About This Blog

A place to find my reviews not featured on epinions.com or horror-asylum.com, as well as opinions and lists on everything from movies to TV to music. It's all about me! Send hate mail to vegie18th@hotmail.com or just leave a comment beneath the posts. Review grading system assumes C+ is somewhere in the vicinity of a Passing grade or minor fail.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Review: The Devil’s Playground


Set in Australia in the 50s at a Catholic boarding school for youngsters interested in becoming part of the Brotherhood, Simon Burke stars as young teen Tom, who although dedicated, has issues with masturbation and sinful thoughts, and also wets the bed. Meanwhile, the authority figures are having their own struggles, with somewhat laidback, beer-loving Brother Victor (Nick Tate), and borderline psychotically repressed Brother Francine (Arthur Dignam) both tempted by pleasures of the flesh. Thomas Keneally (!) turns up as a visiting priest, Charles McCallum and Jonathan Hardy play two of the Brothers, Anne Phelan tries to pick up Tate in a pub, and her “Prisoner” alum Sheila Florence plays an Irish cook (Oh no, don’t put Lizzie in charge of the tucker!) at the school.

 

I don’t know if it’s because the TV miniseries sequel deals with darker subject matter or if it’s my own bias rearing its head, but this 1976 directorial debut from writer-director Fred Schepisi (“Roxanne”, “Evil Angels”) is a bit lighter and more innocuous than I was expecting, for the most part. Instead of paedophilic priests (subject matter that perhaps is more modern than this film’s era), the film is really about the stifling atmosphere of a Catholic boys’ boarding school on both staff and students, the latter being in the midst of a sexual awakening (If you ask me, the Catholic church really shouldn’t be involved in guiding youngsters on the verge or in the midst of puberty, and not for the reason you’re thinking, either. I just don’t think they’re equipped for it. Others may disagree, which is fine. I’m neither an expert on education, child development, nor Catholicism). Apparently semi-autobiographical, it’s an interesting look at a time and world that I’m not especially familiar with.

 

Future “Play School” host Simon Burke gives a very brave debut film performance, having to engage in both masturbation and mutual masturbation scenes, as well as playing a chronic bed-wetter. It’s awkward stuff, but intentionally so, and Burke (currently starring in the TV miniseries sequel as I write this in September 2014) handles himself with great maturity, and probably deserved his AFI award. The one you’ll remember, however, is the underrated Arthur Dignam, whose portrait of sexual repression driven to breaking point is mesmerising. Charles McCallum also shines as the aging Brother Sebastian, who basically tells Burke he should leave the school and live life to its fullest rather than submit his entire life to serving the church and God. Celebrated author Thomas Keneally is interesting casting as a visiting missionary Father Marshall, who initially comes across as affable and cheery, and then delivers the most incredible fire-and-brimstone description of eternal damnation you’ll ever hear. It was almost scary enough to have me praying to every deity I could think of, and I’m an agnostic atheist! I must say, though, that my modern perspective and general distrust of the Catholic church might’ve led me to see Keneally’s early scenes as more creepy than cheery and affable, as they were most likely designed to be. He made my skin crawl to be honest. Still, for a non-actor, Keneally is surprisingly solid, though both he and the director don’t seem to recall his performance too fondly for some reason.

 

Less effective is the frankly miscast Nick Tate (who nonetheless was the co-winner of the Best Actor AFI with young Burke). When you see him out of his formal clothes and in the pub, you feel like that’s where he belongs, he just doesn’t seem like a teacher, let alone a Catholic one. That, and an early scene where he seems a little too obsessed with kids having erections and their sexual orientation (and uses some very unholy language to boot) led me to be completely befuddled by the film’s ending. It was only on reflection that I realised that his character was meant to be somewhat liberal and well-meaning in comparison to some of the other teachers. Casting someone other than Tate (not a terribly affable presence onscreen. Remember “The Coolangatta Gold”?) would’ve helped this confusion somewhat.

 

Nonetheless, this is interesting, occasionally powerful stuff, and a helluva subject for someone to take on as their film debut. If you can remove any prejudices or pre-conceived notions you might have of what the film is about (which are likely to be wrong), and see it for the awkward coming-of-age-in-a-repressed-institution story that it is, the film is worthy. Dignam is particularly outstanding.

