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Monday, March 12, 2018

Death Wish (2018)

No, really, why?

This review is also up on Channel 24.

What it's about

A loose remake of the 1974 film of the same name; Dr. Paul Kersey is a successful surgeon with an apparently perfect family but when his wife and daughter are brutally attacked in a house robbery gone bad and the police are unable to help, he takes justice into his own hands and starts a one-man war on crime in the violent streets of Chicago.

What we thought

It's impossible to look at Death Wish without addressing the wider context into which it has been released – particularly in the United States of America. After a seemingly unending string of mass shootings in America, the recent school shooting in Florida that left 17 students and teachers dead has spurred a major movement, led by the country's youth, against America's infatuation with guns, with the National Rifle Association, with the politicians who are owned by the NRA and even against the Second Amendment itself. The people have spoken and the NRA's stranglehold on the country finally seems to be slipping as calls for far less idiotic gun control measures to be put in place and for deadly assault rifles to once again be purely the purview of the US military, may not be falling on deaf ears.

This is the climate in the USA into which Death Wish has inserted itself and it could hardly be less welcome. The original Death Wish, aside for being a frankly quite terrible film, was a highly morally and politically problematic proposition even in the early '70s as its call for vigilante justice and glorification of gun-violence left a bad taste in the mouths of even the most faintly liberal audience member. It's interesting, incidentally, that in the same year that Death Wish was released, Marvel Comics debuted the Punisher as a villain in an issue of the Amazing Spider-man; a character who would in time acquire more and more layers as he became, at his best, a symbol for examining the effects of the very kind of vigilante justice espoused by Death Wish.

There is absolutely none of that complexity in what we might as well call Die Hard With a Death Wish – even with the film constantly featuring talking heads on various media platforms debating the merits or lack thereof of Kersey's actions. In fact, though those talking heads, as well as a tone-deaf sequence in a gun shop, are clearly there to tackle the gun-control issue that has been, if not raging, then at least bubbling under the surface of US civilization for years now, they are placed in a movie that clearly fetishizes guns and loves the idea of turning the modern USA into the Wild West.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Red Sparrow

Almost definitely not the film you've been advertised... and it's all the better for it.

This review is also up on Channel 24.

What it's about

After an accident brings her dancing career to a sudden end, Dominika Egorova is left with no money, no prospects and a mother to support. When her uncle, a powerful man in the Russian government, comes to her with an offer, she reluctantly accepts but what should have been a simple one-shot mission goes horribly wrong and she soon finds herself recruited to the infamous “Sparrow School”, which trains young people to use their sexuality against the State's enemies.

What we thought

If there was any doubt that the Cold War is back, Red Sparrow is the film to convince you that the the Russians are once again the ultimate villains of freedom and the liberal ideals on which most of the West rests. Obviously, this isn't about communism any more and, unlike most classic Cold War movies, this is less about all Russians being Evil but about the sins of the Russian government against not only the West but about what it does to its own people. Still, it's been a while since Russia has been so explicitly the Big Bad in a contemporary spy thriller and, despite a lack of any mentions of Vladimir Putin by name, it's impossible to see this film as anything but a reflection of the current state of Russian/ Western affairs as told through what is basically a twist on an old fashioned Cold War spy thriller.

Jennifer Lawrence follows up her powerhouse performance in Darren Aronofsky's highly divisive mother! with a performance here that is as far away from the brittle “housewife” of that film as it is from her loveable real-life persona. Her Dominika is a mix of steely resolve with barely contained anger and vulnerability and Lawrence is, aside for a truly terrible Russian accent, as excellent as ever. Without being able to rely on her usual down-to-earth likeability and boisterous sense of humour, she relies entirely on her considerable screen presence and underrated ability to capture her character's more subtle complexities – and the results are nothing less than stellar.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Oscar Roundup: Part 1 (?)

I'm hoping to have at least a few quickie reviews for all the Oscar movies out before the Awards themselves on 3 March but, for a start, here's a look at three major contenders, all hitting South African cinemas this week. 

I should say that two of these are my easy favourites of this year's best picture contenders. I don't think it will take too long to figure out which.

Call Me By Your Name. Easily one of the most lauded films of the past year - though, to be honest, a very long shot for winning best picture at the Academy Awards - Call Me By Your Name is a leisurely paced, achingly honest and beautifully put together adaptation of an acclaimed novel. I hate to be the voice of dissent, then, because though the film is all these things and probably more, I didn't like it very much.

