Reviews

Review: Rough Night

Directed by: Lucia Aniello
Written by: Lucia Aniello, Paul W. Downs
Starring: Scarlett Johansson, Kate McKinnon, Jillian Bell, Ilana Glazer, Zoe Kravitz, Paul W. Downs
Released: June 15, 2017
Grade: B

Rough Night
A lot has been said and written about the popularity of Wonder Woman over the past two weeks.  It has reeled in roughly $435 million at the international box-office thus far and ticket sales are still strong.  It illustrates that films with female directors and a strong female cast can be successful critically and financially.

The next movie trying to break ceilings in Hollywood is Rough Night.  In the United States, the “R” rating has a slightly different meaning than here in Australia.  It signifies that a person under the age of 17 cannot buy a ticket unless accompanied by a parent or adult guardian.  Examples of great R-rated comedies include There’s Something About Mary, Superbad, Wedding Crashers and Bridesmaids.

The point of difference for Rough Night is that it’s an R-rated comedy directed by a woman.  It’s just the second time since 2000 that a release from a major Hollywood studio fits that description.  The other was Nancy Meyer’s It’s Complicated (released in 2009) which wasn’t particularly edgy or raunchy.  It was only slapped with an R-rating because of a scene where a character smokes pot.

Suffice to say Rough Night pushes the boundaries a lot further.  As the directorial debut of 34-year-old Luca Aniello, it follows 5 women who head to Miami for a bachelorette party.  Jess (Johansson) is the lucky lady being married and she’s joined by a group of friends she’s known since college – Alice (Bell), Frankie (Glazer) and Blair (Kravitz).  Also along for the ride is Pippa (McKinnon), an Aussie who is unknown to Jess’s other friends but has flown across the globe to attend this important event.

Whilst my thumbs are mostly up, I’ll freely admit that the premise here in stupid.  The women accidentally kill a stripper at their beachside holiday home after he falls off a chair and strikes his head on a marble mantelpiece.  What follows is a calamitous adventure where they try to conceal the death and dispose of the body.  In case you’re wondering why they don’t go to the police, a litany of reasons are offered including the fact they’ve been snorting cocaine all evening, Frankie has already been convinced of previous crimes and Jess is campaigning to become a state senator.

As this all goes on, we get a glimpse of what’s happening with Jess’s other half, Peter (Downs).  He was happily enjoying his own low-key buck’s party but is now worried about Jess getting cold feet after a miscommunication.  Edged on by his own friends, he’s driving across the country to get to Miami and win her affections back.  This side of the film is nowhere near as amusing.

Why this comedy works is because of the casting and the characters.  They’re at their best during the opening scenes as they reconnect after a lengthy period apart.  They’ve all got problems in their regular lives but they’re happy to put those aside and have a crazy, fun time.  Kate McKinnon steals the show with an impressive Australian accent and a warped sense of humour.  All of these leading ladies deserve praise though.  The one-liners are shared around and their comedic timing is pin-point during some of the film’s eyebrow-raising scenes.

The script runs out of puff in the final 20 minutes with a finale that is rushed, clichéd and predictable.  I was hoping they’d push for something with more of an “edge”.  Still, there’s plenty to enjoy in the lead up and a few laughs will be had.  Oh, and make sure you stay for all of the closing credits.

 

Review: Churchill

Directed by: Jonathan Teplitzky
Written by: Alex von Tunzelmann
Starring: Brian Cox, Miranda Richardson, John Slattery, Ella Purnell, James Purfoy, Julian Wadham
Released: June 8, 2017
Grade: B-

Churchill
I’ve been keeping a running tab of all the cinema releases in 2017 that have been set around World War II.  It’s only June but on the list so far are Alone in Berlin, Land of Mine, Their Finest, The Innocents and The Zookeeper’s Wife.  It highlights our fascination with that particular war above all others.

The next film to be added to the list is Churchill – a British production from Australian director Jonathan Teplitzky (Gettin’ Square, The Railway Man).  You won’t see any battle scenes here.  Rather, the film is told from the perspective of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill (Cox) as he prepares for the Allies invasion of Normandy, France in June 1944.  It’s more commonly referred to as D-Day.

As the film begins, plans are well underway for Operation Overlord (the code name for the Normandy attack).  All the finer details had been agreed.  Both the British and American generals were ready to send thousands of troops into battle.  It’s worth noting that representing the American side was General Dwight D. Eisenhower (Slattery) – the man who would become the U.S. President less than a decade later.

It seemed only one thing was going to stop the operation – Winston Churchill.  With less than 3 days to go, he expressed his disapproval for the plans and was worried about the huge loss of life that the allies would suffer.  His views were not respected and this infuriated Churchill.  He wasn’t happy with the Americans coming in and telling him what to do.

The film spends much of its running time delving into Churchill’s psyche and explaining why he acted the way he did.  He was almost 70-years-old at the time and had been suffering from illness and depression.  The length of the war had taken its toll.  The body count was growing and public morale within his country was weakening.  His loyal wife (Richardson) worked tirelessly to boost her husband’s spirit while also acting as a valuable confidant.

The screenplay also suggests that Churchill’s opposition to the D-Day plans was heavily influenced by his experiences during World War I – where he served as First Lord of the Admiralty.  He resigned from his post that 1915 after being held responsible for the disastrous Gallipoli Campaign.  The fact that the Normandy attack involved similar amphibious landings made Churchill uneasy.

Teplitzky’s film offers a different insight into Churchill.  Screenwriter Alex von Tunzelmann is a British historian who had previously written articles for The Guardian on the historical accuracy of films such Bridge of Spies, Suffragette, The Danish Girl and Selma.  She now finds herself under the spotlight with other historians, academics and politicians describing this film as a character assassination.  Andrew Roberts, a journalist who has written extensively about Churchill, said “The only problem with the movie … is that it gets absolutely everything wrong.”

I can’t pass myself off as a Churchill expert and so it’s up to audiences to go into the film with an open mind and form their own views.  What I can say is that the movie isn’t as engaging as it could be.  Given its very narrow focus, there are scenes that feel repetitive as we continually watch Churchill argue with others and look deep within himself.  Perhaps the scope needed to be broader to hold my attention all the way through.

Actor Brian Cox (The Bourne Identity, Adaptation) has played several historical figures across his lengthy career including Joseph Stalin and J. Edgar Hoover.  He adds to his resume which his energising performance here in the lead role.  It’s a part that will rank highly on his resume.  It’s a shame the film as a whole isn’t as strong.

You can read my chat with star Brian Cox by clicking here.

 

Review: 20th Century Women

Directed by: Mike Mills
Written by: Mike Mills
Starring: Annette Bening, Elle Fanning, Greta Gerwig, Lucas Jade Zumann, Billy Crudup
Released: June 1, 2017
Grade: A+

20th Century Women
Mike Mills developed a love for punk rock growing up in the 1970s and 1980s.  That passion helped shape the early years of his working career.  He designed album covers and directed music videos for bands including the Beastie Boys, Sonic Youth and Air.  He also directed television commercials to keep a steady income rolling in.

He had always hoped to transition into feature filmmaking but wasn’t quite sure how to go about it.  After making the little known Thumbsucker in 2005, Mills tapped into his own life and struck oil in 2010 with Beginners.  It told the story of a 75-year-old widowed man who, despite being married for 44 years, reveals to his middle aged son that he is gay.  It won Christopher Plummer an Academy Award for his incredible performance.

Mills continues his theme of drawing from personal experience with 20th Century Women.  This time around, the focus is squarely on his mother.  The lead character is a 55-year-old Dorothea Fields (Bening), a single mum trying to raise a 15-year-old son, Jamie (Zumann).  The way she acts, the way she dresses and the way she smokes is mirrored from Mills’ own mother who passed away in 1999.  He even had Bening wear her mother’s actual jewellery.

