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Fun, raucous horror-comedy romp

Posted : 1 year, 9 months ago on 15 January 2016 04:41 (A review of Deathgasm)

"Wouldn't it be crazy if the music had something to do with demons?"

2015's Deathgasm is very much a throwback horror picture, with New Zealand writer-director Jason Lei Howden creating an excessively gory splatter flick clearly inspired by the likes of Evil Dead, Bad Taste and Braindead, among others, with a dash of heavy metal music for good measure. A gleefully off-the-hook horror-comedy, it's the helming debut for Howden, a visual effects artist who worked on Peter Jackson's The Hobbit trilogy, among many other big-budget productions. The joys of Deathgasm are hard to deny, as it's teeming with humour and tongue-in-cheek gore, while the story is also enhanced by the nuances of life as a young metalhead. It's a total gas for those who enjoy these kinds of low-budget indie horrors, easily exceeding many of the more generously-budgeted scare-fests of 2015.

When his drug-addicted mother is put into a mental hospital, teenager Brodie (Milo Cawthorne) is sent to a nowhere town to live with his conservative Uncle Albert (Colin Moy) and bullying cousin David (Nick Hoskins-Smith). Brodie immediately struggles to fit in, but he soon bonds with aspiring musician Zakk (James Blake), who has a comparable interest in death metal. The pair soon decide to form a metal band called "Deathgasm," also recruiting fellow outcasts Dion (Sam Berkley) and Giles (Daniel Cresswell), who love to play "Dungeons & Dragons." Brodie also befriends the beautiful Medina (Kimberly Crossman), who usually dates arrogant jocks. Stealing a mysterious music sheet from aging rocker Rikki Daggers (Stephen Ure), Brodie and his friends perform the song therein, but in the process accidentally unleash demonic forces upon the town.

Visual language is used to get across the characterisations and the light-hearted tone in no time, with Brodie and Zakk's love for metal influencing their looks, and there's even some brief animation resembling notebook doodlings. Howden has stated that there is an autobiographical slant to the story, imbuing Deathgasm with a specific interest in, and affection for, death metal. Brodie is based on Howden's experiences as a metalhead teen, lending a certain believability to the portrayal of the teenagers which makes them feel real, and it helps that Howden has a talent for writing amusing dialogue and sly gags (including a creative Rick Roll joke). There are some amateurish performances here from the supporting players in particular, but Cawthorne (whose filmography also includes Power Rangers R.P.M.) is a smart choice for the role of Brodie, even if he does look more like a twenty-something than a teenager. Another huge asset is Kimberly Crossman (another former Power Ranger) playing the token love interest; she's disarming, and it's believable that all the boys in school lust after her.

In its opening act, Deathgasm is all about youth problems and heavy metal, but once the cursed sheet music is performed by the titular band, demons are unleashed and the movie becomes a gleefully over-the-top splatterfest, taking palpable inspiration from the Evil Dead series as well as Peter Jackson's early cinematic efforts. Once the main characters recognise the threat, they take up makeshift weaponry, including chainsaws, a grass trimmer, axes, and even sex toys, sustaining an atmosphere of cheeky mischief as possessed townspeople are disembodied in inspired acts of exaggerated ultra-violence, brought to life through old-school practical special effects. Howden may be a digital VFX artist, but he recognised the importance of practical effects in a production of this ilk, even hiring the New Zealand-based special effects company who worked on both the Evil Dead remake and the Ash vs. Evil Dead TV show. The tone for Deathgasm is spot-on - it's neither a jokey farce nor an uncomfortable gore-fest, with Howden achieving the right tongue-in-cheek approach while still treating the material with sincerity. Also beneficial is Simon Raby's smooth cinematography which effectively captures all the bloody mayhem without resorting to shaky-cam, while heavy metal songs dominate the soundtrack.

For the most part, Deathgasm succeeds as a fun, raucous romp, remaining juvenile and madcap as the craziness unfolds, but the movie begins running out of steam into its third act, with a few unnecessarily dramatic story developments threatening to hinder the fun vibe. It should be an easy sprint to the finish line, but momentum is halted at the wrong time, and the lag is felt. Plus, although the climax is excessively splattery, it's not quite as adept as the rest of the picture, with Howden struggling to maintain authority over the material. Still, some of these shortcomings are understandable given the low budget and the restricted shooting schedule. For what it is, Deathgasm is an agreeable, funny, entertaining throwback horror-comedy. And be sure to stick around until the end of the credits for an additional scene.


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Undeniably endearing retro spy caper

Posted : 1 year, 9 months ago on 14 January 2016 08:14 (A review of The Man from U.N.C.L.E.)

"For a special agent, you're not having a very special day, are you?"

The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is the latest attempt to transform a bygone television show into a new cinematic franchise, following in the shadow of Mission: Impossible, The Equalizer, Get Smart, and too many more to list. A retro, old-fashioned spy caper, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is based on the TV show of the same name from the 1960s, and thankfully it's a strong enough movie to stand alone as its own entity - it still works even if you aren't familiar with the show. Sleekly directed by Guy Ritchie (Sherlock Holmes, Snatch), the movie is admittedly light on substance, but the execution is truly something to behold, with Ritchie working overtime to turn the humdrum narrative into a genuinely exciting blockbuster. It's a ridiculously entertaining and often droll espionage globe-trotter, bolstered by the jazzy music, stylish photography, spot-on period detail, sumptuous locales and taut editing, and the end result is undeniably endearing, as hollow as it may be.

Set in 1963 as the Cold War is heating up, stylish C.I.A. agent Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) is assigned to retrieve a car mechanic named Gaby (Alicia Vikander) from East Berlin. Gaby is the daughter of a top nuclear scientist who's tied to a powerful weapon with the potential to end the world, and the United States government hopes that Gaby can help find her missing father to thwart the plot. Despite the tensions between America and the Soviet Union, the warring governments recognise the gravity of the situation, putting aside their differences to work together. Thus, Solo is paired with KGB Agent Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer), though the two are incredibly reluctant to trust one another. With the threat of doomsday looming, Solo and Kuryakin are sent to Rome with Gaby, instructed to infiltrate the inner circle of those suspected of possessing the world-ending nuclear warhead.

