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Review: The Breaker Upperers

Directed by: Madeleine Sami, Jackie van Beek
Written by: Madeleine Sami, Jackie van Beek
Starring: Madeleine Sami, Jackie van Beek, James Rolleston, Celia Pacquola, Ana Scotney
Released: July 26, 2018
Grade: B+

The Breaker Upperers
Writer-director Jackie van Beek has shared many conversations with friends about the difficulties of breaking up with someone.  It was those chats that inspired The Breaker Upperers – a warped New Zealand comedy put together by van Beek and her good friend, Madeleine Sami.  Iconic New Zealand filmmaker Taika Waititi (What We Do in the Shadows, Hunt for the Wilderpeople) is also on board as an executive producer and that’s no surprise given his love for this style of comedy.

I’m the first to admit this is a farcical scenario but Sami and van Beek still generate maximum laughs.  They play Mel and Jen – two middle aged women who make a living by helping customers break up with their partners.  You could try the “other woman package” for $1,000 where they’ll rock up out of the blue and pretend they’ve been having an affair.  Or, you could go with something more elaborate.  There’s an early scene where they impersonate police officers and tell a woman that her husband is missing and presumed dead.

Mel and Jen justify their bizarre business model by saying that they’re not breaking any laws and are simply “guiding two souls to inevitability.”  Let’s not beat around the bush though.  They’re awful people doing awful things.  Perhaps the heaviest moment sees them tell a husband and kids that their mother has died (which of course is not true). 

The Breaker Upperers is a dark, dark comedy and many scenes will leave you with the conflicting emotions of laughter and shock.  Madeleine Sami and Jackie van Beek deliver the jokes with precision and it’s hard to believe they can keep a straight face.  The good news is that these two characters, without giving too much away, are required to seek redemption for their sins in the film’s interesting second half.  The narrative moves away from their flawed business model and becomes a tale of love and friendship.

As good our leading ladies are, the film’s star performance comes from James Rolleston (Boy) as an 18-year-old who ends up in a relationship with the 37-year-old Jen.  He deserves an Oscar nomination for creating one of the dumbest characters we’ve ever seen in the history of cinema.  As an example, he continually thinks that “Mel” is short for “Melon” and not “Melanie”.  You’ll fall in love with his cute innocence while also laughing at his head-scratching comments.

The film is probably a bit too ridiculous in places (such as a scene where they impersonate strippers) but The Breaker Upperers is a great choice for fans of edgy, outlandish comedy and it’s all wrapped up inside of a tight 90 minutes.  Celine Dion would love it.

 

Review: RBG

Directed by: Betsy West, Julie Cohen
Released: July 26, 2018
Grade: A-

RBG
When the United States constitution was created in 1787, those responsible made sure to separate power into three distinct groups.  The Legislative branch comprises the Senate and House of Representatives.  The Executive branch comprises the President, Vice-President and government departments.  The Judicial branch comprises the federal and Supreme Courts.  The rationale behind this structure was to ensure an appropriate system of “checks and balances”.

The role played by the Supreme Court in the United States cannot be under-emphasized.  It consists of 9 judges who are nominated by the President and confirmed by the 100-person Senate.  Throughout its history, the court has made landmark decisions on items including discrimination, abortion, euthanasia, civil rights, capital punishment, freedom of speech and freedom of religion.  Their decisions have played a major role in shaping the current day United States.

She still finds it hard to believe but over the past few years, the oldest of the Supreme Court judges has developed a cult-like following with young lawyers and progressive libertarians.  85-year-old Ruth Bader Ginsburg was nominated by President Bill Clinton in 1993 and confirmed by an almost unanimous margin in the Senate.  Since that time, she has presided over important decisions such as the outcome of the 2000 election (George Bush v Al Gore), the rights of citizens to possess firearms at home for self-defence, and the validity of same-sex marriage.

In recent times, she has become known as a “bad-ass dissenter”.  Ginsburg has always taken a stand against discrimination and inequality but those views are not shared by the increasing number of conservative judges which sit on the Court.  Despite her old age, soft voice and frail disposition, she still churns out beautifully articulate legal opinions that are soaked up by budding lawyers, civil rights activists and other progressive individuals.

RBG is an insightful documentary that takes us inside of the world of this iconic figure.  It features interviews with Ginsburg’s family and friends where they talk about her ridiculous work ethic.  There was a part of her life where she’d get 2 hours sleep each night during the week and then catch up by sleeping all weekend.  The film also delves into her upbringing and introduction to the law.  When she studied law at Harvard in the 1950s, just 2% of her students were female and despite her exceptional grades, she struggled to land a job after graduating.

