Review of Captain America : The Winter Soldier (Obligatory spoiler klaxon)

Captain_America_The_Winter_Soldier_Teaser_poster_2If somebody asked me how to describe and review Captain America : The Winter Soldier probably the first thing I’d do is pause. The second thing I’d probably do would be to go “um”. In many ways I feel this response says everything you need to know about Captain America : The Winter Soldier.

Since I’m bothering to write up a review though I’ll try (and likely fail) to put things more eloquently. So here we go. Watching Captain America I never felt bored but then I never really felt entertained either.

With blockbusters or franchise films the temptation is to describe them as being like empty calories or fast food. You enjoy it at the time but they aren’t really filling. This isn’t the case with Captain America though.

The film didn’t feel like insubstantial fluff but neither did it seem like a proper meal. It was like a heavy pie or cake that hasn’t risen fully in the oven. It was stodgy.

The problem is that there is little in the film to truly anchor you to the action. Captain America isn’t an especially interesting or cool superhero. He is vanilla. This is fine if either you have a great plot or great villain, ideally both, but Captain America doesn’t really have either.

The plot has events but it never really shocks you. Characters drop in and out. They disappear for a time and then reappear. If you have seen actions films previously or really any films these entrances and exits are not in the least bit surprising.

So if the plot isn’t delivering then you look to the bad guys to hold your attention. To bring a sense of threat and charisma to proceedings. To introduce a little anarchy into the system. The villains completely fail to do this.

Robert Redford is doing a great impression of a man scooping up a really big paycheck. Even when he shoots a poor maid who forgot her phone his heart doesn’t seem to really be in it. Or maybe I just can’t find Redford menacing.

The semi-titular “Winter Soldier” is incipiently threatening with his cool robotic arm but then is neutered by the reveal that he is the long lost (brainwashed) best bud of Steve Rodgers. Whilst the traitorous mercenary is so forgettable that I can’t remember his name.

The most interesting villain is the Nazi scientist AI who not only feels genuinely evil but also has a retro “Wargames” style aesthetic which I enjoyed and the film (credit to it) actually calls out. Sadly though he is only there briefly and basically functions as Basil Exposition.

falcon

I’m guessing this was from the comic

As I said though I wasn’t bored. The actions trucks along at a fast enough click to keep you paying attention. Captain America shield smashes and pancakes more disposable bad guys then you can easily count. Plus there is a cool new sidekick with metal wings and a jetpack.

Added to this are Nick Fury and Natasha Romanoff. Two genuinely interesting characters who just steal every scene they are in. Not only are Jackson and Johansson great actors but their characters hint at the more nuanced and darker film that I wished this film was. Johansson in particular was mesmeric (and no I’m not being pervy although she is gorgeous). She acts circles around Chris Evans. I haven’t seen such a mismatch of acting talent since I caught an old episode of King of Queens which had Byran Cranston and Kevin James in the same scene.

This of course is part of the problem though. I was more interested in a side character and a supporting character than I was in the main protagonist or antagonist. This then brings me to the end of the film which is of course a huge battle scene.

Like the film it is by the numbers. I only mention it because, something puzzled me. The Winter Soldier is shooting Captain America who looks to be unable to switch out the targeting microchips. It is check and mate.

Except. Wait a minute. One moment the Winter Soldier is slaying a helpless Captain America. The next Captain America is rallying to switch out the microchips and save the day. We cut back and now the Winter Soldier is prostrate under falling debris. WTF?

It’s possible I missed something but if I did so did the person I went with. At worse (and its unlikely) something was missed. At best the editing was shoddy and writing poor. I mean it is never good if your hero is saved by falling rubble. And it is even worse if said lame ending isn’t shown on screen.

So overall it is fair to say I wasn’t wowed. As a Marvel film it was better than Iron Man 2, 3 and Captain America 1 but worse than Thor and Thor 2. It was very average. I should say though that when Nick Fury is dead but (spoiler) not really dead a young eight year old child was sobbing very audibly in my packed screening.

