Thursday, 31 October 2013

Thor: the Dark World review

A bearded hero with a magical weapon on a planet of noble warriors clashes with an army of masked, laser-blasting invaders. 

Thirty years ago Krull, a British mash-up of sub-Tolkien mythology and Star Wars-style effects was launched on an unsuspecting world. 

Alas, the hero was rather bland, the cheap effects a bit rubbish (even for ’83), and the likes of pre-Eastenders Todd Carty, post-Carry On Bernard Bresslaw and a badly dubbed Lysette Anthony failed to make the project fly. 

Fast forward to now, and in Thor: the Dark World, a bearded hero with a magical hammer on a planet of noble warriors clashes with an army of masked, laser-blasting invaders. Only this time Marvel (with a far greater budget admittedly) hit the blockbuster nail squarely on the head.  

Chris Hemsworth is so perfectly cast as the eponymous Asgardian warrior it's hard to imagine anyone else filling those boots. The slightest smirk creates screen gold. (The god of thunder and charisma might be more on the money). 

With a snazzy new Marvel logo, Thor 2 hits the ground running with an epic battle, and escalates from there. 
Fans of the original should revel in the scale; director Alan Taylor exploits the skills learned on Game of Thrones to craft a 12A-friendly epic, hammering the various plot strands together to form a fun, frantic, dark, occasionally moving yarn. 

Anthony Hopkins can be annoying when phoning in his performances, but here adds gravitas as Odin; ’One Broke Scientist’ Kat Dennings delivers comic relief as Natalie Portman's sexy assistant Darcy; Idris Elba is given more screen time as gate keeper Helmdal, and the Warriors Three also return from film one.

As ever, Tom Hiddleston chews chunks of scenery as Loki; aside from Robert Downey Jnr’s Tony Stark, few actors are as funny or mischievous in the Marvel universe. 
(A Thor movie without Loki is as pointless as a Spider Man flick without Peter Parker). 

Rounding out the regulars are Stellan Skargard as boffin Erik Selvig, still a bit bonkers after being possessed in Avengers. 
Christopher Eccleston is on good form as the malevolent big bad Malekith, spouting Elvish dialogue, while his ship is gloriously ominous and aptly hammer-like. 

Assembling the multi-film plot strands from Thor and Assemble, this is huge fun. 

There's little doubt Marvel have mastered the modern blockbuster, melding great heroes, villains and effects with the brio of the original Star Wars and JJ’s Star Trek. 

Okay, Thor 2.0 is not perfect. Portman looks gorgeous, but her character is too wholesome and sadly a bit dull. Maybe thunder-wielding Gods need partners that are safe and yawnsome. 
I'd rather have seen Thor romance Darcy or Asgard squeeze Sif. (The latter’s sub-plot sadly goes nowhere fast, but may pay off in Thor 3). 

However, seen at midnight in 3D D-Box, TTDW was a pre-Hallowe’en treat. 
It also made me delighted that as a forty something, I lived long enough to see the comic heroes of my youth given the big screen epics they deserve.

Stay tuned for a couple of cracking credit cookies; the final one is rewarding and hilarious. 

Roll on Captain America: Winter Soldier, Guardians of the Galaxy and Ant-Man, and let's hope we don't have to wait an age for the inevitable Dr Strange, Sub-Mariner and Silver Surfer movie. 


Tuesday, 29 October 2013

Escape Plan - The Review

I had no burning desire to see Escape Plan, the new action thriller starring Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger. 

However, when it's your day off and it looks like the best thing on offer at your local multiplex, it may as well be worth a look.

The fact I read the timing wrong, and thought it was supposed to start half an hour before it did, made me think I'll watch something else instead.
However, the rather enthusiastic, animated Cineworld employee was so enthusiastic about the movie, I thought I'll hang around for half an hour and give it the benefit of the doubt.
I'm glad I did.

In the first 20 minutes, we are asked to believe that Sly is an expert on prison security.
He tests the integrity of prisons by becoming an inmate and then attempts to break out, thereby exposing any weakness in the security.

More often than not he succeeds, and gets a big fat pay cheque.
However, when he is asked to test out a new maximum security stockade, Sly can't resist, and soon regrets it.

The tracker planted inside him is soon removed, and Sly loses contact with his colleagues in the outside world.
(Let's face it, it wouldn't be much of a movie if he managed to break out in the next 10 minutes).

