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Joyous, visually superb celebration of pop culture

Posted : 4 years, 8 months ago on 11 July 2018 04:43 (A review of Ready Player One)

Steven Spielberg's first major action blockbuster in some time, Ready Player One reaffirms the filmmaker's status as one of modern cinema's most reliable creators of big-screen spectacles. With Spielberg dedicating much of the last few years to historical dramas (Bridge of Spies, The Post), it's encouraging to see him switch gears to adapt Ernest Cline's best-selling 2011 novel of the same name. Imaginative and hugely entertaining, Ready Player One is a perfect for Spielberg's sensibilities, playing out like an homage to the maestro's old works (both as a producer and a director). It's an exquisitely mounted action-adventure which joyously celebrates nostalgia and pop culture, peppered with a dizzying array of movie references and blockbuster iconography. Cline's novel took direct inspiration from Spielberg (even mentioning his name), which makes it all the more exciting to see the man direct this adaptation himself.

The world is a dreary, poor place in the year 2045, which leads citizens to immerse themselves in the freeware virtual reality universe known as the OASIS, where people can do anything, be anyone, and go anywhere. Prior to the death of OASIS co-founder James Halliday (Mark Rylance) in 2040, he masterminded an Easter egg hunt for total control over the game and his vast fortune, hiding three keys within the enormous digital fantasyland that are won through various challenges. In Ohio, orphaned teenager Wade (Tye Sheridan) lives with his aunt (Susan Lynch) in a makeshift tower of mobile homes known as the stacks, logging into the OASIS under the gamertag Parzival. Wade dreams of winning Halliday's challenge, researching everything there is to know about the man and pouring through hundreds of hours of archival recordings for clues. Wade receives support in the game from pals Aech (Lena Waithe), Daito (Win Morisaki) and Sho (Philip Zhao), while the gang are soon joined by well-known player Art3mis (Olivia Cooke), who's drawn to Wade's enthusiasm and candour. However, their sudden success brings them to the attention of nefarious mega-corporation Innovative Online Industries (IOI), headed by Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn) who seeks to acquire the OASIS in order to turn it into a moneymaking, pay-for-play advertising machine, relying on a team of researchers as well as an army of gamers/slaves known as "Sixers" to solve the Easter egg hunt.

With a screenplay credited to Zak Penn (The Avengers) as well as Cline himself, Ready Player One takes substantial liberties with the source novel, representing a loose adaptation rather than a slavish page-to-screen translation. However, the film retains the novel's dark dystopian vision of the future, which draws incisive parallels with our world in 2018, adding power to the story. Little hyperbole is needed in the depiction of IOI, with Sorrento seeking to destroy something that's precious to so many but he cannot appreciate - his team even calculates how many junk advertisements can fill a user's screen without triggering seizures. Indeed, such subtext makes Wade's rebellion more relatable and potent. In addition, beyond the visual fireworks and head-turning cameos, Spielberg finds an emotional core in Halliday during the last act, with a simple but effective sequence which explores his backstory and reveals why he created the OASIS.

Furthermore, aside from a few expository lines that feel too on the nose, there is an appreciable spark of wit to the dialogue for the most part, making Ready Player One feel like more than just another witless blockbuster. Admittedly, the screenplay does make a big deal about the fact that Sorrento is a corporate scumbag without an appreciation for pop culture, and one might assume that his obedient army of Sixers will be defeated by Wade and his crew because they are real fanboys/fangirls who know a key secret that eludes IOI... But the movie simply climaxes with a run-of-the-mill big battle sequence, the outcome of which is dependant on fighting abilities and weapons. However, Wade's pop culture knowledge does give him an edge during Halliday's challenges, so this is not a huge deal. Nevertheless, it's not clear how apparently every player around the world seems to know advanced martial arts, or how they can control how high or long they wish to jump at any given time.

Cline's novel was well-known for its litany of pop culture references, and this trait carries over into Spielberg's big-screen adaptation. The team behind Ready Player One must have spent time and money aplenty to clear intellectual property rights, as there are pop culture references galore throughout the picture - on top of mining from the extensive selection of IPs owned by Warner Bros., Ready Player One also references Back to the Future, Jurassic Park, The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension, Star Wars, Alien, Child's Play, John Hughes films, Japanese iconography, plus many more films, TV shows and even video games. A portion of the novel took place inside the film WarGames, but reportedly due to rights issues, this is changed for the big screen - instead, the characters venture into a 1980s horror film in a brilliant sequence that cannot be spoiled. Ultimately, the viewing experience of Ready Player One amounts to a vast visual treasure hunt for famous characters and vehicles - it may take years to unpack all the movie’s hidden Easter eggs.

With Spielberg at the helm, Ready Player One is a sumptuous visual treat, making astute use of the reported $175 million budget. (A somewhat low figure given the quality of the production values). The world here feels lived-in and authentic, thanks to the superb production design and elaborate sets. Spielberg previously experimented with motion capture for 2011's The Adventures of Tintin, which serves him well for the imaginative digital scenes set inside the OASIS. The tone is set relatively early with a mind-blowing vehicular race through the virtual streets of Manhattan, beset with obstacles ranging from wrecking balls to a Tyrannosaurus Rex, and even King Kong. The set-piece emanates a giddy sense of excitement and exhilaration, finding Spielberg taking full advantage of the possibilities of both a digital fantasyland and a virtual camera. Spielberg's touch throughout Ready Player One is valuable, with the filmmaker ensuring that the action sequences are fully comprehensible no matter the environment or scale. Meanwhile, the real-world sequences were shot by Spielberg's regular cinematographer Janusz Kamiński on 35mm film stock, creating a distinct aesthetic to separate it from the scenes inside the OASIS. Although an ostensibly small touch, it's appreciated to underscore the dreariness of the real world, while making everything look tangible - indeed, with a fine layer of film grain, digital effects often seamlessly integrate into the live-action footage. Moreover, despite a beefy 140-minute runtime, Spielberg keeps the picture light on its feet, maintaining a snappy pace as he works through the intricate narrative, creating an experience that's ceaselessly entertaining.

Without regular composer John Williams, Ready Player One's flavoursome original score was engineered by the reliable Alan Silvestri (Avengers: Infinity War), and it's first-rate. Silvestri's compositions never seem generic, as the music constantly adds flavour and majesty. One beat even incorporates Max Steiner's recognisable theme from 1933's King Kong. In addition, the movie is backed by a selection of retro tunes to further the vibe, from New Order to Van Halen and even a bit of Duran Duran. The thespian achievements of Ready Player One are not quite as noteworthy as the technical wizardry or the filmmaking acumen, but the acting is still effective right down the line. Mendelsohn (Rogue One: A Star Wars Story) makes a positive impression as Sorrento, capably pulling off the Big Bad Guy routine as well as can be expected. Relative newcomers Sheridan and Cooke are both convincing in every frame, which adds necessary credibility to the central romantic pairing. Even T.J. Miller shows up here as an OASIS bounty hunter who tries his hardest to be a badass. Simon Pegg is also a total pleasure as the co-creator of the OASIS, while Rylance - Spielberg's new secret weapon - brings humanity, heart and gravitas to the role of Halliday. Spielberg originally sought Gene Wilder for the role of Halliday, which would have held great significance given the story's deliberate similarities to Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory. However, Rylance is still superb.

Ready Player One culminates with a tremendous battle sequence which pits virtually every user in the OASIS against Sorrento's army of Sixers, and the subsequent visual buffet of characters is truly something to behold. Luckily, Spielberg never loses control of the movie, and although there are some dark themes about the possibilities of our future, the resulting experience is fun as hell. Ultimately, while this is an undeniably terrific Spielbergian blockbuster, just how much you respond to Ready Player One may depend on your fondness for all things pop culture - for my money, it hits all the right geeky notes.


