Movie Review – The Lovebirds

The Lovebirds does indeed feature a pair of lovers. Unfortunately, they deserve a better screenplay.

⭐ ⭐
Zachary Cruz-Tan

Oh, how I wish I could recommend a movie simply for its humour and the cheerful chemistry between its actors, without any regard for its plot, vision or design. Not every movie is fortunate enough to be well-rounded, but the good ones at least have a story engaging enough to satisfy us till the end.

The Lovebirds, directed by Michael Showalter, has no such story. Instead, it scribbles together a skeleton plot, ripped from many other comedies in which goofy innocents are wrongfully accused, and watches happily as its cast squares off in a manic joke-athon.

The entire picture is one saggy clothesline on which an endless stream of verbal riffs and sight gags are hung, culminating in a climax that is neither clever, fun nor unexpected. It has an originality rating of about zero. Thankfully, though, it knows how to be funny, mainly because its two lead actors know how to be funny. More importantly, they know how to be funny with each other.

Kumail Nanjiani plays Jibran, a documentary filmmaker in New Orleans who hates reality TV. Issa Rae plays Leilani, his girlfriend of four years who yearns to be on The Amazing Race. You can see where they have problems.

They are so different in fact that one day, on their way to a dinner party, they decide to break things off. Just then, they are carjacked by a man claiming to be a cop (Paul Sparks) who has to hunt down and apprehend a fleeing cyclist. After catching up to and running the poor cyclist over multiple times instead, the man splits, leaving Jibran and Leilani as the primary suspects of a gruesome murder.

I dunno, does all this sound familiar? The rest of The Lovebirds is spent hurriedly following the hapless, bickering couple across the city as they try to solve the murder themselves while evading the cops, occasionally stopping for obligatory interludes that have to remind them of all the lovey-dovey reasons they got together in the first place.

The movie is essentially an exercise in behaviour and verbal agility. There must’ve been hours and hours poured into the screenplay, yet it feels like Showalter yelled “Action!” at the start of production, sat back and allowed Nanjiani and Rae to improvise everything, then yelled “Cut!” after 86 minutes. Nothing truly hilarious or exciting ever happens, not even when Jibran and Leilani stumble into a secret cult and become witnesses to an orgy.

The plot is dead on arrival. The developments that take the bumbling duo from one lead to another are uninspired. I don’t know why it took the two of them four years to realise their differences. I don’t like the way the movie so neatly ties up everything in the end, given the messy way it all began. What I do like, and enjoyed very much, is the easy chemistry between Nanjiani and Rae. They are cute together, really funny, and when they make each other laugh, I completely get why.

The Lovebirds is available on Netflix Australia from May 22

Images courtesy of Netflix Inc.

Movie Review – Like a Boss

Like a Boss should have delivered a fabulous, female-led comedy. Instead, we get a brainless, borderline boring ride that squanders the potential of its talented cast.

⭐ ⭐
Cherie Wheeler

Best friends and business partners Mia (Tiffany Haddish) and Mel (Rose Byrne) find themselves confronted with a big decision when beauty industry juggernaut Claire Luna (Salma Hayek) offers to invest in their cosmetics company. While Mia is determined to stay independent and true to their brand, Mel is forced to divulge that the business is almost $500,000 in debt – a minor detail she has failed to mention to Mia, until now. So, without much choice, the gal pals opt to go into business with the eccentrically psychotic Luna, putting their friendship to the ultimate test.

If there’s one good thing I can say here, it’s that Like a Boss starts strong. Haddish and Byrne open with a bang, trading sassy, outrageous quips as they demonstrate the depth of the bond between their characters. But right off the bat, the filmmakers make it abundantly clear that they are not interested in telling a story that is even remotely concerned with logic.

The very first scene involves the two ladies having a morning phone chat in bed. Moments later it’s revealed their bedrooms are only separated by their shared bathroom. Um… who picks up the phone and calls their roommate when they could literally take two steps and be in the same room?

From here, the film continues to unravel, becoming increasingly worse as Hayek’s character edges her way further and further into the narrative. Why is Luna so hellbent on taking over Mel and Mia’s business and destroying their friendship? Well, we learn she once had a best friend in business that she trampled over on her way to the top… but is that really enough for her to behave like a raving lunatic, waging psychological warfare on these two women?

