer so memorable for me:

X-Men: Days of Future Past (Bryan Singer)

This film is a definite contender for greatest cast list of all time, but even with such talent assembled, the time travel plot and ambition could easily have resulted in a muddled and underwhelming mess of a film. I loved First Class and McAvoy and Fassbender were the perfect choices for young Charles and Eric but I was a little worried that this film might end up trying to do too much, getting bogged down in its own complicated macguffin (I’m looking at you Luc Besson’s Lucy) and failing to develop any characters enough (Amazing Spiderman 2’s villains suffered from this).

I needn’t have worried because Days of Future Past delivered on my hopes and more. Smart, funny and well controlled throughout it was an absolute triumph. The time travel elements were well handled (and some of the ret-conning of previous X-Men films will be for the best in the long run), and for a film with such potential to become cluttered it feels remarkably clear throughout. Magneto (whether Fassbender or McKellen) remains one of the most interesting villains in superhero history, his motivations understandable if not condonable. Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine continues to be one of the best things in any film he’s in (whether or not he saves his individual films is up for debate) and Jennifer Lawrence is great as the angry and confused Mystique.

It is a film that focuses more on the newer 70s based cast than the old guard, but most of the familiar faces get a good amount to work with. There are a few characters I suspect will feature more in deleted scenes (and it’s been confirmed that Rogue, who doesn’t make it into the theatrical cut, will feature in an extended addition as plenty was filmed for her storyline) but overall the balance is well maintained.

It will be interesting to see how Avengers 2 approaches the character of Quicksilver, who through some sort of contract loophole is available to both the X-Men and Avengers films, though the latter can’t call him a mutant. Quicksilver in DoFP steals nearly every scene that he is, a rebellious and comedic element in a film that has a number of intense, dramatic scenes (Magneto and Xavier’s conversation on a plane a particular highlight).

The action is well staged throughout with Blink’s portal opening power a particular highlight, delivering a fresh type of action sequence as she and a number of other mutants combat the chillingly unstoppable sentinels.

I chose to cover Days of Future Past first in this blog because it is perhaps the best example of what made this summer great. Films which were not guaranteed successes taking risks and showing ambition, and precisely because they did so, delivering a great end product.

Edge of Tomorrow (Doug Liman)

It’s a damn shame that this film wasn’t more of a success than it was. It didn’t even break $100m in the U.S and only made $364m worldwide, off of a $178m budget. It’s not hard to pinpoint some of the reasons; it’s a film based on a little known in the west manga called All You Need Is Kill, with the Groundhog Day meets Starship Troopers plot making it a challenge to market and it is the only film of the 6 I’ve highlighted that isn’t a sequel or adaptation.

The problem is there are so many reasons it should have been more popular.

There’s the central cast of Tom Cruise, delivering an entertainingly comic take on his action hero persona, starting off as a much more cowardly character than most he plays and Emily Blunt, clearly enjoying a fully fledged action role. Both are convincing in the action sequences while delivering reasonably complex, not always likable characters. I’m not a massive fan of Cruise, he’s delivered some great performances and films (Collateral, Minority Report and Interview with a Vampire standing out), but there’s also been a lot of generic action hero performances along the way. I am however a huge fan of Blunt, whether she’s in an action thriller (Adjustment Bureau) or low key drama (Your Sister’s Sister). Both are excellent in this and fully committed to the role so it’s a shame the film didn’t get the attention it deserved for them.

There’s the original concept, of an alien attack experienced over and over until Cruise’s character Lt. Col. Cage gets it right, an experience familiar to gamers everywhere. He has to learn when to fight, when to run and when to duck. The director Doug Liman has great fun with this element, adding a darkly comedic streak to otherwise excellently delivered action sequences. I have my issues with some of the decisions made by Liman, which I’d need a spoiler section to go into, but overall he does an excellent job of making an alien invasion movie feel fresh and original.

There’s some entertaining supporting work from the likes of Bill Paxton (who get’s arguably the best line of the whole film when he responds to an escape attempt from Cage), Brendon Gleeson and Noah Taylor.
The alien grunts themselves remind me of the Sentinels from the Matrix, refreshingly un-humanoid and are entirely believable as a species that would have the human races combined military power on the ropes.

It’s not one of the greatest films of all time by any stretch, but it deserved so much better than it got from the box office. It was a smarter, funnier and more exciting action thriller than most and it’s a damn shame that the studio will probably look at the return on their investment and lump for safer, established options in the future. It’s originality was perhaps it’s biggest asset and crippling flaw, which is not a promising indication for blockbusters in the future. Hopefully it will do well on home cinema options, but I’m not going to hold my breath.

How to Train Your Dragon 2 (Dean DeBlois)

For me, the first How To Train Your Dragon is the best non-Pixar animation of the last 20 years (I acknowledge that I need to give Miyazaki’s films a fair go before that statement carries a lot of weight). It had the heart, wonder and emotional clout that all the best animated films can capture. There was also a maturity to it, a sense of consequence sometimes lacking from all but the best films of the genre.

The sequel manages to capture much of the same sense of wonder and emotion while also feeling like a fitting progression. It’s darker (numerous interviews with DeBlois have touched upon the comparison between this and The Empire Strikes Back, for its potential thematic place in a trilogy) but remains kid friendly.

The influence of Roger Deakins as a consulting cinematographer is felt as much here as in the original, Dragons continues to be one of the most beautifully staged animations ever, with the flight sequences a particular delight. Disney defined how to do animated films well, Pixar embraced their approach and developed it, delivering more emotional depth and animated complexity, but with the Dragons series DreamWorks have set the standard for the epic within animation.

Hiccup and Toothless’ relationship develops naturally as both begin to mature and look outside of their own friendship. It’s a dynamic rarely realised more effectively and it’s complimented well throughout by themes of parenthood, responsibility and ambition.

I grew up with the Toy Story franchise and its growing maturity; I hope a lot of children are growing up dreaming of a dragon for a best friend.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (Matt Reeves)

Out of all the films I’ve featured in this post, it’s a testament to the achievement of Reeves and the team he’s assembled that a film which heavily focuses on a group of apes who primarily communicate via sign language are motion captured imagery, delivered perhaps the most intense, emotional performances of any of them. As a side note I’m trying to think of any big budget summer film that relied as heavily on subtitles as this does.

If Dawn’s success was purely down to the technical achievement in the realisation of the apes and their interactions it would still deserve a lot of credit. I’m not sure I’ve ever had to put so little effort in suspending disbelief for this kind of film and the initially staggering C.G.I is quickly accepted because it’s so incredibly executed. I’m fairly sure several of the key apes have more naturally expressive faces than I do.

The film is so much more than the technical though. It’s a top level action thriller, full of entertaining set pieces (a 360 degree spin on the top of a tank is up there with the best action sequences in recent years) and complex characters. The performances from the human cast are strong with Jason Clarke (who will appear as John Connor in next year’s Terminator film) and Gary Oldman presenting convincing, flawed individuals. The questions about the desire for survival and the uncomfortable truths it reveals about us are well handled, mirrored with great control between ape and human society.

