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Thursday, August 30, 2012

Total Recall (2012)

Sorry for the lack of updates this week but I should have a bunch of new content coming soon. Lets start off with this week's biggest and worst film. No wait, sorry, I'm not reviewing the latest Tyler Perry film because I haven't seen it, nor the new Tinker Bell movie for the same reasons, but I'm sure they're masterpieces. Still, this is definitely the worst of the next crop of films that I will be reviewing.

This review is also up  in more spacious form (my editor likes paragraphs more than I do) at Channel 24.   


What it's about

Douglas Quaid (Colin Farrell) thinks he's an ordinary guy, with a boring job and a beautiful, loving wife but when his strong desire to travel to Mars leads him to Rekall, a company that fulfils its clients wildest dreams by implanting fake memories, he soon finds out that his whole life is a lie.

What we thought

Back when it was originally announced, we were promised that this new version of Total Recall would be a reinterpretation of the Philip K. Dick short story on which the 1980s Arnold Schwarzenegger sci-fi actioner was based, rather than a simple remake of that same film. This might have seemed like your garden variety spin doctoring by an industry that is becoming increasingly infamous for their lack of original ideas, but, for a change, it was a promise that was hardly out of the realm of possibility.

Philip K. Dick's original short story, cumbersomely but smartly titled We Can Remember It For You Wholesale, was a brilliant distillation of Dick's favourite subjects of the illusion of reality, the fragility of identity and the tug of war that humanity finds itself in between complacency on the one hand and striving for something more on the other. It was also really, really short. A faithful adaptation of the story may perhaps, at a push, be long enough to fill an episode of The Twilight Zone, but it would need to be seriously fleshed out to work even as a short feature film.

The original Total Recall took Dick's premise and, without entirely losing what it's ultimately about, turned it into a hyperactive, utterly bonkers and endlessly entertaining futuristic action flick starring Ahnuld in his lank-headed but charismatic prime. It really is a terrifically fun bit of nutso nonsense but it had very little to do with We Can Remember It For You Wholesale.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

To Rome With Love

Woody Allen's latest is done no favours by coming out straight after his most successful film, Midnight In Paris but it's still way, way better than some of the reviews would have you believe.


To Rome with Love is one of Woody Allen's fluffiest films - but that certainly doesn't mean it's one of his worst. Throughout his career, Woody has balanced his more serious (if sometimes seriously funny) major works with lighter, more insubstantial offerings. Deciding which is which is something of a challenge, of course. We can all agree, surely, to classify Crimes and Misdemeanors and Annie Hall as major works and A Midnight Sex Comedy and Scoop as minor detours but where does that leave brilliant but frothy fare like The Purple Rose of Cairo, Midnight In Paris and, lets not forget, his early funny ones?

Put simply: some Woody Allen movies are good, some are less so but it has surprisingly little to do with how "important" or "major" said films are. Take Melinda and Melinda on one hand and Bananas on the other. The former reads as a "serious artistic statement", while the latter seems to be little more than a lark for its director, but I assume I don't have to say which of the two is better?

I mention all this, not just to show how many Woody films I've seen or, for that matter, how many the man has made, but to put To Rome With Love into perspective into the Great Man's long and varied career. Judge To Rome With Love by all means, but judge it for what it is, not for what it's not. Not only is To Rome With Love a light comedy, but it's a light comedy that sees its director kicking back and simply having a bit of fun with four different story ideas, making it his most unassuming film in years.

With this in mind, rather than To Rome With Love being a letdown after the frankly sublime Midnight In Paris, it can be seen for what it really is: top-drawer "lesser" Woody Allen. It's constantly funny, likable and effortlessly entertaining with a fantastic cast, a witty script and a sly irreverence that allows it to subtly tackle some interesting ideas on the side without hitting the audience over the head with them.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Ted

And the best talky, sweary teddy bear movie of the year goes to...

