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: William Kelly’s War

This review was originally published in the Central Western Daily on Tuesday 11th November 2014.

William Kelly’s War is a new independent Australian feature film that has been released to coincide with Remembrance Day. With a gradual rollout starting in regional cinemas (and sure to include Orange at some point), the film follows the trials and tribulations of the Kelly Family through the eyes of Billy (Josh Davis).

Brothers Billy and Jack Kelly (Matthew John Davis), along with cousin Paddy (Lachlan Hulme) volunteer to join the Diggers fighting in Europe. As the Great War ravages across the continent, their shooting and survival skills learnt from cattle farming and living off the land earn them reputations (and medals) as war heroes. Forever changed by their experiences, both physically and psychologically, the brothers return home to discover their family and farm is under threat from bushrangers.

If that sounds like two stories in one, then you are correct. I found the Great War storyline compelling and satisfying enough to be a film on its own, with the cattle rustling plot feeling tacked on and a little too Boys’ Own adventures for my liking. The other consequence of such an expansive story is an array of underwritten characters, especially the titular hero, whose headspace we never really get a glimpse into, short of a few nightmarish flashbacks.

A great example of the superficiality of the script is the stoic matriarch of the family, Marjorie Kelly (Helen Davis) who has little to say but then somehow manages to give two dramatic speeches out of thin air. It felt like rendering Jack Nicholson’s character in A Few Good Men an extra until the final “You can’t handle the truth” speech.

Director Geoff Davis certainly makes the limited budget go a long way. Filmed in regional Victoria, the majority of the production appears to be set on location. The recreation of the outback town of Proserpine is appropriately rustic, and I truly feel for the farmer who volunteered to have his fields dug up to recreate trench warfare. Despite a few scenes where World War One appears to have been fought by a handful of soldiers only, I found the war sequences to be disorientating and claustrophobic.

Less successful was the clunky voice over narration and the overused location and date subtitles which appeared with every new scene. One or the other (or perhaps neither) would have worked for me.

The depiction of gun violence is particularly graphic, even if the majority of it consists of CGI blood splatter, both on the battlefront and in the outback. There is also some gruesome hand to hand fighting. Although pitched at an older demographic, I’m not entirely sure I would be comfortable taking my grandparents to this flick.

Provided you can handle a couple of heavy handed metaphors (men grinding mince in the middle of the field hospital), and a few period continuity issues (cattle with red plastic ear tags and bushrangers wearing oilskin coats with modern press studs), William Kelly’s War is an admirable effort that deserves some attention.

Published in: on November 20, 2014 at 17:08  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: A Walk Among the Tombstones

This column was originally published in the Central Western Daily on Tuesday 21st October 2014.

The trailer might suggest yet another addition to the Liam Neeson Action Hero Kills Europe™ franchise but A Walk Among the Tombstones is a thoughtfully paced gumshoe thriller that harks back to detective mystery movies of old.

Sure, some of the tropes are present: the threatening phone call, punching a bad guy through a window, a kid sidekick and so on, but there is more talking than action this time, and that’s why this film works.

Matt Skudder (Neeson) is a former cop and alcoholic with a traumatic past. Working as an unlicensed private eye, he is recruited by drug kingpin Kenny Kristo (Dan Stevens) and his junkie brother Peter (Boyd Holbrook) to investigate a kidnapping where the ransom has been delivered and the victim returned, in pieces. Teaming up with wise beyond his years street kid TJ (Brian “Astro” Bradley), Skudder discovers that this is not a random event, but a series of murders.

Adapted from the novel by Lawrence Block, screenwriter and director Scott Frank, whose varied writing credits include The Wolverine and Marley and Me, creates an atmospheric gritty New York City where everyone has a secret and shifty characters slowly cruise the streets in panel vans.

A Walk Among the Tombstones is an intense and effective thriller that deserves your attention.

Published in: on October 19, 2014 at 12:46  Leave a Comment  
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Film Review: Annabelle

This column was originally published in the Central Western Daily on Tuesday 21st October 2014.

If the formula for the very successful and mega spooky The Conjuring was quiet + quiet + bang = scare, then the formula for its prequel Annabelle goes like this: quiet + quiet + bang = yawn.

Certainly the breakout star from the original, it was pretty clear that the creepy possessed doll deserved a feature film of her own. Unfortunately, director John R. Leonetti, whose pedigree includes the dodgy sequels The Butterfly Effect 2 and Mortal Kombat: Annihilation, has crafted a predictable second rate horror flick that telegraphs all of its scares and demystifies the demon doll with unnecessary backstory.

