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Friday, November 27, 2015

Spectre

South Africa finally got the latest James Bond movie after it seemed to have come out everywhere else on earth first. Was it worth the wait, though?

This review is also up at Channel 24.

What it's about

A message from beyond the grave has James Bond hunting down a shadowy organization whose leader may have a connection to Bond's own past, while at the same time, even closer to home, forces within MI6 are conspiring to finally bring an end to the 00- program.

What we thought

Bond films have had a long tradition of being weirdly affected by their immediate predecessors, even though almost of all of them are stand-alone films with little to connect them but a handful of characters (and even then, the actors portraying them may not be the same). This started around the time Roger Moore took over as Bond and a dud like Moonraker would be followed up by the excellent For Your Eyes Only, which would conversely be followed by the middling-at-best Octopussy.

This constant bouncing between series highlights and series lowlights would continue throughout Moore's stint as Bond and, though it largely skipped Timothy Dalton (whose two films were sort of oddities in the series anyway), it came back in full force with Pierce Brosnan, whose four films basically went, in order, from great to a bit rubbish to really good fun to just unspeakably awful. The trend seemed to continue with Daniel Craig's first three outings as the exceptional series reinvention of Casino Royale was followed by the awful Quantum of Solace but bounced back with Skyfall, a strong contender for best Bond film to date.

At the outset, then, things don't necessarily look good for Spectre because surely even a great filmmaker like Sam Mendes doesn't have the power to break a tradition as old as he is? As it turns out, he kind of doesn't - but he gives it the old college try anyway. The result is a film that falls solidly on the top half of a qualitative ranking of the Bond series but is still a major disappointment after Skyfall and, though it's leagues better than Quantum of Solace, it still doesn't come close to rising above third place of the Daniel Craig era. It doesn't even manage to displace either Kingsmen: The Secret Service or Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation as the best spy film of the year – though that says as much about them as it does about it.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

The Hunger Games - Mockingjay: Part 2

We can all breathe a sigh of relief: Mockingjay Part 2 solidifies the Hunger Games saga as the gold standard in YA novel adaptations.

As a fierce defender of Mockingjay Part 1 (I loved all the talky bits), it's kind of odd that I have to say that, for all that it gets very right, Mockingjay Part 2 makes a strong case for smooshing the two films into one three-hour long epic.

The Hunger Games' final installment is an excellent capper to the series that impresses both as a gripping piece of entertainment and as impressively ambitious social commentary that deals with class warfare, traditional warfare, revolutions, the corruption of power and the way that the media is used and manipulated in all of the above. It's brave, smart and audacious filmmaking that just happens to be a major, big-budget Hollywood film aimed, nominally, at teenage girls.

Unfortunately, the one thing that stops it from ever really coming close to toppling Catching Fire as the series' best entry is that the pacing of the film - especially during much of the assault on the capital - lurches all over the place with a stop-start structure that alternates between really nicely done action scenes and one or two too many discussions about what to with poor brainwashed Peta who gets stuck accompanying them on this most crucial mission. Had they streamlined these sections and used them to join a condensed version of Mockingjay Part 1 with the film's climactic hour, Mockingjay would have been a damn near perfect single film. But, alas, money doesn't talk, it swears, and we landed up with two "merely" very, very good movies instead.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Grandma

All hail the return of the great Lily Tomlin to our big screens!

This review is also up at Channel 24

What it's about

A teenage girl approaches her recently widowed lesbian grandmother to help her pay for an abortion after her deadbeat boyfriend flakes on her but when it's revealed that her grandmother is as broke as she is, the two set out to raise the six hundred dollars that she needs – preferably without ever alerting the girl's emotionally cold, businesswoman mother.

What we thought

Arguably his best film since About a Boy, writer/ director Paul Weitz has crafted a charming, funny little film that seems to have been created with the sole purpose of having the wonderful Lily Tomlin remind us over and over again why it's such a crying shame that she hasn't been in more films over the last decade or two. She gets some unsurprisingly wonderful support by the likes of Marcia Gay Harden, Judy Greer and, the Voice himself, Mr Sam Elliot, not to mention a beautiful turn by beautiful, relative newcomer Julia Garner (she's previously mostly been known for supporting turns in notable works like the Perks of Being a Wallflower and Martha, Macy, May, Marlene) but this is Tomlin's movie all the way.

