Review: Love, Simon

Directed by: Greg Berlanti
Written by: Isaac Aptaker, Elizabeth Berger
Starring: Nick Robinson, Josh Duhamel, Jennifer Garner, Katherine Langford, Alexandra Shipp, Tony Hale
Released: March 29, 2018
Grade: A-

Love, Simon
Queer cinema has often been described as “niche” but in recent years, we’ve seen a growing awareness and a growing interest from mainstream audiences.  Moonlight won the Academy Award for best picture in early 2017 and made roughly $65 million USD at the international box-office.  Call Me by Your Name picked up an Oscar nomination two months ago and made star Timothée Chalamet a household name.  Other films to make an impression have included Carol, God’s Own Country, Pride and Blue is the Warmest Colour.

The next step in the evolution of queer cinema is the release of Love, Simon.  Regardless of what you think of the film, it marks a milestone in that it’s produced by a major Hollywood studio and has had the widest ever release for a movie with a gay teenager as the leading character.  It opened on 2,402 screens in the United States earlier this month and has made $24 million at the box-office in its first 10 days (already recovering its budgeted costs).

As for the story itself, Simon Spier (Robinson) is a high school student from Atlanta, Georgia who gets good grades, has a loving family, and a select group of tight-knit friends.  We learn during the opening scene that Simon harbours a very large secret – he’s gay.  He’s know this for some time but has never had the courage to “come out” and tell anyone.  In explaining his logic, there’s a humorous sequence where he envisages a world where gay is the default and it’s straight people who must come out of the closet.

Simon finally musters up the strength to tell someone… he just doesn’t know who it is!  He responds to an online blog posted by anonymous student, going by the name of “Blue”, who talks about being gay and the problems that come with it.  Simon reaches out via his own secret email account and the two become friends.  That in itself comes with a fresh set of drama.  Looking to experience love for the first time, Simon wants to be closer but he remains unsure about Blue’s true identity and how much to reveal about himself.

There’s a part of me that wants to be highly critical of this movie.  It’s cheesy, unrealistic and formulaic.  Tony Hale (Veep) plays a farcically goofy vice-principal at the school who talks gibberish every time he appears on screen.  The two screenwriters, drawing from the 2015 young adult novel by Becky Albertalli, create drama that often feels phoney.  An example is an odd storyline where Simon is blackmailed by a friend to help add conflict and tension to the broader narrative.  Oh, and don’t get me started on the bizarre Ferris wheel finale.

These weaknesses can be forgiven for two reasons though.  Firstly, when this film works… it works!  It does a skillful job capturing the mindset of a teenager coming to grips with his sexuality.  We see a giddily happy Simon conversing with Blue via email and the relief of finally being able to confide in someone.  On the flipside, we see a nervously apprehensive Simon making the big reveal to both his friends and his family.  There’s a particularly beautiful exchange between Simon and his mother (Garner) which is reminiscent of the conversation between Timothée Chalamet and Michael Stuhlbarg in Call Me by Your Name.

Secondly, as corny as the film is at times, it’s of major cultural significance given big-budget studios have shied away from such material before now.  We’ve seen plenty of gay supporting characters in teen orientated movies coming out of Hollywood but this is a first.  The leading guy, and his sexuality, is such a major part of the storyline.  This is an important movie.  Judging from the laughs and screams (of delight) at the preview screening I attended, I’m not alone with that view.

It doesn’t pack the emotional punch of a grittier, more realistic film such as Moonlight but in offering the light-hearted, feel-good-about-life teen alternative, director Greg Berlanti (Dawson’s Creek) has come up with a winner.


Review: Peter Rabbit

Directed by: Will Gluck
Written by: Will Gluck, Rob Lieber
Starring: Rose Byrne, Domhnall Gleeson, Sam Neill, James Corden, Daisy Ridley, Margot Robbie
Released: March 22, 2018
Grade: B+

Peter Rabbit
British author Beatrix Potter wrote dozens of books throughout her life but it’s her very first novel for which she is best known – The Tale of Peter Rabbit.  It was first published in 1902, has been translated into numerous languages, and has reportedly sold more than 45 million copies.  Now, for the first time, the adventures of this mischievous rabbit have been adapted for the first time as a big screen movie.

We’re told during the opening scenes that our leading character is a “young rabbit with a blue coat and no pants.”  Peter (voiced by James Corden), along with his fellow rabbits, live in the country and source their food from a backyard vegetable garden.  The farmer (Neill) is furious that his crops are continually stolen and eaten but he’s powerless against Peter and his cunning work.

Everything is upended when the farmer passes away and ownership of the home transfers to his young nephew, Jeremy (Gleeson).  Jeremy is a Londoner who is keen to put the house up for sale but before doing so, he’s intent on eliminating all the rabbits and other creatures who devalue the property with their thieving acts.  It’s at this point where the real mayhem begins.

Brought to the screen by writer-director Will Gluck (Easy A), is a mix of animation of live action.  It’s also a distinctively Australian affair with Animal Logic providing the animation, Sydney’s Centennial Park providing most of the setting, and a group of well-known Australian actors contributing to the voices – Margot Robbie, Elizabeth Debicki, Ewen Leslie, Bryan Brown and David Wenham.  Rose Byrne also stars as one of the featured human characters – the kind-hearted, rabbit-loving next door neighbour.

Clocking it a tight 93 minutes, Peter Rabbit is fun and easy to like.  Yes, it’s targeted at children but there’s a surprising amount of humour on offer for the adult crowd.  The animation team have done a stellar job in creating this funny, charming creatures.  Gluck has also selected a bunch of popular current day songs which will be known to most of the audience.

Domhnall Gleeson relishes his cheeky, villainous role but it’s not as one sided as you might think.  A key theme of the film is that we shouldn’t broadly categorise people as “good” or “bad”.  Whether we’re the cute Peter Rabbit or the angry Jeremy Fisher, we all make mistakes and we can all be redeemed.  It’s a nice message for both kids and adults to be reminded of.

After a strong box-office opening in the United States last month, further instalments of Peter Rabbit could soon be in the works.


Review: Tomb Raider

Directed by: Roar Uthaug
Written by: Evan Daugherty, Geneva Robertson-Dworet, Alastair Siddons
Starring: Alicia Vikander, Dominic West, Walton Goggins, Daniel Wu, Kristin Scott Thomas, Derek Jacobi
Released: March 15, 2018
Grade: B-

Tomb Raider
I have this mental image in my head of studio executives in Hollywood spinning a giant wheel to decide which old franchise should be dusted off and rebooted.  It seems that every big action series gets a second chance when the stars align and funds are available.  This time around, the winner is Tomb Raider.  Those old enough will remember the previous movies from 2001 and 2003 that were headlined by Angelina Jolie.  Whilst they were not revered by critics, they did just enough at the box-office to warrant their existence and satisfy fans of the video games.

Directed by Norwegian filmmaker Roar Uthaug (The Wave), this latest movie ticks off the character introductions during the opening act.  Lara Croft (Vikander) is a young woman who should be incredibly wealthy.  Her wealthy dad (West) was lost at sea 7 years ago and Lara was entitled to a substantial inheritance but she refused to sign the necessary paperwork to take control of her father’s assets believing that he would return one day.  The unusual life path Lara chose instead is a mix of boxing, cycling, and food delivery.

That changes when she discovers an underground bunker which contains information about her dad and his extensive research.  He was no ordinary individual.  At the time of his disappearance, he believed he had located the tomb of an ancient queen with supernatural powers.  A not-so-nice organisation, known as Trinity, have long been trying to get their hands on the tomb for villainous reasons which is why it needs to be located the protected by those with friendlier motives.

All of this background information takes Lara to Yamatai, a small island off the coast of Japan which is hidden on most modern day maps.  She learns she’s not alone with seconds of setting foot on the sandy shoreline.  A group of slaves and Trinity henchman, led by a bossy archaeologist (Goggins), are using every means possible to find the tomb’s location.  To use a cliché – she needs to stop them before it’s too late.

Academy Award winner Alicia Vikander (Ex Machina, The Danish Girl) is the best thing in this.  She provides the leading character with the right balance of strength and vulnerability.  Lara is not a superhero who feels no pain and can do no wrong.  She’s “put through the ringer” during most action scenes with the bruises, scars and scratches adding up.  Her ability to dodge bullets whilst running in the opposite direction is a stretch but hey, this is an action movie so I won’t argue too much.

I only wish the other cast members had as much charisma.  As the dodgy archaeologist working for Trinity, Walton Goggins (Django Unchained) is an uninspiring bad guy.  He complains about not having seen his family for many years and, as we don’t get to see who’s pulling his strings, has no obvious motives aside from that.  He’s not too smart either.  It’s apparent that key details have been omitted to set up plots for possible sequels but I only hope they have more interesting villains.

There’s a great sequence where Lara needs to extricate herself from a rusty plane perched precariously above a massive waterfall.  Aside from that, none of the action pieces were particularly memorable.  The writing team have tried to go with an Indiana Jones type finale (complete with tricks and booby traps) but it’s not as exciting as it sounds.  It’s rushed in places with even Lara making odd decisions to prolong the narrative (such as entering the tomb itself).

Taking a very serious tone throughout (don’t expect many laughs), Tomb Raider may be in need of another reboot.


