Review of The Lone Ranger – Mindless Fun

lonerangerIn keeping with my quixotic mission to fill this blog with nothing but the latest movie reviews I’m reviewing the blockbuster that never was, the film that would have bankrupted any mortal company and would have shipwrecked the career of a lesser star than Johnny Depp. No not Pirates of the Caribbean 5 (my time machine only goes back in time) it’s summer 2013’s mega-flop “The Lone Ranger”.

If you don’t know, and judging from box office receptions that might be the case, The Lone Ranger charts the emergence of the titular Lone Ranger (Arnie Hammer) as he grows from bumbling unathletic lawyer to outlaw who brings his brother’s killer to justice under the mostly benevolent guidance of Tonto (Depp).

There is really no need to go into more details of the plot which at times barely exists and is cookie cutter anyway (spoiler alert the good guys win). The story feels like two or three script treatments that were forced together like bits of an ill-fitting jigsaw because, nobody could decide which one was best but they kind of liked each.

There is a darker script which includes a villain who eats the hearts of dead heroes and has mythical demon powers that are corrupting nature. This is the version of the script that I enjoyed.

Then there are at least two tamer scripts. One revolves around silver mining and suggests that Tonto is insane. The second revolves around the railway and staged Indian War.

Technically all these disparate story elements merge together but it never really works. Firstly, having these three disparate storylines runs the film runs to a ridiculous 2 hours 29 minutes.

Additionally, you can tell they were never designed to tie together. To make the film work they have to introduce an annoying framing device where old Tonto tells a young boy the story. Because, otherwise the story is filled with plotholes.

As it is the film watches like a commercial juggernaut run amok and this brings me to Gore Verbinski. The director who is responsible for everything the film does well and everything it does badly.

Verbinski suggested the casting of Depp. A plus. Depp carries the film.

Verbinski also directs big action set pieces better than anyone else in Hollywood. Don’t misunderstand me Paul Greengrass and others do better action scenes but if you want a sprawling action set piece with a multiple trains hurtling along different parallel tracks towards a none-existent bridge then Verbinski is your man.

The two or three actions set pieces of this film must span nearly 45 mins and they were great. They were really enjoyable. The final set piece brings in the famous Lone Ranger/William Tell Overture music and it is fantastic.The action never takes itself to seriously so there is excitement as well as some tongue in cheek moments. If a cynic like me can enjoy it then it’s done well.

Verbinski is also responsible for the bad though. Namely the overly long running time and the silly framing device which is a symptom of this.

It is apparent that the Disney execs thought that they could transplant director and Depp into the Lone Ranger and the film would bring in similar money to Pirates 2 and 3. You see, like The Lone Ranger, Pirates 2 and 3 also have massive long running times and bizarre tonal mismatches.

What Disney failed to realise was that those films succeeded despite of those things. If Verbinski’s creative freedom had been reined in to Pirates 1 levels then the Lone Ranger could have been great. Instead they threw money at the film and let Verbinski do whatever he wanted. Sometimes less really is more.

As for the framing device of an old Tonto telling the tale to a child dressed in a Lone Ranger costume it reads as a last minute attempt to explain away the plot inconsistencies and doesn’t work as intended.

It did however create an interesting phenomenon which explains why I enjoyed myself. The framing device makes the film more akin to a series of ½ hour tv episodes. Really expensive well acted tv shows.

So oddly enough the silly framing device saved the Lone Ranger for me by making it more of a TV box set. This of course kind of means that as a film is a complete cinematic failure but I don’t really care. I just wanted have fun watching something and I did.

Go into the Lone Ranger with the right expectations and you can have fun watching it also. It’s nowhere near as bad as the critics and box office suggest.

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Review of The Hobbit : The Desolation of Smaug

The only good bit of CGI takes almost 2 hours to show up

The only good bit of CGI takes almost 2 hours to show up

As part of my self-proclaimed quest to fill my blog with out of date movie reviews I spent Good Friday watching The Hobbit : The Desolation of Smaug.

As a fan of Tolkein and Peter Jackson movies this should have been perfect for me. I came into this film really wanting to have a good time.

Rarely have I been so let down.

The Hobbit : The Desolation of Smaug continues the unexpected adventures of Bilbo Baggins’ and the band of dwarves as they trek to the Lonely Mountain to kill a dragon and allow the dwarf King Thorin to reclaim his ancestral throne.

