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Monday, December 31, 2012

The Best (and Worst) Movies of 2012 Awards: Part 1 - The Bad

I still have a few reviews to get to, but first, a look back at 2012 in film. I have decided to take a slightly different approach to last year and will be looking at some of the year's best and most noteworthy films through an awards format - albeit one that suits my needs, rather than the other way around. 

As always, the only films that qualify are those released to South African cinemas in 2012 so, sorry my trans-Atlantic readers, no Lincoln, Argo or The Perks of Being a Wallflower here.

For a list of all films released in SA in 2012, check out this link.

On with the show with 2012's worst films...

Sunday, December 30, 2012

The Master

I sense another Tree of Life review coming up...

The Master is, on a purely technical level, a masterpiece. It's a sharply dialogued, well crafted tale about the twisted co-dependent relationship between a cult leader (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) and one of his most fanatical disciples (Joaquin Phoenix) that features at least two truly exceptional performances, an unforgettable soundtrack courtesy of Radiohead's Johnny Greenwood and the kind of cinematography where each and every frame could easily be featured in an art gallery.

That doesn't mean I liked it, though.

Mind you, that's hardly surprising considering that it's written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, a filmmaker who puts the "challenging" in challenging filmmaking. You know you're dealing with someone who isn't afraid to alienate his audience when a biting look at life in the porn industry is by far his most accessible work. Even within critical circles, his films are often extremely divisive; being revered as modern day masterworks by some, anti-narrative exercises in self-indulgence by others.

Personally, I've always been very ambivalent about Anderson. His films are, without fail, triumphs on a technical level, but they often feel self-important (Magnolia), even obnoxious (Punch Drunk Love) and they seldom boast the most involving of narratives. At their best though, they do invoke a certain visceral reaction - none more so than There Will Be Blood where its potentially uninvolving and frustrating storytelling is negated by the indelible impression of its overall tone and resonance.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Life of Pi

So this is a very big week for films with a number of major and/ or worthwhile releases coming out. Lets starts then, with the biggest and best of them...

Like most seemingly unfilmable novels, Yann Martel's excellent, if occasionally slightly tedious, Life of Pi is heavy on theme and character and heavier still on subtext. Yes, the basic plot of a young boy surviving for weeks on a small lifeboat with only a vicious tiger for company is hardly uncinematic, but as anyone who has read the novel can tell you, Life of Pi isn't really about the plot at all.

It is above all else a story steeped in symbolism and largely plays out as a fairly brilliant metaphor for humanity's need for storytelling and for religious/ spiritual belief, as well as the way the two are interdependent on one another. It's also a novel steeped in ambiguity and while you can argue for days whether it's ultimately pro- or anti-religion or -  no, that would be telling (insert final revelation of the book here), it's a novel that is much more interested in the questions that its ambiguity raises than in any definite answers.

Even with the rather generous 127 minutes afforded it, how could any film possibly capture so thematically and sub-textually rich a text, while still doing justice to the surface plot that in and of itself might need some sprucing up to truly work as a solid adventure film?

Well, here's the truly spectacular thing about Ang Lee's movie adaptation: not only does it absolutely do justice to the novel, it improves on it in many ways. Lee maintains all of the novel's symbolic and thematic richness and at the same time vastly improves on the surface story by making full use of all the advantages film offers as a medium.  Ang Lee has had a fairly spotty career to date, with triumphs like Brokeback Mountain and Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon being slightly undermined by disappointing (if well intentioned) fare like The Hulk and Taking Woodstock, but Life of Pi is a powerful reminder of just how good he is when firing on all cylinders.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012


Ignore the hogwash about Looper being this decade's Matrix... everyone knows it's this decade's Terminator (minus the robots and the Arnie and in reverse, but otherwise...)!

Taking its cue from Austin Powers, there's a scene in the middle of Looper where the central character tells his younger self that "I'm not going to talk about time travel because if we start talking about it, we're going be here all day talking about it, making diagrams with straws," which serves as both one of the film's few truly funny moments and as a smart warning to its audience. Like all time travel movies - especially the great ones, oddly enough - it's better to simply go along with the story the film is trying to tell than to do your head in trying to work out the intricacies of its take on traversing the limits of space and time.

And actually, to be fair, Looper's internal logic might not make a lick of sense, but it is at least consistently nonsensical. It makes no sense that changes made in the present should affect the future in "real-time" or that it ignores the "butterfly effect", though only up to a point, but the film remains true to its own non-logic to the bitter end. More importantly, massive lapses in logic or no, the film's success has less to do with how it implements this very familiar sci-fi trick, so much as in how it uses it to tell a truly engaging story. 

Interestingly, Looper is actually a film very much of two halves. The first half of the film introduces us to the idea of "Loopers", a group of criminals who earn their pay by murdering people who are sent back to their time period from 30 years in the future, just after the advent of time travel. It's introduced as a fairly efficient way for criminal organizations in the future to get rid of the bodies of those they want murdered, but the true drive of the first half of the film comes from Loopers in the present murdering their future selves - a process that is smartly called "closing the Loop."

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Pitch Perfect

This film couldn't possibly be as bad as its awful tagline, can it? "Get pitch slapped?" Yeesh!

Pitch Perfect is the kind of genre film that adamantly refuses to stray so much as an inch from its well worn formula - and, you know what, it's all the better for it. 

Here we have a musical comedy about Beca, an "alternative", goth-type freshman who, through some typically silly machinations, begrudgingly joins an all-girl acapella group who are in desperate need of a new sound and a new attitude. Absolutely no points to anyone who can guess what happens next. 

Pitch Perfect is predictable and formulaic to the point that it feels like an old song for which you already know all the words, but like the best old standards, its familiarity is comforting, rather than irritating. It's a film that knows what it is and knows that its audience knows what it is and takes it from there.   

It is, admittedly, a film that would work better for fans of the kind of overly-smooth, potentially auto-tuned (I still can't get a definite answer on that) acapella whose pop sensibility stretches back no further than a decade. The acapella singing and the intricate choreography are undoubtedly very well done, but I couldn't help but wish they had been applied to more worthwhile songs. Give a listen to Petra Haden's ingenious one-woman, all acapella version of The Who's classic 1967 album, The Who Sell Out, to see how well this sort of thing can be applied to something that isn't the most boring and banal of pop songs. 

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

A Separation

Quickly going back to last week's releases, here is something for you art cinema fans to check out: the winner of this year's Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film.

Considering how draconian Iranian censorship is, it's a true pleasure and something of a very pleasant surprise to see a film from that country as artistically uncompromised as Asghar Farhadi's A Separation clearly is. Brilliantly circumventing the Iranian authorities and creating a truly universal humanist tale in the process, Farhadi's humble morality play - a deserving winner at the 2012 Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language Film and a smash critical hit - keeps its head in the game by being staunchly apolitical, concentrating instead on its characters and the way they react to an increasingly morally dubious situation.

Most of the publicity for the film focuses on the dilemma that the film's central couple faces: to leave Iran and provide a better life for their young son or to stay and take care of his Alzheimer-ridden father, but this is barely a launching pad for the far more complex situation that unfolds as a result of their inability to find a compromise to their difficult situation.

A Separation is hardly a plot-driven film, but since the film's publicity has shied away from the intricacies of the couple's situation and the moral mess in which they find themselves, I will leave that for you to find out for yourselves, but for so small a film, it certainly doesn't back away from exploring some fairly weighty issues - not least of which, the multi-faceted nature of the seemingly simple idea of personal responsibility.