Sly soon incurs wrath of psycho prison warden (there is always one) Jim Caviezel and his right-hand man/henchman Vinnie Jones.
(I fear we'll have a long wait to see Vinnie play Hamlet, but when it comes to playing psycho thugs, Jones is in a league of his own).

While making assorted enemies on the inside, Sly befriends unhinged Austrian Arnie. 
Schwarzenegger has a ball with this movie. Whether ranting in his native language, or coming out with some salty, over the top one-liners, he is clearly better as a supporting actor these days than carrying his own film. Maybe he should keep the goatee, as it's a fine facial addition to the Austrian Oak.

For the first two thirds, Escape Plan is great fun. The one thing that's missing is the generic shoot out we have come to expect from two of the biggest stars of 80s action cinema.

In fact, the lack of gunfire is rather welcome.

So by the time the third act kicks in, the director resorts to type by giving Sly and Arnie high powered weapons, and resorting to the usual cliches of shootouts, gunfire and witty epithets when villains are dispatched.

Escape Plan, previously named The Tomb, might not be the sort of film you're desperate to rush out and see on day one. However, when it’s released on Blu-ray chances are it will shift truckloads of units.

(The fact I have been quoting one of Arnie's one-liners all week, is testament to the fact it's great fun).

The leads won't win any Oscars for Best Actors, and the script won't win Best Screenplay, but who cares?
For those of us weaned on First Blood and The Terminator, this is a must see, whether on the biggest screen possible, or on your TV in a a few weeks’ time.

Let’s hope the pumped up pensioners return soon, maybe in a comedy remake of The Sunshine Boys or Grumpy Old Men. 
Pension Plan wouldn't be too bad a title.

Saturday, 26 October 2013

Ender's Game

May contain spoilers

I try not to play video games when my wife is in the room because she's not a gamer and I know how bored she gets watching me building bases and zapping CG aliens. 
And that's the problem with Ender's Game, the new sci-fi adventure based on the novel by controversial author Orson Scott Card.

For the most part it's a slick, intelligent and mostly compelling yarn, a mash-up ofWargames, Tron, Starship Troopers and assorted other sci-fi adventures.

Asa Butterfield is superb as the eponymous young hero, and director Gavin Hoodsurrounds him with a worthy supporting cast, including Viola Davis and tattoo-faced Ben Kingsley. 
(It's a lot more rewarding than Hood's previous fantasy, X-Men Origins: Wolverine).

Arguably the weakest link is Harrison Ford as gruff seasoned military man, Hyrum Graff. He sounds laboured as he reads the dialogue, like he has little faith in the material, or is wondering what time he can wrap up shooting so he can have his dinner. Yes, he probably had the same demeanour shooting Star Wars in the mid 1970s, but here he lacks the charisma of Han Solo.

The problem is for the most part you're watching someone else playing a game. There's a disconnect between the audience and the key protagonists, especially Ford, who is usually seen through windows or behind desks. There's a barrier between him and us which rarely lowers.

In a previous blog I remarked that Ford hadn't made a good film in 20 years, and whileEnder's Game is far from a disaster, it's also not the winning mix of Harry Potter and Star Wars that the ad campaign suggests.

Ender's Game image: Chartoff Productions/Taleswapper/OddLot Entertainment/K/O Paper Products/Digital Domain/Distributed by Summit Entertainment/Lionsgate

I was impressed by the bulk of the movie. It was smart and treated the audience with a degree of intelligence; surreal moments involving a game were suitably dreamy and nightmarish, but as the film built to its finale I didn't know if I was watching a simulated battle or the real thing. 
And the finale is stunning to look at; a flurry of spaceships swarming like fish engage the eye as the young warriors build to an edge-of-the-seat, do-or-die climax.

But the last few minutes are disappointing. A personal bugbear, the hero's name being repeated constantly by a character, set my teeth on edge, while the open-ended conclusion is clearly set up for a sequel that I fear may never happen.

I enjoyed this far more than most Potter films, but I doubt Ender will engage the audience enough to return to your local multiplex in a couple of years.

I hope I'm wrong as I'd love to see the hero actually physically tackle some alien bad guys instead of orchestrating their destruction from behind a computer screen.

Friday, 25 October 2013

The World at War at 40

The World at War is one of the most ambitious documentary series ever made. A mammoth 26 hours charting key points in the history of World War Two.

The World at War 40th Anniversary Available now on DVD & Blu-ray FremantleMedia International

Over the past few decades it has inspired countless TV and film makers, including Oliver Stone; his own recent series The Untold History of the United States was inspired by the groundbreaking show.

