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Monday, December 30, 2013

Emperor

And now for part two of the dullest Japanese/ American double bill to come along in a very long time...

This review is also up at Channel 24


What it's about

Following the Japanese surrender at the end of World War II, General Douglas MacArthur (Tommy Lee Jones), the Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces, is tasked with investigating the Japanese Emperor Hirohito's part in the war. To do so he enlists the aid of General Bonner Fellers (Matthew Fox), the foremost expert on Japanese culture but along with holding the fate of the revered Emperor in his hands, he has another mission in Japan that is far more personal.

What we thought

You wait all year for a Japanese-based American film to come along when suddenly two come along at once. Along with the decidedly more populist 47 Ronin (which is in crappy 3D and everything!), we have Emperor, a film destined for the art circuit, but one that frankly doesn't even deserve even the limited cinematic release it is receiving. Especially when so many more interesting art films go straight to DVD (if even that) in this country.

Emperor isn't a terrible film by any means as it is carried through by both a lively performance from the always great Tommy Lee Jones and a story that is fundamentally interesting to anyone with even the vaguest interest in 20th century history, but it is a movie sorely lacking in any sense of the cinematic and is one that is desperately in need of a shot of life in its cold, procedural veins.

Films about World War II are a dime a dozen so films that deal with the aftermath of the war are always a fascinating alternative. While it would be interesting to see more from a German perspective, especially as Germany transformed itself from the horrors of Nazism to a particularly powerful form of liberal progressiveness in less than two decades, there is unquestionably plenty of gold to mine from the story of post-war Japan.

47 Ronin

I have some good films (as well as a best of the year roundup) to talk about soon but first...

This review is also up at Channel 24 


 What it's about

Based on the old Japanese legend, a small band of outlawed Samurai seek revenge against the vicious shogun who killed their master and stole his kingdom away from him.

What we thought

You wait all year for a Japanese-based American film to come along when suddenly two come along at once. While Emperor lulls its audience to sleep over at the art circuit, 47 Ronin takes an ancient Japanese legend and smacks its own audience over the head with it hard enough for the overall effect to be much the same.

47 Ronin has none of Emperor's good intentions or historic interest, but it is also a look at a culture with which most Western audiences would only be, at best, vaguely acquainted and one that presumably is wildly different from the one in which most modern day Japanese live. As such, the fascinatingly alien nature of a culture where mythological creatures are taken for granted and honour is the highest currency in the land is easily the strongest selling point of the film, as are some wonderful set designs and brilliantly colourful costumes.

In terms of the story itself, it's easy to see why so primal a legend has lived on through the ages but with the enduring nature of the story comes the fact that it has been told countless different times in Japan and has some very obvious David and Goliath counterparts in Western culture as well, it needs to really set itself apart from the pack. Unfortunately, though I was entirely ignorant of the 47 Ronin legend until after seeing this film and I haven't seen any of the other adaptations of the story, the film still felt like it spent most of its time failing to live up to a classic story.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Last Vegas

The Hangover for geriatrics? Not so fast...

This review is also up at Channel 24

What it's about


Four old, lifelong friends head off to Vegas to throw a bachelor party for their perennially single member who has finally decided to settle down with a woman half his age - with blowout parties, late-mid-life crises and friendship-straining conflicts following along in their wake.

What we thought

Last Vegas may seem on the surface to be another retread of The Hangover, only this time with an older cast and more Viagra jokes but, pleasingly, it's something quite different. Las Vegas is featured, of course, and so are a quartet of old friends and, yup, Viagra jokes but rather than trying to copy the success of a series that was well past its sell-by date the minute its first film ended, Last Vegas is an intimate and character-driven slice of gentle comedy about love, friendship and growing older.

It's also, however, not something that is going to go down as any sort of serious masterpiece as it is more pleasantly entertaining than anything even remotely truly special and even if it isn't afraid to tackle some big themes, it does so with both a fair amount of predictability and enough caution to make sure that it never diverts attention from the geniality of its comedy. It's a film, in other words that is no where near as crass or as dumb as you may fear but, for what is effectively a movie about existential angst, it's surprisingly resolute in its mission of never being more than pleasantly but forgettably enjoyable.

Still, though there is little remarkable about the film, it deserves full credit for basically doing exactly what it set out to do and though it may be a slight pity that it does little to stand out from the crowd in a good way, at least enough effort was put into the film to ensure that nothing stands out in a bad way either. Apparently, sometimes keeping your sights low and your ambitions humble can actually pay off.

The Counselor (sic)

So much talent, so much talent...

This review is also up at Channel 24

What it's about


The man known only as The Counselor (or, The Counsellor for those of us in countries who actually know how to spell) is already a respected and wildly successful lawyer but when he tries to make some extra cash on a seemingly simple drug trafficking deal, he soon finds himself in far deeper waters than he ever could have imagined.

What we thought

How's this for a recipe for an instantly guaranteed cinematic masterpiece: Take one of the world's most revered and beloved veteran filmmakers and get him to adapt the first all-original screen play by one of modern literature's most acclaimed authors, into a brutal but lyrical crime-drama populated with a sizzling hot and talented ensemble cast. This is pure cinematic alchemy that should, by all rights, result in a film that is destined to go down as one of the early 21st century's most spectacular masterpieces.

Well, here's the thing about alchemy, cinematic or otherwise – it's a bit of a tricky business that can go horribly, horribly wrong from even the tiniest, most seemingly insignificant of mistakes. The Counselor is comprised of nothing but solid-gold elements but somewhere in the mixing of said elements something went horribly, horribly wrong as instead of producing a 50 carat gem, we are instead left with a lone piece of stone-cold coal. The Counselor should have been a masterpiece, instead it's simply one of the year's most obnoxious, pretentious, pompous and flat out worst films.

Friday, December 13, 2013

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

Yeah... I'm going to get it for this one.

This review is also up at Channel 24 where I get a quick reminder that if you're going to trash a beloved fantasy series, you really should get your spelling write. 

Sorry, I couldn't resist.


What it's about

Bilbo Baggins, Gandalf the Grey and their group of dwarves continue on their way to reclaim their homeland, Erebor, from the dragon Smaug.

What we thought

With a 9.0 user rating on the Internet Movie Database (impressive since the film hasn't actually opened to the public anywhere) and a solid enough 72 Metacritic rating, you would be forgiven for thinking that The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is one of the season's must-see movies. Well, you would be, from where I'm standing anyway, wrong. Really, really wrong.

Peter Jackson continues to be an exceptional filmmaker and The Hobbit Part Deux is as well put together as you can imagine with some nicely choreographed action scenes (it's always nice to be able to see what's going on in these moments) and plenty of striking visuals. All this is basically for naught though, because if ever there was solid, concrete proof that splitting the decidedly brief Tolkien novel into three long film was a colossally stupid idea then The Desolation of Smaug is definitely it.

The already very thin plot is stretched to breaking point here as each well done but overly long set piece crashes into the next to deadening and deafening effect, while any sense of real storytelling takes a distant back seat. That each set piece seems weirdly lacking in any sense of threat or menace is almost arbitrary in light of how much all of it desperately reeks of filler as our merry band of heroes effectively do little more than move from point A to not quite point B - point B presumably being, incidentally, the super duper long battle that will take up the vast majority of the Hobbit's third instalment.

