Movie Review – The Equalizer (2014)

Director: Antoine Fuqua

Stars: Denzel Washington, Chloe Grace Moretz, David Harbour, Johnny Skourtis, Marton Csokas

Robert McCall (Washington) is a simple man leading a simple life. He works at a DIY store, reads, and goes to a diner. A young girl, Alena (Moretz) frequents the diner and when she falls foul of disreputable folk he decides to take matters into his own hands. However, little does he know the forces that he brings to Boston, and as he dispatches vigilante justice there’s a vast criminal empire out to hunt him.

I was looking forward to The Equalizer because Washington and Moretz are two of my favourite actors and I generally like films where someone is being badass. Washington sells the role and captures the no-nonsense attitude of McCall. It is slow at the beginning and takes a while for him to display his skills but when he does the film rattles with slick violence.

But the pace is a bit of a problem and as much as I enjoy slow-motion it is overused here. The plot itself is okay, it’s pretty standard really, although I did like the portion of the film where he helped out different people. The main problem is that McCall is presented as so good and so much better than anyone else that there’s not much tension, and while it’s cool how he takes care of the bad guys the end result is never really in doubt. There were only a couple of moments when I thought he actually might be in danger, and I didn’t like this predictable nature.

Also, there wasn’t enough Chloe Grace Moretz. She had different hair in pretty much every scene she was in and while their friendship was supposed to provide an emotional grounding to the film I don’t think it came off as how the director intended. She disappears quite early on and McCall doesn’t seem to be concerned, but there’s nothing that hints to the audience as to her whereabouts. Also, she gives McCall a demo CD of songs she made yet he never listens to it.

I think if you want to see Denzel Washington being badass then this is a perfect film for you. The violence is brutal without being too graphic or over the top, it’s quite stylish and surprisingly humorous in parts. A few things did bother me but all in all I thought it was pretty good and I liked that McCall was actually creative with the kills, so it wasn’t him simply mowing down a bunch of bad guys with a gun.

Advertisements

Book Review – Ringworld by Larry Niven

Photo0267

Ringworld by Larry Niven is an important work in sci-fi history. It has spawned a number of follow-up books and has influenced many other writers, heck, elements from the world Niven creates have made their way into my beloved Star Trek.

I liked many of the concepts introduced but I never found the central narrative gripping. Basically two humans and two aliens come together to investigate a mystery. I liked how the different races were handled and they came across as very different. I liked the commentary on how luck plays a part in humanity and other things like that, but I found the prose to be rather dry.

I feel like I should have liked this one more, but it doesn’t appeal to me as much as say Philip K. Dick or Isaac Asimov.

Book Review – Marvel Platinum: The Definitive Captain America by Joe Simon, Jack Kirby, Stan Lee and Others

Photo0270

Captain America has risen in popularity with the recent movies and this collection brings together stories from his origin to modern-day, written and drawn by a number of different artists. Stan Lee delivers a foreword in his usual exuberant style, and towards the back there’s a comprehensive history of the character. There are eleven stories here and I’m not going to go through them all individually but I like the whole concept of this Platinum collection. With the history that superheroes have it’s interesting to see how the styles have changed over the years, and which threads have remained. For example, in the first issue the Red Skull is revealed to be a psychiatrist wearing a mask. There are also many differences in tone that set apart the eras, but the character remains consistent.

However, while it gives a good overview of Cap’s history I’m not sure that it hits the landmarks of his character. The origin is there and in the couple of early issues we get a glimpse of his relationship with Bucky, and an idea of how simple the writing was (Bucky discovers that Steve Rogers is actually Captain America by walking in on Steve changing in his tent). There’s also a marked effort to refrain from showing Cap from killing people, although in turn he doesn’t show much remorse. After one villain dies Bucky turns to Cap,

“But you saw it all, why didn’t you stop him from killing himself?”

“I’m not talking, Bucky!” And then Cap promptly leaps out of the window claiming that the job is done. It’s quite humorous when compared with how such a thing would be handled today. And of course the early issues are filled with rousing, patriotic endings. I found these quaint, although I am glad they didn’t include this aspect in the films. There is one story later on that features Cap running into a burning building, “Not everyone is out, she’s still in there,” and emerges carrying the American flag. That was rather sickening to be honest.

