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Hard to watch and harder to forget

Posted : 2 weeks, 1 day ago on 14 February 2024 06:19 (A review of Threads)

A controversial and unforgettable British television movie from 1984, Threads is arguably one of the only films that indisputably lives up to the hype of being traumatising and unsettling beyond words. Although not a horror movie in the classical sense, as there are no ghosts or demons, it is undoubtedly a horror movie that shows the horrifying impact and aftermath of nuclear war with haunting results. Exhaustively and meticulously researched by director Mick Jackson (who previously oversaw the documentary A Guide to Armageddon), Threads is the first film of its kind to depict a nuclear winter. The film was broadcast a year after the similarly-themed The Day After hit television screens across the globe, but Threads takes a different approach to the depiction of a nuclear attack, with Jackson creating more of a quasi-documentary instead of a straightforward dramatisation. Threads is a confronting and harrowing viewing experience, and it is not something you will want to revisit frequently, but its relevance continues to endure in the 21st Century, and it is an essential watch.

Written by author and playwright Barry Hines, Threads is not a globe-trotting disaster movie in the vein of a Roland Emmerich production. Instead, it remains solely focused on the city of Sheffield in Northern England. Young adults Ruth Beckett (Karen Meagher) and Jimmy Kemp (Reece Dinsdale) discover an unplanned pregnancy and decide to marry, planning for the baby's arrival and dealing with their respective families. Sheffield is also home to strategic military targets, including steel production factories and an R.A.F. base. A conflict arises between the Soviet Union and the United States of America, and, despite attempts to keep things peaceful, it culminates with nuclear blasts that bring an end to civilisation as we know it. Millions are killed across Europe in an instant, while the survivors face an uncertain future of food shortages, a lack of shelter, radiation poisoning, and endless labour.

Threads does not concern itself with the politics behind the war. Instead, it is more about the experiences of innocent civilians who can only helplessly watch the news coverage of the senseless conflict, endure growing government restrictions, and fight for survival after the nuclear blast obliterates virtually everything. The escalation of the situation is highly compelling, with Jackson portraying what could conceivably occur before, during, and after a nuclear conflict. Scenes of panic buying, travel restrictions, and anti-war demonstrations (that are violently shut down by police) look incredibly eerie and uncanny after the pandemic, which is a testament to the veracity of Jackson's exhaustive research. Furthermore, instead of endless money shots of explosions decimating landmarks, Jackson concentrates on the people caught in the nuclear blast, with grotesque and disturbing imagery of bodies being melted, a woman losing control of her bladder, and people helplessly trying to assist one another. Plus, scenes of mass panic and hysteria are genuinely distressing.

Unfortunately, Threads lacks a compelling protagonist to guide us through the horrific events, as this is more of an ensemble piece comprised of various vignettes with a range of characters, some of whom are recurring but none of whom we intimately grow to know. As a result, viewers are kept at arm's length, which is probably the intention as the movie plays out like a documentary, but it is somewhat disappointing nevertheless. The ensemble is gargantuan, and Jackson deliberately chose unknown actors to fill the various roles to heighten the film's impact. Thankfully, there is no single dud performer in sight, with all the actors confidently hitting their marks. This is most commendable in the aftermath of the nuclear blast, with the actors needing to convey the sheer depression and hopelessness of the nuclear winter, as well as radiation sickness and sheer weakness from malnutrition. Jackson convincingly portrays people from all walks of life, with no artificiality or showiness in sight, enhancing the production's laudable realism.

Accomplished on a small budget, Threads was shot on grainy 16mm film stock, which undeniably works in the film's favour. The dreary and unpolished 16mm photography augments the horrors and creates a realistic sense of immediacy that crisp digital cinematography cannot come close to achieving. Jackson intercuts lots of archival material throughout the movie, including shots of military forces, planes, and explosions, solidifying the documentary approach to the subject matter. Additionally, despite the limited budget, the makeup and prosthetics are effective and, at times, difficult to look at. Not all of the special effects stand up to contemporary scrutiny, as the compositing is a little on the dated side when the first bomb hits near Sheffield, but this does not matter in the slightest. Threads does not live and die by its special effects, as it is not about the money shots. The intimate dramatic scenes between characters are the main focus, and Jackson scarcely puts a foot wrong during these sequences.

Anybody seeking a conventionally entertaining disaster or apocalypse movie should steer clear of Threads, as this is not an enjoyable film or even a good-looking one, which is entirely by design. With any hope, this is the closest that any of us will come to experiencing a nuclear winter. Indeed, as the years continue to go by after the blast, life might continue for some of the characters, but it is arguable whether or not life is actually worth living in this sort of post-apocalyptic world. Gut-wrenching and disturbing, Threads is hard to watch and even harder to forget.


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Heartbreakingly bland and bloodless sequel

Posted : 2 weeks, 1 day ago on 14 February 2024 04:51 (A review of RoboCop 3)

RoboCop 3 feels like a RoboCop movie created by a filmmaking team who do not understand what made the brand so appealing in the first place. A PG-13 instalment without lead actor Peter Weller, this second sequel to 1987's RoboCop is a completely generic, dull action flick devoid of the sharp societal commentary and deliriously entertaining ultraviolence that characterised its predecessors. Although the bones of an interesting story idea are present, the execution is downright disastrous, with new writer-director Fred Dekker disposing of the RoboCop franchise's trademark identity but never carving out a distinct or interesting identity in its place. RoboCop 3 is heartbreakingly bland and bloodless, but it is still too dark and violent for children, begging the question of who the target audience is supposed to be. Despite production taking place in 1991, the movie languished in post-production for two years due to Orion Pictures filing for bankruptcy before RoboCop 3 finally snuck into theatres with minimal fanfare in 1993. Frankly, Orion should have cancelled the film instead.

The unscrupulous conglomerate Omni Consumer Products, or OCP, plan to demolish the slums of Detroit and build the utopian Delta City. To finance the plan, the Japanese Kanemitsu Corporation buys a controlling stake in OCP and begins pushing ahead. However, demolishing Old Detroit involves evicting the city's poverty-stricken residents who have no desire to leave their homes, prompting an underground resistance movement to stand up and fight. With the Detroit Police Department unwilling to enforce mass eviction, OCP commissions a heavily armed private security force known as the Urban Rehabilitators to forcibly and violently remove the residents of condemned Detroit neighbourhoods. Alex Murphy/RoboCop (Robert Burke) and his partner, Anne Lewis (Nany Allen), try to defend civilians against the Urban Rehabilitators, but Anne is mortally wounded in the ensuing gunfight, and RoboCop is severely damaged. However, resistance soldiers save RoboCop, and the robotic law enforcement officer joins the fight against OCP. Meanwhile, the Kanemitsu Corporation have ninja androids at their disposal.

