Review: Top Five

Film & Television

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Top Five is something of a mixed bag, bringing together a traditional romantic comedy with a cutting satire of the entertainment industry. While the movie would work in either genre, it is somewhat lacking in cohesion as a result of this fusion. But what cannot be denied is that Top Five has the laughs to make up the difference.

Chris Rock stars as Andre Allen: a stand-up-comedian-turned-actor who is trying to put his comedy career behind him and break out as a more serious movie star. The movie sees him being interviewed by New York Times journalist Chelsea Brown (Rosario Dawson) on the eve of his wedding to reality TV star Erica Long (Gabrielle Union). As Brown follows Allen around New York for the day, he is forced to confront his past, his present unhappiness and just where his career is heading.

The meta-aspect of Top Five—written, directed and starring Chris Rock—is interesting while the movie makes a number of well-conceived points about the entertainment industry, and particularly reality TV and the nature of celebrity. Chris Rock also puts in a nuanced performance as Andre Allen, proving once again that he has the acting chops to back up his comedic talent. His character Allen shares some great chemistry with Rosario Dawson’s Chelsea Brown and their scenes together are some of the highlights of the movie. But perhaps the strongest feature of the movie is its supporting cast, with excellent turns from the likes of Kevin Hart and Cedric the Entertainer, and unexpected cameos from Jerry Seinfeld, Adam Sandler and DMX.

While Top Five is, at times, tonally dissonant, and might have benefitted from a more consistent edit, it more than has the laughs to make up for it.

Verdict: Three Stars

This article was originally published here.

Review: A Letter to Momo

Film & Television

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A Letter to Momo is a quirky but downbeat little gem from Japanese anime studio Production IG. The movie is a realistic study of grief in a surrealistic yet beautiful setting. momo_1The story itself is lyrical, albeit perhaps overly long.

Momo and her mother move from Tokyo to the fictional Shio Island on Japan’s Inland Sea following her father’s death. Having argued with him just before his demise, Momo is haunted by guilt and grief, and a letter her father began writing to her but did not complete.

A Letter to Momo is written and directed by veteran Japanese animator Hiroyuki Okiura, who has been involved with some of the great Japanese anime of the past, including the Ghost in the Shell series and Akira. This is the first movie he has written and the second he has directed, but what remains certain is that he has a flair and style all of his own. Featuring a captivating anime style and colour palette, there is always more than enough on screen to hold the viewer’s attention. Japan’s natural pastoral beauty shines through and the soundtrack is also enchanting. Sadly, the English dub – always hit and miss in Japanese anime – is somewhat flat.

Most of the rare laughs in the movie come from the interactions between Momo and the three spirits or goblins, who are constantly forgetting their mission and always looking for their next meal.

It’s a long and meandering path to the movie’s happily-ever-after, but it’s worth the wait. At its heart, A Letter to Momo is the story of a family reconnecting with one another in the wake of tragedy, with a message that grief is an easier burden to bear when shared.

Verdict: Three Stars

This article was originally published here.

Review: Thank You for Playing

Film & Television

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Thank You for Playing is a difficult, but rewarding watch. This heart-wrenching documentary tells the story of one man’s mission to develop a game about his young son’s battle with cancer. Over the past few years there has been one question that has increasingly dominated the gaming scene: are games art? Thank You for Playing provides a conclusive answer to that question.

Given its harrowing subject matter, this documentary is, at times, very difficult to sit through. The audience sees Ryan Green and his family dealing with the terminal illness of his four-year-old son, Joel. Watching a family deal with grief feels a little voyeuristic, and knowing just where this story is heading makes things even more difficult. There are some scenes in this documentary that are simply heartbreaking. but if there is one silver lining, it is witnessing how this family uses tragedy to create something positive. The game, That Dragon, Cancer, is still in development and Thank You for Playing is an excellent advertisement for it.

The documentary skirts a thin line but ultimately manages to avoid becoming overly sentimental or mawkish. There are scenes of Ryan speaking with his wife about just how much “truth” they should include in the game. They wrestle with nitty-gritty questions, like whether it is acceptable to include the sound of Joel laughing in the game, but not crying, for instance. It also provides an interesting snapshot of how indie games like this are made, speaking with those actually coding this unusual game and getting their thoughts on it.

Thank You for Playing also interestingly looks at the Green family’s motivations behind not just developing the game, but also filming this documentary. This allows for just the right level of self-awareness for a documentary of this kind and counter-balances some of the more distressing emotional scenes. Directors David Osit and Malika Zouhali-Worrall do a great job in producing an intelligent, brave and authentic meditation on grief and the artistic process.

