Movie Review – Viceroy’s House

Gurinder Chadha serves us a slice of British/Indian history in a clumsy mix of waffling politics, tumultuous outbreaks, lush sets and romantic fluff.

⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Corey Hogan

After three hundred years under British rule, India is finally transitioning to an independent nation in 1947. The Viceroy’s House, a decadent palace in Delhi, was home to these rulers for centuries. Now it is to host one final Viceroy, Lord Mountbatten (Hugh Bonneville) and his wife Edwina (Gillian Anderson), tasked with overseeing the handover back to the Indian people. But this is no simple manoeuvre; the nation is divided in opinion from the great change and soon mass conflict erupts, severely complicating things for the Viceroy, his family and his servants.

Director Gurinder Chadha (Bend It like Beckham, Bride and Prejudice) occasionally gives life to the rich history and subject matter of Viceroy’s House, though it’s a tad too often that she squanders it with the melodrama and directional flair of a made-for-television movie. Luckily, such superficial shortcomings are routinely rescued thanks to history itself stepping in to give some vibrancy to an otherwise flat and conventional royalty period piece.

Pomp and circumstance is dialled up to eleven as the Mountbattens enter the Viceroy’s House. Thankfully, the charade is dropped when the Lord is forced to deal with real issues, and suddenly we’re permitted a more authentic look at everyday life in the House, and the actors are given the opportunity to flex more than just their accents.

The film is at its best when famous real-life figures drop in, especially Gandhi (portrayed cheerfully by Neeraj Kabi), who gets some of the most amusing and interesting scenes. It’s unfortunate that much of the lead up to this is a long slog of dry political negotiations and debates. These may be authentic, but they’re deadly dull, save for the occasional bit of conflict or wry humour from General Ismay (Michael Gambon).

Even worse is the extremely strained and hokey love story between Jeet (Manish Dayal), a manservant of the Viceroy, and Aalia (Huma Qureshi), a newly appointed assistant. It checks off every romantic cliché in the book, even throwing in a love triangle with an arranged marriage and a separation that leads to tragedy. This does a great disservice to the plot, feeling clumsily placed and distracting from anything potentially interesting.

The full tale of India’s Partition is perhaps too much to be crammed into less than two hours, especially when much of that time is spent focused on melodramatic nonsense over the great transition at hand. Viceroy’s House will no doubt be adored by the elderly, to whom this by-the-books royal biopic is clearly geared towards. It’s lively and watchable enough, and does boast another exotic score from A.R. Rahman (Slumdog Millionaire).

Viceroy’s House is available in Australian cinemas from May 18

Image courtesy of Transmission Films

Movie Review – The Sense of an Ending

Like honey on burnt toast – sweet, but dull overall.

⭐ ⭐ ½     
Cody Fullbrook 

Older characters detailing their nostalgic past are surprisingly underutilised stories in film. Anthony Webster (Jim Broadbent) is one such person, forced to revisit key moments of his life, leading him to a series of startling revelations about himself and those in his life.

The Sense Of An Ending is incredibly intimate and sincere, with every actor naturally portraying their down-to-earth characters in a heartfelt and well shot film. I say this to sugar-coat the depressing conclusion that I wanted so badly for it to be better. Excluding clever, though rare, shots of present day Anthony walking through locations of his past, the film’s presentation is just too dry to effectively carry heavy themes such as suicide, first loves, parenting and secret affairs. The events themselves are fine, but an average story within a sluggishly paced production kills your empathy for these people who, honestly, aren’t that interesting and don’t have lives that are extremely different from most people you would know in your own life.

Even Anthony’s revelations don’t pack much of a punch.  Not only are we given no reason to care about what are, essentially, average people, but the quantity of these events and the characters they involve cripples the impact. I wasn’t able to keep track of all the characters names as they discussed their history, and the chatter of fellow viewers during these moments reassured me of my warranted ignorance. With mothers, siblings, daughters and friends to keep track of, Anthony’s intense exposition dump near the end of the film is a surprisingly necessary blessing.

