Review: Detroit

Directed by: Kathryn Bigelow
Written by: Mark Boal
Starring: John Boyega, Will Poulter, Algee Smith, Jason Mitchell, John Krasinski, Anthony Mackie
Released: November 9, 2017
Grade: A-

On 23 July 1967, a large group of police officers raided a late-night, unlicensed bar in an African American neighbourhood in Detroit.  The intention, rightly or wrongly, was to arrest a few patrons and escort them back to the police station without inflaming racial tensions.  That plan was a spectacular failure.  It sparked a 5-day riot through the streets of Detroit that culminated with 43 dead, 1,189 injured and more than 2,000 buildings destroyed.

There are a myriad of stories that could be told from those 5 days but Oscar winning writer Mark Boal (The Hurt Locker) focuses on the one that’s been given the most attention in the riot’s aftermath.  Two nights after it all began, police responded to the sound of gunfire at the Algiers Motel.  What followed was a forceful interrogation of the hotel’s residents as the officers tried to locate the gun and identify who used it.

It’s this powerful second act that resonates most strongly.  Will Poulter (The Maze Runner) is outstanding as the racist police officer who flouts the rule book in pursuing his own cause.  When one of the hotel’s African American guests tries to escape the mayhem, he shoots him in the back from point blank range and then makes up a story about acting in self-defence.  As sickening as it is, Poulter’s character tries to justify his actions to his fellow officers.  He foolishly believes that killing African Americans to “send them a message” will somehow squash their spirit.

Director Kathryn Bigelow has continued on from her great work in The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty and created an intense drama that feels documentary-like in nature.  The hand held camera zooms in on the faces of the distressed hotel guests and we see the emotions build up as the night drags on.  There’s clearly indecision about what they should say to the police officers.  It’s as if the truth is irrelevant.  It’s a game of psychological warfare to see which side will yield first.

Those staying at the Algiers Motel include two members of a soul music group, a Vietnam War veteran, and two teenage girls who are visited from Ohio.  Caught in the middle is an African American security guard played by John Boyega (Star Wars: The Force Awakens).  He’s the film’s most interesting character in that he displays almost zero emotion.  He knows that the racist police officers have crossed the line but he’s afraid to speak up – perhaps because he lacks courage or perhaps because he doesn’t want to jeopardise his own employment.

There’s a lot to think about in Detroit and as evidenced from their previous collaborations, Bigelow and Boal don’t want audiences to feel “warm and fuzzy” as the credits start to roll.  It’s easy to look back at the Algiers Motel incident and point the figure at a few rogue cops but is it that simple?  How far have we advanced as a society over the past 50 years?  Those involved in the newly created activist movement, Black Lives Matter, would passionately argue the problems from 1967 still exist in 2017.


Review: Bad Moms 2

Directed by: Scott Moore, Jon Lucas
Written by: Scott Moore, Jon Lucas
Starring: Mila Kunis, Kristen Bell, Kathryn Hahn, Cheryl Hines, Christine Baranski, Susan Sarandon
Released: November 2, 2017
Grade: B-

Bad Moms 2
Each year, I survey a bunch of film critics based in Brisbane to put together a collective list of the year’s best.  A question I ask of them all is “which film were you most surprised to enjoy?”  Responses I received in 2016 included Nerve, The Shallows, The Nice Guys and Deepwater Horizon.  My answer was Bad Moms given the impressive comedic chemistry generated by stars Mila Kunis, Kristen Bell, Kathryn Hahn.

As the original was a huge hit at the box-office, no time has been spared in getting this sequel off the ground and into cinemas.  Very little has changed in terms of the production.  We’ve got the same three leading ladies, the same writers, the same directors and same producers.  The question is whether it can create the same level of laughter.

The premise of the earlier film revolved around three mothers who delegated responsibility to others so as to free up more time for themselves.  The same can be said of this next instalment but its focus is slightly narrower – Christmas.  Amy (Kunis) opens with a monologue describing just how stressful Christmas can be.  So much preparation goes into the event and there’s extra pressure on mums to ensure everything goes perfectly.

The film is titled A Bad Moms Christmas in the United States but goes by the simpler name of Bad Moms 2 here in Australia.  Perhaps a more appropriate title is “Crazy Grandmothers”.  Amy, Kiki (Bell) and Carla (Hahn) are all visited by their own strange mums in the five days leading up to this year’s Christmas. 

