Film Review: This Is Where I Leave You

This review was published in the Central Western Daily on Tuesday 28th October 2014.

There’s no doubt that direct Shawn Levy sure knows how to assemble an amazing ensemble cast. His Night At The Museum trilogy (part three is released later this year) attracted an enviable cast which managed to transcend the cheesy material. In This Is Where I Leave You, Levy has done it again, and this time, the script reaches the heights of the star studded ensemble, just.

After finding his wife in bed with his boss, the traumatised Judd Altman (Jason Bateman) is forced to return to his childhood home when his father passes away. Spending a week with his family in shiva at the request of his father, a Jewish tradition of seven days of mourning (even though his parents are not Jewish), deep rooted dysfunctions arise to comedic effect.

Wendy (the brilliant Tina Fey) is divorced with two children, one of whom has just learnt to use the potty and is prepared to demonstrate his new skills just about everywhere. Older brother Paul (Corey Stoll) is having trouble impregnating his clucky wife (Kathryn Hahn), who just happens to be one off Judd’s exes. Younger brother Phillip (Adam Driver – seemingly contractually required to appear in every film this year) is the problem child who has brought along his psychiatrist (and lover). And matriarch of the family Hilary (a radiant Jane Fonda) has bought herself a new set of breasts. You know the rest.

Screenwriter Jonathan adapt his own novel and manages to strike that perfect balance where every character gets their own moments and no performance dominates the film.

Not exactly laugh a minute but rather a movie that will keep you smiling throughout, This Is Where I Leave You doesn’t break any new ground in the family comedy stakes but is worth the price of admission just to see the cast in action.

Published in: on November 20, 2014 at 17:17  Leave a Comment  
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Film Review: Fury

This review was originally published in the Central Western Daily on Tuesday 28th October 2014.

Fury is not so much a film to enjoy as it is a film to experience. Just as our protagonist Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman) is thrust from the army typing pool into the frontline role of tank gunner after only eight weeks service, so too is the audience catapulted into the brutality of war. It is April, 1945 and US forces are making inroads into a Nazi Germany that is determined to fight to the bitter end.

Writer and director David Ayer (Training Day, End of Watch) keeps the mood intense and claustrophobic, both inside the tank and out. Using a bleak palette of grey and green, there is something unworldly about the shattered landscapes of war torn Germany which only highlights the inhuman acts that Norman witnesses both on and off the battlefield.

Ayer has assembled a superb cast as the crew of Fury, a US Sherman Tank. The talented Logan Lerman (The Perks of Being a Wallflower) makes a convincing rookie who, through the influence of his crew, transforms into a soldier capable of gunning down Nazis by the dozen. Brad Pitt is US Army Staff Sergeant Don “Wardaddy” Collier, a battle hardened leader who bullies and manipulates his crew to get results, but when left alone has moments where it becomes clear that his scars are not just physical. Rounding out the crew are John Bernthal (TV’s The Walking Dead), Ayers alumni John Peña (TV’s Gracepoint) and Shia LaBeouf. Although his offscreen antics might not make him an audience favourite, there is no doubt that LaBeouf isn’t acting, he is inhabiting. I’m not sure who would win in a competition to determine who in this film is the deepest in character: Pitt or LaBeouf.

Ayers keeps the tension up with death potentially lurking behind every corner. The four versus one tank battle is tremendous and dispels the movie myth which sees tanks explode with a minimum of damage.

An effective but still inferior companion piece to Saving Private Ryan, the carnage depicted in Fury will stay with you long after the light come up.

Published in: on November 20, 2014 at 17:15  Leave a Comment  
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Film Review: Interstellar

This review was originally published in the Central Western Daily on Tuesday 4th November 2014.

There are only a handful of directors whose work I will seek out just because their name is on the poster. Christopher Nolan is one of them. After his triumphant Dark Knight trilogy and the mind boggling Inception, there have been high expectations amongst cinephiles for his upcoming opus, Interstellar. I’m pleased to say that he doesn’t disappoint and his space saga has rocketed to the top of my 2014 list.

