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Thursday, December 31, 2015

Concussion

Aiming for an Oscar...

But a swing and a miss!

That's the wrong sports metaphor, isn't it?

This review is also up at Channel 24.

What it's about

When African immigrant and world-class pathologist, Dr Bennet Omalu discovers extensive brain damage in a series of ex-football players who died under severely strange circumstances in a short amount of time, he uncovers a truth that the National Football League hoped would never get out: that playing football is extremely tough on the brains of those who play it. Based on a true story.

What we thought

Before dealing with the merits (and notable flaws) of the film itself, I have to ask: how on earth was it a surprise to anyone that a full-contact sport like American Football, a sport that features head-on collisions as a routine part of the game, is a source of massive brain-damage in its players? Seriously, isn't this more or less the equivalent to finding out that boxers have a predilection to getting punched in the face or that swimmers are quite likely to get a bit damp? I know next to nothing about sports, but this seems pretty obvious even to my utterly untrained eyes.

And, actually, my befuddlement at this aspect of the story was ultimately a problem that I had with the film itself. I just couldn't believe that this would be considered the major discovery that the film depicts it to be and I almost can't believe that football fans, who presumably watch the games on a regular basis, would be shocked by this discovery. I say “almost” because, frankly speaking, though I may be a bit of a major nerd about things like films, comics and music, in terms of blind, obsessive devotion to my hobby/ passion, I have absolutely nothing on die-hard sports fans.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Steve Jobs

And now for something actually worth seeing this week. I mean, aside for the Force Awakens for the 7th time...

(Or, in my case, only the 3rd - but I really do want to see it in IMAX)

Anyway, back to Steve Jobs, this review is also up at Channel 24.

What it's about

A character study of Apple founder Steve Jobs, centred around three product launches over three decades, that examines his work, his relentless quest for perfection and his extremely complicated, often adversarial relationships with even those closest to him.

What we thought

Standing in stark contrast to the decidedly ordinary biopic, Jobs, which saw Ashton Kutcher in the eponymous role trying his best – but ultimately failing – to capture the many diverse sides of Steve Jobs over pretty much his entire adult life, Steve Jobs is an almost impressionistic take on the man that says everything it really needs to say by focusing on a mere three vital days in his professional life. We don't get a play by play breakdown of the early days of Apple or his year's fighting the good fight against terminal cancer, but instead get a fully drawn portrait of the man himself, in all his brilliant, insufferable, contradictory and ultimately human glory.
No wonder it sank like a stone at the US box office.

Written by the incomparable Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing, The Social Network), there's something almost miraculous about Steve Jobs as a fully emotionally engaging and beautifully formed piece of cinema. Quite aside for just how much mileage it gets out of so tight a focus, you would be excused for doubting that Sorkin has something this profoundly human in him.

Yes, the West Wing had a cast of terrific characters and he did a fairly convincing portrait of Facebook founder, Mark Zuckerberg, in the Social Network, but his most recent project, the HBO series The Newsroom showed all the signs of a creative mind completely out of touch with actual human beings and how they acted. The Newsroom was often very smart, albeit in an often hectoring, heavy-handed way, but it also displayed not only the worst characterization by far of any Sorkin project to date, but some of the worst characterization in this “golden age of TV” in general. Aside for perhaps one or two exceptions, every single character on that show acted in ways that seem entirely contradictory to how real human beings would behave in similar situations, while bring fundamentally unlikeable in a way that only the really self-consciusly smart can be.

Point Break (2015)

Young and dumb and full of... crap?

This review is also up at Channel 24.


What it's about

Johnny Utah, a young FBI agent, infiltrates a group of extreme sports athletes whose mission to complete eight increasingly difficult endurance tests is backed up by a series of heists – some for personal gain, but most for Robin-Hood-like wealth redistribution. A loose remake of the 1991 film of the same name.

What we thought

The original Point Break is something of a cult classic among action junkies but aside for the occasional memorable set piece (the firing his gun in the air bit) or the occasionally quotable line of goofy dialogue (“young and dumb and full of cum”), it was never much more than moderately okay. The decision to remake it, then, needn't have been such a bad move as it's always been a smarter idea to remake promising but ultimately flawed films than serious classics, but, as you may have guessed, this slightly more modern Point Break makes the original look like a stone-cold masterpiece by comparison.

The overall plot of an FBI agent becoming to attached to a group of likable criminals and, most especially, its charismatic leader remains intact here, as do the names of most of the major characters but the decision to build the action around a series of increasingly mad extreme sports endurance tests, rather than just surfing, is a fairly notable change. In theory, of course, it adds some much-needed diversity to the action set pieces but, in practice, it mostly becomes an excuse to insert some very much unneeded tree-hugging mumbo jumbo into the mix – far, far worse than any of the already incredibly irritating “surfer spirituality” of the original – giving the film a horribly humourless pretentious sheen that is really thoroughly unearned.

Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Road Chip

With loads of great kids movies out there right now, this really ain't good enough.

This review is also up at Channel 24.

What it's about

In the fourth Alvin and the Chipmunks movie, after being tormented by her son, the Chipmunks head off to Miami to try stop Dave from proposing to his new girlfriend and leaving them behind.

What we thought

At this point, what more is there to be said about this unbelievably endurable franchise? From a sixties Christmas novelty hit to this latest major(ish) film series – I'm still trying to get over the fact that this is the fourth installment – there's just no keeping Alvin, Simon and Theodore down. Unfortunately, based on the evidence of the Road Chip, they are well beyond in need of a long nap.

Admittedly, it is somewhat hard to review a film aimed squarely at no one over the age of six when you're a thirty-four-year-old man, but the real problem with this third Chipmunks sequel is that it is so tired, so leaden in it execution that it's hard to believe that even its target audience will find much to enjoy.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens

This review is also up at Channel 24.

 Disclaimer/ Preamble/ No-Spoiler Warning:

So, we have a brand new Star Wars movie: the first created without the input of George Lucas, the first to fall under the Disney umbrella and the first of an already rapidly expanding film universe that will include both direct sequels and spin-offs/ one-shots and, , prequels. The problem with talking about Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens (to give it its proper title), though, is that you can't really talk about it.

The film has been marketed in such a way as to give as little information as is humanly possible about the actual plot, who these new characters are and how they fit in with old favourites, Luke, Leia, Han and Chewbacca – and I'm certainly not gong to be the guy that ruins it. If you're looking for spoilers, basically, feel free to look elsewhere, as you ain't gonna find them here. Instead, I'm going to try talk about what works (and what, perhaps, doesn't) about the movie while being entirely vague about what actually happens in the film itself. And, believe me, that's an even tougher task than usual.

