Book Review – Wolverine: Enemy of the State

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Wolverine: Enemy of the State is a graphic novel in which Wolverine is brainwashed by Hydra and is sent to attack his former friends and allies. It’s written by Mark Millar and the artwork is by John Romita Jr. and Kaare Andrews, with Klaus Janson providing the inks. 

Firstly I have to say that this is a really hefty book. It’s very thick and heavy and sometimes I’m a little disappointed by the lengths of graphic novels, but here you get a lot of bang for your buck. The concept did intrigue me but I was still a bit wary because sometimes brainwashing isn’t handled well, but here everything made sense and there was a lot of inner dialogue between the ‘real’ Wolverine and the brainwashed persona. It’s strange really because although this is a Wolverine collection it’s almost as much of an Elektra story, and this was pleasing because I’ve never read much of Elektra so it was nice to see her get the spotlight in such an epic storyline. 

Obviously the main hook and what most people will be interested in is the promise of Wolverine going up against the other heroes. There are a lot of fight scenes but honestly I was a little let down. I almost wish this was an alternate universe story so we could have really been shocked but as it is many of the fights are left inconclusive and I was hoping for more of a gauntlet style story. For the most part it’s Wolverine vs S.H.I.E.L.D cannon fodder, but it’s still high-octane stuff and there are plenty of references to the wider Marvel universe and loads of other heroes appear. 

This book also introduces a new villain – Gorgon, who is chilling and terrifying. The story is interesting with a few unexpected twists. There are epic action scenes aplenty and the artwork is phenomenal. The grandeur of some of the set-pieces is depicted beautifully, but there are also grisly, gruesome violent scenes that do not shy away from the results of the bloodshed. The resolution is obvious, yet surprising and it lived up to the epic scope of what came before. 

There’s also another issue collected at the end which isn’t related to the main story, and it’s just a little thing about when Logan was held in a concentration camp. The artwork here is phenomenal and Wolverine is drawn almost like a ghoul. It has a cute reference to Watchmen as well and it’s a nice bonus bookend. 

The collection as a whole is great and I enjoyed it immensely. This should be a definite must-buy for fans of Wolverine.

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Movie Review – How the West was Won (1962)

In this epic Western we follow the lives of a pioneering family through different stages of American development. I tend to have a fondness for epic historical films and I like Westerns too. As you can imagine I enjoyed this one. The landscapes were beautiful and I never tire of seeing the old West in all it’s glory. 

I loved how the film was able to explore different aspects of the pioneers life while still maintaining a tight focus. At no point did the film feel bloated and that’s quite the achievement considering it covered a couple of generations and spanned the gold rush, the civil war and the building of the railroads. It was an entertaining way to see history unfold on the screen and it didn’t get bogged down in details, rather it showed how the people reacted to the changing times and it gives a human link to keep the viewers focused despite the wide scope. 

Having said that, the film does drag in the last half hour or so and I think the action climax didn’t really do justice to the nature of the story the film was telling, and it wasn’t particularly tense or surprising. The ending shot pans out and there’s a narration, and we see the land transform before our eyes into the metropolis and rivers of roads that cover America today. At some points, as a non-American, it does come over as a bit much but in my experience Americans are quite earnest in their patriotism so it doesn’t come over as false or disingenuous. 

I imagine you’ll feel a sense of pride if you are America and you watch this, but for the rest of us it’s still a good historical film.

Movie Review – Harsh Times (2005)

I was pleasantly surprised by this one. The writer of Training Day brings you this film about two unemployed friends in their search for a job. It’s very much a ‘day in the life of…’ movie and we follow them over the period of a few days as they get drunk, get high and cruise around L.A. getting into trouble. Christian Bale plays Jim, a war veteran who has flashbacks to his violent deeds and always appears slightly unhinged while Freddy Rodriguez plays his best friend, Mike, who is under pressure from his girlfriend (Eva Longoria) to get a job. 

The strength of the film lies in these actors because their friendship feels real, so the audience instantly connects with them even though they’re not especially sympathetic. Bale is superb as Jim, because there’s always the sense that he’s dangerous and he’s going to do something violent and stupid but he exudes a genuine warmth so when the inevitable does happen it’s a shocking and upsetting moment. 

The film is paced nicely so it doesn’t get bogged down in mundane matters and there are some nice visual flourishes throughout. The tension ripples through the film and comes to a head in the last half hour. There’s some nice foreshadowing, so watch out for that, and the conclusion is really powerful. I was very, very impressed with this and you should definitely go and check it out, it’s a hidden gem.

