Review: Home Again

Directed by: Hallie Meyers-Shyer
Written by: Hallie Meyers-Shyer
Starring: Reese Witherspoon, Michael Sheen, Candice Bergen, Nat Wolff, Jon Rudnitsky, Pico Alexander
Released: October 19, 2017
Grade: B+

Home Again
Rich people are no happy than you or I.  Whether you believe in that saying or not, it’s put to good use during the early scenes of Home Again.  It is centred on Alice (Witherspoon), a 40-year-old woman from Los Angeles at the crossroads of her life.  When we first meet her, she’s crying in front of her bathroom mirror.  She recently separated from her husband (Sheen) and is trying to come to grips with how the world works as a single mum with two young children.

In terms of what Alice does for work, that’s a bit of a mystery.  She’s ordered a fresh batch of business cards and is looking to move into interior design.  It’s more of a “need something to keep me busy” hobby than a legitimate career.  She doesn’t need the money as her father was a successful film director.  He left Alice with a beautiful home and a large bank account when he passed away.

Convinced by her girlfriends to go out partying one night, Alice hooks up with Harry (Alexander), a 20-something-year-old who yearns of being a filmmaker.  Harry, his brother (Wolff), and his best friend (Rudnitsky) are trying to forge a career in Hollywood but fame and fortune are hard to come by.  With almost no money to their name, Alice allows them to move into her guest house (wish I had one) for a few weeks while they finish work on a make-or-break script.

The arrival of the three guys changes the dynamic of the house – mostly for the better.  Alice’s eldest daughter has been battling anxiety issues (she even asks for anti-depressants) but gains much needed confidence from her new housemates.  Alice’s mother, Lillian (Bergen), is also excited by developments and is doing her best to push Alice and Harry closer together.

Home Again marks the debut feature film of writer-director Hallie Meyers-Shyer.  She had a little help breaking into the industry.  Her parents are Charles Shyer and Nancy Meyers – a power couple in Hollywood who have helped create films such Private Benjamin, Father of the Bride, What Women Want, Something’s Gotta Give and It’s Complicated.  They were also behind the 1998 remake of The Parent Trap where they named the two twins after their own daughters – Annie and Hallie.

This isn’t a life changing movie but there are a few points of difference that make Home Again worth watching.  It tries to break away from the traditional “boy gets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl” formula.  Alice isn’t someone who must be attached to a man to make their life better.  The support and friendship offered by the three guys is just as valuable.  It’s an interesting dynamic and I laughed at a line where she jokingly describes what they individually provide – sex, childcare and a business website.

Home Again is at its best when things are going well within the household.  The banter between the characters is fun and insightful.  The two children are particularly adorable.  The film feels less authentic when trying to create tension.  A missed dinner date causes an unnecessary level of drama.  A scene involving Alice’s husband and a punch-up is borrowed from the rom-com textbook.  I’d also argue that Harry’s ongoing interaction with his agents is an unnecessary distraction that soaks up screen time.

With a splash of pop-culture humour thrown in (e.g. Jerry Maguire, Sean Penn), Hallie Meyers-Shyer deserves praise for a likeable debut feature.


Review: The Mountain Between Us

Directed by: Hany Abu-Assad
Written by: Chris Weitz
Starring: Idris Elba, Kate Winslet, Beau Bridges, Dermot Mulroney
Released: October 12, 2017
Grade: C+

The Mountain Between Us
A small charter plane crashes on top of a snow-covered mountain in a remote part of the United States.  The pilot is killed and the two passengers survive, albeit with a few injuries.  Joined by a dog who was also aboard the plane, this unlikely duo go on a lengthy trek through freezing conditions to find help before it is too late.

It’s a worthy premise.  However, how we get to that point is a little cheesy.  Ben (Elba) and Alex (Winslet) are two strangers who meet by chance at an airport in Idaho en route to Denver.  Every plane has been cancelled due to bad weather and this has thrown their plans into disarray.  Ben is a renowned doctor who must get home to perform critical surgery on a patient.  Alex is equally desperate since her wedding is scheduled for the next day.

With all hire cars taken, they go with an unorthodox option and approach Walter (Bridges), the owner of a small 4-seater plane.  He isn’t too fussed about the inclement weather (not sure why) and decides not to lodge a flight plan (not sure why either).  I should also add that Ben and Alex haven’t told any family members of the plans either (not sure why again).

All of these points are relevant for when Murphy’s Law kicks in.  The plane goes down and whilst Ben and Alex survive, there’s almost no point in waiting to be rescued because no one knows where they are.  They will need to harness every ounce of energy, climb down the mountain, and return to civilisation.  All of this takes place in the second act which is the most interesting part of Hany Abu-Assad’s film.  Whilst our two heroes are sharp, intelligent people, they don’t always agree on strategy.  The stress of the situation and the increasingly likelihood that they won’t survive starts to take its toll.