This is a film that will make you think, providing no easy answers and offering no pat solutions. Most importantly, the film's intellectual ambitions are easily matched by a strong emotional core and complex, all too human characters. None of the characters in the film are entirely likable, but they are all sympathetic: their motivations and personalities are so expertly drawn that, by film's end, they are all equally deserving of your scorn and your understanding.

The film also boasts some very strong performances, a tight script and thriller-like pacing, but its greatest triumph is just how involving it is on both intellectual and emotional levels. It's a quiet film with an unassuming title that nonetheless has entirely earned the heaps of positive attention it has received (along with winning an Oscar, A Separation is also the best reviewed film of 2011, scoring a damn-near perfect score of 95/100 on Metacritic) and is a must see for anyone with even a passing interest in intelligent, compassionate cinema.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

It's the Hobbit. What more needs to be said?

As a special bonus for readers of this blog though, I have also included a review of the new technology that has been used in the filming and, in some cinemas, projecting of The Hobbit that - spoiler warning - has me longing for the days when crappy 3D was the worst of my problem. 

For my tech-free review of the film, check out Channel 24.  

What it's about

Set sixty years before the events of The Fellowship of the Ring, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey tells the story of Bilbo Baggins' first encounter with Gandalf The Grey as the two join forces with a group of dwarves to reclaim the dwarves' home from the dragon Smaug.

What we thought

Before diving into the film itself, there is a certain technical detail associated with, and adding to the hype of, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey that has to be dealt with first. Admittedly, most screens in South Africa are not equipped for this “radical technological revolution” but, considering that it represents what may well be the start of a new trend for cinema, it desperately needs addressing.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is the first feature film to ever be shot and projected at 48 frames per second, which is double the industry standard of 24 frames per second. This might sound like the sort of thing that only hardcore film geeks would care about, but it vastly changes the way the film looks. According to the hype, this “revolutionary” way of filming and projecting a film vastly increases the quality of the picture, while apparently solving the “clipping” problem that comes with rapid motion in 3D films.

And, to be fair, the picture is a bit clearer – too bad it comes at such a high price. The reason I need to spend so long on this subject before getting onto the film itself is because, regardless of what I think of this return to Middle Earth itself, seeing The Hobbit in 48 frames per second was one of the most unpleasant viewing experiences I have ever had in a cinema.

It wasn't enough that I was stuck having to wear those stupid glasses for nearly three hours for some of the most pointless and barely used 3D I've had to endure this year, the thoroughly unnatural, super-fast frame rate ensured that my irritation quickly ballooned into a full-blown headache. I literally had to leave the cinema for a few minutes just to clear my head. Not only do many of the scenes, particularly ones that focus on only one or two characters, play out like they're moving in 1.5 time, the increased frame rate gives the whole film a look of artificiality and makes it look far less proficiently made than it actually is.

With that out of the way then, onto the film itself.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Rise of the Guardians

Tis the season... Or is it?

Also up at Channel 24

What it's about

Santa Clause, The Sandman, The Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy enlist the aid of Jack Frost to stop The Boogie Man from taking over children's dreams.

What we thought

Despite its beloved – and not so beloved - children's characters, Rise of the Guardians is basically an animated superhero film; a League of Extraordinary Fables, if you will.

The Santa Clause in this film isn't just an old man giving out presents, but is an old Cossack with a pair of Katanas and a kick ass attitude and there's nothing cuddly about this Australian-accented and boomerang-wielding Easter Bunny. Sandman and Tooth Fairy are less radically changed, but they have super powers anyway so it wasn't that much of a leap to turn them into full on super heroes, while Jack Frost is an outsider with icy superpowers and a hero's journey that desperately needs to be fulfilled. And there's nothing at all about the Boogie Man that isn't straight up, cackling supervillainy at its most comic-book-inspired.

Despite the presence of old Saint Nick, we are clearly dealing with a film that is more about cashing in on the recent superhero craze than in having anything at all to do with the Yuletide season of its release – indeed, most of the action takes place during Easter. The problem is, though, that it's one thing for Rise of the Guardians to position itself as a Christmas movie in a year when the seasonal offerings look even worse than usual, but it's quite another for it to ostensibly go head to head with such superior superhero fare as The Dark Knight Rises and, more crucially, The Avengers.

November roundup

Fell behind again so here's some quickie reviews of a bunch of films that came out over the last month.

The Odd Life of Timothy Green. A bit of an oddity, this. It's effectively a simple fairy tale about a couple who suddenly find themselves the parents of a young boy after burying all their wishes for a child in a box in their backyard, but it's one without much point or, more damningly, much magic. It has a nice performance from Jennifer Garner and it's a sweet enough tale but it's not one that will leave much of an impression. (5/10)

The Possession. Effectively a Jewish version of The Exorcist in that the demon in question, the dibbuk, comes straight out of Jewish lore and it features a supporting turn from Hassidic reggae-hip-hopper Matisyahu. As a Jewish guy who spent his teenage years in the 90s as an avid X-Files fan, I've long been intrigued by the supernatural forces presented in Judaism - even if I've never been convinced that they literally exist. With all this said though, The Possession in only a passable horror film that is far too close to the infinitely superior Exorcist to stand up as anything but a perfectly competent but cheap clone. (6/10)

Footnote. Speaking of Jewish-themed films that never fully explore their Jewishness, this Israeli film about a rivalry between father and son Talmudic scholars works well as a family drama with strong performances and an emotionally charged script, but lacks the individual flare that might have come about had it more fully exploited its rather unique context. (7/10)

Thursday, November 29, 2012


Is this the best Bond ever? Well....

With South Africa being seemingly one of the last places on earth to get Skyfall, we aren't just getting a film, as much as we're getting a Major Movie Event that has been hyped up, not only by a pretty damn aggressive  marketing campaign, but by some presumably hyperbolic praise by both critics and fans alike. The film may have a few lone dissenters - all of whom, incidentally, seem to really, really hate the film - but Skyfall has largely been met with a rather singular refrain, "The Best Bond Ever!"

At this point then, assuming that I don't join in with the hateful minority, the question is less whether it's a good Bond movie, but whether it truly is the absolute best of the best of this now 50 year-old franchise. To be entirely honest though, it's an impossible question to answer. The various eras of James Bond all had very different flavours: how do you really compare the grit of Casino Royale with the Voodoo-drenched lunacy of Live and Let Die or the archness of Goldfinger?

Whether or not Skyfall is the "best Bond" really does depend on what you're looking for from a Bond film. Skyfall certainly isn't the campiest, the most action-packed, the most well-traveled or the most fantastical film of the franchise and may well prove to be a disappointment to anyone looking for a Bond film steeped in those well-worn traditions. On a personal level too, as someone who does have a massive soft spot for the sillier aspects of the series, it would probably be a stretch to call Skyfall my all-time favourite Bond flick.

What I can say, though, is this: Skyfall is undoubtedly, on as objective a level as you can get when discussing any artform, the most accomplished and the most dramatic James Bond film to date.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn - Part 2

I wanted to say something nice about this, I really did...

By this point, you probably know what you think about the whole Twilight phenomenon. And chances are you fall on one of three extremes. You either think a) Twilight is the best thing evah! b) Twilight is the the worst thing evah! or, after emerging from the cave you've been hiding out in for the past decade, c) What the hell is Twilight? There really doesn't seem to be much room for a considered middle ground on the matter.

