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Highly flawed but watchable

Posted : 10 months, 1 week ago on 7 February 2018 03:19 (A review of Overdrive (2017))

Overdrive is such a brazen, barefaced attempt to cash in on the success of the long-running Fast & Furious franchise that you almost have to admire the filmmakers for choosing to release it so soon after 2017's The Fate of the Furious. Written by Michael Brandt and Derek Haas - who actually penned 2 Fast 2 Furious - the flick is more or less Fast & Furious mixed with the 2003 remake of The Italian Job, and it's all set in France to boot. To state the obvious, there is not much in the way of originality to Overdrive, nor is there a great deal of wit or intelligence, but against all odds, this formulaic actioner does manage to pass the time easily enough. It's also admittedly nice to see a car-based action movie without Vin Diesel and his insufferable ego taking centre stage.

Veteran car thieves Andrew (Scott Eastwood) and his half-brother Garret (Freddie Thorp) pull off a risky robbery in Marseille, targeting a rare Bugatti which was recently sold at auction. But the theft brings the pair to the attention of local crime figure Jacomo Morier (Simon Abkarian), the owner of the Bugatti in question. Begging for their lives, Andrew and Garret offer to steal a rare Ferrari from Morier's rival, Max Klemp (Clemens Schick), which would boost his valuable car collection. Morier agrees, permitting the half-brothers a mere seven days to prep, plan and pull off the complex heist. With the odds stacked against them, Andrew begins building a team, bringing in his girlfriend Stephanie (Ana de Armas), career thief Devin (Gaia Weiss), demolitions expert Leon (Joshua Fitoussi), and a crew of expert drivers. To make matters more complicated, a pair of Interpol agents as well as Morier's cousin (Abraham Belaga) are keeping tabs on the operation.

Playing out as if it was originally designed to be a minor Fast & Furious spinoff, the narrative is (perhaps mercifully) uncomplicated and lathers on the clichés, even introducing the "one last job before I go legit" routine for Andrew, who seeks to retire and live in peace with Stephanie. Of course the screenplay puts Stephanie in danger, and the boys manage to be one step ahead of their enemies, planning more than what meets the eye. (Traces of the Ocean's Eleven remake are apparent when the heist is being executed.) Devin also becomes a love interest for Garret, because apparently beautiful women can never remain unattached in these types of action flicks. Dialogue is tin-eared for the most part, not to mention eye-rollingly clichéd, while character names never stick because none of the roles are developed beyond the bare minimum of personality traits. Hell, the team of drivers are given such a quick introduction that their names are never said and most of them don't even have lines. The dramatics of the story never gain full traction since it's hard to get invested in the narrative or care about the characters - it just feels like the movie is going through the clichéd motions to get to the stunt driving.

Backed by a comparatively scant budget (approximately $30 million), there is not much leeway for the movie to go ridiculously over-the-top during the action sequences, and that's something of an asset - the primary set-pieces are welcomely grounded, relying on good old-fashioned stunt-work and stunt-driving as opposed to wall-to-wall digital effects (though there is still some shoddy CGI). The director, Antonio Negret, mostly works in television aside from a few minor feature films - he has overseen episodes of Lethal Weapon, Arrow, The Flash and DC's Legends of Tomorrow, just to name a few, while he also helmed 2012's Transit. Negret's camera fetishistically lingers on all of the beautiful multi-million dollar automobiles, making this a worthwhile watch for all car-lovers. At least the movie is given a boost by its gorgeous, eye-catching European locales, and there's sufficient excitement to be experienced whenever Negret gives over to the stunt-drivers. Indeed, the sequences of fast cars and burning rubber are entertaining enough for a film of this pedigree.

Eastwood - who was actually added to the ever-expanding Fast & Furious ensemble cast in The Fate of the Furious - is actually one of the better up-and-coming action stars of late, emanating sufficient charisma and with his father's looks to boot. However, it's a real shame that there isn't a stronger group dynamic like in The Italian Job or Ocean's Eleven - most of Andrew's team are completely interchangeable, and the cast is filled with bland actors who look like Calvin Klein models. Even de Armas is given little to do, reduced to a one-dimensional damsel in distress role which is all the more disheartening after her exceptional performance in Blade Runner 2049. However, at least she has some degree of charisma, and plays well alongside Eastwood.

As fluffy action movies go, Overdrive is middle-of-the-road - it's not offensively terrible and it's at least watchable, providing some surface-level pleasures with its visceral set-pieces and gorgeous location work. And with "family" melodrama being kept to a minimum, it's arguably more entertaining than some of the movies in the Fast & Furious franchise. Still, it is flawed, and it feels closer to a television pilot than a major feature film. It does appear that the filmmakers behind Overdrive were hoping to carve out a franchise, as there's a direct set-up for a sequel, but considering the movie's abysmal box office performance (it grossed less than $5 million worldwide), this is more than likely the last we'll see of these characters. And that's probably for the best.


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Enormously cheesy and at times incompetent

Posted : 10 months, 1 week ago on 7 February 2018 07:56 (A review of Orca: The Killer Whale)

Produced by Italian filmmaking luminary Dino De Laurentiis, 1977's Orca: The Killer Whale represents a brazen attempt to capitalize on the astonishing success of Steven Spielberg's 1975 blockbuster Jaws. In addition, this particular film goes one step further by ostensibly incorporating elements of "Moby Dick," as it pits a boat captain against a killer whale. From an ironic standpoint, a certain degree of entertainment value can be derived from the enormously cheesy and at times incompetent Orca, but it's borderline impossible to defend this cult curiosity as a serious motion picture. Despite the efforts of director Michael Anderson (Logan's Run), the movie is so far removed from the spine-tingling horror and enduring effectiveness of Jaws, even though it was created with a comparable budget. And whereas age has been kind to Jaws, the same cannot be said of Orca, as it looks seriously dated in 2018.

Irish-Canadian fisherman Captain Nolan (Richard Harris) makes his living by capturing marine animals for aquariums, and hopes to return to Ireland once the mortgage on his boat is paid off. Choosing to hunt for an orca, Nolan mistakenly harpoons and reels in a pregnant female killer whale, leading to its death as well as the demise of its unborn foetus. Unfortunately, the orca's male mate witnesses the slaughter, and becomes determined to get revenge on Nolan. Following him to a nearby coastal town, the orca starts to wreak havoc on the village, destroying its resources and sinking ships as it challenges Nolan to a showdown. Confiding in whale expert Dr. Rachel Bedford (Charlotte Rampling), Nolan is terrified of facing the orca since he knows the odds are not in his favour, but the livelihood of the village is in danger if the captain does not face up to his misdeeds.

