New Movies Now On Digital – The Hunt, Onward, The Way Back

While some studios have opted to delay the release of films that were due to hit Australian cinemas this Autumn, others have chosen to go straight to digital. The Hunt, Onward and The Way Back can now be accessed online from the comfort of isolation, but should you invest your time in any one of these new movies?

Rhys Pascoe

The Hunt
⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Director: Craig Zobel
Starring: Betty Gilpin, Hilary Swank, Emma Roberts
Runtime: 90 minutes

Snobbish liberals kidnap salt-of-the-earth blue collar Joes from the ‘flyover States’ and hunt them for sport on a remote woodland estate. That’s the core concept behind Craig Zobel’s political satire The Hunt, which sparked a fiery rebuke from President Trump last year and has been mired in controversy ever since.

However, that online firestorm was entirely misplaced and misguided – not unlike a lot of what Trump spouts on Twitter. The commander-in-chief’s core complaint was that Zobel’s film glorifies the killing of MAGA (Make America Great Again) wackos, which it definitely does not. In fact, both sides of the political spectrum get a pasting in The Hunt, and this is largely down to the broad brush Zobel and screenwriters Nick Cuse and Damon Lindelof (HBO’s Watchmen, The Leftovers) are painting with.

The Hunt isn’t a razor-sharp scalpel that delicately peels back the layers of contemporary political discourse; it’s a blunt instrument that knocks you over the head with punchy action, schlocky gore and plenty of heightened drama. It’s a garish blunderbuss pointed in our direction, and if you get hurt in the crossfire, that’s on you. It is packed to the rafters with abrasive internet lingo, with phrases like ‘globalist cuck’, ‘liberal elite’, ‘deplorable’ and ‘deep state’ bandied around without abandon. Even Sean Hannity gets a mention.

Cutting through the bullshit is a strong lead performance from Betty Gilpin (Netflix’s Glow), who plays Crystal, a steely shotgun-wielding survivor. Gilpin serves as an exasperated audience POV, groaning and rolling her eyes at the colourful weirdos who surround her – played by the likes of Emma Roberts, Ike Barinholtz, Sturgill Simpson and Wayne Duvall. Playing a psychotic villain, Hilary Swank is a notable A-list inclusion – but she feels miscast.

An interesting contemporary spin on The Most Dangerous Game or Battle Royale, The Hunt is a serviceable 90-minute thriller that packs a punch but lacks nuance. It’s the cinematic equivalent of a giant middle finger at both ‘woke’ culture and far-right trolls, so much so that you don’t know whether to laugh, cry or cringe. A bit like reality, to be honest.

Now available on iTunes Australia and the Microsoft Store.
Images © Universal Pictures Australia

Onward
⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Director: Dan Scanlon
Starring: Tom Holland, Chris Pratt, Octavia Spencer
Runtime: 102 minutes

Onward pairs Pixar’s patented mix of heart, humour and gorgeous animation with a familiar Dungeons and Dragons setting populated by pixies, elves, sprites and goblins. In this mystical realm, magic is a mere memory, and the world has mostly moved on. Our hero is awkward elf teen Ian Lightfoot (voiced by Tom Holland), who is on the cusp on adulthood but struggling to grapple with the practicalities of growing up.

You see, Ian never knew his dad, and has spent his formative years without a father figure to look up to. His older brother Barley (Chris Pratt, with a vocal performance that recalls his work as slacker Andy Dwyer on Parks and Recreation) is a basement-dwelling dork who drives a dilapidated van, plays with figurines and daydreams of magic quests.

On his sixteenth birthday, Ian is gifted an ancient staff that possesses the power to bring his dad back to life for a day. But a miscast spell leaves him stuck in limbo, so Ian and Barley find themselves in a race against time to find a special gem that will complete the enchantment. 

It goes without saying when discussing Pixar at this point, but the animation in Onward is scarily good. The fantastical world is popping with colour and detail, and there’s no shortage of cute asides that riff on the mix of mystical and the mundane – from unicorns that gnaw away at trash cans like racoons to arcade games with names like ‘Prance Prance Revolution’.

From processing emotions (Inside Out) to dealing with death (Coco), Pixar’s original output has consistently seen the studio tackle mature themes in ways that are compelling and digestible for young minds, and Onward is no different.

