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Thursday, 15 November 2018

Review: Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald

There are a lot of interesting things going on in Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald. It's just that none of them manage to turn it into an interesting movie. It's been pointed out by more than one reviewer that this is a bridging movie in the Fantastic Beasts series, a film that is mostly setting things up for what is to come. That's clearly true; it's just that it fails to provide a reason why anyone would want more of this incoherent wand-waving.

But we all know why we'll be back. The Harry Potter franchise has built up such massive reserves of goodwill that seemingly nothing - not social media turning on creator J.K. Rowling, not films that are nothing more than blatant cash-grabs, not continuing Harry Potter's story only as a massively expensive stage play - can dissuade the fans. The fact that about 80% of Harry Potter's appeal was that it was a fantasy version of an already romanticised version of high school and Crimes of Grindelwald is a nightmare tale of the worst kind of adulthood doesn't matter; throw in a few brightly coloured scarves and a wand or two and the fans will keep on coming back.

When you're a child in the world of Harry Potter, magic is a gateway to an amazing world full of endless surprises and delights. When you're an adult, you get three shit jobs to choose from - magic cop, magic teacher or magic bureaucrat - and your every waking moment is obsessed with politics involving extremist forces that are constantly gathering and demanding the overthrow of everything the old order stands for. Considering the old order mainly stands for those three crappy jobs, it's not hard to see the appeal of Magic Hitler and his generic cronies.

There's barely a story here. Grindelwald (Johnny Depp, remarkably restrained for late-period Depp and perhaps the best human thing in this film) escapes from magic prison while being transferred back to Europe, hides out in Paris, marshals his forces and eventually gives a rally that is a relatively reasonable and low-key political affair in the Age of Trump. That's one of this film's handful of interesting ideas: Magic Hitler is portrayed as a charismatic and reasonable fellow with a vision that is at least superficially attractive. It's a good thing he signs off on baby-killing in private otherwise it'd be hard to see why he was the bad guy at all.

Everyone from the first film is back plus more, but while they're all extremely busy sadly nothing they do has anything to do with what this film is really about, which is sorting everyone into two sides (well, three - not everyone makes it to the end credits) for the conflict that is to come. Dumbledore (Jude Law) pulls a few strings behind the scenes, but for a film where the only person who can stop Magic Hitler is a much-loved high school teacher this takes itself way too seriously across the board, from the plodding pace and murky colour palette to the collection of doomed relationships and Grindelwald's boringly reasonable evil. Shouldn't magic be more fun?

Previous Harry Potter films always had a good reason for non-fans to stop by and take a look; even the first Fantastic Beasts had a lot of, you know, fantastic beasts. But this is fan service pure and simple, aimed solely at those who'll get worked up by a "canon-breaking" shock twist, and even the brief hints that one of the subplots involving a young powerful wizard (Ezra Miller) searching for his missing past might be a twisted version of the story of one Harry Potter go nowhere. If you want to watch later movies in this series, you'll have to watch this one; beyond that, there's no reason to watch this.

- Anthony Morris

Monday, 12 November 2018

Review: Suspiria

Why remake Suspiria? The original is so distinctive and so successful - on its own terms; if you're a fan of storytelling logic, move along - the idea of doing it over to get it right seems foolish at best and arrogant at worst. So Italian director Luca Guadagnino (Call Me By Your Name) turns the original on its head: gone are the garish colours, garbled plot and throbbing sense of mystery, replaced by..., well, let's put it this way: if you're interested in office politics within a coven of witches living in a dreary 70s office block, then this is the horror film for you.
If that sounds a bit harsh, well... fair call. This is clearly striving for a different effect than the original, and to do so it needs to use different methods to achieve its goals. There's still a Berlin dance academy, only now the 70s setting is highlighted as the divided city is rocked by the fallout from the Baader-Meinhof Gang. The dour nature of the city is well evoked; these are people living in an oppressive place and time.
There are also witches, though the mystery that usually goes with them is out, replaced by the aforementioned office politics as Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton) fails to take over from her decaying one-time mentor. That means the continuation of the coven's plan to find a young woman for their sinister scheme - which, if you've been watching pretty much any film about witches or covens over the last three decades will come as no surprise at all (it's basically the same scheme as in Hereditary from earlier this year).

Enter Dakota Johnson's all-American farm girl, driven to cross the ocean by a burning desire to dance for Madame Blanc and the talent to go with it. Soon she's risen to the top, in large part because everyone in her way has either gone insane or (in one case) been crushed by unseen forces in what is easily the most disturbing scene in this film. A link is firmly established: whenever someone steps onto a dance floor, the tension rapidly becomes unbearable.

