Movie Review – Bumblebee

Travis Knight’s Bumblebee spin-off flies into cinemas later this month. We caught an early preview to see what all the buzz is about.

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ½
Rhys Pascoe

After five increasingly bombastic entries from Michael Bay, Paramount’s weary Transformers series was in dire need of reinvention. Said change arrives this December, taking the form of a souped-up, cute-as-a-button VW Beetle and actress, model and songstress Hailee Steinfeld. So long Shia and Marky Mark. You will not be missed.

Set in 1987, 20 years prior to the first Transformers film, Bumbleebee sees the mute robot in disguise on the run and taking refuge in a remote junkyard. Charlie (Steinfeld), a lonely teen on the cusp of adulthood, is gifted a bright yellow bug as an 18th birthday present, unknowingly beginning a beautiful friendship and charming buddy film.

Bear withme here, but this film – yes, the one with the huge hulking robots that smash into one another and can turn into a Subaru or whatever – is one of the most heartfelt blockbusters of the year. At its core, Bumblebee is a coming-of-age tale. There are enemies to defeat and worlds to save, but what it boils down to is a girl, her car and the bond they grow to share.

The screenplay, penned by Christina Hodson(who will soon write DC’s Birds of Prey and Batgirlmovies), pushes all the hallmarks of a Transformers film to the periphery. Gone is the unbearable military jingoism, leery male gaze and explosions full of fireworks and Catherine wheels. The garish filter that drenched everything in oversaturated colours is gone, the Transformers themselves more closely resemble the original designs that fans will remember from the 80’s and the action is more sporadic and less frenetic, with cleaner edits and less unintelligible CGI cluttering the screen.

That said, cynics might sneer at the soundtrack, which is jam-packed with 80’s hits. This is a fair complaint, as Bumblebee definitely panders to the same nostalgia centres of our brain as, say, Stranger Things or Ready Player One, simultaneously catching kids who love Transformers now and adults who loved Transformers in the 80’s in its web.

So, there you have it. 10 years after Michael Bay introduced the world to Megan Fox and splashed his bombastic brand of auteurism across a classic 80’s cartoon and we finally have a half-decent Transformers flick. There have been moments of greatness, but Bumblebee is the first film in the series to possess both the ‘warm and fuzzies’ and the colourful explosions we’ve come to expect.

Bumblebee is available in Australian cinemas from December 20

Image courtesy of Paramount Pictures


Movie Review – Mortal Engines

Mortal Engines is a great concept plagued by a clunky script and an underdeveloped storyline. Thankfully, the intricate attention to detail in the visual and special effects saves the film from being a complete disaster.

⭐ ⭐ ½
Elle Cahill

Mortal Engines follows Hester Shaw (Hera Hilmar), a young and mysterious girl living in a post-apocalyptic world where towns operate on wheels and try to protect their precious resources from other, bigger cities. When Hester fails to assassinate the man who killed her mother, she ends up on the run with the naïve Tom (Robert Sheehan), and together they try to figure out how to survive and save what little is left of the world.

The concept for Mortal Engines is daring and interesting. The idea of cities being shrunk down and transportable on wheels is crazy, as is the CGI to make this world possible. First time feature director Christian Rivers has a history of working in visual and special effects, and the impeccable detail that has gone into this film’s fx is a testament to this.

Unfortunately, the same attention wasn’t given to the story or the characterisation of Hester and Tom, and this is where the film falters. The film jumps around quite a lot and characters just keep sweeping in and out without much clarity given as to why they’re important to the story. The film tries its best to show how this new Earth operates, but it feels like too much is crammed in without giving each part the proper time it needs.

Hester Shaw is a mess of a character and her story is told in jumble. At the beginning, she’s an orphan who’s mother is mercilessly killed, then it turns out she was raised by a robot like creature who once was human, but chose to rid itself of feelings. This is all relived very quickly and randomly by Hester and then she goes back to being silent again. A hint of a romance develops between Tom and Hester, but it’s never fully explored, seeming more like a forced side note that tries to keep within fantasy film tropes.

