Reviews

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: Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie

Directed by: David Soren
Written by: Nicholas Stoller
Starring: Kevin Hart, Ed Helm, Thomas Middleditch, Nick Kroll, Jordan Peele, Kristen Schaal
Released: September 14, 2017
Grade: B-

Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie
Another two weeks of school holidays is upon us and with that, comes a flurry of new animated movies.  Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie has an unusual title but will already be familiar to those who have read the children’s book series.  It was the brainchild of author Dav Pilkey who penned a total of 12 novels between 1997 and 2015.  He was reluctant to give up the movie rights at first but ultimately sold them to DreamWorks Animation after an auction in late 2011.

As a newbie to the material, I’ll admit that the premise is cute and the characters are fun.  George (Hart) and Harold (Middleditch) are two fourth grade students who have been next door neighbours and best friends for many years.  Both have active imaginations and they spend much of their spare time creating comics in their treehouse.  George does the writing and Harold takes care of the illustrations.

These two have a great sense of humour… which is not shared by Principal Krupp (Helms).  The sign on his desk reads “hope dies here” and it epitomises the way in which he runs the school.  His latest way of punishing the kids is to make them come in all day on Saturday for an “Invention Convention.”  It’s why the students refer to at a “penitentiary” school as opposed an elementary school.

George and Harold have taken it upon themselves to bring joy back to the school.  They’re forever orchestrating pranks and whilst Principal Krupp has his strong suspicions as to who’s responsible, he’s yet to catch them in the act.  There are other characters in the mix including a smart, nerdy kid who wants to impress (Peele) and the school lunch lady (Schaal) who is in search of romance.

It’s at this point where things get a little weird.  George and Harold use a special ring to hypnotise Krupp and have him believe that he’s their comic book creation, Captain Underpants.  He strips down to his white jocks and uses a red curtain as a makeshift cape.  Having a fun-loving superhero as principal quickly breathes life back into the school… but it also sets in motion a series of chaotic events headlined by a new villainous school teacher, Professor P (Kroll).

I’d suggest this film is targeted at pre-teens based on the style of jokes.  There’s a scene where a teacher talks about Uranus as being a gassy planet and another moment involving whoopee cushions.  There’s not a lot of adult humour but for those grown-ups who read the books as children, there might be an interest in seeing how it has been translated for the big screen.  You won’t have to waste too much time given it clocks in at a tight 89 minutes.

The voice cast is headlined by Kevin Hart (Ride Along) and Thomas Middleditch (Silicon Valley).  They’re both in their mid-30s but smoothly transform their voices into something befitting a 10-year-old.  Ed Helms (The Hangover) steps into the shoes of Principal Krupp and Nick Kroll (Loving) couldn’t sound more sinister as the crazy Professor P.  They’re a strong, well-chosen group of voices.

My interest waned during the chaotic final act when the narrative is put aside and we’re treated to a ho-hum, over-the-top action fest.  I was hoping for something a little more creative or perhaps something with a stronger emotional core.  That said, I like these characters and I’ll continue to show an interest if sequels are given the green light.

 

Review: Ali's Wedding

Directed by: Jeffrey Walker
Written by: Andrew Knight, Osamah Sami
Starring: Osamah Sami, Don Hany, Helena Sawires, Robert Rabiah, Rodney Afif, Khaled Khalafalla
Released: August 31, 2017
Grade: B+

Ali's Wedding
Most filmgoers aren’t fussed about awards.  They don’t care which foreign language film won the Palm D’or at the Cannes Festival or which American film campaigned strongly to win the most Golden Globe Awards.  All of that said, one prize that may be of interest to Australian audiences is the audience award at the Sydney Film Festival.  This honour isn’t decided by a handful of critics who watch 300 movies a year.  This is assessed by the thousands of people who attend each year as a ticket buying member of the public.

