Issue XCVI

21 OCT 2016

Arts

05/28/2014

Father, son go deep in 'The Hornet's Nest'

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Mike and Carlos Boettcher embed with troops in Afghanistan. It's certainly a noble pursuit for father and son, but the bonding exercise is not always a neat fit with the extraordinary war footage. 4 Stars

"The Hornet's Nest" hits the ground running, with a pitched battle in Afghanistan between U.S. forces and the Taliban, and things are not going well for our side.

And then we're out, as longtime television journalist Mike Boettcher tells us a little about his career spent in and out of war zones, and the toll it has taken on his family. The battle turns out to be a framing device, which means we'll get back to it, but it'll take awhile.

Boettcher wants to embed again for another project, but there's a twist: Carlos, his grown son, decides that he's going with his father, and, despite having no experience, won't take no for an answer. Thus begins the tricky balancing act in the documentary, directed by David Salzberg and Christian Tureaud: It's a thrilling you-are-there war movie, with incredible images from the middle of firefights, mixed with the story of a father and son trying to reconnect.

It is not a neat fit; at times, the latter seems tacked on. At other times, as when Carlos gets caught in the middle of an ambush and Mike can't do anything to help him, it's moving.

But there is no disputing the power of the footage with the troops. Salzberg and Tureaud succeed, in a way somewhat similar to the late Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger's "Restrepo," in letting us see both the intense, dangerous work these men and women do, and in letting us get to know them a little bit.

There isn't a whole lot of time for what you would call character development; the units the Boettchers embed with are constantly on the move. It's difficult to believe that the Marines and soldiers — and for that matter, the Boettchers — ever get used to the sound of bullets zipping past. The audience never does.

That sound is a constant reminder that there's someone on the other side of the ridge with a gun aimed at them, and he's squeezing the trigger. What's more, the directors have gotten hold of captured footage from the Taliban, occasionally offering glimpses of firefights from both sides.

The Boettchers are certainly good at what they do. They won an Emmy for their coverage. And it gives nothing away to say that the experience brings them closer. How could it not?

But as personally rewarding as the trip is for them, it's difficult for the rest of us not to want to get back to the action as soon as we can. This is incredible stuff, filmed not just by Chris and Mike, but...


The Hornet's Nest

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1 Star

Mike Boettcher has been reporting from conflict zones for 34 years. The Hornet's Nesthighlights that fact almost immediately, in part to explain why he and his son, Carlos, have grown apart—too many missed birthdays and graduations over the years because of the job—and why they're embedded together with the U.S. Army in an attempt to "reconnect," as Mike puts it. But Mike's journalistic credibility also serves, of course, as a necessary source of credibility for this documentary about the war in Afghanistan. Though the film is directed by David Salzberg and Christian Tureaud, two TV and film producers making their directorial debuts, it's carried by the authority brought to it by Mike, who captured the film's footage along with Carlos for over a year in Afghanistan. Mike's status as a journalist reporting for ABC News also positions him as a reliable third party to transmit the realities of war to the audience. Or that's the pitch at least.

The reality is that Hornet's Nest is far from an investigative report on the war, but it also doesn't entirely succeed at offering the glorified vision of the military that its tagline—"Real War. Real Heroes"—might suggest is its actual goal. In style, the film too often resembles a first-person shooter, as we're right there with Mike and Carlos in the field courtesy of cameras strapped to their helmets. To be fair, while the doc may make war look like a video game, it isn't a particularly entertaining one. The battles are chaotic scenes of shooting and shouting. Attached to Mike and Carlos, we get a seemingly unadorned view of the conflict, neither heroic nor horrific, just unruly.

What also becomes clear pretty quickly is that Mike and Carlos's insider perspective allows for close to no context beyond what their cameras directly capture. Mike vaguely outlines the missions they ride along with, and about all we learn about the war is that on one side lies the Taliban and on the other the U.S. fighting to make life better for Afghanis. There's no sense of who the enemy is beyond the bullets they shoot from the mountains and the IED's they leave planted on roads, and neither is there a well-developed argument for the virtues of the Americans. At one point, we're shown the aftermath of a roadside suicide bomb and how U.S. soldiers manage to get one Afghani boy to the hospital in time to save him from...



