The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (Extended Edition) Review

Of all the films that could have done with an extended edition, this ain’t it.

Perhaps it was a natural move to make after the enormous success of the Lord of the Rings films in the early-2000s to adapt The Hobbit, the book that launched Middle Earth into hearts and minds in the first place. What wasn’t a natural move, however, was turning a singular book of a little over 300 pages into a trilogy of over-stuffed films that each clock in at over two-and-a-half hours, and then release an extended edition of these films. Films that were more padding than filling in the first place. These editions are basically the Wonderbra of cinema.

The extended editions of the LotR films at least made sense. Those were each an adaptation of a single book, each one more layered than that last with detail and worldbuilding, The Hobbit is not like these stories. It’s a much simpler narrative that maintains the rich world of its successors but doesn’t detail it quite as much. It was a story with a younger audience in mind, and to take that charming tale and stretch it into three films, never mind extended length films, is going to do the original story no favours at all.

I have long thought that buried somewhere amongst this trilogy there is enough for one truly great adaptation, if you take elements of each film, maybe two at a push, but as they stand, they’re bloated, meandering, and dull. There is greatness hidden in here, but it’s hidden behind a wall of padding and fan service, shoehorned into a narrative that didn’t really need it; but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm/Martin Freeman) is a hobbit living an idyllic, peaceful, and adventure-free life in The Shire when he is visited by the great wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) who is looking for someone to share an adventure with. Despite his best protestations, he is roped into a quest to take back a great Dwarf kingdom from the dragon, Smaug, accompanied by thirteen dwarves. Along the way, they will encounter all the perils that Middle Earth has to offer as they fight their way towards The Lonely Mountain…

The over-riding feeling I get from The Hobbit films is one of disappointment. I was late to the Middle Earth fan train, I must admit, but after seeing the extended editions of The Lord of the Rings, I was taken in hook, line, and sinker. The way the world was so lovingly realised and presented by Peter Jackson made them seem like such a labour of love; something painstakingly assembled by a talented crew. In contrast, The Hobbit seems to be a product that is more interested in satisfying shareholders.

Don’t get me wrong, there are elements of the things we loved about LotR here, the visual design, the setting, and the performances are all still there, but the product lacks that feeling of craftsmanship that the first trilogy has. It feels more cynical, a matter not helped by artificially extending its run time into three films, requiring the use of copious amounts of filler, and elements not included in the original text.

When I think of the experience of sitting through the extended LotR films, I remember the time flying by. The three-plus hours feeling like no more than two hours as I became more absorbed in the epic narrative. This film just felt like a slog in parts, despite being shorter than any LotR film. It doesn’t justify its runtime like those films did. They needed to be long because there was so much to include; whereas these films feel like they’re making things up in order to make the film longer.

The nadir of this for me came in a scene quite close to the climax of the film involving Bilbo and Gollum (Andy Serkis) the famous halfling monster who was arguably the breakout character in LotR. The scene involves the two characters playing riddles with each other, they challenge one another to solve their riddles, and this goes on for fifteen minutes, while the plot screeches to a halt in order to spotlight Gollum’s appearance. It’s an agonisingly dull scene in a film that was already dragging its feet as it crossed the two-hour mark with no end apparently in sight.

It’s especially disappointing given the obvious passion on display from those on-screen. Old hands like Ian McKellen and Ian Holm slip back into their roles as if they never left them, and new face Martin Freeman perfectly inhabits Bilbo Baggins in his younger days, lending the character his streak of cheeky charisma and every-man lovability. The old guard get their moments too, McKellen gets most of the screen time given his characters key role in the story, but it was nice to see familiar faces re-acquaint themselves with their famous roles.

The visual effects and music are also as stunning as they were during our first trip to Middle Earth, albeit leaning more heavily on the CGI this time, it would seem. The original trilogy’s effects have the ageless quality of combining practical and computer-generated effects, the drawback of relying on CGI is when technology inevitably moves on, it ages your film. Having said that this films aesthetic was very much in line with LotR’s and still looks spectacular.

The film does have its exciting moments too, don’t get me wrong, the final sequence with the orcs. The stone giants scene also stands out, but they’re buried beneath fluff and filler, like a very disappointing ice cream sundae. They went overboard with the squirty cream and shirked on the filling, so to speak.

While Peter Jackson is still the quintessential Middle Earth director, it feels like he’s starting to run out of steam in this trilogy, perhaps his heart wasn’t in it like it once was. Given that he wasn’t original scheduled to direct, that might well be the case, but I can’t help but feel like this trilogy is a vastly inferior product to the old trilogy. Even this film, which is probably the pick of the bunch in my mind, feels like it’s just filling time. They obviously had the story to tell but were determined to make it as long a journey as possible, no matter the length of the book they were adapting. That could be because they felt their audience expected the films to be lengthy, given what had come before. Or maybe it was for more cynical reasons of making more money over three films, rather than making one or two Hobbit films that could have really done the story justice. I can’t help but feel that my disappointment will worsen as the series wears on.

A Look Back at February 2021

Is it just me, or have these past two months just felt like one long January? It’s still dark and miserable, and I still can’t leave my flat. It feels like being stuck in Groundhog Day, but instead of constantly giving the same new report, I’m just always sat in my living room, sometimes watching something and sometimes staring into space.

