N is for National Treasure

Someone mentioned that my A-Z was very… mainstream and family-friendly. Just wait until you get to O…

I don’t care – this is my A-Z! I got a bit carried away late last night and scheduled my O film for this morning. O is for ‘ooops’, it would seem, because I’ve missed out N! The alphabet is *hard*, man.

N then is for National Treasure. A pure ‘guilty pleasure’ film if ever there was one. That’s if you subscribe to the notion, of course. I *love* this film and every minute of its 131 minute running time. Yes, it’s long, but it’s a sheer joy from start to finish. 2004, a paltry 6.9 stars on IMDb, it spawned a sequel (Book of Secrets) which is fine, but the first one is where it’s at.

All his life Benjamin Gates has search for a treasure. No one believe to existed.
The greatest adventure history has ever revealed.
In order to break the code, one man will have to break all the rules.
The clues are right in front of your eyes.

Oh, this is *so* much fun. It knows *exactly* how silly it is, and plays it dead straight. The plot boils down to a standard follow the clues to find more clues to find the treasure, in the grand tradition of Indiana Jones. The parallels are writ large across the screen – imagine Indy in the 21st century and you’re not a million miles off. I’ve seen this film a dozen times, but would happily watch it now if it was on TV. I’ll even watch the last twenty minutes if it’s on. It’s pure saturday afternoon hokum of the highest variety.

The plot, if anyone cares:

Nic Cage plays Benjamin Franklin Gates, a historian searching for a lost treasure. There’s some gubbins about the Knights Templar and the American Freemasons who hid the treasure during the American Revolutionary War. Hijinks abound in good measure, and it turns out there’s a coded map on the back of the Declaration of Independence, which Gates and chums has to steal. Sean Bean turns up and tries to steal it too, and it’s a race to the finish.

It also stars stars Harvey Keitel, Jon Voight, Diane Kruger, Sean Bean, Justin Bartha, and Christopher Plummer, all of whom are also enjoying themselves immensely. Some critics feel that the sheer implausibility of it all spoils the movie, but for me the complete bonkersness of it all just adds to the enjoyment. This is not a film you sit and ponder, or examine in depth. There are holes in the plot you could drive through. Instead, just strap yourself in, hand Nic the keys to the car and brace yourself. We’re going on an adventure!

previously, on The A-Z Challenge
A is for Alien
B is for The Breakfast Club
C is for Catching Fire
D is for Die Hard
E is for The Empire Strikes Bank
F is for Ferris Bueller’s Day Off
G is for Goldfinger (and GoldenEye)
H is for Howl’s Moving Castle
I is for Inception
J is for Jurassic Park
K is for Kung Fu Panda
L is for Labyrinth
M is for Moon

L is for Labyrinth

Labyrinth. 1986, 7.4 stars. Jim Henson’s final feature film as director, and produced by good old George Lucas himself.

I’d seen and loved The Dark Crystal in 1982, so was excited to see this new movie coming out in the cinema. Somehow (and time does dim the memory somewhat) the 15 year-old me had managed to get hold of a bunch of free tickets to a Saturday morning showing – I’d handed them out to various of my friends, but seem to recall that very few of them actually showed up.

On then, to Labryinth.

Jareth: You remind me of the babe.
Goblin: What babe?
Jareth: The babe with the power.
Goblin: What power?
Jareth: The power of voodoo.
Goblin: Who do?
Jareth: You do.
Goblin: Do what?
Jareth: Remind me of the babe.

The story is fairly simple. Sarah (Jennifer Connelly) is at home babysitting her baby brother Toby. He cries and cries and Sarah, while telling him a story to make him sleep, inadvertently summons the Goblin King (David Bowie in full-on scene-stealing trousers) who steals the baby (as well as every scene he’s in) and brings him to his castle, which sits in the middle of a labyrinth. Sarah has to rescue him before midnight, or the baby will became a goblin…

Along the way she meets all manner of wonderful creatures such as Hoggle the dwarf (though people usually forget his name, leading to Higgle, Hogwart, Hedgewart, and Hogbrain!), Ludo the gentle rock-summoning giant and Sir Didymus the fox terrier who thinks he’s a knight. Not forgetting his trusty steed, Ambrosius.

