Reviews

Review: Incredibles 2

Directed by: Brad Bird
Written by: Brad Bird
Starring: Craig T. Nelson, Holly Hunter, Sarah Vowell, Huck Milner, Samuel L. Jackson, Brad Bird, Bob Odenkirk, Catherine Keener, Jonathan Banks
Released: June 14, 2018
Grade: A-

Incredibles 2
I went to an opening night screening of the Incredibles 2 here in Brisbane and on walking into the cinema, my first observation was that adults were abundant and kids were few and far between.  That shouldn’t come as a surprise to those familiar with the original.  The Incredibles was the 4th highest grossing film of 2004, it won two Academy Awards including best animated feature, and was watched again and again on DVD by children around the world.  Those kids have now grown up and will be contributing heavily to the box-office of this much anticipated sequel.

So what made the first movie so good?  Firstly, it was a fun superhero flick that combined fast paced action with family dynamics.  These heroes may have powers that allow them to save the world but they find it just as difficult as a regular person to juggle responsibilities at home.  There were some great arguments between the inflexible father, Mr Incredible (Nelson), and his argumentative teenage daughter, Violet (Vowell).  Secondly, it highlighted that superheroes can rescue as many people as they want but they won’t be universally loved.  Mr Incredible saved a man falling from a high-rise building but was later sued because it turns out the guy wanted to commit suicide!

Incredibles 2 follows closely in the footsteps of its predecessor and explores similar themes.  Mr Incredible and his wife, Elastigirl (Hunter), arrive on the scene to prevent the evil Underminer from robbing the vault of a major bank.  The stop the crime but there’s huge collateral damage with wrecked cars and smashed infrastructure.  On top of that, the Underminer gets away.  It leaves the public asking more questions about whether the pros of superheroes outweigh the cons.

Looking to win the public relations battle, Elastigirl accepts a job with DEVTECH, a leading telecommunications company that supports the superhero cause.  They install state-of-the-art cameras on her latex suit so that all her heroic actions can be filmed and broadcast to the world.  This will be helpful if her actions are ever questioned.  As all of this goes on, Mr Incredible has reluctantly become the caregiver at home.  It’s his job to feed the kids, get them off to school and assist with their homework.  The fact their infant baby is discovering his own superpowers makes life even more stressful and adds to his sleepless nights.

Sequels often feel inferior to the original but that’s not the case here.  Writer-director Brad Bird has returned to create a worthy, interesting story that befits the era we live in.  It’s cool to think that an animated feature about action heroes also has time to make some important observations about father-daughter relationships and a husband feeling weak because his wife is the major breadwinner of the household.  There’s a lot at play here and a lot for audiences to digest, whether they be kids or adults.

Turning to the technical elements, the animation is fantastic and so too is the music score from Pixar stalwart Michael Giacchino (Ratatouille, Up, Star Trek).  It’s a soundtrack that will soon be added to my collection.  The voice cast have all returned from the first movie with Craig T. Nelson going through a draft of emotions as the father and Samuel L. Jackson getting some great one-liners as another of the superheroes, Frozone.  Brad Bird also reprises his role as the aging fashion designer, Edna Mode, in a particularly good scene.

It’s been a 14 year wait for Incredibles 2 and if this film is as popular as I think it will be, we won’t be waiting as long for a follow up.

Review: Tag

Directed by: Jeff Tomsic
Written by: Rob McKittrick, Mark Steilen
Starring: Ed Helms, Jeremy Renner, Jon Hamm, Jake Johnson, Hannibal Buress, Isla Fisher, Rashida Jones, Annabelle Wallis
Released: June 14, 2018
Grade: C+

Tag
Five adult guys playing a game of tag.  That’s the premise behind the latest release from Warner Bros. Pictures.  They played the game as children and they’ve never really grown up.  They even have a detailed rule book which has evolved since the 1980s and contains simple conditions such as “you can’t tag the person who tagged you.”  Another key rule is that the game only takes place in the month of May each year.  Suffice to say you don’t want to be the last person tagged because you’ll have to wait another 11 months to be rid of it.

This isn’t some fun thing these guys do on weekends.  We see their passion illustrated in the opening scene.  Hoagie (Helms) is desperate to tag his mate Bob (Hamm) but can’t get through the tight security at Bob’s high rise office building.  So what does Hoagie do?  He applies for a janitor’s job at the company, gets a staff pass, puts on a disguise, and interrupts Bob while in an important meeting.  It’s a huge amount of effort but Bob is ultimately tagged and the cycle continues.