Most of the stories are entertaining. The big one is his return when he’s found by the Avengers, (well, technically Namor) but there are also team-ups with Falcon, clashes with Red Skull and a sojourn to England where we have a reunion with Spitfire and Union Jack. It then bypasses the whole Winter Soldier thing to end with the resolution of the Civil War as Steve surrenders. I can see why they had to leave out major storylines because they had to fit in self-contained stories rather than just pick and choose moments from wider story arcs, but I do think the collection suffers because of this. Instead of getting to the core of Steve’s character we have a selection of fun romps, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with that. I enjoyed reading it and it’s good that I get to read these comics that I wouldn’t have otherwise, but for something called The Definitive Captain America…hmm I’m not so sure it lives up to that.

I think it’s worth reading if you want to delve into Cap’s history, but I think it’s more useful to see how techniques of comic book storytelling have changed throughout the years rather than as a deep examination of the character. But the stories weren’t epic enough to really sell me on Captain America’s coolness or importance and it’s a case where the movies capture something that this collection doesn’t.

Movie Review – Begin Again (2014)

Director: John Carney

Stars: Mark Ruffalo, Keira Knightley, Adam Levine, James Corden, Hailee Steinfeld, Catherine Keener, Mos Def, Cee-Lo Green

Record exec Dan (Ruffalo) gets fired from his company as after a long and fruitless search for the next big sound. While diving around bars he hears Gretta (Knightley) sing, and knows that it’s the sound he’s been looking for. She’s dealing with the break-up of a long relationship with Dave (Levine), who is now a rockstar, so she agrees with Dan’s plan and with the help of her friend Steve (Corden) and a few other people they make an album that captures the sounds and spirit of New York.

Begin Again was one of my most anticipated films of the year. I absolutely loved Carney’s previous effort, Once, but this has the added bonus of Ruffalo, Knightley and the backdrop of New York. Is it as good as Once? Probably not, in my opinion, but I still enjoyed it a lot.

Ruffalo played a pretty typical character for him but it worked. Knightley was sweet and determined. The rest of the characters weren’t developed that well though, with the exception of Dave. The film suffered a little bit as I felt Dan’s wife Miriam (Keener) could have done with more development. After all, we’re given a scathing indictment of her previous behaviour but then it seems we’re supposed to root for her and Dan to get back together.  There’s also some sexual tension between Dan and Gretta, but this is abandoned pretty quickly so I wondered whether it was even supposed to be there at all. I guess it was a subtle hint at the different paths life could take.

Where the film shines, as expected, is the music. Every performer is great, although I have noticed some disparaging remarks about Knightley’s performance. I thought she was good and put a suitable amount of emotion into her songs. The recordings around New York was a fun thing to do and all the songs were fully immersive. As well as being good songs they provided emotional anchors as well, two notable moments being the kitchen scene and then the concert scene at the end – two powerful moments that highlight the strength of musicals.

What I did love is how the film played with the usual structure of romantic movies but replaced the romance with artistic integrity. There’s even a last-minute dash to a door, and for a moment I thought the film was going to descend into a cliché but it avoided that. The music is at the heart of this film, and it gets all the attention. But there is a little problem. The message seems to be that the art is the most important thing and you shouldn’t be so concerned with writing a hit, rather writing something that’s true to you, and if you show your passion and the song comes across as authentic it will click with people. That’s all well and good but it’s quite idealistic and probably not realistic. In the movie it’s not handled as delicately as it could have been because Gretta has the help of a record producer, and one of the reasons it sells so well is because she gets re-tweeted by someone Dan introduced her to, a famous hip-hop artist who has hundreds of thousands of followers. Obviously this isn’t going to be a common outlet for the usual struggling artist.

As a result the films feels a little too slick and lacks the same  kind of pathos that felt so credible in Once. But despite this I still enjoyed the film a lot. It does have flaws but it gets plenty right and it’s a good follow-up effort to Once, although in my opinion it doesn’t surpass that film.