The film takes place over a short period in 1979 and beautifully observes the relationship between mother and son.  Jamie is at a slightly rebellious age and describes his overbearing, inquisitive mother as “sad and alone”.  Dorothea is worried that her son might be “slipping off the rails” and she asks a group of friends for assistance.

Abbie (Gerwig) is an artist with big dreams but is struggling to find her place in the world.  Julie (Fanning) is a promiscuous teenager who yearns to be close to someone spiritually and not just physically.  William (Crudup) is the only male in the mix and is a financially-struggling carpenter who is helping fix up their rundown home.

Mills has created an incredible, heart-warming drama.  I could listen to these characters talk and watch them interact for hours.  They don’t go through any remarkable transformation.  We simply observe their lives and appreciate the complexity of who they are.  They share deep conversations, provide laughs, and offer unexpected support when times get tough. 

Narration is sometimes described as “lazy filmmaking” but Mills uses the technique perfectly.  Each featured actor gets a chance to narrate and in doing so, they provide insight into their character’s past and future.  It helps you realise that life is full of wonderful moments but their value to us and our memory of specific details does change over time.  This isn’t a tear-jerker but there are many powerful moments of reflection.

Overlaying all the drama is Mills’ clear admiration for the era in which the film is set.  Jamie develops a love for alternative music, much to the concern of his mother.  There’s a humorous scene where Dorothea and William listen to a song for the first time and try to put their own spin on the lyrics as middle-aged adults.  There’s another great moment at a dinner party that I won’t spoil.

Nominated for best original screenplay at this year’s Academy Awards, 20th Century Women is a movie I could watch again and again.  If it’s not the best film of the year, it’ll be damn close.

 

Review: The Mummy

Directed by: Alex Kurtzman
Written by: David Koepp, Christopher McQuarrie, Dylan Kussman
Starring: Tom Cruise, Sofia Boutella, Annabelle Wallis, Jake Johnson, Courtney B. Vance, Russell Crowe
Released: June 8, 2017
Grade: B-

The Mummy
We’re accustomed to Tom Cruise playing the action hero who saves the world.  I’m referring to Mission: Impossible, Jack Reacher and Edge of Tomorrow.  His character here, Nick Morton, isn’t quite as nice.  He describes himself as a “liberator of precious antiquities”.  He goes into war torn countries and rescues and/or steals priceless artefacts to profit from in the western world.

Nick’s latest mission has taken him to the Middle East where he has uncovered a hidden tomb that is home to Ahmanet (Boutella), an Egyptian goddess who has been erased from the history books.  She once had her sights on a powerful throne but she lost her position as heir after her father had a son.  Suffice to say she didn’t react well.  She made a pact with the “darkness” and had her family killed.  Officials punished Ahmanet by burying her alive as a mummy.

After that quick history lesson, it’s time to get back to the current day.  Nick has reluctantly teamed up with a legitimate archaeologist, Jenny Halsey (Wallis), and they intend to take the mummy’s sarcophagus back to London for further study.  Tragically, their military plane crashes and while Jenny was able to escape via a parachute, Nick was killed on impact.

Don’t fret.  If you’re going to pay Tom Cruise millions of dollars, you’re not going to kill him inside the first 30 minutes of your film.  Nick wakes up in the morgue without a scratch on him.  His survival is some kind of weird magic that involves Ahmanet who has since escaped from her sarcophagus and has set her eyes on world domination.

It’s been described as reboot of The Mummy franchise but don’t go in thinking this is a remake of the 1999 original with Brendan Fraser.  With the exception of the title, there aren’t a lot of similarities.  This is part of a new “Dark Monsters” universe that is trying to compete with big action franchises already established by Marvel and DC Comics.  Characters getting their own films over the coming years include Frankenstein, The Invisible Man, The Creature from the Black Lagoon, Van Helsing and Dracula.