 

Rating: B-

Friday, September 19, 2014

Review: Toy Story 2


A sneaky toy collector (voiced by Wayne Knight) nabs Woody (voiced by Tom Hanks), and the toy cowboy is lumped with prospector Stinky Pete (voiced by Kelsey Grammer) and cowgirl Jessie (voiced by Joan Cusack), as Woody learns that in another life he was the star of a 50s TV series called ‘Woody’s Roundup’. But can Woody’s new/old family be trusted? Back at Andy’s home, Buzz Lightyear (voiced by Tim Allen) rounds up the troops for the rescue mission. Along the way we find Barbie (voiced by Jodi Benson), Mrs. Potato Head (voiced by Estelle Harris), plus an imposter Buzz Lightyear doll (with a pretty small ‘enhancement’ four years after the first one hit the shelves…bit dubious, but OK) that causes havoc at one point.

 

I enjoyed all three “Toy Story” films, and there’s not all that much difference in quality amongst them. However, I’d put this 1999 sequel from directors John Lasseter (“Toy Story”, “Cars”), Ash Brannon (who helped with the animation for the other two films), and Lee Unkrich (who went on to direct “Finding Nemo”, and “Toy Story 3”) slightly ahead of the others. They all have their flaws, but this one manages to fix all of the flaws in the previous film, has an even better clip, and Joan Cusack’s cowgirl Jessie is a perfect addition.

 

The first thing one notices is that it is leaps and bounds ahead of the first film in the animation, in just four years. It looks much more textured, and Woody in particular looks much more refined. It seems like a much more confident film, whereas the first film had the task of being first out of the blocks, a pioneer in computer animation. Meanwhile, the previously annoying Buzz Lightyear is infinitely more likeable here now he knows he’s a toy, whilst Estelle Harris makes for an excellent Mrs. Potato Head. “Seinfeld” co-star Wayne Knight (Newman!) is an excellent choice for the film’s human villain, but having a guy who profits from selling toys as a villain was awfully short-sighted for 1999. Almost everyone does it now, and there’s even TV shows dedicated to the buying and selling of collectables and toys (The highly watchable “Toy Hunter” springs immediately to mind). There’s simply nothing wrong with that, but because this film is primarily aimed at kids and centred on the love between toys and their child owners (sigh), anything grown-up is seen as wrong. I get it, but I don’t get it, if you know what I mean. It’s almost offensive, and this along with the third film’s idea of holding onto toys until college age holds me back somewhat from loving the films as much as others seem to.

 

I also disagreed with the notion that the family dog was on good terms with the toys. Anyone who has ever owned a dog or cat knows to call bullshit on that one. The other problem with the film? The miscasting of Kelsey Grammer as the voice of prospector Stinky Pete. Grammer has a very distinctive voice and doesn’t often waver from the voice we know and love as Frasier Crane. It suited the Machiavellian villain Sideshow Bob on “The Simpsons”, but under no circumstances whatsoever should Grammer’s high fallutin’ Frasier Crane voice be used for a prospector named Stinky Freakin’ Pete. He looks like Burl Ives and sounds like an American theatre actor trying to sound English or at least Shakespearean. It’s all wrong, he’s far too identifiably Frasier-esque, and it took me out of the film a little.

 

And yet, as I said earlier, this is my favourite film in the trilogy. I may not like Stinky Pete, but the idea of Woody having this secret past as a TV show character on a wild west show is excellent. Does it make sense that Woody is so old that he had his own B&W TV show? Nope, but if it were in colour, the idea would be great, so I won’t harp on about that too much. Meanwhile, the humour is still there, with the late Jim Varney getting off a great line; ‘I may not be a smart dog, but I know what road kill is’. The trip to the Barbie toy isle is the greatest thing in the history of great things. Love it.

 

There’s a lot to enjoy here and this is one of the rare sequels that is better than the original. However, while it fixes all the flaws of the first film, it’s not without flaws of its own, either and thus I probably didn’t enjoy it as much as others might. Based on a story by Brannon, Lasseter, Andrew Stanton (“Toy Story”, “Toy Story 3”), and Pete Docter (co-director of the overrated “Up”), the screenplay is by Stanton, Doug Chamberlain, Rita Hsiao, and Chris Webb.

 

Rating: B-

Review: Toy Story


The adventures of a group of toys owned by young Andy (voiced by John Morris), who come to life when he’s not around. The main plot centres around the arrival of a new toy, egotistical ‘space ranger’ Buzz Lightyear (voiced by Tim Allen), a pompous arse who thinks he’s a real space ranger. The fact that Andy is playing with this new toy especially hits cowboy doll Woody (voiced by Tom Hanks) really hard, as he was previously Andy’s favourite. However, the other toys start to believe in Buzz’s hype, making things even worse for Woody. Even worse than that? The fact that Woody accidentally causes Buzz to end up in the neighbouring backyard, home to a toy-destroying little bully of a kid. Now it’s the space hero who needs rescuing, whilst the other toys accuse Woody of jealousy-motivated attempted murder. Don Rickles voices Mr. Potato Head, R. Lee Ermey voices the leader of a group of toy soldiers, and John Ratzenberger is the voice of Hamm, a piggy bank (which is a pretty shitty excuse for a toy if you ask me. I bet one of Andy’s relatives is a humourless accountant).