The 2017 award was bestowed upon Ali’s Wedding, an Australian romantic comedy that is being fuelled by great word of mouth.  As crazy as the story sounds, it is based on actual events.  Born in 1983, Osamah Sami had a tough upbringing in war-torn Iran.  His family immigrated to Australia in the mid-1990s and that too came with its challenges.  All of this is chronicled in his memoir, Good Muslim Boy, which won the New South Wales Premier’s Literary Award in 2016.

It’s too hard to encapsulate all of Osamah Sami’s life into a two-hour film and so the focus is placed on a few key events.  Not only did Sami co-write the screenplay, he also stars in the leading role (with the character’s name changed to Ali).  It’s reminiscent of what we saw Kumail Nanjiani do earlier this month with The Big Sick.  Both are playing a slightly alternate version of their real selves on screen.

The film doesn’t delve into Ali’s life in Iran.  It’s spread across a few weeks where his character has just finished high school and is studying to sit the medical school entrance exam at the University of Melbourne.  His father (Hany) is a high-profile, much-loved cleric and that only adds to the pressure on Ali’s shoulders.  Everyone in the tight-knit Muslim community assumes he is destined for great things and will pass comfortably.

Ali knows he hasn’t studied hard enough and that’s confirmed when the results arrive in the mail.  He scored just 65% - well below the required cut-off.  Adding to his sense of failure is the fact that two acquaintances blitzed the exam.  Moe (Khalafalla), the son of his father’s rival, scored 96%.  Dianne (Sawires), a girl he’s had a crush on for some time, scored even better with 98%.

So what does Ali do?  He makes a rash, spur-of-the-moment decision and tells everyone that he too scored 96%.  One lie becomes two… which becomes three.  It’s not long before Ali has gone down a path of deception for which there is no easy road back.  It threatens to destroy his family’s reputation and his chance at winning the heart of the strong-willed Dianne.

It might sound rather heavy but Sami has followed in the footsteps of Australian filmmakers such as P.J. Hogan (Muriel’s Wedding) and Jocelyn Moorhouse (The Dressmaker) in finding humour within this dysfunctional family.  It ties back to the mantra that sometimes all you can do about a bad situation is laugh.  The comedic tone has clearly connected with audiences given the buzz from the Sydney Film Festival.

The film takes a few unnecessary detours that disrupt its flow.  As an example, there’s a short sequence where Ali and his friends travel to the United States for a special event.  It provides an amusing/concerning anecdote but perhaps it belongs in a separate film.  It feels rushed and out of place within the screenplay.

It’s a minor weakness of what is a very entertaining film.  It explores the blend of Middle Eastern and Australian culture within this country but also tells an amusing, family-driven tale that most will appreciate and celebrate, regardless of their background.  Go the Bombers!

 

Review: It

Directed by: Andy Muschietti
Written by: Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga, Gary Dauberman
Starring: Jaeden Lieberher, Bill Skarsgård, Finn Wolfhard, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Sophia Lillis, Wyatt Oleff
Released: September 7, 2017
Grade: C+

It
Author Stephen King is the flavour of the month here in Australia with two adaptations released in cinemas within the space of three weeks.  The Dark Tower struggled at the box-office and didn’t get much love from critics.  Expectations will be higher for It given it’s a novel that has been successfully adapted before.  A two-part series first aired in the United States in November 1990 and I can remember watching it when it found its way into Australian video stories not long after.

The film opens with arguably it’s most shocking scene.  A young boy named Georgie sees his paper boat washed down a drain while playing out on the street during a heavy storm.  When he peers down into the drain, a freaky looking clown is staring straight back at him.  There’s a little bit of small talk but eventually, the clown grabs Georgie’s arm, rips it off, and then pulls him down into the sewer.  A lady looks on from her front porch and sees a mix of blood and rainwater in the middle of the street.

Instead of focusing on the funeral and resulting investigation, the narrative jumps a few months forward to a somewhat happier time.  A group of young kids have finished up school for the year and are planning on a series of adventures over the summer holidays.  It’s a reminiscent of the popular television series Stranger Things given the age of the cast, the supernatural themes and the 1980s setting.  The fact actor Finn Wolfhard appears in both It and Stranger Things only adds to the sense of familiarity.

