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Thursday, December 15, 2016

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Is this the film Star Wars fans have been waiting for? Possibly not but that doesn't mean they won't enjoy it anyway...

This review is also up at Channel 24

What it's about

Set shortly before the events of Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, Rogue One tells the story of how a group of scrappy rebels came into possession of the plans for the Death Star.

What we thought

Rogue One is a Star Wars movie the like of which we've never seen before on screen but is sure to ring a bell or two with those dire hard fans (like yours truly) who spent the 1990s reading Star Wars media tie-ins like the “Tales of” anthologies or the X-Wing series of novels and comics and, of course, played the X-Wing and Tie Fighter series of PC games. Those novels, comics and games were set firmly in the Star Wars universe but focused on either new or supporting players in the Star Wars saga and often featured a tone quite different from the original trilogy (these were pre-prequels, after all). They further widened the scope of this fictional universe, even if they did little to propel the overall story arc.

This, in a nutshell, is exactly what Gareth Edwards and screenwriters, Tony Gilroy and Chris Weitz, have created in Rogue One: a Star Wars Story – albeit now in the form of a “canonical” film. Even the subtitle, “a Star Wars Wars”, indirectly harkens back to those often terrific examples of glorified fan fiction.

How the rebels got their hands on the plans for the original Death Star was never really a story that ever needed to be told as it was dealt with perfectly well by a tossed-off bit of dialogue in the first Star Wars movie – a film where much of its genius lay in just how much world building was done in exactly such tossed off lines – but that doesn't mean that there isn't much pleasure to be had in its telling.

Office Christmas Party

So, a non-Star-Wars related movie also comes out this week. Not that anyone cares - or, frankly, should care. It's rubbish.

This review is also up at Channel 24

What it's about

A slacker manager of the local office of a major corporation is told by his cold-hearted sister and boss that unless he pulls in an unreasonable amount of money by the end of the quarter, she will have no choice but to fire him and close down the branch. And, effective immediately, the office Christmas party is canceled. In a last ditch effort to save the branch, he enlists the help of his best friends and number two at the company to throw the biggest Christmas party ever in an effort to boost his employee's morale and maybe, just maybe, sign up a huge client who would singehandedly bring in enough money to save the branch.

What we thought

Jennifer Aniston has long ago proven to be the kiss of death for most major Hollywood comedies – and she certainly doesn't buck the trend here. It's not so much that she's a terrible actress (though I've yet to be convinced that she's at all great) or that she's a particularly awful comedic actress (though only one or two roles would convincingly refute that she probably is) but that she has a habit of choosing some truly awful, uninspired and horribly unfunny comedies with almost alarming precision. When We're the Millers is probably the best things she has starred in in years, you know you're in trouble.

It's especially annoying because not only is she surrounded by a number of very talented comic actors but the film actually starts off with a certain amount of promise. The opening few minutes of the film basically just follow Jason Bateman doing the whole trying-to-hard-to-be-nice thing that he mastered in Arrested Development and T.J. Miller playing a slightly dumber version of his hilarious character in Silicon Valley. It's not wildly funny or anything but it's light and snappy and bodes well for what is to come.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

The Edge of Seventeen

I noticed that this has a somewhat limited release in South Africa so you may have to hunt it down but, boy, is this one worth the effort.

This review is also up at Channel 24

What it's about

Nadine is a smart, sardonic and socially awkward teenage girl who already hates everything about being a teenager but when her best friend starts dating her much loved (by everyone but Nadine, anyway) brother, things go from bad to unbearable.

What we thought

The Edge of Seventeen has exactly the kind of plot that should have all but the most emo of teenage girls running for the hills in terror, so how exactly did it become - and quite easily at that - one of my very favourite films of the year? And not at all in a guilty pleasure kind of way either, but in the sense that I am absolutely willing to go to bat for it as one of the year's most satisfying and perfectly conceived and executed films.

Well, for a start, it does once again prove the old (or perhaps just recently invented) adage that stories are, more often than not, about far more than their plot. It's true, the basic plot of the Edge of Seventeen is nothing we haven't seen before and, though it does buck clich̩ a number of times throughout its running time, it just as often gleefully embraces its own generic conventions Рmost especially as it moves towards its utterly effective but undeniably clean and cozy ending. All this matters not a jot.

While it would be rather disingenuous to say that the film has nothing to do with its basic story line, it reminds me of some of my favourite coming of stories in that the plot is there purely to drive along the characters as they try and come to terms with that horribly messy period between childhood and adulthood.

Inferno

Are we done with this series yet?

This review is also up at Channel 24

What it's about

The third film in the Robert Langdon series, Landon wakes up in a hospital in France with no memories of what he's doing there or how he got there. It's not long, however, before he and the doctor treating him find themselves on the run for their lives from the followers of an eccentric billionaire who believes that the only way he can save the world from overpopulation is by wiping out most of humanity.

What we thought

Ron Howard's adaptation of Dan Brown's the Da Vinci Code was rightly criticized for being a laboriously boring and badly lit conspiracy thriller but, by the sheer force of the madness of the conspiracy at the centre of the film, I couldn't help but have a bit of a soft spot for it. I have real trouble believing damn near any conspiracy I've ever heard but I tend to find they make for good fiction; the more far out the better, of course.

Following that, we had Ron Howard once again taking a swing at one of Brown's airplane reads, Angels and Demons, and without so impressively nutty a conspiracy at the centre of it, it had to rely on actual filmmaking to pack any sort of punch. Fortunately, Howard lightened his touch and greatly upped the sheer daftness of what was going on on-screen, resulting in a totally rubbish, monumentally stupid and actually kind of fun popcorn flick whose action-hero-priest-laden final act has to be seen to be believed.

Here was are, once more, with Ron doing Dan to absurdly stupid results but unlike the Da Vinci Code it has no nutso conspiracy to drive it forward and unlike Angels and Demons, it seems to be much less self-aware of its own rubbishness - which was really the only saving grace of its immediate predecessor. Sadly, there's just nothing whatsoever to recommend about Inferno beyond some nice, hellish imagery - that actually ultimately doesn't really have all that much to do with the story anyway.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Arrival

It don't get much better than this folks.

