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Friday, April 29, 2011

Arthur

Despite once again not finding a way to work the brilliant Kinks song Arthur into either film of the same name, I have to admit that I really enjoyed this update of the 1981 Dudley Moore comedy classic. It has its flaws but I really don't see why some critics are getting so up in arms about it. Admittedly seeing it straight after sitting through the horrifically bad Sucker Punch probably tainted my vie of this film but, really, what's so bad about a bit of good old silly but fun comedy?

From Channel24.co.za (Originally posted 28 April 2011)





What it's about

A remake of the 1981 film of the same name, Arthur is a young man living the high life off his family's money. After his latest bout of incredibly outlandish behaviour once again embarrasses his family and their company by being splashed all over the tabloids, his mother gives him an ultimatum: either marry the very respectable daughter of a self-made multimillionaire or lose any and all access to the family's immense fortune.

What we thought

Did Arthur really need to be remade?

If the bile-drenched, venomous reaction to the film by just about every critic the world over is any indication, the answer would seem to be a very definite and very resounding NO! Well, allow me to buck the trend. Not only do I not have a problem with this remake, I actually consider it to be an all-round improvement on the original.

I understand that this outrageous statement may well be cause for heresy charges to be brought against me by my fellow critics but I have my reasons. For a start, I re-watched the original film before writing this review and you know what, it doesn't really hold up nearly as well as some might think.

The late 70s/ early 80s was an incredible time for big-screen comedy. Woody Allen was at his peak, John Hughes was on the rise and classics like Airplane and the Monty Python films all but redefined what we could expect from the comedy genre. The original Arthur is a perfectly fine piece of work, to be sure, but it's no where near the perfectly formed gem that films like Annie Hall or Life of Brian so clearly are. You can watch those films now and they feel as if they haven’t aged a day. Arthur isn't quite so fortunate. Did it need to be remade? No. Probably not. Is it truly sacrilegious that they did remake it? As it turns out, not by a long shot.

Its comedy may be broader than the original and it may be less gritty and more “Hollywoodized” but the 2011 Arthur has many improvements over the original. It may be somewhat overextended but this new Arthur feels better fleshed out – as do Arthur's relationships with his co-stars. In part it's simply that Helen Mirren and Greta Gerwig are better in their roles than John Gielgud and Liza Minnelli were as his man-servant/ nanny and love interest respectively. Not that the originals were bad but these two actresses bring real warmth and likeability to their characters that Gielgud and Minnelli don't come close to matching. Jennifer Garner is also far better and far bitchier as Susan Johnson, the woman Arthur is being forced to marry, than the rather tame Jill Eikenberry was in the original.

The real wild-card though is Russell Brand in the title role and your enjoyment of the film will largely depend on whether you like him or not. Many people clearly see him as being horribly unfunny and unlikeable a screen presence. I don't agree. Dudley Moore was pretty great in the original but Brand does him one better on every level. Not only do I find Russell Brand very funny with his great mixture of verbal wit and physical comedy, I also thought he handled the more dramatic and more human parts of the film with far more skill than most people give him credit for. Oddly enough, though, despite his infamously self-destructive past, he's actually far less credible a drunk than Moore was.

A staggering thirty years on from the original film, I, for one, am pleased to announce that the new version of Arthur should work for a new generation. It's predictable and silly and irrelevant and overly smooth around the edges but, ya know what, it's a fun, warm-hearted and funny little comedy that I have little trouble recommending. You just have to like Russel Brand, is all.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Thor

I have somehow only seen three of the six or so films slated for release this week (don't know what happened there) but all three are worthwhile - making this, if nothing else, a huge improvement over last week. Up first: the biggie, the first superhero blockbuster of the year and one of the most pleasant surprises so far this year... Thor!

Also, this is my original unedited review. It goes on a bit so it was understandably edited down for Channel24 but there are a few things in my original review that I think are worth mentioning. Specifically Kenneth Branagh's job as a director.

From Channel24.co.za (Originally posted 28 April 2011) 

What it's about

Based on the Marvel Comics character, Thor, the future king of the legendary realm of Asgard and its most powerful warrior, finds himself stripped of his “God of Thunder” powers and exiled to earth after his arrogance leads his realm into a new war with some very old and very powerful enemies.

What we thought

Thor marks the beginning of what is to be an onslaught on big superhero movies to take us through to the end of 2012 and beyond. Green Lantern, Captain America, reboots of Superman, X-Men and Spider-man and, most excitingly, Joss Whedon's Avengers and the final part of Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy are all sure to be big box office draws over the next couple of years.

For me though, Thor always seemed like the odd man out. Despite being a fairly popular Marvel character and (the comic book version) a creation of legendary comics creators Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, I have simply never had much more than a passing interest in the character. The good news then is that, though it's far from a perfect film, Thor actually made me like the title character more than I ever thought possible while setting a pretty high bar of quality for those other superhero films to match.

