FRED Watch Reviews

Scroll through our quickie, non-spoiler FRED Watch reviews below alphabetically or search through the archives by CLICKING HERE.

UPDATED FREQUENTLY!


THE AGE OF INNOCENCE (1993)

—Wayne Stellini, reviewing film.

Columbia Pictures

Based on Edith Wharton‘s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Martin Scorsese‘s visually lavish and deliciously written study of 1870s New York aristocracy centres on the painfully suffocating emotional affair between lawyer Newland Archer (Daniel Day-Lewis) and the scandalously separated Countess Ellen Olenska (Michelle Pfeiffer), whose young cousin, May Welland (Winona Ryder), he is engaged to.

The struggle between individual and social fulfillment is a recurring theme of Edith Wharton‘s writing, and her delicious use of language guides the audience through The Age of Innocence in the form of Joanne Woodward‘s narration. The way the camera often moves around the room makes you feel as though you are a fly on the wall with Woodward whispering sordid details in your ear; a reflection of the potentially damaging gossip that prevents Ellen from truly feeling at home and threatens to destroy Newland’s standing in society—a society that is overseen by Mrs. Mingott (an outstanding Miriam Margolyes).

This underlying threat is beautifully conveyed by its central performers. Daniel Day-Lewis displays a stunning range of emotions as Newland (he swings from bashfulness to anger so easily), Michelle Pfeiffer evokes much sympathy as Ellen, presenting an emotionally damaged yet strong-willed character, and Winona Ryder‘s May has a delicate naïveté that grows into a conscience knowing. But these beautifully constructed, complex characters are so well developed that it is difficult to truly empathise with May; so invested are we in Newland and Ellen’s forbidden love that we never stop wanting them to be happy.

In the end, though, the decision rests with Newland and his choice is an emotive, self-inflicted cruelty. 4½ / 5

 

Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, Michelle Pfeiffer, Winona Ryder, Miriam Margolyes, Geraldine Chaplin, Michael Gough, Richard E. Grant, Mary Beth Hurt, Robert Sean Leonard, Norman Lloyd, Alec McCowen, Siân Phillips, Carolyn Farina, Jonathan Pryce, Alexis Smith, Stuart Wilson, June Squibb, Joanne Woodward, Domenica Scorsese.

Director: Martin Scorsese | Producer: Barbara De Fina | Writers: Jay Cocks, Martin Scorsese (based on the novel The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton) | Music: Elmer Bernstein | Cinematographer: Michael Ballhaus | Editor: Thelma Schoonmaker


ALEX STRANGELOVE (2018)

—Wayne Stellini, reviewing film.

Mighty Engine / Red Hour Films / STXfilms / Netflix

Pressuring himself and feeling anxious about losing his virginity, high school senior Alex Truelove (Daniel Doheny) and girlfriend Claire (Madeline Weinstein) are looking forward to having sex.

But things become complicated when Alex meets the openly gay Elliot (Antonio Marziale), who triggers within him a suppressed attraction to men…

Released only three months after the much-publicised Love, Simon (2018), and among the same momentum of mainstream queer teen flicks, Alex Strangelove sits comfortably with its contemporaries without adding anything we haven’t seen before. This is not to say, though, that this considerably cute coming out story isn’t worthy of attention.

Craig Johnson’s film touches upon a number of issues in relation to the broad queer community without ever delving too deeply. There are even a few plot elements that feel unnecessary, such as Claire’s mother’s cancer diagnosis. However, themes that are explored, are done so with attention and care. Alex’s self-discovery unfolds with confusion, questioning, exploration, and a lot of emotion. It is here where the incredibly goofy and charming Daniel Doheny shines and overcomes some of his character’s unrealistic moments (most notably, his school camp flashback).

Additionally, his onscreen chemistry with Madeline Weinstein, Antonio Marziale, Daniel Zolghadri, and others is a reflection of strong casting choices. In their senior year of high school, you really believe that these kids have known each other throughout the perils of puberty. It is in this vein that we see a potential for further stories relating to the characters because the film feels a little incomplete, as though it has more to say; at the very least, Johnson clearly does.

One particular quip I had with Alex Strangelove was the manner in which Claire is used for narrative progression in the final act. Weinstein is an appealing and likeable performer—qualities she gives her character—but Claire ultimately represents a trope which dictates that heterosexual women always know more or know what is better for gay men than gay men do. Her argument to Alex that coming out is not a difficult thing to do because her twelve year-old cousin did it is not only problematic, but perhaps speaks to a suggestion of underlying disconnect between queer and straight communities that is not being acknowledged.

Overall, there is plenty to like about Alex Strangelove. Even though it doesn’t quite hit the bullseye, it is harmless and heartfelt fun. 3 / 5

 

Starring: Daniel Doheny, Madeline Weinstein, Antonio Marziale, Daniel Zolghadri, Nik Dodani, Fred Hechinger, Annie Q., Ayden Mayeri, Kathryn Erbe, Joanna P. Adler, William Ragsdale, Isabella Amara, Sophie Faulkenberry, Dante Costabile.

Director/Writer: Craig Johnson | Producers: Jared Goldman, Ben Stiller, Nicholas Weinstock | Music: Nathan Larson | Cinematographer: Hilary Spera | Editor: Jennifer Lee


ANT-MAN (2015)

—Wayne Stellini, reviewing film.

Marvel Studios / Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Having been released from jail, Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) tries to go straight so that he can afford alimony and see his young daughter (Abby Ryder Fortson). However, Lang gets desperate and agrees to rob physicist Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), who ultimately recruits the burglar and former systems engineer to defend his Ant-Man shrinking technology and plot a heist with worldwide ramifications…

The twelfth film in the extensive Marvel Cinematic Universe (and sixth origin story so far) benefits from the introduction of a lesser-known hero and benefits even more from the introduction of the incredible Paul Rudd. A dozen action-packed adventures in, there really isn’t any territory that hasn’t already been explored, so Rudd’s contribution to Ant-Man (both on screen and off) cannot be underplayed.

The story is simple enough to follow and engages with the broader Avengers story through Anthony Mackie’s Falcon, though you are not left feeling that you’re missing something if this happens to be your first exposure to the MCU; a difficult feat accomplished through a screenplay that has confidence in its protagonist.

It’s refreshing to see such a flawed and relatable hero as Scott Lang who, despite being incredibly intelligent and innovative, always seems to have been dealt a losing hand. Rudd’s playful personality is well-suited to the role of Lang, and even though they fall into the typical trope whereby people from minority communities are relegated to comic relief, Tip “T.I.” Harris, Michael Peña, and David Dastmalchian deliver beautifully supporting turns as his crew. Corey Stoll is fine as the antagonist, and Michael Douglas and Evangeline Lilly are also quite good in undemanding roles. (Drinking game: Have a shot every time Douglas says the name “Scott.” Lazy writing in an otherwise solid screenplay.)

Although it takes a while to really build momentum, Ant-Man is not only a consistently engaging and entertaining superhero pic, it is also one of the stronger entries of its franchise. 4 / 5

Starring: Paul Rudd, Evangeline Lilly, Corey Stoll, Bobby Cannavale, Michael Peña, Tip “T.I.” Harris, Anthony Mackie, Wood Harris, Judy Greer, David Dastmalchian, Michael Douglas, John Slattery, Hayley Atwell, Abby Ryder Fortson, Gregg Turkington, Martin Donovan, Anna Akana, Garrett Morris, Stan Lee [cameo], Chris Evans [uncredited], Sebastian Stan [uncredited], Hayley Lovitt [cameo].

Director: Peyton Reed | Producer: Kevin Feige | Writers: Edgar Wright, Joe Cornish, Adam McKay, Paul Rudd; Story: Edgar Wright, Joe Cornish (based on Ant-Man by Stan Lee, Larry Lieber, Jack Kirby) | Music: Christophe Beck | Cinematographer: Russell Carpenter | Editors: Dan Lebental, Colby Parker, Jr.


ANT-MAN AND THE WASP (2018)

—Kendall Richardson, reviewing film.

Probably the only saving grace from the devastation of Avengers: Infinity War was the fact we had two Marvel movies on the horizon. March 2019 will see the long-awaited release of Captain Marvel, starring Brie Larson in the title role, which will be Marvel Studios’s first female-led superhero movie. In the words of Hope van Dyne, it’s about damn time. Speaking of Hope and her iconic final words in a post credit scene of 2015’s Ant-Man, the time has finally come to see Evangeline Lilly’s character suit up as the titular Wasp, alongside Paul Rudd’s Scott Lang as Ant-Man. And I am so pleased to say the wait was worth it!

The movie begins with Lang almost at the completion of his two-year house arrest. This came following his involvement in the events of Captain America: Civil War, in which he, as the FBI Agent Woo (Randall Park) explains to Lang’s daughter Cassie, ‘went to Germany and drew on the walls with Captain America.’ Of course, though, with Lang approaching his freedom in two days, things had to go pear shaped, and pear shaped they do. Enter strange dreams about the quantum realm and the lost Janet van Dyne, which sees Lang getting dragged back into the fold by Hope van Dyne and Dr. Hank Pym, played wonderfully by Michael Douglas, who need Scott’s help in rescuing his wife, the original Wasp.

This is where the movie starts to take a non-traditional approach in relation to its ANT-agonists (yes, I made an ant pun, deal with it). Or, at least, it starts off as traditional, but the more we learn about our villains, in particular Hannah John-Kamen’s Ghost, things definitely become more interesting and less straight forward. John-Kamen does an exceptional job of portraying Ghost’s anger, betrayal, and nothing left to lose-like determination, which makes her a great threat for our heroes. And of course there’s the fact that she is almost unstoppable, given her incredible phase-shifting fighting abilities. Standing alongside Ghost is Lawrence Fishburne’s Dr. Bill Foster, whose presence in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) is easily and very cleverly explained, as are his motivations for siding with Ghost.

The super talented Walton Goggins’s Sonny Burch is also counted amongst the bad guys, but he is more of your one note ‘in it for the money’ type criminals; however he plays the part wonderfully and is a nice foil for Hope and for Scott’s ex con buddies Luis (Michael Peña), Dave (Tip ‘T.I’ Harris), and Kurt (David Dastmalchian). Once again, Peña’s Luis steals the show and might be funnier in this outing than in the first film. There is a particular gag involving ‘truth serum’ that might be the funniest sequence in the whole film.

That’s probably the thing that makes Ant-Man and the Wasp so great, is its easy-going and fun sense of humour. It is exactly the refreshing ray of light that we needed after the bleak universe-ending ride that was Avengers: Infinity War. The action scenes are staged perfectly, and the use of the different sizes our heroes can become is clever and inventive, which keeps the audience engaged the whole time. And because it’s a Marvel movie, the visual effects are on point, particularly when it comes to Ghost and the Quantum Realm.

I only wish Janet van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer) could have been in the movie longer, but I imagine she will definitely be returning in any future installments in Phase 4 of the MCU. It was great to see her on screen finally, nonetheless. Before I go, I need to point out one thing: the ending of the movie is in the first post credit scene, so make sure you stick around! Trust me, you won’t want to miss it. Just like you won’t want to miss Ant-Man and the Wasp, an excellent addition to the MCU and a sequel that may even surpass its predecessor! 4 / 5

 

Starring: Paul Rudd, Evangeline Lilly, Michael Peña, Walton Goggins, Bobby Cannavale, Judy Greer, Tip “T.I.” Harris, David Dastmalchian, Hannah John-Kamen, Abby Ryder Fortson, Randall Park, Michelle Pfeiffer, Laurence Fishburne, Michael Douglas.

Director: Peyton Reed | Producers: Kevin Feige, Stephen Broussard | Writers: Chris McKenna, Erik Sommers, Paul Rudd, Andrew Barrer, Gabriel Ferrari (based on Ant-Man by Stan Lee, Larry Lieber, and Jack Kirby; Wasp by Stan Lee, Ernie Hart, and Jack Kirby) | Music: Christophe Beck | Cinematographer: Dante Spinotti | Editors: Dan Lebental, Craig Wood


ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 (1976)

—Wayne Stellini, reviewing film.

The CKK Corporation / Turtle Releasing Organization

Left in charge of Precinct 9 in Division 13 on its last day of operation, Lt. Ethan Bishop (Austin Stoker) finds himself, as well as colleagues, prisoners and a civilian, the target of an armed street gang.

Unprepared for the onslaught, Bishop holds out for a rescue while trying to keep the bandits at bay…

Having made Dark Star two years earlier and taking inspiration from Howard Hawks’s Rio Bravo (1959), John Carpenter begins his immortalisation in genre cinema with Assault on Precinct 13. (This honour would be solidified when Carpenter redefined horror movies with Halloween in 1978.)

Frank Doubleday as White Warlord in the film’s most controversial scene. (Image: The CKK Corporation / Turtle Releasing Organization)

A bloody, no-holds-barred, and excessively violent exercise, Assault on Precinct 13‘s first act takes its time, running three stories simultaneously without any apparent strong connection. It isn’t until we reach about the half-way mark that these seemingly disjointed perspectives come crashing together and the film goes into overdrive—the bullets fly, and how!

It becomes evident quite quickly that Carpenter is less concerned with the characters as people or their backstories, but more so with how their personality traits contribute to the end goal of everyone involved. And why shouldn’t he be? For the most part, we know as much about them as they know about one another. The focus of the story is survival, where unlikely allies work together to overcome a shared threat.

In this case, that threat is in the form of a ruthless gang controlled by four warlords who are identified in terms of their respective ethnicities. To intensify the impact of their maniacal presence, these men and their thugs are depicted as nothing more than killing machines, particularly Frank Doubleday‘s White Warlord, who is involved in the film’s most shocking and (still) controversial scene. (No spoilers here, folks, but you’ll know it when you see it.)

As for the captives held up in the defunct precinct, Austin Stoker is in fine form as Bishop, whose leadership and rational thinking is displayed in the most erratic of circumstances. Two prisoners are by his side: death row inmate Napoleon Wilson (the charming Darwin Joston) and Wells (the always reliable Tony Burton), as well as precinct secretary Leigh (Laurie Zimmer). Additional characters are given less screen time, but each serves their purpose for the story perfectly. The film is also stylishly photographed and cut together.

Do not be mistaken, Carpenter never aimed to present a thought-provoking commentary on gang violence or the crumbling of society’s moral code. He did, however, strive to make an intense and entertaining action thriller that proves no one is beyond redemption. And Carpenter achieves this with flying colours. 4 / 5

 

Starring: Austin Stoker, Darwin Joston, Laurie Zimmer, Martin West, Tony Burton, Charles Cyphers, Nancy Loomis, Henry Brandon, Kim Richards, Peter Bruni, John J. Fox, Peter Frankland, Frank Doubleday, Gilbert De la Pena, Al Nakauchi, James Johnson, Marc Ross, Alan Koss.

Director/Writer/Music/Editor: John Carpenter | Producer: J. S. Kaplan | Cinematographer: Douglas Knapp


AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON (2015)

—Wayne Stellini, reviewing film.

Marvel Studios / Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

The Avengers reunite to protect the world when Tony Stark’s Ultron Program, created to protect the world, becomes hostile…

With the previous Avengers blockbuster making a big splash, Joss Whedon faced the unenviable task of replicating what made Marvel’s The Avengers (2012) an exhilarating experience. Unfortunately, Avengers: Age of Ultron doesn’t come close to its predecessor nor a significant number of other titles in the Marvel Cinematic Universe that have come before it.

For a relatively simple premise, Whedon’s script is a little cluttered and will leave the casual viewer confused. This is one for the fans, and those truly invested will get the most out of it, but even they may lose their patience with unnecessarily excessive gestation. (It would have benefited from losing twenty minutes from the runtime.) Even the final battle is longer than it needs to be.

There are, however, more positives than negatives to take from Avengers: Age of Ultron and this is thanks to our perfectly cast heroes. Well and truly comfortable without being complacent, Robert Downey Jr., Chris Hemsworth, and Chris Evans are in solid form, with Evans once again a particular highlight. As in the previous Avengers movie, Scarlett Johansson and Jeremy Renner are the absolute heart of the narrative, and their scenes—individually as well as together—are the most interesting. It is wonderful to see Mark Ruffalo afforded more material to work with, and his chemistry and budding romance with Johansson’s Black Widow is quite lovely… until you remember that Hulk/Bruce Banner’s feelings belong to someone else. (See: 2008’s The Incredible Hulk.) Supporting players Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen are welcomed additions to the franchise as Pietro and Wanda Maximoff, even if they aren’t given as much depth as they deserve.

Although falling below expectations, Avengers: Age of Ultron is elevated by exceptional performances and some truly effective scenes. But a classic it isn’t. 3½ / 5

 

Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Don Cheadle, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Elizabeth Olsen, Paul Bettany, Cobie Smulders, Anthony Mackie, Hayley Atwell, Idris Elba, Stellan Skarsgård, James Spader, Samuel L. Jackson, Thomas Kretschmann, Henry Goodman, Linda Cardellini, Claudia Kim, Andy Serkis, Julie Delpy, Kerry Condon [voice], Josh Brolin [uncredited], Stan Lee [cameo].

Director/Writer: Joss Whedon (based on The Avengers by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby) | Producer: Kevin Feige | Music: Brian Tyler, Danny Elfman | Cinematographer: Ben Davis | Editors: Jeffrey Ford, Lisa Lassek


AVENGERS: ENDGAME (2019)

—Kendall Richardson, reviewing film.

Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow and Jeremy Renner as Hawkeye in 'Avengers: Endgame'.

Marvel Studios / Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Part of the journey is the end. It is almost hard to believe but we have reached the completion of Marvel Studios’ Infinity Saga. Avengers: Endgame closes the curtain on what has been an incredible feat of eleven years of storytelling, all leading to this film. Fans waited in agony for twelve long months to find out if the shocking ending to Avengers: Infinity War (2018) would or could be fixed. Thankfully, and unsurprisingly, Endgame proves that the past year of suffering has been worth it. This movie is a monumental achievement, and one we won’t see the likes of again anytime soon. It sticks the landing perfectly and with ease. The combination of Marvel mastermind Kevin Feige, directors Joe and Anthony Russo, screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, and the Oscar worthy cast and crew have completely outdone themselves in pulling off this epic superhero extravaganza.

Without spoiling the contents of the film itself, here is a basic outline of the plot: Endgame picks up barely a month down the track since Thanos (Josh Brolin) snapped half the universe out of existence. The remaining Avengers, joined by Captain Marvel (Brie Larson), Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper and Sean Gunn), Nebula (Karen Gillan), War Machine (Don Cheadle), and Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) come up with a plan to defeat Thanos once and for all, and bring back everyone who was lost in The Decimation. And there is literally nothing else I can say without ruining the film, because there is so much happening that is so magical, so beautiful, and so tragic, I would hate to destroy someone’s first viewing. Needless to say, you’re in for the ride of your life!

It has been well publicised that Chris Evans is done playing Captain America, and where he ends up by the time Endgame is over is really the best thing we could have hoped for. This is Evans’ seventh time as Steve Rogers (not counting his excellent cameos in 2013’s Thor: The Dark World and 2017’s Spider-Man: Homecoming), and he has made his portrayal as easy as breathing, as most of the seasoned cast have by now. The only good thing about the smaller cast in this film is that each of the original six Avengers gets heaps of time to really shine. Evans has fun with his performance in Endgame, taking Steve Rogers to places he doesn’t normally get to go (both literally and metaphorically). The biggest surprise for me was Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow. What Johansson does with Natasha Romanoff in this film just blew me away. There is such a tragic and heroic complexity to her portrayal of the female Avenger. We’ve never really seen her like this before and it was a breath of fresh air.

Mark Ruffalo and Chris Hemsworth also shone as Bruce Banner/Hulk and Thor respectively, and you can clearly see how much they were enjoying their part of this grand story; Hemsworth in particular, as this is Thor like we’ve never seen him. Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye finally gets some time in the spotlight and is a welcome presence following his absence in Infinity War. Renner also gets to go to some new places with Hawkeye alias Clint Barton, reminding everyone of his exceptional acting abilities. He is definitely one of Hollywood’s most talented yet underrated performers. And finally, where to begin with the incomparable Robert Downey Jr? Along with director/star Jon Favreau, Downey is the reason we are all here in the first place. The Marvel Cinematic Universe began with him and what he does with Tony Stark in Endgame is absolute perfection.

One of my favourite things about Avengers: Endgame is the way it rewards its long-time fans for their steadfast dedication to the MCU. There are so many references, callbacks, and Easter eggs to practically every single film so far, it is just astounding. These are the moments that elicited the most joy for me and in some parts made the heartbreaking scenes harder to bear. The team behind this incredible film has so much respect and trust in their audience. They are also fans too, and you can really see that in the love they pour into their work.

Once again, the CGI was outstanding, and Josh Brolin gives another great performance as the Mad Titan Thanos, really cementing his portrayal as one of the greatest villains in cinema history. Other standout performances from our heroes, besides the original six Avengers, include Paul Rudd as Scott Lang/Ant-Man, and Karen Gillan as Nebula. Rudd is hands-down one of the best additions to the MCU and he holds his own so wonderfully with the rest of the cast, providing the best comedic moments of the film. Gillan has mostly been undervalued during her time with the Guardians of the Galaxy, but her portrayal of Nebula in Endgame is her best yet,and I hope we get to see more of her down the track.

The movie’s third act is simply perfect. And whilst concluding this epic saga, it simultaneously does a great job of showing just how far this story has come; it reminds us of the absolute wealth of people and places we have visited during the course of these now twenty-two films. I guarantee you there won’t be a single dry eye in the theatre during each and every screening of Endgame. All of us can connect to these characters and these events on some level, whether you’ve been a fan since 2008’s Iron Man, or jumped on the bandwagon last year after Avengers: Infinity War. That is just how magnificent this movie is. We are so lucky and privileged to be a part of it. Avengers: Endgame is the movie of the year. I love it 3000.

6 Infinity Stones out of 6

 

Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Don Cheadle, Paul Rudd, Brie Larson, Karen Gillan, Danai Gurira, Benedict Wong, Jon Favreau, Bradley Cooper, Sean Gunn, Gwyneth Paltrow, Josh Brolin, Benedict Cumberbatch, Chadwick Boseman, Tom Holland, Zoe Saldana, Evangeline Lilly, Elizabeth Olsen, Anthony Mackie, Sebastian Stan, Tom Hiddleston, Pom Klementieff, Dave Bautista, Letitia Wright, Michael Douglas, Michelle Pfeiffer, Cobie Smulders, Linda Cardellini, Tom Vaughan-Lawlor, Vin Diesel, Chris Pratt, Samuel L. Jackson, Michael James Shaw, Terry Notary, Monique Ganderton, Tessa Thompson, Rene Russo, John Slattery, Tilda Swinton, Hayley Atwell, Marisa Tomei, Taika Waititi, Maximiliano Hernández, Callan Mulvey, Frank Grillo, Jacob Batalon, Robert Redford, Ty Simpkins, Winston Duke, Angela Bassett, William Hurt, Ross Marquand, Kerry Condon, Natalie Portman, Stan Lee.

Directors: Anthony Russo, Joe Russo | Producer: Kevin Feige | Writers: Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely (based on The Avengers by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby) | Music: Alan Silvestri | Cinematographer: Trent Opaloch | Editors: Jeffrey Ford, Matthew Schmidt


AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR (2018)

—Kendall Richardson, reviewing film.

Marvel Studios / Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

The credits have finished rolling; the stinger scene fresh in my mind like everything else I have just witnessed. Then the lights in the theatre slowly wash over us all, telling us it’s over, we can go home. I sit in stunned silence, holding my friend’s hand, as we comfort each other, my tear-stained face proof of the sobs that caused it…

We had just experienced, not watched, experienced Avengers: Infinity War. You may laugh or judge but I assure you, this is no overreaction. The gamut of emotions we all felt through the film’s two-and-a-half-hour runtime was beyond anything I’ve ever felt from a movie before. This is proof of the power of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), the perfection of the writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, the mastery of directors the Russo brothers, and the unyielding dedication of producer Mr. Kevin Feige.

I think it is fair to say that no other film studio or movie franchise has ever accomplished a feat of this magnitude. This year marks ten years of the MCU, which started with 2008’s Iron Man; who would have thought that road would have lead us to this? I knew going into the cinema that this film would be a game changer, but I just had no idea how much.

Without getting too spoilery, here are some of my thoughts on what I loved and kinda disliked (?) about Avengers: Infinity War. My absolute favourite thing, and I’m sure most of you would agree, was the meet-ups of all our favourite characters—The Guardians of the Galaxy and The Avengers colliding for the first time. We knew it would be great and, by gosh, it did not disappoint. Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.)  and Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) butting heads was a joyful explosion of egos; Star-Lord (Chris Pratt) feeling threatened by Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and trying to make himself sound like him was beyond wonderful; and Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) bowing to T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) after Rhodey (Don Cheadle) made him do it as a joke was absolutely hysterical. The character moments of this film really make it worth your time, and that really comes down to each individual actor completely bringing it in their performances. (This review is my petition to give Chris Pratt and Tom Holland Oscar nominations FYI.)

Speaking of characters, there was one in particular that I feel didn’t get enough time to shine, and surprisingly, that was Captain America. However, this really is the nittiest of nitpicks, and it is understandable given that they had a gazillion characters to juggle here, which ultimately they really did pull off. But I felt Steve Rogers deserved a little more time than what was given to him. (Maybe we should have figured that out, considering he wasn’t featured too heavily in the trailers.) Still, Chris Evans gives a great performance as he always does, and Cap does get to do a hell of a lot of impressive fighting.

As for Thanos… well… let’s just say he may have dethroned Loki as the MCU’s best villain. Josh Brolin has crafted a career-defining performance as the Mad Titan, and the CGI is just off the charts extraordinary. Thanos turned out to be so much more than we thought. He is a complex character driven by somewhat understandable motivations and filled with a depth that only Loki could come close out of the whole MCU. This film really is his story and it is carried out in such a mind blowing way that you will be in shock. Thor, however, has to be my favourite character here. Aside from Thanos, he has the best arc and Chris Hemsworth has yet again knocked it out of the park with his portrayal; a combination of the humour of Thor: Ragnarok (2017) and the pathos of his earlier outings Thor (2011) and Thor: The Dark World (2013).

Avengers: Infinity War works best when taken in by the experienced Marvel viewer, but as an overall film, the casual fan will definitely get enjoyment out of it and connect with it on an emotional level. It simply is just a really good movie and probably the best comic book movie ever made. You will laugh, you will certainly cry, and you will feel every moment along with our heroes on the big screen as they make a last stand against their greatest foe yet. Thanos is a being of the likes we have never seen before, wreaking havoc everywhere he goes. Brace yourselves for that opening scene though, it’s a doosy.

6 Infinity Stones out of 6

 

Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Benedict Cumberbatch, Don Cheadle, Tom Holland, Chadwick Boseman, Paul Bettany, Elizabeth Olsen, Anthony Mackie, Sebastian Stan, Tom Hiddleston, Idris Elba, Peter Dinklage, Benedict Wong, Pom Klementieff, Karen Gillan, Dave Bautista, Zoe Saldana, Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper, Gwyneth Paltrow, Benicio del Toro, Josh Brolin, Chris Pratt.

Directors: Anthony Russo, Joe Russo | Producer: Kevin Feige | Writers: Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely (based on The Avengers by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby) | Music: Alan Silvestri | Cinematographer: Trent Opaloch | Editors: Jeffrey Ford, Matthew Schmidt︎


BAYWATCH (2017)

—Wayne Stellini, reviewing film.

Paramount Pictures

Devoted lifeguard and local hero Lt. Mitch Buchannon (Dwayne Johnson) butts heads with a cocky new recruit, shamed gold medal Olympic swimmer Matt Brody (Zac Efron).

Brody also struggles to get along with seasoned professionals Stephanie Holden (Ilfenesh Hadera) and C. J. Parker (Kelly Rohrbach), as well as fellow recruits Summer Quinn (Alexandra Daddario) and Ronnie Greenbaum (Jon Bass).

However, Brody learns the importance of teamwork and humility when he and Mitch uncover a plot that threatens the bay, involving businesswoman Victoria Leeds (Priyanka Chopra)…

One of many comedies based on TV shows that appeal to audiences who watched them as teens or are teens now, Baywatch fails to make a splash. Falling short of the standard set by similar ventures, such 21 Jump Street (2012), this incarnation of the popular beachside drama’s plot has not only been done before, but done better. A paint-by-numbers approach is not such an issue when it comes to light entertainment such as this, but it is simply not all that engrossing.

Most of the gags hit the mark (though the morgue sequence scrapes the bottom of the barrel) and the film is perfectly cast. Johnson and Efron demonstrate incredible rapport, engaging in amusing banter; Rohrbach and Bass also appear to be having plenty of fun—if only the audience could too.

Unsurprisingly, the film is aesthetically beautiful and nicely shot, but lots of wasted potential and a yawn-inducing script makes Baywatch more style than substance. 1½ / 5

 

Starring: Dwayne Johnson, Zac Efron, Priyanka Chopra, Alexandra Daddario, Kelly Rohrbach, Jon Bass, Ilfenesh Hadera, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Rob Huebel, Hannibal Buress, Jack Kesy, Oscar Nunez, Amin Joseph, Belinda, Izabel Goulart, Logan Paul, Charlotte McKinney, Arian Foster, Seth Gordon, David Hasselhoff, Pamela Anderson.

Director: Seth Gordon | Producers: Ivan Reitman, Michael Berk, Douglas Schwartz, Gregory J. Bonann, Beau Flynn | Writers: Damian Shannon, Mark Swift (story: Jay Scherick, David Ronn, Thomas Lennon, Robert Ben Garant; based on Baywatch by Michael Berk, Douglas Schwartz, Gregory J. Bonann| Music: Christopher Lennertz | Cinematographer: Eric Steelberg | Editor: Peter S. Elliot


BIG HERO 6 (2014)

—Fulya Kantarmaci, reviewing film.

Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

This is the story of a teenager named Hiro Hamada (Ryan Potter), a high school graduate and robotics genius. During his free time, Hiro competes in illegal robot battles. His big brother Tadashi (Daniel Henney) doesn’t approve and has always been coming to Hiro’s rescue because of these robot fights. One particular night after yet again saving him from trouble, Tadashi decides to take Hiro to his research lab at the Sanfransokyo Institute of Technology, where he meets Tadashi’s friends Go Go (Jamie Chung), Wasabi (Damon Wayans Jr.), Honey Lemon (Genesis Rodriguez), and Fred (T.J. Miller), not to mention meeting the head of the university’s robotics program Professor Robert Callaghan (James Cromwell). Tadashi also shows his little brother what he’s been working on and this is where we all meet Baymax (Scott Adsit), the Personal Healthcare Companion. With that, Hiro decides to enrol at the university but in order for him to be considered, he must present a project at the school’s science fair.

After presenting his project on microbots, Alistair Krei of Krei Tech (Alan Tudyk) offers to buy his microbots but Hiro kindly refuses. Professor Callaghan was very impressed as well with his project and hands Hiro an acceptance letter to the robotics program. Cut to later that evening after the science fair has ended and a fire breaks out; the professor is the only person left inside so Tadashi runs in to save him. Moments after he enters, there’s an explosion which kills both of them. We then cut to Tadashi’s and Professor Callaghan’s wake at the Hamada residence where we see Tadashi’s friends together in mourning and Hiro sitting alone at the top of the stairs. Hiro no longer has the passion and interest in going to university, and so he goes back to looking at illegal bot fights around the area when he stubs his toe. The moment he says “ow”, Baymax is activated. Let the adorable humour commence!

From the moment the first scene opens with a spectacular establishing shot of Sanfransokyo (a hybrid name of San Francisco and Tokyo), you immediately discover that the film will have something to do with future technologies. The style of the animation also suggests that this is NOT going to be your average Disney movie. I love this film in its entirety because it talks about relationships, mental health, and of course, futuristic gadgets!

The story is loosely based on a superhero team called Big Hero 6 by Marvel Comics and the film is directed by Don Hall and Chris Williams. From start to finish, Big Hero 6 manages to take you on a roller coaster ride of emotions where we meet a young boy who loves his big brother so much that when he realises he won’t be seeing him again, he is devastated to the point of depression. This moment always seems to make me cry as it is quite an emotional scene. I can only imagine how it would feel to lose a family member you are so close to. For a children’s film that talks about human loss, it is done beautifully.

The movie also contains a lot of fun moments, especially the scenes with Baymax! Once you get to know him, you will definitely be wanting your own personal healthcare companion. Baymax is such an amazing character and although robotic, I love how his voice sounds so caring. You may not see the emotions expressed physically or tonally but you understand how much Baymax just wants to help Hiro feel better. Scott Adsit was the perfect choice as the voice of this adorable non-threatening robot.

Did I mention there’s tons of superhero action? Well, there is! During the film, Hiro figures out who set the university on fire that killed Tadashi and Professor Callghan so he is on a mission of justice. There’s a montage scene of Hiro talking to his new-found friends as he creates upgrades for them and Baymax so they can find the arsonist who is out in the city using his microbots. This scene also has a hell of a song that makes you feel really excited for the team! The song is Immortals by Fall Out Boy and it is so appropriate for the scene!

If you are a fan of Disney movies and love a bit of action as well as heart, Big Hero 6 is for you. This is one of my top favourite Disney animated films. And remember, “Those that suffer a loss require support from friends and loved ones.” 5 / 5

 

Starring: Scott Adsit, Ryan Potter, Daniel Henney, T.J. Miller, Jamie Chung, Damon Wayans Jr., Genesis Rodriguez, James Cromwell, Maya Rudolph, Alan Tudyk.

Directors: Don Hall, Chris Williams | Producer: Roy Conli | Writers: Jordan Roberts, Robert L. Baird, Dan Gerson (based on Big Hero 6 by Man of Action) | Music: Henry Jackman | Cinematographers: Rob Dressel (layout), Adolph Lusinsky (lighting) | Editor: Tim Mertens


BLACK PANTHER (2018)

—Kendall Richardson, reviewing film.

Marvel Studios / Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) returns home to the isolated and technologically advanced African nation of Wakanda to take his place as King.

However, when an old enemy reappears, T’Challa’s fortitude as King and superhero Black Panther is tested when he is drawn into a conflict that puts the entire fate of Wakanda and the world at risk…

Nothing gets me more hyped for the trip to the cinema than the prospect of the latest Marvel Studios production. I’m an avid fan and follower of all things Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), so when the time comes around to go and see their latest release for the first time, I am literally jumping up and down with excitement. As it was with Black Panther, the eighteenth film on the MCU’s roster, and the first release of its tenth anniversary year, needless to say, I had a blast.