It's impossible to deny how beautifully shot it is, how committed its performances are or just how much heart and soul clearly went in to telling this simple story of an adolescent boy who falls in love with his father's handsome assistant but, for me at least, it suffered from two fatal flaws; one following on from the other.

First, I just found the characters - in particular, the main couple - to be a lot of work to spend time with. Certainly not because they're gay or, more specifically, bisexual but because they're the sort of people I would fly to another country just to avoid bumping into. While Elio - played very convincingly by meteoric rising star, Timothee Chalamet - is the sort of thoroughly unpleasant teenager who wears their "privilege" (God, I hate that word but it is fitting here) in the most obnoxious manner possible, Armie Hammer's Oliver is a total bore.

This, inevitably, leads straight into the second problem: for a film this thoroughly character-driven, spending over two hours watching people you really don't want to spend any time with doing not very much at all is rather, shall we say, trying. For all that I admired so much about the film and its undeniably noble intentions, I mostly found it, by turns, very boring and very irritating.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

All the Money In the World

A miracle of super-quick filmmaking.

Is it any good, though?

This review is also up on Channel 24.

What it's about

The (somewhat fictionalized) true story of the kidnapping of Paul Getty, the young grandson of oil tycoon and then “richest man in the world”, Jean Paul Getty. What starts off as a simple ransom situation quickly escalates as the notoriously stingy billionaire steadfastly refuses to pay a cent for the life and release of his own flesh and blood.

What we thought

All the Money in the World is, no doubt, forever going to be remembered mostly for how director Ridley Scott replaced disgraced actor, Kevin Spacey, with the similarly brilliant but rather less scandalous, Christopher Plummer, just weeks before the film was due for release. And, make no mistake, it truly is one hell of an accomplishment. The film has already been shot and was well into post-production when Kevin Spacey was accused of a series of rapes and sexual assault and Sir Ridley made the tough decision to totally recast his major part without delaying the release of the film.

Crucially, between consummate professionals like Ridley Scott and Christopher Plummer – not to mention the film's editor, Claire Simpson – the film wasn't just finished but any and all changes have been seamlessly integrated into the film. If you didn't know any better, you would never, ever suspect that Christopher Plummer was anything but the guy who was always chosen to play the challenging part of Jean Paul Getty.

As for the film itself, it's a rock-solid mix of drama and thriller that may never reach the dizzying highs of Scott's very best work but is a reminder of how skilled he is as a craftsman when paired with a halfway decent script. Boasting little of the stylishness of Matchstick Men, the moody power of Blade Runner or the ground-breaking horror of Alien, All the Money in the World is Ridley Scott working with the sort of straightforward, unfussy storytelling of someone like Clint Eastwood and doing a very fine job with it.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Black Panther

This is going to be a slightly different review as I'm actually going to get a bit into both the massive pre-hype that the film received and, perhaps more crucially, the audience I saw the film with - both of which did (adversely) affect my appreciation of the film. Fortunately, though I still have my issues with it, a bit of time has given me a far better perspective on the film and what it was trying to do.

SPOILER WARNING: Please note that though I will do my best to avoid spoiling any actual plot details, I will be going into the themes of the film quite a bit and because these themes are often tied into the characters and plot of the film, you may well be able to infer just a bit more than you want to know about the film. As such, if you want to know as little as possible about the movie going in, it might be best to read the actual review section of this feature-length essay/ ramble after you have seen it.

The Preamble

To get this out of the way first, Black Panther is almost unquestionably the most hyped Marvel movie this side of the first Avengers. Why this is, though, is still at least something of a mystery. For a start, for all that people have talked about this being the first Marvel movie to be headlined by a black superhero, this rather ignores the great black superheroes that we have already had in Marvel's movies, both from Marvel Studios and their rivals/ collaborators Fox and Sony: War Machine, the Falcon, Storm, Johnny Storm (though I'm sure everyone would rather forget everything about Fant4astic) and, yes, Black Panther himself. It's true that these characters were either supporting roles or part of an ensemble but you certainly can't say that about Blade: the black vampire-superhero that literally started off this wave of comic book movies some twenty years ago and finally put marvel on the cinematic map!

