Movie Review – Booksmart

Whether it likes it or not, Booksmart is Superbad for a new generation.

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ½
Zachary Cruz-Tan

Few movies this year will seem as worldly as Booksmart, the directorial debut by Olivia Wilde. It’s a raunchy teen comedy that could double as a crash course on contemporary social politics. It is female-led. One of its main characters is gay. There are interracial flings and gender-neutral skateboarders. I half expected Laverne Cox to barge in at some point. It is also piloted by one of the most electric, lovable lead pairings in a long while. This is Superbad 2.0, told by women, about women, retrofitted for 2019.

The movie begins with the end of high school. The hallways are boisterous and messy and all the cool kids have already planned their respective graduation parties. Best friends, Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) and Molly (Beanie Feldstein), have never partied. They have played it safe, thought about their futures and aced every exam (when Amy proudly contests their innocence by mentioning their fake IDs, Molly retorts “they were college IDs to get into their 24-hour library!”).

Molly’s been accepted to Yale, which, naturally, is big news. So you can imagine her consternation when she discovers that all her beer-chugging, sexually ravenous classmates have also been accepted to prestigious colleges across the country. How did this happen? If everyone else fooled around and still succeeded academically, why did she spend the last few years studying her ass off like a schmuck? Her plan? Make up for lost time by partying the night away with her crush Nick (Mason Gooding), where maybe, just maybe he might finally notice her.

Booksmart is more concerned with style and forward momentum than with scribbling out the finer details of teenage life. Party scenes are generic. Plot points are broad. Amy and Molly spend the majority of their evening hopping from party to party, trying desperately to reach Nick’s house (neither knows his address). Don’t you think that by the second or third party the night would be over? I mean, how many hours are there? But never mind. Because Amy and Molly are in every scene and they work so well together, logic is easily forgotten.

I just wish the movie had tried a little harder to explore these two complex, intelligent, quirky girls instead of chucking them into a series of mindless gags. There’s clearly a lot more to them than hooking up and getting wasted. By the end, what exactly have they gained? Was it all simply an opportunity to get crazy? I dunno, they seemed cool enough from the start. Nothing’s wrong with loving crossword puzzles and Ken Burns documentaries. The baffling thing is, these girls know that. But I suppose teenagers care more about what others think of them than what they know of themselves. Maybe now that it’s all over, they can go back to sneaking into college libraries.

Booksmart is available in Australian cinemas from July 11

Image © Universal Pictures 2019

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Movie Review – Parasite

Biting, observant, outrageous; Bong Joon-ho continues his political rampage with a modern classic.

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ½
Zachary Cruz-Tan

There is something about South Korean cinema. I’m not quite sure what it is. It is wild, energetic, sometimes forceful. It thinks laterally and is always powering forward even when nothing seems to be happening. It is, I suppose, uniquely entertaining. Now comes Parasite, the latest film by Bong Joon-ho, and not only is it immensely entertaining, it’s damn near ready to bite your head off.

This is a slick black-ish comedy about the devastating reality of capitalism. That in the same country, in the same city, one family can live like kings while another lives in constant worry that neighbourhood sewage might one day flood into their shabby basement apartment. The poor family is made up of dad Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho); mum Chung-sook (Jang Hye-jin); son Ki-woo (Choi Woo-sik); and daughter Ki-jung (Park So-dam). They have three things in common: they’re out of a job, they’re desperate for money, and they’re quite comfortable committing fraud.

The first half of Parasite is straight-up comedy, as Ki-taek’s household forges documents and instigates scandal to supplant the domestic staff of the wealthy Parks. Ki-woo earns a lucrative job tutoring the Parks’ daughter, Da-hye (Ziso Jung), in English. He ropes in Ki-jung, posing as his cousin from overseas, to mentor Da-hye’s brother’s artistic development. Ki-taek becomes the family driver and Chung-sook takes over as housekeeper. Before we know it, Bong has created an ingenious situation in which an entire family earns its collective income directly from another.

The second half is something I suspect no one would see coming, as once Ki-taek’s family establishes its parasitic takeover, the movie descends into madness. All they really want is to earn decent cash, preferably at the expense of rich fools. Also, it helps that the Parks are basically begging to be screwed in the ass.

Parasite is a thoroughly visual movie. The camerawork by Hong Kyung-pyo is precise and beautiful in a way that makes every shot mean something. Observe, for example, how often the darkened doorway to the cellar of the Park kitchen sits in the middle of the frame, immediately drawing importance to itself. Or how Bong likens the dangers of social media to guns by having one character threaten an entire family at phone-point. Or how the rainwater that cleanses the driveways of the rich gushes downward and downward until it floods the houses of the poor. Bong makes it quite clear that one of capitalism’s great faults is its disparaging negligence of the lower classes.

