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Monday, March 31, 2014

Muppets Most Wanted

I'll have a bunch of quickie reviews for some other notable movies soon, I promise. For now though, The Muppets' latest,

This review is also up at Channel 24

What it's about

After coming together again in the last movie, the Muppets embark on a world tour but their happy reunion may be short lived as their new manager and his boss, the evil Kermit look-alike Constantine, use the tour as a cover for a string of heists leading to their ultimate target: England's Crown Jewels.

What we thought

Who doesn't love the Muppets? With their wealth of personality and killer jokes that works equally as well for adults as they do for children, it's hardly surprising that Jim Henson's legendary creations are enjoying yet another big screen revival. Their self-titled 2011 film brought The Muppets to a new generation with all the jokes, heart and old fashioned puppetry – this may be the 21st century but fortunately no one dared to try and digitise these crucially physical creations – fully intact and even if it may have spent just a bit too much time on the human co-stars, it was a rousing success that captured most of what made the Muppets so great decades ago.

Now, three years later, we have the inevitable sequel, but unfortunately, Muppets Most Wanted is a major step down from its predecessor. It starts with a song about how much sequels suck and, while the ensuing nearly two hours certainly don't suck, they never quite manage to recapture the old Muppets magic. What's really frustrating though is that it's hard to grasp exactly what went wrong.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

I still have a few more of last week's releases to look at but I'm going to do something completely different and review a film days before it actually comes out. I'm just that excited by it...

If you've been waiting for Marvel Studios to take their first major stumble and break the chain of good to excellent films that they've been releasing for years now, I'm afraid you're just going to have to wait a while longer. Captain America: The Winter Soldier doesn't just continue Marvel's winning streak, though - it seriously ups the ante. Never mind just being infinitely better than its predecessor, the good Captain's latest adventure may well be the most creatively satisfying Marvel movie to date.

It's best to know as little about the plot going in as possible but The Winter Soldier shifts from the war movie dynamics of its predecessor towards what is basically a spy film on steroids. While Cap continues to settle into life in the 21st century, he struggled with his allegiance with SHIELD, an organization that is thousands of miles away from the simple, black and white morality of his previous role as a soldier for the Allies during World War II. It's a theme that was first explored in the Avengers but it becomes the focus here, as Cap and his possibly loyal allies quickly become embroiled in a - well, that would be telling, wouldn't it?

Suffice it to say that this is a story filled with intrigue, shady espionage, explosive action scenes, plenty of humour and the introduction of at least three new characters that are destined to become central to Captain America's life - not least of which is the eponymous Winter Soldier, a cold war assassin who may be more than a match for the original Super Soldier. Along the way we get more Black Widow and more SHIELD than ever before as both the super spy and the shady intelligence agency she works for are every bit as integral to the film's plot as Captain America himself.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

The Spectacular Now

Lets kick off this quite large week with a review of yet another really good coming of age story. I will have reviews of the rest for you soon but don't expect anything on Reasonable Doubt (which was screened at an inconvenient time at the last minute - also it's apparently rather less than great) and Single Mother's Club (because by now you should know whether or not Tyler Perry is for you and I can't stand his stuff) anytime soon.

This review is also up at Channel 24

What it's about

Sutter Keely is a popular high school kid who lives his life according to the philosophy of “living entirely in the now”, as is attested to by his lack of interest in his post-high school future and his total callousness towards an increasingly obvious drinking problem. His life changes expectantly, however, when he wakes up on the lawn outside the house of Aimee Finicky – an introverted, “nice” girl in his class whose existence he had never so much as registered before – after a night of drunken misbehaviour.

What we thought

Picking up where The Perks of Being a Wallflower, The Way way Back, Mud and The Kings Of Summer (still unreleased in this country) left off, The Spectacular Now is another in the recent trend of quite excellent coming-of-age dramas hitting our cinemas every few months. And as a huge fan of the genre, I could hardly be happier. While The Spectacular Now doesn't quite reach the heights of Perks or The Way, Way Back it's still a wonderfully heartfelt, poignant addition to the canon that offers its own unique spin on growing up.

The film does, it has to be said, start off on a somewhat worrying note as it looks set to be another terrible teen comedy, starring the star of two of the worst examples of such in recent memory. 21 & Over and, worse still, the truly excruciating Project X went some way towards souring me on Miles Teller for life so it says a lot about his work in The Spectacular Now – and, indeed, about the film in general – that by about halfway through, both he and his character had totally won me over.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Roundup of New Releases for 14 march 2014

This was a pretty big week so while I have already covered two of this week's major releases, there are still a few more to go.