So, yeah, obviously not a lot has happened this month, the UK is still in a nationwide lockdown, it feels like we’ve been in one for a year. Oh wait, we have (More or less). The UK government have now released their ‘roadmap’ for easing restrictions, and it’s as confusing and arbitrary as we’ve come to expect out of a group of people I wouldn’t trust to book a taxi on a night out, much less handle our way out of a pandemic, but we play the hand we’re dealt.

As a result of still being cooped up inside, I’m still only able to watch old films, as well as some new ones that have found their way onto streaming. Although if the best a streaming service can do is The Prom, then I’d rather not have new films at all. Still, that’s a negative outlook to have, there are more streaming films to get through, I just hope they’re an improvement, although I struggle to think how they could be worse.

Film of the Month: War Horse (2011) – Directed by Steven Spielberg

It was a tough choice this month, not because I had a vast array of good films to choose from, just that everything I have watched (with the exception of Daredevil, which is a TV series) has ranged from ‘basically okay’ to god-awful. That makes War Horse the winner by default I suppose, don’t let it go to your head now Steven.

Next month I’ve got some more war films to watch courtesy of my friend and patron Ian, I’ll also be looking at some recent streaming releases in the hope that something good lives on those, and I have a new ‘Evolution of Animation’ piece all finished and set to publish next week, so I hope you all enjoy that!

Coming To America Review

Some Hollywood stars lead a long and fruitful career spanning many decades. Some operate in the background and only get their dues as supporting players. Others burn brightly for a period and then eventually fizzle out, usually after a run of poorly-received or unprofitable projects. Eddie Murphy is someone who arguably belongs in this latter category.

First coming to prominence in the 1980s through his controversial stand-up routines, it didn’t take Murphy long to transition into making movies. His magnetic charisma and screen presence lead to a string of hits across the decade and well into the 90s. Films like Beverley Hills Cop, Trading Places, and the subject of today’s review cemented Murphy as a bankable star in Hollywood.

Although his success would fluctuate throughout the 90s, he continued to be a famous face in movies well into the 2000s. However, it was at this time where the wheels would start to fall off for the once dependable box-office draw. He shifted into family films in the late 90s/early 00s which also started off as a successful avenue with appearances in Mulan, Dr Dolittle, and most notably, Shrek. His career began a steep decline as the decade wore on, though, with notorious flop The Adventures of Pluto Nash unable to even break even in box office receipts. Although the mid-2000s brought him his one and only Oscar nomination (for Best Supporting Actor in Dreamgirls), it would also see the film that would stop his career dead in its tracks; the infamous Norbit.

What is most interesting to note about this is that all the elements that mad Norbit such a titanic mess are present in Coming To America. The difference is that these elements were still fresh in 1988. By the time 2007 rolled around, we’d seen enough of Murphy in prosthetics, playing multiple characters, but he was still stuck in that mindset, refusing to believe the 80s were over. Murphy was still an exciting presence at this time; his star hadn’t yet shown any signs of fading, which is the difference between success and failure.

Either way, I had never seen Coming To America before watching it for the purposes of this review. In fact, I haven’t seen much old Murphy’s classic’ films at all. I think I may have seen Beverley Hills Cop at some point, but that’s about the extent of my knowledge. I decided to look at it now because the films’ long-awaited sequel is due to release on Prime Video next week, allowing me to catch up on what I’ve been missing.

Coming To America sees the pampered Prince Akeem (Murphy) from the fictional African country of Zamunda tired of his sheltered life and wanting to go out into the world to experience things for himself. On his wedding day, he persuades his father (played by James Earl Jones) to allow him to travel to America, where he can find a wife who he chooses, rather than one who has been trained at birth just for him.

This film must be quite highly thought of by a lot of people. After all, we wouldn’t be getting a sequel more than thirty years later if people didn’t like the first film. Sadly, I couldn’t really see anything special about it. It isn’t a bad experience, and it did make me laugh a few times, but I feel like it lacked a certain spark at times and generally could have flowed a lot better as a film. It has a fairly basic set-up, but one that lent itself well to fish-out-of-water comedy, but it didn’t do much to enhance its premise and ended up feeling a little flat.

I did like the character of Akeem, though. I was expecting a stereotypically entitled Prince-like character going in but was surprised by how warm and intelligent he is. He also seems to care for others, something that can’t be said for many of the people surrounding him, which made him a pleasant surprise as a protagonist. In films like this, I’d usually expect the Prince to go through an arc where he is taught humility because those around him demand it. Still, here the Prince seems to want to learn that by himself, and the people in his court would rather be a more aloof royal figure, which made for a nice change of pace.

So the character was there but where the film really falls down is in its plot. Not a lot happens in it. There are no real comedy set pieces to speak of. No big character moments show any depth in the world around Akeem; events just happen. They drift by unnoticed, and it feels like a vast empty space inhabited by one compelling character and a host of stock archetypes.