Unfortunately, off the dance floor the tension barely registers. The original isn't really about all that much but it doesn't really matter because it has style and suspense and sometimes - especially in a horror film - that's enough. Here though, while this definitely has style and occasionally there's tension, the fact that it's not really about all that much is much more obvious. None of these people are real, the situation they are in isn't real, and aside from some obvious analogies this isn't about anything that relates to the real world. 
Horror movies can get away with that because they're machines built to scare an audience. This Suspiria though, for all its horror elements and meat hooks and sinister goings-on, never really shows much interest in actually being scary. Without that, it runs out of steam well before an extended and extremely bloody climax that feels more like a shrug than an ultimate expression of terror.
Guadagnino's previous films have succeeded in large part because he's a director interested in the minutia of people's lives, the way small details accumulate to create devastating moments. But here the small moments just don't connect to the big events, because this isn't a story about human beings living in a world of human rules and behaviour.  
It's no surprise then that the one scene that does really work - where one woman's dancing somehow batters and crushes another woman - is built around the idea of there being an invisible, mysterious yet concrete connection between them. Linking people is what Guadadnino does best: he doesn't do it anywhere near enough here.

- Anthony Morris

Thursday, 1 November 2018

Review: Fahrenheit 11/9

Michael Moore has dropped off the radar in recent years – despite being one of the few left-wing pundits to accurately predict a President Trump – so this documentary has been pitched as his return to the big stage covering the big issues. Which he does: unfortunately he can’t quite figure out how to make an actual movie out of them.

Instead, this is a jumbled collection of various talking points that’s really good at reminding you of what left-wing social media in the USA was outraged about six months ago. That’s not to say it’s solely of use as a historical document, as there actually is a decent film (or television feature) buried under Moore’s mea culpa’s for hanging out with right-wing types for laughs years ago and trips around the US checking in with various fired-up political candidates and school shooting survivors.

Unsurprisingly, this better, buried film kicks in when Moore returns to his home town of Flint, where thanks to political corruption and greed, the drinking water has been toxic for years now with no end in sight. Moore’s anger (mostly at the crooked Republican governor, but also Obama) is genuine, and a reminder that Moore’s best work comes from the heart.

That’s not to say everything else here isn’t heartfelt, just that the anger motivating it is a couple steps removed from what we’re shown. Moore is appalled that Trump was elected and at what his election has stirred up, but his look at what people are doing in response comes across more as a checklist of ways to take action than a story he’s burning to tell.

Moore’s relatively low profile in recent years comes in part because he’s no longer needed: if you want to get angry about the state of the world, social media is a much faster route than sitting down to watch a feature-length documentary. It’s only when he brings something more to the story that this really works as more than just a reminder that there are people – a lot of people – out there pushing back against Trump.

And so we go back to Flint, which Moore does a decent job of linking to America’s wider plight: if this kind of Republican-led corruption can happen here, he says, what hope for America under Trump? But it’s the scale of the awful, avoidable tragedy that lingers. These scenes shine; the rest of the film is a muddle.

- Anthony Morris

Friday, 26 October 2018

Review: Halloween

The original Halloween invented the slasher genre: so long as knife-wielding murder maniacs are profitable, Michael Myers will never really die. So the hook with this particular version of Halloween – one of close to a dozen sequels to John Carpenter’s still chilling original – is that it’s swung a sharp blade real hard and cleared away all the crud. All the other films never happened: this film is the one true sequel. 

Trouble is, this is the second time the Halloween series has pulled that trick (anyone remember Halloween: H20?). And while sweeping away all the other films and everything that came with them (seems Laurie wasn't Michael's sister after all) should in theory set the scene for a whole new round of terror, in this case what that really means is that director David Gordon Green is just doing the first film all over again. 

Once again Michael Myers / The Shape breaks out of a mental hospital; once again he goes on a murder spree; once again he ends up focusing on a member of the Strode family. The big twist here is that Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis), sole survivor of the first film, has grown up to be a Sarah Conner-style survivalist (ironically, as Myers is basically a supernatural Terminator) who ruined the life of her daughter (Judy Greer who gets one good moment here and it's a great one) with her paranoia. Her granddaughter Allyson (Andi Matichak) is (relatively) angst-free – but when Myers busts out of a prison bus and comes a-killing, she’s the one that he ends up stalking. 

