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Honest, amusing and entertaining

Posted : 1 year, 2 months ago on 8 June 2016 11:43 (A review of Freaks and Geeks)

"She's a cheerleader, you've seen Star Wars 27 times. You do the math."

Many quality television programs are cancelled before their time, but the cancellation of Freaks and Geeks remains one of the most heartbreaking injustices in the history of TV. The brainchild of Judd Apatow and Paul Feig, it premiered in 1999 but struggled on its home network of NBC, and although it attracted a number of vocal, dedicated fans, it wasn't enough to save the show, which failed to receive a second season renewal. The odds were against Freaks and Geeks from the beginning, as this is a period piece set in 1980 which provides an honest, at times painfully realistic depiction of high school life and its associated struggles, representing a departure from glossy soap operas and other mainstream shows at the time. Despite its short-lived life on TV, the show's legacy has been tremendous - the devoted fanbase continues to grow, and it served as a launching pad for a number of actors and crew.

Freaks and Geeks concerns an ensemble of characters, but the show is framed around siblings Lindsay (Linda Cardellini) and Sam Weir (John Francis Daley), and their respective circles of friends. Entering her sophomore year, Lindsay is intelligent, but seeks to break free of her prim and proper image by hanging out with the "freaks" of the school, including her crush Daniel (James Franco), the rough-edged Kim (Busy Philipps), would-be drummer Nick (Jason Segel), and the more cynical Ken (Seth Rogen). Meanwhile, freshman Sam is unsure of how to navigate high school life, spending time with geeky friends Bill (Martin Starr) and Neal (Samm Levine) as they quote movies and pine for the popular girls.

The primary "hook" of Freaks and Geeks is that it subverts typical wish-fulfilment television shows, as signified by the pilot episode's magnificent opening scene: A pair of stereotypically hot high schoolers are seen chatting on the sidelines of a football match, before the camera dips underneath the stands to reveal the freaks of the show's title. Feig, Apatow and the talented roster of writers refuse to go for the obvious resolution to satisfy viewers, and since we are permitted to get to know these kids and care about them, it's moving when tragedy strikes. We root for Sam to win over the girl of his dreams, but when he does, it's not as wonderful as Sam had hoped. Nick, meanwhile, plans his entire future around being in a rock band, but he attends an audition and realises he's simply not as talented as he believed himself to be. It may take some viewers a little while to properly latch onto Freaks and Geeks because it's so heavily rooted in reality and isn't interested in typical Disney happy endings, but this aspect is precisely why the series stands the test of time. Besides, this is still very much a comedy show - laughs are frequent thanks to the sharp writing, and the enterprise remains boundlessly charming.

To the credit of everybody involved, every character, line of dialogue and situation within Freaks and Geeks feels wholly authentic. At surface level, the characters may be bog-standard types, but the show carves out real, three-dimensional people right across the board, from the students to the teachers, and even the parents. Both Feig and Apatow have gone on to direct comedies which are far too lengthy and outstay their welcome, but each episode of Freaks and Geeks is only forty-five minutes, necessitating a tight edit without any filler or flab. It works a treat, with taut pacing and jokes hitting hard, yet the show’s rhythm is also precise - it never feels rushed or over-edited. And since this isn't a twenty-minute show, the creators had room to insert irrelevant yet fascinating conversations between the characters, to build them and make them seem all the more real. It works.

Another thing that stands out about the show is the cinematic style and the use of pop culture staples from the era. (Bill Pope, who went on to shoot movies like The Matrix and Spider-Man 2, served as cinematographer on the pilot episode.) Freaks and Geeks carries the look of an independent movie as opposed to a low-grade TV show, while eye-catching period details litter the frame to make every classroom, household and bedroom look utterly authentic and lived-in. Characters attend the cinema to see movies like The Jerk, and there are discussions about Star Wars, Meatballs and Caddyshack, just to name a few. The music is exceptional, too, with songs from artists like Rush, The Who, Van Halen and KISS, among many others. Hell, even the Rocky II soundtrack gets a look-in. Such touches add plenty of flavour and help to sell the period illusion. 

A number of actors (who are now well-known) got their starts on the series, making Freaks and Geeks fascinating from a historical perspective, especially since many of the performers were teenagers here. Daley, who has progressed onto writing and directing, turns Sam into a three-dimensional kid with hopes and desires, delivering an incredibly nuanced performance despite his young age. He interacts well with Levine and Starr, with the trio sharing a palpable, credible buddy dynamic, and Starr is a comedic firecracker with his understated line delivery. Cardellini is a revelation as Lindsay, carving out a textured, fully-former character - there is not a single false note from her in any of the show's eighteen episodes. Franco, Rogen and Segel are also terrific as some of Lindsay's friends. None of the actors truly stretch their abilities, but that's part of the appeal since they feel so real. It's especially interesting to see Rogen here as he finds his comedic personality. Meanwhile, Becky Ann Baker and Joe Flaherty are superb as Sam and Lindsay's good-hearted parents, and the show also has Thomas F. Wilson (Biff Tannen from the Back to the Future trilogy) on hand as a gym teacher. It's fun to spot other actors in smaller roles throughout the series, including Ben Foster, Shia LaBeouf, Rashida Jones, Lizzy Caplan, David Koechner, Ben Stiller and Kevin Tighe.

Freaks and Geeks was reportedly cancelled primarily because NBC simply didn't "get it," and pushed for Apatow and Feig to turn the show into more of a wish fulfilment fantasy, closer to a run-of-the-mill sitcom. But the show-runners stuck to their guns, refusing to change one of the primary things which made the show as special as it is. With this in mind, perhaps it's for the best that Freaks and Geeks only ran for a single perfect season. On top of the network's demands and the obvious law of diminishing returns that may have taken effect if the show was renewed, the show's cancellation also allowed the talent to go onto bigger and better things.

I wish there was more of Freaks and Geeks, but I am grateful for the eighteen perfect episodes we are left with.


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Everything fans have wanted from a Deadpool film

Posted : 1 year, 2 months ago on 6 June 2016 09:02 (A review of Deadpool)

"I know right? You're probably thinking, "Whose balls did I have to fondle to get my very own movie"? I can't tell you his name, but it rhymes with "Polverine.""

Cult Marvel antihero Wade Wilson/Deadpool has never been properly represented on film, with his first big-screen appearance in 2009's indefensible X-Men Origins: Wolverine failing to do justice to the legendary Merc with a Mouth by turning him into a goofy, throwaway science project. Seven years on, and that wrong has finally been righted with 2016's Deadpool, which gives actor Ryan Reynolds another opportunity to play the character as he was meant to be played in the first place. Written by Deadpool fans Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick (Zombieland), this long-gestating X-Men spinoff stays true to its comic book heritage, resulting in an action-comedy soaked in ultraviolence, pop culture references and wisecracks. And even though it's essentially a goofy parody, the story is told with enough sincerity and gravity to allow for it to be appreciated as more than just a surface-level ride. Deadpool might in fact be the greatest romantic comedy of all time, because it is romantic, and it's certainly hilarious.

A rebellious, ex-special ops mercenary, Wade Wilson (Reynolds) earns a living by doing unsavoury jobs, reporting to confidant bartender Weasel (T.J. Miller) who oversees the racket. Wilson finds love in a hooker named Vanessa (Morena Baccarin), but their relationship is suddenly threatened by a late-stage cancer diagnosis. With no feasible treatment options, Wilson reluctantly leaves Vanessa and agrees to be a guinea pig for a shadowy underground organisation promising a cure for his cancer. Butting heads with scientists Ajax (Ed Skrein) - known more affectionately as Francis - and Angel Dust (Gina Carano), Wilson undergoes a series of sadistic experiments which unlock his mutant superpowers of regeneration, but leave him horrendously disfigured. Wilson manages to escape, but cannot find the confidence to go back to Vanessa, instead choosing to hunt down Francis in the hope of getting his former good looks restored. And of course, Wilson wants revenge, donning a red suit and rechristening himself as Deadpool as he kills his way up the criminal ladder. Meanwhile, X-Men members Colossus (Stefan Kapicic) and Negasonic Teenage Warhead (Brianna Hildebrand) pursue Deadpool, hoping to convince the vigilante crime-fighter to join their team.

Even though he's a cult favourite with a devoted fanbase, the character of Deadpool does work best in small doses. After all, Deadpool may be witty, funny and sarcastic, but there is always the risk of the shtick getting old. To counter this, the gonzo scenes involving Deadpool in action are intercut with the origin story, tracing Wilson as he undergoes his transformation. It also provides a refreshing change from the usual origin story format, with the fun action scenes breaking up the more sombre narrative beats. In the comics, Deadpool has always been about undercutting the seriousness of being a superhero by emphasising his vehemently antiheroic nature, on top of allowing him to break the fourth wall, and these qualities are carried over to this adaptation. The opening of Deadpool is pure perfection, starting off with a title sequence that embodies the movie's spirit, billing the director as "An Overpaid Tool" and Reynolds as "God's Perfect Idiot." It's not long before Deadpool delivers an uproarious monologue directly to the audience, while the subsequent displays of ultraviolence further underscore that this is not just another generic PG-13 offering.

Due to its restricted rating, Deadpool was not blessed with a blank cheque from Fox, who were wary of producing the movie in the first place, unsure of its box office potential (how ironic, looking back). First-time director Tim Miller (a long-time video game and CGI veteran) had a meagre $58 million to work with, with the budget necessitating rewrites to cut costs as much as possible. As a result, Deadpool is not a truly epic deconstruction of the superhero genre, but it does work exceptionally well on its own merits, finding Miller and co. making the most of their limited resources. The set-pieces are lively and fierce, peppered with suitable moments of humour to ensure the mayhem is pitched at the right tone. And despite the excessive violence, the production does exhibit a certain degree of restraint - Miller never tries to shock beyond what is actually necessary, and the chaos never feels uncomfortable or mean-spirited. It really is a testament to the filmmakers, who also manage to find moments of genuine emotion to bolster the movie above the level of empty calories. In fact, there is sensitivity here to complement all the bloodletting, and the love story really hits its mark rather than coming off as a perfunctory distraction.

Big explosive climaxes have become the order of the day in superhero movies, which can harm otherwise taut movies by feeling incredibly forced. Deadpool eventually culminates with such a climax, but Miller never lets the picture out of his control, maintaining the humour and furious pacing. Furthermore, the stakes are more personal than usual: the world is not in danger here, as Wilson is simply out to save his girl. It's a nice twist on the ordinary, and it makes for a more involving climactic showdown. Deadpool is not perfect, of course - digital effects are spotty, with bits and pieces that look too artificial, which is probably a reflection on the budget. Added to this, a couple of additional sequences featuring the titular anti-hero being his usual self might have been beneficial. Still, these are minor nit-picks.

