La La Land (2016)

Of all the films that could be considered divisive, you would think that a film like La La Land would be the last one could expect to draw any sort of backlash, but it’s inevitable for popular films to attract pushback, and believe it or not, we live in such divisive times that some people managed to find a way to put people into two basic camps over this. Some people say it’s fantastic and it should have one the Best Picture award, and some think of it as the cinematic equivalent of a Trump rally (trust me, sites like Salon and Newsweek actually wrote reviews of that kind). I meanwhile would prefer not to insert my political agenda and judge this fluffy, light-hearted musical for its merits, being that some critics have completely abdicated that role.

The film is essentially a story about a struggling jazz pianist named Sebastian, whose career was going nowhere until he meets an aspiring actress and playwright named Mia. They meet and fall in love soon after, and they have the habit of affecting each other’s careers, all of set to abundant song and dance numbers.

Musicals seem to baffle me in a bit of an irksome way. They’re always to campy and over-the-top, and let’s not forget to address the fundamental question about the genre. When in real life would you see people randomly breaking into song and dance, and then everyone joins in, and they somehow know the rest of the song? The idea seems to me like of the so-called “golden age of Hollywood”, but with La La Land, I suppose that’s the idea, and if that’s true then the film is a bit sharper than you might think. After all, the film’s title is a rather apt description of the nonsensical song and dance world the writers have constructed.

The acting was quite good, but I personally can’t connect with any of the characters, probably because they are typically unrealistic Hollywood characters, perhaps facets of Damien Chazelle’s fantasy. It would be insane for me to try and argue that the characters have no personality. They certainly do, and the people playing them are certainly capable actors (except for John Legend, who I think was hired for the sake of hiring a contemporary singer), but they don’t have much charm. I do however think there was a good attempt at creating chemistry between the two main characters.

Honestly, the film’s main strength is the way it presents itself. It opens with old style title sequence, and although that’s as close to truly retro as it gets, the rest of the film looked and sounded pretty good. The musical numbers are surprisingly well done, and this is coming from someone who doesn’t even like musicals. Even though I’ve heard time and again that the film is a call back to early 20th century musicals, there are a few nods to the 80’s, and I found myself enjoying the scene with the 80’s cover band.

All in all, I don’t think La La Land is a bad film. I don’t normally watch “normie films” as I call them, but this is what happens when some people in the media make too much of a big deal over it. The film is basically inoffensive entertainment, and that’s the point. In times where people are tired of hearing about how we’re “more divided” and how everything is supposedly going to hell, you kind of need films like this, and in that regard La La Land certainly succeeds as light entertainment, but it doesn’t get much better than that.

  • Score: 67%
  • Grade: C

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children (2016)

Oh Tim Burton, I grew up with your movies when they used to be good, and now I find you languishing in typical Hollywood fantasy fare. Not that this was a particularly bad film. In truth it was quite decent, and the premise was certainly original, but in practice it ended up as a sort of paint-by-numbers affair, showing once again that Hollywood always tends to squander any squint of potential.

The film revolves around a young boy named Jake Portman, who after witnessing his grandfather’s death at the hands of a monster that only he can see, is given permission by his psychiatrist to go to the Welsh island of Cairnholm in order to find an old home for children with certain magical abilities. He finds that they live in a time loop, and winds up upending their fragile equilibrium in order to help save them from the crazy scheme of a mad scientist wanting to gave himself eternal life.

I have probably oversimplified this to a vast degree, but that’s essentially what happens. Anyway, the story itself isn’t bad, but from the beginning I find that the producers put in a bunch of often cringeworthy scenes that seem to have been written in just to pad length in a film that already straddles a somewhat convoluted plot. Honestly, it seemed to me that this could have been much better as an anime film, not that the Hollywood elite would ever entertain such an idea. Also, full disclosure, I know this is based on a book, probably another one that you won’t have read prior to watching the film, and I don’t care, the reason being that a film should be able to stand on its own (this is why I was so critical of the Harry Potter films, which tended to ride on the coattails of J.K. Rowling’s novels), and this film just barely does that.

