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Wednesday, 8 July 2020

Review: Waves

Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) is seventeen and has the world at his feet. A high school wrestler looking at getting into college on a scholarship, he has a loving girlfriend, Alexis (Alexa Demie), a well-off family, and a life in South Florida that's a whirlwind of cars, friends, training and hanging out. There's the occasional off note - his father, Ronald (Sterling K. Brown) is a self-made man who means well but pushes his son maybe a little too hard - but on the whole? Life is good.

And then it isn't, and while this family drama has more to say than simply "shit happens", the capricious nature of life and the way even the steadiest of good fortune can be revealed to be hanging by a thread is at the core of what's to come. A shoulder injury jeopardises his future; seeing it as a personal failure, he decides to keep it secret. Things get worse, and when Alexis reveals she's pregnant his life begins to spiral out of control. Disaster seems inevitable, and the fallout will shatter more lives than his own.

Writer-director Trey Edward Shults (It Comes at Night) is as interested in creating a sensory experience through film as he is in telling a story, though the story here definitely stands up. The early scenes with Tyler sees the camera constantly on the move through an at-times glowing, garish world, sliding and spinning through a life lived at precarious speed. Even before the wheels come off, there's a constant tension, a sense of things only seemingly under control.

In the back half of the film the focus shifts to Tyler's little sister Emily (Taylor Russell), an minor presence early on who turns out to have hidden depths of her own. Already quiet, she becomes almost withdrawn after Tyler's trainwreck and the film's visual energy settles down with her (the aspect ratio also shifts to 4:3 after the increasingly claustrophobic widescreen of Tyler's scenes; when her life once again opens up, so does the screen).

Emily finds a relationship of her own, even as her family struggles (and fails) to come to terms with what's happened. After the tension of the first half of the film, we're in the same situation as Emily, wary of new faces, always alert for the damage they could deal out. What follows is surprising in the way it confirms that life goes on, and can even be good; some of the moments would seem forced or melodramatic in a lesser film, but after what everyone's been through any moment of peace and insight rings true.

Often films that focus so firmly on visuals and sound as Waves earn tags like "lyrical", and it's well-deserved here. But there's a raft of outstanding performances as well, from a cast that moves effortlessly from big scenes to subtle character moments. Shults has created a living, breathing world; it's definitely worth a visit.

- Anthony Morris

Sunday, 31 May 2020

Review: Endings, Beginnings

Drake Doremus seems like the kind of director who doesn't seem all that interested in what his scripts are about so long as they give him the chance to create a particular mood. That's probably a little unfair: the kind of mood he's usually looking to create is one of romantic longing, so clearly he's not rushing to get hired for the next Bad Boys sequel (though if that franchise were to take a surprise twist, who knows...).

His most successful film to date remains Like Crazy, a romantic drama in which a young couple are put through the wringer because one of them decides to overstay his visa (to stay with his girlfriend, obviously), only to discover that's totally screwed over his chances of returning to the country to be with her.

Having a decent plot that justifies Doremus's fondness for arty shots of attractive young people looking sad is a large factor in its success; every film he's made since then (yes, even the one where Ewan McGregor falls in love with a robot) has had an increasingly slapdash feel to it.

In the case of Endings, Beginnings, that's kind of the point; largely improvised with the help of the cast, it's clearly more about being a free-wheeling character study of a young woman (Shallene Woodley) at a turning point in her life than it is about a gripping plot packed with twists. Which is exactly the kind of film you want Doremus to be making.

Daphne (Woodley) has just broken up with her seemingly perfect boyfriend for reasons even she can't seem to articulate and moved back into her sister's pool house. Her models for relationships aren't great: her sister's relation may be abusive, while her mother didn't exactly provide stability either. Then one night at one of her sister's parties she meets Jack (Jamie Dorman), a kindly Irish writer, and Frank (Sebastian Stan), a fiery bad boy. Who to choose? And they're also best friends!

It's a moderately interesting dilemma that holds few surprises. It's no spoiler to reveal that the moral of the story is that girls like the nice guys but they'll sleep with the bad boys, and this does contain a number of what counts as graphic sex scenes for an American film in 2020. But the focus is firmly on Daphne and her journey to a place where she can move forward with love in her life, and both men are really just ways for her to figure out what she really wants.