There’s already an overlap here with Russell Crowe making an appearance as Henry Jekyll – a doctor who jokes about studying infectious diseases but is more interested in a world of “gods and monsters”.  He’s an interesting character whose motives are unclear.  Nick and Jenny must stop Amunet before it’s too late but they’re not sure if Jekyll wants to help or hinder.

Alex Kurtzman has made a name for himself as an action writer (The Legend of Zorro, Transformers, Star Trek) but this the first time he’s been given the director’s reins for a $125 million big screen blockbuster.  The style and spirit reminded me of the Nicolas Cage National Treasure franchise.  It’s trying to be a fun, light-hearted adventure where characters slowly put the puzzle pieces together to solve a mystery.  It’s not intended to be too heavy or too serious.       

Tom Cruise gets his fair share of worthy one-liners and impresses with a series of elaborate stunts.  He’s incredibly agile for someone who is 54 years of age.  The sound and visual effects artists have also earned their salaries by creating a creepy Mummy with a distinctive voice.  The screenplay isn’t as strong.  Nick and Jenny fall in love and while it’s expected, it’s still hard to buy into given the way they met and their very limited interaction before the “fireworks” commence.

Bride of Frankenstein is the next in the series which we’ll be seeing in February 2019.

You can read my interview with director Alex Kurtzman by clicking here.

 

Review: Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales

Directed by: Joachim Rønning, Espen Sandberg
Written by: Jeff Nathanson
Starring: Johnny Depp, Javier Bardem, Brenton Thwaites, Kaya Scodelario, Kevin McNally, Geoffrey Rush
Released: May 25, 2017
Grade: B-

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales
It’s been a bumpy voyage for those involved with this latest instalment of the Pirates of Caribbean franchise.  I’m referring to more than the characters.  The studio executives, producers and crew members have also been put through the ringer.  Script problems delayed the process for several years and there were also worries about the huge budget.  Poor reviews plagued the 4th film (On Stranger Tides) and questions were asked about whether there was sufficient demand for this fresh outing.

The Swedish directing duo of Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg, both of whom were responsible for the Oscar nominated Kon-Tiki, expressed a desire for this series to return to its roots.  They wanted to create something fun and exciting in the same vein as the 2003 original, The Curse of the Black Pearl.  I’m not convinced they’ve achieved that but you can see than an effort has been made to create an interesting story as opposed to relying solely on special effects and a goofy Johnny Depp.

One could argue that Depp is a supporting player in Dead Men Tell No Tales.  The stronger story involves two youngsters – Henry (Thwaites) and Carina (Scodelario).  He is the son of Will Turner and he seeks the long-lost Trident of Poseidon so that he can break a curse that keeps his father trapped permanently at the bottom of the sea.  She is a sharp scientist who wants to prove that magic isn’t real through her study of astronomy and horology.  It should come as no surprise that these two fall in love throughout their adventures together.

Trying to put a stop to their efforts is Captain Armando Salazar (Bardem).  He was once a successful pirate hunter but now finds himself trapped in a giant cave (referred to as the Devil’s Triangle).  A curse prevents him from escaping and so he too is looking to get his hands on the Trident with the help of the always shifty Captain Barbossa (Rush).

So where does Captain Jack Sparrow (Depp) fit into all of this?  He starts out with no luck, no ship and no crew but ends up doing what he does best – drinking rum, stumbling through dangerous scenarios, and playing everyone off against each other.  It’s hard to be too enthused by Depp's performance since he’s delivering the same repetitious material from the earlier films.  The film is far more entertaining when he’s off screen.

One can’t help but think this franchise is reaching its conclusion.  It hasn’t been able to sustain its momentum to the same extending as Star Wars (offering more story) or The Fast and the Furious (offering more creative action).  It’s a watchable blockbuster but not one that is particularly memorable.

You can read my chat with star Geoffrey Rush by clicking here.

