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Monday, December 4, 2017

Coco

Yeah, I know I'm late with this but after some less than effusive reviews of late, I figure it's only right to highlight some films that are actually worth your time. No promises, but hopefully this will only be the first of these this week. I'll do my best to keep these short to try and make sure that happens...


Before I get onto the business of praising this film to, well, the Land of the Dead, in this case, a word or two about that accompanying Frozen "short" that has been the cause of so much controversy. The backlash against it has been so bad that Disney will be pulling it from all prints of Coco - at least in the US - from this coming Friday. And rightly so. It's very bad, it's very long, it doesn't fit at all with the main feature and it took the place of one of those usually wonderful Pixar shorts that we normally get with most of their movies. It's total rubbish and their plans to use it to advertise the upcoming Frozen 2 has clearly backfired badly. I liked Frozen but I don't think it needs a sequel and this highly irritating "special" does little to get my hopes up.

Enough of that, though. Soon it won't be a problem and it has already taken enough time from the delights at hand...

It's probably damning it with faint praise to say that Coco is the best Pixar film since Inside Out but how about calling it one of the best Pixar movies to date? Yup. It really is that good.

The plot follows much the same general quest structure of most Pixar movies so there's nothing exactly original about this story about a young boy who has a fight with his family because they don't understand him and ends up on an epic adventure to get home while learning some important life-lessons along the way. Like all the best Pixar films, what really matters is the details. The Mexican Day of the Dead has been used in animation before - and to particularly brilliant effect in the '90s PC game, Grim Fandango - but it is used spectacularly here; both in terms of creating some stunningly beautiful visuals as a backdrop to our hero's adventure and as a way to explore the film's central themes of family, death and remembrance.

It's probably not quite as profound as something like Inside Out's central metaphor about growing up but it's substantial stuff nonetheless - especially for something that is ostensibly a children's film. Besides, as an adventure film, Coco actually outdoes Inside Out. It's also all backed up by that trademark Pixar emotional wallop and even if it isn't as intense as the first ten minutes as Up, it's much more consistent with the film becoming more and more resonant with each passing act.

Overdrive

I missed the press preview for this so I went out to see it the midday screening on opening day and then wrote this straight after. So, if you think my reviews are too - haha - thoughtful this should be for you!

Also, this really wasn't very good. I need to review something good to balance the scales, methinks. Stay tuned...

This review is already on Channel 24

What it's about

Andrew and Garrett Foster are half brothers and, as car thieves at the top of their game, are literal partners in crime. When the two accidentally steal from one of France's greatest crime lords, they and Andrew's girlfriend, Steph, are forced to carry out a car-robbery for the man they stole from, and in the process get caught up in a crime war that may end up making them very rich or very,very dead.

What we thought

Overdrive is, by any metric, a very bad movie. The acting is universally poor, the script risible, the plot overstuffed and the characterization thread-bare. The cinematography is rather nice, what with all the beautiful people stealing beautiful cars in beautiful locations being exactly the sort of things to make any director of photography's life a breeze, but even the action scenes aren't done all that well: relying far too heavily on the sort of super-fast editing that makes most action movies these days rather irritating to watch. Here's a game: during any action set piece, click your fingers (but, you know, quietly: you are in a cinema) every time there's a cut. I guarantee you won't be able to keep up.

It's clearly and quite incontrovertibly a bad movie but that's almost to be expected. The real question is if Overdrive is any fun? The answer, fittingly enough, is that your mileage will vary depending on what you want from it.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Justice League

Or, as I like to think of it: Justice League of America in the Case of the Uncanny Moustache!

Seriously, I know it's not politically correct or necessarily accurate to call it Justice League of America but "Justice League" always sounds to me like only half a title.

Yeah, things are probably about to get a bit nerdy...


Plot: With Superman dead and the world on the brink of facing a full-on invasion by an ancient evil, Batman and Wonder Woman recruit a team of like-minded individuals to stand for Truth, Justice and the American (?) Way!

Review: After Wonder Woman proved that films set in the DCEU (DC Extended Universe, for those not keeping track at home) don't have to objectively suck - and, in the case of Wonder Woman, could actually be pretty damn good - all eyes were on Justice League of America to see if Warners/ DC would learn from its recent success, or if Wonder Woman was just a fluke and we would be back to the low, low levels of Batman V Superman and Suicide Squad. And, to be perfectly honest, things did not look good.

Zack Snyder had already proven himself to be the wrong man for the job with Man of Steel and Batman V Superman so, for all of his promises that this would be lighter and more fun than the dour, tone-deaf nonsense of Batman V Superman, it already looked like Justice League of America was doomed to fail. Then tragedy struck and a truly horrible family tragedy caused Snyder to leave the project and the completion of the film was handed over to none other than Joss Whedon. This was not something to celebrate. Quite aside for it being thoroughly despicable and unspeakably inhuman to celebrate the tragedy of someone whose worst crime is making a bunch of bad movies, Whedon may be one of my favourite genre writers ever but I could hardly think of a filmmaker whose humane, witty and character-driven vision would fit at all with someone who is, charitably, all about style over substance. They may balance each other out but, more likely, their styles would clash on every possible level.

