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Sunday, June 25, 2017

Wonder Woman

Is this the film to finally fix the heretofore atrocious DCEU (DC Comics Extended Universe)? Read on to find out - though if you've seen the rating, you can probably already guess the answer.

OK, that was my original intro. I had hoped to have gotten this review out before the film came out but paid work got slightly in the way. On the plus side, I have now seen the film twice and for all that I liked it the first time round, I loved it a whole lot more after seeing it again.

As it has been out for a while, I'm also going to get into a few spoilers towards the end of the review. Don't worry if you haven't seen it yet, though, all spoilers will be contained to the bit that's been marked as such.


Wonder Woman is a really, really terrific superhero film that not only course corrects the previously disastrous DC Extended Universe, but is a genuine standout in the overall superhero landscape. It is not, to be very clear about this, a film without its flaws but they're never enough to take away from all that works about the first major female-led superhero film and on my second viewing of the film, it's hard to think of most of them as anything but nitpicks. Yes, the film is overly long and it's slightly wonky in terms of pacing but that only means getting to spend more time with these terrific characters. Sure, its villains aren't massively memorable on the whole but it's hardly their film and - that's actually about all I can say without getting into spoiler territory. It also does have some surprisingly unconvincing CGI during some of the action scenes but, even here, they don't detract much from the general effectiveness of the film's action set pieces. Things only really become a genuine problem in the film's final twenty minutes where the CGI bombast gets totally out of hand - but even this doesn't overshadow the thematic and character-driven moments that really defines this final confrontation.

Enough about the film's relatively few shortcomings. They're mostly pretty minor and pale in comparison to all the many, many things that work about it.

First and, this really shouldn't be overlooked: the way that Wonder Woman has resonated with girls and women of all ages has been pretty wonderful to behold. Now, the idea that it is the first major movie or television property to star a character that young girls can really call their own is an insult to the likes of Ripley, Buffy Summers or Katniss Everdeen that presented powerful, strong, human and likable female characters that were front and centre of their respective franchises. Even in terms of live-action representations of DC Comics superheroines, only a fool would take away from the sterling work that Melissa Benoist has been doing on our TV screens for a couple of years now as Supergirl. And, of course, this is to say nothing of the female-led superhero comics that kicked off with the first appearance of Wonder Woman some seventy-five years ago.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Transformers: The Last Knight

It's like Deja Vu all over again.

This review is also up at Channel 24

What it's about

An ancient artefact holds the key to saving the world from a new Transformers threat.

What we thought

This being the fifth – fifth! - Transformers movie, it's hard to go in with anything but the worst expectations as every single one of the last four easily rank among the worst blockbusters released this century. Yes, even the first one – which some critics of the series like for some reason. And yet, director Michael Bay has surprised in the past. The Rock and the first Bad Boys were very solid action comedies and he even managed to pull out a surprisingly good black comedy in the form of Pain and Gain a few years back. Granted, I'm still convinced that the latter was good entirely by accident but the point still stands.

So, does Bay redeem himself? Is the latest Transformers movie even remotely worth watching? No. Of course, not. Even the most open of minds can't help but see Transformers: The Last Knight for what it is: an already terrible franchise running out of steam in the most obnoxious, terminally dull way possible. It is, it should be said, arguably the least morally objectionable of them all as the sexual objectification is kept to a minimum and the cultural clichés never quite take a downturn into the casual racism that past entries have been lambasted for but, lets be honest, the political iffiness of the Transformers movies was ever only, at worst, part of the problem.

The problem with the latest Transformers, like all of its predecessors, is that it is just woefully incompetent. It's a strange thing to say about a guy like Michael Bay, who is, at the very least, technically proficient at putting huge spectacle onto our screens and it's no less strange to call “incompetent” a movie with flawless visual effects, an often impressive supporting cast and enough money spent on it to make the whole thing appear, albeit superficially, really impressive. And yet, all of these elements never come even remotely close to gelling together into a cohesive whole.

Monday, June 19, 2017

The Hunter's Prayer

This is too lame for me to even bother coming up with some sort of pithy pun on its title.

This review is also up at Channel 24

What it's about

After the rest of her family is murdered, Ella, a teenage girl attending boarding school in Switzerland, enlists the aid of the assassin sent to kill her to avenge her family.

What we thought

I'm getting slight tired of asking this, but how on earth did this movie get a cinematic release when so many better – and more cinematic - movies don't? Is it the pun-tastic title? The C-list action star at the centre? Or maybe it's the starring role for the up and coming, beautiful Israeli actress who is quite possibly only a film or three away from her big breakthrough - Wonder Girl, maybe? To be honest, the answer is probably all down to the distributor buying this film as part of a bundle of cheap flicks to go along with their bigger releases but that just makes the whole thing sound all the more crass doesn't it? Lets just go with the lovely Ms Rush and call it a day, then.

However this film magically got to our screens, it becomes very quickly apparent that it really has no business being there. As is typical of these sorts of c-grade genre pictures, there's nothing massively wrong with it but there's next to nothing that's particularly good about it either. It's perfect for a drunken/ hungover hangout with a bunch of friends on a boring, late winter's night as background noise or as an excuse for another tub of popcorn or bottle of beer. Though, even then, the crappier the TV, the better.

This Beautiful Fantastic

Fantastic might be a bit of a stretch but it's not far from beautiful and it is plenty charming.

