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Friday, January 30, 2015

Fury

An successful mix of sub-Spielberg war action with sub-Tarantino talkiness doesn't quite manage to overshadow the modest pleasures of David Ayer's latest.

This review is also up at Channel 24

What it's about

In the final days of World War II, Hitler has called on all German men, women and children to fight the allied invaders and within that setting Fury tells the story of a ragtag tank crew led by the tough-as-nails but war-worn Sgt. Don 'Wardaddy' Collier who are the first and often last line of defence against German forces that both out-man and out-gun them.

What we thought

Fury is a major step-up for director David Ayer after his last film, the dreadful Schwartzanegger-led Sabotage, which went some way towards erasing the good will that he engendered with his top-notch “blokey” cop film, End of Watch. Unfortunately, though it's a handsomely made and well-acted piece of work, it is dragged down by a muddled tone, unfortunate comparisons to better work and a sense that, despite the worthiness of the story, it doesn't really add up to very much.

The film is effectively broken into three parts and though they work decently enough on their own, they do add up to a seriously incoherent, disjointed (but not unenjoyable) end product.

The first of them, which picks up with our heroes in the middle of a bloody battle and with one of their own having just been shot to death, is your typical war-is-hell war film that isn't up to the best examples of this genre, with neither Saving Private Ryan's cacophonous brutality, nor Apocalypse Now's poetry. It's fine but we've seen this a thousand times before, a number of times done better, and though there is some interest in seeing how new recruit, Norman Ellison (a very good Logan Lerman) meshes with this group of veterans while trying to come to terms with the horrors of war, it's unarguably the most boring part of the film.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The Pyramid

A lot less scary than your average pyramid scheme...

This review is also up at Channel 24

What it's about

With a documentary crew following their every move, a team of archaeologists enter a newly unearthed pyramid in Egypt, only to come face to face with some very powerful ancient forces.

What we thought

Another month, another sub-par horror movie, but even by the lackluster standards of modern day horror films, The Pyramid is still notably terrible. It's especially maddening though, because the rich wellsprings of ancient Egyptian mythology it so ineffectually tries to mine offers so much in the way of otherworldly weirdness.

Most of the film's most heated critics – and, to be sure, there are a lot of them – point towards the film's utter lack of originality as its biggest flaw, but however much it may share rather obvious similarities with everything from Neil Marshall's The Descent to every found-footage horror movie ever made, its lack of new ideas is by the far the least of The Pyramid's many, many crimes.

It is, most fatally, without any decent scares whatsoever. In fact, forget decent scares, it doesn't even offer any indecent scares either. There are one or two moments when you will probably jump out of your seat, to be fair, but it's less because of any sense of abject terror as much as it's the cinematic equivalent of someone creeping up behind you and shouting “BANG!”. Though even there I'm probably giving it too much credit. The Pyramid doesn't “creep” in any way, shape or form: it pretty much just walks right up to you and screams in your face for a good hour and a half.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Pride

It may have been snubbed in the recently announced Academy Awards nominations but, make no mistake about it, Pride is easily one of the highlights of the past year. 

This review is also up at Channel 24

What it's about

During the UK's lengthy miners strike in 1984, a group of young gay activists (and one lesbian) take up the cause of those who they perceive as their brothers in arms: the thousands of miners who, with severely dwindling amounts of both resources and morale, continue to hold out against the Thatcher government's steely resolve in a battle for their very livelihoods. The only problem is that the conventionally conservative, often homophobic miners, may be less than appreciative of where their latest support is coming from.

What we thought

“Gay” in both its homosexual characters and in the sheer joy that it will inevitably instil in the hearts of all but the most cold-hearted (or, at least, Tory-leaning) of us, Pride is “feel good” filmmaking of the highest order. It's quite tough at times, to be sure, as its touchy subject matters obviously occasionally demands, but it also fearlessly wears its sentiment on its sleeves and is both rambunctious and witty in its fully developed sense of humour. It's not a musical (though it has a killer, period-specific soundtrack) but it has that same gleeful, bouncy sense of joy that the best musicals inevitably possess.

It is also, however, unabashedly left-leaning in its politics. It sides quite, well, proudly with the plights of both the LGBT community and, perhaps most pertinently, with the working class miners and general working class Joes (and Jos) who are all too often used and abused by those in positions of wealth and power. It's a film that clearly despises bigotry on the one hand and unfettered capitalism on the other and, by film's end, you will have a pretty clear idea of just how little director Matthew Warchus and screenwriter Stephen Beresford think of Margaret Thatcher (neither of whom are exactly young but neither of whom are exactly veteran filmmakers either) and her ultra-conservative government.

Unbroken

Angelina Jolie once again silences her critics with another strong directorial effort. Who knows, maybe next time around she'll finally deliver the truly great movie that she's been hinting at with her first two films.

This review is also up at Channel 24

What it's about

Unbroken tells the true story of Louis Zamperini, an Olympic athlete, who, during his time serving in the frontlines of the second world war, survived a plane crash that killed most of his unit, only to spend over a month stranded at sea, before being “rescued” by the Japanese navy who transferred him to spend the rest of the war in a prisoner of war camp under the heel of a particularly sadistic Japanese officer.

What we thought

At only her second turn in the director's chair, Unbroken once again proves Angelina Jolie to be a very fine filmmaker with a good visual eye and an even stronger storytelling sense but, like her début feature In The Land of Blood and Honey, it eludes greatness and never quite lives up to the worthy story it tries to tell.

And, frankly, it's kind of hard to see why.

