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Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The Woman in Black

Before I start rolling out reviews for this fairly packed week, I just realised that I forgot to post my thoughts on The Woman in Black, which came out a couple of weeks ago. This is especially shameful since I've read the book on which it is based and everything! Ah well, better late than never, I suppose.


With Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard reinventing the horror genre on one side and endless English-language remakes of European and Asian horror cinema on the other, there is something to be said for so traditional - and decidedly British - a ghost story as The Woman In Black.

Very loosely based on the 1982 Susan Hill novel of the same name, The Woman in Black finds Daniel Radcliffe as a young widower, a single father and a lawyer not very good at his job who travels to an eerie rural town to consolidate the estate of an old woman who lived alone in a secluded old house, cut off from society by rising tides and wet marshland. It's not long however, before he finds that things are even more sinister in the old house and its nearby town as he is confronted with the ghostly titular character and the pain and death that follows in her wake.

Like I said, it's very traditional and, though the film is certainly not without its flaws, its old school storytelling and ghostly scares feels like a breath of fresh air. It's not for nothing, after all, that The Woman In Black is the film responsible for resurrecting that decidedly traditional trademark of British horror, Hammer Films. There's no gleeful bloodletting, cynical "torture porn" or creepy Japanese girls to be found here: this old fashioned ghost story gets old fashioned creepy atmospherics in the form of creaking unearthly sounds coming from just off the side of the screen; a blue-grey, almost tangibly cold colour pallet and, of course, a ghostly apparition appearing out of nowhere at the most inopportune of times.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Cabin In The Woods

It was really, really unfair to release this little gem against The Dark Knight Rises this week in South Africa - especially because the two will undoubtedly have similar audiences - so make sure to keep this film in mind for the next time you go to the cinema after seeing TDKR. Or see it before even - I sadly doubt it will be on for very long.  


I'm going to try and step very lightly when talking about The Cabin in the Woods because one of its great pleasures is just how surprising it is. I won't even summarize the plot beyond saying that this is the kind of horror film that starts with Bradley Whitford and Richard Jenkins - ya know, "proper" actors - having a funny West-Wing-like walk and talk as two regular working Joes, before moving on to the kind of horror-by-numbers that the film's title might imply. For fifteen minutes. It then goes completely and utterly bonkers, delving further and further into unfettered insanity before climaxing in one of the year's most hysterically off the wall endings.    

Part of this does have to do with the surprises of the plot and that it doesn't follow any typical horror formula, but more than that, even once you have started to piece together exactly what's going on, the film still shocks time and time again with its pitch-black humour, deranged violence and fantastically atypical characterization. It's never particularly scary, but even if it won't have you shrieking in terror, it's all but guaranteed to have you howling with laughter - sometimes at nothing more than the filmmakers' chutzpah. But then, when you consider who the filmmakers are, subverting expectations and bonkers post-modernism just seems par for the course.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

In The Land of Blood and Honey

Back to last week's films, a quick look at the directorial and screenwriting debut of Angelina Jolie.


I feel a bit odd that I have to defend a celebrity/ star/ personality as big as Angelina Jolie and yet, for all of her fame, money and status, she is rather overlooked as an actual talent. I don't know if it's the whole "Brangelina" thing, her weird behaviour when she was younger, her, shall we say, interest in the "third world" or that business about Brad Pitt leaving Jennifer Aniston for her, but she is seldom given her due. When she tries, she can be a truly excellent actress, as masterful turns in Changeling and A Mighty Heart clearly show. When she doesn't try, she can occasionally be a bit trying, but mostly her definite screen presence still shines through.

Still, for all that I mostly really like her in front of the cameras, there was a definite feeling that even my patience would be tried as I walked into In The Land of Blood and Honey. Not only had she never directed a feature film before or written an actual filmed screenplay, she chose as her subject a truly horrific real-life atrocity that occurred a world away from her cushy life in Hollywood. In The Land of Blood and Honey looked to be nothing more than a self-indulgent vanity project (her W.E, basically) by an actor forcing her way behind the directors chair about a subject on which she can't possibly have any real authority.

The Dark Knight Rises

We interrupt this week's typically untimely reviews for something that is actually coming out AFTER I've posted the review. And yes, to all of you worried about such things, this is a spoiler-free review.

Check it out also at Channel 24

What it's about

Eight years after the the death of Harvey Dent and the outlawing of Batman, Gotham seems to be a brighter, safer place but, no longer needed or wanted by the city he swore to protect, a physically and spiritually broken Bruce Wayne spends his days locked up in his mansion, away from both his life as Batman and as billionaire playboy, Bruce Wayne. It's not long, however, before he needs to come out of hiding in both his guises as he is confronted with a crumbling business empire and a new threat to Gotham in the form of Bane, a villain with a link to Wayne's past who is intent on showing just how fragile an illusion Gotham's new gleaning sheen really is.

