Thursday, 28 December 2017

IN THEATRES: Jumanji - Welcome to the Jungle

A group of high school students on detention find themselves sucked inside an old video game and have to work together to complete the game so that they can return home. Basically, it is the same plot as Zathura.


This movie turned out to be far better than it had any right to be. Most of Dwayne Johnson’s movies derive most of their entertainment value from their star - the scripts are generally unremarkable (Central Intelligence) and the filmmaking is by-the-numbers at best (Walking Tall, Faster etc). Jumanji - Welcome to the Jungle is easily one of Johnson’s best constructed vehicles. 

The premise is clear and straightforward, the characters all have something to do and the movie has a good basic theme - learning to become comfortable with yourself - which the movie carries through to the fianle. It’s really predictable, and does not do anything particularly original. But when the execution is this solid, who cares?

The movie is so solid, I’m in danger of having nothing to write about. There is nothing particularly bad about it. It is just a good, fun movie that does exactly what it sets out to do.

Kevin Hart, Jack Black and Karen Gillan are all good. The movie is more of an ensemble piece, and they all provide good counter-weights to Johnson. 

The most interesting thing about Jumanji is how it echoes last year’s Central Intelligence in having Johnson in a role that played against his out-sized persona. In that case it was a professional spy who is still trapped in the same mindset he has had since high school. Jumanji continues this trend by having him playing the super heroic avatar for a hypochondriac nerd. It speaks well of Johnson that he is willing to make himself the subject of mockery - and hopefully it signals a willingness to seek out more roles that allow to try different types of characters. 

There is one weird issue with Johnson’s role that  presents an interesting/problematic subtext that the film never explores: in the movie his real-life counterpart, Spencer (Alex Wolff) is a nerdy white kid who turns into Johnson's super-masculine explorer Dr Smolder Bravestone while his former friend, high school football star Antony/'Fridge' is transformed into Bravestone's lackey Franklin "Mouse" Finbar (Hart). Is the game turning Spencer into the person he wishes he could be i.e. someone like Fridge? Is Jumanji - Welcome to the Jungle a sequel to Get Out

Probably not. This aspect of the movie is another example of the ways in which Hollywood views Johnson. He is in a weird category with Vin Diesel where his race is never part of the movie. I first noticed it while listening to Black Men Can't Jump (in Hollywood) - the hosts have brought this absence/erasure when discussing Johnson's movies and  Outside of the Fast & Furious movies which throw in occasional references, in movies like Hercules and San Andreas, it is never referenced in the diegesis. The latter movie goes to the laughable extreme of giving him a whiter-than-white daughter, played by Alexandra Daddario. It’s like the filmmakers see him as a generic plug-in movie star. 


It is an interesting element of Johnson’s persona, reminiscent of the way Arnold Schwarzenegger just became ‘American’ in his movies, with no in-film reason for his accent or ridiculous physique. It is an interesting issue that keeps popping up with Johnson’s movies. Considering the vague moves toward greater diversity in Holywood, it will be interesting to see if Johnson continues to operate in his category.

Back to the movie! Jumanji - Welcome to the Jungle is a fun movie. Check it out!

Wednesday, 27 December 2017

RnB BIOPICS: TLC & Aaliyah

In the last few years, there have been several TV  biopics made about famous RnB singers. I have been slowly making my way through a list. I was going to wait until I'd watched a couple more, but better to keep it short and sweet.

CrazySexyCool: The TLC Story (2013)
From their discovery by LaFace Records, through early success, bankruptcy, illness, love and heartbreak, CrazySexyCool tells the story of the iconic nineties group TLC:  'T-Boz' Watkins (Drew Sidora), Rozanda 'Chilli' Thomas (Keke Palmer) and Lisa 'Left Eye' Lopes (Natia 'Lil Mama' Kirland).


This movie has a lot of things going for it: First of all, TLC's story is a classic example of a 'rags to riches'-style superstar narrative.

The movie benefits from great casting: First off, Lil Mama is great as Left Eye. If you only know her from Lip Gloss or her interview on the Breakfast Club, prepare to have your brain explode. This was also one of her earliest acting roles which makes the performance even more remarkable.

Keke Palmer and Drew Sidora are also good as, respectively, Chili and T-Boz. Due to the nature of the characters, they do not pop in the same way that Left Eye/Lil Mama does, but they are both good. It's hard to really describe because Lisa Lopes had such a definable persona, but both Palmer and Sidora provide the human anchor. It helps that they both get the most dramatic subplots: Chili has a fraught relationship with producer Dallas Austin, while T-Boz balances her desire to perform with her sickle-cell anemia.  

Like most biopics, supporting characters do feel like foot notes. The one exception is the band's manager and nemesis, Pebbles, played by Rochelle Aytes. Oscillating between big sister and Big Brother, Aytes is wonderfully hate-able. She provides the movie with its only moments of real tension, and the movie loses steam when she disappears halfway through.

Pebbles (Rochelle Aytes)
The movie tracks through the timeline of TLC's first four album releases, ending with Left Eye's tragic death in a car crash. In between, we get all the key moments from their 1992-2002 run: Lisa's refusal to sing during the 'Creep' video; Lisa burning down her boyfriend's mansion; and the group's famous speech at the 1996 Grammys, where they revealed they were broke.