The Conjuring wisely featured Annabelle in a subplot rather than the main storyline. She was possessed. That’s it. This time around, we find out that her origins are linked to a Charles Manson like cult. During a killing spree, a drop of a dying cultist’s blood drops into the doll’s eye and voila, instant demonic possession. The killer also bled on the carpet. Is the shag pile also possessed?

I’m not spoiling anything. Everything I’ve just mentioned is in the trailer. In fact, it’s fine to arrive 30 minutes late for Annabelle. You won’t miss anything.

As our leads, Annabelle Wallis (yep, that’s her actual first name) and Ward Horton overact as if this movie is their big break. Wait, it is. The usually reliable Alfre Woodard (12 Years A Slave, Star Trek: First Contact) is wasted in a role that teases the audience with a possible intriguing end plot twist but then doesn’t.

If copious close-ups of a spooky doll’s porcelain face scare you, buy the poster. Once again, less is more. Avoid Annabelle, turn the lights off and watch The Conjuring again.

Published in: on October 19, 2014 at 12:44  Leave a Comment  
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Film Review: Dracula Untold

This review was originally published in the Central Western Daily on Tuesday 14 October 2014.

The fundamental problem with this film from first time feature director Gary Shore is that for a tale about blood drinking creatures of the night, there is surprisingly little of the red stuff.

In a kiddie friendly reinterpretation of the Dracula origins story, Luke Evans (Fast & Furious 6, The Three Musketeers) stars as Vlad the Impaler. Sent as a child to the Turks to be a soldier, he gained a reputation as a fierce warrior (thus the nickname) and has now returned to his home of Transylvania to rule as a peace loving King (as you do).

The evil Turks now return demanding a new delivery of child soldiers (including the young prince) and desperate to save his people, Vlad sells his soul for three days to the Vampire King (a hammy Charles Dance). With the powers (and weaknesses) of a vampire, Vlad, now Dracula, must vanquish his enemies before he succumbs to “the thirst” which will render him a bloodsucker forever.

With the recent melee surrounding Ridley Scott’s upcoming epic Exodus: Gods and Kings and its controversial casting of a tanned Aussie Joel Edgerton as Egyptian Pharaoh Ramses, it is interesting that not a peep has been heard from the internet regarding Dracula Untold’s Turk leader Mehmed being played by the usually pasty UK actor Dominic Cooper. Imagine the furore when it is revealed that Welshman Luke Evans is also not actually a vampire. You’ve read it here first, folks.

Dracula Untold has plot holes to drive a truck through. Why would the Turks sacrifice hordes of soldiers in battle for a measly thousand child soldiers? The evil Mehmed seems to immediately recognise the need to use silver and wooden stakes against Vlad. How does he know this? Why would you pursue a child army when a vampire army would be potentially unstoppable? Why do the Transylvanians not become suspicious immediately after Vlad wipes out an army on his own?

Typical to this sort of film, most of the the action takes place in the dark, and I really had problems seeing what was happening, which is unusual for a 2D feature. I can say that I have seen Dracula Untold, but I can’t say that I saw Dracula Untold, if you catch my drift.

I’m not entirely sure why this film even has the word “Dracula” in its title. The characterisation and origins of this lead character were completely out of synch with my expectations. Sure, this is a reinterpretation but there has to be at least some tropes of a traditional fangastical Dracula tale to deserve the name.

It has been announced that Dracula Untold will be the first in a series of reboots to the Universal Monsters franchise. Let’s hope that the rumoured next in line, The Mummy, fares better than this pointless feature.

Dracula Untold typically ends with a strong hint that a sequel is in the work. Let’s hope not. This Dracula story should have remained untold.

Published in: on October 19, 2014 at 12:42  Leave a Comment  
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Film Review: Tim’s Vermeer

This review was originally published in the Central Western Daily on Tuesday 22 July 2014.

From the twisted and warped minds of famed Las Vegas illusionist duo, Penn and Teller, comes a new documentary that is neither twisted or warped but manages to be magic nonetheless. Tim’s Vermeer tells the tale of inventor and successful entrepreneur Tim Jenison and his obsession with unlocking one of the mysteries of the art world.

Prior to the screening I was the last person you would invite to be on your table at a great Dutch painters trivia night, so apologies if you already are familiar with the topic. Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675) is renowned for his photo realistic painting style, seen in perhaps his most famous work, The Girl with the Pearl Earring. Said to “paint with light”, there has been much speculation that Vermeer utilised optical devices to aid his work.

Armed with this knowledge, Jenison goes one step further and sets out to prove this theory by attempting to design and build an optical “machine” in order to paint his own Vermeer.

I had the pleasure of attending Penn and Teller’s Las Vegas show at The Rio, which has been successfully running for the past 12 years. Highly intelligent and utterly hilarious, their act can be a little confronting if you do not agree, or are at least sympathetic, to their political ideals (libertarianism) or philosophical beliefs (atheism and skepticism).

Unlike their fantastic pseudoscience debunking TV show, Bullsh*t!, Penn and Teller do not adopt their usual aggressive and confrontational style for Tim’s Vermeer. Instead we are drawn in with a gentle observational approach which does not cast judgement on Jenison’s preoccupation but rather simply takes us along for the journey.

Directed by Teller and narrated by Penn (the former is the one who doesn’t speak onstage), it is hard not be totally absorbed in Jenison’s quest as he travels to Delft in the Netherlands to see where Vermeer worked, and London to speak to experts. He even is granted 30 minutes with the Queen’s own Vermeer in Buckingham Palace.

Neither a painter or a tradesman, Jenison almost singlehandedly reconstructs the setting of The Music Lesson, including walls, furniture, props and costumes, before spending almost five years painstakingly recreating the painting one brushstroke at a time using his ingenious lens and mirror device.

Although a shortlisting in the best documentary category in the 2014 Academy Awards did not eventuate into a nomination, Tim’s Vermeer is a fascinating and highly enjoyable tale of one man’s eight year quest. Edited from 25,000 hours of raw footage, Penn and Teller have crafted their own masterpiece.

Published in: on October 5, 2014 at 15:08  Leave a Comment  
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Film Review: I, Frankenstein 3D

This review was originally published in the Central Western Daily on Tuesday 29 July 2014.

I, try to make an effort to support the Australian film industry. In the case of I, Frankenstein, it’s more like an overseas production that just happened to be shot in Melbourne. Sure, besides import stars Aaron Eckhart and Bill Nighy, the production employed 500 locals including director Stuart Beattie, but from a creative perspective, it’s like trying to claim Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones and Episode III – Revenge of the Sith as Australian movies. There’s a big difference between an Australian film and one that’s simply shot in Australia.

I, Frankenstein is based on a graphic novel and comes from the mind of Kevin Grevioux, creator of the Underworld franchise, except this time, it’s Demons versus Gargoyles. There was some talk of a crossover between the two worlds but it may have been a little difficult to explain the presence of Bill Nighy as the antagonist in both films, but as different characters.

Charles Wessex (Nighy) is the leader of the Demons, bent on finding the secret of reanimating human corpses so that the demon souls of the underworld (not that Underworld) can return to earth. His target is Adam (Eckhart) the two hundred year old living result of a successful experiment by one Victor Frankenstein. Siding with the good Gargoyles and their queen (Miranda Otto), Adam fights for the future of, um, Melbourne alongside the warrior (Jai Courtney) and beautiful scientist, in a Tara Reid kinda way, Terra Wade (Yvonne Strahovski).

Post-converted into 3D, the action scenes are competent but nothing new. To keep the blood letting to a minimum, the Demons explode into flame when destroyed. No green screen in Melbourne was safe during the production, with many, many CGI heavy scenes. Only a few physical landmarks are recognisable in the final product, with the National Gallery of Victoria doubling for Central Station. Otherwise, it’s the same dark european type gothic city as depicted so often in these types of films.

Plot holes abound, from the sublime (the bizarre title – I guess Frankenstein is his surname) to the ridiculous (Frankenstein’s two hundred year old diary is in mint condition). Bad guys fully explain their devious plans to a temporarily subdued Adam, sixties Batman style. The human population don’t appear to notice the explosions and chaos around them.

The serious performances from the cast don’t match the silliness of the film. Nighy is at his scenery chewing best. Eckhart and Courtney growl their dialogue. Otto looks bored. Both Aden Young and Bruce Spence are wasted in cameo roles. Strahovski is radiant but I like everything she does.

The most successful element of the film is the art design. The gothic towers, industrial battlegrounds and derelict buildings are quite beautiful. Unfortunately, it’s all been done before.

With a disappointing box office return, don’t expect any sequels. I, am OK with that.

Published in: on October 5, 2014 at 14:59  Leave a Comment  
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