Also at Channel 24

What it's about

As a lonely young boy, John Bennet's (Mark Wahlberg) wish to have his teddy bear, Ted, come to life was magically granted and the two have been inseparable best friends ever since. Now, with John well into his thirties and in a long term relationship with Lori (Mila Kunis) he is finally faced with a life-changing decision: embrace adulthood and his life with Lori or continue his arrested adolescence partying and lounging about with Ted. What's a guy to do?

What we thought

Right off the bat, Ted has a premise that simply doesn't work. No, not the idea of a talking teddy bear: that is surprisingly easy to buy into. What really beggars belief though, is this certifiably insane idea that any straight male would rather spend their time with a teddy bear, talking or otherwise, than with Mila Kunis. As far as great moral dilemmas go, we're not exactly talking Sophie's Choice here and it certainly isn't something on which one would want to hang the plot of an entire film. And yet, here we are.

Backing up a step or two, Ted is the feature film debut of Seth MacFarlane, the creator of cult animated comedy series, Family Guy and American Dad. He directed it and co-wrote it and, if you know anything at all about his TV shows, you'll be able to guess where - aside for the whole Mila/ stuffed teddy bear débâcle, of course – the film's major fault lies.

Regardless of whether you find them funny, no one in their right mind would deny that storytelling is not exactly at the forefront of American Dad and Family Guy. Both shows use their meagre plots and characterization as little more than an excuse for MacFarlane to tell whatever pop-culture-related or political jokes he has on his mind in any particular week. Family Guy is essentially the ant-Seinfeld in that, while Seinfeld's humour came directly from the distinctly drawn characters and meticulous plotting, Family Guy's humour exists almost independently to the rest of the show.

Monday, August 20, 2012

The Expendables 2

First Step Up 4, now The Expendables 2: The guilty pleasures just keep on coming!

Also up at Channel 24.



What it's about

Mr Church enlists the expendables for what should be an easy pay day but when one of their own is murdered, an easy retrieval mission becomes a quest for vengeance deep within enemy territory.

What we thought

Without so much as taking a step towards reviewing this film, I feel oddly compelled to list my 80s/90s action movie credentials. As a thirty year old male, I was there for the hey day of the likes of Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jean Claude Van Damme and Sly Stallone and I spent my teenage years watching both their better work (Terminator 1 and 2, the Rambo films, Hard Target and, yes, Last Action Hero), as well as the veritable boatloads of truly awful straight to video g-movies that bore their names. I loved it all – the good, the bad, the ugly and the face-shreddingly horrific, it made little difference to me.

I like to think my tastes have improved immeasurably since then, but I will always have a soft spot for at least the memories of watching these dopey flicks with my friends and it probably explains why I like Jason Statham's ouvre as much as I do as well. Context, you see, is crucial when talking about a film like The Expendables 2.

Those who can't relate to my own background or those who look back at those years of enjoying truly trashy trash-cinema with nothing but embarrassment will despise every single minute of The Expendables 2. And rightly so. It's badly written and badly acted nonsense that is as loud as it is dumb, featuring the kind of unfettered machismo that is sure to have at least half the audience running for the nearest romantic comedy. On any kind of objective level, The Expendables 2 is pretty much awful from start to finish.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Step Up 4

Why yes, I am reviewing Step Up Revolution (or Step Up: Miami Heat, if you're from that part of the world)!


Much like pretty much every Jason Statham film ever released, I somehow find it impossible to truly take against a Step Up film, no matter how technically bad it may well be. And make no mistake, the latest in the series is very, very bad indeed. Bad script, wooden acting, unbelievably stupid story - check, check and check again. I don't even get the whole break-dance thing beyond a "gee how do they move their bodies like that?" level, so why oh why did I enjoy the blasted thing as much as I did?