Even though comparisons to Jaws from a narrative standpoint are justified, the story is actually closer to Jaws: The Revenge, which was released later, in 1987. Indeed, it certainly does appear that the producers of Jaws: The Revenge took inspiration from Orca. How ironic. The concept behind Orca admittedly has promise, with an intriguing moral dilemma at the centre of the film since Nolan did kill the orca's mate and should pay for his mistake. Unfortunately, it's clear that screenwriters Luciano Vincenzoni and Sergio Donati did not conduct much research before penning the script - leaving aside the unlikeliness that a killer whale would actually go to the trouble of terrorising a small seaside village, the mammals are not even monogamous, making the story look all the more ridiculous. In addition, scenes set on dry land during which Nolan contemplates the situation slows down the pacing dramatically, and there's even a pretentious voiceover delivered by Rampling which is intended to add some depth and gravitas, but instead comes off as laughable and cheesy.

To the film's credit, the authentic shark footage during the opening sequence is impressive, but it's extremely obvious when the mechanical shark takes over - said fake shark looks like a bathtub toy; stiff and unconvincing. It's something of a blessing when the orca is given centre stage, as the mechanical killer whale is not half-bad and at times it's difficult to distinguish between the fake orca and footage of the real things. In addition, there are a number of striking, brilliantly-composed shots thanks to credited cinematographers J. Barry Herron and Ted Moore. However, certain key sequences are undeniably hammy and campy, with overwrought sound effects and bizarre editing. There are a lot of close-ups of the orca's eyes, set to the mammal's high-pitched screeching. One vestige of the production which actually deserves respect is the original score, composed by Spaghetti Western veteran Ennio Morricone. Although it is a tad histrionic at times, the compositions are nevertheless proficient and full of flavour for the most part. Harris is another huge asset, as he actually takes the material seriously and looks wracked with guilt during more dramatic moments. It's just a shame that the filmmaking fails to properly serve him.

In amid the hit-and-miss ensemble cast, Bo Derek appears as a member of Nolan's crew, in her first motion picture appearance (though not the first movie she actually filmed). None of the other actors make much of an impression, though Will Sampson (One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest) is on hand as a wise Native American who tells stories about the orca. Even though Orca: The Killer Whale is not necessarily unwatchable, and it's entertaining and even compelling to a certain degree in a "so bad it's good" type of way, it is nevertheless a bit of a shame that it's not a better film overall. No doubt Orca will always hold a degree of cult appeal for the right audience, but it's unclear how more casual watchers will receive the movie as first-time viewers in 2018.


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Most wild, entertaining MCU blockbuster so far

Posted : 12 months ago on 16 December 2017 07:53 (A review of Thor: Ragnarok)

Movie-goers who believe Marvel blockbusters are too generic or feel factory-made really ought to watch 2017's Thor: Ragnarok, as it confidently defies those labels and feels like the work of a genuine auteur. Insanely fun and distinctively quirky, with gorgeously colourful visuals and wittiness aplenty, Ragnarok is the shot in the arm that the Marvel Cinematic Universe needed at this point to remind us why we fell in love with this ambitious franchise in the first place. Overseen by Kiwi filmmaker Taika Waititi (2016's Hunt for the Wilderpeople), this threequel manages to be both thrilling and gut-bustingly funny whilst adding serious scope to the series, and the material is infused with so much endearing energy that it's never a chore to sit through. Leave it to the director of What We Do in the Shadows to create the most wild, entertaining MCU blockbuster to date.

When Thor (Chris Hemsworth) defeats the fire demon Surtur (Clancy Brown) in the fiery realm of Muspelheim, he believes that his actions have prevented the prophesied world-destroying event known as Ragnarok. But upon his return to his home of Asgard, Thor realises that his father Odin (Anthony Hopkins) is missing, and his wayward brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) has claimed the throne. Setting out with Loki to find Odin, Thor is instead confronted with the return of Hela (Cate Blanchett), the Goddess of Death, who seeks to take the Asgardian throne that she was denied many years ago. With Thor's hammer Mjolnir destroyed and the brothers cast out, the God of Thunder finds himself on the garbage planet of Sakaar, which is ruled by the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum). In Sakaar's gladiatorial arena, Thor comes face to face with the reigning champion, The Incredible Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), while the planet is also home to a former Asgardian warrior, Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson). Assembling a team, Thor seeks to return to Asgard and overthrow Hela before she can destroy the Asgardian people.

Clocking in at a considerable 130 minutes, Ragnarok broadens the arcs of both Thor and Loki, and serves to re-introduce the Hulk back into the MCU by incorporating elements of the Planet Hulk comic book storyline. There is a lot of material to work through, but not a single moment feels dull or laboured under the careful eye of director Waititi, and the story elements are given sufficient breathing room to gain full traction. 2011's Thor in particular was Shakespearean in tone, but Ragnarok is an outright science fiction fantasy adventure, feeling closer to a road trip movie with shades of Big Trouble in Little China, which is a breath of fresh air after 2013's hit-and-miss Thor: The Dark World. This is also one of the funniest Marvel movies to date, and the humour almost seems effortless whilst never diminishing the very real stakes of the story. Although Ragnarok admittedly lacks the sheer emotional kick of something like Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, there is enough dramatic resonance to prevent the movie from feeling too empty.

Selecting independent filmmakers for these huge projects has worked out well for Marvel in the past, and Waititi proves to be yet another inspired choice. Rather than relinquishing his artistic integrity, Waititi thankfully retains his terrific sense of mirth and quirkiness, having loads of fun finding his own vision - a fiery portal to Asgard is named "The Devil's Anus," for instance, and Waititi even steps in to play a goofy rock monster named Korg (complete with a thick Kiwi accent), scoring a lot of laughs in the process. The original score by Mark Mothersbaugh is retro and synth-heavy, giving the movie even more flavour. Other soundtrack choices are pure ecstasy, particularly when Led Zeppelin's "The Immigrant Song" is put to great use to get the adrenaline pumping and bring life to Thor's badass throwdowns. So much personality is visible in every frame of Thor: Ragnarok, standing in stark contrast to the painfully generic disposition of such other MCU movies as Doctor Strange and Ant-Man. Waititi's Ragnarok feels like its own entity, and even though it's stylistically different to the first two Thor movies, it's easy to embrace this bold new vision.

