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Sunday, July 31, 2016

Ghostbusters (2016)

Who You Gonna Call? Not the sexists, apparently...

This review is also up at Channel 24.

What it's about

When ghosts start cropping up all over New York City, a trio of paranormal-obsessed scientists team up with a subway worker, who saw one of the ghosts first-hand, to investigate and ultimately stop an apparent ghostly invasion of their city.

What we thought

Considering Hollywood's love of remaking and retelling beloved movies, books and comics, it's telling that no shoddy remake in history has been greeted with the kind of vitriol that this new take on '80s comedy classic has been greeted with. Even before the admittedly lackluster first trailer hit, reaction to the new, all-female Ghostbusters was overwhelmingly negative but, for all that there were some perfectly fair criticisms against remaking so beloved a cult classic, it was hard to get past the pure, unadulterated misogyny behind (or really smothered all over) most of the criticisms out there.

Now that the film is finally out, I'm pleased to say that it spends no time at all silencing the more dubious complaints by setting up the women who are the all-new Ghostbusters as a formidable comic line up and one that actually stands up as something quite different from the classic team of Bill Murray, Dan Ackroyd. Harold Ramis and Ernie Hudson – all of whom, incidentally, appear in the film, though, obviously in the case of the late, great Harold Ramis, not necessarily in person. This is not just PC gender-bending but something that actually uses the femininity of the new heroes to inject a certain amount of freshness into a well-established formula. You may question the new Ghostbusters' need to exist but it does make significantly more sense with this particular cast than with just another bunch of dudes playing roles that were already perfected thirty years ago.

Casting choices aside, though, the new Ghostbusters did still have to deal with the more sensible question of whether it could possibly live up to what is now considered one of the seminal films of the 1980s and a firm favourite of many people of a certain age - myself included. The answer, inevitably, is that no it couldn't but that doesn't mean that it doesn't have more than enough going for it to win over new fans and mostly please old ones.

Nobody's Died Laughing

This may be a bit rich since I'm awful with coming up with names and titles but don't hold its awful title against this otherwise very charming, if slightly flawed, documentary.

This review is also up at Channel 24.

What it's about

A documentary about the life and work of beloved South African comedian, Pieter Dirk Uys, as explored during his latest comedy tour.

What we thought

That I am, to be entirely upfront about this, not a particular fan of Pieter-Dirk Uys' comedy, does little to detract from the fact that this documentary only heightened my respect for the man and his work. It's not necessarily a particularly great documentary and the clips we get of his comic performances don't exactly turn him into John Cleese or Bill Hicks in my eyes but Nobody's Died Laughing does do a fine job of capturing Uys' incredible work ethic, his irreverent attitude towards authority and the pulsing humanity that lies behind every joke he's ever told; every costume he's ever donned.

Directed by Willem Oelofson, Nobody's Died Laughing is a film that's clearly in love with its subject, which is fair enough as Uys certainly comes across as quite lovable here but those looking for even the slightest whiff of a dark side to this South African national treasure, are certainly not going to find it here. Uys is probably too humble for a documentary about him to be entirely hagiographic in nature but between the endless kind words said about the man from any number of his friends – both famous and otherwise – and the general complimentary tone of the film itself, it's not too far off either.

And yet, for all of the film's tendency towards the celebratory and complimentary, Pieter-Dirk Uys himself gives the film more than its share of playfulness on one hand sharpness on the other, with a rich stream of melancholy running throughout the film as we uncover a background that was seldom untouched by the hand of tragedy.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Lights Out

Yet another solidly above average horror movie? What is the world coming to?

This review is also up at Channel 24

What it's about

A young woman is forced to confront her past and her estranged family when her much younger half-brother is plagued by the same ghostly presence that drove her away from her mother when she was younger.

What we thought

This year has slowly started to see something of a resurgence in the quality of unexceptional but quietly effective horror films, with both Before I Sleep and the Conjuring 2 being far more enjoyable than most of the chillers of the past few years. They were derivative and unexceptional, to be sure, but at least they kind of delivered on their promise; easily clearing the low bar that the horror genre - or at least the mainstream Hollywood version of it - has set for itself over the past decade or so.

Lights Out, which is produced by the Conjuring's James Wan, continues that trend. It's hopelessly unoriginal and there's little about it that's truly terrifying but it still rises to the top of the heap thanks to a reliance on atmosphere, rather than cheap jump scares (though, as always, there are a few of those too) and on its willingness to actually craft engaging characters, who are played by a number of very fine actors.

Swedish director, David F Sandberg, makes a real impression here as a first-time feature-film director by turning his short film into something that certainly plays like a full-length feature but it noticeably lacking in flab. Like comedies, horror works best when constrained by a brief running time and that's certainly the case here, with the entire film and credits clocking in at less than 90 minutes.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

The Idol

Regardless of your own opinions about the cause of the suffering in Gaza (for me it rhymes with... um... Sum Muss), the Idol is about much more universal themes and even if it doesn't entirely succeed, it's at least, at the very worst, a very honourable failure.

Also, I was wrong about the two young actors being related, apparently, so though my original Channel 24 review has them listed as brother and sister, I've corrected it for the sake of this blog.

What it's about

The true story of how Mohammed Assaf, a Palestinian wedding singer, escaped his difficult life in Gaza by fulfilling his life long dream of competing in and winning Arab Idol – the Arabian version of the popular singing competition.

What we thought

It's hard not to get embroiled in the politics of the region when talking about any film set in Gaza – or obviously, Israel, Iran or Syria – but because the latest film by acclaimed flmmaker, Hany Abu-Asad (Paradise Now, Omar) largely goes out of its way not to politicize the undeniably horrible conditions of life in Gaza, I will try and do the same in this review.

The Idol tells a fairly familiar but perhaps no less extraordinary story of someone overcoming their circumstances and all the pain, danger and limitations that such circumstances entail by triumphing on a highly popular, competitive TV show. We saw it a few years back in Slumdog Millionaire and again, though obviously less arduously, in One Chance, but, really, this is the sort of story that these kinds of shows themselves tend to thrive on.

The question, then, is whether or not the Idol is able to rise to the top of its own whirlpool of competition. The answer, frustratingly, is only kind of.

Marauders

Give me great movies, give me terrible ones but what the hell am I supposed to do with this?

This review is also up at Channel 24

What it's about

After criminals hit a chain of banks owned by the same person, a group of FBI agents start putting the pieces together that there may be more going on than just your garden variety bank robbery.

What we thought

Marauders is the type of generic crime thriller that makes so little an impression that, for the purpose of this review, I literally had to check out a couple of trailers just to remind me what the hell it was about. It also probably doesn't help that, in this case, the plotting was convoluted and incoherent that it was something of a struggle following it even while watching it. And not in a cool Mulholland Drive kind of way.

It's a pity because the basic plot is actually fairly interesting, with plenty of potential for fun conspiracy-thriller thrills and even some good old social commentary. Instead, any sense of fun is buried under murky storytelling, an utter lack of a functional sense of humour and enough souped up testosterone to make even the most macho of alpha males throw up in the mouths a little. And, really, the less said about the atrocious dialogue the better.

Even the rather OK cast can't save it but, with Bruce Willis phoning it in in much the way he approaches seemingly all of his roles lately, that's not entirely surprising. Still, it's hard not to feel at least a little for guys (if you're looking for women, you've come to the wrong place) like Christopher Meloni, Dave Bautista and even Adrien Grenier, who do seem to be trying their best to raise themselves up above the dodgy material by first-time screenwriter, Michael Cody.

Friday, July 8, 2016

Ice Age: Collision Course

I know it's "only a kid's movie" but don't kids deserve better than this?

This review is also up at Channel 24

What it's about

The fifth installment in the Ice Age series finds Manny, Diego and the gang on a rush against time to prevent an asteroid from hitting the earth and wiping out life as they know it, as one did 100 000 000 years ago when (almost) all dinosaurs became extinct.

What we thought

It kind of says everything you need to know about the movie that I started praying, and quite early at that, for the asteroid to actually hit the earth and bring an end to this tired and tiresome series once and for all. Spoiler: No surprise, it didn't, and I'm sure we'll be stuck with “Ice Age: Still No Bronze Age in Sight” in just another a year or two.

On the plus side, once again credit must go to the animators and artists involved in the film because it is, unquestionably, very easy on the eyes, with loads of pretty colours everywhere (though less so in 3D) and some nice late ice-age landscapes in general. Sadly, that's about it for the good news.

The Ice Age series has always been two or three thousand steps behind the best of Pixar, Disney, Dreamworks, Laika, Sony, Aardman and Studio Ghibli in terms of family-friendly animated movies (though Blue Sky Studios' output in general is pretty underwhelming) and there's nothing in the fifth (fifth!) installment that even hints at a Madagascar-3-like resurgence. No, Ice Age: Collision Course may well be the worst in an already lackluster series.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Comics Talk: The Next Three Months - Big Names, Big Image Comics Titles.

It's been a while but here's a quick look at three very promising titles coming out from Image Comics in the next three months - each by mostly established talent. I'm going to keep this relatively brief, as I'm gearing up to review a terrific, brand-new original graphic novel from Vertigo Comics in the upcoming weeks.

Snotgirl (by Bryan Lee O'Malley (writer) and Leslie Hung (artist); July 2016). A comic book about a fashion blogger with major allergies may be one of the least promising premises ever but Bryan Lee O'Mally has made a career out of turning dopey premises into something special. He did it with Seconds, with Lost at Sea and, most definitely, with his thoroughly wonderful Scott Pilgrim series. I see no reason why Snotgirl shouldn't be the same.

Both his first (presumably) monthly comic and his first major project with someone else providing the art, Snotgirl still promises to be vintage O'Malley. The preview - which, if nothing else, is an exciting showcase for newcomer Hung's beautifully cartoony, colourful and expressive artwork - may have been nothing but a taste of what's to come but it does look like what's to come is the usual O'Malley mix of goofy-smart humour, memorable characters, plenty of heart and something to say about a specific aspect of modern life through both well-placed metaphor and more explicit character building. 

This is the very definition of a must-buy for any fan of Bryan Lee O'Malley's previous work and potentially a good introduction to non-fans. Though, honestly, if you haven't read Scott Pilgrim yet (or seen the terrific film adaptation), what the hell are you waiting for? It really is about as good as comics get - and a pretty good indication of just why fans are so very eagerly anticipating a series about a fashion blogger with a runny nose.

Kill or Be Killed (by Ed Brubaker (writer), Sean Phillips (artist) and Elizabeth Breitweiser (colourist), August 2016). It almost makes absolutely no difference what this series is about because, with this team at the helm, it's hard to believe that this series will be anything but excellent. Brubaker and Phillips have effectively established themselves as the Lee and Kirby of gritty, crime-tinged noir comics over more than a decade a now; with very nearly every month seeing the release of something new by them. From their non-creator owned Wildstorm Comics property, Sleeper, through to their recently concluded 50s Hollywood noir miniseries, the Fade Out, these guys have never missed a beat in delivering compelling, genuinely dark and profoundly human stories about the underbelly of human existence.

For those who aren't already hooked, the story of this long-form ongoing series (a departure from their usual, novelistic miniseries format) concerns an ordinary guy who is forced to murder bad people for reasons that will become clear, presumably, as the series goes on and has been described by its creators as a mix of Death Wish and early Spider-man comics and a deconstruction of the revenge thriller. It sounds both somewhat different from their usual stuff and very familiar too. 

And, with the inimitable Betty Breitweiser again providing some of the best colouring in comics to Sean Phillips' already detailed and expressive work, it should look as great as it reads.

Seven to Eternity (by Rick Remender (writer), Jerome Opena (artist) and Matt Hollinsworth (colourist), September 2016). Once again, the vague plot synopsis of this new epic fantasy series tells me little that would make me want to buy the book anywhere near as much as the talent involved. Rick Remender is, very simply, one of the best and most prolific writers in comics today, while Jerome Opena is an undeniably brilliant talent whose art I have shamefully sampled all too infrequently.

Remender's latest crop of comics may be noticeably different from one another, often existing in entirely different genres, but they all make brilliant use of genre fiction to tell allegorical tales about his own life and his own views on what's going on in the world around him. While Deadly Class is a heightened exploration of his early, often troubled years, Low explores the value of hope in the bleakest of circumstances and Tokyo Ghost examines the effects of our obsession with both technology and entertainment. They're all terrifically exciting stories, with wonderful art (well, Low a bit less but that's just personal preference) and vivid characterization but it's their... soul that make them some of the best books on the stand.

Going for a full-blown epic fantasy series is yet another departure for Remender in terms of genre, though the most obvious reference point for this would probably his early creator-owned work, Strange Girl, a post-Rapture theological fantasy that happened to feature an issue or two illustrated by none other than Jerome Opena - and, again, was infused with Remender's own struggles with religion and black and white morality. Will Seven to Eternity touch on similar ideas or go for something completely different? Who knows but, I for one, cannot wait to find out.         
     
Lengthy previews for all three titles can be found in the Image+ magazine and, presumably, online as well. For South African readers, get all three of them by pre-ordering from Zed Bees Comics Universe in Edenvale, Gauteng.