Reynolds might have struck out with a lifeless performance in 2011's Green Lantern, but he was simply born to play the role of Deadpool. The actor is firmly in his element here, given the freedom to deliver uproarious wisecracks, one-liners and self-referential jokes (one particular punchline about the limitations of the budget is gold). Just as Robert Downey Jr. owns the role of Tony Stark, it's legitimately hard to imagine any other actor nailing the role of Deadpool as perfectly as Reynolds, who even takes a dig at his own acting ability at one point. But more than just a comedic firecracker, Reynolds is also a solid anchor, ably carrying out leading man duties with confidence. He's well-matched with Baccarin, who stands above the usual standard for generic love interests.

Although the story's X-Men connection does seem contrived, putting Colossus and Negasonic Teenage Warhead in the movie turns out to be a masterstroke. Colossus spends his time trying to convince Deadpool to give up his violent ways and become a more conventional superhero, and his resistance does indeed mirror the stance of the movie itself. Meanwhile, Negasonic is a jaded character who "gets" Deadpool but doesn't find him very appealing. It's doubtful that anybody expected this movie to take the piss out of its own comedy routine, making Negasonic's attitude all the more refreshing. Performances are strong, too; T.J. Miller deserves a special mention, as his interactions with Reynolds are a constant source of amusement. Skrein is a perfectly serviceable bad guy, and Karan Soni is appealing as a gracious Indian cab driver.

It's not revelatory and it doesn't quite reach greatness, but Deadpool is the right movie at the right time, an astute side project in the X-Men universe which only aspires to provide easy-going entertainment with its adult rating and mischievous, devil-may-care audacity. With its crude sense of humour, enjoyable action scenes and shrewd deconstruction of the superhero genre, it's a shot to the arm that was absolutely necessary in today's cinematic climate. It's just about everything that fans could have wanted from a Deadpool movie. And be sure to hang around until the end of the credits.


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Entertaining follow-up

Posted : 1 year, 4 months ago on 27 March 2016 08:28 (A review of Hotel Transylvania 2)

"We've been talking about moving somewhere safer for Dennis..."

Despite Adam Sandler's shonky track record, Hotel Transylvania developed into an unexpected hit all the way back in 2012, and was a highly enjoyable animated endeavour to boot. A child-friendly adventure with enough entertainment to offer the adult demographic, the movie took many classic Universal horror characters - including Count Dracula, Frankenstein's Monster, the Wolfman, the Mummy, etc. - and turned them into homogenised protagonists, generating a rich comedic world ripe to further exploit in any sequels. Luckily, 2015's Hotel Transylvania 2 retains many of the qualities which made its predecessor such a treat, and it's once again overseen by animation veteran Genndy Tartakovsky. Even though storytelling is scattershot, it's an entertaining follow-up that will almost certainly please children, especially if the first Hotel Transylvania was to their liking.

Soon after the events of the original film, human Jonathan (Andy Samberg) and vampire Mavis (Selena Gomez) get married, and the new bride finds herself pregnant, much to the excitement of her father, Dracula (Adam Sandler). However, the boy, Dennis (Asher Blinkoff), seems to favour his human side, much to the dismay of Dracula, who wants his grandson to follow in his footsteps and become a true bloodsucker. In addition, Dracula is further disheartened by the prospect of Jonathan and Mavis moving to California to raise Dennis as a regular human tyke. Approaching Dennis' fifth birthday, Dracula persuades Jonathan to take Mavis on a trip to visit his parents (Megan Mullally and Nick Offerman), under the guise of giving the couple a break from the rigours of parenthood. Meanwhile, Dracula secretly enlists the help of his monster pals - Frankenstein’s Monster (Kevin James), werewolf Wayne (Steve Buscemi), invisible man Griffin (David Spade), mummy Murray (Keegan-Michael Key), and Blobby (Jonny Solomon) - to hopefully awaken Dennis' vampire gene and show the boy the ways of monster life.

Written by Sandler and Robert Smigel, Hotel Transylvania 2 is quick to introduce Dennis in the first act before rushing through the tyke's first few years to reach his fifth birthday. Since the first flick was so small-scale and confined, this sequel is keen to leave the titular resort, briskly setting up the plot to allow for monkey (monster?) business outside the hotel's walls. However, the script doesn't quite know when to quit in terms of plot, leading to the third-act development involving the introduction of Dracula's father, Vlad (the legendary Mel Brooks), that probably should have been saved for another sequel. Still, Hotel Transylvania 2 remains joyous through to the finish line, and though it's not as poignant or as thoughtful as a typical Pixar feature, it does have a few things on its mind about the dangers of narrow-minded prejudice, and the importance of tolerance and acceptance. This is still a fluffy comedy by and large, but such subtext does provide a worthwhile lesson for the children in the audience.

Sumptuously animated by the folks at Sony, Hotel Transylvania 2 has an ace up its sleeve in director Tartakovsky, who also worked on television shows like The Powerpuff Girls and Star Wars: Clone Wars. Tartakovsky has a nice eye and ear for comedy, gifting the production with plenty of amusing slapstick and sharp one-liners, preserving a light-hearted, goofy spirit which keeps the proceedings entertaining even when the storytelling is at its rockiest. With two parallel storylines (one concerning Mavis and Jonathan in California, another about Dracula and Dennis), the film stays fresh, allowing for a wider scope and more opportunities for amusing situations and hilarious jokes. Plus, the actors all commit to the material wonderfully, with Sandler again showing that he's probably better-suited for animation than live-action at this point in his career. Further colour is provided by Brooks, who relishes the chance to voice a goofy vampire, while the likes of Samberg, James, Buscemi and Spade all hit their marks. Also notable are real-life married couple Offerman and Mullally as Jonathan's parents - their trademark personalities are a perfect fit for their respective characters.