Also, I should point out that I'm writing this review all of two hours after having seen the film, which is much less time than I usually allow for my opinions to properly gestate – especially in a movie that is as loaded for me as this is. I am a HUGE Star Wars nerd, who hasn't only seen the original movies countless times but also spent much of my teenage years reading the countless spin-off novels and, to a lesser degree, comics that were released in rapid succession after the staggering success of Timothy Zahn's Heir to the Empire novel reignited the Star Wars craze nearly twenty-five years ago. Alas, the prequels did sort of ruin things but, even there, I don't hate them anywhere near as much as most fans and even thought Revenge of the Sith was actually a pretty decent, if flawed, Star Wars flick.

I had huge expectations going in, as well as plenty of apprehensions and fears, and I'm still trying to separate them from an even remotely “objective” (ha!) review of the film as just one of the hundreds I see each year. It probably won't work, but it needs to be acknowledged. With that preamble out of the way, then, onto the actual review itself...

Monday, December 14, 2015

Victor Frankenstein

Don't call me Ee-gor.

This review is also up at Channel 24


What it's about

The latest retelling of Mary Shelly's Frankenstein, tells the very familiar story from the point of view of Victor Frankenstein's lowly assistant, Igor: in this version a nameless circus hunchback with a brilliant medical mind who is freed by Frankenstein and, after taking the name of the good doctor's absent roommate, starts to assist him in his mission to create life out of death.

What we thought

For all that Victor Frankenstein tries to make itself out to be a fresh new take on the extremely well worn story of Frankenstein and his “Modern Prometheus”, the main problem with the film is precisely that it feels tired and stale more than anything else.

There are some spirited and enjoyable performances, most notably Daniel Radcliffe as Igor and James McAvoy as the titular character but even if everything is put together with competence by director Paul McGuigan, there's a decided lack of inspiration in both McGuinan's workmanlike direction that attempts to channel Sherlock-Holmes-era Guy Richie but ends up feeling perfunctory instead and, even more so, in Max Landis' lackluster script. And, though it's nowhere near the irredeemable abortion that many a critic have painted it to be, the fact that Victor Frankenstein seems to largely miss the point of the original story and, worse, its emotional core, dooms the whole thing to be nothing more than a noble failure.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Creed

Revitalizing the Rocky franchise, once again. Seriously, how does this still work?

And yet here we are, six for seven good Rocky flicks. Amazing.

Check out this review at Channel 24 as well.

What it's about

The seventh installment in the Rocky series focuses on Adonis Johnson, Apollo Creed's youngest, illegitimate son whose troubled early life took a decided turn for the good when Creed's widow, Mary Anne, invites him to live with her after he finds himself once again falling foul of the system. Years later though, with the aid of a loving mother figure, a fine home life and a great education, Adonis is thriving as an up and comer in the financial sector but the old family calling proves to be too much for him and he heads off to try make a name for himself – his own name – in professional boxing by enlisting the help of his father's rival/ protege/ best friend, Rocky Balboa.

What we thought

It was already pretty amazing that 2006's Rocky Balboa (has it really been that long?) resurrected the long-dead franchise with a genuinely very good swan song for the iconic character but there's something miraculous about the fact that we're back again, nine years later, with another very fine Rocky movie that manages to take the very redundancy of yet another Rocky movie and its aging star/ character and use it to create something surprisingly vital and fresh.

For all that the film focuses on Adonis Johnson (brilliantly portrayed by Michael B Jordan, redeeming himself nicely after the trainwreck that was the latest anything-but-Fantastic Four movie), the film is as much about Rocky Balboa as any of the six previous films. He may not throw a single punch in the film and he may have considerably less screen time than Adonis but the main thrust of the story is all about the contrast between Adnonis' hunger, anger and youthful arrogance and Rocky's almost zen-like acceptance of life's fleetingness and his perhaps depressive feelings of obsolescence. It's a startling contrast that gives plenty of space for both characters to learn from one another and grow in ways that they would never have imagined but is also single-handedly justifies the film's very existence.

Good Kill

Good Kill, worthy topic, only OK movie.

This review is also up at Channel 24

What it's about

A drone pilot, desperate to get back into the air himself, starts to question the ethics of what he does when his unit is assigned to work with the CIA on increasingly destructive missions and his family life starts to take a turn for the worse.

What we thought

Good Kill is a timely, worthy, perhaps even important film that manages to tackle a complex issue with both even handedness and honesty. Unfortunately, as a piece of drama, it falls remarkably flat. The film actually never got much widespread distribution in the States and, though some have assumed that this much surely be a reflection of the film's delicate subject matter, I dare say that it's probably just because the film is a far better fit for something like the History channel than the cinema.

Written and directed by Andrew Niccol, a filmmaker whose better works include Gattaca and writing the Truman Show and the Terminal, clearly has his heart in the right place with Good Kill and his handling of the complex arguments around the US military's use of unmanned aircraft to spy and kill their enemies is impressive throughout. He never papers over the fact that both sides of the argument have valid points but he's also not so even handed that his general anti-drone stance doesn't come through – which is undoubtedly a wise decision that prevents the film from being more anemic than it sadly already is.

Friday, November 27, 2015

Spectre

South Africa finally got the latest James Bond movie after it seemed to have come out everywhere else on earth first. Was it worth the wait, though?

This review is also up at Channel 24.

What it's about

A message from beyond the grave has James Bond hunting down a shadowy organization whose leader may have a connection to Bond's own past, while at the same time, even closer to home, forces within MI6 are conspiring to finally bring an end to the 00- program.

What we thought

Bond films have had a long tradition of being weirdly affected by their immediate predecessors, even though almost of all of them are stand-alone films with little to connect them but a handful of characters (and even then, the actors portraying them may not be the same). This started around the time Roger Moore took over as Bond and a dud like Moonraker would be followed up by the excellent For Your Eyes Only, which would conversely be followed by the middling-at-best Octopussy.

This constant bouncing between series highlights and series lowlights would continue throughout Moore's stint as Bond and, though it largely skipped Timothy Dalton (whose two films were sort of oddities in the series anyway), it came back in full force with Pierce Brosnan, whose four films basically went, in order, from great to a bit rubbish to really good fun to just unspeakably awful. The trend seemed to continue with Daniel Craig's first three outings as the exceptional series reinvention of Casino Royale was followed by the awful Quantum of Solace but bounced back with Skyfall, a strong contender for best Bond film to date.

At the outset, then, things don't necessarily look good for Spectre because surely even a great filmmaker like Sam Mendes doesn't have the power to break a tradition as old as he is? As it turns out, he kind of doesn't - but he gives it the old college try anyway. The result is a film that falls solidly on the top half of a qualitative ranking of the Bond series but is still a major disappointment after Skyfall and, though it's leagues better than Quantum of Solace, it still doesn't come close to rising above third place of the Daniel Craig era. It doesn't even manage to displace either Kingsmen: The Secret Service or Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation as the best spy film of the year – though that says as much about them as it does about it.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

The Hunger Games - Mockingjay: Part 2

We can all breathe a sigh of relief: Mockingjay Part 2 solidifies the Hunger Games saga as the gold standard in YA novel adaptations.

