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Friday, May 26, 2017

Song to Song

No, I couldn't help it, I slipped a not-so-stealth review of the first couple of episodes of the new reincarnation of Twin Peaks in there. It's not quite as random as you might think, though!

This rant is also up at Channel 24.

What it's about

Set around the music scene in Austin, Texas, a group of young musicians, music producers and general bystanders fall in and out of love with each other.

What we thought

It's a particularly brilliant stroke of luck that Song to Song hits our cinemas the same week that the verhy-very-very-long-awaited new episodes of Twin Peaks came out because, frankly folks, without this interesting comparison to ground me, I would have no earthly idea how to review Terrence Malick's latest unbearably indulgent non-film.

Both the new season of Twin Peaks and Song to Song represent their respective creators being allowed to cut loose and indulge in their own, very particular and often extremely alienating directorial visions. The new Twin Peaks – or what little we've seen of it so far – eschews much of the familiarity of the original series for something far weirder, far darker and far more indulgent. It's the sort of move that all but guarantees a large number of long-time fans jumping ship long before the series makes its reported (at least partial) return to the crazy mix of surrealism, soap opera and goofy comedy that defined the original.

For me, and many like me, though, Twin Peaks: The Return is the return of David Lynch after far too many years without anything really new from him. Even his last directorial effort, Inland Empire, which I've yet to see, much to my shame, didn't make it to many cinemas when it was released over a decade ago. This new series uses his most popular fictional world to create something that is basically a culmination of Lynch's entire career: disturbing, challenging, funny, surreal, self-indulgent, sexy, violent, goofy, impenetrable and incredibly visceral.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Blockbuster Roundup: Guardians, Aliens, Pirates and Arthurian Geezers

The Summer Movie season has finally kicked in and we're off to... a start. There are still loads of blockbusters to come (and one or two of them are not based on a comic book) but the season did kick off with some of the year's biggest and most anticipated films. Are any of them any good, though? Well, that may be something else entirely.


Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2. Saving the best for first, Guardians 2 may not have either the element of surprise on its side in the way that the first film did and it does lack somewhat in its predecessor's sheer sense of movement but it's a fun, funny, thrilling and weirdly moving mix of superheroics and space opera, with loads of character development thrown in for good measure. While most sequels live (and sometimes die) by the motto that "more is always more", the pleasures of Guardians of the Galaxy 2 lies in its much more intimate scope and its focus on the characters themselves. Yes, a big, galaxy-ending threat does show up in the latter half of the film but, fundamentally, it's really a film about family - both the ones we're born into and the ones we make. Not the most original of themes, it's true, but this particular group of disparate characters brings a sense of freshness to well-trod ground, while writer/ director James Gunn's irreverent sense of humour keeps things from ever descending into cloying schmaltz. The cast is as great as ever but, adorable Baby Groot aside, it's arguably Michael Rooker who shines brightest as Yondu and, though there's really little sense in bringing up just how great the soundtrack is (it's arguably even better than the first), the poignant denouement is such a perfect match of open-hearted filmmaking with one of the most beautiful songs ever recorded that it's bound to go down as one of the most memorable - not to mention poignant - scenes in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. And, of course, be sure to stick around for the five (count them, five) end credits scenes. (8/10)

Sunday, May 14, 2017

20th Century Women

I know, I know... I'm still planning on getting to Guardians 2, as well as at least a couple of other big releases, but, for now, here's my take on an interesting little movie that I wish I enjoyed more than I did.

This review is also up at Channel 24

What it's about

The year is 1979, and the major political and social upheavals of the time provoke a single mother into turning to others for help with seeing her teenage son through to manhood. With no real male role models on hand, she settles on her bohemian, free-spirited female tenant and her son's precocious female best friend.

What we thought

Anchored by a brilliant performance by Annette Bening, 20th Century Women is, as you may have guessed is a film that takes a long hard look at femininity and feminism towards the end of the great women's movement of the 1960s and '70s but what intrigues most about it is the way that it does so by asking – of all things - what it is that makes a man, a man (“is it brain or brawn or what month he was born?”, as the Who asked fifty years ago).