Movie Review – The Incredible Burt Wonderstone (2013)

I was really looking forward to The Incredible Burt Wonderstone because I like pretty much all the actors in it and it was also co-written by someone who stars in one of my favourite shows – Bones. I was really impressed with Now You See Me earlier in the year so I was hoping this could live up to that, even though it was a comedy. 

Sadly, it was terrible. Steve Carell played Micheal Scott without the humanity (and that character did veer into an unlikeable zone at some points throughout The Office’s run). The character of Burt Wonderstone never felt real to me, so any emotional resonance the film tried to generate was lost. Steve Buscemi did his best and Olivia Wilde was actually pretty good. Jim Carrey was okay, but again his role didn’t feel genuine. 

There was potential for the film to create some genuine comedy from the characters and the situations but the jokes always felt forced and cheap. The magic tricks also felt a bit too unrealistic as well, so while the tricks in Now You See Me seemed like they could be real, some of the ones in TIBW seemed made up for the screen.

The ending was neat but it was all quite predictable and I thought it sabotaged Jim Carrey’s character just for the sake of a cheap visual gag. All in all it was pretty disappointing. 

Movie Review – The Rainmaker (1956)

This film was really bizarre. I can’t even say it was a bad film it’s just…weird. 

The basic story is that Lizzie (Katharine Hepburn) gets sent off to her Uncle’s place to see if she can get married to one of her cousins (nothing dodgy there) but when she comes back she realizes that she’s nothing but a plain Jane and nobody will ever see her as beautiful. Her father and two brothers try to set her up with the local sheriff (Wendell Corey), who is incredibly gruff and doesn’t have time for romance. Then along comes Starbuck (Burt Lancaster), a traveler who claims he can make the rain come for $100 and stop the drought. 

The cast is pretty good, there are some humorous moments and the dynamics between them are well-played. There are some sub-plots with Lizzie’s brothers that are quite engaging but the main thrust of the story is simply boring. Everyone in the film is getting worked up about Lizzie’s romance life but it’s something that the audience is never given a real reason to care about. The conflict feels manufactured and the ultimate resolution doesn’t really make sense within the context of the film. At some points it seemed like a farce, and I see that it has a rating of 7/10 at IMDB! I must be missing something really obvious here because it didn’t connect with me at all.

I can’t even say that I hated the film though, because it was well-paced, the cast was good and the actors all threw themselves into the roles. There was just nothing to get me involved in the characters’ plight so when it ended I was left feeling like I had just watched it to pass the time.  

Top Ten Movies of 2013 & an Overview of the Year

2013 is drawing to a close now so it’s time to do a little overview of the year in cinema. I’m going to do my top ten then talk about some of the films that almost made it onto the list, and some that didn’t. A little disclaimer first – I live in England so I’m basing this on UK releases. I know at least one film on my list came out in America in 2012 but it wasn’t out over here until February. Conversely, there are some films that I’ve heard amazing things about but they haven’t been released over here yet. I probably don’t need to point this out, but this is just a list of new releases, not a top ten of every movie I’ve seen in 2013 (Gone With the Wind would top that list, just for the record). 

10 – Frozen

I was really stuck between a few films to make the #10 spot but Frozen managed to squeak in. I didn’t think it was a perfect film; the beginning was a little uneven and I didn’t think the motivations of the characters were made clear enough at the start, but by the end I was totally into it. The songs weren’t classics but they fit the movie really well. It was funny, charming and I like how it played with the conventions of Disney films. It didn’t totally disregard them, so it was still recognizable as a Disney film, but it felt more contemporary and fresh. I also liked how there wasn’t a traditional villain, and the fight was more against self-doubt. It was a fun film and I got swept away by it. 

9 – You’re Next 

I don’t usually like these type of horrors because the characters always seems to act stupidly so I end up wanting the killer to succeed. You’re Next, however, plays with the tropes a little bit and it becomes more of a revenge thriller. I though the explanations regarding who the murderers were was believable and the twists were exciting. There was plenty of tension, gore and the horror was offset by some humourous moments. This is probably my favourite horror film of all time, I had a riot watching it and I actually found myself invested in the characters rather than rolling my eyes at the decisions they made. 

