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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.