The best comedy scenes come in the form of the Barbershop scenes. I’d heard about these scenes before, so I knew them by reputation, but I didn’t expect them to provide the biggest laughs in the film. These scenes also provide the genesis for Murphy’s obsession with playing multiple characters; that trend starts here. Admittedly, this film is funny, with his and Arsenio Hall’s motormouthed barbers arguing about boxers providing my own personal highlight. As well as an incredible makeup job on Murphy to turn him into the Jewish customer, Saul (yet another character for him to play), which is so convincing you wouldn’t know if it was him if you hadn’t heard about it previously. While these scenes provide the biggest laughs, they are also partially to blame for what came after them in Murphy’s career, so whether you see them as positive or negative is a matter for debate. They’re undoubtedly playing off stereotypes (ones that will wear thin in the next few decades), but they reflect some of Murphy’s stand-up routines in a way, and at least they’re funny, which is more than can be said about Norbit.

Is there anything else I liked about this film? For sure. It’s always great to see James Earl Jones and listen to his voice which is so smooth you could spread it on your toast, and Akeem’s love interest Lisa is also fairly interesting. She’s strong-willed and independent, something that makes her break-up from Darryl (her then-boyfriend) in the film all the more satisfying. It should also be pointed out that it’s relatively ground-breaking how this film with a largely-black cast became such a success. It’s surprising to see from a movie in the late 80s, but not unwelcome.

Ultimately, Coming To America just didn’t feel like a film intended for me, and that’s fine. It did leave me cold, but not in an abrasive way, it just felt like a film that wasn’t supposed to be for me, and that’s maybe why it didn’t land so well with me. It’s over-long, too, further compounding its problems and making it seem like less happened in it. When you consider that I already thought it was uneventful, being over-long just really puts those problems into sharper focus.

I can see why it was popular, and Murphy is incredibly likeable and charismatic, but I just couldn’t connect with it as a whole experience. It has a few laughs but is just too slow and uneventful for me to recommend it. No matter how much I might have enjoyed watching Murphy in this role, he can’t quite save it on his own.

The Prom Review

Poor Meryl Streep. Is your career struggling so much that you were forced to sign onto this putrid cacophony of nonsense?

Forgive me, I don’t typically give the game away quite so early, do I? But I cannot accurately describe this feeling of hatred that currently squats in my stomach like all of the bile in my body has combined to create a vicious, film-destroying monster.

Let me say first and foremost, I hadn’t read any reviews of this film, as I knew that I’d eventually want to take a look at it myself eventually and didn’t want to colour my view of the film. I’d heard murmurs from the grapevine about it, but nothing I put too much stock in. Now that I’ve watched it, I feel like I’ve been through some bizarre grieving process. It started as bubbling anger that soon rose to a boiling point, then it mutated into embarrassment. I was embarrassed for the actors involved, not to mention the very relevant story it was trying to tell, which was busy being defiled by simply the worst aspects of a terrible musical. Then, finally, embarrassment gave way to exhaustion, and that’s how I feel now. Still mad, but mostly just tired.

Behind all of this mess is (as I mentioned) a very relevant and worthy story. One we have no doubt heard or seen some variation on in the past decade or so. The story is based on a 2010 controversy in Mississippi where a teenage girl wanted to take her girlfriend to her high school prom. Because it was the bible belt, she was banned from the dance. This film (and the musical it is adapted from) take this premise, moves it to Indiana, and insert several caricatures of Broadway actors trying to be activists, one of which is James Corden playing an absurd cartoon gay man.

Now, I know there was a fair amount of controversy surrounding Corden’s casting and performance (not that James Corden being cast in anything should be uncontroversial). Still, I shut that out and wanted the film to speak for itself. Instead, the film opened its mouth and vomited onto my shoes.

I am a gay man. I have mentioned this before, I don’t think it’s a surprise. Generally, I don’t have too much of a problem with straight actors playing gay roles; I would rather they be played by an actor who identifies more closely with them, but if an actor is the right person for the job, there’s no reason why they shouldn’t play them. In no universe was James Corden right for this character. As far as the writing goes, he was reasonably unsalvageable anyway, but seeing Corden, a straight man, mincing around as the worst caricature of a gay character I have seen in years, boils my blood. It’s an insult, not only to the gay community at large but to the very serious story it is undermining with its willful ignorance. I’ve made no bones about the fact that I don’t rate James Corden, but this is a new low even for him. It’s hard not to be insulted when this is how gay people were still portrayed in 2020. I wouldn’t expect this from even the worst of the controversial comedians looking for controversy, much less of a film produced by a major studio and directed by a gay man, no less!

Ryan Murphy is the man behind this film. Predominantly known for his TV work, such as Glee and American Horror Story, his work can be described as ‘formulaic’ in recent years. He seems to work mainly with stereotypes, and sometimes this works. Glee, his first big hit, used many of these too, but at its best, it played against them and subverted them. It could be lazy at times, but not as bad as this.

This film is about as fundamentally wrong as you can get. Hooking the audience in with its meaningful and worthy story and then spending the next 140 minutes beating you over the head with stereotypes and clichés. What should have been a powerful statement for universal acceptance is instead a laughing stock. Something that preaches acceptance and equality while all the while being blindingly awful in its unknowing discrimination. It’s not just the terrible performance of Corden, but the presentation of his character. Trying to portray the genuine struggles of being LGBT in an unaccepting world through such an absurd character, played with such little grace, there is no way you can possibly take him, or the film, seriously.