I feel bad for being so harsh on The Sense Of An Ending. The cinematography and score are above average, but, unfortunately, the story alone is too confusing and dry to make it anything more than a mildly sweet film to watch to kill some time.  Just find a movie where Robin Williams has a beard and pick that instead.

The Sense of an Ending is available in Australian cinemas from May 18

Image courtesy of Roadshow Films

Movie Review – A Dog’s Purpose

A sweet but needlessly scattered family film that pulls at your heartstrings like, I dunno, some kind of furry mammal.

⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Cody Fullbrook

Never work with children and animals, they say. Well, A Dog’s Purpose has both, following the life, or rather, lives, of a dog as it reincarnates into different breeds and families to love, learn and lick. As a retriever, he leaves his first owner, Ethan (Bryce Gheisar/K.J. Apa), before becoming a police dog, pampered corgi, then an abandoned bernese mountain dog who finally and miraculously makes its way back to Ethan (Dennis Quaid).

All these lives revolve around the owner’s loneliness and troubles, and looking at A Dog’s Purpose as a whole, it reveals itself as being nothing more than a collection of effective but mostly unconnected short films. This structure is the movie’s biggest weakness, causing the entire premise to be a quick and shallow look at family life from the perspective of a stupid, hairy person.

Whether it’s handsome jocks, dorky students, petulant bullies, stoic cops and drunk fathers, every character is completely one note, made even worse by the film’s intention of passing on a life lesson which ends up being pathetically hollow.

Don’t get me wrong, A Dog’s Purpose is dripping with schmaltz, in all the good ways, and even though there isn’t much substance to these characters, their personalities and lives are distinct and instantly relatable, if only due to its reliance of clichés and even repeated catch phrases. Excluding its last reincarnation which is appropriately bleak, every life this dog has is full of heartfelt moments. You just need to accept that it gets taken everywhere like football matches, schools and restaurants as if every owner is a traumatized blind person.

Unsurprisingly, the dog steals the show, and not just because of Josh Gad’s soft and innocently playful voice. The most praise for A Dog’s Purpose must go to the dog trainers, who give each furry performer clear and purposeful direction and motive to all its actions. No movement is wasted, with an early shot of the dog chasing a cat being especially impressive.

A Dog’s Purpose is certainly not a bad film for someone looking for something wholesome. In fact, I distinctly remember hearing strong, sharp sniffs during the credits as several members of the audience sucked up their slimy snot of sadness. I, myself, had watery eyes multiple times. It definitely ticks all the boxes and functions fine as a sweet family film, but with such a simple plot, only younger viewers will leave feeling totally fulfilled. On the plus side, the director’s first name looks like “Lassie”. That’s funny.

A Dog’s Purpose is available in Australian cinemas from May 4 2017

Image courtesy of EntertainmentOne Films 

Movie Review – The Zookeeper’s Wife

Yet another World War II drama that fails to reach the greatness of Schindler’s List.

⭐ ⭐ ½
Josip Knezevic

Most stories of defiance against the Nazi regime tell tales of courageous acts in the face of overwhelming odds. At times, it can become hard to believe that such events ever took place. The Zookeeper’s Wife takes this a step further by introducing animals into the equation, but still falls short of what could have been an outstanding film.

Set in 1939, we follow the lives of Dr Jan Zabinski (Johan Heldenbergh) and wife Anontia (Jessica Chastian) who are keepers at the Warsaw Zoo – one of the largest zoos in Europe. When Hitler’s invasion comes, the Zabinski’s begin to secretly work alongside the Polish resistance to help rescue people from the Warsaw Ghetto.

The Zookeeper’s Wife marks new territory for New Zealand director Nik Caro, who is most well-known for his 2002 film Whale Rider. Adapted from Diane Ackerman’s novel, The Zookeeper’s Wife tries to cover far too much content and ends up being far more lengthy than necessary. It becomes a yearly account of the Zabinski’s lives over the wartime period and this ultimately takes the punch out of the more dramatic moments in the film. A shorter and sharper edit could have made for a much stronger picture.

Thankfully, when the time is taken to explore one of the more meaningful subplots, The Zookeper’s Wife excels. Shots of the bombardment of the zoo are harrowing to watch and serve as a reminder that humans are not the only victims of war. Caro does bring everything together in the end for a satisfying conclusion that’s bound to tug a few heartstrings, but unfortunately the film takes a long, meandering path to get there and wastes Chastain’s talent in the process.