 

Anyone who says they don’t enjoy the “Toy Story” films is a lying fool or completely dead inside, but I must say, they aren’t even close to my favourite animated films (“Pinocchio”, “Peter Pan”, and “Robin Hood”, in case you were wondering). The premise behind these films is lovely, but by the third film, it became problematic because you were meant to take seriously and get all misty-eyed at the prospect of throwing away your toys on your way to college. As someone who gave away their toys in the first year or so of high school (like a normal person), that cinematic conceit left me a tad cold. All three are entertaining, though, even if this 1995 originator from director John Lasseter (“Toy Story 2”, “Cars”) doesn’t hold up so well in 2014 on the animation front.

 

Yikes, does this look kinda ugly and outdated at times. That’s the problem with computer-based FX and animation, it dates quicker than more traditional stuff ever did. For 1995, it was top-notch stuff (As someone who can vividly call every film I saw in cinemas in 1995- not that many, admittedly- thinking about 1995 nostalgically makes me feel very, very old, by the way), and was the first feature-length film of its kind. It’s with the character of Woody that you can see how outdated the animation is. It looks a bit crude at times, though part of that may be the fact that Woody seemed to become more streamlined in the other films, whereas here he looks more like a ventriloquist’s dummy (intentionally, to an extent, as the next film plays into that).

 

The film is nonetheless still entertaining, with a fun cast of characters (led undoubtedly by Tom Hanks’ Woody), and some good gags. I’ve never been partial to Don Rickles brand of insult humour, but he gets the film’s best line early on when his face is improperly rearranged: ‘Look, I’m a Picasso!’. There’s also a great homage to “Temple of Doom” featuring a giant, rolling globe. The funny one-liners and references come thick and fast, making sure adults will get just as much out of this as kids. Meanwhile, the climactic revenge on the neighbourhood kid who likes to pull toys apart and blow them up was cute too. The third film dealt with the end of childhood, and the passing on of toys to another generation. This first film’s theme is that of the threat of a new toy. It’s cute and works a whole lot better than the third film’s premise because it’s aiming smaller.

 

But I’m going to be a touch controversial and say: Buzz Lightyear is an unlikeable, delusional, pompous arse of a character. I hate him. Always have, always will, especially in this one. You see, in this one, Buzz doesn’t realise he’s a toy, but every other toy does. The second film was immediately better for having Buzz settled in to being a toy, but even if the idea is that he’s ‘new’, it comes across as silly and annoying to me. He hadn’t seen the ‘Made in Taiwan’ mark before? Really?

 

Also, perhaps only slightly less controversial, is my view on alleged genius singer/songwriter Randy Newman. Some consider Mr. Newman to be genuinely talented. I’m not one of them (aside from “Three Amigos!” of course), and I wish he’d stop strangling that poor cat throughout this film.

 

I like this film, but I think the fact that I was 15 when it first came out, and didn’t even see it for a few years anyway is telling. If you were a kid in 1995, this series probably means a lot to you. I like all three films, but I like a lot of films. It’s an entertaining, fast-moving, and really sweet film, and I respect the fact that many of you will think even more highly of it and its sequels. I guess I’m just more of a “Monsters Inc.”, “Monsters University”, and (especially) “Rango” kinda guy. The Oscar nominated screenplay is by  Joel Cohen (“Pass the Ammo”, “Cheaper By the Dozen”), Alex Sokolow (“Cheaper By the Dozen”), Andrew Stanton (“Toy Story 2”, “Toy Story 3”), and Joss Whedon (creator of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”).

 

Rating: B-

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Review: The Great Gatsby (2013)


Set in the hippin’ and the hoppin’ 1920s New York, with Midwesterner Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) having moved there to work in the world of bond trading. It’s here that he finds himself immersed in and intoxicated by the glitz and glamorous high society world of his cousin Daisy (Carey Mulligan) and the elusive but charming millionaire Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), a man fond of throwing parties and the phrase ‘old sport’. Gatsby is in love with Daisy, who is married to racist and philandering crook named Tom Buchanan, who is carrying on an affair with Myrtle (Isla Fisher, looking like a redheaded Betty Boop), in turn married to auto shop owner George (Jason Clarke).

