Reviews

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.

 

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: Australia Day

Directed by: Kriv Stenders
Written by: Stephen M. Irwin
Starring: Bryan Brown, Shari Sebbens, Sean Keehan, Elias Anton, Miah Madden, Jenny Wu
Released: September 21, 2017
Grade: B-

Australia Day
A lot has changed in terms of film distribution models over the past few decades.  I can remember back to the days when a film would come out in cinemas and then wouldn’t make it to video stores until about a year later.  Given the disruption (both good and bad) caused by the internet, the models have changed to give the public a wider range of options to consume content.

Australia Day is the latest movie to try a different path in search of financial success.  It’s about to get a three week run in local cinemas but at the end of the first week, it will also become available online for consumers to purchase and watch.  It’ll be interesting to see how it performs and whether other low-budget films follow in its footsteps.

Valentine’s Day, New Year’s Eve and Mother’s Day were all directed by the late Garry Marshall and based on the title of this feature, it may appear that writer Stephen Irwin has borrowed from his hymn sheet.  That’s not really the case though.  While the film is set across a 12 hour period on Australia Day, one could argue that such events could take place on any day of the year.  It’s a story about family, race, crime and revenge.

The film opens with a Run Lola Run style running scene with multiple protagonists.  Events have taken place, some people are on the run, some are trying to solve a mystery.  There’s a guy (Brown) who is penniless and is about to lose his home.  There’s a young Asian woman (Wu) with an injured foot in search of her embassy.  There’s an Iranian-Australian teenager (Anton) who has been abducted and bashed.  There’s a 14-year-old Indigenous girl (Madden) in search of her drug-addicted mother.

This is a busy film… perhaps too much so.  I like things “thick and fast” but with so many storylines, there’s not a lot of time to question the actions of these characters.  As an example, Bryan Brown’s character has plans involving a high profile politician but they feel a bit goofy as we don’t know enough about his history.

Director Kriv Stenders (Red Dog) does the best he can with the material and is well supported by AFI Award winning editor Nick Meyers (Balibo, The Rocket).  Things are a little sluggish through the middle stages but they wind the tension up as the storylines come together and reach their climax.  You’ll still be interested in how events unfold during the final 15-20 minutes.  It was all shot in Brisbane and given many scenes take place outdoors, fans of the city will enjoy spotting local landmarks.

Australia Day has something to say about cultural “wars” within this country but I can think of other Aussie movies with a more focused narrative (e.g. Mystery Road and Japanese Story) that left a deeper emotional mark.

 

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: Victoria & Abdul

Directed by: Stephen Frears
Written by: Lee Hall
Starring: Judi Dench, Ali Fazal, Eddie Izzard, Adeel Akhtar, Michael Gambon, Olivia Williams
Released: September 14, 2017
Grade: B

Victoria & Abdul
She’s been acting since the late 1950s but the film role that helped boost the international profile of British actress Judi Dench didn’t arrive until 1997.  In John Madden’s Mrs. Brown, she played one of the great British monarchs, Queen Victoria, as she tried to cope with the death of her husband in 1861.  In addition to winning a BAFTA Award and Golden Globe, Dench picked up her first Academy Award nomination (losing to Helen Hunt in As Good As It Gets).

For those who believe that “good things come to those who wait”, Dench’s story belongs in the textbook’s opening chapter.  She was 62 years of age when she made Mrs. Brown and in the two decades that have followed, she’s appeared in roughly 40 movies and earned another 6 Academy Award nominations (winning once for Shakespeare in Love).  She’s showing no signs of slowing down and will go down in the history books as one of cinema’s greatest performers.

Dench’s backstory is relevant because Victoria & Abdul marks an important milestone.  She reprises her role as Queen Victoria for the first time since the career revitalising Mrs. Brown.  This time around, we see the much loved Queen in the later years of her life – from 1887 through to her death in 1901.  It was during that period when she became the longest serving monarch in British history (a record recently broken by Queen Elizabeth).

The image we see of Queen Victoria during the opening scenes is not how she would prefer to be remembered.  Having served Britain for half a century, she’s tired of the ongoing commitments.  She’s assisted out of bed by her staff each morning and she’s stuck in an endless cycle of public appearances and meetings with dignitaries.  There’s a humour moment where she falls asleep whilst hosting a lavish dinner.

In search of something different in her life, Victoria strikes up a friendship with Abdul Karim (Fazal), an Indian servant who had travelled to London to present the Queen with a special coin.  He was to return home to India but the Queen asked him to stay on.  It wasn’t long before he came one of her closest confidants.  They spent many hours together with Abdul teaching her about Indian culture and history.  This infuriated her family and political advisors who did like his growing level of influence.

