Review: Winchester

Directed by: The Spierig Brothers
Written by: The Spierig Brothers, Tom Vaughan
Starring: Helen Mirren, Jason Clarke, Sarah Snook, Finn Sciclina-O’Prey, Angus Sampson, Laura Brent
Released: February 22, 2018
Grade: C

In doing a little background reading before seeing Winchester, I was fascinated by the true story on which it is based.  Oliver Winchester lived in Baltimore during the mid-1800s and created the Winchester Repeating Arms Company – an extremely profitable business that sold lever-action rifles.  Oliver died in 1880 at the age of 70 and then one year later, his only son, William, passed away due to the effects of Tuberculosis.  As a result, William’s wife, Sarah, inherited roughly $20 million as well as a 50% stake in the company. 

Three years later, Sarah moved to San Jose, California and bought an unfinished house along with 161 acres of farmland.  Using her immense wealth, she commissioned a series of renovations and extensions to her new home.  It’s at this point where things start to get rather strange.  The renovations continued for 38 years with Sarah seemingly never satisfied with the work performed.  At the time of her death, there were roughly 160 rooms including 40 bedrooms, 13 bathrooms, 47 fireplaces, and 17 chimneys.

It gets weirder.  Because the house had been built in such a haphazard manner with no formal plan, there were design features that made no logical sense.  Stairs went nowhere, doors opened up into blank walls, and windows overlooked other rooms.  Sarah also had an obsession with the number 13.  An expensive chandelier had room for 13 lit candles, clothes hooks were always placed together in groups of 13, and the drains in the sink contained 13 holes.  If you believe the rumours, this was all because that Sarah Winchester believed the house was haunted by the ghosts of those killed by firearms purchased from the Winchester Repeating Arms Company.

What excites me most of all is that the house still stands today.  If you’re ever visiting San Jose and have $39 USD to spare, you can get an hour-long tour that takes you inside 110 of the 160 rooms.  It has attracted more than 12 million visitors and it’s a place I’d love to visit myself one day.  It’s certainly a “truth is stranger than fiction” kind of tale.

All of it sounds like a great idea for a movie which is where Peter and Michael Spierig enter the frame.  They were born in Germany but moved to Australia with their parents at the age of 4.  They few up in Brisbane, went to the Queensland College of Art, and have made some worthy thrillers including Undead, Daybreakers and Predestination (a personal favourite of mine).  In putting together the cast for Winchester, they enlisted Oscar-winner Helen Mirren (The Queen) along with a bunch of fellow Aussies delivering their best American accents – Jason Clarke (Everest), Sarah Snook (The Dressmaker) and Angus Sampson (The Mule).

In terms of the narrative, it revolves around a doctor (Clarke) who has been recruited by the Winchester Repeating Arms Company to perform a medical assessment of Sarah Winchester (Mirren).  Given the bizarre house and the stories circulating about ghosts and spirits, the Board of the company don’t believe Sarah is of sound mind and body.  They assume the doctor will come back with a negative evaluation and this can be used to sever her involvement with the company.

What follows is a formulaic, ho-hum horror-thriller.  The doctor goes through the whole routine of denying the existence of ghosts but changes his tune when strange things start happening in the house.  Things get more extreme with each passing scene and we end up at a point where we’ve got possessed children, objects mysteriously being flung across the room, creepy noises, and equally creepy ghouls.  We’ve seen it before and we’ll see it again.

Given the way it is shot and the way the story plays out, it never feels scary and never makes the most of the intriguing setting.  The house is more interesting than any individual – and even it gets a bit boring after the opening hour.  It’s the same sort of thing from scene-to-scene with Helen Mirren trying to act mysterious, Jason Clarke searching for a personality, and a bunch of dull supporting players grasping for attention.  This is a cool idea for a movie but it’s not well executed.


