Review: Christopher Robin

Directed by: Marc Foster
Written by: Alex Ross Perry, Tom McCarthy, Allison Schroeder, Greg Brooker, Mark Steven Johnson
Starring: Ewan McGregor, Hayley Atwell, Jim Cummings, Brad Garrett, Peter Capaldi, Sophie Okonedo
Released: September 13, 2018
Grade: B+

Christopher Robin
Director Marc Foster has made some very good films (Monster’s Ball, Stranger than Fiction World War Z) but it was pressure from his 6-year-old daughter that lured him into different genre.  She was tired to him making movies for “grown-ups” and so when the script landed on his lap for a live-action Winne the Pooh film, he was quick to throw his hat in the ring and pitch his vision to Walt Disney Pictures.

Christopher Robin is based on the famous characters first created by author A.A. Milne in 1926 but this is an original story.  In this books, Christopher Robin was a young boy who was best friends an assortment of characters including Pooh, Tigger and Eeyore.  His narrative wrapped up the final chapter of Milne’s second book when he left the Hundred Acre Wood behind and headed off to boarding school.  The time had come to shred his innocence and learn about the real world.

After a great introduction that reflects on Milne’s writings, Foster’s film then introduces us to the grown up version of Christopher Robin (McGregor) who is living on London in the years following World War II.  He’s happily married with a young daughter but is work-life balance is completely out of kilter.  He recently had to cancel a family holiday to the country because his demanding boss asked that he work all weekend or an urgent report to cut costs from the company.

It’s at this point that Winne the Pooh re-enters his life unexpectedly and the pair go on a trip back to the Hundred Acre Wood to help Pooh find his lost friends.  The analogy here is obvious.  We often lose our sense of fun and adventure when we become adults and with Christopher’s life dominated by work, the time has come to tap back into his childhood and relook at things with a fresh perspective.

It’s heavy-handed in places but the writers could be forgiven given this is a family film targeted at people of all ages.  Children should engage with the cute, fluffy characters and will absorb the obvious messages.  There’s not as much for the adults but they should still get a laugh from the manically depressed Eeyore (voiced by Brad Garrett) who can’t catch a break.

When it comes to the work of the animation team, the level of detail is outstanding.  They’ve even included the stitching lines on these stuffed creatures to make them look and feel like they’ve been pulled from a toy box at home.  Many voices will be recognisable such as Toby Jones as Owl and Peter Capaldi as Rabbit.  Jim Cummings provides the voice of Pooh and you couldn’t ask for anyone more knowledgeable given he’s been voicing the character in Disney cartoons since the late 1980s.

Complete with fresh songs from 90-year-old Richard Sherman (Mary Poppins, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang), Christopher Robin is textbook family entertainment.

Review: The Nun

Directed by: Corin Hardy
Written by: Gary Dauberman, James Wan
Starring: Demián Bichir, Taissa Farmiga, Jonas Bloquet, Charlotte Hope, Ingrid Bisu, Bonnie Aarons
Released: September 6, 2018
Grade: C+

The Nun
Standing in line for a movie can but quite tedious but the PR company behind The Nun made that experience more entertaining at the film’s Brisbane premiere.  People dressed up as nuns, with full black face masks, would go up to folks in the queue, stand right next to them, and then stare for an awkwardly long period of time.  It was creepy but also kind of cool.

I wish I felt a similar vibe on leaving the theatre but alas, The Nun is light on story and scares.  It’s the 5th film in the fast growing Conjuring Universe which began in 2013 with The Conjuring and has continued with a sequel and two Annabelle movies.  Those that saw The Conjuring 2 (released in 2016) will already be familiar with the demonic character which is centre stage in this instalment.

The franchise likes to jump around in terms of timelines and The Nun takes us back to the year 1952 and a secretive convent located in a Romanian forest.  A crossword-loving priest, Father Burke (Bichir), has been instructed by the Vatican to investigate the unusual death of a young nun.  He is accompanied by Sister Irene (Farmiga), a young woman who has mysterious visions that will be of relevance.