And yet, here I am, doing my best to maintain at least the illusion of level-headedness. To be honest though, this final installment has me holding on for dear life as waves of sheer, unbridled hatred threaten to engulf me. I've never even remotely liked any of the Twilight films, but I never really thought they deserved the foaming-at-the-mouth vitriol with which they seem to be received by most "serious" film fans. Sure, they're kind of rubbish, but they clearly have enough going for them that they do work, and work well, for certain audiences. Besides, they're at least usually quite nicely shot and are put together with enough efficiency that they're never that much of a chore to sit through.

This, however, all changed with Breaking Dawn: Part 2. Not that this final installment is objectively all that much worse than its predecessors or that it's genuinely that terrible, it's just that it's about as big a failure a conclusion as it could possibly hope to be. It's the sort of inept ending that not only doesn't work as a satisfying conclusion, but is one that will leave you wondering what on earth the whole bloody enterprise was about in the first place.

Monday, November 12, 2012

What does sex have to do with it: Hope Springs vs Hysteria

Here we have two sex comedies that couldn't be less typical of this occasionally funny yet largely embarrassing sub-genre. Hope Springs came out a couple of weeks ago, but it makes sense to review it along with this week's Hysteria as a single piece. On with the show then...

When one thinks of sex comedies, presumably the last place your mind would go would be to either a film about an (older) middle-aged couple trying to reintroduce some sparks into their marriage or a film about the invention of the vibrator in 19th century England. And yet, here we have two films that are keen to make their mark on a genre that is known for having its fair share of gratuitous nudity, highly sexualised profanity and typically young, attractive people doing all sorts of unspeakable things to one another, by not including any of the above.

The former is Hope Springs, a low-key comedy drama that stars Tommy Lee Jones and Meryl Streep as a middle aged couple who go, at her insistence and his constant protests, to a couple's therapist (played entirely straight, but very sympathetically by Steve Carell) to try and inject some life back into a marriage that has the two barely communicating and just about never sleeping in the same bed together. The key to Carell's character's therapy lies in forced physical intimacy between the two - from simply holding one another; all the way to going all the way - which results in plenty of discomfort for the couple, but so much more for the viewers who are constantly torn between embarrassment at viewing so private a relationship and laughing at the way it all plays out.   

It's an intimate film that never hurries its pace and isn't afraid to fall into some unabashed sentiment when the situation calls for it and is even less afraid to make its audience feel as uncomfortable as it is possible to be without the screen presence of Ricky Gervais. Squirms and laughs are offered in abundance, but it has, at its core, a very warm heart that ensures that you'll be crushed at the very thought that this couple might not make it through the film intact.

With its brilliantly witty script and truly sensational performances - Carell is as humane and likable as ever; Streep reigns it in for one of her best, most vulnerable low-key performances in a while and Jones simply offers what may well be the best physical performance of the year so far - Hope Springs is a very good little film that offers plenty of heart - and nausea - with its sex. Just don't go see it with your parents - or for that matter, your kids.

Friday, November 9, 2012


And the award for this year's best animated film (so far) goes to...

Also at Channel 24 

What it's about

Everyone knows that Norman Babcock is a bit of a weirdo. Instead of having any friends his own age, he spends his time imagining that he can see and talk to the ghosts. But Norman is no weirdo: he really can see ghosts and its not long before Norman has to use his very unique gifts to save his town from a very old and very malevolent witchy threat.

What we thought

This spring apparently really is the season of the witch as we've had our cinemas invaded by no less than three ghoulish animated films for kids, one right after the other. First we had the rather weak Hotel Transylvania that was noteworthy only for some nice animation and for the fact that it was still a thousand times better than anything Adam Sandler has done in more years than any of us would dare admit.

Much better was Frankenweenie, Tim Burton's stop-motion ode to classic monster flicks that may not have dominated Hotel Transylvania at the box office, but certainly should have. It was ultimately somewhat unsatisfying in terms of its storytelling and is far from Burton's best, but it had imagination, wit and intelligence to spare.

Completing the triumvirate and blowing the other two films out of the water, though, comes ParaNorman, which is not only the best animated film of the year so far, but may well be the best monster-themed animated flick to come along since the criminally underrated Monster House. Most tellingly, not only does ParaNorman take on Tim Burton at his own game, but it beats him at every single turn.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

The Campaign

It must be election time...

Being timely isn't the same as being funny as far as political parody goes, but it's still surprising how flaccid The Campaign turned out to be.

It's true Zach Galifianakis and Will Ferrell are both decidedly variable comedic talents, but they have both been very funny in the past and, considering the nature of the material at hand, there was no real reason for them not to be funny here. Further, director Jay Roach is as comfortable with scathing political criticism (Game Change, Recount) as he is with broad comedy (Meet the Parents, Austin Powers) but, on the evidence of this, he clearly needs a screenwriter like Danny Strong to bring the best out of him. They may have TV's Eastbound and Down and The Other Guys to their names but it's pretty clear that good political satire is beyond the reach of screenwriters Chris Henchy and Shawn Harwell.

It's not that The Campaign is a truly torturous watch or that it is entirely lacking in chuckles, it's just that a single episode of The Daily Show with John Stewart or The Colbert Report has more, better, smarter and edgier laughs in their twenty minutes than The Campaign has in all of its ninety-minute run time. The writers of these shows are also able to achieve this four nights a week, almost every week of the year.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Cloud Atlas

Cloud. Atlas. Even its title is epic.

Also up at Channel 24 in slightly abbreviated form.

What it's about

From a 19th century voyage across the Pacific to a fight for survival in the post-apocalyptic earth of the future, the six stories that are inter-cut throughout Cloud Atlas are connected by a recurrent musical theme and a sense that there may be more to human existence than that which exists between the womb and the grave.

What we thought

Whatever you might say about the film, you can't help but admire the sheer chutzpah involved in trying to bring so ambitious and so audacious a project as Cloud Atlas to mainstream multiplexes. Even at its most simplistic, Cloud Atlas is a film that, through six divergent stories of entirely different genres, tries its hand at tying these divergent threads together to create a thematic whole that deals with the karma, the cyclical nature of human existence and redemption through the reincarnation (be it literal of figurative) of the human soul. And yet, for all of this, it still plays out as a late entry into this year's summer blockbuster season.

Terence Malick's Tree of Life and Darren Aronofsky's The Fountain may have tackled similar themes, but those film were aimed squarely at art-house cinemas and film festivals. Cloud Atlas is no less ambitious and, it has to be said, no less ponderous, portentous and pretentious than those films, nor was its financing any less reliant on “independent” sources, but by keeping its eyes firmly planted on crowd-pleasing entertainment, it has ended up a far more accessible and far more enjoyable experience than either of those immensely challenging films could ever hope to be.

If nothing else then, Cloud Atlas is entirely worth the price of admission just to witness this fairly breathtaking balancing act of “highbrow” philosophical musings with “base” populist entertainment. Co-writers/ directors, The Wachowskis have tried this trick before with their popular Matrix series, but, even if Cloud Atlas isn't as good a film as the original Matrix – though, needless to say, it's incalculably superior to the disastrous Matrix sequels – it's certainly more balanced over all.


Before you flame me for being too harsh about this film, I strongly suggest checking out Paranorman, which comes out next week and did a very similar thing, far better. I just happened to see both on the same day and Frankenweenie was done no favours by being screened second.