As to be expected from a motion picture carrying a reported $180 million price-tag, Ragnarok is a lavish, handsomely-mounted blockbuster, benefitting from competent technical specs across the board. Very little time is spent on Earth, as Waititi is more interested in exploring new areas of the Nine Realms, with special focus on Sakaar and Asgard. It should go without saying at this point, but the vibrant special effects consistently impress. There is computer-generated imagery in abundance to bring the many different worlds and creatures to life, as well as intricate costumes and ornate sets, but it doesn't all look too artificial or phoney - instead, the visuals are convincing and tangible. And despite his inexperience with action, Waititi acquits himself commendably, orchestrating thrilling skirmishes with the confidence of a seasoned veteran. The much-publicised showdown between Thor and Hulk in the gladiatorial arena is a total gas, and we also get to see Hulk in a more laid-back environment, casually enjoying his luxurious apartment which includes a hot tub. It's a treat to watch Hulk - whose mental capacity is that of a toddler - interact with Thor, delivering comedic dialogue that's consistently on-point.

It was actually Hemsworth who wanted such a radical change for Thor; his hammer is destroyed and his blonde locks are cut, not to mention silliness is foregrounded, allowing for a fresh take on the established character. The Australian actor clearly has a ball, while Hiddleston superbly slips back into the role of Loki (for the first time since The Dark World) as if no time has passed. Blanchett can do this type of role in her sleep, and she's expectedly excellent, but the show undeniably belongs to Goldblum. Relishing the opportunity to play the ostentatiously debauched Grandmaster, Goldblum steals scenes all over the place, proving to be the movie's secret weapon. Also making a positive impression is Thompson as the hard-drinking, tough-as-nails Valkyrie. Natalie Portman is apparently done with Marvel, and therefore her character of Jane Foster is completely absent for Ragnarok (along with Kat Dennings, Stellan Skarsgård and Chris O'Dowd). It's a tad jarring, especially after the post-credits scene for The Dark World, but Jane would not have a logical place in this space-set story anyway, and she isn't missed amid such an insanely talented ensemble.

In the end, rather than feeling like a generic superhero movie, Thor: Ragnarok feels closer to an independently-produced cosmic odyssey with traces of Flash Gordon and the aforementioned Big Trouble in Little China, and it's an oddly appropriate addition to Waititi's budding filmography. It's clear that everybody had a great time making this third Thor, as there's so much energy and enthusiasm on full display, and it never feels like it's going through the motions. We may be a decade (and seventeen movies) into the MCU, but with its top-notch 2017 release slate, it shows no signs of fatigue.


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The "Empire Strikes Back" of this new trilogy

Posted : 12 months ago on 15 December 2017 04:41 (A review of Star Wars: Episode VIII - The Last Jedi)

Despite its critical and commercial success, certain vocal armchair critics felt that 2015's Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens played things too "safe," and merely rehashed 1977's Star Wars. Answering to that criticism is writer-director Rian Johnson's Star Wars: Episode VIII - The Last Jedi, which takes this new trilogy in fresh and bold directions, defying the smug expectations of those who assumed they were just in for a remake of The Empire Strikes Back. In addition, whereas The Force Awakens was a fast-paced, escapist blockbuster, Johnson slams on the brakes to deal with story development and drama, opting for epic storytelling over constant thrills, and requiring patience. Indeed, The Force Awakens was more purely enjoyable, but this follow-up is the superior movie. Exquisitely polished, appropriately rousing and emotionally rich, The Last Jedi is another stalwart Star Wars adventure which proves that there is still plenty of life left in this long-running film series.

The location of the Resistance base has been exposed, prompting General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) to evacuate as the First Order closes in under the leadership of Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis). But the Resistance fleet cannot escape the First Order and are critically short on fuel, not to mention their starfighter fleet has been obliterated. Unsure of their leadership, Finn (John Boyega) and ace pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) go rogue in an attempt to save what's left of the dwindling Resistance forces. To this end, Finn teams up with maintenance worker Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) to disable the tracking system of the First Order's main Star Destroyer. Meanwhile, Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Chewbacca have tracked down Jedi Master Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) who now lives like a hermit on the isolated planet of Ahch-To, the location of the First Jedi Temple. Rey begs Luke to leave his self-imposed exile and join the fight against the First Order, but he's haunted by his past failures. Even though Luke reluctantly agrees to teach Rey the ways of the Jedi, he fears that she will be seduced by the Dark Side, much like his nephew Kylo Ren/Ben Solo (Adam Driver).

Picking up immediately after The Force Awakens, the narrative of The Last Jedi is unexpected, and its ultimate trajectory and plot surprises cannot be spoiled. Happily, aside from sharing a few tiny surface details, this is truly the furthest thing possible from a remake of The Empire Strikes Back. (It's satisfying to see how confidently Johnson shuts down those who have spent the last two years arrogantly assuming they have "figured out" this new trilogy.) Johnson's vision is dark, and he unearths astonishing depth and thematic density to create a more adult motion picture, which is a welcome surprise given that this is a Disney production. Whereas George Lucas built the original Star Wars trilogy around concepts such as Joseph Campbell's hero's journey, Luke is now fully aware that happy endings never last, and that becoming a legend is not necessarily a good thing. The characters here debate the merits of holding onto the past, not to mention the Jedi religion and its hubris is brutally deconstructed. One of the movie's most powerful scenes involves the surprise return of an old character, who has much wisdom to impart. Other themes also crop up throughout The Last Jedi, including the business of war, as arms dealers sell to both sides of the conflict to earn their riches. The self-reflection is certainly welcome for a franchise that has just celebrated its 40th anniversary.

The Last Jedi is certainly long, clocking in at 150 minutes which is the most substantial runtime of the saga to date, and it does feel its length. This particular story doesn't exactly lend itself to a tidy three-act structure, and therefore what amounts to Act 2 feels incredibly beefy and is a bit too overcomplicated for its own good. Johnson also has a proclivity for defying expectations to surprise the audience, often stubbornly refusing to let the heroes win, but he pulls these types of tricks a bit too much, sacrificing a degree of narrative stability in the process. Working in the picture's favour, however, is a pronounced sense of humour amid the armrest-clenching action sequences, suffusing the material with some much-needed humanity and levity. There is even a dialogue exchange in the opening minutes of the film, played for laughs, that's unlike anything we have previously witnessed in the franchise's history. Plus, in the casino on Canto Bight, a drunk space-leprechaun mistakes BB-8 for a slot machine. For all of the hoo-ha about the Porgs - small seabird-esque creatures which inhabit the planet of Ahch-To - their presence is insignificant, and they don't immediately irritate in the same way as the Ewoks from 1983's Return of the Jedi.

In terms of tone, The Last Jedi is closer to something like Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk, and in many ways feels more like a proper war film than 2016's Rogue One. There are certain chaotic sequences in which the Resistance frantically scramble to survive, with a pervading sense of utter hopelessness, that we simply don't see in major motion pictures very often. When Johnson does cut loose to deliver the type of thrilling action that Star Wars fans yearn, he does not disappoint. Lightsaber skirmishes visibly take influence from samurai pictures, while large-scale battles evoke classic war movies. The jaw-dropping extended conflict to close out the second act would be an exceptional climax in any other movie, but Johnson has even more up his sleeve for the actual climax, which packs a real punch. Furthermore, Crait's distinctive red and white landscape makes the finale's striking visuals look like something from an art-house film. This is Johnson's biggest movie to date in terms of scope and budget, but it appears that his previous directorial endeavours properly prepared him for the world of Star Wars.

