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Thursday, 11 July 2019

Review: Booksmart

Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) and Molly (Beanie Feldstein) are high school outcasts and that suits them just fine. They’ve worked hard, looked like pretentious nerds to their peers, and now they’re about to reap the rewards by getting into fancy universities where presumably they can finally let their hair down and finally be themselves surrounded by actual peers instead of bonehead losers.

Then Molly discovers that their hard-partying classmates are about to reap those exact same rewards (they're not even losers!). Turns out the duo have been doing high school all wrong; now Molly only has tonight to drag Amy out and cram in all the partying they missed. The good news is there’s a big party happening. The bad news? They don’t know where it is. 

The “one crazy night” genre is well worn (remember Project X?). And by "well worn" I mean "totally played out" - seriously, it's been the basic template for so many teen movies this century when reviewers compare this solely to Superbad they're just being lazy. That's not to say it's a bad template in any way; having a big night is both a near-universal teen experience and a great way to stitch together a bunch of comedy sketch ideas into a coherent whole. But the big selling point here isn't originality of plot, it's originality of tone.

Director Olivia Wilde hits just the right tone for these goofy but earnest teens, giving their big night an inclusive vibe that doesn’t dampen the laughs. There's no winners or losers here, no good guys or bad, and while that may not be a completely accurate depiction of high school life, it's definitely tapping into today's mood in the same way that the crass teens of films like Project X did in their day. These kind of films work best when they're at least half fantasy (most actual big nights involve a lot of walking and standing around), and here the fantasy has at least as much to do with the idea that all teens are deep down decent and thoughtful as it does a wacky (accidental) drug trip where our heroes turn into dolls.

All the best intentions in the world wouldn't work out if the two leads werren't as charming as hell. Dever and Feldstein are a great comedy duo with great chemistry; while the stakes couldn’t be much lower with their adventures, they’re so likable and funny together that it’s impossible not to hope they find the good time they’re chasing.

- Anthony Morris

Thursday, 4 July 2019

Review: Spider-Man: Far From Home

The only real problem with Tom Holland’s first solo film as Spider-Man was that there wasn’t enough of Peter Parker hanging out with his classmates being a regular teen. So what does Spider-Man: Far From Home do? Cut back even further on that stuff – though for a while there it doesn’t look like it, as Holland’s Parker and his classmates first deal with the Thanos-caused five years of being dead (which everyone is calling “The Blip”), then head off to Europe for a class trip.

Obviously all of Parker’s close buddies (and Marisa Tomei’s Aunt May) have also spent the last five years dead so they can remain age-appropriate, but there is a decent joke about one former dweeb who’s now grown into a stud (and yet still comes with them on the class trip). Will Parker finally make it work with MJ (Zendaya)? Will the rest of his class learn anything? Probably not, as their first stop (Venice) is promptly attacked by a giant elemental being that only a mysterious as-yet unnamed superhero (Jake Gyllenhaal) can battle now that the world has no Avengers to rely on. Maybe Parker shouldn’t have been ducking Nick Fury’s phone calls all this time…

There’s a lot of stuff here about “a world without Iron Man” – guess Captain America doesn’t count, though he’s a much more obvious symbol for people to latch onto – and positioning Parker as his successor is one of those weird story beats that feels driven much more by the demands of the MCU than anything that actually suits either character. It’s hardly a deal-breaker and it was probably necessary to differentiate this version from the other two Spider-Men we’ve had on the big screen this century, but giving Peter Parker’s super-hero side regular spider-powers plus a bunch of Iron Man abilities leaves him awfully over-powered for a character who works best as an underdog.

(especially as the MCU can now solve any serious problem with Captain Marvel – they have to bring her up here just to explain why she doesn’t handle things, and presumably they’ll be needing to do that a lot in future)

Everything here fits together just fine, but it probably wouldn’t have hurt to ditch one of the plot threads. Parker’s school stuff works so well that you really only need one extra element and this has two; the Iron Man stuff, and Gyllenhaal’s Quentin Beck, super-powered man from an alternate reality who takes on the name Mysterio (how he gets that name is a decent joke), and comic book fans will have a pretty good idea where things go from there.

This isn’t the first superhero movie where you might end up wishing all the characters hung out a lot more and fought monsters a lot less; Beck is a great father figure for Parker (he’s basically a less snarky Tony Stark), Samuel L Jackson’s Nick Fury is played for laughs just enough to fit in, and even the slightly creepy subplot where former Stark sidekick Happy Hogan is hitting on Aunt May is intentionally creepy for laughs. Also, the fight scenes are merely good, not great (there’s a lot of swirling around in the sky), and even a later twist that forces Spider-Man to rely on his Spider-Sense (also known as his “Peter Tingle”) is never quite as effective as it should be.

