Movie Review – A Star Is Born

Bradley Cooper’s first outing as a director is an exciting success, but the real star here is Lady Gaga. She lights up the screen with her incredible voice and relatively unknown acting ability, and the on-screen chemistry between her and Cooper makes for one hell of a ride.

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Elle Cahill

You know Summer has finally arrived in Perth when the clouds clear away, the days become longer, and the outdoor cinema’s start releasing their programs. The Rooftop Movies in Northbridge deliver a fantastic experience, with the beautiful city skyline lighting up the background of the screen, and the cool Northbridge vibes creating the ultimate atmosphere. The food is delicious, the drink choices limitless and the beanbags crazy comfy, making it feel like home away from home. We were lucky enough to catch A Star Is Born on the rooftop.

A Star Is Born is about the trajectory of two musicians’ careers’. Ally (Lady Gaga) is a young singer on the rise to fame and fortune, whereas Jack (Bradley Cooper) is on a downward spiral. The pair fall in love and attempt to navigate their relationship through their individual success and failures, with the latter succumbing more and more to his drug and alcohol abuse.

A Star Is Born is a remarkable feat that marks the fourth remake of this story, with the others opening in 1937, 1954 and 1976 respectively. This latest adaptation is the directorial debut of Bradley Cooper and despite being a remake, the film feels fresh and original. Cooper confidently takes control, capturing what it feels like to be onstage performing to large crowds, as well as his character’s unique view of Ally. He cuts in unusually close, focussing on specific facial features of Ally when they’re having intimate moments, and it really adds to the affectionate nature of the scenes. Audio has also been used in a really interesting way. Whilst music is littered throughout the film, Cooper has reserved the music largely for when the pair are performing, keeping the soundscape very quiet outside of the stage.

Cooper plays the addiction riddled Jack to his usual high standard, easily pulling off the gruff, anger-filled fading musician type. His love for Ally is believable, as is the pain and suffering the pair go through as their careers pull them further and further apart. Cooper is supported by Sam Elliott who plays his much older brother-turned-manager Bobby. Elliott brings a quiet strength to the film, and its Bobby’s constant presence, even when him and Jack are fighting, that brings a comforting calmness to the film.

But ultimately A Star Is Born is the Lady Gaga show. She completely and utterly steals the spotlight with her amazing vocals and emotive ballads. But it’s not just about her voice – she has the acting chops as well. This film proves the girl can act and the chemistry between her and Cooper is unreal. Ally’s growth over the course of the film has you rooting for her the entire way. She’s an admirable character who sacrifices much to love and protect Jack.

Cooper has made a valiant attempt to tell both sides of the story for this couple, and for the most part it works. The film overall is a little bit too long and there are moments in the middle that could have been cut, but in terms of expressing the addiction and craziness of fame, the film hits all the right notes. This wasn’t an easy task for Cooper to undertake, especially on his first outing as a director, but he has managed to modernise a timeless film with enough soulful tracks to keep the buzz around this film going, at least until Oscar season.

Program 1 of Rooftop Movies runs until December 9th, with another three programs to follow. You can see the full program at: https://www.rooftopmovies.com.au/program

A Star Is Born is available in Australian cinemas from October 18.

Image courtesy of Roadshow Films.

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Movie Review – BackTrack Boys

Australian filmmaker Catherine Scott makes a heartfelt documentary that looks into how troubled kids can be taken in and taught responsibility by caring for and training dogs.

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ½
Elle Cahill 

BackTrack Boys is about a rehabilitation program for troubled youths in New South Wales run by straight-talking Bernie Shakeshaft. The documentary follows three troubled kids, Zak, Tyrson, and Rusty who are all part of the Backtrack program, and their journey in and out of trouble as they struggle to take the lessons they learn through the program and apply them to their dysfunctional home life.

Similar to documentaries focused on groups of people like Jesus Camp and Dying to Live, what really makes BackTrack Boys a documentary worth watching are the characters featured. Director Catherine Scott does a brilliant job at drawing out the personalities of the three featured children and the harsh environments they have grown up in, which would have more than likely led them to a life in jail. Whether it be good-natured Zak who has worked his way through the Backtrack program to become a leader; Tyrson who regressed after leaving the program and wound up in jail for a couple of years; and the youngest of the group, Rusty whose foul-mouthed, tall tales are tolerated by the others as they realise he’s just a young kid who hasn’t had the easiest start to life.