King’s novel is 1,138 pages in length and while this film excludes a major part of the story (for reasons that you’ll learn at the end), it’s a struggle to develop these characters in the level of detail required.  It’d be better suited for a multi-part television series.

There are seven kids in total that form the “Losers Club” and the screenwriting team struggles in working out how much time to devote to each.  There’s a strong inference that one of them has been sexually abused we rush through these scenes so as to keep the focus on the scary clown.  The weakest characters are a group of one-dimensional bullies who are jerks for no reason in particular.

With the parents and authorities pushed deep into the background (except for a handful of scenes), it falls upon the heroic children to confront the clown, who goes by the name of Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård) and find out what happened to Georgie.  It’s clear from the outset that something is unusual about the town.  The number of people who disappear is 6 times greater than the national average and there’s a 7pm curfew which is enforced each night. 

The performances delivered by the young actors aren’t particularly convincing.  The dialogue doesn’t flow and their emotions are overcooked.  The screenplay tries to create tension between some of them but these arguments are trivial and end up being resolved far too easily (tying back to my qualms about a rushed premise).

As Pennywise the clown, Bill Skarsgård (Atomic Blonde) is creepy but he’s a few notches below Tim Curry’s sensational performance in the 1990 mini-series.  Curry freaked audiences out with his voice and facial expressions.  Skarsgård has less to say with director Andy Muschietti (Mama) relying more on make-up and visual effects.  It’s not as effective.

I’ll have no trouble sleeping tonight… and that’s actually a shame.

 

Review: Girls Trip

Directed by: Malcolm D. Lee
Written by: Kenya Barris, Tracy Oliver, Erica Rivinoja
Starring: Regina Hall, Queen Latifah, Jada Pinkett Smith, Tiffany Haddish, Larenz Tate, Mike Colter
Released: August 31, 2017
Grade: B+

Girls Trip
We’re two-thirds of the way through 2017 and if you look at the box-office figures from the United States, the two highest grossing films have been Beauty and the Beast ($504m) and Wonder Woman ($405m).  What’s interesting is that both films have women in the leading role.  It reminds me of Cate Blanchett’s famous line at the Oscars when she spoke about female-driven films – “Audiences want to see them and, in fact, they earn money. The world is round, people!”  She’s dead right.

Another film to make an impact in the U.S. this year has been Girls Trip.  If you exclude light-hearted action films, it is the highest grossing live action comedy of the year with a take of over $106m.  In a similar vein to the Oscar nominated Hidden Figures, it demonstrates that there is a huge appetite for movies about African American women.  I suspect we’re going to see a lot more of them (rightly so) in future years.

As for the premise, four middle aged ladies get together for a fun, boozy weekend at a music festival in New Orleans.  They’ve all been great friends since high school but given they now have such busy, disparate lives, it’s become harder and harder to catch up.  This is the first time they’ve all got together in 5 years.

Ryan (Hall) is a successful author who has gained notoriety and financial success through her self-help book “You Can Have It All”.  She’s hoping to close a business deal in New Orleans that will culminate with her own television show.  Sasha (Latifah) is at the other end of the financial spectrum.  Despite starting out as a legitimate journalist, she now runs a tacky gossip website and is struggling to pay the bills.

Lisa (Smith) is a single mum who is in desperate need of a holiday.  She works long hours as a nurse and spends the rest of her life caring for her child and stressing over insignificant things.  The last member in the quartet is the most outrageous.  Dina (Haddish) never left her college days behind and is still a party machine.  Her goals for the trip are to drink copious amounts of alcohol and get laid as many times as possible.

The broader screenplay is formulaic.  You can foresee certain events well before they happen.  That isn’t to say you can’t have fun watching this.  Girls Trip is a raunchy, hilarious comedy with some great individual scenes.  There’s a moment where Jada Pinkett Smith finds a unique way to go to the bathroom.  There’s another where Tiffany Haddish finds an unorthodox use for a giant grapefruit.  It’s best to avoid the trailers as they do give too much away.

It’s the strength of the characters that provides the film with its biggest asset.  These are four very different women but they all have great personalities and they all have a chance to shine throughout the film.  Their conversations are filthy but that was part of the attraction for director Malcolm D. Lee (The Best Man, Soul Men).  He sees these joyful characters as more representative of the African American community than what is often depicted on screen and television.

We saw a similar collective of party-loving women in the Scarlett Johansson-led Rough Night a few months ago.  That film had its moments but Girls Trip takes it up a few notches.  It provides more laughs, more surprises and more entertainment.

 

Review: Tommy's Honour

Directed by: Jason Connery
Written by: Pamela Marin, Kevin Cook
Starring: Peter Mullan, Jack Lowden, Ophelia Lovibond, Sam Neill, Peter Ferdinando, Max Deacon
Released: September 7, 2017
Grade: B

Tommy's Honour
They’re two passions of mine but it’s not often that golf is depicted through the medium of cinema.  Caddyshack, Tin Cup and Happy Gilmore are part of very small collective of successful golf movies.  Tommy’s Honour is the latest entrant in that group and tells the story of Young Tom Morris (Lowden), a Scottish lad who won four Open Championships in the 19th century and helped shape the game of golf as we know it today.

As a broad genre, sporting movies are always a challenge for the screenwriter.  If you go with a work of fiction, there’s a high risk that audiences won’t consider it credible.  If you go with an event that actually happened, how can you possibly create a level of intensity that matches the original?  I was at Torrey Pines for the 2008 U.S. Open when Tiger Woods holed a 12 foot putt on the 18th green to force a play-off.  As amazing as it was, there’s no point making it into a movie.  You’re better off watching a replay on YouTube where you can see the real Tiger and listen to the real commentators.

Tommy’s Honour has a slight advantage in that regard because we’re travelling back to the 1860s and delving into a period of golf history that isn’t well known or well documented.  Only a small number of photos exist of Young Tom Morris and there’s certainly no video footage.  Kevin Cook, a former senior editor at Sports Illustrated magazine, published an award winning book on Morris’ exploits in 2007.  It’s that work which has been adapted for the screen by Cook and his wife, Pamela Marin.

You could argue that Cook and Marin make a good screenwriting duo.  He is a golf tragic who spent countless hours researching the subject matter.  He delved through the archives in Scottish libraries and interviewed historians who had passed information down from generation to generation.  Marin is less passionate about the game and so tackled the story from a different angle.  Rather than focus on Morris’ achievements on the course, she was keen to understand his relationship with his father, his family and his wife (Lovibond).

The film wants to reach as broad an audience as possible but it’s evident that golfers will take the most away from this.  Young Tom Morris was an excitable character that helped promote the game across Scotland.  He’d won his fourth Open Championship by the age of 21 and was arguably the first individual to be financially successful from the game of golf.  He and his counterparts were paid significant sums of money to participate in exhibition matches across the country.

An interesting point of note about the film is that it’s directed by Jason Connery, the son of Oscar winner Sean Connery.  Jason grew up playing golf with his father and hence the interest in the subject matter.  To transport us back into the 19th Century, he’s found some great locations across picturesque Scotland and has fun showing us “old school” golf clubs and attire.  The special effects are a little too obvious in places (such as the flight of the golf ball) but this can be excused given the film’s tight budget.

Tommy’s Honour is another worthy credit on the resume of rising British star Jack Lowden (Dunkirk).  He’s created a likeable, charismatic character who wants to change the world whilst staying true to his values.  Lowden admits to being a terrible golfer but spent many hours with a coach to look as convincing as possible on screen.  Peter Mullan (Trainspotting, War Horse) is equally good as Morris’ more “traditional” father and it’s also nice to see a cameo from Sam Neill (Jurassic Park) who plays the stuffy Captain of the St Andrews Links.

The dialogue is a bit stiff in places but Tommy’s Honour is must see viewing for fans of golf, Scotland, or both.