Review: Insidious: The Last Key

Directed by: Adam Robitel
Written by: Leigh Whannell
Starring: Lin Shaye, Angus Sampson, Leigh Whannell, Spencer Locke, Caitlin Gerard, Bruce Davison
Released: February 8, 2018
Grade: C

Insidious: The Last Key
I have such respect for artists who are able to create something original, something that we haven’t really seen before.  Think about a budding writer for example.  When you put your head down and look at a blank computer screen, how can you possibly imagine to create something that will be the equal of Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, Stephen King or Virginia Woolf?  Being creative is not easy.

The same logic applies to the horror genre in the world of cinema.  We have movies that keep reusing similar storylines with similar techniques.  You’ve got long periods of silence followed by a sudden noise or musical cue.  There are creepy demons and ghost that you only get a fleeting look of during the early scenes (so as to lead up to a big reveal).  Let’s not forget things like dark basements, possessed kids, and characters acting illogically.

Just when you think you’ve seen it all, a writer and/or director finds a way to breathe life back into the genre.  Most recently we saw it with Jordan Peele and Get Out.  Despite being a low budget movie that was released with little publicity, its popularity grew thanks to great word of mouth.  It grossed a sizeable $175 million in the United States and has been nominated for 4 Academy Awards including best picture.  Not bad for a 38-year-old making his feature film directorial debut.

Other landmark horror films that have made a mark include Pyscho, Jaws, Alien, The Shining, Scream, Shaun of the Dead and Pan’s Labyrinth.  After several paragraphs of deliberate stalling, I now realise that I must turn my attention to the movie I’ve been asked to review – Insidious: The Last Key.  It’s the 4th in this moderately successful franchise.  The original (with Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne) was released back in 2010 by Australians James Wan and Leigh Whannell (who were also responsible for the Saw series).  Two sequels followed in 2013 and 2015 which leads us up to the current day.

It will help if you’ve seen at least some of the earlier films as there are references to past events and characters.  Insidious: The Last Key opens with a flashback.  We learn that heroic paranormal investigator Elise Rainier (Shaye) had encounters with ghost and demons when she was a very young girl growing up in 1950s New Mexico.  It was the start of a rough childhood.  Her mother was killed in bizarre circumstances and her father was an abusive alcoholic.  As soon as she was old enough, she fled and started a better life in California.

Moving forward to a more current day setting, Elise gets a call from a man who believes his house his haunted.  Given the inclusion of the opening flashback, it’s no surprise that it just so happens to be Elise’s childhood home from 60 years ago.  Whatever demons existed in that place have never left.  She enlists her two sleazy, socially awkward ghost-busting sidekicks (Sampson and Whannell) and they head off to the rundown town of Five Keys, New Mexico to solve another mystery.

The producers keep making these movies because people keep paying to see them.  That’s the only reason I can offer for why such a film exists.  It borrows from other horror films to the point where it doesn’t feel like there’s any fresh content whatsoever.  The storyline never gets the heart pumping and while yes, I’ll acknowledge there are a few scares thanks to camera trickery and sound effects, that’s not enough to warrant the 103 minute running time.

The biggest frustration is the way the characters act.  There are moments where they’re incredibly frightened and then moments later, they’re laughing and making jokes as if it’s all a sham.  They also make incredibly dumb decisions that are clearly necessary to prolong the narrative.  As a good example, there’s a scene where Elise’s brother enters the house with his two daughters to find a favourite childhood whistle he lost 60 years ago.  Really?  That’s the best reason they could come up with to justify going into a crime scene and potentially risking their lives?

Given Insidious: The Last Key has made more than $155 million USD worldwide, this isn’t the last time we’ll be hearing from these characters.  How about a more engaging script next time?


Review: Molly's Game

Directed by: Aaron Sorkin
Written by: Aaron Sorkin
Starring: Jessica Chastain, Idris Elba, Kevin Costner, Michael Cera, Jeremy Strong, Chris O’Dowd
Released: February 1, 2018
Grade: B+

Molly's Game
There are many ways to find fame and fortune in Hollywood but the path of Molly Bloom (Chastain) was not one that had been taken before.  We get a snapshot of her upbringing during the film’s introduction.  She lived in the shadow of her other siblings, she was pushed hard by her overbearing father (Costner), and she almost forged a career as a moguls skier.  She was within reach of a spot on the United States team for the 2002 Winter Olympics until a sickening injury during qualifying put paid to those plans.

She subsequently moved to Los Angeles and tried to find work so she could save up to attend law school.  It was there she met Dean Keith (Strong), a bossy real estate manager in need of an assistant.  It’s worth noting that whilst this story is based on actual events, the names of many characters have been changed.  Molly did this in her book to protect their identity, ensure they avoided criminal prosecution, and, perhaps most importantly, to ensure she was safe from any reprisal.  That said, the real identity of some fictional characters can be learned through a simple internet search.

