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Movie Review: The Lone Ranger

Most people remember The Lone Ranger for: the noble gun-slinging heroics of John Reid, the camaraderie with Tonto, the lightning quick Silver and the classical Revolution theme. However, after watching the new film starring Johnny Depp and Armie Hammer, you'll start doubting you ever saw the original TV series.

At 22 minutes per episode, The Lone Ranger TV series is stripped down when compared with Gore Verbinski's The Lone Ranger. The TV series played to its central concept so much that it didn't have to rely on special effects or grand production values. Other noticeable changes are that Tonto has become the star of the show, there's less mystery around John Reid's identity and they've turned the insanity up to level 11.

This is not a traditional adaptation of the trusty scout, but one that mimics the current trend to deconstruct or disrespect originals. Gore Verbinski plays up stereotype jokes surrounding Tonto as we see the story unfold through his eyes. This shift in perspective makes it Johnny Depp's film, with Armie Hammer as a reluctant hero under the Karate Kid tutelage of the doubtful Tonto.

As a tag team, Gore Verbinski and Johnny Depp go back to Pirates of the Caribbean... more recently, exploring the darker side of animation with a twisted Fear and Loathing style Western in Rango. This is the lens for The Lone Ranger, trying to follow up as a blockbuster franchise in the broad wake of Pirates of the Caribbean while retaining a suave artistic credibility in the same realm as Rango.

Unfortunately, the real team chemistry focus should have been on co-leads, John Reid and Tonto. While Armie Hammer is a good-looking actor with an innocence and likability factor comparable with Brendan Frasier, he's not quite as charming. This co-lead actor combination was a mismatch before they started rolling cameras and while they set out to exploit the odd couple buddy dynamic through conflict, it never really clicks into place.

This apparent lack of chemistry feeds into the rest of the film, dulling any sense of magic or mystery, and making it an entertaining yet indistinct Western. Instead of making its own wagon trails, The Lone Ranger seems to echo Shanghai Noon and The Legend of Zorro, seamlessly blending into the collective familiarity of train robbery and brothel scenes from these films.

To make matters worse, The Lone Ranger is a bland send-up that never really gives you the impression that we should be in on the joke. For instance, a warren of prairie rabbits simultaneously references the gofers from the new Indiana Jones and the man-eating rabbit from Monty Python & The Holy Grail. Yet in the context of The Lone Ranger, we're not sure if we should be laughing or not.

The Green Hornet, a modern Lone Ranger or descendant, also struggled to find its stride as an action comedy adaptation. While both films have the talent and potential, they just don't add up to the sum of their parts. Luckily, The Lone Ranger's bookends do a lot to save the day... starting and ending with great action sequences.

While The Lone Ranger has the production values, special effects, cast and film-makers to pull off a blockbuster to rival Pirates of the Caribbean, it fails to capture the spirit of The Lone Ranger, reinvent the legend and drive home the entertainment value. We're left with a beautifully shot, fascinatingly eclectic, sometimes funny and often familiar husk of expectations.

The bottom line: Half-hearted

Movie Review: Despicable Me 2

They said it couldn't be done. They were wrong. Who are 'they'? Who cares... Despicable Me 2 is even better than the first one. When Steve Carell... erm, Gru was interviewed on The Ellen DeGeneres Show, it seemed that they were A. trying to resuscitate a turkey with a desperate publicity stunt or B. had such a solid film on their hands that they were able to go over and above the call of duty.

Gru returns... having hung up his evil boots in favour of making bottled jelly to spend more time with his adopted girls. When the Anti-Villain League traces a new super criminal to a local mall, Gru is recruited to weed him out with the help of crime-fighting agent and potential love interest, Lucy.

At the time of its release, Despicable Me seemed like a knee-jerk reaction to Meet the Robinsons. The villains, quirky family dynamics, futuristic gadgets and gizmos... there were loads of parallels. However, what we might not have realised is that many of these qualities are also shared with live-action spy spoof, Austin Powers. Throw in a little quirky Modern Family warmth and "Hey presto!", you've got yourself, Despicable Me 2.

It's quite rare for a sequel to trump an original, but there's obviously a lot of love behind Despicable Me, the flagship franchise for Illumination Entertainment. After the first one, the production company toyed with the world of Dr. Seuss by stretching The Lorax into a feature, but Despicable Me is as foundational as Toy Story is to Pixar. As such, the sequel does everything the original does... just better, with more of a focus on the expendable Lemming gibberish that is the minions.