And yet, I don't want to be a total ass about this. Yes, a lot of this did come across as your typical hectoring by so-called SJWs and the ultra-PC-brigade (and I say this as a rather left-of-centre liberal: I think these movements are well-intentioned; they're just annoying and wrong-headedly fanatical) but no doubt a large part of this is simply about this generation of black Marvel fans rejoicing in their being represented by a truly kick-ass and incredibly heroic black - nay African! - superhero in his own major Marvel movie. Nothing wrong with that. It's certainly no more fair to hold that against them than the gleeful reception that Wonder Woman received by female audiences of all ages - though, from where I'm standing, I still think Wonder Woman was the bigger deal.

Personally, I thought the trailers for the film looked no more than fine and, though I very much enjoyed Black Panther in Captain America: Civil War, I wasn't really dying to see him in his own film.

My slight aversion to the film's pre-release hype, though, became something closer to genuinely feeling alienated by it thanks to the audience with which I saw the film at the pre-release screening last week.

Let me try and explain...       

I'm a "white" South African - are we counting Jews as "white" this week, I honestly can't keep up? - and I saw the film in a press screening with the usual group of maybe ten regular film critics and another thirty, possibly fifty, "guests" who were presumably invited by the PR people at Disney South Africa. Unlike the critics, the majority of these guests were black South Africans - something that became increasingly significant as the film wore on and the difference in reactions to the film proved to be quite... enlightening.

It being a dark cinema, it was obviously impossible to tell exactly who was reacting to what but, as near as I can tell, while Black Panther was just another perfectly solid Marvel movie to most of us "whiteys", the ecstatic reception the film received by the black men and women in the audience was something else entirely. Aside for my usual snobbery of preferring quieter audiences, thank you very much, hearing more than half the audience break into rapturous applause a number of times throughout the film was almost more interesting than the movie itself.

South African audiences tend to not be too vocal in their reactions to films, by and large, so this was something of a novelty straight off the bat but it was also extremely interesting to note which moments elicited the biggest reactions. Much of it was clearly a reaction to the film presenting an immensely empowering vision of the "black experience", which, as I said, I certainly appreciate but there were a few odd moments that pulled me straight out of the film and left me feeling not just alienated by some of my fellow South Africans but suddenly innately aware of just how large the gap remains between races - certainly here in South Africa but no doubt in the world at large too.

Take, for example, the thunderous applause that met the "joke" of a random white guy being called "colonizer" by a certain African woman in the middle of the film. While the line itself was an off-hand remark made by someone who lived her life almost entirely separate from white people and, indeed, much of the rest of the world, the reaction to it was, frankly, kind of disturbing. Is it just me or is applauding wildly for such an off-hand comment, not all that different from my doing the same to some random German dude in the 21st century being called a Nazi? It turned a perfectly decent character moment into something that struck me as severely tone-deaf and, of course, pretty damn limp as far as jokes go.

Still, one certainly cannot police people's reactions and it was an honest reaction by people who are certainly allowed to feel what they feel. Moments like these, though, did unquestionably affect my viewing of the film and, ironically, landed up representing the very opposite of what the film was actually trying to say.

And that, finally, brings me to my review of the film itself - which, as I said, is far more positive now that I've had a chance to think on it a bit (which is itself a huge plus for a Marvel film!) and have put some distance between myself and that sometimes rather uncomfortable screening.

The Story

Picking up shortly after the events of Captain America: Civil War, T'Challa is now the king of the African country, Wakanda, a paradise of peaceful co-existence and technological miracles all based on the incredible metal Vibranium, that has been hidden from the outside world for centuries. As T'Challa tries to navigate his new role as the king of a country that is edging ever closer to needing to reveal itself to the rest of the world, an outside threat looms in the form of Erik Killmonger, an apparent small-time American criminal with far, far bigger plans than anyone could ever possibly have expected.

The Review

What is perhaps the most surprising discrepancy between the pre-release hype of Black Panther and the film itself is that most of the hype seemed to be primarily based on the fact that this is a major superhero movie written, directed and starring black people, a number of which are honest to goodness Africans, but what's actually remarkable about the film itself is that it uses its "blackness" to elevate a fairly straightforward superhero flick into something a bit more intriguing. It's a black superhero movie, in other words, rather than a superhero movie that happens to feature black people and that's a huge difference.