Ian serves as an insert for director Dan Scanlon (Monsters University), whose dad passed away when he was just a year old, making this a particularly personal pursuit for the filmmaker. From the moment Ian and Barley embark on their quest to the final scene, Onward is a ‘feels trip’ in every sense of the phrase. Ian overcomes his internal self-doubt en route, but the crux of the film is his relationships with both his layabout brother and the idealistic image of his dad he has in his head.

After one or two scrapes along the way, Scanlon underlines the importance of paternal and fraternal familial frameworks in a touching finale that abounds with swashbuckling adventure and stirring emotion. It may not rate up there with Pixar’s crème de la crème, but Onward sees the studio bring back a spark of that old magic after a slew of sequels.

Now available on Dinsey+, iTunes Australia and the Microsoft Australia.
Image courtesy of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

The Way Back
⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ½
Director: Gavin O’Connor
Starring: Ben Affleck, Janina Gavankar, Al Madrigal
Runtime: 108 minutes

Art isn’t just imitating life in Gavin O’Connor’s The Way Back, where lead actor Ben Affleck’s personal issues are unmistakably intertwined with those of his character in this compelling but formulaic sports drama.

Affleck plays Jack Cunningham, a former high school basketball hero who has turned to drink since his divorce to wife Angela (Janina Gavankar). When his alma mater comes a-calling in search of a coach for its struggling and squabbling basketball squad, Jack is initially reluctant – the last thing he needs right now is to be in the spotlight.

But soon enough Jack is sitting on courtside, coaching a rabble of rowdy teens whose talent isn’t reflected by their lacklustre results. The aim is to reach the playoffs for the first time in years, forcing Jack to quash his own issues, and instead put his heart and soul into moulding young minds.

Affleck – who has been in and out rehab over the years, most notably right before making this film – is clearly wrestling with some personal demons here. He’s a million miles from the hulking beefcake who played Batman not so long ago, and is clearly drawing from something raw and real to add depth and nuance to Jack’s redemption journey. Having veered from tabloid fodder to Oscar-winning producer and back again, Affleck is no stranger to staggering comeback stories – his career has seen plenty of highs (Good Will Hunting, Argo, Gone Girl) and lows (Daredevil, Pearl Harbour, Live By Night) over the years.

The Way Back definitely belongs in the former category, as slick direction from O’Connor and a compelling performance from Affleck see the film transcend a paint-by-numbers script by Brad Ingelsby (Run All Night). Granted, most sports films often follow a strict formula, and Ingelsby is clearly colouring within those well-worn lines – from the initial ‘refusal of the call’ to the stirring midpoint montage where things start to trend upward.

All of the basketball scenes are coated in a thick layer of sweet sentimentality, complete with stirring and manipulative musical cues from Rob Simonsen. There’s passion and emotion aplenty, but it’s easy to see O’Connor and co pulling on the heartstrings like master puppeteers.

A modest yet moving sports drama that has sadly fallen by the wayside in light of COVID-19, The Way Back sees Sad Affleck make an emotive comeback, and it’s the best thing he has put his name to in years.

Now available on iTunes Australia, Google Play, Microsoft Store and YouTube
Image courtesy of Roadshow Entertainment

Movie Review – Little Woods

Nia DaCosta’s debut is well-crafted and tightly acted, but a little more originality would’ve gone a long way.

⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Zachary Cruz-Tan

Nia DaCosta‘s Little Woods is a slick, haunting thriller about the dangers and inevitably of the drug trade. In parts of the U.S. where crime has replaced jobs as the career of choice, drug dealers are on the same level as investment bankers. They provide what everyone needs at prices only the wealthy can afford. When demand is that high, profits are endless. Little Woods dilutes that business into a story about two stepsisters in rural North Dakota who, in desperation, have nowhere else to turn.

The sisters are Deb (Lily James) and Ollie (Tessa Thompson), who must raise $3,000 in a week or lose the house they grew up in. Not exactly the most original premise. To compound their problems, Deb gets herself knocked up. Now she must either have the baby for $8,000 or abort it. This sets up the rest of the movie, which involves the usual close shaves, high-tension encounters, nosy probation officers, rival drug dealers, and culminates in a risky drug run to Canada.

The screenplay, also by DaCosta, throws just about every sympathetic device at us. Deb is jobless, has a sick son to look after, receives no help from her son’s deadbeat dad (James Badge Dale), and has basically lived under Ollie’s protective umbrella. Ollie was nabbed once for ferrying illicit drugs across the border and wants to go straight, get a proper job, do right by her probation officer and still leave a good life behind for her sister and nephew. The last thing she wants to do is fall back into crime.