05/22/2014

'X-Men: Days of Future Past' is time-traveling fun

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Bryan Singer returns to the franchise to good effect. Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) must return to the past to prevent an event that will set disaster in motion. It's smart and fun.

"X-Men: Days of Future Past" does just about everything you'd hope an all-star, time-traveling summer blockbuster should.

Better still, Bryan Singer's film does it all quite well. Or mostly well, let's say — with a packed cast, a few characters are bound to get short shrift, and, as with any movie that moves back and forth in time, there are going to be some rough logistical patches. But this is a smart movie, a treat for fans of the comics and the franchise. And it's a lot of fun.

The film begins in a (what else) dystopian future, where the mutants and their human allies are fighting a losing battle against Sentinels, giant lethal robots invented by Dr. Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage) that even the X-Men can't conquer.

Thanks to Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page) and her power of ... well, who knows, helping people's consciousness go back in time is close enough, the mutants are able to live to fight another day. But time is dwindling, with Sentinels in pursuit. So Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) and Erik Lensher (Ian McKellen) — yes, working together — decide to send Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) back to a key moment in 1973, to prevent an event that will prove disastrous for their, and everyone else's future.

Jennifer Lawrence as Mystique in 'X-Men: Days of Future Past.'(Photo: 20th Century Fox)

This, of course, means working with the 1973 versions of Xavier (James McAvoy) and Erik (Michael Fassbender). This is difficult because the former is addicted to a serum that gives him the use of his legs but blunts his powers, and the latter is jailed deep below the Pentagon for his supposed role in one of the century's more-momentous crimes.

Also, they hate each other.

But this is all for a higher calling, as Xavier keeps trying to convince Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), who has gone rogue. Along the way, in the future or the past, we'll also see Beast (Nicholas Hoult), Storm (Halle Berry), Bishop (Omar Sy) and many more. This is an all-out war for survival, after all, so all hands are on deck.

The best set piece takes place in the past, with a young Quicksilver (Evan Peters) using his superspeed during a high-risk prison break. Singer slows everything down (except Quicksilver, naturally) so that we see things from the mutant's perspective.

And the choice of musical accompaniment is hilariously spot-on.

Of all the performances, Jackman's is the most intriguing, which is not surprising...


X-Men: Days of Future Past, review: 'A mess of mutants'

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Bryan Singer's muddled superhero film - starring Patrick Stewart, Jennifer Lawrence, Ian McKellen and Michael Fassbender - has the X-Men showing their age

What, exactly, is X-Men: Days of Future Past trying to prove? The original superhero mega-franchise returns to cinemas this summer with its founding director, Bryan Singer, back at the helm.

It was the release of the first X-Men film, in 2000, that convinced cinemagoers still stinging from Batman & Robin that the comic-book movie vocabulary stretched a little bit further than zap and kapow. But since then, the series has been stylishly outflanked by Dark Knights, Avengers andAmazing Spider-Men, which took the X-Men recipe, and sweetened, coloured and carbonated it.

This latest film feels like an attempt to reassure us that, 14 years on, the mutants can still match their younger rivals, although the effect is not unlike watching a recently divorced uncle dancing to Blurred Lines at a wedding reception, while the bridesmaids shimmy warily towards the cloakroom.

The plot, which is loosely based on a two-issue storyline from X-Men comics published in 1981, is a curate’s egg, thoroughly scrambled. We open in a dark, Matrix-style future-wasteland, in which mutants slip from shadow to shadow, evading giant predatory robots while scratching for supplies in the dirt.

Singer borrows stylishly here from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis: shots of mutants being frogmarched into internment camps are direct lifts of the ‘Day Shift’ section of Lang’s silent dystopian classic, and one of few hopeful signs that Days of Future Past’s makers are aware of the existence of a non-superhero cinema.

Watch: X Men: Days of Future Past final trailer

The surviving X-Men, who include most of the key cast of Singer’s first two films – Hugh Jackman as Wolverine,Patrick Stewart as Charles Xavier, Ian McKellen as Magneto, Halle Berry as Storm – flee to a ruined Moscow and then an equally ruined China, as if dutifully ticking off key territories in which, a few years ago in a parallel timeline, a film based on their adventures might have premiered.