I mention this because, that audience member was obviously really taken with the film. I reckon 7-12 boys would love this film. I know I would have. As a bonus I think that it is pitched at and suitable for that age group as well. The violence is mild, bloodless and (crucially for 7-12 year old boys) frequent.  For parents there is no swearing and I don’t remember there being any porny Michael Bayesque shots of female cast members.

So there you have it average. It does nothing really well and nothing really badly but, for the most part it holds your attention.

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Hannibal Season 2 Review – The gore is wearing thin (SPOILER KLAXON)

Justice may be blind but does that mean the writers have to be aimless also?

Justice may be blind but does that mean the writers have to be aimless also?

I’m a big fan of the fictional world of Hannibal Lector. Thomas Harris’ original trilogy  are modern masterpieces. Ditto for the Silence of the Lambs movie. I even enjoy the not so great Hannibal stories (***cough*** the prequel novel) [***cough*** the movie Hannibal].

When I first heard about the TV series Hannibal though I was sceptical about the whole idea. It was on network TV and I thought it would be tame and uninteresting. I figured that the dark edges of the story would be missing.

Eventually, I caught the first couple of episodes though and I was hooked. The series was dark and disturbing. The acting was great. The plot was arresting. The tone and the acting were enough for me to keep watching the show even as some of the murderers, lets just say, stretched the bounds of credibility.

The finale of the first season, with Will Graham being sent to prison for Hannibal’s crimes, set season 2 up as a barn burner.

Sending the hero to jail was a gutsy move. It obviously subverts the dynamic of the Silence of the Lambs and puts the good guy in a pretty appalling position to boot. More than this though it does something that many good stories do. It takes a strong character, one who was already under pressure, and gives them a push.

wileycoyoteSeeing how the mentally unstable and innocent Will Graham reacts the gravity (I like puns) of his incarceration whilst the titular Hannibal goes about planning more ‘dinner parties’ is both stomach churning and potential story gold.

Three episodes into season two though and I am worried that the writers are not up to the task they have set themselves. Like the poor judge in Will’s trial they are blind.

Shot after shot of Will Graham mentally fishing is wearing my patience thin. The writers have made a big mistake in showing Will Graham’s trial. It would have been more dramatically interesting to either skip forward in time or to just have Graham declared insane and avoid a costly trial.

Regardless as the story currently stands with Will Graham in prison the tension of the cat and mouse duel between the two is grinding to a halt. The scenario worked when Hannibal is in prison because, the sense of physical and mental menace the character exudes.

As a good guy Will Graham isn’t so mesmeric to watch when he’s caged plus since he is locked up in the equivalent of Arkham the character’s ability to do anything is severely restricted. This is doing nothing good for the story line.

The writers need to bring some sort of ticking clock into proceedings. The previous season hinted that Hannibal had his own special attraction to Dr Alana Bloom. Maybe the show could ratchet up the tension but having Hannibal turn his attentions onto her. Give Will Graham something to strive for.

Maybe the show could begin to make more use of the Freddy Lounds character. Why not have her interview Will Graham in prison. Will could use her to uncover the truth. Hannibal could take precautionary measures.

Failing that you need a killer who can force Will and Hannibal to work together. I got excited in episode one when I mistakenly thought that the Buffalo Bill was about to enter into the narrative. Do something to inject some pace into things. Anything

As it is the writers are currently ‘injecting’ pace into proceedings by amping up the yuck factor. The first season was not shy about killing people in ‘inventive’ ways but the story was so strong that the show got away with it. As the plot stagnates though and the killings become ever more theatrical the series is starting to resemble something Eli Roth would direct. For the record that is not good.

Hannibal needs to step up its game. It it is already airing on Friday nights. It can’t afford to be anything less than great.

Review of Black Sun Rising by Celia Friedman (Book One of the Coldfire Trilogy)

Image‘Black Sun Rising’ is stuffed full with great ideas and fascinating set pieces. Unfortunately though, the book as a whole seems less than the sum of its parts.

The best bit of this book is the central premise/world building which is (and I don’t use this word lightly) awesome.  Humanity set out to colonize the new world of Erna but this world reacted in a way nobody could imagine. It shaped itself to humanity’s fears giving life to the creatures of our darkest nightmares. Essentially the metaphysical is made terrifyingly real.

