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The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug [DVD] [2013]
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug [DVD] [2013]
Dvd ~ Martin Freeman
Price: £6.99

149 of 232 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars I'm pretty sure this isn't what Tolkien was getting at., 19 Dec. 2013
I'd been thinking of giving this post a play-on-wordsy subtitle like "The desperation of Smug", or something like that, but that I realised that
a) It wouldn't be funny, and
b) It didn't actually mean anything.
So I didn't.

Anyway. When the first of the Hobbit films came out last year I rather enjoyed it. Yeah, it wasn't as good as the Lord of the Rings films, where Peter Jackson had things like a limited budget and an external producer to keep a lid on his excesses, but so long as I took it as being "Inspired by" the book rather than "Based on" I actually got rather a lot out of it and I went into this film with the same frame of mind expecting more of the same.

We open with a flashback as Gandalf meets Thorin for the first time in the Prancing Pony in Bree and discuss needing a burglar to gain the Arkenstone and unite the Dwarven people, before lurching back to the present and an exciting chase sequence as our heroes flee a pursuing gang of orcs to Beorn's steading. It's all very exciting; lots of sweeping long shots, running, shouting, orcs, pounding drums etc, and you'd better get used to that right now as you're going to be sitting through a heck of a lot of that for the next two and a half hours. In fact, at any point for the rest of the film when you think things might be about to slow down it's Orcs! Shouting! Running! Drums!
One of the things which made the Lord of the Rings films a pleasure to watch was that they occasionally took a step back from the orcs, shouting, drums and running so, ooh, I don't know, the characters could maybe have a conversation which lasted more than ten seconds and wasn't drowned out by pounding drums, or you'd get a pause as the camera swept over the contryside to a sweeping orchestral score and subliminal messages reading "Visit New Zealand" flashed up on screen. In The Desolation of Smaug even minor, quiet conversations are punctuated by pounding, portentous Moria-like Drums! and any sweeping shots of the countryside will include several dozen Orcs! galloping across it with, you guessed it, more dramatic Drums!. I hope the drummer got a bonus.

All the confident film-making in the Lord of the Rings where Peter Jackson appeared content at times to step back and have quiet moments for the story to breathe are missing here. Instead, the pace never lets up; despite the film being two and a half hours long it's non-stop and that appears largely because a lot of stuff which wasn't in Tolkien's original has been shoehorned in. And much of it really, really doesn't need to be there.
Perhaps the most interesting of the additions is Gandalf investigating the return of Sauron at Dol Guldur, which has the twin advantages of being nicely designed and Ian McKellern doing that acting thing he does. Less interestingly we have an entire elf/dwarf subplot featuring Orlando Bloom looking like he could have done with going for a jog and doing a few situps before squeezing back into Legolas' straining robes, and Evangeline Lily as Tauriel, a new lady-elf character who has a peculiar love triangle thing with Legolas and Kili and whose only real purpose in the narrative is to give other people someone to tell their motivations to before dying horribly in the battle at the end of the next film*.

What's perhaps worse than these additions are the entirely unnecessary alterations to the story. The Barrel-escape from the elf-king's halls, in the book a sneaky operation, becomes here an extended Orcs! Drums! Running! Shouting! chase sequence. I actually couldn't think why a tense Escape From Colditz-like scene featuring Elves instead of Nazis might not have worked instead, but Jackson clearly felt the film needed more Orcs! Drums! Running! and Shouting! because they're key to Tolkien's vision. Either that or the sheer weight of expectation (and money) on his shoulders means he's lost the confidence to do anything else.
Other stuff has been changed too; Bombur falling asleep in Mirkwood is removed, the discovery of the secret door at the Lonely Mountain scene is changed for no reason whatsoever except to create some false drama, and perhaps most surprisingly Smaug the dragon no longer has jeweled mail from lying on his hoard solely in order to give Bard the Bowman an unnecessary bit of backstory.

There are some bits to like but they are few and far between. For example I rather liked Thranduil the elf-king and his reminiscences of fighting another dragon, Glaurung, at Nargothrond, but the stand-out scene is, as in the first film, a two-hander with Bilbo and a major villain - in this instance Smaug.
The conversation with Smaug is really enjoyable. A sequence of pure acting and confident direction with none of the usual Drums! Orcs! Running! Shouting! bits which serve as interludes to the rest of the film. Smaug is fantastically realised and the halls of the mountain king he dwells in are one of the best bits of the film**. Unfortunately it doesn't last. In no time at all we're into the closing action scenes - neither from the book - featuring an Orcs! Drums! Running! Shouting! fight in Laketown with Legolas and Tauriel and a stunningly ropy CGI horse***, whilst meanwhile the dwarfs run around the interior of the Lonely Mountain trying to restart the old furnaces so they can forge what appears to be a gigantic Lindt Chocolate Santa.
Seriously. I have no clue whatsoever what was going on there. Pursued by Dragon? Light ancient furnaces and cast a huge festive novelty confection. It's the only response that makes sense.

