Derbyshire Jaunt

I decided, at about 11pm last night, that I wanted to make use of my day off and visit the Nine Ladies Stone Circle up on Stanton Moor in Derbyshire. Trent Barton run an excellent bus service (Transpeak) upto Manchester from Notts which calls at Rowsley, so I got off there and walked! Once I’d reached the circle, I decided I might as well carry on and check out Robin Hood’s Stride on the other side of Birchover. It’s always nice to revisit places you’ve been to ages ago, and I wasn’t disappointed today!

Check out the pictures here.

Conan The Barbarian

This was another film that I wasn’t one hundred percent sure what to expect from – I haven’t seen the Schwarzenegger version, or any other other films in the franchise, but I’ve heard/read enough to know the basic concept and that it sounded like something I’d probably enjoy. Having seen Momoa in HBO’s recent Game of Thrones, I knew he could pull of Barbarian fighter pretty convincingly.

It was a shame then, that this version of Conan was overall fairly disappointing.

From the start, it reminded me of the Fable video games – you see the traumatic childhood event that sets the hero off on their path, and then the intervening years are narrated – done here by Morgan Freeman – before dropping you back into the picture with hero fully formed and ready to finish his quest. In Fable, it works because you want to get on a play the game without having to grow up with your character. In this film, it robbed Conan of a lot of his motivation. Yes, I saw his village, family and friends get massacred when he was a boy, so his need for vengeance is understandable. By skipping the intervening years without so much as a montage, what I don’t have is any sense of the scale of his quest – how far it has taken him, how long he has searched and nursed this hatred for the man who killed his father. So when, almost straight away, Conan stumbles across him without any apparent effort, it seems contrived, and a bit lazy.

My other main problem with the film was how old fashioned and cliched it felt – as though it had been made for an audience of middle-aged guys who still lived at home and played warhammer/dungeons and dragons in their rooms. Not that there’s anything wrong with that! But fantasy is a lot more mainstream now than when the first Conan films came out and the audiences it attracts much more discerning; the film as a whole could have done with being a little bit self-aware, of having that small tongue-in-cheek glint in its eye that says it’s aware of how daft it is when a man growls “woman”, instead of being deadly serious.

The makers of Conan could have done with taking into account other recent film – even Prince of Persia which Conan reminded me a lot of, but not in a good way – and reviving the franchise into something a lot more modern and intelligent, that took the cliches Conan deals in and rendered them lovingly with a nod and a wink into something worth watching. As it is, I’m glad I didn’t fork out almost a tenner to see it*, and I’m certainly glad I didn’t pay extra to see the 3D version.

 

*I have a Cineworld Unlimited card, I didn’t watch it by any nefarious means

Cowboys & Aliens (Spoilers!)

I didn’t really know what to expect from this film; the trailers, articles I’ve read and even other reviews didn’t paint a clear picture of what type of film I was going to see, so my mind was pretty open.

Basically, it does what it says on the tin – it is a film about cowboys and aliens – that is the main idea and plot.

My first impression was “wow, Daniel Craig does laconic, utter confidence and physicality very convincingly”, and perhaps this film’s greatest strength – rather than its slightly kooky central concept – was the strength of its cast, all of whom brought their characters to totally believable life. Craig’s Lonergan is remarkably unconflicted, untroubled by morals he is all economic movement and speech, saying and doing just enough to get what he wants. Harrison Ford’s Dolarhyde is not as bad as everyone makes him out to be, and Sam Rockwell’s Doc gains respect as well as the return of his wife on their quest. The film’s internal logic is very tight – the character’s reactions, the way the story unfolds is totally believable within the world Jon Favreau and writers Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman have created. There wasn’t a moment when I thought – “that wouldn’t happen” or “they wouldn’t have done that” which is a rare thing and makes the film all the stronger for its consistency.

