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Saturday, September 29, 2012

Dredd 3D

I know, I know, things have been very slow lately. The good news is that I should soon have a roundup of the rest of September's films but, for now, my take on this year's most surprising comic book film.

Also at Channel 24

What it's about

In the future, the only thing that stands between Mega City One, a decaying, ultra-violent metropolis, and total chaos are the Judges – a select group of law enforcement agents who are given the power to act as judge, jury and executioner. The ruthless, uncompromising Judge Dredd is the city's most feared and revered Judge, but when Dredd and Judge Anderson, a rookie judge he is in the process of field testing, go after a particularly malicious drug dealer/ crime boss, the hunters soon become the pray as they finds themselves trapped in a locked-down city block with a price on their heads and scores of cut-throat criminals on their tails.

What we thought

In a year when you have The Avengers, Batman and Spider-man dominating this year's box office, it would be all to easy to overlook this far smaller, far more unassuming comic book movie. Judge Dredd is about as big as British comic book characters go, but even then, we're hardly talking Batman or Spider-man levels of international recognition here. Worse, those who are familiar with Dredd already have to find some way to get past the awful 1990s Stallone adaptation that not only had Dredd committing the cardinal sin of removing his helmet, but made use of the terminally unfunny Rob Schneider as “comic” relief. Plus, to be brutally honest, the trailer did nothing to suggest that Dredd 3D, with its over-use of slow motion and macho violence, would be that much of an improvement on its daft predecessor.

It's probably damning the film with faint praise then, to say that Dredd 3D is a very pleasant surprise, but it really is precisely that. Rather than taking on the DC and Marvel blockbusters head-on, Dredd comes in as a grimy and gritty alternative to the epic optimism that characterizes all, or at least the best, superhero films. It's a low-budget South African/ British co-production that was largely shot in Cape Town and Johannesburg (future America is apparently overrun by minibus taxis) with only three moderately successful stars at the centre of it.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The Bourne Legacy

Another franchise film, another chance to piss off legion of franchise fans. Oh, how I love my job!

Also up now at Channel 24

What it's about

Aaron Cross (Jeremy Renner) is a deep-undercover agent who, as a result of the actions of Jason Bourne in the previous three films, suddenly finds himself the target of the very agency he once served.

What we thought

Bourne Legacy – or, as it may just as easily be called, Bourne Free, Bourne Without or Seriously Where the Hell is Bourne – is one of the weirdest franchise films ever released cinematically. We've had plenty of spin-offs before (Elektra, The Chronicles of Riddick) but they tend to, well, spin off in their own directions and have little to do with forwarding the plot of the originals. We've even seen spin-offs that have just about nothing to do at all with their originating films (the excruciating America Pie: Presents series) and tend to go straight to DVD or video.

What we have with Bourne Legacy is a franchise film that is simultaneously a follow-up, a spin-off and a holding pattern that seems designed purely to keep the franchise within the public consciousness until they can get Matt Damon to return to the role of Jason Bourne himself. The result is a film that seems designed to appeal to no one at all.

Bourne fans will need to check out Bourne Legacy for its almost entirely disconnected sub-plots that are specifically included to inch the overall Bourne story forward a few relatively vital inches. Sadly, while they're grasping at these few bits of new information, they will also have to deal with a whole a-plot that is at best background detail, at worst a very pale rip-off of the original trilogy.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Resident Evil: Retribution

Bring on the hate mail!

Also up at Channel 24

What it's about:

In the fifth movie in the Resident Evil franchise we find our heroine Alice (Milla Jovovich) awakening as a prisoner in the midst of a top secret compound belonging to the Umbrella Corporation - whose bio-weapons caused the zombie plague that has all but eradicated humanity. After being helped by members of a resistance movement, Alice sets out to free herself from this compound as she learns more about her past and the intentions of the Umbrella Corporation.

What we thought:

Aside for small snippets, I haven't seen aResident Evil film since the first film. I have to get that disclaimer out of the way out of fairness to the series' fans but, to be honest, it doesn't really matter. While we're on the subject, I may be a casual game player – as opposed to a hardcore gamer – but I've never played any of the Resident Evil games. Again, I mention this simply so that fans understand that it won't affect the review itself because a) I hear the game is really good and besides this is a review of this film, not the games it is based on and b) I know enough about games in general to talk about video gaming in a general sense.

As you may have guessed, I mention all this because I would be very, very surprised if my review of this fifth instalment doesn't very seriously piss off fans of the Resident Evil series of films and games. Sorry Evil Residents (that is what you call yourselves, right? How could it not be?) but I don't care – Resident Evil: Retribution is just that jaw-droppingly bad. 

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Katy Perry: Part of Me

You bet your ass I'm reviewing the Katie Perry movie.

Last year, we were treated to a 3D documentary about Justin Bieber that ended up being far more enjoyable than its subject would ever dare to suggest. Now, the teen-driven pop world is trying its hand at much the same thing again, but this time with a pop starlet that, though her music is only marginally better, promises to up the fun ante quite a bit. And I say this not only as a hot-blooded, straight male but as someone who likes their disposable pop music with personality and a bit of a campy edge.

The things that are wrong with Katy Perry: Part of Me are so obvious that they barely deserve mentioning but, as you may have guessed, it is a film that is, at its heart, a fairly crass vanity project that is more a shameless bit of self-promotion and self celebration, decidedly less a biting documentary. Musically too, the results are not that surprising but, I for one, still find I Kissed a Girl to be a solidly catchy and fun pop song that is better than most of the totally un-catchy and un-fun dreck one normally finds on pop radio. Also, if her performances here are any indication, I'm not quite sure how she earned the unfortunate reputation of being a truly awful live singer. She's not going to go down as one of the greatest singers of all time, but I've heard far worse.

