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Sunday, May 29, 2011

New Movies Release Roundup 27 May 2011

With The Hangover Part II taking up most of the attention, the other films this week are smaller, more interesting fare. I haven't seen Animals United but I can't say I've heard the best things about it and I have no earthly idea what High Kick Girl is about. We are left with two quite different releases that are both far more worth your time than the lazy Hangover II. 

Like Dandelion Dust may be a thoroughly unassuming, even forgettable family drama but is a very affecting one. It might take a slightly complicated route to get there but what we have here is a story about a well-adjusted, comfortably well-off family whose lives are ripped apart when the troubled, biological parents of their adopted son try to nullify the adoption and reclaim their son. What ensues is a heated and bitter battle between the two couples with a young boy caught in the middle. The film is bolstered by some very fine performances from a cast whose biggest star is Mira Sorvino but its true coup de grace is how well measured the drama is. The film is genuinely heart-rending and emotionally involving without ever tipping over into trite melodrama or TV-movie-of-the-week sentimentality. It is let down somewhat by the fact that the film comes down pretty clearly on which of the two couples are in the right, despite the opportunity for greater moral ambiguity. The biological parents are well-drawn but they nonetheless come across as being incredibly self-centred, sparing barely a second thought for the family they are about to destroy. Still, it's a very fine, if flawed effort. (7/10)

Hanna, on the other hand, is less about quiet, human emotion and more about a teenage girl kicking ass and taking names. Picking up where Buffy and Hit Girl left off, Hanna is a young girl who spent her formative years in an arctic forest being trained by her father to become a lethal assassin with a simple mission: to kill the woman who killed her mother. More than anything though, Hanna is the film that allows director Joe Wright, whose previous films include stately Brit-dramas like Pride and Prejudice and Atonement to cut loose with a full-on genre film. There is certainly intelligence to the script and Hanna's simple mission is filled with plenty of twists and turns as well as some solid emotion and self-discovery but, more than anything else, Hanna is a propulsive, engrossing action-thriller by a director whose time on the art circuit has only served to cultivate his ability to stage action set pieces and chase scenes with a kinetic, visual flair that most full-time action directors would kill for. Add to that some well-placed humour, a throbbing sountrack by the Chemical Brothers, colourful baddies and an absolutely electrifying performance from Saoirse Ronan in the title role and you have a top-notch genre film that happens to have made it onto the Cinema Nouveau art circuits here in South Africa. It has some problems - not least of which are the very suspect accents employed by certain actors in the film - and you may be disappointed if you expect it to hew closer to Wright's other films but Hanna is not only the best film of the week but it is head and shoulders above most of what's clogging up cinemas right now. (9/10)

Best film of the week: Hanna. Which is, incidentally, quite a bit better the second time round. Seriously, my original score for the film was going to be a much more modest 7/10 but, after appreciating it more after watching it again, I simply had to knock it up a couple of points.

Worst film of the week: There are a couple of films I haven't seen but I doubt anything is going to beat The Hangover Part II for sheer creative laziness. 

Friday, May 27, 2011

The Hangover Part II

The biggie this week: The return of the "Wolfpack" in a new adventure that's almost exactly the same as the first one. Needless to say, though, it's far from the best film of the week.

From Artslink (Originally posted 27 May 2011)

If the first Hangover film was – and bear with me for a moment here – a steaming hot pizza straight out of the oven, then its follow up is that same pizza warmed up the next day. It's edible enough but it kind of makes you forget what was so great about it in the first place.

If you think this culinary metaphor is pushing it a bit then you clearly haven't seen The Hangover Part II. The Hangover Redux more like it. It's not a particularly terrible film or anything but it is so unnervingly similar to the original (and, it has to be said, to the various R-rated men-behaving-badly comedies that have come out since) that it can't help but feel tired, worn out and, frankly, really rather unnecessary.

Yes, the setting is different and, yes, the bad taste comedy is in even worse taste - though not any funnier for it – but the story, character beats and, most damningly, many of the jokes are all much the same as before. Director, Todd Philips, even shoehorns in an entirely befuddling Mike Tyson cameo, seemingly just to drive home once again just how unwilling he is to deviate from that winning formula.