Anyway, back to the story.  Dean organised underground poker players with rich, influential people in Los Angeles and he enlisted Molly to help out.  She’d help recruit players whilst also taking care of details during the games such as accounting for poker chips and providing drinks.  It wasn’t long before she was pulling in sizeable tips from the players.  Law school would have to wait because this form of income was far too lucrative to give up.

Sensing that Dean was annoyed about her increasing power, Molly made an important move.  She severed their working relationship and started up her own independent poker games.  The players soon followed.  They were impressed with the way she operated and her reputation was top notch.  It wasn’t long before she was running games with buy-ins as high as $50,000 per person.

Things didn’t go quite so well after that but I’ll save most of those details so as not to spoil the bulk of the story.  There are two timelines at play throughout much of the film.  All of what I’ve mentioned thus far is set in the past and told by way of flashback.  The current narrative sees Molly working with a reputable lawyer (Elba) to defend herself against a criminal case brought against her after being arrested by the FBI.

Molly’s Game marks the directorial debut of Academy Award winning writer Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network, Moneyball).  In a similar vein to his previous writing credits, it’s a dialogue driven piece where things are explained neatly and precisely.  Sorkin deserves credit but it’s Jessica Chastain who is the film’s strongest attribute.  She gives a terrific performance in portraying Molly as both a strong-willed but also flawed individual.

I’d argue the film is too heavy handed with its use of narration.  There are parts where it feels like Molly is telling me stuff I could read directly from her book but I get a sense it was done this way to keep the story moving and avoid unnecessary scenes.  It’s also a little too preachy in places.  There’s a scene late in the movie involving Molly’s father that comes completely out of left field and it’s too obvious in what it is trying to achieve.

Picking up a nomination at the upcoming Academy Awards for best adapted screenplay, Molly’s Game is an interesting tale.  You certainly don’t have to be a poker fan to enjoy it.


Review: Sweet Country

Directed by: Warwick Thornton
Written by: David Tranter, Steven McGregor
Starring: Hamilton Morris, Sam Neill, Bryan Brown, Trevon Doolan, Matt Day, Ewen Leslie
Released: January 25, 2018
Grade: A-

Sweet Country
Currently held in Brisbane, the Asia Pacific Screen Awards honour the best films and performances from the Asia-Pacific region.  In their brief 11 year history, two movies from Australia have taken the honour for best feature film – Samson & Delilah in 2009 and Sweet Country in 2017.  It’s an amazing fact that both were directed by Indigenous filmmaker Warwick Thornton.  He’s not as widely known by the public as a George Miller, Baz Luhrmann or Gillian Armstrong but he will go down in history as one of Australia’s best directors.

Sweet Country has an interesting background.  David Tranter is an Australian sound recordist who has worked on a number of short films, TV movies and television shows over the past decade.  He’s known Thornton since they were kids growing up in Alice Springs and, drawing on stories passed down through his family, suggested the idea of the movie several years ago.  Despite having no experience as a screenwriter, he worked with Steven McGregor (Redfern Now) to put a script together.  Thornton loved the finished product and the film was put into production not long after.

Set in the 1920s, there’s no obvious protagonist in the film during the opening half hour.  We drift between characters and learn that the Australian outback was a rough, tough place.  There’s a quiet, lonely farmer (Neill) trying to make ends meet.  There’s an Indigenous man (Morris) and his wife who help tend the farm and are well compensated.  There’s a World War I veteran (Leslie) who has moved into the area and is quick to assert his authority.  There’s a young boy (Doolan) from a tough upbringing who yearns for a better life.   There’s a police sergeant (Brown) who enjoys a drink and tries to maintain law and order.

The narrative becomes clearer when someone is killed.  Without giving too much away, a “white fella is shot by a black fella”.  The racial tensions within the community explode and it forces some characters to flee whilst others go chasing after them.  For many in the town, the truth as to what actually took place is irrelevant.  A white man has been killed and they’re ready to dish out a violent brand of justice at any cost.

Described as Australian’s equivalent of an iconic American western, Sweet Country is a gripping, moving drama that pulls back the curtain on a darker chapter in our history.  The likes of Sam Neill and Bryan Brown give the film some star power but it’s the Indigenous cast members, all of whom are non-professional actors, who make the biggest impact.  It’s hard not to feel empathy for their plight.

Thornton shot the film just outside of Alice Springs and makes great use of the dry, desolate landscape.  There’s a scene involving Bryan Brown on a long, flat plain that exemplifies this most.  I also liked the use of quick “flash forwards” to give us a glimpse of what lies ahead.  It will keep audiences on their toes and is a pleasant breakaway from the traditional model where a film opens with the full ending and then takes us back to how we got there.