Plot synopsis: When a number of alien spacecrafts appear all over the world, the United States government approaches brilliant linguist, Dr. Louise Banks, to try and make contact with the mysterious beings residing in the one hovering over an open space deep in the American heartland.

Review: Wedged between the slow burn of his brilliant crime drama, Sicario, and the audacious sequel to one of the most acclaimed science fiction films of all time, Blade Runner 2049, Arrival solidifies Denis Villeneuve as one of the most exciting filmmakers out there right now and as one of the few who may not make a total pig's ear out of the new Blade Runner film.

The basic plot of Arrival is even more stripped down than most "first contact" stories but the true brilliance of this immaculately assembled masterpiece is the way it uses the bare-bones simplicity of its fantastical premise to explore themes that are complex, profound and thoroughly human. It's not, technically speaking, particularly original as it draws on everything from classic Arthur C. Clarke stories (2001: a Space Odyssey and Childhood's End being particularly obvious influences) to Christopher Nolan's still quite underrated Interstellar but it sets itself apart both by just how liberally it throws out enough Big Ideas to fill a dozen other films and in its ability to keep all of its lofty ambitions firmly rooted in the emotional realities of the human experience.

Friday, November 4, 2016

Doctor Strange

Doctor Strange is Marvel's most visually arresting movie to date but is it any more than that? Does it need to be?

This review is also up at Channel 24

What it's about

When Stephen Strange, an arrogant but brilliant neurosurgeon, has his life and career brought to a screeching halt after having his hands mangled in a bad car accident, his search for a cure brings him to the doorstep of the Ancient One, an ageless sorceress who may be the one person able to do what the most advanced medicine could not. What starts off as a desperate last resort for a man who has always lived his life with no time for anything beyond a materialistic (in both senses of the word) view of the world is soon confronted with both a reality that challenges everything he knows to be true and something that may well give him a purpose far, far greater and far more selfless than just healing his hand.

What we thought

Created by Steve Ditko and Stan Lee in 1963, Doctor Strange wasn't just the duo's biggest creation outside of Spider-man (most of Lee's other well known creations were co-created with Jack “the King” Kirby) but one that was oddly prescient of the counter culture that would grip the Western world for a few short years in the mid-late-sixties. Right from the off, Dr Strange was something different to come from Marvel at the time; a character and a comic book that fully embraced (mostly) Eastern mysticism, magic and druggy psychedelia to stand in stark contrast to the relatively straight-laced science fiction concepts of early Silver Age superhero comics.

It might seem like damning with faint praise, then, that the only thing that really stands out about the Doctor Strange movie from Marvel Studios' seemingly endless parade of hit superhero blockbusters is its trippy visuals but that would be to misunderstand both the winning formula at the heart of Marvel Studio's critical and commercial successes and just how much Doctor Strange's visuals really do make it something special.

Hell or High Water

Bringing the classic Western to modern day America once and for all.

This review is also up at Channel 24

What it's about

A divorced father and his ex-con brother go on a small-time bank-robbing spree to save their late mother's house from being foreclosed by the bank but even as their own fractious relationship threatens to corrode their entire enterprise, a pair of Texas Rangers come ever closer to catching up with them.

What we thought

Essentially a modern reinvention of the western, Hell or High Water uses its simple, bare-bones plot to explore a post-recession America, where greedy banks and everyday people feed off each other and the line between victim and criminal grows ever blurrier. Far more than just a polemical screed against banks, though, it's mostly an intimate character study of its four central characters, punctuated by a simmering tension broiling beneath the surface whose ultimate eruption into brutal violence is as inevitable as the two pairs of men on either sides of the law ultimately being drawn together for a final showdown. It's also dryly funny, quietly moving and, quite simply, one of the very best films of the year.

Working off a lean, witty script by Sicario's Taylor Sheridan, director David Makenzie has taken his experience of working on small, interesting and largely ignored indie movies and poured it into a film so confident and so self-assured that it's all but impossible to imagine it not breaking him into the mainstream - even as it makes absolutely no concessions to that very Hollywood machine.
Hell or High Water is a complex, adult film that takes its time to tell its story without ever dragging its feet, instead pacing itself perfectly as it allows us to come to fully understand and sympathise with its characters and this strange, cruel and all too real world they inhabit. These are no cardboard cut outs but fully realised, lived-in characters and, though the film is smart and original enough not to suggest that, by definition, bankrobbers and lawmen are two sides of the same coin, the morality of these characters is inordinately complicated.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Hands of Stone

Not this year's Creed...

This review is also up at Channel 24

What it's about

The true story of Roberto Duran, the middleweight boxing legend, and his often tumultuous relationship with his trainer, the no less legendary Ray Arcel.

What we thought

For a true story, it's rather odd that Hands of Stone suffers primarily for feeling like a not-entirely-successful amalgamation of a half dozen previous sports movies and biopics. It's a pity because it does have some strong performances from Edgar Ramirez, Ana De Armas, Robert De Niro and, most surprisingly, Usher Raymond as Sugar Ray Leonard, as well as more than its share of heartfelt good intentions.

To be specific, Hands of Stone basically plays like a bargain-bin Rocky knock off, with some of the recent Pele's real-world social-political concerns thrown in for good measure, but with the imminently likable Rocky Balboa replaced by a real-world figure who is only slightly more sympathetic than De Niro's own portrayal of Raging Bull's own real-life boxing legend, Jake LaMotta. The combination is unquestionably an uneasy one but, though it's roughly on the same level as Pele (though no where near as enjoyable, come to think of it) it's not even in the same galaxy as Raging Bull or any of the better Rocky films.

Raging Bull, for example, may force you to spend a couple of hours with a person that you'd normally cross continents to avoid but it is a masterclass in filmmaking with both De Niro and Scorsese arguably never bettering their work in that film. Here we get the the utterly unsympathetic athlete – though, to be fair, Duran mostly just comes across as an obnoxious punk as opposed to the truly hateful LaMotta – but Jonathan Jakubowicz's perfectly solid, workmanlike writing and directing is nowhere near notable enough to elevate the film beyond its awful protagonist. Similarly, Ramirez is a very good actor but he's still got a ways to go before he can stand up to De Niro in his prime.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Blair Witch

Sigh.

Look, I know this has been out for a few weeks but I still feel I need to get this off my chest as I truly have no earthly idea how this has gotten even remotely respectable reviews.


For all that we may look back at it now with cynicism (and, in my case, anger for starting off this whole "found footage") craze, the Blair Witch Project was a deserved phenomenon that offered something new and genuinely creepy in a period that was mostly known for the Scream-incited return of the slasher movie. Yes, the found footage gimmick had been around for years but who but the most hardcore of horror fans had even heard, say, of Cannibal Holocaust let alone actually seen it? The Blair Witch Project brought this technique to the masses and, by doing so, brought stark realism to the horror genre so successfully that there were apparently people at the time who didn't realise that the whole Blair Witch craze was pure fiction.

Fast forward seventeen years and the found-footage gimmick has been so overused by this point that it's hard not to long for the mid-90s schlock like I Know What You Did Last Summer over this increasingly irritating, nauseating and increasingly cheap (though more expensive-looking) device. Between the found footage schtick in horror and the similarly irritating over-reliance on shaky cam in action films, genre films have all too frequently used something that at its best can give a sense of realism to the ridiculous but is all too often just used as a lazy tool to cover up the fact that what's going on on-screen is neither frightening nor remotely exciting.

The action genre hit its shaky cam nadir early this year with the unspeakably awful Hardcore Henry, which was even more insufferable than watching someone else play a rubbish first-person-shooter for two hours - which, oddly, was precisely how the film actually played out. Now, with this very much belated and utterly unrequested sequel to the film that started it all, the final nail has been hammered into the coffin of found-footage horror films.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

The Magnificent Seven (2016)

Well, I like it.

This review is also up at Channel 24

What it's about

A remake of the classic western (which itself was a remake of the even more classic Seven Samurai), seven gunslingers are called to protect a town from a vicious crime boss who is trying to bully them out of their homes.

What we thought

Remaking classic films always strikes me as a rather stupid idea because, no matter how good the remake, it always struggles to escape the shadow of its predecessor. This, incidentally, is why it always makes much more sense to remake mediocre or highly flawed movies, as that way you can rely on an existing property but you might actually have a chance of transcending your source. See horror classics like the Fly or the Thing to view first hand just how well this works when done properly.

When it comes to remaking the Magnificent Seven, though, things are rather more complicated. Not only was the original itself a remake (though this is actually one of the rare cases when it can actually be called a “reimagining”) but it was one that, though still a quality piece of work, is very much a product of its time and does, dare I say it, look quite dated to modern eyes.

This perhaps might explain why the new Magnificent Seven, though seriously flawed in one or two aspects, is actually a very successful remake and a really solid film in its own right.

Monday, September 5, 2016

The Light Between Oceans

You might need patience with this one but I, for one, think it's worth it.

This review is also up at Channel 24

What it's about

A lighthouse keeper and his young wife, living alone on the outskirts of a remote Australian town and struggling to have a child of their own, come across a rowing boat marooned on the deserted beach containing a dead man and a crying baby girl. Deciding to keep the child for themselves, their relationship and their values are put to the test when, two years later, he has a chance encounter with a woman who is clearly their child's real mother.

What we thought

Based on the highly acclaimed 2012 novel by M. L. Stedman, which I admittedly have never read, The Light Between Oceans is the rare adaptation of what is ultimately a relatively lengthy novel that feels neither overstuffed nor rushed (nor horribly overdrawn like the ten-hour slog of the Hobbit, of course). Even more impressively, it manages to stay true to its source's novelistic structure, even as it remains defiantly and purposefully cinematic.

What this means, basically, is that the film is very slow and fairly long but is uses exactly this deliberateness of pace and indulgent running time to really draw you into its complex characters and the very singular world they inhabit. This isn't a film of major plot revelations but is one with a fully developed moral dilemma at its core; revolving around intricately drawn characters and a real sense of the slowly maddening isolation that slowly starts to corrode not just the tether that ties this hopelessly-in-love couple to the norms, realities and morals of the wider world but even the their own carefully constructed, if highly insulated, family.

As the latest film from writer/ director Derek Cianfrance, who is known for similarly tough, dramatic fare like Blue Valentine and the Place Beyond the Pines, it's no surprise that the Light Between Oceans is aimed very much at more mature – or, at least, more patient – audiences who are willing to embrace its quiet beauty, its complexity and its character-driven storytelling. It is, however, both far more accessible than either of his two previous films and, for my money anyway, quite a bit more dramatically fulfilling and easily enjoyable.

War Dogs

Not quite the Wolf of the Lord of War... but not too far off either.

This review is also up at Channel 24.

What it's about

The (mostly) true story of Efraim Diveroli and David Packouz, two childhood friends who reconnect in their early twenties and soon find themselves knee deep in the international arms trade.

What we thought

By far the most noteworthy thing about War Dogs is just how utterly un-noteworthy it is. The story on which it is based may be pretty amazing for something in real life but, as a film, there is nothing here that we haven't seen many times before, often done quite a bit better.

That's not to say that War Dogs is a bad movie, though. It's competently put together, typically well acted by its leads (both Jonah Hill and Miles Teller have really become very fine actors over the years) and basically perfectly enjoyable in an utterly innocuous but rollickingly entertaining kind of way.

The problem, though, is that it couldn't help but bring to mind two wildly superior films from recent years, albeit for different reasons.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Star Trek Beyond

Yup, two blog-exclusive reviews in a week! What is the world coming to? It's like it's 2015 or something...

I wasn't just going to let this one pass, though.

What it's about: Three years into their five-year mission, the crew of Starship Enterprise have settled into a rut of monotonous exploration and often aggravating diplomacy, with at east two of their senior staff contemplating a change in career. While enjoying a short break at the Federation's farthest and most technologically advanced outpost, Yorktown, they are called to suit up for what should be a routine rescue mission but turns out to be something that will challenge both their resolve and the very basis of the United Federation of Planets to which they have pledged their lives.  

