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Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The Movies in 2011: An Overview (Part 1)

I knew I wanted to do an overview for the year in film seeing as how I have seen the vast majority of films released this year but I wasn't entirely sure what format to use. A simple Top 20? An involved essay? Something in between? Well, after much deliberation (OK, "much" might be overstating it slightly) I decided to break the year down into categories and look at it that way. Also, I will be looking at the films released in South Africa this year so some of it might be old news for international readers and, of course, a number of big films that have been released overseas will not be included - even if I have actually seen a number of them. And, yes, this will be done in two parts because there's quite a lot of ground to cover.

Also, for any of you who do want a complete list of all films released in SA this year, check out this very useful site for more information. 

Like pretty much every year, 2011 was a mixed bag for film. There were some astonishingly awful films, there were some astonishingly terrific films and there were more than enough mediocre films to fill the gaps. That said though, 2011 did have a surprisingly high hit rate in terms of both big budget Hollywood blockbusters and smaller, more independent fare. Not only that but some of the more horrendous crimes against cinema were either pushed back to 2012 or dropped from the cinematic release schedule entirely. On the other hand, 2011 was the year - or at least it seems to me - that cinema took a huge hit in terms of smaller and more artistically adventurous films that were released in cinemas overseas, going straight to DVD over here. Of course, when you take a look at the rapidly worsening state of Ster Kinekor's Cinema Nouveau - South Africa's leading art house chain - it's easy to see why. Not only did the number of Nouveau cinemas decrease this year, but the quality, variety and sheer number of films released by them this year was decidedly less than impressive. One can only hope that they are able to right that ship soon because, for all the good to great films released this year, it's a pity to see what is such a vital artistic part of South Africa's cinematic landscape fall so far from its once dizzying heights.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

The Ides of March and Moneyball

Just a couple of quick reviews before I get to my overview of the films of 2011. One from this week and one that came out a few weeks ago that I've managed to miss until very recently.


Moneyball isn't just a drama about baseball; it's a drama about the statistics behind baseball. Needless to say, this is not a subject with what anyone would call "universal appeal" but, for the 6.99999 billion of you who have no interest in baseball or statistics, Moneyball still has plenty on offer.

Brad Pitt stars as a former ball player turned manager of a relatively minor baseball team who, after meeting a young Yale economics graduate with a formula that could forever change the way major league baseball is played, is confronted with an opportunity to leave a greater mark on the game than he could ever previously have imagined.

That's right: however much Moneyball may seem to be about baseball on the surface, dig just a little bit deeper and you'll find the story of a man looking for redemption in something that, should it go wrong, will bring a very swift and definite end to his professional life. Forget the numbers and forget even the sport in this sports drama because this is a film about far more universal themes: perseverance, courage, innovation, self-belief and the ability to laugh right back at a world laughing at you.

Throwing the viewer head first into its rather esoteric world - as is actually fairly typical for co-writer Aaron Sorkin - it does take a while to get to grips with Moneyball and it is, to be fair, rather languidly paced but with its sharp script, superb central performances (Pitt, Hill and Hoffman are all in top form) and strong emotional heart, it will undoubtedly have won you over by the time its end credits roll.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

DC's New 52 - 3 Months In (Part 4)

Finishing off my look at a few of DC's relaunched comics, four of their biggest and best titles...

Action Comics by Grant Morrison and Rags Morales

To be entirely upfront about this, if I included its massively underwhelming fourth issue in this evaluation, Action Comics may not have quite made it this high in my list. Hopefully issue #4 was just a misstep though, because this series has been pretty damn terrific otherwise.

Grant Morrison has already written what may well be the definitive Superman story in All Star Superman and, though Action Comics isn't on that level, it is a remarkably fresh take on the Man of Steel. It's kind of astonishing that no one thought to do this before but Morrison revitalizes (at least his section of) the monthly adventures of Superman by taking the character back to his 1930s roots.

With a brasher, less experienced, less powerful and rather anti-establishment Superman, I suppose it would be tempting to say that the reason this works so well is because Morrison has made Superman "edgier" and "more relatable". I don't buy it. Superman isn't Peter Parker - he can be relatable but mostly he's supposed to be someone to aspire to, someone that is frankly better than us. And "edgy"? Superman? No. Just no.

This is clearly early on in Superman's career, which is why he is a bit less saintly than The Man of Steel's we're used to but it's clear that he is going to get there eventually. What's truly brilliant about what Morrison is doing here though, is that he demolishes the idea of Superman as a government/ corporate stooge or a figure of the establishment. This is Superman as social crusader - someone who truly believes in "Truth, Justice and the American Way" but, when it comes to the latter, the "American Way" is more about living up to the ideals on which America was founded, rather than some blindly jingoistic flag-waving. He is more than willing to stand up to corporate heads or government officials if they don't live up to this ideal. Morrison gets Superman like no one else today and Action Comics is simply more proof of this.

As for Rags Morales' art, I'm generally a fan of the guy - even when he's drawing stories that are way beneath him (*cough*Identity Crisis*cough*) - but he's clearly suffering under the monthly schedule. His layouts and storytelling are as good as ever but when it comes to his character work and background details, this is far from Rags at his best. Hopefully, with Andy Kubert (yay!) taking over for a two issue arc, he'll get a chance to take some time and he'll return and deliver work on a level closer to what we expect from him.  

The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn

Coming soon to the blog are reviews of some very notable films over the next couple of weeks; the final part of my roundup of DC Comics' New 52 initiative and a look back at 2011 in film and, perhaps (I haven't decided yet) in comics. For now though, here are some thoughts on Spielberg's eagerly anticipated Tintin adaptation. 

Also at Channel24



What it's about

Tintin, a young investigative journalist sets off on an adventure to find a sunken ship and the treasure that went down with it.

What we thought

The ingredients for a top notch Tintin movie are all very much in place. Produced by Peter Jackson, directed by Stephen Spielberg and written by some of the hottest new British screenwriting talent around in Joe Cornish (Attack the Block), Steven Moffat (Dr Who) and Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Scott Pilgrim vs the World), it has more A-grade talent behind it than any other film this year. Add to that a very impressive group of motion-capture (sorry sorry, performance-capture) actors - including Jamie Bell, Daniel Craig, Toby Jones, Cary Elwes, Simon Pegg, Nick Frost and, the king of mo-cap himself, Andy Serkis - and The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn should be one of this year's most spectacular blockbusters.

