Movie Review – Tulip Fever

Tulip Fever burns slower than it takes for a tulip to grow and bloom.


Elle Cahill

It’s 17th Century Amsterdam and a wealthy Dutchman, Cornelis Sandvoort and his wife, Sophia, are having trouble conceiving. Despite the young wife’s fears that her much older husband will soon divorce her, he pays for up-and-coming artist Jan van Loos to paint their portrait. As he paints the couple, van Loos quickly falls in love with the young Sophia and they start a passionate affair.

There is a lot going on in Tulip Fever, and for the most part it’s hard to keep up with all the different storylines. For almost every character that is introduced in the film, we are given a sliver of their story without any real development, both from a story and character perspective. I counted a total of seven storylines, which is too big a number to fit into a 105-minute film, particularly when the film is also trying to set up the historical backdrop of the tulip mania that took over Amsterdam in the 17th Century, and plays a large part in the overall story.

Tulip Fever has a phenomenal cast including Judi Dench, Christoph Waltz, Alicia Vikander, Tom Hollander, Jack O’Connell, and many more, but director Justin Chadwick fails to utilise their full potential. Dench effortlessly steals every scene she’s in as the head nun of a local parish in charge of growing the tulips for auction, as does Waltz in his portrayal of husband Cornelis Sandvoort, who genuinely loves Sophia (Vikander) and wants to do right by her but is desperate for her to deliver an heir. Hollander also get’s an honourable mention as the sleazy doctor who brings moments of comic relief to an otherwise contrived plot. But this is far from being their best work and feels like a huge waste of talent.

The most interesting part of the film is its attempt at exploring the tulip mania. While it fails to truly show the significance of the mania, it helps establish the film’s setting, and also give a basic insight to the craze that overtook Amsterdam. Unfortunately, like the rest of the film, it gets muddled up with all the concurrent character arcs and fails to bring anything other than tulips to the story.

There is some beautiful cinematography by Eigil Bryld, particularly when Sophia’s on the beach at various points in the film, but most of the time these scenes feel overly indulgent.

Tulip Fever is a real slow-burner that has a lot going on across the various storylines without any proper development taking place. Its failure to pick a central character leaves you feeling confused at the end, as you’re not invested in any of them. I also can’t tell you who or what the antagonist is in this film because it’s never properly identified. This film should serve as a warning as to what happens when indulgence trumps quality.

Tulip Fever is available in Australian cinemas from November 23.

Image courtesy of Roadshow Films 2017.

 

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Movie Review – Goodbye Christopher Robin

Simon Curtis’ Goodbye Christopher Robin does its job but definitely arrived with the ambition to do more.

⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Zachary Cruz-Tan

Goodbye Christopher Robin assembles all the elements of a great historical drama, but somehow fails to fit them together. It’s never quite as cohesive as it’s meant to be. It’s touching and sad, supremely shot, beautiful to look at, but forgets the piece that completes the picture. And quite surprisingly, Margot Robbie turns in a high school performance that should’ve been eaten by her dog.

But the film raises interesting questions. We follow A. A. Milne (Domhnall Gleeson), who we know will create Winnie The Pooh, as he returns to London after fighting in the Great War, still haunted by nasty flashbacks that are triggered by innocuous balloon pops. He needs a sanctuary in which to continue his playwriting, so impulsively shifts his family to the countryside, where his young son Christopher Robin (Will Tilston), who prefers his nickname Billy Moon, frolics amongst the trees with his stuffed toys and his watchful nanny Olive (Kelly Macdonald) is ordered to stay away from his busy father.

Naturally, circumstances arise that leave Billy alone with Milne. So the two begin to bond and before long Milne has created a children’s character based around his own son and his somewhat-imaginary friends. Seems harmless enough. But the fearsome genteel nature of the Milne’s makes them incapable of comprehending the impact of super stardom on a child who is not prepared for it. Billy is dressed to resemble the Christopher Robin of the Pooh books and is shoved into radio interviews and publicity photo shoots as the real thing. “He needs to grow up!”, asserts Olive. “He can’t do this!” “He seems to be doing it quite well actually”, replies his mother.