Marvel has the superhero origin story film down to a fine art now, as they should, but it is with Black Panther that they have done one of the best things yet—show diversity. Whilst they are sadly lagging in the female lead superhero game, Marvel have proven to the public that they can tell a story with a cast that is 98% black and have it be beyond the success they dreamed of. (Earning over $200 million in it’s opening weekend, the film is the second highest debut of the MCU behind 2012’s The Avengers.) They have made a movie where the hero is a proud African warrior and king, who is supported by the strongest women—nay African women—I have ever seen on screen, and opposed by an incredible African-American villain that some are saying could give Loki a run for his money. It is just so beautiful to see these characters displayed before our eyes, and in roles young kids can look up to and admire, particularly those who share the colour of their skin with the Black Panther himself. And this film could really not have come at a better time. With the Black Lives Matter movement still prominent across the globe, race is still one of the biggest issues out there. Hopefully Black Panther can serve not only as a vehicle to entertain, but to inspire and teach as well.

As for the film itself, it is sad to say that it is a little slow to start, until the momentum of the plot and its action fully kick in, but that isn’t to say it’s not enjoyable, because it is. We get a beautiful rendition of the history of Wakanda and the Black Panther, as well as wonderful introductions to each of the characters that make up that beautiful nation. T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) returns home after the death of his father King T’Chaka (John Kani), which occurred in Captain America: Civil War (2016), to assume the throne, but it’s not that simple, and I love it. There is so much tradition alongside the beauty of the Wakandan people, as T’Challa must fight any man that challenges him for the throne and for the powers of the Black Panther. Meanwhile, Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis), whom we last saw losing an arm in Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015), is on the prowl for more vibranium, and with a new robotic arm to boot. Here is where we meet the real villain of the piece, Erik Killmonger, played with uncompromising intimidation by Michael B. Jordan. The two may have teamed up for this heist, but it soon becomes clear that Killmonger has an agenda all his own.

Marvel Studios / Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Boseman is definitely more than capable of leading this film; he is wonderful as T’Challa, and it was great to see what he could do outside of Civil War. Serkis takes the eccentric up a notch with this version of Klaue, and it is sinister and hysterical. Fellow Middle-Earthling Martin Freeman surprised me with his return as CIA agent Everett Ross, who was also last seen in Civil War, but this time around there is more for him to do. And whilst we don’t get too much of his character fleshed out, how his involvement becomes crucial to the film’s plot is awesome. I’m always here for more Freeman, even if he is putting on that American accent.

But my favourite thing about this film is the ladies! As a lady myself, I may be a tad biased but they really are the best thing here. First you have Shuri (Letitia Wright), T’Challa’s sixteen-year-old technology and science genius sister, who is responsible for most (if not all) of Wakanda’s current tech, and the Black Panther’s suit and gadgets. Then there is Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o). And while she may be T’Challa’s ex, for now, she is also an awesome fighter and spy. I hope her and Black Widow get to have spy training reminiscing/bonding time at some point. And thirdly, there is the badass general and leader of the Dora Milaje, Okoye (Danai Gurira). She loves her country more than anything and will smack a bitch down the second it is called for. She is the sass queen in this film and I love her. All three of these actors are so strong and incredible in their performances as great Wakandan women, I cannot wait to see more of them down the track.

Director/co-writer Ryan Coogler has given us a fantastic film, which beautifully shows off the fictional nation of Wakanda and its people. With the MCU tending to expand further into space, it is great to see that there is some wonderful unexplored territory for them to showcase at home. Wakanda forever! 4 / 5

 

Starring: Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, Martin Freeman, Daniel Kaluuya, Letitia Wright, Winston Duke, Angela Bassett, Forest Whitaker, Andy Serkis.

Director: Ryan Coogler | Producer: Kevin Feige | Writers: Ryan Coogler, Joe Robert Cole (based on Black Panther by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby) | Music: Ludwig Göransson | Cinematographer: Rachel Morrison | Editor: Michael P. Shawver, Claudia Castello


BLACK SHAMPOO (1976)

—Wayne Stellini, reviewing film.

Dimension Pictures

A salon owner (John Daniels), with a reputation for being as good a lover as he is a hairdresser, takes on the mob after his receptionist (Tanya Boyd) is kidnapped and colleagues are assaulted.

Inspired by the Oscar-winning Shampoo (1975) one year earlier, Black Shampoo delivers what is expected: sex, nudity, violence, questionable acting, and a paper-thin plot that will keep fans of the blaxploitation genre happy. Unfortunately, the film suffers from poor pacing, with director/co-writer Greydon Clark apparently more concerned with finding reasons to link soft-core porn-esque sex scenes, and their accompanying score, together than presenting a taut action caper.

So while there is much to critique Black Shampoo about, there are also a few positives to draw from it. Although not given much to do and not the greatest actor to ever grace the screen, the beautifully imposing John Daniels does well enough with the material at hand and Tanya Boyd is also quite engaging.

However, what is quite remarkable about the film from a contemporary viewing is the manner in which homosexual characters are not only depicted but also interact with their heterosexual counterparts. The queer men here are extreme stereotypes: effeminate, flamboyant, hairdressers. But this is nothing to be offended by.

Exploitation films and their subgenres utilise stereotypes as a form of shorthand; in-depth character development is never a priority. Additionally, what a wonderful manner to depict society’s outcasts—Queer. Here. Get over it. This, of course, means nothing if our macho hero does not accept them unconditionally. But accept them, Daniels’ Mr. Jonathan does. Not only that, but the beating of gay salon worker Artie (Skip E. Lowe) is one of the driving motivators for tensions between Jonathan and the mob. And this loyalty is a two-way street. Artie’s refusal to jeopardise Jonathan’s safety escalates in him being sexually assaulted with a curling iron. (Rape as a weapon is a common trope in exploitation films reserved for women and gay men.)

Ultimately, the final act is where a film such as this sinks or swims. It is violent and blood and is spilt, but remains a little underwhelming, particularly when compared to its contemporaries. It is unfortunate that this badly acted and even worse written caper did not receive a little more care and a slightly bigger budget, because Black Shampoo has all the potential of a genre masterpiece. 2½ / 5

 

Starring: John Daniels, Tanya Boyd, Joe Ortiz, Skip E. Lowe, Gary Allen, Anne Gaybis, Jack Mehoff, Bruce Kerley.

Director: Greydon Clark | Producer: Alvin L. Fast | Writers: Greydon Clark, Alvin L. Fast | Music: Gerald Lee | Cinematographers: Dean Cundey, Michael Mileham | Editor: Earl Watson


THE BOOK OF MORMON (2017-2018 Melbourne Season)

—Wayne Stellini, reviewing theatre.

Main image supplied to ABC News has been edited by FRED the ALIEN Productions

Two Mormon missionaries, the ambitious Elder Price (Ryan Bondy) and socially awkward Elder Cunningham (Nyk Bielak), attempt to share their scriptures with the inhabitants of a remote Ugandan village, where their fellow missionaries have failed to baptise anyone.

The young men are challenged by the lack of interest of the locals, who are more concerned with such issues as AIDS, famine, female genital mutilation, and their warlord…

When accepting that a musical about Mormon missionaries comes from the the collective imaginations behind the animated television series South Park and the theatrical Sesame Street parody Avenue Q, you feel as though you know what sort of show you’re about to experience.

And while there are common trademarks of South Park‘s Trey Parker and Matt Stone and Avenue Q‘s Robert Lopez throughout The Book of Mormon, an audience has no right to express offense at the material. Also, those who are familiar with the creative minds behind the show will be pleased to know that this production stands on its own.

Ryan Bondy as Elder Price is the personification of musical theatre perfection. (Image: Joan Marcus)

Parker and Stone frequently poke fun of and critique religious institutions (most notably, Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Scientologists), however the easily-targeted Latter Day Saints seems to be their favourite subject matter. (The 1997 sex comedy Orgazmo was an early indication of this trajectory.) That is not to say, however, that The Book of Mormon does not have a lot to say on a broad range of matters; it is an effective critique on fundamentalism and traditional patriarchal customs, among other topics. Additionally, it is a sweet story of friendship and the importance of community.

Like all good musical comedies, the songs are catchy and humorous, with opening number Hello! setting the tone perfectly. The show is ideally paced and maintains a solid momentum throughout, with the cast’s incredibly infectious energy and enthusiasm adding to the atmosphere. The cast is always in fine form, particularly the stunning Zahra Newman as Nabulungi and audience favourite Rowan Witt as closeted queer stereotype Elder McKinley. As our protagonists, Bielak has the ideal geeky adorable qualities the role of Elder Cunningham dictates, but make no mistake about it, The Book of Mormon belongs to Bondy. Oozing more charm and enthusiasm that you would think is humanly possible, it is difficult to take your eyes off him; his portrayal of Elder Price is quite easily the production’s strongest component. In the realm of contemporary musical theatre, Ryan Bondy is perfection personified.

The almost sold-out matinee audience I sat with was hooked from the get-go, buzzing during the interval, and laughing throughout. And this is where The Book of Mormon succeeds. It works on a number of levels, coming together so swimmingly, that it would be difficult for the production not to have broad appeal, particularly in a city such as Melbourne. This is not to say that the show is completely flawless: when the writing is so clever, are gags about feces and blood really necessary? Also, there is so much movement and noise during some songs that not every lyric will be heard clearly by each audience member, particularly those in the nose-bleeds. But with a production that is so engaging and entertaining, these are minor quips.

Do not be mistaken, it is impossible for The Book of Mormon to live up to the hype—it is not the greatest musical of the century, though it may come close! 4½ / 5

 

Starring: Ryan Bondy, Nyk Bielak, Zahra Newman, Bert LaBonté, Rowan Witt, Andrew Broadbent, Augustin Aziz Tchantcho.

Book, Music, Lyrics: Trey Parker, Robert Lopez, Matt Stone | Directors: Casey Nicholaw, Trey Parker | Choreographer: Casey Nicholaw | Musical Supervisor, Vocal Arrangements: Stepher Nremus | Music Director: Kellie Dickerson | Associate Producers: Laura Manning, Ben Prudhoe


BRAVE (2012)

—Fulya Kantarmaci, reviewing film.

Walt Disney Pictures / Pixar Animation Studios

A princess disregards an old custom and wreaks havoc in the kingdom. Her mother, the Queen, will not have this and pressures her to do as she is told. Her father, the King, is just stuck in the middle of it all…

Brave tells the story of Merida (Kelly Macdonald), the courageous daughter of Scottish King Fergus (Billy Connolly) and Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson). Merida is a talented archer and a very messy princess, much to her mother’s disapproval. One day, Elinor tells Merida that the first-born sons of the allied clans will be arriving to compete in the Highland Games for Merida’s hand in marriage. But it may harm their clan Dunbroch if she fails to consent to the betrothal. Elinor reminds Merida of the legend of the prince that would not follow his father’s wishes; pride ends up destroying his kingdom.

Being the first-born child in her own clan, Merida decides to participate in the archery tournament and beats her suitors with ease. After a very heated argument with her mother (not to mention ruining the family tapestry), Merida runs away into the forest. She is then greeted by will-o’-the-wisps, which lead her deeper into the forest to a witch’s hut. She makes a deal with the witch to create a spell that will change her fate. The witch gives her an enchanted cake. Once she leaves the hut, the witch is left standing on her own trying the think of the one important thing she forgot to tell Merida about the spell. Of course, there’s a consequence. Who didn’t see that coming?

Merida arrives back at the castle, prepares a “peace offering” with the cake for her mother. But when Elinor eats it, she starts to feel ill and, to Merida’s shock, turns into a bear. This is NOT what she asked for at all! Merida takes her bear-mum back to the witch’s hut but the witch is no longer there. She did, however, leave Merida a message in the form of a bubbling cauldron that acts like a medieval automated message:

‘Fate be changed, look inside. Mend the bond torn by pride.’

This story is definitely one for the mothers out there. The relationship between a mother and her daughter is sacred. I am one of those daughters who loves her mum very much and when the sad scenes played through, I could feel an ache in my heart. Emma Thompson is wonderful as Merida’s mother. Her voice has the elegance of a queen and even though she is voicing a Scottish character, I still love it! Kelly Macdonald is amazing as Merida. You can hear the strength and teenage angst that makes her the perfect voice actor for this role. And did I mention how awesome Billy Connolly is? His comedic timing makes King Fergus a hilarious character, but when it comes down to the hunt of a bear lurking in the castle, he is all business and you can definitely hear that in Connolly’s performance.

The fact that this film takes place in the Scottish Highlands makes me feel so good because I travelled to Scotland in April 2018; I fell in love with the country and its people. Rewatching this movie after my holiday allowed me to pick out all the wonderful things that make Brave so authentic. The scenery is almost life-like, the animals (mainly the highland cows or ‘coos’, as the Scottish call them), the music, and the story itself all brought me back Scotland. (On a side note, if you haven’t been, I highly recommend visiting Edinburgh and a trip up to the highlands. So much history that doesn’t disappoint!)

Brave has a beautiful aesthetic and the cinematography is just fantastic! There are a few scary moments but nothing that kids can’t handle; this is definitely worth watching with the family. And remember, ‘never conjure where you carve.’ 5 / 5

 

Starring: Kelly Macdonald, Emma Thompson, Billy Connolly, Julie Walters, Steve Purcell, Patrick Doyle, John Ratzenberger, Sally Kinghorn, Callum O’Neill, Peigi Barker, Steven Cree.

Directors: Mark Andrews, Brenda Chapman | Writers: Mark Andrews, Steve Purcell, Brenda Chapman, Irene Mecchi | Producer: Katherine Sarafian | Music: Patrick Doyle | Cinematographers: Robert Anderson (camera), Danielle Feinberg (lighting) | Editor: Nicholas C. Smith


CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR (2016)

—Wayne Stellini, reviewing film.

Marvel Studios / Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

After another incident involving the Avengers results in collateral damage, political pressure mounts to install a system of accountability, headed by a governing body to oversee and direct the team. The new status quo fractures the Avengers, resulting in two camps—one led by Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) and his desire for the Avengers to remain free to defend humanity without government interference, and the other following Tony Stark’s decision to support government oversight and accountability.

But when Winter Solider Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) resurfaces, Rogers and Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) become more divided than ever…

Much is expected when pitting an assortment of superheroes against one another, particularly when they belong to the blockbuster Marvel Cinematic Universe. As this is the thirteenth entry in the intricate franchise, loyal fans and persistent audiences alike have invested in these characters, getting to know them, feeling for them, and cheering for them in battle. It’s the sort of relationship only the best example of writing and character development can sustain over eight years.

So then, the question remains if Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely have provided a thoughtful and engaging enough screenplay to deliver anything more than a superficial battle royal? The answer is, quite frankly, a resounding yes.

Directed by brothers Anthony and Joe Russo, who cut their MCU teeth on Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014), Captain America: Civil War does what great comic book movies do best. There is the perfect balance of character-driven plot and action here, so the audience has its cake and eats it too. As has been the case with every single previous title in which Natasha Romanoff and Clint Barton appear, Scarlet Johansson and Jeremy Renner deliver performances with electrifying chemistry; them going head to head is the fight we didn’t know we wanted. Unsurprisingly, Chris Evans, Robert Downey Jr., Sebastian Stan, Chadwick Boseman, and Paul Rudd are excellent, but this isn’t a film in which the performances or casting choices (new or returning) can be faulted. To say that the team hand in good work is an understatement.

However, the most spectacular casting is that of young Tom Holland as Peter Parker. For genre buffs who know Spider-Man’s origin, his introduction into the MCU is refreshingly efficient, but there is still enough to satisfy those who may not be familiar with the details of his backstory. His scenes with Downey’s Tony Stark are a particular highlight and there is no doubt that the fight scenes benefit from his inclusion.

And as well-tuned and meaningful as the interpersonal relationships are, it’s the action that sells movie tickets. What Captain America: Civil War does better than every one of its twelve predecessors is make the action scenes captivating and not drag on unnecessarily. Here, they don’t feel over stylised but rather grounded in reality. There are, naturally, extremities to the destruction on hand, but we accept them like never before. They are beautifully framed, expertly cut, and more often than not have a pleasant colour pallet.

While not all of the MCU films have hit the mark, Captain America: Civil War is an incredibly generous reward for fans’ investment in the franchise. It is a first-rate blockbuster and one of the best comic book movies in recent years full stop. 4½ / 5

 

Starring: Chris Evans, Robert Downey Jr., Scarlett Johansson, Sebastian Stan, Anthony Mackie, Don Cheadle, Jeremy Renner, Chadwick Boseman, Paul Bettany, Elizabeth Olsen, Paul Rudd, Emily VanCamp, Tom Holland, Frank Grillo, William Hurt, Daniel Brühl, John Slattery, Kerry Condon, Martin Freeman, Marisa Tomei, John Kani, Hope Davis, Gene Farber, Florence Kasumba, Alfre Woodard, Jim Rash, Stan Lee makes [cameo], Joe Russo [cameo], Damion Poitier.

Directors: Anthony Russo, Joe Russo | Producer: Kevin Feige | Writers: Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely (based on Captain America by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby) | Music: Henry Jackman | Cinematographer: Trent Opaloch | Editors: Jeffrey Ford, Matthew Schmidt


CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER (2011)

—Wayne Stellini, reviewing film.

Marvel Studios / Paramount Pictures

Having been deemed as unfit for military service due to multiple medical conditions, Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) volunteers for a top secret ‘Super Soldier’ project that turns him into the brawny Captain America.

Initially used as the U.S. Army’s propaganda poster boy, Captain America battles the Red Skull (Hugo Weaving), leader of the evil HYDRA organisation…

Making his first big screen appearance since Albert Pyun’s 1990 critical and commercial disaster, Captain America is supported, this time around, by a massive budget, a crowd-pleasing franchise, and more significantly, a story that engages from the get-go.

The fifth film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Joe Johnston’s Captain America: The First Avenger is a wonderful mix of heart and heroism. As the title character, Chris Evans is nothing short of perfect. Going from scrawny to brawny, Evans’s portrayal of Steven Rogers/Captain America is both sensitive and strong, depicting an assortment of adaptable traits that gives the character depth and meaning. Although the visual effects that convey the short and gaunt Rogers never truly convince (the proportions don’t always look or feel right), Evans captivates enough for us to see past what would have otherwise been a distracting flaw.

Supporting characters aren’t given as much attention or development, but so strong is the cast that there’s always something to relish of each key player. The underrated Hayley Atwell is quite lovely as Officer Peggy Carter, an obligatory love interest for Rogers who is more fleshed out than you would expect, while Hugo Weaving is always fun as the evil Red Skull. Tommy Lee Jones is unsurprisingly exceptional in the undemanding role of Colonel Chester Phillips, whose impeccable line delivery suitably belongs to an era of yesteryear: ‘You and I are gonna have a conversation later that you won’t enjoy,’ he scolds Carter at one point.

Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely’s screenplay doesn’t try to complicate the narrative with unnecessary subplots or convoluted details. It is brought to life through the collective efforts of a talented cast, Alan Silvestri wonderful score, and Jeffrey Ford and Robert Dalva’s taut editing under the skillful eye of a director with a confident vision that has you engaged right up until one of the greatest endings and reveals in contemporary comic book movies.

Though not really delivering anything we haven’t seen before, there’s no denying that Captain America: The First Avenger is a pretty awesome adventure picture. 4 / 5

 

Starring: Chris Evans, Tommy Lee Jones, Hugo Weaving, Hayley Atwell, Sebastian Stan, Dominic Cooper, Neal McDonough, Derek Luke, Stanley Tucci, Samuel L. Jackson, Kenneth Choi, Bruno Ricci, JJ Feild, Toby Jones, Richard Armitage, Lex Shrapnel, Michael Brandon, Natalie Dormer, Jenna Coleman, Laura Haddock, Stan Lee.

Director: Joe Johnston | Producer: Kevin Feige | Writers: Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely (based on Captain America by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby) | Music: Alan Silvestri | Cinematographer: Shelly Johnson | Editors: Jeffrey Ford, Robert Dalva


CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER (2014)

—Wayne Stellini, reviewing film.

Marvel Studios / Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Captain America (Chris Evans), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), and Falcon (Anthony Mackie) join forces to uncover a conspiracy within S.H.I.E.L.D. while facing a mysterious assassin known as the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan).

Chris Evans suits up once more as the Captain America in the ninth Marvel Cinematic Universe blockbuster. The wholesome superhero is second nature to Evans by now but the actor does not take his character for granted. Neither do scriptwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, who not only appear to have put more thought and effort into their work compared to 2013’s Thor: The Dark World but also allow the First Avenger space for depth and complexity. It is a trademark that has made Captain America one of the more interesting figures in this extensive film franchise, and directors Anthony and Joe Russo treat the source and adapted material respectfully.

Even though Captain America: The Winter Soldier runs for a questionable two hours and sixteen minutes, it is paced relatively well and you don’t really feel the time. This is primarily due to the inclusion of the underrated Scarlett Johansson’s performance as Black Widow. Both actor and character are a marvel here and, despite the absence of her usual sidekick (Jeremy Renner as Hawkeye), the former Soviet spy not only holds her own but often steals the show. So, it is of little surprise that her moments with the equally excellent Evans are the strongest here. However, it must be said that the remarkably aged Hayley Atwell delivers a lovely performance in a touching scene with Evans. Emily VanCamp and screen veteran Robert Redford also deliver notable performances.

There are also a number of interesting characters littered throughout the film, including the introduction of Sam Wilson/Falcon (Anthony Mackie), and the fun comes from not really knowing who is trustworthy. Of course, the action does not disappoint and, unlike some other sequences in the franchise, never feels over-the-top; Captain America taking on a group of armed men in an elevator is both exciting and exceptionally choreographed.

Aesthetically appealing and quite entertaining without being exceptional, Captain America: The Winter Soldier may not be as good as The First Avenger (2011), but will win favour amongst the franchise’s fans. 4 / 5

 

Starring: Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Sebastian Stan, Anthony Mackie, Cobie Smulders, Frank Grillo, Emily VanCamp, Hayley Atwell, Robert Redford, Samuel L. Jackson, Toby Jones, Maximiliano Hernández, Garry Shandling, Georges St-Pierre, Callan Mulvey, Chin Han, Jenny Agutter, Alan Dale, Bernard White, Danny Pudi, DC Pierson, Gary Sinise [voice], Stan Lee [cameo], Ed Brubaker [cameo], Joe Russo [cameo], Christopher Markus [cameo], Stephen McFeely [cameo], Thomas Kretschmann, Henry Goodman, Elizabeth Olsen, Aaron Taylor-Johnson.

Directors: Anthony Russo, Joe Russo | Producer: Kevin Feige | Writers: Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely (based on Captain America by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby) | Music: Henry Jackman | Cinematographer: Trent Opaloch | Editors: Jeffrey Ford, Matthew Schmidt


CAPTAIN MARVEL (2019)

—Kendall Richardson, reviewing film.

Marvel Studios / Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Set in the 1990s, Carol Danvers (Brie Larson) becomes one of the universe’s most powerful heroes when Earth is caught in the middle of a galactic war between two alien races.

To say we have been waiting for this film for a long time would be an understatement. After twenty films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, we finally have Marvel’s first female-led superhero film. Captain Marvel enters the MCU in superb fashion with this expertly executed origin story. Whilst certain parts of Captain Marvel are by the numbers, because nearly all of these films have to follow a particular formula, I am happy to report that there are certain twists to the origin format that make this movie stand out as one of Marvel Studios’s best origin stories. Our heroine begins the film already in possession of her incredible powers, but with no knowledge of how she got them.

Brie Larson portrays the titular Carol Danvers, or Vers, with ease and such strength behind her. The Academy Award-winning actress was a perfect casting choice, as all of the casting across the MCU is. She imbues Carol with such a commanding presence, a wicked sense of humour, and a wonderful spirit that really surprises you once you learn that this is Larson’s first time in a role like this. She is such a natural and an absolute pleasure to watch on screen, regardless of what film she’s in or what character she is playing. I am very much looking forward to seeing her share the screen with the Avengers in the upcoming Endgame, particularly because I feel her and Steve Rogers will get along quite well. Carol is very much a solider in the same way that Steve is, wanting to do anything it takes to fight the good fight, but also possesses the resilience to change allegiances when she knows the fight is wrong.

This movie gives more background into the previously introduced alien race known as The Kree. We get to see their home world of Hala and meet the leader of their race, an AI known only as the Supreme Intelligence, who communicates with her people by taking the form of the person they most admire. In Carol’s case, however, she does not remember who the person she sees actually is. A big part of the driving force of the film is Carol trying to remember who she is and who this woman, played by Annette Bening, was to her in the life she once led. We also get introduced to the Skrulls, an alien race of shapeshifters the Kree are at war with. Australian actor Ben Mendelsohn portrays their general, Talos, and was allowed to keep his native accent for the part. For die-hard fans of the MCU, seeing the Skrulls on screen for the first time is going to be a big highlight, especially considering they will most likely play a huge role in the upcoming Phase Four.

A major highlight of the film though has to be its visual effects. Not only do we have the standard action scenes on Earth and in space filled with gorgeous CGI, we have probably the most impressive de-aging effects work ever done in a film. I’m of course talking about seeing a young Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and a young Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg) here in their early S.H.I.E.L.D. days. Both actors look absolutely outstanding thanks to the convincing effects work. Whilst we see early shades of the future man Coulson will become, this version of Nick Fury is near unrecognisable compared to his modern day counterpart. And I’m not referring to the fact that he has both of his eyes. Younger Fury carries with him a lot more heart and soul, and is a lot less jaded or hardened due to having not lived through his tumultuous future yet. It is a real high point of the film watching the way Jackson and Larson bounce off each other; they have an excellent on screen chemistry that is just a joy to see.

Jude Law’s Yon-Rogg is another interesting character and, without spoiling too much, I really appreciated what they did with him and his relationship with Carol as her mentor. But my favourite character of the whole film, and yes I’m jumping on the bandwagon here, is Goose the Cat. Every single scene with Goose in it belongs to her. And the reveal of just who this cat really is will leave your jaw dropped. I still cannot believe what I saw; seeing the reaction of the characters in the film and then listening to those from the audience in the cinema, was just beyond hilarious. Speaking of hilarious, they really had a lot of fun with the 1990s setting. The music was on point; one particular fight scene with No Doubt’s Just a Girl playing really tickled my fancy and the showcasing of the ’90s technology was exactly what it needed to be—absolutely hysterical.

Co-directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck join the ranks of esteemed MCU filmmakers that handle a film of this caliber with such style and wonderful storytelling that cements Captain Marvel’s place among the best films of the MCU. And to finally see a woman take down the bad guys in such a powerful way—seriously, you guys, Thanos should be shaking in his gauntlet—is so incredibly inspiring. The next generation of women have got a marvelous role model on their hands. 4½ / 5

 

Starring: Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson, Ben Mendelsohn, Djimon Hounsou, Lee Pace, Lashana Lynch, Gemma Chan, Annette Bening, Clark Gregg, Jude Law.

Directors: Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck | Writers: Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck, Geneva Robertson-Dworet (story by Nicole Perlman, Meg LeFauve, Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck, Geneva Robertson-Dworet based on Captain Marvel by Stan Lee and Gene Colan; Carol Danvers by Roy Thomas and Gene Colan | Producer: Kevin Feige | Music: Pinar Toprak | Cinematographer: Ben Davis | Editors: Elliot Graham, Debbie Berman


CHRISTINE (1983)

—Wayne Stellini, reviewing film.

Columbia Pictures / Delphi Premier Productions / Polar Film

A red and white 1958 Plymouth Fury named Christine becomes increasingly possessive of Arnie Cunningham (Keith Gordon), the awkward youth who purchases her, and whose personality gradually changes as car and owner form a dangerous bond…

Christine has all the hallmarks of what we expect from a Stephen King narrative: a youth takes revenge against their bullies with the aid of a supernatural force (think Carrie). There is also a sympathetic, popular, and handsome boy cheering for our underdog in some way (still think Carrie). This familiarity, of course, does not work against Christine in any way.

And on paper, the bestselling author and Halloween (1978) director John Carpenter make an unconquerable combination to tell a scary story. But this big screen adaptation of King’s novel falls a little short of expectations.

Do not be mistaken, Carpenter is a skilled filmmaker but the first half of the piece, which sets up the dynamics of our young cast at school, home, etc, is far more taut, engaging, and confidently made than what follows. This is a shame because this is where the film should deliver what it promises. And Christine almost makes it! There’s some finely executed thrills and the special effects featuring the car’s rejuvenation are outstanding. But there are some pacing issues and the subtle, tense build-up shifts gear into flashes of melodrama as the plot unfolds.

Christine is by no means a write-off; it is an entertaining and well-produced tale that has a bevy of fine talent who will be familiar to pop culture enthusiasts. Ketih Gordon (Jaws 2) is relatable as bullied protagonist Arnie, John Stockwell (Top Gun) soaks up the screen as best friend Dennis, and Alexandra Paul (TV’s Baywatch) makes a fine impression as new girl Leigh. Supporting players include Robert Prosky (Gremlins 2: The New Batch), Roberts Blossom (Home Alone), Kelly Preston (SpaceCamp, Jerry McGuire), Steven Tash (1984’s Ghostbusters), Stuart Charno (Friday the 13th Part 2), Malcolm Danare (Heaven Help Us, 1998’s Godzilla), and the prolific Harry Dean Stanton (The Godfather Part II, Alien, The Avengers…).

Carpenter’s film is well-worth watching for fans of any of the cast and crew, if not the genre itself, but don’t expect Christine to make it to the finish line in the same pristine condition as it starts. 3½ / 5

 

Starring: Keith Gordon, John Stockwell, Alexandra Paul, Robert Prosky, Harry Dean Stanton, Christine Belford, Roberts Blossom, Kelly Preston, William Ostrander, Steven Tash, Stuart Charno, Malcolm Danare, David Spielberg.

Director: John Carpenter | Writer: Bill Phillips (based on the novel by Stephen King) | Producers: Richard Kobritz, Larry J. Franco | Music: John Carpenter, Alan Howarth | Cinematographer: Donald M. Morgan | Editor Marion Rothman


COCO (2017)

—Fulya Kantarmaci, reviewing film.

Walt Disney Pictures / Pixar Animation Studios

A young boy with a dream to becomes a musician. Unfortunately, his family forbids it…

Miguel Rivera (Anthony Gonzalez) loves playing the guitar, teaching himself by watching his favourite musician Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt) on video. Sadly, he’s had to do this in secret because his family has banned music in their place so he can’t reveal his passion to them. This ban has been set way back when Mamá Imelda (Allanna Ubach) was alive. Her husband left her and their daughter Coco behind to become a famous musician. Because he chose music over family, Imelda decided that there will no longer be a music presence in their household and started a shoe making business. To the present day, the Rivera family still make shoes but Miguel’s passion lies in music.

On Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), Miguel accidentally damages a picture frame on the family ofrenda—a photo of Mamá Imelda, Mamá Coco, and a headless man (assumedly the husband). Miguel then discovers a folded in section of the photo which revealed to him a guitar once belonging to Ernesto de la Cruz! He quickly works out that Ernesto was his great great grandfather and goes to the village plaza to register to participate in a talent show. Unfortunately, his Abuelita (Renée Victor) destroyed the one guitar he had made for himself earlier that day. So, he decides to break into Ernesto’s mausoleum and “borrow” his guitar for the talent show. The moment he strums the guitar, he is immediately invisible to everyone in the village plaza and realises he can see skeletal people, including some of his dead relatives. This means, he is now in the Land of the Dead. Miguel quickly learns that he is cursed and must return to the Land of the Living otherwise he will be stuck there. The only way he can return is if he receives a blessing from one of his dead family members before sunrise. Mamá Imelda is happy to give him her blessing, however she had one condition: that Miguel ceases to continue his musical path. This doesn’t sit well with him so he runs off into the Land of the Dead to find his great great grandfather Ernesto de la Cruz to receive a blessing from him.

On his journey, Miguel bumps into Héctor (Gael García Bernal), who says that he knows Ernesto well and that he will take him to Ernesto in exchange for having his photo taken to the Land of the Living, placed on the family ofrenda so he can visit his daughter before she forgets him.

This is the first film that has an all-Latino principal cast and a great representation of Mexican culture. The music, the characters, even the landscapes and architecture transport you to Mexico. During pre-production, Lee Unkrich (from whom the idea of the film was based) and some of the filming crew, visited the colourful country on a research trip to get a better idea of what Mexico was all about. I absolutely love how they incorporated the colour schemes of the buildings and used it to their advantage throughout the movie. This animated feature film widens your eyes to all the colours and textures, especially in the Land of the Dead. Because the film is based on the Day of the Dead celebrations, the Land of the Dead is set overnight and you can see how vivid the colours are here.

The characters in Coco are wonderful! I enjoyed Gonzalez’s performance as Miguel and the fact that he is a young mariachi singer himself is just amazing! What a talented boy! Bernal is probably my favourite of the voice actors. His performance as Héctor was very funny and genuine. There are a few small-part characters that also made me smile (and cry)—Clerk (Gabriel Iglesias), Frida Kahlo (Natalia Cordova-Buckley), and of course Chicharrón (Edward James Olmos).

The music is wonderful and made me feel like I was in Mexico! From what I learnt in the behind the scenes section of the DVD’s bonus features, there are quite a lot of genres in the Mexican music and most of them were included on the soundtrack.

But can I just say how much I loved the story? The story is not really about the music, it’s about family and it is so beautiful. To be able to watch a movie that encapsulates the essence of what it means to be family melted my heart and yes, I shed some tears.

This is a movie to be watched with family and friends. The kids will love the adventure and colours, and the adults will love the story and music. I wholeheartedly recommend Coco to everyone! And remember to love your family. 5 / 5

 

Starring: Starring: Anthony Gonzalez, Gael García Bernal, Benjamin Bratt, Alanna Ubach, Renée Victor, Ana Ofelia Murguía, Edward James Olmos, Alfonso Arau, Selene Luna, Dyana Ortellí, Herbert Sigüenza, Jaime Camil, Sofía Espinosa, Luis Valdez, Lombardo Boyar, Octavio Solis, Cheech Marin, Carla Medina, Blanca Araceli, Natalia Cordova-Buckley, Salvador Reyes, John Ratzenberger, Libertad García Fonzi, Antonio Sol.

Director: Lee Unkrich | Producer: Darla K. Anderson | Writers: Adrian Molina, Matthew Aldrich; Story: Lee Unkrich, Jason Katz, Matthew Aldrich, Adrian Molina | Music: Michael Giacchino | Cinematographers: Matt Aspbury (camera), Danielle Feinberg (lighting) | Editor: Steve Bloom


CONVERSATIONS WITH A KILLER: THE TED BUNDY TAPES (2019)

—Wayne Stellini, reviewing television.

Netflix

A series of recorded interviews between journalist Stephen Michaud and death row inmate Ted Bundy frames this recounting of the serial killer’s crimes from the mid- to late-1970s, offering insight into the charismatic criminal’s motivations and modus operandi.