Dekker is undeniably talented, with Night of the Creeps and The Monster Squad to his name, but he is hopelessly out of his element with RoboCop 3, particularly with the studio's creative demands (neutered violence, less satire, more kid-friendly) hindering the endeavour from the get-go. Worse, despite comic-book luminary Frank Miller receiving a writing credit, not many of his ideas made it to the finished film after Dekker's rewrites. RoboCop 3 retains some of the franchise's recognisable elements, including news reports, but it comes off as mimicry instead of an organic continuation of director Paul Verhoeven's iconic original film. Additionally, Dekker himself acknowledges that Murphy's story was effectively wrapped up in the previous movies, leaving little for RoboCop 3 to explore. As a result, RoboCop feels like an incidental character here, with the film focusing more on OCP and the Urban Rehabilitators, and with no heart or emotion to elevate the material above the superficial. Dekker tries to create an emotional anchor with Lewis's death, but her demise feels surprisingly hollow, and she is quickly forgotten about. Plus, the dialogue is tin-eared and dreary, there is no dark humour, and the movie horrendously drags between the infrequent action beats.

With a PG-13 rating in place, RoboCop 3 comes up short in terms of action, with only a few set pieces scattered throughout, none of which make any lasting impact. For the most part, RoboCop 3 is often stuck in dialogue and exposition mode, making it an exceedingly dreary bore. To Dekker's credit, a few of the on-screen deaths make use of blood squibs, making it more violent than any PG-13 movie to see the light of day in the 21st Century. However, deaths frequently happen off-screen during the big set pieces, and the blood squibs are noticeably tame. (One character appears to simply have a tomato sauce stain on his shirt instead of a gushing chest wound.) The toned-down violence looks even worse compared to the first two RoboCop movies, which were rigorously trimmed to avoid an NC-17 rating. With RoboCop 3's studio-mandated content taming, Detroit no longer looks like an amoral hellhole populated by dangerous murderers and criminals, and the city lacks a grimy, sinister personality. There is also no visceral punch to the action sequences, making everything feel vanilla and boring. It is a fundamental flaw from which RoboCop 3 never recovers. Furthermore, RoboCop 3 betrays the characters and the established lore, from Lewis walking away during a discussion about erasing Murphy's memory, to a little girl reprogramming the iconic ED-209 in mere seconds.

After Orion Pictures was bought out, the new releasing studio did not allocate enough money to properly finish and polish the special effects. Combined with the limited shooting budget resulting in cheap-looking sets and basic production design, a noticeable cheapness plagues RoboCop 3. The unfinished special effects are particularly apparent during the climax. Although RoboCop's flight suit is an intriguing and fun idea, the execution is incredibly ropey, with slipshod compositing that never looks convincing for a single frame. Likewise, the ninja androids are a fun-as-hell idea, but the ensuing fights are short and underwhelming. Dekker wanted to punch up these scenes by bringing in an Asian stunt team, but the restricted budget prevented this. At the very least, RoboCop composer Basil Poledouris returns here and bestows the production with the franchise's memorable music cues and themes. Additionally, cinematographer Gary B. Kibbe (They Live, Prince of Darkness) does what he can, but the production design and the script fail to serve him, with too many daylight scenes and with eccentric punk rockers now inhabiting the streets of Detroit.

With Peter Weller unable to return due to scheduling conflicts with David Lynch's Naked Lunch, Robert Burke takes over the titular character here, having been selected mainly for his body measurements that allowed him to wear the existing RoboCop suits (the production could not afford to create new suits). Even though Burke gives it his all, he is a subpar substitute for Weller, feeling more like an unmemorable placeholder. Burke is not our RoboCop - he lacks the authoritative voice and the strong jawline that made his predecessor a perfect fit for the role. A few original cast members return here, including Nancy Allen, but she does not achieve much beyond being killed by the leader of the Urban Rehabilitators, played by British performer John Castle. Rip Torn also joins the cast as OCP's CEO, and he is perfectly serviceable playing a ruthless corporate type. There are other intriguing additions to the ensemble, including CCH Pounder and Stephen Root who play resistance fighters, but they are not enough to enliven the uninspired screenplay.

With uninteresting new characters, some woeful special effects, and dull action scenes, RoboCop 3 is a toothless sequel that is not worthy of the iconic masterpiece that spawned it. In short, RoboCop 3 is not fun enough to be considered a guilty pleasure, nor is it smart or skilful enough to be considered anything substantive. Despite the commercially-friendly PG-13 rating, RoboCop 3 underperformed at the box office and, ironically, was the least profitable film in the franchise. The RoboCop franchise continued with games, TV shows and a 2014 remake, but nothing comes close to the quality of the original 1987 movie.


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Entertaining and witty, but not essential

Posted : 3 weeks, 2 days ago on 6 February 2024 06:25 (A review of Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2)

Although a sequel to 2009's Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs makes commercial sense due to its modest box office success, it felt like a satisfying standalone story with seemingly no logical place for a follow-up to go. Plus, original writer-directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller did not return in a significant creative capacity here, making 2013's Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2 appear even more like a purely profit-driven endeavour. Nevertheless, the resulting movie is surprisingly entertaining and witty, and it feels like an organic continuation of the original effort, even if it is not exactly an essential watch.

The story picks up right where its predecessor ended, finding the people of Swallow Falls ready to recover after the FLDSMDFR disaster. To tackle the mammoth task of removing the giant food all over the island, Live Corp CEO Chester V (Will Forte) sends in a cleaning team, and offers a corporate job to Flint Lockwood (Bill Hader), the creator of the FLDSMDFR. Chester’s team soon disappears, and their desperate final video messages show sentient food monsters, or foodimals, running rampant all over Swallow Falls, suggesting that the FLDSMDFR is still functioning. If the foodimals continue to evolve and learn how to swim, they could threaten humanity. After Flint suffers great humiliation when he misses out on a promotion, he receives a much-needed chance to redeem himself when Chester sends the eager young inventor back to Swallow Falls to destroy his invention for good. Setting off with girlfriend Sam (Anna Faris), father Tim (James Caan), Officer Earl Devereaux (Terry Crews), Manny (Benjamin Bratt) and Brent (Andy Samberg), Flint travels into dangerous territory. However, Live Corp has nefarious plans for the island, with Chester and his orangutan assistant, Barb (Kristen Schaal), following Flint's crew to Swallow Falls.

With Lord and Miller receiving only story and executive producer credits, Cody Cameron and Kris Pearn take over directorial duties for Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2, working from a script by John Francis Daley, Jonathan M. Goldstein and newcomer Erica Rivinoja. Whereas the original Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs was an amusing take on classic disaster films, Cloudy 2 presents an animated spin on the science-gone-wrong monster movie, playing out with shades of Aliens, Jurassic Park and King Kong, with the characters encountering all sorts of exotic and dangerous creatures as they traverse the island. Plus, Sam's costume during the expedition is identical to Laura Dern's outfit in Jurassic Park. Unfortunately, Cloudy 2 lacks the dramatic and emotional material that elevated the first flick above the ordinary, and it feels more like an extended epilogue than a new, dramatically satisfying story. There is something here about the value of staying true to yourself, as Flint alienates his family and friends in his attempts to impress Chester, but it is not as effective as the social commentary of the first movie, which was about consumerism and the dangers of overconsumption. Cloudy 2 also has a half-hearted pro-animal message as the foodimals are not the villains here, but this stuff feels perfunctory and safe. Without emotion or heart, this sequel is more of a superficial experience.

