Movie Review – Little

A big comedy starring a brilliant little actor.

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ½
Elle Cahill

When Jordan Sanders (Marsai Martin) is made the butt of a practical joke in middle school, she vows that when she becomes “big” no one will be mean to her again. Present day Jordan (Regina Hall) runs a highly successful tech company and is as mean as they come. She’s unpleasant to all those around her, in particular her personal assistant and budding app designer April (Issa Rae). But when she’s rude to a little girl, she’s curses her to be young again. She now has to turn to April for help to get her back to normal, and reface the challenges school once bore for her.

Little is everything you expect it to be; over-the-top, far-fetched and crass, yet it somehow still works. While the trailer suggests it’s Suddenly 30 in reverse with a black cast, this is actually just poor marketing. Little is really about sisterhood and self-acceptance, moving away from the romantic subplots that Suddenly 30 was reduced to.

Hall plays the ruthless older Jordan, filling the screen with ridiculous tantrums when her insane demands aren’t met. Rae’s turn as the insecure, run-down PA April is equally funny, especially when Jordan becomes a child, forcing April to assume the role of parental guardian and fill in for her boss until she can become an adult again.

Of course, the show-stealer is the young and talented Martin. Without a doubt, Martin makes this film come together, and it would not have worked anywhere near as well without her. It takes a particular talent to carry out comedy, but Martin certainly holds her own, perfectly delivering witty comebacks and hilarious quips.

Little is nothing more than a feel-good comedy. It doesn’t aspire to be anything else. Instead of trying to break free of the chick flick label, it relishes in the genre with great success. If that’s the kind of film you want, go see it.

Little is available in Australian cinemas from April 11

Image (c) Universal Pictures 2019

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Movie Review – Missing Link

Laika continues with its outstanding stop-motion animation, but its story falls behind.

⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Zachary Cruz-Tan

There are movies that look a lot better than they play, and Missing Link is one of them. This is an exquisitely crafted stop-motion animated movie about a dogged adventurer in the late 19th Century who discovers the legendary Sasquatch and ends up becoming his best friend. It sounds kinda interesting on paper, but Missing Link does very little to see the journey through. It misses its own links.

I attended a screening that had lots of kids, and only twice did the movie make them laugh. Once when a character got bonked on the head and another when a pile of letters fell on another character’s face. There was a bit more for the adults, but for long stretches the room was held by a rigid silence. If a movie is neither beguiling enough for children nor sophisticated enough for the adults who pay for their tickets, who is it for?

Anyway, the adventurer is the lanky, sharp-nosed Sir Lionel Frost (Hugh Jackman), who dreams of joining a prestigious gentlemen’s club in Victorian England by proving to its chauvinistic president that mythical creatures exist. He embarks on a voyage across the Atlantic, treks through hostile American territory and discovers, to his amazement, that not only is Sasquatch (Zach Galifianakis) real, he speaks fluent English and owns a collection of books.

They strike a deal. Lionel will take Sasquatch to the Himalayas to be united with his distant cousin, the Yeti, and in return Sasquatch will give Lionel all the proof he needs to convince the snobs back in England. The rest of the movie chronicles the pair’s journey, occasionally stopping to interact with supplementary characters. See, all these pieces on their own have the potential to assemble a thrilling family adventure, but Missing Link plays the expected chords and writes the expected melodies. What are the odds, for instance, that Lionel, who begins the movie as a selfish prig, will learn before the end to care about someone other than himself? It’s Groundhog Day told as a linear animation.

That’s a shame because the animation is absolutely stirring, as most stop-motion movies are. Missing Link is created by Laika, the same production company that made the brilliant Coraline (2009) and Kubo and the Two Strings (2016). Those movies accompanied their impressive visuals with well-rounded, engaging stories. It takes a special breed of filmmakers to make something so painstakingly elegant, to shift an arm a millimetre per frame and convince us that it’s moving naturally. This time, however, the plot is missing that extra spark. I liked the exaggerated features of the characters and the rapport between Jackman and Galifianakis, but Missing Link’s really just a pretty picture with the decency to occasionally make us smile.