An enormous load of exposition is needed to set the scene – let’s call it X-mansplaining – although finally, we get the gist. In the aftermath of the Vietnam War, Bolivar Trask, a kind of watered-down Mengele figure, played by Peter Dinklage, developed drone robots called Sentinels for the Nixon administration, which sought-and-destroyed mutants worldwide in anticipation of an uprising. The mind-manipulating Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page)...



05/14/2014

Review: 'Godzilla' is the film Godzilla fans have been waiting for

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The good news is Godzilla is back, in all his spine-rattling glory.

The bad news is he just destroyed most of San Francisco. If you're a commuter, you might want to call in before you go to work, just to make sure your building is still there.

Like they say, you can't make a reptile omelet without breaking a few reptile eggs. Or ticking off his fans. Godzilla has remained a fascination among sci-fi lovers for more than 60 years, and because of his status as perhaps the longest-tenured (and tallest) popular figure in the genre, fans want to see their star get his props on the big screen. Think about Bryan Singer trying to reboot Superman. It wasn't terrible, but you can't just make any Superman movie. It has to do the character justice, or else the crowd turns on you.

Which brings us to the last time Hollywood tried doing a Godzilla film -- Roland Emmerich's 1998 version, a colossal dud that had many people questioning whether Emmerich had ever seen a Godzilla film.

Fortunately, director Gareth Edwards and writers Max Borenstein and Dave Callaham fare much, much better in the new "Godzilla." They've managed to update the story while leaving enough of the legend intact to satisfy longtime fans.

Instead of being a product of the atomic age as in the original story, this time our hero was apparently a target of the atomic age (or were you wondering why we blew up so many nukes in the Pacific back in the 1950s?)

Bryan Cranston is appropriately frantic as a scientist on a quest to expose what caused a nuclear meltdown (a big animal) at an Indian power plant in the '90s that killed his wife (Juliette Binoche, in a role requiring about three minutes of screen time). His ensuing quest alienates him from his son (played by a buffed-up Aaron Taylor-Johnson), a Navy bomb expert who lives in San Francisco with his wife (Elizabeth Olsen) and young son.

But the humans are the least of Godzilla's concerns. There are a couple of giant slimy things on his radar -- radiation-gobbling MUTOS (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms), one of which emerges from the Pacific and, as giant radiation-eating monsters with heads shaped like potato chip baggie clamps are prone to do, starts wreaking havoc in Japan.

Meanwhile, another MUTO -- which was apparently dumped years earlier in a cave near Las Vegas with other nuclear waste -- emerges, stops by the casinos for a couple quick hands of blackjack, then starts moving west (at one...


‘Godzilla’: As pointless as ever

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Here’s a misleading metric: This new film of “Godzilla” is miles above Roland Emmerich’s turgid mess of a film from 1998, which starred an embarrassed-looking Matthew Broderick and a bemused Jean Reno.

Duh.

There are lots of movies that make Gareth Edwards’ new “Godzilla” look like a masterpiece. That, however, is not the same as saying that this movie is actually worth seeing or, more crucially, worth making in the first place.

And when I say the first place, I’m looking back at the 1956 original, as snicker-worthy an endeavor as ever graced a movie screen. The original “Godzilla” may have been the film that acquainted the mass audience of American moviegoers with the idea of badly dubbed foreign films, at least until Steve Reeves’ “Hercules” came along.

It was huge at the time – just as this “Godzilla” is going to (insert verb denoting destruction) the box office this weekend.

Again, not much of a metric, particularly in a year when both “Ride Along” and “Mr. Sherman and Peabody” have won the box-office weekend. Popularity and quality should never be confused with each other.

But the subject at hand is “Godzilla,” which promises scenes of the aforementioned destruction, with monsters running amok in Japan, the Philippines, Las Vegas and San Francisco. It all looks fairly convincing – but why should anyone give a rat’s ass?

Indeed, it’s hard to imagine anyone who’s serious about film taking this movie seriously. So there you are.

