Review: Fish, Live at The Wharf, Tavistock

The Moveable Feast Tour by Fish (2013) –  large_5

As you could probably haver guessed from my review of Sounds That Can’t Be Made, I am quite a big Marillion fan. So when I discovered, back in May 2012, that their former lead singer Fish would be performing in Exeter that month, I jumped at the chance to see him, despite only owning one of his solo albums – the rather brilliant 13th Star.

I went to the concert unsure about what I would find. Would Fish’s other solo stuff be any good? Would he play any Marillion so that I could at least sing along to something? Would Fish himself turn out to be some sort of pretentious poet type? Luckily, the answer to the first two questions turned out to be a resounding “yes”, and I ended up experiencing one of the best concerts of my life so far. Every song he played was amazing, even though I only recognised a couple, but it wasn’t just the music that impressed me, it was the man himself. Rather than the conceited showman I had feared, Fish turned out to be most charming, funny, compelling, and self-deprecating performers I have ever seen, and it was an absolute blast watching him work. After leaving the gig, I immediately signed up to his newsletter and quickly scoured eBay, Amazon, and even Fish’s own website for his back catalogue and it wasn’t long before I had acquired his other eight solo albums, and each one was as brilliant as the last.

*

So when history repeated itself and Fish’s latest tour – The Moveable Feast Tour, in support of his upcoming album – brought him to South Devon again, this time to Tavistock, I once again jumped at the chance to see him again.

He opened the concert with a new song, Perfume River, a heavy, brooding song with a great chorus. It was accompanied by a projected slide-show of footage of war and poverty, and seemed to send a pretty clear message to the audience – the new album, A Feast Of Consequences, is going to be a dark and serious affair. But that didn’t mean that the concert itself was, with the big man happily aping around on stage between songs, interacting with the audience in good humour, and even suggesting to sell his sweat and snot soaked tissues on  eBay.

The gig seemed to be a celebration of the old and the new,with the band playing seven songs from the new album, and filling the rest of the set-list with old classics from both his solo career and his days with Marillion. Script For A Jester’s Tear was the second song of the night and was brilliant, as was He Knows You Know, which came accompanied by a funny story about how, while working at the job shop and tripping on acid, Fish had scrawled the lyrics to the song over the entire surface of his desk.

Other new songs played were the blistering title track, A Feast Of Consequences, which featured astoundingly raw vocals from fish, a hauntingly acoustic number called Blind To The Beautiful, which came with a warning to take any antidepressants available, and a quirky little song called All Loved Up, a scrutinising look at the modern ‘celebrity’, which clearly had a ball performing. As for the old classics, we had the excellent Goldfish and Clowns, the explosive What Colour Is God?, and the brilliantly melancholic Family Business, which was truly jaw-dropping live.

*

The real highlight of the night came when Fish announced that they were going to play the middle section of the upcoming and much-anticipated High Wood Suite, a five song epic from the new album. Before playing Crucifix Corner, The Gathering, and Thistle Alley, Uncle Fish shared a story with us. He told us about how both his Grandfathers had fought in, and survived, the First World War, and how, on his birthday, Fish had visited the places that they both saw action. Inspired by the whole thing, Fish set about writing The High Wood Suite to honour not just his Grandfathers, but everyone who fought for their country in the Great War.

Crucifix Corner started slow, all dim lights and and drawn-out keyboards, while the footage of the First World War started being projected on the back wall. The mood and tone of the piece had been set, and just as the guitar was about to enter the fray, all the instruments suddenly went silent. The audience all shared a look, unsure as to whether or not this was part of the song. Then a voice from the back of the room called out “The fuse has blown!”

The problem was quickly traced back to an amp with had given up the ghost, and while the roadies quickly tried to fix it, Fish and his band deliberated on if they could play a song with only half their equipment working. They eventually decided that they could, and that Lavender would be the song. Despite the guitarist having to be reminded what key it was in, it was an incredible moment, mainly because it was just so spontaneous. It was beautifully performed, and the audience loved it, belting out the lyrics as loud as they could.

Once a replacement amp had been set up, the band was ready to start Crucifix Corner again. The slide-show flickered back into life and the song picked up from where it had left off. Crucifix Corner was great, it’s slow opening giving way into a deceptively heavy anthem. The Gathering was just as good, with a rip-roaring chorus and lyrics that really made you think. Thistle Alley was fantastic as well, a dark and brooding number that really got the blood pumping. It was no surprise that the trilogy of songs got the loudest applause of the night.

*

After that, the band went into a medley of his older songs, which started with Assassing, before segueing into songs like Credo and Tongues, before eventually making its back to Assassing, then finally coming to an end with the closing section of Fugazi. It was a brilliant medley, with Fish given each song his all, not matter how small their part, and he had the audience clapping their hands, stamping their feet, and singing along in joyous euphoria. Just as the applause was dying down, the band immediately launched into White Feather, which was another great little number. Fish started to shout of the names of his musicians, each one to a roar of applause from the audience. Just as Fish reached the keyboardist, the stage went silent again. Another amp had shorted out.

With a shrug, the band put down their instruments and left the stage, all to a thunderous roar of applause. Fish stayed put though, and leant out into the audience, his voice commanding enough to reach us all, even unaided by a microphone, and said “Now that’s what you call the end of show!” Then he started to sing the chorus of White Feather again, conducting the audience with his hands as we sang along. After that, Fish left the stage. It was clear that there would be no encore, but after a concert like that, no one was bothered.

