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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...


 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 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.