MARVELlous reviews: Avengers – Age of Ultron & Daredevil

daredevilWell, it has been a marvellous couple of weeks. Not only have we had the release of the second Avengers film, but I have also discovered Netflix (yes, I am a late adopter I know!) and by virtue of that, Daredevil. As regular readers will know, I am a Marvel fan girl and have been pretty much since the first Avengers. But not all of the product that the behemoth that is Marvel studios puts out meets with my approval. However, this week, I am all about the love. So here we go…

Avengers: Age of Ultron

As stated, the first Avengers film was really the turning point with me. I had enjoyed some of the preceding movies (Iron Man, Thor) but been non-plussed on some others like Captain America. But, the double punch of Joss Whedon’s brilliantly hilarious script and direction, combined with Tom Hiddleston’s career making, and scene stealing, turn as villain Loki, was enough to render me a hard core Marvel fan. So what of this next outing? To be honest, the trailers – while featuring lots of smashy smashy action and James Spader sounding ominous as Ultron – were under par for me, mainly because, until the last one at least, they didn’t bring the funny. And the funny is what I love about these movies. The funny and the characters. And there didn’t seem to be enough time devoted to either in the trailers.

Colour me surprised then when, within three minutes of the movie starting, I was giggling like a school girl – and kept doing so regularly for the next two and a half hours. If anything, this Avengers may be even funnier than the previous outing – with not only zingy one liners but also unexpected – and hilarious – almost under the breath replies. Mr Whedon had his humour dial turned to 11 for this one for sure. I had to – of course – see it a second time – both to compare the 2D and 3D experience (honestly, I don’t think you lose too much in just 2D), but to catch the things I missed the first time (watch out for what is happening in the background when Stark is at Nexus in Sweden). Sure, Ultron as the villain here doesn’t quite have Loki’s style and panache, but he makes a very formidable foe for our group of superheroes, and also lets the odd amusing one liner fly as well. And really, you can’t go wrong with James Spader behind the microphone.

This film also had more heart than the previous outing – both in terms of a little bit of love going on – as well as some unexpected family dynamics (which rounds out one character really well) and of course the various bromances. Banner and Stark’s is the best example of the latter – honestly, I could watch them fiddling around in the lab and bantering all day. I believe the hastag #sciencebros has been trending on Twitter about these guys, and I love it. But there is great character and relationship development for everyone, which isn’t an easy task given how many players there are already – plus the addition of a few more this time. Kudos to Whedon for getting us to care so quickly about newcomers Scarlet Witch (possibly my favourite new Avenger) and Quicksilver. Sure, Quicksilver may not have been QUITE as cool as the X Men version, but he more than held his own.

I have only two minor quibbles about this film. The first is a consistent problem in all Marvel films of late, and relates to the apparently mandatory requirement to have as much smashy smashy destruction as possible – often levelling entire cities. Sure, they did it very creatively in the third act here, but I would argue that smaller scale smashy smashy would be both novel and just as fun to watch. The second quibble is a feminist one – shocker. Sure, it’s great that Black Widow is just as awesome as she was in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and that she has a new gal pal Avenger in the form of Scarlet Witch. But was it REALLY necessary for them both, at some point during the movie, to be physically carried out of danger by another Avenger? Um, no, it really wasn’t. But thanks Hollywood for reminding us women that we can’t really hold out own in a shoot out as much as might like to.

But really, these are mere specks on what is a spectacular cinematic landscape. There is so much more to rave about here (Paul Bettany! The hammer! Andy Serkis!), but I will leave it to you to go and experience it yourselves. And you really should. 5 M&Ms from me.

Daredevil

For those of you who read Daredevil and think ‘that god awful time Ben Affleck tried to be a super hero’, worry not – this is a whole new thing, albeit based on the same comic. I have to say, I haven’t been a massive fan of Marvel’s small screen outings. Agents of Shield lost my interest about half way through (though I hear it is worth persevering with), and I have watched the first Agent Carter but haven’t gone back for more yet. But, Daredevil (on Netflix) had me from the get go.

The premise is a clever one – a young boy loses his eyesight in a chemical spill but gains extra sensory abilities – and decides to become a masked vigilante dealing with the evil doers in his neighbourhood of Hells Kitchen. And suffice to say there are a large number of evil doers. By day, he is a defence attorney – so the show will appeal to both fans of superheroes and fans of legal procedurals, of which I am both. Also, Princess Bride fans, the consistent use of the black mask will give you Westley flashbacks for sure – Daredevil is just like Westley, except instead of sword fighting he impales people on sharp objects. (Watch out too for the AMAZING scene in a hallway at the end of episode two).

The cast here is superb – seeing Charlie Cox, who was so excellent in Stardust but kind of dropped off the radar after that, kicking butt here, is freaking awesome. Rosario Dawson gives good potential romantic interest/could be a kick butt assistant vibes as well, and the duo of Deborah Ann Woll and Elden Hensen as Daredevil’s legal partners in crime provide much needed humour and heart. I am only four episodes into this show, but something tells me that I will devour the remaining seven with supersonic speed. Get thee to Netflix, get thee there now (FYI – it is free for the first month in NZ – and worth signing up just for this and the Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt – which is equal parts hilarious and bat shit crazy).

Have a MARVELlous day (sorry, once I find a pun I like the words ‘flogging’ and ‘dead horse’ come to mind 😉

Advertisements

Cats vs Dogs: the ongoing debate

katniss (2)So, when people ask me about my ‘five year plan’, I usually screw my face up like I would if I had smelt something particularly foul. Five year plans freak me out and make me feel like less of a grown up than I really should be. I am not a planner – I know that life throws so many curve balls that it is better to have a vague idea of stuff you want to achieve maybe, rather than set things you want to do in the next five years. That said, there was always one concrete thing that I always proffered up when asked the five year plan question – a dog. I wanted a dog in the next five years. And not a hand bag dog, a proper dog. Which meant I needed a proper house with a proper garden, and a work life balance that would accommodate said dog. So, I guess you could say my five year plan was to an extent dictated by my dog dreams. But, after a weekend of looking after a four month old puppy, I am beginning to rethink this whole dog thing.