What we though

The Dark Knight Rises has a lot to live up to. Very easily the most eagerly anticipated film of the year, it not only has to provide a satisfying conclusion to Christopher Nolan's wildly revered Batman trilogy, it also has to live up to the increasingly acclaimed directorial career of Nolan himself – all the while working as the biggest summer blockbuster in a year when Joss Whedon's Avengers already seems to be the superhero film to beat. No pressure at all then.

The Dark Knight Rises doesn't have the luxury of just being a “good movie”, we are now at a level where the only way it could possibly live up to expectations is by being a “flabbergastingly brilliant movie”. The only two other films released this year that had even remotely comparable levels of hype were The Avengers - which, by all measures, more than lived up to its five years of build up – and Prometheus – whose inability to live up to its promise of Ridley Scott's Second-Coming-like resurrection of the Alien franchise made it look a whole lot worse than it really was.

Well, Nolan, DC Entertainment and, of course, we, the audience, can breathe a sigh of relief: judged on its own terms, The Dark Knight Rises is a very good, if flawed art-house superhero spectacle - as a conclusion to Nolan's Batman trilogy though, it's entirely beyond reproach and more than matches our greatest hopes for it. As the end credits roll, not only will audiences have been witness to a truly great, genre-pushing superhero film, but one that firmly establishes Nolan's Batman trilogy as one of the very few truly consistently excellent trilogies in celluloid history.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Act of Valor

Oh. Boy.


Believe me, when I say that the best thing by far about Act of Valor (pardon the spelling) is that it's entirely forgettable, I don't mean that lightly. The plot, the characters, the action - everything about the film is the very definition of generic mediocrity. Everything, that is, except for a couple of very notable points. And by "notable" I do, of course, mean blood curdingly awful.

See, someone had the brilliant idea that in order to grant some sort of "authenticity" to what is otherwise a decidedly ordinary action film, they should cast real life Navy SEALs as the Navy SEAL heroes of this fictional story. Surprise, surprise, this "brilliant idea" turned out to be anything but.

The reason why us silly critics like to make such a big deal out of the caliber of acting in films is simply because without convincing acting, nothing else in the film has a chance in hell of working. It's all about buying into the world of the film, you see. The real-life Navy SEALs in Act of Valor may know a lot about combat, but they clearly don't know jack about acting. As such, instead of creating believable people who the audience can believe in, the "stars" yank the viewer violently out of the film every time they open their mouths. You can almost see the cue cards hiding behind the cameras from which the "actors" are forced to impassively read. The dialogue is already pretty rotten but it's made unbearable when it's delivered by actors who make the cast of Baywatch (how's that for a topical reference?) look like the Royal Shakespeare Company.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Magic Mike

Loads of new movies came out this past weekend so lets get started with a male stripping movie by Steven Soderbergh because, really, where else is there to start?

As neither a straight woman nor a gay man, I am decidedly not the target audience of Magic Mike. This isn't a male stripper movie like The Full Monty where the stripping is just a backdrop for a very male-oriented buddy movie. Magic Mike spends about a third of its running time focusing purely on a bunch of insanely buff blokes getting their kit off and the rest of the film is really just a backdrop for the stripping. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but I feel a bit out of my depth here. 

As such, I highly recommend checking out this all-girl roundtable review of the film over at Channel 24 for a lively, funny take on the film by people to whom it is actually aimed. What's weird though, is that however little the many many pounds of manly flesh may do it for you, so to speak, I don't think there's anyone in the world who would deny that by far the best thing about Magic Mike is the stripping itself.

Quite unlike the typically sleazy portrayals of female stripping in cinema (Showgirls anyone?), Magic Mike's strip scenes play out like elaborate musical numbers that just happen to involve a bunch of insanely buff blokes getting their kit off! Though, of course, their, um, interactions with the women in the audience does bring the whole thing back into an area that's every bit as sexual as female strip shows, just in a totally different way, but that only enhances the sheer theatricality of these scenes.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Vincent Wants to Sea (Vincent Will Meer)

It's a fairly packed Friday for new cinema releases so before getting to the likes of Magic Mike, The Woman in Black, In the Land of Blood and Honey an, oh yes, Act of Valor, I just need to finish off last week's lineup with a quicky review of this little German road-trip movie.


The road-trip film is a proud tradition of US cinema and you don't have to look to hard to find similar, but decidedly shorter, examples of the same from the UK , but how many German road-trip movies have you seen? Well, if Vincent Wants to Sea is any indication, we haven't seen enough of them.