I, Frankenstein. If you though the Underworld movies are the best ever representation of vampires and/ or werewolves then this is for you. This witless, unexciting, derivative, nonsensical garbage is about as bad a retelling of Mary Shelly's classic tale as you could hope to find. Well, semi-retelling anyway. It does start in those way-back days with the creation of the monster by Victor Frankenstein and the monster's ultimate rejection by his maker and the rest of the human world after he takes a human life but most of the film takes place in the present where the Monster (soon christened Adam before finally taking his creator's name) gets caught up in a war between the heaven-sent Gargoyles and the decidedly more hellish demons and while he tries to gain a better understanding of his origins, the demon boss tries to use Victor Frankenstein's ability to create life to create an army of soulless, reanimated bodies in which the fallen demon hordes can take residence.

It has a lot of plot but it's characters are extremely dull, its exposition-heavy dialogue seriously clunky and its action scenes uninspired. It also has a surprisingly underwhelming performances from the great Bill Nighy, who is clearly just there for the paycheck and the same is clearly true of the usually solid Aaron Eckhart whose phoned-in performance makes for the worst Frankenstein's monster in cinema history. Where, oh where, is Mel Brooks when you need him? (1/10)

Sunday, March 16, 2014


Unbelievably, this week sees the release of two truly excellent movies - and they couldn't possibly be more different from one another. 

First up, the return of Alexander Payne. Now in glorious black and white!

This review is also up at Channel 24.

What it's about

Father and son, Woody (Bruce Dern) and David (Will Forte) Grant, embark on a roadtrip from Billings, Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska to claim the million dollars that Woody is convinced is owed to him from a piece of junkmail marketing that he receives in the post. Their already fairly frayed relationship is put to the test as David is forced to indulge his father's fantasies and monosyllabic gruffness – and that's before the two make a stop in the small town where Woody grew up and parts of his family still live.

What we thought

Nebraska hits squarely on two of director Alexander Payne's favourite subjects: cross-country roadtrips and complicated family dynamics and it does so with all the deadpan humour, strong characterization and broiling if understated emotion on which he has built his reputation as one of America's great indie-spirited directors.

Admittedly, it would be nice to see him return to some of the bitter satire of Election but Nebraska still serves as a typically brilliant companion piece to About Schmidt, Sideways and The Descendants as it touches on many of the same themes and does so with all the same compassion and wry wit. Touching on themes of ageing, loss, familial bonds, long-term romantic relationships, economic desolation and ultimately on finding meaning and purpose in even the most mundane aspects of life, the film is a master class in balancing some seriously conflicting emotions and moods.

Woody and David, the two male characters at the centre of the film, are separated by a generation and are in vastly different stages in their respective lives but they have more in common than even their familial bonds would suggest. In particular, both are suffering from major existential crises that are, in effect, the primary driving forces of their preposterous journey. While Woody is faced with obsolescence, dementia and a lifetime of past mistakes and regrets, while David is faced with an uncertain future, an unfulfilling professional life and a long-term romantic relationship that is rapidly being eroded by his own fear of commitment.

About Last Night

This was a pretty big week for movies. Some are great, some are terrible and some fall right in between. Ladies and gentlemen... Kevin Hart's 568th film this year! And it's only March!

This review is also up at Channel 24

What it's about

A remake of the 1980s film of the same name, which was itself based on the David Mamet play Sexual Perversity in Chicago, About Last Night follows the ups and downs of the relationships between two couples as we follow them from their first introductions in a bar to their sexual dalliances that soon turn into long-term committed relationships.

What we thought

Despite initial appearances to the contrary, the interesting thing about About Last Night is that it is not merely a pointless remake that exists purely as some sort of politically correct stunt where it tells the same story but with black characters in place of the uber-Caucasian Brat Pack cast of the original. Or, at the very least, if political correctness was actually the original intention, the film should be applauded for elevating so cynical a ploy into something far more worthwhile.

The 1986 original and the current update are almost identical in terms of structure, in terms of story and in terms of a fair portion of the dialogue but, despite the film being anything but racially charged, changing the race of the main characters actually creates an entirely new dynamic that gives the two films quite a different feel from one another.

