Thursday, 27 July 2017

War For The Planet Of The Apes

(M) ★★★★

Director: Matt Reeves.

Cast: Andy Serkis, Woody Harrelson, Steve Zahn, Karin Konoval, Amiah Miller, Terry Notary, Ty Olsson, Michael Adamthwaite, Gabriel Chavarria.

Woody wished his sunnies had wipers.
WHEN it comes time to talk about the greatest trilogies of all time, the new Planet Of The Apes films need to be in the discussion.

That's not to say they're better than the original Star Wars trilogy or Lord Of The Rings or Toy Story, but Apes deserves a spot at least in the top 10, maybe even top five.

Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes and Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes were both far better than anyone expected - the first one because the bad taste of Tim Burton's re-imagining lingered, and the second because it was largely assumed the first one was a fluke and sequelitis was sure to set in.

So the expectations on War For The Planet Of The Apes were higher than they'd been all series. And, oh boy, War delivers.

The aftermath of Dawn sees humans and apes in an ongoing battle, with Caesar (Serkis) and his simian colony hiding in the North American woods, only fighting when they have to. But self-styled warlord The Colonel (Harrelson) wants complete victory and pushes Caesar to the edge, sparking a journey into the heart of darkness for the ape leader that threatens to end one of the species.


These films have been so great because they've consistently featured amazing characters and explored the human condition and such deep themes as love, hate, power, trust, revenge, forgiveness and other such meaty subjects. It just so happened that most of those characters were apes played by motion-captured humans, and the themes played out against a backdrop of rebooted dystopian sci-fi.

In other words, writer/director Matt Reeves, Rise director Rupert Wyatt, and trilogy writers Mark Bomback, Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver treated them as "proper" films, never letting the spectacle get in the way, and ensuring the incredible CG wizardry on show was used in the service of the story and not the other way around.

War does all of those things too. It takes Caesar - one of the best and most under-rated characters of the past decade - to dark places as it explores how far someone can be pushed before they set their morals aside and give into the bloodlust. Serkis is, yet again, nothing short of magnificent. The CG is seamless, but Serkis makes Caesar real. And then some. Remember how they gave Peter Jackson all the Oscars for Return Of The King, as if to acknowledge how good the whole LOTR trilogy was? They should do that for Andy Serkis. This performance is no better or worse than his incredible work in Rise or Dawn but he's never even been nominated. Give him some recognition, Academy.

Serkis' fellow apes - Konoval, Notary, and newcomer Zahn - are also great. They never feel anything less than human, which has helped make the series a revelation.

Also great is Harrelson, the Colonel Kurtz-like figure waiting at the end of Caesar's metaphorical journey up river. Apocalypse Now is a big influence here - War is part-that, part-The Road, and part-The Great Escape - and Harrelson embraces that without being slavish to Brando. It also says something for the script and Harrelson's performance that The Colonel is a character that can be empathised with, despite being the Big Bad of the movie.

I have loved all three of these films, yet there's still a feeling of surprise that they're so good. Even now, having been enthralled and moved to tears by all three, it's difficult to shake. If you'd said 10 years ago that a prequel/reboot series of Planet Of The Apes films featuring mo-capped monkeys would become one of the best trilogies ever, you'd have been laughed out of town.

But you would have been so very, very right.


Sunday, 23 July 2017

Dunkirk

(M) ★★★★

Director: Christopher Nolan.

Cast: Fionn Whitehead, Harry Styles, Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy, Mark Rylance, Tom Hardy, Aneurin Barnard, Tom Glynn-Carney, Barry Keoghan, Jack Lowden, James D'Arcy.

The queues for coffee at music festivals are always out of hand.

There are few modern blockbuster directors who conjure up the "what will they do next?" intrigue and anticipation quite like Christopher Nolan.

Even after the disappointments of Interstellar and The Dark Knight Rises, Nolan's star is untarnished, such are his talents and his incredible winning streak spanning 2000 to 2010.

Thankfully Dunkirk is a return to form. In spite of its almost self-sabotaging non-linear narrative, it manages to re-tell an amazing war story in a manner that is somehow both intimate and sweeping in scope.

The Dunkirk evacuation of WWII, in which more than 300,000 British and French troops were removed from their prone position on the French coast, is told through three interwoven stories that encompass the land, the sea, and the air.

On the Dunkirk beach, British private Tommy (Whitehead) joins thousands of his fellow army men in trying to find a way home. On the sea, civilian sailor Mr Dawson (Rylance) heads across the English Channel to do his bit to bring soldiers back to Blighty. And in the skies over the channel, pilots (Hardy and Lowden) do battle with the Luftwaffe in an effort to protect the soldiers on Dunkirk beach and the vessels trying to rescue them.


Like all good war movies, Dunkirk puts you in the metaphorical trenches alongside the soldiers - in this case its on the beach, in a small pleasure boat, and in the cockpit of a Spitfire. This creates an unlikely intimacy to the film, despite the scantness of its character development. For such a huge production, Dunkirk feels strangely small-scale at times, which is to the benefit of the film. It's refreshingly short and is very much about doing the bare minimum to maximum effect - this is big-budget minimalism.

Nolan hones in on the action and the necessities, drawing enough depth out of his characters so we care about them and their seemingly insurmountable predicaments, while never wasting a moment of screen time on trivial matters. The cast members are uniformly excellent, particularly seasoned veterans Rylance, Murphy, and Branagh, as well as newcomers Whitehead and Styles, all helping to bring these lightly drawn characters to life.

The film is particularly impressive not just because of what it includes, but also what it leaves out. There are no warm-and-fuzzy moments where characters reminisce about their lives and wives back home, no unnecessary swathes of dialogue, and no stirring speeches (save for someone reading Churchill's famed "we'll fight them on the beaches" bit at the film's end). In fact, in the majority of its best moments, no one says a word. Nolan lets the action speak.

There are also no German soldiers. We know they're there, shooting at the Brits, piloting the Luftwaffe fighters, and firing the torpedoes, but we never lay eyes on a single Nazi. This unseen enemy creates a daunting inhuman threat, as well as letting the focus remain on the imperilled British. It ramps up the tension, and is a neat, almost unnoticed trick.

The set pieces and constant hurdles, especially those facing Tommy, keep the action rolling along. Nolan also crafts a pretty good aerial dogfight in between trying to drown us and disorientate us at every opportunity. In fact, the film is a balance of contradictions, capturing the chaos and the mundane nature of the Dunkirk evacuation, the humanity and inhumanity within the situation, and the personal and the large-scale elements of it.

The only downside is that damned staggered narrative, which plays with the film's passage of time. It makes the audience do extra work, which wouldn't be a problem if it wasn't so unnecessary. This story could have been told just as easily and effectively without the disruptive non-linear structure.

Thankfully it's not enough to sink Dunkirk. It's such a thrillingly compact and direct war story that no amount of ill-judged narrative trickery can undo its worth. It is chilling in places, powerfully emotional in others, and a stirring re-telling of a valiant wartime effort to lessen the impacts of a devastating military defeat. Nolan, being the proud Londoner that he is, has given us the cinematic equivalent of the British stiff upper lip.

I can't wait to see what Nolan does next.




Friday, 14 July 2017

REWIND REVIEW: The Devil & Daniel Johnston

(M) ★★★★

Director: Jeff Feuerzeig

Historic photo or modern-day hipster pushing the archaic sound format revival too far?
The downfall of the talented artist is a common story throughout the history of popular music.