As an animal lover, I knew The Zookeeper’s Wife would be difficult to watch. But as a film lover, I expected more.

The Zookeeper’s Wife is available in Australian cinemas from May 4

Image courtesy of Roadshow Films

Movie Review – Rules Don’t Apply

Rules Don’t Apply is the cinematic equivalent of a 120-minute long raspberry noise.

⭐ ⭐
Rhys Graeme-Drury 

After being scouted by eccentric movie tycoon Howard Hughes (Warren Beatty), small town beauty queen and aspiring actress Marla Mabrey (Lily Collins) moves to Los Angeles hoping to hit the big time. It’s here she meets Frank Forbes (Alden Ehrenreich), a charming driver in the employ of Hughes who is torn between his attraction to Marla, his fiancée back home in Fresco and his strict Methodist beliefs. Their romance is tested by Hughes’ lack of tolerance for employee fraternisation, not to mention a series of increasingly absurd events that pull the pair and their careers in polarising directions.

After sitting on the sidelines for 16 years, Rules Don’t Apply is supposed to be Beatty’s much-lauded return to Hollywood. On top of playing an aging and slightly demented Howard Hughes, he also serves as writer and director for this meandering and miserable misfire that is about as entertaining as a plane crash.

The main issue with Rules Don’t Apply is that it assumes the viewer is already familiar with Howard Hughes and his lengthy list of achievements and eccentricities. If you don’t have that foreknowledge, you’re left to despair as the film skips and jumps through A-plots, B-plots and enough subplots to fill out an entire Scrabble board.

The screenplay really struggles to find a coherent thread at which to pull. Is the film a tongue-in-cheek lampoon of classic Hollywood in the same vein as Hail, Caesar!? Or is it a straight-laced biopic of Howard Hughes in the style of The Aviator? Or perhaps it’s meant to be a swooning romance set against the backdrop of moviemaking like La La Land? In attempting to find success in all of these areas, Rules Don’t Apply excels at none of them.

Credit where credit is due, Collins and Ehrenreich both give affable performances that momentarily transcend the aimless dreck masquerading as a plot. The former is a bubbly and excitable onscreen presence and the latter gets plenty of chances to practice his sexy smoulder.

However, charming leads, a string of cameos (Alec Baldwin, Steve Coogan, Ed Harris) and authentic period detail can only get you so far. All told, there were a grand total of four people in my Thursday evening screening of this film and two of them walked out midway through. If that doesn’t give you an accurate appraisal of Rules Don’t Apply, I don’t know what will.

Rules Don’t Apply is available in Australian cinemas from April 27 

Image courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox

Movie Review – Their Finest

Their Finest is a charming film about filmmaking. Pity it has to take place during the war.

⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Zachary Cruz-Tan

Just as Nazis make for reliable movie villains, World War II movies seem to be all the rage now among independent filmmakers. As I attended the screening for Their Finest, the cinema ran the trailer for The Zookeeper’s Wife, a film in which Jessica Chastain tries on a Polish accent and Daniel Brühl is once again in his Nazi pyjamas. It’s a sign o’ the times that now, when The States are firing missiles across borders and ISIS is essentially an invisible enemy, we should find solace in movies about war.

That’s the awkward position Their Finest finds itself in. It’s a picture set against the second World War, but aims to assuage our concerns that a bomb might go off while you’re watching it. It’s surprisingly light-hearted, considering the body count it dials up as the minutes tick by. It’s also thoroughly unfocused, flitting between genres like a starving dog suddenly given three bowls of grub to choose from.

Gemma Arterton plays Catrin Cole, a Welsh lady living in London with her artist husband Ellis (Jack Huston). She gets a job as an assistant screenwriter for the film division of the Ministry of Information, where she meets Tom Buckley (Sam Claflin), a passionate writer commissioned to pen the next propaganda film in an attempt to spur the Brits on to victory.