The program itself is interesting in that Shakeshaft pairs the kids with a dog that they are expected to train, feed and prepare for local shows in events like high jump wall. The idea is that the dogs don’t judge the kids but instead give them a sense of responsibility. Intermingled in this are campfire heart-to-hearts, where the boys share stories, their feelings and fears when they’re ready to. It’s group theory done in a trusting environment and it’s Shakeshaft straight-talking both around the campfire and in private with the boys that helps them take responsibility for their actions, and more importantly, their lives.

The documentary is beautifully shot and Scott manages to get access to a lot of areas to really capture the kids’ realities (including the juvenile prison). Ultimately the documentary is about second chances and showing that there are alternatives for troubled kids, and that whilst these alternatives might be a bit left of field, they may just be the best circumstances for these kids to learn and grow into responsible adults.

BackTrack Boys  is available in Australian cinemas from October 25 (Western Australia limited release 27th -29th Oct)

Image courtesy of Umbrella Entertainment

Movie Review – Apostle

The director of The Raid returns with Apostle, but it doesn’t quite hit the stylish heights he’s capable of.

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ½
Corey Hogan 

1905. Former missionary Thomas Richardson (Dan Stevens) receives word that his sister has been kidnapped by a secretive cult demanding ransom for her return. Under the guise of a believer in their Prophet Malcolm Howe (Michael Sheen), Thomas travels to the remote Welsh island upon which they dwell to rescue her. He enters the island prepared to fight but is not prepared for the great evil that both the people of the cult and the greater power they worship are capable of.

Netflix are certainly guilty of grabbing anything they can get their greedy paws on for their massively popular streaming service. This has resulted in some pretty sub-par originals, but every once in a while, there’s a name attached to their offerings that’s worth getting excited over. It happened with Alex Garland for Annihilation (which certainly delivered), and now Gareth Evans for Apostle.

Evans is the mastermind behind the excellent martial arts The Raid movies and the best segment of the V/H/S anthologies Safe Haven. It’s a little disappointing that his long-awaited follow-up Apostle can’t be experienced in theatres. Having said that, while Apostle is certainly good, it doesn’t quite live up to the high bar Evans has set for himself, so perhaps it’s forgivable that we can only access it from home.

Closest in tone to Safe Haven, which similarly explored a malevolent cult, Apostle also bears a lot of similarities to just about every cult-horror movie ever made, from the classics like The Wicker Man and The Children of the Corn to this gen’s Kill List and The Sacrament. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The ingredients may feel familiar, but Evans uses them to create his own recipe, one that matches his own style of building characters through ramping the events around them up to the blood pressure-bursting extreme.

Dan Stevens proves he’s well on the way to becoming a household name by carrying these distressing events on his charismatic shoulders. He dives headfirst into very unpleasant situations as the slow-burning tension gives way to a satisfying explosion of ultra-gore.

There’s a heap of ideas here that don’t land or end up unexplained and abandoned. At the very least, Apostle is huge on entertainment value and still bears the mark of a talented director. It’s a little upsetting to hear Evans’ planned Raid threequel was deserted in favour of this passion project, but for some hardcore thrills at home late on a Friday night, he’s got you covered.

Apostle is available on Netflix from October 12 

Image courtesy of Netflix Inc

Movie Review – Bad Times at the El Royale

Devilishly unpredictable and fiendishly fun, Bad Times at the El Royale – pleasingly – doesn’t live up to its title.

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Corey Hogan 

In 1969, four strangers – a priest (Jeff Bridges), a singer (Cynthia Erivo), a vacuum cleaner salesman (Jon Hamm) and a mysterious young woman (Dakota Johnson) – check into the El Royale, a hotel that sits directly on the border of California and Nevada. But no one is really what they appear and everybody holds a secret. On this fateful night, a bag of stolen money, a charismatic cult leader (Chris Hemsworth), and the sinister voyeurism behind the scenes at the El Royale brings these strangers’ hidden motives and connections to a violent revelation.

Writer and director Drew Goddard’s twisty mystery Bad Times at the El Royale feels kind of like a mish-mash of two fairly recent films. The first is Goddard’s own The Cabin in the Woods. His latest shares its tongue in cheek genre-deconstructing and near-perverse god’s eye peering into his characters.

The other is Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight, which very similarly gathered unfamiliar people with skeletons in their closets in one tight-knit location, only to ramp up the tension and let things explode in an unpredictable, bloody mess. It’s possible that Goddard saw this and thought “maybe I can do better” – if he hasn’t succeeded, he’s at least equalled in raw entertainment, thrills and intensity.