The character of the Black Panther was created in the mid-sixties, like nearly all of Marvel's characters at the time, by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. This is a bigger deal than it sounds and directly impacts what works so well about his first, solo cinematic outing. Lee and Kirby were a pair of Jewish comic book creators who created the character as a reaction to and during the Civil Rights movement that was raging at the time. They had already written and then rewritten the rules of superhero comics in their seminal Fantastic Four run but the appearance of this superhero who wasn't just black but was an African king in Fantastic Four #52 (July 1966) was a huge deal even by their standards.

Here was a pair of white, Jewish Americans who brought an unprecedented black voice to American comics; combining the wish-fulfillment fantasy of the superhero genre with the struggles that black Americans were then going through to achieve equal rights with their white countrymen. It was a voice created from both an outsider perspective and by people who could certainly empathize with the Civil Rights movement. Lee and Kirby may not have been black but they were Jews who had lived through the Second World War and who worked in an industry whose very existence was a creation of necessity by young Jews in the early 20th century who were kept out of "proper" jobs by the anti-Semitism that was so pervasive in America at the time. Hell, Kirby didn't just draw Captain America punching Adolf Hitler in the face on the cover of his comic but actively fought Nazis as a soldier when America entered the war.

Since then, Black Panther has been written by a number of black creators (including the likes of Reginald Hudlin, Christopher Priest and, currently, Ta-Nehisi Coates) who, obviously, were far better at capturing T'Challa's "voice" but everything that is interesting about the character was already there in the original creation. And, though it may be well over fifty years since the character first appeared in Lee and Kirby's Fantastic Four, that is certainly true of Ryan Coogler's film too.

Black Panther, the film, recreates the way that Lee and Kirby took the young-nerdy-Jewish-kid wish-fulfillment of the superhero and recontextualized it in the wake of the Civil War movement and flips it by taking the major salient points of the black experience in the 21st century and recontextualizes it in the wake of the apparently neverending popularity of the superheroes of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

This is a film that is very much from the black perspective but it is tinged with the universal values that have always been at the core of superhero comics (and now films): idealism, empowerment, hope and a very real sense of, as Bernie Sanders puts it, "we're all in this together." It's a film that directly confronts much of what still angers so many of African-descent - colonialism, income inequality, you name it - but takes what is ultimately an incredibly victimized point of view and puts an empowered spin on it.

While Wakanda itself is basically black wish-fulfillment taken to its most positive conclusion, the main conflict in the film is between T'Challa's view of black empowerment and that of Killmonger. While Killmonger represents a hateful, vengeful take on black empowerment whose response to centuries of black oppression is more violence, more racism, more oppression, T'Challa's sees the only way to empower his people is by transcending the past and working with the descendants of his enemies to making a better world for all. It's not for nothing that T'Challa is, in many respects, Nelson Mandela recast as a superhero - something that feels all the more literal during a speech he delivers during one of the film's two post-credit scenes - where Chadwick Boseman (who, it must be said, is pretty wonderful in the role) directly evokes both the message and speech patterns of the man South Africans call Madiba.

It is precisely this sort of thematic depth that elevates Black Panther above some of the more middling Marvel movies. Nowhere is this more clear than with Killmonger, played with relish by frequent Ryan Coogler collaborator and former Human Torch, Michael B Jordan. There's no getting past it: on a surface level, Killmonger continues the MCU's tradition of populating their films with unimpressive villains and, on a purely visceral level, he may just be the most annoying Marvel villain ever. I for one, could not be more sick and tired of the "angry black man with daddy issues" stereotype and Killmonger is the apotheosis of this annoying character type. And yet, in the context of the film's overriding themes, he is the perfect villain.   

This isn't to say that the film is nothing but its themes. Coogler ups his game and transitions brilliantly from his more grounded work in the past to the more sweeping, epic scope of Black Panther. It's a beautifully designed, perfectly shot film that on a purely visual level is up there with the trippy psychedelia of Doctor Strange in terms of the best looking Marvel movies. It's mostly black cast is pretty great (though, in fairness, none are as fun as Andy Serkis as the film's most outright enjoyable baddie) and the characters are generally well-defined. The action scenes are also generally well done, if somewhat forgettable, and it's certainly to the film's credit that the final battle is a slight twist on the usual world-ending threat.

And yet, putting aside the film's thematic riches, I personally enjoyed it a lot less than most of Marvel Studios' output from the past few years. On a surface level, it just doesn't have the quirkiness, the sense of humour and snappiness of my favourite Marvel movies. Also, it's interesting that despite the fact that it has a somewhat different plot to most Marvel movies it still felt weirdly overly familiar and the pacing and general story structure struck me as being more than a little off.   