My heart aches for the talent in this film who are so obviously trying to make it work. Andrew Rannells, himself an openly gay actor, tries to make his paper-thin character entertaining while sharing screen-time with a character who is such a blatant insult to his sexuality, and the young actors, who, bless them, are trying so hard to make their performances count. They act some of the more experienced performers off of the screen and seem to be genuinely passionate about the person they’re portraying. Keegan-Michael Key tries to get something redeemable out of the terrible script, but it’s a lost cause.

Then there’s Meryl Streep. Perhaps the most revered screen actress of the last thirty years, she sleepwalks through this film with a look in her eyes that tells me she’d rather have been anywhere else but this film, and who can blame her? Well, we should blame her. She could have put something, anything, into her performance. Instead, she acts blankly to people she can barely muster the effort to acknowledge as being there with her.

The music is, well, it’s undoubtedly there. That’s the best I can say, really. It’s cookie-cutter, run-of-the-mill, throwaway Broadway slop that any songwriters worth their salt could have thrown together inside a day. Like the rest of the film, it’s passionless. It has something to say, but no idea how to say it in any interesting way. There isn’t a single song that you will remember after the credits roll, and that’s the worst thing you can say about any musical. You need a song for the audience to be humming to themselves afterwards, and this film has nothing memorable on its soundtrack. I’m sure it probably worked better on Broadway, but it doesn’t translate well onto the screen.

SO, for the second year running, James Corden stars in a terrible musical film. When we thought it couldn’t get worse than Cats, he throws on a sparkly suit, affects a horrific camp American accent and minces about to once again prove why he’s the single worst actor who continually finds work in Hollywood. That’s quite the crowded category too, but there is absolutely nothing redeeming about him in this film in particular. Of course, it isn’t just him, but from the first line of dialogue he spoke, I wanted to tear my own eardrums out.

Overall, a terrible script, complimented by a mediocre soundtrack, with an admittedly partially-talented cast, comes together to form perhaps the worst movie musical I have ever seen. I feel insulted and ashamed to be a fan of musicals because this exists. To make matters worse, it takes a message of LGBTQ+ acceptance and shows it absolutely zero respect. How can you make a film where the central struggle is one of a gay person fighting for approval, and in the same breath, try and justify Corden’s character. I wanted to turn it off after fifteen minutes, but I stuck it out purely because I didn’t want to let it beat me, no matter how much second-hand embarrassment I felt for the talented actors caught up in this mess. This film truly is bottom of the barrel stuff, and I hated it in ways I never knew I could.

If this is the best Netflix can do, shut it all down now.

MFR Hall of Fame Inductee: Martin Scorsese

Category: Director

Active: 1963-Present

Honours:

Academy Awards: 2 wins (Best Picture & Best Director for The Departed), 15 nominations

BAFTA Awards: 3 wins (Best Film, Best Direction, and Best Adapted Screenplay for Goodfellas), 14 nominations

Directors Guild of America Awards: 2 wins (Outstanding Directing – Feature Film for The Departed, and Outstanding Directing – Drama Series for Boardwalk Empire), 12 nominations

Golden Globe Awards: 3 wins (Best Director – Motion Picture for Gangs of New York, The Departed, and Hugo), 10 nominations

Grammy Awards: 1 win (Best Music Film for No Direction Home), 3 nominations

Emmy Awards: 3 wins (Outstanding Directing For a Drama Series for Boardwalk Empire, Outstanding Documentary or Nonfiction Special & Outstanding Directing for a Documentary/Nonfiction Program for George Hamilton: Living in the Material World), 11 nominations

Has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame (located at 6801 Hollywood Boulevard)

Culturally Significant Productions:

Taxi Driver (1976), Raging Bull (1980), Goodfellas (1990), and The Departed (2006)

Career Summary:

Scorsese is now considered an all-time great in Hollywood, and with good reason. His CV speaks for itself really, but aside from his multitude of awards, his real legacy is the influence he has had on cinema. Most notably in recent years, his fingerprints can be seen all over 2019’s Joker, which owes a lot of its DNA to Scorsese’s King of Comedy.

Not only is his style so recognisable now, but his directing has lead many great actors into their most famous roles, not to mention several awards. He has directed no less than seven Oscar winning performances, including Robert De Niro in Raging Bull, Joe Pesci in Goodfellas, and Daniel Day-Lewis in Gangs of New York. His frequent collaborators read like a who’s-who of Hollywood, and he continues to attract the biggest and brightest stars.

In each of the last four decades, Scorsese has released a film which many other directors would envy. The 1970s had Ragin Bull, The 80s Raging Bull, the 90s? Goodfellas. Even in the past two decades, as Scorsese approaches eighty, he still produces incredible work such as 2019’s The Irishman. He hasn’t released a film in this decade yet (he is working on another epic that was postponed by COVID). In the hands of any other director, any of these films would be their masterpiece, for Scorsese, it’s just another day’s work.

Introducing the Major Film Reviews Hall of Fame!

I’m always looking for ways to diversify my output on this site, and while new releases are quiet, I thought now was the best time to celebrate those iconic figures from cinema.

This is an idea I’ve been playing with for some time; I sometimes find myself wanting to write more about a particular director or actor in my reviews, but fear taking the focus from the review. This format allows me to spotlight the best the silver screen has to offer and properly reflect on their careers.