*

Despite the technical gremlins, or possibly because of them, Fish once again cemented his reputation as the big man, and proved that he is one of the best performers out there. Able to make an audience laugh or cry, and able to shrug of technical faults like a true professional, he clearly loves what he does, and his enthusiasm is more that a little infectious. Once again, Fish succeeded in blowing me away with just how good he really is.

And based on the performance of the new songs he played, I’ve already pre-ordered my copy of A Feast Of Consequences.

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Review: Wreck-It Ralph

Wreck-It Ralph (2013) –  large_4

I like to consider myself something of a computer game nerd, so when I first heard about Wreck-It Ralph, my interest was immediately piqued. Then I saw the trailers and I was hooked. Then the positive reviews started pouring in and I couldn’t wait to see this film.

But that’s exactly what I had to do. I had to wait for the film to come out in this country. When it did finally arrive, four excruciating months after the US release date, me and my little brother practically ran to the cinema. Luckily, Wreck-It Ralph was worth the wait.

*

From the moment the film started, with its brilliant eight-bit Disney logo, it was clear that this was a film made for game lovers by game lovers, but that doesn’t mean you have to be a game lover to enjoy it. Whatever your relationship with arcade games, the film is still instantly enjoyable, with the big heart of classic Disney and action-pieces to thrill even a Michael Bay fan.

The reason the film is so accessible and enjoyable to everyone is because of the way the references to games are handled. It would have been far to easy to overload the film with cameos and sight-gags, cramming every available second with a loud and obvious reference. While this approach would have undoubtedly made several fan-boys wet themselves, it would have also alienated a large portion of the audience and the plot would have undoubtedly suffered, buried beneath all the winks and nudges.

Instead, apart from the opening ‘Bad-Anon’ meeting, the cameos are never at forefront of the film. They are left in the background for the people who get them to spot and enjoy (the ‘Aerith Lives’ graffiti was a personal favourite of mine). Mario is mentioned once in conversation, Sonic is seen in a public awareness message, and Pac-Man is a background character in one scene. These are some of the films ‘biggest’ cameos and they are handled with a mature and refreshing restraint that is present throughout the entire film.

*

Wreck-It Ralph is a visually stunning film, and is aided brilliantly by its use of 3D. Disney seem to be one of the few companies that are able to use the third dimension to enhance their films, rather then just exploit its gimmicky things-flying-out-of-the-screen side. Much like the jaw-dropping Tron Legacy, Wreck-It Ralph is a film that needs to be seen in 3D. The sheer depth of the film is astounding, with some sets, particularly Game Central Station, appearing at times to go on for miles. When the characters in the games look out at the real world, the colossal screen in the sky seems so ominously far away that the distance between them is practically palpable.

And it’s not just the visuals that are great. The film excels vocally as well. John C. Reilly is instantly loveable as the put-upon Ralph, optimistic and honest, he is easy to relate to as the man who just wants a little bit more out of his lot in life. Sarah Silverman keeps the motormouthed Vanellope von Schweetz on the right side of cute and, as she loudly says herself, she’s adorable. Fix-It Felix, Jr., the charming hero of his game, is excellently voiced by Jack McBrayer, playing the character as both naive, confident, and extremely likeable. Jane Lynch seems to be channelling Jennifer Hale’s Commander Shepard with her performance as Sergeant Calhoun, but that’s by no means a bad thing. And it’s always a thrill to see a Firefly alumnus appear in the top credits of a major movie, especially when it’s Alan Tudyk as the gloriously over-the-top King Candy.

*

The story is also very well handled. Ralph’s desire for more is sensitively handled and ensures that the audience is on his side. After setting up the story, things really jump up a notch when Ralph first game jumps into Hero’s Duty, a violent FPS that leads to a thrilling and hilariously frenetic action sequence. Then Ralph continuous on to the racing game, Sugar Rush, and the second half of the film plays out there.

Many critics seemed to think that the plot suffered hereby slowing down to an almost unbearable crawl. While I will admit that things do slow down in Sugar Rush, I don’t think it is enough to make the film suffer. Besides, after the zippy pace of the first half of the movie, it’s nice to get a little breathing space. Once Sugar Rush’s titular race starts, the pace soon speeds up again, roaring along like the race cars as all the plot stands converge for a heck of an action-packed finale.

Like most Disney films, Wreck-It Ralph wears its heart upon its sleeve, but I for one have never been bothered by their obvious sentimentality, and I am unashamed to say that were tears welling in my eyes at several points. But the film also makes sure everything is not too sugar-coated and is not afraid of going to some very dark places at times, and is even willing to take a few good-natured pot-shots at the Mouse House.

*

One of the things that actually impressed me the most was just how well advertised Wreck-It Ralph was. At the moment, there seems to be an unfortunate trend of revealing most of a film’s plot in its trailers. Wreck-It Ralph though, was a thankful antithesis to this trend. All I knew from the trailers was that Ralph had become disillusioned by his job as a villain, so as a result, went game jumping. I knew he went to a First-Person Shooter, and I knew he went to a racing game, and I knew that, in said racing game, he met a little girl. That was pretty much all that the many trailers told you, and that was all you needed to know about the film to decide whether or not you wanted to go and see it.

So imagine my surprise and excitement when things started happening that I had no idea about. I didn’t know just how important Hero’s Duty or Sugar Rush were going to be to the plot. I didn’t know that Felix went looking for Ralph, or that he teamed up with Calhoun. I didn’t know how important Vanellope was to the story or to Ralph’s journey. I didn’t know about the Cy-Bugs, about Turbo, or the danger that Ralph’s leaving puts his game into. Hell, I didn’t even know this film had a villain, and to keep something like that secret is bloody impressive.