I loved this film from the start and have done ever since. The crystal ball juggling done by Bowie’s Goblin King was awe inspiring, and it wasn’t until years later that I discovered it was actually done by a chap called Michael Moschen, who performed the routines crouched out of shot without being able to see what he was doing. They’re still mesmerising to this day. If you get a chance, check out his work. Thank me later. (I’ve talked about Michale and a Japanese crystal ball perfomer called Otokampe in another post).

Henson’s puppets are masterful, as always. Sarah’s companion Ludo reminds me a lot of Sulley from Monsters, Inc. And this was Kevin Clash’s (the puppeteer behind Sesame Street favourite Elmo) first major role with the Jim Henson Company. I highly recommend checking out the documentary Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey, which is also wonderful.

I’ve spent years as a juggler, but dabble occasionally with the contact juggling which Moschen made famous in this film. I’ve even got my own crystal ball…

Lensmagnet

previously, on The A-Z Challenge
A is for Alien
B is for The Breakfast Club
C is for Catching Fire
D is for Die Hard
E is for The Empire Strikes Bank
F is for Ferris Bueller’s Day Off
G is for Goldfinger (and GoldenEye)
H is for Howl’s Moving Castle
I is for Inception
J is for Jurassic Park
K is for Kung Fu Panda

K is for Kung Fu Panda

Legend tells of a legendary warrior whose kung fu skills were the stuff of legend.

The second animated film of the A-Z (it won’t be the last). Kung Fu Panda came out in 2008, scores a respectable 7.6 stars on IMDb and was nominated for the Oscar for Best Animated Feature, though that went to the wonderful Wall-E.

DreamWorks Animation had always been in second place to Pixar when it came to making great movies. They’d produced some great films – Shrek, Madagascar are the standouts – and some good films, but the majority of their output was firmly in the ‘fine’ category.

Kung Fu Panda belongs firmly in the ‘great’ category. When I first heard about it, the idea of animals doing kung fu didn’t really inspire me, but I found myself in the cinema one rainy saturday afternoon with the kids and walked out at the end with a huge grin on my face.

What they’d done was not make a film about CG animals that did kung fu, but make a kung fu movie which happened to feature CG animals. There’s a crucial difference between the two, something which co-director John Stephenson understood:

“Let’s really make sure that our kung fu is as cool as any kung fu ever done, so that we can take our place in that canon and make sure it’s a beautiful movie, because great martial arts movies are really beautiful-looking movies and then let’s seen if we can imbue it with real heart and emotion. We kind of hoped that maybe when people see the movie, they’ll be surprised that they get a bit more movie than they may be expecting from the title.”

And the kung fu is really really good.

The story itself is a classic hero’s journey – bumbling noodle chef and kung fu fanatic Po (voiced by Jack Black on fine form) finds himself fulfilling an ancient prophecy when he’s chosen as the Dragon Warrior by Master Oogway (Randall Duk Kim), much to the consternation of the legendary Furious Five — Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Crane (David Cross), Mantis (Seth Rogen), Viper (Lucy Liu) and Monkey (Jackie Chan) and especially Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman), who is given the job of training the lazy panda…
Chaos ensues. Evil snow leopard Tai Lung (Ian McShane) escapes from prison and comes to seek the Dragon Warrior. Can Po, Master Shifu and the Furious Five save the day?

The look of the film is simply gorgeous. It’s easily one of the most beautiful films which DreamWorks Animation have ever produced, and is on par with Pixar’s output. It’s a great story, with some wonderful set pieces – Tai Lung’s escape from the seemingly escape-proof prison is gorgeously done, as are all the fight scenes and the interactions between all the main characters.

