Friday, 15 December 2017

Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi

(M) ★★★★

Director: Rian Johnson.

Cast: Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver, Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Kelly Marie Tran, Domhnall Gleeson, Laura Dern, Andy Serkis, Benicio del Toro, Anthony Daniels, Gwendoline Christie.

I'm not sure if this new "Luke Skywalker" character's going to catch on with the kids.
There are no spoilers in this review. So carry on without fear.

One of the biggest (and not inaccurate) criticisms levelled at Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens was it followed the beats of Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope too slavishly. To be honest, I thought that was one of its strengths; that it was something that helped The Force Awakens feel classic and tickle our nostalgia bones while simultaneously creating something fresh.

So if The Force Awakens was another New Hope, it follows that Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back will be the touchstone for Star Wars: Episode VIII - The Last Jedi. And it is in so many ways. The somewhat darker tone and the downward story trajectory with a glimmer of hope at the end are on display here. There are even some familiar story elements.

And just like The Empire Strikes Back set the benchmark for the "orig trij", The Last Jedi does the same for the sequel trilogy.

Picking up from where The Force Awakens left off, The Last Jedi finds Princess Leia (Fisher) and her Resistance (AKA the Rebels) on the run from General Hux (Gleeson) and his the First Order (AKA the Empire), despite the destruction of the First Order's superweapon Starkiller Base.

Meanwhile, Rey (Ridley) is trying to convince the legendary Luke Skywalker (Hamill) to return from isolation to aid the Resistance, but finds him unwilling, with the Jedi Master still torn up over his evil nephew Kylo Ren (Driver) crossing to the dark side.


Kylo Ren remains the most fascinating of the new characters and Rey is close behind, but what makes The Last Jedi next level is the interaction between those two players in the film. Theirs is a psychological battle unlike anything seen in the saga to date. In just one film, their relationship offers a more nuanced exploration of the light and dark than Luke's attempts to return Darth Vader to the light in Return Of The Jedi, or Anakin's downfall across the entire prequel trilogy. In The Last Jedi, we are starting to learn about the power that lies within Rey, and further explore the conflict within Kylo.

Of the new newcomers (ie. those not in The Force Awakens), del Toro and Dern are great additions, while Tran's character Rose gets an interesting subplot to share with ex-stormtrooper Finn (Boyega). For those who seem to think this subplot is irrelevant and could have been cut, think about the impact this subplot has on the Resistance, how much pain it inadvertently causes, the affect it has on smug fighter pilot Poe Dameron (Isaac), and how rare it is for a film to show the actions of heroes having such devastating impacts. It's one of the examples of the bold decision-making at play in Johnson's excellent script.

The humour in the screenplay is also welcome, harking back to the many oft-forgotten laughs in the original trilogy (which were sadly lacking in the prequels) - never forget that Han Solo killed Boba Fett with slapstick sight gag. Luke's reaction to being handed his old lightsaber is priceless and some of his other antics are like a toned-down Yoda, while the hamster-penguins called porgs are surprisingly amusing.

Best of all is the look of the film. A major lightsaber battle involving Rey and Kylo is a visual treat and one of the best lasersword sequences in the saga. Similarly, the final showdown between Rebels and Imperials on a salt plain is striking.

Of the returning old favourites, Luke fares best, and it's great to see him in action again. Whereas the prequels were too concerned with Lucas’ myth building, this is about tearing all that down, and that's were the original trilogy characters come into play. Luke is a character wrestling with his own legend, while Leia is struggling to find the all-important hope in the face of utter annihilation. Both are faced with their lowest moments. Like Empire, The Last Jedi wants backs against walls. It wants to ensure things are darkest before the dawn.

That dawn is on the horizon, andwith JJ Abrams back in the chair for Episode IX, Han Solo and Obi-Wan spin-offs in the works, and Rian Johnson about to start a new trilogy, it's a bright one indeed. The new cast are shining as the series ploughs ahead, with nothing sacred, no-holds barred, and a three-out-of-three strike rate for the latest additions to the saga. The Force is strong with the new Star Wars films.

Monday, 11 December 2017

Coco

(PG) ★★★★★

Director: Lee Unkrich & Adrian Molina.

