James Gandolfini in his role as Tony Soprano

GOODBYE TO OUR FAVOURITE GANGSTER

Another week has passed and we’ve lost another important figure. I don’t want to turn this blog into obituary of the week but I was a huge admirer of The Sopranos and still think it holds up as one of the best TV series ever made. It still hasn’t been topped even though the series ended in 2009. Gandolfini never matched his work on the series and he managed to create a sympathetic character despite the fact that Tony Soprano was a murderous, psychotic gangster. As a tribute to the man, who will be greatly missed, here’s a few of Tony Soprano’s sayings, with thanks to EW

On moms: “This is gonna sound stupid, but I saw at one point that our mothers are … bus drivers. No, they are the bus. See, they’re the vehicle that gets us here. They drop us off and go on their way. They continue on their journey. And the problem is that we keep tryin’ to get back on the bus, instead of just lettin’ it go.”
On sympathy: “Oh, poor baby. What do you want, a Whitman’s Sampler?”
On romance: “When you’re married, you’ll understand the importance of fresh produce.”
On being the boss: “All due respect, you got no f—in’ idea what it’s like to be Number One. Every decision you make affects every facet of every other f—in’ thing. It’s too much to deal with almost. And in the end you’re completely alone with it all.”

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OFF TO A FLYING START
DC have been desperate to resurrect the idea of a Superman franchise on screen for a while now. Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns (2006), despite a few initial positive reviews, didn’t set the box office alight and buried the idea of bringing DC’s alien icon back to the big screen. Fast-forward to 2013 and we have Man of Steel, directed by Zach Snyder (Sucker Punch, Watchmen) and produced and co-written by Christopher Nolan (Batman trilogy) with David Goyer (screenwriter on all three Batman films). Snyder has been capable of visual flourishes in the past but his worst indulgences have sunk some of his previous efforts, so presumably Nolan was brought in to keep his flaws in check. Man of Steel is obviously an origin story, where we are treated to the destruction of Krypton and Clark Kent coming to terms with who and what he is. As with every Superman origin story, we see him brought up by Ma and Pa Kent (Diane Lane and Kevin Costner respectively) and Snyder has decided to forego Lex Luthor in favour of General Zod (a brutal Michael Shannon here) as his first adversary. Man of Steel isn’t perfect: it takes itself very, very seriously and is a very dark and cold film with little emotional connection. But considering Nolan’s take on Batman, this doesn’t come as a huge shock. But, despite this, Snyder has made some very clever casting choices (Russell Crowe as Kal-El’s father, Jor-El, has enough gravitas to pull this off, and Shannon is excellent as the psychotic Zod) and Brit Henry Cavill in the lead role channels Christopher Reeve while bringing a fresh vulnerability to the part. Amy Adams as Lois Lane is also very good: the filmmakers have made the reporter feisty but tough and actually quite sympathetic at the same time. In terms of its look, the more lowkey character scenes have a quiet majesty to them which acts as a nice counterpoint to the action sequences, which manage to be bold, dynamic and in your face, with more mayhem than you’ve seen in any other superhero film before. The stakes were very high here for DC and Warner Bros: Marvel had stolen a march on them with Avengers (Assemble), Thor and the three Iron Man films. But the combination of Snyder and Goyer has created a surprisingly measured summer superhero blockbuster film with some very assured touches and set the scene for future big screen Superman adventures the equal of their rival’s movie adaptations. There has been much debate about the way that Superman defeats General Zod and I won’t confirm what other people have spelt out elsewhere but it does throw up some interesting moral questions for the future. Man of Steel has washed the bad taste out of everyone’s mouths created by Superman Returns and it will be genuinely interesting to see how Snyder and Nolan develop the character in future instalments…

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A GREAT LOSS
This week we lost one of the greatest writers of modern fiction to an illness that only took two months to claim him. Iain Banks, also known as Iain M Banks for his science fiction novels, was an author I didn’t know very well: I met him twice, once to interview him when The Business came out in 1999 and then again just last June at a British Library talk with fellow sci fi writer Kim Stanley Robinson. I admit that I have never read any of his sci fi novels but I have read many of his mainstream fiction books, and I have been impressed with what I have read. He was a writer who seemed able to jump between genres with unrivalled ease. He also had a reputation for being one of the nicest, most approachable public figures. I don’t often write this sort of post but I felt moved to say something. His loss is a huge one but he has left a fantastic legacy. Here’s a couple of photos I took of him last June…

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DEAD ON ARRIVAL
Zombies have become more popular over the last few years with the success of things like The Walking Dead so it’s not surprising that Max Brooks’ World War Z book would have been picked up for a movie. The film, directed by Marc Forster (Quantum of Solace) and starring Brad Pitt, has had a rather chequered genesis. The makers have done a lot of reshooting on it and its final budget is rumoured to be around the $300m mark. It’s hard to do something interesting with zombies: Danny Boyle succeeded with 28 Days Later, back in 2002, and Zach Snyder’s Dawn of The Dead (2004) made a decent fist of things. World War Z starts promisingly enough: UN employee Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt) driving in Philadelphia with his family suddenly finds himself in the middle of a zombie epidemic. So he is forced to travel the globe to locate a cure for the apocalypse. Visually, the opening is very strong. But it all goes downhill after the first fifteen minutes. The problem is that Lane’s wife Karin (Mireille Enos) is just a cookie cutter, two-dimensional disaster movie figure, as are Pitt’s children, so you really don’t have any emotional investment in their wellbeing and the same is true of everybody apart from Brad Pitt. Lane manages to travel to Switzerland where he visits the World Health Organisation, meeting scientists Peter Capaldi and Ruth Negga (their characters are not named in the film) and comes up with a cure for the zombie plague. But nothing is suitably explained, mainly where the plague has come from, and it’s all tied up in a very neat little bow at the end. World War Z is a shallow, empty experience that feels like a vehicle for Brad Pitt. What is frustrating is that Pitt can be a very good actor and the makers here missed an opportunity to make an enjoyable monster disaster movie a la 28 Days Later. But what you end up with is a generic and pointless showcase of some nice special effects and a total absence of any depth or empathy with any of the characters except for Lane. The 3D is also totally pointless and adds nothing to what is already a very vapid experience. Worth watching on TV if you’re really desperate but not worth seeing at the cinema…