Verdict: Four Stars

This article was originally published here.

Review: Unfriended

Film & Television

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Unfriended bombastically bills itself as a “new genre of horror” in its trailer; although this is most certainly not the case, it is an interesting and innovative take on an old genre. Based on a never-seen-before premise, the events of the movie take place in real time on one character’s screen, as a group of friends Skype with one another. While audiences may be wary of going to watch an 82-minute screencast, Unfriended has enough thrills and chills to keep them on the edge of their seats.

Teenage girl Laura Barns (Heather Sossaman) commits suicide after an embarrassing video of her intoxicated goes viral. On the anniversary of her death one year later, Laura’s so-called “friends” are speaking on Skype, when a digital intruder using her username hijacks the call. The friends are a motley crew of horror movie clichés, from hothead jock Adam (Will Peltz), airhead Jess (Renee Olstead), mean girl Val (Courtney Halverson), geek Ken (Jacob Wysocki) and good girl Blaire (Shelley Hennig). Secrets, of course, are revealed and the audience learns that none of the friends are blameless in Laura’s death. Or to put it another way, Unfriended is the I Know What You Did Last Summer of the digital age.

The film adheres rigorously to its narrow premise, which is both its greatest strength and weakness. Because the entire movie is set on Blaire’s computer screen, Unfriended does suffer from being a tad static. On the other hand, this affords it clever ways of upping the tension, from thematically appropriate iTunes songs being forcibly played to text messages going unanswered. Hacking has never been so scary. The plot also has its fair share of issues, but the acting from the young leads is more than enough to gloss over these.

All in all, Unfriended is a worthy effort that walks a narrow path, but perhaps does not push things as much as it could or should. Interest in the movie will no doubt be restricted to teens, members of the digital age that it so aptly portrays. However, among that generation, the movie sets the lore for what could be a successful and long-lasting horror franchise to come.

Verdict: Three Stars

This article was originally published here.

Review: Hot Tub Time Machine 2

Film & Television

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Hot Tub Time Machine was the sleeper hit of 2010, armed with enough jokes and heart to charm audiences, and fill the Back to the Future/Hangover cross-over niche that nobody even knew existed. The sequel, Hot Tub Time Machine 2, has the jokes but is sadly lacking the heart.

The movie kicks off in the alternate reality created by the events of the last movie. Lou, played by a strangely unlikeable Rob Corddry, is now the “father of the internet.” Nick (Craig Robinson) is a famous musician ripping off tunes from the future, and Jacob (Clark Duke) is still a nerd. Adam (John Cusack) from the first movie is not in evidence and is sorely missed. Things kick off with a visit by an assassin from the future; the troubled trio must go back to the future to prevent the crime. Future shenanigans ensue.

Hot Tub Time Machine 2 has its moments. There are enough jokes, barely, to sustain the premise; the problem is that these scenes are largely unconnected and one-note. The interactions between the three characters still manage to bring in some laughs, but there is something amiss: John Cusack. Without Cusack’s everyman to balance out the crazy and serve as a kind of audience surrogate, there is simply nobody that the audience can root for—all the other characters are just too weird! Cusack’s Adam and his emotional journey was the heart of the first movie, Hot Tub Time Machine 2 is strangely charmless without him.

So yes, Nick Robinson singing in a shot-for-shot accurate remake of Lisa Loeb’s Stay will certainly make the audience chortle, and the same goes for a dozen other gags and quotes. However, without somebody to care about, Hot Tub Time Machine 2 falls short.

Verdict: Two stars

This article was originally published here.

Review: The Treatment

Film & Television

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The Treatment makes for harrowing viewing; this Belgium-made dark psychological thriller is not for the faint of heart. The movie follows chief inspector Nick Cafmeyer, a detective whose latest case – investigating a serial killer with ties to a child paedophile ring – forces him to confront his own dark past. Understandably, the subject matter of this movie makes for some tough scenes, so it is perhaps best avoided by those with a weak stomach. But for those who are able to handle the pressure, The Treatment is a slick thriller that knows how to ratchet up the tension and keep the viewer guessing, ending in a satisfying finale.

