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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.