It’s probably the most morally complex film out of the 6, because it takes the time to give even the villains of the piece solid motivations (“Human work” is one of the great lines of the year, delivered and animated with impressive conviction and complexity). Similar to the How to Train Your Dragon franchise, it endorses the idea of peaceful collaboration without taking a simplistic view on the reality of that. I’m all for summer blockbusters venturing into the morally grey, the most interesting stories often reside there.

It will be interesting to see where the series goes from here, both in terms of plot and titles (Battle for the Planet of the Apes perhaps?), but the first two efforts have managed to largely erase memories of Burton and Wahlberg’s attempt.


Basically it’s been a great year in film for blockbusters and I’m practically giddy at the thought that next year could be even better.

Sunday, 3 August 2014

Guardians of the Galaxy (Gunn, 2014)

It’s a bit of a stretch to refer to any cinematic offering from Marvel as a risk; the brand name alone will get people to watch the film regardless of it’s quality, but Guardians is undoubtedly one of the boldest moves in their grand plan. Not only are they new characters to the Marvel cinematic universe (MCU), but they are new to a lot of casual fans like me, with none of the established cultural weight of Thor, Hulk or Captain America. It’s set out in space, jumping from new planet to new planet, throwing character names and entire races at you every few minutes.

After so much box office success (and a substantial amount of critical acclaim too) there has been a lot of speculation that the studio might end up regretting green-lighting the adventures of Starlord and co. I’ve felt that much of this has been blown out of proportion simply because I don’t think it will matter in the long run if Guardians fails, it will simply be seen as an unfortunate mistake, quickly forgotten once the publicity blitz for Avengers 2 gets into gear.

If it was a gamble, it’s one I suspect is going to pay off handsomely, for Marvel and for fans, because Guardians of the Galaxy is excellent.  It is a rebirth of the space opera sub-genre, full of unlikely heroes, space battles and aspiring galaxy conquerors for villains, that manages to feel fresh and slightly retro at the same time.

Guardians is the story of Peter Quill, aka Starlord, played by Chris Pratt (Andy from Parks and Recreation) and the rag tag bunch of allies who team up to stop Ronan The Accuser from destroying an entire planet. Quill is a cross between Han Solo, Indiana Jones and Captain Kirk, the classic scoundrel with a heart of gold and the audiences’ way into a story that includes a talking raccoon and a tree-creature with an extremely limited vocabulary. Taken from earth as a young child with only the contents of his back pack to remind him of home, he’s a character who clearly loves his adventurous lifestyle but still longs for a lost sense of home. Chris Pratt is excellent and is clearly bound for big things, already cast as the lead in the new Jurassic Park film next summer. He sells the comedy and the action well, and while he will always be Andy Dwyer to me, he has the potential to be a major player in big budget blockbusters over the next decade.

The casting of an actor most well known for his comedy work was surely a deliberate move by director James Gunn, because Guardians is great fun and often extremely funny. The moments that risk straying into melodrama or cheese are offset by a sarcastic joke or a comment that feels entertainingly crude by Marvel standards; it’s an entirely different animal to the latest Captain America (which I loved and reviewed here) and I am fairly certain that it’s not an accident that Marvel scheduled their most serious and their most comic efforts in the same year.

I was fairly confident going into the cinema that Guardians would be fun from the trailer and the interviews with cast and crew, but I was pleasantly surprised by the heart it has. It’s a credit to the CGI work, vocal performances of Vin Diesel and Bradley Cooper and the script by Gunn and Nicole Perlman, that we are able to connect with Groot (the tree) and Rocket (the raccoon) so effectively. While Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (review coming soon, hopefully) will rightly take the majority of the gongs for visual effects come awards season, both films boast extremely well realised characters, with a level of subtlety and complexity that would have been impossible a decade ago.

The remaining two members of the Guardians are Zoe Saldana’s green skinned assassin Gamora and former wrestler Dave Bautista’s Drax the Destroyer. Both are solid in their roles, given enough depth and back story to avoid being one-dimensional, and Bautista reveals an impressive comic timing to go along with entirely convincing action chops. His dead pan delivery is responsible for several of the biggest laughs in the film, no small achievement in a film that counts Pratt, Peter Serafinowicz and John C. Reilly amongst it’s cast.

When the sequel rolls around I’d like to learn more about Gamora, because with the tragic and complicated back story the character has a lot of potential and the MCU would benefit from a strong, complex female character being an equal rather than a sidekick or straight forward love interest.

The good guys of the film are entertaining, well cast and fleshed out, but sadly the same cannot be said of the villains. Lee Pace as Ronan the Accuser, Karen Gillan as Gamora’s sister Nebula and Djimon Hounsou are all a little under-served by the script. Ronan and Nebula are fun enough but are given neither the motivations nor the characterization to be particularly memorable. Michael Rooker’s Yondu is more interesting, a character who raised Peter Quill and exists in a grey area between good and bad that is almost always more interesting than either extreme.

Guardians’ strengths lies in the relationship between the central five and there are several scenes that rival the Avengers Assemble chemistry that Joss Whedon achieved (cards on the table I’m a massive fan of Whedon after growing up on a steady diet of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, so this is high praise for me).

Where the film stumbles a little is in the big action set pieces. There are great moments, especially the moment revolving around a prosthetic leg and an abrupt display of loyalty from Drax towards Gamora, but overall the ground feels well trodden already. A dogfight over a major city is well realised but familiar and the Marvel formula of a giant set piece aerial battle is starting to feel a little tired. I love a lot of spectacle in my summer blockbusters and Guardians delivers as well as any, but there is part of me that would love to see a Marvel film hand the final 30 minutes over to Gareth Evans so he could direct a small scale but mesmerising finale (see either of the Raid films to understand what I mean.) Small scale needn’t mean underwhelming and done right could be a perfect counterpoint to the C.G.I exhaustion that the Marvel films can occasionally trigger.

It’s a complaint about the genre as much as this specific film and I can’t help but wonder if Marvel wanted a traditionally cinematic ending as a compromise for the freedom the rest of the film enjoyed. I hope Guardians proves to be the success I believe it should be, because it’s an excellent film and because it will encourage the studio to keep being ambitious with their film and director choice. Much as I like Robert Downey Jr. and Iron Man, I’d much rather see another Guardians film than another Tony Stark tale, simply because the possibilities are so much more open and varied.

To finish the review with one of the many things I loved about this film, I adored the soundtrack. Framed by the concept of a mix-tape given to him by his mum before he left earth, the film runs to a backing track of classic 60s, 70s and 80s music that offers Guardians a distinct sound. Too few films end with “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” and as the trailer showed there is something joyous to space escapades being soundtracked by Blue Swede’s “Hooked on a Feeling”. I regularly end up getting the scores of films, but it’s a rare film that leaves me wanting the official soundtrack.

Guardians is a triumph, not perfect, but full of the sense of fun and wonder that defined the films it’s protagonist Peter Quill probably grew up watching in the 1980s. The ambition of introducing a whole universe of new characters in one film pays off handsomely and in my opinion the MCU will be stronger for the risk. In fact I enjoyed it so much I’ve already arranged to go see it again.

As a brief post script, someone I worked with at HMV a few years ago, Matt Ferguson was hired to produce a lot of the artwork for this film and it’s been great to see him get the praise and profile he deserves. A top artist and a good guy too. You can check out some of his work here - 

Friday, 30 May 2014

9 Days In The Life Of Jack Bauer

Inspired by the new London based season, which I’m yet to watch any of so don’t worry about spoilers, I’ve started to re-watch the entire of 24.

I own the first 5 seasons on DVD, but I don’t think I’ve watched any of them since the first time through several years ago. I’m already onto season 3 after only a couple of weeks, so that gives you an idea of the addictive quality that has entertained so many people.

I’ve often seen people criticise the show for being ridiculous, over-wrought and hamstrung by it’s own real time set up. These people are missing the point. It’s those very features, especially the first two that most fans enjoy about the show.

It’s certainly the case for me. If I wanted to watch a hard-hitting, grounded and deep drama I’d watch something like the indisputably far superior The Wire. That’s not what I’m looking for when I watch 24. I watch the show for the melodrama, the brutal action and the sheer amount of chaos they manage to cram into a single day.

24, unlike Jack Bauer, it’s gravel voiced, permanently annoyed central hero, is not a show that stands up to too much questioning.

Characters switch sides and betray each other with such frequency that it’s amazing the U.S government doesn’t collapse between seasons due to the surely crippling trust issues everyone must have. Incidentally that’s been one of the enjoyable things about going through the show again; I largely remember who goes bad, but not always when or why, so I’m constantly suspicious of most of the characters, trying to work out when they’re going to turn on Jack.

Jack himself should have died about 15 times over by the midpoint of season 3, in one episode alone he was tased, cut with a scalpel that had been dipped in acid, beaten and injected with a chemical that stopped his heart. To Jack this is a slightly rough hour but other than stubbornly refusing to have a heart attack in later episodes, it’s treated as a temporary inconvenience. What’s impressive is that through a combination of almost everyone else being expendable and the likelihood of being stabbed in the back (literally and figuratively) the writers manage to maintain a high degree of tension despite the fact that it’s clear no one could actually kill Jack. Even when he tries to sacrifice himself he survives. You do start to question why the mere mention of his name doesn’t just see the terrorists abandon their plans and go home by around season 6, word must have spread by then.

It has proved controversial for it’s regular use of torture, seen by many to be condoning the practices that have been so fiercely debated in the post 9/11 world. It’s a fair criticism; torture is shown to get results the majority of time and is often the go to method of getting information.

You can make an argument that the time constraints of the show rule out a lot of other methods and it certainly doesn’t glamorise the scenes, never shying away from the brutal, horrific reality of forcing a confession from someone, but there is a genuine issue around the ubiquity of those methods in the show.
Some critics have also argued that the torture scenes are part of a wider neo-liberal wet dream atmosphere to the show. It’s understandable and to be expected that the show has become a target on this front. It began airing in late November 2001 and has run almost parallel to the real world War on Terror that has dominated so much of 21st century politics.

I’d argue that this particular criticism is unfair on a show that has been a lot more progressive and balanced than it’s often been given credit for. This is a show that had an eloquent, principled black president, long before anyone had even heard of Obama and has been credited by some with actually helping the latter’s rise to prominence by normalising the idea of a black president by having him on one of the most popular TV shows. 

Then there’s the plot that revolved around oil interests and war hungry politicians trying to drag America into a foreign conflict, which began while the Iraq war was only just appearing on the horizon for most Americans. Or you could look at the shadiest of the men 24 has put into the presidency, a man who’s actions include a fair few parallels with President Nixon (there’s even a physical similarity).

It’s one of the few shows to capture the over the top action & drama of the best action movies (Die Hard, Heat, the Bourne trilogy) in a weekly T.V show format. It’s never dull and does a remarkable job of making the 24 hour format work to it’s advantage, even if you might sometimes wonder when Jack eats anything or why every dramatic showdown takes place near the turn of the hour.

If this latest season of 24 set in the U.K is as simultaneously ridiculous and exciting as the previous 8, I’ll be very happy. I suspect we won’t get many more, because while Jack may be indestructible, Kiefer Sutherland is merely human and won’t be able to convincingly save the world that many more times.

About Time (2013)

Young, awkward British man. Ridiculously attractive and charming American woman. Meet cutes and expletive ridden tirades. A selection of the finest actors Britain has to offer. So far, so standard Richard Curtis fare.

About Time continues many of the traditions that we’ve come to expect from a Richard Curtis film. Domhnall Gleeson is an excellent choice as Tim, a man capable due to time travel of bumbling through the same scenario multiple times, for a role that Hugh Grant would have probably played 20 years earlier. As Mary, Rachel McAdams is, as always (excluding Mean Girls) extremely likeable and blessed with great comic timing. She’s arguably too pretty to pull off some of the early scenes where she seems surprised at Tim’s interest and comes over all bashful, but you buy the attraction from both of them.

And Bill Nighy is Bill Nighy, so there’s that.

There’s the usual mix of cute and excruciatingly awkward moments as the two leads fall for each other, with the twist of time travel allowing the embarrassment to be spread over multiple attempts at the same meeting.
The time travel element is the biggest departure from traditional Curtis territory and the plot holes and inconsistent rules show sci-fi is not his strong suit, but this didn’t bother me too much. Despite the title it’s not really a film about time travel, it’s just a useful plot device for the story he wanted to tell. Then there’s the fact that time travel stories written by people obsessed with the genre are rarely watertight in their explanation and execution, so I give him a pass on that front.

The bit I’m less able to let pass relating to this is my discomfort with the idea of winning a girl’s affection with the use of time travel and the implicit level of deceit involved if he never reveals his ability. There are a couple of scenes which are aiming for comic but because she has no idea of his abilities, become more than a little morally dubious. 

Compare it to The Time Traveller’s Wife (the film of which McAdams also starred in) where both parties know about the time travel, or Groundhog Day where Phil uses the time travel to become a better person rather than exploit his knowledge. There are efforts made to deal with this issue, early on it’s explicitly stated that the power can’t “turn a no into a yes”, but it’s never going to be a great basis for a relationship in my opinion.

About Time largely gets away with this for three reasons.

Firstly, Curtis is one of the best there is at writing those awkward early days of a relationship, full of passion, nerves and excitement. They’re not always the most realistic, but they are some of the most charming. Secondly Gleeson and McAdams sell the mutual affection well; what will they, won’t they moments there are come from the fickle consequences of time travel and life getting in the way rather than the usual arguments and misunderstandings that populate the genre. It’s a charmingly low key romance, well suited to the film overall.

The most crucial factor in why this film didn’t fall apart on the morally dodgy ground it’s built on is that the romance part of the rom-com is largely done & dusted by the halfway point.

Instead what this film is really about is family, about the big choices we all have to make and the reality that growing up always comes at a cost. As important as Tim and Mary’s romance is, it’s his relationships with his father (Nighy) and sister Kit Kat (Lydia Wilson) that are arguably the heart of this film. Bill Nighy is perfectly cast, bringing all his charm and humour to the role. The scenes with Tim and his dad are some of the strongest in the film. It’s a more contemplative film than some of Curtis’s more straight forward rom-coms and is better for it.

I’ve always enjoyed Richard Curtis films, they’re comforting and familiar, an idealised take on modern romance and modern Britain that usually makes up for what it lacks in realism with sentiment. His films are unashamedly romantic, and About Time is no different, it just splits it’s attention between two very different but equally important relationships.

There’s more I’d like to say about my issues with some of the specific uses of time travel in the film and more broadly about the role of women in this film but it’s tough to discuss them in any more detail without straying into spoiler territory. They have nagged away at me and gradually taken some of the shine off of a movie I really enjoyed. That’ll make for a separate blog post though.

For now I'll finish by saying that if you’re looking for a Sunday afternoon kind of film; charming, light weight and heart warming it’s a good choice. You might feel you need to give your parents a call afterwards though.

There's an awful lot to like, but Curtis definitely makes some poor choices along the way. If it proves to be his last film as he's suggested then perhaps it's a fitting conclusion to his film career. 

Thursday, 22 May 2014

Godzilla (Edwards, 2014)

I'm sorry it's been a while since my last blog post. I've started a new job recently and as it involves staring at a computer screen all day I've not been as keen to spend my evenings doing the same. I've got a couple of other film reviews I want to write (The Raid 2, Seven Samurai and maybe About Time) but for now here's a review of Gareth Edwards' Godzilla.


Monster movies are a tough genre to pull off if you aim for anything more than trashy fun. Too much of the monster and a lot of your audience will complain that they got bored of seeing CGI destruction without enough of a human element to anchor the plot. Too little of the monster and you risk disappointing the committed fans of whatever creature you’re using while also not providing enough action for those who want to see cities levelled and epic action.

It’s a tough balance to strike and Gareth Edwards clearly struggles with it throughout his version of Godzilla, released last week. It is perhaps the toughest of the classic monster movies to pull off because there is a rich back catalogue and passionate fans that have strong expectations of what a Godzilla movie should entail. 
However to many cinema goers Godzilla is a bit of a joke, images of a man in a cheap monster suit stamping on cardboard cities in their mind. Then there’s the pretty damn awful 1998 Roland Emmerich version, the memory of which is hardly going to have helped convince people they should give this film a chance.

To be clear from the start, this film is better than Emmerich’s, but that barely counts as praise. And to be honest with you, praise is going to be a little thin on the ground for this film overall.

I wanted to love this film; a big budget blockbuster from a man who did so much with very little was an enticing prospect. Gareth Edward’s first film, Monsters, was a master class in what can be done on a limited budget if you have the skill and imagination. The story of two strangers attempting to make it across a quarantine zone decades after an “invasion” by an Alien race that arrived by accident and were herd animals with no intent to conquer the planet, the film understood two crucial things about making great action sci-fi. 
Firstly, you have to care about the characters, they have to be your way into the story even if it ends up having a much wider scope than just them. Secondly that sometimes limiting the amount of time the monster spends on screen makes the moments they are much more powerful (this would not go down well with the hardcore monster fan necessarily, but I reckon most average ones would agree).

So the choice of director got me interested and the cast announcements had me truly excited. Bryan Cranston, Elizabeth Olsen, Ken Watanabe, Juliette Binoche, Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Sally Hawkins is a really strong cast for the genre. They made me hopeful that this would be a blockbuster with heart and depth, packed with engaging performances.

Finally the trailers promised action set pieces full of drama and suspense, especially the sequence of marines skydiving through the clouds towards a devastated city.

It was all so promising but sadly it added up to far too little.

Edwards is undoubtedly a talented director and I look forward to whatever he does next, but this film struggled for tone throughout, seemingly uncertain about what kind of a movie it wanted to be. Others have commented on this being a post-Nolan’s Batman monster movie, too focussed on being dark and forgetting that films about monsters and men clashing over cities needs a sense of fun as well. It’s definitely true that the film could have done with a bit more humour, a few knowing nods towards the inherently daft concept or the ineffectiveness of mankind’s efforts to stop Godzilla would have livened up the mood as the film moved into the final act.

However I think it could have worked as a darker, grittier take (as over-played as that approach is at the moment) if the characterisation had been stronger and the plot tighter. There’s a lot to like about the opening third of the film as the origins and previous sightings of Godzilla are explored, first through an excellent title sequence that uses archive footage of nuclear tests and redacted documents, then by setting up Bryan Cranston’s scientist Joe Brody as someone unravelling a conspiracy. If they’d ran with that atmosphere for longer the film could have been much stronger, making full use of the stellar cast to bring us a monster movie that looks as much at the impact on real humans, their courage and their personal tragedies.

Instead act two devolves into being the army vs. monsters, with an ever growing scale of collateral damage. Taylor-Johnson is a good young actor (take a look at Nowhere Boy or Kick Ass) but he ends up with a role that could have played by any reasonably athletic, good looking actor. He plays Joe’s U.S marine son, Ford and It’s such a limited role that his performance ends up dull and almost wooden at times. He’s wasted, as is Ken Watanabe who is used to wander on screen at 20 minute intervals to utter superficially deep statements about man’s relationship with nature.

Those two could have been used so much better, but the character that annoyed me most was Elizabeth Olsen’s Elle Brody. She’s such a promising young actress, one of the most exciting out there, starting to break into big roles after her performances in Martha Marcy May Marlene and Liberal Arts. Edwards just uses her as a generic wife/crying woman and that’s a damn shame. To make her such a one dimensional character is a waste of a good actress and another example of the lack of depth in the central characters that ends up spoiling this film.

You can make a fun and stupid monster movie and no one will hold a lack of complex characters against you, but if you aim for serious and intense, you have to provide someone the audience will care about, someone to make you feel the peril. The perfect movie for me would probably be some delicate balance of the two, but I’d happily of settled for a Godzilla movie that was one or the other.

Instead we got a movie that took itself too seriously to be great fun, but delivered such lukewarm characterisation and a generic plot that I couldn’t engage with the drama.

Despite how this review reads, I don’t actually think Godzilla was a BAD film, it was just such a disappointing one given its promise.  As mentioned above the first third works well and has some engaging character beats, they’re just abandoned too soon after to build to anything. There are also some excellent action sequences, fully justifying its IMAX release and demonstrating the devastating power of Godzilla whenever he hits land (he spends an awful lot of the film swimming, which I’m not sure anyone really paid to see). The skydiving sequence from the trailer is visually stunning in full, even if the plot justification for it seems a little vague. In fact my only criticism of the action itself is that we see too much of it in the trailer; too many of what should have been shocking, stand out moments already felt familiar if you’d seen any of the several trailers released in the lead up to the film.

It’ll be interesting to watch it again on DVD in a few months, both to see whether the action loses its punchy feel on the small screen and whether I enjoy it more for having already had my expectations lowered.

For now it joins the list of films that, while decent, could have been so much more. 

Tuesday, 29 April 2014

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

The first Captain America was the weakest entry in Phase One of Marvel’s plan for cinematic world domination. It was a perfectly well made film, with a likable leading man in Chris Evans and a fun, alternate history for WW2, but it fell flat.

It suffered from being an origin movie for a character created with a very simplistic goal. Captain America was designed to be the pinnacle of the “American man”; patriotic, brave, just and always, always defending the American take on freedom.  Those characteristics, while crucial to his initial appeal, are the reason the first film fell flat and why this second effort, and to a lesser extent The Avengers, are so much stronger.

Putting an incorruptible, borderline indestructible and, for a modern audience (particularly outside of the U.S) unsubtly patriotic hero in such a good vs. evil battle, where they’ve even tried to create a more horrifying version of the Nazis in Hydra, inevitably leaves the film feeling dull, predictable and simplistic despite the CGI pyrotechnics. It seemed particularly dull when compared to the moral greyness of Tony Stark or the Shakespearean clashes between Norse gods that made up the rest of the first phase.

However put him in a modern setting, in a world where the good guys are a lot less clearly distinguished from the villains and his clear cut heroism becomes much more interesting.

The Winter Soldier picks up where The Avengers left the Captain, fighting under SHEILD’s banner but increasingly uncomfortable with the motives and methods that many of the missions involve. Early on it is revealed by Nick Fury that SHEILD has expanded since the last film, both in its surveillance abilities and its ability to act on what they find.

Specifically this involves a targeted death from above for people deemed a threat, an approach that deliberately draws parallels to the real world use of Drones and mass surveillance. The political commentary in the film isn’t subtle or overly complex, this is a Disney/Marvel film after all, but to make the Star Spangled Captain arguably Marvel’s most subversive hero tickled me and makes him infinitely more interesting as a key figure in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Side note, if anyone reading this has read a lot of the comics, is this a theme that runs through the comics? The Captain in opposition to the moral relativism of organisations like SHEILD?

Chris Evans also seems to be growing into the role, possibly enjoying the greater complexity he has to work with. In the first film he is a caricature, in The Avengers he’s comic relief as the fish out of water, but here he’s a much more rounded character.

He’s more relatable than before, for large parts of the film he is Steve Rogers rather than Captain America, someone struggling to figure out where he fits in the world and what kind of person he wants to be. That uncertainty is obviously much more engaging than his dilemma in the first film which largely boiled down to, “should I use my super strength to stop the evil Nazi plan to destroy America?” Spoilers, he decided he should.

The supporting cast is impressively strong with Robert Redford adding gravitas as a senior politician within SHEILD, while Samuel L Jackson and Cobie Smulders continue to revel in their roles as resident badass bureaucrats Nick Fury and Maria Hill respectively.

Two performances outside Evans’ stand out, one from a returning character in the universe, one from a new addition.

Scarlett Johansson as Natasha Romanov/Black Widow gets to add a good amount of humanity to being a badass spy how spends a lot of time assuming poses that seem impractical in a combat situation. Her scenes with Steve show an entertaining chemistry that refreshingly isn’t primarily romantic in nature. One of the biggest criticisms of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, partly due to them not having access to the X-Men, is the lack of strong female characters and any development of Natasha as a rounded human being are very welcome. Joss Whedon started it in The Avengers with her reaction to the Hulk and her manipulation of Loki, but The Winter Soldier goes further by exploring Natasha outside of being Black Widow.

Similarly, Anthony Mackie’s character is a strong addition to the cast, because he adds humanity as well as action potential. I’ve liked the actor since watching him in The Adjustment Bureau, and it’s good to see him seizing the opportunity offered him with the character of Sam Wilson. Sam offers a subtly comic touch as well as helping to make the Captain more relatable by bringing home the idea that they are both combat veterans, haunted by the mental scars that that entails. As the trailer shows, he’s also a valuable sidekick for the Captain when things get rough in the form of the Falcon and I’m glad they chose such a likeable, relatable character to stand beside him.

The tone of the film is that of a 70s thriller, set in Washington D.C and full of suspicious boardroom meetings and everyone other than the Captain holding onto secrets. It moves along at an impressive pace, tension and scale escalating constantly.

The Winter Soldier of the title, as the trailer showed, looks like Cap’s old friend Bucky Barnes, who we last saw falling from a train into a valley so deep we couldn’t see the bottom. He’s an interesting foe for the captain, posing an emotional as well as physical challenge. He’s powerful, calculating and somewhat unpredictable, accompanied by an excellent theme whenever he arrives on screen. I won’t say anymore about him outside of the spoiler specific section below, but he definitely works as an engaging villain.

As most of the reviews have pointed out, the film suffers from the same “let’s blow everything in sight up”, CGI battering final showdown that Iron Man 3 did, but the action is well done and unlike Stark’s latest effort, felt earned by the context.

I’ve thought about it a fair amount since seeing this film almost a month ago and my initial reaction hasn’t changed. The Winter Soldier is my favourite of the Phase Two films. It takes more risks and develops both the character and the wider universe much more effectively. Thor 2 and Iron Man 3, for all their many and various merits, felt like more of the same for me, repeating what had worked previously. Perhaps it was to Captain America 2’s advantage that the first film’s underwhelming critical and audience response meant they felt they had to take risks rather than relying on what had proven to work previously.

If I’m going to keep being entertained by Marvel’s cinematic output well into the 2030’s or whenever it’s president Kevin Feige has it planned out until, I’ll definitely need more films like The Winter Soldier.

Now, onto the spoiler section. You should know the drill by now, don’t read past this point if you don’t want to know major plot points from this film and possibly other Marvel films.

This is your final warning.

So this section is going to explore four aspects that it would have been tough to discuss in any detail without risking spoiling the plot.

Firstly, the film did make use of one of my current pet peeves with summer blockbusters, an annoyance that I wrote about in my Star Trek Into Darkness review. Yes, The Winter Soldier sees the return of the “I’m not really dead” trope, in relation to a central character. Around a third of the way through Samuel L Jackson’s Nick Fury appears to have been killed by the Winter Soldier and his death is the trigger for the escalation of the plot. I was actually beginning to think he had been killed, he’d certainly been shot enough times that it seemed possible. It was a suitably dramatic death and upped the emotional stakes as well as suggesting vulnerability for named cast members. But then he pops up, slightly battered but certainly alive.

