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Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Yesterday

Oh, I believe in Yesterday...

No, really, you have to be pretty cold-hearted not to go along with this movie, even though it was clearly just made for me.

My review has been up over on Channel 24 for, like, a week. So hope you saw it there.

What it’s about

Jack Malick is a struggling singer/ songwriter whose only fan is his best friend and manager, Ellie. When an unexplained worldwide power-outage has him riding his bicycle into a bus, Jack wakes up with a stunning realization: no one but him remembers the music of the Beatles. Now, passing the entire Beatles songbook (or the parts that he can remember, anyway) off as his own, Jack quickly becomes the biggest pop star on the planet. He seems to have gotten all he ever thought he wanted but is fame and fortune built on the uncredited work of others really how he wanted to get there? And, with the whole world at his feet, what place does that leave for Ellie, the woman who stuck by him through his ups and many, many downs?

What we thought

I may have been born a good decade after the Beatles broke up but they weren’t just the band that made me a lifelong music fan but, along with their (though, especially Paul’s) solo records, they were pretty much all I listened to from childhood through at least my mid-teens. Saying that the Beatles is your favourite band should probably be outlawed for sheer obviousness but in my case, even now that I’ve expanded my musical knowledge exponentially beyond the Fab Four, it’s simply the unavoidable truth.

The idea of waking up in a world without the Beatles, then, is the stuff of nightmares for me, even if the idea of being the one to introduce them to an unsuspecting world (through a sudden and miraculous ability to sing, play an instrument and not be reduced to the human embodiment of a panic attack at the very thought of performing on stage, of course) is the stuff of daydreams. While the premise of Yesterday is rich enough to play out across any number of different genres with very different outcomes – psychological horror, scathing satire, dystopian drama, heartbreaking tragedy, you name it – Yesterday is a film written by Richard Curtis (based on a general story idea by Jack Barth) and is thus much closer to the stuff of daydreams than any of the darker alternatives. It’s also about as grounded and realistic as the very best daydreams.   

And this is crucial. While Danny Boyle may well be the greatest director to ever bring one of Curtis’ scripts to life and some of Boyle’s harsher edges do occasionally peak through when the film digs a bit deeper into the perils of fame, Yesterday is, first and foremost, a Richard Curtis film. Sure, Curtis is partly responsible for the acerbic adventures of Edmund Blackadder on that classic BBC sitcom but, for most of his career, he has been involved with and known for highly polarizing films that are called twee, sickly sentimental and vapid by his critics; hilarious, sharp, warm-hearted, generous and philanthropic by his fans.

Spider-Man: Far From Home

Posting this late again but hopefully, you already say this over on Channel 24.

Not that you need another review telling you how much fun the latest Spider-Man movie is but hey ho...

What it’s about

Picking up from the events of Avengers: Endgame, Peter Parker has to come to terms with a world irrevocably changed. After helping to save the world from Thanos and his minions, all Peter wants is to get away from superheroing for a bit by going on a school-sponsored, educational European trip with his friends and to declare his feelings to MJ at the top of the Eiffel Tower. Unfortunately for Peter, Nick Fury and a mysterious new superhero from another Earth have other plans for our Friendly Neighbourhood Spider-Man... 

What we thought

Warning: It’s impossible to talk about Spider-Man: Far From Home without spoiling the end of Avengers: Endgame. If you still somehow haven’t seen the biggest movie on the planet and don’t want to know what happens in it, do not read any further until you’ve caught up with it. If it’s not still showing at a cinema near you, don’t worry, it’s due to be re-released within the next few weeks!

Anyway...

For what is clearly supposed to be a low-key and far lighter epilogue-cum-reprieve after the epic climax of Avengers: Endgame, Spider-Man: Far From Home comes with a surprising amount of baggage. Not only is it the first Marvel Cinematic Universe film to deal directly with the fallout of the world-changing events of Endgame, it also has to live up to two of the best and genre-redefining superhero films of recent years -  both of which happening to feature Spider-Man. Along with being released with the spectacular Avengers: Endgame still in many cinemas (and with that re-release coming up), it also comes hot on the heels of the truly amazing Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse - that’s a lot to live up to for our favourite webcrawler. But then, it wouldn’t be a Peter Parker story without his having the weight of his world on his shoulders so perhaps that’s appropriate.