Review: Game Night

Directed by: John Francis Daley, Jonathan Golden
Written by: Mark Perez
Starring: Jason Bateman, Rachel McAdams, Kyle Chandler, Billy Magnussen, Sharon Horgan, Lamorne Morris, Kylie Bunbury, Jesse Plemons, Danny Huston
Released: February 22, 2018
Grade: B

Game Night
I work with a bunch of people who get to the movies once every month or so but wouldn’t consider themselves film buffs.  Talking to them about the premise of Game Night (which they hadn’t heard of before), there was certainly a heightened level of intrigue.  Even I have to admit that it sounds like a cool idea for a movie on paper.

Written by Mark Perez (The Country Bears, Herbie Fully Loaded), we begin with a cute introduction as to how the film’s two key protagonists first me.  Max (Bateman) and Annie (McAdams) were on opposing teams at a pub trivia night but they quickly realised they had something in common – a mutual attraction and an intensely competitive nature.  Such is their love for games, Max actually popped the question during a game a charades.  I’d have expected nothing less from these two.

Things are generally going well for Max but there’s one sore point that’s making him anxious – his brother.  Brooks (Chandler) is a successful venture capitalist who lives in nice houses, travels around the world, and drives expensive cars.  Their levels of success are summed up best when Brooks is described as Mark Wahlberg and the underappreciated Max is described as Donnie Wahlberg.  It’s clear that max is tired of living in his brother’s shadow.

Agreeing to host a game night for the first time, Brooks once again tries to show off in front of Max, Annie and four of their good friends.  Rather than organise a simple game of Monopoly, Scrabble or Cluedo, he goes all out and orchestrates a fictitious crime.  He says that someone at the game night will be kidnapped and it’ll be up to everyone else to put together the clues and solve the mystery.  A substantial prize awaits the winner.

If you’ve seen the trailer or any adverts, you’ll know what happens next.  An actual crime is committed but the problem is that the participants at the game night are none the wiser.  They see Brooks being gagged and carried away by two hired goons without having any idea that it’s actually real.  What follows is a series of humorous, chaotic events as the game night participants try to locate Brooks without realising just how dangerous the situation is.

Leave your brain at the door with this one.  The more you think about it, the less sense it makes.... but that’s not to say that you can’t have fun watching it.  The story doesn’t flow particularly well but there are some great individual scenes that make it worth the price of admission.  A great example is a sequence where Max and Annie argue outside a convenience store while she tries to extract a bullet from his arm using a craft knife, a bottle of chardonnay, and instructions from Google.  It’s farcical but it’s funny.

The bickering between the characters also wins humour points.  Kevin (Morris) and Michelle (Bunbury) are two game night participants who lose focus after she admits she slept with a Hollywood celebrity several years ago (but won’t reveal who it is).  Ryan (Magnussen) is a not-so-bright friend who has brought along a first date (Horgan) for unknown reasons.  He gets limited screen time but Jesse Plemons is the MVP of the cast with his portrayal as a creepy, game-loving next-door neighbour with zero friends.

With some of the best jokes requiring a long set up (e.g. the scenes with Danny Huston), Game Night is fun, silly and trashy.  Make sure you stay until the very end of the credits for one final joke.


Review: Fifty Shades Freed

Directed by: James Foley
Written by: Niall Leonard
Starring: Dakota Johnson, Jamie Dornan, Eric Johnson, Max Martini, Brand Daugherty, Arielle Kebbel
Released: February 8, 2018
Grade: C

Fifty Shades Freed
And… another movie trilogy comes to a close.  Whilst the Fifty Shades franchise won’t be held in the same vein as The Godfather, The Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, The Dark Knight and Toy Story, its loyal fans won’t care too much.  Many were lured by the novels written by E.L. James whilst others were intrigued by the idea of a fairy tale romance with a bit of kinky sex thrown in.

The film begins with what is the first in a series of musical montages.  After popping the question during the last instalment, we see Anastasia Steele (Johnson) and Christian Grey (Dornan) getting married as the opening titles slip by.  We’ve got the wedding ceremony, the first dance, the well-attended reception and the lavish honeymoon all ticked off inside of 5 minutes.