I know. This is SHOCKING news! Me, the self professed dog lover who takes regular walks at Meola Reef just to check out the dog talent, saying she is not sure about having a dog now. But, I just didn’t properly realise, they are really hard work – especially at this age! We have had family dogs before, but the first I was too young to remember what she was like as a puppy (aside from being adorable) and the second I was overseas for her reign of puppy terror, and by the time I returned she was a randomly annoying pooch, but also super cute. So this is the first time I have been in sole charge of a puppy who is pushing the boundaries of discipline. And it really is much more like having a child than I realised. But the thing that makes them worse than kids? You can’t bribe them. Sure, treats work to an extent, but not always. And they won’t stop them from biting a hole in your new favourite jumper during a bout of boisterousness. Kids, at least the ones I know, don’t bite so much…

When I examine my reasons for wanting to have a dog – a lot of it relates to feelings of contentment and happiness that I had when hanging out with my childhood dog. She was a super adorable – yet super stupid – golden retriever, and was just the best company ever. And dogs get you – they know when you are feeling down and need some cuteness in your general vicinity. Rosie was a master at that. But as puppies – they haven’t developed those skills yet. It takes a while to get past the basics of doing what they’re told and not biting, chewing, running away with polar fleeces/cushions/bracelets/shoes/socks etc and into the ‘we are just great company and your best friend ever’ territory. And I have no doubt that my nephew-dog Luca will totally get there, but it’s gonna take a while. And do I think I have what it takes to get through that stage and bring up a puppy? Honestly, I am not so sure.

Which leaves me with two options – get a grown up dog or make do with feline friends. The former is appealing in that it takes an unwanted dog and gives it a home, but there is the risk of said dog having so much baggage from previous owners than you end up effectively going through the puppy phase anyway.  Plus, there just aren’t that many golden retrievers needing homes since they are the most adorable things, except maybe Red Pandas, on four legs. Which leaves cats. I have always been an equal opportunity pet lover – and had both cats and dogs growing up (as well as horses, rabbits, goats and a possum). Now, thanks to my living situation, I only have a cat. And a super awesome one at that. Her awesomeness seems amplified after a weekend with the puppy too. Things like her independence, her ability to take herself for walks and let herself out for the toilet, her lack of big teeth, her inability to bark and her super cuddly nature seem to be, right now, tipping the balance in favour of the felines.

I have to say it is independence which is probably the biggest thing. I can go away for  weekends and as long as someone (and she really doesn’t mind who) pops by to feed her, Katniss will be super fine. She might by overly smoochy when I get back, but that I can handle 😉 But dogs? You either have to take them with you – which isn’t always possible depending on your destination – or get someone to look after them. And looking after them isn’t as easy as I thought it would be! Dogs are like the pet equivalent of a Kardashian – super high maintenance. Cats, not so much. But, cat independence isn’t always great. They aren’t always around when you want them to be, they hardly ever do what you tell them, and you can’t take them for long walks on the beach without looking a little bit odd.

So where does this leave me? Am I really going to switch from Team Dog to Team Cat? Honestly, I am not ready to make that call. It is too big a decision to make on a Sunday afternoon, especially when it turns my entire five year plan on it’s head – as sparse as it may be! Also, my nephew – dog is currently snoring quietly on some cushions in the corner looking super cute. So maybe I need to give this dog sitting thing another try in another few months. Then I will make a decision. Or I will become Team Red Panda – cos I am sure they are SUPER easy to look after 😉

Saving the world – one TV show at a time

john oliverIt’s not often that I decide what my blog is going to be about early in the week – but this week I was ultra organised. Galvanised even. And shock, horror – it wasn’t going to be about how terrible the new Paul Henry Show is because, honestly, my life is too short to devote any time to watching or talking about the Penfold lookalike little douche. Instead, I was going to talk about the importance of TV covering real news and real issues – the things that should matter to everyone, but seem only very few care about. The sort of news that John Oliver – on HBO’s Last Week Tonight – delivered in brilliant fashion last week when interviewing Edward Snowden and lecturing (in an amusing, engaging way) the American public on why they should care about mass surveillance.

But then Thursday came, with the announcement that Campbell Live – the last bastion, I would argue, of ‘real nightly news’ left in New Zealand – is the latest show on TV3’s chopping block. As that news broke I was equal parts irate, disappointed, and guilty. Why guilty? Because, despite being slap bang in Campbell’s demographic (as a middle aged (ouch) leftward leaning TV watcher), I don’t regularly watch the show. But I am firmly on Team Save Campbell Live. Why? Because it does something no other show does these days – it talks about real issues that matter while also dealing with small – but important – stories relevant to everyday New Zealanders. But I don’t watch it regularly, so why do I have the right to lecture others that they should or tell the network who runs it that they shouldn’t axe it? Arguably I have no right to lecture others, but I think I do have the right to tell TV3 they need to make a socially responsible – rather than ratings driven – decision and keep Campbell Live.

I watch Campbell occasionally, when he is covering things I am really passionate about. His series of ‘at home with the leaders’ interviews during the election campaign was must watch TV for me. It gave an insight into the leaders of all the parties that you didn’t get anywhere else. And – despite Campbell clearly being a poster child for the liberal left – he did it in a really non-partisan way. He also gave the minority leaders airtime when they didn’t get it anywhere else. As a result, I felt more informed going into the election which – ultimately – is what shows like Campbell Live are there to do – create a more informed electorate (to steal a line from Sorkin show The Newsroom). And that’s why we need him – and his show – to stay. To ask sludgey ministers like Simon Bridges the hard hitting questions. To run campaigns like his food in schools campaign which draws attention to massive issues – such as inequality – which face our nation. And to bring a more liberal perspective to what, without him, will be a very right wing heavy TV news spectrum. With a right wing government in charge, we need a left wing journo to bring them to heel. And vice versa if, and when, the government changes.

But, as much as they talk about the Campbell Live slashing not yet being a done deal, it very much sounds like it is. Rumours (and they really are rumours – thanks New Zealand Herald for creating some more sensationalism where it really wasn’t needed) that Jono and Ben will replace it are likely untrue, but whatever does take over will be light and fluffy – because light and fluffy is what rates, as Seven Sharp has proven. TV3 announced today that their Sunday night news bulletin will be reduced to half an hour, and Third Degree will be slotted into that second half hour. So, instead of two and a half hours of current affairs a week (plus an additional hour if Third Degree had gone back to its original slot), we are going to get half an hour? Um, no TV3, that is not acceptable.