Until I saw Wreck-It Ralph, I hadn’t actually realised how regularly films are spoiled by their advertising campaigns, but it was so refreshing to actually be surprise by the plot twists and the character developments. That thrill of the unknown definitely made the film so much more enjoyable.

*

Full of memorable performances, and dizzily brilliant set-pieces, Wreck-It Ralph is so much more than a love-letter to arcade games. It is a touching, funny, thrilling adventure that, like its main character, has a big heart and a strong moral centre. Another triumph for Disney.

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Review: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012) –  large_5

I apologise for the lateness of this post. Despite seeing An Unexpected Journey just a few days after it was released, I have waited nearly a month before writing my review. The reason for this is because I knew that, without multiple viewings and some distancing time, my review would be little more than “ZOMG! Squee! 5 stars!”, and I wanted to be able to write something a tad more substantial than that. So here I am, four weeks and three viewings later, and I finally feel I’ve calmed down enough to put my thoughts into words.

I can’t remember the last time I was so excited going into a cinema. It was probably when I went to the midnight screening of Revenge of the Sith (Hey, don’t judge!), but even then, I wasn’t this excited. As I sat down in front of the darkened screen, gripping the armrests, and the words ‘A Wingnut Films Production’ appeared on the screen in that font and accompanied by that music, I got goosebumps. The film hadn’t even properly started yet, and I already had goosebumps. It was because I had been waiting for this moment ever since an adaptation of The Hobbit was first announced back in 2006. I knew that no miserable critics or a ‘mediocre’ score of 65% on Rotten Tomatoes was going to put me off. I was going to love this film.

And I was not disappointed. Those goosebumps lasted the entire film and when the screen finally faded back to black, my cheeks hurt from smiling so much.

*

I’ll start by saying that I only saw the film in standard 3D and 2D, so I won’t be able to comment on 48fps. All I know about the high frame rate is from what I’ve read in other reviews, and the fact that my brother loved it and my girlfriend hated it. Based on the backlash 48fps has received and the impact it undoubtedly had on An Unexpected Journey‘s critical standing, it will be interesting to see if it has a future within the industry.

*

Now, on to the film itself. It begins exactly as it should – in a hole in the ground, with a hobbit. Seeing Sir Ian Holm back as the older Bilbo Baggins is a joy (especially considering that this is his first film role since 2007’s Ratatouille) and his narrated prologue is both thrilling and a great way to jump-start the plot. By seeing the fall of Erebor, we are quickly introduced to some of the trilogy’s key players – Thorin Oakenshield, his close friend Balin,  Thranduil the Elvenking, and most importantly, Smaug the dragon – and we also learn about several important plot points – the Arkenstone, where Thorin’s hatred of elves stems from – without Jackson having to later shoehorn in an introduction or an explanation.

By opening with events that take place hundreds of years before the events of the trilogy, it draws clear parallels with The Lord of the Rings, which is never a bad thing. However, the most effective thing about the prologue is not just the great sense of nostalgia at seeing Bilbo and Frodo again, but the fact that we are reminded of the hobbit that Bilbo Baggins will become, which makes our introduction to Martin Freeman’s younger, fussier Bilbo so much better, both comically and dramatically.

*

The scenes that follow the prologue, in which the thirteen dwarves arrive at Bag End and upset Bilbo’s precious normality, have been deemed by many as taking too long and delaying the progression of the story, but I personally found that wasn’t the case. There were so many great moments set in Bilbo’s homestead. There was comedy, there was drama, and there were some fantastic character moments – Bilbo’s brilliantly OTT meltdown over the state of his house is a particular treat. We got two of Tolkien’s original songs (elements of the book I must admit to skipping over), one funny, the other deeply moving. Most importantly, though, we learn of the dwarves quest to reclaim their homeland. It’s hardly meandering and tedious when you think about just how much happens at Bag End.

Many critics seem to use Bag End as evidence that the decision to split The Hobbit into a trilogy was an ill advised one. When the third film was first announced, it was met with a chorus of derision, criticised as being a decision made by money hungry executives. How could a book a quarter of the size of The Lord of the Rings warrant a movie trilogy of the same length? Well, when you see what Jackson has done with the material, you realise that the decision to extend the films into a trilogy must have been an easy one to make. The Hobbit is a story that needs extension, it craves to be embellished. Some critics don’t agree. They claim that Jackson has stretched the material too thin, making the film run too long and start too late, citing the ‘tiresome’ opening act as proof.  I personally don’t think that is the case though. I found the film completely riveting and never once became aware of the long running time.

In Jackson’s hands, throwaway lines like “the stone-giants were out, and were hurling rock at one another for a game” become exhilarating set pieces. As good as Tolkien was, The Hobbit is full of underdeveloped ideas like this, so the story contains plenty of opportunity for expansion. Even the book’s big finale, the Battle of Five Armies, only takes up about four pages. With Jackson’s direction, it could (and rightfully should) have an entire hour of cinema dedicated to bringing it to life.

As well as expanding sections of the book, Jackson and his fellow writers have made several additions. These blasphemous deviations away from the source text are actually very important and necessary to the story. The ‘new’ sub-plot involving Dol Guldur, the White Council, and the Necromancer is all in the book. It just happens to take place away from the eyes of the reader. In the final few pages of the book, there is a sentence saying

It was in this way that he learned where Gandalf had been to; for he overheard the words of the wizard to Elrond. It appeared that Gandalf had been to a great council of the white wizards, masters of lore and good magic; and that they had at last driven the Necromancer from his dark hold in the south of Mirkwood.