Movie Review – A Walk Among the Tombstones (2014)

Director: Scott Frank

Stars: Liam Neeson, David Harbour, Adam David Thompson, Dan Stevens, Brian ‘Astro’ Bradley, Maurice Compte

Matt Scudder (Neeson) is an unlicensed private detective, doing ‘favours’ for people and in return receiving ‘gifts’. Someone from his AA group approaches him with a case, and as Scudder investigates he uncovers a trail of dead bodies and two unhinged serial killers that show no signs of stopping.

A Walk Among the Tombstones is a pretty standard thriller that harkens back to films like Dirty Harry. It’s hard-edged and doesn’t rely on flashy twists or an over-complicated narrative. But what that means is that every bullet fired has a real impact and tension simmers throughout the film, as we are waiting for things to explode.

Neeson is as good as you would expect here. He’s got the brooding, no-nonsense character down to a tee now and he provides the tough anchor to the film. The memorable characters revolve around him. TJ (Bradley) stole the show for me, I loved his relationship with Scudder and he brought some extra pathos and levity to the film. The killers themselves provided some moments of irreverent humour as they had a kind of crazy, dangerous unpredictability that was idiosyncratic.

I was impressed by one of Frank’s other films – The Lookout and this shows the same stylish direction. The past and present have different tones, and I felt he captured the mood of 1999 quite well. My main complaint is with the trailer because it gives a couple of moments away that I feel would have had more impact had I not seen them already, and it’s a shame because I think if would give the film a bit more impact. I also feel that it peaked at the graveyard scene and after that it felt like it was merely tying up loose ends.

If you enjoy old school thrillers like Dirty Harry then I think this film will really appeal to you. I believe some people will get turned off by the slow pace and lack of action, but it didn’t bother me. I enjoyed it, and the way the relationships were crafted gave the film some extra life.

Review – Avatar: The Last Airbender

I don’t usually post reviews of television shows here, mostly because I don’t like dissecting individual episodes and I watch so many that I’d be bogged down. But I recently watched Avatar: The Last Airbender and I’m so enthused by it that I wanted to share it with you, and recommend it so that if you either haven’t watched it yet, or you’ve been thinking about it but have been unsure, this review might help sway you because it’s a fantastic series that I honestly struggle to find fault with.

I first decided to watch it mostly as research. I’m beginning a new Dungeons & Dragons campaign as a Monk and one of the paths I can take is to gain mastery over the elements. The series has also had high praise so I thought I’d give it a go. I thought the first episode was decent but after the second I knew I was hooked. The first season is more juvenile than the later two as it focuses on simple morality tales and does not play into the larger arc until the end of the season. However, I believe that the end of the first season remains my favourite. It’s beautiful, epic, and tinged with tragedy and regret. Having said that, the following two seasons are filled with consistently excellent storytelling and introduce some memorable characters. The plot develops superbly and it all comes to a head in the third season, and there’s a long stretch of episodes where I found it an impossible task to stop watching. Each one fed into the next, crafting an excellent story where I just wanted to immerse myself in this world.

It does what all the best tv series do, it’s not simply a distraction, rather it’s a captivating activity that draws you in and makes you feel part of the story. While it’s marketed as a children’s show I think there’s a lot for adults here too. It’s one of the best things I’ve ever seen and I can’t remember another show that has had such a run of excellent episodes. The animation is superb with beautiful backgrounds, weird and wonderful creatures, and a great landscape. The history of the world is given great weight and on occasion we’re thrust into the rich tapestry that the world is built upon. The characters are all engaging and interesting, and my favourite is clearly Zuko, but there were none I actively disliked. I feel they all got their moments to shine and even the villains were given rounded personalities. A great many of the characters are recurring as well, showing us how the main characters affect the world around them.

I love the concept of elemental bending and it lends itself to some great action set-pieces, some of which are truly epic. I loved how the writers of the show found unique ways to use these abilities as well, meaning that seeing them in action never felt stale. There were even different disciplines within each elemental faction as well, so everything felt rich and layered.

While some of the plot points are predictable it’s still a joy watching them unfold, and the character work is so great that at points I was moved to the edge off my emotions. I became fully invested in the quest and it’s been a long time since a tv show has done that for me, especially on such a consistent basis. I can’t rave about this enough and I’m even thinking about getting the DVDs so I can watch it again and again, and I don’t even buy DVDs anymore!