The film's champions try to defend the film's narrative lightness by seeing it as a thrilling rollercoaster ride. That would be fine, of course, if it weren't for the fact that I can't imagine anyone wanting to be on the same rollercoaster for the better part of three hours. Sure, it could have been a decent enough “thrill ride” had it clocked in at 80-odd minutes, but as it is, it's simply monotonous and more than a little bit boring. And yes, there's way less endless walking here than there was in the Lord of the Rings trilogy but there's a lot less plot and characterization as well.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Ender's Game

While Mud is pretty easily the film of the week, Ender's Game is definitely worth checking out as well if you're a sci-fi fan. As for the rest of the films released this past Friday, they are either not worth talking about or I haven't seen. I will say this this though, the awful animated flick Free Birds is a strong contender for worst animated film in one of the worst years for mainstream animation in living memory. 


Much of the attention that Ender's Game has received has focused on the heavily bigoted, homophobic actions and beliefs of its source novel's author, Orson Scott Card - who is also listed as one of the film's many producers. And, to be fair, it's hard to blame people for refusing to support a film that will financially benefit Card and presumably his crusade against gay rights as well. The creators and actors involved in the film have publicly distanced themselves from Card and his views but for some people that's clearly not enough and that's obviously up to each individual viewer.

What is interesting about both the novel (which I have actually read - albeit quite a long time ago) and the film though, is that Ender's Game is not only a story that doesn't propound such radically conservative viewpoints, but is one that specifically demonizes the oppression of one group by another. It tells the story of Ender Wiggins, a young soldier, who is trained and manipulated to lead a force against an alien race, but is primarily about human deceitfulness, xenophobia and the ruthless brainwashing of a civilization's youngest member. This is hardly the stuff of the political and religious extreme far-right.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Mud

The McConeissance continues...

This review is also up at Channel 24


What it's about


Two young boys, living on the banks of a river in Arkansas, meet and befriend a mysterious fugitive who has taken up residence on a nearby island and promise to help him escape the bounty hunters who are after him and to reunite him with his lost love.

What we thought

Finally, after having been pushed back and then pushed back again, Mud has finally arrived on our shores (insert own pun here) and it's more than worth the wait. It's even worth the fact that they had the press screening of the film something like three or four months ago so I had to head over to Google to get a refresher course on the specifics of the plot.

Continuing both Matthew McConaughey's career-revitalizing “McConeissance” and the recent trend of excellent coming-of-age films, Mud is far more deserving of your time than its pun-tastic but otherwise completely non-descriptive title would suggest. This is yet another wonderful, unassuming little gem for anyone who has the good taste to be won over by the likes of Stand By Me and The Perks of Being a Wallflower.

Stand By Me, in particular, is an especially excellent touchstone for what to expect with Mud. Like Rob Reiner's 1980s classic, Mud is a story of young boys, on the brink of adolescence, who embark on a relatively dangerous, crime-based adventure to assert their independence. It even has a similarly rustic backdrop. There's a bit more adult involvement this time as one of the boys strikes up a friendship with the titular Mud and the crime element is a bit more pronounced (culminating in a perhaps ill-advised shoot up) but it's very much in the same line of storytelling and if you like Stand By Me – and really, what's wrong with you if you don't? - then there's no reason on earth for you not to love Mud as well.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom

A great man, to be sure, but is it a great movie? I'll give you a clue... no, it isn't. 


Like the Great Man himself, there is plenty to admire about Mandela: The Long Walk to Freedom, but quite unlike him, it largely fails to live up to expectations and ends up as something surprisingly forgettable and disappointingly ordinary.

Justin Chadwick, a British director who is no stranger to making films about and around Africa (First Grader) and, as befits this film's subject matter, is particularly adept at drawing out plenty of emotion from whatever story he's telling. Add to that a very solid cast, comprising both local and international talent, and a story that is pretty much incredible by default, as it depicts the life one of the most extraordinary figures in modern history, and it's not hard to see why so many people are won over by Long Walk to Freedom.

Indeed, even though I am largely underwhelmed by the film, it's impossible to deny how moving it sometimes is, how great Idris Elba is in the title role (he may not look at all like Madiba, but he captures him brilliantly on every other level), how interesting and sympathetic Winnie Mandela comes across for a change and, once again, how one-in-a-billion a person Nelson Mandela truly is. As such, while I certainly wouldn't agree with some of the more laudatory notices the film has received, I certainly don't agree with the one- and two-star reviews either.

Unfortunately, while the sheer awesomeness of the Mandela story may go some way towards clouding one's critical facilities, it's impossible not to notice what is by far the film's biggest failing. The film's occasional cornball moments and its sometimes cheap emotional manipulation are fairly easy crimes to forgive in a film this unashamedly populist, but it's far, far harder to get past how shallow the film feels.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Before Midnight

I will get to Mandela soon, but first, the real gem of the week.

This review is also up at Channel 24.


What it's about

Picking up nine years since we last saw them in Before Sunset, Celine (Julie Delpy) and Jesse (Ethan Hawke) are married with children and holidaying in Greece, but for all the seeming idyllic comforts of their life, are they truly happy?

What we thought

It says something about how painfully and beautifully realistic these films are that Before Midnight is by far my least favourite of Richard Linklater's “Before” trilogy, which encompasses Before Sunrise, Before Sunset and now, Before Midnight, each set nine years apart, both in real time and in the fictional world that they inhabit.

Like its two predecessors, Before Midnight is a master class in writing, direction and acting that mixes fascinating, hyper-real but believable dialogue with strong characterization and some of the longest single takes in modern cinema. It features beautiful, picturesque locales, great dashes of humour and enough talking to make Quintin Tarantino look like Buster Keaton. It is not, in short, a film for those who like a lot of action or even a lot of plot, but is made purely for patient film lovers who appreciate emotional, character-driven stories, sparkling dialogue and some truly spectacular filmmaking.

Linklater is an incredible, jaw-droppingly versatile director whose works include everything from the kid-friendly comedy of School of Rock to the most Dickian of all Philip K Dick films in A Scanner Darkly to the uncompromising slice of life of Waking Life and his Before trilogy. Here again he proves himself to be the king of the indie circuit as he both allows long scenes to play out with minimal editing and for the complexity of human emotion to be unleavened by typical Hollywood sentimentality.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

Is Catching Fire the Empire Strikes Back of the Hunger Games series?


Improving on its already very good predecessor in every conceivable way, The Huger Games: Catching Fire only further establishes the Hunger Games as by far the best young-adult smash sensation since Harry Potter. I haven't read the Suzanne Collins novels on which these films are based but with adaptations this good, I don't particularly feel the need to - especially since most people who have read the books seem to far prefer the movies.

Enough people have ripped into the Twilight franchise over the years that it's probably unfair, redundant even, to resurrect that particular dead horse for another solid beating, but the Hunger Games' artistic success shows just how far short the Twilight series came to reaching its own goals. Mark Kermode, in his own, obviously superior review of the film notes that the success of the Hunger Games is in large part because Twilight paved the way and, though I hate to disagree with the good doctor, I can't help but feel that, though the Hunger Games should be viewed in context of Twilight, it's successful in spite of Twilight, not because of it.

Unlike many of the Twilight rip offs and wannabes that have largely fallen by the wayside, the Hunger Games has challenged Twilight commercially, while far exceeding it in terms of critical and audience reception. The way it's done this hasn't been by copying Twilight but in almost all cases going in entirely the opposite direction. Both films have at their centre already iconic female heroes, but while Bella Swan was noted for her grating passivity and penchant for spending literally months moping over her unbearably drippy suitors, Katniss Everdeen has been created much more in the mold of Buffy Summers, as a tough but vulnerable - not to mention flawed - young woman who understands that her own love complications are secondary to the crushing, world-changing responsibilities that weigh down on her.