Like many people, I occasionally fantasise about owning a time machine. It'd be great. I'd be loaded in very short order and I could send robots back in time to kill Gordon Brown's parents. But one other thing I'd do would be to go back and show artists what became of their work after their death. HP Lovecraft, for example, died thinking he was a failure and his work would be forgotten and I'd like to show him my anthology of his work where Stephen King's introduction describes him as the most influential horror writer of the 20th century.
Likewise, Tolkien believed Lord of the Rings was unfilmable and I'd like to show him the films that were made as I think he'd love them. And then, at the end, he'd turn to me and ask "And did they ever film The Hobbit?". And I'd look him in the eye, shake my head gravely, and say "No. No they didn't."
It'd be a kindness to the poor man.

Two stars.

*I bet you ten pounds this happens.
** Smaug's hoard is immense; quite clearly it contains more gold than there is in the entire real world and the dwarfs were apocalyptically wealthy so it's no wonder the local economy collapsed when they stopped spending. During the exciting Orcs! Shouting! Running! Drums! final sequence of the film I found myself idly thinking that when the dwarfs re-took the mountain they should stop spending gold and instead begin issuing promissory notes against their wealth, and let's face it when that's more interesting than Orcs! and Drums! you know you've lost your audience.
***I'm not kidding. The shot looked unfinished.
Comment Comments (28) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Apr 13, 2014 8:25 AM BST

The Lone Ranger [DVD]
The Lone Ranger [DVD]
Dvd ~ Johnny Depp
Price: £3.10

98 of 104 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Much better than the reviews led me to believe, 27 Nov. 2013
This review is from: The Lone Ranger [DVD] (DVD)
The Lone Ranger landed in British cinemas trailing behind it bad reviews and poor word of mouth from the US like the tail of a comet, and vanished from cinemas again almost as quickly. They say that bad word of mouth can kill a film just as much as good can get it an audience, and this appears to be the case here. After doing very poor business in the US (it's expected to make a loss approaching US$150m), it had turkey written all over it.

The thing is, I can understand why The Lone Ranger did really badly in the `states and it's got less to do with it being a bad film than you might expect - in fact, there's a lot here to like. For my money the reason it did really badly in the US is because it's the most cynical blockbuster I've seen since perhaps Starship Troopers; it holds up a mirror to the creation myth of the American West and I don't reckon the US liked what it saw. From experience, asking simple questions like "Didn't lots of Indians once live in this part of the Americas? What became of them?" can go down really badly on the other side of the Atlantic, and the plot of The Lone Ranger is a retelling of what happened to the Sioux nation after gold was found in the Black Hills (only relocated to Texas and with the Cherokee as the tribe in the - literal - firing line) and, just like in real history, it doesn't end well for the Indians. At least in this version the baddies get their comeuppance.
I've got to admit to being slightly mystified as to why Disney spent the better part of a quarter of a billion dollars making a film about why the Indians are notable by their absence in those areas of US where valuable minerals were to be found given that it might be a bit of a touchy subject for much of their audience.

The Film itself is yet another origin story. It is the 1880s. Slick city lawyer goes home to Texas where his elder brother is a Ranger, elder brother is killed, slick city lawyer must take up the badge to track down his killers (who it turns out are trying to steal a fortune in silver from under land which the Cherokee have inadvisably decided they'd like to live on). A simple idea, perhaps, but it takes two and a half hours to tell the story and in so doing it meanders all over the place, ranging from downright bizarre to slow to great and back again in the process.

And in my opinion that's the big weakness; tonally it's all over the place. One minute it's an homage to Sergio Leone and Ennio Morricone, the next to John Ford, and the next to the 1950's TV series. Moreover, it never seems certain of what it wants to be. A comedy, with an amusing sidekick and performing horse? An elegy to the Indians killed in the pursuit of economic expansion? An action blockbuster crammed with thrilling set pieces? Or a grim Unforgiven-style western with supernatural and horror elements (at one point it's implied that the Lone Ranger's brother turns up as a ghost to save someone, and then he vanishes and is never mentioned in any way again). Perhaps the greatest tonal shock for a child-friendly romp is that fact that one of the villains* is clearly identified as a cannibal who cuts out one characters' heart and eats it, and is implied to have eaten another character's leg. At these moments I was staring at the screen wondering what the hell the screenwriters were thinking. And don't get me started on the deviant fetishist US Cavalry captain who is distracted at a plot-critical moment by his attraction to a prostitute with a prosthetic limb. I mean, really?