October 31, 2013 marks the 40th anniversary since that first broadcast of The World at War, and Sir Jeremy Isaacs, who conceived and produced the series, reflects on the Baftaand Emmy-winning documentary.

Sir Jeremy Isaacs: The World at War 40th Anniversary Available now on DVD & Blu-ray FremantleMedia International

Getting a project like that off the ground was no easy task, so how did it come about?

"It came around because it's a great subject, a great subject that was waiting to be made into a television documentary series," explains the eloquent eightysomething.

"As soon as the BBC did a series on the First World War, The Great War, really it was then just a question of when and who would do the Second World War."

Isaacs was a key force in fact-based programming in the late 1960s. He'd earned his stripes as a current affairs journalist, and was also responsible for documentaries at Thames Television

He had previously worked at the BBC editing Panorama, but a disagreement led to him moving on... until he was made an offer by the Beeb - the seed of what would become The World At War.

"To my amazement, someone at the BBC asked me if I would like to produce a history of the Second World War," he recalls. "I said, 'Well I've got a good job here, but I would be very interested'. And then I discovered that they asked all sorts of other people."

However, the BBC's war project stalled. The powers-that-be didn't want to make a major commitment towards such an expensive series using so much black and white footage. (This was at the time when colour TV was becoming mainstream).

The World at War 40th Anniversary Available now on DVD & Blu-ray FremantleMedia International

By that point, Jeremy was fascinated by the idea of making a series about the Second World War, though he wasn't keen on making a show just about 'the combat of the war'.

"I wanted to do a series about the experience of the war; the home front during the war; the war economy of the five great combatant nations and so on and so forth. I wanted a little leeway (with the show) not to have to depend every week on bombs and guns and tanks and so on."

Of course, if the BBC wasn't keen, he thought of a company that might pick up the baton. 
"I remember thinking, 'Well if the BBC doesn't want to do it why don't we do it (atThames)?'"

Getting a green light for a 26-part series on commercial TV was no easy task either, asIsaacs recalls.

"Well, it (Thames) was the biggest and perhaps most successful band of the ITV company we were part of a network. Getting space for an extra three documentaries a year was a big negotiating deal. Getting space for 26 documentaries was going to be tough!"

Help came in February 1971 from a change in the law which gave ITV more money to spend on programmes.
To cut a long story short, Isaacs got a green light, and then the really hard work began.

D Day: The World at War 40th Anniversary Available now on DVD & Blu-ray FremantleMedia International

For three years a team of 50 researchers, editors, Imperial War Museum experts, and assorted other programme-makers toiled over what would become a TV milestone.

Ask many original fans of the series what they remember, and aside from Carl Davis'ssuitably imposing score, there's a chance Sir Laurence Olivier's narration would be a key element.

However, at one point early in the production it looked like Sir Jeremy might have to do the unthinkable and sack the acclaimed thespian, who wasn't his first choice for narrator.

Narrator Sir Laurence Olivier: The World at War 40th Anniversary Available now on DVD & Blu-ray FremantleMedia International

"I didn't want to have an actor reading somebody else's words," he explains. "The documentaries I made were made by reporters who wrote and read their own narratives, and there were some pretty good guys around I had worked with and could have helped to do that."

One of them was Ludovic Kennedy, but with ITV devoting such a large chunk of time and money to the series, they wanted a more bankable star for The World At War.

"They were providing the platform for it. They felt, and the sales department felt that we needed Olivier, because Michael Redgrave had done a marvellous job with the BBC on The Great War, and they wanted somebody at least as good if not better to do the narration."

Alas, the initial voice-over on that inaugural World At War show was far from successful.

"The first programme we recorded on The Fall of France," explains Isaacs. "Larry was... I never called him 'Larry' by the way. I probably called him 'Sir Laurence'. He was very tired; he did it very badly."

A colleague told him the recording was no good and Olivier's voice kept 'falling off at the end of every line'.
He suggested to Jeremy, "You'll have to let him go".

The thought of having to sack one of the world's greatest actors left Isaacs shaken.

"The idea that I might have to tell Laurence Olivier that he was fired was a bit much for me to take on".

"I had a fairly sleepless night until he turned up again the next day to record of the next episode."

Isaacs played Olivier the first episode he'd recorded, and the thespian realised fatigue had got the better of him. Given his workload up to that point there was little wonder.

"After 20 minutes he said, 'Of course there is something wrong. I seem to have been tired and you must excuse me, I'll do it again'.