As a fierce defender of Mockingjay Part 1 (I loved all the talky bits), it's kind of odd that I have to say that, for all that it gets very right, Mockingjay Part 2 makes a strong case for smooshing the two films into one three-hour long epic.

The Hunger Games' final installment is an excellent capper to the series that impresses both as a gripping piece of entertainment and as impressively ambitious social commentary that deals with class warfare, traditional warfare, revolutions, the corruption of power and the way that the media is used and manipulated in all of the above. It's brave, smart and audacious filmmaking that just happens to be a major, big-budget Hollywood film aimed, nominally, at teenage girls.

Unfortunately, the one thing that stops it from ever really coming close to toppling Catching Fire as the series' best entry is that the pacing of the film - especially during much of the assault on the capital - lurches all over the place with a stop-start structure that alternates between really nicely done action scenes and one or two too many discussions about what to with poor brainwashed Peta who gets stuck accompanying them on this most crucial mission. Had they streamlined these sections and used them to join a condensed version of Mockingjay Part 1 with the film's climactic hour, Mockingjay would have been a damn near perfect single film. But, alas, money doesn't talk, it swears, and we landed up with two "merely" very, very good movies instead.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Grandma

All hail the return of the great Lily Tomlin to our big screens!

This review is also up at Channel 24

What it's about

A teenage girl approaches her recently widowed lesbian grandmother to help her pay for an abortion after her deadbeat boyfriend flakes on her but when it's revealed that her grandmother is as broke as she is, the two set out to raise the six hundred dollars that she needs – preferably without ever alerting the girl's emotionally cold, businesswoman mother.

What we thought

Arguably his best film since About a Boy, writer/ director Paul Weitz has crafted a charming, funny little film that seems to have been created with the sole purpose of having the wonderful Lily Tomlin remind us over and over again why it's such a crying shame that she hasn't been in more films over the last decade or two. She gets some unsurprisingly wonderful support by the likes of Marcia Gay Harden, Judy Greer and, the Voice himself, Mr Sam Elliot, not to mention a beautiful turn by beautiful, relative newcomer Julia Garner (she's previously mostly been known for supporting turns in notable works like the Perks of Being a Wallflower and Martha, Macy, May, Marlene) but this is Tomlin's movie all the way.

On paper, her lesbian, right-on, raging feminist character sounds like an infuriating ultra-PC cipher but, along with Weitz's obviously sympathetic writing, Tomlin infuses the character with enough warmth, humanity and humour to ensure that Elle Reid plays like a fully rounded human being. Sure, she's infuriating at times but that's just because she's an infuriatingly flawed person, but she's also loyal, determined and idealistic.

She doesn't just obviously love her granddaughter but also clearly feels things deeply – so deeply, in fact, that her prickly persona is mostly a defence mechanism to stop her from ever getting hurt, which is so perfectly displayed through her relationship with her current girlfriend, Olivia (Judy Greer, great in a largely straight role). She is also, of course, very, very funny and, even if she would probably be a lot of hard work to deal with in real life, she's terrific company for an 80-minute-long movie. This is a master class in both acting and characterization and, even if other parts of the film don't quite work all the time, she is enough to make the film a must-see.

The Loft

It's SUPPOSED to be a bit rubbish...

This review is also up at Channel 24

What it's about

Five married men buy an expensive loft apartment for their extramarital activities with their assorted mistresses, one-night-stands and working girls, but their shared secret takes an even darker turn when, one morning, one of them discover the body of a young, naked woman, brutally murdered and left face down in one of their beds.

What we thought

In many respects a locked-room murder mystery, the Loft is a quite old fashioned bit of sexy, pulpy fun about a group of fairly reprehensible men getting entangled in a web of lies, murder, secrets double-crosses and beautiful femme fatales. It's far from the best example of its genre (for truly great modern-day pulp, check out the Ed Brubaker/ Sean Phillips line of graphic novels from Image Comics) but it's a lot more effortlessly enjoyable than most of the stinky overseas reviews may have you believe.

The Loft is actually the second remake of Erik Van Looy's 2008 film, Loft, with the same director taking the helm for this English-language remake, working off a script by Wesley Strick, which is itself a direct adaptation of the original script by Bart De Pauw (got all that?). I have seen neither the original, nor the 2010 Dutch remake, but the mix of American and European sensibilities in this current remake are never less than fascinating.

How to Make Love Like an Englishman

Killer title, not so killer movie.

This review is also up at Channel 24

What it's about

A chauvinistic, womanizing Cambridge poetry professor heads for a new life in Los Angeles with his beautiful and very pregnant, young student, but it's not long before his new commitment to being a faithful husband and father is challenged in the most unlikely ways.

What we thought

Any film that has as many alternate titles as How to Make Love Like an Englishman (we get its original title, but it's also known in other territories as Some Kind of Beautiful and Lessons in Love – which sound for all the world like 1980s John Hughes teen comedies) is bound to be the sort of crass, crappy product that even those soulless studios are pretty embarrassed about. And, mostly, they kind of have the right to be. It's a plodding, misjudged and nowhere near funny enough romantic comedy with a cast that probably should know better and an ass-backwards kind of morality that you'd think we would have all long grown out of.

To be entirely honest, though, I didn't hate it anywhere near as much as I probably really should have. Dare I say it, I even kind of enjoyed it at times.

Part of it, to be sure, is that Jessica Alba and Salma Hayek are even easier on the eyes than the film's beautiful West Coast vistas (LA is known to be a notoriously ugly city, but you wouldn't think so from this movie) but there's also some fun to be had with Pierce Brosnan playing a charming but misanthropic, chauvinistic ass and Malcolm McDowell as his even more chauvinistic, curmudgeonly ass of a father. They kind of belong in a blacker, edgier comedy than this, but they are good for a chuckle or two.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Brooklyn

I'm going to make this one quick as I want a review up of it in time for the weekend but suffice to say, this is easily the best film of the week and, a couple of niggling flaws aside (hence the slightly conservative 8-star rating), one of the best films of the year.

I can't reveal exactly why I have some slight reservations about the film, as they all have to do with events - and one in particular - that take place just before and during the final act of the film but let's just say that had they done things very slightly differently in the later parts of the film, I would have no qualms whatsoever about giving this nine or even ten stars.