That’s not the confusing bit. It would’ve been simpler if that’s all Their Finest had been about. Instead it cobbles itself together so it becomes part comedy, part war movie, part romance story and part satire on American film consumerism, the self-righteousness of actors and the film industry in general. Oh, and it’s set in 1940, so of course it’s also a feminism piece, with both Ellis and Tom throwing masculine superlatives around like misogynistic Frisbees. The many parts actually work quite well on their own, but as they come together they manufacture what is otherwise a slightly disjointed whole.

Plots about issues as dark as war have to be handled with care, especially if it’s going to be a comedy. I, for one, don’t think there’s much to laugh about when a bomb explodes and we’re left with horrifying images of mangled corpses, but Their Finest somehow manages to slip in wry one-liners even as characters are brought in to identify the bodies of their fallen friends. Yes, the line may have been funny, and I might have laughed a bit, but I felt guilty for doing so.

At the end of the day, Their Finest’s heart is probably in the right place, and there are wonderful performances all round; Miss Arterton is particularly buoyant. It just needs more focus, more reverence for its grim subject matter. It’s a sweet, harmless ride, but in the grand scale of the World War, it all ends up seeming just a little bit silly.

Their Finest is available in Australian cinemas from April 20 

Image courtesy of Transmission Films

Movie Review – Denial

The Holocaust: fact or fiction? Even if you’re pretty sure you know the answer, Denial is still a gripping look at the two scholars who actually took to the courts to settle that question.

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ½
Corey Hogan

Deborah Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz), an American historian and professor of Holocaust studies, is interrupted in the middle of a speech by David Irving (Timothy Spall), a famed British Nazi Germany academic whom Lipstadt has labelled a Holocaust denier in her new book. After she refuses to debate Irving publicly on the topic, he sues her for libel. With a crack team of renowned lawyers behind her (including Tom Wilkinson and Andrew Scott), she enters a widely publicised case with the potential to cause massive historical ramifications and sway the consensus on whether or not the Holocaust actually happened.

Though most of the audience it attracts no doubt already knows the outcome of the incredible court case, writer David Hare (The Reader) and director Mick Jackson (The Bodyguard) still manage to wring a great deal of suspense and intrigue out of the famous Irving v Lipstadt and Penguin Books lawsuit in Denial. In fact, the core court scenes are interesting and engaging enough to be ranked among some of cinema’s greatest courtroom dramas. The rest of the film certainly works hard to live up to matching these scenes in engrossment, but doesn’t always reach the same high.

Though a level of emotional connection is certainly necessary to the screen, especially when covering such a sensitive subject, emotion ends up being a peculiar Achilles ’ heel for Denial. Oddly, the cold, informative court proceedings are far more interesting than the scenes in which characters are given the chance to express how they feel about the situation, since more often than not their strong emotions turn them blind to rational, logical thinking.

This particular problem is embodied by Lipstadt herself; Rachel Weisz is great in the role, lathering on a thick Boston accent, but her character often frustrates, ironically due to how strongly she feels about her Jewish ancestry. She’s unable to form arguments when put on the spot by Irving, brushing it off as “not needing to defend truth”. She frequently goes against the advice of her lawyers, attempting to call on Holocaust survivors as witnesses despite their warnings, and can barely contain her pride or anger throughout proceedings as everyone else around her manages to keep a straight face. There’s also her assertion that Irving is attacking her because “she’s a woman”, which, while potentially valid, feels a little too shoehorned in to appease today’s audiences.

Her team of lawyers are the real heroes here, particularly Wilkinson’s Richard Rampton, who conjures up some genius rebuttals to Irving’s admittedly convincing arguments. Timothy Spall shines as the scowling historian, especially in court where he’s allowed to present his evidence against the Holocaust without bias. Elsewhere the film is a little too quick to condemn him as treacherous and villainous; perhaps rightfully so, but it’s tempting to think that this could have been even more provocative and compelling if both sides were given equal contention.

Despite its emotional flaws, Denial is incredibly absorbing to watch. A trip to Auschwitz part way through creates a sombre atmosphere and helps to ground the situation in a sobering reality, reminding us of just what these two intellectuals are squabbling over. The handling of the hearings alone is enough to make Denial a welcome entry to the courtroom drama genre.

