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Sunday, September 17, 2017

American Assassin

So simple a title, such a mess of a movie.

This review is also up on Channel 24

What it's about

After his personal life is ripped apart by a brutal terrorist attack, Mitch Rapp starts a one-man war against radical Islamist terrorism. His actions soon catch the attention of the CIA who enlist him to be part of their most elite counter-terrorism group – if, that is, he can survive training by Stan Hurley, a celebrated, tough-as-nails CIA and army veteran known for breaking his recruits.

What we thought

American Assassin has the sort of title that immediately brings to mind fairly straightforward action-thrillers that, more often than not, find their home on late night TV, where they can be enjoyed by insomniacs and undiscerning action junkies. I've long railed against these kinds of films taking the place of much worthier films in our local cinemas – and I stand by that – but in the case of American Assassin things aren't quite so simple. And, sadly, I don't mean that in a good way.

What we have here, very simply, is a film suffering from a major identity crisis; a crisis that only gets exponentially worse as the film goes on.

The opening scene of the film, to start, sets a particularly bleak tone as a beautiful and romantic beach holiday for our hero and his vivacious, loving girlfriend soon turns into the stuff of nightmares as a senseless and bloodily brutal terrorist attack leaves dozens of young holiday-makers dead or dying with their panicked screams barely drowning out the matter-of-fact rat-tat-tat of machine-gun fire.

It's horrible, disturbing and incredibly violent and seems to set the stage for a serious, no-nonsense look at terrorism and its effect on both the people who are victim to it and those who have sacrificed everything to fight it. It's the kind of shockingly effective opening that sets up a film that will no doubt be gruelling, tough and rather humourless but one that would surely work as the kind of visceral, realistic spy-thriller at which writers like John Le Carre and Greg Rucka excel.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

The Dark Tower

Question: How do you turn 15,000 pages of story into a 90-minute movie?
Answer: You don't.

This review is also up on Channel 24

What It's About

Loosely based on the Stephen King fantasy series, the Dark Tower tells the story of Jake, a teenager whose visions of another world may be written off as a sign of madness by his parents, doctors, teachers and friends but when a series of events leads him to that other world, he comes face to face with his visions brought to life: an eternal battle of good and evil between the The Man in Black who wants to bring darkness and death to multiple worlds and Roland, the last Gunslinger, the one man who could stop him. At the centre of their conflict is the Dark Tower, a single structure that lies at the centre of reality and is the only thing standing between the Multiverse and whatever darkness lies outside it.

What we thought

Spanning three decades, seven novels, a number of spin-off books, comics and thousands upon thousands of pages, the Dark Tower is undoubtedly Stephen King's magnum opus. It's so monolithic, in fact, that the Dark Tower touches on many other King properties along the way and even draws the author himself into the story. It's the sort of thing that makes Game of Thrones look positively brief and self-contained in comparison.

Turning the Dark Tower into a multi-season HBO series might be able to capture the sheer scope of King's masterwork but, even then, loads would have to be left out. The seemingly insurmountable trouble of adapting the thing certainly explains why it's been in development hell for years. Not too long ago, an audacious and undoubtedly risky solution was finally reached. The Dark Tower would consist of a long-running premium-cable TV show and a series of movies that would intertwine and interact in a way that would make it arguably the most ambitious project ever undertaken by Hollywood.

Apparently, this insane idea has never been fully abandoned and there are still rumblings of a Dark Tower series being planned for one of the premium cable companies. That is, however, all very much up in the air and seems to have been intentionally sabotaged by the Dark Tower film that we do have. Not only is the film a sequel of sorts to the novels – thanks for the spoiler, guys! - but it wouldn't so much introduce the world of the Dark Tower, so much as tell the whole story of Roland and the Man in Black. All in ninety minutes!

The Exception

Exceptional? Maybe not. But pretty worth seeing.

