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 

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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

Movie Review – Goosebumps 2 : Haunted Halloween

Not as smart or entertaining as the first, but Goosebumps 2 isn’t a total loss.

⭐ ⭐
Zachary Cruz-Tan

Against my better judgement, I actually enjoyed the first Goosebumps movie. It was well made, moderately clever with a lightness in its step. Now comes the inevitable sequel – helpfully titled Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween – and whatever innovation and ingenuity that once existed is gone, replaced instead with a blanket of computer graphics and a plot so transparent it can be used to trace over itself. This is not a movie but a product assembled to keep kids distracted.

The plot, such as it is, follows Sarah (Madison Iseman), Sonny (Jeremy Ray Taylor) and Sam (Caleel Harris) in the town of Wardenclyffe, NY, three kids who discover the magical ventriloquist dummy Slappy from the first movie and accidentally bring him back to life. Slappy, voiced effectively by Mick Wingert (even though he sounds an awful lot like Jack Black), desires a family, so he hatches a cockamamie scheme that involves Halloween lawn ornaments bursting to life and running amok down the streets.

Of course, this happens so the movie’s visual effects artists can earn their paycheques. Many of the visuals are indeed impressive, but they would’ve been more thrilling if they had serviced a smarter plot and done more terrifying things. I think kids want to be frightened, just enough to make them jump but not too much that they can’t sleep. Goosebumps 2 plays more like a parody of scary images. It lacks the conviction to be truly intense.

The screenplay, penned by Rob Lieber, is not particularly well structured but contains several genuinely amusing exchanges I wouldn’t have expected from a fluffy movie like this – “So put on your shoes and let’s go!” “But my shoes are already on!”. It’s the kind of broad humour that’s just narrow enough to be funny. Or maybe it’s not, and I was simply trying to empathise with the mind of a five-year-old.

Naturally, there were a lot of five-year-olds at the screening I attended, accompanied by parents who I’m sure would’ve rather observed a dying cockroach. I think maybe it might be fitting then to evaluate Goosebumps 2 based on how raucous the children were, since I’m clearly not its intended audience. I thought it was foolish but entertaining. The kids, on the other hand, were very quiet. Could it be they were too frightened, or too bored?

Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween  is available in Australian cinemas from October 25 

Image courtesy of Sony Pictures

Movie Review – Night School

Night School schools audiences in how to be funny and inclusive.

⭐ ⭐ ½
Elle Cahill 

Night School follows Teddy Walker (Kevin Hart), a high school drop out who never sat his GED. After accidentally blowing up the BBQ store he was set to take over, he finds himself unemployable. When he receives a job offer on the condition he goes to night school and gets his GED, Teddy signs up for lessons at his old school. Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as Teddy thought it would be and he’s left to decide just how far he’s willing to go to pass his final exam.

Nigh School is the latest offering from Girls Trip director Malcolm D. Lee. His latest isn’t as crass as Girls Trip, choosing instead to cement its comedy in social commentary and the paths people take after school, with some slapstick thrown in for good measure.

Hart and Tiffany Haddish, who plays the night school teacher Carrie, make a great comedic duo, bouncing off each other in a blur of witty retorts, but it’s the obvious respect that the two comedic actors have for each other that makes them a pleasure to watch. Haddish’s usual comedic style has been stripped back and Hart has toned down his usual style as well, but it works given they’re surrounded by an ensemble of other comedians including the likes of Taran Killam (Saturday Night Live), Mary Lynn Rajskub (Brooklyn Nine-Nine), and Rob Riggle (The Hangover) each earning their own laughs throughout the course of the film.

There are a lot of current social elements thrown into this film, like making Haddish’s character a lesbian and portraying Teddy as being more intelligent for having dyslexia. While the representation of learning disorders is handled sensitively, the addition of Haddish’s character being a lesbian feels a bit weird. It seems like inclusion of sexual representation for the sake of it, and it’s an easy way out for Carrie not to be interested in Teddy, rather than just being a woman who isn’t sexually attracted to him.

Overall Night School is a surprisingly funny film with some strong messages, however, some of the jokes fall flat, and there are times when the story becomes impossibly far-fetched.

Night School is available in Australian cinemas from September 27 

Also screening as part of  the RoofTop Movies Program 1 on Nov 17.

Image (c) Universal Pictures 2018

Movie Review – Crazy Rich Asians

John M Chu’s Crazy Rich Asians is the feel-good film of the year and a landmark moment for representation.

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Rhys Pascoe

New York economics professor Rachel (Constance Wu) has been dating Nick (Henry Golding) for just over a year when he suggests they fly to Singapore for his best friend’s wedding and to meet his family. It isn’t until the couple arrive in Singapore that the breadth of Nick’s family and wealth hits home. The significance of their relationship quickly dawns on Rachel too, with Nick’s domineering mother Eleanor (a startlingly intense Michelle Yeoh) taking an immediate dislike to the commoner who has won her son’s heart. Eleanor sets out to get her way and uphold her family’s pedigree, by any means necessary.

Dripping with pizzazz and visual splendor, Crazy Rich Asians is a crazy good time at the cinema. Chu packs the frame with wall-to-wall glitz and glamour, with the set design, costuming and overall production bursting at the seams with colour and culture. The direction, editing and soundtrack combine to create an effervescent affair with pops of energy and electricity. And the ensemble cast is packed with charming performances.

Narratively it isn’t doing anything new – we’ve seen this kind of familial power struggle before in umpteen other romantic comedies. It’s essentially a Cinderella story where a dashing billionaire sweeps a shy girl off her feet. And a lot of the character moments along the way are to be expected. But the familiar storytelling beats shouldn’t detract from the fact that Crazy Rich Asians still offers something fresh, in that it tells a story that doesn’t thrust Asian (or Asian-American) characters to the fringe of the frame and instead explores the complex and contradictory in-between nature of being a Westerner of Eastern descent.

Rather than one-note secondary character tropes, the characters in Crazy Rich Asians cover the whole spectrum and take centre stage. Forget always being a bridesmaid; it’s time to be the bride. Crazy Rich Asians offers important representation to a segment of the audience that often gets neglected by mainstream Hollywood. For that reason alone, Crazy Rich Asians is a must-see. It’s just an added bonus that it’s funny, heartfelt, frisky, profound and an all-round delightful time at the movies.

Crazy Rich Asians is available in Australian cinemas from August 30 

Image courtesy of Roadshow Films

Movie Review – Book Club

Turns out even the post-menopausal are fascinated by Christian Grey’s sadomasochistic bedroom antics. Do what you will with that information…

⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Corey Hogan

Four aging woman and long-time friends, who remain connected through their monthly book club, find their lives changing dramatically when it’s suggested their book of the month be none other than E.L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey. Titillated and inspired by the book’s raunchy content, each woman attempts to reignite her love life.

Though it’s a Nancy Meyers-type comedy for seniors, Bill Holderman’s Book Club manages to be even more inoffensive than films of its ilk. Not that that’s necessarily a bad thing. It’s exactly the kind of oestrogen-fuelled, feel-good flick that the 55-and-above XX crowd will adore.

There’s at least a broad appeal here by focussing on the book that’s been making schoolgirls to grandmas giggle and/or groan since 2011. You don’t have to be an adult in diapers to get a laugh out of legendary actresses such as Diane Keaton and Jane Fonda reacting with shock and awe to Christian Grey’s ‘kinky fuckery’.

It’s at its best when they attempt to keep up with what’s trendy and sexy, figuratively getting back on the horse and putting themselves out there. Candice Bergen’s foray into dating via Bumble and Mary Steenburgen lacing her husband’s drink with Viagra bring the chuckles, though the filmmakers play it safe and steer clear of the ropes, whips and handcuffs that would probably give its demographic a heart attack.

Where it doesn’t quite stick the landing is its transition into an overly melodramatic second half, wherein each woman’s happiness is undone by their falling back into old habits. Ending very predictably, it at least leaves a feel-good mushiness that pensioners will lap up. Perhaps most unrealistic is the fact that not once do these seasoned literature aficionados comment on how poorly written their bestseller is. But at the very least, Book Club is a fine time that shows Hollywood’s older gals can still lead a movie and have a good time doing so.

Book Club is available in Australian cinemas from August 23 

Image courtesy of Transmission Films