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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.