Now, if it seems I'm being overly defensive of Katy Perry, that should simply be taken as a testament to how well she comes across in the film - which is all the more impressive considering what the directors (reality TV veterans, Dan Cutforth and Jane Lipsitz) had to work with. Her story is, to say the least, not a particularly interesting one. Her journey to pop stardom isn't massively different from any other pop music success story and even her struggle between a rigidly Christian upbringing and her current status as a secular music icon and sex symbol comes across as one that's fairly easily resolved. Jerry Lee Lewis she ain't.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

The Watch

Starting off the 59 films released last week, we have a crushingly disappointing science fiction comedy. I know. What are the odds?

Science fiction comedies are clearly hard to do. For every Men in Black, we seem to have a hundred Men in Black 2s. Sadly, The Watch is far, far closer to the latter than the former. All four of the gentlemen in the poster to the left have been funny at various times in their careers, but you wouldn't think so based on the evidence on display here.

The premise of The Watch is, like so many high concept misfires, really rather promising: a group of dopey guys form a neighbourhood watch to protect their neighbourhood from petty crimes but soon find themselves protecting the world itself from an alien invasion. Nothing spectacular, but plenty of potential. It's a pity then that no one let the filmmakers know that you actually have to do something with a promising premise, you can't just let it lie there.

"Lie there" is unfortunately the operative phrase here. The Watch is, more than anything else, simply one of the laziest films released this year. The plot is under-developed to the point that it would be charitable to so much as call it a "story" and the characters are less fully developed characters, more one-note caricatures of its actors' better roles. And, holy hell, is it hopelessly and disastrously unfunny.

Monday, September 10, 2012

This Must Be the Place

Late again! Sorry about that but this time I have something of an excuse: my laptop was stolen! Anyhoo, we should be back in the swing of things soon, starting with this late review of a really cool and very weird little comedy drama.

Despite Sean Penn's appearance on the poster and, for that matter, in the film itself, This Must Be the Place is based on a song, not by The Cure, but by The Taking Heads. And, it should be said, it's pretty easily my favourite Talking Heads song, which is jut as well because This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody) appears something like a dozen times throughout the film in various forms and cover versions. It even shows up in a full live performance by David Byrne himself that would perhaps have been self-indulgent, if its pay off wasn't so perfect.

I am, however, getting a head of myself. This Must Be the Place tells the story of Cheyenne, a burned out former rock star from that very particular miserabilist post-punk music scene, who embarks on a cross-Atlantic-then-cross-country pilgrimage to find the Nazi war criminal who tormented his estranged and recently deceased father during his time in a Nazi concentration camp.

It's an endlessly quirky and self-consciously off-beat story that is anchored by a very simple road-trip/ quest structure. Its episodic structure keeps the film from ever coming close to vanishing up its own arse, while its oddball, deadpan sense of humour and magnetically enigmatic lead stop it from ever becoming rote or predictable. It's interesting that the film shares its name with the working title of Sam Mendes' superb and crushingly underrated Away We Go, as the two easily rank as two of the best road-trip films of recent memory.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Searching for Sugar Man

It's great to see a music documentary in local cinemas and it's especially great when the documentary in question is this wonderful.

Also available at Channel 24

What it's about

A documentary about a couple of South African fans who set off on a transatlantic journey to discover what happened to their musical hero, Rodriguez, a 1970s American singer/ songwriter who, though completely unknown in his native country, was a tremendous success in South Africa.

What we thought

There's nothing particularly new about a great, “lost” 1970s musical artiste being discovered years after the fact, usually earning such hyperbolic praise as “better than Dylan!” or “The Beatles of the '70s!” along the way. Nick Drake, Big Star, Townes Van Zandt, Badfinger: the list goes on and on. Singer/ songwriter, Rodriguez, could so easily fit into into that category, if it weren't for one small fact: Rodriguez was HUGE in the 1970s and he was in many ways more popular than even such monolithic counter-cultural icons as Bob Dylan and The Rolling Stones.

It's just a pity then that “Rodriguezmania” was localized to a country that was not only thousands of miles away from Rodriguez's native homeland but was one that was rightly shunned, even sanctioned off, by the rest of Western civilization – a country so hopelessly backward that it took a quarter of a century more than the rest of the world for its citizens to gain access to so rudimentary a technology as television. The place, of course, was South Africa at at time when Apartheid's gruesome stranglehold on its people was at its crushing zenith.

Seeking a Friend for the End of the World

Oops, almost overlooked this one.

You know how in Michael Bay's Armageddon a bunch of astronauts embark on a mission to destroy an asteroid that's hurtling towards the earth? Well, Seeking a Friend for the End of the World is about what happens when those astronauts fail in their mission and the entire earth is given just three weeks before all life on the planet comes to an end.

Rather than going for the epic melodrama of Armageddon or Deep Impact, Seeking a Friend plays out as an unassuming, indie comedy-drama that centres around two fairly ordinary people - a sullen middle-aged man wondering where his life went (Steve Carrell) and a 20-something hipster (Keira Knightley) who just wants to get back to her family in England after spending far too much time in an unhealthy relationship. The two strike up a friendship as she promises to help him find a lost love, while he promises to get her to a private plane to get her back to her family and her homeland. As expected, this friendship develops into something more along the way.

Admittedly, Lars Von Trier's excellent but grueling Melancholia already tackled the end of the world through quiet, introspective character-drama but, considering how unashamedly allegorical that film was, Seeking a Friend still seems like a surprisingly fresh take on the subject. It may be a Cinema Nouveau movie but Seeking a Friend falls much more on the "indie" side of things than on the "artier" end of the spectrum where Melancholia clearly reigns supreme.