There’s so much material to cover but for me, the emotional highlight was seeing Ginsburg interrogated and subsequently confirmed by the Senate.  It’s hard to believe that someone so shy and quiet could win the approval of President Clinton at a time when many other names were being thrown around.  There’s a great interview in the film with Clinton where he talks about his thought process and the influence of Ginsburg’s passionate husband.

In bringing the film together, RBG is the creation of two skilful directors.  Betsy West spent 20 years working as a producer for ABC News in the United States and became a senior vice president at CBS News.  Julie Cohen has made a number of documentaries which have screened at film festivals across the globe.  It’s clear they have a love for their subject matter.  It’s also a nice touch that an all-female crew has pulled this film together.  I’m speaking of not just the directors but also the producers, editors, cinematographer and composer.

There’s a great line at the start where Ginsburg humorously remarks that “I’m 84 and everybody wants to take a picture with me.”  This film will only add to her notoriety and I’d predict that many more people will be after photos in the years to come.

 

Review: Ant-Man and the Wasp

Directed by: Peyton Reed
Written by: Chris McKenna, Erik Sommers, Paul Rudd, Andrew Barrer, Gabriel Ferrari
Starring: Paul Rudd, Evangeline Lilly, Michael Douglas, Laurence Fishburne, Hannah John-Kamen, Michael Peña, Walter Goggins, Michelle Pfeiffer
Released: July 5, 2018
Grade: B

Ant Man and the Wasp
There’s no denying the success of the films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe over the past decade.  There have been 19 films which have grossed just under $17 billion USD at the worldwide box-office.  That said, there’s one gap which has become more noticeable in recent years.  While there are plenty of supporting roles for female actors, the title character in every Marvel film has been a man – Iron Man, Spider-Man, Ant-Man, The Incredible Hulk, Thor, Captain America, Doctor Strange and Black Panther.  Zoe Saldana was terrific in Guardians of the Galaxy but that was a “team” title and if we’re being picky, Chris Pratt still had top billing.

The streak finally comes to and end with Ant-Man and the Wasp.  Well, kind of.  The Wasp has to share the title with her male counterpart.  It’s a film where a viewing (or reviewing) of earlier movies is strongly recommended.  There are many references to events that took place in Ant-Man (released in 2015) and Captain America: Civil War (released in 2016).  For starters, the film opens with Ant-Man under house arrest by the authorities after some bad stuff which took place in Civil War.

This is a busy sequel with numerous sub-plots in play.  Renowned physicist Hank Pym (Douglas) lost his wife (Pfeiffer) 30 years ago in the “quantum realm”, some kind of alternate universe where people are really small and other organisms are really big.  Hank thought she was lost forever but evidence suggests she may still be alive and trying to find a way home.  He’s been secretly developing a machine that would allow him to enter the realm and rescue his wife.

Hank may be doing all the hard work but there are two people aware of his activities who are looking to get their hands on his technology.  The first is the aptly named Ghost (John-Kamen), a mysterious woman who has the ability to pass through solid matter.  She’s a tough adversary because she can walk through walls and evade any punch.  The second is a silly, stereotypical villain named Sonny (Goggins).  He comes complete with a team of dumb henchmen and is driven by nothing else but wealth and power.

So where do our two heroes fit into the puzzle?  They’re working alongside Hank Pym to subdue these adversaries and protect his machine.  The film has a similar tone to the earlier flick in that it’s light and comedic.  Paul Rudd gets the best of the one-liners as the likeable Ant-Man.  He humorously comes across as someone better suited to stand-up comedy than saving the world.  Evangeline Lilly reprises her role as the Wasp and is the more serious, level-headed member of the duo given she has so much at stake.

The storyline is too chaotic in places with some elements (such as Ant-Man’s relationship with his daughter) struggling to contribute to the broader narrative.  I also admit to being confused by the scientific and technological references.  Characters talk about their plans but much was going over my head.  There’s a funny gag where even Ant-Man shakes his head with the numerous references to the term “quantum”.

While the screenplay isn't as strong as it could be, the action scenes deliver in a big way.  We’ve got two heroes who can change their size, a villain who can walk through anything, and a remote control that can shrink cars.  It’s a recipe for some cool, fun, creative action pieces.  The visual effects are top-notch and you’ll need to be paying close attention to keep up.

Given the not-so-rosy events that took place at the end of The Avengers: Infinity War, the Marvel Cinematic Universe now takes a break for 8 months and forces us to wait for two very big films – Captain Marvel in March 2019 (with Brie Larson) and the still untitled Avengers follow-up in May 2019.  I’m as interested as anyone to see where this franchise goes next.

