Review: Collateral Beauty

Directed by: David Frankel
Written by: Allan Loeb
Starring: Will Smith, Edward Norton, Keira Knightley, Michael Pena, Naomie Harris, Jacob Latimore, Kate Winslet, Helen Mirren, Ann Dowd
Released: January 12, 2017
Grade: C

Collateral Beauty
There was a time when Will Smith was the most “bankable” star in Hollywood.  Between 1996 and 2012, he starred in 13 films that grossed more than $100 million in the United States.  He could do action (Independence Day), comedy (Hitch), animation (Shark Tale) and heart-warming drama (The Pursuit of Happyness).

High hopes were held for his latest outing, Collateral Beauty, but they quickly dissipated when the film was released in the U.S. last week.  The box-office was poor and the reviews were even worse.  The blame was being passed around and it started an online debate about whether the “schoolyard assault” from nasty critics helped sink the film’s fate.

For the record, I don’t think critics have a major impact.  Will Smith’s last effort, Suicide Squad, has just a 26% approval on Rotten Tomatoes and a 6.4 out of 10 score on the Internet Movie Database (not good).  It didn’t stop the film from making close to $750 million internationally.  The biggest driver of a film’s financial success is marketing.  There’s been plenty of advertising for Collateral Beauty – perhaps audiences have been given a taste and simply aren’t interested?

I’d love to tell you this is a remarkable film that everyone must see.  I’m sorry, I can’t.  It’s a strange outing from director David Frankel (The Devil Wears Prada) that left a bad taste in my mouth.  Howard (Smith) is an owner and manager of a successful advertising company based in New York City.  Tragically, his whole world was upended when his 6-year-old daughter passed away.

Two years have passed since that date and he now walks around like a mindless zombie.  He won’t speak to any clients or any staff.  He shuts himself away in his office and builds pointless domino displays (the latest took 5 days).  He’s no different away from the office either.  He’s split from his wife, he lives alone, and he rides his bike into oncoming traffic like he has a death wish.

The co-owners of the business (Norton, Smith and Winslet) have reached a breaking point.  They’re about to lose another major client and it won’t be long before their hard work is lost and their shares will be worth nothing.  A competitor has made a generous cash offer to buy the company but Howard refuses to listen let alone negotiate.  Despite everyone else being keen on the sale, it cannot proceed without Howard’s approval given he is the majority shareholder.

So what would you do in this situation?  This is where the screenplay of Allan Loeb (Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps) derails.  The co-owners hire a private investigator (Dowd) to follow Howard and they learn he’s been writing therapeutic letters to Death, Time and Love.  They believe this demonstrates that Howard is not of sound mind and he should therefore not be allowed, under law, to stop the company sale.

It gets worse though.  They then employ three actors (Mirren, Latimore and Knightley) to play Death, Time and Love.  Each will approach Howard in the street and get him to think that he’s talking to some kind of apparition.  All of it will be filmed by the private detective on her iPhone and will be used as evidence should the case go before a judge.  With friends like these, who needs enemies, right?

This is a contrived storyline that comes across as mean-spirited.  The idea of using paid actors as “therapy ghosts” is intriguing the motivations of the co-owners are incredibly misguided.  The film then has the audacity to suggest they’re doing the right thing!  There are several subplots designed to make us feel empathy for the co-owners that are unrealistic and manipulative.

The only parts of the film that comes across as sincere are handful of scenes where Howard slowly opens up to the leader (Harris) of a self-help group who is trying to help him through the grieving process.  That said, she lost me when explaining the concept of “collateral beauty”.  It epitomised so much of the movie in that I couldn’t buy what it was trying to sell.


Review: Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life

Directed by: Steve Carr
Written by: Chris Bowman, Hubbel Palmer, Kara Holden
Starring: Griffin Gluck, Lauren Graham, Rob Riggle, Thomas Barbusca, Andy Daly, Adam Pally
Released: January 12, 2017
Grade: C-

Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life
Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life is a chaotic family comedy that tries to win audiences over with its silliness but fails miserably.  It begins with the unfortunately named Rafe Khatchadorian (Gluck) starting at a new school in the middle of semester.  He’s been kicked out of two other schools in the past year (we’re not told why) and this is the only one willing to take him on (which doesn’t make sense given its top academic ranking).