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Aggressively flat and generic

Posted : 4 years, 8 months ago on 4 July 2018 03:49 (A review of Father Figures)

Helmed by veteran cinematographer but first-time director Lawrence Sher, Father Figures was actually filmed in 2015, but it took two years to finally see the light of day after test screenings and reshoots. Sher worked on several notable comedies as a director of photography, including the Hangover trilogy and The Dictator, and should therefore know a thing or two about comic tomfoolery, but Father Figures is not the right vehicle for his directorial debut. Despite an impressive ensemble cast and a polished technical presentation, there are virtually no laughs to glean throughout - even at its best, the flick is still barely chuckle-worthy. Moreover, it's difficult to shake the feeling that we have seen all of this before, and done better.

Fraternal twins Peter (Ed Helms) and Kyle (Owen Wilson) were raised by their mother, Helen (Glenn Close), to believe that their father died before they were born. When the pair reunite for Helen's wedding, Peter is a miserable divorcé with a teenage son who resents him, while Kyle is enjoying an affluent lifestyle as a BBQ sauce model. While watching an episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, Peter spots whom he believes to be his dad, based on an old photo. However, Helen reveals that she lied to the brothers about their father all their lives - due to her promiscuous past, she is unsure about who their father is, and only lied to protect them. Struck by the possibility that their father is alive, Peter and Kyle set out across the country to find their real dad, leading them to football legend Terry Bradshaw (playing himself) and shady criminal Roland Hunt (J.K. Simmons). While the brothers struggle to solve the issue of their paternity, they also (predictably) seek to repair their strained relationship.

The screenplay for Father Figures (originally titled Bastards) is credited to Justin Malen, and it is only his second feature film credit after the likewise underwhelming Office Christmas Party. It's clear that Sher and Malen aspired to create a vulgar R-rated comedy as well as a dramatic story about Peter and Kyle, who bond throughout the narrative and learn valuable lessons along the way. Creating this brand of dramedy is possible, but it requires a deft touch - see Last Vegas or 50/50. Alas, Father Figures lacks the talent to fulfil its ambitions, and the end result is an uneven, formulaic dramedy which is perpetually stuck in first gear. In addition, the apparent slut-shaming in regards to Helen's promiscuity is uncomfortable and unnecessary, lacking in tact. Admittedly, the reshot ending is probably the most successful portion of the movie, as it borders on poignancy and effectively ties the story together, but it's a case of too little too late. The rest of Father Figures is still too aggressively flat, emerging as a real missed opportunity.

As a director, Sher is no better or worse than most purveyors of these sorts of generic American comedies; although his sense of comedic timing is slipshod, Father Figures is still an attractive, adequately-assembled studio comedy, with a jaunty score by Rob Simonsen (Going in Style) to boot. It should come as no surprise given Sher's past experience, but the movie's visual style is above-average, standing in stark contrast against other modern comedies which often resemble sitcoms. However, Father Figures is much too long and flabby at nearly two hours, noticeably dragging during a subplot involving a hitchhiker (Katt Williams) that has no significant bearing on the narrative beyond some Peter/Kyle bonding time that could have been explored more economically. Furthermore, it was actually surprising for this reviewer to learn that the movie was rated R, as the material feels safe, lacking the profane punch that the rating can facilitate. It appears that Father Figures was originally designed as a PG-13 comedy.

Helms and Wilson rely on their usual shtick here, to the surprise of absolutely nobody. Helms is the straight man who plays life by the rules, while Wilson is a free spirit who encourages Peter to come out of his shell. It's an all-too-familiar behavioural polarity situation, though at least the actors commit to the material adequately enough. In the supporting cast, Close appears to sleepwalk through her infrequent scenes, though J.K. Simmons and Ving Rhames manage to score a couple of minor laughs each. Christopher Walken also appears as a family friend, while Katt Williams can only do so much to liven the stale material. At the end of the day, it's hard to bring oneself to truly hate Father Figures since it's not offensive or aggressively terrible, but it's not an especially good movie either, and it's not essential viewing. This is one of those comedies that you might enjoy late at night whilst browsing Netflix in a non-discerning mood, though you will forget about it merely a few days later.


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An easily watchable drama, worth seeing

Posted : 4 years, 8 months ago on 1 July 2018 06:31 (A review of The 15:17 to Paris)

2018's The 15:17 to Paris is perhaps the first outright critical bomb for veteran filmmaker Clint Eastwood. Although the movie earned passable if unspectacular box office numbers, critics and audiences were unkind to Eastwood's latest directorial undertaking, despite its good intentions. Like the top-notch Sully, Eastwood's The 15:17 to Paris involves seemingly ordinary American citizens stepping up at a crucial moment. Based on the novel of the same name by Spencer Stone, Alek Skarlatos, Anthony Sadler and journalist Jeffrey E. Stern, the subject matter here is the foiled 2015 Thalys train attack, and the movie's main gimmick is that the three heroes play themselves. Even though the flick falls short of its potential due to problematic scripting and performances, it is arguably undeserving of the overzealous slating it received. In Eastwood's capable hands, The 15:17 to Paris is an easily watchable drama, eschewing unnecessary darkness and grittiness, which is rare in modern cinema.

In 2015, Islamic extremist Ayoub El Khazzani (Ray Corasani) tried to open fire on a crowded passenger train with an assault rifle, a pistol, and over 300 rounds of ammunition. However, the attempted mass shooting was thwarted by childhood friends Spencer, Alek, and Anthony, who bravely subdued Ayoub and saved hundreds of lives in the process. Spencer, Alek, and Anthony were friends since childhood, when they met in Catholic school and bonded over a mutual fondness for war games and all things military. Although the boys are separated as a result of behavioural issues, they maintain their friendship into adulthood, with both Spencer and Alek pursuing their childhood dream of serving in the American Military. After years spent apart, the three men decide upon a long overdue European vacation, during which they encounter Ayoub on a train bound for Paris from Amsterdam.

Eastwood's previous picture, Sully, was likewise concerned with a single event, but its runtime was used to explore the aftermath and ramifications, while replaying the incident from different perspectives. The 15:17 to Paris, on the other hand, spends its runtime delving into the lives of the three men leading up to the terrorist act, wrapping up right after the events on the train. It's a bizarre angle to adopt, painting the men are out-and-out heroes, refusing to explore any legal ramifications or even how their lives changed. As a result, the script by first-time screenwriter Dorothy Blyskal spends the majority of its time exploring the lives of these three individuals, intercut with minor snippets of the train attack throughout. The biographical narrative might be true-to-life, but their lives are distinctly ordinary, making for a completely unremarkable first half devoid of compelling drama. Admittedly, this is likely the point since Eastwood is showing that these heroes lived regular lives leading up until the critical event, but this material is not a strong enough basis for a feature film.

Easily the weakest segment of the movie is the European trip itself, observing Spencer, Alek and Anthony indulge in tourist activities in Italy, Germany and Amsterdam. The attempt to further the sense of camaraderie is justifiable given that it denotes the reunion of these three men, but their interactions ultimately come off as repetitive, and the proceedings seriously drag because the trio do nothing of interest. Particularly egregious moments include ordering gelato, arguing with a German tour guide, and playing with selfie sticks. Added to this, dialogue is never a strong suit of Blyskal's screenplay - on-the-nose lines, such as Spencer asking Anthony if he feels as if life is catapulting them towards a greater purpose, feel obvious and awkward. In addition, the movie bafflingly begins with pointless, awkward voiceover narration delivered by Anthony, which commences the proceedings on a peculiar note. Nevertheless, despite the picture's copious shortcomings, Eastwood just manages to keep the material afloat, which is a testament to the veteran director's talent. The recreation of the thwarted train attack represents the movie's centrepiece, and it is noticeably good. Shot on a moving train (reportedly the actual train on which the events took place), the set-piece is taut and nail-biting, with smooth mise-en-scène and a slick technical presentation. Additionally, the low-key piano score throughout the movie by Sully composer Christian Jacob (replicating Eastwood's trademark scores) is effective and pleasant enough.

