Review: Chappaquiddick

Directed by: John Curran
Written by: Taylor Allen, Andrew Logan
Starring: Jason Clarke, Kate Mara, Ed Helms, Jim Gaffigan, Clancy Brown, Bruce Dern
Released: May 10, 2018
Grade: B

If you’re unfamiliar with United States politics, Senator Ted Kennedy was the younger brother of the late John F. Kennedy and in the late 1960s was touted as a possible Democratic candidate for the Presidency.  That changed on the evening of 18 July 1969 when he was involved in a single vehicle car accident on Chappaquiddick Island.  The car, which Kennedy was driving, went off a narrow bridge and finished upside down in a shallow body of water.  Kennedy escaped the vehicle but the woman in the passenger seat, a 28-year-old campaign specialist by the name of Mary Jo Kopechne, was trapped and did not survive.

Directed by John Curran (Tracks), the first half of Chappaquiddick provides background information on Kennedy (played by Jason Clarke) and chronicles the night of the accident.  Some facts are indisputable.  For example, we know that Kennedy did not report the accident to the local police until 10 hours after it occurred.  Other details are sketchier.  Did Kopechne drown instantly or did she survive the crash and die of suffocation while waiting to be rescued?  Was Kennedy drunk at the time?  Curran’s film hedges its bets by offering alternate viewpoints (such as the contrasting views of two doctors).

The second half of the movie is an exercise in how to bungle a cover up.  Kennedy’s close advisers, including former Secretary of Defence Robert McNamara, do everything in their power to protect Kennedy’s career.  The truth becomes irrelevant.  It’s all about crafting a credible story that keeps their man in the clear and which could be believed by the authorities and the public. 

This works to an extent.  Kennedy has a natural charm and believability.  We seem him talking to the police, his secretaries and his friends and they blindly accept his version of events.  The same goes for the parents of Kopechne who are heartbroken by the death of their daughter but don’t see the need for an autopsy given Kennedy’s assurances about what happened.  The fact the accident occurred at the same time as the Apollo 11 moon landing was another stroke of good fortune in keeping it off the front page of newspapers.  Things start to unravel though when Kennedy makes a few conflicting statements and a group of inquisitive journalists start asking tough questions.  The focus turns to damage control.

I’m always fascinated by political elections and the key issues that influence voters.  Some have staunchly partisan views and will support the same political party of their entire life regardless what policies are proposed.  Some swing from election-to-election and will look more closely at policies and the performance of the incumbents.  Others don’t care at all and won’t even make the time to turn up to the polling booth and vote.

There’s a poignant sequence at the end of Chappaquiddick which includes interviews from American voters weighing in with their thoughts on Ted Kennedy in in the aftermath of the accident.  Many were prepared to forgive and forget about his actions.  It makes you wonder if these people would have the same view if a different politician was involved or if those behind Kennedy hadn’t spun up an alternate version of the “truth”.  There’s plenty of food for thought.  It also feels eerily relevant today given the current U.S. President is quick to deride attacks against him as “conspiracy theories”.

I wasn’t fully convinced by the lead performance of Australian Jason Clarke.  There are moments where his character is so dumb but others where he is so shrewd.  Still, this is a compelling, eye-opening true story with a worthy punchline as the credits start to roll.

You can read my interview with director John Curran by clicking here.


Review: Breath

Directed by: Simon Baker
Written by: Simon Baker, Gerard Lee, Tim Winton
Starring: Simon Baker, Samson Coulter, Ben Spence, Elizabeth Debicki, Richard Roxburgh, Rachael Blake
Released: May 3, 2018
Grade: B

Most young actors in this country would love to put together a resume to equal that of Australian Simon Baker.  He began his career in the early 1990s with roles in local TV shows such as E Street, Home and Away and Heartbreak High.  He then set sail for America where he earned supporting roles in feature films including L.A. Confidential and The Devil Wears Prada.  His biggest break came in 2008 when he landed the lead in The Mentalist – a successful American show that ran for 7 seasons and earned him nominations for a Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild Award.

Skimming through his list of credits on the Internet Movie Database, there’s one curious statistic that stands out – Baker has never appeared in an Australian feature film.  It’s hard to believe given he’s a home grown star who has been in the business for a quarter of a century.  That streak comes to an end with Breath, an adaptation of the Tim Winton novel first published in 2008.  That’s not the only milestone.  Baker has directed a handful of episodes for the small screen but Breath marks his debut as the director of a full length feature film.

His attraction to the project ties back to his upbringing in the seaside town of Ballina and his passion for surfing.  It’s the fictional tale of two 13-year-old boys who are about to learn that life is far more complex than they’ve imagined.  Pikelet (Coulter) is an only child who is introverted by nature and doesn’t get up to much.  You get the sense that the highlight of his day is coming home and learning his mum has cooked chops for dinner (accompanied by a cold glass of milk).  Loonie (Spence) is the complete opposite.  He’s an energetic risk taker with a relentless sense of an adventure and a mouth that never shuts up.

With no responsibilities and with plenty of spare time to fill, these two best friends discover the art of “dancing of water” through a former surfing champion, Sando (Baker), who lives quietly in the area with his long-time partner, Eva (Debicki).  With no children of his own, Sando takes “Heckle” and “Jeckle” under his wing and it’s not long before the trio are travelling up and down the coast in search of the perfect wave.  There are some great surfing sequences and it’s fun to watch these kids overcome their fears and harness their obvious natural talent.

There’s considerably more to this story however and things take a dramatic shift (without giving too much away) during the second hour.  Credit must go to the two teenage leads, Samson Coulter and Ben Spence, who deliver strong, natural performances despite having next-to-no acting experience prior to the movie.  You can see their characters transform as key events unfold.  No special effects or camera trickery was needed to shoot the scenes on water given that both have been surfing competitively since a young age.

Whilst it will get audiences thinking about its tougher subject matters, Breath does leave you wanting more in places.  A successful skier who saw her career cut short by injury, Eva the most intriguing character.  She comes across as aimless and unhappy but it’s hard to fully understand her psyche given she plays second fiddle (in terms of screen time) to her male counterparts.  I was also hoping to see more interaction between Pikelet and his parents (played Richard Roxburgh and Rachael Blake) as he starts to pull away and discover his independence.

Set in the 1970s and shot in a sleepy town on the southern coast of Western Australia, Breath is an engaging coming-of-age tale that many connect with.

You can read my interview with Simon Baker, Samson Coulter and Ben Spence by clicking here.


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: 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: 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.


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

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.