Also up at Channel 24.

What it's about

When young Victor Frankenstein's dog, Snowy, dies, he uses what he learned in science class to bring the dog back to life. But how will the close-minded members of his small town react to this flagrant defiance of the laws of nature? Worse, what happens when his less pure-hearted classmates try and use the results for their own selfish reasons?

What we thought

Based on his own short film from the early '80s, Frankenweenie is clearly a film near and dear to the heart of its creator, Tim Burton, and, if nothing else, it certainly comes across as a more personal work than the remake-heavy trajectory of his last few films. That doesn't necessarily mean that it's an entire return to the wonderful highs of Burton in his prime, but it is certainly a step in the right direction.

Mind you, it's hardly fair to say that Frankenweenie is an entirely original idea, as it is basically a riff on Mary Shelly's Frankenstein, but it plays out less as a remake – or “reimagining” as Burton sometimes likes to call his remakes – and more an homage to the monster story that started it all.

It also clearly owes a debt to many of Burton's own previous work as the spindly, gothic character designs are very much in line with those found in Corpse Bride and the Burton-produced Nightmare Before Christmas. In terms of both its monochromatic colour pallet and its affection for old black and white monster movies, it shares common DNA with Burton's best film, Ed Wood. As for its rather “weird” but basically good-hearted and likeable outcast heroes and its “normal” but fundamentally rotten in-crowd baddies, Frankenweenie is like every other film Burton has ever made.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Moonrise Kingdom

Another late review but I've been a bit busy for the last week with writing for which actually get paid. Also, I missed the press screening for this so I paid to see it last week. Not that I would ever complain about paying for a new Wes Anderson film, of course, but still...

Like every Wes Anderson film, Moonrise Kingdom will work brilliantly for Wes Anderson fans, but will probably leave everyone else wondering what the hell they just sat through. If you've seen the likes of Rushmore or the Royal Tenenbaums, you should know what you're in for and whether or not Anderson's very idiosyncratic form of storytelling works for you.

If you've never sampled anything from Anderson's oeuvre, though, then Moonrise Kingdom might actually not be a bad place to start - just prepare yourself for plenty of whimsy, deadpan comedy and wry drama, all filtered through a directorial style that is the very definition of ironic detachment. It may not be his best film, but it is very representative of his work and is probably his most consistent thing Anderson has done since The Royal Tenenbaums, a decade ago.

The plot of Moonrise Kingdom is the typical mix of screwy quirkiness and unassuming simplicity as a couple of outcast kids run away to start a new life together, away from their controlling guardians and bullying peers who cannot hope to understand them. What unfolds then is a strangely wonderful mix of magical realism; familial drama; adventure and one of the year's best and most unlikely romances - all told with increasingly strange, yet thoroughly endearing characters and plenty of that old Wes Anderson comic charm.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Piranha 3DD

Oh, I wish I liked this more...

Also at Channel 24

What it's about

After the calamitous events at Lake Victoria, the prehistoric piranhas set their sites on a new target: Big Wet, a water park that is set to open just in time to draw massive crowds for the start of spring break. It's up to the daughter of the greedy and corrupt owner of Big Wet to stop her father from opening the park and causing an even bigger massacre than the one that occurred the summer before.

What we thought

Thanks to Chrissie Hynde and The Pretenders, we already know that there's a thin line between love and hate, but who knew that the line awesome and awful would be thinner still. When I reviewed Piranha 3D a couple of years ago, I noted that it was about as good a piece of unapologetically exploitative trash as you could hope to find. It was the sort of the film that the badder it got, the better it was.

Here we are, less than two years later, and its sequel is already upon us. Once again its mixture of gore, boobs and self-aware silliness is just as unapologetic, just as trashy and just as exploitative as it was in the first film – if not significantly more so – and yet, Piranha 3DD fails miserably at capturing even a fraction of its predecessor's grotty charm.

It wasn't going to be easy to replicate the first film's surprisingly deft balance of sleaze and likeability, but it's still pretty shocking to consider how far and how quickly this franchise has fallen with just its sophomoric effort – especially since it sticks so closely to the formula of its predecessor.

Yes, as the title implies, its bigger and brasher than Piranha 3D, but Piranha 3DD seemingly redresses the balance by being even more aware of its own silliness and even more willing to poke fun at itself. And, to be fair, it might smack of opportunistic money-grabbing but, for all of its gleeful blood-letting and sexual objectification, it never feels truly mean-spirited or hateful.

The film isn't at all truly objectionable or obscene (even puritanical Middle America doesn't seem to have much to say on the matter), it's just total rubbish and more than a little dull. It comes across as less a full on sequel to Piranha 3D and more of a pale remake. Remakes are one thing but remakes of remakes? How could this not have ended badly?

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Paranormal Activity 4

This is the only film coming out this week that I've seen, but that certainly doesn't make it the film of the week. I definitely intend to see Moonrise Kingdom soon after it releases so look out for a review of that, but for now here is yet another rubbish Paranormal Activity film.

Also up at Channel 24 

What it's about

It's been five years since the disappearance of Katie and Hunter and the events of the first Paranormal Activity film, but similarly strange things start happening to another suburban family after they start getting involved in the lives of their neighbours: a single mother and her young son.

What we thought

The first Paranormal Activity film was a perfectly decent, competently put together haunted house film that was made while the whole “found footage” gimmick was still relatively tolerable and, considering that it cleaned up at the box office, while costing next to nothing to make, it's hardly surprising that it was turned into a franchise. What was perhaps less expected though, was just how quickly the franchise crashed and burned with the frankly excruciatingly boring Paranormal Activity 2. The film was so bad in fact that I went out of my way to ignore the third instalment entirely. To be fair though, based on the apparent complete lack of references to it in Paranormal Activity 4, so did the people who made it.

The good news then, is that Paranormal Activity 4 is a gigantic improvement over Paranormal Activity 2 in that it's merely dull, tired and uninspired, rather than life-threateningly boring. That might not seem like much, I grant you, but there is a noticeable difference between a film that gently lulls you to sleep and one that brings you dangerously close to slitting your wrists.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

The Five-Year Engagement

Anyone in the mood for a top notch mainstream romantic comedy? I have just the thing for you.

It's funny, I keep on harping on and on about how not only is Emily Blunt hands down one of modern cinema's most likable leading ladies, she has this uncanny ability to seemingly always work with some of modern cinema's most likable leading men. While I'm still waiting for her to work with real life hubby, John Krasinski, we now have her acting alongside the effortlessly, yet atypically, charming Jason Segal in The Five-Year Engagement.

Coming from the producing stable of Judd Apatow, directed by Forgetting Sarah Marshall's Nicholas Stoller and co-written by Stoller and Segal, The Five-Year engagement has some serious comedic talent behind it, but it sill manages to distinguish itself from the "Apatow pack". It's definitely too long, especially during the inevitable relationship-disintegration sequence, but, aside for that, it's a pretty damn perfect romantic comedy.

I would say that the rom-com gets a bad rep from "true" film fans and, well, men but the problem with most mainstream, Hollywood romantic comedies is that they tend to be cynical and depressing, rather than romantic and funny and are entirely deserving of their rotten reputation. It's a pleasure then to see a mainstream romantic comedy that bucks the genre's uglier trends at every turn. The Five-Year Engagement is genuinely romantic, genuinely human, genuinely free of cynicism and, oh yes, genuinely very, very, very funny.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Ruby Sparks

Romantic comedies, they're like buses...