To survive on Erna humanity was forced to destroy its advanced technology and fight back against world in which life was constantly adapting to kill humans. One human ‘the prophet’ led humanity in the battle to impose mastery on the world but as triumph near he fell into darkness and evil.

It is at his fall into darkness that the cold open begins and right from the off this book had my attention. I’m not going to spoil it but it was a bold beginning. Let’s just say the prophet crosses the moral rubicon in an ‘extreme’ way in the pursuit of immortality. It was the sort of scene that you would typically find in a Joe Abercrombie novel and I’m all in favour of that.

If anything though this opening reveals the weakness of the novel. I wanted the same level of ruthless brutality had be kept up throughout. At times the novel did move towards this but for long stretches it fell into the sort of fantasy travelog writing that is so difficult to do well.

Added to this is the feeling that the character development is a bit rushed. Relationships blossom a bit too quickly so the payoffs don’t match the supposed stakes. In particular Damien’s love for Ciani would have been more believable had he paid a professional cost for the initial relationship and the subsequent adventure.

It’s hinted early on that the elements of the Church do not like him because uses healing magic and they certainly don’t like Ciani who uses any and all magic. If he had been forced to turn his back on the church to save Ciani this would have added extra emotional depth to his story. In particular, it would have added an extra layer of complexity to his relationship with ‘The Hunter’ and an extra facet to Damien’s rather straight laced personality.

Reading those previous paragraphs back  I feel that I have come across as harder on the book than I would have perhaps wanted. I enjoyed this book much more than the tone of this review might suggest. However, I stand by my views because I really loved the central premise and characters of the story. The ingredients were there for something really special but the souffle didn’t quite rise as it should have. I’d give this 3.5 out of 5. I’m eager to see where the next two books of the series go.

Thoughts on Zero Dark Thirty (Spoiler it’s overrated)

zerodark30As part of my mission to populate this blog with nothing but reviews of the latest films I thought I would take some time to express my thoughts on Kathryn Bigelow’s supposed masterpiece Zero Dark Thirty.

I had intended to catch Zero Dark Thirty (hereon after referred to as 0D30 as I can’t be bothered to type out 16 characters) on the big screen and then on DVD but for whatever reason I never got round to it.

So I finally caught 0D30 a couple of days ago and I’ve got to say I was supremely underwhelmed. The film should have been right in my wheelhouse. I enjoy politics. I enjoy serious films that talk about serious subjects. The West Wing is one of my favourite TV shows but whilst West Wing was, sadly, fictional 0D30 was based on real life so it should be theoretically better.

Instead, I found the film to be dull and boring. It completely failed to capture the tension or importance of hunting for the mass murderer Bin Laden. In short I thought it was a very poor film.

Before going on I just want to get state this point. When I am criticising the film please do not think I am criticising the people who hunted down and killed him. My criticism is leveled just on the actors, directors and script writers not on the real people.

So here is my big point if Bin Laden wasn’t who they were hunting this film would not have got any kind of recognition. It was only the mystic of hunt for Bin Laden that meant this film was so well liked. People who liked this film were just celebrating the death of an evil person rather than the film itself.

The film doesn’t seem to know whether it wants to be a character piece or a factual documentary and as a result it fails to do either.

As a character piece I singly failed to connect with the central characters. The idea was that hunting Bin Laden was Maya’s (Jessica Chastain) Jonah, her white whale, her obsession. Jessica Chastain failed to communicate this to me.

In part this seemed to be because the film wanted to follow events it didn’t want to take any dramatic license because of the weight of its subject.

So instead of developing the character you just sit around watching Maya do the actual leg work of finding Bin Laden i.e. what a documentary would do. However, whilst a documentary would briefly explain the leg work and fast forward to the end result or next clue in 0D30 we see all the leg work played out in dull detail with little payoff.

The film is mind numbing. There is no sense of urgency. There is no tension. It is vaguely accepted that the terrorists are plotting things but the film completely fails to introduce a ticking clock or give a sense of the strength of the terrorist organisation.

