Reviews

Review: Avengers: Infinity War

Directed by: Anthony Russo, Joe Russo
Written by: Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely
Starring: Robert Downey Jr, Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Benedict Cumberbatch, Don Cheadle, Tom Holland, Chadwick Boseman, Paul Bettany, Josh Brolin, Chris Pratt
Released: April 25, 2018
Grade: A-

Avengers: Infinity War
There have been many successful movie franchises throughout history but what Marvel Studios has created over the past decade trumps everything else.  The 18 films released have grossed a combined $14.8 billion USD at the worldwide box-office.  There’s no sign of moviegoer fatigue considering their latest release, Black Panther, has just become the third highest grossing film of all time in the United States (behind Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Avatar).  It feels like Marvel could make a movie which is just a blank screen for two hours and people would still pay to see it.

Despite all that, there are still risks involved with Avengers: Infinity War.  How do you take this many characters, bring them together, and still create a compelling narrative within a 149 minute running time?  I could spend the rest of this review providing background information on each hero and have no room for anything else.  We’ve got Iron Man, Thor, Hulk, Captain America, Black Widow, Dr Strange, War Machine, Spider-Man, Black Panther, Vision, Scarlet Witch, Falcon, Loki, Star-Lord, Gamora, Rocket… and the list goes on.

Don’t ask me how but writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (who were behind the three Captain America movies) have crafted a worthy storyline for this much-hyped film.  Central to everything is the villain, Thanos (Brolin).  He’s on a quest to locate six Infinity Stones that have been spread across the galaxy and once in his control, he will harness a power that cannot be rivalled.  His motives are a bit wishy-washy but his end goal is to annihilate roughly half the universe’s population to put a dramatic halt to its unsustainable growth.

You won’t see all the superheroes sitting together in a meeting room and formulating a well-thought out plan.  Thanos has the upper hand from the opening scene and it’s the heroes who are struggling to stay on top of the chaos that follows.  Unexpected teams are formed and whilst some our beloved protagonists remain on Earth, others have to travel to the far corners of the universe with important tasks to complete.  It’s compelling stuff but there is a repetitive vibe to the moral quandaries that many of them face (e.g. choosing the life of one friend over a million strangers).

With a reported cost of $300-$400 million USD, Avengers: Infinity War is one of the most expensive films ever made.  The cast wouldn’t have come cheaply but it’s apparent that much of the budget went into the action scenes and to the gifted stunt people, sound engineers and visual effects artists.  The variety of the action, combined with the intense music score from Alan Silvestri, should keep you alert for the full duration.

Given the number of people involved in the production (the end credits feel like they go forever), it’s amazing to think that the many plot twists have been protected right up until the day of release.  The cast have been active on social media and asked audiences not to spoil the movie for others so that all fans can experience it firsthand.  It’s a fair request.  The finale alone is a game changer for the genre and will keep audiences guessing and internet forums buzzing until the next instalment (which was filmed at the same time) is released in May 2019.  I’ve got a few theories but that’s all I’ll say for now.

 

Review: Unsane

Directed by: Steven Soderbergh
Written by: Jonathan Bernstein, James Greer
Starring: Claire Foy, Joshua Leonard, Jay Pharoah, Juno Temple, Aimee Mullins, Amy Irving
Released: April 25, 2018
Grade: A

Unsane
Academy Award winning director Steven Soderbergh (Traffic) enjoys a good challenge.  With The Good German (2006), he used a single camera with lenses that were more than 60 years old.  With The Girlfriend Experience (2009), he cast a real-life porn star in the leading role and relied heavily on improvisation.  With Logan Lucky (2017), he shied away from major studios so as to make a movie where he’d have full control over the trailers, advertising and other marketing.

If you think that’s impressive, wait until you see what he’s created with Unsane.  The entirety of this 98 minute film was shot using three iPhone 7 Plus phones and three types of lenses.  He’s not the first filmmaker to shoot an entire movie using this technique (Sean Baker used iPhone 5s when making Tangerine in 2014) but he’s certainly the most high profile.  The movie debuted in more than 2,000 theatres when released in the United States last month.

It’s a cool gimmick further enhanced by a terrific script from writers Jonathan Bernstein and James Greer.  Sawyer (Foy) is a young woman who recently left her friends and family behind to take up a new job in a new city.  It wasn’t a career driven move.  Rather, she was being stalked by a creepy guy (Leonard) for more than two years and this was her only way of escaping his obsessive gaze and making a fresh start.