Now, admittedly, Ruby Sparks is more of a drama than a comedy and more of a character study than a classic romance, but considering how rare it is to come across a genuinely good movie that can, in some way at least, be classified as a romantic comedy, I'm going to count this as a win for that particularly benighted genre.

Based off a high-concept that could easily come out of the early days of Woody Allen's back catalogue, Ruby Sparks tells the story of a lonely writer who starts writing about the girl of his dreams, only to find that she has miraculously leaped off the page and into his lap. The film initially comes off as a light, playful screwball comedy about a guy who literally creates the girl of his dreams before moving into far darker, far more intriguing territory that explores the very idea of a "dream mate" and how what you want may not really be what you need, or for that matter what you want.

Based on a cracking script from lead actress and screenwriter Zoe Kazan - shockingly, her first - Ruby Sparks is an undoubtedly flawed work that features an immensely unlikable central character and a tonal inconsistency that comes with so versatile a high concept, but it is also a gripping, intriguing, moving and thought provoking gem of a film that is as likely to disturb as it is to delight.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Roundup for September 2012

As you may have noticed, I have fallen somewhat behind lately. As such, here are some quick reviews of the films I have not yet had a chance to cover that came out this month.

The Flowers of War: I'm strangely ambivalent about this one. On the one hand, you have some good performances, not least of which from Christian Bale, some pretty beautiful war cinematography and a story that is not without its more moving moments. And yet, it's way too long, over-egged in both its emotions and its storytelling and is surprisingly forgettable. And yes, the criticism that this is yet another film all about how a bunch of helpless Easterners get saved by a heroic Westerner is sadly justly earned and the rest of the film isn't good enough to make this central flaw all that easy to overlook. Also worth mentioning is just how unapologetically biased it is. The Japanese in this film are very, very bad, while the Chinese are very, very good. Whether this is a criticism or not, I'm not sure, but it's definitely something that sticks out in this day and age of politically correct filmmaking

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Dredd 3D

I know, I know, things have been very slow lately. The good news is that I should soon have a roundup of the rest of September's films but, for now, my take on this year's most surprising comic book film.

Also at Channel 24

What it's about

In the future, the only thing that stands between Mega City One, a decaying, ultra-violent metropolis, and total chaos are the Judges – a select group of law enforcement agents who are given the power to act as judge, jury and executioner. The ruthless, uncompromising Judge Dredd is the city's most feared and revered Judge, but when Dredd and Judge Anderson, a rookie judge he is in the process of field testing, go after a particularly malicious drug dealer/ crime boss, the hunters soon become the pray as they finds themselves trapped in a locked-down city block with a price on their heads and scores of cut-throat criminals on their tails.

What we thought

In a year when you have The Avengers, Batman and Spider-man dominating this year's box office, it would be all to easy to overlook this far smaller, far more unassuming comic book movie. Judge Dredd is about as big as British comic book characters go, but even then, we're hardly talking Batman or Spider-man levels of international recognition here. Worse, those who are familiar with Dredd already have to find some way to get past the awful 1990s Stallone adaptation that not only had Dredd committing the cardinal sin of removing his helmet, but made use of the terminally unfunny Rob Schneider as “comic” relief. Plus, to be brutally honest, the trailer did nothing to suggest that Dredd 3D, with its over-use of slow motion and macho violence, would be that much of an improvement on its daft predecessor.

It's probably damning the film with faint praise then, to say that Dredd 3D is a very pleasant surprise, but it really is precisely that. Rather than taking on the DC and Marvel blockbusters head-on, Dredd comes in as a grimy and gritty alternative to the epic optimism that characterizes all, or at least the best, superhero films. It's a low-budget South African/ British co-production that was largely shot in Cape Town and Johannesburg (future America is apparently overrun by minibus taxis) with only three moderately successful stars at the centre of it.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The Bourne Legacy

Another franchise film, another chance to piss off legion of franchise fans. Oh, how I love my job!

Also up now at Channel 24

What it's about

Aaron Cross (Jeremy Renner) is a deep-undercover agent who, as a result of the actions of Jason Bourne in the previous three films, suddenly finds himself the target of the very agency he once served.

What we thought

Bourne Legacy – or, as it may just as easily be called, Bourne Free, Bourne Without or Seriously Where the Hell is Bourne – is one of the weirdest franchise films ever released cinematically. We've had plenty of spin-offs before (Elektra, The Chronicles of Riddick) but they tend to, well, spin off in their own directions and have little to do with forwarding the plot of the originals. We've even seen spin-offs that have just about nothing to do at all with their originating films (the excruciating America Pie: Presents series) and tend to go straight to DVD or video.

What we have with Bourne Legacy is a franchise film that is simultaneously a follow-up, a spin-off and a holding pattern that seems designed purely to keep the franchise within the public consciousness until they can get Matt Damon to return to the role of Jason Bourne himself. The result is a film that seems designed to appeal to no one at all.

Bourne fans will need to check out Bourne Legacy for its almost entirely disconnected sub-plots that are specifically included to inch the overall Bourne story forward a few relatively vital inches. Sadly, while they're grasping at these few bits of new information, they will also have to deal with a whole a-plot that is at best background detail, at worst a very pale rip-off of the original trilogy.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Resident Evil: Retribution

Bring on the hate mail!

Also up at Channel 24

What it's about:

In the fifth movie in the Resident Evil franchise we find our heroine Alice (Milla Jovovich) awakening as a prisoner in the midst of a top secret compound belonging to the Umbrella Corporation - whose bio-weapons caused the zombie plague that has all but eradicated humanity. After being helped by members of a resistance movement, Alice sets out to free herself from this compound as she learns more about her past and the intentions of the Umbrella Corporation.

What we thought:

Aside for small snippets, I haven't seen aResident Evil film since the first film. I have to get that disclaimer out of the way out of fairness to the series' fans but, to be honest, it doesn't really matter. While we're on the subject, I may be a casual game player – as opposed to a hardcore gamer – but I've never played any of the Resident Evil games. Again, I mention this simply so that fans understand that it won't affect the review itself because a) I hear the game is really good and besides this is a review of this film, not the games it is based on and b) I know enough about games in general to talk about video gaming in a general sense.

As you may have guessed, I mention all this because I would be very, very surprised if my review of this fifth instalment doesn't very seriously piss off fans of the Resident Evil series of films and games. Sorry Evil Residents (that is what you call yourselves, right? How could it not be?) but I don't care – Resident Evil: Retribution is just that jaw-droppingly bad. 

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Katy Perry: Part of Me

You bet your ass I'm reviewing the Katie Perry movie.

Last year, we were treated to a 3D documentary about Justin Bieber that ended up being far more enjoyable than its subject would ever dare to suggest. Now, the teen-driven pop world is trying its hand at much the same thing again, but this time with a pop starlet that, though her music is only marginally better, promises to up the fun ante quite a bit. And I say this not only as a hot-blooded, straight male but as someone who likes their disposable pop music with personality and a bit of a campy edge.

