Underworld: Awakening (Spoilers!)

Regular readers of this blog will know how I feel about sequels. And 3D. Unfortunately, this installment of the Underworld cycle fulfils all the worst parts of both.

Selene is back, awakened after 12 years in cryo-sleep in a research facility. She’s lost Michael (Scott Speedman) but gained a daughter (India Eisley). The previous Underworld films were pretty good, I actually really enjoyed Rise of the Lycans, because sometimes, when one storyline has reached a good stopping point (at the end of Underworld: Evolution), there are other aspects of the world to still explore. In Awakening, it appears that the only aspect of Selene and Michael’s story left to explore was what would happen if the film was given a seemingly unlimited effects budget (not a good thing here) and no money for an actual storyline.

For all brief 88 minutes of Awakening (and believe me, it feels much longer) we are treated to uncountable shots of Selene diving in slow motion and full rubber-cat-suited 3D out of windows, off ledges, at Lycans, humans, out of the way of cars, bullets etc – pretty much any excuse to leap and dive and fly gracefully through the air really. This wouldn’t be a problem, if the story warranted the effects, but Awakening is an excellent example of a film where story plays second or even third fiddle to the effects. Yes, Lycan’s transforming into full wolf-ish forms is impressive in slo-mo 3D, but it doesn’t warrant a whole film.

The ending left things open and set for another installment – I can only hope that for that one they remember that they’re supposed to be telling a story, as well as making it look good.

Haywire (Spoilers!)

Steven Soderbergh’s latest offering – a taut assassin-on-the-run thriller starring MMA champion Gina Careno as gun for hire Mallory, Ewan McGregor, Antonio Banderas and Michael Fassbender.

I wasn’t sure what to expect from Haywire – I knew it had been written as a vehicle for Careno after Soderbergh had seen her on a TV fight – but I had no idea about the finer points of the story.

This didn’t really change, even as the film unfolded. I like plots that gradually grow clearer as you feel your way through them, it usually makes for a more immersive experience, but with Haywire, I sat in mostly patient hope that soon I’d be allowed in and really get into the story. The film focused tightly on Mallory’s point of view, and as such we stumbled in her wake as she discovered what was going on. Whether because Careno’s not primarily an actress, or because the role was written that way – and to be fair it could be either – Mallory is a very closed off, self-contained character, who doesn’t let on what she’d thinking or feeling to anyone. Including the audience. This would be fine, but with few external pointers, it made it difficult to get a sense of the larger picture. She was so business-like, almost cold and definitely hard, that it was difficult to believe that anything really affected her on an emotional level. Which made it difficult to fully invest in the story, so that when the final unveiling came, it elicited more of an “oh well, I’m sure she’ll cope” than anything more compassionate.

The stunts and fight sequences were definitely convincing, and Channing Tatum was surprisingly good as sort-of love interest Aaron, but whether through the telling, or the way the parts were written, for me Haywire failed to make a very lasting impression.

Nottingham at Night

February 10th was Nottingham Light Night. I’d seen adverts for it every year that we’ve lived in Nottingham, but always after the event, or when it was too late to get the time off to go. This year I was already off, so when the 10th came around I charged up my camera, cleared out the memory card and set off into town.

I love wandering round cities at night, and Nottingham is no exception. The Light Night seemed to bring everyone out – the streets were crowded with families and groups of people. All the buildings were lit up and there were fire-breathers, projections and puppets everywhere. Art installations, “dream walks” and special events on at places like the Broadway cinema meant that I had too many things that I wanted to see and do, but eventually I just sort of wandered, taking in the sights and seeing what I came across.

The city looked beautiful, magical and exciting – so far from the grey streets and buildings that winter so often presents and it was great to see so many people out enjoying the event. I was speaking to one of the storytellers at the “Cloudwatching in the Lava Lamp Forest of Stories” (brilliant by the way!) and she mentioned that this year the Light Night had hardly any funding. I really hope the event continues, and maybe a DIY spirit can help it grow.

I took loads of photos on the night – but here’s a selection of the least blurry! (Must get a tripod one day!)

Dreams

I had a brilliant dream last night. I always enjoy dreaming, they’re rarely about me or any aspect of my life, it’s more like getting to watch a film in my head while asleep. I’m often aware that i’m dreaming, and sometimes can steer it in the way i want it to go, particularly if i’ve had the dream before.

Just recently there’s been a lot of uncertainty about my job, which has lead to lots of horrible work-related dreams where everything goes wrong and it’s generally a relief to wake up.

Last night, i dreamed i was walking home from work – nothing like in real life but i knew it was my usual route home. On this particular trip i saw loads of new things that i’d never noticed before, new places to explore, new people to meet, new opportunities. My route took me across a beach into the sunset, and everything was so beautiful and full of possibility that i felt as though i was about to burst with happiness, to float away on the sheer joy that was filling me. That feeling remained, even as i woke up.

I don’t know anything about dream interpretation, but this one left me with such hope. It seemed to say that even though things are normal and mundane, there’s always something more, something special to be found, if you just look in the right way.

I tend towards the opinion that dreams can sometimes be more than nightly entertainment. Whilst not wishing to commit to the thought that they’re messages from something higher, perhaps sometimes they’re messages from ourselves, helping us to see what gets lost amidst the noise and bustle of waking life.

Lincoln

I’d never been to Lincoln before. Not entirely sure why – it’s dominated by the majestic cathedral and castle up on the hill, and there’s plenty of other similar attractions throughout the historic city – the medieval Bishop’s Palace, the Roman remains and the old buildings and streets. All in all a fairly perfect place to go, and not too far away either! So, cue a couple of days off and a spur-of-the-moment desicion to go away somewhere, and Thursday morning found me and my boyfriend Mehul boarding the train in Nottingham heading for Lincoln Central.

The weather was lovely, and Lincoln positively glowed – creamy stone and winding streets leading up towards the cathedral which, despite towering over everything for many miles around, managed to stay fairly well hidden until you’re standing right in front of it. Mehul and I had an exclusive roof tour of the cathedral, and our guide was brilliant – so knowledgeable and full of obvious enthusiasm for the place and its history, as well as interesting fact. I couldn’t take enough photos, and those I did take don’t fully convey the sheer size and magnificence of the building which has Norman roots but is now mostly “Early English Pointed” in its style! :-)

The castle too was interesting – the part under scaffold and wrap is the original motte built at William the Conqueror’s orders as he fortified his rule across the country. Norman castle contains Victorian prison and Gothic Crown Court, and houses Lincoln’s copy of Magna Carta. The charter is housed in it’s own exhibition and again we met very knowledgable and interesting guides, who were only too keen to share their information – without being pushy.

Of the 359 photos I took – I managed to whittle them down to a brief collection of 65 (!) A return trip will definitely be in order – perhaps once the summer season has started and more tours, exhibitions and displays are open. Sometimes you don’t have to go very far for a brilliant holiday!

London Trip

Aside from the holocaust exhibition, the rest of my London trip wasn’t all gloom and doom. Camden revealed hitherto undiscovered market halls – admittedly they didn’t take much discovering but still… and the Imperial War Museum as a whole was fantastic.

Photos of markets and museum… here

The main reason for the trip was to go and see Phantom of the Opera at Her Majesty’s Theatre. I’d seen the 2004 film and absolutely loved it, but never the musical. It was absolutely spectacular – every bit as passionate and gripping as the film, and amazing for the fact that it was being done right there in front of us. The effects that were achieved through lighting and stage design were brilliant, unlike anything I’ve ever seen, and the full orchestra did complete justice to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s eternally amazing songs and score. I can’t recommend it enough, and I definitely want to go and see more things at the theatre!

Man’s Inhumanity to Man

There’s a sign as you enter the Holocaust Exhibition in the Imperial War Museum in London, “not suitable for children under 14″ and as my Mum mentioned, it’s depressing when you’re considered old/mature enough to delve into the sheer inhumanity of what people do to other people.

Of course the Holocaust isn’t the only example of such horrors, but time hasn’t lessened the shadow it casts, and nor should it. Everyone should go to this exhibition, or one of the many others like it, to know in their hearts and bones as well as academically why it was so awful.

Walking round, the photos, quotes and various interpretations slowly hammer home the truths of what people did to others because of elitist ideals and the power to carry out acts which should never have been spoken aloud, let alone put into practice. I’m usually pretty good at putting myself into other people’s shoes, empathising and understanding, but here the understanding didn’t come. Probably couldn’t come – the scale of suffering and horrors dealt out to ordinary people because they didn’t fit one man’s staggeringly arrogant and just plain wrong plans was so beyond anything I’ve experienced of life that it didn’t compute. The actual footage, of people being shot, and of the clean-up of the camps at the end of the war was harrowing and undeniably real. I fully understood why halfway round there was a “quick exit” routeĀ  for those for whom it was all a bit much. It was all a bit much.

I stayed to the end of the exhibition, and as I mentioned before I think everyone should just once. But I wouldn’t want to go again. I will remember.

Mission Impossible – Ghost Protocol

As previously mentioned, I’m not a fan of sequels. Threequels are generally at least one film too much and a fourth installment? Well I was dubious, to say the least.

Ghost Protocol’s trailer pretty much dispelled any lasting doubts, leaving no questions as to whether Brad Bird would be continuing the MI series’ themes of high action and cooler-than-cucumbers tech for his spies. Beautiful, stunning locations and breath-taking stunts add to this roller coaster of a film for which (unlike Drive) the trailer was a pitch-perfect teaser of what was to come.

It’s not spoiling anything to say that the main sequence in the film for full-on wow factor involves Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt swinging around the outside of the Burj Khalifa Hotel in Dubai, and the thrill is only added to by the knowledge that Cruise did the stunts himself. The rest of the film is hardly action-shy; beginning with a spectacular prison-break sequence in which the movie’s tone is set – breath-taking action leavened by just the right amount of comic-relief by Simon Pegg’s Benji, building on the work he started in MI:3. The Kremlin sequence is brilliant – for the technology involved more than anything, and the beautiful buildings and architecture add a fresh feel for being as-yet little used in big, mainstream blockbusters.

Perhaps the only bum-note in Ghost Protocol is that the central premise – unhinged weapons genius threatening nuclear holocaust – has been so done-to-death that to be honest as a threat to world safety it barely raises a shiver. Been there, seen it before – everyone knows that the world is not going to be evaporated. For all its cliched unoriginality, the sight of a missile speeding towards the Earth is still enough to make you grip the armrests of the cinema seat and mutter “come on, come on” as the IMF agents obviously race to the last second to stop it. The rest of Ghost Protocol more than makes up for the unimaginative plot – if the story is uninventive then the way it is told certainly is not, and the pace is so enjoyably relentless that you won’t have time to evaluate the originality of the storyline.

The other IMF team members get more of a look-in in this installment, new agent Jane (Paula Patton) is satisfyingly hard-core, and Benji’s greater involvement can only be a good thing. Jeremy Renner’s Brandt is surprising as the unknown quantity, and Renner did “agent with a troubled back-story” very well, injecting the role with a warmth that I didn’t expect from him. He also showed himself more than capable of handling the action, sharing some of the fight-scenes with Cruise. There was a definite sense of a “team” working together, which made the film less of a Cruise/Ethan Hunt vehicle and more of a dynamic ensemble piece.

Over all, Ghost Protocol proves that the Mission Impossible franchise is far from dead. Brad Bird strikes it neatly between the corny tongue-in-cheek humour of pre-Craig era Bond, and the all out action of Bourne and hits something pretty much perfect. A must for cinema viewing, preferably at an IMAX, Ghost Protocol is thoroughly enjoyable and leaves you looking forward to the next mission.

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows

Sequels are often more miss than hit, taking characters and stories that absolutely shone in the first installment, and degrading them with a shoddy, half-hearted attempt at a follow up to bring in a few more million at the box office.

Happily, this is not the case with A Game of Shadows.

The film wastes no time dropping audiences straight into the action, re-introducing familiar characters such as Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams) and a poorly-disguised Holmes (Robert Downey Jr.). The much-anticipated Moriarty (Jared Harris at his silken-voiced villainous best) is also revealed early on, thus confirming (in case there was someone on the planet who didn’t know) who Holmes’ nemesis was to be this time around.

The story picks up a little while after the ending of the first film – there is the sense that Watson and Holmes have been apart whilst Watson prepares to be married, and Holmes retreats into his own brand of genius/insanity as he follows the seemingly random chains of events that lead him to Moriarty. There’s no attempt at character-growth for Holmes or really Watson – which is a blessing, as each so perfectly encapsulated the roles the first time around, that to change them would be to stop them being Holmes and Watson and then really, what would be the point?

For all its familiarity and similarity to the first film, A Game of Shadows is no Hangover 2. Everything that was excellent about the first film it keeps, and applies it to the new adventure, the new mystery and new threats. Racing from London to Paris, from gypsy camps to anarchists’ headquarters to peace summits in Swiss castles, the scenery and set pieces are breath-taking. The visual effects experimented with in the first film are expanded upon and used with much greater effect – particularly in the headlong rush through the forest, where the camera flits from bullet-eye-views to the fleeing Holmes and gang, to the gunners and the relentless pursuit of Moriarty’s right-hand man Colonel Sebastian Moran (Paul Anderson).

A Game of Shadows is filled with all the suspense, mystery and action that one could wish for, as well as an almost steampunk sense of irreverence and fun in Holmes’ outlandish inventions and approach to things (urban camouflage?!). Moriarty is a fitting foil for Holmes, his Joker if you will, and their final confrontation manages to include one of the most threatening games of chess ever played (except outside of Hogwarts maybe). Difficult though it is to imagine, there is a clear sense that Holmes has met his match, and the audience waits desperately for him to pull some brilliant, left-field solution out of the bag. The ending is a true surprise, and perfectly rounds off the film. On seeing the confidence, brilliance and sheer fun with which Guy Ritchie and his team pulled off this sequel, a third installment to the Sherlock Holmes franchise would be very welcome indeed.

Gigs

Standing in the pit – one cell in the body of the crowd-beast – surrounded by people singing the same words as you and being shaken by the same bass as you.

I love going to gigs – live music is almost without fail one hundred times better than the same track on a cd or an mp3 player. For me, as well as the obvious in-the-fleshness of the music and the band, being in the depths of a like minded crowd is something you can’t beat. Of course you get the odd idiot, but I’ve been lucky and only seen them from afar.

As I write this I’ve just got in from a Frank Turner gig. Without wanting to brag I’ve been to a fair few gigs over the years, in various sizes of venue from bar to arena to festival and everything inbetween. Frank Turner’s shows are among the best. And it’s the crowd – several thousand people all linked and joining together to sing the words this one man wrote – that make it so special. He ended this gig with a massive sing-along, encouraging even the bar staff and security guards to sing because, as the man himself said, if everyone sings along right there and then, it becomes something more than five guys on stage screaming at a crowd for 90 minutes, it becomes something special, lifting us all as equals out of the mundanity of everyday life and joining us in something greater and transcendental.

That’s why I love going to gigs, and that’s why I love standing on the floor, despite the times when you can’t always see and you’re crushed between the big sweaty guy in front and the barrier behind. It’s all about being part of something and joining in to make the night something more than you can get at home with your headphones in.