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Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle

A movie that really has no right being as good as it is...

This review is also up on Channel 24

What it's about

During detention, four high-schoolers come across Jumanji, an old video game that quickly proves to be something far more than that as they are transported into the game itself where, in the form of the “avatars” they picked, they will need to save the jungle-word of Jumanji by returning a stolen mystical gem to its proper place, if they are to ever return to the real world.

What we thought

I enjoyed the original Jumanji film when it came out in the mid 1990s but I would be lying if I said it ever stayed with me in the way that many of my favourite movies from my youth did. It was no Star Wars, Back to the Future or Jurassic Park, that's for sure. I find it hard to believe, however, that even the film's biggest fans, those to whom it is their Empire Strikes Back, were clamouring for a sequel. Certainly not twenty-two-years later, without any of the original cast and most especially not without the late and so very great, Robin Williams.

Here we are, though: In typical Hollywood fashion, no beloved slice of a generation's childhood is safe and we have this semi-sequel/ reboot/ remake that seems, at the outset, to bank purely on Dwayne Johnson's apparently endless reservoir of charm and charisma to soften the blow of what should be an utterly pointless and hopelessly cynical endeavour. Maybe it's just my couldn't-be-any-lower expectations talking here but I'll be damned if they didn't, to a certain degree at least, pull it off. Most surprisingly, while the sheer awesomeness of the Rock does contribute plenty to the film's modest but real success, he's far from the only good thing about it.

The “they” in question are director Jake Kasdan and screenwriters Chris McKenna, Erik Sommers, Scott Rosenberg and Jeff Pinkner who, between them, have worked on some pretty great TV and films over the past couple of decades, including Freaks and Geeks, High Fidelity and Community. They've done some less than great stuff too, to be sure, but the powers-that-be in Hollywood at least gave the film a fighting chance by giving it to a group of creators who have more than proven their mettle in the past.

Not that even this level of creative firepower behind the scenes necessarily meant that the film wouldn't be ruined by overbearing studio heads or even by the simple fact that it is a sequel to a film that really didn't need one – but then it probably didn't need all those video game, TV and movie spin-offs either (Zathura was basically Jumanji in space, let's not forget) and none of those did much harm to it. And yet, apparently, there really is something about Chris Van Allsburg's original novel that lends itself to adaptation as this latest iteration is both far fresher and far better than it really has any right to be.

Beatriz at Dinner

Almost forgot to post this. What are the odds?

This review is also up on Channel 24

What it's about

Beatriz is a holistic healer of modest means and a simple, meaningful existence. She is also an immigrant from Mexico who has been living in the United States of America for most of her life. When she finds herself stranded at one of her wealthy clients after her car breaks down, Beatriz is invited to join her and her husband for a dinner with their similarly wealthy friends – and his cut-throat boss who may or may not be tied to a difficult period in her life.

What we thought

Clearly released now as counter-programming against the major blockbusters and kids movies released at this time of year, Beatriz at Dinner is the very definition of a “small film”. It mostly takes place in a single location, with a small group of characters, telling a story that is low on plot but – theoretically, at least – high on characterization and theme. At barely eight-minutes long, it's literally small too.

It's the sort of film that snobs would immediately consider to be better than all them loud, dumb blockbusters and the, shall we say, less discerning cinema-goers would find them to be boring and pretentious just by definition. Both reactions are idiotic, of course. The intimate “maturity” of Beatriz at Dinner is no more a sign of quality than a large budget or whether the film is part of a larger franchise are. It is what it is and should be judged accordingly.

I mention this because it's undoubtedly clear that those looking for a cinematic outing that involves a bit more action and plot than a few, largely unpleasant people sitting around talking about the sort of things that are a staple of every uncomfortable dinner party ever, then this film clearly isn't for them – which is fine but it's certainly pointless to judge it according to the way one would judge something like Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle. The big question, then, is taking the film for what it is, does it do what it sets out to do?

