Thursday, 29 December 2016

(Bad) Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising review

I missed it in theatres, but here is my review of the sequel to 2014's Neighbors (or Bad Neighbours, as it was called overseas).

Mac and Kelly Radner (Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne), our heroes from the previous movie are expecting another baby. Realising they no longer have the space, they have bought a new house. However, their current residence is in escrow so they have to stay in it for 30 days. And then the house next door gets some new tenants...

Neighbours 2 might not be as funny as the first one, but what this one does is turn what could have been a re-heated premise into something far richer than you would expect. Like the previous film, Neighbours 2 takes time to develop its antagonists, and while the gender switch could have been a gimmick, it makes for some more pointed commentary about double standards (in both the greek system and comedy).

Within the first few minutes of our introduction to our sorority sisters (Chloe Grace Moretz, Dope MVP Kiersey Clemons and Jonah Hill's sister Beanie Feldstein), the film quickly establishes their dilemma: thrown together by a particularly skeevy frat party (lit and shot like a Dario Argento movie) they decide to make their own sorority outside the system and the patriarchal power dynamics of the campus 'sisterhood'.

No spoilers, but there are some really great jokes, and the movie deserves kudos for not replaying the old hits. Sorry to disappoint all you NCIS: LA/Deep Blue Sea fans, but LL Cool J's scene is not in the movie. It's better to go in clean -- the trailers don't spoil the best jokes.

Performances across the board are terrific: Rogen and Byrne remain relatable and likeable, Zac Efron finds new layers within his muscled douchebag -- and gets most of the best laughs -- and the 'Sisters' are more than worthy substitutes for the last films' 'bros'. Moretz is a strong leader of the pack, and receives great support from Clemons (please give her some leads) and Feldstein (her too). It's a strong movie that manages to balance its mutual antagonists without implying demonising one or the other -- it's one of the movie's strengths.

Enough rambling from me. (Bad) Neighbo(u)rs 2 has the second best use of the Beastie Boys' song 'Sabotage' in a movie this year, and definitely worth a watch.

Monday, 26 December 2016

24K Magic review

Bruno Mars' new album is a love letter to the RnB of the eighties and early nineties, and one of the most enjoyable records of 2016.

Opening with the title track, Mars immediately gets you in the mood with a vocoder that evokes the electro-funk of Zapp & Roger. While the song features a sound clearly evocative of mid-eighties RnB (plenty of synth piano, drum machines and touches of vocoder), it never feels like an empty homage. The beat is tight, but it is not as repetitive as last year's "Uptown Funk", and it still feels like a Bruno Mars joint.

Built from similar components, "Chunky" is even better. A tight, strutting dance number with some nice touches of female backing vocals, it illustrates just how well Mars and his collaborators understand the music they are paying homage to. While there are synthetic instruments, they do not flood the entire song -- there is a use of space here that allows Mars' vocals to come through, and the listener to settle into the groove.

"Perm" is a James Brown-style funk track, with Mars doing a pretty good approximation of Brown's voice. There's not much more to it than that, but it's a fun song.

"That's What I Like" feels more like a ballad from the nineties. I
t's a decent album track but nothing that special.

On "Versace on the Floor", the nineties feeling is more pronounced. This is Mars' attempt at an anthem ballad ala Boys II Men. It might not be as instantly catchy as as their hits, but it's a solid song that could have used a little more personality. Mars re-creates the feel of the quartet by multi-tracking his vocals (at least, that's what it sounds like), so the effect comes off a little cold.

"Straight Up & Down" is another solid album track, with some good backing vocals and finger snaps. It's another "That's What I Like" in that it's decent filler.

Concluding with a sexy(?) celebrity cameo, "Calling All My Lovelies" is a great slow jam about a guy calling everyone in his black book after his favourite squeeze cuts him off, but getting no responses. It's a neat bit of satire, re-casting the typical soul lover-man as a gormless moron.

"Finesse" is Mars' new jack swing song, and it's one of the best tracks on the album. Featuring the same tinny production as a Teddy Riley track from the early 90s (e.g. Guy or Blackstreet), it boasts a great vocal from Mars and is extremely catchy -- which is the whole point really. I'm not a big fan of Riley, but Mars and co. manage to re-create the vibe minus Riley's slightly weedy sound (I'm more of a Jimmy Jam-Terry Lewis fan).

"Too Good to Say Goodbye" is a ballad co-written by Babyface, one of the key figures of the era Mars is trying to evoke. It's a bit too pungent for my taste -- I tend to run hot and cold on syrupy ballads from this era, and this one is a bit too close to those for me to really enjoy it. However, it is a good finale to the whole project.

Ultimately, 24K Magic is a really good pop record that manages to balance Mars' own style with being a time capsule of a specific era. If one goes from Track 1 to 9, it feels like aural journey from the sounds of the mid-eighties to the mid-nineties. Either way you cut it, it's a great soundtrack for the summer. 

Sunday, 25 December 2016

BITE-SIZED REVIEW: Wait Until Dark (Terence Young, 1967)

I've been a fan of Audrey Hepburn since I was a young 'un, and this is one of her best showcases. It helps that it is also one of the least 'Audrey Hepburn' movies she ever made. A cold, brutal thriller with a pitch black sense of humour, Wait Until Dark remains a terrific chiller nearly 60 years after its release.

Based on the play by Frederick Knott (Dial M for Murder), Wait Until Dark tells the story of Suzy Hendricks (Hepburn). Recently blinded, she is trying to come to grips with her new life. Living in a basement apartment with her husband, she spends her days navigating the claustrophobic confines of her home or at classes.