Oh, if only...

Friday, December 16, 2011

DC's New 52 - 3 Months In (Part 3)

Sorry for the delay but onto the best of what I'm reading from DC's relaunch.

The Top of the Crop (The magical and the Horrific)

Swamp Thing by Scott Snyder and Yanick Pacquette

I haven't yet read Alan Moore's definitive run on the character but, from what I understand, writer Scott Snyder is doing his best to take the book in a very different direction. Either way, I could seldom be happier with the results. Despite an appearance from Superman (in that fugly new suit of his) in the first issue, Swamp Thing is really a straight up horror comic book that brings to mind the early days of Vertigo - though, you know, with prettier art and better production values.

Its success lies in the combination of intriguing world building and the lead character, Alec Holland's desperate but clearly futile attempts to escape a destiny that involves his giving up his humanity. Snyder proves once again that, though he may be a new face to the world of comics, very few writers can match his seemingly effortless knack for making the most of his chosen medium to tell a great, engaging story. Add to that the sterling artwork of Yannick Pacquette - a veteran in comparison to Snyder but someone who has far too often been overlooked - whose inventive panel layouts, crisp storytelling and proficiency with the weird, the creepy and the gross, and you have a perfect horror comic book. And, by the looks of it, he's only just getting started.


Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol

With a long weekend coming up, this week's film come out a day early. Not that there is a wide variety to see, of course. There's the new Alvin and the Chipmunks movie for the kids and Free Men, which I know nothing about, for the art crowd. Best of all, though, we have this surprisingly awesome entry in the Mission Impossible series...

Also at Channel24

 What it's about:

Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) and his new team find themselves working on their own to clear their name and bring down a nuclear terrorist, after being framed for bombing the Kremlin.

What we thought:


With the James Blond franchise having refashioned itself as a more "realistic", down to earth take on the spy film, it's up to the Mission: Impossible series to keep the sillier side of the genre alive. And, boy, does it.

While the previous Mission: Impossible films have had very little to do with one another, Ghost Protocol keeps the tone very much in keeping with what JJ Abrams (back this time as a producer) established in the third film, while picking up a plot strand or two along the way. The film may, on occasion, gesture towards seriousness but, when you get right down to it, Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol aims to be nothing more – and certainly nothing less – than a slice of unapologetically ridiculous entertainment. There were plenty of better film released this year but very, very few of them were ever this much fun.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Roundup of New Films Released 9 December 2011

Arthur Christmas certainly wasn't the only film to come out this week. It wasn't even the only good one. On with the show, then...

Don't Be Afraid of the Dark may be produced and co-written by dark-fantasy master, Guillermo Del Torro, but Pan's Labyrinth it ain't. Hell, it's not even half as good as Chronos. The problem isn't so much that it's badly made - performances, direction and production values are all perfectly solid - but that it's boring where it's supposed to be scary; never building up so much as a passingly creepy atmosphere. At least, it doesn't once you get past the film's 5 minute pre-credits sequence, which manages to be more unsettling than the rest of the film put together. Aside for occasionally evoking Pan's Labyrinth, which is a risky move for even better horror flicks, the film's biggest mistake is assuming that tiny CGI creatures are scary. This is hardly the first genre work to feature "scary tooth fairies" but it's easily one of the least effective. Without a viable threat, director Troy Nixey falls back on the worst tendencies of sub-par horror: cheap jumps and plenty of shrieking - neither of which are any sort of substitution for proper scares. Don't be afraid of the dark? Don't worry, you won't be.

     

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Arthur Christmas

Well, it's that time of year again... Santa Clausians of the world rejoice!

(Also at Channel24)
 


What it's about:

Santa Claus's youngest son, Arthur (voiced by James McAvoy) sets off on a mission to correct a mistake made by his father's hi-tech operation: To give a Christmas present to a little girl who was overlooked.

What we thought:

At a cursory glance, Arthur Christmas doesn't look too promising. Its frankly awful title aside, Arthur Christmas isn't just a seasonal kids film, but a seasonal kids film that sets out to answer that most ridiculous of eternally ridiculous questions: Just how does Santa Claus deliver all those presents to all those billions of kids in a single night? Isn't devoting a film to answering that question more or less the same as devoting an entire film to figuring out why Superman can fly? 

Worse, this is a Christmas film whose main plot revolves around Santa delivering presents, which means it will invariably be one of those films. You know the kind of film I mean: those sickly sweet holiday movies that are supposed to be all about the meaning of Christmas but mostly land up being all about the meaning of presents. It's really difficult not to be cynical about these Yuletide offerings because, for every genuine classic like It's A Wonderful Life, Die Hard or A Christmas Carol (in all its variations), there are a hundred Christmas films that do nothing so much as rot the heart, melt the brain and shrivel the soul.

The brilliant thing about Arthur Christmas, then, is that it manages to be one of the very best animated kids films of the year – if not the best – despite being guilty of all, or at least most, of these pitfalls.

There's simply no denying it: Save for the mighty Pixar, Aardman Studios (Wallace and Gromit, Flushed Away) are simply in a class of their own. They may have moved away – temporarily, I hope – from stop-motion claymation to compete in the big leagues of CGI animation, but they have hardly missed a step in the transition.

Arthur Christmas looks as good as any big budget animated film but its greatest triumph is undoubtedly its storytelling. The script by Peter Baynham and Sarah Smith (the latter also directed the film) is smart, funny and sweet in a way that is more likely to put a smile on your face than have you struggling to keep your lunch down. Being something of a beat-the-clock-type chase film, it's also pacey and far more exciting than its daft premise would ever suggest.

To its great credit, it also boasts a truly ace voice-cast of excellent (mostly) British actors - including James McAvoy, Jim Broadbent, Hugh Laurie, Imelda Staunton and, best of all, Bill Nighy as the curmudgeonly, scene-stealing "Grandsanta" - whose obvious sense of comic timing ensures that just about every joke hits its mark. Every actor fits their character to a tee (or is that the other way around?) and help to ensure that these characters are as likeable as they are, which helps to elevate the material far beyond the mawkish, moronic vacuity of its underlying plot.