Sure, it's a retread. But it's been a very long time since originality was something anyone wanted from a Halloween film. Despite an occasionally slightly jokier tone - which is maybe not that surprising as Danny McBride co-wrote the screenplay - that defuses the tension (which is not really required: aside from a handful of sequences, this just isn't all that tense) this focuses on the basics of slasher films and largely gets them right, with a series of decent scares and a couple splashes of serious gore. Nothing here is particularly terrifying, but an authentically creepy opening scene firmly establishes the evil power of what is basically just a man with a knife, while the blank-faced mask Myers wears remains one of the classic creep-inducers of modern film.

The one area where this does equal the original is also the one area where original director Carpenter still has a part to play, as one of the composers of the film's extremely effective score. Moody and jarring when needed, the synth-heavy heightened, unearthly tones are enough to push Green's occasionally uninspired visuals into the realm of nightmare. And that's where Michael Myers does his best work.

- Anthony Morris

Thursday, 18 October 2018

Review: 1%

Bikies! They're topical, they're scary, they're misunderstood and up to no good: it's a wonder we haven't seen more Australian movies about them. Then again, maybe people watched that mini-series Bikie Wars: Brothers in Arms from a few years back, because if anything could make bikies look dull, that did it. 1% doesn't exactly forge a new path for the Bikie genre, but it doesn't have to: sometimes a good story well told is enough.

For the last few years Perth bikie club The Copperheads has been run by the relatively thoughtful Paddo (Ryan Corr). He’s got big plans for the club, looking towards a future based on working together with their rival gangs to reap the rewards of organised crime. Two things stand in his way; one is his brother Skink (Josh McConville), whose bungled attempt to move into drug dealing forces Paddo to make a deal with enemy Sugar (Aaron Petersen). The other is Knuck (Matt Nable, who also wrote the script), original leader of The Copperheads. He’s fresh out of jail and keen to take the club back to the old, violent ways he knows best. 

It’s the kind of story that could easily have turned into another gang war saga (and rest assured, there's a bunch of bikie-on-bikie crime taking place here), but first-time feature director Stephen McCallum takes an almost Shakespearian approach to the material, with the rival  leaders more about scheming against each other as they’re egged on by their respective partners (Abbey Lee as Paddo’s ambitious girlfriend and Simone Kessell as Knuck’s regal consort) than whipping each other with bike chains. 

It’s not quite up there with the classics of Australian crime cinema (or bikie cinema: Stone is a very high mountain to climb), and a few of the characters are a little misjudged: for one, Skink takes a little too long to shift from an annoying plot device to a real character. But a gritty atmosphere and a few decent plot twists (plus an ambivalent approach to the bikies themselves) gives this enough of an edge to keep this fast-moving film consistently entertaining.

- Anthony Morris

Thursday, 11 October 2018

Review - First Man

Ryan Gosling is just ugly enough not to have to act. A more conventionally handsome performer – Armie Hammer, say, or Jon Hamm five years ago – couldn’t get away with scene after scene of blank expressions: it’d be too much like looking at a mannikin. But Gosling, while obviously a very attractive man, is just the right side of perfection to be both a major movie star and someone audiences can find things in when he’s seemingly giving nothing back.

For most of First Man, not giving back is the point. There’s little doubt that Neil Armstrong (Gosling) was a notoriously private man whose interior landscape was as unknowable as the Moon’s surface - a comparison this film does not avoid making. Which should make him an extremely frustrating subject for a biopic in 2018, at time when even superhero characters are required to have emotional complexity and an ability to speak about their feelings.

So for much of the film director Damien Chazelle indulges in some slight-of-hand, focusing on the general how rather than the specific why. It’s a smart move: his strongest achievement here is weighting down the ecstasy of achievement with the mundane hard work required to achieve it. Here space travel itself is a cramped, rickety, noisy hellride filmed almost entirely in extreme close-ups; few films have done this well at dramatising just how risky flight, let alone flying into space, can be. In space and at home, texture abounds, most of it down-to-earth. Armstrong is told he’ll be leading the flight to the moon in a bathroom; scientists smoke and write on chalkboards; when he’s not careening across the sky Armstrong leads a 60s suburban life full of backyards and barbeques.

The skill and steady authenticity with which this backdrop is painted makes the moments where the film tries to reconcile the 60s view of itself with today some of the films strongest. The moments where it breaks out of the traditional hero’s journey – protest songs about the wastefulness of space travel, the focus on Armstrong’s wife (Claire Foy) dealing with the constant danger of the Moon program and an emotionally absent husband – are when it feels freshest. They’re also, not coincidentally, the moments where the film’s shell of white-collar restraint cracks.

Gosling’s performance sets the tone and the tone is as far from emotional as you can get. Armstrong never lets anyone in – a moment where he briefly mentions his deceased daughter is seen by those around him as a major breakthrough – and while the basics of a personality are obvious (he dislikes boredom, is driven to succeed, did musical theatre at University and is annoyed by Buzz Aldrin’s constant failure to read the room), for much of the film Gosling portrays a man who may or may not be concealing hidden depths by concealing just about everything.

