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Better than its reputation implies

Posted : 3 years, 11 months ago on 28 March 2020 03:20 (A review of The Haunting)

The much-maligned remake of the classic 1963 film of the same name, 1999's The Haunting is a better flick than its reputation implies, thanks largely to a charismatic cast and exceptional set design. Scripted by David Self (Road to Perdition), the feature is based on Shirley Jackson's 1959 novel The Haunting of Hill House (which recently inspired a terrific Netflix series), and is actually more of a re-adaptation than a remake, since the production company could not obtain the remake rights for the 1963 film. Produced on an eye-watering $80 million budget, and with blockbuster extraordinaire Jan de Bont (Twister, Speed) at the helm, The Haunting is a visually striking horror movie, but it does not leave a lasting impression or get under your skin, which is a shame considering the talent and potential.

Dr. Jeffrey Marrow (Liam Neeson) intends to conduct an academic study on the nature of fear, and selects three participants under the pretence that the research relates to insomnia. Eleanor (Lili Taylor) is an insomniac who recently lost her mother and risks homelessness, and is one of the candidates chosen by Dr. Marrow for the experiment. Joining Eleanor is the adventurous Theodora (Catherine Zeta-Jones) and the sarcastic young Luke (Owen Wilson), both of whom suffer from sleep disorders. Dr. Marrow, along with research assistants Mary (Alix Koromzay) and Todd (Todd Field), takes his subjects to the enormous gothic mansion known as Hill House, which was built in the 19th century on an isolated site in New England. Dr. Marrow intends to frighten the group by telling them about the house's disturbing history, but soon finds out that the mansion is really haunted by Hugh Crain (Charles Gunning) as well as the souls of several murdered children.

1963's The Haunting is celebrated for being a psychological horror film, as it never reveals any spirits or entities on-screen; it's a sublime demonstration of "less is more." However, this iteration of The Haunting mostly disregards psychological horror, instead relying on expensive special effects to create big set-pieces and show the entities inhabiting Hill House. Although this new approach is often perceived as a negative, merely duplicating the 1963 picture's style would likely feel too derivative. Furthermore, several of the scary moments receive innocuous explanations, which leaves you to wonder if your eyes are playing tricks on you. The Haunting fares best throughout its first two acts, which are more restrained and contain numerous chilling moments, but it begins to lose its way as the proceedings build to an overblown climax. The digital effects by ILM are competent and serviceable, but do not always convincingly blend with the live-action material.
The real star of The Haunting is the extravagant production design by Eugenio Zanetti, which is a sight to behold, turning Hill House into a character of its own. The mansion's architecture is breathtaking, from the gothic statues to the windows, paintings and furniture - there is always something visually striking on-screen, and cinematographer Karl Walter Lindenlaub (Universal Soldier, Independence Day) takes full advantage of the lavish sets. The sweeping exterior shots of a real mansion in England also serve to augment the sense of scope. Furthermore, the score by the late great Jerry Goldsmith is predictably magnificent, giving The Haunting some much-needed atmosphere and flavour. Meanwhile, in terms of the casting, Lili Taylor's character receives the most development, as the movie allows us to become acquainted with her before she sets foot in Hill House. (Luke and Theodora are not glimpsed until they arrive at the mansion.) Taylor is a talented performer, and she brings convincing depth to the role, always appearing committed to the material. Additionally, the always-reliable Neeson makes for a fine Dr. Marrow, while Zeta-Jones and Wilson are eminently watchable, even though neither of them step outside of their comfort zones.

In the grand pantheon of contemporary horror films, The Haunting is not among the worst, and it deserves a second chance. Although not exactly terrifying, it is entertaining and atmospheric, and it's low on mindless jump scares that have come to characterise the modern horror genre. It's a bit long in the tooth at just under two hours, and the climax is underwhelming, but some moments throughout the feature are creepy and thrilling, while the production design remains a visual marvel. In short, while not the classic it had the potential to be, the movie gets just enough right to ensure it's worth watching. Spurred on by the negative critical reception, The Haunting was nominated for five Razzie Awards, including Worst Picture, but it does not deserve such disdain.


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A welcome and worthwhile epilogue

Posted : 4 years ago on 19 February 2020 03:04 (A review of Toy Story 4)

Back in 2010, Pixar Studios defied the odds to deliver the excellent Toy Story 3, a long-delayed sequel which closed the Toy Story series on a fitting, cathartic, pitch-perfect note. Arriving nine years later, 2019's Toy Story 4 sees Pixar defying the odds once again, producing a third sequel that confidently avoids tarnishing Toy Story's esteemed legacy. With newcomer Josh Cooley at the helm, this fourth Toy Story feature does not attempt to retcon the earlier films, or extend the brand awkwardly or unnaturally - instead, it assuredly justifies its existence by exploring fertile narrative and thematic ground. Recapturing the spirit of its predecessors, Toy Story 4 is immense fun, delivering all the requisite comedy, adventure, joy, and whimsy that has characterised this franchise since the beginning.

This sequel picks up two years after Woody (Tom Hanks), Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) and the rest of Andy's toys were donated to young Bonnie (Madeline McGraw). However, Bonnie has started neglecting Woody; she ignores him during playtime, and puts his sheriff badge on Jessie (Joan Cusack) instead. Still determined to protect Bonnie, Woody sneaks along for her kindergarten orientation where she creates a new plaything out of a spork: the neurotic, googly-eyed Forky (Tony Hale). Bonnie loves Forky, but he instantly experiences an existential crisis, believing that he is garbage as opposed to an actual toy. Woody serves as Forky's around-the-clock guardian, an undertaking that gets more complicated when Bonnie's family goes on a road trip. Getting lost after Forky dives out of the RV, Woody and his new pal find themselves at an antique store where they encounter a talking doll, Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks). As Buzz and the other toys search for their friends, Woody is held captive by Gabby Gabby, who intends to rejuvenate herself by stealing his voice box. The adventure reunites Woody with Bo Peep (Annie Potts) and her sheep, who now live as nomad adventurers without a child owner.

Perhaps inevitably, Toy Story 4 plays out with a different tone to the preceding films. It's still Toy Story with the same brand of scenarios, but it deals with fresh themes and ideas, and subsequently feels like somewhat of a standalone movie even though it does tie off a loose plot thread from Toy Story 3. Indeed, an opening prologue details Bo Peep's initial departure from the group, with Woody forced to choose between the woman he loves and Andy's bedroom, which sets up the main thrust of this story. (The intervening years with Bo are briskly covered in the Disney+ exclusive short movie, Lamp Life.) Once the story hits the road with Bonnie's family, Toy Story 4 splits up the principal toys, with screenwriters Andrew Stanton and Stephany Folsom labouring to include everybody in some capacity. Woody's story is easily the meatiest while Buzz's subplot is less involving, as he searches for his "inner voice" in the form of his pre-recorded Space Ranger voice messages. Buzz has less to do here compared to the previous movies, while the script also sidelines the rest of the returning characters, which is a bit disappointing.

