Thursday, 30 January 2014

We're the Millers

Lowdown: A drug dealer recruits a "family" to cover his smuggling operations.
Review:
One of my most common criticism of Hollywood is it staying in the shade of the politically correct too much. It is therefore a blessing to find deviations from that behaviour, no matter how subtly they may come. Given that is the sensitivity level we're talking about, I have to say We're the Millers took me by complete surprise.
The premises are simple, really. David (Jason Sudeikis) is a career drug dealer, in the sense that this is what he has been doing since college. He's not a particularly charming man, with numerous faults in addition to his career choice, yet he's the star of this movie. I guess it's the same way with us: we're the stars of our own lives, no matter how many faults we have.
Anyway, circumstances are hard on David. Through "no fault of his own" he finds himself in severe debt. The only way he's going to be let out of this one alive is if he smuggles drugs from Mexico; but how can he pass there and back again without the police being able to read the "drug dealer" sign that's plastered all over his forehead? Well, our David comes up with a bright idea. Instead of going on his own and attracting more attention than a suicide bomber wearing his vest on the outside, he's going to pretend to be a family man going on vacation with his family. No one ever stops a family for a drug check!
Fulfilling the various family roles are stripper Rose (Jennifer Aniston), who does a fine comedic job even if there are hiccups in her portrayal of her character's profession; homeless girl Casey and dumb neighbour child Kenny. They have their personal issues, but the formula works. Sort of. That is, it works until a larger sting operation than David thinks he's in with his "family" starts to unravel.
The beauty of We're the Miller is in the way it takes the piss of many a holy cow. Take, for example, the scene where our family starts arguing on their first flight together, to the point of attracting unnecessary attention from the flight crew. Rose quickly resolves the matter by turning the family argument into a joint prayer session, which the crew is all too happy to accept as explanation for the family's insubordination. Me, I liked this not so hidden joke at the way Americans tend to unquestionably revere their religion (not that Aussies or others do any better).
We're the Millers also avoids taking itself too seriously. Take, as another example, the scene in which Rose tries to appease cartel bosses by throwing a strip dance that's a carbon copy of a famous Flashdance scene, nonsensical elements included.
It all works out to be a very hilarious comedy/parody, but audiences are still required to remember that at the end of the day this is still an American movie. It doesn't take long to figure out where the wind is blowing with this one, in the sense that our made up family soon stands strong like a bonafide, Tony Abbott approved ideal fairytale family. Similarly, the resolution seems a tad contrived, and in the process of getting there things often slip off the good comedy rails and into the mundane and the seen before. Still, I was happy to forget the issues and focus on laughing with the Millers.
Overall: Surprisingly good and refreshing. 3.5 out of 5 crabs.