Thankfully, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2 retains the aesthetic style of the original picture, making it feel like a seamless companion piece. Despite a lower budget than the first flick, this is a vibrant, visually lush action-adventure with eye-catching animation, creative character designs and inventive food-based environments, while the writers go nuts with puntastic foodimal names. (There are tacodiles, shrimpanzees and watermelophants, to name a few.) The foodimals are fun to watch, with new creatures frequently appearing to invigorate the proceedings as the characters explore Swallow Falls. Over a hundred foodimals were designed for the movie, but less than half of them were actually used. A bit of corporate satire also sneaks into the flick, with the screenplay lampooning Silicon Valley, but puns, wordplay and one-liners are the script's primary focus, and it does deliver ample laughs. Although marginally longer than the first movie, Cloudy 2 only clocks in at a bit over 80 minutes, excluding credits, and the directors maintain high energy and a rapid pace throughout the picture. The plot is not always engaging, but there are almost always colourful visuals and amusing background details to behold. The soundtrack provides further pleasures, with composer Mark Mothersbaugh making his return, and with several wonderful songs appearing throughout the movie, including Paul McCartney's lovely song New, and the obvious but still amusing Yummy Yummy Yummy by Ohio Express.

The voice cast remains as appealing as ever, though the spark between Hader and Faris is not quite as pronounced as it was in the first movie. Caan remains fantastic and grounded as Flint's father, while Samberg is predictably manic, hamming it up and scoring many laughs along the way. Forte, who voiced another character in the original film, makes for a great villain here, giving Chester V plenty of spunk and personality. Also worth noting is co-director Cody Cameron, who voices Barry the Strawberry and all of the Pickles. Cameron's innocent, childlike voice is a great fit for the cute little characters. Meanwhile, Terry Crews is present here in place of Mr. T, who declined to return as Officer Devereaux and is the only original cast member who was recast. Crews is a gifted comedian, and he forgoes mimicry to make the role his own, with the animation team also incorporating his physical mannerisms.

Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2 is not as sweet or hilarious as the original movie, and it is a lighter flick that concentrates more on gags and colourful characters than thematic resonance. In the hit-and-miss realm of animated sequels, however, Cloudy 2 is above average, offering enough cartoonish goofiness to make it an entertaining watch for kids and adults alike. Just do not expect a Pixar-level sequel. It is doubtful that Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs needed to be a franchise, but with one great movie and one worthwhile sequel, there are certainly worse places to look for family-friendly entertainment. A third movie did not materialise despite a completed script (with the title Planet of the Grapes), but the series did continue in the form of a poorly-received Netflix series without any of the original voice actors.


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A winner in every respect

Posted : 3 weeks, 2 days ago on 6 February 2024 06:14 (A review of Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs)

Phil Lord and Christopher Miller's feature-film debut as writers and directors, 2009's Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs adapts Judi Barrett and Ron Barrett's beloved 1978 children's book with delightful results, making for an entertaining, hilarious and heartfelt animated picture that gives Pixar a run for their money. With the ability to appeal to adults and children alike, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs is energetic and frenetically paced with sumptuous visuals, but Lord and Miller thankfully do not overlook character development or storytelling, ensuring that the movie has staying power beyond its surface-level pleasures. Lord and Miller structure the picture like an old-fashioned disaster film, imaginatively parodying and paying homage to the likes of Twister, Armageddon, The Core and Independence Day.

An aspiring inventor, Flint Lockwood (Bill Hader) lives on the tiny island of Swallow Falls in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. The island's economy relies on the fishing of sardines, but the local cannery permanently closes after the world realises that sardines are super gross, leaving the locals of Swallow Falls with nothing to eat but sardines. Refusing to work at a sardine store owned by his father (James Caan), Flint seeks to make his mark on the world by inventing the "Flint Lockwood Diatonic Super Mutating Dynamic Food Replicator" (or FLDSMDFR), which transforms water into food. Inadvertently launching his machine into the sky, the FLDSMDFR is a huge success, resulting in junk food continually raining down from the clouds, delighting the residents and the shifty Mayor Shelbourne (Bruce Campbell). An amateur weather reporter named Sam Sparks (Anna Faris) is present to cover the action, and grows closer to Flint as the two begin to spend time together. However, as the mayor bullies Flint to deliver more food varieties, the food becomes increasingly larger and out of control, putting the town - and the rest of the world - in danger of destruction.

Lord and Miller use the book as a loose framework, expanding the characters and story for this big-screen interpretation while anchoring the narrative in unexpected emotion and heart. Flint is a relatable and endearing protagonist who strives to prove himself to the residents of Swallow Falls, staying true to his aspirations despite enduring ridicule as a child for inventing spray-on shoes that he cannot remove. After the death of Flint's supportive and understanding mother, he yearns for validation from his bewildered, hard-working father, creating an emotional core that elevates the narrative above the superficial. It helps that the characters feel real and fleshed out, with Flint's father even demonstrating a complete technological ignorance that many viewers will relate to. Furthermore, the story's underlying messages about the dangers of overindulgence, junk food addiction and societal excess do not come across as preachy; instead, they provide agreeable substance to supplement the colourful, food-filled chaos.

Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs does not outstay its welcome, with the film clocking in at under 80 minutes, excluding credits. Whereas any number of other animated movies are padded out with needless supporting characters to provide cheap and easy laughs, Lord and Miller stay focused on Flint throughout the narrative, and no scenes or moments feel superfluous or boring. The momentum is extraordinary, with the feverish visual style immensely helping to maintain a strong sense of pacing; the virtual camera scarcely stops moving, and there are visual gags galore. The CGI is wonderfully stylised instead of photorealistic, though the textures are striking and almost leap off the screen, which is augmented even further by the 3D presentation. During the action-packed climax, the filmmakers merrily embrace the possibilities of a food armageddon, showing all manner of food raining down on people in recognisable cities around the world. A sandwich is impaled on the Eiffel Tower, and a giant fortune cookie falls on the Great Wall of China, while the presidents on Mount Rushmore are hit with pies. One news reporter even points out that the chaos is hitting famous landmarks first, a savvy commentary on the tendency for disaster movies to only show the destruction of landmarks. Mark Mothersbaugh's whimsical original score adds further flavour to the production, perfectly complementing the lovely visual feast on display.