Not to bury the lead here but the answer, sadly, is a very simple: no. It's clearly very well-intentioned and has enough talent to burn on both sides of the camera but the film is simply nowhere near as profound, as moving or as engaging as it thinks it is.

As the premise suggests, this is a film that sets out to explore the sharp divide between the very rich and the decidedly not so rich; between shrewd American capitalism and a way of living that is positively Marxist by comparison; between naturalized Americans and those who still proudly wear their root culture on their sleeves. It's also, in the middle of all this, a story of a woman slowly giving into desperation and depression as she comes face to face with – well, herein lies the problem...

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi

No spoilers here, folks. The only plot details I've revealed are those that are contained in the opening crawl. That doesn't stop this from being quite a long review, weirdly enough - but don't worry, another Justice League screed this isn't. It's just as geeky, to be sure, but in a much, much, more positive way.

This review is also up on Channel 24 if you prefer to check it out there.

What it's about

Picking up immediately where The Force Awakens left off, Rey tries to enlist Luke Skywalker to train her in the way of the Force and to return to his sister's side in the fight against the First Order. Meanwhile, with the New Republic annihilated, the rest of the resistance fight for their life against overwhelming odds as the First Order bears down on what remains of their forces.

What we thought

J.J. Abrams' The Force Awakens, the seventh film in the Star Wars saga, drew equal parts admiration and disdain for its reverent, back-to-basics approach. Those who love The Force Awakens – including yours truly – saw it as a much needed soft-reboot of the Star Wars universe that brought the series back to its “Space Western” origins that had largely been neglected, if not outright annihilated by George Lucas' widely disdained prequel trilogy.

Those who were rather less impressed with Abrams' efforts, complained about how it stuck far too closely to the story and structure of the original Star Wars movie; failing to bring anything new to the seemingly endless potential of the Star Wars Universe. They had a point, to be sure, but with the Last Jedi, the film's defenders have just been proven right in their assertion that the Force Awakens was an absolutely necessary – not to mention highly entertaining and affecting – palate cleanser to give the new trilogy a fresh start, while still being very much a continuation of what came before.

Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi takes all the good work that Abrams did with Episode VII and builds on it to create what might just be the most pulse-poundingly thrilling and endlessly surprising Star Wars movie to date. I need another dozen or so viewing to say for sure but it might, just might, in fact be the best Star Wars movie, period. Don't hold me to that, though – I did love the Phantom Menace when it first came out, after all – but this is really, quite genuinely something special.

Monday, December 4, 2017


Yeah, I know I'm late with this but after some less than effusive reviews of late, I figure it's only right to highlight some films that are actually worth your time. No promises, but hopefully this will only be the first of these this week. I'll do my best to keep these short to try and make sure that happens...

Before I get onto the business of praising this film to, well, the Land of the Dead, in this case, a word or two about that accompanying Frozen "short" that has been the cause of so much controversy. The backlash against it has been so bad that Disney will be pulling it from all prints of Coco - at least in the US - from this coming Friday. And rightly so. It's very bad, it's very long, it doesn't fit at all with the main feature and it took the place of one of those usually wonderful Pixar shorts that we normally get with most of their movies. It's total rubbish and their plans to use it to advertise the upcoming Frozen 2 has clearly backfired badly. I liked Frozen but I don't think it needs a sequel and this highly irritating "special" does little to get my hopes up.

Enough of that, though. Soon it won't be a problem and it has already taken enough time from the delights at hand...

It's probably damning it with faint praise to say that Coco is the best Pixar film since Inside Out but how about calling it one of the best Pixar movies to date? Yup. It really is that good.