"He had been making a film called Sleuth, which went on a lot longer than he thought it would, and he had done 21 performances of Eugene O'Neill's play Long Day's Journey Into Night in the weeks immediately preceding these recordings, so he was whacked."
Olivier focused his attention and Isaacs noticed a vast improvement in the narration. 

"There after, whether he'd studied the script or not before he arrived in this little recording studio in Oxford Street - they would sometimes show him the film before he recorded it, and sometimes we went straight in - he was superbly professional and did it marvellously well. I have always admired him for it and been grateful to him for it."

Okay, not everyone loved the narration.

"Some people still think that his voice was too mannered," explains Sir Jeremy. "I don't think that the public who adore the series would agree with that."

Thanks to a 2010 digitally remastered version, The World at War now looks and sounds better than ever.

It may have been one of the most expensive British shows ever made, but because of the wealth of interviews, rare footage, and stunning research, it's also one of the most important shows ever made.

In another four decades from now, I doubt many would disagree.


Wednesday, 9 October 2013

My Round Trip from Manchester to Florida... for £268

The first time I went to Orlando, I thought a £200 flight from London was incredible. 
It was. 
That was 11 years ago, and inflation means prices get a lot more expensive. 
But thankfully not by much it seems. 
With my last week’s holiday of 2013 looming and a desire not to waste it, I managed to land a round trip to Sanford, Florida for £268. 
Not only that it was on Thomson’s new Dreamliner, complete with tinted windows, ambient lighting and extra legroom. 
£134 to go 4,000 miles in relative comfort? That's what I call a bargain. (In case you're wondering, said travel company didn't pay a penny towards my trip). 


                            Grand Floridian, Orlando; pic: Roger Crow

There's little wonder Orlando is one of the most popular travel destinations for Brits. The sunshine is a natural attraction, as is the endless array of restaurants and events. If you’re one of the thousands of repeat visitors that yo-yo between Blighty and the Sunshine State each year, then this is hardly a revelation. 
However, if you have yet to take the plunge, here's the lowdown on the top attractions at Walt Disney World at the moment. 

Shopping, Dining and Movies
Downtown Disney is a great destination for shopping and dining. For me the heart was removed when Virgin closed their megastore a few years ago. However, with a new bowling alley and dining section, among many other fine shops and attractions, things are looking up. 
The AMC cinema is also a great diversion, especially if you go early.
I saw new Joseph Gordon-Levitt movie Don Jon for seven dollars (about four quid), and Gravity (in 3D with state of the art ETX sound) for 12. Plush seats are a bonus, as is the fact you can dine and watch a film should you want to. 

Breakfast at The Earl of Sandwich kept me going until a blowout at Planet Hollywood - glorious burger, fries and milk shake for 25 dollars.
(I spent much of my trip existing on one meal a day. Given notoriously large American portions, that's all you need). 

Getting around Disney World can be an ordeal if you don't drive. So it's a good job the fleet of courtesy buses can whip you from your resort hotel to Downtown Disney in next to no time. 
Okay, you may be miffed if you're staying at the Grand Floridian and every bus seems to be for Typhoon Lagoon, but that's the same with any queue. The other line always moves faster.   

The Best Hotel in Orlando?
’My’ hotel is easily the best hotel on Disney property in terms of elegance. It's the Ritz of Mouseland, and even if the cost takes your breath away, it's worth having a look round during a Monorail trip from neighbouring residences such as Contemporary or Polynesian Resorts. 


The Parks
Magic Kingdom is still the jewel in the crown of Disney's Floridian theme park empire. It's not my favourite, probably because I'm not a five-year-old kid or their doting parent, but there's enough other stuff to entertain, from gravity-bothering Splash Mountain, to the Monsters Inc interactive stand-up show, a state-of-the-art, fun attraction utilising the same ’magic’ as other interactive chats with CG turtle Crush, as featured elsewhere in Disney World, and on their newer cruise liners.
Nightly fireworks displays are always a treat, though there are times when it's so loud it sounds like an attack on the Death Star. Hey, I'm of that age.  

Pirates of the Caribbean might be one of Disney’s oldest attractions, but despite the addition of Johnny Depp's rogue buccaneer Jack Sparrow over the past decade, it feels in need of a spruce-up, even if it's just that mangy old dog holding the keys. 
However, it's still a superb way to spend a few minutes, and for me a lot more entertaining than the later Pirates movies. 

