Review: Justice League

Directed by: Zack Snyder
Written by: Chris Terrio, Joss Whedon, Zack Snyder
Starring: Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Gal Gadot, Ezra Miller, Jason Momoa, Ray Fisher, Jeremy Irons, Diane Lane
Released: November 16, 2017
Grade: C+

Justice League
Marvel did it with The Avengers and now DC Comics is trying to do the same with Justice League.  You get the sense there’s a little impatience though.  Marvel gave each of its characters a standalone movie across a three year stretch before bringing them all together for the first Avengers movie.  That’s not the case in the DC Universe.  Three heroes in Justice League (The Flash, Aquaman and Cyborg) are being seen for the first time.

It’s for this reason that the opening hour is spent introducing the characters and bringing them together.  Some we’re already familiar with.  Batman (Affleck) is a brooding, emotionless man who jokes that his superpower is “being rich”.  After slaying a bug-like creature, he gets a strong sense that dark times are coming to Earth and that he’ll need a little help to defeat the next villain.  For this reason, he enlists the precocious Wonder Woman (Gadot).  She prefers to keep a low profile but realises that her services will be required.

The new additions all have something different to offer.  The Flash (Miller) can move at breakneck speed and generate an electric charge in the process.  Aquaman (Momoa) can control the movement of water whilst also communicating with creatures that live under the sea.  Cyborg (Fisher) is a human-turned-robot who has incredible power thanks to his metal arms and legs.

There’s just the one “bad guy” for them to stop – a ho-hum alien named Steppenwolf.  He’s come to Earth to locate three power boxes which, if brought together, will allow him to transform the planet into his own version of hell.  He’s not a particularly creative or engaging villain and he’s easily the weakest part of the movie.  That’s even more obvious when you compare him to Cate Blanchett, Jeff Goldblum or Tom Hiddleston in the recent Thor: Ragnarok (a vastly better film).

The action scenes feature so much colour and so much CGI that you’d question whether actors were even needed.  They did nothing to get my blood pumping.  It’s just a repetitive, goofy smash-a-thon that lacks the character development that made Wonder Woman so great (also a vastly better film).

The most interesting battle is to see which character has the funniest one-liners and it’s Ezra Miller who comes out on top as The Flash.  His light-hearted, insecure nature reminded me of Tom Holland in Spider-Man: Homecoming (you guessed it – a vastly better film).  The other characters are trying to outsmart each other in the comedy stakes but they’re too hard.

The budget of Justice League was reportedly $300 million and if you ask me, that money was not well spent.      


Review: Borg McEnroe

Directed by: Janus Metz Pedersen
Written by: Ronnie Sandahl
Starring: Sverrir Gudnason, Shia LaBeouf, Stellen Skarsgård, Tuva Novotny, Robert Emms
Released: November 16, 2017
Grade: B

Borg McEnroe
The tennis achievements of Swede Björn Borg and American John McEnroe have been thoroughly documented.  Borg won 11 grand slam singles titles.  McEnroe wasn’t too far behind with 7.  Borg spent 109 weeks atop the world rankings.  McEnroe edged him out with a total of 170 weeks.  Borg won 64 career singles titles.  McEnroe finished his career with 77 wins.  No one could argue that both are legends in the game.

The title may suggest these two had a long, intense rivalry but that wasn’t the case.  Their careers only intertwined during a very narrow window in the early 1980s.  Borg retired in 1981 at the age of 26 – incredibly young for someone still in the prime of his career.  McEnroe was just coming onto the scene around that time and was still competing well into the 1990s.  They met only 4 times in grand slams – twice in 1980 and twice in 1981.

Brought to the screen by Danish director Janus Metz Pedersen, Borg McEnroe takes us behind the scenes in the lead up to the 1980 gentleman’s final at Wimbledon.  It was the first time these two would face off in a grand slam final and the storylines wrote themselves.  Borg, ranked #1 in the world, was trying to become the first man to win 5 consecutive Wimbledon titles.  McEnroe, ranked #2 in the world, was attempting to build on his US Open title the previous year and claim his first Wimbledon crown.

The tennis scenes in Borg McEnroe are its least interesting element.  You’re looking at two actors run around a court and hit a CGI-generated tennis ball back and forth.  Even with a bit of moody music, it’s not particularly suspenseful.  There’s no substitute for the real thing when it comes to sport.  You can jump on Youtube and watch highlights from the actual match complete with authentic reactions and commentary. 