Squeezing together a delicious cast, Goddard keeps up the intrigue by not allowing us to know who is about to check out when, giving us that true ‘anyone can die at any moment’ sense that Game of Thrones made its name with. Needless to say, not everyone makes it through this wild night, but every actor manages to make an impression. The real delight is Broadway singer Cynthia Erivo in what will undoubtedly be her breakout role.

Bad Times is truly an experience that demands to be seen knowing as little as possible. Though it purposely leaves at least two of its key questions unanswered, the ride up until then is rollicking. Filled with moments of unbearable tension, laughs, and some genuine emotion – not to mention beautifully shot on 35mm film with Panavision lenses – Bad Times is, ironically, a seriously good time.

Bad Times at the El Royale is available in Australian cinemas from October 11 

Also screening as part of  the RoofTop Movies Program 1 on Nov 15 & Nov 24.

Image courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox 

Movie Review – 1%

While 1% boasts some strong performances, its unremarkable story fails to live up to its high-octane setting.

⭐ ⭐
Josip Knezevic 

Shot right here in Perth, 1% is a crime drama set in the underworld of Australian motorcycle club gangs. It follows Vice President of the ‘Copperheads’ Paddo (Ryan Corr) who has been leading the group while President Knuck (Matt Nable) has been behind bars. As Knuck nears release from prison, Paddo’s younger brother Skink (Josh McConville) puts him in a compromising position that threatens his loyalty to both Knuck and the Copperheads. Paddo must decide how to solve his dilemma before he loses everything he’s worked for.

Corr does well in expressing the conflicting emotions of a man constantly having to weigh up his loyalties and juggle his relationships. The film continuously puts Paddo between a rock and a hard place, and Corr did a good job of earning my sympathy towards his character’s situation.

Another standout is Aaron Pedersen (Goldstone) as Sugar, the President of a rival gang. His screen presence is like a breath of fresh air and it’s disappointing that his role was reduced to just a few scenes. Pedersen has a natural charisma and I love seeing his career expanding.  I’ve only known him to play good guys, but I was pleasantly surprised to see how well he could take on a more villainous role.

What brings it all down is the story. One of the major flaws of the film is that all the conflicts are caused by one character: Paddo’s brother. Literally everything he does is a mistake that ends up causing more grief for Paddo. His role is essentially the only driving force moving the story along. Every scene he’s in made me roll my eyes because I knew he was going to do something wrong and then the film would try to resolve it. It became repetitive and boring.

There’s also some really questionable events. Without giving too much away, there’s a subplot with Knuck’s character that makes absolutely no difference to the story. And the final act has one of the strangest standoffs I’ve seen in a long time.

1% tries its hand at being a gritty Australian crime drama, but it’s let down by its thin narrative. The film is entirely carried by its performances, which are the only real reason you should go and see the film.

1% is available in Australian cinemas from October 12 

Image courtesy of Icon Film Distribution

Movie Review – 22 July

Not for the faint of heart… 22 July is a gutsy attempt at covering the 2011 terrorist attacks in Norway.

⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Elle Cahill 

Paul Greengrass’ latest offering tells the story of the 2011 terrorist attack in Norway that saw 8 people die in Oslo from a car bomb explosion set by extremist Anders Behring Breivik (Anders Danielsen Lie). Breivik then travelled to Utøya island and stormed a youth camp armed with guns, killing an additional 69 people. 22 July focuses on survivor Viljar Hanssen (Jonas Strand Gravli) and the court case that followed the attack.

Known for the The Bourne Supremacy and Captain Phillips, Greengrass delivers a heavy and sometimes shocking retelling of the Norway terrorist attacks. He doesn’t hold back from showing the brutality of the actual attacks, as well as the aftermath of the event, in which Hanssen undergoes lifesaving surgery. Greengrass shows the graphic reality of having bullet fragments removed from the brain and the emotional toll of physical rehabilitation. Some may argue these visuals go too far and take advantage of the situation, but I think it is an honest portrayal of the devastation of the attack.

Jonas Strand Gravli is exceptional in capturing the wide range of emotions of Hanssen – from the sheer terror during the attacks, to his overwhelming grief toward the loss of his friends. His final confrontation with Breivik in the court proceedings is strong and powerful as he lays bare the impact the events have had on him personally.

But the standout here is Anders Danielson Lie as Breivik. He and Greengrass make Breivik out to be completely villainous, without going into too much depth about the reasons behind his actions. Lie plays Breivik as cold and calculating, with very little regard for the horrific consequences of his attacks. He seems to take a sick pleasure in the attention he receives, and at no point does he show even the slightest hint of remorse. Lie gives a performance that is compelling to watch, but also highly disturbing.

