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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.

Before I Wake

What to do when the best horror movie in ages is barely even a horror movie...

This review is also up at Channel 24

What it's about

A couple adopt a young boy, Cody, after their own child died a few years before but they end up getting more than they bargained for when increasingly strange things start happening whenever Cody falls asleep.

What we thought

Before I Wake has been held back for months now internationally (I saw it as a press preview late last year), looking for a moment there like it might not be released at all, but it's really hard to see why. It may not be the most original or the most memorable film ever released but it is, by quite some distance, the very best horror movie to hit our shores in a very, very long time.

Bringing to mind great Spanish-language dark fantasies like the Devil's Backbone or the Orphanage rather than your typical, increasingly boring, jump-scare-heavy (though there are one or two thrown in for good measure) Hollywood horror of the last few years, Before I Wake is just about creepy enough to be classified as a horror film but it wisely refuses to pigeon-hole itself into only one genre.

Before reaching its more full-on horror finale, the film works on a slow-build of mounting tension, fairy-tale-like fantasy and, gasp, real honest-to-goodness human emotion. This isn't really a film for gore hounds who prefer their horror flicks to feature dudes with chainsaws slicing up stupid teenagers (not that there's anything wrong with that) but if you like your horror subtle and your films actually well-made, Before I Wake offers plenty to chew on.

The Man Who Knew Infinity

Just one of those I wish I liked more. Sadly, this isn't the only film this week to suffer from that.

This review is also up at Channel 24.

What it's about

The true story of a young mathematician, Srinivasa Ramanujan Iyengar (Dev Patel), who was plucked from obscurity and poverty in the city of Madras, India to work side by side at Cambridge University with famed mathematician G.H Hardy (Jeremy Irons) mere months before the outbreak of the first World War.

What we thought

The Man Who Knew Infinity is that odd sort of film that as plenty going for it, yet just steadfastly refuses to add up to something truly satisfying. Following the model of films like a Beautiful Mind and the Imitation Game almost to a tee, this particular true story of a mathematical genius outsider has some wonderful performances, often witty dialogue and the kind of true story at its heart that may by now be somewhat familiar thanks to the above-mentioned films but is still well worth knowing. And yet and yet and yet, it never manages to rise beyond the solidly mediocre.

First, though, the good. Dev Patel plays a much more serious, reserved role than we're used to seeing from the guy who rose to fame through the controversial British teen show, Skins, and he's excellent throughout. Better yet, though, are Jeremy Irons and Toby Jones who do most of the heavy lifting in terms of sparky dialogue and bringing some life to what could easily be quite a dour film – though special mention must go to Jeremy Northam who is particularly fun as Bertrand Russell.

Unfortunately, the very fact that I'm concentrating on the performances first and the comic relief second says a lot about how everything else failed to truly captivate me. The film does raise some interesting questions about class and racism and the importance of academia in the face of war but the script by director Matt Brown never quite makes the leap from dryly interesting to truly emotionally and intellectually engaging.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Angry Birds

About as pointless as it sounds.

This review is also up at Channel 24

What it's about

Based on the massively popular series of games, Angry Birds tells the story of a colony of flightless birds and Red, an angry outsider who has spent his life separate from his close-knit community, who discovers a plot against the birds by the apparently friendly pigs that show up on their shores one day.

What we thought

If you're wondering how on earth they're going to make a movie out of a bunch of games with nary a narrative between them, I'm afraid that the Angry Birds movie does nothing to actually answer that question. I enjoy Angry Birds Friends on Facebook, it's a fun little game to play for a few minutes at a time, but turning it into a film makes about as much sense as Pong: The Movie or the True Adventures of Tetris.

Sigh. I just gave the hacks in Hollywood the idea for two new cutesy animated moves, didn't I?

Anyway, Angry Birds plays out pretty much exactly as you might expect. It has little in the way of plot and the characters are about as two-dimensional as their computer game counterparts, being defined more by their powers than any sort of actual personalities – which, equally unsurprisingly, makes for a total waste of a pretty great voice cast.

Sure, it's bright and it's colourful but aren't most kids' animations? There is literally nothing about Angry Birds that sets its apart from the pack: not its animation, not its characters, not its plots and certainly not its incredibly limp jokes or it's surprisingly plodding pacing. Even the bit when it finally does the thing that the game does with slinging different kinds of Angry Birds at a bunch of buildings feels like nothing more than the game with slightly better graphics but without that all-important interactive gameplay. Once again, here's a video game movie that feels like watching someone else playing a video game and, despite some baffling evidence on YouTube that might test this particular theory, who actually wants to sit and watch someone else play a video game? Not me, that's for damn sure.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Comics Talk: 5 Reasons to be Excited About DC: Rebirth.