This is especially true in Catching Fire as Katniss finds herself elevated from mere survivor to virtually a messianic figure whose every move can cost innocent people their lives or lead to a revolution that will topple the fragile totalitarian government that oppresses them. Katniss does have to deal with her feelings towards Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) and Gale (Liam Hemswroth), but they place a definite second place in comparison to the reality that while she may not be quite as done with the Games themselves as she might have hoped, she somehow became someone who holds the very future of her people in her hands.    

Monday, November 25, 2013

Detachment

Almost forgot to post this. Look out for my Hunger Games review coming very soon.

This review is also up at Channel 24

What it's about


A career substitute teacher finds his general detachment from his assignments challenged as he is engaged by the students of his latest class, while his personal life also takes a turn as he meets and befriends a homeless teenage prostitute.

What we thought

If ever there was a film that is perfectly encapsulated by its title, it's this one. Detachment both perfectly describes the main theme of the film as we meet a group of characters who are detached from their own lives and, unfortunately, its primary flaw: the sense of detachment that the audience feels from what is going on in the film itself.

Here we have yet another in a long line of films where a disengaged teacher enriches the lives of a group of misfit students who in turn enriches his or her own life. It doesn't matter whether we're talking School of Rock, Dangerous Minds or Dead Poets Society, we have seen this story before and we have seen it often. I am willing to bet, however, that we haven't quite seen it done like this before.

At the heart of most of these films is a real sense of inspiration and upliftment as teacher and students affect each others lives for the better, but Detachment thoroughly and relentlessly refuses to follow this model. Forget having your heartstrings tugged or your tear ducts jerked because Detachment is easily one of the bleakest, most oppressively harsh films to come out this year. Or, at least, in 2011.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Enough Said

I don't know why the hell this took so long to come out but it's well worth the wait.

Also reviewed at Channel 24

What it's about


Eva (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) is a divorcee facing the reality of a very empty nest as her only daughter prepares to go off to college when she meets Albert (James Gandolfini), who is going through much the same thing. It's not long before their commonality turns into a real romance, but at the same time Eva, a masseuse by profession, befriends one of her clients, poetess Marianne (Catherine Keener) whose surprising link to Albert threatens to kill her newly blossoming romance in mid-bloom.

What we thought

Enough Said may have a very generic, very forgettable title, but, as it turns out, the film itself is easily one of the year's greatest cinematic pleasures. It may not seem like much at first glance, but it is precisely the film's willingness to play with its own genericness and the audience's own expectations that makes it the surprise hit that it is. Well, that and the fact that this is one romantic comedy that is both genuinely funny and achingly romantic.

The first master stroke of the film is that it has, at its centre, a storytelling device that could easily have backfired and turned the film into an oddly Seinfeld-esque bit of comic madness, at best, and just another dopey, unbelievable rom-com at worst, but is instead the emotional focal point of the whole story. What starts off as a very believable, very warm-hearted story about two people falling in love becomes something even more intriguing as the film starts to question how we allow outside perceptions to taint our relationships and our own happiness – and it does all this without ever losing sight of the copious amounts of heart and humour that made it work in the first place.

The second and perhaps even greater master stroke of the film is the way it makes use of its two lead actors. It is perhaps true that we critics may at times spend just a bit too much time talking about the quality of the performances in a film when there is usually so much going on that makes or breaks a film that shining the spotlight so heavily on the actors may well do a disservice to the other departments charged with bringing a film to life – especially our tendency to overlook the importance of the role itself. It takes a film like Enough Said then, to remind us just how crucial a performance or performances can be in bringing an entire film together.


Saturday, November 23, 2013

Imogene (Girl Most Likely)

So, I'll get to this week's genuinely good movies in a bit.

This review is also up at Channel 24

What it's about


Imogene is a failed playwright who moves from New York to live with her dysfunctional family in New Jersey, but what she finds there may just be even worse than she remembers.

What we thought

Imogene, or as it known in most other territories, Girl Most Likely has a good cast led by one of the funniest actresses of her generation but is the sort of quirky indie movie that gives quirky indie movies a bad name.

OK, that's probably a bit unfair as the worst examples of quirky indie films are usually horribly pretentious (see Greenberg for a particularly egregious example of this) so Imogene is hardly the worst that the genre has to offer but it's still a bit of a noodly, directionless mess that badly wastes the talents of Kristen Wiig, Matt Dillon (where has he been hiding?) and Annette Bening. Worst of all, for an alleged comedy it's sadly pretty free of laughs.


Monday, November 18, 2013

Insidious Chapter 2

... This time it's personal. Well, not really.

This review is also up at Channel 24


What it's about:

Picking up immediately after the events of the first film, we once again find the Lambert family trying to deal with malicious spirits as they uncover connections to their own past and the ghosts that haunt them.

What we thought:

Coming hot on the heels of director James Wan's own The Conjuring, it's hard to get past the feeling that even Wan doesn't really see the point in a sequel to Insidious

The Conjuring may fit into much the same genre, indeed the same sub-genre, as theInsidious films and it may have plundered freely from many often better horror films from the last five decades or so, but it at least found Wan on noticeable revitalized form as the film had a vitality and freshness – not to mention creepiness - that so many modern horror films so sorely lack. It was probably the best horror flick he has done yet and indicated that there might actually be some life left in the old haunted house sub-genre. 

Sadly, Insidious Chapter 2 is every bit the tired, shameless cash-in that its title would suggest - utterly lacking in any of the scary energy that Wan brought to his last film – or even this film's own flawed but decent predecessor. If The Conjuring looked to the past to point towards the future, Insidious Chapter 2 does nothing but look back at the many better films that came before it.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

The Butler

Just a few words about a movie that isn't afraid to flaunt its ambition.


The Butler uses the well-worn and normally pretty effective trope of examining large swaths of history through the life of a single character. In movie terms, the most famous and best example of this is Forrest Gump (I don't care what its detractors say, Forrest Gump is a modern masterpiece) but, though The Butler is clearly going for a similar, if decidedly less irreverent, effect, it's nowhere near as good.

The history being examined this time centres around the lead up to and the fallout from the American Civil Rights movement that reached its apex in the 1960s, with the character through whose eyes we view these tumultuous times is Cecil Gaines, the eponymous butler who, while working in the White House since the 1950s, saw presidents come and go and major changes sweep the country.

It's a smart premise, but the film fails to entirely deliver on its premise. The history it deals with is fascinating - especially if, like me, you're interested in the great social changes that swept across the US and the rest of the developed Western World during the 1960s - and it has, as its focal point, yet another blisteringly good performance from Forest Whitaker, but as a piece of dramatic storytelling, it's somewhat underwhelming.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Thor: The Dark World

It's already out in the UK and is being released to most countries this Friday so, for a change, I thought I would share my thoughts on a movie before it is actually released. As is usually the case, I will be avoiding spoilers, but if you want to be extra prudent about this highly awaited film, lets just say that, despite it's fairly terrible plot, Thor 2 is seven shades of awesome! Check out the film or read on to find out how...


Trying to sum up the plot of Thor 2 is something of a thankless task, but I am going to try anyway. First we have Thor himself who is all set to be the next king of Asgard who spends his days fighting the good fight across the nine realms, while pining for his earth-bound lady love, Jane Foster. The latter, of course, is doing some good old pining in return, while trying to figure out what a weird spacial anomaly is doing in the middle of London (what, is this Star Trek: The Next Generation or something?), before being sucked off to the eponymous Dark World (I think) and getting infected with a really old and really powerful weapon that for some reason has taken on the form of black-red goo (what, is this the X-Files or something?). At the same time, Loki is serving a life sentence in an Asgardian prison for his bad behaviour in The Avengers and a brand new but very old threat has come to plunge the universe back into darkness... for some reason or another. Who knows? Who cares?

