Movie Review – Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie

Exceeding expectations, Captain Underpants is one of the best animated films of the year.

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ½
Michael Philp

Full disclosure: I brought some baggage into my viewing of Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie. The novels, written and illustrated by Dav Pilkey, were some of my favourites growing up, and I was wary of seeing it turn into another The Smurfs or Trolls – nostalgic Trojan horses that take every opportunity to try and sell you songs and cute merchandise. Imagine my surprise then, when Captain Underpants not only avoided those pitfalls, but also demonstrated a genuine love for the original books.

The film follows fourth graders Harold Hutchins (Thomas Middleditch) and George Beard (Kevin Hart), best friends since kindergarten, and creators of the comic book hero Captain Underpants. The boys are phenomenal pranksters, and often butt heads with their humourless and cruel principal, Mr Krupp (Ed Helms). When one of their pranks gets caught on camera, Krupp sentences them to the ultimate punishment: putting them in different classrooms! The duo, cornered in his office, hypnotise him into believing he is the titular Captain. Hilarity ensues as the dim-witted superhero comes to life and causes chaos around town.

Everyone is at the top of their game here. Middleditch and Hart are a winning combination, matching the energy of the film with ease. The boys’ imaginations run wild, but it never feels indulgent or out of place, mostly because of how well Middleditch and Hart sell it. Few films would handle the line “Separate classes lead to separate lives, which inevitably leads to robots!” as well as this one does. Better still is the joyous energy that Nick Kroll brings as the villainous Professor Poopypants. Played with Germanic exuberance, Poopypants is the perfect antagonist for the film, and Kroll clearly relishes the chance to go a little bit mad and steal every scene he can.

That craziness is served well by the superb animation. Unafraid to experiment with numerous styles and ideas, the film brings Harold’s illustrations to life in a way Pilkey could only dream of. Talking toilets and killer robots all pop with layers of polish and love. Purely on a visual level, it’s hard to imagine a better adaptation of the books.

The cherry on top of all of this is that the film never undercuts itself with unnecessary marketing ploys. The studio could’ve easily thrown in a random dance montage set to the latest candy-floss pop song (don’t they all do that now?), but it never sinks that low. It even keeps product placements to a refreshing bare minimum. The film’s highest priority is in presenting Pilkey’s world with love and verve.

Being sceptical of a film like Captain Underpants would be natural – the director’s last film was the brain-numbingly average Turbo – but rest assured the end product is something worth seeing. The colour and energy on display is infectious, and it’s in service to a wonderful story of friendship and imagination. Captain Underpants takes the spirit of Harold and George’s comics and puts it on the big screen, and I don’t think there’s much more you can ask of an adaptation. By the looks of things, we’ll be seeing a sequel or two down the line, and for once I’m pretty happy about that.

Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie is available in Australian cinemas from September 14 

Image courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox

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Movie Review – The Lovers

In his latest film, Azazel Jacobs explores the murky labyrinth of relationships.

⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Zachary Cruz-Tan

The Lovers starts with two affairs; one tenuous and volatile, the other filled with passion. The two perpetrators, husband and wife Michael (Tracy Letts) and Mary (Debra Winger), live in the same house, sleep in the same bed, but do not share in each other’s lives. They live in a marital dead zone, exchanging pleasantries and furtive glances, and have probably tried every remedy in the book to eliminate the chasm between them. Nothing has worked, and now they exploit the only remaining option: throwing their emotional resources into the arms of another.

This is the setup of Azazel Jacobs’ new film; written like a sitcom, but given the attention and care of a profound domestic drama. Michael and Mary are likeable enough, but chemistry between them has long since flown out the window. Michael is seeing a ballerina on the side (of course she’s a ballerina) and Mary is seeing Aiden Gillen. Neither knows the other is cheating, but their marriage has been so chaste for so long I suspect they’re wise to each other’s acts. The film complicates things a little with the arrival of their son Joel (Tyler Ross), who has come visiting from college with his new girlfriend (Jessica Sula).