On paper, her lesbian, right-on, raging feminist character sounds like an infuriating ultra-PC cipher but, along with Weitz's obviously sympathetic writing, Tomlin infuses the character with enough warmth, humanity and humour to ensure that Elle Reid plays like a fully rounded human being. Sure, she's infuriating at times but that's just because she's an infuriatingly flawed person, but she's also loyal, determined and idealistic.

She doesn't just obviously love her granddaughter but also clearly feels things deeply – so deeply, in fact, that her prickly persona is mostly a defence mechanism to stop her from ever getting hurt, which is so perfectly displayed through her relationship with her current girlfriend, Olivia (Judy Greer, great in a largely straight role). She is also, of course, very, very funny and, even if she would probably be a lot of hard work to deal with in real life, she's terrific company for an 80-minute-long movie. This is a master class in both acting and characterization and, even if other parts of the film don't quite work all the time, she is enough to make the film a must-see.

The Loft

It's SUPPOSED to be a bit rubbish...

This review is also up at Channel 24

What it's about

Five married men buy an expensive loft apartment for their extramarital activities with their assorted mistresses, one-night-stands and working girls, but their shared secret takes an even darker turn when, one morning, one of them discover the body of a young, naked woman, brutally murdered and left face down in one of their beds.

What we thought

In many respects a locked-room murder mystery, the Loft is a quite old fashioned bit of sexy, pulpy fun about a group of fairly reprehensible men getting entangled in a web of lies, murder, secrets double-crosses and beautiful femme fatales. It's far from the best example of its genre (for truly great modern-day pulp, check out the Ed Brubaker/ Sean Phillips line of graphic novels from Image Comics) but it's a lot more effortlessly enjoyable than most of the stinky overseas reviews may have you believe.

The Loft is actually the second remake of Erik Van Looy's 2008 film, Loft, with the same director taking the helm for this English-language remake, working off a script by Wesley Strick, which is itself a direct adaptation of the original script by Bart De Pauw (got all that?). I have seen neither the original, nor the 2010 Dutch remake, but the mix of American and European sensibilities in this current remake are never less than fascinating.

How to Make Love Like an Englishman

Killer title, not so killer movie.

This review is also up at Channel 24

What it's about

A chauvinistic, womanizing Cambridge poetry professor heads for a new life in Los Angeles with his beautiful and very pregnant, young student, but it's not long before his new commitment to being a faithful husband and father is challenged in the most unlikely ways.

What we thought

Any film that has as many alternate titles as How to Make Love Like an Englishman (we get its original title, but it's also known in other territories as Some Kind of Beautiful and Lessons in Love – which sound for all the world like 1980s John Hughes teen comedies) is bound to be the sort of crass, crappy product that even those soulless studios are pretty embarrassed about. And, mostly, they kind of have the right to be. It's a plodding, misjudged and nowhere near funny enough romantic comedy with a cast that probably should know better and an ass-backwards kind of morality that you'd think we would have all long grown out of.

To be entirely honest, though, I didn't hate it anywhere near as much as I probably really should have. Dare I say it, I even kind of enjoyed it at times.

Part of it, to be sure, is that Jessica Alba and Salma Hayek are even easier on the eyes than the film's beautiful West Coast vistas (LA is known to be a notoriously ugly city, but you wouldn't think so from this movie) but there's also some fun to be had with Pierce Brosnan playing a charming but misanthropic, chauvinistic ass and Malcolm McDowell as his even more chauvinistic, curmudgeonly ass of a father. They kind of belong in a blacker, edgier comedy than this, but they are good for a chuckle or two.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Brooklyn

I'm going to make this one quick as I want a review up of it in time for the weekend but suffice to say, this is easily the best film of the week and, a couple of niggling flaws aside (hence the slightly conservative 8-star rating), one of the best films of the year.

I can't reveal exactly why I have some slight reservations about the film, as they all have to do with events - and one in particular - that take place just before and during the final act of the film but let's just say that had they done things very slightly differently in the later parts of the film, I would have no qualms whatsoever about giving this nine or even ten stars.

It's simply a beautiful film that is as soulful as it is immaculately crafted; as understated as it is moving. Brooklyn is a simple story of a young immigrant being caught not just between her old home and her new life, but between two very different but equally worthwhile men. This isn't Twilight, though, so those looking for melodramatic sweep should probably look elsewhere as this is far more interested in emotional honesty and quiet humanity than in complicated triangles. Hell, there isn't even a single antagonist to be found anywhere in the film.  