Like all biopics, the movie suffers from trying to cover so much material, and about halfway through the movie loses focus. It is never clear whose story this is supposed to be - T-Boz and Chilli narrate, while Left Eye is a cypher. The filmmakers do a great job of interweaving the womens' shared struggles (the montage of their various romantic snafus is the best) but as the movie heads into the home stretch, I began to lose track of where these threads were going.
    To be honest, once the group break off ties with Pebbles and start putting together Fan Mail, the movie loses a sense of conflict. Pebbles is such  great antagonist, but once she disappears, the movie doesn't have any real friction for the group. There is a secondary conflict involving Left Eye and her boyfriend trying to undermine the group, but it gets resolved fairly quickly (in story-time)/ It is in this section of the movie that you can feel the strain. Maybe if the movie had been a miniseries, these storylines could have been allowed to breath and resolve in a satisfying manner (especially considering how the story must end).

    Stylistically, the movie is more ambitious than you would expect from a  small-screen biopic. Director Charles Stone III (Drumline) juggles the movie's various tones with enough skill that the script's rapid transitions never feel jarring. He also finds ways to make the film's various montages feel fresh and original.

    Overall, CrazySexyCool is a fun flick. It covers too much ground, but it has great performances, good pacing and is far more cinematic than you would expect from a TV movie.  It is probably a good entry point for a newbie - you get a taste of most of the songs, and a decent summary of their career.

    Aaliyah: The Princess of R&B (2014)
    Aaliyah Haughton (1979-2001) became an overnight star with the release of her R Kelly-produced debut album in 1994. Following two more experimental albums, the fast-rising star's life was tragically cut short when she was killed in a plane crash.

      Made without her family's involvement and without the rights to her music, this movie was cursed with production problems. Original lead Zendaya dropped out of the project 10 days before shooting, and Alexandra Shipp (X-MenTragedy Girls) was parachuted in with little time to train for the dance and singing sequences.

      Top to bottom, this movie is a mess.

      First off, the movie has no real through line. We follow Aaliyah's rise from talent shows to teen star, but there is no real sense of development. We get a bit of her relationship with R. Kelly, which we are told profoundly affected her, but we never feel it. The movie is in too much of a hurry to get to the big career milestones - which is when we run into the other big problem with the show: the music.

      The only music we get are a few covers from her albums ('At Your Best (You Are Love)', 'Got To Give It Up') and 'Journey to the Past' from the Anastasia animated movie. Now the movie might have been able to get by with just these tracks if the movie had focused on something other than her music. The movie flirts with an emotional arc that might have strengthened the movie - we are told that Shipp's Aaliyah is profoundly affected by her relationship with R Kelly, and the movie tries to resolve  this by having her fall for Damon Dash. If treated as the movie's dramatic foundation, these two relationships could have given the movie a real shot at being good.

      But the filmmakers chose to speed through her career highlights, and pay too much attention to the music we do not get to hear. We have scenes of Aaliyah meeting and working with Timbaland and Missy Elliott, but we never hear anything they are working on. Tracks are referenced but any time it looks like we might get to hear them, the movie cuts to another scene. It is like making a movie about the Wright Brothers but not having the rights to show the plane.

      The cast do their best, and Shipp has a few scenes where she feels like a real person, but too much of the movie feels like a feature-length exposition dump.

      The singer and the cast deserved better.

      Related

      Aaliyah retrospective

      Saturday, 23 December 2017

      Bond 25 speculation: Why is James Bond relevant in 2019?

      A few things have changed in the Bond-sphere(?) since I wrote the last one of these things. We now have a release date (8 November, 2019) and a James Bond (Saint Blue Eyes himself, Daniel Craig). It will be a while before we start to get more details like a director (maybe middle of next year) or a cast (which, following previous form, will be just before production starts, around December).

      Until then, let's pontificate out into the void.


      I really hope this movie is good. I think this every time a new movie is on the horizon. Sadly most of the time I wind up disappointed.

      With the last three Bonds (Dalton, Brosnan and Craig), my favourite movie of theirs is always their first one. I have been searching for a reason why these movies work while their successors don't quite hit the mark. I think it boils down to one thing.

      With a new Bond, the filmmakers cannot rest on their laurels. With no established Bond, they have to justify why this actor is James Bond. More specifically, their debut movie is generally based around making the case for a new Bond at the point in time when the movie is released. With a new Bond, the key question facing the filmmakers is why is James Bond relevant? Why should we as a mass audience still treat Bond as a relevant piece of pop culture?

      With a character as long-lived as Bond, it is a question that will never stop getting asked, and that is a good thing.

      James Bond is a contradiction, with one foot in 1952 when Ian Fleming wrote the first Bond novel, and the other foot in the ever-changing present.

      When Bond was created, the Cold War had only just begun, and Britain was slowly coming to the realisation that it was no longer a world power. Bond was Fleming's answer to this national decline. The character was also a (then) contemporary re-working of the literary tradition of English gentlemen-spies created by writers like John Buchan, Sax Rohmer and Sapper. Characters like Buchan's Richard Hannay (The 39 Steps) and Sappers' 'Bulldog' Drummond took part in adventures in which they protected England from evil foreign agents that sought to destroy it. Epitomised by Sax Rohmer's Fu Manchu, these villains reflected the air of xenophobia running through the Empire's involvement with other powers and cultures: the Crimean war against the Russians; the interventions in China; and the rise of Germany as a continental threat to British power.