It’s just a lovely little kung fu film. Highly recommended.

previously, on The A-Z Challenge
A is for Alien
B is for The Breakfast Club
C is for Catching Fire
D is for Die Hard
E is for The Empire Strikes Bank
F is for Ferris Bueller’s Day Off
G is for Goldfinger (and GoldenEye)
H is for Howl’s Moving Castle
I is for Inception
J is for Jurassic Park

I is for Inception

Inception matches The Empire Strikes Back on 8.8 stars on IMDb, but with *four* Oscar wins (Best Cinematography, Sound Mixing, Sound Editing and Visual Effects) and at #13 on the IMDb Top 250 it squeaks in directly behind Empire. It’s a close-fought thing.

At a colossal 148 minutes, it’s a full 24 minutes longer though. For all my usual grumbling about long films, Inception is one I’d make an Exception for. Haha. And the running time of 2 hours and 28 minutes is itself a direct nod to the running time of the Edith Piaf song used as the film’s central motif, “Non, je ne regrette rien” which lasts 2 minutes and 28 seconds…

Directed by Christopher Nolan, Inception features a stellar cast headed up by Leonardo DiCaprio (who I never used to rate but who I think is really growing into himself as an actor and just keeps getting better and better). Admirable support from the likes of Michael Caine, Tom Hardy, Ellen Page and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and not forgetting Cillian Murphy, Ken Watanabe, Tom Berenger, Marion Cotillard, the list and talent on display is astonishing.

The story is wonderfully convoluted – Dom Cobb (DiCaprio) heads up a team attempting to plant an idea in the head of Robert Fischer (Murphy). This they do by going inside dreams, and dreams within dreams… It’s probably best not to think too hard about it and just let it wash over you. It’s visually stunning, with buildings folding on each other, Penrose staircases climbing forever and other weird and wonderful things going on as the dreamers dream and external effects cause internal shenanigans – people float in zero-g or get soaked as events in the real world impinge on the dreams. Time slows the deeper you go, just don’t go too far or you’ll never get back.

Every rewatch turns up something new & different. Wally Pfister’s cinematography is lush and gorgeous, with each level of dream new and distinct, giving the viewer a visual hook to locate them, even if the characters themselves are sometimes confused…

Ariadne: Wait, whose subconscious are we going into exactly?

Set-pieces are wonderfully realised – a fight between Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and the bad guys in the hotel starts to play with gravity as the corridor starts to tumble and roll. Nolan ended up building a full-scale corridor set on a giant gimbal which allowed him to rotate it with the actors inside, minimising the need for CG and giving the film a better sense of realism. A Bond-esque final assault on a snowy fortress. Folding buildings in Paris. Mazes within mazes within dreams.

And the ending! Ah, the ending. It seems to utterly polarise opinions – some say it’s genius whilst others feel it’s a cop-out, leaving the audience to decide whether Cobb is dreaming or not.

Me? I think it’s one of the most perfect endings of a movie – the ambiguity leaves it up to the audience to decide. Have we been watching a man in a dream the whole time? Or has he finally woken up? Will the totem topple?

Nolan isn’t saying:

“The real point of the scene—and this is what I tell people—is that Cobb isn’t looking at the top. He’s looking at his kids. He’s left it behind. That’s the emotional significance of the thing.”

Only you can decide. Interestingly, Piaf’s “Non, je ne regrette rien” plays again at the end, and during the film that usually indicates it’s time to wake up…

 

H is for Howl’s Moving Castle

It’s about time we got to Studio Ghibli and Hayao Miyazaki. And here we have it. The utterly sublime Howl’s Moving Castle.

8.2 stars on IMDb and released in 2004, Howl’s Moving Castle clocks in at #156 in the Top 250 movies. Nominated for Best Animated Feature, it lost out to Aardman’s Wallace & Gromit in The Curse of the Were-Rabbit – a worthy enough film, but for my money, Howl should have taken it.

Directed by the master himself, Hayao Miyazaki, he also wrote the script (based on the original novel by Diana Wynne Jones). The novel and the film are two different beasts though, and both wonderful in their own right. If you’ve seen (or read) one and not read (or seen) the other, I must insist that you read or see the one you haven’t. Chop chop.

