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Thursday, November 29, 2012

Skyfall

Is this the best Bond ever? Well....


With South Africa being seemingly one of the last places on earth to get Skyfall, we aren't just getting a film, as much as we're getting a Major Movie Event that has been hyped up, not only by a pretty damn aggressive  marketing campaign, but by some presumably hyperbolic praise by both critics and fans alike. The film may have a few lone dissenters - all of whom, incidentally, seem to really, really hate the film - but Skyfall has largely been met with a rather singular refrain, "The Best Bond Ever!"

At this point then, assuming that I don't join in with the hateful minority, the question is less whether it's a good Bond movie, but whether it truly is the absolute best of the best of this now 50 year-old franchise. To be entirely honest though, it's an impossible question to answer. The various eras of James Bond all had very different flavours: how do you really compare the grit of Casino Royale with the Voodoo-drenched lunacy of Live and Let Die or the archness of Goldfinger?

Whether or not Skyfall is the "best Bond" really does depend on what you're looking for from a Bond film. Skyfall certainly isn't the campiest, the most action-packed, the most well-traveled or the most fantastical film of the franchise and may well prove to be a disappointment to anyone looking for a Bond film steeped in those well-worn traditions. On a personal level too, as someone who does have a massive soft spot for the sillier aspects of the series, it would probably be a stretch to call Skyfall my all-time favourite Bond flick.

What I can say, though, is this: Skyfall is undoubtedly, on as objective a level as you can get when discussing any artform, the most accomplished and the most dramatic James Bond film to date.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn - Part 2

I wanted to say something nice about this, I really did...


By this point, you probably know what you think about the whole Twilight phenomenon. And chances are you fall on one of three extremes. You either think a) Twilight is the best thing evah! b) Twilight is the the worst thing evah! or, after emerging from the cave you've been hiding out in for the past decade, c) What the hell is Twilight? There really doesn't seem to be much room for a considered middle ground on the matter.

And yet, here I am, doing my best to maintain at least the illusion of level-headedness. To be honest though, this final installment has me holding on for dear life as waves of sheer, unbridled hatred threaten to engulf me. I've never even remotely liked any of the Twilight films, but I never really thought they deserved the foaming-at-the-mouth vitriol with which they seem to be received by most "serious" film fans. Sure, they're kind of rubbish, but they clearly have enough going for them that they do work, and work well, for certain audiences. Besides, they're at least usually quite nicely shot and are put together with enough efficiency that they're never that much of a chore to sit through.

This, however, all changed with Breaking Dawn: Part 2. Not that this final installment is objectively all that much worse than its predecessors or that it's genuinely that terrible, it's just that it's about as big a failure a conclusion as it could possibly hope to be. It's the sort of inept ending that not only doesn't work as a satisfying conclusion, but is one that will leave you wondering what on earth the whole bloody enterprise was about in the first place.

Monday, November 12, 2012

What does sex have to do with it: Hope Springs vs Hysteria

Here we have two sex comedies that couldn't be less typical of this occasionally funny yet largely embarrassing sub-genre. Hope Springs came out a couple of weeks ago, but it makes sense to review it along with this week's Hysteria as a single piece. On with the show then...


When one thinks of sex comedies, presumably the last place your mind would go would be to either a film about an (older) middle-aged couple trying to reintroduce some sparks into their marriage or a film about the invention of the vibrator in 19th century England. And yet, here we have two films that are keen to make their mark on a genre that is known for having its fair share of gratuitous nudity, highly sexualised profanity and typically young, attractive people doing all sorts of unspeakable things to one another, by not including any of the above.

The former is Hope Springs, a low-key comedy drama that stars Tommy Lee Jones and Meryl Streep as a middle aged couple who go, at her insistence and his constant protests, to a couple's therapist (played entirely straight, but very sympathetically by Steve Carell) to try and inject some life back into a marriage that has the two barely communicating and just about never sleeping in the same bed together. The key to Carell's character's therapy lies in forced physical intimacy between the two - from simply holding one another; all the way to going all the way - which results in plenty of discomfort for the couple, but so much more for the viewers who are constantly torn between embarrassment at viewing so private a relationship and laughing at the way it all plays out.   

It's an intimate film that never hurries its pace and isn't afraid to fall into some unabashed sentiment when the situation calls for it and is even less afraid to make its audience feel as uncomfortable as it is possible to be without the screen presence of Ricky Gervais. Squirms and laughs are offered in abundance, but it has, at its core, a very warm heart that ensures that you'll be crushed at the very thought that this couple might not make it through the film intact.

With its brilliantly witty script and truly sensational performances - Carell is as humane and likable as ever; Streep reigns it in for one of her best, most vulnerable low-key performances in a while and Jones simply offers what may well be the best physical performance of the year so far - Hope Springs is a very good little film that offers plenty of heart - and nausea - with its sex. Just don't go see it with your parents - or for that matter, your kids.


Friday, November 9, 2012

Paranorman

And the award for this year's best animated film (so far) goes to...

Also at Channel 24 


What it's about

Everyone knows that Norman Babcock is a bit of a weirdo. Instead of having any friends his own age, he spends his time imagining that he can see and talk to the ghosts. But Norman is no weirdo: he really can see ghosts and its not long before Norman has to use his very unique gifts to save his town from a very old and very malevolent witchy threat.