Review: Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again

Directed by: Ol Parker
Written by: Ol Parker, Richard Curtis, Catherine Johnson
Starring: Amanda Seyfried, Lily James, Christine Baranski, Julie Walters, Andy Garcia, Dominic Cooper, Stellan Skarsgård, Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth
Released: July 19, 2018
Grade: C+

Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again
It’s hard to believe that 10 years has passed since the original film was first released in cinemas.  The time has flown.  Expensive Hollywood musicals have been seen as risky ventures in recent decades but Mamma Mia! was a fairly safe bet.  It was based on the popular stage show that debuted on West End in 1999 and had been performed countless times across the globe.  It also featured iconic songs from ABBA which had been sung and celebrated since the 1970s.  The movie grossed over $600 million USD at the world wide box-office – a record for a live-action musical (until Beauty and the Beast came along last year).

A little more effort was required to bring this new film to life.  For starters, there was no source material.  Playwright Catherine Johnson, who created the original stage musical, teamed up with screenwriters Richard Curtis (Love Actually) and Ol Parker (The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) to craft a fresh tale that could be interwoven with other well-known ABBA songs.

The end result is something that’s both a prequel and a sequel.  Part of the movie is set in the past.  We go back to the year 1979 and learn how a young Donna (James), fresh out of college, built an adventurous, carefree life for herself on an idyllic Greek island.  It was at this same time that she had flings with three very different suitors looking to win her heart – Sam, Harry and Bill.  Oh, and of course she gave birth to Sophie, the daughter who is central to the whole story.

The other part of the movie is set several years after the events of Mamma Mia!  We sadly discover that Donna has passed away and to honour her memory, Sophie has taken her mother’s rundown Greek home, given it a fresh lick of paint, and transformed it into a holiday resort.  It’s aptly named the Hotel Bella Donna and Sophie has brought in a polite, well-groomed gentleman (Garcia) to help run it.  As the film begins, preparations are underway for the grand opening.

Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again brings back all of the original cast members (a tricky feat given their busy schedules) with one major addition that has been much hyped in the trailer.  Cher plays Sophie’s grandmother and she arrives during the final act like a refreshing summer breeze.  She provides a much-needed spark (I’d grown tired of the other characters by this point) and her beautiful rendition of the song ‘Fernando’ is the film’s most memorable music number.  It’s a shame she didn’t arrive sooner.

The narrative can be best be described as “choppy”.  Unnecessary detours have been thrown in as an excuse to sing particular ABBA songs such as the use of ‘When I Kissed the Teacher’ during the opening scene.  It also struggles in balancing up the two timeframes.  We continually jump back and forth to highlight the similarities between Sophie and her mother but the technique is overused.  The biggest head-scratcher are two bizarre sequences that take place in Tokyo and Stockholm.

The film does have its highlights.  It’s a rare movie where the supporting characters are more interesting than the leads.  British stand-up comedian Omid Djalili steals several scenes with his cameo as a Greek customs officer who is quick to dish out beauty advice.  He even gets a chance to sing but you’ll have to wait until the end of the closing credits.  Maria Vacratsis (My Big Fat Greek Wedding) also wins big laughs as the opinionated barwoman at a run-down drinking establishment.

I love musicals and I was a big fan of Mamma Mia! but I’ve got to be honest – this is a letdown.  

 

Review: Mary Shelley

Directed by: Haifaa al-Mansour
Written by: Emma Jensen
Starring: Elle Fanning, Douglas Booth, Tom Sturridge, Bel Powley, Stephen Dillane, Ben Hardy
Released: July 5, 2018
Grade: B

Mary Shelley
When it comes to fictional monsters, Frankenstein will be known to almost everyone.  The story has endured and the character continues to be used in films and television shows.  A lesser known fact (at least based on people I’ve spoken to) is that Frankenstein was the creation of British author Mary Shelley.  It’s incredible to think she was just 20 years of age when her book was published for the first time in 1818.  That would be impressive in today’s age let alone the chauvinistic, male-dominated world in which she was raised.

Fascinated by Mary Shelley’s story and keen to see it brought into the spotlight, Brisbane-based writer Emma Jensen obtained government funding and spent several months formulating a screenplay.  The reins were then handed over to Saudi Arabian director Haifaa al-Mansour (Wadjda) who cast Elle Fanning (Maleficent) in the lead role and got the cameras rolling.  The production highlights the multi-cultural nature of today’s society – an Australian writer, a Middle Eastern director and an American actress working together to tell the tale of an acclaimed British author.

As we learn during the opening scenes, Mary’s love for literature didn’t arise by chance.  Her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, was a published writer and passionate women’s rights advocate.  Her father, William Godwin (Dillane), was a social philosopher and political journalist who pushed strongly for individual freedoms.  Borrowing from a recognised Godwin quote, there’s a nice moment where Mary is told by her dad that “to love reading is to have everything within your reach”.