While having a main character vanish for half of a story, then turn up at the end and say “Guess what I went and did.” might (just about) work in a book, there is no way such a device would work in a visual medium. The audience will want to see those events take place, not just hear about them. It would be akin to not showing where Luke goes after leaving Hoth in The Empire Strikes Back, then having him turn up an hour later on Cloud City saying “Hey, guys. I’m a Jedi now! And I met a little green guy called Yoda!” Dramatically and narratively, it just wouldn’t work, and the same goes for The Hobbit. The additions may be a deviation away from the content of the book, but they are not a deviation from Tolkien.

There are some points where the film does deviate away from the words of Tolkien, but I do not see the alterations as being a bad thing. The changes made by Jackson and co actually give the events of the book a much needed dramatic structure. Similarly to having the elves arrive at Helms Deep and Arwen taking Frodo to Rivendell, giving The Hobbit an antagonist other than Smaug is an effective move. Not only does it contextualise several events of the book, but more importantly it gives Thorin a previously lacking emotional journey.

*

One of the main complaints levelled against An Unexpected Journey is that several of the thirteen dwarves were lacking in characterisation and personality. I must admit that had I not avidly checked TheOneRing.net on a daily basis, eagerly absorbing every bit of Hobbit related news, then I don’t think I would be able to name all the dwarves. While I agree that some of the dwarves lacked individuality, I don’t see it as an entirely bad thing.

Instead of fleshing out all thirteen, Jackson instead focuses on portraying the dwarves as an effective singular unit. This highlights the closeness of the group and emphasises their shared traits, such as their loyalty and fearlessness. He does single out a choice few characters, such as Thorin, Balin, Kíli and Fíli, and Bofur. While this decision does mean that some of the dwarves are left short-changed (I seem to remember poor old Jed Brophy’s Nori only getting one line in the entire movie), it ensures that we care about enough of the individual dwarves to invest our interest into the whole company, such is the nature of their tight-nit group.

The Hobbit tells the story of Bilbo Baggins, so, naturally, the focus of the film is on him. After all, Jackson has two other films to bring the dwarves into the forefront. In this film, however, it is necessary for Jackson and Freeman to make the audience empathises with Bilbo, to make sure he is the one we are all rooting for. By portraying the dwarves as an effective singular unit, and alienating the audience from some of the individual dwarves, Jackson highlights Bilbo’s position as an outsider. He cannot integrate himself into the group and neither can the audience. Our perception of the dwarves is shaped by Bilbo’s and that makes the bond between protagonist and audience stronger. This guarantees that our sympathies and interests are with Bilbo, and this works very well dramatically and makes the emotional arch of An Unexpected Journey a worthy one.

 *

On the more technical side of things, the film is beautifully shot, but we’ve come to expect nothing less from the director who gave us ‘The Lighting of the Beacons’ scene from The Return of the King. There were a few moments, particularly during my first viewing (where I watched the film in a kind of open-mouthed awe), that I actually got tears in my eyes from some of the shots of the New Zealand scenery. There was just something so beautiful and magical about seeing my one-time home back on the big screen, accompanied once again by Howard Shore’s brilliantly rousing, and often nostalgic score. And this time, it was in glorious 3D.

Jackson has never been one to shy away from big action sequences, and An Unexpected Journey is no exception. Like the previously mentioned stone-giants scene, the film’s other set pieces are just as impressive, if not more so. Jackson directs the action with a deft and assured hand, drawing as much excitement and drama out of the sequences as possible. The scene with the three Trolls is beautifully choreographed and contains a great number of brilliant, genuinely funny moments. The escape from Goblin Town is exhilarating and visually spectacular. Both of the Warg sequences are equally thrilling, the latter with some truly edge of your seat moments.

Part of the appeal of returning to Middle-earth is the chance to once again see the stunning work done by Richard Taylor and the rest of Weta Workshop. The sets, the costumes, the prosthetics, and yes, the CGI, all look fantastic. It’s been interesting to see the complaints levelled against the film’s computer animation, especially after the CGI in The Lord of the Rings trilogy was lauded. I personally thought the digital effects looked fantastic, but they do seem to have fallen flat with a lot of people. It’s quite interesting to note that the majority of people who thought the CGI was sub-par are the same people who saw the film in 48fps. Bearing most of the critical brunt is Azog, the pale Orc, but he looked fine to me.

One CGI creation that seems to be above the criticism, and rightfully so because he looked spectacular, is Gollum. I was blown away by Gollum when he first appeared on-screen in The Two Towers. I had never seen a computer generated creation look so real, so flawless. What surprised me about An Unexpected Journey was just how much better he looked. Only Weta Digital would be able to improve on perfection.

*

‘Riddles in the Dark’ is the true stand-out of the film, and not just because of the jaw-dropping CGI. It is fantastic to see Andy Serkis back in the role that made him a household name, and it’s clear that the actor is relishing in the opportunity as well. It’s a great shame that the Academy has yet to acknowledge motion capture as ‘real acting’, because his performance is this film is more than worthy of a ‘Best Supporting Actor’ nomination. He injects Gollum with with far more feral menace than before, and Sméagol is more childlike and playful, but Serkis manages to combine these two contrasting personalities into a creature who is deserving both Bilbo’s fear and his pity. Gollum’s rage at losing the ring coupled with Sméagol utter despair makes for a touchingly poignant moment of cinema.

Of course, not all of the success of ‘Riddles in the Dark’ can be heaped onto just Andy Serkis, because it’s equally down to Martin Freeman, who gives a truly astonishing performance. When Freeman’s casting was first announced, I wasn’t sure how I felt. I liked him, liked the grounded every-man routine he did so well, but I wasn’t sure how successful he’d be in a role as demanding as Bilbo Baggins. But then I watched The Reichenbach Fall, and Waston’s graveside plea to Holmes broke my heart. I suddenly understood why Freeman had been Jackson’s only choice.