Steve Carell is wonderful as the voice of Gru, maintaining the Eastern European accent and effecting some great lines and heartwarming moments in the process. He's supported by Kirsten Wiig as the sharp and savvy Lucy, his "wing-woman", whose quirkiness and resourcefulness come in handy. While Benjamin Bratt voices the foot-tapping, chest-pounding yet alluring Eduardo with great verve.

Gru's soul-searching formed the basis for the first Despicable Me, but he's more of a ringmaster in the sequel. The real star of Despicable Me 2 is not human, but humanoid. The collective of yellow minions were a smash hit as an army of living props in Despicable Me and the film-makers have given them even more responsibility in the comedy, story and even music department in the sequel. So much so, that they've earned their own spin-off movie, Minions, scheduled for 2014.

Despicable Me 2 has a similar feel to the award-winning, Puss in Boots, a spin-off from Shrek. Both films have an emphasis on feel-good fun and feature: a solid voice cast, quick pacing, smart writing, sharp animation, imaginative visuals and a cataclysmic plot that seems to spiral out of control. While Puss in Boots thrived in the world of fairy tales, Despicable Me 2 takes espionage and villains to the next level of hilarity.

It's the sort of in-the-moment, family-friendly, feel-good fun that can be watched a couple of times with just about anyone. Great espionage gags, a limitless supply of minions and buckets of silly are reeled in by charming voice performances and some fuzzy, heartwarming moments. Sure, there's not much substance to it and it's more of the same, but when you're armed with entertainment this enjoyable, you can't go wrong.

The bottom line: Entertaining

Movie Review: Song for Marion

Song for Marion, also known as Unfinished Song, is a beautiful portrait of humanity in all its bashful inadequacy and soulful hilarity. Films about someone ailing are often difficult to watch as we suffer through the pain, anguish and anticipation of the end. Yet, Song for Marion is one of those gems that sparkles, despite being encrusted in all the dirt of life and death.

The story follows the journey of Arthur (Stamp), a grumpy old man, whose gloom has sucked the joy out of his marriage and family. Being prone to melancholy and pessimism is a difficult and lonely path, yet one that Arthur embraces along with the sad truth that his wife is dying. Marion (Redgrave), on the other hand, is a spirited woman whose zest for life almost makes up for Arthur's hermit tendencies. However, when she passes away, Arthur takes it upon himself to take her spot in an unconventional local choir.

Music has a way of getting to the heart of matters and while Song for Marion has plenty of funny one hit wonders from yesteryear, it balances them out with some truly soulful solos. Balance is something that this film gets right, managing to keep the drama in check with some solid performances, while keeping us amused with plenty of situational comedy and fun.

The recognisable starring cast includes: Terrence Stamp, Vanessa Redgrave and Gemma Arterton. Stamp has been in the business for decades, having earned a supporting Oscar nomination for Billy Budd in 1962. More recently, you'll recognise him from glorified cameos in films like Wanted and Yes Man. Song for Marion is a lead for Stamp, one that will put him back on the map, thanks to some great casting.

Then Vanessa Redgrave delivers a fine performance as titular star, Marion. She takes a fragile woman and turns her into a brave and cheerful character, whose wisdom and peace shine through. It's an integral setup role, one that Redgrave shares with Stamp as a co-lead, before making way for a fresh-faced and exuberant Gemma Arterton as Elizabeth.

While as formulaic in structure as many concert-based comedy dramas, Song for Marion manages to retain its sweet and touching core without dipping into melodrama. The performances are composed, the direction from Paul Andrew Williams isn't heavy-handed and everything is just able to slip into place as we journey with a disgruntled and restless man in mourning.

All in all, Song for Marion is an entertaining and heartwarming music drama with some beautifully bittersweet musical moments that bring tears of joy and sorrow. It's these moments that really bring the film to life, anchoring and capturing the essence of these complex beings. While quietly powerful, we welcome the sweet relief offered by dabs of comedy to lighten the overall tone.

The bottom line: Splendid

Movie Review: Man of Steel

Superman is the ultimate superhero, armed with an array of powers and abilities that include: superhuman strength, flight, speed, invulnerability, x-ray/heat vision and senses. You'd think he'd be stuck on himself, yet his greatest superhuman ability is humility and selflessness - sacrificing his earthly existence to serve and protect others from evil.

It's an epic quest for hope and peace that this saviour of Mankind has been charged with by his father. Heaven sent, raised as if their own and blessed with superhuman abilities... it's easy to see why Zack Snyder has compared the Man of Steel with Christ in this epic Superman comic book adaptation.

Both figures share a number of traits and while Jesus may not have turned a tank into a pretzel, they're both willing to put others first, continually sacrificing themselves to save the world. That is what we admire about Superman - he's not in it for fame, money or to simply go one up on his arch rival, he's in it to save us.

For the meantime, Man of Steel will be the definitive Superman film. Zack Snyder (Watchmen) has crafted a visually spectacular superhero action epic, which honours its source material whilst attempting a valiant reinvention. A greater focus on Superman's alien side, essentially turns Man of Steel into something you'd expect to see with Steven Spielberg's name on it. Not surprisingly, it's Christopher Nolan of The Dark Knight Trilogy, whose name adds immense weight to this production.

Nolan's mission has been to ground fantasy in a gritty reality, which explains why he probably didn't want to direct Superman himself. Besides being a much lighter character than Batman, there's no straying from the character's alien origins, which make drawing a balance between reality and fantasy difficult to pull off. Man of Steel wavers between alien and real world, teetering the suspense of disbelief on an edge.

Snyder has avoided the Steadicam in most scenes, giving the visuals an added tension and rooting the alien dimension. Unfortunately, this shaky effect doesn't quite pay off... its side effects: agitating the eye, diminishing the production values and swaying the film in favour of visual effects over performances from a stellar cast.

Henry Cavill is Superman, a role he's been aching to play since Superman Returns. He's put his all into the role, chiseling a physique worthy of the superhero and channeling his inner Superman into playing the alien man. While Cavill is almost perfect for the part, he seems cold and melancholic, echoing the decision to cast Daniel Craig as James Bond. You could write this off to his nature, upbringing or a thankless mission, but you'd imagine there would be more bravado, vitality, warmth and humour to this larger-than-life American hero.

The British actor is supported by Amy Adams, who plays Lois Lane. We're in tune with the bright-eyed and innocent Adams, whose roles are often marked by plucky, sweet-natured fun. However, it's all business and there's less time for sparkle as the hardened reporter fights for the next big news story to crack the glass ceiling.

Michael Shannon is the pick of the actors, generating a demented and sardonic performance as General Zod. Great villains make great movies and Shannon brings the complex megalomaniac to life as he exacts his revenge on Jor-El's only begotten son with the help of his soldiers.

Russell Crowe plays Jor-El, echoing Marlon Brando's role in the Superman starring Christopher Reeves. Crowe's part is extended beyond a glorified cameo as the son of "Maximus" reaches for the sort of greatness that echoes in eternity. To further guide and teach the boy on the meaning of sacrifice, Kevin Costner plays his earthly father, whose limited appearances are memorable and serve as an inspiration.

While Man of Steel boasts an impressive cast that also includes regular turns by Diane Lane and Laurence Fishburne, it's main feature is the visual effects. From start-to-finish the film feels like a highlights package from a broader work. Every scene comes crashing into frame, leaving little time for the actors to stand their ground, before firing off another impressive special effect or colossal action sequence.

The combat action sequences have a particularly good fluidity, turning extraordinary super powers of flight and speed into an eye-popping visual reality. The exhilaration of Spider-Man's swinging through the city and The Hulk's land-to-air leaps are comparable with Superman's flight in Man of Steel, giving the "is it a bird, is it a plane" quote more weight... and even explaining away the cape.

The editing and storytelling keep Man of Steel moving along at a quick pace, zipping back-and-forth in time as we recount some moments from Clarke Kent's youth in Smallville. However, the non-linear narrative breaks our already distant connection with the today and now Superman, making the experience for lack of a better word, alienating.

The costume design is impressive, composing realistic alien armour suits that have their own history, making a terrific contrast with the uniforms of soldiers and ordinary civilians. The impressive wardrobe in the foreground sells a lot of the CGI-heavy action in the backdrop, which adds to the overall production value.

Man of Steel is like a dead serious mash-up between Star Trek and Thor. The epic alien action, futuristic visual effects and exciting casting have parallels with the new Star Trek, while the fish-out-of-water superhero, fantasy dynasty, character dynamics and even some scenes echo Thor. We're treated to an eye-popping, yet disconnected snippet of Superman's story, which will enthrall but won't linger.

The bottom line: Spectacular


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