The Lovers is a decent film with two great leads and a mishmash of supporting players. Melora Walters as the lithe ballerina Lucy is nothing but quirky, clingy and kinda ditzy. Gillen seems able to pressure Mary into leaving Michael and nothing else. Surely the main criteria for committing adultery is that your new partner must be more interesting than the one you’re cheating on, right? Both Lucy and Robert (Gillen) are so characteristically one-dimensional their only redeeming feature must be sex, and yet they seem about as sexual as rotting logs. So, are Michael and Mary simply cheating out of desperation? Who knows, really?

Like the best movies about difficult subjects, The Lovers treats romantic estrangement with maturity and compassion. Yes, occasionally it plays for laughs and develops ludicrous situations for its doomed couple, but it understands the simple truth that relationships, whether it’s keeping them together or apart, are never easy. And something as innocent as a mistaken morning kiss is enough to reopen Pandora’s box.

The Lovers is available in Australian cinemas from September 7 

Image courtesy of Sony Pictures 

Movie Review – Girls Trip

Not again! Another film with a female led cast that just misses the mark.

⭐ ½
Elle Cahill

Girls Trip follows four female friends who travel to New Orleans to try and rekindle their college friendship and rediscover their wild side. Each woman is facing her own set of difficulties and seeks support from the others, but will the trip ultimately end up driving them further apart?

Other than the black, female cast, there isn’t anything particularly original going on here. The jokes are cruder than ever. There’s the expected commentary on race. All four women are seemingly strong and independent, yet incredibly flawed to give them that “relatable” factor, but at the end of the day all you’ve really got is a bunch of severely underdeveloped characters.

The talented core ensemble try their best to work with the material they’ve been given: newcomer Tiffany Haddish is hilarious, and for the most part, a breath of fresh air. She spends the entire film calling out the other characters whenever they’re being overly pretentious or just downright stupid. Unfortunately, a lot of her jokes take far too long to reach the punch line. By the time the comedic pay off comes, it doesn’t hit as well as it should.

Girls Trip has the potential to be smart and witty, but instead it shoots for vulgar and that’s where it unravels. For me, it lacks heart; for a film supposedly about friendship and girl power it left me cold and uncomfortable. After films like Moonlight, Hidden Figures and Get Out, it seems like two steps backwards.

Surprisingly, it’s done really well in the box office in the US so it will be interesting to see how it performs elsewhere, but overall it’s an easily forgettable film that lacks any real punch.

Girls Trip is available in Australian cinemas from August 31

Image (c) Universal Pictures 2017

Movie Review – Madame

Putting the comedy back into rom-com: Rossy de Palma steals the spotlight in this classic rags to riches tale.

⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Elle Cahill 

Madame follows wealthy American couple Anne (Toni Collette) and Bob (Harvey Keitel) in their hosting of a dinner party. After the late arrival of an unexpected guest leaves the table a setting short – because god forbid a table should have thirteen people! – the couple enlists their maid Maria (Rossy de Palma) to take the fourteenth spot. Unaware of her true occupation, the other guests find her a delight, especially one guest in particular…

De Palma completely steals the spotlight in this film. She’s endearing and charismatic, but it’s her innocence that allows her to carry the jokes that would otherwise have seemed overly crude. Collette and Keitel each have their own funny moments, however, while Collette’s turn as the neurotic and insecure wife has its poignant moments, she doesn’t quite match de Palma.

Where Madame falls short is in placing too much of a focus on certain characters and neglecting others with greater potential. It spends too much time spelling out Anne and Bob’s dissatisfaction toward their marriage and their respective affairs, taking precious screen time away from other characters that could have provided more comedic value.

Although entertaining, Maria’s character is not very well developed; there are brief mentions of her working as a maid to send money to her daughter in Paris, but there’s no explanation of what happened to the girl’s father. It also felt a bit pulled together for the sake of trying to explain the reason for Maria being a maid in the first place.

For the most part, Madame is packed full of laughs, even if some of the more comedic moments are a little cringeworthy. It’s definitely suited to a more mature audience and marks a promising future for de Palma in American cinema.

Madame is available in Australian cinemas from August 24 

Image courtesy of StudioCanal

Movie Review – Logan Lucky

Soderbergh comes out of retirement for laughs, but not much else.

⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Michael Philp

Steven Soderbergh is one of those names people find hard to place. He’s a populist, but he’s not a for-hire kind of guy. He does his own thing, and he does it excellently. He’s done everything from smooth remakes (Ocean’s Eleven) to traditional dramas (Erin Brockovich) to Hitchcockian thrillers (Side Effects), and he’s stayed true to his style throughout all of them. With Logan Lucky, he’s come out of retirement to return to one of his most successful genres – the heist film.

Set in West Virginia, Logan follows down-on-his-luck Jimmy Logan (Channing Tatum) as he attempts to rob the NASCAR concession stand vault during the biggest race of the year. His team consists of his brother Clyde (Adam Driver), his sister Mellie (Riley Keough), demolition expert Joe Bang (Daniel Craig), and Joe’s two brothers Sam and Fish (Brian Gleeson and Jack Quaid respectively). It’s a feast of southern twangs and hick-English, with Craig arguably having the most fun playing on the right-side of hammy.

There’s loads of fun to be had. Sam and Fish are laugh factories, the heist is a tense rollercoaster of jokes and subtle character drama, and the pageant climax is surprisingly touching. Solid stuff all around really. You can even praise it for not writing its women as wet blankets – Mellie’s sparring with brother-in-law Moody (David Denman) is excellent.

And yet, it never quite comes together to be more than solid. It has a weird tendency, for instance, to introduce characters that don’t quite make sense. Some of them are funny – a man in a bear costume distributing explosives in the woods – but others feel like a second draft would have dropped them. Katherine Waterston appears as Jimmy’s romantic interest, but she’s given barely 5 minutes of screen time, so none of it connects. Seth MacFarlane appears as an insufferable energy drink CEO, but nothing he does is funny it’s just garish. Hilary Swank even appears as an FBI agent who exists purely to demonstrate how smart Jimmy is. The list goes on and it’s indicative of the film as a whole.

Adding to these woes is the fact that the film could’ve easily been about something. Jimmy only plans the heist after getting fired so they could’ve easily included commentary on the plight of rural America – a more fun Hell or High Water, in other words – but that message is never fully realised. Instead, Logan gets lost in the fun side of things and forgets to present a satisfying, coherent whole.

Logan Lucky is without a doubt an entertaining film. Its comedic timing is impeccable, and it’s a blast watching the cast sink their teeth into outrageous roles. A solid round of editing might’ve lifted Logan Lucky, but as it stands, there are too many loose threads that keep it from greatness. It wouldn’t be an awful thing if Soderbergh stayed out of retirement purely to keep producing films of this calibre, it’d just be a shame if he didn’t bother to rise above it.

Logan Lucky is available in Australian cinemas from August 17 

Image courtesy of Roadshow Films

Movie Review – The Big Sick

Silicon Valley’s Kumail Nanjiani hits it for six in his heartfelt rom-com, The Big Sick.

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ½
Rhys Graeme-Drury

Starring Kumail Nanjiani, The Big Sick is a semi-autobiographical rom-com co-written by Nanjiani with real-life wife Emily V. Gordon. A fictionalised account of how they met, it sees a struggling Pakistani stand-up comic slash Uber driver called Kumail meet and fall in love with a young American girl called Emily (Zoe Kazan), much to the dismay of his deeply traditional parents. Kumail’s parents are of the opinion that he should take a Pakistani wife that they find for him, and upon learning of his relationship with date Emily, expel him from the family.

The Big Sick is one of those exceedingly rare films that effortlessly services not one or two but three genres in equal measure. Firstly you’ve got romance; who doesn’t love a good love story? The Big Sick’s love story is one of the best and most authentic in the last few years.

Secondly you’ve got comedy; again, The Big Sick comes up trumps. It’s surprisingly witty and sharp, and you’ll often find yourself missing snippets of dialogue because you’re still chuckling from the last gag. Jokes flow thick and fast, but the film never resort’s to lazy physical or crude humour. Again, the key word here is authenticity – the characters, their personalities and the quirks they come with feel tangible.

Thirdly, you’ve got drama. This is the most surprisingly effective aspect of The Big Sick. For the whole first act, everything is strumming along at a fun and lively pace. It’s cute and doesn’t take itself too seriously. Then, the narrative shifts into something different; all of a sudden we’re presented with an all-together different film. By the time we’ve reached the third act we’ve travelled through a number of effective character arcs and a full spectrum of emotions – the narrative is resonant, touching, spirited and whimsical – sometimes all in the same scene.

The Big Sick works on a number of levels, chief among which is its willing rebuff of common rom-com tropes; you won’t bear witness to any frantic dashes through the airport terminal or teary kisses during a midnight rainstorm here. The arguments feel like arguments a real couple would have; the jokes they share equally as relatable.

The film also soars because of its cast; Nanjiani and Kazan are an effervescent pairing that share palpable chemistry. Likewise, Holly Hunter and Ray Romano add depth to the story as Emily’s parents. However, it’s Anupam Kher, Zenobia Shroff and Adeel Akhtar that shine as Kumail’s disapproving father, mother and brother respectively.

The Big Sick is a film that will make you smile, weep and cheer; it balances whimsy and sincerity to create something truly memorable, handling its tonal shifts with confidence. Whether you’re nine or 90, there is a powerful resonance in the story that will pull at your heartstrings – be sure to seek it out and thank me later.

The Big Sick is available in Australian cinemas from August 3

Image courtesy of Roadshow Films 

Movie Review – The Trip to Spain

Paris Can Wait, indeed – Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon are back to show us once again how a real road trip foodie movie is done.

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ½
Corey Hogan

Once again playing heightened versions of themselves, funnymen Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon are commissioned for a third series of restaurant reviews – this time in a road trip across Spain. As the pair soak in the sights and enjoy a delicious selection of varied food and drink, their banter is business as usual as they indulge in sing-alongs, poke fun at each other’s careers, ruminate on aging and their mid-life crises, boast their own trivial knowledge of the country and, of course, attempt to one-up each other over who can do the best celebrity impersonations.

It seems crazy to think that one of cinema’s most consistently and reliably entertaining trilogies (quadrilogies, if you count Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story) could consist entirely of the improvised arguments of two British comedians and very little else, but Michael Winterbottom’s third freeform, fourth-wall destroying entry in The Trip series is a typically hilarious ride, even if The Trip to Spain does begin to show signs of self-indulgence and a clever premise wearing thin.

Edited down from a three-hour miniseries to a two-hour movie like before, this streamlines the best bits of Coogan and Brydon’s adventure into a pacier ride that doesn’t quite overstay its welcome. Anyone familiar with the previous movies will know the formula; the week-long binge of bickering around historical landmarks and gourmet meals, in between which the men deal with their personal issues involving their children and the women in their lives, all the while attempting to remain relevant as actors and writers.

But like many continuing series, this does suffer a little from diminishing returns. The first Trip was so fresh and funny because Coogan was reluctant to take Brydon along and spend a week with him. He was the somewhat straight man irritated by Brydon’s more eccentric persona, giving them a perfect odd couple dynamic. It’s still sort-of here, but now the two seem to have grown into quite good friends – at one point Coogan, uncharacteristically, is unable to contain his laughter at one of Brydon’s bits; a betrayal of the superiority complex he’s held over Brydon until now. They’re still great fun to watch together, but they can never reach the same brilliant antagonism they once shared.

Also doing the film a disservice are its attempts at dramatic elements, of which there are more than ever before. Appearing in the latter half, these moments fall flat from clear scripting, making them at odds with the in-the-moment main meat of the movie. It’s an admirable effort to keep things fresh, but it’s too big a clash with the giddy tone of the improv that has gathered this series a following. The ending, too, should have been left on the cutting room floor; it’s far too abruptly outlandish and unbelievable for an otherwise entirely realistic trilogy.

But these are relatively minor quibbles for a film that’s impossible not to like, particularly if you’re a fan of the actors and their previous trips. It’s an irresistibly cruisy and pleasant vacation, with plenty for the eyes to feast on and even more to laugh at.

The Trip to Spain is available in Australian cinemas from August 3

Image courtesy of Madman Entertainment 

 

Movie Review – The House

The House doesn’t do enough to lend weight to the claim that it always wins.

 ⭐ ⭐ ½
Rhys Graeme-Drury

After both starring in Blades of Glory, The House pairs comedic geniuses Will Ferrell and Amy Poehler together for a raucous suburban comedy about two parents who are struggling to come to terms with their beloved daughter (Ryan Simpkins) departing for college. When a dodgy town council official robs her of a lucrative scholarship, the parents start a casino in their basement (the only logical solution) with the help of their friend Frank (Jason Mantzoukas).

Pairing two Saturday Night Live alumni such as Ferrell and Poehler feels like a slam-dunk on the surface. They make for an undeniably funny duo that pop and whizz around like a loose firecracker, but the freewheeling, improvisational nature of the films means some scenes feel flabby and overplayed. Poehler, in particular, always commits to a bit and doesn’t let up, even if sometimes it is a detriment to that specific scene.

The central premise runs its course fairly quickly – after all, its barely enough plot to cover a 23-minute episode of Community, let alone a feature length picture. However, at just a smidge under 90 minutes, The House doesn’t overstay its welcome and is the perfect Friday night romp to shake off the workweek cobwebs. It’s brief, intermittently funny and shocking enough in parts to give in an edge of outrageousness.

The central duo is likeable enough to carry the film home, even if some of the humour strays too far. That being said, Ferrell seems strangely low-key this time around, nowhere near as outlandish as some of his earlier work like Anchorman, Zoolander or Talladega Nights. Like in Daddy’s Home, he’s almost on autopilot in The House.

There are a couple of cool cameos that plump up the fun ­– Alexandra Daddario and, strangely, Jeremy Renner as a rival casino boss. I wish I had more to comment on but The House is just one of those fleeting experiences that flies in one ear and out the other – you probably won’t be reciting quotes at your friends in the car home, let alone in a week or two.

The House is available in Australia June 29

Image courtesy of Roadshow Films 

Movie Review – Cars 3

Cars 3 is suitable Saturday afternoon entertainment, but it lacks the drive of some of Pixar’s greats.

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ½
Zachary Cruz-Tan

Like the first two, Cars 3 is a heap of good fun when it’s switched on and turbo-ed up, but not much of anything else when it’s parked in the driveway. It has a good-hearted story and is populated by charming characters, but the Cars movies have always been at the mindless end of the Pixar production line. It’s like they’re built for speed with little attention given to handling or endurance. I can go back time and time again to Ratatouille (2007) or Inside Out (2015) and feel enriched each time. But with Cars, what you see is what you get. There’s no room for seconds.

What we get this time is yet another racing story that involves the hot-headed Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson). McQueen has been the head honcho for many years, but now he and the old guard are in danger of ceding the track to a new breed of racecar, one built with science instead of passion. This means quicker speeds, sharper cornering, more downforce, better slipstreaming, all that stuff. McQueen is forced out of the races, sinks into lonely depression and despairs of ever finding a way back to high speed glory. He is bought over by a new sponsor who introduces him to Cruz Ramirez, the spunky lab tech who once failed at being a racecar and, alas, finds herself saddled with babysitting the next generation of top racers.