But, the ratings versus social responsibility to inform debate brings me back to what I was originally going to blog about – John Oliver and Edward Snowden. For those who don’t know, Oliver is a super smart English funnyman who used to feature on Jon Stewart’s Daily Show before being given his own show on HBO. On that show he does something magical – he takes really serious, meaty issues – like mass surveillance – and makes them digestible to the American TV watching public (and the world, thanks to YouTube). He doesn’t do it by boiling them down into something simple, he does it by being funny – by interspersing his warnings of ‘this is a massively serious issue that you should really care about’ with jokes about things like whether goldfish suffer from depression (probably, but only momentarily). And the format works. I ended up watching this thirty minute clip (http://www.bing.com/videos/search?q=john%20oliver%20edward%20snowden%20last%20week%20tonight&qs=n&form=QBVR&pq=john%20oliver%20edward%20snowden%20last%20week%20tonight&sc=0-0&sp=-1&sk=#view=detail&mid=CBDBBAF82036589FD8E7CBDBBAF82036589FD8E7 ) late on Tuesday night despite being knackered because it was compelling TV about an issue I care about. I have debated with a few people recently the issue of mass surveillance – and the degree of apathy I have encountered astounds me. There seems to be a general trust in government security agencies and all the people who could and will access information about us that I just don’t have. I don’t take the laissez faire ‘I’m not a terrorist so why should I be worried?’ attitude. And neither does Oliver. Or Snowden. And neither should you. It’s a compelling – and funny – watch, so I would urge you to give up half an hour of your day and watch it.

Then, once you have done that, think about whether this is what we need – if we are in fact getting rid of Campbell Live (please, TV3, no!!!). But I can’t help but think something similar to the Daily Show or Last Week Tonight format – with someone funny talking about news in an informative but amusing way – could be the compromise position. Something that rates while still telling us stuff we need to know.  God knows, it would be better than Dancing with the Bachelor on the Block – which will no doubt, given the Mediaworks CEO’s penchant for reality TV, be the next big thing on the TV3 slate. If so, save us, save our souls. Rant over.

Sexiest Man Alive: The Cricket Edition

brendonGiven the day it is – to be clear for anyone living under a rock, the day New Zealand take on Australia in our first Cricket World Cup Final ever – it would be remiss of me to blog about anything but cricket. But, I have already blogged about how exciting this tournament has been so far here and how I became a cricket fan – and Black Caps fan through thick and thin – here. So what is there left to say? Well, how about combining my appreciation for good looking (and smart and articulate) members of the opposite sex with my cricket fandom? I can definitely do that. So here goes – my Sexiest Man Alive list – the cricket edition!

5. Tim Southee: I have to say, Tim almost lost his place on this list when he blew the biggest pile of snot out of his nose and onto the pitch during the quarter final. Not cool Tim! Cricket is the gentleman’s sport after all, and surely gentlemen can carry handkerchiefs? But, that aside, I can’t not include Tim. Not only is he a fantastic fast bowler, but he is also just super hot. I am not being very deep with this assessment, but he’s a tall drink of water. And sometimes, that’s what you need part way through a cricket match 😉

4. Brendon McCullum: Ah, Baz. Captain extraordinaire, he has been a steady hand at the helm throughout the World Cup, and through his entire captaincy to be honest. Sure, he gets black marks for having tattoos (I know, I am such a judgemental wee thing), but more than makes up for it by being a lovely guy who can articulate this thoughts well (rare in a kiwi sportsman these days). For evidence, click on his name to see a great open letter he penned to kiwis ahead of today’s match. Dare you not to well up a little bit reading that (oh, you didn’t? So I am just really soft? Ah, good to know…). And then there are those sparkling blue eyes. Baz, you are the man to lead us to victory. I don’t doubt it.

3. Daniel Vettori: I remember on Tuesday night as Dan Vettori wandered onto the pitch to – hopefully – help Grant Elliot get us into the final, feeling a sense of calm come over me. Why? Because Daniel is a seasoned veteran – an ‘old man’ as the media keeps calling him (much to my chagrin being a year older than him) – and knows how to handle high pressure situations. And handle it he did. Also loved his nonchalant little reaction after taking that amazing catch in the quarters. So combine that maturity with his slightly skinny/geeky/weedy look, and it’s catnip to me. As an aside, just discovered his middle name is Luca and my brother recently named their black lap puppy Luca – so our family is hard out #backingtheblackcaps (without even knowing it).

2. Nathan Astle: Just to be clear, I am talking the ‘in his hey day of being a Black Cap’ Nathan Astle as opposed to the ‘needed some cash so made some terrible heat pump ads with my mate Stephen’ Nathan Astle of today. In his day, Nathan was the man. Not only one of our most accomplished batsmen of all time, he was also a handy middle pacer, and performed consistently well in the field. Plus, those boyish good looks and his modest and media shy personality. Yes, the one time I  enlisted my friends to make a banner for the cricket it was all about Nathan. And I have to say, despite how terrible those heat pump ads are, he has aged well 😉

1. Jonty Rhodes: I know, I could be hung, drawn and quartered for not having a kiwi at the top of this list, especially today. But to not have former South African fielder extraordinaire Jonty at the top of this list would be inconceivable. As a teenager, when my friends had pictures of boy bands and actors on their walls, I had pictures of Jonty. Why? Not only was he without doubt the greatest fielder cricket has ever seen (my favourite headline from that time was ‘two thirds of the earth is covered by water – the other third is covered by Jonty’). And it was almost true – he took the best catches and made the most unbelievable run outs I have ever seen. Add to that his incredibly upbeat attitude and consistently mischievous personality – and he really did bring something special to the game. Of course it didn’t hurt that he was super cute and looked like the kind of guy your mum would fall in love with if you ever took him home. So, as unpatriotic as it may be to not back black on this list on today of all days, I can’t lie. Jonty will always be the one.

