Saturday 30 June 2012

Blu-ray Prizes to be Won

This competition is now closed.

Terms and Conditions

Only one entry will be accepted per person.
Entrants must be UK residents and aged 18 or over.
The judge's decision is final and no correspondence will be entered into.

Saturday 23 June 2012

The Amazing Spider-Man review

The Amazing Spider-Man (12A/PG-13, 136 mins)
Director: Marc Webb
★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

In what may be the most craven piece of Hollywood marketeering yet, a superhero franchise that is only ten years old gets rebooted with an entirely new cast and filmmaking team.

It’s been done before of course, most notably with Batman Begins, but that was justified because the series had become a bad joke, it was essential past ghosts be exorcised, and it didn’t hurt that its dark new direction took the Batman movies to unprecedented heights.

But there’s nothing like that here. In many fundamental ways, The Amazing Spider-Man is exactly the same film we all saw a decade ago in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man; the story of how Peter Parker becomes a spider-powered superhero. That can often make it a frustrating experience because when it ploughs its own furrow, there are moments that delight.

But because it’s so beholden to the existing mythology, certain plot points have to be ticked off and the sense of familiarity becomes overwhelming and may lead audiences to question the entire purpose of the enterprise. That’s a dreadful shame because it’s sufficiently different in subtle ways that it just needed the courage to commit to being its own entity.

This is something demonstrated immediately in an attempt to broaden the mythology by suggesting that Peter’s scientist father was somehow unwittingly involved in his ultimate transformation. With threats arising through his work, he’s forced to leave Peter, as a small boy, in the care of his Uncle Ben and Aunt May (Martin Sheen and Sally Field).

Moving on to Peter as a teenager, where he’s played by Andrew Garfield, he’s geeky and picked on at school, but willing to stand up for other bullied kids. While searching for clues to what happened to his parents, Peter finds possessions of his father that connect him with Dr Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans) who has been experimenting with cross-species genetics.

A visit to the OsCorp building (a link to Norman Osborn, Willem Dafoe’s baddie from the original) where Dr Connors works leads to Peter being bitten by a genetically engineered spider and gaining incredible strength and sticky limbs, the better to climb walls and swing from rooftops.

Connors meanwhile, in an attempt to re-grow his missing arm, is transformed into The Lizard, a monstrous giant, erm, lizard, whose overarching machinations feel somewhat recycled from the first X-Men movie.

Clearly this all means it’s still an origin story, but in the way it cuts to the chase, it’s also clear that the filmmakers are assuming some existing knowledge on the part of the audience regarding just who and what Peter Parker is.

The trump card is undoubtedly Garfield, whose Peter Parker is even more awkward and vulnerable than Tobey Maguire’s. Nervous, sweet and graceful, yet equally convincing in the suit as the cocky wise-ass webslinger, he’s a revelation, with the discovery of his powers yielding a rewarding combination of comedy and moving the story forward with style.

But more importantly, this is also the story of Peter’s relationship with classmate Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone), and Garfield and Stone light up the screen, giving it a strong emotional centre, with the film is at its best in their exchanges.

As such the web-slinging exploits are often a sideshow, the action boiling down to little more than a series of skirmishes between Spidey and The Lizard. Another problem is the weak villain who here, as is so often the case, is a scientist with noble intent gone wrong, begetting a monster, and this is an area desperately in need of freshening.

There can be no faulting the technical expertise with which it all unfolds, but there’s something not quite right with a movie whose grace notes are stronger than its plot points, and whose flashes of soaring brilliance can never quite compensate for its frequent crushing superfluity.

Wednesday 20 June 2012

Abraham Lincoln – Vampire Hunter review

Abraham Lincoln – Vampire Hunter (15/R, 105 mins)
Director: Timur Bekmambetov
★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Take another look at that title. Says it all really, doesn’t it? As genre mash-ups go, this is one of the loopiest, though for once it’s not actually based on a comic book, but on a novel from the writer of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Seth Grahame-Smith. That’s another one we can expect to see on our screens soon, by the way.

As if you didn’t already know from the history books, Abraham Lincoln didn’t just free the slaves - before he was president he was a vampire hunter. Benjamin Walker stars as Honest Abe, whom we first encounter as a young boy in 1818 railing against the evils of slavery. But there are other horrors around, and when a man his father owes money to turns out to be a vampire, it ends with the death of his mother.