It's the period setting which sets The Man from U.N.C.L.E. apart from contemporary spy flicks. Other television adaptations like Mission: Impossible were updated to take place in the here and now, but Ritchie's flick stays true to the source. The script recaptures the political climate and the paranoia of the 1960s, using Cold War touches to establish a logical divide between Solo and Kuryakin, who have serious trust issues and even have nicknames for one another. (Solo is "Cowboy" and Kuryakin is "Red Peril.") On top of this, U.N.C.L.E. is one of the most visually distinctive actioners of recent memory due to its retro touches, with period authenticity in terms of fashion and production design, while Daniel Pemberton provides a high-energy original score that's full of memorable themes. Other tunes from the era are also called upon - for instance, the Italian ballad "Che Vuole Questa Musica Stasera?" by Peppino Gagliardi dominates one particularly fun, tongue-in-cheek set-piece. Indeed, Ritchie's unique cinematic sensibilities are on full display here, and it's marvellous.

Written by Ritchie and frequent collaborator Lionel Wigram, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. moves at an involving pace, with tight storytelling, and the script is teeming with amusing bantering and comedy which makes for a constant source of joy. Ritchie even manages to infuse the necessary exposition with his trademark visual energy, and the enormously engaging action sequences actually make sense in the context of the narrative, rather than coming across as an excuse for bombastic theatrics. Momentum does noticeably lag, however, during a prolonged torture sequence that runs beyond its logical closure point, but Ritchie compensates for this with a borderline flawless finale which manages to be smart as well as exciting. U.N.C.L.E. greatly benefits from its visual scheme, with superlative photography courtesy of veteran cinematographer John Mathieson (X-Men: First Class, Gladiator), and though the movie was lensed digitally, it does carry the look of celluloid, with a slightly washed-out colour palette to resemble spy films from the 1960s. Ritchie employs split-screens to provide an extra visual spark, and even finds time for some creative sight gags, including an inventively-staged speedboat chase.

Cavill is a great fit for the role of Solo, with the British thespian swallowing his native accent to espouse an effectively exaggerated American drawl. He's an enormously charismatic presence, handling the humorous dialogue effectively and coming off as effortlessly cool. Equally solid is Hammer, who just cannot catch a box office break, it seems. Still, it's difficult to fault the actor here, who's an irresistible Illya Kuryakin, decked out with a convincing enough Russian accent. Hammer is mostly called upon to be deadpan, but manages to be likeable, and he's quite funny at times. Rounding out the main players is Vikander - last seen in the exceptional Ex Machina - who's just fine as Gaby. Other actors pop up in the supporting cast, too, with the likes of Hugh Grant and Jared Harris making their mark, while Elizabeth Debicki and Luca Calvani are great villains.

It is difficult to become genuinely invested in The Man from U.N.C.L.E., but it is undeniably entertaining, with Ritchie using every tool in his cinematic arsenal to keep the movie buoyant and eye-catching, even if it's hard to recall too much of it a few weeks after viewing. And since this is intended to be the first in a new franchise, the conclusion is open-ended to set up a possible sequel, which would be an enticing prospect. However, with The Man from U.N.C.L.E. bringing in mediocre box office returns, it's doubtful we'll see any follow-ups, which is a damn shame. 


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Watchable, in spite of its flaws

Posted : 1 year, 9 months ago on 13 January 2016 03:51 (A review of Tremors 5: Bloodlines)

"That's right. Fly right into my crosshairs, you fire-farting son of a bitch."

2015's Tremors 5: Bloodlines should be a lot worse than it is. The fifth instalment in a franchise that also spawned a short-lived television show in 2003, this is also a straight-to-video effort, overseen by veteran B-movie director Don Michael Paul (Jarhead 2, Sniper 5, Lake Placid 4, Who's Your Caddy?). Perhaps owing to low expectations, Tremors 5 is an entertaining enough sequel, sporting decent production values and even bringing back franchise mainstay Michael Gross. It's not all good news, however - despite a polished presentation, Paul's movie is unable to escape its low-budget origins, with a slipshod screenplay and dull plotting, not to mention occasionally risible dialogue.

Now a minor celebrity with his own survivalist television show, Burt Gummer (Gross) has carved out a career based on his Graboid-hunting skills, even releasing his own line of food and drink products. Out of the blue, he's approached by Travis Welker (Jamie Kennedy), who wants to join Burt's team and help the old man fulfil his potential. Negotiating a mutually beneficial deal, Burt and Travis travel to South Africa, where Graboids have started attacking the locals. Erich Van Wyck (Daniel Janks) seeks to enlist Burt's assistance to capture an "Ass-Blaster" variation of the Graboid, but, as to be expected, things do not exactly go to plan, leaving the veteran hunter to clean up the infestation.

With a screenplay credited to four writers, Tremors 5 falls victim to a common pitfall of direct-to-video creature features: overcomplicating a simple narrative. This should be a story of Burt simply kicking butt in South Africa with help from Travis, but forgettable, generic ancillary characters are thrown in as well (no names ever stick), and other pointless subplots are added, including a futile detour involving Burt being locked in a cage that only leads to a lion urinating on him. A minor human antagonist is introduced as well, whose sole purpose is to get eaten. No real imagination is presented in Tremors 5, which is also highly derivative, liberally borrowing from Aliens and Jurassic Park, while the script also takes inspiration from 2013's Pacific Rim. The original Tremors was a very funny tongue-in-cheek horror-comedy, but unfortunately this fifth entry is not nearly as successful on the humour front. The actors try to mine laughs, but it only leads to a handful of awful improvised lines from Kennedy, and other horrendous attempts at comedy, including the aforementioned scene of a caged Burt. Dialogue is expectedly standard-order, in need of a spark of wit to liven up the enterprise. Also, it's borderline embarrassing to see Kennedy's stunt double doing BMX stunts during the opening credits.