Disappointingly, Hotel Transylvania 2 is loaded with product placement; the characters all use smartphones with a very prominent Sony logo, for instance, and there's even some erroneous pop music which comes across as forced. Nevertheless, this is a fun, goofy, simplistic cartoon which goes down easily enough, and it compensates for its narrative shortcomings and other flaws by providing a steady stream of side-splitting gags. And considering the dirge that Sandler has headlined lately, the fact that it's actually funny is a huge deal.


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A tad uninspired on the whole

Posted : 1 year, 4 months ago on 25 March 2016 01:31 (A review of Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse)

"Guys, the police are gone! The military? They're not coming either. But tonight, we're showing what being a real scout's all about. We're just gonna stand here or we're gonna go save the world."

A curious amalgam of Zombieland, The Goonies and any number of John Hughes films, Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse is an amusingly-titled production full of potential, continuing the current media fascination with the undead. Following in the shadow of flicks like Cockneys vs. Zombies and Navy SEALs vs. Zombies, this particular endeavour pits socially awkward teens against hordes of flesh-eaters. However, in the hands of director Christopher Landon (last seen at the helm of 2014's abominable Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones), Scouts Guide is not as hilarious or as taut as one might expect, only coming alive during isolated moments. It's a technically proficient horror-comedy, but it is a bit uninspired on the whole, lacking the spark of wittiness that has elevated similar productions.

At a lab in suburban California, a resting zombie is disturbed by a careless janitor, leading to a plague outbreak that rapidly spreads across the town. Meanwhile, high school scout members Ben (Tye Sheridan) and Carter (Logan Miller) are preparing to attend a camp-out celebration with well-meaning pal Augie (Joey Morgan), which they intend to be their swan song as scouts. Invited to a secret senior party, Ben and Carter ditch Augie for the night, but soon find that the town has been overrun by bloodthirsty zombies. Teaming up with resourceful strip-club waitress Denise (Sarah Dumont), the two adolescent scouts brave the doomsday scenario as they attempt to find their way to the party, while Augie has his own experiences with the undead horde.

To the credit of screenwriters Carrie Lee Wilson and Emi Mochizuki (with input from Landon), Scouts Guide makes a genuine attempt to develop the core trio of teens in the first act to ensure that we have a reason to care about them when they're exposed to mortal danger. In spite of the inherent clichés, there is fun to be had and the characterisations are effective enough. However, there are a few too many ill-advised deviations into serious territory, including Augie's disappointment that Ben and Carter choose to not only ditch him, but leave scouts. It's an attempt to add a degree of heart to the proceedings, but it comes off as perfunctory rather than an organic constituent of the narrative. And while there are some funny moments here, Scouts Guide comes up short in terms of belly-laughs, which doesn't do the pacing any favours. The movie may be bite-sized at under an hour-and-a-half, but it's undeniably spotty.

Nevertheless, Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse does hit its mark from time to time, with vignettes that revel in the type of silliness we would expect to see from a movie of this ilk. One of the more humorous plot digressions involves the boys' beloved Scout Leader Rogers (David Koechner), who shows up at various times throughout the night, while a zombie Britney Spears fan sings along to "Hit Me Baby One More Time," and there's a chase set to Dolly Parton's "9 to 5" in a fan's merchandise-laden home. Landon embraces the irreverent tone - there's one moment involving a zombie penis that amuses, and we get to see Cloris Leachman as a zombie who can't bite into anybody after losing her false teeth. It's all executed with style, benefitting from impressive zombie make-up and gore effects, and Scouts Guide also introduces its own recognisable brand of zombies. Acting across the board is respectable, particularly Sheridan, who grounds the movie by playing the material straight.

Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse has its moments and is enjoyable on the whole, but the problem is that it was produced in the shadow of funnier, scarier and wittier zombie comedies like Shaun of the Dead and Zombieland, who represent the gold standard for this subgenre. Furthermore, it's not as incisive or cutting edge as Cabin in the Woods. Still, the movie is not a total misfire, thanks to its competent direction and a number of energetic action scenes. The climax is particularly fun, with the troupe battling hundreds of zombies using whatever makeshift weapons they can find. Scouts Guide is easy viewing and it's not a waste of time, but it could have been superior in more assured hands.


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Competent but imperfect gangster thriller

Posted : 1 year, 5 months ago on 14 March 2016 05:59 (A review of Black Mass)

"How come no one has nailed Whitey Bulger? He seems to be involved in every crime in the city, and yet the Bureau keeps saying he's clean!"

More than anything else, Black Mass is an actor's showcase; a golden opportunity for actors to show off their talents by embodying historical characters. It's the latest cinematic endeavour for director Scott Cooper, whose previous movies (Crazy Heart, Out of the Furnace) are also more notable for their acting than storytelling. Black Mass is bolstered by magnificent performances and a solid technical presentation, yet its two-hour running time merely amounts to a number of effective set-pieces, with Cooper unable to bring it all together in an overly substantive fashion. Still, it's difficult to entirely write off this competent gangster thriller, which certainly has its strong points.

In the 1970s, ruthless criminal James "Whitey" Bulger (Johnny Depp) is poised to take over an Irish mob crew known as the Winter Hill Gang in his homeland of South Boston, standing in stark contrast to his brother Billy (Benedict Cumberbatch), a U.S. senator. On the other side of the law is Bulger's childhood pal John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), an FBI agent torn between his friendship with the volatile mobster and his professional responsibilities. To gain immunity from criminal activities, Bulger agrees to work as an FBI informant, which he uses to his advantage, gaining unprecedented power as he feeds the Feds minimal information while Connolly protects his interests from within the bureau. But Bulger’s misdeeds continue to pile up, and Connolly's superiors at the FBI begin to dig deeper.

