Reviews

Review: Sicario: Day of the Soldado

Directed by: Stefano Sollima
Written by: Taylor Sheridan
Starring: Benicio del Toro, Josh Brolin, Isabela Moner, Jeffrey Donovan, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Catherine Keener
Released: June 28, 2018
Grade: B+

Sicario: Day of the Soldado
How much faith do you have in the government, the military, and the intelligence divisions that they oversee?  Do you think they should rely on firm, well established processes that protect human rights and require the law to be obeyed at all times?  Or should we rely on the judgement of the people and allow them to act outside of the law if they believe it can produce a better outcome?

If that question was asked of the fictional Secretary of Defence James Riley (Modine) in Sicario: Day of the Soldado, he would selection answer #2.  A terrorist attack has occurred in Kansas City with a group of suicide bombers targeting a grocery store and killing 15 people.  The public are desperate for more information.  They want to know the identity of the killers, their motives, and what the U.S. Government is doing to ensure justice is served.  With traditional forms of detective work coming up empty, Riley proclaims that “dirty is what we need”.

Suspecting that a Mexican cartel may have helped the terrorists enter the country, the U.S. Government decides to ruffle feathers with a secret, illegal operation.  They call upon the services of Matt Graver (Brolin) and ask him to kick start a war between cartels in Mexico to help flush out key targets and put a dent in their resources.  Assisted by old friend Alejandro Gillick (del Toro), Graver gets the job done by kidnapping the 16-year-old daughter of a cartel leader (Moner) and laying a trail that points to a rival cartel.  The drones, the helicopters and the weaponry are all funded “under the counter” by a mysterious government branch.

It’s not as strong as its 2015 predecessor but Sicario: Day of the Soldado still features some great pieces that will leave you on the edge of your seat.  These characters have an array of technology at their disposal and it’s both enthralling and scary to see their plans executed with such precision.  The best example is the kidnapping sequence where almost nothing is left to chance. 

Most action-thrillers are often a battle of good versus evil but this film bucks that trend and could be described as evil versus evil.  It’s hard to work out who to cheer for.  While these characters show fleeing glimpses of a softer side, their motives are largely selfish with wealth, power and revenge at the forefront of their minds.  The film also touches on two divisive subjects in the United States right now – drug control and immigration.

Benecio del Toro and Josh Brolin have reprised their roles from the original with both delivering gritty performances.  Oscar nominated screenwriter Taylor Sheridan (Hell or High Water) made the decision not to bring back Emily Blunt because “her arc was complete”.  It’s a shame as she was the most interesting character from the first movie – a woman forced to question her morals when realising those around her share different ideals.  Such an individual is lacking in Sicario: Day of the Soldado but it’s one of the few weaknesses of a strong production.

Review: Adrift

Directed by: Baltasar Kormákur
Written by: Aaron Kandell, Jordan Kandell, David Branson Smith
Starring: Shailene Woodley, Sam Claflin
Released: June 28, 2018
Grade: B-

Adrift
Making a lost-at-sea movie is not an easy assignment.  You’ve got a single, limited location and a small number of characters.  Director J.C. Chandor took the genre to its most extreme in 2013 with All is Lost.  It featured just one person (Robert Redford) and almost no dialogue.  There’s more than one way to skin a cat as illustrated by other filmmakers who have successfully used plot devices to help keep audiences engaged.  Cast Away had Tom Hanks talking to a volleyball while Life of Pi brought in animals and a spiritual theme.

Based on a true story that took place in 1983, Adrift sets its scene very quickly.  Tami (Woodley) is a 23-year-old woman who wakes up in the cabin of a small yacht.  Her head is bleeding, there’s water in cabin, and there’s no sign of her boyfriend.  It’s clear she’s in the middle of the ocean and with the boat badly damaged and the radio beyond repair, her odds of survival don’t look great.

Guided by the screenplay, director Baltasar Kormákur (Everest) uses a familiar method to help tell this story – flashbacks.  We slip back 5 months and learn that Tami is an adventure-seeker who had travelled from her home in the United States to Tahiti in search of fun times.  She picked up a small job working in a harbour and it’s there she met Richard (Claflin) – a slightly older man with a love of the sea who had built his own boat from scratch.

The film is split fairly evenly between the two timeframes.  On the stricken yacht, we follow Tami as she battles the elements and tries to guide the boat to land.  Most viewers will be asking themselves the same questions.  Where will she find food and water?  How does she know what direction to head?  What happened to her boyfriend?  These questions are answered for the most part but it’s not offering us anything we haven’t seen in similar survival flicks.

