Movie Review – 20th Century Women

Like looking at a polaroid that captured a treasured memory, 20th Century Women is a dizzyingly beautiful snapshot of life and the moments that make it.

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Corey Hogan

It’s a time of huge cultural change, rebellion and liberation in 1979 as determined single mother Dorothea (Annette Bening) faces the challenge of raising her easily influenced teenage son Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) alone. Concerned she’s unable to connect with him, and with no father figure in sight, she enlists the help of two other women in Jamie’s life (Elle Fanning and Greta Gerwig respectively) to help raise him.

Writer/director Mike Mills successfully explored his father’s coming out (and subsequent death) in his excellent film Beginners, and now with 20th Century Women he takes a semi-autobiographical look at his childhood and his relationship with his mother. At surface level, it’s standard indie fare, equal parts comedic and dramatic, but Mills digs deeper than many of his peers, getting under the skin of his characters.

With a golden, sunbathed tint to everything, there’s the feeling that we’re warmly reliving an old memory. Scenes are intercut with clips of bands playing and Jimmy Carter delivering speeches, rooting a strong sense of nostalgia in place. There’s an infectious and joyous optimism that buzzes around these open-minded people, even as they all seem pretty damn confused and directionless a lot of the time.

Elle Fanning and Greta Gerwig are both on typically fine form, showing more of why they’re currently owning the indie scene. Lucas Jade Zumann is granted his breakout role after a few smaller ones, gleefully promising a bright acting future. The star of the show though is Annette Bening. Having intensely studied recreating what Mills claims is a highly accurate rendering of his own mother, Bening breathes life into a terrific woman, and gives one of the best performances of her career.

20th Century Women is, in simple terms, a wonderful time. It’s a deeply personal, rose-tinted love letter to the people of a period that bleeds into our own, and a breath of fresh air and optimism where cynicism feels far too commonplace. Beautifully shot, insightful and witty, Mills’ childhood makes for a deep and delightful piece of cinema.

20th Century Women is available in Australian cinemas from June 1st 

Image courtesy of EntertainmentOne Films

Movie Review – King Arthur: Legend of the Sword

Sometimes, less is more.

⭐ ⭐
Cherie Wheeler

Throw the traditional tale of the Knights of the Round Table into a blender, add a dash of Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, then mix it in with any generic, supernatural video game that heavily leans on stylised violence, and ta-da! You’ll have something that resembles Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur: Legend of the Sword.

The world of Camelot has been visited many times before on both the small and silver screens, so I appreciate the need to take some creative liberties on the original material to produce something fresh, but unfortunately, Ritchie’s re-envisioning of this classic story doesn’t quite land.

In Legend of the Sword, you can forget about Guinevere and Lancelot, and forgo any hopes of Merlin hanging around long enough to do anything significant. Instead, as the title suggests, this film is all about the sword in the stone: Excalibur.

Jealous brother to the King (Jude Law) craves power and uses dark magic to steal the throne from his royal sibling (Eric Bana). The son of the King, Arthur (Charlie Hunnam) grows up orphaned in a slum with no knowledge of his heritage, while his Uncle rules Camelot with an iron fist. Resistance fighters loyal to Arthur’s father seek out the “true King” to lead a revolution with the power of the sword, but this Arthur is cocky, belligerent, and of course, reluctant to fulfil his birthright. There’s also a wide range of subplots running alongside this that include (but are certainly not limited to…) a sorceress, a gang of Vikings and a couple of non-white characters who’ve been blatantly shoehorned in for political correctness.

As you can see, we’ve already got a rather convoluted story, but this gets weighed down further by bulky exposition and supernatural mythology. Ritchie’s knee-jerk reaction is to turn to frenetic pacing and chaotic editing to try and keep things interesting. The end result, however, is a mind-boggling whirlwind. The fantastical elements are beyond far-fetched and simply don’t gel with the dialogue heavy, time-jumping style of storytelling.

On the bright side, there is some magnificent production design and cinematography on display, but it has clearly drawn its inspiration from Game of Thrones. In fact, the film tries a little too hard to emulate the HBO series, even borrowing Roose Bolton and Littlefinger for supporting cast roles. It doesn’t ever reach the same level of raw impact during its violent action sequences due to its reliance on well executed, but ultimately excessive visual effects.

