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A sharp send-up of superhero cinema

Posted : 3 years, 2 months ago on 5 January 2020 03:46 (A review of Teen Titans Go! To the Movies)

One of the most left-field DC Comics animated movies in recent memory, Teen Titans Go! To the Movies is the feature-length expansion of the Cartoon Network television series, which first aired back in 2013. Seeking to capitalise on the oversaturation of comic book cinema, directors Aaron Horvath and Peter Rida Michail stretch out the episodic, ten-minute show into a full 84-minute blockbuster jam-packed with action and humorous skits. Admittedly, this is a surface-level kids' movie without the emotional resonance of a Pixar feature, or the profundity of the best superhero films, but this is by design - for all intents and purposes, Teen Titans Go! To the Movies is a borderline perfect version of the movie that it wants to be: a jokey send-up of superhero tropes and comic book minutiae, similar to Deadpool but for a pre-teen audience. It's suitable for children but will be better appreciated by adult genre aficionados.

In Jump City, superheroes far and wide gather for the premiere of Batman Again, with the likes of Batman himself (Jimmy Kimmel), Superman (Nicolas Cage), and Wonder Woman (Halsey) showing up to celebrate the latest superhero film from director Jade Wilson (Kristen Bell). But the community shuns the Teen Titans, led by the tenacious Robin (Scott Menville) who dreams of finally seeing a movie about him. Unsuccessful in his bid to convince Jade that he's worthy of a film, Robin realises that he needs an arch-nemesis to be taken seriously. Joined by his fellow Titans - Cyborg (Khary Payton), Raven (Tara Strong), Starfire (Hynden Walch), and Beast Boy (Greg Cipes) - Robin chooses to pursue cunning mercenary Slade Wilson/Deathstroke (Will Arnett), who finds the attention amusing but is happy to put the impulsive gang in their place.

Permeated with a playful tone and spirit similar to The Lego Movie, and with the benefit of a lean runtime, Teen Titans Go! To the Movies amounts to a series of bite-sized skits and songs connected via a loose meta narrative which snidely riffs on the modern overabundance of comic book movies. Scripted by Michael Jelenic and co-director Horvath, To the Movies is bursting with clever meta references, satirical gags, movie parodies (including a killer left-field send-up of The Lion King) and other fun touches, including references to Marvel and even a freaking Stan Lee cameo. Hell, when the Titans bait Superman over the phone, there's a side-splitting (yet obscure) reference to 1978's Superman: The Movie for the adults in the audience. Some jokes are unexpectedly dark to boot, such as the Titans' method for eliminating a baby Aquaman, but these moments will likely fly over kids' heads. Sure, the jesting here is not exactly groundbreaking, as many of the observations about superhero cinema were raised on the internet years ago. Still, the energy and sharp writing ensure that To the Movies is an entertaining sit, even when the strain to hit feature-length is evident from time to time.

In terms of the animation, this is one of the more successful animated DC movies to date. Even though the animation is still relatively cheap (especially the stock backgrounds), it's appropriately stylised and fits with the movie's tone, exhibiting more polish than an episode of the TV series. The most inspired sequence of To the Movies involves the Titans travelling back in time to eradicate their superhero competition by interfering with the heroes' origin stories. Music from Back to the Future even plays over the Titans preparing to time travel on their Big Wheel bikes, while the songs like A-Ha's "Take on Me" as well as "Back in Time" (by Huey Lewis & The News) also complement the uproarious montage sequence, which is both clever and reverent. Long-time DC fans will surely appreciate the humour. Meanwhile, the actors are game across the board, particularly DC animation veteran Tara Strong as Raven, whose sarcastic sense of humour is an absolute hoot. Nicolas Cage also gets to fulfil a longstanding dream by playing the Man of Steel here, and his comedic timing is consistently on-point. Additionally, to allow the feature to feel more substantial than the TV show, Teen Titans Go! To the Movies rehashes the expected lessons for a children's movie; reinforcing the importance of friendship, self-esteem, and being happy with what you have. Again, it's nothing groundbreaking, but the effort is appreciated.

The pacing is brisk, and Teen Titans Go! To the Movies never lingers on a scene or set-piece for too long, but the movie noticeably strains to get to 84 minutes in length. It's not necessarily bad or boring as it reaches the third act, but it does start to lose steam. Nevertheless, the directors get more right than wrong, and the picture plays more smoothly on repeat viewings. It's also supremely funny that the movie presents a fake trailer for a Batman spinoff about Alfred which is intended to lampoon the absurdity of modern superhero oversaturation, but, as if to prove the pointed satire, a solo Alfred TV series was actually green-lit by Warner Bros. when To the Movies was in post-production. Plus, the last joke is a classic, and the movie manages to eke out just one more gag right at the end of the credits as well. Not to mention, the end credits are accompanied by the appropriately entitled song "Upbeat Inspirational Song About Life." This movie is a gem.


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A flawed but spectacular, crowd-pleasing finale

Posted : 3 years, 2 months ago on 1 January 2020 06:53 (A review of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker)

Arriving 42-and-a-half years after George Lucas' Star Wars changed the face of cinema back in 1977, 2019's Star Wars: Episode IX - The Rise of Skywalker concludes the nine-film Skywalker Saga, with J.J. Abrams (Star Wars: The Force Awakens) returning as co-writer and director. Added to the burden of concluding this culturally significant saga, The Rise of Skywalker also endures the weight of following the most polarising Star Wars film to date: Rian Johnson's Star Wars: The Last Jedi. With the recent increase and popularisation of Star Wars hatred in the shadow of The Last Jedi, objectivity is now borderline impossible. Nevertheless, for my money, The Rise of Skywalker is a spectacular, crowd-pleasing finale which complements the previous two films and successfully ties into the original trilogy. Although messy from a story perspective, Abrams' spirited direction compensates for many of the picture's shortcomings, as the filmmaker packs The Rise of Skywalker with battles, lightsabers, fan service and emotion, sending off the saga on a satisfying high. In spite of its flaws, it works.

Picking up an unspecified amount of time after the events of The Last Jedi, Rey (Daisy Ridley) is close to completing her Jedi training under General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher), though she is unable to connect with previous generations of Jedi. Meanwhile, Finn (John Boyega) and Poe (Oscar Isaac) receive intel that Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) is still alive on the uncharted planet of Exegol, a.k.a. the Sith homeworld. Following a mysterious communication from Palpatine, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) travels to Exegol where the powerful Sith Lord has secretly amassed an immense fleet of Star Destroyers with planet-destroying canons, which constitute the Final Order. With Palpatine's plan threatening the entire galaxy, and with Kylo closing in on the waning Resistance, Rey sets out with Finn, Poe, Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo) and C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) to find the Sith Wayfinder device, an ancient navigational tool which will lead them to Exegol.