This won’t be a feature I use every week, as I’d soon run low on people to talk about, no, this will be an occasional feature, appearing on at the very least a bi-monthly basis, in order to spread to a number of different names.

Of course, a Hall of Fame should have a criteria. Otherwise it’d just be an excuse for me to talk about my favourite people (it still will be to some extent, admittedly). Therefore I am laying out the following criteria for MFR Hall of Fame induction:

  1. Their career must span at least thirty years.
  2. They must have contributed creatively to a film.
  3. Their work should be culturally or critically significant.

This is admittedly a fairly broad church. This process is more of an art than a science, and it turns out to be a lot more difficult to set rules about what is undoubtedly a subjective thing such as film. I chose not to add the need to have received any kind of award, as these are also only as significant as one allows them to be There are plenty of great talents who have never won an Academy Award, for instance, so only allowing Oscar winner in wouldn’t exactly be a fair metric. Their awards will be taken into consideration, and mentioned in the write-up, but are not absolutely necessary.

I hope you all enjoy this new feature on my site, and keep an eye out for the first inductee later on today!

War Horse Review

There are few duos in Hollywood as successful and revered as Steven Spielberg and John Williams. The director and the maestro have had a lucrative partnership that spans five decades and a truckload of awards. To date, they have worked on twenty-eight films together (starting with 1974’s The Sugarland Express), and their partnership shows no signs of fading as each man enters their twilight years.

Both men are also considered to be the best at what they do. Although the jury is out for Spielberg (who has had his fair share of duds in his career), there can be little doubt over John Williams” claim as the greatest film composer of all-time. His resume, with or without Spielberg, speaks for itself. If you can think of an iconic piece of music from a film score, chances are it’s one of his. ‘The Imperial March’ from Star Wars? Yep. The theme from Superman? Yes. The iconic music from Jurassic Park? You betcha.

The legendary duo aren’t even the only recognisable names attached to this film either. The screenplay was written by Lee Hall (Billy ElliotRocketman) and Richard Curtis (Four Wedding and a Funeral, Love Actually). It’s safe to say that this film was as thoroughbred as you can get (pun very much intended).

This film also sees Spielberg return to making a war film. Albeit one set during the First World War instead of the Second. Arguably, Spielberg’s history with war films makes the shoes War Horse has to fill even more prominent, a thought that stuck with me throughout the film.

Based on the popular children’s book by Michael Morpurgo, War Horse tells the story of a thoroughbred named Joey. We see his beginnings on a farm in Devon, his connection with Albert (Jeremy Irvine), and his role in helping Albert’s family farm’s fortunes. With the First World War outbreak, Joey is sold to the British Army to aid with the war effort. Albert is heartbroken but vows to be reunited with his horse one day.

From early on in this film, I knew it would be a difficult one to write about. Mainly because of what I said a few paragraphs ago, my subconscious mind was constantly trying to stack it up against Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan, a comparison that War Horse was always going to struggle to come through positively. Maybe it’s unfair to compare them as they’re stories of a different war, but the film seems to hit similar beats to Spielberg’s World War Two pictures.

A phrase that kept occurring to me while watching was ‘playing the hits’. In much the same way an ageing rock band wheel out the same songs night after night, Williams and Spielberg go back to the same stream where they panned so much gold in the 90s. The result was never going to stack up reasonably. A few moments, specifically in the later open warfare sections, feel like a direct homage to Saving Private Ryan‘s now-iconic opening scene.

It’s not that War Horse isn’t good or doesn’t have its own merits. It looks and sounds fantastic, but given the talent involved, it was always going to. Williams’ score is a highlight, sweeping and triumphant as well as ominous and foreboding in all the right places; it’s definitely an effort worthy of the great maestro. But again, I can’t help but think about how it stacks up against some of his other works, and it inevitably doesn’t shine as brightly.

The cinematography is also a delight. With frequent Spielberg collaborator Janusz Kaminski in charge of the cameras, it would have been even more surprising if it wasn’t. Still, it truly is a wonderfully-shot film, matching the films’ epic tone at the moments it needs to, and once again portraying the horrors of war with a visceral sense of flair present in Spielberg’s previous masterpieces.

I think the main issue with War Horse is that it just isn’t as personal when compared to Spielberg’s best work. Schindler’s List is a movie that only Spielberg could have made, or at the very least someone like Spielberg. It was a story that demanded to be told from a Jewish perspective. It is very much an outlier in his back catalogue, too. With many of his titles trying to appeal to as vast a crowd as possible, Schindler’s List was instead an artful, very personal tale that you could tell meant a lot to him. Saving Private Ryan might not have had that much of a connection as Schindler’s List. Still, it certainly helped the film to have him at the helm, and the American imagery behind it would have been a lot closer to his heart than this film.

In comparison, War Horse feels like a film that could have been made by any number of directors. I don’t feel like there was a personal connection between filmmaker and film as there had been in the past, which works to its detriment. Suppose anything, it might have benefitted from a lesser-known director, as Spielberg’s excesses (the film’s length is the main gripe here) are also on show. In that case, you’d think a younger head would have been pulled back somewhat, and I doubt anyone would have said no to someone like Spielberg.