Little does she know that when her husband leaves for work, a trio of ruthless crooks are waiting to infiltrate their apartment to locate a consignment of heroin her hubby unknowingly brought into the country, concealed in a child's doll.

Slowly realising that the sudden stream of visitors are up to no good, Suzy has to figure out a way to defeat these evil men before they kill her.

Nowadays, Alan Arkin is mostly known for his work in comedies. In Wait Until Dark, he dials it all back to play 'Harry Roat Jr', the mysterious psychopath who sees nothing wrong with tormenting, blackmailing or killing anyone who gets in his way.

His vicious, mocking performance is the perfect complement to Hepburn -- he offsets the easy comfort of the veteran star's presence, turning what could have been a gimmicky thriller into something more unpredictable and unsettling. 

Playing Roat's flunkies, Richard Crenna (Rambo, Body Heat) and Jack Weston are ultimately just as helpless as Suzy. Forced to act as Roat's accomplices, they quickly grasp just how much trouble they are in, and their uneasy alliance with Roat provides an extra layer of tension to an already disturbing story.

While the cast are uniformly terrific, Hepburn is the heart of the movie. Having her in the lead works, not just in terms of audience identification, but her star persona is also a terrific misdirect. The audience goes into the movie with a certain series of expectations about her character -- innocent, child-like, maybe a bit lacking in agency -- and the filmmakers play on them with an exquisitely cruel touch.

Hepburn and Suzy are trapped in a movie they are not built for, and so watching the character struggle comes with an added meta-textual punch.

Wait Until Dark was directed by Bond alum Terence Young. A fine, underrated director, he brings a palatable sense of claustrophobia and danger to the film that prevents it from feeling as stage-bound as Hitchcock's adaptation of Knott's previous stage thriller Dial M for Murder.

A coarser, more visceral filmmaker than Hitch, Young creates a movie that feels far more modern than its pedigree would suggest. Once the cast is whittled down to Roat and Suzy, the movie suddenly feels extremely unsafe.

As heroine and villain scrabble around the darkened apartment, the movie begins to feel like the meeting point between the Gaslight-style thrillers of Old Hollywood, in which female stars were menaced by unseen intruders, and the more explicit thrillers and horror films of New Hollywood.

The last 20 minutes of Wait Until Dark is a masterpiece of escalating tension and false flags. Every time it feels like the story is heading into the home stretch, another obstacle lurches into view. It is excruciating.

While this year's Don't Breathe flipped the premise on its head, it cannot match the slowly escalating dread of Wait Until Dark. Featuring a great story, superb direction and a cast at the top of their game, it is an old-school thrill ride that never feels old school. Watch it with the lights out.

Friday, 23 December 2016

If you liked Bruno Mars' 24K Magic... might want to check out these artists.

The Gap Band

A big influence on '2015's Uptown Funk', the Gap Band were one of the biggest funk bands of the late 70s and early 80s. If you've been to a bar or listened to an oldies station in the last 30 years, you'll be free with at least some of their hits. 'Burn Rubber (Why You Wanna Hurt Me)', 'You Dropped a Bomb on Me' and 'Outstanding' are great, timeless tracks that remain highly influential on music today.

The S.O.S Band

When you start looking at 80s RnB, you're going to be spending a lot of time in the company of uber-producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. Members of the Prince-backed band The Time, they were fired from the band and became producers. The S.O.S. Band were their first big credit, producing their album On The Rise, and their first major hit 'Just Be Good To Me'.

Alexander O'Neal

A former bandmate of Jam and Lewis, O'Neal achieved a few chart hits, but never really found success in his homeland. His mid-80s hits 'What's Missing', 'Criticise', and 'Fake', along with his duets with Cherrelle, remain terrific examples of late 80s RnB.  Before Janet Jackson, O'Neal was the major beneficiary of Jam and Lewis's talents, and his 80s albums are as much a testament to their abilities as they are of O'Neal's great pipes. 

Janet Jackson

The pearl in the Jam-Lewis crown, the star-producers hit their stride with the Jackson sibling, and they have continued to work with her since 1986's Control. Name a song you like, and Jam and Lewis's fingerprints are probably all over it.

Karyn White

White's period of success was relatively brief, but produced some great music that helped to create the genre known as New Jack Swing -- a fusion of RnB with the aggressive textures and beats of hip hop. White had the benefit of great collaborators -- hitmakers Babyface and LA Reid oversaw her debut, while Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis took the reins for its successor, Ritual of Love.

New Edition

One of the great 80s vocal groups, following the release of their blockbuster Heart Break, New Edition fractured into a series of spinoffs -- Bobby Brown (who left before Heart Break was made), Johnny Gill and Ralph Tresvant spun off into successful solo careers, while the remaining members formed a popular trio -- Bill Biv DeVoe. This mini-industry helped to popularise New Jack and lay the groundwork for RnB in the following decade.

Click here for my review of Johnny Gill (1990).

Tuesday, 20 December 2016

BITE-SIZED REVIEW: Run (Geoff Burrowes, 1991)

We all have that one movie that we remember seeing on TV when we were little, and for whatever reason it stuck with you. For me, that movie is Run

Run is a 1991 thriller starring Patrick Dempsey and John Travolta's wife, Kelly Preston.