Working with the grateful assistance of Zed Bees Comic Universe in Edenvale, South Africa (more on them in a bit), I've decided to shake things up a bit on this here blog by introducing a new, semi-regular comics column. I'll be reviewing both the latest comics and a bunch of classic reads that are, usually, easy to find in collected form; taking a look at standout comics and graphic novels that will be coming out in a few months time (usually from the latest Previews) and talking about general trends and goings-on in the industry.

A few points to keep in mind, though. First, I hope to publish this column as often as possible but like all the writing I do primarily for fun, it will inevitably take a back seat to any paid work I have going at the time. With so (hopefully consistent but) decidedly haphazard a schedule, I'm also going to forego any sense of real order or specific plans; opting instead to talk about whatever is on my mind on any given day - though, hopefully, it will still be very much of interest to established fans and newbies alike. 

Most crucially, though, unlike my movie reviews, this column will be dedicated, as much as humanly possible, to the good, great and wonderful sides of comics as an artform and industry. Part of this has to do with my limited schedule but mostly it's because comics are faced with so much negativity - both online and in the real world - that I really just want to shine a warm, utterly positive light on what has been one of my favourite art forms since I was a kid. 

In terms of focus, Image Comics is going to crop up time and time again as they are easily my favourite publisher right now and I have always been more of a DC guy than a Marvel Zombie but all publishers, both big and small, will be up for discussion. And, no, I have no intention of superheroes dominating the discussion. I mean, honestly, at this point, they're covered pretty well in the ever increasing amount of superhero films out each year that I will, of course, continue to review in my usual role as film critic. And, of course, speaking of movies, I won't be dealing with the movies here at all and may only include the occasional look at original animated movies like the Killing Joke and the extensive line-up of comics-related TV shows. This column is about comics and that is where my focus will remain.       

Finally, a quick word about our "sponsor". Zed Bees has been my primary comics store for years and, more than anything else, I just want to give them something of a shout out for their consistently excellent service; knowledgeable and friendly staff and - for what is basically a small store - a nice selection of (usually relatively mainstream) titles. With the sheer amount of stuff that comes out every month, it's admittedly impossible for them to carry everything out there but they can order pretty much anything you want - from major Marvel and DC titles to obscure indies. And, as is the case with every comic book shop on the planet, pre-ordering is your friend if you want to avoid disappointment. Last but certainly not least, in the past year or so with the value of the South African Rand plummeting against the US Dollar, Zed Bees have gone out of their way to keep the prices down as much as humanly possible: presumably at some cost to their own profit. This level of dedication to their customers puts them way over the top and makes it a pleasure to support them. Be sure to check them out if you live even remotely nearby.

I should probably also reiterate at this point that all opinions in these columns are mine and mine alone and don't neccessarily represent what Zed Bees or its employees think on these matters.

With that very, very long intro out of the way (I promise to keep them short in the future), onto my first column - which promises to challenge many of the points I made in this neverending preamble...

Monday, May 2, 2016

Ratchet and Clank

A video game movie that doesn't actively suck? Say it ain't so!

This review is also up at Channel 24

What it's about

Based on the series of popular video games, Ratchet and Clank tells the story of a young, restless mechanic, Ratchet, whose dreams of becoming a heroic space ranger becomes a reality when he meets a robot named Clank who alerts his to a crisis that threatens the entire galaxy.

What we thought

Unless I'm missing something, Ratchet and Clank is very easily the best film based on a video game ever. Of course, that's not saying much – as the film's solid but modest rating should attest – as most video game movies have been ear-bleedingly terrible but credit where credit is due: it may not be on the same level as, say, Inside Out or Zootropolis but it's a really solid, highly enjoyable space romp for kids of all ages. Admittedly, it's probably more for boys of all ages than girls. I know, I know, it's probably politically incorrect to suggest such a thing but, hey, if you can't make sweeping generalizations about animated space operas, when can you?

At its heart, Ratchet and Clank plays on the very well worn trope of, what can best be described as, “the specialness of outsiders” as our unlikely heroes prove to the galaxy that you don't have to look like a hero to be one, but it draws from all sorts of familiar sources that should be familiar to anyone over the age of eight.

Star Wars, in particular, is the film's biggest touchstone by far with similar space ships, similar character arcs and even similar cut-aways between scenes – a particularly weird choice considering just how close it is being released to the home video release of the Force Awakens. It's not just Star Wars, though, as it draws heavily from superhero mythologies too and even features a villain with exactly Lex Luthor's understanding of real estate. To be fair, though, this weird alien mixture of mad scientist, businessman and politician is way closer to Lex Luthor proper than whatever the hell Jesse Eisenberg was doing in Batman V Superman.