Does it live up to such lofty expectations? Honestly, not entirely. It comes closer than it has any right to, though. It’s true, it could have gone into the whole “five years later” thing with a bit more depth and it’s not quite up to either Endgame or Into the Spider-Verse (or the rather underrated Spider-Man: Homecoming, for that matter) but it’s still a massively satisfying Spider-Man film and ends up nicely setting the stage for both the next Spider-Man movie and the next phase in the MCU – though both of these mostly in the film’s two essential end-credit scenes. I can not stress this enough, do not leave the cinema until after all the credits have rolled. Even the second scene that comes at the end of all the credits, which is normally just a gag of varying degrees of success, is absolutely crucial.

Monday, July 1, 2019

Annabelle Comes Home

It may well be a freaking awful horror film but as a surprisingly self-aware mixture of teen comedy and schlock, Annabelle Comes Home is a surprisingly fun time. I still think it's way past time to close the book on the "Conjuring Universe", though...

This review is also up on Channel 24

What it’s about

The Conjuring Universe continues in this third Annabelle film. After their last harrowing encounter with the titular evil doll, Ed and Lorraine Warren are on their way to their next case but, for the sake of them and everyone around them, they drop off Annabelle at their home, where they know she will be kept under control behind a pane of sacred glass in their room of occult objects. Leaving their young daughter, Judy, at home and in the care of her trusted babysitter, Mary Ellen, they head out with the comfort on knowing that their already well-behaved and responsible daughter is in the hands of an equally well behaved and responsible teenage girl and that Annabelle is finally locked away in a place where she can longer cause any harm. What ever could go wrong?

What we thought

There’s something ironic about the fact that horror, a genre that relies heavily on the element of surprise in order to get the maximum amount of scares out of their audience, might just be the genre with the most amount of sequels, spinoffs and remakes. The Conjuring series is well on its way to making even franchises like Nightmare on Elm Street and Child’s Play look like the dictionary definition of restraint in terms of milking its own brand.

Keeping the irony train running, this is especially rich considering what a breath of fresh air the first Conjuring film was when it was released a surprisingly few years ago. After years of the horror genre (or at least the Hollywood version of it) being dragged through the mud, first by an onslaught of “torture porn” movies and then by the equally obnoxious found-footage gimmick, the Conjuring brought the genre back to its roots in style. It even boasted the “based on a true story” schtick of some truly classic horror films from years past – to say nothing of the way it evoked the Exorcist in reminding us that no genre is more thoroughly Catholic than horror. 

Unsurprisingly, the film’s first sequel already proved to be a case of diminishing returns and despite some shake-ups in the franchise’s directors and writers, the series largely got staler and more and more uninspired as it went on, eventually culminating in one of the worst films of the past decade: The Nun. It was with something of a heavy heart, then, when I first heard the news that not only was there going to be yet another Annabelle movie – mere weeks after the latest Conjuring spinoff, the Curse of la Llorona was met with a worldwide shrug of the shoulders – but that it would be written and directed by the same guy who wrote the Nun! Heaven help us all...

Stockholm

The subject matter may have deserved a better, or at least more substantial, film but Stockholm certainly deserved better than to crash and burn at the worldwide box office.

This review is also up on Channel 24

What it’s about

Based on the true story that gave rise to the psychological condition known as Stockholm Syndrome in the early ‘70s, an American criminal doesn’t so much rob as hole up in Sweden’s biggest bank by taking hostage a handful of its employees, demanding a million dollars, the immediate release of notorious Swedish bankrobber, Gunnar Sorensson, and safe passage for the both of them out of the country. As the situation roles on, it becomes clear that not all is quite as it seems – and that’s before one of the hostages, Bianca Lind, starts to form an increasingly tight bond with her captor.