This review is also up on Channel 24

What it's about

Set during the height of World War 2 where Adolf Hitler had effectively exiled the German monarch, Kaiser Wilhelm, and his wife to the Netherlands to “wait out the war”, a young soldier is assigned to the Kaiser's home as head of security but whose main mission is to spy on the household and to report any seditious, anti-Nazi activities going on there. He quickly falls for a bold, outspoken housemaid who has plenty of secrets of her own – not least of all being that is Jewish.

What we thought

Despite its setting and its plot, it would be a stretch to call the Exception a “Holocaust film” - both because it only touches on the Holocaust and the rampant anti-Semitism going on in Europe at the time and because these truly dark historic events are used mostly as context for the story it's trying to tell, rather than the story itself. The result is a film that plays out like a mix of a thriller, a sweeping romance, and a rather unique domestic drama, all played out against a backdrop of the unparalleled horrors of Nazi occupied Europe.

It's no masterpiece as its often conflicting elements do have a habit of bumping into one another and causing the film to, if not spin off its axis, then at least wobble a bit. However, in a week where 9/11 fails almost completely to balance awful historic events with more lightweight entertainment, there is something to be said for the fact that not only is the Exception not a total disaster, it ends up being a compelling and solidly enjoyable piece of work.


Too soon?

This review is also up on Channel 24

What it's about

As the Twin Towers are attacked on that fateful day in September 2001, a group of people stuck in a broken down elevator in the North Tower struggle to survive, while confronting their own and each other's personal demons.

What we thought

9/11 is an uncomfortable watch – unfortunately, not always for the reasons that the filmmakers clearly want it to be. On the one hand, it is a taut, if overly generic survival thriller with, to be honest, fairly b-grade level performances from most of the cast and some seriously creaky dialogue. On this level it works, just about, even if there's little about it that demands paying the high price of a cinema ticket to see it.

The problem is that this perfectly adequate b-movie is taking place within the context of a still fairly recent tragedy; a tragedy whose effects still resonate with even those of us who have never been within a thousand miles of New York City. More than “just” a tragedy, in fact, the horrible events of 9/11 were an act of pure evil that brought Islamist extremism to the heart of Western Culture and set America and the rest of the world into a constant state of war or near-war ever since. It was a momentous, defining moment in modern history; one that still calls for the utmost sensitivity.

9/11, the film, is clearly not – it has to be said right from the off – out to exploit a national tragedy or to make light of the terrible evil responsible for it. It's clearly made with the utmost respect and is even dedicated to the memory of the lives of those lost on that day. Presumably, the film – and the play on which it was based by Patrick Carson – has set out to try and give a particularly human, down-on-the-ground perspective on the events and on the way such tragedies affect people and their relationships.

Monday, September 4, 2017

First Kill

Soon to be known as the one where Anakin Skywalker acts John McClane off the screen.

This review is also up on Channel 24.

What It's About

A big-time city man returns to his small-town home to take his young son hunting but while they're on the hunt they witness one man shooting another after a clearly illicit deal goes wrong. Things quickly go from bad to worse as they are drawn into a web of dirty cops and dangerous bank robbers.

What we thought

It says something about just how far Bruce Willis has fallen that he is acted off the screen at every turn by Hayden Christensen. Christensen will clearly never be able to escape being the man who played Darth Vader as a whiny adolescent but, to be fair, he is probably never going to be a genuinely good, let alone great, actor. He's certainly a much better actor than the Star Wars prequels suggested but when you consider the pool of seriously talented young actors out there right now, he seems destined to constantly be bubbling under the surface. Hence his starring in a film that I'm actually reasonably sure did go straight to streaming and DVD/Blu-Ray overseas.

The film in question - First Kill for those not keeping track at home – barely even merits a discussion, though, as it is nothing you haven't seen done much better elsewhere but is still, for what it is, a perfectly OK straight-to-video b-movie, where you will be able to predict every twist whole acts before the characters. Taken for what it is, it's perfectly passably written and directed; it's just not something that you need bother with unless you're looking for a dopey b-grade action-thriller for a late, lazy Saturday night.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

American Made

Cruise is back! That didn't take long...