What we thought

This spring apparently really is the season of the witch as we've had our cinemas invaded by no less than three ghoulish animated films for kids, one right after the other. First we had the rather weak Hotel Transylvania that was noteworthy only for some nice animation and for the fact that it was still a thousand times better than anything Adam Sandler has done in more years than any of us would dare admit.

Much better was Frankenweenie, Tim Burton's stop-motion ode to classic monster flicks that may not have dominated Hotel Transylvania at the box office, but certainly should have. It was ultimately somewhat unsatisfying in terms of its storytelling and is far from Burton's best, but it had imagination, wit and intelligence to spare.

Completing the triumvirate and blowing the other two films out of the water, though, comes ParaNorman, which is not only the best animated film of the year so far, but may well be the best monster-themed animated flick to come along since the criminally underrated Monster House. Most tellingly, not only does ParaNorman take on Tim Burton at his own game, but it beats him at every single turn.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

The Campaign

It must be election time...


Being timely isn't the same as being funny as far as political parody goes, but it's still surprising how flaccid The Campaign turned out to be.

It's true Zach Galifianakis and Will Ferrell are both decidedly variable comedic talents, but they have both been very funny in the past and, considering the nature of the material at hand, there was no real reason for them not to be funny here. Further, director Jay Roach is as comfortable with scathing political criticism (Game Change, Recount) as he is with broad comedy (Meet the Parents, Austin Powers) but, on the evidence of this, he clearly needs a screenwriter like Danny Strong to bring the best out of him. They may have TV's Eastbound and Down and The Other Guys to their names but it's pretty clear that good political satire is beyond the reach of screenwriters Chris Henchy and Shawn Harwell.

It's not that The Campaign is a truly torturous watch or that it is entirely lacking in chuckles, it's just that a single episode of The Daily Show with John Stewart or The Colbert Report has more, better, smarter and edgier laughs in their twenty minutes than The Campaign has in all of its ninety-minute run time. The writers of these shows are also able to achieve this four nights a week, almost every week of the year.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Cloud Atlas

Cloud. Atlas. Even its title is epic.

Also up at Channel 24 in slightly abbreviated form.


What it's about

From a 19th century voyage across the Pacific to a fight for survival in the post-apocalyptic earth of the future, the six stories that are inter-cut throughout Cloud Atlas are connected by a recurrent musical theme and a sense that there may be more to human existence than that which exists between the womb and the grave.

What we thought

Whatever you might say about the film, you can't help but admire the sheer chutzpah involved in trying to bring so ambitious and so audacious a project as Cloud Atlas to mainstream multiplexes. Even at its most simplistic, Cloud Atlas is a film that, through six divergent stories of entirely different genres, tries its hand at tying these divergent threads together to create a thematic whole that deals with the karma, the cyclical nature of human existence and redemption through the reincarnation (be it literal of figurative) of the human soul. And yet, for all of this, it still plays out as a late entry into this year's summer blockbuster season.

Terence Malick's Tree of Life and Darren Aronofsky's The Fountain may have tackled similar themes, but those film were aimed squarely at art-house cinemas and film festivals. Cloud Atlas is no less ambitious and, it has to be said, no less ponderous, portentous and pretentious than those films, nor was its financing any less reliant on “independent” sources, but by keeping its eyes firmly planted on crowd-pleasing entertainment, it has ended up a far more accessible and far more enjoyable experience than either of those immensely challenging films could ever hope to be.

If nothing else then, Cloud Atlas is entirely worth the price of admission just to witness this fairly breathtaking balancing act of “highbrow” philosophical musings with “base” populist entertainment. Co-writers/ directors, The Wachowskis have tried this trick before with their popular Matrix series, but, even if Cloud Atlas isn't as good a film as the original Matrix – though, needless to say, it's incalculably superior to the disastrous Matrix sequels – it's certainly more balanced over all.

Frankenweenie

Before you flame me for being too harsh about this film, I strongly suggest checking out Paranorman, which comes out next week and did a very similar thing, far better. I just happened to see both on the same day and Frankenweenie was done no favours by being screened second.

Also up at Channel 24.



What it's about

When young Victor Frankenstein's dog, Snowy, dies, he uses what he learned in science class to bring the dog back to life. But how will the close-minded members of his small town react to this flagrant defiance of the laws of nature? Worse, what happens when his less pure-hearted classmates try and use the results for their own selfish reasons?

What we thought

Based on his own short film from the early '80s, Frankenweenie is clearly a film near and dear to the heart of its creator, Tim Burton, and, if nothing else, it certainly comes across as a more personal work than the remake-heavy trajectory of his last few films. That doesn't necessarily mean that it's an entire return to the wonderful highs of Burton in his prime, but it is certainly a step in the right direction.

Mind you, it's hardly fair to say that Frankenweenie is an entirely original idea, as it is basically a riff on Mary Shelly's Frankenstein, but it plays out less as a remake – or “reimagining” as Burton sometimes likes to call his remakes – and more an homage to the monster story that started it all.

It also clearly owes a debt to many of Burton's own previous work as the spindly, gothic character designs are very much in line with those found in Corpse Bride and the Burton-produced Nightmare Before Christmas. In terms of both its monochromatic colour pallet and its affection for old black and white monster movies, it shares common DNA with Burton's best film, Ed Wood. As for its rather “weird” but basically good-hearted and likeable outcast heroes and its “normal” but fundamentally rotten in-crowd baddies, Frankenweenie is like every other film Burton has ever made.