Sunday, 27 December 2015

The Good Dinosaur

(PG) ★★★½

Director: Peter Sohn.

Cast: (voices of) Raymond Ochoa, Jack Bright, Sam Elliott, Jeffrey Wright, Frances McDormand, Steve Zahn.

Acid was way better back in the day.

IF any of the other animation houses released The Good Dinosaur, you’d consider it a hit.

But by the lofty storytelling standards of Pixar, it is merely good. Really good, but still just good.

Being released the same year as possibly Pixar’s greatest film – Inside Out – means it’s impossible not to look at the two movies side by side, which puts The Good Dinosaur at a disadvantage. Next to the remarkable script of Inside Out, The Good Dinosaur feels so simple, conventional and even clichéd.

Thankfully, like all Pixar films (bar Cars 2), The Good Dinosaur has so much heart and integrity and so deftly handles its jokes and emotions that you can overlook the plainness of the story.

The set-up is intriguing – in a bizarro world where the asteroid that wipes out the dinosaurs misses Earth, we end up with a dino-society of sorts.

The herbivores are crop farmers, the carnivores run cattle, and the humans are not that different from the other non-sapient mammals running around.

Our hero is Arlo (Ochoa), a scared little apatosaurus desperate to “make his mark” but haunted by a family tragedy.

A run-in with a human child, who Arlo names Spot (Bright), whisks the pair a long way from Arlo’s home, and the two must work together to make it back.

The Good Dinosaur’s plot is of the Homeward Bound variety, with a boy-and-his-dog dynamic thrown in – the twist being the boy is actually a dinosaur and the dog is actually a boy.

Once Arlo and Spot team up, the film finds its feet as it gets a much-needed sense of humour and stops labouring its message about overcoming fear in order to make your mark in the world.

It’s still a very normal story dressed up in some rather eccentric clothes, and at times the movie almost feels too weird for its own good. We get cowboy tyrannosaurs, storm-chasing pterosaurs, and raptor rustlers, but weirdest of all is the look of the dinosaurs, which takes a while to get used too. The photo-realistic world they live in is visually stunning, but it makes the cartoonish, plasticine-like characters seem out of place.

Despite its formulaic story, it still manages to the push the right buttons. There will be a few happy tears at the end, and there are a couple of decent laughs.

In the wake of Inside Out, The Good Dinosaur could be seen as a deliberate attempt at a simpler film that’s more kiddie-friendly and less cerebral and inventive.

As such, The Good Dinosaur is good enough, even if it’s not as Pixar perfect as we’ve come to expect.

Thursday, 17 December 2015

Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens

(M) ★★★★

Director: J.J. Abrams.

Cast: Harrison Ford, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Adam Driver, Oscar Isaac, Peter Mayhew, Domhnall Gleeson, Lupita Nyong’o, Carrie Fisher, Anthony Daniels, Andy Serkis, Mark Hamill.

"It's George Lucas! Run for it!"

IT is increasingly likely that at some point in the future, every film will be remade.

Even the seemingly untouchable and iconic ones – like, say, Star Wars – will get a re-imagining centuries from now.

If someone 100 years in the future is bold/stupid enough to remake the original 1977 saga-spawning game-changing sci-fi classic, they would do well to check out J.J. Abrams’ sterling effort with Episode VII.

This new addition to the franchise is, in many ways, a remake. While it’s actually a sequel, a bit of a reboot, and a definite passing of the torch, it follows similar story beats and even specific plot points of Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope.

This is not a criticism – it’s a compliment and part of the secret to its success. Abrams and his co-writers Lawrence Kasdan (who wrote episodes V and VI) and Michael Arndt (Little Miss Sunshine, Toy Story 3) have tapped into many of the core elements that made the original work, as well as the structure and pacing, to build something that is both fresh and familiar.

This nostalgic skeleton and classic storytelling approach has been fleshed out with great new characters and new twists on old favourites. Incoming masked baddie Kylo Ren (Driver) is a fantastic villain, taking the imposing nature and deathly style of Darth Vader and combining it with real flaws, such as a wild, brattish temper and a niggling sense of self-doubt and inferiority. He is a true threat yet also feels like a well-rounded character, and he’s one of the best things in The Force Awakens.

Not to be outdone though is Ridley as Rey – the shining heart of the film. Her character merges traits of Luke Skywalker and Leia Organa (that’s not a comment on her lineage, by the way). She has Skywalker’s wide-eyed naivety and earnestness, and it is through her eyes we see much of the universe, but she also has Organa’s can-do attitude and brashness. Rey continues Hollywood’s welcome recent run with strong female action leads (The Hunger Games’ Katniss Everdeen, Mad Max: Fury Road’s Furiosa) – she is not a damsel in need of rescuing; she is more likely to free herself and save everyone else in the process.

The other big tick for the casting agents is Boyega as Finn, a stormtrooper trying to find his place in the galaxy after deciding that slaughtering the innocent is not his cup of tea. He delivers a good mixture of drama and humour, and shares good chemistry with Ridley and Ford.

The latter returns as Han Solo, older, a bit goofier, and far less sprightly than he used to be. Ford slips into the role like it's a comfy old leather jacket and helps balance the fresh elements with a sense of history and occasion. The character has also evolved sensibly – he is wiser for his experiences and also tired of it all.

Less well handled is Fisher’s return as the promoted General Leia Organa. While Leia and Han’s relationship is well played, the writers and Fisher don’t seem to have figured out exactly who the princess has become.

One of the most notable things about The Force Awakens is that it does the prequels no favours. While episodes I, II and III have their moments, they’re shown up as being the green-screen-heavy toy commercials they truly are when compared with Episode VII. This is a real film, set in a real-seeming tangible lived-in world, with real-seeming people you care about, and the majority of the movie doesn’t look like a computer game.

Add in the fact this has the best acting, best dialogue, best direction, and best cinematography of any film in the entire franchise, and the prequels don’t stand a chance. It doesn’t have the myth-making quality of the original – nothing can – nor does it have a stack of classic moments, but nonetheless this is technically a better crafted film than any of its predecessors.

There are flaws. An extended set-piece involving tentacled creatures loose on a spaceship plays badly, while some key moments in the third act feel rushed. Gleeson is also miscast and saves Fisher from the ‘worst on ground’ award.

There is also a dark air to this that, while certainly no darker than the deepest pockets of episodes III and V, stamps this as a film for the older fans. The slapstick of Jar Jar Binks and twee annoyances of young ‘Ani’ Skywalker are nowhere to be seen, thank the maker. It’s largely bloodless, but its M rating is warranted.

All in all, The Force Awakens is deeply satisfying. It’s as good as fans could have hoped for and better than we deserve. It is a fine successor to the original trilogy that knows what it needs to do, packs in some fantastic and emotional surprises along the way, and impresses on so many levels that many will want to go and see it again.

Thursday, 10 December 2015


(M) ★★★★

Director: Ryan Coogler.

Cast: Michael B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone, Tessa Thompson, Phylicia Rashād, Tony Bellew.

"What about Throw Momma From The Train? Can we reboot that one?"
YOU can’t keep a good fighter down.

And while many would have been happy for cinema’s greatest boxer Rocky Balboa to stay down after the surprising success of his self-titled and sixth film nine years ago, you’ll be glad he got back up off the canvas for a seventh round.

To be fair though, this is not Rocky’s fight. It’s a passing of the torch, or gloves as it were, to Adonis Johnson aka the illegitimate son of Apollo Creed, Rocky’s opponent in the first two films of the series (and friend in the third and fourth).

“Baby Creed” - played by Michael B Jordan (Chronicle, Fantastic Four) - is a troubled young man who didn’t know his father but is drawn to Apollo’s legacy and the world of boxing.

After a promising start to his pugilistic career but with a temper in danger of landing him in trouble, the young Adonis packs in his job as an accountant to follow his boxing dreams.

He moves from LA to Philadelphia, tracks down Rocky (Stallone, of course) and begins training, hiding the fact he’s Apollo Creed’s son from everyone but Rocky.