The plot follows much the same general quest structure of most Pixar movies so there's nothing exactly original about this story about a young boy who has a fight with his family because they don't understand him and ends up on an epic adventure to get home while learning some important life-lessons along the way. Like all the best Pixar films, what really matters is the details. The Mexican Day of the Dead has been used in animation before - and to particularly brilliant effect in the '90s PC game, Grim Fandango - but it is used spectacularly here; both in terms of creating some stunningly beautiful visuals as a backdrop to our hero's adventure and as a way to explore the film's central themes of family, death and remembrance.

It's probably not quite as profound as something like Inside Out's central metaphor about growing up but it's substantial stuff nonetheless - especially for something that is ostensibly a children's film. Besides, as an adventure film, Coco actually outdoes Inside Out. It's also all backed up by that trademark Pixar emotional wallop and even if it isn't as intense as the first ten minutes as Up, it's much more consistent with the film becoming more and more resonant with each passing act.


I missed the press preview for this so I went out to see it the midday screening on opening day and then wrote this straight after. So, if you think my reviews are too - haha - thoughtful this should be for you!

Also, this really wasn't very good. I need to review something good to balance the scales, methinks. Stay tuned...

This review is already on Channel 24

What it's about

Andrew and Garrett Foster are half brothers and, as car thieves at the top of their game, are literal partners in crime. When the two accidentally steal from one of France's greatest crime lords, they and Andrew's girlfriend, Steph, are forced to carry out a car-robbery for the man they stole from, and in the process get caught up in a crime war that may end up making them very rich or very,very dead.

What we thought

Overdrive is, by any metric, a very bad movie. The acting is universally poor, the script risible, the plot overstuffed and the characterization thread-bare. The cinematography is rather nice, what with all the beautiful people stealing beautiful cars in beautiful locations being exactly the sort of things to make any director of photography's life a breeze, but even the action scenes aren't done all that well: relying far too heavily on the sort of super-fast editing that makes most action movies these days rather irritating to watch. Here's a game: during any action set piece, click your fingers (but, you know, quietly: you are in a cinema) every time there's a cut. I guarantee you won't be able to keep up.

It's clearly and quite incontrovertibly a bad movie but that's almost to be expected. The real question is if Overdrive is any fun? The answer, fittingly enough, is that your mileage will vary depending on what you want from it.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Justice League

Or, as I like to think of it: Justice League of America in the Case of the Uncanny Moustache!

Seriously, I know it's not politically correct or necessarily accurate to call it Justice League of America but "Justice League" always sounds to me like only half a title.

Yeah, things are probably about to get a bit nerdy...

Plot: With Superman dead and the world on the brink of facing a full-on invasion by an ancient evil, Batman and Wonder Woman recruit a team of like-minded individuals to stand for Truth, Justice and the American (?) Way!

Review: After Wonder Woman proved that films set in the DCEU (DC Extended Universe, for those not keeping track at home) don't have to objectively suck - and, in the case of Wonder Woman, could actually be pretty damn good - all eyes were on Justice League of America to see if Warners/ DC would learn from its recent success, or if Wonder Woman was just a fluke and we would be back to the low, low levels of Batman V Superman and Suicide Squad. And, to be perfectly honest, things did not look good.

Zack Snyder had already proven himself to be the wrong man for the job with Man of Steel and Batman V Superman so, for all of his promises that this would be lighter and more fun than the dour, tone-deaf nonsense of Batman V Superman, it already looked like Justice League of America was doomed to fail. Then tragedy struck and a truly horrible family tragedy caused Snyder to leave the project and the completion of the film was handed over to none other than Joss Whedon. This was not something to celebrate. Quite aside for it being thoroughly despicable and unspeakably inhuman to celebrate the tragedy of someone whose worst crime is making a bunch of bad movies, Whedon may be one of my favourite genre writers ever but I could hardly think of a filmmaker whose humane, witty and character-driven vision would fit at all with someone who is, charitably, all about style over substance. They may balance each other out but, more likely, their styles would clash on every possible level.

With all that said, the fact that Justice League of America doesn't actively suck is a huge achievement. I mean, it's not great. It's nowhere near as good as the many Marvel movies whose success it's trying to replicate, nor does it come remotely close to Patty Jenkins' wonderful work on Wonder Woman or Christopher Nolan on most of his Dark Knight trilogy. It ain't half bad, though - which may seem like damning with faint praise considering that it's a film that features some of my favourite fictional characters ever (and Cyborg) and that my ten-year-old self still can't quite believe actually exists - but considering both its production woes and that this is the same guy who all but destroyed Superman for a whole generation, "not half bad" is virtually a ringing, five-star endorsement.

Monday, November 20, 2017

The Man With the Iron Heart (HHhH)


This review is also up on Channel 24

What it's about

The true story of Operation: Anthropoid, where a pair of British soldiers teamed up with a small group of Czech resistance fighters at the peak of the Second World War to assassinate Reinhard Heidrich, one of Hitler's most ruthless generals and a major architect of the Final Solution.

What we thought

Based on the historical novel, HhHH by Laurent Binnet - inevitably, some of this story had to be based on conjecture and even pure fiction as the film will make very clear; but the basic events apparently really did happen – the Man With the Iron Heart originally shared the same title as its source novel but presumably out of wanting to spare everyone the embarrassment of having to try pronounce what is less a word than an exasperated sigh, they wisely opted to settle on this generic but far more comprehensible title.

They could have also called it Anthropoid but, as it so happens, another film, also based on the same book and the same historical events beat it to the punch by coming out just before the Man With the Iron Heart was completed – forcing the latter to delay its release by a year and to forever suffer being known as “that other Operation Anthropoid movie”.

For some unknown reason, Anthropoid was never released in this country despite having the same plot, its own even more A-list cast and having done the same story first. It is almost universally considered to be the better of the two films but as I have yet to have had the chance to see it, I'm just going to have to judge the Man With the Iron Heart on its own terms. And on its own terms, it's... almost very good.

Monday, November 13, 2017


Yes, that's how you punctuate this film's title. And, no, that's not the weirdest thing about it. Not by a very, very long shot.

Please note, I may discuss some plot points in this review but I am reluctant to call them spoilers - because the film isn't really about its plot, which, as it so happens is literally thousands of years old. Still, if you want to know absolutely nothing about the film going in then feel free to not read this review until you've seen it. Then again, in this case, you might actually want to know a bit about what the film is before deciding to see it. That start-rating should give you an idea of how much I loved it but it's certainly not for everyone. Indeed, I'm pretty sure I'm the only person who walked out of the screening I saw of the film who actively liked it. Take that as you will.

Incidentally, I know I am guilty of using the personal pronoun a lot in my reviews, perhaps even too much so, but that practice has never been more appropriate than it is here. Even attempting any sort of objective distance with this film would be unbelievably foolish: this is a film that is all about what you, as an individual, bring to and take from it. 

Oh and hey, look out for a mini Twin Peaks review in the middle of the whole thing. It kind of fits but going off on a random tangent also feels perfectly appropriate for this particular movie.

Enough with the preamble. Onto the review...

After his audacious, Midrash-influenced take on the Noah story, Darren Aronofsky - a Jewish atheist, for what it's worth - sets his sights rather wider in a film that jumps straight from the early sections of Genesis (specifically Adam and Eve and Cain and Abel) to the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, all via an exploration of human nature and global warming/ ecological waste. Ambitious doesn't begin to cover it but to Aronofsky's great credit, this is less a somber, academic polemic as it is a wild, visceral and unquestionably polarizing piece of absurdist filmmaking.

No doubt taking his cues from the obscure Jewish idea that God kept destroying the world until he got it right (he surely came across this idea in his research for Noah; it's way too much of a coincidence for this not to be the case) Aronofsky tells a rather blatant allegory involving an unnamed husband and wife, who live in a house in the middle of an open field that "Mother" spends all of her time trying to perfect for her writer husband until a strange visitor, named only "man" comes along and slowly starts to corrupt their perfect paradise after reaching for the one artifact in the house that he is absolutely forbidden from going near. Get it?