And why does she carry a golf club around with her everywhere she goes? She claims it’s just a habit of hers – some people chew on toothpicks, she carries a golf club, despite having zero interest in the sport. Right…

More perplexing is the ups and downs of Mel and Mia’s relationship. When arguing over whether or not to go into business with Hayek, the conversation quite literally plays out like this –

Mel: Let’s do it.
Mia: No.
Mel: Let’s do it.
Mia: No.
*Start singing karaoke in a bar*
Mel: Let’s do it.
Mia: OK, you talked me into it!

In a split-second, Mia goes from adamantly refusing to have anything to do with Luna, to happily agreeing to the partnership. Huh?

I won’t keep going into all the bizarre moments that make up this film as I’m sure by now you get the idea. There are a few genuinely funny moments peppered in amongst the barrage of stupidity, but not nearly enough to save this film before it climaxes with a karaoke version of Tina Turner’s Proud Mary. Because one karaoke scene just wasn’t enough…

Like a Boss is best consumed with copious amounts of alcohol, while scrolling through social media and talking to your cat, as by dedicating a mere fraction of your brain to what’s happening on screen, you may find it somewhat watchable.

It’s very disappointing and a little embarrassing to see Byrne, Haddish and Hayek strutting about in such a poorly made film. All three can do so much better. I hope they each choose their next project more carefully.

Like a Boss is available in Australian cinemas from 23 January 2020

Image courtesy of Paramount Pictures

 

 

Movie Review – Jojo Rabbit

A kooky comedy that pokes fun at the Third Reich, Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit mixes silliness with sincerity to great effect.

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Rhys Pascoe

With his blonde hair, blue eyes and bedroom walls plastered with swastikas, little Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis) is the poster boy for Nazi Germany. With his imaginary friend Adolf (Taika Waititi) by his side, Jojo aspires to do his country proud – despite the fact that, deep down, he’s actually a bit of a wuss.

One day, young Jojo learns that his mother (Scarlett Johansson) is harbouring Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie), a frail Jewish girl, in the walls of their family home. Jojo sees this as his opportunity to prove himself, by handing Elsa over to the authorities and earning some admiration amongst the older boys who taunt him. However, the two get to talking, and soon enough Jojo is learning everything he previously knew about Germany’s enemies was a lie.

With its picturesque European symmetry, twee cast and general irreverence, Jojo Rabbit is a Taika Waititi joint by way of Wes Anderson‘s distinct style. The collision of tone and imagery is a little jarring at first – an early scene sees Jojo skip merrily down the street, saluting everyone he passes and shouting ‘heil Hitler!’. Safe to say, Waititi’s satirical slant won’t be suited to all tastes, and the New Zealand director does wobble once or twice on the tonal tightrope.

Waititi – who plays Hitler in addition to serving as both writer and director – portrays the villainous dictator as a calamitous moron, who veers from sulky and silly to straight-up stupid. Sam Rockwell and Stephen Merchant also shine as drunken Captain Klenzendorf and Gestapo investigator Deertz respectively. But it’s Johansson who makes a compelling case for Best Supporting Actress, with a tender and wholesome performance buoyed by maternal warmth and whimsy.

The young child actors – Davis and Archie Yates, who looks like a miniature Nick Frost and plays Jojo’s world-weary best friend Yorki – are another highlight, with their often awkward line readings and verbose vocabularies adding to the film’s endearing goofiness.

However, Waititi is a filmmaker who understands that silliness can only get you so far. Underneath the slapstick, silly costumes and throwaway visual gags Jojo Rabbit is a sincere and serious film about the understated strength in putting aside our insecurities and being kind to one another.

The emotional wallop – you will know it when you feel it – sneaks up on you, with Waititi subtly adding to it in the background while you chuckle along at the surreal satire happening in the foreground. Not many filmmakers would take their Marvel clout and pour it into a satire of Nazi Germany, so Waititi’s ambition can be applauded as well.