Toy Story 4 is not an all-out sobfest like Toy Story 3, but the finale does tug on the heartstrings, and those who grew up with these flicks will find the ending indescribably affecting. Toy Story 3 saw the toys coming to terms with mortality and time, but this fourth movie involves the main characters dealing with self-actualisation. This theme is primarily explored in Woody's arc, as he ponders his true purpose and struggles to remain a leader/guardian. Unwanted by Bonnie, the cowboy desperately clings to his longstanding role in the group, with his increasingly meaningless existence now solely consumed with safeguarding Bonnie's happiness. Woody takes the initiative with the arrival of Forky, frantically trying to maintain order and prevent the spork from committing suicide. Furthermore, Gabby Gabby is a more layered villain than expected; instead of an outright sinister antagonist, Gabby Gabby adds welcome poignancy to the story and contributes to Woody's character growth. However, as ever, even though there are deeper themes at play, Toy Story 4 does not skimp on the laughs - the writing is witty and razor-sharp, making this one of 2019's most effective comedies. Indeed, like many of Pixar's movies, Toy Story 4 is hugely entertaining, but there is also more to the feature than just humour and adventure. Likewise, the narrative does incorporate familiar story beats, but the sophisticated and confident execution prevents the movie from feeling perfunctory or formulaic.

The improvements in Pixar's animation techniques since 1995 are all over the screen, but Toy Story 4 also takes things a step further. In addition to the animation looking more detailed than ever, the cinematography and lighting are particularly exceptional, as the animators deliberately simulate the look of specific camera lenses from shot to shot, down to anamorphic/spherical distortion, careful focus, and even grain/noise. Furthermore, as usual, Pixar gets ample mileage from creating perilous set-pieces in everyday locations with banal things - the antique store, for instance, is the stage for a rescue mission, and the toys face great risk in the form of a cat. The franchise's long-time composer, Randy Newman, also returns for this instalment, cooking up a flavoursome soundtrack that's wholly in keeping with his melodic contributions to the original trilogy. Newman even contributes a new original song, "I Can't Let You Throw Yourself Away," which received an Oscar nomination.

Without a doubt, it's the supporting cast who steal the show in Toy Story 4. Sure, the returning cast is magnificent from top to bottom, as the performers immaculately slip back into their respective roles, but the new characters deliver the lion's share of the laughs. Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele are roll-on-the-ground hilarious as a snarky pair of stuffed carnival animals, while the always-reliable Keanu Reeves brings terrific oomph and enthusiasm as overeager Canadian daredevil Duke Caboom. Tony Hale is another comedic standout as Forky, giving the timid utensil a legitimate personality and easily earning big laughs. Out of the main cast, Hanks does most of the heavy lifting in terms of drama, and his effortless gravitas elevates the material. Plus, Toy Story 4 sees the return of Annie Potts as Bo, who ably handles a more prominent role in this story. Moreover, Bo's character evolution is intriguing, with the formally soft-spoken love interest becoming a self-assured, self-sufficient action heroine, and Potts convincingly sells the characterisation. Hanks and Potts' interplay is a constant joy, as well, infusing the picture with genuine heart. Admittedly, the movie does miss hitting darker notes in the Woody/Bo relationship, particularly in regards to their philosophical differences, but this is a negligible misstep.

At first glance, this basic plot could have been turned into another Toy Story television special or Disney+ original. However, there is weight and significance to Toy Story 4's narrative, which sparkles with the same adventurous spirit as its predecessors while finding interesting new places for the characters to go. Even though this is more or less a victory lap sequel, it's miraculous how fresh the film feels, and it does not carry the commercial/cash-in vibe of other Pixar sequels. In fact, while Toy Story 4 still primarily targets a young audience, this instalment is actually more relatable for adults, as it's a story about coping with loss and change. Toy Story 3 felt like the perfect conclusion to a perfect trilogy, but this fourth film is a worthwhile and welcome epilogue. Hilarious, visually stunning, exciting, swiftly-paced, and emotional, Toy Story 4 is further proof that, even with a few misfires under the studio's belt, it's foolish to underestimate Pixar. Be sure to stick around for additional material during the end credits.


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A lovely, joyous movie from top to bottom

Posted : 4 years ago on 16 February 2020 12:18 (A review of Sing Street)

A loving ode to adolescence, garage bands, and '80s music, Sing Street is a delightful coming-of-age musical dramedy from acclaimed Irish filmmaker John Carney, late of 2007's Once and 2013's Begin Again. Returning to Ireland for another low-budget, homegrown indie, Carney's Sing Street is a lovely movie from top to bottom; an evocative, fantasy-tinged story about growing up and following one's passion, bolstered by an exceptional soundtrack. Although comparisons to The Commitments are inevitable due to the film's period Irish setting, it's closer to School of Rock or Son of Rambow, with a touch of John Hughes. However, the resulting film is a true original, stamped with Carney's distinctive cinematic idiosyncrasies.

In 1985, economic times are tough in Dublin, with England seeing a rise in the number of Irish immigrants making the move to seek a brighter future. Teenager Conor Lawlor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) is taken out of his expensive private school due to his family's financial concerns, and moved to a Christian Brothers school, Synge Street. It's a struggle to adjust, with Conor drawing the wrath of a bully, Barry (Ian Kenny), as well as the school's tyrannical headmaster (Don Wycherley). However, Conor finds a glimmer of hope in slightly-older local beauty Raphina (Lucy Boynton), who aspires to pursue a modelling career in London. Wanting to impress his newfound crush, Conor impulsively asks her to feature in his band's music video, even though he does not actually have a band. Putting the word out, Conor and pal Darren (Ben Carolan) rapidly put together a "futurist" group, and their first original song is enough to entice Raphina to join their music video exploits. Conor falls more and more in love with Raphina, but she is dating an older man (Peter Campion) and still intends to follow her dreams by leaving Dublin.

A semi-autobiographical depiction of Carney's upbringing, Sing Street initially concentrates on the formation of the band, who are unsuccessful at producing covers but truly soar when they begin dabbling in original compositions. Visibly drawing upon Carney's real-life experiences, scenes involving band meetings and practice sessions are reliably funny and endearing, while the boys' music video shoots feel natural and authentic. Additionally, Sing Street is coloured with the culture of 1980s Ireland - it even begins with a news report about the increasing number of Irish immigrants travelling to London, with the challenging financial climate a key plot point in the film. Hell, in a reflection of Ireland's casual racism, Conor and Darren even recruit Ngig (Percy Chamburuka) simply because of his dark skin, innocently assuming that his race means he knows music. Meanwhile, the characters' big ambitions and blind zeal are almost universally relatable, giving Sing Street a similar tone to the likes of Son of Rambow. Likewise, Conor styling himself after his favourite musicians is equally relatable.

Carney's music selection is laudable, as the writer/director sources tracks from The Cure, The Clash, Depeche Mode, Duran Duran, The Jam, and Hall & Oates to solidify the movie's evocative sense of time and place. Plus, even within the restrictions of a meagre $4 million budget, the recreation of Dublin in 1985 is perpetually convincing, down to outrageous fashion choices which provide a few hearty laughs. Further elevating Sing Street are the original compositions, with Carney enlisting the help of Danny Wilson frontman Gary Clark to co-write several catchy, authentic-feeling new tracks. (Even Maroon 5's lead singer, Adam Levine, co-wrote and sang the original song "Go Now" for his contribution to the soundtrack.) Moreover, this charming creativity goes beyond the songs themselves, as the boys produce some amiable music videos inspired by the era's popular bands. Another moment involves the band singing "Drive It Like You Stole It" to a Back to the Future-inspired 1950s prom fantasy sequence in their high school auditorium. These fantastical touches pepper Sing Street, leading to a somewhat optimistic ending which is wholly in keeping with the story's fairy-tale/music video elements. Indeed, Sing Street often feels like a pop video in terms of narrative, a deliberate instance of intertextuality to further pay tribute to the era's popular music.