 

Baz Luhrmann (“Australia”, “Moulin Rouge!”, “Romeo + Juliet”) and I simply don’t see eye to eye. His vision doesn’t interest me all that much, and he has yet to make a film that I’ve liked. That trend continues in this hyperreal 2013 adaptation of the celebrated F. Scott Fitzgerald novel. I’ll say one thing, though, Baz has yet to make a movie I absolutely hate (“Strictly Ballroom” comes closest, and even that isn’t terrible, just off-putting and garishly caricatured), and is pretty consistent. I’d probably give all of his films the same score. In fact, this one might just be his best film yet…narrowly.

 

It starts out well enough, with cute 1920s-ish production/distribution logo credits. It seemed all very attractive early on, with the production design and all. But then it all kinda goes to hell because of Baz’s anachronistic and hyperreal ‘theatre’ vision that I just find myself repelling from. Baz would clearly rather be a theatre darling. Great, then bugger off to the theatre, Baz, stop making movies. He has created a film with a ghastly hyperreal visage and an even ghastlier, anachronistic hippity hop soundtrack, that there’s no credible justification for. The film has simply been overproduced, with CGI backgrounds so fake-looking that they make some of the projection shots from 60s-era Hitchcock films (think “Marnie” in particular) look like documentary footage. It looks like the actors are performing in front of a green screen, and takes you out of the story. Beautiful, sure, it’s a helluva pretty film. It’s just not remotely convincing, and all the swooping CGI shots had me thinking Tobey Maguire was gonna don the red & blue spandex and start flying around.

 

The other issue is the choice of hiring Jay-Zed (shut up, he’s the one pronouncing the letter wrong, not me!) to produce the film’s soundtrack of hippity hop straight outta 1920’s Compton. I think a musical version of this story could actually work, but Baz doesn’t make traditional musicals, because he’s a toolbag who wants Jay Gatsby to get jiggy wit’ it, apparently. It’s the 1920s, use appropriate music, dude. Baz thinks that hippity hop is the modern equivalent of jazz from the 1920s. I understand what he means, but no one watching this film can possibly say that the images and music go together, not even rhythmically. They are in complete opposition to one another on every level. The music is far more offensive than the imagery, however, because at least the production design is of the period. I felt like I was watching a 1920s themed episode of “Dancing With the Stars” (which indeed Luhrmann did turn up on to promote the film locally). In fact, I was half expecting Gatsby to ask Tom if he was down wit’ OPP (To a reply of ‘Yeah, you know me’ no doubt). Or to think of it in terms of both the sound and imagery, it’s like Jay-ZZzzzz has thrown a big 20s party, rather than an actual movie with a genuine plot and characters to care about. The approach covers every aspect of the film, so it feels like even the non-party scenes are empty spectacles. It's too much flash, which is a shame because a little of it isn’t too bad. In fact, one can’t accuse the film of being boring, it’s really quite an energetic film and occasionally infectious. It’s just too much muchness wrapped in glitter and sparkles.

 

The performances are a bit of a mixed bag, though at least the Aussie supporting cast are better with their American accents than in other films. In the lead roles, Luhrmann gets two out of three casting choices right, I think. One of those choices is someone most other critics have found to be miscast, Carey Mulligan. I think she’s incandescent and the best thing in the film. Luhrmann leading ladies have all been duds so far (Nicole Kidman in particular has been poorly served by the director on two occasions), but Mulligan is the best of the bunch by far, you just can’t take your eyes off her when she’s on screen. Tobey Maguire, meanwhile, is a good choice for bond trader/writer Nick, he’s easy for the audience to warm to and relate to in this film full of rich snobs and poseurs. As for  Leonardo DiCaprio, I think he’s unconvincing and miscast in this one. His entrance is embarrassingly camp, and he should never be encouraged to use the phrase ‘Sorry, old sport’ ever again. I assume he’s meant to be a poseur attempting a high falutin’ New England accent, but even for that, Leo botches it. Gatsby may be a poseur, but he’s meant to be a pretty convincing one. Leo comes across as too contemporary American to me, and strangely enough, it might’ve worked better if Baz had hired a Brit for the part, or at least someone who can convincingly do an upper-crust American accent. The late Philip Seymour Hoffman would’ve been good for it, say a decade ago (albeit not handsome enough, perhaps). But Leo is a put-on, playing a bit of a put-on, in a director whose style is kind of a put-on, and it’s just too much affectation. Leo fares best when the slick façade is dropped, as Gatsby’s nervous to reunite with Mulligan. Other than that, I just didn’t buy him. In a supporting role, Isla Fisher is quite fun and a helluva lot bustier than I remember her being on “Home & Away”, but Joel Edgerton just doesn’t cut it as a racist, cheating villain. He’s not quite as bad as the moustache-twirling buffoonery of Richard Roxburgh in “Moulin Rouge!”, but the role requires a much more brutish physical presence and intimidation that Edgerton lacks. Jason Clarke, as Fisher’s unpleasant husband, would’ve been much better in the Edgerton part, but I would’ve cast Edgerton’s “Warrior” co-star Tom Hardy myself. Speaking of Edgerton’s Tom (or more precisely, Gatsby himself), one has to ask if Gatsby would be seen as such a sympathetic (if aloof) character if Tom weren’t a racist prick? I think not, and it absolutely is a problem. I must give Luhrmann kudos for reducing the awful Vince Colosimo to a near-mute background cameo role, but when he does get a chance to speak, playing a simple shop keeper he sounds like a pathetically cartoonish 20s gangster cliché. My God that man can’t act to save himself. On the upside, Jack Thompson is always a delight to see on screen (playing Nick’s shrink), veteran Nick Tate has a fun cameo as a Noo Yawk cabbie, and there’s a fun role for another Australian, Max Cullen, if you can recognise him behind the beard and Mr. Magoo glasses.

