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Monday, January 27, 2014

Grudge Match

Meh. Just meh.

This review is also up at Channel 24

.What it's about

Thirty years after their last match, two retired boxers are coaxed back into the ring for one final match, but great and deeply entrenched personal animosity between the two means that this is one match that is about a lot more than just sportsmanship.

What we thought

Saying that Grudge Match is the long-awaited answer to who would win in a fight between Sly Stallone's charmingly fictional Rocky Balboa and Robert Deniro's take on the decidedly charmless and sadly all too real Jake La Motta, might seem like a great way to sell the film, but bringing up either Rocky or Raging Bull in this context is a frankly disastrous mistake.

While I have always hated Raging Bull because of just how hateful its lead character is, it's impossible to deny what an artistic triumph that film was (Raging Bull remains, incidentally, my go to answer for explaining how far apart objective criticism and personal taste can sometimes be) and having Grudge Match evoke that 1980 masterpiece is kind of like someone teasing you with scotch fillet, while you're trying to wolf down a borderline inedible fast food burger.

Similarly, though Rocky doesn't have quite so high a reputation, it remains arguably the greatest sports movie ever and (most of) its sequels are still the textbook example of how to transition from an awards-winning artistic triumph to crowd-pleasing b-movie goodness and, again, there's nothing about Grudge Match that is anywhere near this remarkable. It is perhaps somewhat tonally consistent with Rockys III and IV but if you're hoping for anything in Grudge Match to reach the glorious daft heights of having Sly's alter ego basically KOing communism single-handedly then you're in for a bitter, bitter disappointment.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

12 Years a Slave

I may, as always, have some catching up to do but there was no way that I wasn't going to give at least a quick look into one of the past year's best and most important films.

Giving my highest of highest recommendations to Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave may come with the caveat that it is a truly grueling, almost physically difficult film to sit through, but that doesn't mean that it doesn't earn every one of those ten stars and it certainly doesn't mean that you shouldn't race out to see it - just be prepared for a cinematic experience that is anything but fun.

In the same way that Schindler's List was far from the first film to deal with the Holocaust but has gone down as the one Holocaust film that everyone needs to see, 12 Years a Slave will very possibly go down as the quintessential American slavery film. Also, like Schindler's List, this astonishingly true tale of Solomon Northop (played here with understated, mesmeric brilliance by Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man living in 19th century New York who gets kidnapped and sold off as a slave, was both woefully under-reported prior to the release of the film (hands up anyone who has actually read Northop's memoirs) and manages to shed a whole new light on a familiar subject by focusing on someone who was, in many ways, an outsider to the catastrophic and tragic events happening around them.

Northop was not, in any way, your typical slave as rather than being born broken into a system that basically stripped you of humanity from birth, he spent much of his life as a free man, one who matched his white friends and colleagues note for note when it came to sophistication, education and great refinement. While most of us (though I fear "most" might be something of an exaggeration) may not even begin to imagine the mindset of your average slave, Solomon is someone with whom the vast majority of Western audiences can very easily relate. When Solomon, therefore, is sold into slavery for, as the title suggests, more than a decade of his life, we gain an insight into the horrors, the cruelties and dehumanization of life as a slave in a way that I dare say we never have before. No, not even in Django Unchained!

Sunday, January 12, 2014

The Wolf of Wall Street

No, seriously. This one really ain't for the kids. It's kinda great though.

And hey, I just realized. Wolf of Wall Street is basically The Great Gatsby on acid... or is that Quaaludes? And they both star Leo DiCaprio in the title role... what are the odds?

This review is also up at Channel 24

What it's about

The true story of Jordan Belfort that tracks the ups and downs of his wildly freewheeling life from rookie stock broker to major mover and shaker to major target of the federal government to his inevitable downfall.

What we thought

Martin Scorsese's latest depiction of sordid humanity has been called everything from “his best film since Goodfellas” to “disgusting” but though just about everything about The Wolf of Wall Street is admittedly hyperbolic by nature, such hysterical observations only serve to obscure both all that is great about the film, as well as its few missteps.

First, the idea that Wolf is some sort of return to form is obviously absurd when you consider just how very much on form Scorsese has been since the release of The Departed back in 2006. With brilliant rock documentaries (The Rolling Stones' Shine a Light and George Harrison: Living in the Material World), acclaimed TV series (Boardwalk Empire) and, of course, great films, including the deliciously pulpy Shutter Island and the outright magical Hugo under his belt, the past eight years at least have been a wonderful time to be a Scorsese fan.

As for the foaming-at-the-mouth attacks against the film, that Wolf of Wall Street has been labelled “disgusting” and “obscene” is basically a feather in its cap. Whether or not the film has come any closer than any of his other recent projects at matching the sheer quality of Goodfellas, which is considered by many to be Scorsese's masterpiece, is of secondary importance to the fact that it is probably his most Goodfellas-like movie in terms of subject matter and structure.

Don Jon

So, this week at the cinema is all about the sexy time - though in a way that isn't always that comfortable. Either way, whatever you do, don't check out the two big new releases this week with your parents or kids. Or perhaps even your significant other, come to think of it.