All this results in a film that’s charming and fun without ever being fully satisfying, a solid successor to Spider-Man: Homecoming that doesn’t really manage to build on what made that film so refreshing. It does just about everything it goes for right, but it’s trying to do too much; Spider-Man is probably the most straightforward and pure superhero character in the MCU, and he’d work twice as well with half the baggage they’re laying on him.

- Anthony Morris

Thursday, 27 June 2019

Review: Yesterday

A world where The Beatles never existed sounds ripe for all manner of Twilight Zone / Black Mirror type antics; having it be the backdrop for a standard rom-com about realising the value of what you have in front of you feels like a waste of a chance to have The Shaggs as the biggest band in the world. Still, it could be worse; it's not like Rolf Harris (who recorded with Beatles producer George Martin in 1962) took their place.

Struggling singer-songwriter Jack Malik (Himesh Patel) has finally figured out he has exactly one fan - school teacher and part-time manager, Ellie (Lily James), who is so clearly pining for him that it seems reasonable to suspect he has brain damage even before he gets hit by a bus during a mysterious world-wide blackout. He wakes up minus his two front teeth, life goes on, and only gradually does he realise that now nobody else seems to know who or what "The Beatles" are.

There's a brief moment in what comes next where the film threatens to become interesting, as despite suddenly having a bunch of brilliant songs he can call his own, his career continues to stall. Maybe the success of The Beatles was about more than just their music? Nah, of course not; before long Ed Sheeran (as himself) has offered him a support slot for a Moscow gig (thank goodness 'Back in the USSR' is a barn-burner of a track) and fame is right around the corner.

The argument that The Beatles had a bunch of songs that tugged at the heart-strings and the world needs those songs (but not, say, Maxwell's Silver Hammer or Helter Skelter) doesn't exactly require a lot of effort to make convincing, leaving scriptwriter Richard Curtis and director Danny Boyle plenty of time to focus on Elle realising that Jack's new fame is leaving her behind and Jack realising that he doesn't want to leave her behind and wait, that only requires another ten minutes of screen time so we get the extremely likable Patel playing a lot of Beatles tunes. If you didn't realise this is yet another jukebox musical a la Bohemian Rhapsody or Rocketman, you haven't been paying attention to the movies in 2019.

The concept is a little too interesting for this to be fully satisfying just as a jukebox musical - there are occasional throwaway references to a few other big things that have vanished from this world, but nothing seems to have many any real difference - but there's too many songs to leave time to really explore any of the big ideas the concept suggests. Fortunately the songs are, you know, pretty good, and the handful of moments where we're asked to imagine what it'd be like to hear them for the first time are often strikingly effective.

Overall this film is merely satisfyingly nice and pleasant, but Curtis and Boyle manage to inject enough of their own energy to make individual scenes shine; Curtis gives Jack both a circle of friends and a slightly drippy best mate, while Boyle has a lot more fun playing around with the music (one early recording sequence is great) than he does just simply filming Patel performing. Of course, what this really needed was 100 minutes of Jack looking at all the holes in pop culture The Beatles' absence would leave; how would Ferris Bueller rev up that parade if he couldn't cover the Fab Four's version of 'Twist & Shout'?

- Anthony Morris

Thursday, 20 June 2019

Toys Will Tear Us Apart: Child's Play and Toy Story 4

One of the many strong points of 80s-reboot-done-right Child Play's is just how aware it is that as actual monsters go, a killer doll is kind of crap. There's a reason why this franchise has churned out more "comedy" versions than serious ones; once you get past the visual of a creepily grinning doll holding a knife, there just isn't all that much to work with.

So director Lars Klevberg goes long on the origin story; more than half the film is build up, with the evil "Buddi" doll (who, in one of the film's surprisingly many decent jokes, names himself Chuckie for no reason whatsoever) getting a lengthy origin that provides at least two reasons for him being evil that aren't the "possessed by a dead serial killer" one used in previous incarnations.

The 21st century doll (voiced by Mark Hammil) is, thanks to wifi, The Cloud and various advances in robotics, designed to be able to walk, talk, control household appliances and be a child's bestest friend. He's also kind of pathetic and already out of date; another of the film's decent jokes is that even though the Buddi doll is slightly more advanced than anything around today, he's already obsolete by the start of the film, with Buddi 2 only week away. Which is how Zed Mart employee Karen (Audrey Plaza) can get a free one that's been returned for having "glowing red eyes" to take home to her lonely son Andy (Gabriel Bateman).