I know of the film but I haven’t seen it yet. I probably will watch it at some point but it’s not high on my list of priorities since I’ve heard how bad it is. I am, however, very interested in checking out the comic books as well as The Legend of Korra, and also using the show to influence my character in D&D. If you haven’t checked out Avatar: The Last Airbender yet then I urge you to because it is superb on so many levels and it easily leaps to be one of my favourite shows ever.

Book Review – The Street Philosopher by Matthew Plampin

Photo0266

Thomas Kitson, a one-time art critic, was recruited by the London Courier to be a war correspondent. While there, he witnessed the brutality and horrors of war, but also an act of treason, the consequences of which have now turned up in the streets of Manchester where he is now working as a street philosopher.

I’d never heard the term street philosopher before. It’s a derogatory term for those people who hunt the streets for snippets of gossips then put them into newspapers. I studied Philosophy, and it’s what first attracted me to The Street Philosopher, and I found it to be quite a humorous term that shows how little regard people have for philosophers. The book does not focus on that though, the focus is on the Crimean War and the crimes that were committed. While Kitson is the focus of the blurb it’s an ensemble cast rounded out with people like Richard Cracknell – Kitson’s superior who has a disdain for the way the military is run, Styles – an illustrator who is continually goaded by Cracknell and seeks to prove that he’s not a coward, Boyce – a military leader with a black soul, and others. Each character is given a great deal of depth and motivation, and as such they leap off the page and feel like vibrant beings, each of them have their flaws and sympathies and it captivating in their own right. Plampin jumps through each character to show their own perspectives and this is done smoothly, either at the beginning of new chapters or with a break in sections within chapters.

The narrative is split between two timeframes. There are the events that happen in the war and then the events that happen in Manchester. The book jumps between them, devoting sections to each period and clearly marking which moment in time is being focused on. I liked is as mysteries were revealed, and new truths emerged at just the right moments to tease intrigue. I liked both periods equally, and it was exciting to see what happened in the war to make Kitson et al end up like he did.

Plampin has a real talent for description and this came through with the characters, the grittiness on the battlefield and the emotions that people were feeling. Sometimes though, his greatest strength is also his greatest weakness as I felt some things were explained too much, and more impact could have been had with a more varied approach by included some bluntness.

I found the revelations fitting and none seemed anti-climactic, although the novel retained a consistent pace and didn’t build to a grand climax. I felt it dragged at certains points, and I can imagine some people will find it difficult to get through certain portions. Certainly, if you are not interested in war at all then this may be one to avoid since a fair portion does follow action on the battlefield. I’m not too familiar with the Crimean War so I liked the focus on this period, and felt that the crusty, stiff upper-lip attitude of the British military was captured perfectly.

The Street Philosopher is a book that I picked up from the library on a whim, based mostly in the title. I found it to be an engrossing read with well-developed characters and a plot that threaded through many different lives and timelines. I enjoyed it quite a bit and although I found that it dragged at certain points I was never in danger of abandoning the book. It’s a good story with some intrigue, battlefield action and human folly.

Movie Review – Sightseers (2012)

Director: Ben Wheatley

Stars: Alice Lowe, Steve Oram

Chris (Oram) wants to take his new girlfriend Tina (Lowe) on a caravan holiday. At first she has to escape her overbearing mother, but once they’re on their way the holiday is nice. Until it takes a turn for the worst…

Sightseers is billed as a black comedy but the comedy is barely there. There are some humorous moments but they’re buried in a dull, meandering film about two vile people who kill people on a whim and steal dogs. I don’t necessarily need all my protagonists to be likeable and heroic, but I think there have to be some redeeming features. I just couldn’t work up any sympathy or empathy for these characters so although the film was following them I wanted them to fail, yet the comeuppance never happened.

There was no context to the murders, they were treated as though they didn’t matter at all and I found this to be an extremely cynical position to take. There was no tension, no threat, they simply continued on their journey while squabbling. If there was more humour then perhaps it would have been so bad, but the film expects us to love the offbeat and quirky nature of these characters and it doesn’t work like that.

I would have enjoyed it more if there had been a resolution and if there had been consequences shown to their behaviour. As it is I felt like I wasted my time while watching it, and I’m struggling to think of the appeal of this movie. I can’t recommend this at all, the only thing I’d recommend is that you avoid it.

