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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.