Friday, 24 January 2014

The AristoCats

Lowdown: A well off family of Parisian cats requires alley cat support to get back home.
Review:
It’s hard to believe, but there was a time when The AristoCats was my favourite book. Yes, book.
Back when I did not know how to read, around the age of 4-5, one of the very few books at my disposal was The AristoCats – the book based on the Disney film. It was a daily ritual for my uncle to read me a chapter when he got home from work. Because he was rather tired by then and often fell asleep during proceedings he recorded himself reading to cassette tapes, thus giving me my first audiobook. Still, I loved the live readings much more; there can be no doubt The AristoCats were a cornerstone in our relationship.
Yet, throughout that time I never got to watch the 1970 movie upon which that book was based. Those were the days when if you missed out on the movie at the cinema, your only hope of ever watching it was the TV many years later. Back then, though, there was no chance in hell you’d be able to watch a Disney animation film on TV.
Nowadays, though, we have Netflix. One of the things Netflix gaveth to me was the opportunity to finally watch The AristoCats. And although it’s been more than four decades since that movie was released, I still thoroughly enjoyed it.
Our story takes place in pre World War 1 Paris, where a family of cats – mother Duchess (Eva Gabor) and her three kittens – serve as the children of a very well off but otherwise lonely lady owner of a mansion, Adelaide. When Adelaide writes down her will, her butler Edgar could not help notice she’s about to give everything she owns to her cats; and once the cats are gone, everything would go to Edgar (I note not much thought was spared to the cats’ potential descendants). Edgar decides to cut out the middle cat, and takes the feline family for a sidecar ride to the middle of nowhere in order to get rid of them. His plan suffers when he’s attacked by dogs along the way, but still – our cats find themselves out in no cat’s land, without a clue as to how to get back home.
Help comes in the shape of various alley cats, geese, a horse and a friendly mouse. As our upper class heroes make their way back home with the help of the working classes, they learn something about the harshness of the real world. However, they are also exposed to this world's nicer aspects, notably warm friendliness, loyalty and jazz music.
As mentioned, I quite liked The AristoCats. However, I will note it will probably appeal more to today’s adults rather than the children for whom it was originally aimed more than four decades ago. Manually drawn animation lacks the pizazz factor of contemporary computer animation flicks, action scenes are rare and the proceedings are delightfully slow. Even the jazz music, one of The AristoCats main offerings, is not the type of thing one would naturally offer a modern iPad generation child. I, however, couldn’t care less; I was delighted with this complete package of a friendly, cheerfully naïve, movie. Even if it is not exactly up to date with today’s perception of feminism.
Overall: A fine blast from the past worthy of 4 whiskered crabs out of 5.

Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2

Lowdown: Flint has to stop his food machine again, this time from creating a Jurassic Park.
Review:
Sequels: you gotta hate them. That is, unless they’re called The Empire Strikes Back, Temple of Doom or Terminator 2. Seriously, though, what chance does the Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs franchise have at belonging to that club? Hardly any, unless – of course – it tries to go after another ultra successful franchise. Jurassic Park.
Enter Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2, a sequel of a somewhat misleading name: it will only present you with mutated meatballs.
Our heroes, the computer animated inventor Flint & Co, return almost in one piece (there is the notable exception of Mr T, whose cop character has been replaced by an infinitely inferior voice actor). They are relocated from their island, and in the meantime Flint finds himself a job at Live – a company directed by his scientist of a lifetime inspiration, Chester. Chester looks an awful like Phil Plait, and clearly he is the villain of this one (which is why I said "awful", because I adore Phil Plait). You know that because his San Francisco company takes its employees to work on special buses that otherwise interrupt the local population (an interesting jab, coming from filmmaker Sony, towards a certain company called Google).
In another interesting jab at Google, at least as presented in The Internship, our Flint loses his chance at winning a coveted employee position through an invention accident. Flint is deemed useless, but Chester does find something he can use him for: help him subdue Flint’s former food machine, which is now surrounded by a jungle full of weird monsters such as spider-burgers and shrimp-panzees. Flint sees an opportunity to work by the side of his inspiration and takes it, which gives us viewers plenty of opportunities to witness Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs versions of famous Jurassic Park scenes; only that instead of the latter’s dinosaurs, we have the former’s food inspired mutations. And yes, eventually we will get to realise who the real monster in this movie is.
Obviously, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2 is a classic sequel in the sense that it tries to sell us the same thing again so that our kids will force us to take them to the cinemas and open our wallets wide. Very wide. Yet, it does deliver, mostly through inventive/creative combinations of food monsters. I particularly liked the fish loving cucumbers. Can someone get me a cuddly cucumber toy?
Overall: One can do much worse for their kids during school holidays. Then again, one should be able to do better. 2.5 out of 5 crab-sauruses; not bad, but nothing too special.