Tonal issues and bizarre creative decisions aside, when The Lone Ranger gets it right it hits it clean out of the park in a way which few blockbusters manage. Gore Verbinski (the man behind the camera of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise) really knows how to put a film together when the script allows him to do so. Take, for example, the opening shot of the big action set-piece at the end of the film:
A train filled with baddies and their hostages is pulling out of the station. As it starts to pull away a little boy leans out of one of the windows and screams for help. The camera pans across and there! On top of the hill! It's the Lone Ranger on his horse, Silver! Silver rears, the opening bars of the William Tell overture strike up, and we're off.
In that single shot there is more joy and more genuine heart than in every single dreary, self-righteous second of the washed-out, lens-flare-filled lump that was Man of Steel , and yet Man of Steel is still making money by the wheelbarrow load. It's not a fair world.

Would I recommend The Lone Ranger? Yes, I would, unequivocally. It's uneven in pace and tone, and outright bizarre in places, and yet it's also great fun and intensely likeable. Like I say above they spent in the region of $250m making it and you can tell. The look and feel of the old West is perfect and aside from a few ropy CGI shots (Note to Hollywood: we can tell. Just stop) everything looks real because much of it is real; no green-screened landscapes of rendered locomotives here; they actually built two new steam locomotives specifically for the film and went to monument valley to shoot them.
The degree of perfectionism in the look of the film is impressive in itself, it's a shame that it didn't quite carry over to the structure and the script. However, despite that criticism, The Lone Ranger is nowhere near as bad as the US reviews have made it sound (unless you're someone who doesn't like to be reminded of where all the Indians really went whilst Old Glory is flying in the background). Unusually, I'd pay money to see it again in the cinema, and that makes it only the second (after Iron Man 3) film I've seen this year I'd say that about.

*Reading this back I'm amused that I felt the need to specify that it was one of the villains who is a cannibal. It's that sort of film.
Comment Comments (3) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Aug 16, 2015 3:25 PM BST

Price: £7.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars All filler, no killer, 4 Nov. 2013
This review is from: Transnational (MP3 Download)
Every VNV Album has a couple of tracks on it which just grab you and don't let go. Even Judgement (for my money, their weakest before this one) had Testament and Nemesis to force your heartrate over a hundred and get your arse moving. Not so much here though; as another reviewer has said, it feels like the offcuts from the last three or four albums. The tracks here feel like those which just weren't good enough to find their way onto Automatic (A great album) or Faith, Power and Glory. Probably the best track is Lost Horizon, an instrumental which feels like the 'calm down, cool off' track which normally ends every VNV album. Here we find it in the middle, round about the point you might expect to find the biggest tracks.

I'm disappointed. Fingers crossed this is just a blip in an otherwise unbroken line of quality.

Man of Steel [DVD]
Man of Steel [DVD]
Dvd ~ Henry Cavill
Price: £4.00

8 of 17 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A Spoilery (you've been warned) review., 24 Jun. 2013
This review is from: Man of Steel [DVD] (DVD)
For a while after Revenge of the Sith came out I'd pop the disc into the machine about once a year and re-watch it in a vain hope that it might have become a good film. All the ingredients were there, you see. Great effects, and solid cast*, the scenes I'd been waiting for most of my life to see, and in my heart I harboured a hope that through some sort of quantum alchemy this time when I watched it, it might not suck. I was always disappointed and eventually sometime about 2009 I gave my copy to a charity shop to blight someone else's life.
For similar reasons I recently re-watched The Dark Knight Rises and, once again, was disappointed that the film I recalled as being really very ho-hum in the cinema remained resolutely very ho-hum on my television. Fortunately I don't have to go through the multiple re-watching experience as I learned my lesson from George Lucas' epic and I'm not making that mistake again.

It was the same sort of irritable disappointment which I felt after watching Revenge of the Sith and The Dark Knight Rises that I felt as I trudged out of the cinema after sitting through Man of Steel. You see, the latest iteration of Superman gets all the ingredients right - look, actors, ideas, design, etc &c, but ultimately it's just not a very good film. I'd really like it to be, but at least this time I don't need to see it again to know that my disappointment isn't mistaken. It's just... okay. At best.

Like Revenge of the Sith and Dark Knight Rises, there's a lot to the film which on the face of it is good. Possibly my favourite things were the design work (Krypton has a high-tech art-deco aesthetic which I found delightful, especially one animated historical sequence which beautifully referenced 30's Flash Gordon-eqsue design whilst simultaneously being mad space technology) and the visualisation of superpowered fights; the flickering super-speed assisted punchfests which make up much of the last third of the film, with characters trading blows at supersonic speeds and immense power**. However, in counterpoint there's some stuff I just fely, well, wrong for Superman. In the same way that in the 2006 film we had Superman hanging round outside Lois Lane's house using his X-Ray vision to watch her in her underwear didn't feel much like the sort of thing the character would do, this film also has some jarring character moments.