Written by Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth, the movie is predominantly based on Dick Lehr and Gerard O'Neill's 2001 novel "Black Mass: The True Story of an Unholy Alliance Between the FBI and the Irish Mob," staying true enough to the real-life events while taking a certain degree of dramatic license when it comes to certain characters. Parts of the film are framed through the eyes of Jimmy's associates - including Kevin Weeks (Jesse Plemons) - who talk to the FBI about their involvement in the gang and knowledge of Bulger's countless crimes. It's an interesting way to justify the narrative, which does boil down to a "greatest hits" compilation of Bulger's most active years. There is only so much that can be done within the confines of a two-hour motion picture, thus Black Mass provides more of a sprawling snapshot as opposed to an intimate character study. Indeed, Cooper's film does come together well enough on its own merits as a dramatisation, but the subject matter would be better served as a TV miniseries, as it seems like portions of the movie are missing, with the large ensemble of supporting characters flopping in and out without making much of an impact.

For maximum authenticity, Black Mass was predominantly lensed on location in South Boston, and many of the historically accurate scenes were shot in the very spot where they actually took place (including the infamous Bulger burial site). Cooper aims for a filmic aesthetic reminiscent of motion pictures from the 1970s, with a deliberate, desaturated colour palette and gloriously old-fashioned cinematography, relying on steady long shots rather than shaky-cam or quick-cutting. Shot on 35mm film stock, Black Mass carries a gorgeous texture, and the rest of the production values are spot-on, recreating Boston from the '70s and '80s with ease. The period-specific detail is superb, with nothing seeming phoney, and there's a sense of authority that pervades most every frame, enhanced by Junkie XL's moody, effective original score. Cooper's storytelling may need improvement, but there's little to complain about from a technical standpoint.

Without a doubt, Black Mass belongs to Depp, who turns in some of his greatest work to date as the fearsome Bulger, disappearing into the role with laudable abandon. Brutal and scary, this is not simply more quirkiness from Depp - it's a completely unflattering character for the heartthrob to play, and he's covered in convincing make-up to hide his natural good looks. Cooper wisely lets Depp command the frame, allowing his extraordinary work to speak for itself without any unnecessary cinematic flourish. Even though Depp missed out on major awards (he still hasn't won an Oscar), this is arguably one of the best performances of 2015. Equally solid is Aussie actor Edgerton, who demonstrates yet again why he's a talent to watch. Black Mass spends a fair chunk of time concentrating on Bulger and Connolly's relationship, showing how each of their lives are affected by their arrangement. But there are a lot of other characters in this story, all of whom are played by recognisable performers, including Kevin Bacon, Dakota Johnson, Peter Sarsgaard, Adam Scott, David Harbour, Juno Temple, Corey Stoll and Julianna Nicholson. Of particular note is the always-reliable Cumberbatch, who's nicely understated as Bulger's brother, while Plemons also makes a positive impression playing Kevin Weeks. It's a shame that there isn't more breathing room for a cast of this calibre, however.

Black Mass does fall short of being the instant gangster classic that it had the potential to be, and one must wonder if an extended cut might be able to improve the limited scope of the narrative. Nevertheless, this is a noble attempt to dramatise Bulger's rise and fall, showing enough of the man's ghastly criminal acts to paint a sobering portrait of one of America's most notorious gangsters. Flaws and all, Black Mass is worth watching, if only for Depp's exceptional performance. Just don't expect Scarface.


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Middling animated DC effort

Posted : 1 year, 5 months ago on 9 March 2016 10:34 (A review of Batman: Bad Blood)

"If Batman doesn't return soon..."

Batman: Bad Blood is the third instalment in the new interconnected animated series of Batman features, following Son of Batman and Batman vs. Robin. Continuing the arc which concerns Batman's extended network of friends and family, this effort reunites veteran animation director Jay Oliva and screenwriter J.M. DeMatteis, who previously collaborated for Batman vs. Robin, and the result is every bit as middle-of-the-road as their last picture. Although Bad Blood combines enough action, humour and comic book fan service (especially with the introduction of two characters never before explored in a movie), it never quite comes together as well as it should, with so-so storytelling and pedestrian dialogue. 

Batman (Jason O'Mara) has gone missing, with neither Alfred Pennyworth (James Garrett) nor Dick Grayson (Sean Maher) able to locate him. Word begins to spread throughout Gotham City that the Caped Crusader may be dead, and criminals seek to take advantage of his absence. With the weeks continuing to pass, Grayson takes up the cape and cowl, hitting the streets as Batman to maintain the illusion that the Dark Knight is still alive. Meanwhile, Damian Wayne (Stuart Allen) returns to Gotham to help search for his father, teaming up with Grayson to get to the bottom of the mystery. Also joining the fight are Batwoman (Yvonne Strahovski) and Batwing (Gaius Charles)

The issue with Bad Blood is that the story is not altogether interesting. Introducing the "Batman Family" may be a nice concept in theory, but Batman being absent for the majority of the story doesn't work here, denying us the kind of pleasures we come to expect from a Batman movie. Of course, minimising his presence is the point of this particular tale, but it's a major problem that the supporting players are not nearly as interesting as the Caped Crusader. Plus, there are fans who tune in specifically to see the titular superhero kick some butt. Ultimately, with its brisk 72-minute runtime, Bad Blood feels like it's in a hurry to establish Team Batman in order to set the scene for upcoming movies, but denies us the chance to actually care about them. Bad Blood is the first motion picture (live-action or otherwise) to feature Batwoman and Batwing, and although it's commendable that more characters from the comics are being explored, neither of them receive the meaty development that they should be allotted, especially given that film-goers who don't read comic books will not know who they are.