Charlie Hunnam does what he can to bring to life this cheeky and obnoxious version of Arthur, but the character’s arrogance and disrespect for authority pushes credibility at times. I found myself constantly questioning the actions and motives of many characters and was not satisfied with the convenient explanations that would pop up in delayed flashback sequences to fill in holes of information.

At the end of the day, Legend of the Sword tries to be too many things at once. While Tarantino’s Kill Bill films and the more recent Get Out manage to successfully meld multiple styles and genre tropes, Ritchie’s King Arthur simply becomes a confusing, hot mess.

King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is available in Australian cinemas from May 18

Image courtesy of Roadshow Films

Blockbusters To Watch Out For This Winter

Josip Knezevic 

America has entered blockbuster season, and that means some of the year’s biggest budget films will soon be hitting our cinemas. Unless you’ve been living under a rock, it’s likely you’ve heard something about these upcoming films. There’s some familiar franchises headed our way, as well as some fresh blood that may just upset the established order of things.

When you say “blockbuster” it’s hard not to immediately think of Transformers. Yes, for some reason, Michael Bay is continuing his nonsensical spout of robot violence… well, that reason is probably the $1 billion USD Transformers: Age of Extinction made at the box office, but I digress.

The latest entry, Transformers: The Last Knight, aims to shatter the franchise mythology established by its many predecessors. Humans and Transformers will be pitted against each other, with no Optimus Price around to act as a peacemaker. Fans of the series will no doubt flock to their local cinema to see this latest installment, and even I have to admit that there are some amazing special effects on display in the trailer. Here’s hoping the same can be said for the story… but it’s hard to even suggest that with a straight face.

This week we’ve seen Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales sail into cinemas. Filmed off the coast of Australia, we revisit our favourite “worst pirate”, Captain Jack Sparrow, now under threat from old nemesis (yes, another one) Captain Salazar (Javier Bardem). Captain Jack’s only hope lies in finding the Trident of Poseidon, which grants its possessor total control of the seas. Could this be the revival the series needs after the questionable On Stranger Tides? Perhaps if Jason Momoa was thrown in as a fill in for Poseidon we might be getting somewhere…

Speaking of Aquaman and comic book films, we have origin films Wonder Woman and Spider-man: Homecoming coming very soon. After getting a taste of these characters in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Captain America: Civil War respectively, it’s hard to anticipate which film will be more successful. Interest in both films has grown exponentially on the back of each trailer. Personally, I’m less concerned with yet another re-boot of the Spider-Man series, so I hope Wonder Woman takes the win at the box office, but we shall see.

And finally, we’ve got the return of The Mummy, only this time, our beloved Brendan Fraser isn’t here to reprise his role. Instead, we’ve got Tom Cruise. Perhaps I’m blinded by my affection for Fraser, but Cruise seems to be a questionable choice. Nevertheless, The Mummy promises to once again tackle an ancient spirit who has accidentally risen from the dead to wreak havoc.

So, there you have it. If these films don’t get your heart pumping, fear not! As we draw nearer to Christmas time, another influx of blockbusters will be hitting our screens. Films like Blade Runner 2049, Dunkirk, The Dark Tower, Justice League, Thor: Ragnarok and Star Wars: The Last Jedi will be coming to a screen near you!

 

Image courtesy of Roadshoew Films 

Movie Review – Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales

The fifth instalment to the Pirates of the Caribbean series is at once familiar and comfortable, even if it’s all been done before.

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ½
Zachary Cruz-Tan

The Pirates of the Caribbean movies have long since crossed over into James Bond territory; they’re no longer about their heroes. What’s more important are the villains – who are usually dead, undead, or about to die – and the central MacGuffins. This time the villain is played by Javier Bardem and the MacGuffin is the legendary trident of Poseidon, and it’s a real doozy because unlike all the other MacGuffins, this one promises to undo the curses of the seven seas and restore life to normality, which, we are hoping, also includes scraping the barnacles off poor Orlando Bloom’s face.

As you may or may not recall, Will Turner (Bloom) suffered the dreaded barnacle curse at the hands of Davy Jones more than ten years ago, and as Dead Men Tell No Tales opens, his son Henry (Brenton Thwaites) vows to relieve him of it. To do that, of course, he will need the trident, which also means, by tradition of a Pirates of the Caribbean plot, he will have to team up with Jack Sparrow.

Sparrow is once again played by Johnny Depp and is once again a figure most intrusive. Depp plays him with so much flavour that the less we see of him, the better. But in Dead Men Sparrow is everywhere, usually severely unfunny and always in danger of derailing the film’s joys, of which there are surprisingly plenty.

This is a proper swashbuckling action adventure, with the kind of scale to make David Lean proud and the sort of thunderous, full-blooded musical score that elevated Star Wars (1977) to an art form. Sparrow and Depp aside, directors Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg have crafted here a movie about the seas that plays like a chapter from a children’s novel pumped full of adrenaline. Yes, the plot is essentially a beeline to the MacGuffin, the film borrows almost every joke and narrative element from its predecessors, and the bad guys are once again shot in front of a green screen and digitally animated to look like half-eaten zombies, but I was relieved to discover a story behind all the action; an honest attempt to make us care for the characters for once.

Henry wants to return his dad to his former self, which brings out all the awws from the audience. Hector Barbossa (Rush) is back and despairs of ever finding true meaning in his life. Carina Smyth (Kaya Scodelario), another new addition, dreams of finding the trident because it’s the quest her dad started and never got to finish, and Scodelario has some fun running about in her corseted dress as she makes all the men look like fools.

Dead Men is more entertaining than a fifth movie in an insufferable series has any right to be. There are visually splendid moments, such as when a mysterious island lights up with crystals to reflect the night sky. And there is a majesty about the film’s climactic showdown in which the ocean waters part like the Red Sea and the Black Pearl teeters precariously on the edge above.

I cannot recommend you see this film for the plot or the jokes, but I suspect you will have a good time feeling its cheerful energy. I, for one, walked out humming the theme music with a smile. That’s gotta count for something.

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales is available in Australian cinemas from May 25 

Image courtesy of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Movie Review – John Wick: Chapter 2

John Wick: Chapter 2 might just be the best video game movie ever made.

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

Rhys Graeme-Drury

 

Movies based on video games tend to get a bad rap; Assassin’s Creed, Warcraft and Lara Croft are just the tip of the iceberg. But movies that take inspiration from video games? Now they’re a different story all together. Think Edge of Tomorrow, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World or Source Code; all films that draw from video game storytelling techniques and motifs to craft a compelling film in their own right. To this exclusive club you can add John Wick: Chapter 2, a film that looks and feels like a video game in ways that both elevate and hinder the viewing experience.

The film is so loaded with action that thin strands of plot barely factor into the equation; it’s a plug-and-play sort of scenario where the film points Wick in a vague direction and simply lets him loose to wreak havoc. He’s essentially a generic video game protagonist brought to life, and like all good video game protagonists, he’s monosyllabic and lets his pistols do the talking. The occasional dialogue scenes that punctuate the action feel like the brief cut scene reprieves one might idly sit through whilst playing Uncharted or Far Cry, fingers itching at the joysticks until you can jump back into the action, just as Wick’s hands hover over his holsters.

All you need to know is this: Wick’s (Keanu Reeves) actions in the first film have put the cat among the pigeons and a mysterious man from his past called Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio) has a debt that needs to be repaid. Wick’s mission is to eliminate an important mob figure in Rome, and so he sets to work plotting an intricate assassination in the vein of Hitman or Assassin’s Creed.

Everything about this film feels plucked from the world of video games. The pre-mission montage that sees Wick tooling up recalls Battlefield or Titanfall, where the player cycles through outfit, weapon and perk loadouts before heading into the fray; the way Wick moves through each action sequence with swift destruction mimics the player experience on classic arcade shooters like Time Crisis or Ghost Squad; the waves upon waves of enemies that seemingly spawn out of nowhere and pop out of cover to receive a swift bullet to the cranium not at all unlike a frenzied de_dust deathmatch on Counter Strike. The way that Wick anticipates his enemies and delivers a swift no-scope head shot evokes someone who has already tried their hand at this level umpteen times before.