The things that are wrong with Katy Perry: Part of Me are so obvious that they barely deserve mentioning but, as you may have guessed, it is a film that is, at its heart, a fairly crass vanity project that is more a shameless bit of self-promotion and self celebration, decidedly less a biting documentary. Musically too, the results are not that surprising but, I for one, still find I Kissed a Girl to be a solidly catchy and fun pop song that is better than most of the totally un-catchy and un-fun dreck one normally finds on pop radio. Also, if her performances here are any indication, I'm not quite sure how she earned the unfortunate reputation of being a truly awful live singer. She's not going to go down as one of the greatest singers of all time, but I've heard far worse.

Now, if it seems I'm being overly defensive of Katy Perry, that should simply be taken as a testament to how well she comes across in the film - which is all the more impressive considering what the directors (reality TV veterans, Dan Cutforth and Jane Lipsitz) had to work with. Her story is, to say the least, not a particularly interesting one. Her journey to pop stardom isn't massively different from any other pop music success story and even her struggle between a rigidly Christian upbringing and her current status as a secular music icon and sex symbol comes across as one that's fairly easily resolved. Jerry Lee Lewis she ain't.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

The Watch

Starting off the 59 films released last week, we have a crushingly disappointing science fiction comedy. I know. What are the odds?

Science fiction comedies are clearly hard to do. For every Men in Black, we seem to have a hundred Men in Black 2s. Sadly, The Watch is far, far closer to the latter than the former. All four of the gentlemen in the poster to the left have been funny at various times in their careers, but you wouldn't think so based on the evidence on display here.

The premise of The Watch is, like so many high concept misfires, really rather promising: a group of dopey guys form a neighbourhood watch to protect their neighbourhood from petty crimes but soon find themselves protecting the world itself from an alien invasion. Nothing spectacular, but plenty of potential. It's a pity then that no one let the filmmakers know that you actually have to do something with a promising premise, you can't just let it lie there.

"Lie there" is unfortunately the operative phrase here. The Watch is, more than anything else, simply one of the laziest films released this year. The plot is under-developed to the point that it would be charitable to so much as call it a "story" and the characters are less fully developed characters, more one-note caricatures of its actors' better roles. And, holy hell, is it hopelessly and disastrously unfunny.

Monday, September 10, 2012

This Must Be the Place

Late again! Sorry about that but this time I have something of an excuse: my laptop was stolen! Anyhoo, we should be back in the swing of things soon, starting with this late review of a really cool and very weird little comedy drama.

Despite Sean Penn's appearance on the poster and, for that matter, in the film itself, This Must Be the Place is based on a song, not by The Cure, but by The Taking Heads. And, it should be said, it's pretty easily my favourite Talking Heads song, which is jut as well because This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody) appears something like a dozen times throughout the film in various forms and cover versions. It even shows up in a full live performance by David Byrne himself that would perhaps have been self-indulgent, if its pay off wasn't so perfect.

I am, however, getting a head of myself. This Must Be the Place tells the story of Cheyenne, a burned out former rock star from that very particular miserabilist post-punk music scene, who embarks on a cross-Atlantic-then-cross-country pilgrimage to find the Nazi war criminal who tormented his estranged and recently deceased father during his time in a Nazi concentration camp.

It's an endlessly quirky and self-consciously off-beat story that is anchored by a very simple road-trip/ quest structure. Its episodic structure keeps the film from ever coming close to vanishing up its own arse, while its oddball, deadpan sense of humour and magnetically enigmatic lead stop it from ever becoming rote or predictable. It's interesting that the film shares its name with the working title of Sam Mendes' superb and crushingly underrated Away We Go, as the two easily rank as two of the best road-trip films of recent memory.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Searching for Sugar Man

It's great to see a music documentary in local cinemas and it's especially great when the documentary in question is this wonderful.

Also available at Channel 24

What it's about

A documentary about a couple of South African fans who set off on a transatlantic journey to discover what happened to their musical hero, Rodriguez, a 1970s American singer/ songwriter who, though completely unknown in his native country, was a tremendous success in South Africa.

What we thought

There's nothing particularly new about a great, “lost” 1970s musical artiste being discovered years after the fact, usually earning such hyperbolic praise as “better than Dylan!” or “The Beatles of the '70s!” along the way. Nick Drake, Big Star, Townes Van Zandt, Badfinger: the list goes on and on. Singer/ songwriter, Rodriguez, could so easily fit into into that category, if it weren't for one small fact: Rodriguez was HUGE in the 1970s and he was in many ways more popular than even such monolithic counter-cultural icons as Bob Dylan and The Rolling Stones.

It's just a pity then that “Rodriguezmania” was localized to a country that was not only thousands of miles away from Rodriguez's native homeland but was one that was rightly shunned, even sanctioned off, by the rest of Western civilization – a country so hopelessly backward that it took a quarter of a century more than the rest of the world for its citizens to gain access to so rudimentary a technology as television. The place, of course, was South Africa at at time when Apartheid's gruesome stranglehold on its people was at its crushing zenith.

Seeking a Friend for the End of the World

Oops, almost overlooked this one.

You know how in Michael Bay's Armageddon a bunch of astronauts embark on a mission to destroy an asteroid that's hurtling towards the earth? Well, Seeking a Friend for the End of the World is about what happens when those astronauts fail in their mission and the entire earth is given just three weeks before all life on the planet comes to an end.

Rather than going for the epic melodrama of Armageddon or Deep Impact, Seeking a Friend plays out as an unassuming, indie comedy-drama that centres around two fairly ordinary people - a sullen middle-aged man wondering where his life went (Steve Carrell) and a 20-something hipster (Keira Knightley) who just wants to get back to her family in England after spending far too much time in an unhealthy relationship. The two strike up a friendship as she promises to help him find a lost love, while he promises to get her to a private plane to get her back to her family and her homeland. As expected, this friendship develops into something more along the way.

Admittedly, Lars Von Trier's excellent but grueling Melancholia already tackled the end of the world through quiet, introspective character-drama but, considering how unashamedly allegorical that film was, Seeking a Friend still seems like a surprisingly fresh take on the subject. It may be a Cinema Nouveau movie but Seeking a Friend falls much more on the "indie" side of things than on the "artier" end of the spectrum where Melancholia clearly reigns supreme.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Total Recall (2012)

Sorry for the lack of updates this week but I should have a bunch of new content coming soon. Lets start off with this week's biggest and worst film. No wait, sorry, I'm not reviewing the latest Tyler Perry film because I haven't seen it, nor the new Tinker Bell movie for the same reasons, but I'm sure they're masterpieces. Still, this is definitely the worst of the next crop of films that I will be reviewing.

This review is also up  in more spacious form (my editor likes paragraphs more than I do) at Channel 24.   

What it's about

Douglas Quaid (Colin Farrell) thinks he's an ordinary guy, with a boring job and a beautiful, loving wife but when his strong desire to travel to Mars leads him to Rekall, a company that fulfils its clients wildest dreams by implanting fake memories, he soon finds out that his whole life is a lie.

What we thought

Back when it was originally announced, we were promised that this new version of Total Recall would be a reinterpretation of the Philip K. Dick short story on which the 1980s Arnold Schwarzenegger sci-fi actioner was based, rather than a simple remake of that same film. This might have seemed like your garden variety spin doctoring by an industry that is becoming increasingly infamous for their lack of original ideas, but, for a change, it was a promise that was hardly out of the realm of possibility.