Tremors 5 does contribute to the mythology of the franchise to an extent, even opening with a segment from Gummer's TV show which discusses the Graboids and Ass-Blasters at length for anybody who isn't familiar with the franchise. And upon arriving in South Africa, Burt finds that the monsters have evolved somewhat differently, which allows the movie to shake things up a little bit. The location switch to Africa was likely done for budgetary reasons, but it does add new scenery to the series, even though the cinematography is exceedingly workmanlike. On a more positive note, Tremors 5 does boast reasonably convincing special effects for a direct-to-video effort, and director Don Michael Paul doesn't make the mistake of keeping the digital beasts front and centre for the entire movie. Rather, glimpses of the creatures are fleeting, relying more on sound design and practically-achieved sprays of dirt to establish the presence of the Graboids. However, there is a particularly woeful attempt to mimic the raptors in the kitchen scene of Jurassic Park that only serves to underline how much Paul pales in comparison to Steven Spielberg.

The only actor to appear in all the Tremors movies as well as the TV show, Gross continues to have a lot of fun in his iconic role, emerging as the best thing in the entire movie. When Tremors 5: Bloodlines observes Gross battling the Graboids, it's solid fun, even if the rest of the movie is not nearly as successful. Kennedy, who was so amusing as the film buff in the Scream series, mugs the camera too often, while the rest of the cast members fail to make an impact. Still, for what it is, Tremors 5 provides a certain degree of entertainment in spite of its shortcomings, and the fact that it's not irredeemably awful is a big deal.


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A quintessential special effects picture

Posted : 1 year, 9 months ago on 11 January 2016 06:10 (A review of The 7th Voyage of Sinbad)

"When the big that is small shall again become tall, into fiery rock to rise you must fall."

Special effects wizard Ray Harryhausen was responsible for a number of esteemed classics, but 1958's The 7th Voyage of Sinbad remains one of his best-remembered efforts. The first feature film involving stop-motion animation to be shot entirely in colour, this is a breezy, entertaining action-adventure, and it's easy to see why children were so besotted with it back in the day, and why it inspired so many budding filmmakers and special effects artists. The production has dated in some respects, yet this is not enough to diminish the movie's limitless charms, and it remains a quintessential special effects picture that film buffs simply need to see.

While sailing through the Persian Gulf, Captain Sinbad (Kerwin Mathews) and his crew happen upon the island of Colossa, where they find ample supplies to feed the starving men. However, a giant Cyclops does not take kindly to the crew's intrusion, forcing them to set sail and leave. In the scuffle, magician Sokurah (Torin Thatcher) loses a precious lamp containing a boy genie (Richard Eyer). Sokurah pleads with Sinbad to return to Colossa to retrieve the lamp, but the mission is deemed too risky. Back in Baghdad, the desperate Sokurah secretly shrinks Sinbad's beloved Princess Parisa (Kathryn Grant). Sokurah tells Sinbad that he can reverse the curse, but claims that an essential ingredient for the required magic potion can only be found on the island of Colossa. Left with no options, Sinbad embarks on a perilous voyage, with Sokurah joining his crew.

Running at a scant 88 minutes, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad is concise and to the point, remaining involving and entertaining for the majority of its runtime. Interesting to note, this is one Ray Harryhausen film for which the animator was heavily involved in the pre-production process. Harryhausen hatched the idea of a special effects-laden Sinbad movie, drawing up sketches of the creatures, and doing work on the movie long before director Nathan Juran or screenwriter Ken Kolb were recruited. Thus, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad is designed for maximum action scenes and creatures, but the story nevertheless does its job well enough, stilted though it may sometimes be. Indeed, the material set in Baghdad is hit-and-miss, but the picture really hits its stride once Sinbad and his men arrive on Colossa. The actors are mostly effective, with Mathews a bit wooden as Sinbad, but as Harryhausen himself has pointed out, he does do a convincing job playing opposite creatures and actors who were not present on-set. The only real standout is Thatcher, who's a memorable antagonist.

To be sure, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad has dated a fair amount, even by Harryhausen standards. Produced five years before 1963's still-impressive Jason and the Argonauts, the animation does lack refinement, and some of the creatures look too much like clay toys. As to be expected, too, the rest of the special effects work does look rough around the edges, but this adds to the movie's old-world charm. Indeed, it's still easy to enjoy and admire Harryhausen's special effects work, and it's easy to see why kids were so enraptured with this film back when it was first released. Harryhausen did such a good job, in fact, that his effects technique earned its own label: "dynamation," a portmanteau of "dynamic animation."

There are a number of notable set-pieces through The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, and Harryhausen also wonderfully pays homage to the beloved 1933 incarnation of King Kong, with a late battle between the infamous Cyclops and a dragon looking delightfully reminiscent of the sequence of Kong taking down a long-necked dinosaur. Another memorable aspect of the movie is Bernard Herrmann's score. This was Herrmann's first time composing a score for a Harryhausen picture, and he does a fine job. The central theme is insanely memorable, while the music throughout effortlessly amplifies the sense of adventure and excitement.

It's hard to predict any individual's reaction to The 7th Voyage of Sinbad in the 21st Century. If old-fashioned action-adventure pics are your jam, you will probably enjoy it and appreciate the artistry on-screen. But if you have a low tolerance for "old" movies, there's no talking to you. For my money, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad has its drawbacks, but it's nevertheless a fun action-adventure.


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Not a total bust, but still disposable

Posted : 1 year, 9 months ago on 10 January 2016 03:28 (A review of Hitman: Agent 47)

"We determine who we are by what we do."

Almost a decade has elapsed since 2007's Hitman entered multiplexes, with Fox having sought to launch another cinematic franchise based on a popular video game property, and perhaps ape the success of the still-running Resident Evil series. The box office returns were nothing to brag about, however, and now Fox is trying again, with 2015's Hitman: Agent 47 serving as a reboot of the earlier movie, hoping that this second incarnation of the titular assassin will click more successfully with viewers. Although tagged as a reboot, it can almost be considered a sequel to the 2007 film if you really desire, since Hitman: Agent 47 doesn't contradict its predecessor and the video games were never intrinsically tied to one another. Helmed by first-time feature-film director Aleksander Bach, the movie is fairly disposable on the whole, but it's not a total bust thanks to its often attractive visual design and a number of enjoyable action sequences.