As one of the most infamous American serial killers, there is perhaps little that isn’t known about Ted Bundy. His name alone conjures images that praise his aesthetics and acknowledge his intelligence. These qualities often overshadow the thirty-plus young women and girls who lost their lives to a man who saw females as nothing more than ‘merchandise’ and ‘possessions.’

What Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes does particularly well is that it highlights the convicted killer’s charisma, which may feel over-emphasised but is vital to the broader narrative, without ever glorifying him. Through hours of mostly one-sided conversation, Bundy explains and explores his own mentality as well as the crimes he admits to committing.

Fleshing the tapes out are archival footage of and interviews with journalists, law enforcement officials, witnesses, and survivors, illustrating a climate that was fuelled with both fear and intrigue. Bundy’s victims—one of whom was as young as twelve—are presented and discussed in a dignified manner; writer/director Joe Berlinger is never exploitative in his approach to telling this familiar tale.

The draw card here is, of course, hearing from Bundy himself. His reflections on death row as well as his charming interactions with the media and particularly Judge Edward Cowart, whose final words to the condemned killer are quite extraordinary, not only demonstrate the enduring fascination with Bundy but also why he remains one of the United States’s most dangerous criminals on record.

Overall, Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes is a skillfully crafted and engrossing true crime series. 4½ / 5

 

Starring: Ted Bundy [archival], Stephen Michaud, Hugh Aynesworth, Bob Keppel.

Director/Writer: Joe Berlinger | Executive Producers: Joe Berlinger, Jon Doran, Jon Kamen, Justin Wilkes | Music: Justin Melland | Cinematographer: Adam Stone | Editors: Cy Christiansen, Joshua L. Pearson, Sarah Devorkin


THE DEAD DON’T DIE (2019)

—Kendall Richardson, reviewing film.

Animal Kingdom / Film i Väst / Focus Features

A small town’s police force combat the sudden zombie invasion of their small, uneventful town…

This is a zombie film unlike any other you will ever watch, which makes sense when you learn it is a Jim Jarmusch film. The iconic auteur brings his trademark style, and a huge cast, to this 95-minute piece taking place at the end of the world. The Dead Don’t Die is set in the small Ohio town of Centreville, which is a living contradiction; nothing too exciting ever happens there, so it is not really the centre of anything. However it is this tiny township where the story unfolds, thereby making it the centre after all. This is just one of many of Jarmusch’s hilarious, if a little on the nose, winks at the camera that pop up over the course of the film.

Before the apocalypse kicks off, we are introduced to a wonderful cast of characters, almost all of which are portrayed by legendary actors. The film isn’t concerned with developing them too much, or giving them any kind of story arc, which isn’t really the point of this movie. If that’s what you’re looking for here, this may not be the film for you. Centreville’s local law enforcement comprises of Chief Cliff Robertson (a hilariously dead pan Bill Murray), Officer Ronnie Peterson (Adam Driver), and Officer Mindy Morrison (Chloe Sevigny). Some of the best moments of The Dead Don’t Die occur when these three are on screen. They have a great quirky chemistry with one another that makes one want a prequel film of just their day to day tasks.

Other notable residents of Centreville include farmer Frank Miller (Steve Buscemi), blue collar worker Hank Thompson (Danny Glover), nerdy shop owner Bobby Wiggins (Caleb Landry Jones), and mortician Zelda Winston (Tilda Swinton). The film also features some music icons in Tom Waits who portrays Hermit Bob, the film’s narrator in parts; Iggy Pop as a zombie who just wants some coffee; Selena Gomez as a ‘hipster’ from Cleveland passing through town; and rapper RZA as a wise mailman. Tilda Swinton is the best thing about this movie, though. In a way that only she could, she embodies this eccentric Scottish samurai mortician wonderfully, making all her scenes a sheer delight to watch. She also gets the best action sequences when it comes to zombie kills. However, Swinton’s Zelda Winston is in an entirely different film compared to the rest of the cast. There is a moment in the third act involving her character that comes completely out of left field which will either confuse you more than you already are, or leave you laughing hysterically.

Despite the amount of gore in regards to the zombies killing off Centreville’s residents one by one, The Dead Don’t Die is much more a comedy film. The humour in the dialogue and the way it is acted out by the incredible cast really makes this film worth your time. The fourth wall breaks are fantastic and do well to emphasise just how ridiculous the entire movie is, especially the constant references to the film’s theme song performed by Sturgill Simpson. This may not be a film that mainstream audiences will fall in love with… and that’s totally okay. But for those who watch and enjoy it, you’ve found a real gem in this zombie flick. 4 / 5

 

Starring: Bill Murray, Adam Driver, Tilda Swinton, Chloë Sevigny, Steve Buscemi, Austin Butler, Danny Glover, Caleb Landry Jones, Rosie Perez, Iggy Pop, Sara Driver, RZA, Carol Kane, Selena Gomez, Tom Waits.

Director/Writer: Jim Jarmusch | Producers: Carter Logan, Joshua Astrachan | Music: SQÜRL | Cinematographer: Frederick Elmes | Editor: Affonso Gonçalves


THE DESCENT (2005)

—Wayne Stellini, reviewing film.

Celador Films / Northmen Productions / Pathé Distribution

A group of female friends find themselves trapped and hunted in a series of caves by an unknown force…

Neil Marshall‘s feminist horror pic may not completely subvert the genre to the level that it should, but is nonetheless without a doubt one of the finest examples of the sub-genre there is.

What holds the film back a little is that the six central women aren’t given enough time to develop individual personalities; a longer prologue would have been beneficial. Character shorthand (traumatised wife/mother, student doctor, protective older sister, etc…) and diverse accents are utilised to speed up the process and get straight into the action, but Marshall underestimates the power of the material and his own skill as a filmmaker.

This is, of course, a minor quip when considering the overall competence of this sleek production. Particular well done is the exciting and incredibly intense manoeuvring through the claustrophobic cave system… and that’s before the movie monsters (the slimy, human-esque Crawlers) make an unforgettable appearance!

Photographed utilising greens, reds, and silhouettes, the action isn’t always easy to observe, but outstanding creature design and strong female performances across the board (Shauna Macdonald and Natalie Mendoza as Sarah and Juno are particularly fine), mean that there’s plenty to enjoy in this edge-of-the-seat, nail-bitting journey. 4 / 5

 

Starring: Shauna Macdonald, Natalie Mendoza, Alex Reid, Saskia Mulder, MyAnna Buring, Nora-Jane Noone, Oliver Milburn, Molly Kayll.

Director/Writer: Neil Marshall | Producer: Christian Colson | Music: David Julyan | Cinematographer: Sam McCurdy | Editor: Jon Harris


DOCTOR STRANGE (2016)

—Wayne Stellini, reviewing film.

Marvel Studios / Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

After a tragic car accident, talented neurosurgeon Doctor Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) must put his ego aside to learn the secrets of a hidden world of mysticism and alternate dimensions.

With the combination of previous sequels and team-ups, the origin story of yet another hero to the Marvel Cinematic Universe allows for more goodies and baddies of diverse personalities, motivations, and abilities to be introduced to the mix. And as the fourteenth entry into the franchise, you hope for something special.

Unfortunately, Doctor Strange is an assorted bag that does not get its balance right. A technical marvel (full credit to the incredible visual effects crew here) with strong performances across the board, the film suffers from an unconquerable obstacle: the titular protagonist is painfully dull. Strange has the smarts, ego, and good looks of the likes of, say, Tony Stark without the wit or charisma, giving the always reliable Benedict Cumberbatch very little to work with, though his scenes with Rachel McAdams give the character some depth. However, our protagonist is overshadowed by more interesting figures such as the exceptional Tilda Swinton’s Ancient One and Benedict Wong’s fun, coincidentally named Wong.

Jon Spaihts, C. Robert Cargill, and director Scott Derrickson’s script packs a lot of interesting mythology into a film that mercifully runs under two hours, but at this point feels unnecessary in the grand narrative. With some fresh visuals at play here, Doctor Strange will appeal to fans of the extensive franchise, and the character’s addition to it will perhaps prove beneficial, but the film is ultimately a noisy spectacle with little substance. 2½ / 5

 

Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams, Benedict Wong, Michael Stuhlbarg, Benjamin Bratt, Scott Adkins, Mads Mikkelsen, Tilda Swinton, Chris Hemsworth, Linda Louise Duan, Mark Anthony Brighton, Topo Wresniwiro, Zara Phythian, Alaa Safi, Katrina Durden, Pat Kiernan, Stan Lee [cameo]..

Director: Scott Derrickson | Producer: Kevin Feige | Writers: Jon Spaihts, Scott Derrickson, C. Robert Cargill (based on Doctor Strange by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko) | Music: Michael Giacchino | Cinematographer: Ben Davis | Editors: Wyatt Smith, Sabrina Plisco


DON’T EVER WIPE TEARS WITHOUT GLOVES (TORKA ALDRIG TÅRAR UTAN HANDSKAR) (2012)

—Wayne Stellini, reviewing television.

Sveriges Television

In 1982, practicing Jehovah’s Witness Benjamin (Adam Lundgren) meets Rasmus (Adam Pålsson), a university graduate who has just moved to Stockholm from his rural home.

Embraced by a new group of gay friends, Benjamin and Rasmus fall in love while going through the process of self-exploration and discovery. And then a lethal disease impacts their tight-knit community…

It is best to brace yourself when approaching a story about the devastating consequences of the HIV/AIDS virus that is set during a time when the recipients of the disease’s wrath were primarily young gay men. Productions about the early days of the AIDS epidemic are plentiful, and they tend to be either deeply impactful or manipulative fodder. Thankfully, Simon Kaijser helms Don’t Ever Wipe Tears Without Gloves with skilful restraint and care, keeping the material in a believable world and away from the all-too-easy realms of melodrama. Stylistically, Stefan Kullänger’s cinematography, as well as Agneta Scherman and Kaijser’s editing, make this an aesthetically affective production.

Best-selling author Jonas Gardell’s screenplay, which coincided with the release of three novels (2012-2013), is a beautifully woven tale in which present, past, and multiple stories are linked seamlessly. Do not be mistaken, all the usual character and narrative tropes are there, but it works in the the story’s favour. There are an abundance of characters to get to know and understand; such shorthands make them easily accessible, but nonetheless complex, interesting, and relatable.

Our protagonist Benjamin is played with stunning purity by Adam Lundgren (a quality that Björn Kjellman carries through as the character in the present time scenes), whose inner conflict with his religion and the interpersonal tensions with his parents (solid work from Marie Richardson and Gerhard Hoberstorfer) demonstrate the actor’s phenomenal range. For example, just watch Lundgren in an emotional scene in which Benjamin fights for public acknowledgement against the wishes of Rasmus’s parents, played by the incredible Stefan Sauk and Annika Olsson. Such a moment brings to the forefront the underlying loneliness to Benjamin, insofar that he apparently cannot truly fit in with the religious customs with which he has grown, nor can he genuinely be himself among his fellow social outcasts.

Benjamin (Adam Lundgren) is given multiple reasons to weep, but who will wipe his eyes? (Main Image: Sveriges Television)

As Rasmus, Adam Pålsson possesses all the fearlessness that come with youth and beauty; this makes his trajectory even more heartbreaking, and Pålsson holds his own alongside the aforementioned talent. More open to sexual exploration than Benjamin, Rasmus serves as a complementary and contrasting figure to his partner. Pushing this further is Simon J. Berger, whose portrayal of unapologetic, flamboyant queen Paul is a refreshing consistent throughout the series. In spite of it all, Paul refuses to be anything but fabulous with a touch of kitsch charm.

All these characters, plus others, are drawn together in a world afraid of an unknown, ruthless disease; a world in which contemporary history’s most discriminated against people become even more vilified. So, one must ask: At a time when the progressive world continues to move towards greater equality for its queer community, is a series such as Don’t Ever Wipe Tears Without Gloves really necessary? The answer is a resounding yes. And allowing yourself to be taken into this three-hour experience is heartbreaking, rewarding, and humbling all at once.

Please watch it. 5 / 5

 

Starring: Adam Lundgren, Adam Pålsson, Simon J. Berger, Emil Almén, Michael Jonsson, Christoffer Svensson, Kristoffer Berglund, Annika Olsson, Stefan Sauk, Marie Richardson, Gerhard Hoberstorfer, Ulf Friberg, Björn Kjellman, Jonathan Eriksson, Claes Hartelius, Belle Weiths, Gorm Rembe-Nylander, Alexi Carpentieri, Lisa Linnertorp, Maria Langhammer, Sanna Sundqvist, Jennie Silfverhjelm, Julia Sporre.

Director: Simon Kaijser | Producer: Maria Nordenberg | Writer: Jonas Gardell | Theme Music Composer: Andreas Mattsson | Cinematographer: Stefan Kullänger | Editors: Agneta Scherman, Simon Kaijser


DOWNSIZING (2017)

—Kendall Richardson, reviewing film.

Paramount Pictures.

In the near future, financially burdened couple Paul and Audrey Safranek (Matt Damon  and Kristen Wiig) are tempted to partake in “downsizing”, an irreversible process that involves shrinking humans to a height of five inches.

Paul and Audrey consider downsizing which, it is sold to them, is both environmentally and financially advantageous…

One of the main issues with movie trailers these days is either one of two things: Too much of the film’s plot and story can be revealed, leaving no surprises for the audience upon the first viewing, or the film that the trailer has been put out to promote is the furthest thing from what the trailer says it is. In the case of Downsizing, the trailer is definitely depicting what takes place in the story. Sort of. I can’t figure out if it was intentional or not, but we have been misled into thinking, going in to the cinema, that we know what kind of movie we’re in for.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to say that Downsizing is a bad movie—it’s not—it is just so far from what I expected. The trailer essentially shows you the first half an hour of the film, but the majority of the story takes place after that. The trailer is just the set-up for what sets the plot in motion. This funnily enough can also be a metaphor for the story of Downsizing’s lead character Paul Safranek, played vulnerably well by Matt Damon. There is a quote in the film that goes something along the lines of, ‘Nothing ever works out the way Paul expects.’ This really should have been a disclaimer for the viewer going in.

That aside, Downsizing is certainly nothing like we’ve ever seen—it contains an original story and original characters that pull you in directions you don’t expect. Apart from Damon’s excellent performance, the only other two characters that really stand out are Christoph Waltz’s Dusan, a hysterical party animal taking full advantage of the downsizing procedure for solely his own benefit, and Hong Chau’s Ngoc Lan Tran, who was downsized as a punishment and illegally immigrated to the U.S. via a TV box. Yes you read that correctly. Her performance was one of my favourite things about this movie; from the way she hobbled around on her fake leg (a result of the TV box incident) to the eccentric broken English she speaks, she emotes so fluently that I can see why she garnered a Golden Globe nomination.

I also really enjoyed the depiction of the whole history and process of downsizing. It was done in such a way that made it almost seem real: The film takes place in modern times; the procedure is created and presented in a no-nonsense scientific manner; and applicants can enquire about it all as if they were being sold at an expo, filled with public speakers, display homes, and salespeople talking you through it and answering any and all questions.

Whilst Downsizing is not the best movie of recent times, I applaud it for its ambition and total originality. In a world filled with reboots, remakes, and sequels, at least writer/director Alexander Payne is giving us something new. Also the visual effects are highly impressive. Keep an open mind when going into this one, and set your expectations… small. 3 / 5

 

Starring: Matt Damon, Christoph Waltz, Hong Chau, Kristen Wiig, Jason Sudeikis, Maribeth Monroe, Udo Kier, Rolf Lassgård, Ingjerd Egeberg, Søren Pilmark, Margo Martindale, James Van Der Beek, Niecy Nash, Donna Lynne Champlin, Don Lake, Neil Patrick Harris, Laura Dern, Brigette Lundy-Paine, Joaquim de Almeida, Eric Burns.

Director: Alexander Payne | Producers: Mark Johnson, Alexander Payne, Jim Taylor | Writers: Alexander Payne, Jim Taylor | Music: Rolfe Kent | Cinematographer: Phedon Papamichael | Editor: Kevin Tent


EXTREMELY WICKED, SHOCKINGLY EVIL AND VILE (2019)

—Wayne Stellini, reviewing film.

COTA Films / Voltage Pictures / Third Eye Motion Picture Company / Netflix

In Seattle 1969, law student Ted Bundy (Zac Efron) meets Liz Kendall (Lily Collins), a secretary and single mother. After the two begin dating, Liz hears of a series of violent crimes against women and the composite sketch of the attacker closely resembles Ted…

There isn’t much we don’t already know about Ted Bundy. He remains one of the world’s most notorious serial killers. His charm and confidence was captured in the United States’s first ever televised trials and young women, particularly, flocked to the courthouse to get up close to the charismatic criminal. To say that Bundy was the source of a media sensation is an understatement and that his appeal (for lack of a better word) remains in cultural discourse beyond American borders even more so.

But if the story has already been told, why tell it again? The simple answer is that Ted Bundy’s narrative has never been told quite like this before. From the perspective of his partner Liz Kendall (portrayed by an excellent Lily Collins), Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile depicts the unfolding ramifications of Bundy’s actions on a remarkably personal level. While it is easy to dismiss Bundy as the film’s adjective-laden title suggests, this production challenges the audience to see the complexity of his human side. And that’s what makes both the film and its subject matter so fascinating and terrifying at the same time.

This is enhanced through Michael Werwie’s immaculately constructed script and Joe Berlinger’s taut direction. The film is also perfectly cast—not a single performer puts a step out of place—though the success of the piece rests on the shoulders of star Zac Efron. Here, the actor, who cut his teeth on Disney musicals and has appeared in numerous feature comedies since, comes of age. Though it does not seem to have been of any concern when casting everyone else, much care has been made into ensuring that Efron resembles Bundy in many physical aspects. And he does not disappoint. To say that Efron delivers the most complex, engaging, and perfect performance of his career to date would be selling the actor short.

And while biopics on such famed criminals can be difficult to get right, Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile not only demonstrates that is can be done, but rather how it should be done. It is a consistently gripping and exceptionally produced film that cannot be recommended highly enough. 5 / 5

 

Starring: Zac Efron, Lily Collins, Kaya Scodelario, Jeffrey Donovan, Angela Sarafyan, Dylan Baker, Brian Geraghty, Terry Kinney, Haley Joel Osment, James Hetfield, Grace Victoria Cox, Jim Parsons, John Malkovich, Justin McCombs, Forba Shepherd, Macie Carmosino, Ava Inman, Morgan Pyle, Grace Balbo, Joe Berlinger, Brandon Trost.

Director: Joe Berlinger | Writer: Michael Werwie (based on The Phantom Prince: My Life with Ted Bundy by Elizabeth Kendall) | Producers: Michael Costigan, Nicolas Chartier, Joe Berlinger, Ara Keshishian, Michael Simkin | Music: Marco Beltrami, Dennis Smith | Cinematographer: Brandon Trost | Editor Josh Schaeffer


FERDINAND (2017)

—Fulya Kantarmaci, reviewing film.

Blue Sky Studios / 20th Century Fox Animation / Davis Entertainment / 20th Century Fox

A bull calf grows up to become the biggest, nicest, and most gentle bull you’ll ever come across. Oh, did I mention he also loves flowers?

If you enjoy a story about animals, then take a seat because Ferdinand is a step up from the rest of the creature features in the animated world…

Based on a children’s book by Munro Leaf and Robert Lawson called The Story of Ferdinand, this light-hearted film tells the tale of a bull who would rather smell flowers than fight in an arena for glory. I am all smiles from the get-go! This animated film entices you with beautiful Spanish scenery drawn like I’ve never seen before and music that takes you away to the European country, before continuing on to become a meaningful story.

When I first watched Ferdinand, I didn’t quite understand where the story was taking me until our protagonist was introduced. At a ranch called Casa del Toro, where bulls are trained for fights, he is the only tame bull; a flower-loving animal who doesn’t like violence. Because of this, and after finding out his father did not return from his fight, Ferdinand runs away from home and ends up at a florist’s farm—the expressions on his face when he is in a field filled with lovely flowers and sits atop a hill under a tree are so adorable. Can I have a pet bull just like him?

My heart is then broken when the film decides to take Ferdinand away from his happy place and is dumped back at the ranch he ran away from. I’m not sure if the film is depicting reality but if it is, then Casa del Toro seems like a death trap. If a bull is chosen to fight against a matador, he will be killed for a sport. If the bull is not strong enough to fight, he is sent to the slaughterhouse. That’s definitely a lose-lose situation that no bull should have to live by, hence why Ferdinand doesn’t want to fight (although he doesn’t realise this at the beginning).

I love that a WWE superstar has been cast for the role of Ferdinand. John Cena does a great job voicing the gentle giant and it’s unbelievable how comedic his voice comes across when he talks about flowers and all things sweet. Now that I mention it, what better actor to cast as the Scottish bull Angus than the former Doctor himself, David Tennant. Having travelled to Scotland myself, seeing the highland cows was a definite highlight and it goes without saying, watching Angus in this movie made me laugh out loud! After Ferdinand, Angus is my second favourite character.

Other characters in the film included Ferdinand’s fellow bull buddies Bones (Anthony Anderson), Guapo (Peyton Manning), Valiente (Bobby Cannavale), and Maquina (Tim Nordquist) as well as a crazy goat named Lupe (Kate McKinnon) and three cute hedgehogs: Una (Gina Rodriguez), Dos (Daveed Diggs), and Cuatro (Gabriel Iglesias). If you ask about Tres, you will be greeted with heartbroken and sad faces.

There is so much about this movie that I love; for instance, the running of the bulls scene where it’s the people (namely, the owners of the ranch) chasing the bulls instead of the other way around. Also, ever heard of the saying ‘like a bull in a china shop’? Yep, they had Ferdinand walk through a china shop as slowly and as carefully as he could. Another scene I enjoyed was the dance sequence—bulls versus hoighty, toighty horses. Yes, you read that correctly! The horses in this film are snobby jerks with German accents who think they are better than the bulls. The dancing scene is one of the funniest as you watch Ferdinand dance the flamenco, Angus with his Scottish highlands dance, Bones going all hip-hop with breakdancing, and even Maquina joins in with pop-locking and ends with a robotic twerk. The horses, on the other hand, were more graceful in the style of ballet and contemporary dance. Such a fun scene!

The message in this film is not quite in your face but is still obvious enough that you know it’s saying it’s ok to be yourself and not someone else. Overall, Ferdinand is a little cheesy but still a lot of fun. And remember, “We do not talk about Tres.” 3.5 / 5


GERALD’S GAME (2017)

—Wayne Stellini, reviewing film.

Intrepid Pictures / Netflix

In an attempt to save their marriage, Gerald (Bruce Greenwood) and Jessie Burlingame (Carla Gugino) arrive at an isolated lake house for a weekend away that includes spicing up their sex life; this involves Gerald handcuffing his wife to the bed. However, it isn’t long until Jessie discovers that role playing does not interest her.

Following an argument in which the couple concede their marriage is over, Gerald dies of a heart attack. But it is before he can un-cuff Jessie from the bed…

Based on the novel by Stephen King and brought to life by Mike Flanagan, who also wrote, directed, and edited the far superior Hush (2016), Gerald’s Game is an overall disappointment. The premise alone promises plenty, and the addition of its source material’s author even more so, but the film resorts to too many genre clichés to be rewarding.

Gerald’s Game is a combination of good ideas, but none of them are realised to their full potential, and a few of them are completely unnecessary; Moonlight Man feels like he belongs in another film altogether and the final reel fails to make the emotional impact it strives for. With the exception of Jessie, the characters aren’t all that interesting, and when we get to know more of her backstory, it exists as nothing more than a tried, tested, and overused narrative trope. Here, the men are immoral and the women are victims—they are as two-dimensional as that.

The film is, however, slightly redeemed with some strong points. Gugino and Greenwood do wonders with the constraints placed upon them (no pun intended) and the make-up effects are exceptional—they need to be for that infamous scene.

Not for the squeamish, but undemanding horror fans will get something out of it. 2 / 5

 

Starring: Carla Gugino, Bruce Greenwood, Carel Struycken, Henry Thomas, Kate Siegel, Chiara Aurelia.

Director: Mike Flanagan | Producer: Trevor Macy | Writers: Jeff Howard, Mike Flanagan (Based on Gerald’s Game by Stephen King) | Music: The Newton Brothers | Cinematographer: Michael Fimognari | Editor: Mike Flanagan


GLITTER (2001)

—Wayne Stellini, reviewing film.

20th Century Fox / Columbia Pictures

Set in 1982, back-up singer and dancer Billie Frank (Mariah Carey) meets DJ Julian “Dice” Black (Max Beesley) at a night club. While helping build her solo career, they fall in love…

A vehicle for one of American music history’s most successful singers, Glitter lives up to its infamous reputation. What is essentially yet another rendition of A Star is Born (1937; itself remade in 1954, 1976, and 2018), Mariah Carey unsurprisingly sounds and looks fantastic, but her acting is painfully monotone. For a better insight into Carey’s value as an entertainer, see her in Precious (2009) or any New Year’s Eve performance (particularly 2016 and 2017). Max Beesley does his best with undercooked material as Carey’s leading man, and Da Brat and Tia Texada are relatively fun as her best friends.

But there are too many things working against the film to pull Glitter through. The lacklustre pacing is established from the get-go with a dreary and overlong prologue, Vondie Curtis Hall’s direction is considerably pedestrian, Jeff Freeman‘s editing is sometimes annoying, and the costumes and set design don’t always scream the beautiful excess of the 1980s. Furthermore, what appears to be intended as the signature balled, ‘Never Too Far’, fails to deliver the gravitas that Whitney Houston achieved in The Bodyguard (1992) with ’I Have Nothing’ and, of course, ‘I Will Always Love You’.

As a result, Glitter is a considerably dull and pointless vanity project. 1 / 5

 

Starring: Mariah Carey, Max Beesley, Terrence Howard, Da Brat, Tia Texada, Eric Benét, Valarie Pettiford, Ann Magnuson, Dorian Harewood, Grant Nickalls, Padma Lakshmi, Kim Roberts, Bill Sage, Isabel Gomes, Lindsey Pickering, Courtnie Beceiro.

Director: Vondie Curtis Hall | Producer: Laurence Mark | Writer: Kate Lanier (story by Cheryl L. West) | Music: Terence Blanchard | Cinematographer: Geoffrey Simpson | Editor: Jeff Freeman


THE GOOD PLACE, Seasons 1 and 2 (2016-2017)

—Fulya Kantarmaci, reviewing television.

Fremulon / 3 Arts Entertainment / Universal Television / NBC

Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell) wakes up in the afterlife and meets Michael (Ted Danson), who introduces her to the Good Place, a Heaven-like utopia he designed in reward for her righteous life. But Eleanor realises that she was sent there mistakenly and must hide her morally imperfect behaviour and try to become a better person…

‘Welcome to the Good Place. Sponsored by: otters holding hands while they sleep. You know the way you feel when you see a picture of two otters holding hands? That’s how you’re gonna feel every day.’ -Michael (Ted Danson).

 

I first heard about The Good Place when listening to an episode of the podcast Still Untitled: The Adam Savage Project,where Adam Savage talked about the series. After watching the trailer, I thought, ‘This looks fun, I’ll give it a shot.’ And my binge began!

Picture this: You wake up in a waiting room. You have no recollection on how or when you got there. You are then summoned inside an office where you are told that you are dead. You can’t believe what you just heard but then you are told that you are in ‘The Good Place’ which, according to an architect named Michael, is almost like Heaven where you live the rest of your afterlife in pure happiness… and you even get a soulmate!

The show’s premise is clever and storylines full of hilarity! Every episode has a weird and surprising plot. You are always being entertained no matter which character shows up on screen.

From the get-go, you find out that Eleanor was brought to the Good Place by mistake but tries her hardest to make sure she looked like she ‘belonged.’ Kristen Bell’s presence on the small screen is wonderful and I can’t think of anyone else who could play the role of Eleanor Shellstrop better. Also, the fact that she can’t curse in the Good Place makes it even more funny to watch.

Chidi, who is or was an ethics professor, is Eleanor’s ‘soulmate.’ He is the first to find out from Eleanor that she does not belong in the Good Place, so he helps her to be a better person by teaching her moral ethics. William Jackson Harper makes Chidi, Chidi. He speaks so eloquently in this role, but what I loved most about his character is the way he begins to spiral downwards into anxiety when having to make a decision. Hysterical!

The story continues on by introducing a few more characters:

Tahani Al-Jamil (Jameela Jamil)—a wealthy philanthropist, born in Pakistan and raised in England (almost like she was royalty), who has traveled the world extensively and knows a lot of celebrities… she’s even friends with a lot of them! She begins in the Good Place as a highly-positive event planner and likes to suck up to Michael a lot. Eleanor is not a fan of Tahani because she thinks Tahani is an obnoxious ‘bench.’ (You can’t curse in the Good Place.)

Jianyu/Jason (Manny Jacinto) starts off as a Buddhist monk who has taken a vow of silence, but it is then revealed that he in fact is Jason Mandoza, an amateur DJ from Jacksonville, Florida. He is pretty much in the same situation as Eleanor—sent to the Good Place by mistake. This guy is basically the comic relief from all the drama that happens in the show because of his stupidity, though he does have his ‘smart’ moments.

Janet—the friendly mobile database of the neighbourhood who helps you with anything you ask her. This is one quirky ‘intelligent personal assistant.’ Apparently, her words, she’s not a robot nor is she human. What is she? Well… only the writers know. D’Arcy Carden plays Janet so well, I was always giggling when she appeared on screened. She has great comedic timing!

And let’s not forget about Michael—the architect of the Good Place where Eleanor and all her fellow Good citizens live out their afterlife. You find out later on in the series that Michael isn’t exactly who he says he is. Ted Danson is quite amusing in his role of Michael, perfectly cast with a convincing evil laugh!

Season 1 ends with a bombshell of a twist and sets up season 2 quite well. (No spoilers, here.) Season 2 starts off well, but drags on a little for a few episodes. Nevertheless, it is worth sticking it out for the final episode.

Season 3 is currently in the works and I am definitely looking forward to seeing it! 4 / 5

 

Starring: Kristen Bell, William Jackson Harper, Jameela Jamil, D’Arcy Carden, Manny Jacinto, Ted Danson, Tiya Sircar, Adam Scott, Marc Evan Jackson, Maribeth Monroe, Jason Mantzoukas, Maya Rudolph.

Creator: Michael Schur | Executive Producers: Michael Schur, David Miner, Morgan Sackett, Drew Goddard | Composer: David Schwartz | Editors: Colin Patton, Matthew Barbato, Eric Kissac


THE GRUFFALO (2009)

—Fulya Kantarmaci, reviewing film.

Magic Light Pictures / Studio Soi

Based on Julia Donaldson’s children’s book, The Gruffalo is a short animated made-for-television film about a mouse who goes into the woods in search of food. On his way, he crosses paths with a fox, an owl, and a snake. All three think the little brown mouse would be good to eat. To their surprise, the mouse has a great imagination and tells them about a monster he make up just to escape their clutches.

“Don’t they know, there’s no such thing as a Gruffalo!”

The Gruffalo is quite the adorable animation and very different to most other animated films that I have watched in my time. The visual style is unique and resembles claymation. The CGI used to create it works really well and it has a lovely aesthetic.

I enjoyed the innocence of the story and is definitely aimed at a younger audience around the five- to eight-year-old range. Although, I must say, there are a couple of moments that might seem a little scary for the kids but nothing they can’t handle.

Helena Bonham Carter does a wonderful job narrating as the mother squirrel with a calmness in her voice. James Cordon, for the first time according to me, doesn’t actually sound like himself when voicing the mouse. I was kind of relieved, actually! It made the story more interesting and I was engaged the whole way through.

Parents, if you need a short break from the little ones, chuck on The Gruffalo, it will give you twenty-seven minutes of uninterrupted quietness (at least I hope so). And remember, there’s no such thing as a Gruffalo! 3 / 5

 

Starring: Helena Bonham Carter, Rob Brydon, Robbie Coltrane, James Corden, John Hurt, Tom Wilkinson.

Directors: Max Lang, Jakob Schuh | Writers: Julia Donaldson, Axel Scheffler (based on The Gruffalo by Julia Donaldson) | Producers: Martin Pope, Michael Rose | Music: René Aubry | Cinematotgraphers: Ulli Hadding, Hubert Märkl | Editor: Robin Sales


GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY (2014)

—Wayne Stellini, reviewing film.

Marvel Studios / Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

When adventurer Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) becomes the object of an unrelenting bounty hunt after stealing a mysterious orb coveted by the ambitious Ronan (Lee Pace), he is forced into an uneasy truce with a quartet of disparate misfits: Rocket (Bradley Cooper), Groot (Vin Diesel), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), and Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista)…

James Gunn gives the Marvel Cinematic Universe a breath of fresh air with this fun and quirky comic book caper, introducing lesser known superheroes into a well-established franchise. And while there may not be anything too original about Guardians of the Galaxy, co-writer/director Gunn knows how to deliver the perfect balance of heart, humour, and heroics to tell a well-rounded story. It doesn’t hurt that it has an amazing soundtrack too!

The film is not only incredibly good-looking (the set design, costumes, and makeup are all superb), but it is tautly edited and always engaging. It is also one of those rare blockbusters in which so many performances overshadow the whiz-bang visuals. Our motley crew are perfectly cast.

Chris Pratt is insatiably charming and goofy as protagonist Peter Quill, while Zoe Saldana absolutely owns the role of Gamora, and her exchanges with Dave Bautista’s Drax the Destroyer are always entertaining. Bradley Cooper steals the show as bounty hunter Rocket, complemented quite nicely by simpleton tree Groot; a role that suits Vin Diesel’s “acting range,” for a lack of a better phrase, quite nicely.

Guardians of the Galaxy works so well because the dynamics between its characters is so finely tuned that we never stop caring about them. It is a particularly entertaining example of when popcorn entertainment is at its best. 4½ / 5

 

Starring: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper, Lee Pace, Michael Rooker, Karen Gillan, Djimon Hounsou, John C. Reilly, Glenn Close, Benicio del Toro, Josh Brolin [uncredited], Sean Gunn, Alexis Denisof, Ophelia Lovibond, Peter Serafinowicz, Gregg Henry, Laura Haddock, Melia Kreiling, Christopher Fairbank, Mikaela Hoover, Marama Corlett, Emmett J. Scanlan, Alexis Rodney, Tom Proctor, Spencer Wilding, Fred, Stephen Blackehart, James Gunn [cameo], Stan Lee [cameo], Lloyd Kaufman [cameo], Nathan Fillion [voice] Rob Zombie [voice], Tyler Bates [voice], Seth Green [voice].

Director: James Gunn | Producer: Kevin Feige | Writers: James Gunn, Nicole Perlman (based on Guardians of the Galaxy by Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning) | Music: Tyler Bates | Cinematographer: Ben Davis | Editors: Fred Raskin, Craig Wood, Hughes Winborne


THE HILLS HAVE EYES (1977)

—Wayne Stellini, reviewing film.

