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Thursday, 20 September 2018

Review: Ladies in Black

By 1959, Sydney's tram network was in disrepair. Lines had been closing down since the late 1930s; despite public opposition, removal of the service was government policy thanks to congested streets, competition from buses and private cars, and a general lack of investment. Deliberately run down and rickety, the entire network - once the largest in Australia and one of the largest in the world - would be gone by 1962.

Sydney 1959 - specifically, the lead-in to Christmas - is also when Bruce Beresford's latest film Ladies in Black is set. It's a sunny, polished, feel-good tale centered on the staff of the high-class department store Goode’s (think David Jones), where the floor staff – named the “ladies in black” – guide the women of Sydney in their fashion needs.

For sixteen year-old Lisa (Angourie Rice), it’s a holiday job between high school and (she hopes) university; for Fay (Rachael Taylor) it’s love that’s paramount (and the Aussie blokes aren’t measuring up); Patty (Alison McGirr) has a man but the spark isn’t there; and for migrant Magda (Julia Ormond) who runs the store's fashion gown department, Lisa is someone she can take under her wing and show the world to – well, the European side of it at least.

The tram Fay repeatedly travels to work on is in perfect heritage condition; if the Sydney trams really were looking that good in 1959 they’d still be running today. But you don’t need to know the real-life state of Sydney trams to tell this is a look at the past through glasses so rose-coloured it’s hard to see much of anything clearly through them. Here controlling dads really mean well, deadbeat husbands really mean well, racism is limited to using the term “reffo” and it doesn’t matter that the Nazis conscripted you to run their railways so long as you have a good heart. Where were those Nazi trains going again?

The mood is pleasant enough, but this near total lack of dramatic tension – if this was what 1959 was really like it’s hard to see why anyone would have rebelled against anything in the 60s – only throws the films other flaws into high relief. The cast can’t do much with their one-note characters but some manage better than others; a basic rule of thumb is the better the 50s outfit the better the character comes across. The constant raising then dismissing of issues gives it the veneer of facing up to the hard facts of mid-century Australia, but the suffocating blandness means just about everything simply… works out.

Girls can go to university (on a scholarship!), sexual issues are resolved with a snuggle, poor people from the country know their place (not in Goode’s), foreigners just mean everyone else gets different food to try, gays are free to perv at hot guys on the beach and Melbourne is a crap town everyone makes fun of. All this wrapped in constant sunshine and stylised gloss that gives this competently forgettable film the look of a tourism video sent forward in an attempt to lure time travellers back to 1959.

Then again, the casting of Shane Jacobson as the kind of knockabout decent Aussie bloke he’s played to the point of cliché and beyond suggests that this really is some kind of tourism video. One aimed at overseas audiences selling them on a fundamentally welcoming and intellectually lively Australia that – much like those pristine 1959 Sydney trams – never really existed.

- Anthony Morris

Thursday, 13 September 2018

Review: The Predator

The first Predator works mostly because it's a brilliantly simple idea well-told: a bunch of action movie badasses meet something even more badass than they are. The second Predator is pretty much the same idea only in a different setting and with a bunch of extra junk thrown in, and it only kind of works. The Predator is nothing but extra junk; it does not work.

At first it seems like all the junk is going to be a feature, not a bug. After his mission to rescue hostages taken by a Mexican drug cartel is interrupted by a crashing spacecraft, US Army Ranger sniper Quinn McKenna (Boyd Holbrook) scavenges some Predator technology (a faceplate and wrist band) and mails it back to the US just before he's captured. He also swallows the equipment's remote control so he can crap it out at an important plot point later. Unfortunately he hasn't paid for his post office box in years so the post office dumps his packages on his doorstep where his estranged family take them inside. Their house is later destroyed.

Some people are going to try to tell you that The Predator starts out strong then slowly falls apart, which it does. But they're also going to try and tell you that this films growing narrative incoherence - and make no mistake, this is one of the most garbled Hollywood blockbusters in years; at once stage a dubbed in voice tells us that our heroes (in a helicopter) can track the human bad guys (long gone) by following a brain-damaged alien dog - is the reason why it falls apart. Wrong: as that previous paragraph shows, this film starts out incoherent and does not improve at any stage.

Being a mess doesn't automatically make a film bad, of course. And a lot of the dumber part of the plot can be explained away pretty easily. How does the motley crew of escaped mental patients McKenna ends up leading find a whole bunch of fully automatic military weapons with which to shoot at the Predator? How does Olivia Nunn's scientist - introduced as a biology expert and who cowers naked in a decontamination chamber early on when the Predator tears apart a research lab - turn into someone at least as proficient with military hardware as the rest of McKenna's kill team? It's America: they love their guns.

But this just keeps on piling on twists and developments and messy action sequences with close to no regard to what's happened earlier in the scene, let alone what might make for a good movie. Most of what is consistent is slightly nasty too: there's loads of gore (all of it CGI), the action is almost always just "fire lots of guns before you get sliced up", and this is a movie where literally everyone - including McKenn's on the spectrum pre-teen son - gets at least one human kill. Maybe that's intentional; it is a firm plot point that the Predators are now just coming here to get in some kills before we kill ourselves off.

Writer-director Shane Black usually has a good nose for characters, but here he's way off base. McKenna is a bland action tough guy who's totally forgettable; his motley crew of "Loonies" are initially annoying, then stick around long enough to become the emotional core of the film (McKenna's wife simply vanishes from the story half way through), then get dispatched in slightly mocking ways that make anyone who actually cared about them feel like a chump.

Meanwhile the main human bad guy is slightly memorable yet is given next to nothing to do and one of the stupidest throwaway movie deaths in recent memory, while the Predator(s) are revealed to not really be coming here for sport but then they decide to hunt some humans anyway but it's not a real hunt because they're kidnapping humans now or something. There's a Predator dog who spends half the movie playing fetch. There is now a scientific rationale for the Predator's dreadlocks.

The real problem with these films is that the money is tied up in the IP that is "The Predator", and yet the alien space hunter monster is almost always the least interesting thing about every Predator movie. The less we see of the Predator, the better a Predator movie is; all you really need to know here is that there's more than one Predator, and they don't use their invisibility shields anywhere near often enough.

- Anthony Morris

Thursday, 6 September 2018

Review: The Merger

The history of Australian comedy film is the history of a bunch of knockabout larrikins who band together to defeat the bad guys. The Castle: larrikins vs development. Crackerjack: larrikins vs development. Kenny: larrikins vs the development of social taboos around defecation. And so The Merger is also about a band of larrikins getting together to - literally - tackle a worthy foe. Only this time, the foe is far more insidious than a stink that'll outlast religion.

Troy Carrington (Damian Callinan) is a local legend for all the wrong reasons. A star AFL player (until he broke his leg running through the Grand Final banner) and environmental activist who got the local logging mill shut down (earning him the nickname “town killer”) he’s not exactly well-loved in his small country town. The terrible wine he makes isn't winning him any friends either.

So when the local footy team looks set to close due to lack of players and an asbestos-filled clubroom, nobody – but especially not club legend Bull Barlow (John Howard) – wants Troy to take over. Thing is, Troy has the skills, the know-how, and after he meets Sayyid (Fayssal Bazzi), the plan: why not look to recruit new talent from the town’s rapidly growing resettled refugee population? But even when he does take over, there's the little matter of entrenched racism to be overcome before the new team can really start operating as one.

The result for both Troy and the film is never really in doubt. But this warm and gentle crowd-pleaser benefits greatly from a well-polished script from veteran stand-up Callinan (who initially toured it as a one-man show), alongside a well-utilised rural setting and a likable cast of relative unknowns. It's remarkable what a difference a decent script can make to an (Australian) film: while this doesn't exactly aim for the moon, it accomplishes what it sets out to achieve - a solid comedy with a strong run of decent laughs and enough story to make the characters more than joke machines - with a verve not often seen on the (Australian) big screen.

It doesn’t gloss over the frictions between refugees and conservative rural Australians either: there's enough real friction here to make the inevitable victory seem hard earned. But it doesn’t dwell too deeply on the divide either; it turns out everyone’s welcome in this plucky band of wacky misfits – unless, of course, you’re a dickhead.

- Anthony Morris

Thursday, 30 August 2018

Review: Crazy Rich Asians

2018 might be the year that Hollywood finally figured out that representation is a great way to get overlooked audiences into the cinema, but they're not putting the big money into risky projects just yet. Much like this year's earlier big breakthrough Black Panther, this is about as solidly traditional an example of its chosen genre - in this case, the romantic-comedy - as you could ask for. But where Black Panther's superhero audience had another four or five films to choose from this year alone, if you're a fan of big lavish rom-coms featuring grown-ups this is pretty much it for 2018. And 2017. And 2016. And as far back as it takes until the last one of those Judd Apatow comedies that pretty much trashed the genre.

So this is really aimed at two under-served markets, but only one gets anything original: this is the first Hollywood film with an all-Asian cast since The Joy Luck Club, and the total sidelining of any kind of white western experience is easily the most interesting thing going on here. The big cast means we get a variety of representation here too: there are plenty of comedy jerks and loud-mouths alongside the more restrained and noble characters, and while one subplot about a doomed marriage doesn't really have much of anything to do with the main story it does add some useful emotional texture to a rom-com which occasionally gets uncomfortably close to just saying "hey, being super rich really is awesome".

(to be fair, director Jon M. Chu does make spending massive amounts of money on everything look like a pretty good time)

The romance side of things is largely built around the classic rom-com trope of not giving either lead any real personality so the audience can project pretty much anything they like onto them. In this case American-born Rachel Chu (Constance Wu) is a professor specialising in game theory (as you do) who doesn't realise her boyfriend Nick (Henry Golding) belongs to an insanely wealthy family until they visit his hometown of Singapore for his best friend's wedding. Nick's personality is "occasionally shirtless nice guy" while she is "cheerful but slightly worried she's in over her head", but Wu and Golding have good chemistry together; they're a fun couple to watch.

This leaves the supporting cast to pick up the slack when it comes to being memorable and again, having a big cast is a definite plus - there's the broad comedy types (Awkwafina as Rachel's bestie steals just about every scene she's in), the serious confidants, the sneaky bitches, and Nick's mother (Michelle Yeoh), who is the real obstacle as far as their happily ever after goes. 

These days rom-coms live or die by the obstacles they can throw up in the lovers path, and she's an excellent one: having been constantly judged as inferior by her own mother-in-law, she's fully aware of the sacrifices any wife of her son will have to make to fit into the family and their world, and she simply (and with some justification) doesn't think a westerner will give up their freedom for the family's greater good.

It's this that makes Crazy Rich Asians more than just a slightly unsettling celebration of excess. After all, for all this is lauded as being ground-breaking, the core message is about as old Hollywood as it gets: money can't buy happiness.. Their great wealth comes with responsibilities that seem inconceivable in today's west; it's possible to imagine a billionaire US matriarch giving a possible daughter-in-law the cold shoulder in 2018, but not in a way that would gain her much sympathy. 

But here her argument is, at the very least, reasonable - and so when Rachel has to step up and fight for her love, it's a real battle. It's that culture clash, coming in a film that treats both cultures with respect, that gives the romance some grit. And it's that as much as the shirtless guys and fancy weddings that makes this film work: a love story without a struggle isn't much of a love story at all.

- Anthony Morris 

Thursday, 23 August 2018

Review: The Happytime Murders

There is maybe one laugh to be had from the idea of children's puppets doing adult things and The Happytime Murders can't even get that right. It's not that a movie that features a puppet octopus "milking" a puppet cow somehow isn't depraved enough - it's that this movie acts like everyone watching it is totally invested in the idea of puppets as symbols of child-like innocence and wonder, and so putting puppets in adult situations is automatically hilarious. 

It's not. It's amazing how much is it not.

Most of the previous movies about children's characters doing adult things - Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Team America, and so on - got at least some mileage out of putting their children's characters in then-current mainstream adult movie genres. Unfortunately in 2018 there are no mainstream adult movie genres: making a puppet movie about superheroes would just be a regular superhero movie.

So the story is fresh out of 1987: ex-cop turned PI (what, no “puppet investigator” joke?) Phil Phillips (puppeteer Bill Barretta, who also provides the voice) finds himself tangled up in a string of murders seemingly targeting the former cast members of hit puppet sitcom The Happytime Gang, and is forced to work with his former partner Connie Edwards (Melissa McCarthy) – the cop who had him thrown off the force.

This buddy cop plot is the strongest part of the film, which shouldn't really be surprising as it's played absolutely straight. The whole "we've got to solve this mystery and also we hate each other" thing is pleasingly retro, McCarthy is decent as a pissed-off cop, Barretta has just the right amount of world-weariness for a worn down PI, and while the mystery does contain zero surprises it does keep the film moving along.

Oh wait, this is a movie about puppets having sex and getting their heads blown off; who cares about the plot?  Unfortunately this film, despite being made by Jim "Muppet" Henson's son, has access to a grand total of zero much-loved muppet characters and so has to come up with a crazy new bunch of puppets for us to care about. Only it doesn't bother: this film has put all its chips on betting that the audience will find hilarious the idea of a puppet - any puppet - doing adult things. This is not a good bet.

The result is a steady stream of puppets we are never given a single reason to care about being killed in briefly amusing (that is to say, graphic) fashion, while others do drugs (sugar is puppet drugs) and have sex, which is just two puppets flailing up against each other so don't get too excited. But you do get to see a puppet vagina in a Basic Instinct parody that turns out to be essential to solving the mystery. Well, not "you" - you're never going to see this movie.

It's a film full of characters we don't care about doing things we don't care about while making jokes that aren't funny (the old "asshole says what" joke is done multiple times like Wayne's World never happened) in between action sequences that aren't exciting: you'll have more fun putting your hand in a sock.

- Anthony Morris


Thursday, 16 August 2018

Review: The Meg

It takes a lot of skill to make a firmly forgettable film about a giant killer prehistoric shark running amok at a public beach. Blame Jason Statham: without him this wouldn't even be watchable, let alone something you might possible recall a week from now when looking at a picture of the ocean. "Didn't I see a shark movie recently?" you might think. You might even be right.

The story isn't exactly a pressing requirement but here goes: years ago professional underwater rescue guy Jonas Taylor (Statham) had a deep sea rescue interrupted by what he - and nobody else - believed was a giant shark. Now he's a washed up drunk, as shown by the way the next time we see him he's got a beer bottle in his hand and lives above a bar. But that doesn't matter (literally - as soon as he puts down the beer it's never mentioned again), because a bunch of hi-tech science guys have gone deeper than anyone though possible and now a shark is chewing on their sub. Get me Jonas Taylor!

For an actor people thought stopped caring five films back Statham gives a surprisingly strong performance here; with this, his recent work in the Fast & Furious films, and Spy (he's got to be the only reason they're currently making a Spy 2) he’s back as one of Hollywood more entertaining not-quite leading men. Here he's clearly having slightly more fun than the film (which is long and drawn-out for most of the running time) deserves; even when he's acting alongside a cute kid he's able to make it work.

But who cares about the humans? It's a movie about a giant shark: IS THERE ANY GORE? Sadly no, unless you count the chum they tip into the water at one point when they’re trying to lure the shark to its doom. And while there are a couple of severed body parts left behind, this is really pretty mild on the chomp scale... which is even more disappointing as most of the supporting cast seem perfect shark snacks. Ok, the Chinese characters have to live (or do they?) because it's Chinese money that's behind this film, but what kind of a world do we live in where Ruby Rose plays a "cool chick" named Jaxx whose only character trait is her hair and yet she doesn't get eaten?

This might be a spoiler but it's for your own good: the sole black character in the film who is also the most annoying character in the film - seriously, he's named "DJ"; the end credits song really should have been The Smith's 'Panic' so we could sing along with the "hang the DJ" line -  does not get eaten. Not even a little bit. Clearly, something is badly wrong with this film. But the shark looks cool, there are a few effective jump scares, and… look, it’s Statham versus a shark. You’ve probably already bought your ticket.

- Anthony Morris

Thursday, 9 August 2018

Review: Superfly

A film like Superfly has to walk a very fine line. Play it too straight and what's the point; go too far over the top and it just gets silly. So while it's easy to dismiss it for not working - and most of the time it doesn't really work - films like this almost never click. Good pulp crime dramas are few and far between, and even the good ones usually get dismissed as trash. Having this one make it to cinemas at all is some kind of victory.

It's a tale as old as time: the biggest drug dealer in town (Atlanta) decides to get out of the game, and the only way he can do that is by pulling off one last big score. Problem is, this film never actually gets around to explaining what that one last big score is: Youngblood Priest (Trevor Jackson) pulls off a whole bunch of smooth moves with hustler skill (his superpower is that he has information on everyone), but his big plan seems to be "sell even more drugs than usual" while his partner Eddie (Jason Mitchell) urges him to solve his problems in the usual lead-heavy manner.

Taking things up a notch is a risky move, because he's been able to build up his business while everyone in town's been distracted by not-really-rival drug gang the Snow Patrol, who all dress only in white right down to their guns: these guys are both brilliant and hilarious, and the film could have used a dozen more ideas as great as this one. But when a Snow Patrol member sets his eye on one of Priest's girls - he's got two, one African-American (Lex Scott Davis) and one Latina (Andrea Londo) - it ends in a street shooting (Priest literally dodges the bullet) and he realises it's no point being smart if everyone around you is an idiot.

What follows is slightly better than functional, as Priest ends up constantly dancing between various forces out to bring him down, including the Snow Patrol, his former mentor Scatter (Michael Kenneth Williams), the Mexican Cartel, and a pair of murderous corrupt cops (Jennifer Morrison as the brains of the outfit is clearly enjoying being bad to the bone). There are car chases (which end up trashing a Confederate monument), multiple bloody shootouts, a three-way sex scene in a shower and a drug selling montage set to Curtis Mayfield's "Pusher Man"; so far so good.

No-one cares if a plot is stock standard so long as there's something original going on, but this never comes to life. Director X somehow manages to make Atlanta look even more generic than it did in Baby Driver, and even the over-the-top moments of crazy excess - Snow Patrol are based out of a mansion bigger than Buckingham Palace - feel like the kind of thing you could find in any C-list cop drama. The action is functional at best, the performances are good but not great, and Priest's hair is often the most interesting thing on screen.

Occasionally there's a sharp line of dialogue that lifts proceedings - an early diss towards Priest's skinny jeans is a solid laugh, and Scatter almost single-handledly brings the film back to life when he starts on about Priest's "Morris Day-looking hair" - but there's nothing here you can't get better elsewhere. And a drug dealer like Priest knows that's no way to run a successful business.

- Anthony Morris