Doremus is a solid stylist in the underappreciated "films that look like an expensive car commercial" genre, and while that sounds like a cheap shot it's more a recognition of how advertising has colonised a certain strand of emotion-based film-making. Looked at a particular way, Terrance Malick's films also feel like expensive car commercials, and so while the story may occasionally feel like it's spinning its wheels. the visuals always do an impressive job of keeping the emotions we're meant to be feeling on solid ground.

The only real problem with all this is that Daphne herself isn't that interesting. Her dilemma is largely abstract, especially once it becomes clearer exactly why she left her ex. Even purely as fun wish fulfillment (which this clearly is to some extent) it's often not much more than eye candy; while she's torn between two hot guys that's not really a tough problem to have when both of them constantly make sure to respect her feelings and boundaries.

Like a lot of stories that are made up as they go along, it reaches a point where the drama just runs out.

- Anthony Morris

Tuesday, 5 May 2020

Out Now: Homecoming season one

Heidi (Julia Roberts) is a counselor at Homecoming, an organisation that helps returned soldiers transition back into civilian life. Or more accurately, she was: now she's a small town waitress, which is the kind of comedown that even the Department of Defense finds a little suspicious - especially as she now says she has no memory of ever having worked at Homecoming. This is a series full of mysteries, and over ten episodes the twists and turns just keep on coming.

On release Homecoming didn't get quite the attention it deserved - it stars Julia Roberts! It's directed by the Mr Robot guy! - which can largely be laid at the feet of Amazon, which at the time (and possibly even now) was seen as a streaming service that occasionally came up with the goods but wasn't a must-have addition to your viewing roster. That's a real shame: this is as enthralling a mystery series as any of the more high-profile efforts that have been buzzed about over the last few years.

It's a sign of how television has cheapened the mystery that the term "puzzle box" is pretty much standard for the genre now, but Homecoming is an old-fashioned mystery, one where the puzzle has been thoroughly worked out before the first clue is clear. So while there are plenty of twisty developments here, there's never a sense that things are happening simply for the sake of keeping you watching. It all adds up, which is exactly what you want to hear before making a five hour commitment.

Of course, it's totally possible you're here just to see Julia Roberts (who we don't seem to see enough of these days), and fans will have nothing to complain about with her small screen debut. Even those who might be on the fence after a decade or more of her blinding smile in rom-com roles will be won over by her reserved, nuanced performance here.

The rest of the cast provides solid support, whether it's Sissy Spacek as her small-town mother, Bobby Cannavale as Homecoming's blustery boss (just what is it that he wants Heidi to find out from her cases?) or Stephan James as Walter, a returned soldier who's struggling with survivor's guilt after his tour.

Director Sam Esmail brings his signature off-kilter visual style to what gradually develops into a story of a kind of corporate malfeasance (or is it?), giving almost every scene a lurching sense of subtle menace that amplifies the unease without becoming overwhelming.

The whole production is measured in a way that a good mystery should be, with everything working in balance to build a picture we want to see completed even as we come to dread what it will reveal.

Homecoming season one is out now on DVD through ViaVision

Thursday, 16 April 2020

Out Now: Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

Some movies feel bigger on the small screen, and Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker - which came across as more than a little overstuffed plot-wise in cinemas - seems a much more expansive watch on the small screen. Perhaps that's merely an effect from seeing it a second time around. Maybe it has something to do with plot-heavy dramas being more suited to the small screen experience. Either way, a film that felt a little too breathless on the big screen comes off a lot better at home.

That's not to say the (extremely busy) plot doesn't still have its problems. Pulling in a brand new (yet extremely old) bad guy to round off this trilogy is still a shaky move even if it does tie this final trilogy tighter to the first two. The script's tendency to deliver what should be series-shaking developments (at least two central characters seemingly die) then walk them back within minutes is less than ideal too. And much as we all wanted to say goodbye to Carrie Fisher properly, her role here is little more than an extended goodbye that's more awkward than heart-warming.

But on the whole, this delivers what you want from a Star Wars film (as does the home release: the making of doco that's the big extra is an entertainingly extensive look behind-the-scenes). The core characters spend much of the film working as a team, while most of the new cast make a strong impression. The final act may lack the kind of rigorous logic  many want from science fiction, but Star Wars has always been closer to fantasy anyway. The whole final set-up feels dire, which is all it really needs to do to succeed.