Before the release of The Force Awakens in 2015, Colin Trevorrow (Jurassic World) was given the reigns of Episode IX, which he began to co-write with Derek Connolly. However, creative differences between Trevorrow and Lucasfilm ended their collaboration, and Abrams was hired a week later to devise this concluding chapter. Abrams is a sublime visual stylist but not a great screenwriter, and The Rise of Skywalker further demonstrates this. Whereas The Force Awakens distinctly benefitted from Lawrence Kasdan's contributions, Abrams co-wrote this saga closer with Chris Terrio, late of the critically mauled Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Justice League. (Terrio's Oscar-winning Argo screenplay seems like a fluke at this point.) Therefore, The Rise of Skywalker is undeniably messy, giving Snoke a vague backstory, never adequately clarifying Palpatine's return, leaving unanswered questions about the Knights of Ren, and never revealing the logistics behind the creation of Palpatine's immense fleet. Then again, this is a fantasy franchise which does not necessarily need to perfectly clarify everything. Plus, any unanswered questions or indistinct plot points will surely receive further attention in novelisations, TV shows and comic books within the next five years.

Eschewing a rehash of any previous Star Wars adventure, The Rise of Skywalker's plot involves a MacGuffin hunt across the galaxy, which represents a refreshing change of pace for the long-running series. Additionally, under Abrams' direction, this escapade really moves, evoking the pronounced breathlessness of The Force Awakens as the characters travel from one location to the next, experiencing conflicts at every turn. Narratively, this is the busiest Star Wars movie to date, working through what should have been two film's worth of plot. Consequently, this is the least confident and considered instalment in the new trilogy, and there is not enough narrative breathing room, resulting in glorified cameos for actors like Dominic Monaghan and even Billy Dee Williams, who returns as Lando. Furthermore, The Rise of Skywalker is the only Star Wars film so far to not begin with a proper scene; instead, a battle montage opens the picture, and Abrams scarcely stops to take a breath as he works through the intimidatingly large narrative while preserving a manageable runtime. As a result, Episode IX feels choppy during its opening act in particular, and it takes around half an hour to get in tune with the movie properly. With editors Maryann Brandon and Stefan Grube minimising downtime between the set-pieces, one must wonder how much material did not make the final cut. An extended edition with an Avengers: Endgame-sized runtime is an enticing prospect, though one may never materialise.

The most effective narrative constituent of Episode IX is Rey and Kylo's relationship. Their minds remain bridged due to a dyad in the Force, and they both believe that they can turn the other to their respective side. Compelling, emotionally charged conflicts between the pair pepper the film, including the much-publicised battle atop the Death Star wreckage, while the ultimate dénouement is satisfying and, to an extent, unexpected. Kylo/Ben Solo is the most interesting character in this new trilogy, essentially embodying whiney Star Wars fanboys who yearn for a bygone era, and violently lash out when things do not go their own way. Also, since Kylo could never live up to the unfiltered badassery of Darth Vader (as much as the character tries, in a sly meta touch), his conflicted nature is more pronounced, leading to some genuinely emotional scenes. Additionally, while Abrams does dial back the humour glimpsed in The Last Jedi, there are amusing moments throughout this instalment, serving to augment the film's sense of humanity. However, several beats during the obligatory ending celebration sequence are odd, including an awkward (and somewhat creepy) moment between Lando and Jannah (Naomi Ackie), an out-of-nowhere same-sex kiss, and Maz Kanata (Lupita Nyong'o) giving Chewbacca one of the medals from the last scene of A New Hope, after he legendarily missed out back in 1977.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, there is a sense that Abrams and Terrio desired to "fix" certain facets of The Last Jedi's outside-the-box tampering. This results in a lack of cohesiveness in some respects, reflecting the absence of concrete planning at the outset of this trilogy. But then again, the original Star Wars trilogy was equally spontaneous, leading to the controversial Luke and Leia kiss before the reveal that the pair are siblings. Hell, the twist that Darth Vader is Luke's father retcons much of the background information from A New Hope, leading Obi-Wan Kenobi to simply say that he lied. In this way, The Rise of Skywalker is true to the spirit of the sacred original trilogy. Besides, Fisher's passing would have surely negated any existing road map for Episode IX. Moreover, a thematic through-line does underpin this sequel trilogy: breaking free of the expectations of legacy. For instance, Finn refuses to be a stormtrooper, Kylo rejects being a Jedi and refuses to be a pawn who answers to a higher power, Luke flees in shame after failing to recreate the Jedi Order's legacy, and Poe joins the Resistance to escape his origins as a criminal. Such thematic material ties into this sequel trilogy's underlying meta-narrative about a new generation inheriting Star Wars: the new characters worship the old characters, the First Order tries too hard to replicate the Empire, and Kylo Ren strives to be Darth Vader.

With such a large budget, and considering the production's significance, a level of competency is a perpetual given with each new Star Wars entry, and Episode IX does not disappoint in this respect. Despite doomsday warnings from online forums circulating rumours about substantial reshoots at the eleventh hour, The Rise of Skywalker is a visual stunner beset with exciting set-pieces. Abrams once again harkens back to the original trilogy through a traditional filmmaking approach - cinematographer Dan Mindel (The Force Awakens) shoots on 35mm film, and the movie heavily relies on make-up, animatronics and sets, while CGI augments the fantastical illusions. The use of practical models is evident, as ships like the Millennium Falcon often look tangible, creating a realistic aesthetic as opposed to the phoney digital overload of the prequels. At times, it's genuinely difficult to discern where the CGI takes over from the sets, models, miniatures, and practical effects. In terms of the creatures, the standout here is the endearing Babu Frik (voiced by Shirley Henderson), who is a practical creation. In addition, this is reportedly John Williams' final Star Wars score, and the veteran composer's contributions are invaluable. Reintroducing recognisable cues and composing original material, Williams' score is majestic and exciting.

Working around Fisher's premature death, Abrams dusts off unused footage from the previous two films to integrate General Leia into this concluding instalment, paying tribute to our beloved Princess and saying a poignant goodbye. Fisher appears to interact with her co-stars so naturally, with measured expressions and line delivery. The seams are invisible, resulting in the most successful and cohesive post-mortem performance in film history (which is admittedly a low bar to clear). Additionally, The Rise of Skywalker brings back the always-charismatic Billy Dee Williams for the first time since Return of the Jedi in 1983, while McDiarmid effortlessly slips back into the role of Emperor Palpatine. Abrams minimises Kelly Marie Tran's presence here, which is a benefit since her role of Rose is the least interesting character of this sequel trilogy. Enough characters are competing for screen-time already, with the main quest even involving C-3PO and Chewbacca; therefore, Rose is better-served as a minor part of the ensemble. The main cast again brings their 'A' game to the material, with Ridley and Driver ably handling complex emotional material, while Isaac oozes movie-star charisma in every frame. Richard E. Grant also makes a positive impression as a First Order General, a role which demands exaggerated villainy through a British accent. Another newcomer is Keri Russell (late of Abrams' Felicity), who's a fine addition as a feisty former criminal companion of Poe's. Abrams also brings back several recognisable actors through vocal cameos, in a superb fan service moment. There are other effective cameos to boot, including the return of Denis Lawson as Wedge Antilles (in a blink-and-you'll-miss-it shot), while Abrams himself voices a new droid, as well.