As you’d expect from a Studio Ghibli film, the animation is simply gorgeous. It’s a proper feast for the eyes and offers something new on each rewatch.

The story centres around a young girl, Sophie who is cursed into an old body by the Witch of the Waste. Sophie sets off to find  a cure in the Wastes, but comes across the moving castle belonging to the wizard Howl. There she meets Calcifer, a fire demon trapped by Howl to power his castle. Calcifer offers to free Sophie from her curse if she in return will free him from his bond. What follows is nigh-on two hours of simply the most beautiful animation, with a walking, sighing, creaking castle (complete with magical doors which open into different towns), a scarecrow with a turnip head, war, a fallen star, true love…

With foreign films I usually prefer to watch the subtitled version, but for those who prefer the English language dub, Pixar’s Peter Docter (director of Monster’s Inc. and Up) did a cracking job and assembled an all-star cast. It features Christian Bale as Howl (after watching Spirited Away he immediately agreed to lend his voice to this film), Jean Simmons as the older Sophie (Emily Mortimer played the younger Sophie), Lauren Bacall as the Witch of the Waste and Billy Crystal as Calcifer.

If you enjoyed Howl’s Moving Castle, might I recommend two other of my favourite Studio Ghibli films, My Neighbour Totoro and Spirited Away? Both directed by Miyazaki, they’re wonderful movies, and you may just see them cropping up later this month…

previously, on The A-Z Challenge
A is for Alien
B is for The Breakfast Club
C is for Catching Fire
D is for Die Hard
E is for The Empire Strikes Bank
F is for Ferris Bueller’s Day Off
G is for Goldfinger (and GoldenEye)

Banished – Liz de Jager

Banished (The Blackhart Legacy, #1)Banished by Liz de Jager

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Absolute, unashamed gloriously good fun.

Fabulous characters and a non-stop roller-coaster of a plot. Liz manages to deftly turn scenes on their head, shifting effortlessly from action to humour and back again, with Fae princes, werewolves and assorted other beasties and creatures (not to mention the odd Elder God), all of which are there to help (or mostly hinder) our heroine Kit Blackhart along the way. Oh, and a dragon. 🙂

Classic girl-meets-boy-who-turns-out-to-be-a-Fae-prince. Cross Buffy with Harry Dresden, add a touch of Lovecraftian elder gods and simmer gently for 400 pages. Serve hot.

And this is just book one! Book two please, Liz. Quick as you like. 🙂

View all my reviews

Blackbirds – Chuck Wendig

Blackbirds (Miriam Black, #1)Blackbirds by Chuck Wendig

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’ve been a huge fan of Chuck’s blog for many years, but this is the first book of his that I’ve read.

It’s stunning.

It grabs you by the throat from the very start, and refuses to let go. The writing is gritty, dark and visceral – wonderfully-realised, deeply interesting and complex characters doing all manner of things to each other.

Miriam Black is a great protagonist, and I love the way we get flashbacks interspersed with the main narrative. And what a story – Miriam’s special talent is to be able to see how you die – all it takes is a touch of skin on skin. So we know where the story is headed right from the start, and the players of the game are all inexorably being drawn to that point in time. Can they get off the ride? Do they *want* to?

It’s not a book for everyone. If you’ve not come across Chuck’s writing before, be warned that it’s not PG-friendly. Language and imagery is used and bruised, and is not for the faint-hearted.

But, if you’re up for the ride, strap yourself in. Fantastic stuff.

View all my reviews

Red Rising – Pierce Brown

Red Rising | Pierce Brown

I first heard of Red Rising through Twitter. Various people I follow were waxing lyrical about this new book. Then Liz from Liz Loves Books put it at the top of her books of 2013 and I knew that I had to add it to my list. I was lucky enough to receive an advance copy from Hodder & Stoughton and dived right in.

Nearly everyone will compare this book with The Hunger Games and there are echoes of that here, along with shades of Ender’s Game, but laced with the outright brutality and deviousness of Game of Thrones.