Blood Relations Co. / Vanguard / Monarch Releasing Corporation

On a road trip from Ohio to Los Angeles as part of their silver wedding anniversary, Bob (Russ Grieve) and Ethel Carter (Virginia Vincent) are travelling with their adolescent children Bobby (Robert Houston), Brenda (Susan Lanier), as well as eldest daughter Lynne (Dee Wallace), her husband Doug (Martin Speer), and their baby daughter Katy (Brenda Marinoff).

However, the suburban family find themselves stranded in the Nevada desert and become the target of a cannibalistic brood, who have a particular interest in eating baby Katy…

Having made a notorious impact with The Last House on the Left (1972), Wes Craven sharpens his craft in this superior assault on middle class America. The Hills Have Eyes is an effective exploration of humanity’s primal instincts, as two families fight for survival in a vast, barren hell. Taking a leaf out of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre’s (1974) book, Craven keeps a clear divide between the wholesome, God-fearing Carters and Papa Jupiter’s (James Whitworth) animalistic clan.

At the mercy of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) to ensure an R classification, Craven had to compromise his vision and leave moments on the cutting room floor. But this does not mean that The Hills Have Eyes suffers greatly. After all, what is in your imagination is always worse than what is on screen.

Themes of good and evil are prevalent throughout The Hills Have Eyes, and there is plenty that can be read from the narrative. However, this does not mean that the film doesn’t have flashes of humour, which are handled in a more controlled manner here than it was in Last House. Here, Craven offers moments of uncomfortable stillness between the action; he works the audience’s anticipation well so there’s no holding back when the final reel kicks into gear.

Notable for scream queen Dee Wallace and genre icon Michael Berryman’s entry into horror, the pair deliver the goods in a production where the performances are a mixed bag. Whitworth is wonderfully repulsive as the hill-dwelling patriarch, Janus Blythe gives dimension to Ruby, and, although inconsistent, Susan Lanier soaks up the screen. However, the film belongs to leading man Robert Houston, who is easily one of the most good looking and talented actors to star in a B-grade film during this era. He does so much with Craven’s sometimes-clunky material, that it is a shame Houston’s career did not allow him more opportunities to be in front of the camera.

Although not perfect, The Hills Have Eyes is beautifully grotesque and captivating. 4 / 5

 

Starring: Susan Lanier, Dee Wallace, John Steadman, Robert Houston, Martin Speer, Russ Grieve, James Whitworth, Virginia Vincent, Michael Berryman, Lance Gordon, Janus Blythe, Cordy Clark, Peter Locke (credited as Arthur King), Brenda Marinoff.

Director/Writer/Editor: Wes Craven | Producer: Peter Locke | Music: Don Peake | Cinematographer: Eric Saarinen


THE HILLS HAVE EYES PART II (1984)

—Wayne Stellini, reviewing film.

Hills Two Corporation / VTC / Castle Hill Productions

Heading to a race, a group of bikers become stranded in the desert and find themselves fighting off cannibals (Michael Berryman and John Bloom) who live off the land…

After slashers Halloween (1978) and Friday the 13th (1980) proved that young audiences were hungry for a horror franchise or two, filmmaker Wes Craven and producer Peter Locke teamed up to turn their 1977 shocker into a series of its own. But that vision seems to have fallen flat before it even took off.

The Hills Have Eyes Part II has the hallmarks of a strong, albeit familiar, slasher framework, while maintaining a more subdued theme of good versus evil. What lets the film down is how the concept was (or more to the point, wasn’t) fleshed out. The laughs here come through the cringeworthy dialogue and generally mediocre performances. Also, there’s too much time devoted to flashbacks and the scares aren’t really there; where the original film was predominantly set during the day, the climax here takes place at night, which is unfortunate because David Lewis’s cinematography is so poor.

The production values have been upped this time around and the bike racing sequences are handled quite well, but there are only two villains now and our young central characters simply aren’t interesting. Michael Berryman’s reprisal of Pluto feels like a different character this time around and John Bloom’s imbecilic Repear fails to feel like a legitimate threat. Notable contributions from Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood’s (1988) Kevin Spirtas and Grease 2’s (1982) Peter Frechette, as well as Friday the 13th (1980) composer Harry Manfredini’s distinguishable score, will make this worth a look for fans of cult cinema.

Falling short of expectations and released straight to video in 1984 (though it secured a limited cinematic distribution in Italy), Craven must have been preoccupied considering that audiences were introduced to A Nightmare on Elm Street later that year. 2 / 5

 

Starring: Tamara Stafford, Kevin Spirtas (as Kevin Blair), John Bloom, Colleen Riley, Michael Berryman, Penny Johnson, Janus Blythe, John Laughlin, Willard E. Pugh, Peter Frechette, Robert Houston, Edith Fellows.

Director/Writer: Wes Craven | Producers: Barry Cahn, Jonathan Debin, Peter Locke | Music: Harry Manfredini | Cinematographer: David Lewis | Editor: Richard Bracken

 

FAST FACT: Mind Reaper was released in 1995. Produced by Wes Craven and written by his son Jonathan, it was marketed in some territories as The Hills Have Eyes III but has no connection to the franchise.


THE HILLS HAVE EYES (2006)

—Wayne Stellini, reviewing film.

Dune Entertainment / Major Studio Partners / Fox Searchlight Pictures

On vacation, the Carter family encounters a community of cannibalistic mutants after their car breaks down in the desert…

Alexandre Aja’s remake of Wes Craven’s 1977 cult classic is both faithful to the original and yet offers enough new elements to feel fresh. Though no less cartoonish, this rendition of The Hills Have Eyes lacks its predecessor’s sense of humour, perhaps because the performances and dialogue are overall superior.

The film’s social commentary is clearly drawn from the Cold War but this feels immaterial to the unfolding action, particularly once the blood starts splattering. Top-rate make-up and CGI effects distinguish our antagonists more so than their personalities, though Laura Ortiz’s portrayal of Ruby is executed with wonderfully restraint sensitivity.

The all-American and Republican Carter family are given enough time to develop, with Aaron Stanford, Emilie de Ravin, and Dan Byrd delivering strong performances that make Doug, Brenda, and Bobby worth cheering for. The Carters provide a beautiful contrast to the mutants, as does the vast, arid landscape compared to their caravan. Also, Maxime Alexandre’s cinematography captures the different tones and moods of each location, particularly the test site village in which an unrecognisable Desmond Askew steals the show as Big Brain.

The Hills Have Eyes cannot escape comparison to the original incarnation and, depending on its audience, will either fair better or worse. Overall, it is a rather captivating exercise in horror (though the rape plot convention feels outdated and unnecessary) and the production’s team work well together to pull off an effective ride through hell on earth. 4 / 5

 

Starring: Aaron Stanford, Kathleen Quinlan, Vinessa Shaw, Emilie de Ravin, Dan Byrd, Tom Bower, Billy Drago, Robert Joy, Ted Levine, Desmond Askew, Ezra Buzzington, Michael Bailey Smith, Laura Ortiz, Maisie Camilleri Preziosi, Gregory Nicotero, Ivana Turchetto, Maxime Giffard, Judith Jane Vallette, Adam Perrell.

Director: Alexandre Aja | Writers: Alexandre Aja, Grégory Levasseur (based on The Hills Have Eyes by Wes Craven) | Producers: Wes Craven, Peter Locke, Marianne Maddalena, Cody Zwieg | Music: Tomandandy, François-Eudes Chanfrault | Cinematographer: Maxime Alexandre | Editor: Baxter


THE HILLS HAVE EYES II (2007)

—Wayne Stellini, reviewing film.

Dune Entertainment / Fox Atomic

After spotting a distress signal in a distant New Mexican mountain range, a unit of National Guard soldiers commence a search and rescue mission into the hills, unaware that a community of cannibalistic mutants are watching their every move…

As a sequel to a remake, there should be little surprise that The Hills Have Eyes II doesn’t really have anything new to offer. This is not to say, however, that genre fans won’t be entertained by Martin Weisz’s contribution to the series.

There is evidence of Wes Craven’s contribution to the screenplay, with a slight emphasis on civility versus savagery. For example, men are women are treated equally in the National Guard, whereas each gender is relegated to primal roles and instincts among the cannibals—and violently so.

Overall, the film is adequately paced and benefits from Sam McCurdy’s cinematography, as well as editors’ Sue Blainey and Kirk M. Morri’s final touches. The make-up and costume effects are once again top-notch, showcasing the diversity of the antagonists; admittedly, they’re not given much to do, so it is sometimes difficult to tell one’s personality from the other. (Watch out for a pre-Friday the 13th (2009) Derek Mears as Chameleon, who does so much with such limited screen time.)

The Hills Have Eyes II may not win over newcomers to the franchise, but it gets straight into the action and has one or two decent seat-jumpers; in essence, it at least achieves what it sets out to do. 3½ / 5

 

Starring: Michael McMillian, Jessica Stroup, Jacob Vargas, Flex Alexander, Lee Thompson Young, Daniella Alonso, Eric Edelstein, Reshad Strik, Ben Crowley, Michael Bailey Smith, Derek Mears, David Reynolds, Jeff Kober, Jay Acovone, Philip Pavel, Archie Kao, Tyrell Kemlo, Gáspár Szabó, Jason Oettle, Cécile Breccia, Fatiha Quatili, Joseph Beddelem, Jeremy Goei.

Director: Martin Weisz | Writers: Wes Craven, Jonathan Craven | Producers: Wes Craven, Johnathan Debin, Peter Locke| Music: Trevor Morris | Cinematographer: Sam McCurdy | Editors: Sue Blainey, Kirk M. Morri

 

FAST FACT: The graphic novel The Hills Have Eyes: The Beginning was published to coincide with the release of the film The Hills Have Eyes II (2007). CLICK HERE TO READ A QUICKIE REVIEW OF THAT GRAPHIC NOVEL (appearing at the end of the post).


HOLMES & WATSON (2018)

—Wayne Stellini, reviewing film.

Columbia Pictures / Gary Sanchez Productions / Mosaic Media Group / Mimran Schur Pictures / Sony Pictures Releasing

Detective Sherlock Holmes (Will Ferrell) and Dr. John Watson (John C. Reilly) set out to discover who is responsible for a threat at Buckingham Palace.

There is not much you need to know about Holmes & Watson except that it is a painfully dull, laboriously unfunny, and unredeemable piece of shit. 0 / 5

 

Starring: Will Ferrell, John C. Reilly, Rebecca Hall, Ralph Fiennes, Rob Brydon, Kelly Macdonald, Steve Coogan, Lauren Lapkus, Pam Ferris, Hugh Laurie, Bella Ramsey, Scarlet Grace, Noah Jupe, Braun Strowman, Billy Zane, Bruce Buffer, Michael Buffer.

Director/Writer: Etan Cohen (based on the characters Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle) | Producers: Will Ferrell, Adam McKay, Jimmy Miller, Clayton Townsend | Music: Mark Mothersbaugh | Cinematographer: Oliver Wood | Editor: Dean Zimmerman


HOME (2015)

—Fulya Kantarmaci, reviewing film.

DreamWorks Animation / 20th Century Fox

A young girl reluctantly becomes friends with a fugitive Boov alien. They go on an adventure to find her mother who has been relocated by the Boov during their “invasion.” What could possibly go wrong?

This comedic sci-fi adventure film is loosely based on Adam Rex’s book The True Meaning of Smekday. Produced by DreamWorks Animation, Home is about an alien race called the Boov, who are running away from other aliens, the terrifying Gorg. While on the run, the leader of the Boov, Captain Smek (Steve Martin), discovers Earth as a suitable planet to call their new home after the Gorg had found and destroyed their previous home planet. Let the Boov moving day commence!

One particular Boov, affectionately named Oh (Jim Parsons), is very excited about moving day. In fact, he is so excited that he plans to throw a “warming of house” party and sends an invitation to his fellow Boov friends via email. Unfortunately, he accidentally presses the send-to-all button which means every alien race in the universe receives an invite. Because of this mistake, Oh is chased down by the Boov for revealing their location to the Gorg. He then runs into a convenience store to hide; little did he know that there was a “humans person” (as the Boov call them) who also walked into the same convenience store to grab supplies for her trip to find her mother. Tip Tucci (Rihanna) discovers Oh and is quick to shove him inside a fridge and trap him there. They both argue, at the expense of Tip’s hatred for the Boov who abducted her mum. Oh tries to entice Tip to let him out of the fridge so he can repair her car. Tip reluctantly decides to let him out on the condition that Oh helps her find her mum. And thus the adventure begins…

The film takes you on a journey about family and friendship and it is such a heart-warming story. From their cute, almost octopus-like appearance to their nonsensical way of speaking English, the Boov will make you smile right to the end of the film. I’d have to say that the Boov is one of my favourite alien races in the animated world. Yes, it’s because of the way they speak! Jim Parsons does an outstanding job in voicing Oh and in a way, you can kind of see Jim in Oh. He also has this innocent and excited quality in his voice which made him the perfect person to voice the lead character. Steve Martin brings a hilariousness to Smek that I absolutely love and he shows off his talented comedy skills through his voice. Rihanna is a surprising addition to the cast, however, she also does an amazing job with voicing Tip. Her voice is unique enough that you can’t tell it is voiced by an adult.

The soundtrack is great too! My favourite tracks are ‘Towards the Sun’ by Rihanna and ‘Feel the Light’ by Jennifer Lopez. Both powerful ballads really hit you in the feels. Speaking of feels, the one scene from this movie that never ceases to make me well up in tears is towards the end and THAT is when the song ‘Towards the Sun’ starts to play. It is such a heartbreaking moment that you can’t help but feel sad. Very moving.

Overall, Home is a lot of fun to watch and it really does have a great meaning behind it. I definitely recommend it for your next family movie night.

And remember, the Boov are the “best species ever at running away.” 4 / 5

 

Starring: Jim Parsons, Rihanna, Steve Martin, Jennifer Lopez, Matt Jones.

Director: Tim Johnson | Writers: Tom J. Astle, Matt Ember (based on The True Meaning of Smekday by Adam Rex) | Producers: Mireille Soria, Chris Jenkins, Suzanne Buirgy | Music: Lorne Balfe | Editor: Nick Fletcher


HOTEL TRANSYLVANIA (2012)

—Fulya Kantarmaci, reviewing film.

Columbia Pictures / Sony Pictures Releasing

All your traditional monsters under one scary roof and a human. What could possibly go wrong?

Vampires, wolves, mummies, ghouls, goblins, witches, and so many other monsters roaming the earth that have to hide in the shadows. But not anymore! Count Dracula (Adam Sandler) has built Hotel Transylvania for all of monster-kind, serving as a refuge for them so they can relax and be safe from the humans. This particular year, Dracula’s daughter Mavis (Selena Gomez) is turning 118 and to celebrate, Dracula is throwing her a big birthday party and all the hotel guests are invited. Even some of Dracula’s closest friends are attending! Frank (Kevin James) and his wife Eunice (Fran Drescher), Wayne (Steve Buscemi) and Wanda (Molly Shannon) the werewolves and their cubs, Murray the mummy (CeeLo Green), and Griffin the invisible man (David Spade).

On this particular birthday, Mavis wants to go out and explore the world to see humans for herself. They can’t all be monster haters, right? To keep her happy, Dracula suspiciously allows Mavis to go out of the hotel and suggests that she go to a nearby human village. Mavis finds the village deserted at first but suddenly, a big group of “humans” come out of every corner holding flaming torches and pitchforks. Mavis is afraid for her life so she quickly abandons the village and hurries back to the hotel where she tells her father he is right, the humans DO hate monsters. Dracula is relieved and can now continue with his monsterly duties.

That same night, an uninvited guest arrives. His name is Jonathan (Andy Samberg) and he is a human! The moment he enters the doors of Hotel Transylvania, Dracula sees him and is in shock! He must do something to hide this human from the monsters’ sight immediately! Dracula quickly grabs him and takes him to a hidden room, dressing Jonathan up like a monster so he can at least blend in. What Dracula wasn’t counting on was Mavis meeting Jonathan and potentially falling in love with him. Operation “Remove Human from Hotel“ has begun.

There are so many animated Halloween films out there but none can compare to Hotel Transylvania. The animation itself is unique in its kind because the movements of each monster is exaggerated to the point that it’s almost believable. I am very impressed with the variety of monsters the character designers have included in this animation. Having the zombies as the bell-hops and front-of-house staff, and the witches as the room maids is hilarious! Also, the fact that there’s an invisible man as one of the supporting characters is a brilliant idea (especially since the animators don’t really have to worry about syncing his mouth to the voice).

Speaking of supporting characters, the whole gang of monsters are unsurprisingly voiced by actors who have all worked with Adam Sandler in past films (Grown Ups comes to my mind). They work together really well and their comedic timing is the best! Sandler makes Dracula believable. The stereotypical voice he puts on is very funny and he even sang in that voice with a ukulele (à la 50 First Dates). 

This movie is a lot of fun for the whole family and I’d definitely recommend it for the kids on Halloween. Also, if you’re looking for costume ideas, look no further because this film has a bucketful of inspiration!

And remember, Dracula doesn’t say “Blah, blah, blah.” 3½ / 5

 

Starring: Adam Sandler, Andy Samberg, Selena Gomez, Kevin James, Fran Drescher, Steve Buscemi, Molly Shannon, David Spade, CeeLo Green.

Director: Genndy Tartakovsky | Producer: Michelle Murdocca | Writers: Peter Baynham, Robert Smigel; Story: Todd Durham, Dan Hageman, Kevin Hageman | Music: Mark Mothersbaugh | Editor: Catherine Apple


HOWARD THE DUCK (1986)

—Wayne Stellini, reviewing film.

Lucasfilm Ltd. / Universal Pictures

Howard, an inhabitant of Duckworld, is propelled from his loungeroom to Earth, where he rescues musician Beverly Switzler (Lea Thompson) from a group of thugs and forms a close friendship with her. An attempt to help Howard return to his home plant, however, unleashes an evil force on Earth…

Films based on Marvel Comics publications are all too common now and are generally held in high esteem by comic book geeks and film nerds alike. However, Marvel’s chief rival Detective Comics (DC) were leading the game in 1986, having dominated film and television adaptations for the previous two decades. Howard the Duck, Marvel’s first cinematic feature film, proves that even the most popular cinematic universes have the most humble of beginnings.

Howard the Duck (1979, Issue #1) as he appeared in the earlier comics. (Credit: Marvel Comics)

Originally intended as an animated feature, contractual obligations saw executive producer George Lucas pushing for a live action adaptation of Steve Gerber and Val Mayerik‘s anthropomorphic duck. The film, however, still feels like a cartoon; it is an offering of over-the-top, noisy nonsense that has numerous fun moments. The costumes and set pieces are a glorious product of the era, and even the score and theme song add to the vibe.

Unfortunately, Howard the Duck doesn’t know who its audience is. Its adult themes and dark tones aren’t appropriate for children who would get the most out of the stunt work and sight gags, and probably wouldn’t care too much about the paper-thin plot that focuses on Howard managing a rock band and saving the planet form an evil alien invasion.

Howard’s look was criticised at the time (his aesthetics in the comics resemble Donald Duck), but in the grand scheme of the unfolding shenanigans, this is really only a minor quip. Ed Gale is the man predominantly in the duck suit while Chip Zien’s voice was added in post production. The pair do a fine enough job and, in fact, Howard is perhaps the most subdued character in the film. Willard Huyck’s direction dictates that the usually reliable Lea Thompson, Jeffrey Jones, and newcommer (and future Oscar-winner) Tim Robbins chew the scenery with striking confidence. But what lets the film down is the writing. Huyck and Gloria Katz have scaffolded their screenplay around cliches and countless, unnecessary one-liners.

Viewed in the right spirit—and why would anyone take a story about poultry zapped out of his arm chair and to another planet too seriously?—Howard the Duck is fun. The problem is, the mayhem doesn’t know when to quit, resulting in a messy third act. This is the sort of beer and pizza film that is best enjoyed with a group of mates. Howard would approve. 2½ / 5

 

Starring: Chip Zien (voice), Lea Thompson, Tim Robbins, Jeffrey Jones, David Paymer, Paul Guilfoyle, Liz Sagal, Dominique Davalos, Holly Robinson, Tommy Swerdlow, Richard Edson, Miles Chapin, Paul Comi, Richard McGonagle.

Director: Willard Huyck | Producer: Gloria Katz | Writer: Willard Huyck, Gloria Katz (based on Howard the Duck by Steve Gerber and Val Mayerik) | Music: John Barry | Songs: Thomas Dolby | Cinematographer: Richard H. Kline | Editor: Michael Chandler, Sidney Wolinsky


ICE AGE (2002)

—Fulya Kantarmaci, reviewing film.

Blue Sky Studios / 20th Century Fox Animation / 20th Century Fox

A woolly mammoth, a sloth, and a sabretoothed tiger save a human baby and have to reunite him with his tribe. An adventure of epicly cold proportions where these three animals have no choice but to work together. Oh, did I mention a sabretoothed squirrel causes an avalanche?

Ladies, gentlemen, and all other mammals, welcome to the ice age! Except, instead of migrating down south where it will be warmer, how about we travel north? No? Well, I guess we won’t be following Manny (Ray Romano) then because he would rather go north than south it seems (and we don’t know why). Following this big mammoth is a clumsy sloth named Sid (John Leguizamo), who was left behind by his family and the rest of the animals. Manny makes it clear to Sid that he wants to be left alone. Sid doesn’t understand the concept of being alone so he sticks by Manny anyway.

Later, we find out that tigers attacked the humans’ camp in which a mother was separated from and had to run in a different direction in order to save her baby son’s life. Jumping down a waterfall, she is swept away and manages to hold onto a rock, and comes across Manny and Sid. She pushes her tightly-wrapped baby towards Manny with her last bit of strength and Manny holds onto him. The moment Sid and Manny look up, the mother has disappeared into the water—queue sad music.

One of the tigers from the pack that attacked the humans is named Diego (Denis Leary). After failing to capture the baby as stated in a revenge plot by the pack leader Soto (Goran Višnjić), Diego is sent off to find and retrieve the baby as punishment. He finds the baby in the possession of Manny and Sid, so he cooks up a plan to set them up. Diego convinces them he can help track down the humans better and quicker than either of them. Little do Manny and Sid know, they were about to face some serious problems.

This film is a lot of fun and has a lot of heart in it as well. Following these mammals through their adventure always brings a smile to my face. The cast is amazing and I couldn’t have picked it better myself! Romano really brings Manny to life with, as director Chris Wedge describes, a voice that is ‘deep and slow in delivery, but also with a sarcastic wit behind it.’ Leguizamo is hilarious as Sid! His comedic timing is awesome and the character always manages to make me laugh during the slapstick and physical humour scenes.

Leary’s take on Diego is also great! His voice sounds like it belongs to a sabertoothed tiger with a hint of sincerity which isn’t something you’d expect from the character. And let’s not forget Scrat; a sabertoothed squirrel that just wants to hide his acorn. Although Scrat doesn’t speak during the film, he almost steals the show. Director Wedge voices this little naïve animal and it’s literally just screams, sighs, and other squirrel-like sound effects. It’s funny to see how Scrat begins and then ends the film.

I highly recommend watching Ice Age with friends and family. The kids will love it as well! And remember, beware of the taek-won-dodos! 4½ / 5

 

Starring: Ray Romano, Denis Leary, John Leguizamo, Chris Wedge, Goran Višnjić, Jack Black, Diedrich Bader, Alan Tudyk, Cedric the Entertainer, Stephen Root, Jane Krakowski, Lorri Bagley, Tara Strong.

Director: Chris Wedge | Writers: Michael Berg, Michael J. Wilson, Peter Ackerman; Story: Michael J. Wilson | Producer: Lori Forte | Music: David Newman | Editor: John Carnochan


IN THE HOUSE (DANS LA MAISON) (2012)

—Wayne Stellini, reviewing film.

La Banque Postale Images 5 / Canal+ / France 2 Cinéma / Mandarin Cinéma / Palatine Étoile 9 / Région Ile-de-France / Mars Distribution

Literature teacher Germain (Fabrice Luchini) forms a bond with his sixteen-year-old student Claude (Ernst Umhauer), who possesses a remarkable talent for writing.

Germain tutors the precocious Claude, whose story inspiration comes from his transgressive manipulation of best friend Rapha (Bastien Ughetto) as well as Rapha’s doting parents (Emmanuelle Seigner and Denis Ménochet), as Claude becomes increasingly comfortable in their house…

François Ozon is one of France’s greatest directors and a standout among his contemporaries within the vast realm of filmmaking. As with In the House, his films tend to explore the complexities of interpersonal relationships and sexuality, delving into themes of humanity that are often relegated to low budget indie movies.

With In the House, Ozon presents a compelling story of manipulation, underplayed in such a manner that it has a subtle level of menace. Fabrice Luchini is in fine form as Germain, a middle-aged teacher whose passion for his profession is reignited by the skills of a student who sits quietly in the back row. That student is Claude Garcia, played with exceptional confidence, charm, and intelligence by Ernst Umhauer, who had only two film credits to his name at this stage and was the recipient of the Lumières Award for Most Promising Actor for his efforts here. It is not difficult to see why.

The tangled web of relationship dynamics becomes even more complicated as both Germain and Claude’s obsession with the execution and authoring of Claude’s story becomes the central focus of their existence. If the story can only be written with lived experiences and interactions with the Artole family, it is essential that Claude maintain access to their house; what Germain and Claude do to achieve this is the source of most of the plot points and narrative turns.

The subplot involves Germain’s wife (Kristin Scott Thomas) who is working tirelessly to open a gallery exhibition. This serves as a breather from the building tension as well as adding to it at the same time. It is a narrative device that can only be appreciated upon reflection and this is a testament to the sort of filmmaker Ozon is; the director also adapted the screenplay.

Overall, In the House is performed, photographed, and edited with beautiful subtlety. The focus is on the characters, their motivations and desires. It is the sort of film that pulls you in quickly and, thanks primarily to Umhauer, refuses to let you go. 4 / 5

 

Starring: Fabrice Luchini, Kristin Scott Thomas, Emmanuelle Seigner, Denis Ménochet, Bastien Ughetto, Ernst Umhauer, Yolande Moreau.

Director: François Ozon | Producers: Éric Altmayer, Nicolas Altmeyer, Claudie Ossard | Writers: François Ozon (Based on The Boy in the Last Row by Juan Mayorga) | Music: Philippe Rombi | Cinematographer: Jérôme Alméras | Editor: Laure Gardette


THE INCREDIBLE HULK (2008)

—Wayne Stellini, reviewing film.

Marvel Studios / Valhalla Motion Pictures / Universal Pictures[/caption]On the run from the military, Bruce Banner (Edward Norton) attempts to cure himself of gamma radiation poisoning that turns him into an aggressive, giant green figure dubbed the Hulk. But when Banner is captured by General Thaddeus Ross (William Hurt), a power-hungry soldier, Emil Blonsky (Tim Roth), becomes an uncontrollable creature with similar strengths.

The burden for filmmakers in bringing the Incredible Hulk to the big screen is the character’s checkered history. The beloved 1970s TV series and its three sluggish spin-off made-for-television movies are elevated with nostalgia, and Ang Lee’s 2003 overlong, melodramatic, visual spectacle remains a sore spot for fans of the comic book genre.

Linked to 2008’s Iron Man, Louis Leterrier’s The Incredible Hulk is not only far superior to any of the character’s previous big and small screen incarnations, but it is an altogether masterstroke in this sort of storytelling. What Zak Penn’s screenplay and star Edward Norton’s uncredited contributions achieve is a taut narrative that encompasses and successfully balances elements of superhero, chase, thriller, romance, and action genre tropes with confidence.

Beginning with a brave choice of surmising Bruce Banner/the Hulk’s origin in a stirring opening title sequence (and referring back to it later for those who may not have completely understood it), no time is wasted in meeting our tormented protagonist. Characters are gradually introduced as he seeks to cure his gamma ray-induced condition, but we instantly know the status of these interpersonal relationships because we have already met these key players within the first few minutes.

Furthermore, the stakes intensify as the film progresses, allowing more characters to develop as distinctive good guys and bad. But, of course, things are not always that simple and the reluctantly aggressive Banner is juxtaposed against those who elect belligerence at will. There’s also a love story at the heart of the film between Banner and his antagonist’s daughter, Elizabeth Ross, that is both tender and tragic. The success of The Incredible Hulk rides on its characters. Through Penn’s script and Leterrier’s conscious directorial choices, Norton and Liv Tyler perfectly portray a couple fighting against numerous forces to be together. It is lovely seeing their relationship unfold, so much so that we are invested in them to a degree that when the third act goes into overdrive, we believe it all.

Of course, Norton (one of the finest actors of his generation) is unsurprisingly exceptional as Bruce Banner/Hulk and Tyler is consistently wonderful, but there’s also solid turns from Tim Roth and William Hurt as our antagonists who are the driving force behind the tension of the narrative. The chase and action sequences do not disappoint and are enhanced by John Wright, Rick Shaine, and Vincent Tabaillon slick editing, as well as Craig Armstrong’s score and Peter Menzies Jr.’s beautiful cinematography. Minor quip: The final scene would have been best saved for after the credits, as the one before it rounds up the narrative perfectly.

Under-performing at the box office upon release and still unappreciated today, make no mistake about it, The Incredible Hulk is a pretty incredible genre picture. 4½ / 5

 

Starring: Edward Norton, Liv Tyler, Tim Roth, Tim Blake Nelson, Ty Burrell, William Hurt, Lou Ferrigno [voice; cameo], Robert Downey Jr. [uncredited], Stan Lee, Michael K. Williams, Paul Soles, Rickson Gracie, Débora Nascimento, Peter Mensah, Christina Cabot, P.J. Kerr, Nicholas Rose, Martin Starr.

Director: Louis Leterrier | Writer: Zak Penn (based on Hulk by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby) | Producers: Avi Arad, Gale Anne Hurd, Kevin Feige | Music: Craig Armstrong | Cinematographer: Peter Menzies Jr. | Editors: John Wright, Rick Shaine, Vincent Tabaillon


INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE: THE VAMPIRE CHRONICLES (1994)

—Wayne Stellini, reviewing film.

Geffen Pictures / Warner Bros. Pictures

In present-day San Francisco, reporter Daniel Molloy (Christian Slater) interviews Louis de Pointe du Lac (Brad Pitt), who recounts the circumstances of his transformation into a vampire after he is bitten by Lestat de Lioncourt (Tom Cruise) in 1791 Louisiana, as well as their adoption of a little girl (Kirsten Dunst) and her impact on their relationship…

Interview With the Vampire was met with anticipation, discussion, and controversy leading up to its release. But the true merit of any film is how well it holds up when the dust has settled and it is simply one of many in its genre.

Adapting her own 1976 novel, Anne Rice’s screenplay is a mixture of musings and madness that enhance the mythology of vampires. Bringing her central characters to life are Tom Cruise (a casting choice Rice was vocally disapproving of until she saw the final product) and Brad Pitt, whose rapport with him is essential to their bantering dynamics. At first, Cruise feels miscast as Lestat, though once you accept that Neil Jordan’s vision of Rice’s homoerotic literature requires the subtlety of a daytime soap opera, it is easy to have fun with the unfolding story. And while the set design, costuming, and cinematography make this production quite handsome, Pitt is in stunning form as Louis and is undeniably one of the most beautiful vampires to ever grace the screen.

Kirsten Dunst, who delivers the film’s signature line and received a Golden Globe nomination for her performance of Claudia, fits right into the domestic dynamics of Cruise and Pitt. She is absolutely captivating, going from a ten- to a thirty-year-old mentality as time moves on and yet remaining the same physically. Strong supporting turns also from Christian Slater, Antonio Banderas, and Stephen Rea round out a hard-working cast.

Interview With the Vampire holds up relatively well, on the condition that you allow yourself to get lost in the world presented here, and doesn’t feature as much blood or gore as you would expect. The personal struggles of the characters—particularly Louis—give them depth and the action is handled with confidence. It is not a film that takes itself too seriously, so there’s plenty of fun to sustain the two-hour duration. 4 / 5

 

Starring: Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt, Christian Slater, Kirsten Dunst, Antonio Banderas, Stephen Rea, Domiziana Giordano, Thandie Newton, George Kelly, Marcel Iureş, Sara Stockbridge.

Director: Neil Jordan | Producers: David Geffen, Stephen Woolley | Writer: Anne Rice (based on Interview with the Vampire by Anne Rice) | Music: Elliot Goldenthal | Cinematographer: Philippe Rousselot | Editor: Mick Audsley


IRON MAN (2008)

—Wayne Stellini, reviewing film.

Marvel Studios / Fairview Entertainment / Paramount Pictures

Having survived a kidnapping using his remarkable intelligence and ingenuity to build a high-tech armoured suit, unscrupulous billionaire Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) decides to use his skills and mega organisation Stark Industries for good.

But when he uncovers a plot with disastrous global ramifications, he upgrades his armour and is determined to protect the world under the guise of Iron Man.

What is perhaps most notable and commendable about Jon Favreau’s Iron Man is that it achieves what some previous superhero movies have strived for with nowhere near as much success. Blending heavy contemporary real-world themes into the realm of a science fiction fantasy film is difficult because the very essence of the Tony Stark character, his heroic alter ego, and the world he inhibits, only work if the audience is willing to suspend their disbelief. Iron Man asks us to suspend a lot, which is a mighty task when considering that all-too-familiar instances of terrorism and warfare are vital in setting up the plot.

But how does Iron Man get this balance so right? Well, the on screen world is easily recognisable as our own and, although the level of technological advancements may not be, we accept it because what we learn of Stark through a video played at an awards ceremony and the manner in which he conducts himself from the get-go makes sense. These come together harmoniously because Robert Downey Jr. plays the complex Tony Stark straight with touches of dry humour that keep him accessible. Both eccentric and distant, the audience has to put the work into gauging Stark, who shows flashes of strength and vulnerability. By the end of the film, we know more about him but realise there’s plenty left to discover, as suggested in his final press conference.

As perfectly cast as Downey is as the titular hero, Iron Man is not without its flaws. It has plenty to introduce, and takes its time in doing so, but the payoff doesn’t quite feel as satisfying as it should for a movie of this scale. As is the case with many superhero films, the leading lady and love interest isn’t given much to do besides advance the hero’s narrative. But Gwyneth Paltrow is nonetheless a joy to watch as Pepper Potts and there is a lovely genuineness about her chemistry with Downey. Despite this, their relationship isn’t always quite as believable as it should be, so the climactic battle that reduces Potts to lamenting over Stark’s mortality misses the emotional beats it strives for and comes across as melodramatic.