A genetically engineered professional killer, Agent 47 (Rupert Friend) was created as part of an experiment carried out by a secret society looking to breed the world's most effective assassins, imbued with heightened senses and strength, acute intelligence, and a lack of emotion. Hired for what seems like just another assignment, 47 is sent to track down Katia (Hannah Ware), the lost daughter of Dr. Litvenko (Ciaran Hinds), who led the now-defunct Agent program and escaped with the manufacturing plans. Both the Syndicate and the International Contracts Agency seek to track down Litvenko in order to restart the program, with Katia perceived as the golden key to finding the scientist.

Unfortunately, Hitman: Agent 47 suffers from uneven pacing and dull plotting, with the script unwisely overthinking 47, making the story needlessly personal and foolishly trying to inject humanity into the cold-blooded assassin. Consequently, it undermines the character and betrays his videogame origins, not to mention it turns 47 into a generic action protagonist rather than the dark anti-hero of the games. Bafflingly, this Hitman was co-scripted by Skip Woods, who was also responsible for the 2007 movie, and whose filmography does not exactly suggest he's a stickler for quality - he also penned The A-Team, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, and A Good Day to Die Hard. Woods and co-writer Michael Finch actually take their cues from 1984's The Terminator in the flick's earlier stages, establishing 47 as the villain which would have been an interesting twist, but this Hitman eventually transforms into a more generic no-brainer action effort. What a shame.

Even with its glaring script issues, however, the flick is mostly satisfying when locked in action mode, with acrobatic, John Wick-style shootouts allowing 47 to show off his impressive firearm skills. Equipped with a highly appreciated R rating from the MPAA, blood sprays with wild abandon and kills are allowed to be brutal, giving the shootouts more impact. It's little surprise that director Bach cut his teeth with commercials and music videos, as Hitman: Agent 47 is a glossy movie, with designer clothing, stylish automobiles and shiny weapons. Bach delivers in terms of eye candy, with a slick presentation that keeps the movie watchable, even if the helmer has much to learn about pacing. However, the movie does lean too heavily on shonky digital effects, with noticeable CGI that often takes you out of the movie, not to mention the fights are undermined by shaky-cam and rapid-fire editing. It's doubtful Fox were too enthusiastic about the project, thus costs were kept low, with the reported budget coming in at a mere $35 million, which is most likely to blame for the poor VFX work.

The role of 47 was originally intended for Paul Walker in the early stages of production, but his sudden and unfortunate death prompted a hasty re-cast. In his place, Friend acquits himself well enough, looking believable as a man of action while also coming across as intelligent. With the bald head, Friend bears a sufficient likeness to his video game counterpart, which should please fans. Speaking of the games, the movie does contain a few Easter Eggs that eagle-eyed viewers may notice, but Hitman: Agent 47 is still entirely suitable for the uninitiated who are unfamiliar with the source. It is clear, though, that the movie is more geared towards the Resident Evil audience, with the script even allowing a female character to kick some butt. Performances across the board are merely adequate, with Star Trek actor Zachary Quinto barely registering, while Thomas Kretschmann plays the generic bad guy role with absolutely no undue effort.

Hitman: Agent 47 plays out with the same lustre and logic of a straight-to-video endeavour, but has the benefit of a slightly larger budget, even if the end result suffers from cheap-looking special effects. Still, the flick is watchable thanks to the frequent action scenes that are fast and coherent more often than not. Unfortunately, since this is wannabe franchise, Hitman: Agent 47 is not given a proper ending, closing on something of a cliffhanger to set up a possible second movie. Frankly, the open-ended conclusion is rather puzzling, especially given that the 2007 movie failed to spawn a sequel. Follow-ups would be interesting to see, but only if Fox can recruit better writers.


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A wonderful, self-recommending adventure classic

Posted : 1 year, 9 months ago on 9 January 2016 05:14 (A review of Jason and the Argonauts)

"Hecate, Queen of Darkness, revenge yourself against the Thessalians. Deliver to me the children of the hydra's teeth, the children of the night!"

Anybody with so much as a passing interest in big-screen special effects should be aware of the late great Ray Harryhausen, a legendary stop-motion animator who has fuelled the imaginations of children and budding filmmakers for decades. Among his more well-known efforts is 1963's Jason and the Argonauts, a cinematic take on Greek mythology which has lost virtually none of its appeal over fifty years after its release. A fast-paced, irresistibly fun action-adventure, Jason and the Argonauts is a thorough joy, and it was actually the first Harryhausen picture to receive a proper theatrical release. Indeed, his previous efforts were shown as double features, but Jason and the Argonauts was screened as a single film, and the pedigree speaks for itself.

In ancient Greece, Pelias (Douglas Wilmer) selfishly takes control of the kingdom of Thessaly, pushing aside the rightful heir to the throne, Jason (Todd Armstrong). Jason survives, however, thanks to the influence of goddess Hera (Honor Blackman). Decades on, Jason returns to his kingdom, and Pelias recognises him but is not willing to give up his throne. To prove his worth and show that the Gods are on his side, Jason sets off to find the mythical Golden Fleece, with Pelias encouraging him, secretly hoping that the ostensibly impossible quest will lead to his demise. Setting sail on a ship known as the Argo, Jason receives help from the likes of Hercules (Nigel Green), while Pelias's cunning son Acastus (Gary Raymond) is sent along to sabotage the voyage.

Ultimately, the main attraction of Jason and the Argonauts is Harryhausen's iconic stop-motion animation sequences, and they have aged gracefully. To be sure, the special effects do lack the refined, glossy seamlessness of contemporary blockbusters, yet their vintage and simplicity affords a certain charm, and above all there is personality to the creatures which is borderline impossible to replicate on a computer. A memorable set-piece involving the enormous bronze statue Talos even affectionately references 1933's King Kong, the movie which inspired Harryhausen when he was a boy. But it's the climactic skeleton battle that everybody remembers the most, and it truly is a sight to behold. Said climax runs less than five minutes, yet it took Harryhausen a staggering four months to animate the skeletons in the scene, and it's hard to not be impressed or entertained by its visual majesty. Other key sequences involving monsters still impress to this day, while the use of green screen and forced perspective really amplify the experience. The soundtrack, composed by Bernard Herrmann (Psycho), is overdramatic but effective, especially during the action scenes.