Arthur Christmas really shouldn't work but, even when the flaws in the film are at their most transparent, it simply becomes impossible to care when you're having this much fun.

And it doesn't matter how old you are either: Along with being a great animated film and, despite itself, a top-notch Christmas movie (even for those of us who don't celebrate Christmas), it's also a terrific family film that will charm grandparents and toddlers alike.



Wednesday, December 7, 2011

DC's New 52 - 3 Months In (Part 2)

Now onto the next batch of books...

Good, But Not Quite There Yet

Justice League Dark by Peter Milligan and Mikel Janin

This was easily one of the new titles that I was most looking forward to but high expectations are something of a double edged sword: when they're fulfilled, the result is usually something special but when they're not, it can turn a really rather solid piece of work into a disappointment. Such is the case with JL: Dark.

Milligan clearly gets these characters and there's a sense that he has stepped back on plot to allow this motley crew of damaged mystical personalities to interact. The result is a slow burn of a comic book that may well read better in large chunks but even if the story has left me somewhat cold, the characterization makes it worth it.

That said, the third issue was clearly the best yet and it looks to only get better from here. This is true of the story but it's even more true of the art. Janin's art didn't really work for me for the first two issues, being a bit too stiff and photo-realistic for its own good but by the third all of the strengths that were already there - layouts, facial expressions - are amplified and the flaws are all but entirely gone.   

Monday, December 5, 2011

DC's New 52 - 3 Months In (Part 1)

And now, because it's been a while, something for the comic book fans...

Introduction


 For those who don't know, in response to both dwindling sales and a lack of enthusiasm for most of their superhero line, DC Comics launched a fairly gutsy initiative 3 months ago to try and garner some fresh interest in their line of comics. Along with some generally hideous redesigns of some pretty damn classic superhero costumes (I'm looking at you, Superman!), they also rebooted/ relaunched every single one of their books - well 52 of them, anyway - with a brand new #1 issue; started selling digital copies of their comics on the same day the physical copies are released and committed to keeping their 20-page comics at $3, as well as sticking to a set schedule every month. Financially, the move worked brilliantly: for the first two months, at the very least, they have owned the sales charts, outselling their main competitor, Marvel, significantly. Whether this lasts or not is anyone's guess, but the real question is whether or not this move has made any impact on the overall quality of DC's output.


Now, it may surprise you to hear that I can't actually afford 52 comics every month so if you're looking for a definitive take on the entirety of "The New 52", I suggest taking a look elsewhere. The guys over at iFanboy.com did an especially great overview of all 52 first issues during their weekly Pick of the Week podcasts throughout September. They have one of the best comics websites (and podcasts) anyway so check them out if you have a chance but, for now, here is my take on the dozen or so New 52 comics that I am actually reading.   

This will be split over at least two separate posts, simply because there is so much to say about what is still a moderately hefty selection of comics.


Sunday, December 4, 2011

Roundup of New Films Released on 2 Decemeber 2011

But first, the one film from last week that I haven't reviewed yet - at least of those I've seen.

Dream House is something of an oddity of a film in that it's a psychological drama that plays out like a ghost story. Sadly, though it's probably better than most reviewers suggest, it doesn't entirely work on either level. It's efficiently put together and, considering it boats always solid thesps like Daniel Craig, Rachel Weisz and Naomi Watts, it's obviously well acted. It's just that, for a ghost story, its decidedly uncreepy and, for a psychological drama, it's surprisingly inert. All this, despite the grizzly murder that is the backbone of the film, as well as the big twist in the middle of the film that, though obvious in hindsight, actually managed to take me by surprise. If you're going to see it, try and go in with low expectations and as little knowledge about the film as possible (hope I helped!) but there's little reason not to wait for the film to show up on TV - where, to be honest, it will probably work better.   




Thursday, December 1, 2011

Real Steel

After Twilight ruling cinemas for the last couple of week, we at long last have something to talk about.

From Channel24


What it's about:

In the near future, where robot boxing has become a popular sport, a struggling ex-boxer/promoter (Hugh Jackman) soon finds himself bonding with his estranged 11-year-old son (Dakota Goyo) as they attempt to create a champion out of a scrappy but antiquated robot.

What we thought:


Both feature robot-on-robot smackdowns, dazzling CGI and Stephen Spielberg attached as executive producer but Real Steel wisely does all it can to be the antithesis of everything that is so vacuous and hollow about the increasingly bloated Transformers franchise. While Spielberg may lend his name to both of these robo-centric crowd-pleasers, it's clear where his mark is more acutely felt. Real Steel director Shawn Levy goes some way towards making up for his previous cinematic foibles (Cheaper by the Dozen, The Pink Panther remake, Night at the Museum) by channelling his inner-Spielberg and producing a film that places at least as much emphasis on its family dynamics and on real human emotion as it does on its action and special effects.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Roundup of films released on 11 and 18 November.

Most of South Africa's media today has been turned towards the passing of the Secrecy Bill - and rightly so - it's a crushing blow against our constitution and the freedom of the press. I'm tempted to write more about it but, really, what's the point. This isn't some great ethical dilemma, where both sides clearly have some sort of legitimacy. Here it's pretty simple: if you oppose the bill, you're clearly a right thinking individual with your head screwed on and your heart in the right place; if you don't then please feel free to sod off back to Stalinist Russia where you so clearly belong.

With all that out of the way, I'm going to use my constitutional right to beat the living shit out of some films that truly deserve it. Sadly, Adam Sandler and the Wayans Brothers didn't bother to release anything over the last fortnight so there goes that plan. Still, I'll try and make do. 

Everything Must Go is the only film I haven't reviewed yet from last week and I sort of feel I needn't really bother. It's not a bad film by any means but it is the textbook definition of a forgettable indie-drama. Will Ferrell is back in a more dramatic role as a recovering alcoholic whose wife has left him and, on the day that he loses his job, changes all the locks on the doors of their house and throws out all his stuff, leaving him broke and alone on their front lawn. It's not quite as dark as it seems but it's hard to say whether that's because of the relationships he strikes up with his attractive and very pregnant neighbour (Rebecca Hall) and a kid from the neighbourhood who he employs to help him sell off some of his junk (a very impressive Christopher Jordan Wallace) or because the film is directed by newcomer Dan Rush with such deadpan understatement that it never truly delivers anything of any real emotional clout. As for Ferrell, he's pretty good here and, by leaving his funnyman schtick at home, he ensures that no one will be truly offended or annoyed by the film. They may well be bored, though.