You might think this is a complex drama about a troubled kid trying to make new friends (like last week’s The Edge of Seventeen) but instead, we see from the outset that it’s got a screwball Saved by the Bell kind of feel.  When Rafe meets the Principal Dwight (Daly) on the first day, he learns that the school is run like a prison.  Students walk up and down the corridors in single file and aren’t even allowed to talk to each other.  It’s one of more than 100 rules that form part of a strict “rule book” that all kids must learn and abide by.

The film comes with the standard sort of subplots you might expect.  Rafe sits in front of a bully in his homeroom who kicks his desk repeatedly and threatens to give him a terrible “wedgie”.  He falls in love with a smart, introverted girl who leads an AV Club (she’s the only member) and is running for Student President.  She has no chance because the other candidate is male with a rich dad and a “hot” mum – a fact which is bizarrely endorsed by the now sexist Principal Dwight (giving us another reason to hate him).

Rafe also has trouble at home.  His single mother (Graham) is dating an absolute big of a human.  Again, there’s no nuance to these characters – they’re either wonderfully good or wonderfully bad.  This guy hates the children so much that he’s concocted a plan to send Rafe to a military boarding school so that he can spend more time with himself and with his cars.

It sounds rather depressing but Rafe finds comfort in a new life as a vigilante.  After Principal Dwight burns his precious art notebook, he teams up with his new best friend (Barbusca) and orchestrates a number of Home Alone-like pranks to “take on the establishment” and embarrass Principal Dwight.  This includes putting coloured post-it notes throughout the school and spraying graffiti on the outside walls.

Most of the pranks are too far-fetched to take seriously.  The worst involves Rafe putting paint in the roof fire extinguishers and then setting off the alarm.  A mix of paint and water rains down upon the students who are now wearing coloured shirts (against the rules) and promptly break into an elaborate dance routine!

The film’s most puzzling element is the way in introduces a darker twist (you’ll know what it is when you see it).  This in itself could have let to something much more interesting but like so many of the storylines, it’s brushed aside in the space of a few minutes so that we can return to the zany comedy.  Perhaps I’m part of the wrong demographic but it’s certainly not what I wanted.


Review: Assassin's Creed

Directed by: Justin Kurzel
Written by: Michael Leslie, Adam Cooper, Bill Collage
Starring: Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, Jeremy Irons, Brendan Gleeson, Charlotte Rampling, Michael K. Williams
Released: January 1, 2017
Grade: C+

Assassin's Creed
Assassin’s Creed is based on the video game series that was first released for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 back in 2007.  As someone unfamiliar with the gaming world, I asked a teenage friend who said it was his favourite video game while growing up.  His direct quote – “It was fun when you ignore the storyline and go around bashing guards and seeing how long you could live before they all kill you.”  I can only assume this is faithful adaptation since that largely describes the movie too!

Most of the action takes place at a secretive research facility in Madrid run by Alan Rikkin (Irons) and his daughter, Sophia (Cotillard).  They are part of the Templar Order – a highly influential group that are looking to leave their mark on the world.  Up until now, the broader population has been controlled using religion, politics and consumerism.  Alan wants to go a step further and use science to rid the world of conflict and violence.

It may sound far-fetched but there’s an object known as the Apple of Eden which holds such power.  The problem is that it hasn’t been seen since the late 15th Century.  A flashback reveals that a brotherhood of assassins went to great lengths to keep the Apple from falling into evil hands.  They “worked in the dark to serve the light” and were prepared to sacrifice their lives to save mankind’s freedoms.

It’s at this point where the relevance of the film’s central figure becomes apparent.  Callum Lynch (Fassender) is a convicted murderer who has been kidnapped (well, kind of) and taken to the research facility.  He is the last surviving descendant of the assassins and so Alan intends to use a billion dollar machine, known as the Animus, to tap into his genetic memories and discover the Apple’s current hiding place.

You can probably see that there’s a worthwhile narrative here.  This is a movie that taps into the fine balance between individual freedom and government control.  This makes the finished film all the more disappointing.  The chaotic action sequences are over edited and the suspense levels are low.  It all feels so mindless and pointless.

Assassin’s Creed marks the second collaboration between Australian director Justin Kurzel (Snowtown) and stars Michael Fassbender (Shame) and Marion Cotillard (La Vie en Rose) in the space of two years.  Their previous outing was Macbeth – a film more positively received by critics.  They are all immensely talented individuals but for whatever reason, they haven’t breathed much life into this new franchise.  Weak box-office figures from the United States suggest that floated sequels may be put on the backburner.


Review: Edge of Seventeen

Directed by: Kelly Fremon Craig
Written by: Kelly Fremon Craig
Starring: Hailee Steinfeld, Woody Harrelson, Kyra Sedgwick, Blake Jenner, Haley Lu Richardson, Hayden Szeto
Released: January 5, 2017
Grade: A-

Edge of Seventeen
Several years ago, Kelly Fremon Craig wrote a script about a teenage girl who needs to take a good hard look at herself.  She sent it off to iconic producer James L. Brooks (Terms of Endearment, Broadcast News, Jerry Maguire) and hoped it get really, really lucky.  This finished product is proof that she did.

Brooks wasn’t so much drawn the screenplay but rather Craig’s passion and enthusiasm for the project.  He gave her a simple piece of advice – do more research.  Craig then spent 6 months interviewing teenagers at high schools and getting a feel for their world.  Her eyes were opened and the end result was a very different script.  Not a single piece of dialogue from the original draft remained.

Teen-orientated dramas are a staple of the American film industry.  Some are light like Juno and Easy A whereas others are heavier such as Thirteen and The Perks of Being a WallflowerThe Edge of Seventeen fits somewhere near the middle of that spectrum.  There are a few laughs but there’s a much heavier undercurrent that is apparent from the very opening scene – 17-year-old Nadine (Steinfeld) storms into an empty classroom and tells the teacher (Harrelson) that she wants to kill herself.  From his sarcastic response, you get a sense it’s not the first time she’s done this.

Oscar nominee Hailee Steinfeld (True Grit), who has picked up a Golden Globe nomination for her performance, is wonderful in the leading role.  What’s most exciting about the character is that she is hard to like at times.  She talks too much and she pushes people away as part of a self-defence mechanism.  You’re likely to feel more sympathy for her friends and family.  The film is better for this.  You don’t often see it within the genre as things are traditionally more black and white.

The tipping point for Nadine is when she discovers her older brother, Darian (Jenner), and best friend, Krista (Richardson) are in love.  Darian is good looking, athletic and immensely popular.  She’s already hates living under his shadow but now he’s “stolen” the only good friend she’s ever had.  What follows is a period of rebellion where Nadine takes on a new, bolder persona and takes a few chances (some good, some bad) in the process.

I can’t pretend to relate to the troubles of a teenage girl in today’s society but The Edge of Seventeen comes across as realistic and authentic.  The battle to make friends and avoid the influence of peer pressure has been a hurdle for many.  That won’t be changing anytime soon.  The arrival of instant communication and social media over the past decade has added another layer of complication.

Craig’s film encapsulates all of this inside of its two hour running time.  With the focus on Nadine, these characters are put to the test and are thrown into awkward situation after awkward situation.  They make mistakes but that’s part of life – one of film’s strong messages that we often needed to be reminded of.


Review: Sing

Directed by: Garth Jennings
Written by: Garth Jennings
Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Reese Witherspoon, Seth MacFarlane, Scarlett Johansson, John C. Reilly, Tori Kelly, Taron Egerton
Released: December 26, 2016
Grade: B

Ever since he was 6 years old, koala Buster Moon (McConaughey) has been enamoured with the stage.  He’s followed through on that dream and now owns a famous old theatre which has been home to several productions.  Unfortunately, his passion hasn’t translated into financial success.  He owes money “all over town” and the bank is top of the list.  His loyal assistant, an iguana named Miss Crawley (Jennings), is helping keep the credits at bay.

Desperate for a hit, Buster comes up with the idea of a singing competition.  It’ll follow in the footsteps of American Idol and The X-Factor but instead of being televised, people will buy tickets and see it live in his theatre.  The prize was supposed to be a mere $1,000 but a typo from Miss Crawley, who accidentally puts $100,000 on the promotional flyer, sends the whole town into a spin.

As we see from a whirlwind segment that introduces the characters, there are plenty looking to get their hands on the prizemoney.  Johnny (Egerton) is a gorilla looking to get away from his criminal father.  Meena (Kelly) is an elephant who struggles when it comes to self-confidence.  Rosita (Witherspoon) is a pig who needs a hobby to help provide space from her 25 children.  Mike (MacFarlane) is a cocky, arrogant mouse following in the footsteps of Frank Sanatra.  Ash (Johansson) is a rock-music loving porcupine in a troubled relationship.

It’s a tricky job trying to balance up the many storylines but writer-director Garth Jennings (The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Son of Rambow) has done a good job.  Kids shouldn’t have too much trouble keeping up.  My pick of the group was Miss Crawley as the goofy iguana but it’s easy to see why others will have a different favourite as all of these characters are fun and adorable.  The voice cast is strong too.

Given the film’s title, it’s no surprise that it contains an abundance of music.  There are scenes where a different song is seemingly played every 20 seconds.  It’s this element of the movie where Jennings has tried to broaden appeal by using a mix of old and new.  Younger crowds will be humming to the songs of Taylor Swift, Carly Rae Jepsen and Ariana Grande.  Those with a few more years under the belt will recognise the lyrics of Paul McCartney, Elton John, Leonard Cohen and Irving Berlin.

Sing is entertaining but the third and final act is its weakest.  Instead of throwing in a few surprises or a bit more drama, it culminates with a lengthy sing-a-thon and not much else.  It’s a safe ending for what is a safe animated feature.

You can read my interview with writer-director Garth Jennings by clicking here.


Review: Passengers

Directed by: Morten Tyldum
Written by: Jon Spaihts
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Chris Pratt, Martin Sheen
Released: January 1, 2017
Grade: B

Science-fiction can be formulaic and predictable (the same as any genre I guess) but the scenario explored in Passengers grabbed my attention.  It’s set in the not-to-distant future where the Earth has become rundown and overpopulated.  Wealthier individuals have bought tickets on a spacecraft that transports them across the galaxy to a new, exciting, inhabitable planet known as Homestead II.  The catch is that the journey takes 120 years.  Don’t stress though.  You spend the entire time in a hibernation pod and you’ll look and feel exactly the same when you arrive.

When Jim Preston (Pratt) wakes from his pod, he shrugs off the sleepiness and gets ready for a new life.  That is until he realises something is amiss.  None of the crew or 5,000 other passengers have woken up.  A quick investigation reveals that he’s woken up too early.  His pod malfunctioned (something thought to be impossible) and there’s still 90 years left on the journey.  With no way of going back into hibernation, he’s destined to spend the remainder of his life helpless and alone.

It’s at this point where I have to talk about a key plot development that isn’t specifically mentioned in the film’s trailer.  If you want to avoid it, read no further.  I think it warrants discussion because it occurs inside of the first half-hour and is critical to the remainder of the film.  Anyway, after spending a full year alone and going through all of its mental side effects, Jim decides to wake another of the sleeping passengers so that he’ll have company.  He picks Aurora Lane (Lawrence) because of her good looks and interesting profile (she’s the daughter of an acclaimed writer).

All of this should leave you thinking.  What would you do in the same situation?  By waking her up, she’s condemned to the same fate.  Both of them will be dead by the time the ship reaches Homestead II.  Is it the same as murder?  Or is such an act forgivable?  The screenplay from Jon Spaihts (Prometheus, Doctor Strange) will leave you questioning the actions of both characters as the credits start to roll.  There will be different opinions.

Outside of that intense moral quandary, the film doesn’t have quite enough to material to hold your attention for two hours.  You simply watch Jim and Aurora walk around the ship, eat their breakfast, and go through their daily exercise routines.  It doesn’t set a fast pace.  To help understand what’s going on inside their heads, they regularly chat with a robot bartender (Sheen) who provides both drinks and conflicting advice.  That’s largely it when it comes to the cast.

Problems develop with the ship’s mechanics and this is clearly designed to inject action and suspense into the narrative.  There’s a particularly good scene when the artificial gravity machine malfunctions while Aurora is using the ship’s swimming pool (which comes complete with a view of the universe).  It’s just a shame the safe finale doesn’t take a few more chances and offer something more memorable or unexpected.

Directed by Academy Award nominee Morten Tyldum (The Imitation Game), Passengers is interesting without being overly memorable.