Even though The Rise of Skywalker is more coherent than anticipated (considering the rumours of reshoots and studio meddling), it nevertheless feels as if a chorus line of internet forum users contributed to the screenplay, with Abrams and Terrio trying to tick as many boxes as possible - and more than likely did at least take a cursory glance at online chatter. In comparison, The Last Jedi is undoubtedly a more consistent vision, but the incendiary reaction to that instalment ruined any possibility for a more daring, unexpected finale for the Skywalker Saga. Whereas Johnson favoured a more dramatic tone, The Rise of Skywalker is pure escapism for the fans, delivering a surface-level sugar rush with the benefit of an immense budget, and it hits its mark. It's an imperfect assembly of puzzle pieces, and Abrams deserves credit for keeping the story involving and the energy levels high, creating a highly successful blockbuster under unenviable circumstances. Armchair critics can continue to nitpick, but if the same level of scrutinous analysis was applied to the original Star Wars trilogy, it would also fall apart.


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Old-fashioned sentimental filmmaking done right

Posted : 3 years, 3 months ago on 25 November 2019 11:57 (A review of Gifted)

2017's Gifted is the fourth feature film from director Marc Webb, who makes an astute return to smaller-scale productions after taking charge of the two astonishingly inept Amazing Spider-Man pictures. Carefully returning to reality with a modest $7 million budget, Webb welcomely dials back the blockbuster theatrics to construct a film from the heart, recapturing the earnest spirit of his 2009 debut feature, the truly wonderful (500) Days of Summer. Gifted falls short of perfection due to screenplay shortcomings, but it's an encouraging effort from the director, even though it unfortunately failed to receive any attention from the major award shows. With Webb at the helm, this is an agreeably breezy and involving watch, and as a result it never feels like monotonous homework.

In rural Florida, Frank (Chris Evans) is the uncle and primary guardian of seven-year-old Mary (Mckenna Grace), whom he has raised since infancy following the tragic suicide of his genius mathematician sister. Although Mary is a child prodigy with amazing mathematics skills, Frank strives to give his niece a normal childhood, enrolling her in a local elementary school which is unable to cater to her extraordinary abilities. With Mary's teacher, Bonnie (Jenny Slate), quickly noticing her genius, Frank declines an offer from the principal (Elizabeth Marvel) to secure a scholarship at a private school for gifted children, due to concerns that the change will rob Mary of her childhood and mirror his late sister's unhappy upbringing. These events attract the attention of Frank's estranged mother, Evelyn (Lindsay Duncan), who arrives from Boston seeking to gain custody of Mary and guide her to become one of the world's top mathematicians. Refusing to give up his niece, Frank faces off against Evelyn in court, where conflicting philosophies and personal shortcomings are highlighted as the legal system decides Mary's fate.

With a script by Tom Flynn (which featured on 2014's Blacklist), Gifted delicately inspects the custody battle, persuasively presenting both sides and their conflicting outlooks. In Frank's care, Mary receives a normal childhood and the chance to make friends, but might never live up to her full potential. Meanwhile, under Evelyn's roof, Mary will get to attend private school and might become a world-renowned mathematician, but risks experiencing the same despondency which led her mother to commit suicide. Webb and Flynn thankfully eschew cheap melodrama, and do not paint anybody as a brazen villain - although the emotional bond between Frank and Mary is tangible and easy to connect with, Evelyn's viewpoint is not entirely unreasonable. Flynn's screenplay adequately develops the characters, while the narrative is not as predictable as one might assume in the first instance. However, even though the film establishes Bonnie as an important figure in the story who cares about Mary and enters a tentative relationship with Frank, she is absent for long periods of time, with the second half downgrading her to a minor character who mostly appears silently in the background.

Although telemovie comparisons are tempting, especially with the limited scope and the story's dramatics, Gifted avoids a made-for-TV feeling due to the gravitas that Webb brings to the material. Cinematography by Stuart Dryburgh (Alice Through the Looking Glass, The Upside) is mostly handheld, generating a vérité vibe which effectively amplifies the drama, but it's also not unnecessarily shaky or ostentatious. Additionally, Webb allows authentic, unforced moments of tenderness and joy to sneak into the movie, which gives more dimension to the characters. It's a pleasure to watch, for example, Mary enthusiastically singing karaoke with Frank's neighbour Roberta (Octavia Spencer), or Mary playfully climbing on Frank at the beach while they talk about God and faith, silhouetted against a gorgeous sunset. The little moments between Frank and Mary are sublime, and while they do not exactly serve the plot, such scenes heighten the attachment we develop to these characters. It helps that the script's witty dialogue sparkles as well, creating gentle moments of humour which further humanises the material. Meanwhile, Rob Simonsen's emotive score enhances the story's power, perfectly accompanying the handsome 35mm photography.

A superlative cast further separates Gifted from a fluffy Lifetime movie, with the outrageously talented Mckenna Grace making the biggest impression as young Mary. Grace never comes off as irritating or cloying, instead delivering a well-rounded and emotional performance, handling the dramatic material with the confidence of a seasoned veteran. She also sells Mary's smartass attitude, showing fine comedic timing. Moreover, Grace and Evans are perfect together, sharing ideal chemistry and giving genuine warmth to the scenes they share. It's a nice change of pace for Evans, who plays the blue-collar everyman role with well-judged restraint. The chemistry between Evans and comedian/actress Jenny Slate is equally charming, and Slate is endearing in every frame, but the two do not have enough scenes together. (Evans and Slate actually entered a relationship after filming concluded.) Meanwhile, Lindsay Duncan (About Time) brings gravitas and authority to her role without turning Evelyn into a cartoonish villain. Digging even further into the supporting cast, Academy Award winner Octavia Spencer (The Help, Hidden Figures) is the movie's secret weapon, offering laughs and sassiness, as well as genuine warmth. There is not a dud performance in sight.

Gifted does admittedly feel like a commercial product which shuns grit and realism, particularly as it approaches the finish line when the screenplay glosses over complicated processes to reach a pat, happy ending. Not everything works (in one predictable moment, Mary awkwardly catches Bonnie after a night of passion with Frank), but the film receives immense aid from the rock-solid performances as well as the smooth direction and editing. Moreover, Webb manages to infuse the material with honest-to-goodness emotional resonance, in the process rediscovering his competent dramatic chops which were missing in action for those two awful Spider-Man films. Without reinventing the wheel or breaking new ground, Gifted is a satisfying example of good, old-fashioned sentimental moviemaking done right, and it is worth your time.