            

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Straw Dogs 2011

Originally posted at Channel24, here's my review of a very, very befuddling remake.

What it's about:

A remake of the 1970s cult-classic, Straw Dogs tells the story about a young screenwriter and his wife (played by James Marsden and Kate Bosworth) who relocate to the small southern town where she grew up. What was intended as a quiet getaway for him to work soon becomes something far more sinister as the couple are harassed with increasing intensity by the town's locals.

What we thought:

Before so much as broaching the subject of the film's worth – or lack thereof – based on its own merits, one first has to deal with that great white elephant in the room: Why on God's green earth would anyone want to remake Straw Dogs in the first place?

Thursday, November 17, 2011

The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn - Part 1

I've fallen a bit behind with updates recently but a roundup of films released over the last couple of weeks is forthcoming - as is my review of the odd remake of Straw Dogs. For now, though, while it is fresh in my mind after having seen it this afternoon (they forgot to invite me to the screening), my thoughts of the latest in the frankly inexplicably huge Twilight saga. 


Those vegetarian, twinkly vampires are back for the first part of the final installment of the cinematic adaptation of the biggest literary success since the Harry Potter series. And if you think that sentence is overblown and long-winded, wait until you see the film. The last three films have ranged between laughably bad and pretty poor but the Twilight series has never been this boring.

The usual ingredients are all here: sparkly vampires, brooding werewolves, mostly irrelevant humans and - most crucially - the overcooked romance between a human girl and her soulful vampire suitor and the excruciating agony of their inability to consummate their relationship without the monster within him bursting free. Now, as always, I find it impossible to watch a Twilight film without being seriously bugged by just how much this whole plot is ripped straight out of Buffy The Vampire Slayer season 3 (and even though it was by far the worst thing about that particular season, it was just oh so much better there) but this time things are slightly different: Bella and Edward are getting married and, at last, they will finally get round to doing the deed - in strictly PG13 fashion, of course.           

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

50/50

And now for the film of the week...

 50/50 is that most tricky of balancing acts: a gut-wrenching drama about cancer that also happens to be consistently laugh-out-loud funny. That it's gut-wrenching isn't particularly surprising when you consider that, tragically, the topic of cancer (no play on "Tropic of Cancer" intended, smart asses) has probably ever been more relevant. It's hard to find anyone who hasn't tackled with this most infernal of infernal diseases in their own life, whether suffering personally or watching a loved one struggle with it. What makes 50/50 a truly worthwhile work, though, is its perfect use of well-timed comedy and properly-placed sentiment (a well-worn book in a bathroom, perhaps?) to elevate what could so easily have been an unpleasant, probably mawkish, masochistic viewing experience into something truly humane, uplifting and exquisitely moving. And, yes, at times very, very funny to boot.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Anonymous

With Tower Heist out of the way, there are only a further two films that I need to take a look at from last week. I do want to catch up with Attack the Block at some point but, for now, here's my thoughts on the first of two fairly noteworthy films.




The tagline on the poster kind of says it all but Anonymous explores a fairly simple conceit in a rather convoluted way: did William Shakespeare actually write all the plays and sonnets that bare his name or was William Shakespeare simply an actor who used his name as a way of protecting the reputation of the works' true author, an aristocrat named Edward De Vere, The Earl of Oxford, in an ultra-puritanical England? It's a very interesting conceit that the film does its best to make a strong case for its validity but the more you think about it, the more it shows itself to be nothing but silly, utterly unprovable conjecture.

More interestingly still, is the way the film explores the way Shakespeare-or-whoever's plays affected and were affected by an England cruelly divided by class and oppressively ruled by a particularly puritanical, fundamentalist branch of Christianity. While the "religious leaders" balked at any artistic endeavor as, at best, a childish waste of time and, at worst, fundamentally anti-God, the paranoid oligarchy heavily censored all art with even the slightest hint of sedition. The film uses this political and sociological climate as the seemingly perfect environment to posit the idea that the works of "William Shakespeare" were tools used by an aristocrat to rile up the masses - quite successfully at that - against what he sees to be a grossly unfair and unjust ruling class.     

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Tower Heist

No roundup of last week's releases because the only other film I saw was 30 Minutes or Less, which was the very definition of forgettable. Here, however, is a review from Channel24 of the surprisingly decent Tower Heist, which opens this week.



What it's about:
After a group of working stiffs find themselves the victims of the duplicitous dealings of a wealthy Wall Street broker, they conspire to get their own back by breaking into his luxury penthouse apartment and robbing him of a multi-million dollar fortune that he has stashed away.

What we thought:


Tower Heist has a number of things wrong with it but, by the time you reach the end of its surprisingly entertaining 100-odd minutes, there's only one flaw that is of any consequence. This film is preposterous, asinine, unbelievable, fatuous and utterly unmemorable and yet, when you get right down to it, the only real crime that it is genuinely guilty of is one of (as Woody Allen might put it) "insufficient laughter".

What we have here is obviously not high art. Tower Heist is a dopey heist-comedy whose only real goal is to provide a couple of breezy hours of escapist entertainment, which it achieves quite effortlessly. It is, no more and no less than, a slickly put together piece of trashy, feel-good entertainment.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

In Time

To make up for all my lateness recently, here's my review of In Time, which opens world wide this Friday. 

From Channel24





What it's about

In a future where people only age up until they turn 25, at which point they have to work for more time if they want to live for longer than the next year, Will Salas, an ordinary working-class stiff, suddenly finds himself suspected of murder and on the run from "The Timekeepers" (the primary law enforcement of the period) before he is presented with an opportunity to redress the balance between the immortal "haves" and the "day to day living" have-nots. 

What we thought

Science fiction at its best is a genre of allegory. By placing its stories on distant planets and far flung futures or through its use of impossible sciences and technology, science fiction uses its fantasies to comment on our own world and our own lives. For all of its numerous faults, the best thing about In Time is that it fully embraces this idea.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Fright Night (2011)

My second review from Channel24 this week of a film that I really, really like.

Also, I will be starting to use a far less clunky star-rating graphic, which should hopefully make the ratings themselves far clearer. Hopefully, I will get round to bringing all my old reviews in line as well.

These new graphics come courtesy of my good friend Chaim Ehrlich so you have him to thank for making this blog just that much more user friendly. Thanks again, Chaim!



What it's about: 

A remake of the 1985 horror-comedy cult classic in which a teenager tries to convince his friends and family that his next door neighbour is actually a vampire.

What we thought:

Fright Night may be yet another in a long line of cynical attempts to cash in on beloved horror films from other countries (The Ring, Let The Right One In) or Hollywood's own past (take your pick) but this is one remake that actually equals or surpasses the original in every way. Every way, that is, except for one – and it's not what you might expect.

Killer Elite

The first of two films I reviewed for Channel24 this week...



What it's about:

A retired elite special-ops agent (Jason Statham) is called back into action when his friend and mentor (Robert de Niro) is taken captive and the only chance of freeing him is to dispatch the three highly trained assassins responsible for the deaths of the captor's sons.

What we thought:

"Based on a true story". If ever there was a phrase that has no place in front of a Jason Statham movie, that particular stamp of "respectability" must surely be it. Statham's stock in trade is over the top, hyper-real action films that allow him to show off his considerable charms and physical prowess without allowing silly things like real-world physics or believability to get in his way. Killer Elite, however, has the dreaded "based on a true story" emblazoned all over its trailers, movie posters and advertising – to say nothing of the beginning of the film itself – and is pretty much doomed from the start.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Roundup of New Films Released over (like most of) October 2011

I have a couple more Channel24 reviews to post and I'll get to them shortly but here's a roundup of a bunch of films that I haven't gotten to over this month. I should be back on a regular schedule this week but until then, here's some of the films that were released this month. And one that wasn't!




Before getting onto films that were actually released this month, here's one that was oh so wisely pulled from the schedule at the last minute. Hopefully that will be it for Bucky Larson: Born to Be a Star (picture on the left is, in fact, not the poster, but I think it represents the film more faithfully) but just in case some idiot does decide to release it on DVD or show it on TV, consider this an official warning to stay the hell away from it. It's clearly the worst film of the year and I doubt that's going to change any time over the last few months of 2011. Simply put, this "comedy" about a young schmuck who finds out that his redneck parents were huge porn stars in the '70s and decides to try and follow in their footsteps, is essentially Boogie Nights as reimagined by a bunch of subhuman man-children with the collected IQ of 3 and all the sense of humour of - well, a worse-than-usual Adam Sandler film. Yup, this grotesque abomination was co-written and produced by Sandler and stars Nick Swarsdon, a man so cosmically unfunny as to make Adam Sandler look like George Carlin. It's just atrocious.




Monday, October 17, 2011

Johnny English Reborn

I'm a bit behind in terms of films reviews but here's my latest review from Channel24. Coming soon, as well, are some capsule reviews of the last couple of weeks at the cinema.






What it's about:

Johnny English (played by Rowan Atkinson) is back – and this time the unlikely spy has to stop a group of assassins from assassinating the Chinese premier.

What we thought:

Johnny English Reborn is total rubbish. This, I'm sure, will come as a shock to absolutely no one – certainly not those of us who sat through the first film way back in 2003. And, yet, when you get right down to it, the Johnny English films' severe deficiency in the quality department really shouldn't be the given that it is always assumed to be. Not only do both films have solid supporting casts, they also have in Rowan Atkinson one of Britain's greatest comedic talents. Even putting aside Mr Bean, Atkinson has proven in Blackadder and numerous stand-up and sketch-comedy acts that he is a brilliant comedic master, equally adept at verbal and physical comedy.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

The Rolling Stones - Some Girls Live In Texas

While seemingly the entirety of Johannesburg's population under the age of 35 were attending Coldplay's massive one-night-only stadium concert, I found myself enjoying a rather different concert experience. Cine 2 at Sandton City's multiplex is normally host to press screenings that Ster Kinekor hold for their 3D releases but last night that by now very familiar - and, it has to be said, rather nice - cinema offered up something a whole lot more interesting than a pointless stereoscopic conversion of The Lion King. I don't want to speak ill of what I'm sure was a great concert-going experience for Coldplay fans (personally, I could take them or leave them) but I can't imagine it being more electrifying than this woefully under-attended showing of a previously unreleased concert film that caught The World's Greatest Rock and Roll Band in one of their most interesting, not to say best, creative periods. Sadly, this was only one of a small handful of showings for this great film so its unlikely that South African audiences will get another chance to catch it on the big screen (though, Americans, at least, will still have that chance come 18 October) but it is due for a DVD/ Blu-Ray release towards the end of the year so consider this an advance review of a set that is bound to be a must-own for all dyed-in-the-wool rock and roll fans.                

Also published on Artslink




It's hard to believe what a difference 6 years makes. The previous archive Stones live release, Ladies and Gentlemen: The Rolling Stones captured a period in the Rolling Stones' history when they were sitting right on the top of the world, living up to their self-appointed - but well-earned - label as the Greatest Rock and Roll Band in the World. Touring their magnum opus, Exile on Main Street, Ladies and Gentlemen includes everything you could want from a rock and roll show at the time: great songs, virtuoso musicianship and, lets be honest, a certain level of pompous, self-important seriousness that flourished in the heyday of prog-rock and jam bands.

Cut to 1978 and things are rather different. The intervening years between '72 and '78 saw The Stones - as well as the genre they represented - undergo some fairly serious, tumultuous changes. As Keith Richards became more and more drug-addled, the Stones' critical standing was hurt by a string of albums that, though perfectly good on their own terms, were a serious step down from the giddy heights that the band consistently reached between 1968 and 1972. Meanwhile, The Stones' stage shows more and more captured the state of rock and roll at the time: overblown, fatuous and musically irrelevant.

Enter the punks.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Roundup of New Films Released 30 September 2011

Another seriously underwhelming week at the cinema...


