Movie Review – Darkest Hour

Fat suit? Check. Heavy prosthetics and makeup? Check. Actor at the top of his game bellowing some of history’s most famous speeches? Gary Oldman, awards season is all yours.

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ½
Corey Hogan

World War II is in full swing by May 1940, and Britain needs a new Prime Minister to protect its national security. With the most obvious choice for PM unwilling to take up such a task, the responsibility is handed down to the only other man eligible – Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman), the pompous and audacious political head of the Royal Navy. Britain faces imminent invasion with the unstoppable Nazi forces firmly gripping Western Europe, leaving Churchill to face a monumental challenge just days after being sworn in. With his own party conspiring to overthrow him, he must persuade a nation to stand and fight against its overwhelming enemy.

Gary Oldman is one of those actors that has surprisingly never won an Oscar, despite a long, distinguished career filled with consistently terrific performances. It hardly matters anymore, given the Oscars are more concerned with politics these days, but if the Academy still stood for the most exceptional commitments to cinema, Darkest Hour would be Oldman’s Leonardo DiCaprio in The Revenant moment.

Countless actors have portrayed Churchill – Oldman is the sixth from the Harry Potter films alone – but his performance easily ensures the rest will all be forgotten; even Brian Cox, who appeared in an unfortunately-timed Churchill biopic right before this one.

What bolsters this iteration of Churchill above the others is not a focus on the great things he achieved, but how he achieved these through his fundamental flaws as a human being. Oldman’s Churchill is not an easy man to warm to; he’s arrogant, cranky, rude and quick to create arguments. He shows little respect to his peers, all of whom seem to despise him – with just cause. And yet it’s his unorthodox, contentious ways that get the job done. It’s pure method-in-madness, and Oldman realises the full brilliance of this with a great amount of humour.

As a complete package, Darkest Hour isn’t quite as towering as the man at its core. It could certainly be considered a return to form for director Joe Wright, who stumbled massively when he entered blockbuster territory with Pan. He’s clearly back in his period piece comfort zone, with Pride & Prejudice, Atonement and Anna Karenina being among his better films. Darkest Hour, however, lacks the well-roundedness and accessibility of these crowd-pleasers; it’s competent, but likely to only really pique the interest of those well-versed in the heavy politics and diplomacy of war.

It does, however, work surprisingly well as a companion piece to Dunkirk; while Christopher Nolan‘s film consisted only of the catastrophic events that occurred on the French beaches, this gives us the other side of the coin in what was occurring back home in Britain. Together, the two films form an extensive whole. On its own, Darkest Hour is a good compilation of Churchill’s greatest hits, elevated by a brilliant actor finally earning the acclaim he deserves.

Darkest Hour is available in Australian cinemas from January 11 

Image (c) Universal Pictures 2018

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Movie Review – The Post

Steven Spielberg’s The Post is part historical drama, part Trump critic, part female empowerment and part ode to print media.

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Zachary Cruz-Tan

The US government lied to its people for over twenty years regarding their involvement in the Vietnam War. Why were they there? Was there any hope of victory? To the American people, maybe. But a handful of politicians knew otherwise; it was a lost cause. Word eventually got out. The White House was implicated. The Post is a thoroughly gripping new film from Steven Spielberg that examines the the reporters who broke the story, and cornered the president of the United States into resignation.

Like Alan J. Pakula’s 1976 drama, All the President’s Men (a spiritual sequel that covered the ensuing Watergate Scandal), The Post is told through the eyes of The Washington Post, owned by Kay Graham (Meryl Streep) as an indirect heirloom handed down from her father to her husband and then to her.

The film starts with Kay practicing a sales pitch to the banks, as the company must be made public to avoid going under. She feels, of course, that The Post is hers to honour, not just for her sake, but for the sake of her family, and so the sale must be made. But exposing the presidency is not exactly a recipe for stability.

The Post has a lot going on. We are invited to Kay’s tumultuous dinner table. We are dropped into the newsroom of The Washington Post, where executive editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) is desperate to break the story despite the injunction filed on the press by the supreme court. We have to deal with financial legalities and a lot of investment talk, and all this mayhem is choreographed by Spielberg with the precision and experience of a maestro.