Amy’s mum is played by Christine Baranski (Mamma Mia!) – a heinous, pretentious woman who never says a nice word about anyone.  She mocks Amy for her mothering skills, her weight and her cooking.  Kiki’s mum is played by Cheryl Hines (Curb Your Enthusiasm) – a borderline psychotic who wants to spend every minute of every day with her married daughter.  There’s even a moment where she snoops on Kiki and her husband as they get intimate in the bedroom.  Carla’s mum is played by Susan Sarandon (Dead Man Walking) – a chain-smoking alcoholic gambler who slips in and out of her daughter’s life.  She’s only arrived in town because she’s desperate for money.

With things starting to get out of control, Amy, Kiki and Carla share a “few” drinks in a shopping centre food court and make a pact to “take Christmas back”.  It’s time to stop being a perfectionist and time to stop with the lavish, over-the-top festivities.  They’re going to put their foot down, stand up to their mothers, and do Christmas in their own unique way.

As someone who has seen their own mum stress over the intricacies of Christmas planning, I can appreciate the scenario.  However, it’s a limited storyline that doesn’t provide as much room for humour.  Christina Applegate was the butt of many jokes in the first movie as the villainous head of the PTA but with the exception of a small cameo, she’s absent here.  The heavy lifting therefore falls upon Baranski, Hines and Sarandon but their characters are too over-the-top.  It’s hard to believe that anyone would take their side on any issue (particularly the kids).

It’s not all bad news through.  There are a handful of great scenes that provide laughs.  Most of them revolve around Kathryn Hahn, her work at a beauty salon, and her interaction with a male stripper from out of town.  It adds up to an MA rating in Australia for its “strong crude sexual humour” but it doesn’t push the envelope as strongly as in Girls Trip – a better female-centric comedy released two months ago.


Review: Suburbicon

Directed by: George Clooney
Written by: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen, George Clooney, Grant Heslov
Starring: Matt Damon, Julianne Moore, Oscar Isaac, Noah Jupe, Glenn Fleshler, Megan Ferguson
Released: October 26, 2017
Grade: C+

The first few minutes of this film had me thinking it was a remake of the brilliant 1998 comedy, Pleasantville.  It takes us to the 1950s and an idyllic community where everything is perfect – at least when looking through the eyes of the residents.  The houses are beautifully presented, the kids play in the street, and the adults smile and politely chat to all who walk past.  It’s not a world with which I am familiar.

It’s not long before we realise there’s a much darker undercurrent within the neighbourhood.  An African American family moves into one of the homes and this infuriates the all-white townsfolk who voice their disapproval at the Suburbicon Betterment Committee.  They may as well just call themselves the Kl Klux Klan given their actions and ridiculous mindset.  They will stop at nothing to have all black people kicked out of the suburb.

As all that goes on, a second story is told.  It’s given more weight and more air time.  Gardner Lodge (Damon) is a prominent businessman trying to grapple with the loss of his wife (Moore).  Her death was no accident.  She was given a lethal dose of drugs by two burglars who broke into their home.  Gardner, his son (Jupe), and his sister-in-law (also Moore) were also subdued as part of the robbery but lived to tell the tale.

Suburbicon began as a screenplay from the highly acclaimed Joel and Ethan Coen (Fargo, No Country for Old Men).  They didn’t get the chance to bring it to the screen (perhaps because they were working on better projects) and so it was picked up and modified by George Clooney and his writing-producing partner, Grant Heslov.  These two have combined previously to make films such as Leatherheads, The Ides of March and the Oscar-nominated Good Night, and Good Luck.

In describing this movie, it’s hard to come up with a better adjective than “disappointing”.  You’d expect better given the calibre of the cast and crew.  The fault lies with the screenplay as it struggles to blend these two distinctive stories.  The part involving the African American family is laughably inadequate.  I can’t even recall a scene where the husband and wife share a conversation.  It’s mostly footage of protestors yelling, screaming and banging. 

The Matt Damon-led narrative appears to be the piece that originated from the Coen brothers’ first draft screenplay.  It wants to be a gritty, complex dark comedy but aside from a handful of unexpected twists, it’s not particularly funny or engaging.  A rare highlight arrives when Oscar Isaac, playing an insurance investigator, sits down for coffee and a chat with Julianne Moore’s character.  Aside from that, most of the dialogue is ho-hum. 

George Clooney has something to say in Suburbicon… I’m just not exactly sure what that is.


