Reviews

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: Thor: Ragnarok

Directed by: Taika Waititi
Written by: Craig Kyle, Christopher Yost, Eric Pearson
Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, Cate Blanchett, Idris Elba, Jeff Goldblum, Tessa Thompson, Karl Urban, Mark Ruffalo, Anthony Hopkins
Released: October 26, 2017
Grade: A-

Thor: Ragnarok
Thor: Ragnarok is good.  It’s easily the best in the Thor trilogy – an impressive feat given that sequels often lack the spark and freshness of the original.  To make a further comparison, it’s in a close battle with Wonder Woman and Spider-Man: Homecoming in determining the best superhero movie of 2017.

If you’ve been following social media over the past two weeks, none of this should be a surprise.  The buzz has been almost entirely positive since more than 2,000 people turned up for the Australian premiere at Robina.  There’s been an added layer of excitement here in Queensland given the film was made at Village Roadshow Studios at Movie World.  Additional scenes where shot in the Brisbane CBD last July with the corner of Albert and Margaret Street transformed into New York City.  I was one of thousands who went out for a stickybeak.

There are as many villains as heroes in Thor: Ragnarok.  That’s not a bad thing considering that villains are often the most interesting characters in an action flick.  Hela (Blanchett) is Thor’s sinister older sister who has the ambitious goal of ruling over all planets.  Surtur is a fiery, CGI-generated demon who cannot rest until he obliterates Asgard, Thor’s home planet.  The Grandmaster (Goldblum) is a mischievous elder who enslaves powerful aliens for his own gladiator-style fighting games on the planet of Sakaar.  Let’s not forget the returning Loki (Hiddleston) who shows glimpses of goodness but can’t shake his thirsty for domineering power.

It falls upon Thor (Hemsworth) to save the universe once again but he will need a little help along the way.  A newcomer to the series is Valkyrie (Thompson) – a warrior who once had an important role on Asgard but now operates a “talent scout” for the Grandmaster.  Returning faces include the big green Hulk (Ruffalo) and the wizard-like Heimdall (Elba).

This is a career changing project for New Zealand born director Taika Waititi.  Over the past decade, he’s forged a reputation for making great low-budget films such as Boy, What We Do in the Shadows and Hunt for the Wilderpeople.  The budget is roughly 100 times what he’s accustomed to but Thor: Ragnarok still feels like a Taika Waititi film.  It’s got a warped, darkish sense of humour and some fun, well-timed cameos.  He also finds a way to weave himself into the action by playing the film’s funniest character.

It’s hard to criticise any element of the production.  There are many subplots to cover but the screenplay devotes the right amount of time to each.  A distinctive synthesised film score has been created by Mark Mothersbaugh (The LEGO Movie).  The costume designers and make-up artists deserve praise for their work on Cate Blanchett and Jeff Goldblum.

The bottom line is that Thor: Ragnarok is a really fun movie.  The story is compelling and the one-liners are hilarious.  I can’t wait to see it again.

 

Review: Home Again

Directed by: Hallie Meyers-Shyer
Written by: Hallie Meyers-Shyer
Starring: Reese Witherspoon, Michael Sheen, Candice Bergen, Nat Wolff, Jon Rudnitsky, Pico Alexander
Released: October 19, 2017
Grade: B+

Home Again
Rich people are no happy than you or I.  Whether you believe in that saying or not, it’s put to good use during the early scenes of Home Again.  It is centred on Alice (Witherspoon), a 40-year-old woman from Los Angeles at the crossroads of her life.  When we first meet her, she’s crying in front of her bathroom mirror.  She recently separated from her husband (Sheen) and is trying to come to grips with how the world works as a single mum with two young children.

In terms of what Alice does for work, that’s a bit of a mystery.  She’s ordered a fresh batch of business cards and is looking to move into interior design.  It’s more of a “need something to keep me busy” hobby than a legitimate career.  She doesn’t need the money as her father was a successful film director.  He left Alice with a beautiful home and a large bank account when he passed away.

Convinced by her girlfriends to go out partying one night, Alice hooks up with Harry (Alexander), a 20-something-year-old who yearns of being a filmmaker.  Harry, his brother (Wolff), and his best friend (Rudnitsky) are trying to forge a career in Hollywood but fame and fortune are hard to come by.  With almost no money to their name, Alice allows them to move into her guest house (wish I had one) for a few weeks while they finish work on a make-or-break script.

The arrival of the three guys changes the dynamic of the house – mostly for the better.  Alice’s eldest daughter has been battling anxiety issues (she even asks for anti-depressants) but gains much needed confidence from her new housemates.  Alice’s mother, Lillian (Bergen), is also excited by developments and is doing her best to push Alice and Harry closer together.