Horribly punny English title aside, what we have here is a very unassuming, character-driven film about the titular Vincent, a young man suffering from Tourettes Syndrome, who, along with two other patients, flees from a rehabilitation centre to fulfill his mother's dying wish: to have her ashes scattered over her favourite Italian beach. Needless to say, there is much soul-searching and increasingly complicated relationship stuff that happens along the way and it's pretty easy to see where it's all heading but, like the best road trips, it is the journey, rather than the destination that truly matters.

The film boasts some very strong performances, plenty of charm and some seriously beautiful cinematography. Who cares if it's unoriginal, predictable and more than a little contrived? Especially when you throw in some moments of genuine human emotion and believably troubled, but sympathetic, characters.

It probably won't be on for long so don't be put off by the title and give this little gem of a film a shot.

  

Monday, July 16, 2012

Lockout

Oh yeah, a couple of things also came out this past weekend. This is the first.


You know, it's funny that in the same weekend I gave the new Spider-man a bit of grief for retelling its hero's origin story, I am confronted with a film that truly puts Spidey's "unoriginality" in perspective. Lockout is far from a terrible film but never before has the phrase "based on an original idea by Luc Besson" been so hilariously ironic.

Besson has already given us Die Hard in the future with the admittedly terrific The Fifth Element and now he's giving us what is essentially Con Air in space, with a bit of Demolition Man and Attack on Pelham 1 2 3 thrown in for good measure. This is especially brilliant because Con Air was always basically just Die Hard on a jet plane in the first place. "Derivative" doesn't even begin to describe Lockout.

See if you can guess where this plot goes: In the not too distant future, the most ruthless criminals are sent to a special prison on the moon where they are to serve their sentences as human icicles in cryogenic sleep but after a particularly bloodthirsty prisoner escapes from captivity, he frees his fellow prisoners and holds the prison, its personnel and the US president's visiting daughter hostage. It is up to a disgraced cop who is about to be sent to that very prison for A Crime He Didn't Commit to quell the uprising and save the president's daughter.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

The Amazing Spider-man

It's kind of odd that a new Spider-man movie seems like a small deal when held up against The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises and yet The Amazing Spider-man does feel like it came out of nowhere. Relatively speaking anyway. And yet here we are. Still, don't be put off by that or the fact that it isn't as good as The Avengers and presumably won't be as good as The Dark Knight Rises, it's still a very neat little film. 


Also since this is a Channel24 review, I had to keep it within a certain word-count so at the end of the review I've added 5 extra bullet points that I think are worth noting about the film. The essentials are in the review but they're just an added bonus for readers of my blog.



What it's about

After being bitten by a genetically enhanced spider, Peter Parker soon learns that with great power comes great responsibility as he becomes New York City's masked defender, Spider-man, all the while dealing with death, love, a mutated supervillain called The Lizard and enough secrets to ensure that his life is never more than one step away from spinning wildly out of control.

What we thought

Whatever the Amazing Spider-man gets wrong and for all that it gets right, there is one massive hurdle that it struggles to overcome: Sam Raimi's Spider-man, which covered much the same ground, came out all of a decade ago. Even after the rather catastrophic mess of Spider-man 3, few would argue against having a new Spider-man film in our cinemas – there is a reason the character has endured for fifty years and counting, after all – but did we really need yet another re-telling of his origin?

Even kids too young to have seen the “original” in cinemas are undoubtedly well aware of how the Web-slinger came to be thanks to a decade of what can easily be called “Spidey-mania” in the form of various cartoon incarnations, television showings of the Raimi films, video games and (perhaps overly optimistically on my part) the comics themselves. The film, as it turns out, does have plenty of reasons for existing but it really needn't have existed in this form. Take Spidey back to high school, sure, but at this point why not just take his origin as read and take it from there?

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Friends With Kids

And to finish off last week's films...


For an under-the-radar, indie (or at least seemingly indie) romantic comedy, it's amazing how much Friends With Kids has divided critics and "normal" moviegoers alike. Some consider it a wonderful alternative to your average Hollywood romcom that is funny and warm in equal parts, while others find it to be entirely unfunny, obnoxious and featuring the most unlikable characters since Sex and The City.

Not to be my usual self or anything but both sides definitely have their points, even if I personally found it to be overall far closer to the less enthusiastic point of view. There are bits that feel more authentic than your usual Hollywood fodder, it does have a great cast and its preposterously stupid premise works far better than it has any right to be.

That said, the characters weren't likable - and I mean at all - and, however much their relationships convince at some points, at other times everything feels tremendously artificial. The script is at times very smart, but I am perplexed at how people find it to be anywhere near laugh-out-loud funny and, though the premise holds up far better than it should, even then it is crushed under its own weight in the film's final act, as this "authentic relationship drama" moves closer and closer towards the typical romcom contrivances that fly completely in the face of what the rest of the film was apparently trying to achieve.