I have no earthly idea how Inside Out managed to get a theatrical release, when so many vastly superior and more obviously cinematic films go straight to DVD (especially if the film in question comes from the UK, oddly enough). It's not that it's a truly awful film, it's just so drearily by-the-numbers that there really is no need for it to exist at all. The plot, about an ex-con (played surprisingly competently by wrestler Paul "Triple H" Levesque) trying to go straight after a decade in prison only to get pulled back into his old life by an old friend, has been done to death and there is little in the way of invention, wit or real emotional potency to hold one's attention. It's really not surprising at all that is has been relegated to a small handful of random cinemas throughout the country as it's hard to believe that anyone would go out of their way to pay to watch this on the big screen.



Monday, September 26, 2011

Roundup of New Films Released 23 September 2011

As is more and more becoming the case, I haven't seen a couple of notable releases from this week that weren't screened to the press but hopefully I will get to Trust and One Day at some point. In the meantime, here are three other films released over the weekend. And, yes, they are all better than Abduction...  

 First up is The First Grader, a Kenyan/ UK co-production, tells the true story of an 84 year-old former freedom fighter who, wanting to finally learn to read and write, fights for his right to join a class of first graders and get the education of which he was deprived for so many years. It's the sort of film that could easily have been unbearably mawkish but thanks to a balanced script, well-measured direction and some mighty impressive performances from a largely unknown African cast, ends up being far, far better than one could ever reasonably expect. Though it never quite makes the jump to being something truly remarkable,  it is a genuinely uplifting and engrossing feel-good drama whose sentiment is well-earned as the title character's triumphs and tragedies never feel forced or manipulative but are instead simply affecting. Naomie Harris, the one easily recognizable - and British - face does a perfectly solid job anchoring the film but it is Kenyan actor Oliver Litondo as the film's central hero who most impresses.



Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Abduction

This was posted pretty early already at Channel24 so I might as well post it here early as well. Don't mistake this for excitement though...

What it's about

When a young man finds an old baby photo of his on a missing persons website, he soon finds his life unravelling as he tries to hunt down the truth behind who he really is.

What we thought

I like trashy thrillers. Indeed, I dare say that the less seriously a thriller takes itself, the more likely I am to get behind it. It's why I will always prefer the ludicrous nonsense of something like the Liam Neeson vehicle Unknown to the more dramatically daring but overly serious and tonally inconsistent The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (glorified Bond villains and brutal sexual violence make for very uncomfortable bed-fellows). I love bonkers plot twists, explosive set-pieces, camp villains, head-kicking action and, of course, that complete and utter suspension of disbelief that these one-man-against-the-world thrillers thrive on.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Roundup of New Films Released on 16 September 2011

Just a couple more films to talk about this week. 


Spy Kids 4D: All the Time in the World does, I suppose, get some point for acknowledging the fact that the fourth dimension does actually refer to time and, not as it seemed at first, the added "dimension" of "Smell-ovision". That's right, not only do you have to put up with some rather lame 3D, you are also presented with a scratch-and-sniff card that is supposed to correspond to various aromas that are on screen but, regardless of whether you're supposed to be smelling farts or sweets, it all lands up smelling like jelly powder.

Silly, gimmicks aside, there's absolutely nothing interesting about the film. On the one hand, little kids will probably get a kick out of the basic premise of pre-teen Super Spies with a bunch of rather cool (though, obviously, non-lethal) gadgets at their disposal but beyond that even the least discerning kid will probably be left scratching their heads at the thoroughly bonkers plot. As for the adults, the best I can offer is Jessica Alba in form-fitting leather and a sense that though the film might be total balderdash from beginning to end, at least it's innocuous balderdash. Frankly, I think everybody, kids and adults alike, would be better off sticking with Diary of a Wimpy Kid 2 if live-action kiddie fodder is what you're after.

   

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Colombiana

After a couple of very uneventful weeks at the cinema, we finally have a bunch of new major films to check out. Are they any good, though? Well, that's a whole other question...

Also up at Channel24


What it's about

After seeing both her parents gunned down before her as a young child, a young woman goes on a murderous rampage to enact revenge on those guilty for her parents' death.

What we thought

Following in the footsteps of Ripley, Buffy and, most recently, Hanna, Zoe Saldana's Cataleya is the latest in a line of female (anti-) heroes that are part “Grrrl Power” feminist figures, part ruthless ass-kickers and part fully-rounded, very human characters. She is also, unfortunately, the only truly noteworthy thing in what is otherwise a perfectly competent but dreadfully generic revenge thriller.

Director Olivier Megaton certainly doesn't shy away from playing up Ms. Saldana's obvious sexiness but she's far too compellingly convincing as both a take-no-prisoners action hero and as a deeply damaged young woman to ever descend into cheap, exploitative eye-candy. Zoe Saldana is simply very, very good in the role – so good, in fact, that she not only elevates the film but also shines a spotlight on the major flaws in the rest of the production.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Final Destination 5

This is the only film I've seen this week but the only other offerings are Afrikaans film, Saak van Geloof (no clue) and Australian thriller, Wasted On The Young, neither of which were press screened. Is there some massive sports event happening that I don't know about or something because it looks for all the world like the major film distributors have decided to do a class bunk this week? Weird.
 
Also posted at Channel24 

  
What it's about:

After experiencing a vision of the cataclysmic collapse of the bridge on which he and a bus full of fellow employees are travelling, Sam Lawton (Nicholas D'Agosto) manages to save a number of his fellow passengers from impending doom with mere seconds to spare – but did he truly circumvent death or did he simply prolong the inevitable?

What we thought:

If you have seen any of the four previous Final Destinations, you really should know what to expect this time around. This is not a series that is afraid to bow to formula, nor is it a series that is really about acting, storytelling or human emotion. It's not, for that matter, really all that much about horror either.

What the Final Destination franchise is really about is dependability. The basic plot is always exactly the same – a half dozen or so regular schmoes narrowly escape a huge disaster at the beginning of the film and death hunts them down for the next hour or so until there are at most a couple of survivors by the end – and even then, it's only really there to serve the grizzly and hilariously over the top deaths on which these films have made their name.       
 

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Chameleon

I mentioned that I hadn't seen Chameleon when I wrote up last week's film roundup but I have since rectified this (and yet I still haven't seen the Conan remake - go figure) so here is a very quick review about this Hungarian thriller.