You may think that it’s rushed to help get to the meatier part of the story but there’s not a lot going on here.  The opening half will only further heighten the dreams of those who yearn to be rich and famous.  Anastasia and Christian go mansion shopping and engage a world renowned designer.  They drive around town in high-speed million dollar cars.  They hire security guards and assistants to be at their beck and call 24 hours a day.  It’s nice work if you get it.

There are splashes of tension during the early scenes (e.g. Anastasia wants to keep using her maiden name at work) but things ramp up during the second half with a cheesy, cliched storyline that looks borrowed from an episode of Neighbours or Home & Away.  It’s a weak, rushed attempt to great drama and on breaking it down, doesn’t make a lot of sense.  Brace yourself for kidnappings and high-priced ransoms.

Whilst I’ve never really been a fan of the series and its weak narratives, I have always applauded the idea of making a romantic drama where the characters do things a little differently in the bedroom.  Unfortunately, the freshness that laced the original movie isn’t there this time around.  There’s more than enough nudity and sex scenes (perhaps more so this time) but it’s less likely to get people talking.  Arguably, those that enjoy unorthodox love stories would be better served by watching Phantom Thread, the Oscar nominated film from Paul Thomas Anderson released last week.

The acting here isn’t great and I’m confident that stars Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan will be looking to bank their final pay cheques and move onto more exciting, more challenging projects.  Their profile has certainly received a boost.  Looking at the broader ensemble, it’s amazing how uninteresting everyone seems.  No one stands out and we’re treated to dull storylines involving flirtatious work colleagues, not-so-diligent security guards, and other socialising friends.  I wish I knew the safe word so I could escape the cinema early.


Review: Black Panther

Directed by: Ryan Coogler
Written by: Ryan Coogler, Joe Robert Cole
Starring: Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, Martin Freeman, Daniel Kaluuya, Angela Bassett, Forest Whitaker, Andy Serkis
Released: February 15, 2018
Grade: A-

Black Panther
We’ve seen black superheroes before such as Blankman (1994), Steel (1997) and Blade (2004) but Blank Panther still marks an important milestone in terms of the genre.  Never before have we seen a superhero flick with so many black actors getting a chance to shine.  Of the 10 actors shown on the film’s poster, only two are white.  Arguably this movie should have been made long before now but it’s still great to see Marvel putting up $200 million to launch this new franchise.

The choice of director raised eyebrows when announced two years ago but hindsight shows it to be an excellent choice.  Ryan Coogler is a Californian-born with just two previous credits to his name.  He burst onto the scene in 2013 with Fruitvale Station, a low budget independent film that premiered at Sundance and told the true story of a 22-year-old African American who was killed by police in Oakland.  He followed that up with Creed, a reboot of the Rocky franchise that saw Sylvester Stallone pick up an Oscar nomination as the boxing coach of a young guy with big dreams.

If there’s a weakness in Black Panther, it’s the battle to pack so much story inside of two hours.  I was a little confused by the opening act as we’re introduced to all the characters and given a brief history lesson.  To do my best to explain… there’s a fictitious country in central African known as Wakanda.  It’s thought of as a third world country but what many don’t know is that it is home to a powerful, alien-sourced metal known as vibranium.  They keep the metal hidden and mask their true wealth so as not to be targeted by neighbouring countries.  It’s not a bad strategy.

Those living Wakanda harvest the metal and use to create technology that eclipses anything else available in the world.  This is where our hero comes in.  The King of Wakanda, otherwise known as the Black Panther, drinks a special potion which gives him near-invincible powers.  He rides around in an invisible spacecraft and wears a latex-like suit that can repel any bullet or any punch.  All of these are thanks to the magic that is vibranium.

With the introduction out of the way, the film then has the chance to explore some worthy themes.  The current King/Black Panther (Boseman) is being questioned by his shrewd girlfriend (Nyong’o) about his plans for the country.  With so much poverty in the world, she thinks it’s time to reveal the true Wakanda and use their wealth to help others.  The King isn’t so sure and sees his role as one of protecting his fellow citizens.  The parallels with Brexit and Trump’s America are clear.

