Reviews

Review: Tommy's Honour

Directed by: Jason Connery
Written by: Pamela Marin, Kevin Cook
Starring: Peter Mullan, Jack Lowden, Ophelia Lovibond, Sam Neill, Peter Ferdinando, Max Deacon
Released: September 7, 2017
Grade: B

Tommy's Honour
They’re two passions of mine but it’s not often that golf is depicted through the medium of cinema.  Caddyshack, Tin Cup and Happy Gilmore are part of very small collective of successful golf movies.  Tommy’s Honour is the latest entrant in that group and tells the story of Young Tom Morris (Lowden), a Scottish lad who won four Open Championships in the 19th century and helped shape the game of golf as we know it today.

As a broad genre, sporting movies are always a challenge for the screenwriter.  If you go with a work of fiction, there’s a high risk that audiences won’t consider it credible.  If you go with an event that actually happened, how can you possibly create a level of intensity that matches the original?  I was at Torrey Pines for the 2008 U.S. Open when Tiger Woods holed a 12 foot putt on the 18th green to force a play-off.  As amazing as it was, there’s no point making it into a movie.  You’re better off watching a replay on YouTube where you can see the real Tiger and listen to the real commentators.

Tommy’s Honour has a slight advantage in that regard because we’re travelling back to the 1860s and delving into a period of golf history that isn’t well known or well documented.  Only a small number of photos exist of Young Tom Morris and there’s certainly no video footage.  Kevin Cook, a former senior editor at Sports Illustrated magazine, published an award winning book on Morris’ exploits in 2007.  It’s that work which has been adapted for the screen by Cook and his wife, Pamela Marin.

You could argue that Cook and Marin make a good screenwriting duo.  He is a golf tragic who spent countless hours researching the subject matter.  He delved through the archives in Scottish libraries and interviewed historians who had passed information down from generation to generation.  Marin is less passionate about the game and so tackled the story from a different angle.  Rather than focus on Morris’ achievements on the course, she was keen to understand his relationship with his father, his family and his wife (Lovibond).

The film wants to reach as broad an audience as possible but it’s evident that golfers will take the most away from this.  Young Tom Morris was an excitable character that helped promote the game across Scotland.  He’d won his fourth Open Championship by the age of 21 and was arguably the first individual to be financially successful from the game of golf.  He and his counterparts were paid significant sums of money to participate in exhibition matches across the country.

An interesting point of note about the film is that it’s directed by Jason Connery, the son of Oscar winner Sean Connery.  Jason grew up playing golf with his father and hence the interest in the subject matter.  To transport us back into the 19th Century, he’s found some great locations across picturesque Scotland and has fun showing us “old school” golf clubs and attire.  The special effects are a little too obvious in places (such as the flight of the golf ball) but this can be excused given the film’s tight budget.

Tommy’s Honour is another worthy credit on the resume of rising British star Jack Lowden (Dunkirk).  He’s created a likeable, charismatic character who wants to change the world whilst staying true to his values.  Lowden admits to being a terrible golfer but spent many hours with a coach to look as convincing as possible on screen.  Peter Mullan (Trainspotting, War Horse) is equally good as Morris’ more “traditional” father and it’s also nice to see a cameo from Sam Neill (Jurassic Park) who plays the stuffy Captain of the St Andrews Links.

The dialogue is a bit stiff in places but Tommy’s Honour is must see viewing for fans of golf, Scotland, or both.

 

Review: Ali's Wedding

Directed by: Jeffrey Walker
Written by: Andrew Knight, Osamah Sami
Starring: Osamah Sami, Don Hany, Helena Sawires, Robert Rabiah, Rodney Afif, Khaled Khalafalla
Released: August 31, 2017
Grade: B+

Ali's Wedding
Most filmgoers aren’t fussed about awards.  They don’t care which foreign language film won the Palm D’or at the Cannes Festival or which American film campaigned strongly to win the most Golden Globe Awards.  All of that said, one prize that may be of interest to Australian audiences is the audience award at the Sydney Film Festival.  This honour isn’t decided by a handful of critics who watch 300 movies a year.  This is assessed by the thousands of people who attend each year as a ticket buying member of the public.

The 2017 award was bestowed upon Ali’s Wedding, an Australian romantic comedy that is being fuelled by great word of mouth.  As crazy as the story sounds, it is based on actual events.  Born in 1983, Osamah Sami had a tough upbringing in war-torn Iran.  His family immigrated to Australia in the mid-1990s and that too came with its challenges.  All of this is chronicled in his memoir, Good Muslim Boy, which won the New South Wales Premier’s Literary Award in 2016.