These are in many ways quibbles, though, and are probably more about what I want from this sort of film than any major flaws that the film itself has. It's certainly not perfect but it's a film that is, in many ways, actually far more worthwhile than its insane hype suggests (even if it doesn't quite live up to it in some other ways) and delivers a powerful and empowering message that people of all races, ethnicities, and creeds would do well to heed.


Friday, February 9, 2018

Fifty Shades Freed

Well, at least they didn't split this final book into two movies!

This review is also up on Channel 24

What it's about

Anastasia and Christian are now married but their new life as blissful newly weds is complicated when Anna's former boss returns to claim his pound of flesh from the couple he believes to be responsible for destroying his life.

What we thought

The Fifty Shades of Grey series of novels started life as erotic, slightly kinky Twilight fan-fiction and despite becoming a huge literary sensation in its own right once it changed a few names and dumped the whole sparkly vampires thing (even E.L. James has limits, apparently), no one in their right mind would claim it to be anything other a light bit of smutty romance whose only real achievement was making the reading of such a thing socially acceptable; at least for a little while.

Adapting it to the screen, however, was always going to be something of an uphill battle as there was no way in hell that an R-rated Hollywood movie would ever be able to show even a tenth of what was ultimately the books' main selling point: its (fairly light) BDSM sex scenes. It's to the credit of the first film's director, Sam Taylor-Johnson, and screenwriter, Kelly Marcel, that it was about as good as an adaptation of such a novel could ever hope to be. It was total garbage, of course, but with the help of Dakota Johnson's slyly sexy Anastasia Steele it was at least total garbage that had a sense of what it was and, at its occasional best, smartly leaned into its unabashedly trashy, softcore porn aesthetic.

The second film – Fifty Shades Darker, for those understandably not bothering to keep track at home – was a whole other story. Wrestling control back from Taylor-Johnson/ Marcel who were constantly trying to make the novel's notoriously ghastly dialogue slightly less embarrassing to say out loud, E.L. James brought things back into line with (heaven help us) her own vision by having her own hubby, Niall Leonard, write the screenplay. Quite how she managed to rope in a highly respected, if somewhat journeyman-like director like James Foley, though, is anyone's guess.

Monday, January 22, 2018


Not the Oscar contender it probably wanted to be, but a really solid and solidly inspiring true-life drama about a couple of quite extraordinary people.

This review is also up on Channel 24.

What it's about

The true story of Robin Cavendish, an upper class Englishman whose blessed life in the early 20th century takes a turn to the tragic as a case of polio leaves him entirely paralysed from the neck down. The initial despair of his new existence threatens to overwhelm him, but with the steadfast support of his loving wife, Diana, Robin finds a new lease on life when his inventor friend finds a way for him to live outside of the hospital and thereby outlive his initial prognosis of only a few months by many, many years.

What we thought

If you thought that the first film to be directed by performance-capture king, Andy Serkis, would be a special-effects-filled extravaganza, you would be right. Unfortunately, because his “live action” take on the Jungle Book would have collided head-on with John Favreau's already perfectly passable take on the same material, his explosive d├ębut - now simply called 'Mowgli' - has been delayed to, as it stands, later this year.

Fortunately, what we get instead is a lovely little true-life drama (almost “dramedy”) that could hardly be further away from the sort of films with which Serkis is usually associated and you could easily see it as being something of a – sorry – breather for Serkis after presumably spending an obscene amount of time putting together that other-other-other talking animals movie. Mowgli may well turn out to be a masterpiece but even if it doesn't, we'll at least always have Breathe.

Molly's Game

Sorkin once again proving that, West Wing as a (very, very big) aside, the big screen is really where he is most at home. 

And, once again, I hope you've already seen this review on Channel 24.

What it's about

The true story of Molly Bloom, whose Olympic career as a skier was cut short after a random accident on the slopes but who then went on to run some of the most exclusive, high-stakes poker games in the United States. Her fortunes soon came crashing down, however, when the government seized all her money after learning of some short-lived and fairly minor illegal activity on her part during the games – but that only proved to be the beginning of her troubles..