The film is ruined by a farcical finale that resembles something from a Nicholas Sparks novel.  Despite the fact that Alex is engaged and Ben is an emotional vacuum, the two fall in love.  I want to say a more but I need to be careful in terms of spoilers.  You’ll know what I mean once you’ve seen the movie.  It runs 10-15 minutes longer than it should and the final scene (just before the quick fade to black) exemplifies the clichéd nature of the material.  I guess screenwriter Chris Weitz (About a Boy) had limited options in trying to stay true to the novel penned by Charles Martin.

Idris Elba and Kate Winslet are both terrific actors but their skills are not enough to save this sappy mess. 


Review: Song to Song

Directed by: Terrence Malick
Written by: Terrence Malick
Starring: Michael Fassbender, Ryan Gosling, Rooney Mara, Natalie Portman, Cate Blanchett, Val Kilmer
Released: October 5, 2017
Grade: C

Song to Song
I am fascinated by director Terrence Malick.  There are few filmmakers today that generate as much discussion and debate.  For those that don’t know the back story, he made two highly acclaimed films in the 1970s, Badlands and Days of Heaven, and then took a break for 20 years.  He returned at the turn of the century and has since picked up two Oscar nominations for directing – The Thin Red Line in 1998 and The Tree of Life in 2011.   

What makes Malick so intriguing is his absence from the public spotlight.  He doesn’t give interviews, he doesn’t turn up to premieres or awards ceremonies, and he doesn’t release any photographs.  At the 2012 Academy Awards, the producers had to use a 14 year old photograph of Malick when reading out the nominees because no one had anything more recent.

His reclusive nature has only added to his notoriety.  Production companies are still happy to produce his movie despite knowing he will do zero press.  Actors accept reduced salaries just for the opportunity to appear in his films.  Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain, Ben Affleck, Javier Bardem, Rachel McAdams, Christian Bale, Natalie Portman and Cate Blanchett have all worked with Malick in the past decade.  It’s a list that any budding director would be envious of.

I know if this is a good thing… but it’s the off-screen discussions of Malick that I find most interesting.  Adrien Brody was supposed to be the star of The Thin Red Line but when he turned up to the world premiere, he found that almost all of his scenes had been cut.  He hadn’t even been told!  A similar fate befell Oscar winner Christopher Plummer with The New World.  Perhaps my favourite Malick story is told by actor Thomas Lennon who was brought in for one day of work on Knight of Cups.  Instead of being given a script, he was given a piece of paper with a random thought to guide an improvised performance.

I wasn’t a fan of Knight of Cups (released in Australia last year).  It’s hard to describe but it was a group of beautiful images but without any tangible storyline to connect them together.  Characters would wander around aimlessly and whisper deep, profound, meaningful things that went sailing over my head.  It was like watching a foreign language movie with no subtitles.  I wanted to understand but I simply couldn’t.

It saddens me to report that Malick’s latest effort, Song to Song, is more of the time.  The blurb from the film’s website makes it sound appealing – “In this modern love story set against the Austin, Texas music scene, two entangled couples chase success through a rock ‘n’ roll landscape of seduction and betrayal.”  The colourful poster looks good too.  It highlight’s the four key players in this ensemble – Ryan Gosling, Rooney Mara, Michael Fassbender and Natalie Portman.  I could see non-Malick fans buying a ticket and expecting to be entertained.

It’s a pretty film to look at but my interest was gone within the first 30 minutes.  It’s all style and no substance.  Narrative is non-existent and it’s hard to learn anything about these characters through Malick’s fractured, filtered lens.  I could have sat in the cinema foyer for two hours, watched a mix of people walk past, and actually learned more about life.  If this is what Malick wants to keep serving up, he should be directing nature documentaries and not fictional dramas.


Review: The Only Living Boy in New York

Directed by: Marc Webb
Written by: Allan Loeb
Starring: Callum Turner, Kate Beckinsale, Pierce Brosnan, Cynthia Nixon, Jeff Bridges, Kiersey Clemons
Released: October 12, 2017
Grade: B-

Only Living Boy In New York
Fifteen years ago, Allan Loeb was a struggling writer trying to break into Hollywood.  He gambled, he traded stocks, he racked up huge credit card debts and he sold his car.  All of these actions were taken to help pay the rent and to put food on the table.  He had no choice given that studios were not interested in his screenplays.