Try as they might, the central trio are not exactly actors, and their performances are unpolished as a consequence. Eastwood is renowned for his single-take approach to directing, which would explain the occasional moments of outright awful acting that should not have made it into the final cut. Certain scenes and moments fare better than others, but line readings are frequently stilted and the men often seem aware of the camera. To Eastwood's credit, using the real-life people at least allowed editor Blu Murray (Sully) to insert authentic archival footage of the formal ceremony honouring the three men in Paris, furthering the sense of verisimilitude. But this is not worth sacrificing the inclusion of actual trained actors, who could have elevated the drama. In addition to Spencer, Alek and Anthony, train survivors Mark Moogalian and Isabelle Risacher Moogalian also play themselves. Meanwhile, the supporting cast is noticeably peculiar, with likewise unrefined performances from more recognisable actors like Judy Greer (Ant-Man), Jenna Fischer (The Office) and even Thomas Lennon (Santa Clarita Diet). Surely there is no shortage of able dramatic actors at Eastwood's disposal?

All things considered, The 15:17 to Paris is a lower-tier Eastwood movie, in the same class as films like J. Edgar and Hereafter. It's certainly no Mystic River or Gran Torino. One can understand what attracted Eastwood to the story, and the movie is enjoyable enough once the director gets into an agreeable groove, but it's hard to overlook the erroneously-framed narrative. Perhaps a docudrama with Spencer, Alek and Anthony playing themselves (intercut with interviews and narration) would have been more successful, but The 15:17 to Paris is an adequate curiosity nevertheless, and Eastwood completists should seek it out. For those interested, additional archival footage is included during the end credits.


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A superb throwback sci-fi action-thriller

Posted : 4 years, 8 months ago on 30 June 2018 05:45 (A review of Upgrade)

Ostensibly emerging out of nowhere, 2018's Upgrade is one of the biggest film-going surprises of the year; an old-school, dark, noir-ish sci-fi action-thriller reminiscent of The Terminator and RoboCop. Upgrade was written and directed by Australian filmmaker Leigh Whannell, who knows a thing or two about genre pieces after scripting both Saw and Insidious, among other titles. Flying solo without frequent collaborator James Wan as a producer, Whannell acquits himself admirably here, elevating what is essentially a B-movie into A-grade territory. More or less an Australian movie with Blumhouse backing, this is precisely the type of inventive, smart, brutally violent, darkly humorous and high-concept picture that John Carpenter would have created in the 1980s - in fact, it feels like a movie you would discover on a well-worn VHS cassette hiding at the back of a video rental store back in the day. (If somebody spearheads a VHS release, I want it.)

Set in an unspecified near-future, Grey (Logan Marshall-Green) is a stay-at-home mechanic who fixes classic cars to sell to rich collectors, and prefers a more hands-on, old-school lifestyle in the face of advanced, ubiquitous technology. After visiting eccentric, tech-savvy client Eron (Harrison Gilbertson) one night, Grey and his wife Asha (Melanie Vallejo) are ambushed and attacked by a group of cybernetically-enhanced criminals, which leaves Asha dead and Grey paralysed from the neck down. Faced with a life relying on computers and technology, with no ability to use his hands, Grey falls into a heavy depression. However, Eron presents him with the opportunity to gain back full use of his body via an illegal experimental operation to attach an artificial implant known as STEM (voiced by Simon Maiden) to his spine. Cured of his paralysis but sworn to secrecy, Grey begins his own investigation into the men responsible for his condition, using his AI-augmented body to kill them one by one.

For the majority of its runtime, Upgrade plays out like a high-concept Death Wish reimagining, but Whannell has a few tricks up his sleeve. Twists and turns emerge out of the chaos, leading to a daring, jaw-dropping climax which recontextualises the narrative, catapulting Upgrade above the ordinary. Admittedly, the narrative ingredients are standard-order, including a police detective (Betty Gabriel) who suspects that Grey knows more about the sudden murders than he lets on, but that's ostensibly the point; Upgrade is a postmodern subversion of the hackneyed revenge fantasy formula, permeated with a relevant message relating to the dangers of automation. In addition, the meticulous world-building further bolsters the material, with Whannell painting a plausible picture of our future. The world of Upgrade is undeniably our own, but peppered with unobtrusive instances of speculative future technology. Lower socioeconomic areas exist in this vision of the future, while characters still use simpler items like tape recorders. Rather than feeling artificial or deliberately designed, this world feels lived-in and believable, and all on a tiny budget.

Produced in Australia for a reported cost of under $5 million, Upgrade's technical specs are far better than expected, shrewdly using every last cent out of the budget to create a flick that looks at least four or five times more expensive. This is only Whannell's second directorial outing, but he displays the confidence of a seasoned veteran. Who would have thought that the director of 2015's paint-by-numbers Insidious: Chapter 3 would be capable of such a pronounced sense of cinematic style and personality? No matter the scene or environment, Whannell maintains a confident pace and his mise-en-scène is frequently smooth, while discreet digital effects serve to enhance the practical sets. Additionally, Marshall-Green nails the role of Grey, perfectly portraying the script's intense dramatics as well as handling the intricate physicality the part requires. STEM's movements look subtly mechanical, from the smallest hand gestures to the precise fight choreography, easily selling the illusion with seemingly little effort. He even convincingly pulls off the scenes during which he talks to STEM, moments that were at risk of looking ridiculous. An adept supporting cast surrounds Marshall-Green, with Maiden making a particularly positive impression as the voice of STEM. Elsewhere, the likes of Gilbertson (Need for Speed), Gabriel (Get Out) and Benedict Hardie (Hacksaw Ridge) hit their marks effectively. Even Clayton Jacobson (director of Kenny) shows up in a minor role.

Upgrade packs a punch during its visceral action beats, miraculously able to create a fresh look through specific fight choreography and inventive camera techniques, evoking the type of sheer elation that the first John Wick inspired back in 2014. This flick is a hard R, exhibiting a level of violence usually reserved for "torture porn" movies, but there is also wise tact to the gory money shots, which is a testament to Whannell's well-judged direction. Furthermore, Stefan Duscio's digital cinematography is slick and assured, astutely using neon lighting to emphasise the retro vibe, making Upgrade look closer to a European art-house flick helmed by Nicolas Winding Refn. (It is a bit of a shame that Upgrade was not shot on film stock considering the pedigree, but that's neither here nor there.) Accompanying the visuals is a throwback synth score by Jed Palmer which adds mood and atmosphere, in addition to subtly accentuating the feeling of excitement during the adrenaline-pumping action sequences. A few short moments of obvious CGI blood do appear, but the special effects throughout the feature otherwise impress, particularly the convincing futuristic cityscapes. It's mind-blowing to consider that Upgrade was created for less money than so many nasty, straight-to-video cheapies that flood the bargain bin on a seemingly weekly basis.

Upgrade is superlative masculine entertainment, a throwback action-thriller which exceeds all reasonable expectations to become one of 2018's best and most essential movies. Aside from the palpable Death Wish influence, the feature is essentially Alex Garland (think Ex Machina) meets Nicolas Winding Refn with a hint of Black Mirror, and it will appeal to those who enjoy '80s and '90s genre pictures. In the face of so many expensive summer blockbuster spectacles, it's refreshing to witness this type of counterprogramming that's committed to delivering more with less. It's just a nasty good time.


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A tremendous, elegantly-mounted biopic

Posted : 4 years, 9 months ago on 7 June 2018 07:20 (A review of Chaplin)

Directed by the late Richard Attenborough (Gandhi, A Bridge Too Far), 1992's Chaplin traces the life and career of Charles Chaplin, from his glum childhood all the way through to his final years in the 1970s. With a screenplay credited to William Boyd, Bryan Forbes and William Goldman, the film is based on two literary sources: Chaplin’s own autobiography, and "Chaplin: His Life and Art" by film critic David Robinson. On top of recounting the life of its titular subject, Chaplin also delves into Hollywood's early days, the politics of filmmaking, and the scandals that defined many careers. The resultant movie is not especially cohesive given the nature of its narrative structure and the breadth of the material in question, but the production has far more strengths than weaknesses. Engrossing from the first frame, Attenborough mounts an outstanding old-fashioned biopic, perhaps not quite definitive but nevertheless informative and sublimely acted. Even though it was panned by critics and failed at the box office, Chaplin deserves to be seen, particularly by those who admire Chaplin's body of work.

Growing up in extreme poverty with a mentally ill mother (Geraldine Chaplin), Charlie Chaplin (Robert Downey Jr.) starts performing physical comedy from an early age in London, to escape his otherwise bleak life. Hoping to further a career in show business, Charlie moves to America where he's hired by Mack Sennett (Dan Aykroyd), a famous filmmaker known as "The King of Comedy." Working under Sennett, Chaplin develops his iconic Tramp persona and eventually begins directing his movies. Moving his way up the ladder and establishing his own film studio, Chaplin carves out a successful motion picture career, beset with a number of failed love affairs as well as an unfortunate run-in with J. Edgar Hoover (Kevin Dunn) which ultimately leads to him becoming exiled from America.

To facilitate what amounts to a "greatest hits" compilation of moments from Chaplin's life, the narrative is framed around an elderly Chaplin - living out his last years in Switzerland - talking to (fictional) writer George Hayden (Anthony Hopkins), who's finalising the comedian's autobiography and wishes to fill in certain blanks. It's a familiar gimmick which allows Attenborough to explore stories and pieces of information from throughout Chaplin's life, centring in on the most important events. The veracity of Chaplin's autobiography is also brought into question, with Hayden even calling out the veteran performer on certain things that he lies about - at one stage, Chaplin retorts "But the truth was so boring, George!"

Running at over 140 minutes including credits, Chaplin delves into the man's perfectionism as a director, demanding dozens of takes to get the best possible shot, while he also had an affinity for underage girls. However, some of Chaplin's most famous films only receive a passing mention, while many of his leading ladies feel short-changed. For instance, Edna Purviance (Penelope Ann Miller) was one of Chaplin's most frequent co-stars, but is given barely a couple of scenes in the movie. Numerous other things are left out, too, like the death of Chaplin's first son, as well as the inspiration behind, and filming of, 1921's The Kid. Reportedly, the original cut of Chaplin clocked in at a staggering four hours, and Attenborough's preferred edit was twelve minutes longer than the theatrical version, but it was further trimmed at the behest of the studio. According to Attenborough himself, the cuts damaged the movie, leaving us to speculate about the merit of an extended cut.

As to be expected from a Richard Attenborough movie produced for a sizeable $31 million sum (no small chunk of change in 1992), Chaplin boasts strong production values, with elegant sets, elaborate costuming and spot-on period details. 19th Century London is convincing recreated, while Sven Nykvist's cinematography is careful and smooth, competently capturing the action. Admittedly, some of the optical effects are obvious and dated, and not all of the make-up stands up to contemporary scrutiny (the elderly Chaplin make-up looks especially phoney), but these are minor knocks against an otherwise finely mounted biopic. Attenborough is certainly no stranger to movies of this length and scale, and he manages to maintain an effective if slightly leisurely pace - this is not a tedious movie due to its elegant construction, but it does require patience to sit through.

Downey undeniably carries the film, representing Chaplin's biggest asset. The American actor swallows his native accent to espouse a convincing British dialect, and he perfectly embodies Chaplin to boot. Downey bears a close enough resemblance to Chaplin, and further sells the illusion by nailing his recognisable physical mannerisms. It's a treat to behold Downey engage in physical comedy, impressively recreating The Tramp persona. Furthermore, Downey's performance amplifies the power of several scenes, including a heart-wrenching moment in which Chaplin learns about the passing of his first love. The sheer breadth of the ensemble cast surrounding Downey is staggering - recognisable names fill almost every role, no matter how minor. Chaplin's daughter Geraldine is even on hand to play her own grandmother in an inspired piece of casting, while the likes of Hopkins and Kevin Dunn are reliably brilliant. Dan Aykroyd is a genuine treat as Mack Sennett; he's amusing, but he provides enough gravitas to sell the drama. Kline, meanwhile, makes for a superb Douglas Fairbanks, bringing plenty of energy and charm whenever he appears on-screen. Performing double duty, the beautiful Moira Kelly is most appealing as both Hetty Kelly (Chaplin's first love) and Oona O’Neill (Chaplin's final wife), managing to create two distinctive characters. Digging further into the supporting cast, Chaplin also features the likes of Marisa Tomei, Penelope Ann Miller, Milla Jovovich (a teenager here), Diane Lane, James Woods, Maria Pitillo, and even future X-Files lead David Duchovny, all of whom hit their marks with confidence.

Chaplin attains effective poignancy as it approaches the finishing line, observing Chaplin as he is granted permission to return to American in order to receive a special Lifetime Achievement award at the 1972 Academy Awards. It's a fitting ending to a tremendous biopic, underscoring the great actor's indispensable contributions to motion pictures throughout his career. Despite Chaplin's flaws and shortcomings, it's an insightful film, and a must-see for Chaplin fans.


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A welcome entry to the Star Wars canon

Posted : 4 years, 9 months ago on 29 May 2018 03:37 (A review of Solo: A Star Wars Story)

The second standalone Star Wars anthology movie after Rogue One in 2016, Solo: A Star Wars Story certainly endured a bumpy production period, exacerbated by worrying press coverage. With director Ron Howard coming aboard late in the process to complete filming and reshoot a bulk of the feature, and with certain vocal fans sharpening their knives in preparation for the end result, it appeared that almost everything was working against Solo, but the resultant movie actually works, thanks to a charismatic cast, astute scripting, and focused filmmaking. It helps that The Empire Strikes Back scribe Lawrence Kasdan co-wrote the screenplay, collaborating with son Jonathan to hatch a history lesson about the titular scoundrel several years before his fateful meeting with Luke Skywalker. Although not perfect, Solo is a welcome entry to the Star Wars canon, providing slick thrills and an engaging narrative, representing another home run for the Disney-distributed Star Wars series. No matter its imperfections, it is still a damn sight better than the prequels.

It is a lawless time, and the shipbuilding planet of Corellia is ruled by ruthless crime boss Lady Proxima (Linda Hunt). Han Solo (Alden Ehrenreich) dreams of becoming a pilot and buying his own ship to make a new life for himself with girlfriend Qi'ra (Emilia Clarke). In a bold dash to escape Corellia, Solo becomes separated from his lover, which motivates him to sign up for the Imperial Fleet to develop his flying skills. Three years later, Han has been expelled from the Imperial Flight Academy, and instead serves as an infantryman. Encountering fellow prisoner Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo), Solo deserts the Empire, joining a band of thieves led by Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson) and becoming embroiled in a scheme to steal a hundred kilos of valuable starship fuel known as coaxium. However, complications arise and the gang is left in debt to gangster Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany), necessitating a seemingly impossible heist to steal unrefined coaxium from Kessel. Vos also insists that his top lieutenant, Qi'ra, accompanies the team. The requirements of the job lead the crew to veteran smuggler Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover), who has the benefit of a top navigational droid in L3-37 (Phoebe Waller-Bridge) and the fastest ship in the galaxy: the Millennium Falcon.

Solo has much to work through, striving to cover the genesis of Han's surname, how he met both Lando and Chewbacca, and the events which led to everyone's favourite smuggler taking ownership of the Falcon. The Kasdans shrewdly solve the issue of the Kessel Run as well, demonstrating exactly why Solo brags about a unit of distance as opposed to time. The very notion of a Solo-centric spinoff does inherently forbid character development since the events of the original trilogy represent his "origin," and deepening Han's character within a prequel would threaten to take away from the payoff at the end of 1977's Star Wars, when the detached, money-hungry loner unexpectedly swoops in to help Luke during the Battle of Yavin. Although Solo lacks a significant arc as a result, and is therefore somewhat shallow, the Kasdans nevertheless find fertile dramatic ground to delve into. Perhaps an extra segment could have explored Han's youth since he speaks about running jobs on the streets as a ten-year-old, but Howard and the Kasdans wisely elect to get to the meat of the story as quickly as possible.

One of the reported reasons behind the sacking of original directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller related to the pair creating more of a farce played specifically for laughs, butchering the Kasdans' script in the process. With Howard taking over the controls, Solo has less humour than anticipated, standing in stark contrast to 2017's surprisingly amusing Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Amazingly, the switch in directors is seamless, and Solo never feels like a fractured work of conflicting creative visions. Admittedly, however, certain lines of dialogue feel too on-the-noise, and Han's relationship with Qi'ra - which was evidently designed to provide heart at the centre of the chaos - fails to gain much traction. In addition, unlike the recent saga entries which were shot on celluloid, Solo was captured digitally, and darkness unfortunately pervades the cinematography by Bradford Young (Arrival). Remarkable special effects notwithstanding, the movie simply looks too dim, marred by a drab colour palette crying out for more vibrancy - it's a far cry from the lush, colourful visuals of The Last Jedi. Nevertheless, Young's framing remains magnificent, with frequently stylish compositions and some instantly iconic images throughout.

Despite a hastened production schedule, Solo's digital effects continually impress. Considering the decision to retain the original release date in the face of a hasty directorial change, it's relieving to behold such superb craftsmanship. Mixing practical effects and CG, there's often an appreciable tangibility to the visuals, as one would expect from a summer movie which reportedly cost up to $300 million to produce. Furthermore, the decision to shoot on real sets and locations when possible is beneficial, resulting in an effective tactile aesthetic as opposed to something more overtly digital. Solo is chock-full of electrifying set-pieces, ranging from a nail-biting opening speeder chase on Corellia, to a climactic shootout permeated with an agreeable western vibe. But nothing can top the elaborate heist sequence atop an Imperial locomotive high in the mountain peaks, which is beset with complications. It's a gripping, technically proficient sequence, adrenaline-pumping and fun in equal measure. Admittedly, some of the CGI - particularly during the Kessel Run - looks obvious, but these moments are fleeting. Topping everything off, the original score by John Powell (Jason Bourne) manages to find its own sound while subtly evoking John Williams's seminal contributions to the series. Williams actually composed an exuberant track for Solo's opening, which appropriately sets the tone.

Even though Ehrenreich does not look or sound much like Harrison Ford, he certainly looks the part of Han Solo whilst in costume, and manages to capture the essence of the iconic role. The Hail, Caesar actor was no doubt under a lot of pressure, but he's instantly likeable and natural, while his performance is more than a mere act of mimicry. Ehrenreich may not match Ford, but who could? Meanwhile, the ever-reliable Harrelson is predictably top-notch, and the movie makes great use of Game of Thrones star Emilia Clarke. Glover is ideal casting as Lando, making for the perfect successor to Billy Dee Williams. Encapsulating the character's inherent coolness and nailing the appropriate mannerisms without feeling forced, he's a real bright spot, and it's only a shame that he feels somewhat underused. Indeed, more scenes with Glover and Ehrenreich together would be welcome. Additionally, Bettany sinks his teeth into this villainous role, while Thandie Newton makes a positive impression as Beckett's lover. The ensemble's sole downfall is Waller-Bridge as L3. Ostensibly included as an answer to Alan Tudyk's K-2SO in Rogue One, L3 does not work on any level. Despite Waller-Bridge's spunky performance, the droid sounds like a hipster from a bad Diablo Cody film, with tone-deaf dialogue and jokes which fall flat. Furthermore, a subplot involving Lando harbouring feelings for the droid is completely half-assed.

Solo: A Star Wars Story has its shortcomings, particularly with a beefy 135-minute runtime and some needlessly dense plotting, but this is nevertheless an enjoyable, buoyant Star Wars adventure bolstered by a charismatic lead. The set-pieces are consistently thrilling, while the picture also manages to fill certain gaps and continue to deepen the franchise's ever-expanding mythology. This is a minor, perhaps even disposable Star Wars adventure, but that is precisely what Solo needed to be. Furthermore, unlike Rogue One, it leaves enough time between its dénouement and the events of A New Hope to allow for sequels, and Solo's last scene suggests that there is more of Han's past to explore if any further adventures are on the cards.


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A powerful and poignant Marvel blockbuster

Posted : 4 years, 10 months ago on 8 May 2018 07:04 (A review of Avengers: Infinity War)

The nineteenth instalment in the ever-expanding Marvel Cinematic Universe, 2018's Avengers: Infinity War represents the ambitious culmination of this franchise to date. It's a sprawling epic which finally unites nearly all of the MCU's note-worthy characters and pays off lingering subplots, making it a pivotal moment that fans have long anticipated. Happily, the movie is in safe hands with the Russo Brothers at the helm, working from a screenplay by Captain America trilogy scribes Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely. After the disappointment of Joss Whedon's Avengers: Age of Ultron, a change in creative team invigorates Infinity War; it's at least as great as the original Avengers, and easily one of the greatest superhero pictures in history. This third Avengers movie may retain the familiar Marvel formula of incorporating humour, heart and mind-blowing spectacle, but it's the production's psychological depth and daring disposition which makes it one for the ages. It should go without saying, but being familiar with a majority of the previous Marvel movies is a necessity to fully comprehend Infinity War. Although the lack of appeal for the uninitiated might be perceived as a drawback, this is fundamentally the nineteenth movie in a franchise.

In the aftermath of Captain America: Civil War, The Avengers have disbanded, with the heroes now scattered around the world. However, intergalactic tyrant Thanos (Josh Brolin) is ready to execute his grand plan to affix all six Infinity Stones to his gauntlet, to allow him to impose his will on reality and re-balance the universe by wiping out half of all life. If he amasses all of the stones, he will be able to kill trillions with one snap of his finger. In a bid to protect the Time Stone, Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Peter Parker/Spider-Man (Tom Holland) find themselves transported to the desolate planet of Titan, Thanos's home world. The Guardians of the Galaxy - Peter Quill/Star-Lord (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax (Dave Bautista), Mantis (Pom Klementieff), Rocket (Bradley Cooper) and Groot (Vin Diesel) - become drawn into the fight after rescuing Thor (Chris Hemsworth), who was left stranded in space following a fatal encounter with Thanos. On Earth, Vision (Paul Bettany) and Wanda Maximoff/Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) seek the help of Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans), Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Sam Wilson/Falcon (Anthony Mackie) as Thanos's Black Order move in, determined to extract the Mind Stone from Vision's head. Meeting with James Rhodes (Don Cheadle) and Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), who has returned to Earth, the team travel to Wakanda where they reunite with Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), while King T'Challa/Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) mounts a defence against the impending intergalactic forces.