 

This is exactly the film Luhrmann and co-screenwriter Craig Pearce wanted to make. I just personally didn’t enjoy it all that much, though it was a bit better (and taken more seriously) than expected. But if Luhrmann were capable of toning it down a bit, it’d be even better. Sadly, Mr. Luhrmann only has one mode of filmmaking: BROOOOAAAADWAY, BABY! I swear, he’s the Liberace of Liza Minnelli of filmmaking. You might consider that a compliment, and if so, you’ll probably like this film. I was somewhat ambivalent about it, but it’s not boring, just extremely jarring and artificial.

 

Rating: C+

Review: Man of Steel


We begin on Krypton, with the birth of Kal-El, son of Jor-El (Russell Crowe). Knowing his planet is about to be kaput (insert global warming message here), Jor-El sends his newborn child (the first natural birth on Krypton in ages, by the way) to Earth, so that he can continue living. This angers General Zod (Michael Shannon) who tells Jor-El that he will go to Earth, find his son and end him. Kal-El lands somewhere in Kansas, and is soon adopted by Kansas farm owners the Kents (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane), who know the infant is special and different but raise him as best they can. Years later, the adult Kal-El (played by Henry Cavill) is a brooding 33 year-old (A 33 year-old destined for greatness? That sounds like a certain carpenter I know) who hasn’t quite been able to deal with being so different and super-powered, coming off as somewhat of a loner. However, his occasional forays into miraculous derring-do attract the attention of intrepid reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams), who is determined to uncover his identity. Meanwhile, Zod plans on rebuilding Kryptonite on Earth, meaning the end to humanity as we know it. Oh, if only there was someone who could save us! Laurence Fishburne plays Perry White, Lois’ boss at the Daily Planet, whilst Harry Lennix plays a military man.

 

I’m gonna do my absolute best to prove that I’m not a total hypocrite for liking this 2013 Zack Snyder (“Dawn of the Dead”, “Watchmen”) take on the legendary superhero. It’s going to prove to be an interesting exercise at least. If you’ve read any of my reviews on comic book or superhero films, you’ll know that aside from “Watchmen”, I’ve resisted the modern approach of turning these films into mopey psychodramas (“The Dark Knight” trilogy), and just flat-out hate the “Iron Man” films’ mixture of superhero entertainment with real world geopolitics. So why do I give this film such a high rating when it too indulges in these modern tropes? Would you accept ‘Because it works’? No? Oh well, just remember when this exceedingly long essay is finished that I gave you the easy way out and you declined, OK? On with the review…

 

I consider Richard Donner’s 1978 “Superman” to be the standard bearer of all superhero films. It’s a bloody masterpiece of comic book entertainment. So let’s get one thing out of the way immediately: This isn’t that film. At all. And so whilst some comparisons are inevitable, I overall tried not to let it get in the way of my overall assessment of this film. You see, this is the right “Superman” film for the era in which it has been made. It’s not my “Superman” film, but Snyder makes a much better stab at a modern take on the superhero than Christopher Nolan (who amusingly enough co-wrote the film, doing a better job on someone else’s film than his own “Dark Knight” trilogy!), Jon Favreau (“Iron Man”, “Iron Man 2”), and Shane Black (“Iron Man 3”) have with their own superhero films. They tried to do what this film does, but Snyder gets the balance between dramatic weight and action entertainment right. It’s balanced and never too dark that it stops being fun. Even when it seems to evoke real world concerns, I’d argue that Superman can take that weight on his shoulders, as he has always seemed like Earth’s protector (THE superhero, perhaps), whereas Batman was more insular and concerned with Gotham. Sure, this film gives us Smallville and Metropolis and nothing much else, but it’s obvious that the villainous threat here is much, much bigger. So the 9/11 imagery being evoked isn’t merely cheap exploitation. This is Superman and he saves the Earth. Do I miss the charm and romance of the 1978 film? Yes and no. I can still watch the original any time I want, and such an approach wouldn’t really befit a Superman of 2013. I respect Snyder for fearlessly making this his own, and pulling it off. It’s better than expected and the best of the modern superhero films by far.