Does this sound silly, far-fetched and unrealistic?  That was my first reaction to the plot but you may be surprised to know this is based on a true story.  It was all revealed in an article in the Wall Street Journal in 2013 when the new chief marketing officer at a leading fashion retailer told the story to a journalist.  The men are now in their 40s but the game is ongoing and much of what you see in the film was created from events that actually took place.  You’ll even see video footage of the real guys during the closing credits.

I’m not sure how this would have worked as a documentary but it had the potential to be more interesting than this over-dramatised re-enactment.  Screenwriters Rob McKittrick and Mark Steilen have tried to spice things up by introducing a quasi-villain named Jerry (Renner) who, despite having played the game for so long, has never once been tagged.  He’s always been too competitive, too fast and too smart for the others in the game.

The guys learn that Jerry is to be quietly married in the month of May (an odd but convenient date choice given the rules of the game) and so they all head back to their home town in Washington and put together an elaborate plan to tag him for the first time.  They are joined by a journalist (Wallis) who is interested in writing a story about their bizarre game.  The end result is large scale hijinks with everyone trying to outsmart the other and remain tag-free.

I’ll be honest – it’s hard to believe that 4 people and a few others offering support can’t find a way to tag one guy over a 30 year period!  To try to make his character appear credible, we’re given insight into his sharp mind using narration and we also see him use an array of ninja-like escape acts that give him the appearance of a Marvel Comics superhero.  It’s just a bit too weird and over-the-top.

There are other elements to the screenplay that are undercooked.  An example is a love triangle that develops between two of the men and an old childhood sweetheart but her character adds next-to-nothing to the broader narrative.  The same can be said of the journalist who looks like a stunned bystander for most of the movie.  It makes you wonder why the character was included in the first place.

I’d suggest you read the original Wall Street Journal article about these people but if you’re still keen to see the movie, keep your expectations in check.

 

Review: Hereditary

Directed by: Ari Aster
Written by: Ari Aster
Starring: Toni Collette, Gabriel Byrne, Alex Wolff, Milly Shapiro, Ann Dowd
Released: June 7, 2018
Grade: A-

Hereditary
If you’ve seen the trailer or any other advertisements, you’d think Hereditary was a jump-out-your-seat horror film from start to finish.  That’s not the case during the opening hour.  It’s a dark, heavy drama about a family keeping secrets and dealing with grief.  It’s the sort of tale that would generate Oscar talk if released later in the year.

Annie Graham (Collette) is a renowned artist coming to grips the death of her elderly mother.  There’s a sense of loss but also a sense of relief.  Her mother was a private person from a “polluted” life who suffered from dementia in her later years.  The person struggling most with the situation is Annie’s social awkward 13-year-old daughter, Charlie (Shapiro), who was very close with her grandmother and relied upon her friendship.

There are two members of the Graham household who also have a part to play.  The first is Annie’s teenage son, Peter (Wolff), who must confront a tragic situation of his own.  There’s a powerful scene around a dinner table where the tension between he and his mother finally comes to the fore.  The final family member is Steve (Byrne), the quiet husband trying to offer emotional support whilst also being the “voice of reason” when arguments overheat.

Written and directed by first timer Ari Aster, Hereditary doesn’t let the audience off easily.  It’s a film designed to have maximum impact.  The best example is a lengthy sequence involving a car accident which is viewed from the perspective of a single character from start to finish.  Lacking in sound and lacking it music, it’s tough to stomach.  We’re just looking into the eyes of someone, soaking it in and wondering what is to follow.

As anticipated, the film delves into its supernatural elements during the second hour.  Again, it’s hard to say too much without revealing spoilers but Aster deals with them in a fresh, reinvigorated away.  He’s hasn’t relied on old formulas to create cheap scares.  We’ve grown to care about these characters and so we’re fully invested in their fate.  There’s plenty to ponder as the credits start to roll.

It’s not a big cast but the performances are all worthy of the material.  This is the best we’ve seen from Toni Collette (Muriel’s Wedding) since her award-winning run on the United States of Tara.  You can sense Annie’s intelligence but also the struggle to keep her emotions in check as things start to unravel.  He isn’t required to say much but Alex Wolff (Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle) also deserves praise for his intense performance as the scarred Peter.

Blending awkward family conversations with paranormal beings, Hereditary makes a big impression.

