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Friday, October 23, 2015

The Diary of a Teenage Girl vs Me, Earl and the Dying Girl

I haven't reviewed Me and Earl and the Dying Girl yet so I thought I'd team it up with this week's much tougher coming-of-age story. They certainly make for an interesting double bill.

My review of The Diary of a Teenage Girl is up at Channel 24, but first a couple of quick words on Me and Earl.


In many respects, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is the quirkier, more indie version of the Fault in Our Stars. Again, it's about teenagers dealing with a terminal disease and again there is still the irony of it also being about growing up.

Our hero of the piece, Greg (Thomas Mann)  makes amateur parodies of classic films with his co-worker (really best friend) Earl and he spends his whole life trying to remain invisible in a school divided along arbitrary but rigid lines. When Greg befriends "the dying girl" Rachel (Olivia Cooke) though, who has just been diagnosed with a otentiallyp curable form of leukemia, he is forced to confront his aloof relationship with others and his own thoughts on mortality and life.

It's a lovely, touching and very funny film, with great performances and a terrifically  sharp script by the author of the novel on which it is based, Jesse Andrews. The film parodies are charming and give the film a nicely off-kilter vibe but obviously it's the relationship between our three protagonists that really sell the film. It is, admittedly, a bit lopsided as the first half is incredibly funny and the second half kind of isn't but my biggest issue with it really is just about the biggest compliment I could give it: I wanted to spend more time with these characters and Rachel in particular so I felt kind of short-changed as it ended. It's also not quite as moving as the Fault in Our Stars but, on the other hand, it is funnier and more inventive.

It's good, good stuff basically and well worth checking out.

Now, as for The Diary of a Teenage Girl, things are a wee bit more complicated...

Burnt

Not so much burnt as under-done.

This review is also up at Chanel 24

What it's about

A disgraced American chef, forced to leave Paris thanks to a destructive lifestyle of drugs and booze, sets out to redeem himself by being awarded the coveted “Michelin 3 stars” by becoming head chef of an old friend's respected restaurant.

What we thought

I'm not much of a foodie so excuse the cliched metaphor but, for all of its charms, Burnt is more hors d'oeuvre than entree. It's tasty enough and it's not badly prepared, but it ultimately leaves me hungry and wanting more. Much like the dainty gourmet dishes in the film itself, in fact.

Bradley Cooper returns to a role not too dissimilar from one of his earlier performances as a chef in the short lived TV comedy, Kitchen Confidential, but he has obviously racked up quite the resume since. He is, as is now pretty typical for him, in good form here and he elevates some of the more mundane and well-worn aspects of the story. Though, to be fair, he is hardly alone in this as he is backed up by a really good cast, including Daniel Bruhl, Sienna Miller and Alicia Vikander, along with extended cameos by Uma Thurman and Emma Thompson. Indeed, a lot more from the latter, in particular, would have been especially welcome.

Frankly though, stellar though the cast may be, one has to wonder what they saw in the script (by the sporadically brilliant but inconsistent Steven Knight) in the first place. Not that it has a particularly bad screenplay or anything but, though it may well be perfectly enjoyable, there's nothing all that special about it either, as the story progresses pretty much exactly as you would expect it to and none of the characters, save for Cooper's Adam Jones, are much more than just solidly written.

Molly Moon and the Incredible Book of Magnetism

Really, really not good enough...

This review is also up at Channel 24

What it's about

Molly Moon is a smart, bookish and warmhearted orphan girl, living in a small orphanage in rural England, whose life takes a sudden and dramatic change when she finds a book on hypnosis at her local library.

What we thought

It's tempting to give the frankly fairly terrible Molly Moon and the Incredible Book of Hypnotism a pass just because it's a kids film, and a mostly harmless one at that, but there's something incredibly disingenuous, not to mention condescending, about accepting something this woefully below par just because it happens to be aimed at fairly young kids. In a world where Mary Poppins, School of Rock, Paddington and the Harry Potter series are readily available to rent, buy and/or download – and that's to say nothing of the countless brilliant animated kids films out there – there really is no excuse for something this lame and lazy.