The ensemble is note-perfect, demonstrating the virtues of selecting voice actors for their talent instead of their star power. Hader is a gifted comic performer, making for an earnest and sympathetic underdog hero who feels distinctly human. Faris is equally excellent, delivering an endearing voice performance teeming with vibrancy and wit. Flint and Sam's relationship gives further heart to the picture; the pair light up the screen with their sweet and playful dialogue, making for enchanting semi-romantic partners. The late James Caan is another standout as Flint's father, bringing genuine gravitas and humanity to what could have been a clichéd, one-dimensional role. Bruce Campbell and Andy Samberg add further colour to the production, with Samberg enthusiastically clowning it up as the infantile namesake of the Baby Brent Sardines cannery. The iconic Mr. T is also on hand playing tough-as-nails local police officer Earl Devereaux. With his immediately recognisable voice, he embraces the inherent absurdity of the material and scores many laughs along the way. Another key player is Neil Patrick Harris as the voice of Flint's pet monkey, Steve, who can communicate using a translator invented by Flint.

Over a decade later, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs confidently stands the test of time in its visual construction and screenplay, with Lord and Miller relying on good old-fashioned wit to score laughs, rather than a barrage of pop-culture references. There is so much to enjoy here, from a whimsy scene of Flint and Sam frolicking in a mansion made of Jell-O to the wonderful end-credit song (Raining Sunshine by Miranda Cosgrove) that closes the movie on a high note. With its appealing characters, effective humour, lovely visuals and delicious-looking food of all kinds, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs is a winner in every respect.


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A sweet treat worth savouring

Posted : 1 month ago on 30 January 2024 07:12 (A review of Wonka)

A prequel movie to Roald Dahl's Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory exploring the origins of the titular character was always going to be a tricky proposition, as such films typically lack a compelling reason to exist beyond financial aspirations. But in the hands of Paddington and Paddington 2 director Paul King, who co-wrote the script with Simon Farnaby, 2023's Wonka exceeds all reasonable expectations. A musical fantasy flick reminiscent of 1971's Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, Wonka tells a worthwhile, engaging original story about the iconic chocolatier, and King brings the material to life with his usual directorial excellence. This is not a disposable origin story held back by the format's limitations and frustrations; instead, it is merely a new story based on Dahl's characters. Although Wonka is family-friendly, it is a rare type of children's movie with vast age appeal, as it does not pander to younger viewers. King concentrates on good old-fashioned storytelling, finding unexpected heart and emotion, making this one of 2023's standout movies.

An aspiring magician, inventor and chocolatier, Willy Wonka (Timothée Chalamet) arrives in Europe with the hopes of opening a shop to sell his magical chocolates. Stuck on the freezing cold streets without any money, Wonka is pressured into staying at a boarding house run by Mrs. Scrubitt (Olivia Colman) and her henchman, Bleacher (Tom Davis). However, Wonka receives an exorbitant bill he cannot pay, forcing him to work off his debt in Scrubitt's workhouse alongside an orphan named Noodle (Calah Lane) and several others who were duped by the promise of a cheap room for a night. Wonka also runs into trouble trying to sell his chocolates on the streets, as the business is controlled by the ruthless "Chocolate Cartel" consisting of three rival chocolate-makers: Slugworth (Paterson Joseph), Fickelgruber (Mathew Baynton), and Prodnose (Matt Lucas). The Cartel uses their vast supply of chocolate to bribe the chocolate-addicted Chief of Police (Keegan-Michael Key), who agrees to do whatever he can to stop Wonka from selling his treats. Undeterred, Wonka teams up with Noodle and the others at the workhouse to go up against the Cartel and escape Scrubitt's clutches.

Set 25 years before the events of the original novel, Wonka is not an origin story in the strictest sense. Here, Wonka is already an accomplished chocolate maker with a love for chocolate, and he possesses the tools and exotic ingredients to create delectable treats that are an instant hit with the public. The only thing missing is a place to sell his wares. Flashbacks illuminate parts of Wonka's childhood, specifically his relationship with his mother (Sally Hawkins) who made incredible chocolate, but they are used sparingly to enhance the story and establish the picture's emotional core. It's a far more agreeable angle than an entire movie about Wonka developing a love for chocolate, learning how to make it and travelling the world to harvest ingredients. King and Farnaby's screenplay is tonally reminiscent of the Paddington movies in all the right ways, with quirky characters (Rowan Atkinson and The Mighty Boosh's Rich Fulcher are highlights), sweet friendships (Wonka and Noodle are a terrific pairing) and tender humour. The story's heart derives from Wonka's beloved mother, as the young man seeks to open a chocolate shop as a tribute to her, and he carries around the last chocolate bar she ever gave him. The payoff is overwhelmingly affecting.

The clear visual inspiration for Wonka is 1971's Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, from Chalamet's costume to Hugh Grant's Oompa-Loompa (named Lofty), and a new rendition of the song Pure Imagination, notes of which Joby Talbot integrates into the score. Speaking of the music, the new songs written by Neil Hannon are a thorough delight, organically progressing the story and providing valuable character development. Wonka further benefits from the consistently eye-catching cinematography courtesy of the unparalleled Chung Chung-hoon (The Handmaiden, It, Last Night in Soho). The movie was in post-production for almost two years, and the carefully constructed visuals reflect this. Whereas most big-budget blockbusters suffer from shoddy visual effects due to rushed production schedules, Wonka looks virtually flawless, and it is often impossible to discern where the live-action elements end and the CGI begins. Just take, for example, the digitally-created Lofty, who looks photorealistic. Although Grant criticised the motion-capture process, Lofty is a miracle of digital artistry that is immaculately integrated into the live-action photography. There's a wonderful storybook quality to the gorgeous visual style, with the picture looking theatrical instead of gritty or realistic, which suits King's family-friendly tonal choices and the musical nature of the production.

The role of Willy Wonka is an intimidating ask for a young performer, but Chalamet absolutely nails it, confidently handling both the dramatic material and the songs. Chalamet is a disarming Wonka who is easy to love and empathise with, and he undeniably looks the part. Impressively, Chalamet manages to create his own fully fleshed-out interpretation of the character instead of a performance that feels like mere mimicry. An extraordinary supporting cast surrounds him, with both seasoned performers and promising newcomers filling out the ensemble. Grant is the most notable, making the most of his limited screen time, emanating charisma and effortlessly gaining laughs through dialogue and subtle body language. Even lesser-known actors like Tom Davis make a positive impression, and it's commendable that each actor manages to carve out distinctive, lived-in characters with unique personalities and traits.

Colourful, funny, earnest and incredibly charming, Wonka ticks almost every box and is easily the best movie featuring Willy Wonka to date, surpassing both previous adaptations that were not particularly good in the first place. Although the picture threatens to fall apart during the action-y climax, King does not let the material out of his control, leading to a finale that tugs on the heartstrings without feeling forced or manipulative. With the Paddington team working their magic here, Wonka is a sweet treat worth savouring.