The camera follows Cafmeyer – played skilfully by Belgian actor Geert Van Rampelberg – as a man in the midst of a mental breakdown. Cafmeyer uncovers links between the disturbing case that he is investigating, and the abduction of his brother as a child. The on-the-edge detective is also being harassed by the main suspect in his case: sinister neighbour Ivan Plettinckx, a masterfully menacing performance by veteran actor Johan van Assche.

To reveal much more is to spoil the plot of the movie, but things ebb and flow deliciously, and the audience is never completely certain who the villain is, until the final half hour. And what a final half hour that is! Lovers of the genre will relish this; the film is truly everything that a psychological thriller should be. This is tense, edge-of-the seat stuff, with a twist behind every corner. The Treatment’s dark labyrinthine plot reads like a novel, which is no surprise, given that it is based on a novel by award-winning British crime-writer Mo Hayder. The transfer of the plot from London to multilingual Belgium gives everything an additional layer of complexity.

The film is excellently shot, dark and atmospheric. Director Hans Herbots does a great job in manipulating the audience’s emotions. This is a movie whose plot will stay with the viewer even after leaving the theatre… but given the movie’s bleak subject matter, this might not be a good thing. Whatever the view, nobody can deny that The Treatment packs a hefty psychological punch.

Verdict: Three Stars

This article was originally published here.

Review: John Wick

Film & Television

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John Wick is a fun, fast and furious revenge flick starring an on-form Keanu Reeves, featuring a ludicrous, so-bad-its-good storyline and epic action set pieces. The biggest crime is that it has taken almost six months for this high-octane neo-noir thriller to cross the Atlantic and reach our shores.

The eponymous John Wick is an ex-Russian mob hitman who must come out of retirement in order to seek vengeance for the death of his dog – a gift from his recently deceased wife. In order to do so, he must return to the unforgiving criminal underworld that he disavowed taking on all-comers, from rival assassins to psychotic criminal bosses. It sounds like an unbearable mish-mash of genre clichés and noir tropes, doesn’t it? It sounds like it should be unwatchable. It isn’t. John Wick keeps the viewer glued to the screen from the very first minute to the last. It’s the biggest and ballsiest blockbuster of a B-movie that you will ever, and it is glorious.

John Wick is a movie in a hurry, from its epic action plot points (Keanu Reeves taking on faceless bad guys in his home, a seedy club, the mean streets of a neo-noir New York and pretty much anywhere else that takes his fancy) to the already established characters and lore. The criminal underworld that Wick returns to includes a hotel that exclusively caters to assassins where the only currency accepted is gold coin, and which boasts a concierge called Charon (the ferryman of Hades in Greek mythology). It’s all shot in a slick neo-noir style that brings out the best in the lavish action on offer.

Everywhere Wick goes, he is recognised. This movie skips the backstory and heads straight to the long-awaited sequel. We don’t need to know how Wick became such a badass; the important thing is that he is, and breaking into his home, stealing his car and killing his dog was probably not the best move. After all, this is the same man that once killed three men with a pencil, as our psychotic villain of the piece Viggo Tarasov (Michael Nyqvist) memorably puts it in an early scene. There are also a number of other brilliant performances from the likes of Alfie Allen (playing our villain’s inept son), Willem Dafoe (a rival assassin with questionable loyalties) and Ian McShane (owner of the underworld hotel).

The most important thing for a movie like John Wick is to sell the premise. If you buy the premise, you buy the bit. This film takes that and dials things up to 11. Yes, it’s silly and yes, it’s slick; but, above all, John Wick is barrels of fun.

Verdict: Four Stars

This article was originally published here.

Review: The Tale of Princess Kaguya

Film & Television

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The Tale of Princess Kaguya is a richly-drawn and heart-wrenching new film by Studio Ghibli. Based on the tenth-century Japanese folk tale The Woodcutter’s Daughter, Isao Takahata’s swan-song simultaneously dazzles the senses and tugs on the heartstrings.

The story begins with an elderly bamboo cutter, who finds a tiny magical princess inside a shining stalk of bamboo. Believing that he has been blessed by the gods, he takes the tiny princess home, only for her to transform into a very real human baby. Things only get stranger from there. We see Princess Kaguya, known as Takenoko (Little Bamboo) by her friends, grow up in Japan’s rural countryside, only for her father to decide to send her to the capital, where she must learn to be a true noblewoman. Kaguya must deal with the unwanted advances of the kingdom’s most eligible bachelors, setting them a series of impossible tasks in return for her hand in marriage, before facing her biggest challenge yet.