Directed by Stephen Frears (The Queen, Philomena) and written by Lee Hall (Billy Elliot, War Horse), Victoria & Abdul is based on the novel of Indian writer Shrabani Basu.  She stumbled across the story and was surprised how little was known about it.  In putting together her book, she had access to the journals of both Queen Victoria and Abdul Karim.  The later had been handed down from generation-to-generation and had not been made public until Basu made her inquiries.

The story is the biggest attraction here and it’s amazing to think that such an interesting tale has been kept hidden for so long.  It’s certain to grab the attention of British monarchists.  I’m not fully sold by the approach but Frears and Hall have gone with something light and crowd-pleasing.  The Queen’s family are presented as villainous ogres and Abdul can seemingly do no wrong (even when he does make a mistake in judgement).  The film also avoids subjects such as the religious divide in India and the effect of British rule – both were needed to provide context to the characters’ mindset.

At its heart though, this is about the power of friendship and it’s hard to fault the performances of Judi Dench and Ali Fazal in the leading roles.  You get a strong sense of Victoria’s loneliness and the way in which her spirits lift when interacting with Abdul.  Offering laughs with a tinge of sadness, audiences should soak it up.

You can read my chat with author Shrabani Basu by clicking here.

 

Review: Kingsman: The Golden Circle

Directed by: Matthew Vaughn
Written by: Matthew Vaughn, Jane Goldman
Starring: Taron Egerton, Colin Firth, Julianne Moore, Mark Strong, Halle Berry, Elton John, Channing Tatum, Jeff Bridges, Emily Watson
Released: September 21, 2017
Grade: B

Kingsman: The Golden Circle
There are risks when launching a new film franchise but 20th Century Fox found success in 2014 with the release of Kingsman: The Secret Service.  Based on the comic book series, the film made more than $400 million at the international box-office and was spurred by good word of mouth (despite the controversy surrounding a poorly timed joke during the film’s climax).  It’s no surprise that this second film was put into production not long after.

It follows in the same vein as the original and is trying to be a James Bond film on steroids.  This is evident in a lengthy opening action scene that some will call fun and others will call farce.  Our hero, Eggsy (Egerton), is attacked by a rejected Kingsman applicant who has “gone bad”.  That’s a slight understatement.  The pair duke it out in the back seat of a car while being pursued by a bunch of stereotypical, not-so-intelligent goons.

It’s not long after when the film’s keynote villain is revealed.  Poppy Adams (Moore) has a 1950s style lair hidden on a mountain top in Colombia.  She runs the biggest drug cartel in the world but is frustrated by the fact her name isn’t included alongside Bill Gates and Richard Branson as one of the all-time great entrepreneurs.  Of course, this is because her business is illegal.  Unlike alcohol and tobacco, the marijuana and heroin she sells are frowned upon in most countries.

That’s something she’s looking to change.  Poppy puts a virus in her latest batch of drugs and it’s not long before millions of people come down with unusual, life-threatening symptoms.  She promises to provide them all with an antidote but on one condition – the President of the United States agrees to regulate the drug industry and legitimise her thriving business.  Oh, and she’ll also release Elton John (paying himself) who she’s kidnapped for her own amusement.

Eggsy and his tech guy, Merlin (Strong), travel to Kentucky to form an alliance with an equally secretive spy organisation in the United States known as Statesman.  The operate out of a distillery in Kentucky and it’s therefore no surprise to learn the code names for their agents include Tequila (Tatum), Ginger Ale (Berry) and Whiskey.  What follows is a humorous, albeit standard, battle of good versus evil.

Kingsman: The Golden Circle doesn’t quite have the charm and freshness as its 2014 predecessor but it’s still entertaining.  Taron Egerton continues to be a likeable, common hero.  His character comes across as suave and gentlemanly… until he opens his mouth.  Mark Strong is also very good but it’s Oscar-winner Julianne Moore (Still Alice) who steals the show as the villainous, over-the-top Poppy Adams.  We don’t often see her as a goofy, comedic character but she makes the most of the opportunity here.

Not everyone gets as big, juicy role.  Jeff Bridges and Channing Tatum are not afforded much screen time.  It’s also surprising to see the acclaimed Emily Watson reduced to what is not much more than a cameo.  Director Matthew Vaughn (Kick Ass) continues his use of fast-paced action sequences.  He wins points for creativity but the repetitive nature of these scenes and the over reliance on special effects makes them a touch tiring.

Clocking in at a lengthy 141 minutes, I think we’ll be hearing more from the Kingsman.