What I thought: Though I remain one of the increasingly few fans of Star Trek Into Darkness, I have to admit that I had a real sense of trepidation about this, the third film in the rebooted Star Trek film franchise. Between the shift from JJ Abrams to Justin Lin in the director's chair; the worryingly short production time after a couple of years of tumultuous behind-the-scenes shenanigans and the general lack of hype that the film has received since its release in seemingly every other country in the world, things were not exactly looking up for the latest entry into this decidedly uneven but often quite wonderful franchise. It would be a true pity for the film that celebrates Star Trek's 50th anniversary to fail to live up to all that had gone before, let alone its own lofty title. And that's not even taking into account in the sad passing of Leonard Nimoy (original Spock) and the horribly tragic death of Anton Yelchin (current and very, very young Chekov) that bookended the making of the film.

Fortunately, despite some undeniable flaws and despite being, to my mind anyway, not quite as good as its two immediate predecessors, Star Trek Beyond is a terrifically entertaining romp, one of the best blockbusters of the year and a fitting tribute to both its two dearly departed stars and to Star Trek in general.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Kubo and the Two Strings

A very quick look at one of the best animated films of the year. 

And, yes, I do like this more than Finding Dory.


What it's about: Kubo lives a quiet life in a small Japanese village, tending to his ill mother and entertaining the people of the village with his magical ability to transform simple pieces of paper into animated origami just by plucking the strings on his old, trusty guitar-like instrument, bringing to life fantastical but possibly true stories of heroism and adventure. It isn't long, however, before the turbulent, violent past that brought Kubo and his mother to the village in the first place, up-ends his quiet existence and sends him on a dangerous mission to acquire the three objects needed to stop the ancient, immortal evil that threatens all that he holds dear.      

What I thought: Kubo and the Two Strings may sound like an orientally-themed indie band but it's actually the wonderful fourth film from the animation wizards at Laika Studios, who continually refuse to put a foot wrong. Following on from Coraline, Paranorman and the Boxtrolls, Kubo is another breathtakingly beautiful mix of stop-motion animation and CGI and it, once again, not only stands up to anything their rivals (including Pixar) have currently been putting out but has an edge to it that is all but absent from traditional American animation aimed at kids.

To be fair, the actual narrative here, which plays out like a slightly overstretched Japanese folk tale, isn't quite as compelling as any of Laika previous masterpieces and the decision to add some occasional Disney-like humour to soften some of the film's more cuttingly emotional moments may be understandable but it does make for a slightly inconsistent tone.

Fortunately, though, these are ultimately minor quibbles in a film that gets everything else very, very right indeed. Most pertinently, like Pixar at its best, Kubo and the Two Strings is a film that is ostensibly aimed at younger audiences but is one that packs an emotional punch that plays on its younger and older audiences in complementary but quite different ways. Effectively an examination of loss, memory and our ability to cope with grief - specifically the death of a parent - Kubo plays with the fear of abandonment that is universal in all young children and the sheer reality of loss, of all kinds, that all adults (and, sadly, some children) have to deal with at some point or another.

Pele: The Birth of a Legend

"Legendary", he may well be, but there's nothing "legendary" about this flat, uninspired biopic of the Brazillian football great. 

This review is also up at Channel 24


What it's about

The true story of legendary football player, Edson Arantes do Nascimento – or Pele as he is better known - that his early life from childhood poverty in the slums of Brazil to redefining Brazilian football forever with his appearance as the youngest ever player in the 1958 World Cup.

What we thought

There's clearly a good film to made about the life and career of Pele but, sadly, Pele: The Birth of a Legend is very much not it.

As someone who is not now and will almost definitely never be a soccer fan, Pele does have to work twice as hard to win me over but there's something telling that the only times the film came even close to holding my attention was during its nicely cinematic football matches. Not only are these scenes surprisingly exciting (I usually find watching real football matches to be the visual equivalent of water torture) but they do give you a good idea of why Pele was such a big deal and how and why he almost singlehandedly rewrote the “beautiful game” for decades to come.

Unfortunately, though the rest of the film is filled to the gills with good intentions, gee-whiz optimism and a typically lovely score by A.R. Rahman (Slumdog Millionaire), it's a serious dud as a piece of storytelling. Written and directed by Jeff and Michael Zimbalist, who have previously worked almost exclusively as documentary filmmakers, Pele: The Birth of a Legend is a disastrous mix of bland characterization, wooden acting, unimaginative direction and howlingly awful, cliche-drenched dialogue.

Friday, August 5, 2016

Suicide Squad

Another day, another disappointing DC cinematic offering. But hey, at least it's better than Batman V Superman. Yay?

This review is also up at Channel 24

What it's about

With the rise of superheroes and super villains, a secret government agency enlists a group of some of the America's deadliest killers, thieves and madmen as their own defence against god-like villains and renegade heroes.

What we thought

For the first third of Suicide Squad, it looked like DC was finally well on its way after the major failures of Man of Steel and Batman V Superman. Sadly, the film doesn't end there and goes on to squander its potential for another 90 minutes after that.

The overall grey colour palette and murky lighting is still a problem (at least it certainly was at the cinema in which I saw it) but at least it's shot through with a bit of colour this time. More importantly, the dour tone of its predecessors is somewhat counterbalanced by a sense of the absurd and something that might actually be an honest to goodness sense of humour, as we are introduced to our group of colourful anti-heroes in a series of fun vignettes, each accompanied by their own “theme tune”, ranging from the Rolling Stones to Kanye West.

It also does a far better job of setting up the larger DC Cinematic Universe than either of Snyder's “Superman” films with a number of references to the recently departed Superman and a couple of fun appearances by Affleck's Batman, a visit to Arkhum Asylum and our first full, on-screen look at Ezra Miller's Flash (who, as it turns out, looks set to be quite different from the Flash TV show's Grant Gustin). There's just an ease to the expanded universe here that was very much lacking in Batman V Superman.

Unfortunately, most of this potential is squandered by the rest of the film. There's still some fun stuff to be found in the final two acts of the film, to be sure, but they're a small reprieve from the onslaught of bad storytelling decisions, wonky pacing, incoherent action scenes and truly terrible “Gods of Egypt”-like villains.

Our Kind of Traitor

But is it our kind of movie?

This review is also up at Channel 24

What it's about

An ordinary British couple head to Morocco on vacation to try and sort out some of their marital problems but, while there, they come into contact with a charismatic Russian mobster who, after befriending the husband, convinces him to hand over a flash disk to the British government when he returns home. That, however, is only the start of their entanglement with the Russian, who, as it turns out wants Asylum in England for he and his family after his new boss makes it clear that he is out to “clear house” of older “employees” who have outlived their usefulness.