Originally released back in 2008 in its home country, Chameleon is a Hungarian film that plays with the very well worn Hollywood convention of a slick and charming conman wooing women into marriage only to run off with their money. Dirty Rotten Scoundrels anyone?

The biggest problem with the film is that is does spend so long adhering doggedly to the formula but,unless its simply a case of the jokes getting lost in translation, without any of the humour of something like Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. The early parts of the film are largely watchable but most unremarkable with only the performances of the two leads - most especially Gabriella Hamori - to really keep us going.

McCartney

Ok, here's the thing: I was planning on just writing up a short little review of the recently released remaster of Paul McCartney's first solo album but apparently I haven't figured out how to do short reviews about my favourite albums. The next one will be shorter, I promise! Well, OK, if not promise then at least hope...



The History

For so unassuming an album, Paul McCartney's first proper solo work sure came with a lot of baggage. Rush released to hit stores to compete with Let It Be, The Beatles final album, the initial pressings of McCartney came with a press release in which McCartney effectively publicly announced the end of the band - apparently without the knowledge of his former bandmates. It was, in fact, John Lennon who ended the Beatles partnership months prior to the release of either McCartney or Let It Be but the group had decided to keep it on the down low until Let It Be and its accompanying film were released.

McCartney's seemingly careless spilling of the beans not only enraged Lennon but led to the world at large assuming that it was Paul who broke up the Beatles. Between this and the fact that the lo-fi, homegrown McCartney was such a tremendous departure from the meticulous perfection of Macca's work with The Beatles (though not, ironically enough, from the "back to basics" approach of Let It Be) that it was met with hostile reviews and, though it did well commercially, was seen for years as subpar work for someone of McCartney's stature and talent.

The years, however, have been kind to the album, especially as its uncommercial, stripped down sound struck a chord with countless indie artists whose music bares more than a passing resemblance to the DIY rock, funky instrumentals and ultra-melodic folk of McCartney. It landed up being far more influential than even its creator probably ever expected.

This newly remastered and expanded release of the album is, therefor, a perfect opportunity to once again evaluate the album - this time free of its historical baggage and free even of its later influence.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Roundup of New Films Released 2 September 2011

Very small and very underwhelming week this time around where I have all of two films to talk about. There is also How To Steal Two Million, whose screening I somehow never got an invitation for but it's a South African crime film - I know, right - that seems to be adequate at best. Also there's a Hungarian film called Chameleon that I know very little about and am reasonably sure was never press screened. It's apparently quite good so I might check it out and I'll be sure to post my thoughts about it if I do. Who knows, it may well be the best film of the week.


Bad Teacher has gotten some very rotten reviews overseas and, though, it's no where near as good as the similarly female-centric comedy stylings of Bridesmaids, it's a diverting enough bit of fluff. Yes, the fantastically sweary misanthropy of Cameron Diaz's character does get old some time before the end of the film but, for a while at least, it's easily the best comic performance from Ms Diaz to come along in a long long time. I also like that her character doesn't learn any lessons as the film goes along and that the film actually bothers to stick to its convictions. There are also a brace of very enjoyable supporting turns from Jason Segal, Justin Timberlake and Lucy Punch - all three of which hold the film up long after Diaz's schtick starts to wear out its welcome. It's not great, ultimately, but I can only assume that the critics who have so thoroughly savaged Bad Teacher have somehow missed out on the truly execrable comedies to have come our way this year and with at least one still to come. It ain't Bridesmaids but it sure as hell ain't Zookeeper either. (6/10)

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Roundup of New Films Released 26 August 2011

I suppose I should hold off with this roundup until I've seen the new Conan: The Barbarian film but since it was barely press screened and I am in no rush to see it, I might as well just post a few thoughts on the rest of the films that I did see. I should also point out that I haven't seen The Ward but that wasn't press screened at all and only a handful of cinemas are showing it throughout the country, I can't really be bothered. 

Anyway, onto what I have seen. 


Love, Wedding, Marriage is a pretty bad rom-com that I really wish was a whole lot worse. Oh what I would give for it to be a truly hateful, detestable piece of excrement that I could properly dig into - not just because at least then I would have more to say about the wretched thing but I might also have not needed the IMDB's plot synopsis and the film's trailer to remind me what the hell it was actually about. That I saw Love, Wedding, Marriage a few months ago certainly doesn't help but I all but forgot about it the minute the end credits started to roll. Its story of a young psychologist who is so busy trying to fix the lives and relationships of those around her that she totally neglects her own marriage could perhaps have been interesting but between its chuckle-free comedy, blindingly obvious plot turns and a supporting cast of characters who mostly range between teeth-grindingly irritating and forget-em-as-you-see-em bland, it can't help but vanish into the ever-growing sludge of nondescript "chick flicks". (3/10)   

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The Lion King 3D

This one has already been posted on Channel24, though it only opens on Friday, so I might as well post my unedited (though only slightly unedited, to be fair) review of this Disney classic here as well.

From Channel24

What it's about

A 3D reissue of the modern day animated Disney classic about Simba, a young lion that abandons his kind and his responsibilities as a new king, after believing himself responsible for the death of his father, King Mufasa.

What we thought

It's fairly shocking to believe that it has been nearly 17 years since The Lion King first hit cinemas. Not only because I cannot believe it has been that long since I originally saw it - on the big screen and in Zulu as a school outing with the rest of my school's standard 5 (that's grade 7, to you 21st century kids) Zulu class – but because it's astonishing how old fashioned the film feels after less than two decades.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Roundup of New Films Released on 19 August 2011

Not a great week for films... at least not based on what I've seen. French film Incendies and local flick Retribution were also released but I have not seen them.