Home Again marks the debut feature film of writer-director Hallie Meyers-Shyer.  She had a little help breaking into the industry.  Her parents are Charles Shyer and Nancy Meyers – a power couple in Hollywood who have helped create films such Private Benjamin, Father of the Bride, What Women Want, Something’s Gotta Give and It’s Complicated.  They were also behind the 1998 remake of The Parent Trap where they named the two twins after their own daughters – Annie and Hallie.

This isn’t a life changing movie but there are a few points of difference that make Home Again worth watching.  It tries to break away from the traditional “boy gets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl” formula.  Alice isn’t someone who must be attached to a man to make their life better.  The support and friendship offered by the three guys is just as valuable.  It’s an interesting dynamic and I laughed at a line where she jokingly describes what they individually provide – sex, childcare and a business website.

Home Again is at its best when things are going well within the household.  The banter between the characters is fun and insightful.  The two children are particularly adorable.  The film feels less authentic when trying to create tension.  A missed dinner date causes an unnecessary level of drama.  A scene involving Alice’s husband and a punch-up is borrowed from the rom-com textbook.  I’d also argue that Harry’s ongoing interaction with his agents is an unnecessary distraction that soaks up screen time.

With a splash of pop-culture humour thrown in (e.g. Jerry Maguire, Sean Penn), Hallie Meyers-Shyer deserves praise for a likeable debut feature.

 

Review: Suburbicon

Directed by: George Clooney
Written by: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen, George Clooney, Grant Heslov
Starring: Matt Damon, Julianne Moore, Oscar Isaac, Noah Jupe, Glenn Fleshler, Megan Ferguson
Released: October 26, 2017
Grade: C+

Suburbicon
The first few minutes of this film had me thinking it was a remake of the brilliant 1998 comedy, Pleasantville.  It takes us to the 1950s and an idyllic community where everything is perfect – at least when looking through the eyes of the residents.  The houses are beautifully presented, the kids play in the street, and the adults smile and politely chat to all who walk past.  It’s not a world with which I am familiar.

It’s not long before we realise there’s a much darker undercurrent within the neighbourhood.  An African American family moves into one of the homes and this infuriates the all-white townsfolk who voice their disapproval at the Suburbicon Betterment Committee.  They may as well just call themselves the Kl Klux Klan given their actions and ridiculous mindset.  They will stop at nothing to have all black people kicked out of the suburb.

As all that goes on, a second story is told.  It’s given more weight and more air time.  Gardner Lodge (Damon) is a prominent businessman trying to grapple with the loss of his wife (Moore).  Her death was no accident.  She was given a lethal dose of drugs by two burglars who broke into their home.  Gardner, his son (Jupe), and his sister-in-law (also Moore) were also subdued as part of the robbery but lived to tell the tale.

Suburbicon began as a screenplay from the highly acclaimed Joel and Ethan Coen (Fargo, No Country for Old Men).  They didn’t get the chance to bring it to the screen (perhaps because they were working on better projects) and so it was picked up and modified by George Clooney and his writing-producing partner, Grant Heslov.  These two have combined previously to make films such as Leatherheads, The Ides of March and the Oscar-nominated Good Night, and Good Luck.

In describing this movie, it’s hard to come up with a better adjective than “disappointing”.  You’d expect better given the calibre of the cast and crew.  The fault lies with the screenplay as it struggles to blend these two distinctive stories.  The part involving the African American family is laughably inadequate.  I can’t even recall a scene where the husband and wife share a conversation.  It’s mostly footage of protestors yelling, screaming and banging. 

The Matt Damon-led narrative appears to be the piece that originated from the Coen brothers’ first draft screenplay.  It wants to be a gritty, complex dark comedy but aside from a handful of unexpected twists, it’s not particularly funny or engaging.  A rare highlight arrives when Oscar Isaac, playing an insurance investigator, sits down for coffee and a chat with Julianne Moore’s character.  Aside from that, most of the dialogue is ho-hum. 

George Clooney has something to say in Suburbicon… I’m just not exactly sure what that is.

 

Review: The Mountain Between Us

Directed by: Hany Abu-Assad
Written by: Chris Weitz
Starring: Idris Elba, Kate Winslet, Beau Bridges, Dermot Mulroney
Released: October 12, 2017
Grade: C+

The Mountain Between Us
A small charter plane crashes on top of a snow-covered mountain in a remote part of the United States.  The pilot is killed and the two passengers survive, albeit with a few injuries.  Joined by a dog who was also aboard the plane, this unlikely duo go on a lengthy trek through freezing conditions to find help before it is too late.

It’s a worthy premise.  However, how we get to that point is a little cheesy.  Ben (Elba) and Alex (Winslet) are two strangers who meet by chance at an airport in Idaho en route to Denver.  Every plane has been cancelled due to bad weather and this has thrown their plans into disarray.  Ben is a renowned doctor who must get home to perform critical surgery on a patient.  Alex is equally desperate since her wedding is scheduled for the next day.