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An epic historical drama worth seeing

Posted : 3 years, 4 months ago on 11 November 2019 12:27 (A review of Cry Freedom)

A motion picture about South Africa's racial and political unrest during the tyrannical apartheid years, 1987's Cry Freedom is a stirring epic drama with an important story to tell, even if minor historical liberties are taken. Based on the books "Biko" and "Asking for Trouble" by journalist Donald Woods, Cry Freedom is to date the only movie which explores the life and legacy of Bantu Stephen Biko, an important political figure in South Africa's fight to end apartheid. The movie was directed by the late Richard Attenborough, who is no stranger to films of such scope or historical importance, having previously cut his teeth helming the likes of A Bridge Too Far and Gandhi. Even though Cry Freedom clocks in at an intimidating 157 minutes, Attenborough's confident sense of pacing staves off abject boredom, though it will not exactly enrapture viewers who prefer action-packed blockbusters. Indeed, the film requires patience, but it's a rewarding watch for those with the appropriate attention span.

In South Africa during the turbulent 1970s, white liberal Donald Woods (Kevin Kline) works as the editor of the Daily Dispatch newspaper, and is not shy about condemning the ideologies and actions of black anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko (Denzel Washington). However, Woods accepts Biko's invitation to visit the freedom fighter's impoverished black township, to witness first-hand the effects of the government's apartheid restrictions. Woods and Biko develop a fast friendship, with Woods coming to understand the blacks' point of view and later publishing articles in support of Biko's cause. When Biko abruptly dies in custody, officials are tight-lipped and deceptive, leaving Woods determined to expose the truth to the public. But this attracts unwanted attention and harassment from the South African authorities, threatening the safety of Woods and his family, including wife Wendy (Penelope Wilton) and their five children. Deciding to publish his book which reveals the South African government's racist and corrupt nature, Woods plans to flee the country and seek political asylum overseas.

Scripted by Gandhi scribe John Briley, Cry Freedom is broken into two distinct halves, initially chronicling the blossoming friendship between Woods and Biko as the newspaper editor learns to empathise with the black South Africans, while the second half traces Woods' risky mission as he endeavours to escape the country with his family. Commendably, Briley avoids the well-worn biopic structure, resisting the temptation to portray the life story of either Biko or Woods, instead remaining focused on portraying this important period stretching over a few years. Admittedly, the film is somewhat stodgy in its early stages, but things soon pick up once Biko and Woods begin spending time together, shining a light on South Africa's racial injustices and the need for change. Perhaps Cry Freedom feels a tad routine during Woods' escape from the country, but the craftsmanship is nevertheless commendable despite the third act's conventional disposition, and though there are moments of nail-biting tension, the events are not played up to a ridiculous extent for the sake of making things more exciting. (There is certainly no bullet dodging or any shootouts.)

Although Cry Freedom continues to draw criticism for its ostensible "white saviour" narrative since Woods is the protagonist, this angle actually makes the most sense. Aside from the story being true, filtering the narrative through Woods' eyes turns him into the audience surrogate, as he originally opposes Biko before becoming drawn into the activist's world and understanding his viewpoint. Furthermore, and perhaps more importantly, this approach lets Attenborough depict Biko's posthumous legacy, with Woods growing increasingly determined to publish his book and spread the truth, motivating him to flee the country he calls home. In other words, this is the most complete and cohesive story about Biko and Woods to tell within the time restrictions of a motion picture. Admittedly, some plot points and events feel slightly underdone, particularly the escalation of Biko's treatment in custody, which occurs off-screen, but one supposes that Attenborough chose to keep the material PG for wider consumption, rather than devolving into extended sequences of torture. On that note, the rating is certainly pushed to its boundaries during a violent dramatisation of the Soweto uprising late into the film, but Attenborough maintains an appropriate sense of tact amid the brutality.

Cry Freedom is an old-fashioned actors' movie, and an ideal cast fills out the ensemble. In the first role to earn him an Academy Award nomination, Washington is superb as Biko, espousing an unfailingly convincing accent and delivering a credible performance. Washington is riveting and above all magnetic in every frame, and he is sorely missed when Biko dies at the halfway mark. Luckily, however, a few flashbacks pepper the film's second half, which deepen both the story and the characters' relationships, in addition to providing more welcome screen-time for Washington. Matching Washington at every step is Kline (who won an Oscar for A Fish Called Wanda a year later), who's sublimely low-key and even-tempered, yet clearly conveys Woods' strong resolve and passion for the political cause. Kline's accent is credible and consistent, and he makes for a charismatic leading man. Meanwhile, Penelope Wilton (Shaun of the Dead) brings her trademark gravitas to the role of Wendy Woods, denoting another fine addition to the cast.

Despite the movie's political machinations and prolonged running time, Cry Freedom does not feel like a dreary history lesson, or like unwelcome homework. On the contrary, Attenborough stages an involving and edifying political drama, anchored by exceptional performances across the board and arresting visuals. Cinematography by the late Ronnie Taylor (Gandhi) is striking and eye-catching, while the generous $29 million budget results in authentic-feeling locations and sets. (The movie was primarily shot on location in Zimbabwe and Kenya.) Although Cry Freedom was poised to sweep the Academy Awards upon its release in 1987, it failed to make much of a mark, while it sank like a stone at the box office, with a final gross falling just short of $6 million. In spite of this, and despite the film ultimately fading into obscurity, Cry Freedom is well worth your time.


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Fun, creepy and heartfelt threequel

Posted : 3 years, 4 months ago on 28 October 2019 10:46 (A review of Annabelle Comes Home)

The second Conjuring-Verse feature of 2019 (after The Curse of La Llorona), Annabelle Comes Home caps off the first trilogy within this larger franchise, and demonstrates that these spin-offs are still worthwhile in the hands of the right filmmakers. Once again scripted by veteran Gary Dauberman (It, The Nun), who also grasps the directorial reins this time around, Annabelle Comes Home is a far cry from 2017's relentlessly dark and sinister Annabelle: Creation, as this sequel will not exactly scare the living daylights out of you. Instead, Dauberman concocts a suspenseful, ominous follow-up which plays out as more of a funhouse-style thriller, though it's still armed with an R rating for good measure. In addition, a surprising and welcome sense of heart complements the scares, instantly elevating this above 2018's repetitive, soulless and forgettable The Nun.

To contain the relentless evil of the cursed Annabelle doll, demonologists Ed (Patrick Wilson) and Lorraine Warren (Vera Farmiga) lock her inside a glass case within their secured artefact room. Months later, when the Warrens head out of town for an overnight trip, they leave their young daughter Judy (Mckenna Grace) in the care of responsible teenage babysitter Mary Ellen (Madison Iseman). However, their quiet evening of cake-making is soon interrupted by the arrival of Mary Ellen's friend Daniela (Katie Sarife), who seeks to snoop around the Warrens' supernatural possessions, desperate to find a way to make contact with her recently deceased father. Ending up in the artefact room, Daniela ignores all warnings and opens Annabelle's case, in turn unleashing the doll's supernatural malevolence on the three vulnerable girls.

