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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?

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

And Now For Something Completely Different: Maimonides - Life and Thought

Now, this is really something very different from the usual content I post on this blog. I include this not just because I spent a while writing this and am about as proud of it as any other piece of criticism I've ever written, but as an introduction to my Goodreads reviews. Along with the stuff I post on this blog, I have very sporadically been posting super-short book reviews on Goodreads.com. They're mostly on novels and graphic novels/ comics but I do occasionally review non-fiction too. This particular review is obviously a major outlier as it is very long but it's the sort of book you can't review in just a few sentences. Even this is only scratching the surface of such an incredible piece of work.

Please follow me or friend me on Goodreads by going to my profile here.   

Oh, if you have a particularly narrow view of Jewish theology, avoid both this review and the book itself. Or, much better yet, read or don't read my review but do run out and buy yourself a copy of it...

As the title suggests, Moshe Halbertal's astonishing book is split between telling the story of Maimonides, based heavily on Maimonides' own published letters and the treasure trove of documents found in the Cairo Genizah, and exploring his three major works - his commentary on the Mishna, Mishne Torah and the Guide for the Perplexed - from a philosophical point of view.

The biographical portion of the book lasts about ninety pages and it paints a sympathetic but far from hagiographic picture of an extraordinary but quite complicated genius who is, arguably, without peer in the history of Jewish thought. Most importantly, though, it places his various works in context; understanding both Maimonides' own circumstances and the state of the Jewish world in the time and places in which Maimonides lived (specifically Spain and Egypt in the 12th century) is crucial to understanding his often jaw-droppingly controversial views on everything from Jewish Law (Halacha) to religious dogma to nothing less than God Himself.

Which, of course, brings us to the works themselves. Instead of simply summarizing these works and treating them as their own separate creations, Halbertal - a professor of law and philosophy - draws a line from the commentary on the Mishna to the Mishne Torah to the Guide for the Perplexed to create a biography; not of Maimonides' life but of his philosophy and the way said philosophy affected everything he ever wrote.

This is especially crucial in the face of the way Maimonides is treated in the modern, traditionally religious Orthodox world. While his Mishne Torah - a work that attempts to summarize and organize the gigantic corpus of Jewish law found in the Talmud - is wholly accepted and learned by untold numbers of religious Jews throughout the world and his commentary on the Mishna has found its way into various modern editions of the Mishna, his purely philosophical, a Guide for the Perplexed is all but entirely ignored by the same people. This isn't exactly too surprising considering how wholly embraced Maimonides has become within mainstream Judaism; something that would be all but impossible if his radical philosophical thoughts were given the same platform as his halachic works in Orthodox schools and yeshivot (Jewish seminaries).

Monday, April 23, 2018

Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House

How the hell did they get this one so wrong?!

This review is also up on Channel 24

What it's about

The true story of Mark Felt, the FBI assistant director who acted as the informant for Woodward and Bernstein, the journalists who broke the Nixon Administration's infamous Watergate scandal. Then known only as Deep Throat – his true identity was only revealed in 2005 – Felt saw the corruption in the White House but because of an increasingly bureaucratic presence in the FBI in the form of its new director, he was powerless to do anything through normal channels. For the good of the country, then, he betrayed the bureau he had been a part of for decades and ensured that nothing, not even the FBI, would stand between America and its free press.

What we thought

By all rights, it should be absolutely impossible to turn a story this gripping into a dud of a film, but writer/ director Peter Landesman somehow managed to do exactly that. Dreary, humourless and dull, Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House should be a fantastically engaging, thrilling and sadly all too relevant political thriller but instead is every bit as clumsy and uninspired as its awful, awful title.

In a political landscape when the American president is doing everything in his power to undermine the country's free press – sorry, the “mainstream media” - while at the same time being constantly embattled with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, there is no better time for a film that deals squarely with Watergate, Woodward and Bernstein, and the man (rather than the film) known as Deep Throat. Sadly, despite Spielberg providing a perfect introduction to the period with his slightly dry but otherwise very impressive Streep/ Hanks tour de force, the Post, Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House doesn't come within a hundred miles of doing such important and relevant events justice.