Where this film does succeed is the way it delves into the background of these two very different individuals.  Borg was a shy man who struggled with fame and preferred to remain inconspicuous.  It was a Catch-22.  The more tournaments he won, the more he had to deal with adoring fans and the curious media.  He was like a pop star in Sweden.  To try to calm the growing pressure he placed on himself, Borg developed a number of borderline-psychotic superstitions.

McEnroe was the complete opposite.  He loved being the centre of attention and wanted journalists to appreciate and value his talent on the court.  He yearned to be one of the world’s top tennis players and not someone who was living in Borg’s shadow.  Unfortunately, his on-court arguments with umpires and linespersons had hurt his reputation with the public.  Crowds would be cheering for his opponent in most matches – a fact that he struggled to deal with.

Told using a mix of flashbacks, Borg McEnroe features some clunky, overdramatised dialogue.  Characters speak as if they’re fortune tellers with lines like “you’ll win Wimbledon one day and be the number 1 player in the world but no one will like you.”  That said, the film provides insight for anyone interested in the world of professional sport and the different paths that exist to become a champion.  Both Borg and McEnroe mad mistakes but they harnessed the lessons learned in pursuit of greatness.

Swedish actor Sverrir Gudnason (Monica Z) has an uncanny resemblance to Borg and is a good fit for the role.  We haven’t seen much from Shia LaBeouf (Transformers) in recent years but he delivers a similarly worthy performance as the anxious McEnroe.  While the real Borg and McEnroe didn’t have much involvement in the development of the script, it’s a nice touch that Björn Borg’s own son plays the teenager version of him in the film.

It’s not often that the tennis and film worlds collide.  Up until a few months ago, the last mainstream “tennis movie” to reach cinemas was Wimbledon with Kirsten Dunst and Paul Bettany back in 2004.  Now we’ve had two in the space of 8 weeks – Battle of the Sexes and Borg McEnroe.  I guess the adage is true – when it rains, it pours.


Review: Bad Moms 2

Directed by: Scott Moore, Jon Lucas
Written by: Scott Moore, Jon Lucas
Starring: Mila Kunis, Kristen Bell, Kathryn Hahn, Cheryl Hines, Christine Baranski, Susan Sarandon
Released: November 2, 2017
Grade: B-

Bad Moms 2
Each year, I survey a bunch of film critics based in Brisbane to put together a collective list of the year’s best.  A question I ask of them all is “which film were you most surprised to enjoy?”  Responses I received in 2016 included Nerve, The Shallows, The Nice Guys and Deepwater Horizon.  My answer was Bad Moms given the impressive comedic chemistry generated by stars Mila Kunis, Kristen Bell, Kathryn Hahn.

As the original was a huge hit at the box-office, no time has been spared in getting this sequel off the ground and into cinemas.  Very little has changed in terms of the production.  We’ve got the same three leading ladies, the same writers, the same directors and same producers.  The question is whether it can create the same level of laughter.

The premise of the earlier film revolved around three mothers who delegated responsibility to others so as to free up more time for themselves.  The same can be said of this next instalment but its focus is slightly narrower – Christmas.  Amy (Kunis) opens with a monologue describing just how stressful Christmas can be.  So much preparation goes into the event and there’s extra pressure on mums to ensure everything goes perfectly.

The film is titled A Bad Moms Christmas in the United States but goes by the simpler name of Bad Moms 2 here in Australia.  Perhaps a more appropriate title is “Crazy Grandmothers”.  Amy, Kiki (Bell) and Carla (Hahn) are all visited by their own strange mums in the five days leading up to this year’s Christmas. 

Amy’s mum is played by Christine Baranski (Mamma Mia!) – a heinous, pretentious woman who never says a nice word about anyone.  She mocks Amy for her mothering skills, her weight and her cooking.  Kiki’s mum is played by Cheryl Hines (Curb Your Enthusiasm) – a borderline psychotic who wants to spend every minute of every day with her married daughter.  There’s even a moment where she snoops on Kiki and her husband as they get intimate in the bedroom.  Carla’s mum is played by Susan Sarandon (Dead Man Walking) – a chain-smoking alcoholic gambler who slips in and out of her daughter’s life.  She’s only arrived in town because she’s desperate for money.

With things starting to get out of control, Amy, Kiki and Carla share a “few” drinks in a shopping centre food court and make a pact to “take Christmas back”.  It’s time to stop being a perfectionist and time to stop with the lavish, over-the-top festivities.  They’re going to put their foot down, stand up to their mothers, and do Christmas in their own unique way.