I would’ve maybe preferred Bong to have made his comments a little more subtly, but there’s no denying he has crafted here a movie of artistic, thematic and visual superiority. It’s insanely funny but also heart-breaking. It makes you feel for the poor and hate the rich, one of capitalism’s inevitable by-products. Why shouldn’t the less fortunate be allowed just one day in the company of luxury, or the privileged be taken down a peg or two? No one should have to deal with sewage water filling up their living room.

Parasite is available in Australian cinemas from June 27

Image courtesy of Madman Entertainment

Movie Review – Yesterday

The Beatles deserve more than a one-note Ed Sheeran joke.

⭐ ½
Elle Cahill

In Yesterday, struggling musician Jack Malik (Himesh Patel) gets hit by a bus during a worldwide power outage and wakes to find himself in an alternate universe where no one else knows that The Beatles exist. Jack decides to pass off the songs of Paul McCartney, John Lennon, George Harrison and Ringo Starr as his own, but rather than being able to relish in his newfound success, Jack becomes guilt-ridden and paranoid that someone is going to uncover the truth.

Yesterday has all the makings of an English hit. It has Richard Curtis as its screenwriter, Danny Boyle at the directing helm, and a loveable cast that includes modern music icon Ed Sheeran. But while Yesterday has a lot going for it, the end result just doesn’t land right, and it turns out to be a bit of a lacklustre affair.

Curtis, who is known for bringing us films like Bridget Jones’s Diary, Love Actually and Mr Bean, doesn’t quite give us his usual charm. His characters are often written as offbeat yet quintessentially English, and while we see glimpses of this in Lily James’ love interest character Ellie, we don’t get enough of it.

For instance, Jack’s dry English wit doesn’t translate; he comes off as miserable and arrogant, making it difficult to empathise with him. In saying this, I do hope to see more of Patel in the future. It’s not that he’s necessarily bad in this film, it’s just that the role isn’t strong enough to showcase his abilities.

Lily James is the stand-out here, perfectly expressing girl-next-door innocence and the heartbreak of unrequited love. Unlike her ditzy and downright annoying turn in The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, this is the most comfortable James has seemed in a long time. In fact, Yesterday would have made for a much more interesting film had it centred around Ellie being hit by a bus instead of Jack.

In the midst of a recent influx of musicals (Bohemian Rhapsody, Rocketman, A Star Is Born) Yesterday struggles to find its place. The inclusion of Sheeran as a self-deprecating caricature of himself is funny for the first five minutes, but quickly becomes tiresome as the joke is hammered to death. Boyle misses the mark in his direction, unable to tell a succinct story or inspire strong performances from his actors. Nothing in Yesterday really pays off in spectacular fashion, and there’s nothing really at stake. The concept is wild and clever, but the execution leaves a lot to be desired. The Beatles deserve more.

Yesterday is available in Australian cinemas from June 27

Image © Universal Pictures 2019

Movie Review – The Secret Life Of Pets 2

Sometimes a sequel transcends the first film… and The Secret Life of Pets 2 does just that!

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ½
Elle Cahill 

The Secret Life of Pets 2 joins Max and his friends as they get up to more mischief when their owners aren’t home. Featuring a much more likable Max, trouble grows for the group as their owners have babies, a circus comes to town with a hapless tiger, and more trouble-making pets are discovered in the building, creating problems they must solve before their owners come home from work.

Universal Pictures and Illumination Entertainment (Despicable Me franchise) deliver an animated sequel that is surprisingly good, and – dare I say it – even better than the first one. Each of the three core storylines are cleverly interwoven, building on existing characters and introducing some new ones before bringing it all together in a big finale that beautiful ties together all the loose ends. It’s funny, light-hearted and highly relatable for all pet owners.

Most of the cast have returned, except Louis C.K as Max – who presumably wasn’t signed on again due to his sexual misconduct scandal – and has been replaced by Patton Oswalt. Despite Max being written as a much more sympathetic character this time round, Oswalt’s voice also fits the character of Max better, capturing his increased anxiety better than I think C.K would have been able to achieve.

The introduction of Shih Tzu Daisy (Tiffany Haddish) alongside returning bunny Snowball (Kevin Hart) allows the dynamic duo from last year’s Night School to team up again and deliver some comedic excellence. Haddish and Hart continually bounce off each other throughout the film, with Haddish playing the straight man to Hart’s over-the-top persona.

Harrison Ford also appears, voicing the pet version of himself in ageing farm dog Rooster. Despite being a dog of few words, Rooster helps Max overcome his anxiety and realise that he’s capable of much more than he thought. Does Ford add anything by voicing Rooster? Well no, not really, but his inclusion will be a kick for parents and grandparents.