The other half of the movie is structured as a love story while also filling in plot gaps.  There are a few cheesy rom-com lines such a moment where Richard opens up about his feelings and tells Tami that he’s never met anyone like her before.  She reciprocates with something similar.  Of more interest is the early part of their voyage and the huge storm that engulfs the yacht and causes all the damage.

It’s hard to be too critical given this is based on actual people and events but there’s a contrived nature to certain plot points which makes the story difficult to fully invest in.  An example is a sequence where a starving Tami has the chance to kill a fish but has hesitations because she’s a vegetarian.  Really?  We’re not talking about cannibalism here.  Would someone at death’s door turn down the chance of food because of their moral beliefs?  Tami ultimately makes the right decision but it’s still a strange part of the movie that’s trying to create unnecessary drama.

Kudos to Shailene Woodley (The Descendants) for a strong leading performance.  The best scenes are those on the boat and credit goes to the make-up artists who have done a stellar job demonstrating the effects of the sun, wind and rain on her tortured body.  The lovey-dovey scenes with Woodley and Sam Claflin (The Hunger Games) weren’t as convincing and felt targeted at overly romantic, idealistic teenagers.

Adrift has tempted me to do more reading about the real-life people involved (so that’s a good thing) but as a standalone movie, it’s not as gripping as you might expect.

Review: Incredibles 2

Directed by: Brad Bird
Written by: Brad Bird
Starring: Craig T. Nelson, Holly Hunter, Sarah Vowell, Huck Milner, Samuel L. Jackson, Brad Bird, Bob Odenkirk, Catherine Keener, Jonathan Banks
Released: June 14, 2018
Grade: A-

Incredibles 2
I went to an opening night screening of the Incredibles 2 here in Brisbane and on walking into the cinema, my first observation was that adults were abundant and kids were few and far between.  That shouldn’t come as a surprise to those familiar with the original.  The Incredibles was the 4th highest grossing film of 2004, it won two Academy Awards including best animated feature, and was watched again and again on DVD by children around the world.  Those kids have now grown up and will be contributing heavily to the box-office of this much anticipated sequel.

So what made the first movie so good?  Firstly, it was a fun superhero flick that combined fast paced action with family dynamics.  These heroes may have powers that allow them to save the world but they find it just as difficult as a regular person to juggle responsibilities at home.  There were some great arguments between the inflexible father, Mr Incredible (Nelson), and his argumentative teenage daughter, Violet (Vowell).  Secondly, it highlighted that superheroes can rescue as many people as they want but they won’t be universally loved.  Mr Incredible saved a man falling from a high-rise building but was later sued because it turns out the guy wanted to commit suicide!

Incredibles 2 follows closely in the footsteps of its predecessor and explores similar themes.  Mr Incredible and his wife, Elastigirl (Hunter), arrive on the scene to prevent the evil Underminer from robbing the vault of a major bank.  The stop the crime but there’s huge collateral damage with wrecked cars and smashed infrastructure.  On top of that, the Underminer gets away.  It leaves the public asking more questions about whether the pros of superheroes outweigh the cons.

Looking to win the public relations battle, Elastigirl accepts a job with DEVTECH, a leading telecommunications company that supports the superhero cause.  They install state-of-the-art cameras on her latex suit so that all her heroic actions can be filmed and broadcast to the world.  This will be helpful if her actions are ever questioned.  As all of this goes on, Mr Incredible has reluctantly become the caregiver at home.  It’s his job to feed the kids, get them off to school and assist with their homework.  The fact their infant baby is discovering his own superpowers makes life even more stressful and adds to his sleepless nights.

Sequels often feel inferior to the original but that’s not the case here.  Writer-director Brad Bird has returned to create a worthy, interesting story that befits the era we live in.  It’s cool to think that an animated feature about action heroes also has time to make some important observations about father-daughter relationships and a husband feeling weak because his wife is the major breadwinner of the household.  There’s a lot at play here and a lot for audiences to digest, whether they be kids or adults.

Turning to the technical elements, the animation is fantastic and so too is the music score from Pixar stalwart Michael Giacchino (Ratatouille, Up, Star Trek).  It’s a soundtrack that will soon be added to my collection.  The voice cast have all returned from the first movie with Craig T. Nelson going through a draft of emotions as the father and Samuel L. Jackson getting some great one-liners as another of the superheroes, Frozone.  Brad Bird also reprises his role as the aging fashion designer, Edna Mode, in a particularly good scene.

It’s been a 14 year wait for Incredibles 2 and if this film is as popular as I think it will be, we won’t be waiting as long for a follow up.