Besides being overlong, some other moments break the film’s spell, too, such as the German soldiers speaking to each other in English. I understand some of them would have spoken English to interrogate prisoners, but when addressing each other? I’m sure using German with subtitles wouldn’t have turned too many people off. It may seem like a minor quibble, but things like this can really break your immersion in a story. Or maybe that’s just me.

There are still things I liked about War Horse, though. For instance, I like the even-handed portrayals of each sides soldiers. The Germans aren’t necessarily shown to be the bad guys, but more like equal aggressors. In fact, perhaps my favourite scene in the film includes one soldier from each side working together to save the titular horse. This, combined with some incredible war scenes in no man’s land, the cinematography that so artfully pops off the screen, and another rousing Williams score, means that there’s enough to recommend about War Horse.

Depending on how much you read into films, you might love this film. It is when stacked up against other movies in Spielberg’s canon that it starts to diminish. It may be “playing the hits”, but when your highs are as high as Spielberg’s, your greatest hits might just be enough.

Daredevil (2015-2018 TV Series) Review

As a few of you may know, I often struggle to keep up to date with TV shows. I never got past the fourth season of Game of Thrones, I’m not entirely sure if I ever finished Breaking Bad, and I’ve never seen so much as one episode of The Sopranos.

Even shows that interest me tend to go unwatched. I remember around the time this series launched, I had just read some Daredevil comics and was very much looking forward to seeing his on-screen reputation saved after the eraly-2000s Ben Affleck debacle. However, for one reason or another, I just never started it. Before I knew it, there was a whole universe of Marvel properties on Netflix to catch up on.

Not that I can see myself watching all the Marvel series on the streaming service however. It is only really Daredevil and The Punisher that interest me out of the TV Marvel offerings. I did also watch The Defenders too, but that’s a story for another time.

The events of Daredevil and the numerous subsequent Netflix series, are tangentially related to the ongoing MCU. Not in any meaningful way, mind you, larger events are sometimes alluded to in conversation, but otherwise the series’ might as well be happening on an entirely different planet. Especially when it comes to the tone of the series, which is like night-and-day in comparison with most of the MCU. The MCU is usually lighter, with an emphasis on humour, whereas this is darker, grittier, and much more explicitly violent.

It also has a quasi-realistic atmosphere, taking place in a crime-infested borough of New York, Hell’s Kitchen, its particular approach to fights and violence is much more visceral and grounded. No magic hammers in sight here, just guys using their wits and fists. And semi-automatic weapons, those too.

This approach is one of the many ways Daredevil differs from its big-screen stablemates. There’s a more urgent sense of danger during the confrontations, whereas the movie heroes all have their own superpowers, Daredevil is ostensibly just a really well-trained fighter. No matter how well prepared he seems, there is always a sense of danger hanging over him and his friends.

Not that violence is its only bag, far from it. Readers of the comics will know that Daredevil is big on characters, and their relationships to each other. The development of these relationships is the core of what makes this series as eminently watchable as it is. You can’t help but watch ‘just one more episode’ to see how Fisk moves ahead of Daredevil, or how his double life as lawyer Matt Murdoch will affect his relationships with Foggy Nelson (Elden Henson; his law partner) and Karen Page (Deborah Ann Woll; their office manager, and Matt’s love interest). These characters keep the show ticking, and lend a sense of intrigue beyond the usual superhero fare.

Season One

The debut season of the MCU’s foray into Netflix saw Matt Murdoch/Daredevil’s (Charlie Cox) thoroughly established. His long-running rivalry with Wilson Fisk (Vincent D’Onofrio) is forged after he drags the crime boss into the spotlight by using both sides of his dual life to their fullest potential.

This season very much starts as an easing-in process. It takes its time to establish the characters and their relationships, and the TV format allows for a more organic character growth. This is helped by the narrative flashing back when necessary to give us context to these characters interactions.

Take for instance Matt and Foggy, the Nelson & Murdoch who give their names to their newly-minted law practice. It is obvious from seeing their interactions that they have a deep and involved history, and we don’t get to see the whole story of their friendship, but we get the bones of it. Their meeting at college, growing closer, right the way up to their present day law office. It also helps that the actors portraying the characters share an enviable chemistry, which injects extra life into their exchanges.

The real winner from this season (and the show as a whole) is the development of Wilson Fisk, and Daredevil’s quest to bring him down. As much as Fisk, AKA Kingpin, is an iconic villain in the comic-book world, the series doesn’t assume the viewer is familiar with him, it makes his growth into the towering menace he is all the more organic and accessible to the layperson.

I’d say that is the main thing the series has in common with the MCU, its accessibility. In much the same way the film franchise aimed to introduce (or re-introduce) its characters, the story is as enjoyable to viewers who have never so much as glanced at a comic, as it is to the graphic novel veterans.

Season One feels like a show that knows its potential, but is perhaps just testing its own boundaries. It starts off with classic Daredevil characters and stories before it can delve further in future seasons. Despite this, it does such a good job with the stories it tells and the narrative arcs it establishes, and it gains confidence as it goes along too, laying the groundwork for future seasons and stories.

All of this leads to a simply breath-taking season finale that pays off each twist and turn with confidence and excellence. It is clear at this point that this series could be a highlight of the entire MCU.

In short, it feels like the start of something so much bigger, and like a series that is really finding its step; especially as it approaches its final few episodes. Seeds are sewn, alliances broken, and an iconic character is reborn.

