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Involving gambling drama

Posted : 2 years ago on 16 July 2016 02:51 (A review of Mississippi Grind (2015))

"We go down the Mississippi, but we hit up all the action!"

The latest feature to be written and directed by the filmmaking team of Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (Half Nelson), 2015's Mississippi Grind is old-fashioned all the way through to its core, evoking motion pictures from the '60s and '70s with its unhurried pacing and beautifully filmic cinematography. Taking notable inspiration from the likes of Five Easy Pieces and 1974's The Gambler, this is a motion picture about gambling, but it's not concerned with the usual glamour associated with Las Vegas or Atlantic City. Instead, Mississippi Grind is more dramatic, providing an unusually solemn, incisive examination of a potentially destructive hobby. The film's appeal is not derived from casino action, but rather from the interplay of the two fascinating central characters.

In Iowa, self-destructive gambling addict Gerry (Ben Mendelsohn) is stuck in a serious rut. Due to his addiction, Gerry has lost his wife and child, while a loan shark also threatens violence if he doesn't pay his debts. By chance, he meets fast-talking drifter Curtis (Ryan Reynolds) during a game of poker, and the two strangers find themselves drawn together by their shared hunger for gambling in all its forms. Becoming fast friends, Gerry and Curtis look to score big, deciding on an impromptu trip down to New Orleans for a high-stakes poker tournament. Hitting the road, the pair bond as they gamble at every turn, but Curtis gradually begins to understand the depths of Gerry's personal problems.

Mississippi Grind delves into the serious ramifications of a gambling addiction, serving as an effective character study of Gerry, who continually yearns for the thrill of watching a dog race or rolling a dice, counting down the seconds until he gets to leave his menial job and return to a casino. In the very first scene of the movie, Gerry is seen listening to a CD about observations on human behaviour, educating himself on how to tell if a person is bluffing at the poker table. Mississippi Grind is episodic in its road trip structure, but there's a proper narrative through-line and all the vignettes come together in a cohesive fashion. If there's an issue from a storytelling perspective, it's that the ending doesn't quite mesh with the rest of the movie, as the script begins to veer more into wish-fulfilment territory, clashing with the otherwise realistic tone.

The decision to shoot on 35mm film stock enhances both the sense of atmosphere and the old-fashioned vibe, and it makes the movie look more expensive than a digital production. The non-flashy cinematography (by Andrij Parekh) is effectively vérité at times, too, especially when Gerry and Curtis hit the liquor, and the visuals are supplemented by a pleasant soundtrack of rhythm and blues tunes. But it's the strong performances and astute characterisations that keep Mississippi Grind compulsively watchable from start to end. Accomplished character actor Mendelsohn is note-perfect as Gerry, masking his natural Australian accent to espouse a wholly convincing American drawl that feels entirely lived-in. Alongside him, Reynolds (in a role meant for Jake Gyllenhaal) is enormously charismatic and energetic, displaying his strong dramatic chops that we rarely get to see. He's nicely subdued as well, never coming across as showy, and even though this isn't a comedy, there are some moments of tender humour which make Curtis seem more innately human. Mendelsohn and Reynolds are so great together, registering plenty of bromantic chemistry. Appealing support is also provided by Sienna Miller as Simone, a caring prostitute who touches Curtis' heart, while Analeigh Tipton shares a few sweet moments opposite Mendelsohn as Simone's friend Vanessa. There are a lot of really nice scenes peppered throughout the movie, especially when the two boys find themselves in the company of their female companions. 

Mississippi Grind doesn't snowball into anything revolutionary and it's hard to walk away truly loving it, but it's nevertheless a competent motion picture bolstered by strong performances and focused filmmaking, and that's good enough to warrant a recommendation. The pacing is leisurely, and it does require patience, but there are plenty of pleasures to extract from this involving drama if you choose to give it a shot.


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Sweet and candid rom-com

Posted : 2 years, 1 month ago on 14 July 2016 01:30 (A review of Sleeping with Other People (2015))

"First of all, you are not the Mark Zuckerberg of vaginas."

