Review: In The Heart of the Sea

All I could think after watching this adaptation of the fictionalised account of the true story that didn’t really inspire the book of Moby Dick (despite the claims of the film), but was possibly used for part of the research (not in the manner presented though) was that they would have been better off adapting Moby Dick for the big screen again as it would have made for a better tale.

The film has a decent pedigree, with a strong cast such as Chris Hemsworth, Cillian Murphy, Brendan Gleeson, and Ben Whishaw amongst others, and a usually solid director in the form of Ron Howard. The tale itself is of the ship named Essex, a whaling vessel that was lost at sea in 1820. The tale of the sinking was officially reported as having run aground, but survivors of the wreck tell a different story. The film bookends the main story by having Herman Melville (Ben Whishaw) visiting one survivor, Tom Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson), to obtain his story in order to give him the inspiration to write his next novel, Moby Dick. The tale recounted to the writer is one of determination and obsession in hunting whales, which leads the Essex out to disaster when a giant white whale sinks the ship. The survivors are left stranded at sea, and must make terrible decisions in order to survive.

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However, despite the pedigree, the film just fails to make any impact. Yes, the cast are well placed, and Howard’s direction is as visually striking as you would expect from the director, but the story is weak, and doesn’t have the grandeur that it thinks it has. The historical accuracy issues aside (and embellishment of scenes for dramatical effect), there just isn’t enough depth to the characters, nor any real tension, to make this anything more than an average experience. It’s a shame that so many aspect that would have added to the film are dropped rapidly, such as the initial antagonistic relationship between Hemsworth’s First Mate, and Benjamin Walker’s Captain which just fizzles out early into the voyage. As do any signs of potential unrest in the crew, which are thrown aside as a passing reference, as opposed to actually making us believe the crew may be ready to mutiny. Yes, I get that some of that would have meant embellishing the tale more, but given the film has already taken many liberties, why not at least take some to give the tale a bit of bite? As commented in the opening paragraph, Melville’s tale of drive, determination, and obsessive revenge would have made a better adaptation for the big screen, whilst this feels more like a History Channel movie of the week.

In the Heart of the Sea isn’t a bad film, it just isn’t one likely to make any waves at the box office, and is unlikely to have any lasting impact on audiences who view it. Oh, and it in no way, shape or form needed a 3D release!

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Review – Star Wars: The Force Awakens

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away… or more precisely over three and a half decades ago in a cinema in another town, a film came along which had a huge impact on the mind of a young 4 year old. The experience of that film made a lasting impression, introducing him to the majesty of films, the joy of space set adventure, and the galaxy of Star Wars. Decades later, the love affair with the franchise has wavered a slight bit. Yes, the love for the originals (untainted versions) is still as strong as ever, and the expanded universe of books and comics (and the occasional video game) has maintained the thrill, but a trilogy of prequels came and tainted any excitement for future instalments. So it was that, even after an impressive trailer campaign, I entered the screening of the new film, The Force Awakens, with a degree of trepidation. I’d been stung too many times, so wasn’t going to get too excited.

As the end credits played, I was that 4 year old kid once more, wanting to see the wonders on screen again, and desperately wanting to collect the toys and models that tie into the film!

Especially this little guy!

Especially this little guy!  Guaranteed to be on many Christmas lists this year!

Star Wars: The Force Awakens is the first of a new trilogy in the ‘core’ series (there will be other films set within the Star Wars universe, but they will be spin-offs, not forming the basis of the core tale), and it comes in the wake of the sale of the franchise to Disney. Sadly, this does mean no 20th Century Fox fanfare before the opening titles, but that’s only a minor disappointment. Director JJ Abrams, who in recent times has re-invigorated the Star Trek franchise (which he was criticised for making it feel too much like Star Wars), as a long term fan of the series, was a strong choice for the job. As the pieces were pulled together, excitement in the fan community began to build. Old cast were returning, whilst a new batch of fresh faces were being unveiled for the new chapter in the tale. Most importantly of all, throughout the whole trailer campaign nobody could really work out what the story was going to be about, and I’m not about to spoil it here. All I will say is that the opening scroll is a much better read than stuff about ‘trade negotiation’ and ‘political disputes’.

So, if I’m not going to talk about the plot, let’s look at the players. Obviously the return of Han, Leia, Chewbacca, and Luke will please old fans, and they all play key parts in the film, but this is not really their film. No, it belongs to the new faces, mainly Daisy Ridley as Rey, a scavenger from a backwater planet, John Boyega as Finn, a redeemed Storm Trooper, and Adam Driver as Kylo Ren, the dark force warrior. Oh, and of course BB-8, a small droid that carries an important message. Ridley and Boyega are instantly likeable in their parts, making for the kind of team up that we saw between, say, Han and Leia in the original trilogy, whilst Driver is furiously menacing as the villain of the piece, although his inability to control his emotions adds a depth of character to the part that wasn’t really seen in the role of Vader until the back end of the second film. The film serves as a way to hand over the reins to the new cast, who pick them up with ease, showing good promise for future entries into the saga.

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Action set-pieces are plentiful, albeit imbued with a fair bit of familiarity. In fact the film, as a whole, follows the beats of the original film much in the same way that Superman Returns did with Donner’s original film. JJ, along with long-term writer Lawrence Kasdan, fill the run time with echoes of the 1977 film, but not in a manner that is detrimental to the story, but in a way that redefines the franchise for a new generation, making it clear that this is a sequel to the original trilogy, and not the prequels. Even the lightsabre fights resonate more with the style seen in Empire or Jedi, and not the acrobatic, superhuman antics of Phantom, Clones and Sith.

It is safe to say that this is, perhaps, the third best film in the franchise to date, right after Empire and Star Wars, and sets up the story for the next chapter well. If there is any flaw it is that the fan-service within, whilst looking great, does mean that it never really defines itself as a film in its own right. However, with this re-introduction out the way, we can look forward to a glorious new future for the franchise, and for the first time in over a decade I am excited to see where the films take me next.

Review: Steve Jobs

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One of the true shames about this film is that many people will choose not to see it for all the wrong reasons. There are those who turn their nose up at it as they don’t see why another film about Steve Jobs has been made (after the Ashton Kutcher film of 2013). Then there are those who vocally oppose Apple products so much that they refuse to accept there is any merit in a film about the founder of the company. This second group, to me, are a curious bunch – did they also feel Downfall wasn’t worth seeing because Adolf Hitler was a bad person? Already in the US, this film has had a poor opening and been pulled from a substantial number of screens, despite critical praise for the director (Danny Boyle), the writer (Aaron Sorkin), and the lead actor (Michael Fassbender), as well as the support cast of Kate Winslet, Jeff Daniels and Seth Rogan among others. Audiences, it seems, are not that bothered with a film aiming to get under the skin of one of the icons of the past few decades.

The film is inspired by the biography by Walter Isaacson, but in true Sorkin style takes a fresh approach, focussing on three key moments in time, and the relationships Jobs had with a small group of people at each point. The film is segmented into 3 chunks of around 40 minutes each, playing almost real-time behind the scenes activity at the launches of the Apple Mac in 1984, the NeXT computer in 1988, and the iMac in 1998. In the time before stepping out on stage to each of these launches, Jobs interacts with his confidant and marketing executive Joanna Hoffman (Winslet), the co-founder of Apple Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogan), the CEO of Apple John Sculley (Jeff Daniels), his former girlfriend Chrisann Brennan (Katherine Waterston), and his daughter Lisa, as well as John Oritz, a GQ journalist who interviews him through the film, and a handful of others. Through his interactions with these people we see both the cold, distant Jobs, focussed purely on his product and company, but with the occasional glimmer of the humanity he buried deep, whilst gaining some understanding over the course of the film as to why he kept such a distance from those around him.

With a script by Sorkin, a writer who doesn’t just hand over his words and walk away, instead sticking around and being an integral part of the film-making process, you can expect swift and fluid dialogue exchanges from the offset, and also plenty of ‘walk-and-talk’ moments (a trope which Sorkin popularised in shows such as Sports Night and West Wing), making dialogue heavy scenes more dynamic, and adding a sense of urgency to every conversation. The result is a conversation heavy film which never seems drawn out, never slows down, and keeps you engaged throughout, and has a light sprinkling of wit to raise a few smiles at points.

But Sorkin is only one piece of the recipe for this film, and Danny Boyle’s direction is solid throughout, with touches of flair that make you remember how much of a visual style director he is. The three periods in time have slightly different looks, from a slightly grainy early 80s, through to the smooth focus of the late 90s segment, and sharp use of backlit images (from Bob Dylan lyrics, to NASA footage) lend striking impact to scenes. In addition the performances he gets out of all the cast ensure that at no point do you write off Jobs as heartless, and the way in which he touched the lives of those around him (who, it has to be said, stayed loyal to him despite his flaws) is reflected well in every scene.

Finally, a mention must be made of Fassbender who delivers yet another fantastic performance, with a commanding presence as a man obsessed with how others seem to betray him, who fails to see that his icy demeanour is have far worse an impact on close friends and colleagues such as Wozniak, and his daughter, Lisa. Jobs was an enigma to many, but Fassbender seems to have deciphered what made him tick and channels everything into the role. He may not look much like Jobs, but he swiftly becomes the man entirely.

Steve Jobs was a complex man, and this film (and indeed any film about his life) can only scratch the surface of what drove him, but Srokin, Boyle and the cast do a sterling job of tapping into the persona of a modern day legend, sparking a desire to find out more about his life, his drive, and his impact on the world – because even if you are not an Apple fan (which I am not), you cannot deny the legacy he left behind after his passing, and the impression he made on the tech world.

Release Schedule Fever

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Over the past week Marvel released their updated slate for the next five years, and whilst there were no real surprises at a sequel to Ant-Man and a new Spider-Man film, the internet has gone crazy at the news of 3 unnamed films in 2020.  Pretty much every news source have crafted long winded articles speculating on what three films they will be, ranging from a third Guardians of the Galaxy film, to a third part for Infinity War, and even (oh I wish) a Howard the Duck film.  That’s not forgetting the debunked Fantastic Four theory – although some people still believe a deal was made with Fox as similar debunking was done regarding Spider-Man.  But, with so much page space taken up this week with articles about the three new films, what do we actually know?

Well, simply put, we know nothing.  Zip.  Nada.  Zilch.  All we know is Marvel are releasing 3 films in 2020.  How the heck is that considered news?  They are releasing 2 or 3 films each year over the next 4 years anyway, so it wasn’t a stretch to imagine 3 films in 2020.  Heck, why didn’t they go the whole hog and outline plans for 3 unnamed films in 2021, another 3 in 2022, and then go crazy with 4 in 2023 (after all, they can drop some later if they wish…nobody will miss a film they don’t even know the name of)?

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Look, I'm serious. Just give us a proper Howard film already!

I love Marvel films as much as any other member of Stan’s Merry Marvel Marching Society, but this rush to release ‘plans’ for the next half decade of film slate is getting a tad ridiculous.  If there isn’t any actual news to release, then just don’t release it.  Marvel aren’t the only ones at fault here.  Look at DC/Warner and their ever shifting schedule.  In a race to show they can match Marvel, DC announced a slate of films a couple of years back which included standalone sequels to Man of Steel.  This year the slate was updated, and along with a variety of films moving release dates from one year to the next, now MoS 2 has vanished, and Batman is added to the mix.  In fact the DC slate changes so often that the only definite thing so far is Suicide Squad and BvS next year.

You may argue that these long term announcements with no real detail creates a buzz, and generates excitement, but does it really?  Seriously,  you know something is coming out in 5 years but don’t know what.  Speculate all you like about it being a New Universe spin off, or Secret Wars 1, 2 and 3 filmed back to back, but all that will happen is that when it is revealed to be Iron Man Armour Wars, Planet Hulk, and another Thor film, you will just feel a bit daft for having gotten giddy about wild speculation.

Let’s focus on the actual films in production, not the flights of fancy from an undetermined future.

Daniel Craig Hates Being Bond (or how the Internet blows something out of context)

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Earlier this week Time Out published their interview with Daniel Craig, the star of the upcoming Bond film, Spectre.  In the days since the article was posted, the story has grown from being a simple interview, to Craig stating he never wants to play the role again, to him stating he doesn’t care about the character, and now to him saying he’d rather kill himself than be in another Bond film.  The public response to this has been generally a lot of comments about how ungrateful he is, and how he should just sod off then if he hates it so much.  But did he really say he hated the role?