It may not be obvious, but Jason and the Argonauts was produced for a fairly paltry sum, even for its time period (footage from Helen of Troy was even used to save money). Yet, there is very little to complain about from a visual perspective; the location filming in Italy is gorgeous, while elaborate costumes, sets and ships look terrific. However, director John Chaffey's efforts are not entirely flawless - although the picture moves at a decent pace, storytelling is a bit on the stilted side at times, while the acting is often rigid and overly melodramatic. As fun as the movie is, people will remember the special effects sequences more than the acting or script. It's not a deal-breaker, but it would be dangerous to compare Jason and the Argonauts to the likes of King Kong, which benefits from a far more involving narrative.

Jason and the Argonauts is essentially the summer blockbuster of its era, as it's an action-adventure loaded with state-of-the-art visual effects, but it holds more appeal than the dumb action movies of today due to the sheer care involved in the production. The special effects still look convincing enough in 2016, and such a huge amount of intricate VFX sequences would have been an absolute headache to achieve in the 1960s, especially with Harryhausen working solo to achieve all of the stop-motion work. Jaded film-goers may not be as impressed with the movie as the adults who grew up with the picture, but that's entirely down to taste and preference. For my money, this is a wonderful self-recommending classic that deserves its esteemed status.


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Both entertaining and touching

Posted : 1 year, 9 months ago on 7 January 2016 12:32 (A review of Southpaw)

"God must have some kind of plan to teach me some kind of lesson. I just can't figure out what it is."

Southpaw is more or less an R-rated Rocky flick situated in a contemporary setting, but I do not use that designation to be flippant nor entirely critical. Even though the similarities to Rocky are undisputable, director Antoine Fuqua and writer Kurt Sutter have nevertheless created a solid sports drama taken on its own merits, buoyed by exceptional performances across the board and a sense of realism that's enormously appreciated. Southpaw is the kind of drama that manages to be entertaining as well as affecting, and though it may not be a serious awards contender, it has more replay value than the usual Oscar bait.

Light heavyweight boxing champion Billy Hope (Jake Gyllenhaal) is riding high, with a hugely impressive undefeated record after forty-three bouts, and a vast fortune that allows him to live comfortably with devoted wife Maureen (Rachel McAdams) and young daughter Leila (Oona Laurence). At a charity function, Billy's anger issues unfortunately get the better of him, with fellow fighter Miguel Escobar (Miguel Gomez) baiting him into a burst of violence, leading to a scuffle that accidentally puts Maureen in the line of fire. Left utterly devastated, Billy's life begins to unravel, with suicidal tendencies and substances abuse exacerbating the situation, while his professional boxing license is suspended after he head-butts a referee. Worse, he runs out of money, loses his house, and Leila is taken away by child services. Left with nothing, the volatile boxer seeks to rebuild his broken life, turning to veteran gym owner Tick Wills (Forest Whitaker) for his chance at redemption.

Scripted by Kurt Sutter, there's little doubt that Southpaw is a formulaic sports drama, taking its cues from the Rocky series in particular. Indeed, the fall from grace and the death of Maureen brings back memories of Rocky III and IV, while the subplot of Billy losing his fortune seems reminiscent of Rocky V. Worse, even though the picture runs a sizeable two hours, it does feel undercooked from a dramatic perspective; the police investigation into Maureen's killing leads nowhere, Tick's willingness to take on Billy needed more motivation, and the script abandons the punch-drunk aspect of Billy's boxing career that Maureen brings up early in the movie. Furthermore, the ending falls short - the film tries to avoid the obvious outcome, instead opting for an alternative that's just as predictable and overused. But although Southpaw has its obvious shortcomings, it miraculously manages to stay afloat thanks to the execution, with Sutter and Fuqua carving out compelling characters that are easy to latch onto.

Whereas the Rocky films are a bit more family-friendly, Fuqua pulls no punches here, creating a visceral, distinctly adult boxing movie, in terms of violence, content and themes. Even though Southpaw can be dour as it observes Hope's dark side, Fuqua displays appropriate tact, preventing the movie from deteriorating into an uncomfortable watch. Furthermore, Fuqua has continually shown he has a keen eye for action, and while this isn't exactly an action flick, the boxing sequences truly are a sight to behold. Visceral and hard-hitting, not to mention proficiently shot by cinematographer Mauro Fiore (The Equalizer) whose shallow-focus camerawork captures every drop of blood and sweat, it's easy to become invested in the boxing bouts throughout the picture, and it's even easier to root for Hope to succeed in the ring. The late great James Horner actually agreed to score the picture for no money, as he was touched by the story and Fuqua had limited funds left in the budget for music. As to be expected, Horner's contributions are exceptional, with subtle, tender, emotive notes which gently enhance the movie's power. Even the Eminem songs suit the movie, which is a rare compliment. (Eminem was originally slated to play the lead role, but that thankfully did not pan out.)

Gyllenhaal's career has had its ups and downs, but Southpaw continues the performer's recent winning streak after his exceptional work in movies like End of Watch and Nightcrawler. This is career-best work for Gyllenhaal, who throws himself into the role of Billy Hope with total conviction; he trained for months to get in proper shape, and he believably handles the layers of the character. Indeed, he's believable as a beefy, aggressive man of below-average intelligence, and he's still convincing as Billy rehabilitates himself over the course of the movie. There isn't a single moment throughout the film in which Gyllenhaal displays any trace of artifice, with the illusion being unfailingly maintained. McAdams also leaves an indelible impression, while newcomer Oona Laurence is one of the most convincing child stars in recent memory. The first act of the movie properly introduces Billy, Maureen and Leila, creating authentic characters and a believable familial unit, and the scene of Maureen taking a stray bullet is extremely powerful. Maureen's demise is utterly wrenching to watch, with tremendous performances and a harrowing sense of realism. Southpaw also benefits from the presence of Whitaker, a reliable thespian who breathes incredible life into the role of Tick Wills. Fuqua even manages to coax a watchable performance out of 50 Cent, a miraculous achievement in its own right.

