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 – Swimming with Men

Who said synchronised swimming is just for girls?

⭐ ⭐ ½
Elle Cahill

Swimming with Men follows Eric Scott (Rob Brydon), an accountant who suffers a mid-life crisis after convincing himself that his wife is having an affair. While at his local pool, he gives advice to an amateur all-male synchronised swimming group, who in turn invite him to join the team. Eric soon discovers a new lease on life that starts to pull him out of his funk.

From Finding Your Feet to The Death of Stalin and now Swimming with Men, the UK has been churning out feel good flicks that appeal to older, middle-aged audiences. Swimming with Men keeps up the quintessentially British humour as it attempts to break down the stereotypes surrounding synchronised swimming, demonstrating that it isn’t just a sport for women. There’s a lot of fun to be had as the men attempt to create a routine and push each other to their limits.

The film is carried by an extremely talented cast that includes Brydon (The Trip), Thomas Turgoose (Kingsman: The Golden Circle), Jim Carter (Downton Abbey) and Rupert Graves (Death at a Funeral). Each play middle aged men of varying backgrounds who are grappling with their own personal issues. Carter’s character brings the emotional weight to the film as he grieves the death of his wife, while Graves offers the romantic storyline through his flirtation with swim centre manager turned coach (Charlotte Riley).

The underwater cinematography is also impressive. It brings a beautiful dynamic to the film, capturing a lot of the movement that audiences don’t usually get to see in this sport. Some of it is extremely unglamorous, but that doesn’t make it any less interesting and almost calming to watch.

At the end of the day, Swimming with Men doesn’t do anything ground-breaking, but it does show that romantic comedies, like synchronised swimming, aren’t just for the ladies. Definitely worth watching on a lazy Sunday afternoon.

Swimming with Men is available in Australian cinemas from March 14 

Image courtesy of Icon Film Distribution 

Movie Review – Stan & Ollie

Stan & Ollie is a loving tribute to one of comedy’s finest duos, highlighted by two effervescent leads.

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Zachary Cruz-Tan

There is a sadness that runs through Stan & Ollie, the new movie by Jon S. Baird that shows us how two comedy legends gradually faded into oblivion as the changing decades left their brand of superstar humour behind. Laurel and Hardy’s stage routines consisted of simple slapstick gags and a whole lotta buffoonery. Audiences ate it up. For a time they were as famous as Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton.

Stan & Ollie is about their twilight years in the early 1950s, when youngsters were more excited by cars and sex than by a couple of old geezers from vaudeville. According to the film, a sour contract negotiation in 1937 temporarily split them apart, with Stan Laurel (Steve Coogan) auditioning for roles at 20th Century Fox and Oliver Hardy (John C. Reilly) seeing out the remainder of his contract at Roach Studios with a different partner. The years reunited them, so they decided to salvage their act with a tour of the U.K. and a new Laurel and Hardy Robin Hood movie.

The tour is pretty standard stuff, with the pair moving from performance to performance, wondering why the seats are never full. Rufus Jones plays their tour manager Bernard Delfont, a sycophantic prig who can’t seem to book venues bigger than a recital hall. Soon it becomes clear to Laurel and Hardy what’s been clear to us the whole time: no one wants to see them kicking each other in the butt anymore.

It’s a marvellous thing, the way Coogan and Reilly tune their performances so they’re at once strong and incredibly weary. At times they speak with total confidence, other times they’re sheepish and reserved. They suggest grandeur and exhaustion in equal measure, the kind of gentlemen who know their time is up and will be damned if they don’t go out with their heads held high. All the while the repercussions of that ill-fated parting loom above their friendship like an illness. They’re a delight to watch.

Stan & Ollie is sweet, wistful entertainment, elevated by powerhouse lead performances. Shirley Henderson and Nina Arianda are equally amusing as the duo’s wives, Lucille and Ida. We can sense history between all four of them, which, in a movie like this, is paramount. When you truly love what you do but the world around you has moved on to the next best thing, all that remains is how much class you leave behind. Laurel and Hardy believed the show must go on, and it did in the classiest way.

Stan & Ollie is available in Australian cinemas from 21 February 2019

Image courtesy of eOne Films

Movie Review – Eighth Grade

Empathy and excruciation are equal and abundant in Eighth Grade, potentially the most awkward, hilarious and realistic rendition of that tough time in life.