But, that is really quite academic since, this afternoon, I could not be more firmly team New Zealand. Whether we win or lose, the Black Caps have performed – and behaved – incredibly well during this World Cup. Hopefully, as a result, next time the tournament rolls around Kiwis will give it the same degree of attention and hype as they do for it’s rugby equivalent. And hopefully we see heaps of future Black Caps enrolling in kiddie cricket, as they are inspired by the likes of Baz, Dan and Tim. But for today, GO THE BLACK CAPS! Do us proud.

My current small screen addictions

broadchurchAs much as I hate to admit it, that time of year has come where I need to dig out my jeans and cardis and admit that my jandals are not long for this earth (this summer at least). But the good news? Properly good TV has FINALLY returned to my life, after a summer of god awful re-runs and reality shows. So, I can hear you are all wondering, what is clogging up my DVR these days? Well, it’s an eclectic bunch…

Parks and Recreation: Yes, for sentimental reasons, I am keeping the last two episodes EVER of Parks and Recreation saved – possibly forever. I won’t go on again about how great this show is (which it totally is), how consistently amazing the cast is (which they are), or how much I would love to go back in time and be a writer on this show (which I totally would) but I will say this: this show did a final season like it was MEANT to be done. Not afraid to take risks, their last season took place three years after their second to last season, and then in the finale they jump forward even further to tell us what actually happened with all of the characters. It is like the closure you always wanted, done in the best, funniest, most heartfelt but least cheesy way ever. Frakking brilliant. LOVE THIS SHOW.

X Factor NZ: From the sublime to the ridiculous, I know. And yes – I know I have ranted before about how reality TV is a gateway drug to the zombie apocalypse, but I have also admitted before that X Factor is my reality TV X-ception. Why? Cos I love singing. I love to do it (sorry neighbours and cat) and I love listening to people who can do it well. Most of all? I love watching people (especially kiwis) who think they might be ‘ok at singing’ turn into superstars on stage. And sure, I know it is all choreographed heavily and all the ‘drama’ is rubbish, but when you boil it down to the singing – I can’t get enough. Of course, this week has been a torrid one for the show, but am pleased to see a bit of closure today with appointment of the new judges and ‘apologies’ from the deservedly fired Moon and Kills. So let’s get back to the music – or more precisely to see whether Steve Broad can find his mojo again and prevent Stevie Tonks from taking out the big prize…

Nashville: Ok, I know this is trashy TV, but it is my kind of trashy TV. Hidden away on TV One on Saturday nights you would be forgiven for missing it, but if you fancy a fictitious (but probably scarily accurate) insight into the workings of the country music industry, then this is the show for you. As I said above – I love the singing, and this show delivers on this front, even if it is country. Plus there is romance, scandal, murder, revenge – and a crap tonne of super hot guys who can also sing 😉 But the best thing? The two main characters – played by Connie Britton and Hayden Panettiere – are kick ass females who not only sing and consistently wear amazing outfits, but also wrangle with the business side of music and generally come out on top. I think this show would actually smash the Bechdel Test’s butt (as long as no points were deducted for the wearing of ridiculously short skirts while having non-male related conversations ;-)).

Madam Secretary/State of Affairs: speaking of kick ass females, there is no shortage of them on TV right now (and I haven’t even mentioned Agent Carter which I have yet to properly get into), and Madam Secretary and State of Affairs are all about them. Both are political (and you know how I love anything political) and both are kind of trashy – the West Wing this isn’t. But, they both (so far at least) are entertaining viewing. In Madam Secretary Tea Leoni (who I was always surprised didn’t become a bigger star than she has) plays an ex CIA agent turned Secretary of State, and in State of Affairs the normally annoying Katherine Heigl plays an ex CIA agent turned Presidential briefer. Both shows contrive ridiculous scenarios to enable their main characters to be way more in the thick of the drama then they ever would be in real life (I am pretty sure teams of swotty presidential briefers don’t routinely run illegal rescue missions of kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls from a control room at Langley), but it sure makes for fun TV. Sure, State of Affairs is basically Homeland with the brains scraped out, but it is an entertaining guilty pleasure.

Broadchurch: And I have saved by far the best for last. There is scant room for debate that the Brits just do quality drama better than anyone else. Spooks. The Hour. State of Play. And now Broadchurch. I inhaled both seasons of this incredibly fast, and I am not generally a binge watcher. But I was just loving it and had to find out what was going on – and ultimately – who did it. Because, at the end of the day, this show is just a who done it – but a brilliantly written, stunningly acted, spectacularly shot and freaking excellent one. My favourite thing of all about this show though is the (platonic) relationship and banter between DI Hardy (the ‘so on my shag list forever now’ David Tennant) and Ellie Miller (the always excellent Olivia Colman). At times I had to rewind and watch the scenes with them sparring again because they were just so clever and amusing. Bring me more of this show I say (and no America, your stupid reboot because you can’t handle English accents doesn’t count you toss pots).

So they are top of my Watch List right now – though I am looking forward to checking out new show iZombie (premiering tonight on TVNZ On Demand – from the makers of Veronica Mars and starring kiwi Rose McIver. Am also hanging out to see Season 3 of House of Cards, Season 3 of Newsroom and Tina Fey’s new Netflix comedy Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt which, from the look of the trailer at least, may be my new jam. So yeah, a winter ahead of being curled on the sofa in my jeans and cardi doesn’t seem so bad now 😉

A Quintessentially Awesome Kiwi Weekend

IMG_8042You know how sometimes life rewards you with something awesome when things may not have been going so swimmingly for you? Something so awesome that you kind of have to pinch yourself to make sure it is actually happening? Well, I had that experience not once but twice this weekend. Both with quintessentially kiwi experiences that made me so thankful to live where I live, have the life that I have, and have the friends that I do. To sum up, then, it hasn’t been a bad weekend 😉

The first of these experiences was Friday night where I got to combine two of my all time favourite things – zoo animals and the family Finn. As regular blog followers will know, I have been a Finn fan (particularly of Neil) since I was a teen, and have lost count of how many times I have seen him – and them – play live. But when I heard the family – Tim, Neil, Liam as well as Tim’s kid Harper and Neil’s other kid Elroy – were putting on a show at the band rotunda in the zoo, which is just a hop skip and a jump from my house – then I couldn’t say no. I convinced two lovely friends to come with me (one of whom had never seen the Finns live before! Was tempted to revoke her passport on the spot, but she was remedying her error so all was forgiven ;-)) – and off we went.