I think what it comes down to is this: Step Up Revolution is a film that ends with a bunch of dancers fighting off the gentrification of their neighbourhood by doing what is effectively a really involved version of "the robot". Now, you'll either read that and think that that's the dumbest thing ever or you'll read it and think that is the dumbest thing ever - but it's so incredibly stupid that it's really kind of hilarious. If you fall in the former group (read: sane) then run as fast as possible away from the latest Step Up movie. If you're like me, however, and your sense of humour runs on the slightly demented side of things then you may well land up enjoying this unmistakable tripe in spite of yourself.

Since Step Up 4 is so very review-proof, I just have to mention what is absolutely, hands down my favourite part of this film. Now, you may well consider this to be a plot spoiler so you might want to look away, but honestly, if you're watching these films for their "plots", you and I will need to have a more serious discussion - the kind of discussion that involves a notepad, a leather couch and a not-modest amount of electro-shock therapy. Anyway, right at the end of the film, when the good guys stand victorious and the bad guys turn out to be not so bad and, most pertinently, the revolution against greedy consumerism has been fought and won, there comes a twist so jaw-droppingly ironic that it simply has to be intentional.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Safe vs Haywire

I'm reviewing these two together because a) they complement each other nicely and b) I can complete last week and make further headway into this week at the same time. Neat, huh?


Here are two action films that are oddly pretty perfectly encapsulated by their titles.

Safe is every bit as unchallenging and as straightforward as its title suggests. Jason Statham stars as Jason Statham and, though his particular "mission" in this film involves his protecting a gifted young girl with an aptitude for numbers from warring mobs, it's a film about the Stath beating the ever loving crap out of an endless torrent of bad guys and that's really about it. It does exactly what it says on the can and it does it it well enough with all the gruff charm that we have come to expect from today's best action star - though the Stath's status as reigning ass-kicking champ is about to be put to the test. By a girl, no less.

Which brings us to Haywire. The second, and as far as I'm concerned, superior Steven Soderbergh offering out now in South African cinemas is a very weird mix of arty quirkiness and full on ass-kicking mayhem and it is all but guaranteed to firmly divide audiences. It starts off looking like your typical indie drama with a woman sitting alone in a very ordinary looking cafe, doing nothing but waiting for a man. With its subdued cinema-vertite cinematography, bleached colour palette and attention to the mundane, this opening scene lulls the viewer into a false sense of calm before suddenly and violently bursting into one of the most visceral fight scenes I've seen onscreen in years. And the aptly titled Haywire does this often.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Chernobyl Diaries

Continuing with films released this past weekend is one that should be really thankful that That's My Boy came out on the same day to redefine how bad cinema can be.

Distributors chose a very interesting time to release Chernobyl Diaries. On the one hand, putting it head to head against Adam Sandler's latest cinematic atrocity, That's My Boy, can't help but make it look like Citizen Kane - or if the new BFI list of the greatest films ever released is to be believed, Vertigo. (By the way, apropos of nothing, I never agreed with rating Citizen Kane as the best film of all time, but I'm really confused as to how they would replace it with any Alfred Hitchcock film other than North by Northwest.) On the other hand, it's also coming out at a time when Cabin in the Woods and Woman In Black are (only just but) still in cinemas and, boy, does it suffer in comparison.

It actually has a pretty terrific premise in that a group of young people embark on a "danger tour" through the wastelands of what is left of post-nuclear Chernobyl but, while there, they find that they might not be alone. Cool premise, terrific setting, but the film goes on to do absolutely nothing with them.

It's not so much that Chernobyl Diaries is a truly terrible film, as much as it is terribly dull, as it squanders every last bit of promise that the bare-bones plot might have once contained. Sure, it does boil down to a group of young attractive people going off to some secluded spot to get brutally and horribly murdered, but so did Cabin In The Woods and look how far that managed to twist and pull at our expectations. Chernobyl Diaries plays out exactly as you expect it to, if way less excitingly than you might hope.