8 – Philomena

Great performances by Judi Dench and Steve Coogan. They played off each other superbly in this heart-wrenching tale, based on a true story, of an old woman looking for her long-lost son. The film was genuinely affecting with some powerful emotional moments and the ending was amazing, showing that sometimes forgiveness can be more powerful than revenge. Great performances, Judi Dench deserves an award for this. 

7 – Django Unchained

Love Tarantino. Love Westerns. This was certain to make my list. Leonardo DiCaprio gave an incredible performance and the script was filled with the trademark action and slick dialogue that Tarantino is famed for. As always, I can’t wait to see what he does next. 

6 – Prisoners 

This was a dramatic film about two girls that go missing, and the drama that follows as one of the parents takes matters into his own hands. It was an unsettling, thought-provoking film that was pretty heavy and I felt a little drained by the end. The mystery was intriguing and I only realized what was happening at the same time as one of the characters, so I was able to truly immerse myself in the film. It blurred lines between justice and vengeance and it really made me question where my sympathies should lie. Great performances all around here from Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Paul Dano et al. 

5 – Rush

Ron Howard directed this picture about the rivalry between two F1 drivers. I don’t like Formula 1, but the essence of it was captured perfectly in this riveting film. The contrast between the two drivers, played by Chris Hemsworth and Daniel Bruhl, was balanced and neither of them outshone the other. The kinetic energy bled through the screen but the personal drama overshadowed the drama on the tracks. I didn’t expect to like this one as much as I did. 

4 – Les Misérables

Hugh Jackman appears for the second time, and deservedly so because he gave one of the best performances of the year he. He carried this film on his shoulders and he was incredible. The film itself was excellent. I’d never seen the stage show or read the book but I found it captivating. The only minor complaint I had is that Anne Hathaway was so excellent and her rendition of ‘I Dreamed a Dream’ so affecting that nothing that followed could move me in the same manner. But the whole film is an amazing accomplishment.

3 – Saving Mr. Banks

Just a quick note here – the top three are basically equal but I liked them all for different reasons, and they all could easily be my #1. Saving Mr. Banks was one of the most emotionally moving movies I’ve ever seen. Emotions were running high when I watched this and I think I went through the whole range of feelings. Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson were absolutely brilliant and I can’t praise this film highly enough because it worked on every level. 

2 – Pacific Rim

While Saving Mr. Banks was deeply moving, Pacific Rim was just plain fun. I was laughing all the way though. It’s by no means a perfect film and you can poke holes in the plot and the physics of the thing, but I was grinning the whole way through. It’s just pure enjoyment that’s completely over the top and it’s brilliant. 

1 – Cloud Atlas

This is the type of movie I love. It’s a philosophical look about how we’re connected to things on a plane beyond space and time, and how everything links in together. The different stories aren’t linked together in a narrative sense but they are linked thematically, and they complement each other well. There’s a lot going on and it’s a film of great substance. It’s also fun to spot the different actors and who they play in the different stories. It has a lot to say about life and our purpose and it really spoke to me. 

So that’s my top ten list of 2013. Agree? Disagree? Let me know! 

I mentioned earlier that I found it difficult to choose my number 10. There were a few films that were vying for that spot so I’ll talk about them a little bit. 

Before Midnight – I love this trilogy, but I decided that my enjoyment of Before Midnight was based a lot on the two films that came previously, so I didn’t think I could justify putting it into my top ten. 

Iron Man 3 – I really enjoyed this and I love what they did with The Mandarin, but I thought the ending was a bit messy as it seemed like they were trying to put a bookend on the character of Iron Man while still moving him forward.

Red 2 – I thought this was a solid ensemble movie with some great performances and this was really close to making it on my top ten. 

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire – Again I really enjoyed this, but I felt like it was setting up a lot for the third film, so it wasn’t really a self-contained story. 

The other big one that people may have thought would be one my list was Star Trek Into Darkness since I’m a huge Trekkie and usually something to do with Star Trek will make it into things I write, but in all honesty I never even considered it. I liked the film but it did have a lot of problems. I never understood why they were so secret about the villain because in the film it’s not even that much of a mystery, and the reveal isn’t some groundbreaking revelation. The climax annoyed me as well because it was cribbed from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, so I was watching the movie thinking, “Well, I’ve seen this before,” and that really disappointed me because I want the new movies to be different and for them to explore new worlds. I think it’s fine if they use established things in new ways, I would love to see The Borg show up in the next movie, but to re-create climactic scenes was just poor form. For me, the emotional climax was at the end when Kirk gave the voice over and the Enterprise went warping off. I was actually really mad (in a good way) because I want to see the five year mission! 