With a few unexpected twists, Sweet Country is a great slice of Aussie cinema.


Review: Phantom Thread

Directed by: Paul Thomas Anderson
Written by: Paul Thomas Anderson
Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, Lesley Manville, Vicky Krieps, Richard Graham, Camilla Rutherford, Harriett Sansom Harris
Released: February 1, 2018
Grade: A

Phantom Thread
Before we get to the content of the film itself, Phantom Thread has made its fair share of news in Hollywood.  In June last year, Daniel Day-Lewis released a statement saying that he “will no longer be working as an actor” and that “neither he nor his representatives will make any further comment on the subject.”  Despite being just 60 years of age and the only male in history to win 3 Oscars for best leading actor, he had made the decision to retire.  Phantom Thread would be our last chance to see him on screen.

The film also generated fresh publicity when the Academy Award nominations were announced last Tuesday.  Despite being overlooked by most Oscar pundits and predictors, it surprised many when it picked up a slew of nominations including best picture, best director, best actor and best supporting actress.  It’s worth noting that only 3 movies received more nominations – The Shape of Water, Dunkirk and Three Billbords Outside Ebbing, Missouri.  It’s clear that members of the Academy like this film.

I’m not sure all members of the public will feel that way.  Despite my adoration of the movie and director Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights, Magnolia), this is an unconventional romantic drama that doesn’t play out in a way you will expect.  The film is set in 1950s London and largely revolves around just three characters.

Reynolds Woodcock (Day-Lewis) is an acclaimed fashion designer and “confirmed bachelor”.  It seems every woman wants to wear his beautiful dresses whether they are members of the royal family or high-profile socialites.  Cyril Woodcock (Manville) is his hard working sister who acts as both his business manager and personal assistant.  She takes care of all the awkward, messy stuff so as not to disrupt her brother’s creative freedom.  Alma Elson (Krieps) is the newest arrival in the household and the latest in Reynolds’ revolving turnstile of girlfriends.  Unlike others, she isn’t afraid to stand up to Reynolds and she becomes a trusted, valuable muse.

Phantom Thread is an engrossing character study as we watch all three individuals try to gain the upper hand in his curious household.  The power changes throughout and you’re never quite sure how it will all end up.  I don’t know his secret but Paul Thomas Anderson has a knack for bringing out the best in any actor.  He’s done that again here by working with Day-Lewis for the second time (after There Will Be Blood) and newcomers to the Anderson fold, Lesley Manville (Another Year) and Vicky Krieps (A Most Wanted Man).

I’m being cryptic regarding the narrative as it’s the kind of movie where the less you know going in, the better.  Reynolds is such a fascinating person.  He comes across as so calm but also so intimidating.  You never know what he’s thinking which is quite scary.  It’s hard to pick a highlight but there are some great scenes shared around the breakfast table that illustrate the power struggle whilst also providing a few laughs when it comes to “breakfast etiquette”.

With plenty to digest upon leaving the theatre, Phantom Thread is another feather in the cap for Paul Thomas Anderson.


Review: The Shape of Water

Directed by: Guillermo del Toro
Written by: Guillermo del Toro, Vanessa Taylor
Starring: Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Richards Jenkins, Doug Jones, Michael Stuhlbarg, Octavia Spencer
Released: January 18, 2018
Grade: B+

The Shape of Water
The Shape of Water is described on the Internet Movie Database as – “In a 1960s research facility, Elisa, a mute janitor, forms a relationship with a mysterious aquatic creature.”  I’ve provided this simple plot overview to friends and have received many puzzled looks in return.  It sounds bizarre on paper but it’s being pitched as an “adult fairy tale” so you don’t need to stress about everything making sense.

That’s probably a good thing because there are questions asked in The Shape of Water which are not answered.  To start out with, where did this human-like sea creature come from?  It’s clearly a major discovery but those at the top-secret military facility are unsure what to do with the “asset”.  Dr Robert Hoffstetler (Stuhlbarg) is a scientist who wants to study the creature but on the flip side, the security team headed by Richard Strickland (Shannon) thinks it best that it be killed.

It’s the actions of these two characters which are the most difficult to reconcile.  Strickland gets a surprisingly large amount of screen time as the film’s keynote villain.  We even follow him to his home and get a glimpse of his family.  Why he has no interest in the creature and its potential scientific value is odd.  That said, at least we know what he wants.  Dr Hoffstetler has a softer side but I never fully understood how he reached his position on certain issues (without giving too much away).

Where the film succeeds is the exploration of the relationship that develops between the creature and Elisa Esposito, a cleaner (Hawkins) who has been a mute all of her life.  She lives alone, has few friends and whilst she puts up a brave face, you get a clear sense that she’s frustrated by her disability.  It’s hard to make new friends and fall in love when you have no voice.