It's simply a beautiful film that is as soulful as it is immaculately crafted; as understated as it is moving. Brooklyn is a simple story of a young immigrant being caught not just between her old home and her new life, but between two very different but equally worthwhile men. This isn't Twilight, though, so those looking for melodramatic sweep should probably look elsewhere as this is far more interested in emotional honesty and quiet humanity than in complicated triangles. Hell, there isn't even a single antagonist to be found anywhere in the film.  

Even with its wonderfully witty and humane script by Nick Hornby (based on the acclaimed novel by Colm Toibin) and handsome direction by John Crowley, Brooklyn is very much Saoirse Ronan's film. This is the first film where she gets to fully immerse herself in her Irish background and make full use of her very thick Oirish accent, but more importantly it's probably her best performance yet. And considering how exceptional she is in damn near everything she has ever done, that's really saying something. She's backed by a top-notch cast, to be sure, but it's the way that she imbues her character with softness, strength and understated complexity that makes everything around her work as well as it does.      

Really, not much more needs to be said. It's a gorgeous little movie that, a few hiccups aside, stands tall as one of the very best of the year. Truly lovely, lovely stuff that I cannot recommend enough.


Sunday, November 8, 2015

A Walk in the Woods

Where's the love?!

This review is also up at Channel 24

What it's about

Based on Bill Bryson's beloved autobiographical travel book, we find Bryson (Robert Redford), older and living the quiet life with his wife in their suburban American home after two decades living in England. It's not long, however, before his general restlessness and unending passion for travel leads him to try hiking the punishing Appalachian Trail with a decidedly out of shape old friend (Nick Nolte) – all in the spite of the protests of his wife (Emma Thompson) and just about everyone else who knows him.

What we thought

A Walk in the Woods has generally not been particularly well received by overseas critics and, as near as I can tell, by many a Bill Bryson fan, but I'm slightly at a loss as to why this is. I haven't yet read the book on which the film is based and have only recently gotten into Bryson's work in general (based on what little I have read, though, his reputation as a funny and engaging non-fiction writer is very well earned) but regardless of how much the film may depart from its source, it's hard to believe that anyone wouldn't be utterly charmed by the end result.

The film has long been a passion project for Robert Redford – so long, in fact, that it was originally envisioned as being a reunion project for Redford and his long-time partner in crime, the much-missed Paul Newman – and though that does mean that Redford overlays a lot of his own personality onto the Bryson character here, he also imbues the film with enough heart and wit to more than do justice to a writer who is known for both.

I suppose it would be possible to criticize the film for its meandering plot, its half-assed eco-friendly pontificating and its overt sentimentality - but that's rather missing the point.

Bridge of Spies

Spielberg! The Coen Brothers! Tom Hanks! What could go wrong?

Not that much as it turns out...

This review is also up at Channel 24

What it's about

At the height of the cold war, American insurance lawyer, James Donovan, is called on to represent Rudolf Abel, a British man accused of being a Soviet spy. What starts off as a civic duty soon becomes something far greater, however, as Donovan and Abel's lives intertwine in a way that places both of their lives in danger. Based on a true story.

What we thought

In a way, I needn't really say much more about Bridge of Spies than that is directed by Steven Spielberg, co-written (based on an original script by newcomer Matt Charman, adapting Donovan's own writings) by the Coen Brothers and starring Tom Hanks. It's a frankly astonishing selection of talent and even if Bridge of Spies is not exactly the greatest film ever made, you probably don't need me to tell you that it is very good indeed.

And yet, there is still plenty that's surprising about it. For a start, I highly suggest against reading too much about what the film's actually about as going in blind means that I never really knew where it was going. What starts off looking for all the world like a Cold-War-era courtroom drama soon becomes something much more unexpected and much more intriguing but that really is all you should know going in – which is why I intend to continue being as vague as possible in terms of the plot in this review.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Crimson Peak

I know it's not exactly deep but as visual storytelling goes, it's hard to beat Crimson Peak.

And sorry this is so late but I've been a wee bit under this weather the past week. And a bit lazy. And yeah, this will be pretty short because, honestly, Crimson Peak is the sort of film you experience, rather than talk or read about.


Billed as Guillermo Del Toro's return to the more personal, intimate filmmaking of Pans Labyrinth and the Devil's Backbone after the bombast of Pacific Rim and Hellboy II, Crimson Peak is actually something a bit different. It's a film that in its construction is clearly incredibly personal to Del Toro (check out the wonderfully informative and funny interview that the Empire Magazine podcast did with the man himself a few weeks back) but is ultimately probably more about his love for gothic romance than anything more personally resonant.

The result is a film that is absolutely worth seeing, just as long as you don't go in expecting another Pan's Labyrinth. It's painstakingly and beautifully put together, with each and every frame a work of art. It may all be surface but with surface this damn near perfect, it's hard to complain too much. It's also certainly not the case that it's just about pretty art design for the sake of pretty art design: Del Toro makes the aesthetic of the film every bit as important to the story being told as the characters and plot. I could describe it here, but the true pleasure lies in experiencing the world of Crimson Peak for yourself without much prior knowledge. Even the trailer - which actually largely misrepresents the film as true horror when it's more of a gothic mystery/ romance that happens to feature some ghosts - should probably be avoided if at all possible.

As for the basic plot, characters, acting and script - you know, those things by which most of us judge a movie - they're actually not as important to the experience of watching Crimson Peak as is Del Toro's lovingly created world and expert storytelling acumen. Though even there, it's probably all too easy to write them off entirely but between the spectacular cast - most especially Jessica Chastain, clearly having the time of her life hamming it up as never before - and the compelling characters they play, there's enough of a baseline human presence to show that Del Toro's filmmaking is still as much about people as it is his love for worldbuilding and monsters. And, yes, the dialogue is overripe, the emotions melodramatic and the twists announce themselves with all the subtlety of a steam train but this is authentic gothic romance, after all, and these elements add to, rather than subtract from the overall experience.

I realize that I have spent almost the entirety of this quickie review seemingly apologizing for the film and that I have also not revealed a single thing about what the film is about, but, in this case at least, both are intentional. There is a lot of joy to be had from seeing how Del Toro tells its story, but the basic plot is really the least important thing about the film - it actually often is, but it's especially so here - and it's only with this understanding that you might truly appreciate what Del Toro has done here.

I adored Crimson Peak but if you want to enjoy it even half as much as me, you do need to approach the film with the correct pair of glasses. It features fine storytelling to be sure, but the real draw here is seeing a modern master making the very most of cinema as an artform. I'm still waiting for him to deliver another emotional powerhouse like Pan's Labyrinth but in the meantime I, for one, am more than happy just to sit back and watch Guillermo Del Toro play.  


Monday, November 2, 2015

Legend

Well, not quite. It ain't half bad though.

This review is also up at Channel 24

What it's about

The true story of Reggie and Ronnie Kray, the notorious twin gangster brothers who all but ruled London in the 1960s and '70s.