This review is also up at Channel 24

What it's about

Jon (Joseph Gordon Levitt) is in many respects a regular joe who is close to friends and family, attends church regularly and works a basic job, but his tendency to objectify everything from cars to his body to members of the opposite sex means that he finds it all but impossible to form a meaningful, committed relationship with a woman – a problem that is exacerbated by his obsession with pornography. Things soon start to change for Jon though,when he meets and falls for the voluptuous, sexy Barbara (Scarlett Johansson) whose own obsession with Hollywood's depiction of romance means that she too has trouble managing her expectations in relationships.

What we thought

Joseph Gordon Levitt has come a long way from the young, scrawny kid who were first introduced to in the intergalactic sitcom, Third Rock from the Sun. From Third Rock he went on to become a very promising teen actor in rock solid teen comedies like 10 Things I Hate About You, before becoming the versatile and massively talented adult actor whose uncanny ability to straddle the line between movie star and character actor has resulted in some very memorable roles in such notable films as 500 Days of Summer, 50/50, Inception, Looper and Lincoln. As such, his being exceptionally good in the titular role of Don Jon is hardly surprising, but the same certainly can't be said of his work behind the camera as Don Jon marks the young but veteran actor's (32 years old but with some 63 acting credits to his name) directorial debut.

The history of cinema is littered with actor-turned-filmmakers and though many of these “hyphenated talents” have churned out some seriously exceptional films in their time, few have made so gutsy an opening statement as Gordon-Levitt. Take, for example, Lake Bell whose In A World presented us with a clearly very talented filmmaker who had before that largely been unfairly ignored as a seriously charming and funny leading lady but while In a World was an effortlessly enjoyable charmer, it never aimed anywhere near as high as Gordon-Levitt does in his own auspicious debut.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Empire State

No. Not that one.

This review is also up at Channel 24.

What it's about

Two friends decide to rob the armoured car depository where the one works as a security guard but with a hardened cop on the one side and some seriously shady criminals on the other, things quickly start to go wrong.

What we thought

Despite its title, Empire State is neither about one of the tallest buildings in the world, nor is it about the fictional Marvel Comics university and that's unfortunate because what the film is really about is far less interesting than a straight documentary on either of those things could ever hope to be. Empire State is the name of the place that our two anti-heroes decide to rob in the, what, third film released this year about a bunch of dopes finding out that there's no such thing as a simple crime?

Admittedly, it's no where near as awful as The Counsellor but it's also nowhere near as much fun (in a grotty, dirty, unbalanced kind of way) as Pain and Gain and considering how often this particular kind of crime story has been tackled in every storytelling medium possible, losing out to a film made by Michael Freakin' Bay just isn't good enough. I've said this alarmingly often over the past year but, once again, the problem with the film isn't that it's terrible, as much as it's really, really mediocre – and considering how well established the genre to which it belongs undoubtedly is, being mediocre is almost worse than being terrible.

But then, considering how director Dito Montiel (Fighting, A Guide to Recognising Your Saints) has basically made a career out of gritty, testosterone driven dramas, it's not exactly surprising that his latest feels like just another day at the office. It certainly doesn't help that in the lead he cast Liam Hemsworth who has neither the right kind of screen presence nor has he shown, to date, the acting chops needed for this kind of film and while the Rock does his Rock thing as only he can, this crime film's biggest crime is how it wastes a talented actress as good as Emma Roberts on a pitiful, helpless girlfriend role.

Carrie (2013)

I don't have internet access for most of this week, so you're going to have to wait a little longer for my year-end roundup and for some mini reviews of a bunch of films currently on circuit that are actually worth your time. For now though, here are two of my reviews that were published over at Channel 24 this past weekend. Sorry for the delay.

Check it out Channel 24 as well, if you're so inclined.

What it's about

Carrie White is a shy girl, raised by an overbearing ultra-religious mother who, while trying to navigate the embarrassments and cruelty that comes with being a high school outcast, has to come to terms the very powerful and very deadly telekinetic powers that she has suddenly started to develop.

What we thought

I am probably going to get a lot of flack for this but I was never the biggest fan of the original Carrie. Stephen King, who authored the novel on which both Carrie films are based, may consider it to be one of the most successful adaptations of his many, many works but I found its dramatic, high school elements to be more than a little naff and its horrific elements entirely non-horrific. It had a strong performances from Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie and, being a Brian De Palma film, it certainly had visual style, but it's far from the best horror film of the 1970s.

With that in mind then, I approached this remake with a touch of optimism added to my usual apathy or outright cynicism towards this never ending stream of horror remakes. While I will never understand why anyone thought “updating” stone cold classic like The Wicker Man, Psycho or Evil Dead was a good idea, the significantly more flawed Carrie could certainly be improved on. This is especially so because in the nearly-forty-years between the original Carrie and its latest and biggest remake (it was already remade as a not very well received TV movie in 2002) have seen TV shows like Freaks and Geeks and My So Called Life inject some much needed realism into high school dramas, while Buffy the Vampire Slayer (the TV show, obviously) built upon and bettered the supernatural/ teen angst combination of De Palma's film.

It is with no small amount of relief therefore that I can officially proclaim the new version of Carrie to be, by far, one of the best – if not the best – horror remakes of the last decade, if not longer. It's far from perfect, to be sure, as it still shares one major problem with the original and it certainly never matches De Palma's version in terms of visual ingenuity, but this is the very rare case where I can honestly say that you can gladly watch the remake rather than the original. Besides, in terms of its visuals, Carrie (2013) my not match the original but at least it avoids that vomitous yellow-red tinge that has made most modern horror remakes visually repulsive in a way that has little to do with the actual horror.