 

To be honest, the look of the film was the biggest problem for me. The scenes on Krypton were my favourite in the 1978 film, and this fails in comparison. All the CGI creatures here and metallic screen thingies were just unnecessary to me, Krypton just doesn’t look as interesting or unique. The CGI is frankly not very impressive, either, including an unconvincing tornado. The cinematography by Amir Mokri (“Freejack”, “Transformers: Dark of the Moon”) in particular is wildly uneven. It’s unnecessarily shaky handheld stuff at times, which actually looks genuinely amateurish, like it’s a mistake or something. The lens flare epidemic, meanwhile has reached this film too, and worse than ever. We get horizontal lines that look like errors. Why do they do this? WHY? The actual photography is way too muted and filtered for my liking, it’s drab and murky, despite some excellent shot composition throughout. Snyder has a genuine eye, it’s just that it has been ruined by either a too dark palette, digital photography, or some 3D bullshit getting in the way. Whatever the cause (likely a combo of all three), the film simply should’ve looked brighter. The tone of the story is dark enough as it is. The first sight of Superman in full costume is undeniably iconic, and the snowy setting is cool…but the stupid fucking lens flares get in the way of that, too. The Fortress of Solitude, meanwhile, just doesn’t stand out in any way at all.

 

Some will find the action-oriented final act less interesting than the rest, but I think it’s an essential element for any superhero film to have. Some of the carnage is really well-done, with some of the best FX work in the whole film, and thankfully not too chaotic to look at. The film even finds a way to work in the iconic notion of Superman holding Lois in his arms and flying.

 

One thing Snyder and writers Nolan and David S. Goyer (writer of “The Dark Knight”) actually improve upon the original film with is in regards to Superman/Clark’s teen years. The original film was brilliant, but these scenes were the hokiest part of the film, largely because the kid playing teenage Clark was terrible and looked kinda awkward if you ask me, and not in an in-character kind of way. “Man of Steel” does a nifty job of jettisoning most of that period, breaking it up into flashback scenes that save time, give us the necessary bits, aren’t too hokey, and help the film tick along at a pretty nice pace, even if I generally prefer linear structures as a rule for most films.

 

Meanwhile, the cast is quite strong on paper and in actuality. Russell Crowe is a much better Jor-El than I had expected. The original was one of the few times I’ve liked Marlon Brando as an actor, and Rusty wisely plays the role as Rusty would, not Brando. He is one of two reasons why those disappointing-looking early scenes on Krypton work well enough. The other reason is the constantly scowling Michael Shannon as Zod, who I absolutely would not want to face in a staring competition. Shannon has immense, commanding power and charisma as an actor (“Take Shelter”, “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead”, “The Iceman”) but can be a little hard to rein in at times (His ridiculously unhinged turns in “Revolutionary Road” and “13” spring to mind). The role of General Zod allows Shannon to play big, bold, grim-faced and over-the-top, which he does very well indeed, even if he can clearly do more as an actor. Over-the-top isn’t always a bad thing, it just needs to fit the film. A “Superman” film, even one from a more grim and stark perspective, is certainly a more than acceptable vehicle for that acting approach. He immediately dominates the film, as most good movie villains do and gives the exact performance that the film and the character need. He’s one intense, scary fucker, straight up, no fuss. He’s nothing like Terrence Stamp’s Zod (quite the opposite, really), and that’s perfectly fine. It’s a different film, and a different take on the character (Something I could say about pretty much all the characters here, so I’ll try not to). I think the choice of Zod for the film’s lead villain was a right one too, as Lex Luthor (depending on the depiction I suppose) probably would’ve been a little too cartoony and Bond villain-ish to be a genuine threat in this more real world scenario.