What we thought

Legend is, quite frankly, a pretty exasperating piece of work. For every element that works beautifully, there is something else that's just never as good as it should be. It is in many ways a really enjoyable film that's easy to recommend but, at the same time, its weaknesses become more and more distracting as it goes on.

The film grabs your attention pretty much immediately as we meet Reggie taunting a couple of cops whose entire existence is apparently dedicated to following the Krays until Reggie or Ronnie makes the single fatal mistake that will allow them to bring the full force of the law upon their heads. It's terrific stuff with sharp, funny dialogue and excellent performances from Tom Hardy as the charming Reggie Kray and Christopher Eccleston as his chief nemesis, Constable Scott, who is all but unrecognizable to those of us who are most familiar with him from Doctor Who.

Sadly, already the good stuff is tinged by the film's more unwelcome elements: in this case, Emily Browning's unnecessary and overwrought narration. Browning is generally in very good form, to be fair, as Reggie's long-suffering love interest but she is done no favours in her role as omnipresent over-explainer.

Still, hiccups aside, the first half of the film is really pretty effortlessly enjoyable. It almost definitely does a disservice to the true-life criminals that inspired it as the Krays are written as largely fairly innocuous criminals who may have ruled the East End underworld but, in comparison to most of the hardened gangsters of your average Scorsese movie, they seem almost cuddly in comparison.

Knock Knock

Who's there? Who cares?

This review is also up at Channel 24

What it's about

Evan Webber is a devoted husband and father who, while spending a weekend alone at home while his family if away, opens his house to two gorgeous, ruthlessly seductive girls who claim to be lost and stranded in the pouring rain. It's not long before his fidelity is put to the test but what should have been a one-night indiscretion soon proves to be the worst mistake he will ever make.

What we thought

Eli Roth is perhaps best known for Hostel, a film that took the quite clever template of the first Saw film and stripped it of anything but its worst torture-porn excesses; helping to usher in one of the worst ever eras in big-screen horror in the process. His latest film is refreshingly low on the gore but what could have been a highly satirical and smart comment on infidelity instead proves once and for all that our emperor hasn't just been running around sans clothing this whole time but has been doing so with his willy in his hand.

Knock Knock does seem to have a number of critics on its side (it's one of the rare occasions where the critics seem to have liked a genre film more than general audiences) but I cannot imagine why. As a horror or a thriller it is an abject failure, being neither thrilling nor remotely scary (though it is incredibly shrill and annoying) but I get the sense that what it was really going for was satirical black-comedy and it is at that where it really falters.

Friday, October 23, 2015

The Diary of a Teenage Girl vs Me, Earl and the Dying Girl

I haven't reviewed Me and Earl and the Dying Girl yet so I thought I'd team it up with this week's much tougher coming-of-age story. They certainly make for an interesting double bill.

My review of The Diary of a Teenage Girl is up at Channel 24, but first a couple of quick words on Me and Earl.


In many respects, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is the quirkier, more indie version of the Fault in Our Stars. Again, it's about teenagers dealing with a terminal disease and again there is still the irony of it also being about growing up.

Our hero of the piece, Greg (Thomas Mann)  makes amateur parodies of classic films with his co-worker (really best friend) Earl and he spends his whole life trying to remain invisible in a school divided along arbitrary but rigid lines. When Greg befriends "the dying girl" Rachel (Olivia Cooke) though, who has just been diagnosed with a otentiallyp curable form of leukemia, he is forced to confront his aloof relationship with others and his own thoughts on mortality and life.

It's a lovely, touching and very funny film, with great performances and a terrifically  sharp script by the author of the novel on which it is based, Jesse Andrews. The film parodies are charming and give the film a nicely off-kilter vibe but obviously it's the relationship between our three protagonists that really sell the film. It is, admittedly, a bit lopsided as the first half is incredibly funny and the second half kind of isn't but my biggest issue with it really is just about the biggest compliment I could give it: I wanted to spend more time with these characters and Rachel in particular so I felt kind of short-changed as it ended. It's also not quite as moving as the Fault in Our Stars but, on the other hand, it is funnier and more inventive.

It's good, good stuff basically and well worth checking out.

Now, as for The Diary of a Teenage Girl, things are a wee bit more complicated...

Burnt

Not so much burnt as under-done.

This review is also up at Chanel 24

What it's about

A disgraced American chef, forced to leave Paris thanks to a destructive lifestyle of drugs and booze, sets out to redeem himself by being awarded the coveted “Michelin 3 stars” by becoming head chef of an old friend's respected restaurant.

What we thought

I'm not much of a foodie so excuse the cliched metaphor but, for all of its charms, Burnt is more hors d'oeuvre than entree. It's tasty enough and it's not badly prepared, but it ultimately leaves me hungry and wanting more. Much like the dainty gourmet dishes in the film itself, in fact.

Bradley Cooper returns to a role not too dissimilar from one of his earlier performances as a chef in the short lived TV comedy, Kitchen Confidential, but he has obviously racked up quite the resume since. He is, as is now pretty typical for him, in good form here and he elevates some of the more mundane and well-worn aspects of the story. Though, to be fair, he is hardly alone in this as he is backed up by a really good cast, including Daniel Bruhl, Sienna Miller and Alicia Vikander, along with extended cameos by Uma Thurman and Emma Thompson. Indeed, a lot more from the latter, in particular, would have been especially welcome.

Frankly though, stellar though the cast may be, one has to wonder what they saw in the script (by the sporadically brilliant but inconsistent Steven Knight) in the first place. Not that it has a particularly bad screenplay or anything but, though it may well be perfectly enjoyable, there's nothing all that special about it either, as the story progresses pretty much exactly as you would expect it to and none of the characters, save for Cooper's Adam Jones, are much more than just solidly written.

Molly Moon and the Incredible Book of Magnetism

Really, really not good enough...

This review is also up at Channel 24

What it's about

Molly Moon is a smart, bookish and warmhearted orphan girl, living in a small orphanage in rural England, whose life takes a sudden and dramatic change when she finds a book on hypnosis at her local library.

What we thought

It's tempting to give the frankly fairly terrible Molly Moon and the Incredible Book of Hypnotism a pass just because it's a kids film, and a mostly harmless one at that, but there's something incredibly disingenuous, not to mention condescending, about accepting something this woefully below par just because it happens to be aimed at fairly young kids. In a world where Mary Poppins, School of Rock, Paddington and the Harry Potter series are readily available to rent, buy and/or download – and that's to say nothing of the countless brilliant animated kids films out there – there really is no excuse for something this lame and lazy.