With all that said, the fact that Justice League of America doesn't actively suck is a huge achievement. I mean, it's not great. It's nowhere near as good as the many Marvel movies whose success it's trying to replicate, nor does it come remotely close to Patty Jenkins' wonderful work on Wonder Woman or Christopher Nolan on most of his Dark Knight trilogy. It ain't half bad, though - which may seem like damning with faint praise considering that it's a film that features some of my favourite fictional characters ever (and Cyborg) and that my ten-year-old self still can't quite believe actually exists - but considering both its production woes and that this is the same guy who all but destroyed Superman for a whole generation, "not half bad" is virtually a ringing, five-star endorsement.

Monday, November 20, 2017

The Man With the Iron Heart (HHhH)

Anthropoid-ish?

This review is also up on Channel 24

What it's about

The true story of Operation: Anthropoid, where a pair of British soldiers teamed up with a small group of Czech resistance fighters at the peak of the Second World War to assassinate Reinhard Heidrich, one of Hitler's most ruthless generals and a major architect of the Final Solution.

What we thought

Based on the historical novel, HhHH by Laurent Binnet - inevitably, some of this story had to be based on conjecture and even pure fiction as the film will make very clear; but the basic events apparently really did happen – the Man With the Iron Heart originally shared the same title as its source novel but presumably out of wanting to spare everyone the embarrassment of having to try pronounce what is less a word than an exasperated sigh, they wisely opted to settle on this generic but far more comprehensible title.

They could have also called it Anthropoid but, as it so happens, another film, also based on the same book and the same historical events beat it to the punch by coming out just before the Man With the Iron Heart was completed – forcing the latter to delay its release by a year and to forever suffer being known as “that other Operation Anthropoid movie”.

For some unknown reason, Anthropoid was never released in this country despite having the same plot, its own even more A-list cast and having done the same story first. It is almost universally considered to be the better of the two films but as I have yet to have had the chance to see it, I'm just going to have to judge the Man With the Iron Heart on its own terms. And on its own terms, it's... almost very good.

Monday, November 13, 2017

mother!

Yes, that's how you punctuate this film's title. And, no, that's not the weirdest thing about it. Not by a very, very long shot.

Please note, I may discuss some plot points in this review but I am reluctant to call them spoilers - because the film isn't really about its plot, which, as it so happens is literally thousands of years old. Still, if you want to know absolutely nothing about the film going in then feel free to not read this review until you've seen it. Then again, in this case, you might actually want to know a bit about what the film is before deciding to see it. That start-rating should give you an idea of how much I loved it but it's certainly not for everyone. Indeed, I'm pretty sure I'm the only person who walked out of the screening I saw of the film who actively liked it. Take that as you will.

Incidentally, I know I am guilty of using the personal pronoun a lot in my reviews, perhaps even too much so, but that practice has never been more appropriate than it is here. Even attempting any sort of objective distance with this film would be unbelievably foolish: this is a film that is all about what you, as an individual, bring to and take from it. 

Oh and hey, look out for a mini Twin Peaks review in the middle of the whole thing. It kind of fits but going off on a random tangent also feels perfectly appropriate for this particular movie.

Enough with the preamble. Onto the review...


After his audacious, Midrash-influenced take on the Noah story, Darren Aronofsky - a Jewish atheist, for what it's worth - sets his sights rather wider in a film that jumps straight from the early sections of Genesis (specifically Adam and Eve and Cain and Abel) to the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, all via an exploration of human nature and global warming/ ecological waste. Ambitious doesn't begin to cover it but to Aronofsky's great credit, this is less a somber, academic polemic as it is a wild, visceral and unquestionably polarizing piece of absurdist filmmaking.

No doubt taking his cues from the obscure Jewish idea that God kept destroying the world until he got it right (he surely came across this idea in his research for Noah; it's way too much of a coincidence for this not to be the case) Aronofsky tells a rather blatant allegory involving an unnamed husband and wife, who live in a house in the middle of an open field that "Mother" spends all of her time trying to perfect for her writer husband until a strange visitor, named only "man" comes along and slowly starts to corrupt their perfect paradise after reaching for the one artifact in the house that he is absolutely forbidden from going near. Get it?

