Movie Review – Their Finest

Their Finest is a charming film about filmmaking. Pity it has to take place during the war.

⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Zachary Cruz-Tan

Just as Nazis make for reliable movie villains, World War II movies seem to be all the rage now among independent filmmakers. As I attended the screening for Their Finest, the cinema ran the trailer for The Zookeeper’s Wife, a film in which Jessica Chastain tries on a Polish accent and Daniel Brühl is once again in his Nazi pyjamas. It’s a sign o’ the times that now, when The States are firing missiles across borders and ISIS is essentially an invisible enemy, we should find solace in movies about war.

That’s the awkward position Their Finest finds itself in. It’s a picture set against the second World War, but aims to assuage our concerns that a bomb might go off while you’re watching it. It’s surprisingly light-hearted, considering the body count it dials up as the minutes tick by. It’s also thoroughly unfocused, flitting between genres like a starving dog suddenly given three bowls of grub to choose from.

Gemma Arterton plays Catrin Cole, a Welsh lady living in London with her artist husband Ellis (Jack Huston). She gets a job as an assistant screenwriter for the film division of the Ministry of Information, where she meets Tom Buckley (Sam Claflin), a passionate writer commissioned to pen the next propaganda film in an attempt to spur the Brits on to victory.

That’s not the confusing bit. It would’ve been simpler if that’s all Their Finest had been about. Instead it cobbles itself together so it becomes part comedy, part war movie, part romance story and part satire on American film consumerism, the self-righteousness of actors and the film industry in general. Oh, and it’s set in 1940, so of course it’s also a feminism piece, with both Ellis and Tom throwing masculine superlatives around like misogynistic Frisbees. The many parts actually work quite well on their own, but as they come together they manufacture what is otherwise a slightly disjointed whole.

Plots about issues as dark as war have to be handled with care, especially if it’s going to be a comedy. I, for one, don’t think there’s much to laugh about when a bomb explodes and we’re left with horrifying images of mangled corpses, but Their Finest somehow manages to slip in wry one-liners even as characters are brought in to identify the bodies of their fallen friends. Yes, the line may have been funny, and I might have laughed a bit, but I felt guilty for doing so.

At the end of the day, Their Finest’s heart is probably in the right place, and there are wonderful performances all round; Miss Arterton is particularly buoyant. It just needs more focus, more reverence for its grim subject matter. It’s a sweet, harmless ride, but in the grand scale of the World War, it all ends up seeming just a little bit silly.

Their Finest is available in Australian cinemas from April 20 

Image courtesy of Transmission Films

Movie Review – Frantz

François Ozon returns to the screen with an intimate examination of national pride, exclusivity, racial tolerance and love.

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Zachary Cruz-Tan

There are basically two groups of war movies: the ones that have lots of buildings and people blowing up, and the ones that are about the stories in between things blowing up. Rarely do you come across a film that’s both (Schindler’s List and Downfall are masterful exceptions). François Ozon’s languid Frantz sits comfortably in the corner of the latter group, taking place after the Great War and during a period of tumultuous regrouping for the losing side, which were, of course, the Germans. It’s basically a war movie with very little war.

Ozon narrows his focus to the Hoffmeisters – a good-spirited but fractured elderly couple whose son, Frantz (Anton von Lucke), has been killed in France – and Anna (Paula Beer), Frantz’s would-be future wife. Together they mourn their loss, blaming all of France for Germany’s dead. One day, a Frenchman called Adrien (Pierre Niney) wanders to their doorstep, claiming to be Frantz’s best pal, offering peace and good will. At first, the Hoffmeisters are doubtful, but they soon suspect that Adrien speaks the truth, and for a brief moment they wine and dine as if their son has returned.

Much of Frantz hinges on Adrien’s honesty. It’s clear he’s concealing hidden truths about his seemingly random appearance, but Niney is clever in turning Adrien’s questionable conscience into a performance of immense pathos. The first half of the film is about him. The second is about Anna. Both characters have to rise above the anger of their compatriots to see each other as they really are. Sounds heavy and impenetrable? Well, you don’t go to a French/German film for exploding robots.

Frantz is definitely a slow-burn, patiently allowing its characters the room to explore their emotions and calculate their actions. Anna is a strong, forgiving woman; Beer’s performance is one of delicate timing and restraint. Adrien, conversely, is more unhinged, freewheeling, impulsive. But this isn’t an Along Came Polly kind of match up. There are no jokes about spicy food and Irritable Bowel Syndrome. Anna and Adrien are introduced to each other by a tragedy and there is an air of the macabre that settles upon them. Indeed, Pascal Marti’s breathtaking black-and-white photography sometimes feels like a visual eulogy, and there are many scenes set in cemeteries. Frantz may be about two young people moving on with their lives, but its DNA is made up of death.