Talking through her problems with a counsellor, Sawyer admits that her recent run-ins with the stalker and the subsequent emotional trauma led her to briefly consider suicide.  It’s at that point where she’s asked to sign a form as part of another evaluation.  Remember folks – “always read the fine print.”  The form states that Sawyer willingly agrees to be incarcerated in a psychiatric ward for 24 hours so she can undergo an assessment as to the safety of herself and those around her.  She protests profusely and even tries to call the police but there’s nothing that can be done.  That’s her own signature on the bottom of the form.

There are two distinct genres at play here.  On one hand, this is a political movie.  After talking with a fellow patient (Pharoah) she learns the hospital is more interested in money than her wellbeing.  They’re looking for any excuse to incarcerate someone and demand their insurance company foots the bill.  Sawyer sums it up best when she says “they’re locking up sane people for profit.”  It taps into the dangers of capitalism and our desire to put personal wealth ahead of all else.  Has this happened in real life?  My best guess is “yes”.

On the other hand, this is a sinister thriller.  Sawyer’s stalker finds a way of infiltrating the hospital and poses as one of her instructing doctors.  She pleads for help from the nurses and other patients but her concerns fall on deaf ears.  To be fair, why would anyone believe the ravings of woman who has voluntarily incarcerated herself over the cool-headed words of a doctor with the right credentials and accreditation?

Soderbergh first came across British actress Claire Foy by watching The Crown (as many of us have) and thought she’d be interested in the role of Sawyer as a “welcome vacation” from her two years of playing Queen Elizabeth.  He made the right choice because Foy is outstanding.  This isn’t one of those goofy thrillers where you roll your eyes at the dumb choices her character makes.  The way she reacts (and over-reacts at times) is how I’d see myself if placed in the same position.  The fact is feels so real makes the scenario even more ominous.

The use of the iPhones helps create a sense of claustrophobia and the unusual “popping” score from Thomas Newman adds to the film’s uncomfortable tone.  It’s only April but I’m happy to declare Unsane as one of the year’s best films.

 

Review: Rampage

Directed by: Brad Peyto
Written by: Ryan Engle, Carlton Cuse, Ryan J. Condal, Adam Sztykiel
Starring: Dwayne Johnson, Naomie Harris, Malin Åkerman, Joe Manganiello, Jake Lacy, Jeffrey Dean Morgan
Released: April 12, 2018
Grade: C

Rampage
The opening few scenes of Rampage had me thinking this was a gritty, dramatic film about animal testing and the dangers of “playing God”.  Scientists aboard a space station have been genetically modifying the DNA of animals to make them larger and more aggressive.  I’m not exactly sure why but suffice to say it doesn’t end well.  The researchers are brutally killed by their own creation and, to make matters worse, several vials of the DNA-changing gas plummet to the Earth’s surface.

One of them lands within the grounds of the San Diego Wildlife Sanctuary and it is here we meet our leading man, Davis Okoye (Johnson).  A solider turned poacher-killer turned primatologist, Davis’s colleagues describe him as someone more interested in spending time with animals than people.  He’s single, he lives alone, and is devoted his job.  Much of his day is spent interacting and communicating with the gorillas who now call the Sanctuary their home.

Three animals across North America come into contact with the nasty green gas and this serves as the cue for the action to follow.  A crocodile, a wolf and an albino gorilla all come into contact with the nasty green gas and they transform into very large and very angry creatures.  The U.S. military try to bomb them from above using their latest missile technology but these creatures are seemingly indestructible with the ability to regenerate when injured.

This had the makings of a tense action thriller in the same vein as Jurassic Park or Rise of the Planet of the Apes.  Instead, we’re left with a goofy, poorly written movie that doesn’t know what it wants to be.  Things start to head south when the two keynote villains are introduced – a brother (Lacy) and sister (Åkerman) who run the multi-billion dollar company behind the creation of the mutating gas.  They care more about share price than any loss of life resulting from the attacking creatures.

These two characters are exceedingly dumb.  I couldn’t see them successfully running a neighbourhood lemonade stand let alone a cutting-edge, research-driven corporation engaged in wide scale cover-ups and corruption.  There’s a laughable scene when the FBI drop by with a search warrant but they evade suspicion by simply blaming someone else and not handing over all their servers.  Who knew crime and corruption could be so easy?  Their plans to kill the creatures and harvest their DNA also lacked sense.

The heroes in Rampage aren’t that interesting either.  Jeffrey Dean Morgan plays the smug head of an “other government agency” but his focus is more on speaking slow and deliberately rather than actually saving lives.  Naomie Harris plays a genetic engineer who teams up with Davis to subdue the creatures.  There’s a laughably bad sequence where they infiltrate a lab and fumble through some fridges and cupboards in search of the antidote.