In keeping with the low-budget nature of these animated offerings, the visuals here are basic at best, with not much in the way of fine detail, but it still works, especially with the impressive CGI backgrounds and a number of fluid, exciting fight scenes. Although Bad Blood may be overstuffed in terms of characters (there are too many bad guys to count, too), it does deliver if taken merely as an action-packed showcase of the talents of these respective comic book heroes and villains, which is a given at this point considering the previous experience of director Jay Oliva (The Dark Knight Returns, Justice League: War). Other aspects of the movie are acceptable if not outstanding; Frederik Wiedmann's score is effective though slightly generic, while the voice acting is overly workmanlike. O'Mara is a serviceable Bruce Wayne/Batman, but he's still no Kevin Conroy.

With its banal plot, clunky storytelling, and inherent narrative shallowness, Batman: Bad Blood is a middling addition to the animated DC series. Despite a few fun action scenes, it's not essential viewing, and will probably play best only for the die-hard fans.


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Mindless fun

Posted : 1 year, 5 months ago on 8 March 2016 08:12 (A review of Blind Fury)

"Not bad for a blind man! But that butter knife ain't gonna stop no bullet!"

For those who enjoy old-school, B-grade action movies, 1989's Blind Fury is a hidden gem that is absolutely worth checking out. The Hollywood debut for Australian director Phillip Noyce (Dead Calm, Patriot Games), this is an American appropriation of the long-running Japanese film series Zatoichi, executed with the same type of cinematic tendencies that we have come to expect from simplistic action pictures. Thus, it's excessively violent, contains a fair few action set-pieces, isn't overly interested in smarts or thematic relevance, and is backed by a cheesy electronica soundtrack. If this type of thing is your jam, have at it. But if not, there's no talking to you. It's an outright guilty pleasure, though it's one of the better movies of its kind.

Blinded during combat, Vietnam veteran Nick Parker (Rutger Hauer) is taken under the care of local villagers who nurse him back to health. In addition, they teach Parker how to use his other senses more effectively, and he perfects the art of sword fighting. Returning to America, Parker keeps his trusty blade well-hidden in his walking cane as he sets off to visit his old army friend, Frank Devereaux (Terry O'Quinn). However, his buddy is missing, and during Parker's visit, Frank's wife Lynn (Meg Foster) is killed by a group of men looking to kidnap Frank's young son Billy (Brandon Call). Choosing to protect Billy, Parker begins travelling to Reno seeking to save Frank, and every step of the way they're relentlessly pursued by henchmen working for a certain MacCready (Noble Willingham), who holds Frank captive.

Scripted by Charles Robert Carner, who also wrote the '80s martial arts actioner Gymkata, Blind Fury is brisk enough at a mere 86 minutes, and there's plenty of humour to keep the flick light and enjoyable from start to finish. The storyline is well-executed, with enough chatter and character beats to keep the enterprise coherent, while pacing is frequently agreeable, and the film certainly delivers in terms of action. To be sure, the set-pieces aren't revolutionary, but Noyce goes through the motions with sufficient panache, and there are thrills to be had. There's even a cameo by Japanese stunt performer Shô Kosugi, who also featured in a number of ninja flicks during the 1980s. Hauer trained quite extensively for his role of Nick Parker, and he's believable as a blind samurai warrior on top of being a charismatic hero. Blind Fury is certainly campy, but it's hard to resist the movie's charming mix of comedy and action.

Although it cannot be seriously defended beyond the level of guilty pleasure, Blind Fury is a good fun fight flick that will almost certainly please fans of the genre, or simply fans of Hauer. There were talks of a sequel around the time of the movie's release, but the poor box office results squashed any plans for future instalments. And that's a tremendous shame, as the movie is solid fodder for a fun action franchise not unlike the Zatoichi series, and Hauer could have done a fair bit more with this role. Blind Fury is mindless fun, nothing more and nothing less.


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Typical Eli Roth film, for better or worse

Posted : 1 year, 5 months ago on 5 March 2016 01:44 (A review of The Green Inferno)

"Get media attention. Right or wrong, you need cameras on them. That's the only way people change their behavior. The threat of embarrassment. You must shame them."

The Green Inferno is writer/director Eli Roth's tribute to cannibal horror movies of the '70s and '80s, most notably Cannibal Holocaust and Woman from Deep River. And indeed, this type of flick is a good fit for Roth's cinematic tendencies, as he enjoys indulging in excessive gore, and his horrors are often labelled as "torture porn." Even though Roth produces countless features on a yearly basis, this is actually his first helming endeavour since 2007's limp misfire Hostel: Part II, and the filmmaker clearly hasn't learned a great deal from his mistakes. There's gore aplenty in The Green Inferno, but it lacks actual terror and chills, and it's visibly hampered by its restricted budget. The Cannibal Holocaust influence is readily apparent throughout, as Roth has basically created the closest replication possible without directly remaking the controversial classic.

The daughter of a United Nations lawyer, college student Justine (Lorenza Izzo) has a crush on handsome campus rebel Alejandro (Ariel Levy), who heads a student activist group. Spurred on by her interest in Alejandro, Justine joins the group, and reluctantly agrees to a trip to Peru to protest the bulldozing of rainforests. The protest goes off as planned, making headlines around the world, but Justine is left disillusioned, realising that Alejandro cannot be trusted and doesn't care about her safety. Making matters worse, the students are soon captured by a cannibal tribe, who intend to butcher and eat them all, one at a time.