The film is written by Frank Cottrell-Boyce and Simon Vaughan, and the duo pay less attention to their dialogue than the relationship between father and son. Did Milne intend to hurt his son? Of course not. But then, looking at Milne, does he know what hurt is anymore? Yes, you could say the war shook him up real bad, but surely it’s the stoic Englishness of the time that ruined an otherwise beautiful relationship. In a household that doesn’t permit crying, how do you find out when someone’s in pain?

The irony of course is that tragedy had to happen for the world to be introduced to one of the happiest characters of all time. Winnie The Pooh charmed countless children across the world but had to break apart a family to do it. It’s this fractured logic that forms the centre of Goodbye Christopher Robin, and not the war, the countryside or Winnie The Pooh.

Later we get to see an older Billy Moon (played by Alex Lawther), after having been abused by schoolmates for his fame. He’s broken and resents his father for using him to create an empire, trotting off to fight in a war his father fought to prevent. It’s poetic how history is doomed to repeat itself.

These are all the parts of the movie that work, and I enjoyed the way young Tilston embodies all that is cheerful. Without him I suspect the movie would’ve been flat. As it is, it’s only moderately bumpy, not putting a foot wrong but not exactly sprinting down a tightrope.

Goodbye Christopher Robin is available in Australian cinemas from November 23.

Image courtesy of 20th Century Fox 2017.

Movie Review – The Killing of a Sacred Deer

Dark, twisted and hilarious. Yorgos Lanthimos continues to grow in strength with his disturbing latest film, The Killing of A Sacred Deer.

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Josip Knezevic

It seems the pattern of disturbingly good films by Yorgos Lanthimos continues to increase in range. For those familiar with his films of Dogtooth and The Lobster, Lanthimos’s latest film, The Killing of A Sacred Deer, also explores a dark concept but with a twisted sense of humour. Once again, these two genres are balanced effortlessly throughout and the finish product is yet another masterclass from the director.

Colin Farrell stars in the lead role and is unfortunately placed into another caliginous scenario that sees him tested in different strengths. Without giving away the film’s main trick, Farrell plays a father of two with a loving wife, and is put to make an extremely difficult decision that will end up affecting the family dynamic forever.

Aside from watching the situation unfold as Farrell battles to resolve his dilemma, the entire universe Lanthimos creates is intriguing. From the very moment the film begins, you get the sense of unnatural behaviour just by the dialogue between two characters and this unease never leaves the screen.

It’s an almost like an entirely different world of humans, but they’re just not very human like. At least to what our society is used to. Great examples of this are the astute observations and over politeness each character exuberates. It’s just unnatural and purposefully executed as a subtle commentary on society. But moreover, it’s all awkwardly hilarious.

This is why I love Lanthimos’ films. Not only are they simply exploring a compelling dark concept, they’re quite funny at the same time. Most of these jokes comes from being in such unique situations that other films can’t make, because they’re simply not in the same position. Numerous times a character would say something in such an unusual but nonchalant way that it becomes hilarious to watch. And when it came moments of humour that were of the darker taste, these were executed flawlessly and without overstepping boundaries. Indeed, The Killing of a Sacred Deer is a fine piece for showing that the art of black comedy in 2017 is alive and well.

My only gripe with the film is that it is a bit of a slow burn and it can feel particularly sluggish at times. Especially within the middle third, where you’ve been introduced to the setup and are simply waiting for it to hurry to the climax. Part of this feels like it could have been edited or reworked to have more going on to keep interest, like in The Lobster.

But again, this is a minor complaint. The film is acted perfectly, with veteran actors of Farrell and Nicole Kidman as his wife particular standouts. Though the cinematography isn’t of anything scenic or picturesque, it does well to capture the darkness and unnatural tone on characters that the film clearly aims towards.

For lovers of The Lobster and black comedy films with unique and interesting concepts, The Killing of a Sacred Deer is a fantastic film and one sure to be on top ten lists for this year.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer is available in Australian cinemas from November 16.

Image courtesy of Madman Entertainment 2017

Movie Review – Murder on the Orient Express

Hollywood once again recycles that which need not be recycled, in Kenneth Branagh’s take on Murder on the Orient Express.