Ironically, it's perhaps the film's sense of its own importance that is most responsible for turning it into the turgid, dramatically inert dirge that it is. This is the sort of story that is too incredible to make up and with its mix of political intrigue, espionage and the positively fascinating dichotomy of heroism verging on treason against villainy verging on patriotism, it should be as powerful and as engaging as the best films of its kind. Instead, Landesman has offered up a film that consists mostly of boring men, in boring suits, walking into boring rooms, talking boringly at one another for what feels like (boring) years.

Early Man

A surprising stinker, this.

This review is also up on Channel 24

What it's about

When a group of cavemen have their valley home overtaken by the greedy Bronze Age governor of a nearby city, young caveman Dug discovers a way to save their home: a bet with the same governor where a team of cavemen would go head to head with the city's star football team. If they win, they get their home back, if they lose, the entire village will have to work in the bronze mines while living in the deadly badlands. What could go wrong?

What we thought

However much I admire his craft, I've never really been a fan of the claymation work of Nick Park. Heck, even in terms of the wider work of the company with which he is most closely connected, Aardman, I'm the sort of lunatic who thinks their best movie is their sole excursion into CGI, Flushed Away. It's hard to deny the quality of something like Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, of course, or the achievement of their work with stop-motion animation but Nick Park and Aardman only seldom connect with me on any level deeper than that.

This is important to note because it's entirely possible that my bias totally colours my view on it but Early Man is... not good. It has some decent gags (though even more that fall flat) and, like all stop-motion animations, I'm both blown away by the amount of effort invested in turning these (in this case clay) figures into fully animated characters one frame at a time and left feeling more than a little guilty at criticizing any film with this much blood and sweat pored into it. To be sure, plenty of truly terrible films are the result of an inordinate amount of work but there is something about stop-motion animation that comes very close to totally overwhelming my critical facilities so in awe am I of those who go out of their way to create feature-length motion pictures out of so painstaking a process.

And yet, when you have a company like Laika using stop-motion to create breathtakingly good films like Coraline and Kubo and the Two Strings – not to mention the rave reviews that Wes Anderson's Isle of Dogs has received overseas (we're only getting it in July) - something as bland and uninspired as Early Man just doesn't cut it.

Roman J Israel Esq.

Major computer issues (are there any other kind) stopped me from posting this and a few other updates in time. 

Look out for more content in the next couple of days, including, would you know it, a book review!

This has been up on Channel 24 for over a week now so you may have caught it already. If not...

What it's about

Roman J Israel, Esq. is a brilliant civil-rights lawyer but, as someone not blessed with the greatest social skills, his expertise is behind the scenes work, helping his partner prepare the very best defence for his clients. When his partner has a heart attack, however, Roman is forced to come to the fore and face not only the realities of a failing law practice but who he really is as a person, as a lawyer and as a once-fierce but now potentially obsolete fighter for human rights.

What we thought

A brilliant, searing character study, wrapped in a fairly mundane and occasionally dull law-procedural plot, Roman J Israel, Esq. is as awkward and uncertain of itself as its protagonist. It's a film that skirts so close to greatness, so often, that it's also frustrating in a way that most truly bad films seldom are – and yet, there's so much that is genuinely good about it that it's a hard film to not at least cautiously recommend.

The film's greatest weaknesses clearly all lie in a plot that just isn't all that interesting; that feels both far less original and engaging than the person at the centre of it. It's ploddingly paced and when it kicks into high gear in the final third, it's done so in such an incongruous way to the rest of the film that rather than feeling like a well-earned climax, it has the faint whiff of a desperate attempt to eject some much-needed life in a story that clearly just wasn't working.

Get past the plot and the basic story mechanics, though, and you're left with a film with fascinating, multi-layered characters and plenty of thematic complexity and relevance. Denzel Washington, as the titular Roman, takes a character that at first seems to be little more than a collection of ticks and ill-fitting clothes and brings out layer after layer of a deeply flawed man, one who has trouble connecting with nearly anyone around him but who has spent much of his life fighting for the underdog, sacrificing success and – at least according to him – a family life for his many causes.

When the safety net of his partner falls away, though, all of his past decisions come back to haunt him as he realizes that all of his years fighting for civil rights has resulted in a new generation of social crusaders who exist purely because of his hard work but who nonetheless see him as nothing more than an ageing dinosaur, and a decidedly “unwoke” one at that. As he joins forces with Colin Farrell's George Pierce, a lawyer of the kind that he has spent his whole professional career despising, he starts to get a whiff of the life that passed him by; one that he is only one unethical decision away from having himself.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Ready Player One: Revisited

Just a quick one, this time. OK, maybe not...


I had the pleasure to see Ready Player One again with visiting friends from Cape Town in IMAX 3D this past weekend and the difference between my first and second reactions to the film is really quite profound. Certainly profound enough that this may just be the first re-review in all my years doing this blog.

A few of my issues do remain with the film but it's a much better and much more enjoyable experience than I first gave it credit for. It's true, for example, that the (admittedly super impressive) video-game-inspired CGI is something of an alienating factor and it does at time feel like watching someone else play a video game but I do think that Spielberg actually does give even these sequences some weight by having them transposed against the dangers of what's going on in the real world of the film. This is especially well done later on in the film but it's true in all but the introductory sequences - which are still, it has to be said, just a bit too exposition-heavy.

I also think that, though the rest of the "Top Five" are barely sketched caricatures (the soulful Asian, the precocious kid and the wise-cracking (apparently) lesbian, black girl) Wade and Samantha do have more clearly defined character motivations and character arcs. Nothing deep or unique, you understand, but enough that they come across as actual kids, rather than plot devices. And, really, the characters in this movie are so much fun, that it's hard to really begrudge their being somewhat underwritten.

The main difference this time around, though, was the visuals. While the screening I saw at the 3D Il Grande theatre at Monte Casino looked absolutely terrible with the seeming million and one characters on screen at any given time looked like just a mush of CG ugliness, rather than distinct characters, and the whole thing was darkened by the usual 3D darkening effect on regular 3D, the film just looked terrific on IMAX 3D.

I would still have preferred to see it in 2D as I still find 3D generally distracting, not least of all because of those stupid glasses, but it's clear that not only does the film generally look better in IMAX 3D than at regular 3D cinemas, there was clearly something wrong with the 3D at that initial screening. The difference in visuals shouldn't be this profound. What was once a mush, now actually looked like thousands upon thousands of fully rendered and identifiable in that blink or you miss it kind of way. The screen is still a bit cluttered at times but this is offset by the abundance of really fun easter eggs for geeks and nerds of all ages to pick up on and, as one, I had an absolute blast with this aspect of the film. But, really, I know everyone loves Batman but they couldn't have featured some other DC heroes more prominently? Not even Superman? Ah, it's nice to be able to see enough to nitpick like this...

One final thing before I give the film it's much deserved higher grade: in my original review, I noted that the score was by John Williams but, as it turns out, unlike 99% of Speilberg films, Ready Player one was in fact not scored by the great John Williams! The still-pretty-great Alan Silvestri stepped in here with a score that isn't a million miles away from Williams' work but also brings to mind his own brilliant scores for the likes of Forest Gump and, oh yes, Back to the Future - including a direct reference to the latter in one of the film's most memorable moments!

So, yeah, I was wrong...

           

Sunday, April 8, 2018

Hampstead

Blah, blah, blah. Who really cares about Hampstead when we have a cracking horror movie by Jim from the Office. I will get to that soon, though. Also, I have a few words to say about a film that I may have gotten just a bit wrong.

And no, it's not the Last Jedi!

Anyway...

