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 – Avengers: Age of Ultron

**Warning – minor spoilers**

As strange as it may seem to those who know me, I wasn’t overly excited going into this second team-up of Marvel’s Cinematic Universe characters. Yes, despite being a qualified member of Stan’s Merry Marvel Marching Society, and being somewhat obsessive about the Marvel comics and films, I genuinely lost my excitement over the past month. Don’t be mistaken, I expected it to be as thrilling and action packed as previous outings, but there just wasn’t that high level of anticipation anymore. After all, we’ve come to accept that Marvel can do no wrong, so there is nothing left to hope for as we now have complete trust that they will deliver. Add into that the fact that the recent Netflix Daredevil series has shown what Marvel can genuinely achieve without any studio interference, and Avengers just seems another chapter in the ongoing film franchise. Suffice to say, the film delivered exactly as expected and whilst it was yet another great entry into the series, it was nothing more than that. Maybe Marvel have already peaked with the first Avengers and Guardians of the Galaxy, and to expect them to deliver more than those films is crazy. Maybe so, but it is safe to say Age of Ultron is a crowd-pleasing, action packed adventure, and nothing more.

The film kicks off right into the thick of action as the team are on a mission to take out a HYDRA base (yes, there are still HYDRA bases around, as anyone keeping up with Agents of SHIELD will already know) and retrieve Loki’s staff. We get to quickly see how the team have learned to use each other’s abilities in unison to function as a whole, and we also get to see how Hulk is tamed by Natasha. Post mission analysis on Loki’s staff reveals that the core of the gem could provide the solution to an AI problem that Stark has – how to activate the Ultron plan for an automated peacekeeping force. However, activation of the AI leads to unfortunate results as Ultron determines that humankind must evolve or die, and thus declares war on the planet. Added to the mix are the twins, Pietro and Wanda Maximoff, one with the power of super-speed, and one with telekinesis and mind control/manipulation powers. Together they will confuse and manipulate the Avengers, turning them against each other.

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From the offset, there is a bit of a flaw with this new entry into the Marvel Cinematic timeline, as it appears that all the events of Iron Man 3 have been forgotten, and Tony’s arc in that film (traumatised after seeing an alien fleet, clamouring to build lots of defence drones to combat any menace, but to then realise that none of it matters as the man inside the suit is more important) seems pointless as we start to repeat his paranoia again, thus leading to the creation of Ultron. It does beg the question, why did they not actually introduce the Ultron program in Iron Man 3, and then springboard it to life in this film (much as Loki was introduced in Thor, then made sense as a villain in Avengers). The result is a sudden burst of exposition to pluck the Ultron concept out of thin air, as well as another project that suddenly pops up that came from no-where, and a film that is a series of action set pieces held together by a ropey plot. Now, I’m aware that Marvel films have always been scant on plot (heck, there are articles online that highlight how Guardians of the Galaxy is exactly the same film as Avengers), and what matters most is the action and the wit, but is this right and should we accept it? Surely if the films are just going to progress to be a series of bigger, more spectacular explosions, then it is weakening what is so important about Marvel’s comic stories. Maybe it is more the fact that this current team of Avengers are far too familiar now, and it just seems there isn’t anything new to claw at. Phase 3 will hopefully inject that aura of anticipated excitement again as new characters and histories come to the franchise in Ant-Man, Black Panther, and Doctor Strange. With the next team up (Infinity War) being a two-parter, I only hope that it does take time to grow a story rather than just throw lots of things into the mix and hope the action distracts the audience from the weak exposition.

Reading back through that paragraph I’m aware that it may seem that I didn’t enjoy the film, but far from it, I was caught up in the moment and loved the banter between the team, and there were some excellent sub-elements that worked really well. Clint ‘Hawkeye’ Barton, for example, who was extremely short-changed on the last film, here gets possibly the best role in the film. Close behind is Natasha ‘Black Widow’ Romanoff, whose past we explore a bit more, and her relationship with Banner in and out of Hulk mode too. The Maximoff twins are superb additions, as is Vision (who comes into play in the latter half of the film), and I look forward to seeing more of those characters in future films. But the general story feels like an afterthought, and doesn’t end the second phase in the same manner the first Avengers film did. In fact it feel more like a set-up for Phase 3, with hints and nods toward what is to come, which unfortunately means that Ultron feels short-changed in his villain role. The menace we saw in the trailer seems somewhat subdued in the end product, and whilst the safety of the world is still in jeapordy, it feels like ‘just another day at the office’ for the team. Even the attempt to divide the group and turn them on each other doesn’t really have the impact it promised, although maybe Civil War will work that one better.

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All in all, the film just feels like it was made just because the fans wanted another team up, yet it delivers much less than Iron Man 3 or Winter Soldier did, and fails to feel like it is pushing the overall story forward any further. For fans of comics there are a smattering of nods and references to keep a keen eye out for, some subtle (Jocasta), some blatant (Klaw), and there is a mid credit sequence that comic book fans will hate simply because they now have to spend the next year or so explaining it to the non fans (seriously, why do non fans stick around for these sequences? They won’t understand the reference, and will just be confused!)

If I was to score the film, I’d give it a firm 7 or 8 out of 10, with the action, excitement, and characters all working, even if the overall story doesn’t quite make it.

Review: Kingsman: The Secret Service

Matthew Vaughn is no stranger to adaptations of comic book works, having been responsible for the film that sort-of rebooted the X-Men films, First Class. Neither is he a stranger to Mark Millar comics, and their more brutal manner of approaching an already familiar genre, as he directed Kick Ass, and acted as producer on the second film. With this new collaboration on a Millar title, Vaughn gets to explore Bond-styled themes as we discover the world of the secret agency known as Kingsman.
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The comic on which the film is inspired was a typical Millar approach to a genre, breaking down the conventions and putting a new spin on old ides. Much as how Kick Ass lovingly made fun of the idea of costumed vigilantes, so too did Secret Service poke fun at the spy genre. In adopting the film version, this loving mockery is retained, but never seems to be mocking as such as it embraces the old styled aesthetics of a crazy megalomaniac versus a secret agent, mountain lairs and strange skilled henchmen intact.

Story wise, the film has a Men in Black approach, as we are brought into the secret world of the Arthurian named agents of Kingsmen via a new recruit who joins a group of others in an intense training program of which only one can succeed in the end. It is usual for the recruits to be of the upper class stock, but Harry Hart aka. Galahad (Colin Firth) believes that there is potential in a young lad from a poor estate, Eggsy (Taron Edgerton). Whilst Eggsy starts proving his worth via tests laid on by Merlin (Marc Strong), the underlying plot plays out elsewhere. Celebrities great minds, and diplomats have been vanishing, and a wealthy tech developer, Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson) is set to release a new mobile technology to the world. However Valentine has a secret agenda, and only the Kingsmen can stop him.
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The film is visually smart, and action is handled with skill and style that we have come to expect from Vaughn. From encounters with mobs in a local pub, to a frantic chase through an underground lair, Vaughn knows how to edit for pacing, but ensure that the action is seen (a pet hate of mine is the shaky camera and swift editing of many action films these days that don’t allow you to see the impact). There is generally a comical approach to the action, even in a high point of the film which sees a brutal massacre in the confines of a church. The balance of humour to brutality is well measured, much in the same way it played just right in Kick Ass. Other set pieces such as a group skydive exercise, or a flooded dorm room present more thrills and tension between the key moments, making this a well packed out action film.

Kingsman is a great, loving homage to the early days of spy films, whilst also setting up potential for a future franchise of well spoken, well educated, and most importantly well mannered spies for the new generation. A well rounded cast, including Michael Caine as Arthur, and Jack Davenport (who needs to be cast as Bond once Daniel Craig leaves the role) as Lancelot, all lend to the proceedings. It also has a great use of music tracks throughout, with standout moments using Freebird and Land of Hope And Glory to brilliant effect. Most importantly the film knows exactly what it wants to be, and doesn’t try to be a serious film. It is fun, frantic, and pure entertainment.

Is there really a lack of originality these days?

In a year which seems to be packed to the hilt with sequels or remakes, you often see and hear people bemoan the lack of originality these days. They will cry out that, “Hollywood has run out of ideas!” But is this true? Are there genuinely no original ideas these days, or are we just so dazzled by the hype for Star Trek 27: The Search For A Script that we overlook the new concepts?

Quite clearly there are original ideas and concepts put to film each year, that goes without saying. Take a look at 2014, and films such as Grand Budapest Hotel, and even Edge of Tomorrow. In fact, if you add up all the sequels and reboots each year they will not even dent the number of new films that come out. So why does it seem that every film being released is a sequel or reboot?

Well, that’s all because of two things.

1: The franchise films and reboot get a lot more marketing to get the already bought in fans salivating at the idea of more.
2: Audiences flock to them more than new ideas. This means less marketing on the new idea as it is harder to guarantee a return.

Simply put, the general audience dictate what we will have shoved down our throats each year, and they seem to prefer a safe option of a film they know what to expect over a risky choice that they have no experience with. This is, to some degree, understandable. Why spend over £10 for a ticket to something you are unsure of, when you know that Fast and Furious 14 will have cars and stunts and explosions (and who doesn’t love mindless action?) Inevitably this leads to people seeing the newer idea films a year or so later and pondering why they didn’t go and see it at the cinema. It is also why films such as Source Code, Looper, etc, whilst being really good films with great underlying concepts, never end up breaking any box office figures.

So, remember this coming year, whilst you are plodding off to see Avengers: Age of Ultron, or Mission Impossible 6, to also have a quick glance at the other films on offer, and make a pledge here and now to check at least one of them out each month. You will soon find that sequels and reboots aren’t the only things released, they just make the most noise.