Missing Link is available in Australian cinemas from April 11

Image courtesy of Roadshow Films 

Movie Review – The Man Who Killed Don Quixote

Terry Gilliam’s latest release is a passion project twenty nine years in the making. The result? A jumbled mess…

⭐ ½
Elle Cahill

While filming his latest commercial in rural Spain, disillusioned advertising director Toby (Adam Driver) stumbles across his university film that he made ten years earlier. His commercial and his student film each feature the classic characters Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, with the latter filmed in a small village not far from Toby’s current location. 

Driven by nostalgia, Toby travels back to the town and bumps into Javier (Jonathan Pryce), a shoe cobbler who was cast in his film as Don Quixote. Javier now believes himself to be Don Quixote, and believing Toby to be Sancho Panza, the two embark on an adventure, mimicking the script of Toby’s student film. 

The Man Who Killed Don Quixote (TMWKDQ) took director Terry Gilliam twenty-nine years to make, and despite the numerous setbacks, he continued to persevere to produce a film that is both zany and peculiar. However, unlike other films of his, such as The Fisher King or The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, TMWKDQ falls too far down the rabbit hole, resulting in a film that is nonsensical to the end.

TMWKDQ covers a lot of topics, but never really delivers on any. At the beginning, the film feels like it’s heading down the path of a disenfranchised director rediscovering his passion for his work. Upon reconnecting with Javier, it then starts to study the impact of filmmaking on small communities. As the film progresses, it becomes difficult to tell what’s real and what’s not, with the lines between dreams and reality becoming increasingly blurred. 

More annoyingly, the characters beautifully thought out, and more importantly, human. I say annoying because without them it would be very easy to write this film off. Driver plays the egomaniac advertising director to a tee. His character arc is perfectly written, and it’s this evolution that nicely rounds out the film at the end.

Javier’s turn from simple shoe cobbler to completely embracing his ‘role’ as Don Quixote brings an element of black humour to the film, but also allows for a real look into mental illness. While the film doesn’t draw great attention to this issue, it does show the exact moment when Javier became convinced he is Don Quixote, and his confusion when others don’t take him seriously.

The Man Who Killed Don Quixote is ultimately a labour of love from Gilliam, but like any piece of art that takes twenty-nine years to complete, it’s easy for the project to lose its way.

I spent the entire film waiting for Toby to wake from a dream, and although this would have been a completely clichéd ending, I found myself disappointed when this wasn’t the case.

The Man Who Killed Don Quixote is available in Australian cinemas from April 11 

Image courtesy of Umbrella Entertainment and © Diego Lopez Calvi­n, Tornasol Films, Carisco Producciones. 

Movie Review – Mid90s

Through teen trauma as a devastating rite of passage, Jonah Hill’s bold directing debut recaptures the extreme highs and lows of a decade in the shadow of a new century.

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Corey Hogan

Friendless and lacking direction, 13-year-old Stevie (Sunny Suljic) lives with his single mother (Katherine Waterston) and older brother Ian (Lucas Hedges) in a lower-class area of Los Angeles in the mid-1990’s. Tired of being a mercilessly bullied nobody, Stevie determinedly bonds with a rag-tag older group of teens through a shared passion for skateboarding. But his idolized friendship with these foul-mouthed and deeply troubled boys proves a bad influence on Stevie, and soon lack of discipline, morals and any regard for authority sends the group on a dangerous drug-and-alcohol-fueled descent that could ruin the rest of their lives.

Putting the dick jokes behind him (mostly), Jonah Hill paves the way for 90’s nostalgia to take over from the recent 80’s nostalgia craze in his impressive writer-director debut Mid90s. Hill brings the era vibrantly back to life through raw, grainy cinematography and 4:3 framing, perfectly capturing the aesthetic of a homemade skateboarding video tape. He wears the dysfunctional coming-of-age films of the time that have clearly influenced him on his sleeves here – namely Harmony Korine and Larry Clark’s seminal Kids, the definitive youth-behaving-very-badly shocker.

