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


(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:

June 16, 2017 - Cars 3

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


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.

Friday, 26 May 2017

Pirates Of The Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales

(M) ★★½

Director: Joachim Rønning & Espen Sandberg.

Cast: Johnny Depp, Javier Bardem, Brenton Thwaites, Kaya Scodelario, Kevin McNally, Geoffrey Rush.

The Cure had been on the road for far too long.

So long as Johnny Depp keeps signing on to play Jack Sparrow, and so long as they keep making treasure chests worth of money, Disney will keep making Pirates Of The Caribbean movies.

How else can you explain the fact we're up to Pirates 5 when only the first film was any good? It's certainly not a matter of quality.

The bad news is Pirates Of The Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales (AKA POTC: DMTNT or Pirates 5) does not improve matters. It will make close to a billion dollars despite the fact its no better (or worse) than the second and fourth films (which were worse than the marginally okay third film).

The garbled plot is another "hunt the MacGuffin" adventure, with this season's must have accessory being Poseidon's Trident - a magical all-purpose, all-powerful oceanic curse-breaker.

New character Henry Turner (Thwaites) wants it to free his dad (briefly returning former star of the series Orlando Bloom), Captain Jack Sparrow (Depp) wants it to get some dead Spaniards off his tail, dead Spanish pirate hunter Salazar (a CGI-enhanced Bardem) wants it return to the living and because it will lead him to Sparrow, Captain Barbossa (Rush) wants it so he can continue ruling the sea free of the pesky dead Spaniards, and newcomer Carina Smyth (Scodelario) wants it because it reminds her of her dad for some reason (or something - I'm still a bit hazy on that one).

If you think that's messy, then you're right. The script creaks like an ageing ship under the strain of having to get all these characters (and a few token British navy types led by David Wenham) heading in the same direction. It's filled with deus ex machinas, coincidences, contrivances, and just-plain-don't-make-senses as writer Jeff Nathanson does everything he can to keep things moving in between the eye candy.

And if there's one thing the POTC series does well, it's eye candy, and Pirates 5 works best when it's doing its OTT high seas stuff. Salazar's ship and crew are a modern CG marvel, particularly Salazar's perpetually-underwater look, and a pitched battle between them and Sparrow's cohorts is great to look at, even if it makes no sense that it should happen whatsoever, given Salazar's ship has the power to destroy any other ship with one blow.

Such idiotic plotting is par for the course here. So it's a shame that the script has some great characters floating in it that are wasted in a mediocre film. Bardem's Salazar is another great villain in a series that has been weirdly well-endowed with baddies. The returning Rush continues to be wonderful, but series star Depp plays Sparrow more drunken than usual and the lustre is starting to wear off his character. He still gets the best lines, most of which are immaculately delivered, but it might be nearly time to hang up the captain's hat before it starts to get truly tiresome.

However the most interesting character is Scodelario's Smyth - she's well-rounded, well-acted and adds flair to any scene she's in. It's just a shame she's saddled with an uncharismatic love interest in the form of Thwaites' Henry, who makes his dear old dad Orlando Bloom look like a master thespian. If this is the next generation taking this franchise into the future, then they've got it half-right, and half-very wrong.

It's in the smaller character moments that the film is at its best, so it's a shame the script is such a bucket of burley. There is some utter nonsense here - a wedding scene comes to mind as a key WTF moment - and POTC 5 continually wavers between amusing and annoying. A key example is Paul McCartney's cameo, which is surprisingly funny, but adds absolutely nothing to the plot. 

There is a very obvious attempt here to get the next generation of the franchise happening. Does that ever work? It seems unlikely people will turn up to see Scodelario and Thwaites' pirate adventures, especially if Depp's not there. The POTC franchise will only last as long as Depp keep turning up for a paycheck. 

But if they're going to keep making them, can they at least make some good ones? 


PS. Recent allegations by his former managers suggested Depp was fed lines through an earpiece because he couldn't be bothered learning them anymore. In the credits, I noticed "Sound technician to Mr Depp". Why a single actor would require their own sound technician, I don't know. Just sayin'.

Sunday, 21 May 2017

RIP Chris Cornell

Like most people of a certain age, I was shocked and saddened to hear of Chris Cornell's passing. Of all the alternative sounds that shaped the '90s (and thus a whole generation of malleable minds), the sound of Cornell's voice is one of the most prominent. It was phenomenal, soaring across four octaves like a stunt pilot. Cobain and Vedder were more influential as singers, but only because no one could do what Cornell did - Cornell was inimitable and untouchable. Vocally, he was one of a kind.