There’s more than that going on.  A boisterous South African arms dealer (Serkis) is looking to steal some vibranium and sell it on the black market.  A young man from California (Jordan) learns of his Wakandan heritage and travels to Africa in search of answers and power.  Leading tribes people in Wakanda are forced to pick a side when the King’s views are challenged.  Do their loyalties lie with the man or the throne?  There’s a lot of cool stuff here.

Laced with political messages, Black Panther is a film to be admired for its rich, compelling story.  There are a few neat twists and you’re never quite sure what’s around the corner.  Further, there’s no clear “good” and “evil” as several of the key characters illustrate both traits.  If you’re going along just for the action, you won’t be disappointed either.  Coogler has created some intense battle sequences that are light-on in terms of special effects and editing.

The casting can’t be faulted either.  We’ve got veterans like Forest Whitaker (The Last King of Scotland) and Angela Bassett (What’s Love Got to Do with It) working alongside terrific young actors such as Chadwick Boseman (Get on Up) and Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years a Slave).  Everyone will have their favourites but in my eyes, it’s Michael B. Jordan who impresses most as the film’s intriguing quasi-villain.  He comes complete with a commanding presence and a trend-setting hairstyle.  It’s also interesting to note that of the three films Coogler has made, Jordan appears in all three.  They clearly have a great working relationship. 

I’m not alone in my positive words for Blank Panther and given the hype that is quickly building, this has the potential to be one of the biggest Marvel films yet.


Review: Insidious: The Last Key

Directed by: Adam Robitel
Written by: Leigh Whannell
Starring: Lin Shaye, Angus Sampson, Leigh Whannell, Spencer Locke, Caitlin Gerard, Bruce Davison
Released: February 8, 2018
Grade: C

Insidious: The Last Key
I have such respect for artists who are able to create something original, something that we haven’t really seen before.  Think about a budding writer for example.  When you put your head down and look at a blank computer screen, how can you possibly imagine to create something that will be the equal of Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, Stephen King or Virginia Woolf?  Being creative is not easy.

The same logic applies to the horror genre in the world of cinema.  We have movies that keep reusing similar storylines with similar techniques.  You’ve got long periods of silence followed by a sudden noise or musical cue.  There are creepy demons and ghost that you only get a fleeting look of during the early scenes (so as to lead up to a big reveal).  Let’s not forget things like dark basements, possessed kids, and characters acting illogically.

Just when you think you’ve seen it all, a writer and/or director finds a way to breathe life back into the genre.  Most recently we saw it with Jordan Peele and Get Out.  Despite being a low budget movie that was released with little publicity, its popularity grew thanks to great word of mouth.  It grossed a sizeable $175 million in the United States and has been nominated for 4 Academy Awards including best picture.  Not bad for a 38-year-old making his feature film directorial debut.

Other landmark horror films that have made a mark include Pyscho, Jaws, Alien, The Shining, Scream, Shaun of the Dead and Pan’s Labyrinth.  After several paragraphs of deliberate stalling, I now realise that I must turn my attention to the movie I’ve been asked to review – Insidious: The Last Key.  It’s the 4th in this moderately successful franchise.  The original (with Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne) was released back in 2010 by Australians James Wan and Leigh Whannell (who were also responsible for the Saw series).  Two sequels followed in 2013 and 2015 which leads us up to the current day.

It will help if you’ve seen at least some of the earlier films as there are references to past events and characters.  Insidious: The Last Key opens with a flashback.  We learn that heroic paranormal investigator Elise Rainier (Shaye) had encounters with ghost and demons when she was a very young girl growing up in 1950s New Mexico.  It was the start of a rough childhood.  Her mother was killed in bizarre circumstances and her father was an abusive alcoholic.  As soon as she was old enough, she fled and started a better life in California.

Moving forward to a more current day setting, Elise gets a call from a man who believes his house his haunted.  Given the inclusion of the opening flashback, it’s no surprise that it just so happens to be Elise’s childhood home from 60 years ago.  Whatever demons existed in that place have never left.  She enlists her two sleazy, socially awkward ghost-busting sidekicks (Sampson and Whannell) and they head off to the rundown town of Five Keys, New Mexico to solve another mystery.

