All Greek To Me?

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In 2006, adaptation of Frank Miller’s 300 was a surprise hit, making $200m at the US box office. So after a long gap, we have 300: Rise of An Empire, a follow-up which is also set at the same time as the first film. Greek general Themistokles (Sullivan Stapleton) leads the battle against the invading forces of  the Persian navy, led by their god-king Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) and his crazed general, Artemisia (Eva Green). Despite the fact that the Greeks are outnumbered, thanks to some canny tactics they manage to acquit themselves impressively in their first sea battle. 300 Rise of An Empire, like the first film, is visually impressive with Israeli director Noam Murro making a striking feature debut thanks to some arresting CGI, some exciting action sequences and good-looking costumes and ships. However, like its predecessor, the plot is pretty thin and characters are fairly nonexistent. So if you enjoyed the first one, then you’ll get something out of this film but if it wasn’t for you, then as this is basically more of the same, then it won’t appeal. 300: Rise of An Empire is a visceral film that you enjoy while the ride lasts but it doesn’t make any lasting impact once you’ve left the cinema…

The Hobbit of a Lifetime?

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Last year, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, the first of Peter Jackson’s adaptations of Tolkien’s prequel to Lord of The Rings, was released and it was disappointing to say the least. Pacing was slow, the script felt laboured and childish in places and the 48fps took the audience out of the film. Fast forward a year and we have The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. Martin Freeman has returned as Bilbo Baggins as has Richard Armitage as exiled dwarf king Thorin Oakenshield and obviously Ian McKellen as wizard Gandalf. The group’s quest to reach their former kingdom of Erebor continues but they are stymied by the machinations of the evil Orcs and the necromancer, who gathers his forces at the deserted fortress of Dol Goldur. The trailer looked promising but the question was whether Jackson and co would learn from the flaws of the first film. I am very glad to say that The Desolation of Smaug is a significantly better film than its predecessor. We are introduced to female wood elf Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) and Legolas (Orlando Bloom) makes a return appearance here from Lord of The Rings. But unlike the scenes in the first film, with Galadriel and Elrond which feel shoehorned, Legolas works in The Desolation of Smaug. This is also a much darker film than its predecessor, with Jackson wasting no time getting into the action. There has been some thought put into creating the spiders of Mirkwood and visually they have taken a different approach to Shelob from the Return of The King, working well in the creepy surroundings of Mirkwood. Benedict Cumberbatch as the voice of dragon Smaug is magnificent: his echoing tones fill the screen as Bilbo tries to outwit him. We are also introduced to the human inhabitants of Laketown including the wheeler dealer Bard (Luke Evans) who initially assists the dwarves but shows that his allegiances may not be as clear-cut as we first assume and the Master of Laketown, played by Stephen Fry. Again, the filmmakers have done a wonderful job of bringing Laketown to life. The Desolation of Smaug feels like it was made by a different director to the first Hobbit film and shows off the deftness of touch that Jackson displayed in the three Lord of The Rings films. Unlike last December, the viewer comes out of The Desolation of Smaug actively excited to see what he does with The Hobbit: There and Back Again. Jackson is back on form and The Desolation of Smaug will dominate the Christmas box office as it deserves to…

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SCIENCE FRICTION
Four years ago, Neill Blomkamp’s District 9 showed that you could make an intelligent modern sci fi film outside of America. Fast forward four years and we have Elyisum, Blomkamp’s second effort. Matt Damon plays Max, an orphan who lives on a future Earth which is overcrowded and polluted. The macguffin here is that all of the planet’s wealthiest citizens scarpered when the Earth got too dirty and now live in palatial luxury on an orbiting round space station which is filled with houses that look like they’ve been lifted straight from Beverly Hills. Max ekes out a living but he finds himself taking on a mission for dodgy facilitator Spider (Wagner Moura) which would take him up to Elysium and could change the balance of power forever. Of course, nothing is ever simple and deputy president of Elysium Delacourt (Jodie Foster) retains mercenary Kruger (Sharlo Copley) to hinder Max’s mission and gain control of Elysium for herself. After the bloated infantilised drivel we have been made to suffer this summer, Elysium comes as a little bit of a breath of fresh air. Damon has carved out a niche for himself as one of the most likeable contemporary modern leading men and he brings a lot to the film and Copley as the psychotic Kruger is good value. Visually, it is also spectacular: Blomkamp and kiwi production designer Philip Ivey (Lord of The Rings) do a fantastic job of bringing this world to life. We are also spared the tedium of 3D here. It’s not all perfect: Jodie Foster as the manipulative Delacourt is pretty weak and there are moments when the script does feel overly familiar. But Elysium feels like an adaptation of a 2000AD strip, mostly offering a slice of hard science fiction that carries the viewer along. It has a suitably downbeat ending as well, while offering a kernel of hope. It does feel more like a mainstream Hollywood film than District 9 but it still offers enough to stay with you after the credits have rolled that there is still the sense that Blomkamp comes to things from a different perspective to your Emmerichs and Bays. It will be interesting to see where the director goes next but Elysium is worth checking out…