Martin Freeman excels in this film. His every-man routine (every-hobbit in this case) is used to great effect, and his comic timing and deadpan delivery is, as always, impeccable. What truly impresses about his performance however, is how layered and understated it is. Be it the uncomfortable body-language, the subtle facial ticks, or the way his voice cracks slightly, there is certainly more to this hobbit than meets the eye. Just watch the way that Bilbo’s wide, naive eyes start to harden over the course of the film. It’s an astounding piece of acting that will undoubtedly catapult him into the realms of super-stardom.

*

The rest of the cast are equally brilliant. The returning actors all fit comfortably back into their roles and seem to be having a blast. Hugo Weaving’s Lord Elrond is a much more light-hearted character here – he smiles more in this film than he did in the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy – and his playful interactions with Gandalf show a great friendship we didn’t get to see last time. Christopher Lee’s portrayal of Saruman is still sombre and superior, but his character is slightly more genial this time round, and his angry rants about Radagast are hilarious. The never ageing Cate Blanchett once again plays Galadriel with a mix of beauty and otherworldliness, giving the character a necessary disconcerting  edge. Ian McKellen is once again fantastic as Gandalf, injecting the Grey wizard with both a weariness and a previously unseen mischievous streak. Self-deprecating and quick to anger, it’s impossible not to like the cranky old wizard, and Ian McKellen plays him with a  heart-warming compassion that’s really quite affecting.

The new actors are also excellent. Richard Armitage has the toughest role as the brash and untrusting Thorin Oakenshield, but he is able to fill him with enough honour and sorrow to keep him on the right side of sympathetic. Armitage’s portrayal shows a character with a thick and proud skin, but makes sure that the pain of past failures is present in his eyes. As his trust for Bilbo grows, so does his likeability as a character. It’s an assured performance of a flawed character by an actor at the top of his game.

The rest of the dwarves all play their parts just as well, particularly Ken Stott’s sage Balin, who brings a warm and fatherly attitude to the proceedings. James Nesbitt as Bofur is another highlight, portraying the character with his trademark cheeky smile and a twinkle in his eye, and his protecting nature towards Bilbo is really quite touching. Aidan Turner and Dean O’Gorman as Kíli and Fíli are very effective as well, all wide shoulders and swagger, eager to impress those around them. I also took a particular shine to Mark Hadlow as Dori and his constant cries of “Mister Gandalf!” The look on his face when Gandalf turns down a cup of chamomile is priceless.

On a whole, the cast seem to be having a whale of a time, particularly Barry Humphries and Sylvester McCoy in their respective roles as the Great Goblin and Radagast the Brown. Based on the overall strength of the cast, it will be exciting to see the actors who appeared briefly in An Unexpected Journey expand their roles in the later films, especially Lee Pace and Benedict Cumberbatch.

*

Don’t go in expecting The Lord of the Rings, because The Hobbit is a very different beast. Just as epic, just as grand, but An Unexpected Journey is a lighter, funnier affair, just like the book it is based on. Full of exciting action and brilliant characters, the long awaited prequel doesn’t disappoint. The sense of nostalgia is fantastic to experience, but An Unexpected Journey more than stands up on its own two feet.

Oh, and the final shot will give you shivers.

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Review: Skyfall

Skyfall (2012) –  large_4

Skyfall could have been a make-or-break film for Daniel Craig. The actor has always had his naysayers about his suitability for the role of Bond (a website called http://www.danielcraigisnotbond.com was even set up), with some people going as far as to say that his blond hair should have disqualified him from the role.

But then Casino Royale happened, and changed a lot of peoples opinions. There were still those who didn’t take to Craig though, dubbing his incarnation ‘James Bournd’ and complaining about the modernisation of the series. Most people, however, loved the fresh take on Bond and couldn’t wait for the next one. And then came the “disappointing” Quantum of Solace, and a lot of those people who had embraced Craig seemed to turn away, already dismissing him as a one-hit wonder.

So it’s fair to say that Daniel Craig, and even the entire Bond franchise, had a lot to prove with this film, especially after it arrived in cinemas after being plagued by delays. So yes, Skyfall could have been a make-or-break movie.

*

But it wasn’t. Craig slips back into the role off Bond with such ease and comfort that you forget why anyone would ever feel the need to doubt him. It’s probably quite controversial to say this, but I personally think that Daniel Craig is the best Bond we’ve had. Even before Sean Connery vacated the role (the first time), Bond felt like he has become a caricature, merely going through the motions to please the audience. Craig, like my previous favourite Timothy Dalton, gives Bond a necessary shot in the arm and is able to  portray 007 as a person instead of a character. His Bond could exist in the real world. There is a fragility behind the steel that we’ve never seen before, there is emotional trauma behind his eyes. He no longer quips because the script requires him to, now his sarcasm comes from a deep-rooted problem with authority. He no longer sleeps around because he’s a horny bastard, but because he cannot cope with the pain of forging another emotional connection. Craig’s Bond is very human and that makes him a far more interesting characters. After all, when was the last time we saw Bond cry?

The rest of the cast is equally brilliant. Albert Finney brings warmth and humour to the film’s final act, Ralph Fiennes makes a great addition to the Bond franchise (although I must admit that, due to his association to Voldemort, I kept expecting him to turn evil at any moment), and Ben Whishaw makes a fitting Q for the digital age. Both Naomie Harris and Bérénice Marlohe perfectly balance smarts and sex appeal to portray two very compelling and complex Bond girls, and their scenes with Craig spark with a real chemistry.