The point of Superman, you see, is that he's an immigrant to the United States who loses himself in the endless plains of the midwest and there learns what it mean to be human and, more than that, the exemplar of the "Shining city on the hill" that would be a beacon to all mankind. The myth of Superman isn't just a story about a strong flying bloke who can punch villains through the moon; it's the story of America itself, and how America sees itself - and when you watch this iteration of the myth you really have to wonder what it's saying about that self-perception. In the normal origin story, we have honest, salt of the earth farmer Jonathan Kent showing his adopted child to do good with his power and not to count the cost. In this version we have a scene in which the young Clark saves a busload of kids from a watery grave and gets seen doing it. This doesn't result in Jonathan telling Clark to be more careful so people learn of his powers, but instead we get a conversation which goes like this:
Jonathan: "you were seen saving those kids. I told you not to be seen!"
Clark: "Should I have just let them all die?"
Jonathan: "Maybe..."
Thereby teaching the young Superman the contemporary American values of Truth, Justice, and Only saving people if it isn't overly inconvenient.
It's this sort of tonal quality that the film just gets wrong about the character. In the final extended fight sequence between Superman and baddy General Zod, the two punch their way through the middle of one of the most densely-populated urban areas on Earth. Buildings topple and fall before their wrath and - get this - not once does Superman show the slightest concern for the untold thousands of people unable to escape who are undoubtedly being squashed into jam by the destruction in their wake. Normally, the rules say that if you're a superhero battling an indestructible foe you do your best to take it somewhere where all those inconveniently easily-squashed civilians aren't going to be, well, squashed into jam by your fight. Here we just get a live-action remake of Team America, as wholesale destruction and their inevitable massive causalities aren't so much glossed over as instantly forgotten about. The fact that the fight footage deliberately visually references the shots of people fleeing the wall of dust in 9/11 just adds to the wrongness of tone. I mean, WTF, Superman?

And that brings me on to General Zod. Michael Shannon, who plays Zod, does gimlet-eyed staring lunacy very well, which is ideal for the character. Zod was, we learn, genetically engineered to be the perfect soldier to command the Kryponite army and after the destruction of Krypton he travels to Earth looking for Superman in an attempt to rebuild his race and homeworld. As an objective this is actually pretty laudable but there's yet another tonal problem here.
You might recall the 2009 Star Trek film where, if you stopped for one second to think about it, the baddy's plan only made sense if he was hopelessly insane. I can just about live with that as a motivation, but the 'bad guy plan which only makes sense if you're a nutter' seems to be a standard of blockbuster films (Skyfall, Dark Knight Rises, Star Trek Into Darkness, etc) and I'm getting tired of it. However, Man of Steel goes one step further. It isn't the case that Zod's plan would only make sense to a nutter. His plan would only make sense if you were a dribbling moron.

Allow me to explain. Zod arrives on Earth looking for Superman to retrieve information encoded into his cells which will allow him to start cloning Kryptonians and replenish his race. Having gained this information, he then sets about terraforming Earth into a 'New Krypton', a process which will result in the deaths of every human.
Now, Zod is supposed to have been bred to be a military genius, but at no point in his whole military genius upbringing did anyone ever gave him copy of The Art of War because the first rule is "Don't pick fights you don't need to have." When Zod explains that he's going to build his new world on Earth, my immediate reaction was "Why?". He has a terraforming machine which would allow him to turn any planet into his new homeworld and a spaceship which will allow him to travel anywhere in the universe pretty much instantly, but instead of getting the information he wants and leaving to, say, a nice little uninhabited planet orbiting Aldebaran and just getting on with it, he and his handful of goons pick a fight with a notoriously inventive and violent species who have access to Superman, Strategic Air Command, Nuclear Weapons and John Wayne - and then he acts all surprised when it doesn't work out for him.
That's not military genius. That's not even being a loony. That's being an outright imbecile. I don't know about you but I find it difficult to emotionally engage with a film where the person who is set up as the baddy is actually educationally subnormal. Perhaps the sequel will feature Superman punching some Downs Syndrome kids in the face whilst ignoring a combine harvester trundling through a crowd, because that's about as heroic as what he does here.

Like I said at the start, the story of Superman is the story of America and how it sees itself. An immigrant who grows to being something greater and becomes a beacon of hope to the huddled masses. From the evidence of Man of Steel, the way America now sees itself is as a beacon who saves people so long as it isn't too much trouble and rather than making helpful suggestions to people who need them ("Why don't you terraform a different planet? Then we won't have to kill you?"), they just kill them instead. And that's not a great way of seeing yourself.