The script plants an excessive number of seeds for future films but you won’t feel as though you are missing anything if you were to stop right here. Although inevitably suffering from the responsibility of setting up a franchise with a character making his big screen debut, there’s still plenty to enjoy about Iron Man. 3½ / 5

 

Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Terrence Howard, Jeff Bridges, Shaun Toub, Gwyneth Paltrow, Faran Tahir, Paul Bettany [voice], Leslie Bibb, Clark Gregg, Will Lyman [voice], Jon Favreau, Samuel L. Jackson, Stan Lee, Tom Morello, Jim Cramer.

Director: Jon Favreau | Writers: Mark Fergus, Hawk Ostby, Art Marcum, Matt Holloway (based on Iron Man by Stan Lee, Larry Lieber, Don Heck, Jack Kirby) | Producers: Avi Arad, Kevin Feige |Music: Ramin Djawadi | Cinematographer: Matthew Libatique | Editor: Dan Lebental


IRON MAN 2 (2019)

—Wayne Stellini, reviewing film.

Marvel Studios / Fairview Entertainment / Paramount Pictures[/caption]Having confessed to being superhero Iron Man six months earlier, billionaire businessman Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) resists calls from the United States government to hand over his famous suit’s technology while dealing with his depleting health from the arc reactor in his chest.

Meanwhile, Russian scientist Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke) develops the same technology to extract revenge against the Stark family while teaming up with Tony’s business rival, Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell).

As is the case with most sequels, Iron Man 2 is all the better for jumping straight into the action as well as delving further into plot points and narrative arcs set up in its predecessor. Robert Downey, Jr. is more than comfortable in a role that simply would not work as well with anyone else under the nitinol armour, and his rapport with Gwyneth Paltrow (as “Pepper” Potts) is thankfully given more screen time. Unlike the first Iron Man film, there is no questioning the pair’s invested interest in one another—personally as well as professionally—however, it would have perhaps been best to draw out their declaration of love for one another for a little longer (that is, in another film).

What works best here is the continued exploration of the principal characters, particularly Stark himself, whose meditation on his mortality and relationship with his father Howard (an excellent John Slattery) are a narrative highlight. Don Cheadle replaces Terrence Howard from the first film, and unsurprisingly does a great job at fulfilling James Rhodes’s previous promise to don the War Machine suit. There is excellent chemistry between Cheadle and Downey, so there is plenty for the audience to invest in whenever the pair battle reluctantly, even though Rhodes’s motivation for first armouring up comes across as a little underdeveloped; the stakes should have been higher.

Scene-stealer Sam Rockwell is outstanding as the white-collar antagonist, that you can’t help but selfishly wish there was more of him. Scarlett Johansson makes a remarkable entry into the franchise as the mysterious new Stark Enterprises employee, it is always a pleasure to see Clark Gregg as S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Phil Coulson, and director Jon Favreau’s crowd-pleasing Happy Hogan is given more to do this time around.

With strong performances across the board and a more confident utilisation of visual effects (helped, no doubt, by a bigger budget), it is unfortunate that Iron Man 2 doesn’t reach its full potential. This is primarily to do with Justin Theroux’s screenplay. Chief villain Ivan Vanko is so two-dimensional that it is impossible to have any connection to him despite Mickey Rourke’s adequate performance, the character’s backstory, and his love for animals. Additionally, Vanko’s final battle is particularly underwhelming when considering the build-up to it. There are also continued hints of things to come (which are fun retrospectively, especially Coulson’s reaction to the Captain America shield), but these will be lost on those who are not heavily invested in the franchise.

Iron Man 2 cannot be watched without it’s predecessor’s viewing (and this is by no means a critique; it is a sequel, after all), but those who enjoyed the first film will find this follow-up unnecessarily sluggish in parts. And it says a lot about a film when its most exciting moment is a post-credit scene. However, this third instalment of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is well-worth watching despite a number of kinks in its armour. 3 / 5

 

Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, Don Cheadle, Scarlett Johansson, Sam Rockwell, Mickey Rourke, Samuel L. Jackson, Jon Favreau, Clark Gregg, Leslie Bibb, John Slattery, Garry Shandling, Paul Bettany [voice], Olivia Munn, Yevgeni Lazarev, Kate Mara, Stan Lee [cameo], Christiane Amanpour [cameo], Bill O’Reilly [cameo], Adam Goldstein [cameo], Elon Musk [cameo], Larry Ellison [cameo].

Director/Producer: Jon Favreau | Writer: Justin Theroux (based on Iron Man by Stan Lee, Larry Lieber, Don Heck, Jack Kirby) | Music: John Debney | Cinematographer: Matthew Libatique | Editors: Dan Lebental, Richard Pearson


IRON MAN THREE (2013)

—Wayne Stellini, reviewing film.

Marvel Studios / Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Suffering from a severe case of insomnia and post traumatic stress disorder, billionaire Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) obsesses over coming up with new prototypes for the Iron Man suit. But when a mad man known only as the Mandarin stages an attack on the Chinese Theater in Los Angeles, Stark suits up to battle forces far more sinister than he first imagined…

With two stories and a central role in Marvel’s The Avengers (2012) under his belt, dry-humoured billionaire Tony Stark is, by now, a fairly established comic book movie character. Because of this, Iron Man Three is all the better for jumping straight into the action without sacrificing the interpersonal relationships between the main characters we have come to know. (However, this also means that the title hero’s previous escapades are required viewing.)

Of course, this is Robert Downey, Jr.‘s show and he effortlessly manoeuvres through sentiment and battle with admirable confidence. The introduction of Ty Simpkins as wiz kid Harley Keener feels a little out of place at first, but the youngster’s rapport with Downey feels authentic and adds depth to Stark as our flawed hero.

Unsurprisingly, franchise regulars Gwyneth Paltrow and Don Cheadle are in fine form, and it is particularly pleasing to see them given more to do… especially in the visually impressive final act. Guy Pearce‘s inclusion as the intriguing villain of the piece as well as the mysterious (and, among purists, contentious) Mandarin suit the narrative well and are more engaging than Iron Man’s previous foe (an underwhelming Mickey Rourke as the underwritten Ivan Vanko.)

Despite being a little too long, Shane Black‘s caper, the seventh in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, is not only the best of the Iron Man movies but is a fun, sharply edited, and entertaining pic in its own right. 4 / 5

 

Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, Don Cheadle, Guy Pearce, Rebecca Hall, Ty Simpkins, Stéphanie Szostak, James Badge Dale, Jon Favreau, Ben Kingsley, Paul Bettany [voice], Ashley Hamilton, William Sadler, Miguel Ferrer, Adam Pally, Shaun Toub [cameo], Stan Lee [cameo], Dale Dickey, Wang Xueqi, Fan Bingbing [Chinese release only], Mark Ruffalo [uncredited cameo], Bill Maher [cameo], Joan Rivers [cameo], George Kotsiopoulos [cameo], Josh Elliott [cameo], Megan Henderson [cameo], Pat Kiernan [cameo], Thomas Roberts [cameo].

Director: Shane Black | Producer: Kevin Feige | Writers: by Shane Black, Drew Pearce (based on Iron Man by Stan Lee, Don Heck, Larry Lieber, Jack Kirby) | Music: Brian Tyler | Cinematographer: John Toll | Editors: Jeffrey Ford, Peter S. Elliot


It (1990)

—Wayne Stellini, reviewing television.

A group of seven outcast children discover and vow to destroy a predatory shapeshifter, mostly appearing in the form of a clown called Pennywise, who transforms itself into its victim’s worst fears…

The 1990 made-for-television adaptation of Stephen King‘s spooky best-seller has all the conventions of the author’s tales. As a two-part miniseries, there’s a lot to get through and is at its best when the action involves the Loser Club (including Jonathan Brandis and Seth Green) hanging out, fending off bullies, and battling killer clown Pennywise (Tim Curry) in the flashback scenes.

The momentum slows down, however, in the second-half of the piece where the kids are reunited as adults three decades later to try and topple their shared boogeyman once and for all. The action isn’t all that gripping, and the manner in which this particular evil force can be defeated or made dormant doesn’t carry much credibility when adults are involved, feeling like an easy cop-out.

An intriguing concept that fails to reach its full potential and, decades on, has not aged well, It is still worth watching if only for some fine performances from the youngsters, a scary turn from Curry, an engaging and sarcastic Harry Anderson, and because it is always lovely to see Annette O’Toole on screen.

Overall, this is a competent but ultimately unexceptional production. 3 / 5

 

Starring: Harry Anderson, Dennis Christopher, Richard Masur, Annette O’Toole, Tim Reid, John Ritter, Richard Thomas, Tim Curry, Jonathan Brandis, Brandon Crane, Adam Faraizl, Seth Green, Ben Heller, Emily Perkins, Marlon Taylor, Olivia Hussey, Sheila Moore, Jarred Blancard, Chris Eastman, Gabe Khouth, Michael Ryan, Venus Terzo, Frank C. Turner.

Director: Tommy Lee Wallace | Producers: Mark Basino, Allen S. Epstein, Jim Green | Writers: Lawrence D. Cohen, Tommy Lee Wallace (based on It by Stephen King) | Theme Music Composer: Richard Bellis | Cinematographer: Richard Leiterman | Editors: David Blangsted, Robert F. Shugrue


IT (2017)

—Wayne Stellini, reviewing film.

Warner Bros. Pictures

A group of seven outcast children discover and vow to destroy a predatory shapeshifter, mostly appearing in the form of a clown called Pennywise, who transforms itself into its victim’s worst fears…

The second adaptation of Stephen King‘s novel was heavily promoted in 2017. The marketing campaign received a mixed reaction from those who grew up terrified of the 1990 miniseries and those who would be exposed to the sadistic, child-devouring Pennywise for the first time. IT had well and truly arrived.

Whether you are a fan of the novel or original adaptation, there is no denying that Andy Muschietti‘s vision has resulted in what has to be one of the most skillfully constructed, aesthetically stunning horror films produced in the twenty-first century. Chung-hoon Chung‘s exquisite cinematography gives the viewer a sense of place, from the darkened interiors to the bright small town landscapes; hillsides and rivers are a stark contrast to sewerage tunnels and dilapidated houses.

Furthermore, our Loser protagonists are perfectly cast. Some have extensive screen time and are fleshed out more so than others, but the young cast work well together with strong, natural rapport. Sophia Lillis possesses a gutsy spark as Bev, contrasted quite nicely by Jaeden Lieberher‘s subtle hero and love interest Bill. Jeremy Ray Taylor does a fine job as new kid Ben while Jack Dylan Grazer steals the show as hypochondriac Eddie. Finn Wolfhard, Wyatt Oleff, and Chosen Jacobs round out the Losers competently, each with their own backstories and quirks. Nicholas Hamilton is ruthlessly on-point as lead town bully Henry, whose sociopathic intensity would have pushed believability in any other director’s hands. Muschietti handles his cast well; most of the adults here are incredibly grotesque, heightening the pressure on the youngsters, who really only have one another. But every character archetype is essentially represented, so there is someone to relate to, cheer on, or boo.

The success of the IT, however, rests on the shoulders of the villain. As the malevolent force at the centre of the story, the perfectly cast Bill Skarsgård is flawlessly creepy. His portrayal of the barbarous Pennywise is literally the subject of nightmares, not allowing make-up, costuming, or special effects to do the work, Skarsgård cements himself as one of the greatest movie monsters of all time.

IT focuses on the first half of the narrative and this is the film’s strength. The element of danger always feels higher when the heroes are innocents, so it remains to be seen if the second chapter in this creepy caper can be as involving. But in the meantime, immerse yourself in IT… and don’t float too far away. 4½ / 5

 

Starring: Jaeden Lieberher, Bill Skarsgård, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Sophia Lillis, Finn Wolfhard, Wyatt Oleff, Chosen Jacobs, Jack Dylan Grazer, Nicholas Hamilton, Jackson Robert Scott, Owen Teague.

Director: Andy Muschietti | Producers: Roy Lee, Dan Lin, Seth Grahame-Smith, David Katzenberg, Barbara Muschietti | Writers: Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga, Gary Dauberman (based on It by Stephen King) | Music: Benjamin Wallfisch | Cinematographer: Chung-hoon Chung | Editor: Jason Ballantin.


JOE CINQUE’S CONSOLATION (2016)

—Wayne Stellini, reviewing film.

Night Kitchen Productions

The volatile mental health of Canberra law student Anu Singh (Maggie Naouri) leaves her feeling that she is without an option other than to suicide. Unbeknown to her picture-perfect boyfriend Joe Cinque (Jerome Meyer), a dinner party she organises serves as a last supper. But things do not go to plan.

As Anu’s mental health continues to dissolve, she decides that Joe’s life must also end. Another dinner party is arranged with guests aware that their hosts will die, but no one tells Joe…

Sotiris Dounoukos’s adaptation of Helen Garner’s award-winning book offers an intriguing true-life tale that fails to completely captivate. As a character study, the story does not delve deep enough and as a psychological thriller, the film lacks any genuine suspense until the final act.

The complex narrative is painted in such broad strokes that the audience is kept at a distance. Anu is too fitful to approach and Joe is perfection personified; where one has no redeeming features, the other is immaculate. This is, of course, not to say that a distinction between the unscrupulous and the virtuous should not be made, but Anu is given so little room to move that it is impossible to try and empathise with her depleting mental state.

As for our central couple, Naori and Meyer are excellent. At the time of production, neither had extensive screen experience, and yet they command plenty of attention; the film is the most captivating when the pair share a frame. The assortment of supporting cast also handle their two-dimensional roles as best they can, particularly Gia Carides and Tony Nikolakopoulos as Joe’s doting parents. However, Sacha Joseph, as Anu’s misused friend Madhavi Rao, delivers one of the most frustratingly vapid performances seen in Australian cinema for a long time.

Produced with technical competency and demonstrating an exceptionally crafted final act, this is, nonetheless, a story that deserved more depth and leaves a number of questions unanswered. The flippancy with which Anu and Joe’s wider circle of friends treat ensuing events is incomprehensible, and the ultimate ramifications for those responsible, leaves the audience with a stronger sense of loss and grief than anyone in the film.

A respectful portrayal of Joe Cinque that needed to delve deeper. 3 / 5

 

Starring: Maggie Naouri, Jerome Meyer, Sacha Joseph, Josh McConville, Gia Carides, Tony Nikolakopoulos, Jacob Collins-Levy, Laura Gordon, Jackson Tozer, Eva Lazzaro.

Director: Sotiris Dounoukos | Producers: Sotiris Dounoukos, Matt Reeder | Writers: Sotiris Dounoukos, Matt Rubinstein (Based on Joe Cinque’s Consolation: A True Story of Death, Grief and the Law by Helen Garner) | Music: Antonio Gambale | Cinematographer: Simon Chapman | Editors: Angelos Angelidis, Martin Connor


JOKER (2019)

—Kendall Richardson and Wayne Stellini, reviewing film.

DC Films / Village Roadshow Pictures / Bron Creative / Joint Effort / Warner Bros. Pictures

In 1981, clown and aspiring comedian Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), who lives with a neurological condition that causes him to laugh in times of intense stress, turns to crime and chaos as Gotham City begins to protest and rebel against the establishment.

Kendall Richardson reviewing:

People like to complain about ‘superhero fatigue’, that there are too many comic book movies and television shows on our screens. But if this so-called ‘fatigue’ helps to give birth to a film such as Joker, then I really don’t see what is worth complaining about. Joker isn’t really a comic book movie, and if you removed the DC Comics skin, very little would actually change. Like Logan (2017), and to a similar extent Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014), Joker uses the guise of a comic book film to really step into and explore genres and themes that set it aside from any other ‘superhero genre’ film. It is quite ironic the way things have turned out, considering many thought that upon this film’s announcement it was completely unnecessary. Just like when people scoffed at Heath Ledger’s casting of the Joker in Christopher Nolan’s brilliant The Dark Knight (2008). Oh, how wrong and misunderstood we were.

Joker tells the story of troubled clown and wannabe comedian Arthur Fleck (a breathtaking Joaquin Phoenix), navigating the turbulent landscape of a depraved and crime rampant Gotham City. We learn that he suffers from an undiagnosed mental illness that he is seeking treatment for, and an uncontrollable Tourette’s Syndrome-like laugh. Despite these flaws, Arthur tries so hard to fit into society, and bring happiness and joy to those he entertains. The film does a wonderful job of focusing on his mental state without mocking it or making it the butt of any jokes. You understand quite quickly this is who Arthur Fleck is, and despite it making the audience sympathetic towards him, there is a clear division between this sympathy and a complete lack of it once he starts taking out his problems violently on others. That isn’t to say you don’t understand were he’s coming from on his journey to becoming Joker, in fact you might find yourself rooting for him. But there is no question that he revels in causing pain by the time the film ends and you stop feeling sorry for him.

Joaquin Phoenix gives probably the best performance of his entire career. Everything about Arthur/Joker that Phoenix brings to life is chaotic yet controlled, and elegant yet horrific. Phoenix is in virtually every scene of the film, and you never tire of seeing his disturbed image flashed across the screen. You crave more of him. Even though you know where the movie is headed thanks to its famous comic book inspiration, you desperately want the good parts of him to rise up, instead of getting snuffed out by the madness of his mind. From kindhearted to malevolent, Arthur Fleck is always unsettling, and that laugh of his that covers the movie, is so nuanced and striking. I have no doubt in my mind that we will be seeing Joaquin Phoenix everywhere this coming awards season and very deservedly so.

Director and co-writer Todd Phillips, mostly known for his comedic films such as The Hangover (2009) and Old School (2003), transitions seamlessly into this dark and decrepit world of crime. He crafts a Gotham we are definitely not strangers to, but one he certainly makes his own. The script is watertight and comes to life brilliantly with the aide of some exceptional cinematography and well-rounded performances from not just Phoenix, but the entire cast. This is definitely Phoenix’s film, but all the players that surround him support him well, adding method to the madness. Robert De Niro is particularly fascinating as late night talk show host Murray Franklin, a character idolised by Arthur throughout the whole film. If only there had been more scenes of Murray and Arthur together, but what we do get is completely thrilling. Joker remains with certainty, an incredible piece of cinema, and an unnerving yet compelling unraveling of a film’s protagonist like we have surely rarely seen. It is hands down one of the best films of the year. 5 / 5

Wayne Stellini reviewing:

In an era of extensive superhero blockbusters, Hollywood knows how to churn out (more often than not) entertaining, cartoonish spectacles. And because most follow the same formula, there is a comfort in sitting in a cinema with similar genre-loving folks as you munch on your popcorn in anticipation of the inevitable computer-generated action to unfold. But Todd Phillips’s Joker is the sort of film that makes you hold said moviegoing snack millimetres from your mouth in fear of choking on it.

As soon as the old Warner Bros. logo appears on screen, we know that this will not be your average contemporary comic book movie. Phillips’s stylistic choices not only take us back to the early 1980s but, more significantly, inform us that this is a world we are familiar with, if not actually live in ourselves. (It takes longer than you’d expect for the word ‘Gotham’ to be spoken.)

The colour pallet, captured and framed beautifully by Lawrence Sher, as well as Hildur Guðnadóttir’s evocative score and Jeff Groth’s perfect editing, make Joker a technically flawless film. This impeccable attention to detail continually enforces the cold and individualistic social attitudes that contribute to and shapes the creation of the titular character.

So, what of our anti-hero? Batman’s chief villain the Joker is arguably the most beloved baddie from the comics and their associated media adaptations. (Heath Ledger’s iconic portrayal of the Clown Price of Crime in 2008’s The Dark Knight remains the only performance of a comic book character to have been awarded an Oscar to date.) And what makes him such an intriguing figure is not necessarily the wealth of published stories to draw from but rather that the criminal mastermind’s origin and backstory have never been set in stone since his debut in 1940. This is where Phillips and co-writer Scott Silver utilise their freedom to make Joker—both film and character, for that matter—whatever they want.

The story is straightforward and coherent, and, at its core, demonstrates how society maketh the monster. But as a character study, Joker is far more complex than that. This is where the outstanding Joaquin Phoenix truly shines. The actor has literally grown up before our eyes (his big screen debut was in 1986’s infamous box office bomb SpaceCamp) but didn’t truly make a mark until Gladiator (2000), in which he delivers the film’s stand-out scene (‘Busy little bee’), before solidifying himself as one of contemporary American cinema’s more interesting and diverse performers when he played Johnny Cash in Walk the Line (2005). So what does Phoenix do with a character whose previous film and television incarnations have been both embraced and contentious?

Most importantly, Phoenix makes the role his own. Here, the lonesome Arthur Fleck goes from being tragic to grotesque; the manner in which Phoenix contorts his body and laughs (involuntarily or otherwise) depicts a confronting depletion of Arthur’s mental health. Ultimately, when his transformation into Joker is complete, Phoenix does not disappoint, even overcoming some unnecessarily clunky dialogue when Joker confesses to crimes and calls out society’s flaws on a late night talk show, whose host is played by the unsurprisingly excellent Robert De Niro. It cannot be emphasised enough that Phoenix is so good that he makes an uncharismatic, unnerving character always accessible. And when Joker appears dancing down stone stairs, we are happy to be in his clutches.

Moments likes these (and there are plenty of them) make Joker a unique gem in a cluttered genre. And while Phillips owes much to the master filmmakers that came before him—most notably Martin Scorsese, whose anti-establishment titles such as Taxi Driver (1976) and The King of Comedy (1983) remain important works of American cinema—he is his own storyteller, and there is no mistaking the depth he gives this particular narrative. A highlight for me was when Arthur meets a young Bruce Wayne (Dante Pereira-Olson) for the first time. The scene is intense in its own right, but there are so many wonderful layers to their interaction: the two speak with bars between them, Arthur uses lighthearted magic tricks whilst Bruce remains stolid, and most significantly, the pair are dressed in a similar manner. This is gorgeous foreshadowing of the sort of relationship that these two will have, but what is wonderful about Joker is that it works without any pre-knowledge of the expansive creative universe these characters are a part of. And scenes such as Arthur being approached by a Wall Street worker on a train who is singing ‘Send in the Clowns’ are as eerie as they are an example of beautiful filmmaking.

I found myself captivated from the get-go when watching Joker, engrossed in the world and interested in the characters. I was challenged by the portrayal of Thomas Wayne (a solid Brett Cullen), who has always been depicted in a saintly manner, and was sometimes uncomfortable when Arthur’s condition resulted in uncontrollable laughter. Although it was by no means a full house, I cannot recall a moment when I have been in a cinema of people so attentive and silent, and nor can I remember the last time I caught myself breathless, or with my mouth slightly open at the unfolding drama on numerous occasions throughout a film’s gestation.

Joker may not be completely flawless, and I am not sure if it will be the sort of film that gets better with repeated viewings, but do not be mistaken in thinking you are merely watching a movie here. You are experiencing a cohesive team bringing together a masterful work of art. 5 / 5

 

Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz, Frances Conroy, Brett Cullen, Douglas Hodge, Dante Pereira-Olson, Glenn Fleshler, Bill Camp, Shea Whigham, Marc Maron, Leigh Gill, Josh Pais, Brian Tyree Henry, Bryan Callen, Hannah Gross, Carl Lundstedt, Michael Benz, Ben Warheit, Mandela Bellamy, Demetrius Dotson II, Justin Theroux [cameo].

Director: Todd Phillips | Producers: Todd Phillips, Bradley Cooper, Emma Tillinger Koskoff | Writers: by Todd Phillips, Scott Silver (based on characters by Bob Kane, Bill Finger, and Jerry Robinson appearing in DC Comics) | Music: Hildur Guðnadóttir | Cinematographer: Lawrence Sher | Editor: Jeff Groth


JUST A BREATH AWAY (DANS LA BRUME) (2012)

Alternative title: Hold Your Breath

—Wayne Stellini, reviewing film.

Gravitas Ventures

Separated parents Mathieu and Anna (Romain Duris and Olga Kurylenko) try to protect their daughter (Fantine Harduin), whose medical condition keeps her confined to a tank, from a rising toxic gas cloud that envelops Paris.

Daniel Roby‘s race-against-time thriller has all the makings of a genre masterpiece but never reaches its full potential. This is despite some utterly captivating action sequences; Parisians running from the toxic cloud, for example, is incredibly well done and the film overall benefits from Pierre-Yves Bastard‘s cinematography.

Romain Duris, by far one of French cinema’s most interesting actors for the past two decades, and the prolific Olga Kurylenko are unsurprisingly excellent as loving, selfless parents Mathieu and Anna, who go through hell and high water for their child. So, while there’s never really a dull moment, Guillaume Lemans‘s screenplay fails to delve deeply into our protagonists—neither as individuals or as a couple. In contrast, we have more investment in the elderly couple played by Michel Robin and Anna Gaylor, who offer Mathieu and Anna refuge, but the film isn’t about them. So while the stakes are high, there is an unshakable disappointment that our central duo were not fleshed out more during the writing stage. An emotional connection is vital to disaster movies such as these so that when selected characters inevitably begin to drop like flies, we not only care about who lives but how they manage to do it.

In spite of this significant flaw, Just a Breath Away works on a superficial level and is still well-worth a look, if only for its stunning visuals and a reason (not that you need one) to see the two leads do so much with only a cloud. 3 / 5

 

Starting: Romain Duris, Olga Kurylenko, Fantine Harduin, Michel Robin, Anna Gaylor, Réphaël Ghrenassia, Erja Malatier, Alexis Manenti, Maurice Antoni, Robin Barde, Geoffroy De La Taille [uncredited], Margot Maricot [uncredited], Christopher Ramoné [uncredited].

Director: Daniel Roby | Producers: Guillaume Colboc, Nicolas Duval Adassovsky | Writer: Guillaume Lemans | Music: Michel Corriveau | Cinematographer: Pierre-Yves Bastard | Editors: Stan Collet, Yvann Thibaudeau


KIDNAP (2017)

—Wayne Stellini, reviewing film.

Aviron Pictures

Overworked diner waitress Karla (Halle Berry) is the doting mother of six-year-old Frankie (Sage Correa). While enjoying an outing with her son one afternoon, she receives a call from her lawyer that her ex-husband wants primary custody of their child. When Karla’s phones battery dies, she returns her attention to Frankie, only to discover that he has gone missing.

Having witnessed him being forced into a car, Karla follows the abductors and goes to extreme lengths to retrieve her son.

Kidnap’s premise and ensuing plot is straightforward enough that it is not the sort of film that demands much from its audience. And therein lies the problem: Knate Lee’s screenplay is so heavy with exposition that the film would be far more engrossing if it weren’t as condescending. For example, Karla sees an AMBER Alert on a road sign describing the perpetrators’ vehicle. The catch: he has changed cars since she reported the kidnapping. We as the audience know this because we have seen it in quite a dramatic sequence, and yet, Karla needs to explain this to us anyway in case we are wondering why she is angry at the road sign. Similarly, we need the bad guy (Lew Temple) to tell us why he is frustrated with his gun because we would not have otherwise come to the conclusion that he cannot find his ammunition.

Unfortunately, these are more the rule rather than the exception to Kidnap; it is an unwanted distraction. Berry does an exceptional job of trying to rise above it (as one of the film’s producers, she has a little more invested in the project), but her efforts are not always enough—the dialogue gets that bad at times. It is a shame, really, because Kidnap showcases some edge-of-the-seat thrills, is edited meticulously, is framed and photographed beautifully, and has an engaging score.

Worth a look at, but leave your brain at the door. 2½ / 5

 

Starring: Halle Berry, Sage Correa, Chris McGinn, Lew Temple, Dana Gourrier, Jason Winston George.

Director: Luis Prieto | Producers: Gregory Chou, Lorenzo di Bonaventura, Erik Howsam, Joey Tufaro, Taylar Wesley, Elaine Goldsmith-Thomas, Halle Berry | Writer: Knate Lee | Music: Federico Jusid | Cinematographer: Flavio Martinez Labiano | Editor: Avi Youabian


KONG: SKULL ISLAND (2017)

—Wayne Stellini, reviewing film.

Warner Bros. Pictures

In 1973 and in the midst of the Vietnam War, United States government agent Bill Randa (John Goodman) hires former British Special Air Service Captain and skilled tracker James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) to guide an expedition to map out the recently discovered Skull Island. Their military escort is a helicopter squadron led by Lieutenant Colonel Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson), who are joined by photojournalist Mason Weaver (Brie Larson).

As soon as the expedition is underway, specially designed explosives are dropped in an apparent attempt to learn more of this uncharted territory. But everything is not what it seems and it is not long until the assorted inhabitants rise—most notably, Kong, king of Skull Island…

The latest in a string of King Kong remakes, Kong: Skull Island may not offer anything new to the monster movie genre, or anything all that significant to the lead creature’s mythology, but it is quite easily one of the more entertaining to be made in recent years.

Make no mistake about it, the film relies on just about every narrative trope and character archetype the genre has to offer, but so what? Unlike Godzilla (2014), the first entry in the MonsterVerse produced by Warner Bros., Legendary Entertainment, and Toho, Kong: Skull Island actually features the titular character fighting a slew of menacing monsters in a series of exciting, bad ass action sequences. This is not to say that the humans do not get their fair share of the biffo; Hiddleston, Larson, and an obnoxiously patriotic Jackson’s collective and respective screen time are not wasted.

With real-world themes weaved into the mix with as much subtly as a sledgehammer, director Jordan Vogt-Roberts delivers a good-looking, exciting, and suitably paced action caper starring one of cinema’s most loveable monsters. 4 / 5

 

Starring: Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson, John Goodman, Brie Larson, Jing Tian, Toby Kebbell, John Ortiz, Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell, Shea Whigham, Thomas Mann, Terry Notary, John C. Reilly.

Director: Jordan Vogt-Roberts | Producers: Thomas Tull, Mary Parent, Jon Jashni, Alex Garcia | Writers: Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein, Derek Connolly (Based on King Kong by Merian C. Cooper and Edgar Wallace) | Music: Henry Jackman | Cinematographer: Larry Fong | Editor: Richard Pearson


LEGALLY BLONDE (2001)

—Wayne Stellini, reviewing film.

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Blonde, busty, and beautiful fashion merchandising student Elle Woods (Reece Witherspoon) is heartbroken when elitist boyfriend Warner Huntington III (Matthew Davis) dumps her because his political future needs to entail a Jackie and not a Marilyn.

Determined to win Warner back, Elle follows in his academic footsteps and attends Harvard Law School. Dismissed by most of the faculty and her classmates, including Warner, Elle uses her unique personal experiences and perspectives to excel and is given the opportunity to prove herself when she interns on a high-profile murder case…

Revisiting Legally Blonde, it isn’t difficult to see why Robert Luketic’s entertaining comedy was such a huge box office hit upon release. Nor it is surprising to see why it has remained a fixture in popular culture, most notably introducing audiences to the ‘bend and snap’ pick-up method.

The success of the film rests squarely on our leading lady’s shoulders. Oozing more charm than you would think is humanly possible, Witherspoon makes what could easily be read as an incredibly narcissistic and materialistic figure into an endearing persona. There is absolutely nothing to dislike about Elle, whose heart radiates good intentions and loyalty. As a fish out of water in Harvard, she simply wants to be accepted, and it is at this point of the narrative—having continually being dismissed as a bimbo—that we as an audience are on her side. And once we are there, we are with her until the very end.

Legally Blonde is also cleverly written, having fun with the two-dimensional, stereotypical characters to such an extent that we really don’t mind and yet still care about them. The film does not pretend to break new ground, but what is presented feels fun and fresh, even after multiple viewings; that in itself is a remarkable accomplishment, and one that is a testament to the partnership of Luketic and Witherspoon.

Pour some pink champagne and raise your glass to ‘Woods comma Elle’, this one is a winner. 4½ / 5

 

Starring: Reese Witherspoon, Luke Wilson, Selma Blair, Matthew Davis, Victor Garber, Jennifer Coolidge, Holland Taylor.

Director: Robert Luketic | Producers: Marc Platt, Ric Kidney | Writers: Karen McCullah Lutz, Kirsten Smith (Based on Legally Blonde by Amanda Brown) | Music: Rolfe Kent | Cinematographer: Anthony B. Richmond | Editor: Anita Brandt-Burgoyne


LILO & STITCH (2002)

—Fulya Kantarmaci, reviewing film.

Walt Disney Pictures / Walt Disney Feature Animation / Buena Vista Pictures

Hawaiian girl Lilo (Daveigh Chase) forms a friendship with a naughty alien known as Experiment 626 (Chris Sanders), whom she adopts from a dog shelter after he crash lands from outer space. Lilo attempts to teach the poorly behaved extra-terrestrial, who is given the name Stitch, to be “a model citizen.” But no matter what she tries, Stitch still seems to want to destroy whatever he touches—that’s what he was created for, after all. And so, Stitch is forced into situations where he needs to be on his best behaviour in order to survive being captured by his creator Dr. Jumba Jookiba (David Ogden Stiers) and the expert on Earth, Agent Wendall Pleakley (Kevin McDonald).

Ahh… Disney. You always make me feel like I’m seven again whenever I watch these beautiful films.

Lilo & Stitch begins with a very sci-fi opening: a grand council on a spaceship. A scientist, Jumba, is accused of illegal experimentation after creating the “monstrosity” that is Experiment 626. He denies it, of course, and after 626 displays his terrible behaviour to the whole council, he is exiled for eternity and Jumba is imprisoned. I have to admit, Stitch is the cutest alien I’ve ever seen! He is a very clever escape artist too.

Jumping ahead to Earth, the scene opens with lovely traditional Hawaiian music that makes you feel like you’re sitting on a beach on a tropical island drinking a cocktail out of a coconut. And the colours—oh, the colours! So bright yet not overpowering. I absolutely love the way the characters have been drawn, giving the film its own uniqueness.

The story about a lonely little girl who has trouble making friends and is in a broken family really pulls on your heartstrings. All she wants to do is have fun and be a part of a loving family. Her older sister Nani (Tia Carrere) is trying her absolute best to take care of Lilo, but she also has her own problems. Trying to find a job and keeping it has been a struggle for Nani, especially since she is the legal guardian of her younger sister after their parents passed away in a car accident. If that’s not bad enough, a man from social services is on her back telling her if she can’t uphold a job and look after Lilo properly, then she will have to say goodbye to her little sister forever.

I have loved this film ever since it was released back in 2002. It is beautiful, fun, and features music from The King himself, Elvis Presley.

It is definitely worth a watch no matter who you are. And remember, “Ohana means family. Family means nobody gets left behind or forgotten.” 4 / 5

 

Starring: Chris Sanders, Daveigh Chase, Tia Carrere, David Ogden Stiers, Kevin McDonald, Ving Rhames, Kevin Michael Richardson, Zoe Caldwell, Jason Scott Lee, Miranda Paige Walls, Amy Hill, Susan Hegarty.

Directors/Writers: Chris Sanders, Dean DeBlois (Story: Chris Sanders) | Producer: Clark Spencer | Music: Alan Silvestri | Editor: Darren T. Holmes


LOVE, SIMON (2018)

—Kendall Richardson, reviewing film.

Fox 2000 Pictures / Temple Hill Productions / 20th Century Fox

Dear Blue,

I just watched this really incredible movie, and I think you will love it. I won’t give too much away, but I will let you know what it’s about. The main character is a high schooler named Simon, who’s played by rising star Nick Robinson. After his performance here, I’d expect we’ll see a lot more of him; his portrayal of Simon is so authentic, vulnerable, and done with great care and respect. You see Blue, Simon has this big secret he’s never told anyone.

He’s gay.

After another student posts an anonymous letter on the school’s social media site, Simon realises he’s not alone. There is another guy at school who is just like him. Plucking up the courage, he begins a regular email correspondence with him, but the two of them never reveal to each other who they are, despite Simon’s growing desire to. For the first time, Simon has found someone he can completely be himself with, and you feel his excitement, joy, and even anxiety over his situation—we’ve all been there, relishing the rush of just a minute of time with your crush. It is beautifully portrayed.

Speaking of beautifully portrayed, Simon is lucky enough to be surrounded by a small group of really wonderful friends, each of whom all have their own secrets and crushes. His best friend Leah is played coolly by Australian actress Katherine Langford of 13 Reasons Why fame. His other two close friends are sport-loving Nick (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.) and new student Abby (Alexandra Shipp, who played a young Storm in X-Men Apocalypse). Simon’s family are also another group of wonderful people, from his intelligent psychologist mother (Jennifer Garner), to his ultra-sensitive and dorky Dad, played by the always charming Josh Duhamel, to his adorable younger sister and aspiring junior chef (Talitha Bateman).

There is one exception to this group of wonderful people in Simon’s life, however, and that is Martin. He an odd, slightly eccentric, and over-confident drama student, played by Logan Miller, who is fascinating to watch. You don’t know if he is going to do something super embarrassing or surprisingly wonderful. He is also the film’s antagonist. But I won’t tell you why.

Have I sold you on the film yet, Blue? If not, here are some more cool things you need to know. The soundtrack is off the hook. Singer/songwriter Jack Antonoff picked a bunch of killer songs to perfectly accompany the teenage angst, longing, heartbreak, and happiness. A few of the songs are by his own band Bleachers, who are seriously underrated. I saw them live once and had an awesome time. Also, this film features probably the best drama teacher ever on screen, or at least the sassiest! But seriously, this is a love story everyone will enjoy, whether you are gay or straight or something else all-together. I hope this is the first of many movies of its kind. At last, a story from the perspective of someone we’ve never really heard of. And it’s not an indie movie!

I’d rate it 5 out of 5.

So there you have it, Blue!  Go see Love, Simon. I can’t wait to hear what you think. Maybe we could finally meet and go together?

Love, Jacques.

Starring: Nick Robinson, Josh Duhamel, Jennifer Garner, Katherine Langford, Alexandra Shipp, Jorge Lendeborg Jr., Keiynan Lonsdale, Miles Heizer, Logan Miller, Talitha Bateman, Tony Hale, Natasha Rothwell, Drew Starkey, Clark Moore, Joey Pollari, Mackenzie Lintz, Bryson Pitts, Nye Reynolds, Skye Mowbray.

Director: Greg Berlanti | Producers: Marty Bowen, Wyck Godfrey, Isaac Klausner, Pouya Shahbazian | Writers: Isaac Aptaker, Elizabeth Berger (Based on Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli) | Music: Rob Simonsen | Cinematographer: John Guleserian | Editor: Harry Jierjian


MARVEL’S THE AVENGERS (2012)

Also known as: The Avengers. United Kingdom and Ireland title: Marvel Avengers Assemeble.

—Wayne Stellini, reviewing film.

Marvel Studios / Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Peacekeeping agency S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) assembles a team of superheroes to save the world when an unexpected enemy emerges as threat to global safety and security…

An assortment of origin pictures, beginning with 2008’s Iron Man, have all been leading to this superhero ensemble blockbuster… and fans won’t be disappointed. There’s plenty of action on hand here, which is particularly well done when the conflict is between the heroes themselves (Hulk vs. Thor is a highlight), mixed with enough heart and humour to make this a cut above most comic book adaptations.

Mark Ruffalo replaces the overall superior Edward Norton as the temperamental Hulk, but the actor makes the role his own and does so confidently. Of course, Robert Downey Jr. is in his natural element as the fast-talking Tony Stark/Iron Man; his statistical quip about male performance is a masterstroke of ingenious comedy writing and delivery. Chris Evans and Chris Hemsworth are in perfect form as fish out of water Captain America and Thor respectively, and it is quite a joy to watch the former lead the pack. It is also great to see Samuel L. Jackson given more to do this time around as Nick Fury, even if the actor does not stray too far from his usual one-note performance style, and Clark Gregg’s Phil Coulson is always a welcome inclusion. Needless to say, Tom Hiddleston is so much fun as Loki and is the most perfect villain to sit in the centre of the ensuing chaos.

But the true heart of the film sits with Scarlett Johansson and Jeremy Renner as Black Widow and Hawkeye. As individuals, each performer is a scene-stealer and together, there is an undeniable chemistry that is rarely seen in superhero flicks. In a film (and, let’s face it, genre) that is pumping with testosterone, it is incredibly refreshing to see Johansson given so much to do and implement it flawlessly. Renner is equally strong and sensitive, and it is a testament to writer/director Joss Whedon’s skillfully constructed and executed script that Black Widow and Hawkeye are the most fleshed out and interesting characters here.

Admittedly, with so much going on and an assortment of characters with strong and clashing personalities in the mix, there is always the risk of overbearing convolution. But Whedon is a remarkably talented creative and keeps things well under control. However, Marvel’s The Avengers would have benefited from some taut trimming. The extensive climactic fight sequence in Manhattan is not only too long but feels a little too over-the-top, even for a comic book narrative, with an unnecessarily excessive amount of carnage.

Overall, it is pleasing to see that each hero (and the villains, for that matter) gets their own piece of the action. Although not flawless, this genuine crowd-pleaser is a fine example of why we go to the movies. 4½ / 5

 

Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Tom Hiddleston, Clark Gregg, Cobie Smulders, Stellan Skarsgård, Samuel L. Jackson, Gwyneth Paltrow, Maximiliano Hernández, Paul Bettany [voice], Alexis Denisof, Damion Poitier, Powers Boothe, Jenny Agutter, Stan Lee [cameo], Harry Dean Stanton [cameo], Jerzy Skolimowski, Enver Gjokaj.

Director: Joss Whedon | Producer: Kevin Feige | Writer: by Joss Whedon; Story: Zak Penn, Joss Whedon (based on The Avengers by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby) | Music: Alan Silvestri | Cinematographer: Seamus McGarvey | Editors: Jeffrey Ford, Lisa Lassek


MOONLIGHT (2016)

—Wayne Stellini, reviewing film.

A24

Chiron, a painfully shy and heavily bullied boy, comes of age in the low socioeconomic Liberty City, Miami. He finds parental figures with drug dealer Juan (Mahershala Ali) and his girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monáe), much to the suspicious disapproval of Paula (Naomie Harris), Chiron’s drug-addicted mother.

The dynamics and tensions among Chiron’s biological and surrogate families, his friends, and classmates set him on a path of emotional neglect and want.

Barry Jenkins’s beautifully photographed story pays homage to its unproduced stageplay roots, presented in three distinctive acts in which our protagonist Chiron goes from boy (played by Alex Hibbert) to adolescent (Ashton Sanders) to man (Trevante Rhodes). Because of this segmentation, Moonlight leaves plenty of information on the cutting room floor. What happens in the many years between the moments captured of Chiron’s troubled life are up to the audience to piece together or imagine.

The risk in such a narrative tool is that the audience is kept at bay, but Jenkins is a talented storyteller, drawing fine performances from Hibbert, Sanders, and Rhodes that their harmonious portrayals of Chiron keep us invested. Through Chiron, Jenkins presents a touching exploration of masculinity that shines like a full moon in a sky of tropes movie lovers are all too familiar with.

As Chiron’s surrogate parents, Ali and Monáe are stunning, suggesting that Moonlight could very well have been completely devoted to their complex relationship with the little boy lost and his mother. The importance of these early scenes is evident in the final act, in which Chiron reunites with childhood friend Kevin (André Holland). Here, Rhodes and Holland are heartbreaking, bringing to the surface the pain and loneliness we have been watching Chiron go through, when the narrative comes full circle.

Moonlight may have been a groundbreaking winner at the 2017 Academy Awards, but fanfare and accolades aside, it stands on its own as a beautiful portrait of masculinity. 4 / 5

 

Starring: Trevante Rhodes, André Holland, Janelle Monáe, Ashton Sanders, Jharrel Jerome, Naomie Harris, Mahershala Ali, Alex Hibbert

Director: Barry Jenkins | Producers: Adele Romanski, Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner | Writer: Barry Jenkins; Story: Tarell Alvin McCraney (Based on In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue by Tarell Alvin McCraney) | Music: Nicholas Britell | Cinematographer: James Laxton | Editors: Nat Sanders, Joi McMillon


MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS (2017)

—Wayne Stellini, reviewing film.

20th Century Fox

Famous Belgian detective Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh) acquires a spot on the Orient Express, a three-day train ride that is destined for London. On board, he is approached for protection by Samuel Ratchett (Johnny Depp), an unlikeable American businessman who has been receiving threatening messages.

Poirot declines the offer and that evening, hears noises coming from Ratchett’s compartment and sees a woman in a red kimono running down the hallway. Not long later, an avalanche derails the train and Ratchett is found murdered.

With an assortment of suspects, Poirot and Orient Express director Bouc (Tom Bateman) begin to investigate…

Actor/director Kenneth Branagh brings Agatha Christie’s famous detective to an audience, who may not be familiar with the book series or their numerous adaptations, in a polished production that has all the aesthetic charm of Hollywood’s golden era.

Indeed, contemporary cinema’s cream of the crop portray an assortment of suspects whose complexities are perhaps too constrained by the film’s timeframe to be anything more than archetypes; not all are fleshed out and most leave you wanting to know more about them. But that does not seem to matter as Branagh commands such attention with a charismatic and humorous portrayal of Poirot. His interactions with the top-notch ensemble keep this old fashioned mystery running at a steady pace.

Beautifully framed and photographed with a stunning colour pallet, Murder on the Orient Express is a refreshing offering in an era of studio films chasing the dollar with big budget comic book adaptations. 4 / 5

 

Starring: Kenneth Branagh, Penélope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Judi Dench, Johnny Depp, Josh Gad, Derek Jacobi, Leslie Odom Jr., Michelle Pfeiffer, Daisy Ridley, Tom Bateman, Olivia Colman, Lucy Boynton, Marwan Kenzari, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Sergei Polunin, Miranda Raison.

Director: Kenneth Branagh | Producers: Ridley Scott, Mark Gordon, Simon Kinberg, Kenneth Branagh, Judy Hofflund, Michael Schaefer | Writer: Michael Green (Based on Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie) | Music: Patrick Doyle | Cinematographer: Haris Zambarloukos | Editor: Mick Audsley


NYMPHOMANIAC (2013)

—Wayne Stellini, reviewing film.

Les Films du Losange

On a cold evening, bookish bachelor Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård) finds self-proclaimed nymphomaniac Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) lying beaten and bloody in the alleyway behind his apartment.

He takes her back to his home and listens to Joe recount stories about her assorted sexual experiences. Seligman uses his academic knowledge to contribute and delve into discussion, relating Joe’s exploits to everything from mathematics and mythology, to religion and fly fishing…

When Lars von Trier’s exploration of sexuality and interpersonal relationships was first edited, his opus ran at a staggering five-and-a-half-hours. Rather than cut it down, he decided to divide the piece into two separate films—Nymphomaniac Vol. I (145 minutes) and Nymphomaniac Vol. II (180 minutes). With his blessing, though without his direct involvement, the two volumes were censored and edited even more so for international audiences, leaving some ninety minutes on the cutting room floor. (It is these versions—at 117 minutes and 124 minutes respectively—that form the basis of this review.) The films were always intended to serve as one seamless story, and it is in this spirit that they should to be seen: an epic delivered in two acts.

The narrative is told by Charlotte Gainsbourg, whose portrayal of the unapologetic, hypersexual Joe, is beautifully complex and compelling. As a female protagonist, she is a refreshing presence, embracing the limitless possibilities of self-exploration, and is vulnerable, selfish, and honest. As the best heroes are, Joe is incredibly flawed but is never at a distance.

As with everyday recollections, not everything is told in a linear manner, however, Joe’s dialogue is so eloquently written that it is easy to be taken on this ride that, like everyday life, is exciting, dull, tender, and confronting. Undermining the narrative tool, though, is most—not all—exchanges between herself and Seligman. Stellan Skarsgård is intriguing as the sheltered loner, but his academic analogies, which is his only method of relating to Joe’s exploits, come too frequently and soften the story’s pace. They also, at times, feel as though von Trier has the compulsion to spoon-feed his audience so they understand the deeper layers of what he is trying to achieve with Nymphomaniac.

This aside, there are many positives to draw from the film, mainly the supporting performances that make up the eclectic folks impacted by Joe’s desire-driven existence. Shia LaBeouf is engrossing and his character Jerôme deserves a film unto himself. Jamie Bell is also unsurprisingly perfect, in a role that benefits from the actor’s intensity and restraint (no pun intended). Christian Slater is solid as Joe’s father, with Stacey Martin completely captivating as the younger Joe in the flashback scenes, as is Sophie Kennedy Clark as her adolescent friend B; and Mia Goth possesses a dangerous edge as Joe’s apprentice P.

The film is beautifully framed, sharply edited, and features a gorgeous colour pallet. Such aesthetics are enhanced by some touches of humour within the screenplay. Sample dialogue: “Would it be all right if I show the children the whoring bed?” Uma Thurman’s jilted wife, Mrs. H, asks Joe at one stage!

Overall, Nymphomaniac is a skilled example of substance and style. It may not always get the balance right, though the second-half feels more polished, it is a worthwhile, thought-provoking cinematic experience that will leave some seeking out the original, uncut 325-minute rendition. 4 / 5

 

Starring: Charlotte Gainsbourg, Stacy Martin, Stellan Skarsgård, Shia LaBeouf, Christian Slater, Jamie Bell, Uma Thurman, Willem Dafoe, Mia Goth, Sophie Kennedy Clark, Connie Nielsen, Michaël Pas, Jean-Marc Barr, Udo Kier.

Director: Lars von Trier | Producers: Marie Cecilie Gade, Louise Vesth | Writer: Lars von Trier | Cinematographer: Manuel Alberto Claro | Editors: Molly Marlene Stensgaard, Morten Højbjerg


ORCA (1977)

—Wayne Stellini, reviewing film.

Paramount Pictures / Dino De Laurentiis Company

In the business of capturing marine animals for a local aquarium, Captain Nolan (Richard Harris) harpoons a pregnant orca who miscarries and subsequently dies.

Overcome by grief and anger, her mate goes on a rampage against Nolan, his crew, and associates… stopping at nothing until the captain himself has paid for the loss of the orca’s family.

The first in a slew of major productions to rip off Steven Spielberg’s Jaws (1975), Orca falls short in every department. As its own production and without comparison to history-making masterpieces, however, Michael Anderson’s creature feature is a generally entertaining affair.

The film is quick to get straight into the action. And while the continuity of the footage used (natural stock versus artificial “movie magic”) is questionable thanks to the differing colour of the water, some nifty camera work and editing make the opening sequences relatively compelling. The first act climaxes with our titular mammal’s motivation; the unsettling miscarriage and disposal of his child, followed by the suicide of his mate.

In order to keep things as believable as possible, the story involves scientists and experts providing plenty of information relating to killer whales and therefore predicting and justifying the very concept of the film. However, it does not all quite come together. The main reason is that, even in creature features, it is the people that matter most. Richard Harris’s Captain Nolan is too unlikeable to be accessible; his aggressiveness is too prominent, too early on in the piece that the eventual revelation of his empathy for the avenging orca is diluted. Additionally, Orca’s story structure may begin with an effective hook, but fails to maintain it with two-dimensional archetypes, an inconsistent pace, and Carol Connors’s atrocious ballad ‘My Love, We Are One’ to round it all off.

But do not be overwhelmed by the film’s shortcomings. Even though Orca tries hard and fails to achieve what it sets out to, what it does offer still has some value. Taken in the right spirit, the film can be either fun or tragic. The action works incredibly well and the whale is believable enough to keep the audience invested in its plight. It is also the most likeable and fascinating character here.

Upon initial release, this cult classic was torn to pieces by the critics and saw modest box office returns. Admittedly, Orca is perhaps best enjoyed with a cold beer in one hand and a slice of pizza in the other. 3 / 5

 

Starring: Richard Harris, Charlotte Rampling, Will Sampson, Bo Derek, Keenan Wynn, Robert Carradine, Peter Hooten, Scott Walker, Don “Red” Barry, Yaka, Nepo.

Director: Michael Anderson | Producers: Dino De Laurentiis, Luciano Vincenzoni | Writers: Luciano Vincenzoni, Sergio Donati, Robert Towne (uncredited) | Music: Ennio Morricone | Cinematographers: J. Barry Herron, Ted Moore | Editors: John Bloom, Marion Rothman, Ralph E. Winters


THE ORVILLE, Season 1 (2017)

—Ashley Hall, reviewing television.

20th Television

Ed Mercer (Seth MacFarlane), an officer in the Planetary Union’s line of exploratory space vessels, is given a ship called The Orville as his first command, only to discover that his ex-wife, Kelly Grayson (Adrianne Palicki), has been assigned to be his First Officer…

The Orville is a great show. I’ll start off by saying that sure, Star Trek lookalikes are a dime a dozen, but not by Seth MacFarlane.

In his typical fashion, MacFarlane delivers something fresh, hilarious, and very on-point. I have been glued to the screen throughout the first season. There are a few social commentaries as well as uncomfortable situations and plot points; all of these panned out wonderfully and concluded beyond satisfactorily with a lot of intelligence. Much thought has been put into the writing, directing, and acting.

The delivery of MacFarlane and the writers’ material is perfect in The Orville. The casting is exactly as it should be and nobody you feel as though no other group of actors should play these characters. They look, feel, sound, and even smell the part.

All in all MacFarlane has created a truly wonderful and gripping show that I would recommend to anyone of almost any age.

Happy viewing, people, and most of all… have fun! 3½ / 5

 

Starring: Seth MacFarlane, Adrianne Palicki, Penny Johnson Jerald, Scott Grimes, Peter Macon, Halston Sage, J. Lee, Mark Jackson, Victor Garber, Chad Coleman, Norm Macdonald.

Creator: Seth MacFarlane | Executive Producers: Seth MacFarlane, Brannon Braga, David A. Goodman, Jason Clark, Jon Favreau (pilot), Liz Heldens, Lili Fuller | Theme Music: Bruce Broughton


PAPER PLANES (2015)

—Wayne Stellini, reviewing film.

Roadshow Films.

Upon discovering that he has a talent for making paper aeroplanes, Dylan Webber (Ed Oxenbould) works towards competing in the World Paper Plane Championships in Japan, if only to reconnect with his grieving father (Sam Worthington).

Paper Planes’s premise is simple and there aren’t any surprises lurking within Robert Connolly and Steve Worland’s sometimes corny screenplay. But, when you have a film that is abundant in positive messages and innocent charm, who cares?

The hero of the piece, upon whose shoulders the success of the film rests, is Oxenbould, who is one of the most likeable young actors cinema has offered in a long time. His rapport with other male cast members allows for an interesting depiction of masculinities, and offers some lovely scenes between Dylan and his father, portrayed by an underused but nonetheless solid Worthington, and grandfather, a charismatic Terry Norris. There are only two noteworthy speaking roles for women here, played by Ena Imai and Deborah Mailman; the latter isn’t given much to do, but Mailman is such a strong screen presence, she makes the most with very little.

Beautifully photographed by Tristan Milani, Connolly’s pint-sized underdog story will not only appeal to its young target audience, but will find favour with accompanying adults. You would have to be an absolute cynic not to get caught up in Dylan’s quest to be a winner. 3½ / 5

 

Starring: Sam Worthington, Ed Oxenbould, Ena Imai, Nicholas Bakopoulos-Cooke, Julian Dennison, David Wenham, Deborah Mailman, Peter Rowsthorn, Terry Norris.

Director: Robert Connolly | Producers: Robert Connolly, Liz Kearney, Maggie Miles | Writers: Robert Connolly, Steve Worland | Music: Nigel Westlake | Cinematographer: Tristan Milani | Editor: Nick Meyers


PITCH PERFECT 3 (2017)

—Kendall Richardson, reviewing film.

Universal Pictures.

Three years after winning the World Finals championship in Copenhagen, a cappella singing group the Bellas have graduated college and gone their separate ways.

Now in unfulfilling jobs and desperate to see each other again to sing once more, Beca (Anna Kendrick), Fat Amy (Rebel Wilson), Chloe (Brittany Snow), Aubrey (Anna Camp), Lilly (Hanna Mae Lee), Cynthia (Ester Dean), Florencia (Chrissie Fit), Jessica (Kelley Jakle), Ashley (Shelley Regner), and Stacie (Alexis Knapp) reunite to compete once more…

It’s the final curtain call for the aca-amazing Bellas! I’m happy to report that Pitch Perfect 3 escapes the pitfalls that can befall any third installment in a franchise: the magic that crafted the success of the first film tends to wane, the jokes made are almost always the same causing the shtick to get old fast, and the storylines can head into shark-jumping territory. This film escapes them by the skin of its teeth, but escapes them nonetheless.

This time around the Bellas reunite to perform at USO shows across Europe, and find themselves competing with the other acts for a chance to open for DJ Khaled. Anna Kendrick is a joy to watch as always as the talented music producer Beca Mitchell, reaffirming effortlessly to her audience why she is the lead of this wonderful ensemble cast. Rebel Wilson’s Fat Amy is back and still hilarious! Whilst her comedy isn’t as memorable this time around, she does well with what she’s given, leaving the viewer in stitches. Also enjoyable are Brittany Snow’s Chloe and Anna Camp’s Aubrey; the former getting herself a love interest, and the latter showing us how much she’s grown since the first film as we learn about her military father.

Speaking of fathers, John Lithgow shows up as a different than Daddy’s Home 2 Dad, giving the Aussie accent a half-decent crack as Fat Amy’s criminal and estranged papa. That’s where the shark-jumping pitfall is approached, but thankfully the slightly outlandish storyline works due to Wilson going full Black Widow on her dad’s goons and the Bellas scintillating take on Toxic (It’s Britney, Pitch!). The only disappointing thing for me was the lack of screen time given to the other USO acts. One of the best parts about the previous two movies has been the rivalry between the Bellas and their enemy teams, and unfortunately they only seem to touch on it briefly throughout the film. Although the riff-off scene when they first meet is very entertaining.

Without spoiling too much about the ending, I will say that it is a perfect (pun intended) and emotional conclusion to the trilogy, as it really highlights the bond shared between the Bellas, whilst simultaneously launching Beca into the career she truly deserves. 3½ / 5

 

Starring: Anna Kendrick, Rebel Wilson, Brittany Snow, Anna Camp, Hailee Steinfeld, Hana Mae Lee, Ester Dean, Chrissie Fit, Kelley Jakle, Shelley Regner, Alexis Knapp, John Michael Higgins, Elizabeth Banks, John Lithgow, Matt Lanter, Guy Burnett, DJ Khaled, Ruby Rose, Andy Allo, Venzella Joy Williams, Hannah Fairlight, Whiskey Shivers, Trinidad James, D.J. Looney, Troy Ian Hall, Jessica Chaffin, Moises Arias, Michael Rose.

Director: Trish Sie | Producers: Elizabeth Banks, Paul Brooks, Max Handelman | Writers: Kay Cannon, Mike White (Story by Kay Cannon) | Music: Christopher Lennertz | Cinematographer: Matthew Clark Labiano | Editors: Craig Alpert, Colin Patton


POCAHONTAS (1995)

—Fulya Kantarmaci, reviewing film.

Walt Disney Pictures / Walt Disney Feature Animation / Buena Vista Pictures

Two different people from different cultural backgrounds find each other on their own quests; one is seeking a path to riches and glory, while the other is seeking a path to love…

Pocahontas opens with the patriotic song ‘Virginia Company’, showing English settlers getting ready to venture off to find new land. Fast forward to a village of Native Americans peacefully going about their day harvesting food and preparing for the return of the village warriors.

Two diverse worlds that will soon collide.

This is a love story like no other, taking you on a journey of spirituality and emotion. You have Pocahontas (Irene Bedard), who follows her own path and listens to the wind to guide her. And then you have John Smith (Mel Gibson), an adventure-seeking captain who talks of finding gold and fighting ‘Injuns.’

Native American Pocahontas is searching for the right path to follow after her father, Chief Powhatan (Russell Means), tells her that she will marry the village’s best warrior, Kocoum (James Apaumut Fall). Pocahontas feels that she will not be happy with Kocoum because he is too serious and not free spirited like herself. She ventures off into the forest to receive advice from her Grandmother Willow (Linda Hunt)—a talking willow tree. Grandmother Willow tells Pocahontas to listen to the wind (and her heart) to guide her down the path she seeks.

On the other side of the land, Governor Ratcliffe (David Ogden Stiers) has his crew build ‘Jamestown’ and mine the non-existent gold. John Smith decides to go for a walk and have a look around through the forest to make sure there are no immediate threats to the camp such as ‘savages’. Through this short journey, Smith realises he is not alone and hides behind a waterfall. Curious about the white man she has discovered and wanting to get a closer look, Pocahontas climbs down to the water’s edge, startling Smith, who points his musket right at her. He sees who it is and lowers his gun, mesmerised by her beauty. They are both a little wary of each other but John is the first to break the ice.

As the film progresses, the settlers find out that there are natives living on ‘their’ land and vice versa. Both sides think they are there to cause chaos and mayhem so they keep a watchful eye on one another. However, Pocahontas and Smith begin to fall in love and soon discover, to their surprise, that a war between the natives and the settlers is about to break out. This is their chance to talk the leaders out of any conflict and try a different approach. The Chief reluctantly agrees to Pocahontas’ suggestion but Ratcliffe is suspicious of Smith’s suggestion.

By now, Pocahontas and Smith are deeply in love and share a first kiss. Unfortunately, they were not alone, secretly watched by his friend Thomas (Christian Bale) and by her betrothed Kocoum.

[WARNING: The following scene contains plot spoilers.]

You’re probably wondering why I didn’t choose one of the more obvious love stories like Cinderella (1950) or Beauty and the Beast (1991). Growing up, Pocahontas was one of my favourite Disney films and I never really dreamt of being a princess so the fairy tales didn’t resonate with me.

When this film was released in 1995, it was greeted with mixed reactions. Reviewers said they enjoyed the music and the animation, however criticised the story because it didn’t quite follow the historical tale of Pocahontas. I, for one, like the music, the animation AND the story. The film is  unique and the music just sweeps me away to another world—including the songs, which are something special.

There are six songs in the film along with many beautiful scores; all of which are emotional and entertaining in their own way. My favourite songs from the soundtrack would have to be one of the opening titles ‘Steady as a Beating Drum’—the music in gives me goosebumps every time I hear it! Another song I enjoy listening to is ‘Just Around the Riverbend’. The lyrics makes me stop and think about my dreams and what course to take, so it definitely creates an emotional feeling within me.

One of the more entertaining tracks is ‘Mine, Mine, Mine’, sung by Governor Ratcliffe (Ogden Stiers) and featuring John Smith (Corey Burton singing for Gibson). Ratcliffe sings of wealth and status hoping he can find gold. Smith then comes in singing about owning the land and the challenges he may face. Both have slightly different goals but essentially state they are after the riches of the country. Listening to this song always makes me chuckle and I tend to sing along to it.

Overall, Pocahontas is a moving film that teaches everyone a lesson on communication, respect, and how violence doesn’t resolve anything. I would recommend this movie to anyone who doesn’t mind their history skewed and loves a little romance.  And remember, in order to find the path you seek, you must “…listen with your heart. You will understand.” 4 / 5

 

Starring: Irene Bedard, Mel Gibson David Ogden Stiers John Kassir, Russell Means, Christian Bale, Linda Hunt, Danny Mann, Billy Connolly, Frank Welker, Michelle St. John, James Apaumut Fall, Gordon Tootoosis, Judy Kuhn, Corey Burton, Jim Cummings.

Directors: Mike Gabriel, Eric Goldberg | Writers: Carl Binder, Susannah Grant, Philip LaZebnik (Story: Glen Keane, Joe Grant, Ralph Zondag, Burny Mattinson, Ed Gombert, Kaan Kalyon, Francis Glebas, Robert Gibbs, Bruce Morris, Todd Kurosawa, Duncan Marjoribanks, Chris Buck) | Producer: Jim Pentecost | Music: Alan Menken | Editor: H. Lee Peterson


READY PLAYER ONE (2018)

—Kendall Richardson, reviewing film.

Warner Bros. Pictures / Amblin Entertainment / Village Roadshow Pictures / De Line Pictures / Access Entertainment / Farah Films & Management

2018 was the perfect year for Ready Player One to be released. It contains so many of the things about current pop culture and technology we are excited about, and also rides the nostalgia wave quite successfully. When you think about it, this futuristic version of our lives does not really seem that farfetched or far away, for that matter. The quality and popularity of gaming is at an all-time high, and virtual reality headsets are becoming commonplace in electronic stores worldwide—a prime example of science fiction becoming fact.

Ready Player One is directed by non-other than the legend that is Steven Spielberg, and based on what some refer to as a pop culture bible, author Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One, which was published in 2011. Sadly, I have not had the fortune of reading the book yet, but from what I’ve been told, Spielberg, screenwriter Zak Penn, and Cline (who also contributed to the screenplay) collaboratively made several changes to the source material when adapting it for the big screen. I have also been told that whilst these changes are radically different, they do not in any way ruin the book or the film, which is a rare thing when it comes to film adaptations that take the risk of making great changes. It obviously helped to have Cline working on the script.

The film follows our protagonist Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), a young man living in ‘The Stacks’ of Cleveland, Ohio. In reality, he is just an ordinary guy, living with his aunt (Susan Lynch), trying to get by. But in virtual reality, he assumes the avatar of Parzival, a CGI character that looks like a Final Fantasy and Dragon Ball Z love child. The premise of the film states that the creator of this virtual reality world known as the OASIS, has passed away, and has come up with a rather clever and challenging way to pass on his legacy and his company. There are three tasks that must be completed within the OASIS to obtain three keys. Once you have all three, you can unlock a door that leads to what he has so appropriately titled an Easter Egg (because this movie is full of them). Whoever reaches the Easter Egg first shall be granted total control of the OASIS and all of creator James Halliday’s assets.

Ready Player One is just as fun as it sounds, and the trailers did a perfect job of selling to you exactly what the film was going to be like without ruining too much of its plot. The visual effects are of course off the charts, and they had to be in order to sell the OASIS to the viewer convincingly. But the amount of pop culture references and yes, Easter eggs, in this film is just insane. Parzival races in non-other than the DeLorean from Back to the Future, there’s Jurassic Park’s T-Rex and the mighty King Kong chasing you down. There is a glorious, and my favourite part of the movie, homage to Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, where our main characters spend some time in the infamous Overlook Hotel, and it is just beautifully done. There’s also a bunch of gaming references, so if you are a gamer, you will fall in love with this movie. And then there’s Batman, Harley Quinn, Freddie Krueger, and the Iron Giant just to name a few.

And to top it off, adding to the nostalgia kick, is the super cool ‘80s-heavy soundtrack—the movie opens with Van Halen’s ‘Jump’ and it only gets better from there. The performances from the relatively unknown cast are really wonderful and endearing; it’s good to see some new names popping up in such a big film like this. Australian actor Ben Mendelsohn brings it as the film’s antagonist Sorrento, leader of rival company IOI, and Mark Rylance and Simon Pegg, who play the creators of the OASIS James Halliday and Ogden Morrow respectively, are lovely to watch every time they appear on screen.

So happy to say that Spielberg has done it again, giving us a really fun adventure film, which is right in his wheelhouse, and will surely become a part of the iconic films he is celebrated for. 4½ / 5

 

Starring: Tye Sheridan, Olivia Cooke, Ben Mendelsohn, T.J. Miller, Simon Pegg, Mark Rylance, Susan Lynch.

Director: Steven Spielberg | Producers: Steven Spielberg, Donald De Line, Dan Farah, Kristie Macosko Krieger | Writers: Zak Penn, Ernest Cline (based on Ready Player One by Ernest Cline) | Music: Alan Silvestri | Cinematographer: Janusz Kamiński | Editors: Michael Kahn, Sarah Broshar


RIOT (2018)

—Wayne Stellini, reviewing telefilm.

Werner Film Productions / Australian Broadcasting Corporation

In 1978, with the momentum to decriminalise homosexuality diminishing, a group of queer activists decide to take a different approach to their protesting and petitioning. Led by former union boss Lance Gowland (Damon Herriman), the activists choose to celebrate who they are in a public display of fancy dress and music down Sydney’s Oxford Street.

But ongoing tensions with the police promise to erupt into a mêlée…

Following the final curtain call, FRED the ALIEN Productions sent out surveys to those who had attended the 2018 Midsumma Festival season of our play Michael and Phillip Are Getting Married in the Morning. As always, the responses are as diverse as our audience—generally positive, nonetheless—but a bit of feedback made me scratch my head. This person felt that it “was a bit weird” that the character Graeme (Jeffrey Bryant Jones) would disown his son Michael (Bayne Bradshaw) in a violent rage because of Michael’s sexuality. Unfortunately, there is a long history of LGBTQIA+ individuals who would not find that weird at all, but if such a scenario is perceived to be relegated to the past, and coming out is no longer a potentially devastating scenario, then the telling of queer social, cultural, and civil rights histories has never been more important. With marriage equality still new to Australia, our collective memories surely cannot be that short?

Regardless, there is no questioning the appropriate and continued relevance that a film such as Riot has.

This is because the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras is one of Australia’s biggest tourist events and most colourful of street parties. It remains a contention among conservatives, but the slow swirl of social and civil progress has meant that the celebration of all things queer has persisted to increase in popularity and participation since its 1978 inception. Back then, it was a protest where a brave group of resilient individuals put everything on the line for appreciation, dignity, and respect; forty years later, the Australian queer community was awarded marriage equality and its associated legal benefits, but more needs to be done. It is in this spirit that Riot finds itself as a timely and necessary history lesson. Anti-discriminatory laws, social acceptance, and increasing civil rights make it easy for millennials to not truly appreciate the protections they have inherited from previous generations of activists.