In the near future, the world’s crops have started to fail. Wars over food supplies have resulted in a society that is solely focused on survival, with loftier pursuits such as space exploration no longer a planetary priority. Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), a father of two, corn farmer and former NASA pilot, is recruited by a secret organisation to lead a mission into a newly discovered wormhole in space which may lead to an inhabitable planet and new home for the Earth’s population.

Determined to complete his mission and return to his children, Cooper has to beat the clock. You see, with years of travel to the wormhole, plus visits to alien planets where time passes faster than on Earth, Cooper only has so much time before his offspring die of old age.

Being penned by brothers Johnathan and Christopher Nolan, there is far more to this story than just a trip into outer space. With twists and turns galore, there is a depth of storytelling that is rarely seen in films today. It is not just Cooper and crew venturing into the unknown. The audience gets to go too.

Make no mistake. This is McConaughey’s film. With his seemingly endless array of dodgy rom coms behind him (all of which seem to feature him leaning on something in the poster), we are truly living in the age of the McConaissance, and the world of cinema is all the better for it. Whilst his recent Oscar win may have been more for a run of superb performances (Mud, Bernie, Killer Joe, The Wolf of Wall Street and Magic Mike) than Dallas Buyers Club itself, McConaughey’s performance in Interstellar is a tour de force and puts him in good stead for two Oscar wins in a row.

Nolan has assembled a spectacular supporting cast. Anne Hathaway shines as Cooper’s crew mate Amelia. Jessica Chastain is in fine form as Murph, Cooper’s daughter who can’t forgive her father for abandoning her. Nolan regular Michael Caine is a welcome screen presence playing, er, Michael Caine. An unbilled performance by a well known actor playing a key role will have you looking twice.

I experienced Interstellar in IMAX. Nolan shot many key scenes in this format and I found the rocket launch and alien planet scenes absolutely breathtaking as the already huge picture opened up vertically to fill my entire field of vision. I definitely recommend that you go out of your way to see this film in IMAX.

From tiny spaceships floating through the enormity of space to beautifully stark alien vistas, Interstellar is a feast for the eyes. Nolan has created a lived-in universe with no obvious signs of CGI (although I’m sure it was used).

Despite a few plot holes and a lengthy 169 minute runtime, Interstellar captivated me. A must-see, it is a near perfect masterpiece.

Published in: on November 20, 2014 at 17:11  Leave a Comment  
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Film Review: The Mule

This review was originally published in the Central Western Daily on Tuesday 19th November 2014.

This Australian black comedy will go down in film history as the first local feature to bypass traditional distribution methods when it makes its debut via digital download this coming Friday, before hitting shelves in physical formats in early December.

Unfortunately, The Mule is an unfunny bore that will make you want to pry your eyeballs out with a rusty spoon, despite its pedigree and cast.

in 1983, Dopey local footballer Ray Jenkins (Angus Sampson) is recruited by teammate Gavin (Leigh Whannell) to traffic drugs back into Melbourne from the end of season trip to Bangkok. With the payload safely swallowed, Ray is detained by Customs officials. Refusing an internal examination or x-ray, Australian Federal Police officers Croft (Hugo Weaving) and Paris (Ewen Leslie) are tasked with holding Ray in a hotel room for up to seven days until he opens his bowels, twice.

The most remarkable thing about The Mule is that it features the most stomach churning scene of the year, and I am a horror film aficionado. I won’t spoil it for you but suffice to say that I won’t be eating chocolate anytime soon.

Almost as remarkable is the fact that this comedic whimper is the brainchild of screenwriters Sampson, Whannell (Saw, Insidious) and Jaime Browne, and somehow attracted its talented cast including Noni Hazlehurst and John Noble (TV’s Fringe and Sleepy Hollow).

I will admit to enjoying the archival footage of Australia II winning the America’s Cup and revisiting the one and only time in Aussie history that anyone cared about yachting. But there’s YouTube for that.

Published in: on November 20, 2014 at 17:05  Leave a Comment  
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Film Review: My Old Lady

This review was originally published in the Central Western Daily on Tuesday 19th November 2014.