Dempsey plays law student Charlie Farrow. Charlie is a bit of a wise-ass, who likes gambling and fast cars. Unlike his rich friends, Charlie has to work as a part-time mechanic to keep himself afloat. When his boss offers him $200 (remember, 1991) to deliver a red Porsche to a client in Atlantic City, he jumps at the chance. 

Charlie's weekend adventure soon goes sour. First, the car breaks down and he has to pay for it to be fixed. And then things get even worse.

Charlie winds up at an illegal casino where he ends up in a high stakes poker game against a psycho, Denny Halloran. When Charlie keeps winning, Denny grows exponentially more violent and focused on beating him.

Taking a chance when Denny leaves to get more chips, Charlie tries to make an escape. Denny blocks his exit and attacks him. When Charlie dodges out of his charge, Denny trips, cracks his head on a counter and dies.

It turns out that Denny's father owns the casino, and through bribery and intimidation, the whole town. Soon, Charlie is a wanted man, with Halloran's goons and bent cops after his blood.

Run is not a perfect movie. While he is okay in the lead, Dempsey comes across as too much of a preening jackass to be entirely sympathetic. While the intention is clearly to knock Charlie off his pedestal and make him more humble, the transition is not implemented consistently. There are quite a few moments where the filmmakers forget the character and have Charlie throw out some action movie-style one liners. While there are only a few instances of this, they don't sit well with the movie's tone.

These few digressions aside, the movie is a pretty solid thriller. From the moment Denny dies, to the final showdown with his father, the movie's pace never flags and the set pieces -- while simple -- are well handled. The one dead spot is the relationship with Kelly Preston's character. She plays a world-weary dealer at the casino who witnessed Denny's death and gets roped in to Charlie's dilemma. Dempsey and Preston do not gel, and it is something of a relief that the filmmakers do not try to force a romance between them -- there's an attempt at flirtation, but Dempsey just comes off as a randy teenager hitting on a mature woman with better things to do.

The movie's main problem may be miscasting. While watching this movie I couldn't help imagining a remake of this with Shia LaBeouf circa-Disturbia. Heck, Dempsey now would be a better lead. He just comes off as too young and cocksure to be sympathetic.

In the end, Run is pretty good flick. I beat on him a bit, but Dempsey is fine as long as the filmmakers are not trying to make him likeable. The movie is at its best when it lives up to its title, which it does 75% of the runtime. Worth a look.

Saturday, 17 December 2016

Rogue One review

I used to be a huge Star Wars fan when I was a kid. So big, I burnt out about 15 years ago and haven't gone back. Watching the trailers for this movie made it look interesting, like a sci-fi version of The Dirty Dozen with Ip Man and Darth Vader. Sounds good.

Spoilers to follow.

If you've seen the trailers, you know the deal. Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen) is a rogue Imperial science officer who has hidden himself and his family to avoid working for the Empire. At the start of the movie, his boss Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelssohn) finds him and takes him back. In the process, his wife is killed and his daughter Jyn (Felicity Jones) runs away.

Years later, Jyn is an Imperial prisoner. She is freed by rebels, who want her to help them locate her father and what he has been working on. Accompanied by a ragtag group of rebel fighters, Jyn and Rebel spy Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) are in a race against time to locate the plans to this super weapon, before the Death Star is operational.

This movie has a weird case of uncanny valley, and I'm not even talking about CG Peter Cushing. The whole movie looks impeccable. Everything looks big and feels tactile, but that feeling dissipates whenever people start talking. It's not that the dialogue is that bad (although whenever anyone starts monologuing, set your eyes to 'roll'), but there is a humanity and empathy lacking from the early part of the movie which makes it hard to get invested.

For the first 40 minutes or so, it is impossible to latch on to anything. Scenes and locations zip by before they have a chance to land. You don't get a bead on the characters for a while, and it makes a good portion of the movie un-involving and dull. And then, as soon as the mission clicks into focus, and the story stops bouncing from place to place, the movie starts to resemble the one we were promised in the trailers.

And by the time the third act begins, with a guerrilla assault on an Imperial archive facility, the movie  revs up. The action works, but more importantly the characters begin to gel -- and all die. I was really worried that they were going to pull a fast one and save (some of) the cast, but no. It's great.

A word about the familiar players. Governor Tarkin returns for a surprisingly meaty role. The motion capture is generally pretty good, but human characters remain the hardest to do -- the focus on his face becomes distracting, especially when he's in scenes with Ben Mendelssohn, a human actor.

Darth Vader's role is small, but pretty effective (apart from the pun. Really?). This may be a result of the decision to shoot digital rather than film, but his mask and uniform do not look real. He looks like a guy in (good) cosplay. That aside, James Earl Jones' vocals are good, and Vader's appearance in the final battle is glorious. Gareth Edwards is terrific at giving icons great showpiece moments (think back to Godzilla), and he pulls out all the stops for Vader's set piece.

Overall, the cast do a decent job, despite the inadequacies of the script, but I doubt whether any of these characters will stick long in the memory. The worst done by in this regard are Jones and Mendelssohn. He's ostensibly the film's villain, but he is often relegated behind the franchises' more iconic characters. Considering he is supposed to be the object of Jyn's vengeance, that does not help the movie dramatically.

But the real black hole is our protagonist. The first act zips by so quickly, we never get a lock on who Jyn is. Jones does what she can, but the script never grounds her as a real person. 

On the bright side, all the supporting Rogues do get a little bit of character. Riz Ahmed is really good as the Imperial defector who helps the team get where they're going, Donnie Yen is fucking awesome as a blind man with unshakable faith and Alan Tudyk steals the show as the movie's resident droid. 