Sleeping with Other People is a contemporary version of the When Harry Met Sally premise, as it explores similar themes and ideas to the landmark 1989 romantic comedy, but is far raunchier and edgier. It's probably the best of its kind since 2011's Friends with Benefits, and it helps that the central characters do seem like real human beings with shortcomings and feelings. Laughs may be spotty, but the actors remain on point all the way through, and pacing is constantly agreeable. It's never a chore to sit through.

Randomly meeting in college, Lainey (Alison Brie) and Jake (Jason Sudeikis) bond as they talk about sex, and wind up losing their virginities to one another, but they fail to stay in touch after their sexual encounter. Over a decade later, Jake has developed into a sex addict and a serial cheater, unable to find a woman with whom he wants to have a proper relationship. Lainey, meanwhile, is obsessed with college buddy Matthew (Adam Scott), an engaged doctor who sleeps with her but has no interest in a relationship. Running into each other at a support group meeting for love addicts, Lainey and Jake reconnect and immediately hit it off, but mutually agree to remain platonic friends since both of them have sabotaged every romantic relationship they've ever been in. It's a well-intentioned prospect at the outset, with the two happily spending time together and discussing each others' love interests and sexual trysts, but they begin to develop an undeniable bond.

Headland does borrow liberally from When Harry Met Sally, right down to lines like "men and women can't be friends," and even observing Lainey and Jake texting each other in bed, an apparent update of the phone conversations shared by the two leads in Rob Reiner's rom-com. But Headland goes a step further, rooting the central story in the serious issue of love and sex addiction, which gives the story a fresh perspective. Naturally, Sleeping with Other People is not as smart or as incisive as When Harry Met Sally, but Headland's script does manage to provide some amusing observations about relationships, sex and love. The big problem, though, is that although it does try to avoid many of the hoariest chestnuts of the rom-com genre, the story's outcome and many of the primary plot points are predictable. And since Headland does strive for candidness, this does seem to clash with her intentions.

Even though the narrative is very middle-of-the-road, Sleeping with Other People does provide a few moments of definite inspiration and comedic brilliance. One notable non-sequitur sees Jake and Lainey dropping ecstasy at a kids' birthday party and dancing with children to the tune of David Bowie's "Modern Love." And in another scene clearly inspired by Meg Ryan's restaurant orgasm, Jake teaches Lainey how to effectively masturbate, demonstrating on a juice bottle. For the most part, though, Headland relies on mild wit as opposed to juvenile antics in order to score laughs, keeping at least one foot planted in reality. Indeed, even in spite of the R rating, it doesn't feel like a mean-spirited Judd Apatow or Seth Rogen flick.

Although not as conventionally attractive as the likes of Zac Efron or Justin Timberlake, Sudeikis is a wonderfully endearing comedic lead, and he's versatile to boot, delivering vicious sarcasm and blasé snark whilst always coming across as warm and genial. And when the script calls for drama, Sudeikis handles it with assurance. Best of all, however, he shares wonderful chemistry with Brie, who's adorably perfect as Lainey. She's disarming whenever she's on-screen, and she manages to make her character seem genuine. It's so delightful to watch Brie and Sudeikis share the screen that the movie comparatively drags whenever they're apart. These two seriously need to take more roles like this. In the supporting cast, Jason Mantzoukas makes a positive impression as Jake's best friend Xander, while Adam Scott is fairly muted (by design) in a minor role as Lainey's object of infatuation.

It doesn't touch the dizzying heights of When Harry Met Sally (what movie can?), but Sleeping with Other People is a pleasant enough rom-com distraction, even if it is wholly predictable at the end of the day. Besides, it does have a heart-warming message in that some people do find others who "get" them, and those are the ones to embrace in whatever capacity that works. Sweet and often candid, Sleeping with Other People is one of the more enjoyable entries in this genre for some time.


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Disjointed, but has its moments

Posted : 2 years, 1 month ago on 10 July 2016 06:48 (A review of The Night Before)

"For tonight, we have decided to end this tradition..."

Adult Christmas movies are few and far between, as the majority of Hollywood's festive output is aimed at the younger demographic. With the controversy of 2014's The Interview now in the past, filmmaking duo Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg turn their attention to the holiday season for The Night Before, collaborating with 50/50 director Jonathan Levine for a rowdy, R-rated stoner comedy that also finds time for meaning and drama. Although amusing at times, it falls short of its potential, with the monkey business too often interrupted by half-hearted attempts at sincerity that lack genuine impact. It's certainly a far cry from the unorthodox brilliance of Bad Santa, though it's not entirely without merit.

As a young man, Ethan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) lost his parents in a tragic car accident, leaving him without a family on Christmas. However, friends Isaac (Seth Rogen) and Chris (Anthony Mackie) come to the rescue, establishing a new tradition to come together every Christmas Eve to party. But with the trio all now in their thirties and ready to get serious about family and career, they decide that this year's night of drunken debauchery will be their last. Hoping to go out on a high note, Ethan manages to steal tickets to the biggest, most exclusive party in New York City: the elusive Nutcracker Ball. But not everything is working in the trio's favour, especially with Isaac consuming far too many drugs from a gift box that was given to him by his pregnant wife Betsy (Jillian Bell), while Ethan pines for beloved ex-girlfriend Diana (Lizzy Caplan).

It's a standard set-up which suggests a simplistic string of comic set-pieces, but Levine and co-writers Goldberg, Kyle Hunter and Ariel Shaffir search for meaning in each of the three leads, creating emotional arcs in amid all the drugs and booze. On top of Ethan's depression relating to the loss of his parents and the break-up with Diana, Isaac freaks out over the notion of being a parent, and Chris starts using steroids to improve his NFL performance. It's laudable that The Night Before has ambitions beyond straight-up partying, but Levine has trouble negotiating the tricky tonal changes for this dramedy, and it feels laboured as a result when it should be breezy. Worse, a number of the jokes are on the pedestrian side, with Rogen simply overacting as per usual while the script mostly relies on improvisation to get laughs. Unfortunately, it's hard to recall any particularly witty quotes, and it should be a lot funnier.

However, The Night Before is not a complete travesty. There are scenes and moments that do work, while cinematographer Brandon Trost (The Interview) beautifully sets the Christmas mood with proficient lighting techniques and framing, dovetailed by an array of recognisable festive songs. The movie even opens with an amusing rhyme to make the story seem more like an old-fashioned Christmas tale, energetically delivered by none other than Tracy Morgan who serves as the movie's narrator. But the ace in the hole here is Michael Shannon (Man of Steel) as a zen-like drug dealer whose special brand of weed opens up portals to the past and future. Shannon is able to effortlessly achieve laughs by being so subdued in comparison to rest of the cast, and you're ultimately left wishing that he had a bigger role. Meanwhile, Gordon-Levitt and Mackie are appealing, Bell gets a few moments to shine, and Caplan is disarming as always.

The Night Before simply cannot figure out if it wants to be a sweet dramedy like the excellent 50/50, or a straight-up stoner comedy like This is the End or Pineapple Express. It's disjointed as a result, but it does provide some fun throughout its 100-minute runtime, especially when the action shifts to the Nutcracker Ball where some famous faces show up (including Miley Cyrus, who runs with the opportunity to play a comically unhinged version of herself). It may not become a widespread new annual Christmas-watching tradition, but The Night Before certainly shouldn't wind up being listed as one of the worst Yuletide movies in existence.


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Chilling, but cannot come together properly

Posted : 2 years, 1 month ago on 9 July 2016 10:30 (A review of The Mothman Prophecies)

"I think we can assume that these entities are more advanced than us. Why don't they just come right out and tell us what's on their minds?"

The Mothman Prophecies more or less plays out like a feature-length episode of The X-Files, as it's concerned with an urban legend that's based in reality. Adapted from the 1975 book of the same name by John Keel, this supernatural thriller was directed by Mark Pellington, late of 1999's Arlington Road. The Mothman Prophecies is old-fashioned all the way through to its core, relying more on atmosphere and subtle chills than violence, and it does work to a certain extent. However, since the film was inspired by an unsolved supernatural case, it brings up far more questions than it can answer, and it both meanders and confuses due to the ostensibly random nature of many of its narrative threads. While there is intrigue here, the movie cannot quite come together well enough as a cohesive whole.

Even though the story purports to be based on true events that occurred in the late 1960s, the setting is updated to present-day, and follows (fictitious) Washington Post journalist John Klein (Richard Gere). John loses his beloved wife Mary (Debra Messing) to a brain tumor which is discovered after a sudden car accident, and John finds that his wife has been drawing a moth-like creature that she claims she saw on the night of the accident. Two years after Mary's death, John intends to drive down to Richmond one night, but inexplicably winds up in the sleepy town of Point Pleasant, having somehow travelled 400 miles in under two hours with no memory of what happened. Meeting local cop Connie Parker (Laura Linney), John is drawn into the town, where citizens are reporting strange happenings as well as sightings of a tall "mothman" creature that's very similar to Mary's drawings.

It would be best to approach The Mothman Prophecies as a piece of fiction that's loosely based on true events, as the script by Richard Hatem is a largely fabricated construction that weaves in a few factual events and as many creepy set-pieces as possible. (Whether by design or not, a number of "facts" stated by the movie are actually inaccurate.) However, the screenplay refuses to properly connect many of the plot points, and as a result, the film feels all over the place. It seems that it uses the unsolved nature of Mothman as an excuse to avoid answering everything, throwing out random horror conventions with mixed effectiveness. There are serious pacing issues as a result of the movie's haphazard structure, though it does improve to a degree with repeat viewings.

To Pellington's credit, he generates an unnerving atmosphere throughout the picture, especially with the competent cinematography and his expert use of shadows and sounds, amplified by a terrific soundtrack by tomandandy. The titular Mothman is only really glimpsed subliminally, and the bitterly cold setting helps to build a sense of gloom. The Mothman Prophecies is more of a mood piece than a scare-fest, rendering it a fascinating instance of restrained horror filmmaking. The movie's centrepiece is a stunning disaster climax which recreates the real-life collapse of the Silver Bridge, an event that supposedly brought an end to the strange occurrences in Point Pleasant. It does seem out of place since the rest of the proceedings are so low-key in comparison, but it does well to pull the rug out from underneath us, and it helps that the sequence is so gut-wrenching and riveting, not to mention competent from a technical perspective. A fair chunk of the $32 million budget likely went towards the climax, and the result is wholly worthwhile.

Even though Gere is a veteran performer who looks suitably focused here, his John Klein is too much of a blank slate, which is a problem. One cannot help but wonder how much more engaging the film might have been if it was more like The X-Files from a character perspective, and starred endearing actors like David Duchovny or Gillian Anderson who could have injected the story with some humanity. Ultimately, The Mothman Prophecies does have enough merit to make it worth watching, and Pellington's command of the screen is remarkable, but the material fails to properly serve the filmmaker.


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Very, very funny

Posted : 2 years, 1 month ago on 8 July 2016 03:35 (A review of The Brothers Grimsby)

"Trust you? Trust you? Because of you, the head of the World Health Organisation is dead and Harry Potter has AIDS."

It's difficult to defend 2016's Grimsby as a legitimate motion picture, as it's moronic and gross in equal measure, but this is entirely by design. As a piece of brainless entertainment, Grimsby delivers with assurance, though it caters to a specific niche audience. It's very much in line with the previous works of the rambunctious Sacha Baron Cohen, retaining the vulgar, disgusting, politically incorrect tone previously beheld in Ali G Indahouse, Borat, Brüno and The Dictator. Indeed, anybody expecting a tasteful comedy has come to the wrong place. But even though Grimsby is silly, it's also a very, very funny movie which will prove to be enormously entertaining for those in the right mindset. And in an age where ballsy R-rated comedies are a rare commodity, it's relieving to witness a movie as uproarious and gleefully bold as this.

Separated as kids following the death of their parents, brothers Nobby (Cohen) and Sebastian (Mark Strong) follow decidedly different life paths in subsequent years. Nobby is a dim football hooligan with a lusty girlfriend (Rebel Wilson) and eleven children, living in the working-class town of Grimsby in Northern England. In stark contrast, Sebastian is a suave and accomplished spy for MI6. After 28 years apart, Nobby learns of Sebastian's whereabouts, and inadvertently interrupts his brother as he tries to thwart an assassination attempt on philanthropist Rhonda George (Penélope Cruz). Sebastian is targeted for capture and wants nothing to do with Nobby, but has no choice but to return to Grimsby with his deadbeat brother to try and evade both the authorities and various assassins. In over their heads, Sebastian teams up with Nobby to stop a devastating terrorist attack, while Nobby tries his hardest to build a proper relationship with his brother.

Grimsby plays out like a Jason Bourne or James Bond adventure, complete with espionage and globe-trotting, but just so happens to feature Cohen as a bumbling football hooligan in addition to a more seriously-minded spy character. To punch up the visual style and properly handle the movie's non-comedic elements, Cohen brought in French action director Louis Leterrier (Now You See Me, Transporter 2), who bestows the material with his agreeable brand of energy and panache. Action scenes are thrilling and well-choreographed, and the picture moves at a breathless pace - it's consistently watchable and never boring. It's certainly the most technically accomplished of all Cohen's comedies to date. It's enjoyably brisk at around 80 minutes, closing before outstaying its welcome.

Naturally, your mileage may vary for a flick like Grimsby, since it relies on gross-out moments and offensive jokes for the majority of its belly-laughs, and concepts like good taste are tossed out the window. This isn't an especially witty comedy per se, and it is largely forgettable on the whole (save for a few repugnant sequences that may haunt you), but the jokes come thick and fast, and the hit-to-miss ratio is astonishingly high. On top of the many puerile set-pieces (one of which involves a lot of elephant ejaculate), there are plenty of pop culture jokes to keep things topical, including sly digs against FIFA and the Fast and Furious franchise, and a gag at Bill Cosby's expense. Offensive material is also thrown in for good measure, with jokes about AIDS and leukaemia, and other politically incorrect material which had this reviewer howling with laughter.

Cohen again shows that he knows no boundaries, carving out yet another distinctive comedic persona and absolutely going for broke. He's well-matched with Strong, who's a terrific pick for the straight man of the show. Despite looking so serious, Strong is game for anything, no matter how utterly infantile the material may be. And especially because of Strong's prior movies, it's all the more hilarious to see him doing comedy like this. Aussie actress Rebel Wilson also makes a positive impression, while Gabourey Sidibe manages to get a few extra laughs. Even action star Scott Adkins gets a small look-in here as a terrorist, which is an inspired choice, though Cohen's wife Isla Fisher seems barely conscious whenever she's on-screen as one of Sebastian's colleagues.

For all intents and purposes, I should probably hate Grimsby. Critics were very unkind to the film during its theatrical run, dismissing it as infantile and offensive, but I cannot deny that it quite simply worked for me. It may be low-brow, but I still laughed, and it has strong replay value since it's easy to miss jokes the first time around due to the speed at which some of the gags are tossed out. Conservative viewers, or the easily offended, should most definitely steer clear of Grimsby, but if you generally enjoy Cohen's at times repugnant brand of humour, this is a movie for you. Be sure to stick around throughout the credits; there are mid-credits and post-credits scenes.


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A fun, old-fashioned action flick

Posted : 2 years, 1 month ago on 21 June 2016 02:53 (A review of London Has Fallen)

"Why don't you pack up your shit and head back to Fuckheadistan!"

Even though 2013's Olympus Has Fallen did not exactly set the box office on fire, it performed respectably against its modest budget, and money is money in the filmmaking industry. Not to mention, Olympus prevailed as the more successful “Die Hard in the White House” production, grossing more than Roland Emmerich's White House Down. Ditching director Antoine Fuqua in favour of lesser-known filmmaker Babak Najafi, but retaining much of the original cast, 2016's London Has Fallen stands as a worthy follow-up that should effortlessly entertain those who enjoy these types of blockbusters. It's a visceral, hard-edged action flick which preserves its predecessor's R rating, allowing for salty one-liners and brutal violence. North Koreans were the villains in the first film due to political conflicts at the time, but with the world now under threat from ISIL, Islamic terrorist bad guys were the obvious, timely choice here.

Two years after saving the life of President Asher (Aaron Eckhart), Secret Service Agent Mike Banning (Gerard Butler) is expecting a baby, and considers resigning in order to live peacefully with his wife Leah (Radha Mitchell). When the British Prime Minister suddenly dies, world leaders beginning converging on London for the funeral, with Banning assigned to watch over Asher during the trip. However, an Islamic terrorist cell overseen by Kamran Barkawi (Waleed Zuaiter) take the opportunity to strike, launching a terror attack in the middle of London with the ultimate goal in mind of broadcasting the beheading of President Asher on the internet. But Banning has other plans, seeking to safely escort Asher out of the city and overthrow Kamran's forces while endeavouring to contact Vice President Trumbull (Morgan Freeman), who's watching over the situation in Washington with his excitable staff (including Jackie Earle Haley and Robert Forster).

London Has Fallen has stirred up controversy online, with some calling the movie insensitive in the wake of horrific terrorist activities in recent years (specifically the 2016 Paris shootings), while others have dismissed the actioner as pure American propaganda. Yeah, it's silly, and its gung-ho attitude won't sit right with everybody, but I'll be damned if it doesn't work. London brings back Olympus scribes Creighton Rothenberger and Katrin Benedikt, while the script is also credited to Christian Gudegast and Chad St. John, though it's difficult to ascertain exactly why it took four people to write a feature as simple as this. 

Once the threat is established and the initial strike has taken place, London transforms into a chase movie, following Banning and Asher as they traverse the perilous London streets, trying to survive as they encounter scores of nameless bad guys. Whereas Olympus was all about Banning rescuing the President from a hostage situation, this follow-up is more of a buddy movie, with Asher remaining at his protector's side for the majority of the runtime. It's a lean actioner at around 95 minutes in length, and it really moves, breathlessly transitioning from one conflict to the next, pausing for just enough chatter to keep the story comprehensible. Dialogue is standard-order and often tin-eared, though Banning does disperse a number of amusing John McClane-esque one-liners. If you can overlook the rampant ridiculousness of the enterprise, there’s plenty to enjoy here.

Taken as a simple, fictitious action flick, London Has Fallen works extremely well, playing out with the same zeal and spirit as a 1980s Cannon Films production. Rather than superhero antics or over-the-top mayhem, the movie favours good old-fashioned shootouts, car chases and fisticuffs, and it sports stronger production values than a typical straight-to-video outing (the actors actually shoot real blanks, and practical blood squibs are used, which is miraculous). Happily, the chaos is captured with lucid camerawork, allowing us to watch and enjoy it. Yeah, the cinematography is shaky to an extent, but the camerawork is never distracting, and it adds to the feeling of excitement. There's even an adrenaline-pumping shootout in a dark alley which unfolds in a bravura single shot for some welcome variety. The only real downside to London is the shoddy CGI, which often looks incredibly phoney and instantly takes you out of the movie. Mercifully, however, the fake digital mayhem is not constant, limited to only a few moments during the initial assault, so it doesn't constantly sour the experience.

Butler is an appealing, macho leading man, espousing the same type of attitude that was so prevalent in '80s action heroes. It would be easy to imagine Butler doing more action movies in this vein, joining the still-tiny list of modern actors capable of playing these sorts of roles. Just like John McClane in the Die Hard series, Banning approaches each conflict with a nonchalant attitude, and he always finds time for quips (he tells Asher that he was made out of “bourbon and poor choices”). Several other veteran thespians also appear here; Eckhart is an amiable President, and it's always nice to see Morgan Freeman. Other names include Angela Bassett, Melissa Leo and Jackie Earle Haley, all of whom seem to be having a good time.

It's hard to defend London Has Fallen beyond the level of guilty pleasure, since it is absurd and chock full of action movie clichés. In short, it's tailor-made for viewers who get a kick out of this brand of old-fashioned ludicrousness, and it was not intended for the more serious or stuffy class of movie-watcher. It's not exactly polished, but its rough-around-the-edges sensibilities do contribute to the charm to a certain extent. If you enjoyed Olympus Has Fallen, there's a good chance you'll have a fun time with this one.


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Pleasantly enjoyable

Posted : 2 years, 2 months ago on 11 June 2016 12:40 (A review of Goosebumps)

"All the monsters I've ever created are locked inside these books. But when they open..."