The directors and writers have stated it multiple times, but Thanos is the true protagonist of Avengers: Infinity War. Armchair critics have slated Marvel's villains for years, but that all changes with Thanos finally taking centre stage here, after hovering around the sidelines of the universe since The Avengers back in 2012. A hulking, mad titan, Thanos has proper motivation for wanting to expunge half of the universe's population; his concerns relate to finite resources, overpopulation, and the balance of life. Thanos genuinely believes that, despite his extreme measures, his quest is noble and, in the long run, people will be grateful for the significant cull, seeing himself as a saviour of sorts. Flashbacks reveal how Thanos first met Gamora, or how his home planet of Titan fell into ruin, permitting a glimpse behind the psychological curtain, elevating Thanos above a more standard-order blockbuster villain who strives to perpetrate evil for evil's sake. There is a feeling of desperateness as Thanos and his Children effortlessly battle the universe's mightiest heroes, raising the stakes and keeping the action sequences uniquely riveting. We may know that the heroes will ultimately triumph over Thanos, but we don't know the exact cost, creating a tension not often glimpsed in superhero productions. Furthermore, Infinity War culminates with a daring, jaw-dropping finale that could only be attempted by a creative team secure in the knowledge that its immediate sequel is already in production and the movie is still going to make billions of dollars.

The narrative of Infinity War does not naturally lend itself to a tidy three-act structure; it's almost wall-to-wall set-pieces, cutting between the multiple factions of heroes who have their own situations to resolve. Thanos represents the through-line, creating a thankful cohesiveness, not to mention Thanos's grand plan creates an urgency which ensures the film is never boring despite its length. Furthermore, while the movie does juggle at least thirty note-worthy characters, it never feels bloated or underdeveloped, thanks to the intricate format of the Marvel Cinema Universe. Whereas DC's ambitious live-action Justice League film fell flat on its face, the MCU's careful decade-long world-building ensures that long-time viewers know each character well enough to become sufficiently invested in the chaos. Nevertheless, Gamora and Quill's romantic relationship should have been better developed prior to the events of Infinity War, particularly since the two only got together at the end of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 after two movies of Quill's schoolboy leering. The romantic angle does play a significant role in the proceedings here, making it slightly disappointing that it's noticeably underdone. However, there is only so much that the Infinity War screenwriters could achieve in a single two-and-a-half-hour motion picture.

Age of Ultron scarcely felt like a Joss Whedon script, as the humour was disappointingly forced and flat. Happily, Infinity War ups the ante in terms of humour; the banter is strong, adding appreciable and effective hilarity to an otherwise solemn story. The lovably blunt Drax is as side-splitting as ever, stealing scenes all over the place, while it's a joy to see Quill and Stark meeting at last. In fact, the primary appeal of Infinity War is seeing established characters meeting for the first time - hell, I could spend hours just watching Thor interacting with the Guardians of the Galaxy. Of course, you will inevitably come away wanting to watch more of your favourite characters interacting, but the Russos do need to pay attention to pacing. Infinity War may lack the intricate moral and political debates of Captain America: Civil War, but there is ample humanity thanks to the delightful bantering and amiable heroes, not to mention psychological underpinnings to Thanos, which is rare in this genre.

With a gargantuan scope made possible by an unprecedented production budget, Infinity War is visually striking from top to bottom, making this one to behold on the largest possible screen. This is a truly epic movie, travelling to numerous different planets and never feeling restrictive. Luckily, whereas Age of Ultron's gloomy cinematography looked downright ugly, Infinity War is a more vibrant, colourful movie, beautifully captured entirely with IMAX cameras. With the two excellent Captain America sequels under their belts, the Russo Brothers adeptly handle Infinity War's intimidating requirements, orchestrating exciting action set-pieces which spotlight a selection of gifted characters, each with their own unique abilities. Despite the scale of the chaos, the throwdowns are visceral and pack genuine impact, particularly the immense climactic showdown on Wakanda. Additionally, Trent Opaloch's cinematography is agreeably smooth, making the action sequences easy to comprehend and enjoy. There is also enough variety to the action to prevent Infinity War from feeling monotonous or repetitive. Furthermore, Infinity War sees the welcome return of veteran composer Alan Silvestri, who scored the first Avengers back in 2012. Rather than generic action movie music, Silvestri's compositions are full of flavour and majesty, astutely making use of the memorable Avengers theme when suitable to underscore badass action beats, inspiring pure ecstasy.

Thanos is a miracle of motion capture; he looks tactile, and carries genuine weight and inertia. Little details in certain shots - such as arm hair, skin imperfections, or tears running into the crevices of his face - drive home the realism of the character, making this one for the ages. The Hulk also continues to impress in terms of sheer texturing, though his presence is minimised compared to previous Avengers instalments. Admittedly, some moments of computer-generated imagery, particularly during the more digitally-driven set-pieces, look obvious or even slightly phoney, lacking in tangibility, but that's almost par for the course with this much CGI on the screen. You could be forgiven for yearning for the time when the Iron Man and War Machine suits were practical whenever possible.

Infinity War's ensemble cast excels all reasonable expectations; the movie even reintroduces an iconic character in a surprise holy-shit reveal for the ages. The production incorporates supporting characters from various solo movies, including Benedict Wong as Wong, Gwyneth Paltrow as Pepper Potts, and pretty much the entire ensemble cast of Black Panther. There are certain notable exclusions from the cast, including Jeremy Renner and Paul Rudd, but the next instalment promises to rectify this and further up the ante. Brolin is sensational as Thanos, able to convey ruthlessness as well as vulnerability despite performing through a motion capture suit. It would be dizzying to run through the entire ensemble cast individually, but, suffice it to say, all of the performers hit their respective marks nicely. Fortunately, Infinity War further develops the relationship between Parker and Stark, following on from the events of Spider-Man: Homecoming, and it's still a treat to watch their witty interplay. Downey and young Holland both remain exceptional in their roles, oozing charisma and gravitas. An emotionally charged, heartbreaking scene late into the picture is an especially superb showcase for their talents.

Considering its insanely polished construction, it's likely that any reaction to Avengers: Infinity War - aside from basic admiration for the refined cinematic craftsmanship on display - will be wholly based on whether or not you feel serviced, dependent on the extent that the movie uses your favourite characters and how well the pieces of the movie work for you. Of course, as with almost any major movie, small things can be nitpicked, particularly certain character actions or moments of mediocre digital effects, but none of the minor imperfections are enough to tarnish this excellent superhero blockbuster. Also, it will inevitably play better following the release of the next instalment given the nature of the conclusion, but again that is not something that can be held against Infinity War. This is a powerful and poignant movie; a must-see for any MCU fan and a revelation in the genre, showing yet again why Marvel Studios convincingly remains at the top of their game. As ever, be sure to stay until the end of the credits.


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Entertaining, funny and poignant comedic biopic

Posted : 4 years, 10 months ago on 27 April 2018 01:07 (A review of The Disaster Artist)

Not many bad films are as infamous or as iconic as 2003's The Room, with its shockingly inept filmmaking and tuneless acting positioning the production as a cult oddity - the very definition of "so bad it's good." 2017's The Disaster Artist seeks to chronicle the bizarre story behind The Room's creation, examining the circumstances that led to its second life as a cult phenomenon. Written by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber (500 Days of Summer, The Spectacular Now), the movie is based on the 2013 non-fiction book of the same name by one of The Room's leading actors, Greg Sestero. It's ideal fodder for a motion picture, reminiscent of Tim Burton's 1994 comedy-drama Ed Wood. With James Franco both directing and starring, The Disaster Artist is an entertaining, funny and unexpectedly poignant comedic biopic, as well as an affectionate tribute to The Room that fans of the cult classic really ought to see.