What we thought

Stockholm – or Captor, as it is boringly known in some territories – is one odd duck of a film. The story itself is a textbook example of “truth being stranger than fiction”, especially as the more outlandish elements of the plot are not the fictional liberties that writer/ director, Robert Budreau, takes with the source material but the source material itself. Stockholm syndrome is peculiar enough on its own but the infamous hostage situation that gave rise to its is even more bizarre, which is, no doubt, why Budreau has doubled down on the strangeness in his own depiction of that fateful August day in Stockholm, Sweden in 1973. 

The cautiousness inherent in the decision to change the names of everyone involved in the real-life case for the film is certainly not on evidence in the film itself. Here we have a true story of crime, violence and the rise of a disturbing new psychological disorder but this is no gritty true-crime film, let alone a particularly deep psychological study of a woman falling in love with the man holding a gun on her for three days straight.

Monday, June 24, 2019

Tolkien

Solid movie is solid.

On the other hand, not everyone agrees. My review is also up on Channel 24 but, for something of a change, you will also get Channel 24 editor, Herman Eloff's more enthusiastic take on the film right along with it.

What it’s about

The true story of J.R.R Tolkien who, before becoming one of the most famous and acclaimed fantasy writers ever with the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings trilogy, faced more than his fair share of troubles. From being orphaned as a young boy to a complicated love affair with a fellow foster child to fighting in World War I, his life was almost as eventful as his novels. These struggles would ultimately shape both the man he would become and the magical worlds he would go on to create but perhaps nothing played a greater role in shaping who he would become than the literary club that he formed with a group of like-minded boys; a “fellowship” that would accompany him through high school, university and, ultimately, the Great War itself.

What we thought

Though Tolkien came out a while back overseas, the decision to release it within a couple of weeks of the Elton John biopic-cum-musical Rocketman here in South Africa, unfortunately, does it no favours. For all that Rocketman followed your usual biopic structure, it felt incredibly fresh and original thanks to its Ken Russell inspired visuals and, as near as I can tell, for being the first ever musical biopic to be staged as an actual musical. Tolkien, unfortunately, has little to distinguish it from any other literary biopic and doesn’t do much to paint Tolkien (pronounced, “Tol-Keen”, apparently) himself as anywhere near as interesting as his famous fantasy epics. And I say this as someone who has never been a fan of the Middle Earth saga. 

On the flipside, though, there’s nothing here that would disgrace the man himself. Tolkien may be a decidedly middle-of-the-road biopic but it is one told with utmost competency, if not necessarily much verve. Cypriot/ Finnish director, Dome Karukoski, may not have made an English-language film before but Tolkien still feels like the work of someone very much at home not just with filmmaking but with a decidedly English form of filmmaking. 

Part of that may, of course, just be the result of portraying a very English (albeit Bloemfontein-born) writer’s life during the peak of the British Empire in the none-more-British Oxford education system but somewhere between Karukoski and the English/ Irish writing team of Stephen Beresford and David Gleeson, there’s a clear love for – or at least a clear fascination with – a very specific form of English life that was perhaps best romanticized by the likes of Ray Davies of the Kinks. It’s so specifically upper-upper-class, in fact, that it falls only just on the right side of parodic but, by all indications, the highly repressed, unfailingly polite and erudite society portrayed here is as much an accurate depiction as it is a cultural stereotype.

Anna

This, I believe, is what a stream of consciousness review looks like.

The review is also up on Channel 24.

What it’s about

Anna Poliatova may look like your average supermodel with the rags to riches story that often goes along with it but there’s a lot more to her than meets the eye. Beneath her beautiful façade lies a trained killer with the sort of keen intelligence and cold ruthlessness that only the best spies have. Who is she working for, though, and what part does she have to play in a showdown between the CIA and KGB in the final years of the Cold War?

What we thought

Anna has been shrouded in secrecy with a worldwide embargo to prevent any reviews going up before its day of release (today, internationally) and with no regular press screening of the film, at least in this country. This is only worth mentioning because a) I have literally just gotten out of seeing the film at a packed public preview mere hours before the film is due to be released to the public so I haven’t exactly had the chance to ruminate on it before giving my considered response and b) this sort of heavy embargo is often a sign of a studio having absolutely no faith in their film so keep it squarely under wraps in the fervent hope that critics won’t prevent audiences from giving it a shot before rotten word-of-mouth sinks it.

The very good news is that, though Anna is far from a masterpiece, it’s a solidly enjoyable spy-thriller that actually stands up easily against some of the more questionable material that Hollywood has released this year. The studio, in short, had nothing to fear from reviewers and in a time of year when even big blockbusters can easily get lost in the mix, any even vaguely positive attention paid to what is a relatively minor release can only help its chances at the international box offices.

And, like I say, there’s plenty to be positive about here, even as the flaws are pretty obvious. We’ve had, for a start, a boatload of female-led spy films of late so Anna initially feels more like Luc Besson jumping on an already pretty crowded train than his going for something as idiosyncratic and often just plain bonkers (if often massively flawed) as his most notable and well-known films. Certainly, after the audacious but messy Valerian, this looks like Besson at his most conservative.

Sunday, June 23, 2019

Men In Black: International

I totally forgot to post this last week. Ah well, I'm sure no one really cares that much about the new Men in Black flick, right?

Either way, it's been up on Channel 24 since last Friday so hopefully, you saw my review of it there.

What it’s about

After finding her way into the Men in Black, new recruit Agent M teams up with the roguish Agent H on the seemingly simple assignment of showing an alien VIP a good time before he leaves Earth the next day. When things go horribly wrong, M believes that a mole in the MIB organization betrayed them but can she prove it before a new enemy threatens Earth’s human and alien populations alike. And, worse, can that mole be her new partner, H?

What we thought

Between the fact that both Men in Black sequels were, at the very least, disappointments after the fresh, funny and inventive original film took the world by storm and helped solidify Will Smith as one of the era’s definitive leading men, and that news of this new sequel/ relaunch was met with the deafening sound of millions of moviegoers shrugging their shoulders in utter disinterest, I went into Men in Black: International with extremely low expectations.

This despite my being a huge Chris Hemsworth fan (I should hate the fact that no one that good looking and fantastically charming has any business being so goddamn funny but I’m reasonably sure it’s physically impossible to hate the guy) and looking forward to seeing him once again teaming up with the always impressive Tessa Thompson mere weeks after showing off their real chemistry in Avengers: Endgame. This also despite the fact that I absolutely loved the first Men in Black and still think there’s loads of potential in the franchise even if the sequels did everything they could to dissuade me of that notion. Still, I had low hopes for Men in Black: International and the overwhelmingly negative reviews that started pouring in late Wednesday afternoon only seemed to confirm my doubts.

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

The White Crow

Not a sequel to Black Swan. 

And all the worse for that.

This review is also up on Channel 24

What it’s about

The true story of Rudolf Nureyev, an acclaimed Soviet ballet dancer who, in the early 1960s, defected to the West after the KGB viewed his behaviour during a successful tour in Paris as seditious and a betrayal of communist values. Nowhere more so than in his increasingly intimate relationship with the “aristocratic” Clara Saint, who introduces him to a world far livelier and freer than anything he has ever known.

What we thought

It’s hardly unheard of for a film to be less than the sum of its parts but it’s hard to think of a film in recent memory with such excellent constituent parts adding up to a massively frustrating and unsatisfying whole.

Ralph Fiennes has yet to fully translate his exceptional skills as an actor into his still fairly nascent career as a director (Coriolanus did nothing to make palatable one of Shakespeare’s most notoriously difficult plays, while the Invisible Woman was ultimately handsomely mounted but unremarkable) but he clearly understands how things work behind the camera. Fiennes impresses in individual scenes and handles the film’s changing tones with no small amount of finesse. Assisted ably by veteran cinematographer Mike Eley, he does as fine a job capturing the dance sequences as he does the film’s tense climax as he does the quieter, more intimate moments.