And “lazy” is really the operative word here. That the story itself is incredibly far fetched – in particular, what with its portrayal of hypnotism being stretched to include some pretty powerful levels of mind control - is forgivable in and of itself as fairy tales aimed at kids are always allowed to rely on “fairy tale logic” but what is significantly less forgivable is how half-assed everything from the plotting, to the characterization to the basic moral of the film all are.

I haven't read the original novel by Georgia Byng, but there is a sense throughout the film that rather than telling a remotely coherent (and yes, a film can have “fairy tale logic” and be coherent at the same time) story, it's far more interested in strip mining better works for a cheap cash-in. The whole hypnotism as mind control thing is baloney, of course, but it also just feels like a desperate attempt to give our hero some sort of special power, but without ever thinking through what they're going to do with it.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Black Mass

Welcome back Mr Depp but this ain't exactly Goodfellas.

This review is also up at Channel 24

What it's about

The true story of Jimmy “Whitey” Bulger, a small-time Boston gangster, who, by working with the FBI to take down Boston's major crime family, soon finds himself with free rein to become the most ruthless, most feared criminal in the city.

What we thought

Black Mass is a gangster movie that can perhaps be admired for how utterly unglamorously it portrays the casually violent gangster lifestyle (which makes for a particularly interesting contrast with Legend, the upcoming portrayal of the infamous Kray brothers) but it's a very hard to film to be invested in, let alone actually enjoy.

Everything from the beige-and-tweed '70s fashion to the slow, downbeat direction to the utterly humourless script, adds up to an incredibly dour portrait of some of most spectacularly unlikable and unsympathetic low-life scum to hit our screen in quite some time. Director Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart, Out of the Furnace) does an admirable job of sticking to his guns; never conceding an inch to mainstream Hollywood tastes – but is that enough to add up to a film that's actually worth sitting through?

Even if it is hard to deny the integrity of the piece, it's equally hard to really recommend it as a piece of cinema, as it's story is fairly rote (if true), its characters ones-dimensional and it offers very little that we haven't seen done better before. At least, that would be so if not for one, utterly inescapable factor: Johnny Depp.

Reconnect

See, this is what happens when I review South African movies...

This review is also up at Channel 24

What it's about

While looking for a place to launch their new video game, Eric Scott and Jason White stumble upon an abandoned warehouse containing a fully functional twenty-year-old artificial intelligence named XJ1. With that warehouse about to be destroyed, the two friends search for a new home for the AI, before settling on uploading “him” to their work network: the highly secure intelligence company named Sky Corp, which happens to be run by Jason's father. What could possibly go wrong?

What we thought

I've got to be honest: Reconnect is a total bitch of a film to review. Quite aside for the fact that it's always a bit difficult to give a negative review an earnest independent movie, made with the best of intentions – bashing cynical, corpulent product like Transformers 4 is one thing, bashing a highly personal local film is quite another – Reconnect comes with a horribly tragic backstory. Earlier this month, the director of the film, Marius Swanepoel passed away suddenly, shortly after the film received its first public screening in Cape Town. He was, as near as I can tell, in his early thirties. Probably even younger than I am now. Rest in peace, sir.

Before getting into the actual film, therefore, please keep the following disclaimer in mind. This is true of all my reviews and is generally true of most reviewers but considering the nature of what we're dealing with here, I can't think of a better time to restate my “mission statement”. The following review is my honest opinion and, though I try to explain my opinions to the best of my abilities, my opinion will never be the final word on any film. I also write every review with the understanding that all movies require a lot of money, time and hard work to make, no matter what I might think of them; no matter how good or bad they may be. I approach every film as a reviewer, not as a filmmaker; I have no intention of ever directing a film and I am not bitter about anyone who has the talent and/ or the patience to make films. These are not the ravings of a jealous amateur filmmaker but the ravings of someone who loves film and storytelling in general. Finally, except in the rare case where I know the filmmaker to be a horrible piece of work, even my most scathing reviews should be seen as opinions on the work, not the person.

Got all that? Good, because I thought that Reconnect was unspeakably terrible.

Monday, October 12, 2015

American Ultra

In which Kristen Stewart is the best thing about it...

This review has already been up for a few days at Channel 24, in case you missed it.

What it's about

Mike Howell (Jesse Eisenberg) seems to be your average twenty-something stoner, living a fairly ordinary life as an aspiring cartoonist stuck in a dead end convenience-store job but with a loving girlfriend at his side every step of the way. As it turns out though, Mike is not who or what he seems as he suddenly finds himself the target of the C.I.A. – but, lucky for him, he is also armed with a set of deadly skills; the origins of which, though, are a total mystery to him.

What we thought

With its not entirely original but still very promising premise, you would be forgiven for thinking that American Ultra would be, at the very least, a fun, funny thrill ride that makes good use of its quite idiosyncratic cast. Sadly, it's something of a misfire that has its share of decent moments but is mostly a curious mess of a movie that can't quite decide whether it's a relatively serious high-concept espionage thriller or a goofy action comedy. Inevitably, it ends up being neither; making for a mercifully brief but quite frustrating ninety-four minutes.

Written by Max Landis whose very solid debut with Chronicle always somewhat counteracted his occasionally grating public persona as a bit of a geek know-it-all, stumbles badly here with a script that comes across as surprisingly uncertain of itself, filled with two-dimensional characters and leaden, unfunny jokes. Worse, it all feels unnecessarily mean-spirited and joyless for something that really should play out like a light and funny genre picture.

Pan

Another origin story that no one wanted...


By this point, I think we can safely say that J.M Barrie's immortal fairy tale has been pretty well mined by the great Hollywood machine. Along with the classic Disney animated film from way back in 1953, we've had a silent adaptation in the early '20s, spin-offs in the form of the Tinkerbell series and sequels, including Stephen Spielberg's largely derided Hook. We've even had a look at the life of its author in the decent but underwhelming Finding Neverland - which itself came out just a year after P.J. Hogan's fairly straightforward adaptation.

It's understandable, of course, as Peter Pan is that classic a story - and I haven't even gotten into the many, many reinterpretations on stage and TV and in novels and comic books, including my own favourite "cover", Peter David's wonderful novel, Tigerheart - but with so much baggage, it's hard not to come to a new version without at least some trepidation. Unfortunately for Pan - in essence, Peter's "origin story" of how he came to live in Neverland in the first place - such trepidations proved to be very well founded.

Pan is a bad movie, but it's not just your garden variety bad movie. No, Pan is the sort of bad movie that is so utterly pointless, so fundamentally misjudged that it's good points - of which there are actually quite a few - not only don't improve the bad parts but are brought down by them; to the point that they actually add to rather than subtract from the frustration of watching the film. It's a pretty classic example of the whole being significantly less than the sum of its parts, in other words, that is made all the worse by the fact that it constantly alludes to the brilliant fairy tale that inspired it but which it resolutely fails to live up to.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

The Martian

I can't remember the last Ridley Scott film to feel this assured. Well, okay, yes, I can, but that was American Gangster in 2007 and who the hell can remember that far back.