It isn’t until Javier Bardem arrives on screen, delivering a lengthy speech in a single shot and sporting a truly awful shock of blond hair, that you realise how much you’ve missed the Bond villains of old. Grandstanding and otherworldly, Bardem’s Silva delivers where Craig’s two previous films have lacked and gives us a truly memorable and menacing villain. What makes Silva so effecting is the fact that not only is he a brilliant throwback to the classic Bond villains, but that he fits perfectly into the more realistic tone of the Craig era Bond films. Yes he has a secret island, yes he’s disfigured, yes he monologues, but despite all his power, be doesn’t want world domination, he doesn’t want to trigger another war. His motivations are incredibly personal and believable. This makes him far more realistic and far more terrifying.

I’ve heard it said in other reviews that Dame Judi Dench’s M is the true Bond girl of the film, but I personally think that comparison hugely undermines the importance of her role. She is the definite co-star of the film and is the heart and soul of the movie. The maternal relationship between her and Bond that started in GoldenEye has never been more effective and shows why the casting of Judi Dench all those years ago was a master-stroke. She injects her M with a powerful mix of exasperated mothering and steely professionalism and her scenes with Craig are truly heartfelt and powerful. Their dialogue crackles with realism and electricity, and their shared scenes are a highlight of the film.

*

The appointment of Sam Mendes as director was something that immediately piqued my interest in the film from very early on, and I was very relieved that he stuck with the project throughout its numerous delays. Mendes has delivered an incredibly stylish and sleek Bond film, but isn’t afraid to get rough and ready when the story requires it. The film’s pace is relentless and engaging, and despite having a running time of almost two and a half hours, the film zips along, taking the audience on a pure adrenaline rush of entertainment. Due to the slow, thought-provoking films of his back-catalogue, there were doubts from some as to whether Mendes could handle the action required for a Bond film.

It doesn’t take long for these doubts to evaporate though, as Mendes does more than prove his mettle with a thrilling opening sequence, which features on of the film’s best moments – after having been shot and smashing a digger through the roof of a train, Bond jumps into the carriage and calmly adjust one of his cufflinks. It’s the smaller moments like this, and there are plenty, that really make the film a true joy to watch. The finale also highlights Mendes’s skill at directing action, with a tense and nerve-racking siege evoking fond memories of John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13.

Mendes also excels in the slower scenes, making sure that the quieter character moments are just as important and impressive and the big set-pieces. He draws some incredibly heartfelt performances from his cast, making this the most emotional Bond yet.

*

With a far more personal story than the usual grandiose Bond plots, and plenty of pitch-perfect throwbacks to the existing franchise, Skyfall is a brilliantly made and beautifully acted film. Skilfully balancing the old-school charm of classic Bond and the realistic modernism of Craig’s previous outings, the film proves beyond and doubt that James Bond is back, and he will return.

 

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Review: Sounds That Can’t Be Made

Sounds That Can’t Be Made by Marillion (2012) – 

It’s been four years since Marillion’s last studio album (five years if you don’t include their acoustic album, Less Is More), their longest gap between albums. So it’s fair to say that, after being away for such a while, Marillion had something to prove with the release of this album.

And prove it they did. Sounds That Can’t Be Made reaffirms that Marillion are still one of the greatest progressive rock bands out there. Not that I ever doubted that fact, mind.

*

Sounds That Can’t Be Made opens with Gaza, the longest song (17:31) on the album. It’s somewhat odd for a prog album to open with its epic song, as they are usually saved for the end (see Genesis’s Foxtrot, Pink Floyd’s Meddle, Frost*’s Milliontown, and even Marillion’s own This Strange Engine). But like I said earlier, Marillion had a point to prove with this album, and Gaza is a Hell of an opening statement. Some people think that they have jumped the gun and made a mistake by not following the aforementioned hallowed prog tradition, but I think that it works. By opening with a song as strong as Gaza, it grips you straight away, making you sit up and pay attention. You immediately know that you are listening to something different and special.

Gaza gives all five members of the band a chance to shine, particularly Ian Mosley, who uses his drums to emulate guttural and predatory sound of a marching army. Steve Hogarth nails the vocals, and Steve Rothery delivers some blistering guitar work. When Hogarth sings ‘For us to have to live like this, it just ain’t right‘ and Rothery starts up an haunting and atmospheric guitar solo, it’s enough to bring tears to your eyes.

The album’s title track, Sounds That Can’t Be Made (7:16), bursts from the speakers with a strong and rhythmic drumbeat that gets the heart pumping. From there, the song just gets better. With complex, riveting music and stirring vocals, this track also features one of Rothery’s best solos on the album.

I have to admit that, despite featuring lyrics from Marillion’s frequent collaborator, John Helmer, I found the choruses of Pour My Love (6:02) to be a little uninspiring, but the rest of the song more than makes up for that fact, especially Mark Kelly’s understated keyboards and Steve Rothery’s very tidy and beautifully tonal guitar solo.

Power (6:07) is probably one of my favourite tracks on the album, with its slow verses and powerful (no pun intended) choruses. Musically brilliant, particularly Pete Trewavas’s hypnotic bass line, it builds into a fantastic crescendo with raw and powerful vocals from Hogarth.

Montréal (14:04) really plays to Steve Hogarth’s strengths, showcasing the level of emotion and range in his voice. Like Gaza, it’s a chance for all the musicians to really show what they can do as well. Slow in places, dynamic in others, and enchanting throughout, the song is fantastic, and intricately unfolds like a story. It’s a fitting tribute to a city that the band love and their passion for the place really shines through.