Certain early reviews, particularly those posted at some of the comics sites I frequent, have given the impression that Thor is a film that is pretty much free of flaws. It isn't. The film splits its time between being a fish-out-of-water tale set on Earth and an epic fantasy set on the majestic vistas of Asgard and though I have few complaints about the former, the latter aspects of the film are occasionally too overwrought for their own good.

Having Kenneth Branagh direct the film may have seemed like a very strange choice at the outset (hell, even Natalie Portman has admitted that the main reason she signed up was "I was just like Kenneth Branagh doing 'Thor' is super-weird, I've gotta do it.") after seeing the film, it's hard to imagine anyone else doing it. As a director he is famous/ infamous for bombast and theatricality, which is why he has always been such a great fit for bringing Shakespeare to the silver screen.

That he was a good fit for the Asgard portions of the film is hardly surprising but, oddly enough, where he really shines are on the more down to earth bits. Asgard itself is an incredible CGI creation being a fantastic mix of psychedelic science and traditional fantasy elements and the parts of the story that are set there have the very fitting feel of a classic Greek tragedy. At the same time though, the CGI does at times feel a bit overdone at times and the epic fantasy elements do occasionally tip into frankly silly cheesiness.

The earth-bound parts, on the other hand, may seem far more ordinary but are actually much more satisfying. Looser, funnier and more enjoyable than anything set on Asgard, the bits set on earth are also far more relateable as we see the title character seeking redemption and genuinely becoming wiser and more human in the process, while the build up to Whedon's Avengers continues (far more organically than Iron Man 2, by the way) as S.H.I.E.L.D are an omnipresent part of the action.

The supporting cast in general is very impressive but however much I enjoyed the work done by Anthony Hopkins and Idris Elba during the Asgard-set portions, it is the supporting cast on earth that most impresses. Natalie Portman is typically fantastic as Jane Foster, the plucky, (obviously) beautiful scientist who is to be Thor's love interest and Stellan Skarsgard brings all his usual dramatic Nordic weight to his role. Best of all though is Kat Dennings who I really wanted more of as Portman and Skarsgard's characters' dryly hilarious research assistant. 

The true star of the film though is, fittingly, Chris Hemsworth as Thor himself. Not only is the character very well written, Hemsworth simply kills it in the role. In his hands, Thor is a haughty, arrogant and confident creation but one that is immensely likeable, sympathetic and honourable at the same time. Plus he handles the comedy aspects of the film brilliantly – including some very nicely played slapstick.

Thor is a very good superhero blockbuster that promises even better sequels but keep a special eye out for Hemsworth: the dude is going to be (deservedly) HUGE.

PS: I forgot to mention in the original review that I saw Thor in 3D and, as usual, you need not bother. No doubt the 2D will be brighter and cheaper than the pointless 3D print.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

New Movies Release Roundup 21 April 2011

Sucker Punch was sadly not the only bad movie released this weekend. In fact, it's hard to think of a more miserable selection of new releases than what wee have here. I haven't seen the Afrikaans superhero flick Superhelde but from what I hear I didn't exactly miss much and, as usual, I can't tell you anything about the latest Bollywood flick, Dum Maaro Dum. That leaves a grand total of two films, neither of which are as bad as Sucker Punch but neither of which come anywhere close to being good movies. Lets start off with the better of the two...

If last year's Crazy Heart was the cinematic equivalent of classic country music then Country Strong is its watered down, modern-day cousin, country-pop. It's a film that clearly tries to capture all the things that were great about Crazy Heart (the acting, the incredible music, the authentic look at a broken-down country star struggling to rise up again) but the only thing it truly captures is that film's occasionally plodding plot. Country Strong does have at its centre a surprisingly very good performance from Gwyneth Paltrow - both as an actress and as a singer - and there are these little moments spread throughout the film centred around her character that are really rather affecting. The problem is that most of the rest of the film, though never truly awful, is overlong, bland and, even if the rest of the cast are generally OK in their roles, I was never particularly interested in any of their characters. Most damningly, the music in  the film is really weak. As a big fan of proper, classic country music, Crazy Heart really worked for me at capturing that gloriously rustic tradition of American music. The music in Country Strong, however, was far more typical of the sort of country-pop music that most people now sadly associate with the genre. And I have much more trouble forgiving that than I do with the actual film itself. (5/10)