Also thrown in are numerous side plots that add to an already super-long film. Some like Gandalf uncovering the return of Sauron are mildly interesting but poorly executed. Others like the pointless romance between the new for the film female elf warrior Tauriel and random dwarf number five, Kili, are just thuddingly boring.

Much of the talk I heard about the Hobbit 2 focused about how long the film is and what a travesty the introduction of the female elf Tauriel and return of Legolas was. For me these lines of attack don’t represent the main problem with the film.

I will deal with the Tauriel character first. Tolkein’s book are sausage parties. Given the times in which they were written and the fact that they were designed to be myths this doesn’t really bother me. I don’t see them as a sexist symbol that needs to be expunged from history. On the other hand I don’t have a problem with bringing female characters into the story if you want to change this.

The thing to do then would have been to make some of the characters such as the essentially interchangeable dwarves female. And/Or make the Bard character female. And/Or the Azul character female. And/Or make Steven Fry’s character female.

What an already long film absolutely didn’t need was for Jackson to shoehorn in

I'm going to leave the stupid reappearance of Legolas well alone. It's super stupid though

I’m going to leave the stupid reappearance of Legolas well alone. It’s super stupid though

another character with a fairly major subplot. Doubly so when the subplot is a bizarre elf-dwarf love story that nobody outside of the more exotic shadows of the internet was asking for.

The second point that many people focused on was the length of the movie. It is long and this is bad. It is not bad because, of length however. It is bad because the story is dull. If Jackson wanted to write a prequel to the Lords of the Rings by including stuff from the book appendixes then I do think there could have been an interesting story here.

It would have involved being more adventurous with the outline of the Hobbit though and changing things around more rather then just telling the appendixes alongside of Bilbo’s main tale.

For me the film has two main interlinked problems. Firstly, everything is CGI. There were barely any real sets for this film. As such unlike in Lords of the Rings none of the landscapes are impressive and the action scenes look like video game trailers that have been directed by George Lucas. You try to focus on the main action but it is slightly blurry and there are five different things happening in the background.

The worse bit of the film was the river barrel fight. Everything was CGI save for a couple of split second close up shots of the rapids which were actually real. The switch between computer world and the real world would have been bad in a student film. For a director of Jackson’s talent to do it is inexcusable.

The second problem is that the special effects make you realise how fake the characters are. Just as they don’t look real on the screen you realise that you don’t care about any of them anyway. Smaug could incinerate them all to dust and I would not have been bothered at all. In fact I would have cheered.

Even the good bits of the film just remind you of how bad the film is. For example, intermingled with the dull CGI fight scenes were a few really cool kills that just reminded you that yes Peter Jackson is directing and that he can direct good action packed fight scenes.

The stand out bit of the film is the third act arrival of the Benedict Cumberbath voiced Smaug. Smaug is genuinely menacing and looks fantastic. The film takes two hours to introduce Smaug and by that time it is too little too late. Plus the brilliance of teh Smaug CGI just reminds you of how bad the rest of the CGI was. I can only presume that the CGI for the dragon took so long that there was no time to CGI in the rest of the film properly.

I really wanted to enjoy the Hobbit but I just couldn’t. Bad CGI, poor plot and dull characters are the stuff of movie poison and The Hobbit : The Desolation of Smaug is a big fat cyanide pill.

 

Review of Use Of Weapons by Iain M Banks (SPOILER KLAXON)

useofweapons****SPOILER ALERT****

If you have any intention of inclination to read this book now or at anytime in the future DO NOT read my review. There is no way to review this novel without exposing crucial plot details to the cold light of day where upon the novels integrity and your enjoyment of Use of Weapons will disintegrate like a vampire exposed to daylight. You have been warned.

****SPOILER ALERT****

 

This is the fifth of the Iain M Banks culture novels that I have read. From my internet meanderings I also get the sense that it is the most highly thought of out of the Culture series. I do not share this opinion. For me Use Of Weapons promised much but never quite delivered and is only partially saved by its awesome if grisly twist ending.

Use of Weapons follows the life Cheradenine Zakalwe who is essentially a gun for hire mercenary for the Culture or more specifically Special Circumstances. What separates Use of Weapons from being Iain M Banks version of James Bond however is the unusual narrative structure of the book and the Banks’ seeming aversion to action scenes.