Wednesday, 22 January 2014

I Give It a Year

Lowdown: Can a couple rushing to get married make it last a year?
Review:
While I certainly have my reservations concerning the depth of Netflix’ catalog, I cannot argue with the ease with which pickings are found. I Give It a Year is a case in point: a movie I have never heard of before that’s been offered to me based on my Netflix history. We picked it because it features Stephen Merchant, whose talents span from Portal to Cemetery Junction (with some TV comedy in between). And how right we were with our picking.
I Give It a Year quickly introduces us to its pair of lovers, Nat (Aussie Rose Byrne) and Josh (Rafe Spall). The two are typical Londoners, and as we learn through a short montage they’re bold and beautiful. So they quickly get wed, and it is at their lavish wedding that we learn their peers are somewhat sceptical about the relationship’s long term success. These peers include Josh’s former lover Chloe (Anna Faris), an American living in London whose main focus in life is charity work, as well as Naomi (Minnie Driver), a fellow English woman who knows all about being stuck in a marriage with someone you don’t like. Oh, and there is also the idiot best man, played by one Stephen Merchant.
With the exposition done, our lovers go off to live the rest of their lives together. Which is when things start unravelling, particularly with Josh. This author's second book doesn’t seem to come off as easily as the first. Then it’s Nat who, through her advertising career, meets Guy: a ravish American millionaire who immediately falls for her (Aussie Simon Baker). At first she hides her being married from him in order to win her business; later, she hides her marriage from him for other reasons. In parallel, Chloe seems unable to let go of the Josh memory; not even her attempt at partaking in a threesome helps her there. And thus a chain of events leads to the potential unravelling of the marriage at hands, spruiked as it is by a series of non PC comedic situations.
For a light, non serious comedy, I have to say I thoroughly enjoyed I Give It a Year. Rich in scenes of similar flavour to the aforementioned threesome, it found me frequently roaring with laughter. Even if most of these allegedly British characters are portrayed by non British actors, it is probably the Britishness of the production that allowed it to get away with tons of humour regular Hollywood would not dare getting caught out with.
It’s not just the humour. When was the last time you saw a movie glorifying the breakup of a relationship? Actually, I Give It a Year is not just a single dimension affair; it is to do with all sorts of relationship related regrets, as epitomised through Chloe realising her past mistake when she thought bigger and better things than Josh would come her way. For an hilarious comedy, there are some pretty serious things going on here.
Best scene: The parents give the married couple a photo LCD display screen for Christmas. The couple rushes in to plug their honeymoon photos’ USB stick in, forgetting their holiday photos vary in scope.
Overall: The best comedy is the surprise one, and I Give It a Year certainly surprised me (even though I knew Stephen Merchant was in). 3.5 out of 5 fresh crabs.

Monday, 20 January 2014

Extract

Lowdown: Sexual frustration unravels the life of a food manufacturing plant's owner as well as the plant’s.
Review:
It’s been a week of 40+ degree days. Therefore, no one could blame us for opting to go with a light comedy when it came to celebrating our return to the kingdom of Netflix. And what better light comedy could there be than one starring Jason Bateman and directed by Mike Judge, the guy who brought us Beavis & Butt-Head? Hence 2009’s Extract.
Bateman continues making the most out of his Arrested Development well earned credit with this one, where he plays Joel – the owner of a plant producing food extract concentrates. You may well think that other than an annoying neighbour Joel is cruising through life, with his BMW and Kristen Wiig of a wife, but no. As far as he’s concerned, the factory’s there to be sold so he can retire, and the home front isn’t going too well – by the time he comes home from work his wife’s already wearing her tracksuit pants, and from that point onwards there is no sex to be had. He can't even masturbate in peace at the toilets, what with all the noise from the TV.
Frustration is accumulating to a breakpoint which comes through several events. First there an accident at the factory that causes an employee to lose his balls and puts the factory in danger of being sued to bankruptcy. Second is Cindy (Mila Kunis), a new employee at the factory. She’s hot and everyone wants a piece of her, our Joel included; however, she is also nothing but a conniving thief, there to make as much money as she can out of the balls incident. And third, there’s Joel hippie friend Dean (Ben Affleck), who convinces Joel to solve his problems the unorthodox way: through drugs and a gigolo.
Essentially, the plan is to pay someone to seduce Joel’s wife so that Joel would not feel bad for going after Cindy. As you can expect, things do not go as planned, not at all; which is how we end up with a movie to watch.
Extract is interesting for its utilisation of comic talent. Aside of Bateman, we have names such as J.K. Simmons, Gene Simmons and lest we forget the severely under-utilised Wiig (clearly indicating Extract was made prior to Bridesmaids). Alas, while they all have their moments under the limelight, the final result feels rather incohesive. As in, Extract is not as funny as it should have been. Then again, Extract does deal head on with midlife crisis and other serious themes (such as racism at the factory), so it is not to be easily dismissed.
Overall: It feels as if not even half the potential this one could have provided has been extracted. 2.5 out of 5 stars.