In this gentle comedy, Kevin Kline plays Mathias Gold, a broke divorcee who returns to Paris in order to claim the property bestowed to him in his late father’s will. To his horror he discovers that the elderly resident of the apartment, Mathilde Girard (Maggie Smith), is protected by an obscure French law which allows her the right to live there until she dies. Mathias’ attempts to find a way to sell the apartment to settle debts puts him at odds with the old woman’s daughter, Chloe, played by Kristin Scott Thomas.

Directed by first time feature helmer Israel Horowitz, based on his own play, My Old Lady benefits from the chemistry between the three leads. Smith perfectly inhabits her forgetful (or manipulative) old duck who takes her evening meal at exactly the same time, and exchanges english classes for domestic services, including doctor’s appointments. Kline is also a welcome presence on the big screen, after what seems like several years away from leading roles in mainstream films.

Although unsurprisingly somewhat stagey, Horowitz enhances the film with some wonderful Paris locations.

Romantics will find My Old Lady a charming experience. For everyone else, it may not make you laugh out loud, but you’ll definitely leave the cinemas with a smile on your face, and some useful knowledge about French real estate.

Published in: on November 20, 2014 at 17:03  Leave a Comment  
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Film Review: Monty Python Live (Mostly)

This column was originally published in the Central Western Daily on Tuesday 5 August 2014.

Last month, legendary comedy troupe Monty Python performed 10 sold out performances at London’s O2 Arena. With the first show selling out in 45 seconds, tickets for Monty Python Live (Mostly) were extremely hard to come by. Luckily for the majority of the planet, the final performance was recorded and will premiere in Australian cinemas this week.

Bringing together John Cleese, Eric Idle, Michael Palin, Terry Gilliam and Terry Jones for the first time in 30 years (Graham Chapman checked out in 1989 but appears in video sequences), the live show consists of a selection of classic Python sketches and songs, with some added modern references and new song verses.

For dedicated fans, this is a hilarious greatest hits compilation and a fantastic way to become reacquainted with the now much older Pythons, none of whom appear to be slowing down, at least on stage anyway. Newcomers might be tested by the lengthy run time (2 hours and 40 minutes, including a 20 minute interval) and wonder what the fuss is all about.

Monty Python Live (Mostly) is just one of a growing array of special events coming to cinemas. Audiences now have access to opera (New York’s Met Opera), theatre (Driving Miss Daisy with Angela Lansbury), television milestones (Doctor Who: Deep Breath – the debut of Peter Capaldi’s Doctor) and live performances (Andre Rieu Cleans Out His Sock Drawer). Although I’m for anything that draws more people into the cinema, recorded live performances suffer from an audience disconnect and the Monty Python reunion is no different.

Although the camera angles offer cinema audiences undeniably the best seat in the house, there is no substitute for live atmosphere. The video sequences, some new, some old, designed to give the cast time to change between sketches, drag. The etiquette of cinema-going frowns upon participating in the many sing-a-longs featured in the show, although I couldn’t resist the finale, Always Look on the Bright Side of Life. Sorry if you were sitting near me.

The Dead Parrot, Argument Clinic, Four Yorkshiremen and Nudge Nudge are just a few of the classic sketches recreated on stage. A full orchestra accompanies the Pythons in such iconic ditties as Every Sperm is Sacred, The Lumberjack Song and I Like Chinese. A two storey stage, rolling sets and an all singing and dancing ensemble bring a big Broadway musical feel to the proceedings.

Monty Python Live (Mostly) features many celebrity cameos from the likes of Eddie Izzard and Mike Myers, as well as a surprising appearance from Professor Brian Cox and the legendary Professor Stephen Hawking in the Galaxy Song. The show also features Carol Cleveland, the only female (unofficial) member of the troupe.

Barring retirement funds needing another top-up, this is likely to be the last time to see Cleese, Gilliam, Idle, Jones and Palin share the same stage. For fans of classic British comedy, this is a must-see (but take a packed lunch and a cushion). For newbies, a marathon of classic Python movies before the concert film is recommended.

Published in: on October 5, 2014 at 14:42  Leave a Comment  
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Film Review: Freedom

Australian musical theatre star, Peter Cousens, has reinvented himself as a film director, and his debut feature is not a cheap slasher horror or gritty suburban crime thriller, but a big budget drama tackling important social and historical issues, shot in the US with a big name cast. Aspiring filmmakers should be jealous. I know I am.

Coming hot on the heels of Django Unchained and other slavery themed productions, it is easy to dismiss Freedom as Twelve Years A Slave-Lite but Cousens’ feature is a very different creature altogether.

Screenwriter Timothy A. Chey runs two plot lines in parallel. The first is set in 1856, following slave Samuel Woodward (Oscar winner Cuba Gooding Jr.) and his family as they escape from a plantation in Richmond, Virginia and begin their dangerous journey to Canada on the Underground Railroad. Not far behind throughout their journey is slave hunter, Plimpton (William Sadler).

Almost 100 years earlier, we meet ship captain John Newton (Bernhard Forcher) who is struggling with his faith and conscience as he transports slaves, including Samuel’s great grandfather, to the New World.

This reviewer found the second plot line to be the least effective. Although developing a human connection to his cargo through a series of incidents at sea, Newton’s final expression of kindness is to pen the hymn, “Amazing Grace”, not save anybody from their hell-like future existence. I suppose the song does provide Samuel and family some comfort and motivation a century later. It may also have helped my understanding of the film had I been aware that John Newton composed the iconic song. Pardon my ignorance, I assumed it was written by God.

Samuel’s tale, on the other hand, is a gripping tale of escape and near recapture, and I was willing Gooding Jnr. and co to get across the border throughout the whole 98 minute runtime.

Although not a musical, Freedom uses music, in particular singing, as a metaphor for the humanity that we all share. I was moved by some of the numbers, sung in their entirety, such as the joyous singalong between the escapees and a troupe of theatre performers, including Australian musical theatre headliner Tony Sheldon. Less successful were a few songs, performed out of context, musical theatre style, especially Samuel’s wife Vanessa (Sharon Leal) breaking into tune whilst walking inside a church. The result was being snapped out of my engrossment and remembering that I was watching a film.

Freedom was shot on location in Connecticut. It looks beautiful, courtesy of cinematographer Dean Cundey (Back to the Future, Apollo 13).

The cast is wonderful. I have no idea how Cousens’ managed to enlist such a lineup for his first feature. Cuba Gooding Jnr. really delivers in his best performance in years as his Samuel struggles between the choice of revenge or freedom. William Sadler is capably menacing as a slave hunter with ethics. Even one of my favourites, Terrence Mann (The Dresden Files, A Chorus Line) makes an appearance.

Peter Cousens has concocted a beautiful and haunting film which will appeal to a “Best Exotic Marigold” audience. Despite its religious undertones which frankly did not bother a non-believer like me, Freedom still has plenty to say about slavery, an issue which is just as relevant now as it was in 1748 and 1856.

Published in: on September 6, 2014 at 00:26  Leave a Comment  
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Film Review: X-Men: Days of Future Past

This review was originally published in the Central Western Daily on Tuesday 27th May 2014.

After a lacklustre second sequel, an enjoyable prequel and two disappointing Wolverine solo outings, director Bryan Singer returns to take over the reigns of the X-Men franchise with X-Men: Days of Future Past. Combining the retro cast of X-Men: First Class (2013) and many of the significant characters from the original, Singer has crafted a mega lineup of mutants that should have any comic film fan salivating. The time bending plot will not disappoint. Unfortunately, as is the way with these sorts of features, not everyone gets enough screen time to satisfy.

In the distant future, mutant exterminating machines called Sentinels have almost wiped out all of the X-Men. A rag tag group of survivors led by Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) and Magneto (Ian McKellen) realise that their whole situation is a direct result of the assassination of the creator of the Sentinel programme, Dr Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage) by mutant Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) in the seventies. Using Kitty Pryde’s (Ellen Page) time travelling powers, Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) is sent back to convince Professor Xavier and Magneto’s younger selves (James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender, respectively) to put their issues aside and fight to save the future.

Although a welcome presence on the screen, I’m not entirely sure how it is that Patrick Stewart’s Professor Xavier is alive and well in this film. Last seen being blown into smithereens in X-Men: The Last Stand (2006), he then popped up in the post-credits sequence of The Wolverine (2013) with no explanation. I assume his mind control is so great that he can will himself back into existence. In that case, why not also fix your legs and get rid of the wheelchair? Never mind.

Bookended by scenes in the future, the majority of the film takes place in the seventies. Fish out of water Wolverine (Jackman absolutely inhabiting his signature character) attempting to bring the warring parties together leads to many memorable moments, in particular an excellent sequence featuring Quicksiver (Evan Peters) slowing time to ensure Magneto’s breakout from the Pentagon. McAvoy and Fassbender bring back their chemistry as the feuding mutant leaders but once again, Jennifer Lawrence proves that she can steal a movie from anyone. She looks great in blue body paint too.

Hot from Game of Thrones, Peter Dinklage is charismatic as the porno ‘tached Trask. Perfectly cast, it is significant that his lack of stature is not even mentioned in the film.

Back to the future (Marty), Stewart, McKellan and Halle Berry’s Storm have little in the way of dialogue, which is a shame for the two former and not so much for the latter. In fact, the biggest chunk of dialogue Stewart gets is in the much anticipated scene with McAvoy as the older (and balder) Xavier meets his younger counterpart. Like the iconic scene in Heat which saw De Niro finally share the screen with Pacino, the double Professor X scene is brief but noteworthy.

The CGI heavy action sequences are well done, with the imposing Sentinels particularly threatening. The scenes set in the future are quite dark, which might frustrate those viewing in 3D (I went to a 2D screening).

With an impressive array of cameos, Singer certainly knows how to craft a compelling X-Men tale. I don’t find his directorial style to be distinctive at all, but I suppose it is comforting to know that all of the franchise entries have the same look and feel. I don’t know if that’s a criticism of other franchise directors Brett Ratner, Matthew Vaughn, Gavin Hood and James Mangold, or a compliment to Singer’s obvious influence on the X-Men movies.

From a storytelling perspective, the events of X-Men: Days of Future Past make the plots of the original trilogy redundant. I suppose this splitting of timelines ala the recent Star Trek reboot will allow for more stories to be told, but I dislike my previous investment in the earlier movies to have gone to waste.

Film Review: A Million Ways to Die in the West

This review was originally published in the Central Western Daily on Tuesday 3rd June 2014.

After making a splash on the big screen with his directorial debut, the hilarious Ted (he also voiced the titular talking teddy bear), Seth MacFarlane returns with A Million Ways to Die in the West. Still a powerhouse on television with his three ongoing animation franchises, Family Guy, American Dad! and The Cleveland Show, MacFarlane has placed himself front and centre in the lead role, a gutsy move considering his usual place is behind the camera or microphone, and his poorly received gig hosting the Oscars last year.

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From the beautiful opening aerial visuals of Monument Valley, Utah, alongside a memorable rousing score by Joel McNeely, it is clear that MacFarlane and his co-writers Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild love westerns. By the end of the film, you’ll also know that MacFarlane and company also love fart, excrement and lowbrow sexual gags. If you like (or love) all of this stuff, you will have a great time with A Million Ways to Die in the West. I certainly did. I’ve even gone as far as to recommend it to my dad, a western fan, although I have a suspicion that I may live to regret that decision.

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Albert Stark (MacFarlane) is a sheep farmer with limited prospects and a lack of the courage required to survive in the Wild West. When his girlfriend Louise (Amanda Seyfried) leaves him for the far more successful moustache product merchant Foy (Neil Patrick Harris), Albert befriends the beautiful and gunsmart Anna (Charlize Theron) who agrees to help him win his beloved back. Unfortunately, Anna is married to the psychotic criminal Clinch (Liam Neeson), and their blossoming relationship soon has Albert preparing to meet his maker in the inevitable gunfight with Clinch, that is, if he survives a shootout with Foy first.

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MacFarlane has assembled a fantastic cast that is pretty much willing to do anything in the name of laughs. I’ve always found Charlize Theron to be lacking in warmth onscreen but on this occasion she radiates charisma, and clearly has a strong chemistry with MacFarlane. Neil Patrick Harris is at his smarmy, campy best. And the combination of Giovanni Ribisi and Sarah Silverman as a devoutly religious couple who are saving themselves for marriage despite her occupation as a prostitute is dynamite. As for MacFarlane himself, he makes a relatable leading man and I’d like to see more of him in front of the camera.

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A Million Ways to Die in the West is a very knowing comedy. Our hero Albert is well aware that life in the Wild West is hard and usually cut short by a multitude of deadly factors (many of them hilariously depicted onscreen). With quite a few current pop culture references, it is best described as a modern comedy that happens to be set in 1882.

The high water mark for the comedy western is undoubtably Mel Brooks’ sublime Blazing Saddles. Sure, it had fart jokes too, but they worked on more than one level. The famous baked beans scene (I can’t believe I am trying to argue that a fart joke is sophisticated) is not only funny for obvious reasons but it is also clever because it breaks the long established contrivances of the genre. Combine this with the confronting reflections on race and you have a comedy western that has something to say. MacFarlane’s film isn’t nearly half as smart and has nothing more to say than life in 1882 sucked, but that doesn’t stop it from being a laugh a minute romp that those with open minds will enjoy.

Film Review: Godzilla

This column was originally published in the Central Western Daily on Tuesday 20th May 2014.

Director Gareth Edwards made his feature film debut with the highly enjoyable Monsters in 2010. A low budget sci-fi thriller set after an alien invasion, the film follows a journalist who accompanies an American tourist through the Mexican quarantine zone to safety. Edwards proved he was a writer-director to watch by managing to keep the human story at the centre of our attention amongst an array of skirmishes between the military and CGI creatures. I couldn’t wait to see what he would do next.

Legendary Pictures and Warner Bros. obviously felt the same way and handed Edwards the reigns to the $160 million reboot of the Godzilla franchise for his second movie. No pressure there then.

The good news is that Edwards has delivered a solid creature feature. The bad news is that there is little else to report. It’s a Godzilla film.

Just like the recent Amazing Spider-Man 2: Rise of Electro, where the titular villain is strangely only a supporting character, Godzilla is not really the star of his own movie. Like many of the big name actors in the cast, the King of Monsters has little to do in the storyline.

Much of the first half of the plot is dedicated to the emergence of the MUTO (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism), giant praying mantis type monsters which feeds on radiation.

On the human side of the plot, nuclear plant supervisor Joe Brody (Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston) is still mourning the loss of his wife (a wasted Juliette Binoche) fifteen years previously in a meltdown precipitated by an “earthquake”, actually the hatching of a MUTO. Whilst investigating in Japan, he is arrested in the radioactive quarantine area, which prompts his son, army explosive ordinance disposal officer Ford (Kick-Ass’s Aaron Taylor-Johnson), to come to the rescue.

When the male and female MUTO begin a destructive path across the globe to come together and mate, Godzilla arises from the depths of the ocean to reaffirm his position as the alpha predator of our planet. Destruction and chaos ensues, in 3D.

If fighting giant monsters are your bag, Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim did it so much better. Godzilla’s monster showdowns all seem to take place at night, and combined with the light loss from the 3D glasses, I left the cinema still wanting to have seen more of the battles.

Edwards certainly assembled an all star cast and I was looking forward to seeing the ensemble in a blockbuster popcorn picture. Unfortunately, there is simply not enough of Cranston or Elizabeth Olson, in the thankless role of Ford’s wife. Ken Watanabe and Sally Hawkins play scientists who conveniently pop up whenever we require exposition. At least Watanabe gets to do the trademark turn to camera and mutter, “Godzirra.”

Godzilla may already have me his match in the plethora of superior CGI filled monster, alien and superhero films on the market.