I can’t claim I was surprised he wasn’t dead, both because he’s a super spy (fooling your enemies into believing you’re dead is a handy trick) and because Marvel have shown a reluctance to kill off anyone important (Loki in Thor 2 springs to mind).

As I’ve said in earlier blogs I entirely understand the reluctance to kill these characters off, but the frequency with which this trope is being used in big budget blockbusters means that I neither feel the emotional hit of the death or the surprise of their return.

Secondly I found it an interesting move for them to name the film ‘The Winter Soldier’ then have him on screen relatively little, arguably more of a henchman than a mastermind. His story was well done, the relationship between Captain America and him was interesting as the Captain tried to reach out to his old friend, believing he was still in there beneath the anger and cyber tech, but it never really felt like his film.

It feels somewhat like they were setting him up as a character with future films in mind, particularly considering his visit to a museum about Captain America and the Howling Commando’s exploits in WW2. It will be interesting to see whether he plays any part in the Avengers: Age of Ultron, or if he’s going to be kept on one side for the already confirmed third outing for Steve Rogers. That possibility is also made more interesting by the fact that Chris Evans seems to be somewhat disinterested in continuing to act in big projects. I’m sure people familiar with the comics have theories on where those two characters could go, but with all the alternate universes and reboots I suspect even they can’t be certain.

Thirdly, in relation to the final act’s explosion heavy action, I felt that while the action itself wasn’t particularly ground breaking, it felt like the natural conclusion to the story rather than explosions for the sake of it (I’m looking at you Iron Man 3). The attempted coup by HYDRA, with SHIELD agents and HYDRA battling it out aboard three airborne Helicarriers, justified the action and made good use of small scale battles as well as the big picture, Imax extravagance. It was big rather than clever perhaps, but it was entertaining and worked within the larger film.

Finally, I wanted to mention that I’m intrigued by the way the film and Marvel’s TV show Agents Of Shield are tying in with each other. The past few episodes of Shield have dealt with the attempted HYDRA coup and the fall out with previously trusted allies suddenly enemies and it’s buzzed along with a lot of momentum, especially compared to the slower, sometimes clunky establishing episodes at the start of the season.  You didn’t need to have seen Captain America to enjoy Agents of Shield, and vice versa, but they added to the overall experience and make for a wider sense of the universe the films and show exist within. It’ll be interesting to see how the TV show continues, its ratings haven’t been spectacular and the quality has been inconsistent, but there is certainly potential there both for the show and for the way in which studios can look to combine film and TV projects.

Sunday, 27 April 2014

Locke (Knight, 2014)

Locke is a brave film, one that takes a refreshing level of risk to tell a story. It is an account of 90 minutes in the life of Ivan Locke (Tom Hardy), a manager on a construction site, as he drives to London on the motorway one night. His interactions with other people come almost exclusively over the phone, attempting to deal with one crisis after another as a carefully maintained life begins to fall apart.

Any film that makes the decision to only use one on-screen character in its entire run time is gambling. It gambles on the audiences focus, it gambles on the story it is trying to tell and most crucially it is gambling on the performance that HAS to hold it all together.

In that final aspect especially, Locke is a gamble that pays off. Tom Hardy is superb, gripping the audience’s attention throughout (partly due to an occasionally jarring accent admittedly). It’s a consciously un-showy performance, one that focuses on subtle body language and the occasional emphatically delivered swear word to communicate a much deeper well of emotion.

The cinematography is impressive throughout, making the British motorway system look as beautiful as it perhaps ever has. Playing around with the way street lights and other cars illuminate a night drive, Locke manages to remain visually interesting despite its deliberately limited scope.

For a film that deals with a number of highly fraught emotional issues, it also benefits from resisting the temptation for melodrama, keeping the most intense conversations short and communicating an awful lot of pain in a minimum of words. It carries an emotional punch precisely because the film maintains the same level of emotional control that it’s central character strives to achieve.

As I hope previous entries on this blog have made clear, I adore big budget blockbusters and over the top action, but I also appreciate films that attempt to do a lot with very little and Locke is a great example of this. 

It could undoubtedly have worked as a TV special, it’s budget and scope easily within the abilities of  Channel 4 (who’s film wing partly funded the film), but I love breaking up the epic films with something like this, which uses the big screen and the immersion of the cinema to draw you into a much more grounded story.

Thursday, 17 April 2014

The 5 'Greatest' Films Of All Time

Empire magazine are currently running a poll on their website, trying to compile a list of the 301 Greatest Films of all Time for their 301 issue. Anyone can go to the page and add their say to the list by picking the 5 films they believe to be the greatest cinema has had to offer, with a brief justification for whichever they choose as number 1.

Now those who’ve read my blog much (and know that High Fidelity by Nick Hornby is one of my favourite novels of all time) will know that I love lists. I love arguing with myself over the relative merits of different films, twisting this way and that, coming up with counter-points to my own decisions. 

Choosing 5 films though, from everything ever produced, was unbelievably tough. A challenge highlighted by the fact that I’ve already realised I wish I could make a change to the 5 I nominated online (more on that later). Part of the challenge was that it was asking for the “greatest” rather than personal favourites. I had to try and be a little more objective than I often am about film; I’m generally an advocate for the most important question about any film being, “did you enjoy it?” rather than the more calculated, distant take.

I tried to think about what makes a great film and came up with a 3 questions to help me narrow the list of possible options down (at one point I had 35 films jotted down on a piece of paper). Each question had flaws, but it was a starting point. The questions were:

Could it have, at the time it was made, been done on TV and worked nearly as well? The “greatest” films should, surely, be the ones that make full use of the medium and to some degree couldn’t exist without it. This ruled out a lot of my personal favourites.

Can you quickly think of a technically better example of the genre?

Can I instantly think of a justification for its inclusion? This could be a scene, a performance or a technical element. If I had to think for long I ruled the film out.

Like I said, they’re each flawed questions in their own way and there are an awful lot of films I was reluctant to rule out because of them, but I had to start somewhere and they offered me a way in.

It took me most of Wednesday afternoon to choose the five I did, and I’m still haunted by the feeling that I’ve made terrible mistakes.  

My list ended up being entirely films from within my lifetime, which while I stand by my choices, feels almost negligent to what came before. I debated about putting Nosferatu in for its influence on every horror movie since. Rear Window is probably my favourite Hitchcock film (a divisive choice I know), but it is also perhaps his least ‘cinematic’ effort, so that fell short. Alien and Terminator both tempted me, as did their sequels. Airplane and Monty Python’s The Life of Brian had me thinking long and hard, because I could have made a strong argument for either of them being the greatest comedy movie of all time.

They are also all in the English language, which is perhaps unsurprising given the criteria I laid out. The majority of my exposure to foreign cinema has been to the subtle, the complex, the could have been done on TV but I’m just grateful it exists type of film. La Haine and City of God were strong options, while leaving out Pan’s Labyrinth was damn near tortuous.