Hill’s kids are cut from a similar cloth, but do prove themselves more endearing through their deep flaws. Hedges, again playing an asshole teenager, is a portrait of an angry young man who takes this out by manipulating and beating up his younger brother, and yet still expresses concern when he sees the same brother coming home drunk and dishelmed. Suljic’s Stevie self-harms when he feels failure, but is infectious when he succeeds in being accepted by his new friends, a relatable experience that makes bad things he does for them all the more disconcerting.

What sets this apart from Kids, which set up some semblance of sympathy for its subjects before abandoning them to the horrible consequences of their actions, is their depth that leads room for the possibility of hope and redemption. Budding masculinity and insecurity are often mocked or frowned upon, but here we see the dangers of trying to cover it up and how the strides that can be made in an attempt to appear “cool” can hurt naïve young men. Hill captures the contrast of the outwards cockiness versus the inverted fragility each boy clings to, and the devastation of the latter bubbling to the surface in the most embarrassing situations, in everything from sexual inexperience to fighting with friends.

And friendship is ultimately what defines Hill’s debut, which poetically harkens back to his breakout in Superbad. There’s something sweet in the thematic link between the two, and that both promise a brighter future for their growing subjects. Mid90s proves Hill’s has been, and promises brighter things still to come.

Mid90s is available in Australian cinemas from April 4 2019

Image courtesy of Roadshow Films

Movie Review – Shazam!

A DC Comics staple gets his time in the spotlight courtesy of David F. Sandberg’s Shazam!

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Rhys Pascoe

A troubled teen with a good heart bouncing from foster home to foster home, Billy Batson (Asher Angel) finally lands on his feet when he’s plopped on the doorstep of gentle foster parents Victor (Cooper Andrews) and Rosa (Marta Milans). The caring couple and their menagerie of foster children – including Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer) ­– open their hearts to Billy, but he’s too busy getting into trouble and looking for his birth mum to pay them any attention.

A good deed leads Billy to a chance encounter with a mystical wizard (Djimon Hounsou), who gifts him with the ability to transform into the muscled lycra-clad adult hero Shazam (Zachary Levi), who is invulnerable to bullets, can leap buildings in a single bound and shoot lightning from his fingers. With Freddy in tow, Billy discovers the benefits of being older and super – but his gift isn’t without danger, which he comes to realise when the villainous Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong) arrives on the scene.

After a rocky start, DC’s interconnected series of superhero films has come good recently. Wonder Woman remains the high watermark, and Aquaman proved even the lamest of heroes can be fun when in possession of enough charisma. David F. Sandberg’s Shazam! continues this upward trajectory, courtesy of its playful tone, colourful characters and abundance of heart. To say you’ll be beaming from ear to ear in an understatement.

While the sprawling ensemble cast is packed with great characters, Billy and Freddy’s friendship shines brightest. A second act montage where the duo experiments with Shazam’s myriad of powers (with varying results) is hilarious. It’s a gleeful exploration of how two tearaway teens would act when gifted with a grown-up body and superpowers. They buy beer, visit a strip club and generally cause mischief. Basically it’s Tom Hanks’ Big with ancient wizards and gruesome demons thrown into the mix. What’s not to love?

Levi (best known for the titular role in Chuck) and Grazer (who viewers will recognise from 2017’s It) bounce off one another with aplomb, with the former nailing the mood of a kid who just discovered they can fly at the speed of sound. Fun isn’t something audiences have come to expect from DC films, but Shazam! is making up for lost time.

Of course, every hero needs a villain, and Sivana is a passable one. Strong skulks around behind dark sunglasses, snarls about his evil intentions and has a horde of hulking monsters at his back. He exists solely to create some third act drama, but isn’t what you would call memorable.