Oh, I forgot to mention. Russell Crowe does really well. It needs saying as normally I don't like him, but he underplays his role as Jor-El wonderfully and he was definitely one of my favourite things in the film. The scene with him as a ghost in the spaceship**** with Lois Lane was delightful as he was clearly happy to let other people have the limelight - a very generous bit of acting.

*With the exception of Balsa Boy, but I don't suppose I needed to say that after all this time.
**It's just a shame that having visualised the fights so well, the director then combines the exciting and interesting*** filmic techniques of jump cutting, lens flare, shakycam and heavy shadow to ensure you never really get to see any of it.
****You'll know when you see it.
Comment Comments (5) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Mar 12, 2014 9:34 PM GMT

New Britain: My Vision Of A Young Country
New Britain: My Vision Of A Young Country
by Tony Blair
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars I feel sorry for Tony Blair., 13 May 2013
Some time ago, whilst browsing through second-hand books, I came across a copy of "New Britain: My Vision for a Young Country" by Tony Blair. Written in 1996, before his first election victory, it was a collection of his thoughts and speeches about what Labour would do if they got into power.
Reasoning that my blood pressure is a little low at the moment, and my recent sunny demeanour is entirely at odds with my surly nature (plus I've been trying to get a nervous twitch for years), I bought it and, always enjoying as I do the feeling of the veins in my temples throbbing, set about reading it.
My original intention had been to go through and catalogue the broken promises, the lies, the inaccuracies, the mendacious spin which so characterised the previous administration of this land. Needless to say, as I went through the book turning over the corner of each page containing a later-unfulfilled promise or undertaking, very soon the corner of every second page was turned over. I'm not joking when I say that. For the first third of the book, literally every one or two pages has a note, an addendum, or other reminder by me that, yes, here's another unfulfilled howler from old `straight kinda guy' Tony.
As I read further, my enthusiasm for the task diminished; not because I was taking potshots at a lot of fish in a vanishingly small barrel (which I was), but because my anger was slowly replaced by a new sensation. Dawning horror. You see, the more you read of his writings, the more you come to realise that Tony actually believed this load of old nonsense. He really, genuinely believed at time of writing that he was the man to usher in a new golden age of peace and prosperity, in which everyone would hold hands, sing a song, and love one another - and be led in that singing by head honcho Tony, smug grim plastered all over his eminently punchable phiz.
I suppose I ought to be shocked that he'd gone 14 years (he entered Parliament in 1982)in a hive of realpolitik and managed to hang onto his idealism. I mean - how did he manage that? Such preposterous naivety should surely have been burned out by the reality of Westminster. But I'm not horrified. Instead I think about what an awful process of realisation he must have had that he cannot achieve his dreams and I understand why he looks so tired, irritable, burned out and generally like a peculiar lizard man in his public appearances.
I feel sorry for Tony Blair.

I bet you never thought you'd hear me say that, did you? But I do, I pity him. Somehow he managed to keep the youthful idealism which so characterises student common-room politics long after real-life experience should have stripped them away with the ongoing effects of reality. Thinking back over his tenure I suppose it might be possible to chart his process of disillusionment. It mystifies me how he could have managed to hold onto these beliefs. I suppose that that sense of overwhelming self-satisfaction and superiority which he presents must have led to him being able to dismiss others caught up in the web of reality. "They're little people," he must have thought. "They lack my superior socialist principles. I shall succeed where they have failed because I'm just gosh-darn better than them." That delusion must have kept him going for years, and now it has been shown up in the harshest possible light as the fallacy it was.

Of course, I wouldn't want you to think that pitying him makes me like him one iota more. He's still the same mendacious, oily little creep that he was sixteen years ago. He's still the same insincere, glib little so-and-so who tried to turn the funeral of Princess Diana into a party-political broadcast. But now he's a disillusioned insincere, glib little so-and-so. His fall must have been hard.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jan 11, 2014 10:15 PM GMT

G.I. Joe: Retaliation [DVD]
G.I. Joe: Retaliation [DVD]
Dvd ~ Dwayne Johnson
Offered by Discs4all
Price: £2.44

3 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Far more enjoyable than it has any right to be., 9 April 2013
This review is from: G.I. Joe: Retaliation [DVD] (DVD)
A few years ago, I made the schoolboy error of going to see GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra in the cinema. I actually spent my own money to watch it, and was duly scathing about it.
Anyway, in order to demonstrate that I'm a sucker for punishment I took myself off to the cinema to see the sequel, GI Joe: Retaliation, the other day, and I'm pleased to be able to report that it's more of the same.