The blatancy of the allegories hardly stop here and the more they are piled on top of one another the more dizzying the effect becomes. The film starts with an incredible sense of unease and unnerving creepiness as one of the most archetypal stories in human history unfolds as a slow-burning home invasion thriller of a fragile woman being torn down by unwanted visitors. As mother! progresses, however, and the characters become less human and more blatantly archetypal and the action ramps up from its initial slow-burn to a deliriously gory and violent ending, that sense of unease transforms into something that will either totally repulse you or have you on the brink of gleeful laughter.

Tulip Fever

A film that is almost as ridiculous as its title. And don't necessarily mean that in a bad way!

This review is also up on Channel 24

What it's about

Set in 17th century Amsterdam, Tulip Fever tells the story of Sophia, an orphaned girl who marries a much older merchant named Cornelis Sandvoort but as her failure to conceive a child for Corenlis tears their already friendly but ultimately loveless marriage further and further apart, she meets and falls in love with Jan van Loos, the young painter that Cornelis hires to take their portrait. Sophia and Jan's illicit love affair soon turns out to be only the beginning of a series of events that spins all their lives out of control; all revolving around the rather peculiar practice of investing ludicrous amounts of money around tulip bulbs in Amsterdam's underground market.

What we thought

Coming hot on the heels of a racy “Red Band” trailer, Tulip Fever is a hot-blooded bodice-ripper that is as unafraid of nudity as it is of increasingly insane plot twists and heightened melodrama. This is the good news. What sadly lets the film down, though, is its utter refusal to settle on a tone; bouncing from ripe and lusty romantic shenanigans to farcical misunderstandings to witty, solidly observed character-comedy to tragic heartbreak with all the control and subtlety of Johnny Depp in the last four Pirates of the Caribbean movies.

Taken on their own, the film's dramatic elements are effective, thanks in no small part to typically beautiful lead performances by Alicia Vikander and Christoph Waltz – Vikander especially, as her fragile beauty only amplifies her already uncanny ability to convey real heartbreak a hundred-fold. When her heart breaks so does yours. The weighty narration by Holiday Granger, who is otherwise very good in a crucial supporting role, does let the side down somewhat but the screenplay by Deborah Meggach (on whose novel it is based) and Tom Stoppard (Tom Stoppard!) gives great actors moments to really strut their stuff.

Monday, November 6, 2017

Wind River

Not the Hawkeye/ Scarlett Witch reunion you might be expecting.

This review is also up on Channel 24

What it's about

After the body of a girl is found brutally raped and murdered on the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming, Jane Banner, a rookie FBI agent sent to investigate the murder purely because of her proximity to the reservation, joins forces with Cory Lambert, a white man and wildlife tracker who has lived on the reservation ever since marrying his ex-wife, to solve the crime. The more they dig, however, the more is revealed – not just about the crime but about each other and Wind River itself.

What we thought

Taylor Sheridan has gone from being a respected, if not overly famous, character actor to a writer responsible for the scripts of two of the greatest crime dramas in recent years. Sicario and Hell and High Water – directed by Denis Villeneuve and David Mackensie, respectively – mixed the Outlaw Nation feel of your classic westerns with slow-burning, character-driven narratives that ratcheted up the tension while, at the same time, playing fast and loose with the tried-and-true conventions of the crime genre.

Sheridan's latest script continues in this tradition but, as well as Sheridan taking over the director's chair, he moves the action away from well-explored locales like small-town America (albeit a very different kind of small-town America) and the Mexican-American border to something far more interesting. Wind River is a cold, chilly title and the reservation its named after is – at least, as portrayed in this film - a cold, chilly place and one that offers an entirely different kind of wilderness than the kind we usually see in these sorts of films.

Friday, October 27, 2017

Thor Ragnarok

It's really hard to complain about Marvel's endless stream of movies when they continue to be this good.

This review is also up on Channel 24

What it's about

Thor and Loki join forces with unexpected allies against a new foe that has arisen unexpectedly out of the ashes of tragedy; a foe who intends to fulfil the Ragnarok prophecy and bring ruin and destruction down on Asgard and the other realms of the multiverse: their sister and Odin's first-born, Hella.

What we thought

By this point, it has become rather cliché to state that the latest Marvel movie is the quirkiest and funniest yet. After solidifying their formula with their so-called “First Wave” that culminated in the Avengers, Joss Whedon's excellent game-changer that made it clear just how much Marvel's “shared universe” works on the big screen, the Marvel Cinematic Universe hasn't so much abandoned its winning formula as it has stretched it and played with it to create increasingly quirky and creative superhero spectaculars.

From the joke-filled space opera of the Guardians of the Galaxy movies to the mind-bending mystical mayhem of Dr Strange to the latest Spider-man film finally doing true justice to Marvel's flagship character by effectively being a John Hughes movie with superpowers, the last half dozen (at least) Marvel films have managed the not-unimpressive feat of being both comfortably familiar and constantly surprising.