The Goosebumps brand was tremendously popular in the 1990s, with a string of horror novels by author R.L. Stine that terrified an entire generation of children. There was even a TV show adaptation and a number of computer games, but 2015's Goosebumps denotes the first time that the brand has extended to the big screen, seeking to appeal to a whole new generation of viewers (whose parents likely grew up with the books). Rather than an omnibus picture or a simple adaptation of a single Stine chiller, the screenplay (by Darren Lemke, based on a story by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski) is set in the "real" world and features as many monsters and creatures as possible, within a narrative reminiscent of Jumanji and, to some extent, the recent Pixels. Even though it is slightly skewiff around the edges, Goosebumps is downright enjoyable and often charming, which is probably more than most movie-goers were expecting.

After the death of his father, Zach (Dylan Minnette) moves from New York to a small town in Delaware for a fresh start with mother Gale (Amy Ryan). Zach almost instantly takes a shining to Hannah (Odeya Rush), the cute girl living next door, but a friendship between the pair is strictly forbidden by her reclusive father, R.L. Stine (Jack Black), who goes by the fake name of "Mr. Shivers." Suspecting that Hannah may be the victim of domestic abuse, Zach and new friend Champ (Ryan Lee) break into Stine's house where they discover a library of locked "Goosebumps" manuscripts. Before Hannah or Stine have the chance to stop them, the two open one of the manuscripts, unleashing the manifestation of the monster contained within the pages. In the ensuing scuffle, all of Stine's titles are opened, giving life to dozens of ghoulish creations. To save the town, Zach, Champ, Stine and Hannah work to track down the author’s original typewriter, which is the only thing capable of writing an end to the chaos.

Tim Burton was slated to produce a Goosebumps feature in the 1990s, following in the shadow of the TV show, but it never came to fruition. Reportedly, many of the narrative broad strokes from Burton's planned iteration were carried over to this version, which feels more in line with something like Night at the Museum as opposed to Stine's original works. There are plenty of references to the novels, though, following the heroes as they encounter the Werewolf of Fever Swamp, the Abominable Snowman and the Giant Praying Mantis, but the de facto antagonist of the movie is Slappy (voiced by Black), the evil ventriloquist dummy that may unnerve smaller children. This is a fantasy chase picture at heart, and it does contain some amusing scenes and moments, including a shrewd discussion of Stephen King and mentions of Stine’s sales figures.

Goosebumps does admittedly suffer from hammy dialogue, some sitcom-worthy gags and a smattering of obvious clichés, not to mention the material is often played quite broadly, lacking in truly meaty scares. This is a PG endeavour which remains suitable for the younger demographic, eschewing any content that's horrific or shocking, instead leaning on the campy monsters to provide a few mild chills without giving anybody nightmares. Surprisingly, despite being such a high-profile release, digital effects are noticeably below-par, which serves to break the sense of immersion. With the exception of Slappy (who was achieved through clever puppetry), most of the primary monsters were brought to life via some absurdly unconvincing CGI, bringing attention to the tight budget (a mere $58 million) at the least opportune time. Still, director Rob Letterman (2011's Gulliver's Travels) otherwise exudes confidence over the material, channelling an old-fashioned matinee vibe and maintaining a taut pace from start to end. Added to this, composer Danny Elfman provides a playful, flavoursome original score that delivers everything we have come to expect from the regular Tim Burton collaborator.

Black settles on an agreeable tone as Stine, scoring laughs with relative ease. Even better is Jillian Bell (22 Jump Street), a scene-stealer as Zach’s bedazzle-crazy Aunt Lorraine. The film definitely could have used more of the agreeably daffy Bell, who delivers her limited dialogue with plenty of spunk. The younger actors are not quite on the same level as their seasoned co-stars, though, with Ryan Lee in particular growing a tad irksome as the over-the-top Champ. Luckily, Minnette and Rush fare better, and share a sweet on-screen relationship. Flaws notwithstanding, Goosebumps gets more right than wrong. It's an entertaining, PG-rated fantasy adventure that's by no means a chore to sit through, and in an age where kids movies are oftentimes unwatchable, this is good enough. The fact that it does have real charm and laughs, and it's possible to care about the characters on some level, counts for something.


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Honest, amusing and entertaining

Posted : 2 years, 2 months ago on 8 June 2016 11:43 (A review of Freaks and Geeks (1999-2000))

"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 : 2 years, 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 : 2 years, 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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