Even with its wonderfully witty and humane script by Nick Hornby (based on the acclaimed novel by Colm Toibin) and handsome direction by John Crowley, Brooklyn is very much Saoirse Ronan's film. This is the first film where she gets to fully immerse herself in her Irish background and make full use of her very thick Oirish accent, but more importantly it's probably her best performance yet. And considering how exceptional she is in damn near everything she has ever done, that's really saying something. She's backed by a top-notch cast, to be sure, but it's the way that she imbues her character with softness, strength and understated complexity that makes everything around her work as well as it does.      

Really, not much more needs to be said. It's a gorgeous little movie that, a few hiccups aside, stands tall as one of the very best of the year. Truly lovely, lovely stuff that I cannot recommend enough.


Sunday, November 8, 2015

A Walk in the Woods

Where's the love?!

This review is also up at Channel 24

What it's about

Based on Bill Bryson's beloved autobiographical travel book, we find Bryson (Robert Redford), older and living the quiet life with his wife in their suburban American home after two decades living in England. It's not long, however, before his general restlessness and unending passion for travel leads him to try hiking the punishing Appalachian Trail with a decidedly out of shape old friend (Nick Nolte) – all in the spite of the protests of his wife (Emma Thompson) and just about everyone else who knows him.

What we thought

A Walk in the Woods has generally not been particularly well received by overseas critics and, as near as I can tell, by many a Bill Bryson fan, but I'm slightly at a loss as to why this is. I haven't yet read the book on which the film is based and have only recently gotten into Bryson's work in general (based on what little I have read, though, his reputation as a funny and engaging non-fiction writer is very well earned) but regardless of how much the film may depart from its source, it's hard to believe that anyone wouldn't be utterly charmed by the end result.

The film has long been a passion project for Robert Redford – so long, in fact, that it was originally envisioned as being a reunion project for Redford and his long-time partner in crime, the much-missed Paul Newman – and though that does mean that Redford overlays a lot of his own personality onto the Bryson character here, he also imbues the film with enough heart and wit to more than do justice to a writer who is known for both.

I suppose it would be possible to criticize the film for its meandering plot, its half-assed eco-friendly pontificating and its overt sentimentality - but that's rather missing the point.

Bridge of Spies

Spielberg! The Coen Brothers! Tom Hanks! What could go wrong?

Not that much as it turns out...

This review is also up at Channel 24

What it's about

At the height of the cold war, American insurance lawyer, James Donovan, is called on to represent Rudolf Abel, a British man accused of being a Soviet spy. What starts off as a civic duty soon becomes something far greater, however, as Donovan and Abel's lives intertwine in a way that places both of their lives in danger. Based on a true story.

What we thought

In a way, I needn't really say much more about Bridge of Spies than that is directed by Steven Spielberg, co-written (based on an original script by newcomer Matt Charman, adapting Donovan's own writings) by the Coen Brothers and starring Tom Hanks. It's a frankly astonishing selection of talent and even if Bridge of Spies is not exactly the greatest film ever made, you probably don't need me to tell you that it is very good indeed.

And yet, there is still plenty that's surprising about it. For a start, I highly suggest against reading too much about what the film's actually about as going in blind means that I never really knew where it was going. What starts off looking for all the world like a Cold-War-era courtroom drama soon becomes something much more unexpected and much more intriguing but that really is all you should know going in – which is why I intend to continue being as vague as possible in terms of the plot in this review.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Crimson Peak

I know it's not exactly deep but as visual storytelling goes, it's hard to beat Crimson Peak.

And sorry this is so late but I've been a wee bit under this weather the past week. And a bit lazy. And yeah, this will be pretty short because, honestly, Crimson Peak is the sort of film you experience, rather than talk or read about.


Billed as Guillermo Del Toro's return to the more personal, intimate filmmaking of Pans Labyrinth and the Devil's Backbone after the bombast of Pacific Rim and Hellboy II, Crimson Peak is actually something a bit different. It's a film that in its construction is clearly incredibly personal to Del Toro (check out the wonderfully informative and funny interview that the Empire Magazine podcast did with the man himself a few weeks back) but is ultimately probably more about his love for gothic romance than anything more personally resonant.

The result is a film that is absolutely worth seeing, just as long as you don't go in expecting another Pan's Labyrinth. It's painstakingly and beautifully put together, with each and every frame a work of art. It may all be surface but with surface this damn near perfect, it's hard to complain too much. It's also certainly not the case that it's just about pretty art design for the sake of pretty art design: Del Toro makes the aesthetic of the film every bit as important to the story being told as the characters and plot. I could describe it here, but the true pleasure lies in experiencing the world of Crimson Peak for yourself without much prior knowledge. Even the trailer - which actually largely misrepresents the film as true horror when it's more of a gothic mystery/ romance that happens to feature some ghosts - should probably be avoided if at all possible.