The producers keep making these movies because people keep paying to see them.  That’s the only reason I can offer for why such a film exists.  It borrows from other horror films to the point where it doesn’t feel like there’s any fresh content whatsoever.  The storyline never gets the heart pumping and while yes, I’ll acknowledge there are a few scares thanks to camera trickery and sound effects, that’s not enough to warrant the 103 minute running time.

The biggest frustration is the way the characters act.  There are moments where they’re incredibly frightened and then moments later, they’re laughing and making jokes as if it’s all a sham.  They also make incredibly dumb decisions that are clearly necessary to prolong the narrative.  As a good example, there’s a scene where Elise’s brother enters the house with his two daughters to find a favourite childhood whistle he lost 60 years ago.  Really?  That’s the best reason they could come up with to justify going into a crime scene and potentially risking their lives?

Given Insidious: The Last Key has made more than $155 million USD worldwide, this isn’t the last time we’ll be hearing from these characters.  How about a more engaging script next time?


Review: Lady Bird

Directed by: Greta Gerwig
Written by: Greta Gerwig
Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Laurie Metcalf, Tracy Letts, Lucas Hedges, Timothée Chalamet, Beanie Feldstein
Released: February 15, 2018
Grade: A

Lady Bird
Awards season is always filled with terrific movies but this year’s group is particularly good.  We’ve been treated to The Florida Project, Call Me by Your Name, Coco, Three Billboards, The Post and The Shape of Water.  The last of this year’s Oscar nominees for best picture to make its way into Australian cinemas is Lady Bird, the creation of writer-director Greta Gerwig.  Gerwig is better known for starring in quirky comedies such as Greenberg, Damsels in Distress and Frances Ha but with Lady Bird, she shows that she’s just as talented behind the camera as she is in front of it.

The film takes us inside the world of Christine McPherson (Ronan) – a restless high school senior from Sacramento who isn’t sure what she wants out of life.  Set 15 years ago, she laments that “the only exciting thing about 2002 is that it’s a palindrome.”  She doesn’t have a lot of friends at school, she hasn’t been able to land a boyfriend, and she has a rocky relationship with her interfering mother, Marion (Metcalf).

What is clear is that Christine longs to escape her family roots and get the hell out of Sacramento.  The first way she demonstrates this is by changing her first name to “Lady Bird”, much to the displeasure of her mother.  Secondly, she enrols in a bunch of out-of-state colleges with the hope she’ll be accepted.  That won’t be easy given her school results are sub-optimal.

There are a number of storylines that generate both humour and drama.  Lady Bird finds love for the first time by winning the affections of a quiet, conservative boy (Hedges).  She ditches her loyal, long-time best friend so that she can try to strike up a new friendship with a superficial, uber-popular girl.  She runs afoul of the nuns who run the Catholic school by instigating a series of pranks and rebellious deeds.  Whilst they’re impeccably acted, these subplots aren’t offering anything we haven’t seen in previous teen-orientated flicks.

What separates Lady Bird from the pack is the funny, heartfelt way in delves into the relationship between mother and daughter.  Both women are strong willed and don’t yield easily when they have a differing point of view (which tends to be all the time).  Marion thinks she knows best as the elder statesman who appreciates how ruthless and tough the world can be.  She wants to impart that view on her daughter.  On the flip side, Lady Bird is frustrated by her mother’s negative, cynical attitude and lack of optimism.  It’s a big reason why she wants to enrol at a college across the other side of the country.

The tension between these two characters is the heart of the movie.  It’s also the reason why the brilliant Saoirse Ronan (Brooklyn) and Laurie Metcalf (Roseanne) have been nominated for Academy Awards.  Both make mistakes and both say unnecessarily mean things but that’s part of life.  There’s a great scene where they argue in a clothes store and then act like “best friends” moments later.  No matter how much they try to push each other away, there’s an unspoken bond that draws them back.

With sharp, insightful dialogue and some great individual scenes (such as when Lady Bird visits a convenience store after turning 18), Greta Gerwig deserves all the credit she’s been receiving for this “coming of age” gem.