What we thought

John Le Carre seems to have become, over the past few years, the current “it” author in terms of TV and movie adaptations, what with his paranoia-drenched spy tails clearly resonating strongly with the current political climate. Hot on the heels of his highly acclaimed miniseries, the Night Manager, comes Our Kind of Traitor, a rather old fashioned espionage thriller that still manages to find plenty of intrigue in post-Cold-War Russian/ Western relations (and at the same time having nothing whatsoever to do with Putin).

If the blurb at the back of the novel is any indication, much has changed in the journey from print to screen, which might explain why the film feels a lot more throwaway than other recent Le Carre efforts like the rather ponderous A Most Wanted Man and the quietly terrific Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, but there's still plenty to enjoy here for fans of the genre.

My Father' War

I really do wish I could be nicer about this Really, I do.

This review is also up at Channel 24

What it's about

A rebellious young man, estranged from his ex-military father, starts to have a series of dreams where he is part of his father's platoon during his campaign in Angola but these are no ordinary dreams as he starts to discover things about his father that he had no other way of knowing.

What we thought

There's a real sense of writer/ director, Craig Gardner, pouring his heart and soul into My Father's War, to the point that, without knowing much about Gardner or any real behind the scenes facts of the film itself, it would not have surprised me at all to find out that everything about the film (save for the supernatural vision-like dreams, presumably) were stripped straight from his own life. As it turns out, things are slightly more complicated than that as the story draws much more from producer Peter Lamberti's life than Gardner's but that only further speaks to the level of passion that clearly went into ever frame of the film.

Here's the problem, though: for all that My Father's War clearly has its heart in the right place, it's good intentions only take it so far.

On the plus side, Gardner's direction is actually rather impressive for a first-time feature film director, with the war-torn dream sequences, in particular, giving him plenty to work with, but, top to bottom, there's little of the amateurish filmmaking that is often sadly all too present in South African films. Similarly, its subject matter does allow the film to address the complexities of soldiers fighting a war for a corrupt regime like the Apartheid government but against foes who may perhaps be even worse.

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Ghostbusters (2016)

Who You Gonna Call? Not the sexists, apparently...

This review is also up at Channel 24.

What it's about

When ghosts start cropping up all over New York City, a trio of paranormal-obsessed scientists team up with a subway worker, who saw one of the ghosts first-hand, to investigate and ultimately stop an apparent ghostly invasion of their city.

What we thought

Considering Hollywood's love of remaking and retelling beloved movies, books and comics, it's telling that no shoddy remake in history has been greeted with the kind of vitriol that this new take on '80s comedy classic has been greeted with. Even before the admittedly lackluster first trailer hit, reaction to the new, all-female Ghostbusters was overwhelmingly negative but, for all that there were some perfectly fair criticisms against remaking so beloved a cult classic, it was hard to get past the pure, unadulterated misogyny behind (or really smothered all over) most of the criticisms out there.

Now that the film is finally out, I'm pleased to say that it spends no time at all silencing the more dubious complaints by setting up the women who are the all-new Ghostbusters as a formidable comic line up and one that actually stands up as something quite different from the classic team of Bill Murray, Dan Ackroyd. Harold Ramis and Ernie Hudson – all of whom, incidentally, appear in the film, though, obviously in the case of the late, great Harold Ramis, not necessarily in person. This is not just PC gender-bending but something that actually uses the femininity of the new heroes to inject a certain amount of freshness into a well-established formula. You may question the new Ghostbusters' need to exist but it does make significantly more sense with this particular cast than with just another bunch of dudes playing roles that were already perfected thirty years ago.

Casting choices aside, though, the new Ghostbusters did still have to deal with the more sensible question of whether it could possibly live up to what is now considered one of the seminal films of the 1980s and a firm favourite of many people of a certain age - myself included. The answer, inevitably, is that no it couldn't but that doesn't mean that it doesn't have more than enough going for it to win over new fans and mostly please old ones.

Nobody's Died Laughing

This may be a bit rich since I'm awful with coming up with names and titles but don't hold its awful title against this otherwise very charming, if slightly flawed, documentary.

This review is also up at Channel 24.

What it's about

A documentary about the life and work of beloved South African comedian, Pieter Dirk Uys, as explored during his latest comedy tour.

What we thought

That I am, to be entirely upfront about this, not a particular fan of Pieter-Dirk Uys' comedy, does little to detract from the fact that this documentary only heightened my respect for the man and his work. It's not necessarily a particularly great documentary and the clips we get of his comic performances don't exactly turn him into John Cleese or Bill Hicks in my eyes but Nobody's Died Laughing does do a fine job of capturing Uys' incredible work ethic, his irreverent attitude towards authority and the pulsing humanity that lies behind every joke he's ever told; every costume he's ever donned.

Directed by Willem Oelofson, Nobody's Died Laughing is a film that's clearly in love with its subject, which is fair enough as Uys certainly comes across as quite lovable here but those looking for even the slightest whiff of a dark side to this South African national treasure, are certainly not going to find it here. Uys is probably too humble for a documentary about him to be entirely hagiographic in nature but between the endless kind words said about the man from any number of his friends – both famous and otherwise – and the general complimentary tone of the film itself, it's not too far off either.

And yet, for all of the film's tendency towards the celebratory and complimentary, Pieter-Dirk Uys himself gives the film more than its share of playfulness on one hand sharpness on the other, with a rich stream of melancholy running throughout the film as we uncover a background that was seldom untouched by the hand of tragedy.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Lights Out

Yet another solidly above average horror movie? What is the world coming to?

This review is also up at Channel 24

What it's about

A young woman is forced to confront her past and her estranged family when her much younger half-brother is plagued by the same ghostly presence that drove her away from her mother when she was younger.

What we thought

This year has slowly started to see something of a resurgence in the quality of unexceptional but quietly effective horror films, with both Before I Sleep and the Conjuring 2 being far more enjoyable than most of the chillers of the past few years. They were derivative and unexceptional, to be sure, but at least they kind of delivered on their promise; easily clearing the low bar that the horror genre - or at least the mainstream Hollywood version of it - has set for itself over the past decade or so.