It all changed dramatically for Loeb when the Black List was published for the first time in 2005.  The list contains a group of screenplays that have been liked by studio bigwigs but for whatever reason, have not been put into production.  It’s a way of promoting quality scripts that need some love and attention.  Oscar winners to have originally featured on the Black List include Slumdog Millionaire, The King’s Speech, Argo and Spotlight.

Two of Loeb’s screenplays were included in the inaugural blacklist and both have now made it to the big screen.  The first was Things We Lost in the Fire, released in 2007 and directed by Susanne Bier.  The second is The Only Living Boy in New York which has had a slightly longer gestation period but has now arrived under the direction of Marc Webb (500 Days of Summer).

The title may already be familiar to those who are fans of Simon & Garfunkel.  A song with the same name was released as part of their final album in 1970.  The song is used late in the film but there’s no correlation in terms of premise.  Rather, Loeb admits that he was inspired by movies such as Mike Nichols’ The Graduate and Woody Allen’s Manhattan.  He rented a loft in New York during the summer of 2004, immersed himself in the city, and came up with this storyline.

The central character is Thomas (Turner) – a twenty-something year old from Manhattan wants to be a writer.  An argument could be made that we’re supposed to feel sorry for Thomas given his many problems.  His controlling father (Brosnan) wants him to see a career counsellor.  His mother (Nixon) doesn’t have much to add given she’s “depressive bipolar”.  He has a crush on his best friend (Clemons) but she doesn’t feel the same way.

All of that said, Thomas still has a privileged life.  This is illustrated during an early scene where Thomas and his father argue about where he should be living.  Dad wants him at home in their spacious apartment near Central Park.  Thomas would prefer his independence and is living in the Lower East Side (but still clearly at his parent’s expense).  Not everyone will find him endearing.

With the stage set, two new players enter the mix who will shape the second and third acts.  The first is Johanna (Beckinsale), a middle aged woman with whom Thomas’s father has been having an affair.  Thomas tries to break them up in an unorthodox manner – by seducing Johanna himself (hence the reference to The Graduate).  The other person of influence is W.F. (Bridges), a mysterious old man who lobs on Thomas’s doorsteps.  The two become friends with W.F. serving as his writing muse.

Without giving too much away, the contrived nature of the story makes it a challenge to fully connect with these characters.  It’s hard to understand why some of them act in a certain way.  Still, there’s some juicy dialogue on offer here and I was lured by the husky voice of Jeff Bridges who also serves as the film’s narrator.  The scenes he shares with newcomer Callum Turner are the clear highlight as they talk about the ways of the world.

Designed to be a coming-of-age story, The Only Living Boy in New York doesn’t quite live up to the great movies that inspired it.


Review: Battle of the Sexes

Directed by: Jonathan Dayton, Valerie Faris
Written by: Simon Beaufoy
Starring: Emma Stone, Steve Carell, Andrea Riseborough, Sarah Silverman, Bill Pullman, Elisabeth Shue
Released: September 28, 2017
Grade: B+

Battle of the Sexes
A lot has been made in the past year about the promotion of women’s sports and the pay gap between their men’s counterparts.  The AFL started a women’s league in late 2016 and the inaugural 7-match season drew an attendance of close to 400,000.  The Australian Cricketers’ Association recently negotiated an 80% increase in the base rate of pay for international women’s players.  Super Netball was launched with games televised weekly on free-to-air television.

These are all good news stories but the reality is that women have been fighting for their fair share for a long time before this.  Battle of the Sexes takes us back to 1973 when tennis became an early pioneer on this particular issue.  It was at this time when the U.S. Open became the first grand slam tennis tournament to offer equal prizemoney for the men’s and women’s champions.  For those interested, the Australian Open didn’t reach parity until 2001.

Oscar nominated screenwriter Simon Beaufoy (Slumdog Millionaire, The Full Monty) has three major stories to tell in the Battle of the Sexes.  The first looks at the creation of the Women’s Tennis Association.  Led by reigning Wimbledon and U.S. Open champion Billie Jean King (Stone), a group of leading women players broke away from the U.S. Lawn Tennis Association in search of better pay.  Gladys Heldman (Silverman) helped secure sponsorship for a new women’s tennis tour and it wasn’t long before major inroads had been achieved.

The second story is the most intimate.  King (Stone) was married but it was while playing on tour that she realised she was attracted to women.  She had a lengthy love affair with her hairdresser, Marilyn Barnett (Riseborough), but this had be kept secret from the homophobic public or else it would threaten the success of the tour and her own dealings with sponsors.  That itself caused huge stress which affected King’s performances on court.