Due to its narrative shortcomings, Southpaw falls just short of reaching the upper echelon of boxing dramas, but it is a respectable effort that's worthy of recent Oscar-nominated movies like Million Dollar Baby and The Fighter. It's another winner for director Fuqua, who has established himself as a reliable purveyor of masculine entertainment.


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It worked for me

Posted : 1 year, 9 months ago on 5 January 2016 08:09 (A review of Vacation)

"The new vacation will stand on its own."

Talks of a soft reboot of the National Lampoon's Vacation franchise started all the way back in 2010, with John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein tapped to write and direct the movie, but production wound up stalling. However, the unexpected runaway success of 2013's We're the Millers evidently prompted Warner Bros. to finally give 2015's Vacation the green light, as this is a blatant attempt to ape the earlier movie, right down to the modest budget, an R rating, and a similar release slot. Happily, this new Vacation is a lot better than it had a right to be, passing the most pivotal litmus test for a comedy: it's actually funny. Even though it lacks the sheer wit and ingenuity of the immortal 1983 classic that started it all, it's a worthy follow-up, effortlessly surpassing both European Vacation and Vegas Vacation. This is exactly the type of crude R-rated comedy that critics love to hate, but I cannot deny that it worked for me.

Rusty Griswold (Ed Helms) is all grown up, caring for a family of his own while working as a budget airline pilot. Every year, Rusty takes wife Debbie (Christina Applegate), and sons James (Skyler Gisondo) and Kevin (Steele Stebbins) to a cabin for a holiday, but the annual tradition has grown stale. Hoping to reinvigorate his marriage and reconnect with the kids, Rusty decides to take his family on a road trip across the country to Walley World in order to recreate the memorable vacation he took thirty years earlier. Although his wife and sons are reluctant, Rusty fearlessly leads the gang on a series of misadventures, driving the bizarre Tartan Prancer minivan for the interstate journey. As to be expected, everything soon begins to go wrong, with Rusty trying to maintain his sanity as the accidents pile up, while the siblings fight and Debbie has her own worries.

Vacation undeniably starts out on the right foot, opening with a montage of old holiday photos set to Lindsey Buckingham's song "Holiday Road," which is essentially the franchise's anthem. Better, the photographs that are shown here are often very funny, containing quirks that had this reviewer in stitches. Despite the humour here being raunchier than its 1983 counterpart, Daley and Goldstein display a palpable reverence to the original film, making no bones about the fact that their movie is more or less a retread. There's even some amusing meta dialogue, while the script also acknowledges that Rusty is idealising past events, given the disastrous outcome of the first trip to Walley World in 1983. There are a few direct call-backs to its predecessor as well, including a scene of Rusty encountering a flirtatious beauty in a convertible, but Vacation establishes its own vibe and identity, and doesn't merely come across as a beat-by-beat remake of the comedy that John Hughes and Harold Ramis pulled off three decades ago.

Daley and Goldstein make their directorial debut here, after having penned Horrible Bosses and Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2 together. (If the rest of the world is willing to forget that The Incredible Burt Wonderstone exists, that's fine with me.) Standing in stark contrast to most recent comedies which are agonisingly overlong, Vacation moves by at an agreeable clip, rarely dwelling on a joke or comedic set-piece across its 95-minute runtime. Recurring jokes also hit their mark - the ongoing trials of the oddball Tartan Prancer are uproarious, with a remote control of baffling, mysterious buttons which serve questionable purposes. Easily offended viewers are advised to steer clear since this Vacation increases the lewd and crude factor, but thankfully the freedom of an R rating from the MPAA affords the humour an added punch. Not everything works, however - a predictable scene of the Griswolds swimming in raw sewerage really should have been excised, and some moments are perhaps a bit too mean-spirited.

The fourth actor to assume the role of Rusty Griswold (after Anthony Michael Hall, Jason Lively, Johnny Galecki and Ethan Embry), Helms is suitably endearing and earnest, and though he cannot reach the intimidating level of Chevy Chase, he does his job well enough. Christina Applegate, meanwhile, is incredibly appealing as Debbie. Even though Beverly D'Angelo was always likeable as Ellen Griswold, she was simply the straight woman to Chase, but Applegate is given far more to do here, taking the comedy spotlight on a number of occasions. Equally valuable are the supporting players; Skyler Gisondo plays the more introspective son James well enough, while Steele Stebbins delivers a lot of laughs at the crude, foul-mouthed, bullying younger brother with a never-ending supply of acerbic one-liners. Plenty of other recognisable actors also make appearances, including Chris Hemsworth who's a scene-stealing riot as an over-the-top weatherman. Leslie Mann, Charlie Day, Ron Livingston, Keegan-Michael Kay, Norman Reedus and Michael Pena also appear, contributing plenty of colour to the proceedings. And this wouldn't be a proper Vacation movie without Chase and D'Angelo, who are given the chance to reprise their iconic characters in a smaller capacity. It's wonderful to see them again, though their scenes aren't as funny as perhaps they should be.

Vacation proceeds with comedy logic, yet it makes little sense to nit-pick story or structure of a film like this. What matters is that Daley and Goldstein have created an episodic yet surprisingly cohesive road trip comedy, it's easy to like the characters, and it delivers on the promise of big laughs. It's baffling that overlong, subpar comedies like The Heat and Spy were adored by critics, while Vacation was a critical punching bag. For this reviewer's money, this is an extremely enjoyable sit, and the fact that it's actually hilarious is a huge deal.


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Unpredictable and deliciously intriguing

Posted : 1 year, 9 months ago on 2 January 2016 02:16 (A review of The Gift)

"See, you're done with the past, but the past is not done with you."

