amyShe didn’t stand a chance.

That’s the thought that enters the mind about half an hour into Asif Kapadia’s documentary, Amy, and it’s a feeling that stays for the rest of the movie, the stroll back to the car, the drive home, and beyond.

I’ll confess here that I was never much of a fan of Amy Winehouse, either the songstress or the persona that the media shoved down the public’s throat. I mean, I own a copy of Back to Black and I listen to it occasionally, seldom all the way through, usually just the hits and I enjoy it. I mean, I can appreciate that she was a great singer. It’s more that she was never really my cup of tea.

So I went into the documentary in much the same way as I did with Kapadia’s previous effort, 2010’s Senna, which brought Formula One racing to life in a way that actually watching Formula One has consistently failed to do for me. I loved Senna far more than I loved Senna.

The style between the two films is pretty much identical. Take some stock archive footage, intersperse it with private home video, throw some stills and some audio interviews, never ever have a talking head. Take what you have and put it together in such a way that the story tells itself and do it in such a way that it seems ridiculously, and deceptively, simple.

The denouement as well is cut from related cloth. We know there’s no happy ending here. Where it differs from Senna, though, is that there’s not much of a happy beginning, either. The moments of joy seem fleeting and quickly crushed by another new depressing low.

As this sad, compelling story unfolds, I found myself yearning for someone to step in and pull her away from her father, her husband, her manager, her hangers-on, for someone just to put their foot on the brake and say enough is enough. Knowing from the outset that this doesn’t happen in no way lessens the impact, it just makes the situation more hopeless.

There are many moments during the two hour running time where Kapadia lightens the doom a shade or two and allows her humour and her talent, both as a singer and a writer to shine through. Amy as herself, beneath the beehive and without the drugs, is a warm, charming, often funny young woman, frequently awestruck by her heroes and influences. Beneath that, she was never short of a demon or two and when they were pushed out time and time again in front of a battery of exploding camera flashes — which more than once forced me to look away — we’re left with the feeling that the end was always going to be this way. The variable was the speed at which she would crash head first into it.

Either way, she didn’t stand a chance.

minionsIf excitement could be measured by the number of times I shout “banana” as I push my way through slow-moving children in a busy cinema foyer then, thanks to a number of trailers over the past few months, I was officially four excited in the minutes leading up to seeing Minions.

Sadly, the first thing to note was the downside of consuming all those trailers. If you’ve been keeping up, you’ll have seen the first twenty minutes to half an hour of the movie and all those jokes and visual gags that so charmed you back in December? Yeah, not so funny any more. The net effect of this is that even in a cinema packed with (slightly disorientated) kids, the opening was met largely with silence, which doesn’t do an awful lot to get anyone in the mood for the following hour’s antics.

So, as you probably know, we start at the dawn of time and watch the minions move through the ages, trying to find the ultimate bad guys to worship, with disastrous results that were hilarious last Easter. Eventually, in the 1960s and lost in a polar wilderness, three minions set out on journey to find a bad guy they can all get behind. They don’t all go looking at the same time because plot.

Our diminutive heroes — Kevin (the smart-ish one), Stuart (the funny-ish one), and Bob (the cute one) make it to New York where, through a plot point so dreadful I can’t bring myself to write about it, they discover a convention of villains is about to take place in Orlando so, thanks to a different but no less dreadful plot point, they’re soon on their way. Once there, they win their place at the side of evil-genius-super-villain Scarlett Overkill (Sandra Bullock) who has hatched a dastardly plot so vile that it would perhaps be among the top five items in the local news. They want to steal the crown jewels! Gasp! In England! Double gasp! On The Buses on Holiday! A go go!

If this doesn’t sound like an utter disappointment of a storyline then I’m doing it far too much justice. If on the page it flatters to deceive, on the big screen all the faults are there for all to see. For an extra $2, you can see them in 3D.