Lights Out, which is produced by the Conjuring's James Wan, continues that trend. It's hopelessly unoriginal and there's little about it that's truly terrifying but it still rises to the top of the heap thanks to a reliance on atmosphere, rather than cheap jump scares (though, as always, there are a few of those too) and on its willingness to actually craft engaging characters, who are played by a number of very fine actors.

Swedish director, David F Sandberg, makes a real impression here as a first-time feature-film director by turning his short film into something that certainly plays like a full-length feature but it noticeably lacking in flab. Like comedies, horror works best when constrained by a brief running time and that's certainly the case here, with the entire film and credits clocking in at less than 90 minutes.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

The Idol

Regardless of your own opinions about the cause of the suffering in Gaza (for me it rhymes with... um... Sum Muss), the Idol is about much more universal themes and even if it doesn't entirely succeed, it's at least, at the very worst, a very honourable failure.

Also, I was wrong about the two young actors being related, apparently, so though my original Channel 24 review has them listed as brother and sister, I've corrected it for the sake of this blog.

What it's about

The true story of how Mohammed Assaf, a Palestinian wedding singer, escaped his difficult life in Gaza by fulfilling his life long dream of competing in and winning Arab Idol – the Arabian version of the popular singing competition.

What we thought

It's hard not to get embroiled in the politics of the region when talking about any film set in Gaza – or obviously, Israel, Iran or Syria – but because the latest film by acclaimed flmmaker, Hany Abu-Asad (Paradise Now, Omar) largely goes out of its way not to politicize the undeniably horrible conditions of life in Gaza, I will try and do the same in this review.

The Idol tells a fairly familiar but perhaps no less extraordinary story of someone overcoming their circumstances and all the pain, danger and limitations that such circumstances entail by triumphing on a highly popular, competitive TV show. We saw it a few years back in Slumdog Millionaire and again, though obviously less arduously, in One Chance, but, really, this is the sort of story that these kinds of shows themselves tend to thrive on.

The question, then, is whether or not the Idol is able to rise to the top of its own whirlpool of competition. The answer, frustratingly, is only kind of.

Marauders

Give me great movies, give me terrible ones but what the hell am I supposed to do with this?

This review is also up at Channel 24

What it's about

After criminals hit a chain of banks owned by the same person, a group of FBI agents start putting the pieces together that there may be more going on than just your garden variety bank robbery.

What we thought

Marauders is the type of generic crime thriller that makes so little an impression that, for the purpose of this review, I literally had to check out a couple of trailers just to remind me what the hell it was about. It also probably doesn't help that, in this case, the plotting was convoluted and incoherent that it was something of a struggle following it even while watching it. And not in a cool Mulholland Drive kind of way.

It's a pity because the basic plot is actually fairly interesting, with plenty of potential for fun conspiracy-thriller thrills and even some good old social commentary. Instead, any sense of fun is buried under murky storytelling, an utter lack of a functional sense of humour and enough souped up testosterone to make even the most macho of alpha males throw up in the mouths a little. And, really, the less said about the atrocious dialogue the better.

Even the rather OK cast can't save it but, with Bruce Willis phoning it in in much the way he approaches seemingly all of his roles lately, that's not entirely surprising. Still, it's hard not to feel at least a little for guys (if you're looking for women, you've come to the wrong place) like Christopher Meloni, Dave Bautista and even Adrien Grenier, who do seem to be trying their best to raise themselves up above the dodgy material by first-time screenwriter, Michael Cody.

Friday, July 8, 2016

Ice Age: Collision Course

I know it's "only a kid's movie" but don't kids deserve better than this?

This review is also up at Channel 24

What it's about

The fifth installment in the Ice Age series finds Manny, Diego and the gang on a rush against time to prevent an asteroid from hitting the earth and wiping out life as they know it, as one did 100 000 000 years ago when (almost) all dinosaurs became extinct.

What we thought

It kind of says everything you need to know about the movie that I started praying, and quite early at that, for the asteroid to actually hit the earth and bring an end to this tired and tiresome series once and for all. Spoiler: No surprise, it didn't, and I'm sure we'll be stuck with “Ice Age: Still No Bronze Age in Sight” in just another a year or two.

On the plus side, once again credit must go to the animators and artists involved in the film because it is, unquestionably, very easy on the eyes, with loads of pretty colours everywhere (though less so in 3D) and some nice late ice-age landscapes in general. Sadly, that's about it for the good news.

The Ice Age series has always been two or three thousand steps behind the best of Pixar, Disney, Dreamworks, Laika, Sony, Aardman and Studio Ghibli in terms of family-friendly animated movies (though Blue Sky Studios' output in general is pretty underwhelming) and there's nothing in the fifth (fifth!) installment that even hints at a Madagascar-3-like resurgence. No, Ice Age: Collision Course may well be the worst in an already lackluster series.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Comics Talk: The Next Three Months - Big Names, Big Image Comics Titles.

It's been a while but here's a quick look at three very promising titles coming out from Image Comics in the next three months - each by mostly established talent. I'm going to keep this relatively brief, as I'm gearing up to review a terrific, brand-new original graphic novel from Vertigo Comics in the upcoming weeks.

Snotgirl (by Bryan Lee O'Malley (writer) and Leslie Hung (artist); July 2016). A comic book about a fashion blogger with major allergies may be one of the least promising premises ever but Bryan Lee O'Mally has made a career out of turning dopey premises into something special. He did it with Seconds, with Lost at Sea and, most definitely, with his thoroughly wonderful Scott Pilgrim series. I see no reason why Snotgirl shouldn't be the same.

Both his first (presumably) monthly comic and his first major project with someone else providing the art, Snotgirl still promises to be vintage O'Malley. The preview - which, if nothing else, is an exciting showcase for newcomer Hung's beautifully cartoony, colourful and expressive artwork - may have been nothing but a taste of what's to come but it does look like what's to come is the usual O'Malley mix of goofy-smart humour, memorable characters, plenty of heart and something to say about a specific aspect of modern life through both well-placed metaphor and more explicit character building. 