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A technically immaculate, haunting action-thriller

Posted : 1 month ago on 26 January 2024 12:20 (A review of Sicario (2015))

Sicario is one of 2015's must-see movies, a modestly budgeted action-thriller in a similar vein to Steven Soderbergh's Traffic and the best films of Michael Mann. With the acclaimed Denis Villeneuve (Prisoners, Enemy) at the helm and with a screenplay by Taylor Sheridan, Sicario is more than a formulaic action-thriller - it is a technically immaculate and unforgettably haunting exploration of the human mind's dark recesses set against the backdrop of America's war on drugs. Ethical conundrums are common, blurring the line between right and wrong as the protagonist is absorbed into a dark, morally grey realm but is sufficiently satiated by the promise of results after years of slow progress and police fatalities. Sicario is an audio-visual masterpiece with Villeneuve at the top of his game, but it is a bleak movie featuring characters who lack warmth, making it easy to admire but hard to genuinely love.

An FBI Agent concentrating her efforts on Mexican drug trafficking, Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) is shaken by a discovery in suburban Arizona, raiding a house full of corpses that is also rigged with an explosive device that claims the lives of two law enforcement officers. Determined to apprehend the criminals at the top of the food chain, Kate is recommended for and joins a covert Joint Task Force, working alongside CIA Officer Matt Graver (Josh Brolin), who gives her limited details about the mission. Kate is full of moralistic, by-the-book ideals, finding the task force's methods - especially those of secretive, highly-skilled assassin Alejandro Gillick (Benicio del Toro) - frustratingly questionable. As Kate begins questioning her role in the dangerous operation, she finds it difficult to trust the men of authority surrounding her.

The screenwriting debut for Taylor Sheridan, who went on to pen Hell or High Water and Wind River, Sicario paints a searing picture of the ostensibly unwinnable war against violence and drugs filtered through Kate's eyes. Kate is skilled but sheltered and naïve, and she finds herself unprepared to witness the "good guys" using worryingly unconventional tactics throughout the operation. Just as Kate is mostly ignorant of the operational specifics beyond fighting the war on drugs, the script likewise leaves viewers in the dark to observe the ethically questionable abyss of violence that seemingly lacks rhyme and reason. Sicario is entrenched with procedural minutiae, following Matt's team as they relentlessly work towards their unclear ultimate goal. Villeneuve explores the moral grey area of the operation, with characters lying, stealing, setting traps and killing, which takes a toll on the conflicted Kate, who wants results but is weary of the cost. Moreover, Sheridan plays with conventional storytelling rules, even switching focus to Alejandro during the third act with terrific sleight-of-hand. Alejandro emerges as the film's secondary protagonist, enhancing the overall narrative without taking away from Kate's story, and the establishment of his character leads into the 2018 sequel, Sicario: Day of the Soldado.

Sicario is the second collaboration between director Villeneuve and cinematographer Roger Deakins after 2013's Prisoners. Villeneuve's directorial spell is enrapturing, concentrating on evocative atmosphere, periods of silence and careful mise-en-scène. Under Deakins's meticulous eye, every frame looks achingly gorgeous, with visually arresting compositions and remarkable lighting and use of shadows, while Johann Johannsson's pulse-pounding, Oscar-nominated score perfectly complements the cinematography. An inescapable feeling of dread and tension permeates Sicario, with Johannsson's music enhancing the atmosphere and effectively driving the movie, maintaining momentum during stretches containing minimal dialogue. The visuals emphasise the almost otherworldly nature of the desolate desert locations, with the soundtrack compounding the sense of uneasiness, making viewers feel like strangers in a strange land. During the moments of gunplay and violence, Villeneuve exhibits genuine flair and talent; a deadly confrontation on a busy stretch of road is both savage and riveting, while an extended climax stretching multiple locations is nail-bitingly intense. Sicario wears its R rating on its sleeve, facilitating moments of shocking violence and an unnerving look at the realities of drug smuggling and cartel operations. However, Villeneuve is wise enough not to dwell on the brutality, showing tact and restraint during the action beats, with the characters dispatching enemies swiftly.

Blunt is exceptional as Kate, coming across as a wholly believable FBI Agent with tenacity and grit but who is also recognisably human. The actress admirably acquits herself during the action sequences, but she shines during the smaller moments, strongly conveying the impacts of the moral conundrums she faces through body language and measured line delivery. A concluding scene between Blunt and del Toro is a highlight. Speaking of del Toro, he is outstanding here as the cagey Alejandro, delivering what is potentially the best performance of his career so far. Alejandro adopts a steely, ruthless exterior demeanour that hides anger and grief, and del Toro immerses himself into the character with impeccable abandon. Brolin is another standout, perpetually keeping his cool and maintaining control despite Kate's consistent questions and the mission's inherent danger. Outside the central trio, Sicario also features Jon Bernthal, Victor Garber, Jeffrey Donovan and Daniel Kaluuya in supporting roles, all of whom hit their marks admirably. This was right before Bernthal's big break as Frank Castle/The Punisher in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and he capably plays a smooth-talking, corrupt Arizona cop here. Garber is excellent in anything, and this is no exception; he brings a pronounced sense of gravitas to his role as a supervisory agent in the FBI.

Sicario carries the feeling and appearance of an arthouse production, but it is more thrilling and captivating than this description implies. Indeed, the movie concentrates on tense standoffs, armed conflicts, intriguing investigations and heated interrogations instead of a numbing series of static scenes in dim rooms with people talking. However, there is still an underlying gravitas and sophistication to prevent Sicario from feeling like simplistic direct-to-video schlock. In other words, this is an action-thriller done correctly. It is a testament to Sheridan, Villeneuve and the rest of the crew that, despite the dense narrative, Sicario does not feel like mundane homework. Also note-worthy and relevant is the film's suggestion that the war on drugs is ultimately futile despite America's funding and operational strength to combat it.


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Recaptures the magic of its predecessor

Posted : 1 month, 2 weeks ago on 10 January 2024 03:51 (A review of Deadpool 2)

Despite Fox's longstanding reluctance to produce a Deadpool movie, 2016's Deadpool was a massive hit for the studio, becoming an unmitigated box office success and establishing the iconic titular character as a pop culture force to be reckoned with. It was also something of an experiment, as viewers had no idea what to expect since the source material was not exactly mainstream before the film's release. A weight of expectations surrounds 2018's Deadpool 2, with film-goers now familiar with the exploits of Deadpool and wanting another round of entertaining, blood-soaked mayhem with a side serving of quips, meta humour and breaking the fourth wall. Although the brief two-year turnaround implies a rush job of a sequel, Reynolds's love and reverence for the property ensures that Deadpool 2 is another winner, with returning screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick (Zombieland) recapturing what worked about the original movie. Deadpool 2 is a bigger, more expensive movie than its lightning-in-a-bottle predecessor, but it retains the same mischievous spirit and proclivity for ultraviolence and bawdy humour.

Two years after the events of Deadpool, Wade Wilson/Deadpool (Reynolds) is busy making his living as an international mercenary-for-hire and is now ready to have a baby with his girlfriend, Vanessa (Morena Baccarin). However, on their anniversary, Vanessa is killed by one of Wade's targets that he failed to kill. Deeply depressed, Wade wallows in self-hate and tries to commit suicide, but his regenerative abilities keep him alive, and he is forcefully taken to the X-Mansion by Colossus (Stefan Kapicic), who summarily recruits him into the X-Men. Starting his X-Men training, Wade accompanies Colossus and Negasonic Teenage Warhead (Brianna Hildebrand) to a standoff with an unstable young mutant, Russell (Julian Dennison), who was abused in a mutant rehabilitation home and wants revenge on the Headmaster (Eddie Marsan). The situation is complicated by the arrival of Cable (Josh Brolin), a cybernetic soldier from the future who lost his family and wants to kill Russell to save their lives. Determined to finally be a hero, Wade seeks to protect Russell and prevent him from becoming a homicidal monster.

Deadpool 2 almost immediately establishes itself as another humorous, meta-infused action-comedy instead of another generic comic-book film. Wade is as witty and foul-mouthed as ever, firing off an endless sequence of cheeky, fourth-wall-breaking one-liners, and the feature even kicks off with a ridiculously cheesy James Bond-style title sequence, complete with an original song by Celine Dion that sets the right mood. One-liners, jokes, bantering, and pop culture references are frequent, with the DC Universe and Green Lantern getting name-checks and 2017's Logan also receiving recognition. However, just as the original Deadpool is fundamentally a romantic comedy that tells a compelling story, Deadpool 2 is a family film with poignant moments and a thoughtful narrative. Cable is motivated by his desire to save his family, and Wade wants to start a family with Vanessa but forms a close familial bond with his mutant comrades. Assembling the X-Force (which was intended to lead into the now-cancelled spinoff) takes up a bulk of the picture's second half, with Wade working alongside the likes of Domino (Zazie Beetz) and Cable, but Reese and Wernick organically weave the team-building into the fabric of the narrative - the angle does not feel like studio-mandated meddling, and Wade is still the protagonist.

With Deadpool director Tim Miller departing this second instalment over creative differences, John Wick co-director David Leitch (Atomic Blonde) steps into the fold with sensational results. Leitch maintains the first film's devilishly enjoyable cheekiness while taking full advantage of the R-rating, staging playfully violent action scenes with tongue firmly planted in cheek. Like its predecessor, Deadpool 2 comes alive during the key set pieces, such as a goofy montage depicting Wade brutally slaughtering his way through countless targets in different countries, set to Dolly Parton's 9 to 5. Deadpool 2 is longer than its predecessor, with a runtime of a hair under two hours, but Leitch does a fine job working through the ample story material while maintaining an agreeably brisk pace, which is also a testament to the three credited editors. Additionally, Leitch displays fantastic comedic timing, never lingering on gags for too long. The soundtrack adds further personality to Deadpool 2, continuing in the tradition of the original film by including various left-field song choices for comedic effect, such as All Out of Love, In Your Eyes and Take on Me. Cable and Wade's discussion of dubstep also leads to the amusing use of the Skrillex song Bangarang. Less successful is Tyler Bates's score, which is admittedly generic and does not make much of an impact.

Luckily, Leitch here reteams with John Wick cinematographer Jonathan Sela, a talented visual craftsman. Whereas the original flick has a noticeably digital appearance, Deadpool 2 looks more tactile and cinematic thanks to Sela's superlative compositions and sophisticated lighting, including neon lighting that gives darker scenes a more pronounced visual personality. With a larger budget, Deadpool 2 is larger in scope compared to its predecessor, with sizeable set pieces of impressive scale, including an extended vehicular chase through city streets that results in abundant destruction. Leitch does not let the picture out of his control and never gives into mindless digital excess, as the set pieces remain thoroughly exciting and involving. Despite a comparatively short production period, Deadpool 2 is virtually flawless from a visual effects standpoint, with more refined CGI. Colossus looks noticeably more tangible, though some of Domino's digitally enhanced exploits are less convincing.

Reynolds is Deadpool, and it is genuinely impossible to imagine any other actor taking on the now-iconic Merc with a Mouth, a role the performer coveted for years. Luckily, he ably reprises the character without missing a beat, scoring endless laughs with his uproarious wisecracks. The performance goes deeper than just dialogue, though, as Reynolds's body language and goofy movements while inside the suit are also hysterical, turning simple staging into superb physical comedy. Many actors were rumoured to play Cable, including Stephen Lang, Michael Shannon and David Harbour, but Brolin eventually won. Cable is Brolin's second Marvel role as the actor also stars as the digitally-created, motion-capture Thanos, including in 2018's Avengers: Infinity War, which was released merely a few weeks before Deadpool 2. (Of course, Wade references the character.) Cable is a live-action role, and Brolin is in fine form here – he has the right gritty look for the character, which perfectly combines with his grizzled demeanour. Also making a great impression is newcomer Julian Dennison (Hunt for the Wilderpeople), who shows terrific comedic timing and handles the character's darker moments with confidence. Meanwhile, Zazie Beetz is a hugely appealing Domino, and Karan Soni makes a welcome return as taxi driver and Deadpool admirer, Dopinder. Another returning cast member is Brianna Hildebrand, who still makes for a terrific Negasonic Teenage Warhead and here has a love interest in the form of Shiori Kutsuna as Yukio. It is refreshing to see casual LGBTQ+ representation that does not feel contrived or "woke," nor is it framed to titillate the males in the audience.

Deadpool 2's obligatory mid-credits sequence finds Reynolds and Leitch at perhaps their most unrestrained and indulgent, as Wade time-travels around to fix blunders and save characters...in addition to meddling with 2009's X-Men Origins: Wolverine and Reynolds's decision to star in Green Lantern. Although reviving dead characters undercuts the story's thematic relevance, the sequence is so fearless and hilarious that it is hard to hold anything against it. Deadpool 2 is a top-notch sequel, delivering the spectacle viewers desire from superhero cinema while finding a strong and evocative emotional core. Deadpool 2 was later re-edited into a PG-13 version with new scenes featuring Wade reading the story to Fred Savage, who reprises his role from The Princess Bride. However, this reviewer has neither the time nor the inclination to watch a watered-down PG-13 iteration.


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An intelligent, acerbic satire

Posted : 1 month, 3 weeks ago on 3 January 2024 06:23 (A review of Ace in the Hole)

An enduring classic from director Billy Wilder (The Apartment, Some Like It Hot), 1951's Ace in the Hole sparkles with irresistible wit from the very first scene and never lets up. An intelligent, acerbic satire that looks scarily prophetic and increasingly relevant in the 21st Century, Ace in the Hole ruthlessly skewers journalistic ethics and media sensationalism while exploring mankind's innate fascination with the lurid. These heady, controversial themes ended Wilder's winning streak with Paramount Pictures, foundering at the box office upon its release and drawing the ire of journalists and critics of the period. It took several decades before it received critical reappraisal, after which it deservedly developed into an iconic film with an esteemed reputation. Time has not only been kind to Ace in the Hole - it has actually elevated Wilder's film. With its boldly uncompromising portrayal of human nature at its ugliest and worst, Ace in the Hole is one of the most important and essential American movies of the 1950s.