Little Woods is a sufficient thriller, mainly because James and Thompson are so good in their roles. Unfortunately, the movie doesn’t do right by them. As the minutes ticked by, Little Woods began to remind me of Winter’s Bone (2010) and Hell or High Water (2016), two deeper, scarier movies about the relationship between desperation and crime. In fact, Little Woods is a weak fusion of both. So, you see how one might feel underwhelmed.

If you haven’t seen Winter’s Bone or Hell or High Water, Little Woods will likely impress the heck out of you. If you have, it will seem more like a cheap knock-off with performances that deserve a greater story.

Little Woods is available in Australian cinemas from May 9

Image courtesy of Limelight Distribution

Part 2: Revelation Perth International Film Festival 2018

Here’s the next set of reviews for the Rev Fest screenings for the coming week end! Screening from July 5-18, this is your chance to check out the latest and greatest in independent cinema. Featuring films and documentaries from Australia and all over the world, here’s a snippet of what’s on offer!

Get revved up!

Beast
Drama 
UK

A beautiful, intense film from first-time feature director Michael Pearce.

Elle Cahill

BEAST 1.jpg

Beast follows the story of Moll, a loner misfit who’s domineering family control every aspect of her life. After a mysterious stranger, Pascal Renouf, saves her one-day from a sexual predator, she’s immediately drawn to him, and starts a passionate relationship with him. The discovery of a young girl’s body, however, makes Moll start to question just how well she knows Pascal and if there’s something sinister lying beneath his quiet demeanour.

Jessie Buckley plays Moll to perfection. She manages to encapsulate all of the years of damages that Moll has, and her slightly unhinged characterisation has you constantly guessing about how accurate her version of events are. Johnny Flynn matches Buckley’s performance, adding a quiet intensity to Pascal and an air of all the things left unsaid. It’s quite a departure from his comedic, happy-go-lucky character Dylan in the TV series Lovesick, and it’s exciting to see him take on a completely different role.

The story is gripping and tender all at the same time, and Benjamin Kracun’s cinematography is stunning. His attention to capturing both the beauty and the isolation of the location is flawless, and its shot in the way that you can feel the distance between the minor characters, particularly Moll’s family, and equally the closeness the pair of them have.

Beast is a fantastic film that manages to get under your skin as well as stun you with its beauty. Writer-director Michael Pearce is definitely one to watch, especially if he keeps putting out films to this calibre.


RocKabul
Documentary 
AUS

Afghanistan’s first heavy metal band, District Unknown, is determined to bring music to the people, no matter the costs.

Elle Cahill

RocKabul 3 .jpg

RocKabul follows the journey of Afghanistan’s first heavy metal band, District Unknown, and the political and cultural challenges they have to compete with in order to be able to play their music. With the help of director Travis Beard, the band are given the opportunity to play their music not only in Afghanistan, but at festivals in India as well. Unfortunately, as Western forces pull out of Afghanistan and their safety becomes comprised by the Taliban, the band has to decide how important playing their music is to them.

RocKabul is an interesting study into how people living in the war zones in the Middle East become accustom to regular bombings and accept it as a fact of life. While the music component is prominent and has a whimsical feel to it, it’s really seeing how these young men live and try to pursue an activity that has been deemed as sinful that is most interesting.

The documentary doesn’t shy away from some of the harsh realities of the going-ons in Afghanistan, such as footage of bombings, religious acts that could be seen as barbaric, and the band receiving very real threats from officers casually holding machine guns. However, it also doesn’t conform to popularist Western views on the people of Afghanistan, and instead tells a story about a group of young men who were born into an unfortunate situation but still have impossible dreams that they’re determined to achieve. Equally heart warming and harrowing at the same time, this documentary is a must-see


Five Finger Marseilles
Drama
South Africa

Michael Matthews’ Five Fingers for Marseilles is a neo-western that’s every bit as authentic as the westerns of old.

Zachary Cruz-Tan

Five-Fingers-For-Marseilles_6.jpg

Five Fingers for Marseilles is clearly a western, because we identify so much of the genre’s classic imagery – long dustcoats, expansive terrain, shotguns, the local saloon. Yet it’s not just a copy; the movie is about something. It’s set in more recent times, not in Texas or Arizona but in South Africa. Instead of horses there are cars. Its characters are not rip-offs of old western heroes. They have purpose, style, and most importantly, they are dangerously flawed. This is quite an impressive movie by director Michael Matthews that doesn’t yield to its ambition.