Thor Ragnarok is arguably the greatest example of that particular balancing act yet. Working off a script by a trio of old hands at Marvel, Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle and Christopher Yost – the latter two of whom co-created X-23 and have worked together on a number of Marvel comics too – director Taika Waititi is possibly the most inspired and unexpected director to work on a Marvel film to date – and this from a company who have hired directors who were once almost entirely known for directing sitcoms, cult TV shows and schlocky b-movies.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Tyler Perry's Boo 2: A Madea Halloween

Yay, a new contender for the worst film of the year!

This review is also up on Channel 24.

What it's about

After Tiffany defies her father and goes to a Halloween party at a camp site where a string of murders once took place, she soon comes face to face with a number of apparently supernatural terrors that seem intent on replicating that bloody past. Things get increasingly complicated when Madea, Joe, Bam and Hattie set out to “rescue” Tiffany from the camp site – and that's before learning about the horrors that await them.

What we thought

This may be the tenth Madea movie but it is the first once I've ever seen. I enjoyed Tyler Perry is his small role in Gone Girl and I've endured some of his other films (and in the case of something like For Colored Girls, “endure” is definitely the word) but I haven't actually seen a full instalment of his signature series. Frankly, there was enough unbearable awfulness to be found in the two-minute trailers for any of these films to ensure that I would never go out of my way to watch any of them. I picked the short straw this week, though, and here I am, talking about the 10th Madea film and, as the title might suggest, the second to be set on Halloween.

The great thing about going into a film with such low expectations, though, is that you often find yourself pleasantly surprised. In the case of Tyler Perry's Boo 2: A Madea Halloween (what's that about brevity being the soul of wit?), my expectations could hardly be lower thanks to the Clockwork-Orange-like experience of sitting through some of Perry's past work and being unable to avoid seeing more Madea trailers than is strictly healthy. Frankly, had it just been “pretty bad”, I would have been pleasantly surprised.

To Perry's enormous credit as some sort of master torturer, then, not only did Boo 2 (you said it, sister!) fail to even begin to assuage my worst fears, it surpassed them on every possible level. This is bad in a way that only the least funny comedies are bad; bad in a way to make you wonder, even if only for a fleeting moment of knuckle-gnawing insanity, if Adam Sandler catastrophes like That's My Boy or Jack and Jill were really that terrible after all (for the record: they were). It's bad in a way that made me very glad I was alone in the cinemas as I literally groaned aloud a good dozen times and even let slip a “SHUT UP!” when the sheer irritation of having to spend 100 minutes with these grotesque characters got to be too much for me. Other Halloween movies may try to scare the pants off me, this made me lose the will to live.

Shot Caller

Oops, forgot to post this.

But hey, at least this review has already been up at Channel 24 for over a week.

What it's about

A successful businessman is sent to prison for culpable homicide after being involved in a drunk-driving accident that ended up with his best friend dead. Sent to a maximum-security prison, he is left with no choice but to join a white-supremacist gang in order to stay alive; a decision that leads him down a dark road from which he will never be able to return.

What we thought

Pitched somewhere between a tense prison-thriller and a serious, character-driven drama about the horrific effects of the American penal system, Shot Caller may boast strong performances, moments of real tension and a (potentially) interesting story of a good – if yuppy-ish – man going very, very bad but it' inability to find a balance between its two sides makes for a frustrating and not particularly enjoyable near-miss.

Game of Thrones' Nicolaj Coster-Waldau is quite excellent in the main role; effectively portraying a man whose life is slowly destroyed by one terrible mistake and whose transformation from decent white-collar worker into fearsome criminal convinces despite an increasingly absurd script doing everything it can to undermine him. He is surrounded by similarly solid performances and a film that is basically efficiently put together with enough grit and toughness to make up for some of its more generic tendencies.

The problem, really, is that somewhere between his script and direction, Ric Roman Waugh – who has by now made something of a career out of macho, prison-set drama/thrillers – struggles to tell a story that works either as a tense thriller or as a convincing drama.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

American Assassin

So simple a title, such a mess of a movie.

This review is also up on Channel 24

What it's about

After his personal life is ripped apart by a brutal terrorist attack, Mitch Rapp starts a one-man war against radical Islamist terrorism. His actions soon catch the attention of the CIA who enlist him to be part of their most elite counter-terrorism group – if, that is, he can survive training by Stan Hurley, a celebrated, tough-as-nails CIA and army veteran known for breaking his recruits.

What we thought

American Assassin has the sort of title that immediately brings to mind fairly straightforward action-thrillers that, more often than not, find their home on late night TV, where they can be enjoyed by insomniacs and undiscerning action junkies. I've long railed against these kinds of films taking the place of much worthier films in our local cinemas – and I stand by that – but in the case of American Assassin things aren't quite so simple. And, sadly, I don't mean that in a good way.

What we have here, very simply, is a film suffering from a major identity crisis; a crisis that only gets exponentially worse as the film goes on.

The opening scene of the film, to start, sets a particularly bleak tone as a beautiful and romantic beach holiday for our hero and his vivacious, loving girlfriend soon turns into the stuff of nightmares as a senseless and bloodily brutal terrorist attack leaves dozens of young holiday-makers dead or dying with their panicked screams barely drowning out the matter-of-fact rat-tat-tat of machine-gun fire.

It's horrible, disturbing and incredibly violent and seems to set the stage for a serious, no-nonsense look at terrorism and its effect on both the people who are victim to it and those who have sacrificed everything to fight it. It's the kind of shockingly effective opening that sets up a film that will no doubt be gruelling, tough and rather humourless but one that would surely work as the kind of visceral, realistic spy-thriller at which writers like John Le Carre and Greg Rucka excel.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

The Dark Tower

Question: How do you turn 15,000 pages of story into a 90-minute movie?
Answer: You don't.

This review is also up on Channel 24

What It's About

Loosely based on the Stephen King fantasy series, the Dark Tower tells the story of Jake, a teenager whose visions of another world may be written off as a sign of madness by his parents, doctors, teachers and friends but when a series of events leads him to that other world, he comes face to face with his visions brought to life: an eternal battle of good and evil between the The Man in Black who wants to bring darkness and death to multiple worlds and Roland, the last Gunslinger, the one man who could stop him. At the centre of their conflict is the Dark Tower, a single structure that lies at the centre of reality and is the only thing standing between the Multiverse and whatever darkness lies outside it.

What we thought

Spanning three decades, seven novels, a number of spin-off books, comics and thousands upon thousands of pages, the Dark Tower is undoubtedly Stephen King's magnum opus. It's so monolithic, in fact, that the Dark Tower touches on many other King properties along the way and even draws the author himself into the story. It's the sort of thing that makes Game of Thrones look positively brief and self-contained in comparison.

Turning the Dark Tower into a multi-season HBO series might be able to capture the sheer scope of King's masterwork but, even then, loads would have to be left out. The seemingly insurmountable trouble of adapting the thing certainly explains why it's been in development hell for years. Not too long ago, an audacious and undoubtedly risky solution was finally reached. The Dark Tower would consist of a long-running premium-cable TV show and a series of movies that would intertwine and interact in a way that would make it arguably the most ambitious project ever undertaken by Hollywood.

Apparently, this insane idea has never been fully abandoned and there are still rumblings of a Dark Tower series being planned for one of the premium cable companies. That is, however, all very much up in the air and seems to have been intentionally sabotaged by the Dark Tower film that we do have. Not only is the film a sequel of sorts to the novels – thanks for the spoiler, guys! - but it wouldn't so much introduce the world of the Dark Tower, so much as tell the whole story of Roland and the Man in Black. All in ninety minutes!

The Exception

Exceptional? Maybe not. But pretty worth seeing.

This review is also up on Channel 24

What it's about

Set during the height of World War 2 where Adolf Hitler had effectively exiled the German monarch, Kaiser Wilhelm, and his wife to the Netherlands to “wait out the war”, a young soldier is assigned to the Kaiser's home as head of security but whose main mission is to spy on the household and to report any seditious, anti-Nazi activities going on there. He quickly falls for a bold, outspoken housemaid who has plenty of secrets of her own – not least of all being that is Jewish.

What we thought

Despite its setting and its plot, it would be a stretch to call the Exception a “Holocaust film” - both because it only touches on the Holocaust and the rampant anti-Semitism going on in Europe at the time and because these truly dark historic events are used mostly as context for the story it's trying to tell, rather than the story itself. The result is a film that plays out like a mix of a thriller, a sweeping romance, and a rather unique domestic drama, all played out against a backdrop of the unparalleled horrors of Nazi occupied Europe.

It's no masterpiece as its often conflicting elements do have a habit of bumping into one another and causing the film to, if not spin off its axis, then at least wobble a bit. However, in a week where 9/11 fails almost completely to balance awful historic events with more lightweight entertainment, there is something to be said for the fact that not only is the Exception not a total disaster, it ends up being a compelling and solidly enjoyable piece of work.

9/11

Too soon?

This review is also up on Channel 24

What it's about

As the Twin Towers are attacked on that fateful day in September 2001, a group of people stuck in a broken down elevator in the North Tower struggle to survive, while confronting their own and each other's personal demons.

What we thought

9/11 is an uncomfortable watch – unfortunately, not always for the reasons that the filmmakers clearly want it to be. On the one hand, it is a taut, if overly generic survival thriller with, to be honest, fairly b-grade level performances from most of the cast and some seriously creaky dialogue. On this level it works, just about, even if there's little about it that demands paying the high price of a cinema ticket to see it.