If you’ve seen the earlier movies, you should have an idea what to expect here.  There’s some nasty stuff going on inside the convent but to help prolong the narrative, the surviving nuns are cryptic in providing information and clues.  The bottom line is that there is a demonic presence which takes the form of a nun and is intent on destruction.

We’ve seen some creative horror-thrillers this year (A Quiet Place, Hereditary) but The Nun lacks originality and relies too heavily on clichés and formulas.  There are scenes where you catch a glimpse of something ghoulish before it runs away.  There are creepy shadows that loom out of nowhere and are designed to scare.  There’s a blaring film score mixed with moments of silence and loud screams.

With just two major characters, neither who are particularly interesting, the film struggles to build a compelling narrative.  We’re just going through the motions watching them stumble around the convent and making dumb decisions.  Taissa Farmiga steps into the shoes of Sister Irene – a curious touch given her older sister, Vera Farmiga, played an integral character in the two Conjuring movies.  She gets the best of the material with Demián Bichir looking bored as Father Burke.

We’ll be seeing more from the franchise given its continued success at the box-office but in my opinion, it has run out of puff.

Review: The Happytime Murders

Directed by: Brian Henson
Written by: Todd Berger, Dee Austin Robertson
Starring: Melissa McCarthy, Bill Marretta, Maya Rudolph, Joel McHale, Elizabeth Banks, Leslie David Baker
Released: August 23, 2018
Grade: C+

The Happytime Murders
Director Brian Henson, the son of Muppets creator Jim Henson, has made some wholesome family movies across his lengthy career.  He made The Muppet Christmas Carol and Muppet Treasure Island in the 1990s and has been involved as an executive producer in numerous other films and television shows involving puppets and/or animation.

If you’ve seen the trailer, you’ll realise this is a very different puppet movie.  Seth Rogen created a raunchy, MA-rated animated feature in 2016 with Sausage Party and now Henson is pitching to the same audience with The Happytime Murders.  It’s hard to envisage a movie with cute, loveable puppets that, according to Australian Classification, contains “strong crude sexual humour and coarse language.”  Suffice to say it’s not for kids.

If we exclude the lawyer’s fees, the film received some free publicity back in May when it released its tagline of “No sesame. All street”.  Those with the rights to Sesame Street sued the film’s creators because they were worried about public perception and their valuable brand.  The district judge ruled against them saying they had not demonstrated that moviegoers were confused or people were complaining.  Hence, the appropriate tagline remains.

In terms of the narrative, the film is set in current day Los Angeles where puppets and humans live side by side.  Well, it’s not quite that simple.  Puppets are discriminated against on a daily basis in that they are harassed on the street and denied job opportunities.  There’s a blue muppet by the name of Phil Philips (Barretta) who became the first to serve in the police force but was discharged after a case went bad.  He now works as a private detective in a dingy office alongside his loyal secretary (Rudolph).

Phil now has a chance to redeem himself however.  A group of puppets are murdered in brutal fashion and there’s a clear connection given all of them starred in a successful TV show which is about to go into syndication.  Phil is brought back into the police force as a “consultant” to assist his former partner, Detective Connie Edwards (McCarthy), to work out who is behind this awful crime.

This is the kind of movie where the best material feels like it’s been used in the trailer.  There are laughs to be had if you like rude, crude, mindless comedy.  There’s a scene where two puppets have passionate sex and things get out of hand.  There’s another where Phil goes into an adult store and sees two other puppets making a creative porno.  It’s trying to push the envelope and it’s designed to shock.

It’s fun for a while but once the novelty wears off, you realise The Happytime Murders has a thin, limited storyline.  In creating a 90 minute feature film, we need more than to watch puppets smoke, swear and talk smuttily.  There should have been more to the mystery or perhaps a few more characters to be invested in.  That’s the difference between this and Sausage Party – a superior, more complex film because of its wit and religious undertones.

My hopes were high for The Happytime Murders but this may struggle to find an audience.


Review: The Flip Side

Directed by: Marion Pilowsky
Written by: Marion Pilowsky, Lee Sellars
Starring: Eddie Izzard, Emily Taheny, Vanessa Guide, Luke McKenzie, Hugh Sheridan, Tina Bursill
Released: August 30, 2018
Grade: C+

The Flip Side
Ronnie (Taheny) isn’t having a good run.  She runs a small café in Adelaide but the customers are few and the bills are many.  She’s even reached the point where she’s lying to her bank manager to get extended credit.  Also causing stress is the fact that her elderly mother, who suffers from dementia, is about to get kicked out of her nursing home because Ronnie can’t afford the weekly rent.

You’d think that Ronnie would be offered financial and emotional support by her long-time boyfriend, Jeff (McKenzie), but she’s compounded her troubles by telling him nothing.  He’s bringing in no income because he quit his job as a school teacher to become a writer.  His latest idea is to write a short story about a spider who falls in love with a girl but he seems to spend more time on the couch than at his desk.

All of those troubles are pushed to the side when Ronnie receives an unexpected visit from Henry (Izzard), a successful British film star with whom she had an affair 5 years ago while he was shooting a movie in Australia.  Ronnie had high hopes for their future but when the movie wrapped, Henry went back to London and was never heard from again.  She was crushed and heartbroken.

What follows is a tumultuous love quadrangle.  Henry is visiting Australia as part of a film publicity tour with his French girlfriend, Sophie (Guide), but it’s clear he still has feelings to Ronnie and is seeking forgiveness for his past errors.  This leaves Ronnie weighing up her relationship with Jeff who isn’t squeaky clean himself given his eyes are wandering towards Sophie.  It’s going to get messy.

It’s apparent that writers Marion Pilowsky and Lee Sellars are trying to give the romantic comedy genre a shake-up.  The fact there are 4 players in this ensemble (as opposed to 3) provides a slight twist.  It’s also likely to keep you guessing.  Given rom-coms are so predictable and formulaic, I was surprised to find myself in a position where I had no idea as to the fate of these characters at the half way mark.

The problem here is with the execution.  The dialogue is contrived, stuffy, over-written and resembles something from an outdated 80s sitcom.  The small talk is particularly bad as they the quartet sit around the dinner table and talk about their respective lives.  The subplot involving the mother (Bursill) and the “villainous” boss (Sheridan) at the nursing home doesn’t have much relevance.  The same could be said of Tiriel Mora’s quick cameo as a mechanic.

The Flip Side has good intentions but it struggles to make an impact.


Review: Book Club

Directed by: Bill Holderman
Written by: Bill Holderman, Erin Simms
Starring: Diane Keaton, Jane Fonda, Candice Bergen, Mary Steenburgen, Craig T. Nelson, Andy Garcia, Don Johnson
Released: August 23, 2018
Grade: B

Book Club
The story may be cheesy and contrived but it’s still great to see four terrific actors working together and creating comedy gold.  Of course I speak of Diane Keaton, Jane Fonda, Candice Bergen and Mary Steenburgen.  They play a group of sixty-something-year-old women who started a book club several decades ago and have kept it going ever since.  They meet once a month and, in addition to critiquing their latest literary assignment, they gossip about the goings-on in each of their busy lives.

I’m not sure what’s brought it on but, as if borrowing from the pages of Sex and the City, all they seem to be taking about lately is finding love and making love.  Diane’s (Keaton) husband passed away recently and she’s not sure if she has the desire to find another man.  Sharon (Bergen) has been divorced for 18 years and in that time, she’s spent 100% of her energy on work and 0% on her love life.  Vivian (Fonda) has an endless line of men at her disposal but she’s never married due to a fear of commitment.  Carol (Steenburgen) is the only one currently married within the quartet but she’s worried about her relationship given her husband (Nelson) shows little desire in the bedroom.

Bill Holderman has dabbled as a screenwriter (A Walk in the Woods) and a producer (The Conspirator), but Book Club marks his debut as a director.  He also co-wrote the script alongside colleague Erin Simms.  The film is at its best when these four accomplished women get together for their alcohol-fuelled meetings and talk about books such as Fifty Shades of Grey.  The funny one-liners are shared around with and it’s hard to pick a favourite given they’re all so good.