It’s on the moon that all this tension snaps. Chazelle’s earlier film Whiplash ended with an extended drum solo that was both a personal triumph for the lead and a way to release the tension that had been built up in the audience across the course of the film; here the silence and stillness of the moon achieves the same thing. Chazelle finds a way to give us the moment we demand - the point where Armstrong triumphs and in that moment is revealed to be as flawed and yearningly human as the rest of us – without revealing it. The demands of the story are met, yet Armstrong remains a blank slate.

There’s plenty to enjoy in this thrilling tale of the conquest of space. It’s brilliantly made, consistently gripping, and occasionally very funny; it’s an easy peer to previous classics The Right Stuff and Apollo 13, with a hefty dose of 2001’s awe mixed in. At its heart, it’s a very human tale of a man who rarely acted human at all; we can walk on the moon, but it’s knowing what’s inside another person’s head that remains the final frontier.

- Anthony Morris

Thursday, 4 October 2018

Review: Venom

The best parts of Venom are the parts you already know are going to be the best parts, aka every scene where Tom Hardy acts nuts. Which is almost but not quite all of his scenes; in one of the many ways in which this movie is slightly smarter than it initially seems, Eddie Brock (Hardy) starts and finishes the film as a perfectly normal and well-adjusted man. It's only every scene in between that he acts like a loopy drunk on the verge of freaking out.

That's because after that first scene he has a confrontation with billionaire (and secretly evil dude) Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed) after which he rapidly loses his reporting job and the love of his previously adoring girlfriend Anne (Michelle Williams under a distracting wig). After that Hardy plays him as a good-natured dim-bulb drunk; it's a perfectly reasonable character choice.

And then, while researching a tip-off into Drake's scheme to kidnap the local homeless and use them as guinea pigs in a series of lethal experiments, he finds himself with an alien symbote spurting out of his body like living tar while whispering in his head about how much fun it'd be to eat people. That kind of thing definitely takes a toll on a guy. Which is why he ends up sitting in a lobster tank in the middle of a fancy restaurant during lunch chowing down on one of the inhabitants. 

But aside from the many, many joys of Hardy's unhinged performance, Venom is kind of a basic superhero film, a straightforward throwback to the pre-Marvel days when simply telling a "what's happening to me?" origin story was enough to wow the punters. That's not really a flaw; unlike current Marvel characters who come pre-loaded into a complex universe full of references and in-jokes to fill any dead air, Venom (the character) is a throwback himself.

Marvel movies are drawn almost entirely from the early days of the (comic-book) Marvel universe, where Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko and Stan Lee were creating super-powered soap operas built as much around characters' relationships and inner turmoil as punching bad guys. But for a while in the late 80s and early 90s Marvel's big guns came from a different tradition. Characters like The Punisher, Cable, Wolverine and Venom were violent antiheroes, loners with minimal supporting casts (Wolverine had the X-Men, but they rarely turned up in his solo adventures) and stories built around looking badass and killing chumps, not angst and drama.

These characters have struggled at the cinema (they're hard-R archetypes in a PG genre), even if Marvel's first movie success - that'd be Blade - was basically one of them. Wolverine only really clicked as a movie in his final appearance (to date); The Punisher never really did. Marvel itself has given up on giving these guys movies, instead putting them in the Netflix corner of their universe. But Venom is a Spider-Man spin-off (he even appeared in the generally forgotten Spider-Man 3), and so now belongs (in part) to Sony. Welcome back to the big screen.

This return is pretty much deserved, even if the film is a sometimes bumpy ride and the extreme violence is largely neutered. On the one hand, there are a bunch of traditional Marvel laugh lines that Hardy has zero interest in selling; on the other, Venom calls Brock both a "loser" and a "pussy" and they're both big laughs. The story is the kind of simplistic series of events where the climax just kind of happens, but Hardy's performance has so much going on that having anything more involved going on would be a distraction.

That said, a bit more logic wouldn't hurt either. At one point we're told a pair of scientists let an alien life-form die because they weren't paying attention; at another a bunch of bad guys are ordered to kill Brock so they decide to take him for a walk out into the woods instead of promptly shooting him safely indoors. Venom bites at least two guys' heads off but we never see it happen; a cute dog and a small girl both presumably die from symbote possession but it all takes place off screen.

But yes, Venom does gets to make out on camera with Hardy. Why wouldn't you want to see this film?

- Anthony Morris