 

Review: Ocean's Eight

Directed by: Gary Ross
Written by: Gary Ross, Olivia Milch
Starring: Sandra Bullock, Cate Blanchett, Anne Hathaway, Mindy Kaling, Sarah Paulson, Awkwafina, Rihanna, Helena Bonham Carter, James Corden
Released: June 7, 2018
Grade: B-

Ocean's Eight
Hollywood has a new formula that it’s putting to the test – take a famous movie with an all-male cast and remake it with an all-female cast.  We saw it in 2016 with Ghostbusters and we’re likely to see it again in the next few years with planned reboots of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Lord of the Flies and The Expendables.  In the meantime, we’ve got Ocean’s Eight – a spin-off from the original Ocean’s Eleven released in 1960 and subsequent remake in 2001.  Some will see it as an exciting move forward in terms of female-led movies.  Others will see it as a lazy writing and question why such a great cast weren’t deserving of an original concept.

There is an overlap with the earlier movies as we learn during the opening sequence.  Debbie Ocean (Bullock) is the youngster sister of Danny – the character played by George Clooney who orchestrated a series of heists in the last three movies.  Debbie has just been released after a 5 year stint in prison for fraud and, despite what she tells her parole officers, she’s geared up and ready to commit more crimes.  When asked by a colleague why she’s doing it, her answer is simple – “because I’m good at it.”

There is another reason and it’s an obvious one – money.  Declaring that “banks are boring”, Debbie spent her time in prison crafting an unorthodox crime.  Locked deep underground in a safe at the Cartier store in New York City is a 6 pound diamond necklace valued at roughly $150 million.  It’s so valuable that it hasn’t been released and seen in public in more than 50 years.  With acclaimed actress Daphne Kluger scheduled to wear the neckless to the famous Met Gala, Debbie teams up with a diverse group of female criminals to infiltrate the Gala and pull off the perfect heist.

Her team is headlined by an old friend (Blanchett) and consists of a jewellery maker (Kaling), a computer hacker (Rihanna), an acclaimed fashion designer (Carter), a cunning thief (Awkwafina), and a mother who knows how to get things (Paulson).  All have important skills which will be called upon when the time is right. 

I love a good heist flick and this is a cool concept but Ocean’s Eight struggled to keep me interested.  Character development is kept to a minimum with much of the screen time devoted to watching these women plan and execute the robbery.  That may be satisfying enough for some but it feels inferior to great heist movies including A Fish Called Wanda, The Thomas Crown Affair and The Italian Job.  It’s lacking when it comes to villains and backstabbers and it all feels too easy as we watch events unfold.  It needed a bigger injection of laughs and tension.

That’s not to say you won’t be entertained.  The cast is fantastic with everyone doing their best to stand out and create a memorable character.  It’s hard to pick a favourite which is a testament to their respective talents.  In terms of the supporting players, keep your eye out for a few cameos at the Met Gala with famous celebrities playing themselves.  James Corden also deserves a mention as a humorous insurance investigator with a part to play during the final act.

So where to from here?  Will we see an Ocean’s Nine in a few years’ time?  I’d be up for that if we could add a few more twists to the screenplay.

 

Review: The Bookshop

Directed by: Isabel Coixet
Written by: Isabel Coixet
Starring: Emily Mortimer, Patricia Clarkson, Bill Nighy, Kneafsey, James Lance, Harvey Bennett
Released: May 24, 2018
Grade: C-

The Bookshop
We’ve all found ourselves involved in debates over petty, trivial things.  It’s normally not worth arguing about but you can’t help yourself and are prepared to waste the time.  That’s pretty much my summation of narrative in The Bookshop, the latest film from Spanish director Isabel Coixet (The Secret Life of Words, Elegy).

Set in a British seaside town in the late 1950s, Florence (Mortimer) is a middle-aged woman who has been widowed since World War II and is looking to pour her energy into something new.  She’s loved reading since a young child and so, having learned the trade as a child, she acquires a rundown property (known as the “Old House”) and opens a small bookshop.  Her business strategy is sketchy.  She’s told that virtually no one in the small town reads books and so it’s no surprise that her bank manager, portrayed as a villain, is nervous.

The store appears to be profitable in its early days.  I’m not sure how since Florence and her teenage assistant (Kneafsey) spend more time reorganising and dusting shelves than selling anything.  We do meet one customer however.  Edmund (Nighy) is a hermit who has locked himself away in a hilltop mansion and reads all day long.  He’s too scared to come into the shop and so Florence makes selections for him and has the books personally delivered.