The aliens themselves are satisfyingly depicted – obviously alien to our 21st century eyes but it’s easy to see how the 19th century cowboys arrive at “demons” in the way they move and their appearance. Where the film is lacking – only slightly – is in providing enough backstory/motive for the aliens. We get some information from Olivia Wilde’s Ella – apparently another alien (?) in human form following the main aliens to get revenge for her home world’s destruction – but beyond their quest for gold (again, why do they want it? Unless I missed that bit) the alien’s seem to be blowing up frontier towns and stealing people just because they can and it riles up the locals. Because the film is told firmly from the humans’ point of view, this isn’t a huge problem, because it doesn’t really matter why the aliens are doing what they’re doing – they just need to be stopped. A little more depth to the alien’s side of the story would have been satisfying for me, and I’d guess for the majority of the audiences who go to see this film – most likely sci-fi fans who are pretty alien savvy.

One last little niggle, was that because Wilde’s Ella is not human, (but we don’t really get an explanation as to what she is or where she comes from) it removed a note of poignancy to the ending of the battle – aside from the fact Lonergan loved her, we were given no real reason to invest in her character and so her ending comes with a sort of shrug, rather than any sense of what’s been lost.

These points are minor however in the overall scheme of the film, and it is still one of the tightest-told stories I’ve seen this year so far. An excellent cast combined with such adept handling makes it definitely one to go and see, and enjoy.

Loyaulte Me Lie

I went to Bosworth Battlefield this Sunday just gone for their anniversary re-enactment weekend and had a brilliant day! There was loads to see, the displays in the main arena were great and I managed to get close enough to the ringside that during the final moments of the last battle that I felt the ground shake as Richard III made his last desperate charge to try and kill Henry Tudor.

Richard III fascinates me; the controversy that surrounds him and how even now, after centuaries of debate, no one really knows – or probably ever will know the truth about fundamental parts of his legend. The book that first piqued my interest was Freda Warrington’s fabulous – and fantastical – The Court of the Midnight King. I fell in love with her interpretation of Richard from the first read and then, upon further exploration along such lines as Paul Murray Kendall’s Richard the Third biography, and visits to Bosworth my interest was cemented. If you do visit Bosworth, a look around their heritage centre and a guided tour of the “battlefield” is essential to understand what was lost and gained in this battle where the last Plantagenet King of England led the last charge on a battlefield and became the last king to die in battle.

A couple of pics below: for the full gallery click here.

Even the catering was authentic! ;-)

Cannon smoke drifts like morning mist, muffling the shouts and amplifying the clash of weapons

The King is dead! Long live the King!

 

Rise of the Planet of the Apes

Perhaps not the snappiest film title ever, but it is exactly what it says on the box – an origins story of how the Planet of the Apes came about.

Set now, or at least in the not-too-distant future, a genetics lab is testing a possible cure for Alzheimer’s on chimps. On the eve of a funding breakthrough and approval for human trials to begin, everything goes wrong, the project is suspended and all apes put down. Save one. James Franco’s Will Rodman takes home a newborn chimp to spare it from the cull and so, I thought, the scene was set.

All the above was clear from the trailers, and whilst that was indeed the take-off point for the story, Rise of the Planet of the Apes managed to very slickly weave in aspects that I hadn’t fully registered – such as what happens to all the people – and makes the apes’ eventual rebellion seem like such a natural progression whilst also being startling – one point the whole cinema gasped and then laughed in delight at Caesar’s development.

Some parts aren’t comfortable viewing – the first section in particular whilst Caesar is very much a victim of the human society he is trying to exist within is not pleasant, but it ensures that by then end, viewers will be firmly on the side of the apes. In this, Rise of the the Planet of the Apes reminded me of The Day After Tomorrow – ignoring the fact that you would most likely be one of the ones to die, a part of you half wishes that the events in the film would actually happen – revenge for animals condemned to un-lives as lab test subjects, or the return blow of a planet that that has been poisoned and exhausted by the very creatures it gives life to.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes is gripping, surprising, touching and brilliant. James Franco is on top form – struggling against the plight of his Alzheimer’s-stricken father (John Lithgow) and with the ethical implications of his work. The apes are stunning – realistically rendered and led by Andy Serkis in top-class performance-capture mode as Caesar. It is always good to see a film that surprises you with its sheer class. Apes will rise indeed!