Fiennes has also assembled an impressive international cast with some top-notch supporting turns from Adèle Exarchopoulos as the alluring Clara Saint and Fiennes himself as Nureyev’s weak-willed ballet instructor, Pushkin. Oleg Ivenko, though, is the rightful star here. He portrays Nureyev’s mix of likeable charm, arrogance and naivete perfectly and, as a professional dancer with no small amount of acclaim himself, he nails the breathtaking ballet scenes. Seriously, how does he float like that?

Monday, June 3, 2019

Godzilla II: King of the Monsters

You wanted more Godzilla? Well, you got that at least. A good movie, though... not so much.

This review is also up on Channel 24

What it’s about

Five years after Godzilla wreaked havoc on Chicago, Dr Emma Russell has finally broken the code on how to communicate with Godzilla and other Titans like him. This is not a moment too soon as an eco-terrorist organization unleashes a succession of other Titans on the world – including Godzilla’s arch nemesis and rival apex predator, King Ghidora. As different human factions squable over how to deal with the new threats, humanity’s last hope may lie with Godzilla himself.

What we thought

When Gareth Edwards took on the gargantuan task of bringing Japan’s biggest and most classic movie-monster to a new generation of filmgoers, he came up with something that was significantly less effective than his own low-budget monster movie, Monsters, as it delivered far too little of the titular monster and far too much of instantly forgettable humans doing largely forgettable things. It was an improvement over the ‘90s Godzilla, to be sure, and it wasn’t exactly terrible but it, ironically enough, made little real impact. That it was surrounded on both sides by Guillermo del Toro’s far superior monster movie, Pacific Rim, and its own sister film, Kong: Skull Island – which still wasn’t great but was a solid improvement over its predecessor – left Godzilla as the runt of the pack when he should have been leading it.

While there are apparently still plans to have the showdown that some of us have been waiting for with next year’s Godzilla vs Kong, the powers-that-be decided that we needed another stop-gap before that momentous occurs. Presumably, Godzilla II: King of the Monsters (minus the “II” in the US) is supposed to whet our appetites for next year’s big showdown, while also reminding us of a film that may have come out all of five years ago but, I’d wager, few of us actually remember. King of the Monsters, however, is such a drab, uninspired misfire that it neither inspires nostalgia for Edwards’ Godzilla nor holds much promise for Godzilla vs Kong, which is written by this film’s director/co-writer, Michael Daugherty.

Gareth Edwards is long gone from the franchise (he opted to do a Star Wars film instead and, really, who could blame him) but his replacement was, let’s say, a bit of an odd choice. Daugherty gets a lot of credit for his screenplay for X-Men 2 but the rest of his filmography as both writer and director is made up of a string of duds like X-Men: Apocalypse and d-grade horror like Trick ‘r Treat (nope, me neither). Sadly, while Godzilla may have gotten away from its director, Daugherty never had a grip on the material in the first place.

Sunday, May 19, 2019

John Wick Chapter 3: Parabellum

More John Wick? Is it still quantum, baby? Well, maybe. Baby.

This review is also up on Channel 24

What it’s about

Picking up immediately after the events of John Wick 2, John Wick is now classified as “ex communicado” by the shadowy syndicate of assassins known as “The Table”, which means that every other assassin on the planet is out to get him and he is entirely cut off from all the resources that the Table offers their assassins. Cashing in on every favour owed him, Wick has no choice but to either re-enter the syndicate's good books or vanish so completely off the face of the Earth that no one will ever bother him again.

What it’s about

After being pretty lukewarm about both of the previous John Wick films, the third instalment hasn’t exactly changed my mind about the series but I can quite confidentially declare John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum to be by far the best John Wick flick to date. If you haven’t liked the other John Wick movies then you won’t like this one very much either but if you thought the first two films were good or better, prepare yourself for a treat. Of all the John Wick movies so far this is by far the John Wickiest.

The stuff that makes John Wick work for so many people isn’t just on evidence here but, in large part, has actually been improved upon by returning director, Chad Stahelski, and a writing team once again led by Derek Kolstad. With so much of the same talent behind and in front of the camera, it’s not exactly surprising that the latest John Wick is more of the same but it is somewhat surprising that it is better of the same too.