The Annabelle doll continues to function as a spiritual conduit, more or less a WiFi Hotspot for demonic entities, awakening the artefact room's various haunted items. Dauberman delights in dreaming up inventive scenarios for the characters to endure, including an unplugged TV that displays what will happen thirty seconds into the future, while Mary Ellen's poor would-be boyfriend Bob (Michael Cimino) is stalked by a werewolf outside the house. Creature and demon designs are inventive, with Dauberman even making use of The Ferryman, who looks wonderfully creepy with coins over both eyes. Dauberman never goes bonkers with the adult rating, with the movie feeling PG-13 for long stretches, but the edge in terms of violence and language is appreciated. It's all beautifully captured with slick cinematography courtesy of Michael Burgess (The Curse of La Llorona), while frequent James Wan collaborator Joseph Bishara (Insidious) devises an idiosyncratic, effective original score. However, some obvious CGI mars the experience. The movie is undeniably more agreeable during set-pieces featuring elaborate make-up and practical effects.

Despite the misleading trailers, Annabelle Comes Home is not an unofficial Conjuring 3, as the Warrens only appear in bookend sequences at the start and end of the movie, and we do not get to finally see the demonologists properly battle the Annabelle entity. Admittedly, too, the stakes never feel overly high since Dauberman refrains from actually killing any of the girls, but there is an appreciable sense of tension nevertheless, and Annabelle does her best to terrorise her victims to ensure they will never sleep again. Refreshingly, there is no hostility or resentment among the leads; Mary Ellen genuinely likes Judy, while Daniela and Judy quickly bond through activities and chat. Furthermore, although Daniela's actions are careless, she has a genuine reason for venturing into the Warrens' artefact room beyond pure curiosity or simply wanting to point and laugh, as she blames herself for her father's death and is desperate to relieve her guilt. Some clichés are present, such as Mary Ellen's romantic interest, but Dauberman happily avoids many of the hoarier genre tropes.

With Judy being given a meaty role for the first time in the franchise's history, Mckenna Grace is actually a replacement for Sterling Jerins, who plays the Warrens' daughter in the main Conjuring films. Although a re-cast seems unnecessary, Grace (late of 2018's The Haunting of Hill House) is effortlessly charming, vulnerable and keenly intuitive, justifying her presence in the movie and showing that she's a talent to watch. Alongside her, Iseman (Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle) is agreeably down-to-earth and amiable, while Sarife capably handles the emotional requirements of her role. It's easy to care about the trio, thanks to effectively concise character development as well as the actors' innate likeability. Meanwhile, it's a pleasure to see Farmiga and Wilson reporting for duty, reprising their respective roles for the first time since 2016's The Conjuring 2.

Admittedly, Annabelle Comes Home is a touch long at 106 minutes, and begins to wear out its welcome before the end credits begin to roll. After all, these types of funhouse horror flicks are usually more agreeable at a taut 90 minutes, but at least Dauberman adequately builds the main characters before Annabelle escapes her case. All things considered, this threequel easily bests 2014's Annabelle but falls short of the legitimately inspired Annabelle: Creation. In spite of its shortcomings, this instalment is fun, creepy and unexpectedly heartfelt, even if it doesn't necessarily make a lasting impression or get under your skin like the best horror movies can.


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A spectacular though flawed medieval blockbuster

Posted : 3 years, 5 months ago on 23 September 2019 06:44 (A review of Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves)

Ditching the idiosyncratic lightheartedness of Errol Flynn's iconic outing as the swashbuckling titular outlaw, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves presents more of a brutal, realistic reimagining of the centuries-old folklore legend, and the result is not strictly for young children. Positioned as the must-see movie event of the 1991 summer season, this Robin Hood endured a tough journey to the big screen, with behind-the-scenes clashes and production setbacks, all of which occurred in the public eye. Happily, however, the finished film does not bear the hallmarks of a troubled production, and it developed into a box office hit, becoming the second-highest grossing movie of 1991 (behind Terminator 2: Judgment Day). Directed by Kevin Reynolds (Waterworld), Prince of Thieves is a spectacular medieval action-adventure, misguided in some respects but successful where it counts, and it remains a hugely entertaining watch nearly three decades on.

While fighting in the Crusades, nobleman Robin of Locksley (Kevin Costner) manages to break out of prison in Jerusalem. In the process, he saves a Moor named Azeem (Morgan Freeman), who consequently vows to protect Robin until he repays his life debt. Robin returns to his British homeland with Azeem, but finds that his father (Brian Blessed) is dead, and the wicked Sheriff of Nottingham (Alan Rickman) has claimed power over the kingdom for himself, aided by Sir Guy of Gisbourne (Michael Wincott). Driven into Sherwood Forest while escaping the Sheriff's soldiers, Robin encounters a group of outlaws, including Little John (Nick Brimble) and Will Scarlet (Christian Slater), who yearn for their freedom once again. Robin quickly emerges as a leader for these Merry Men, determined to disrupt the Sheriff's rampant tyranny by robbing from the rich and giving to the poor, becoming a hero to the common people. Amid his battle for freedom, Robin also finds love in childhood friend Lady Marian (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio).

Despite running an intimidating 143 minutes, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves moves like water for the most part, exhibiting a sensational sense of pacing as the picture covers ample narrative ground. Admittedly, Prince of Thieves is a bit sluggish at the forefront as Robin travels back to England and discovers the state of his kingdom, but it soon picks up, with the film kicking into high gear when Robin and his Merry Men begin raging war against the Sheriff. The screenplay, credited to Pen Densham and John Watson, juggles subplots and a vast ensemble of characters, creating a distinct interpretation of the English folk tale. (Mel Brooks' 1993 parody film, Robin Hood: Men in Tights, used the narrative template set by Prince of Thieves.) The only part of the narrative which feels half-baked is the romance between Robin and Marian - there is no spark to justify the coupling, and their interest in each other feels motivated purely by script demands.

Carrying a significant (for the era) $48 million price-tag, the sense of time and place throughout Prince of Thieves is extraordinary, with elaborate sets and authentic locations convincingly recreating medieval England in the 12th century. Aided by cinematographer Douglas Milsome (Full Metal Jacket), Reynolds adopts a fluid shooting style, with effective Steadicam shots and creative camerawork - including the iconic arrow POV shot which featured in the teaser trailer. Reynolds stages an array of fight sequences and battles, which are tautly edited for maximum excitement, breaking up the dialogue to provide an irresistibly entertaining show. Additionally, Prince of Thieves tests the limits of its PG-13 rating, yet Reynolds also maintains a welcome sense of joviality to prevent the movie from feeling excessively gloomy or mean-spirited. But the crème de la crème is a killer score by maestro Michael Kamen (Die Hard, Lethal Weapon), which superbly underscores the emotion and excitement from scene to scene. Kamen's music consistently bursts with flavour and majesty, perfectly accompanying the visuals.