Mortal Engines ultimately suffers from a poor script and an inexperienced storyteller in Rivers. The technical side of the film is brilliant and saves it from being a complete flop.

Mortal Engines is available in Australian cinemas from December 7

Image © Universal Pictures 2018

Movie Review – Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

Not one, but seven Spider-Men prove that artistic ambition, risk taking, and heart are still alive in blockbuster franchise films. You’re in for an absolute blast.

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ½
Corey Hogan

Ordinary Brooklyn teenager Miles Morales’ (Shameik Moore) admiration of long-time hero Spider-Man becomes all-consuming when he, too, is bitten by a radioactive spider and begins to develop super powers. When Spider-Man’s attempts to thwart a plot by the villainous Wilson Fisk, a.k.a. Kingpin (Liev Schreiber) ends in tragedy, Miles is thrust into taking up Spider-Man’s mantle and protecting the city. But now he’s not the onl ySpider-Man; Kingpin’s reality-meddling has transported several other alterations of Spider-Man from different dimensions into Miles’ own, opening the ‘Spider-Verse’.

Here’s something you probably didn’t see coming. In a year completely overstuffed with superhero movies, one very late entry blows the whole lot of them away and manages to completely reinvigorate the genre. Here’s something else. It’s the seventh entry in the Spider-Man franchise, the fourth reboot of the character, this time in cartoon form from the same studio responsible for The Emoji Movie. And yet Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse completely shatters all expectations. It’s the best Spider-Man outing since Spider-Man 2 and it’s the best animated movie of the past few years. It’s also the most satisfying bang-for-your buck blockbuster extravaganza this year – yep, more so than Avengers:Infinity War.

Like Infinity War, you’ll need a bit of prior knowledge to appreciate this culmination of a number of beloved characters in one all-out spectacle. The Spider-Man we’ve known and loved for so long, Peter Parker, this time steps aside into a Mr. Miyagi-type mentor role to Miles Morales, a charismatic fan-favourite who cements himself as a black superhero with even more staying power than Black Panther. The relationship between this pair of Spider-Men forms the core story, but the many decades of Spider comics have been mined meaning we’re treated to a whole bunch of others along for the ride – spunky Spider-Woman Gwen Stacy (Hailee Steinfeld), 30’s black and white crime detective Spider-Man Noir (Nicholas Cage), anime girl with a Spider-Bot Peni Parker (Kimiko Glenn), and wisecracking pig Spider-Ham (John Mulaney). 

Anyone afraid that a shift to animation will limit the wall-crawler’s appeal need not fear. Spider-fans of all ages are bound to be pleased, especially long-time fans, who will gush at the number of references thrown in, including the late Stan Lee’s cameo, which is impeccably timed and bittersweet. The animation itself is absolutely breathtaking, and truly unlike anything we’ve seen on the big screen before. The style blurs the lines between 2D and 3D, and gives a genuine sense of being thrust right into the pages of a comic book. Visually, it could be labelled an inventive masterpiece, exploding with vibrant colour and creative detail .

Sixteen years on and Spider-Man is more unstoppable tha never in 2018, with a huge splash in the Avengers, a hit PS4 game, and now the year’s funniest, most satisfying and enjoyable blockbuster. There’s no sign of the webslinger slowing down. Inevitably, Sony has already announced a number of sequels and spin-offs which are more than welcome, but as a standalone gem, it’s going to be hard to top this.

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is available in Australian cinemas from December 13

Image courtesy of Sony Pictures

Movie Review – Can You Ever Forgive Me?

Director Marielle Heller explores an obscure historical figure, powered by a tour de force lead performance from Melissa McCarthy.