The remake of About Last Night is nowhere near as on-the-nose (or as terrible) as your average Tyler Perry fair and neither director Steve Pink nor screenwriter Leslye Headland do anything as obvious as moving the action to a more urban setting and, in fact, keep the characters much the same as the original. Our more straight-laced couple, Danny (Michael Ealy) and Debbie (Joy Bryant) are pretty much identical to their counterparts in the original (Rob Lowe and Demi Moore, respectively) and, though Joan (Regina Hall) and Bernie (Kevin Hart) seem to fit much more neatly into the stereotypical comedy black characters, they actually aren't any more fast-talking or wisecracking than Elizabeth Perkins and Jim Belushi were in the original.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

300: Rise Of an Empire

No need for a roundup this week, as this is the only other film I've seen of this week's meager selection. I missed the screening for the Grandmaster (general reaction: pretty but lame) and Winnie Mandela wasn't press screened for critics, was filmed four or five years ago and looks to be a cheaper version of Long Walk to Freedom so I wouldn't exactly hold my breath for it being any good.

Speaking of not being any good...

Zack Snyder's adaptation of 300, Frank Miller's Dark Horse graphic novel, was a stylish, deliriously goofy take on the Ancient Greek legend of the three-hundred Spartan warriors that alone kept overwhelming Persian forces at bay. It was dumb, it was corny and it was, of course, one of the most homoerotic action films ever made - which is really saying something - and it garnered for itself quite the fan base. This was 2006, after all, and Frank Miller hadn't quite burned his good name entirely (unless you happened to be a major Batman purist, at least) with his own risible adaptation of Will Eisner's classic pulp-strip The Spirit and, worse yet, by showing himself to be a fascistic, far-right-leaning nutball.

Now, however, with The Spirit having been expunged from the memory of all who saw it and Miller himself having dropped almost entirely out of the limelight completely - his far-right manifesto/ comic book, Holy Terror, was met with consternation and vilification but I don't think anyone actually bothered to buy the blasted thing - it makes sense that the two more successful Frank Miller films have finally gotten their long-awaited sequels. Miller himself one again joins Robert Rodriguez as co-director of the very, very long-gestating Sin City sequel, A Dame to Kill For, which will finally be hitting our screens in a few months. But first, we get this: a completely unneeded, pointless followup to 300, based on the unfinished Miller graphic novel followup, Xerxes.            

There really was nowhere to go with the 300 story considering that - SPOILER - the eponymous heroes had all died by the end of the film, which means that Rise Of an Empire is less sequel, more addendum to 300. It takes place a bit before and a bit during the events of 300 and it involves a lot of fighting and oodles upon oodles upon oodles of boring backstory, delivered in expository, uber-portentous voice-over that was funny last time but it seriously grating here.

I was never personally a huge fan of 300 as it was never really my thing, but I understand why it's as well liked as it is. I cannot however, for the life of me, understand why anyone would give this dreary, boring nonsense a second thought.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

The To-Do List

Small week, not a good week. This is probably the week to catch up on those great Awards season movies (and don't you dare miss the under-represented Inside Llewyn Davis and Saving Mr Banks) and leave the new releases for next week.

First up, this week's Channel 24 review, which is basically a gender-flipped sub-American-Pie sex comedy. 

What it's about

Brandy Klark, a bookish school valedictorian decides that it wouldn't do to enter college as a virgin so she draws up a “to do list” of the various sexual acts she wants to experience during her summer vacation between the end of high school and the beginning of college. At the top of her list is having sex for the first time with a hunky but immensely stupid guitarist.

What we thought

In the middle of a cast filled with TV stalwarts, The To Do list features Modern Family's young Nolan Gould but those of us who are used to seeing him as an awkward teenager may be surprised to see just how young he is here. Despite being released relatively recently in the US, the very pre-pubescent Gould confirms that the film was actually shot a good four or five years ago and has been sitting on the shelf ever since. Sadly, it's not that hard to see why.

Some of my fellow critics – certainly my fellow South African colleagues – have really taken against the film, going so far as it call it “by far the worst film of the year so far,” but it really isn't anything of the sort. It was barely even the third worst movie I saw the week it was press screened. It's your average crappy teen sex comedy but if it's any worse than that, it's simply because the talent involved makes it something of a genuine disappointment.

This is writer/ director Maggie Carey's first feature film so she was obviously an unknown quantity but the cast is filled with a metric ton of largely comedic actors that have done great work in the past. And, despite the material, they still elevate the film far beyond the truly dire levels of, say, those awful American Pie knockoffs.

Cine Prestige: Two Years Old and Going Strong

And now, as a break from my usual film reviews, here's a write up I did for South Africa's Cine Prestige line of luxury cinemas.