The plot involves – and stop me if this seems familiar – a bunch of friends getting together on the eve of the wedding of one of their members and waking up the next morning to find that they can't remember the events of the night before and that one of them have gone missing. Sure, there are a few differences – it takes place in Thailand rather than Las Vegas, it's a different member of the so-called wolf-pack getting married and the person who goes missing is the groom's brother in law rather than the groom himself, but the two Hangover films really are this similar.

So why, you might rightly ask, bother? Honestly, you might as well not. It's perfectly enjoyable and some of the gags are still amusing enough but it's hard to justify spending R50 on a film that you've essentially already seen. Especially one that demonstrably doesn't hold up to repeat viewings.

More than just once again proving just how creatively bankrupt Hollywood so often is, Hangover II goes some way towards cementing the idea that the best American comedy out there right now is not in our cinemas but on our TVs. Since the release of The Hangover, three of its stars have gone on to star or co-star in some really great TV comedies. As I sat there watching these actors doing their now-tired schtick, it became harder and harder to shake off the feeling that not only are Zach Galifianakis (Bored to Death), Ken Jeong (Community) and Ed Helms (The Office) infinitely better in their respective TV roles, the shows they appear in make The Hangover Part II look like the warmed-up tosh it so obviously is.

If you're really in the mood for a night out at the cinema with some decent laughs and familiar faces then, yes, by all means give The Hangover Part II a shot, but otherwise you may as well just whip out the original Hangover on DVD. Or, much better yet, line up a row of Community or The Office episodes and see what great American comedy truly looks like.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

New Movies Release Roundup 20 May 2011

There are a couple of movies out this week that don't have any pirates in them whatsoever. I wouldn't get too excited, though, because neither are all that great and one makes Pirates 4 look like a masterpiece.

 Nicolas Cage has been on something of a comeback trail of late. He was hilariously crazed in Werner Herzog's remake of The Bad Lieutenant and in the best bad movie of the year so far, Drive Angry 3D. He was even decent in the enjoyable family fantasy film, The Sorcerer's Apprentice. Sadly that all comes to an very sudden end with Season of the Witch. Here we have another historical fantasy film that takes itself way too seriously, despite being really rather daft. It's a film that could have been an interesting examination of the evils that the Crusades both confronted and, more often, created for their own nefarious ends but is too silly and low-brow for that. On the other hand, it works even less as a fantasy/ adventure/ horror, because, despite a solidly grim moment or two, it's mostly too dull and po-faced to work on that level. As for Mr Cage, he is usually at his best when he's way over the top so he is let down tremendously by his straight hero role  here. (2/10)

Lila Lila or, as it is known here, My Words, My Lies, My Love is that most odd of concoctions: a German romantic comedy. It's a simple screwball premise of an ordinary schlub passing off the brilliant manuscript of an author he assumes to be long dead as his own work - all to impress a very literary-minded girl. A plan that seems to work brilliantly, until the original author turns up to be very much alive and very much wanting to cash in on the young man's success with his now critically acclaimed, best-selling novel. It's a fine premise and it is handled rather well by a very good cast. The problem is that the Germans are not exactly known for their sense of humour and, for all that it gets right, My Words, My Lies, My Love is tonally all over the place. The premise might seem funny on paper but it doesn't even raise so much as a single titter when played out on screen. The result of which is a film that occasionally works as a drama but is constantly undermined by the fact that it is so clearly wanting to be - and was so obviously built to be - a broad comedy. Not a bad film, just one that was never at ease with what it was (6/10)

This weekend in summary then:

Best Film: My Words, My Lies, My Love. It's a mess but it looks much more impressive when stacked up against the rest of the week's offerings.

Worst Film: Seasons of the Witch. Great Donovan song, godawful flick.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides

There are a couple of other films being released this week but, lets be honest, this is the biggie. Is it any good though? Well, that's something else entirely...

From Channel24 (Originally posted 19 May 2011)

What it's about:
Captain Jack Sparrow is back for another adventure; this time he finds himself embroiled in a race to find the fabled Fountain of Youth.