But it doesn’t stop here. There arer collusions and secrets. Underhanded exchanges and private phone calls. There’s even time for Ben’s daughter to make a small fortune selling lemonade. And yet the through line is abundantly clear. The Post aims at once to both tell us what the American presidency is capable of to protect its reputation, and how history is doomed to repeat itself.

Anyone watching The Post will surely see the parallels between Nixon’s and Trump’s administrations. Both rule with an iron fist. Both refuse to lose. Both are willing to quash opposition at the expense of their country’s constitution, and more to the point, both think of the press as the enemy.

Such conflict usually gives rise to outstanding characters, and The Post is graced with Streep and Hanks as Kay and Ben. Together they attempt to salvage The Washington Post, uphold the first amendment and freedom of the press, and bring a corrupt government to its knees. And might they also want to one-up The New York Times, their most bitter competitor?

Spielberg makes three kinds of pictures: the box office-smashing blockbuster (Jaws, Jurassic Park), the goofy kids movie (Hook, The BFG) and the thoughtful historical drama (The Color Purple, Lincoln). The Post is a fine addition to the third group. It’s fascinating and bold, and if it dips into a kind of melodramatic tribute towards the end, it’s most likely because Spielberg laments the bygone days when newsrooms were frenetic, reporters were dogged and newspapers were downright fashionable.

The Post is available in Australian cinemas from January 11

Image courtesy of EntertainmentOne Films

Movie Review – The Commuter

Director Jaume Collet-Serra (Non-Stop, The Shallows) returns to the world of action with his new vehicular thriller, The Commuter.

⭐ ½
Zachary Cruz-Tan

It’s seriously difficult to hate on a movie as clueless as The Commuter. It knows many of us just want to leave our brains at home, and turn up at the movies ready to squeal at guns and explosions, but surely even the most gleeful action fan has to have standards, no? The problem with The Commuter (one it shares with its carbon-copy predecessor Non-Stop) is that it begins with a thrilling premise, then proceeds to abandon all notion of coherence till it eventually flies off the rails, which it literally does.

Liam Neeson plays Michael MacCauley, an insurance salesman who for some reason has to remind us a gazillion times that he’s sixty and on the verge of retirement, as if possessing the face of a weathered Liam Neeson isn’t enough. As the movie begins, poor Michael is fired, and he despairs at having to break the news to his upbeat wife (Elizabeth McGovern). As luck would have it, on his train ride home he is approached by a random seductress (Vera Farmiga) with a life-saving proposal: identify a character on the train named Prin before Prin disembarks and earn $100,000. How convenient.

But exactly how is Michael, an average Joe insurance salesman with a winning smile and a mortgage, supposed to possess the skills to pick one person out of a hundred? Easy: make him a former police officer, of course. Now, not only can he behave like a detective silently analysing his fellow passengers without looking like a complete psycho, he can also perform all the necessary Liam Neeson action movie nonsense, such as leaping from carriage to carriage like an elderly Indiana Jones. Oh, the skills police academy will teach you.

The Commuter is directed by Jaume Collet-Serra, whose films (mostly action) tend to veer precariously toward the unbelievable. Not for a moment was I convinced a real shark would behave the way the shark in The Shallows behaved, and not for a moment in The Commuter was I convinced Michael could smash a dude in the face with a guitar.

But what a guy Michael is. By the end, not only does he uncover a massive conspiracy, and survive one of the most horrific train derailments in modern history, he also manages to return his wife’s confiscated wedding ring, save a punk teenager from her douchebag boyfriend, spark a romance between a ticket attendant and a nurse, and I’d be damned if he didn’t cure cancer as well.

The Commuter is available in Australian cinemas from January 11 

Image courtesy of StudioCanal

Movie Review – The Nut Job 2: Nutty by Nature

The Nut Job 2 is busy doing a lot of things, but it fails to store anything for the winter.