It's convoluted and, in the case of the baddie and his nefarious scheme, bland and nonsensical respectively. Here's the thing though: the film's frankly wretched plot barely takes away from the film at all. The unmemorable villain is a bit of a problem, to be sure, but he and his evil doings seem to have been inserted into the film as an afterthought, as little more than something on which to hang all the great gags, characters and imaginative action scenes. And ya know what, this seemingly stupid idea actually works perfectly. Thor: The Dark World is simply the most fun I had at the cinema since the seemingly daft but enormously, breathlessly entertaining (and inaptly titled) Star Trek Into Darkness.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Catching up

So, with my regular paying jobs, I've fallen a bit behind on the blog. I have actually managed to cover most of the major movies, but there were still a number of other films that deserve at least a few words said about them, whether good or bad. 

First a couple of slightly longer short reviews...

About Time: I really hate that I overlooked this little gem as it is easily the best film to date that Richard Curtis had directed and is one of the year's most charming, funny and seriously moving cinematic pleasures. It's true the time travel dynamic in the centre of the film is barely thought out and that people who don't share Curtis' unabashedly sentimental outlook have really taken against the film, but honestly, I just absolutely love this movie. I love how the film uses admittedly loose time travel to explore romance, family relationships and the importance of living life to the fullest. I love the performances, I love the script and I love how warm and funny it is. Rationally, I probably shouldn't give it so high a rating as it is long and t is flawed and I understand how it could rub people the wrong way, but this time I'm going to allow my subjective feelings on the matter to totally override my critical judgement. And I doubt I'll be the only one to do so. (9/10)

Monday, November 4, 2013

Austenland

More bouncing off the wall than la dee daa, I didn't see this one coming.

Also at Channel 24

What it's about


A lifelong Jane Austen fan spends all her savings on a holiday in Austenland – a theme park that celebrates all things Austen, where she hopes to find romance and a world that isn't so much extinct, as one that never really existed in the first place.


What we thought


The poster, the trailer and the general critical reception may convince you to give Austenland a miss as it looks, for all the world, like just another lightweight romantic comedy. Well, it is lightweight, it is romantic and it is a comedy but there's nothing “just another” about Austenland. No one would confuse this film for a masterpiece – frankly, it's too self-consciously underachieving to even want to be such a thing – but it is very charming, very very funny and very very very very weird.


It's not weird in the way an avante garde film but it's still such an odd little movie. Mind you, that's hardly that surprising since it's directed and co-written by Jerusha Hess, the writer of such deadpan oddities as Nacho Libre and, oh yes, Napoleon Dynamite. With this kind of pedigree behind it, it's pretty easy to see why so many people have taken against Austenland as Napoleon Dynamite is unquestionably one of the most divisive comedies of the century, with its deadpan, quirky sense of humour makes Wes Anderson's ouvre look like the Police Academy movies.

The Family

Oh, Bob.

Also at Channel 24

What it's about


The Manzoni family is relocated to Normandy, France as part of the witness protection program after the family's patriarch (Robert Deniro) testifies against some members of his extended mob family. The members of his family soon come to find that old habits die hard though, much to the consternation of the case officer (Tommy Lee Jones) in charge of them.


What we thought


The crime-comedy genre is generally a pretty tough nut to crack. Its two constituent elements are by nature diametrically opposed in terms of tone and style so, invariably, for a crime-comedy to work, it has to either darken the comedy or lighten the crime aspects – or, alternatively, use the conflict between the two genres to ironic, even satirical effect. The Family's greatest sin is that it's never sure enough of itself that it never gets this balance right, which is made even worse as it tries and fails to be a family-comedy/drama at the same time.


It's a serious disappointment and is not a film that I could in good conscience recommend to anyone at all, but it's not like it doesn't have good things about it. There are moments here and there that are amusing enough and the cast is generally pretty solid in their roles, with a typically curmudgeonly Tommy Lee Jones being the obvious stand out. It's also interesting to see Luc Besson take a crack at something that brings him closer to his breakthrough film, Leon (aka The Professional), rather than the inadequate stylistic shift of The Lady, his well-intentioned but lackluster previous film.


For all this though, The Family just never looks like it knows what the hell it's doing. It's too cutesy and jolly to work as a scathing black comedy, but too bitter and hateful to work as a light family comedy. It's also never clear whether we're supposed to pity, sympathise with or despise its main characters, but they're generally so shallowly drawn that the easiest thing to feel towards them is apathy.

Closed Circuit

Late, late, late, late, late....

Also at Channel 24

What it's about


After a terrorist attack in central London, two ex-lovers are reunited as part of the defense team for those suspected of perpetrating the attacks, but only one is privilege to evidence that is deemed a threat to national security.


What we thought


Closed Circuit is the sort of film that really has no excuse to be as rote and uninspired as it turned out to be. Putting aside the solid creative team both behind and if front of the cameras that includes one of the more interesting British directors of recent years; an erratic, but often brilliant British screenwriter and a dependably good to great cast, the story it's telling overflows with potential.


Think about it, we have the always, if you pardon the expression, explosive topic of terrorism vs. national security at the centre, but that's only the beginning. We also have a peak into a very unusual and morally and ethically complex legal case in a legal system that we don't actually see that much of in mainstream cinema. Plus, added to all that we have the two characters caught in the middle of it, whose previous affair is contrasted against the secrecy and distrust of the conspiracies all around them. One of these things should be enough for a top-notch thriller, but all of them? It should be unstoppable.


Sadly, rather than being the greatest romantic/ legal thriller/ drama of the decade, we have one of the year's dourest and, excepting for a short ten minute chase sequence at the end of the film, relentlessly dull films. It's the sort of film that is packed to the gills with plot, with shady characters, with broken romances and with the still touchy subject of terrorism, yet I spent the vast majority it admiring the scenery.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Jobs

Lets just round off last week with a quick look at Jobs.

Despite the plethora of one-star reviews and largely apathetic audience reaction, Jobs really isn't that bad. It isn't much good, but it isn't that bad either.

As you may have guessed by now, Jobs sort of tells the story of Steve Jobs, the legendary co-founder of Apple. I say sort of because the film can't quite seem to decide whether it wants to tell the story of Steve Jobs or about the company he started. The film, in fact, probably hues closer to being Apple: The Movie, rather than a true look at this brilliant but endlessly controversial cultural figure, but even then it still feels somewhat superficial.

As for Jobs himself, we spend a bit of time with him in his young days in college, but the film spends little time before getting to tell the story of Apple - how it was started in a basement by one guy with a lot of vision and a bunch of his frankly more talented friends, how Apple basically invented the home computer, how Jobs' perfectionism almost bankrupted the company, how Jobs was forced out of the company he created and finally his triumphant return well over a decade later.

It's not an uninteresting story but it's told with little of the electric writing or directorial style that made the rather similar Social Network into such a riveting piece of drama. With even that said though, even if it had brought Apple's story to life with a bit more verve, it still would have had to deal with the crippling absence of its lead character in the centre of everything.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Paranoia

Guess what this one's about? No, really.