As for the basic plot, characters, acting and script - you know, those things by which most of us judge a movie - they're actually not as important to the experience of watching Crimson Peak as is Del Toro's lovingly created world and expert storytelling acumen. Though even there, it's probably all too easy to write them off entirely but between the spectacular cast - most especially Jessica Chastain, clearly having the time of her life hamming it up as never before - and the compelling characters they play, there's enough of a baseline human presence to show that Del Toro's filmmaking is still as much about people as it is his love for worldbuilding and monsters. And, yes, the dialogue is overripe, the emotions melodramatic and the twists announce themselves with all the subtlety of a steam train but this is authentic gothic romance, after all, and these elements add to, rather than subtract from the overall experience.

I realize that I have spent almost the entirety of this quickie review seemingly apologizing for the film and that I have also not revealed a single thing about what the film is about, but, in this case at least, both are intentional. There is a lot of joy to be had from seeing how Del Toro tells its story, but the basic plot is really the least important thing about the film - it actually often is, but it's especially so here - and it's only with this understanding that you might truly appreciate what Del Toro has done here.

I adored Crimson Peak but if you want to enjoy it even half as much as me, you do need to approach the film with the correct pair of glasses. It features fine storytelling to be sure, but the real draw here is seeing a modern master making the very most of cinema as an artform. I'm still waiting for him to deliver another emotional powerhouse like Pan's Labyrinth but in the meantime I, for one, am more than happy just to sit back and watch Guillermo Del Toro play.  


Monday, November 2, 2015

Legend

Well, not quite. It ain't half bad though.

This review is also up at Channel 24

What it's about

The true story of Reggie and Ronnie Kray, the notorious twin gangster brothers who all but ruled London in the 1960s and '70s.

What we thought

Legend is, quite frankly, a pretty exasperating piece of work. For every element that works beautifully, there is something else that's just never as good as it should be. It is in many ways a really enjoyable film that's easy to recommend but, at the same time, its weaknesses become more and more distracting as it goes on.

The film grabs your attention pretty much immediately as we meet Reggie taunting a couple of cops whose entire existence is apparently dedicated to following the Krays until Reggie or Ronnie makes the single fatal mistake that will allow them to bring the full force of the law upon their heads. It's terrific stuff with sharp, funny dialogue and excellent performances from Tom Hardy as the charming Reggie Kray and Christopher Eccleston as his chief nemesis, Constable Scott, who is all but unrecognizable to those of us who are most familiar with him from Doctor Who.

Sadly, already the good stuff is tinged by the film's more unwelcome elements: in this case, Emily Browning's unnecessary and overwrought narration. Browning is generally in very good form, to be fair, as Reggie's long-suffering love interest but she is done no favours in her role as omnipresent over-explainer.

Still, hiccups aside, the first half of the film is really pretty effortlessly enjoyable. It almost definitely does a disservice to the true-life criminals that inspired it as the Krays are written as largely fairly innocuous criminals who may have ruled the East End underworld but, in comparison to most of the hardened gangsters of your average Scorsese movie, they seem almost cuddly in comparison.

Knock Knock

Who's there? Who cares?

This review is also up at Channel 24

What it's about

Evan Webber is a devoted husband and father who, while spending a weekend alone at home while his family if away, opens his house to two gorgeous, ruthlessly seductive girls who claim to be lost and stranded in the pouring rain. It's not long before his fidelity is put to the test but what should have been a one-night indiscretion soon proves to be the worst mistake he will ever make.

What we thought

Eli Roth is perhaps best known for Hostel, a film that took the quite clever template of the first Saw film and stripped it of anything but its worst torture-porn excesses; helping to usher in one of the worst ever eras in big-screen horror in the process. His latest film is refreshingly low on the gore but what could have been a highly satirical and smart comment on infidelity instead proves once and for all that our emperor hasn't just been running around sans clothing this whole time but has been doing so with his willy in his hand.

Knock Knock does seem to have a number of critics on its side (it's one of the rare occasions where the critics seem to have liked a genre film more than general audiences) but I cannot imagine why. As a horror or a thriller it is an abject failure, being neither thrilling nor remotely scary (though it is incredibly shrill and annoying) but I get the sense that what it was really going for was satirical black-comedy and it is at that where it really falters.