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Monday, June 18, 2018

The Incredibles 2

For once Pixar's recent sequel trend doesn't just feel like a cash-grab to sell more toys. Here's hoping Toy Story 4 can continue the trend...

The superhero film landscape is now rather different to what it was when the first Incredibles came out - unbelievably, some fourteen years ago. We had a couple of good Spider-man and X-Men films back in 2004 but Batman Begins was still a year away and the juggernaut that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe wasn't even a pipedream. More than just a fabulous entry into Pixar's ever-expanding canon, the Incredibles was a major step forward for superheroes on the big screen.

Not that there weren't great superhero films before it - there had been plenty of damn fine superhero films since Christopher Reeve first brought Superman to vivid, cinematic life way back in 1978 - but more even than Spider-Man 2, which came out earlier that same year, the Incredibles captured comic book superheroics in a way that no film before it had. Indeed, even now, with Marvel Studios pumping out a still-endless stream of superhero films that may annoy superhero-skeptics but are almost always brilliantly received by audiences and critics alike, the Incredibles is still a high point of the genre; mixing family dynamics, humour and wonderfully kinetic superhero action to wonderful effect. And, three failed attempts to brings Marvel's "First Family" to the big screen later, the Incredibles is still, by several million lightyears, the best Fantastic Four film ever made. 

The question, then, is less whether there is still a demand for a sequel to a film that is now older than much of its target audience but whether the Incredibles 2 can come remotely close to capturing the magic of Brad Bird's masterpiece. The answer, inevitably, is no, of course it can't - but that doesn't mean it doesn't make one hell of a go at it.

Friday, June 15, 2018

Hereditary

We may just be looking at the best horror film of the 21st century - of course, I wasn't going to let it go by without talking about it.

And, as always, no spoilers here - I barely even discuss the general plot for fear of giving anything away - but it's never a bad idea to go into films like this with no real expectations so feel free to come back to this review after seeing the film...


With some rather good horror films having come out over the last couple of years (including, but not limited to, IT and a Quiet Place), calling Hereditary a strong contender for the best horror film of the century so far is no longer to damn it with faint praise, as it would have been back when most of its competition was so-called "torture porn" and found-footage Blair-Witch-knockoffs. Even without having yet seen such acclaimed 21st-century horror flicks like the Witch and the Babbadook - neither of which hit South African cinemas, for reasons that utterly escape me - it's clear that after some quite barren years at the turn of the century, the horror genre (or at least the mainstream Hollywood version of it) has made some significant strides recently in returning to its '70s and '80s glory days. And yet, even with all that said, Hereditary stands alone.     

If its success can be boiled down to a single element - and I'm not sure it can - what makes Hereditary such a spectacular piece of horror cinema is the way it manages to be both a very different kind of horror film and one that is so comfortable with the genre's very building blocks that it knows how to use them to maximum effect, while slyly subverting them at the same time. It's a wickedly smart film that displays a level of craft that can easily pit it against the most accomplished "serious-awards-worthy" films out there but - crucially for a horror film - it is also, genuinely and in no uncertain terms, fucking terrifying.

That it was made by a first-time feature-film writer/ director, Ari Aster, is almost unbelievable and more than a little unfair to both other filmmakers and his own future filmmaking career.

Monday, June 11, 2018

Based On a True Story

It's not just the mega-expensive Hollywood blockbusters that let the side down this week...

This review is also up on Channel 24

What it's about

Delphine Deyrieux is a highly successful novelist but after the major success of her more recent work, she finds herself suffering from writer's block and unable to come up with a new idea for her next novel. Enter Elle or “Her”, a young fan of Delphine's work who quickly befriends the older woman and convinces her to start writing something more autobiographical. Who is Elle, though? Is she just a passionate fan or something more sinister?

What we thought

Adapting the acclaimed French novel by Delphine de Vigan, Roman Polanski and his co-writer, Olivier Assayas, have crafted a film that is, at very best, an interesting misfire and, at worst, something that had no business leaving the page in the first place.