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SPOILERS ALERT

ENTERPRISING SEQUEL?
JJ Abrams has become one of the most powerful people in mainstream Hollywood. He is now at the helm of the revamped Star Wars and Star Trek on the big screen, the two biggest modern genre franchises. When Star Trek came out in 2009, it split audiences. It made $386m worldwide but fans of the original cast criticised it for not being a Star Trek film and for a number of plot holes you could drive a fleet of lorries through. We move forward to 2013 and Star Trek Into Darkness hits the cinemas.    We have already been introduced to Chris Pine as the hotheaded Kirk, Zachary Quinto as Spock, Karl Urban as Doctor McCoy and the rest of the regulars so Abrams can throw us straight into the action. The film opens with Kirk and Bones on an alien planet fleeing a group of dangerous natives. Kirk disobeys the prime directive to save the planet and Spock and so he is disciplined and demoted to commander, serving with his old mentor Pike (Bruce Greenwood). The crew of the Enterprise find themselves thrown into a conspiracy that threatens to destroy the whole of Starfleet with mysterious Federation spy John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch) at its heart. There have been rumours about Harrison’s true identity online and his real name is even listed on IMDB so I am not spoiling anything by confirming that they are indeed true. I saw Star Trek Into Darkness in 3D and often I find 3D dark, murky and rather annoying but here Abrams has used it cannily. The regular cast are likeable as they were in the first film and Cumberbatch brings a sense of the theatrical to his villainous role here. Sometimes you do wish for a little more character development and less action set pieces but Star Trek Into Darkness is a very enjoyable early summer blockbuster, an immersive experience on the big screen. Simon Pegg as Scotty stays just the right side of infuriating as he did in the first film and Pine and Quinto have a well-handled chemistry, just like they did in the 2009 film. Is it Star Trek? I think that some of Gene Roddenberry’s original vision survives here as the main cast do channel Shatner, Nimoy et al. It is unlikely that Abrams will direct the third film since he will have his hands full with Star Wars VII but despite a few misgivings, I think that again he has managed to create a film that stays true to its origins while offering something that will appeal to a new audience…

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DYING ON ITS FEET
I have always been a big admirer of the first two Die Hard films. They managed to combine a real sense of fun with a pretty sharp, enjoyable script. Die Hard: With A Vengeance, the third effort, was still entertaining but the rot had started to set in. Twelve years passed and the fourth entry, Live Free Or Die Hard, was eminently forgettable. So we fast-forward to 2013 and A Good Day To Die Hard. Policeman John McClane (Bruce Willis) is forced to head to Russia when he discovers that his estranged son Jack McClane (Jai Courtney) is stranded there. So the grizzled former New York cop turns up only to discover that his son is actually a US spy, working to prevent a nuclear weapons heist. Despite the fact that Willis looks significantly older than he did in the first three, A Good Day To Die Hard starts quite encouragingly. But it doesn’t take long before the wheels fall off the car. What made the first two exceptional action films was a strong script and some well-conceived villains. Despite the absence of a decent villain in the third one, there were some nice touches in the script and a  good chemistry between Willis and his reluctant sidekick, played by Samuel Jackson. The problem here is that any wisecracking is kept to a bare minimum and the action is too relentless to give the viewer any time to breathe. Also, there is almost zero chemistry between father and son and the plot feels like a discarded 1980s James Bond film idea. It has a very short running time of only 90 minutes and it is obvious that they are looking to replace Willis with Courtney for a sixth outing of the Die Hard franchise. Let’s hope that they give it a little more thought than this one. A Good Day To Die Hard is a tawdry exercise in explosive stunts and unmemorable villains, which is just about watchable but continues the slow decline of one of the better mainstream Hollywood cash cows…