There is a weighting towards spectacle and, as indicated by the questions, that is deliberate, but spectacle alone does not make great cinema (look at where Gravity ended on my films of 2013 list for proof of that) and all five of these films combine the spectacle with great stories and superb performances.

In the end though I chose five and posted my response on the website. Then about 18 hours later realised I had forgotten one that couldn’t be left out. For now though I’m settling on this slightly amended five. The choice at number one is ranked, I genuinely believe it is the greatest film ever made, but the other four are in no particular order. After narrowing it down to five I didn’t have the mental energy to rank those four, the margins are so slim, the merits so different.

So in no particular order, numbers 2-5 are:

Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

There had to be a LOTR film in the top 5. That trilogy is in my opinion the greatest fantasy series ever put on film and the final instalment is fantasy film-making at its absolute most epic level. From the battle of Minas Tirith and the charge of the Rohirrim to Frodo and Sam’s last, desperate climb up Mount Doom, it’s a visual spectacle arguably never matched.

It’s actually not my favourite of the trilogy, Two Towers tips it, for reasons even I have problems articulating. However in the end I decided that Return of the King is the “better” film, for the spectacle, for the pay off of it being the conclusion to the story, for the ambition it showed.

Peter Jackson and Weta studios showed just what could be done with CGI now, without ever forgetting the impact real locations and putting actors in them could achieve. That meeting of new and old technologies is crucial to its place in my top five. A great example if the scenes with Gollum and the hobbits; there you have the first believable, motion capture character ever, performing alongside two actors made to look short by good old forced perspective.

Then there’s Howard Shore’s score, pretty much perfect throughout, but for me at its best during Return of the King.

I wanted to cheat and include all three, but had to choose just this one.

Jurassic Park

I could have nearly populated this entire top five with Spielberg films, because no man has got more absolutely the power and potential of cinema than him. He has remained at the cutting edge of what is possible, while impressively avoiding becoming just another spectacle merchant, sacrificing plot for pixels.

Jurassic Park was one of my favourite films as a kid, watched over and over again on video and last year’s cinema re-release only confirmed that 8 year old me had impeccable taste when it came to this specific film. From the moment that theme tune kicked in I was hooked, just like I was as a kid, and I believe that is one of the best compliments I can pay Spielberg and this film.

Cinema has always been, for a lot of people, about escapism; about its ability to transport you to exciting and often magical places, to capture your imagination and strip away, if only briefly your cynicism.

It’s a film about spectacle, wonder and ambition, full of danger and drama, complimented by those little touches of humanity that make Spielberg perhaps the greatest director ever.

Jurassic Park makes it into my top five for being a film that inspires true childlike enthusiasm, without treating you like a child. It’s the kind of film that the cinema exists for.

Children of Men

This is the one I only remembered several hours too late for the Empire vote. I cast my vote for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and while I believe that is an incredible film, it would be better suited to a favourite film list than an objective greatest one.

Children of Men, on the other hand is one of my favourite films and one of the greatest cinematic efforts. Built off an impressive but now dated P. D. James book, director Alfonso Cuaron created in my opinion the greatest dystopian film ever.

As a technical exercise it is stunning, showcasing the skill that has since brought him such popular acclaim with ‘Gravity’, but for me Children of Men is a far superior offering to the Oscar winning space tale.
The film includes two of the great ‘one-take’ sequences in film history, action sequences that would be ambitious to pull off without limiting yourself to one continuous sequence, yet are so much stronger for it. But it also has heart in abundance and a plot that could keep you engaged without the pyrotechnics and showmanship.

The cast is excellent across the board and the music extremely well judged (The Court of the Crimson King sequence particularly stands out).

Best of all though it makes you think, it poses questions about humanity and what keeps us ticking along. The best films, the truly great, are films like Children of Men that don’t see asking the big questions and making an entertaining film as in any way mutually exclusive.

Toy Story 2

There had to be a Pixar film in this top five, I realised that early on. It didn’t take long for me to also realise that despite the qualities of Up or Wall-E, it was always going to be one of the Toy Story trilogy.

Toy Story 1 was a showcase of what Pixar was about to bring to the world, a great example of what an animated film could be. Its sequel though was the fulfilment of that potential. Toy Story 2 is the greatest sequel of all time for me, ahead of Godfather 2, Empire Strikes Back and Aliens. Contentious definitely, but it beats them all to a place in this top 5.

Visually still stunning 15 years on, the CGI holding up to this day, it has such incredible ambition. Not resting on its laurels after the success of the first film, Toy Story 2 takes risks, introducing new central characters and challenging the world the first film created by adding a toy villain, yet it maintains the sense of romanticism that eventually made the Toy Story franchise into one of the most loved (and successful) of all time.

It establishes so much of what has made Pixar films an almost guaranteed success in the past 15 years. There’s the jokes that will fly over a child’s head but amuse the parent with them, there’s the visual gags so perfectly executed it feels almost unfair and most importantly there is the heart. That’s the element that has seen Pixar become the dominant force it is today. The willingness to go to emotional places, to resist simply playing it safe and question issues of family, trust and friendship is why those films are so powerful. Jessie’s story is the perfect blueprint for so much of what Pixar have done since, hope tinged with sadness for a life left behind. It’s real, it’s at times more emotional than you might think you want from a ‘kids’ movie, but it is exactly what made Disney a success throughout the majority of the 20th century and why the Disney/Pixar collaboration is likely to be extremely productive and lucrative for the next few decades.

If you challenged me I could easily make an argument for either 1 or 3 being in this film’s place, but as with LOTR I had to choose one and in the end I settled for this as the most daring, most consistent and most fulfilling entrant in an incredible trilogy.

Saving Private Ryan

So this was the first film I put down on that initial piece of paper and my undisputed greatest film of all time. 

I’ve already tried to explain why Spielberg is the greatest director in my opinion, so I will focus on what specifically sets this film apart.

This is the greatest war film ever made. It has plenty of strong completion; Apocalypse Now, Platoon, All Quiet on the Western Front, Days Of Glory, Stalingrad etc. However no film has captured, in my opinion, the simultaneous heroism and futility of war as well as Saving Private Ryan does.

The D-Day landing sequence is phenomenal, a master director at his absolute best, providing an unflinching portrayal of the randomness of war. People die constantly, brave or scared, good or bad, that sequence is one of the most honest ever put on film.

Then there’s the sequence with the captured German, a sequence that shows what Spielberg is capable of when he chooses to strip away the spectacle and focus on character. Every character is complex, their motives understandable and in Hanks, Spielberg has one of the greatest ever actors to communicate the desperate clinging to humanity that must be the experience of so many fighting in wars all over the world and throughout history.

Saving Private Ryan is in my opinion the greatest film ever made because it has action sequences that are a hundred times more effective than the majority of popcorn flicks each year, but combines it with true heart. 

The good and the bad of humanity is on display in Saving Private Ryan and to the eternal credit of Spielberg, he repeatedly focuses on humanising both sides.