Animal Kingdom shows little sign of losing its appeal. Crowd pleasers such as Expedition Everest continue to have a magnetic pull for punters, though having done the roller coaster a few times, I opted for Finding Nemo: The Musical instead. 
For the most part it's good fun, with some catchy numbers and likeable characters, though there is a disconnect between the sub-aquatic protagonists and the puppeteers/singers. 
I spent too long looking at the performers and not enough at the characters. Maybe if the singers had worn black body stockings against black backgrounds the illusion would have worked.
Not that the auditorium full of kids, families and pensioners seemed to mind, though the very young were wailing at the loud noises and scenes of mild fish-based peril.

Animal Kingdom's jungle trek safari is still good fun, though a sub-plot involved a disembodied radio voice seeking help was omitted from our version. 
Maybe the poaching storyline had worn thin in this well meaning Africa-style tour.
After several trips over the years, it still proves compelling entertainment, not least because of the exotic wildlife. (No, not the pasty faced ones who had been flash-burned because they overdid it on day one). 

One of my favourite elements of Disney is Epcot. Whether wandering around its World Showcase, or riding on the ever popular hang glider simulator Soarin’, this is the theme park for more mature fans. Yes, the kids will love it, but for those who prefer to take things a little easier, this is the place to be. 
And if you come in the autumn/fall, the Food and Wine Festival is a must. Pottering around the World Showcase snacking on nibbles from assorted countries, or sampling their tipples, you'll have a great time. 
(I went three nights running and it felt like a different experience each time). 

The fact some great bands play the Eat to the Beat area gives it that extra something. For half an hour with some good friends, a frozen Margarita and the stunningly good Air Supply, I was in heaven.


I'd sampled assorted Floridian water parks over the years, but Typhoon Lagoon was a first, and it soon became a ’new’ favourite. 
Whether relaxing on loungers at the artificial beach, or catching my breath in the lazy river, it was a great way to spend a few hours. 
I also enjoyed one of the best hot dogs of my life. 
The fact our sun loungers didn't adjust was a pain, but it scarcely mattered. 
I was stunned by the quality of service at the Grand Floridian. Not just the hotel itself, with comfy beds (as standard with every Disney hotel and cruise I've stayed on), but the extra mile the staff went to ensure my holiday was as good as possible, even down to the fact that when my pre-booked coach would arrive too late to get me to Sanford Airport in time, the management ensured I would get there without too much nail biting drama). 
My biggest problem, aside from ensuring my 2.5kg case came in at 5kg for the return journey, is a long hard winter counting the days until I can return.  

Roger Crow was a (very happy) guest of Disney's Grand Floridian Resort and Spa. Thanks for their hospitality.

Friday, 4 October 2013

Gravity - The Review

few things will happen while watching Gravity. 
Your palms will become sweaty, then they'll start seeking comfort at the sides of your face. That’s possibly because your breathing will become shallow. This is not the sort of film you can ignore. 

Essentially a two-hander between Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, it charts the aftermath of a disastrous space walk from their shuttle, ravaged by debris. 

The opening 13 minute, one take shot is among the best ever created. 
Orson Welles would have clapped; Martin Scorsese and Brian DePalma either applauded or sulked because director Alfonso Cuaron has aptly raised the bar to orbital levels. 
What Bullock and Clooney do next will not be revealed here. Safe to say what unfolds during the 90 minute running time is an assault course of wires, pipes, machinery and one character's desire to survive. 

The sight of Bullock floating foetus-like in a window is one of the year’s most memorable. 
Sandra has been a favourite actress for 20 years, but has never looked more beautiful, possibly because she is the softest looking protagonist against a sea of tech. Her desire to survive against any odds is also a magnetic attraction. 

George is also hugely appealing. His cocky, charismatic veteran astronaut is wonderfully watchable, though i imagine the endless wire work must have been a pain during the movie’s four year production. 

Some films squander 3D but this makes the most of it, exploiting the medium beautifully. The sound, if heard in the right theatre, is also superb. NASA chatter adds the right audio tone from the off, while Ed Harris’ voice is a great, comforting shorthand for anyone raised on classic NASA epics The Right Stuff and Apollo 13. 

Some of you may wait for Blu Ray or DVD, but this is one of those films that demands the best full-on cinema experience you can find. 

Gravity is little short of a masterpiece. If Sandra Bullock doesn’t get another Oscar, and Cuaron at least a nomination for Best Director, there is going to be some serious gnashing of teeth among the movie-loving community. 

See it... but don’t forget to breathe.