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Tuesday, June 25, 2013

New Cinema Release Roundup for the Weekends of 14/06/2013 and 21/06/2013

As I hadn't yet seen Gambit, I decided to hold off last week's roundup until I had so, once again, here's what's been happening over the past two weeks in South African cinemas.

Last week did seem to be the week to release extraordinarily ordinary films and Epic was only the start of it. I, like all but one of Johannesburg's film critics somehow managed to miss I'm So Excited but, from what I hear, it seems to be one of Pedro Almadovar's worst ever films - though what I did see hardly fares much better.

First, we have Broken City, an overly generic crime/ noir thriller that may be perfectly watchable but is as predictable as it is forgettable - which is a bit of a problem since I saw it last November when it was originally supposed to be released. Since then, it's been pushed back by distributors in this country for a solid seven months, finally finding its place among this period's huge blockbuster films. I don't know why they bothered. Not only is this unexciting b-movie far less deserving of a cinematic release than many of the indie films that are constantly relegated to only those DVD stores that have a large import and rarities selection, it never stood a chance at the box office anyway.  

The usually very likable Mark Wahlberg is largely miscast as an everyman who finds himself in way over his head as he is caught between Russel Crowe (in solidly good form) and Catherine Zeta Jones (in less solidly good form) in a theoretically exciting game of political maneuvering, but between its daft script that telegraphs its twists miles in advance and a total lack of originality or freshness, Broken City is best left to only the most die hard of noir fans. (4/10)

In terms of sheer disappointment though, Broken City has nothing on Gambit. Here we have a farcical crime comedy, written by no less than the Coen brothers and featuring such spectacular screen talent as Colin Firth, Stanley Tucci and Alan Rickman and yet it pretty much entirely stinks. It's hard to believe that the Coens, who can nimbly work real laughs into even their bleakest, most nihilistic, most terrifying films can be responsible for Gambit's lack of anything but the most half-hearted of chortles so I'm left with no choice but to blame the film's director, Michael Hoffman.     

Hoffman is something of a veteran who has been a working feature film director for over thirty years but his not-exactly-prolific filmography is still pretty spotty and he clearly simply wasn't up to the exceptionally challenging task of directing a successful farce. Of course, directing comedy, let alone farce, has always been an undervalued skill in Hollywood (just check out the paucity of best director Oscars for comedy films) as it is demonstrably way, way harder than it looks as even the funniest scripts can be undone by direction that lacks the required sense of timing. And Gambit is simply a film that mistimes every single gag it has.

On the plus side, despite having to compensate for a gratingly overbearing Cameron Diaz, Firth, Rickman, Tucci and the rather brilliant Tom Courtenay are still a pleasure to watch and single-handedly raise the film from terrible to merely crushingly mediocre. (4/10)      

Moving on to this weekend though, there were actually a number of far more worthy or at least more interesting films released. 

On the local front, Spud 2: The Madness Continues loses some of its predecessor's melancholy but raises the game in rambunctious laughs and further cements the series as one of the few truly worthwhile South African franchises around. Undoubtedly, Spud 2 is once again bolstered by the funny but vulnerable presence of the legend that is John Cleese but it's the mixture of schoolboy antics and adolescent angst that gives it instant universal appeal.

Troye Sivan is once again tremendously appealing as our titular hero whose mixture of just-about-pre-pubescent childhood naivety, beyond-his-years smarts and teenage confusion makes for a character that is both incredibly likable and impressively complex. Which is really just as well because, though there are a number of enjoyable moments for his many idiosyncratic friends, family, girlfriend(s), teachers, housemasters and principals to shine, it is very much his movie.    

Like the books, Spud is told very much from his point of view but with a more restrictive feature-length running time, the film can't quite delve into his supporting cast nearly as well as its source. Also like the books and the first film, rather than being particularly plot-oriented, Spud 2 is decidedly episodic, but considering that it is attempting to convey something as episodic as life in a boarding school, that actually works to its advantage.

All in all, despite a somewhat rocky start, Spud 2 is as warm-hearted, well judged and funny as this sort of film really needs to be and is leaps and bounds above the sort of crap that the South African film industry usually churns out. (8/10)

Similarly pleasing is Pixar's latest sequel, Monster's University. Or, to be more precise, prequel. Monsters University was easily one of the animation house's most enjoyable second-tier films, but it never exactly demanded a follow up, let alone a backstory-heavy prequel, so it's particularly pleasantly surprising how well it turned out. It may never reach the extraordinary levels of Toy Story 3, but for a film that plays out as a mixture of '80s style college comedies and a kids adventure movie, it's impressive how endearing, tightly controlled and funny Sully and Mike's early adventures landed up being.  

The plot itself is tightly self-contained as Mike struggles to become a qualified scarer, despite not being very scary, by teaming up with Sully and a group of misfit monsters to win a "scare competition" at the college where both he and Sully allowed their rivalry to cause them to embarrassingly lose their place in its official scare program. What happens next sticks pretty closely to formula but thanks to its memorable characters, sprightly pace, good jokes and good-hearted message, it's hard not to be won over once again by the cutest monsters around. (8/10)

Finally, and I'm not going to spend much time on it, is Terence Malick's latest snooze fest, To The Wonder. I would like to give Malick the benefit of the doubt but his latest is even more meandering and anti-narrative than The Tree of Life but without that film's personal, spiritual thrust. It is exquisitely shot but, for all that it gestures towards some sort of profundity about religion and relationships, it mostly feels like an excuse for Malick to film the inordinately sexy Olga Kurylenko dance, skip, make love and generally move in an intoxicatingly waif-like way for what must have been months. I can hardly blame the guy but really Mr Malick, how about throwing some story into your storytelling at some point? (2/10)  

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