What we thought

Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing, the Social Network) has always been a writer who needs a very particular kind of director to bring visual life to his almost supernaturally verbose scripts, as well as actors who can manage to keep up with the onslaught of words that threaten to drown them at every turn. The West Wing arguably remains his crowning achievement precisely because of its peerlessly great cast; its team of directors led by Thomas Schlamme who were perfectly simpatico with Sorkin's writing style and, of course, dealt with the kind of subject matter that perfectly fits his grandiose ambitions that at best speak to a real sense of unbroken idealism but at worst come off as hectoring grandstanding of the worst order.

Straight off the bat, then, Molly's Game seems like a bit of a strange fit for Sorkin's talents. The cast is great but however much you can potentially imagine someone like Jessica Chastain adapting to the rapid-fire pitter-patter of Sorkin's dialogue, Idris Elba, Kevin Costner and Michael Cera tend to have a more laid-back style that seems at odds with the usual Sorkin actor. The subject matter of the life and times of a disgraced Olympic skier turned poker game-runner doesn't have the kind of world-changing gravitas of the invention of Facebook, let alone an American presidency. And, considering how difficult it clearly is to bring his work to the screen, it takes a certain level of chutzpah for Sorkin to use a film this flashy to try his hand at directing.

Brad's Status

Been on holiday for the past couple of weeks with very limited internet access so I never got round to posting this and the next film on my blog on time. 

They have been up on Channel 24 for a while though!  

What it's about

While taking his teenage son on a tour of potential colleges, Brad Sloan is forced to confront the current state of his own life and the decisions that led him there.

What we thought

I hate to once again knock the work of the writer of one of the greatest family films ever, School of Rock, but after Mike White failed to deliver the goods with the simultaneously overwrought and obvious Beatriz at Dinner, he once again brings us an “indie-spirited” film that never manages to transcend its familiar “mid-life-crisis dramedy” trappings.

Taking both the director's chair and sole credit for the script, White is clearly talented enough to put together a proficient enough bit of small-scale filmmaking that just about passes the time but is nowhere near funny enough, profound enough or moving enough to work as anything but a reminder of better films.

It also doesn't help that, despite a very good cast (it's always great to see the Office's Jenna Fischer, no matter how small the role), the characters constantly grate. There's nothing intrinsically wrong with characters who are significantly behind the audience in understanding both their own failings and blind spots towards others but, rightly or wrongly, Brad's Status treats its characters' moments of clarity as major twists that are presumably supposed to be just as surprising to the audience as they are to the characters themselves. This, to say the least, doesn't work.

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle

A movie that really has no right being as good as it is...

This review is also up on Channel 24

What it's about

During detention, four high-schoolers come across Jumanji, an old video game that quickly proves to be something far more than that as they are transported into the game itself where, in the form of the “avatars” they picked, they will need to save the jungle-word of Jumanji by returning a stolen mystical gem to its proper place, if they are to ever return to the real world.

What we thought

I enjoyed the original Jumanji film when it came out in the mid 1990s but I would be lying if I said it ever stayed with me in the way that many of my favourite movies from my youth did. It was no Star Wars, Back to the Future or Jurassic Park, that's for sure. I find it hard to believe, however, that even the film's biggest fans, those to whom it is their Empire Strikes Back, were clamouring for a sequel. Certainly not twenty-two-years later, without any of the original cast and most especially not without the late and so very great, Robin Williams.

Here we are, though: In typical Hollywood fashion, no beloved slice of a generation's childhood is safe and we have this semi-sequel/ reboot/ remake that seems, at the outset, to bank purely on Dwayne Johnson's apparently endless reservoir of charm and charisma to soften the blow of what should be an utterly pointless and hopelessly cynical endeavour. Maybe it's just my couldn't-be-any-lower expectations talking here but I'll be damned if they didn't, to a certain degree at least, pull it off. Most surprisingly, while the sheer awesomeness of the Rock does contribute plenty to the film's modest but real success, he's far from the only good thing about it.

The “they” in question are director Jake Kasdan and screenwriters Chris McKenna, Erik Sommers, Scott Rosenberg and Jeff Pinkner who, between them, have worked on some pretty great TV and films over the past couple of decades, including Freaks and Geeks, High Fidelity and Community. They've done some less than great stuff too, to be sure, but the powers-that-be in Hollywood at least gave the film a fighting chance by giving it to a group of creators who have more than proven their mettle in the past.