The romance between Conor and Raphina is not exactly groundbreaking in terms of the details, but the relationship blossoms thanks to sensational performances from newcomers Walsh-Peelo and Boynton (the latter of whom later co-starred in 2018's Bohemian Rhapsody). The two actors are charismatic and instantly likeable, while their chemistry is palpable whenever they share the screen. The performers imbue the feature with genuine heart and depth, resulting in an on-screen relationship which never feels contrived or unearned. Moreover, Raphina is more than just the object of Conor's desires, and she does not spend time with the boys out of sheer pity - instead, she instantly takes a liking to the group, and greatly contributes to the music videos. Jack Reynor is another standout as Conor's brother, Brendan. Carney happily avoids the hoary stereotype of a patronising/unsupportive brother, instead building a positive relationship between Conor and Brendan. The insanely talented Reynor delivers some of the film's sharpest dialogue, emanating both melancholy and levity, which turns Brendan into a genuinely three-dimensional character. Another surprise is Ian Kenny as the school bully, Barry. Although an unsympathetic character on the surface, the script gives Barry unexpected dimension, which effectively humanises him. It's a fantastic cast all-round, with veterans Aidan Gillen and Maria Doyle Kennedy also bringing gravitas to the material, while the younger actors hit their marks with confidence at every opportunity.

Wisely, although Carney does not shy away from the story's dramatic elements, this material is not lathered on; instead, he displays tact, and foregrounds the music and romance. Certainly, Sing Street could have further explored Ireland's hardships in the 1980s, but it's not about such drama - rather, this is a story about Conor and Raphina, and, as a result, the film never feels like a chore to get through. Going on to earn a Best Picture nomination at the 2017 Golden Globes (but losing to La La Land), there is much to love about Sing Street, which is arguably Carney's finest achievement to date. Admittedly, the romantic and coming-of-age elements are familiar, but the execution is more important for this type of production. And luckily, Carney elevates his robust screenplay with a winning cast and an excellent soundtrack, making this one of 2016's most pleasant cinematic surprises. Sing Street is legitimately funny, sweet, involving, and full of infectious tunes.


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An enjoyable '80s B-movie, but not much more

Posted : 4 years ago on 10 February 2020 01:29 (A review of The Punisher)

Before comic book properties were a hot cinematic commodity, there was 1989's The Punisher, which was one of the first-ever live-action films based on Marvel Comics (after 1986's Howard the Duck). Instead of a PG-rated, family-friendly superhero flick in the same vein as Superman or Batman, director Mark Goldblatt's The Punisher is a dark, R-rated vigilante action film, closer to Death Wish or Mad Max than a run-of-the-mill comic book movie. Although a blasphemous notion at the time of its release, the violent source material is a perfect fit for this brand of B-grade action entertainment, even if the film does lack legitimate personality to distinguish it from the dozens of other vigilante pictures produced during the 1980s. Indeed, this iteration of The Punisher lacks the iconic skull emblem on the titular antihero's shirt, and strips away more of the comic's defining characteristics - such as the Punisher's psychological traumas, the recognisable villains, and his Q-esque partner who supplies weaponry and tech. Consequently, this first cinematic depiction of the Punisher is fun to watch, but never lingers in the mind.

Former police officer Frank Castle (Dolph Lundgren) loses his wife (May Lloyd) and daughters in a mob hit orchestrated by mafia boss Dino Miretti (Bryan Marshall), which leaves the widower a broken man. With nothing left to lose, Castle - who is officially listed as deceased - becomes an armed vigilante known as The Punisher, who protects the innocent by assassinating the city's key crime bosses. With 125 murders to his name over five years, Castle is a wanted man, with his ex-partner Jake Berkowitz (Louis Gossett Jr.) heading a specialised Punisher taskforce to stop the notorious vigilante. After Miretti's murder, mobster Gianni Franco (Jeroen Krabbé) comes out of retirement to unify the Mafia families, but they attract the attention of the Japanese Yakuza, led by Lady Tanaka (Kim Miyori). A mob war looms, and although Castle is happy to sit back and let the carnage unfold, he remains wary of the collateral damage when the Yakuza kidnaps the mobsters' children with plans to sell them into the Arab slave trade.

The Punisher is an Australian production, with principal photography primarily taking place in Sydney, which doubles for the Pacific Northwest. Unfortunately, the scope is severely limited, with the majority of the film unfolding in cheap locations: sewers, offices, dojos, houses, and so on. Indeed, it is impossible to get a proper sense of the city, which reflects the restricted budget. On the other hand, pleasing action scenes are nevertheless staged within the confines of the available locations, including a violent amusement park shootout (filmed at Sydney's Luna Park) and a major action set-piece on a dock. Goldblatt does not hold back or pull any punches, as The Punisher earns its restricted adult rating through a high body count and graphic violence, which makes this an entertaining watch for old-school action fans. A veteran editor, Goldblatt made sure to capture ample coverage of each action scene, which results in exciting and competent set-pieces. A precursor to the frenetically-edited action pictures of the 21st Century, The Punisher does favour short shots and frequent cutting, but the set-pieces are coherent and easy to follow, even though the film underwent additional trimming to secure an R rating in the United States. (The unrated cut is the superior version.)

Whether the result of Boaz Yakin's script or those overseeing the editing process, The Punisher is pared down to the bare basics, with a lean 89-minute running time leaving no space for dead air. Under Goldblatt's direction, the film briskly moves from one action set-piece to the next, interspersed with perfunctory connective tissue to ensure the narrative is at least cohesive. Although Castle does reflect on his deceased family, this should be a more significant part of the story, with more in the way of psychological analysis. The workprint version of the film actually adds an extended prologue which establishes Castle's character, his family life, his professional partnership with Berkowitz, and the case that prompted Miretti to assassinate the Castle family. The prologue's removal is a genuine shame. Meanwhile, other technical aspects of The Punisher are solid if unremarkable, with a synth-heavy original score by Dennis Dreith which lacks defining themes and motifs, while production design is rudimentary and cheap.

Lundgren was an established action star at this point in his career, with leading roles in Masters of the Universe and Red Scorpion (in addition to his iconic antagonist role in Rocky IV), and he plays a convincing Frank Castle here. Castle is an antihero through-and-through, but Lundgren keeps the character sufficiently likeable, even if there are not many layers to his performance. In the supporting cast, veteran Australian actor Barry Otto provides a splash of colour as Castle's only friend, Shake; an alcoholic actor (or thespian, in his own words) who often speaks in rhymes. The always-reliable (and Oscar-winning) Gossett adds some gravitas to the material, while Jeroen Krabbé (The Living Daylights, The Fugitive) makes for a fine villain.

As an exploitative action movie, The Punisher is a perfectly serviceable way to pass 89 minutes of your time, though it's not essential viewing unless you're a fan of the '80s action genre. One cannot defend this movie as anything other than a surface-level guilty pleasure, and it's a shame that it comes up short in terms of character development, but it's a competently-constructed and fast-paced B-movie with no pretensions that never tries to transcend the genre. If a genre movie with such verve sounds appealing to you, The Punisher is worth watching. For everybody else, tread lightly.