The blatancy of the allegories hardly stop here and the more they are piled on top of one another the more dizzying the effect becomes. The film starts with an incredible sense of unease and unnerving creepiness as one of the most archetypal stories in human history unfolds as a slow-burning home invasion thriller of a fragile woman being torn down by unwanted visitors. As mother! progresses, however, and the characters become less human and more blatantly archetypal and the action ramps up from its initial slow-burn to a deliriously gory and violent ending, that sense of unease transforms into something that will either totally repulse you or have you on the brink of gleeful laughter.

Tulip Fever

A film that is almost as ridiculous as its title. And don't necessarily mean that in a bad way!

This review is also up on Channel 24

What it's about

Set in 17th century Amsterdam, Tulip Fever tells the story of Sophia, an orphaned girl who marries a much older merchant named Cornelis Sandvoort but as her failure to conceive a child for Corenlis tears their already friendly but ultimately loveless marriage further and further apart, she meets and falls in love with Jan van Loos, the young painter that Cornelis hires to take their portrait. Sophia and Jan's illicit love affair soon turns out to be only the beginning of a series of events that spins all their lives out of control; all revolving around the rather peculiar practice of investing ludicrous amounts of money around tulip bulbs in Amsterdam's underground market.

What we thought

Coming hot on the heels of a racy “Red Band” trailer, Tulip Fever is a hot-blooded bodice-ripper that is as unafraid of nudity as it is of increasingly insane plot twists and heightened melodrama. This is the good news. What sadly lets the film down, though, is its utter refusal to settle on a tone; bouncing from ripe and lusty romantic shenanigans to farcical misunderstandings to witty, solidly observed character-comedy to tragic heartbreak with all the control and subtlety of Johnny Depp in the last four Pirates of the Caribbean movies.

Taken on their own, the film's dramatic elements are effective, thanks in no small part to typically beautiful lead performances by Alicia Vikander and Christoph Waltz – Vikander especially, as her fragile beauty only amplifies her already uncanny ability to convey real heartbreak a hundred-fold. When her heart breaks so does yours. The weighty narration by Holiday Granger, who is otherwise very good in a crucial supporting role, does let the side down somewhat but the screenplay by Deborah Meggach (on whose novel it is based) and Tom Stoppard (Tom Stoppard!) gives great actors moments to really strut their stuff.

Monday, November 6, 2017

Wind River

Not the Hawkeye/ Scarlett Witch reunion you might be expecting.

This review is also up on Channel 24

What it's about

After the body of a girl is found brutally raped and murdered on the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming, Jane Banner, a rookie FBI agent sent to investigate the murder purely because of her proximity to the reservation, joins forces with Cory Lambert, a white man and wildlife tracker who has lived on the reservation ever since marrying his ex-wife, to solve the crime. The more they dig, however, the more is revealed – not just about the crime but about each other and Wind River itself.

What we thought

Taylor Sheridan has gone from being a respected, if not overly famous, character actor to a writer responsible for the scripts of two of the greatest crime dramas in recent years. Sicario and Hell and High Water – directed by Denis Villeneuve and David Mackensie, respectively – mixed the Outlaw Nation feel of your classic westerns with slow-burning, character-driven narratives that ratcheted up the tension while, at the same time, playing fast and loose with the tried-and-true conventions of the crime genre.

Sheridan's latest script continues in this tradition but, as well as Sheridan taking over the director's chair, he moves the action away from well-explored locales like small-town America (albeit a very different kind of small-town America) and the Mexican-American border to something far more interesting. Wind River is a cold, chilly title and the reservation its named after is – at least, as portrayed in this film - a cold, chilly place and one that offers an entirely different kind of wilderness than the kind we usually see in these sorts of films.