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SHACKLED
Quentin Tarantino is a very frustrating director. His twenty year career began with Reservoir Dogs and he followed that up with Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown. Django Unchained is his latest film and Tarantino is someone who always splits the cinemagoing audience into those people who ‘get’ him and those who don’t. When I saw Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown, I truly thought they were great films. But Kill Bill Parts One and Two were indulgent and messy and Inglourious Basterds was incoherent and childish. The director had lost his golden touch for dialogue and intriguing situations. So now we come to Django Unchained, Quentin Tarantino’s ‘Southern’ about the freed slave of the title, played by Jamie Foxx, and his quest to free his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) from the clutches of her evil master. Django is assisted by his friend, bounty hunter Dr King Schultz, played by Christoph Waltz. The original Django films were spaghetti westerns with the title character a gunslinger played by Franco Nero. So the title and main character of Unchained is merely a nod by Tarantino to Nero’s kitsch classics. The film opens very strongly: Django is freed from his yolk by Schultz, who agrees to make him his partner and also help him track down his missing wife. Waltz is very good as Schultz, a character who the audience has some empathy with, and Foxx acquits himself well. The pair discover that Broomhilda is being held by the malevolent master of a plantation, Calvin Candie, played with no little panache by Leonardo DiCaprio. So the pair create a pretext to see Candie in order to bargain with him for Django’s wife’s liberty. Tarantino’s regular collaborator Samuel Jackson plays Candie’s slave, Stephen, and his role feels a little light compared with many of his other onscreen personas.
The first half of the film works well structurally: Tarantino builds up a good rapport between Django and Schultz and he manages to keep it all rolling along nicely. It is really once they get to Candieland, the plantation, when the cracks start appearing. Tarantino can’t help make his scenes far longer than they should be and we have long, lingering shots where to help its pace, he should cut to the chase. As I said, DiCaprio is very sinister and puts a great deal into his role but the last act of Django Unchained sees a return to the cartoon violence and lack of cohesion that has infected every Tarantino film since Jackie Brown. There is also a pathetic cameo from Tarantino at the end, which shows once again that he can’t actually act but through his own ego, he has to shoehorn himself into his films, like a geek Hitchcock.
The problem is that Tarantino is at his heart a film geek and, while there is something to be applauded for his love of film, he still can’t create a work which manages to transcend the feeling that he is merely a film fan making onscreen love letters to his favourite films. He also is so obsessed with creating cool-looking set pieces that the script and plot suffer as a result. The tone is very uneven here too and it’s hard to empathise with or care about characters when they have as much depth when all is said and done as Tom and Jerry. Critics will continue to fall over themselves to praise his work and to slobber over Django Unchained because they are scared of seeming uncool if they don’t and also because he did make some exceptional films early on in his career. But in the final analysis, Django Unchained is puerile, self-indulgent, lacking in coherence and far too long. There are some memorable performances but they can’t save this film…

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THE BLAND LEADING THE BLAND
In what will be the last film review post of 2012, here’s my review of Jack Reacher, the film adaptation of Lee Child’s successful book series. When it was announced that Tom Cruise would be tackling Child’s loner former military policeman, there was a big furore. Reacher is described by Child as being a man of a certain physical presence while Cruise, er, isn’t. Adapted from Child’s novel, One Shot, about an ex-army sniper who appears to have gone on an arbitrary killing spree, Jack Reacher is packed full of flaws. Before I start, while Child’s Reacher books are fun and very readable, they are still effectively pulp. So a film that successfully translates them onto the big screen didn’t need to be great art. Unfortunately, Christopher McQuarrie’s Jack Reacher, as McQuarrie is nominally the director, is a horrible mess. Starting with Cruise, the man has no screen personality here: he is bland, unengaging and unmemorable on screen. The height wouldn’t have been a problem if he brought any personality to Reacher but there is nothing there. And the problems don’t begin or end with Cruise either: McQuarrie is a very perfunctory director. It very much feels like he’s going through the motions. Support in the film isn’t much better. Rosamund Pike as lawyer Helen is just eye candy, emphasised by the number of scenes where we get to see her bending over to show off her cleavage. Werner Herzog as pantomime villain The Zec plays everything for laughs so he’s not remotely sinister either and Robert Duvall, usually a spectacular actor, appears to be sleepwalking here as Cash, the old guy who runs a gun range who decides to help Reacher out. The script doesn’t help either as it is so hackneyed and cliched and because McQuarrie is such a dull director, he can’t bring anything new to proceedings. Jack Reacher is laughably unoriginal, poorly directed and cursed with some of the worst performances I’ve seen this year. I hope that Lee Child was very well paid as it’s unlikely this will spawn a followup. I’m not even sure if it’s worth checking out when it comes to Blu-ray or DVD…