There were of course some duds of the year. My two biggest disappointments were Man of Steel and World War Z. The first film annoyed me because it didn’t capture the essence of Superman. When I watch a film about a superhero I want to see the hero being heroic, and I just didn’t feel that. I didn’t feel any moments of inspiration or thrill and I didn’t want to come out of a Superman movie feeling flat and drained. WWZ was just…oh man. I actually thought this was going to be good, and it was only decent. With the budget it had it should have been far more epic and there is no way it should have ended in a small lab in Wales. It didn’t really do anything other zombie films have done with far smaller budgets, and for that reason it severely disappointed me. 

The other film I want to talk about is The Lone Ranger. I thought this was unfairly maligned. Yes, it certainly had its problems; the bulk of the film was bloated and the framing of the Tonto story was, frankly, bizarre, but the moment the William Tell Overture began playing and The Lone Ranger went into action I had the biggest grin on my face. It was a hero being heroic, and it reminded me of all the pulp films of old. There was no attempt to reinvent him or make him more realistic and gritty, they nailed the spirit of the character and it was brilliant. The climactic sequence was amazing and it was everything that Man of Steel wasn’t. 

There are plenty of more films I could talk about but I don’t have time to talk about them all! Overall it’s been a good year for movies, and it looks like the next couple of years are going to mostly be flooded with superhero ones. Looking forward to those! 

Book Review – The Ultimates Vol. 1 Super-Human

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This is part of Marvel’s Ultimate universe, where they took the normal universe and updated it, giving the characters more of an edge. The Ultimate universe has bled into the movies so a few things were familiar. This volume is centered around the formation of what we know as The Avengers, and it’s written by Mark Millar, pencilled by Bryan Hitch and inked by Andrew Currie. 

I liked it for the most part. I thought the variations on the established background weren’t nonsensical. Some of them were drastic and the characters were taken to the extreme, but it felt like they were different versions of characters rather than being different characters entirely. This volume collects issues 1-6 and mostly deals with how the team comes together. It wasn’t the most exciting of stories so I didn’t find it gripping, but it was interesting to see how things were different. 

When I read more I’ll be interested to see whether these extreme versions of the characters are used to draw parallels with the established characters or whether they’ll be used for a basic shock value. At the moment I have a feeling it could go either way, so we’ll see. 

This is of course the book that first ‘cast’ Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury. I found the mention of pop culture a bit distracting. There was too much name-dropping at certain points, although I did find the reference to Robert Downey Jr. cute (although it wasn’t in the context of who would play Iron Man). One of my favourite characters was actually Jarvis (who here is a human rather than the compute as seen in the movies) as he gets off a few sarcastic quips. 

The artwork was really good, except for the design of the Iron Man suit. I thought it looked a little cutesy and I would have preferred something a little more imposing. 

There were a couple of nice revelations about Tony Stark and The Wasp towards the end which had me eager to read more. I found the beginning a little slow-going though. I was hoping that the story would start off with a bang but it seems to be more of a slow burn, and it does improve as it continues. Like I said though, it’s hard to form a judgment about the whole thing because this lays a bare foundation so I’ll need to read more to get the real meat of the story. 

Board Game Review – Absolute Balderdash

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Absolute Balderdash by Drumond Park. I think classic Balderdash was limited to the different definitions of words, but this expands the categories to include initials, events, laws and people as well. On your turn you’ll be given a card and you will choose a category based on which position your piece is on (this is a variant from the actual rules but I’ll talk about that a little later). You will read out that category, so for example if you have ‘Initials’ you will read out that section, say it’s ‘T.C.B.’. The other players will write down what they think the word is, then will hand you their sheets and you will read out all the options. The other players have to guess what they think the correct answer is, and points are distributed based on whether a player’s answer was guessed by another player or the correct answer was guessed. There’s also a spinner, and if you land on spaces with a spinner icon you have the opportunity to spin and possibly move up to three spaces ahead. The first person who makes it to the finish line is the winner.

