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.

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

Why I Watch

There are a lot of times I regret being a football fan. Note that I say football rather than Forest, the distinction is crucial. I’m not denying that supporting a big team would be easier, almost certainly more enjoyable, but I can’t imagine ever supporting anyone but Forest and would never want to, a feeling all football fans understand.

Growing up a Forest fan in Sheffield wasn’t the most comfortable experience always, I got used to being called a ‘scab’ by friends and strangers on a semi-regular basis despite the fact that my politics tended to be a long way to the left of theirs and wasn’t alive during the miner’s strike. The day after the play off semi-final against Sheffield United was probably the worst day of school ever, tormented not just by Blades, but by anyone who knew anything about football pretty much.

A defeat against either Sheffield team meant dreading going into school, now it means dreading work in the morning. More so than usual. I’m usually a fairly calm individual, not overly prone to outward displays of strong emotion, particularly not anger. Plenty of my friends have commented over the years that they’ve rarely seen me angry or that I don’t seem excited about events. They are able to maintain that opinion because they’ve probably never seen me during a Forest game.

This evening was perhaps the perfect example of the torture and ecstasy that football offers to me. Forest played Wednesday at the City Ground, a game between two teams I suspect are destined for mid-table finishes this year and not one any neutrals were going to get excited about. Those hoping to see good quality football were watching the much more significant Champions League semi-finals.

I’d got home after watching the new Muppets movie (review to come in the next couple of days), checking the score throughout the journey home. I’d nearly sworn at my friend in town when I saw Wednesday had gone 1-0 up from the penalty spot. Once home I interrupted a conversation with my dad to briefly celebrate us equalising just before half time. I didn’t even have time to get upstairs and switch on my laptop before that relief was replaced by anger, as I saw Wednesday had gone up the other end and scored almost immediately.

I spent the next 15 minutes sulking. I’d like to paint it as something grander, but that is the most accurate description. I was already picturing the faces of various work colleagues, grinning ear to ear about their victory.

If I was gloomy during half time, the opening 30 minutes of the second half saw me almost inconsolable. We were terrible, Wednesday sounded like they should have been 5 or 6-1 up and I had turned off the radio twice. I turned it back on within minutes each time, such is the masochistic element of being a football fan I guess. I’d spent a lot of time with my head in my hands, cursing the fates, forest and especially Darius Henderson for being so useless I am starting to think I would genuinely do a better job leading the Forest attack. I think I’d fall over less often when passed the ball at least.

I was glad I continued to listen, because the torment doesn’t end until 90 minutes whether I’m listening or not, and on 77 minutes we got a goal back. I shouted a little and punched the air more times than was perhaps necessary, but it’s difficult to celebrate effectively in an empty room.

Again such joy was short lived, within moments Forest’s captain had got himself sent off and the fledgling comeback seemed impossible again. I’m cursing Forest again, wondering why them seem to save their biggest cock-ups for the Sheffield teams (I suspect they don’t and it’s simply perspective making it seem so, but it hurts either way).

But oddly we finally start playing, it sounds like the players care. Then the Wednesday winger Jeremy Helan is lucky not to get sent off and I hear the Forest crowd respond to the perceived injustice and get behind the team. I’m still not optimistic, I’ve been a football fan too long for any of that naive nonsense.

Then on 87 minutes we win a free kick. Edge of the area. Jamie Paterson, one of the highlights in an otherwise depressing second half to the season, steps up and curls it in. This is why I’m a Forest fan, this is why I watch football. Because on a Tuesday night, after a long day at work and alone in my room, I shout so loud my throat still feels a little sore an hour later. I jump out my chair as the ball hits the net and I won’t sit down again until the final whistle.

It’s an insignificant goal. It doesn’t change our season, it doesn’t win us promotion, it doesn’t even win the game. But in the context, with the emotion that the game draws out of me, that equaliser is, for a few moments everything.

That is why I love the sport. Art can attempt to trigger emotions but they are always, to a degree contrived. Football can be cruel, often brutally so and almost always unforgiving of optimism. But it is also random and that unpredictability, the fact that even if you support a great team playing a lowly one, you are rarely 100% comfortable, is what makes it so addictive.

For the majority of fans, football is not a sport watched because they think they will win, it’s watched thinking they will lose but entertaining the hope that they might win, and therein lies the beauty. Nothing plays with my emotions like football. It might lack depth, but the immediacy and intensity of the feelings it triggers are second to none.