Cast: (voices of) Anthony Gonzalez, Gael García Bernal, Benjamin Bratt, Alanna Ubach, Renée Victor, Ana Ofelia Murguía, Edward James Olmos.

"Smell it! Smell my shoe!"
Every Pixar film ranked from best to worst? Why yes - I do have that! Click here.

Pixar are not only the gold standard of CG animated films; their name has become a by-word for quality cinema.

However, in the past six years you could have been forgiven for accusing the digital wizards of coasting somewhat. Since the incredible Toy Story 3 in 2010, they have wheeled out some of their least impressive films. The dire Cars 2 and the boring Cars 3, the so-so Monsters University, and the good-but-not-great The Good Dinosaur have all been released since 2011. It's only Finding Dory, Brave, and the truly remarkable Inside Out that are holding up the average over that time.

But just when you wonder whether that gold standard had lost some of its lustre, Pixar drop this incredible tale of family, memory, music and death. Coco is one of their best yet. Visually vibrant, deeply moving, and wonderfully written, it is a hugely inventive but classic-seeming saga that surprises and entertains before hitting you right in the heart in its final act.

Coco is the tale of Miguel (Gonzalez), a 12-year-old Mexican boy who yearns to be a musician. Unfortunately for him, he was born into a family of shoemakers that have shunned music ever since Miguel's great-great grandfather left his family to go and seek his fortune as a musician.

In an effort to follow his musical dreams, Miguel flees his family on El Día de Muertos (the Day Of The Dead) and is accidentally magically transported to the land of the dead. In order to return to the land of the living, Miguel must receive the blessing of his deceased ancestors. But when conditions are attached to that blessing, Miguel finds himself caught between offending his family and pursuing his goal of becoming a musician. There's also something much bigger at stake - if Miguel can't get home before sunrise, he'll be stuck in the land of the dead forever.


Coco is probably the most straight-faced Pixar film - the jokes are few and far between - and it's also one of the most mature. Up at least had Dug while Inside Out had Bing Bong, but the biggest bone Coco can throw to its younger crowd is a goofy (non-talking) dog named Dante and some wacky skeleton antics. And while it goes out of its way to be non-scary by using a light and bright visual palette, there's no escaping that this film is about death.

Thankfully it's about a Mexican perspective on death, which is far less morbid and frightening than we're used to in the English-speaking world. Not only does this viewpoint soften the central topic into something more palatable for many young (and older) audience members, but the Latino setting and cultural richness of the film is a joy to behold.

Much has been made of this being the first nine-figure-budget film to feature an all-Latino cast, which is both a welcome and "how has this taken so long?" move. The voice cast are pitch perfect, but on top of that they add authenticity to the story, making it feel more real and less like cultural appropriation. This is a celebration and a heartfelt ode to Mexican culture, from the way it remembers its dead to the value it places on family and music. View this up against upcoming Blue Sky film Ferdinand, which is set in Spain but bursting with American A-listers and tell me which one feels more authentic. Odds are it's Coco.

As well as being a rich ode to Mexico and to Latino culture, Coco is a damn fine story. It has the classic Wizard Of Oz-style hero's journey going on, but it pops with surprises even amid inevitability of its plot.

Best of all is its heart. Pixar is renowned for pulling the heartstrings nice and hard, and Coco doesn't disappoint. It's not manipulative - it's just the sheer weight of the story and what's at stake. Its key moment is a doozy, and it shows the smarts of the script - Coco's power lays in how its key themes manifest as actual plot devices, and it's an ingenious move.

When I update my Best to Worst of Pixar list, it's safe to say Coco will be very high up the list. Coco is one of the best things Pixar has ever done, and that's saying something.



Thursday, 7 December 2017

GIG REVIEW: Midnight Oil - Sidney Myer Music Bowl, Melbourne, November 6, 2017

Midnight Oil
Sidney Myer Music Bowl, Melbourne, 
November 6, 2017


There are plenty of descriptors that get thrown around when talking about Midnight Oil. Icons, legends, elder statesmen, Aussie rock veterans. But how about we just cut to the chase and call them The Greatest Australian Rock Band Of All Time?

The evidence is in, the votes are tallied. Across 11 incredible albums and a handful of legendary EPs, they have carved out a career that is unlike any other in Australian contemporary music. If you had to pick one rock band whose back catalogue summed up what it is to be Australian, warts and all, it would be Midnight Oil.

I say this not as a dyed-in-the-wool Oils zealot. In fact, I only have a couple albums and one EP. I wouldn't even say they were my favourite Aussie band (that's probably You Am I or Something For Kate or Custard or Regurgitator or Crowded House, depending on the day of the week).

But looking at this as objectively as possible, Midnight Oil are the kings of our music scene. Lyrically, rhythmically, dynamically. The songs, the musicality, the message. All these elements are exemplary, but add to that a live show that is second to none. Who else has - dare I say it - the power and the passion to match? AC/DC and The Living End put on a hell of a show, but they can't match the Oils in terms of content. The Oils are actually saying something, even if it's more than likely going over the heads of a certain percentage of their audience. The closest The Living End got to saying something of great import was "we don't need no one to tell us what to do". Compare that to the lyrics of Truganini or US Forces or Beds Are Burning or any number of Oils songs.

If there was any doubt to the Oils' claim to the throne, the Great Circle World Tour should put those questions to bed. The first of their three shows in Melbourne was an absolute triumph (and I hear the Hanging Rock gig was even better).

*Note: they didn't play Ships Of Freedom.
Opening with a galloping trifecta straight out of the gates (sorry - it was Melbourne Cup Eve) of Read About It, Don't Wanna Be The One and Truganini, the band showed they weren't messing around and that age hadn't wearied them. And that Rob Hirst is an absolute machine. It was a pummelling statement of intent.

From there the five-piece (with bonus horn section borrowed from Hunters & Collectors) rolled into the deep cuts with Species Deceases' track Hercules and Head Injuries' fan favourite Section 5 (Bus To Bondi) (which suffered from Martin Rotsey's guitar issues). With a reported 150 songs worked up in rehearsals, the band could flick between forgotten gems and hit singles with ease, keeping every show different and fans on their toes. The first Melbourne show was good evidence of this. Dreamworld (more of a hit in the US than in Australia) was followed by Redneck Wonderland non-single Safety Chain Blues, the very old track No Time For Games slotted in front of crowd-pleasers When The General Talk and My Country, while Warakurna was dropped in before a heavy run of the big-hitters.

What's most affecting about seeing these guys in the flesh for the first time was the way the old classics you've heard a million times come to life again with renewed vitality in a live setting. The likes of Beds Are Burning and King Of The Mountain - played to death by commercial radio over the past three decades - erupt from their instruments shorn of baggage and carried by the voices of the throng, and it's like hearing them for the anew and realising what makes these songs so great to start with.

And unlike a lot of other big bands I've seen live, Midnight Oil still look like a real band in the sense you can picture them in a sweaty shed rehearsing together or playing in a sticky carpet pub to 25 people. This gig was pre-Jim Moginie doing himself an injury, so I can honestly say they looked as though age had not wearied them. Peter Garrett has always had an old head, so he looks much the same as he did in the '80s, and Rob Hirst is still a machine.

Here's the setlist in Spotify playlist form:


In summary, Midnight Oil are the rock band all Aussie rock bands should aspire to be, making them utterly deserving of the GOAT title. Some bands can put on a show to rival Midnight Oil. Some bands can boast a back catalogue to match Midnight Oil. But no other Aussie band has both those qualities while simultaneously boasting the ability to stare deep into the heart of our country and its people, and deliver all our flaws and triumphs back to us while we sing along with gusto.

Monday, 4 December 2017

Wonder

(PG) ★★★★

Director: Stephen Chbosky.

Cast: Jacob Tremblay, Julia Roberts, Owen Wilson, Izabela Vidovic, Noah Jupe, Danielle Rose Russell, Nadji Jeter, Bryce Gheisar, Mandy Patinkin, Daveed Diggs, Millie Davis.

The pollen count was particularly bad that day,.
You would have to be an utter, utter bastard to give Wonder a bad review. It's so heartwarming and hopeful and so damned nice that it almost dodges criticism. It mines deep layers of pathos and boasts a main character you can't help but feel for and cheer for. There will be tears.

Of course, film critics are often cynical by nature, and just because a film boasts an incredibly positive message and makes you feel things, it doesn't mean it's automatically a good film.

