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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


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.

White Bird in a Blizzard

This film has been pushed back so far, I completely forgot that I had reviewed it!

Here it is at Channel 24 though.

What it's about

Set in 1988, Kat Connors is a fairly typical teenage girl but whose life is thrown in disarray when her mother disappears without warning one day.

What we thought

The latest film from cult director Gregg Araki (The Doom Generation, Kaboom) is not exactly what anyone would call a flawless masterpiece. Its pacing is a bit off, its narrative often elliptical and its resolution feels almost like an afterthought. Add to that the film's confrontational attitude towards linear storytelling and “realism” (though its neither surreal nor hard to follow), and it's simply bound to piss a lot of people off.

Personally though, not only am I very glad to have seen – or, more accurately, experienced – White Bird in a Blizzard (which is a beautiful, evocative title, regardless of the film itself), I'm also thrilled that a movie this unabashedly uncommercial is actually being released, even in a limited fashion, to cinemas in this country. It may not be perfect but it is genuinely evocative and is bound to both challenge and leave a lasting impression on its audience.

Also, unlike far too many “art” films that come our way, there's nothing austere or self-important about White Bird in a Blizzard. It may not be quite as anarchic or as acidic as Araki's more notorious features but its mixture of pitch black humour, occasional diversions into high-camp (thanks mostly to a deliciously OTT Eva Green) and still youthful, punkish energy means that it's a visceral, fundamentally enjoyable movie-going experience. And a fairly unique one at that.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Fantastic Four

I blame Josh Trank.

Incidentally, I do go through the plot of the film from beginning to end, pretty much, so this isn't technically as spoiler-free as my usual reviews. That said there is absolutely nothing about the plot that could actually spoil this for you. Fantastic Four is so bad, it really is quite beyond anything as simple as spoilers. Frankly, the only way you could spoil this film for yourself is by actually going to see it.

Also, if you're looking for a dispassionate, professional review, I'm afraid you're going to have to look elsewhere. Things are going to get ranty and fast... 

It's only been a few days since the Fantastic Four reboot hit US and UK screens and already I feel like I'm just piling on to all of negativity that greeted the film by fans, casual movie goers and critics alike. What can I do though, Fantastic Four really is that bad.

It's so bad, in fact, that walking out of it, it's hard not to look back at the 2005 Fantastic Four film and its Silver Surfery sequel with a newfound appreciation. Sure, those films were excessively cheesy, cheap-looking and lacking in the imagination and wonder of the comics at their best but at least it had a sense of lightness to it, a sense of fun, and characters that were at least partially faithful to their comic book counterparts. Yes, Jessica Alba was a terrible choice to play Sue Storm (I like Alba fine in other stuff but she was way miscast there) and Dr Doom was just an unholy mess from top to bottom but, even then, the 2005 version is still leagues ahead of what the current version does to these characters - and the poor actors playing them.

The plot this time goes back to retelling the origins of the Fantastic Four, only this time spending a good hour of the film's fairly brief one-hundred-minute running time on the lead up to our heroes (and villain) getting their powers. The characters are younger this time, as the film draws heavily from the reimagined Ultimate Fantastic Four comics, and they earn their powers by travelling to another dimension, rather than into space but the basic gist is much the same. Except it's not. Though it was actually a smart move to base their origins in inter-dimensional, rather than space travel, as the original origin was very much a product of the early 1960s - as the Apollo missions were only getting started - and there's nothing inherently wrong with having younger actors for these parts, this protracted origin story feels off right from the word go.

Friday, August 7, 2015

Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation

How the hell is this series still going so strong?!

This review is also up at Channel 24

What it's about

As the MIF are disbanded as a government agency and Ethan Hunt is discredited by his superiors, Hunt and his team go rogue to stop a covert organization called the Syndicate and its shadowy leader, Solomon Lane.

What we thought

Four sequels in and the Mission Impossible franchise shows no sign whatsoever of slowing down, even as it has started to feel more and more like America's (very impressive) answer to James Bond, rather than anything to do with the original TV series. Rogue Nation may not quite be the best of series (its ludicrously mad predecessor still holds that particular honour) but it remains an exceptionally entertaining thrill ride that will have you clamouring for round six.

Sticking to the series' accidental tradition of having a new director for each film, Christopher McQuarrie takes the helm this time as both director and co-writer; teaming up for the third time with Tom Cruise after Jack Reacher and the criminally under-seen Edge of Tomorrow. McQuarrie doesn't exactly have a spotless CV as he his name is attached to such cinematic disasters as Jack the Giant Slayer and, heaven help us, The Tourist, but his work here, both as a writer and director, is incredibly assured and he easily fits right in where Brian De Palma, John Woo, JJ Abrams and Brad Bird left off. His directorial style is significantly less singular than those who came before him but there is still something to be said for the level of sheer solidness and professionalism he brings to the film, in everything from the intricate plotting to the strong characterization to the tremendously fun (not to mention coherent and easy to follow) set pieces.

Monday, August 3, 2015

Big Game

Big Stoopid (Fun), more like!