Thursday, 16 January 2014

Y: The Last Man

Lowdown: The quests of the sole survivor of a worldwide calamity claiming the lives of everything bearing a Y chromosome.
Review:
I have been waiting quite a while for an iPad that can free me to read my comics electronically instead of burdening me with paperweights. When this iPad finally came, Y: The Last Man was the first prime time candidate for this exercise in freedom. Why? Because it came highly recommended in the venerable TV series, Chuck.
Y: The Last Man is a series of 60 comic books released about a decade ago. Now we have the privilege of being able to read it all through its collection of ten ebook volumes, and I had done just that over the past month or so. One does need to bear in mind this is a rather expensive exercise, though: with each of the collection ebook volumes selling for more than $10, reading the whole of Y: The Last Man turned out to be quite a heavy burden on the wallet. Much more so than normal books, at least when factoring the time one spends reading. When one bears in mind there is no easy way to remove the DRM on these comic ebooks (unlike regular ebooks), the cost turns out much higher: there is a chance the next time I’d want to read the adventures of the last man I’d have to purchase them once again.
As one can guess, Y: The Last Man tells the story of the last man alive. However, it is not your “usual” story of the last survivor of some cataclysm claiming the rest of humanity. Y: The Last Man starts off at the early 2000’s, telling us the story of how all the men have died (or rather, all mammals bearing a Y chromosome) with the exception of one Yorick Brown and his monkey Ampersand.
Now the sole male in a world of females, Yorick has a few challenges on hand. Personal safety is a major issue, with Yorick being at once the world’s most eligible bachelor and the target of nasty hate groups (one member of which turns out to be his sister, Hero). On the other hand, Yorick is also humanity’s best hope for having future generations, which is why what is left of the USA government appoints Agent 355 to escort him on a quest to find geneticist Alison Mann and then help her create clones. Together on this quest that ends up taking them across the USA, across the whole world and across years, our group faces many a danger, including Israelis and ninjas, and many a challenge. And in case you were thinking Yorick is going to exploit his position, note his primary goal is actually locating his fiancé (?) Beth, last known to be stranded on the Australian outback as the phone call through which Yorick was trying to propose disconnected when everything male decided to die.
Thus Y: The Last Man is best described as exploratory science fiction (a term I am borrowing from the ebooks’ back cover). Essentially, Yorick’s adventures and setting are a platform through which us readers get to explore many issues. These issues range across subject matters, including sexism, morality, religion, cargo pants and much more. I have to say I have found these explorations to be quite a state of the art affair: no stone is left unturned, no plot line unresolved. Even minor characters, like the supermodel now turned grave digger in a world her talents are no longer sought after, get to have their moment under the sun.
In its way, Y: The Last Man offers us comics at its best. Aided by amazing graphics, with some of the best art I have ever seen, Y: The Last Man is by far the smartest comic I have ever had the pleasure of reading (disclaimer: sadly, I cannot boast vast experience in the field of comics). It is not a child’s comic, though; there’s serious stuff in there. And that’s exactly why this is such a great comic.
Overall: Y: The Last Man offers quite a journey, easily achieving the status of the best comic I ever read. 5 out of 5 big, juicy jugs of crab juice for this one.
P.S. Chuck was right!

Monday, 13 January 2014

The Heat

Lowdown: A female FBI agent and a female cop make for an effective counter crime offensive.
Review:
We’ve seen this type of film before. A film where the main deliverable is the main actors performing improv style comedy, usually of a type that involves doing silly things or saying stupid things.
We’ve seen this type of film before. A film that takes one law enforcer with strong character and pairs them with another law enforcer of incompatible strong character and then celebrates the combination. Lethal Weapon alone strangled the formula up to its death in four different movies.
So, if we’ve seen this movie before, and many a time so, then what does The Heat have to offer us on top? Two things: first, it has women in its starring roles; not something to be trifled with in Hollywood’s conservative environment, where Bridesmaids was celebrated as a revolutionary movie. And second, it ushers Sandra Bullock into the nonsense improv genre.
Bullock plays an FBI agent good at her job but awful at human interaction. Contrasting her is a Melissa McCarthy playing a Boston policewoman who is good at her job but awful at human interaction, albeit in a totally different manner. One thing leads to another and the two pair up to stop a major drug thing.
That is pretty much it with the plot. Certainly no fireworks there. The remaining question is whether The Heat’s contribution to the art of cinema, its focus on female improv and its Sandra Bullock, are good enough to sustain the movie? The simple answer is no; the longer answer is with its rather tedious, over long, predictable and let’s face it – not so funny affairs – The Heat is pretty good at one thing. Wasting its viewers time.
Overall: Good to see females taking centre stage, but it would even be better to see them taking centre stage in a good movie instead. 2 out of 5 stale crabs.

Monday, 6 January 2014

Pacific Rim

Lowdown: Human built giant robots fight alien monsters that attack the earth through an undersea portal.
Review:
With all the hype surrounding Pacific Rim, I had high expectations; very high. I thought I might be about to watch the best movie of the year. Alas, I should have known better, for Pacific Rim turned out to be the complete opposite of my expectation. A film that now I dismiss as nonsense and regard the two hours I had invested in it a waste.
Where do I start? Perhaps with the long exposition introducing us to the setting. Aliens have attacked the earth, but unlike most "expectations" they attacked us from under the sea (I'm using the double quotes because no sane person would "expect" an alien invasion). Sending out Godzilla like monsters to wreck destruction upon our human dominated earth, we responded by erecting giant mechanical robots to fight these monsters back with. Assuming we accept giant robots being the best answer for such a threat, we are asked to accept an even worse stretch: For reasons Pacific Rim takes for granted but which eluded me throughout the movie, these robots required two human operators to drive them while their minds are literally in sync. Which imposes limitations on the pilots and adds [unnecessary] complications to the plot.
I'm still covering the exposition here. The robots were successful, initially; but then the aliens threw in bigger monsters and the robots started failing. Which brings us to where the movie actually starts: humans pretty much gave up on the robots idea and decided to hide behind walls. However, the joint running the robots knows this is just a silly idea as the walls are no match for the monsters, so they disobey human leadership and go for an all-or-nothing encounter with the aliens using their remaining robots and crews they scrap from here and there.
The story of that last make-or-break encounter is the story of this film. It involves robots fighting monsters in totally unbelievable terms, lots of silliness added on top of that, and grotesquely exaggerated Australian accents. If you like your manga and would dearly love to see it done live (or as live as digital effects can count), then Pacific Rim might be right up your street. I, however, could not let go of just how much in this film does not make sense. I love my manga, and I think Pacific Rim does a lot of disservice to the world of manga.
I expected so much more from director Gillermo del Toro, the guy who gave us Pan's Labyrinth in the past. But instead of something original we got a silly and unoriginal rendition of an Independence Day like experience that relies way too much on special effects.
Overall: What a failure! 1 out of 5 crabs.