This review is also up at Channel 24

What it's about

Bella Brown is an idiosyncratic young woman, trying to make ends meet, as she works on the children's book that she can never quite compete. When her cantankerous next door neighbour starts to pester her about the state of her garden, the two outsiders start to become increasingly involved in each other's lives.

What we thought

This Beautiful Fantastic is the sort of film that would be all to easy to pick apart if it weren't for just how likeable and charming the whole thing is. Put on a “critical hat” and the film's self-knowing quirkiness, its obvious character arcs and its obvious and oblivious sentimentality become all too clear and all too easy to damn the film for indulging in such “indie dramedy” pitfalls but it's so big-hearted and its characters so charming that, for all but the most churlish among us, that particular hat will spend the entire duration of the film in a dustbin outside the cinema.

Writer/ director Simon Aboud has, to date, made a career out of short films, a late-period Paul McCartney music video and a single feature called Comes a Bright Day that I'm reasonably sure never troubled cinemas in this country so it's not surprising that This Beautiful Fantastic has the feel of a debut feature of a filmmaker still trying to find their feet but doing so with plenty of that old charm and heart. It's undeniable that some of the writing is extremely wobbly (an incredibly silly “plot twist” towards the end is especially groan-worthy) and there isn't much in the way of a truly individualistic vision here but a bit of naivety and an utter lack of cynicism goes along way here to elevate the film way beyond any failings it may have. Well, okay, except for that “twist” towards the end there, which really is almost astoundingly daft – and the fact that I predicted it and, at the same time, really, really hoped the film wouldn't go there, certainly doesn't make it any more forgiveable.

Monday, June 12, 2017

The Mummy

You know, people like to complain about the gamut of superhero movies but, is it just me, or have the only blockbusters to be any good at all this year have been adaptations of Marvel and DC Comics? That's rather troubling to sure but, really, who in their right mind would complain about Wonder Woman or Logan when the alternative is so often something like the Mummy. And that despite the fact that the Mummy clearly took a huge chunk out of the corporate superhero rulebook... 

This review is also up at Channel 24.

What it's about

Nick Morton is a career soldier and amateur thief who uses his tours in the Middle East to unearth valuable antiquities to sell on the black market but when he and his partner in crime come across an ancient Egyptian tomb in the middle of Iraq, he soon finds himself targeted by a powerful evil.

What we thought

Taking a cue from the “shared universes” of DC and Marvel, the Mummy – which actually has almost nothing to do with the 1990s blockbuster of the same name – is the inaugural film in Universal Picture's “Dark Universe” where a bunch of (public domain) movie monsters meet, team up and fight in a manner not too dissimilar from the Justice League or the Avengers. It's a fun idea but unlike Iron Man – though rather like Man of Steel – the Mummy does not exactly get things off to a flying start.

Things do begin promisingly, however, as we are introduced to the Egyptian princess whose quest for power sets her on the course towards becoming the titular monster via some nicely dotty cod-Ancient-Egyptian-mythology and a one-note but enjoyably pulpy performance from Sofia Boutella (wearing slightly less makeup than she did in Star Trek Beyond). This gives way to easily the most entertaining segment of the film where we meet a roguish but very Tom-Cruisy Tom Cruise and New Girl's reliably funny Jake Johnson doing a mischievous riff on Indiana Jones as they try and out race a bunch of faceless terrorists to some very valuable archaeological treasure.

These early section suffer from the same terribly lame dialogue as the rest of the film but there's a fun, swashbuckling feel that permeates the first act of the film that unfortunately comes crashing down along with the plane crash that brings both our heroes and the mummy princess to good old London in the film's most publicized sequence. Things don't go wrong immediately as there is still some fun to be had, especially between Cruise and Johnson, but the film's many fatal flaws start making themselves very apparent.

The Whole Truth

Yes, I know, I still haven't reviewed Wonder Woman. IT's rather pointless at this point but still, expect that soon. For now, here's my Channel 24 review of a movie that's rather less good.

The Whole Truth is the sort of film that would make for a very fine two-parter in your average network legal drama but seems completely out of place on the big screen. That is has a number of relatively big names, including the always bankable Keanu Reeves, does little to shake that feeling – especially in this new golden age of TV where shows like Big Little Lies, Twin Peaks or Fargo feature some serious A-list talent.

There's just nothing about what's on display here that's even remotely cinematic. The direction by Courtney Hunt is fine but it feels distinctly televisual, which is backed up by the fact that most of her directorial credits to date have been on small-scale TV projects. Screenwriter Nicholas Kazan has a rather more illustrious big-screen career, being part of the famous (and occasionally infamous) Kazan movie dynasty, but the fact that he is credited under the pseudonym Rafael Jackson probably says something about how he feels about the end product.

All that said, though, while there is nothing extraordinary about the end product, it is nonetheless a perfectly serviceable legal drama with solid supporting performances from once-big names like Renee Zellweger and Jim Belushi and up-and-comers like Gugu Mbatha-Raw, along with enough mystery and narrative twists and turns to keep things interesting, if not wildly compelling.

Admittedly, Reeves is somewhat miscast in the lead role (he's even less convincing as a hotshot lawyer here than he was in the still massively entertaining Devil's Advocate) and some of those twists – especially the big one at the end – do come across as more than a little silly but it's still a solidly enjoyable, if almost impressively unremarkable, little film.