      Fleming's James Bond continued that tradition with a series of villains that perpetuated this fear of the Other: all of Bond's villains are mixes of various ethnicities (Mr Big, Dr No), top loaded with non-heterosexual impulses (Wint and Kidd; Rosa Klebb; Scaramanga) and various physical impairments, injuries and disabilities (Mr Big's greyish skin; Hugo Drax's overbite and scars;
      Oddjob's cleft palate). To contemporary eyes the literary Bond villains are a laundry list of horrific stereotypes.

      The early movies aren't that much better
      In the transition to the screen, and in the fifty five years since the first movie's release in 1962, the character of Bond and the context around him (basically the his relationship with women, and the nature of the threats that he faces) has changed to maintain the franchise's popular appeal. The villains have lost most of their more overt racist and homophobic elements (they have been effectively reduced to white Europeans since the eighties), while the end of the Cold War has further separated the cinematic Bond from his origins. 

      The changes to Bond himself became more evident as the series moved further away from the books. Roger Moore's iteration leaned into the comic aspects of the character, moving further away from the introspective misanthrope of the books. When Timothy Dalton became Bond, the character was updated to become more monogamous (to reflect changing sexual attitudes in the shadow of AIDs).

      After a six year gap, Pierce Brosnan became Bond and his first film, GoldenEye, concerned itself with defining Bond's purpose in relation to the end of the Cold War and modern feminism. When Daniel Craig became Bond, the emphasis was shifted to redefining Bond in relation to contemporary threats (the relationship between terrorism and capitalist excess through the organisation Quantum) and, once again, modern feminism. 


      With these three latter examples, their debut movies were basically designed around answering the question of Bond's relevance. One of the big reasons that most of their follow-ups failed to catch fire is because that question was dropped. Once the filmmakers had a success, they would go back to the old well, rather than continuing to question the character and the tropes around him. Eventually, the filmmakers always stop trying and go back to the old playbook.

      Skyfall, the one follow-up that has broken through, is the one time in recent history that the filmmakers have made an attempt to answer the question of what Bond's place is in the modern world. It suffered a bit from fidelity to outdated conventions (the subplot with Severine being the most egregious), but at least tried to use its callbacks for a thematic purpose (which tied back to Bond's relevance). Spectre doubled-down on the homage, but unlike Skyfall, the return to formula was not greeted with the same adulation. Why?

      Because Spectre, like Tomorrow Never DiesThe World Is Not Enough and Die Another Day, did not contest the underlying question of why James Bond needs to exist. From a viewer's POV, it boils down to 'why should I care about this guy in this story?'

      Film Crit Hulk refers to the James Bond series as based on 'indulgence', based on giving the viewer a heteronormative male fantasy of gadgets, cars, violence and sex. The key to making a good Bond movie is finding a way to pepper these elements into a story, without these elements constituting the 'story'. It's the reason why a movie like On Her Majesty's Secret Service continues to gain an audience while Octopussy does not.

      And so, if I haven't lost you already, back to Bond 25, and the big question: Why is James Bond relevant in 2019?

      That question has clearly bedevilled the creatives. Before they signed back on, scribes Robert Wade and Neal Purvis were quoted expressing doubts about what a James Bond movie could be in a post-Trump/Brexit world. And that is good to hear.

      The fact is that when you are dealing with a character with a history like Bond's, you need to be aware of its original context, and how you should go adapting that character to a more contemporary one (it is the same problem that the makers of The Legend of Tarzan faced last year). There is no set way to go about this, and I will not offer any half-backed ideas on how the filmmakers should go about answering this question.

      The most important thing that they base their entire process around trying to answer that question. Because if they can crack that, we all win.

      Friday, 22 December 2017

      New podcast discoveries, 2017 edition

      As the title says, here is a list of podcasts I started listening to this year. Looking down this list, I'm amazed at how incestuous they are. Ah well!

      Black Men Can't Jump In Hollywood 
      I discovered these guys through Jon Gabrus's almighty High and Mighty. Every episode, comedians Jonathan Braylock, James III and Jerah Milligan take a look at a mainstream Hollywood release starring black actors in leading roles and analyse them in the context of race.

      In an era marked by both increased calls for -and resistance towards - diversity, BMCJ's dissection of movies as varied as Hancock and The Last King of Scotland are highly relevant and important. Featuring a range of guest stars including Keegan Michael Keye, Sasheer Zamata and Nicole Byer, the podcast is also hilarious - the Boo! A Madea Halloween episode literally made me tear up - while also delivering an insightful and well-reasoned commentary on each film's representation of race.

      As the podcast has progressed the hosts have expanded their scope to focus on other kinds of representation, which should make for some more interesting episodes down the line.  

      As a listener from outside the States, BMCJ also works as an introduction to a range of movies I was not familiar with. 

      Easily the most important and weighty podcast on this list, and worth checking out.