I spent the remaining 8 minutes of the game pacing my tiny room back and forth (it was more like spinning on the spot and by the end I was a little dizzy) because I couldn’t sit down. I actually, somewhat ridiculously but entirely unwittingly, fell to my knees when Paterson nearly won it for Forest with a run and shot.

There are great moments in the memories of all football fans, games that really mattered, goals that meant everything. But I think it is the mid-season games where very little is really at stake that define why we follow the sport. When a point gained from a poor match against a team that will probably finish only a place or two below you triggers such elation, you understand why you persevered through the 77 minutes of misery that preceded it.

Extended over several seasons that captures why we do what we do, why we care like we do. We put up with the anger, the depression, the ball of hot molten tension that sits in our gut on game day, for those moments of pure, unrestrained and unqualified moments of elation, regardless of whether they prove insignificant in the long term.

Thursday, 3 April 2014

A Year of Film

Around Christmas I made a list of all the films released in 2013 that I managed to see. Then, as is the natural response of someone like me, I tried to rank those films (all 34 of them). Overall it was a strong year for film, though there were some major disappointments and duds along the way. For many of them the positions are a little arbitrary, the difference between 27th and 28th for example is marginal. Partly due to that I’m going to break the list into three parts in an effort to be more manageable, but be forewarned, this is a long post.

It is also not a list of the “best” films of 2013. It’s a list of my favourite films of the year and as such reflects my preferences, hopes and prejudices, sometimes above technical merit.
So I’ll start the countdown, beginning with numbers 34-20.

·         34 – Kick Ass 2
·         33 – Oz – The Great Powerful
·         32 – Monsters University 2
·         31 – Despicable Me 2
·         30 – Olympus has Fallen
·         29 – The Impossible
·         28 – Anchorman 2
·         27 – Oblivion
·         26 – Man of Steel
·         25 – World War Z
·         24 – Now You See Me
·         23 – Thor 2
·         22 – Cloud Atlas
·         21 – Star Trek: Into Darkness
·         20 – Les Miserables

Now you’ll notice a few sequels in amongst there and it definitely wasn’t a strong year for part 2’s. Only two made it into the top 20 and they were both based on pre-existing novels, rather than attempts to cash in on the success of an original (a harsh generalisation about sequels overall, but fairly accurate of this selection.)
World War Z was better than I expected, especially once I managed to get over the fact that it only shared its name with the far superior Max Brooks novel. It had some great moments, particularly the bold approach of choosing a lower key, subtler final act, but overall it never rose above average popcorn action fare. The same goes for Man of Steel, Olympus Has Fallen and Thor 2, all fun but largely forgettable.

Les Miserables and Cloud Atlas both impressed me with the ambition, even if the execution didn’t fully convince.

I’ve written about Star Trek: Into Darkness in the last blog post, so check that out for why it ranks so low despite its strengths.

So onto 19-11

·         19 – Side Effects
·         18 – Iron Man 3
·         17 – Trance
·         16 – Django Unchained
·         15 – Gravity
·         14 – Warm Bodies
·         13 – Before Midnight
·         12 – Much Ado About Nothing
·         11 – Pacific Rim

All these films have a lot going for them and I’d recommend you watch, but I’ll pick out a couple for further comment. Firstly Gravity ranks there because despite being indisputably spectacular as a visual and technical exercise, it never moved beyond that for me, the birth and death motifs not doing much that 2001 didn’t do better many years ago. Cuaron is a supremely talented director and he deserves all the plaudits he has got for the lengths he went to filming this, but it felt a slightly hollow achievement to me without a stronger plot.

If you are a Shakespeare or Joss Whedon fan I can’t recommend Much Ado strongly enough. It’s a modern master of dialogue working with the original’s words, low key and beautifully filmed. It could hardly be more in contrast to the pick that sits one above it in this list.

There is nothing subtle about Pacific Rim and that is deliberate. My affection has always been split between so called “worthy”, complex films and summer blockbusters. Pacific Rim satisfied the side of me that wants to see childhood fantasies writ across the largest screen available. I mean, a robot hits a monster with an oil freighter for god’s sake. It was like watching the greatest ever episode of Power Rangers and I loved every minute.

For the top 10 I’ll go into a little bit more detail on what made them achieve such heights.