Jojo Rabbit is available in Australian cinemas from 26 December 2019

Image courtesy of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Movie Review – Knives Out

Rian Johnson crafts a tightly wound, endlessly entertaining modernisation of a classic mystery formula.

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ½
Zachary Cruz-Tan

Knives Out is a tirelessly entertaining murder mystery that moves so quickly its wheels would come off if it ever slowed down. Thankfully, it doesn’t. This film is ripe with momentum, which it uses with skill and efficiency to weave through an ingenious plot. It’s a classic whodunit. Someone is dead. Everyone is a suspect. But this mystery has been modernised into something halfway between homage and reinvention, and with its deliberate production design it seems to take place in the past and present simultaneously. It’s really quite extraordinary.

We’re in New England in one of those enormous country mansions we’re sure is haunted. It belongs to Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), an old successful crime novelist who is found dead in his lofty study one morning, his throat slit open. One by one, we’re introduced to his crowded family as they’re brought in for questioning, like pieces in a game of Cluedo.

Tucked in the corner of all these interviews is Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig), a private investigator who, according to another character, speaks like Colonel Sanders crossed with Foghorn Leghorn. He’s not wrong. Blanc has been hired by someone unknown to uncover the truth and, like any good sleuth, seems to know more than he lets on. 

The movie is strengthened by a stunning ensemble cast that includes Ana de Armas, Jamie Lee Curtis, Don Johnson, Michael Shannon, Katherine Langford, Chris Evans, Toni Collette, Jaeden Martell and Lakeith Stanfield, whose lead detective is thankfully more competent than Chief Inspector Japp and Inspector Lestrade combined. How all these gifted actors fit into the plot I will not say, but I was delighted to find room in some of their performances for little surprises. Almost all their characters are related to Harlan and are customarily given motives for his murder, but of course not all of them can be the killer. Or can they? Part of the fun is in attempting to find out.

At the end of the day, I can’t discuss Knives Out too much without divulging information crucial to the success of the plot. All I can do is commend the sheer force of power with which writer/director Rian Johnson (Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi) has crafted it. His movie is just plain fun. His screenplay is careful in setting the board and moving the pieces; every line uttered, every action committed, no matter how trivial, will come full circle to play a part in the eventual reveal.

It’s also comforting to know he hasn’t relied on the star power of his cast for success; he has coached his cast into elevating an already successful story. Knives Out has the confidence of a fine Agatha Christie novel, but what sets it apart is that every now and again it stops to wink at the camera. And when we think we’ve gotten a firm grasp on who the killer is, it has the generosity to surprise us a little more. This is undoubtedly one of the year’s best.

Knives Out is available in Australian cinemas from November 28 

Image courtesy of StudioCanal 

Movie Review – The Dead Don’t Die

A humble town in Middle America is overrun by ghoulish zombies in Jim Jarmusch’s fiercely political comedy, The Dead Don’t Die.

⭐ ⭐
Rhys Pascoe 

Word to the wise – if you’re unfamiliar with the works of Jim Jarmusch, approach The Dead Don’t Die with caution. This isn’t your typical zom-com in the same vein as Shaun of the Dead or Zombieland. In fact, the zombies in Jarmusch’s film are merely incidental – a plot device for his sprawling ensemble cast to contend with while the film hammers home its actual message.

The film is fragmented across several subplots that overlap throughout the 104-minute runtime. You’ve got Bill Murray, Adam Driver and Chloë Sevigny as police officers Robertson, Peterson and Morrison; Steve Buscemi as a racist farmer; Tilda Swinton as a Scottish mortician; Caleb Landry Jones as an introverted cinephile; Tom Waits as grizzled hermit; and Selena Gomez, Austin Butler and Luka Sabbat as three city hippies on a rural road trip, amongst a suite of other characters.

Rather than indulging in gleeful gore, The Dead Don’t Die is a sluggish shuffle that lacks a pulse. Jarmusch – renowned for his pedestrian pacing – is an ill fit for the genre, draining it of energy and supplanting it with a slow lament about environmental decay, political inaction and the all-pervading sense of doom that pervades our contemporary media landscape. Sounds like a hoot, right?