And what a night it was! After a spectacular downpour at lunchtime (it actually started raining INSIDE the restaurant I was lunching at, no joke), the day cleared to become calm, clear and mild – perfect outdoor concert conditions. Every man and their kid was there, but we managed to arrive early and secure a spot near the rotunda – albeit around the back. But the Finns were, as always, fantastic hosts, and made sure to play to the whole crowd (I still remember Neil once giving a box of chocolates to a portion of his crowd at a London gig where they couldn’t see one song he played). All of the Finns were in fine fettle, rocking a great collection of Split Enz, Crowded House, Finn brothers and Liam Finn tunes. It just felt like a family jam session – a little bit improvised, not absolutely perfect, but an inclusive and fun time for all.

As much as I enjoyed the music – the highlight probably being the whole crowd singing along to Better Be Home Soon – it was the crowd and the surroundings that also made this such a wonderful night. The crowd made up in age diversity what they might have lacked in cultural diversity – with older folks lapping up the atmosphere while small kids danced around and enjoyed the music. Hopefully new Finn fans in the making! And for every laid back group like us, sitting back and eating cheese and crackers while dancing discretely on our picnic blankets – there was a hard core fan up the front dancing like no one was watching (we were, we were watching – but good on you for not caring). The birds gave us a twilight chorus, and I like to think that the red pandas appreciated I See Red as much as the cotton topped Tamarins appreciated Nobody Takes Me Seriously Anyway. All in all – a fantastic evening that I will treasure forever – thanks to the Finns, my friends, and the zoo for this great experience!

And that was just Friday night! Saturday was also a very memorable one as, thanks to my cricket mad and super organised friend Nicola, we had tickets to see the Black Caps play Australia at Eden Park. My prayers to the weather gods clearly worked as it was another stunning Auckland day, though we were lucky to be in a covered part of the South Stand so didn’t have to cope with the heat too much! Although we were pretty much in the nose bleed section it didn’t matter, we had an unimpeded view and a boisterous crowd around us – we even coincidentally had lovely family friends sitting just four rows in front of us, in another example of what makes Auckland awesome. There was a distinct lack of drunk, annoying numpties (which is always a risk at the cricket) and just a generally friendly and enthusiastic crowd (unless you were Australian, but I will get onto that later).

Unless you have been living under a rock for the past 24 hours you will know that it was one of the most exciting games of the World Cup so far – with the Black Caps, thanks to an impressive wicket haul by Trent Boult, and supporting work by Southee and Vettori – getting the Aussies out for a paltry 151. After a blazing start from the Aussies this came as a massive surprise to us all – with my friends and I looking at each other aghast after every wicket going ‘what the f*** is going on???’. We were on fire is what was going on. As the Black Caps came into bat and started slogging boundaries and sixes, we were all thinking ‘we could be home by dinner time!’. But no, everyone knows two things – never go up against a Sicilian when death is on the line, and never assume the Australians will go down without a fight. And so it was, we found ourselves with 6 runs to go and just one wicket in hand – thanks to impressive bowling by Aussie Mitchell Starc (not House of Stark – but given that performance, maybe he should be). A kind of hush fell over the crowd as we all watched nervously as Starc bowled his last two balls of his over, just hoping, and praying – he wouldn’t take another wicket so that the reliable Kane Williamson would be on strike and the game could still be won (by us, obviously). And as that happened, and as Kane dispatched the first ball of the next over for a required six, the crowd well and truly went wild. Screaming, shouting, high fiving, grown men hugging, it was all going on. I was more in the Martin Crowe camp of reaction though, breathing a massive smile of relief and giving a wry smile. We did it. We beat Australia!

The only downside of the game for me was no great surprise – it happens every time we play Australia. I know they are the team we love to hate – and I know I am as guilty of Australia bashing as anyone. But there is no need for booing of players just on principle – unless they do something well and truly awful – and there should also be more recognition for good play, even if it does come from the opposing team. Sure, the rousing chorus of ‘You’re Worse Than England!’ was pretty funny, but I think we can keep the boos to a minimum next time and clap for the opposing team when they earn it, surely? At the end of the day, the Australian team are great players, and many are good mates with the Black Caps. So we should treat them appropriately – not like they are the spawn of Satan sent to end our hopes of World Cup glory.

At the end of the day though, this was a very small blip in what was a fantastic day. Sure, it ended quicker than we would have wanted – but I would rather that than would could have been a drawn out and dull run chase. Took a few years off my life at the end there for sure, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. So now it is onwards for the Black Caps – there is no doubting they are in spectacular form and could well be contenders this year. How awesome would that be – to have World Cup holding rugby and cricket teams? My kiwi friends still living in London would LOVE the gloating rights if that happened. But for now I will just sit back and appreciate the weekend that was – friends, Finn, fun, and the most exciting sports game I have seen in forever. Thanks Auckland, you rock 🙂

The Imitation Game Review and My Oscar Predictions

oscars 2015As we speak the red carpet is being rolled out and the tall gold statues are being buffed up – or some slightly misled individuals are digging around in garbage bins looking for grumpy dudes named Oscar 😉 Lucky then that I managed to get my Oscar film watching complete this week – or what kind of ad hoc amateur film reviewer would I be?? But done it is, so here is my final review and then my picks for who should, and will most likely, win the big awards come Monday afternoon our time.

The Imitation Game

So I took my sweet time getting around to seeing this Alan Turing biopic, which was one of the first Oscar films to open here this year. It didn’t immediately appeal, despite the stellar cast, but after rave after rave after rave from both critics and friends, I finally made it last night. And I am very glad indeed that I did.

For those unfamiliar, this is the story of Turing, one of the lead mathematicians working at Bletchley Park during WW2 to break the German ‘Enigma’ codes – which they sent all of their messages in. Breaking the code meant getting incredible intel on German plans and troop movements. But it was no easy feat. The code was changed daily, so the maths geniuses had just 24 hours to try and crack the code before having to start all over again. Although this is the main focus of the film – and a fascinating focus it is too – the film also uses a wider lens to look at Turing’s life, with flashbacks to his boarding school days, as well as flash forwards to his eventual arrest for indecency (because, in the 1960s, being gay was still a crime. I knew this going in, but even so it was still the most shocking thing about this film).

