Category: Reviews


Spacewalk in the park.

Spacewalk in the park.

G R A V I T Y

★★★★☆

Released: June 2013
Certificate: 12A
Director: Alfonso Cuarón

[THIS ARTICLE CONTAINS SPOILERS]

We’ve finally reached the point where CG looks real. Peter Jackson’s studio claimed we had reached that level 12 years ago during production of the  Lord of the Rings trilogy, but technology has moved on significantly and the odd cartoonish bit we all pretend not to see would not now be forgiven.

Gravity could not have been produced on the same scale until now, and the effect is genuinely awesome to behold. Spiraling and spinning, moving sickeningly from every conceivable angle over alarming distances, the viewer becomes immersed in space.

Every now and then it would shift – in manic computer game style – to the astronaut’s perspective which added to the feeling of sheer terror.

The effects take centre stage, and that’s just as well.

The story is secondary but simple –  Dr Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) goes on her first mission into space to fix a radio (or something), the shuttle is hit by debris and she must make it back to earth alone.

George Clooney plays the experienced brave, doomed, smart-alecky mission Lieutenant Matt Kowalski and most of the dialogue is between these two characters.

Their relationship and the script are rather disappointingly obvious. The by-the-numbers writing comes close to ruining the experience in that it’s neither boring enough to be the speech of dull space people nor interesting enough to engage us. Every anecdote or comment is called back later on almost by rote to remind us we’re watching someone’s composition.

“Hope I get to break Anatoly Solovyev’s spacewalk record.”

“Looks like I’ll have to break Anatoly Solovyev’s spacewalk record another time.”

“At appears as though I’ll break Anatoly Solovyev’s spacewalk record after all.”

As is often the case, the use of mega-famous actors  means that the viewer may end up empathizing less than they could have with unknowns. Much of this reviewer’s time was spent thinking ‘SANDRA-BULLOCK-IN-SPACE-SANDRA-BULLOCK-IN-SPACE-SANDRA-BULLOCK-IN-SPACE’ which meant I couldn’t really take her seriously.

But that’s my own bias.

Gravity is an extraordinary film despite it’s shortcomings and definitely worth the price of admission for the effects alone. However, like space, there’s very little weight to anything here.

Read more film reviews – HERE

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Man of Steel

Released: June 2013
Certificate: 12A
Director: Zack Snyder

[THIS ARTICLE CONTAINS SPOILERS]

The origin story everyone knows has just been retold. This wasn’t done in the tender fulfilling way the trailer suggested it would be, instead, we’re assaulted by incomprehensible action from the very beginning.

It appears as though the creators were concerned about recreating the dire Superman Returns and attempted to make this film as exciting as possible. There are no peaks and troughs, this venture begins with the destruction of a planet and takes it from there.

General Zod (Michael Shannon) suffers from a similar problem with his temper. He begins the film (on Krypton) boiling with an incandescent rage, travels several light-years presumably quietly discussing his plans with his comrades, then arrives at earth more furious than ever. It’s a wonder his minions show him such devotion as he’s surely quite difficult to live with.

Since almost everyone has superpowers, no one can take a punch. Each blow launches the punchee hundreds of feet into something destructible from which they later emerge unharmed. At no stage do the characters realise this and punching continues to be the attack method of choice throughout.

I was surprised to learn that one can get bored of seeing someone thrown into a building which then either explodes or slowly collapses. It’s never been tested before, but my limit appears to be eight.

Nor do characters develop as you might hope. Zod is angry, Clark is boring, Lois is inquisitive but keeps Clark’s secret for some reason, Clark’s mum is sad, Clark’s dad is cautious/heroic/dead. The Daily Planet staff work hard and forget to evacuate.

Possibly the most tortured and interesting character is in fact Jonathan Kent (Kevin Costner) who continuously warns his son against doing things which could reveal his powers – even if it means innocent people have to die. This dynamic looks to have potential until the poor man is killed while rescuing a dog from a tornado.

Martha must feel pretty guilty about sending him back for that dog…every time she looks into it’s little face…

Remarkably, with all the money thrown at this film there only seem to be a handful of people around when anything happens. Did the writers think we’d be confused by any more than that?