Even the set design invokes the way levels feel different and unique to one another as a player progresses through a video game, from a sewer labyrinth beneath a Roman basilica to a revolving hall of mirrors. The fight choreography is graceful and callous, like a swift combo execution on Mortal Kombat; the ruthless blood splatters akin to a fine-tuned finisher move.

Of course, this essentially leaves us with a film that is wafer thin on plot but top heavy on punchy martial arts. That will work for some – the audience at my particular screening was certainly lapping it up – but I concede this approach isn’t for everyone. If you’re looking for a film in which Reeves gets to emote, this isn’t it. But if gorgeous cinematography, seamless editing and unrelenting action are your thing, you simply can’t look past John Wick: Chapter 2. There isn’t any other film series out there right now quite like it; let’s hope this second installment doesn’t prove to be the final checkpoint.

John Wick: Chapter 2 is available in Australian cinemas from May 18 2017.

Image courtesy of Summit Entertainment.

Movie Review – Viceroy’s House

Gurinder Chadha serves us a slice of British/Indian history in a clumsy mix of waffling politics, tumultuous outbreaks, lush sets and romantic fluff.

⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Corey Hogan

After three hundred years under British rule, India is finally transitioning to an independent nation in 1947. The Viceroy’s House, a decadent palace in Delhi, was home to these rulers for centuries. Now it is to host one final Viceroy, Lord Mountbatten (Hugh Bonneville) and his wife Edwina (Gillian Anderson), tasked with overseeing the handover back to the Indian people. But this is no simple manoeuvre; the nation is divided in opinion from the great change and soon mass conflict erupts, severely complicating things for the Viceroy, his family and his servants.

Director Gurinder Chadha (Bend It like Beckham, Bride and Prejudice) occasionally gives life to the rich history and subject matter of Viceroy’s House, though it’s a tad too often that she squanders it with the melodrama and directional flair of a made-for-television movie. Luckily, such superficial shortcomings are routinely rescued thanks to history itself stepping in to give some vibrancy to an otherwise flat and conventional royalty period piece.

Pomp and circumstance is dialled up to eleven as the Mountbattens enter the Viceroy’s House. Thankfully, the charade is dropped when the Lord is forced to deal with real issues, and suddenly we’re permitted a more authentic look at everyday life in the House, and the actors are given the opportunity to flex more than just their accents.

The film is at its best when famous real-life figures drop in, especially Gandhi (portrayed cheerfully by Neeraj Kabi), who gets some of the most amusing and interesting scenes. It’s unfortunate that much of the lead up to this is a long slog of dry political negotiations and debates. These may be authentic, but they’re deadly dull, save for the occasional bit of conflict or wry humour from General Ismay (Michael Gambon).

Even worse is the extremely strained and hokey love story between Jeet (Manish Dayal), a manservant of the Viceroy, and Aalia (Huma Qureshi), a newly appointed assistant. It checks off every romantic cliché in the book, even throwing in a love triangle with an arranged marriage and a separation that leads to tragedy. This does a great disservice to the plot, feeling clumsily placed and distracting from anything potentially interesting.

The full tale of India’s Partition is perhaps too much to be crammed into less than two hours, especially when much of that time is spent focused on melodramatic nonsense over the great transition at hand. Viceroy’s House will no doubt be adored by the elderly, to whom this by-the-books royal biopic is clearly geared towards. It’s lively and watchable enough, and does boast another exotic score from A.R. Rahman (Slumdog Millionaire).

Viceroy’s House is available in Australian cinemas from May 18

Image courtesy of Transmission Films

Movie Review – The Sense of an Ending

Like honey on burnt toast – sweet, but dull overall.

⭐ ⭐ ½     
Cody Fullbrook 

Older characters detailing their nostalgic past are surprisingly underutilised stories in film. Anthony Webster (Jim Broadbent) is one such person, forced to revisit key moments of his life, leading him to a series of startling revelations about himself and those in his life.

The Sense Of An Ending is incredibly intimate and sincere, with every actor naturally portraying their down-to-earth characters in a heartfelt and well shot film. I say this to sugar-coat the depressing conclusion that I wanted so badly for it to be better. Excluding clever, though rare, shots of present day Anthony walking through locations of his past, the film’s presentation is just too dry to effectively carry heavy themes such as suicide, first loves, parenting and secret affairs. The events themselves are fine, but an average story within a sluggishly paced production kills your empathy for these people who, honestly, aren’t that interesting and don’t have lives that are extremely different from most people you would know in your own life.

Even Anthony’s revelations don’t pack much of a punch.  Not only are we given no reason to care about what are, essentially, average people, but the quantity of these events and the characters they involve cripples the impact. I wasn’t able to keep track of all the characters names as they discussed their history, and the chatter of fellow viewers during these moments reassured me of my warranted ignorance. With mothers, siblings, daughters and friends to keep track of, Anthony’s intense exposition dump near the end of the film is a surprisingly necessary blessing.

I feel bad for being so harsh on The Sense Of An Ending. The cinematography and score are above average, but, unfortunately, the story alone is too confusing and dry to make it anything more than a mildly sweet film to watch to kill some time.  Just find a movie where Robin Williams has a beard and pick that instead.

The Sense of an Ending is available in Australian cinemas from May 18

Image courtesy of Roadshow Films

Movie Review – A Dog’s Purpose

A sweet but needlessly scattered family film that pulls at your heartstrings like, I dunno, some kind of furry mammal.

⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Cody Fullbrook

Never work with children and animals, they say. Well, A Dog’s Purpose has both, following the life, or rather, lives, of a dog as it reincarnates into different breeds and families to love, learn and lick. As a retriever, he leaves his first owner, Ethan (Bryce Gheisar/K.J. Apa), before becoming a police dog, pampered corgi, then an abandoned bernese mountain dog who finally and miraculously makes its way back to Ethan (Dennis Quaid).

All these lives revolve around the owner’s loneliness and troubles, and looking at A Dog’s Purpose as a whole, it reveals itself as being nothing more than a collection of effective but mostly unconnected short films. This structure is the movie’s biggest weakness, causing the entire premise to be a quick and shallow look at family life from the perspective of a stupid, hairy person.

Whether it’s handsome jocks, dorky students, petulant bullies, stoic cops and drunk fathers, every character is completely one note, made even worse by the film’s intention of passing on a life lesson which ends up being pathetically hollow.

Don’t get me wrong, A Dog’s Purpose is dripping with schmaltz, in all the good ways, and even though there isn’t much substance to these characters, their personalities and lives are distinct and instantly relatable, if only due to its reliance of clichés and even repeated catch phrases. Excluding its last reincarnation which is appropriately bleak, every life this dog has is full of heartfelt moments. You just need to accept that it gets taken everywhere like football matches, schools and restaurants as if every owner is a traumatized blind person.

Unsurprisingly, the dog steals the show, and not just because of Josh Gad’s soft and innocently playful voice. The most praise for A Dog’s Purpose must go to the dog trainers, who give each furry performer clear and purposeful direction and motive to all its actions. No movement is wasted, with an early shot of the dog chasing a cat being especially impressive.

A Dog’s Purpose is certainly not a bad film for someone looking for something wholesome. In fact, I distinctly remember hearing strong, sharp sniffs during the credits as several members of the audience sucked up their slimy snot of sadness. I, myself, had watery eyes multiple times. It definitely ticks all the boxes and functions fine as a sweet family film, but with such a simple plot, only younger viewers will leave feeling totally fulfilled. On the plus side, the director’s first name looks like “Lassie”. That’s funny.

A Dog’s Purpose is available in Australian cinemas from May 4 2017

Image courtesy of EntertainmentOne Films 

Movie Review – Alien: Covenant

Ridley Scott reforges his covenant with the Alien franchise, but abandons the spark that once lit it up.