For a start, rather than ever building up any sense of menace or creepiness, Chernobyl Diaries constantly goes for the cheapest of cheap jump moments and, once the bad stuff starts to happen, it devolves into the kind of baseless hysteria that precludes any sort of dynamism within its horror storytelling. Or, to put it another way, how is a film ever going to sneak under you skin and scare you when it's this busy screaming at you? It also certainly doesn't help that the promisingly desolate cinematography is quickly replaced by shoddy, shaky camera work that makes it impossible to see what's going on and harder still to care. Though, to be fair, the non-existent characterization makes it tough enough to care in the first place.

And please, don't get me started at how rubbish the reveal is of who the "monsters" were all along.


  

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

I should have the rest of last week's films reviewed very shortly but for now here's my take on what is arguably this week's biggest release. 

Check the review out at Channel 24 as well.



What it's about

Abraham Lincoln may spend his days as president of the United States of America but his nights are devoted to an even stranger cause: hunting and destroying the vampires who lives among us. Thing becomes especially complicated once he uncovers a brewing threat from the slave-taking vampires of the American South and he soon finds himself heading his country into a war for its very soul.

What we thought

Another year, another fantastically titled film that fails spectacularly to live up to the promise of its name and its basic premise. We've already had the decidedly lackluster Cowboys vs Aliens and a trip to the bottom shelf of your local video store should reveal such recent gems as Mega Shark vs Giant Octopus and Zombie Strippers but, even I haven't seen many, if not most, of these low-rent odes to trash cinema, I would be very surprised if any of them are as crushingly disappointing as Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.

This isn't to say that Abe Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is a terribly made film. Wanted director Timur Bekmambetov knows how to shoot a terrific looking piece of cinema and, despite the lack of big-name stars, he has surrounded himself with a number of really rather good character actors – including the likes of Dominic Cooper, Rufus Sewell, Anthony Mackie, Scott Pilgrim's magnetic lead actress, Mary Elizabeth Winstead (why isn't she a bigger star yet?) and, as the titular prez himself, a very convincing Benjamin Walker. And really, take a look at that plot synopsis: when is the last time you came across a big-budget B-movie with so potentially interesting a plot?

Throw all these elements together and what we should have is a truly inventive, smart, incisive and cut-above-the-rest Hollywood blockbuster. What we get instead is a terribly misjudged dud that always keeps its promising premise alive just enough to constantly remind us just how badly it is betraying all of its good intentions.

Its problems are many fold, but the biggest hurdle that it smacks into head-first, time and time again, is one of tone. There is a way to mix the b-movie shlockiness of the film's title with heady ideas, humour, emotional resonance and enough metaphors to keep an English lit. class busy for quite some time. Joss Whedon all but wrote the book on this with Buffy The Vampire Slayer (the TV show, of course, not the movie) and I couldn't help but wish all the way through Abe Lincoln that someone had sat Bekmambetov down to watch all seven seasons of Buffy in the hope that some of that show's smarts, irreverence and humanity would rub off on him.

As it is, what we have here is a film that takes itself too seriously to be campy fun, is too humourless to work as effective satire, too silly to be taken seriously and too coolly artificial to ever resonate. Admittedly, it doesn't help that the wonderful comic book series, American Vampire is currently being published, as that tackles similar-ish subject matter far, far more effectively and with a far greater understanding of tonal consistency than Abe does in even its best moments. Still, regardless of how familiar you are with similar material, I can't imagine anyone but the most undemanding of action-junkies walking away from the film truly satisfied.

Most defenders of the film will, however, undoubtedly point towards its very definite visual style and high-octane action scenes as being worth the price of admission alone – and admittedly, they would have a point. Say what you want about his storytelling abilities, Bekmambetov does have plenty of visual style and his action scenes do always look cool. It's just a pity that “cool” as it looks, the film is so thoroughly uncaptivating on even the most superficial of surface levels.