10 – Catching Fire

The second Hunger Games book/film is a prime example of how a sequel should be done. It builds on characters and wider context while maintaining what captured the audience’s attention in the first film. Jennifer Lawrence continues to be superb as Katniss and it is largely down to her character that this film places so highly. It is impossible to view anything to do with the Hunger Games franchise in a Twilight-less vacuum. As a teen fiction phenomenon it is infinitely preferable.

Here is a female lead that fights for her own and her family’s survival. Who is intelligent, resourceful and challenges authority. She is not emotionless or detached, as is so often the case when writers make “strong female characters”, but doesn’t let emotions become her sole motive. She’s not perfect and the writing in the series at times leaves much to be desired, just as the direction did.

However this film ranks this highly for me because alongside being a damn good film full of enjoyable action and impressive world building, it shows that authors and film makers can aim higher when working for a teenage audience. That the message they send to young people is important and that a world of little Katniss’ is unquestionably superior to a world of budding Bella’s.

9 – Lore

This is definitely a contender for the most visually beautiful film I watched, with long sequences putting the best of the BBC’s nature output to shame with its celebration of the glory of spring and the rebirth of life.

It is the context that that beauty is set within and often against that sees this film end up 9th. Lore, is the story of a teenage girl, daughter of an SS officer, in the immediate aftermath of WW2, trying to get herself and her siblings across post-war Germany.

It is a film about adolescence, indoctrination and desperation. Saskia Rosendahl, who plays Lore, is incredible for such a young actress, communicating in subtle facial expressions a young woman trying to make sense of a world she’s been sheltered from.

Lore is a harrowing journey, steadily staying the right side of preachy, letting the character’s journey tell the story in subtle beats rather than hammering you over the head with the morals. Films about WW2 are ten a penny, but films about German civilians in and around WW2 are rarer and this is a great addition to that limited genre.

8 – Wreck It Ralph

Monsters University represented a real disappointment for me. I have adored almost everything Pixar has done (I try to ignore the Cars series for this reason) and loved Monsters Inc, but the sequel fell flat.

However my faith in Pixar was only briefly shaken because an original project of theirs blew me away. I went in for a fun, video game referencing experience and left rating it as one of the studio’s best.

As with many Pixar films, themes of parenthood and children’s dreams are central, and as usual they’re superbly presented.  Visually it is as engaging as anything outside of the Toy Story series, every frame packed with background jokes. There are laughs for children and adults alike throughout.

When Pixar are on form there are few better film experiences for me. They offer ambition, creativity and optimism, consistently rejecting cynicism.

It is also preceded by one of the best Pixar shorts so far, a wordless tale of fate that shows just what the animators of the studio can achieve.

7 – Place Beyond The Pines

This was a slow burner for me. When the credits rolled I was mildly impressed but also somewhat underwhelmed. It took a couple of days of thinking about the film to realise just how much I’d truly enjoyed it.

The first realisation stemmed from the simple fact that I was still thinking about it days later, not the case for many of the films below it on this list. I found myself reflecting on visual elements, character moments and plot structure.

I think a lot of my initial issues with the film stemmed from me expecting a generic crime thriller and the bank robbery scenes shown in the trailers are much more visceral and engaging in full, eschewing Hollywood drama for a more gripping, gritty approach. However, without wanting to stray into spoiler territory, Place Beyond The Pines has much grander aspirations.

It is a film about fatherhood and responsibility, beautifully filmed and superbly acted. The more I considered the character’s decisions, the more I went back and forth over their motives, the more I realised just how strong this film was, and the more I appreciated its depth.

6 – The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty

This was the last film I saw of the 2013 releases and it was perhaps the most refreshingly optimistic. That outlook is a major factor in why it ranks so highly for me.

It is a film entirely about dreams; their power and their limitations. It encourages the audience to dream big but cautions them against failing to act on them. The majority of the events are low key compared to the excitement of most films you might see at the cinema, but they are imbued with importance by Ben Stiller’s journey as the eponymous Walter.

Now it is no surprise that I related to a film about a man who day dreams too much attempting to act on those fantasies. Walter Mitty as a character, first created in 1939 by James Thurber, is much closer to me than the reams of super heroes, geniuses, villains and fuck ups that populate most films.
It is spectacular to look at, several key scenes filmed in the cinematic wilderness of Iceland and ambitious in its story telling.

I left many films that year feeling entertained, several moved, some full of adrenaline, but I left Walter Mitty feeling inspired. I’d only attribute that particular feeling to one other film on this list and I think too few films aim for it.

5 – The Hobbit – The Desolation Of Smaug

I still remember my dad reading The Hobbit to me as a child. He was reading from a copy of the book given to my mum when she was a child. Tolkien’s world was a major influence on my childhood and so far Peter Jackson has done an incredible job of transferring that to the screen.

I still have issues with the attempt to stretch the story of The Hobbit into three films, but to Jackson’s credit the second instalment manages to pick up momentum rather than feeling dragged out. Part of that is due to being freed from the efforts of establishing the various dwarfs and their motives that occasionally stalled the first film.

Much of the rest of the success is down to, as Empire’s review of the film pointed out, the story now taking them into locations not yet shown in Jackson’s take on the world.

Some unrest from fans has been directed at Jackson’s changes to Tolkien’s story, but I don’t have a problem with any of the additions. I suspect most controversial will be Evangeline Lily’s Tauriel. I’m all for that particular addition. Another female character who can handle herself in a fight is a very welcome addition to a world that Tolkien had limited interest in populating with strong female characters.

Smaug himself when he appears on screen is yet another triumph for the men and women of WETA digital, as impressive as anything yet rendered in Middle Earth and unsurprisingly fantastically voiced by Benedict Cumberpatch.

By this point Martin Freeman is Bilbo, as perfectly cast as anyone in film history, capturing his reluctant and uncertain bravery.

I feared going into this film that it might puncture my enthusiasm for Jackson’s take on Middle Earth, but if anything I am now even more excited for the final chapter this winter. Six films in and Jackson still has me absolutely hooked in Tolkien’s world.

4 – Zero Dark Thirty

Outside of the top 2 I probably debated this one’s position more than any other.

On the one hand it is brilliantly executed thriller. On the other it strays close to glorifying the “War on Terror” and a number of the methods used. Celebrating an individuals death, no matter how horrible always leaves me a little uncomfortable.

However in the end I decided that because Kathryn Bigelow goes out of her way to make it clear that the crucial information comes from more traditional surveillance methods and never skirts around the ugly side of the search for Bin Laden, I am willing to give her the benefit of the doubt. I choose to believe that her intentions were to tell an entertaining spy thriller in the most responsible way.

Amidst all my uncertainty about the film, one thing is clear. This is the film that establishes Jessica Chastain as one of the most promising talents in Hollywood. Impressive in The Help, Lawless and, by other’s accounts, Tree of Life, this could be the role that launches her career. She is superb throughout, a nuanced portrayal of an individual obsessed with a cause.

Zero Dark Thirty has a strong supporting cast but it is her film from start to finish, she dominates every scene she is in and is surely destined for a whole host of awards nominations in her career.

Outside of her performance, the other element of the film that secured it 4th spot is the raid on Bin Laden’s complex. It is up there with the bank heist in Heat as an example of a perfectly executed action sequence. It wrings impressive amounts of tension out of a scenario where the audience already knows the outcome and highlights how slow build tension and bursts of action can be much more effective than the excess of explosions and activity that characterises most action films.

A lot of how you respond to Zero Dark Thirty hinges on how you choose to read its intentions. For me it is an action movie that never pretends the “good guys” white hats aren’t coated in dirt and avoids many of the genres clich├ęs, creating real tension along the way.

3 – The World’s End

The final offering of the Cornetto Trilogy was always likely to rank highly. The trio of Wright, Frost and Pegg is a potent one, already proven by two of the funniest comedies in my lifetime. Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz were two of the most quotable films of my teens and though the third instalment was a while in coming, The World’s End was worth the wait. This was a film which combined the incredibly sharp comedic writing and quotability of the first two films with a depth of emotion that exceeded what many would have expected.

Pegg’s Gary King is instantly up there in the higher echelon of truly flawed heroes. An individual so stubbornly in his own way that it has become a twisted point of pride. His character makes you laugh with his enthusiasm and idiocy, outrages you with some of his lines and then slowly breaks your heart with the revelation of the tears behind his clownish persona.

As always Pegg is at his best alongside Frost, their strained friendship utterly believable throughout. Frost is superb as Andy, trying desperately not to be dragged down by a friend he thought he’d seen the last of. This is certainly the darkest and most complex friendship in the trilogy, but is also the most heartfelt.

The first two thirds of the film are good, full of brilliant word play and inventive action sequences, but for me it is the final act that elevates this film to the point where it is perhaps my favourite Cornetto film. I intend to write a more in depth and spoiler heavy review where I’ll explore why I connected with the film so much, so keep an eye out for that in the next couple of weeks.

What I can say is that the final showdown is one of sheer verbal brilliance; defiant, idiotic and inspiring all in one.

The World’s End is a fitting send off for a trio of films, from a trio of comedic geniuses.

2 – Short Term 12

The decision between 1st and 2nd place was tough, perhaps tougher than any of the other choices on this list. Eventually I could only give Short Term 12 the silver medal spot, but it was damn close.

An American indie drama it garnered surprisingly little buzz over here despite having won the SXSW Film Awards grand jury prize and receiving strong reviews almost everywhere (Empire gave it 5 stars). I went because of that particular recommendation and my love of Brie Larson.

Set within a residential treatment facility where kids waiting to be fostered stay, this film blew me away. The heart and humour that runs throughout it were both refreshingly grounded and genuine.

It is a film with some heart-breakingly sad moments and as many uplifting ones, the impact coming from the fact they all felt genuine and earned to me. The characters are believable, complex and fragile, their actions understandable rather than forced. The strings never swell, the montages never roll, and the film hit me so much harder because I never felt I was being heavy handedly manipulated towards certain emotions.

It deals with dark, angry emotions and actions, never shrinking from them or trying to gloss over them like some more twee indie films might have. It is a film about responsibility and the people who abuse theirs. Points of this film made me as sad as anything I watched last year; one music based moment involving one of the oldest children in the facility should have been nominated for best original song at the Oscars without a shadow of a doubt for me.

However it’s also a film about hope and trust, and like Walter Mitty I left this film feeling inspired and uplifted, reminded that for all the bad in the world there are so many more people struggling to do good and that’s a message more films could do with showing.

In my opinion it was unfairly ignored come award season, because though it was unlikely to win, I believe nods for Brie Larson as Best Actress, the original screenplay and as I said above, original song, would all have been well deserved.

There are many major films on this list, big names with bigger casts and arguably more critical acclaim, but if you see one film based off this list, choose Short Term 12.

1. Lincoln

That being said, I did eventually side with Lincoln for the number one spot for several reasons.

As an American history nerd (and hopefully future student), a big budget drama about a crucial moment, directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Daniel Day-Lewis was bookies favourite for my personal best film from the moment it was announced.

Telling the story of the political manoeuvrings in the build up to the House of Representatives vote on the 13th amendment, abolishing slavery in the United States, it is a film of grand scale set largely in small rooms.

There are brief visits to the Civil War that was tearing the nation apart, but they are always simply to remind the audience of the stakes. This is not a war movie, closer to House of Cards than Saving Private Ryan.
Daniel Day-Lewis deserves every single plaudit he was given for his portrayal of perhaps the most famous president of all time, putting all his method actor madness to great use. He is supported by a superb cast, Sally Field especially stands out as his wife and Tommy Lee Jones has great fun as radical abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens (a man who would still have seemed progressive had he been born a century later).

The film also does well to avoid painting too black and white a picture of Lincoln’s motivations and methods around the 13th amendment. There is, and most likely will always be, plenty of debate about the strength of Lincoln’s conviction against slavery. Whether it was a moral act or one of political necessity and expedience is contested to this day.

What is true, and what the film focuses on is that he was the right man at the right moment, someone with the vision, rhetoric and pragmatism to see America take a faltering step towards equality, a destination it would sadly take another century to truly begin to arrive at.

Spielberg shoots the intense arguments and subtle manipulations of the White House with all the skill one expects from such a master, Lincoln’s many monologues and anecdotes drawing us in just as they do the characters he is talking to.

I am strongly in favour of big budget films, starring top calibre casts, choosing to explore major historical moments not from a battlefield perspective but from a personal one, and if we do see more follow in its wake, I suspect Lincoln will long be held up as the level to aim for.


So that was my 2013 in films and it was a great year. I've already seen some great films in 2014 and I suspect I'll spend just as much time geekily obsessing over which should be 16th and which should be 17th in around 10 months time.