It's by equal turns sad and fascinating, and the resulting docos are car crash stuff - we can't look away, whether its Amy Winehouse, Kurt Cobain, Ian Curtis, Syd Barrett, Michael Hutchence, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, etc etc.

The Devil & Daniel Johnston matches that same description, but with the added twist that Johnston was still alive, still recording, and still touring when it was made (he's still alive at the time of writing in 2017).

That he could be a somewhat active participant in his own documentary (released in 2005) only makes his story all the sadder though. By then, Johnston had long been a passenger in his own life and his presence in the film is like that of a ghost haunting the house where he used to live.

In the eyes of some, Johnston was a genius. His music and art made him a cult favourite on the Austin music scene in the late '80s, and his fame rose to bizarre new heights, partly thanks to Kurt Cobain championing his music, in the early '90s. All the while, Johnston was suffering severe mental health issues and bouncing in and out of institutions.


The Devil & Daniel Johnston is an encompassing biography of a music industry fringe dweller, a deeply troubled artist, and a man battling his many demons. It's insight and understanding of his condition, talent and personality is brilliant.

There's an abundance of home video and audio recordings Johnston made over his early years to drawn on, and director Feuerzeig blends in contemporary interviews, live gigs, photos and Johnston's own artwork to tell the muso's story with an almost unparalleled amount of depth. The incredible surfeit of first-hand historical material is not only the greatest possible gift to the film-maker, but it confirms a central idea of the film - that Johnston always presumed he would be famous, and courted the idea, sought it out, and lived in preparation for it. The sad part is he was never really ready for it and never could have dealt with it. Real life, let alone the life of a famed musician, was difficult enough.

This notion is important because it somewhat offsets the uneasy feeling that sitting down to watch this is akin to paying the man outside the freak show tent. There can be a fine line between exploitation and celebration, and The Devil & Daniel Johnston rides it pretty hard at times, particularly when showing Johnston watch footage of his old flame, or seeing him dance over the credits. Ultimately, this is the story of one man's journey to hell and back, and its unclear how capable he is of understanding what this doco means.

If you can shake that troubling idea, embrace the sentiment that this is actually what Johnston always wanted, and take the doco at face value - which I highly recommend doing - The Devil & Daniel Johnston is a remarkable look into the world of an artist that lost his mind and struggled to find it again, along the way creating some incredible music and art. That people can watch this and maybe hear True Love Will Find You In The End, The Story Of An Artist, and Some Things Last A Long Time for the first time is a beautiful thing.

Ultimately sad yet weirdly uplifting, this is a story of a troubled yet fascinating man, told with a deft and comprehensive touch.

I watched Tokyo Story at a screening hosted by F Project Cinema in Warrnambool, Victoria, Australia. Here's what's coming up at future FPC screenings at the Mozart Hall (all screenings are at 7.30pm):

Cloud Atlas - July 26

Rubber - August 9

The Queen Of Ireland - August 23

Rashomon - September 13

I Am Bolt - September 27

The Bicycle Thief - October 11

Amy - October 25

Closed Circuit - November 8

Marina Abramovic - November 22

Metropolis - December 13

The Princess Bride - January 10

Waltz With Bashir - January 24

Thursday, 13 July 2017

Baby Driver

(MA15+) ★★★★½

Director: Edgar Wright.

Cast: Ansel Elgort, Kevin Spacey, Lily James, Eiza González, Jon Hamm, Jamie Foxx, Jon Bernthal, CJ Jones.

"Third floor, cool stares, ladies' and men's sizes."
It takes a lot of effort to be effortlessly cool.

I don't know this from personal experience (because I am super uncool) - I read it somewhere (see?).

But if you need proof of the amount of work that goes into being unfathomably hip (does that still mean cool?), then check out Baby Driver. It's the very definition of offhand awesomeness, and by virtue it has a lot of effort put into it, all totally worth it.

It's there in the largely CGI-free car stunts, the cut-to-the-rhythm editing, the jokey cadence of the script, and divine song choices. And while it's tempting to dismiss this as a flimsy B-movie love-in or a soundtrack in search of a movie or even some kind of flippant teen fantasy, that's at your own peril. This fast and furious piece of fun has heart to burn and an engine full of cool. Get in, put on a seatbelt, and enjoy one of the best cinematic rides of the year.

Ansel Elgort stars as the titular Baby, a wheelman for Doc (Spacey) who is a ruthless crime organiser - he ropes in the crims to pull off the heists he plans, with Baby always behind the wheel of the getaway car.

Baby's links to Doc go back to an unsettled debt, but once the debt is finished, Baby thinks he's out of the game. But there is never "one last job", and Baby's attempts to get free put himself and the new love of his life Debora (James) at risk.


The big talking point of Baby Driver is that soundtrack. The best since Guardians Of The Galaxy, it plays a similar role in the film - it's part-character, part-plot device, part-mood-maker, part-scene-setter, but bigger and better in each of those ways. From the opening car chase scored by Jon Spencer Blues Explosion's Bellbottoms, it is an impeccably curated playlist featuring Beck, The Damned, Queen, Sam & Dave, Martha & The Vandellas, and heaps more. It is track after track of excellence, with the film exquisitely edited to suit every beat, guitar solo and breakdown.

Much of this music-matched editing is in the pedal-to-the-metal car chases and a handful of shoot-outs. It makes Baby Driver feel like a movie adaptation of video game Grand Theft Auto, which is not a bad thing. In making his ideal soundtrack-heavy car chase-driven B-movie, Edgar Wright has accidentally made the perfect example of what a GTA movie should be - lots of police pursuits with the music cranked, peppered with the occasional shoot-out and cool-as-hell cut scene.

But this is not a video game, and those "cut scenes" are where Baby Driver gets its heart and soul. The characters may seem thin but they're drawn with just enough detail to make them surprisingly well-rounded, despite being impossible people that couldn't exist outside of a crime caper. Ansel, in his Han Solo-referencing jacket, is quirk upon quirk with his ever-present headphones, insane driving skills, and laconic ways, but he's a loveable, cheerable hero. Collins is utterly believable as the love-at-first-sight ingenue, Hamm, González and Spacey get the cheesiest of lines and deliver them with ease, and with on-the-edge bankrobber Bats, Foxx has added another great character to an under-rated collection of interesting choices.

From its first two scenes - the Bellbottoms chase and a long, single-take introduction to Baby as he walks around Atlanta to the sounds of Bob & Earl's Harlem Shuffle - Baby Driver sets itself up in its own world. It's a world where crims have class, and crimes are planned with chalkboards by uber-crims, and everyone has code names, like a mix of Reservoir Dogs and Oceans 11. It's a world with meet cutes, love at first sight, and perfectly synchronised music/life interactions. If you're accepting of this world, if you buy into it, you're going to love Baby Driver. If you don't, well, I feel sorry for you, and maybe you should check your pulse before going out and finding a healthy dose of fun because maybe you have a deficiency. Or worse, some kind of fun intolerance.

The biggest criticism you could level at the film is that it's missing an extra level of depth that would have been nice. There are no grand themes or big ideas at play here, unlike Wright's other films (the Cornetto trilogy and Scott Pilgrim). If you scratch the surface below the car chases, quirky characters and killer soundtrack, and there's nothing much else there.

But sometimes that doesn't matter. Sometimes you just want to enjoy a really well-made film that is supremely fun, and that's what Baby Driver is. It sets out to be an immensely quotable car-chase movie with plenty of great tunes, and it is exactly that. It would be destined to become one of the great cult movies of all time, except that it's going to be too damned popular for that title.

And deservedly so. Bravo Edgar Wright.