Also at Channel 24

What it's about


After making copious use of the company credit card after being laid off from his job at a major tech company, Adam Cassidy (Liam Hemsworth) is given a second chance by his old boss, Nicolas Wyatt (Gary Oldman) – all he has to do is spy on a rival company, run by Wyatt's old boss and mentor, Jock Goddard (Harrison Ford). It's not long, however, before he finds himself the pawn in a game where the ruthless primary players are playing on a whole other level.


What we thought


Paranoia is yet another generic thriller with an utterly forgettable one-word title that is perhaps even less memorable and impressive than its title suggests. It's especially impressive that a film with a couple of really fun supporting performances from Harrison Ford, Richard Dreyfus and Gary Oldman makes next to no lasting impression whatsoever. In fact, when I saw “Paranoia” on the release schedule, I had to head straight over to the good ol' IMDB just to remind myself of what the hell it was – and I had only seen it a few weeks back.


Paranoia is also, it has to be said, the biggest bomb of Harrison Ford's illustrious career as it hasn't even made back a fifth of its rather modest $35 million budget. To be fair though, though it's certainly somewhere on the bottom rungs of his career, perhaps even right at the bottom, it's not that bad a movie. It's not in any way, shape or form “good”, not by a very long shot, but there isn't that much about it that's actively terrible. Of course, it might have been more interesting if it was.


The film is simply blah, in a way that's not a hundred miles away from the other big blah release of the week, Diana. Unlike Diana, it does admittedly at least feature a bunch of veteran actors who are clearly having a quite contagious good time, but everything around them is so dull and uninspired that even they can't rise above the overall dreariness of the film.

Diana

Mills and Boons goes the biopic?

Also at Channel 24

What it's about


Focusing on the last couple of years of her life, Diana tells the story of the elicit(ish) love affair between Princess Diana of Wales and the apparent last love of her life, heart surgeon Hasnat Khan.


What we thought


Is it really still to soon to talk about it? It's been, what, nearly two decades since Princess Diana's tragic death, but if Diana is any indication, we still have some way to go yet.


Diana is the first major film to place its focus squarely on Lady Di since that day at the end of August 1997, but it's so listless, so anaemic, so bland an effort that one wonders why they even bothered in the first place. It is nowhere near the – if you pardon the unfortunate phrase – car crash that many of its one-star reviews have painted it as, but that's because it doesn't try hard enough to be that interesting.


While watching Diana, it's impossible to shake the feeling that everyone involved in the film is too trepidatious to engage with its subject head on. Want proof, check out the very odd interview that Naomi Watts had with BBC Radio Five Live's Simon Mayo (it's pretty easy to find on the interwebs) where this beloved, experienced actor was very much on the defensive when it came to answering even the most straightforward and innocuous of Mayo's questions, going so far as to even end the interview a couple of minutes earlier than she was supposed to.


It's possible, of course, that she was simply unhappy with how the film came out, but everything on screen points towards her and everyone else involved being genuinely scared of what they were doing with this film. Even the basic story of the film seems tailor made to have as little to say on who Diana was as a person as possible. Diana is very careful to ensure that it's no autobiography – hell, it's not even a hagiography. Princess Diana was clearly a major figure in 20th century culture and, by all accounts, she was a fairly intriguing personality, but the film only bothers with a part of her life that doesn't exactly show her at her most interesting.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Gravity

I have a bunch of Channel 24 reviews for this week, but before I post them, I just want to say a quick few words about one of the year's most notable, often awe-inspiring releases, Alfonso Cuaron's Gravity.


Gravity, the latest film from the frankly brilliant Alfonso Cuaron (Children of Men, Harry Potter and The Prisoner of Azkaban and Y Tu Mama Tambien) must have the highest Metascore of any film released this year at a whopping 96/100 and, ya know what, it very almost deserves the dozens of 5 star reviews it has so far received.

As a technical piece of filmmaking it is, indeed, flawless as its special effects are entirely believable, its visuals glorious and its use of 3D right up there with Hugo and Life of Pi. It is also, a white-knuckle thriller that will have you on the edge of your seat, if not hyperventilating, throughout  its sleek 90 minutes of catastrophic space adventure. And then, of course, there is the career-best performance by Sandra Bullock who very almost single-handedly carries the entire film - with only the support of George Clooney and a few disembodied voices for company. Clooney, incidentally, tries significantly less hard than Bullock in the acting department, relying instead on his charm and charisma to carry him through. This being George Clooney though, that is a seriously considerable amount of charm and charisma. And, yes, he TOTALLY looks like a real life Buzz Lightyear in the film!

Gravity is, as I hope I've made clear, a spectacular, visually arresting, nail biting thriller with a brilliant lead performance backed up by the humour and good grace of Hollywood's most charming and universally loved movie star. I just can't quite bring myself to give it a perfect score. Indeed, had the spectacle not been that spectacular I may have even docked it another star in my perfect, foolproof rating system.

The film gets so much absolutely and perfectly right that it's disappointing that the emotional arc that Bullock's character goes through is a bit too underdeveloped and the film's themes of loneliness and connection are painted with strokes that are just a bit too broad. Also, because much of the greatness of the film comes from its suspense rather than its story or its characters, it probably won't be something that demands or rewards repeat viewings.  

Still these are minor, if notable, flaws and Gravity is a must see movie that absolutely has to be seen in a good cinema in 3D (seriously, its use of 3D to portray the film's multi-layered environment is nothing short of spectacular) to get the effect of what Cuaron has accomplished here. Downloads or DVD/Blu-Ray purchases just ain't gonna cut it.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Rust and Bone

The Good, The Bad and the Smackable...

Also at Channel 24

What it's about


Alain (Matthias Schoenaerts) leaves Belgium with his young son to live with his sister in Antibes, France where he forms a unique and powerful bond with Stephanie (Marion Cotillard), an orca whale trainer who loses both her legs in a horrible accident while on the job.


What we thought


Rust and Bone, Jaques Audiard's follow-up to his acclaimed, multi-award-winning A Prophet, is a consistently artful, often powerful film that unfortunately never quite manages to overcome its one, central flaw: its awful chief protagonist.


Though the plot of Rust and Bone is remarkably straightforward, it's a thematically rich, complicated piece about two broken people finding first comfort then love in one another. On the one hand, we have Marion Cotillard's Stephanie, a woman who is physically maimed doing her job, while on the other, we have Matthias Schoenaerts' Alain, a man crippled by his own self-destructive emotions who earns his living by taking part in illegal street fights.


The film's lack of plot is matched by its meandering structure and clearly intentional languid pacing, but though it is at times a bit boring and at others utterly exasperating, it still manages to draw you in with both its exploration of what makes love work and these two seriously dysfunctional people are bolstered by each other's imperfections. It's not light and it is seriously lacking in a sense of humour (“serious” movies often make the mistake of overlooking how absurd and funny, even if darkly funny, life tends to be) but its ability to find beauty in suffering makes for a rather moving and involving film.

Redemption (Hummingbird)

Not to be all monosyllabic about this or anything but meh...

Also at Channel 24

What it's about


Joey (Jason Statham), homeless and on the run from a military court martial, embraces the opportunity to assume someone else's identity and, while forming a relationship with the nun who helps out a local soup kitchen, begins a crusade against the scum of his local neighborhood.


What we thought


First, before we get into the film itself, can we just deal with its title. “Redemption” is an unspeakably terrible name for a film. It has all the generic pointlessness of calling a film “Film” or “A Man“ but without any of those titles' post-modern zing. It's especially stupid as it has the more cryptic and much more interesting title of Hummingbird in the UK – I have no idea what its marketing people were thinking or if, indeed, they were. “Redemption”? Rubbish!