Cruz is the movie’s best character, because she represents the mistakes of the past and is voiced by Cristela Alonzo, that comedienne of such vibrancy we can almost picture her bouncing about with joy as she delivers her lines. She transforms Cruz first into a kind of loveable goofball as a lab tech, and then into a devilish driving machine when she gets a taste of the racetrack. I’ve always found Lightning McQueen to be a bit of a bore as the hero, but paired with the zeal of Cruz’s good nature he’s more tolerable, and she’s way more fun. Some of the movie’s best scenes are when Cruz is the focus and McQueen watches on from the sidelines.

Cars 3, I suspect, will not bore the parents who’ve brought their hyperactive kids to the movies on a Saturday. It is slick and very brisk in parts, especially when Cruz is on screen. But because both Cruz and McQueen have so many introspective issues to deal with, the quieter moments may be too much for the younger ones to sit through. Oh well, who am I to say? I’m neither a parent nor a toddler. I had fun with this movie, but I’m ready for Pixar to wow me once again with something more inspired.

Cars 3 is available in Australian cinemas from June 22

Image courtesy of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures 

Movie Review – Despicable Me 3

Much like a team of bumbling minions pulling off a near impossible heist, so too has Despicable Me 3 turned out surprisingly well. 

⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Cherie Wheeler 

Very few franchises age as well as a good red wine or a vintage cheese; in fact, it’s almost expected that each successive installment in any given series will follow in an ongoing downward spiral, gradually losing appeal and originality. There are, of course, exceptions to this generalisation, and Pierre Coffin‘s Despicable Me series certainly comes close. 

Every sequel strives to up the ante on its predecessor when it comes to spectacle, and in this regard, Despicable Me 3 does not disappoint. This time around, reformed super villain Gru (Steve Carell) travels to a fictitious, European-themed village with new wife Lucy (Kristen Wiig) and his three adopted daughters to meet his long lost twin brother Dru (also Steve Carell). From the rolling Tuscan hills, to the deep blue Mediterranean sea, to the quaint, cobbled streets of the village town centre, the set pieces are truly breathtaking, with an exceptionally high attention to detail and an astoundingly life-like visual quality. 

But this latest addition isn’t just a brotherly reunion set against scenic vistas; there’s a wide range of subplots here, from the heartfelt to the humorous, and each one competes for the spotlight.  

While Lucy copes with her new responsibilities as a mother, Gru grapples with his latest arch nemesis, Balthazar Bratt; a failed child TV star from the 1980s who has never forgiven Hollywood for tossing him aside. Although Bratt begins to grate on the nerves by the latter third of the film, he does allow for the inclusion of an epic 80s soundtrack that features Michael Jackson‘s Bad and A-Ha‘s Take On Me among many other hits. The film also tries to squeeze in plot lines for each of the girls with varying success, while also covering the Anti-Villain League and, of course, the minions. 

After the rather anti-climatic Minions movie, these goggle-wearing, yellow critters take a bit of a back seat in Despicable Me 3, and it’s all for the better. Punctuating the story with brief amusing scenes, the minions become an entertaining sideshow as they abandon Gru and go out on their own, but while enjoyable, this is yet another storyline that hampers the already bloated narrative. 

Despicable Me 3 definitely offers up the gags and witty lines that we’ve come to expect from the franchise, but the comedic spark of the past films isn’t quite as bright here. Nevertheless, it’s all harmless, easy to consume fun that the whole family can enjoy.  It might not be perfect, but it’s a pretty solid effort for a third instalment of an animated series.

 

Despicable Me 3 is available in Australian cinemas from June 15

Image (c) Universal Pictures 2017