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SHORT ON INSPIRATION?
Peter Jackson’s three Lord of The Rings films dominated mainstream cinema last decade, offering a unique and exciting cinematic experience. So when it was announced that we would be seeing The Hobbit adapted to the big screen, I admit that I was interested to see what their approach would be. The film had a very chequered path to the screen, with MGM collapsing under the weight of its debts and director Guillermo Del Toro leaving the project. But at last The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is with us. At the screening I saw last Sunday, it was in 3D and at the 48 fps that has caused a little bit of controversy in the run-up to its release. The Hobbit is a far more slim book and one that is aimed at a younger audience than the Lord of The Rings, so it was always going to be problematic to give it the same sort of breadth and depth dramatically and emotionally as its three cinematic predecessors. I would like to preface my review by saying that I didn’t hate this first Hobbit film but there are flaws that need to be discussed. The plot is a simpler one than LOTR: a group of dwarves, led by Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), are brought to Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) by Gandalf (Ian McKellen returning) with the aim of reclaiming their kingdom of Erebor, which has been taken over by the evil dragon Smaug. Fate throws trolls and a group of vicious orcs, led by the White Orc, who defeated Thorin’s grandfather, King Thror, in the band’s path. Less is at stake here than Lord of The Rings, which does make it a less epic tale, so the question is whether there is enough meat on its bones to warrant another two presumably lengthy films? An Unexpected Journey has its pros and cons: Freeman is decent enough as Bilbo, Andy Serkis reprises his role as Gollum in the riddles in the dark scene, probably one of the stand-out sequences here, and Armitage as dwarf king in exile Thorin is suitably heroic and an interesting character. McKellen is always watchable and when he is on screen here, it does lift the film a little. The rest of the dwarves feel pretty interchangeable as they look similar and it’s hard to keep track of a dozen characters. Their slapstick antics are annoying on screen, although it’s easy to forget that this is pitched at a younger audience than its progenitors, so young children will probably enjoy it. Jackson and Boyens have shoehorned a trip to Rivendell into proceedings, which feels like an excuse to include elf queen Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) into proceedings and wizard Radagast (played by former Doctor Who Sylvester McCoy) is a screen creation who really doesn’t work, coming across as oafish and laughable. The 3D is totally pointless as the visuals would have looked just as impressive in 2D and the 48 fps makes certain scenes look like you’ve just stepped into a 1970s BBC TV drama, taking you out of the action. Also, the battles lack any real emotional connection thanks to the 3D and they look artificial and unreal. Visually of course, there are some treats to be had (the goblin mine is nicely realised and we see a Rivendell in the fuller flush of its power).It feels like a film that outstays its welcome as the source material really doesn’t have enough to it to be able to flesh it out to a nine-hour extravaganza. They will really need to ramp up proceedings with the second film if they are going to come anywhere close to justifying this as a trilogy. I was a big fan of the three other films, especially The Two Towers but they all had something, and I was genuinely disappointed by the efforts here. It may work better in 2D and at the regular frame rate and it will keep young children amused but The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey in 3D and at 48fps is a three-star film…

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SPOILER WARNING

DETECTIVE WORKS
In 2009, director Guy Ritchie moved away from sometimes questionable gangster films to release Sherlock Holmes with Robert Downey Jr and Jude Law. The film was a little bit of a revelation so here we are two years later with Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows. Downey Jr and Law are back as Holmes and Watson but this time we are joined by Jared (Mad Men) Harris as Moriarty, Noomi Rapace (Girl With The Dragon Tattoo) as gypsy Madam Simza and Stephen Fry as Mycroft Holmes. Moriarty, a respected professor at Cambridge, has a plan to manipulate the world’s powers for his own ends and so it is up to Holmes and Watson with the assistance of Madam Simza to prevent this happening. Watson has decided to take the plunge and marry his sweetheart Mary (Kelly Reilly) but Holmes has endangered both his friend and his new bride by interfering with his evil nemesis’s plans. A Game of Shadows moves Holmes even further away from Doyle’s source material than the first film but the fact is that it just doesn’t matter. Ritchie, with the help of Downey Jr and Law, has created a pulp adventure tale which is fun and entertaining to watch and beautifully shot and edited. Harris is exceptionally sinister as Moriarty although you wish he had a little more to do in this film and the chemistry between Downey Jr and Law is further developed. Fry as Holmes’ eccentric brother provides a few laughs and acquits himself decently. Paul Anderson as Moriarty’s henchman, crackshot Sebastian Moran, works well on screen. There’s no love interest for Holmes here unlike the first film and Rapace as the gypsy whose brother holds the key is very watchable. It is quite refreshing that the script didn’t throw Holmes and her into bed but uses her as another member of the team. The location shooting in Switzerland and France look spectacular on screen and Ritchie with production designer Sarah Greenwood also synthesise a London that looks fresh and yet familiar at the same time. Ritchie tips his hat to Doyle’s end for Holmes over the Reichenbach Falls but leaves things open for a third instalment, which would be welcome if the quality remained as consistent as this. A Game of Shadows is a superior sequel to its progenitor, pure unadulterated fun with a strong cast and a real sense of adventure to it…