The only downside is it makes a lot of people (like me) even more pissed off that we never got to see your Ant-Man movie.

Thursday, 6 July 2017

Spider-Man: Homecoming

(M) ★★★★

Director: Jon Watts.

Cast: Tom Holland, Michael Keaton, Jon Favreau, Jacob Batalon, Laura Harrier, Zendaya, Robert Downey Jr., Marisa Tomei.

Spider-Man ruled the jungle gym.

SO Spidey is back where he belongs - sitting in the Marvel Cinematic Universe alongside the likes of Iron Man and his fellow Avengers.

(Sony still own the film rights to Spider-Man and are desperate to keep their golden goose but can't figure out how to get it laying again, so technically Spidey's on loan to Marvel.)

We got a taster of what this meant in Captain America: Civil War, where Tom Holland's iteration of the wallcrawler debuted via some excellent cameos. But here he is hosting his own MCU movie, making this the third reboot of the character in 15 years. Is that too much Spider-Man? Can the MCU give us something new with a character that's been in five films already in the past decade and a half?

The answers are no and no. Hang on, hear me out.

Firstly, there can never be too much Spider-Man in my book. In terms of success, the Maguire years were two out of three, and I think the Garfield years got an unfair pasting, with the first film particularly good. Tell me how wrong I am in the comments.

Secondly, there isn't much that's really new in Homecoming. Marvel have made deft decisions about what to leave out and what to emphasise in the Spider-verse. It's a fresh, fun, and immensely enjoyable take on Ol' Webhead, but it's also a safe one. They're not reinventing the wheel here - in fact it's probably the most risk-free MCU movie since Iron Man 3.

That's not to say Spider-Man: Homecoming isn't great, because it most definitely is. It does everything it needs to do, and does it all really, really well. What's not to love? Just don't go expecting this to be a game-changer or a ground-breaker.

Ignoring the bitten-by-a-spider-and-discovers-his-powers first act (that's pretty much dealt with in one sentence), Homecoming sees Peter Parker/Spider-Man (Holland) re-adapting to normal life in the wake of having a taste of the big leagues in Civil War (again dealt with cleverly and succinctly).

While he eagerly awaits his next Avengers call-up, Parker goes about trying to be a Friendly Neighbourhood Spider-Man, where he stumbles on the illegal activities of Adrian Toomes/Vulture (Keaton).


As stated, it's not so much that this is a new take on Spider-Man, but rather a well-crafted one. Director Watts and the five (!) other screenwriters have honed in on key parts of the Spider-mythos, ignored other parts, and dished up the filmic equivalent of mum's lasagne - it's comforting, tasty, nothing special, but exactly what you're looking for.

Gone is Uncle Ben (except maybe one oblique reference), as well as any attempts at rewording the line "With great power comes great responsibility". The latter is still a key theme, but here it's presented in a "show, don't tell" scenario via Tony Stark/Iron Man (Downey Jr.) and his mentoring of Parker. There's no J. Jonah Jameson or Norman Osborn, no photography skills, and no Gwen Stacy.

In their place is a greater focus on high school, which creates interesting new problems to test Parker. The much-spoke about "John Hughes" vibe of Homecoming is the freshest part of it, although it's a good example of the filmmakers emphasising and better-using existing Spider-themes (Parker was in high school in the first Maguire and Garfield films).

Parker is given a confidante named Ned (Batalon), who does an excellent job with the comic relief, and a more interesting backdrop - the world of Avengers - to play around in front of. For the first time, we get to see how a kid who grew up in the Post-Superhero Era reacts to that world, and it makes for an intriguing version of Parker. Tony Stark as the Iron Mentor is another spin-off of this, and a welcome one.

Of course, that "version" is largely thanks to Holland. Mindblowingly likeable in the role, he's everything Peter Parker needs to be. Perfect in Civil War, this is merely a double-check, and, yep, Marvel's casting department got it right.

In Vulture/Toomes as the villain, we get the best Marvel big bad since Ultron. He is sympathetic yet menacing, and comes off as believable and far from cartoonish. Toomes is a 99 per center with an axe to grind against the Tony Starks of the world, who were born with a silver spoon in his mouth, whereas Toomes had to salvage and sell the spoon to feed his family. Keaton (who's gone from Batman to Birdman to Vulture) is excellent in the role and ticks all the boxes to make Toomes a well-rounded baddie.

One criticism is that all the pre-film promo meant there were few surprises left when it came time to sit down and watch Homecoming (even though just about every shot in the trailers has been tweaked or an alternate take has been used in the finished film). There are one or two twists that remain unspoilt, but the majority of the key scenes had been summarised or quoted in the barrage of trailers and TV spots. It gives a feeling of over-familiarity on a first watch, which is far from ideal. Or maybe I just need to stop watching so many trailers.

This aside, Homecoming is Spider-Man done right. And after five films in 15 years, that's probably better than should be expected.


Wednesday, 5 July 2017

REWIND REVIEW: Tokyo Story (1953)

(PG) ★★★★★

Director: Yasujirō Ozu.

Cast: Chishū Ryū, Chieko Higashiyama, Setsuko Hara, Haruko Sugimura, So Yamamura, Kuniko Miyake, Kyōko Kagawa, Eijirō Tōno, Nobuo Nakamura, Shirō Ōsaka.

"I'm gonna whack that kid so good when he rides past again."
SOME films sneak up on you.

When talking about Tokyo Story, that's not just a summation of how the simplistic plot or deceptive pacing of Ozu's gentle examination of the widening generation gap in post-war Japan wins you over. It's also a description of the film's lot in critical terms over more than six decades.

Derided as "too Japanese" upon release in 1953, it finally found its way to the UK in 1957, winning the British Film Institute's inaugural Sutherland Trophy in 1958. It didn't make its way to American screens until 1964, by which time Ozu was dead.

In fact, it was only after screenings in the US in the early '70s that the film's reputation as one of the greatest of all time began to emerge. It took until 1992 for it to make the top 10 of esteemed film critics' Sight & Sound list, and 2012 for it to top the corresponding directors' list. That's 59 years of sneaking up on the world's greatest filmmakers.

As for the audience, Tokyo Story slinks its way under your skin, despite boasting one of the most basic set-ups in cinematic history - old parents visit their grown-up kids, then go home again.

Of course, it's far more than that. Tokyo Story tells of elderly couple Shūkichi (Chishū Ryū) and Tomi (Chieko Higashiyama), who make the lengthy journey from their home in Onomichi to Tokyo to visit their children and grandchildren, in the knowledge they may never get the opportunity to do so again.

Upon arrival, they quickly find their kids' lives are busy and full, with little time for entertaining the oldies. As they are bundled from son to daughter to daughter-in-law (and off to a resort for a bit), Shūkichi and Tomi wonder where it all went wrong before heading for home.

In lieu of a decent trailer, here's an excellent montage of moments from the film, with some erudite comments by A.O. Scott, who nails it far better than I ever will:


Tokyo Story is a snapshot of the generation gap and ageing, not just in terms of 1950s Japan, but of any era. The kids don't have the time, or can't seem to find it, and the parents are too polite to question them. It's only when Shūkichi gets drunk with some old buddies (in an hilarious highlight of the film) that he voices his true feelings about his kids.

The inaccessibility of the children is made all the more painfully obvious by daughter-in-law Noriko (Ozu favourite and film stand-out Setsuko Hara), who is the only member of the family who makes an effort (beyond the monetary) with Shūkichi and Tomi. That Noriko's husband - Shūkichi and Tomi's son - died in the war makes their connection all the more poignant, leading to some beautifully sad scenes, none more so than the film's final moments.

It's not until that heartbreaking denouement that you realise how immersive Tokyo Story is, and how it's snuck up on you and worked its way into your heart (just to break it, the bastard).

With its contained and cluttered sets, and its static "tatami-mat" camera angles, Ozu puts you in the room, sitting on the floor, with the family. In between are the moments where you stretch your legs in Tokyo, seeing some of the sights and dip your toe into the era, but for the most part it's a shoes-off, grab-some-floor kind of vibe. And as a filmmaking trick it's incredibly effective. The slow pacing becomes lyrical and without even realising it, you're embroiled in and hooked on the familial melodramas, where everyone is smiling politely but secretly disappointed, and you're there quietly seething and cheering and laughing.

Ozu does some odd things with his edits (there are a couple of camera line-crosses and weird scene exits/entries by characters) but you'll get used to them (and there's a great explanation for them in this video). What matters more is that Ozu made a film that is both thematically timeless yet also a fascinating snapshot of life in a rebuilding and westernising Japan.

Tokyo Story took its time to get recognised, just as it takes its time to get its hooks into you, but in the end it's all worth it.

I watched Tokyo Story at a screening hosted by F Project Cinema in Warrnambool, Victoria, Australia. Here's what's coming up at future FPC screenings at the Mozart Hall (all screenings are at 7.30pm):


The Devil & Daniel Johnston - July 12

Cloud Atlas - July 26

Rubber - August 9

Marina Abramovic - August 23

Rashomon - September 13

I Am Bolt - September 27

The Bicycle Thief - October 11

Amy - October 25

Closed Circuit - November 8

The Queen Of Ireland - November 22

Metropolis - December 13

The Princess Bride - January 10

Waltz With Bashir - January 24





The House

(MA15+) ★★★

Director: Andrew Jay Cohen.

Cast: Will Ferrell, Amy Poehler, Jason Mantzoukas, Ryan Simpkins, Nick Kroll, Rob Huebel.


"I love it when we blow each other, honey."

POP quiz: What was the last genuinely funny live action comedy starring Will Ferrell?

It's probably The Campaign, back in 2012, which was under-rated. But if you were one of the many who missed that one, you'd have to go all the way back to Step Brothers, which was almost a decade ago (The Other Guys didn't do it for me, sorry). And Step Brothers was panned by critics, growing in esteem as an almost cult favourite over the past nine years.

Which brings the us to the next question: is it possible that, especially of late, Will Ferrell has been punching below his weight? Or, even worse, is he over-rated?

If nothing else, Ferrell has been under-performing and his latest venture The House doesn't exactly stop the rot, but it's a pause in the losing streak. It gives Ferrell the perfect foil in Poehler, who can match him joke for joke, and their combination elevates the whole film above its creaky moments and paper-thin plot.

Short version of that scant storyline - Poehler and Ferrell run an illegal casino.

Slightly longer version - Poehler and Ferrell team with their gambling addict buddy Frank (Mantzoukas) to run an illegal casino in Frank's house so they can afford to send their daughter to college.


In the same way that many of Ferrell's run of sports movies were largely plotless vehicles for him to be silly in (Ferrell plays basketball, Ferrell is an ice-skater, Ferrell drives NASCAR), this is all about wacky Ferrell running rampant through a high concept. The notion of Ferrell pretending to be De Niro in Casino works for a surprisingly decent amount of time.

What takes The House to a pass mark is Poehler, and the pairing of her and Ferrell as husband-and-wife team Scott and Kate. Poehler hits as many zingers as Ferrell, but they're better together. Their comedic chemistry elevates the material and keeps the gags coming for longer than logic would permit - when they're hapless suburbanites feeling their way into the underworld of illegal gambling, they're funny, and when they embrace their roles as casino mobsters, they're still funny. 

Further upping the ante is Mantzoukas as loose cannon catalyst Frank. He has as many aces up his sleeve as Ferrell and Poehler, in particular a golden moment (as seen in the trailer) when he attempts to deliver a tough guy line while fighting the urge to vomit.

The House doesn't have much else going on though. It introduces a cameo bad guy late in the piece that could have been set up better, its evil mayor villain (Kroll) is underdone, and there is a missed trick in the idea that the casino business alienates Scott and Kate from their daughter (Simpkins).

Pleasingly (although it may rub some people the wrong way) the film is utterly morally bankrupt. It revels in its dark side and doesn't try to Disney its way out of the darkness with a redeeming message. It just goes "fuck it, we did some bad shit", and is refreshingly accepting of its absurd irredeemability.

All in all, The House wins more than it loses. It's built on weak foundations, but it hosts a decent-enough good time before it all collapses in on itself.

Thursday, 22 June 2017

Cars 3

(G) ★★

Director: Brian Fee.

Cast: (voices of) Owen Wilson, Cristela Alonzo, Chris Cooper, Armie Hammer, Bonnie Hunt, Larry the Cable Guy, Nathan Fillion, Kerry Washington, Lea DeLaria.

On they drove, forever turning left.
PLEASE Pixar - let this be the last Cars film.

Prior to the release of Cars 3the only genuine lemon in the Pixar garage was Cars 2, an ill-judged spy spoof that gave way too much screen time to the most annoying character in the Pixar family, Larry the Cable Guy's hillbilly tow truck Mater.

(In case you need further proof, here's my definitive ranking of the Pixar films from best to worst.)

Cars 2 now has some company in that car-hole of disappointment. Cars 3 is as bad as Cars 2, but in whole new ways.

Returning its focus to the racetrack, Cars 3 centres on cocksure racing champion Lightning McQueen (Wilson), whose winning ways become a thing of the past thanks to the arrival of the next generation of automobiles, as personified by Jackson Storm (Hammer).

Despite everyone telling him he should call it a day, Lightning is convinced he still has what it takes to be a winner and sets about recapturing his past glories, with a little from personal trainer Cruz (Alonzo) and old-timer Smokey (Cooper).


Cars 3's biggest crime is it's boring. It feels overly long and uninteresting for huge stretches, particularly its opening 10 or 15 minutes. An horrific crash sequence is done well and livens things up momentarily before the film returns to being boring again.

With the second act largely dedicated to a protracted series of training montages - first the new way of race training, then the old-school way - it's not until the final act that the film goes up a gear. There is a nice reversal on expectation that helps make things interesting, even if it almost makes everything that preceded it redundant. But by then it's too little, too late, and your care factor will have already driven off into the sunset.

The strangest thing about Cars 3 is that its main theme is a bafflingly bad choice for a kids film. The whole story is about knowing when to retire, admitting that you're past it, accepting the limitations of age with good grace, and moving on to the next phase of your life with dignity. Its doubtful that theme would appeal to a single kid in their target demographic. Even the parents might struggle to empathise with that. For some weird reason, the Pixar brain trust has come up with a plot that specifically appeals to the grandparents who might be taking their grandchildren to the movies.

It's not that Pixar haven't delved into challenging themes before, but never with such exclusivity. It's perplexing how they could have got it so wrong. There is a subplot centring on Cruz, which is far more interesting and is more likely to connect with youngsters, but it only comes to the fore toward the film's end. Up until then, it feels like a movie a bunch of old men made to please themselves, not their audience.

As with Cars 2, Cars 3 is not funny, charming or quirky enough to make it worth its run time or to overcome its story defects. Only its ending and a demolition derby sequence bring the film to life.