There is little argument that Costner is miscast as the titular outlaw, making no consistent effort to hide or suppress his natural American accent, with his drawl noticeably changing throughout. Costner is still appealing enough in the role, as he emanates his usual movie star charisma, but the American accent remains jarring considering the character's British origins. Your mileage will vary. The real star of the show here is the always-reliable Rickman, who was given carte blanche to do whatever he wished as the Sheriff of Nottingham. Rickman sinks his teeth into the material, hamming it up in delightful fashion, and delivering a string of amusing one-liners (some of which were not scripted) that add to the film's entertainment value. Legend has it that Costner (one of the film's producers) reduced Rickman's screen-time in editing after test audiences found themselves liking the Sheriff more than Robin. Elsewhere in the cast, Freeman is unsurprisingly first-rate as Azeem, injecting satisfying gravitas into the material, while Wincott also makes a positive impression as Guy of Gisbourne. Meanwhile, a young (21-year-old) Slater makes for an adequately pleasing Will Scarlett, trying his hardest to hide his natural American accent.

Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves is undeniably lacking a consistent vision, intermixing broad humour and campy performances with an otherwise straight-faced and violent retelling of the medieval legend, while the accents are all over the place. But viewed as a piece of blockbuster entertainment, Prince of Thieves somehow works - it's charming, exciting and fast-paced, while production values impress and there are several memorable moments. Interestingly, this was the last (serious) big screen Robin Hood film for nineteen years: it was followed by Ridley Scott's Robin Hood in 2010.


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An enjoyable, slick fantasy adventure

Posted : 3 years, 6 months ago on 22 September 2019 04:40 (A review of Pokémon: Detective Pikachu)

Originating from Japan, the Pokémon franchise encompasses video games, anime, trading cards and all manner of merchandise, attaining unfathomable worldwide popularity. The property has spawned an anime television series and several animated feature films (some produced on the cheap), but 2019's Pokémon: Detective Pikachu is the first attempt to realise the colourful, extravagant Pokémon world in live-action, complete with a generous budget and familiar actors, seeking to initiate a new mainstream blockbuster film series. Directed by Rob Letterman (late of 2015's better-than-expected Goosebumps), Detective Pikachu is essentially a mix of Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Zootopia, with a neon-soaked visual style reminiscent of Blade Runner to boot. As far as both family films and video game adaptations go, Detective Pikachu is happily above-average; this is a fun, skilfully assembled fantasy adventure with the potential to appeal to both established fans and newcomers.

Tim (Justice Smith) gave up Pokémon training after the loss of his mother, instead taking a straight job as an insurance salesman and leaving his past behind him. When Tim finds out that his police detective father, Harry, has died in a car accident, he packs up and travels to Ryme City, a sprawling metropolis masterminded by visionary billionaire Howard Clifford (Bill Nighy) where humans and Pokémon peacefully coexist as equals. Inside Harry's Ryme City apartment, Tim meets Pikachu (Ryan Reynolds); a small, yellow, amnesiac Pokémon detective who worked as Harry's partner prior to the car accident. Tim is somehow able to understand Pikachu's speech, and Pikachu is suspicious about the circumstances which led to the Harry's ostensible death, prompting the pair to team up and investigate by themselves. Joining them is curious reporter Lucy Stevens (Kathryn Newton) and her Pokémon, Psyduck, as they discover a type of gas specifically engineered to turn Pokémon into vicious killers.

First introduced in the 1990s, the popular Pokémon Gameboy games were largely plotless, revolving around a player's mission to capture as many of the creatures as possible, progressing from skirmish to skirmish. In addition, Pokémon are not capable of speech beyond saying their own name, making them risky protagonists. Detective Pikachu solves these issues by taking its cues from a spinoff video game of the same name, which has a more defined story and features a version of Pikachu who is able to speak full sentences, while the Pokémon world is more of a backdrop rife with opportunities to depict the creatures in various situations. Indeed, Ryme City is full of Pokémon of all shapes and sizes, giving newcomers the chance to grow familiar with individual powers and temperaments. In other words, Detective Pikachu manages to pull together an engaging story no matter your level of familiarity with the source material, representing an ideal entry point into the franchise for those who never played the games or watched the anime.

From the cinematography to the production design, the filmmakers show astonishing reverence for the Pokémon games, demonstrating that genuine love and care went into the production process. Furthermore, it helps that Detective Pikachu is treated like a legitimate film as opposed to a cheap novelty, lensed by ace cinematographer John Mathieson (Logan), and supplemented with a flavoursome score by Henry Jackman (Captain America: Civil War). In addition, the Pokémon creatures are visualised with superb digital effects, giving these characters fresh life outside of the anime and games, while the choice to shoot on 35mm film gives the CGI a welcomely tangible aesthetic. Pikachu looks especially great; he's insanely expressive and feels real, to the extent that you might forget he is a digital character. It helps that the Pokémon predominantly appear in practical sets and real locations as opposed to fully digital environments, giving the animators a firm frame of reference in terms of lighting. However, the CGI is a bit more obvious during the climax when the scale increases, along with the reliance on digital effects.

In spite of its ample strengths, Detective Pikachu does fall victim to some common pitfalls of contemporary blockbusters - primarily, the second act involving a perfunctory McGuffin hunt is not as energetic as the first half-hour, there's a big climax that feels more motivated by formula than story, and the film contains some obvious world-building which hinders narrative focus. However, most of this is par for the course for this type of production, and what matters is that Detective Pikachu gets more right than wrong, with its immense charm compensating for any scripting shortcomings. Reynolds is a big selling point, and he is expectedly ideal for this iteration of Pikachu, able to confidently deliver the wisecracks as well as the more serious material (all the while suppressing his foul-mouthed Deadpool instincts). Newton also makes a positive impression, turning the token love interest role into someone resourceful and charming. This is not exactly an actor's movie, but recruiting reliable veterans like Bill Nighy and Ken Watanabe in supporting roles gives the material some gravitas.

For long-time Pokémon fans, Pokémon: Detective Pikachu is a huge wet kiss of a fan service movie, beset with Easter Eggs, references, and beloved Pokémon characters in cameos throughout. However, this is also a sufficiently satisfying standalone action-adventure in its own right, with brisk pacing and an appealing cast, though some flaws hold it back from perfection. Detective Pikachu has heart to boot, which prevents it from becoming a soulless digital demo reel, but do not expect revelatory storytelling or much in the way of poignancy - in short, it's good, but not Pixar good. 


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A nasty, old-fashioned, manly revenge actioner

Posted : 3 years, 6 months ago on 21 September 2019 03:47 (A review of Rambo: Last Blood)

Note: Two versions of Rambo: Last Blood were released into theatres: an 89-minute cut in North America and the United Kingdom, and a 101-minute cut in all other territories. This review specifically relates to the 101-minute version.