Title aside though, the film itself is... kind of OK. Nothing great, nothing special, nothing even particularly good but... kind of OK.


If nothing else, you have to give Jason Statham credit for understanding his limits and being willing to explore all areas within them. This is a more serious, more ambitious (and rather less fun) Jason Statham movie, but though it allows him to do some “proper acting”, the film never pushes The Stath too far out of his comfort zone, instead wisely allowing his natural charisma to shine through. And shine through it does because, no matter what else you might say about modern cinema's best action hero, the dude has charisma, charm and screen presence coming out of the wazoo.


Unfortunately, though the film can be mildly recommended to see The Stath strutting his stuff, it doesn't really have that much else going for it, even if doesn't have too much going really against it either. Again, it's kind of OK.

Monday, October 7, 2013

The Call

Wait, a good Halle Berry movie? Whodathunkit?

Also at Channel 24

What it's about


After failing to save a young girl from a murderous home invader, 911 operator Jordan Turner's (Halle Berry) confidence in her job is badly shaken but when teenager Casey Welson (Abigail Breslin) is kidnapped and locked in the boot of her kidnappers car with her cell phone as her only means of escape, Jordan is soon forced to face her own demons and ensure that that tragic night does not repeat itself.


What we thought


The Call is a refreshingly terse, stripped down thriller that would easily be one of the best films of its kind to come along in a long, long time had it stayed its course all the way through. As it is, it's still a pretty damn excellent exercise in suspense for its first two acts, before turning into a ridiculously ill-fitting, narratively confused slasher flick for its closing half hour. Admittedly, the final act is still really good fun and it concludes with an utterly demented coup de grace from a lead character who apparently had a total personality transplant while the rest of us weren't looking, but it is such a strange departure from the rest of the film that you're as likely to leave the cinema in a state of bewilderment as you are to leave truly satisfied with what you've just seen.


That's the the film's final impression, though: there's still a couple of hours of goodness (and lunacy) to deal with first. For a start, fittingly enough, the film sets its own tone straights off the bat as it begins by thrusting the audience almost immediately into the middle of this horrifically tense home invasion. It's a brilliant opener that also quickly establishes all we really need to know about the surprisingly (this is a daft thriller after all) well drawn woman at the centre of the film.

R.I.P.D

Late again, I know. Look out for a good ol' roundup soon, but for now, here's another disappointing effects movie.

Also at Channel 24.

What it's about


After being murdered by his partner, a dirty cop gets a second chance to make amends and take revenge as he joins the Rest In Peace Department, a post-mortem law enforcement agency tasked with stopping the dead from wreaking havoc on the living.


What we thought


R.I.P.D, the 674th comic book movie to be released this year, looks, at the outset, to have plenty going for it. It has a good director, a cast that ranges from solid (Ryan Reynolds) to excellent (Jeff Bridges, Mary-Louise Parker) and a really neat high-concept premise. Unfortunately, though it's nowhere near the turkey that most critics have deemed it to be, it squanders most of its promise, even as it constantly hints towards better movies and its own underlying potential.


It's especially irritating that the film could so easily be better because its major failures are very easily identifiable as coming from two rather crucial areas: it's effects and its money.


In terms of the former, RIPD relies almost entirely on CGI, but it looks like the kind of CGI that one would normally find in a very cheap video game or in a movie from when the technology was still in its infancy. The action scenes have no sense of physicality whatsoever and the undead creatures are entirely lacking in physical presence or believability. CG characters are often problematic but we haven't seen CGI creations this shoddy since at least the terrible digi-zombies of I Am Legend. Regardless of the films other problems, it would have been a hundred times better had they relied on good prosthetic and make up work and on physical stunts.


Now, considering how bad the effects are, one can assume that RIPD didn't exactly have a mega-budget, but it had just enough money thrown at it to completely and utterly undermine everything that could have and should have worked about the film. It has a premise that would be a perfect fit for the quirky, indie aesthetic of Scott Pilgrim or Kick Ass but someone clearly wanted the film to go head to head with the bigger comic book movies, which is why we get stupid CGI creatures when we should have Evil-Dead-like zombies and an inane plot about protecting the world from a supervillain who wants to destroy it, when we really should be getting something far smaller and more intimate.

Monday, September 16, 2013

The Way, Way Back

I give it a nine.


The Way, Way Back is the kind of film that almost makes it worth sitting through an overall underwhelming "summer" season at the movies, as it's exactly the sort of gem that studios slip in during this time of year as a counterpoint to all those sequels, remakes and franchise properties. It is, as such, rather easy to overlook, but, please, if you're going to see one movie in cinemas this month, make it The Way, Way Back. You won't regret it.

The film isn't exactly heavy on plot but, as the best coming of age stories always are, it's very big on character. Duncan (Liam James), a fourteen year old misfit, is stuck on a vacation from hell with his loving, if weak-willed mother (Toni Collette), her hellishly horrible boyfriend (Steve Carell) and his indifferent daughter, before finding some much needed sanctuary in the Water Wizz water park and friendship in the oddball group of characters who run it - but most especially Owen (Sam Rockwell), the park's fast-talking, funny and compassionate, if seriously underachieving, manager. Along the way, there are the usual assortments of unrequited crushes, teenage hormones, misbehaving adults and familial strife to be expected from this sort of thing, but every familiar note only adds to the recognizability and effortless enjoyability of a film that embodies all that's great and immortal about the coming of age tale.

2 Guns

The year(s) of the Wahlberg continues...

Also up at Channel 24.

What it's about


A DEA agent and a naval officer try and infiltrate a drug cartel by staging a bank robbery and the fact that neither knows the other is working undercover is only the beginning of many, many complications that soon arise.


What we thought


2 Guns is, what, the seventh comic book movie this year? That's right, it may not be about superheroes and it may seem to have far more in common with regular action comedies than anything particularly “comic booky” but it is based on the Steven Grant comics of the same name, published by Boom Studios. Like A History of Violence and Ghost World before it, 2 Guns once again shows what a misnomer “comic book movie” actually is.


And, to be honest, that's probably the only really interesting thing about it. There's nothing in 2 Guns we haven't seen before, because even if the central conceit of the plot is fairly innovative, what transpires after that is the typical mix of wisecracks, gun play and ludicrous plot machinations that is the staple diet of any action comedy worth its salt. It does have a ridiculously complex and twisty plot but even there, there's nothing really that surprising.


All this said though, however derivative and unexceptional the film ultimately end us being, 2 Guns is still a cracking good time when it's playing and should work wonders for fans of this particular genre.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Kick Ass 2

Less kick ass this time, but it's hardly ass either.

Also at Channel 24.


What it's about


After the events of the first film, inspired by Kick Ass and Hit Girl, dozens of ordinary citizens have taken up costumed identities in the fight against crime. For Kick Ass himself though, his previous ineffectiveness has caused him to turn to Hit Girl to train him, while Hit Girl herself is struggling with whether to continue the great fight or to try and live as a regular teenage girl. The heroes have their work cut out for them though, as the former hero known as Red Mist declares a bloody vendetta against Kick Ass and anyone associated with him for the death of his father.


What we thought


2010 was arguably the quietest year for major comic book movies since the craze began at the turn of the century with only the disappointing Iron Man 2 moving the Marvel Cinematic Universe along and duds like The Losers and Jonah Hex making next to no impact whatsoever. Aside for the surprisingly enjoyable, if very loosely comics-based Red, the best comic book films to come out that year were, by far, a couple of quirky indie properties.


