Monday 20 May 2013

Epic review

Epic (U, 102 mins)
Director: Chris Wedge
★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆

With an output over the last decade or so that includes Robots, Rio and the Ice Age movies, animation studio Blue Sky has a track record that could probably be best described as spotty.

That mediocre run continues with their latest big budget animated adventure, another in which you can see the money up on the screen, but which is tonally all over the place and sorely lacking when it comes to memorable story or characters.

The title would suggest something sweeping and grand, and while that’s what aimed for, it’s really not what we get. Instead we’re served up a rather po-faced mythology about noble forest-dwelling Leaf Men who need their queen to choose her heir, something that can only happen once every hundred years. If she can’t find someone the forest will be desiccated by the baddies, rat-like creatures called Boggans.

The Leaf Men are responsible for the balance of the forest, and this slapping around the head with its eco-message is the first of Epic’s missteps. The battle with the Boggans is represented by fairly impressive if frantic action, mostly consisting of bow-and-arrow fights and chases on the backs of saddled birds, ripped from Avatar but also providing the most enjoyable moments of the movie, impressively choreographed and pleasingly executed.

Meanwhile, in the real world, which is populated by plastic-looking people, late-teen Mary Katherine (Amanda Seyfried) goes to stay her nutty professor father following the death of her mother. She wants a normal dad, one who isn’t obsessed with trying to find the tiny people at the bottom of the garden, but throwing in the dead mother is a desperate grasp at gravitas that never really gives us anything to invest in.

When the queen (voiced by BeyoncĂ© no less) is attacked by the Boggans while MK (as she likes to be called) is passing by, before you can say Honey I Shrunk the Avatars she has been zapped down to the size of the Leaf Men. She comes into possession of the Life of the Forest, a magical pod she’s charged with keeping safe until some gobbledegook about it blooming in the moonlight can come to pass.

Aiding her in this is a pair of comedy molluscs in the shape of Chris O’Dowd and Aziz Ansari, and though some humour is important, does it really need to be provided by a talking slug and snail? Also inhabiting this forest world of good versus evil is a young guy called Nod (Josh Hutcherson), who is yet to earn his stripes among his Leaf Men soldier community. He’s a crashing bore, saddled with that glossy-haired animated hero look that hasn’t changed since Aladdin and was most recently repeated in the equally lacklustre The Croods.

The story never develops to a level beyond your bog-standard eco-toon like FernGully, and last year’s Tinker Bell and the Secret of the Wings covered much the same ground with better results. It’s not as dull or unengaging as some recent efforts, but still pretty flat and thematically there’s more than a hint of The Wizard of Oz in the young woman who is discontent with her own existence.

Look to the source material as blame for that. Epic is based on an illustrated children’s book called The Leaf Men and the Brave Good Bugs by William Joyce, who also wrote the stories on which last year’s Rise of the Guardians was based. It’s a title that, while a clumsy mouthful that couldn’t possibly be used for a movie, at least gives a much clearer picture of what’s at play here.

It’s a fine swarming spectacle bursting with colour, majoring in bucolic grandeur to offset the tedious and goofy world. But though very pretty indeed, green and lush and detailed, all it really achieves is to prove once again that animation needs to be much more than just a series of good looking pictures.

Along with the nice visuals, an accomplished voice cast manages to keep it tolerable. A restrained and solemn Colin Farrell is Ronin, the leader of the Leaf Men, while Christoph Waltz wheels out another of his fast-talking villains.

But if ever a title makes promises the film can’t cash, this is it. Pedestrian, ordinary, derivative and bland are all words that could be used to describe Epic, but if there’s one thing it most assuredly isn’t, it’s epic.

Wednesday 15 May 2013

Fast & Furious 6 review

Fast & Furious 6 (12A/PG-13, 130 mins)
Director: Justin Lin
★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

There’s something to be admired about a movie series that has gone from fun to bloated to having stuck around so long that it actually became fun again, largely thanks to the introduction of Dwayne Johnson in Fast Five.

Now the Fast & Furiouses are being churned out at such an alarming rate, you’ll barely have time to catch your breath before part seven will be with us next spring. But we’ll need to make do in the meantime with this ludicrously enjoyable sixth entry that sees former criminals Dom and Brian (Vin Diesel and Paul Walker) retired to family life in Spain.

Meanwhile Johnson’s cop is on the trail of another set of bad guys led by Luke Evans, and goes to Dom and his crew of street-racers for their help, the carrot being that Dom’s one-time squeeze Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) isn’t as dead as he thought she was. And if they can bring the gang down, they’ll get the pardons that will allow them to return to the States.