Edwards is a British-born director whose last film, “Monsters,” managed to create a creepy, unsettling vibe by NOT showing its monsters, except glancingly. It was an interesting idea, shot for pennies, one that managed to be ingenious and tedious at the same time.

Which is about the best that can be said for “Godzilla,” a bloated extravaganza of special effects which, occasionally, turns the camera around to look at the humans. The actors, in turn, make a Sisyphean effort to seem relevant to the story. Much of that effort is devoted to not looking like they’re acting in front of a blank green screen.

The human stories here are so generic, so formulaic and predictable, that you assume actors as distinguished as Bryan Cranston, Juliette Binoche, Ken Watanabe and Sally Hawkins had to hold their noses while they read the scripts. That,...



05/07/2014

BAD NEIGHBOURS

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A neighbourhood dispute turns into all-out suburban warfare in Bad Neighbours, the raunchy, raucous, rapid-fire new comedy from director Nicholas Stoller (The Five-Year Engagement, Forgetting Sarah Marshall). Adding the word 'bad' to its title in Australia in order to avoid confusion with a certain iconic soap opera, the film marks another sure hit for one-man comic industry Seth Rogen, who slots comfortably into another role that basically amounts to playing himself.

Yet it's Rogen's co-stars Rose Byrne and Zac Efron who are the movie's biggest standouts. Indeed, while the advertising material sells Bad Neighbours as a strictly Rogen versus Efron affair, the film is very much a triple act, with the more dramatically inclined Byrne clearly relishing the chance to cut loose. With a cast game for just about anything, Bad Neighbours accelerates from one over-the-top set-piece to the next. It's ridiculous, juvenile and very, very funny.

Rogen and Byrne play Mac and Kelly Radner, a newlywed couple with a bouncing baby daughter, whose suburban peace is threatened when a college fraternity moves in next door. Chief dude-bro Teddy Sanders (Efron) seems agreeable enough at first, promising to keep the noise to a minimum and even inviting the couple to the frat's inaugural blowout, where a great time is had by all. But when the partying starts up again the following night and continues into the morning, the Radners decide to call the cops.

From there, things escalate quickly. Teddy swears vengeance, and soon the two households are exacting increasingly crass and elaborate acts of sabotage in an attempt to bring the other side down. Screenwriters Andrew J. Cohen and Brendan O'Brien pack a staggering number of gags into the film's tight 90-minute runtime, although arguably the more impressive feat is that the vast majority of them land. Stoller allows his cast ample room to improvise, but never to the extent that the movie loses momentum.

Frankly, the performances are all the better for it. Byrne, in particular, seems to feed off the film's breakneck energy, the Australian actress frequently stealing the show from her more seasoned on-screen husband. Likewise, Efron exhibits great comedic instincts as the antagonistic Teddy, a villain who you simultaneously love to hate and actually genuinely kind of like.

That's the other thing about Bad Neighbours: although the script...


NEIGHBORS

Mac (Seth Rogen) and his wife, Kelly (Rose Byrne), live on a quiet street. They have a baby so implausibly cute that it may be a special effect. This idyll is interrupted by the arrival of a college fraternity, Delta Psi, which moves in next door; the leader of the pack is Teddy (Zac Efron), whose body, according to Mac, looks as if it were designed by gay men in a laboratory. Nicholas Stoller’s movie, written by Andrew J. Cohen and Brendan O’Brien, aims for a culture crunch: the settled, half-jealous bourgeoisie versus an unembarrassed jamboree of ids. It’s a promising setup, but it gets frittered away—partly by narrative laziness (the involvement of other neighbors is dismissed out of hand) but mainly by a flaccid belief in the power of the gross-out. You can feel the desperation as the film tries to hawk its puerile wares: Make your own dildos, guys! Laugh at the very existence of breast-feeding! Only toward the end, as adulthood looms, does the story regain its poise, as in a touching scene between Rogen and Efron outside an Abercrombie & Fitch store (guess who works there). Much credit, also, to Rose Byrne, who manages to keep her comic gifts intact, even if her dignity is left in a heap on the floor.



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