Self-centred newspaper report Chuck Tatum (Kirk Douglas) has been fired by eleven major newspapers for reasons ranging from libel lawsuits to drinking alcohol and having an affair with a publisher's wife. Broke and unemployed, Chuck winds up in Albuquerque, where he bullies his way into a job at the tiny Albuquerque Sun-Bulletin newspaper run by Mr. Boot (Porter Hall). It's not a job that Chuck actually wants - he merely plans to find a big story, make it a national sensation, and use it to get a position at another big-city newspaper. While on an assignment to cover a rattlesnake hunt, Chuck and the newspaper's young photographer, Herbie (Robert Arthur), stumble upon another story: a local man named Leo (Richard Benedict) is trapped in a cave. The situation is somewhat unremarkable, however, and the engineering team can have him out within a day, but Chuck wants to extend the dilemma for maximum media coverage, conspiring with the Sheriff (Ray Teal) to hatch an alternative rescue operation that will last several days. Chuck's exaggerated news coverage triggers a frenzy of interest, with thousands of onlookers swarming the area, providing a boom for the local businesses. One such business is operated by Leo's wife, Lorraine (Jan Sterling), who is desperate to leave Leo but stays in town to reap the financial rewards of the media circus.

Ace in the Hole is loosely based on real events: in 1925, Floyd Collins was trapped in a Kentucky cave. An intense flurry of interest ensued, and newspaper reporter William Burke Miller received a Pulitzer Prize for covering the event, during which he participated in rescue efforts and had direct contact with Collins. Unfortunately, Collins did not survive the ordeal. Chuck knowingly references the Collins story after learning about Leo while talking to Herbie, further underscoring his conscious lack of morality in his hunger for a sensationalised human interest story. Mr. Boot's fundamental philosophy at the Albuquerque Sun-Bulletin is "Tell The Truth," putting him at odds with Chuck's desire to sell millions of papers by reporting a manipulated version of the truth, especially when he starts writing daily stories about Leo. Many critics in the 1950s found it preposterous that Chuck could use shady tactics to essentially call the shots on the rescue operation while keeping the story to himself, but it's important to approach Ace in the Hole as a satire, and the execution is sufficiently believable considering Chuck's unmatched gift of the gab.

Through a combination of sharp dialogue and note-perfect performances, Ace in the Hole does not feel like homework, nor is it the type of classic film you can only admire rather than love or enjoy. It's unfailingly engaging throughout, which is also a testament to the superb technical presentation that feels more dynamic than the stilted or static movies of this era. Most note-worthy is Charles Lang's cinematography, which is distinctly noir-esque. The compositions are consistently captivating, and Lang's use of lighting and shadows make the sets feel like authentic locations, rather than internal soundstages. This is particularly beneficial for the underground sequences; the cave where Leo is trapped looks incredibly convincing. It also helps that the main external set was constructed in an outdoor location, and it looks incredibly elaborate - it was actually the largest non-combat set ever built at the time. Admittedly, the rear projection techniques throughout Ace in the Hole do look dated in the 21st Century, particularly in vehicles or, in one case, inside the press tent near the cave. However, the illusion is convincing enough, and the minor technical shortcomings do nothing to tarnish Wilder's spellbinding vision.

As the sneaky, fast-talking, manipulative Chuck Tatum, Kirk Douglas delivers a first-rate performance and superbly handles all of the character's intricacies. His spiel towards Mr. Boot at the beginning of the movie makes you believe he can talk himself into gaining a job on the spot, and Douglas does not shy away from the darker aspects of the role, including a growing alcohol dependency or a shocking moment of Chuck slapping Lorraine. There's scarcely a dud performance in sight, with Richard Benedict also making a fantastic impression as Leo. Benedict comes across as naive and somewhat pathetic while talking to Chuck, as he believes that everyone actually cares about him and he trusts the newspaperman implicitly.

Wilder is renowned for being an astute social critic, using his films to critique American culture and shine a light on unsavoury parts of society. With Ace in the Hole (the title of which Paramount secretly changed to The Big Carnival without Wilder's permission), Wilder and co-writers Walter Newman and Lesser Samuels use a real-life story to explore the shamelessness and sordidness associated with major human interest stories, and the flagrant lack of humanity exercised by journalists to gain (or manipulate) big scoops for career advancement. Wilder also eschews a happy ending, with the film closing on a powerfully tragic and depressing note that remains true to the director's vision. Ace in the Hole is one of Wilder's defining masterpieces, which is a huge call considering his iconic body of work.


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An old-fashioned, well-made superhero movie

Posted : 2 months ago on 27 December 2023 10:41 (A review of Blue Beetle)

Sandwiched between the big-budget blockbusters of The Flash and Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom, 2023's Blue Beetle represents an unusual and unexpected diversion for the last act of the now-defunct DC Extended Universe. With the superhero genre slowly fading due to viewer fatigue as a result of oversaturation and lazy productions, Blue Beetle was always going to be a tough sell at the box office. Without any big-name stars, established DC characters in supporting roles, or notable universe connections or events, it's essentially a standalone superhero movie that happens to take place in the DCEU. Indeed, Blue Beetle feels more like a pared-down, more straightforward Phase One Marvel movie than a continuation of the DCEU originally established by Zack Snyder, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. Directed by Ángel Manuel Soto (Charm City Kings), Blue Beetle is surprisingly entertaining and compelling, surpassing most recent offerings from both Marvel and DC. It's not particularly ambitious, and it does not try to reinvent or subvert the overcrowded genre - it's just a well-made, old-fashioned superhero movie that gets it right where it counts the most.

After graduating from Gotham Law University, Jaime Reyes (Xolo Maridueña) returns home and reunites with his family in Palmera City. However, eviction looms for the family and job opportunities are scarce, adding to their financial anxieties. In desperation, Jaime takes a job working at a resort with his sister, Milagro (Belissa Escobedo), where they encounter the ruthless Victoria Kord (Susan Sarandon), CEO of Kord Industries. However, Jaime loses his job when he intervenes in a heated confrontation between Victoria and her niece, Jenny (Bruna Marquezine), who takes pity on the optimistic college graduate and invites him to explore job opportunities at Kord Tower. However, during the subsequent meeting, Jenny entrusts Jaime with a stolen alien artifact known as the Scarab, the power of which Victoria intends to harness to create soldiers. When Jaime opens the box containing the Scarab, it fuses to his body, giving him an armoured exoskeleton and superhuman abilities. However, Victoria is unwilling to let Jaime keep the Scarab or its powers.

Written by Gareth Dunnet-Alcocer (Miss Bala), Blue Beetle's narrative resembles 2008's Iron Man in some respects, though the initial pairing of Jaime and the Scarab, and the testing of his powers, is reminiscent of Spider-Man. However, the cultural change of scenery is welcome here, with Jaime's Mexican heritage and family giving the production a distinctive flavour. The story has genuine heart to boot, with themes of familial unity and loyalty, and the emotional beats are surprisingly effective instead of perfunctory. However, at over two hours long, Blue Beetle outstays its welcome, as the flick is not sharp or energetic enough to sustain momentum or interest. The script thankfully does not go heavy on political commentary, but lines like "Batman's a fascist" are unnecessary and threaten to ruin the experience, while the script does suggest that Jaime's family are disadvantaged and generally frowned upon due to their Mexican heritage. This angle is surprisingly underdeveloped, however, and the themes feel like an obligatory afterthought that might stir up controversy but will not satisfy anybody.