With all hire cars taken, they go with an unorthodox option and approach Walter (Bridges), the owner of a small 4-seater plane.  He isn’t too fussed about the inclement weather (not sure why) and decides not to lodge a flight plan (not sure why either).  I should also add that Ben and Alex haven’t told any family members of the plans either (not sure why again).

All of these points are relevant for when Murphy’s Law kicks in.  The plane goes down and whilst Ben and Alex survive, there’s almost no point in waiting to be rescued because no one knows where they are.  They will need to harness every ounce of energy, climb down the mountain, and return to civilisation.  All of this takes place in the second act which is the most interesting part of Hany Abu-Assad’s film.  Whilst our two heroes are sharp, intelligent people, they don’t always agree on strategy.  The stress of the situation and the increasingly likelihood that they won’t survive starts to take its toll.

The film is ruined by a farcical finale that resembles something from a Nicholas Sparks novel.  Despite the fact that Alex is engaged and Ben is an emotional vacuum, the two fall in love.  I want to say a more but I need to be careful in terms of spoilers.  You’ll know what I mean once you’ve seen the movie.  It runs 10-15 minutes longer than it should and the final scene (just before the quick fade to black) exemplifies the clichéd nature of the material.  I guess screenwriter Chris Weitz (About a Boy) had limited options in trying to stay true to the novel penned by Charles Martin.

Idris Elba and Kate Winslet are both terrific actors but their skills are not enough to save this sappy mess. 

 

Review: The Snowman

Directed by: Tomas Alfredson
Written by: Hossein Amini, Peter Straughan, Søren Sveistrup
Starring: Michael Fassbender, Rebecca Ferguson, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Val Kilmer, J.K. Simmons, Toby Jones
Released: October 19, 2017
Grade: C

The Snowman
As a general rule, I try to read as little as possible about a movie before seeing it.  That said, I couldn’t help but read an article today about The Snowman that was doing the rounds on social media.  After getting poor reviews and a lukewarm box-office opening in the United Kingdom, Swedish director Tomas Alfredson made a startling revelation.  He admitted that the film isn’t as good as he’d hoped because about 10-15% of the material was never filmed.  They ran out of time and didn’t realise the problems it would cause until they hit the editing room.

I’m in two minds about this statement.  On one hand, I think it’s refreshing that a director would come out and admit that the finished product isn’t what they envisioned and that mistakes were made.  On the other hand, it’s not a particularly good look when the production companies are trying to recoup their costs – believed to be about $35 million USD in this case.  Perhaps he should have waited a few more weeks before opening up.

Based on the 2007 novel by author Jo Nesbø, The Snowman is a thriller that builds early intrigue but loses momentum during the middle stages.  Harry Hole (Fassbender) was once a top-notch police detective in Oslo but now he’s a laughing stock.  We never really learn why his career went off the rails but we can see the aftereffects – he’s separated from his long-term partner (Gainsbourg), he’s struggling to sleep at night, and he’s drinking a lot of vodka.

Pleading with his boss for a juicy case to work on, Harry is partnered with a new recruit, Katrine (Ferguson), and asked to investigate the disappearance of a young mother.  It’s clearly something he’s not interested in.  He has a quick look around the house, talks to the daughter, and concludes that the woman ran off with another man. 

It’s not long before Harry realises there’s more to this mystery.  Other women go missing and he gets a mysterious letter in the mail.  There’s a serial killer at work and their “calling card” is a snowman constructed in the front yard of his victims.  I’m not sure how there are no witnesses given some of the murders happen in populated areas but it’s best not to think too deeply.  You’ll only find more holes.

Even without reading the aforementioned article, it’s evident that there are problems with the screenplay.  Out of nowhere, the film introduces a series of quick flashbacks that feature characters that haven’t been introduced.  Their relevance has been deliberately concealed to keep us guessing but when all is revealed in the final half-hour, it’s not as exciting as one might hope.  Other subplots add zero value.  An example is the plight of high-profile politician (Simmons) who is trying to secure a major sporting event for the city of Oslo.

There’s a similar lack of character development when it comes to the main players in the current day setting.  Audiences will struggle with Harry.  One minute he’s a strong-willed guy trying to track down a killer.  The next minute we see him lying on the floor doing nothing.  One minute he’s a family fan trying to bond with the son of his ex-partner.  The next he doesn’t seem to care about anyone or anything.  I never knew what he was thinking.

All the ingredients were there to make this a great thriller.  Alfredson has made some terrific films in the past such as Let the Right One In and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.  The crew included Oscar-winning editor Thelma Schoonmaker (The Departed) and Brisbane-born cinematographer Dion Beebe (Memoirs of a Geisha).  Martin Scorsese offered counsel as an executive producer and the quality cast speaks for itself.

Given that Tomas Alfredson has given his own film the “thumbs down”, it’s hard for me to argue otherwise.