Denial is available in Australian cinemas from April 13

Image courtesy of EntertainmentOne Films 

Movie Review – Loving

4 film reviewers walk into a cinema… here’s what the Hooked On Film team made of the award nominated film Loving.

⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Zachary Cruz-Tan

Loving breaks all the racial problems of 1960s America down to a very simple truth: that a man and a woman should be allowed to marry each other without having to keep a baseball bat by their bed. It uses soft tones and simple language, and boasts two incredibly powerful performances in Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga, whose real-life interracial couple (Richard and Mildred Loving) helped bring down the wall of discrimination that kept so many people apart.

Director Jeff Nichols’ film is touching in all the right ways, and portrays the couple as both stubborn and steadfast. But what it lacks, I think, are stakes. Much of the drama comes from Edgerton and Negga, whose problems don’t really amount to a hill of beans. We get the feeling they changed the world not because they wanted to, but because they were simply swept along for the ride.

⭐ ⭐
Josip Knezevic

This lack of stakes is also my main gripe with the film. It’s incredibly tedious to watch; your attention peaks in the opening scene and falls steadily from then on because there’s no conflict. I knew how the story would pan out and it never really engaged me emotionally, aside from a few moments here and there. Coupled with notable plot devices that seemed to be blown out of proportion – where simple solutions could have easily solved the problem – I grew weary from the whole affair.

I’m sure the true story was every bit the touching and inspirational tale Loving wanted it to be, but unfortunately this didn’t translate well on screen.

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ½
Corey Hogan

While it’s true that Loving is a slow film, it’s less meandering than it is delicate with its subjects and the subject matter. Nichols avoids confining his actors to your standard story structure and opts instead to let Edgerton and Negga live as the Lovings in front of the camera. It’s a brave stroke of realism that pays off dividends in making the pair appear as though they are a real couple, even if it means the more mundane aspects of life must also be present.

The subtleties of the performances are what truly elevates the film, favouring quiet resonance over impact. Edgerton is barely recognisable beneath Mr. Loving’s rough, rustic appearance, and Negga says far more with her saucer-sized eyes than ever comes out of her mouth. The lack of forthright conflict means that Loving is not the most entertaining or compelling film, but Nichols’ nuanced style appropriately reflects the humble motives of its couple; the desire to avoid discord and live a normal life.

⭐ ⭐ ½
Rhys Graeme-Drury

It’s just that, for all its subtle niceties and slavish accuracy, I found the whole affair rather…boring? Loving is told at an almost glacial pace, inching along and offering only minute details along the way that often feed into very little or nothing at all.

The film finally starts to come good when Nick Kroll‘s cheeky civil rights lawyer arrives on the scene, but unfortunately everything leading up to this point is rather dull. Like the others, I can see what Nichols was aiming for – a film that focuses on the quiet life Mildred and Richard so keenly want rather than showy, cinematic moments – but it simply didn’t work for me and I found my attention slipping at numerous points throughout the film.

Loving is available in Australian cinemas from March 16

Image courtesy of EntertainmentOne Films

Movie Review – Miss Sloane

Miss Sloane is a slick underappreciated political drama that offers Jessica Chastain a platform to really flex her acting chops.

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Rhys Graeme-Drury

With a fearsome reputation, Elizabeth Sloane (Chastain) is a highly successful lobbyist in Washington DC who finds herself at the centre of an earthshattering scandal when she is recruited to spearhead the embattled anti-gun lobby.

With pro-gun advocates lining the streets to tear her down, Sloane has the fight of her life on her hands if she is going to sway the hearts and minds of key senators regarding a key piece of firearm control legislation. With each underhanded tactic, the dirty underbelly of US politics starts to become increasingly evident – and at its centre is Sloane herself.

Chastain is a hurricane that tears through this film – chewing through scenes with a ceaseless energy and furiousness that leaves the rest in her wake. It’s a compelling performance that illustrates how the efforts of one actor can truly elevate a movie several notches. With every line, we as an audience question her motives and methods, torn between sympathy and disdain. Like a potent mixture of Claire Underwood and Gregory House, Elizabeth Sloane is a goldmine character that Chastain digs into, tearing at the ethical quandaries and strategic chess moves with glee.

With mealy dialogue that recalls Aaron Sorkin’s finer moments, Miss Sloane cleverly structures its narrative by recalling events that lead to a pivotal scene towards the end of the film. Edited together like an account of her misdeeds, the film is like an autobiography that peels away the layers of this uncompromising and tenacious character. The film is also a commentary on the flawed, rotten system at the heart of American democracy and highlights the corruption of powerbrokers to get Washington to bend to their will.

This last point is probably why the film slipped under the radar in the US last year; not just because director John Madden deconstructs the gun control debate, but also because the film exposes America’s justice system for what it really is. It’s a heavy film loaded with talky scenes about bureaucracy and passing legislation, but also one that really rewards those who stay with it until the all the intricate jigsaw pieces are slotted into place and the full picture of what Sloane has up her sleeve slides into frame.

The supporting cast – Mark Strong, John Lithgow, Alison Pill, Michael Stuhlbarg – are all great too, however it’s Gugu Mbatha-Raw’s Esme who emerges as the best supporting role. Forming a key part of Sloane’s offensive against the gun lobbies, it’s the dynamic that emerges between the two characters that forms the basis of the film. Jake Lacy draws the short straw – he plays a male escort in Sloane’s employ outside of work, but his arc feels rushed, forced and then hastily (and inadequately) resolved come the end.

Filled with compelling characters, ideas and themes, Miss Sloane has been wrongly passed over this awards season, but it’s well worth your time and money.

Miss Sloane is available in Australian cinemas from March 2

Image courtesy of Roadshow Films 

Movie Review -Alone in Berlin

Another World War II thriller arrives, but it feels less like an effort and more like a coercion.

⭐ ⭐ ½
Zachary Cruz-Tan

A German working couple trying to create disorder within the Nazi regime by planting heretic postcards anonymously throughout the streets of Berlin sounds like a potential nail-biter, doesn’t it? Why yes, it does! And this act of bravery indeed happened in 1943. But as thrilling as it sounds, Vincent Perez’s quiet rendition of events doesn’t so much stir our emotions as it duct-tapes them. This is a disappointing picture.

It’s hard to feel anything for a movie and its characters when it doesn’t know what it wants to feel for itself. Alone in Berlin is well-made and convincingly acted (with Brendan Gleeson, Emma Thompson and perpetual Nazi poster boy Daniel Brühl masterfully steering the lumbering vessel), but what it lacks is any real sense of purpose, or drive. It feels like a ship set out to sail the open waters with no hope of ever reaching land.

But I take my hat off to the real Otto and Elise Hampel, whose sacrifice made this story possible. They lost their only son in the war and decided to take out their grief on Hitler in silent rebellion. No protests. No riots. Just carefully written passages of revolutionary proclamation distributed to the people, knowing quite plainly that if they were to get caught, they would reunite with their son much sooner than anticipated.

Much of Alone in Berlin involves the Gestapo’s efforts to track down the culprits before it becomes a mess too chaotic to subdue. The investigation is led by Brühl, who sees the number of postcards piling up all across town and begins to worry that he may never solve the case.

Alas, what could have taken fifteen minutes to wrap up takes about forty-seven years, and every bit of Alone in Berlin’s middle section threatens to fall asleep even as it prods itself to stay awake. It all goes nowhere, and the film carries such an atmosphere of dread that we are certain of the outcome about halfway through. That’s never a good sign.

Both Gleeson and Thompson are fine in the restrictive roles they’re given. Yes, just fine. When you’re on the run from the law, there’s not much available to you in the way of versatility, and both actors are so good at being fine they almost made me believe they were suicidal rebels attempting to change the world.

At the end of the day, that’s the word that best befits Alone in Berlin: Almost. It’s almost a good movie. The setting almost resembles an authentic 1940s Berlin. The story almost goes somewhere. The ending is almost not so melodramatic as to be laughable. Now stop and think about the word “almost” and see if it still holds any meaning for you.

Alone in Berlin is available in Australian cinemas from March 2

Image courtesy of Icon Film Distribution