But even weaker than the story is the fact that Scarlett Overkill is a terrible villain, and not in a good way. Rather than planning to steal the crown jewels herself, she gets the minions to make a plan and execute it entirely on their own while she stays at home with her tiny feet up. Rather than invent her weapons, she gets her husband to do it. Rather than want to hold the world to ransom, she wants to dress up and be Queen of England. She’s such a badly executed character, the only way she could be any worse is if she was played with no vigor or presence or humor. And that’s where Sandra Bullock comes in.

On both child and adult level, it isn’t as funny as it should be. I sat with a smile on my face most of the way through but the number of times the movie upgraded that smile to an actual laugh was surprisingly low, and usually came because either their gibberish language struck a chord, Bob did something outrageously cute, or an English person drank tea at a time when tea drinking would be ill advised.

I can give it no more damning a verdict than to say it was simply okay and note that it should’ve been something much much better. Given a choice between this and Inside Out, it’s a simple decision. I’d be pushing kids out of the way to see the latter. But I’ll probably still shout “banana”.

inside_outLooking back to my youth and teenage years, I’m not sure if it ever felt I had competing forces operating in my head. That said, there was the year when I was convinced my life was a movie. Mostly, though, I was an uncomplicated child and whatever forces I possessed mostly determined the infrequency of my visits to the barber and upped my overall body temperature whenever I was within a mile radius of a girl I liked. There were many. I kept my options open, options which remained unrealized. I always suspected girls were a bit more nuanced.

Eleven-year-old Riley has five dominant emotions literally working the controls in her head: Joy (Amy Poehler), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Fear (Bill Hader), Disgust (Mindy Kaling) and Anger (Lewis Black). Of these, Joy has ruled the roost since Riley was born. Everything about Riley’s life has been viewed through Joy’s positive lens. She lives in Minnesota with loving parents, is an ace at hockey and is surrounded by friends. Thanks to this, she has a sizable collection of little glass balls, colored yellow to represent a happy memory. Other emotions, particularly Sadness, are kept at arm’s length from these memories for fear of turning them blue and unhappy.

But then, Riley’s world is ripped two thousand miles apart as she and her family move to San Francisco to follow her dad’s job. The new house is dingy and unfurnished, her room is bare, her friends are two time-zones away and suddenly Joy and Sadness find themselves torn from the control room of Riley’s head and consigned to the high-stacked shelves of long-term memory, determined to negotiate their way through danger and peril to get back to their HQ and make Riley smile again.

If you’ve got high-level summaries of Toy Story, Toy Story 2, and Toy Story 3 running through your head, then yes. Pixar loves the “traveling back from the unknown to normality and arriving there changed” plot line almost as much as they love giving inanimate objects emotions. Even giving emotions emotions. But let’s not worry about that.

The premise is great, particularly around the glass balls, the most important of which are promoted to core-memories and are fiercely guarded by Joy as they form the basis of Riley’s personality. If this sounds like a visualization of a psychological dissertation, yep, that’s pretty much how it works. And it kinda makes sense and it’s well controlled and managed as the movies progresses. Soon we find ourselves turning slightly against the effervescent Joy and instead root for Sadness, who never seems to be allowed to exist. The personification of Sadness is pitch perfect. From voice to uneasy mannerisms, it resonates far better than any of the others and is a definite highlight.

We’re used to looking at Pixar movies on two levels; one for the kids and another for the adults who’ve been dragged along but I couldn’t help wonder if this was a movie aimed primarily at the adult audience. It’s directed by Pete Docter who also directed Up so you know he has honed his emotion tugging skills to Olympic standard, but it goes so far that you could be forgiven for thinking Werner Herzog was at the helm. There are some very heavy themes explored here, Riley’s young life goes pretty dark, and the darkness is something that transfers itself into the portrayal of the city. I can’t remember San Francisco ever looking so bleak but it’s an effective method of demonstrating how mood can influence the way we see and approach life.