This review is also up on Channel 24

What it's about

Emily Walters is a recently widowed American living in the United Kingdom who has been left adrift both by her husband's death and certain revelations about his past but while she fails to connect with her small social group of upper-middle class women or the men they try to set her up with, she starts to fall for her “neighbour”, Donald Horner, a dishevelled homeless man who has been squatting for years in a small shack on Hampstead Heath and who now has to fight for his right to remain there when Emily's friends want to use the land for a new, high-priced development.

What we thought

Proof that not even the greatest actors can save a boring script and an uninvolving story, Hampstead utterly wastes its two leads, Diane Keaton and Brendan Gleeson – to say nothing of its supporting cast of talented British “character actors” - on a fluffy romcom that is neither remotely funny nor particularly romantic. It's the sort of understated British film aimed quite clearly at an older market looking for something as genteel as it is quaint but that's still no excuse for Hampstead to be as unexciting, uninteresting and anaemic as it is.

Keaton is rather good here as she tones down the quirkiness that she usually brings to these sorts of films; opting instead for a world-weary and melancholic performance that reminds us of just how great she can be. Gleeson, on the other hand, is as much a pleasure to watch as ever, but his role as a gruff but warm-hearted loner is the sort of thing that he can sleepwalk through by now – and, indeed, he does pretty much exactly that here.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Ready Player One

Just a slight disclaimer. I'm very tough on the 3D of this film but a fellow film reviewer pointed out that the 3D was out of focus. I didn't notice because I normally find 3D films pretty unbearable but it's entirely possible that the film's 3D prints, in general, aren't quite as bad as I originally thought they were. I still think 2D would be the way to go, preferably IMAX 2D, but - 

Nah, forget it. Just see it in 2D. This whole 3D thing has more than worn out its welcome.

This review is also up now on Channel 24


 What it's about

The year is 2045 and as the real world gets progressively worse, most of the world's population spends time in a vast virtual world known as the Oasis. With the death of the Oasis' creator, James Halliday, however, his virtual world becomes more than just a means of escape as he leaves control of the Oasis, along with his personal half-a-trillion dollar fortune, to the first person to solve a series of challenges that he left behind in different parts of the Oasis. Wade Watts, a young orphan who lives in a dilapidated trailer-apartment with his aunt in the over-populated Columbus, Ohio, is the first to crack Halliday's first challenge but when a massive mega-corporation, IOI, gets wind of his progress, he will need all his wits and resources, as well as the help of his five virtual-world friends, to finish the challenges before IOI take them all out in the real world and claims the prize for themselves.

What we thought

For all the acclaim that Steven Spielberg gets for his “serious” films (Schindler's List, Lincoln), it is ultimately his peerless work with blockbusters and genre pictures that have most earned him his status as one of the very best living filmmakers. From Jaws to the BFG; Raiders of the Lost Ark to Minority Report, no one makes big-budget, (usually) fantastical films quite like Spielberg – though, many, of course, have tried. It's a pity, then, that his latest Huge Hollywood Blockbuster is the very definition of a mixed bag; one that, quite shockingly, almost gets away from him.

The film, which is based on the massively popular novel by Ernest Cline (who co-writes the screenplay with veteran – though hugely inconsistent -screenwriter, Zak Penn) is a very uneasy mix of characters that are both immediately likeable but are very broadly drawn (the cast is uniformly on point, though); a plot that is overly simple while also being refreshingly straightforward; a message that is both muddled and emotionally effective and an overall aesthetic that is both ugly in its overstuffed, CGI-mush (made ten times worse by the colour loss of 3D) and beautiful in its pure visual imagination.

It's a film that is clearly a love letter to pop culture of all stripes, varieties and eras; from '80s pop music (add to that John Williams' score and you have a film with a seriously killer soundtrack) to cult science fiction to vintage video game consoles. It undoubtedly says something, then, that by far the most effective sequence in the film takes place in a classic horror film, where the CGI is scaled back to a breathable level and the film's classic adventure-film spirit is at its most direct.