It's hard to take against a film with a cast as good as this and writer/director/star Jennifer Westfeldt's heart is clearly in the right place but I can't ever see this becoming the kind of beloved mainstream hit that Bridesmaids was - despite featuring many of the same people. And honestly, as far as I'm concerned, it doesn't really deserve to be.


The Dictator

Sorry, got sidetracked writing an Amazing Spider-man review but here's my slightly belated take on Sacha Baron Cohen's latest film.


The Dictator is supposed to be a great change of pace for Sacha Baron Cohen's comedy career in that it's fully scripted, rather than being strung around some uncomfortable real-life meet ups between ordinary people and one of Baron Cohen's absurd creations. So why then does it feel so very, very stale?

Not to say that the film doesn't have a few decent chuckles and, even when aiming for the lowest common denominator, it never plumbs the same depths of your average Adam Sandler film, but it fails to build up any real interest whatsoever. It's so underwhelming, in fact, that it's hard to even build up enough enthusiasm to review the wretched thing.

The plot starts off promising enough. General Aladeen, the dictatorial ruler of a small North African country travels to the USA to tell the UN where to stick their objections to his plans to create a nuclear weapons program for his country, before finding himself replaced with an impostor who not only plans to sign a peace treaty but also to sell off the country's oil to the highest bidder. You can almost taste the socio-political satire. Sadly, the film never ever lives up to its premise as it constantly succumbs to lazy and rather obvious scatological humour, uninspired writing and a central performance that comes off as nothing more than Borat-lite.     

Friday, July 6, 2012

Rock of Ages

The moment you've all  been waiting for... The Amazing Spi- Sorry, no, never mind. You're going to have to wait for next week for that. For now though, how's about a big stupid musical built around 80s hair metal! Hello? Hello? Where'd everyone go?


Also posted at Channel24



What it's about

Sherrie and Drew are two young musicians trying to hit the big time on the Sunset Strip and it's not long before they become involved with each other and a struggling night club whose owners are just waiting for the one big gig to save them from bankruptcy.

What we thought

If 1980s hair-metal/ poodle-rock has one saving grace is that it is daft, cheesy fun. In the history of rock and roll, it is largely and rightly considered to be one of the genre's low points and with its banal melodies, inane lyrics, plodding rhythms and all the edginess of, well, a poodle, it's not hard to see why. And yet, for all of that, unlike say, Grunge, it does at least have enough of a sense of its own ridiculousness to ensure that songs like We Built This City On Rock and Roll never truly deserve their reputations as “the worst song ever”.

Rock of Ages is a musical built around nostalgia for that period of big sounds and bigger hair and, in the tradition of Mamma Mia and Across The Universe, it uses the massive rock hits of the time to form some sort of narrative. Needless to say, this is a disastrous idea. It's difficult enough to build a story around Beatles songs (great music, great lyrics) and almost impossible to base a story around Abba songs (great music, iffy lyrics) but it is sheer, bloody-minded lunacy to try and tell a story based on 80s corporate rock (bad music, truly horrendous lyrics).

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Ice Age: Continental Drift

Sorry for the severe lack of updates but the past couple of weeks have been awful for new cinema releases in this country. Last week was all about the new Leon Schuster movie, which I was fortunate enough to miss because, if the trailer is anything to go by, I honestly don't know if I would have been able to survive two hours of such unmitigated crap. This week, we have a grand total of one new release and, considering what it is, it effectively means that this is two weeks in a row where there is nothing at all for anyone who is either a) over ten years old (Ice Age) and b) not clinically brain dead (Mad Buddies). Not that I want to jump the gun with my Ice Age 4 (4!!) review...


If the Ice Age franchise has one saving grace, it's that it is aimed squarely at kids. Seemingly every other major animated franchise or, for that matter, animation studio always has their eyes on the adults at least as much as their nominal target audience, pre-teen kids. Some succeed brilliantly (almost all of Pixar, Shrek), some fail embarrassingly (most of Dreamworks' output prior to three years ago, Shark Tale), but CG animated movies overwhelmingly try to capture as large an audience as possible. Ice Age, however, seldom so much as winks at the parents in the audience and, as such, needn't be judged as anything but purely kiddie fare.

As such, it doesn't particularly matter what I, a thirty year old man, thinks about Ice Age: Continental Drift. It doesn't matter that I thought the jokes were flat, the characters bland and the storytelling clumsy or that the only times this increasingly banal series shows any sparks of wit or invention are those scenes with Scrat (the little furry dude on the poster to the left) that have next to nothing to do with the rest of the film.

The question is, will kids like it? As noted, I stopped being a member of Ice Age's target demographic too long ago for me to count and, even if I am perfectly able to appreciate certain stories aimed primarily at children, I still do so from an adult's perspective. I don't even have the advantage of being a parent to be able to measure Ice Age 4's success second hand. The best I can do is recall the general reaction of the kids in the packed screening of the film that I saw and draw certain conclusions from that.