There are, for a start, some of the most spectacular action scenes in the franchise to date. At their very best, they remind me of Jackie Chan at his most inventive, athletic and, yes, comedic. And I could offer almost no greater compliment. Unlike most of Jackie’s movies, however, Parabellum is almost absurdly violent and ups the gore and brutality from the previous films but, by this point, it’s done with so much almost balletic grace and pitch-black humour that it has about as much to do with real-life violence as movie musicals have to do with suddenly bursting out singing in the middle of a crowded train station. 

Monday, May 13, 2019

The Hustle

OK, this isn't quite as bad as you may have heard. It's certainly not good, though.

This review is also up on Channel 24

What it’s about

When low-level con artist, Penny, worms her way into her life, high-class hustler, Josephine, does her best to remove Penny from her life as quickly as possible before she has a chance to ruin the life she has built for herself on the French Riviera. When everything she tries fails, she challenges Penny to a wager whereby the first to swindle a young tech-billionaire out of $500,000 gets to stay in this swanky riverside paradise while the loser has to leave for less desirable climes.

What we thought

The Hustle is a gender-swapped remake of the ‘80s Steve Martin/ Michael Caine comedy, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, which was itself based on the lesser known Marlon Brando/ David Niven vehicle, Bedtime Stories from 1964. Third time, as it turns out, is not always the charm.

Despite a certain amount of snobbishness by some critics at the time, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels was generally and rightly hailed as a fine update on its predecessor thanks in no small part to the undeniable comedic chemistry of Caine and Martin, both with each other and with Glenne Headly (the quietly terrific character-actress that you will almost definitely recognize even if you don’t know her name and who sadly passed away a couple of years ago at the very young age of 62). It was sharp, stylish and funny and featured some serious comic talents at the top of their game.

The Hustle, on the other hand, has little of the smarts, charm or comic dexterity of its predecessor. Though there is something to be said for switching the genders around as a means to examine the difference between men and women in a, shall we say, “career” that relies so heavily on dishonesty, seduction and illusion, the Hustle still feels largely irrelevant in a way that Dirty Rotten Scoundrels never did. And that’s even after accepting the fact that this being thirty years later, most of the Hustle’s audience won’t have seen either of the films on which it is based. 

Poms

Not a good week for female-led comedies, I'm afraid...

This review can also be found on Channel 24.


What it’s about

After being diagnosed with cancer and refusing treatment, Martha moves to a retirement village to simplify her life while she awaits the end. Though prickly at first to all the other residents, she soon sparks up a friendship with the vivacious Sheryl and, despite the protestations of the communities queen bee, the two decide to start a cheerleader club for older women.

What we thought

They may serve the same purpose but there is a world of difference between saccharine and sugar. Neither may be exactly healthy but while sugar provides a natural, pleasing sweetness, saccharine provides a sweetness that is hollow, artificial and leaves a ghastly after-taste. This applies to sweetening a cup of coffee, obviously, but it also applies to sweetening that most deadly of film genres: the so-called “feel good” comedy.

This might seem an over-exaggeration and it is, obviously, but there are few films that can make you lose the will to live quite as much as bad “feel good” comedies. Mixing an embarrassing lack of laughs with enough cynical and thoroughly artificial sentimentality to make even the most philanthropic of us lose faith in humanity.

There are too many examples of this phenomenon to list but for a particularly repugnant example of the “feel good” comedy at its worst, one needs look no further than Adam Sandler’s I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry, which is both woefully unfunny and dripping with a sentimentality that is as unearned as it is hypocritical (the film spends all but its last ten minutes making fun of gay people only to turn around at the end and preach tolerance and acceptance in the most two-faced and cloying way imaginable).

For “feel good” films that are flavoured with the right amount of solid laughs and earned sentimentality – or real, natural sugar, if you will – one needs only look at the works of Richard Curtis, who, for all of his detractors, is the very antitheses of Sandler. Films like About Time and Four Weddings and a Funeral remain the high-water mark for this particular genre.