Plus it's a Star Wars movie! it's a successful franchise for a reason, and a big part of that reason is that it's full of locations and characters and just general stuff that's fun to look at. George Lucas didn't invent the idea of a future that looked well-worn but the series he's created has pretty much come to own the concept as far as Hollywood's concerned (just look at the photos release for the upcoming Dune; it's clear the only other option left for Hollywood space opera is the exact same kind of technology only brand new, which is far less interesting to look at).

So even if you're someone who's had their fill of lightsabre battles - and if you are, it's surprising you've read this far - staging one on the wreck of a Death Star that's also in the middle of an ocean during a raging storm isn't really something you're going to see anywhere else. Where Star Wars goes from here (the past?) remains a mystery; for now, this remains a perfectly fitting send-off.

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker is available on DVD, blu-ray and 4K now.

- Anthony Morris

Thursday, 9 April 2020

Review: The Hunt

A group of people wake up in the middle of the countryside only to discover they’re being hunted for sport. It’s a remake of The Most Dangerous Game (or if you prefer, Hard Target), but there’s a twist; this time the rich evil hunters are rich left-wing evil hunters!  It's Go Woke Go Broke(n Neck) The Movie!

Okay, there’s a lot more twists than just the specific blather the wealthy murderers come out with; this is a film that prides itself on at least trying to keep you guessing, and the multiple surprises - combined with a tight 90 minute run time - makes this an entertainingly fast, if not exactly deep, B-movie. The kills are gory when required, discreet when not, and the fight scenes are decent enough to work as pay offs when the stalking scenes peter out.

That said, it’s the overtly political slant that's the big marketing hook here (as the story unfolds it turns out to be slightly more complex than merely a bunch of Hillary lefties hunting “deplorables”), especially considering a resulting tweetstorm from President Trump resulted in this being pulled from release schedules late last year. 

Now in 2020 scriptwriter David Lindelof and Nick Cuse’s deliberately controversial and intentionally superficial politics seem almost quaint, though many of the jokes still land thanks to director Craig Zobel’s jokey approach. The underlying moral is basically that rich people are dicks and loudmouths deserve what they get, which is something 99% of the audience can get behind, so the chances of anyone being authentically outraged by a collection of online buzzwords being deployed for comedy effect is fairly slim.

But the politics, like the action and the twists, are all part of a whole, and The Hunt moves quickly enough and darts enthusiastically enough from one to the other and back again to make the whole thing firmly entertaining as a kind of polished-up take on what would otherwise be a direct-to-obscurity slice of genre fun.

This isn't exactly the kind of film you watch for the performances, but Betty Gilpin as one of the more durable hunted is a clear stand-out, turning a fairly generic role into a star turn via a likable combination of wariness and world-weariness that's winning. Everybody else gets a flashy death.

- Anthony Morris

Thursday, 2 April 2020

Review: Onward

 In a fantasy world that abandoned magic centuries ago (it turned out modern conveniences were just too convenient), teenage elf Ian Lightfoot (Tom Holland) is a quiet introvert who really misses the (dead) dad he never knew. Pixar sadness ahead!

Meanwhile, big brother Barley (Chris Pratt, channeling Jack Black in his prime) is a brash extrovert obsessed with the magical past who drives around in a beat up van named Genevieve and chains himself to old ruins in between role-playing sessions. If you were wondering whether Frozen made animated siblings cool, here's the proof (only this time, for boys!) (actually, this really is very much for boys).

It turns out Barley wasn't the only magic-obsessed nerd in the family: on Ian’s sixteenth birthday a spell set up by their dead dad gives the brothers the chance to have him back for one full day. But when it goes wrong and only restores his bottom half, the pair have to sneak off on a quest (okay, it’s a road trip in Barley’s crap van) to restore the half they really need to meet. 

It's easy to see the appeal of the central concept: what if Dungeons & Dragons was (historically) real? But like a lot of Pixar's recent projects, this feels over-thought, with multiple layers added that muddy rather than clarify the premise's core appeal. 

Here that'd be "a young man insecure of his place in the world goes on a quest that helps him figure out that place". This then also turns out to be about his relationship with his brother (and vice versa), plus a side serve of "hey, why did we ever give up on magic", a bunch of "my dad is a walking butt" comedy, and the brothers' mum (voiced by Julia Louis-Dryfuss) racing to save them from a curse they're about to stumble into unawares.

None of this detracts from the film exactly, but there's a a lack of balance throughout that dulls the story's focus. The quest itself is intentionally generic - the thrill is meant to be that they're living out a fantasy for real - but it comes across as slightly half-hearted on screen, a checklist of stages the characters have to go through. Possibly the fussiness around it comes from a realisation that the central story is weak, but it doesn't solve the problem.