Overall, 22 July is a valiant attempt to tell the story of the Norway terrorist attack. It doesn’t try to hide away from the ugly truth and goes the extra mile to explore more than just the attack itself.

22 July is available on Netflix Australia from October 10 

Image Courtesy of Netflix Inc. 

Movie Review – First Man

With First Man, Damien Chazelle (Whiplash, La La Land) proves he has the mettle to contend with high drama.

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ½
Zachary Cruz-Tan

I’m at a crossroads with First Man, the new film by Damien Chazelle about Neil Armstrong and his rendezvous with history. On the one hand, I fully appreciate it as a tremendous work of cinema. It is muscular, excellently performed and truly captivating. It establishes Chazelle is a formidable directing force. On the other, I found myself incapable of connecting with it on an emotional level. Now, I’m not sure if it’s because the screenplay is confused about its hero, or because I, like many Americans back in the ‘60s, feel space should only be explored once matters of the Earth have been settled.

Alas, the moon has been conquered. Armstrong has been immortalised. Millions of dollars have been spent and hunger is still rampant. But I suppose such questions of ethics should be shoved aside for the time being. First Man begins with Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) as a test pilot for NASA. He is accepted as an astronaut cadet and before long he’s been chosen to land on the moon.

At home he has two sons and a spouse, Janet (Claire Foy), who is restricted to the domesticated wife role because it’s the 1960s and the film needed a female lead. Foy is a remarkable actor and she does the best with what she’s given, but once you’ve seen one domesticated wife raising the children alone and fretting over her reckless husband, you’ve seen them all.

First Man, based on the book “First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong” by James R. Hansen, is so well made that it’s easy to overlook such shortcomings. It is accompanied by a musical score that pulls off the difficult task of being inspiring and unsettling at the same time. It has wonderful sound design – the creaking and cracking of rickety vessels wrestling with the atmosphere is jarring in the extreme. It somehow manages to fit the standard biopic mould while carefully subverting it. It’s not necessarily the cleverest movie, but it does a mighty fine job at making us believe it is.

And yet I am confused by its portrayal of the great Armstrong. He comes across as a man displeased to have greatness thrust upon him. When he is awarded the Apollo 11 mission, he’s about as thrilled as a sick hamster. His answers at the press conference are painfully cryptic. Is he excited to be going, or disappointed? Why would this man, who seemingly has everything, risk it all to fly to the moon? Without knowing, it’s awfully hard to cheer for the guy.

First Man is available in Australian cinemas from October 11 

Also screening as part of  the RoofTop Movies Program 1 on Nov 16 & Nov 25.

Image (c) Universal Pictures 2018

Movie Review – Venom

Fan-favourite and Spidey rival Venom gets a solo venture, but despite its best efforts, this lethargic slog lacks the panache of its web-slinging cousin. 

 ⭐ ⭐
Rhys Pascoe 

Okay, let’s get the confusing stuff out of the way. Yes, Venom is a character closely tied to Spider-man comic-books. No, this movie doesn’t feature Spidey, Tom Holland or any other crossover with the Marvel Cinematic Universe. That’s where the issues start (and certainly not where they end), because when all is said and done, even though Venom has its redeeming qualities, this superhero spin-off is in dire need of the heart, humour, and polish that audiences have come to expect from Marvel.

The film centres around investigative reporter Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy), who finds himself out of a job and separated from his lawyer fiancée Anne (Michelle Williams) after he leverages sensitive information from her work laptop for a story on shady billionaire Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed). Down on his luck, Eddie delves a little deeper in Drake’s secretive business and lands himself a gnarly symbiote from outer space (don’t you just hate it when that happens). The gooey entity – which calls itself Venom – speaks to Eddie and bestows him with a number of special abilities, which Eddie puts to good use in combating Drake’s nefarious operation.

So, here’s the bottom line. Venom isn’t up there with cinematic abominations such as Catwoman or Green Lantern. It’s not even bad enough to be oddly entertaining, like 1997’s Batman and Robin. It just washes over you, neither entertaining nor horrifying enough to hold your attention. I found myself strangely bored by the mish-mash of ugly VFX, dark cinematography and uninspired design oozing from every frame.

There’s a lot of talent striving to excel, but the writing puts a swift end to that. Williams’ character is as bland as white bread and shares about as much chemistry with Hardy as two soggy logs. Ahmed’s villain is your standard scheming corporate cardboard cut-out. At least Hardy is having fun with it – his performance is filled with weird idiosyncrasies that range from inspired to downright bizarre.