 

Review: Wonder Woman

Directed by: Patty Jenkins
Written by: Allan Heinberg
Starring: Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, Robin Wright, Danny Huston, David Thewlis, Elena Anaya, Ewen Bremner, Said Taghmaoui, Lucy Davis
Released: June 1, 2017
Grade: A-

Wonder Woman
Too many superhero movies are being produced today.  Some are still likeable but there’s a growing familiarity to their style and storylines.  The villains are up to the same old tricks and the heroes always find a way to defeat them whilst up against near-impossible odds.  When something doesn’t quite work out the box-office, the studio puts the franchise on ice and reboots it a few years later with a fresh cast.

All of that said, there are reasons to be excited about Wonder Woman.  For starters, this is the first time a live action film has been made about this famous comic book character.  You won’t be sitting through another Batman or Spider-Man origin tale that you’ve seen before.  Further, Patty Jenkins (Monster) is the first ever female to direct a movie within the Marvel or DC Comics universe.

It has been a long journey to get to this point.  One of Jenkins’ favourite movies growing up was Richard Donner’s Superman (the 1978 release with Christopher Reeve).  She directed short films about superheros and had been pitching her idea of a Wonder Woman movie since the early 2000s.

The stars never aligned though.  She made Monster, took time off to have a baby and couldn’t convince the studio about her vision.  Sexism also played a part.  Some still have a deluded view that only men like action movies and so only men should make them.  This is just the second time in history that a woman has solo-directed a live action film with a budget exceeding $100 million (Kathryn Bigelow was the first in 2002 with K-19: The Widowmaker).

This 141 minute introduction to Wonder Woman is framed as an origin story and plenty of background information is provided in the opening act.  Diana (her original name) was born and raised on a remote island that is home to a powerful group of female warriors known as Amazons.  They were created by the mighty god Zeus to help protect the planet should the sinister god Aries ever try to destroy mankind.  It’s a shame the island is kept hidden from the public because it’d be a great holiday destination with its stunning views, large waterfalls and crystal clear water.

Set during World War I, life on the island is disrupted when a British Air Force pilot crashes just off the coastline.  He is rescued by Diana and brought ashore.  It’s the first time in her life that she’s come face-to-face with a man.  The pilot, Captain Steve Trevor (Pine), speaks about the horrors of the “great war” and how he must return to London to pass on valuable intelligence information to his superiors.

Diana believes she has a part to play.  She senses that the war must be the result of Aries’ influence on the invading German soldiers and so she grabs her rope, sword and shield and joins Trevor in London.  Having never spent a single moment off her idyllic island, her naïve interactions with those in the “real world” provide an important injection of laughs.  It’d be the equivalent of me travelling back in time 500 years and trying to fit in – not an easy task.

There are other characters in the mix.  General Ludendroff (Huston) and Doctor Poison (Anaya) are the prominent villains as they develop chemical weapons to give Germany the upper hand.  The list of allies include Trevor’s take-no-nonsense secretary (Davis) and a small team of soldiers who join Trevor and Diana as they head to the front line and prepare for battle.

The film’s two major strengths come down to the two most important ingredients – cast and story.  32-year-old Israeli actress Gal Gadot (Fast & Furious) is incredibly convincing in the lead role and has created a distinctive superhero who is strong and intelligent.  Chris Pine (Star Trek) also impresses in a role that requires him to call on both his dramatic and comedic skills.  They’re a great pair.

Aside from the necessary finale, the movie doesn’t get bogged down with long-winded action sequences.  Rather, the focus is on telling an interesting story that blends Greek mythology with actual history.  It’s reminiscent of Marvel’s Captain America: The First Avenger which placed its heroes in a war-time setting.  The screenplay also includes insightful duologues between Diana and Trevor as they debate the link between war and man.

We’ll see Wonder Woman again on screen in November when she teams up with her fellow superheroes in Justice League.  For the time being, we can enjoy her terrific origin story.