She may have been shaped by her parents and her favourite authors but Mary was quick to find her own voice as sought independence.  At the age of 16, she fell in love with Percy Bysshe Shelley (Booth), a young poet she first met while studying in Scotland.  Their relationship caused much scandal given Percy was a married man but the strong-willed Mary trusted her heart and wouldn’t be swayed by naysayers.  It reached the point where she was kicked out of the family home by her father and forced to move in with Percy and her younger sister, Claire (Powley).

It was during her early years with Percy that the idea of Frankenstein took shape.  The world had seen nothing like it before and, as articulated in the book’s introduction, she was keen to create something that would “curdle the blood and quicken the beatings of the heart.”  Aside from those already mentioned, two other individuals had a small part to play in Mary’s life before putting pen to paper – renowned poet Lord Byron (Sturridge) and budding writer John William Polidori (Hardy).

The pace is a little sluggish in places but the interaction between key characters is the film’s strongest element.  With Mary and Percy, we can see that they were both good for each other and bad for each other.  In the case of Mary and Claire, we see the bond between two sisters strained as they grow up and the world changes around them.  Elle Fanning embodies the role of Mary and deserves big wraps in helping illustrate these complex relationships.  Tom Sturridge also deserves a mention for his humorous, unexpected cameo as Lord Byron.

The creation of Frankenstein and the links between the book and Mary’s life aren’t explored in as much detail.  Perhaps this had to be sacrificed to keep the film to a two-hour running time.  Still, there is a worthy punchline with the film having something to say about the connection between misery and art.

Review: Skyscraper

Directed by: Rawson Marshall Thurber
Written by: Rawson Marshall Thurber
Starring: Dwayne Johnson, Neve Campbell, Chin Han, Roland Møller, Noah Taylor, Byron Mann
Released: July 12, 2018
Grade: B+

Skyscraper
It’s a topic that’s up for debate but if you’re looking for my opinion, the most “bankable” actor in Hollywood right now is Dwayne Johnson.  In addition to the hugely successful Fast and the Furious franchise, he has starred in a number of action flicks over the past 6 years that have cracked the $300 million mark at the worldwide box-office – Journey 2: The Mysterious Island, G.I. Joe: Retaliation, San Andreas, Rampage and Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle.  Some of these films were garbage but it’s a testament to his popularity that fans still paid to see them.

His latest vehicle has a strong chance of joining that aforementioned list.  Inspired by the likes of Die Hard and The Towering Inferno, Skyscraper is an escape movie which takes place in a high-rise building.  As tends to be the case in Dwayne Johnson films, every detail is taken to the extreme.  The high-rise is known as the Pearl and is the tallest man-made structure ever created – a 220 storey colossus located in central Hong Kong.  It cost more than $6 billion and generates all its own electricity.

Our hero is Will Sawyer (Johnson) – a man who has been through some tough times but is now as happy as he’s ever been.  He was once a member of the FBI’s Hostage Rescue Team but that chapter in his life came to an abrupt end when he lost his left leg in a hostage negotiation gone wrong.  The silver lining is that he met the love of his life (Campbell) while recovering in hospital and they’re now married with two children.  Will has become a family guy – working as a private security contractor during the day and spending quality time with his kids at night.  Walking around isn’t a problem thanks to the help of a state-of-the-art prosthetic leg.

Okay, let’s get to the action.  Will has been visiting the Pearl at the request of its owner (Han) to review its security features but at the same time, a Scandinavian villain (Møller) and his team of incompetent henchmen are trying to destroy the building.  We end up with a situation where the middle of the tower is set alight, Will is stuck at the bottom, and his wife and kids are trapped on the upper floors.  The police have no idea what’s going on and so Will has to use a mix of brain and brawn to rescue his family and save the day.

Skyscraper is formulaic when it comes to story.  We’ve got stereotypical European bad guys and it’s as if the actors have been told to look as shifty and dodgy as possible.  It’s nice to see Australian Noah Taylor (Shine) with a role in a major Hollywood movie but even as one of the more prominent villains, he’s given nothing to work with in terms of character and dialogue.  Several plot points also feel contrived.  There’s a head-scratching scene where Will’s family is split into two groups of two and a silly finale which takes place in an odd room.

Those shortcomings can be overlooked though because Skyscraper features some outstanding action pieces.  Maybe it’s because I’m petrified of heights but my hands were sweating during some sequences.  Writer-director Rawson Marshall Thurber (Central Intelligence) has created some tense, exciting predicaments that the one-legged Will must extricate himself from.  The great visual and sound effects help add to the drama.  You can’t ask for much more when it comes to the action genre.

Moving at a cracking pace for its tight 102 minute running time, Skyscaper looks to be another winner for Dwayne Johnson.