Review: Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom

Directed by: J.A. Bayona
Written by: Colin Trevorrow, Derek Connolly
Starring: Chris Pratt, Bryce Dallas Howard, Rafe Spall, Justice Smith, Daniella Pineda, James Cromwell, Toby Jones
Released: June 21, 2018
Grade: C+

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom
In November 1990, American author Michael Crichton published a fictional novel about a theme park with genetically engineered dinosaurs.  Few would have envisioned the reach it would have around the world.  We’ve now had 5 movies, several videos games, and a theme park ride at Universal Studios in Hollywood (which belts out John Williams’ iconic film score through the speakers as you arrive).

It’s been a good run but the question must be asked – has the Jurassic World film franchise reached its peak?  There are some worthwhile action sequences here but for the most part, this is a tired looking movie with a lacklustre plot.  Picking things up several years after Jurassic World (2015), it opens by presenting a moral dilemma.  The last remaining dinosaurs on the planet now live without human contact on a small island off the coast of Costa Rica.  Sadly, a volcano is set to erupt which will obliterate the island and kill the last of these giant creatures.

So what’s the plan?  One school of thought is to have nature take its course and let the dinosaurs die out.  They’ve been problematic since first regenerated and perhaps this is nature’s way of restoring balance.  On the flip side, there’s a some who want to save the dinosaurs and believe that future generations should have the chance to see and study these incredible creatures.  The government takes the first view while a group of dinosaur-rights activists, led by Claire Dearing (Howard), take the second view.  They accept finance from a wealthy scientist (Cromwell) to help rescue the dinosaurs and transport them to a safe sanctuary before it’s too late.

There are several problematic elements to the story and topping the list are two “bad guys” played by Rafe Spall and Toby Jones.  They’ve crafted an illogical plan to steal the dinosaurs and sell them on the black market for an insanely high price.  They’ll pulled together a group of influential heavyweights, motivated solely by power and money, for a fast-paced auction at a secluded mansion.  It’s a laughable scene with no nuance to the characters whatsoever.  The ideas of these one-note villains are so dumb and clichéd they belong in a Scooby Doo cartoon.

It’s not all bad news though.  Director J.A. Bayona (The Impossible, A Monster Calls) has created a number of cool escape sequences.  The pick of the bunch comes early in the film when the original island is about to explode and our beloved heroes are trying to evade a fast-flowing river of lava in addition to the dinosaurs and hunters.  Another notable scene features Bryce Dallas Howard and Chris Pratt as they try to extract blood from a sedated creature in a confined space.

The film sticks with the tone of its predecessors and shies away from violence.  Whilst some folk won’t make it to the end alive, we’re not shown any of the deaths in graphic detail.  The visual effects teams have done a stellar job and when you hear the sound of dinosaurs creeping across wooden floorboards, complete with their sharp nails, you’ll have an appreciation of the work performed by the sound engineers.

We will see more from this franchise as a 6th film is scheduled to be released in 2021.  That fact will be obvious when you see the cliff hanger finale in Fallen Kingdom which, like most of what precedes it, doesn’t make a lot of sense.  Am I supposed to be cheering for these heroes?  Or hoping they die like everyone else?

Review: Tag

Directed by: Jeff Tomsic
Written by: Rob McKittrick, Mark Steilen
Starring: Ed Helms, Jeremy Renner, Jon Hamm, Jake Johnson, Hannibal Buress, Isla Fisher, Rashida Jones, Annabelle Wallis
Released: June 14, 2018
Grade: C+

Tag
Five adult guys playing a game of tag.  That’s the premise behind the latest release from Warner Bros. Pictures.  They played the game as children and they’ve never really grown up.  They even have a detailed rule book which has evolved since the 1980s and contains simple conditions such as “you can’t tag the person who tagged you.”  Another key rule is that the game only takes place in the month of May each year.  Suffice to say you don’t want to be the last person tagged because you’ll have to wait another 11 months to be rid of it.

This isn’t some fun thing these guys do on weekends.  We see their passion illustrated in the opening scene.  Hoagie (Helms) is desperate to tag his mate Bob (Hamm) but can’t get through the tight security at Bob’s high rise office building.  So what does Hoagie do?  He applies for a janitor’s job at the company, gets a staff pass, puts on a disguise, and interrupts Bob while in an important meeting.  It’s a huge amount of effort but Bob is ultimately tagged and the cycle continues.

Does this sound silly, far-fetched and unrealistic?  That was my first reaction to the plot but you may be surprised to know this is based on a true story.  It was all revealed in an article in the Wall Street Journal in 2013 when the new chief marketing officer at a leading fashion retailer told the story to a journalist.  The men are now in their 40s but the game is ongoing and much of what you see in the film was created from events that actually took place.  You’ll even see video footage of the real guys during the closing credits.

I’m not sure how this would have worked as a documentary but it had the potential to be more interesting than this over-dramatised re-enactment.  Screenwriters Rob McKittrick and Mark Steilen have tried to spice things up by introducing a quasi-villain named Jerry (Renner) who, despite having played the game for so long, has never once been tagged.  He’s always been too competitive, too fast and too smart for the others in the game.

The guys learn that Jerry is to be quietly married in the month of May (an odd but convenient date choice given the rules of the game) and so they all head back to their home town in Washington and put together an elaborate plan to tag him for the first time.  They are joined by a journalist (Wallis) who is interested in writing a story about their bizarre game.  The end result is large scale hijinks with everyone trying to outsmart the other and remain tag-free.

I’ll be honest – it’s hard to believe that 4 people and a few others offering support can’t find a way to tag one guy over a 30 year period!  To try to make his character appear credible, we’re given insight into his sharp mind using narration and we also see him use an array of ninja-like escape acts that give him the appearance of a Marvel Comics superhero.  It’s just a bit too weird and over-the-top.

There are other elements to the screenplay that are undercooked.  An example is a love triangle that develops between two of the men and an old childhood sweetheart but her character adds next-to-nothing to the broader narrative.  The same can be said of the journalist who looks like a stunned bystander for most of the movie.  It makes you wonder why the character was included in the first place.

I’d suggest you read the original Wall Street Journal article about these people but if you’re still keen to see the movie, keep your expectations in check.

 

Review: Brother's Nest

Directed by: Clayton Jacobson
Written by: Jaime Browne
Starring: Shane Jacobson, Clayton Jacobson, Kim Gyngell, Lynette Curran, Sarah Snook
Released: June 21, 2018
Grade: B

Brother's Nest
In compiling a list of Australia’s best comedic films, one movie that deserves inclusion is Kenny.  The creation of two brothers, Shane and Clayton Jacobson, the film told the tale of a loveable guy who rented portable toilets for use at concerts, carnivals and sporting events.  The film spent 13 weeks inside the top 10 at the Australian box-office and grossed just under $8 million – more than any other Aussie film in 2006 with the exception of the animated blockbuster Happy Feet.

That helped open a few doors for the largely unknown Jacobson brothers.  Shane continued to act and landed roles in productions such as Charlie & Boots, Oddball and Jack Irish.  Clayton picked up the occasional acting gig while churning out a few short films.  He was also involved in the short-lived spin-off television series, Kenny’s World.

Despite the success of Kenny and a myriad of ideas, the Jacobson brothers struggled to get a follow up feature film off the ground.  That was until they came up with an original way of obtaining finance.  Rather than make a movie and try to sell it to cinema owners/managers, they were able to convince the cinemas to come on at the start as “investors”.

As an example, if a cinema could stump up $20,000 in funding, they would have special advertising and a red-carpet premiere with both brothers attending.  They would also share in any profit if the film became a smash hit.  Aside from generating the necessary cash, the other big advantage of this financing model is that it guaranteed cinema screens – a tough ask for the average low-budget Aussie film when trying to compete against Hollywood blockbusters.

So is the film worth seeing?  The answer is a mild “yes”.  It’s the fictional tale of two brothers (played by Shane and Clayton) with a lot on their mind.  Their mother has terminal cancer and, rather that worry about how to make her final months as great as possible, their #1 priority is her will.  Custody of the family home will transfer to their step-father and the brothers are worried that he’ll screw them over and give them nothing when it’s ultimately sold.  Rather than sit down and talk it through, they come up with an unorthodox solution – to kill the step-dad.

Brother’s Nest is broken up into two distinct parts.  The first half is all about planning.  The brothers talk through a number of scenarios and role play the impending murder.  They’ve even come up with a murder “to do list” to make sure everything is in place and nothing goes wrong.  The second half is about the execution.  Things don’t go as expected and the film takes a few unexpected twists.

This is a dark, warped comedy.  You’ll have a few laughs with these not-so-bright characters during the early scenes as they argue about almost everything.  One is meticulously prepared while the other doesn’t seem to care.  Given the worst thing they’ve ever done in life is a dodgy tax return, it makes you wonder if they’ve got the guts to follow through.

It’s at this point where the tone shifts dramatically and, somewhat reminiscent of a dark Coen Brothers flick, will catch some audiences off guard.  The arrival of two new characters, played by Kim Gyngell and Lynette Curran, give the film a much needed spark.  You’ll forget about the slightly drawn-out opening and be drawn into the intense conclusion.  The fact that it feels so plausible adds to the uncomfortable vibe (in a positive way).

It won’t be as iconic as Kenny but Brother’s Nest still makes a strong mark.