Examples: The FBI/army guy is in the arctic, then in Kansas driving a truck having a knife-fight, then flying a plane in Metropolis having a knife-fight.  Lois (Amy Adams) is summoned to Zod’s ship with Superman for no discernible reason, (unless it’s for the crime of wearing high-heels in a desert!) later she races faster-than-a-speeding-bullet to see Superman defeat Zod despite the duo covering hundreds of miles and destroying countless skyscrapers in their epic showdown. This is a battle only the main staff at The Daily Planet emerge to witness – in a city of millions.

The single most important role in humanity’s defence of earth is that of Token Scientist played by Richard Schiff. He immediately understands all of the alien technology as soon as he sees it. He is also omnipresent.

It would be easy to say ‘Henry Cavill is more a Man of Wood, than The Man of Steel‘ but in truth he wasn’t given anything to say. It’s astonishing that Christopher Nolan produced and contributed to the story as this could not be further from his Batman trilogy and I can’t see how they could combine the two characters for a future Justice League film without changes being made.

These are all minor details, but the single greatest insult to the viewing public – and yes I will take it as an insult – is the continuous, emotive music played from beginning to end. Imagine if the frazzled, discerning blockbuster audience were left to figure out how sympathetic they should be feeling or how excited they were supposed to be? It would end in disaster. The theme (good though it is) is played through every conversation, explosion and building collapse creating a fourth wall of noise which distracts and alienates the viewer. It’s papering over irreparable emotional cracks.

Snyder hasn’t learned anything from the new generation of superhero films. It’s got to be dark or funny at the very least, but this is all a bland, cacophonous haze with no hint of humour or depth. You cannot describe these as throwaway action films anymore, the ones that stand out will always be those where the effects are incidental and writing is key.

Once again, the problem with superhero franchises is that you know there will be a Man Of Steel II out in two years time. He’s not going to die in this one, nor will Lois Lane, so where’s the tension? They needed to create a compelling character and make it about them, keep Superman as far away from the plot as possible.

 

 

Click HERE to go to Floptajoe’s Top 10 Superhero Films

Iron Man 3 Review

More suits, more action, moronic.

 Stark reality sets in.

Iron Man 3

Released: May 2013
Certificate: 12A
Director: Shane Black

 

[THIS ARTICLE CONTAINS SPOILERS]

 

Shane Black takes the reins of this third installment of the Iron Man franchise (and indeed the seventh film of producer Kevin Feige’s marvellous vision) to deliver action and quips in equal measure.

The Avengers was a hard act to follow and this being the flagship series in the super franchise, it needs to tread carefully.

Robert Downey Jr plays tormented superhero Tony Stark as he battles the mysterious figure of The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley).  Struggling to reconcile himself with the horror of the New York invasion (in The Avengers) and his own brush with mortality, he suffers panic attacks and struggles to communicate with Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow).

It’s an interesting development as Iron Man is unique among the current group of Marvel heroes in that he has no combat training or experience (apart from The Hulk who needs none). In The Avengers, Captain America asks if this was the first time he’d lost a soldier, to which he emotionally replies, ‘We are NOT soldiers.’

For a time we see beyond the bravado, but sensitive moments are few and far between once the action sequences begin.

You’d think a multitude of fight scenes interspersed with moments of witty dialogue would be pretty effective, but in the same film they quickly become tired. You gradually lose any concern for the protagonists safety when you can safely assume a super-suit will appear from nowhere just when they need it.

Many will be pleased that Pepper Potts got to play a more significant role, but it was no more than a token effort and she was still reduced to the damsel in distress when it suited.

Shane Black’s last directed film was the wonderfully unorthodox Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, which perhaps shows that structure isn’t a priority for him. This film resembles the product of a committee meeting where they’ve picked out five amazing fights, nine jokes and a plot twist before shoehorning them into 130 mins without working out how they can work together. There’s a lot of travel to places where stuff can happen, lots of casual introductions of gadgets which may be useful later and an abundance of CGI bloody robots.

The film begins with irritatingly unnecessary narration and ends with an irritatingly necessary one, not generally a good sign. It was as if they ran out of time and had to tie up the loose ends as the public filed into the cinema – ‘By the way, Pepper had an operation and is no longer composed of fire…oh and that bodyguard from the start of the film is fine too!’.

Having said that, Downey Jr is likeable, Kingsley is funny and Guy Pierce is pleasingly nefarious. The film was enjoyable overall but never reached it’s potential and will not be considered one of the Top 10 Superhero Films. There are enough clever pieces here to make up a good film, it just needed a more ruthless director.