Much has been said of Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance is Turing – and he was indeed excellent. A stellar supporting cast also – nice to see the chauffeur from Downton getting something different to do, and Mark Strong put in as an always fantastic (and sartorially impressive) performance as an MI6 agent (FYI – thanks to this film and Kingsman, Strong is now top of my ‘guys over 50 I would canoodle with’ list). But the biggest surprise here was the normally annoying Keira Knightley. As my friend remarked at the end of the film ‘Keira wasn’t even that annoying!’. Despite looking and sounding like she normally does, I liked her character so much that I kind of forgot it was her. So well done Keira, keep up the not being annoying. Back to Cumberbatch though – I am not a crazy fan girl (I don’t even understand how people find him attractive, but never mind) but he was incredible here. There was one scene later in the film that felt a bit too like ‘this is the scene they will use to show my Oscar worthy performance’, but other than that he put in a note perfect performance, so well done to the man with the funniest name in Oscar history.

The script was the thing that surprised me the most here – with it being far funnier than you would expect a film about a homosexual cracking Nazi codes to be. And the director made great use of actual war footage as well as shots of the impact of the war to convey the time pressure that these guys were under. The flashbacks and forwards were easy to follow and kept the film moving at a rollicking pace. And – despite the scene referred to above – nothing seemed melodramatic or forced. It was an all round excellent film about incredible – and shocking – events. Highly recommend it and hand it 4 and a half M&Ms. But how will it fare at the Oscars? Let’s see what I think anyway…

My Oscar Predictions

Sorry to all your costume designers and sound mixers out there, but I only do the ‘big’ categories. I apologise for the quite obvious discrimination.

Best Film: this is very much a two horse race, despite there being great films – like Theory of Everything and the Imitation Game that are very Oscar baity indeed. But, given the current buzz and the fact that Hollywood LOVES films about Hollywood…Will win: Birdman. Should win: Boyhood. I won’t be ranty if Birdman wins, as it was an innovative and exciting watch, but Boyhood was simply fantastic cinema, with real heart.

Actor in a Leading Role: just a brief rant here if I may about the fact that David Oyelewo’s fantastic turn as Dr Martin Luther King in Selma didn’t even get a nod here – but much has already been said by smarter people than I about the lack of diversity at these particular Oscars. So, with him not in contention, it really comes down to Michael Keaton for Birdman and Eddie Redmayne for The Theory of Everything. Both performances were excellent, but…Will win: Eddie Redmayne. Should win: Eddie Redmayne. As someone said the other day – the Academy love physical transformations, and no one did it better this year than Redmayne’s portrayal of a rapidly declining (physically, definitely not mentally) Stephen Hawking. He’s a lock here I think.

Actress in a Leading Role: I haven’t even seen this film – Still Alice (as apparently it is very average, despite the main performance being amazing) so can’t testify to whether this is the right choice, but she is generally awesome in everything so I will go with – probably. Will win: Julianne Moore. Should win: Julianne Moore, based on the hype. If it were up to me though, both Reese Witherspoon in Wild and Felicity Jones in Theory were INCREDIBLE so would be worthy winners here too.

Actor in a Supporting Role: If there is justice in this world, and there seldom is when it comes to the Oscars, then Whiplash – which was a SUPERB film through and through, deserves some Oscar loving. And this is where it should get some. JK Simmon’s performance as the control freak band leader was intense, scary, scene stealing and completely changed the way people look at him as an actor. He the man. So, Will win: JK Simmons. Should win: JK Simmons. Again, I think this one is a lock.

Actress in a Supporting Role: Normally, anyone up against Meryl Streep in an acting contest wouldn’t even bother writing a speech. This year though, thanks to Into the Woods being decidedly average despite Streep’s decent performance, they should put pen to paper. Though probably only one needs to bother. Will win: Patricia Arquette for Boyhood. Should win: Patricia Arquette for Boyhood. Emma Stone was excellent in Birdman, but Arquette was simply amazing over this 12 year marathon of a film. And as Tina Fey quipped at the Golden Globes: ‘Boyhood proves there are still great roles for women if you are over 40, as long as you get hired when you’re under 40’.

Best Director: Ah, here is the real toughie. Traditionally the winner of best film also wins best director, but I wonder whether the Academy will seek to reward both Boyhood and Birdman by splitting the vote here. So here is my – likely to be wrong, pick. Will Win: Richard Linklater for Boyhood. Should win: Richard Linklater for Boyhood. Especially if Birdman takes out the big prize, I think the Academy would be crazy not to reward Linklater for his incredible 12 year long passion project – not to mention his massive body of exceptional work preceding that (Dazed and Confused, Before Sunset trilogy, even School of Rock!). So I think, and hope, Linklater gets the gold man here.

I am intentionally boycotting the Best Animated Film category this year since WITHOUT QUESTION THE BEST ANIMATED FILM OF THE YEAR THE LEGO MOVIE DIDN’T EVEN GET NOMINATED! (Yes, those caps were intentional. I am right het up about this!). So that’s all my picks for this year. If you haven’t seen all the Best Picture nominees here is a handy place to find all the trailers – in case you want to do some research before you make your picks for your work sweepstake 😉 Also, over on Flicks there is a brilliant, scary and at times hilarious analysis of how many of this years Oscar films would pass the Bechdel test for how well they portray females. Let’s just say diversity is not a buzz word of the Academy, that’s for sure.

For those interested, I will for once (technology allowing) be watching the Oscars live this year and will tweet my reactions and general witty insights 😉 My twitter handle is @pihajess. Roll on Monday! (and for all you blog readers who don’t care about movies so much a) what’s wrong with you? and b) I promise to be less movie focused in weeks to come ;-)).