Fast forward a few years and Lincoln is a young man seeking vengeance against the bloodsucker who killed his mother, though he’s sorely ill-equipped to do so. But he’s recruited and trained by a vampire hunter (Dominic Cooper), allowing us to jump forward again to the 1830s where he’s still carrying out Cooper’s orders and destroying vampires across the country with his weapon of choice, a silver axe.

In truth much of this first half is fairly routine stuff that you could probably see in your average episode of Buffy. The Lincoln angle is the hook, and the bigger picture of the backdrop of the fight against slavery provides a solid basis for Lincoln’s changing motivations, even if it’s sometimes rather clumsily incorporated.

Action-wise, it’s a magnificently bloody affair, rich in atmosphere, that does a decent job of making vampires truly vicious and frightening. Timur Bekmambetov, the Russian director who made his reputation with the stylish horror fantasies Night Watch and Day Watch, before switching to Hollywood with some success and the adaptation of Mark Millar’s Wanted, handles the frequent slick fights with aplomb.

He douses the whole thing in CGI, most of it very good, including an insane fight and chase scene involving a pack of stampeding horses that’s the film’s nutty centrepiece, though the poorly conceived explosive finale is a bit of a nonsensical letdown.

It’s all completely unstoppable in its silliness, but there are enough splattery decapitations amid the gothic visual splendour to please undemanding gore-hounds.

Tuesday 19 June 2012

DVD Prizes to be won

This competition is now closed.

Terms and Conditions

Only one entry will be accepted per person.
Entrants must be UK residents and aged 18 or over.
The judge's decision is final and no correspondence will be entered into.

Monday 11 June 2012

Rock of Ages review

Rock of Ages (12A/PG-13, 123 mins)
Director: Adam Shankman
★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

The director of Hairspray returns with this peppy rock musical adapted from the successful stage show. It’s a proper musical too, wherein the characters are constantly bursting into song, the selling point being that all the numbers are covers of rock classics from the likes of Foreigner and REO Speedwagon. It’s kinda like Mamma Mia except, you know, good.

The most threadbare of plots is set in 1987, as small-town girl Sherrie (Julianne Hough) arrives in Los Angeles from Oklahoma with dreams of stardom. She gets a job in a club and meets Drew (Diego Boneta), another aspiring singer, and soon they're in love.

And to be honest, that pretty much it. But it’s everything that’s happening around them that drives the movie forward. Get a pair of bland leads and surround them with a larger than life support, like Alec Baldwin and Russell Brand as the guys who run the club, with the unlikely pair generating great warmth as they share one of the film’s more surprising numbers. Then there’s Catherine Zeta Jones who gets involved in a largely redundant subplot, as the mayor’s wife campaigning to save the city from the evils of rock and roll.

But there’s a secret weapon still waiting to be unleashed, and that weapon is Tom Cruise. As debauched rock star Stacee Jaxx, who is due to play his final gig at Baldwin’s club, he makes his entrance emerging from underneath a pile of women like a cross between his Frank Mackey in Magnolia and Gary Oldman’s Dracula.

Tattooed, spaced out, swaggering, and seemingly allergic to shirts, it’s an inspired piece of casting, since it would have been very easy to go the obvious route and give the role to Brand. He can sing too, and as he sweats and gyrates while belting out Bon Jovi’s Wanted Dead or Alive and Def Leppard’s Pour Some Sugar On Me, Cruise makes for a thoroughly convincing rock god.

What perhaps lets the film down is the sometimes uninspired staging of some of the numbers, with the visuals not always able to keep pace with the songs. And the plot does kind of run into a cul-de-sac three quarters of the way in, as everyone goes off with their own problems.

But it scores big on the songs and those singing them, and as a celebration of classic rock and a lament for its passing, and the rise of the horrible anodyne pop we’ve been stuck with for the last quarter century.

And of course you better believe Journey’s Don’t Stop Believin’ will get wheeled out at some stage. It all adds up to a proper crowd-pleaser, a delicious slab of cheese that, as long as you know what to expect from it, delivers in spades.