Again, though, I have to ask: with so many critically lauded or at least interesting films never seeing the inside of a South African cinema, how on earth did this glorified episode of Law and Order earn a limited but still authentic cinematic release? It's perfectly fine but you will lose nothing by catching it on TV a little way down the while – indeed, its natural home will probably make it look a whole lot better than it does stretched across the big screen.



Friday, May 26, 2017

Song to Song

No, I couldn't help it, I slipped a not-so-stealth review of the first couple of episodes of the new reincarnation of Twin Peaks in there. It's not quite as random as you might think, though!

This rant is also up at Channel 24.

What it's about

Set around the music scene in Austin, Texas, a group of young musicians, music producers and general bystanders fall in and out of love with each other.

What we thought

It's a particularly brilliant stroke of luck that Song to Song hits our cinemas the same week that the verhy-very-very-long-awaited new episodes of Twin Peaks came out because, frankly folks, without this interesting comparison to ground me, I would have no earthly idea how to review Terrence Malick's latest unbearably indulgent non-film.

Both the new season of Twin Peaks and Song to Song represent their respective creators being allowed to cut loose and indulge in their own, very particular and often extremely alienating directorial visions. The new Twin Peaks – or what little we've seen of it so far – eschews much of the familiarity of the original series for something far weirder, far darker and far more indulgent. It's the sort of move that all but guarantees a large number of long-time fans jumping ship long before the series makes its reported (at least partial) return to the crazy mix of surrealism, soap opera and goofy comedy that defined the original.

For me, and many like me, though, Twin Peaks: The Return is the return of David Lynch after far too many years without anything really new from him. Even his last directorial effort, Inland Empire, which I've yet to see, much to my shame, didn't make it to many cinemas when it was released over a decade ago. This new series uses his most popular fictional world to create something that is basically a culmination of Lynch's entire career: disturbing, challenging, funny, surreal, self-indulgent, sexy, violent, goofy, impenetrable and incredibly visceral.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Blockbuster Roundup: Guardians, Aliens, Pirates and Arthurian Geezers

The Summer Movie season has finally kicked in and we're off to... a start. There are still loads of blockbusters to come (and one or two of them are not based on a comic book) but the season did kick off with some of the year's biggest and most anticipated films. Are any of them any good, though? Well, that may be something else entirely.


Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2. Saving the best for first, Guardians 2 may not have either the element of surprise on its side in the way that the first film did and it does lack somewhat in its predecessor's sheer sense of movement but it's a fun, funny, thrilling and weirdly moving mix of superheroics and space opera, with loads of character development thrown in for good measure. While most sequels live (and sometimes die) by the motto that "more is always more", the pleasures of Guardians of the Galaxy 2 lies in its much more intimate scope and its focus on the characters themselves. Yes, a big, galaxy-ending threat does show up in the latter half of the film but, fundamentally, it's really a film about family - both the ones we're born into and the ones we make. Not the most original of themes, it's true, but this particular group of disparate characters brings a sense of freshness to well-trod ground, while writer/ director James Gunn's irreverent sense of humour keeps things from ever descending into cloying schmaltz. The cast is as great as ever but, adorable Baby Groot aside, it's arguably Michael Rooker who shines brightest as Yondu and, though there's really little sense in bringing up just how great the soundtrack is (it's arguably even better than the first), the poignant denouement is such a perfect match of open-hearted filmmaking with one of the most beautiful songs ever recorded that it's bound to go down as one of the most memorable - not to mention poignant - scenes in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. And, of course, be sure to stick around for the five (count them, five) end credits scenes. (8/10)

Sunday, May 14, 2017

20th Century Women

I know, I know... I'm still planning on getting to Guardians 2, as well as at least a couple of other big releases, but, for now, here's my take on an interesting little movie that I wish I enjoyed more than I did.

This review is also up at Channel 24

What it's about

The year is 1979, and the major political and social upheavals of the time provoke a single mother into turning to others for help with seeing her teenage son through to manhood. With no real male role models on hand, she settles on her bohemian, free-spirited female tenant and her son's precocious female best friend.

What we thought

Anchored by a brilliant performance by Annette Bening, 20th Century Women is, as you may have guessed is a film that takes a long hard look at femininity and feminism towards the end of the great women's movement of the 1960s and '70s but what intrigues most about it is the way that it does so by asking – of all things - what it is that makes a man, a man (“is it brain or brawn or what month he was born?”, as the Who asked fifty years ago).

It's an extremely smart bit of writing from Mike Mills (the decidedly un-prolific indie darling behind Thumbsucker and Beginners) that constantly undercuts any and all expectations of what we might expect of buzz words like “feminism” or “masculinity.” More than that, it also uses its very particular time period to look at a generational and mother-child gap that pits the sunny optimism of the hippy era against the angry uncertainty of punk and how even an “enlightened”, liberal woman who came of age through the political and social upheaval of the 1960s might not be prepared for a new kind of “revolution” - though, of course, in hindsight the differences between punk rock and the '60s counter-culture were far less significant than their similarities and, ultimately, their failures.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Rules Don't Apply

I'll have my Guardians 2 review up soon (spoiler: it's not as good as the first but it's still pretty great) but here's another film that's worth checking out if you want something slightly different.

Also, this review is already up at Channel 24.