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One of Pixar's highest achievements

Posted : 4 years ago on 2 February 2020 01:53 (A review of Coco)

Pixar's most colourful and culturally defined motion picture to date, Coco finds the studio back at the top of their game for the umpteenth time. Co-directed by Lee Unkrich (Toy Story 3) and Adrian Molina, Coco yet again demonstrates Pixar's knack for producing entertaining animated features that appeal to children but also possess sufficient emotional heft and sophistication to satisfy older viewers. This is a resonant story about family and legacy, set against the backdrop of the Día de los Muertos (or Day of the Dead): a long-standing Mexican festival rich in culture and mythos, making it an ideal candidate for the Pixar treatment. Coco is beautiful and almost unbearably poignant, reinforcing Pixar's transcendent abilities and sense of imagination when they step away from commercially-driven sequels. This is the studio's most idiosyncratic movie since Inside Out in 2015, and, for what it's worth, it is their best since 2010's Toy Story 3.

Young Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez) dreams of following his passion and becoming a musician, but faces staunch opposition from his shoe-making family. Music is strictly banned in Miguel's family because his great-great-grandmother, Mama Imelda (Alanna Ubach), was abandoned by her guitar-playing husband, who left to pursue a musical career and never returned. Believing that his absentee great-great-grandfather is the celebrated, long-dead musician Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt), Miguel attempts to borrow his idol's guitar to perform in the Día de los Muertos Talent Show. However, strumming de la Cruz's guitar suddenly transports him to the Land of the Dead; an afterlife realm populated by skeletons, including Miguel's deceased relatives. If Miguel doesn't return to the Land of the Living before sunrise, he will permanently join the dead. Mama Imelda offers to give Miguel a blessing to return him to the Land of the Living, but only on the condition that he never plays music again. Unable to agree to such terms, Miguel seeks to obtain a blessing from Ernesto de la Cruz, pairing up with troublemaker Hector (Gael García Bernal) to traverse the Land of the Dead and find the famous singer before sunrise.

An animated movie about the Día de los Muertos Festival is not entirely novel, as Guillermo del Toro's The Book of Life did it first in 2014, but Coco is a different film altogether. Whereas The Book of Life explores supernatural mythology and stories, Coco is more of an intimate familial drama, using the afterlife as a plot device to tell an emotional story about growth and memories. Admittedly, the narrative is predicated on a proverbial premise that could be resolved if the characters took a moment to sit down and talk, and the climax is not exactly unsurprising, but the satisfying payoff compensates for any degree of screenplay familiarity. Pixar has made us cry since 1995, and this is one of their most emotional endeavours to date, arguably the most emotional. It is not hyperbolic to state that Coco will make you cry as it nears its touching conclusion, which is reflective of Pixar's careful filmmaking process. Indeed, not only is it easy to get invested in these characters and their plight, but the ending is highly evocative, as well. Those with relatives who have dementia, or those who have experienced the loss of a family member, will bawl their eyes out. Stock up on tissues.

Written by relative newcomers Matthew Aldrich and co-director Adrian Molina, one of Coco's biggest assets is the immaculate depiction of Mexico, which gives the production a refreshing sense of identity to overcome any screenwriting clichés. This is not another case of Hollywood appropriation, as the Pixar team conducted extensive research (by actually visiting Mexico) during the long development phase, and the finished product exemplifies this careful attention to detail. The vibrant Mexican culture rings true in every frame, from the family structures and traditions, to smaller details that will go unnoticed by many. The movie even reinforces that sandals are a deadly weapon in the hands of an angry Mexican grandmother. Furthermore, this material is not just window dressing: Coco amounts to a fascinating walking tour of Mexican art, music, movies, sports and popular culture, and it all feels organic to the narrative. Also organic is the movie's sharp sense of humour, with Unkrich and Molina never opting for cheap laughs. Additionally, the directors maintain impeccable pacing throughout, briskly working through the narrative without sacrificing dramatic or emotional development. Another key strength is the music, from the magnificent original songs (one of which earned an Academy Award) to the flavoursome original score by Pixar regular Michael Giacchino (Up, Inside Out).

Coco is mesmerising from a visual perspective - the Mexican locales look authentic, while the Land of the Dead showcases creative, effervescent environments at every turn. In addition, the Land of the Dead's skeletal inhabitants are distinctive enough for viewers to tell them apart, thanks to the expressive personalities and colourful designs which generate a sense of individuality for each character. A few recognisable actors lend their vocal talents to the movie (such as Bernal and Bratt), but none of the performers were cast purely for commercial purposes. It's not that selecting big stars is an inherently bad thing, but Pixar's casting here reflects the importance of choosing the right actors in such a culturally important production. And my word, the cast is excellent across the board, with Gonzalez showing a level of maturity and dramatic range that is scarcely glimpsed in child actors. But it's Bernal who steals the show, delivering a measured performance which enhances the movie's impact. His sense of underlying charisma, as well as his heart-wrenching vulnerability, turns Hector into a genuinely three-dimensional character. It's superb work from the award-winning actor.

Coco is one of the only Western animated movies in recent memory which does not feel like it was designed for maximum merchandising opportunities. Merchandise exists, sure, but Pixar did not concentrate on creating eccentric, Minion-like caricatures purely for toy sales - instead, story and character were their primary concern. It is also refreshing that this is an original film as opposed to a remake or sequel, which is all the more encouraging given that Coco followed a few months after the release of Pixar's Cars 3. The production's maturity and substance seems almost effortless, showing precisely what is missing from the likes of Turbo, Home, Trolls, The Angry Birds Movie, The Secret Life of Pets, the fucking Emoji Movie, and the Despicable Me sequels (not to mention Minions). Flawlessly mixing heart and laughs to supplement the sumptuous visuals, Coco is an instant classic and one of Pixar's highest achievements, ticking every box with utmost confidence.


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Inoffensive and easy to watch, but not great

Posted : 4 years, 1 month ago on 30 January 2020 01:55 (A review of Coneheads)

The third Saturday Night Live feature film, Coneheads emerged after the surprise success of Wayne's World in 1992, as Lorne Michaels promptly sought to adapt more SNL skits into big-screen motion pictures. The Coneheads originated as a recurring sketch on SNL dating back to the late 1970s, followed by a Rankin/Bass animated TV special in 1983, the plot of which is noticeably reflected in this feature film. Alas, SNL's big-screen winning streak (which began with their first feature, The Blues Brothers, back in 1980) was not destined to last, as Coneheads failed both commercially and critically. In 2020, it endures as something of a cult oddity that is primarily remembered by a small group of devout fans; indeed, the film is not mentioned or even recalled in serious cinephile circles. Coneheads packs a few laughs and creative ideas, but it does wear out its welcome despite a mere 87-minute runtime.

Sent to conquer Earth, aliens Beldar (Dan Aykroyd) and Prymaat (Jane Curtin) are shot down over United States airspace by the National Guard. Their spaceship crash lands near New York City, prompting Beldar and Prymaat to adapt to human civilisation as they gradually assemble a communication device to call their homeworld of Remulak requesting a rescue vessel. Beldar gains employment repairing electronics, but the coneheaded aliens soon attract the attention of ambitious INS agent Gorman Seedling (Michael McKean). Managing to escape the INS, and with a rescue vessel unable to reach them for several years, Beldar and Prymaat buy their own house in New Jersey, where they raise a daughter, Connie (Michelle Burke), and adopt the surname Conehead. But Gordon continues his investigation with the help of his assistant, Eli (David Spade), which threatens the Conehead family's newfound suburban bliss.