Hoping to make it big as an actor, Greg (Dave Franco) is unable to swallow his inhibitions, but finds himself inspired by the utter fearlessness of fellow acting student Tommy Wiseau (James Franco). The pair strike up an unlikely bond based around movies and acting, though Tommy espouses an odd, indeterminate accent, and is very mysterious, refusing to answer any personal questions. With their friendship blossoming, Tommy offers Greg the opportunity to live in his apartment in Los Angeles, and both of them make the move, hoping to achieve their acting dreams. While Greg lands himself an agent (played by Sharon Stone) and is soon offered minor roles, Tommy is less successful, which frustrates him. On a whim, Tommy decides to write and self-finance his own passion project, The Room, for which he offers a major role to Greg. However, Tommy has no idea how to make a movie. Employing a small crew, The Room enters production, but it's a debacle from the start, and Greg's patience with Tommy begins to wear thin. As the shoot goes over-schedule, Greg can only hope that his career will survive.

Despite Franco's omnipresence in the marketing materials, the narrative is framed from Greg's perspective, which leaves Wiseau as an enigma. Tommy tells everyone he's from New Orleans (and denies having an accent), claims to be Greg's age, chastises people for talking about him, and deflects all questions about him, refusing to reveal how he appears to have unlimited funds. Franco thankfully does not fall victim to hero worship, showing how off-the-rails Tommy became during the shoot for The Room - he refuses to pay for air conditioning, mistreats co-star Juliette (Ari Graynor) while filming the (very uncomfortable) sex scene, and acts possessive when Greg is offered a small role in an episode of Malcolm in the Middle. The screenplay hews reasonably close to reality (in accordance with Greg's book), though certain events are altered, while other things are missing or truncated. For instance, in real life, The Room cast and crew members were constantly replaced, and there was more to the shooting of Wiseau's first scene as an actor. In addition, the movie sees Tommy quickly embracing The Room's unintentional hilarity at the premiere, which is fictional. However, The Disaster Artist is a dramatisation first and foremost, and it definitely works well enough as a self-contained movie to excuse any minor inaccuracies.

In spite of a scant $10 million budget, The Disaster Artist is competent from top to bottom; the cinematography by the brilliant Brandon Trost (The Interview, This is the End) is striking, and the spot-on recreation of the late '90s and early 2000s is ostensibly effortless. A considerable portion of The Disaster Artist is dedicated to The Room's production, exploring as many peculiar moments from the shoot as possible without losing sight of pacing. Since Tommy is the boss, the increasingly disgruntled crew are compelled to cater to his ridiculous whims - for instance, the movie is simultaneously shot on digital video and on 35mm, the shoot goes way beyond the forty-day schedule, and Tommy insists on laughing in response to a serious story about domestic violence. Members of the crew are both nervous and unsure about what they have gotten themselves into, while Tommy genuinely believes that he has written a powerful American story of betrayal. Nevertheless, despite the movie's many humorous moments, The Disaster Artist is not an outright mockery; Franco explores Tommy's feelings of inadequacy and alienation, and he is genuinely hurt when he hears his crew making fun of him or putting him down. 

Wiseau has publicly stated that only Johnny Depp or Franco could play him in a movie, and it's no surprise that Franco's Golden Globe-winning performance is a knockout. Although Franco's mimicry of Wiseau's bizarre Eastern European accent is not exactly spot-on, the transformation from a physical and vocal standpoint is still outstanding, and he truly embodies the man, fully committing to the material. Alongside him, Franco's brother Dave makes for a terrific straight man to Wiseau's eccentricities. The leading pair are so focused that it's easy to get involved in the story and forget that they're brothers. It's no wonder they share such palpable and effective chemistry. An amicable collection of actors fill out the ensemble, with the likes of Seth Rogen, Paul Scheer, Jacki Weaver, Zac Efron and Josh Hutcherson portraying The Room's cast and crew members, while Bob Odenkirk, Sharon Stone, Jason Mantzoukas, Hannibal Buress and many others also make appearances. Cameos are plentiful throughout The Disaster Artist, from Bryan Cranston playing himself, to Zoey Deutch (Franco's Why Him? co-star) and Randall Park (Kim Jong-un in The Interview) as acting students, and even producer Judd Apatow playing a Hollywood big shot. Wiseau himself even has a scene, though that's saved for after the end credits.

In the tradition of movies like Ed Wood and Bowfinger, The Disaster Artist is an engaging and edifying true-life chronicle, as well as a dramatically satisfying and entertaining motion picture in its own right. However, with the film clocking in at a lean 95 minutes excluding credits, it does feel a bit on the short side; there could have been more scenes on the set of The Room, and the editing process is not explored. Still, anything more might risk feeling like self-indulgence, and Greg was not involved in The Room's post-production. Devout fans of Wiseau's "masterpiece" will get the most out of The Disaster Artist, but even the uninitiated will be able to appreciate and laugh at this compelling dramedy. As a bonus, the ending is tagged with clips from The Room compared side-by-side with re-enactments by the cast of The Disaster Artist, which is a treat. Also, be sure to stick around for the post-credits scene featuring the real Wiseau himself.


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An entertaining Australian revenge thriller

Posted : 5 years ago on 14 March 2018 07:40 (A review of Fair Game)

A somewhat obscure "Ozploitation" action-thriller from 1986, Fair Game is more competent than its status as a cult VHS rental might imply. Reportedly produced for a scant $1.26 million, the film is overly simplistic and pared-down, clocking in at an economic 86 minutes which does not permit much time for significant character development, but it’s undeniably thrilling thanks to the superb stunt-work and taut editing. There are traces of revenge movies like I Spit on Your Grave or The Last House on the Left in Fair Game's narrative DNA, but the archetypal genre tropes are filtered through an Australian perspective, which gives it a unique flavour and more visual appeal. Exciting and entertaining, Fair Game deserves more recognition than it appears to receive.

An attractive young animal enthusiast, Jessica (Cassandra Delaney) runs a wildlife sanctuary in the Australian outback, spending her days tending to the needs of the local fauna. However, she is confronted by a trio of kangaroo hunters - Sunny (Peter Ford), Ringo (David Sandford) and Sparks (Gary Who) - who begin hunting animals on her sanctuary. Jessica tries to put up a fight to protect the animals, but this only shifts the hunters' attention to her. Stranded at her homestead after her car breaks down, and with no phone to call the police, Jessica is left to fend for herself as the kangaroo hunters begin to terrorise and abuse her, with potentially lethal consequences.

With a script credited to Rob George, Fair Game's narrative is almost defiantly uncomplicated, and the story admittedly proceeds with flimsy slasher movie logic - after all, there's no real reasonable motivation for the three hunters to begin terrorising Jessica outside of simply being bored. She does interfere with their poaching, but reacting by torturing and trying to kill her is a bit extreme. In addition, character development is slim at best - outside of a few surface-level attributes like being an animal lover, Jessica has no discernible personality. Apparently the film ran considerably longer in earlier workprint versions before being cut down to its final length of 86 minutes, but none of the excised footage has been released. Perhaps there was originally meant to be more to the narrative and the characters, but one can only speculate. To be sure, the fact that the action starts early (the first chase is literally four minutes in) and scarcely lets up does make for fast-paced viewing, but the movie does start to feel a tad repetitive in its final third. The level of torture progressively builds in intensity and severity, but there is still not quite enough variety to sustain the movie.