What it's about

In 1950s Hollywood, a young aspiring actress finds herself torn between a blossoming romance with her ambitious driver and the often ludicrous demands and whims of the man they both work for: eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes.

What we thought

Living up to its own title and the infamous real-life figure that inspired it, Rules Don't Apply is a film that never bothers with little things like tonal consistency, narrative structure or even figuring out just what story it's trying to tell but it is all the more appealing because of just how unwieldy a mess it is. Best of all, it manages to be eccentric and odd and free-wheeling without ever losing the basic accessibility and slickness of old fashioned Hollywood entrainment. No wonder so may critics hated it.

Writer, director, producer and supporting (lead?) actor, Warren Beatty had been wanting to tell this story for longer than many of us have been alive so it's all the more amusing that the finished product so resolutely refuses to commit to any single story. Is it a loose portrait of the eccentric genius of Howard Hughes, a tribute to the Hollywood of Beatty's own youth, a veiled autobiography or an epic love story about a couple of great looking kids struggling to come together against this increasingly unhinged backdrop? Yes.

Monday, April 24, 2017

In Dubious Battle

The week of major literary adaptations by actors-turned-directors starts with Daniel from Freaks and Geeks doing Steinbeck. What could go wrong?

This review is also up at Channel 24.


What it's about

During the Great Depression, a pair of activists involve themselves in the struggles of desperate workers by getting them to strike for fair wages.

What we thought

In Dubious Battle is hardly the Grapes of Wrath, East of Eden or Of Mice and Men in the canon of great novels by premier American writer, John Steinbeck, as it is known for concentrating far more on its message than on its story or characters. At least, that seems to be the general consensus. I admit, I haven't read it or any of Steinbeck's novels (he's always been near the top of my must read list but I still haven't gotten round to him) so I certainly can't compare the novel to the film but, based purely on the evidence on display here, it's hard to argue with that consensus.

Interestingly enough, In Dubious Battle hits South African cinemas on the same day as American Pastoral, and the two films complement each other rather nicely. They do tell distinctly different stories, set in very different times, but in almost every other respect they mirror one another. Both films are based on classic American novels, both deal with the American Dream (albeit from opposite sides) and both are directed by their lead actors who turn in ambitious, heartfelt work but are ultimately sunk by biting off more than they can chew.

It's not hard to see what drew the Steinbeck semi-classic to James Franco; not only is he a well-known bibliophile but at a time when America is ruled by a narcissistic billionaire whose main aim seems to to make him and his fellow billionaires even richer, this tale of the working classes being exploited by the super-rich no doubt struck a particularly poignant chord with his unapologetically liberal world view. The world depicted in In Dubious Battle is basically Bernie Sanders' nightmare scenario writ large – which is all the more frightening as this world is one that America was supposed to have left behind nearly a century ago.

American Pastoral

Who knew that Ewan McGregor had balls this big...

This review is also up at Channel 24.

What it's about

Seymour “the Swede” Levov is the envy of his local Jewish community as he follows his years as the most popular kid in high school with an adult life that includes his taking over his father's massively successful clothing business and having seemingly the perfect family life with his (non-Jewish) beauty-pageant wife and doting daughter. As his daughter comes of age and the 1960s rage on, however, the Swede's perfect life comes crumbling down.

What we thought

The acclaimed, Pulitzer-prize winning novel on which this film is based is one of those “classic” novels that utterly defeated me. I made it halfway through before the sheer misanthropic self-indulgence of Philip Roth's magnum opus had me throw up my hands in defeat and turn towards something a bit easier to swallow – something like War and Peace, perhaps (though, not really). Even after having read just half of American Pastoral, though, one thing was very clear: you'd have to be clinically insane to try and adapt it into a film.

Enter Ewan McGregor, who not only decided to stretch his sanity to the limits by tackling a book that was almost all internalized self-examination and almost no plot, but decided to make it his directorial debut along the way. The result, predictably, is a failure but it's an honourable, ambitious failure that is never quite the disaster it so obviously should have been. It's also far more accessible and enjoyable than its source novel - not to mention a whole lot shorter – if, admittedly, nowhere near as deep.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Gold

Not even bronze.

This review is also up at Channel 24.

What it's about

Based very loosely on true events, a gold prospector, desperate for one more chance at striking it big, joins forces with a geologist to find gold in the jungles of Indonesia. Is what they find there, however, to good to be true?

What we thought

Though a step up from the last movie starring Matthew McConaughey as a man in search of gold (the pretty but stupidly vacuous Fool's Gold), Gold takes one part Romancing the Nile (minus the romance), one part the Wolf of Wall Street and one part, oddly enough, Fool's Gold and churns out something hopelessly and profoundly mediocre.

McConaughey himself is pretty great, of course, as the “McConaussence” shows no sign of slowing down, especially when he eerily but presumably unintentionally channels his former True Detective co-star, Woody Harrelson, but he's the only remotely notable thing about a film that resolutely refuses to leave a mark. He is aided by a bang up make-up job that turns this, shall we say, rather good looking man into someone impressively repulsive but really, props to the guy for putting this much effort into something that is nowhere near deserving of all his hard work.

The first half of the film is just a total bore as we are introduced to a bunch of utterly uninteresting characters, doing uninteresting things in utterly uninteresting ways that shifts from the grey sterility of a Big City office to the wilds of Indonesia without ever shifting tone, thereby turning what is ostensibly supposed to be the film's Big Adventure set piece into something about as interesting as doing your taxes – if significantly less tense.

Friday, March 31, 2017

The Bye Bye Man

The Don't Bother, Man.

This review is also up at Channel 24.

What it's about

A guy moves into a new house with his girlfriend and best friend but when strange things start happening in the house and tensions rise between all three of them, it becomes evident that a powerful evil is residing among them.

What we thought

If you think that plot synopsis sounds generic, just wait until you've seen the film.

Drawing heavily from every haunted house thriller you could think of, along with everything from Nightmare on Elm Street to the Ring to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Bye Bye Bad Man is a highly derivative horror flick that fails miserably to live up to even its humblest of inspirations. And the worst thing is that though it is an abject failure on every level imaginable, it's not even notably bad enough to be interesting on that level and nowhere near rubbish enough to be so bad that it's good. It's just... meh, taken to the extreme – which you might think would be an accomplishment in and of itself but, as it turns out, “meh” to the power of three hundred is still just “meh”.

The only thing remotely interesting thing about this barely made-for-DVD supernatural thriller is it's director Stacy Title, who not only holds the distinction of being one of the very, very few female directors out there to tackle the horror genre (Katherine Bigalow is the only other name I could think of, off hand) but that, after making a couple of not particularly noteworthy but perfectly OK films in the 1990s, she seems to come out of nowhere, roughly once every decade, with the kind of film that steadfastly refuses to make much of an impact on either critics or the box office.

That's honestly about it for the interesting aspects of the film. It does explain why the Bye Bye Man manages to come across as both the work of someone who has seen (and apparently made) enough horror films to know how to adequately put one together and yet has seen too many to actually come up with something even remotely fresh or original. For a filmmaker who works so rarely, you might expect something with a bit more of a personal touch but this is Horror 101.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Ghost in the Shell (2017)

I definitely couldn't let this one go without at least a quick - or not so quick - look in. 


The first thing that's worth mentioning about this not particularly eagerly anticipated remake of the classic 1995 anime is that it's really nowhere near as bad as it could have been. The second is that, as someone who liked the original anime but is far from a diehard fan of it, my opinion might not matter all that much to those who greeted the news of this remake with the most trepidation.

I also haven't read the original manga and my only experience of the ever-widening world of Ghost in the Shell (there was a new animated film released as recently as 2015) beyond the original anime is catching an episode of the Stand Alone Complex TV shows back when they were shown quite regularly as part of an anime block on one of South Africa's long-defunct Sattelite channels. I know enough, however, to know that a different take on Masamune Shirow's original manga is pretty much par for the course right now. Even the original anime was apparently a huge departure from its source.

I mention all this because, though it might be interesting to view the latest version of Ghost in the Shell through totally new eyes, it does undeniably stand in the shadow of the original. At the same time, though, that hardly means that it is automatically worse just because it doesn't follow the original beat for beat.

The best way to describe what director Rupert Sanders and screenwriters Jamie Moss and William Wheeler do with their take on the beloved anime is that they take a number of the most iconic scenes from Mamoru Oshii's original and remixes them into a rather different story.

Monday, March 20, 2017

John Wick: Chapter 2

I'm sorry, but really: ho freakin' hum.

This review is also up at Channel 24

What it's about

Picking up a few days after the first film, John Wick: Chapter 2 finds our eponymous hero once again drawn out of retirement for one last job but when that job doesn't go as planned, he ends up at the top of the hit list for every assassin in the city and beyond.

What we thought

John Wick, released way back in 2014 (it seems more recent), was one of that year's most surprising hits, scoring big with both critics and at the box-office, but having the kind of geeky appeal that resulted in the emergence of a bonafide fan movement for the quietly lethal killer at its centre. The unimaginatively titled Chapter 2 has, if anything, been even more of a success, with sky-high rating from critics and audiences alike and an even bigger box office take.

Frankly, it's all a bit of a mystery to me.

I'd almost credit the huge success of these films as simply being the product of a Hollywood that has largely lost interest in such straightforward action films but that's far less accurate than it might appear at first glance. Yes, most action films these days are wrapped in other genres like science fiction or superhero fantasy but that does a disservice to charismatic action stars like Jason Statham or the Fast and Furious franchise, which has only become more and more enjoyable as it has gotten more and more bonkers. More than that, only a fool would write off major 21st century action films like Haywire, Dredd or the Raid, which easily stand as major milestones for the genre.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Kong: Skull Island

The Ape is back.

This review is also up at Channel 24

What it's about

The year is 1974 and a group of explorers head out to map one of the last unexplored pieces of land on earth: the mysterious Skull Island, but when they get there they find things beyond their wildest imaginings.

What we thought

Rather than picking up where Peter Jackson's overly indulgent but ultimately rather spectacular take on King Kong from, shockingly, over a decade ago, Kong: Skull Island is a whole new take on the classic character that jettisons the more familiar story for something that plays more like a cross between Jurassic Park, Apocalypse Now and the more tangential moments in Jackson's King Kong. The result is an effortlessly fun monster movie but one that definitely pales in comparison to its most obvious influences.