This is the very definition of a must-buy for any fan of Bryan Lee O'Malley's previous work and potentially a good introduction to non-fans. Though, honestly, if you haven't read Scott Pilgrim yet (or seen the terrific film adaptation), what the hell are you waiting for? It really is about as good as comics get - and a pretty good indication of just why fans are so very eagerly anticipating a series about a fashion blogger with a runny nose.

Kill or Be Killed (by Ed Brubaker (writer), Sean Phillips (artist) and Elizabeth Breitweiser (colourist), August 2016). It almost makes absolutely no difference what this series is about because, with this team at the helm, it's hard to believe that this series will be anything but excellent. Brubaker and Phillips have effectively established themselves as the Lee and Kirby of gritty, crime-tinged noir comics over more than a decade a now; with very nearly every month seeing the release of something new by them. From their non-creator owned Wildstorm Comics property, Sleeper, through to their recently concluded 50s Hollywood noir miniseries, the Fade Out, these guys have never missed a beat in delivering compelling, genuinely dark and profoundly human stories about the underbelly of human existence.

For those who aren't already hooked, the story of this long-form ongoing series (a departure from their usual, novelistic miniseries format) concerns an ordinary guy who is forced to murder bad people for reasons that will become clear, presumably, as the series goes on and has been described by its creators as a mix of Death Wish and early Spider-man comics and a deconstruction of the revenge thriller. It sounds both somewhat different from their usual stuff and very familiar too. 

And, with the inimitable Betty Breitweiser again providing some of the best colouring in comics to Sean Phillips' already detailed and expressive work, it should look as great as it reads.

Seven to Eternity (by Rick Remender (writer), Jerome Opena (artist) and Matt Hollinsworth (colourist), September 2016). Once again, the vague plot synopsis of this new epic fantasy series tells me little that would make me want to buy the book anywhere near as much as the talent involved. Rick Remender is, very simply, one of the best and most prolific writers in comics today, while Jerome Opena is an undeniably brilliant talent whose art I have shamefully sampled all too infrequently.

Remender's latest crop of comics may be noticeably different from one another, often existing in entirely different genres, but they all make brilliant use of genre fiction to tell allegorical tales about his own life and his own views on what's going on in the world around him. While Deadly Class is a heightened exploration of his early, often troubled years, Low explores the value of hope in the bleakest of circumstances and Tokyo Ghost examines the effects of our obsession with both technology and entertainment. They're all terrifically exciting stories, with wonderful art (well, Low a bit less but that's just personal preference) and vivid characterization but it's their... soul that make them some of the best books on the stand.

Going for a full-blown epic fantasy series is yet another departure for Remender in terms of genre, though the most obvious reference point for this would probably his early creator-owned work, Strange Girl, a post-Rapture theological fantasy that happened to feature an issue or two illustrated by none other than Jerome Opena - and, again, was infused with Remender's own struggles with religion and black and white morality. Will Seven to Eternity touch on similar ideas or go for something completely different? Who knows but, I for one, cannot wait to find out.         
     
Lengthy previews for all three titles can be found in the Image+ magazine and, presumably, online as well. For South African readers, get all three of them by pre-ordering from Zed Bees Comics Universe in Edenvale, Gauteng. 

Monday, June 27, 2016

Independence Day: Resurgence

Well, it could be worse, I suppose. But, really, it ain't a patch on the original.

This review is also up at Channel 24

What it's about

Twenty years since the events of the original Independence Day, the earth has come together as never before and, making use of the abandoned alien technology to strongly beef up the earth's own tech, are fully armed and equipped to deal with a followup alien invasion. What they get, however, is far more than they could ever have bargained for as it turns out that the original alien spaceship was little more than a scout for something much, much larger and much, much more deadly.

What we thought

A quick disclaimer: Because of all the construction going on at Nu Metro Hyde Park, the cinema in which I saw this film suffered from the quite typical side effect of all the dust screwing with the projection to the effect that the dark scenes were darker than they should be and the light scenes lose much of their sharpness and vividness. That I saw it in screen-darkening 3D didn't exactly help matters either. It's a problem that the Mall at Rosebank still often suffers from and, like there, there's no denying that this hurt my enjoyment of the film and made the film's weaknesses all the harder to overlook. I stand by all my criticisms, however, as they do seem pretty self-evident to me but there's a good chance that you will enjoy it more if you see if properly projected as it should be. Just something to keep in mind.

Anyway...

After years of empty promises and production hell, a sequel to the gloriously cheesy 1996 smash hit has finally hit our screens but, as you may well have feared, it turned out be too little, too late. While the Independence Day was one of the major blockbusters of the '90s – with only mega hits like Jurassic Park and the Matrix keeping it from dominating the decade entirely – its sequel, optimistically entitled Independence Day: Resurgence, probably won't even be remembered as one of the top three blockbusters of the year, never mind decade.

It's not that it's an absolute stinker like some of the dreck that returning director, Roland Emerich, has been involved with in the intervening years (hello, Godzilla!) but it does fall into that old sequel trap of believing bigger is always better and, if ever there was a film to disprove that idea it's – well, it's probably Jurassic Park III but ID: Resurgence makes an honest jump at it as well.

While the first film alternated between very carefully constructed disaster movie set pieces (will anyone ever forget the sight of the destruction of the White House in Independence Day?), bits of very old-fashioned sci-fi action and plenty of character-based comedy, its sequel is a mess of utterly arbitrary destruction, CG-stuffed and thereby incoherent action scenes and enough characters to fill out several dozen sequels but not enough characterization to fill out even one.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

I Saw the Light

I'm starting to think that Love and Mercy has spoiled these kinds of films for me.

This review is also up at Channel 24

What it's about

The true story of Hank Williams, the legendary country musician who set the course for popular music for the next half century but whose personal life was every bit as troubled as the bleak lyrics of his songs suggested.

What we thought

Hank Williams was, in no uncertain terms, one of the single greatest and most influential figures in 20th century popular music. His songs of love and heartbreak all but entirely defined what country music would be from then and on and, just as importantly, if you can't hear the beginnings of early rock and roll in his recordings, then you're clearly not paying any attention at all.