The book follows Zakalwe in two interlinked alternating narratives. Strand ‘A’ is nominally the main plot that moves chronologically forward in time. Special Circumstances search for Zakalwe who has stopped working for them and destroyed the high tech surveillance ‘knife missile’ that was keeping tabs on him. Zakalwe is needed to contact a Diocletian like political figure Beychae who has entered retirement too early for Special Circumstance’s liking.

What I will term Strand ‘B’ reveals Zakalwe’s history and character by moving chronologically backwards in time. Although I haven’t checked I strongly suspect that the order of events in strand B is malleable.

This structure was not the idea of Iain M Banks but of Banks’ friend ken MacLeod. Banks acknowledges this in the dedication and if you listen to this old Guardian interview Banks fleshes the book’s creative process out somewhat.

Written many years before being published Banks initially gave the book an even more elaborate plot structure. This form was based on the idea of structuralism which I am not going to go into mainly because I don’t know much about it and do want to ride that particular wiki-wormhole.

The takeaway for me though is that the novel was one that was initially obsessed with form, shape and being a clever for the sake of being clever (Banks does admit this in the interview). This formal origin explains in part the feeling I had reading this book that it was at times stilted.

The stilted or inert nature of the reading experience however, may also be due to author intent regarding the character of Zakalwe and the dueling timelines. Afterall the crucial bit of this book is the twist ending at the end of the novel.

This twist changes everything about the story and characters. Now Use of Weapons is essentially a character piece about Zakalwe and the ultimately pointless nature of war. To mirror this throughout the book Zakalwe is essentially a static character. He tries to escape war and grow as a person but he is essentially a stunted individual. He is an inert and unchanging character. The problem is that this makes for a very still story and at times nearly dull plot that is a tough read.

Added to this is the fact that this novel suffers at times from what I will term “Wolverine : X-Men Origins” disease.

I hate comparing such a bad film to what is ultimately a good book but I believe it is valid comparison. If you watch this honest trailer you will see that that Wolverines’ years fighting wars are completely glossed over in 30 seconds of not-so-great montage .

In the Use of Weapons Banks essentially does the same thing. He introduces really interesting concepts that are never properly explored because he wants to write a character piece and doesn’t want to give up too much information in case in ruins the twist ending.

For example, when Zakalwe is found by the Culture he is discovered on a planet where he has been attempting social engineering on a planet wide/solar system wide scale. Essentially he has been giving the richest most powerful individuals access to advanced life extending youth giving technology if in return they behave nicely and stop committing wars and genocides. Although it almost works by the time the Culture locates Zakalwe again his meddling has made war incipient.

This is a really interesting idea that is dropped like a stone and never seen again.

Banks does the same again when Zakalwe has the most interesting discussion of the book with the character Beychae. Beychae asks Zakalwe “has it ever occurred to you that in all these things the Culture may not be as disinterested” or good as it claims.

Beychae points out that the Culture “wants other people to be like them”… “the culture believes in machine sentience, so it thinks that everyone ought to, but it also believes that every civilisation should be run by machines”.

Because Zakalwe is essentially a character who is frozen in time by the event that occurs in the last few pages of the book but is chronologically at the start of the novel (I know confusing) though he hasn’t thought about this.  Also because Banks wants to write a character piece the issue is again dropped. There are also numerous cool war and actions scenes that are brushed off that this explosion loving reader would have liked to have seen.

So if you imagine. I am reading this book which is deliberately hard to follow. It  sets up interesting set pieces and issues and then fails to explore them. I was getting frustrated. If sharpening the keys of my laptop wouldn’t have caused unavoidable structural problems then I would have done so in preparation for the kicking I was going to give this book before the eyes of the entire internet.

The twist ending though comes along and it saves the book. I turns a really frustrating experience into a good to very good book. I didn’t see the twist coming and so the impact of it hit me as Banks and MacLeod had intended. The only shame for me was that the book hadn’t been a novella or short story. If it had been it would have been an instant classic.

So Use of Weapons isn’t quite a 4 star book but it is closer to 4 stars than it is to 3 and a half. For me it isn’t the best Culture novel though I enjoyed Player of Games and Surface Detail more.

plugAND NOW FOR A SHAMELESS PLUG

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