In the end, Rogue One is not as great as its marketing campaign. It's a decent movie, hampered by Gareth Edwards' weakness with characterisation and a terrible opening act. However, the movie does manage to get more exciting as it goes along, and by the time the movie enters the home stretch it's genuinely great. 

Thursday, 15 December 2016

BITE-SIZED REVIEW: Orphan (Jaume Collet-Serra, 2009)

This review contains spoilers. You have been warned.

Orphan is a 2009 horror movie that did idling business on release. It has much to recommend it, including solid performances by leads Vera Farmiga and Peter Sarsgaard, and strong direction from genre helmer Jaume Collet-Serra (who made all those post-Taken Liam Neeson movies).

The premise is pretty simple: a couple left grieving after the death of a child go to an orphanage to fill the void in their lives. They wind up adopting a charming Russian orphan, Esther (Isabelle Fuhrman), who quickly becomes a part of the family. However, little do they know that there is something wrong with Esther...

The most pleasing thing about Orphan is how unsafe it feels. Most modern day horror feels canned and predictable, but there is an unflinching quality to its darkness which makes Orphan better than its generic parts. The 'evil child' sub-genre has been around for decades, but most of these movies soft-pedal the scares, leaving the movies feeling neutered. Orphan manages to walk the line -- it is unsettling (especially during the final reveal) but it never becomes questionable.

Time for spoilers...

It is revealed that Esther is not a child: she is a 32 year-old woman! Having escaped from a Russian mental institution, Esther has been passing as a little girl, an orphan moving from one unsuspecting family to the next.

In a deranged attempt to find love, she ingratiates herself into established families solely to gain the patriarch's affections. When the father inevitably rejects her, a convenient accident happens to take place and Esther moves onto her next victims...

It's a crazy twist, but one that the filmmakers carry off with panache. Sure, the third act is nothing new -- our heroes creep around a house, trying to avoid a maniac -- but the movie has done such a good job at building the atmosphere and investing in the characters and their mad plight that it doesn't derail it.

A solid genre flick, Orphan is definitely worth a look.

Sunday, 11 December 2016

New podcast discoveries, 2016 edition

High and Mighty

The first big find of the year. Jon Gabrus is an improv comedian with no fame and no shame. Every week he invites a friend and fellow comedian on the show to discuss a topic Jon and the guest are vaguely interested in: from renaissance fairs, to owning dogs, to Taco Bell, to eighties action movies, the breadth of material they cover is impressive. Funny, irreverent and viciously self-deprecating, this one is not for all tastes.  As an inducement to get higher in the iTunes charts, Gabrus has mandated that he will only read five star reviews which roast him. One of the chief joys of the show is listening to Gabrus read these reviews, as his fans take issue with everything from his Long Island accent to his weight and his dead dad. The depths they will fall to in order to get on air is... jaw-dropping.

My Dad Wrote A Porno

HOLY SHIT. I only just heard about this podcast. The premise is exactly what you think it is. Jamie's dad has started a side-career in self-publicised smut, and together with friends Alice and James, he reads his dad's opus, one hilariously inept chapter at a time. Prepare to laugh your head off as our incredulous heroes struggle through incomprehensible bodily positions, pointless scene description and excruciating syntax. The podcast has become a massive hit, with celebrity fans (and guests) including Elijah Wood, Daisy Ridley and Michael Sheen.

Slate's Whistlestop

On a more mature note, this podcast is one that might add something to your day. Hosted by US journalist John Dickerson, this highly entertaining and informative podcast discusses the pivotal moments and scandals of past US presidential elections. Each episode is short and to the point, with Dickerson offering comprehensive (but never confusing) explanations for how specific elections turned out. In light of recent events, it is extremely relevant.

Blacklist Table Reads

The Blacklist is a list of the best unproduced scripts in Hollywood. On this show, a cast of actors and comedians read the best that Hollywood hasn't made. Comedies, action flicks, dramas and sci-fi epics all get a look-in, and you also get interviews with the writers, as well as special episodes focusing on recent (filmed) screenplays, such as Moonlight. Featuring sound effects and music, this show is like a deranged descendant of those old radio shows your granddad listened to. Check it out.

Monday, 5 December 2016

BITE-SIZED REVIEW: Equinox (1967)

This movie cost $6,500 and made no impact on release. Why is it worth reviewing?

It started as a student film made by a group of filmmakers who would go on to big careers, namely Dennis Muren, the special effects wizard behind Terminator 2 and Jurassic Park.

The story is simple. A group of teens go into the woods to visit their old professor and find his house destroyed. They soon realise that the old prof had discovered an ancient book which broke the fabric of reality and has thrown them into a bizarre world of monsters and demons. Will our clean-cut heroes get out alive?

This movie is poorly paced, the script is incoherent and the cast are horrible. The premise is vaguely similar to The Evil Dead, except if you replaced the Deadites with stop-motion beasties from a Ray Harryhausen movie.

The special effects are crude but effective. The only problem is the film around these sequences is garbage.

The various creatures are cool -- we get a couple of giants, a flying red demon and a giant Cthulhu-style octopoid. Sadly - due to the budget - these sequences are fairly short, and spaced fairly evenly through the movie.

Aside from these sequences (which you can find online), the movie is a wash. If you can find it, the DVD is worth checking out for the extras about Muren and how they came up with the special effects on a $1.98.