While there have been some good sequels to children’s films before (think Shrek 2, Toy Story 2, Ice Age 2, and Despicable Me 2), rarely has a sequel transcended the first one. But The Secret Life of Pets 2 does just that, ensuring children and parents alike will be thoroughly captivated for the snappy 86-minute runtime. Overall, The Secret Life of Pets 2 is an enjoyable children’s film and one that I wouldn’t hesitate to watch again.

The Secret Life Of Pets 2 is available in Australian cinemas from 20 June 2019

Image (c) Universal Pictures 2019

Movie Review – Long Shot

Casually enjoyable faux-political fluff, but Veep it well and truly isn’t.

⭐ ⭐ ½
Corey Hogan

U.S. Secretary of State Charlotte Field (Charlize Theron) learns that the President of the United States will not be running for a second term and is thrilled to learn he’s willing to endorse her as his successor. At a party she runs into Fred Flarsky (Seth Rogen), an opinionated journalist who has recently been fired from his publisher as the result of a corporate takeover. Impressed with his flair and provocative writing, Field hires Flarksy to write her speeches on her campaign tour, unaware of the emotional connection that will bloom between them and the effect it will have on her shot at the presidency.

Love him or loathe him, Seth Rogen’s brand of comedy has come to manifest itself almost annually, and despite varying in quality, it usually ends up reliably landing somewhere between grin-breaking and frequently chuckle-worthy. Long Shot, however, is an example of what happens when almost every Seth Rogen movie – from the more sentimental to the flat-out ridiculous – rocks up at once, and the result, predictably, is a pretty big mess that never quite manages to be funny or endearing enough to win you over.

Setting itself up and framing itself as a romantic comedy à la Knocked Up, we get served the crude sexual humour from the likes of Superbad and Sausage Party, the over-the-top action violence of Pineapple Express and Observe and Report, the hard drug-fuelled nonsense of The Night Before and This is the End, and another attempt to have a say about politics like The Interview. Tonally, it’s all over the place, and failing to balance so many different Rogenisms means that the main course – the romance – topples underneath it all.

It doesn’t help of course that the romantic angle falls pretty flat between the two leads. Charlize Theron is typically good as the steadfast, virtuous secretary of state, while Seth Rogen simply embodies his wisecracking stoner schtick as an asshole journalist. The pair bounce off one another well thanks to their gifts for comic timing, but the romantic chemistry just isn’t there. It doesn’t help that the movie does very little to convince us that the goofy Rogen is really worthy of the elegant Theron’s affections.

On the bright side, a film that easily could have become bogged down in insufferable political agenda plays being opinionated mercifully lightly. The suggestion that sane people are neither entirely right or left leaning, with the ability to see the benefits and flaws of both sides is a brief breath of fresh air in an otherwise muddled affair. Modestly amusing, but not much else, Long Shot is mostly ‘meh’.

Long Shot is available in Australian cinemas from May 2

Image courtesy of Studio Canal

Movie Review – The Hustle

Another day, another female-centric remake…

⭐ ⭐
Elle Cahill

In The Hustle, two female con artists pair up in the South of France to prey on the rich men who vacation there. The successful and beautiful Josephine (Anne Hathaway) takes Lonnie (Rebel Wilson) under her wing and teaches her all her trade secrets, but when the relationship turns sour, the pair engage in a turf war, battling each other for control of the city. Selecting a young tech millionaire as their challenge, the two will stop at nothing to prove they are the better hustler.

Chris Addison’s feature film directorial debut is a shameless remake of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (1988). With a script that lacks the heart and depth of the original, The Hustle is no match for the classic comedy of Steve Martin and Michael Caine. Hathaway and Wilson are given very limited material to work with, relying mostly on recycled weight jokes and classist attitudes to generate humour. The constant references back to men being ‘dirty dogs getting what they deserve’ quickly becomes boring, coming off as thinly veiled feminist pandering.

Hathaway’s English accent is absolutely dreadful and utterly unnecessary. Meanwhile, Wilson sticks to her familiar bumbling, brash Australian character, bringing the occasional laugh through some obscene statement or action. Ultimately, the biggest problem here is in having to endure yet another remake. From Ghostbusters, to Ocean’s 8 and What Men What, these new female-led films have all failed to compete with the originals. You can’t tell me there are no new scripts out there that feature a strong female cast; there’s no need to constantly rehash old material.

The most disappointing thing about The Hustle is that is starts out as a film about two intelligent women coming together, but quickly turns into an unimpressive dick measuring competition that requires a man to bring about the resolution. So much for the feminist angle…

The Hustle is available in Australian cinemas from May 9

Image © Universal Pictures 2019

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

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