⭐ ⭐ ½
Zachary Cruz-Tan

I see no other way to approach a review of a movie like this than to compare it to what’s come before. Its history is too deep. Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express has been adapted to radio; into a 1974 feature by Sidney Lumet starring Albert Finney as Hercule Poirot; a 2001 TV movie with Alfred Molina in the role; and of course as an episode of the distinguished ITV Poirot series. It has even been remade in Japan. Now comes another version, directed by and starring Kenneth Branagh, and I find myself simply incapable of finding the right words to recommend it.

This is an adaptation that works on the fundamental level, which means it has a sound plot, supreme technical prowess and performances that befit its ludicrously high-profile cast. It is a movie that can be seen and appreciated in about equal measure without being spectacular. Whether it holds up as a faithful Christie adaptation I will leave to her loyal fans and scholars to determine; as a gripping murder mystery, it is neither gripping nor very mysterious.

To discuss the plot would be to grind against the very grain of Christie. Her stories are designed to unfold chronologically, so that we pick up hints and clues and slowly piece together the unfathomable puzzle along with her great detectives. The less we know going in the better. Murder on the Orient Express remains her most famous probably because of its claustrophobic setting (the length of a snowbound train), its immense cast of characters and the degree to which misdirection is employed to keep us guessing.

But all these are assets of the original story, not of this film. Branagh is perhaps a finer actor than he is a director, and he puts on a brave face as Poirot, but his film lacks in ingenuity and freshness. I can’t think of a single reason to see his version and not the Lumet classic, which had Finney scuttling down the corridors of the train like a frenzied crab. Branagh’s Poirot is unusually calm and chipper, which might have been a fun new take on the part if he had buckled down and took it to the edge. Poirot, like Sherlock Holmes, is a character of extremes. A detective of unusual intelligence who is easier to admire than befriend. To play him as anything less than a feverish snob is to miss the point.

Around him is assembled a cast of veritable class, which includes but is not limited to Michelle Pfeiffer as an uppity American socialite; Willem Dafoe as an Austrian professor; Daisy Ridley as Miss Mary Debenham; Leslie Odom Jr as the handy doctor; Penélope Cruz as a faithful servant of the Lord; Judi Dench as the Princess Dragomiroff; Johnny Depp as the despicable businessman Ratchett; and Josh Gad and Derek Jacobi as his staff. Any more and I suspect the train would’ve toppled off the ridge.

Pity, then, that such great talent should go unchecked by a story as rich as this. Everyone plays their parts as if they know the end before the beginning. There is no thrill, no embracing the unexpected. It’s all just cogs turning in rhythm to the screenplay, which can be fatal for a mystery like this.

So I leave you rather nonplussed, unable to praise Orient Express enough to make you go see it, unable to exploit its weaknesses enough to turn you away. I don’t prefer it to some of the earlier iterations, but I suspect if you’ve never heard of Poirot and his impossible moustache, or perhaps even Christie, this movie might do the trick. But just barely.

Murder on the Orient Express is available in Australian cinemas from November 9.

Image courtesy of 20th Century Fox 2017

Movie Review – Brad’s Status

Ben Stiller ponders his lot in life in Mike White’s quietly humorous and thoughtful new film. 

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Rhys Graeme-Drury

Brad Sloan (Ben Stiller) is nearly 50 and has a lot of stuff going on in his melon. His not-for-profit business has stalled, his one and only child – Troy (Austin Abrams) – is heading off to college and his marriage to Melanie (Jenna Fischer) isn’t the excitable romp it once was.

As a result, Brad lies awake at night yearning for what could have been, for the lives he could have led. His mind wanders to those he aligned himself with during college (Michael Sheen, Jemaine Clement, Luke Wilson), who have gone on to enjoy riches and success in the intervening years, forgetting and distancing themselves from Brad and his painfully mediocre existence in the process.

Adrift in suburban Sacramento and surrounded by cheerfully complacent “beta males”, a father/son trip to Boston to look at universities only serves to reinforce these internal inadequacies; Troy, a talented pianist, has a shot at getting into Harvard, a college that outstrips Brad’s own education across town at Tufts. Is that pride, Brad feels, or jealousy?