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ON THE SHELF SPECIAL
Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about digital and print publications. With book shops struggling to survive (and only Waterstones left over here as the only national book shop chain) it does seem that the writing is on the wall for them. Digital does provide a more convenient experience for a lot of people. But there are specific books that, as of current technology, can only be properly consumed and enjoyed in print. I am talking about photographic and art books. Those lush hardcovers put together with extreme care and attention that showcase some of the finest work in a number of different fields.
New York based publisher Abrams has a list of great coffee table books and they were kind enough to furnish me with a few review copies of four of their recent titles.
First up is Hitchcock Piece by Piece by Laurent Bouzereau. A hardcover which is a little bit like the DC and Marvel Vault titles in that it includes pouches with detachable facsimiles of things like snippets of Hitchcock script, photos from the director’s family album and even a letter from the Motion Picture Association of America, querying whether Hitch’s The Birds was suitable for theatrical release with some of its contents making them feel uncomfortable. Apart from the detachable pieces, Hitchcock Piece by Piece features a selection of wonderful photos taken from various stages of his career of the director and many of his on-screen collaborators. Bouzereau’s writing is informative but never dry and he manages to pack a lot of his research onto the page. The reproduction here is very good and it is quote obviously a book that its editors, as well as its writer, have taken a lot of care and consideration as to how it should be approached and assembled. Even though Alfred Hitchcock is a subject that has fascinated writers and journalists for many decades, Hitchcock Piece by Piece is an intriguing historical document of the life and career of perhaps arguably 20th Century Hollywood’s most influential behind-the-camera figure…

Telling Stories: Norman Rockwell From The Collections of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg by Virginia M. Mecklenburg is another Abrams book but quite different to Hitchcock Piece by Piece. Put together in association with the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Telling Stories is a book that features two extended essays looking at the cultural impact that Rockwell made on American society. Illustrated partly by posters from the collections of Lucas and Spielberg, Mecklenburg, and Todd McCarthy in the second essay, Norman Rockwell’s Camera Eye, examine Rockwell’s distinguished career and take a look at the cinematic techniques that he utilised in his work. Despite the familiarity that audiences have with his work, it would have been nice if some of the images here had a little more room to breathe as the illos that are run on full pages remind you of the impact that Rockwell had on modern popular culture. Interestingly, McCarthy is a more accessible writer than Mecklenburg and his essay, buried at the back, feels fresher and more interesting to the reader. But it is still evident that Mecklenburg knows her stuff about the subject and she does manage to hold the reader’s attention, accompanied by the cream of Rockwell’s art. It seems timely that this book was released this year when a major Rockwell exhibition took place at the Dulwich Picture Gallery in London…

The Making of Avatar by Jody Duncan and Lisa Fitzpatrick, was released to capitalize on the huge worldwide success of James Cameron’s blockbuster movie that dominated the world’s box office back in 2010. It’s not a bad book although it does seem quite light on concept art and storyboards. The writing strikes the right balance between dense techy prose and the sort of more general text that would appeal to the casual reader. Since Duncan is the editor of Cinefex, the magazine devoted to film special effects, her expertise in this field is clear to see here. But there should have been more images as the significance of Avatar was the groundbreaking visual work that Cameron, Weta and Co carried out. However this is the Making of Avatar rather than the Art of Avatar and so perhaps I am being overly critical. The Making of Avatar does provide a perceptive look at the genesis and production of this important film…

And last but not least, there’s Egypt: A View From Above, photographs by Philip Plisson with text by Christian Jacq. A wonderful oversized hardback, this book contains some of the most staggering aerial photos of Egypt including a number of places that are amongst the most recognisable architectural and historical icons anywhere in the world but Plisson succeeds in investing them with a newfound power and majesty. Jacq’s text is well written but it is the photographs here that are the stars of the show. Travel photography books have become so hackneyed and overly familiar but Plisson has a great eye for the unusual, finding colour and drama in what seems like the most mundane subjects. For anyone intrigued by this ancient place, Egpyt: A View From Above is a must-buy book as it is for anyone who admires great photography. And it’s an experience you definitely couldn’t replicate on an iPad or a tablet…