Bekmambetov loves his CGI. He loves it so much that he clearly doesn't give a second thought to the fact that it renders the entire look of the film entirely artificial, which means that there is no peril, physicality or sense of danger in any of the film's many action scenes and that the vampires look less like walking, undead nightmares and more like nicely rendered video game baddies. CG is great as a complement to physical effects, imaginative costume design and creepy prosthetics but, like the otherwise enjoyable Fright Night remake, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is pretty definitive proof that reliance on nothing but CGI leaves your film looking like nothing more than an unplayable video game.

It's not often that I wish for remakes of films but someone in Hollywood – preferably, and I know this is a long shot, someone with an eye for storytelling talent – really needs to greenlight a remake of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter as soon as humanly possible. A premise this brilliant simply demands to be done properly and it would be a shameful waste if it never gets to be the epochal genre film that is so righteously deserves to be. Until that happens though, feel free to give the endlessly frustrating Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter a miss.


Monday, August 6, 2012

Brave

OK, onto this week's films.


With the critical failure of Cars 2 under their belts, the mostly unimpeachable Pixar have decided to strike out in a fairly different direction before once again returning to more familiar ground with Monsters University. Brave is a departure for Pixar, not only because it's one of their few films to primarily be built around "regular" human beings, but because it is, at its core, a fairly straightforward fairy tale.

Around half of Pixar's films are based on high concepts that have resulted in the brilliance of Toy Story (what if your toys were really alive when you aren't looking?), the charm of Monsters Inc (those monsters under your bed? they're real but you're just a job to them) and the unfortunate misfire of Cars (imagine a world populated by sentient cars and, er, that's it) and the other half usually put a bit of a spin on their subject matter, as best personified by the superhero family drama of The Incredibles. Those expecting these kinds of twists in Brave will undoubtedly walk away disappointed - and that's if they don't try and see genre bending when there really isn't any.

The film's story reads like it comes directly from an old storybook: Merida, a young princess who has been raised by her mother to be nothing more than the next queen of the realm, tries to rebel against her situation by messing with the kind of volatile magic that virtually comes with a warning label to "be careful what you wish for". What follows is a tale that is about as traditional as Pixar gets: there's a hero's quest, magic sprites, an old witch and a moral about the importance of communication to tie it all up. There's not even anything particularly new about the idea of the hero being a girl who would rather be an independent, fully formed human being than a demure wife, forced to live up to some pre-prescribed gender roles. Post-Buffy, Ripley and Katniss Everdeen, there's nothing at all new about ass-kicking feminist role-models.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

That's My Boy

GAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!


This review can also be found at Channel 24.



What it's about

After getting his teacher pregnant at the age of 13, Donny (Adam Sandler) is left to raise their son, Todd (Andy Samberg) alone. Needless to say, he does a terrible job of it and the two drift apart, but mere days before Todd is due to get married, Donny comes crashing into his life in a desperate attempt to get some money to repay his building debt.

What we thought

A few, short months ago, Adam Sandler released a film that looked to be the absolute nadir of an endlessly long “comedy” career that was really never all that great to begin with. Jack and Jill was an absolute, unmitigated disaster that, at its lowest of low points, found Sandler dressed in drag as his own sister, being hit on by Al Pacino. Dressed up as a “comedy” film, Jack and Jill was a truly hateful, steaming pile of faeces whose only redeeming feature was that it surely meant that Sandler had nowhere to go from there but up.

Sadly, that one ray of hope in what was otherwise 90-odd minutes of bleak, inescapable darkness has proven to be a bit premature. Sandler may have hit rock bottom, but he has a shovel and he is not afraid to use it. It may seem inconceivable, but there are apparently even lower levels of hell than the one which spawned Jack and Jill - and Adam Sandler seems intent in mining these levels for all they're worth. Don't let its deceptively innocuous title fool you, That's My Boy is pretty much pure, unadulterated Evil. And no, I'm not kidding.