The brothers' relationship is the strongest part of the film, but pretty much all the relationships are well-rounded, with characters constantly refusing to fall back on dramatic cliches. Even when people don't get along, they consistently like each other; the big dramatic moment between the brothers is (relatively) quickly smoothed over because they're brothers who get along - and realistically there's never going to be a shock reveal that instantly tears them apart.

Initially Onward threatens to be yet another Disney feature about "the chosen one". The prologue explains that magic died out because it was hard to master, but Ian turns out to be a natural at it. It could almost be a superhero origin story; fortunately this is drawing its inspiration from a very different tradition.

Fantasy adventure, especially in its Lord of the Rings-inspired Dungeons & Dragons form, is largely about teamwork. Your character can be the best fighter or magic user or thief there is, but you're still going to need to join a party made up of other characters to get things done.

So while Ian is the only character here who fits into a traditional D&D role (Barley might have been a fighter in an earlier draft but here he's just a metal dude; their mum is just a protective mum), the idea of a team (or party) sharing the focus runs throughout the film. 

It's about a community where everyone wins when they work together; some stories are more relevant in 2020 than others.

- Anthony Morris

Friday, 20 March 2020

Review: The Current War

As possibly the last major new release appearing in Australian cinemas for a while, The Current War is suddenly surprisingly relevant - and not in a "as the lights go out..." fashion either. It's a film about a lot of things - too many, most of the time - but on thing it does make clear is that human progress is as much about science as it is about business. Knowledge makes money, not the other way around.

The year is 1880, and Thomas Edison (Benedict Cumberbatch) has invented the lightbulb. Well, a lightbulb; as this movies make clear (often to its detriment), the field of electrical discovery in late 19th century America was a crowded one, and no sooner had someone invented something than a half dozen imitators were selling their wares. Fun fact: the reason why light globes have that strange turn-and-lock arrangement for fitting into a socket is because Edison trademarked the screw-in light globe (which then failed to take off).

One of these competitors is successful industrialist (he makes train brakes) George Westinghouse (Michael Shannon), who invites Edison to dinner to discuss ways they can work together. Edison snubs him, leaving him standing on a train station platform while his personal train rushes by. But Westinghouse is not a man who rushes into revenge; rather, he decides to champion Alternating Current (the AC to Edison's preferred Direct Current or DC) in the rush to electrify America's cities. DC is cheaper and safer than gas; AC is cheaper still, and can be sent further. But Edison believes it is too dangerous, and as the publicity war heats up he's desperate for any sales angle he can get.

There's a third player in all this: Nicola Tesla (Nicolas Hoult), who has big ideas and a history of being fired from everywhere he works (including an early stretch working for Edison). For much of the film it's unclear exactly where all this is heading (Tesla mostly lurks on the sidelines), and while director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon does a solid job of storytelling within each scene, eventually it becomes clear that not all of those earlier scenes were heading anywhere.

This scattershot storytelling is The Current War's biggest flaw. Visually Gomez-Rejon does an excellent job, giving much of the film the muted glow of the candlelight the cast are looking to supplant, while the script (by Michael Mitnick) constantly keeps an eye out for the human side of these technological advances - the wonder of mass electrical lighting, or being able to hear your voice played back to you for the very first time.

While the cast is strong all round, most notably Tom Holland as Eidson's 2IC, Tuppence Middleton as Edison's wife and Katherine Waterston as Westinghouse's spouse, it's Cumberbatch and Shannon that carry the film. This is a more sympathetic portrayal of Edison than the norm lately: he's a huckster and arrogant with it, but he also deeply cares about his family and has real concerns about AC's safety - even if he's more than happy to use those concerns for publicity purposes.

Likewise, Westinghouse is a largely sympathetic figure (there are numerous side references to his refusal to fire his workers) who is driven as much by an urge to build a better society as he is to turn a profit. It's clear this is more of a race than a war, and when a destination finally comes into sight - who will electrify the upcoming Chicago World's Fair and display their technological prowess to the world - the film finally finds its way.

But for much of its length the storytelling is muddled by subplots (is AC so deadly it can be used to kill a man in an electric chair?) and side characters (the aforementioned Tesla, who only becomes relevant when he comes up with an advance Westinghouse needs). There's enough material here for a half dozen films; sometimes too much light can blind instead of illuminate.

- Anthony Morris