It is in my opinion the best film ever made. I can’t imagine a better war film ever being made. I struggle to imagine a better film full stop.

So that's my top five and I encourage anyone who reads this to go over to Empire's site and vote. Personally I hope that in 20 years my top 5 has a couple of new additions. I want to believe that for all the incredible films out there, there’s more to come.

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

A Good Day and the Prospect of More

Just a quick update this evening, because there’s been a few changes in the weeks since I started the blog up and again.

I got on the masters course I had applied for, so from September I will be a student again, this time studying American History at the University of Sheffield. I’m excited about the course itself and the feeling of having a direction I’m heading, but it’s dawned on me that after a year and a half of being reasonably well off I’m going to have to get used to being a broke student again. It’ll be a bit of an adjustment certainly but a worthwhile one.

My contract at work ended on Friday so I’m officially unemployed now, which is good practice for the financial constraints of being a student I guess, but I’m going to be trying to find some work to keep me going between now and the autumn. It’s definitely less scary not having a job knowing that I have the masters in just a few months. I’m taking a week to relax and come as close to gathering my thoughts as I’m ever able to, but from next week the job hunt begins.

Monday will also mark the start of me stepping up my training for the Round Sheffield Run that I mentioned in the first post. 24K is a lot further than I’ve ever run competitively, but I’m looking forward to the challenge.

For this week though I’m simply going to enjoy a bit of time to myself. Today was a good day, one where I watched a film (Liberal Arts, review possibly to follow), read some more of Howard Zinn’s ‘People’s History of America’ which is a great read even when I don’t fully agree with his conclusions, listened to Rachmaninov, Frank Ocean and The Low Anthem amongst others and went for a run, as well as writing two blog posts. All that accompanied by a pretty damn stunning spring day weather-wise.

Not all days will be like this and I have to concede that I might go a bit stir crazy if I’m without a job for long, but I’m trying hard to appreciate the days like this, where nothing dramatic happens and I can find happiness in a lot of simple acts.

That’s quite enough for today and I promise I’ll go back to over-analysing children’s films from now on. 

The Muppets Most Wanted (Bobin, 2014)

I have already seen a number of truly great films this year, and there are several I am really excited to see in the coming months (Godzilla, Interstellar, Hobbit part 3, Calvary, X-Men and Fury to name but a few). However I’m not convinced I will leave any film this year, happier than I felt at the end of The Muppets Most Wanted.

I’ve always loved The Muppets, their version of Treasure Island was one of my most watched videos growing up. Before my long hiatus from this blog, my final post was a review of the 2011 film, starring Jason Segel and Amy Adams, that brought The Muppets back into the public eye. I went into this sequel already braced to be disappointed, deliberately lowering my expectations.

I was in hindsight wise to do this, as the film doesn’t quite live up to the standards of the first, but is still a fantastically enjoyable 90 minutes, filled with exactly the kind of anarchic plot, genius cameos and lovable characters that you would hope for from a film involving Kermit and co.

In a masterstroke the film picks up right where the first one ended, with the muppets on the street outside the theatre and launches into probably the strongest musical number of the whole film, irreverent and self-deprecating. It sums up one of the things that I’ve always loved about the muppets; they were meta before it was cool, existing in some bizarre fourth wall-less reality where logic and physics can be abandoned at will if it furthers the plot.

The first film succeeded because it combined four factors to great effect; music by Brett McKenzie, entertaining cameos, a fairly straight-forward plot and shed-loads of heart. On the first two counts this film delivers, with a prison number delivered by Tina Fey, backed by a bizarre combination of familiar faces, standing out as a superbly surreal highlight of both elements.

Where it falls down is the story. I must concede that for almost any non-muppets film, I’d be implying a much stronger criticism with that comment. As it is I accept that plot has always been a secondary concern behind having fun with whatever concept they’ve chosen to shape the film. The film has a lot of fun with the genre of the police investigation, Ty Burrell (Modern Family’s Phil Dunphy, enjoying himself as a Clouseau-esque Interpol agent) and Sam the Eagle making for a great parody on the buddy cop format. However the heists that are central to the story are underwhelming, each feeling like a missed opportunity.

The plot revolves around a master criminal who looks almost identical to Kermit pulling off heists, using the Muppets as an alibi, but too many of the scenes progressing that central storyline fall flat, feeling like fillers between the scenes involving the real Kermit.

Even that though would be OK if the heart that drove the first film was there but it isn’t. It aims for a message about the importance of friendship but that’s something the first film explored more effectively. There’s another element that I will talk about below in the spoiler section (yes I treat The Muppets seriously enough to merit a spoiler section).

For the spoiler free section, I will end this review with the conclusion that while it is not quite as triumphant a success as the 2011 effort, it is a respectable entrant into the Muppet back-catalogue and filled me with a level of child-like enjoyment that is all too rare in the majority of my visits to the cinema. If you have kids take them to see it (lord knows it’s a better option than the awful looking Postman Pat film coming out soon).

However If you’re looking for a child friendly film from the first half of this year I have to recommend the  Lego Movie ahead of this, because it is at least as fun as Most Wanted but has a more compelling message, delivered with greater confidence and style.

Spoilers below this point.

One of my very slight issues with this film, and I fully acknowledge that it is perhaps an unrealistic criticism of a kids film, is that it suggests a more interesting moral message then fails to deliver.

As mentioned earlier, the film revolves around the idea of Kermit having an almost identical twin who is a master criminal named Constantine. While Kermit ends up thrown in a Siberian Gulag, Constantine (with the help of Ricky Gervais’ Dominic Badguy) uses the Muppets to stage a series of art heists designed to lead to stealing the British crown jewels. The rest of the Muppets blindly follow Constantine’s leadership, accepting he is Kermit despite the evidence to the contrary.

For a large chunk of the film we are presented with the dangers of unquestioningly following a charismatic leader.  Sadly the finale only suggests that as long as you’re following the “right” person, you’ll be fine. Kermit’s return and exposure of the imposter is entertainingly done, but instead of leading to some questioning of doing exactly what they’re told, the Muppets just pass the mistake off with a collective ‘oops’ and commit to following Kermit, even if that is to a Siberian gulag.

Themes of family and togetherness have always been central to The Muppets appeal and rightly so. However the first film conveyed that message so much more effectively, whereas ending with this seems a bit of a cop out here.

I can imagine many of my readers arguing that I’m reading far too much into a Muppets film, but I feel they failed to follow through on a plot they chose to set up. We live in a world where Pixar & Disney have changed what we can expect from a “kids” film, but this film in the end fails to commit to any particular message. There’s a vague affirmation of the values of friendship and loyalty, but by establishing how easily a look-alike can trigger loyalty, that value is called into question by the film itself and never really answered.

The 2011 Muppets film had a clear message about the value of belonging and identity, but this effort, while fun throughout, suffers for having a much vaguer sense of what message it hopes to convey.