Welcome back, Sir Ridley, it's been way too bloody long!


The Martian tells the story of the first manned mission to mars (to be clear, the fictional story - but, um, you do know that, right?) and of the astronaut who is accidentally left for dead by his crewmembers and is forced to fend for himself on the inhospitable Red Planet until NASA send their next mission some four years hence. However, rather than going the more obvious route of a gritty, or at least more lonesome and meditative, survivalist story, it plays out like Apollo 13 on steroids - and it really is all the better for it.

This means that though it does lack the depth of something like Duncan Jones' beautiful indie sci-fi flick, Moon, it more than makes up for it in terms of sheer, unfiltered enjoyment. And, frankly, after the unpleasant, if breathtakingly evocative and/ or disappointing Everest, give me effortlessly enjoyable over grueling any day of the week.

Now, this being a story about a guy trying to survive a damn near impossible situation, it's not exactly all fun and games, but considering its subject matter, it's an absolute delight to see just how light and funny it turned out to be. The film flits between through locations - Mars, NASA HQ and the homeward bound flight of the rest of our poor astronaut's crew - and all three sections of the film are peopled with incredibly likable and sympathetic characters, with nary a bad guy in sight.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Self/Less

Sadly, more like Point/Less

This review is also up at Channel 24

What it's about

A dying real estate mogul turns to a covert corporation for his last chance of survival: a new procedure that would transfer his consciousness into a younger body. It's not long, however, before he starts to find out that this miraculous procedure may not be all that it seems.

What we thought

Self/less comes with a fairly tried and true science fiction premise but it's disappointing to see just how little it does with it.

Science fiction has long been interested in questioning the nature of the soul and of consciousness while the quest for immortality has been a constant theme in both science and fiction for as long as anyone can imagine. Self/less is only the latest in this long tradition and its central premise of achieving some kind of immortality by transferring one's consciousness into new bodies is far from a new one. That it's unoriginal is neither unexpected nor problematic, therefore, but what is significantly less forgivable is how tired and uninspired it all feels.

Needless to say, if you've seen the trailer or even just the film's poster, Self/less is not exactly thoughtful, “smart” science fiction that is more interested in ideas than in racking up explosions but that doesn't excuse just how unwilling it is to tackle its story on anything other than the most superficial of levels. After all, there have been countless popcorn sci-fi films that still have depth and intelligence and even if they don't tackle their themes full on, they often suffuse the action nonetheless.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

We Are Your Friends

Because not all flops deserve their fate...

This review is also up at Channel 24

What it's about

Aspiring DJ, Cole Carter, believes that all it takes is “one track” to make his mark as a professional music spinner but as he has to navigate his way through deadbeat friends, a self-destructive mentor and a potentially disastrous romantic relationship, he finds that the road to the top might be a whole lot less straightforward than he could ever have imagined.

What we thought

Between its general drubbing from overseas critics and its status as one of the biggest box office bombs of the year. We Are Your Friends comes to these shores with a whole lot of baggage. Add to that my own personal bias of having little to absolutely no interest in electronic dance music and significantly less in the whole clubbing scene, and the film had something of an uphill battle in winning me over. Here's the thing, though: it kind of did.

Now, no one in their right mind would consider this film any sort of masterpiece – especially as it pretty consistently reminds you of far better films – but it is a surprisingly effective and affecting little indie-style (though, crucially, in light of its box office failure, not actually indie) drama. Hell, though I remain utterly uninterested in the music featured in the film, it even managed to convince me that EDM (as the kids call it) has far more going for it than I may have first thought.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Everest (IMAX 3D)

Leaving you (or me, at the very least) cold in more ways than one...


To adequately review Everest, you kind of have to look at the film from two almost disconnected levels. The first - and this is something that really can be best appreciated in 3D IMAX - on a purely technical level, the second as a piece of storytelling. As you may well have guessed by now, Everest passes with flying colours on the first point, but things look a whole lot more dubious on the second.

Put simply, from a purely aesthetic and technical point of view, Everest is nothing less than spectacular. Between its fully immersive soundscapes and the appropriate crispness of even the smallest sounds, the film obviously calls for the best sound system imaginable to appreciate the magnitude of the experience on offer here. Even more than its auditory delights (and terrors!) though, the film is just breathtaking to look at. I was disappointed by the lack of IMAX aspect ratio, as the added height would have definitely added to the dizzying experience, but the huge screen gives a great sense of the magnitude of the eponymous mountain and the unutterable beauty of the great panoramic vistas of the Himalayas. It's absolutely worth seeing Everest for this alone - though I think it goes without saying that you do need a pretty killer cinematic setup to truly appreciate it.

Sadly though, bringing to mind something like Avatar, it really does only work as a piece of spectacle. Not that that's anything to be sneezed at but, considering the material with which the film is working, it's impossible not to be disappointed by how anemic a piece of storytelling it is.

Friday, September 11, 2015

The Transporter Refueled

Not so much refueled as rewarmed...

Check out this review also at Channel 24

What it's about

This reboot of the Transporter franchise finds Frank Martin and his father, Frank Sr., in France and involved in an elaborate revenge scheme by a group of former prostitutes against their former boss, a Russian crime lord.

What we thought

After the Transporter TV series crashed and burned – seriously, did anyone actually watch that show – we are once again confronted with that crucial question: can there be a Transporter movie without Jason Statham? The answer, as you may well have expected even before seeing Transporter Refueled, is, of course, you can't.

It's not quite that The Transporter Refueled is an utterly terrible movie, so much as it's one that has no reason whatsoever to exist. While Ed Skrein spends the entire film doing a not very good Statham impression and Loan Chabanol spends her time looking for all the world like a pretty terrific mix of Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Olivia Munn and Chloe Bennet, everything around them feels like the warmed up leftovers of a thousand better action flicks.

Monday, August 31, 2015

Every Thing Will Be Fine

Or will it?

This review is also up at Channel 24.


What it's about

After being involved in a tragic car accident that resulted in the death of a young child, author Tomas Eldan is forced to come to grips with what happened, even as his writing career starts to take off.

What we thought

It's been a long time since a Wim Wenders (Paris, Texas; Wings of Desire) film has seen a cinematic release in this country but the extremely clumsily titled Every Thing Will Be Fine is far from his best work - even if it is, in some respects, quite representative of his enormous talents as a filmmaker.

Wenders has always made glacially-paced, elegiac films that are as much about simmering emotions and overall mood as they are about traditional plot mechanics so it's hardly the case that Every Thing Will Be Fine is a major departure for him. It's also every bit as gorgeously shot and evocatively scored as his very best work and even if his experiment with 3D effects doesn't yield particularly impressive results, it's still easy to get lost in the sheer artistry on display.