The original Iron Man was simple, a bit small-time and genuinely charming. Dare I say it: A bit stark? The more you blow the audience away, the further they get from you. Before long, they’ve stepped too far back and have begun to see how ludicrous the whole concept is.

 

 

Burt & Anton. You've been wand.

Burt & Anton. You’ve been wand.

The Incredible Burt Wonderstone

Released: March 2013
Certificate: PG
Director: Don Scardino

 

Here we have a famous magician who takes the easy route for a number of years, his performances becoming increasingly stale, until finally he loses the magic that made him great to begin with.

And that’s just Steve Carell.

Was he aware of this allegory as he toiled away at this swollen, weeping sore of a film? Could he have let this go on considering the damage he was doing to his worshipping audience?

The viewer certainly had ample opportunity to ponder such questions between supposedly poignant moments and awkward pauses where the jokes should have been.

This was a non-film. Two magician friends, Burt & Anton (Carell and Steve Buscemi), get bored of performing their show and it stagnates. They then fall out, rediscover their enthusiasm for magic and get together again.  It’s not clear why anyone should be interested.

Flouting convention, the filmmakers  insert a good-looking, tough-talking, independent woman (Olivia Wilde) who is also interested in magic for some reason and dislikes Burt. Oh, those two really hate each other…then they’re in love, without explanation.

Jim Carey pops up as a rival magician and has a couple of funny moments as a suped up David Blaine, but his character outstays his welcome pretty quickly. It would have been far more enjoyable in 2003 when Blaine was topical.

This is an attempt at a Will Ferrell film without him in it, right down to the ‘ludicrous’ premise. Carell performs a Ron Burgundy impression throughout but without a fleshed out supporting cast or any jokes to shout about.  You can almost feel Steve Buscemi straining to run off the set and back onto Boardwalk Empire where he’s respected.

There is a lot of talent in this cast but there really is nothing to work with. You could be more forgiving if it was a film for children, but there are far too many adult references to make it such.

This film is poorly scripted, undirected and just as outdated as the magic show performed by the title character.

There’s no rabbit-out-of-a-hat moment, it’s just hat. 100 mins of hat.

Floptajoe’s Top 10 Superhero Films

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I realised recently that I’ve seen almost every superhero film ever created. Not unique by any means, but enough of a pretext for an indulgent SKY/E4 style countdown of things I like.

Why should anyone be interested in my opinion? No reason whatsoever.

The problem with superhero films is that the protagonist always survives and it’s a challenge to create any real tension. Bond and Die Hard films suffer from this also, so a stand-out film needs to either subvert the genre or  include a compelling human character and put them in mortal danger.

Looking to court controversy at every turn, I was disappointed to find my list was dominated by Batman films. None of them made No.1 spot though. Special mention for Watchmen which had excellent ideas used by other, better films.

The inclusion of two animated movies is the only real break from the obvious, beginning with:

10. Megamind

Was surprised to have enjoyed this film as much as I did. Will Ferrell’s voice is annoying for the first 10 mins, but the story quickly departs from the norm and explores something new.

9. X-Men: First Class

The first three X-Men films were almost unwatchable, too many dull characters with no screen time to flesh them out. Amazing powers utilized unimaginatively. First Class took a look at other films around at the time and went darker.

8. Batman Begins

An excellent film let down by a 20 minute finale watching steam travel through a pipe towards the ‘Central Hub’.

7. Thor

Quite high on the list, one of the more complicated origin stories put together with a good plot setting up Avengers Assemble nicely. Kenneth Branagh directs Anthony Hopkins as Odin, that alone gets it into the top 10.

6. Batman

Tim Burton’s gothic take on Batman ages remarkably well. Not sure about the Prince soundtrack.

5. The Incredibles

There are a lot people out there who don’t seem to care for this film, presumably because it’s animated. It’s original take on the public’s reaction to superheroes combines with an outstanding realisation of their capabilities to make it one of the very best out there. If anything, the fact that it’s animated meant they could accomplish a lot more.

4. Iron Man

It’s funny, without being annoying. It looks great and the story is excellent even if the finale is a bit underwhelming. Iron Man 2 was dreadful.