This review is also up at Channel 24

What it's about

After Air Force One is shot down over miles of Forest in Finland, the President of the United States of America soon finds himself teaming up with the unlikely partner of a young Finnish boy who turns out to be his only hope of survival and the only one who can help him hunt down and stop the people that took down his supposedly impenetrable fortress in the sky.

What we thought

If Royal Night Out was the female version of a movie that's so silly it's impossible not to enjoy then Big Game is unquestionably its male counterpart. A very weird mix of an adventure story for boys, a coming of age story and an Air-Force-One-like action thriller, Big Game starts off on a level of abject absurdity and gets more and more ridiculous from that point on. And, would you know it, I really rather enjoyed it.

It's impossible to talk about the film's most insane moments without getting into spoilers but suffice it to say that when the shooting down of Air Force One by a bunch of low-rent terrorists is by far the most realistic thing about the film, you should know exactly how daft everything else is. Every plot twist is either really predictable or really, really stupid and, of course, the action scenes make those in Die Hard 4 look like the opening half-hour of Saving Private Ryan.

However, quite aside for the fact that I kind of love it when action films aren't afraid to go full bonkers - as long as they have a sense of humour about it, of course – there's a basic likeability that runs throughout the film. In particular, everything with our young, Finnish hero, played very sympathetically by Onni Tommila . This ain't exactly Stand by Me or Son of Rambow but it kind of does its job – even if that job is basically turning this insecure young kid, living in the shadow of his Master Hunter father, into a great hunter in his own right by hunting machine-gun-wielding baddies and saving the president's life over and over. As Coming of Age stories go, this at least isn't one that we've seen a thousand times before. Probably for good reason... but, hey, brownie points for originality, I guess!

That Sugar Film

Stop me if you've heard this one before...

This review is also up at Channel 24

What it's about

A documentary about the detrimental effects of our daily sugar consumption as we follow documentarian, Australian and health-nut, Damon Gameau as he embarks on a carefully monitored high-sugar diet – that happens to be made up of regular, off-the-shelf products, rather than high-sugar soft drinks or sweets.

What we thought

That Sugar Film covers material that has already been covered very recently in the documentary Fed Up. If you feel the need to be lectured about how all of but the very, very few of us who consume nothing but the freshest of fresh produce (with a tiniest drop of meat for variety) are doomed for death by sugar, then, good news, That Sugar Film is every bit as preachy as Fed Up but it's much, much more entertaining. It is, however, significantly less trust-worthy.

Now, to be clear, though I do have something of a sweet tooth, I would have to be I the deepest state of denial to claim that too much sugar is bad for a person and that your average person's diet – which all but inevitably features at least some processed food – is far from ideal. It's hard to shake the feeling though that the shock-and-aw-crap tactics of That Sugar Film (like Fed Up before it) are rather pushing things a bit. Quite aside for the fact that a good number of actual experts are highly critical of the idea that it is the elimination of a single food-stuff, rather than a balanced and healthy diet, that results in a healthier lifestyle, the often desperate tactics that the film uses to drive its point home suggests that there is a whole lot more going on than meets the eye.


Marvel's funniest - and smallest - movie to date.

The quick plot-synopsis bit:

When his ambitious and amoral protege unlocks the secret to his "Pym-particle" - a scientific breakthrough that allows for the radical growing or shrinking of anything up to and including a human being, that would be deadly in the wrong hands - former superhero and scientist Hank Pym enlists the aid of his estranged daughter, Hope Van Dyne, and good-hearted cat-burglar, Scott Lang, to help him steal his own technology back.

The not-so-quick review bit:

Ant-man looked all set to be the first major failure for Marvel Studios - at least since they started building their cohesive universe with the first Iron Man film. Quite aside for the usual problem of the character being one of Marvels' lesser-known faces to non comic-book fans - something that clearly didn't make an iota of difference to Guardians of the Galaxy last year, to be fair - Ant-man has had by far the most troubled production of any Marvel film to date.

The property was originally developed specifically as a vehicle for beloved cult director Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World) to bring his quirky, highly kinetic style to the Marvel Cinematic Universe with one of the company's more off-beat characters. Sadly, after a decade of working on the film (it was commissioned way back in 2006, just after the first Iron Man), the "creative differences" between Marvel's head honchos and Wright reached a breaking point and Wright left the project, just as it was about to begin production with its already committed all-star cast.

With a short deadline to meet, Marvel hired Peyton Reed (Bring it On, The Break Up), a decidedly less interesting comedy director to turn the film around and have the whole thing completed in the space of a year. And, while Marvel kept much of Wright and Joe Cornish's original script, it was extensively rewritten by the film's star, Paul Rudd, and Will Ferrell's frequent partner in crime, Adam McKay. Between all these less than promising factors and Joss Whedon's candid thoughts on how difficult Marvel has become to work with at times, as their focus has become more and more about consistency in tone and building a bigger universe, rather than the individual films themselves (a strategy that has proven artistically disastrous when Marvel or DC apply it to their comic-book lines), things really did not look good for poor Ant-Man.