Movie reviews: The Theory of Everything & Selma

theorySuffice to say, both of these biopics about extraordinary men left me feeling like the most underachieving 37 year old that ever lived. One managed to overcome the most enormous physical challenges to make massive scientific discoveries and then write books about them, while the other managed to, by my age, spearhead a massive civil rights movement and make huge steps forward for African Americans. As for me? Well, I have a blog 😉 Despite the feeling of underachievement though, what did I make of The Theory of Everything and Selma? Read on…

The Theory of Everything

Going into this film I knew very little about Stephen Hawking – I even (prepare to be shocked) thought he was American, since that is how his automated voice sounds. But, clearly not so. This biopic tells the story of Stephen’s early career – and his relationship with wife Jane. It is actually based on a book written by Jane herself, so it should be no surprise that the movie is as much about her as it is about him. We meet them at Cambridge University – where he is struggling to choose a PHD topic and she is an arts student. This is before he is diagnosed with motor neuron disease, but that doesn’t take long.

It is impossible to talk about this film without talking about the two lead performances. Much has been said of Eddie Redmayne’s depiction of Hawking, which is simply incredible. And brave, given the character he is playing is still very much alive, and was involved to an extent in the making of the film. But the same can be said of Felicity Jones’ role as Jane – which she plays with a calm restraint that all acting students should pay careful attention to. It was the moments with her struggling with the role she had very much chosen – as carer and wife for the head strong scientist – which really gave this film its heart.

One thing I wasn’t expecting was for the film to be so beautifully shot – I had to check that it wasn’t a Joe Wright film as it had that feel to it. One scene early on during the May Ball at Cambridge was a particular highlight. But clever use of camera shots and beautiful little scenes made this a cut above your usual biopic. The script also – by kiwi Oscar nominee Anthony McCarten – was also tight yet brilliant. And much funnier at times that you would expect when dealing with these kinds of issues. This film is a real tour de force – honest, heart-breaking yet heart-warming, inspiring and stunning to watch. Impossible to fault so it gets a solid 5 M&Ms from me.

Selma

Civil rights, American politics, small town America – all of these things fascinate me, so a movie centred around these things – and in particular Martin Luther King’s attempt to use Selma, Alabama as a battle ground to ensure African Americans were actually allowed to vote – should have been a winner for me. Alas, it wasn’t. Although it shares quite a bit of cinematic DNA with The Theory of Everything – a biopic about a well known person achieving amazing things – it lacked the very things that made Theory so impressive.  Which is a damn shame, as this is a story that deserves to be told well.

I didn’t know anything about Selma, Alabama going into this – and was fascinated to watch the way that King and his associates worked the system to ensure they got media – and therefore public – attention focused on the issues of importance to him. His relationship with President Johnson (played admirably by Tom Wilkinson) was also intriguing – they shared much more of an open dialogue than I knew about. And initially I was impressed with the way the film didn’t flinch with depicting King as a flawed man – in particular in relation to his marriage. Inclusion of his wife’s perspective on things – in particular the death threats she and their children, not to mention her husband, regularly received – indicated this was going to be a more than simply a by the numbers biopic.

And in places this film did pack a real punch – in particular during the several run ins between the non-violent marchers and the overly violent police and state troopers. Much has been made of the parallels with today’s America, in which black men are still punished and killed by white police (and civilians), with disturbing frequency. And if anything – the movie was useful to stir up more debate about that. However, as a biopic I found it ultimately lacked drama and intensity. King was a master orator – and at times this film demonstrated that – but the rest of the time it just felt like one person was making a little speech, then another, then another. The dialogue could have done with some Aaron Sorkin back and forth, that’s for sure. By the time the pivotal speech came around at the end, I couldn’t wait for the credits to roll. I was just bored, and the end felt very anticlimactic. Which is a massive shame as Brit David Oyelowo’s performance was pitch perfect and definitely Oscar worthy (though the Academy didn’t see fit to even give him a nod – but more on that next week). The other performances were also good, but with a better script and maybe some editing they would have seemed even better. Only 3 and a half M&Ms for this one. (And fingers crossed Paul Greengrass gets around to his long awaited Martin Luther King biopic, centred around his assassination, soon…)

For those keeping track, I only have one Best Picture nominee left to see – The Imitation Game. I intended to see if on Thursday but decided to see Kingsman at IMAX instead (which was freaking incredible, even the second time). For my blog reading public though, I will aim to get you my Imitation Game review and Oscar picks next weekend!

Movie Reviews: Birdman & Wild

WildAnd my quest to see every Oscar movie before the Oscars continues! I managed to nail two this week – both excellent. To hear more about WHY they were excellent, read on…If you prefer it when I completely slate movies, then this may not be the week for you 😉

Birdman

This hard to fit into a genre film is probably going into the Oscars as one of the favourites to win best film – alongside Boyhood. The battle of the Bs if you like. And it’s very hard call to make as to which one will take it out (don’t worry, my Oscar prediction blog will be forthcoming). I went into this film knowing a little of what to expect in terms of plot, but also being warned that it was pretty crazy, hard to define and not for everyone. So, suffice to say, my expectations were somewhat hard to pin down also.

The movie tells the tale of a former superhero franchise movie star – brilliantly played (and cast) by former superhero franchise movie star Michael Keaton – who is trying to earn some respectability by adapting, directing and starring in a Broadway play. We follow him in the days preceding then including the ‘previews’ period – where people get cheap tickets to allow the actors to hone the show, and allow some buzz to spread. Things are far from straight forward when a last minute casting change – involving the fantastic Ed Norton – is required, family dramas – involving the as always amazing Emma Stone as Keaton’s post-rehab daughter – occur, and Keaton himself struggles with his own demons. Sound too intense? Well, it isn’t. Remember this flick was in the musical/comedy category at the Golden Globes – and it definitely isn’t a musical. So although there are very dramatic moments and serious issues dealt with – there are many laughs to be had here.

Much has been made of the ‘one take’ nature of this film – the fluid movement from scene to scene with clever creative devices showing time passing – and that is impressive to watch. But it was the script and the performances that made this film for me. It definitely shows the dirty side of Hollywood – and Keaton, Stone and Norton in particular imbue their characters with such life that you can’t help but go on the journey with them. Stone was a revelation for me playing a completely different role than I have seen her in before – she isn’t bubbly, energetic Emma that’s for sure. Her Oscar nom for supporting actress is well deserved. And with great support from the likes of Naomi Watts, Andrea Riseborough and Zach Galifianakis – there are no bum notes when it comes to performance. And the script is simply next level excellent. It’s commentary on the nature of Hollywood in particular – the focus on opening weekend box office and the current obsession with all things super hero striking a real chord. This is truly a fantastic and genre-bending watch, and it will have you puzzled and thinking for days to come. Four and half multi-coloured M&Ms from me.