Review: Three Summers

Directed by: Ben Elton
Written by: Ben Elton
Starring: Robert Sheehan, Rebecca Breeds, John Waters, Deborah Mailman, Kelton Pell, Jacqueline McKenzie, Magda Szubanski, Michael Caton
Released: November 2, 2017
Grade: B

Three Summers
When it comes to the creative arts, few could brag about having a career more diverse than Ben Elton.  His career began in the early 1980s when he performed as a stand-up comedian.  He’s was a writer on British television shows including Blackadder, The Young Ones and The Thin Blue Line.  He’s published 15 novels including Popcorn, Dead Famous and High Society.  He’s created the book for successful musicals such as We Will Rock You and Love Never Dies.

All of that said, the artistic medium he’s least been involved with is film.  His only directing credit to date has been Maybe Baby – a romantic comedy starring Hugh Laurie and Joely Richardson that was released back in 2000.  He was born and raised in London but we can now claim Elton as an Aussie.  He married an Australian musician in 1994 and currently lives in Fremantle along with his wife and three kids.

Delving back into the world of cinema, Elton has drawn on his two decades in Australia to create Three Summers.  Inspired by his own experiences, it’s a fictitious tale based around an annual folk music festival that takes place in a rural part of Western Australia.  It’s aptly named “the Westival” and it attracts visitors from across the country as well as overseas.

As hinted at in the film’s title, the narrative is spread across three consecutive Westivals with the same characters interacting year-on-year.  There’s an arrogant Theremin player in search of romance (Sheehan), a talented violinist unsure of her career path (Breeds), an alcoholic who leads a folk music group (Waters), and a loveable announcer who helps organise the festival (Szubanski).  That’s just the start.  There’s also an indigenous dance group, an AA counsellor, a group of refugees, an adopted boy, a strict security guard, some rowdy teenagers, and a few married couples.

There are too many characters but Elton done a worthy job in weaving the storylines together and creating an entertaining comedy.  Everyone will have their favourites but there were three standouts for me.  Robert Sheehan (Misfits) is both annoying and endearing as the foreigner who is too smart for his own good.  Magda Szubanski (Babe) gets the best of the one-liners as she tries to promote the festival and its eccentric performers.  Kate Box (Rake) somehow keeps a straight face as the intense, non-nonsense security who looks like she’s never smiled in her life.

It’s not all about the laughs and recurring jokes.  There a strong political overtones and it’s clear that Elton wants to leave audiences with something to think about.  In particular, he tries to put a more “human face” on refugees whilst also touching upon the plight of Indigenous Australians and their journey for recognition.  These stories don’t quite get the attention they deserve but they still leave a mark.

The finale feels rushed given the need to squash large amounts of character transformation into the last of the three summers.  Still, the likeable cast more than compensate and leave us with one the better feel-good releases of the year.


Review: The Snowman

Directed by: Tomas Alfredson
Written by: Hossein Amini, Peter Straughan, Søren Sveistrup
Starring: Michael Fassbender, Rebecca Ferguson, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Val Kilmer, J.K. Simmons, Toby Jones
Released: October 19, 2017
Grade: C

The Snowman
As a general rule, I try to read as little as possible about a movie before seeing it.  That said, I couldn’t help but read an article today about The Snowman that was doing the rounds on social media.  After getting poor reviews and a lukewarm box-office opening in the United Kingdom, Swedish director Tomas Alfredson made a startling revelation.  He admitted that the film isn’t as good as he’d hoped because about 10-15% of the material was never filmed.  They ran out of time and didn’t realise the problems it would cause until they hit the editing room.

I’m in two minds about this statement.  On one hand, I think it’s refreshing that a director would come out and admit that the finished product isn’t what they envisioned and that mistakes were made.  On the other hand, it’s not a particularly good look when the production companies are trying to recoup their costs – believed to be about $35 million USD in this case.  Perhaps he should have waited a few more weeks before opening up.

Based on the 2007 novel by author Jo Nesbø, The Snowman is a thriller that builds early intrigue but loses momentum during the middle stages.  Harry Hole (Fassbender) was once a top-notch police detective in Oslo but now he’s a laughing stock.  We never really learn why his career went off the rails but we can see the aftereffects – he’s separated from his long-term partner (Gainsbourg), he’s struggling to sleep at night, and he’s drinking a lot of vodka.

Pleading with his boss for a juicy case to work on, Harry is partnered with a new recruit, Katrine (Ferguson), and asked to investigate the disappearance of a young mother.  It’s clearly something he’s not interested in.  He has a quick look around the house, talks to the daughter, and concludes that the woman ran off with another man. 