Furthermore, it is great to see the collective known as the 78ers given individual names, personalities, and complexities. So it is also no surprise, then, that the people here are the most interesting component. As they manoeuvre through the political and social tensions of the 1970s, our story sweeps through a number of significant moments in history, covering obstacles and mini-milestones through the eyes and experiences of our ensemble, particularly Lance Gowland and Marg McMann, played by exceptional sincerity by Damon Herriman and Kate Box.

Riot, however, sometimes prioritises the politics over the people, making it difficult to have a strong level of attachment to everyone here. The film would have perhaps worked better as a miniseries, benefitting from an exploration of the political and social dynamics in greater detail, thereby allowing to delve into the characters impacted by them. For example, the gender politics and in-fighting between some of the gays and lesbians in the Campaign Against Moral Persecution is fascinating, but there simply isn’t enough running time to discuss the impact conflicting standpoints have on such an important social movement.

Although painted in broad stokes, it all comes together exceptionally well in the final act, where the first Mardi Gras takes place—talk about humble beginnings!—and its immediate ramifications reinforces the need to keep telling queer stories to a mainstream audience. 3½ / 5

 

Starring: Damon Herriman, Kate Box, Xavier Samuel, Jessica De Gouw, Josh Quong Tart, Kate Cheel, Eden Falk, Luke Fewster, Benedict Hardie, Patrick Jhanur, Hanna Mangan Lawrence, Shaun Martindale, George Mulis, Luke Mullins, Fern Sutherland.

Director: Jeffrey Walker | Producers: Louise Smith, Joanna Werner | Writer: Greg Waters (Story: Carrie Anderson) | Music: David Hirschfelder | Cinematographer: Martin McGrath | Editor: Geoffrey Lamb


THE SAND (2015)

—Wayne Stellini, reviewing film.

Taylor and Dodge

Following a rowdy Spring break party, eight classmates awake on the beach to discover that their friends are gone and that the sand has an appetite for flesh…

Sticking closely to genre tropes—and not that there is anything wrong with that—this has all the potential for a low budget masterpiece. However, even taking this for what it is, The Sand falls short of what could have been; you only need to look at the cult classic Tremors to see where this movie should have gone.

Instead, moments of intended tension are put aside to watch dull interpersonal relationships sort themselves out after spunk Jonah (Australian Idol contestant Dean Geyer) cheats on girlfriend Kaylee (Brooke Butler) with an unapologetic Chanda (Meagan Holder).

Thankfully, there’s still some silliness to enjoy here. The computer-generated gore is fun and Cynthia Murell is unintentionally hilarious as Ronnie; she “acts” (if this is what the profession will allow me to call it) in a manner that would make Tommy Wiseau proud! Every bit of her poorly written dialogue is so badly delivered, Murell at least elevates the movie to a far more enjoyable standard than it has any right to be. I found myself laughing out loud whenever she opened her mouth.

As for the rest of the cast, Cleo Berry spends most of his time in a bin with an ever-changing penis drawn on his face, former Playboy Playmate Nikki Leigh brings her expertise to the table, and it’s remarkable that Jamie Kennedy’s career has come to this.

Not to be taken seriously by any means, and best watched with a beer and pizza, but audiences deserved more from The Sand2 / 5

 

Starring: Brooke Butler, Meagan Holder, Cynthia Murell, Dean Geyer, Cleo Berry, Mitchel Musso, Hector David Jr., Nikki Leigh, Etalvia Cashin, Jamie Kennedy.

Director: Isaac Gabaeff | Producers: Gato Scatena, Jordan Rosner | Writers: Alex Greenfield, Ben Powell | Music: Vincent Gillioz | Cinematographer: Matt Wise | Editor: Sean Puglisi


SHAZAM! (2019)

—Kendall Richardson, reviewing film.

New Line Cinema / DC Films / The Safran Company / Seven Bucks Productions / Mad Ghost Productions / Warner Bros. Pictures

Courtesy of an ancient wizard, streetwise fourteen-year-old Billy Batson (Asher Angel) is able to turn into the adult superhero Shazam (Zachary Levi). However, he needs to master his new mighty skills in order to fight the deadly forces of evil controlled by Dr. Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong).

The best thing to come out of the superhero saturation of the movie market is the opportunity that has risen to make different kinds of superhero movies. They don’t all have to be carbon copies of each other. The Marvel Cinematic Universe is most known for doing this by crafting a spy thriller with Captain America: Winter Soldier (2014), fantasy epics in the Thor (2011-2017) films, and glorious sci-fi adventures with the Guardians of the Galaxy (2014-2017). They also have given us two wonderful family friendly films in Ant-Man (2015) and Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018), which is the genre Shazam! occupies fully and without shame or fear.

We appear to be at the beginning of DC following suit by switching things up and exploring brighter and more enjoyable alternatives to the dark and grittiness of the now long-gone days of Zack Snyder. Shazam! works so wonderfully as a family film and we the audience are so happy to reap the benefits. It actually calls to mind family films from the 1980s and 1990s, such as The Goonies (1985) and Jumanji (1995). It captures the magic in a manner that stories were told back then that makes this film feel familiar and welcoming, giving it that much more charm.

Speaking of magic, this is where the story of Shazam! begins. Both the hero and the villain of this tale are born from the wizard named Shazam, the last of his kind, who must pass down his abilities to a true Champion. The villain, Thaddeus Sivana, played by the scenery chewing Mark Strong, is seduced by the evil that Shazam is guarding: The Seven Deadly Sins, who here are depicted as ravenous, monstrous creatures. The hero, Billy Batson (Asher Angel), becomes the wizard’s only hope in stopping Sivana and returning the Sins to their prison. Angel gives a tremendous performance as foster kid Billy, mixing the many facets of his character so well. You laugh when he’s mischievous, you’re frustrated with his stubbornness, and your heart breaks for his loneliness. All he wants is to be reunited with his mother so he shuns his loving new foster family because he knows his real home is with her. Angel’s portrayal is truly touching. Another standout performer in the young cast is Jack Dylan Grazer as Freddy Freeman, Billy’s new foster brother who quickly becomes his best friend. You might recognize Grazer from his memorable portrayal of Eddie Kaspbrak in 2017’s It Chapter One. In Shazam! he proves to the audience he is a force of talent to be reckoned with. His comedic timing is simply top notch, as his plucky attitude and vulnerability are displayed in spades.

Although, Grazer would steal every scene he is in, if it weren’t for one Zachary Levi. There is literally no one else on this Earth that could play the childlike hero as good as Levi does. From the moment Billy cries the name SHAZAM! and transforms for the first time into his super alter ego, you will fall in love with Levi. He is no stranger to comedy, or superhero films for that matter, having played geeky Chuck Bartowski in the comedy action series Chuck and Fandral, one of Asgard’s Warriors Three in Thor: The Dark World (2013) and Thor: Ragnarok (2017). However this was the role he was born to play. He captures the innocence and larrikin nature of Billy Batson completely, as well as the awkwardness of being a fourteen-year-old in a full grown adult’s body—and with super powers to boot! This is where the best parts of the movie happen: the film’s comedy, the ways in which Grazer and Levi play off each other so hilariously, and even the big fight moments between Levi’s Shazam and Strong’s Sivana. There were moments of laughter so hard your stomach would ache and tears would fill your eyes.

And to think this film was directed by David F. Sandberg who, up until now, has made only horror films, including 2016’s terrifying Lights Out, and Conjuring Universe film, Annabelle Creation (2017). He helms his first blockbuster superhero film with complete ease, controlling the fun tone and the highly entertaining action sequences and special effects like a pro. It seems the man has potential to crossover and be a master of multiple genres. Maybe it is something Sandberg and DC/Warner Bros. can work on together in the coming years, seeing how this is the first huge shift in trajectory for the DCEU, as they finally bring comic book movies back to where they belong: a place of fun for the whole family. 4½ / 5

 

Starring: Zachary Levi, Mark Strong, Asher Angel, Jack Dylan Grazer, Djimon Hounsou, Faithe Herman, Grace Fulton, Michelle Borth, Ian Chen, Ross Butler, Jovan Armand, D. J. Cotrona, Marta Milans, Cooper Andrews, John Glover.

Director: David F. Sandberg | Writer: Henry Gayden (story by Henry Gayden and Darren Lemke, based on characters from DC Comics) | Producer: Peter Safran | Music: Benjamin Wallfisch | Cinematographer: Maxime Alexandre | Editor: Michel Aller


A SIMPLE FAVOR (2018)

—Kendall Richardson, reviewing film.

Lionsgate / Feigco Entertainment / Bron Studios

Stephanie (Anna Kendrick) seeks to uncover the truth behind her best friend Emily’s (Blake Lively) sudden disappearance from their small town. Joined by Emily’s husband Sean (Henry Golding), Stephanie’s investigation uncovers a series of betrayals, secrets, and more…

A Simple Favor is anything but simple. And that’s what makes it a very entertaining film. Based on the best seller by Darcey Bell, and after the film’s French style opening, we meet passionate Mum and vlogger Stephanie Smothers, played exceptionally well by Oscar nominee Anna Kendrick. She takes us through the current situation plaguing her life—the abrupt and mysterious disappearance of her best friend Emily Nelson, the role Blake Lively embodies that is just as stylish as it is absolute bonkers. In fact, pretty much all of the characters in this film are out of their gourds. Whether that’s something you can tell straight away or something you learn as the movie progresses, the one thing you know for sure is just how crazy everyone is by the time the credits are rolling. And, you know, that’s totally okay. So often in these movies with gorgeous leads, the characters are one note, lacking depth and anything else interesting about them. It is quite refreshing to meet these people who are flawed and are so much deeper than the beautiful exteriors they present to the world.

The first part of the movie is spent flashing back to the day Stephanie and Emily met, and their interesting relationship that followed up until Emily’s disappearance. The two women connect over their sons’ burgeoning friendship and constant play dates that see the boys upstairs doing who knows what, and the mothers downstairs making exquisite martinis at Emily’s insistence. However, there is no doubt in anyone’s mind that they love their sons, even though you see more of this from Stephanie than Emily respectively as the movie continues. Despite their characters being almost nothing alike, Kendrick and Lively share a very natural and rich onscreen chemistry. All of the dialogue during their scenes together feels completely natural and is a testament to their wonderful talent as actors.

Once Emily disappears, the film’s tone changes and heads down a darker path, taking it into weird black comedy territory. Stephanie makes some questionable decisions, such as shacking up with Emily’s husband, writer and college Professor Sean Townsend, played by Crazy Rich Asians star Henry Golding. But regardless of that fact, she nevertheless persists in learning all she can about Emily, why she disappeared, and whether or not she really is dead. Her vlog pops up throughout the film, with each entry becoming weirder than the last; her cheery disposition crumbling on camera. Blake Lively does great work with Emily, but the real star of this film is hands-down Anna Kendrick. She is so skilled at toeing the line between serious and silly, and it always makes her a joy to watch, and the main reason I had such a good time watching this story unfold.

Director Paul Feig (Bridesmaids, Ghostbusters) also proves to the audience he can hack it at the helm of a film that isn’t a run of the mill comedy. The film is extremely well shot and edited, and even with the change of tone, it doesn’t go too far with its dark subject matter that you end up with a different film than what you started with. He stays the course and handles it like a pro. So like I said, A Simple Favor is anything but simple, which I feel definitely makes it worth your time, and a fun time at that. 3½ / 5

 

Starring: Anna Kendrick, Blake Lively, Henry Golding, Ian Ho, Joshua Satine, Andrew Rannells, Glenda Braganza, Kelly McCormack, Aparna Nancherla, Dustin Milligan, Danielle Bourgon, Gia Sandhu, Rupert Friend, Eric Johnson, Linda Cardellini, Paul Jurewicz, Sarah Baker, Jean Smart, Bashir Salahuddin.

Director: Paul Feig | Producers: Paul Feig, Jessie Henderson | Writer: Jessica Sharzer (based on A Simple Favor by Darcey Bell) | Music: Theodore Shapiro | Cinematographer: John Schwartzman | Editor: Brent White


SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING (2017)

—Wayne Stellini, reviewing film.

Columbia Pictures, Marvel Studios, Pascal Pictures, Sony Pictures Releasing

Peter Parker (Tom Holland) tries to stop Adrian ‘The Vulture’ Toomes (Michael Keaton) from selling weapons made with advanced Chitauri technology while trying to balance his life as an ordinary high school student.

Tom Holland swings into action as everyone’s favourite friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man. As teased in Captain America: Civil War (2016), Holland’s take on the hero is a more youthful, energetic, and—considering the character’s age—believable one than previous incarnations.

But the strength of Spider-Man: Homecoming is rooted in its screenplay. With a staggering six writers attributed to it (and perhaps more uncredited), you would be forgiven for expecting the story to be a bit of a mess, as is usually the case. However, nothing could be further from the truth. What works best about the story is its simplicity. Also, Spider-Man is so engrained in popular culture, having been portrayed on television and in film since the 1970s by The Sound of Music’s Nicholas Hammond, the perfectly cast Tobey Maguire, and the grossly underrated Andrew Garfield. Therefore, the detailed origin of the character, encompassing a spider bite and the death of his uncle, is unnecessary.

In the spirit of The Incredible Hulk (2008), though lacking its punchy pacing, Spider-Man: Homecoming is a fun caper in which humour is used to great effect. Director Jon Watts knows he’s onto a winner with the casting of Jacob Batalon as Ned and Marisa Tomei’s final line is the icing on the cake. (Though it’s Chris Evans who proves to be the true scene-stealer.) The action sequences are handled meticulously and the film is quite exciting when things get going.

Although running too long and perhaps not the best Spider-Man story to hit the big screen, it is nonetheless an incredibly well-made comic book movie and breathes some fresh air into the character’s legacy as well as the extensive cinematic universe it is a part of. 4 / 5

Starring: Tom Holland, Michael Keaton, Jon Favreau, Zendaya, Donald Glover, Tyne Daly, Marisa Tomei, Robert Downey Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, Kerry Condon, Chris Evans, Jacob Batalon, Laura Harrier, Tony Revolori, Garcelle Beauvais Jennifer Connelly [voice], Hemky Madera, Bokeem Woodbine, Logan Marshall-Green, Michael Chernus, Michael Mando, Christopher Berry, Kenneth Choi, Hannibal Buress, Martin Starr, Selenis Leyva, Tunde Adebimpe, John Penick, Isabella Amara, Jorge Lendeborg Jr., J. J. Totah, Abraham Attah, Tiffany Espensen, Angourie Rice, Michael Barbieri, Ethan Dizon, Martha Kelly, Kirk Thatcher [cameo], Stan Lee [cameo].

Director: Jon Watts | Producers: Kevin Feige, Amy Pascal | Writers: Jonathan Goldstein, John Francis Daley, Jon Watts, Christopher Ford, Chris McKenna, Erik Sommers; Story: Jonathan Goldstein, John Francis Daley (based on Spider-Man by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko) | Music: Michael Giacchino | Cinematographers: Salvatore Totino | Editors: Dan Lebental, Debbie Berman


A STAR IS BORN (2018)

—Kendall Richardson, reviewing film.

Warner Bros. Pictures / Live Nation Productions / Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures / Gerber Pictures / Peters Entertainment / Joint Effort

Hard-drinking musician Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper) discovers and falls in love with young singer Ally Campana (Lady Gaga). But as he star rises, his begins to diminish…

The word remake can be an ugly one, but I think this film might be on track to change the minds of the population. This is the fourth time the story of A Star Is Born has been told; first in 1937, then in 1954 with the legendary Judy Garland, again in 1974 with icons Kris Kristofferson and Barbra Streisand, and now here in 2018, with Bradley Cooper and the one and only Lady Gaga. I feel this film is set to certify the latter pair as performing legends. It is just phenomenal to think this is Cooper’s directorial debut and Gaga’s first time as a leading lady in a motion picture. They make it look as easy as the sky is blue.

The tale of A Star Is Born introduces us to Jackson Maine (Cooper), a living legend, as it were, of the music industry, but one whose star might be about to fade, or is at least becoming clouded with drugs and alcohol. This is Bradley Cooper like we have never seen him before, with a low gravelly drawl, a little withdrawn and troubled, who yet carries himself with a commanding presence, especially on stage where he comes alive. He nails the world-weary rock star with the same amount of ease you see in his direction. It’s a lovely understated performance and he charms you in every scene.

Then Ally (Lady Gaga) arrives. From her first moments on screen, we know this is Lady Gaga, Mother Monster as she is known to her legions of fans worldwide, yet we do not recognise her at all; although Ally does seem to share some of her feistiness as well as her musical talent. In fact, Ally’s story and Gaga’s are not entirely dissimilar. Just like our heroine, Gaga was turned down and turned away in the early days of her career, until finally someone took a chance on her. The rest, they say, is history. Her portrayal of Ally is just sheer perfection. She carries the role with guts and grace, and a beautifully depicted vulnerability. The way Gaga emotes with her face and eyes, from the subtle glances to the biggest of smiles, is wonderful to watch.

After a fateful night involving drag queens and dive bars, Jack is unable to leave Ally’s side until the sun rises. She sings for him, she writes a song on the spot, and the look on his face says it all. Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga have an onscreen chemistry for the ages. The love you see depicted between them feels so real and will well up your heart with hope. The best scenes come when the two of them share the stage. I just love everything about it. And Bradley can siiiiing! The vocals for the film were all recorded live—none of it was lip synced. The soundtrack to this film is exceptional. Obviously ‘Shallow’ is a major highlight, but songs like ‘Maybe It’s Time’, ‘Always Remember Us This Way’, and ‘I’ll Never Love Again’ are incredible pieces of music and lyrics that will tug at your heartstrings, and move you long after the credits have finished rolling.

It’s fair to say I think A Star Is Born is one of the best movies of 2018. I always knew it would be good, but I had absolutely no idea how good. It is a fine piece of cinema and entertainment that has clearly been crafted with love, time, and hard work. And the hard work has certainly paid off.

Pretty good for a remake, huh? 5 / 5

 

Starring: Bradley Cooper, Lady Gaga, Sam Elliott, Dave Chappelle, Andrew Dice Clay, Anthony Ramos, Michael Harney, Rafi Gavron.

Director: Bradley Cooper | Producers: Bill Gerber, Jon Peters, Bradley Cooper, Todd Phillips, Lynette Howell Taylor | Writers: Eric Roth, Bradley Cooper, Will Fetters (based on A Star Is Born by William A. Wellman, Robert Carson, Dorothy Parker, and Alan Campbell) | Cinematographer: Matthew Libatique | Editor: Jay Cassidy


STRANGER THINGS, Season 3 (2019)

—Kendall Richardson, reviewing television.

21 Laps Entertainment / Monkey Massacre / Netflix

In the summer of 1985, the new and contentious Starcourt Mall has become the focal point of Hawkins. Sheriff Jim Hopper (David Harbour) is conflicted over Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) and Mike’s (Finn Wolfhard) budding relationship, while Joyce (Winona Ryder) considers moving out of town for better prospects.

However, strange power fluctuations trigger Will’s (Noah Schnapp) awareness of something otherworldly, while Eleven and Max (Sadie Sink) sense something is off about the town’s residents. Despite having closed the portal to the Upside Down, the girls fear that they are all in danger from it still…

I’d say it’s official: Stranger Things has replaced Game of Thrones as the world’s most popular TV show. Season three has already become the most watched thing on Netflix and, at the time of writing, has only been out for a week. But there is good reason for this. The two-year wait between seasons was a long one, so anticipations and expectations were high. And given its completely natural binge-ability, it really feels like an eight-hour movie, and one that is paced extremely well. Also, we are addicted to the nostalgia fix Stranger Things is more than happy to provide. It offers so much more than just basic escapism like other films and TV shows do; for many it returns them to their childhood and brings happy memories flooding back. But enough of why Stranger Things is so successful, let’s get into the nitty gritty of season three…

The creators of this excellent series, the Duffer brothers, are in complete control and know exactly what they’re doing. The big challenge this season, a part from finding a new way to enter the Upside Down, or rather the Upside Down enter our world, was dealing with the kids growing up. It’s been less than a year since the events of season two, yet so much has changed. The older kids, Steve (Joe Keery), Nancy (Natalia Dyer), and Jonathan (Charlie Heaton), are all graduated from high school and working adult jobs. Well, as adult as one can get dressed as a sailor working in an ice cream store. Here is where we meet the wonderful Robin (breakout star Maya Hawke), the perfect foil for Steve’s ego and just an amazing character in her own right. Hawke is definitely a major highlight of season three, which is no surprise given her famous parentage: Mum is Uma Thurman and Dad is Ethan Hawke. Keery is hilarious as Steve Harrington in this environment, trying and failing miserably to pick up girls, and I love his budding bromance with young Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo). Steve’s career path aside, this season did so well in reiterating why Nancy and Jonathan got together. Now both interns at the local Hawkins newspaper, the pair make an excellent journalistic team as well as a romantic couple, with both actors absolutely crushing it with their performances. Despite appearances, there are no damsels in distress in this show, with Dyer’s Nancy taking that trope and shoving it where the sun don’t shine.

As for our younger heroes, puberty is definitely happening, and the Duffer brothers have truly captured the innocence and awkwardness of it all. El (Millie Bobby Brown) and Mike (Finn Wolfhard) are now an inseparable couple, much to the chagrin of all their loved ones, especially temper-prone Hopper (David Harbour), who is now in full parent mode as El’s adoptive father. Brown and Wolfhard make an endearing on screen team, with the actors capturing the highs and lows of teen romance perfectly. Max (Sadie Sink) and Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) pair off as well, but are less intense than El and Mike. Hell, even Dustin gets a girl in the form of Suzie (Gabriella Pizzolo). This, unfortunately, leaves poor Will (Noah Schnapp) alone and he only ever wants to play D&D. Given everything that Will has been through, you really feel for him this season and kind of start hating the rest of the gang a bit for pushing him to the side. The entire essence of high school is portrayed wonderfully.

The story of this season is so well written, as it is told through three separate sub plots that all link up in the season’s final episode. The combination of Joyce (Winona Ryder) and Hopper was so entertaining, and their dynamic was thoroughly enjoyable. Joyce herself has come such a long way from the hysterical mother she was in season one and it is so good to see her become stronger through all these tragic experiences. Speaking of character growth, Billy (Dacre Montgomery) had a really surprising arc this season and your thoughts on him as a character will definitely be changed by the time the final credits roll. Big bad Mind Flayer’s physical presence was terrifying to be sure, but it felt so much more foreboding and sinister when in its shadow form in season two. Nevertheless, the evil creature was once again an epic villain, leaving so much more destruction in its wake than ever before.

There is so much to love within season three, including things beyond the acting and story. Of course the nostalgia is at an all-time high with this season, as the fashion and pop culture references take full advantage of the 1985 setting. Standouts include El and Max’s mall shopping spree (I seriously love those outfits), the music naturally, and the cinema in the mall, showing classics like Day of the Dead, Cocoon, and of course one of 1985’s biggest films, Back to the Future. Watching Stranger Things is basically like travelling through time as it is, and I cannot wait for season four to bring us straight back to that decade we all love so much. 5 / 5

 

Starring: Winona Ryder, David Harbour, Finn Wolfhard, Millie Bobby Brown, Gaten Matarazzo, Caleb McLaughlin, Noah Schnapp, Sadie Sink, Natalia Dyer, Charlie Heaton, Joe Keery, Dacre Montgomery, Maya Hawke, Priah Ferguson, Cara Buono, Joe Chrest, Andrey Ivchenko, Brett Gelman, Cary Elwes, Peggy Miley, Jake Busey, Francesca Reale, Michael Park, Alec Utgoff, Rob Morgan, John Reynolds, Arthur Darbinyan, Misha Kuznetsov

Directors: The Duffer Brothers, Shawn Levy, Uta Briesewitz. | Writers: The Duffer Brothers, William Bridges, Kate Trefey, Curtis Gwinn | Producers: Dan Cohen, Matt Duffer, Ross Duffer, Rand Geiger, Shawn Levy, Iain Paterson, Emily Morris, Curtis Gwinn, William Bridges, Paula Kramer | Music: Kyle Dixon, Michael Stein | Cinematographer: Tim Ives | Editors: Nat Fuller, Dean Zimmerman


SUMMERTIME (L’ESTATE ADDOSSO) (2016)

—Wayne Stellini, reviewing film.

Image courtesy of Venice Film Festival.

Wanting to discover himself and explore life outside of Rome, Marco (Brando Pacitto) travels to the United States, planning to stay with couple Matt (Taylor Frey) and Paul (Joseph Haro) in San Fransisco.

However, Marco’s carefree trip is hampered before it even begins when the conservative, homophobic Maria (Matilda Lutz) joins him unexpectedly. He barely knows and doesn’t really like her, but that all changes as Marco, Maria, Matt, and Paul develop a special connection over summer…

Gabriele Muccino‘s coming of age tale relies on a number of true and tested narrative frameworks, so much so that there are few surprises as Summertime‘s plot points unfold. This isn’t always a bad thing, mind you, since the film is an overall harmless exercise in the exploration of interpersonal relationships.

The success of Summertime rests on our four central characters, all of whom are holding back elements of their true selves to protect them from potential risks. Angel-faced Brando Pacitto is considerably likeable as Marco, narrating elements of his experiences with his new-found friends, and is contrasted by the solid Matilda Lutz whose character, nicknamed “the nun”, serves the purpose of frigid bitch-turned-sexpot quite nicely. As the seemingly perfect couple Matt and Paul, Taylor Frey and Joseph Haro are beautifully cast; their chemistry is remarkable and the backstory of their meeting might tick a lot of familiar boxes, but does so better than most have. Together, these four young actors give the otherwise underdeveloped script more appeal; they work their way through some pretty clunky and cringe-worthy dialogue (the scene in which Maria and Matt shout their suppressed frustrations to the ocean borders on embarrassing).

Unexceptional overall, and perhaps not really memorable, Summertime is nicely photographed and edited. The script is begging for more depth, having given us characters that are relatable and whose exploits we could easily follow over a TV series format.

Polished and aesthetically pleasing, this is still worth a look despite the flaws of its foundation. 3 / 5

 

Starring: Brando Pacitto, Matilda Lutz, Taylor Frey, Joseph Haro, Scott Bakula.

Director: Gabriele Muccino | Writers: Gabriele Muccino, Dale Nall | Producers: Marco Cohen, Fabrizio Donvito, Benedetto Habib | Music: Jovanotti | Cinematographer: Paolo Caimi | Editors: Valentina Brunetti, Alexandro Rodríguez


THOR (2011)

—Wayne Stellini, reviewing film.

Marvel Studios / Paramount Pictures

When his reckless actions reignites an ancient war, Asgard warrior Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is stripped of his godly power and banished to Earth, accompanied by his hammer Mjölnir, which is now protected by an enchantment that allows only the worthy to wield it.

Landing in New Mexico, he is discovered by astrophysicist Dr. Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), her assistant Darcy Lewis (Kat Dennings), and mentor Dr. Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgård). When Thor learns of the Mjölnir’s location, he sets out to retrieve it, unaware that his brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) has taken the throne of Asgard and that the evil Destroyer is headed for Earth…

Working best as a fish out of water story, Kenneth Branagh’s Thor is a consistently entertaining adventure that sticks to a familiar blueprint without ever feeling tiresome. Blending Norse mythology with comic book fantasy, the complicated plot is made accessible through an opening narration, exposition, and even being explained through a diagram (literally) at some point. This may, on the surface, sound a bit heavy-handed, but these storytelling methods are presented and brought together in a manner that feels natural; a difficult thing to accomplish for even the most skilled scriptwriters and directors.

Better still, there is a strong sense of fun about Ashley Edward Miller, Zack Stentz, and Don Payne’s screenplay. From the operatic melodrama on Asgard to the more straight-playing scenes in New Mexico, Branagh and cast treat the story and their characters with respect; while the commanding grandeur of Thor is impressive in his home realm, he is the source of humour on Earth, but we are never laughing at him. This, of course, comes down to Chris Hemsworth’s likeable portrayal of our titular hero, who is a beautiful mixture of strength, vulnerability, and charm.

Likewise, Natalie Portman is unsurprisingly exceptional as Dr. Jane Foster, a refreshingly three-dimensional love interest who is far more involved in the unfolding plot than most of her contemporaries are or predecessors have ever been. She is supported wonderfully by a scene-stealing Kat Dennings, who may not have much to do but does so much with what she’s given, and Marvel Cinematic Universe franchise regular Clark Gregg is always a joy to watch. On Asgard, Anthony Hopkins and Rene Russo deliver strong performances with minimal effort, but it must be said that Tom Hiddleston is the one to watch here, who is a natural as Thor’s mischievous and more layered brother Loki.

With well-choreographed and sharply edited action sequences, enhanced with more-often-than-not impressive visual effects, and a terrific score, Thor not only adds to its franchise but is fun popcorn entertainment in its own right. 4 / 5

Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Tom Hiddleston, Stellan Skarsgård, Colm Feore, Ray Stevenson, Idris Elba, Kat Dennings, Rene Russo, Anthony Hopkins, Tadanobu Asano, Josh Dallas, Jaimie Alexander, Clark Gregg, Adriana Barraza, Maximiliano Hernández, Joseph Gatt, Joshua Cox, Douglas Tait, Stan Lee, J. Michael Straczynski, Walter Simonson, Samuel L. Jackson [uncredited], Jeremy Renner [uncredited].

Director: Kenneth Branagh | Producer: Kevin Feige | Writers: Ashley Edward Miller, Zack Stentz, Don Payne; Story: J. Michael Straczynski, Mark Protosevich (based on Thor by Stan Lee, Larry Lieber, Jack Kirby) | Music: Patrick Doyle | Cinematographer: Haris Zambarloukos | Editor: Paul Rubell


THOR: RAGNAROK (2017)

—Wayne Stellini, reviewing film.

Marvel Studios / Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Deprived of his mighty hammer Mjolnir, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) must escape the other side of the universe to save his home, Asgard, from his older sister Hela (Cate Blanchett), the goddess of death.

Taika Waititi’s trademark wit is evident from the opening scene of Thor: Ragnarok, so we know that we’re in for a film that won’t take itself too seriously from the get-go. And, for the most part, this approach works.

The story is pretty straightforward with siblings battling and/or working with each other to serve the best interests of either themselves or the people of Asgard. With Thor and Hela representing good and evil respectively, it is of little surprise that man in the middle, Loki, is the most fun. We trust him at times, though we should know better by now, and marvel at his cheekiness and selfish endeavours. Needless to say, Tom Hiddleston steals the show as the god of mischeif, and his return to the Marvel Cinematic Universe only works in the extensive franchise’s favour.

Mr. Hiddleston is in good company, with Cate Blanchett having fun with an undemanding villainous role, Jeff Goldblum essentially playing a dictator version of his glorious self, and Tessa Thompson is excellent as Valkyrie. Waititi portrays Korg, a genteel rebel whose reason behind his failed uprising is by far the greatest gag in the entire franchise. Benedict Cumberbatch’s appearance as Doctor Strange is delightful, demonstrating that the character has merit in the franchise even if reiterating how pointless his solo adventure was at the same time.

As returning Avengers Thor and Hulk, Chris Hemsworth and Mark Ruffalo are comfortable and confident without being complacent. The pair have exceptional rapport—the result of numerous films under their belts—and those who have seen the characters’ storylines unfold and overlap throughout the course of the franchise believe the friendship depicted here. Hulk behaves like a spoilt teenager at times; finding the widespread acceptance and adoration he lacked on Earth, there are some lovely nuances to Ruffalo’s performance that keep Hulk relatable. As Bruce Banner, Ruffalo’s scenes with Hemsworth are fun and their opposing traits bounce off one another to great effect. My main gripe, however, is the manner in which Thor has been written and Hemsworth directed this time around. Hemsworth is unmistakably in fine form (you can’t knock his enthusiastic performance), but Thor sometimes speaks and acts in ways that is inconsistent with what we have seen before. His language can be overly informal and some of his physical gags make him the butt of the joke. The joy about Thor ever being away from Asgard is that he is a confident fish out of water, but he has some himbo-esque qualities here (and an unnecessary haircut) to give the audience a laugh.

But Thor: Ragnarok is clever and entertaining enough that it a) doesn’t need to push all of its humour as far as it does, and b) is so effective in achieving what it sets out to do that we can forgive it easily. The film has a gorgeous colour pallet, a terrific soundtrack, and is adequately paced. An overall engaging and thoroughly entertaining comic bookmovie that makes you wish there were like this one. 4½ / 5

Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, Cate Blanchett, Idris Elba, Jeff Goldblum, Tessa Thompson, Karl Urban, Mark Ruffalo, Anthony Hopkins, Tadanobu Asano, Ray Stevenson, Zachary Levi, Benedict Cumberbatch, Rachel House, Taika Waititi, Clancy Brown [voice], Sam Neill [cameo], Luke Hemsworth [cameo], Matt Damon [cameo], Scarlett Johansson [archival footage].

Director: Taika Waititi | Producer: Kevin Feige | Writers: Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle, Christopher L. Yost (based on Thor by Stan Lee, Larry Lieber, Jack Kirby) | Music: Mark Mothersbaugh | Cinematographer: Javier Aguirresarobe | Editors: Joel Negron, Zene Baker


 

THOR: THE DARK WORLD (2013)

—Wayne Stellini, reviewing film.

Marvel Studios / Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Thor (Chris Hemsworth) teams up with Loki (Tom Hiddleston) to save the Nine Realms from the Dark Elves, led by the vengeful Malekith (Christopher Eccleston) who intends to plunge the universe into darkness.

Despite having much going for it, it becomes evident, at least by the halfway point, that Thor: The Dark World, the eighth installment of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, is a missed opportunity. With the momentum of its predecessors, particularly the original Thor adventure, and a cast that is both confident and capable behind it, Alan Taylor‘s film falls flat in a number of places.

This is primarily because the combined efforts of writers Christopher Yost, Christopher Markus, and Stephen McFeely (who have some experience in bringing comic book stories to the screen) fail to weave a clear, engaging, and fun story. The plot comes across far more convoluted than necessary and the exposition doesn’t feel as smooth this time around. What’s more, there is nothing about Malekith, the central threat within the narrative, that is appealing. He is both dull and two-dimensional; a result of overzealous editing, as a quick web search has led me to believe.

There are, however, a number of things in Thor: The Dark World to truely enjoy. The visuals are pretty good (even though the colour pallet is a little glum) and most of the performances are top-rate. Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Kat Dennings, and Jonathan Howard do not disappoint, and you can’t help but wish that they were given more screen time together, since the scenes on Earth tend to work better than those elsewhere. Needless to say, Tom Hiddleston steals the show as Loki (THIS is how you write a villain), oozing a cheeky charm that keeps the audience on side even though we should know better by now.

Better in parts than as a whole, Thor: The Dark World is not a complete write-off and is a passable experience for fans of the franchise. But despite a gallant effort from the team, it doesn’t quite achieve what it sets out to do. 2½ / 5

 

Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Tom Hiddleston, Anthony Hopkins, Stellan Skarsgård, Idris Elba, Christopher Eccleston, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Kat Dennings, Ray Stevenson, Zachary Levi, Tadanobu Asano, Jaimie Alexander, Rene Russo, Alice Krige, Chris O’Dowd, Benicio del Toro, Ophelia Lovibond, Jonathan Howard, Tony Curran, Clive Russell, Richard Brake, Chris Evans [uncredited cameo], Stan Lee [cameo].

Director: Alan Taylor | Producer: Kevin Feige | Writers: Christopher Yost, Stephen McFeely, Christopher Markus; Story: Don Payne, Robert Rodat (based on Thor by Stan Lee, Larry Lieber, Jack Kirby) | Music: Brian Tyler | Cinematographer: Kramer Morgenthau | Editors: Dan Lebental, Wyatt Smith


THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI (2017)

—Kendall Richardson, reviewing film.

Fox Searchlight Pictures

Grieving the rape and murder of her teenage daughter seven months prior, Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) rents three billboards to call attention to the unsolved crime as well as question Sheriff Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) why this is so.

However, the billboards upset the townspeople, including the terminally ill Willoughby and his officer Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell)…

The title of this film alone suggests its Oscar worthiness, and so does the roster of talented actors that make up the cast. Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, and Sam Rockwell are names always associated with great performances, and in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, they don’t deliver anything less.

This film presents a snapshot into a dark and depressing tale that began long before the opening scene and continues way past the screen’s fade to black. But it approaches the heavy subject matter in such an honest, vulnerable, and at times hysterical manner, that you not only feel the weight of the events that have taken place, but you also feel a part of the small community that makes up Ebbing, Missouri.

McDormand gives a tour de force performance as Mildred Hayes, the mother of Angela Hayes (Kathryn Newton) who was brutally raped and murdered, and whose killer has not yet been brought to justice. The movie opens with her immediate decision to rent out three billboards, and call out the Ebbing Police Department for their failure in solving her daughter’s case. The billboards, a blood-red background with bold black writing on them read thusly: Raped while dying; And still no arrests?; How come, Chief Willoughby?

The Chief Willoughby in question is portrayed by Woody Harrelson; he’s a respected citizen of Ebbing, a husband to an Australian wife, played by Abbie Cornish, and father of two little girls. He’s also dying of cancer. He feels terrible about the Angela Hayes case, and despite the billboards singling him out, assures Mildred they have done and are doing everything they can to catch whoever is responsible.

And then there is Sam Rockwell’s Officer Jason Dixon. A man that is as despicable as he is dimwitted. Dixon is truly a character that provides most of the film’s shock and laughter almost simultaneously, and only could Rockwell portray that so efficiently. He is also given the most interesting character arc of this movie. Just when you think you’ve got him made, he does something or says something that truly surprises you.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is not only superbly acted, but also wonderfully shot and directed. The non-Missouri backdrop of North Carolina is simply stunning on the screen, filled with lush mountains and trees, gorgeous colours, and a lovely little town full of character, offsetting the dark nature of the story’s subject matter brilliantly. This film is a wonderfully crude and confronting piece, filled with humorous charm that will have you won over by the time the credits begin to roll. 4½ / 5

 

Starring: Frances McDormand, Sam Rockwell, Woody Harrelson, John Hawkes, Peter Dinklage, Caleb Landry Jones, Lucas Hedges, Abbie Cornish, Kerry Condon, Darrell Britt-Gibson, Željko Ivanek, Amanda Warren, Kathryn Newton, Samara Weaving, Clarke Peters, Sandy Martin, Brendan Sexton III.

Director: Martin McDonagh | Producers: Graham Broadbent, Pete Czernin, Martin McDonagh | Writer: Martin McDonagh | Music: Carter Burwell | Cinematographer: Ben Davis | Editor: Jon Gregory


TO ALL THE BOYS I’VE LOVED BEFORE (2018)

—Wayne Stellini, reviewing film.

Overbrook Entertainment / Awesomeness Films / Netflix

Awkward sixteen-year-old Lara Jean Song Covey’s life becomes complicated when her secret love letters get posted to her five crushes, including her sister’s ex-boyfriend…

Based on Jenny Han’s 2014 young adult novel, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before leaves one wondering if the weak link in the chain sits with the perils of adaptation or the source material itself. Another in a string of Netflix-distributed teen flicks, this particular offering looks quite promising on the surface. Finally, we have a romantic comedy whose protagonist doesn’t fit the typical WASP mould. Even better, she is from an incredibly underrepresented ethnicity.

It isn’t long until the film settles into all-too familiar territory, which isn’t always a bad thing. The cast tick all the boxes of particular archetypes, so there should be at least one person for its target audience to relate to. Lana Condor is particularly charming as Lara Jean. Though offering nothing new to the sweet, nerdy, neurotic character type, she is quite likeable, and it was a relief not see any Hello Kitty paraphernalia lurking about (take note, 13 Reasons Why).

However, where To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before falls flat—and does so quickly, mind you—is that as accessible as the characters are, most are two-dimensional and none are remotely interesting. Furthermore, the narrative becomes more painfully predictable as it goes along. There’s some flashes of effective humour here, but the overall film lacks any wow factor.

What is the point of having an Asian-American protagonist if the perspective isn’t any different? Why can’t any of Lara Jean’s crushes be from a similar ethnicity to hers—Asian blokes are just as desirable as Anglo-Saxon ones (thank you, 13 Reasons Why). And is there any valid justification why a significant part of Lara Jean’s heritage is reduced to a Korean yoghurt product found in a specialty grocery store? Also, where is the diversity in the supporting and background characters? (Drinking game: Even if you have a shot for every non-Caucasian person you see, you’ll still be sober by the end of the film.)

Alas, despite some redeeming features, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before is nothing special. The differentiation factor it does offer is merely window dressing for what is a tried, test, and pretty dull affair. 1½ / 5

 

Starring: Lana Condor, Noah Centineo, Janel Parrish, Anna Cathcart, Andrew Bachelor, Trezzo Mahoro, Madeleine Arthur, Emilija Baranac, Israel Broussard, John Corbett.

Director: Susan Johnson | Writer: Sofia Alvarez (based on the novel by Jenny Han) | Producers: Brian Robbins, James Lassiter, Will Smith, Matthew Kaplan | Music: Joe Wong | Cinematographer: Michael Fimognari | Editor: Phillip J. Bartell, Joe Klotz


THE TOWER (타워) (2012)

—Wayne Stellini, reviewing film.

CJ Entertainment

On Christmas Eve, a helicopter crashes into a luxury skyscraper, trapping an assortment of partygoers and residents inside. It’s a race against time as firefighters climb to the upper levels and the tower’s structure begins to succumb to the intense heat…

Disaster movies flourished in the 1970s, beginning with Airport (1970), and ruled by ‘Master of Disaster’ producer Irwin Allen, who was responsible for the genre’s masterpieces The Poseidon Adventure (1972) and The Towering Inferno (1974). A number of recent films have contributed to the catalogue of disaster epics, but none have come close to matching the X factor of the aforementioned classics.

Unsurprisingly, Kim Ji-hoon‘s The Tower owes much to The Towering Inferno. The screenplay’s structure mirrors its Hollywood muse, introducing an array of characters, many of whom are not given more than what their archetypical constraints permits, and isolates them in a burning building. Not all characters are accessible, but those that are add to the tension of the film as everyone’s life is on the line here.

Central to the story is busy single father Kim Sang-kyung, as Tower Sky’s manager Lee Dae-ho. He is in love with Seo Yoon-hee, the skyscraper’s restaurant manager, played by the stunning Son Ye-jin. It is their love for one another and protection of Dae-ho’s daughter Ha-na (Jo Min-ah) that contributes to a number of touching moments and intense action sequences. There are other characters that are worth investing in as well, such as rookie firefighter Lee Seon-woo (Do Ji-han) and Captain Kang Young-ki (Sol Kyung-gu). But not all are worth getting to know; it is perhaps no accident that the wealthiest and most socially powerful characters are the least interesting.

The Tower is also funnier than you would expect, mainly because of Jeon Bae-soo as cook Young-chul; his light touches are a welcome relief. The sentiment is a little overplayed at times (especially in the final act), hindering the momentum of some incredible action sequences: the helicopter smashing into the Tower Sky, panicked people rushing into and being trapped in a lift, crossing the sky bridge… the list goes on!

And this is where The Tower proves itself worthy of the admission ticket or DVD purchase. As an action piece, it is incredibly photographed, framed, and edited; there is no denying that the film is always good to look at. Overall, it’s an entertaining flick that found favour at its domestic box office.

The Master of Disaster himself would approve. 4 / 5

 

Starring: Sol Kyung-gu (설경구), Kim Sang-kyung (김상경), Son Ye-jin (손예진), Kim In-kwon (김인권), Ahn Sung-ki (안성기), Song Jae-ho (송재호), Lee Han-wi (이한위).

Director: Kim Ji-hoon (김지훈) | Producers: Lee Han-seung, Lee Su-man | Writers: Kim Sang-don, Heo Jun-seok (adapted by Kim Ji-hoon,Yoo Young-ah, Lee Min-jae) | Music: Kim Tae-seong | Cinematographer: Kim Young-ho | Editor: Kim Sang-bum, Kim Jae-bum


TOY STORY 4 (2019)

—Fulya Kantarmaci, reviewing film.

Walt Disney Pictures / Pixar Animation Studios

Woody (Tom Hanks) has to convince a spork named Forky (Tony Hale) that he is now a toy who means the world to kindergartener Bonnie (Madeleine McGraw) while also babysitting him throughout their adventures. Problem is, he has other things on his mind.

So, Andy has gone off to college and Woody and the gang ended up with Bonnie at the end of Toy Story 3 (2009). Years go by and Woody becomes one of the least played with toys by Bonnie which means he is no longer the leader of the toy gang. This is very disheartening for the sheriff so one day he decides to jump into Bonnie’s school bag to go with her to her kindergarten orientation. The poor little girl is seen looking scared and lonely when she is left in the classroom by her parents but finds pleasure in being creative with whatever she is given. At the end of the day, Bonnie goes home, drops off her backpack in her room and leaves. The toys come to life. Woody steps out of the bag, to the surprise of the rest of the toys, and introduces them to Bonnie’s new friend—Forky.

The moment we meet Forky, I am already in giggle mode! The plastic utensil is adamant that he is trash and not toy but Woody continues to try and convince him otherwise. The character of Forky is such a brilliant addition to the story because in reality, not all toys are store-bought in glitzy packaging. Tony Hale brings Forky to life and it is so good! The timidness of the character actually makes him very likeable.

As usual, Woody (played amazingly by Tom Hanks) is the lead character in the film with Bo Peep (Annie Pots) returning to the franchise. These two characters have a bond like no other and it’s so great to see Bo in such a different setting with such an open-minded view on the world around her. We also get to meet new toys in the antique store Woody happens to come across. Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendrix) is one of the dolls in this shop and is somewhat of a leader when we first come across her. She gives off this creepy-doll vibe at the beginning but then you realise what her ulterior motive really is.

Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) is also back with a more supportive role this time. After being told to use his “inner voice”, Buzz takes this a little too literally but it still works out well for him when he is trying to save the day as a good toy astronaut should. Tim Allen is probably one of my favourite comedic actors and his voice work with Buzz is always such a pleasure to watch.

A huge shout-out to Keanu Reeves, Keegan-Michael Key, and Jordan Peele (as Duke Kaboom, Ducky, and Bunny respectfully) for their awesome voice work in this film. We got a lot of laughs out of their characters and now I am a fan of them!

This is definitely worth watching no matter how old you are because you will have a lot of fun! And remember, always go “to infinity and beyond” in life. 4½ / 5

 

Starring: Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Annie Potts, Tony Hale, Keegan-Michael Key, Jordan Peele, Madeleine McGraw, Christina Hendricks, Keanu Reeves, Ally Maki, Jay Hernandez, Lori Alan, Joan Cusack, Bonnie Hunt, Kristen Schaal, Emily Davis, Wallace Shawn, John Ratzenberger, Blake Clark, June Squibb, Carl Weathers, Don Rickles, Estelle Harris, Jeff Garlin, Timothy Dalton, Jeff Pidgeon, John Morris, Jack McGraw, Laurie Metcalf, Lila Sage Bromley, Mel Brooks, Carol Burnett, Betty White, Carl Reiner, Alan Oppenheimer, Patricia Arquette, Bill Hader, Flea, Melissa Villaseñor, Rickey Henderson.

Director: Josh Cooley | Writers: Stephany Folsom, Andrew Stanton; Story: John Lasseter, Rashida Jones, Will McCormack, Josh Cooley, Valerie LaPointe, Martin Hynes, Stephany Folsom, Andrew Stanton | Producers: Jonas Rivera, Mark Nielsen | Music: Randy Newman | Cinematographers: Patrick Lin, Jean-Claude Kalache | Editor: Axel Geddes


THE TRIBES OF PALOS VERDES (2017)

Australian title: Waves

—Kendall Richardson, reviewing film.

The Firm / The Mark Gordon Company / Revek Entertainment / Truth Entertainment / IFC Films

Teenager Medina (Maika Monroe) finds refuge in surfing after moving with her family to the picturesque Palos Verdes, where old tensions resurface, including the breakdown of her parents’ marriage and her twin brother turning to drugs.

I tried surfing exactly one time, in high school, and I was useless at it. I’m not sure if I was lacking the right timing or strength, but I only managed to stand up on the board once. And I crashed immediately like the waves I was attempting to ride. Thankfully, I can say this movie is a lot more successful than my feeble surfing attempt. The young characters at the heart of The Tribes of Palos Verdes ride these waves with just as much ease as they pull at your heartstrings.

Based on the 1997 novel of the same name by Joy Nicholson, Tribes follows the life of sixteen-year-old Medina Mason, played exquisitely by Maika Monroe, and her family upon their arrival to the exclusive community of Palos Verdes, California. Monroe narrates as Medina, painting a picture that sounds beautiful, but her tone speaks quite the opposite. Immediately you know you are in for a rough ride with this film. Monroe excels in this coming of age story, feeling like the only sane person in it, despite her outcast status. It is wonderful to see her fall in love with the ocean, finding the only peace she can by surfing the waves, her escapism from the new home she feels trapped in.

Australian actor Cody Fern plays her twin brother, Jim, and he will break your heart. He fits in with the locals better than Medina, quickly making friends, but his bond with his twin never wavers, despite all of the obstacles thrown in their way. Jim’s descent into drug addicted waters is fuelled totally by the circumstances out of his control, and Fern does a beyond outstanding job of portraying his struggle and eventual loss of his own mind. I solely blame his parents, Phil (Justin Kirk) and Sandy (a remarkable Jennifer Garner) for the terrible journey that Jim ends up on. However the performance given by Fern causes you to never stop rooting for him, even as things just get worse and worse. He is wonderful to watch.

I found Jennifer Garner’s Sandy to be remarkable yes, but very conflicting. Garner is phenomenal but the character itself is very frustrating to watch. There are times when you want to sympathise with her, as she discovers her husband’s affair and struggles to handle the subsequent separation. But then we see her struggle as a complete mental breakdown—the woman clearly needs psychiatric care, yet there are no conversations in the film about wanting to get her some help beyond the occasional throw away lines referencing her ‘meds’. Her mind declines further and further, causing Jim’s own suffering, yet Medina stands almost idly by; she is caught between her warring parents and not actually taking any real action until near the end of the film. By then, of course, it is too late for this tribe of Palos Verdes.

Giles Dunning‘s cinematography offers some gorgeous visuals of the ocean and the surfers on the waves, conveying the same peace that Medina feels when she is a part of the sea. It also does a wonderful job of centring in on the sheer tragedy and drama of the Mason family, capturing the tale Medina tells with stunning shots and moving colours. If you can find this film, I highly recommend it. The waves are rough but their serenity will pull you in. 4 / 5

 

Starring: Jennifer Garner, Justin Kirk, Goran Višnjić, Elisabeth Röhm, Joely Fisher, Maika Monroe, Cody Fern , Stevie Lynn Jones, Alicia Silverstone, Noah Silver, Thomas Cocquerel, Milo Gibson, Alex Neustaedter, Alex Knost.

Directors: Emmett Malloy, Brendan Malloy | Writer: Karen Croner (based on the novel The Tribes of Palos Verdes by Joy Nicholson) | Producers: Robbie Brenner, Karen Croner | Music: Gustavo Santaolalla | Cinematographer: Giles Dunning | Editors: Tracy Adams, Luis Carballar


VENOM (2018)

—Kendall Richardson, reviewing film.

Columbia Pictures / Marvel Entertainment / Tencent Pictures / Arad Productions / Matt Tolmach Productions / Pascal Pictures / Sony Pictures Releasing

When investigative journalist Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy) accidentally becomes the host of an alien symbiote that gives him a violent super alter-ego called Venom, he must rely on his newfound powers to protect the world from a shadowy organisation looking for a symbiote of their own…

I’m not usually someone who would start off a review by telling people not to read the reviews, but here we are. When the early reactions and reviews started pouring in for Venom, I let out an audible “Oh” and words like “bummer” and “disappointing” were used. I’d had such high hopes for this film and I was really looking forward to it. And as a reviewer, I like to trust the words of my peers, because nine times out of ten, they’re usually right. I am therefore so relieved and thankful to say that this is that one time out of ten where they missed the mark. But to clarify, Venom is not an amazing film.

It doesn’t really hold a candle to anything the MCU or Deadpool has to offer. It is, however, not a bad film by any means. In fact, I found it quite enjoyable and it was surprisingly hilarious. It is basically your standard comic book movie fare, with some wicked action scenes and a couple of cheesy and unfortunate moments (I’m looking at you post credit scene with your over-the-top sequel set-up).

What makes Venom special, though, and worth your time is Tom Hardy’s performance as Eddie Brock. The Topher Grace portrayal of eleven years ago is worlds away from Hardy’s interpretation, as is director Ruben Fleischer’s (Zombieland, Gangster Squad) take on the titular anti-hero himself. This modern day Eddie Brock is in his element as a journalist, and whilst Hardy still doesn’t entirely look the part, he imbues Brock with unwavering determination and great morals.

But the film really gets going when Venom bonds with Eddie. The banter between them makes for the most entertaining moments. Watching the expressions change on Eddie’s face as he has a conversation with ‘himself’ is great fun. Hardy hits all of the comedic beats nicely. He also handles the action scenes like the pro he is, and with the amount of CGI involved, nothing looks faked or forced. Fleischer directs superbly in these moments, catching all the essential elements and leaving no loose ends. It’s a thrilling spectacle to take in. Speaking of the CGI, the design of the symbiotes is simply gorgeous. The liquid way in which they move and the gooey way in which they latch onto things all look super realistic. There’s not a moment of sloppy effects work that takes you out of the film.

Let’s talk about the supporting cast. Michelle Williams doesn’t get a whole lot to do as Hardy’s love interest Anne Weying, but she does well with what she’s given. She’s always a joy to see on screen and she has some nice chemistry with Hardy. Riz Ahmed’s portrayal of antagonist Carlton Drake is great, but it’s essentially your clichéd mad scientist with a God complex villain. Ahmed comes across naturally as such a nice guy, but when the time comes for him to show his mean face, he brings it quite convincingly, making up for his unoriginal bad guy. However, I wanted to see more of Jenny Slate’s character Dr. Dora Skirth. For an actress who is known primarily for her comedic talent and voice work, it’s wonderful to see her stretch her dramatic legs.

The film’s plot isn’t overly complicated and some parts worked better than others. If anything bothered me, it’s that certain things were easily predictable. But I suppose it can be hard in this day and age with the amount of comic book movies being made to always come away with something unexpected. Overall, Venom is a good, fun popcorn blockbuster that works well as they all do, as a form of escapism. Plus, it’s always nice for me to see my favourite city, San Francisco, looking beautiful as usual.

Make sure you stick around to the end of the credits, of course—this may not be the MCU, but it is still a Marvel movie. 3½ / 5

 

Starring: Tom Hardy, Michelle Williams, Riz Ahmed, Scott Haze, Reid Scott.

Director: Ruben Fleischer | Producers: Avi Arad, Matt Tolmach, Amy Pascal | Writers: Jeff Pinkner, Scott Rosenberg, Kelly Marcel (story by Jeff Pinkner and Scott Rosenberg; based on Venom by David Michelinie and Todd McFarlane) | Music: Ludwig Göransson | Cinematographer: Matthew Libatique | Editors: Maryann Brandon, Alan Baumgarten


VERÓNICA (2017)

—Wayne Stellini, reviewing film.

Apaches Entertainment / Expediente La Película A.I.E. / Film Factory / Sony Pictures International Productions

With her widowed mother Ana (Ana Torrent) working extensive hours, fifteen-year-old Verónica (Sandra Escacena) is responsible for looking after her younger siblings, twins Lucía (Bruna González) and Irene (Claudia Placer), and little brother Antoñito (Iván Chavero).

One day at school while the faculty and pupils are observing a solar eclipse, Verónica and two friends—Rosa (Ángela Fabián) and Diana (Carla Campra)—sneak into the basement and use a Ouija board to communicate with Verónica’s father.

But their seance brings forth a different entity; one that attaches itself to Verónica and terrorises her with increasing intensity…

Labeled as Spain’s answer to The Conjuring (2013) and promoted through Netflix as a film so scary, people couldn’t watch it to the end, Verónica is by no means the most terrifying or original film you will ever see. But this is not to say that it isn’t a good movie.

Unexceptional as it may be, Verónica delivers some effective seat-jumpers and is considerably captivating (without being overly riveting) throughout. Sandra Escacena is exceptional as our titular heroine; both likeable and relatable, hers is a compelling performance that drives the film when the action subsides. The supporting players also deliver fine performances, particularly Bruna González as Verónica’s sister Lucía, under Paco Plaza’s taut direction.

Overall, this is a competently made and beautifully photographed film, but Netflix subscribers who consider themselves horror aficionados may have pressed the stop button for a scarier alternative. For everyone else, Verónica is an intriguing ride, made even more so because it is based on actual events, and serves as a wonderful big screen debut for Escacena. May this mark the beginning of a lengthy and diverse career for this new talent. 3½ / 5

 

Starring: Sandra Escacena, Bruna González, Claudia Placer, Iván Chavero, Ana Torrent, Consuelo Trujillo, Sonia Almarcha, Maru Valduvielso, Leticia Dolera, Ángela Fabián, Carla Campra, Samuel Romero.

Director: Paco Plaza | Producer: Enrique López Lavigne | Writers: Paco Plaza, Fernando Navarro | Music: Chucky Namanera | Cinematographer: Pablo Rosso | Editor: Martí Roca


VOLDEMORT: ORIGINS OF THE HEIR (2018)

—Fulya Kantarmaci, reviewing film.

Tryangle Films.

This fan-made prequel to the Harry Potter film series follows Tom Riddle (Stefano Rossi), later known as Voldemort, a powerful wizard and chief antagonist in the Harry Potter franchise.

Sitting at over 11.5 million views as of this writing, Voldemort: Origins of the Heir runs at 53 minutes and goes through the backstories of each Hogwarts House heirs: Gryffindor, Hufflepuff, Ravenclaw, and Slytherin.

The film begins with a wizard packing a suitcase of a few well-known items, followed by the showing of what turns out to be Tom Marvolo Riddle’s diary.

Cutting to an epic battle, Heir of Godric Gryffindor Grisha McLaggen (Maddalena Orcali) fights against Russian wizards, only to be captured after being hit with an unexpected spell. This allows for the set up of the film’s narrative structure: Grisha is strapped to a chair and questioned by General Makarov (Alessio Dalla Costa). With veritaserum flowing through her veins, she has no choice but to answer Makarov’s questions truthfully, and so unfolds the story of all four heirs.

Voldemort: Origins of the Heir’s cinematography is beautiful! I absolutely loved each shot’s framing and the film has also been cut together well. For a fan-made piece, the manner in which some of these scenes are so skilfully constructed is pleasantly surprising.

This film was generally amazing with a couple of exceptions. Unfortunately, all the actors were dubbed over. This made it difficult for me to concentrate on the story because their mouths were not in sync with the voice actors’ dubbing. Also, a bit of the story dragged on for a little too long.

Voldemort: Origins of the Heir is a well-made production by the fans of the magical world of Hogwarts. 3½ / 5

 

Starring: Stefano Rossi, Maddalena Orcali, Andrea Deanisi, Andrea Bonfanti, Gelsomina Bassetti, Alessio Dalla Costa, Davide Ellena, Aurora Moroni, Andrea Baglio.

Director: Gianmaria Pezzato | Producer: Stefano Prestia | Writer: Gianmaria Pezzato (based on characters and the book Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince by J. K. Rowling) | Music: Matthew Steed, Stefano Prestia | Cinematographer: Michele Purin | Editor: Gianmaria Pezzato

 

Watch it here:


WHEN TIME RAN OUT… (1980)

Television title: Earth’s Final Fury

—Wayne Stellini, reviewing film.

Warner Bros.

A volcano causes havoc on an idyllic South Pacific island which has become a holiday paradise for the rich and powerful. Encouraged by island owner Bob Spangler (James Franciscus), most of the guests ignore the danger, but one group, lead by oil rigger Hank Anderson (Paul Newman), embarks on a risky escape attempt.

In a 1998 interview, Larry King asked Paul Newman if he had regretted making any films. The actor replied, ‘that volcano movie.’

A critical and commercial flop, When Time Ran Out… marked the end of the disaster movie era, kickstarted by Airport (1970) and perfected by the master of disaster himself, Irwin Allen, with The Poseidon Adventure (1972) and The Towering Inferno (1974). Though Allen would never reach the astonishing narrative, technical, and commercial success of his two biggest pictures, the formula worked well when used correctly. (For example, Allen’s instance on directing 1978’s The Swarm was one of many poor production choices.)

Fans of the genre, however, will find that When Time Ran Out… isn’t as bad as its reputation may lead you to believe. All of the pieces are in place here, with a stellar ensemble cast brought together to face a natural threat. We are introduced to a handful of characters and their respective, sometimes intertwining, storylines; each faces a personal or professional dilemma which is the source of the surrounding melodrama as the island’s dormant volcano prepares to erupt.

As The Poseidon Adventure, The Towering Inferno, and (to a lesser extent) Earthquake (1974) exemplified, taking the time to get to know and care about the film’s characters are just as important as the build-up to the Main Event, if not more so. Originally running for 121 minutes, the film’s poor domestic performance resulted in the runtime being cut down to 104 minutes, only to have a 144-minute extended cut released on VHS in the mid-‘80s and ‘90s.

For better or worse, the shortest rendition of When Time Ran Out… leaves the audience at a distance from the characters, which is unfortunate, because they are performed really well under James Goldstone’s direction. However, the film also comes across more like a made-for-television movie than a big screen blockbuster. The special effects are a mixed bag, which is a shame considering the twenty million-dollar budget (four times the amount afforded to the superior Poseidon Adventure); some haven’t aged well and don’t even look like they were at the forefront of technology at the time.

So, what works about When Time Ran Out…?

Well, there’s no denying that it is a lot of fun and its hokey quality adds to the viewing experience. Fans of the disaster genre will enjoy the clashing personalities of the characters here, some of the over-the-top action sequences, and the performances overall.

Contractually obligated to appear in an Allen production, Newman is in fine form as our scrupulous hero, and any lack of enthusiasm for the project does not come across on screen. His Towering Inferno co-star William Holden is quite commanding as the resort’s owner, while Jacqueline Bisset is engaging in an underwritten leading lady role. Handsome James Franciscus is captivating as our villain, holding his own against the likes of Newman and Holden, and his scenes with the lovely Veronica Hamel are a particular highlight—if only there were more them. Additionally, The Poseidon Adventure‘s Red Buttons, Ernest Borgnine, and Shelia Allen are rather good here, as are Edward Albert, Burgess Meredith, and Pat Morita, who all do a lot with very little. Collectively, their roles are undemanding for their talent.

When Time Ran Out… might not be as thrilling on screen as it reads on paper (the bridge cross goes on for too long and the resort’s destruction is too brief), but it is an entertaining spectacle of race-against-time melodrama that sustains energy for most of its duration. It had all the makings of being able to turn the declining tide of disaster movies, but after a decade of genre saturation, audiences were lapping up a new wave of musicals, summer blockbusters, and a little space opera you may have heard of.

But it is what it is. So, grab some popcorn, open a can of cold soft drink, and kick your feet up on a lazy Sunday afternoon to farewell an era of fun disaster epics with Allen Irwin’s production of When Time Ran Out… 3 / 5

 

Starring: Paul Newman, Jacqueline Bisset, William Holden, Edward Albert, Red Buttons, Barbara Carrera, Valentina Cortese, Veronica Hamel, Alex Karras, Burgess Meredith, Ernest Borgnine, James Franciscus, John Considine, Sheila Allen, Pat Morita, Lonny Chapman, Sandy Kenyon, Ava Readdy, Glynn Rubin.

Director: James Goldstone | Producer: Irwin Allen | Writers: Carl Foreman, Stirling Silliphant (based on The Day the World Ended by Gordon Thomas) | Music: Lalo Schifrin | Cinematographer: Fred J. Koenekamp | Editors: Edward Biery, Freeman A. Davies

Available: DVD

 

Let us know what you thought of this film in the comments!

I’ve been a Wayne Stellini and you’ve just experienced FRED Watch.


WILD WILD COUNTRY (2018)

—Wayne Stellini, reviewing television.

Duplass Brothers Productions / Netflix

Under the organisation and co-ordination of his secretary Ma Anand Sheela, Indian spiritual leader Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh’s disciples build the grand commune Rajneeshpuram in Oregon, United States, which eventually becomes its own city.

It isn’t long for tensions to escalate as the sannyasins (also known as Rajneeshees) and the Oregonians vie to survive one another…

‘Sheela, whatever your plans are, we don’t want the Rajneeshees. We don’t want the Orange People in our town,’ 60 Minutes journalist Ian Leslie tells the polarising Ma Anand Sheela.

Her reply: ‘What can I say? Tough titties.’

And in an instant, Sheela propelled a phrase into the Australian lexicon. But Sheela and the social and spiritual movement she was the spokesperson for are far more complex and intriguing than a simple, albeit catchy, soundbite.

Filmmakers Maclain and Chapman Way do a stellar job at weaving an extraordinary tale into a compact and comprehensive six-part documentary series. Wild Wild Country is a tangled web of spirituality, sex, and secrets that is unpacked through a number of interviews and an incredible amount of archival footage.

The four-year period that this documentary focuses on is fraught with so many emotions from those who lived it, that it says so much about the will of ideology-driven people that Wild Wild Country touches on far more themes than you would initially expect.

The series benefits from the participation of the soft-spoken Sheela, the most vocal person from the time and, unsurprisingly, one of the more fascinating interviewees. Even by the end of it, I found it difficult to assess if she is misunderstood or a sociopath. But decades later and, on an intimate level, Sheela remains intriguingly charismatic.

Even more interesting is Jane Stork, whose narrative deserves a film of its own; every detail is as compelling as it is sincere. The climax of her story—a crime that is reflection of her loyalty to Sheela—has to be heard to be believed from the seemingly docile Stork.

And it is the eclectic group of people willingly or coincidentally drawn together because of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh that is at the heart of Wild Wild Country. But Bhagwan’s personal allure is difficult to capture here; this is left up to his (past and present) followers to articulate.

A complex tale that doesn’t quite feel resolved, perhaps because his legacy has not waned (and it looks as though it never will), but Wild Wild Country is a surprising and engaging wild, wild ride. 4 / 5

 

Starring: Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh/Osho, Ma Anand Sheela, George Meredith, Jon Bowerman, Krishna Devi, Ma Prem Hasya, Kelly McGreer, Rosemary McGreer, John Silvertooth, Jane Stork/Ma Shanti B, Ma Prem Sunshine, Philip Toelkes.

Directors: Maclain Way, Chapman Way | Executive Producers: Dan Braun, Josh Braun, Ben Cotner, Adam Del Deo, Jay Duplass, Mark Duplass, Lisa Nishimura | Music: Brocker Way | Cinematographer: Adam Stone | Editor: Neil Meiklejohn


WOLVES AT THE DOOR (2016)

—Wayne Stellini, reviewing film.

New Line Cinema / The Safran Company / Warner Bros. Pictures

In 1969, four young people gathering for a farewell party are stalked and tormented by a group of mysterious, murderous intruders…

The vicious murder of up-and-coming actress Sharon Tate, her unborn son, and her friends at the hands of sociopath Charles Manson’s “family” is one of the most notorious and disturbing crimes to occur in Hollywood. Because of this, it is ingrained in popular culture as much as it is in American criminal history. And herein lies the problem with John R. Leonetti’s home invasion chiller.

There is no denying that Wolves at the Door is a well-produced film; Michael St. Hilaire’s cinematography and Ken Blackwell’s taut editing are the picture’s strongest points. Also, Leonetti cleverly keeps the villains in shadows, heightening their menace. Having spent most of his career as a cinematographer, he is quite competent as a horror director (his previous effort was 2014’s Annabelle). But some of Leonetti’s choices are cringeworthy—A spilt red drink on a pregnant belly comes across more like a distasteful gag rather than foreshadowing and do we really need yet another obvious “lamb to the slaughter” symbol in a horror movie?

The performances, at least, are pretty good, with Elizabeth Henstridge, Adam Campbell, and Miles Fisher particularly solid. Katie Cassidy is less consistent as Ms. Tate, though she does the best with what she has to work with. Where the film suffers most, though, is Gary Dauberman’s script, which is more concerned with (albeit effective) jump scares than fleshed-out characters we actually care about.

Because of this, the film feels nothing short of exploitative. Whether you know the story and its real-life principal players well or not, minimal time is given for the young inevitable victims to develop. And while a strong focus on characters is not often the priority for slasher filmmakers, there is an inherent and unavoidable duty of care when presenting a true story. However, the team not only disregards this but are so content to blatantly remove themselves from presenting an accurate recreation of events, that Wolves at the Door not only feels disrespectful but, at times, down-right disgusting.

The folks at New Line Cinema, whose success is very much owed to the horror genre, should have known better. 1 / 5

 

Starring: Katie Cassidy, Elizabeth Henstridge, Adam Campbell, Miles Fisher, Spencer Daniels, Lucas Adams, Chris Mulkey, Jane Kaczmarek, Eric Ladin, Arlen Escarpeta.

Director: John R. Leonetti | Writer: Gary Dauberman | Producer: Peter Safran | Music: Toby Chu | Cinematographer: Michael St. Hilaire | Editor: Ken Blackwell


FRED Watch is also a podcast and a video series!

CLICK HERE to listen to our podcast of in-depth reviews and discussions.

CLICK HERE to binge on the original FRED Watch Dr. Who video series and more.

You can also search through the FRED Watch review archives by CLICKING HERE.

%d bloggers like this: