Monthly Archives: April 2012

Road to Baku 2012: Gaitana – “Be my guest” (Ukraine)

For a newcomer with only 9 entries to its name, Ukraine have quickly established themselves as Eurovision heavyweights. They won with their second entry, as the wonderful Ruslana took a slim victory in Istanbul. Since then they have racked up two second-place finishes and a total ot 6 top 10 finishes. Not too shabby! If anything they usually have something interesting up their sleeve, whether it’s gyroscopic bondage kit (2009), sand art (2011 – it was better than it sounds) or dazzling light-boxes (a marvellous 2008).

This year, the former Soviet state have opted for something a little more straight-forward, a slice of uplifting 90s dance. It sounds pretty much like a throwback summer hit from the mid-90s, in all the right ways. A vaguely new-agey tribal ‘na na na’ chant, some ethnic-sounding horns, and a stylish frontwoman.

If you are a purist who lives in the past, insisting that this is “a songwriting contest”, then I’m sure you’ll be left wanting. Lyrically there’s not much of a song at all, aside from a very accommodating theme to be her guest. A lot.

OK there’s not much else to it, it’s a fun dance song, and I’m sure Ukraine will make the staging look as flamboyant as it feels like it should be, but it’s just a little lacking for me. The countries previous entries may have been a little lost in translation at times, but they’ve been apart from their rivals, something I’m not sure this is. Perhaps its time as queen of the ex-Soviet bloc is drawing to an end, but we’ll see. I can see this qualifying as usual, after all Ukraine have yet to miss a final. But I hope they earn it with a great performance

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Movie: Avengers Assemble (2012)

Is it “Avengers Assemble” or just “The Avengers”? Who knows, but we all knew it was coming, with the biggest superhero movies of the last 5 years littered with foreshadowing for an ambitious project that would draw them all together. So we have Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, Hulk, Black Widow and Hawkeye as the big team, as well as supporting action from Nick Fury, post-credits teaser whore Agent Coulson, Pepper Potts, the old guy from Thor, her from How I Met You Mother, probably some others. They’re all fighting Thor’s chief antagonist Loki. With me so far? Oh and there were vibrating chairs!

For such a grand-scaled effort it really paid off, it looked amazing, the plot made sense for the most part (actually why was Loki doing all this?) and for a 140-minute feature it really didn’t drag, even despite a rather protracted mid-section. What was that title card though? The least ostentatious thing I’ve ever seen, it was just THERE. It might as well have been in Times New Roman. I want a crazy-assed opening title sequence!

Joss Whedon is a king among nerds, and I’m glad the Buffy creator made this work for everybody in the same way JJ Abrams made the similarly mythology-heavy Star Trek accessible to everyone. There were some in-jokes sure, but most of it hung on the interaction of these very different personalities, and he made it work. Should I go through this hero by hero?

Captain America held his own with a strong sense of moral fibre and gosh-darned patriotism. AMERICA! Him vs Thor was a pretty spectacular moment. I was pleased to see him not treated as the butt of the jokes, though they got plenty of mileage with that.  Talking of butts, did he have some sort of padding in those sweatpants? Not much freedom going on in there…

Iron Man was an attention-hog as per usual, but all-in-all didn’t feel too overwhelming, especially considering his two films so far are probably the biggest grossing. I’m still not totally sold on his character, but he’s a bit of comic relief and good for a bit of plot exposition.

Thor was burly and brilliant as always, his movie was pretty solid, and I missed the small-town / interdimensional Nordic feel to that movie. I guess it would have got pretty crowded with love interests if Natalie Portman had been in on the action, but it felt a little strange for him not to get any mileage to his character, other than some scenes with Loki. I guess in such a long film they couldn’t deal with something as big to the franchise as his reunion with her, so it’s at least understandable. And look at him fly, wheeee!!

Hulk was a surprise, after a few false starts I wasn’t sure where we were. I mean everyone knows him, but there was no tie to the most recent film (including the casting of Hulk himself). That aside, he got some great scenes and Mark Ruffalo played him really well. His scenes were a bit slapstick in places, and the “oh I’m bad news” doom and gloom was laid on a bit thick, but his ‘fight’ with Loki was a fun scene, and his general carnage-wreaking was spectacular.