Season Two

Following on from the events of the first seasons finale, Matt investigates a series of violent gang-land murders that leads to a new deadly threat emerging. Frank Castle (Jon Bernthal), later labelled ‘The Punisher’ is out for violent revenge in Hell’s Kitchen, and Daredevil sets out to stop the bloodshed.

I have to admit, I was very excited by the prospect of season two including The Punisher, as he’s actually one of my favourite characters in comics. Granted, he isn’t always easy to champion, especially these days, but he is a product of his background (especially his print portrayal anyway) and has produced some incredible stories such as The Punisher: Born which tells the story of how his psyche was forged in the Vietnam War, and Welcome Home, Frank which depicts him returning to Hell’s Kitchen to clean up the streets.

Granted, the TV Punisher isn’t exactly the same as his comic namesake, this Frank fought in Iraq and Afghanistan, for instance, which is a logical change to make when you’re working within a modern timeline. His motives and methods are still as tragic and ruthless, respectively, however.

Following the death of his family in the middle of a gang shoot-out, Frank is out to kill everyone involved, and throughout the season we learn that things may not be exactly how they seemed. Along the way, Daredevil, who regards taking a life as a bridge he won’t cross, tries to stop him, which creates the an interesting dynamic. On the one hand, they’re both out for the same bad guys, but their opposing methods mean that they are frequently at loggerheads with each other.

As the season goes along, this dynamic changes and evolves as the circumstances surrounding Frank’s killing spree are investigated, and Matt actually ends up defending Frank in court, which makes for a nice change of pace mid-season as the series starts to flirt with courtroom drama.

Frank isn’t the only newcomer to the series though, as Matt’s ex-girlfriend Elektra (Elodie Yung) also returns to his life as she is embroiled in a centuries-long conflict between two rival clans: The Hand and The Chaste.

I’ll be honest, I wasn’t as keen on the supernatural elements The Hand/Chaste story arc brought with it. It felt like a lurching change of tone for a series that had built a realistic and gritty vigilante tale to the screen to suddenly embrace mystical cults. It does make sense as the story unfolds, but I wasn’t as invested in this side of the story as I was in the rest.

It also leaves me in a somewhat awkward spot, as this story arc wasn’t concluded in Daredevil, but instead The Defenders, the team-up series of all of Netflix’s Marvel characters. As a series, I found it bridged the gap well enough, but I wasn’t as invested or interested in it as I was in Daredevil. It also didn’t do a great job of selling the other characters to me. I had no real interest in any of them going in, and I still don’t. Still enjoyable for what it was though.

Season Three

Taking inspiration from the comic story ‘Born Again’, this season sees Wilson Fisk strike a deal with the FBI to get out of prison and be held under house arrest. Along the way, he’ll make new allies, and try to bring down Matt Murdoch and Daredevil once and for all.

Season Three was a complete home run for me. Everything you could ever want out of a Daredevil series is here, not a moment is wasted. Sadly though, it looks like it’ll be the last we see of the horned hero, at least for the time being. Although I personally think it’d be a massive wasted opportunity if Disney doesn’t choose to continue the series on its new adult-orientated side of Disney+, Star.

So, Kingpin has had time to stew in prison. He’s spent that time forging alliances behind bars, forever the master manipulator. He also finds himself some new allies on the outside when he manages to swing himself a deal that lands him in his penthouse suit instead of a prison cell.

Although this series finished a few years ago, I’m going to avoid many massive spoilers for plot developments, as it is a masterful season-long narrative. It manipulates its audience like a master conductor works an orchestra. It’s all at once a sprawling, yet personal tale, as Matt seeks to rebuild his life, while Fisk plans on ending it.

There’s moments of drama, of searing emotion, and visceral action. Matt is almost unrecognisable in this season from the man in Season One. For a few different reasons, he has to start his life from scratch in this season. He’s only brought out of the shadows by his nemesis’ re-emergence into public life. His relationships are the most strained they’ll ever be and tested to breaking point, in much the same way his physical state is tested.

The season concludes on yet another stunning chapter, closing the book on a season that has seen Matt and his friends skirt ever-closer to death as Fisk closes the net around him, and he comes toe-to-toe with another foe who seems to have him outmatched throughout the entire season.

For as much great stuff as there is in the MCU, having now watched Daredevil, I would rank it up there with the best the franchise has to offer. It ends in a satisfactory manner, sure, but there are still plenty of stories that can be told.

Daredevil feels like a series with plenty of gas left in the tank, so to speak, and it would be a great shame if we never saw Charlie Cox don the famous suit again. Disney now has their adult-focused side of their streaming site, maybe the time is perfect for a devilish return.

Obituary: Christopher Plummer

Christopher Plummer 1929-2021

“You’re only two years younger than me, darling. Where have you been all my life?”

These are the words said by Christopher Plummer to his newly-won Oscar back in 2011. An Oscar some would say was also well-overdue.

As unbelievable as it may seem, Plummer was only first nominated two years earlier, in 2009, thirty-five years earlier, he won a Tony Award for his leading role in Cyrano on Broadway. He is, in fact, the only Canadian to complete the Triple Crown of Acting (Academy Award, Emmy Award, and Tony Award).