Super 8

A film the way films used to be!

Much has been made of Super 8’s homage-flavour to Steven Spielberg’s E.T. and The Goonies in particular, and on viewing it’s easy to see why. Super 8 is coloured with the same nostalgic glow of childhood past – it’s set in 1979 and it looks it, feels it even. The story is simple and sweet, about those old themes of growing up and the changing perspectives which that brings, all set against the backdrop of an alien attack – again, very Spielbergian.

The five kids around whom the film revolves, are brilliantly cast and played – combining innocence and fledgling awareness with the nous to save the world just in time, believably. Joel Courtney who plays Joe Lamb – a boy still grieving for his recently deceased mother, and Elle Fanning as Alice Dainard are particularly good, bearing much of the emotional weight of the film with a subtle naturalness that makes for easy watching.

Perhaps where Super 8 shines is that it manages to bring these slightly old-fashioned story and design ideas bang up to date – literally. The train crash is spectacular – even not in 3D I was still flinching back away from the screen as explosions send shrapnel screaming through the air and fire blossoms up between swirling dust and smoke. The alien itself is also very modern, although the creature gets very little screen time when we do finally see it, it doesn’t disappoint. Super 8 looks like a 70s film yet feels perfectly modern. It doesn’t break any new ground but what it does is so well done, that you won’t care. Sit back and simply enjoy the ride, remembering all the films you watched and loved growing up.

Arrietty

This beautifully realised version of The Borrowers hailing from Japan’s Studio Ghibli only lasted for a week in my local cinema, which was a real shame as it was one of the best hand-drawn animations I have seen for a long time.

The film stays faithfully true to Mary Norton’s books, centering the story around Arrietty and her family – slightly neurotic mother Homily and taciturn father Pod – and what happens to their carefully hidden lives when they come to the notice of the “human beans”. More than its adherence to the original story, this film was simply enchanting for its beauty and the wonder that it imbued on everyday life – as seen from Arrietty’s tiny viewpoint.

The colours are vibrant and clean, giving everything a rain-washed cleanliness so that the garden becomes a paradise of flowers and greenery, whilst the interior of both the Borrowers’ house and the larger human one within which they live makes normal domesticity something fascinating to behold. In particular, the beauty lies in the details, with in depth consideration given to how Arrietty would experience the world around her – water is thick and gloopy, and the sounds that she hears are tremendously magnified – the click and rustle of insects moving or the fabric of clothes become loud booms and clatters, and an oceanic roaring. On her first “borrowing” expedition with Pod, a normal family kitchen takes on gargantuan proportions which the two must nimbly negotiate.

The film exudes a sense of childlike innocence and wonder, tempered by the real dangers of the world its main characters live in. This perfectly reflects Arrietty’s own personality – she is very much the child exploring her world and taking the first steps towards adulthood, discovering that her actions have consequences. The friendship that barely has time to develop between her and the human boy Sho is surprisingly touching, and again highlights the subtle brilliance with which this film has been made.

I saw a subtitled version, and whilst there are various dubbed versions out there, in flavour and style the film is so definitely Japanese that I think hearing an English or American accent over the delicacy of the anime drawings would jar, whereas for me, listening to the dialogue without understanding it added to the surreality and to the enchantment.

Captain America: The First Avenger

I was so excited about this film coming out, possibly only more excited about The Avengers next year, but I have to wait for that so…

Following in the very large footsteps of Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk (Edward Norton version) and Thor, Captain America had a lot to live up, to say nothing of (as it seemed to me) the potential camp-ness of the central character… tights and winged mask anyone?