This review was originally published at Channel 24.

Cine Prestige has been open at The Zone in Rosebank since April 2012 and, despite its premium price, it's easy to understand why these cinemas are soon to become fixtures at a number of new locations throughout this coming year. After having already opened a second Cine Prestige cinema at Cradlestone Mall in Johannesburg's West Rand in November last year, these incredible cinemas are set to also open in Sandton City, The Grove Mall (Pretoria) and Gateway Shopping Centre (Durban) during the first half of 2014.

This review is based on my watching a 10 PM showing of Anchorman 2 at The Zone's Cine Prestige last Tuesday night, which was only my second visit to this luxury cinema after having seen a preview of The Wolf of Wall Street last year. While Scorsese's latest masterpiece had me so enthralled that I only took a cursory note of the cinema – considering its three hour length, it's hardly surprising that the thing I noticed most was the comfort of the cinema's reclining chairs – but the ceaselessly disappointing Anchorman 2 gave me plenty of opportunity to appreciate my surroundings.

The costly price of these cinemas do mean that they're probably best saved for special occasions – unless you have Discovery or Edgars Club discount cards where the price is brought down considerably, albeit to a still-higher price than regular cinemas – but it's easy to see exactly why these cinemas demand higher prices.

Monday, March 3, 2014

American Hustle and Winter's Tale

Just two movies left to finish off this week. Well, three technically but I have no earthly idea what The Perfect Wave is supposed to be.

American Hustle. Following hot on the heels of his last film, the quite terrific Silver Linings Playbook, American Hustle finds director/co-writer David O Russell on rather different ground. Moving from the character-driven intimacy of Silver Lining Playbook to a plot-and-style-driven crime caper that plays like a more flippant, less intense Goodfellas, it is, if nothing else, impressive how easily O Russell shifts gears from one genre to the next. American Hustle is a sprightly and attractive slice of pure entertainment that has what to say about identity verses appearance but somehow still feels slightly hollow for it. It may have garnered as many nominations as its predecessor and it's just as handsomely made, but it never quite manages to match the heart or the depth of Silver Linings Playbook.

American Hustle tells the largely true story of the 1970s Abscam scandal where a small-time con artist is forced by an ambitious FBI agent to help him bring down a New Jersey Mayor, a number of state congressmen and a powerful crime family. Things, needless to say, never quite go according to plan and it's a wonderfully twisty story that manages to grip even at its most indulgent, rambling moments.

The cast is lead - albeit just about - by a brilliant, often comic performance by Christian Bale who, with the most elaborate comb-over I've ever seen, has given up some of his usual intensity for a sense of fun that actually suits him rather well. He is matched easily by a brilliantly dickish performance from Bradley Cooper and an intentionally-fake-English-accented turn from the always great Amy Adams, but the actors and the characters that won me over most were actually those with much smaller roles.

Dallas Buyers Club

Ah this is more like it.

This review is also up at Channel 24

What it's about

Based on the true story, it's 1985 and Ron Woodroof has just been diagnosed with HIV and given 30 days to live, but his determination and sense of self preservation gives him a new lease on life as he takes on the medical establishment and starts offering help – for a price, of course – to AIDS patients like himself by bringing in non-FDA-approved drugs into America from Mexico.

What we thought

Whatever else you might say about the film, Dallas Buyer's Club features what may be the highpoint in Matthew McConaughey's career-reinventing “McConeissance”. After making a career of starring - generally sans shirt - in truly awful romantic comedies, the past couple of years have found McConaughey consciously correcting the course of his acting career and giving breathtaking performances in some truly impressive films. From playing a romantic fugitive in Mud to wowing everyone as a particularly brutal contract killer in Killer Joe, McConaughey has been knocking it out of the park on a seemingly monthly basis. Add to that some now-typically brilliant work alongside the perennially underrated Woody Harrelson in the terrifically slow-burning crime series, True Detective, and you're left with simply one of the greatest career reinventions in cinema history.

McConaughey's role in Dallas Buyers Club not only adds to that but it presents a new set of acting challenges in that he not only has to play a largely unlikable redneck as a sympathetic and compelling lead, he also has to avoid the temptation of giving in to the usual cliches of what could easily be a typically cynical Oscar-baiting role. Unsurprisingly, McConaughey conquers these challenges with virtuoso ease. His work here is subtle, multi-layered, compelling and emotionally riveting as he navigates the Woodroof's more detestable moments with great care as he makes us care about this man, even when we're very strongly disagreeing with his particular viewpoints on life. He also had to lose an ungodly amount of weight for the role but, really, that's the least impressive thing about his performance here.