By becoming increasingly convoluted and introducing too many characters, it means there’s an awful lot of movie here for a daft racing flick. When they talk it can sometimes be best to look away, as feeble lines delivered by subpar actors aren’t what you’ve signed up to a Fast & Furious picture for. And it can sometimes be very po-faced, generally whenever Diesel is around. Thank heavens then for Johnson, who punctures the stern atmosphere with some engaging stuff.

But when it takes to the roads, it’s a Ferrari of a different colour. The vehicular mayhem is stunningly executed, often thrilling, albeit not all of it coherent, and at least a good percentage of it looks done for real. An exposition-heavy midsection in between the bouts of carnage threatens to outstay its welcome, but a centrepiece chase on a Spanish highway involving a tank is worth the wait. That’s merely a taster for a quite colossal climactic sequence on the world’s longest airport runway, making the final third of the movie unrepentantly silly and thoroughly enjoyable.

And stick around once the credits start rolling to see who’ll be joining the fun in episode seven!

Monday 6 May 2013

Star Trek Into Darkness review

Star Trek Into Darkness (12A/PG-13, 132 mins)
Director: J.J. Abrams
★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Most expectations were surpassed with the release four years ago of Star Trek, J.J. Abrams’ ambitious reboot of the original series that recast all the iconic parts with new actors.

With the groundwork done, the opportunity was there for this first sequel to blast us into the cosmos, all the while further whetting appetites for two years from now, when Abrams will turn his attention to that other sci-fi juggernaut, Star Wars.

But while expectations may be sky-high, the reality doesn’t quite live up to them, and the result is a solid and very enjoyable adventure rather than an unqualified home run.

An all-action prologue finds the Starship Enterprise and her crew on an alien planet, where they're attempting to save the primitive inhabitants from an erupting volcano without revealing themselves and breaking Starfleet’s prime directive about interfering with undeveloped civilisations.

As well as being stirringly executed, this sequence sets up the major themes of what’s to come, found in the relationship between hothead James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) and his seat-of-the-pants, wiseass captaincy versus seemingly emotionless half-Vulcan first officer Spock (Zachary Quinto) and his cold and logical approach to everything.

All the crew are present and all signs point to this being the jumping off point for a proper mission for them. But this proves to be a false start, and the pace stalls a little when Kirk gets busted for his antics on the alien world (“They saw us, big deal”), with he and Spock still railing against each other.

The central story kicks in with the arrival of John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch), a former Starfleet officer who plots a series of attacks on earth against his former employers. The Enterprise is sent on an off-the-books revenge mission to shut him down, even though that may mean antagonising the Klingons.

So first, the stuff that doesn’t quite work: a firefight on the Klingon homeworld is chaotic and incomprehensible. A midsection that cranks the plot in to place is often gibberish. Any attempt to summarise it would be futile, partly because it’s badly written, partly because of the twists involved as it progresses.

So it’s left to the characters for what works, which really is how it should be. Not everyone gets a chance to shine right enough. Does Dr. McCoy (Karl Urban) do anything other than chuck out grumpy, albeit very amusing one-liners? Not really.

Simon Pegg has improved his accent no end since first time out, and his Scotty is a laugh, but Uhura, Chekov and Sulu are window dressing, even if the actors playing them (Zoe Saldana, Anton Yelchin, John Cho) are perfectly decent. Pine and Quinto are good too, but Cumberbatch is amazing, a calm and steely presence who anchors the whole thing, blowing Pine off the screen whenever they face off in scenes which are among the best in the film.

A now familiar score is an absolute blast, and vast, stunning sets combine with glorious visuals to make this an adventure that’s epic on most levels, packed with breathtaking individual moments. But, truth be told, much of its success is due to smoke and mirrors, with enough flare and energy to paper over the gaping holes in the plot and the fact that it’s a film aimed first and foremost at pre-programmed audiences.

It really is a geek’s delight, with nods and references to past glories likely to leave newcomers scratching their heads as to what the fuss is about. As betrayals and reversals abound and Kirk is outmatched by Harrison at every turn, the bigger picture is outlandish and impenetrable.

Hopefully there will be more fully developed blockbusters this summer, but there may not be too many that are this much fun. Just don’t spend too much time thinking about it.

Friday 3 May 2013

DVD Prizes to be won

This competition is now closed

The Collection is available to order now from Amazon:

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.

DVD Prizes to be won

This competition is now closed

Spartacus: War of the Damned is available to order now from Amazon:

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.