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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.