Review: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

Directed by: James Gunn
Written by: James Gunn
Starring: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper, Michael Rooker, Elizabeth Debicki, Kurt Russell, Sylvester Stallone
Released: April 27, 2017
Grade: B+

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
A battle is being waged within the Marvel universe.  That battle is to win laughs.  After some heavier material, the scales have shifted back in favour of comedy with Guardians of the Galaxy in 2014 and Deadpool in 2016.  Thoughts on these films will vary depending on one’s sense of humour.  Some love the spoof-nature of Deadpool while others prefer the insult-laden screenplay in the Guardians franchise.

Few chances have been taken in this follow up from writer-director James Gunn.  It’s the same characters making the same kind of jokes.  To provide a quick background check, there are five eccentric individuals who have formed a strange partnership to help save the world.

Peter (Pratt) is an Earthling who loves music from the 1970s and 80s, Gamora (Saldana) is an alien orphan with a troubled past, Drax (Bautista) is a quasi-monster with superhuman strength, Rocket (Cooper) is a genetically-engineered raccoon with a filthy mouth, and Baby Groot (Diesel) is a small talking tree with a very limited vocabulary.

The premise of this second film is slow to reveal itself.  It begins with Peter learning that his father is a mysterious alien being named Ego (Russell) who thinks of himself as a God.  He’s even created his own paradise-like planet where he spends most of his time.  There’s a bit of father-son bonding time and the Guardians also get to meet Mantis, a close associate of Ego who has the ability to “read” emotions.

With no villain established in the opening hour, it falls upon the Guardians to be their own worst enemy.  They’re asked to protect a highly-advanced alien race from a large monster intent on destroying them (it provides for a cool opening title sequence).  The job goes smoothly until Rocket takes it upon himself to steal several batteries that were considered valuable to the local people.  There’s now a deserved bounty on their heads.

The story isn’t as strong this time around but these characters have won me over with their charm and spirit.  They have a distinct lack of social skills and this alone provides for many laughs.  Drax and Rocket verbalise whatever thoughts run through their heads (even when they shouldn’t) and Peter and Gamora try to put up with each other’s insults despite the obvious sexual tension.  Groot is the most loveable of the bunch but his low-IQ makes him a hindrance as much of a help.

With the focus on character interaction (rightly so), the action sequences are kept short and sharp.  The many subplots come together in the final hour and the narrative finally starts to makes sense.  Don’t expect everything to be resolved neatly.  Five closing scenes, spread throughout the closing credits, create intrigue about what may happen in future films.

Featuring another broad soundtrack and a few funny pop culture references (even Mary Poppins gets a mention), Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 entertains and keeps the franchise on the right track.


Review: Table 19

Directed by: Jeffrey Blitz
Written by: Jay Duplass, Mark Duplass, Jeffrey Blitz
Starring: Anna Kendrick, Craig Robinson, June Squibb, Lisa Kudrow, Stephen Merchant, Tony Revolori
Released: April 20, 2017
Grade: C

Table 19
Those that have planned a wedding will know one of the more challenging aspects is the table seating at the reception.  You’re bringing together a wide range of people from different families and different backgrounds.  Who do you put around each table to ensure a fun, happy, chatty evening ensues?  Who do you have to keep separate for reasons that are best not divulged?

This appears to be the concept from which Table 19 was born.  The film takes place over a day and follows 6 people who have been seated together at a wedding.  They’re been positioned in the back corner – as far away from the main table and the dancefloor as is possible.  That sums them up.  They’re noted on the planners map as the “randoms” – those people who were invited to be polite but should have known better than to RSVP.

Heading the table is Eloise (Kendrick).  She was once best friends with the bride but their relationship soured after Eloise had a falling out with the bride’s brother (they’d been dating for 2 years).  Jerry (Robinson) and Bina (Kudrow) are a long-married couple stuck in a tired relationship.  Jo (Squibb) is a former nanny who has been invited out of spite.  Walter (Merchant) is a convicted criminal who stole $125,000 from his uncle’s company.  Renzo (Revolori) is an awkward youngster who thinks of himself as a “ladies man” but has no idea what he’s doing.