The movie's only genuinely inspired sequence is a montage of "home movies" as Beldar and Prymaat move into their NJ home and raise Connie, signifying a considerable time jump as the family embrace the American dream and ingratiate themselves into human culture. Other laughs are also earned through dialogue, as Aykroyd and Curtin deliver complex spiels with a rapid-fire cadence, including an amusingly indifferent, matter-of-fact description of breakfast foods. Descriptions of televisions and other objects are also amusing, while Prymaat announces her pregnancy by stating "I am with cone." Outside of such moments, however, it seems like everyone is trying too hard to generate comedy, making Coneheads feel like an amateur movie made by a group of friends. The sheer size of the ensemble cast, which encompasses countless SNL regulars, reinforces this impression. The number of cameos is sincerely impressive, mind you, with the likes of Adam Sandler, Sinbad, Drew Carey, Michael Richards, Phil Hartman, Ellen DeGeneres, Tom Arnold and Jon Lovitz all fleetingly showing up for a couple of minutes each. Even the late Chris Farley has a beefy role as Connie's romantic interest.

With a generous estimated budget of $33 million, there is adequate competency to the technical presentation which ensures Coneheads is consistently watchable, even if it's rarely side-splitting. Director Steve Barron (a music video veteran) is no stranger to special effects, as he previously helmed the original (and still best) Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie in 1990. Coneheads shows real ambition in its third act, with a trip to Remulak exhibiting impressive scope in its special effects, including a monster that would not look out-of-place in a Star Wars movie. The invading Remulak fleet, too, is sufficiently convincing considering the film's age and modesty (Coneheads was never intended to be groundbreaking science fiction). The score by veteran composer David Newman (Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure, Galaxy Quest) also helps to sell the illusion, making it even more of a shame that the material is often pedestrian. Furthermore, perhaps unwisely, Coneheads is a PG-rated comedy; therefore, the humour lacks bite. This sort of family-friendly fare is fine, but the four credited screenwriters (Aykroyd, Tom Davis, Bonnie Turner, and Terry Turner) come up short in terms of wit. Again, there are laughs, but the film is a bit middle-of-the-road as a whole.

One cannot fault Aykroyd or Curtin for their commitment to the material, as they completely inhabit their respective characters, but the shtick is not for all tastes, and it grows grating from time to time. This comes back to the issues inherent in expanding bite-sized sketches into a full feature film. On the other hand, Coneheads has a secret weapon in Michael McKean, a veteran character actor who takes the material seriously despite the increasing ridiculousness of the proceedings. Alongside him, Spade plays a great straight man to the absurd goings-on around him. Coneheads is not a total bust, and it certainly makes for inoffensive entertainment (even by today's overzealous standards of political correctness), but it's a shame that it's not better.


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A cathartic powerhouse of a movie

Posted : 4 years, 1 month ago on 22 January 2020 10:47 (A review of Avengers: Endgame)

Since the beginning of the ever-expanding Marvel Cinematic Universe in 2008, it has all been leading to this. 2019's Avengers: Endgame is the second half of the epic concluding chapter of the comic book franchise so far, following on from 2018's Avengers: Infinity War which ended with a traumatic cliffhanger. Directors Joe and Anthony Russo return to the fray, working from a screenplay by long-time MCU veterans Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (who first scripted 2011's Captain America: The First Avenger). Particularly for longstanding MCU fans who have been on-board since Iron Man back in 2008, Avengers: Endgame is an honest-to-goodness cinematic gift; an enormously satisfying three-hour love letter that will make you laugh, cry, and stamp your feet in giddy exhilaration. Although armed with a behemoth 182-minute running time, Endgame never feels meandering or overlong, as it carries an incredible brevity thanks to impeccable writing, direction, and editing.

At the end of Avengers: Infinity War, the Mad Titan Thanos (Josh Brolin) succeeded in his pursuit to collect all six Infinity Stones and eliminate half of all life in the universe with one snap of his fingers. Reeling from their defeat, but unable to accept it, the surviving Avengers promptly mount a mission to reverse The Snap, only to find that Thanos' work can no longer be undone. Five years elapse, and the world is not the same, with the Earth's population struggling to move on. Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) and Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) still reside at Avengers HQ, liaising with the likes of Rocket (Bradley Cooper) and Captain Marvel (Brie Larson) as they hold out hope that their lost friends can be brought back from the dead. When Scott Lang/Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) returns from the quantum realm, he comes to the belief that time travel is theoretically possible, turning to the Avengers for assistance to mount a "time heist" and make things right. They bring the idea to Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), who is no longer Iron Man, and instead lives in familial bliss with Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) and his daughter Morgan (Lexi Rabe). Joining the team is Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Nebula (Karen Gillan), James Rhodes (Don Cheadle), and Rocket, while Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) also returns to the fight.

For a franchise not often taken seriously by snooty cinephiles, the dramatic heft of Endgame is tremendous, further verifying that Marvel movies are not strictly for children. Whereas Infinity War fundamentally amounted to a series of hard-hitting action sequences, Endgame pumps the breaks to reveal the profound drama and trauma resulting from The Snap. Rather than solely concentrating on action set-pieces, the screenplay explores the emotion and psychology of the central heroes, who are haunted by their failure and believe that they let the universe down. The ensemble cast handles some of the meatiest dramatic material in this franchise to date, with note-perfect performances across the board selling the heroes' fallibility and vulnerability, which makes the characters feel real, relatable, and lived-in. Endgame even commences with a heartbreaking, chilling opening scene which sets the tone and gives Renner the opportunity to flex his dramatic chops. But despite the story's sobering nature, it's not all doom and gloom, as unforced humour livens the proceedings from time to time, providing levity and humanity. The Russos proficiently navigate the tricky tonal changes, and never let a moment of bad acting slip through the cracks. One of the real acting standouts is Gillan as Nebula, who winds up with a surprisingly significant role in the proceedings, and carries several difficult scenes. Downey also deserves a mention - he is still the star of the show, and this is possibly his best work in the increasingly demanding MCU to date. Indeed, it has been a treat to witness Downey add layer upon layer to Tony with each new movie.

The time-travelling conceit allows Markus and McFeely to fundamentally create a glorified clip show, as the remaining heroes split up to revisit memorable moments from earlier adventures (specifically The Avengers, Guardians of the Galaxy, and Thor: The Dark World) to gather the Infinity Stones before Thanos. Despite an intimidating three-hour runtime, Endgame does not feel gratuitously stretched out, especially considering the number of bases that the script needed to cover in terms of story threads and character relationships from the previous 21 movies. The Russos permit adequate breathing room for scenes to sink in and reach their full dramatic potential, rather than rushing through each plot point to reach the next action set-piece. As a result, it's not exactly a non-stop, adrenaline-pumping ride, but it is more richly rewarding than the usual MCU extravaganza. The characters are perhaps the biggest draw of this franchise, and it's encouraging to behold a character-focused conclusion to over ten years of storytelling. (One significant scene on Vormir was originally an action sequence, but was reshot to remove the superfluous fireworks and keep the moment focused on the two characters at hand.) It's telling that little moments constitute some of the picture's best scenes, including Scott reuniting with his daughter (Emma Fuhrmann), Tony interacting with his father (John Slattery), Thor running into his mother (Rene Russo), or the tender final scene which reveals the fate of one beloved Avenger. This type of material usually feels perfunctory in action movies, but Endgame is built on a robust dramatic foundation. If anything, I wish the movie was longer.