Review: Pacific Rim: Uprising

Directed by: Stephen S. DeKnight
Written by: Emily Carmichael, Kira Snyder, Steven S. DeKnight, T.S. Nowlin
Starring: John Boyega, Scott Eastwood, Cailee Spaeny, Charlie Day, Burn Gorman, Rinko Kikuchi
Released: March 22, 2018
Grade: C+

Pacific Rim: Uprising
In a world where studios are playing it increasingly safe with sequels, reboots and well-established franchises, the 2013 release of Pacific Rim was a big gamble.  It cost roughly $200 million USD, it was a completely original screenplay, and it didn’t have any A-list Hollywood actors amongst its cast.  It didn’t perform particularly well the United States but it recovered its costs thanks to big business in China and other international markets.  Critics were impressed by the creativity and style brought to the movie by writer-director Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth).

The sequel went through several stages of on-again, off-again but in 2016, a script was finalised and a new director brought in.  With del Toro working on other projects, including his Oscar winning The Shape of Water, the reigns were handed over to Steven S. DeKnight, a writer-director best known for works on the smaller screen including Angel, Smallville and SpartacusPacific Rim: Uprising marks his first feature film.

Given that I see more than 200 movies every year and am starting to show signs of old age, it’s helpful to see this film begin with a quick recap of the earlier movie.  Some huge alien monsters, known as the Kaiju, attacked the planet after travelling through a portal at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean.  Unable to be defeated using traditional weapons, countries around the world responded by building giant robots, known as Jaegers, to fight back.  Lives were lost and buildings were destroyed but in the end, the humans triumphed (as you’d expect).

Pacific Rim: Uprising picks up the narrative about 10 years later.  Major cities around the world are still being rebuilt.  Those from poorer backgrounds are forced to take refuge in heavily damaged neighbourhoods because there’s no alternative.  It’s here where we meet two new characters.  Amara (Spaeny) is a young woman who is collecting scrap parts from decommissioned plants to build a Jaeger of her own.  Jake (Boyega) is the son of a high ranking general but instead of following his father’s footsteps, he’s turned to a rebellious life of crime.

Both are arrested and both end up in a Jaeger pilot academy situated in China.  It’s at this point where they meet Nate (Eastwood), a respected, diligent pilot with an impressive pedigree.  With the three leading characters introduced, it’s time to get to the crux of the movie.  The nasty Kaiju return via unusual means, take control of drone-piloted Jaegers, and try to use them against the human population.  There are more deaths, more destruction and more battles to be won.

My thumbs were up following the first movie but my reaction is more subdued this time around.  It’s chaos without tension.  Buildings are blown up and thousands of people run around as the big robot fights take place.  The work of the sound and visual effects teams is to be admired but with so many unnecessary subplots and very little in the way of strong character development, I cared less about how things would transpire. 

The film could have been improved with more comedy and whilst the likeable Charlie Day reprises his role as a kooky scientist, his efforts at winning laughs fall flat.  No one else picks up the slack.  The end result is a movie that’s heavy on loud, in-you-face action and light on everything else.


Review: The Mercy

Directed by: James Marsh
Written by: Scott Z. Burns
Starring: Colin Firth, Rachel Weisz, David Thewlis, Ken Stott, Simon McBurney, Jonathan Bailey
Released: March 8, 2018
Grade: B

The Mercy
When talking about movies adapted from real life stories, I’m often cautious about how much to reveal about the plot.  We all know that the Titanic sunk in 1912, the Nazis were defeated during World War II in 1945 and two planes struck the World Trade Centre in New York in 2001.  Films have been made about these events and given the audience knows how things will pan out, the writer’s focus is more character development and filling in the gaps on smaller, lesser known details.

I’m in a slight pickle when it comes to The Mercy because this true story, which took place in 1968 and 1969, is very interesting.  However, to fully explain why it’s interesting would require me to spoil the ending.  That’s not my intention.  Those old enough might remember the coverage on TV and in newspapers.  Some might be familiar with documentaries and films which have previously analysed the subject.  Others, such as myself, may be introduced to Donald Crowhurst for the first time.

The stage is set fairly quickly.  As of the start of 1968, no person in human history had completed a single-handed, non-stop circumnavigation of the world by boat.  The British Sunday Times newspaper hoped to inspire budding yachtsman by instigating a competition.  Entrants could leave any time between 1 June and 31 October 1968 with the first person to complete the task winning a trophy and the fastest competitor earning at cash prize of £5,000 (a hefty sum for the time).  A total of nine sailors gave it a crack.

One of those was Donald Crowhurst (Firth), a recreational sailor who sold navigation equipment.  Despite never having attempted a journey of such length, he made the curious decision to enter the race.  He mortgaged his house and his business and constructed a boat which he believed could get the job done.  He left behind a wife and two children and set out from the town of Teignmouth, Devon on the last day possible – 31 October 1968.