Country Strong is nothing though in comparison to the box office mega-bomb that is Mars Needs Moms (3D). The derision it has received by critics and audiences alike isn't entirely deserved because its never as offensively bad as something like Sucker Punch but, lets not kid, it is still total rubbish. It features a befuddlingly stupid plot, one-dimensional characters, fairly terrible motion-capture animation (Avatar it ain't) and a serious dearth of laughter. The only notable thing about it is revealed as the final credits play out. The annoying kid who is our lead character was played by Seth Green of all people until the geniuses behind the production realized that, though his movements could be captured and used to animate an animated kid, his voice was too adult for the character he was supposed to be playing. Go figure, right? What we land up with is an amalgamation of Seth Green's movements and a kid's voice. I have no idea why they bothered. In fact, I have no idea why they used motion capture in the first place. With its script, it never would have amounted to much but had it been a simple CGI animation or a heavily SFXed live action film it would at least have not have had those "realistic" CGI human beings (see: young Jeff Bridges in Tron Legacy) that never fail to creep me the hell out. I seriously found it difficult to look at the screen at some points. Ad if the film in question does not belong to the horror genre, that's not a good thing at all. (3/10)  

Best film of the week: Bloody hell. It's Country Strong, isn't it?
Worst film of the week: Sucker Punch. Obviously.               

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Sucker Punch

Here's a nice and early review of a very, very bad movie coming out this week. 


From Channel24.co.za (Originally posted 20 April 2011)

What it's about:
Baby Doll (yes, "Baby Doll") is a young girl who finds herself in a mental asylum after being framed for killing her younger sister by her abusive stepfather. Retreating into a fantasy world in her head, she imagines a world where she and four other inmates plan to escape the facility. Or maybe they do. It's really kind of hard to tell.

What we thought:

Come the later months of 2012, the world will be "treated" to the latest cinematic reboot of Superman. A reboot directed by one Zack Snyder. I bring this up because Superman is very easily one of my favourite fictional characters and, after taking in the brain-damaging, mind-numbing experience that is Sucker Punch, I am now officially worried about just what the hell Snyder is going to do to The Man of Steel.

Snyder has long been called a "visionary filmmaker" and I'm sure many will praise at least that aspect of the film because it's all there: the garish costumes, the slow motion, the hyper-real colours, the slow motion, the sets that are almost as gaudy as the costumes, the CGI-stuffed fantasy sequences and, of course, lest we forget, MORE BLOODY SLOW MOTION. Oh, how Snyder loves to shoot things in slow motion! Slow motion rain! Slow motion fight scenes! Slow motion slow motion! It just never ends...

Of course, that's precisely what I felt about the film in general. Sure there is a whole lot of visual razzle dazzle and sexy girls in ridiculous stripper costumes, but that never stops the film from being a dull incoherent mess with laughable dialogue, horrendous storytelling, unexciting action scenes, non-existent characterisation and some truly godawful acting – even by the few actors (John Hamm, Jena Malone) who are usually really good. In particular Baby Doll herself is a totally vapid creation played by an actress (Emily Browning) who always looks like she'd rather be elsewhere. But then, who could blame her? 

As it is, Sucker Punch just looks like a poor rehashing of far better films. It's use of multiple-level dreamscapes obviously invokes Christopher Nolan's excellent Inception, while its placement of fantasy alongside cruel, gritty reality is an equally obvious nod to Guillermo Del Toro's even more excellent Pan's Labyrinth. I'm slightly sickened at the thought of even mentioning those two films in the same sentence as this vacuous nonsense but the comparisons are there and, if nothing else, Inception and Pan's Labyrinth only show just how far off the rails Sucker Punch truly is.

There is none of the elegant dream-logic of Inception's dreams-within-dreams in Sucker Punch's own multi-layered constructions. Each reality seems entirely disconnected from the next and it's never made clear how the actions in one level actually affect any of the others. The videogame-like action scenes are made all the more innocuous by the fact that there appears to be no peril involved in the girls' adventures in these scenes as they act as nothing but a reflection – at best a visual metaphor (Hey! It's like Scott Pilgrim! But with all the good bits taken out!) of what's happening in the levels of reality above it. All the samurai giants, zombie Nazis and fire-breathing dragons in the world can't hide the fact that these sequences feel more like watching someone else playing a cool but harmless video game than an integral part of what's going on in the story.

As for Pan's Labyrinth, well, aside for showing that this sort of story can be told with intelligence and real emotional power, Del Toro beats the stuffing out of Sucker Punch on a purely visual level. Held up against the visual artistry of Del Toro's fantasy visions, Sucker Punch can't help but look incredibly artificial and unimaginative.

The bottom line is this: Zach Synder clearly fancies himself a "geek director" and Sucker Punch – with all its allusions to video games, anime/manga, comics and other genre films – is  his geekiest film yet. As something of a huge geek myself, though, I have to say that his constant allusions to better examples of geek-culture actually does him no favours at all. Until he learns to back up his enthusiastic fanboy obsessions with proper storytelling, he will simply never be much of a filmmaker. 