Who’s left? Black Widow was pretty kick-ass, and she proved her worth several times, but ultimately I did feel she was a bit shoe-horned into some action just for gender balance. The final battle alongside Hawkeye was markedly smaller in scale, while Hulk and the gang were smashing the big guys. Hawkeye didn’t exactly develop his minimal role in Thor, and spent most of the movie out of the action, or picking off a few baddies with his versatile but ulimately limited weapon.

Oh I’m exhausted! Everyone else was good too, Nick was furious, her from How I Met You Mother was … her, and Agent Coulson was touching but a little ineffectual. Even his ‘big scene’ left me feeling a bit indifferent, which I’m sure wasn’t the desired effect. Loki did his best as a smirking reptilian pain-in-the-ass, and somehow lacked the weight of a major threat. Pitting his wit against the Avengers’ might was a good idea, but it turns out you can win the day just by smashing everything up. Outsmarting him would have been a little more satisfying I think.

I haven’t even said about the vibrating chairs! Our local Cineworld became only the second cinema in the country to get these “D-Box” seats installed in one of the screens, an island of about 40-odd in the middle. You pay more (on top of the already extortionate 3D prices), but the seat tilts and vibrates to the action. So there were plenty of aerial shots in the film, the seat tilts around to match the point-of-view. I thought it was a novel idea, but I can’t imagine that ever becoming more than a gimmick in the same way 3D managed impressively well. Fun to try though! Only problem was that the seats themselves were really quite uncomfortable. Too high to put my feet on the floor, and solid enough to stop you getting properly comfortable.

Anyway, bottom line is that it was great. Go and see it if you have any interest in any of the supporting films.

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Road to Baku 2012: Ott Lepland – “Kuula” (Estonia)

Time for another Baltic nation that needs a turnaround in its luck. Estonia are relatively new to Eurovision, though even they have nearly 20 years in the game. Their first decade was a lot more successful, securing 6 top 10 finishes and more importantly took the contest to Tallinn after winning in 2001.

Things haven’t been quite so rosy since then. Aside from a top 10 finish in 2009’s Moscow, Estonia have a real problem qualifying.

More painfully, last year the wonderful Getter Jaani was the bookies’ favourite to win the Dusseldorf contest for quite a while, but were left with a rather humiliating and undeserved 24th place in the final. I really don’t get what went wrong there, it was a great song.

So what now? Uptempo didn’t work, so it’s back to that tried-and-tested ballad. Ott Lepland certainly looks the part, no scruffy-haired weirdo that often gets shoved onstage by Eastern Europe (actually that’s unfair, looking at some recent Western entries).

Seeing him for the first time in the preview video (see below), I think he needs a bit of work with his facial expressions, that sometimes look a little smug. Other times he pitches it well and pours some pain into what is a powerful and spine-tingling ballad.

He has a nice roughness to his voice, and gives me shivers when he sings some of the bigger “Kuula” notes. I wish I knew what this was about, hopefully about some heartache and loss, because it really communicates that to me as a non-Estonian speaker.

Oh, and I’m far to classy to talk about his ‘excitement’ at winning the Estonian pre-selection. So I’ll just post a picture of it. You’ll have someone’s eye out, Ott! OK not the clearest picture, but it happened.

Oh wait there’s a video! What a ridiculously long walk from the ‘green room’ to the stage!

 

As for their chances, well if I was a betting man I wouldn’t expect them to qualify based on their recent track record alone, but I hope they make it. I can’t see them doing more than propping up the bottom of the leaderboard though, in a year that seems quite ballad-heavy. Still, I will be pleased to see them do well.

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Road to Baku 2012: Iris – “Would you?” (Belgium)

Belgium’s turn in the spotlight though, with a tender ballad by a young slip of a girl. As one of the six active countries who were in the very first Eurovision in 1956, they don’t have the best record to show for 52 entries, will Iris improve matters?

I have an on-off relationship with Belgium, they can come out with some really lovely songs, but some real turds too. 2010’s entry “Me and my guitar” by Tom Dice was really lovely, and gave Belgium its best result for 8 years. But only the year before ultra-camp Toppers were sent to Moscow and bellyflopped in its semi-final, something Belgium has a habit of doing more often than not.

Perhaps this is unfair, certainly eurodance superstar Kate Ryan’s failure to qualify in 2006 gave the Belgians a good reason to feel aggrieved, but normally their failure is at their own hand. So it’s a relief to see them playing it a little safer this year.