This review is also up at Channel 24

What It's About

Barry Seal is a successful TWA pilot whose small-time smuggling side business catches the eye of the CIA who enlists him to help spy on communist training camps in Latin America. It's not long, however, before he comes to the attention of the up and coming Medellin drug cartel who in turn make him an offer he can't refuse to smuggle their drugs into the United States while on his missions for the CIA. Based loosely on a true story.

What We Thought

After the Mummy proved to be Tom Cruise's first genuinely bad movie in a very long time, it's particularly pleasing to see him back on such fine form just a few months later in a role that seems all but written for him. Cruise's particular mix of serious charisma and just the right amount of crazy has long made him one of Hollywood's most undeniable movie stars and it's that very combination that makes him such a perfect fit for Barry Seal.

As portrayed in the film, at least, Seal is an incredibly likeable family man with a slightly crazed - but no less charming - roguish side that comes out especially while he's on the job. He is also someone willing to try anything, no matter how dangerous, to get that job done. Sound like anyone you know?

As if being just a profession (and scandalous cult) away from Barry Seal wasn't enough, Cruise more than lives up to both his and Seal's reputations for trying things that most “normal” people wouldn't dare do in even their most escapist fantasies. In particular, the stunts that Seal pulled off as a pilot, both to get the best surveillance for the CIA and when dumping kilos of drugs from a plane flying on autopilot just a few feet from the ground, are recreated wholesale in the film by Cruise himself. American Made may not have anywhere near the amount of crazy stunts as your average Mission Impossible movie but what there are, are seriously impressive, made all the more so by the fact that it's an actor in his fifties doing them.

Tom Cruise clearly carries the film every step of the way but it's hardly just a one man show. On the acting front, he is matched brilliantly with his shady CIA dealer, played by Domnhal Gleason who once again proves not just his acting chops but his uncanny ability to transform his thick Oirish accent for an entirely believable American drawl. No less impressive but in need of far more airtime is Sarah Wright as Seal's increasingly bewildered-but-sly-in-her-own-way wife – more of her please, in general!

Sunday, August 27, 2017


Because 14:22 isn't catchy enough a title...

This review is also up on Channel 24.

What it's about

Dylan is an air-traffic controller whose preternatural ability to see patterns in everyday events makes him both very good at his job and gives his life a certain amount of predictability. His life soon takes a turn for the decidedly unpredictable, however, after he nearly causes two planes to crash into one another and meets the woman of his dreams – who also happens to have been a passenger on one of those planes – on the same day. It's around this time, as well, that he starts to notice certain events repeating themselves day in and day out – all culminating in a “bang” at 2:22 PM – a “bang” that may be related to an act of violence that happened decades previously.

What we thought

The fact that 2:22 bears more than a passing resemblance to a mixture of the Buffy: The Vampire Slayer episode, “Amends”, the X-Files episode, “Monday”, and whole chunks of Donnie Darko should cast an inescapable pall over the film, as it is neither as good as any of these individual elements nor, of course, even remotely original. That it's also a rather silly exercise in quasi-mystical mumbo jumbo and a not particularly convincing romantic thriller should be more than enough to bury it as, if not one of the worst films of the year, then at least one of those that really belongs in the bargain bin of your local video shop (remember those)?

I'm clearly just a sucker for cheesy romance, quasi-mystical mumbo jumbo, and the unbearably gorgeous Teresa Palmer, then, because despite everything that's so obviously wrong with 2:22, I can't deny it: I had a whale of a time watching it.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

The Hitman's Bodyguard

So, I apparently like this more than most critics. Who knew?

Oh, also why isn't this the only poster for the film, rather than that bland action-pose poster we have in all South African cinemas? I literally chuckled at this play on the old Bodyguard poster. But then, I'm apparently more easily amused than some...

This review is also up at Channel 24

What it's about

A disgraced bodyguard is called on to transport a notorious hitman from the UK to the International Court of Justice at the Hague so that he can testify to the crimes of of a brutal Eastern European dictator, with whom he once had dealings.