 

If you’re gonna find an actor capable of standing up against the late Glenn Ford as Superman’s Earth father, then Kevin ‘Modern Day Gary Cooper’ Costner is a damn fine choice. He’s absolutely spot-on, showing that here and in “The Hatfields & McCoys”,  he can get it done when the script and role are right. I would’ve liked more scenes with him and the lovely Diane Lane (as Mrs. Kent), but that probably would’ve meant more scenes with teenage Clark, I guess. Something had to give, and that’s fine. How awesome is it that Diane Lane and Lois Lane are in the same film? Yeah, so only a weirdo like me will think of that, but still, it’s cool. I personally think Laurence Fishburne has too much presence and gravitas for newspaper tycoon Perry White, a rather colourless character. He’s fine, but the role is barely there, and he’d be better cast as a citizen of Krypton in my view.

 

I wasn’t initially sold on Henry Cavill in the title role when first hearing of the casting decision, to be honest. Although he might be a year or two too old for the part of Clark, the casting decision otherwise proves to have been the correct one. I miss the late Christopher Reeve and he will always be Superman/Clark Kent to me, but Cavill (who looks a bit like Reeve, actually and seems to channel his facial expressions at times) not only has the gravitas to BE Superman, he sells the weight of having to be Superman. This film definitely nails the burden of being different and special. I cannot deny that Cavill is a better actor than Reeve was, even if my idea of Superman (in movies and in real life as an advocate for stem-cell research and the disabled etc.) will always be the late Christopher Reeve. By the way, I really loved the scene where Superman gets a little too excited with his flying abilities and ends up crashing. It’s interesting and funny stuff.

 

I love Amy Adams but was initially worried that she wouldn’t be anything like the Lois Lane that Margot Kidder perfected in the original series. I quickly got over such irrelevant notions, however. She’s much better and less sweet than I was expecting in the role. I knew she was a great actress, it’s just that I didn’t know she could pull this particular role off. She does, putting her own stamp on the character, though it has to be said that the film isn’t all that interested with the Lois Lane character, which is unfortunate. I admire Adams nonetheless for going her own way with it, whilst not making the character unrecognisable. I initially liked the idea of having Lois investigate Superman as we are introduced to her, however I think I prefer the original film’s more linear structure, as this one ends up having to navigate some tricky waters by the end in order to give us Clark Kent, mild-mannered reporter.

 

This is a darker Superman film for a darker time, but it’s still heightened enough to be enjoyed as entertainment. Warts and all, this is one of 2013’s best films at the very least, and although it doesn’t remotely touch John Williams (or even reference that score) it certainly contains one of 2013’s best scores, by Hans Zimmer (“Gladiator”, “Inception”). So I ask you, does all this make me a hypocrite?

 

Rating: B

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Review: Dead in Tombstone


Danny Trejo plays a dead rock musician…er…outlaw who strikes a deal with the Devil himself (Mickey Rourke himself) to be resurrected for 24 hours in order to kill the bastard turncoat bandits who bumped him off in the first place, led by Anthony Michael Hall. If he brings the Devil these six souls (who, along with Trejo were planning on taking over a gold-mining town), he’ll save his own soul from an eternally Hellish fate. Or so Beelzebub says. I mean, he’s the Devil and he’s played by Mickey Rourke, after all. Dina Meyer plays a local widow whose husband was killed, leaving her vengeful towards Hall’s gang too.

 

Direct-to-DVD specialist Roel Reine has made a name for himself making films that are a damn sight better than they have any right to be but never quite good enough to recommend. “Death Race 2”, “The Marine 2”, and Steven Seagal’s “Pistol Whipped” all had their desirable elements, but were just shy of being worthwhile. Well, you can add this Satanically-tinged western from 2013 to the list of watchable but unmemorable films from Mr. Reine, who also serves as his own DOP here. He’s no Albert Pyun or Uwe Boll, and might one day direct a good film. I’ll be waiting in anticipation.

 

Scripted by Brendan Cowles and Shane Kuhn, the film is like “Machete” dropped into a version of “The Crow” set in the Wild West. And it’s better than it probably sounds from that gimmicky description. It’s certainly Reine’s most visually appealing and dynamically shot film (perhaps a little too much so, but the light and shadow are amazing), but although Danny Trejo is ideal, co-stars Mickey Rourke and Anthony Michael Hall bring nothing to the party, dragging the film down considerably. Rourke is really bizarre in this, but not in any compelling way. He looks bored and sounds dubbed, and the character is far more interesting than the way in which Rourke half-heartedly plays him. If ever a role was made for Billy Drago, this is it. Such a shame that Mickey Rourke ain’t no Billy Drago. Hall just hasn’t got the acting chops here to play a memorably nasty villain, he’s bland and boring. What a weak opposite number for the intimidating (if 60ish, bordering on 70ish) Trejo. I’d have cast Michael Madsen or Tom Sizemore in the part, personally. Or even William Fichtner if Reine could afford him (likely not). I’m not normally a Dina Meyer fan, but playing a gun-totin’ western woman, she’s well-cast here.