And “lazy” is really the operative word here. That the story itself is incredibly far fetched – in particular, what with its portrayal of hypnotism being stretched to include some pretty powerful levels of mind control - is forgivable in and of itself as fairy tales aimed at kids are always allowed to rely on “fairy tale logic” but what is significantly less forgivable is how half-assed everything from the plotting, to the characterization to the basic moral of the film all are.

I haven't read the original novel by Georgia Byng, but there is a sense throughout the film that rather than telling a remotely coherent (and yes, a film can have “fairy tale logic” and be coherent at the same time) story, it's far more interested in strip mining better works for a cheap cash-in. The whole hypnotism as mind control thing is baloney, of course, but it also just feels like a desperate attempt to give our hero some sort of special power, but without ever thinking through what they're going to do with it.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Black Mass

Welcome back Mr Depp but this ain't exactly Goodfellas.

This review is also up at Channel 24

What it's about

The true story of Jimmy “Whitey” Bulger, a small-time Boston gangster, who, by working with the FBI to take down Boston's major crime family, soon finds himself with free rein to become the most ruthless, most feared criminal in the city.

What we thought

Black Mass is a gangster movie that can perhaps be admired for how utterly unglamorously it portrays the casually violent gangster lifestyle (which makes for a particularly interesting contrast with Legend, the upcoming portrayal of the infamous Kray brothers) but it's a very hard to film to be invested in, let alone actually enjoy.

Everything from the beige-and-tweed '70s fashion to the slow, downbeat direction to the utterly humourless script, adds up to an incredibly dour portrait of some of most spectacularly unlikable and unsympathetic low-life scum to hit our screen in quite some time. Director Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart, Out of the Furnace) does an admirable job of sticking to his guns; never conceding an inch to mainstream Hollywood tastes – but is that enough to add up to a film that's actually worth sitting through?

Even if it is hard to deny the integrity of the piece, it's equally hard to really recommend it as a piece of cinema, as it's story is fairly rote (if true), its characters ones-dimensional and it offers very little that we haven't seen done better before. At least, that would be so if not for one, utterly inescapable factor: Johnny Depp.

Reconnect

See, this is what happens when I review South African movies...

This review is also up at Channel 24

What it's about

While looking for a place to launch their new video game, Eric Scott and Jason White stumble upon an abandoned warehouse containing a fully functional twenty-year-old artificial intelligence named XJ1. With that warehouse about to be destroyed, the two friends search for a new home for the AI, before settling on uploading “him” to their work network: the highly secure intelligence company named Sky Corp, which happens to be run by Jason's father. What could possibly go wrong?

What we thought

I've got to be honest: Reconnect is a total bitch of a film to review. Quite aside for the fact that it's always a bit difficult to give a negative review an earnest independent movie, made with the best of intentions – bashing cynical, corpulent product like Transformers 4 is one thing, bashing a highly personal local film is quite another – Reconnect comes with a horribly tragic backstory. Earlier this month, the director of the film, Marius Swanepoel passed away suddenly, shortly after the film received its first public screening in Cape Town. He was, as near as I can tell, in his early thirties. Probably even younger than I am now. Rest in peace, sir.

Before getting into the actual film, therefore, please keep the following disclaimer in mind. This is true of all my reviews and is generally true of most reviewers but considering the nature of what we're dealing with here, I can't think of a better time to restate my “mission statement”. The following review is my honest opinion and, though I try to explain my opinions to the best of my abilities, my opinion will never be the final word on any film. I also write every review with the understanding that all movies require a lot of money, time and hard work to make, no matter what I might think of them; no matter how good or bad they may be. I approach every film as a reviewer, not as a filmmaker; I have no intention of ever directing a film and I am not bitter about anyone who has the talent and/ or the patience to make films. These are not the ravings of a jealous amateur filmmaker but the ravings of someone who loves film and storytelling in general. Finally, except in the rare case where I know the filmmaker to be a horrible piece of work, even my most scathing reviews should be seen as opinions on the work, not the person.

Got all that? Good, because I thought that Reconnect was unspeakably terrible.

Monday, October 12, 2015

American Ultra

In which Kristen Stewart is the best thing about it...