Even for hardcore Rambo fans, the idea of a fifth instalment seemed excessive and unnecessary, given the note-perfect ending of 2008's Rambo which brings the titular character full circle. But co-writer and star Sylvester Stallone manages to do the impossible, cooking up a new story which meaningfully contributes to John Rambo's character arc and delivers the type of balls-to-the-wall, vicious mayhem that fans attend these motion pictures to witness. Rambo: Last Blood is a different type of Rambo movie, more solemn and character-focused, to the extent that some believe this should not be part of the series at all. However, with the weight of Rambo's history behind it, the material has more significance and context. Directed by newcomer Adrian Grunberg (Get the Gringo), perhaps the most refreshing thing about Last Blood is its unwillingness to force a political agenda or subscribe to ever-changing standards of political correctness, making it feel like a nasty, old-fashioned, manly revenge picture from the 1970s.

Peacefully living on his late father's ranch in rural Arizona, Vietnam War veteran John Rambo (Stallone) keeps his inner demons under control with pharmaceutical assistance, spending his days taking care of the property's horses as well as forging blades in his underground sanctuary. While he prefers solitude, Rambo maintains a close relationship with housekeeper Maria (Adriana Barraza), and serves as a guardian for her 18-year-old granddaughter Gabrielle (Yvette Monreal) who is about to leave for college. Curious about the world, Gabrielle tracks down her absentee father (Marco de la O) in Mexico, harbouring a desire to confront him about why he abandoned the family. Rambo is quick to dissuade the young woman, but she defies his advice, travelling south of the border only to become ensnared in a cartel sex trafficking ring run by Hugo (Sergio Peris-Mencheta) and his hothead brother Victor (Óscar Jaenada). Rambo sets out to save his loved one without hesitation, awakening the dormant beast within himself as he navigates the violent city. Rambo's mission also attracts the attention of journalist Carmen (Paz Vega), who previously lost a loved one to the ruthless cartel's operation.

The previous sequels dropped Rambo into a real-life, ripped-from-the-headlines setting that is relevant to the era, such as Vietnam in Rambo: First Blood Part II, and the Burmese Civil War in 2008's Rambo. This fifth movie continues along the same lines, setting its sights on human trafficking and forced prostitution in Mexico, which is an ongoing international concern. At just over 100 minutes in length, Last Blood has sufficient narrative breathing room, with unhurried early scenes between Rambo and his de facto family before trouble strikes in Mexico, while the screenplay additionally explores the aging soldier's broken mental state at this point in his life. The underlying theme at play here is how someone like Rambo can attain peace after living in a self-described world of death, trying to stay in control as he attempts the serene family lifestyle, using the horses as therapy. To Rambo, who still suffers from PTSD, his underground tunnels represent a Minotaur's Labyrinth of madness and memories, sparking aggressive Vietnam flashbacks. By taking the fight underground, he harnesses the violent trauma associated with these tunnels to kill his enemies, giving more substance to the climax. Like the fourth Rambo film, it might seem like I am reading too much into Last Blood, but again, I believe the critics are not reading enough into it, or acknowledging the story's thematic foundation.

Written by Stallone and Matt Cirulnick, Last Blood does enough to build palpable relationships between the characters, creating a sense of humanity amid the chaos. Furthermore, it helps that the scenes between Rambo and Gabrielle feel genuine as opposed to perfunctory, including a standout moment in which Rambo delivers an emotional speech to his niece at the end of the second act. Now in his early 70s, Stallone confidently slips back into his iconic role, playing a world-weary Rambo who struggles to keep a lid on his animalistic instincts. Thankfully, the movie resists the temptation to give Rambo a younger protégé, with Last Blood remaining Stallone's show from start to end. Proficient support is provided by Monreal and Barraza, while Peris-Mencheta is a credible villain. Additionally, like the fourth film's depiction of Myanmar, the scenes involving violence and prostitution in Mexico are nihilistic and grim, making it all the more satisfying when Rambo finally unleashes hell upon the cartel army. However, one story element which feels short-changed is the subplot involving Carmen, while Gabrielle's father is oddly insignificant as well, though any further material involving either character would probably be too generic and slow down the narrative.

Last Blood adopts a stark tonal change, feeling more like Logan, Sicario or Unforgiven than the jingoistic, cheesy Regan-era Rambo sequels of the 1980s. Although Rambo does not hesitate to carry out violent acts, this follow-up is not as action-packed as its predecessors, with most of the carnage reserved for the big climax, which is perhaps the most vicious, violent set-piece of the series to date. First Blood memorably showed us Rambo's ingenuity with guerrilla warfare, but he refrained from actually killing, while the sequels involved Rambo being on the offensive as he wasted countless enemies with large weapons. In Last Blood, we finally get to see Rambo unleash his guerrilla training to kill, and it is truly a sight to behold. Under Grunberg's focused direction, the final ten minutes or so amount to a taut succession of gory slayings, showing that Rambo is still a relentless one-man force to be feared. Moreover, the R rating is pushed to its boundaries, showing the gory consequences of Rambo's traps as he becomes a slasher movie antagonist, swiftly moving around his tunnel network as he mercilessly slaughters the cartel intruders. When Rambo cuts loose, it's heart-pounding cinema, sure to provoke goosebumps and foot stomping. It is also more impactful directly because of the lengthy build-up preceding it. Meanwhile, Brian Tyler returns as composer, reusing a few recognisable cues and making astute use of the iconic Rambo theme. This is not Tyler at his best, but the music ramps up the intensity and underscores the emotion effectively.

Contrasted against the cheap, straight-to-video Escape Plan sequels, Rambo: Last Blood carries appreciable gravitas, while the story's execution is effectively sincere. It is a formulaic movie from a narrative standpoint, while villains are predictably cartoonish, but there are some unexpected plot developments which feel appropriate given the subject matter, and it creates a satisfying ending for Rambo nearly forty years after the release of First Blood. It is not on the same level as First Blood (not many movies are), and it lacks the urgency of the fourth instalment, but it still delivers the goods, even without Rambo's trademark long hair and bandana (and even with some mediocre digital effects). Be sure to stick around for the first part of the end credits, as it recaps the franchise and adds more to Last Blood's ending.


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Entertaining as a bizarre Aussie comedy-horror

Posted : 3 years, 6 months ago on 15 September 2019 01:47 (A review of The Howling III)

The third instalment in the incredulously long Howling series (eight films and counting), 1987's Howling III: The Marsupials sees the return of Australian filmmaker Philippe Mora as director and co-screenwriter, cooking up a uniquely goofy genre romp set in the wilds of Australia. As a sequel to Joe Dante's The Howling, it is easy to understand the disdain towards Howling III, as this is a standalone entry which does not feel like an organic continuation of the original classic and is not connected to its predecessor. However, the film is an entertaining success if taken as a bizarre, completely off-the-nails '80s Ozploitation comedy-horror, as flawed as it definitely is.