Aside for being hopelessly derivative, almost by definition, the film's main problem is that it is kind of a bloated mess. An enjoyable mess but a mess nonetheless. Along with Kong himself and the half-dozen other types of monsters we meet on Skull Island, the film is overflowing with human characters – most of whom doing very little to add to the story around them. It most especially does a grave injustice to Brie Larson and Tom Hiddleston, two dependably top-notch actors who are presumably supposed to be the focal human characters of the piece, but who tend to get lost among the thousand and one elements that the film tries to juggle.

Worse still, Kong himself may be an exceptional creation that not only dwarfs all previous Kongs in size (he's something like four taller than Jackson's King Kong) but also as an artistic and technological achievement (think the latest Planet of the Apes movies but ballooned one-thousand fold), and yet he often feels like a guest star in his own movie.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Logan

Pretty much everyone else has had their say on this so, despite not disagreeing at all with the general consensus, here's my own undoubtedly quite disorganized take on the X-Men movie none of us knew we wanted.


After the all around terrible X-Men Origins: Wolverine and the thoroughly-lacking-in-its-own-convictions the Wolverine, Logan gives us a Wolverine movie that does the character justice - and then some.

Drawing more from existential westerns like Shane (which actually appears on screen during the movie) and Unforgiven than from the typical superhero narratives we have mostly seen on screen, Logan is a tough, brutal and moody meditation on a life of violence, shot through with an unconventional family drama and healthy helpings of action, humour and sci-fi weirdness.

The story itself is as simple as the title character needing to get a young mutant who is, for all intents and purposes, his daughter across country to the Canadian border where there is a hope of a new and better life for her and other young mutants like her, but entrenched in that stripped down narrative is complex characterization, a rich thematic canvas and, presciently, many a parallel to the United States' current political climate.

Keeping the basic road-trip structure, the western trappings and at least some of the larger themes of Mark Millar and Steve McNiven's Old Man Logan comic book miniseries, Logan still mostly feels like a film with its own very particular vision; one that is presumably much closer to what director James Mangold was able to achieve with the second Wolverine film; a big-budget Hollywood blockbuster that was clearly mired in compromise, especially in its idiotic third act that betrayed everything that came before.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Jackie

Almost definitely not the film you're expecting.

This review is also up at Channel 24

What it's about

Following the assassination of her husband, John F Kennedy, Jacqueline Kennedy is left to pick up the pieces as she is forced to confront both the past and the future and what it means for her family, her faith and her role as the protector of a legacy violently ripped apart on that fateful day in Dallas.

What we thought

Jackie is sure to disappoint you if you go in expecting anything even remotely approaching your average Hollywood biopic. It really is nothing of the sort. Directed by acclaimed Chilean director, Pablo Lorrain (No, Neruda), and, unbelievably, written by Noah Oppenheimer whose only other screenplay credits to date have been Maze Runner and Allegiant, Jackie clearly hews much closer to the work of the former than the latter, as neither its major Hollywood lead actress nor its being in the English language ever manage to obscure just how much it feels like a foreign-language art-house film.

It's a film that has very little in the way of an external plot; focusing far less on the events going on around the widow Kennedy than on her state of mind at the time. It's a thoroughly internalized look at the mind of an undeniably complex woman struggling to make sense of world-altering events that left her personally adrift, on the one hand, while shaking an entire nation, on the other.

Yes, there are tidbits about Kennedy's vice president, Linden Johnson, being sworn as president; the hunt for (alleged) assassin Lee Harvey Oswald; Mrs Kennedy's needing to vacate the White House to make way for the new First Family and even a brief but brutal look at the assassination itself but, intriguingly, the one historical event that the film primarily focuses on is the decision of whether or not to have the funeral preceded by a walking procession in the streets. For a normal historical drama this might seem a rather odd decision but, for the sake of a fiercely character-driven work like Jackie, it provides all the impetus that is needed to explore the mind of its protagonist in rich thematic detail.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Fences

So close to greatness...

This review is also up at Channel 24

What it's about

Based on the Pulitzer prize and Tony award winning play of the same name, Fences tells the story of Troy Maxson, a troubled ex-con and baseball player, doing his best to raise his working-class, African American family in the tumultuous 1950s, when the Civil Rights movement hadn't yet hit and the United States of America was heavily divided by class and race.

What we thought

The major failing of Fences is almost immediately evident right from its opening scene – which, ironically enough, is probably the least obvious example of such in the entire film. As we follow our (anti?) hero, Troy (Denzel Washington) and best friend, Jim Bono (Stephen Henderson) back to the Maxson homestead from their blue-collar job, the two men converse in a way that mixes the rhythm and flow of something between Shakespearean verse and street poetry with grounded, then contemporary dialogue. This scene is arguably the most kinetic in the entire film but it's already clear that what we have here is more a filmed version of a play, performed on more realistic sets on a very slightly larger canvas, than a fully-fledged piece of cinema.

However, though the sheer staginess of the film does stop it from quite becoming the masterpiece that the play undoubtedly is, Fences remains an extraordinary piece of work – and, if most of us aren't fortunate enough to see the real-deal on stage, this film acts as a pretty great consolation prize.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Fifty Shades Darker

Making Fifty Shades of Grey look like a perfect masterpiece...

This review is also up at Channel 24. However, since I wrote it rather late at night, soon after seeing the film, there are quite a few grammatical errors on my Channel 24 version, which hopefully I caught for this slight revised review.

But no, my opinion on the movie has hardly softened over the past few days so the general gist is much the same...