The first, Scott Pilgrim vs The Universe, was a hyper-active, hyper-colourful, hyper-poppy and hyper-brilliant mix of video games, martial arts, rock and roll, comedy and romance. The second, of course, was the similarly terrific Kick Ass – a hilariously fresh and violent take on the superhero genre that presented a tremendously stripped down take on the superhero in the most over the top manner imaginable. Like Scott Pilgrim, it was one of the best and most surprising films of that year but, unlike Scott Pilgrim, it was actually only the first part of what is supposed to be a trilogy.


Now, some three years later, we finally have the film's first sequel, again based off of the Mark Millar/ John Romita Jr. comic books – only this time it combines the series of the same name with its spin-off Hit Girl series and, even more crucially, is written and directed by Jeff Wadlow, rather than the first film's killer team of Jane Goodman and Matthew Vaughn (who stay on as producers). And, unfortunately, you really can tell.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

We're the Millers

Sometimes it's OK for comedies to JUST be funny.

Also at Channel 24.


What it's about


After a drug dealer is ripped off by a group of street thugs, the only way he can make it up to his supplier is by transporting a huge shipment of drugs from Mexico into the United States. To do so, he comes up with a plan that involves creating a fake family made up of a homeless girl, a stripper and a young nerd who lives alone in his building.


What we thought


We're the Millers has a lot going against it. It features a frankly moronic premise that somehow needed four different screenwriters to wrap their heads around it and, with Jennifer Aniston as the female lead, it looked to be yet another lightly comedic dud by the former Friends star. Amazingly enough, despite being very stupid, incredibly predictable and sometimes unjustly sentimental, We're the Millers is actually a likeable and genuinely funny comedy.


For a start, those four screenwriters clearly have some understanding of dumb but likeable comedy as between them they've worked on the Wedding Crashers, She's Out of My League and, um, Hot Tube Time Machine. Monty Python they ain't, obviously, but they do clearly have enough experience to put together a halfway decent comedy and with Dodgeball's Rawson Marshall Thurber at the helm, they manage to do precisely that.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Elysium

Neill Blomkamp is clearly a very talented director and he undoubtedly has at least one truly great film in him. Sadly, Elysium ain't it..


It's not just because of the sorry state of the rest of the South African film industry that South Africans - and the rest of the world - reacted so warmly to Neill Blomkamp's first feature film, District 9. It was, to be sure, a fairly flawed film but it wasn't only a well handled piece of science fiction and a smart allegory for apartheid - it also heralded a fresh new voice in genre filmmaking. Blomkamp and its star, Sharlto Copley, may be South African but bigger things clearly awaited them both.

Sadly, bigger doesn't always mean better and Blomkamp and Copley's second film together may have a significantly bigger budget than its predecessor and a number of A-list Hollywood actors but it has little of District 9's charm, smarts and ingenuity. Again, Blomkamp turns his attention to allegorical science fiction but this story of a world where the rich live away from the other 99.9999% on a luxurious habitat that orbits an overpopulated, over-polluted earth may work on a purely conceptual level but neither its storytelling or its lack of attention to detail put it anywhere near to being in the same class as its predecessor, not to mention the many good "smart" science fiction films that have come our way in recent years.    

This isn't to say that there's nothing to like about Elysium. It is a good looking (in a grimy, dusty kind of way) film with solidly shot action scenes and a show-stealing performance from Copley in full on Soaf-Afrikaan mode as a ruthless mercenary who is a million miles away from his District 9 character, the sweet-natured Wikus Van De Merwe. Matt Damon, on the other hand, plays far closer to type but even if his character is pretty badly defined, he is still typically charismatic as the film's chief protagonist, an ex-crook whose exposure to a lethal dose of radiation sets him on a path to change the world.

Sadly, while it may have certain charm as a futuristic actioner, as an allegorical science fiction film, it constantly fails to his its mark. It's interesting that in a general sense, the world that Blomkamp creates is quite nicely conceived but the actual implementation of the world is underdeveloped, often nonsensical and far too lacking in nuance for its own good.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

The Heat

Don't worry, neither woman is nearly as terribly photoshopped in the movie as they are in the poster.

Also up at Channel 24.

What it's about


A cocky but uptight FBI officer (Sandra Bullock) is paired up with a coarse, unconventional Boston cop (Melissa McCarthy) who need to overcome their differences if they are to take down a ruthless, but mysterious, drug lord.


What we thought


Reaching back to old fashioned buddy cop films like Lethal Weapon and Bad Boys, The Heat is a very conventional, slightly bland take on the genre that rises above its own meagre ambitions purely on the strength of its lead actresses.


There is unquestionably something welcome about a full-on action comedy that not only stars two women in the traditionally male lead roles but doesn't treat them any differently because of that, but there's definitely something overly familiar about the film that isn't quite overcome by its refreshing feminist slant. After Hot Fuzz's brilliant deconstruction and reconstruction of the buddy cop film and The Other Guys' demented, slightly twisted take on the same, The Heat's adherence to formula is not only disappointing, but is frankly tiresome as well.


The plot is so by-the-numbers that it doesn't only quickly fade from memory the minute the credits roll but actually falls entirely by the way side in the middle of the film. The fact that the film's final revelation about its big bad is so underwhelming as to barely elicit a “him?” (or a “her?” - I'm not telling) from the audience just about says everything you need to know how unbelievably dull the story itself is.


Fortunately, the film does go some way towards overcoming its shoddy storytelling by the simple - and rather essential – fact that it is still very, very funny. The baggy two-hour running time and all the crappy plot stuff that the film has to pay lip-service does threaten to overwhelm things and the film would have been improved immeasurably by a bit more time honing the plot and/ or editing the film's excess fat, but as a sharp character-comedy, it more than hits its mark.

Pain and Gain

Wait, a good Michael Bay movie?! Well, if it helps any, I'm pretty sure it was an accident.

Also up at Channel 24.


 What it's about


Based on a true story, a trio of bodybuilders try to live their own version of the American Dream by kidnapping and extorting a thoroughly unpleasant but very wealthy Florida high roller but, having0 spent significantly less time perfecting their brains than their muscles, things start to go very wrong, very quickly.


What we thought


Pain and Gain tells an incredible true story – the kind that is so unbelievably far fetched and unbelievable that it could only be true – that, had it been tackled by mega-talented filmmakers like the Coen Brothers or Martin Scorsese, would have easily been one of the best films of the year. In the hands of Michael Bay though, it becomes rather less great, instead turning into something far more interesting and far more unique.


Michael Bay, you see, is easily one of the most reviled filmmakers in Hollywood today and can justifiably be called the embodiment of all that is wrong with the Great Hollywood Machine. When he's not producing horrible, pointless remakes of horror classics, he spends much of his time directing horribly crafted, obnoxious garbage like the Transformers films or Pearl Harbour or taking the rather good, if unoriginal, premise of The Island and running it into the ground with his typically noxious cocktail of monotonous action scenes, crappy storytelling and a rank, fratboy-like inability to tell the difference between sexiness and crass sexual objectification.


Considering his past crimes, it's hard to give him the benefit of the doubt that the sharp satire and surprising inventiveness of Pain and Gain were actually done on purpose but, frankly, the idea that he accidentally stumbled on a script and a subject matter that actually puts his many horrible “artistic” tendencies to good use would go some way to explaining why Pain and Gain is one of the year's most intriguing and surprising films.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Evil Dead

Another year, another horror remake. Only this time, I am something of a fan of the original...