For a movie of such a large budget (and considering that it spent the best part of 18 months in post-production), it's disheartening that some of the digital effects are sloppy (particularly the crystal critters on Crait and the space horse stampede on Canto Bight), and a certain returning character in a surprise cameo looks slightly off. Outside of these slight imperfections, however, The Last Jedi is visually stunning, with rock-solid photography courtesy of Johnson's regular cinematographer Steve Yedlin (Brick, Looper), who predominantly captured the action with a combination of 35mm and 65mm film stock to generate an aesthetic reminiscent of the original trilogy. It looks as if practical model ships were photographed as opposed to wall-to-wall CGI, as the realism and immediacy of the outer space battles is magnificent. It's also a joy to behold real sets and locations. Meanwhile, the motion capture techniques used to bring Snoke to life are better than ever, looking astonishingly intricate and tangible. Perfectly complementing the visuals is the score by series veteran John Williams. His reliably majestic compositions actually have more presence than The Force Awakens, and recognisable beats from the original trilogy are incorporated during certain moments. Williams' work is simply invaluable.

Nobody back in 1977 could have predicted that Hamill would be capable of such a performance here, as he disappears into the role and submits the best acting work of his career. It's a treat to see Hamill taking a bigger role this time around, while Fisher is likewise a more significant presence, which is a huge deal since this is the last time we will see Princess Leia. (Outside of the odd occasional Rogue One moment, if any of the spinoffs go that way.) Fisher endows her performance with authority, gravitas, wisdom and warmth, and seeing her play this iconic character just once more is both poignant and bittersweet. Fisher's daughter Billie Lourd is also given a beefier role as an officer in the Resistance, and she's a delight, not to mention it's wonderful to see her acting alongside her mother. Out of the newcomers, Laura Dern is a notably brilliant addition as Vice Admiral Holdo, and Benicio Del Toro carves out a particularly memorable character. Meanwhile, after making such a positive impression in The Force Awakens, Ridley continues to impress, and is given the chance to really flex her acting muscles and show us what she's made of. It's a extraordinary performance, and of course she maintains her innate charisma throughout, making her easy to latch onto. Driver also has the chance to find more depth, and he's consistently excellent, portraying a layered, conflicted antagonist. Isaac shines yet again in his role as Poe (his dress now looking a bit similar to Han Solo), showing the same type of spunk and boyish charm exhibited by Harrison Ford in the original Star Wars trilogy. Unfortunately, Tran is less successful as Rose - she lacks spark and charisma. At least Boyega places forth another terrific performance, proving yet again that he was an ideal pick for the role of Finn. Long-time fans should be wary that outside of Luke and Leia, the veteran characters do not have a great deal to do - in particular, R2-D2 is barely glimpsed.

More than just a brainless fireworks reel, Star Wars: The Last Jedi emerges as one of the year's most intelligent and compelling blockbusters, with Johnson extracting superlative performances across the board and pushing the boundaries of the Star Wars franchise. It’s a compelling and often entertaining feature, the best in the franchise since The Empire Strikes Back. Of course, it does refuse to provide answers to all the burning questions that you may have (particularly in regards to the origins of Snoke, and Rey's lineage), and there are imperfections, but The Last Jedi gets far more right than wrong, setting the stage for what has the potential to be one hell of a closing chapter. Johnson also eschews pure fan service as he finds his bold new vision, and as a result your mileage with the finished movie may vary depending on your willingness to watch it with an open mind. It is worth noting that, like its immediate predecessor, The Last Jedi not only stands up to repeat viewings but actually improves a second time around.


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Despite intermittent pleasures, it's too ho-hum

Posted : 12 months ago on 13 December 2017 04:14 (A review of Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales)

2017's Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales is probably the best instalment in this particular franchise since its initial entry, 2003's The Curse of the Black Pearl, but that's still damning with faint praise. Indeed, this fourth sequel is still studiously mediocre and in need of more editorial discipline (not to mention better screenwriting), but at least it provides intermittent charms, and won't leave you wanting to run screaming from the cinema. Nevertheless, with lengthy six-year break since the last sequel (Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides), it's disheartening that this is apparently the best that Disney could come up with. Even with a pair of new directors, Dead Men Tell No Tales (a subtitle not to be confused with 2006's Dead Man's Chest) lacks ambition and novelty, emerging as yet another lacklustre entry into the tired fourteen-year-old series.

Henry Turner (Brenton Thwaites), the adult son of Will Turner (Orlando Bloom), has grown up to become a sailor in the British Royal Navy, but is determined to free his father from the curse of the Flying Dutchman. Learning that the Trident of Poseidon holds the power to break any curse, Henry seeks to recruit Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) to help him in his quest, and also meets Carina (Kaya Scodelario), an astronomer who knows where the Trident might be. To complicate matters, Captain Salazar (Javier Bardem) and his ghostly crew are freed from their Devil's Triangle prison, and begin hunting for Jack who was responsible for taking away their corporeal freedom. In addition, Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) sets off to find the Trident of Poseidon for himself, while a British Royal Navy officer, Lt. John Scarfield (David Wenham), is also interested in the treasure.

The primary drawback of Dead Men Tell No Tales is that it feels flat overall, lacking a certain spark to truly bring it to life. The screenplay is replete with nonstop exposition, and endeavours to work through too many different subplots and tangents, with no less than six different parties seeking the Trident for themselves, taking away focus and prohibiting any sort of enlivening momentum. Exposition lacks snap, dialogue is largely humdrum, and the script is too cluttered and over-complicated, as if screenwriter Jeff Nathanson was operating on autopilot. It appears that those involved in this fifth Pirates of the Caribbean picture have lost sight of what made The Curse of the Black Pearl such a hit in the first place - it was an exciting, high-adventure swashbuckler with a hint of the supernatural, whereas Dead Men Tell No Tales meanders all over the place. Ultimately, the finished movie feels more like a workprint waiting for a tighter edit. And that's especially concerning given that this is the shortest instalment in the franchise to date.