Given the insane amounts of money Pixar made from merchandising on the other Cars films, its unlikely this will be the last we see of Lightning McQueen. But from a critical standpoint, it's definitely time to take this franchise to the wreckers.

Sunday, 18 June 2017

Tickled

(MA15+) ★★★★

Director: David Farrier & Dylan Reeve.

"It's not what it looks like, mum."
In the beginning, New Zealand journalist David Farrier hoped to do a story about "competitive endurance tickling". As a subject, it ticked a lot of boxes for Farrier - the inherent wackiness and absurdity was right up his lighthearted alley.

But his inquiries to the media company behind the competition drew a bizarre response, and so began Farrier's dark and disturbing journey down an internet rabbit hole that you have to see to believe. What he'd initially hoped to do as a two-minute bit for TV suddenly became a crowdfunded documentary with co-producer credit for Stephen Fry.

Tickled's subject matter is so incredible, unpredictable, and weird that it seems too good to be true, but it's also too incredible, unpredictable and weird to be a mockumentary. This is the doco's appeal - that you won't believe what you're seeing, but you have no other option.


The unusual story and the things Farrier and co-director Reeve uncover along the way help paper over any directorial, pacing, editing or structural issues. It's so gripping that its annoyances are easily ignored. To be fair, its practical flaws aren't deal-breakers, but Farrier and Reeve definitely benefit from their subject matter.

As a host, Farrier is like New Zealand's answer to Louis Theroux. They share the same pleasantly bewildered naivety, although it must be said Farrier comes across as more of a regular dude than Theroux.

The less you know about this doco going into it, the better. But rest assured this is a bizarrely gripping, oddly hilarious, and downright disturbing glimpse into a level of weird you didn't even know existed.

PS. There's a sequel of sorts to Tickled, because the weirdness didn't stop after the cameras stopped rolling. Here are some details about the HBO special The Tickle King.


I watched Tickled at a screening hosted by F Project Cinema in Warrnambool, Victoria, Australia. Here's what's coming up at future FPC screenings at the Mozart Hall (all screenings are at 7.30pm):

Tokyo Story - June 28

The Devil & Daniel Johnston - July 12

Cloud Atlas - July 26


Pixar - From Best To Worst



To coincide with the release of Cars 3, I've thrown together this list of Pixar movies, arranging them from best to worst. Why? Because it says here in my copy of The Film Reviewer's Guide To Being A Know-It-All Jerk that I'm supposed to do regular film lists, thus creating debate, disgust, and angry anonymous comments from people with poor grammar and their caps lock key stuck in the 'on' position.

In actual fact I love movie lists (and there's going to be a lot more of these happening on this site in the future because woooooo party time!).

But I really love Pixar. They get movie-making. They regularly make other animation studios look like a bunch of monkeys hurling faeces at a screen. I mean, have you seen the Ice Age movies?

Not pictured: faeces.
As a production house, Pixar are the pinnacle in any kind of film-making because their strike rate is incredible - in fact, I'd go so far as to say there is only one bad film on this list. The rest, from #14 up, range from good to perfect. In fact, I love Pixar so much that despite the one bad film being Cars 2, I'm still super-pumped for Cars 3 because, godsdammit, it's Pixar.

UPDATE: Cars 3 sucks.

Why are they so good? On top of the fact they have great characters doing interesting stuff and saying wonderful things, Pixar make films that are endlessly rewarding. Watch almost any of these films once every year from the age of 5 to 50 and you will get something new out of it every time. Plus you will be entertained. Even more importantly, you will be moved - just about all of these films have a tearjerker moment in them that hits you right in the feels (which I'm led to believe is somewhere near the large intestine).

Without further ado, I present to you the definitive ranking of Pixar movies from best to least best. Ready your caps lock key, internet.

1. Inside Out


Is this a controversial selection for #1? I'm not sure. I think you're supposed to have controversial selections when making "best movies of ever blah blah" lists. Either way, who cares, this is the best Pixar movie hands down. The script for this is one of the most remarkable I have ever seen. How they managed to set a film inside a young girl's brain and have her emotions be the main characters while simultaneously telling one of the ultimate coming-of-age stories ... well, that blows my mind. It's incredibly deep yet hilarious, realistic yet fantastic, thoughtful but told simply. It is as appealing to young uns (with its bright moving zaniness and wacky characters like Bing Bong) as it is to grown-ups - in fact, this is a grown-ups movie dressed up as a kiddie cartoon. Never has a film expressed the scariness and uncertainty of leaving childhood and entering young adulthood so poignantly or precisely.

Read my full review here.

2. Wall-E


One of the fundamentals of screenwriting is the adage "Show, don't tell". Pixar take this idea to pre-talkie extremes in this tale of a robot with a heart of gold, giving us what is effectively a silent movie with a prescient, quasi-satirical view of humanity. It's Chaplin does CG-sci-fi. The layers in this are incredible. It's a love story, a ramshackle space-capade, and a chilling warning about where we're heading as a species. And, as with all Pixar films, it's abundantly hilarious and heartwarming. Like Inside Out, this is one of the key Pixar movies that unfurls new nuances as you get older, making it the gift that keeps on giving. Its charms are abundant, no matter what age you are. And at its centre lies Wall-E, the greatest robot ever committed to celluloid. He has more character in one worn-out track tread than most modern movie creations. He's adorable, witless and incredibly sympathetic as he goes about his soul-crushingly pointless job in between falling in love and re-watching his favourite movie ad infinitum. Wall-E is all of us.

3. Toy Story trilogy


I'm cheating here because I can't/don't wanna separate the Toy Story films. It's a line-call as to which is the best (it's Toy Story 3), because all of them are astoundingly good. As a whole, they comprise one of the greatest trilogies of all time. The original set the benchmark for Pixar's storytelling, and they haven't let up since. Again, it's that mixture of emotion and humour, but the understanding of character is at its peak here. Even the villains are well-rounded - Stinky Pete and Lots-o'-Huggin' are wonderful creations that in lesser hands would be, well, cartoonish. But check out the way Woody and Buzz grow across the series yet remain true to their roots. It's always perfect and honest for the character, and it makes them real and it makes us care about them, so when they appear to be sliding slowly towards their dooms and they hold hands, well, only some kind of inhuman monster would be devoid of tears. Each film is layered and thematically rich - case in point being part 3's letting-go-of-childhood substory. Pair it with Inside Out and it's almost as if Pixar is trying to help kids grow up, learn, and become well-rounded humans. What a bunch of swells.

4. The Incredibles


I've banged on a lot about character and emotion and all that crap in the first three entries of this list, so let's take them for granted for now, leave them to one side, and examine a couple of other film-making things that can make movies exemplary. Like say the score and the production design. Of all the Pixar films, The Incredibles has the best of both these things (which is saying something). Michael Giacchino's retro-futuristic soundtrack perfectly matches the retro-futurism of the costumes, sets and colour palette, which are also perfect, and, well, the whole damn thing is perfect. The Incredibles happens to be one of the greatest superhero movies of all time, bundling together a lot of great super-ideas into one super-film - the banning of superheros from Watchmen, the family's power set mirroring The Fantastic Four, a whole lot of early 007 vibes, in particular Syndrome's volcano lair. It's a loving tribute, silly send-up, and spot-on satire of superheroes, all rolled into one wonderful film about the importance of family, honesty, and not wearing capes.

5. Up


Have said before, will say again - the opening four-minute montage of Up, in which we see Carl and Ellie's marriage through the ages, is a minor miracle of film and one of the greatest sequences in the history of cinema. Like love itself, it is beautiful and bittersweet, empowering and disheartening, and it never fails to make me get something in both eyes simultaneously. It's so good, it almost overshadows the rest of the film, which is a wonderfully wacky and absurd adventure. I have no idea how this film was pitched - it has the feel of about a dozen half-baked ideas thrown into one pot, stirred and seasoned until holy-crap-this-actually-tastes-incredible. A balloon-house, a talking dog, a grumpy widower, an annoying bird, an overzealous boy scout, the golden age of adventuring, unfinished business, the power of grief, the need to let go .... it's all smooshed together into something that really shouldn't work. But it does. Up is the cinematic equivalent of the nightcap you make at the end of the party from the leftover bits of alcohol in every bottle that somehow hits the spot. And it's a remarkable thing to behold.

6. Monsters, Inc.


All Pixar movies are funny, but Monsters, Inc. is the funniest. Why is that? Two words - Billy fricking Crystal. No one could have voiced Mike Wazowki better, so we should be weirdly thankful for that fact Crystal turned down the role of Buzz Lightyear and instead took on the part of Sully's one-eyed tennis ball-shaped buddy in Pixar's fourth outing some six years later. Another thing Monsters, Inc. does better than its Pixar cohorts is worldbuild. All of the films exist in worlds that are fully realised, but none are as inventive as the Monsters, Inc. world. It's a simple mirror to our own in a lot of ways, and largely played for laughs, but it has such a natural flow and feel to it that you forget how wickedly clever it is. The doors, Boo, the scare energy, the toxicity of humans - all these things make sense in such a short period of time thanks to a sharp script, making it easier to relax into the humour and story. And once again, it has heart. Sully and Mike are great as a pair, but it's the connection between Boo and Sully that will have you getting something in both eyes simultaneously.

7. Finding Nemo


I know, I know - this is a long way down the list. But look at the quality above it. And we're still most definitely in five-star territory here - numbers 1-8 are bona fide five-star films in my book. So don't take Finding Nemo's appearance at #7 as any kind of slight. This is a great movie. It's damn near perfect. What's interesting about Nemo is that it feels deceptively simple when stacked up against its cohorts on this list - it's a straightforward road movie, except the road is actually an ocean and the travellers just happen to be fish. But, like I said, deceptively simple. In reality this is about ability (Nemo's special flipper), letting go (Marlin's neurosis), and a very powerful connection between father and son. Let's not forget this is a comedy though, coming close second to Monsters, Inc. in the laughter stakes, but for all its whale impersonations and hilarious recovering-addict sharks, once again, it's the emotion in Marlin's journey that makes this work. As much as it's called Finding Nemo, really it's about Marlin finding himself and who he needs to be as a dad. And that's deep. Like an ocean. Whoa.

8. Ratatouille


I gotta come clean - I didn't like Ratatouille the first time I saw it. Maybe it caught me on an off night. Maybe it was the sight of a kitchen teeming with rats. Maybe it was the fact a lot of the main characters have American accents despite it being set in France. Whatever it was, it didn't sit right with me. The second time I saw it though, I got it. It hit home in a big way and I berated myself for not appreciating this mini-masterpiece about dreaming the impossible dream. It's not quite Up-crazy but its oddball premise - a rat wants to be a chef and he marionettes a human to achieve his goal - is endearing, goofy and bizarrely inspiring. It's a strange film, but it works because of its humour and its passion and its precise tone. Remy (wonderfully voiced by funnyman Patton Oswalt) is an incredible character too - he's the perfect straight man (or rat as it were) in a funny world. He just ploughs through life as though he's running in mid-air and if he looks down, he'll fall, so he doesnt. Ratatouille also boasts one of the most amazing scenes in any Pixar film. It's the moment when the critic Ego tastes the make-or-break dish and is transported back to his youth. It speaks to the power of food, art, nostalgia and the innocence of childhood (and shows that critics aren't entirely inhuman monsters), and it all comes about via a scene in which a man eats a bowl of food. This is just one example of the Pixar brains trust's supreme gifts as master storytellers.

9. Finding Dory


The most mind-blowing aspect of this 13-years-later sequel is the way it re-examines Dory's memory problems, flipping them from being a running joke in the first film to the debilitating disability they would actually be in real life. And thus the title of Finding Dory becomes not just about Marlin and Nemo's quest to locate their lost friend, but representative of the film's attempt to understand Dory's character and how she finds her way in the world. She becomes a kind of tragic hero - the fish with a sad past and a disability, overcoming incredible odds to save the day and herself. It's not a new thing for Pixar - this is Nemo's special flipper all over again, but writ larger and with more gravitas. Much of the kudos for this must go to Ellen DeGeneres. Her voicing of Dory is nothing short of magnificent, wringing every possible bit of humour and pathos out of a character that blossoms from hilarious one-note gag to satisfying full-realisation in her own film. The only downside is the feelings of deja vu from first film to sequel, and an OTT ending that is fun but, well, OTT.

Read my full review here.

10. Brave


In a world severely lacking in bold and inspiring cinematic heroines, Brave was a breath of fresh air. It still is. Merida remains one of the most compelling characters in the Pixar catalogue. She's a bundle of contradictions, flaws and annoyances, but that's what makes her great - she's a real person, fully formed in all her frustrating and furiously driven glory. Ditto for her mother Queen Elinor, and together they make a great pairing as the film explores the trials and tribulations many mother-daughter combos can surely relate to. But beyond that, Brave is an exhilarating ride, despite its weird structure (it's more a film of two halves as opposed to three acts, which throws the pacing off, plus there is no villain because all Merida's problems are of her own creation, but hey, I can live with that). It's also strangely familiar, yet utterly fresh. It's not in the five-star league, but it's not far off.

Read my full review here.

11. A Bug’s Life


Pixar's second film feels like the forgotten puppy in the litter, but its one that deserves a re-examination. It's a simple, well-worn story - the pretend heroes save the village and become real heroes (see also Galaxy Quest and Three Amigos) - but it wears its tropes well, feeling like some subtle new variation on one of Aesop's fable (possibly called The Grasshopper and The Octopus or something, I don't know). Whatever - this is classic, if unambitious, storytelling done right. Flick is a solid hero, his sidekicks are great (it's hard to go past Heimlich the caterpillar for comedy value), and the film boasts one of Pixar's greatest villains in Kevin Spacey's Hopper. A Bug's Life is traditional, old-timey tale-telling, but it does everything right.

12. Cars


Unlike most of the rest of the Pixar catalogue, Cars feels like solid kids entertainment, as opposed to something for the whole family. Yes, there is a certain appeal in seeing Paul Newman as a car, and us old-timers can get a kick out of the "listen to the old-timers" subtext, but so much of Cars feels like good clean kiddie fun and not much else (except a licence to sell a truckload of merch). That's not to say Cars is bad - it's really quite good at what it does, and achieves what it sets out to do, which is to be entertaining in a fast, funny, and friendly way. Its layers are fewer and its story is somewhat simpler and unambitious, but there's nothing wrong with that.

13. The Good Dinosaur


There's nothing exactly wrong with The Good Dinosaur (expect for the fact the dinosaurs look weird and cartoonish against a photoreal world) it's just that like Cars and, to a certain extent, Finding Nemo, it's so damned simple. This is boy-and-dog (except it's dinosaur-and-boy) do Homeward Bound and it's funny and heartwarming and slightly offbeat, but it never feels like anything truly special. It labours its message about the need to be brave to make your mark in the world and flies perilously close to being cliched. The film still works and features a few killer scenes, but it's good without being Pixar good.

Read my full review here.


14. Monsters University


Pixar does a college movie, but who are they aiming it at? Sure, the kids that grew up on Monsters, Inc. were probably in university by the time this prequel rolled around, but this G-rated cliched college mash-up felt like a swing and miss. Little kids won't get half it, it's not edgy enough for the collegiate crew, and even the grown-ups might have been stretching to love it. Packed with tired tropes that it's never able to subvert or do anything other than "monsterise", Monsters University only gets a pass mark thanks to nostalgic goodwill, some pretty good gags, and surprisingly strong ending. 

Read my full review here.


15. Cars 3


A kids film about getting older and knowing when to retire? Who thought that was a good idea? In fact a lot of this film doesn't work - it just idles along being as boring as NASCAR racing. Except for the crash scene. So yeah, pretty much exactly like NASCAR racing. It finally finds the right gears by the third act, but its too late and no one cares. It's best character - Cruz - almost saves the film, and its throwbacks to the first movie are welcome, but Cars 3 is evidence its time to take this franchise to the wreckers.

16. Cars 2


Here we are. The bottom of the list. We all knew this was coming. Cars 2 is the only genuinely bad Pixar movie. A soulless spy movie spoof, its crimes are many. It's unfunny and uninspired, but worst of all, it takes one of the most annoying characters to ever grace a Pixar movie - Mater - and puts him front and centre in a dumb mistaken identity espionage plot. It's like North By Northwest, but with the automotive equivalent of Joe Dirt in the starring role. No one wants to see that. What few good ideas there are in the film are subsumed by a lack of laughs and heart.

Read my full review here.

**************************************

The plan is to update this list as new Pixar movies are released. Here's what's coming up:

November 22, 2017 - Coco

June 15, 2018 - The Incredibles 2

June 21, 2019 - Toy Story 4

March 13, 2020 - Untitled film

June 19, 2020 - Untitled film

June 18, 2021 - Untitled film








Saturday, 17 June 2017

Rough Night

(MA15+) ★½

Director:

Cast: Scarlett Johansson, Jillian Bell, Kate McKinnon, Ilana Glazer, Zoë Kravitz, Paul W. Downs.

Those feels when you run out of cocaine.
After watching the trailer for this low-brow comedy, you'd be forgiven for thinking it was a remake of the 1998 black comedy Very Bad Things (if you're one of the people that stills remembers that forgotten Peter Berg film starring Christian Slater, Cameron Diaz, Jon Favreau, Jeremy Piven and Daniel Stern).

Both films have exactly the same high concept - a bachelor/bachelorette party goes horribly wrong when a stripper/prostitute is accidentally killed - and both are supposedly comedies.

As well as sharing the same set-up, Rough Night shares a fundamental problem with Very Bad Things - it struggles to nail its tone, making for an awkward watch.

Despite all this, Rough Night is not a gender-swapped remake of Very Bad Things and manages to fail all on its own, which is a shame considering the great cast and characters that get wasted in a futile search for laughs.

Rough Night's bachelorette is Johansson's Jess, who re-teams with her old college buds Alice (Bell), Frankie (Glazer) and Blair (Kravitz) for one final blow-out and long overdue catch-up before Jess' impending nuptials. Also along for the ride is Pippa (McKinnon), Jess' Aussie friend from a semester spent Down Under, and whose presence gets up the nose of Jess' supposed BFF Alice.

Also getting up their nose is a decent amount of cocaine, and after a solid session dancing and drinking the night away in the nightclubs of Miami, the girls retire to their rented beach house where one of them decides it would be a good idea to call a stripper. That's when the night gets rough.


The best example of how wrong this film gets its tone can be found in the scene where the stripper is accidentally killed. Much like the stripper's head, it lands with a thunk - it's neither funny nor shocking nor a necessary mix of the two. It's just awkward (and not funny-awkward).

Rough Night struggles to get its vibe back from then on, as the women try to clean up their mess and deal with what they've done. Unfortunately, just when the movie feels like it's hitting a rhythm, an unnecessarily dumb, annoying and largely pointless subplot involving Jess' fiance Peter (Downs) picks up pace and throws things off-kilter all over again. This side-story is easily the worst part of the film, and feels like it was flown in from a whole other movie that's even worse than Rough Night.

There are a couple of okay laughs here, but the whole thing is one ginormous waste of talent. Johansson is an excellent actor but seems a bit lost as the straight player amid the funny ladies (although she does drop one excellently delivered line about "wax-shaming") and McKinnon, who was a show-stealer in Ghostbusters, is as disappointing as her erratic Australian accent.

There is one excellent dramatic scene toward the end of the second act that demonstrates how disheartening this whole film is. After being bombarded with unfunny quips and situations for over an hour, the inevitable fight between the friends happens, with some very hard truths laid-out. In this moment, Johannsson, Glazer, Kravitz and Bell all excel, and you realise these are all great actors with great characters.

But they're stuck in a film that can't get its tone right. One minute it's utterly absurd, the next it's trying to be satirical, then its steamrolling through some dark territory in between bouts of slapstick, gross-out humour and attempts at edginess. Rough Night is all over the place and the few jokes it lands properly are mildly amusing as opposed to being out-and-out hilarious.

Its tonal miscalculation is too great of a problem to overlook, although some people may get a couple of silly laughs out of this very forgettable comedy.

Saturday, 10 June 2017

The Mummy

(M) ★★½

Director: Alex Kurtzman.

Cast: Tom Cruise, Annabelle Wallis, Sofia Boutella, Jake Johnson, Russell Crowe.

Tom Cruise liked to have his own bed with him while he travelled.

It used to be that a studio made a film and if it was good and people loved it, then the studio made another one.

Now studios don't make films - they make franchises. It doesn't matter if the first film was good or whether there was an appetite for more. So long as the film stumbles past the profit line and isn't a total pile of excrement, then the franchise convoy rolls on to the next film.

In recent weeks, there have been a few examples of this ploy of putting universe-building first and focused film-making second. Guy Ritchie's King Arthur, which was mooted as the launchpad for more films, died so hard at the box office (and critically) that it's unlikely we'll see more antics from the round table for some time.

It wasn't as bulletproof as Man Of Steel, which kicked off DC Comics "expanded universe" successfully despite being the first of three turkeys dished up in the franchise, with only fourth film Wonder Woman finally saving the day.

The difference between these two series is that the latter felt like something people had to see for themselves - no one wanted to miss out on Harley Quinn's cinematic debut, the birth of a new Superman, or the battle royale between Batman and Superman, even if they were forewarned all three films were a pile of crap. As for poor Arthur, hardly anyone under the age of 25 has even heard of King Arthur, let alone cares enough to want to see what turned out to be a bad movie.

And now we have The Mummy, which is a so-so horror-actioner starring Tom Cruise as a tomb raider cursed by a long-dead evil Egyptian princess (Boutella). On it's own, this film is nothing special - just another take on the old Universal monster movie (in fact this is the fourth series of Mummy movies and 14th film overall, not counting The Scorpion King spin-offs).


But this new Mummy movie has been widely touted as the kickstarter of Universal's new Dark Universe, which has a Bride Of Frankenstein remake (supposedly starring Javier Bardem) in the works, as well as retreads of The Invisible Man (supposedly starring Johnny Depp), Dracula, Wolfman, the Creature From The Black Lagoon and more.

Let's break this down for one moment.

Is The Mummy any good? Not really, but it's OK.

Is it good enough to launch a franchise? Absolutely not.

None of this would really matter if The Mummy's franchise-building didn't get in the way of it being a decent film.

On it's own, The Mummy regularly skirts close to being great. There are some very cool sequences, including an exhilarating plane crash, Cruise's character Nick Morton gradually losing his mind in the back alleys of London, some zombie jump-scares and chases (including one underwater), and an ambulance crash. It's predominantly enjoyable in a dumb way, and even offers some nice horror touches and atmospheres.

It also features a Cruise character that's close to being genuinely interesting and not just another rendition of Cruise's Interchangeable Action Man (see the M:I films, Jack Reacher 1 & 2, Oblivion, Night & Day). Morton is his attempt at a loveable rogue (and, initially, an Indiana Jones cypher), and is far more flawed and intriguing than any of his recent action creations.

But all the while, the film has one eye on the future, and this repeatedly drags it down. Much of this centres on Crowe's Dr Jekyll, who plays a surprisingly large role. There's a fairly major subplot going on with his character (no points for guessing what it involves) but at no point does any character say "what's his deal?". Instead, Jekyll is left to wander around spouting non-sequiturs and exposition about his secret monster-hunting organisation Prodigium. It's jarring, largely superfluous and continually derails the film's flow. It should be noted it's not a bad performance - it just smacks of a character being wedged into a film for no good reason as it detracts from the whole Mummy thing that's going on.

Outside of the franchise stuff, there are other flaws. Johnson's character pops up unnecessarily (and annoyingly) throughout the film, the Mummy's powers are seemingly limitless with new skills popping up all the time, and Wallis' headstrong archaeologist Jenny Halsey waivers between being good and frustrating (insane drinking game suggestion - drink every time Halsey says "Nick". You'll be dead halfway through Act II).

It feels like The Mummy could have been good. If Cruise's character was edgier, if Johnson wasn't in it, if Dr Jekyll wasn't in it, if the ending was bolder - all these things point to a solid Mummy that could have even topped Brendan Fraser's 1999 outing.

But instead, we get a pilot to a series that wouldn't be picked up by any network.

Tuesday, 6 June 2017

So I didn't get the triple j reviewing gig....


In case you didn't know (possibly because you don't care), Marc Fennell quit his job as triple j movie reviewer.

Fennell is a great reviewer. I always avoid reading or hearing other reviews before I write my own, but once I've finished giving my opinion, I often sought out Fennell's critique on the same film. We often agreed - which is nice and validating - but he was far more erudite and hilarious at expressing similar sentiments.

Upon hearing he was stepping aside as triple j's reviewer, and at the urging of several people (thanks for the encouragement, guys), I decided to join the throng and throw my hat into the ring.

The application was simple - record reviews for a minimum of one, maximum of three movies or TV shows from a list hand picked by Fennell. I can't remember the entire list but the choices included Get Out, La La Land, The Get Down, The Room, Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace, You Can't Ask That, and Paul Blart: Mall Cop.

To cut an increasingly long story short, I didn't get the gig. Congratulations to Amelia Navascues. I will be sure to check out her reviews when I finish my own.

In case you were wondering, here are my application reviews:


Monday, 5 June 2017

Wonder Woman

(M) ★★★★

Director: Patty Jenkins.

Cast: Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, Robin Wright, Danny Huston, David Thewlis, Connie Nielsen, Elena Anaya, Ewen Bremner, Saïd Taghmaoui, Eugene Brave Rock, Lucy Davis.

The sword doubles as a backscratcher.

Finally, DC has got it right.

For the first time since it launched the DC Extended Universe, the comic book powerhouse has released a good film. Sorry - not just a good film, but a great film.

It's absolutely ridiculous to think filmmakers could dish up three bad films in a franchise before getting one right. It used to be the other way around. Take for example, Transformers and Pirates Of The Caribbean - two series that have pretty much sucked aside for film #1. But no, this is the movie-watching world we live in now. Man Of Steel, Batman Vs Superman, and Suicide Squad made enough money and weathered the critical storm well enough to avoid sinking the DCEU before it got around to launching a decent movie.

As stated, Wonder Woman is more than just a decent movie. This is a character that has long deserved her day in the sun and now that the sun is out, it shines very brightly.

Gadot stars as Diana AKA the eponymous superhero - a princess of the Amazons, a race of demi-gods meant to protect mankind from the wrath of Ares, God of War. But with Ares long gone and humanity proving to be incorrigible, the Amazons have existed in solitude, quietly hiding from the real world.

But the arrival of a soldier (Pine) and the discovery that WWI is raging beyond her island home's idyllic waters awakens a desire inside Diana to do good and be a warrior like her people were intended to be, whether humanity deserves it or not.


This central theme - whether humanity deserves to be saved or, indeed, whether it can be saved from itself - is key to Wonder Woman's success. Man Of Steel swung for a deep thematic level and missed by dumbing itself down too far (and Batman Vs Superman just whacked itself in the head with the bat), but Wonder Woman hits a home run. Its themes are central to who Diana is, and who Pine's Steve Trevor is, and how they both fit into each other's world.

It makes both characters interesting and well-rounded. Diana's naivety and almost childlike examination of war, mankind and its idiocies make her a fascinatingly flawed and charmingly hilarious character, offsetting the indestructibility and infallibility that makes Superman such a bore in Man Of Steel. Trevor is equally intriguing, with Diana's presence giving him his own naivety as he realises the complexities of the war-torn world make no sense. Add to this the fact Gadot and Pine are great and have wonderful chemistry.

But it's this understanding of theme and character that make this the first DCEU success. On top of this, the dialogue is naturalistic and fits the characters, the movie doesn't talk down to its audience too much, and it sets about telling a good story in a strong, straight-forward manner. For some reason, this approach has eluded DC's brains trust until now.

Credit must go to Allan Heinberg's intelligent and traditional script, and Jenkins' solid yet powerful direction. The latter takes some of Zack Snyder's directorial tics but keeps them watchable, particularly in the fight sequences, which are masterfully done. Combining stellar stuntwork and some excellent CG, Jenkins delivers action scenes that never lose the audience or get lost in the edit.

The film is not perfect. There are some laboured moments, including the drawn-out conclusion, and some silliness that doesn't quite fly, although the script does do a pretty good job of making Wonder Woman's stranger elements (like the lasso of truth) work. Thankfully there is no sign of the invisible jet (or is there and I just didn't see it because it was invisible?).

There are also hints of what has come before. Its demi-god-among-men set-up is reminiscent of Thor, and its ragtag racially diverse wartime Dirty Half Dozen is very similar to Captain America's Howling Commandos. There's also something a bit Hellboy-ish about its German adversaries, particularly Dr Maru (Anaya).

But by and large Wonder Woman is its own thing. It feels fresh in an overcrowded market. In its own DCEU market, it boasts a better sense of humour than its predecessors but fits into the tone of the franchise. In fact, it sets the bar for the franchise in terms of tone, as well as pretty much everything else.

There are many great side effects of Wonder Woman being an awesome film. It means the DCEU might finally find its feet, and we can have some hope that Justice League and Aquaman will be good.

But best of all is the idea Hollywood may realise a female-led actioner or superhero movie can be a good thing. After Elektra and Catwoman, it felt like no one had the courage to try again, and if Wonder Woman had failed, it would have been curious to see if Marvel persevered with its upcoming Captain Marvel. Now that Wonder Woman is awesome, maybe we'll finally get a Black Widow film, or a She-Hulk film, or perhaps Harley Quinn could hold her own movie without having to be part of a team.

Set these broader issues aside though and one thing shines through - Wonder Woman is a damned good superhero movie, because it remembers to just be a damned good movie.