It has a fine cast, led by the quite excellent British up and comer, Jack O'Connell; it tells a remarkable true story of survival among seemingly impossible odds; it features a script by, among others, no less than Joel and Ethan Coen and, again, Jolie herself clearly knows what she's doing behind the camera. So why oh why does Unbroken resolutely fail, in even its very best moments, to be anything more than pretty good?

Friday, January 9, 2015

Birdman

And now for a major awards contender that's really, really worth your time.

This review is also up at Channel 24.

What it's about

An ageing actor who, in his heyday, played a beloved silver screen superhero named Birdman tries to reclaim his reputation by throwing everything he has into a theatrical adaptation of a short story by the illustrious literary-writer Raymond Carver. Along the way, he has to deal with his semi-estranged daughter, impossible actors, vicious critics and, most debilitating of all, his own doubts and insecurities that may or may not be presenting themselves as his long-buried Birdman persona – superpowers and all.

What we thought

Birdman is one of those films that is surprisingly difficult to talk about. Not because of any major plot twists or some such narrative surprises (though it certainly has its share of those) and certainly not because it's so “arty” that it becomes impossible to discuss in any sort of concrete way (it's “arty”, sure, but in a way that is personal rather than pretentious) but because there's so much to it and so much that is left up to the viewer's own interpretation that it feels all but impossible to do it justice in anything other than a major doctoral thesis.

Birdman is a film that will undoubtedly resonate most strongly with those who are either involved in creative pursuits or, at least, have strong interests in the same, but as it deals with everything from familial relationships to existential questions of what we're doing here, whether we make an impact on the world around us and whether anyone has any real hope of staying “relevant” as they slip into old- and middle-age, it undoubtedly has something to say to most audiences. There's so much in here, in fact, that it's all but impossible to take it all in in a single viewing and the meaning of the film will not just vary from audience member to audience member but will almost definitely evolve as you yourself do.

If there is one constant about Birdman though, it's that no matter what you may or may not subjectively take away from it, it will undoubtedly always remain a brilliant piece of filmmaking.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Foxcatcher

I'm on holiday so this s going to be short but I didn't want to let Foxcatcher come and go without leaving my own two cents on the matter.


Foxcatcher tells the true story of an eccentric millionaire, John du Pont and his relationship with a pair of Olympic Champion Wrestling brothers as he enlists them to help bring the American team, of which he has become chief benefactor, to the top of the 1988 Seoul games. This is not, however, the kind of feel-good, inspirational sports drama that these sorts of things tend to be but a very dark character study of two very unlikeable men who are joined together by perhaps more than their professional aspirations.

Unfortunately, while I remain a fan of both of director Bennett Miller's previous cinematic outings, Moneyball and Capote, I unfortunately don't share the love that most critics seem to have for Foxcatcher. Part of the problem I have with it is what I like to call "Raging Bull syndrome" in that however much I admire the film's technical prowess, the film's hateful characters are so horrible that they detract from and overshadow everything that the film gets right.

Obviously, Foxcatcher is a far cry from the admitted technical brilliance of Raging Bull - it's a very good piece of cinema, rather than an instant classic - but it still has much to recommend about it, which is why it's so ultimately disappointing that I hated it as much as I did. It's very atmospheric, it's well shot, it features a very decent script and top notch performances from everyone, but most especially Channing Tatum and Steve Carell who both do brilliantly playing against... if not type then at least stereotype. They've both shown their dark side before but these two usually immensely likable actors really push themselves in their roles here.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Holiday Delights: Big Hero 6 and Paddington

Just when you thought you'd seen all the Marvel movies to come out this year, here comes yet another one that's an absolute must-see - even if you probably din't realize it was a Marvel movie. You think that's surprising though, wait until you get a load of that Paddington Bear movie... 


Big Hero 6 is, despite the lack of Marvel branding, yet another Marvel Comics-based movie - or yet another really, really good Marvel Comics-based movie, to be exact. Playing out as something of a mix between The Incredibles (itself a thinly veiled Fantastic Four pastiche) and The Iron Giant, Big Hero 6 tells the story of a young genius inventor, Hiro Hamada, who, after tragedy strikes, teams up with a group of slightly older but like-minded young wizzkids and an inflatable medical-helper robot names Baymax to stop a menace that threatens the entire city of San Fransokyo (a beautifully imagined metropolis that melds together the styles and architectures of , you guessed it, Tokyo and San Francisco). 


It isn't, it has to be said, quite on the level of those two Brad Bird masterpieces, but Big Hero 6 is still a wonderful animated film for all ages that is bursting at the seams with big laughs, high octane superhero adventuring and a surprising amount of pathos and genuinely touching emotional beats. It works best when it concentrates on the relationship between Hiro and the just absurdly adorable and hilariously funny Baymax but it's pretty much a delight all the way through.

What really takes the film over the top though, is that while it works great as a piece of storytelling, it is, quite possibly, the most visually breathtaking animated film released to date. While special care has been given to giving each character their own very definite look - ranging from our day-glo, brightly-coloured human heroes to the perfect minimalism of Baymax to the trenchcoat-wearing, Kabuki-masked cool of the villain of the piece - it's the awesome vistas and intricately detailed architecture of San Fransokyo that make the film really stand out from the pack. While there's plenty of reasons to rewatch Big Hero 6, it's worth revisiting just to take in its wealth of peerless visuals and art design alone.

It's a very good film elevated to near-classic status by its aesthetics alone. And in age where we now take CG effects for granted, if not outright lash back against them for their dominance in modern cinema, that's no small feat. No Small feat at all.