What it's about

Following on from the events of Fifty Shades of Grey, Anastasia and Christian try to give their relationship another chance, even as obstacles – both inside and out – threaten to tear them apart.

What we thought

In my review for the film, I went through some lengths to defend Fifty Shades of Grey as a film that never really had a chance to transcend its dodgy source material, but one that gave it the old college try anyway. Director, Sam Taylor-Wood gave the film a sense of style that elevated the clumsy trashiness of its source material, while Dakota Johnson's wry, nicely modulated performance undercut the sheer absurdity of everything else going around her. Even Kelly Marcel's script improved somewhat on E.L. James' largely atrocious dialogue.

(For reference sake, I should point out that I haven't read the books in full but I have sampled a chapter or two of them to get an idea of what the fuss was about. And yes, that included some of the naughty bits, which were easy enough to find because, like any R-rated action film from the '80s or '90s, they - or at least some of them - were situated smack in the middle of the story.)

Fifty Shades Darker, however, isn't so much “darker” as it is much, much, much “crappier”. Anything that even remotely worked about the first film was largely removed for the second film and what was already bad in Fifty Shades of Grey was only amplified in its followup. That it's total softcore-porny trash goes without saying, but that it doesn't even work on that level tells you everything you need to know about just how bad the film is.

Denial

One of the smaller films of the week but that hardly makes it any less worthwhile.

This review is also up at Channel 24

What it's about

The true life case of how Deborah E. Lipstadt, a highly respected professor of Holocaust and Jewish studies, went head to head in court with David Irving, an infamous historian and Holocaust-denier, to fight the libel suit that Irving brought against her after she called him out in her latest book.

What we thought

Based on Deborah Lipstadt's own book, “History on Trial: My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier,” Denial is a film that may lack in terms of cinematic scope (you won't lose much watching it on TV, in other words) but it is nonetheless a compelling, intriguing drama with excellent performances and a level of timeliness that is almost shocking.

Denial isn't simply about Holocaust denial and it's certainly not really directly about the Holocaust itself (though it does treat it with all the sombre respect such a subject deserves), so much as it's about seriously relevant questions about free speech, racism/ anti-semitism and the nature of facts.

While the rising tide of anti-semitism sweeps once again throughout the world - on both sides of the political aisle - and anti-Muslim hysteria has turned sensible cautions against Islamist terrorism into blatantly obvious religious discrimination, the film's examination of the insidious nature of racial, religious and cultural prejudices strikes a particularly resonant note.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Rings

Sigh.

This review is also up at Channel 24.

What it's about

The second sequel to the English-language remake of the Ring, where the deadly videotape starts to once again terrorize all who watch it and the one young woman who has no choice but to try and stop it.

What we thought

I remember nothing about the Ring 2 beyond a few rubbish CGI sheep but I can't imagine that it was anywhere near as bad as this sequel/ reboot.

The original English-language remake of the Ring remains a touchstone of 21st century horror cinema, both in the way it ushered in a, in retrospect, relatively brief but intense flirtation between Hollywood and Japanese horror (especially those involving water and lankly girl-monsters with long, straight black hair) and in being a very fine, genuinely quite creepy horror flick in its own right. It's been a long time since I revisited it and I am afraid that it might have lost much of its power over the intervening years, but, in my memory at least, it remains one of the scariest horror movies ever made.

It's with a certain amount of sadness, then, that I have to report that the attempt made by director F. Javier Guttierez and his co-writers, Akiva Goldsman and Juan Velarde, to both follow up the original and relaunch it as a franchise is an unmitigated mess of a film that squanders both the good will of the original film and its own perfectly decent (if largely entirely irrelevant) opening sequence involving Samara coming to claim her latest victims on a full passenger aeroplane mid-flight.

(Speaking of the film's villainess, do yourself a favour and check out the IMDB photo of the woman who plays her in this film, Bonnie Morgan. It's the only truly shocking thing to do with the film.)

From the introduction of Jared Galecki as the college professor who introduces the Ring tape back into circulation through to the film's pathetically underwhelming final twist, Rings is, at its best (and it's seldom at its best), blandly derivative of the original film and, at its worst, a dreary, boring and incoherent waste of celluloid that fails resolutely to raise either interest or scares.

Despite the seemingly endless information dumps, the film makes little sense and it's even harder to care when the characters are this less-than-paper-thin. With the film already failing this badly to bring the viewer into the story or to engage with the characters, though, it becomes all the worse when you take into account the dull cinematography, awful pacing and that horrible washed-out, blue-grey colour pallet that has become all the rage since the original Ring (remake) made great use of it but has become a millstone around the neck of more modern genre films than I can count.

While Rings is pretty underwhelming all the way through, it's in its final act where things go particularly pair shaped. Even before we get to the twist that's presumably supposed to be some sort of brilliant revelation but is instead little more than a daft attempt to set up more sequels, the final third betrays the creeping psychological horror that was the first film's bread and butter for the sort of sub-slasher nonsense that only the worst psychological horror films need resort to, but is exacerbated by some horribly murky camerawork that makes it as hard to see as it is to care about what's going on on-screen.