The problem is that this perfectly adequate b-movie is taking place within the context of a still fairly recent tragedy; a tragedy whose effects still resonate with even those of us who have never been within a thousand miles of New York City. More than “just” a tragedy, in fact, the horrible events of 9/11 were an act of pure evil that brought Islamist extremism to the heart of Western Culture and set America and the rest of the world into a constant state of war or near-war ever since. It was a momentous, defining moment in modern history; one that still calls for the utmost sensitivity.

9/11, the film, is clearly not – it has to be said right from the off – out to exploit a national tragedy or to make light of the terrible evil responsible for it. It's clearly made with the utmost respect and is even dedicated to the memory of the lives of those lost on that day. Presumably, the film – and the play on which it was based by Patrick Carson – has set out to try and give a particularly human, down-on-the-ground perspective on the events and on the way such tragedies affect people and their relationships.

Monday, September 4, 2017

First Kill

Soon to be known as the one where Anakin Skywalker acts John McClane off the screen.

This review is also up on Channel 24.

What It's About

A big-time city man returns to his small-town home to take his young son hunting but while they're on the hunt they witness one man shooting another after a clearly illicit deal goes wrong. Things quickly go from bad to worse as they are drawn into a web of dirty cops and dangerous bank robbers.

What we thought

It says something about just how far Bruce Willis has fallen that he is acted off the screen at every turn by Hayden Christensen. Christensen will clearly never be able to escape being the man who played Darth Vader as a whiny adolescent but, to be fair, he is probably never going to be a genuinely good, let alone great, actor. He's certainly a much better actor than the Star Wars prequels suggested but when you consider the pool of seriously talented young actors out there right now, he seems destined to constantly be bubbling under the surface. Hence his starring in a film that I'm actually reasonably sure did go straight to streaming and DVD/Blu-Ray overseas.

The film in question - First Kill for those not keeping track at home – barely even merits a discussion, though, as it is nothing you haven't seen done much better elsewhere but is still, for what it is, a perfectly OK straight-to-video b-movie, where you will be able to predict every twist whole acts before the characters. Taken for what it is, it's perfectly passably written and directed; it's just not something that you need bother with unless you're looking for a dopey b-grade action-thriller for a late, lazy Saturday night.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

American Made

Cruise is back! That didn't take long...

This review is also up at Channel 24

What It's About

Barry Seal is a successful TWA pilot whose small-time smuggling side business catches the eye of the CIA who enlists him to help spy on communist training camps in Latin America. It's not long, however, before he comes to the attention of the up and coming Medellin drug cartel who in turn make him an offer he can't refuse to smuggle their drugs into the United States while on his missions for the CIA. Based loosely on a true story.

What We Thought

After the Mummy proved to be Tom Cruise's first genuinely bad movie in a very long time, it's particularly pleasing to see him back on such fine form just a few months later in a role that seems all but written for him. Cruise's particular mix of serious charisma and just the right amount of crazy has long made him one of Hollywood's most undeniable movie stars and it's that very combination that makes him such a perfect fit for Barry Seal.

As portrayed in the film, at least, Seal is an incredibly likeable family man with a slightly crazed - but no less charming - roguish side that comes out especially while he's on the job. He is also someone willing to try anything, no matter how dangerous, to get that job done. Sound like anyone you know?

As if being just a profession (and scandalous cult) away from Barry Seal wasn't enough, Cruise more than lives up to both his and Seal's reputations for trying things that most “normal” people wouldn't dare do in even their most escapist fantasies. In particular, the stunts that Seal pulled off as a pilot, both to get the best surveillance for the CIA and when dumping kilos of drugs from a plane flying on autopilot just a few feet from the ground, are recreated wholesale in the film by Cruise himself. American Made may not have anywhere near the amount of crazy stunts as your average Mission Impossible movie but what there are, are seriously impressive, made all the more so by the fact that it's an actor in his fifties doing them.

Tom Cruise clearly carries the film every step of the way but it's hardly just a one man show. On the acting front, he is matched brilliantly with his shady CIA dealer, played by Domnhal Gleason who once again proves not just his acting chops but his uncanny ability to transform his thick Oirish accent for an entirely believable American drawl. No less impressive but in need of far more airtime is Sarah Wright as Seal's increasingly bewildered-but-sly-in-her-own-way wife – more of her please, in general!

Sunday, August 27, 2017

2:22

Because 14:22 isn't catchy enough a title...

This review is also up on Channel 24.


What it's about

Dylan is an air-traffic controller whose preternatural ability to see patterns in everyday events makes him both very good at his job and gives his life a certain amount of predictability. His life soon takes a turn for the decidedly unpredictable, however, after he nearly causes two planes to crash into one another and meets the woman of his dreams – who also happens to have been a passenger on one of those planes – on the same day. It's around this time, as well, that he starts to notice certain events repeating themselves day in and day out – all culminating in a “bang” at 2:22 PM – a “bang” that may be related to an act of violence that happened decades previously.

What we thought

The fact that 2:22 bears more than a passing resemblance to a mixture of the Buffy: The Vampire Slayer episode, “Amends”, the X-Files episode, “Monday”, and whole chunks of Donnie Darko should cast an inescapable pall over the film, as it is neither as good as any of these individual elements nor, of course, even remotely original. That it's also a rather silly exercise in quasi-mystical mumbo jumbo and a not particularly convincing romantic thriller should be more than enough to bury it as, if not one of the worst films of the year, then at least one of those that really belongs in the bargain bin of your local video shop (remember those)?

I'm clearly just a sucker for cheesy romance, quasi-mystical mumbo jumbo, and the unbearably gorgeous Teresa Palmer, then, because despite everything that's so obviously wrong with 2:22, I can't deny it: I had a whale of a time watching it.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

The Hitman's Bodyguard

So, I apparently like this more than most critics. Who knew?

Oh, also why isn't this the only poster for the film, rather than that bland action-pose poster we have in all South African cinemas? I literally chuckled at this play on the old Bodyguard poster. But then, I'm apparently more easily amused than some...

This review is also up at Channel 24

What it's about

A disgraced bodyguard is called on to transport a notorious hitman from the UK to the International Court of Justice at the Hague so that he can testify to the crimes of of a brutal Eastern European dictator, with whom he once had dealings.

What we thought

Take your basic Midnight Run premise, mix it with Deadpool's irreverence (and star) and add some Fast and Furious chase scenes and you have the Hitman's Bodyguard, an unoriginal, silly and way overlong action-comedy that is also frequently funny, effortlessly enjoyable and immensely likeable.

Ryan Reynolds' career has taken a notable upturn since he donned the red and black suit of Deadpool a couple of years ago to make fun of everything from superhero films to Hugh Jackman to Reynolds himself. Michael Bryce, the bodyguard of the title, isn't quite Deadpool as he doesn't technically have any superpowers, doesn't exactly break the fourth wall and has one or two personality quirks that aren't shared with the Merc With the Mouth but old Wade Wilson is clearly a huge influence on Reynolds' work here – and the film is all the better for it.

At the same time, Darius Kincaid may not be exactly the same as every other good-hearted ass-kicker that Samuel L Jackson has ever played before but this hitman-with-a-conscience does play like an amalgamation of all of Jackson's most enjoyable traits as a legendary screen presence. He's absurdly capable, surprisingly wise, unapologetically romantic and is as quick with his wit as he is with a gun – and, wouldn't you know it, his favourite word ever is, what the BBFC charmingly refers to as, “the oedipal expletive”. Stop me if you've heard this one before.

A Family Man

Tear Jerker/ Vomit Inducer/ Whatever

This review is also up at Channel 24

What it's about

A high-powered recruitment agent neglects his family for his job but when his son turns gravely ill, he is forced to confront his priorities in his life and just what he's really living for.

What we thought

Taking a hiatus from his usual wham bam action fare with a convincing enough turn as a (spoiler) douchebag-turned-softie in this by-the-numbers tear-jerker, Gerard Butler headlines a perfectly good cast in a film that is to family dramas what the Olympus Has Fallen series is to action films. It's not egregiously terrible and it's not even entirely unmoving but the only thing that really sets it apart from your average made-for-TV weepie that used to find a home on the Hallmark channel is just how often it manages to miss its mark – which is actually not something you could say about those otherwise pretty rubbish melodramas: they do, at the very least, manage to do what they set out to do.

Here we have a film with solid production values, a good cast and perfectly adequate direction by Mark Williams (especially as a first-time director) but it just feels woefully misjudged at every turn. Even its ultimate message of money and power not being any substitute for your loved ones and living a full, meaningful life is mired by the fact that it comes less in the form of an earned epiphany – or, really, a fairly obvious observation – but by this douchey deal-maker basically making a deal with God that happens to pay off. This little tidbit might be considered a spoiler, by the way, but it's so blindingly obviously handled that you would have to be asleep not to see it coming from a mile away – even as you hope that the film won't go for anything so lazily trite.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

What the Hell's It Good For: War for the Planet of the Apes vs Dunkirk

A bit of an odd pairing this but bear with me...