What we thought:

If you're wondering whether to bother with this, the latest instalment in the unstoppable Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, for some of you, it's actually pretty simple. If you liked the previous three films, you will almost definitely like this one. If you hated the last three, there is nothing here to change your mind. If you are like me, however, and enjoyed the first Pirates of the Caribbean film but thought that its two follow-ups rather overstepped their mark, things are slightly more complicated.

If nothing else, Pirates 4 is better than its two immediate predecessors simply by the virtue of it being a standalone adventure and, as such, is effectively half as long. It also has a story arc that does not require a mind map, a compass and a copy of The Beginners' Guide to Quantum Physics to understand. It also doesn't have the joy-sucking presences of Keira Knightley (who, since leaving this franchise behind her, has actually proven herself to be a very fine actress) and Orlando Bloom and is bolstered by three great performances. Geoffrey Rush is his typically wonderful self, while new addition, Penelope Cruz, throws herself into the role with gusto adding some much needed sex appeal along the way. And, of course, we have Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow but is significantly better here than he was in the previous two instalments – apparently a little bit of restraint actually does go a long way.

It is, in short, a snappier, funnier and grittier film than the two previous films, which may effectively have been called Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest At Worlds End. Chicago and Nine director Rob Marshall, who has picked up the reins from Gore Verbinski, the man responsible for helming the franchise 'til now, should certainly be commended for going some way towards fixing up the errors of his predecessor. Sadly, though, things are still very far from perfect.

Just because Pirates 4 is the shortest Pirates of the Caribbean film yet, doesn't change the fact that two and a quarter hours is still far too long for a silly pirate film based on a Disney theme-park ride. It may not be quite as unwieldy as that which came before but it is still a bloated mess with too many characters, too many sub-plots and, incredibly, too many action scenes.

Ian McShane, for example, might be an acclaimed actor but his Blackbeard, the villain of the piece, is grossly underwritten and feels mostly extraneous. Also, somewhere around the start of the second hour, you might start to miss Bloom and Knightley because the romantic sub-plot that develops between a mermaid and a young priest makes the Bloom/ Knightley puke-fest look like the tear-drenched love-child of Casablanca and Romeo and Juliet. It's especially stupid because the film already has a much more interesting and engaging romance – or, at least, sexual tension – between Cruz and Depp's characters.

It also doesn't really work as an effective action adventure film. The search for the Fountain of Youth kept on reminding me of the search for the Holy Grail in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade but, needless to say, this film always landed up looking second best. The plot progresses exactly as you think it would with no real surprises to speak of: essentially moving from long periods of plot exposition straight into one of the film's many underwhelming action set-pieces. Rather than feeling like natural outgrowths of the story and conflicts between the characters, the action scenes come across as the director yielding to some ridiculous formula of unveiling a new, unspeakably long and uninspired swashbuckle sequence every ten minutes. These are action scenes that are woefully lacking in any sense of peril, excitement or invention – simply coming across as tired and half-hearted.
It also certainly doesn't help that the film is so darkly shot. I simply fail to understand the thought process that decided that what a supposedly jolly pirate romp needed was a monochromatic colour palette and a aura of grey gloominess that makes even the supposedly glorious Fountain of Youth look positively muddy. And that's before the totally unnecessary 3D dulls and darkens everything even further.     

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides isn't going to sway fans or haters of the series but, for all that this fourth instalment gets right, the franchise has a long way to go before convincing the rest of us that it ever needed to go beyond its opening act.

Monday, May 16, 2011

New Movies Release Roundup for 13 May 2011

Yup, there are still two movies to talk about that I haven't reviewed for Artslink or Channel24. Shock and horror, neither of them are the best of the week!