Now I enjoyed this game but it’s not as good as Topix or Telestrations. I like the various categories and as I’m a creative person I enjoy thinking about what to put, but other people may not enjoy that as much as me. Sometimes it can be easy to guess what is on the card because you may know that the people you were playing with would never write such a thing. The scoring seems a bit convoluted at first but it soon becomes clear. The rule variant I mentioned earlier is that the rules say you should choose the category based on the space the leading player is on, but when I played this led to a situation where we had the same category for a few turns in a row. So I’d suggest either use the space that your piece is on or just choose a category to give the game a little more variety.

The spinner is also an unnecessary feature because it doesn’t fit very securely into the middle of the board and on most of the spins it came flying out and had to be re-attached. Another complaint is that the game doesn’t come with pencils, and that would have been appreciated. Other than that the game is really fun. I liked the colour scheme and I love learning all the little facts, it’s almost like being an episode of QI. I don’t think it has as much wide appeal as, say, Telestrations but for the people who enjoy this sort of stuff they will really enjoy it. It also leads to a lot of laughs when you read what people have put down.

Board Game Review – Topix

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Another party game here – Topix, published by Cheatwell Games. This is similar to Town & Country or Scattergories. You can play this individually up to four players or up to four teams. You’ll receive a piece of paper, a pencil and a card. At the start of a round each team will choose a topic and then they will write down as many answers they can think of beginning with a certain letter. This letter is decided by the player’s placement on the board. For example, you may have to think of Capital Cities beginning with ‘A’. Players have until the sand timer runs out to write down answers, then the sheets get passed to left. The timer is flipped again and you will try and think of answers that the previous player didn’t think of. Once everything has answered every category you will score points for each unique and accepted answer, and then move the corresponding spaces on the board. The player/team that makes it to the middle first wins.

This is another fun game. I really enjoy these types of games, and sometimes it can be really difficult. Most of the time the topics are “Things found in a…” and it’s always fun to try and think of unique answers. The part of the game that I enjoyed most was when we read through the answers and had to decide whether they were acceptable. One of the most contentious ones was a suggestion that people keep suits of armour in the attic. If anyone actually has a suit of armour in their attic I would love to hear from you. 

The game is the right length, and it actually gets quite tense at the end as you realize how many points people are from winning, so you may choose your category based on trying to prevent them from winning rather than choosing an easier one. There’s a lot of variety because the spaces all have different letters, and it doesn’t use every letter of the alphabet so you don’t get stuck with trying to think of things beginning with X (although there are spaces where you get to choose which letter you’ll be working with, so if you really want to use X you can). 

Topix comes with pencils, the board is sturdy and the paper is well-designed. It has different boxes for the category, the letter, the team names and the actual answers so it’s easy to see which team put which answers. I like the fact that every gets a chance to answer everyone’s else’s categories because it adds a little bit of a tactical element, but really it’s just a fun game where you list things. 

Board Game Review – Telestrations

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This review is for a game called Telestrations published by Ideal. The basic idea is ‘Chinese Whispers with drawing’. Each player receives a pad, erasable marker and a card with different words printed on them. At the start of a round the die is rolled and the players have to draw the corresponding word on the card (each word has the picture of a die with a different number printed alongside it). After that is done, each player passes it to the person on their left, and then they have to guess what the drawing is suppose to be. After that the pads are passed along again and the next person draws that word, and the game continues like this until the pads return to the original player.

I’m filing this under board game reviews but there isn’t a board, and really there’s no need to keep score either. The rule book does suggest ways to score but winning isn’t really the point of the game. Some of you may come across the game and think, ‘well, I can’t draw so that counts me out,’ but the game is probably more fun if you can’t draw! I’ve played it a few times now. The version I have is for 4-8 players, and you can’t play it with less than four. It’s okay with four, but it’s easier to guess, although it’s still fun. It’s definitely better the more people you have and I guarantee you will be roaring with laughter. 

Some of the things people draw are hilarious, and it’s even funnier when someone interprets it in a completely different way than you intended. It was a definite hit over the Christmas period and I just wish I was able to get a bigger group together regularly so that I could play it more often. There are plenty of cards so I don’t think I’ll ever run out of options, and of course even if cards are replayed people will draw different things. The components are excellent as well. The pads are strong so you don’t need anything else to lean on. The pens are great, and it comes with cloths to wipe off the ink (although you’ll need to make sure to keep track of them because they can slide off if you’re playing at a table). 

It’s a really light, fun game and it’s perfect if you want to have a laugh. It’s not taxing on the brain and even if you have no creative talent whatsoever you can still enjoy yourself. This is definitely a winner for me and I’ll be taking it out of the cupboard whenever I can.