It’s hard to talk too much about the story without giving away too many twists and turns, but suffice it to say that it’s brilliant. It’s a veritable rollercoaster of a book – the first third is one of the best openings for a book I’ve read for a long, long time. Then it kicks up a notch and you’re swept along.

Is it a YA novel? Much like in the Hunger Games, the main characters are quite definitely young adult, but this is quite definitely much darker and far nastier than that. The huge cast of characters are beautifully realised and well-rounded, and the world-building is absolutely top-notch.

It’s one of those books that you just lose yourself in, and emerge blinking into the daylight at the far end. I devoured it over the course of a couple of days, staying up entirely too late (and getting up entirely too early) to read just one more chapter.

Fair warning though, it’s the first in a trilogy and whilst Red Rising wraps up nicely, you’re definitely left wanting more.

More now. I want book 2, now.

Please.

Bird Box – Josh Malerman

The lovely people over at @HarperVoyagerUK on Twitter were kind enough to send me an advance copy of Josh Malerman’s upcoming novel Bird Box.

Bird BoxBird Box by Josh Malerman

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Post-apocalyptic fiction at its finest. In a world where something is out there, and if you see that something bad, bad things will happen, the one thing you mustn’t do is open your eyes. But Malorie will have to do just that to survive.

Absolutely loved this book. Devoured it over the course of a few hours – not something I often do, but this was a story which demanded that you read just one more chapter, just five more minutes. Beautifully tense and atmospheric, and at times it made for hard reading, but one which was the very literal definition of a page-turner.

View all my reviews

RHA MA750 in-ear headphones – review

I’ve owned a fair number of in-ear headphones over the years from various different companies. Sennheiser, Shure, Klipsch, I’ve tried them all.

RHA MA750 in-ear headphones

None of them come even close to the sound that the MA750 from British headphone company RHA produce. The difference is quite simply astonishing – it’s as if I’d been listening to music through a doorway, with a curtain pulled across.

Put these earbuds in and the curtain comes back and suddenly you’re in the room with the musicians. The sound stage expands. Instruments and voices take on a new level of clarity and you realise you’ve been listening to music through a fog all these years.

I’ve found myself digging through my music collection looking for favourite tracks to give another listen. There’s a new edge to the sound where previously things were lost on other headphones. Bass notes in particular are picked up well (and the frequency response goes down to 16Hz, something unusual for in-ear headphones in my experience), but these headphones perform brilliantly across the range, with a lovely clean, clear response from the lows to the highs. I’ve been hearing new things in my music collection, things I didn’t even realise I was missing.

The build quality is superb too – the headphones are made from stainless steel and feel lovely and solid in your hand, yet not heavy in your ears. As the review on HuffPost Tech said, they

…feel like something you’ve pulled off the side of a space shuttle when no one was looking.

The cord goes up and over your ear, which I’ve always preferred – this cuts out the cable noise you get when in-ear headphones trail the wire straight down. The curved wires on the MA750s have a reinforced plastic to keep the curve in place and protect the cable, a feature which I really liked.

RHA MA750 in-ear headphones  3.5mm audio jack

They just smack of quality, from the industrial metal joins where the left/right cables meet, to the spring at the headphone jack end to protect the cable. And the cable itself feels heavy-duty and robust too – steel reinforced and oxygen-free, according to the RHA website. These are no lightweights.

Sound isolation is also great – plug them in and it’s just you and the music. Fellow commuters annoying you with the tinny beat of their iDevice earbuds? No longer a problem. Just be careful crossing roads!
They come with a load of extra ear tips – single and double-flanged as well as memory foam ones loaded into a nice stainless steel holder and a carry case.

I was fortunate enough to receive a pair to review. But, should the worst happen and I lose these headphones? I’d buy another pair without a second’s hesitation.

And they’re backed up with a three year warranty.

A seriously nice bit of audio kit and worth every penny. They look and feel like they should cost twice the price.

Don’t put up with crappy earphones you got with your mp3 player or phone. Do your ears a favour and buy a pair of these.

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