It's a pity then that that this extraordinary – if highly troubled - talent has received such a thoroughly ordinary biopic in the form of I Saw the Light. With its tiresomely familiar tale of fame and self-destruction; genius and assholery, this is pop biopic 101 that commits the fatal flaw of saying much about sex and drugs and, really, not enough about rock and roll.

Admittedly, it isn't helped by being part of a genre that was recently deconstructed by the hilarious (if erratic) Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story and then reconstructed by last year's stone-cold brilliant Brian Wilson biopic, Love and Mercy, but the old formula clearly has at least some life left in it. Straight Outta Compton, for example, might be overlong and overrated but tucked in that very indulgent 2.5 hour behemoth is a seriously powerful and vivacious 90 minute pop biopic. Even looking at the film that most obviously inspired Walk Hard, the Johnny Cash biopic, Walk the Line, that formula can be turned on its head with a bit of focus and plenty of sharp, lively filmmaking.

The Keeping Room

One day, a truly great "feminist Western" will come along. Sadly, despite its best intentions, this ain't it.

This review is also up at Channel 24

What it's about

In the latter days of the American Civil War, a young woman, her teenage sister and their former slave have to fend off their home from a couple of rogue Northern soldiers.

What we thought

Following in the footsteps of Jane Got a Gun, the Keeping Room is another “Feminist Western” that has almost exactly the same strengths and weaknesses of that troubled Natalie Portman vehicle.

The very idea of telling a western from a female point of view is a great one, as it should, in theory at least, breathe some new life into a genre that seemed for a while there to have run out of things to say. This is a story of the civil war told by those that were left behind; traditionally domicile women trying to fend for themselves while their “protectors” and breadwinners are away, perhaps never to return. We find a country bled dry by the war and women and old men having to rely on their own efforts for even the most humble of meals. And, perhaps most intriguingly, we see the daughters of a Southern family suddenly finding themselves on equal footing with their (near-ex) slave; effectively fulfilling the promises of the war almost by accident.

It's intriguing stuff, brought to life by a trio of excellent actresses - with relative newcomer Muna Otaru easily holding her own against more established but similarly young and talented actresses, Brit Marling and, marking her return to the genre that made her famous, Hailee Steinfeld. It's also nicely shot, handsomely mounted and the moments of horror and tragedy do manage to strike a genuinely powerful and moving note when they inevitably but very slowly arrive.

Friday, June 10, 2016

The Conjuring 2

Another crummy horror sequel? Maybe not!

This review is also up at Channel 24

What it's about

Lorraine and Ed Warren are called out of semi-retirement to investigate a case in England where a single mother and her four children are plagued by what seems to be the ghost of the house's former owner.

What we thought

To date, the Conjuring has been the best of James Wan's horror oeuvre (I still enjoy the deliriously nutty Fast and Furious 7 the most of all his films, though) and its sequel pretty easily lives up to its predecessor. Once again, the cliches of Wan's work do occasionally grate (is there anything more predictable than a James Wan jump scare?) but it's otherwise a really solid, nicely creepy little haunted house flick that easily stands out from a crowded and more often than not disappointing crowd.

Once again, a big part of the Conjuring 2's appeal is in its real-world origins. Whether you believe in ghosts, demos and other paranormal phenomena or not is up to you but even if the real case of the Einfeld Poltergeist was a complete hoax, it was at least convincing enough to draw plenty of attention from a number of “experts”. And that's without the high body-count of the Amityville Horror – the events of which actually take place between the end of the last movie and well into the beginning of this one. It also helps that ghosts are unquestionably the most believable horror staple, simply by virtue of death being, as William Shakespeare put it, the “undiscovered country”.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Comics Talk: A Tribute to Darwyn Cooke

Needless to say, I really wish I wasn't writing this column but there was no way I was going to let the untimely death of  one of my all-time favourite comic book creators go unmentioned.

This is obviously from the point of view of a fan. I certainly didn't know the guy at all - didn't even get to meet him at a comic-con like many American or European fans might have - but he did seem pretty damn cool (if utterly intolerant of bullshit) based on the interviews with him I've seen, heard or read. For a particularly lovely tribute to Darwyn Cooke as a man, be sure to check out Josh Flanagan's (from the excellent iFanboy podcast) thoughts on his friend at his blog here and in an emotionally-charged episode of the podcast here where Josh and fellow iFanboys Ron and Conor dedicated the last half hour or so of this week's episode talking about him (as well as their friend and up-and-coming comedian Timmy Wood who also tragically died that same weekend).  

For now, though, here is just another fan's glowing tribute to a true one-of-a-kind comic book master, who passed away all too soon at the age of 53 on 14 May 2016.

And, yes, I will be featuring loads of his spectacular art in this post (it's tempting to feature nothing but). No infringement of copyright intended.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

X-Men: Apocolypse

Well, that winning streak was fun while it lasted...

This review is also up at Channel 24

What it's about

A decade after the events of X-Men: Days of Future's Past, our favourite mutants once again find themselves standing between humanity and a potentially world-destroying threat: this time in the form of Apocalypse, the god-like first mutant who decides to “cleanse” and remake in his image the world he awakes to after thousands of years entombed in an Egyptian crypt.

What we thought

Between Deadpool and the previous two X-Men movies, Days of Futures Past and First Class, it looked for all the world like Fox studios had finally gotten a firm handle on their Marvel Mutant-verse properties after seriously dropping the ball with the likes of X-Men: Origins – Wolverine and X-Men 3. Sadly, though no one in their right mind would dare suggest that X-Men: Apocalypse is anywhere near as bad as the worst X-Men movies, let alone Fox's manhandling of the Fantastic Four, it is a step down from their most recent offerings.

The biggest problem with Apocalypse, when you get right down to it, is its title character. Not only do they waste the always brilliant Oscar Isaac on a character sorely lacking any discernible personality, but the character's motivations never make much sense and, for all his powers, he always seems less like the film's Big Bad than a plot device that gets in the way of the potentially interesting stuff happening with the mutants with whom we've become familiar over, at the very least, the past two films. And, yeah, sorry but there's no getting past it: he just looks lame here. I'm not actually super familiar with the character from the comics (though I do have vague recollections of him from the cartoon) but presumably the comic book version works a hell of a lot better than the Apocalypse we get here, as he has been a perennial fan-favourite since his creation in the mid 1980s.