Philip K. Dick's original short story, cumbersomely but smartly titled We Can Remember It For You Wholesale, was a brilliant distillation of Dick's favourite subjects of the illusion of reality, the fragility of identity and the tug of war that humanity finds itself in between complacency on the one hand and striving for something more on the other. It was also really, really short. A faithful adaptation of the story may perhaps, at a push, be long enough to fill an episode of The Twilight Zone, but it would need to be seriously fleshed out to work even as a short feature film.

The original Total Recall took Dick's premise and, without entirely losing what it's ultimately about, turned it into a hyperactive, utterly bonkers and endlessly entertaining futuristic action flick starring Ahnuld in his lank-headed but charismatic prime. It really is a terrifically fun bit of nutso nonsense but it had very little to do with We Can Remember It For You Wholesale.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

To Rome With Love

Woody Allen's latest is done no favours by coming out straight after his most successful film, Midnight In Paris but it's still way, way better than some of the reviews would have you believe.

To Rome with Love is one of Woody Allen's fluffiest films - but that certainly doesn't mean it's one of his worst. Throughout his career, Woody has balanced his more serious (if sometimes seriously funny) major works with lighter, more insubstantial offerings. Deciding which is which is something of a challenge, of course. We can all agree, surely, to classify Crimes and Misdemeanors and Annie Hall as major works and A Midnight Sex Comedy and Scoop as minor detours but where does that leave brilliant but frothy fare like The Purple Rose of Cairo, Midnight In Paris and, lets not forget, his early funny ones?

Put simply: some Woody Allen movies are good, some are less so but it has surprisingly little to do with how "important" or "major" said films are. Take Melinda and Melinda on one hand and Bananas on the other. The former reads as a "serious artistic statement", while the latter seems to be little more than a lark for its director, but I assume I don't have to say which of the two is better?

I mention all this, not just to show how many Woody films I've seen or, for that matter, how many the man has made, but to put To Rome With Love into perspective into the Great Man's long and varied career. Judge To Rome With Love by all means, but judge it for what it is, not for what it's not. Not only is To Rome With Love a light comedy, but it's a light comedy that sees its director kicking back and simply having a bit of fun with four different story ideas, making it his most unassuming film in years.

With this in mind, rather than To Rome With Love being a letdown after the frankly sublime Midnight In Paris, it can be seen for what it really is: top-drawer "lesser" Woody Allen. It's constantly funny, likable and effortlessly entertaining with a fantastic cast, a witty script and a sly irreverence that allows it to subtly tackle some interesting ideas on the side without hitting the audience over the head with them.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012


And the best talky, sweary teddy bear movie of the year goes to...

Also at Channel 24

What it's about

As a lonely young boy, John Bennet's (Mark Wahlberg) wish to have his teddy bear, Ted, come to life was magically granted and the two have been inseparable best friends ever since. Now, with John well into his thirties and in a long term relationship with Lori (Mila Kunis) he is finally faced with a life-changing decision: embrace adulthood and his life with Lori or continue his arrested adolescence partying and lounging about with Ted. What's a guy to do?

What we thought

Right off the bat, Ted has a premise that simply doesn't work. No, not the idea of a talking teddy bear: that is surprisingly easy to buy into. What really beggars belief though, is this certifiably insane idea that any straight male would rather spend their time with a teddy bear, talking or otherwise, than with Mila Kunis. As far as great moral dilemmas go, we're not exactly talking Sophie's Choice here and it certainly isn't something on which one would want to hang the plot of an entire film. And yet, here we are.

Backing up a step or two, Ted is the feature film debut of Seth MacFarlane, the creator of cult animated comedy series, Family Guy and American Dad. He directed it and co-wrote it and, if you know anything at all about his TV shows, you'll be able to guess where - aside for the whole Mila/ stuffed teddy bear débâcle, of course – the film's major fault lies.

Regardless of whether you find them funny, no one in their right mind would deny that storytelling is not exactly at the forefront of American Dad and Family Guy. Both shows use their meagre plots and characterization as little more than an excuse for MacFarlane to tell whatever pop-culture-related or political jokes he has on his mind in any particular week. Family Guy is essentially the ant-Seinfeld in that, while Seinfeld's humour came directly from the distinctly drawn characters and meticulous plotting, Family Guy's humour exists almost independently to the rest of the show.

Monday, August 20, 2012

The Expendables 2

First Step Up 4, now The Expendables 2: The guilty pleasures just keep on coming!

Also up at Channel 24.

What it's about

Mr Church enlists the expendables for what should be an easy pay day but when one of their own is murdered, an easy retrieval mission becomes a quest for vengeance deep within enemy territory.

What we thought

Without so much as taking a step towards reviewing this film, I feel oddly compelled to list my 80s/90s action movie credentials. As a thirty year old male, I was there for the hey day of the likes of Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jean Claude Van Damme and Sly Stallone and I spent my teenage years watching both their better work (Terminator 1 and 2, the Rambo films, Hard Target and, yes, Last Action Hero), as well as the veritable boatloads of truly awful straight to video g-movies that bore their names. I loved it all – the good, the bad, the ugly and the face-shreddingly horrific, it made little difference to me.

I like to think my tastes have improved immeasurably since then, but I will always have a soft spot for at least the memories of watching these dopey flicks with my friends and it probably explains why I like Jason Statham's ouvre as much as I do as well. Context, you see, is crucial when talking about a film like The Expendables 2.

Those who can't relate to my own background or those who look back at those years of enjoying truly trashy trash-cinema with nothing but embarrassment will despise every single minute of The Expendables 2. And rightly so. It's badly written and badly acted nonsense that is as loud as it is dumb, featuring the kind of unfettered machismo that is sure to have at least half the audience running for the nearest romantic comedy. On any kind of objective level, The Expendables 2 is pretty much awful from start to finish.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Step Up 4

Why yes, I am reviewing Step Up Revolution (or Step Up: Miami Heat, if you're from that part of the world)!

Much like pretty much every Jason Statham film ever released, I somehow find it impossible to truly take against a Step Up film, no matter how technically bad it may well be. And make no mistake, the latest in the series is very, very bad indeed. Bad script, wooden acting, unbelievably stupid story - check, check and check again. I don't even get the whole break-dance thing beyond a "gee how do they move their bodies like that?" level, so why oh why did I enjoy the blasted thing as much as I did?

I think what it comes down to is this: Step Up Revolution is a film that ends with a bunch of dancers fighting off the gentrification of their neighbourhood by doing what is effectively a really involved version of "the robot". Now, you'll either read that and think that that's the dumbest thing ever or you'll read it and think that is the dumbest thing ever - but it's so incredibly stupid that it's really kind of hilarious. If you fall in the former group (read: sane) then run as fast as possible away from the latest Step Up movie. If you're like me, however, and your sense of humour runs on the slightly demented side of things then you may well land up enjoying this unmistakable tripe in spite of yourself.

Since Step Up 4 is so very review-proof, I just have to mention what is absolutely, hands down my favourite part of this film. Now, you may well consider this to be a plot spoiler so you might want to look away, but honestly, if you're watching these films for their "plots", you and I will need to have a more serious discussion - the kind of discussion that involves a notepad, a leather couch and a not-modest amount of electro-shock therapy. Anyway, right at the end of the film, when the good guys stand victorious and the bad guys turn out to be not so bad and, most pertinently, the revolution against greedy consumerism has been fought and won, there comes a twist so jaw-droppingly ironic that it simply has to be intentional.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Safe vs Haywire

I'm reviewing these two together because a) they complement each other nicely and b) I can complete last week and make further headway into this week at the same time. Neat, huh?