There are some moments of schlocky horror. There are some moments of side-splitting humour. But in hedging its bets, Venom excels at nothing in particular. One could argue Venom would’ve been better had all involved stuck to their guns and served up something gory and aimed at adults (like Logan or Deadpool), but more violence wouldn’t fix its myriad other issues. At the end of the day, this film is just the latest effort from a studio trying to ape Marvel’s formula – and it doesn’t do a very good job.

Venom is available in Australian cinemas from October 4 2018. 

Also screening as part of  the RoofTop Movies Program 1 on Nov 29.

Image courtesy of Sony Pictures 

 

Movie Review – Night School

Night School schools audiences in how to be funny and inclusive.

⭐ ⭐ ½
Elle Cahill 

Night School follows Teddy Walker (Kevin Hart), a high school drop out who never sat his GED. After accidentally blowing up the BBQ store he was set to take over, he finds himself unemployable. When he receives a job offer on the condition he goes to night school and gets his GED, Teddy signs up for lessons at his old school. Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as Teddy thought it would be and he’s left to decide just how far he’s willing to go to pass his final exam.

Nigh School is the latest offering from Girls Trip director Malcolm D. Lee. His latest isn’t as crass as Girls Trip, choosing instead to cement its comedy in social commentary and the paths people take after school, with some slapstick thrown in for good measure.

Hart and Tiffany Haddish, who plays the night school teacher Carrie, make a great comedic duo, bouncing off each other in a blur of witty retorts, but it’s the obvious respect that the two comedic actors have for each other that makes them a pleasure to watch. Haddish’s usual comedic style has been stripped back and Hart has toned down his usual style as well, but it works given they’re surrounded by an ensemble of other comedians including the likes of Taran Killam (Saturday Night Live), Mary Lynn Rajskub (Brooklyn Nine-Nine), and Rob Riggle (The Hangover) each earning their own laughs throughout the course of the film.

There are a lot of current social elements thrown into this film, like making Haddish’s character a lesbian and portraying Teddy as being more intelligent for having dyslexia. While the representation of learning disorders is handled sensitively, the addition of Haddish’s character being a lesbian feels a bit weird. It seems like inclusion of sexual representation for the sake of it, and it’s an easy way out for Carrie not to be interested in Teddy, rather than just being a woman who isn’t sexually attracted to him.

Overall Night School is a surprisingly funny film with some strong messages, however, some of the jokes fall flat, and there are times when the story becomes impossibly far-fetched.

Night School is available in Australian cinemas from September 27 

Also screening as part of  the RoofTop Movies Program 1 on Nov 17.

Image (c) Universal Pictures 2018

Movie Review – American Animals

Kentucky, 2004. Four college students plot one of the most audacious art heists in US history. Fourteen years later, director Bart Layton regales us with their exploits in one of the best films of the year.

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ½
Rhys Pascoe

To call American Animals a mere heist movie is a little reductive. It’s a heist movie about heist movies, featuring the real-life subjects alongside a cast recreating the events that took place fourteen years ago. It’s Ocean’s 11 meets The Social Network, where a group of bored and entitled college students talk themselves into a situation intended to transform their lives at the expense of others.

Straddling documentary and drama, Layton’s film cuts between fact and fiction with glee. Talking heads from the real culprits expose fault lines and shared doubts between the characters, acting as a retrospective inner monologue. Each recount of the events contradicts the other, sowing the seeds of doubt in the audience, but also putting a humorous spin on the escapade.

The heist itself sees the film shift gears. Layton sheds the brisk romp vibe and smacks the audience with the realisation that shit just got real. All of a sudden the smiles are gone and panic starts to set in. As the plan unravels, the tension ratchets up to fever pitch. It’s heart-pounding stuff. While all four leads – Evan Peters (X-Men: Days of Future Past), Barry Keoghan (Dunkirk), Blake Jenner (Everybody Wants Some) and Jared Abrahamson (Travelers) – are great, it’s Peters who picks up the ball and runs with it, especially in the second half.

Layton’s direction is another standpoint feature. The tonal shifts are handled with aplomb, while the edits between past and present, real-life and fantasy are brilliant. Culminating in a wonderful conclusion reminiscent of The Usual Suspects, American Animals is smart and snappy, bringing us a potent message underneath some funky filmmaking.

American Animals is available in Australian cinemas from October 4 

Also screening as part of  the RoofTop Movies Program 1 on Nov 20.

Image courtesy of Madman Entertainment and © AI Film LLC / Channel Four Television / American Animal Pictures Ltd 2018