It's an extremely smart bit of writing from Mike Mills (the decidedly un-prolific indie darling behind Thumbsucker and Beginners) that constantly undercuts any and all expectations of what we might expect of buzz words like “feminism” or “masculinity.” More than that, it also uses its very particular time period to look at a generational and mother-child gap that pits the sunny optimism of the hippy era against the angry uncertainty of punk and how even an “enlightened”, liberal woman who came of age through the political and social upheaval of the 1960s might not be prepared for a new kind of “revolution” - though, of course, in hindsight the differences between punk rock and the '60s counter-culture were far less significant than their similarities and, ultimately, their failures.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Rules Don't Apply

I'll have my Guardians 2 review up soon (spoiler: it's not as good as the first but it's still pretty great) but here's another film that's worth checking out if you want something slightly different.

Also, this review is already up at Channel 24.

What it's about

In 1950s Hollywood, a young aspiring actress finds herself torn between a blossoming romance with her ambitious driver and the often ludicrous demands and whims of the man they both work for: eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes.

What we thought

Living up to its own title and the infamous real-life figure that inspired it, Rules Don't Apply is a film that never bothers with little things like tonal consistency, narrative structure or even figuring out just what story it's trying to tell but it is all the more appealing because of just how unwieldy a mess it is. Best of all, it manages to be eccentric and odd and free-wheeling without ever losing the basic accessibility and slickness of old fashioned Hollywood entrainment. No wonder so may critics hated it.

Writer, director, producer and supporting (lead?) actor, Warren Beatty had been wanting to tell this story for longer than many of us have been alive so it's all the more amusing that the finished product so resolutely refuses to commit to any single story. Is it a loose portrait of the eccentric genius of Howard Hughes, a tribute to the Hollywood of Beatty's own youth, a veiled autobiography or an epic love story about a couple of great looking kids struggling to come together against this increasingly unhinged backdrop? Yes.

Monday, April 24, 2017

In Dubious Battle

The week of major literary adaptations by actors-turned-directors starts with Daniel from Freaks and Geeks doing Steinbeck. What could go wrong?

This review is also up at Channel 24.


What it's about

During the Great Depression, a pair of activists involve themselves in the struggles of desperate workers by getting them to strike for fair wages.

What we thought

In Dubious Battle is hardly the Grapes of Wrath, East of Eden or Of Mice and Men in the canon of great novels by premier American writer, John Steinbeck, as it is known for concentrating far more on its message than on its story or characters. At least, that seems to be the general consensus. I admit, I haven't read it or any of Steinbeck's novels (he's always been near the top of my must read list but I still haven't gotten round to him) so I certainly can't compare the novel to the film but, based purely on the evidence on display here, it's hard to argue with that consensus.

Interestingly enough, In Dubious Battle hits South African cinemas on the same day as American Pastoral, and the two films complement each other rather nicely. They do tell distinctly different stories, set in very different times, but in almost every other respect they mirror one another. Both films are based on classic American novels, both deal with the American Dream (albeit from opposite sides) and both are directed by their lead actors who turn in ambitious, heartfelt work but are ultimately sunk by biting off more than they can chew.

It's not hard to see what drew the Steinbeck semi-classic to James Franco; not only is he a well-known bibliophile but at a time when America is ruled by a narcissistic billionaire whose main aim seems to to make him and his fellow billionaires even richer, this tale of the working classes being exploited by the super-rich no doubt struck a particularly poignant chord with his unapologetically liberal world view. The world depicted in In Dubious Battle is basically Bernie Sanders' nightmare scenario writ large – which is all the more frightening as this world is one that America was supposed to have left behind nearly a century ago.

American Pastoral

Who knew that Ewan McGregor had balls this big...

This review is also up at Channel 24.

What it's about

Seymour “the Swede” Levov is the envy of his local Jewish community as he follows his years as the most popular kid in high school with an adult life that includes his taking over his father's massively successful clothing business and having seemingly the perfect family life with his (non-Jewish) beauty-pageant wife and doting daughter. As his daughter comes of age and the 1960s rage on, however, the Swede's perfect life comes crumbling down.

What we thought

The acclaimed, Pulitzer-prize winning novel on which this film is based is one of those “classic” novels that utterly defeated me. I made it halfway through before the sheer misanthropic self-indulgence of Philip Roth's magnum opus had me throw up my hands in defeat and turn towards something a bit easier to swallow – something like War and Peace, perhaps (though, not really). Even after having read just half of American Pastoral, though, one thing was very clear: you'd have to be clinically insane to try and adapt it into a film.