Fair Game was shot by legendary Kiwi cinematographer Andrew Lesnie, who went on to shoot the 1986 Aussie crocodile flick Dark Age, all six Middle-earth movies, and many more. The beautiful Australian outback is, of course, the real star of this movie, and Lesnie's photography wonderfully shows off the outback landscapes, while the action sequences are comprehensible and well-shot. Shot on grainy 35mm film, there's a gritty, visceral intensity to the production, with the homestead and all of the vehicle feeling authentic and lived-in, while the stunts and pyrotechnics hold up all these years on. The stunt-work is simply outstanding, with intense chase sequences and breathtaking set-pieces, the likes of which would require digital effects if the movie was produced in the 21st Century. There's a genuine thrill inherent to watching perilous stunts from this pre-digital era, before CGI could be used to enhance action set-pieces or even remove safety wires. Fair Game really feels like more than just another VHS cheapie, as Mario Andreacchio's direction is surprisingly assured, production values are convincing, and the film editing by Andrew Prowse (The Siege of Firebase Gloria) is tight. Also commendable is the design of The Beast, the truck that is driven by the kangaroo hunters. The visuals are nicely complemented by Ashley Irwin's original score, which is on the cheesy side at times, but is effective and exciting more often than not.

Delaney (who slightly resembles a young Linda Hamilton) was only in her early 20s at the time of shooting and did not have much feature film experience, but she throws herself into the role both physically and mentally. It's a convincing performance, and precisely what Fair Game needed to anchor the story. The kangaroo hunters, meanwhile, are easy to dislike, and the actors do an adequate job with the material for the most part, stilted though they occasionally may be. Dialogue is not always successful, however, with some tin-eared chatter that needlessly underscores the on-screen action when purely visual storytelling would have been sufficient and, frankly, superior.

With its energetic direction, snappy pace and rousing action set-pieces, Fair Game is better than it probably had a right to be, though don't expect any underlying themes or emotion. This is hollow but well-executed Ozploitation, pure and simple, and it thankfully never feels too uncomfortably sadistic or in poor taste. Although the film is brutal when the occasion calls for it, the violence does admittedly feel relatively tame, even for a 1980s production. Certain moments are on the histrionic side, and the movie never exactly feels expensive, but Fair Game has aged gracefully for the most part, which is a huge credit to the filmmakers. For those who enjoy old-fashioned revenge thrillers, this Aussie production should prove to be a satisfying sit.


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An insanely fun British action flick

Posted : 5 years ago on 26 February 2018 09:50 (A review of Accident Man)

More than just another cheap, nasty direct-to-video action movie, 2018's Accident Man actually represents a long-gestating passion project for star/co-writer/co-producer Scott Adkins, and his enthusiasm shines through in the finished product. An adaptation of the "Accident Man" comic strips from the early 1990s written by Pat Mills and Tony Skinner, there is so much flavour, wit and charm to the picture, which elevates it above any number of other low-budget action titles currently flooding the marketplace. Admittedly, there might not be much originality to the narrative, as it boils down to a revenge story with little in the way of surprising twists or turns, but it's a hugely entertaining watch nevertheless, invigorated by the details of this assassin underworld and a goofy sense of humour.

A ruthless assassin, Mike Fallon (Adkins) is known as the "Accident Man," as he specialises in methodically eliminating targets and making each death look like an accident. Fallon is a member of an underground league of assassins ruled by Big Ray (Ray Stevenson), while Milton (David Paymer) takes care of liaising with clients and assigning the contracts to the appropriate killer/s. But when Fallon's ex-girlfriend Beth (Brooke Johnston) is found dead after an apparent burglary, and another assassin tries to kill Fallon, he believes that there's more to the story. Confiding in Beth's devastated girlfriend Charlie (Ashley Greene), Fallon suspects that fellow assassin duo Mick (Michael Jai White) and Mac (Ray Park) were involved in Beth's killing, forcing him to put his life in jeopardy as he becomes determined to find out who put out the hit. Meanwhile, his own crew are ordered to hunt him down.

At first glance - with the picture's voiceover narration, excessive violence, sense of humour and assassin bar - Accident Man does look like a British Deadpool rip-off, but that's an erroneous assumption. The comic book source on which the movie is based actually went to print before a single "Deadpool" comic was published, and Adkins had been working on the screenplay with Stu Small long before 2016's Deadpool lit up the box office. Despite the writers' inexperience (it's the first screenplay credit for both men), the script represents an agreeable adaptation of the first Accident Man comic book story, with little touches to modernise the material. Furthermore, whereas most modern superhero franchises feel the need to spend an entire feature exploring its protagonist's origins, Accident Man only spends fifteen minutes showing how Fallon got his start as an assassin, set to voiceover narration by Adkins, revealing everything that we need to know. On that note, Fallon's introduction is note-perfect as well, observing the professional contract killer carrying out a job (and taking a selfie with the corpse) before blowing off some steam by deliberately getting into a bar brawl.

With a meagre budget, there was no leeway for any large-scale, CGI-laden action set-pieces, and therefore Accident Man relies on the martial arts prowess of its stars to deliver thrills. Once the movie kicks into high gear at about the hour mark, the action is almost non-stop all the way through to the end credits. Smartly, the cast is filled out by capable fighters - aside from Adkins, there is also the likes of Jai White (Black Dynamite) and Park (Darth Maul in Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace), while actress/stunt-woman Amy Johnston (playing Jane the Ripper) proves to be adept with a samurai sword. It's a treat to watch these seasoned professionals throwing down, aided by outstanding fight choreography and smooth camerawork which ensures that we can always comprehend what's going on. Luckily, there's enough variety to the bruising, brutal action set-pieces to prevent things from feeling repetitive or monotonous, and pacing is assured. Outside of a few moments (including a shonky climactic decapitation), Accident Man fortunately doesn't feel necessarily cheap - it's a slickly-constructed undertaking on the whole, with director Jesse V. Johnson making the most of the limited funds at his disposal. (Of course, it may appear cheap to those smug hipsters who download a low-quality pirate copy, but it looks top-notch in pristine high definition.) Johnson is something of a direct-to-video action luminary, having previously helmed Savage Dog with Adkins (among many other flicks), making him a perfectly sufficient directorial choice.

Adkins has appeared in a few major motion pictures, but they often fail to take advantage of the actor's insane abilities. Hell, in the likes of Doctor Strange and The Expendables 2, he was just a henchman with minimal screen-time. Accident Man, however, is the star vehicle that Adkins has always deserved, showcasing his terrific martial arts skills as well as his innate charm as a performer, and it's therefore a bit of a shame that this movie isn't a bigger deal. The comic book portrayal of Fallon was a bit more refined with more expensive tastes, but Adkins is nevertheless an ideal pick; he's gruff yet charismatic, making the character his own. And unlike his iconic role of Boyka in the Undisputed sequels, Adkins gets to make use of his natural English accent here. There's a sizeable ensemble of assassins in Accident Man, and the movie efficiently introduces them one-by-one before getting into the story proper.

Permeated with a distinctively British sensibility in its dry sense of humour and use of songs, Accident Man will appeal to fans of Adkins and should satisfy those who like the comics. Hell, movie-goers just seeking a fun time should find a lot to like about this actioner. It never takes itself too seriously and it definitely wears its R rating on its sleeve, which makes this an easy recommendation for fans of '80s and '90s genre flicks, but it's probably not a movie for the easily offended. Fast-paced and lean at 105 minutes, Accident Man is an insanely fun independent British action flick, as well as a pleasingly accurate representation of the source material. With its unique energy and flavour, you will be left yearning for a sequel.


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