Things go further awry with the introduction of Violet Gamart (Clarkson), a wealthy socialite who is unhappy with Florence’s bookshop and use of the Old House.  She’d rather the property be transformed into an arts and cultural centre.  That in itself makes less sense than the bookshop but it evolves into a pointless battle between the two.  Violet uses all her connections in the town to destroy Florence’s business so that she will be forced to sell the property and give up on her dream.

That’s pretty much it.  This is a two-hour fight over whether a rundown building should be a bookshop or an arts centre.  Adapted from the novel written by Penelope Fitzgerald, Coixet struggles to create anything interesting.  The dialogue between the characters is stiff and unnatural.  The worst of the bunch is James Lance who plays a hopeless, slimy BBC journalist who earns Florence’s trust despite being a jerk for the entire film.  One way he sabotages the business is by putting a “closed” sign in the store window when it’s actually “open”.  That’s the kind of silly stuff we’re talking about here.

Things get even stranger when Violet lobbies for legislation changes in parliament to help get Florence evicted.  Does the arts centre mean that much to her?  Or is just a crazy power grab?  It’s hard to say given we know so little about Violet and her background.  The same can be said for most in this ensemble though.  Violet’s clueless husband pops up in two scenes with nothing to offer.  The journalist’s girlfriend is introduced and then disappears in a matter of minutes.  The strangest character in the mix is the narrator who chimes in at unnecessary times to explain Florence’s obvious mindset and other unnecessary details.

Emily Mortimer, Patricia Clarkson and Bill Nighy are all accomplished actors but their talents are not enough to save this confusing mess.

 

Review: Tea with the Dames

Directed by: Roger Michell
Starring: Eileen Atkins, Judi Dench, Joan Plowright, Maggie Smith
Released: June 7, 2018
Grade: B+

Tea with the Dames
South African born director Roger Michell has made some terrific films including Morning Glory, Changing Lanes and Notting Hill.  That said, he’s never made a more intimate film that this one.  Tea with the Dames is a documentary that brings together four of Great Britain’s greatest living actresses – Joan Plowright, Maggie Smith, Judi Dench and Eileen Atkins.

It was shot over a weekend at the home in Sussex shared by Plowright and her late husband, Laurence Olivier, since the 1960s.  It’s a relaxed “fireside chat” with each reflecting on their long and successful careers and from that, Michell has taken the best conversations to create a tight-knit 84 minute film.  It’s seldom dull.  It’s wonderful to hear these women speak so openly whilst also being treated to archival footage of their early performances dating back to the 1950s.  There’s a funny scene where Dench can’t even recognise herself when shown the material.

Over the course of the movie, they discuss a surprisingly broad range of topics.  They touch on the early part of their careers including how they all first met, how they were introduced to the theatre, how they deal with nerves and how they tackled iconic roles in Shakespeareans plays.  As the film progresses, they touch on their lives today including interaction with their families, negative reviews, and the battles of old age.

They each have a distinctive personality but it’s hard to go past the sarcastic sense of humour held by Dame Maggie Smith.  She’s strong-willed and isn’t afraid to express an opinion – a trait she’s possessed her entire life as evidenced by an old television interview we see.  There’s a funny conversation during the doco where she reflects on performances in the Harry Potter franchise and on Downton Abbey which have made her a household name around the world.

With the greatest of respect to Plowright and Atkins who are little more subdued, it’s Judi Dench who deserves to share MVP honours alongside Smith.  She’s such a great story teller and this is illustrated when sharing her experiences about a young paramedic on set.  She’s also not afraid to tell it as it is – humorously arguing that being knighted by the Queen gives her even more justification to slip an F-bomb into casual conversations.

The film is being released in Australia as Tea with the Dames but I much prefer the British title, Nothing Like a Dame.  It makes it sound more comedic and less formal – which is exactly how the finished product comes across.  It’s getting a short cinema release in select countries across the world before going straight to TV.  It may not sound like “big screen” material but it’s nice to see it in the company of an admiring crowd who, if my preview was anything to go by, should be laughing openly.

These four talented women have won Oscars, BAFTAs, Tonys, Emmys, Golden Globes and SAG Awards.  You don’t have to be familiar with all of their work to appreciate their experience and the words of wisdom they impart on the audience.