There Chuckie quickly becomes part of Andy's daily life, only Chuckie isn't quite right (learning about human interactions from watching The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 doesn't help) and after a string of increasingly unsettling and jump scares Chuckie soon draws blood - and from there rapidly becomes one of the more inventive (and gory) killers seen on the big screen in years. There's plenty of suspense too; turns out much like a robotic version of a bird-killing pet cat, Chuckie likes to leave gifts around the house.

Chuckie's kills follow a twisted logic (at first) - he's kind of trying to protect Andy - and for a while he's a figure of pathos, a killer doll who cares too much. But much of the fun of this 90 minute film is that it's overstuffed with ideas and angles (and characters until Chuckie starts whittling down the cast). It's a slasher roller-coaster that's well worth the ride.


Toy Story 3 did a pretty decent job of providing a finale to the tale of Woody (Tom Hanks), Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) and the rest of Pixar's living toys; the big relief with Toy Story 4 is that it finds a natural reason for the story to go on. After a flashback that explains where Bob Peep (Annie Potts) went between Toy Story 2 and 3, we get down to a relatively small scale tale of Woody trying to deal with the fact that new owner Bonnie just isn't that into him.

Then again, she is really, really into the toy she made herself on her first day of kindergarten, Forky (Tony Hale) . Forky is a spork with a pipe-cleaner wrapped around him; having come from trash, all he wants to do is go back to the trash (cue multiple hilarious and thinly-disguised death wish gags). This becomes a real problem when the family goes on a road trip and Forky jumps out the campervan window; Andy follows, and everyone ends up in a small town dominated by a carnival and an antique store, both of which turn out to be prime activity centers for different kinds of toys.

What follows is an exciting romp - there's no better word for it - though Pixar's usual heavy themes and tear-jerking moments are never too far beneath the surface. The jokes are funny and there's plenty of them, the action is thrilling and inventive, and while there's flaws (the original supporting cast barely get a look-in; even Buzz is boiled down to a single decent running joke) the whole thing is plenty of fun and in no way feels like a cash-grab. And while the story of Woody comes to a wholly satisfying (and yes, sad - this is Pixar after all) end, there's no real reason to think there won't be a Toy Story 5 a decade from now.

(if toys are even still a thing that is; there's a reason why a lot of this movie's action takes place in an antique store)

- Anthony Morris

Friday, 14 June 2019

Review: Secret Life of Pets 2

The best part of the first Secret Life of Pets movie was the initial one-off jokes about pets doing dumb and crazy things while their owners were out. Turn that stuff into a series of short films and you'd have a gold mine on your hands... if anyone still watched short films, of course.

Unfortunately, across the course of that first film their antics gradually (and far less interestingly) resolved into a more traditional animated adventure. and this brightly coloured but blandly animated sequel takes its lead from that - which is to say, it skips the secret life stuff entirely for a trio of slight but moderately engaging tales involving all your favourite dimly remembered characters where the stakes couldn’t be lower. 

One plotline involves rescuing a tiger cub from a circus, while another focuses on retrieving a toy from an apartment full of cats (this series is generally pro-dog; cats are either aloof or crazy). The main story involves cute dog Max (voiced by Patton Oswalt, replacing Louis CK) - who in a rushed series of events rapidly becomes a hyper-tense helicopter parent after his owner gets married and has a baby - being taken on a family trip to a farm, where working dog Rooster (Harrison Ford) straightens him out by basically showing him that things could be worse. 

There's a certain kind of kids movie that assumes kids are happy watching cute figures doing silly things and so long as you throw a bit of that into the mix then the actual story can be pretty much anything. And that "anything" is usually weirdly adult. This is a movie that's basically telling parents they don't need to hover over their kids - not because the kids deserve some fun (kids can definitely get behind that message), but because all that hovering will stress you out. How is being lectured about parenting styles of interest to anyone in a cinema watching the adventures of a cartoon dog?

Weird plotting aside, this is utterly inessential but undeniably cute. There's no real substance here and the comedy is thin at best, but a fast pace and strong voice cast (including Kevin Hart, Jenny Slate and Tiffany Haddish) keeps this ball of fluff on just the right side of entertaining.

- Anthony Morris
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Thursday, 6 June 2019

Review: Red Joan

It’s May 2000, and the UK police are at the door of elderly widow Joan Stanley (Judi Dench). It seems her past has finally caught up to her – but what exactly did she do? Seriously, she's a kindly old granny played (to full doddering effect) by Dame Judi Dench; how could she possibly be a world-class super-spy?