At its core, Shazam! is about family. Billy is searching for one but looking in all the wrong places; Sivana is similarly lonely, but chooses to channel this into anger; Victor and Rosa’s home may be unconventional, but there’s no shortage of familial love at their dinner table. Because of this (and in spite of a few scares which reveal Sandberg’s horror roots remain intact), Shazam! is the perfect Saturday matinee film for the family. A simple premise with heart and humour in equal measure, Shazam! doesn’t reinvent the genre or defy expectation, but it does deliver on its promise of unbridled fun. Comes recommended.

Shazam! is available in Australian cinemas from April 4

Image courtesy of Roadshow Films

Movie Review – Pet Sematary

Pet Sematary is back from the dead, and it’s a welcome if flawed resurrection.

⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Corey Hogan

Louis Creed (Jason Clarke), his wife Rachel (Amy Seimetz) and their two children Ellie (Jeté Laurence) and Gage (Hugo Lavoie) are enthusiastic about their move from Boston to a new home in the country, until their neighbour Jud (John Lithgow) alerts them of a graveyard for the local’s pets within their own backyard. When the family cat is tragically killed by a passing truck, Jud reveals to Louis that the cemetery holds mysterious powers and can be used to bring animals back by burying them at a certain place deep within. But something evil has taken over the cat in its resurrection, and Louis soon learns that the cemetery can bring more than just pets back to life.

In the midst of a resurgence of Stephen King adaptations and remakes, there’s been great (It, Gerald’s Game) and not-so great (Cell, The Dark Tower). Directing team Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer’s (Starry Eyes, Holidays) slick revamp of Pet Sematary falls somewhere in the middle of that scale – leaning to the more positive side for sure, but still at times a victim to the inherent silliness of its premise.

The good news is that Kölsch and Widmyer keep the suspense dial turned to high throughout a good chunk of the runtime, which works largely to Sematary’s benefit. A few cheap jump scares early on are thankfully traded for long periods of breath-holding, often climaxing in effective and sparingly-used bursts of gore. The acting is great, with Jason Clarke’s loving father and John Lithgow’s weird but well-intentioned old neighbour sharing a good bond. The standout, however, is young Jeté Laurence as the Creed daughter, who successfully carries and transitions her character as she’s forced to play it darker in the film’s second half.

The dark look of the film helps keep the sinister tone intact, even if the charm the original held with its cheesy 80’s practical effects is sacrificed. The actors playing it straight helps this too for the most part, but eventually the ridiculousness of certain scenes come at odds with their seriousness and things begin to unravel. As increasingly silly events ramp up in the third act, it’s hard not to laugh at how nonsensical it all is.

Still, it’s a fun ride that delivers in creepiness and continues the case that most of Stephen King’s work should make for viable entertainment for years to come.

Pet Sematary is available in Australian cinemas from April 4 

Image courtesy of Paramount Pictures 

Movie Review – Destroyer

Slow and messy, Destroyer only succeeds in destroying itself…

⭐ ½
Elle Cahill

When the body of a John Doe is found with a tattoo linked to a drug dealing gang, Detective Erin Bell (Nicole Kidman) soon learns that the gang leader, Silas (Toby Kebbell) has been released from prison. Having served undercover in the gang 15 years ago, Bell sets out on a mission to reconnect with the old members and find Silas’ location. She goes deeper and deeper down the rabbit hole, putting her family in jeopardy as she’s haunted by memories of the past…

The first major let down in Destroyer is the casting of Nicole Kidman in the lead role. She puts in a decent effort, but at the end of the day, she lacks the steeliness required to make the character truly come alive, and she’s far too attractive to be convincing. In the present-day scenes, the hair and makeup department have attempted to age her, but no amount of prosthetics can take away the natural beauty that makes Kidman stand out in a crowd.

Thankfully, her co-stars pull their weight. Sebastian Stan plays her former undercover partner turned lover with a quiet conviction, meanwhile Kebbell plays Silas as the ultimate bad guy, delivering a chilling and dangerous performance. In the end, however, its Tatiana Maslany who steals the film. Her turn as spoiled rich girl turned drug addict Petra is heartbreaking, and she easily would have been a better choice for the lead role.