Directors Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg (2012's Kon-Tiki) do what they can with the material, but the problems primarily stem from Nathanson's script which could have done with a few rewrites. Salazar and his undead crew have a longstanding grudge against Jack, of course, and they're only freed from the Devil's Triangle (right after Henry encounters them, coincidentally) because Jack gives up his magic compass, which is surely the flimsiest plot impetus in recent memory. Meanwhile, there's no justification for Barbossa's return other than to add another party to an already crowded narrative, and some of the cheap slapstick moments and silly jokes might honestly make you feel as if you're watching a dumb spoof like The Pirate Movie or Carry on Columbus, rather than an expensive blockbuster. Characterisations are strictly one-dimensional outside of the primary characters - of course all of the Royal Navy officers are snobby, and absolutely refuse to listen to Henry. Not to mention, the screenplay just rehashes several elements from previous Pirates of the Caribbean movies - Salazar and his undead pirates mirrors Barbossa's skeletal crew from the first movie, Salazar himself feels like a dull retread of Davy Jones, and the romantic angle between Henry and Carina is just reminiscent of Will and Elizabeth's relationship.

Despite predominantly filming in Queensland, Australia to save on production costs, Dead Men Tell No Tales was still reportedly produced for a staggering $230 million sum, a sizeable chunk of which was allocated to Depp. (At least the budget is less than the eye-watering $410 million price-tag of On Stranger Tides.) Digital effects are difficult to fault and visuals are frequently spectacular, with cinematographer Paul Cameron making terrific use of the beautiful Australian locations, and with sumptuous sets and costumes bringing this world to life. Plus, it's undeniably rousing to hear the franchise's recognisable soundtrack beats during the major set-pieces. (Despite a new composer, the score feels mostly recycled from the previous films.) Nevertheless, even though Disney brought in a couple of Norwegian directors who had the potential to create something truly daring, Dead Men Tell No Tales is content to colour inside the lines. The only real spark of inventiveness is a sequence involving zombie sharks that ultimately feels like it's over before it even begins.

With the return of Bloom, Rush and even Keira Knightley, it appears that the makers of Dead Men Tell No Tales were trying their hardest to bring back established fans of this franchise, but it doesn't add up to much. Depp, who was so endearingly offbeat in the original movie (he was even nominated for an Oscar), appears to be simply going through the motions yet again for the sake of a generous paycheque. The shtick has simply gotten old. Mercifully, the two completely forgettable young faces from On Stranger Tides are no more, but their replacements - Thwaites and Scodelario - are nothing to write home about. Scodelario (such a standout in TV's Skins) admittedly has spunk and charm, but the romantic angle is dead on arrival. Meanwhile, Rush happily chews the scenery as usual, but Bardem is the meatiest addition to the cast, sinking his teeth into this ghoulish role. Bardem is a reliably focused thespian, and he's the most sinister villain of the franchise so far, but it's a shame that most of his screen-time is wasted on exposition and minor threats while Sparrow engages in buffoonery around him. Nevertheless, Bardem manages to keep the material at least marginally compelling, which is welcome. And for eagle-eyed viewers, Paul McCartney makes a brief cameo, though the moment feels both contrived and unnecessary.

When Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales actually works, it is certainly fun, but the enterprise is too bloated on the whole, not to mention overloaded with CGI. Despite competent production values, it's all a bit ho-hum. Everything comes to a head for a climax that's exhausting rather than exhilarating, failing to replicate the raw thrills of the 2003 movie which started it all. Even though Dead Men Tell No Tales runs a mere 129 minutes, which is short for this franchise, it feels much longer, and it doesn't linger in the memory - you'll forget all about it in a matter of days, if not hours. It's just another rehash of the same Pirates of the Caribbean ingredients we've seen before. And unfortunately, as long as these movies make money, Disney will continue to churn them out regardless of whether or not we want them.


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Has its charms, but too hit-and-miss

Posted : 1 year ago on 8 December 2017 07:28 (A review of Attack Force Z (1981))

Falling under the "Ozploitation" banner, 1981's Attack Force Z is a low-budget war movie that at once endeavours to be a proper historical document and a Roger Corman-esque action flick. Engineered by Ozploitation luminary Tim Burstall (Alvin Purple, Eliza Fraser), this Australian production is based on the exploits of a real-life team of elite commandos known as the Z Special Unit, or the Z Force, which operated during World War II and consisted of Australian, British and New Zealander soldiers. It's a concept with serious potential, especially given other "men on a mission" movies like The Dirty Dozen and Inglorious Basterds, but this particular story cannot do justice to the concept. It's not entirely unappealing, as it's entertaining up to a certain point and at least it never feels distractingly cheap, but it's not memorable or remarkable either.

In the South Pacific, five Z Men - Cpt. Paul Kelly (Mel Gibson), Lt. Jan Veitch (John Phillip Law), Sgt. Danny Costello (Sam Neill) Able Seaman Sparrer Bird (Chris Haywood), and Sub Lt. Ted King (John Waters) - are dispatched by submarine in canoes near an island settled by the Chinese but occupied by the Imperial Japanese Army. Their objective is to locate the wreckage of a downed Allied plane and find the survivors before silently slipping out unseen. But the mission is complicated when Veitch becomes separated from the group following a contact with enemy troops, and falls for beautiful Chinese girl Chien Hua (Sylvia Chang). In addition, the Japanese soldiers begin to close in as the Z Men endeavour to complete their assignment and make their escape.

The screenplay by veteran TV writer Roger Marshall (The Professionals, Lovejoy) is based on a real-life WWII mission known as Project Opossum, though any statements of this ilk must be taken with a grain of salt since a degree of artistic license is always taken. The big drawback of Attack Force Z is its narrative, which is markedly banal and uninvolving. Pacing is uneven and storytelling is slipshod, which makes it tough to follow the proceedings, let alone get invested in them. In addition, there is no time to develop the soldiers prior to their mission, and though they look distinct enough to be told apart, names never stick as a consequence. Meanwhile, the love story between Veitch and Chien is dead weight, pure and simple, and appears to have been included in an attempt to widen the picture's appeal. But is this sort of thing really necessary in a violent war film? And it almost goes without saying, but Attack Force Z is painfully one-dimensional as well - the Z Men are all tough and heroic; the Chinese are brave and spiritual; and the Japanese soldiers are outright evil.

To Burstall's credit, the opening action sequence is assembled with genuine skill, observing the unit as they stealthily move through the jungle before being attacked by a hidden machine gun nest. However, the remainder of the flick is more comfortable with a cheesy Ozploitation vibe, closer to a Chuck Norris flick than a serious war picture. Nevertheless, when Attack Force Z is locked in action mode, it definitely has its pleasures, and there's a certain charm to seeing this type of visceral old-fashioned filmmaking with blood squibs and blank-firing weapons, and no computer-generated imagery to be seen. Considering that Burstall was a last-minute replacement after the firing of original director Phillip Noyce, and had not previously helmed an action-based movie, he acquits himself admirably. The climax is especially fun, pitting the Japanese soldiers against both the Z Men and the Chinese resistance fighters. It's all handsomely shot by veteran cinematographer Hung-Chung Lin on location in Taiwan, and there's sufficient punch to the editing by David Stiven (Mad Max 2) during the shootouts, though the accompanying score by Eric Jupp is overzealous and chintzy.

Ultimately, outside of its established cult audience from the VHS era, Attack Force Z will only be remembered for the presence of Gibson and Neill. Gibson was still starting out as an actor at this point in his career, and he looks extraordinarily youthful here. His performance is nothing to write home about, but nor is he dreadful. Neill is also acceptable without being outstanding, and it's commendable that not all of the central characters make it out alive, which reinforces the harshness of war. On that note, there is a palpable anti-war message to the material, but it's not as effective as it might have been in defter hands - perhaps Noyce had a stronger vision for the project. Although Attack Force Z comes to life in fits and starts, particularly during the impactful action sequences, it's too hit-and-miss, even given its brisk 93-minute runtime. The same producers went on to make another film about the Z Special Unit in 1983 entitled The Highest Honor, which has since fallen into obscurity.


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A stripped-down supernatural ghost story

Posted : 1 year ago on 1 December 2017 03:29 (A review of Unfriended)

A unique micro-budget horror movie from executive producer Jason Blum, 2015's Unfriended essentially plays out like a big-screen Creepypasta, and it's an intriguing extension of the well-worn "found-footage" subgenre. Rather than "lost" film reels or digital video discovered on SD cards, almost every frame of Unfriended occurs on the screen of the main character's MacBook Pro, across a number of apps and websites. The narrative unfolds in real time from this unique point of view, which may sound like a boring concept, but it's more effective than it had any right to be. Unsettling and chilling, and made all the more unnerving by its uncanny sense of vérité realism, Unfriended is a stripped-down supernatural ghost story that's imaginatively guided by director Levan Gabriadze.

It has been one year since high school student Laura Barns (Heather Sossaman) committed suicide as a result of online bullying in the wake of an embarrassing video being posted online. Blaire Lily (Shelley Hennig) settles in to flirt with her boyfriend Mitch (Moses Jacob Storm) over Skype, but the conversation is soon interrupted by the appearance of classmates Ken (Jacob Wysocki), Jess (Renee Olstead) and Adam (Will Peltz), while Val (Courtney Halverson) is also invited to the group chat. However, a mysterious Skype user is also present, and Blaire begins to receive unnerving messages from Laura's Facebook account. Although everybody assumes that it's all just an elaborate prank, they come to realise that their online chat is being manipulated by an all-knowing phantom entity claiming to be Laura herself, who thrusts them into deadly games of truth-telling that threatens to tear the group apart. If anybody hangs up or tells a lie, they die.

With a screenplay credited to first-timer Nelson Greaves, Unfriended presents a potent snapshot of contemporary life, portraying the pressures of social media and how sites like Facebook and YouTube can be used to destroy lives. Teens who hide behind the anonymity of a computer screen can be exceedingly callous, unable to consider the gravity or consequences of their online actions, and cyber bullying has led to several well-documented suicides in real life. Thus, Unfriended functions as both a cautionary document as well as intense horror movie, and its messages are undeniably timely, giving it a bit of gravitas beyond the chills. Messages sent between the characters serve to provide exposition and enhance the story, while Blaire carries out online investigation as well. Mitch provides links that underscore the importance of ignoring messages from deceased persons, but the warning comes too late.

Every frame of Unfriended feels authentic, with the movie being performed in prolonged single takes by the ensemble, while a genuine computer screen is shown from start to finish. (Multiple different takes, and therefore different versions of the movie, were shot, and therefore a fair bit of footage from the trailers is not in the finished movie.) It may seem like a minor victory for a movie to convincingly portray a computer, but Hollywood motion pictures seldom get it right, often showing ludicrous, fantastical computer interfaces which don't ring true. Unfriended, on the other hand, has its foot firmly planted in the real world, with poor internet speeds and typing errors, amplifying the sense of horror. There is even a hint of black humour, with Laura at one stage causing Blaire's laptop to become overloaded with pop-ups advertising "live cams." The actors are all newcomers, with no famous faces to distract from the story, again giving the movie more realism. But despite a cast of newcomers, performances are uniformly believable, conveying fear and hysteria with ease. 

On balance, however, Unfriended is not perfect. Particularly egregious is the character of Ken, who's a lazy stereotype; he's overweight, sexless, a pothead, and a total whiz with computers. Furthermore, perhaps the electronic menace could be at least slowed down by switching off the power, if not entirely thwarted? Not every piece of the puzzle works, but Unfriended benefits from a snappy pace (it runs a brisk 80 minutes), delivering ample scares along the way. It's riveting more often than not, and it's never boring. The movie will undoubtedly be polarising depending on your expectations and your tolerance for the found footage subgenre (it refuses to answer any questions, leaving plenty of mystery), but it nevertheless worked for this reviewer.


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A slick, goofy heist flick

Posted : 1 year ago on 28 November 2017 11:40 (A review of Logan Lucky)

After the 2013 theatrical release of Side Effects and the HBO telemovie Behind the Candelabra, director Steven Soderbergh announced his retirement from motion pictures, but that inevitably was not to last. Returning after what amounted to a self-imposed four-year hiatus (during which he directed all twenty episodes of the TV show The Knick), Soderbergh tackles a heist movie in the same vein as his 2001 Ocean's Eleven remake, switching out the opulence of Las Vegas for the backroads of rural America. Logan Lucky is both uproarious and heartfelt; the filmmaker clearly has a ball suffusing the material with his trademark directorial idiosyncrasies, and the end result is highly entertaining. Even though Logan Lucky does initially seem rather slight considering that this is Soderbergh's big return to cinema, there are in fact deeper layers to unearth, with sly satire underneath the movie's goofy exterior.

A down-on-his-luck labourer, Jimmy Logan (Channing Tatum) is abruptly laid off from his job filling sinkholes beneath the Charlotte Motor Speedway. Jimmy and his amputee brother Clyde (Adam Driver) have never had much luck, which they attribute to a longstanding family curse. With a daughter to support and his feisty ex-wife (Katie Holmes) planning to move away with her new partner, Jimmy hastily seeks a big score, and hatches a scheme to pull off a heist at the Speedway during a popular NASCAR event using the pneumatic tube cash delivery system. For the heist, Jimmy recruits his sibling, along with explosives expert Joe Bang (Daniel Craig), who is in the final few months of a prison sentence and insists upon bringing in his two dim-witted brothers, Fish (Jack Quaid) and Sam (Brian Gleeson). With the crew assembled - including Jimmy and Clyde's sister Mellie (Riley Keough) - they set about gaining access to the Speedway's bowels during the major Coca-Cola 600 racing event.