Sunday, April 17, 2011

New Movies Release Roundup 15 April 2011

There are three films left to cover this week but I haven't seen one of them (The Sanctuary? Has anyone seen this? Anyone at all?) and the other two are no great shakes. Starting off with the better of the two...

It's funny, Limitless actually has a few things going for it and yet, while it's a perfectly OK film, it's both unremarkable and fairly forgettable. It starts off with a very good premise: a very well cast Bradley Cooper plays a down on his luck writer whose fortunes take a sudden turn for the better after he takes a mysterious translucent pill and becomes the smartest person in the world. It's a solid story and the film is pacey, fun and the tricky MTV-style editing actually works brilliantly here. Also, Robert Deniro shows up in a very "and Robert Deniro" kind of way. The problem is that it simply doesn't add up to very much and it will promptly exit your memory the minute you walk out of the cinema. More problematically, while a perfectly solid thriller is woven out of that premise, there is definitely a feeling that they could have done something more daring and more interesting with so great a central conceit.   (7/10)



Limitless suddenly looks like a masterpiece, though, when held up against the very underwhelming The Roommate. Regardless of whether you've seen Single White Female before - which this film obviously owes the most to - it still comes across as very rote, very predictable and something that you've seen far too many times before. The story is a simple one about a college freshman who finds herself with a roommate that is just a little bit too obsessed with her. It's not an abysmal film, to be fair, in that it's a perfectly adequate 90-minute-long distraction but it all just seems so phoned in. They couldn't even be bothered to present the roommate with some good old mystery. You don't ever wonder what her motives are because she is so obviously drawn as someone who is so obviously completely off her rocker. That this isn't even as good as the similar roommate-from-hell episode of Buffy - an episode that is sure to rank as one of that series' absolute worst hours - kind of says it all. (4/10)

Best film of the week: Um... well, it has to be Limitless doesn't it? Really not a great week.
Worst film of the week: The Roommate. Again, not awful, but pathetically lazy. 

Tomorrow When the War Began

Here's a film that I had absolutely no expectations of when I went to see it and I hadn't heard the best of things about it before hand but I was actually pretty pleasantly surprised by it. It's nothing special, of course, but it is a perfectly good little addition to the teens-vs-nasty-adults genre.

From Channel24 (Originally posted 15 April 2011)


What it's about

A group of Australian teenagers go on a camping trip for a weekend but when they return they find their former lives obliterated and Australia a war zone after being invaded by a foreign enemy.

What we thought

It may be true that the only truly extraordinary thing about Tomorrow When the War Began is its name - a weird mixture of tenses and shrouded in mystery, it's easily one of the most evocative film titles of the year – but it's a surprisingly solid little action thriller that is sure to thrill its target audience of teenagers and young adults.

I don't say this lightly, either. “Young adult” cinema has, in recent years, been overrun by films such as Twilight and its offspring (I Am Number Four, Red Riding Hood). It's good news then that at long last something has come along that will appeal to younger audiences who want their cinema choices to have a bit more bite and a lot less vegetarian, sparkly vampires. But who ever would have thought that their saviour would be Antipodean in origin?

Based on the first in a series of teen novels by John Mardsen, Tomorrow When the War Began has a simple but very effective premise. It may, as so many have pointed out, bare a definite resemblance to the 1980s film Red Dawn but, when you consider that most of its target audience probably wouldn't have seen a film that is over a quarter century old, it's hard to really hold that against it. Especially because when you consider that it is essentially a story of regular, down to earth kids standing up to an oppressive, unfair and notably adult force, it's a tale that is well worth being retold to each new generation.     

Adult audiences – and critics especially – may find it easy to fault the film's lack of originality, its forays into far-fetchedness and its lack of complexity in its storytelling but, taking it for what it is, it does its job perfectly well. Stuart Beattie may not be a particularly flashy director but when you consider that he is most well known for writing turkeys like GI Joe and the latter two Pirates of the Caribbean movies, you have to appreciate that he is at least a perfectly competent storyteller. It's especially pleasing to watch action scenes where you can actually tell what the hell is going on.     
 
No less impressively solid is the cast that has been assembled to portray some rather likeable and pretty well drawn characters. The young actors concerned are all relatively inexperienced – at best appearing in a few soaps and small roles in smaller films – so it's impressive just how good they are. No one in the cast should expect Oscars for their work here but they all manage to pull off their roles quite well - even if it is with workmanlike proficiency rather than any dazzling artistry.   

But then, maybe expecting “dazzling artistry” is unfair for this sort of film. It doesn't exactly reinvent the wheel and more experienced cinema goers will probably feel that they've seen similar things done better elsewhere but there is something to be said for classic, straightforward storytelling. As such, while I can't in good conscience give it more than three stars out of five (or a somewhat better seven out of ten), younger audiences should feel free to add a star or two. This is a film that is proudly and unashamedly for them, after all.