The film isn’t as strong when it comes to the supporting characters and subplots.  Diane’s two daughters treat their mother as if she’s an invalid.  They’re always telling her to be careful about what she does and where she should live.  It’s clear that Diane is more than capable of living a fun, rich, independent life but she never speaks up and so the daughters continue with their veiled insults.  It’s a narrow, repetitive storyline that drags unnecessarily for no particular reason other than to create more sympathy for Diane’s character.

The two writers also struggle when it comes to the finale.  It’s clearly a feel good piece where they want you to leave the theatre with a beaming smile on your face but it’s trying a little too hard in places.  Vivian has spent her entire life being a blissfully happy single woman (there’s nothing wrong with that) and so it’s hard to buy into her instant and sudden transformation after meeting a man (Johnson) from her past.

Qualms aside, there’s still a lot of fun to be had here.  I’d happily pay money to see Keaton, Fonda, Bergen and Steenburgen sit on a couch for two hours and discuss their lives in the same vein as the great British actresses in the recent Tea with the Dames documentary.  This isn’t quite as insightful but it’s still entertaining.


Review: Crazy Rich Asians

Directed by: Jon M. Chu
Written by: Peter Chiarelli, Adele Lim
Starring: Constance Wu, Henry Golding, Michelle Yeoh, Gemma Chan, Awkwafina, Ken Jeong
Released: August 30, 2018
Grade: B+

Crazy Rich Asians
It’s a fantasy that has been played out in numerous books and movies.  A person falls in love with someone who they think has a simple, ordinary background.  Lo and behold, they discover they are insanely rich or a part of a royal family.  In the case of Rachel Chu (Wu), her suspicions are aroused when her boyfriend, Nick (Golding), takes her on a trip from Singapore to meet his family and attend a friend’s wedding.

As they arrive at the airport, they are greeted by a personal concierge before being escorted into their first-class suite.  It comes as a surprise to Rachel who had brought Tupperware meals from home for the flight!  It’s at this point when Nick confesses to ruse and reveals that his family is “crazy rich”.  It’s something that he wanted to keep from Rachel during their romantic year together in New York City because he didn’t want it to affect their relationship.

The first half of Crazy Rich Asians is a celebration of decadence and extravagance.  They attend a lavish pre-wedding party where Rachel has the chance to meet corporate heavyweights, movie stars and fashion icons.  Rachel’s effervescent, not-so-wealthy friend (Awkwafina) scores a late invite and spends the whole night walking around with a stunned look on her face.  The bucks and bachelorette parties offer more of the same with no cost being spared.

The knives come out in the second half and tone takes a noticeable shift.  Nick’s influential mother, Eleanor (Yeoh), has been sizing Rachel up from the moment she first walked through the door.  It’s clear that she doesn’t think Rachel is a worthy enough match for her son and so she lays a few traps to help tear them apart.  She’s not the only one with that view.  Given Nick’s reputation as one of the world’s most appealing bachelors, there are other women who are keen to have a crack before he’s officially “off the market”.

Crazy Rich Asians could be described as a formulaic romantic comedy (which it kind of is) but that doesn’t tell the true story of its value in this cinematic landscape.  It’s the first big studio movie to come out of the United States in 25 years with a cast that predominantly Asian and Asian-American.  It’s a huge milestone given they’re a group that make up more than 5% of the American population.  Those behind the idea are now the ones who are “crazy rich”.  The film was shot on a budget of just $30 million and, having topped the box-office charts for two consecutive weeks, it’s on track to make more than $100 million in the United States alone.

It’s easy to see the appeal.  Director Jon M. Chu (Now You See Me 2) has pulled together a terrific cast who breathe much life into their strong characters.  Constance Wu has a fiery, take-no-nonsense charm as Rachel.  Henry Golding has a relaxed, suave disposition as Nick.  Michelle Yeoh brings nuance to the role of the mother and while some may see her as a simple, interfering villain, others will appreciate her complex mindset.

There aren’t too many surprises in terms of story but this is still fun, engaging and entertaining.  I’m thrilled to see it being soaked up by a wide audience.  More please.