Written and directed by Mike White, Brad’s Status aligns itself with a familiar feeling deep inside all of us; the competition we feel with our peers and the desire for something greater. A lot of this concern is voiced internally by Stiller as he tosses and turns at night or stares out of a plane window. White’s film spends a lot of its time inside Stiller’s head, partaking in lengthy monologues about paths not taken or grudges left unaddressed.

As a result, Stiller is lumped with a lot of the lifting, as he furrows his brow and shifts in his seat, searching internally for some shred of solace. It’s an impressive performance amongst a collection of impressive performances; his meandering unspoken reveries work in opposition with the concise musings that are said aloud as well as the sulky grunts offered up by his son.

White’s writing is effective (if a little on-the-nose) but the cast make it work, taking the heightened divide between Brad and those he yearns to replicate and running with it. Particularly impressive is Abrams, who manages a level of angst and wisdom only a teenager can muster, and Sheen, as a charismatic contemporary man who has hit it big in Hollywood and married well.

The pacing is suitably slow for a film all about feeling adrift and aimless, but not so much that it lacks drive or structure. In keeping with its themes, Brad’s Status doesn’t offer a rousing finale or a gutful of catharsis; viewers will need to go in search of significance and satisfaction, rather than have it dumped at their feet in the third act. It’s an apt ending, but not one that all will find enjoyable.

Meditative and introspective, Brad’s Status is an exhaustive and achingly honest exploration of anxiety and self-doubt. While it may feel a little familiar, there is joy to be found in its wry humour.

 

Brad’s Status is available in Australian cinemas from November 9.

Image courtesy of Roadshow Films 2017.

Movie Review – Detroit

With Detroit, Kathryn Bigelow once again commands us to examine ourselves and the atrocities we claim to have overcome.

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐  ½
Zachary Cruz-Tan 

Detroit is an examination of prejudice. It is set in the 1960s during a period of riotous relations between blacks and whites, but refuses to address the roots of the problem. Instead it shifts the focus of racism to the system, to a biased judicial court that ultimately trickled droplets of hatred down to its law enforcement. It is well known how aggressive the Detroit police department was. Fuelled by misguided moral righteousness, groups of cops became dangerous. This is a confronting film, as all films that require us to look inward are.

At the centre of Detroit are two young men; one black, one white. One an aspiring Motown singer, the other an enthusiastic beat cop. Both men are brought together by a silly prank that goes wrong, in what turns out to be an evening of endless police brutality and torture driven by racism, superiority and retribution.

These scenes, that take place at the Algiers Motel, dominate the middle hour or so of the film, and are specifically designed to test our comfort levels as the cop, Philip Krauss (Will Poulter), leads his partners on a repulsive interrogation crusade to determine the prankster who opened fire on the National Guard patrolling the streets a few minutes before. I can call it “repulsive” because I know what the cops did that night was wrong. The dangerous thing is that Philip knows it’s wrong too, but enjoys his position of power too much to let it become an issue. Like the Nazis, if he believed what he was doing was right, why try to cover it up?

Eventually the night goes south, which leads to a court trial. Here is where director Kathryn Bigelow broadens the story by putting the entire judicial system on the stand. The jury is all white. The judge is white. The lawyers are white. White men are being convicted and the only witnesses are black men and white women, neither of whom has any civil power. The key to Detroit is the framing that not every white person in 1960s America was racist, but the many who were crippled everything the US constitution stood for.

Bigelow films her movie like a hybrid between drama and documentary. Snippets of actual footage is occasionally spliced into interludes, and much of Barry Ackroyd’s camerawork is handheld and reasonably shaky. The result is not unlike Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, in which the viewer is pulled right into the world of the filmmaker and is forced to confront horrific events without the option to look away.

Among the other players is John Boyega’s security guard Melvin, who delivers peace offerings while his fellow man is beaten into submission, and finds himself at the wrong place at the wrong time, torn between loyalty and self-preservation. Hannah Murray and Kaitlyn Dever play the two white female witnesses who don’t see colour, believe in fair treatment but are still harassed for fraternising with the enemy.

I have not said much about Larry (Algee Smith), the young Motown singer. He was present at the Algiers Motel, is a central figure, but doesn’t contribute heavily to the fabric of the plot. He is instead a controversial and lamentable reminder that not every black man in the ‘60s wanted revolution. Some just wanted to turn a blind eye, sing in the church choir and survive. Seriously, though, who could blame them?

 

Detroit is available in Australian cinemas from November 9.

Image courtesy of Entertainment One Films 2017.

 

 

Movie Review – Suburbicon

George Clooney and the Coen Brothers are rockin’ the suburbs in this dark and twisted comedy.

⭐ ⭐
Rhys Graeme-Drury

From prim and proper lawns to white picket fences and pastel pinafores, George Clooney’s Suburbicon is drenched in a sugary coating of classic Americana. Like a surreal waking nightmare akin to Tim Burton’s Edward Scissorhands, this original script penned by Joel and Ethan Coen strips back its glossy sheen to reveal a grisly underbelly of crime, prejudice and deception with wildly mixed results.

Matt Damon plays Gardner, a meek middle management man whose life is thrown into chaos when two burglars break into his sleepy suburban home. His wife (Julianne Moore) and son (Noah Jupe) are caught in the middle of the melee. Meanwhile, next-door, new arrivals in the neighbourhood are ruffling some local feathers and perceived as a threat to the idyllic community.

The glossy cinematography and eccentric 1950s visual design is at least nice to look at in a heightened, hyperreal sense; a cute opening which acts as an advert for the homogenised community sets the tone before the cheeky kinkiness of Damon and Moore’s relationship reveals the true nature of this repressed fantasy. Suburbicon at least succeeds in accurately capturing its setting; it’s the haphazard narrative which causes this star-studded affair to misfire, as it struggles to effectively populate the film with something for audiences to latch onto.

With two vastly different ideas smashed into one, it should come as no surprise that Clooney’s sixth film as director is a mess. On the one side you have a darkly humorous take on the home invasion genre with the Coen Brothers lending their prodigious talent to the script; on the other you have Clooney and frequent collaborator Grant Heslov exploring race relations in 1950s America, also with a surreal and satirical spin.

While both are interesting ideas in their own right, they don’t mesh very well when stacked next to one another. Tonally, Suburbicon is just all over the shop. Is it a serious recount of true events that deals with racism or a twisted murder mystery dripping with sticky murders and chain-smoking gangsters? Pick a lane, Clooney.

The former is certainly apt given the identity crisis currently unfolding across America (Clooney makes a point to have his antagonists unfurl a Confederate flag, hammering home his stance on the matter) and the latter is a gleeful noir that feels at home alongside other Coen Brothers joints like Fargo and Burn After Reading. On their own, it would work; mixed together, it never gels.

It doesn’t help that none of the characters save for one or two minor players are actually likeable; Damon plays a dickbag who deserves all the pain and suffering he gets while Moore is lumped with an odd dual role that dissolves into a quietly psychotic and hysterical housewife. Oscar Isaac’s fleeting contribution adds a certain spark to proceedings, thickening the plot and bringing some crucial laughs. Other than that, it’s slim pickings.

Without a coherent through-line to tie it together, Suburbicon fails to deliver on its initial promise. The dark comedy is hit and miss, the disjointed to and fro of the screenplay never settles on a tone and its talented cast – save for Isaac – is sleepwalking through the swirl of half-baked ideas. Definitely one to skip.

Suburbicon is available in Australian cinemas from October 26 

Image courtesy of Road Show Films 2017

 

 

 

Movie Review: Home Again

Despite its gutsy topic, Home Again doesn’t quite land as hard as it could have but is still a decent attempt from debut filmmaker Hallie Meyers-Shyer.

⭐ ⭐ 
Elle Cahill

When Alice Kinney (Reese Witherspoon) moves to Los Angeles after taking a break from her marriage, she struggles to keep it all together for her daughters, and on a rare night out on her birthday, she starts flirting with young filmmaker Harry (Pico Alexander). She agrees to let Harry and his two filmmaking buddies move into her guest house for a couple of days, which ends up turning into weeks as Alice and Harry start up a relationship, and her daughters begin to rely on the young men as mentors and role models.

When movies deal with older women going out with younger men, they are generally portrayed as women who negatively influence the younger male and take advantage of their youth. Thankfully Home Again doesn’t stoop to this level. The film is merely about a woman rediscovering her sexual freedom and coming to terms with her continuing her life alone.

After Harry and Alice fail to sleep with each other the first night they meet, Alice attempts to set boundaries, and makes no apologies for being a mother and having other responsibilities that must come first. With the reappearance of Alice’s ex-husband Austen (Michael Sheen), she again makes no apologies for choosing to put him first over the guys to give her daughters a chance at having two parents who get along. Compared to more recent films about mothers trying to get back into the dating scene, this approach is a breath of fresh air.

Home Again is a debut feature for director Hallie Meyers-Shyer and maybe it is this inexperience that lets the film down, but the brilliance of Sheen, Candice Bergen and Witherspoon at her disposal, they were completely underutilised.

Sheen tries earnestly to bring more to the role but the flat material meant that he could have been any old schmuck. Similarly, Bergen’s fantastic comedic ability could have been made use of more but she spends the whole film being pushed to the background, making the odd funny appearance but remaining largely invisible.

The humour is aimed strongly at women, and for the most part delivers, but it doesn’t quite match the comedy that can be seen in other woman-focused comedies such as Bridesmaids. The two stand-outs of the film who beautifully played off each other was Alice’s two daughters. Lola Flannery played neurotic pre-teen Isabel whose impressive ability to list her depression systems and the medication she should be on, is a comment on today’s society and hilariously timed. Little Eden Grace Redfield, who plays Alice’s young daughter Rosie, follows up her sister’s neurotises with her blunt straight-talking, making her seem wise beyond her few years.

The film is a fair attempt at telling the story of a complicated family situation and how the people who become your family don’t necessarily need to be blood. Unfortunately its plot holes leave you with more questions than answers and this holds it back from being a nice, light-hearted film.

Home Again is available in Australian cinemas from October 19

Image courtesy of Entertainment One Films.

Movie Review – Brigsby Bear

Brigsby Bear is endearingly sweet and earnest. Shame, then, that a lack of care brings down what would otherwise be a fine, lovable film.

⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Michael Philp

James Pope (Kyle Mooney) is approaching 30. He lives with his parents (Mark Hamill, Jane Adams) in an underground bunker, locked into a routine of study and watching the one TV show available to him – Brigsby Bear. A new episode, filled with age-appropriate life-lessons, has turned up every week for the past 25 years, and James has built his entire world around it. That is until the police burst in and arrest his “parents” for kidnapping him as a child. Naturally lost and socially awkward, James sets out to find new friends and give Brigsby Bear the finale it deserves.

Brigsby Bear’s intentions are apparent within minutes of James exiting the bunker. Asked for information on his captors, James calls them “A little older, and boring, I guess.” He’s spent the last 25 years only speaking to two people, and he apparently knows nothing about them. You could call that a plot-hole, but it’s just the film diverting you away from things it doesn’t care about, namely real emotional depth. Sure, Brigsby knows that it needs some level of emotion, but it’s clearly more in it for the fun of watching James make new friends.

Credit where it’s due, the film is good at that stuff. James’ new relationships are delightfully positive and free of cynicism. You’ll wait for the penny to drop – for someone to take advantage of the poor soul – but it never happens. Everyone’s purely interested in helping James in their own way, and that makes the film at least enjoyable to watch. It strains credulity sometimes (no exploitation at all?) but if you can look past that you’ll have a good time.

On the other hand, there’s a darkness at the heart of Brigsby that it just doesn’t want to deal with. The film wants to acknowledge the truth of James’ situation, but it has no idea how to, so it settles for pointing and then running away.

That’s the lack of care that drags the film down. Everyone’s so happy, and James is so awkwardly endearing, that Brigsby thinks a lack of emotional detail doesn’t matter. But that detail is what carries the best of its peers. Judged against the giants of indie film – Little Miss Sunshine, for instance – Brigsby falls disappointingly short. It just doesn’t care enough about its characters, not even James. Brigsby would rather smile and bask in childhood nostalgia than deal with its main character’s pain. Maybe in a few years, the filmmakers will have the skill to do both, but right now they only seem capable of smiling.

Brigsby Bear is available in Australian cinemas from October 26 

Image courtesy of Sony Pictures