Don’t get me wrong, zombies have long been an allegory for broader, despairing themes – but here that’s all there is. Broad, all-encompassing desolation and disaster. If I wanted to see that, I’d just turn on the news. Where are the characters and story arcs to latch onto? Every character is deadpan and aimless. Every other joke is a half-hearted attempt at breaking the fourth wall. Every subplot goes nowhere.

The redeeming factors – namely, Murray and Driver who make an entertaining double act – are far outweighed by a gloomy ‘plot’ (for want of a better word) that lacks any semblance of structure or subtlety. I wanted to like this film – after all, there is a scene where Swinton wields a katana and drives a Smart car through hordes of the undead – but can’t recommend it unless you’re a Jarmusch devotee or a glutton for punishment.

The Dead Don’t Die is available at the Perth Festival from Monday 2 December to Sunday 8 December

Image (c) Universal Pictures 2019

Movie Review – Fisherman’s Friends

A feel-good romp in the style of The Full Monty.

⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Rhys Pascoe

Chris Foggin’s comedy drama Fisherman’s Friends sees a group of ten grizzly fishermen skyrocket to stardom and the top of the UK charts when their unique blend of stirring sea shanties and brusque banter wins over Universal Records producer Danny (Daniel Mays).

Set in the picturesque Cornish town of Port Isaac, this film is the cinematic equivalent of receiving a hug from a warm mug of hot chocolate. It’s comforting and cosy, like an album you’ve listened to umpteen times before that brings all these fond memories flooding back. It’s not daring or breaking new ground, but it’s no less satisfying when all is said and done.

Headed by Jim (James Purefoy), protective single father to Alwyn (Tuppence Middleton), the charming ensemble of affable fishermen bestows this film with a sense of camaraderie and community. The conflict in Foggin’s film stems from formulaic themes – the big city boy who underestimates the locals and finds himself out of his depth; the distrustful and humble rural folk who think the worst of unfamiliar and the unacquainted. Overcoming these squabbles forms the bulk of the plot in Fishermen’s Friends, with the push and pull of Danny, Jim, Alwyn and the apprehensive record label.

Ultimately, the film covers familiar territory, colouring within the lines of a conventionally charming and unassuming British comedy. It certainly doesn’t hurt that Port Isaac and the surrounding Cornish countryside is so gorgeous either, with churning surf, rolling hills and tight, winding streets. If you’re looking for a gentle pick-me-up, you could do a lot worse than this two-hour comforter.

Fisherman’s Friends is available in Australian cinemas from November 21

Image courtesy of Roadshow Films

Movie Review – Last Christmas

Strange that all Last Christmas lacks is real heart.

⭐ ⭐ ½
Zachary Cruz-Tan

Last Christmas is strange. It’s a very British movie, written by Emma Thompson and Bryony Kimmings. It’s set in London and stars Emilia Clarke, who could be in Nashville dressed like Dolly Parton, singing “Ring of Fire” and still sound entirely British. But because Last Christmas is directed by Paul Feig, an American with a very American grasp on comedy, it’s all a bit awkward, as if the Sex Pistols were covered by The Ramones.

I suppose I should tell you about the plot first. We start in Yugoslavia in 1999, which makes me think we’re in an alternate dimension since Yugoslavia was politically dissolved in 1992. But never mind. Young Kate sings in the church choir while her family watches teary-eyed from the front pew. Fast-forward to 2017. Kate (Clarke) is all grown up. She works at a novelty Christmas store in London owned by the regal Santa (Michelle Yeoh). But all Kate does with her money is splurge on alcohol and self-pity.

One day she meets Tom (Henry Golding), a tall, well-groomed young man who is everything she’s not. With one meet-cute after another, they fall into a kind of romance. Oh, no, there’s nothing so vulgar as sex here. She sees in Tom a kind of lifeline. There’s a catch – he’s only around when she’s at her most desperate. Sound fishy? Well don’t accuse me of spoiling anything; Last Christmas quite gleefully teases the possibility of a twist all on its own.

Other than that, Last Christmas is about as standard a Christmas movie as any you or I have seen. It’s filled with good cheer and promotes all the necessary yuletide trimmings, such as helping the homeless, being kinder to loved ones, making little gestures of good will and generally being less of a jerk to the world.

The hook here is that Kate has supposedly been mean and self-centred all her life and now nobody wants to be near her. The problem is, Emilia Clarke is so effervescent that she couldn’t be mean even if you prodded her with a branding iron. She’s isn’t nasty enough. She isn’t irresponsible enough. So, when Tom comes along, preaching joy and selflessness, it doesn’t feel like there’s much about her he needs to change.

Anyway, I come back to the direction. Paul Feig excels at broad, foul-mouthed humour, preferably with Melissa McCarthy leading the way. This time he’s challenged with dry British one-liners and sardonic quips. The innuendos and euphemisms. I dunno, he seems unequipped, as if he doesn’t realise that English humour and American humour are different beasts. Bridget Jones’ Diary is not Bridesmaids. Dialogue that should be hilarious turns out flat. Last Christmas ends up somewhat clumsy, faintly misguided and very schmaltzy. On second thought, I suppose that’s everything you could want in a Christmas movie.

Last Christmas is available in Australian cinemas from 7 November 2019

Image © Universal Pictures 2019

Movie Review – Zombieland: Double Tap

Ruben Fleischer fails to recapture the raunchy magic of before but does enough to leave us with some laughs.

 ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Zachary Cruz-Tan

The first Zombieland wasn’t a masterpiece, but it did the zombie movie a great service by poking and pinching itself. It knew it was silly and ran with it. The plot powered forward, through head-smashings and amputations. Its characters made some sort of journey. The dialogue was smart. It made big bucks at the box office. So inevitably we get the sequel, Zombieland: Double Tap, and as is expected with such follow-ups, it’s not as good as the first one. 

There really isn’t a plot this time. It’s been ten years, I suppose, since the zombies first emerged. Our four heroes – Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson), Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg), Wichita (Emma Stone) and Little Rock (Abigail Breslin) – have settled into a quasi-domestic situation, taking up residence in The White House.

The trouble begins when Columbus proposes to Wichita, who, if you recall from the first movie, is strong and independent and would most likely take to marriage like a bird to a fan. Spooked, she flees with Little Rock. So kicks off the plot, or rather a series of loosely connected events as Tallahassee and Columbus set off after them. They are joined by a newcomer, Madison (Zoey Deutch), whose entire character image can be summed up by the way she says, “That’s like sor narsty“.

Alas, Madison is symptomatic of Double Tap’s shortcomings. If I enjoyed Madison’s goofy nonsense, it’s because Zoey Deutch does well to sell it. Similarly, Harrelson, Eisenberg, Stone and Breslin do well to sell their chemistry.

Zombieland: Double Tap is entertaining because its actors are entertaining. This is only their second time together in these roles, but already there’s the sense that their connections run deep. They’re so at ease with each other it’s endearing. We get drawn in to the things they say, and the way they say them, without ever really caring about what’s happening around them.

Sure, lots of zombies get their heads blown off and their body parts are flattened by heavy objects, but most of the time I forgot they were even around. The movie, from returning directing Ruben Fleischer, darts single-mindedly for comedy, more so than the first one. There is not a moment here that invokes feelings of fear or dread. The zombies exist only to be re-killed.

What else is there to say about a movie in which characters move from A to B to C, say funny things and are regularly harassed by video-game monsters? I could point to the action and visual effects, but neither is clever or convincing. The CGI in particular is often questionable, and the action is diluted to chases, punches and gunshots. All that’s left are the performances and the humour, which thankfully create a point of interest. If I had to, I’d go to another one of these for Tallahassee, Columbus, Wichita and Little Rock. The zombies I could do without.

Zombieland: Double Tap is available in Australian cinemas from 17 October 2019

Images courtesy of Sony Pictures

Movie Review – Blinded by the Light

Gurinder Chadha tackles economic and social unrest with a quasi-musical inspired by The Boss.

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ½
Zachary Cruz-Tan

Bruce Springsteen almost fades into the background of Blinded by the Light, the new film by Gurinder Chadha. It borrows its title from one of his songs. Its protagonist, Javed, models his look and lifestyle after Springsteen’s working-man image. Its soundtrack could double as a Springsteen greatest hits record. And yet Blinded by the Light manages to be about so much more than heartfelt rock music. It addresses stability, independence, cultural identity and the chasms that exist between generations. Most importantly, it’s about relationships.

Javed (Viveik Kalra) is the 16-year-old son of Pakistani migrants in Luton Town, England, in 1987. Thatcher is prime minister; her unfavourable policies have encouraged unemployment and unleashed racial hatred across the country. It’s a dead-end town, bound on one side by economic desperation and on the other by social oppression. All Javed desires is a way out, a freedom both from Luton and his heritage.

One day, a Sikh schoolmate hands him two Bruce Springsteen cassette tapes. The lyrics of “Born to Run” and “Dancing in the Dark” reverberate within his soul. They speak to his solitude. Suddenly his eyes are opened. It’s as if Springsteen wrote all his songs just for him. But like I said, Blinded by the Light is more about Javed and his rapidly collapsing world and less about The Boss. There is no real plot for him except to listen to lots of Springsteen songs and regurgitate their lyrics to educate everyone he meets. Springsteen’s words become the anthem of his life.

The movie takes on the energy of a jukebox musical, though I would’ve liked it to have been a bit more sure of itself. There are song-and-dance numbers, but not enough to qualify it as an actual musical.

Blinded by the Light is better when it uses Springsteen as a conduit for Javed to explore himself. Does he accept enrolment at a college in Manchester, where he would be free from his responsibilities as a son? Does he stay behind in dreary old Luton, forsaking his dreams of becoming a writer in order to help his family stay afloat?

Much of the movie hinges on the relationship between him and his dad Malik (Kulvinder Ghir), which spends more time down than up, and Javed delivers a magnificently moving, eloquent speech at the end that summarises all the movie is trying to teach us.

I quite enjoyed Blinded by the Light. I like the music of Springsteen, so I admired the way Gurinder Chadha dissects his lyrics and turns them into a rallying cry. And I was especially swayed by Ghir as Malik, who wanted nothing but a better life for his family and quickly realises how savagely dreams can be torn apart.

With so many rich characters and a fantastic soundtrack, it’s a shame the movie ends as neatly as it does. It suggests that such deep-rooted troubles can be easily solved with a little American rock. But, I suppose, with so much joy in its heart, it would’ve been silly if it had ended with cynicism.

Blinded by the Light is available in Australian cinemas from October 24

Image © Universal Pictures 2019

Movie Review – Abominable

Not the worst Yeti film released in recent years, but Abominable still falls short.

⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Elle Cahill

One evening, Yi (voiced by Chloe Bennet) encounters a young Yeti, Everest (Joseph Izzo), who has escaped from a secret science facility and is hiding on her roof. She and her friends embark on an adventure to help Everest return home to his family, undertaking a magical journey across China. With the recent loss of her father, the journey becomes so much more for Yi as she learns to process and embrace her grief.

Abominable is the latest release from DreamWorks and it’s definitely one of their more emotionally charged stories. Yi, her mother and her grandmother are all dealing with the passing of her father in their own way. Her mother attempts to act normal, as if nothing has changed, creating tension between her and her daughter. There is a nice dynamic between Yi, Everest and her two friends that brings some comic relief to an animated film that is dealing with some relatively heavy subject matter.

Similarities could be drawn between Yi and Inside Out’s human lead character Riley. Both girls are going through some major changes and are having to adjust quickly despite not being ready for their respective transitions.

With stunning visuals, Abominable has a similar look to other DreamWorks pictures including Kung Fu Panda and Boss Baby, but it puts its own twist on the style. Whether it be the detailed creation of an entire landscape or a single flower, each scene is a work of art. One of the earliest scenes is quite spectacular, showing Yi playing her violin on the rooftop with the city behind her.

While picturesque, Abominable doesn’t quite have enough punch for it to land with any lasting dramatic or comedic impact. In the future, I hope Dreamworks continues to explore the potential of its animation style. At the same time, the production team really needs to apply the same level of attention to the underlying narrative to create films that are both beautiful and memorable.

Abominable is available in Australian cinemas from 19 September

Image © Universal Pictures 2019