That helps explain her attraction to the sea creature.  She meets it while cleaning its laboratory and with both of them unable to speak, they communicate using expressions and hand gestures.  The creature shows remarkable intelligence and it’s not long before they form a close bond.  However, when she learns that her newfound love is to be killed, she calls in favours from a fellow cleaner (Spencer) and her next-door neighbour (Jenkins) to help save his life.

Writer-director Guillermo del Toro has never been a conventional filmmaker.  We’ve seen from the likes of Cronos, Pan’s Labyrinth and Crimson Peak that he has a rich, vivid imagination that creates beautiful cinematic worlds.  That’s again the case here.  The Shape of Water is a wild ride that provides many unexpected, eye-raising moments.  The opening scene with Sally Hawkins in the bathtub is a great example.  The film score of Alexandre Desplat (The Grand Budapest Hotel), which features both light and dark moments, is a perfect fit for the material.

Whilst I love what he’s trying to achieve, some of the subplots didn’t resonate.  There’s a storyline that involves the next-door neighbour, his work and unrequited love but it feels inferior to the main show.  The same applies for Dr Hoffstetler and his connection with others outside the laboratory.  These narratives didn’t hit me emotionally.

Given the film has been nominated for 7 Golden Globe nominations and a bunch of other critics prizes, I’ll admit to being in the minority with my lukewarm response.  Perhaps another viewing is in order.


Review: I, Tonya

Directed by: Craig Gillespie
Written by: Steven Rogers
Starring: Margot Robbie, Sebastian Stan, Allison Janney, Julianne Nicholson, Bobby Cannavale, Paul Walter Hauser
Released: January 25, 2018
Grade: B

I, Tonya
I’m old enough to remember the tale of Tonya Harding, Nancy Kerrigan and “the incident”.  I was 16 years of age and the news stories were too crazy to ever be forgotten.  That said, could I precisely tell you how events unfolded, who knew what, and who was found responsible?  The answer is no.  It’s why we so often use the adage “never let the truth get in the way of a good story.”  Truth took a backseat as gossip and the 24-hour news cycle took over.

Those hoping to see what actually transpired by watching I,Tonya will be disappointed.  In putting together the script, writer Steven Rogers conducted extensive interviews with both Tonya Harding and her ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly.  Their version of events differed so wildly that he tried to incorporate both into his screenplay.

The end result is a movie that is part comedy, part drama and part mockumentary.  Rogers allows the real-life individuals to tell their stories… through the actors that portray them on the screen.  From the very opening scene, we see Tonya and Jeff, played by Margot Robbie and Sebastian Stan, arguing into the camera arguing about what took place.  Also adding their two cents are Tonya’s mother (Janney), her ice skating coach (Nicholson), a sports journalist (Cannavale) and an incompetent bodyguard (Hauser).

Interwoven within these fake interviews are the film’s dramatic elements – a re-enactment of what took place (depending on who you believe).  The first hour focuses on Tonya’s early years.  We learn that she had a tough upbringing and an even tougher mother who was determined to see her daughter become a champion figure skater.  The second hour takes us into the lead up of the 1994 Winter Olympic Games where her rivalry with fellow U.S. athlete Nancy Kerrigan went more than few steps too far.

Brought to the screen by Australian director Craig Gillespie (Lars and the Real Girl), I, Tonya deserves credit for getting its message across in an unorthodox manner.  It’s framed as a dark comedy with the film skilfully winning laughs while tackling confronting subject matters such as domestic violence.  Not everyone will see the lighter side and it’s likely to be divisive.  For me, the most interesting observation is the way in which truth and fiction have blended together when it comes to Tonya Harding.  It’s as if we don’t want to know reality because it may be less interesting that the myth that has evolved.

Above all else, Margot Robbie is the reason the film should be seen.  The 27-year-old Australian actress was raised on a farm in Dalby, Queensland and was unheard of 5 years ago.  Now, she’s just picked up her first Academy Award nomination for her great performance.  As we’ve seen in The Wolf of Wall Street, Suicide Squad and now I, Tonya, she’s an versatile actress who can adapt to any role.  She may not have done all the skating in the movie but it sure looks like it!

The film isn’t without its problems.  I’m perplexed as to why Allison Janney is the frontrunner to win best supporting actress at the Oscars in early March.  She’s clearly having fun playing Tonya’s super villainous mother but it’s a one-note character that doesn’t show any regret.  For this reason, you never fully understand why she’s the way she is.  The screenplay also struggles to maintain momentum.  We get a clear picture of the characters during the opening half-hour and things don’t change much after that.  Aside from the bizarre “incident”, Harding doesn’t seem to be interesting enough to warrant a full two-hour movie.

Shot on a budget of just $11 million USD, I, Tonya strives for gold but will have to settle for silver.