Seeing as how this is a movie blog and not a music one, I'm going to attempt to stay on track here and resist the urge to turn this into a blubbering eulogy where I just post my favourite Soundgarden/Temple Of The Dog/Audioslave/solo Cornell songs. 

So how does all this relate to movies? Bear with me as I pay tribute to Chris Cornell via his filmic connections.

Singles (1992)

IF you ever need to explain to someone what the early '90s, the Seattle sound and the whole Gen-X thing was all about, show them this film. It won't explain it definitively, but its rambling arty inclinations and alt-rock soundtrack captures the zeitgeist pretty well. Writer-director Cameron Crowe, who spent a lot of time in Seattle in the late '80s/early '90s, had the film in the can for nearly nine months while Warner Bros dithered about wondering what to do with it. Then boom - Nirvana's Nevermind blew-up and all of a sudden all these Seattle musos Crowe had roped in to star in the film and provide the soundtrack were megastars by association. Cornell and the recently formed Pearl Jam were heavily involved in the film (Cornell has a dorky wordless cameo and performs with Soundgarden in a live sequence), and they feature on the soundtrack alongside other Washington state heroes Mother Love Bone (which featured a couple of future Pearl Jam members), Mudhoney, Alice In Chains, Jimi Hendrix, the Wilson sisters, and Screaming Trees.

Cornell's acoustic contribution Seasons is beautiful (it would also later appear in the film Man Of Steel) and hints at the quieter stuff that would appear on Soundgarden's last pre-hiatus album Down On The Upside. The soundtrack (which was released a full three months before the film to cash in on the Seattle boom) also featured previously unreleased Soundgarden track Birth Ritual. But perhaps the greatest Cornell-related thing to emerge from the film was the song Spoonman. Pearl Jam's Jeff Ament was tasked with creating a fake tracklist for the film's faux band Citizen Dick, and Cornell saw the list and started writing songs to go with the made-up titles. One of them was Spoonman, and a demo of the song can be heard in Singles, almost fully formed in all its wonderful 7/4 rock glory. The tune would grow up to be a Soundgarden monster single. 

Hype! (1996)

But if you really want to understand the whole Seattle alt-rock explosion thing, check out Doug Pray's wonderfully insightful and hilariously cynical doco Hype!. Released a couple of years after the grunge bubble burst, it's a great ground-level insight into how and why Seattle became a global music epicentre. Nirvana isn't even mentioned until about the 35 minute mark, when they appear on screen in jittery fan-shot footage playing a little ditty called Smells Like Teen Spirit for the first time, but prior to that you get bits and grabs from a host of other Seattle bands, including Soundgarden. The film is populated with every band that did and didn't make it, and the soundtrack is filled with about 20 of them. Soundgarden features prominently throughout the doco - Matt Cameron and Kim Thayil are interviewed and there's live footage of them playing Searching With My Good Eye Closed - and their contribution to the soundtrack is Nothing To Say, the band's first great song. In Hype!, producer Jack Endino calls it insanely heavy and he's right. It's a downtuned Sabbath-esque dirge with Cornell's phenomenal voice flying over the top of it. Damn that's high.

Feeling Minnesota (1996)

The influence of the alternative movement was so big in the '90s that you could name a crime-comedy starring Keanu Reeves and Cameron Diaz after an obscure lyric from a Soundgarden song and no one batted an eyelid. It's a great line - "I'm looking California, and feeling Minnesota". I'm not from America, but I get it (or at least I think I do). It's a great example of Cornell's way with words. But I always wondered how the line went down whenever Soundgarden played in Minnesota. Did the crowd take it badly or as some kind of compliment? Either way, Outshined is a great song, and aside from giving us the name of the long-forgotten film Feeling Minnesota, it also appeared on the soundtrack for True Romance.

Great Expectations (1998)

After Soundgarden's initial demise in 1997, Cornell set to work on his first (and best) solo album Euphoria Morning (apparently originally to be called Euphoria Mourning until a typo happened). The album emerged in 1999, but the first inkling of what it might sound like emerged the year before when a track called Sunshower turned up on the soundtrack for the Gwyneth Paltrow-starring Great Expectations (Sunshower ended up as a bonus track on some versions of Euphoria Morning). This under-rated track (which gets really great around the 3m30s mark) again demonstrates Cornell's knack for a Beatlesy chord change and a hint of melancholy psychedelia.

And while we're talking about Euphoria Morning, can we all please take a moment to appreciate how incredible this next song is? For most of us, it was the first post-Soundgarden thing we heard from Cornell. Suffice to say, we all knew he wasn't done yet. Can't Change Me is one of the best things he ever wrote.