      Action Boyz

      A Patreon-only spin-off from High and Mighty, The Action Boyz is a podcast for action fans of a certain generation. What started out as a lame joke on its parent podcast has taken on a life of its own, as Gabrus and his mates Ben Rogers and Ryan Stanger review the movies that made them the man-boyz they are today. Leavened with equal dollops of irony and nostalgia, The Action Boyz are unafraid to share their love of these movies while also tearing them to pieces for their questionable politics and the rampant ego of their stars.

      Doughboys

      My craving for more Gabrus led me to try this one out, and it stuck. The food is legitimately terrible, but the thing that keeps me coming back is the never-ending antagonism between the hosts. Sometimes it will take an hour for them to get to the review, as we wait for Mitch to stop musing about the ways he will end up killing Wiger, while Wiger ponders the likelihood of Mitch dying alone and being consumed by his cats.

      Featuring a range of guest stars (including serial offender Jon Gabrus), Doughboys is extremely silly, and far less caustic than the previous paragraph made it out to be.

      Why Won't You Date Me?

      This one only just started this month, but it is quickly becoming one of my favourites. The combination of the train wreck premise (the host interviewing someone she's hooked up) with the ridiculously funny Byer is a match made in heaven. Right from the half-assed theme song, you know you are in for something special. Byer's unerring ability to make the transition between interviewing her guest and dropping the titular question as awkward as possible has to be heard to be believed.

      Raised By TV

      It does not say much for my tastes (or Gabrus's career choices) that he is on this list so many times. Co-hosted by the great Lauren Lapkus (Orange Is The New Black), Raised By TV is the equivalent of one of those long, rambling conversations you have with your mates about a commercial you both saw 20 years ago. From toy commercials to Christmas episodes to favourite game shows, if you grew up in the 90s, you will love this.

      Related

      2016 list

      Tuesday, 19 December 2017

      A dash of autobiography and a reflection on unconscious bias

      This post is a stopgap/bit of reflection on the state of the blog.

      A couple years back, I was in a bad place. I had left university with a bunch of degrees but no clue what I wanted to do. As a last resort I had tried to get into law school, which was a terrible idea. On top of that there were some family tragedies which made that year feel even more hopeless. One day in December, I was at my low point. There was literally nothing on the horizon for me to look forward to. That morning, I checked my email - there was a Google Alert in my inbox. I cannot remember what for. It's not important. What is significant about this email was that one of the links was to an advert for a free-lancing writing job from a pop culture website.

      I had studied film at high school and university - it was one of my favourite subjects. But until that month I had never considered writing about it as a job. At that point, I had nothing to lose. The application process was fairly easy: a few questions, a pitch for an article and a writing sample. I sent in my application with no expectations - after that year I did not want to jinx myself. And then I heard back and suddenly I was writing a feature about the Mission: Impossible series. And then I pitched another feature. And another, and another. The pay was not good, but it gave me something to do, and for the first time in a long while I had a sense of purpose. Based on this experience, I caught the bug: I needed to write more. A friend ran a theatre website and needed reviewers. I put up my hand and wound up reviewing a show about a mind-reading hot dog. This was un-paid, but I got to see shows for free, and gave the opportunity to see a variety of projects that I would have probably never sought out myself. I've been writing theatre reviews for almost three years now, and it was one of my favourite side-projects. Since then I have written for a variety of other places, and was able to include some of my work when I applied to journalism school.

      As an additional outlet, I re-started this blog so I could have an outlet for non-commissioned work that I wanted to put out into the digital ether. I saw this blog was a chance to force myself to start catching up on movies I had missed, and to have an outlet for writing about things I liked. This blog would also give me a chance to step outside of my comfort zone and take a look at movies and music I had never considered.

      This year I decided to try and make this blog more of an on-going project, with specific focuses and topics. Before this year, the blog was kind of all over the place in its focus, with no set template to follow. As part of this 'upgrade', I decided set a goal to do 10 posts a month. Unlike past years, I now had the capacity to see and review new releases, which gave me some material which could draw more readers in. Overall, this strategy was good because it forced me to write consistently, but over the course of this year I have become increasingly aware of its drawbacks.

      My next point is going to need some context.

      We are finally seeing some moves toward greater racial and gender diversity in Hollywood, but when it comes to disabled performers and stories, we are still stuck. This year saw the release of Everything, Everything, a movie based on a Young Adult novel where the author, star, and director were women of colour. The story concerned a young woman with an auto-immune disease who was unable to leave her house and falls in love with her new neighbour. In a final act twist we learn that the mom has faked her illness to keep her daughter under her thumb. Cue our heroes running happily in slow motion through the busy, probably disease-riddled streets of New York City.

      Now I ended up watching this movie two times. I do not usually do this unless I really like the movie but with Everything Everything, I felt so conflicted I needed another look.

      On the one hand, I liked the main character, Maddy - she had agency, and while she could never leave her house it felt like she was the character pushing the story forward rather than her boyfriend or anybody else. So as a female character in a dippy romance movie, the movie gets points. It also gets points for making the disabled the centre of the story, rather  than another story where a non-disabled person learns about life from a relationship with a disabled person (who generally dies). See the furore over last year's Me Before You, or A Walk To Remember, or any other movie in which some emotionally stunted jerk learns the meaning of life from someone who is exiting theirs. The main character in Everything, Everything gets to live to the end. Yay!

      But taken in overview, that is the lowest of low bars. When it is revealed that Maddy is not sick, the movie is basically sending the message that if Maddy really had her condition she had no chance of a good life at all. She is just a prisoner who cannot take part in life happening outside her window. And that is terrible.

      But when I watched the movie again, these elements did not stand out as much. I ended up writing a fairly positive review where I highlighted the things I liked, and de-emphasised the ableist nonsense at the end.

      And then I read this piece by a writer I follow, Jazmine Joyner. Her lived experience is far more appropriate to analysing how insidious Everything, Everything is in terms of its portrayal of people living with conditions similar to Maddy's. And she had done something that I had not considered. She went looking for reactions from other people with lived experience. I had not even thought to do that.

      Reading Joyner's article, while insightful about the film, was a re-affirmation of the importance of avoiding unconscious bias. Looking back on my process in watching and reviewing Everything, Everything, it highlighted how narrow-minded and (frankly) arrogant I was about my perspective eon the film.  

      Reflecting on my Everything Everything review, I am more convinced that I will need to change my approach if I want to write more insightful criticism. In my rush to write a set number of posts, I have brushed over some films which deserved more time and consideration. I have also ignored other perspectives which could help me develop a more fully-realised critique. This is not just important in relation to this blog, but also in my real life. There are a lot of issues and voices that I have been ignorant of, and I need to be more open to - and active in - seeking them out. Ultimately this is not about improving myself as a pop culture critic - it is about me - a middle-class, white cis-gendered man - becoming a more empathetic and incisive observer of the world we live in.

      I enjoy reading about movies, and I am always wishing I could rise to the level of my favourite critics. Well, wishing time is over. Unlike them I have no deadlines to meet, so I have no reason not to spend more time building a strong thesis on a film with more consideration for the discourse around whatever subject I am writing about, rather than blasting out 1000 words to hit  an arbitrary quota. To that end, I am going to be cutting back on the blog next year so that I can concentrate on longer, more in-depth pieces. This (hopefully) means fewer Geostorms/Mummys and more reviews on movies I actually like, with more attention on cinematic technique, story construction and themes.

      Bring on 2018.

      Saturday, 16 December 2017

      IN THEATRES: The Last Jedi & Better Watch Out

       As a band of rebels fight a last-ditch battle to save the galaxy from an evil empire, a young woman goes in search of the one man who can bring hope to their cause...


      It is rare nowadays to watch a big movie that manages to get the fundamentals right: story, character, and tone. There is always a sense of lack in certain areas (Spider-Man: Homecoming's weak character arc; Rogue One's more egregious lack of cohesive character or plot development). The Last Jedi is that rare beast that manages to feel like a fully developed dramatic narrative, with characters who grow and a story that has stakes and feels of a piece with itself.

      Technically it is a middle part in a trilogy, but the best thing about this movie is that writer-director Rian Johnson does not care. He does not care about the plot strands and teasers from the previous movie, because those things are immaterial to the story he is telling. He takes all these hanging threads and elegantly ties them off. The Last Jedi does not feel like a sequel or an episode in a cinematic universe: it feels singular, and complete.

      It also finds ways to take old concepts that have become esoteric and finds ways to deepen them, and to give them a universal applicability that feels almost... spiritual. There is a sense of empathy to the way that Johnson interrogates the concept of the Force, and strips it of the aristocratic, pseudo-science mumbo jumbo that George Lucas turned it into. In the original movie, the force did not require a bloodline -  it felt like something elemental that anyone can tap into. Johnson takes the concept back to that, but then finds a way to make it mean something. By the end of the movie, it is clear that the Force does not belong to a select few - it is for everyone.

      Johnson deserves credit for coming up with a new plot that does not feel like a re-hash. This one actually feels like the first real 'sci-fi' premise this series has had, with a ticking clock scenario that forces characters to make real life-and-death choices. The move becomes a running (and shooting) debate about the true meaning of heroism, and that is often different from what it means to make the right choice.    

       It does everything you expect, but with an intelligence and wit the franchise has lacked since the original trilogy. You get great new characters (Kelly Marie Tran's Rose is the standout), set pieces that do not outstay their welcome (and don't feel like weightless CGI) and some fun world-building great world-building.

      There is a sense at the end of this movie that the slate has been wiped clean. Sure, there can be another movie, but The Last Jedi never feels like it's saving anything for later. Everything is set up and paid off. The creative team behind the sequel will have a lot of hard work to do to try and match this.

      Better Watch Out
      So there's this asshole kid who really wants to bang his babysitter see? And so he and his friend/whipping boy come up with a plan to get her to fall for him by staging a home invasion. Great!


      The message of this movie is that horror comedies are really hard to pull off. And it starts with the premise.

      This movie is based on the POV of a 13-year-old psychopath who is trying to gaslight his babysitter into sleeping with him. To do this he is willing to kidnap her and (spoilers) kill the people who care about her.

      If you cannot tell, I fucking hated this movie. Above and beyond the fact that it is neither scary or funny, there is a fundamental nastiness to the story, particularly in terms of gender relations, that does not work for comedy.

      There appears to be a modicum of irony to the opening scenes between Luke (Levi Miller) and Garrett (Ed Oxenbould) as they talk about his crush on Ashley (Olivia DeJonge), but there is no real sense of critique or understanding of the expectations constructed by men toward female sexuality. There is no sense of awareness to the film. It just wants to push some taboos by having the villains as the baby-sat rather than external threats (ala Michael Myers in Halloween).

      The movie wants to be Home Alone with Macauly Culkin's character from The Good Son. But the scenario the filmmakers have come up, with its creepy sexual undercurrent, requires a nuance and delicate touch that this film does not have.

      As our villain, Levi Miller is a one-note bully who comes across as more whiney and petulant than a master manipulator. These kinds of movies require a charismatic villain with at least a degree of pathos for us to connect with. Take Tragedy Girls, which balances a high bodycount with a story about two best friends trying to figure out what their relationship means when they start to become famous. Luke is just a one-note psycho, with his only unique feature being that he is 13 years old.

      I spent the entire movie trying to figure out if the filmmakers were trying to make some kind of commentary about rape culture and male entitlement about women's bodies, but I came out stumped. It is just an empty exercise in trying to be extreme, but with no real style or wit to make it worth watching.

      Boring, stupid and nasty, Better Watch Out is an empty vessel of a movie.

      Avoid.

      My theatre

      Related

      Rogue One review

      Tragedy Girls review

      Wednesday, 13 December 2017

      A Thin Line Between Love and Hate (Martin Lawrence, 1996)

      Darnell Wright (Lawrence) is a hotshot club owner with an eye for the ladies. He has a girlfriend (Regina King), but Darnell does not care. When he meets Brandi (Whitfield), an older woman, he finds his usual charms don't work. Determined to conquer her, he goes the extra mile to grab her attentions. After he finally seduces her, the tables turn once the lothario casts her aside. Brandi becomes obsessed with Darnell and begins a campaign to destroy his life.


      In 1996, Martin Lawrence was on the way up. His show Martin was a success, and his team-up with Will Smith, Bad Boys, had been a hit the previous year. With his increased prominence, Lawrence got a deal to write and direct his own feature film. The result was the dark comedy A Thin Line Between Love and Hate, co-starring the great Lynn Whitfield.

      Probably best known for starring in Eve's Bayou and the Netflix show Greenleaf, Whitfield is one of those actresses whose talent is greater than her number of credits.


      This movie is like what would happen if Eddie Murphy's Boomerang character had gone on a date with Glenn Close from Fatal Attraction. That description fits the tone pretty well too. It is really hard to tell if the movie wants to be a comedy, a thriller or a drama.

      In the lead role, Lawrence is no Eddie Murphy. As written and performed, Darnell comes off as an insecure misogynist who sees any woman as fair game, and refuses to have his advances denied. The opening sequences show him breezing though various women with no care. This montage is intended to set Darnell up for a fall, but for us to root for him there needs to be something redeemable about him - and there really isn't.

      The big saving grace of this movie is Lynn Whitfield. Sometimes you watch a film where there is one performance that is not only good, but manages to elevate the whole enterprise beyond what it is. Whitfield's performance is so good because it gives the movie a real dramatic spine - unlike Darnell, Brandy has a genuine reason for acting the way she does, and Darnell is such a self-absorbed asshole that - for most of the second act - it is easy to see Brandy as the story's real protagonist. Whitfield's performance provides the movie with its only sense of dramatic escalation, while Lawrence never manages to flesh Darnell out.


      By the end of the film, it becomes pretty clear that Whitfield is so much better than it deserves. But because she is so good, she makes the movie far better than it has to be. It is also worth watching just for the spectacle of comparing Whitfield's nuanced, wounded portrayal of a woman scorned against Lawrence's cartoonish buffoon. It is as if Sigourney Weaver starred in an Adam Sandler movie - the disconnect between the leads is that stark.  

      Maybe if Lawrence was not the auteur of this movie, it might have been more fully-realised. There is a good movie here, but it needed a different director, someone who could have figured out the tone and given Lawrence the space to build Darnell into a fully-realised character. 

      The movie does have some good comedic beats - the scene where Darnell discovers Brandy has stolen his car tires is hilarious - but overall it is does not really work as a comedy. What's really strange is that it looks like a comedy, but most of the movie is basically a dramatic thriller. The aesthetic is so flat and airless that it is really hard to gauge the tone or intent of individual scenes.

      My favourite scene in the movie is when Darnell confronts Brandy in hospital after she has made him out to be a woman-beater. Whitfield begins the scene indignant at her former paramour's disregard for her. Once the police arrive to take him away, on a dime she turns into a traumatised victim unable to let go of her abusive lover. As soon as he is out the door, she snuggles back in bed. It's brilliant, and the one time that the movie hits the darkly comedic tone that Lawrence was aiming for. 

      Regina King is another actor who is better than this movie - she plays Darnell's one female friend, Mia. As with Whitfeld, she grounds her subplot and gives the movie some credibility. She's so good I actually bought her chemistry with Lawrence.

      Because both female leads are so good, I just started reading the movie as a meta-textual hostage situation in which Whitfield and Regina King worked together to steal the movie out from under its star. 

      The rest of the cast are a mixed bag. The recently departed Della Reese plays Darnell's mother. Apart from Brandy she is the one character to call Darnell on his crap, but she does not get much to do. RnB singer Bobby Brown plays Darnell's best friend, and somehow manages to be even more odious in his relations with women than his friend.

      Overall, I cannot really call A Thin Line Between Love and Hate a good movie. But it is interesting to watch, particularly in light of the ways that rape culture has finally breached the cultural zeitgeist. The filmmakers intended the film as a response to Waiting to Exhale, but in the end A Thin Line Between Love and Hate feels just as self-righteous and ridiculous as a troll's response to a Roxane Gay tweet. The main reason to watch the movie is Whitfield - she picks it up on her shoulders and carries it to the finish line. 

      Saturday, 9 December 2017

      NZIFF Documentaries

      Here is the last of my retrospectives on the New Zealand International Film Festival. I generally catch a lot of the documentaries when I am ushering, and it always results in some interesting surprises.

      Unrest (dir. Jennifer Brea)
      Directed by Jennifer Brea, Unrest chronicles her journey with chronic fatigue syndrome, from initial misdiagnosis through her activism to get the condition properly recognised.


      Starting as a deeply personal narrative (complete with home movies and unvarnished footage of Brea's everyday life, Unrest quickly situates the viewer in Brea's mindset - perpetually exhausted and  sleep-deprived, she relays her feelings in some brutal to-camera reflections and equally uncomfortable conversations with her husband.

      Once Brea reaches the point in her story where she began to learn more about her illness, the movie branches out to cover other people from all over the world with the same affliction but with very different experiences. This multiplicity of POVs gives the documentary a more rounded and frankly terrifying picture - not of CFS, but how various medical authorities around the world view and deal with it. 

      There is no ego with Brea's approach - there are many sequences in which she shows herself at her worst: collapsing while dancing with her husband; her demand that he change clothes repeatedly; and the various testimonial scenes, in which she allows herself to break down. It is extremely unflinching and brave.

      It is pretty strong stuff, but considering how misunderstood CFS is, it is worth tracking down.

      House of Z (dir. Sandy Chronopoulos)

      And now for a completely different kind of ego. 

      House of Z chronicles the rise, fall and rise of the fashion designer Zack Posen. At the turn of the century, he was the talk of the town as the next big thing. Not only in terms of his designs, but the fact that he was only 21 when he 'made it.' 



      A variation on the traditional heel redemption story, House of Z is built around Posen's final gamble to save his company, with flashbacks to his narcissistic early days. One of the most interesting aspects to his background is that his business was initially a family affair with his parents and siblings involved in various aspects of bringing his designs to life. As his success grew, he became more demanding and disconnected from his family, who eventually departed the company. 

      While the documentary is interesting as a look at his process, for me it undermined the family aspect of the business. We see his family slip away but this story is only briefly touched on as the film resolves. I would have preferred a focus on how Posen was able to repair his relationships with his family, considering their importance to his career.

      By focusing solely on his comeback, it almost feels like the film is contradicting the idea that his fall was due to his own ego. There needed to be a little more connective tissue in this aspect of the story so that his redemption connected. 

      The third act, chronicling his latest show, is interesting for how it goes into the details of putting together a collection but the suspense that this sequence is aiming for never builds - the film has not  built Posen's character arc. Ultimately the movie just lacked emotional investment. 

      If you are interested in fashion or not, House of Z is an interesting watch -  but it never rises above the level of 'interesting'. And the main reason it never rises beyond that is that I found it really hard to root for Posen. It is not necessary too like your subject, but since this documentary is structured as a comeback story, but I found it almost impossible to get invested in Posen's struggles. 

      Politics, an Instruction Manual (dir. Fernando León de Aranoa)

      A ground-level look at the rise of Spanish political party Podemos, from the anti-austerity protests of 15 May, 2011 to the general election in December 2015, in which they won over 20% of the vote and 69 seats in the 350 seat parliament.



      As a document of thew working parts of making a political party from scratch, this film is fascinating. You really get a sense of the often arduous process of democracy in action. From deciding what leadership model to follow, to deciding their position on Catalan independence, Politics... gives the viewer a sense of how pedantic, repetitive and exhausting every tiny aspect of politicking is. It helps that Podemos's leader Pablo Iglesias Turrión and his team are articulate and extremely well-versed about the machinations necessary to make a political party viable. 

      Beginning with stock footage of the 2011 protests, the film ends with Podemos' triumphant entry to parliament four years later. It works structurally, even though it would have been interesting to see how Podemos' central figures (and the film's key talking heads) react to later events (the failed government formation and subsequent early election). 

      This is not a fault of the film, more a case of wanting more. Because of the film's access to Turrión and his brain trust, I was really looking forward to hearing their perspectives on more recent events. Ah well, hopefully there is a sequel - it's not like Spanish politics have become boring in the interim between 2015 and now.

      The documentary's perspective is not that critical or include any external perspectives, but as a look at  the business of politicking it is worth checking out.

      Other festival reviews

      Dramas

      Live Cinema


      Horror

      Thrillers

      Wednesday, 6 December 2017

      IN THEATRES: The Disaster Artist

      In 1998, aspiring thespian Greg Sestero (Dave Franco) meets Tommy Wiseau (James Franco). Inspired by their shared desire to become actors, they become fast friends and move to Hollywood to pursue their dream.

      Frustrated by his inability to make any inroads as a professional actor, Tommy decides to make his own movie, one that allow him to show off his creative talents, and salvage his fraying relationship with Greg.

      For almost a decade Jame Franco has been writing and directing his own movies. I have not seen any of them. On this evidence, he is onto something.

      Sure, it is funny - the story is bizarre - but the filmmakers have found a through line (the friendship between Greg and Tommy) that grounds the antics and the in-jokes in something profoundly relatable. 

      The movie is about the desire to create, and particularly the work that goes into making movies - even if the people making the movie are going about it in almost the exact opposite way that you would expect. More importantly - and the reason why this movie is not just some cheap celebrity in-joke at Wiseau's expense is that The Disaster Artist is ultimately more invested in the friendship between Tommy and Greg.

      The way Greg impacts Tommy is just as fascinating as the impact he has on Greg - while Greg respects Tommy's go-for-broke approach to acting and filmmaking, Tommy enjoys playing mentor to the young man. However, as Greg matures and begins to experience the things that Tommy cannot (especially in terms of relationships), their dynamic completely flips.

      Greg and Tommy
      As the main characters, the Franco brothers are terrific. James is completely believable as Tommy - Wiseau is such a specific and easily recognisable character, yet the elder Franco completely disappears into the role. There are points when he is wearing the glasses where it is almost impossible to tell them apart.

      As Greg, Dave Franco is the heart and soul of the movie.  He is also the audience's way into Tommy's world, and as their friendship develops, it helps to humanise the auteur beyond the 'Oh Hi Mark?' meme.

      The focus on the friends means that the rest of the cast do not get to make the same kind of impact. Seth Rogen is terrific as The Room's incredulous script supervisor Sandy - he basically acts as the straight man to the on-set chaos. It is not really a stretch for him, but he never overplays. The scene where Sandy cashes his first salary check is one of the funniest things Rogen has ever been involved with.

      Because we only see them in the context of their roles during filming, the rest of The Room's 'cast' come off a little weightless - I spent the whole movie comparing Ari Gaynor, Josh Hutchinson and Jacki Weaver to their real-life alter-egos. A minor pleasure for me was getting to see the hosts of How Did This Get Made? show up as supporting players (I really hope Jason Mantzoukas and Hannibal Burress get a spinoff movie about their characters).

      I don't really have much more to say about the movie. It is a really good, and I am very curious to see where Franco's directorial career goes.

      Overall, The Disaster Artist is far better than it has any right to be. A funny but incredibly empathetic look at one of cinema's great outsiders, it is definitely worth checking out - regardless of whether you have seen The Room or not.

      Sunday, 3 December 2017

      BITE-SIZED REVIEW: Coffy (Jack Hill, 1973)

      One of the best blaxploitation movies ever made, Coffy was intended as a straight rip-off to MGM's Cleopatra Jones, a big budget follow-up to their previous hit Shaft. On release, Coffy ended up punching above its wait - becoming a huge hit and introduced the world to Pam Grier, the first true American female action hero.


      By day, Coffy (Pam Grier) is a nurse. By night, she is a vigilante, hunting down the dope pushers and pimps responsible for killing her sister. One by one, she makes her way up the food chain, only to find that the corruption goes right to the top...

      I'll be honest. I still have not seen Shaft. But I've seen Coffy so many times. Written and directed by Jack Hill, Coffy is far better than it has any right to be. AIP movies are known to be cheep and cheerful nonsense, but they rarely rise above the watchable. That's not to say they did not make some great movies, but like all studios, most of their output was garbage.

      Though it is pitched as a cheap cash-in, Coffy never feels like it. The title character and her world feel fully realised in a way that few big budget movies are, let alone cheap drive-in fare. The story is fully fleshed out, and the characters feel three-dimensional. The action is on-point, and the plot is filled wiht twists and turns which further develop the central character, and force her to confront the injustice the system has imposed on her.


      Pam Grier is magnificent as Coffy. Of course she is a badass, but Hill and Grier shrewdly make her feel like a real human being, rather than a total superhero. In the opening sequence, we witness Coffy use her acting skills and sexuality to get invited into a drug dealer's abode. Once inside, she kills him and his lackey. With most other action movies, the hero would move on with no emotional repercussions. But when Coffy tries to carry on and goes to her job at the hospital, she is too shaky and distracted to work, and has to take a break.

      In another scene she goes to interrogate a prostitute about drug dealers. At first she is in complete control - but then the prostitute's bigger, tougher girlfriend turns up and Coffy has to leg it. It's hilarious.

      The fact that Coffy is human pays dividends as the story develops. In the end, Coffy discovers that the big bad is her boyfriend, a wealthy man who has sold out his community for a piece of the pie. In typical seventies fashion, Coffy is forced to kill him and then, emotionally destroyed, wanders off into the night.


      Coffy is so much more than just an action picture with a female lead. It juggles action with well-developed characters, an interesting plot and a suitably cynical political subtext. It moves fast, has a great sense of humour and a killer soundtrack by Roy Ayers, which literally narrates the movie ('King George, he's a pimp!'). It's amazing.

      If you haven't seen Coffy, check it out.

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      Jackie Brown