In Australia, a clan of marsupial werewolves live in isolation and relative peace in a rural bush town, let by Thylo (Max Fairchild). Werewolf Jerboa (the gorgeous Imogen Annesley) escapes her tribe, fleeing to the streets of Sydney where she meets an American named Donny (Leigh Biolos), who is working on a low-budget horror film and wants to recruit the runaway for a role in the production. Jerboa and Donny rapidly fall in love, but Jerboa's true animalistic nature is soon revealed to the world. Meanwhile, Australian anthropologist Beckmeyer (Barry Otto) is determined to uncover the truth behind the continent's long-standing werewolf secrets, joining scientist Professor Sharp (Ralph Cotterill) in his investigations.

On paper, Howling III is based on Gary Brandner's novel The Howling III: Echoes, but the film actually bears no resemblance to its literary source. Storytelling is inconsistent throughout, as Mora throws a lot at the wall to see what sticks - most bizarrely, the film establishes that a camera crew is following The President of the United States (Michael Pate), but the distinction between the purported "found footage" and the film footage does not exist, and no additional references to a camera crew are uttered after the five-minute mark. For some reason, too, the American government is heavily involved in Australian affairs, and Jerboa ostensibly does not hold any grudges against Thylo in the third act despite the fact that he sexually abused her (which is why she left the tribe in the first place). However, the mythology behind Howling III is sufficiently fascinating, connecting the Aussie lycanthropes to the extinct Tasmanian Tiger, and the film actually has a message about tolerance and peace, reminding us that werewolves are people, too.

There are fun ideas throughout Howling III, including a transformation sequence during a ballet as well as a scene in which Jerboa gives birth in marsupial fashion. One poor extra is even thrown off a building, set to the tune of the A.J. Brown song "All Fall Down." Nevertheless, Mora's vision is held back by a noticeable lack of funds; the prosthetic effects are cheap and phoney, a military raid on the werewolf pack involves merely a dozen soldiers, and a short scene at the Oscars was obviously filmed in a tiny room. There is a certain charm to this cheapness, though your mileage will vary depending on your tolerance for this type of cinema. As a horror movie, Howling III noticeably lacks bite as well, and even though a couple of attack sequences are well-edited, Mora strangely keeps things PG-13, shying away from the type of overzealous gore (and cheap nudity) that we come to expect from campy horror. Furthermore, rather than closing with a big finish, Howling III instead fizzles out with a minor showdown followed by a peculiar extended prologue, solidifying this as a cult curiosity as opposed to a genuine genre classic.

At the very least, Howling III: The Marsupials never takes itself too seriously; for crying out loud, one of the characters even asks "Wanna put a shrimp on the barbie?" The performers all understand what type of movie this is, and play the material accordingly without winking at the camera. Frank Thring (Ben-Hur, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome) is especially amusing as an eccentric film director. In a sea of werewolf flicks and Howling sequels, Howling III stands out because it proudly wears its heritage on its sleeve; the more Australian it gets, the more fun it is to watch. It's not a strong endeavour, but it's a fun enough waste of 94 minutes.


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An involving, at times horrifying animated classic

Posted : 3 years, 6 months ago on 1 September 2019 10:00 (A review of Watership Down)

A passion project for writer-director Martin Rosen, 1978's Watership Down is an adaptation of the treasured novel of the same name by Richard Adams, compressing the 413-page source into a streamlined 92-minute animated movie. At its core, this is a survivalist adventure picture with political undertones, and it's a genre classic that is most remembered for not being suitable for little kids. Indeed, do not let the cutesy rabbit characters or the PG rating fool you, as Watership Down is brutal and harrowing, the furthest thing imaginable from a classic Disney movie. It's a confident and remarkably realised anthropomorphic vision, bolstered by sumptuous animation and a roster of sublime actors who deliver the material with astute sincerity.
In a crowded, regimental warren near Sandleford in the United Kingdom, rabbit Fiver (Richard Briers) has an apocalyptic vision which convinces him that the entire burrow is in grave danger. Fiver and his brother Hazel (John Hurt) attempt to convince the chief rabbit (Ralph Richardson) to evacuate, but are fiercely ignored, with the chief announcing that nobody can leave the warren. Following a conflict, Fiver and Hazel, along with several other rabbits - including Bigwig (Michael Graham Cox) and Blackberry (Simon Cadell) - manage to escape, setting out in search of a new home. A perilous, uncertain road lies ahead of them, with the threat of death lurking around every corner in the form of rats, birds of prey, dogs, as well as humans, who wield firearms and set snare traps. The group is also in need of mates, while soldierly rabbits in another dictatorial warren represent further danger.

Beginning with a mythological prologue which outlines the rabbit species' genesis, a rich world buttresses Watership Down, with the animals living in constant fear of predators, as the fragility of their lives is continually underscored. The warren communities, meanwhile, are patriarchal and oppressive, enforced by de facto policemen and military types. The rabbits of this story are hard-bitten as a result of their difficult living conditions, and were not designed for maximum cuteness. In Rosen's hands, Watership Down is uncompromising and hard-edged, with a sense of danger permeating the story. No matter how cute the rabbits, they are killed off without sentimentality, reflecting the cruelty of nature in the real world. This is a violent movie despite its PG rating - there's Fiver's initial vision of a field running with blood, one of the rabbits almost dying in a snare, a fierce dog killing several rabbits, as well as a bloody final showdown - and some of the images here may even haunt adults, let alone children. Nevertheless, there is tact to the brutality, while a feeling of hope is tangible amid the film's confronting grimness. Additionally, humour does break up the callousness, particularly in the form of a black-headed seagull named Kehaar, voiced by the late great Zero Mostel in his final big screen performance.
Vividly brought to life with hand-drawn animation against stylised watercolour backgrounds, Watership Down carries a striking sense of picturesque beauty. The animation admittedly lacks immaculate fluidity, and the drawings may appear somewhat crude to 21st century moviegoers, however genuine love and care is evident in every frame of this animated gem. The rabbits, for instance, burst with personality, with the tiniest behavioural nuances enhancing the illusion. A superb original score (credited to Angela Morley and Malcolm Williamson) augments the sense of danger and tension, and the film additionally features the touching song "Bright Eyes" which was sung by Art Garfunkel. Watership Down further benefits from a cast of esteemed British actors, including Hurt as well as Denholm Elliott and Nigel Hawthorne, who infuse the material with honest-to-goodness gravitas. At times you might have trouble distinguishing the rabbits from one another, and the film is occasionally lethargic even though it was edited by the superlative Terry Rawlings (Alien, Blade Runner), but these are minor shortcomings.

Produced on a meagre budget, Watership Down is a timeless classic which still packs a punch in the 21st century, representing a rare type of animated film that is geared more towards adults than children. Involving and breathtaking, this is animation at a deeper level, tackling complex subject matter that lingers in the mind after viewing. In spite of the movie's violence, it is still a rewarding watch, even if it is easier to admire than conventionally enjoy. The novel was later adapted into both a television show and an animated miniseries.


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