Wild

This film – adapted from a memoir by by Cheryl Strayed – definitely lands firmly in the drama category. Reese Witherspoon plays Cheryl, a woman with – we assume – some skeletons in her closet who decides to air them out/dissect them by spending three months on her own hiking the Pacific Crest Trail from Mexico to Canada. But, it isn’t all about the walking. Probably half the film is made up of vivid, well inserted flashbacks to Cheryl’s life, and the events which made her take on this massive challenge.

I caught five minutes of Sweet Home Alabama on TV last night and it was hard to marry up that Reese Witherspoon with this one. I remember being horrified when I heard she had acquired the rights to Gone Girl, worried that she might cast herself – I didn’t think she had the acting chops for it. Turns out – she totally does. She is in every scene of this film and anchors it beautifully. She doesn’t overact or turn to melodrama – despite the fact the subject matter could make that an easily done thing. Props must go also to the director Jean-Marc Vallee – who also did Dallas Buyers Club – for ensuring the flashbacks never felt forced or badly timed, they were sinuously inserted into Cheryl’s walk through beautiful, challenging and changing scenery. And Laura Dern was simply excellent in her small but important role as Cheryl’s mother.

My sister warned me going in that I would need tissues – but I didn’t need them. (The fact that she did proves I am WAY tougher than her ;-)). But I didn’t find it as harrowing as maybe I should have or could have – especially since some of the issues dealt with were very relevant to my own life. I found that – for whatever reason – I was somehow distanced from it a little. And I can’t explain why. So, although I would highly recommend the film – and love the fact it is a female-led drama that well and truly passes the Bechdel test – it didn’t quite meet the expectations I went in with, which may be my own fault. Even so, a solid four M&Ms for this one (and take your tissues, cos you may not be as tough as me either ;-)).

Check in again next week for (hopefully) more Oscar reviews – including The Theory of Everything and The Imitation Game.

Movie reviews: American Sniper and Kingsman: The Secret Service

KingsmanIt’s February and the sun is shining so of course the best movies are released at this time of year. Seriously, living in the Southern Hemisphere does have its downsides sometimes eh? Still, there are worse things to complain about than a plethora of good movies. This week I am reviewing one Oscar contender and another film that did its best to offend every member of the Academy – but had an incredibly fun time doing so. One I loved and one I was thoroughly underwhelmed by. Read on to find out which is which…

American Sniper

Nominated for best film and best actor (for Bradley Cooper aka Rocket Raccoon) at this year’s Oscars, I should have had high hopes going into this Clint Eastwood directed flick. And a few months back – after seeing the trailer – I did. The trailer showed a scene – the first in the movie it turns out – where a sniper (Cooper, playing real life sniper Chris Kyle) is forced to decide whether to take out a small child brandishing a grenade and approaching a group of US soldiers. It was a gripping two minutes – both in the trailer and in the film. Unfortunately though, the rest of the film just didn’t live up to that early promise.

I had lowered my expectations significantly by the time I actually saw the film – having read a few reviews and also articles about the actual guy the film is about. But, I still hoped to enjoy it. It was being touted as a return to form for Eastwood, who has directed a string of very average flicks in the past few years. And as a film, it was fine. It told an interesting story about a sniper getting kind of addicted to war while at the same time knowing it is ravaging him mentally – and the impact this has on his home life with his new wife and young children. It should have been fascinating. But instead it was just a pretty perfunctory, by the numbers and incredibly lacking in suspense war story.

It’s a real shame, as the story could have been explored in much more interesting ways. Without giving too much away, there is an Iraqi sniper who is part of the story – and I couldn’t help but think it would have been much more compelling if the story had been told from both of their perspectives. But the movie is based on Kyle’s own autobiography, and doesn’t even begin to even conceive of another side of the story. It is Clint at his most gung ho America, and it just made me angry by the end. I didn’t really care what happened to Kyle, and I really wanted to get home immediately so I could watch Black Hawk Down again and remind myself it is possible to make an incredibly compelling, emotionally intense and engaging war movie, with more than one side depicted. 2 M&Ms are all this sniper gets from me.

Kingsman: The Secret Service

Probably the only thing this film has in common with American Sniper is body count and gratuitous violence. But they couldn’t be more different. Kingsman is brought to us by the makers of Kick-Ass, which famously parodied the superhero genre while inventing new ways to offend people – most famously by having a 12 year old girl kill an entire room of people after emitting the ‘C’ word. So yeah, I knew going into Kingsman – a parody of all things secret agent, in particular Bond – that this was going to be a confronting film. But by god was it funny.

Colin Firth plays a member of an elite group of British secret agents – who all dress in the finest Saville Row suits while dispatching bad guys in the most creative of ways. I have never seen Firth play a role like this before – and he has absolutely gone up in my estimation as a result (to quote Tina Fey – I would definitely go there for a ‘polite amount of time’). When a spot fills up in their agent roster, Firth recruits a young kid named Eggsy – yep, not a typo – who has a history of petty crime and a pretty crappy life in a housing estate. Firth sees potential in the kid, and also has some history with his father, so puts him into training with a group of toffee nosed whippersnappers who all want to join the service too. The interaction between Eton kids and street kid provides more than a few laughs early on.

But the fun really arrives when Samuel L Jackson joins the fray as a megalomaniac billionaire with the most hilarious lisp ever. Yeah, if you have a lisp, you might be offended – but join the cue as so will most people by something in this film. Action then centres on preventing Jackson from carrying out his evil master plan, which is just as insane as any Bond movie. Michael Caine and Mark Strong provide excellent support – with Strong in particular seeming to be having a particularly fun time embracing his Scottish jack of all trades character. Things get crazy, and violent, and out of control, and hilarious – and some have found it all a little too much. There is one scene in particular that people have found uncomfortable, but that was surprisingly one of the highlights for me. There were other, much smaller, things that offended me a little – but all in all I didn’t care as I was just having too much freaking fun. Go and see this film – just don’t take it too seriously. Four and a half multi-coloured M&Ms from me, and this goes straight to the ‘must own on DVD’ list.

Back next week with some more Oscar reviews for you!