Thursday, 1 December 2016

BAD MOVIE JAMBOREE: Battleship (Peter Berg, 2012)

You know a movie is bad when the DVD has no extras and you have to sit through 10 ads just to get to the menu.

2012 was the year of Taylor Kitsch — only he probably wishes you’d forget it. John Carter and Battleship were infamous for their bloated budgets, mixed (at best) critical reception and box office failure. Sadly neither of these movies is the outright disaster they are made out to be. John Carter is a bland sword and sandal fantasy that cost way too much money and came out about six decades past its use-by date. 

Battleship tells the story of Alex Hopper (Kitsch). He's a loose cannon who is wasting his life away on pranks and drinking, until his brother Stone (Alexander Skarsgard) forces him to join him in enlisting in the Navy. Alex is one of those movie loose cannons who are super-talented but can't help getting in their own way. Being an idiot hasn't stopped him from getting a supermodel girlfriend (Brooklyn Decker) and becoming an officer on a ship (I lost interest in the specifics).

Aliens attack and Alex has to grow up fast in order to defeat the aliens and protect his crew. Blah. Blah. Blah. Boom.

The cast do their best. Kitsch is fine but has nothing to do as the hero -- especially considering he is just a collection of military outsider clichés. Decker is not terrible, but she wasn’t cast for her acting. Alexander Skarsgaard cannot hide his accent. 

Rihanna is kind of just there (as Alonso Duralde puts it, “She falls somewhere between Mariah Carey in Glitter, and Mariah Carey in Precious”). Liam Neeson is in it for minutes — probably too busy doing Taken movies. 

What is striking about Battleship is not that it is bad — it’s that it’s not that far from decent. The main flaw is the disjunction between the ridiculous premise and the earnest execution. This movie is working so hard to make us swallow this premise without laughing — and yet for every moment that clicks, another negates it with silliness. Director Peter Berg is a better storyteller than Michael Bay, but suffers from the same obsession with blind worship of images of American military might.

The movie has the same off-putting sense of sincerity and reverence for the military as Michael Bay's Transformers movies. Take that scene from Transformers 3 where Optimus Prime talks to Buzz Aldrin and stretch that awkwardness out for two hours -- that's Battleship. The movie includes a completely tone deaf subplot about a war veteran (played by real-life war veteran and double amputee Gregory D. Gadson) learning to walk on his new prosthesis. The juxtaposition of this real life trauma with CG aliens, swimsuit models, burrito gags and Rihanna is just wrong. 

In the end, Battleship isn’t memorably horrible. It’s just an expensive mediocrity. 

Wednesday, 30 November 2016

CASINO ROYALE: Ten years later

In his first mission, James Bond (Daniel Craig) goes head-to-head with Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen), an international financier of terrorism. After Le Chiffre bets against the stock market with his clients' funds and loses, he starts a high stakes poker game to quickly win it back before they find out what he's done. Bond is tasked with beating Le Chiffre and bringing him in. To help him he has Treasury agent Vesper Lynd (Eva Green) -- unlike his previous conquests, the combative and intelligent Vesper sees through his BS. Initially this puts Bond off, but as the game progresses and the stakes rise, the pair find themselves drawn together...

I cannot believe that Casino Royale is ten years old. It seems like only yesterday I was down at the Highland Park cinema (RIP) to catch the new Bond movie. I had heard good things going in, but I was somewhat trepidatious. The last Bond movie had been Die Another Day, a movie I had spent months looking forward to. That was the first time I remember being really disappointed with a movie, and it killed my interest in Bond for a while.

When Daniel Craig was announced as Bond, I was more interested in the other info in the announcement. The movie was going to be an adaptation of Ian Fleming's first Bond book, Casino Royale. This was more exciting to me -- the book is the best in the series but the Bond producers had never owned the rights.  I had read it several times when I was younger, and while I enjoyed the other books, Casino Royale was the one I kept returning to.

While the other novels diverge from the movies, they follow the same basic pattern as the film series -- Bond goes on a mission, meets a beautiful woman and kills a dastardly bad guy. Casino Royale always stood out -- not only was it the only book the series had not touched (I did not know about the 1954 TV movie or 1967 spoof until much later), it went against many of my assumptions about the character: Bond does not win the mission, loses the girl and feels every second of it. While the literary character has a certain vulnerability in the other books (throwing up after killing people; getting beaten up and tortured), Casino Royale is the only one where Bond felt human. He also did not feel particularly likeable. He's a trained killer who's deadened to ordinary human feelings, and is more interested in card games and his recipe for scrambled eggs and his favourite drink than pesky things like other human beings.

In these respects (the small scale, the lack of action, Bond's ambiguity and vulnerability), I always felt Casino Royale was a cut above the other books, and felt these elements made a potential Eon-backed film impossible. So when I heard the news that Casino Royale was finally going to get an official adaptation, I was excited but a little suspicious -- I was afraid the filmmakers would try to expand the story beyond its limits, and top load it with gadgets, action and all the other unnecessary BS that had sunk Brosnan.

The filmmaking team gave me mixed feelings. On the positive side, it was going to be directed by Martin Campbell, who had made Brosnan's best movie, GoldenEye. Phil Meheux, Campbell's favourite DP and another GoldenEye alum was also coming back. The one thing that made me nervous was that the screenwriters would be Robert Wade and Neal Purvis, the scribes behind Brosnan's last two movies. The addition of Million Dollar Baby scribe Paul Haggis blunted my misgivings, but I remember at the time feeling vaguely excited, but a little held-back.