While McConaughy is the main selling point of the film, though, it would be disingenuous to suggest that Dallas Buyers Club is nothing more than a great performance. Or even - when you factor in Jared Leto who came out of nowhere to deliver a seriously, unexpectedly great performance as a transvestite who becomes Woodruff's reluctant partner and even more reluctant friend and closest confident - two great performances.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

The Frozen Ground

There were some good movies released this week. This was not one of them.

This review is also up at Channel 24

What it's about

Based on the true story of one of America's most deadly serial killers, Jack Holcombe is an Alaskan state trooper who knows that the widely respected Robert Hansen is a brutal serial killer who kidnaps, rapes then murders women but he doesn't have the evidence to prove it. That changes however, when Cindy Paulson becomes the only woman to ever escape Hansen's clutches, but can Holcombe get her to come forward and confront a killer or will she simply vanish into a seedy, self-destructive life of prostitution and drugs?

What we thought

As serial killer stories go, the one that Frozen Ground is attempting to tell isn't necessarily original but it's a good solid true-life crime story that should make a good true-life crime film. Unfortunately, it doesn't. Not by a long shot. Despite a solid premise, good actors and fittingly icey visuals, The Frozen Ground is an incredibly boring, monotonous film that somehow feels less authentic and believable than purely fictional crime dramas.

Not to be confused with the singer or, apparently, the politician, the film's writer/ director is newcomer Scott Walker who clearly has a knack for impressive visuals and working with veteran and newbie actors but his storytelling leaves a lot to be desired. Admittedly, those who are fans of monotonous procedural crime shows like CSI might find more to like in The Frozen Ground than I did, but I found the film's fidelity to the procedural facts of the case, resulted in a film that's in desperate need of even adequately defined characters and a sense of drama or suspense. Also being paced slightly faster than molasses in winter would have been a welcome improvement too. Being icy is one thing; frozen stiff quite another.

Saving Mr Banks and Other Releases from 21 February 2014

Just in time for my look at this week's movies, a look back at the films that came out last week.

Oh, but first a Channel 24 review. And, no, I'm not giving it it's own post. It doesn't deserve one. 

What it's about

Surly, a wily squirrel has been expelled from his park community but while he wonders the scary city streets, he comes across a nut store with all the nuts he and his park brethren will need to survive the winter. What Surly doesn't know though is that the nut shop is actually a front for a bank robbery by a gang of human criminals.

What we thought

Just about the only good thing to be said about the Nut Job is that it has some perfectly OK character designs and its animation in general is quite nice. Other than that, this third-rate, Loony Toons rip-off will quickly be forgotten by its target audience(kids still watch Loony Toons, right?), while their parents will be left wondering just how in the hell they got stuck watching a kids film where a bunch of cuddly animals get involved in a bank heist. We've already had speed racing snails and time travelling turkeys but even by those standards The Nut Job seems like something of a stretch.

Putting aside the ludicrous leaps in logic, The Nut Job is also pretty lacking in laughs and its lead character is frankly a bit of an ass. Like most big-budget digital animations, The Nut Job may have a rather good voice cast, including the likes of Will Arnett and Liam Neeson, but they're wasted on bland characters and seriously sub-par writing.

And it's not going to take long to see how wasted Arnett is here. The Lego Movie comes out in a few weeks and his few (voice) appearances as Batman in just the trailers alone, show how well suited he is for voice-acting work and how disappointing he is as Surly the Squirrel.

Here's the problem though: However much adults are all but guaranteed to hate this film and however much their kids are bound to forget all about minutes after leaving the cinema, it's currently the best, if not only, real kids offering at the cinema. And with cuddly animals that cute and that cuddly, there's a pretty good chance your young kids will want to see it.

But hey, maybe I am being too harsh. This is a perfectly innocuous kids flick, with nothing really objectionable about it and with enough cheery cuteness to keep your kids occupied for 85 minutes. Is “inoffensive” really the best we could hope for with this sort of thing? If these sorts of cuddly animated movies are basically guaranteed their audiences, is it really too much to hope that the filmmakers behind them at least put in some effort to make something worthwhile?

The Nut Job was never going to be Toy Story 3, but is aiming for the modest heights of even something like Despicable Me too much to hope for?

Oh. Wait. Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs is still on, isn't it? Never mind then. Go watch that instead.