Never fear. While the storyline may be sophisticated and challenging, there are plenty of jokes crammed in there to keep the overall mood light. Jumping into Riley’s dad’s head during a dinner table conversation where his mind had wandered somewhat was great and for members of the audience too young to be squirming at the accurate portrayal of adult male thought patterns, the antics of Anger and Fear, particularly in a dream creation scene, are hilarious. It’s only Disgust who has a hard time stamping her influence on proceedings.

It’s a great movie. Charming, powerfully emotional, funny, and beautiful to watch. You can let Grumpy and Cynicism take the night off here; give Contentment room to stretch their legs.

A triumph.

Ted-2-poster-newTed was pretty funny, right? I mean, it was funnier than expected, wasn’t it? Funnier than it probably had any right to be? Because at the heart of it, it was an hour and a half extended gag about a living, swearing teddy bear who loved to smoke dope and hire prostitutes and party with the guy who played Flash Gordon. And on these bare bones, Seth MacFarlane, as he is prone to do, threw some random sketch type gags that may or may not have been picked up from the Family Guy cutting room floor. If it has a cutting room.

But it was funny, in no small part thanks to the incredible CGI of the bear and the astounding CGI of a live-action Mark Wahlberg. In fact, it became the biggest grossing R-rated comedy ever. Ever. So it’s with some predictability that the sequel, Ted 2, was going to show up sooner or later.

The movie opens with Ted marrying Tami-Lynn, a female human and the natural conclusion of a joke that was started three years ago. Poor Johnny (Wahlberg), we soon learn, has divorced from whatever character Mila Kunis played in the original film. Once we get a pointless song and dance number out of the way, we fast forward a year to find the honeymoon is over for the newly-weds who decide to rediscover their love by having a baby.

Ted is ill-equipped to perform the necessary because, um, he’s a teddy bear, and Tami-Lynn’s required organs have suffered from years of drug abuse (side-splitting stuff), so the couple are forced to adopt. This request is ultimately declined because, um, he’s a teddy bear, and a chain of events are triggered that result in Ted losing everything because the State of Massachusetts has just realized he’s a bear and not a person. He’s just a toy; a possession. And so begins Ted’s journey to reverse this decision with the help of pro bono lawyer / love interest for Johnny, played by Amanda Seyfried.

It’s hard to imagine many people walking into this honestly expecting anything better than the first outing, and that’s an wise position to take. There are no surprises here except that the gag of a living, swearing teddy bear who really, really loves to smoke an awful lot of dope this time is further extended to the two hour mark.

That’s not to say there are no laughs to be had. In places, it’s hilarious. Throwing apples at joggers was random enough to make me laugh out loud, the Tom Brady cameo is as good as the trailer promised, and a gross-out mishap in a sperm clinic gilded its own lily with a well-judged hashtag joke. And judging by the number of Gollum gags, it would appear that Seyfried doesn’t take herself too seriously.

There’s a lot of barren ground between these high points, however, and for a movie that’s supposed to be about a character trying to prove he is human, the end result is an oddly lifeless affair packed with the same old stuffing.

The_Interview_2014There’s a chance you may not have heard much about The Interview given that it’s been released with such little fanfare.

Aside from the usual trailer spots, it’s had to rely on a mere few minutes airtime on every single news show on every single channel, articles in every single newspaper in most of the western world. How people were supposed to be aware of its simultaneous presence in movie theaters and on demand on a whole host of platforms is anyone’s guess.

In amongst this scant coverage, there are those who would have us believe that the movie should have been pulled, should never have been made in the first place, that it’s an example of Hollywood going too far. What were the makers thinking of? All the while, others rally to its defense and insist that this is what freedom of expression is all about, and either everything is okay or nothing is okay.

The truth of the matter is, it’s a shame such a by-the-numbers comedy should be used as a vehicle for either cause.

James Franco plays Dave Skylark, an E! style vacuous talk show host, who thanks to his producer, played by Seth Rogen, somehow manages to secure an interview with Kim Jung-un, rather too handsomely portrayed by Randall Park. Apparently, the North Korean supreme leader is something of a fan.

When the CIA get wind of this, largely represented by Lizzy Caplan because the makers needed a female character at this point, they convince the bungling duo to exploit their encounter with Kim and assassinate him. Of course, the dictator doesn’t appear to be all bad and it isn’t long before he and Skylark strike up one of those unlikely friendships that appear to be ten-a-penny in Hollywood.

Over the next 114 minutes, we get Rogen and Franco essentially playing themselves for the umpteenth time while they tick off as many North Korean stereotypes as possible, we get to slap ourselves repeatedly about the head at the utter stupidity of Skylark, and we get an awful lot of penis and butt jokes for our money. Will Skylark be able to carry out this dastardly plot? More importantly, will anyone care either way?

It’s not that it’s bad as such — I imagined that it would be a lot more racist that it actually is — and there are certainly a reasonable number of laughs scattered throughout. It’s just with the irresistible manipulated force of the media pushing it for all its worth, I was hoping for something a little less forgettable and little more risky. For all the supposed controversy, there’s nothing really to gasp at. No boundaries are in any danger of being gently cajoled, never mind actually pushed.

If I didn’t know any better, I’d almost start to suspect that Sony stole its own emails and then blackmailed itself. I know. Ridiculous, right? Right.

Yep — that’s right. Three of my poems have been published in the Winter 2014 edition of Open Palm Print, a small literary print journal based in mid-Michigan. It’s a publication put together with obvious love and care and you can order a copy online so you don’t have to live in the Mitten to treat your eyes to the wonderful work it contains. It probably helps, though.

The three poems in question — Riding in Cars with Werewolves, Not All Hamsters Die in Unusual Circumstances, and Press Conference for a Missing Son — were all written within days of each other during last year’s National Poetry Writing Month. Or NaPoWriMo for short. Or NaPo for even shorter. NaPo is a bit of a misnomer as it is an International event where poets from around the globe commit to writing a new poem every day throughout the month of April. 2013 was my first attempt at NaPo and while I didn’t manage to hit the target of thirty, I managed fifteen new poems and I count that as something of a success. As a result, my list of Titles I’d Really Like to Use at Some Point took a serious hit.

The thing about NaPo is that it forces you to find inspiration from sources one would probably overlook and it really means that anything remotely approaching a kernel of an idea has to be popped and bathed in sweet, sweet buttery drizzle. It’s amazing what comes out at the end of this process. Of course, not all of the fifteen make the grade but I’m happy with enough of them to convince me this was a worthwhile endeavor and this year, twelve days in, I have eleven poems down.

Press Conference is without a doubt the most solemn of the trio and was inspired by such an event I saw on the local news, the finer points of which I’ve long forgotten. What I do remember about that real-life conference was the strange things the mother said about her missing son. There was nothing particularly controversial, but there were some odd details mentioned, things that probably meant quite a bit to the poor woman. Either way, it highlighted to me the various ways we deal with stress and some of the words that leap from brain to mouth without filter under these extraordinary circumstances.

Hamsters is far more light-hearted. The previous day’s poem — No Long Books — was about the (continued) impending demise of my elderly dog and still in that cheery frame of mind, I set about writing something of a eulogy to a beloved family pet. Because they seem to frequently pass on as a result of various household accidents, I imagined that such an impassioned speech about lowly Brer Hamster may be quite amusing, even more so if the hamster in question’s passing was unusually devoid of drama. It just died. I toyed with, and ultimately dismissed, the idea of having a goldfish being the focus but ended up using it as a punctuation point to a poem later in the month. For your information, that goldfish also died. Baked in a plastic bag. Lovely.

The last poem — Werewolves — is a spin on the whole Twilight nonsense and tells the tale of a father coming to terms with the fact that his teenage daughter is dating a supernatural hairy beast and planning on inviting him over for dinner. This title sat on my list for more than a year and is basically a rip-off of the 2001 Drew Barrymore movie, Riding in Cars with Boys. I’m particularly happy with the outcome of this one and there are some individual lines I’m rather surprised that I managed to write: the vampirish “those pale high school boys/ who led their Xbox Lives/ buried in windowless basements/ shrinking from daylight/ to feed a 64-bit bloodlust” and the dual meaning that’s found in “They’d understand each other’s cycles” probably being my picks of the bunch.

So there you have it. Three poems. An embarrassment of riches.

You can order a copy of Open Palm Print at four bucks a pop and check out a preview of an edition by heading over to http://www.openpalmprint.com/.

captain_america__the_winter_soldier_poster_fanmade_by_timetravel6000v2-d5b9but-582x800Remember the good old days? You know, when every movie didn’t need to be a comic-book tie-in? Yeah, so do I.

Anyway. Marching on.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier is the latest in a seemingly inexhaustible stream of Marvel comic-book translations, which judging from the accompanying trailers (Guardians of the Galaxy, and the unbearably pretentious sounding X-Men: Days of Futures Past) is being mined for all its worth. Surprisingly, for me at least, this outing isn’t all that bad. It has a strong story and is well enough acted by a cast who have no qualms at some of the ridiculous lines the team of writers insists they say.

Set a couple of years after the Battle of New York, Captain America aka Steve Rogers (a ridiculously buff Chris Evans) is settling quite nicely into contemporary life with his wee notebook of pop culture things he needs to look up on the internets. Along with Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johannson), he’s sent off to rescue hostages, including members of SHIELD from a ship in the Indian Ocean. Once there, it seems like head good guy, Nick Storm (Samuel L. Jackson) has given Romanoff a sub-mission of her own — to steal some data on a USB stick from the ship’s computer that will eventually prove that some members of SHIELD aren’t perhaps the good guys we’ve been led to believe. All this happens with a backdrop of surveillance and approved drone strikes as SHIELD plans to launch three really, really big helicarriers (innocuously titled Operation Insight) into the air that can read a terrorist’s DNA remotely and so has a capability of taking out anyone on the planet it deems to be a target. What could possibly go wrong?

It’s a storyline very much of the age and asks the question if a society can ever be free once it’s surrendered its liberty. “Trust no one,” Cap is instructed once the bad guys start coming out of the woodwork and while Cap and Romanoff run around trying to decrypt the data on the USB stick, it maintains a very credible level of paranoia while not taking itself so seriously that it can’t laugh at itself. The cameo from Stan Lee is great and there’s a grave stone inscription that pleasingly nods its head to an indirectly related movie that will surely coax a smile from those who spot it. Visually as well, it’s very strong. Those helicarriers really are exceptionally big indeed and when one of them is accidentally backs into a skyscraper, it’s difficult not to be impressed before thinking about the insurance costs.

It’s not all good news, though.

Robert Redford is oddly distracting as the head bad guy, his wrinkled face now providing a shocking counterpoint to a head of hair that would be quite at home in One Direction.

It’s also very, very long. Not in terms of the whole — it tips the scales at 136 minutes, which isn’t all that extravagant these days — but in its component parts. Pretty much every scene feels a good minute or two longer than it needs to be. The opening movement where SHIELD storms the ship in the Indian Ocean goes on for so long that I developed scurvy. The scene where Cap is sitting at an old friend’s bedside felt like visiting hour at the hospital. And do we really need to see a thousand nameless evil henchmen shooting at the shield (rather than Captain America’s kneecaps, for example) every time a fight scene breaks out? Wouldn’t nine hundred do?

Perhaps most damning, for a movie which seems to be based around freedom and due process, it’s a little contradictory that one of the characters who bestows these values shoots a bad guy through the heart when surely he could’ve been arrested and tried, essentially stamping on the moral compass that had guided the movie up to that point. Did I say “little”? I meant “entirely”.

But for yet another comic book movie, it’s entertaining enough to get pass marks, even if it does insist you sit through to the end of the credits for a ten second scene that isn’t worth the wait but will have fanboys and girls squeeing in delight because it’s the done thing.

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