Even when Frantz falters, it does so with grace, keeping the drama firmly centred on the people who matter. This isn’t a groundbreaking film about war, or even about human dynamics, but it’s thoughtful and charismatic, and many times, that’s enough.

Frantz is available in Australian cinemas from April 13

Image courtesy of Sharmill Films 

Movie Review – Denial

The Holocaust: fact or fiction? Even if you’re pretty sure you know the answer, Denial is still a gripping look at the two scholars who actually took to the courts to settle that question.

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ½
Corey Hogan

Deborah Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz), an American historian and professor of Holocaust studies, is interrupted in the middle of a speech by David Irving (Timothy Spall), a famed British Nazi Germany academic whom Lipstadt has labelled a Holocaust denier in her new book. After she refuses to debate Irving publicly on the topic, he sues her for libel. With a crack team of renowned lawyers behind her (including Tom Wilkinson and Andrew Scott), she enters a widely publicised case with the potential to cause massive historical ramifications and sway the consensus on whether or not the Holocaust actually happened.

Though most of the audience it attracts no doubt already knows the outcome of the incredible court case, writer David Hare (The Reader) and director Mick Jackson (The Bodyguard) still manage to wring a great deal of suspense and intrigue out of the famous Irving v Lipstadt and Penguin Books lawsuit in Denial. In fact, the core court scenes are interesting and engaging enough to be ranked among some of cinema’s greatest courtroom dramas. The rest of the film certainly works hard to live up to matching these scenes in engrossment, but doesn’t always reach the same high.

Though a level of emotional connection is certainly necessary to the screen, especially when covering such a sensitive subject, emotion ends up being a peculiar Achilles ’ heel for Denial. Oddly, the cold, informative court proceedings are far more interesting than the scenes in which characters are given the chance to express how they feel about the situation, since more often than not their strong emotions turn them blind to rational, logical thinking.

This particular problem is embodied by Lipstadt herself; Rachel Weisz is great in the role, lathering on a thick Boston accent, but her character often frustrates, ironically due to how strongly she feels about her Jewish ancestry. She’s unable to form arguments when put on the spot by Irving, brushing it off as “not needing to defend truth”. She frequently goes against the advice of her lawyers, attempting to call on Holocaust survivors as witnesses despite their warnings, and can barely contain her pride or anger throughout proceedings as everyone else around her manages to keep a straight face. There’s also her assertion that Irving is attacking her because “she’s a woman”, which, while potentially valid, feels a little too shoehorned in to appease today’s audiences.

Her team of lawyers are the real heroes here, particularly Wilkinson’s Richard Rampton, who conjures up some genius rebuttals to Irving’s admittedly convincing arguments. Timothy Spall shines as the scowling historian, especially in court where he’s allowed to present his evidence against the Holocaust without bias. Elsewhere the film is a little too quick to condemn him as treacherous and villainous; perhaps rightfully so, but it’s tempting to think that this could have been even more provocative and compelling if both sides were given equal contention.

Despite its emotional flaws, Denial is incredibly absorbing to watch. A trip to Auschwitz part way through creates a sombre atmosphere and helps to ground the situation in a sobering reality, reminding us of just what these two intellectuals are squabbling over. The handling of the hearings alone is enough to make Denial a welcome entry to the courtroom drama genre.

Denial is available in Australian cinemas from April 13

Image courtesy of EntertainmentOne Films 

Movie Review – Colossal

A weirdly wonderful multilayered monster mash just stomped into cinemas. And it’s not Godzilla.

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Corey Hogan

Gloria’s (Anne Hathaway) seemingly cushy life is unravelling at the seams. She simultaneously loses her job and is dumped by her boyfriend (Dan Stevens) due to her unhinged alcoholism and general reckless disregard towards life, forcing her out of his New York apartment and back to her hometown. Here she reconnects with old school friend Oscar (Jason Sudeikis) who helps her to get set up and begin rebuilding her life. Unexpectedly, news reports of a giant monster destroying Seoul suddenly surface, and Gloria eventually comes to the realisation she is connected to and in control of it, and that her pointless life may in fact have a huge effect on the world.