Blue Beetle's tone is lighter compared to other DCEU projects, with a brighter colour palette that is nothing like the visually dim Snyderverse. In keeping with the traditional superhero formula, humour livens the proceedings, and the jokes actually land more often than not. Some of the material is childish, but the "bug fart" moment during the climax made this viewer smirk from ear to ear. With about half the budget of a regular superhero movie, Blue Beetle is not an excessively digital-looking, CGI-laden blockbuster extravaganza. The scope is smaller and there is no numbing CGI excess, which makes it even more refreshing in 2023. There are set pieces, but the astonishingly convincing digital effects enhance rather than overwhelm, with practical sets, location filming and actual costumes (Jaime's armour is not purely digital) adding an appreciable tangibility to the overall aesthetic. Soto admirably acquits himself with the action sequences, which are mostly reserved for the final third but are enormously entertaining and exciting. The battles are more grounded than regular big-budget blockbusters, immediately making Blue Beetle more engaging than other, more indulgent genre offerings.

The characters inhabiting Blue Beetle are mostly likeable, played by a perfectly competent selection of actors who seem invested in the material and give it their all. This is Cobra Kai star Maridueña's first leading role in a major movie (hell, it's his first major movie, period), and he absolutely nails it. He's a charming and genuine screen presence able to handle the character's various intricacies and emotions, and it's easy to see why he landed this role. Alongside him, Jaime's family are endearing and actually emerge as distinctive people instead of cardboard cutouts. The standout is Jaime's uncle, Rudy (George Lopez), who's resourceful and amusing in equal measure. Also worth mentioning is the intimidating Raoul Max Trujillo as Victoria's bodyguard, Carapax, who's a legitimate threat and receives more character depth than anticipated. Less interesting is Victoria, who's as generic and one-dimensional as they come. Sarandon is a fine actor, but this is not the role for her, as the screenplay only asks for a broad, bone-headed caricature that she fails to do anything interesting with.

As with most mainstream superhero movies, Blue Beetle relies on contrivance, convenience and ludicrously precise timing to smoothly navigate from A to B. For example, Jaime arrives at Kord Towers just as Jenny is stealing the Scarab, the security surrounding the much-sought-after Scarab is incredibly flimsy, Rudy's technical know-how proves useful for disabling security systems, and so on. None of this is overly detrimental as we are dealing with a mainstream Hollywood blockbuster, but it's noticeable all the same. Despite its missteps, Blue Beetle is far better and more worthwhile than anticipated, delivering satisfying spectacle with a smidgen of emotion. If more DCEU movies were like this, a hard reboot would not have been necessary.


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Grimy, nasty festive grindhouse flick

Posted : 2 months ago on 26 December 2023 05:12 (A review of Christmas Bloody Christmas)

Santa slasher movies set at Christmastime are nothing new, as we've seen serial killers dressed as jolly old Saint Nicolas in cult flicks like Silent Night, Deadly Night (plus its sequels) and Christmas Evil, among many others. 2022's Christmas Bloody Christmas is the latest feature from wunderkind director Joe Begos (VFW, Bliss), and it essentially amounts to another Santa slasher movie...but with an unstoppable killer robot instead of a disgruntled psychopath who hates the festive season. In this sense, it's more like The Terminator than Silent Night, Deadly Night. Excessively violent and relentlessly paced when the shit fits the fan, Christmas Bloody Christmas is a grimy, nasty festive grindhouse flick, and an immediate holiday cult classic.

It's Christmas Eve, and record store owner Tori (Riley Dandy) is preparing to close her shop for the night with the assistance of her employee, Robbie (Sam Delich). Tori is only interested in binge drinking and partying to avoid thinking about the holiday, and Robbie convinces her to ditch her Tinder date to spend time with him at a bar. Their liquor-fuelled flirtations result in an evening of drunken passion, but the fun does not last. At a nearby toy store, a robotic Santa Claus (Abraham Benrubi) malfunctions and transforms into a violent killing machine, going on a rampage and brutally murdering everyone in its path. Tori and Robbie witness Santa's attack on a neighbouring house and attempt to flee, leading to an intense fight for survival on Christmas Night.

Those familiar with Begos's previous films will know what to expect here, as his cinematic aesthetic remains unchanged: grainy 16mm cinematography, gory practical effects, neon lighting, an 80s-inspired visual style, and a moody synth score. The movie earns its R rating, too, and it's even verging on NC-17 territory - there are plenty of creatively gory and vicious kill scenes throughout, and the camera does not shy away from the violent details. Begos appears to actively avoid digital effects, with the seemingly paltry budget allocated to creative practical effects and makeup. For good measure, the writer-director even throws in some nudity and sex scenes, making Christmas Bloody Christmas feel like an authentic '80s cult movie instead of a poor contemporary imitator. The only problem from an aesthetic standpoint is that it's occasionally difficult to discern what is happening due to the dim lighting and confusing framing, but these moments are thankfully scarce enough not to cause a major problem.

Before the robotic Santa begins his killing spree, Christmas Bloody Christmas lets us spend time with the characters, with Riley and Robbie receiving the most attention and development. The first half-hour or so amounts to characters discussing pop culture and sharing their opinions, reminiscent of something you would expect to see from Quentin Tarantino but not quite as absorbing. These scenes are hit and miss, and your mileage may vary depending on how your opinions compare to the characters (one amusing barb about Blumhouse's atrocious Black Christmas remake made this reviewer smirk), but it's never painfully dull - it's just a touch mundane. However, when the rampage begins, it rarely stops - the movie transforms into a relentless chase movie.

Whereas most slashers meander from one victim to the next, there's more momentum to Christmas Bloody Christmas, which primarily stays with the character of Tori throughout the entire movie as the events happen around her. Consequently, there's more momentum and tension, mainly since Begos is a legitimately good filmmaker who doesn't simply rely on the gore to see him through. Indeed, there is far more editorial and directorial skill throughout Christmas Bloody Christmas than all the other Santa slashers combined. The second hour, in particular, is relentlessly thrilling and fast-paced, but Begos also knows when to call it quits; the 87-minute running time feels perfect, and the movie doesn't outstay its welcome. The performance by Riley Dandy as Tori also deserves a mention; she truly throws herself into the character with spectacular results, handling the role's different emotions and moods with confidence.

Christmas Bloody Christmas is not as great as VFW, but it is better than every other Christmas slasher movie I have seen, and it's a cut above the usual low standard for Hollywood's festive output. It's a wild, enjoyably gory ride that delivers precisely what it advertises on the tin.


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