Thankfully Wonder is a solidly made film, with few real cinematic or structural issues, which means I don't have to stick my neck out and be an utter, utter bastard. Wonder is far from perfect, but it meets its goal in delivering an affecting and uplifting story in these seemingly increasingly dark times.

Based on the book of the same name by R. J. Palacio, it tells the story of August "Auggie" Pullman (Tremblay), who is dealt an unfortunate genetic hand which leaves him with severe facial differences. Having been home-schooled all this life, his parents (Roberts and Wilson) decide it's time for him to venture into public schooling.

As expected, Auggie is the treated like a freak and bullied by his fellow students. He slowly begins to find his place in school and make friends, but it's never an easy situation.


Perhaps the biggest flaw of Wonder - and here's where my critical scepticism kicks in - is that it's too nice and almost complete devoid of cynicism, which adds a level of belief suspension that's almost unfathomable.

It paints a picture of a world in which almost everyone is much nicer and more understanding than you'll probably ever be. Many, if not all, of the kids learn a lesson and no one is set in their ways. It's not a deal-breaker by any stretch of the imagination, but there's so much niceness that the whole thing becomes close to impossible.

But the biggest drawcard for this film is Tremblay's remarkable performance. You'll find yourself forgetting that this isn't a real child with facial differences and that it's actually a kid acting beneath prosthetics. It's a truly incredible turn, and as much as the overall outcome of the film may be somewhat unbelievable, Tremblay is utterly believable. This kid is astonishing.

Given the strength of the central character and Tremblay's delivery, the time and depth given to the other characters is also particularly impressive. Although awkwardly shoehorned in at first, segments on Auggie's sister Via (Vidovic), Auggie's best friend Jack Will (Jupe), and Via's best friend Miranda (Russell) are welcome, giving interesting alternate perspectives on Auggie's situation and his effect on others.

Roberts and Wilson are also good, but they're largely overshadowed by the child and teen stars, who have more remarkable characters and arcs. The adults are the supporting cast here, despite their screen time. It's also good to see Patinkin again, in a small but important role.

If you can shut off your cynicism and revel in the hope and heart of Wonder, you'll have a teary yet heartwarming time in the cinema. And even if you can't allow yourself to indulge in such empathetic niceties, then at least settle in and marvel at Tremblay giving one of the best child performances of all time.




Sunday, 26 November 2017

REWIND REVIEW: Amy (2015)

(MA15+) ★★★★★

Director: Asif Kapadia.


The sad irony of this powerful doco about ill-fated singer-songwriter Amy Winehouse is that one of the very things that contributed to her untimely death is one of the very things that makes the doco so incredible.

The meteoric rise of Winehouse - combined with her stunning vocal talent, working class forthrightness and addictive personality - made her a paparazzi wet dream. But those hounding snappers and the everpresent media gaze meant director Asif Kapadia had an astonishing amount of material to work with in compiling this uncompromising account of the singer's short life.

This cornucopia of photo and video is a boon for the filmmakers, but Kapadia makes sure we're aware of the price that was paid for it. Winehouse, who drank herself to death in 2011 aged 27, was relentlessly pursued by the British press and this plays a huge part in the film's second half. Kapadia isn't making much of a stretch when the doco occasionally points the finger at the fourth estate for contributing to Winehouse's tragic demise.


The "why?" of Winehouse's death is the driving mystery of Amy, and while the ridicule, torment, and in-her-face persistence of the press help explain it somewhat, the film is also good at highlighting other factors. Her own dad Mitch comes off looking like a gold-digging bastard (Mitch Winehouse was none-too-pleased with the final cut), as do ex-husband Blake Fielder-Civil and late-career manager Raye Cosbert. The singer's own behaviour is questionable, but she's painted as a victim of circumstance surrounded by enablers who didn't want to see their cash cow dry up.

Through it all, Kapadia reminds us that Winehouse was yet another incredibly talented yet starry-eyed girl unprepared for the chew-up-and-spit-out mentality of the music industry. Through early home video and phone footage, as well as the recollections of her long-time friends and early manager Nick Shymanksy, we get a picture of a complex woman who was far more than the sum of various later-life problems. These fond remembrances and innocent beginnings only serve to make the inevitable end all the more powerful and gut-wrenching.

As Winehouse herself puts it throughout the doco, all she ever wanted to do was sing, but the media magnifying glass could never leave it at that. When she sings, and her own words come to life on the screen, it's both inspiring and heartbreaking. Seeing her record her vocals for her signature song Back To Black is chilling, and a highlight.

As a documentary, Amy is - sadly - complete. A short life is tragically but beautifully summarised, warts and all, and Kapadia has delivered the quintessential take on who Winehouse was, and why things went the way they did.


I watched Amy at a screening hosted by F Project Cinema in Warrnambool, Victoria, Australia. Here's what's coming up at future FPC screenings at the Mozart Hall (all screenings are at 7.30pm):

Metropolis (featuring a live score by Richard Tankard) - December 13

The Princess Bride - January 10

Waltz With Bashir - January 24

Thursday, 23 November 2017

REWIND REVIEW: Bad Boys (1995)

(MA15+) ★★

Director: Michael Bay.

Cast: Will Smith, Martin Lawrence, Téa Leoni, Tchéky Karyo, Theresa Randle, Joe Pantoliano.

One of these guys is going to be star.
The other is going to remain incredibly annoying.
(Note: a censored version of this article first appeared on the Warrnambool Standard's webpage back in 2010.)

ONE thing I've noticed in my brief tenure as a movie reviewer is that people are often more blown away by the movies you haven't seen, as opposed to the movies you have seen.

This is best exemplified by the following conversation, which I seem to have had dozens of times with various acquaintances:

Acquaintance
Aw man, I watched (insert movie here) again 
the other night. Damn that movie rocks the shit, 
don't you think?

Me
Ah... I haven't seen it.

Acquaintance
What? What the fuck? You haven't seen (insert movie here)? 
It's fucking awesome! Damn it, man - you call yourself a movie reviewer and you haven't seen (insert movie here)? You suck!

Firstly, I should really stop hanging out with these people.

Secondly, it doesn't matter that I could name maybe 50 great movies that they haven't seen. All that matters is that I suck because I haven't seen (insert movie here).

Anyway, the number one movie that fills that (insert movie here) gap is Bad Boys, Michael Bay's explosive-tastic buddy-cop-apalooza from 1995. Apparently this is the film that all movie reviewers have to have seen. Screw Orson Welles' Citizen Kane, bugger Fritz Lang's M, and fuck Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather - if you wanna be a film reviewer, Michael Bay's Bad Boys is compulsory viewing. Take note, prospective movie critics.

But enough is enough. A few weekends back, I decided to put an end to these shenanigans and actually watch Bad Boys.

And you know what? It sucks.


For those who haven't seen Bad Boys but would like to avoid being told they suck without having to actually watch it, here's the low-down.

Bad Boys is the movie that convinced the world, rightfully, that Will Smith had the stuff to be an A-lister. It's also the film that duped the world into thinking Martin Lawrence was anything other than really fucking annoying. I was led to believe he was going to be funny in this film. No - he's just really fucking annoying.

Much of the film hinges on the to-and-fro between Smith's suave cop and Lawrence's annoying cop, but I didn't buy the chemistry. A lot of the film also hinges on Michael Bay's ability to blow shit up (to use the technical term). This is all well and good, but if you're going to edit an action scene, how about you give us a bit of flow, a bit of a sense of what's actually happening, a bit of an idea as to where the "bad boys" and the "actual bad guys" are in relation to each other. I dunno - something, anything other than just blowing shit up and setting off lots of squibs.

Not only that, but the script is bad. How bad? Here's an example that comes from the end of the film, when Marcus (Lawrence) suddenly appears in Mike's (Smith) car to rescue him at the very last second from a gun fight and lots of explosions before there's one more really really big explosion (and I'm going from memory here because this isn't in the final scripts published on the web, which makes it worse because that means Bay actually added it in because he thought it would be better):

Mike
(to Marcus)
I can't believe you left me in the middle 
of a gun fight to go and get my car. 
What the hell were you thinking?

Julie
Shut up and let him drive.

Right. It makes no sense what-so-ever - so much so that it bears mentioning by a character - so we'll just scoot over it then, shall we? I was wondering exactly the same thing Mike was wondering. But no, the audience doesn't get an answer. That would be too much to ask.

The script also appears to have been written by someone who has no idea about basic police procedure. The scene where the "bad boys" stumble upon a dead body is a great example.

One of my friends admitted that although he still digs Bad Boys, it hasn't aged that well, which makes it a little mystifying as to why my acquaintances rave about this compared to other older buddy cop films which have actually held up well, particularly Lethal Weapon (except Mel Gibson's hair) and Beverly Hills Cop (except for the gay jokes).

One final point: Bad Boys is something of a landmark as it contains a scene that quite possibly sums up Bay's entire career. It takes place during the opening heist, which is admittedly pretty cool. The villains come across a padlock that stands between them and a large amount of heroin, and rather than just cut the padlock with a pair of boltcutters, they freeze it with liquid nitrogen... then smash it with a pair of boltcutters. Huh? But that's Bay right there - why do something simply and effectively that actually makes sense when you can do it expensively, nonsensically and in a way that's completely OTT?

Daddy's Home 2

(PG) ★★

Director: Sean Anders.

Cast: Will Ferrell, Mark Wahlberg, Linda Cardellini, John Lithgow, Mel Gibson, Scarlett Estevez, Owen Vaccaro, Alessandra Ambrosio, Didi Costine, John Cena.

Not everyone found the first Daddy's Home movie hilarious.
Back in 2010, Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg teamed-up for the largely forgotten odd-couple buddy-cop spoof The Other Guys. It wasn't very good (although apparently I'm one of the few critics who thought that), but one of the elements worked well was the chalk-and-cheese pairing of Ferrell and Wahlberg.

Someone - probably director/producer Adam McKay - realised the comedic chemistry was worth persevering with and five years later we got Daddy's Home, a re-teaming of Ferrell and Wahlberg that failed to impress critics but took US$242 million at the worldwide box office against a US$69 million budget.

So here we have Daddy's Home 2 just two years later - perhaps delivered in a rush to capitalise on whatever goodwill was floating around after the first one.

It finds the previously warring dads Brad (Ferrell) and Dusty (Wahlberg) making their whole "co-dad" scenario work; that is until Dusty's hard-as-nails Lothario father Kurt (Gibson) arrives on the scene. Kurt is unhappy with how the co-dad situation has softened his son, and whisks the blended families (that includes the wives, kids and Brad's dad Don (Lithgow)) away for a Christmas cabin holiday.


It's a little hard to buy into this set-up because it's so mean-spirited. Gibson isn't bad in the role of Kurt - the problem is the role is bad. He's a wilful homewrecker who's basically trying to destroy two family units and most likely warp his own grandchildren in the process for his own mischievous satisfaction. While this plot point creates a necessary drama and tension for the film to hang its story on, it's so nasty and spiteful that it obliterates a lot of the movie's laughs with its creeping darkness.

The script does have its strengths. In typical sequel fashion, it ups the ante by quadrupling its biggest asset - the conflict between its characters. So instead of just getting Brad and Dusty going head-to-head, we also get Brad-vs-Don, Dusty-vs-Kurt, and Dusty-vs-John Cena as Dusty's step-daughter's biological dad. These confrontations work as often as they don't, but the script juggles them pretty well.

The screenplay is also surprisingly good at giving half-decent subplots to its side characters. Cardellini's Sara (Brad's wife) has an interesting-enough relationship with Ambrosio's Karen (Dusty's wife), even if the film does seem to be going to great lengths to hide the fact Ambrosio can't act. Meanwhile the kids get okay storylines, even if the son's quest for a first kiss ends in a strange place.

But while the script does manage its plot threads pretty well, it fails to deliver the laughs. Even the pairing of Wahlberg and Ferrell can't save it. Gibson and Lithgow try hard too, but there just aren't enough gags, and the tone wobbles in its balance between mean and mirth. A couple of set-pieces, such as a Christmas light destruction and a half-hearted snowball fight, are good for a giggle, but the one-liners and gags are in short supply. Even Ferrell's usual improv insanity seems dialled way down.

Given that a comedy is only as good as its laughs, it's hard to recommend Daddy's Home 2. It is fun in places and the cast are obviously trying hard, but it's destined for an after-life as an annual Christmas movie re-run you'll tune in to by accident one December, only to end up changing the channel eventually or just giving up and going to bed.