 Beastly is a very easy to pick on and, to be sure, it mostly deserves it. It's a totally pointless attempt to"update" the story of Beauty and the Beast for modern tweenage audiences and the results are pretty much what you would expect. Alex Pettyfer is rubbish once again in the lead role and its only really in comparison to him that Vanessa Hudgens looks like a competent actor. It's also unbelievably corny; with a scene of the two leads reading poetry to one another as the seasons pass being the particular low mark. And ultimately when you have the classic Disney animated version from 1991 recently re-released on DVD, you do have to ask what the point is of such an inferior version. Here's the thing though, yes it's total rubbish but I do wonder if it will actually work for its intended audience of 12 year old girls. I have a sneaking suspicion that it actually will. It's very sweet natured, the main actors certainly look better than they act and the story is pretty indestructible. Plus it has a typically enjoyable supporting turn for Neil Patrick Harris so it can't be all bad. (4/10) 

 Constant comparisons have been made between Your Highness and The Princess Bride and Monty Python and The Holy Grail. This is patently unfair. Those are two stone cold classics that remain to this day at the top of the heap of the fantasy/comedy/adventure genre and expecting this to be anywhere as good is to do nothing but to set Your Highness up for failure. Unfortunately, that doesn't stop Your Highness from still totally sucking on its own terms.

The basic idea of tackling the very straightforward sword and sorcery genre with a stoner/ gross-out-comedy aesthetic was a good one and it certainly had great acting talent on its side, with the likes of James Franco, Toby Jones, Zooey Deschanel and Natalie Portman (yup, her again - this is indeed the fifth film she's appeared in this year) making for one impressive supporting cast. The problem is, though, that it simply isn't funny enough.

It's not as bad as some people say, in that it's basically an enjoyable enough romp and I am more than willing to watch Natalie Portman in anything but almost all of its humour falls embarrassingly flat. Danny McBride is apparently very good in the TV show, Eastbound and Down but I have never been impressed by him in any of his cinematic roles. He was by far the weakest link in the otherwise hilarious Tropic Thunder and I have trouble remembering him in anything else. And believe me, this ain't gonna change that. As both co-writer and lead actor, he constantly had me groaning where I should have been laughing and sighing when I should have been smiling.

Profanity, drug references and crude sexuality are all well and good but if you don't have some good gags underlying them, they just come across as pointlessly and crudely juvenile. And until McBride takes heed of this, whatever comic confectionery he comes up with next will be similarly stale. (3/10)    

In Summation: 

Best film of the week: The Way Back. And easily at that. But Winnie The Pooh is good too for the young 'uns.
Worst film of the week: So much to choose from but it has to be Priest for being an unbearable piece of shit on every possible level.

Anyway, that's it for this week's cinema releases. Coming this Friday: Pirates! Lots and lots of pirates! 

Master Harold And The Boys

The last of my channel24 reviews for the week. A small movie, with a small appeal and a small review.

From Channel24 (Originally posted 13 May 2011)

What it's about:

Based on the acclaimed semi-autobiographical play by Athol Fugard and set in Apartheid South Africa, Master Harold and the Boys tells the story of young Hally (Freddie Highmore), a white adolescent who is stuck between his troubled, racist father and the black waiter who has always taken care of him.

What we thought:

Master Harold and the Boys may be many things but it ain't much of a film. It has a very bare bones plot but as a well thought out character study and a look at the racial politics of the period, it certainly does the job. Or, at least, it would do if experienced, I'm sure, as a play or when read. Put it up on screen, however, and it lands with a deafening thud.

Rather than suffering from what so many stage adaptations do of being too theatrical and overblown (see this week's excruciating For Colored Girls), Master Harold is so quiet, so intimate that it fails utterly to engage.

Having all the action take part in a single room is not necessarily a death sentence for a film. After all, The Breakfast Club, one of the most beloved teen dramas of the 80s was mostly confined to a bunch of students having detention together in a single class room. In this case, however, it very much was.

The actors try their best (Freddie Highmore's Afrikaans South African accent is especially good) and it's perfectly well written but after about half an hour it's hard not to find yourself wishing for a nuclear explosion or a Ninja invasion just to liven things up a little.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

For Colored Girls

Here's a review that I wrote for Artslink. I have, incidentally, learned subsequent to writing this review that the play on which it is based actually came out in the 70s so it's obviously not technically a followup - spiritual or otherwise - to Angels in America. I still think the comparison stands, though. And I still think For Colored Girls sucks. 

From Artslink (Originally posted 13 May 2011)  

A few years ago, HBO released a rather excellent TV miniseries called Angels In America that, though far from perfect, absolutely deserved all the praise and high profile awards that it received. What we have here in For Colored Girls – or to call it by its ridiculous full title: For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When The Rainbow Is Enuf – is a spiritual sequel to Angels In America.

The two simply have far too much in common to consider it anything else. Both are based on successful stage plays; both take a look at a specific issue and how it affects a specific community of people; both are clearly melodramatic; both use hyper-normal storytelling aspects to explore their issues and both deal with a huge cast of various personalities whose lives invariably intersect. They even have very similarly theatrical endings of having the main characters directly addressing the audience. Aside for specific details, the only really big difference between the two is that while Angels In America was very, very good despite its flaws, For Colored Girls is awful despite its noble intentions.

Angels In America was a powerful exploration of the rise of aids in the gay community in the early 1990s and made full use of both its truly magnificent cast of actors (Seriously: Meryl Streep, Al Pacino, Emma Thompson, Mary Louise Parker, Justin Kirk, Jeffrey Wright, James Cromwell, Patrick Wilson – could it get any better?) and its ambitious use of religious imagery and themes. It also managed to keep proceedings intimate as it fully developed each of its many characters – some of which were played by the same actors – even as its ambitions took it from the Burroughs of New York City to Heaven itself. It wasn't all great – it was at times too ambitious and it did at times have trouble escaping its theatrical roots but, quite unlike For Colored Girls, it hit far, far more often than it missed.

And thus to the matter at hand. I certainly admire Tyler Perry for attempting a project that is as challenging as Ntozake Shange's play and it feels churlish to criticize a film that is this well-intentioned. And yet, here we are. It does have a few things very much in its favour beyond having its heart in the right place. The cast, a veritable Who's Who of Hollywood's African-American (or “Black-American” or whatever the latest politically correct term actually is) actresses is variable but there are some stand-out performances to be found. Perry is also able to juggle the various storylines with a certain amount of aplomb. The problem is that all the film's strengths get lost in the portentous, humourless, ill-judged, sometimes over-acted muck.

Like Angels In America, For Colored Girls is a melodrama with a gimmick at its centre. What set Angels In America apart though was that it understood how melodramatic it was and, as such, was sure to inject some very welcome and often very black humour into the mix. And its “gimmick” of adding angels, heavenly visits and ghostly visions allowed even its most bombastic, pretentious and pompous moments to be leavened by the context in which they were set.

Sadly, none of this is true of For Colored Girls. It simply plays its melodrama far too straight. Not only is it entirely devoid of humour, its increasingly hysterical progression of tragic moments and violent conflicts is hard to stomach and comes across as faintly ridiculous. Worse, the great “gimmick” that is at the centre of the action is that at various points in the film each of the lead characters break out into these unbearably long and portentous poems that are obviously supposed to serve as monologues that sum up what the character has gone through but instead had me desperately wishing I had something hard and heavy on hand to hurl at the screen and put me and the film out of our collective miseries. Give me Emma Thompson as a screamingly mad angel and Jeffrey Wright as a scene-stealing flamboyant drag queen over earnestly boring poetry recitals any day of the week.

Then, of course, there is the “colored” part of the title, which is, I believe, supposed to refer both to the different personalities of the women and to their race but the former was too vague for its own good, while the whole race things seemed irrelevant. This is a film about women and the abuse they suffer at the hands of their men, themselves and the world at large and I was genuinely taken aback when the one woman's (groan) monologue centred around the fact that she was a black woman. It just seemed so ancillary to the point of the rest of the film.

So, yes, it’s easy to appreciate and admire what For Colored Girls was trying to achieve but there really is no getting past it: it's a heavy-handed, manipulative, humourless, self-indulgent mess that was already done better – in every single way – by a 2003 HBO miniseries. That that HBO miniseries felt shorter with its 6-hour long running time really kind of says it all.