All three of his Academy Award nominations came for Supporting Roles, but throughout his career, he showed himself to be incredibly versatile as both a Leading and Supporting player.

Many modern cinema-goers will recognize him from recent films such as Knives out (as family patriarch Harlan Thrombey), his Oscar-winning turn in Beginners, and, of course, perhaps most (in)famously as J. Paul Getty in All the Money in the World (for which he scored another Oscar nomination).

It would do a disservice to the man’s legacy to ruminate on the circumstances that saw him hastily film Getty’s scenes in Ridley Scott’s drama. Suffice it to say, he made it seem like there was never any other choice for the role.

To many older heads, he will perhaps be most recognisable for his famous turn as Captain von Trapp in The Sound of Music, although the man himself had little love for the film which made him a household name. Labelling the film ‘The Sound of Mucus’ in the years since its release.

All of this to one side, however, he was a phenomenally respected actor in his field, with a filmography as long as your arm. His career spanned nearly seventy years, on stage and screen, and showed no signs of slowing down in his twilight years, with him consistently working into his nineties, with notable roles in the aforementioned Knives Out, and a leading TV role in NBC’s departure. At the time of his passing, he was, according to his wife, preparing to appear as ‘King Lear’ in a film adaptation of the famous Shakespeare tragedy.

It is perhaps no great shock when someone of Plummer’s age passes away, but it is no less sad. He showed in recent years that he still had something left to give, and brought a unique class to the projects he was involved with, the sort of which is gradually becoming a dying art in Hollywood. Not to mention the tremendous amount of range he possessed as a performer that saw him in roles that varied from Shakespearean kings to Star Trek Klingons, and everything in-between.

Still, while we mourn the loss of a true talent, we must spare a thought for his immeasurable legacy he leaves us, and of course, the family he leaves behind; the family that surrounded him as he passed, following a fall at his home.

It must be said that Plummer had few equals, and his passing is yet another example of us losing a ‘last of his kind’ talent, we are not likely to see a performer like him again.

Nevertheless, he is outlived by his immeasurable legacy. One that spans seven decades, and goes beyond awards and accolades. The shadow he cast was long indeed, and many will be grateful for having been able to stand in it.

Countdown Review

There are probably some confused UK readers right now wondering why I’m reviewing an afternoon letters-and-numbers game show, but rest assured, I am not. Although frankly, I wish I were.

Now and again a film will come along with an interesting concept, but with no idea how to effectively use it, just like this one, which has a good idea, but no practical ideas to make it anything other than a bland, by-the-numbers horror flick.

In fact, it’s so bland, I don’t remember much of it at all. I remember it was full of cliches and centred around an app which told you when you are due to die. Other than that, it’s just white noise to me.

Granted, I initially watched it a while ago, but even then, I had very little to say about it, it’s incredible; it’s almost as if my memory has purged itself of all trace of Countdown, thinking, quite reasonably, that it wouldn’t be worth thinking about again.

For what it’s worth, what I do remember was pretty awful. Characters copied-and-pasted from the slasher character creation wizard. You know the kind, the ones who might as well have clocks on their head counting down to their deaths, only hastened by the phenomenally stupid decisions they make.

You see, the catch with this ‘killer app’ is that it will worsen a characters death if they try and avoid it; which is something the characters take a good while to figure out in typical brain-dead slasher character fashion.

Every cliché is checked off on the character checklist, while all the while exhibiting zero self-awareness. Scream was pointing out these cliches and laughing at them over twenty-five years ago, and here’s this film unironically trying to make them serious again. A brave, but fruitless endeavour.

What good ideas this film had are hidden beneath its utterly forgettable nature. If I can forget what happened in your film an hour after I’ve finished watching it, you’ve got problems.

Ultimately, a film can be many varieties of bad, but the worst kind of bad is the boring and unremarkable kind, and this film would finish first in the ‘Forgettable Film Olympics’ if such a thing existed, and anyone remembered enough about it to show up.

I would rather watch the aforementioned afternoon game show Countdown than watch this again. At least there’s some entertainment value in trying and failing to make the numbers add up, and there’s Rachel Riley for all you red-blooded males out there.

This doesn’t even have an attractive mathematician to make it worthwhile. It has a good idea, but an idea is only as good as the person who has it. The best idea in the world will fall apart if left in the hands of incompetent morons, and while I won’t go as far as calling the creators that, I will say that they should probably stop renting out old slasher films, and using them as inspiration.

I guess that means this review is a bit shorter than usual, so to make up for it, here’s a list of things that are more fun than this film:

  • A birthday party where the bouncy castle has been cancelled.
  • Unanesthetised dental surgery.
  • Being stuck in a room with a murderous clown.
  • Political debates around the Christmas Dinner table.
  • Engaging in conversation with a hipster. Or a real ale enthusiast (whatever difference that makes)
  • Attending a James Blunt concert.
  • Having to explain what ‘fellatio’ is to an elderly relative.
  • Spending for than half-an-hour in Birmingham. (The one in the UK, I’ve never been to Alabama. I suspect I wouldn’t be welcome anyway.)
  • And finally… being stuck behind a caravan on a long journey.

I almost put ‘Michael Bay Films’ on that list, but no one would have taken it seriously. Just take my word for it, give this one a pass.