The slow starting Invisible Ink (5:47) initially showcases Mark Kelly’s keyboards before gradually expanding into something truly powerful and emotional, and features one of Steve Hogarth’s strongest vocal performances on the album.

Lucky Man (6:58) starts off with a strong guitar riff from Rothery that immediately grabs your attention. From there it goes into a slow yet compelling verse, before kicking off into a fantastically rousing chorus. Hogarth sounds great in this song, both in the subdued verses and the energetic choruses.

The Sky Above the Rain (10:34) is probably the most emotional song on the album, with Hogarth’s vocals first ringing with the pain and heartbreak of featured in the lyrics, then soaring to new-found emotional heights come the song’s cautiously hopeful ending.  Mark Kelly gets a chance to shine on this song, with his keyboards dominating the first half of the track. Rothery really goes for it on this track as well, and you can feel the passion behind his every note, resonating like a pluck on the heartstrings.

*

Each one of the eight tracks is an absolute corker, and the album gets better with every listen. While it might not actually feature any sounds that can’t be made, it is definitely packed with sounds that only Marillion can make. Conclusive proof the prog isn’t dead, Sounds That Can’t Be Made was well worth the four year wait.

Stand out track: Lucky Man – An absolutely fantastic track, with a chorus that makes you want to sing along at the top of your voice. With excellent vocals, moving music, and another of Rothery’s excellent guitar solos, this song is an absolute treat.

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Review: Mass Effect 3

Mass Effect 3 (2012) – 

I love the Mass Effect series. They are easily some of the best games I have played in recent years, so when Mass Effect 3 was released back in March, I was overjoyed, safe in the knowledge that, like the previous two games, I would receive it for my birthday in April. Unfortunately, by the time my birthday came around, my older brother had moved out, taking with him both his über-PC and my ability to play the game. Without his PC, I was forced to install the game on my girlfriend’s über-laptop, but she just happens to live on the Isle of Wight, so my opportunities to play the game became somewhat sporadic. Now, finally, after eight months of on/off gaming, I’ve finished Mass Effect 3.

And it was worth the wait.

*

Mass Effect 3 had a Hell of a lot riding on its shoulders at the time of release. Not only did it have to continue and match the exceptional quality of its two predecessors, but it also had to finish the truly epic series in a satisfying and rewarding way. Whether or not the game managed to do these things is a subject that is still being hotly debated by fans across the internet. In my opinion though, the answer is yes. The game more than lives up to the standard of the first two, and I personally found the ending to be very fulfilling, both emotionally and enjoyably.

I’m going to start by reviewing the end of the game, not because I forgot to write the rest of the review, but because the end of Mass Effect 3 is the most talked about part of the game. It is important to note that, because of my late completion of the game,  I didn’t experience its original ending, an ending which caused so much nerd-rage among the fans. I’ve read first-hand reports of fans being left feeling empty, angered, and betrayed by the original ending, feeling like BioWare had abandoned them and sold out their integrity, putting a release date before their fans. BioWare listened to the fans, took their complaints on-board, and released a free Extended Cut of the game, which added extra scenes to the ending and gave the player a greater sense of closure, solving many of the complaints fans had voiced.

Despite this, or possibly because of it, Mass Effect 3 still has its haters, lurking on the BioWare forums, ready to flame the game at a moments notice. I personally think this venom is unfair and unfounded now that the Extended Cut had been released. The extended ending is heartbreaking, inspiring, uplifting, and, most importantly, emotionally satisfying. It showed that BioWare did care about their fans.

There are also players who have issue not just with the ending, but the choices, particularly the now infamous ‘three colours’ choice, that get you there. I have heard complaints that it takes control away from the player, that it feels out of place in the Mass Effect universe, that it’s a deus ex machina…

Some people are so against the final choices of the game that they have tried their hardest to discredit it, claiming it all happened within the mind of the protagonist, that he was dreaming. I can’t remember a time when I’ve seen an ending come up against such unfounded bile. I personally thought that the ending worked very well, and while it does sort of take control away from the player, it’s effective, because it makes you really think about your final choices and the consequences they will leave behind.

And as for the complaint that it doesn’t fit in the Mass Effect universe, I always find it strange when people complain that something is ‘unrealistic’ within the science-fiction genre. Besides, I personally thought it was more in line with the universe’s lore than the ‘ZOMG! Human Reaper!’ ending I was faced with in Mass Effect 2, and no one seems to complain about that.

While some of the criticism aimed at the original ending was justified, bashing the ending since the release of the Extended Cut seems completely pointless. You will have undoubtedly heard many a bad thing about the end of the game, but most of what you can read on the online forums is largely unfounded and bitter. While the game’s ending is hardly faultless, it more than makes for a satisfying end to an outstanding game. Hell, it’s a satisfying end to an outstanding series.

*

I am tempted to say the BioWare saved the best ’til last, and that Mass Effect 3 is the strongest entry in the trilogy. One of the main reasons for this is because BioWare listens to their fans.

They have carefully listened to the complaints and praises that fans had laden on the first two games and, from this, have created a conglomeration of the elements people liked and duly dumped the bad bits. Highlights include a more refined version of the frenetic and nerve-shredding combat from Mass Effect 2, and the return to a smaller, more intimate squad like the first game featured. In terms of gameplay, Mass Effect 3 is everything you could wish for, and plays like the game you secretly wished the first two were. Tragically though, the Mako didn’t make a comeback…

The new multi-player feature, which had me wrinkling my nose when it was first announced, is fantastic, and a worthy addition to the game. Players can finally live out their long-standing Mass Effect fantasies, playing as Turians, Drell, Quarians, and, thanks to a recent upgrade, even Volus. What sounds quite simple – four players have to survive eleven increasingly difficult waves of enemies – turns out to be deliriously addictive and ridiculously entertaining. The multi-player adds a whole new and incredibly welcome layer to the gameplay experience.