⭐ ½
Michael Philp

The Nut Job was not a good film. There was just no getting around its problems: an unlikable protagonist, cheap animation, a thin plot and Brendan Fraser. Regardless, it made back its budget, so I guess that explains why the gang’s all back for a sequel. Mercifully, new director Cal Brunker has dealt with some of the listed issues. Main character Surly (Will Arnett) is slightly more likeable this time around, and Fraser is gone. Other than that, it’s business as usual.

Following the events of the first film, the animals of Liberty Park have found paradise in the abandoned nut shop, much to the chagrin of Andie (Katherine Heigl) who believes they need to learn to forage in the park. Lucky for her, the shop gets swiftly destroyed, and the animals are forced to fend for themselves once again. At the same time, Mayor Muldoon (Bobby Moynihan) is looking to squeeze profit from every corner of his city, and decides to transform Liberty Park into an amusement park. The animals must band together to outwit the humans and save their homes from destruction.

You’ll immediately spot one of the film’s biggest problems: a scattered plot that never nails down coherent themes. The film initially aims for “the importance of hard work”, but it swiftly abandons that idea in favour of Muldoon and his Looney Tunes brand of capitalism, and in turn abandons that for various other ideas and sub-plots. It’s a busy film, and it lacks the narrative foundation to sustain that hyper activeness.

In 2014 The Nut Job was considered subpar. It’s now 2018, and The Nut Job 2 feels like it was made back-to-back with the original. It doesn’t so much push the franchise to interesting places (ala Toy Story 2), but rather kills it with apathy. It shouldn’t be this hard to fill an hour and a half, even more so in a children’s film where the minimum standard is one moral lesson, sometimes two. The Nut Job 2 can’t even manage to get that right. Families will have a better time seeing Coco again than enduring The Nut Job 2’s bottom of the barrel offerings.

The Nut Job 2: Nutty by Nature is available in Australian cinemas from January 12

Image courtesy of Roadshow Films

Movie Review – Downsizing

By no means a small feat.

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ½
Josip Knezevic 

Downsizing is one of those films that’s built on a strong premise, but fails to live up to its full potential. While its overall narrative falls short, it’s still an enjoyable watch thanks to the fascinating world created by writer/director Alexander Payne (Nebraska).

The issue of overpopulation has rarely been committed to film, which in itself makes Downsizing refreshing to watch, but even better is Payne’s proposed solution to this problem, being to shrink a chunk of society to a height of five inches.

Much like how Zootopia looks into animals co-existing in a human environment, Downsizing explores how normal sized humans would live alongside those of tiny stature, and this is where Payne’s film excels. He adapts our world to accommodate for the minuscule, with small compartments on trains designed specifically for those only five inches tall, and looks at the divides that could arise between these two factions. Hot topics include whether the small should be allowed voting rights, tax exclusions and income changes, and while I would have enjoyed more insight into these hypothetical issues, I appreciate that Downsizing isn’t really about the rights of the little people.

At the end of the day, it’s about Paul Safranek (Matt Damon); a small man looking to find himself in a world that’s too big for him. In focusing on Paul’s plight rather than the challenges of a society segregated by size, Downsizing has copped a bit of criticism, but with such a great concept in play, it’s difficult for any protagonist to be equally engaging. In a way, Payne’s creativity is his own downfall; his premise outshines his story and its characters.

Having said that, I was still able to empathise with Paul and the person he became throughout the process of being shrunk. He’s also surrounded by strong supporting characters, with Christoph Waltz offering a lot of fun as his loud and crazy neighbour.

While polarising, I think the positives outweigh the negatives in Downsizing. It’s no Academy Award winner, but by golly is it fun to watch. Go see it.

Downsizing is available in Australian cinemas from Boxing Day 

Image courtesy of Paramount Pictures

 

 

Movie Review – Pitch Perfect 3

The Pitch Perfect series goes out on a bum note in this staggeringly dumb threequel.