It’s an unextraordinary song, and the live performance baffingly chosen as its official preview video has some worryingly shaky vocals. It sounds like a slightly inferior version of a Glee ballad, with a puzzlingly-choreographed Iris moving around like her feet are glued down.

I’m just concerned at the choice of singer, she’s nice enough but it feels like a mid-season American Idol performance (by a contestant). Enough for you to go “she’s a good singer” but not enough to pick up your phone, and I feel this is quite a major issue.

She’ll no doubt become a more confident performer in time, but I don’t think this is the time to put her on TV in front of 100million viewers. The song is really quite nice and memorable though, so that’s positive. If they are looking to re-create the  success of Tom Dice, I think they’ll be left wanting this year, sadly.

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Movie: “The Hunger Games” (2012)

It’s been a WHILE since I went to the cinema, maybe the Muppets ruined it for me, damn them to hell! Ever on the cutting edge of popular culture, I finally managed to see The Hunger Games last night, about a month after everyone else. It was GOOD!

“Young Adult” is a big market, particularly for book adaptations post-Potter and post-Twilight. It’s a double-edged sword really, there’s a tried-and-tested story behind it, a good wedge of cash thrown at it by some studio, but on the other hand the intelligence of teenagers isn’t going to insult itself, so it needs to be blunt enough that the ditzy tweens will go crazy for it and send it viral (I’m so cool, I know all the 21st century slang, wazzuuuuppp).

I knew nothing about this book, and for those of you who also don’t, some background plot happened, and now an annual event is held in this country where in a boy and a girl from each of the twelve outlying (and crushingly poor) districts are selected in a deadly tombola. The prize? To participate in a fight to the DEATH with the other selected kids. This is all shown on a Big Brother-type show that the affluent capital city goes crazy for. The winner gets to not only live, but gets loads of money or something (?), and the big evil TV studio gets big ratings, and presumably other benefits. Actually the more I think about this setup, the more I think I need some blanks filling in.

I won’t say any more, though spoilers seem a bit redundant here, the plot pretty much pans out how you expect at every turn. But that’s fine really, aside from lessening what I suppose are mean to be shocking moments.

Jennifer Lawrence as heroine Catniss (not Candice as I thought for ages) was kick-ass and a well-rounded change to miserable old boot Kristen Stewart. She really felt dangerous but vulnerable. I liked not really knowing how she felt about the lead guy Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), how much was genuine? Looking at her hot friend from back home, I’m hoping not much.

Peeta was a bit of a drag, to be honest. His weird alien face was troubling, and he was a bit of a wet fish. Should I have been rooting for true love? I ended up just wanting Catniss to kill everyone and win like she could have easily done, is that harsh? MAN UP, Catniss, you can do better!

The supporting cast just did their thing, the wonderful Elizabeth Banks just seemed to get dumped halfway through, and was much better when her cheery facade started to crack. How is Woody Harrelson still in work? He was alright this time, but talk about a lack of range! Still, at least it wasn’t Matthew McConaughey. Lenny Kravitz was an odd choice, he was a good character, I liked him and his moments of insight about TV, almost like “It’s OK, I’m black, I know about these quite common-sense things”.

The evil TV studio was a bit confusing, Wes Bentley trying to win a staring contest with the rest of the world, daring them to laugh at his bizarre beard. Donald Sutherland played it old-school, his final scene might as well have ended with “I’ll get you one day, muhahah!!”. Other than that, I didn’t really get their motivation aside from general oppression and evil-doing. Were they trying to kill Catniss? Steer maybe, but why kill?

The violence was carefully dealt with. Obviously kids getting killed by other kids isn’t the most marketable thing, so they managed to convey the violence well without showing a lot at all. The shaky-cam action was restricted to appropriate moments, a pitfall avoided that many films seem to fall into. There was a moment with Catniss (I won’t say when but it’ll be obvious) that really was very touching and well put-together, and really showed how well the direction was handled. Not a surprise from the director of the wonderful “Pleasantville”.

All in all, very good, I’m surprised how well it’s done without tapping into any big trends. I mean vampires and werewolves and brooding young men were really popular when Twilight came out, but Hunger Games only really had its readership base to work with. Nice to see something away from the norm doing the business. I might well read the second book as a result – probably the first actually, I know what I’m like.

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