Italian actress Matilda Lutz does her best as our leading lady, despite the shaky material she has to work with (and certainly had me convinced that she was nothing other than a born and bred American) and Vincent D'Nafrio adds his usual gravitas to what is both the film's juiciest and dumbest role but if there is any hope to be had in successfully following up on the chilling thrills of the original English-language version of the Ring – and, considering how self-contained it is, I'm almost certain there isn't – it's certainly not to be found here.

Amazingly, though, this isn't even the worst horror sequel of the week!




And that movie is...


No real reason to review this: it fails on every single conceivable level but Resident Evil fans will still stick up for it. I do want to say, though, that this has some of the worst editing I've seen in a genre film in a long, long time. Resident Evil: The Final Chapter (yeah, right) isn't just bad, it's all but entirely unwatchable.


Thursday, January 26, 2017

The Birth of a Nation (plus A Monster Calls and Patriots Day)

Keeping with the format I adopted last time, my review of the Birth of a Nation comes from Channel 24 and, exclusive to this blog, are another two films that released on Friday that deserve at least a mention. 

(Sorry this is a bit extremely late... holiday laziness...)


What it's about

The (mostly) true story of Nat Turner, the slave/ preacher who used his influence to incite a bloody uprising against slave owners in the American South.

What we thought

Despite intentionally “stealing back” its name from the groundbreaking but morally despicable 1915 D.W. Griffiths film, the Birth of a Nation mostly exists in the long shadow of 12 Years a Slave, the multiple-award-winning modern masterpiece that set a new bar for films about slavery. Sadly for it and its now infamous writer/ director/ star, Nate Parker, it doesn't come anywhere close to matching that film's emotional power, its complex intelligence or its quietly brilliant filmmaking.

This isn't quite to say that there's nothing to recommend about the the Birth of the Nation, as it is an admirably ambitious directorial debut for Parker and its depiction of the horrors of slavery are effective enough – though, it's actually the more subtle and mundane examples of such, rather than the more outwardly and shockingly barbaric, that are most memorable and powerfully drawn. The central and fatal problem, however, is that Parker both writes and directs the film with a bluntness and lack of subtlety that not only makes the film unconvincing as a drama but also utterly fails to do justice to a story that, in real life, was loaded with moral and historical complexity.

Friday, January 6, 2017

Manchester by the Sea

As you'll see, this is one of the more complicated high scores I've ever given.

This review is also at Channel 24

What it's about

After his brother dies, a broken, bitter man named Lee Chandler has to go back to his old hometown to look after his teenage nephew.

What we thought

Manchester By the Sea, for this reviewer at least, is a classic case of a film that is immensely admirable and yet all but impossible to even remotely like, let alone love. It's a film that has been nominated for countless awards and absolutely deservedly so as it is an exquisitely put together and flawlessly acted near-masterpiece – and I detested very nearly every moment of it.

This isn't so much like films that are impossible to enjoy because of their subject matter but are richly rewarding viewing experiences anyway (see Schindler's List, 12 Years a Slave) but more like something like Raging Bull – Martin Scorsese's 1980 tour de force that may be a true masterclass in filmmaking but its main character was such an unrepentant tool that spending even a minute in his company strained my patience and tolerance well beyond breaking point.

Even “objectively”, Manchester By the Sea isn't in the same class as Raging Bull as it is a far more meandering piece of work that never fully achieves its presumed goals but it's actually not a bad comparison. Both films are tough, unforgiving works whose main protagonists are so hard to sympathize with that even the most horrifically tragic things that befall them fail almost entirely to register at all. Casey Affleck is undeniably brilliant here but I hated his character with a passion that surprised me.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Middle School (And a Word or Two on Passengers and Hacksaw Ridge)

Middle School is most definitely not the movie that most people have been looking forward to this week. As such, here are a few thoughts on two of the week's truly noteworthy films.

As you may have guessed, my Middle School review can be also be found at Channel 24 but my thoughts on the other two films, no matter how short, are exclusive to Because Everybody Else Has One.

Man, I really should have come up with a shorter name for this blog, though...


Hacksaw Ridge is a potent reminder of both Mel Gibson's very real skill as a director of visceral, affecting, engrossing cinema (albeit cinema with all the subtlety of a very, very large sledgehammer) but it's also a reminder that it's not always easy to separate the artist from the art.

However much this may be Gibson's "repentance" movie where he makes up for his past sins by shining a spotlight on a genuine hero whose story absolutely deserves to be widely known, I couldn't help but be distracted by an underlying sense that something ugly lies beneath the surface of the film. I admit, had this not had Gibson's name attached to it, I would probably never even consider this but, is it just me, or is the basic gist of the film that World War II was about the ultimate battle between good, white Christian Americans and animalistic, heathen Japanese? Why did the Nazis and the rest of Europe not even deserve the smallest mention?

There are undoubtedly perfectly adequate in-story explanations for this as the film does centre on a specific American-Japanese battle and our hero does come from a small town where it's entirely possible that for him it really was all about the fact that the "Japs" attacked Pearl Harbor and not about a larger war against fascism. Plus, there's really little point in denying it, the Japanese were, by all reports, genuinely notoriously monstrous during the Second World War, which is why they adopted an anti-imperialistic national outlook after 1945 in much the same way that Germany embraced an inclusive, liberal and anti-fascist outlook that has persisted to today. For all I know, Gibson's intentions really were entirely pure with the film and he truly has put his ugly past behind him but I would be lying if I said these thoughts didn't cross my mind at various times throughout the film.