The film’s animation differs from many of Studio Ghibli’s other offerings, featuring a minimalist art style that encompasses pen and charcoal-drawn sketches, perfectly accentuating the movie’s plot. The film’s artwork is fluid and gorgeous, with the style subtly changing depending on a scene’s emotional resonance. The Tale of Princess Kaguya also features a stunning soundtrack, which seamlessly combines with the plot and animation to produce something that is far greater than any of its individual components.

With a running-time of over two hours, it could be argued that the film is drawn out too long, though this gives the audience more time to luxuriate in the wonderful world that Takahata has brought to the screen. An oddly-structured plot and several surprise twists keep the audience on edge, producing a delicious contrast with the sheer beauty of the animation and soundtrack.

A fusion of joy, melancholy, traditional art and modern animation, the impact of The Tale of Princess Kaguya will certainly linger with its viewers.

Verdict: Four Stars

This article was originally published here.

Review: Snow Pirates

Film & Television

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Snow Pirates (Kar Korsanlari) is a Turkish coming-of-age movie set against the backdrop of the 1980 military coup. Tightly driven and well acted, first-time writer and director Faruk Hacihafizoglu slowly ratchets up the pressure before a tense and exacting finale.

The schoolyard crushes and classroom shenanigans of friends Serhat, Gurbuz and Ibo are rudely interrupted by a military coup in Ankara, and even their small eastern hometown is not immune from the political upheaval. With the military seizing coal in the depths of winter, the three boys are forced to scour the countryside for any other source of coal to heat their homes. With soldiers patrolling the streets, and things getting worse everyday, they have no choice but to leave their innocence behind and deal with the grinding reality of life under a military regime.

Snow Pirates cleverly takes the viewer into the mind’s eye of three 12-13 year-old-boys during a dangerous period in Turkish history. However, being just boys, they are largely unaware of the significance and threat of everything happening around them. This means that Serhat is just as concerned about getting ice-skates for his birthday as he is about the sight of political prisoners with paper bags over their heads. Radio broadcasts and news bulletins in the background serve to keep the viewer appraised of the deteriorating political situation, although the boys pay little attention to this. The movie skillfully creates a dissonance between reality, and the boys’ own views and actions. This makes for some nice moments of black humour, as well as high tension, as disaster could be lurking around every corner.

The acting by the three young leads, local talent in their first major feature, is particularly commendable as they manage to bring to life a believable and realistic friendship. The cinematography is also excellent, with snow-covered hills and fields on screen bringing with them a palpable chill. Well shot and well acted, Snow Pirates is edge of your seat stuff.

Verdict: Three stars

This article was originally published here.

Review: Koza

Film & Television

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Koza is a movie of long silences, precise cinematography and uneven storytelling. This Slovak-Czech-produced indie film is a slow-burner from writer and director Ivan Ostrochovský, who takes the viewer across frozen tundra and urban decay and into the boxing ring – or more accurately, into the difficult life and times of the Roma boxer Peter “Koza” Baláž.

Boxing movies are filled with has-beens trying to recapture their glory days; Peter Baláž is a never-was. Nicknamed Koza (Goat), former Olympic boxer Baláž (playing himself in a nice touch of metafiction) is struggling to provide a living for his partner Misa and his young daughter in a run-down housing estate. When Misa learns that she is expecting a second child, she decides to terminate the pregnancy. Koza, concluding that he needs to earn some much-needed cash and possibly try to change Misa’s mind, embarks on a surrealistic comeback tour/road trip with his manager, Zvonko. The only problem? Koza just can’t seem to make it past the first round.

Koza’s frankly bizarre relationship with his manager/tormenter Zvonko is minutely broken down throughout the film’s (sometimes too long) scenes. Koza shows rather than tells, and dialogue is few and far between. Things lighten up for a bit with the introduction of grizzled trainer Franek and a genuine, live chicken in a box, but the former soon disappears off to the pub and Zvonko angrily throws the chicken out of the van’s window in a fit of pique. The film excels in the quiet scenes where not much is happening, allowing the minutiae to take centre stage.

Koza the movie, and Koza the man, remain enigmatic and out of reach. The movie arguably takes just a bit too long to reach its final conclusion. The main character is inexplicable and difficult to read; at times chatty and garrulous, while at others laconic and quiet. That said, Koza is a movie that is well-worth checking out. A tad stolid, its excellent cinematography more than makes up for it, while its story is worth persevering with. Ultimately, it’s a film that speaks loudest when it is most silent.

Verdict: Three stars

This article was originally published here.