Not that even this level of creative firepower behind the scenes necessarily meant that the film wouldn't be ruined by overbearing studio heads or even by the simple fact that it is a sequel to a film that really didn't need one – but then it probably didn't need all those video game, TV and movie spin-offs either (Zathura was basically Jumanji in space, let's not forget) and none of those did much harm to it. And yet, apparently, there really is something about Chris Van Allsburg's original novel that lends itself to adaptation as this latest iteration is both far fresher and far better than it really has any right to be.

Beatriz at Dinner

Almost forgot to post this. What are the odds?

This review is also up on Channel 24

What it's about

Beatriz is a holistic healer of modest means and a simple, meaningful existence. She is also an immigrant from Mexico who has been living in the United States of America for most of her life. When she finds herself stranded at one of her wealthy clients after her car breaks down, Beatriz is invited to join her and her husband for a dinner with their similarly wealthy friends – and his cut-throat boss who may or may not be tied to a difficult period in her life.

What we thought

Clearly released now as counter-programming against the major blockbusters and kids movies released at this time of year, Beatriz at Dinner is the very definition of a “small film”. It mostly takes place in a single location, with a small group of characters, telling a story that is low on plot but – theoretically, at least – high on characterization and theme. At barely eight-minutes long, it's literally small too.

It's the sort of film that snobs would immediately consider to be better than all them loud, dumb blockbusters and the, shall we say, less discerning cinema-goers would find them to be boring and pretentious just by definition. Both reactions are idiotic, of course. The intimate “maturity” of Beatriz at Dinner is no more a sign of quality than a large budget or whether the film is part of a larger franchise are. It is what it is and should be judged accordingly.

I mention this because it's undoubtedly clear that those looking for a cinematic outing that involves a bit more action and plot than a few, largely unpleasant people sitting around talking about the sort of things that are a staple of every uncomfortable dinner party ever, then this film clearly isn't for them – which is fine but it's certainly pointless to judge it according to the way one would judge something like Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle. The big question, then, is taking the film for what it is, does it do what it sets out to do?

Not to bury the lead here but the answer, sadly, is a very simple: no. It's clearly very well-intentioned and has enough talent to burn on both sides of the camera but the film is simply nowhere near as profound, as moving or as engaging as it thinks it is.

As the premise suggests, this is a film that sets out to explore the sharp divide between the very rich and the decidedly not so rich; between shrewd American capitalism and a way of living that is positively Marxist by comparison; between naturalized Americans and those who still proudly wear their root culture on their sleeves. It's also, in the middle of all this, a story of a woman slowly giving into desperation and depression as she comes face to face with – well, herein lies the problem...

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi

No spoilers here, folks. The only plot details I've revealed are those that are contained in the opening crawl. That doesn't stop this from being quite a long review, weirdly enough - but don't worry, another Justice League screed this isn't. It's just as geeky, to be sure, but in a much, much, more positive way.

This review is also up on Channel 24 if you prefer to check it out there.

What it's about

Picking up immediately where The Force Awakens left off, Rey tries to enlist Luke Skywalker to train her in the way of the Force and to return to his sister's side in the fight against the First Order. Meanwhile, with the New Republic annihilated, the rest of the resistance fight for their life against overwhelming odds as the First Order bears down on what remains of their forces.

What we thought

J.J. Abrams' The Force Awakens, the seventh film in the Star Wars saga, drew equal parts admiration and disdain for its reverent, back-to-basics approach. Those who love The Force Awakens – including yours truly – saw it as a much needed soft-reboot of the Star Wars universe that brought the series back to its “Space Western” origins that had largely been neglected, if not outright annihilated by George Lucas' widely disdained prequel trilogy.

Those who were rather less impressed with Abrams' efforts, complained about how it stuck far too closely to the story and structure of the original Star Wars movie; failing to bring anything new to the seemingly endless potential of the Star Wars Universe. They had a point, to be sure, but with the Last Jedi, the film's defenders have just been proven right in their assertion that the Force Awakens was an absolutely necessary – not to mention highly entertaining and affecting – palate cleanser to give the new trilogy a fresh start, while still being very much a continuation of what came before.

Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi takes all the good work that Abrams did with Episode VII and builds on it to create what might just be the most pulse-poundingly thrilling and endlessly surprising Star Wars movie to date. I need another dozen or so viewing to say for sure but it might, just might, in fact be the best Star Wars movie, period. Don't hold me to that, though – I did love the Phantom Menace when it first came out, after all – but this is really, quite genuinely something special.