Marvel have proved over and over that they are brilliant at grounding superheros in reality and making them believable to an audience wider than just die-hard fans of the comics. Captain America is the latest example of these skills.

Chris Evans is very, very good as Steve Rogers/Captain America – playing it so straight that there’s not even a glimpse of the Human Torch’s wise-cracking arrogance to be seen. From skinny weed to full on man-mountain, Evans is convincing and whether dressed in civvies, army fatigues or The Suit, it is always Steve Rogers, who is always Captain America – the two becoming different facets of the same person.

There is a lot of narrative in this film, a lot of story-building and character building, but it never drags, never seems slow or lets the pace lag. Interesting characters, gorgeous cinematography brushing each shot with the sheen of bygone times and sheer enjoyment of what is unfolding on screen more than fill the time, and when the Captain is finally allowed into the thick of the action, things only improve.

The ending was a surprise – I assumed that the story would just loop back round to meet the opening sequence, leaving the inevitable next part for the beginning of The Avengers next year. That they continued on at the end of Captain America will allow The Avengers to hit the ground running, so to speak, but I thought it detracted somewhat from the now not-so dramatic climax of this film. Captain America ended on a note that made it feel little more than a scene-setter for The Avengers, where as each of the preceding films have been fully contained stories in their own rights.

Despite that minor niggle, Captain America is an excellent film, and one that can stand beside Iron Man, Thor and The Incredible Hulk with confidence. Make sure you stay until the end of the credits, and bring on The Avengers!

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2

For what was essentially the last battle scene from Deathly Hallows Part 1, this film held together very well. It managed to move from drama to fighting to all out battles whilst maintaining the human core, and handled potentially tricky parts of the story very well.

Part 2 picks up directly where Part 1 finishes, and doesn’t hang about bringing audiences up to speed – which I fully agreed with – if you don’t know what’s going on by now a trip to the video shop might be in order before heading out to see this finale. Harry is very much brought to the fore – although obviously he is the main character in all the films, here even Ron and Hermione take a back seat – this is Harry’s story of Harry’s end – or not. In my opinion Part 2 showcases Daniel Radcliffe’s best performance, his acting showing both subtlety and depth, giving Harry a naturalism which was missing from previous films.

This film was always going to be about the Battle of Hogwarts, and it is beautifully done. The fighting is brutal, whilst never pushing the 12A rating or becomming unbelievable given that its a group of school teachers and their pupils forming one side of the fighters. Alexandre Desplat’s amazing score provides so much more that just background music, telling the unspoken, internal story woven around the stunning visuals, both during the battle – where poignant choral themes counter and illuminate the violence taking place – and particularly in Harry’s walk to meet Voldemort in the Forbidden Forest. Even by the 3rd viewing, the music ratchets up the tension so high that I was still on the edge of my seat, gripping the arm rests with my heart in my mouth, waiting for and dreading Voldemort’s curse.

Part 2 provides a fitting finale to the Harry Potter series and, as most of the films have done along the way, provides a faithful rendition of the story that captures and complements the essence of the book.

Summer Holidays…

Seems just lately I’ve been struck with a kind of it’s-too-hot-to-do-anything sort of lethargy, which doesn’t cover going to the cinema or reading books but does include just about everything else so I’m now woefully behind on reviews, writing and pretty much everything that I should have been doing over the last couple of weeks and haven’t. Yesterday came with a slight return of motivation so I got some writing done, now today’s job is to tackle reviews.

Last week I went camping – a spur of the moment (well sort of) trip up to Malham in Yorkshire just for one night. The weather was lovely, the scenery stunning and the food in the local pub tasty :-) A perfect getaway all in all.

Click here for a few photos – for a sense of scale, look for the tiny people in the ones of Malham Cove and Gordale Scar, but it was really impossible to capture the immensity of these places!