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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.