I think the thing which takes me aback about both GI Joe films is the remarkable disregard for human life. Faceless goons are dispatched by the score in a cavalier and cheery manner which even I find mildly disconcerting, whilst the actual effects of violence aren't shown at all. Someone stabbed clean through the heart doesn't even bleed, never mind flailing around screaming whilst gushing gouts of blood. Whereas in the first film people who were hit with a sword or knife might display a welt of the sort you might get if you were hit with a red permanent marker, in Gi Joe: retaliation you don't even get that. People suffer quite stunning injuries and fall to their doom in a cheerful, disposable people sort of way. And that's even before we get onto the merry japes during the use of an apocalyptically powerful WMD on a major world city.

In fact, there appear to be no consequences to anything in this film. People are dispatched, explosions are exploded, cities are razed from the face of the earth, and then the goodies win so everyone goes home and has a good laugh. If there's a political statement, it's that you can solve any problem if you shoot people hard enough, and if that doesn't work then blowing them up is an acceptable alternative.
In the meantime, the villains are largely the sort of faceless goons who can be done away with without any consequences. From an early scene in a Pakistani nuclear facility populated by the sort of extras for whom shouting "Dirka dirka Allah Jihad" counts as character development to the hordes of red-clad ninja who tumble to their deaths in a comedy "ninjas tumbling to their horrific deaths" scene it's all rather disturbing if you stop and think about it, and so you shouldn't do so.

In fact, if you're the sort of person who asks difficult questions during films like "Why did that happen?", "Where did those ninjas come from?", "What's going on?" and "Why the hell am I watching this?" then this is not the film for you. Far from it.
However, in the face of all this worthy moralising about the tone of the film, there's one important feature I haven't mentioned yet. It's really, really enjoyable.

I'd like you to perform a thought experiment for a moment. It's 1986, Christmas day. You're eight years old. You're stuffed with sweets and you've just watched You Only live twice before going to recreate it with the impressively muscled and armed action figures you've been given. GI Joe: Retaliation is the story you create. The action leaps about all over the place; any slow bits are livened up with the arrival of some ninjas, explosions perform roughly the same function as exposition in lesser films, and there's none of that slow, boring "character" stuff with girls which was in the Bond film you just watched. Instead, girls are just ambulatory boobs right up until the moment when they WHIP OUT TWO TOMMY GUNS AND MOW DOWN MORE NINJAS.

Not only it is it the cinematic equivalent of a sugar-rushing 8-year-olds Bond-and-Survivalist fantasy, it's got some of the best production values I've seen in a while. Many of the less fatal stunts appear to be mostly real rather than CGI, the fight choreography is first-rate, the casting is charismatic and even smart (one throwaway character is a 1970s Hong Kong action star, seemingly cast solely for being an old person who can fight). There's some excellent visual jokes (Bruce Willis' house) and overall everyone involved just seems to be having a great time. Jonathan Pryce doesn't bother acting and just parades round as an enormous slice of ham, Ray Stevenson might as well be holding a sign reading "I'M JUST TAKING THE MICKEY", and the Rock has been injecting himself with synthol for months to get the required physique.

I really, really shouldn't have enjoyed this as much as I did. I could write screeds of cinematic criticism, but if films you can critique are your bag you aren't going to be going to see this anyway. Indeed, if films which require the slightest thought or make sense are your thing you're probably in the wrong place. If, on the other hand, you want to pretend to be a sugar-overloaded prepubescent, this is as good a film as I've seen since Arnold Schwarzenegger stopped shooting things and turned to jokes in about 1991.

Six Heirs (The Secret of Ji)
Six Heirs (The Secret of Ji)
by Pierre Grimbert
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.64

3 of 5 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Wooden, 8 Feb. 2013
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
I haven't read much European fantasy; possibly the only one I can remember is Hans Bemman's "The Stone and the Flute", which I never actually finished, and so I was interested to see what the French could produce. I rather assumed that whilst most English-speaking fantasy would derive fro a legacy of Tolkein and Lewis, perhaps Europeans would have more a basis in the dark fairy tales of Mitteleurope.

I was wrong.

When they say that fans of David Eddings might enjoy the Secret of Ji I can see why; a young peasant boy goes on an adventure with the beautiful girl he loves, a roguish thief, a nordic giant, a wizardess and so on, doing battle with insane red-robed cultists on the way. So far, so derivative.

However, Eddings had a skill with language that either the author of the translator lacks. The Belgariad flows through the brain like water through a sieve, making reading it relatively painless. The Secret of Ji, on the other hand doesn't. The prose is wooden and the characterisation largely missing. One major character I didn't even really realise was important until halfway through the book not because he wasn't in it much - he was omnipresent - but because he was so uninteresting I barely even noticed him.