As someone who has seen their own mum stress over the intricacies of Christmas planning, I can appreciate the scenario.  However, it’s a limited storyline that doesn’t provide as much room for humour.  Christina Applegate was the butt of many jokes in the first movie as the villainous head of the PTA but with the exception of a small cameo, she’s absent here.  The heavy lifting therefore falls upon Baranski, Hines and Sarandon but their characters are too over-the-top.  It’s hard to believe that anyone would take their side on any issue (particularly the kids).

It’s not all bad news through.  There are a handful of great scenes that provide laughs.  Most of them revolve around Kathryn Hahn, her work at a beauty salon, and her interaction with a male stripper from out of town.  It adds up to an MA rating in Australia for its “strong crude sexual humour” but it doesn’t push the envelope as strongly as in Girls Trip – a better female-centric comedy released two months ago.


Review: Murder on the Orient Express

Directed by: Kenneth Branagh
Written by: Michael Green
Starring: Kenneth Branagh, Penelope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Judi Dench, Johnny Depp, Josh Gad, Derek Jacobi, Leslie Odom Jr, Michelle Pfeiffer, Daisy Ridley
Released: November 9, 2017
Grade: B-

Murder on the Orient Express
I’m a fan of a good old fashioned “who done it?”  You size up the suspects, look at their motives and give it your best shot in identifying the killer.  For those who have read the 1934 Agatha Christie novel, seen the 1974 feature film or watched the 2001 television movie, there won’t be many surprises here.  Screenwriter Michael Green (Blade Runner 2049) has stuck with the source material and the 1930s setting.

When not sitting in the director’s chair, Kenneth Branagh also slips into the shoes of the film’s protagonist, Hercule Poirot.  The first impression he gives off is one of arrogance.  He has impeccably high standards, loves to show off, and calls himself “the greatest detective in the world.”  He’s not someone I’d share a dinner table with.

It’s not long before you realise that the hype around Poirot is warranted.  Travelling from Istanbul to Calais on the famous Orient Express train service, his legendary detective skills are called upon when a passenger (Depp) is murdered in the middle of the night.  His body, complete with several stab wounds, was found in his locked compartment.

There are roughly a dozen passengers on board the carriage and over the course of day, Poirot will interrogate each of them.  It’s not long before many secrets come out into the open.  Complicating matters is the deceased man himself – an art dealer with a shady past.  He’d amassed many enemies which only added to the number of possible motives.

Perhaps my expectations were too high but I was a little underwhelmed by Murder on the Orient Express.  Kenneth Branagh tries to milk humour from his character’s self-important nature but it’s not as funny as it could be.  Only a handful of moments were worthy of a smile.  With so many high profile actors in the cast, the screen time is split and no one gets a chance to stand out.  If I had to pick a favourite, I’d lean towards Daisy Ridley (Star Wars: The Force Awakens) as a young governess who has fallen in love.

There’s also something disappointing about the simplistic ease in which Poirot puts the pieces of the puzzle together.  I realise he’s a light-hearted fictional character but it feels like he knows the answer to every question before he asks it.  There are a couple of scenes where we see him stress but they are even less authentic given his telepathic abilities.  If they’d brought him into their ranks on a show like CSI: NY, every mystery would be solved with 5 minutes.

The film’s strongest attribute is its setting.  Most events takes place aboard the old-school train and the camera weaves up, down and above the narrow corridors and passageways.  Part of me would love to take a journey like that one day…. well, except without the murder.  It’d be nice to enjoy a three-course meal in the dining carriage while looking out across the snow-covered mountain ranges of Europe.

Shot using 65mm film cameras (as opposed to digital), Murder on the Orient Express looks great but struggle to deliver on its early intrigue.


Review: Three Summers

Directed by: Ben Elton
Written by: Ben Elton
Starring: Robert Sheehan, Rebecca Breeds, John Waters, Deborah Mailman, Kelton Pell, Jacqueline McKenzie, Magda Szubanski, Michael Caton
Released: November 2, 2017
Grade: B

Three Summers
When it comes to the creative arts, few could brag about having a career more diverse than Ben Elton.  His career began in the early 1980s when he performed as a stand-up comedian.  He’s was a writer on British television shows including Blackadder, The Young Ones and The Thin Blue Line.  He’s published 15 novels including Popcorn, Dead Famous and High Society.  He’s created the book for successful musicals such as We Will Rock You and Love Never Dies.

All of that said, the artistic medium he’s least been involved with is film.  His only directing credit to date has been Maybe Baby – a romantic comedy starring Hugh Laurie and Joely Richardson that was released back in 2000.  He was born and raised in London but we can now claim Elton as an Aussie.  He married an Australian musician in 1994 and currently lives in Fremantle along with his wife and three kids.