3. The Dark Knight

This is probably the most gripping of all the films on this list. The Joker is capable of anything and the viewer is on edge throughout. Still not sure why Batman had to take the blame for Dent’s crimes, they should have blamed Joker. And why would ‘The Dent Act’ be repealed if he turned out he had committed crimes ?

2. The Dark Knight Rises

I hated this film when I first saw it. Thought it entirely unbelievable, the characters don’t react as you’d expect them to and everyone kept pausing to make speeches. On second viewing, I realised it’s a superhero film even though it acts as if it isn’t. It should be enjoyed for what it is, great dramatic cinema!

1. Avengers Assemble

Avengers Assemble is exactly what I was waiting for, it’s what X-Men should have been and better. With the groundwork done through the previous Marvel films, it could focus on bringing together all the characters in a backs-to-the-wall struggle to save earth. Joss Whedon does an extraordinary job managing the personalities with wit and sensitivity before unleashing them in an epic clash on the streets of New York City. It beats Batman to top place because the child in me wants to see people thrown 20 yards into a wall by a punch.

This film is just that little bit more super.

AvengersShwarma

 

The Trilogy to begin all Trilogies.

The Trilogy to begin all Trilogies.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
Released: December 2012
Certificate: 12A
Director: Peter Jackson

 

The Hobbit trilogy has been a long time coming. Numerous delays in production meant we’ve had to wait 9 years since Return of the King, yet strangely it still feels too early to launch back into Tolkien’s world.

The film itself is almost exactly what you might expect. It contains more humour than it’s (future?) predecessors and Martin Freeman is an excellent, likeable Bilbo Baggins. The Dwarves are a welcome addition to the screen as their race had only one representative in LOTR but the rest of the film is basically a light-hearted remake of The Fellowship of the Ring.

The Howard Shore score is the same, the CG is the same, the characters are largely the same, and the story (for this part at least) is identical. Suddenly, as our heroes stop to have an interminable chat with the elves, I feel the need to escape. Having devoted almost 9 hours to the original trilogy, it dawns on me that we’re all going to be trapped in this unsatisfying 3 year cycle of films and probably will again when someone buys the rights to The Silmarillion.

One issue with the original trilogy was Jackson’s propensity to linger on certain (often elvish) parts of the story and gloss over more compelling parts of the books. The Hobbit travels at a more brisk pace and appears to take itself less seriously. It would be churlish to complain about similarities as there are bound to be some. It’s up to the viewer to decide whether they are prepared to retread old ground in order to rejoin this world.

The Hobbit is more of a childrens book as is reflected in the cartoonishness of the action, yet there are surprisingly graphic scenes midst the capers which seem out of place and are actually more resonant as a result. As is usually the case with prequels, some of the tension is deflated by our knowing the fate of our heroes but it doesn’t interfere with what is a hugely enjoyable journey. Jackson brings the story to life in a faultless, assured manner and leaves the audience wanting more. Shame we must wait a year to get it.

It makes financial sense to release the films over 3 years, but it’s awfully frustrating for the viewer. There is something to be said for waiting until 2014 and watching them all at once.

Can someone remind me to do that next time?

 

 

 

 

Country music seems to get a pretty bad rap these days, with many dismissing it out of hand without giving it half a chance.

To remedy this I’ve put together a short list of my favourite country / country influenced tracks from in and around 1970.

http://www.mixcloud.com/RagtimeWilly/country-music-isnt-shit/

 

The Byrds – I am a Pilgrim (1968)

You can’t really mention country without talking about Gram Parsons. He came to prominence when he was drafted into the Byrds to play piano on Sweetheart of the Rodeo. Himself and Chris Hillman left soon after it was released which pretty much spelled the end of The Byrds (Roger McGuinn being the only founding member left).

Further listening: Sweetheart of the Rodeo (1968)

The Flying Burrito Brothers – Christine’s Tune (1969)

Formed in the wake of Sweetheart of the Rodeo by Gram Parsons & Chris Hillman, The Flying Burrito Brothers veered slightly more towards country rock than their previous output. The group released a couple of great albums before Parsons left and the quality went downhill.

Further listening: The Gilded Palace of Sin (1969), Burrito Deluxe (1970)

Guy Clark – Desperados Waiting for a Train (1975)

One of Clarke’s finest songs. If you’re anything like me you’re a sucker for songs about cowboys, and this is one of the best – a heartbreaking country ballad about a man’s recollection of an unspecified father figure.

Further listening: Old No. 1 (1975)

Grateful Dead – Friend of the Devil (1970)

One of my all-time favourite tracks, off one of my all-time favourite albums. A folksy/bluegrassy/country tune about an outlaw on the run, supported the whole way through by David Grisman’s excellent mandolin playing.

Further listening: American Beauty (1970), Workingman’s Dead (1970)

New Riders of the Purple Sage – Henry (1971)

The New Riders of the Purple Sage were a group formed by Jack Dawson & David Nelson that enjoyed a close relationship with Jerry Garcia/The Grateful Dead. Their first album is a classic mix of country, bluegrass & psychedelia and features some of Jerry Garcia’s finest steel pedal guitar playing.

Further listening: New Riders of the Purple Sage (1971)

Hoyt Axton – Gypsy Moth (1976)

Not his most country song, but Axton’s voice gives it an undeniable country tinge. If you’re annoyed that it doesn’t quite fit the bill just pretend I picked Boney Fingers and fuck off.

Further listening: The A&M Years (1973-1976)

Creedence Clearwater Revival – Bad Moon Rising (1969)

Although Creedence were primarily a rock band, John Fogerty was brought up on country music and I suppose it couldn’t help coming out now and again. Take yer pick between Bad Moon and Lodi for your favourite Creedence country song.

Further listening: Green River (1969), Willy & the Poor Boys (1969), The Blue Ridge Rangers: Rides Again (2009)

James Luther Dickinson – Wild Bill Jones (1972)

I don’t think this album ever really got much recognition and I don’t know too much about the man himself, but it’s an excellent piece of work and well worth checking out.

Further listening: Dixie Fried (1972)

Neil Young – Old Man (1972)

May not be the most obvious country pick as the track is dominated by Young’s superb guitar work. But it’s got banjos and slide guitar, so it’s fucking country music, alright? The same can be said for the majority of Harvest (with the exception of Main Needs a Maid & There’s a World)

Further Listening: Harvest (1972), A Treasure (2011)

John Hartford – Steam Powered Aereo Plane (1971)

Hard to pick a favourite from Hartford’s work, but I think this captures the essence of his music quite well – both the instrumentation and the melancholic quirkiness that typifies his song writing. If you’re not familiar with the rest of work I urge you to check it out above anything else in this list.

Also, he played banjo on Sweetheart of the Rodeo which brings us nicely back to the start of the list.

Further Listening: Housing Project (1968), Aereo-Plain (1971)

Hopefully I’ve left out enough people’s favourites to get some feedback and a wee discussion going.

Snowtown (2011)

Snowtown – Not a barrel of laughs

Released: November 20 2011

Certificate 18

Director Justin Kurzel

One important point to note from the beginning is that this film, despite its title, is not a throwaway seasonal romp in the tradition of Elf or Jingle All the Way.

I stress this as I myself entered the cinema without the first notion of what it was about. I arrived armed with a hangover, peanut M&M’s and the potential to see good in people. I left with my hangover and M&M’s intact.

Snowtown is the gruesome true story of the ‘Bodies in Barrels’ Murders set near Adelaide during the late 90s and depicts the development of John Justin Bunting into Australia’s most infamous serial killer.

In his first feature length film, writer/director Justin Kurzel tells the story through the eyes of Jamie Vlassakis, a troubled youth from a disadvantaged background who, it soon emerges, is the victim of abuse. The neighbourhood shudders with suspicion and fear amid stories of paedophiles running amok. Soon Bunting emerges as their charismatic saviour, somebody willing to take a stand against evil.

Softly spoken and wearing an almost comical bushy beard, the people soon warm to Bunting and he begins to gradually exert his influence over Jamie’s family and friends. His character becomes more forceful as the film progresses and he ceases his intimidation tactics to begin a campaign of torture and murder.

Kurzel is not afraid to linger on these scenes, taking the brutality to graphic heights and almost punishes the audience for taking the time to see his film. He takes the same unhurried approach throughout and this – combined with the atmospheric score – leads to a gripping sense of foreboding.

Snowtown is probably the most thrilling, least enjoyable film we’ll see this year. If you’re into graphic filial rape or kangaroo carcasses, this is for you. If you are looking for lowbrow Christmas fun, do some basic research and avoid seasonal films rated 18.

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