Now this might have been acceptable if the film was going to be taking any sort of opinion on the politics of the War on Terror or water boarding trainees. If it was drawing out the events to investigate them however, it wasn’t doing this.

I remember at the time there was a lot of controversy over the film supposedly advocating or criticising torture. As a result I was expecting the film to explore this issues in depth or to at lest take a position on torture. I doesn’t do this. It was incredibly even handed in its treatment of the issue of torture.

This might be an advantage in a documentary but in a film I am expecting something more. Even if it was just two characters discussing the merits amongst themselves. However, presumably because this didn’t happen in real life the film felt completely unable to do this. It was shackled by its desire to be a documentary.

So when you get down to it there is no political discussion, no character development and no tension. If you want to be entertained and informed about the hunt and assassination of Bin Laden watch anyone of the documentaries about the Hunt for Bin Laden. I’d particularly recommend the one the UK’s Channel 4 did.

Don’t bother watching Zero Dark Thirty though. It is perhaps the most overrated film I have ever seen. It never makes its mind up about whether it is a documentary or a character piece. In all truth it was probably made to soon after the events of Bin Laden’s depth for it to offer any worthwhile comment or insight on them.

In the cold light of day how it got nominated for five oscars is baffling.

Review of Jonathan Creek ‘The Letters of Septimus Noone’ (some spoilers but why would you care the writers didn’t)

Remember when he used to live in a windmill and solve crimes? The writers don't.

Remember when he used to live in a windmill and solve crimes? The writers don’t.

After beating boxing legend Sugar Ray Leonard British boxer Terry Downes commented that “I didn’t beat Robinson. I beat his ghost”.

Well, after watching the latest episode of Jonathan Creek I understand his comments. I watched the ghost of a once enjoyable show shuffle around on my TV screen and oh how I wish I could have given it a sharp punch to the solar plexus.

If you haven’t seen Jonathan Creek before it used to be a light hearted murder mystery series in the style of Monk. The unique selling point was that the crimes in Jonathan Creek were locked door mysteries or other impossible crimes.

Now not to put the rose tinted spectacles on too much but at least the old episodes were always creative. Some of the ‘solutions’ may have been weak but at least they were always outside the box. In this episode of Jonathan Creek there is no murder. There is no mystery.

Before the episode started I mused to the people I was watching with that the one thing Jonathan Creek was lacking was a great villain. Someone who the titular main character could pit his wits against and perhaps be tested by. Alas though it never happened and now I can almost guarantee it never will because, everyone involved in this series has simply stopped trying.

I’ve seen bad detective shows and films. Instances where the killer is doing impossible things or I don’t believe that person who they say did it could possible be the murderer. What I have never seen however, is an episode like this episode of Jonathan Creek.

What wrong wrong with it you ask? Well there was no interesting crime or even attempt at an interesting crime.

Just think about this for a minute. The calling card of the show is completely absent. We the audience see the accidental murder/manslaughter and it’s not even worth talking about. Added to this the character Jonathan Creek is not interested either he doesn’t bother to spend time trying to solve the crime.

Instead we get a bad Saturday Night Style sketch parody of the hyper-observational modern day TV detective and D-plot supernatural occurrence explained an automatic vacuum cleaner.

A D-plot by the way which is solved by Mr Creeks wife and in no way intersects with the supposed A-plot. Oh a b-plot, which has more screen time than the A-plot ,and revolves around Mrs Creek’s father’s entirely natural death and the potential infidelity of his long dead wife.

An infidelity which the father didn’t know about and which it turned out never even happened. Much of the story then revolves around two characters we have never seen and the emotional effect they have on Mrs Creek who was introduced as a tertiary character an episode ago.

Could the stakes get any lower? Could the writers and actors care less? I don’t see how.

Why did anyone think the audience would care about this? I don’t believe they did. These episodes can only have been written to fulfill a contract already made/a deal with the devil. Furthermore, since the series is being put out on a Friday night in February you can be sure that the BBC didn’t think anyone would care about this either.

So I’ll finish with a plea to everyone involved in the series. If you don’t want to make anymore Jonathan Creeks please just stop making them. Don’t continue to take a giant steaming dump on a show that was at one time enjoyable.