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ½
Zachary Cruz-Tan

No matter my reservations about Melissa McCarthy, Lee Israel is seemingly the role she was born to play. Shabby, foul-mouthed, misanthropic. A sharp-witted woman who held the prejudices of the world against itself. It’s the persona McCarthy has played for many years, but in Can You Ever Forgive Me?, it’s the first time it feels complete. It’s a performance that not only falls into her lap; it’s one of immense strength and care. The kind that doesn’t just support a film, but elevates it.

Israel was quite the character. She was a talented biographer who found success in the ‘80s and then lost it by refusing to adapt to a progressing industry. She was an alcoholic, neglected personal hygiene and viewed the world from behind a wall. But she was also kind of brilliant, because in her destitution, she found a loophole and exploited it with skill and crime. It’s astonishing the ease with which McCarthy wrangles all these dimensions into a frustrating and often sympathetic figure.

But the movie also works because it has an interesting story to tell, and it painfully illustrates how expectations in life can be cruel and nasty. Israel conned people by forging intimate personal letters from famous authors and then sold them to novelty book stores, not thinking anyone would really care. She just needed the money to pay her rent and tend to her sick cat, you see. What’s a few fake words on scraps of paper anyway? Completely harmless. What she didn’t count on was that, like the movie, sports and music worlds, there are fanatics out there who gather in hordes to collect such letters, and they usually know a fake when they see one. Or in Israel’s case, four hundred.

So, what began as a desperate deception ended up as a federal offence. There are so many ways Can You Ever Forgive Me? could’ve played out this history, but director Marielle Heller picks all the right notes and somehow manages to find perfect equilibrium between tragedy and comedy.

There is also a wonderfully tender performance by Richard E. Grant as Jack Hock, another con artist who becomes Israel’s foil and accomplice. Both characters have been rejected by society and explore their homosexual pursuits in vastly different ways, but they share a common understanding of human nature and the tricky ways to survive it. On its own, Can You Ever Forgive Me? has all the ingredients for greatness. Throw in Melissa McCarthy and you’ve got something special.

Can You Ever Forgive Me? is available in Australian cinemas from December 6

Image courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox

Roma – Cine Latino Film Festival

The most personal project to date from director Alfonso Cuarón, Roma chronicles a turbulent year in the lives of a middle-class family in 1970’s Mexico City.

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ½
Rhys Pascoe

After spiralling through space in Gravity and charting the collapse of society in Children of Men, Academy Award-winning filmmaker Alfonso Cuarón returns with something profoundly more intimate. Roma, which is presented in black and white and with English subtitles, is a ‘year in the life’ of Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), a maid in the Mexico City household of Sofia (Marina de Tavira), Antonio (Fernando Grediaga) and their four young children.

The film follows Cleo and her fellow maid Adela (Nancy García García) as they care for the family, clean the house, cook meals and spend time with their boyfriends during their time off. However, this isn’t the idyllic slice of domestic bliss that it appears at first glance. As time wears on, we learn that Sofia and Antonio’s marriage is strained and that Cleo’s own relationship with her boyfriend Fermín (Jorge Antonio Guerrero) faces issues of its own.

If it wasn’t already apparent, Roma takes a fairly sedate and fluid approach to narrative. Cuarón takes his time to orient the viewer in the lives of the increasingly dysfunctional family, both in a physical sense, as he winds his way through their intricately detailed city abode, and also in an emotional sense, as he explores the fractures that exist in a familial setting.

The film doesn’t so much plot a story so much as it unfurls a journey before you, with time blurring as milestones like first dates and Christmases wash past. The overall effect is one of intense immersion with the family and its trials and tribulations. Come the end of the film, you feel as though you’ve been with them every step of the way for a year of their lives, and it’s an incredibly moving experience. The soaring highs and the crushing lows all flood back as you exit the theatre.

Visually Roma is a knockout, with so much detail and richness packed into every frame. Cuarón drops the viewer into the midst of 1970’s Mexico City, and all the smells, sights and sounds ooze from the screen and surround you. The black and white doesn’t rob the film of flavour at all; it serves to further place the viewer in the setting.

A poetic and personal project that explores life’s big moments as well as the little ones that link them together, Roma is unquestionably one of the best films of 2018. With so much to take in, Roma is like peering through a window into the past and someone else’s life – no detail or moment too small or insignificant.

Roma is screening in Perth for a limited time in the Cine Latino Film Festival (Dec 6-16)

Image courtesy of Netflix Australia

Movie Review – Sorry to Bother You

Get set for wokeness in its weirdest form possible… you have no idea what you’re about to get into…

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ½
Corey Hogan

It’s near impossible to lump first time writer-director Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You into any one category. Absurdist and scathingly satirical dark comedy drama with shades of magical fantasy, sci-fi and horror might land somewhere close. What is absolutely certain is that you’re in for a weird, weird time. Probably the weirdest you’ll have with a movie in 2018. 

Cassius “Cash” Green (Lakeith Stanfield) has just landed a low-level telemarketing job, which he hopes can get he and his girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson) out of his uncle’s garage and on the road to success. Cash quickly learns that using a “white voice” will make him more sales, and is quickly leagues ahead of his colleagues and on his way to becoming a “Power Caller” at the top end of the company. Turning his back on the union opposing this big business, he soon learns the dark and deranged plan his CEO Steve Lift (Armie Hammer) has for his company and employees.

Inspired by Riley’s own experience as a telemarketer, Sorry To Bother You is like an acid trip through the hierarchy of employment status from bottom to top and how the powers above and below impact each other. Essentially, it’s a truly bizarre skewering of the monster that is capitalism, alongside, of course, the political climate, race and social status.

Like Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman, this too largely follows a black man impersonating a white man to further his career, though tonally it’s much closer to the free-for-all communal craziness of Lee’s earlier work like Do the Right Thing. In fact, there’s a lot that Sorry to Bother You borrows from. There’s more than a hint of The Wolf of Wall Street, The Social Network, Office Space, The Lobster and, uhh… BoJack Horseman. And yet it remains radically original, thanks to its outrageous and chaotically creative take on some well-covered matters.

As the weird outsider in movies like Get Out and Death Note, it’s natural fit for Lakeith Stanfield to be the normal(ish), balanced centre in a bonkers alternate world, and here he proves himself capable of the upgrade from eccentric support to conflicted lead. His tale of rising up the ranks and moral reversal is familiar, but the relentlessly strange path it takes keeps Cash Green interesting. Particularly amusing is his white guy voice – who any fan of Arrested Development will immediately recognise as the hilarious David Cross dubbing over his speech.

It is, however, a little too weird for its own good at points. The humour is more offbeat eyebrow-raisers than actual laugh-worthy moments that again, won’t sit with everyone, and there are a few too many subplots that end up left in the dirt. But for a multi-faceted and brazenly bizarre alternative satire of the world we live in, Sorry to Bother You unquestionably stands out from the pack – for better or worse.

Sorry To Bother You is available in Australian cinemas from November 29

Image courtesy of Annapurna Pictures & Universal Pictures International

Movie Review – Creed II

Creed II is a nimble and punchy sequel that overcomes its cliched beats to land some solid hits to the heart.

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Rhys Pascoe

Creed II is a film of contradiction. At its core, it’s a story about stepping out of the shadows of what has come before to forge your own legacy and blaze your own trail. And yet, this sequel finds itself linking back to the original Rocky series (notably Rocky IV) more than ever before. Thankfully, it’s the former aspect that prevails, with director Steven Caple Jr. building on the groundwork laid by Ryan Coogler and continuing to shape a compelling narrative around a clutch of well-written, three-dimensional characters. In fact, it’s this groundwork and the ties to the legacy of the Rocky series that deepen the narrative and the film as a whole.

Having won the hearts of millions with a gutsy loss at the end of his first film, this sequel finds Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan) finally climbing the boxing ladder through a series of powerful wins. After claiming the heavyweight title and with the world at his feet, Adonis still feels unfulfilled. That is until a new challenger emerges in the form of Viktor Drago (Florian Munteanu), son of Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren), who famously killed Adonis’ father Apollo in the ring back in Rocky IV. Challenge accepted, thinks Adonis – until the significance of who he is about to face truly sinks in.

It may not have the same unquantifiable energy and power as Coogler’s astounding revival from 2015, but Creed II does have a lot to like. Jordan continues to impress as Adonis, both in a physical and emotional sense. The film hones in on Adonis’ relationship with fiancee Bianca (Tessa Thompson), and it’s here that the film’s themes of family, responsibility, duty and legacy shine brightest. Screenwriters Juel Taylor and Sylvester Stallone wisely place Rocky (played by Stallone) in the background for most of the film, pivoting to this core duo of Jordan and Thompson, as well as the Dragos.

So while it hits the usual beats you’d expect from a boxing movie, Creed II succeeds in making us care about how we get there. Having spent two films with these characters (a staggering eight for Rocky), I was invested in Adonis and Bianca, in their fight both in the ring and out of it. In continuing their story, Creed II and director Caple Jr. prove there is still fight left in this franchise. Bring on round three.

Creed II is available in Australian cinemas from November 29

Image courtesy of Roadshow Films

Movie Review – Robin Hood 2018

Stylistically confused and narratively dreadful, this new Robin Hood feels dated before even beginning.

Zachary Cruz-Tan

I should have known right from the moment Taron Egerton’s ominous narration warns that what we’re about to witness is not the Robin Hood story as we know it, but a thrilling and uncharted version of the great folktale. It comes from experience that movies that think they’re doing something new and exciting often end up delivering the opposite.

I’m not sure where to begin, really. I could talk about the dialogue, which is boilerplate and often nonsensical. I could discuss the action, which is loud and professional and is of course edited with the patience of a hyperactive puppy. I could ponder the movie’s themes, which work because the themes of Robin Hood work, but they’re washed away when a sequel is teased. The bottom line is Robin Hood made me and, judging from the stillness of the theatre air, everyone else uncomfortable.

But let’s say for a moment that you are entirely new to the legend of Robin Hood, and that this iteration, directed by Otto Bathurst, is your introduction. You’d need to know that Robin (Egerton), once a lord of Nottingham, is whisked off to fight in the Crusades and returns to find his manor in ruins, his paramour Marian (Eve Hewson) in the arms of another man (Jamie Dornan),and the entire town under the pressing thumb of the despotic Sheriff (Ben Mendelsohn). The people are oppressed and so Robin, filled with vengeful spite, ignites their rebellious spirit by robbing the rich to give to the poor.

None of that, though, explains why the filmmakers decided to jumble up history so that customs and fashion are out of place. Or how the villains could be so daft as to outline their master plan in immense detail with Robin in the same room. Robin is a hero who should be cocky and brazen. That’s lacking here, as it did with Russell Crowe and Kevin Costner before. In truth, if you want the last great Robin Hood picture, you’d do well with Mel Brooks’ Men in Tights (1993).

Robin Hood is available in Australian cinemas from November 22

Image courtesy of StudioCanal

Movie Review – Widows

Steve McQueen once again deals with innocent characters facing desperate situations in Widows, a reimagining of the classic British TV drama.

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Zachary Cruz-Tan

Widows is a movie that works, despite several fundamental flaws, simply because it is pitched at a level most of the human population will identify with. It is about a group of blue-collar women who must first grieve their dead husbands and then redeem themselves from the brink of desperation by breaking the law. This is a violent and cruel film, but also intimately unnerving in the way it presents life pushing people to the edge.

It is led by a stunning performance from Viola Davis, who employs her icy face to chilling effect. Her husband is the successful bank robber Harry Rawlings (Liam Neeson), who, right from the get-go, is slaughtered along with his three accomplices when a heist goes terribly wrong. We get glimpses into who the men were. One was abusive, another apathetic, another irresponsible. As far as we can tell, they lived for crime. But their stories take a backseat to their wives’, who have to contend with the sudden life-threatening consequences left for them.

Just as nasty is the parallel plot of two politicians competing for alderman of a Chicago precinct. One is Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry), a ruthless crime boss who wants repaid the $2 million stolen from him. The other is Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell), the wealthy white aristocrat eager to escape daddy’s shadow. And of course ther eare the other widows, played by Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki and Carrie Coon, so you can see how full this story is. There’s even room for Cynthia Erivo as an overly agreeable babysitter. And yet Widows plays easily, because it has a very clear through-line.

It is basically about a heist, but in clever ways it also deals with sexism, misogyny, racial alienation, the American gun society and perhaps most obviously, feminism. It is directed by Steve McQueen and written by McQueen and Gillian Flynn, whose previous Gone Girl also had a warped notion of gender empowerment.

Now, there is a twist that, naturally, I will keep to myself. It throws a bunch of questions into the air and contradicts certain motives. It made me wonder who knew what and how deeply they knew it. It forced me to doubt a character’s integrity. It even made me question the plausibility of the entire premise. But because the plot is so easily accessible, when the tension-filled climax finally arrived, I found myself on the edge of my seat.

Widows is available in Australian cinemas from November 22

Images courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox

Movie Review – Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald

Are all the prequel series to enormously successful franchises doomed to succumb to George Lucas syndrome?

⭐ star:
Corey Hogan

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald picks up close to where its predecessor left off, taking us into episode two of five(!!) in the prequel series. After a brief period in captivity, the powerful dark wizard Grindelwald (Johnny Depp) escapes imprisonment. He sets about gathering followers to aid in his sinister cause of rising pure-blooded witches and wizards up to reign supreme over the non-magical. Having shared a history with Grindelwald and seeing it his duty to stop him, Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law) recruits his former student Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) for the task, who, along with his former allies Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston) and Jacob Kowalski (Don Fogler), heads to Paris to track down and stop the dangerous wizard.

The first entry, Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Themcertainly didn’t recapture the magic or provide a particularly good setup for another extended period in the wider ‘Wizarding World’. It was, at the very least, watchable enough to forgive Warner Bros. for cashing in and J.K. Rowling for attempting to stay relevant. The Crimes of Grindelwald avada-kedavras this newly established flow and the results are less than spellbinding.

Forgoing the steady world-building and gradual reveals and payoffs that kept Harry Potter accessible across eight movies, Fantastic Beasts descends directly into the dark tone of the later Potter chapters. In rushing, the darkness feels both unearned and devoid of impact, especially since most of the one-note characters simply have not been fleshed out. Rowling’s story itself comes across as convoluted fan fiction. It tends to favour side-characters delivering monologues and backstories that no one will be able to follow without a PhD in Pottermore.

Frequent tacked-on callbacks and foreshadowing of the events of Harry Potter, along with a superfluous return to Hogwarts, drive home how poorly this series stands on its own. Jude Law fares fine as a young Dumbledore, but like so many of the parts that make up this prequel, he’s just there as a name we recognise. Surprisingly not terrible is Johnny Depp, who could potentially have a new calling as a controversial figure with twisted villains – even if their motives are clumsy and make completely unsubtle parallels to contemporary politics.

Once a forerunner in amazing cinematography and visual effects, Grindelwald’s ugly aesthetic proves that David Yates and company are no longer interested in lovingly crafting adventures that will be cherished for years to come. There’s sadly little to recommend here to anyone except die hard Potternerds.

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald is available in Australian cinemas from November 15. 

Image courtesy of Roadshow Films