Despite their pronounced war aspects, Dunkirk and War for the Planet of the Apes are two rather different films. One is a fantasy that makes heavy use of metaphor to talk about real-world issues, while one is an on-the-ground look at a real military event of some 300 000 Allied Soldiers being evacuated from German-occupied Belgium. One is actually a war movie with its emphasis firmly on military battles; one just uses its war trappings as the dressing on what is basically a near-Biblical fable. One centres on the trials and travails of ordinary young men during a horrific historical incident; one features talking apes in a rather (one hopes) unlikely future. These are not the same film by any stretch of the imagination and, yet, as I slouched out of Dunkirk in a state of abject disappointment, all I could do was think back to the latest - and best - Planet of the Apes movie.

Both films, you see, are staggering technical achievements; where artistic vision is easily matched by groundbreaking (though completely different) special effects, powerful musical scores, and breathtaking cinematography, but however much I admire what Christopher Nolan achieved with Dunkirk it simply didn't have anything close to the level of intellectual engagement or emotional wallop that Matt Reeves' presumably final film in this act of the Planet of Apes franchise dolled out in spades.

Nolan has constantly been criticized for being a "cold" director: a filmmaker whose technical excellence is never matched by any real emotional investment in the final film, but I've always found that argument largely spurious in the extreme. If you can't find the beating heart at the centre of the Dark Knight and Interstellar, in particular, you're really not trying hard enough. Sadly, Dunkirk was the first time in a Christopher Nolan movie that I absolutely recognized all the criticisms that have been thrown his way for years now.

For all of its genuine spectacle and peerless cinematic artistry, Dunkirk was an extremely odd viewing experience: I would constantly recognize the emotions I should be feeling at any given point in the film but without ever actually feeling any of them. That this should happen in Nolan's most grounded and most theoretically visceral film to date is an irony that is not lost on me.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Spider-Man: Homecoming

Another year, another big-screen Spider-man reboot. Things are a bit different this time, though.


For all that people love complaining about the plethora of superhero films, this year has been a rather interesting showcase for why we should be glad they aren't going away soon. For a start, despite appearances to the contrary, superhero films are not the only "tentpole", big budget blockbuster being released, it's just that - for this year at least - they seem to be well on their way to being the only good ones (update: as of a screening I saw today, that's no longer the case!). While the Mummy brought us a stale take on a well-established property, Logan gave us the most genuinely mature take on a "Big 2" superhero to date. As King Arthur lived down to its director's worst tendencies, comics' most classic female superhero got a film of her own that not only more than did justice to the character but deservedly became the biggest movie of the year so far. Meanwhile, however much Baywatch failed to raise so much as a - if you'll pardon the apparently unavoidable double (single?) entendre - titter, Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2 brought plenty of laughs to go with its thrills and surprising drama.

Now, bucking the trend from Pixar's final fall from grace, Cars 3, and the utter pointlessness of the latest sequels to Pirates of the Caribbean or Transformers, Spider-Man: Homecoming proves that "yet another sequel" doesn't have to be just "yet another sequel". Following on from his scene-stealing appearance in Captain America: Civil War - and, in fact, picking up just before his appearance in Civil War - Spider-Man has entered the Marvel cinematic universe with what is easily his best film since at least Sam Raimi's Spider-Man 2.

After the sheer rubbishness of Spider-Man 3, the pointlessness of the Amazing Spider-Man and the messiness of the Amazing Spider-Man 2 (though, for the record, the latter two are still saved by terrific central turns from Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone), Marvel's greatest character gets his own back with a movie that takes the best bits from other MCU films and puts a very welcome, if webby, spin on them.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

All Eyez on Me

Well, not all eyez...

This review is also up on Channel 24

What it's about

The life story of Tupac Shakur, the infamous rapper, activist and actor, from his rise as one of the pre-eminent “gangsta rappers” of the '90s to his still unsolved violent death in his mid-20s.

What we thought

Comparisons between All Eyez on Me and Straight Outta Compton are inevitable thanks to both their close proximity and their dealing with fairly similar subject matter. Oddly, though, most people ignore Notorious, which is basically the other side to this particular tale but, considering that I have never actually seen it and that it has been all but entirely forgotten from the public at large, I don't feel too bad hanging onto those particular coat tails.

Despite the major upset surrounding Straight Outta Compton being shut out of that year's Oscars, I was never a big fan of the film and I stand by my belief that there's a great ninety-minute film to be found in its tiresome 2.5 hour runtime - though in terms of major music biopics released that year, incidentally, even that imaginary ninety-minute cut wouldn't hold a candle to the exceptional Brian Wilson biopic, Love and Mercy, which was similarly shunned during that awards season. Credit where credit is due, though: in comparison to All Eyez on Me, Straight Outta Compton really does start to look like, well, Love and Mercy.

All Eyez On Me (and that spelling is really starting to get on my nerves... really, what's with the 'z'?) isn't a disaster by any means as it is a perfectly competently, albeit blandly, put-together pop biopic with a nicely solid performance by Demetrius Shipp Jr. at its centre but it nonetheless fails to be anything but a shallow retelling of Shakur's short life.

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.