Over the course of the evening, they open up to each other about their respective backgrounds and problems.  This isn’t like Wedding Crashers or Bridesmaids where the writers use slapstick and farcical scenarios to create laughs.  This is a little more subtle and there are several moments that are attempting to tug at the heartstrings. 

Things don’t always work out the way that we expect.  That’s a message within the film… and also a message about the film.  Director Jeffrey Blitz earned an Academy Award nomination in 2002 for one of my all-time favourite documentaries, Spellbound, and he later went on to win an Emmy for directing an episode of The Office.

The guy has talent but I have to be blunt – this is a mess of a film.  With a running time of just 87 minutes, it looks like it’s been chopped up in the editing room.  Characters jump between scenes far too quickly and the ending is rushed.  Our six protagonists leave the wedding reception several times during the film but Blitz, for whatever reason, keeps zipping back to the reception to see unimportant characters doing quick, dumb things (such as a drunk karaoke singer).

There’s a lot of talk at Table 19 but there weren’t many laughs in Cinema 4.


Review: Denial

Directed by: Mike Jackson
Written by: David Hare
Starring: Rachel Weisz, Tom Wilkinson, Timothy Spall, Andrew Scott, Jack Lowden, Caren Pistorius
Released: April 13, 2017
Grade: B+

“Fake news” has been a hot topic of conversation over the past year and so the release of Denial couldn’t be better timed.  It takes us behind the scenes of court case that became front page news in the United Kingdom in the late 1990s.

The film begins in 1994 with Professor Deborah Lipstadt (Weiz) promoting the release of her new book, Denying the Holocaust: the Growing Assault on Truth and Memory.  As the title suggests, she takes aim at those who lie and distort the truth for their own personal benefit.  She criticises the writings of “historian” David Irving (Spall) who believes that Jews were not murdered at Auschwitz and that even if they were, Adolf Hitler had no knowledge of it.

Two years later, Irving filed a libel suit in the United Kingdom against Lipstadt and the publisher, Penguin Books.  It sounds rather farcical but Lipstadt soon realises that she faces a battle.  Under UK law, there’s no presumption of innocence and the burden of proof rests with the accused.  Lipstadt has to provide sufficient evidence that the Holocaust occurred and that Irving had knowingly twisted historical information to suit his political and ideological beliefs.

A significant chunk of the film is spent following the lead up to the trial.  Friends suggested that she settle out of court because such a trial would be giving Irving free, unjustified publicity to further spout his claims.  Lipstadt understood that logic but felt compelled to clear her name.  She engaged the services of renowned solicitor Anthony Julius (Scott) and barrister Richard Rampton (Wilkinson) to help as part of the defence.

These three didn’t always see eye-to-eye on strategy.  As an example, Julius wanted to keep Lipstadt off the witness stand and out of the media during the trial.  This was to keep the focus on Irving and his flawed writings.  Lipstadt strongly disagreed.  She wanted the chance to speak up against what she believed was a frivolous lawsuit that had impaired the reputation of herself and actual Holocaust survivors.

Those looking for insight into the inner workings of a major court case should find lots to take away from this.  Oscar-nominated screenwriter David Hare (The Hours, The Reader) shows that while truth is important in any trial, the strategy adopted by the solicitors and barristers can have just as much of an impact on the outcome.

There’s also a “greyness” to the characters with each having their strengths and weaknesses.  Rachel Weisz (The Constant Gardener) illustrates this through her performance as Lipstadt.  Her strong-willed nature and American view of the world clashes doesn’t always align with those of her UK defence team.  You want to see her win the case but you also understand that some of her actions aren’t helpful. 

As a good historical drama should, Denial is the kind of movie that makes you want to do more reading about the subject as you’ve left the cinema.


Review: Their Finest

Directed by: Lone Scherfig
Written by: Gaby Chiappe
Starring: Gemma Arterton, Sam Claflin, Bill Nighy, Jack Huston, Eddie Marsan, Helen McCrory, Jake Lacy, Richard E. Grant, Jeremy Irons
Released: April 20, 2017
Grade: B

Their Finest
It’s one of the most analysed events in movie history and World War II is back in the spotlight with Their Finest, the latest from Danish director Lone Scherfig (An Education).  The characters are fictitious but the screenplay taps into events that did take place during the war.  Don’t expect any major battle scenes though.  Based on the dramatic novel by British-born Lissa Evans, the film delves into a part of the war that many will be unfamiliar with.

To help get messages out to the wider public during WWII, the British Ministry of Information produced “informationals”.  They were short films that screened in cinemas (often in between a double feature) that helped lift spirits and educate the nation.  Some were about providing basic facts, like what to do when hearing air raid sirens, whilst others were more uplifting, such as a fictitious short story about a heroic Brit saving his fellow soldiers.

Catrin Cole (Arterton) is a young Welsh woman who has landed a job with the Ministry to help with these propaganda films.  Her main job is to write the “slop” – a harsh word referring to the dialogue uttered by the female characters.  Her views are often ignored and it’s clear she’s not respected by her male counterparts.  Sharing a theme with the recently released Hidden Figures, she’s a woman trying to break down barriers in a male dominated workplace.

The crux of Their Finest is spent following one film production in particular.  The Ministry has gone with a change of tact and has agreed to fund a full length feature.  It’s loosely based on an actual story and is about a soldier who helps rescue others during the Dunkirk evacuation in 1940.  The Ministry’s hope is that young Brits will be inspired by the tale and will enlist in the army.  They also hope it will provide comfort to the broader population that the war will indeed be won.

Catrin is at the centre of all the film’s key subplots.  We are provided insight into the fractured relationship she shares with her husband (Huston) who doesn’t react well to his wife being the sole breadwinner.  We see her argue and battle with her male co-writer (Claflin) as the propaganda films take shape.  We also watch her interact with a self-absorbed actor (Nighy) who isn’t too open to criticism.

Their Finest isn’t too heavy and I can see audiences reacting positively to the “lighter” touch.  The most interesting element is its setting.  We go behind the scenes on the production of a war propaganda film and see some the decisions, rightly or wrongly, that are made along the way.  They are described to Catrin as “real life with the boring bits left out.”

Some won’t be phased but I was a little disappointed by the final act.  Despite the intriguing setting, it becomes a fairly conventional love story.  Catrin’s great work, so much a focus during the first two-thirds, is pushed into the background.  There’s also a poorly written twist that doesn’t generate the emotional impact it should.

The performances are largely very good.  Gemma Arterton (Clash of the Titans) impresses as the film’s strong, opinionated leading lady.  You can see her character’s confidence build through each passing scene.  Bill Nighy (Love Actually) confirms his reputation as a scene stealer with his performance as the prickly actor with a softer interior.  Jake Lacy (Carol) also wins laughs as an American “actor” who been included in the Dunkirk film solely for political reasons.

Mixing a range of genres, Their Finest is a likeable crowd-pleaser that offers drama, comedy and romance. 


Review: Dance Academy: The Movie

Directed by: Jeffrey Walker
Written by: Samantha Strauss
Starring: Miranda Otto, Xenia Goodwin, Jordan Rodrigues, Alicia Banit, Julia Blake, Tara Morice
Released: April 6, 2017
Grade: B

Dance Academy: The Movie
Dance Academy was a fictional television drama that debuted on the ABC back in May 2010.  It was targeted at teenagers and followed the ups and downs of high school students who were part of the National Academy of Dance in Sydney.  A total of 65 episodes were produced and the show wrapped up in mid-2013.  It twice won the Logie Award for the best children’s program.

On hearing that this new movie was being made, the first question I asked was “why?”  It’s not often that an Australian television series makes the move to the big screen.  The answer to that question comes from beyond our shores.  The Dance Academy audience has grown over the past few years with the show sold to several international markets including the United States.  Creators Samantha Strauss and Joanna Werner felt there would be enough people interested in catching up with these characters once again.

As someone completely new to the show, I will look at this film differently to most paying customers.  I don’t know the backstory to these characters and their intricate connections.  A “newbie” can enjoy this as a standalone feature but it’s clear that fans of Dance Academy will pick up on a lot more.  Almost all of the featured actors from the later episodes of the television series have returned.

The opening to the film paints a gloomy picture.  The main protagonist, Tara Webster (Goodwin), has given up on a career in dance following a major injury.  She’s been speaking with a lawyer and is considering legal action against the National Academy of Dance for their poor training and unsafe workplace.  To help make ends meet, she now works as a barista in a small café located in the foyer of the Sydney Opera House.  Seeing the successful ballet dancers walk past each day only adds to her sullen disposition.

There is light at the end of the tunnel and with her injury showing signs of improvement, Tara will get another chance to follow her dreams.  She is approached by the head of the Academy, Madeline Moncur (Otto), and asked to re-audition.  That doesn’t work out but it sets in motion a series of events that will take her first to New York and then later to Texas (an obvious attempt to appeal to the American audience).  She catches up with old friends and is presented with new opportunities.

There’s a realness to these characters and their journey that makes this worth a look.  It’s not all “rainbows and sunshine” and the film highlights the difficulties one faces in trying to pursue a career in the arts.  You give up any chance of a social life and you have to practice all day, every day with the hope you will land one of the few great jobs on offer.  For every person that succeeds, there’s at least one hundred who fail.

The film also delves into other areas including the idea of “celebrity”.  One of Tara’s good friends, Kat (Banit), has become a quasi-icon in the U.S. but things become unstuck as a result of a social media scandal.  The narrative also touches on the way in which friendships become harder to maintain as careers move in different directions.

The screenplay does succumb to predictability in the final act.  Writer Samantha Strauss has made some safe, audience-friendly choices that aren’t as adventurous as the lead up.  Fans won’t be too perturbed.  With a wide mix of songs and an eclectic group of characters, Dance Academy: The Movie will appease the target crowd.

You can read my interview with director Jeffrey Walker by clicking here.


Review: The Fate of the Furious

Directed by: F. Gary Gray
Written by: Chris Morgan
Starring: Vin Diesel, Dwayne Johnson, Jason Statham, Michelle Rodriguez, Tyrese Gibson, Chris Bridges, Charlize Theron, Scott Eastwood, Helen Mirren, Kurt Russell
Released: April 13, 2017
Grade: B-

The Fate of the Furious
Just like the cars in these movies, The Fast and the Furious franchise is showing no signs of slowing down.  It’s been 16 years since the release of the original and the seven previous instalments have grossed just under $4 billion USD at the worldwide box-office.  One can only assume that these characters will still be pulling off daring robberies and elaborate escapes as 80-year-old pensioners.  I can’t see them stopping any time soon.

Directed by F. Gary Gray (Straight Outta Compton), the least interesting component of The Fate and the Furious is its plot.  To sum it up in a single sentence, the villain gets their hands on a nuclear weapon and works with some folk in Russia to help detonate it.  It’s reminiscent of so many other action films and I was surprised that writer Chris Morgan didn’t strive for something more original.

That’s not to say the film isn’t watchable.  There are some great action pieces that can be enjoyed.  My favourite was a car chase sequence involving driverless cars that had been “hacked”.  It’s amazing what pandemonium you can cause on the streets of New York when controlling thousands of cars at once.  Other highlights include another car chase across a frozen Russian lake and a gun fight where an ear-muff wearing infant is caught up in the mayhem.  They win points for creativity.

The villain is critical to the success of any action film and Charlize Theron earns praise for her performance as a cyber-terrorist looking to impart her views on the rest of the world.  She’s part genius, part psychopath and her cunning nature ensures she continually has the upper hand.  She blackmails the film’s protagonist, Dominic Toretto (Diesel), and uses him to help steal the aforementioned nuclear weapon.

The film’s other standout is Helen Mirren but her appearance is far too brief and fleeting.  It’s barely a cameo.  Her hilarious character makes you realise that other members of the cast aren’t all that interesting.  Tyrese Gibson is striving too hard for laughs, Kurt Russell and Scott Eastwood rabble on too much, and Michelle Rodriguez is given very little material to work with.  Hopefully we see more from Mirren next time around.

There’s not a great deal of tension in the film despite its heavy nature.  Those who have seen the earlier films will be familiar with the same themes being drummed home.  The word “family” is repeated so often that it feels like a TV commercial for a political party.  It’s about putting the lives of your friends and family ahead of your own.  It’s why Toretto is prepared to risk the lives of millions to save just one – a conclusion that doesn’t make a lot of sense in the real world.

The cast members will have been rewarded with nice pay checks but The Fate of the Furious is a few steps below the best in this franchise.