 

⭐ ⭐
Rhys Graeme-Drury

After the second film surpassed School of Rock as the highest-grossing music comedy of all-time in 2015, it became all but assured that the Barden Bellas would take to the stage for a third time. Pitch Perfect 3, which is billed as the final film in the series, is something of a victory lap for Anna Kendrick, Rebel Wilson, Anna Camp, Brittany Snow, Hailee Steinfeld and the rest of the crew. Congratulatory and coasting along, this farewell fails to live up to its predecessors by stretching its premise a little too far.

The hoops the film has to jump through to put the Bellas back on stage is where things start to get a little shaky. We’re just supposed to brush it off and enjoy that they’re back, not ask boring questions about how the plot actually works. Thanks to some iffy explanation, the Bellas jet across to Europe on some kind of audition tour for guest star DJ Khaled, who plays himself (pun intended). Supposedly they’ll score an opening slot on his tour if they impress DJ Khaled – or something. It’s not hugely important.

Pitch Perfect 3 shines when it sticks to what it does best; a capella. The music, which includes renditions of Britney Spears’ Toxic, DNCE’s Cake By The Ocean and Sia’s Cheap Thrills, is polished and enjoyable, however, the soundtrack doesn’t sport a knock-out track akin to ‘Cups’ or ‘Flashlight’ from the first two entries.

Conversely, the romantic subplots fail to hit the right notes; with their former love interests ditched, Kendrick and Snow are paired off with new vanilla hunks. Rather than focusing purely on the music, screenwriters Kay Cannon and Mike White tack on a ridiculous aside that sees Wilson reunited with her international arms dealer father (John Lithgow, sporting one of the worst Australian accents committed to film). Their rocky relationship hits a speed bump towards the final act, where it is revealed Lithgow is actually after Fat Amy’s secret Cayman Islands fortune, so he kidnaps the Bellas and holds them hostage aboard his yacht on the French Riviera (no, I am not making this up). It’s like a Comedy Central crossover spoof, and not in a good way.

Not lacking in energy, Pitch Perfect 3 unfortunately can’t translate its earnestness into anything that feels harmonious with the first two. The lazy screenplay isn’t enough to sustain the film, especially during the sillier subplots. The finale is suitably heartfelt for fans – you just have to wade through lots of dumb stuff to get there.

Pitch Perfect 3 is available in Australian cinemas from January 1

Image (c) Universal Pictures 2018 

Movie Review – Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri offers a strong start to 2018, combining wit and sensitivity in a gritty story about one woman’s mission to find her daughter’s killer.

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Elle Cahill

What would you do if seven months have passed since your daughter was raped and murdered, but the police have all but given up on finding the culprit? You rent three billboards and put up inciting messages, of course.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is an explosive first offering to 2018 about one mother’s determination to bring justice to her daughter’s killer. Frances McDormand completely owns this film as the no-nonsense mother Mildred Hayes, who begins to act recklessly in order to remind the town that her daughter’s case is still unsolved. McDormand’s talent lies not only in her ability to deliver her foul-mouthed, dry-witted tirades, but also in her ability to portray a complicated woman who has deep regrets, and for the first time is at a loss as to how to fix her situation. Her acknowledgement that she and her family aren’t invincible is the most tragic, and her use of wit to mask her awful situation reminds us that often not everything is as it seems on the surface.

Woody Harrelson plays Police Chief Bill Willoughby, who Mildred personally calls out in her billboards, and despite being embarrassed by her accusations, Sheriff Willoughby is sympathetic and humbled, perhaps because he understands what’s it like to realise your own morality. But its Sam Rockwell’s performance as the deeply disturbed Deputy Dixon that stays with you. In these tumultuous times in America, where the people who are supposed to be protecting the public are instead being put under a microscope for being inherently racist and trigger-happy, Deputy Dixon is the embodiment of this current societal issue. He’s a drunk racist, blinded by his own authority and his belief that his actions don’t have consequences.

The only let down of this film is that it could afford to be half an hour shorter. There are moments when it takes unnecessary pauses, maybe to provide a moment of reflection, which completely slows down the pace of the film. The struggle to then get it back on track takes up time that could have been used to hone the film’s overall impact instead.

Surrounded by such a strong cast, Abbie Cornish seems out of place as Sheriff Willoughby’s wife. She looks too young to be married to Woody Harrelson and be the mother of two pre-teen daughters. Her accent is also a sore point, often flickering between the Missouri drawl and her natural Australian tone.

Director and writer Martin McDonagh has delivered a deeply human telling of the parent-revenge story that’s relatable and grounded. Unlike the absurdity of recent parent-revenge films such as the Taken franchise or The Foreigner, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri wrenches at the soul as the story unfolds slowly and painfully. Each character is horrifically flawed, which makes them somewhat refreshing and extremely vulnerable. Ultimately, the film asks what would you do if you were in Mildred’s position, and how far would you go to make people listen to you?

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is available in Australian cinemas from January 4 

Image courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox 

Movie Review – Just To Be Sure

In a classic comedy of errors, this little French film proves that a great cast and a well-written story is all you really need to make an enjoyable movie.

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ½
Elle Cahill

A trip to the obstetrician with his pregnant daughter leads Erwan (François Damiens) to discover he is not related to the man he believed to be his father, and so he sets out to find his real biological parent. His need to prove a point to his pregnant daughter Juliette (Alice de Lencquesaing) – who refuses to find the father of her unborn child – drives him to establish a connection with Joseph (André Wilms), a man who knew his now-deceased mother, and who Erwan believes must be his real father. Drama ensues when Joseph realises the woman he is falling for is Joseph’s daughter, and thereby potentially his half-sister. Erwan is left to try and navigate the various lies and half-truths he’s told as he tries to determine whether this man is in fact his father or not…

Despite its seemingly complicated plot, Just To Be Sure (Ôtez-moi D’un Doute) is a genuinely funny, tongue-in-cheek comedy of errors that has an uncanny ability to be hilarious, yet deeply moving at the same time. There are no frills in this film, other than a carefully constructed story that is carried beautifully by its cast.

Damiens plays Erwan with an intensity that rapidly turns to softness when he’s in the presence of love interest Anna (Cécile de France), and his need to connect with his biological father is so earnest that you can’t help but root for him.

Both de France and de Lencquesaing steal the show as Anna and Juliette respectively, especially the former, who is an absolute powerhouse. She gives Anna a quiet strength that plays wonderfully off Erwan’s faltering façade of strength, and her quick-wit provides a lot of relief that keeps Erwan on his toes. Despite Erwan struggling to see Juliette as more than the little girl he raised, she is the true hero in this story as she cuts through the bullshit and lays everything on the table so that the family can heal and move forward.

Just To Be Sure is purely an exploration of ordinary characters operating in extraordinary circumstances. All members of the cast put in strong performances, and while the filmmaking is simple and straightforward, anything more would serve as a distraction to the story being told. It is frank and unapologetic, and its careful balance of humour makes it a really smart little film that left me in fits of laughter.

Just To Be Sure is available in Australian cinemas from December 26 

Image courtesy of Palace Films

Movie Review – All The Money In The World

Ridley Scott’s first feature since Alien: Covenant is a confident reminder that the filmmaker can do a lot more than science-fiction.

 

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Zachary Cruz-Tan

All the Money in the World speaks a universal truth; that all the money in the world cannot, and will not, buy you love. It could buy you happiness, sure. Build several mansions and fill them with whatever your heart desires. Even Ebenezer Scrooge would invert his scowl. But love, that requires work, and according to All the Money in the World, Jean Paul Getty just didn’t have the time.

Getty is played by Christopher Plummer, who had to replace Kevin Spacey less than a month before the movie’s release, but it looks like the role was always meant to be his. Plummer, who was 87 when he was dragged onto set, can surely endorse the fountain of youth. His scenes were reshot in nine days, and he is so comfortable playing a miserly billionaire you’d expect him to have been one his whole life.

The film follows Getty as he tries (or doesn’t try) to negotiate the $17 million ransom for his grandson’s life. Abducted by members of ‘Ndrangheta in 1973, John Getty III (Charlie Plummer) was a boy lost among monsters. The experience traumatised him so badly he became addicted to drugs and alcohol and eventually died in 2011 from complications of both. Getty could’ve easily paid up and saved his grandson’s life if he hadn’t valued things more than family.

All the Money is about that divide between what is valuable to someone and inconsequential to someone else. John Getty III’s mother, Gail (Michelle Williams), is expectedly frantic, and some of the film’s best scenes are about Gail’s futile battles with Getty and his mob of attorneys. It’s hard to imagine someone being so nonchalant about their family’s wellbeing, and yet some of the arguments Getty makes seem to be sensible. “I have fourteen grandchildren”, he explains, “If I paid the ransom I’d soon have to pay thirteen others”.

All the Money in the World is directed by Ridley Scott, whose films tend to be hit-or-miss when they’re not science-fiction. This is much better than some of his grounded dramas (2013’s The Counsellor was particularly horrendous) perhaps because it’s about real people, real emergencies and real selfishness. It demonstrates precisely what money can and cannot do. I thought the writers had taken liberties with Getty’s meticulous accounting, but then I did some reading after the film, and to my surprise, they’re not far off at all. My goodness.

All The Money In The World is available in Australian cinemas from January 4

Image courtesy of Roadshow Films 

Unusual Christmas Films

‘Tis the season of busy queues, deadlock traffic and awkward family gatherings! But amongst all the red and green noise comes the return of everyone’s favourite thing. No, not Michael Bublé.  I’m talking about Christmas movies.

Josip Knezevic 

While many have grown to love the popular hits, let’s delve into the films that often get overlooked this time of year. Even though they might not exactly be about Christmas, they’re sure to get you into the holiday mood… or sometimes, scare you into it…

The Dead Zone (1983)

I wasn’t kidding when I said these films might scare you. Much like fellow, unintentional Christmas movie Die Hard, The Dead Zone is set during the Christmas holidays, and it also deserves to be put in the spotlight. Following a tragic accident, high school teacher Johnny Smith (Christopher Walken) awakens from a coma to discover he can foresee future events, most of which relate to death. Soon, he comes across a difficult choice, sort of like if you had the knowledge of Hitler’s atrocities before he was elected… what would you do…?

It’s one of many rich and suspenseful plot points that David Cronenberg faithfully brings to life from Stephen King’s masterpiece novel, and thanks to Walken’s lead performance, it might just leave a lasting impression on you. Check it out!

Christmas Movies The Dead Zone Christmas 2017


Lethal Weapon (1987)

It’s hard to tell that this buddy cop classic is set during Christmas, mainly because it’s Los Angeles location lends it to zero snow, but also because it’s about investigating a homicide with ties to drugs, prostitution and pornography… Ho ho ho?

Nevertheless, throughout the chaos there’s many seasonal gems hidden in the background. Call it subliminal messaging if you will, but if you pay attention you should notice things like a Bugs Bunny holiday special on TV while Riggs (Mel Gibson) contemplates killing himself. Plus, there’s the more obvious Christmas celebration at the home of his new partner, Murtaugh (Danny Glover). It’s moments like these that justify Lethal Weapon’s presence on this list, because at the end of the day, this film is all about family and giving.

Christmas Movies Lethal Weapon December 2017


Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005)

Robert Downey Jr features here in one of his most underappreciated roles as a quirky thief masquerading as an actor to solve a murder mystery. Once again, it’s not really about Christmas, but thanks to Shane Black’s irreverent style of comedy, there’s enough jokes related to the timing of these murder’s taking place during the Christmas holidays that make it a hilarious and festive watch.

Instead of exploring family and giving to others, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang focuses more on the absolute madness of this time of year. It’s probably not one for the kids, it can get a little bit raunchy and it is a murder mystery after all.

Christmas Movies Kiss Kiss Bang Bang December 2017


Images courtesy of Infogrames Asia Pacific/Hoyts Distribution, Warner Bros. and Roadshow Films