Films about writing are quite common and Polanski draws on many of them here – from Mercy to Adaptation to his own Ghost Writer – with a bit of Single White Female thrown in for good measure but Based On a True Story ultimately ends up being a fairly damning case study for just why these sorts of films are so hard to get right. At least, that's if it is actually about writing. The film may be in French but the main thing that gets lost in translation here is just what the hell Based On a True Story is trying to say and what it's, even generally, actually about.

Falling squarely between art film and a somewhat trashy thriller, it's far too staid and laborious to work as a thriller and too silly to work as an art film. No, silly isn't quite the right word. “Ridiculous” is more like it but what's really frustrating is I have no idea if its, shall we say, heightened sense of reality is intentional or not – or, for that matter, if Polanski has really done nothing but film an excruciating long two-hour piss-take or if we're supposed to take this nonsense seriously.

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom

Hey, we're getting this a full two weeks before the US! Too bad it's such a dud...

As always, I will try my best to avoid spoilers, especially as the trailer actually didn't give very much away, but there is a section in this review that deals lightly with what happens from the beginning of the second act on that you may want to skip until you've seen the film. It is clearly indicated, though, and, fairly vague but proceed with some caution for that paragraph. 

Plot: Two years after the Jurassic World theme park was destroyed by dinosaurs, the island on which it resides, Isla Nublar, faces total annihilation as its volcano roars to deadly life. In a last-ditch effort to save the dinosaurs, Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard) once again joins forces with former dinosaur-trainer and current ex-boyfriend, Owen Grady (Chris Pratt), to return to the Island at the behest of the co-creator of the original Jurassic Park and John Hammond's former partner, Benjamin Lockwood (James Cromwell) who alerts them to the existence of another, uninhabited island where the dinosaurs can thrive; only this time without human interference. Things, inevitably, don't go quite as planned. 

Review: The worst thing I can say about Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom is that it gave me an inkling about what that particular group of Star Wars fanboys (I was in the other group of Star Wars fanboys who loved it) felt after watching the Last Jedi. I don't hate it as much as the anti-Last-Jedi lobby hated that polarizing (second-to) latest Star Wars film but as Fallen Kingdom played out I progressed from cautious optimism to increasing disappointment to a sense of genuine irritation at just how far the series had fallen since the original film. And that's despite the fact that none of the sequels have been a patch on the classic original and that, at the very least, Jurassic Park III is still objectively worse.

Perhaps the biggest problem with this second instalment in the Jurassic World trilogy is that it's not a bad film - indeed, it has a number of really very good moments sprinkled throughout and plenty of real talent both behind and in front of the camera - so much as it's a tired and dull film that seems to exist only to set up what may well be a very interesting final installment. Worse, the stuff that is good about it only drives home just how much the final product flat-out fails to work as anything but 130 minutes of connective tissue between the first Jurassic World film (which was itself a flawed quasi-remake of Jurassic Park) and the third film in the trilogy.     

Monday, June 4, 2018

Chappaquiddick

Something like a year after the pretty great Jackie, we have this look into a crucial period in the life of another Kennedy that is... less great.

This review is also up on Channel 24

What it's about

Based on a true story, it is July 1969 and Ted Kennedy finds himself in the shadow of his two more famous, murdered brothers, John and Robert, but just as his own political career is about to take off and the road the White House is finally in view, tragedy strikes that threatens to undermine everything he worked for. Driving drunk after a party in the family's summer home on Chappaquiddick Island with Mary Jo Kapechne, one of the Kennedy clan's “Boiler Room Girls”, he drives his car off a bridge into a deep pond: he gets out alive, she does not. With an overbearing father on one side and his cousin and voice of moral conscience, Joe Gargan, on the other, Kennedy is stuck between doing the right thing and confessing to his crime or saving his burgeoning political career by covering it up.

What we thought

With the circus that is current American politics, Chappaquiddick is a reminder of sorts that, regardless of the side of the aisle or the time and place, politics can be a very dirty business indeed. Or, more precisely politicians all too often allow their quest for power to get in the way of doing right by those they're supposedly supposed to be serving. The dark beauty of the story being told here is that it's very small and very self-contained but the personal, intimate nature of these events gives this age-old morality tale a more personal and intimate flavour than the sort we usually find in politically-driven dramas.

What might be most interesting about the film, though, is the peek into the Kennedy clan themselves. Here is an American family that has often been called the closest thing the United States has to a Royal Family but while that's usually meant as a compliment, Chappaquiddick shows a much uglier side to that comparison. Like royalty, the Kennedys were all about keeping as much power as possible within their single aristocratic family and like royalty, this family had their own internal strife, full of backstabbing and simmering jealousy.

Monday, May 28, 2018

Finding Your Feet

A light, fluffy middle-to-late-age romcom that's far more enjoyable than it should be.

This review is also on Channel 24

What it's about

Sandra is a snobbish, upper-middle-class woman whose life is upturned when she discovers her husband having an affair with her best friend at his retirement party. Storming out of her old, privileged life, she moves in with her estranged older sister, Bif, whose bohemian, free-spirited life couldn't be more different.

What we thought

Finding Your Feet – a title, incidentally, that I find astonishingly difficult to remember – is a big-hearted, quaintly British romantic-comedy-drama about an older woman finding a new lease on life by embracing the small joys of life after reconnecting with her quirky, joie-de-vivre-living sister who teaches her that all the money in the world can't replace a life well lived and true love comes from those who respect and love who you are, not for what they want you to be. As this setup might suggest, it's a film that isn't so much unafraid of cliché as it is one that chases after and warmly embraces every last cliché it can get its mitts on.

How much of a problem this is, though, largely depends on what you bring to the film and what you want out of it. More cynical viewers would do well to bring a sick bag in with them, while the more romantic and sentimental among us would probably do better with a box of tissues. The latter will certainly have a better night out with it than their more curmudgeonly counterparts. Me, I'm somewhere in the middle.

Sunday, May 27, 2018

Solo: A Star Wars Story

Wait, didn't we just have a Star Wars movie? This is going to take some getting used to.

No spoilers for anything here beyond the first act, incidentally, but I do get into that first act slightly more than some may prefer. From where I'm standing that whole section may have its own twists and turns but it's still mostly just setup for the meat of the film. Still, proceed with some caution but, for fairness sake, I have provided a slight spoiler warning for the paragraph(s) you may want to skip if you prefer to go in knowing as little as possible.


Just six months since the Last Jedi moved the Star Wars franchise in a fairly new and unexpected direction (much to the consternation of many fans - myself very much not included), here we are with a Star Wars movie that, once again, is all about looking back. It's a somewhat odd decision, not only because the prequels were generally not met with the utmost enthusiasm by fans but because it's the complete opposite to what Lucasfilm did the first time it tried to expand beyond the original trilogy.

The Star Wars Expanded Universe - which spanned novels, comics and video games from the early '90s until around the time Disney acquired Lucasfilm - was all about moving forward with the story that seemed to end with Return of the Jedi; going back thousands of years before the events of the original Star Wars or expanding on the much larger Star Wars Universe far beyond our favourite characters.

Watching Solo: A Star Wars story, the decision of the original Expanded Universe to live up to its title and actually expand the universe just looks smarter and smarter in retrospect. This is, of course, rather ironic since the Expanded Universe novels did actually have a trio of young Han Solo books that did more or less exactly what this film has set out to do. There is a difference, though. While those novels were just a very small part of a much larger publishing plan, aside for the numbered episodes, all the TV shows, movies, and books seem to be about filling in the blanks in areas that don't really need to be filled.

Unsurprisingly, the "secret origin" aspects of Solo are easily the worst part of the film but, rather ironically, it is nonetheless at its best when it ties into the larger Star Wars Universe, rather than when it plays out mostly like a less funny, less substantial and less innovative first draft of Joss Whedon's still brilliant Firefly and its feature film spinoff, Serenity - which, to keep the ironies coming, itself owes a huge debt to the original Star Wars trilogy!

Friday, May 18, 2018

Deadpool 2

(Insert meta-joke here)

This review is also up on Channel 24

What it's about

The Merc With a Mouth is back as Deadpool assembles a team of misfit superheroes (and, of course, a mustachioed Everyman named Peter) to try and stop Cable, a grimly driven time-traveler from the future, from killing a young mutant.

What we thought

The best and worst thing you could say about Deadpool 2 is that is just more of the same. If you've seen the first film you know largely what to expect. The sequel does have some nice, often darkly comedic plot twists to it it and a number of new characters thrown into the already hyper world of Wade Wilson but, despite a change in director (Atomic Blonde's David Leith takes over from Tim Miller), the same old writers and the same old main cast are back to deliver more of what worked (and some of what didn't work) about the first film.

Familiarity doesn't exactly breed contempt here but it does make Deadpool 2 just that little bit less fresh, less special and, yes, less good than the first film. The first Deadpool film was a real surprise, even for those of us familiar with the character's comic book exploits, which is obviously something that largely can't be replicated in the sequel. It certainly throws some surprise twists into its actual story, to be sure, but this is otherwise exactly the same sort of self-aware, highly irreverent, pop-culture literate and surprisingly sweet-natured R-rated superhero comedy that we got in the first one.

Still, even if it lacks the relative originality and inventiveness of its predecessor, Deadpool 2 is hardly a Kick Ass 2 – the drop in quality from the first film may be even less than the drop from the first to second Guardians of the Galaxy films, in fact. It even has an advantage or two over the first film in that it doesn't need to spend time setting up what was ultimately a fairly rote superhero origin for the main character and can instead get straight to Deadpool being Deadpool. It also boasts the typical benefit that comes with all successful sequel films in that the character work and relationships set up in the first film pay off further in its followup.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Beirut

Solid stuff but, I hate to say it, they made the wrong film.

This review is also on Channel 24

What it's about

The year is 1982 and it is ten years since the day that Mason Skiles' life fell apart. As the US ambassador to Lebanon in the early 1970s, Skiles and his wife were living the high life in Beirut until she was killed in a terrorist attack perpetrated by the brother of the young orphan, Karim, who was living under their care. Now an alcoholic, working as a small-time labour negotiator, Skiles is called upon by the CIA to once again head back to Beirut to secure the release of an old friend: a CIA operative with in-depth knowledge of the Agency's operations in Lebanon who is being held by a renegade group of terrorists with a single demand, the release of the very man responsible for the death of Skiles' wife.

What we thought

The very definition of solid, Beirut, which is written and directed by veteran scribe, Tony Gilroy, is a perfectly competent and professional hostage-thriller. And, yet, that's kind of the rub. Here's a film that knows exactly what it's doing, that barely puts a foot wrong but is, in many respects, the cinematic equivalent of a cleanly produced and expertly played soft rock song that, for all of its professionalism, resolutely refuses to make much of an impact at all.

It isn't simply that we've seen this sort of thing before, though we certainly have at that, but that we've seen it in this configuration time and time again. From the faintly Middle-Eastern soundtrack to the paint-by-numbers, shaky-cam action scenes to the barely-there characterization of everyone but the one or two (and, crucially, American) main characters, Beirut goes from familiar to tired in almost no time at all.

Yes, it's always great to see John Hamm in a lead role and Rosamund Pike gets a chance to redeem herself after the whole débâcle of Seven Days in Entebbe – a film that's something of a sister production to Beirut but is about as incompetent as this is competent – but even they're nowhere near enough to obfuscate just how derivative and uninspired Beirut is. It's certainly possible that fans of the very well-trod terrorism-thriller genre will find the basic competence inherent in every frame of the film to be enough to capture their hearts, just as it is entirely possible that those who haven't been subjected to an endless stream of OK thrillers will even be thrilled by Beirut but, personally, it left me pretty cold.

Traffik

Sadly, the spelling isn't the only major misfire in this mess of a film.

This review is also up on Channel 24

What it's about

A weekend away in his friend's cabin soon turns into a nightmare for a couple as they find themselves in the midst of a human trafficking ring.

What we thought

Traffik – nope, no idea what's with the incorrect spelling – is a very strange mix of b-grade thriller and a tough look at human trafficking that works about as badly as you would expect. It's intentions are clearly honourable and it is a solidly, if unspectacularly, put together thriller but it is such a mess of tones and ideas that the very best you could say about it is that it's a fairly interesting failure.

Even as a straight-ahead thriller, though, it's a rather strange beast. It's opening half-hour deals mostly with the relationship between our main couple - played surprisingly quite badly, it has to be said, by Paula Patton and Omar Epps – as she struggles to decide whether she's ready to be married to him as a proposal clearly looms. The dialogue is as creaky here as the acting is inept (Patton is usually better than this, isn't she?) and aside for being a slow start to the film, it's also filmed with an underlying dread that is completely at odds with what's actually happening on screen.