This review has already been up for a few days at Channel 24, in case you missed it.

What it's about

Mike Howell (Jesse Eisenberg) seems to be your average twenty-something stoner, living a fairly ordinary life as an aspiring cartoonist stuck in a dead end convenience-store job but with a loving girlfriend at his side every step of the way. As it turns out though, Mike is not who or what he seems as he suddenly finds himself the target of the C.I.A. – but, lucky for him, he is also armed with a set of deadly skills; the origins of which, though, are a total mystery to him.

What we thought

With its not entirely original but still very promising premise, you would be forgiven for thinking that American Ultra would be, at the very least, a fun, funny thrill ride that makes good use of its quite idiosyncratic cast. Sadly, it's something of a misfire that has its share of decent moments but is mostly a curious mess of a movie that can't quite decide whether it's a relatively serious high-concept espionage thriller or a goofy action comedy. Inevitably, it ends up being neither; making for a mercifully brief but quite frustrating ninety-four minutes.

Written by Max Landis whose very solid debut with Chronicle always somewhat counteracted his occasionally grating public persona as a bit of a geek know-it-all, stumbles badly here with a script that comes across as surprisingly uncertain of itself, filled with two-dimensional characters and leaden, unfunny jokes. Worse, it all feels unnecessarily mean-spirited and joyless for something that really should play out like a light and funny genre picture.

Pan

Another origin story that no one wanted...


By this point, I think we can safely say that J.M Barrie's immortal fairy tale has been pretty well mined by the great Hollywood machine. Along with the classic Disney animated film from way back in 1953, we've had a silent adaptation in the early '20s, spin-offs in the form of the Tinkerbell series and sequels, including Stephen Spielberg's largely derided Hook. We've even had a look at the life of its author in the decent but underwhelming Finding Neverland - which itself came out just a year after P.J. Hogan's fairly straightforward adaptation.

It's understandable, of course, as Peter Pan is that classic a story - and I haven't even gotten into the many, many reinterpretations on stage and TV and in novels and comic books, including my own favourite "cover", Peter David's wonderful novel, Tigerheart - but with so much baggage, it's hard not to come to a new version without at least some trepidation. Unfortunately for Pan - in essence, Peter's "origin story" of how he came to live in Neverland in the first place - such trepidations proved to be very well founded.

Pan is a bad movie, but it's not just your garden variety bad movie. No, Pan is the sort of bad movie that is so utterly pointless, so fundamentally misjudged that it's good points - of which there are actually quite a few - not only don't improve the bad parts but are brought down by them; to the point that they actually add to rather than subtract from the frustration of watching the film. It's a pretty classic example of the whole being significantly less than the sum of its parts, in other words, that is made all the worse by the fact that it constantly alludes to the brilliant fairy tale that inspired it but which it resolutely fails to live up to.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

The Martian

I can't remember the last Ridley Scott film to feel this assured. Well, okay, yes, I can, but that was American Gangster in 2007 and who the hell can remember that far back.

Welcome back, Sir Ridley, it's been way too bloody long!


The Martian tells the story of the first manned mission to mars (to be clear, the fictional story - but, um, you do know that, right?) and of the astronaut who is accidentally left for dead by his crewmembers and is forced to fend for himself on the inhospitable Red Planet until NASA send their next mission some four years hence. However, rather than going the more obvious route of a gritty, or at least more lonesome and meditative, survivalist story, it plays out like Apollo 13 on steroids - and it really is all the better for it.

This means that though it does lack the depth of something like Duncan Jones' beautiful indie sci-fi flick, Moon, it more than makes up for it in terms of sheer, unfiltered enjoyment. And, frankly, after the unpleasant, if breathtakingly evocative and/ or disappointing Everest, give me effortlessly enjoyable over grueling any day of the week.

Now, this being a story about a guy trying to survive a damn near impossible situation, it's not exactly all fun and games, but considering its subject matter, it's an absolute delight to see just how light and funny it turned out to be. The film flits between through locations - Mars, NASA HQ and the homeward bound flight of the rest of our poor astronaut's crew - and all three sections of the film are peopled with incredibly likable and sympathetic characters, with nary a bad guy in sight.