The lawsuits surrounding it suggested otherwise, but Colossal is wholly unique. Godzilla’s parent company’s attempts to sue for plagiarism wound up unsuccessful, and rightfully so, as writer-director Nacho Vigalondo’s (Open Windows) kaiju comedy is about as far away from your typical monster mash as it gets. It’s pretty damn near unclassifiable in fact; marketed as a sort of quirky indie romantic comedy (with city-levelling creatures), it’s all of these things and none of them.

Instead, Colossal constantly subverts expectations and continually takes surprisingly dark turns, winding up a metaphor-heavy meditation on the consequences of alcoholism, violent behaviour and harbouring ugly, hate-filled feelings. There’s a colossal amount of substance to chew on here (pun intended), and a tight-knit cast of deep, complex characters who range from (and slide between) sympathetic and truly detestable. Vigalondo’s most innovative move is keeping the human drama front-and-centre; this element winds up far more chaotic and destructive. Huge spectacle is avoided unlike any other creature feature, making the stakes much more intimate yet concurrently grand in ramifications; like every approach to the film it’s unusual, but it’s massively absorbing madness.

Anne Hathaway, who, after her Oscar win became the subject of a strange amount of hate, looks set to shrug off that career slump she’s been stuck in the past few years. Gloria is deeply flawed and very much her own worst enemy, but Hathaway gives her charm and humour that makes it easy to flip instantly between laughing at her situation and pitying it. The desire to see her better herself is always there, and she’s giddily watchable as she attempts to work out why her inner demons have manifested themselves as a literal monster.

Surprisingly though, it’s Jason Sudeikis who’s given the real meaty stuff to work with. Smug jerks are his specialty, but here he’s on an intense new level that steers much of the film’s unpredictable turns and shocking revelations. It’s difficult to discuss without giving too much away, but it’s very likely the best performance he’s ever delivered.

Though it won’t break the box office like its kaiju kin, it deserves that kind of recognition; it’s enormously creative, monstrously original and colossally entertaining.

Colossal is available in Australian cinemas from April 13

Image courtesy of Transmission Films

Movie Review – The Fate of the Furious

Fast cars, ludicrous stunts and dumb dialogue – exactly what you’d expect from a Fast and Furious movie!

⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Josip Knezevic

The Fast and The Furious franchise has returned for its eighth instalment, only this time it must continue its legacy without star lead Paul Walker. Walker’s absence set up quite the emotional impact in the previous movie, so I was curious to see where the series would head next. To my surprise, the series seems to be heading in the right direction… somewhat.

In The Fate of the Furious we re-unite with our beloved Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) who’s honeymooning with wife Letty (Michelle Rodriguez). A mysterious woman soon appears and lures Dom into becoming a hired terrorist, leading him to betray all those close to him. It’s up to our revhead compadres to figure what’s happened to the old Dom and save the world. Screw the C.I.A, who else would you trust, right?

Once again, the theme of family is a major player in this latest film. It’s been prevalent throughout the entire franchise, but while this is an important conceptual torch to bear, it only needs to exist in the background. We’ve seen the exact same situation in Fast 6 when Letty turned on her family. Now that we’re up to movie number eight, it’s kinda like beating a dead horse.

What makes a franchise everlasting is its ability to produce a range of memorable entries. With Harry Potter, the early films were a joyful introduction to the wizarding world, while the last films were far darker in tone. Each film in Fast and Furious feels like the same story just set in a different location around the world.

As the franchise unfolds, the one redeeming factor is that each new film grows in scale and strives to outdo the last. In the early days, the films were all about street racing, then drifting and then bank robberies. This has progressed to tank battles, the world’s longest airplane chase and driving Lamborghini’s from skyscraper into skyscraper. It’s ridiculous, but it’s what I fucking love. You can’t help but enjoy the spectacle, and thankfully The Fate of The Furious continues this to greater lengths.

This is ultimately why I would recommend seeing this on the big screen. The action sequences are mindless, but great to watch, and comic relief characters such as Roman (Tyrese Gibson) allow for some genuine laughs.

If people love something so much that they’re prepared to keep coming back again and again, why then would The Fast and the Furious bother to change its formula? But to become a truly great franchise, it needs to go beyond following a simple formula and be bold in its storytelling. I’m hoping for a ninth installment that either ventures into new territory thematically, or at least continues to amp up the level of ludicrousness in the action sequences. But for now, it’s time to enjoy some submarine car chases.

The Fate of the Furious is available in Australian cinemas from April 13

Image (c) Universal Pictures 2017

Movie Review – CHIPS

Humourless, disorderly and just plain ugly – you really don’t want to watch CHIPS, trust me.

½
Rhys Graeme Drury

From Charlie’s Angels to Starsky and Hutch and 21 Jump Street, Hollywood loves to dig into the past and resurrect dusty 70s and 80s TV shows and give them a raunchy 21st Century spin. Sometimes it works (the Jump Street movies are a hoot) and sometimes it doesn’t (that Dukes of Hazzard thing with Jessica Simpson) – and then there is CHIPS.

I want you to close your eyes and picture the least funny film you can imagine, where each scene is a joyless, jumbled mess of disjointed editing, harried plot details and distasteful, putrid humour. That movie you’re picturing in your head doesn’t even come close to how offensively bad Chips is. To paraphrase the great Roger Ebert, CHIPS doesn’t just scrape the bottom of the barrel – it doesn’t even belong in the same sentence as the worst barrels imaginable.

Hang on a second; I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s circle back to a brief plot synopsis, shall we? Not that it really matters – telling a coherent narrative isn’t just secondary in Chips, it’s situated somewhere outside the top ten when it comes to what really matters to writer, director and co-lead actor Dax Shepard.

As I said, CHIPS is based on a cute 70s cop show about the California Highway Patrol ,(hence the bafflingly nonsensical acronym for a title). Shepard plays Jon Baker, a retired motorcycle stunt rider who enrols in the CHP to win back the affection of his visibly disinterested and disloyal wife Karen (Kristen Bell, who is Shepard’s actual wife in real-life – haha, so meta – this film has so many layers!)

Jon’s partner is undercover FBI agent slash legit sexual predator who needs to be locked up Frank ‘Ponch’ Poncherello (Michael Peña). When Ponch screws the pooch and shoots another office while attempting to foil a heist, he’s placed undercover alongside the hapless Baker and together they need to learn to work together and end the string of heists. Hilarity ensues, presumably.

If only that were the case. Alas, CHIPS doesn’t just fail to entertain as an action-comedy, it pretty much fails in any and all respects. The narrative, as I mentioned, is incoherent at best. For a film with such a simple setup, there are at least a dozen too many characters.

The villains are sketchy (by which I mean they have zero motivation or genuine logical thought for anything), the heroes are either dim-witted douchebags or straight-up sex pests and the reasons for us to care are practically non-existent. The editing is terrible, the action is limp and scenes just lurch from one unfunny joke to the next with no purpose or driving force. I’ve genuinely never seen a major studio film as poorly structured, shot and edited as CHIPS. Worst of all, the humour is just plain mean. Jokes are made at the expense of gay people, people with disability, people with Crohn’s Disease, women in general – the list goes on and on.

If you’ve gotten this far and are still considering checking this film out, you deserve every second of excruciating pain coming your way. You have been warned.

CHIPS is available in Australian cinemas from April 6

Image courtesy of Roadshow Films

Movie Review – Smurfs: The Lost Village

Our favourite little blue creatures are back on the big screen, but it’s starting to wear a little thin the third time around.

⭐ ⭐
Josip Knezevic

Unlike the previous Smurf films, Smurfs: The Lost Village focuses on the most unique of these blue critters; the only female smurf, aptly named Smurfette (voiced by Julia Roberts). In a village filled with male Smurfs who each have a defining trait, Smurfette begins to feel out of place. Unlike her fellow villagers, Smurfette was created from a piece of clay by the evil wizard Gargamel (voiced by Rainn Wilson) and so she lacks a singular special skill. Naturally, this leads her on a journey to discover her identity. Throw in the possibility of other Smurfs existing in a place unknown and you can see exactly where this story is going…

What’s truly great about The Lost Village is the smooth 3D animation. Everything flows seamlessly, but it’s the large colourful displays during the action set pieces that shine the most. The scene where the Smurfs encounter a group of dragonflies is particularly noteworthy; each creature has been meticulously designed with unique colour traits. As a childhood fan of these characters, I can confidently say that the Smurfs translate well from their original hand drawn cartoon to CGI animation… but sadly, this is where the good stuff ends.

While I enjoyed the focus on Smurfette’s character arc, it felt as though the story lost (pun intended) it’s meaning along the way. What began as an interesting decision to tackle identity and one’s purpose in life, slowly shifted to basic storytelling: a village is found, Gargamel plans to capture the village, Smurfette and her friends must stop him… and that’s pretty much it.

