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Monday, April 27, 2015

The Book of Life

Age of Ultron isn't the only new release worth checking out, after all.

Oh, also, one thing I didn't mention in my review is that the soundtrack is pretty damn great, as it reworks a bunch of new and old pop songs into Mariachi numbers - with Radiohead's Creep being a particular delight. I go on a bit about the film's awesome visuals but make no mistake, the soundscape is just as important in creating the overall effect.

This review is also up at Channel 24.

What it's about

Monolo and Joaquin are childhood friends fighting over the same girl but when supernatural beings make a bet on the outcome of their (usually) friendly rivalry, this love triangle becomes a struggle between life-and-death itself.

What we thought

The Book of Life with its fixation on death (as a kid in the film says: “what is it with Mexicans and death!”) and its overpoweringly twisted visuals is probably not for for very young or highly sensitive kids but for anyone with even the slightest taste for the ghoulish, it's an absolute delight.

The plot itself has the elegant simplicity of a folk tale – it's literally presented this way, in fact – but the actual story is easily the least compelling aspect of the whole thing. Indeed, taken on paper, the story, the characters and the themes are all very familiar, if not outright cliché, but it's how they're presented that truly wows.

The film is, first and foremost, both very sweet (ghoulishness and all) and very, very funny. The gags come thick and fast and they come in all forms – from subtle sight gags to an almost bawdy sense of slapstick. Some jokes did work better for me than others – I've never been a fan of the stock dumb character (see: Joey from friends) and this film is no exception – but the film is so packed with humour that even a one-in-two hit rate makes it far, far funnier than most modern comedies.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Avengers: Age of Ultron

No introduction necessary here, but I should say that my feelings about this film haven't been entirely constant. I adored it while watching it, was slightly disappointed when it finished and for a few hours after it and finally settled on my current largely enthusiastic position and very slightly conservative rating. 

And, oh yeah, there be no spoilers here.

This review is also up (in slightly shorter form) at Channel 24. Follow the link for an alternative take by Gabi Zietsman as well.

The Avengers: Age of Ultron is a rollicking, endlessly entertaining joy from beginning to end but it's one that may also fall prey to its own build up. Indeed, even my own reservations about the film have less to do with the film itself, than certain expectations I have created in the intervening years between the Avengers' first big screen outing in 2012 and now.

But first, the good stuff. Once again, the real joy of the Avengers is watching these disparate characters interact with one another and writer/ director Joss Whedon is unquestionably the man for the job. Known first and foremost for his witty, stylized dialogue and his beautifully on-point characterization, Whedon builds on the relationships established in the first film and even introduces a number of new elements along the way – some from other existing Marvel films and some making their debut here.

The way the different characters work together in the film's many meticulously orchestrated action scenes is a wonder to behold but, once again, the real fun begins when the action stops and the characters start riffing off one another with Whedon's genuinely funny, convention-busting dialogue. And, considering just how many characters there are in this film, Whedon's ability to balance all these different personalities remains truly impressive.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Run All Night

Liam Neeson is an actin thriller? Surely not!

This review is also up at Channel 24

What it's about

Jim Conlon is a washed up mob enforcer plagued by demons of his past, but when he kills the son of his boss and best friend while defending the life of his own estranged son, those demons come to the fore as he has to choose between his flesh and blood and the man to whom he has been loyal his whole life.

What we thought

Teaming up once again with director Jaume Collet-Serra, with whom he already made two of his more solid action thrillers, Unknown and Non-Stop, Liam Neeson once again reminds us just how good he is at playing the grizzled action hero and just how capable he is of playing so much more than just the grizzled action hero. Run All Night definitely falls somewhere towards the top of Liam's late period ouvre, which was in itself quite a pleasant surprise, but it's hard to shake the feeling that it would perhaps have been far more effective – and most definitely far fresher – had its star not played basically the same character in his last dozen movies.

Now, yes, it's true: unlike most of his action roles, Neeson does play a guy who's basically a baddie but, really, that's only a technicality. While the film tells us a lot about Jim Conlon's past as a particularly cold blooded killer, it shows us a man who uses violence only in the defence of himself and others. For an apparent mob hitman, Conlon sure seems like a decent guy who does the right thing at every turn. It's Liam being Liam basically and though it's hard not to like him for it, I would really love to see him do something noticeably different for a change; really make use of his considerable acting chops.

Saint Laurent

Where's an exploding helicopter when you need one...

This review is also up at Channel 24

What it's about

A look at the peak ten years in the the hedonistic, bohemian life of acclaimed French designer, Yves Saint Laurent.

What we thought

You wait all your life for one biopic about Yves Saint Laurent to come along, only for two to come along at once. I'm kidding, of course. Only one of these biopics actually reached these shores – the equally creatively titled, Yves Saint Laurent is MIA – and, far more pertinently, if Saint Laurent is any indication of its real-life subject then I really can't imagine anyone waiting a day, let alone a lifetime, to pay good money to spend even five minutes of their time with this insufferable bore.

Lucky me though, I did get to spend, or should I say “do”, my time with this insufferable bore! But not for five minutes. Oh, no, not for five minutes. I had the pleasure of losing a full two and a half hours of my life to this horrible hell of a film – two and a half hours of my life that will only mean anything if you, dear readers, heed my warnings and avoid Saint Laurent like the black death. I usually encourage people to go and make up their own minds about films - and I do certainly hate to complain when I'm being paid to write about a film that I've watched for free - but this is one time where I can honestly, truly, genuinely say: I suffered so you don't have to.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

The Gunman

Oh, Sean. Oh, Sean. What have you done?

This review is also up at Channel 24

What it's about

After a high-profile assassination of the minister of mining in the Congo, former special forces soldier turned mercenary hitman, Jim Terrier, tries to leave his old life behind him and embarks on a career working for a non-profit organisation. His past soon catches up to him, however, as he is attacked while on a philanthropic mission to the Democratic Republic of Congo and he quickly learns that his entire team is now the target of shadowy forces.

What we thought

Directed by Taken's Pierra Morrel, the Gunman effectively tries to do for “serious actor” Sean Penn what Taken did for fellow (once) “serious actor” Liam Neeson: turn him into an action star that can go head to head with the likes of Jason Statham or Dwayne Johnson. Also like Taken, it tries to mix serious world issues – human trafficking in Taken; American corporations' exploitation of third world countries in the Gunman – with nuts and bolts, and often quite brutal, action thrills. It fails. On both counts.

While it's true, I have never understood the appeal of Taken, let alone it's sequels, it's at least better than what we have here. Well, in most ways, anyway. Taken still takes the cake for its callously ill-judged melding of the real-life horrors of human trafficking with seriously goofy sub-Die-Hard action silliness, but on every other level, it's unquestionably the superior piece of work.

Spare Parts

The title does kind of sum up the film's biggest problems, but I'll be lying if I said I didn't very much enjoy it.

This review is also up at Channel 24

What it's about

An out-of-work engineer takes up a substitute teacher job at a severely under-funded, mismanaged public school of mostly Hispanic, sometimes illegal, immigrants but when a diverse group of four students approach him to help them enter a highly competitive robotics competition, he soon finds himself becoming embroiled in his young students' lives far more than he ever expected. Based, somewhat loosely, on a true story.

What we thought

While there is admittedly what to be sniffy about in this quite obvious and clichéd (yet still mostly true) feel-good drama, I nonetheless found Spare Parts to be one of the most charming and pleasantly surprising minor gems to come out so far this year. Faint praise, perhaps, but that seems oddly fitting for a film that is this unassumingly lovely.

Directed by Sean McNamara, a director who has directed some fifty-four different films and TV shows over twenty-five years, none of which having made any real impact whatsoever, and written by Joshua Davis, who is known far more for his arm-wrestling career (well, “known”) than for his near-non-existent screenwriting career, you would be excused for not expecting much from their first collaboration. Sure, it features some relatively big names like Marisa Tomei, Jamie Lee Curtis and George Lopez among its cast but that alone is hardly enough to be any sort of guarantee of quality. And that's before you even get to that all-too-often terrifying phrase: “based on an inspiring true story...”

Thursday, April 2, 2015

On Fast Cars, Ludicrous Dystopias and Timeless Fairy Tales

Despite it currently being something of a lackluster period in cinemas - as it always is this time of year - there are three quite big films out right now that deserve at least a quick, cursory glance. One is a well done but slightly redundant remake, one is daft but fun and one is just daft. Guess which one's which...

Insurgent. The Hungers Games film franchise, despite its generally positive critical reviews and enthusiastic public reception, has often been the target of frankly often sniffy critics and bitter hipster contrarians as nothing more than juvenile nonsense that does nothing more than knock off classic examples of the dystopian genre for the rapid consumption of stupid, ADHD-suffering teenagers. Quite aside for the fact that this overlooks the franchise's many obvious merits, as well as the fact that they may well serve as a perfect "gateway drug" for a whole new generation to check out classics like Brave New World, Battle Royale or A Clockwork Orange (though hopefully not until they're quite a bit older, as far as the latter two go), I can only assume that the Hunger Games' harshest critics have simply never seen either film in the Divergent series.

An obvious cash-in of Suzanne Collins's tremendously popular Hunger Games novels and their cinematic adaptations, The Divergent series is similarly set in a dystopian not-too-distant future where humanity is divided across very rigid lines, whose salvation lies in a one-in-a-million teenage girl who reluctantly takes on the whole rotten system with the help of but a few ragtag allies. The difference is that while The Hunger Games' broken world is one that is based on a very recognizable and well thought out class-system and its portrait of rebellion is surprisingly layered and believable, the Divergent series rests on a premise that doesn't make a lick of sense and on themes that are as muddled as they are simplistic.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Top Five

Perhaps not a "top five" comeback but still, it's nice to see the very talented Chris Rock back on solid form...

This review is also up at Channel 24

What it's about

Andre Allen is a comedian trying to be taken seriously as an actor but as he tries to promote his latest “serious film”, his life is thrown into disarray by an in-depth interview with a beautiful and fiercely intelligent journalist and his upcoming televised wedding to his reality-star fiancée.

What we thought

Top Five walks a very fine line between self-indulgence and honest self-exploration but it is very much to Chris Rock's credit that his clearly immensely personal dramedy stays mostly on the right side of that line. And considering that much of this is presumably autobiographical and is written by, directed by and starring the man himself, with ample support from his many famous friends, that's no small feat at all.

Indeed, though it's a stretch to call Top Five a flawless piece of work, what with its occasional self-indulgence and its over-reliance on crude humour, as well as an episodic narrative that is sometimes let down by a few scenes that fall rather flat, it is an impressively bold, passionate and entertaining film that goes some way towards redeeming all the crap with which Rock has been involved (in terms of films, anyway) over the past couple of decades.

Sure, there was the decidedly quite good Two Days in New York and a number of fun guest appearances on the likes of Broad City, Louie and Jerry Seinfeld's Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee but he's largely been known these past few years for doing OK voice work in the Madagascar films and for turning up in some truly miserable comedies – not a few of which happen to be Adam Sandler vehicles.