Destroyer is shot with a gritty aesthetic that’s supposed to match the edginess of the story, but instead it ends up looking over-exposed and dirty. It forces you to squint through dimly-lit night-time scenes where you can barely see what’s happening, before abruptly transitioning to blindingly bright daytime scenes.

Director Karyn Kusama has attempted to deliver a strong female character with an interesting story, but much like some of her other work, including Aeon Flux and Jennifer’s Body, she fails to deliver. Her direction is strongest in the flashback scenes, where the actors are given permission to fully explore their characters, but Kusama fails to build any tension in the present-day scenes, which seem to be nothing more than a means to an end.

Destroyer is available in Australian cinemas from March 21

Image courtesy of Madman Entertainment

Movie Review – Us

Jordan Peele’s newest horror thriller is laden with probing questions and sneakily avoids answering them.

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Zachary Cruz-Tan

This, here, is a clever little film. It is a horror movie in which lots of people are killed by mysterious doppelgängers, however, the violence only acts as window dressing. Like its opening text suggests, there is a lot more happening beneath the surface. Buried secrets, hidden meanings, allegories galore. You wouldn’t think that possible for a film with so many scares and murders, but Jordan Peele‘s Us is a thriller that doubles as a parable. It’s a machine of fear with something to say.

At the movie’s centre is Lupita Nyong’o. She plays Adelaide Wilson, who, as a child, stumbles into a spooky Hall of Mirrors on Santa Cruz beach in 1986 and discovers something impossible. There, in the darkness, peering into her soul with eyes as large as golf balls, is an exact copy of her. Not a reflection, but a living, breathing duplicate.

We re-join Adelaide as an adult, as she and her husband Gabe (Winston Duke), daughter Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and son Jason (Evan Alex), head into the Californian woods to live out their summer at their cushy vacation home. After the lights go out one night, a rip-roaring series of incidents follow that herald the emergence of all these doppelgängers, who communicate in squeals, wear uniformed red jumpsuits and wield identical golden scissors.

This is a thoroughly violent movie. The strange doppelgängers lurch about, stabbing and slashing at their counterparts like a horde of weaponised zombies. Bodies are flung from balconies, chopped by propellers, run over by cars. But the doubles seem to have a plan. They’re not exactly mindless. It might have something to do with Hands Across America, that tacky humanitarian stunt from the ’80s that urged Americans to hold hands and literally form a human chain from one coast to the other.

Peele, who writes and directs, fills his story with tons of symbolic markers, many of which I suspect are red herrings, as if goading his viewers to rack their brains trying to solve his Rubik’s Cube of metaphors. With Us, he seems to be tackling something much broader: the unity of all Americans, regardless of race, gender, class, etc. He’s concerned with their differences and what they’re prepared to do to suppress them. Whether he succeeds is open to debate.

The movie raises serious questions and showcases tireless performances, especially by Nyong’o, who, as both Adelaide and her double, is able to switch between combatant and merciless killer with ease. She is the lifeblood of a suspense thriller that’s smarter than most, more gruesome than some, and certainly more ambitious than any other movie that features cartwheeling killer twins. In ten years, after some profound analysis, Us could turn into a sleeper masterpiece.

Us is available in Australian cinemas from March 28

Image © Universal Pictures 2019

Movie Review – Woman at War

Fun and quirky; new foreign language film Woman At War offers us a bizarre yet brilliant comedy about climate change.

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ½
Elle Cahill

An eccentric choir teacher by day and an eco-warrior by night, Halla (Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir) is determined to stop heavy industries from ruining the natural beauty of Iceland. As she prepares for her biggest stunt yet, she receives word that her adoption request has finally been approved, and she is expected to take in her new child in a matter of weeks. Spurred on by her dreams of motherhood becoming a reality, Halla fast tracks her plans for her final stunt in the hope she can provide her child with a better future.