The characters aren’t bad, but they’re hindered by the typical Hollywood practice of having them overact nearly every line, and even Samuel L. Jackson, arguably the best actor in the whole film, couldn’t escape this trend. The film presents itself decently, but I can’t be the only one who’s tired of every Hollywood film having such an overly polished look, to the point that it’s barely real anymore. However, the film’s special effects make for decent fireworks, and the film’s saving grace can be found in the climactic showdown, although the ending showed that the writers were content with some good old-fashioned schmaltzy closer.

Again, this wasn’t a bad film, but it’s fairly indistinguishable from an average 2010’s-era dark fantasy film (never mind that most if not all films made in the genre are pretty much the same now anyway), and it could have done much better if Tim Burton were at least more willing to think outside the box. With this film, he looks more like a lazy hack than the artist of his prime, having undergone a similarly ghastly transformation as several other Hollywood directors from his era.

  • Score: 60%
  • Grade: C

Last Action Hero (1993)

lastactionheroI’m not surprised that Last Action Hero was maligned by critics back in its day, and is still generally ignored by the public at large today. It was a ludicrously ridiculous action flick in a time when action films were just starting to go out of vogue. Of course, I’m certain this was intended as a satire of Hollywood action films (particularly the ones set in L.A.), and in that spirit it’s certainly more well-produced than a similar film named Loaded Weapon 1 (a cheesy National Lampoon parody of Lethal Weapon). It wasn’t a bad film, but perhaps it was a bit too silly for your average moviegoer.

A big problem is the ridiculousness that is the film’s main premise. A movie-obsessed young boy is given a magic ticket, and he’s somehow transported into the latest entry in the “Jack Slater” series, where he gets to see the world of a badass action hero, and Jack realises that he is just a film character. For me, the film could have been more satirical if the whole film played out like an action film that didn’t always take itself seriously, as opposed to the whole “magic ticket” approach. As it stands however, it’s essentially a matinee film with a goofy plot and wasted potential.

To be fair there’s plenty of humorous moments where the film essentially deconstructs its own genre, but that’s hampered by an often hackneyed script that, sadly, tends to rub off on the characters. Arnold Schwarzenegger still managed to play the lead role effectively, but mainly in his capacity as an action film star. The other characters seem to wilt in the background for the most part, if that is they aren’t hamming their way out of it. One silver lining I can count on is the skilful performance of Charles Dance in the role of the lead villain. A lot of times he unapologetically steals the show, even though he’s not immune to the iniquities of the film’s numerous script problems.

The way I see it, the problem with a setting that gives the characters licence to act like they’re in a Hollywood movie is that they always take it too far. To take this film for what it is requires not so much a suspension of disbelief, but a complete silence of disbelief, but that’s not to say it’s a bad film. There are many enjoyable fantasy films that constantly skirt the issue of suspension of disbelief, often to the point that they risk butchering it, but we still enjoy them. Besides, I kind of like the film’s obvious ridiculousness, which sometimes has a weird comic charm, but I think that comes from the fact that I’m familiar with it (having seen it roughly four times to date).

It also helps that the film had some good production values on its side, but I think they used way too much special effects, which lead to the film having a bloated budget so big that the seemingly plentiful box office returns could be considered a disappoint (a film needs to make more than double its budget to turn a profit, and Last Action Hero costed $85 million to produce).

In terms of ridiculous matinee fair, Last Action Hero isn’t actually as bad as people say it is. I’d say it’s mediocre, but with more than a few good moments. The problem, however, is that the producers wasted a lot of the potential that might have been capitalised on to great effect, and the end result can’t be anything better than a mildly humorous parody film with a choppy script.

  • Score: 60%
  • Grade: C

Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters (2013)

hansel_and_gretel_witch_hunters_There are those who would defend this movie on the basis of it being “pure escapism”, or “unpretentious entertainment”. Did any of the film’s defenders actually sit down and watch it, or did they focus on that scene where one of the characters gets naked? With all seriousness, however, this film was truly awful stuff. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve seen worse films, but few films could ever expect to sink lower than this dribble. In this regard, the biggest problem is the film’s unbearably hackneyed writing. I’ve seen films with blatantly terrible writing, but let it be known, this film has the absolute worst writing I’ve ever seen.