The final story is the one given the most attention in the film’s advertising (and title).  It was also in 1973 when former Wimbledon and U.S. Open champion Bobby Riggs, now 55 years of age, challenged Jean to a televised exhibition match to prove that a retired senior citizen could beat the world’s number 1 female player.  With a crowd of over 30,000, it set a new world record for the highest attendance at a tennis match (which it held for 37 years).

In keeping with the tennis theme, it’s hard to find “fault” in the performances being offered here.  Both are likely to earn an Academy Award nomination.  Emma Stone is outstanding as Billie Jean King.  Her character exudes confidence when in the public eye but her insecurities are revealed when behind closed doors.  Steve Carell is impressive as Bobby Riggs but his character isn’t developed in as much detail.  We know he’s a gambling addict and a “show pony” but we never get to the heart of his views on women.  Was he sexist or merely just promoting his own brand?

Directed by the husband-and-wife team of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (Little Miss Sunshine), Battle of the Sexes is an important, significant, enlightening drama but it does struggle to balance the breadth of material.  As an example, King develops an on-court, off-court rivalry with Margaret Court (played by Australian actress Jessica McNamee) but these scenes are kept short and simple because there isn’t time to probe deeper.  The same could be said of Riggs' relationship with his son.

The events depicted took place 44 years ago but once you’ve seen the film, you’ll realise it’s a story that has just as much relevance in today’s world.  See it for its narrative and see it for its 1970s fashion.


Review: Blade Runner 2049

Directed by: Denis Villeneuve
Written by: Hampton Fancher, Michael Green
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Harrison Ford, Ana de Armas, Robin Wright, Mackenzie Davis, Jared Leto
Released: October 5, 2017
Grade: A-

Blade Runner 2049
Before tonight’s Brisbane premiere of Blade Runner 2049, a note from director Denis Villeneuve was shown on screen.  It read “I do not know what you will think of my movie, however, whatever you write, I would ask that you preserve the experience for the audience of seeing the film the way you see it today… without knowing any details about the plot of the movie.  I know this is a big request, but I hope that you will honour it.”

It’s interesting that a director would go to the lengths of making such a statement.  It’s not that he doesn’t want me to reveal any twists.  He’s going a step further and saying I should not reveal “any details about the plot”.  That leaves me in a slight predicament.  I generally try to provide a bit of information in terms of narrative to help audiences decide if it’s a film worth seeing.

An overriding factor is that Blade Runner 2049 is a sequel.  Many would be familiar with the 1982 movie which was only a modest success at the box-office but later developed a cult-like following.  That was film directed by Ridley Scott (Alien, Gladiator) and based on the Philip K. Dick novel “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep.”

Knowledge of the predecessor is helpful but not essential when going along to this sequel.  Just like the original, it’s set in the not-to-distant future and portrays the world as a dark, desolate, bleak place.  Ecosystems collapsed in the mid-2020s and you won’t see a single glimmer of sunshine throughout the whole film.  The sky is always littered with rain, snow or fog.  Perhaps it’s not like that all over the planet but it’s certainly the case in California where events take place.

This is a world where man has created genetically engineered beings known as “replicants”.  They’re not Terminator-style robots.  They look like humans, they act like humans and they bleed like humans.  The key differences are that they had no childhood (since they were created fully grown) and they have no soul.  They were created to be used as cheap labour and help make life easier for the naturally born portion of the population.

Things didn’t go as expected and it fell upon a group of individuals, known as “blade runners”, to hunt and kill the replicants.  All of this was well-documented in the first movie so I’m not providing any spoilers.  However, I might leave it at that so as to honour the wishes of Denis Villeneuve.  He’s one of the most exciting directors to emerge from Canada having made a string of great films this decade – Prisoners, Sicario and Arrival.

With a running time of 163 minutes, Blade Runner 2049 is the longest mainstream release to hit Australian cinemas this year.  The test with such movies is whether they can hold your attention.  While a few scenes could have been trimmed, the film is dense in terms of detail and the time flew much quicker than expected.  This is an intriguing world that provides insight into how technology could be used in the years to come.  As an example, there’s a love scene unlike anything I’ve seen before.

Cinematographer Roger Deakins (The Shawshank Redemption, Fargo) has created some striking visual imagery and he’s destined for a 14th Academy Award nomination (he’s yet to win).  The jarring music from Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch will also keep you on edge throughout.  From the sound effects to the costumers, it’s hard to find any fault from a technical perspective.

I didn’t develop a deep emotional connection with the characters (they’re all so cold) but I was still engaged by the storyline and curious to see how events would unfold.  Harrison Ford reprises his role from the original movie and is joined Ryan Gosling and a group of strong women headlined by Sylvia Hoeks and Robin Wright.

Best described as a drama as opposed to an action film, Blade Runner 2049 offers a chilling view of our future.