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Corey Hogan

As her final week at a New York middle school looms, eighth grade student Kayla Day (Elsie Fisher) realises that she is practically invisible to her peers when she wins the “Most Quiet” award voted by her classmates. An aspiring YouTuber who posts motivational videos about confidence and self-worth, she decides it’s time to take a leaf out of her own book, put herself out there and make some friends before the year is up – which means facing the anxiety, sexual awakenings, awkwardness and embarrassments that come with being a teenager.

For a 28-year-old male stand-up comedian, Bo Burnham sure understands the mind of a shy, barely pubescent teenage girl. Eighth Grade is his writing and directing debut, and his inspiration – his own struggles with anxiety and panic attacks – are worn firmly on his sleeve, and gives birth to the notion that there is no year more crucial for forming self-awareness than the intersection of school and social life at that age.

Less plot-based and more like a live and incredibly detailed retelling of every young girl’s secret diary, it’s deeply rooted in a contemporary adolescent experience that can be terrifyingly confronting at times in that it revolves almost entirely around technology and social media. Kayla can barely spend a second without her nose buried in her phone, living her life vicariously through the Insta-famous and popular kids. Texting takes place during school-shooting drills and promises of nude photos are used to gain social traction. It really paints a picture of what growing up has become, now that it has been consumed by the virtual world.

Unlike the usual older, much too attractive actresses typically cast in these roles, Elsie Fisher is an actual, average teenage girl of the right age, which is why her performance is so revelatory and genuine. She’s brilliantly cringeworthy as she tries admirably to put herself out there and make friends, all while continuously embarrassing herself. Through her awkward journey of self-discovery she remains consistently optimistic no matter how often she’s knocked down, which earns her our sympathy the entire way.

Equally excellent is her ungainly single father Mark (Josh Hamilton), who struggles to connect with his daughter but is always so enthusiastic for her – to the point of stalking her at the mall just to see how well she’s doing making potential friends. He’s hilarious but also does a great deal of growing throughout, sharing some touching and profound scenes with Fisher.

Eighth Grade is a film that not just every eighth grader should see, it’s one that everyone should see. It’s perhaps the most intimate and integral coming-of-age film ever and speaks volumes about a point in life that everyone is all-too-familiar with. More so, it’s an experience that could be used as a communication tool; it gives a clear and firm understanding of what teenage life is like in modern times and underlines just what kids go through on a day-to-day basis where one’s private life is lived publicly online. Hilarious, insightful and full of heart, it’s essential viewing.

Eighth Grade is available in Australian cinemas from January 3 

Image courtesy of Sony Pictures 

Movie Review – Mary Poppins Returns

In an era of cheap recycling, Mary Poppins Returns succeeds in feeling relevant despite its familiar personality.

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ½
Zachary Cruz-Tan

Oh, how I’ve longed for a movie like this. This rare treat that can at once transport me back to the freefalls of childhood, make me smile with its innovation and cry with its tenderness. Mary Poppins Returns is truly an unexpected delight, and “delight” is the right word because, like the first film with Julie Andrews, it is filled with characters who are destined to find wonder and happiness amidst the deepest of woes. How uplifting is that?

It is made even more bewitching by the towering presence of Emily Blunt, who possesses a face and bearing so utterly perfect for Mary Poppins that she almost takes on a kind of droll divinity. She assumes Poppins with whimsy and sternness, but never seems off balance. I have always admired Blunt, now I am enamoured.

In both movies, the role of Mary Poppins is to alleviate stress for the Banks family by whisking the children away on fantasy adventures while the adults fret about adult stuff and neglect the poor kids. But might she also subtly instruct the family on matters of the heart along the way? She is a nanny and a life guru rolled into one, carried by the elegance of an era.

In Mary Poppins Returns, she revisits the Bankses after their precious Cherry Tree Lane home is to be repossessed by the vile William Wilkins (Colin Firth). Michael (Ben Whishaw) and Jane (Emily Mortimer) have grown up, and Michael’s three children (Pixie Davies, Nathanael Saleh, Joel Dawson) worry for their family’s future. They are joined by Jack (Lin-Manuel Miranda), a cheery lamplighter in the vein of Dick Van Dyke’s Bert, whose talents include dancing, rapping and riding a bicycle.

But it is the complete exuberance with which the movie rushes forward that makes all this familiar territory seem new. It is directed by Rob Marshall and composed by Marc Shaiman, both of whom have found great success with musicals. The soundtrack is rippled with memorable tunes and the dance numbers bristle with imagination, like the one that takes place inside a ceramic bowl of cartoon animals and culminates in a stunning cabaret duet. It is a movie that never loses the twinkle in its eye.