Jason Blum has carved out a lucrative career as a producer by backing low-budget horror flicks, leading to about as many dexterous fright machines (Insidious, Sinister) as flaccid misfires (The Purge, Ouija, The Lazarus Effect). But 2015's The Gift is a different animal altogether. Rather than a tacky horror pic, this directorial debut for Joel Edgerton is a Hitchcockian psychological thriller, relying on proper suspense, competent storytelling and powerful acting. Also written by Edgerton, the narrative is built on the simple premise of what would transpire if the bully and the bullied are reunited decades on, and the result is confidently unpredictable and deliciously intriguing. It's the perfect antithesis to the year's noisy blockbusters, and though it does have its shortcomings, it's easy to admire Edgerton's valiant efforts on the picture.

Finding a new job outside the city, Simon (Jason Bateman) and his wife Robyn (Rebecca Hall) move to a suburban Los Angeles neighbourhood where Simon grew up, ready for a fresh start. The couple are still haunted by traumas of the past, with Robyn opting to work from home while she deals with her mental roadblocks. While shopping, the pair are approached by Gordon (Joel Edgerton), an old classmate of Simon's who seems to have good intentions, latching onto the married couple instantly. In ensuing weeks, Gordon sends gifts and shows up at the couple's residence unannounced. Robyn finds Gordon to be nice enough, despite his social oddness and palpable loneliness, but something about Gordon just rubs Simon the wrong way. Moreover, Simon is uncomfortable discussing past events, prompting Robyn to investigate Gordon's history with Simon.

Edgerton, an Australian actor who has starred in dozens of movies over the past two decades, is not new to screenwriting; he wrote Felony and had a hand in penning the insanely underrated The Square. It's clear that his past experiences have served him well - The Gift may be imbued with familiar tropes, but the script manages to subvert expectations at every turn, creating an air of head-slapping ambiguity, and it helps that the execution is so thoroughly engaging, revealing darker depths and layers to the story that we might not have expected from the outset. It's the way Edgerton plays with expectations that elevates The Gift above less skilful thriller efforts, questioning who the real villain is and raising tension as the story plays out. Even though the story climaxes with a sense of righteous vengeance, the movie nevertheless closes on a note of solemnity and loss, with scars of the past still as tender as ever. Even though The Gift isn't the most pleasant motion picture, it's certainly a harrowing watch.

It's clear that Edgerton is a major talent behind the camera, drawing influence from the likes of Alfred Hitchcock and David Fincher, with a touch of Roman Polanski's Rosemary's Baby. The first-time director shows particular promise as an architect of discomfort, with the script merely suggesting that Gordon has an insidious plan for the couple, even when there's little evidence to definitively confirm the accusations. Admittedly, a few instances of jump-scare theatrics do not entirely gel with the slow-burning nature of the narrative, but the two or three silly moments aren't enough to undo the movie's limitless strengths. Edgerton was nervous about directing his first production, especially since he was also required to act, ultimately bringing in his more experienced brother Nash (who helmed The Square) to assist. The Gift benefits from the slick, polished cinematography by Eduard Grau, while the picture is tautly edited by Luke Doolan, with no scene or moment outstaying its welcome. Every cent of the $5 million budget was visibly put to great use, while the score by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans is pulsing and atmospheric, impeccably complementing the visuals.

Who knew Jason Bateman was such an adept dramatic performer? The actor is frequently the proverbial straight man in comedies, but here he utterly disappears into the role of Simon, and it really is a sight to behold. He sells fear and frustration, on top of being enormously charismatic and likeable, and an emotionally charged scene of Robyn confronting Simon about his past behaviours features the best acting of Bateman's career. Bateman nails it, showing that we really have underestimated him for so many years, and further roles in this vein would be an enticing prospect. Equally terrific is Edgerton, who puts his all into the role of “Gordo,” delivering a tremendously assured and above all nuanced performance unlike anything the actor has ever done. And best of all, no trace of artifice betrays his acting; his Aussie accent never shines through. A director starring in his own movie may seem gimmicky, but it's hard to imagine any other actor filling this pivotal role. Hall, meanwhile, confidently keeps pace with her co-stars, perhaps delivering the finest performance in the movie, which is not a statement to be taken lightly. Astonishingly believable from start to finish, Hall is able to convey what she's feeling just with her eyes; she says so much with minimal dialogue. This is very much an actor's movie, thus it's fortunate that the trio of leads are so pitch-perfect.

The Gift does fall short of perfection, with subplots involving Robyn's drug abuse and Simon's paranoia that are ultimately undercooked, but it's nevertheless one of the strongest thrillers to be produced under the Blumhouse banner. What's particularly remarkable about The Gift is that it's not a thriller in which characters accept pre-defined roles of good and evil, with the layered, complex leads elevating what would otherwise be a paint-by-numbers fright machine. Add in a daring conclusion that examines the grey-scale morality of the parties involved, and you have one of the most satisfying movie-going surprises of 2015.


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Fails as both a comic book film and a blockbuster

Posted : 1 year, 9 months ago on 1 January 2016 04:52 (A review of Fantastic Four)

"We are not gods, just people. And we are stronger together than we are apart."

It should surprise absolutely nobody to learn that 2015's Fantastic Four is garbage. The movie polluted multiplexes after months of bad press, with rumours about endless reshoots and battles between the creative team and the studio, to the point that director Josh Trank swiftly disowned the final cut. Fantastic Four attempts to spawn a new cinematic franchise for the Marvel brand after previous failures, this time shedding colour and all sense of fun for a darker, grittier incarnation, striving for a fresh take to distinguish itself in the superhero marketplace. Unfortunately, Fantastic Four was only produced because Twentieth Century Fox is engaged in a stubborn dick-measuring contest with Marvel Studios, and want to retain as many comic book characters as possible. In other words, the motivation behind this cinematic travesty is similar to the thought process that led to the horrendous, now-defunct The Amazing Spider-Man series. As an adaptation of the comics, Fantastic Four is a dismal failure, with Trank himself having discouraged the actors from picking up a comic book since he cared so little about fidelity to the source. And as a superhero blockbuster, this is still a pile of crap, lacking a clear vision and identity, let down by terrible scripting, terrible acting, terrible humour, ugly visuals and terrible pacing.