The Green Inferno is the fourth movie that Roth has directed, and it follows the same formula, with dim-witted young people marching into unfamiliar territory where they are systematically killed off. Cabin Fever featured rural rednecks as the killers, while the Hostel films used Third World chaos to punish the naiveté of the leading characters. And now Roth turns his attention to indigenous South American tribes, though it still feels like more of the same. Considering that this is his first directorial outing in a few years, it's disheartening that Roth isn't interested in a challenge, and though he does attempt to inject some satire and commentary into the proceedings, it's text rather than subtext, and it's far less effective than the still-potent Cannibal Holocaust.

Despite impressive make-up effects by veterans Greg Nicotero and Howard Berger, The Green Inferno feels cheap to its core, with ugly digital cinematography that carries an amateurish look. This may be a $5 million horror flick, but 2015's Bone Tomahawk was produced for a fraction of that cost, and still looks far more authentic and cinematic. There's no snap or spark to elevate The Green Inferno above the ordinary, with plodding, workmanlike pacing and unconvincing performances across the board. Although Roth fills the frame with blood and guts, the result is thoroughly joyless, with no thought towards tact or style to make it palatable. To be fair, however, Manuel Riveiro's original score is effective, and there are some comedic touches that do work, including stoned cannibals who get the munchies.

It's actually somewhat miraculous that The Green Inferno ever saw the light of day. Filmed all the way back in 2012, it was set for release in 2013, but wound up being shelved for two years due to financial issues. With all that time between shooting and release, there's really no excuse for such a poor final product. The movie does admittedly boast nice locations, with filming having taken place deep in the Amazon jungle featuring real natives as extras (who had no idea what a movie was), but Roth's filmmaking is too slipshod, and the writing is hard to defend.


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A competent disaster movie

Posted : 1 year, 5 months ago on 29 February 2016 10:41 (A review of Everest)

"We don't need competition between people. There is competition between every person and this mountain. The last word always belongs to the mountain."

The 1996 Mount Everest Disaster has been covered in books and documentaries, but 2015's Everest is the first major motion picture to dramatise the event. Directed by Baltasar Kormákur (2 Guns, Contraband), this is a damn good disaster movie imbued with an admirable sense of authenticity which manages to avoid outright sensationalism. For the most part, the disaster lends itself beautifully to the motion picture format, providing both tragedy and big-screen intensity, not to mention there are aspects to this tale which again prove that fact can be stranger than fiction. Indeed, this is such obvious fodder for a film that one must wonder why it took nearly two decades for one to materialise. With seasoned action filmmaker Kormákur at the helm, Everest is visually spectacular and competently executed, capturing the sheer chaos of a storm on one of the tallest mountains in the world, and conveying the arduous physical effort of mountaineering.

In 1996, several separate climbing expeditions begin ascending to the summit of Mt. Everest. New Zealand climbing enthusiast Rob Hall (Jason Clarke) runs Adventure Consultants with the aid of his base camp manager Helen (Emily Watson). Rob's new group includes journalist Jon Krakauer (Michael Kelly), experienced Texan climber Beck (Josh Brolin), and returning client Doug (John Hawkes), who refuses to give up on his dream to reach the summit. Climbing Everest is frustrating, though, with too many companies and too many clients vying for space, which threatens everybody's safety. Amid the traffic jam, Rob finds a familiar face in Scott Fischer (Jake Gyllenhaal), who owns Mountain Madness and plans to summit on the same day as Rob. But a terrible storm begins to move in on the most critical day, splitting up the climbers, leaving people stranded in the Death Zone with a low supply of oxygen.

Running at a hair under two hours, Everest does feel incomplete to an extent. The disaster is simply too vast for a single motion picture to cover, and the script cannot quite find the time to properly develop all of the individuals involved, or convey every facet of the event. (There was actually a team of IMAX filmmakers on the mountain when tragedy struck, but they are only mentioned once here, in passing.) It's important to perceive Everest as a dramatisation of the disaster, rather than an entirely accurate historical document. Some have criticised the movie for both its inaccuracies as well as the details that it excluded, yet the script hews closely enough to the many important factors of the real event, whilst only making minor changes to produce a more dramatically satisfying movie. Screenwriters William Nicholson and Simon Beaufoy also needed to fill in some of the blanks since details surrounding the deaths of some of the climbers remain unknown. Ultimately, Everest comes together well enough on its own terms, and that's what matters.

Everest is a visual blockbuster, produced with IMAX and 3D in mind, and it thankfully translates into a viewing experience that's both involving and convincing. Salvatore Totino's cinematography is eye-catching, while editing is sharp and Dario Marianelli provides a hugely effective original score. Segments of the picture were shot on the real mountain in sub-zero temperatures, and the integration of location shooting with digital effects and the staggeringly authentic sets is wholly seamless. As a matter of fact, at no point will you be consciously aware that you're looking at CGI, which is the highest honour you can award a motion picture like this. Kormákur gets plenty of mileage from the material, managing to stage nail-bitingly intense set-pieces, and even though the fates of those involved have been known for twenty years, it's easy to get involved in the movie and hope that everybody will survive regardless. Better yet, nothing comes off as excessive, with a handful of armrest-clenching beats that are more on the subtle side, and numerous nice character moments at base camp. Although Kormákur's previous motion picture efforts are entertaining, it's refreshing to see the director tackle something more challenging. He shows respect to all participants involved, even closing with authentic photos of the real people caught up in the disaster.

There are a lot of characters here, but it's easy to keep track of who's who thanks to effective characterisations, and it definitely helps that recognisable actors play the important roles. Despite the focus on visuals and set-pieces, the movie does connect on an emotional level on account of strong acting across the board, and there is a nice, palpable camaraderie between the performers. Clarke's Rob Hall is essentially the lead of the picture, though this is an ensemble effort, with all the thespians given a time to shine. The likes of Watson and Hawkes hit their marks exquisitely, while Brolin effortlessly carves out the most charismatic presence in the movie, and even Sam Worthington submits an excellent performance as rival mountaineer Guy Cotter. Also notable is Gyllenhaal, who feels severely underused and only seems to exist in the movie's peripheries. And as Hall's pregnant, worrying wife, Keira Knightley fulfils her duties well enough.

Perhaps more depth or background to the characters might have been appreciated, but Everest was designed as an immersive you-are-there experience, and it easily succeeds in this sense. It's not an easy watch, however, with Kormákur not shying away from the more unnerving aspects of this disaster, though it still stays within the confines of a PG-13 rating. Intense and affecting, this is a modern disaster movie done right.


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Just good enough

Posted : 1 year, 6 months ago on 7 February 2016 03:48 (A review of The Visit)

"Mom, there's something wrong with Nana and Pop Pop."

The Visit may be an imperfect thriller which never quite engages or frightens like the best genre movies, but it is a reassuring step in the right direction for director M. Night Shyamalan, whose misplaced confidence led to such indefensible disasters as The Last Airbender and After Earth. Disposing of large budgets and blockbuster thrills, Shyamalan seeks to return to his roots with The Visit, exploiting a primal fear to serve as the basis for a low-budget found footage chiller. Luckily, it works more than perhaps it had a right to, serving up scares and laughs in equal measure. It's not a genuine return to form for Shyamalan, but it nevertheless packs a punch.

Fifteen-year-old Becca (Olivia DeJonge) and her younger brother Tyler (Ed Oxenbould) have never met their grandparents, because their mother (Kathryn Hahn) had a bitter falling out with them. However, the kids are curious to meet their Nana (Deanna Dunagan) and Pop Pop (Peter McRobbie), and decide to travel to rural Pennsylvania to spend a week with them while their mother treats herself to a romantic cruise with her new beau. Becca is a budding filmmaker, and seeks to use the trip as a chance to make a documentary about the pair that she hopes will mend fences. Nana and Pop Pop initially appear to be more than welcoming towards the kids, with Becca making the most of her documentary film opportunity. However, the pair soon discover that their grandparents have disturbing behavioural issues after the lights go out, and there's the lingering sense that something is not quite right.

Found footage is normally reserved for inexperienced, cash-strapped young filmmakers seeking to make their mark through limited resources, but The Visit is a different matter. Shyamalan is a seasoned director hoping to reinvigorate his creative impulses in search of a hit, keeping costs low in order to retain creative control without studio interference. Admittedly, the limitations of the found footage subgenre do prevent The Visit from being wholly satisfying, and one must wonder what the movie might have been like if it was told through conventional means. After all, found footage cancels out the filmmaking aspects that Shyamalan actually excels at: precise framing, deliberate editing, and even use of music. It's a more successful endeavour than, say, Renny Harlin's The Dyatlov Pass Incident, but it's nevertheless paint-by-numbers. Shyamalan adores twist endings, and The Visit sees the writer-director revisiting this characteristic to an extent, though the "twist" is not exactly mind-blowing or revolutionary, and isn't difficult to predict.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, The Visit was co-produced and distributed by Blumhouse Productions, who specialise in micro-budget horror pictures of this ilk. To Shyamalan's credit, there are a few particularly spooky sequences once the kids settle into their accommodation, including an unnerving scene set under the house. It is worth noting that the flick is not at all supernatural, with scares being derived from the mental conditions and general peculiarities of the two old people, thus the effectiveness of the horror will depend on your unease about folks of advanced age. The narrative of The Visit builds commendably, and though it's a slow-burner, pacing is often taut. Shyamalan does a superlative job of maintaining tension during the third act, able to make us just as edgy and nervous as Becca and Tyler. But the horror is not served straight-up, with Shyamalan mixing in comical scenes and amusing dialogue, and it mostly works; the film is unexpectedly funny. However, there's an ill-advised detour into gross-out humour involving shit being shoved into somebody's face that only really serves as a visual representation of what Shyamalan has done to his audience for his past few movies.

DeJonge and Oxenbould are two of The Visit's biggest assets. DeJonge carves out a believable teenage girl character, made even more interesting by her passion for moviemaking (with a hint of pretentiousness), and she's an instantly disarming presence. Even better is Oxenbould, a comedic highlight as the goofy, shameless younger brother who's full of spirit. As opposed to dumb horror movie protagonists, these two are smart and resourceful, making it easy to care about them. Meanwhile, as Nana and Pop Pop, Dunagan and McRobbie are mightily effective, alternating between warm and disquieting.

The Visit is worth watching, but it does fall short of the narrative brilliance of the likes of The Sixth Sense or Signs. And although it does contain unnerving moments and a few surprising jump-scales, the movie is not exactly terrifying enough to truly satiate horror junkies seeking a good scare. Still, in comparison to Shyamalan's recent output, The Visit is just good enough. Let's just hope that the filmmaker's next effort will be the real comeback we've been waiting for.


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