Sadly, while the film works brilliantly as an almost ambient experience, it falls shockingly flat as an actual film. It's plot is threadbare, to be sure, but no more so than something like Paris, Texas and actually, despite its basic familiarity and simplicity, it's the sort of plot that could work as the perfect springboard for an intriguing character study, a meditation on the relationship between art and tragedy and, very simply, as a poignant and emotional movie-going experience. The problem is that Wenders gestures towards the potential of such a story but, thanks in no small part to a very stiff script by Bjorn Olaf Johannessen, they never amount to anything more than gestures.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Paper Towns

Less cancer, more angst - how does the new John Green adaptation hold up?


Beloved YA author, John Green, may not be a filmmaker himself but he is well on his way to being the Millennial answer to John Hughes with the release of the second movie based on one of his novels, Paper Towns. Much like the late and much missed writer/ director behind such teen classics as the Breakfast Club and Ferris Bueller's Day Off, Green has proven himself to have an uncanny grasp of adolescence in all its messy, uncertain and often funny glory.

After the blackly comic and unbearably moving The Fault in Our Stars, with its examination of how terminal illness might affect those who are too young to have lived a full life but too old to be unaware of what they're going to be missing out on, Paper Towns is a much breezier affair that nonetheless shows that you don't have to have cancer for adolescence to be a pretty painful experience. It's not as good as the Fault in Our Stars, to be honest, but its willingness to actually engage its audience with empathy, truthfulness and good humour puts it leagues above most movies aimed at teenagers.

Taking the well-worn plot device of the road trip and doing something kind of new with it, Paper Towns sees our young, quite introverted hero, Quentin (the Fault in Our Stars' show-stealing Nat Wolff) embark on a mission to find Margo (former model and surprisingly impressive actress, Cara Delevingne), the extroverted, adventurous girl-next-door who he is absolutely certain is the love of his love, after she skips town one night after the two of them spend an exciting and potentially romantic evening together getting revenge on an ex-boyfriend who wronged her. With his geeky entourage and her beautiful and popular best friend in tow, Quentin starts following the clues she left behind, most of which having to do with so-called "paper towns", fictional points on a map that cartographers would use to protect their work from would-be forgers.    

Monday, August 24, 2015

The Man from U.N.C.L.E.

Guy Richie's weird career path takes another unexpected turn...


After turning Sherlock Holmes on his head, Guy Richie continues to stay away from the more "personal" films that have dragged his name into the mud (see Swept Away, Revolver, RocknRolla) and has turned his attention to a new franchise; this time trying to translate the '60s James Bond cash-in TV show, The Man from U.N.C.L.E, to the big screen for modern audiences. This being a Guy Richie movie though, things aren't quite so simple, and I'm still undecided on whether he actually fulfilled his goals here or not. The Man from U.N.C.L.E is many things but mostly it's a very intriguing mess of one part traditional spy movie, one part spy spoof and fifteen parts Guy Richie indulgence that irritates as often as it impresses, bores as often as it thrills and is as likely to make you laugh as it is to make you groan. One thing it certainly isn't, though, is Swept Away and for that we should all be grateful.    

The plot is overly complicated even by spy movie standards but all you really need to know is that this is basically the origin story of the U.N.C.L.E agency and it involves our two spies, Russia's Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer - American) and America's Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill - British, sometimes Kryptonian) working together with a German asset, Gabriella Teller (Alicia Vikander - Swedish) to stop a group of Nazis from acquiring (or maybe selling? - it's all about as clear as mud) a nuclear weapon being designed by Teller's father. Plots in spy flicks are often of secondary importance but the first place that the Man From U.N.C.L.E lets the side down is in just how incomprehensible and convoluted its plot is - which is especially odd considering how often Richie over-explains the film's various twists and turns through a couple of dozen utterly unnecessary flashbacks.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Trainwreck

Fortunately NOT living up to its title...


After Judd Apatow's last directorial effort, the narcissistic, whinging, unrelatable and thoroughly unlikable This is 40, you'll excuse me for not expecting very much from his latest slice of R-rated comedy-drama. And, to be honest, for the first fifteen minutes of Trainwreck, I became more and more worried that my low expectations were going to be met. Fortunately though, once the film finds its rhythm - interestingly, precisely the point at which Bill Hader first appears on screen - it settles into becoming a genuinely funny and heartfelt romantic comedy, with two particularly great characters at its centre.

Mind you, it's pretty surprising that Apatow actually directed Trainwreck, as its the only film of his that he hasn't had an active hand in writing. Either way though, this certainly explains why it is such a departure from This is 40 and seems to pick up right where Bridesmaid's (and, oddly enough, Celeste and Jesse Forever) left off.

We once again have a deeply flawed, female protagonist, played by an actress who is very much unafraid of coming across as (theoretically) unlikable, pathetic and deeply, deeply messed up, where the joke is as much on her as it is with her - and yet all of this adding up to a character (and an actress) that we like all the more precisely because of her faults. And, again, this character also happens to be played by the film's screenwriter: in this case, the increasingly prolific Amy Shumer, who makes the jump from stand-up and the small screen to her first major motion picture.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Love and Mercy

I cannot overstate how much I love this movie. The one half isn't quite as brilliant as the other but this is very, very close to a 10-star film.

This review is also up at Channel 24

What it's about

Telling the true story of Beach Boy and all round musical genius, Brian Wilson, Love and Mercy explores two crucial periods in Wilson's life. In the first, we meet Wilson (as played by Paul Dano) at his creative peak in the mid-sixties, about to record the seminal album Pet Sounds but whose already fragile self starts crumbling as pressures, both inside and out, start playing on his mind. The second portion of Wilson's life, which is told concurrently to the first and set in the mid 1980s. finds him (this time portrayed by John Cusack) a broken man, medicated up to his ears by his controlling psychiatrist and estranged from his family and friends and lacking any independence whatsoever, but when he meets Melinda Ledbetter, a beautiful car-saleswoman, his life takes a very unexpected turn.

What we thought

Love and Mercy is very simply, and by quite some distance, the best pop biopic to come along since at least Walk the Line and is, in no uncertain times, one of the year's very best films. Partly, no doubt, because Brian Wilson is one of the very, very few musical legends even more fascinating than the Man in Black but also because Love and Mercy just does such a tremendous job of bringing this extraordinary life – and crucially, this extraordinary talent - to life on our screens.

From script to performances to score, Love and Mercy is not your average biopic and it's all the better for it. Largely rewriting the original script by Michael A Lerner, screenwriter, Oren Movermen, brings the unique approach that he took with the brilliantly demented Bob Dylan impressionist-biopic to bear on Love and Mercy's similarly legendary subject.