Thanos' role in Endgame is not necessarily significant, though he unsurprisingly re-emerges as the primary antagonist in this story. A diminished role might seem traitorous after the in-depth character development of Infinity War, but that was essentially his movie, and it completed his character arc. Conversely, Endgame is a story about the Avengers - more specifically, it's about the original founding members of the team, as this is their last ride. Brolin is still superb as the Mad Titan, giving him a sinister edge, and the movie further demonstrates that Thanos is utterly unbeatable in combat. Additionally, the character remains a genuine CGI miracle, as he appears astonishingly tangible and realistic. On that note, Endgame is loaded with digital effects, with virtually every frame receiving some degree of CGI enhancement. For the most part, the visuals are enormously impressive, with remarkable battle sequences that also benefit from the Russos' smart direction. However, some effects-heavy shots are somewhat unconvincing or simply look too digital, and it's a shame that these types of major motion pictures are still produced on tight schedules which do not allow for definitive polishing. (I mean, Endgame's reported budget is a staggering $356 million, making it one of the most expensive movies of all time.)

With Endgame focusing on characters first and foremost, the majority of the action is restricted to the final act, after all the patient build-up. Consequently, while big climaxes usually feel forced by the demands of the blockbuster formula, Endgame's finale emerges organically, with the spectacular mayhem feeling genuinely earned. The result is a Marvel fan's wet dream. It is exhilarating to witness the holy trinity - Iron Man, Captain America and Thor - face off against Thanos in a brutal battle royale, which also delivers some of the most hard-hitting fan service in the MCU's history. Meanwhile, another immaculately assembled climactic sequence involving portals is pure ecstasy, especially with the outstanding accompanying score by veteran composer Alan Silvestri. A titan of the industry, Silvestri is one of Endgame's secret weapons, as his compositions burst with flavour and majesty, ensuring that each scene and moment hits its intended mark. Silvestri's score boosts the movie's emotional heft, as well; in particular, one late sequence always leaves this reviewer a blubbering mess.

Avengers: Endgame is a cathartic powerhouse of a motion picture, which ticks all the expected checkboxes: there's pathos, humour, tragedy, emotion, fan service, and spectacle. Despite the impossible pressure and hype, it capably juggles a potentially unwieldy collection of characters while pulling together an intricate yet coherent narrative, and the end result never feels either rushed or bloated. It is not quite perfect, but the minor shortcomings do not significantly harm the movie or diminish the phenomenal, once-in-a-generation experience. Somehow, the Russos manage to give virtually every character in the huge ensemble a moment to shine. Endgame still works as an individual movie, thanks to the careful craftsmanship, but it will, of course, play better for the established fans, who will pick up on the Easter Eggs and get the most from the experience. Miraculously surpassing expectations, Avengers: Endgame provides bittersweet closure to the sprawling superhero saga so far, while leaving room for the next major phase of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.


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A hilarious, action-packed and heartfelt threequel

Posted : 4 years, 1 month ago on 20 January 2020 05:38 (A review of Bad Boys for Life)

17 years after the heavily criticised but still enormously entertaining Bad Boys II, Will Smith and Martin Lawrence finally return with 2020's long-delayed Bad Boys for Life. With Michael Bay stepping away for this sequel, Belgian directors Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah enter the fray, aided by screenwriters Chris Bremner, Peter Craig (The Town) and Joe Carnahan (Narc). Rather than a stale, lazy rehash of established franchise tropes, Bad Boys for Life gives the brand some life-saving reinvention, introducing unexpected storytelling maturity while also taking the narrative seriously for once. It's definitely a Bad Boys movie, as the new filmmaking team maintain the franchise's longstanding proclivity for violence, profanity, bantering, and other masculine virtues, but this third instalment is more good-natured and likeable, thanks in large part to Bay's creative departure. The result is a welcome and refreshing surprise, surpassing all reasonable expectations with confidence.

After Miami detective Marcus Burnett (Lawrence) witnesses the birth of his first grandchild, he begins growing weary of his age, and plans to retire. But Marcus' partner, Mike Lowrey (Will Smith), is not ready to retire or settle down, refusing to acknowledge his age despite needing to dye his grey goatee. Meanwhile, when criminal Isabel Aretas (Kate del Castillo) breaks out of prison with the help of her son, Armando (Jacob Scipio), she begins planning her revenge for the death of her cartel kingpin husband. Under orders from Isabel, Armando begins targeting the officials who were responsible for bringing down the Aretas cartel, including Mike. When Mike survives an assassination attempt, he wants justice, seeking to convince his blustery boss, Captain Howard (Joe Pantoliano), to let Miami's "Bad Boys" find out who tried to kill him. With Marcus back in action for one last ride, the pair join up with AMMO (Advanced Miami Metro Operations), a new tech-driven police taskforce led by Mike's ex-girlfriend, Rita (Paola Nuñez).

As much fun as it is, story was not a primary (or even secondary) concern for Bay's Bad Boys II, which concentrated more on comedic vignettes, savage bloodletting, and over-the-top action mayhem. But with Bad Boys for Life, the story - while still relatively familiar - is surprisingly thoughtful and character-based, which demonstrates that this is not merely a lazy cash-in. This third instalment is about age, with Marcus seeking to retire and live peacefully with his family, while Mike is determined to live in the moment, continuing to gun down bad guys and sleep with random women for as long as possible. Astutely, the screenplay gives the pair actual dimension, with Mike and Marcus forced to confront their mortality, perceptions of faith, and the consequences of their actions. Additionally, the world has changed considerably since Bad Boys II, with modern law enforcement evolving towards non-lethal weaponry and tech-heavy investigative methods; thus, the titular pair's reckless, trigger-happy ways are no longer tolerated. Bad Boys for Life heavily leans into this dynamic, as Mike and Marcus reluctantly try to adapt to AMMO's modus operandi, though they never balk at the prospect of a violent shootout.

Fortunately, Bad Boys for Life continues the series with an R rating, which allows for impactful violence and salty dialogue. Uproarious comedic moments pepper the movie, including snappy banter and recurring jokes, in addition to some welcome fan service, most notably in the form of two cameos that will have fans grinning ear to ear. However, while Bad Boys for Life earns big laughs, the tone is more dramatic on the whole, with a real sense of peril and higher stakes than ever. The tonal shifts are not always successful, and the complex story machinations mean that it's not as purely fun as Bad Boys II, but the material's sincerity is a massive advantage, serving to elevate this sequel above more run-of-the-mill action films. In addition, with a generous $90 million budget at their disposal (which is still less than Bad Boys II's goliath $130 million price tag in 2003), directors Adil and Bilall adeptly put their own aesthetic stamp on the production, with a style that's influenced by Bay, but without his extreme idiosyncrasies (i.e. shots lingering on female body parts, and intense over-editing). Action sequences are coherent and frenetic, while the visuals are unfailingly slick throughout, thanks to Robrecht Heyvaert's polished cinematography. Luckily, the production relies on old-fashioned stunt-work and practical effects as often as possible, which gives the action more immediacy. Additionally, with such a comparatively modest budget, the action is not ridiculously over-the-top like a Fast & Furious flick. This restraint is a real benefit, as it's a thrill to witness grounded yet stylish action set-pieces in a cinematic climate dominated by superhero blockbusters. Another strength is Lorne Balfe's score, which resurrects the recognisable Bad Boys theme and pleasingly accompanies the selection of hip-hop tracks that pepper the soundtrack.

The main appeal of the Bad Boys flicks is Smith and Lawrence, who once again bring their 'A' game to the material - it's a joy watching them on-screen. Despite the 17-year gap, the pair slip back into their roles with confidence, maintaining a razor-sharp, witty rapport which keeps the movie compelling in between the action scenes. Smith and Lawrence proficiently handle the more dramatic material as well, which makes their respective characters feel surprisingly real. Furthermore, one of the most legitimately surprising aspects of Bad Boys for Life is the AMMO crew. Bringing in a new-age generation is such a trite cliché which rarely works, but smart casting and writing renders them a pleasing asset; the AMMO squad is charming, and share a fun dynamic with their elders. Alexander Ludwig is a particular standout as the tech guy with a dark past, while Charles Melton ably holds his own trading sharp banter with Smith. Hell, even Vanessa Hudgens (late of High School Musical) is more tolerable than expected. Meanwhile, it's great to see Pantoliano back in action as the long-suffering captain, and his scenes with Smith and Lawrence are a constant delight. Also effective are the villains - Jacob Scipio and Kate del Castillo come across as genuinely threatening and sinister, instead of perfunctory.

It doesn't break any new ground in the genre, and it is a tad too long, but Bad Boys for Life is a consistently entertaining and confident continuation of the fan-favourite franchise, showing that some long-delayed sequels genuinely get it right. Admittedly, devout Bad Boys fans might have preferred a juvenile, over-the-top, gleefully offensive follow-up in the same vein as Bad Boys II, but such a sequel would only deliver more of the same. Instead, Bad Boys for Life displays surprising franchise growth; for once, there's heart to complement the rousing action sequences and comedy, and it feels less mean-spirited than its immediate predecessor. It is also a satisfying watch for audiences who miss the bygone action genre heyday, when big-budget action flicks leaned into their R-rating. Be sure to stick around for two additional moments during the end credits: there's a scene which sets up a potential Bad Boys 4, as well as an extra joke.


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Equal parts catharsis and condemnation

Posted : 4 years, 1 month ago on 14 January 2020 05:56 (A review of Joker)

With Warner Bros. and DC's master plan for an interconnected superhero universe going down in flames after the failure of 2017's Justice League, Todd Phillips' Joker signifies a daring new direction for the brand: standalone movies with modest budgets and auteur visions. Written by Phillips and Scott Silver, Joker is the antithesis of colourful, mainstream superhero cinema; it's an austere, pitch-black, R-rated masterpiece which feels more like a Martin Scorsese crime drama than a comic book flick. Phillips draws from a well of inspiration, including Taxi Driver, The King of Comedy, Fight Club, Requiem for a Dream, and Falling Down - and yet, despite this ostensible derivativeness, the concoction is breathtakingly unique. Equal parts catharsis and condemnation, Joker is an exquisite 'Dear John' written to contemporary society, disguised as an origin story for Batman's infamous clown-faced nemesis. It's one of the most satisfying film-going surprises of 2019, and one of the year's best movies.

In a crime-ridden, early-'80s Gotham City, Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) works as a clown and aspires to be a stand-up comedian, looking up to late-night talk show host Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro). Struggling to keep a lid on his mental health issues, including uncontrollable laughter at inappropriate times, Arthur lives in a grubby, ramshackle apartment with his elderly mother, Penny (Frances Conroy). While Penny clings to the hope that her former employer, Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen), will provide financial assistance, Arthur is assaulted on the job and loses access to his crucial medications when budget cuts shut down the social service programs. After being unceremoniously fired for bringing a firearm into a children's hospital, Arthur shoots dead three snobbish businessmen who violently attack him on the subway. This vigilante incident turns the clown-faced Arthur into a symbol for Gotham City's low-income citizens, who begin staging protests over the tumultuous class struggle. As the sense of unrest grows across Gotham, Arthur's life continues to descend into darkness and violence.

Despite the media painting Joker as a right-wing political statement (and secretly hoping it will incite copycat violence, to validate their views), the movie is remarkably apolitical. After all, Arthur outright rejects the movement spurred on by his actions, and the script doesn't side with the protesters. Arthur is not political, since politics do not motivate his actions; instead, he is unhinged, and his spontaneous, ever-changing moods determine his behaviour. Even though Joker is a DC Comics feature, it is not suitable for children who are accustomed to fun, light-hearted superhero cinema. Additionally, Batman purists may also have trouble embracing this nihilistic vision, which has no firm basis in any pre-existing comic. Phillips even paints Thomas Wayne in a negative light, portraying the billionaire as unkind and even callous, gaining scores of enemies and critics as he runs for political office.

Perhaps the smartest angle of Phillips and Silver's screenplay is the ambiguity. Over-explaining a villain's origins can erase the sense of menace (see Rob Zombie's Halloween), and Joker ran this risk by its very nature. Although the movie suggests that tragic circumstances transformed a well-meaning man into a murderous psychopath, it is also implied that Arthur's mental dark side always existed but was kept under control through pharmaceuticals, and the film's events push him over the edge. Of course, too, Arthur is an unreliable narrator, and this is his side of the story. Is Arthur making up stories to justify his criminal behaviour? Is he forcing a backstory? Or is everything factual? Phillips does not offer a definitive answer. Furthering this ambiguity, in an obvious nod to Martin Scorsese's The King of Comedy, the line between reality and fantasy is not distinctly drawn - in one lurid daydream sequence, Arthur envisions himself getting the spotlight on Murray's show and instantly bonding with the host. Admittedly, several of Joker's characters are stereotypes, from the Donald Trump Jr. types who confront Arthur on the subway, to Thomas Wayne as the snooty billionaire - but again, nothing can be trusted as completely real, since Arthur's day-to-day reality blends with fantasy. And besides, these aforementioned stereotypes having robust real-life antecedents reinforces the picture's societal commentary.

Although Phillips is an odd choice for a production like this, his background in comedy renders him strangely perfect for Joker, which is not merely a one-note descent into misery. Phillips enlivens the bleakness with bursts of pitch-black humour, while De Niro also earns a few laughs through sharp repartee. Furthermore, with magnificent cinematographer by Lawrence Sher (The Hangover, War Dogs), Joker is one of the most visually striking motion pictures in recent memory. Everything - from the distinct colour palette and the lighting, to shot compositions and the invisible digital effects (primarily for backgrounds and cityscape extensions) - is state-of-the-art of the highest order, despite the modest budget. Production designer Mark Friedberg constructs an evocative Gotham City bathed in grit and urban squalor, exacerbated by an ongoing garbage strike which occurs in the background of the narrative. Deliberately resembling New York City in the 1980s, Gotham becomes a character unto itself, and you can almost feel the grime by watching it on-screen.

Icelandic composer Hildur Guðnadóttir continues her remarkable winning streak with Joker (she also composed for Sicario: Day of the Soldado, and the miniseries Chernobyl); her award-winning score is perfection. The movie's morose central theme, played on a cello, is exceptionally moody, and immaculately complements the visuals and performances. Other music choices also augment Phillips' vision, including recurring use of Frank Sinatra's "That's Life" which effectively underscores the movie's themes. Another scene sees Arthur - in full Joker make-up and costume - dancing to the tune of Gary Glitter's "Rock and Roll Part 2," a controversial decision considering the singer's sordid criminal history. However, the song gives the important scene an even more uncomfortable undertone, and suits the moment perfectly.