As children, Reed Richards (Miles Teller) and his pal Ben Grimm (Jamie Bell) begin work on a teleportation device that could revolutionise science, with the pair eventually displaying their innovation at a school science fair. Although their demonstration is far from perfect, Reed and Ben gain the attention of scientist Dr. Storm (Reg E. Cathey) and his adopted daughter Sue (Kate Mara), who believe that the teenagers may have cracked inter-dimensional travel. Invited to study and perfect his device with proper resources and funding, Reed jumps at the chance to help to construct inter-dimensional teleportation pods, joined by the unstable Victor Von Doom (Toby Kebbell), while Storm also brings in his rebellious son Johnny (Michael B. Jordan). With the project about to be turned over to NASA, Reed wants his team to be the first to test the pods, convincing Ben to tag along as well. But an accident occurs in the alien realm known as "Planet Zero" during the experiment, irreversibly changing the team.

Fantastic Four actually plays out a lot like an unofficial follow-up to Trank's 2012 directorial debut Chronicle, even rehashing the same basic story of arrogant teens inadvertently gaining superhero abilities through alien technology. After the lab accident, the movie randomly jumps ahead to find Reed, Ben, Sue and Johnny being held at an underground military bunker, and after one halfway interesting body horror sequence of the characters coming to grips with their powers, the movie randomly jumps ahead another full year, finding the protagonists conscripted as covert ops soldiers while they search for a cure. The transition is as baffling as it sounds, and it feels like a solid half-hour of content is missing. This bizarre structure could be forgiven to an extent if it was an excuse to jump straight into the action, but we aren't that lucky. Instead, the characters just spend their time moping, setting up crises of conscience so that they don't have to go anywhere that might be potentially too expensive for the budget.

In an attempt to distance itself from the previous incarnation of Marvel's first family, this Fantastic Four is almost a David Cronenberg-esque body horror flick, sold with the same brand of dour self-seriousness that has become prevalent since Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins. It sounds interesting in theory, but the execution is downright disastrous, hampered by terrible acting and woeful scripting, while the flick also forgets to be fun. The tone is excessively grim, but there are also horrendous attempts at comedy which were presumably added during the reshoot process. Problem is, the "humorous" dialogue is so witless that the movie would be better off without it. And considering how bad the movie is as a whole, that's a huge fucking call. The script for this muck is every bit as infantile and stupid as a Transformers movie, but the gritty tone wants you to believe it's smart and thoughtful. Although it is possible to create a reflective superhero picture that's low on action, such a movie needs actual, fleshed-out thematic undercurrents and genuine smarts, two base requirements that this Fantastic Four fails to deliver.

For a movie which boasts a respectable $120 million budget, Fantastic Four is oddly lacking in scope, with the latter half of the movie mostly taking place in labs and underground sets, only leaving the dank bunker for the computer-generated Planet Zero. Reportedly, three full action sequences were excised from the movie for timing reasons, and that's a problem. Pacing is all over the shop, and though the movie is relatively short at close to 100 minutes, it feels agonisingly long, because there are no surprises as the narrative progresses and there's no sense of fun, leaving us to wait for each narrative box to be ticked. The reshoot footage is mostly obvious, with Mara sporting a blonde wig that looks seriously comical, while Teller has facial hair that appears and disappears at its own leisure. Furthermore, the quality of the special effects is curiously mixed. The digitally-created Human Torch looks decent while the Thing is convincing to an extent, but Doom looks like digital vomit, Planet Zero resembles a PS2-era game environment, and some scenes boast green screen effects that would look too phoney even in a Sharknado sequel. Visually, the film is flat, drab and far too desaturated, making it impossible to derive any enjoyment from this cinematic black hole.

No thespians on Earth could have enlivened the woeful material, but suffice it to say, the acting here is genuinely ghastly. Although Teller showed promise in The Spectacular Now and Whiplash, he's a mostly awful actor, and it's a wonder why Hollywood insists on putting this irritating ten-year-old in movies. Mara is flat and unremarkable, while Jordan is so generic that he barely registers. Bell is hopelessly wasted as the Thing, mainly because his rock monster portrayal is too dedicated to "gritty realism," denying any flashes of actual personality to come through. It's hard to like any of the central characters, to be honest; we don't buy them as family or even as friends, and it's even harder to root for them as they work to defeat the saran-wrapped abomination that's supposed to be Victor Von Doom during the climax.

Speaking of Doom, he's one of the greatest comic book villains in history, yet his depiction here is outright insulting. Randomly reappearing towards the tail end of the third act, Doom's plan is hopelessly muddled - it's unclear exactly what his endgame is beyond "destroy the Earth," and his motivation is even vaguer beyond being annoyed that he was left for dead on Planet Zero, even though he seems pretty chuffed with his new abilities. Oh, and he's lovesick for Sue and resents her interest in Reed, because the script is a cliché breeding ground. The final battle should be an epic showdown that compensates for the fucking interminable build-up, but it's hampered by lack of scope, with the destruction of Earth limited to a couple brief cutaways right as Doom begins to execute his plan. The battle is oddly unremarkable and plays out awkwardly, lacking that spark of tension to keep us on the edge of our seats. The movie should keep cutting back to Earth to show what's at stake, and perhaps even check in with established characters in peril to establish a sense of threat, but no dice. The climax is a dud.

There's no joy to Fantastic Four, which is devoid of blockbuster thrills and rich characters, with the titular team reduced to a sullen, bitter group of people lacking believable camaraderie. It doesn't even have a fucking Stan Lee cameo! And just as the film begins winding down, the team engage in a horrendously written talk about their powers and discuss what to call themselves; the film might as well have ended on a freeze frame of the cast in mid-laugh like some cheesy old television show. Fantastic Four is one of the very worst comic book movies ever produced, a travesty on the same level as Green Lantern, X-Men Origins: Wolverine and Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance. This is the golden age of superhero blockbusters, yet we're still left waiting for, and wanting, a worthwhile Fantastic Four movie. Interestingly, Fox were so hasty to make a franchise out of this property that a release date for Fantastic Four 2 was pencilled in fifteen months before this instalment even came out. Let’s just be thankful that this movie bombed and the sequel has been removed from the release calendar. We have suffered enough.


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