It’s not long before Harry realises there’s more to this mystery.  Other women go missing and he gets a mysterious letter in the mail.  There’s a serial killer at work and their “calling card” is a snowman constructed in the front yard of his victims.  I’m not sure how there are no witnesses given some of the murders happen in populated areas but it’s best not to think too deeply.  You’ll only find more holes.

Even without reading the aforementioned article, it’s evident that there are problems with the screenplay.  Out of nowhere, the film introduces a series of quick flashbacks that feature characters that haven’t been introduced.  Their relevance has been deliberately concealed to keep us guessing but when all is revealed in the final half-hour, it’s not as exciting as one might hope.  Other subplots add zero value.  An example is the plight of high-profile politician (Simmons) who is trying to secure a major sporting event for the city of Oslo.

There’s a similar lack of character development when it comes to the main players in the current day setting.  Audiences will struggle with Harry.  One minute he’s a strong-willed guy trying to track down a killer.  The next minute we see him lying on the floor doing nothing.  One minute he’s a family fan trying to bond with the son of his ex-partner.  The next he doesn’t seem to care about anyone or anything.  I never knew what he was thinking.

All the ingredients were there to make this a great thriller.  Alfredson has made some terrific films in the past such as Let the Right One In and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.  The crew included Oscar-winning editor Thelma Schoonmaker (The Departed) and Brisbane-born cinematographer Dion Beebe (Memoirs of a Geisha).  Martin Scorsese offered counsel as an executive producer and the quality cast speaks for itself.

Given that Tomas Alfredson has given his own film the “thumbs down”, it’s hard for me to argue otherwise.  


Review: Thor: Ragnarok

Directed by: Taika Waititi
Written by: Craig Kyle, Christopher Yost, Eric Pearson
Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, Cate Blanchett, Idris Elba, Jeff Goldblum, Tessa Thompson, Karl Urban, Mark Ruffalo, Anthony Hopkins
Released: October 26, 2017
Grade: A-

Thor: Ragnarok
Thor: Ragnarok is good.  It’s easily the best in the Thor trilogy – an impressive feat given that sequels often lack the spark and freshness of the original.  To make a further comparison, it’s in a close battle with Wonder Woman and Spider-Man: Homecoming in determining the best superhero movie of 2017.

If you’ve been following social media over the past two weeks, none of this should be a surprise.  The buzz has been almost entirely positive since more than 2,000 people turned up for the Australian premiere at Robina.  There’s been an added layer of excitement here in Queensland given the film was made at Village Roadshow Studios at Movie World.  Additional scenes where shot in the Brisbane CBD last July with the corner of Albert and Margaret Street transformed into New York City.  I was one of thousands who went out for a stickybeak.

There are as many villains as heroes in Thor: Ragnarok.  That’s not a bad thing considering that villains are often the most interesting characters in an action flick.  Hela (Blanchett) is Thor’s sinister older sister who has the ambitious goal of ruling over all planets.  Surtur is a fiery, CGI-generated demon who cannot rest until he obliterates Asgard, Thor’s home planet.  The Grandmaster (Goldblum) is a mischievous elder who enslaves powerful aliens for his own gladiator-style fighting games on the planet of Sakaar.  Let’s not forget the returning Loki (Hiddleston) who shows glimpses of goodness but can’t shake his thirsty for domineering power.

It falls upon Thor (Hemsworth) to save the universe once again but he will need a little help along the way.  A newcomer to the series is Valkyrie (Thompson) – a warrior who once had an important role on Asgard but now operates a “talent scout” for the Grandmaster.  Returning faces include the big green Hulk (Ruffalo) and the wizard-like Heimdall (Elba).

This is a career changing project for New Zealand born director Taika Waititi.  Over the past decade, he’s forged a reputation for making great low-budget films such as Boy, What We Do in the Shadows and Hunt for the Wilderpeople.  The budget is roughly 100 times what he’s accustomed to but Thor: Ragnarok still feels like a Taika Waititi film.  It’s got a warped, darkish sense of humour and some fun, well-timed cameos.  He also finds a way to weave himself into the action by playing the film’s funniest character.

It’s hard to criticise any element of the production.  There are many subplots to cover but the screenplay devotes the right amount of time to each.  A distinctive synthesised film score has been created by Mark Mothersbaugh (The LEGO Movie).  The costume designers and make-up artists deserve praise for their work on Cate Blanchett and Jeff Goldblum.

The bottom line is that Thor: Ragnarok is a really fun movie.  The story is compelling and the one-liners are hilarious.  I can’t wait to see it again.