And then other announcements came out. Casting. And this was where I started to get really excited.  Back in 2004, I was in hospital for a bit of surgery. I read an article about an up-and-coming actress who was making waves in Europe. I had taken a few books along for my stay, including Casino Royale. And while I was re-reading the book, I could not help but read the character of Vesper Lynd with this actress in mind. When Eva Green was cast, I could not believe it. This was also the point where I began to take this project seriously -- if a serious actress like Green was interested, then maybe there was something good here.

The next thing that made me excited was the first teaser trailer. More athletic and violent than I expected, this trailer was the first time where my preconceptions of what a Bond movie could be were shaken. It felt different. It felt cool. By the time I sat down to watch the movie, I was very excited.

The review

Craig's follow-ups have been hit-and-miss, but nothing can dent the impact of this, his first and best stab at the role. It almost would have been better if he had not made any sequels -- Casino Royale is a self-contained story that takes Bond's character as far as it can go. To watch any of Craig's other movies is to watch filmmakers -- talented no doubt -- struggle to come up with Bond-centred stories, while forgetting everything that made this movie great.

Going back to the book, one of the keys to Casino Royale's success is how small-scale it is. The stakes are high, but they are not as abstract as world annihilation. While Le Chiffre's actions will have horrible consequences, their most immediate will be the deaths of Bond and his cohorts. Like other great 'contained' genre movies like Die HardAlien or The Narrow Margin, the contained nature of the story clarifies the struggle between Bond and the villain, and creates an intimacy which makes the stakes feel more immediate.

It is here that the lack of a complicated scheme helps, because it allows the filmmakers time to spend on the characters and their relationships -- which is the main reason why Casino Royale works. It's not because of a sense of 'realism' or 'believability' -- this is, after all, a movie based around a simple game of cards, an insane parkour chase across a construction site, and a woman riding a horse along the beach. It's because the filmmakers care enough to flesh out the characters and make them relatable. As Die Hard proved, action is so much more impactful when you are invested in the characters.

To this, a lot of credit should go to screenwriter Paul Haggis. He was brought on to heavily revise the script, and while much of the basic structure is the work of Purvis and Wade, Haggis focused on fleshing out the characters, and added the third act in Venice which cements the movie. Ask any screenwriter, and third acts are the most important component.

Another person deserving of praise is director Martin Campbell. He deserves credit for honouring the visual vocabulary of the series while finding the tone and style appropriate for the story. He also deserves credit for keeping the movie's action clean and clear. He manages to shoot the action in such a way that feels visceral without cribbing from the Bourne movies' approach of hand held camera work and hyper-kinetic editing. In terms of its style, Casino Royale feels like the best eighties action movie that did not come out in the eighties.

Over and above all the spectacle, the reason Casino Royale works is the performances from the leads.

In my reviews of Spectre I made the point that the relationship between Bond and Madeline Swann felt short-changed. It's a pity that Craig's era has reverted to vacuousness of seventies Bond Girls, considering where it started. Outside of Judi Dench's M, Eva Green delivers the best female character the series has ever had. She is the only woman who can stand toe-to-toe with Bond, and the only one to ever affect Bond's character. 

Usually a female character starts strong (ala Pussy Galore) and then gets 'turned' by Bond's magnetism. In Casino Royale, this conversion is reversed. It is Vesper who sparks a glimmer of humanity in the secret agent -- and all without going between the sheets.

And now to the final element that pulls it all together.

 Daniel Craig came under a lot of unnecessary and irrelevant criticism when he was cast. Too blonde, too short, ears too big. Four films in, it is safe to say Craig proved the naysayers wrong.

Cold yet vulnerable, brutal yet suave, Craig has proven to be a great Bond. This is particularly true in Casino Royale, where Craig has the benefit of an actual character arc. Bond's arc is somewhat unique in that it is more a circle than a true progression. He starts as a killer, cold, detached and arrogant. As his relationship with Vesper develops, he becomes more human and empathetic. When Vesper betrays him, he reverts  -- only now he is even more detached from reality. When you boil it down, it puts quite a dark spin on the famous ending.

It sums up the schizophrenia of the character as a whole -- on the one hand, it's a crowd-pleasing moment. James Bond is back and better than ever. On the other hand, after spending two and half hours deconstructing this character, there is a darkly comic edge -- we're cheering a man who has lost everything and become a sociopath.

My experience watching Casino Royale is something I have rarely felt in a movie theatre. 

When I sat down, I had an idea of what a good James Bond movie was. As the movie went on, it became clear that this was something different. It became clear that Casino Royale was not just a great Bond movie like previous re-sets like The Living Daylights or GoldenEye, it was better. 

By the time the movie segued from the action-heavy first act into the casino-set Act 2, I realised something else: this was not a great adaptation of the book, it was better. The Bond of the books is a singularly despicable character -- a racist, misogynist aesthete who epitomised the kind of man Ian Fleming wished he could be. The cinematic character of Bond has always stood far apart from the literary original, but the characterisation of Casino Royale's Bond is the most fully realised of his filmic incarnations. As Film Crit Hulk said in his review, the movie is about the development of a 'damaged' man, and the reason the Bond of Casino Royale resonates in a way that previous Bonds do not is because of how believably flawed he feels. It is a fleshing out of the character in a way that feels like a natural outgrowth of the qualities we enjoy about Bond, while never dispelling his inherent mystique or sugar-coating his less appealing qualities.

By the end of the movie, as Monty Norman's theme blared triumphantly, I felt elated. It felt like a paradigm shift. All the expectations I had for Bond movies, everything I held as the high watermark for the franchise -- every preconceived notion of what a Bond movie could be had been wiped from my brain.

This was not a Bond movie. This was a great movie. Above and beyond its status as a Bond movie, Casino Royale is one of the best action movies I have ever seen. 

Previous reviews
For Your Eyes Only & The Living Daylights

Diamonds Are Forever & Octopussy

Quantum of Solace

Second Look

Friday, 25 November 2016

BITE-SIZED REVIEW: The Rundown (Peter Berg, 2003)

Released at a time when this kind of R-rated action comedy was going out of style, The Rundown bombed on release but has gained a big following in the years since it left theatres.

The Rock plays Beck, a leg-breaker who dreams of retiring and becoming the owner of his own restaurant. In between cracking heads, he's making notes for recipes. His boss wants him to do one last job -- rescue his wayward son Travis (Seann William Scott), who is galavanting around Brazil.

On arriving at Travis's location, a small mining town nicknamed 'Helldorado', Beck gets on the wrong side of the mine's tyrannical ruler(?), Hatcher (Christopher Walken). It turns out Travis has been hunting for an ancient golden object called El Gato. Hatcher wants the artefact and refuses to let Beck take Travis back to the States.

Beck tries to take Travis anyway, and winds up in the jungle. Cue native martial artists, horny monkeys and Rosario Dawson.  

Also known as Welcome to the Jungle, The Rundown is a great throwback to 80s action flicks. The action is great and over-the-top, the humour sprinkled throughout and His Rockiness makes for a terrific one-man-army action star with charisma to burn.    

Over a decade after it came out, The Rundown remains Dwayne Johnson's best action vehicle. Even with his role in the Fast and Furious movies, no movie has been a better distillation of his humour, physicality or charm than this movie.

The rest of the cast are great. While there are shades of Stifler, Seann William Scott is a great foil for Johnson, while Dawson does her usual thing and classes the movie up as a local bar manager/freedom fighter. Walken has played bad guys before, and he is suitably reptilian as the irredeemable shit who gets in Beck's way.

Peter Berg is an inconsistent director who seems to have gone respectable recently. He's dropped the ball with his later attempts at popcorn fare (Battleship, the second half of Hancock), but The Rundown remains one of his truly great movies. He manages to find a tone and style that suit his inexperienced star, and keeps the whole thing looking good and moving at a clip.

If you are a fan of the Rock, buddy cop movies, or Romancing the Stone, The Rundown is the movie for you.

Thursday, 24 November 2016

BITE-SIZED REVIEW: Out of Time (Carl Franklin, 2003)

This neat little thriller was one of the first discoveries I made on Netflix, and it's become a weekend favourite.

Denzel Washington stars as the easy-going small-town police chief Matthias Lee Whitlock. He's currently going through a divorce from his wife, Alex (Eva Mendez), a cop. He has moved on to having an affair with local woman Anne (Sanaa Lathan). Her husband is a thuggish ex-foootball player-turned-security guard (Dean Cain). 

When the movie starts, Whitlock is in a good mood. He has just made a major drug bust -- including $550,000 in cash. Whitlock's easy life is upturned when Anne learns she has terminal cancer. Resigned to her fate, Anne makes him the sole beneficiary of her million dollar life insurance policy. In an attempt to get her an experimental treatment that may save her life, Whitlock lends her the drug money.

And then Anne and her husband die in a suspicious house fire. Suddenly, Whitlock finds himself scrambling to a) figure out what is going on and b) stay ahead of the police -- especially his increasingly suspicious wife. 

Out of Time is directed by the underrated Carl Franklin (One False MoveDevil in a Blue Dress). He keeps things moving, and handles the more ludicrous set pieces with a sure hand. Washington is his usual charming self, and the rest of the cast are solid.

Out of Time is the cinematic equivalent of one of those thrillers you read on vacation. While it doesn't re-invent the wheel, it features a solid premise, good characters and an escalating sense of tension. In other words, it does the job it sets out to do, nothing more and nothing less. 

An enjoyable diversion and worth a look.

Wednesday, 23 November 2016

BITE-SIZED REVIEW: Boomerang (Reginald Hudlin, 1992)

I caught this movie a fews weeks back and really liked it. 
Eddie Murphy stars as ladies man Marcus Graham, a hot shot ad exec who spends his off-hours ticking off one-night stands. He cloaks this behaviour by claiming he has high standards, but Marcus is just a player. Marcus's life is thrown into turmoil when he meets Jacqueline Broyer (Robin Givens). 

Not only does she undo his patented seduction techniques, she has also taken the job Marcus felt he was entitled to (he had sex with the head of the company, so he thought he had the deal sealed). 

Now not only is Jacqueline his new boss, she is his female equivalent. When they finally do the horizontal mambo, Marcus finds himself falling for her -- much to his surprise. When Jacqueline blows him off in a ironic echo of his own philandering ways, Marcus begins to realise just how alike they really are. Will Marcus change his ways and find love?

Boomerang is chiefly famous for three things: as the movie that broke Halle Berry to a wide audience; Grace Jones's batshit supporting turn as  Helen Strangé and the sweet New Jack Swing soundtrack (featuring the likes of Boys II Men, Toni Braxton and Johnny Gill).

Aside from these qualities, the movie is a pretty by-the-numbers romantic comedy lifted by strong performances and a good smattering of laughs. The movie's biggest laughs come out of the movie's more bizarre tangents.

The subplot involving Grace Jones's barmy celebrity Strangé is wild -- she is introduced driving a chariot pulled by muscle men in hot pants, and becomes the star of a perfume ad that looks like the unholy love child of Tim Burton and Terry Gilliam.  

The underrated David Alan Grier and Martin Lawrence are also good as Murphy's best friends. Grier is a talented actor, famous for his stint on In Living Color, and this is one of his better showcases. 

One the biggest surprises was Halle Berry as Rachel Lewis, the 'good' girl who helps Marcus see the light. This kind of role can be a real slog if the writing is not good, but Rachel is far more interesting than that. Berry is so winsome and smart in the part I could not believe this was the same actress from Die Another Day/Catwoman/Dark Tide/almost every movie she's made this millennium.

Berry's been on a downward swing since her Oscar win in 2001. With no other research, I would like to offer a thesis as to why Berry's star fell. Berry is a good actress, but she does not have the charisma of a movie star. She is ridiculously attractive, and I think the combo of her being a solid actress with looks fooled people into thinking she was enough of a 'star' personality to sell movies on.  Watching Boomerang, it becomes obvious her strength is as a supporting player. She can hold her own with Murphy, but she never overshadows him -- she fits into her role but at no point does it feel like a bigger star waiting to break out. Watching her other roles from the Nineties might change my mind, but in her post-Monsters Ball star roles (Die Another Day, Catwoman, the X-Men movies) Berry never fills the screen in the way that stars of her generation do. 

ANYWAY. Boomerang, kids. It's a good rom com. Check it out. And track down the soundtrack on Youtube. It's great.

Tuesday, 15 November 2016

SCREEN GEMS THRILLERS: The Perfect Guy (2015)

And now this is more like it. Like clockwork, Screen Gems figured out that there was an audience out there that was not being catered to and decided to stake September as the patch to put out another thriller targeting the African American audience.

Leah (Sanaa Lathan) is a  successful businesswoman with a good boyfriend, Dave (Morris Chestnut). Though her life seems perfect, all is not right. At 35, Leah is ready to start a family, but Dave is not. This impasse causes them to break up. Depressed, Leah soon meets another man, Carter (Michael Ealy) and Leah quickly falls for the mysterious stranger. At first he seems to be the man of her dreams, but very quickly the 'perfect guy' turns out to be something else...

Technically the most competent of the movies in this 'series', The Perfect Guy actually tries to develop some suspense. The director seems to know that peripheral action and use of wide angles and focus work better than jump scares.

With increased competence however, comes a lack of silliness — there’s a great beat where it is revealed the ‘perfect guy’ hiding beneath Sanaa Lathan’s bed which is worth a giggle or three, but otherwise there’s nothing to match the epic cat fight at the end of Obsessed or Taraji P. Henson repeatedly smashing stuff over Idris Elba’s head.

The performances are a bit rote — Lathan is a fine lead but Chestnut is stuck in the colourless ‘good boyfriend’ role and Michael Ealy is miscast as Lathan’s psycho boyfriend. With his big eyes and light voice, he is never as intimidating as the movie wants you to think he is. With a different script and director he could have been a nice mis-direct, but like ObsessedThe Perfect Guy is not interested in build up or subtlety — the reveal of his psychosis happens in an instant. There’s no gradual escalation to make it more ambiguous and scary.

Overall, it is something of a step-up: the characters are not nearly as stupid as in the previous movies,  but it suffers from the same lack of imagination. 

Previous reviews

Obsessed (2009)

No Good Deed (2014)

Monday, 14 November 2016


It's weird that, despite Obsessed's success, Screen Gems did not immediately try for a follow-up. Instead we had to wait six years for this hostage thriller. Starring Obsessed's leading man Idris Elba and the always excellent Tarji P. Henson, No Good Deed is easily the most generic movie on this list.

Colin Evans (Idris Elba) is a serial killer who was caught on a manslaughter charge. He’s a ‘malignant narcissist' -- we know this because the guy on the parole board says it 5 or 6 times. It is somewhat questionable when it’s an old white southern gent telling the rest of the parole board that a black man should not be released from prison. Anyway Colin escapes from his prison van after the parole hearing. 

Henson plays Terry, a prosecutor-turned-mum who misses having a sense of agency and purpose. While her husband is at work, she is stuck at home minding her daughter. Leslie Bibb plays Henson’s bestie Meg, a sex-crazed woman who spends her screen time oogling everyone with a Y chromosome and pushing Terry to get some extra-marital action. Terry's banal existence is shattered when Colin slips into her home and takes her hostage. 

This is a weird statement to make but this movie is hilariously boring. The script is an endurance test for the viewer, as our central characters keep acting in the dumbest ways possible. The plot can be summarised as this:

Henson hits Elba on the head with a vase.

ELBA: Don't do that.


Elba turns his back. Henson hits him with a poker.

ELBA: Don't do that.


Repeat that formula about 15 more times and you get the general idea. It's basically the makings of a great drinking game.

The direction is plodding, with no attempt at atmosphere or tension beyond colour grading. Henson and Elba are okay in their respective roles, but they have almost nothing to work with. I would say the movie makes you wish they were in a much better movie, but this movie will have you in a coma by minute 20. 

Definitely the worst film in this cycle. 

Previous reviews

Obsessed (2009)