I suppose we should be celebrating the fact that Evil Dead is one horror remake that is actually rather well made and generally watchable, but it's still a pointless retreading of something that has been done far better already and, at this point, do we really need to be rewarding this kind of bad behaviour.

Taking a step back, the original The Evil Dead (note the definitive article) was a micro-budget, little horror film released in 1981 by a then-unknown filmmaker named Sam Raimi about a group of friends whose trip to a cabin in the woods is violently interrupted by the forces of the undead that they unwittingly unleash. Since then, it's director has become one of the most sought after names in Hollywood, its star has become the most beloved b-movie star to come along since the heyday of Bela Lugosi and Christopher Lee and the film itself, along with its two sequels, have become the very definition of cult classics.

Personally, I actually enjoy the original film the least of the original trilogy as the second film did much the same thing but better in every way, while the third film took the series in an utterly bonkers but endlessly entertaining direction. Still, taken together the Evil Dead trilogy represents everything great about super-cheap, hands-on comedy horror.

Now, it has to be said, Evil Dead may lay claim to being the first Evil Dead remake (though it's also kind of a sequel/ reboot) but effectively, it's actually at least the third. The first remake, of course, was The Evil Dead 2, which took the same plot of the first film and upped the inventiveness and the comedy, while also placing its attention squarely on the only character from the first film that was actually interesting, Bruce Campbell's Ash. It wasn't just a great film on its own but it was a remake (albeit one disguised as a sequel) that was infinitely better than the original.  

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Planes

I really hope this means we're going to have to sit through "Trains" as well.

Also up at Channel 24.


What it's about


Dusty is a cropduster whose dreams to compete in a high-speed aerial racing are very close to coming true as he surprises everyone by qualifying as a contestant in a prestigious flying competition – if only Dusty could get over his deathly fear of heights.


What we thought


The Cars franchise has always been something of a black mark in Pixar's otherwise fairly exemplary catalogue of films. Neither Cars nor its much maligned sequel are exactly terrible films but they were both pretty badly conceived conceptually and neither film has either the greatest story or particularly interesting characters and, to this day, I still don't know what age group the first film was actually aimed at.

With this in mind, my expectations for a spin-off of Cars, created by Disney without the aid of Pixar and originally aimed at the home video market, were not exactly high. It also didn't help that everything about the film looked like a crass cash in to sell even more toys. It probably says something then that Planes doesn't even manage to live up to these meagre expectations and easily ranks as the worst animated film released so far this year.

Once again we are faced with the same terrible world-building that made Cars so troubling in that this is a world populated exclusively by talking vehicles but is otherwise entirely like our own – why would cars need a) their crops dusted and b) crops? - but it's even more lackluster in the storytelling front. It has none of the whizz-bang action of Cars 2 and none of the weirdly misplaced but still quite welcome nostalgic Americana of the first film and it's basic story is more or less just Cars, but in reverse.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

New Release Roundup for 26/07/2013 to 08/08/2013

And now for your regularly scheduled capsule reviews.

Now You See Me. This ridiculous but hugely entertaining thriller about a group of stage magician anarchists/ thieves who rob banks as part of their stage show has largely been overlooked but for all of its unabashed daftness - that final twist really makes no sense - it's light, frothy and funny with a kick ass cast and a snappy pace. But please, enough with the Prestige/ Inception/ Oceans Eleven comparisons - Now You See Me is far too unassuming to warrant it. (7/10)

Great Expectations. As the five millionth adaptation of Dicken's classic novel, this Great Expectations is a fairly straightforward, if condensed, take on the story that has plenty of style and a very strong cast but is let down by its shallowly and quite annoyingly drawn lead characters and an abundance of plot that drags the film's energy down to zero far too often. Literary purists may like it but give me the very flawed but at least somewhat interesting 90s modern update over this turgid mess any day. (4/10)

Dark Skies. A surprisingly enjoyable generic alien abduction film. Its largely b-list cast acquit themselves very well and the admittedly rather cheap scares do their job well enough but the best thing about Dark Skies is that it mixes sub-X-Files alien stuff with some well observed domestic drama that is very much of this post-recession world. A more subtle touch would have gone a long way but Dark Skies is still a slight but effective bit of sci-fi horror. (6/10)

Killing Them Softly. Technically there's a lot to admire - not least of all the performances - but this modern noir is let down by uninteresting and unsympathetic characters, a by-the-numbers plot and plenty of very long, very sub-Tarantino conversations that go nowhere at all. It is, however, the film's tiring nihilism, its overcooked, cynical misanthropy and its irritating apolitical sloganeering that turns it from an admirable failure into something I outright hated. (3/10)


Monday, August 12, 2013

Grown Ups 2

Another year, another terrible Adam Sandler film... 

Also up at Channel 24

What it's about


Grown Ups 2 has no plot whatsoever. Seriously.


What we thought


The good news: Grown Ups 2 is a far, far more enjoyable experience than Adam Sandler's last two “comedies”, That's My Boy and Jack and Jill. The bad news: having route canal surgery without an anaesthetic is a more enjoyable experience than watching Jack and Jill and That's My Boy so that's really not saying much.


Just because Grown Ups 2 never plumbs the icky comedic depths of Jack and Jill and doesn't revel in the casual misogyny of That's My Boy doesn't mean that Adam Sandler suddenly developed a sense of humour or basic taste. It's just that if Sandler was somehow able to make a film more hateful, more unfunny, more grotesque than That's My Boy, it would, most probably, bring about The End of Days. Or, at the very least, cause eyeballs to melt out of their sockets and entire multiplex complexes to spontaneously combust.


Fortunately, we don't have to worry about any of that just yet because Grown Ups 2 is, very simply, a terrible film – but that's all it is. There's nothing about it that makes you want to take a dip in a pool of hydrochloric acid or have you scurrying to the nearest bomb shelter. It's just another typically awful film to come from Happy Madison Productions and, considering just how many typically awful films that particular production house has released in just over a decade, we should, I suppose, be used to it by now.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Pacific Rim

What Transformers should have been but this ain't no Pan's Labyrinth



It's been five long years since Guillermo Del Toro's last film, the severely underrated Hellboy II, so it was something of a disappointment - to this fan at least  - to hear that rather than taking that time to make another, more personal film like The Devil's Backbone or Pan's Labyrinth, the Great Man was instead making the kind of big, dumb blockbuster upon which Michael Bay has made his very bad name. And make no mistake, Pacific Rim is as big and as dumb as its premise suggests.

If you assume, going in, that there's got to be much more to the film than huge robots punching huge monsters then prepare to be horribly let down. The film does spend some time setting up its plot involving giant alien monsters (Kaiju) attacking humanity who then strike back with similarly gargantuan robots (Jaegers), piloted by the best and brightest that the world's military has to offer, but neither its meager, yet exposition heavy plot, nor its flimsy characters, offer much more than a basic context for giant robots to punch giant monsters. And needless to say, there isn't exactly much in the way of subtlety or subtext to be found either.

That's the bad news. However, once we stop judging Pacific Rim according what it's not and start allowing it to be what little it clearly wants to be, it's nowhere near the huge step down from Del Toro's previous work that it might appear at first glance. It's hard to go into a new Guillermo Del Toro film and not expect at least the smart, quirky inventiveness of a Hellboy II, if not the profound maturity and depth of a Pan's Labyrinth, but just because Pacific Rim doesn't deliver on either level, doesn't mean it doesn't have plenty to offer - it just needs to be taken on its own terms.