What we thought

Take your basic Midnight Run premise, mix it with Deadpool's irreverence (and star) and add some Fast and Furious chase scenes and you have the Hitman's Bodyguard, an unoriginal, silly and way overlong action-comedy that is also frequently funny, effortlessly enjoyable and immensely likeable.

Ryan Reynolds' career has taken a notable upturn since he donned the red and black suit of Deadpool a couple of years ago to make fun of everything from superhero films to Hugh Jackman to Reynolds himself. Michael Bryce, the bodyguard of the title, isn't quite Deadpool as he doesn't technically have any superpowers, doesn't exactly break the fourth wall and has one or two personality quirks that aren't shared with the Merc With the Mouth but old Wade Wilson is clearly a huge influence on Reynolds' work here – and the film is all the better for it.

At the same time, Darius Kincaid may not be exactly the same as every other good-hearted ass-kicker that Samuel L Jackson has ever played before but this hitman-with-a-conscience does play like an amalgamation of all of Jackson's most enjoyable traits as a legendary screen presence. He's absurdly capable, surprisingly wise, unapologetically romantic and is as quick with his wit as he is with a gun – and, wouldn't you know it, his favourite word ever is, what the BBFC charmingly refers to as, “the oedipal expletive”. Stop me if you've heard this one before.

A Family Man

Tear Jerker/ Vomit Inducer/ Whatever

This review is also up at Channel 24

What it's about

A high-powered recruitment agent neglects his family for his job but when his son turns gravely ill, he is forced to confront his priorities in his life and just what he's really living for.

What we thought

Taking a hiatus from his usual wham bam action fare with a convincing enough turn as a (spoiler) douchebag-turned-softie in this by-the-numbers tear-jerker, Gerard Butler headlines a perfectly good cast in a film that is to family dramas what the Olympus Has Fallen series is to action films. It's not egregiously terrible and it's not even entirely unmoving but the only thing that really sets it apart from your average made-for-TV weepie that used to find a home on the Hallmark channel is just how often it manages to miss its mark – which is actually not something you could say about those otherwise pretty rubbish melodramas: they do, at the very least, manage to do what they set out to do.

Here we have a film with solid production values, a good cast and perfectly adequate direction by Mark Williams (especially as a first-time director) but it just feels woefully misjudged at every turn. Even its ultimate message of money and power not being any substitute for your loved ones and living a full, meaningful life is mired by the fact that it comes less in the form of an earned epiphany – or, really, a fairly obvious observation – but by this douchey deal-maker basically making a deal with God that happens to pay off. This little tidbit might be considered a spoiler, by the way, but it's so blindingly obviously handled that you would have to be asleep not to see it coming from a mile away – even as you hope that the film won't go for anything so lazily trite.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

What the Hell's It Good For: War for the Planet of the Apes vs Dunkirk

A bit of an odd pairing this but bear with me...

Despite their pronounced war aspects, Dunkirk and War for the Planet of the Apes are two rather different films. One is a fantasy that makes heavy use of metaphor to talk about real-world issues, while one is an on-the-ground look at a real military event of some 300 000 Allied Soldiers being evacuated from German-occupied Belgium. One is actually a war movie with its emphasis firmly on military battles; one just uses its war trappings as the dressing on what is basically a near-Biblical fable. One centres on the trials and travails of ordinary young men during a horrific historical incident; one features talking apes in a rather (one hopes) unlikely future. These are not the same film by any stretch of the imagination and, yet, as I slouched out of Dunkirk in a state of abject disappointment, all I could do was think back to the latest - and best - Planet of the Apes movie.

Both films, you see, are staggering technical achievements; where artistic vision is easily matched by groundbreaking (though completely different) special effects, powerful musical scores, and breathtaking cinematography, but however much I admire what Christopher Nolan achieved with Dunkirk it simply didn't have anything close to the level of intellectual engagement or emotional wallop that Matt Reeves' presumably final film in this act of the Planet of Apes franchise dolled out in spades.