Again, this actually makes the film's first act rather intriguing as it looks for all the world like writer/ director Deon Taylor is so single-minded in making a thriller that he forgot to give the parts of the film that clearly aren't set to be in that mode a different tone. It makes no sense, it doesn't work at all but there's something to be said for watching a whole section that is clearly supposed to be a romantic drama, play out like one of the two leads are about to be mutilated by Freddy Krueger.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

Avengers: Infinity War

The culmination of ten years of Marvel films deserves a longer review than usual, don't you think?

Please note: I have done my best to avoid anything even vaguely resembling a spoiler, but if you really want to know NOTHING going in, feel free to read this only after seeing the film. This should give away even less than the trailer, though...

This review is also currently up on Channel 24.

What it's about

A culmination of the past ten years of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Thanos, the Mad Titan, puts the final plans in motion to collect the final four Infinity Stones: six gems of incredible power formed from the Big Bang that, when uses together, allow those who wield them the power to instantly rewrite the Universe however they wish. All that stands between Thanos and his insane wish to rid the universe of half of its living beings are the Avengers and the Guardians of the Galaxy – but do even the Galaxy's Mightiest Mortals have what it takes to stand up to one of the most powerful and driven beings in existence?

What we thought

Over the course of ten years and eighteen films, Marvel Studios have all but entirely rewritten the rulebook of how to make Hollywood Blockbusters – and filmmaking in general. Only the Star Wars films come remotely close to what Marvel has done in making the cinematic art form home to the kind of sequential, episodic storytelling that is normally the reserve of their (and DC's) comic books. This sort of universe building, which is made up of standalone films and mini-franchises, is something never before seen in cinema and since Marvel Studios hinted at an expanded universe when Samuel L Jackson showed up at the end of Iron Man with a cryptic reference to “the Avengers”, other have tried – and failed – to replicate what Marvel has done here.

The Avengers: Infinity War is the culmination – or is that the beginning of the culmination? - of everything Marvel has done up until now, which makes it something of a unique film to review. You certainly don't need to be told whether to see it or not. If you love the MCU, you're obviously going to want to rush out to see this; if you don't, you obviously will do what you can to avoid it, and if you've never seen a Marvel movie before, you'd been an idiot to start here. Beyond that, more than any other Marvel film, this is not a standalone film by any stretch of the imagination but is rather the climax of some eighteen other films that came before it.

All that's left to do, then, is to offer my own perspective on how well Avengers: Infinity War succeeds at doing what it sets out to accomplish.

Madame

This also came out this week. Not that you should care.

This review is also up on Channel 24

What it's about

Anne Fredericks is a wealthy American woman living in Paris who decides to throw a dinner party for a group of Paris' rich and influential but when her husband's roguish son decides to invite himself for dinner, she suddenly finds herself with thirteen guests – an unlucky number that she fears would sink the party. With no time to make any changes, she quickly enlists the help of her Spanish maid, Maria, to fill up the guest list but things quickly go wrong for her as one of her guests, an esteemed art appraiser named David Morgan starts flirting with Maria.

What we thought

With Avengers: Infinity War taking over cinemas this long weekend, it's no real surprise that the only other major release this week is its direct opposite. Madame is a very small film, consisting mostly of people talking to one another, where not a whole lot happens for most of its near-two-hour running time. It also presumably has something to say about class relations , if not class warfare, where some fairly despicable rich people treat their poor, big-hearted foreigner maid as less than nothing.

At least, I assume it's about that. Madame has some very nice performances and sharp, often very witty dialogue but its undone almost entirely by being an unfocused mess that seems entirely unsure of just what story its trying to tell or what it's trying to say.

Toni Collette and Harvey Keitel are, unsurprisingly, quite excellent as two fairly awful human beings; with Collette's Anne being a particularly gruesome example of human nastiness. They play a couple who can't seem to get it on with one another, may or may not be having extramarital affairs and he may be hiding a dark secret about their finances but, quite honestly, who gives a crap?