Back when it was new, the film followed the reprehensible trend of gritty, action-oriented fantasy retellings of public domain stories. In this case, it pretends to be a continuation of the story of Hansel and Gretel, but this film bastardizes the story so badly that it made its own events for before the story (which make so little sense that it’s simply baffling). The script itself is an intense atrocity, but what’s even worse is how the film exploits every possible cliché from the Hollywood playbook, including a drawn out final showdown.

Another thing I noticed is that it seemed as if they were aiming to create a strong female lead working alongside the male lead (not that either are particularly good examples), but the film’s writers, the hacks that they are, bungled the opportunity. Towards the end, the writers figuratively beat her to a bloody pulp so that the lead male could have all the glory in saving the day. It’s truly an example of terrible writing, plagued by shoehorned clichés that are long past their sell by date. It doesn’t help that the characters are played by people who don’t even know how to act.

The other big thing that bothers me is the visuals and props. This film is essentially the unholy lovechild of Van Helsing and Wild Wild West, with deliberately anachronistic weapons, costumes and accents. The action scenes should have been the best part of the film, but instead, they feel so empty and badly done that they serve no purpose other than for the sake of adding in gratuitous violence wherever the writers can. These are all the cries of a truly talentless film-maker as he drowns in his pitiful mediocrity for all eternity, just like this film in all its tawdriness.

I can safely say on behalf of the entire cinema-going public that this goes beyond B-movie territory. In fact, this is the kind of film that belongs on Syfy, or at best Channel 5, rather than the silver screen. I know that Blades of Glory is still worse on a different level, but this film is so deeply mindless and devoid of substance or artistic merit that it shouldn’t exist, nor should I have laid eyes upon it, almost as if reviewing bad movies had at one point become a depressing pastime in my life. It may in fact be the worst action film of all time.

  • Score: 5%
  • Grade: F

Weird Science (1985)

movie_poster_for_weird_science_1985Weird Science was very much a film that was emblematic of the bizarre excesses of Hollywood in the 1980’s. It’s ridiculous, it’s loaded with kitsch, and the story seems to be over the place. Sometimes that can make a film so goofy that it’s downright irresistible, but that’s not the case here in Weird Science, which simply hasn’t aged that well compared to other films from the mid-80’s.

The plot is essentially a typical teen comedy, revolving around two awkward teenagers named Gary and Wyatt, who have no luck with women, but they’re swooning over the girlfriends of two boorish Neanderthals who consistently humiliate them. Disappointed with their lot in life, they use Wyatt’s computer to create their ideal woman, who is brought to life after a lightning strike. The woman, who comes to be known as Lisa, begins to teach the boys self-confidence, but not without a slew of zany shenanigans ensuing along the way.

It’s not too much like John Hughes’ other films (which I tend to be sharply critical of), but like the rest, the film revels in Hughes’ consistent romanticising of the dreaded teen phase. As if teen films weren’t already unbelievable, this film pretty much demands suspension of disbelief, as much of the plot raises several questions that I’m sure none of the writers will have any answer for aside from “it’s just a stupid movie”. Nothing about it makes sense, but I’m quite sure that it’s not supposed to. At least this film had the good fortune of being made in a time where you could get away with it.

The acting certainly doesn’t help the cause by much. The actors aren’t particularly bad, but they aren’t exactly high-calibre performers either. They’re essentially actors stuck in a brainless genre that limits their potential. I should give some kudos to the film for using actual teenage actors in the lead roles, unlike the majority of teen films which use actors in their early 20’s, or older for all I know. The characters themselves aren’t particularly likable, and Lisa is perhaps the least convincing character by her very nature as an artificial woman.

If the film has any redeeming virtues, it’s that it at least had good production, as John Hughes films generally did for their time. The film also made wildly liberal use of special effects, and they become more common towards the end of the film as the more nonsensical scenes play out. Of course, the film isn’t bereft of humour, which is fortunate for a film that’s supposed to be billed as a comedy film. It’s not as funny as it perhaps ought to have been, but there are parts of the film that are rib-ticklingly funny, but those are few and far between.

In conclusion, this is a film that very much belongs in its time. I remember hearing that there was a remake in the works, but nobody would really want it. It just wouldn’t work in my time, not just because it’s too cheesy, but also because Hollywood doesn’t know how to write comedies anymore. I dare say that a modern Weird Science would turn out to be even more juvenile than the film we got, and more reprehensibly irritating as a result. This film, thankfully isn’t that bad, but it’s age shows in too many ways.

  • Score: 58%
  • Grade: D

Caddyshack (1980)

caddyshack_posterOften touted as one of the finest sports comedies ever made, Caddyshack comes across as more a typically zany 1980’s comedy film, which isn’t too much of a bad thing. In fact, it’s Harold Ramis’ brand of abstract silliness, along with intuitive input from the lead performers and good use comedic timing, that made Caddyshack a very memorable, and well-aged comedy film from back when people actually knew how to write actual comedy.

In this film, a young man named Danny Noonan becomes a caddy in order to make money for college, working for a golfer named Ty Webbs, all while a bunch of crazy characters is generally wreaking havoc and making life hell for the club owner, Judge Elihu Smails. Among the wealthy and eccentric members of the Bushwood golf club is Al Czervik, a loud, crude tycoon who harasses Smails until he decides he’s no longer welcome, and eventually challenges him and Ty to a golf match. Meanwhile, an unkempt greenskeeper is charged with getting rid of a gopher, but fails and ends up blowing the course to pieces.

A lot happens in Caddyshack, and clearly none of it should be happening in a real life golf course. The story seems a tad disorganised, and to be fair, this isn’t necessarily a film that’s focused on story and writing. It’s basically a vehicle for the comedic talents of the main cast, and in that regard, it works, offering laughs despite a plot that sometimes meanders, replete with scenes that were often built around the gags.

Only in the 80’s does this approach seem to work, though because of the way the film was written, everything revolves around Rodney Dangerfield’s character (Chevy Chase’s character doesn’t really appear too often, save for the beginning and close to the end), and he is outrageous enough that he not just steals but pillages the show, dominating with the kind of comedic personality that the. That’s not to say none of the other characters perform, like Chevy Chase, who perhaps plays a noticeable more subtle character, at least compared to Dangerfield.

For whatever reason, films like Caddyshack remind me of a more well-produced sitcom from around that time, probably because they tend to present themselves with a similar style. Of course, the film has good production values behind it, but the main point of the film is the comedy, which is composed more of gags than of jokes, and this gag-based approach is very much hilarious, and sort of defines Caddyshack. It’s pretty juvenile sometimes (and some of the film’s critics seemed to pick this as the stick with which to beat it), but it’s fun.

It’s no classic, but I would be blind not to notice that the film had aged quite well after nearly four decades. With a charming cast, well-timed gags, and a good director (and writers) behind it, Caddyshack, despite being a film of its time, performed well enough that it had attained lasting appeal and influence long afterward.

  • Score: 80%
  • Grade: B

Seven (1995)

seven_ver1I once attempted to write a review of this film towards the end of 2015, but I had come down with a case of the norovirus, and found myself unable to focus, so I continue writing it at the time. Now, over a year later, I went back and reviewed it again, this time without having to live with a lingering stomach virus. Abundantly praised by critics for its edgy, then-contemporary style, Seven appears to be more of a film of style than of substance, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In fact, Seven manages to accomplish the rare feat of having both good style and an engaging story, even if it plays into the occasional cliché now and then.

Set in a bleak city reminiscent of New York City, the story concerns the ageing detective William Somerset, who is soon to retire but is called for one last case, in which he is partnered with the young, short-tempered David Mills, who is set to replace him at the end of the week. Together they reluctantly work to track down a deranged serial killer whose creative methods of killing people are overtly linked to the seven deadly sins, seeing the case all the way to its ghastly conclusion.

At its core, it’s essentially a genre thriller with more layers of sophistication compared to what you usually get in the market. There were already plenty of films with deranged serial killer antagonist, but this film has a certain dark, edgy quality that distinguishes it from others. The pacing is quite slow, but there are plenty of riveting plot twists that can keep you engaged, though that’s not the only way the film manages to do so. The film’s main asset is in its visceral shock thrills, which come from the trail of grotesque imagery that the killer leaves behind.

Although I think the performances were a bit low-key, I feel that the actors did a good job playing their respective characters. Morgan Freeman seems to be a good fit as the retiring detective who’s seen far too much throughout his career. As for Brad Pitt, this seems like the kind of film that Brad Pitt could do well in, and he plays his character quite convincingly, in the sense that I mostly believe that his character would act in the way that he does. Of course, the villain of the story had the best performance, with Kevin Spacey injecting a dose of self-righteous madness into the heavily grim atmosphere lingering over the film.

The film’s greatest asset is its consistently dark style. There’s a notable absence of colour in the film’s visuals, and I think it was quite deliberate. The other main component would be the gory special effects, which, without the kitsch found in many slasher horror films, the visceral horror has an added sting, which is odd because this was never intended as a horror film. There’s sort of a brutal realism to the film’s overall style, and yet the murder scenes seem quite exaggerated, but the chilling part is that it’s not outside the realm of possibility. It’s quit easy to imagine some sicko committing murders like those in the film.

In that sense, Seven is a very compelling film. I don’t consider it a neo-noir classic, but it’s strangely effective for what is effectively a slightly more sophisticated genre film. It’s a little overrated, but over the years that high praise still proves well-earned.

  • Score: 81%
  • Grade: B

The Fly (1986)

fly_posterI did hear about this film many years ago, but I had never seen it until very recently. Needless to say it’s quite unlike any sci-fi horror film I had seen so far, with its unique premise (I say this and the very story had been filmed before in 1958) and its refreshingly visceral horror thrills.

The premise of the film revolves around Seth Brundle, an eccentric scientist working on a set of “telepods”, instant transportation devices which he claims will change the world forever. Documenting this is Veronica Quaife, a science reporter who eventually gets attached to her subject at her peril. Brundle eventually thinks that he’s perfected his experiment, but begins to display signs that he has transformed into a completely different person, and finds out that his last experiment went disastrously wrong.

I honestly thought that it was going to be the horror film that almost immediately started with Jeff Goldblum’s character becoming the fly, but that would have been much too predictable. Instead, the film seems to have taken the path of slowly establishing mood and depth of character, before eventually taking a creepy turn as the eccentric scientist slowly morphs into a savage, grotesque creature. I think this was a well-written film, with its slow, suspenseful pacing building up to a viscerally climactic end.

I think Jeff Goldblum was a good fit for the lead role, even though at times he sounded a bit robotic. His performance was a fine mix of sorts, not too much like the cackling mad scientist, not too much like a bumbling “nutty professor” type. In a way, he’s his own breed of character here. Geena Davis also made for a good supporting character, though it sometimes seems as if she ought to be the main protagonist (taking on the role more heavily towards the end).

Much like any other film made by David Cronenberg, The Fly is very much a visual film, and thus much of its success depended on how it presented itself. On the surface it looks like it would have fitted just as well on television as it did on the silver screen (by which I mean it’d look good on both). However, the real cherry on the sundae would have to be the film’s wildly liberal use of its creative special and make-up effects. Given the film’s gore horror approach (though I must say the film is rather conservative on the gore), the film is replete with such special effects, and it seems to work in the film’s favour. Of course, who could forget how well the make-up was implemented in creating the fly creature? If you’ve seen the film, I don’t think you will.

All in all, The Fly was a very good example of sci-fi horror done right. I’ll admit that it’s not without its flaws, and that there are certainly better films in the same genre, but because of its inventiveness, originality, and good writing, I think there’s a special place for this sadly underrated film.

  • Score: 84%
  • Grade: B

Rogue One (2016)

rogue_one_a_star_wars_story_posterI’m absolutely certain that Star Wars premieres at around Christmas time are going to become a yearly occasion, starting off with the previous Star Wars film. With Rogue One, which I think is very much on par with The Force Awakens, Disney proves that they can take great care of the franchise, much more so than George Lucas ever could. I think Rogue One represents an amazing amount potential for future standalone Star Wars films in the foreseeable future.

Rather than the obvious throwback plot of The Force Awakens, this film essentially carves its own niche between episodes III and IV, with a cast comprises almost entirely of new characters. The plot of this film concerns a new character named Jyn Erso, who bands together with a group of unlikely heroes with one goal – stealing the plans for the Death Star, the empire’s ultimate weapon of mass destruction.

Right off the bat I knew that Rogue One was going to be a different kind of Star Wars film, and I got that impression from the opening scenes. I expected the Star Wars title crawl, but instead we get the film’s prologue, which, if I must be honest, was a great way to start the film, and certainly quite a shake-up to say the least. I think the writing definitely improved, and I say this because the last film overtly attempted to recapture the spirit of the older films. Rogue One, meanwhile, even though it is replete with throwbacks, takes a rather surprising character-oriented approach, and I say this because I didn’t know anything about the newer characters, nor did I expect them to have any sort of chemistry.

I honestly thought that Jyn was going to be written as an overpowered Wonder Woman type character, but instead she’s kind of like a Han Solo type of character, and as that character she sort of outclasses Rey from the last film. However, I like the other characters much better, especially the film’s villain, Orson Krennic. To be honest, all the characters worked very well, with stellar performances across the board, and it was an even bigger treat to see Darth Vader once again.

As I would undoubtedly expect, the film is a special effects bonanza, and the film looks extremely well-polished. I also noticed that the film seems to have dedicated itself to recreating the look and feel of the original trilogy. Aside from the sound effects, many scenes look as if they’ve been lifted straight from the 70’s, and I think it’s amazing that Disney is apparently capable of producing this effect. Maybe we’ll see this in episode VIII and possibly in other films. I also noticed that two characters that appear here have had their likenesses from A New Hope digitally recreated and used for their appearance in Rogue One (for a moment I honestly thought that Grand Moff Tarkin was being portrayed by Charles Dance). That’s very impressive, though I kind of wonder to what extent this will be used in later films.

On the whole, Rogue One was a terrific cinematic experience, and I think it’s a great way of showing what Star Wars is capable of in the coming years. I predict that in a decade or two we’ll be looking back on Rogue One and last year’s film the same way we look back on the original trilogy today, with awe and enthusiasm.

  • Score: 94%
  • Grade: A

Scrooged (1988)

scrooged_film_posterFor my last Christmas film for this year, I’ve picked out a film that I can say is a consistently good holiday film. I am fully aware that this is essentially a modernized spin on A Christmas Carol (which, to be fair, would have been quite rare back then compared to now), which is extremely familiar, but around Christmas time that’s not exactly a huge concern.

The film sees former Ghostbuster Bill Murray playing the role of Frank Cross, the meanest, crudest, most arrogant television executive out there. He’ll do just about anything to boost ratings for his network, including mounting a bizarre range of Christmas programmes, and advertising a live performance of A Christmas Carol using a shock ad campaign. He also forces his employees to work on the live production, meaning that he has to work right through Christmas Eve.

At that point, he’s visited by the three ghosts of Christmas past, present and future, all of them modernised and given a surreal twist, but the rest of the plot is pretty familiar. It’s essentially A Christmas Carol set in the high-flying corporate culture of the late 1980’s, and it works mainly because the film had good writers behind it. Personally, I think it’s one of the best versions of A Christmas Carol out there, primarily because it delivers the tale in a more contemporary style, while still trying to make it into an original film.

It also helps that Bill Murray is such a hilarious character in this film. He’s great in various other films, including Ghostbusters and Stripes, and he’s great here too. He always seems to deliver his lines with just the right timing and deadpan wit. It seems as though the script is sort of meant for him. The side characters work well alongside him, with an effective chemistry that results in laugh after laugh.

The film certainly presents itself in a contemporary style, almost similar in tone to Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice, and later Batman, and I say this primarily because the film was scored by Danny Elfman (who would go on to compose for Tim Burton’s most popular films). It definitely has the whole Christmas vibe going for it, as I would expect. I’ll admit that the film does sound a little bit dated, but it has a lot of charm left over, certainly more than today’s holiday flicks, and it holds up a lot better than many critics would give it credit for. The film also uses its fair share of special effects, and it uses them well in the scenes involving the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future, which took a rather surreal turn to say the least.

All in all, I’d say this is certainly one of my favourite Christmas films. I’m definitely willing to watch it again year after year (and it always shows up rather conveniently on TV listings at around this time), and that’s because it’s consistently entertaining. Though it’s not necessarily a classic (it’s definitely close to it though), few Christmas films have that much staying power.

  • Score: 82%
  • Grade: B