Nolan has constantly been criticized for being a "cold" director: a filmmaker whose technical excellence is never matched by any real emotional investment in the final film, but I've always found that argument largely spurious in the extreme. If you can't find the beating heart at the centre of the Dark Knight and Interstellar, in particular, you're really not trying hard enough. Sadly, Dunkirk was the first time in a Christopher Nolan movie that I absolutely recognized all the criticisms that have been thrown his way for years now.

For all of its genuine spectacle and peerless cinematic artistry, Dunkirk was an extremely odd viewing experience: I would constantly recognize the emotions I should be feeling at any given point in the film but without ever actually feeling any of them. That this should happen in Nolan's most grounded and most theoretically visceral film to date is an irony that is not lost on me.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Spider-Man: Homecoming

Another year, another big-screen Spider-man reboot. Things are a bit different this time, though.

For all that people love complaining about the plethora of superhero films, this year has been a rather interesting showcase for why we should be glad they aren't going away soon. For a start, despite appearances to the contrary, superhero films are not the only "tentpole", big budget blockbuster being released, it's just that - for this year at least - they seem to be well on their way to being the only good ones (update: as of a screening I saw today, that's no longer the case!). While the Mummy brought us a stale take on a well-established property, Logan gave us the most genuinely mature take on a "Big 2" superhero to date. As King Arthur lived down to its director's worst tendencies, comics' most classic female superhero got a film of her own that not only more than did justice to the character but deservedly became the biggest movie of the year so far. Meanwhile, however much Baywatch failed to raise so much as a - if you'll pardon the apparently unavoidable double (single?) entendre - titter, Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2 brought plenty of laughs to go with its thrills and surprising drama.

Now, bucking the trend from Pixar's final fall from grace, Cars 3, and the utter pointlessness of the latest sequels to Pirates of the Caribbean or Transformers, Spider-Man: Homecoming proves that "yet another sequel" doesn't have to be just "yet another sequel". Following on from his scene-stealing appearance in Captain America: Civil War - and, in fact, picking up just before his appearance in Civil War - Spider-Man has entered the Marvel cinematic universe with what is easily his best film since at least Sam Raimi's Spider-Man 2.

After the sheer rubbishness of Spider-Man 3, the pointlessness of the Amazing Spider-Man and the messiness of the Amazing Spider-Man 2 (though, for the record, the latter two are still saved by terrific central turns from Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone), Marvel's greatest character gets his own back with a movie that takes the best bits from other MCU films and puts a very welcome, if webby, spin on them.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

All Eyez on Me

Well, not all eyez...

This review is also up on Channel 24

What it's about

The life story of Tupac Shakur, the infamous rapper, activist and actor, from his rise as one of the pre-eminent “gangsta rappers” of the '90s to his still unsolved violent death in his mid-20s.

What we thought

Comparisons between All Eyez on Me and Straight Outta Compton are inevitable thanks to both their close proximity and their dealing with fairly similar subject matter. Oddly, though, most people ignore Notorious, which is basically the other side to this particular tale but, considering that I have never actually seen it and that it has been all but entirely forgotten from the public at large, I don't feel too bad hanging onto those particular coat tails.

Despite the major upset surrounding Straight Outta Compton being shut out of that year's Oscars, I was never a big fan of the film and I stand by my belief that there's a great ninety-minute film to be found in its tiresome 2.5 hour runtime - though in terms of major music biopics released that year, incidentally, even that imaginary ninety-minute cut wouldn't hold a candle to the exceptional Brian Wilson biopic, Love and Mercy, which was similarly shunned during that awards season. Credit where credit is due, though: in comparison to All Eyez on Me, Straight Outta Compton really does start to look like, well, Love and Mercy.

All Eyez On Me (and that spelling is really starting to get on my nerves... really, what's with the 'z'?) isn't a disaster by any means as it is a perfectly competently, albeit blandly, put-together pop biopic with a nicely solid performance by Demetrius Shipp Jr. at its centre but it nonetheless fails to be anything but a shallow retelling of Shakur's short life.