It’s at this point where you may believe the film is a David and Goliath story where a complete unknown overcomes big odds to emerge the victory.  This is not that kind of story.  Things don’t go so well during the early stages.  Given the rush to complete the boat on time, there are construction issues which quickly become apparent.  Donald’s navigation skills also leave a lot to be desired.  It’s here where he makes an unexpected decision – to cheat.

I’ll leave it at that in terms of narrative.  There are shades of the Robert Redford film All is Lost in that we’re following a single man at sea with nothing but water around him.  As that runs the risk of being a bit boring, writer Scott Burns (The Bourne Ultimatum, Contagion) gives equal weighting to scenes back in the U.K. where we follow Crowhurst’s wife (Weisz) and publicist (Thewlis) along with friends, business partners, and a thirsty media.

There’s an element of repetition in some scenes that shows the struggle to take this material and stretch it into a full length feature.  As an example, we are continually provided with glimpses of journalists who have been asked to write longer and longer articles about Crowhurst and his family.  Aside from Crowhurst himself, the most interesting character is his wife but she isn’t given a lot to do except provide moral support before he leaves and look concerned after he departs.

Where The Mercy succeeds is in the exploration of Crowhurst and his warped mindset.  You’re not quite sure why he’s signed up for such a risky yachting race but we learn more about him and his rationale as the film progresses.  He’s dug himself into a hole but in trying to find a way out, he’s only made the hole deeper.  You can see the nervous, apprehensive look on Colin Firth’s face as he says good bye to his family and sets sail.

Directed by Academy Award winner James Marsh (Man on Wire, The Theory of Everything), this another quality “truth is stranger than fiction” tale.


Review: Mary Magdalene

Directed by: Garth Davis
Written by: Helen Edmundson, Philippa Goslett
Starring: Rooney Mara, Joaquin Phoenix, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Tahar Rahim, Ariane Labed, Ryan Corr
Released: March 22, 2018
Grade: C+

Mary Magdalene
In the most recent Australian census, 30% of the population identified themselves as having no religion.  This compares with a figure of just 13% from thirty years ago.  The major reason for this change has been a decline in those who consider themselves to be Christian.  A number of reasons could be cited when analysing the figures but one thing is clear – Australians are less religious than they’ve ever been.

For those unfamiliar with the story of Mary Magdalene, she is referred to in the New Testament as a person who travelled with Jesus, saw some of his miracles, and witnessed his crucifixion.  Over the past two millennia, Mary had developed the reputation of being a sinning prostitute.  However, such claims have not always been supported and a key goal of this film is to “set the record straight”.  My use of inverted commas is to show that when it comes to events that took place 2,000 years ago, can anyone be certain of anything?

Some may argue that a film like Mary Magdalene is a gamble.  With Christians representing only half of Australia’s population, it’s likely the film will have next-to-no appeal for the remaining half of the population.  Still, Mel Gibson proved in 2004 that religious movies can be successful.  Despite having subtitles throughout, The Passion of Christ grossed $612m USD at the international box-office (on a budget of just $30 million).  It was pushed strongly amongst the evangelical community in the United States.

I don’t believe Mary Magdalene will emulate those figures but with its release date in this country tying into Easter celebrations, I’m sure it will have its loyal supporters.  Australian director Garth Davis (Lion), has done his best to recreate the era by shooting in remote locations of southern Italy.  He’s also lured two Academy Award nominees to headline the cast – Rooney Mara (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) in the title role and a bearded Joaquin Phoenix (Gladiator) slipping into the sandals of Jesus.

From what we see during the opening half hour, one could argue that Mary’s story mirrors that of many in today’s age.  She’s a single woman who is under immense pressure from her family to get married and have children.  It’s at this point where things get little more spiritual.  She meets Jesus, has a quick-fire baptism, says good-bye to her furious family, and agrees to follow him across the lands.

It’s hard to explain Mary’s actions.  She is guided by a higher power that is difficult to put into words.  This is part of the reason why there’s not a lot of dialogue from Mary nor narration to help understand her psyche.  She develops a close bond with Jesus and, given most of his other followers are male, she does appear to have some role in shaping his views.  This is evident during a scene where Jesus visits a group of poor women and is asked who they should obey above all else – God or their husbands?

I’ll freely admit that I’m not a religious person and perhaps this influences my opinion… but I didn’t find Mary Magdalene to be an interesting character.  She’s a softly spoken bystander who wanders around contributing nothing more than her faith.  The supporting characters have more to offer as they are more conflicted with their views on Jesus and the role he will play in toppling the oppressive Roman leadership.  Unfortunately, these subplots play second fiddle to the main narrative.

I have no qualms with the production values and the two leading performances from Mara and Phoenix.  You get a sense of the non-romantic connection that develops between the two.  Unfortunately, I couldn’t be sold on the broader story.