The plot begins with five kids who are unhappy their indigenous kin have been shovelled to a hilltop, out of sight, while white settlers take over their land. They vow to rebel, not for the sake of rebellion, but for the respect of their country. Then tragedy strikes, the film jumps 15 years ahead, and the five kids, now adults, have been shaped in one way or another by the harsh realities of their town.

Unathi (Aubrey Poolo), the faithful storyteller, has become a misguided pastor; Bongani (Kenneth Nkosi), the plump little rich kid, has invariably become mayor, hustling about in his Mercedes SUV; Luyanda (Mduduzi Mabaso), picked upon as a kid, is now a ruthless cop; Lerato (Zethu Dlomo) tries desperately to survive; and Tau (Vuyo Dabula), the lion, is our wandering hero, who now has to face the evil forces that threaten to dismantle the memory of his childhood.

One could argue that it doesn’t take a lot of thought to make a western, since the genre is usually defined by what we see and not how we feel. The great westerns, like The Searchers (1956) and Unforgiven (1992), gave us more than just cowboys and horses. Five Fingers doesn’t penetrate the depths of the human soul as well, but it makes a solid attempt, is beautifully crafted, and in the striking figure of its hero Tau finds a character who is simultaneously weak and unbreakable. Great stuff.

To book your tickets go to http://www.revelationfilmfest.org/

 

Images courtesy of Revelation Perth International Film Festival 2018

Movie Review – Solo: A Star Wars Story

Solo: A Star Wars Story is great fun, but one must ask the question: why was it ever made?

⭐ ⭐ ½
Zachary Cruz-Tan

Han Solo, the hero of Solo: A Star Wars Story, has been a mythic figure since 1977. He’s a charming, roguish hunk who plays by his own rules, scoffs at authority and occasionally obeys the commands of his heart. He’s also a character many students of Star Wars love dearly. But I suspect, after watching this new Star Wars adventure, many of those students will want to protest.

This is first and foremost a movie designed for fans of the beloved franchise. It doesn’t have the parts to satisfy the indifferent, except of course in scenes where spaceships swoop around maelstroms and blasters are fired left, right and centre. It’s a story that’s rooted in the history of the galaxy far, far away, and so every little detail matters. Or at least it should.

Solo tells the story of Han (Alden Ehrenreich), from his tortured existence on a tyrannical planet and blossoming courtship with fellow slave Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke), to his early success as a professional smuggler and ace pilot of the Millennium Falcon. It also answers such questions as the birth of his name, how he founded his eternal bromance with Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo), and how he completed the famed ‘Kessel Run’ in 12 parsecs. I don’t recall ever asking these questions, or indeed wanting them shown to me in such unimaginative plainness, but there you have it. The myth has been stripped away from the man.

Doesn’t matter. Solo: A Star Wars Story is decent, honest fun. It doesn’t seem to have a care in the world, which is what any successful Star Wars movie should strive for. The plot is more basic than a vanilla sponge cake. The characters are scribbled in from bits and pieces of characters past. Its humour is nothing but second-hand gags. There is not a moment when you fear for anyone’s safety. There are weird planets, obligatory lounge acts and endless battles. It’s a movie programmed to keep you smiling from start to finish.

The battles, of course, are very well filmed and seem to occupy much of the movie’s runtime. Han, desperate to pilot a ship that will allow him to rescue his beloved from the clutches of bondage, teams up with a thief called Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson), who himself is working for criminal mastermind Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany).

Their quest leads them to Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover), an expert smuggler whose co-pilot is L3-37 (Phoebe Waller-Bridge), a radical droid that walks and talks with the sass for change. She crusades for droid equality, an idea that makes sense today but otherwise rubbed me the wrong way completely. No-one goes to a Star Wars movie for lessons in social politics. At least I don’t.

But perhaps I’m speaking too much like a Star Wars fanatic and not giving enough weight to the positives? Possibly. However, I see no other way to discuss a Star Wars movie, since I’ve spent most of my life with them. They feed into each other and can no longer be judged independently.

This one doesn’t measure up to its predecessors in terms of stakes and depth – and it might upset diehard Han Solo followers who feel they’ve been duped by midichlorians again – but in the hands of Ron Howard it just scrapes through. Am I itching to see it again? I’m afraid not. Not even a little.