While it may sound rather grim and serious, Woman at War is anything but. From the moment an Icelandic brass band accompanied by a Ukranian signing troupe appears in the background and starts playing the soundtrack, it becomes clear that Benedikt Erlingsson’s film is more than a little offbeat. Sometimes the characters acknowledge the presence of the musicians and sometimes they don’t. It’s bizarre, but it works well.

What doesn’t work so well is our ability to suspend our disbelief. Woman at War is essentially a testament to the ability of one person to bring about major change, but there are moments when actions are taken way too far and in reality there would be serious repercussions.

Fortunately, Geirharðsdóttir carries the story beautifully as the self-righteous and resolute Halla, and quite frankly I could have happily watched her for the whole film without the need for the supporting actors. Her comedic timing is perfect and her turn as Halla’s twin sister is equally impressive.

The film is also beautifully shot, managing to capture the stunning landscape of Iceland without ever veering away from the core story. Erlingsson has carefully chosen magical locations that will make all long to visit Iceland, even those who have already been. Overall, it’s a simple story, but there’s enough humour and uniqueness here to make Woman at War memorable viewing.

Woman at War is available in Australian cinemas from April 4

Image courtesy of Hi Gloss Entertainment

Movie Review – Dumbo (2019)

Tim Burton’s steady decline continues in dramatic fashion.

⭐ ½
Zachary Cruz-Tan

Fair warning to whomever reads this: I’m not a happy camper, so lots of complaining is forthcoming. I did not like this movie. Not one bit. I don’t know if it’s because I hold fond memories of the original Dumbo (1941), or because every single second of this new live-action Dumbo (2019) is a contrived, boring, predictable mess, from the opening scene of a CGI train chugging across the southern U.S. to the inevitable happy ending where everything is bright and sunny in Disneyland.

This new Dumbo takes place in 1919, where a travelling carnival led by Max Medici (Danny DeVito) is delighted to welcome a newborn elephant into its troupe. But wait, how can this be? His ears – they’re huge and disgusting! The crowds laugh and hurl peanuts at him. The only people who care for him are Milly and Joe (a perpetually sullen Nico Parker, and Finley Hobbins). They are the children of Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell), who was once the carnival’s star attraction before the Great War removed one of his arms.

Milly? Joe? Holt? Who the heck are these people? – you ask. Fair question. The original Dumbo was all about Dumbo and his mouse friend Timothy. The humans were ornamental figures who barely spoke. This remake envisions a story where the humans are front and centre, and Dumbo is a kind of supporting superstar. Naturally, the entire cast is brand new. This might’ve worked if Ehren Kruger, responsible for the screenplay, had devised a story that was as imaginative and challenging as the original. Alas, it’s another dusty tale of the humble family business taken over by the ruthless tycoon.

The tycoon this time is Vandevere, played by Michael Keaton in one of Keaton’s most bewildering and dangerously absurd performances. Vandevere, who runs an impossibly modern circus complex, hears of the infamous flying pachyderm and offers to merge Max’s troupe with his own. Max has obviously never seen a movie in his life so can’t possibly imagine that Vandevere means to swindle him. Meanwhile, you might’ve realised how little of Dumbo the Elephant I am mentioning. That is because Dumbo doesn’t do anything worth mentioning, except fall from great heights before swooping up at the last second.

Couldn’t Kruger have thought of anything more original for these characters to do? Couldn’t the director, Tim Burton, have allowed them to behave convincingly, to make decisions that surprise and enchant? Everyone is a marionette, hoisted by strings, controlled by the devices of the plot, yanked this way and that. Everything they do is a mechanical step toward a robotic conclusion. If you don’t think that’s sad, just remember how the best Disney movies continue to move us in ways we thought we had forgotten. Next to them, Dumbo is, for lack of a more sophisticated description, dumb.

Dumbo is available in Australian cinemas from March 28

Image courtesy of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures