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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

Thursday, 23 May 2019

Review: Aladdin

Is this version of Aladdin necessary? It's probably a question people would take more seriously if most of the reviewers asking it hadn't recently been singing the praises - or at least, treating as a vital piece of pop culture - the 23rd Marvel movie to come out of Disney in the last decade. No movie is really necessary: to ask if a remake of a 25 year old film deserves to exist is to call into question the entire basis of the modern entertainment industry.

Of course, when critics ask if a film is "necessary" what they're really saying is that a film has no obvious reason to exist beyond the usual crass commercial interests that motivate pretty much every movie that makes it to a cinema that seats more than thirty people. Again, this is Disney we're talking about here: all of their movies exist in a web of marketing and cross-promotion, and they're perfectly happy for you to know about it. So why is Aladdin any worse than any of the other polished but soulless products from the House of Mouse?

Partly it's because the strings are more obvious with these remakes. The Marvel movies and Star Wars still occasionally feel like the decisions taken by their creative team mean something; somewhere in there a human being is trying to communicate something of value. But Disney's run of turning perfectly good animated films into passably watchable live-action films feels like a thrilling combination of trademark maintenance and promotion for upcoming rides and theatrical events. The goal with these films is to not suck, and while that's a worthy goal it's nice to see something occasionally that aims just a little bit higher.

This conservatism means that despite having Guy Ritchie sitting in the director's chair (failing to give us the cockney gangster Aladdin we deserve), this film doesn't feel like it was directed so much as it was fabricated, a do-over where every minor change from the original was focus-grouped to within an inch of its life. Much of this focus seems to have been aimed at fleshing out the character of Princess Jasmine (Naomi Scott), which would have been great if the song shoe-horned in so she can express her desire not to be silenced wasn't easily the worst song in the film.

And yet, the original animated Aladdin was so good that this gets over the line largely because it doesn't try to change too much. The story of a "street-rat" (Mena Massoud) who finds a magic lamp and magic carpet and uses both to help him woo the Princess and help her save her kingdom from the evil vizier Jaffar (Marwan Kenzari) remains basically the same.

A version that drifted further from the original might have been more lively and fun, but clearly Disney wasn't willing to take that chance. The only alteration that even breaks even is Will Smith's genie, in large part because Will Smith  - whether due to star power, a role that gives him more freedom than everyone else, or just sheer ability - seems to be the only person actually putting any real energy into proceedings.

Unlike Robin Williams' shotgun blast of pop culture references (Smith's genie does not make any topical comments, so that theory that the original Aladdin was set thousands of years in the future is kaput), Smith plays his slightly more subdued genie as an actual character.  Which most definitely helps considering everyone else here feels like they're doing an excellent job auditioning for the off-Broadway tour of the stage version.

Yes, Smith doesn't really sing and yes, it's a comedown from Williams' legendary performance and yes, the CGI around him isn't all that great, but still: it turns out that even with all the magic available to Disney, the most interesting thing to watch on the big screen remains a talented actor putting in a bit of effort. Who knew?

- Anthony Morris

Thursday, 16 May 2019

Review: Detective Pikachu

Pokemon - smallish monsters who like to fight, which is handy as having them fight has been the basis for a thirty year run of card and video games, as well as various animated series and a movie - have been around long enough that most people reading this would have at least some vague awareness of them. Fortunately, to get the most out of Detective Pikachu you're only required to find one particular Pokeman - that'd be Pikachu - cute. It's not a hard ask.

In a parallel world where humans and Pokemon have lived in harmony (well, apart from the fighting) for centuries, Tim Goodman (Justice Smith) doesn't care one bit about the adorable pocket monsters. Then he gets a call from Ryme City (a futuristic utopia where Pokemon and humans live side by side rather than the more traditional master-monster relationship) - his father Harry, a Ryme City detective, is missing presumed extremely dead.

Tim's lack of a Pokemon partner makes him unusual in Ryme City, but fortunately a solution is at hand when he finds his father's partner - a Pikachu wearing an adorable Sherlock Holmes hat - in his office. Even more surprisingly, Tim can understand him (he's voiced by Ryan Reynolds) and vice versa. Which means they can team up and try to solve what's going on with Tim's dead dad, which is a puzzle that turns out to be a lot more far-reaching than it first seemed.

As mysteries go this is pretty straightforward - what's the deal with the mysterious R gas that turns Pokemons violent? What part does Ryme City creator Howard Clifford (Bill Nigh) play? - but it plays fair with the audience rather than just pulling suspects and solutions out of thin air. It's all pretty strange on the surface, but at its heart it's a basic film noir, only with a cute electric furball as a co-lead and a bunch of fun monsters wandering around to fight and interrogate. As concepts go it's a pretty good one.

Renyolds fires off his usual snappy patter and there's the occasional deep cut Pokemon reference but this isn't so much a comedy as it is a solid adventure set in a very quirky but well-realised world. The special effects are consistently great - there's never any problem with accepting Pikachu as totally real - and Smith is surprisingly good as someone who isn't (but maybe is) messed up over the death (only there's no body) of his dad.

It certainly doesn't hurt to know a bit about Pokemon here and if you're a fan there's a lot to take in. But the in-joke stuff is almost entirely in the background; Detective Pikachu is basically your typical high-concept kids movie that's smart enough to keep adults firmly entertained as well. Pikachu is pretty adorable after all.

- Anthony Morris

Friday, 10 May 2019

Review: Poms

Anjelica Huston said in a recent interview that "Quite honestly, I’m looking for movies that impress me in some way, that aren’t apologetically humble or humiliating like, “Band of cheerleaders gets back together for one last hurrah,” you know. An old-lady cheerleader movie. I don’t like that kind of thing." That movie was Poms, and news flash: nobody likes that kind of thing.

Maybe don't tell Jacki Weaver that though, as her response to Huston was literally "Well, she can go fuck herself". Of course, if you actually read both interviews both sides have a fair bit more nuance to them than that. Which is a good thing, because arguing over the quality of Poms is no way to spend your brief time on this globe.

To be fair, Poms actually isn't a "band of cheerleaders gets back together for one last hurrah" film. No, most of the cheerleaders at the old-folks home that's the center of this film are first-timers, so this is closer to one of those films where a bunch of lost middle aged types take up a group activity to give their lives meaning and also to do surprisingly well in some kind of public performance (ie The Full Monty). It's an important distinction, but we'll get back to that in a minute.

Anyway, Diane Keaton is a retired teacher who decides to move into a gated old folks community because she's got no kids or friends so what better place to die? Unfortunately her hard-partying neighbour (Jacki Weaver) wants to be friends. Worse, it's a community rule that you have to belong to a club, so - remembering a teenage dream that never quite came true - she starts a cheerleading club. Hijinks never quite manage to ensue.

The problem here is that the screenwriters have gone and mixed up two distinctly different (but easily confused) kinds of film. The first kind involves middle-aged people feeling like their lives are going nowhere who band together in some kind of group activity and through that find new meaning in their lives. Yay! These movies are bullshit, but they work as movies: the characters have an underlying problem (meaninglessness) and they find a solution (a community based around a hobby).

The second kind involves a bunch of old people getting together again to show they still have what it takes to do some group activity they used to do when they were young (usually, but not always, crime-related). Yay! These movies are also bullshit, but they also work as movies: the characters have an underlying problem (a need to show they're not dead yet) and they find a solution (giving an old activity one last go).

Poms mashes the two together to create the worst of both worlds. Here it's old people feeling like their lives are going nowhere - only once your characters are over 70 and living in a retirement community that's literally true, and there's no real way to solve that problem unless you're remaking Cocoon. That doesn't mean you can't tell an interesting story about them, but it does mean you can't tell this story, because then you're telling the story of a bunch of old people taking up a hobby to pass the time before they die, and that's just sad.

Having old people do something they were once good at makes sense in a movie because (in theory) they still have the skills they once had; these characters have no skills, and so this is a movie about old people keeping busy. It doesn't solve their underlying problem, so it doesn't work as a movie; at best, having them be cheerleaders is a kind of jokey "say whaaaaat?" high concept, not something that says anything about who the characters are or why we should care about them.

There are plenty of other reasons why this is a bad night out; it's not very funny, the supporting performances are not great, it's filmed like an sub-standard episode of Desperate Housewives, and so on. But it's the script that makes this a waste of time; ironically, the concept Anjelica Huston sneered at would have made this a much better film.

- Anthony Morris

Friday, 3 May 2019

Review: Top End Wedding

A heart-warming tale of finding your family - and through them, yourself - Top End Wedding takes full advantage of a range of spectacular scenery and some very funny performances to create a rom-com that's surprisingly assured once it finds its feet. Coming from a first-time script-writer (Miranda Tapsell, who co-wrote the script, stars in the film and is also an executive producer), the characters are deftly drawn and relatable, the story moves at a fast pace, and it delivers a strong emotional punch at the end. It's the kind of film we don't make anywhere near often enough in this country; fingers crossed it gets the level of success it deserves.

Adelaide lawyer Lauren (Tapsell) and her partner Ned (Gwilym Lee) are getting married. This is not a straightforward procedure: they not only have a narrow window in which to seal the deal (Lauren's boss in not big on time off), Lauren wants to have the ceremony with her family in the Northern Territory, and it turns out her mother Daphne (Ursula Yovich) has gone missing (there's also the little matter of Ned being unemployed, but he hasn't told Lauren that yet). Her dad Trevor (Huw Higginson) isn't much help, what with sitting in the closet listening to sad songs all day, so there's only one way to track her down: road trip!

Much of the appeal of the rom-com genre comes from the fact that, so long as you get the lead characters right (and hopefully, find actors with decent chemistry), audiences will overlook a whole range of cinematic flaws. Fortunately, both Tapsell and Lee (last seen playing Brian May in Bohemian Rhapsody) are extremely watchable in their own rights and totally plausible as a young couple in love. This is a rare(ish) rom-com where the drama comes from outside the central relationship: while they might not be married at the start of the film, there's never any real doubt that they'll end up hitched in some form or another by the end.

Unfortunately this means that the drama is mostly about finding Daphne, and the film's middle stretch is fairly aimless despite traveling through a lot of very striking country. The journey is meant to be a trip exploring her past but there's just not that much to work with and the film's comedy - which is strongest and broadest in the early, more crowded scenes - fades to be replaced with a mild and inoffensive travelogue that director Wayne Blair (The Sapphires) does his best to make visually engaging.

This is perhaps too uneven to be truly satisfying across the board - if you like the broad silliness of the first act the more thoughtful and emotional scenes in the third may not be for you, and the film's middle stretch is largely forgettable. This drifting is all the more frustrating for viewers (unless you're a member of the Northern Territory tourism board, who must be delighted with the way this sells a number of tourism hotspots) because the final act of the film really does connect with Lauren's family history in a powerful way that's the obvious highlight of the film.

It's a shame it takes so long to get to this material; it's clearly the part of the film everyone is passionate about, and that enthusiasm and engagement comes through loud and clear. It's a road trip where the destination is well worth the journey; hopefully Australian audiences feel up to the ride.

- Anthony Morris