It’s too hard to encapsulate all of Osamah Sami’s life into a two-hour film and so the focus is placed on a few key events.  Not only did Sami co-write the screenplay, he also stars in the leading role (with the character’s name changed to Ali).  It’s reminiscent of what we saw Kumail Nanjiani do earlier this month with The Big Sick.  Both are playing a slightly alternate version of their real selves on screen.

The film doesn’t delve into Ali’s life in Iran.  It’s spread across a few weeks where his character has just finished high school and is studying to sit the medical school entrance exam at the University of Melbourne.  His father (Hany) is a high-profile, much-loved cleric and that only adds to the pressure on Ali’s shoulders.  Everyone in the tight-knit Muslim community assumes he is destined for great things and will pass comfortably.

Ali knows he hasn’t studied hard enough and that’s confirmed when the results arrive in the mail.  He scored just 65% - well below the required cut-off.  Adding to his sense of failure is the fact that two acquaintances blitzed the exam.  Moe (Khalafalla), the son of his father’s rival, scored 96%.  Dianne (Sawires), a girl he’s had a crush on for some time, scored even better with 98%.

So what does Ali do?  He makes a rash, spur-of-the-moment decision and tells everyone that he too scored 96%.  One lie becomes two… which becomes three.  It’s not long before Ali has gone down a path of deception for which there is no easy road back.  It threatens to destroy his family’s reputation and his chance at winning the heart of the strong-willed Dianne.

It might sound rather heavy but Sami has followed in the footsteps of Australian filmmakers such as P.J. Hogan (Muriel’s Wedding) and Jocelyn Moorhouse (The Dressmaker) in finding humour within this dysfunctional family.  It ties back to the mantra that sometimes all you can do about a bad situation is laugh.  The comedic tone has clearly connected with audiences given the buzz from the Sydney Film Festival.

The film takes a few unnecessary detours that disrupt its flow.  As an example, there’s a short sequence where Ali and his friends travel to the United States for a special event.  It provides an amusing/concerning anecdote but perhaps it belongs in a separate film.  It feels rushed and out of place within the screenplay.

It’s a minor weakness of what is a very entertaining film.  It explores the blend of Middle Eastern and Australian culture within this country but also tells an amusing, family-driven tale that most will appreciate and celebrate, regardless of their background.  Go the Bombers!

 

Review: 47 Metres Down

Directed by: Johannes Roberts
Written by: Johannes Roberts, Ernst Riera
Starring: Claire Holt, Mandy Moore, Matthew Modine, Chris J. Johnson, Yani Gellman, Santiago A. Segura
Released: August 24, 2017
Grade: B

47 Metres Down
There are plenty of dangerous animals in the wild but we do seem to have an unhealthy fascination with sharks when it comes to making movies.  Jaws set the almost unreachable benchmark in 1975 and it’s been followed by the likes of Deep Blue Sea, Open Water, The Reef and The Shallows.  Also worth a mention are a group of farcical spoofs headlined by Sharknado.

As a trained deep sea diver as well as the film’s writer-director, Johannes Roberts has tried to create something different with 47 Metres Down.  The setting is the most noticeable point of difference.  Instead of the protagonists being stuck on a boat, a rock, or a floating object, Roberts takes us below the surface and into a much darker world (literally).

How they get there is fairly formulaic.  Lisa (Moore) and Kate (Holt) are two young women holidaying in Mexico.  Lisa needs some cheering up after being dumped by her long-term boyfriend and Kate is doing her best to be the supportive best friend.  Having ticked of a few of the normal “touristy” things, Kate suggests they do something more adventurous and go on a cage diving expedition off the Mexican coast.

The warning bells start going off in the heads when they see the rusty looking boat and its rough crew.  Still, they’ve paid their money and decide to follow through.  They put on their scuba gear, jump in the cage, and find themselves lowered just beneath the surface.  The views are stunning and they get a close look at a killer shark from behind the cage’s protective bars.

It’s at this point where the “fun” begins.  The winch breaks and the cage plummets to the ocean floor - 47 metres below the surface as noted in the film’s title.  Making a mad dash to the surface is not an option given the risk of decompression sickness.  They could stay in the cage and wait to be rescued but with no radio contact and just an hour’s worth of air, that too comes with serious risks.  The clock is ticking.

Once it gets past the ho-hum introduction, 47 Metres Down becomes a tense thriller that makes the most of its claustrophobic setting.  We only see things through the eyes of the two leading characters and have no perspective about what’s going on back on the surface.  Has the boat called for help?  Is someone coming to rescue them?  We’re in the same position as Lisa and Kate in that we have no idea.