Then there's suspension of disbelief. There's an old trope about writing sci-fi or fantasy. Whilst it's okay to make up worlds and magic, dont' make up familiar, everyday stuff when you don't have to. For example, you shouldn't bother calling a stimulating hot drink "Kaf" or "Korf" or anything like that. Just have your characters drink coffee and have done, because it's jarring otherwise.
So it is that having the day divided into millidays, centidays, decidays and so on yanked me fiercely from my suspension of disbelief; a cod-medieval society capable of accurately measuring time in thousandths of a day? And don't get me started on the village council which has a Minister for global relations. It's like a peasant society run by the European Union and it's just unbelievable and irritating.

The author wears his influences on his sleeve - a fan of Jack Vance, the money in the book are called Terces after the currency in the (infinitely superior) Dying Earth books. the thing is Jack Vance and David Eddings created memorable worlds, and Vance especially had a facility with language which the Secret of Ji is unwise to draw comparisons with.

Apparently the Ji series (there's, like, twelve of these or something) have won prizes for the best fantasy in french. With that in mind not only won't I read any more of this series, I'll be avoiding French fantasy as a genre.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Aug 21, 2014 10:10 PM BST

The Rise of Nine (Lorien Legacies)
The Rise of Nine (Lorien Legacies)
by Pittacus Lore
Edition: Hardcover

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A bit better than The Power of Six (mild spoilers), 12 Oct. 2012
Well, Pittacus Lore keeps on cranking `em out, and Amazon Vine keep on sending `em. And it would be churlish not to admit that Lore's writing gets better with practice. The storytelling is tighter, he's getting the hang of the Dan Brown "alternating cliffhanger" technique, and not least, he's now using a different font for each character's POV, so you can tell who is meant to be who more or less straight off.

New to the scene is Number Eight, whose Legacies include Teleport and Polymorph Self. By the time Number Five appears, you expect he'll be able to cast Limited Wish and Otiluke's Freezing Sphere. Anyhow, the continued non-appearance of Number Five means that we, the readers, know this isn't going to be the final book in the series. But this doesn't stop our heroes from individually going off in the meantime to try and have a pop at Setrakus Ra, a villain who is not only two-dimensional but actually weirdly lo-res with it, like an end-of-wave bad guy in Streetfighter II.

Turns out this is a mistake, as you might have guessed. Unsportingly, Ra's superpowers turn out to include the useful ability to stop the good guys' powers from working. Turns out he's also in league with a sinister wing of the US Government, so cue scenes earlier in the book where our heroes use their telekinesis to fling the CIA goons round like rag dolls. Only to whinge about "cowardice" later on, when Ra does the same thing to them. Clearly Loriens don't do irony.

However, what really raises this book above the 2 star level of its predecessors is the development of the character of Number Nine, who is great. Basically he is a total jerk. With superpowers. He can stand upside down on ceilings. He has an apartment full of cool stuff. He is by far the best character in the book. Lore obviously enjoyed writing him. Still only 3 stars, though, Pittacus, because you've felt obliged to write in some reassuring scenes here and there, to show us that Number Nine is A Good Guy At Heart Really. A failure of artistic nerve about on a par with the American TV station that wanted to re-write Fawlty Towers, so that each episode ended with a brief scene showing that Basil really loved his wife. Note to the author: the redemption comes in the final book, dude. Not before. Still, maybe they'll fix it for the movie adaptation.

Dredd [DVD]
Dredd [DVD]
Dvd ~ Karl Urban
Offered by DVD Overstocks
Price: £3.95

7 of 10 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Tremendous., 12 Sept. 2012
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
This review is from: Dredd [DVD] (DVD)
Back when I was about 14 or 15 I did something incredibly cool and daring; I snuck into a cinema to see an 18-rated film. I did all the things expected; didn't shave for a week or two, put on my gruffest voice when buying a ticket, and ignored the knowing, you-aren't-fooling-anyone-sonny smirk from the usherette.
The film in question was Robocop, Paul Verhoeven's startlingly violent satire of American culture. I rather had to see it, you see, because pretty much everyone agreed that it was a wholesale lift from 2000ad's Judge Dredd with the serial numbers filed off; a taciturn, humourless lawman without a face dispensing near-future summary justice against a blackly humourous backdrop of a society taken to extremes.

The thing was, I loved Robocop to death. My descriptions of the scene with Emil, the vat of toxic waste and a speeding motor car greatly added to my kudos at school. It was everything I'd wanted to see from a big screen Dredd film. And so... you expect I'd fall in love with the latest iteration of Dredd to hit the big screen about a half-hour in when he tells a group of perps to "Put down your weapons. You have fifteen seconds to comply", a direct lift from Robocop, acknowledging the shared cultural DNA. I didn't fall in love with it then, though, because I'd actually fallen in love with it pretty much instantly.

When I saw the early stills, I had a sinking sense of disappointment. The vehicles looked cheap, the costumes shabby and the whole thing just looked nothing like the sleek future of Mega City One from the comic. What I didn't realise from those early leaked set shots was that the production was turning it's low budget into a plus. Rather than the hi-tech megapolis of the 1995 Stallone flick, the MC1 in this Dredd is an appalling, run-down hellhole with few resources - and what there are almost entirely dedicated to keeping a lid on the huge population crammed into colossal 200-story skyscrapers behind city walls beyond which sits the irradiated wasteland which is all that remains of most of North America.
The degree of thought which has gone into the world-building is truly impressive. The highest tech items in the film are drone cameras with recognition software constantly scanning the streets and the abominably overpowered weaponry given to the judges not to preserve law and order but solely to maintain a semblance of control by striking fear through massive overkill into a truculent population forever on the brink of civil disorder. There's nothing like a fire department - presumably the city can't afford one - and so fires just blaze out of control whilst onlookers shrug and get on with their lives, and the most comfortable room in the whole film is the control room at the Grand Hall of Justice which looks like nothing better than a well-equipped call centre. Everyone else lives in squalor. 96% unemployment, cheap clothes, computer screens which show the old `flying through space' screensavers, and shopping malls made out of poured concrete where most of the shops are shut. Whatever cataclysm created the city is never discussed, but it is clear that the whole fabric of society is constantly on the brink of collapse and the Judges can only just about keep things ticking along through the use of excessive force and fear.

Against this miserable backdrop we have the plot, which is that of Dredd taking a rookie (Anderson) on a training evaluation day to decide if she can make the grade as a full Judge. The two are trapped inside one of the blocks by a local crime lord (lady?) (Ma- Ma) and must fight their way out through her private army of gun wielding goons. As a plot it's pretty slim, but it's redeemed by a fine script full of black humour, the excellent world building outlined above, and some fine turns by the leads - especially Karl Urban who disappears into character and does a far better job than I ever reckoned he would.

It's all presented as just another day in the life in MC1 - one of the finest lines in the whole thing is Dredds reply to someone at the end asking him what happened and the implication that this is what happens every day, hundreds of times across the city, just adds to the realization of what a godawful place to live Mega City One must really be.

Apparently, if this does well enough to justify a sequel there are plans to do a couple more which would expand the world (such as how the megacities came to be) and introduce somee of the madder aspects of the comic world like Satanus the Tyrannosaur and the Dark Judges. For this reason alone I encourage everyone to go and see it. Such is the bang-on quality of this film that I dearly, dearly would love to see what they do with the Dark Judges.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Sep 16, 2012 6:45 PM BST

A History of Ancient Egypt: From the First Farmers to the Great Pyramid
A History of Ancient Egypt: From the First Farmers to the Great Pyramid
by John Romer
Edition: Hardcover

3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars An excellent history, 8 Aug. 2012
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
In the 1930s an American psychic called Edgar Cayce claimed to have dreamed of great tunnels below the Sphynx which contained the lost records of Atlantis. Incredibly, in 1996, the Egyptian government commissioned a geological study of the area to see if there was any truth in these claims.

I mention this not because it plays any part in John Romer's excellent book, but to illustrate the power that Egypt and it's history has played over people's imagination over the years. Out of this power has grown a lot of speculation and historical theorising which often has little historical basis but plenty of dreaming and personal involvement.

What makes Romer's book so impressive is that he tries to steer away from this sort of history and tells us only what we know - and don't know - about the early history of Egypt as it grew from a simply hunter/gatherer society to become the first effective nation state in the world. He does this by examining the evidence left behind in the form of artifacts and (eventually, through development) writing, and saying what conclusions can and cannot be drawn from this evidence. What we *know* is that the Egyptians started out as early farmers and over millennia produced a civilisation which built the pyramids, and the book looks at what they've left behind to give clues as to how this happened. The great question the book tries to tackle is: how did these people create the first human civilisation from nothing, and with no examples of what to do to draw upon? What events must have happened, and what evidence is there?

It's an effective technique which he uses - I've been a fan of Romer ever since his 1980s 'Testament' series - which both informs the reader (the amount of actual kowledge we have is limited, and he details it well) and inspires (if yo're like me, you'll find yourself thinking "I bet this bit of evidence means this!" or "I bet they used this object for that!" as you read). It's to his credit that the author avoids the sort of speculation which I indulged in as a reader.

If I have a criticism - and I've docked it a full star for this - it's that I wanted a *lot* more pictures than the relatively few colour plates provided. It's nice to hear about places and objects, but it would be a great deal more intellectually satisfying to see them as well.

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