Logan Lucky finds Soderbergh in familiar territory, and the screenplay feels so well-suited to his filmmaking sensibilities that it's no surprise he came out of "retirement" to direct it himself. (Reportedly, he was initially given the script only to recommend a suitable director, but enjoyed the material too much.) In addition to the obvious Ocean's Eleven parallels (a newscaster even refers to the heist as "Ocean's 7-Eleven"), the more working class aspect of the story brings back memories of 2012's Magic Mike. Logan Lucky benefits from smart scripting, shaping a wholly credible heist that's peppered with clever details, and there's more going on than what meets the eye. Soderbergh's recognisable brand of storytelling is on full display - it's deliberately-paced and laid-back, with a bone-dry sense of humour and split-second comedic timing. And as with most the director's notable output, there are deeper themes at play. Logan Lucky does succeed as a slick, light-hearted caper, but Soderbergh appears to be presenting a somewhat uncomfortable evaluation of the age-old American Dream.

With the story unfolding in the wilds of West Virginia, there are amusingly exaggerated accents all around and the inanity of some of the characters is playfully exploited for laughs. Indeed, this is actually one of Soderbergh's most accessible and flat-out entertaining motion pictures to date, whilst retaining plenty of artistic value along the way. The soundtrack is permeated with enjoyable songs (John Denver's 1971 hit "Take Me Home, Country Roads" plays a major part in the story), and the comedic set-pieces hit hard. A certain scene involving Joe's improvised explosive device at the Speedway manages to be nail-biting and funny in equal measure, but even more uproarious is an ongoing prison standoff between the warden (Dwight Yoakam) and the convicts, who are trying to obfuscate the absence of Joe and Clyde. As Warden Burns stubbornly refuses to tell the outside world about his situation, the inmates only request to be given access to George R.R. Martin's final "Game of Thrones" novels, refusing to believe that they are not finished yet and the TV show has progressed beyond the source. Logan Lucky is a good-looking motion picture to boot, elegantly shot by Soderbergh who serves as his own cinematographer (under the pseudonym Peter Andrews), and the technical presentation is top-flight. The only real shortcoming is that the movie fails to make any significant emotional impact, even though it tries with a subplot involving Jimmy and his daughter. Nevertheless, there is undeniable heart, and Soderbergh's style never exactly lends itself to emotion anyway.

Ultimately, it's the game ensemble cast of recognisable performers which bolsters the material above the ordinary - everybody is fully committed to the absurdity. Tatum and Driver mostly play it straight, though they have their quirks and amusing moments, but it's Craig who steals the spotlight in his first notable non-James Bond big-screen performance since 2011's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Sporting bleached blonde hair and many tattoos, Craig is wacky as all hell. It's not even a flattering role for the current 007, making it all the more commendable that he chose to do it, and in the process remind us all about his considerable acting talents. Elsewhere, Yoakam is a total hoot as Warden Burns, while Family Guy mastermind Seth MacFarlane effortlessly scores several laughs playing a conceited NASCAR sponsor. Even Katherine Waterston makes an appearance as one of Jimmy's former high school classmates, and Marvel fans will also spot Sebastian Stan (Captain America: Civil War) in the minor role of a successful NASCAR driver.

The summer movie season has become synonymous with expensive action blockbusters, many of which are now sequels or reboots, but Logan Lucky is an original breath of fresh air constructed with intelligence and sophistication, so of course it failed to do much business at the box office. Admittedly, the story does superfluously extend beyond the heist for a lengthy epilogue that doesn't feel altogether necessary and should be tighter, but the movie comes together well enough as a whole nevertheless. Putting aside any shortcomings, it's indeed a joy to behold the undiluted vision of a true auteur here, making this a must-see for anybody who appreciates Soderbergh's cinematic oeuvre. In short, Logan Lucky is an unexpected delight, even if it's not for all tastes.


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A bitter disappointment

Posted : 1 year ago on 22 November 2017 06:03 (A review of Batman and Harley Quinn)

Designed to feel like a natural extension of the iconic Batman: The Animated Series, and part of the DC Animated Universe at large, 2017's Batman and Harley Quinn should be something of a can't-miss prospect, but instead it's another total letdown that deserves to fade into obscurity. It's evident that Batman and Harley Quinn was devised to ride on the coattails of the success of Suicide Squad, which served to give the character of Harley Quinn newfound popularity. Alas, the result is too campy and tonally inconsistent, lacking in proper mystery and suspense. It may have its charms, particularly in the visual style, but Batman and Harley Quinn comes up short in terms of action and contains too many ill-advised scenes worthy of scorn.

When Poison Ivy (Paget Brewster) and Jason Woodrue/The Floronic Man (Kevin Michael Richardson) rob S.T.AR. Labs, they steal information about Swamp Thing's creation and take a scientist hostage to replicate the formula. Investigating the crime scene, Batman/Bruce Wayne (Kevin Conroy) and Nightwing/Dick Grayson (Loren Lester) fear that the pair plan to devise a biological weapon to transform all life on Earth into plant hybrids. With the fate of humankind at stake, the Dynamic Duo reluctantly seek out Ivy's former partner in crime, Harley Quinn (Melissa Raunch), for assistance. Although Harley has made an effort to go straight and leave behind her former life, she agrees to help find Ivy and Woodrue before the duo can execute their devastating plan.

The teleplay is credited to animation veterans James Krieg and Bruce Timm, the latter of whom was one of the key masterminds behind Batman: The Animated Series and should be capable of a lot better. It's somewhat surprising and frankly disappointing that Harley Quinn creator Paul Dini was not involved in the production in any capacity, especially given his considerable ties to The Animated Series and his iconic Harley-centric stories. At least the Caped Crusader is given the chance to use his superlative detective skills here, but make no mistake: this is the Harley Quinn show. The plot exists to support Harley's full-blown zaniness as Batman and Nightwing serve as the straight men to her antics. There's an extended fart joke in the Batmobile that's atrociously undignified for everybody involved and feels utterly juvenile. This type of humour has admittedly been seen in some of the comics, but Harley is more effective when dealt with maturely (see "Mad Love"). Even worse, there's an awkward sequence in which Harley seduces Nightwing which only brings back uncomfortable memories of that sex scene in 2016's Batman: The Killing Joke. Meanwhile, there is not one but two out-of-place musical interludes, during which Batman is even seen tapping his fingers. Admittedly, the songs themselves are catchy enough, but all of this material is painfully self-indulgent, slowing down the pace of the story and taking away any sense of urgency.