Well, anyone who actually read the interview fully will have seen that it was conducted in July.  Craig had only finished filming for the movie four days earlier, after a gruelling 8 month shooting schedule.  If you know anything about films then you will know that an 8 month schedule is quite extensive.   Now the interview begins by making clear it is early morning, and the actor is knocking back espressos like there is no tomorrow. Here’s a guy who is finally getting a chance to relax after a long shooting schedule. Earlier questions in the interview are responded to with Craig’s usual dry wit and bluntness. Then, the question that every media outlet has focused on over the past few days is rolled out…

Can you imagine doing another Bond movie?
‘Now? I’d rather break this glass and slash my wrists. No, not at the moment. Not at all. That’s fine. I’m over it at the moment. We’re done. All I want to do is move on.’

Whilst I read that, and imagined a wry smile on the actors face, the junk media has taken it as venomous spite, as though it was yelled in anger, and have clearly missed the other questions about the role and his responses… especially the very next question in the article…

You want to move on from Bond for good?
‘I haven’t given it any thought. For at least a year or two, I just don’t want to think about it. I don’t know what the next step is. I’ve no idea. Not because I’m trying to be cagey. Who the fuck knows? At the moment, we’ve done it. I’m not in discussion with anybody about anything.

It is worth noting that production on Spectre began pretty swiftly after Skyfall, so the series has dominated Craig’s life for a good while now. All he was saying was that he just wants to take some time off, look at other projects (an earlier answer highlighted that the schedule for something like Bond meant he had to turn away other jobs), and doesn’t want to even think about the role for a while. He further goes on in later questions to point out how great it is to be associated with such a character, and how much of an opportunity it is for an actor to be a part of something so important to so many. As he concludes himself in the interview…

You’ve got to push yourself as far as you can. It’s worth it, it’s James Bond.

The reporting of this story by various press outlets this week has highlighted how you should never pay attention to second hand storytelling. As any good historian will tell you, first hand evidence is the important stuff, and any secondary recitals will contain embellishment and must be taken with a hint of skepticism. If you ever read an article that refers to another article, make sure you check out the original article yourself. That way you can see the story in the correct context and not be duped by sloppy reporting.

So, if you haven’t already, check out the full interview at Time Out

Review: The Martian

At the very end of the film, as the credits begin to roll, the words, “a film by Ridley Scott” pop up on screen and, for the first time in over a decade, you feel that actually means something.  You genuinely feel that this is a film for a director to be proud of.

The Martian is adapted from the novel by Andy Weir, which tells the story of an astronaut, Mark Watney (Matt Damon) who finds himself stranded on Mars when the Mission is forced to abort during a major storm.  Believed to be dead, the rest of the crew blast off into space and begin their journey back to Earth.  Finding himself alone and without enough supplies to last out until a rescue attempt could make it back to him, the Mark puts his scientific knowledge to the test in order to grow food, and repair equipment, in the hope he can survive.
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The story was adapted for the screen by Drew Goddard, known for his work on films such as Cloverfield, World War Z, and Cabin In the Woods, as well as prominent work on a variety of TV shows.  His touch is certainly present throughout with a witty style, and strong pacing of story, ensuring that even when the film gets heavy with the science, it doesn’t get bogged down in detail and instead keeps things clear and concise.  Complementing the strong script is Ridley Scott’s direction alongside cinematographer Dariusz Wolski, who worked on films such as Dark City, The Crown, and more recently Prometheus alongside Scott.  The similarity in visual style between this and Prometheus are clear, and regardless of what you thought of that film it is hard to dispute that it looked stunning.  With The Martian, vacant landscapes of rock and desert are given a striking beauty, whilst the shots of the Ares III as it carries the crew through space are simply stunning.  Scott’s recent return to sci-fi has highlighted his strength for the genre, and helped put him back on the top of his game.

Cast wise, Damon does a great job, and is supported by a wealth of names, all delivering fine work.  Jeff Daniels appears to still be in Newsroom mode, which isn’t a bad thing, as Teddy Sanders the head of NASA.  Chiwetel Ejiofor and Sean Bean lend some screen presence as two of NASA’s directors, and the crew of the Ares III sees names such as Jessica Chastain, Kate Mara, and Michael Pena (who is finally getting the roles he really deserves this year) among others all delivering fine performances is what are essentially small parts.  After all, in essence this is a one man show.  The core story is about Matt Damon as Mark, and he delivers a solo performance that grips you, surprises you, amuses you, and thrills you in equal measure.  With nobody else to play off, Damon talks to video logs as a means to interact, and holds it together perfectly, sometimes just offering a simple look in order to convey a lot more than words could deliver.
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The Martian is a stand out film in what has generally been an average, and slightly underwhelming year.  Had the year not kicked off with films such as Birdman and Whiplash, this would easily be my film of the year so far.  As it stands, it sits in an extremely respectable third place, and is certainly one to experience on the big screen (although not particularly in 3D).

Review: Maze Runner – The Scorch Trials

I was quite late getting around to watching the first Maze Runner film.  The trailer didn’t sell the film to me, and I dismissed it as, “Yet another of those Hunger Games type things!”  Even the word of colleagues who told me that it was worth checking out didn’t convince me.  So, it was only a few weeks ago that I finally watched the first film, and was pleasantly surprised with what unfolded.  Whilst the film had flaws, it engaged me for the whole run time, and left me wanting to see how the tale of Thomas and the rest of the survivors of the Maze plays out now they have escaped.

The Scorch Trials picks up right from the end of the first film, and sees the Gladers taken to a refuge by the army who we saw pick them up at the end of the previous film.  Led by Janson (Aiden Gillan), this group promise to shelter the group and help them escape to a safe zone somewhere beyond ‘The Scorch’ (the name given to the apocalyptic wasteland).  In the complex the group are introduced to other survivors of other mazes, but Thomas is suspicious, and the threat of WCKD still looms.  Before long the group find themselves fighting for survival as they try to cross the Scorch to get to the mountains, where it is rumoured that a resistance group are located.  Along the way they encounter the zombie-like Cranks, a mercenary group led by Jorge (Giancarlo Esposito), and the perilous conditions of The Scorch itself, as well as finding themselves constantly on the run from WCKD, who want them back at any cost.

"What you doing?"  "Ah, just hanging around!"

Just building bridges….get it?  Building…..bridges…..aw forget it!

The previous film, whilst boasting some impressive visual moments, relied more on the mystery and character, whereas spectacle is the order of the day for this second film as the location shifts to sprawling deserts, apocalyptic landscapes, decimated cities, industrial facilities, and subterranean pipelines.  With more of this decimated world to work with, the film is understandably quite a journey at around 130 minutes in runtime.  Whilst, overall, it maintains attention, there are moments where it plods along, and a few scenes could have easily been excised for a tighter pacing.  One such section sees an otherwise star turn by Alan Tudyk as Marcus, the self serving owner of a bar within the city ruins.  Whilst Tudyk is on great form in such a small cameo, the scenes add very little to to the overall story, and could have easily been dropped, allowing the movie to progress with a bit more pace.  In addition, Gillan is a bit of a casting misstep as fans of his work on Game of Thrones will instantly be suspicious of him, and so within minutes of the film starting we are just waiting to find out what he is really doing, making the slow build up in the first act kind of pointless.

But these niggles aside, the film ticks many boxes and whilst never being more than predictable sci-fi fluff (with inspirations taken from a variety of sources – heck, it even seems to go ‘Last of Us’ at one point), it just about holds attention to the end – an ending which leaves us hanging, waiting for the next film to continue the tale.  Some people may complain that the film is meaningless on its own, and the necessity to see the first, and the need to see the next in order to make a complete story is a negative.  To those folk I simply say, ‘Empire Strikes Back’, drop the mic and walk off stage.  This is the middle act of the story, and doesn’t try to resolve itself.  Instead it simply expands on the minor information about this world, and the virus (the flare) that has wiped out so much of humanity.

The Gladers just hanging out for a while.

The Gladers just hanging out for a while.

Fans of the books may be upset at the removal of some key elements, and reshuffling of stories, but isn’t this the norm these days anyway?  The film is tailored for a cinema audience, and as such this second film should please those who, like myself, were pleasantly surprised at the first film.  Scorch Trials is a visual spectacle that doesn’t quite outstay its welcome, and sets up the pieces ready for The Death Cure, due in 2017 (and if Wes Ball stays to direct will be one film, unlike the fad to split final books into two films for no good reason).