⭐ ⭐ ½
Zachary Cruz-Tan

Alien: Covenant follows on from Ridley Scott’s Prometheus and will no doubt lead into his classic Alien (1979), but it feels like a movie that has exhausted itself and run out of ideas. After thirty-eight years and seven films, how many new ways can there be to hide the dreaded monster in the dark and make it go “Boo!”?

The Alien movies ran their course by the time Aliens (1986) was done. Then Prometheus came about in 2012 carrying the Alien DNA and a bag full of new and exciting possibilities. Now Covenant arrives as the inevitable sequel and leaves all the promise of Prometheus behind. For those who found Prometheus to be a step too detached from the franchise, I suspect Covenant will be a comfort. But for those, like me, who enjoyed the new ground Prometheus was exploring, this movie will seem like a toothless clone of a once great empire.

Alien was a fantastic film because it was patient and understood the mechanics of horror, which used space, lighting and pacing to draw us in to a perpetual state of anticipation. It employed the Jaws formula – by keeping the monster that could potentially eat the entire cast hidden for most of the film, its eventual revelation was shocking. Covenant dashes headfirst into the action, regularly foregoing any kind of build-up. We see the aliens up close and very often, many times in wide shots that reveal their entire humanoid physique. Yes, by now we are no longer strangers to what the aliens look like, but when you throw them at us from every direction and pay little attention to where they come from or how they emerge, the film simply becomes an action machine.

You could argue that Covenant, therefore, is more about its characters and continuing the story that was introduced in the previous film. This it does naturally. Michael Fassbender returns as an android, and we get a new ship with a new crew made up of familiar faces like Danny McBride, Billy Crudup, Demián Bichir and Katherine Waterston, though who they are is not as important as what they do. Most of what they do is a re-enactment of what all the past Alien crews have done: scream their heads off and run for their lives.

I think by now we have all been Aliened-out, just like we’ve been Transformered-out and Pirates of the Caribbeaned-out. These pictures have crossed over into tired repetitiveness. Covenant is as well-made as any other big budget movie out there, with lots of tantalising visuals and ideas that are never developed or pushed to fruition. What it lacks is purpose and direction. It feels strangely eventless, as if two hours go by and we’re suddenly at the climax. If this had been the first of its kind, maybe it might’ve been something to remember. Unfortunately, its kind has been done and dusted, and then dusted some more.

Alien: Covenant is available in Australian cinemas from May 11

Image courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox

Movie Review – The Zookeeper’s Wife

Yet another World War II drama that fails to reach the greatness of Schindler’s List.

⭐ ⭐ ½
Josip Knezevic

Most stories of defiance against the Nazi regime tell tales of courageous acts in the face of overwhelming odds. At times, it can become hard to believe that such events ever took place. The Zookeeper’s Wife takes this a step further by introducing animals into the equation, but still falls short of what could have been an outstanding film.

Set in 1939, we follow the lives of Dr Jan Zabinski (Johan Heldenbergh) and wife Anontia (Jessica Chastian) who are keepers at the Warsaw Zoo – one of the largest zoos in Europe. When Hitler’s invasion comes, the Zabinski’s begin to secretly work alongside the Polish resistance to help rescue people from the Warsaw Ghetto.

The Zookeeper’s Wife marks new territory for New Zealand director Nik Caro, who is most well-known for his 2002 film Whale Rider. Adapted from Diane Ackerman’s novel, The Zookeeper’s Wife tries to cover far too much content and ends up being far more lengthy than necessary. It becomes a yearly account of the Zabinski’s lives over the wartime period and this ultimately takes the punch out of the more dramatic moments in the film. A shorter and sharper edit could have made for a much stronger picture.

Thankfully, when the time is taken to explore one of the more meaningful subplots, The Zookeper’s Wife excels. Shots of the bombardment of the zoo are harrowing to watch and serve as a reminder that humans are not the only victims of war. Caro does bring everything together in the end for a satisfying conclusion that’s bound to tug a few heartstrings, but unfortunately the film takes a long, meandering path to get there and wastes Chastain’s talent in the process.

As an animal lover, I knew The Zookeeper’s Wife would be difficult to watch. But as a film lover, I expected more.

The Zookeeper’s Wife is available in Australian cinemas from May 4

Image courtesy of Roadshow Films