Solo: A Star Wars Story is available in Australian cinemas from May 24

Image courtesy of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Movie Review – Deadpool 2

Deadpool 2 is back and bigger than ever with his very own sequel. But this time, the stakes are greater, as is the body count and the number of gags about how much the X-Men suck.

⭐ ⭐  ½
Josip Knezevic

Coming off a high from the original, Deadpool 2 unfortunately misses the mark in terms of comedy. Poorly made on a technical front (a gripe that carries over the first movie), blighted by horrendous direction and with just enough story to elevate it above complete failure, the brightest crayon in Deadpool 2’s box is that of some interesting new characters.

By far the most disappointing aspect of Deadpool 2 is how desperately unfunny it is. With only a handful of moments that elicit more than a smile, most of the gags that populate its 119-minute runtime are safe and boring, with little of the wit or meta-like charm of the original carrying over from the original. Strangely, the writing talent is the same, with the only additional writer being the star of the show himself, Ryan Reynolds.

The direction, this time in the hands of David Leitch (John Wick, Atomic Blonde), is nothing to write home about; a collection of close-ups and shot-reverse-shots that lack variety and smack of inattention. In a series that is all about defying convention, why not show us something inventive or dynamic? Alas, very little of these two qualities can be found in Deadpool 2. The action scenes aren’t much better, with jumbled editing and harried cuts softening the impact of the fisticuffs.

That’s not to say Deadpool 2 is without redeeming qualities; the introduction of Domino (Zazie Beetz), a hero in possession of boundless amount of luck, is executed with aplomb and makes for some of the film’s more entertaining action beats.

Though it doesn’t boast great dialogue, the plot does at least wriggle around and twist itself into something unexpected. The villain isn’t who you would expect and is cast against type, which adds an element of originality to proceedings. That said, that’s all she wrote. Deadpool 2 wasn’t the fulfillment of the film it needed to be and sadly doesn’t live up to the high bar set by its predecessor. Reynolds is great, and as always has impeccable comedic timing, but a mere one or two breakout performances don’t make for a particularly great ensemble action film. Temper those expectations and maybe you’ll garner something greater from this mess than I did.

Deadpool 2 is available in Australian cinemas from May 17 

Image courtesy of 20th Century Fox

Movie Review – Cargo

In a post-apocalyptic Australia, Martin Freeman plays Andy, a man roaming the outback desperate to find sanctuary for his daughter before he turns into a zombie. Along the way, he encounters Thoomi a young girl who agrees to help Andy if for nothing more than the company in a vastly decreasing population of unaffected people.

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ½
Elle Cahill

Cargo, from first time filmmakers Ben Howling and Yolanda Ramke, follows the story of Andy as he desperately tries to make his way across the outback in a post-apocalyptic Australia to try and get his one-year-old daughter to safety before he succumbs to a zombie virus. Along the way, he meets Thoomi, a young girl who is to protect her zombified father from being killed and who may just be able to help lead him and his daughter to safety.

Zombie films are hard sells nowadays, and a zombie film in the outback an even harder one. With the ever growing list of zombie franchises such as the popular TV series The Walking Dead, iZombie and Santa Clarita Diet, and the endless Resident Evil films, not to mention the standalone films Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, Shaun of the Dead and World War Z (just to name a few), there are few angles left to take.

Surprisingly, Cargo manages to carefully straddle the line between formulaic and unique to present a film that is recognisable enough in its themes and plot for audiences to understand they’re watching a zombie film, but its careful characterisation and location choice ultimately present a different take on the whole zombie epidemic.

Martin Freeman is brilliant as the helpless Andy who’s just trying to keep his family safe. His paternal protectiveness of his young daughter Rosie is his drive throughout the entire film, and is played to such precision that it gives the whole film purpose, that is often missing from traditional zombie films. Newcomer Simone Landers is wonderfully strong and insightful as Thoomi. Her powerful belief in her culture’s traditional rituals is never portrayed as naïve but instead is a sliver of hope in a largely doomed world.

Ultimately this film isn’t about a zombie-virus invasion or white vs. Indigenous culture; it is simply a story of survival, where the outback is no longer a dangerous environment but actually a sanctuary, and where the people remaining are trying to survive in any way they know how. Whilst the film contains the necessary drone shots of the Australian outback for the international viewers, it portrays the outback in a completely different way as well, almost as Australians see it rather than something to be feared.

I’d definitely recommend giving this film a watch, if not for a different take on Australian culture in cinema or a unique offering to the zombie genre, then at least for Martin Freeman owning this role like a boss.

Cargo is available in Australian cinemas from May 17 

Image courtesy of Umbrella Entertainment

Movie Review – Secret Scripture

Vanessa Redgrave and Rooney Mara deliver two very strong performances of one woman at two very different times in her life, and the horrific events that were designed to break her.

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ½
Elle Cahill

The Secret Scripture, based on the novel of the same name by Sebastian Barry, focuses on the story of Rose McNulty (Vanessa Redgrave and Rooney Mara), a woman who has been institutionalised for over fifty years. When the institution she’s at has to relocate her, Dr Stephen Grene (Eric Bana) is requested to go and conduct a psych evaluation of her. As he proceeds to evaluate her, Dr Grene is drawn to her story and begins to realise she may not be the mentally deranged old lady that everyone makes her out to be.

The Secret Scripture is a beautifully shot film with a theme that seems highly relevant to the going-on’s of today. Cinematographer Mikhail Krichman captures the beauty and severity of the Irish landscape with the same perceptive lens as he did in the 2014 Russian drama Leviathan. The wide shots of the Irish landscape are both beautiful but harsh, with a dangerous undertone, not unlike the town Sligo, where the film is set.

The situation Rose finds herself in is not too dissimilar to what a lot of females are currently speaking out against, making this film both extremely relevant, and, I fear, just as likely to be excluded from the awards season due to the current controversy plaguing Hollywood.

Redgrave plays the elderly Rose very well, convincing you at the beginning that she is genuinely mad, but its her gradual insistence about telling her story to Dr Grene that shows the strong resilience Rose has to just give up and give in to the situation she’s been put in. Mara plays the younger Rose, and is ethereal as always, with the younger Rose wearing her resilience and quick-wit as a shield to the unwanted attention she receives from the small, gossipy Irish village people. Her fall from a headstrong, confident young woman into the emotionally battered shell that she ends up becoming is heart breaking to watch, particularly as she doesn’t give up easily.

Another standout was Theo James, who has come a long way since his Divergent days, giving a convincing performance as Father Gaunt. He manages to charm the audience before revealing his darker intentions later in the piece. Bana also gets a honourable mention for playing Dr Grene with a certain delicacy, but his character’s story was really secondary to Rose’s so he didn’t get enough screen time to really make an impact.

The only let down in this whole film for me was the ending. The film moved at a pace which was steady, carefully breaking down and detailing the events that lead to Rose being committed. However, it then proceeded to wrap up the entire film in 15 minutes, which just wasn’t enough time to properly analyse the crucial points which led to the big reveal at the end. The clunky ending gave the feeling that director Jim Sheridan was cautious of time, but I would have much preferred for the film to go on that little bit longer so the pace was maintained and the ending felt much more rounded and complete.

Overall Sheridan has done another great job at exploring a character that is positioned on the fringe of society, and the destructive nature in which human beings deal with those who are slightly different or unwilling to conform. There are some stellar performances from the cast, and the story is one that gives hope, even if it means simply waiting for the right time.

Secret Scripture is available in Australian Cinemas December 7

Image courtesy of Transmission Films.

 

 

 

 

 

Movie Review – Only the Brave

Joseph Kosinski makes the bravest call of all as an action director – setting aside the combustion in favour of the human drama at the heart of it.

⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Corey Hogan

Eric Marsh (Josh Brolin), head of the Prescott Fire Department, holds a deep passion for his job and crew, who are tasked with risking their lives regularly at the front line of stopping forest fires spreading and destroying all life in their path. Frustrated at being constantly overruled by Type 1 or “Hotshot” firefighting crews from out of state, he seeks new recruits in an attempt to create Prescott’s own Hotshot crew and takes a chance on anyone willing to put their life in danger – including former drug addict Brendan McDonough (Miles Teller), who seeks a means of getting his life together upon learning he is a father. The men grow and become heroes over their years of service, but there strengths will be put to the ultimate life-threatening test by the insatiable Yarnell Hill Fire of 2013.

Joseph Kosinski may only have two features under his belt as a director (Tron: Legacy and Oblivion), but his name on a film alone is already enough to presume what you’re getting into with his work; a visually astounding but emotionally and narratively empty experience. Fortunately he shakes that up with his third feature, Only the Brave. Lightyears away from his muddled science-fiction efforts, Kosinski takes a leaf from Peter Berg’s book and grounds himself firmly back on earth with an intense true tale of human courage in the face of terrifying danger. Like Berg’s macho-machinations, it holds its fair share of flaws, but Kosinski can at least be commended making a valiant attempt at entering “serious filmmaker” territory.

It’s more often than not a ballsy move with adrenaline-pumping films like this to show restraint and focus on character building while holding off the true peril for the finale; here, it works in equal parts to both Kosinski’s strength and detriment. The men of the Prescott Fire Department are a gallant bunch easy to root for; the kind of macho men cinema loves to idolise since they can show their heroic smarts and wits in tough situations, as well as their softer sides for their wives and children. Yet most of them do become bogged down in cliché, particularly in the noble phrases they’re forced to shout, and some barely register beyond their stock-standard assortment of personal issues.

Josh Brolin is the gruff commander married to the job, much to the detriment of his cookie-cutter neglected wife Amanda (Jennifer Connelly), who loves him with all her heart, but is naturally frustrated by the amount of time he spends away from her, since she just wants to start a family. Taylor Kitsch does his bland, one-dimensional, just-kind-of-there Taylor Kitsch thing, again proving himself one of the least-memorable working actors as he gives the new recruit a hard time until he needs his help.

Miles Teller’s McDonough feels the freshest, even if he is stuck with the audience-surrogate getting shown the ropes newbie role. He captures the struggle of the rehabilitation and redemption of quitting the crack pipe and stepping up to the challenges of a heroic career, all in the name of proving himself a worthy father to his exes’ newborn girl. The tacked on mentor bond he shares with Brolin sits less comfortably, but it’s hard to complain too much about cliché in something based off an autobiographical account.

Though it does a decent job with its character building, the key element Only the Brave doesn’t truly deliver on is the sense of being in the thick of a pulse-pounding, life-or-death situation; it always feels as though it’s playing it safe and betraying a realistically deadly occupation, never showing true fear from any of its hardened players. This comes at odds with the climactic veer into tragedy, which, thanks to its proverbial trappings lacks the emotional impact it should have. Commendably though, Kosinski handles his tribute to the real fallen soldiers respectfully; combining this with his trademark visual spark, he’s at least on the right track to becoming the “serious filmmaker” he clearly wants to be accepted as.

Only the Brave is available in Australian Cinemas November 30

Image courtesy of Studio Canal PTY LTD.

Movie Review – The Man Who Invented Christmas

A stocking stuffed with quite a lot of wrapping paper, The Man Who Invented Christmas struggles to get through its own excess.

⭐ ⭐ ½
Michael Philp

The thing about The Man Who Invented Christmas (TMWIC) is that you’ve seen most of it before. A respectable chunk of the film is a straight adaptation of A Christmas Carol – the same story you’ve been hearing since you were a child. It’s nice, it’s heart-warming, it’s a classic, and it’s been adapted dozens of times, sometimes with more panache than on this occasion (A Muppet Christmas Carol remains a personal favourite). So the first knock against TMWIC is simply that its version of A Christmas Carol isn’t all that special. The second knock is that the other story it’s telling – how Charles Dickens (Dan Stevens) came to write A Christmas Carol – is both overstuffed and dull. Not exactly a winning combination.

TMWIC opens to Dickens coming off the high of a tour of America. Cut to a year and two flops later: Dickens is broke and needs a hit to get through Christmas. His publishers laugh at him when he suggests a Christmas story. “It’s October, you haven’t written anything yet, and nobody cares about Christmas!” They say, being the savvy business people they are. Dickens stubbornly ignores them and decides to risk everything to self-publish the novel. In the process, characters such as Ebenezer Scrooge (Christopher Plummer) come alive through Dickens’ thoughts and begin tormenting him. To triumph, Dickens is forced to wrestle not only with his characters, but also the inner demons they represent.

Dan Stevens does solid work here. His Dickens is energetic and conflicted – pushed and pulled by both outer and inner forces, he is perpetually bouncing between problems – and Stevens does admirable work keeping everything centred. Likewise, Plummer is a reliable source of amusement and is devilishly delicious as Scrooge. Avoiding the temptation of passivity, Plummer keeps his Scrooge engaged in the act of torturing his creator. Plummer’s dynamic with Stevens is perhaps the film’s saving grace and is certainly its most well-developed aspect. If only the filmmakers had focused in on that, we might’ve had something recommendable.

Instead, we get an abundance of subplots that dull the film, like running a knife across a rock. Some of them – like William Makepeace Thackeray – just need snappier editing to liven things up. Others – like Dickens’ nephew, the inspiration for Tiny Tim – should be jokes instead of entire scenes. These would be minor quibbles if there weren’t so damn many of them. There are at least three different subplots that desperately need trimming, and one that needs to be deleted entirely. Those stories come at the expense of the main one, killing its momentum and making you wish the film would go back to the mediocre version of A Christmas Carol.

You can praise TMWIC’s production design (it’s quite lavish), and performances (universally solid), but you’ll find it hard to praise the film they’re in service of. Quite simply it doesn’t serve them back. Charles Dickens’ life should make for an entertaining film, but unfortunately, this Christmas story isn’t it.

The Man Who Invented Christmas is available in Australian Cinemas November 30

Image courtesy of Icon Film Distribution.

Movie Review – The Disaster Artist

One of the most anticipated comedies of the year; three Hooked on Film reviewers previewed James Franco’s new film The Disaster Artist, and this is what they thought.

 

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐  ½
Michael Philp

 The Disaster Artist is the true story behind the best worst movie known to man – The Room. Dubbed the “all-conquering cult leader of bad movies,” by our own Rhys Graeme-Drury, The Room is a film that has to be seen to be believed. Hilarious, insane, and awe-inspiring, you will think it can’t get crazier, immediately before it tops itself for the tenth time. Astonishingly, the story of its creation is even weirder.

The centrepiece of The Disaster Artist is undoubtedly Tommy Wiseau (James Franco) – the director of The Room and the world’s greatest source of unintentional comedy. A living, breathing rejected Men in Black design, Wiseau is a comedic gift from the heavens. If it weren’t for the pre-show interview, you’d swear he couldn’t be real. Franco is phenomenal in his dedication to the role, mining comedy from even the simplest of interactions. His brother, Dave Franco – playing straight-man Greg Sestero – is equally good, but is overshadowed by the sheer comedic force of Wiseau’s visage.

The Disaster Artist wrings comedy gold from Wiseau’s very existence. James Franco’s performance is a hysterical character study of a man who remains one of the greatest mysteries of our era. When a simple football kick can raise the house, you know you’re watching something special. The perfect follow up to a perfectly imperfect film, The Disaster Artist is easily one of the best comedies of the year.

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐  ½
Rhys Graeme-Drury

The best thing about The Disaster Artist, I found, wasn’t that it is hilarious and ingeniously referential, which of course it is – it’s that the film melds elements of parody perfectly with shades of sincerity, in the process forming a well-rounded package that is captivating, strange, emotional and uplifting, sometimes all in the same scene.

 This isn’t just James Franco, his brother and some of their mates (Seth Rogen plays a script editor, Zac Efron makes an appearance) pointing and laughing at Wiseau and his abominable cult classic. No, there is authentic affection and earnestness ingrained in Franco’s film; a wholesome genuineness about it.

The prologue, which sees a host of famous faces including Kristen Bell, Adam Scott and J.J. Abrams, take time out of their schedule to gush about The Room, sets the scene perfectly; this isn’t mean-spirited or heckling Wiseau, it’s a sonnet overflowing with affection for everything from terrible cult cinema to those who chase their dreams and fall through the cracks. The screenplay, penned by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, preserves Wiseau’s eccentricities, keeps the narrative tight and ensures the focus remains firmly on his relationship with Sestero and their shared dream of making it big.

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Josip Knezevic

As the age-old expression goes, what else is there left to say that hasn’t been said already? The Disaster Artist is everything a great comedy does and everything that a sincerely heartfelt film can be. However, more importantly, it’s a film that ultimately acts as a tale and tool for inspiration.

Whilst you can laugh (as almost everyone has done so) at Wiseau’s foolish antics and absurd aspirations for his life, we are given a chance to respect his endless pursuit for his dreams amongst the numerous obstacles in his way. It can be as simple as making a pact, or rather a pinky promise, between a friend, and never failing to protect that asseveration.

It’s about following the path of enduring the pain, where everything around you is telling you you’re wrong and the courage to continue to following it. This is why Tommy Wiseau and Greg Sistero are beacons of hope. Life will not always turn out the way you planned it, but if you want it strongly enough, it will be exactly how you need it. So, fail spectacularly and become a global sensation: that is the story of The Disaster Artist

The Disaster Artist is available at Luna Cinemas from November 30, Australia wide December 7.

Image courtesy of Roadshow Films 2017.