 

Is this any good? Nope, not really, but it looks fantastic and Danny Trejo is perfect. With a better supporting cast this could’ve been Reine’s best film to date. As is, it’s a bit empty inside. Oh well. At least it’s watchable, and the B-director has brought his A-game.

 

Rating: C+

Monday, September 15, 2014

Review: Journey to the West


When a local village appears to be terrorised by a bloodthirsty monster, Chen Xuan Zang (Wen Zhang) arrives on the scene, claiming to be a successful demon hunter (He’s also a Buddhist monk). His attempts at slaying this watery demon don’t go so well, because Chen Xuan Zang is a teeny bit crap, and possibly a charlatan. Thankfully, a much more accomplished demon hunter Miss Duan (Shu Qi) turns up and quickly brings the demon to an end. She laughs at her male counterparts tactics, which may or may not come from a nursery rhyme book. Later the two meet when set upon by a pig demon, who eventually escapes. Somewhere in all of this, Miss Duan bizarrely finds herself attracted to Chen Xuang Zang, who appears frightened by her advances. Instead, he flees to his Master, ashamed at his inadequate demon-hunting skills. The Master, however thinks that all he needs is to find the imprisoned The Monkey King (Huang Bo) and seek his help. The Monkey King, however, isn’t always a team player, and is in fact, a bit of a dick. Along the way, he bumps into Miss Duan again, who hasn’t given up on winning him over just yet, and won’t take no for an answer.

 

Meanwhile, several other demon hunters attempt to help fight the pig demon, including an old guy with a giant foot, and the rather effete Prince Important (Show Lo).

 

Like most films from director/co-writer Stephen Chow (“Shaolin Soccer”, “Kung Fu Hustle”), this 2013 fantasy co-written and co-directed by Derek Kwok (along with at least six other writers!), is crazy as hell and certainly flawed. Fans of the classic TV series “Monkey Magic” (which I didn’t like as a kid, but the 2008 film version was fun) will get a lot more out of this than most, I think, but I actually kinda enjoyed it. It’s loosely based on the 16th Century story that inspired “Monkey”, as well as the Jackie Chan/Jet Li fantasy “The Forbidden Kingdom”, among many other films and TV shows.

 

The film starts out as a mixture of monster movie, Chinese epic, and comedy, and surprisingly it works. I’m not normally a fan of the Jackie Chan-style slapstick and face-pulling, but aside from lead actor Wen Zhang’s occasionally annoyingly rubbery face, I found it amusing. In fact, hammy performance or not, the character of Chen Xuan Zang is comically pathetic and entertaining. Meanwhile, the monster here is just as much of an arsehole as the one in “The Host”, even attacking kids. Call me sick, but that had me grinning from ear to ear. The CGI is merely OK (better than some films with more $$ I could name, though), but creature design itself is really interesting, like a giant goldfish with teeth. But before you find yourself settling in for a tongue-in-cheek monster movie, the film reveals that this is no ordinary monster we’re seeing. No, the film gives us ‘demons’ that used to be humans, but were turned by something going wrong in their personal circumstances. That’s actually a really interesting idea, and I would’ve been happy if the film just dealt with this situation for 90 minutes, even with Wen Zhang mugging like crazy.

 

But then Shu Qi turns up as a more ‘legit’ demon hunter and is very funny, very cool, and steals the damn film. I seem to remember her being far more attractive in “So Close” than she appears here, so I actually didn’t recognise her at first. Nonetheless, she’s terrific in a film full of colourful and weird characters, some more enjoyable than others. The film is almost worth seeing just for one scene with a guy who has a malfunctioning special FX prop that won’t stop spurting fake blood, and no one wants to get close enough to help him. Meanwhile, I have no idea what the character of Prince Important is about, and I’m not sure I want to know. Also, this film seems to suggest that Buddha has his own sex manual. I have a feeling it’s all about masturbation techniques, though. Think about it.

 

I personally think the film gets a bit bogged down with the not particularly entertaining Monkey King (more sinister here than on “Monkey”, that’s for sure), though he’s more fun when taking on his animal guise. The makeup job on him is really quite good. You haven’t lived until you’ve seen a Monkey King take on a bearded old man with a giant foot.

 

This is ultimately a crazily entertaining film, and clearly one of Chow’s better efforts at the helm. Just prepare to be weirded out. It’s a very strange film, and more in line with a less violent “The Seventh Curse” than say a wuxia epic.

 

Rating: B-