Not only do you know how it’s all going to end, but the journey along the way is far too unoriginal to be even remotely engaging. In this sense it reminds me of the new Power Rangers, but where The Lost Village outshines that particular mess is in its character dynamics. There’s some well-crafted interactions between Smurfette, Clumsy, Brainy and Hefty that have hilarious outcomes. It’s just a shame that the relationships between these characters lose any sense of depth against a plot that doesn’t lend itself to exploring these little personalities.

There are reasons why we ultimately love children’s films. It’s because they’re not just films for children. We can still get the same feelings watching The Lion King now as we did 20 years or so ago. It’s why we’ll pay money again to see a live-action imagining of an animated film we’ve loved for decades. This is where The Lost Village is lacking. Parents, take your kids to see The LEGO Batman Movie instead. They’ll enjoy it. You’ll enjoy it. It’s a much better result for all.

Smurfs: The Lost Village is available in Australian cinemas from March 30

Image courtesy of Sony Pictures

Movie Review – Ghost in the Shell

Why is it so difficult to take a concept made for TV and translate it into a feature film? Ghost In The Shell adds to a long list of failed adaptations, following in the footsteps of Power Rangers and Avatar: The Last Airbender.

⭐ ⭐
Josip Knezevic

Based on the anime series, Ghost in the Shell explores a near future where humans have developed technology that allows for cybernetic enhancements. From increasing vision capabilities, to a robotic liver that can withstand any amount of alcohol, the boundaries of this technology are pushed to the limit. Soon young woman the Major (Scarlett Johansson) wakes to find she has become the first human integrated A.I., with a mechanical body that has been fused with her human mind.

I wish I could say that Hollywood has done justice to the original anime series of Ghost in the Shell, but if I could describe the motion picture version in one word, it would be lacklustre. The film opts to focus heavily on the Major (rather than the variety of characters featured in the anime), which may have worked if not for Johansson’s flat performance. The whole point of the movie is to show that the  Major is more than just a robot, and yet Johansson’s expression remains stone cold for the entirety of the film, making it very difficult to relate to her character. There’s been plenty of artificial intelligence based characters in films such as I, Robot and Aliens that have managed to show enough human emotion to allow us to care for them, but Johansson never brings any such warmth or charisma.

Backing up this dreary lead performance is a predictable and uneventful story where nothing of consequence ever really happens. Thankfully, a strong performance from Pilou Absaek as the Major’s partner Batou keeps the film from being completely unwatchable. The visual effects are also excellent in creating a realistic picture of our world thirty years from now. But overall, Ghost in the Shell is just another forgettable rehash of a great TV show.

Ghost in the Shell is available in Australian cinemas from March 29

Image courtesy of Paramount Pictures 

Movie Review – The LEGO Batman Movie

Attention all movies. Always be yourself… unless you can be Lego Batman.

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ½
Josip Knezevic

Holy crap was this ever so fun to watch. You heard it here: go see The LEGO Batman Movie as soon as possible! I can’t believe how ecstatic I am to be sitting here writing this review, but OK, time to focus…

From the producers of The Lego Movie, LEGO Batman swiftly expands the Lego Universe to the city of Gotham, and by expand I really do mean expand. We witness the first on screen appearances of the most dangerous villains from the Batman franchise in Lego form. It’s a star-studded affair and it’s simply perfect.

When the credits rolled and my happiness levels peaked, I was surprised to see a total of 5 writers responsible for this magical Lego experience. It’s rare to see such a large team of writers work so well together. The sheer number of jokes per minute is staggering. This is quite possibly the funniest superhero movie ever made, with jokes that film buffs, Batman fans and basically anyone can enjoy.

Aside from the humour, LEGO Batman also tackles dramatic themes with the meaning of family and the fear of loss. Given how well this ties in with Bruce Wayne’s story, I’m surprised these ideas haven’t been previously explored in other films set in the Batman universe. It’s a refreshing approach and one that serves it purpose appropriately among all the jokes and spectacle of the animation.

Yes, LEGO Batman is predictable, but it doesn’t matter. You’re too busy enjoying yourself to care. It isn’t as smart as the original Lego Movie, but it has enough pizzazz to elevate itself as a standout film for 2017. It’s entirely self-aware and the special effects team do an outstanding job of creating the Lego world with a really high attention to detail.

I can’t wait to see The LEGO NINJAGO Movie due out at the end of the year, and I hope the creative team explore more multiverse interactions in the future. Bring on LEGO Avengers and Justice League!

The LEGO Batman Movie is available in Australian cinemas from March 30 

Image courtesy of Roadshow Films