Collateral (2004)

I had to find a way to get Audioslave in here, and it comes via Michael Mann, who must be a fan of Cornell's supergroup with three-quarters of Rage Against The Machine because Mann included Audioslave tracks in the excellent Collateral and the already-forgotten Miami Vice. Audioslave get a bit of a bad rap, typically from people who loved Soundgarden and RATM, but I'll be damned if that first Audioslave album isn't rad. What's not to love about Cornell's voice, Tom Morello's guitar craziness, and the RATM rhythm section working together to rock the house?

Casino Royale (2006)

Cornell was the first American man to sing a Bond theme, which is kind of a big deal. He co-wrote this with composer David Arnold and the result is one of the better 007 songs - easily top 10 - and certainly the best of the Daniel Craig era. Cornell said he was trying to sound vocally like Tom Jones' Thunderball, but musically like Paul McCartney's Live & Let Die. Not a bad aspiration.

The Avengers (2012)

After a decade and a half, Soundgarden reappeared, of all places, in the end credits of a Marvel movie. Despite being a Marvel fan and a Soundgarden fan, I didn't know this was coming and, at first, I was presently surprised. And then slightly underwhelmed. It's part-Soundgarden riffage of a classic vintage, and really kicks in with Thayil's idiosyncratic wah solo, but it's also part-average acoustic latter-career Cornell. The song has grown on me over the years though, but it's not one of Soundgarden's best tracks, let's be honest.

A Walk Among The Tombstones (2014)

Soundtracks to trailers go through phases, and there's been a trend over the past decade or more to "Mad World" a song for a film preview. You know, like Gary Jules did to the Tears For Fears track in Donnie Darko. Recent examples have included the school choir singing Radiohead's Creep for The Social Network, and Nouela's take on Black Hole Sun for A Walk Among The Tombstones. The latter is a beautiful cover, highlighting the complexity and beauty of the chords and melody.

And now that Cornell is sadly gone, this song will serve as his epitaph, and it's an incredible one. Dave Grohl called this song "the perfect meeting of The Beatles and Black Sabbath" and he's not wrong. It's darkly psychedelic thanks to those eerie watery guitars, and its hefty chorus is somehow sludgy and beautiful at the same time, partly because it's also unashamedly pop - the hook of the chorus is one for the ages. If there was such as thing as the quintessential grunge epic, it's probably this song.

If you get a chance, check out this amazing Aussie cover version by Katie Noonan and Little River Band's Glenn Shorrock, and this isolated vocal track to remember just how amazing Cornell's voice really was.

Bonus track

This song has never been used in a film, and has no cinematic connection I'm aware of, but screw it, I'm chucking it here because it's my favourite Soundgarden song. It's everything I love about them, crammed into one song - the kink in the timing, memorable rhythms, and a stomp-on-the-fuzz-pedal chorus, with Cornell soaring over the top of it with those incredible melodies and astonishing range. May he rest in peace.

Saturday, 20 May 2017

King Arthur: Legend Of The Sword

(MA15+) ★½

Director: Guy Ritchie

Cast: Charlie Hunnam, Àstrid Bergès-Frisbey, Djimon Hounsou, Aidan Gillen, Jude Law, Eric Bana.

Much like Tarzan, filmmakers just can't leave King Arthur alone.

It's one of those old public domain stories that Hollywood types love to dig up, dust off and "re-imagine" every few years when bereft of anything new to contribute or when all the good franchises have been snapped up by other production companies.

And so it falls to Guy Ritchie to do the directorial legwork on this re-imagining, having re-imagined himself in recent years as a re-imaginer, doing wonders for Sherlock Holmes and The Man From UNCLE. 

Unfortunately Ritchie's return to form is over. This attempt to reboot the Round Table as some kind of all-conquering, thoroughly modern film saga is dead in the water.

Some parts of this version will be familiar - there's a sword in a stone, and a young Arthur extracts it on his way to reclaiming his rightful place as king of the Britons. But there is also the unfamiliar, such as giant battle elephants, kung-fu masters, and demon knights.

What appears on the screen looks part-computer game, part-Lord Of The Rings wannabe, part-scruffy Shakespeare for lads, part-Robin Hood-meets-The Matrix, and it's all blended together with a liberal dash of Ritchie's cockney crime background and way too much money. As such, it's a bloody mess.

It's obvious he's trying to do what he did to Sherlock Holmes, but where his hyperactive directorial tendencies were well suited to the mind of the world's greatest detective, here they get in the way of some potentially classic story telling and prove to be more annoying than interesting.

Ritchie is also lacking a super-talented frontman like Robert Downey Jr to make all this work. Hunnam's Arthur is unlikeable for so much of the film, and the actor can't save or spin the role into something roguish or entertaining. I'm still unconvinced about Hunnam's capabilities as a leading
man, having seen him be unremarkable in this, The Ledge, Pacific Rim and Crimson Peak

The film starts strong - in fact so strong that its opening sequences involving giant war elephants that seem to have wondered over from the Battle of Gondor can't be topped by anything else in the film. It then uses some very economical editing to set up Arthur and his back story, and everything is going really well for the first five or 10 minutes, but then you realise they're skipping bits just so the film can get bogged down in them later via countless tedious flashbacks, mystical visions and general chronology shenanigans, and it turns out it wasn't efficient storytelling but in fact the exact opposite. There's a lot of timeline jumping and flashbacking and flashforwarding and hypothetical imaginings, and the whole thing becomes utterly annoying.

There are so many issues with this film. It skips over the bit where Arthur supposedly truly earns Excalibur. It does a whole bunch of unnecessary bollocks during the final boss battle. It's humour falls flat, and it's lacking in heart. The score, while excellent, is distracting and doesn't fit in. And the aforementioned editing leaves a lot to be desired, so much so you can't help but wonder if there wasn't a better film left on the cutting room floor. 

One saving grace is Jude Law. As Arthur's evil uncle Vertigan, he is deliciously bad, yet somehow ends up being the most sympathetic character of the piece. He does horrible things, but makes incredible sacrifices for them and as result becomes the most intriguing player in this sad misfire.

At the end of this, Arthur builds his round table and knights his buddies, with an eye toward future movies. The fact Merlin, Guinevere, and Lancelot aren't in this also points to hopes of franchise. But that all looks incredibly unlikely. This King Arthur swings, misses its target, and cuts itself off at the knees.

Besides, Ritchie was doomed from the start. Everyone knows the definitive King Arthur story was made in 1975 by Monty Python.

Thursday, 11 May 2017

Alien: Covenant

(MA15+) ★★★½

Director: Ridley Scott.

Cast: Michael Fassbender, Katherine Waterston, Billy Crudup, Danny McBride, Demián Bichir, Carmen Ejogo, Amy Seimetz, Jussie Smollett, Callie Hernandez.

"I'm going to kill everyone, starting with the writers of Prometheus."

In most decade-spanning franchises, the goodwill of the early films can be enough to make fans endure the usually inevitable diminishing returns as they live in hope of a return to the glory days.

For example, Star Wars fans put up with George Lucas' comparatively shitty prequels and still turned up in droves for The Force Awakens, where they were justly rewarded for their years of suffering. Less fortunate were the increasingly frustrated punters who saw the most recent Terminator dross in the hopes it would recapture the glory of the first two films. And as much as most people hated Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull, those same people will line up again for Indy 5.

So regardless of the terrible Prometheus, and the so-so third and fourth films, lovers of the Xenomorph will be back for more Alien action, despite the fact there hasn't been a great film in the series for over 30 years. The good news is Covenant is Ridley Scott remembering what made the original Alien great. Gone are the thematic excesses and screenplay idiocies of Prometheus - Covenant is less concerned with myth-building and more focused on being entertaining and scary.

Set 10 years after Prometheus, it follows the crew of the spaceship Covenant, who have awoken early from their cryosleep after a random star burst damages their ship. They are on their way to a distant planet, which they aim to colonise, but during their unplanned awakening they intercept a weird transmission and decide to stop over at a nearby planet and check it out. Aliens ensue.

As mentioned, Covenant is Scott nailing some of those original notes he hit back in 1979. The original Alien was a wonderfully taut, contained horror film - a haunted house saga in space, with one of the most vicious killers up against cinema's greatest heroine. Covenant is also, first and foremost, a horror film. It's less haunted house and more, well, spoilers forbid me from saying what it is exactly, but just know that this is skincrawlingly scary in places.

Scott hasn't totally thrown out the nonsensical mythologising of Prometheus, but it's largely irrelevant. In fact you could watch, understand and enjoy Covenant without having seen or rewatched Prometheus (which I wouldn't wish on anyone). What's important is that Scott ditches most of the absurd philosophising while still maintaining a cohesive and coherent theme, which is about creation and the desire/need to create.

The result is a far more interesting (and intelligible) film that doesn't skimp on the action or the gore. Aliens burst out of all manner of places and they stalk and kill a fair whack of the largely forgettable crew over the course of two entertaining hours.

As for that crew, the key names are great. Everyone beneath Bechir is cannon fodder, but everyone above that does a great job, particularly Fassbender, who is back on board after Prometheus  as a more updated android named Walter. Equally excellent is Waterston, who has the tough task of enduring Ripley comparisons. She can handle them - her performance as Daniels is cut from the same cloth and she wears it well. Also of note is McBride, who tempers his typical loudmouthed attitude with some actual dramatic acting. Who knew he had it in him?

It's equally satisfying to see Scott get a bit of blood on his hands again. When combined with previous films The Martian and Exodus, you'd almost say he's got his mojo back after the trash trifecta of The Counselor, Prometheus and Robin Hood. Not that Covenant is perfect or up with his best work. There is a lack of punch and there's a predictability in places, and the pacing of the first act and a half is off, but by-and-large it's interesting and entertaining.

Scott walks a fine line between trying to find new tricks and reminding us of the magic of the first film (and even James Cameron's sequel), but it's a damned if you do, damned if you don't situation. Thankfully Covenant is part-fresh, part-nostalgic, and largely enjoyable, and certainly the best Alien movie since Aliens, although that's not saying much.

Saturday, 6 May 2017

Get Out (includes audio review)

(MA15+) ★★★★★

Director: Jordan Peele.

Cast: Daniel Kaluuya, Allison Williams, Lil Rel Howery, Catherine Keener, Bradley Whitford, Caleb Landry Jones, Stephen Root, Betty Gabriel, Marcus Henderson.

"Has anyone seen Guess Who's Coming To Dinner?"
"Oh yeah, I love Ashton Kutcher!"

THE best horror and sci-fi stories reflect the fears and concerns of the time. 

Godzilla is the manifestation of Japan's post-Hiroshima nuclear nightmares. Invasion Of The Bodysnatchers hinted at the threat of Commies and the equally heinous McCarthyism. Dawn Of The Dead tackled consumerism. Frankenstein and Jekyll & Hyde first emerged as cautionary tales about unchecked science. The best of the early slasher films mirrored concerns about teen sex, stranger danger and the media-driven fascination with serial killers. The emergence of body horror films coincided with the rise of cosmetic surgery.

And so on and so forth. People write PhDs on this stuff. 

Its when genre pieces like these explore such social issues that they typically take on an extra level that can catapult them above the morass of more mindless examples. In other words, it's this deeper thematic layer that helps make them classics.

Get Out fits in that category. It is reflective of the racial tensions that have bubbled and burst in the US in recent years and is effortlessly demonstrative of white privilege and the accompanying ingrained impact that it has on black Americans. And simmering along underneath, beside and inside all these concerns is a wonderfully silly little horror plot, delivered with a straight face that amplifies the film's moral worries. 

The hero of Get Out is Chris (Kaluuya), a photographer who is on his way to meet the family of his girlfriend Rose (Williams) for the first time. Chris is nervous about spending the weekend with them because Rose is white and she hasn't told her family that Chris is black. As the weekend progresses, Chris begins to feel odd about Rose's family and friends, but he can't quite tell if he's just being paranoid or if something truly weird is going on.

The performances across the board are superb. Kaluuya carries the film comfortably and does an amazing job, ably supported by Williams, while the side players of Keener, Whitford and Root are excellent. Gabriel, Henderson and LaKeith Stanfield excel in small but pivotal roles that go along toward giving Get Out its creepy air.

Given that writer/director Peele is better known as one half of comedy duo Key & Peele, it's no surprise there is some humour here, but it's cleverly sectioned off into the moments involving Lil Rel Howery's TSA agent Rod - a friend of Chris who keeps tabs on Chris' weekend over the phone. 

The greatest strength of Get Out is its script, and not just because of its thematic depth. There's not a wasted line or moment - everything is there for a reason, and as you mentally unpick the film after watching it, it becomes increasingly impressive. The subtle set-ups, the slightly off tones, and the seemingly throwaway lines all pay off and serve a purpose, often in wonderful ways.

Peele nails the subtlety, awkwardness, blatantness, and ridiculousness of racism. The film's exploration of it is never awkward or blatant though. It simply has a black lead character and looks at how white people would honestly deal with him ... and then things get weird and everything is dialed up a notch as the horror plotting takes hold. But it's still in the small things, particularly the final pivotal moment, where you get a powerful display of racism at work.

Peele also handles the horror well. There's nothing overtly gory, and while it is violent, it's not gratuitous. The film's appeal is in the slow unwind of its creepy tone and its psychological edge. Peele lets the script's evils creep up on you. He's not adverse to a jump scare, but its the overall tone and ideas of Get Out that really get at you.

Predicting what films will be future classics is one of the more impossible tasks of the movie critic. It's what five-star reviews should be saved for - the films that are not only great now, but likely to be considered great for decades to come. Get Out is definitely great now, and I'm taking a punt that it will be considered great for decades to come.