So far, so formulaic, and on paper this looks like an uncalled-for cash-grab; a desperate attempt to restart the franchise. But the reality is this is one of the best films of the Rocky series – one worthy of the championship belt.

Creed is filled with the rich history of its predecessors but is not weighed down by it. Perhaps its greatest feat is walking the line between the old and the new – fans of the series will be well rewarded, but newcomers will find this a great starting point to the saga.

The film is totally Adonis’, and therefore Jordan’s, but it does a great job of valuing and honouring Rocky, and therefore Stallone.

Jordan’s performance is outstanding, both in terms of the physicality and the dramatic requirements. He owns a tough role that is constructed almost entirely in the shadows – not only of his character’s father, but of Stallone, of Balboa, and of the Rocky legacy. That he doesn’t buckle under all that weight while comfortably creating a new character is something to be applauded.

But as much as this film is about Adonis, the real star of the show is Stallone. A best supporting actor Oscar nomination beckons. After seven films, Rocky is a comfy pair of slippers for him, but in the transition from ageing fighter to “loveable uncle”, he adds new depth and new dimensions to the character that is the best display of Stallone’s talents since Cop Land.

Coogler, directing his own script, is the quiet achiever here. He gives both Adonis and Rocky good arcs, and you can see the screenplay is the real difference between this being a cheap knock-off and the real deal. But he also handles the action well. The film’s middle fight – a one-take, two-round sizzler – is masterfully done, as is the way he builds momentum in the final bout.

The flaws are few but are really no fault of the film’s. There is nothing truly new here – no surprise given this is Rocky VII – and you can spot the story’s beats from a mile away, which takes some of the punch (ahem) out of proceedings.

There is also a fine line between melodrama and real heart, and which side Creed falls on may well depend on your frame of mind when you step in the ring. Similarly, it’s humourless/serious approach skews toward self-parody, something amplified by the over-the-top and unbelievable nature of the climactic bout.

But Creed has the potential to win you over if you let it. The injection of new blood, dealt with intelligently, makes for an enjoyable new story in the Rocky saga, aided in no small way by Jordan, Coogler and, dare it be said, a career-best turn from Stallone.

Thursday, 3 December 2015

In The Heart Of The Sea

(M) ★★★

Director: Ron Howard.

Cast: Chris Hemsworth, Benjamin Walker, Cillian Murphy, Tom Holland, Ben Whishaw, Brendan Gleeson.

Ever get the feeling you're being watched?

HERMAN Melville’s Moby-Dick is a remarkable novel but perhaps even more remarkable is one of the true stories that inspired it.

Melville’s 1851 classic is a composite of many tales and ideas, including the author’s own time aboard a whaling vessel, but deep within its lyrical prose are bits and pieces from accounts of the Essex – a whaling ship that met a grim fate at the hands of a monstrous white whale.

It’s this dark saga that forms Howard’s 24th film, and while In The Heart Of The Sea has its moments, this gripping story is marred by a tendency to pull you out of the heart of the moment.

Hemsworth stars as Oliver Chase, a skillful whaler keen to be promoted from first mate to captain, and who makes little effort to hide his displeasure at having to serve under a cocky new captain George Pollard (Walker) aboard the whaling ship Essex.

Unable to find many whales in the usual places, the Essex rounds Cape Horn, and during a stopover for supplies the crew hear of a section of the ocean teeming with sperm whales but protected by an enormous and aggressive white whale.

Undaunted, the crew head into the Pacific, in search of glory, only to find tragedy.

At its best, In The Heart Of The Sea is fantastic. Despite the conflicting feelings that come with watching people hunt and kill such majestic (computer-generated) creatures, the harpooning sequences are enthralling, and any time the monstrous Moby (the whale, not the musician) is on the screen, the movie goes up a notch.

As the Essex’s best laid plans turn to driftwood and the crew’s minds turn to survival, the film is riveting. It gets dark – really dark – and it’s compelling.

The strong cast, led by Hemsworth, Walker, Murphy and future Spider-man Holland, is uniformly excellent, handling the physicality (including some extreme weight loss) as well as the drama with equal aplomb. Watching Hemsworth go from Thor to thin is fascinating in itself, but he shines in several scenes. After seeing Rush and now this, one can only hope he makes more films with Howard.

But In The Heart Of The Sea suffers from some annoying defects. To ram home the point that this is the true story that partially inspired Moby-Dick, the movie is framed (and repeatedly interrupted) by author Herman Melville (Wishaw) extracting the Essex’s tale from the older version of Holland’s character (Gleeson).

It adds unnecessary melodrama and flab to what could have been a sleek survival story, but worst of all it continually rips us off the Essex and back on to dry land, despite every swaying camera and well staged wave doing its utmost to make you feel like you’re there on the boat as it happens.

In fact, the film over-stretches in its efforts to put you amid the action – there are too many strange GoPro-like camera angles and shots amid the otherwise beautiful cinematography, which only serve to break the movie’s flow and remind you that you are indeed simply watching a movie, not experiencing something special.

Whenever In The Heart Of The Sea sets foot on land, it struggles. The opening landlocked moments are stuffed with clichés and clunky character descriptions, while Wishaw and Gleeson’s scenes don’t work at all.

But when the movie sets sail, it’s a winner. In summary, the film has its sea legs, but can’t seem to find its land legs.

Thursday, 26 November 2015

Hotel Transylvania 2

(PG) ★★½

Director: Genndy Tartakovsky.

Cast: (voices of) Adam Sandler, Andy Samberg, Selena Gomez, Kevin James, David Spade, Steve Buscemi, Keegan-Michael Key, Molly Shannon, Fran Drescher, Mel Brooks.

"The world is a vampire... oh sorry."

NO matter how much critics slag off the output of Adam Sandler, people still go and see his movies.

The problem is the number of fans seems to be decreasing while the number of haters (who aren’t professional movie critics) is increasing.

This is why his movies don’t draw the crowds they used to, and why he’s unleashed more box office bombs in recent times than he used to.

However, one of his more successful outings in recent times was Hotel Transylvania, a CG family adventure that piles every monster movie character (and cliché) into one all-ages comedy.

On the surface, there is no sign of Sandler, which is potentially why it was a box office hit – you don’t see his face or his voice (he puts on a classic “I vant to suck your blood” Transylvanian accent), luring in some of those haters who wouldn’t ordinarily take their kids to a Sandler film.

But dig deeper and his fingerprints are all over it. He’s a producer, his buddies Kevin James, Andy Samberg and David Spade are in the cast, and he’s a writer, with the latter going some way towards explaining why so many jokes are so easy and fall so flat.

Second time around, the jokes are just as easy and fall just as flat, but the film is saved somewhat by a cracking last act, a heartfelt message about accepting people’s differences, and a cool cameo by comedy legend Mel Brooks.

The marriage of the vampire Mavis (Gomez) and the human Johnny (Samberg), who paired up in the first film, results in Dennis (Asher Blinkoff). The boy is the apple of his grandfather Drac’s (Sandler) eye, but the old bloodsucker is worried Dennis will be more human than vampire, potentially ending the Dracula bloodline.

So while Mavis and Johnny visit Johnny’s parents in California to see if it’s a better place to raise a kid than Transylvania, Drac and his buddies take Dennis on an adventure in the hopes of drawing out the toddler’s inner vampire.

Despite being just under 90 minutes long, Hotel Transylvania manages to feel overly long and deliberately padded out. Despite whipping through Mavis and Johnny’s wedding, pregnancy and Dennis’ early years, the centre of the film is bloated and peppered with unnecessary moments – there’s a token dance-off, plenty of drawn-out bad jokes, and dozens of cutaway sight gags, most of which didn’t even draw a giggle from the kids in the audience at the screening I attended.

In some ways though, this is better than the original. Less focus on the last film’s central character, the ultra-annoying Johnny, is a massive plus, while the relationship between Drac and his grandson is actually pretty sweet.

The voice cast does a good job, particularly Sandler, despite the lazy characterisations, although Drac is a more well-rounded protagonist this time around. One of the best additions is Johnny’s mother Linda (Megan Mullally) – the well-meaning mother-in-law whose attempts to be accepting of the ways of the monsters continually comes off as accidentally offensive.