Cowboys and Aliens has the sort of title that begs to be either warmly embraced by those of us who like a good bit of schlock in our cinema diet or scoffed at by pretty much everyone else. The biggest problem is that the film tries to hard to win both audiences and, in the process, alienates even the b-movie-loving geeks who would normally flock to a film called Cowboys and Aliens. It's not a terrible film by any means - how could it be when you have John Favreau, the director of Iron Man, working with current Bond Daniel Craig, current "It" girl Olivia Wilde and Harrison Frickin' Ford in a crazy mashup of the science fiction and western genres - but it is much, much less fun than it should be. It does pretty well as a western and Craig makes for a solid "Man With No Name"-type gun-slinging anti-hero but this is a far cry from Joss Whedon's brilliant Firefly/ Serenity when it comes to meshing The Wild West and sci-fi elements. The "Aliens" side of the equation is quite weak in general as the personality-free, uber-generic extraterrestrials make for some fairly dull bad guys. Worst of all, though, it's simply not as funny or as off-the-wall as its title seems to promise. Ford is responsible for most of the film's laughs as he once again has great fun playing up to his gruff and grumpy persona after his terrific turn in Morning Glory but he is sorely underused and his relatively small role is certainly not enough to raise the film beyond disappointing mediocrity.


Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Roundup of New Films Released 12 August 2011

I have to admit, with the week's two biggies out of the way, I very almost forgot to do my usual roundup of the rest of the week's films. Anyway, it's a bit late, but here are some thoughts on a couple of films - one good, one, um, not.

Lets start off with the good. Welcome to the Rileys is a fairly typical indie drama that mostly works while it's on but won't leave too much of a lasting impression. The story about a couple reeling from the death of their own child being drawn into the life of a wayward teenage stripper is elegant in its simplicity and it's certainly quite moving in parts but the almost fable-like story doesn't entirely gel with the cinema verite style in which it is filmed. For all of its problems, though, Welcome to the Rileys is a convincing study that allows its three main actors to really bring their A-games to the table. James Gandolfini and Melissa Leo are equally brilliant as parents broken by the loss of their child and the nuances in their performances beautifully highlight the differences between the way the two characters deal with their tragedy. While she shuts down, burying her grief and emotions in every day chores, he wears his emotions of his sleeve, trying unsuccessfully to find the will to carry on with the mundanity of his existence. Kristen Stewart, meanwhile, is no less impressive as she channels her usual mopey uneasiness into a teenage girl caught between the adult world that has forced to grow up before her time and her own childlike immaturity, Welcome to the Rileys is a long way off from being a masterpiece but, as far as character-driven acting showcases go, you could do far, far worse.


Monday, August 15, 2011

Tree of Life

Before getting to a roundup of the rest of the week's releases, I want to shine a spotlight on Terence Malick's Tree of Life. As the work of one of cinema's great perfectionists, it's clearly a very important work but does that mean I have to like it? What follows is as much my reaction to the reaction of the film as it is to the film itself and, I must warn you, this will go on a bit and will, undoubtedly, be more than a little rambly and self-indulgent. But then, considering the film, that seems oddly appropriate.

Also posted as Artslink.


Terence Malick's latest film, Tree of Life, has gotten probably more gushing, five-star reviews than any other release this year. Most critics simply absolutely adore this film. Me? I don't get it.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Rise of the Planet of the Apes

Starting off the weekend with a review of what was a very pleasant surprise...

From Channel24

What it's about:

Taking the old franchise back to its origins, Rise of the Planet of the Apes tells the story of how a potential miracle cure for Alzheimers disease ends up giving the apes on whom it is tested, human-levels of intelligence - setting up a chain of events that would forever alter mankind's supremacy as earth's dominant species.

What we thought:

It was hard not to walk into Rise of the Planet of the Apes without at least some trepidation. The previous attempt to revive the franchise was 2001's dire Tim Burton "re-imagining", which still rates as the worst thing he has ever done and ensured that no further attempts would be made throughout the rest of the decade. Here we are, though, ten years later and rather than remaking the series, they're doing something even more dubious: they're giving us the backstory that led to the now-iconic final moments of the original film.

New Film Release Roundup for the Week of 5 August 2011

I'm late with this again but here we actually have a fairly small week in terms of films that I've actually seen. Also released were Skoonheid, Soul Surfer and African Cats, all of which I have missed but as for what I've seen, it was a pretty damn decent week for film.



Tamara Drewe was released on something like three screens throughout the country but I am covering it because a) I'm sure you will be able to find it on DVD in no time at all and b) it has become such a rarity for British films to actually make it to cinemas in our country that I'm not simply going to ignore one that actually does. Tamara Drewe is based on a generally well-regarded British graphic novel that I have admittedly not read but there's little point in getting into the film's plot as it really is a collection of cascading stories about a group of characters whose lives are affected, to various degrees, by the presence of our titular protagonist : a very beautiful but very troubled young woman. How you react to that (ridiculously rambling) sentence is pretty much exactly how you will react to the film. The narrative is indeed all over the place so if what you're looking for is plot, I strongly suggest looking elsewhere. The thing that has really turned most people off the film, though, is Tamara Drewe herself. She is a deeply flawed, sometimes flat out unlikeable character whose narcissism and self-destructive behaviour has clearly been a major turn off for most people. Personally, though, I have no problem with stories that are more about characters than plot and, being a huge fan of the sixth season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, I am absolutely fine with less than loveable "heroes". I, in short, liked the film quite a bit. It is perhaps a bit too bitty for its own good - in terms of theme, more than in terms of plot - and the comedy is somewhat hit and miss but if your tastes run more towards the more quirky, off-centre side of the so-called "dramedy" genre, you should find plenty to like in Tamara Drewe.   



The Conspirator, on the other hand, is anything but quirky. What we have here is a fairly straightforward courtroom drama that is made far more interesting by the context in which it is set. Robert Redford's direction is perhaps a bit too austere to truly allow the film to come alive but with subject matter and themes this compelling, it's easy to forgive Redford the occasional bit of overly dry filmmaking. The Conspirator revolves around the trial of a Southern woman who may have been part of the conspiracy that led to the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and the young lawyer who is forced to take her case. It is a film that is very much interested in exploring timeless theme of due judicial process being worn down by a nation's thirst for revenge more than in piling on the drama but, weirdly, this is its greatest asset. Bolstered by superb performances by James McAvoy and Robin Wright, the film works as well as it does because it is so intimately aware of just how engrossing its subject matter truly is. It could certainly have used a stronger directorial stamp but The Conspirator remains a compelling morality play that tackle subjects that are sadly as poignant as ever.

       

Film of the week: Of those that I've seen it's still Captain America but the other two films are well worth seeing as well - if you find their basic subject matter interesting, of course.