Perhaps this film could have worked if framed solely as a comedy.  The writing team have tried to inject humour but the lines are corny and some of the set pieces are too obvious (such as a moment involving Jake Lacy’s character as he tries to escape a building).  It’s like watching the trashy Mega Shark Versus Giant Octopus only with a bigger budget and better special effects.  This wasn’t for me.

 

Review: I Feel Pretty

Directed by: Abby Kohn, Marc Silverstein
Written by: Abby Kohn, Marc Silverstein
Starring: Amy Schumer, Michelle Williams, Emily Ratajkowski, Rory Scovel, Aidy Bryant, Busy Philipps
Released: April 19, 2018
Grade: B-

I Feel Pretty
Every few years, we get one of those movies where characters switch bodies and gain a wider, more informed appreciation of the world.  Examples include Freaky Friday, The Change-Up, The Hot Chick, Dating the Enemy and Vice Versa.  Written and directed by Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein, I Feel Pretty taps into that same genre with one added twist – it’s a perceived change as opposed to an actual one.

As we’re introduced to Renee (Schumer), we see her as an insecure, self-conscious woman who can’t catch a break.  That’s best illustrated in an over-exaggerated opening scene.  Renee harnesses the confidence to visit a gym and enrol in a cycling class.  It’s only been going for a matter of seconds before the bike seat breaks and her pants split open.  She’s bolts for the exit, quick to avoid the gaze of her fellow gym-goers, but the embarrassment doesn’t end there given she has to walk home while covering her exposed crotch.

Ever seen the 1988 comedy Big with Tom Hanks?  There’s a moment where a 12-year-old makes a wish at a spooky fortune telling machine and then wakes up the next day as a grown man.  I’m not trying to provide another example of a body switch movie.  Rather, I’m referring to a creative overlap between it and I Feel Pretty.  There’s a sequence where Renee is watching Big on TV and she’s inspired to throw a coin into a fountain and make a wish of her own – to look incredibly beautiful.

Lo and behold, the wish comes true… well, kind of.  Renee knocks her head and upon regaining consciousness, she glances into a mirror and sees a thin, dazzling woman looking straight back.  Her friends and work colleagues realise she looks exactly the same but no one is prepared to rain on her parade.  They go along with the charade because Renee is as happy as she’s been in a long time.

This could have been fun, original comedy but it ends up being too safe and predictable.  It’s the kind of movie where the audience will be a few steps ahead of the narrative as opposed to the other way around.  Renee develops enormous self-confidence from her supposed transformation and this allows her to find a guy and land her dream job as the receptionist for a renowned cosmetics company (you’d think she’d aim higher).  It’s not long before Renee’s confidence transforms into arrogance and she becomes one of those people she’s always despised.

The film’s theme of “beauty lying within” is drummed home continually.  Other parts of the storyline give off a mixed vibe.  Renee is brought into the inner circle of the cosmetics company where she interacts with the sweet CEO (Williams) and her friendly mother (Hutton) as they try to introduce a low-cost product line for the “average woman”.  It may sound wonderfully positive and inclusive but it’s hard to take the company seriously given Renee is the only person in the building who doesn’t look like an uber-thin supermodel with flawless skin.

Amy Schumer earns a few genuine laughs with her over-the-top performance but as the film isn’t telling us anything new or offering any unexpected surprises, you’re unlikely to go through a transformation of your own upon leaving the cinema.

 

Review: Isle of Dogs

Directed by: Wes Anderson
Written by: Wes Anderson, Roman Coppola, Jason Schwartzman, Kunichi Nomura
Starring: Bryan Cranston, Koyu Rankin, Edward Norton, Bob Balaban, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, Greta Gerwig, Frances McDormand, Scarlett Johansson, Harvey Keitel, F. Murray Abraham, Yoko Ono
Released: April 12, 2018
Grade: A-

Isle of Dogs
I’ll admit to being a Wes Anderson fan boy.  His screenplays are creative, his characters are memorable, and his cinematography is distinctive.  From Rushmore and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou to Moonrise Kingdom and The Grand Budapest Hotel, Anderson makes films, laced with dark comedy, which are easy to watch again and again.

The imaginatively titled Isle of Dogs (think “I Love Dogs”) is another worthy addition on his impressive resume.  Shot using the painfully slow process of stop-motion animation (as he did with Fantastic Mr. Fox in 2009), the film is set in a fictitious Japanese city that is ruled by the controlling Mayor Kobayashi.  When a strong strain of flu infects canines in the area, the Mayor has every single dog in the city banished to the neighbouring Trash Island.  There’s also an ulterior motive at play with the Mayor not hiding the fact that he prefers cats to dogs.