Delving back into the world of cinema, Elton has drawn on his two decades in Australia to create Three Summers.  Inspired by his own experiences, it’s a fictitious tale based around an annual folk music festival that takes place in a rural part of Western Australia.  It’s aptly named “the Westival” and it attracts visitors from across the country as well as overseas.

As hinted at in the film’s title, the narrative is spread across three consecutive Westivals with the same characters interacting year-on-year.  There’s an arrogant Theremin player in search of romance (Sheehan), a talented violinist unsure of her career path (Breeds), an alcoholic who leads a folk music group (Waters), and a loveable announcer who helps organise the festival (Szubanski).  That’s just the start.  There’s also an indigenous dance group, an AA counsellor, a group of refugees, an adopted boy, a strict security guard, some rowdy teenagers, and a few married couples.

There are too many characters but Elton done a worthy job in weaving the storylines together and creating an entertaining comedy.  Everyone will have their favourites but there were three standouts for me.  Robert Sheehan (Misfits) is both annoying and endearing as the foreigner who is too smart for his own good.  Magda Szubanski (Babe) gets the best of the one-liners as she tries to promote the festival and its eccentric performers.  Kate Box (Rake) somehow keeps a straight face as the intense, non-nonsense security who looks like she’s never smiled in her life.

It’s not all about the laughs and recurring jokes.  There a strong political overtones and it’s clear that Elton wants to leave audiences with something to think about.  In particular, he tries to put a more “human face” on refugees whilst also touching upon the plight of Indigenous Australians and their journey for recognition.  These stories don’t quite get the attention they deserve but they still leave a mark.

The finale feels rushed given the need to squash large amounts of character transformation into the last of the three summers.  Still, the likeable cast more than compensate and leave us with one the better feel-good releases of the year.


Review: Detroit

Directed by: Kathryn Bigelow
Written by: Mark Boal
Starring: John Boyega, Will Poulter, Algee Smith, Jason Mitchell, John Krasinski, Anthony Mackie
Released: November 9, 2017
Grade: A-

On 23 July 1967, a large group of police officers raided a late-night, unlicensed bar in an African American neighbourhood in Detroit.  The intention, rightly or wrongly, was to arrest a few patrons and escort them back to the police station without inflaming racial tensions.  That plan was a spectacular failure.  It sparked a 5-day riot through the streets of Detroit that culminated with 43 dead, 1,189 injured and more than 2,000 buildings destroyed.

There are a myriad of stories that could be told from those 5 days but Oscar winning writer Mark Boal (The Hurt Locker) focuses on the one that’s been given the most attention in the riot’s aftermath.  Two nights after it all began, police responded to the sound of gunfire at the Algiers Motel.  What followed was a forceful interrogation of the hotel’s residents as the officers tried to locate the gun and identify who used it.

It’s this powerful second act that resonates most strongly.  Will Poulter (The Maze Runner) is outstanding as the racist police officer who flouts the rule book in pursuing his own cause.  When one of the hotel’s African American guests tries to escape the mayhem, he shoots him in the back from point blank range and then makes up a story about acting in self-defence.  As sickening as it is, Poulter’s character tries to justify his actions to his fellow officers.  He foolishly believes that killing African Americans to “send them a message” will somehow squash their spirit.

Director Kathryn Bigelow has continued on from her great work in The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty and created an intense drama that feels documentary-like in nature.  The hand held camera zooms in on the faces of the distressed hotel guests and we see the emotions build up as the night drags on.  There’s clearly indecision about what they should say to the police officers.  It’s as if the truth is irrelevant.  It’s a game of psychological warfare to see which side will yield first.

Those staying at the Algiers Motel include two members of a soul music group, a Vietnam War veteran, and two teenage girls who are visited from Ohio.  Caught in the middle is an African American security guard played by John Boyega (Star Wars: The Force Awakens).  He’s the film’s most interesting character in that he displays almost zero emotion.  He knows that the racist police officers have crossed the line but he’s afraid to speak up – perhaps because he lacks courage or perhaps because he doesn’t want to jeopardise his own employment.

There’s a lot to think about in Detroit and as evidenced from their previous collaborations, Bigelow and Boal don’t want audiences to feel “warm and fuzzy” as the credits start to roll.  It’s easy to look back at the Algiers Motel incident and point the figure at a few rogue cops but is it that simple?  How far have we advanced as a society over the past 50 years?  Those involved in the newly created activist movement, Black Lives Matter, would passionately argue the problems from 1967 still exist in 2017.