Visually, Batman and Harley Quinn harkens back to the style of Batman: The Animated Series and The New Batman Adventures, bringing back the old-fashioned character designs, though of course it all looks more noticeably digital as opposed to hand-drawn. The animation is impressively stylish and fluid, and it is genuinely exciting to see the likes of Batman, Nightwing and Harley presented in the bygone style of The Animated Series for the first time in a number of years. The original score (credited to three composers with longstanding ties to DC animation) is admittedly effective as well, with a light-hearted central theme that suits the material.

Ultimately, one of the biggest issues of Batman and Harley Quinn is that of tone. Director Sam Liu has overseen a number of darker DC animated movies, including Batman: Year One and Batman: The Killing Joke, but the script aims for screwball comedy, even evoking the 1960s iteration of Batman. It feels like Liu was not on the same page as the screenwriters, and therefore a number of infantile scenes are mixed with dark, violent set-pieces, such as the admittedly thrilling climax. When Batman and Harley Quinn is locked in action mode, it does work more often than not, showing what the movie had the potential to be. The ending, though, is a total letdown - the movie ends abruptly, and the final shot is intended to be cute, but just comes across as out-of-place and corny beyond all belief. Did the writers just lost sight of who these characters are?

The primary attraction of Batman and Harley Quinn is, naturally, the presence of Conroy and Lester, who slip back into their respective roles once again with absolute ease. Even though they can only do so much with the sloppy material, they undeniably commit to the characters. On the other hand, Raunch - who's best known for her role of Bernadette in the long-running sitcom The Big Bang Theory - is a foolish choice for Harley. Trying her hardest to replicate the distinctive voice of Arleen Sorkin from Batman: The Animated Series, Raunch's performance is distracting - she's screechy and uncharismatic (you can hear too much Bernadette in her voice, as well), which is a real letdown in a movie which brings back Conroy and Lester.

Batman and Harley Quinn is actually the thirtieth motion picture produced as part of the long-running DC Universe Animated Original Movie franchise which kicked off in 2007. (It's worth pointing out that the two Adam West-starring animated features are not considered part of this series.) It's perhaps wise that the movie is more standalone, emerging as separate from the main continuity of the franchise, making it feel more like a one-shot comic. Nevertheless, there's just no getting around the movie's shortcomings, making it a bitter disappointment considering the talent and potential, enjoyable though it may occasionally be. For those that choose to stick around, there's an extended scene at the end of the credits involving Harley that's somewhat amusing.


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A studious waste of talent and potential

Posted : 1 year ago on 19 November 2017 03:05 (A review of The House (2017))

On the surface, 2017's The House ostensibly had all the right ingredients to become an instant dark comedy classic. But despite the presence of Will Ferrell and Amy Poehler, plus a colourful supporting cast of recognisable names and a promising comedic plot, The House falls flat for the most part - it comes up dangerously short in terms of laughs, and feels much longer than its comparatively scant 88-minute running time. Making his directorial debut, Andrew Jay Cohen (who also co-wrote the script) is unable to achieve an agreeable rhythm as the movie meanders from one undisciplined scene to the next, never quite coming together in the end. Even the ordinarily reliable actors are powerless here, struggling to come up with any witty, well-timed jokes. It's certainly telling that even though these types of comedies are usually critic-proof, The House tanked at the box office without a trace, grossing a pathetic $34 million worldwide against its modest $40 million budget.

With Alex (Ryan Simpkins) graduating high school and looking to attend a prestigious college, her parents Scott (Ferrell) and Kate (Poehler) count on the local council's scholarship to pay for her tuition. However, even though Alex is chosen as the recipient for the scholarship, crooked city councillor Bob Schaeffer (Nick Kroll) axes the program to use the funds elsewhere. With no way to pay for Alex's tuition by themselves, Scott and Kate turn to their depressed pal Frank (Jason Mantzoukas), who has a crippling gambling problem. After suffering bad luck in Las Vegas, the trio choose to open their own illegal underground casino in Frank's house to raise the required funds to put Alex through college. But of course, it doesn't go as smoothly as expected - Scott and Kate bear witness to some insane behaviour, and strange goings-on around town pique the curiosity of local police officer Chandler (Rob Huebel).

Despite a screenplay credited to Brendan O'Brien and Cohen (who scripted Bad Neighbours), it's apparent that the actors were relied upon to deliver all of the laughs through improvisation, as not much wit is on display here. Unfortunately, The House also falls victim to a common fault in contemporary comedy: it's over-plotted. The prospect of starting an illegal underground casino should have been sufficient to see the movie through, but the narrative is further complicated by a corrupt councilman embezzling funds and having an affair with the town treasurer (Allison Tolman), while Officer Chandler is unsure where his loyalties should lie. And honestly, the whole thing puts a damper on the sense of fun. Another conflict is introduced involving gangsters (led by Jeremy Renner) that has comedic potential, but it's dealt with in a few short scenes, after which the focus returns to Bob's corruption. Meanwhile, the movie skips over the actual construction of the casino and doesn't explore how the casino manages to attract such a large clientele so quickly. There is even a half-hearted attempt at emotion at the very end that just comes across as forced and unearned.

It may be understandable that Cohen relied so heavily on the talented actors to create all of the laughs, given that Ferrell and Poehler are joined by the likes of Kroll, Mantzoukas and Renner among a number of others, but it's too transparently improvisational and the material is way too hit-and-miss. Indeed, you can actually see the actors trying their hardest to come up with something funny at every turn, which takes you out of the movie and spoils the comedic timing. You can certainly sense Cohen's directorial inexperience throughout The House. It doesn't help that the movie's cinematographic style is so excessively basic and vanilla, in need of more style and personality. Put simply, it doesn't look overly cinematic, though the original score by Andrew Feltenstein and John Nau (Anchorman 2) is admittedly agreeable and effective. Young Simpkins is about the only performer on-screen who isn't actually in on the joke, serving as the straight man to the insanity unfolding around her. Gags may land here and there (though that's subjective, of course), but nothing is overly memorable and there are no meaty belly-laughs. You'll be hard-pressed to recall any funny moments - or anything about the movie at all - mere minutes after viewing it.

The House was actually shot in late 2015/early 2016 before going through almost 18 months of post-production, which is frankly mindboggling for a simple comedy like this. Evidently, the filmmakers had a tough time finding the movie in the edit, and the final result speaks for itself. Even the bloopers during the end credits fail to provide much in the way of laughs. Still, for all of its shortcomings and flaws, at least The House isn't obnoxiously terrible or offensive. To be sure, it's not funny enough and pacing should be tauter, but it still has its entertaining moments and highlights, intermittent though they may be, and at least it's not a pointlessly neutered PG-13 comedy. The actors all appear to be giving it their all, but it's hard to shake the feeling that The House should be a hell of a lot better considering the talent involved.


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