There’s a cute notice at the start of the movie telling audiences that all barks have been translated into English.  This allows us to follow the story from the perspective of the dogs as opposed to the humans.  Much of what transpires occurs on the disgustingly filthy Trash Island.  There’s no clean water and the dogs have to rely on rotten scraps as food.  It’s a wonder that so many have been able to survive for so long.

The crux of the story builds when a 12-year-old boy, Atari (Rankin), steals a plane and travels to Trash Island in search of his long-lost dog, Spots.  Government officials normally wouldn’t show much interest but with Atari being the nephew of Mayor Kobayashi, it becomes headline news.  Security forces are sent in to bring him back home but Atari evades capture and teams up with a group of cunning dogs to help locate the missing Spots.

He’s admired within the industry and Wes Anderson had no trouble assembling a cast for Isle of Dogs.  Scheduling conflicts are often a challenge but in the case of an animated feature, it’s much easier to pull together a big cast as the voices can be recorded on any day at any time.  Some dogs are voiced by long-time Anderson collaborators such as Billy Murray, Jason Schwartzman and Edward Norton whilst others are making their debut such as a Bryan Cranston, Scarlett Johansson and Liev Schreiber.  Most are working for love of the craft as opposed to money given the reported budget of the film was just $17.5 million.

Targeted at both kids and adults, there’s a lot of fun to be had with the story and the mix of both light and dark comedy.  You can smile at some of the long-running jokes (Jeff Goldblum’s dog is quick to pass on rumours) while being surprised by unexpected moments (the fate of a caged dog).  When you throw these cute, likeable characters into an odd world, there’s much opportunity for humour.

Anderson is known for his use of symmetry and that’s illustrated again here with some beautifully framed scenes.  It’s hard to pick a favourite but two moments stand out for me – one involves a chef making sushi and another features a doctor performing a kidney transplant.  There’s also an incredible attention to detail highlighted by the wind subtly moving through the dogs’ fur.  The talented crew deserve huge praise for their work.

Wes Anderson is winless from 6 previous nominations at the Academy Awards but when looking ahead to the best animated feature category at next year’s ceremony, this could be his chance to break that streak and take home a 13.5 inch statuette.  See this film!

 

Review: Super Troopers 2

Directed by: Jay Chandrasekhar
Written by: Broken Lizard
Starring: Jay Chandrasekhar, Kevin Heffernan, Steve Lemme, Paul Soter, Erik Stolhanske, Rob Lowe, Brian Cox
Released: April 19, 2018
Grade: C+

Super Troopers 2
This sequel has been a long time coming.  I asked a few friends if they were keen on coming along to a preview screening and most had never heard of the original.  That’s largely because it was released back in 2002 and whilst it developed a semi-cult-like following at the time, it has generally faded from memory over the past 15 years.

If you’re in need of some background information, Super Troopers was the creation of a comedy team who met at a prestigious liberal arts school in New York.  The pulled together a few million dollars to create a low-budget movie about dodgy state troopers (similar to Police Academy) and after making fans at the Sundance Film Festival, the movie was released more widely across the globe.

The same guys have returned for this sequel where they serve as both the writers and the lead actors.  The broad premise wins points for creativity.  The U.S. and Canadian governments have realised that a small part of the border between their two countries was incorrectly drawn many years ago.  A correction is now being made.  The state of Vermont will be enlarged and will now include a small parcel of land previously classified as Canada.  Our protagonists have been enlisted to help with the transition and to introduce American laws into the area.

Suffice to say that the Canadians are not happy.  When the troopers are introduced to the affected townsfolk at an impromptu meeting, they are heckled before they even get a chance to speak.  The local Canadian Mounties, who have been policing the area for decades, are also upset given they’ve lost their jurisdiction and will be transferred to other towns.

What follows is large scale high jinks.  The super troopers play practical jokes on themselves, on the Mounties and on the wider population.  If you’re looking to appreciate the style of humour, it’s lowbrow stuff.  There’s a scene where one of the troopers gets tied naked to a bench as part of an initiation ceremony.  There’s another where they end up in a brothel which is run by the local mayor (played by Rob Lowe).  As all of this goes on, the troopers are somehow trying to solve an actual case involving illegal guns and drugs.

In the original Super Troopers, about 50% of jokes hit the mark.  I’d argue that percentage is a little lower this time around.  Much of it feels improvised with the actors trying to craft witty lines on the spot but struggling to find enough material to last 90 minutes.  I chuckled a few times but not nearly enough to justify this film’s existence.  It’s hard to believe the Broken Lizard team couldn’t come up with a better script given the project has been in the works for so long.