Here are two action films that are oddly pretty perfectly encapsulated by their titles.

Safe is every bit as unchallenging and as straightforward as its title suggests. Jason Statham stars as Jason Statham and, though his particular "mission" in this film involves his protecting a gifted young girl with an aptitude for numbers from warring mobs, it's a film about the Stath beating the ever loving crap out of an endless torrent of bad guys and that's really about it. It does exactly what it says on the can and it does it it well enough with all the gruff charm that we have come to expect from today's best action star - though the Stath's status as reigning ass-kicking champ is about to be put to the test. By a girl, no less.

Which brings us to Haywire. The second, and as far as I'm concerned, superior Steven Soderbergh offering out now in South African cinemas is a very weird mix of arty quirkiness and full on ass-kicking mayhem and it is all but guaranteed to firmly divide audiences. It starts off looking like your typical indie drama with a woman sitting alone in a very ordinary looking cafe, doing nothing but waiting for a man. With its subdued cinema-vertite cinematography, bleached colour palette and attention to the mundane, this opening scene lulls the viewer into a false sense of calm before suddenly and violently bursting into one of the most visceral fight scenes I've seen onscreen in years. And the aptly titled Haywire does this often.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Chernobyl Diaries

Continuing with films released this past weekend is one that should be really thankful that That's My Boy came out on the same day to redefine how bad cinema can be.

Distributors chose a very interesting time to release Chernobyl Diaries. On the one hand, putting it head to head against Adam Sandler's latest cinematic atrocity, That's My Boy, can't help but make it look like Citizen Kane - or if the new BFI list of the greatest films ever released is to be believed, Vertigo. (By the way, apropos of nothing, I never agreed with rating Citizen Kane as the best film of all time, but I'm really confused as to how they would replace it with any Alfred Hitchcock film other than North by Northwest.) On the other hand, it's also coming out at a time when Cabin in the Woods and Woman In Black are (only just but) still in cinemas and, boy, does it suffer in comparison.

It actually has a pretty terrific premise in that a group of young people embark on a "danger tour" through the wastelands of what is left of post-nuclear Chernobyl but, while there, they find that they might not be alone. Cool premise, terrific setting, but the film goes on to do absolutely nothing with them.

It's not so much that Chernobyl Diaries is a truly terrible film, as much as it is terribly dull, as it squanders every last bit of promise that the bare-bones plot might have once contained. Sure, it does boil down to a group of young attractive people going off to some secluded spot to get brutally and horribly murdered, but so did Cabin In The Woods and look how far that managed to twist and pull at our expectations. Chernobyl Diaries plays out exactly as you expect it to, if way less excitingly than you might hope.

For a start, rather than ever building up any sense of menace or creepiness, Chernobyl Diaries constantly goes for the cheapest of cheap jump moments and, once the bad stuff starts to happen, it devolves into the kind of baseless hysteria that precludes any sort of dynamism within its horror storytelling. Or, to put it another way, how is a film ever going to sneak under you skin and scare you when it's this busy screaming at you? It also certainly doesn't help that the promisingly desolate cinematography is quickly replaced by shoddy, shaky camera work that makes it impossible to see what's going on and harder still to care. Though, to be fair, the non-existent characterization makes it tough enough to care in the first place.

And please, don't get me started at how rubbish the reveal is of who the "monsters" were all along.


Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

I should have the rest of last week's films reviewed very shortly but for now here's my take on what is arguably this week's biggest release. 

Check the review out at Channel 24 as well.

What it's about

Abraham Lincoln may spend his days as president of the United States of America but his nights are devoted to an even stranger cause: hunting and destroying the vampires who lives among us. Thing becomes especially complicated once he uncovers a brewing threat from the slave-taking vampires of the American South and he soon finds himself heading his country into a war for its very soul.

What we thought

Another year, another fantastically titled film that fails spectacularly to live up to the promise of its name and its basic premise. We've already had the decidedly lackluster Cowboys vs Aliens and a trip to the bottom shelf of your local video store should reveal such recent gems as Mega Shark vs Giant Octopus and Zombie Strippers but, even I haven't seen many, if not most, of these low-rent odes to trash cinema, I would be very surprised if any of them are as crushingly disappointing as Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.

This isn't to say that Abe Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is a terribly made film. Wanted director Timur Bekmambetov knows how to shoot a terrific looking piece of cinema and, despite the lack of big-name stars, he has surrounded himself with a number of really rather good character actors – including the likes of Dominic Cooper, Rufus Sewell, Anthony Mackie, Scott Pilgrim's magnetic lead actress, Mary Elizabeth Winstead (why isn't she a bigger star yet?) and, as the titular prez himself, a very convincing Benjamin Walker. And really, take a look at that plot synopsis: when is the last time you came across a big-budget B-movie with so potentially interesting a plot?

Throw all these elements together and what we should have is a truly inventive, smart, incisive and cut-above-the-rest Hollywood blockbuster. What we get instead is a terribly misjudged dud that always keeps its promising premise alive just enough to constantly remind us just how badly it is betraying all of its good intentions.

Its problems are many fold, but the biggest hurdle that it smacks into head-first, time and time again, is one of tone. There is a way to mix the b-movie shlockiness of the film's title with heady ideas, humour, emotional resonance and enough metaphors to keep an English lit. class busy for quite some time. Joss Whedon all but wrote the book on this with Buffy The Vampire Slayer (the TV show, of course, not the movie) and I couldn't help but wish all the way through Abe Lincoln that someone had sat Bekmambetov down to watch all seven seasons of Buffy in the hope that some of that show's smarts, irreverence and humanity would rub off on him.

As it is, what we have here is a film that takes itself too seriously to be campy fun, is too humourless to work as effective satire, too silly to be taken seriously and too coolly artificial to ever resonate. Admittedly, it doesn't help that the wonderful comic book series, American Vampire is currently being published, as that tackles similar-ish subject matter far, far more effectively and with a far greater understanding of tonal consistency than Abe does in even its best moments. Still, regardless of how familiar you are with similar material, I can't imagine anyone but the most undemanding of action-junkies walking away from the film truly satisfied.

Most defenders of the film will, however, undoubtedly point towards its very definite visual style and high-octane action scenes as being worth the price of admission alone – and admittedly, they would have a point. Say what you want about his storytelling abilities, Bekmambetov does have plenty of visual style and his action scenes do always look cool. It's just a pity that “cool” as it looks, the film is so thoroughly uncaptivating on even the most superficial of surface levels.

Bekmambetov loves his CGI. He loves it so much that he clearly doesn't give a second thought to the fact that it renders the entire look of the film entirely artificial, which means that there is no peril, physicality or sense of danger in any of the film's many action scenes and that the vampires look less like walking, undead nightmares and more like nicely rendered video game baddies. CG is great as a complement to physical effects, imaginative costume design and creepy prosthetics but, like the otherwise enjoyable Fright Night remake, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is pretty definitive proof that reliance on nothing but CGI leaves your film looking like nothing more than an unplayable video game.

It's not often that I wish for remakes of films but someone in Hollywood – preferably, and I know this is a long shot, someone with an eye for storytelling talent – really needs to greenlight a remake of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter as soon as humanly possible. A premise this brilliant simply demands to be done properly and it would be a shameful waste if it never gets to be the epochal genre film that is so righteously deserves to be. Until that happens though, feel free to give the endlessly frustrating Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter a miss.