Enter Ewan McGregor, who not only decided to stretch his sanity to the limits by tackling a book that was almost all internalized self-examination and almost no plot, but decided to make it his directorial debut along the way. The result, predictably, is a failure but it's an honourable, ambitious failure that is never quite the disaster it so obviously should have been. It's also far more accessible and enjoyable than its source novel - not to mention a whole lot shorter – if, admittedly, nowhere near as deep.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Gold

Not even bronze.

This review is also up at Channel 24.

What it's about

Based very loosely on true events, a gold prospector, desperate for one more chance at striking it big, joins forces with a geologist to find gold in the jungles of Indonesia. Is what they find there, however, to good to be true?

What we thought

Though a step up from the last movie starring Matthew McConaughey as a man in search of gold (the pretty but stupidly vacuous Fool's Gold), Gold takes one part Romancing the Nile (minus the romance), one part the Wolf of Wall Street and one part, oddly enough, Fool's Gold and churns out something hopelessly and profoundly mediocre.

McConaughey himself is pretty great, of course, as the “McConaussence” shows no sign of slowing down, especially when he eerily but presumably unintentionally channels his former True Detective co-star, Woody Harrelson, but he's the only remotely notable thing about a film that resolutely refuses to leave a mark. He is aided by a bang up make-up job that turns this, shall we say, rather good looking man into someone impressively repulsive but really, props to the guy for putting this much effort into something that is nowhere near deserving of all his hard work.

The first half of the film is just a total bore as we are introduced to a bunch of utterly uninteresting characters, doing uninteresting things in utterly uninteresting ways that shifts from the grey sterility of a Big City office to the wilds of Indonesia without ever shifting tone, thereby turning what is ostensibly supposed to be the film's Big Adventure set piece into something about as interesting as doing your taxes – if significantly less tense.

Friday, March 31, 2017

The Bye Bye Man

The Don't Bother, Man.

This review is also up at Channel 24.

What it's about

A guy moves into a new house with his girlfriend and best friend but when strange things start happening in the house and tensions rise between all three of them, it becomes evident that a powerful evil is residing among them.

What we thought

If you think that plot synopsis sounds generic, just wait until you've seen the film.

Drawing heavily from every haunted house thriller you could think of, along with everything from Nightmare on Elm Street to the Ring to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Bye Bye Bad Man is a highly derivative horror flick that fails miserably to live up to even its humblest of inspirations. And the worst thing is that though it is an abject failure on every level imaginable, it's not even notably bad enough to be interesting on that level and nowhere near rubbish enough to be so bad that it's good. It's just... meh, taken to the extreme – which you might think would be an accomplishment in and of itself but, as it turns out, “meh” to the power of three hundred is still just “meh”.

The only thing remotely interesting thing about this barely made-for-DVD supernatural thriller is it's director Stacy Title, who not only holds the distinction of being one of the very, very few female directors out there to tackle the horror genre (Katherine Bigalow is the only other name I could think of, off hand) but that, after making a couple of not particularly noteworthy but perfectly OK films in the 1990s, she seems to come out of nowhere, roughly once every decade, with the kind of film that steadfastly refuses to make much of an impact on either critics or the box office.

That's honestly about it for the interesting aspects of the film. It does explain why the Bye Bye Man manages to come across as both the work of someone who has seen (and apparently made) enough horror films to know how to adequately put one together and yet has seen too many to actually come up with something even remotely fresh or original. For a filmmaker who works so rarely, you might expect something with a bit more of a personal touch but this is Horror 101.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Ghost in the Shell (2017)

I definitely couldn't let this one go without at least a quick - or not so quick - look in. 


The first thing that's worth mentioning about this not particularly eagerly anticipated remake of the classic 1995 anime is that it's really nowhere near as bad as it could have been. The second is that, as someone who liked the original anime but is far from a diehard fan of it, my opinion might not matter all that much to those who greeted the news of this remake with the most trepidation.

I also haven't read the original manga and my only experience of the ever-widening world of Ghost in the Shell (there was a new animated film released as recently as 2015) beyond the original anime is catching an episode of the Stand Alone Complex TV shows back when they were shown quite regularly as part of an anime block on one of South Africa's long-defunct Sattelite channels. I know enough, however, to know that a different take on Masamune Shirow's original manga is pretty much par for the course right now. Even the original anime was apparently a huge departure from its source.

I mention all this because, though it might be interesting to view the latest version of Ghost in the Shell through totally new eyes, it does undeniably stand in the shadow of the original. At the same time, though, that hardly means that it is automatically worse just because it doesn't follow the original beat for beat.

The best way to describe what director Rupert Sanders and screenwriters Jamie Moss and William Wheeler do with their take on the beloved anime is that they take a number of the most iconic scenes from Mamoru Oshii's original and remixes them into a rather different story.

Monday, March 20, 2017

John Wick: Chapter 2

I'm sorry, but really: ho freakin' hum.

This review is also up at Channel 24

What it's about

Picking up a few days after the first film, John Wick: Chapter 2 finds our eponymous hero once again drawn out of retirement for one last job but when that job doesn't go as planned, he ends up at the top of the hit list for every assassin in the city and beyond.

What we thought

John Wick, released way back in 2014 (it seems more recent), was one of that year's most surprising hits, scoring big with both critics and at the box-office, but having the kind of geeky appeal that resulted in the emergence of a bonafide fan movement for the quietly lethal killer at its centre. The unimaginatively titled Chapter 2 has, if anything, been even more of a success, with sky-high rating from critics and audiences alike and an even bigger box office take.

Frankly, it's all a bit of a mystery to me.

I'd almost credit the huge success of these films as simply being the product of a Hollywood that has largely lost interest in such straightforward action films but that's far less accurate than it might appear at first glance. Yes, most action films these days are wrapped in other genres like science fiction or superhero fantasy but that does a disservice to charismatic action stars like Jason Statham or the Fast and Furious franchise, which has only become more and more enjoyable as it has gotten more and more bonkers. More than that, only a fool would write off major 21st century action films like Haywire, Dredd or the Raid, which easily stand as major milestones for the genre.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Kong: Skull Island

The Ape is back.

This review is also up at Channel 24

What it's about

The year is 1974 and a group of explorers head out to map one of the last unexplored pieces of land on earth: the mysterious Skull Island, but when they get there they find things beyond their wildest imaginings.

What we thought

Rather than picking up where Peter Jackson's overly indulgent but ultimately rather spectacular take on King Kong from, shockingly, over a decade ago, Kong: Skull Island is a whole new take on the classic character that jettisons the more familiar story for something that plays more like a cross between Jurassic Park, Apocalypse Now and the more tangential moments in Jackson's King Kong. The result is an effortlessly fun monster movie but one that definitely pales in comparison to its most obvious influences.

Aside for being hopelessly derivative, almost by definition, the film's main problem is that it is kind of a bloated mess. An enjoyable mess but a mess nonetheless. Along with Kong himself and the half-dozen other types of monsters we meet on Skull Island, the film is overflowing with human characters – most of whom doing very little to add to the story around them. It most especially does a grave injustice to Brie Larson and Tom Hiddleston, two dependably top-notch actors who are presumably supposed to be the focal human characters of the piece, but who tend to get lost among the thousand and one elements that the film tries to juggle.

Worse still, Kong himself may be an exceptional creation that not only dwarfs all previous Kongs in size (he's something like four taller than Jackson's King Kong) but also as an artistic and technological achievement (think the latest Planet of the Apes movies but ballooned one-thousand fold), and yet he often feels like a guest star in his own movie.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Logan

Pretty much everyone else has had their say on this so, despite not disagreeing at all with the general consensus, here's my own undoubtedly quite disorganized take on the X-Men movie none of us knew we wanted.


After the all around terrible X-Men Origins: Wolverine and the thoroughly-lacking-in-its-own-convictions the Wolverine, Logan gives us a Wolverine movie that does the character justice - and then some.

Drawing more from existential westerns like Shane (which actually appears on screen during the movie) and Unforgiven than from the typical superhero narratives we have mostly seen on screen, Logan is a tough, brutal and moody meditation on a life of violence, shot through with an unconventional family drama and healthy helpings of action, humour and sci-fi weirdness.

The story itself is as simple as the title character needing to get a young mutant who is, for all intents and purposes, his daughter across country to the Canadian border where there is a hope of a new and better life for her and other young mutants like her, but entrenched in that stripped down narrative is complex characterization, a rich thematic canvas and, presciently, many a parallel to the United States' current political climate.

Keeping the basic road-trip structure, the western trappings and at least some of the larger themes of Mark Millar and Steve McNiven's Old Man Logan comic book miniseries, Logan still mostly feels like a film with its own very particular vision; one that is presumably much closer to what director James Mangold was able to achieve with the second Wolverine film; a big-budget Hollywood blockbuster that was clearly mired in compromise, especially in its idiotic third act that betrayed everything that came before.