Friday, October 27, 2017

Thor Ragnarok

It's really hard to complain about Marvel's endless stream of movies when they continue to be this good.

This review is also up on Channel 24

What it's about

Thor and Loki join forces with unexpected allies against a new foe that has arisen unexpectedly out of the ashes of tragedy; a foe who intends to fulfil the Ragnarok prophecy and bring ruin and destruction down on Asgard and the other realms of the multiverse: their sister and Odin's first-born, Hella.

What we thought

By this point, it has become rather cliché to state that the latest Marvel movie is the quirkiest and funniest yet. After solidifying their formula with their so-called “First Wave” that culminated in the Avengers, Joss Whedon's excellent game-changer that made it clear just how much Marvel's “shared universe” works on the big screen, the Marvel Cinematic Universe hasn't so much abandoned its winning formula as it has stretched it and played with it to create increasingly quirky and creative superhero spectaculars.

From the joke-filled space opera of the Guardians of the Galaxy movies to the mind-bending mystical mayhem of Dr Strange to the latest Spider-man film finally doing true justice to Marvel's flagship character by effectively being a John Hughes movie with superpowers, the last half dozen (at least) Marvel films have managed the not-unimpressive feat of being both comfortably familiar and constantly surprising.

Thor Ragnarok is arguably the greatest example of that particular balancing act yet. Working off a script by a trio of old hands at Marvel, Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle and Christopher Yost – the latter two of whom co-created X-23 and have worked together on a number of Marvel comics too – director Taika Waititi is possibly the most inspired and unexpected director to work on a Marvel film to date – and this from a company who have hired directors who were once almost entirely known for directing sitcoms, cult TV shows and schlocky b-movies.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Tyler Perry's Boo 2: A Madea Halloween

Yay, a new contender for the worst film of the year!

This review is also up on Channel 24.

What it's about

After Tiffany defies her father and goes to a Halloween party at a camp site where a string of murders once took place, she soon comes face to face with a number of apparently supernatural terrors that seem intent on replicating that bloody past. Things get increasingly complicated when Madea, Joe, Bam and Hattie set out to “rescue” Tiffany from the camp site – and that's before learning about the horrors that await them.

What we thought

This may be the tenth Madea movie but it is the first once I've ever seen. I enjoyed Tyler Perry is his small role in Gone Girl and I've endured some of his other films (and in the case of something like For Colored Girls, “endure” is definitely the word) but I haven't actually seen a full instalment of his signature series. Frankly, there was enough unbearable awfulness to be found in the two-minute trailers for any of these films to ensure that I would never go out of my way to watch any of them. I picked the short straw this week, though, and here I am, talking about the 10th Madea film and, as the title might suggest, the second to be set on Halloween.

The great thing about going into a film with such low expectations, though, is that you often find yourself pleasantly surprised. In the case of Tyler Perry's Boo 2: A Madea Halloween (what's that about brevity being the soul of wit?), my expectations could hardly be lower thanks to the Clockwork-Orange-like experience of sitting through some of Perry's past work and being unable to avoid seeing more Madea trailers than is strictly healthy. Frankly, had it just been “pretty bad”, I would have been pleasantly surprised.

To Perry's enormous credit as some sort of master torturer, then, not only did Boo 2 (you said it, sister!) fail to even begin to assuage my worst fears, it surpassed them on every possible level. This is bad in a way that only the least funny comedies are bad; bad in a way to make you wonder, even if only for a fleeting moment of knuckle-gnawing insanity, if Adam Sandler catastrophes like That's My Boy or Jack and Jill were really that terrible after all (for the record: they were). It's bad in a way that made me very glad I was alone in the cinemas as I literally groaned aloud a good dozen times and even let slip a “SHUT UP!” when the sheer irritation of having to spend 100 minutes with these grotesque characters got to be too much for me. Other Halloween movies may try to scare the pants off me, this made me lose the will to live.