Without the risk of hyperbole, Phoenix delivers the greatest performance ever witnessed in the history of cinema. It's a transformative performance, for which Phoenix lost unhealthy amounts of weight through an emaciating diet. As a result, it is often easy to forget that Phoenix is on-screen - he truly becomes Joker, disappearing into the character. Furthermore, Phoenix does not espouse a faux voice, instead precisely controlling the temperament and rhythm of his dialogue delivery, in addition to losing himself in the physicality of the character, which renders him utterly chilling and enthralling. Phillips lingers on Arthur's unnerving, sickly laugh when he loses control, appropriately making certain scenes and moments feel uncomfortable. In addition, Phillips maintained spontaneity during filming, giving Phoenix the freedom to change his movements and actions between takes, depending on how he felt. Fortunately, the supporting cast ably holds their own alongside Phoenix, with De Niro, in particular, making a great impression as Murray Franklin. De Niro portrayed a down-on-his-luck, small-time comedian in Scorsese's The King of Comedy, which makes it all the more interesting to see him now playing a famous talk show host whom somebody aspires to meet.

Joker is rare, lightning-in-a-bottle cinema, in terms of both the outstanding craftsmanship and the outrage-heavy online reception, with media scrutiny ultimately helping to catapult the movie to a worldwide box office gross exceeding one billion dollars (the first R-rated film to cross that threshold). Individual mileage will vary depending on your expectations, as well as your tolerance for the type of vicious violence Joker contains. Indeed, not everybody will take to Phillips' bleak vision, but there is no denying the power of Phoenix's performance, the grim yet captivating storytelling, or the immaculate technical presentation. Joker adds complex and disconcerting layers to the titular character's legacy without diminishing his mysterious aura, and culminates with a shocking, edge-of-your-seat finale which is not easy to forget.


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Fast-paced, action-packed and satisfying team-up

Posted : 4 years, 1 month ago on 12 January 2020 03:43 (A review of Batman vs. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles)

One of several standalone DC Comics animated movies released in 2019, Batman vs. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is based on the recent crossover comic-book miniseries created by James Tynion IV and Freddie Williams II. Fun and fast-paced but not excessively flippant, the team-up of these recognisable animal-inspired icons is largely satisfying and surprisingly logical, emerging as one of the better animated DC titles in recent memory. Furthermore, Batman vs. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles verifies that the low-risk, budget animation format is ideal for obscure crossovers of this ilk. Hell, in comic books, Batman alone crosses over with Scooby-Doo, Power Rangers, Elmer Fudd, Predator, Alien, and even Captain America - now there are some ideas for future productions.

Shredder (Andrew Kishino) and the Foot Clan arrive in Gotham City to join forces with Ra's al Ghul (Cas Anvar) and the League of Assassins, planning to steal experimental tech to assemble a machine for nefarious purposes. Leaving their New York City home to pursue Shredder, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles - Raphael (Darren Criss), Leonardo (Eric Bauza), Michelangelo (Kyle Mooney), and Donatello (Baron Vaughn) - soon encounter Bruce Wayne/Batman (Troy Baker), who is initially suspicious about their presence in Gotham. However, once Batman and the Turtles discover that they share a common goal, they team up, with Batgirl (Rachel Bloom) and Robin (Ben Giroux) also joining the fight. Meanwhile, Shredder breaches Arkham Asylum, promptly recruiting the likes of the Joker (Baker, again), Harley Quinn (Tara Strong) and Mr. Freeze (John DiMaggio) as he enacts his plan to release a dangerous mutagen over Gotham.

The main attraction of Batman vs. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is seeing the lore of these two properties collide - the Turtles interact with (and fight) various Batman characters, the Turtles' van features in an action sequence, and Batman even exclaims "Cowabunga!". Screenwriter Marly Halpern-Graser could have called it a day on this premise alone, using a tenuous plot to string together a feature teeming with encounters and in-jokes like this, but such a movie would run out of steam after the novelty wears off. Thankfully, there is a bit more innovation at play, with a worthwhile story that goes beyond a bog-standard "destroy Gotham City" plot. It's not a groundbreaking narrative, nor does the movie exhibit the thematic significance of something like Batman: Under the Red Hood, but Batman vs. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is more effective than anticipated, incorporating as many faces from Batman's rogue's gallery as possible. Running a lean 87 minutes, Batman vs. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles wastes no time from the outset, diving straight into an action sequence as the Foot Clan stage a violent robbery at Powers Industrial. The resultant sense of brevity is welcome - it never feels as if director Jake Castorena is unnecessarily padding out the narrative to reach feature-length. Remarkably, too, the story does not feel short-changed or underdone either.

Despite the gimmicky, goofy premise implying a fun ride suitable for children, Batman vs. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is unexpectedly hard-edged and adult, pushing the PG-13 rating to its boundaries. On-screen bloodshed is graphic, with throwing stars slicing heads open, a security guard being decapitated, and Scarecrow's (Jim Meskimen) fear toxin inciting some disturbing imagery for a PG-13 animated movie. Also, the fights are brutal and furious to boot; Batman's throwdown with Shredder is a particular highlight, while the Turtles also do their fair share of fighting. The fight choreography is superb - Batman and the Turtles practice noticeably different styles of martial arts, which shows that the animators went to some real effort here. Admittedly, as ever, the animation remains relatively basic from a fine detail perspective, with the budgetary restrictions still evident to a certain degree, but the character designs are nevertheless cool, and the endeavour is appropriately stylised. Indeed, compositions are frequently compelling, and the animators make great use of shadows. Other fun touches also litter the frame, from a Superman mug on Batman's computer desk, to a classic Batcave design incorporating the iconic T-Rex statue. Additionally, the original score by DC animation veteran Kevin Riepl elevates the sense of excitement, plus the main title theme over the opening credits is, in a word, badass.

Even though Batman vs. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is unexpectedly dark at times, the titular Turtles are as jovial and wisecracking as ever, and maintain their longstanding love for pizza. The highlight is Mooney as Michelangelo, who's mischievous and overexcited, and even makes a meta observation about the blimps flying over Gotham for no discernible reason. Plus, in another moment, Mikey jokingly tells The Penguin's (Tom Kenny) henchmen that they're aliens, a knowing wink to the fan backlash to Michael Bay initially announcing that the Turtles would be aliens in the live-action 2014 TMNT reboot. It's this type of humorous, self-aware interplay which elevates the picture, making it feel smart and fresh. Meanwhile, Baker is terrific, and is actually the first actor to do the double duty of voicing both Batman and Joker in the same feature. Baker's Batman is reminiscent of the imitable Kevin Conroy, but it doesn't sound like a poor imitation, while his Joker (a role he played in several video games) is likewise distinctive and effective. Another fine addition is Tara Strong, a DC animation veteran who's right at home playing Harley Quinn.

Without reinventing the wheel, radically changing up the formula, or delivering any emotional resonance, Batman vs. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is a highly entertaining addition to the DC comics animated canon. There's an effective dynamic between Batman and the Turtles, while it's a thrill watching Batman fight Shredder, and Leonardo battling Ra's al Ghul. Stylish and confidently assembled, this is a more interesting feature than its gimmicky premise and title implies. This team-up could have made for a great live-action blockbuster, but that's not to impugn the work of the filmmakers here, who are fans of both properties and worked to deliver colourful action sequences as well as some tongue-in-cheek humour. With a post-credits stinger, room is left wide open for a sequel, assuming the movie sells well enough on home video.


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