Movie Review – Don Jon (2013)

Director: Joseph Gordon-Levitt

Stars: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Scarlett Johansson, Julianne Moore, Tony Danza, Brie Larson, Rob Brown, Jeremy Luke, Glenne Headley

Jon (Levitt) is a man of simple pleasures. His favourite things in life are his job, his place, his car, his exercise, his church, and his porn. He has a string of one night stands but none of them can measure up to the thrill and satisfaction that porn gives him. When he meets Barbara (Johansson) he claims that she’s ‘the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen,’ but when she discovers him using porn she makes him promise to not watch it again, but he struggles with overcoming his addiction.

I was anticipating Don Jon very much because I’m a big fan of Gordon-Levitt, and was looking forward to seeing what he did when he was behind the camera. It’s pretty much billed as an anti-romcom, and I think most people will be drawn to it due to the unusual subject matter of using porn. However, it’s not about porn so much as it is about addiction and I think there are valuable lessons to be learned about dependence.

When it started I was afraid that it would glorify the misguided machismo where girls are only there to be rated on their looks and are seen as nuisances as much as they are prizes to be pursued. Sadly, the film was mired in stereotypes like these, not least of which was Jon’s family, who personified every lazy cliché of Italian families living in New Jersey that we’ve seen on film.

When Jon meets Barbara he seems to have met his match as she refrains from having sex with him so easily, and makes him work for it. This leads to some humorous moments, most notably the dry humping scene. However, later on it becomes clear that this is actually a cruel thing to do, and hints at an ugly aspect of Barbara’s character that becomes more evident as the film progresses. I did like the speech at the end, where Jon tells her that she has a completely one-sided view of things, but he wasn’t exactly blameless either.

The point I did like was how Jon defended porn’s unrealistic expectations of sex by saying that romcoms were emotional porn and gave people unrealistic expectations of romance and relationships, and there’s probably more than a grain of truth to that. I know that I’ve always been attracted to the idea of movie love, and I was reminded of a quote from Sleepless in Seattle – “You don’t want to be in love, you want to be in love in a movie.”

I didn’t like Don Jon as much as I thought I would, and I think this is because many of the characters had more unlikeable edges than I was expecting, but Gordon-Levitt shows some flair behind the camera. The script is tight and it’s amusing in places, and I think it raises some valuable points about communication and expectations in relationships. It has a different vibe about it as well, and this makes it stand out from other films.

Movie Review – Two Tickets to Paradise (2006)

Director: D. B. Sweeney

Stars: John C. McGinley, D.B. Sweeney, Paul Hipp

Two Tickets to Paradise follows the lives of three men who are firmly entrenched in middle age. Mark (McGinley) is man who regrets his wasted life, and this affects his relationship with his son. He’s also racking up gambling debts. Billy (Sweeney) is a former musician who has lost that reckless spark he once loved, and Jason (Hipp) is the third member of the crew who, on a rare occasion, strikes it lucky and wins tickets to a football game. The three of them decide to take a road trip down and escape their lives for a while.

This is a pretty low-budget film about three guys who are stuck in middle age, in lives that they didn’t dream of when they were younger. Their best days are behind them and all they see is a dark future looming. It’s quite a dark premise but the film is fairly light in tone, even though a lot of serious stuff happens. Of the three lead characters Jason gets the short shrift, with McGinley getting the best material to work with.

The story is okay, although a little depressing. But I think it will hold more interest for people a little older than I am, when the dreams of youth are firmly stuck in the past and getting ever further away. And I think this is good because it’s a subject that I don’t think is explored in films, at least not in the way it is here because things aren’t sugarcoated, and a lot of it is actually quite tragic.

Where the film is strongest is the road trip. It perfect captures the feeling of adventure and the crazy escapades that happen on road trips, and the camaraderie shone through. I found the dynamic between the characters authentic and genuine, and this helped my enjoyment of the film.

I thought the resolution was a little rushed and convenient, but it’s quite funny throughout and I was impressed by it. Like it’s main characters it’s flawed, but it captures the road trip spirit and it appeals to a demographic that I think will enjoy it a lot.