It’s also a movie that should get audience members thinking.  What would you do in the same situation?  Would you be able to keep calm and think things through in a level-headed manner?  Do you take an “every man for himself” mentality and focus on your own survival above that of your friend?  Do you take a chance and try to formulate an escape plan or do you wait and hope to be rescued?

Johannes Roberts had a few different ideas when it came to the finale and I’m not fully convinced by the choice he made (without giving too much away).  That said, he deserves full credit for the strong second act and the realistic scenario.

 

Review: Girls Trip

Directed by: Malcolm D. Lee
Written by: Kenya Barris, Tracy Oliver, Erica Rivinoja
Starring: Regina Hall, Queen Latifah, Jada Pinkett Smith, Tiffany Haddish, Larenz Tate, Mike Colter
Released: August 31, 2017
Grade: B+

Girls Trip
We’re two-thirds of the way through 2017 and if you look at the box-office figures from the United States, the two highest grossing films have been Beauty and the Beast ($504m) and Wonder Woman ($405m).  What’s interesting is that both films have women in the leading role.  It reminds me of Cate Blanchett’s famous line at the Oscars when she spoke about female-driven films – “Audiences want to see them and, in fact, they earn money. The world is round, people!”  She’s dead right.

Another film to make an impact in the U.S. this year has been Girls Trip.  If you exclude light-hearted action films, it is the highest grossing live action comedy of the year with a take of over $106m.  In a similar vein to the Oscar nominated Hidden Figures, it demonstrates that there is a huge appetite for movies about African American women.  I suspect we’re going to see a lot more of them (rightly so) in future years.

As for the premise, four middle aged ladies get together for a fun, boozy weekend at a music festival in New Orleans.  They’ve all been great friends since high school but given they now have such busy, disparate lives, it’s become harder and harder to catch up.  This is the first time they’ve all got together in 5 years.

Ryan (Hall) is a successful author who has gained notoriety and financial success through her self-help book “You Can Have It All”.  She’s hoping to close a business deal in New Orleans that will culminate with her own television show.  Sasha (Latifah) is at the other end of the financial spectrum.  Despite starting out as a legitimate journalist, she now runs a tacky gossip website and is struggling to pay the bills.

Lisa (Smith) is a single mum who is in desperate need of a holiday.  She works long hours as a nurse and spends the rest of her life caring for her child and stressing over insignificant things.  The last member in the quartet is the most outrageous.  Dina (Haddish) never left her college days behind and is still a party machine.  Her goals for the trip are to drink copious amounts of alcohol and get laid as many times as possible.

The broader screenplay is formulaic.  You can foresee certain events well before they happen.  That isn’t to say you can’t have fun watching this.  Girls Trip is a raunchy, hilarious comedy with some great individual scenes.  There’s a moment where Jada Pinkett Smith finds a unique way to go to the bathroom.  There’s another where Tiffany Haddish finds an unorthodox use for a giant grapefruit.  It’s best to avoid the trailers as they do give too much away.

It’s the strength of the characters that provides the film with its biggest asset.  These are four very different women but they all have great personalities and they all have a chance to shine throughout the film.  Their conversations are filthy but that was part of the attraction for director Malcolm D. Lee (The Best Man, Soul Men).  He sees these joyful characters as more representative of the African American community than what is often depicted on screen and television.

We saw a similar collective of party-loving women in the Scarlett Johansson-led Rough Night a few months ago.  That film had its moments but Girls Trip takes it up a few notches.  It provides more laughs, more surprises and more entertainment.

 

Review: The Dark Tower

Directed by: Nikolaj Arcel
Written by: Akiva Goldsman, Jeff Pinkner, Anders Thomas Jensen, Nikolaj Arcel
Starring: Idris Elba, Matthew McConaughey, Tom Taylor, Claudia Kim, Abbey Lee, Jackie Earle Haley
Released: August 17, 2017
Grade: C+

The Dark Tower
The Dark Tower is a series of 8 books written by acclaimed author Stephen King between 1982 and 2012.  Several attempts had been made to bring them to the big screen without success.  They were labelled “un-filmable” by some given their length and dense material.  After a lot of false starts, it has finally fallen upon the shoulders of Danish director Nikolaj Arcel (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) to launch the movie franchise.

Stephen King is largely associated with horror-thrillers but there have been plenty of exceptions.  The Shawshank Redemption, regarded as one of the greatest films of all time, originated from a Stephen King short story.  The Dark Tower series is his foray into the world of science-fiction and fantasy.  He admits to being inspired by the likes of J.R.R. Tolkien, author of The Lord of the Rings, in first putting pen to paper.

Having not read any of The Dark Tower books, I can’t make a definitive statement as the authenticity of the adaptation.  However, I’ve read several online articles which have been critical in this area.  They speak of rich detail being lost given that the narrative from several of the novels has been condensed into a surprisingly short 95 minute running time.  My advice is to therefore tread carefully if you’re lover of King’s works.

As to the narrative, the film revolves around an 11-year-old named Jake Chambers (played by newcomer Tom Taylor) who has strange, vivid dreams.  He sees a giant tower that is continually under attack and he also sees a “gunslinger” who is helping defend it.  His psychiatrist forms a reasonable conclusion – these dreams are a way in which Jake is coping with grief following the death of his father.

Jake thinks otherwise.  He believes the dreams are “real” and the attacks on the tower are linked to a series of powerful earthquakes which have struck New York City.  It isn’t until two sinister-looking individual arrive on his doorstep that he realises the truth.  Through his dreams, he is peering into a parallel universe.  If the tower in that world should collapse, the shockwaves would be powerful enough to destroy Earth.

After putting the few pieces of a puzzle together, he travels into the alternate universe and teams up with the Gunslinger (Elba) to destroy whatever evil confronts them.  Their end goal is defeat a power hungry sorcerer (McConaughey) but they’ll need help from a few other people along the way.

You can see what this film is trying to be but it’s not all that interesting.  It rushes between events and there’s not a lot of room for character development.  Matthew McConaughy isn’t a convincing villain and his background isn’t fleshed out in much detail.  The more interesting dynamic is between Idris Elba and Tom Taylor but they don’t spend a lot of time together.  When they do, much of their conversation is superficial.

There is hope this will become a long-running movie franchise but based on what’s been served up here, I have doubts about those ambitions.

 

Review: American Made

Directed by: Doug Liman
Written by: Gary Spinelli
Starring: Tom Cruise, Sarah Wright, Domhnall Gleeson, Caleb Landry Jones, Jayma Mays, Jesse Plemons
Released: August 24, 2017
Grade: B

American Made
Why go to the effort of creating fiction when you can use a true story as crazy as this?  Brought to the screen by writer Gary Spinelli and director Doug Liman (The Bourne Identity), American Made is based on the life of Barry Seal.  His tale is a reminiscent of George Jung, the drug dealing kingpin whose misadventures were chronicled in Ted Demme’s Blow (released back in 2001).

We’re introduced to Barry (Cruise) while he’s sitting in the cockpit of a jumbo jet.  The year is 1978 and he’s the youngest pilot to have ever been employed by the airline TWA.  You could make an argument that he suffers from an attention deficit disorder.  His mind is continually wandering and he has an obsession with keeping busy.

After a long haul flight, Barry is pulled aside in a hotel bar by CIA agent Monty Schafer (Gleeson).  He knows that Barry has been sneaking in boxes of illegal Cuban cigars aboard his flights but he’s not there to make any arrest.  Rather, he wants to recruit him.  It’s important to note this was at the height of the Cold War when the Soviets were doing their best to spread communism in South America.  Monty wanted Barry to fly across Colombia in a twin propeller plane, under the guise that he runs his own small airline, and take reconnaissance photos which could be used by the CIA.

That’s where it starts… but it’s certainly not where it ends.  Barry befriends the likes of Pablo Escobar and it is not long before he’s smuggling huge drug shipments into the United States.  The CIA learns of this but doesn’t seem to care.  In fact, they encourage the sale of drugs and arms because it’s putting money into the hands of powerful cartels that will hopefully overthrow the communist governments of these countries – a goal in America’s best interests.

It’s a role suited to Tom Cruise who portrays the lead character as a likeable larrikin who lacks intelligence but makes up for it with charm and personality.  He’s bumbling his way between events but it’s hard not to laugh at his antics.  There are a couple of great scenes where he tries to hide ridiculous sums of cash but has run out of decent hiding places.  He resides in a small town of about 3,000 people but it’s not long before every major bank is opening up a branch on the main street.  They know Barry by reputation and are keen to assist with his wealth protection.

There are other characters in the mix but we don’t get to know them in acute detail.  Sarah Wright plays Barry’s wife and she blindly goes along with his activities without thinking of the ramifications.  Domhnall Gleeson plays the overeager CIA agent who doesn’t seem to be accountable to anyone despite the risky nature of his work.  There are also cameos from the likes of Jesse Plemons as the town’s naive sheriff and Jayma Mays as the state’s aggressive Attorney General.

After an intriguing set-up, things get a little repetitive during the second act as Barry’s accumulates his wealth.  You know his illegal lifestyle can’t last and you’ll be anxious to see how it all pans out.  Spinelli’s screenplay provides a curious finale that introduces darker elements while still maintaining the film’s light, humorous tone.  I’m not 100% convinced by the approach but the story alone makes this worthwhile viewing.