*

As good as the gameplay is, the story is where the game really shines. BioWare has a reputation as a company that knows how to tell a story, and this game reinforces that reputation. It’s always hard to tell a story, but it’s even harder to finish one, and BioWare have embraced the challenge with open arms, concluding the series with both intimacy and grandiose.

When you stop to think about how the trilogy must have been plotted, the sheer complexity makes your mind boggle. BioWare always said that even the smaller decisions made in the previous games would have repercussions later in the series, but the way they have managed to pull it off is truly phenomenal. Quick decisions you made in the first game are suddenly pushed back to the forefront, and their consequences are not always pleasant. Just how well the interconnectivity of the series is achieved shows how tightly plotted and planned the games were.

One of the strongest aspects of the Mass Effect is its large cast of characters, and this game continues to build on that strength, introducing brilliant new characters and bringing back the (equally brilliant) old ones for one last hurrah. The game features some of BioWare’s most emotional and powerful moments, and the perfectly cast characters help to sell those emotions. I’ve never seen so much character development in a computer game before, but the playing experience is made so much stronger because of it. These are not just characters in a game, they’re your friends and your companions. You know these people and you care about them. You care enough to cry and laugh with them, and trust me when I say that the game will make you do both.

Despite spanning three games and a whole galaxy, with some of the most heart-pumping combat you’re likely to experience in a while, the story and the characters are always at the front and centre of this game, making Mass Effect 3 more of an emotional journey than an action RPG.

*

Mass Effect 3 ends an incredible series on an absolutely blistering high, soaring to new heights in both gameplay and storytelling, and manages to deliver a game that feels both truly epic and incredible intimate. The game has been somewhat marred by the controversy surrounding its ending, but now that the Extended Cut has been released, there is nothing holding back the near-perfect experience that is playing this game.

It’s just a shame it’s over.

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Review: American Gods

American Gods by Neil Gaiman (2001) – 

American Gods is a big novel. It’s a big novel with big ideas and a little bit of everything in it. The genres within its pages range from romance, murder mystery, horror, fantasy, thriller, road trip, and at times, travel writing. What is so impressive about this book, is that despite having all of this crammed within its (rather hefty) frame, it never once feels overcrowded, never feels convoluted or confused, and that is a huge testament to the author.

The author being Neil Gaiman, a man who I have often considered to be one of my favourite authors, despite the fact that I have only read two things that he has written. The reason why I hold him in such high regard, despite having barely dipped my toe into his literary offerings, is because the two things of his I have read are Good Omens (which he wrote with Terry Pratchett) and Marvel 1602, two novels (1602 being a graphic novel, but still a novel) that I consider to be amongst some of the finest things I have ever read. I eventually realised that, if I wanted to continue calling Gaiman one of my favourite authors, then I should probably read a bit more of his stuff first. So that’s what I decided to do, and started with a novel that many consider to be his magnum opus: the mighty American Gods.

American Gods is a book about a man named Shadow trying to come to terms with his wife’s sudden and tragic death. It’s about a god named Wednesday trying to unite an army for a war he knows he cannot win. It’s about a man named Mike Ainsel trying to find his place in the world. It’s about a man named Shadow trying to understand who he really is. And it’s about a great many other things as well, but overall, it’s a book about the heart and soul of America.

The plot of American Gods is at times both tight-knit and frenetic, then thoughtful and meandering (in a good way). Shadow makes for a very compelling protagonist, the strong, silent type who questions everything he knows and believes everything he sees, and over the course of the novel changes into a different, stronger person. The dialogue crackles with believability, the descriptions amaze, and Gaiman’s imagination is blisteringly realised and truly beautiful. He even makes the macabre sound enchanting.

Like the numerous genres it contains, American Gods also deals with a great number of themes: love, loss, belief, faith, acceptance, loyalty, and betrayal, just to name a few. But Gaiman balances these multiple themes perfectly, never glossing over any of them and making sure each one is explored equally and in-depth. He deals with big themes and asks big questions, and he does so in an incredibly mature way, writing about them in an incredibly fresh and frank way.

All this talk of ‘multiple themes’ and ‘big questions’ makes American Gods sound almost like a literary novel, and the interesting thing is that American Gods actually is almost a literary novel. What stops it from becoming one and keeps it firmly routed in the fantastical is Neil Gaiman immense imagination and the way he is able to keep the story and the characters at the forefront of the novel. It is clear from the book that Gaiman wanted to ask and explore some pretty big literary questions, but he manages to do it in such an engaging and enjoyable way, that you don’t even notice. It isn’t until you finish that you realise just how poignant and relevant the book actually was.

The only complaint that I can think to level at the book is that whenever Shadow does a coin trick (which is quite often), Gaiman uses the correct terminology, such as ‘a Downs palm’ and ‘a classic-palm’. As I am untrained in coin tricks, this terminology meant nothing to me, and as a result, I found these moments very hard to visualise and found it interrupted the flow of the story. This is hardly Gaiman’s fault though. If anything, it’s my fault for not knowing anything about coin tricks, and in the grand scale of things, it is a very minor quibble in a very big book.

I have already said that American Gods is a big novel with big ideas and a little bit of everything in it. It’s also incredibly enjoyable, moving, and significant.

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