Obviously that's the point. Spies are meant to be inconspicuous - not that anyone seemed to pick up on that in the UK establishment, where for decades obviously dubious types kept washing up in prime positions to pass on secrets to the Soviets largely because they went to the right school. So the question here isn't so much how she did it as why; what inspired her to betray her country?

In flashbacks we see a much younger Joan (Sophie Cookson) off to Cambridge to study science, where she quickly falls under the sway of a glamourous group of socialists, especially Sonya (Tereza Srbova) and her cousin Leo (Tom Hughes). His overtly communist actions make him a figure of suspicion, while her smarts see her recruited to type up reports (and occasionally chip in with ideas) at the UK’s wartime atomic bomb project. It's a very useful combination for Soviet intelligence - especially as most of her friends seem to be part of it.

Despite falling hard for Leo, she equally firmly rejects his proposal that the Soviet Union needs nuclear secrets to keep things balanced between the Allies, until Hiroshima hammers home what’s really at stake. Turns out she's an idealist after all, only her dreams are of world peace (or at least, a balanced world) - not that good excuses will save her if she gets caught

Based on the real-life “granny spy”, this is a fairly straightforward and somewhat mild drama that (aside from a few tense scenes once the UK spy agencies realise there’s a leak) is more about moral dilemmas than actual espionage. The focus is firmly on her and the largely personal betrayals she deals with, so those after double-crosses and shock reveals should look elsewhere. The real drama here is how Joan makes her way in a man’s world; suspicion rarely falls on her because she’s just a woman, and when it does she can always hide her spy gear in a box of tampons and watch the mid-century law flinch and squirm.

- Anthony Morris

Thursday, 30 May 2019

Review: Rocketman

With the echoes of Bohemian Rhapsody still bouncing off cinema walls, does the world really need another tale of the rise and fall (and rise) of a 70s glam rocker? Rocketman aims squarely for the same toe-tapping retro audience that made that Freddie Mercury biopic such a smash, but - suburban origins aside, and even there there's big differences - Elton John is a markedly different figure, and his music makes for a very different story.

Directed by Dexter Fletcher (who handled the last few weeks on Bohemian Rhapsody when Bryan Singer was let go) from a story by John himself, this leans harder on the performance side of things, in large part because the whole point of this film is that "Elton John" is a performance. The performer formerly known as Reginald Dwight (Taron Egerton) had a grim home life thanks to a disinterested mum (Bryce Dallas Howard) and emotionally constipated dad (Steven Mackintosh), but his kindly gran (Gemma Jones) nurtured his musical talents and then...

Okay, John's early musical struggles aren't really lingered on once he (briefly) leaves home, and there doesn't seem to have been a whole lot of them in the first place. Once he'd teamed up with lyricist Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell) his stardom was basically assured, and a string of performances in LA soon made him a global sensation. With manager and lover John Reid (Richard Madden) by his side, John was suddenly at the top of the world - but could money, drugs and meaningless sex fill the void in his heart?

A more experienced - or just more personally removed - scriptwriting team probably would have made more out of John's early rise, as this suffers from an extremely drawn out second act where John flails about trying to lose himself in the usual rock'n roll distractions (he and Reid have one sex scene, but otherwise the gay sex and disco orgies are largely only suggested). Fortunately John has an extremely strong back catalogue, and his story-based style of song-writing lends itself to illustrating moments in his life; treated as a jukebox musical, this delivers all the hits and then some, and Egerton throws himself fully into the large-than-life performance scenes.

Plot-wise, this is the story of a man trying to find the love he was denied in his childhood, and it's entertainingly harsh towards those who weren't up to scratch; while his parents and Reid aren't completely one-dimensional, this is the story of how John grew beyond them and there's not a lot of backwards-looking forgiveness on offer here.

So it's a little frustrating that there's no real moment of revelation either. It's obvious that the arc is that Dwight felt unlovable so turned himself into a character he thought would be loved - the brash and flamboyant Elton John - only to eventually figure out the usual stuff about nobody loving you until you love yourself and so on. But here John simply decides to clean up his act and reunite with the one person who never did him wrong (Bernie), he sings "I'm Still Standing" and that's pretty much it - even meeting his real-life husband of over twenty years happens during the end credits coda.

And yet despite rushing through what should be the big emotional payoff (whatever Bohemian Rhapsody's many flaws, it knew it had to finish big), Rocketman remains firmly entertaining. It's almost as if the finished film is trying to get across the opposite message to the script: so long as you give people a good time (and don't let the booze and drugs get in the way of your performing), they'll love you no matter what.  When your costumes are that flamboyant, people can't see the person inside.

- Anthony Morris