Which brings us to the ace up the movie’s sleeve – a nice message about acceptance and letting people be who they are, rather than who you want them to be. Either way you play it – as a parable on racism, a plea for gay rights, or a warning against pushy parenting – it’s a more-than-worthwhile ethos. As this underlying motif gathers steam, colliding with a climactic battle in the third act, the film starts to work really well, just as it’s coming to its end.

The strong finale almost makes you forgive the preceding 75 minutes, but the fact remains that this drags on lazily for much of its running time. Some kids might get a cheap thrill out of it, but they won’t be begging to watch this one again and again. And if they do, you have my sympathy.

Thursday, 19 November 2015

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 2


Director: Francis Lawrence.

Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Donald Sutherland, Julianne Moore.

"How did they get this pile of rocks to burn? Is this a magic fire?"

SAYING goodbye is a difficult thing to do.

Peter Jackson got it right first time with Return Of The King, but wrong second time with The Battle Of The Five Armies. Harry Potter’s last film was spot on, but Nolan's final Batman was way off.

The fourth and final movie of The Hunger Games series is somewhere in the middle. It can’t match the thrills of the second film, nor the emotional punch of the third, despite the stakes being higher, yet does just enough to satisfy fans of the franchise based on Suzanne Collins’ young adult dystopian novels.

Taking off where Mockingjay – Part 1 left off (don’t bother seeing this if you haven’t seen the previous films), it finds Katniss Everdeen (Lawrence) struggling with her position as figurehead of the Panem uprising.

She wants to get out there and kill the tyrant Snow (Sutherland), but is seen as too valuable by the leaders of the uprising, personified by Coin (Moore).

Meanwhile her friend Peeta (Hutcherson) is struggling to recover from brainwashing at the hands of Snow, but is part of the rebel forces edging closer to Snow’s stronghold.

But Snow has one last trick up his sleeve for the rebels – a booby-trapped capital city, which effectively creates one last Hunger Games. The prize this time is control of the whole country.

Mockingjay 2 can’t harness the same energy as its predecessors despite even more being on the line this time. There are still some surprises left, including a strangely handled last act twist, but the momentum of the previous film is lost.

With the uprising in its final throes, the movie unfortunately takes its sweet time getting to where it’s going. The first act drags over old ground, while the action sequences of the second act are predominantly of the “running away” variety and become repetitive, except for a cool fight with weird creatures in a sewer.

It’s the big reveal and payoff at the end, which should be so satisfying, that feels so frustratingly fumbled. Given the way the plot of the final book is split into two films, the screenwriters and director Francis Lawrence had a lot of time to deal with the key elements but rush many of them. You can’t help but wonder if a punchier single film version wouldn’t have worked better or whether the last two films must be watched in one sitting to fully hit home.

There is still a lot to like about Mockingjay 2 aka Hunger Games 4. It’s key themes about the power of propaganda and the morality within war are as vital as ever and tested in interesting fashion, particularly the latter, and Katniss Everdeen remains a compelling character, wonderfully realised by Lawrence.

The love triangle between Katniss, Peeta and Gale (Hemsworth) is interesting and refreshingly strange, while the supporting cast is great. In fact, they’re so great but so plentiful you end up shortchanged by their collective lack of screen time – Harrelson, Moore, the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, Elizabeth Banks, Jena Malone, and Jeffrey Wright all play intriguing roles, but we don’t see enough of them.

At close to two-and-a-half hours, Mockingjay 2 feels long when it shouldn't, especially given the small amount of actual plotting that takes place. The studio, in its efforts to maximise profits, has unnecessarily split one book and created one great film and one not-so-great finale.

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2 does all it needs to in order to succeed, but is a let down compared to its predecessors.

Thursday, 12 November 2015


(M) ½

Director: Sam Mendes.

Cast: Daniel Craig, Christoph Waltz, Léa Seydoux, Ben Whishaw, Naomie Harris, Dave Bautista, Monica Bellucci, Ralph Fiennes.

Dinner at her parents' place had not gone well.

THE sixth Bond is back for his fourth outing and the world of 007 has never been so liberated.

Since effectively rebooting the series with the arrival of Craig in Casino Royale in 2006, Eon Productions have been able to do whatever the hell they want with the films.

If they play things straight and do away with the quips and gadgets, it’s a new Bond for a new era. If they throw in some quips and gadgets, it’s a nod to the past. They can’t fail.

Well, actually, they can fail. The confusing mess of Quantum Of Solace proved that, although that can be largely attributed to the 2007-’08 writers’ strike apparently.

But after the outright victories of Casino Royale (the most un-Bond-like of the series yet also possibly the best) and Skyfall (somewhat more Bond-like and also great), the filmmakers find themselves in the position of being able to do whatever they want and have it called “Bond”.

So here we have Spectre, a movie that continues in the super-serious vein of Craig’s previous outings yet throws in some typical Bond wit, that delves deeply into the psychology and history of its characters but can’t resist a gadget and a tricked-out car, and that has a visual style unlike any previous Bond film but 007 is still unable to resist shagging a woman he’s just met.

Plot-wise, the movie’s catalyst is a message from beyond the grave telling Bond to kill a terrorist named Marco Sciarra (Alessandro Cremona) and go to his funeral.

The funeral leads him to Sciarra’s wife Lucia (Belucci, making headlines as the oldest ‘Bond girl’ to date), who in turn points Bond in the direction of Spectre, an organisation that appears to link many of the most recent Bond villains.

But who is the Big Bad behind them all (hint: he looks like Christoph Waltz) and what is he up to?

Following in the footsteps of 23 predecessors makes it hard to avoid some obvious throwbacks. A mountaintop health clinic smacks of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, a relentless colossal henchman played by Bautista is like Jaws from The Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker but without the dental work, a torture scene tries to outdo Casino Royale’s ballbuster, the “go rogue” subplot was Timothy Dalton’s bag, and there’s a villain and a villainous organisation we’ve seen before.

These are not criticisms. Spectre revels in the opportunity to be new and old (Bond orders a vodka martini shaken not stirred and a dirty unshaken vodka martini!) and it largely works well when both are mixed together.

Case in point is a mindbogglingly brilliant opening tracking shot that goes through a crowded Mexican square, into a hotel, into an elevator, up a few floors, into a room, out a window and along a rooftop. It’s a bravura moment and something we’ve not seen in a Bond film before - it's more like Orson Welles’ Touch Of Evil opening shot or one of Scorsese's signature tracking moves.

It’s then topped off by a fight in a helicopter that is one of the ballsier stunts seen in recent times and which is typically Bond, but dialled up to 11.

Sadly, Spectre can’t keep up the pace of its pre-credits sequence forever and the momentum slowly drops away, unaided by a two-and-a-half-hour running time. It’s almost a relief when we get to the final stand-off on a London bridge, having been to Mexico, Italy, Austria, and Morocco already.

Things get particularly wonky in the deserts beyond Morocco, where the villain seemingly welcomes Bond with open arms, despite having sent a henchman to kill him just moments earlier. The film fully leaps off the rails and from then on it is a struggle to get back on them.

Most disappointing is Waltz, who has habit of stealing movies. He couldn’t even steal a shot in this film. His character is never imposing or scary or intimidating or dangerous or charismatic or unhinged or psychotic (even when he’s torturing Bond), and every Bond villain needs to be at least one of these things. He plays his Big Bad like a benevolent uncle, which would be fine if there was a hint of menace underneath, but there isn’t. This is Waltz’s most disappointing performance since his breakout in Inglourious Basterds.

Holding it all together is Mendes and in-demand cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema, who give the film a visual style that is beautiful to behold, and Craig, who has achieved the difficult task of creating a fresh post-Brosnan Bond that still somehow feels like Bond.

Spectre really impresses early on but loses its way and struggles to a satisfying conclusion. Still, it’s great bits are truly great and at least it’s better than Quantum Of Solace.

My wife and I watched and discussed every Bond film in positively riveting fashion in BlogalongaBond, which you can read here.

Tuesday, 3 November 2015

Scouts Guide To The Zombie Apocalypse

(MA15+) ★★

Director: Christopher B Landon.

Cast: Tye Sheridan, Logan Miller, Joey Morgan, Sarah Dumont, David Koechner, Halston Sage, Cloris Leachman.

Scouts - check. Zombies - check. Hot chick - check.

THIS film may be the best evidence yet that we’ve reached “peak zombie”.

You can hear the bottom of the barrel being scraped in the quest for a new angle on the undead sub-genre, but unfortunately the makers come up dry.

This was originally titled Scouts Vs Zombies before being given its present poorly punctuated moniker (Scout’s Guide... or Scouts’ Guide... would have been acceptable). But the first name is the most accurate – there is nothing more to it than the fact it contains scouts and zombies. It’s like Snakes On A Plane, or Zombie Strippers - the title says it all and you probably don’t need to watch it to figure out how it’s going to go down.

If you don’t want to waste time figuring it out, it goes down a little something like this: three teenage scouts go camping in the woods before sneaking off to go to a party. When they get back to civilisation, they find a zombie apocalypse has taken place.

It would be nice to say their scouting abilities help them save the day but they don’t really. The whole scouting subplot ends up being largely irrelevant to the zombie outbreak, although it does add some development to the three main characters.

Ben (Sheridan), Carter (Miller) and Augie (Morgan) are likeable, which is about the best thing the film has going with it. Dumont’s character Denise, a gun-toting stripper, is also a good character and serves as the biggest bad-ass and strongest member of the team, which is refreshing.

However comedy veterans Koechner and Leachman are criminally underused, but then again, comedy is criminally underused. It’s obvious that Scouts Guide… wants to be a mixture of Superbad and Zombieland but it has none of the good qualities of either of those films. It’s filmic world is just a superbad zombieland.

PODCAST: Have we had enough of zombies?

The worst attempts at humour involve gore and genitalia mixed together, as well as boobs and, bizarrely, Britney Spears. The film rarely lands a gag bar a couple of one-liners, and instead has to settle for the laughs that come from the over-the-top blood-and-guts moments.

Most annoyingly, the film can’t even get its zombies consistent. Are they walkers or sprinters or do they run on all fours like animals? Do they have memories or not? Are they capable of problem solving or not? The answers to these questions change constantly, making the film frustratingly nonsensical at times, such as in the Britney Spears bit.

Zom-coms can be great – just look at Shaun Of The Dead and Zombieland – but this is not a great zom-com. This is a Z grade idea with a C grade budget and B grade delivery.

The only strengths to recommend it on are its over-the-top gore and its so-so leads, who try to give the film a bit of heart. But really, this is one for teenagers and zombie aficionados only.

Friday, 30 October 2015

The Dressmaker

(M) ★★★½

Director: Jocelyn Moorhouse.

Cast: Kate Winslet, Judy Davis, Liam Hemsworth, Hugo Weaving, Sarah Snook, Shane Bourne, Alison Whyte, Rebecca Gibney, Shane Jacobson, Gyton Grantley.

After the Titanic, Rose vowed to stay as far from water as possible.

YES, the film looks amazing and the costumes are stunning and there are some great performances here, but the biggest acclaim must go to the casting director.

Christine King, a Primetime Emmy winner, and director Jocelyn Moorhouse have pulled together the best ensemble cast an Aussie film has seen in decades.

It’s not just about the big names though – the talent here helps overcome the shortcomings of this adaptation of Rosalie Ham’s novel, keeping the story’s eccentricities predominantly in check.

Winslet is the big coup obviously and with a flawless Aussie accent on show, she dominates and elevates this quirky drama at all the right moments. She plays Myrtle “Tilly” Dunnage, who was sent away from her home town of Dungatar in rural Australia as a 10-year-old following the death of a classmate.

Having spent many years as a top fashion designer in London, Paris and Milan, Tilly returns to care for her mother “Mad” Molly Dunnage (Davis).

Tilly is also keen to unravel what really happened on the day her classmate died – is she really the murderer that everyone says she is?

There is much to like about The Dressmaker, but the biggest reason is the cast. Dungatar looks like an Aussie version of a spaghetti western bordertown, and Winslet rolls into it like a chiffon tornado – Moorhouse likened Tilly to "Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven with a sewing machine”.

Winslet makes Tilly feel like a real person rather than the inconsistent mess of contradictions she could have become. Tilly is haunted and weakened by her past but is headstrong and determined. She’s desperate to gain forgiveness from the people of Dungatar but usually doesn’t care what people think, and she has a classy European coating around a can-do country attitude.

Winslet anchors the film and is the wonderful dynamic centre the rest of the movie’s quirks and melodramas can revolve around. And even though it’s been said already, it bears repeating –her Australian accent, a notoriously hard accent to nail, is spot on.

Davis is also great in a tricky role. Mad Molly could have tipped over into “crazy person caricature” but Davis keeps it under control. Hemsworth is also good at making a poorly defined love interest likeable, while the rest of the cast boasts increasing levels of Aussie wackiness ranging from Snook’s ugly duckling to Weaving’s cross-dressing copper.

As a result The Dressmaker walks a knife edge between the sensible turns of Winslet, Davis and Hemsworth, who provide the film’s emotional heart, and the wacky Dungatar townsfolk and the odder plot points.

Occasionally it tips too far into absurdity – Barry Otto as the town doctor is a stand-out oddity that doesn’t work, while an eisteddfod-style showdown with a rival town falls flat – but the cast helps keep the ship steady. Weaving’s cross-dressing copper provides an interesting subplot (despite a haphazard denouement) while seeing haute couture come to the country is pretty funny.

Unfortunately the resolution of the story’s central mystery is a misfire. What might have worked on the pages of Ham’s novel is flat-out strange on film, and it’s only the connections between Winslet, Davis and Hemsworth’s characters and the themes springing from that triangle which keep the final act on the rails.

In spite of its flaws, The Dressmaker is enjoyable and masterfully crafted. The costumes are wonderful, the town of Dungatar is a minor marvel of set construction, and the whole thing is lensed beautifully by Donald McAlpine and scored magnificently by David Hirschfelder.

Although often saved by its cast, The Dressmaker is still a quality Australian production that deserves a big audience and every AACTA Award it might win in December.

Thursday, 22 October 2015

Bridge Of Spies

(M) ★★★★

Director: Steven Spielberg.

Cast: Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance, Amy Ryan, Scott Sheppard, Austin Stowell, Alan Alda.

Google Maps had deceived Hanks yet again.

IT seems unlikely, given the natural progression of things, that Steven Spielberg will ever make a truly incredible masterpiece ever again.

He still makes great films, such as Lincoln, The Adventures Of Tin Tin and Catch Me If You Can, but none of these later-era pieces will ever be regarded as highly as Jaws, E.T. – The Extra Terrestrial, Raiders Of The Lost Ark, Jurassic Park, Schindler’s List or Saving Private Ryan.

With that in mind, Bridge Of Spies is another great later-era Spielberg film that will never be mentioned in the same breath as the six films just mentioned, but is great nonetheless.

Based on a true story, it stars Tom Hanks as Brooklyn lawyer James B Donovan, who was chosen to represent Soviet spy Rudolf Abel (Rylance) at his espionage trial in 1957 before being involved in Abel’s prisoner exchange in East Berlin in 1962.

It’s a classic Cold War story, filled with the paranoias (both imagined and real) of the time, as the US and the USSR played a mirrored game of spies and charades.

Such a tale is well suited to Hanks and Spielberg, in their fourth pairing and first since The Terminal in 2004, with Hanks’ wholesome nature ably selling the leftist leanings of Donovan, and Spielberg nailing the vibe of the Cold War.

Each stars in their own usual way. While Hanks is out front-and-centre combining his usual all-American dignity and gosh-darn good values with his trademark warmth, Spielberg makes the story sing by telling it cleanly, crisply and intelligently.

The script, which was polished by the Coen Brothers, is delivered in as straightforward a fashion as possible. It tells its story efficiently, despite clocking in at 141 minutes. It never shortchanges on detail, it delivers its large amounts of exposition unobtrusively through solid dialogue and well mounted scenes, and it slowly ramps up its tension across two hours until it reaches near breaking point in the final showdown at the titular bridge.

It all works to remind you of why Spielberg is one of the greats. He handles the script, the actors and the camera with style. Bridge Of Spies is never flashy – it’s just always good, and with regular Spielberg cohorts Janusz Kamiński (cinematography) and Michael Kahn (editing) along for the ride, it’s always quality.

Hanks is ever-reliable and well cast, ably supported by a talented but low-wattage bunch of co-stars, with Rylance the standout as the no-nonsense Abel.

If Spielberg and Hanks’ filmographies were social structures, Bridge Of Spies would be satisfyingly upper-middle class.

Thursday, 15 October 2015

The Walk

(PG) ★★★

Director: Robert Zemeckis.

Cast: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ben Kingsley, Charlotte Le Bon, Clément Sibomy, James Badge Dale, César Domboy, Ben Schwartz, Benedict Samuel, Steve Valentine.

"What a view! I sure hope no one wrecks it by flying a plane into it."

(Too soon?)

IF you’re scared of heights, don’t watch this film. Especially in 3D.

Zemeckis’ camera takes you to the top of the World Trade Centre and looks down in this dizzying retelling of the story of Philippe Petit, the man who walked on a high wire between the two towers in 1974.

You should also not watch this film if you’ve already seen the superior Oscar-winning documentary Man On Wire – if given a choice between The Walk and Man On Wire, watch Man On Wire.

The Walk is not a bad film – in fact, it’s reasonably enjoyable with a fantastic final act. But it pales next to Man On Wire which, like a high-wire, was taut and tense, leaving The Walk feeling loose and saggy by comparison.

Gordon-Levitt stars as Petit, the strangely driven Frenchman who had an epiphany one day and would not let go of it.

Along with his “accomplices” (which include his girlfriend, a photographer and a man who’s scared of heights), Petit proceeds to plot out his grand “coup” and will let nothing get in the way of his walk, which took place 411.5m in the air on August 7, 1974.

Gordon-Levitt is great and makes the most of a role most actors would die for – he speaks French, talks with an accent, juggles, and walks the tightrope (with the occasional help of a body double). He nails the French and the accent and certainly captures the peculiarities of Petit while ensuring the character is predominantly unknowable.

Unfortunately, the main character also comes off as slightly annoying. In Man On Wire, Petit seems oddly charming, with an infectious personality and you understand why people are so keen to help him. In The Walk, he’s a frustrating oddball. There is also an odd framing device in which Petit narrates the film from atop the Statue of Liberty, which does nothing to dial down his ego or help the film. In fact, the narration is utterly pointless. We literally listen to Petit tell us what’s happening on the screen while adding little to no new information.

Erase the narration and The Walk would be better, although that wouldn’t get rid of some of the shonky special effects. While the final high-wire act looks mostly amazing, other sequences in the film scream of green screen and pull you out of the reality of the film.

The story itself is told well enough, but where Man On Wire felt like a heist film, this feels like a caper but without the jokes. As such, it plods along okay, but never ratchets up the tension or enthusiasm until we finally get onto the wire.

That’s when the movie comes into its own and redeems the slight flatness of the first two acts. Zemeckis does a great job with the finale, putting you up there on the wire alongside Petit and giving moviegoers a requisite bout of vertigo.

The Walk is worth seeing for the final act, for Gordon-Levitt, and if you’re unfamiliar with Petit’s story. But when compared with Man On Wire it is lacking by not being either suspenseful enough or funny enough. Either way, The Walk falls flat… unlike Petit.

Thursday, 8 October 2015

Black Mass

(MA15+) ★★★

Director: Scott Cooper.

Cast: Johnny Depp, Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch, Rory Cochrane, Jesse Plemons, Kevin Bacon, Dakota Johnson, Peter Sarsgaard, David Harbour, Julianne Nicholson, Adam Scott, Corey Stoll.

So many '80s music videos all look the same.

THIS is the Johnny Depp performance a lot of people have been waiting for – no crazy outfits, no silly hats, no OTT accents, and no scenery chewing.

Instead we get a surprisingly understated turn as real-life criminal James “Whitey” Bulger, the man who ran Boston’s underworld for over a decade with the tacit approval of the FBI.

Yes, there’s a Boston drawl and a balding head, but this a toned-down Depp, a long way from the diminishing returns of Jack Sparrow, Mortdecai and whatever Tim Burton’s up to.

But given Depp’s performance and the high-calibre cast around him, it’s disappointing Black Mass isn’t better.

The material is certainly there. Bulger, who was eventually found guilty for his involvement in 11 murders, is an interesting character, as is FBI agent John Connolly (Edgerton), who looked the other way while Bulger ran rampant in exchange for tidbits of information to bring down other criminals.

Black Mass would like to be the next Goodfellas, or The Departed, but it’s not. It’s too unfocused and lacks zing – for a movie with so many killings and nefarious activities, it is oddly sedate and unthrilling.

While not quite in the ballpark of Gangster Squad – the movie that has set a new benchmark for wasting the talents of an awesome cast – Black Mass does fritter away its talent. Depp is great, Edgerton is great, and all the supporting players are solid, particularly Johnson and Sarsgaard, but ultimately everyone is too good for the weak script.

An awkward and misused framing device involving police interviews with Bulger’s henchmen adds little to the story except laziness, with the technique eventually becoming distracting and then utterly redundant. It also leaves the script with no focal point, as it jumps half-heartedly between its main characters and never fully committing to telling anyone’s tale.

The tone is a little off too. The above trailer is a doozy, dripping with menace and a little black humour. The movie is unable to maintain that except in short bursts.

There is a great story to be told here, and as the net closes in on Bulger and Connolly in the third act, the film finally gets a bit of spark. Black Mass is not boring – its subject matter won’t let it be – but its story is not arranged or told in the most entertaining manner possible.

It’s worth seeing for Depp, who has a couple of terrifying moments that are amplified by his pinprick pupils, and for Edgerton, but tales of Boston cops and robbers have been told better in the likes of The Departed and The Town.

Ultimately, this is a missed opportunity, and thus, a disappointment.

Thursday, 1 October 2015

The Martian

(M) ★★★★

Director: Ridley Scott.

Cast: Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Kristen Wiig, Jeff Daniels, Michael Peña, Kate Mara, Sean Bean, Sebastian Stan, Aksel Hennie, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Benedict Wong.

"Nice day for it."
"Shut up, Harvey."

IN 1979, Ridley Scott’s Alien famously proclaimed that in space, no one can hear you scream.

Thirty-six years later, Scott has flipped that tagline into a question: if someone did cry out from space, how would you help them?

The answer lies in The Martian, in which Matt Damon finds himself accidentally Robinson Crusoed on Mars.

Unlike in Interstellar where ***SPOILER ALERT*** Damon also happened to be stranded on a distant world ***END SPOILER ALERT***, this film doesn’t disappear up its own black hole. Instead The Martian is a straight-shooting survival story that sets up its situation quickly and then goes about solving its problems methodically, which is entirely fitting for a movie that’s predominantly about science. There are no grander themes beyond the will to live and the sacrifices made in the name of discovery, and there are certainly ***SPOILER ALERT*** no meta-physical journeys into the bizarre bookshelves that supposedly lie on the other side of black holes ***END SPOILER ALERT***.

As a result, The Martian is direct, gripping, smart and surprisingly funny. A lot of that comes down to Andy Weir’s intelligent source novel, Drew Goddard’s sympathetic script, and Damon’s immensely likeable performance as the stranded botanist/astronaut Mark Watney.

While the almost clinical nature of its story structure leaves little room for excessive character development, Damon’s turn ensures Watney feels like a real person worth caring about. The action cuts away to the returning crew that was forced to leave Watney behind and the Earth-based NASA boffins trying to figure out how to get him home, but this is very much Damon’s show and he holds the film magnificently. There are emotional highs and lows, but he makes Watney’s can-do attitude infectious.

In a way, this is the anti-Alien. While Scott’s 1979 horror story took a sinister look at everything that could go (horribly, horribly) wrong in space, The Martian is the optimistic response to everything that could go wrong in space.

That’s not to say the film isn’t intense or without its dark moments, but it’s tone is closer to Ron Howard’s similarly themed Apollo 13. It’s gripping and thrilling, but the sunshiney climes of Mars and largely positive outlook of Watney mean the darkness never overwhelms.

The weakest parts are the Earth-based segments, where Daniels, Wiig, Bean, Ejiofor, Wong and Donald Glover nut out the science behind a rescue mission. These parts are certainly not bad, and the cast is top-notch, but they pale against what’s going on back on Mars and occasionally break the flow of the film.

For anyone who loves science – which should be everyone except anti-vaxxers and climate change denialists – this is fascinating and enjoyable. The film keeps its nuts and bolts at an understandable level and ensures the audience is wondering and marvelling – Weir’s much-praised research in the novel is dealt with intelligently on the big screen.

Scott has made some decent films in the past decade and a half since GladiatorAmerican Gangster, Matchstick Men, Body Of Lies – but this might just be his best since Rusty stomped out into the Colosseum and asked us if we were entertained. Which you will be with The Martian.

Friday, 25 September 2015


(PG) ★½

Director: Joe Wright.

Cast: Levi Miller, Hugh Jackman, Garrett Hedlund, Rooney Mara, Amanda Seyfried, Adeel Akhtar.

"I'm not talking to you until you stop dressing up like a vampire."

DOES Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit have a place in the Peter Pan story?

There’s a question you probably never thought you’d read, but it’s being asked thanks to this abysmal prequel to JM Barrie’s beloved children’s story about a boy who never wanted to grow up.

Believe it or not but Kurt Cobain’s abstract anthem of alienation features in this film. So does The Ramones’ Blitzkrieg Bop. But these songs haven’t just been lobbed on to the soundtrack for a bit of anachronistic fun, they’re sung by the cast as if they were sea shanties.

It’s weird and stops you dead in your tracks as you ask “why?”.

That’s a word that comes up a lot while watching this boring blockbuster, as in “why do the effects look so crappy?” or “why did Hugh Jackman (one of the few redeeming features of this film) and Rooney Mara sign up for this?” or “why don’t they just give Garrett Hedlund the 2015 Razzie Award for worst performance and be done with it?” or “why did they bother to make a Peter Pan origin story if this is the best story they could come up with?”.

The origin story (which apparently has nothing to do with Barrie’s work and is purely the creation of screenwriter Jason Fuchs) has the future Peter Pan (Miller) as an orphan who is whisked away from his London orphanage during the Blitz by a flying pirate ship.

He is then thrown into the servitude of Blackbeard (Jackman), who puts orphans and adult prisoners to work in the mines digging for pixum, which is the street name for a crystalline substance Blackbeard smokes in order to live forever (you might know it as fairy dust).

While in the mines, Peter meets James Hook (Hedlund) and the two escape, with Peter keen to find his mother and perhaps fulfil a prophecy that foretells he is the chosen one.

There is so much wrong with this film. First of all, the whole “prophecy/chosen one” rubbish smacks of laziness on the part of Fuchs. While such a trope can be used well (The Matrix) or subverted nicely (Buffy The Vampire Slayer), nine times out of 10 it's indolent screenwriting (The Phantom Menace). Here it's definitely the latter - a shorthand excuse to make a character do something and fight someone without having to come up with actual character motivations or goals.

Maybe Fuchs’ script has been diluted somewhere along the way – the whole “smoking pixie dust” thing plus a few almost-dark moments makes it plausible there was an edge or depth to this that has been lost. But if that’s not the case, then the blame for this mess surely lays at Fuchs’ feet. Tiger Lily (Mara) and Hook lack anything close to a personality, while the story bumbles from one poorly choreographed and badly animated CG-heavy action sequence to the next (which I guess is partly Wright's fault). The rest of the time, the plot makes no sense.

Hedlund’s performance is dire. He’s trying to channel Indiana Jones or Han Solo but ends up overacting and mugging for the camera like he’s The Cowardly Lion playing a cowboy. Only Jackman, who chews the scenery but at least does so with style, escapes unharmed from this fiasco and despite having one of the worst costumes to end up on the big screen, he’s actually quite watchable.

Maybe this is all being a bit harsh for what is a kids’ movie, but this would have been easier to swallow if it didn’t look so terrible. For a film with a budget of $150 million, this has some of the worst greenscreen effects seen in a long time and has the effect of making Neverland never feel like an actual place inhabited by actual people. Hell, the film can barely make war-time London feel like a real place.

Nothing feels real, none of the characters connect, the performances are bad, the script is worse, and if not for Jackman and a couple of good gags, this would be utterly irredeemable.

As it is, it’s a dud of a film that no one was asking for. Even if you were wondering how Captain Hook and Peter Pan came to blows or if you wanted to see Hook lose his hand, you’ll feel ripped off because those things are not in this movie. Which makes you wonder what the point of this dull off-key exercise was.

Sunday, 13 September 2015


(G) ★★★

Director: Stuart McDonald.

Cast: Shane Jacobson, Sarah Snook, Coco Jack Gillies, Alan Tudyk, Deborah Mailman.

Dog vs penguin - please your bets, ladies and gentlemen.

YOU’D have to be heartless to hate Oddball.

For all its schmaltz and occasionally clunkiness, the film achieves everything it sets out to do, which is to tell a unique story for all ages.

There are laughs, some nice moments, beautiful cinematography, and plenty of heart in this “fairy tale that really happened”.

The real-life program where Maremmas were used to protect penguins from killer foxes on Warrnambool’s Middle Island makes for an intriguing plot and it’s easy to see why this story grabbed the attention of producer Stephen Kearney almost a decade ago.

Around that central idea we have the family unit of chook farmer Swampy Marsh (Jacobson), his daughter Emily (Snook) and his grand-daughter (Gillies), who are using their dog Oddball to keep the penguins alive, not only out of the goodness of their heart, but also to keep alive the dream of Marsh’s late wife.

Hovering nearby are some eccentric whale enthusiasts and American tourism guru Bradley Slater (Tudyk), who are keen to build a whale-focused tourism centre on Middle Island should the penguin colony drop below a certain number.

Tudyk’s character threatens to be the token Yank dropped in to help sell the film in the US, but thankfully he makes Slater a compelling part of the story. Snook is also great, while Frank Woodley is criminally underused as a weird dog catcher.

Jacobson’s Marsh is as much of an oddball as the titular Maremma, eating raw eggs and having deep conversations with his chickens (possibly the film’s most accurate moment), and while it won’t win Jacobson any awards, he looks the part and handles the comedic and dramatic extremes well enough.

From a local perspective, Warrnambool looks amazing. It is one of the stars of the film, along with the scenic coastline near the Twelve Apostles, and there will never ever be a better promotional campaign for this city than the one snuck into Oddball.

Some locals will groan about the way the script plays hard and fast with the facts and locations – the most hilarious bit for locals will be the moment Marsh wanders from Middle Island to the Twelve Apostles looking for his dog – but that’s the magic of movies. Meanwhile the story flows nicely and the cheesier moments are kept to a minimum.

There is a Scooby Doo-esque ending where the film almost jumps the shark, but this is aimed at the young and the young at heart who probably won’t mind a bit.

Friday, 11 September 2015


(PG) ★★

Director: Chris Columbus.

Cast: Adam Sandler, Michelle Monaghan, Josh Gad, Kevin James, Peter Dinklage, Brian Cox.

"Does anyone feel this is not only way too convenient but largely unnecessary?
I mean why the fuck do we have personalised number plates?"

PIXELS is based on a French short film and mimics one-third of a Futurama episode.

The short film was basically a two-minute special effects showreel that merged the old-school graphics of arcade games with the real world. The Futurama episode sees the slacker who has wasted his life playing computer games come to the rescue when computer games attack Earth.

In both cases, the ideas work well. As a short form display of computer-generated trickery, it’s two minutes of cleverness. In the animated world of Futurama where robots and aliens and pop culture irony are the norm, it makes perfect sense as a fun plot device.

Over close to two hours, with Adam Sandler and Kevin James leading the way, the ideas are not so fun or clever.

Sandler plays Sam Brenner, a former video game champion now in his mid-40s who sets up home entertainment equipment and whose best friend from childhood happens to be (I kid you not) the President of the United States of America (played by, and again I kid you not, Kevin James).

Brenner and fellow former game prodigy Ludlow Lamonsoff (Gad) are called upon by the President to help save the day when aliens attack Earth in the form of computer games, and along with gaming badboy Eddie “Fireblaster” Plant (Dinklage) they must face off against Pacman, Donkey Kong, and Centipede.

It’s an ‘80s geek dream come true – that hours of playing video games will prove not only useful, but useful in a save-the-world kind of way, making you the ultimate hero who also happens to get the girl. Ultimately that is one of the film’s few saving graces – it’s a very affectionate ode to the original titles of the computer game revolution and the skill it took to defeat them.

But largely, this is a clumsy big-budget mess that feels painfully forced. It’s continually stretching and straining to get all its Tetris blocks in a row. It doesn’t have a plot but instead has levels comprising different games. Except you don’t get to play the games. You get to sit there and watch Kevin James and Adam Sandler play them, which is even less fun. And they make lame jokes the whole time, and that just makes matters worse.

Such a level-based structure can work – Scott Pilgrim Vs The World pulls it off because it has style, heart, and deeper themes worked into it. Ditto for Harry Potter & The Goblet Of Fire. But Pixels has neither style, nor heart, nor anything vaguely resembling depth. Brennan’s relationship with Lieutenant Colonel Violet van Patten (Monaghan) is the film’s only attempt at anything resembling character development, but its flippant and ultimately redundant.

The lack of style falls at the feet of director Columbus – one of the blandest directors going around. Any kind of visual panache in the film has come directly from Patrick Jean's 2010 short film.

Aside from its obvious love of old school arcade games, there are few plusses to Pixels. The biggest is Gad, who gets all the best lines. Dinklage attempts to steal the show but falls short (no pun intended), while Monaghan and Cox are far better than this. Perversely, this is the best film James has been in since Hitch. But that’s not saying much.

There are a few laughs, but the one thing the movie has going for it is a broad appeal. There are tons of in-jokes and references that only people who lived through the ‘80s will understand and potentially get a kick out of (Max Headroom even makes an appearance, for Pete’s sake), and those people can probably take their kids, who will like the family-friendly bloodless pixelated violence, even if they don’t understand what a Frogger or a Pacman does.

But on the whole, Pixels is an idea that worked better in other formats – none of which are a movie connected to Adam Sandler and Kevin James.

Friday, 4 September 2015

Straight Outta Compton

(MA15+) ★★★★½

Director: F Gary Gray.

Cast: O'Shea Jackson Jr, Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell, Aldis Hodge, Neil Brown Jr, Paul Giamatti.

"Are you sure the band name fits?"

BACK in 1989, there was no piece of music more incendiary or volatile than NWA’s Fuck Tha Police.

These days, with music so freely available to everyone via the internet, and offence served up and taken on a daily basis everywhere, it’s kinda hard to fathom the impact one piece of music could have, and how it could serve as such a lightning rod for trouble or stir up so many people.

If Straight Outta Compton only dug into the context and repercussions of that song, it would still be a fascinating film. The fact that it gives so much more, stylishly exploring an important time in American music and American history through the eyes of five flawed but talented individuals, makes this a truly great music biopic to rival the best of the genre.

NWA barely lasted as a band for five years, but this film explores 10 years in the lives of Dr Dre (Hawkins), Eazy E (Mitchell), Ice Cube (Jackson Jr – Ice Cube’s real life son), MC Ren (Hodge), and DJ Yella (Brown Jr), with much of the focus on the first three (who were admittedly the three key members, but it’s worth noting Dre and Cube are producers on the film).

Straight Outta Compton shows the band’s humble beginnings, where Dre’s production talents, Cube’s rhymes, and Eazy E’s money and bravado help set them on their path, and follows them as they partner with manager Jerry Heller (Giamatti), who would prove to be the key to both the band’s success and downfall.

Along the way, NWA sell a few million copies of the album that gives the film its name, attract the unwanted attention of the FBI, and ultimately break up, inadvertantly kicking off the East Coast-West Coast rap war that would create some awesome music at the expense of too many lives.

It’s the perfect backdrop for a biopic. In a setting of drugs and police brutality that culminates in the Rodney King beating and the LA riots, we see how this kind of music came to be and why it struck a chord around the world, but we also get the drama of the interpersonal relationships, which escalate from money squabbles to diss tracks and full-blown feuds. There are the highs of the parties and success, and the lows of the violence and the tragedy of Eazy E.

None of this would work without a solid cast, and hats off to the casting department on this one. Not only does everyone look passably like the people they’re playing (Jackson Jr looks so much like his old man it’s unnerving) and even manage to rap like the people they’re playing, but there are some damned fine performances in here too, particularly from the key trio of Hawkins, Mitchell and Jackson Jr. Throw in Giamatti to balance it all out as the demonised (perhaps rightly so) Heller, and it’s an excellent cast that deftly keeps the situations from flying into melodramatic territory, while making everything feel legitimately “street”.

Much has been made of what the film leaves out, in particular Dr Dre’s disturbing assaults on a number of women. While Straight Outta Compton doesn’t shy away from many of the characters’ readiness for violence or their objectification of women, it leaves out the truly heinous stuff and gives everything a slightly cartoonish quality to ensure we keep barracking for these guys.

This softening of the subject matter and the slightly bloated running time are probably the only major flaws of the film, but at least it throws a little bit of a cautionary tale in among the glamourising.

But we can only really judge the film for what’s in it and not what was left out, and largely this is a superbly acted and neatly distilled look at an important band in the history of hip hop and music in general.

F Gary Gray’s direction is great, mixing some up-close handheld stuff with a couple of bravura long takes, and the soundtrack, as expected, is bangin’. There is a fidelity to the era that’s impressive too. The concert recreations are awesome and combined with the uncanny appearances of the lead actors it gives the whole thing a feeling of “being there”.

All “true stories” mess with the truth, and Straight Outta Compton can be forgiven for that because it captures the time, the music and the band at its heart in such engaging fashion.

Thursday, 27 August 2015

Ricki & The Flash

(PG) ★★★

Director: Jonathan Demme.

Cast: Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, Mamie Gummer, Rick Springfield, Audra McDonald, Sebastian Stan.

"Push the little daisies and make them come up!"
MERYL Streep doesn’t give bad performances. She never even gives average performances.

Occasionally she stars in average films (perhaps increasingly so), but never is she anything less than great, even when everything around her is exceedingly average.

Such is the case in this strangely lifeless comedy-drama, which lacks the laughs to be a comedy and the bite it would need to be a strong drama.

Luckily Streep, perhaps the greatest actor who has ever lived, is present to elevate things, bringing all her charisma to bear as Ricki Rendazzo – a woman her walked out on her life as a married mother-of-three named Linda Brummel to follow her rock ‘n’ roll dreams.

A couple of decades on from her divorce, Ricki is doing it tough, playing in the house band of a Californian bar with her boyfriend Greg (Rick “Jessie’s Girl” Springfield) by night and working as a check-out chick by day.

A phone call from her ex-husband (Kline) drags her back into her past, forcing her to reconnect with her recently dumped daughter (played by Streep’s real life daughter Mamie Gummer), her estranged sons, and the damage done by her departure all those years ago.

Much has been made of Streep’s rock chick persona and the fact that she (in true Streep fashion) is really singing and really playing guitar. While her guitarwork looks shaky at times, she nails her vocals, using them as just one of facets of another excellent performance that is typically multi-facted. Ricki is intriguingly flawed – she’s comfortable with who she is, but she's increasingly uncomfortable with how she got there, and it makes for a compelling character, especially in Streep’s guitar-playing hands.

Her chemistry with Kline is excellent, but almost everyone else – particularly Gummer and Springfield – is struggling to keep up with her talents.

The script, written by Oscar-winner Diablo Cody (Juno, Young Adult) is oddly tame. Its set-up, characters and cast suggest this should have been funnier or tougher or both, but instead it is neither.

None of this is helped by Demme, whose perplexing directorial choices (too many awkward slow zooms) and his inability to nail the “dramedy” tone leave the film blowing in the wind with no direction home.

So why watch this? For Streep, of course. The extended musical interludes, which are at first slightly tiresome, end up being the most memorable bit. The perfect example is the unsurprising ending, which is cornier than a popcorn festival in a cornfield but sucks you in thanks to the fact Streep and her band look like they’re really giving it their all and having the time of their lives.

As a result, for all it flaws, Ricki & The Flash becomes watchable and almost enjoyable purely on the back of Streep and her Suzie Q attitude and Joan Jett moves.

Friday, 21 August 2015


(MA15+) ★★

Director: Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley.

Cast: Ed Helms, Christina Applegate, Skyler Gisondo, Steele Stebbins, Chris Hemsworth, Leslie Mann, Chevy Chase, Beverly D’Angelo.

Remake of Vacation or Duel?

AS discussed last week while reviewing the millionth reboot/remake/rehash of the year (the actually quite good The Man From U.N.C.L.E.), rebooting/remaking/rehashing is not necessarily an automatic fail.

If the idea at the heart of whatever is being rebooted/remade/rehashed remains valid after all these years, then, by all means, go for it. Mankind has repackaged and retold the same stories again and again for millenia.

The rehash in question this week is Vacation, a reboot and direct descendant of National Lampoon’s Vacation (and European Vacation, Christmas Vacation, Vegas Vacation, and the best-forgotten made-for-TV spin-off Christmas Vacation 2).

As with its predecessors, it centres on the Griswold family taking a holiday and everything going wrong. The patriarch here is Rusty, the son of Chevy Chase’s Clark Griswold from the 1983 original. It’s a character that’s been played as a kid by Anthony Michael Hall, Jason Lively, Johnny Galecki and Ethan Embry but here he’s brought to life as a middle-aged loser dad by Ed Helms.

At the core of the story is Rusty trying to redo the mission of the ‘83 original – a family vacation to theme park Walley World – as a way of getting his family out of a rut and to reconnect with each other.

The bad holiday scenario is worth revisiting and many of the original Griswold adventures are fondly remembered as comedy classics from an era when Chevy Chase was a household name. But although this doesn’t totally disgrace the family name, it’s certainly not a comedy classic like some of its forefathers.

Its laughs – and there are a few mild chuckles here and there – aren’t that far removed from the tone of the original films, but it’s the three Ps of profanity, poop, and penises that tend to get the biggest giggles. Unfortunately there are no moments that will live long in the memory – no quotable quotes or bits you’ll be telling your friends about (except perhaps Christina Applegate projectile vomiting her way through a sorority dare and Chris Hemsworth’s showing off Thor’s hammer, if you know what I mean).

There are bigger throwbacks to the original, including a typically idiotic car in which to undertake the journey, while Lindsay Buckingham’s awesome theme song Holiday Road gets a good work out (as does Seal’s Kiss From A Rose for some reason). There’s also a slightly ham-fisted attempt to poke some self-reverential fun at the whole reboot concept, but it falls flat.

Part of the reason that doesn’t work, and indeed why the film doesn’t work as a whole, is Helms. He’s so good as the straight-laced Stu in The Hangover, but here he’s a weird mix of slapstick goofiness, oblivious idiot and decisive patron that never quite gels, and unfortunately his performance keeps the film off-balance.

Far better is Applegate as his wife Debbie, and showstealer Hemsworth as Rusty’s slightly inappropriate yet successful brother-in-law. Chase also turns up for a welcome cameo, and the film is dotted with drop-ins that range from the welcome (Charlie Day as a rafting instructor having a bad day) to the nonsensically stupid (Norman Reedus’ truck driver).

But largely, nothing feels fresh, none of the sequences really hit it out of the park, and nothing makes the film stand out. It’s not a total misfire, but it’s unlikely to be remembered down the track, except as that attempt to reboot a franchise that was perhaps best left alone.

Thursday, 13 August 2015

The Man From U.N.C.L.E.

(M)  ★★★★

Director: Guy Ritchie.

Cast: Henry Cavill, Armie Hammer, Alicia Vikander, Elizabeth Debicki, Hugh Grant.

Just when they thought they were alone.

EVERYTHING old is new again.

It’s an adage that’s been the unofficial motto of Hollywood since it began. People tend to forget that Alice In Wonderland was filmed six times before Walt Disney got his hands on it, and there had been at least four versions of The Wizard Of Oz before Judy Garland tried on the ruby (originally silver) slippers in 1939.

So while it’s easy to write off this update of an almost forgotten ‘60s TV show as part of a modern-day trend to reboot, remake and rehash everything, really it’s just Hollywood’s inbuilt predilection to re-use good ideas in the hopes they work from generation to generation.

Maybe no one has been clamouring for a new version of The Man From U.N.C.L.E., but maybe people want to see a film about two Cold War spies from opposite sides of the Iron Curtain forced to work together to save the world. And that just happens to be the plot for The Man From U.N.C.L.E., so rather than re-invent the wheel, why not just remake it instead?

British actor Henry “Superman” Cavill plays debonair CIA agent Napoleon Solo, who was created by 007 mastermind Ian Fleming to be American TV’s answer to James Bond, while American actor Armie “Lone Ranger” Hammer plays KGB operative Illya Kuryakin, a by-the-book Russian with anger issues.

Despite having crossed paths as rivals in East Berlin, the pair is teamed up to hunt down a former German scientist who is believed to be making nuclear bombs for a criminal organisation.

With its cool ‘60s setting and its Cold War friction, it’s a compelling set-up, and it’s easy to see why it’s been kicking around Hollywood for 20 years, with everyone from Quentin Tarantino to Steven Soderbergh almost sitting in the director’s chair and Clooney and Cruise among the names that almost played Solo.

It’s Guy Ritchie, enjoying a career rebirth on the back of the recent Sherlock Holmes films and a divorce from Madonna, who has stepped up to the plate and he clearly relishes the opportunity to direct what is essentially an impossible dream – a ‘60s-era James Bond film with a ‘70s-era Bond, made with modern movie-making sensibilities.

The Bond-isms are hard to escape – after all, that franchise pretty much defined the spy genre in the era when The Man From U.N.C.L.E. takes place. Solo’s dapper style, the Roman locations, the femme fatales, the gadgets, and the set-pieces help make this the Bond film that never was.

But the great thing, believe it or not, is an ever-so-light Roger Moore-ish touch. While Bond has increasingly become something to be taken very, very seriously in the Daniel Craig era, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. fills a void we’d not realised was empty – it reminds us that spy films can be fun and give us a laugh, without being spoofs or resorting to Austin Powers (or latter era Roger Moore) levels of silliness. In that sense, it’s like a more refined, mature companion piece to Kingsman: The Secret Service ie. less blood-spurting and fewer inappropriate jokes about sex acts.

There are no enormous Mission: Impossible-style, edge-of-your-seat set pieces, nor is the plot overly complex. This is just good old-fashioned spy-vs-spy shenanigans with an odd-couple twist.

Cavill is ideal as Solo and Hammer is good as Kuryakin, but together they’re great, engaging in an almost endless game of one-upmanship against a backdrop of nuclear annihilation. Aussie Debicki makes for a decent but non-descript villain and Vikander is a handy offsider, however Hugh Grant is the most memorable bit-player, swooping in on occasion to steal a few scenes.

Ritchie does a great job, even if his attempts at some flashy ‘60s-inspired cuts and split-screens get in the way a little bit. Generally though he keeps the tone light and the plot moving along.

The look of the film is particularly superb. The costumes and set design are perfect, and some tasty CG helps recreate Cold War Berlin in the film’s excellent opening act.

Maybe this is a remake no one was asking for, but in that category it is more like Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes films – stylishly successful – than Hammer’s noisy flop The Lone Ranger.