The first Mary Poppins was nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards; Julie Andrews took home Best Actress. The days are still young, but Blunt could achieve the same. She is splendid, as is the rest of the cast, the soundtrack and the sets, the costumes, the style, the imagery and the story. If the movies are meant to bring us to magical places, Mary Poppins Returns reminds us just how magical they can be. What a lovely experience this is.

Mary Poppins Returns is available in Australian cinemas from January 1

Image courtesy of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Movie Review – How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World

Filled with laughs and drama-filled tension, The Hidden World will have kids on the edge of their seats as the series comes to a close.

⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Elle Cahill

Picking up right where the last film left off, The Hidden World is the third and (hopefully) final film in the popular How To Train Your Dragon series. Hiccup (Jay Baruchel), and his rare Night Fury dragon sidekick Toothless, continue to rescue dragons from dragon hunters and send them to the safety of a peaceful, dragon utopia. When Grimmel the Grisly (F. Murray Abraham) discovers Hiccup has the last Night Fury dragon in his possession, he threatens to destroy the dragon sanctuary in pursuit of Toothless, making Hiccup question his ability to follow in his father’s footsteps as a mighty leader.

The How to Train Your Dragon animations have always been fun and adventurous, and the third in the series is no different. Filled with dramatic visuals and caricatured creatures, the whole film is a rush of drama and suspense in a familiar story of a young hero coming into his own.

Director and co-writer Dean DeBlois cleverly nails the comedic aspects, making use of Hiccup’s bumbling band of young warriors to lighten things up when it all gets a little intense. Jonah Hill’s character Snotlout Jorgenson is a highlight in his attempts to be suave in the pursuit of the much older Valka (Cate Blanchett),and Hiccup’s love interest Astrid (America Ferrera) leads the charge of strong female character’s present in the series, sending a healthy message to young kids that gender is no obstacle for warriors.

The Hidden World has a sense of finality in its conclusion, and it would be nice to think of it as a true end to the series, but who knows when a studio might suddenly decide to revive a franchise. While The Hidden World follows essentially the same story line as the other films, there is growth in Hiccup and his friends that makes this somewhat forgivable. The Hidden World hasn’t lost any of the charm from the original, making it a great one for all in the family to see.

How To Train Your Dragon: Hidden World is available in Australian cinemas from January 3

Image © Universal Pictures 2018

Movie Review – The Favourite

Filled with alliances and double-crossing, The Favourite explores 18th Century British politics with the help of a thrilling performance from Olivia Colman.

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ½

Elle Cahill 

Set in England in the early 1700’s, The Favourite follows a sickly Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) as those closest to her run amuck and manipulate her every decision. Her most trusted ally Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz) is the most devious of all, making royal decrees under the guise of having Queen Anne’s support. When Lady Sarah’s American cousin Abigail (Emma Stone) arrives unannounced, she gradually gets closer and closer to the Queen, threatening to destroy Lady Sarah’s hold on her

The Favourite is as delightfully fun as its trailers suggest. Director Yorgos Lanthimos delivers his usual wacky storytelling style, as seen in The Lobster and Dogtooth, but this time around he brings us a far more mainstream offering. The twist and turns that are frequent in his films feature heavily in The Favourite and complement the many betrayals and back door deals that occur in politics. All three female characters want particular things and Lanthimos casts light on the unscrupulous ends the three will go to.

The performances from the cast as a whole are brilliant, with Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone bringing moments of humour, but ultimately The Favourite belongs to Olivia Colman. When Lady Sarah and Abigail begin to visibly fight for Queen Anne’s affections, it’s Colman’s turn from making the Queen a victim to a keen player in the game that shows Queen Anne’s true deception. However, it’s Colman’s ability to play Queen Anne after she’s had a stroke that is the most astounding. It’s horrifically accurate and cements Colman’s chances of winning Best Actress in the awards this year.

The lavish set design and extravagant costumes ooze with 18th Century decadence. The fashion of the time is captured perfectly amongst the men, and although there was a little bit of creative licence taken with Lady Sarah’s costumes, the ladies costumes are just as grand. The musical score is also terrific in supporting the story, creating moments of high tension and playing for comedic effect at other times.  The rapid, shrill strings only intensify the stakes and take the characters emotions to the next level. 

The Favourite is a strong contender for the upcoming awards season and is most definitely worth a watch. It’s a wild ride of back-stabbing and manipulation and it’s lead performance from Colman is unmissable.

The Favourite is available in Australian cinemas from December 26 2018

Image courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox

Movie Review – Vice

Adam McKay’s new political docu-comedy is hard-hitting, deeply self-aware and always entertaining

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Zachary Cruz-Tan

Vice begins with a young Dick Cheney in Wyoming getting pulled over for drunk driving. His girlfriend Lynne bails him out of jail and lays down the law: either change your careless ways or I’ve chosen the wrong man. Vice, the new movie from director Adam McKay, starts with this flashback because it believes the character you are in your youth will inspire the adult you become. It then spends the next 130 minutes proving it.

Dick Cheney served in the United States government for many years before accepting the job as George W. Bush’s vice-president in 2001, where he exploited constitutional loopholes to legally grant himself unlimited power. He advocated for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He sanctioned extreme torture methods. He essentially wiped his shoes with the Geneva Convention. Why? Was he power-mad? Perhaps. But Vice chooses instead to portray him as a family-oriented man who simply used his humanity as currency to do things his own way.

He wasn’t a very complex person, but Vice, like McKay’s previous film The Big Short (2015), is assembled like a comedy fiction patched with a documentary. Of course it’s too biased to work as a proper documentary. It’s more interested in revealing crippling truths about America’s lofty ideals.

Cheney is played by Christian Bale, who threw on 20 kilos, bleached his eyebrows and is constantly convincing as a patriotic man who honours his wife and two daughters in quiet reserve. An apt parallel, considering the man who now sits in office can’t distinguish a patriot from a nationalist and is anything but reserved.

The movie revolves around Cheney, the way he kissed ass to climb ranks, cheated American law, hypnotised his puppet president and somehow avoided incarceration. Some truths are funny, most are startling, and the film finds a special way of employing unexpected cameos to impart critical information. It uses humour in such an unorthodox manner that many of the people I saw it with didn’t know they were allowed to laugh.

Vice is smart though. Very smart. And it is well-acted, not just by Bale, but by Sam Rockwell as Bush, Jr, Amy Adams as Lynne Cheney, Steve Carell as Donald Rumsfeld and Alison Pill as Dick’s younger daughter Mary, who discovers she’s gay and is shattered to learn that her supportive family will abandon even her in their quest for power.

Indeed, the scariest thing about Vice is the way it wields its subject like a gavel. It tells us how Cheney cheated. Considering the megalomaniacs who now run the White House, this could be a damning instruction manual. Let’s all hope it isn’t.

Vice is available in Australian cinemas from December 26 

Image courtesy of eOne Films

Movie Review – Can You Ever Forgive Me?

Director Marielle Heller explores an obscure historical figure, powered by a tour de force lead performance from Melissa McCarthy.

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ½
Zachary Cruz-Tan

No matter my reservations about Melissa McCarthy, Lee Israel is seemingly the role she was born to play. Shabby, foul-mouthed, misanthropic. A sharp-witted woman who held the prejudices of the world against itself. It’s the persona McCarthy has played for many years, but in Can You Ever Forgive Me?, it’s the first time it feels complete. It’s a performance that not only falls into her lap; it’s one of immense strength and care. The kind that doesn’t just support a film, but elevates it.

Israel was quite the character. She was a talented biographer who found success in the ‘80s and then lost it by refusing to adapt to a progressing industry. She was an alcoholic, neglected personal hygiene and viewed the world from behind a wall. But she was also kind of brilliant, because in her destitution, she found a loophole and exploited it with skill and crime. It’s astonishing the ease with which McCarthy wrangles all these dimensions into a frustrating and often sympathetic figure.

But the movie also works because it has an interesting story to tell, and it painfully illustrates how expectations in life can be cruel and nasty. Israel conned people by forging intimate personal letters from famous authors and then sold them to novelty book stores, not thinking anyone would really care. She just needed the money to pay her rent and tend to her sick cat, you see. What’s a few fake words on scraps of paper anyway? Completely harmless. What she didn’t count on was that, like the movie, sports and music worlds, there are fanatics out there who gather in hordes to collect such letters, and they usually know a fake when they see one. Or in Israel’s case, four hundred.

So, what began as a desperate deception ended up as a federal offence. There are so many ways Can You Ever Forgive Me? could’ve played out this history, but director Marielle Heller picks all the right notes and somehow manages to find perfect equilibrium between tragedy and comedy.

There is also a wonderfully tender performance by Richard E. Grant as Jack Hock, another con artist who becomes Israel’s foil and accomplice. Both characters have been rejected by society and explore their homosexual pursuits in vastly different ways, but they share a common understanding of human nature and the tricky ways to survive it. On its own, Can You Ever Forgive Me? has all the ingredients for greatness. Throw in Melissa McCarthy and you’ve got something special.

Can You Ever Forgive Me? is available in Australian cinemas from December 6

Image courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox