Thursday, 17 August 2017

Logan Lucky

(M) ★★★★

Director: Steven Soderbergh.

Cast:  Channing Tatum, Adam Driver, Riley Keough, Daniel Craig, Brian Gleeson, Jack Quaid, Seth MacFarlane, Katie Holmes, Hilary Swank, Katherine Waterston, Sebastian Stan.

"The name's Bang. Joe Bang."
NO one ever really retires these days.

Every retirement is followed by the inevitable comeback, whether it be a one-off thing or a fully-fledged return that retroactively morphs the "retirement" into an "hiatus".

Take, for example, Steven Soderbergh, who retired from making movies in 2013 following Behind The Candelabra, his Liberace biopic for HBO. Since then he's done some TV (including the well-received The Knick) and some painting, but given his eclectic and rapid cinematic output over the years, it always seemed unlikely that he was done with film.

And here we are, in 2017, watching his comeback film, because no one ever really retires.

But it's a good thing Soderbergh is back, because Logan Lucky is quite a return. The obvious descriptor is that it's the redneck Ocean's Eleven - a hillbilly heist film that is similarly playful but set far further down the intellectual and socio-economic scale. Soderbergh himself called it the "anti-glam" version of his Clooney crim trilogy, noting the central robbery was based on "rubber-band technology". This home-spun idiocy is all part of the charm.

The hicks behind this heist are hard-luck divorcee Jimmy Logan (Tatum), his one-armed brother Clyde (Driver), their beautician sister Mellie (Keogh), incarcerated explosives expert Joe Bang (Craig) and his dimwitted brothers Sam (Gleeson) and Fish (Quaid). Their target is the Charlotte Speedway - the home of NASCAR - on the biggest race day of the year.


Soderbergh has always followed the "one for the studio, one for me" film-making ideology, and this falls into the former category, while still being unlike anything else he's ever done before. The fun-lovin' tone is perhaps closest to his Ocean's films or maybe Out Of Sight, but really its beats and quirks give it more of a Coen-esque quality.

As a result it lives or dies on its cast, and Soderbergh's ensemble is mostly spot-on. Craig is particularly good, outshining the quality duo of Tatum's everyman Jimmy and Driver's dour Clyde, who also have to compete with scene-stealers Quaid and Gleeson. McFarlane, sporting an English accent as distracting as his moustache, is probably the only mistake the casting agent made. Equally unsatisfying is Keogh's character Mellie. It's not Keogh's fault - she seems to be given plenty to do but sadly little development to go with her actions.

Much like Tatum and Craig in this film, the script (reportedly written by UK writer Rebecca Blunt who is rumoured to not exist) is a little flabby. By the time Logan Lucky slides into its fourth act FBI investigation (a nice cameo from Swank), it starts to wear out its welcome, but there's a satisfying ending with a little bit of a sting in the tail to make it all worthwhile.

Predominantly this is a joy to watch. The heist has a wonderfully homemade quality to it that makes the film a lot of fun, especially when mixed with the humour delivered by a wonderfully deadpan cast. A sequence involving a makeshift explosive is hilarious, as is a prison stand-off centring on Game Of Thrones.

Its always hard to rate Soderbergh's back catalogue because it's a bit like comparing apples and oranges and tractors, but this is certainly in the top bracket of his output alongside the likes of Out Of Sight, Traffic, Ocean's Eleven, The Informant!, Magic Mike, and Sex, Lies & Videotapes. Welcome back, Mr Soderbergh.

Monday, 14 August 2017

Valerian & The City Of A Thousand Planets

(M) ★★

Director: Luc Besson.

Cast: Dane DeHaan, Cara Delevingne, Clive Owen, Rihanna, Ethan Hawke, Herbie Hancock, Sam Spruell, Kris Wu.

"Are you sure we didn't mix up our uniforms?"
"Pretty sure."
WIKIPEDIA tells us that early in Luc Besson's career, he was part of movement critics dubbed cinéma du look, which was a classy way of saying Besson and his fellow French directors à la mode favoured "style over substance, spectacle over narrative".

More than three decades on, Besson's latest film Valerian & The City Of A Thousand Planets tells us nothing has changed. It must be this eye for the visual that has kept Besson's name as a selling point, because it sure as hell isn't his scriptwriting if Valerian is anything to go by.

More than 20 years on from his international career-defining one-two punch of Leon: The Professional and The Fifth Element, Besson has managed to make the biggest film of his career - a love letter to the French graphic novel that inspired The Fifth Element and Star Wars, to name but two sci-fi descendants of Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mézières' comic book series. But much like many of his films since The Fifth Element, the script is a mess. Valerian is visually stunning, no doubt, but its screenplay leaves a lot to be desired.

The story focuses on government agents Valerian (DeHaan) and Laureline (Delevingne), who have been tasked to retrieve an item from an intergalactic marketplace. That item has a major role to play in something sinister that's taking place on Alpha, which was originally the international space station but in the 28th century has become a universal hub for aliens from every corner of the cosmos.


Spoilers prevent further explanation of the plot, but so does the plot itself. The story is such a tangled confusion of poorly thought-out strands that it defies explanation. When the various machinations and half-baked ideas are somewhat explained in the final act, it elicits an "Oh" from the audience - not in surprise and awe, but more an "Oh - is that what they were trying to do?".

Which brings us back to the "style over substance" thing from Wikipedia, which is so scarily accurate in this case that I wouldn't be surprised if someone recently created the "cinéma du look" page purely in response to having seen Valerian.

The film looks incredible. Every one of its €200 million has been spent on piling the pixels sky high to create worlds and aliens that would give George Lucas funny feelings in his pants department. There is no shortage of creativity on display and its visual spectacle has to be applauded, even if a lot of it feels like it's there for no reason other than showing off.

But its all way too much pretty tinsel piled onto a dead Christmas tree. Contributing to the failure of the story is the depiction of its main characters. Valerian and Laureline vacillate between annoying and stupid and the script throws them headlong into an awkward relationship that is really hard to get on board with straight up. Easing us into their uncomfortable workplace situation might have made it easier to stomach and made it feel a little less "I should report you to HR".

Laureline occasionally gets to be a butt-kicking heroine, but all too often feels like a bunch of reductive stereotypes, while Valerian is primarily a jerk. DeHaan and Delevingne do their best individually but lack chemistry together. After that, everything else is doomed to fail. No one in the cast comes out of this smelling of roses, except probably John Goodman in a brief voice role.

All Valerian has going for it is its stunning visuals, an occasional good idea amid the mess, and a destiny as a cult favourite, which is what usually happens with similarly over-stuffed sci-fi films. The reality is that this is the next Jupiter Ascending, as opposed to being the next The Fifth Element.

Friday, 11 August 2017

REWIND REVIEW: Cloud Atlas

(MA15+) ★★★

Director: Tom Tykwer & The Wachowskis.

Cast: Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Jim Sturgess, Doona Bae, Ben Whishaw, Hugh Grant, Susan Sarandon, James D'Arcy.

This picture encapsulates why I don't go to pubs anymore.
Are you ready for my most self-indulgent blog to date?

Here goes.

One of the trickiest aspects of film reviewing is trying to get it right after just one viewing of a film. My theory has always been 'once to feel it, twice to watch it', but as a reviewer you're very rarely afforded the luxury of seeing a film twice before penning a critique. And so reviewers become accustomed to simultaneously feeling (ie. sitting back and letting it wash over you) and watching (ie. studying) a film on the first go.

It means we're sometimes wrong. I would say that 19 times out of 20 I'm on the money, but sometimes I'm off. In my summary of Christopher Nolan's career, I highlighted my overly generous star ratings for The Dark Knight Rises and Interstellar, although the reviews themselves were fairly close to my current thoughts. I once did a podcast on this topic titled I Was Wrong (but it appears to have since disappeared from the internet) highlighting in particular my overzealous reviews of the Matrix sequels. I also canned Step Brothers probably harder than I should have.

All this brings me to Cloud Atlas, which I watched again recently (thanks to F Project Cinema in Warrnambool).

Here's my original two-star review from 2013. If you can't be bothered reading it, it's okay because this present review of Cloud Atlas is actually masquerading as a review of my own Cloud Atlas review of 2013. It's a bit meta and masturbatory but this is basically the long way round of highlighting this particular thing I said in 2013:

"Going back to soak (Cloud Atlas) in again and again could make this film a rich experience that rewards over time - it's likely this is destined for cult status."

Before going to watch Cloud Atlas again recently, this notion kept ringing in my ears. The film is dense with ideas and interwoven themes - no surprise given it tells six parallel stories across six different eras spanning roughly five centuries - and I was curious to see whether I was right about the whole "destined for cult status" thing.

I think I was (yay, we got to the point I was trying to make all along). In 2013, I was overly enamoured with David Mitchell's incredible book, hence giving the film two stars, which was a little harsh in hindsight. But despite the same flaws still weighing the film down, Cloud Atlas is definitely a film worthy of cult status. There is a lot to take in - it's the cinematic equivalent of a Where's Wally book. There's so much going on you can't see it all in one sitting, and it practically begs you to come back and dig deeper into it.


The problem is it's still a haphazardly structured three-hour monster with wavering entertainment value. It struggles to balance its six stories, occasionally cutting back to one narrative for mere seconds, seemingly simply to remind you that storyline still exists in the film. It also misses golden opportunities in its editing - as much as it tries to line-up similar events in different eras, it fails to do so as often as it does. So we watch Timothy Cavendish (Broadbent) involved in a bold escape from an old folks home, then later we watch some other characters pull off a bold escape. The tone of each is different but it gives the film an unwelcome sense of repetition.

But yes, cult film, totally. Three stars this time around. I doubt it will go higher than this because it's far too flawed to be a true masterpiece. Also its yellowface/brownface/whiteface effects have aged badly. A slightly Asian Hugo Weaving is one of the more unsettling things seen in cinema in the past five years. But who knows? Maybe it will be a four-star film next time I watch, whenever that may be.

But if nothing else, Cloud Atlas is a noble defeat. It attempts to wrestle an unfilmable book into a watchable beast and works surprisingly well in places. Some of its core themes and notions about the interconnectedness of everyone and everything get a little lost amid the mass and mess of the storytelling, but there are some bravura moments in the editing room chaos. Everyone gets their time in the sun, with Hanks, Grant, Berry, Broadbent, Whishaw, and Sturgess shining on occasion (in between some dreadfully hammy performances). Best all-rounder, surprisingly, is Grant who is excellent in every one of his guises.

All of this is a long winded way of saying "I was sort of mostly right but also a little bit wrong".

I watched Cloud Atlas at a screening hosted by F Project Cinema in Warrnambool, Victoria, Australia. Here's what's coming up at future FPC screenings at the Mozart Hall (all screenings are at 7.30pm):

The Queen Of Ireland - August 23

Rashomon - September 13

I Am Bolt - September 27

The Bicycle Thief - October 11

Amy - October 25

Closed Circuit - November 8

Marina Abramovic - November 22

Metropolis - December 13

The Princess Bride - January 10

Waltz With Bashir - January 24

Monday, 7 August 2017

The Big Sick

(M) ★★★★

Director: Michael Showalter.

Cast: Kumail Nanjiani, Zoe Kazan, Holly Hunter, Ray Romano, Adeel Akhtar, Zenobia Shroff, Anupam Kher, Bo Burnham, Aidy Bryant.

"I'm sorry, I can't hear you over the cuteness."
If you're getting tired of the typical rom-com fare Hollywood has been serving up in recent years, grab a seat at the table for The Big Sick.

This rom-com is utterly refreshing, like a big bowl of ice cream after a serving of spicy food. Probably strawberry. Or chocolate. Whatever flavour you like - this film is that flavour.

The back story behind The Big Sick is also the err... front story (front story?). It's the true tale of Kumail Nanjiani (who plays himself) and his wife/co-writer Emily (played by Zoe Kazan, just to confuse matters).

After several meet-cutes and despite their best efforts to not fall in love, Kumail and Emily inevitably fall in love, only to fall out again very quickly when Emily discovers Kumail's Pakistani heritage means he will most likely be forced into an arranged marriage with a Pakistani girl.

But soon after the break-up, Emily falls ill and has to be placed in a medically induced coma. This leaves Kumail sitting in the hospital alongside Emily's parents (Romano and Hunter), who have never met Kumail but are fully aware Kumail and Emily have recently broken up.



It's interesting (and totally pointless, but when has that ever stopped me before) to wonder if this film would be as good if you knew it wasn't based on a true story. The plot almost feels too bizarre - it's in the realms of having people scoff "that would never happen in real life" even though it actually did. And obviously the film doesn't play out exactly like it happened in real life (these things never do), but the absurd situation is such a wonderful set-up, and its milked for every possible laugh. This weird mix of a culture-clash romance and a worst possible Meet The Parents is laden with potential and Nanjiani and his wife/co-writer Emily V. Gordon don't let it go to waste. The style of humour is wonderfully natural amid a strangely unnatural setting.

Nanjiani is great as a nervier version of himself. He's hapless, earnest, and dorky, making (hilarious but) ill-timed 9/11 jokes and having mental breakdowns at fast food drive-thrus or comedy open mic nights, but you want him to be your friend. It's easy to dismiss the performance of someone playing themselves, but he does a good job with the role, particularly when he's required to do some emotional heavy lifting.

He's surrounded by good co-stars. Romano has never been better and is perfectly cast as the hang-dog middle-aged dad, while Hunter is always excellent and shows the required mix of spark, spunk and maternal drive in a great role that blends the comedy and the drama. Kazan is also good, giving Emily the right amount of Pixie Dream Girl, but leaving out the Manic and making her seem like a real person for the bookending bits of the film when she's awake and gets to actually do stuff.

And then there's Kumail's family, who have fewer big moments but are just as important and just as well played. Bollywood legend Kher and scene-stealing Shroff as Kumail's parents are great, while Akhtar gets some hilarious lines as Kumail's brother.

The Big Sick has such an excellent set-up but could have been so easily botched. By keeping the tone predominantly light and the comedic style natural, it works a treat. This is perfect for date night and one of the better rom-coms in recent years.




Sunday, 30 July 2017

Christopher Nolan - From Best To Worst


From 2000 until 2010, there were few directors who could rival Christopher Nolan. He had a Pixar-like strike rate of awesomeness. Across six films - from Memento (2000) to Inception (2010) - he did incredible things. He made us think backwards, rebirthed an iconic character, made the greatest superhero movie of all time, gave us remarkable performances from the likes of Robin Williams and Heath Ledger, and took us into a dream inside a dream inside a ... well, you get the picture.

Then he made The Dark Knight Rises and Interstellar and oh how those films annoy me.

Anyway, to mark the release of Dunkirk (and to respond to this list by my friend and fellow movie buff Eddie) and to fulfil my ongoing need to reduce someone's life's work into a pithy list, here is the Absolutely Definitive And Unquestionably Correct Listing Of Christopher Nolan's Films From Best To The One I Haven't Seen.


1. Memento


This remains the greatest script ever written. And do you know what beat it to the Best Original Screenplay Oscar? Gosford Park. Sheesh. Good film, but sheesh. You don't hear anyone in 2017 going "You know what film had one of the best scripts of all time? Gosford Park". But 17 years on from another oversight by the Academy, it remains mindblowing just how perfectly Memento's Herculean task of screenwriting works. And it doesn't merely "work" - it's not just a gimmick of writing, successfully pulled off. Memento goes beyond stunt-writing and becomes an incredibly enjoyable, gripping and surprisingly powerful film (poor Sammy Jankis and his diabetic wife). It's also surprisingly easy to understand and follow, which is a spectacular feat of directing and editing (as well as writing). Guy Pearce has given so many great performances and his turn as Leonard, the vengeful man with the broken memory, is up there with his greatest, but Matrix buddies Carrie-Ann Moss and Joe Pantoliano give career-best turns. The washed-out LA sunshine provides the film with the look of a faded polaroid and the score gets under your skin like Leonard's tattoos. It's not just Nolan's best but one of the best of all time.


2. Inception


As time goes on, it's becoming increasingly difficult to give audiences something they've never seen before. Inception does it time and time again over the course of its two and a half hours, which is part of what makes it such a stunning piece of cinema. The key visuals are the folding cityscape and the spinning hallway punch-on, but the whole thing is a breath of cinematic fresh air, so much so that you don't even care that almost every line of dialogue is exposition. Nolan's trick here is taking us somewhere new, making it look familiar and continually giving you a kick whenever things get too comfortable. And how good is that cast. And that ending. And that sound. BRAAAAAAAWWWWRRRMMMM.

For the record, I totally nailed how awesome this was in my 2010 review, which almost never happens.


3. The Dark Knight


The greatest superhero movie of all time. The reasons for this are many. Ledger is the key one. His is a benchmark performance. Pity the fool who tries to be a Joker after him (too bad, Thirty Seconds to Leto) and pity anyone playing an unhinged supervillain after this. Ledger's shadow is long. Bale's good too, feeling as comfortable in the Batsuit as he is with his Bruce Wayne mask on. And that's another thing that makes The Dark Knight the best cape-caper to date - it explores the psychology of the superhero more deeply than any other example of the genre (except for Watchmen). Which is more real - Bats or Bruce? And how far will Bats/Bruce go to keep his version of the peace and protect Gotham from a person that probably wouldn't exist if the Batman wasn't going around doing his vigilante thing in the first place? This is all far too profound for silly superhero nonsense, right? And let's not forget that just about every shot in this looks superb.


4. The Prestige


In which Batman and Wolverine start a magical war against each other - now there's a movie idea. But seriously, I can probably live without that knowing I can watch Bale and Jackman as obsessively driven prestidigitators trying to one-up each other at the end of the 19th century. It's a devilish plot, perfectly executed, led by great performances from its two stars (plus some great help from Scarlett Johansson, the late great David Bowie, and Nolan regular Michael Caine). Even knowing the twist, The Prestige remains thrilling, which is probably the real sleight of hand Nolan pulled here.

5. Batman Begins


Nolan's trick with Batman Begins was to treat a superhero movie like a real movie. As simple as that. X-Men and Spider-man were great and relished their comic book origins, but Nolan went dark and deep and forever changed superhero movies. This was SERIOUS. DC built its entire Expanded Universe on this idea, and even Marvel took note for its MCU. "Nolan-esque" became a word with this film, and its definition can be found in the gritty reality he and co-writer David S. Goyer shoved the Dark Knight into, something which was a necessity in order to reclaim the character from the neon puke and '60s throwback of Joel Schumacher's previous Bat-outings. By throwing in Cillian Murphy's Scarecrow to the origin story, Nolan hit upon a rich subtext to drive the whole film - the power of fear. The cinematic superhero league would never be the same again.


6. Insomnia


Robin Williams' "Dark Trilogy" of 2002 - One Hour Photo, Insomnia, and Death To Smoochy - provided the late legend with three of his best roles and gave us three of his best performances. That he out-performs and steals the show from Pacino, who was yet to become a caricature of himself, is testament to how good Williams is in Insomnia. On the surface, it feels like a bit of cruise control for Nolan on the heels of Memento - it's a Hollywoodisation of a then-five-year-old Norwegian thriller - but it's actually a supremely under-rated slowburning piece of Alaskan noir. Nolan gets the mood of the eternal sun landscape right and captures Pacino's insomniac cop Will Dormer (Dormer is pretty close to the French word for sleep BTW) mental unravelling beautifully. Well worth a revisit, if only to remember Robin. 

7.Dunkirk


As stated in my recent review, Dunkirk is damned near perfect, except for that annoying non-linear narrative Nolan's got going on in it. If it aims to demonstrate the different passages of time for the various storylines, it doesn't work. It's frustrating because Dunkirk is a powerfully minimalist, precise and punchy look at an incredible WWII story. Stripped of Nazis, flowery speeches and unnecessary characterisation, it's everything it needs to be and nothing more. It's also the cinematic equivalent of the British stiff upper lip.

8. The Dark Knight Rises


This disappointing sequel is agonisingly close to being great, but its plotholes become so overwhelming that most rational brains stop working long before the end. It's a shame, because Bane is a great character and Tom Hardy does a cracking job. But its highlights - Bats Vs Bane, the football field explosion, the nonsensical opening plane stunt, Catwoman - get lost amid a fumbled theme about haves-against-have-nots and an erratic script. Sad end to what should have been one of the greatest trilogies of all time.

Here's my review from 2012, which is on the money but too generous with its star rating.

9. Interstellar


The more I thought about Interstellar, after its initial "wow" factor wore off, the more I hated it. Nolan's attempt at doing his own 2001: A Space Odyssey was ambitious but its final twist was too much for me. It's adherence to the laws of physics is (apparently) impressive and its visual spectacle is stunning, but its bloated running time, frustrating structure, under-developed characters and its plot-turn trickery are deal-breakers. Nolan disappears not into a blackhole, but more likely up his own derriere in this grand folly. McConaughey is great though. 


10. Following


I haven't actually seen Following, but then neither have most people. So hardly anyone is going to be able to tell me I'm wrong about putting it at the bottom of the list. And those that have seen it assure me it's Nolan's least good film, so I'm going to trust them on that. So it's win-win really. As soon as I see it, I'll adjust this list accordingly though and be sure to let you know.

Thursday, 27 July 2017

War For The Planet Of The Apes

(M) ★★★★

Director: Matt Reeves.

Cast: Andy Serkis, Woody Harrelson, Steve Zahn, Karin Konoval, Amiah Miller, Terry Notary, Ty Olsson, Michael Adamthwaite, Gabriel Chavarria.

Woody wished his sunnies had wipers.
WHEN it comes time to talk about the greatest trilogies of all time, the new Planet Of The Apes films need to be in the discussion.

That's not to say they're better than the original Star Wars trilogy or Lord Of The Rings or Toy Story, but Apes deserves a spot at least in the top 10, maybe even top five.

Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes and Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes were both far better than anyone expected - the first one because the bad taste of Tim Burton's re-imagining lingered, and the second because it was largely assumed the first one was a fluke and sequelitis was sure to set in.

So the expectations on War For The Planet Of The Apes were higher than they'd been all series. And, oh boy, War delivers.

The aftermath of Dawn sees humans and apes in an ongoing battle, with Caesar (Serkis) and his simian colony hiding in the North American woods, only fighting when they have to. But self-styled warlord The Colonel (Harrelson) wants complete victory and pushes Caesar to the edge, sparking a journey into the heart of darkness for the ape leader that threatens to end one of the species.


These films have been so great because they've consistently featured amazing characters and explored the human condition and such deep themes as love, hate, power, trust, revenge, forgiveness and other such meaty subjects. It just so happened that most of those characters were apes played by motion-captured humans, and the themes played out against a backdrop of rebooted dystopian sci-fi.

In other words, writer/director Matt Reeves, Rise director Rupert Wyatt, and trilogy writers Mark Bomback, Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver treated them as "proper" films, never letting the spectacle get in the way, and ensuring the incredible CG wizardry on show was used in the service of the story and not the other way around.

War does all of those things too. It takes Caesar - one of the best and most under-rated characters of the past decade - to dark places as it explores how far someone can be pushed before they set their morals aside and give into the bloodlust. Serkis is, yet again, nothing short of magnificent. The CG is seamless, but Serkis makes Caesar real. And then some. Remember how they gave Peter Jackson all the Oscars for Return Of The King, as if to acknowledge how good the whole LOTR trilogy was? They should do that for Andy Serkis. This performance is no better or worse than his incredible work in Rise or Dawn but he's never even been nominated. Give him some recognition, Academy.

Serkis' fellow apes - Konoval, Notary, and newcomer Zahn - are also great. They never feel anything less than human, which has helped make the series a revelation.

Also great is Harrelson, the Colonel Kurtz-like figure waiting at the end of Caesar's metaphorical journey up river. Apocalypse Now is a big influence here - War is part-that, part-The Road, and part-The Great Escape - and Harrelson embraces that without being slavish to Brando. It also says something for the script and Harrelson's performance that The Colonel is a character that can be empathised with, despite being the Big Bad of the movie.

I have loved all three of these films, yet there's still a feeling of surprise that they're so good. Even now, having been enthralled and moved to tears by all three, it's difficult to shake. If you'd said 10 years ago that a prequel/reboot series of Planet Of The Apes films featuring mo-capped monkeys would become one of the best trilogies ever, you'd have been laughed out of town.

But you would have been so very, very right.


Sunday, 23 July 2017

Dunkirk

(M) ★★★★

Director: Christopher Nolan.

Cast: Fionn Whitehead, Harry Styles, Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy, Mark Rylance, Tom Hardy, Aneurin Barnard, Tom Glynn-Carney, Barry Keoghan, Jack Lowden, James D'Arcy.

The queues for coffee at music festivals are always out of hand.

There are few modern blockbuster directors who conjure up the "what will they do next?" intrigue and anticipation quite like Christopher Nolan.

Even after the disappointments of Interstellar and The Dark Knight Rises, Nolan's star is untarnished, such are his talents and his incredible winning streak spanning 2000 to 2010.

Thankfully Dunkirk is a return to form. In spite of its almost self-sabotaging non-linear narrative, it manages to re-tell an amazing war story in a manner that is somehow both intimate and sweeping in scope.

The Dunkirk evacuation of WWII, in which more than 300,000 British and French troops were removed from their prone position on the French coast, is told through three interwoven stories that encompass the land, the sea, and the air.

On the Dunkirk beach, British private Tommy (Whitehead) joins thousands of his fellow army men in trying to find a way home. On the sea, civilian sailor Mr Dawson (Rylance) heads across the English Channel to do his bit to bring soldiers back to Blighty. And in the skies over the channel, pilots (Hardy and Lowden) do battle with the Luftwaffe in an effort to protect the soldiers on Dunkirk beach and the vessels trying to rescue them.


Like all good war movies, Dunkirk puts you in the metaphorical trenches alongside the soldiers - in this case its on the beach, in a small pleasure boat, and in the cockpit of a Spitfire. This creates an unlikely intimacy to the film, despite the scantness of its character development. For such a huge production, Dunkirk feels strangely small-scale at times, which is to the benefit of the film. It's refreshingly short and is very much about doing the bare minimum to maximum effect - this is big-budget minimalism.

Nolan hones in on the action and the necessities, drawing enough depth out of his characters so we care about them and their seemingly insurmountable predicaments, while never wasting a moment of screen time on trivial matters. The cast members are uniformly excellent, particularly seasoned veterans Rylance, Murphy, and Branagh, as well as newcomers Whitehead and Styles, all helping to bring these lightly drawn characters to life.

The film is particularly impressive not just because of what it includes, but also what it leaves out. There are no warm-and-fuzzy moments where characters reminisce about their lives and wives back home, no unnecessary swathes of dialogue, and no stirring speeches (save for someone reading Churchill's famed "we'll fight them on the beaches" bit at the film's end). In fact, in the majority of its best moments, no one says a word. Nolan lets the action speak.

There are also no German soldiers. We know they're there, shooting at the Brits, piloting the Luftwaffe fighters, and firing the torpedoes, but we never lay eyes on a single Nazi. This unseen enemy creates a daunting inhuman threat, as well as letting the focus remain on the imperilled British. It ramps up the tension, and is a neat, almost unnoticed trick.

The set pieces and constant hurdles, especially those facing Tommy, keep the action rolling along. Nolan also crafts a pretty good aerial dogfight in between trying to drown us and disorientate us at every opportunity. In fact, the film is a balance of contradictions, capturing the chaos and the mundane nature of the Dunkirk evacuation, the humanity and inhumanity within the situation, and the personal and the large-scale elements of it.

The only downside is that damned staggered narrative, which plays with the film's passage of time. It makes the audience do extra work, which wouldn't be a problem if it wasn't so unnecessary. This story could have been told just as easily and effectively without the disruptive non-linear structure.

Thankfully it's not enough to sink Dunkirk. It's such a thrillingly compact and direct war story that no amount of ill-judged narrative trickery can undo its worth. It is chilling in places, powerfully emotional in others, and a stirring re-telling of a valiant wartime effort to lessen the impacts of a devastating military defeat. Nolan, being the proud Londoner that he is, has given us the cinematic equivalent of the British stiff upper lip.

I can't wait to see what Nolan does next.




Friday, 14 July 2017

REWIND REVIEW: The Devil & Daniel Johnston

(M) ★★★★

Director: Jeff Feuerzeig

Historic photo or modern-day hipster pushing the archaic sound format revival too far?
The downfall of the talented artist is a common story throughout the history of popular music.

It's by equal turns sad and fascinating, and the resulting docos are car crash stuff - we can't look away, whether its Amy Winehouse, Kurt Cobain, Ian Curtis, Syd Barrett, Michael Hutchence, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, etc etc.

The Devil & Daniel Johnston matches that same description, but with the added twist that Johnston was still alive, still recording, and still touring when it was made (he's still alive at the time of writing in 2017).

That he could be a somewhat active participant in his own documentary (released in 2005) only makes his story all the sadder though. By then, Johnston had long been a passenger in his own life and his presence in the film is like that of a ghost haunting the house where he used to live.

In the eyes of some, Johnston was a genius. His music and art made him a cult favourite on the Austin music scene in the late '80s, and his fame rose to bizarre new heights, partly thanks to Kurt Cobain championing his music, in the early '90s. All the while, Johnston was suffering severe mental health issues and bouncing in and out of institutions.


The Devil & Daniel Johnston is an encompassing biography of a music industry fringe dweller, a deeply troubled artist, and a man battling his many demons. It's insight and understanding of his condition, talent and personality is brilliant.

There's an abundance of home video and audio recordings Johnston made over his early years to drawn on, and director Feuerzeig blends in contemporary interviews, live gigs, photos and Johnston's own artwork to tell the muso's story with an almost unparalleled amount of depth. The incredible surfeit of first-hand historical material is not only the greatest possible gift to the film-maker, but it confirms a central idea of the film - that Johnston always presumed he would be famous, and courted the idea, sought it out, and lived in preparation for it. The sad part is he was never really ready for it and never could have dealt with it. Real life, let alone the life of a famed musician, was difficult enough.

This notion is important because it somewhat offsets the uneasy feeling that sitting down to watch this is akin to paying the man outside the freak show tent. There can be a fine line between exploitation and celebration, and The Devil & Daniel Johnston rides it pretty hard at times, particularly when showing Johnston watch footage of his old flame, or seeing him dance over the credits. Ultimately, this is the story of one man's journey to hell and back, and its unclear how capable he is of understanding what this doco means.

If you can shake that troubling idea, embrace the sentiment that this is actually what Johnston always wanted, and take the doco at face value - which I highly recommend doing - The Devil & Daniel Johnston is a remarkable look into the world of an artist that lost his mind and struggled to find it again, along the way creating some incredible music and art. That people can watch this and maybe hear True Love Will Find You In The End, The Story Of An Artist, and Some Things Last A Long Time for the first time is a beautiful thing.

Ultimately sad yet weirdly uplifting, this is a story of a troubled yet fascinating man, told with a deft and comprehensive touch.

I watched Tokyo Story at a screening hosted by F Project Cinema in Warrnambool, Victoria, Australia. Here's what's coming up at future FPC screenings at the Mozart Hall (all screenings are at 7.30pm):

Cloud Atlas - July 26

Rubber - August 9

The Queen Of Ireland - August 23

Rashomon - September 13

I Am Bolt - September 27

The Bicycle Thief - October 11

Amy - October 25

Closed Circuit - November 8

Marina Abramovic - November 22

Metropolis - December 13

The Princess Bride - January 10

Waltz With Bashir - January 24

Thursday, 13 July 2017

Baby Driver

(MA15+) ★★★★½

Director: Edgar Wright.

Cast: Ansel Elgort, Kevin Spacey, Lily James, Eiza González, Jon Hamm, Jamie Foxx, Jon Bernthal, CJ Jones.

"Third floor, cool stares, ladies' and men's sizes."
It takes a lot of effort to be effortlessly cool.

I don't know this from personal experience (because I am super uncool) - I read it somewhere (see?).

But if you need proof of the amount of work that goes into being unfathomably hip (does that still mean cool?), then check out Baby Driver. It's the very definition of offhand awesomeness, and by virtue it has a lot of effort put into it, all totally worth it.

It's there in the largely CGI-free car stunts, the cut-to-the-rhythm editing, the jokey cadence of the script, and divine song choices. And while it's tempting to dismiss this as a flimsy B-movie love-in or a soundtrack in search of a movie or even some kind of flippant teen fantasy, that's at your own peril. This fast and furious piece of fun has heart to burn and an engine full of cool. Get in, put on a seatbelt, and enjoy one of the best cinematic rides of the year.

Ansel Elgort stars as the titular Baby, a wheelman for Doc (Spacey) who is a ruthless crime organiser - he ropes in the crims to pull off the heists he plans, with Baby always behind the wheel of the getaway car.

Baby's links to Doc go back to an unsettled debt, but once the debt is finished, Baby thinks he's out of the game. But there is never "one last job", and Baby's attempts to get free put himself and the new love of his life Debora (James) at risk.


The big talking point of Baby Driver is that soundtrack. The best since Guardians Of The Galaxy, it plays a similar role in the film - it's part-character, part-plot device, part-mood-maker, part-scene-setter, but bigger and better in each of those ways. From the opening car chase scored by Jon Spencer Blues Explosion's Bellbottoms, it is an impeccably curated playlist featuring Beck, The Damned, Queen, Sam & Dave, Martha & The Vandellas, and heaps more. It is track after track of excellence, with the film exquisitely edited to suit every beat, guitar solo and breakdown.

Much of this music-matched editing is in the pedal-to-the-metal car chases and a handful of shoot-outs. It makes Baby Driver feel like a movie adaptation of video game Grand Theft Auto, which is not a bad thing. In making his ideal soundtrack-heavy car chase-driven B-movie, Edgar Wright has accidentally made the perfect example of what a GTA movie should be - lots of police pursuits with the music cranked, peppered with the occasional shoot-out and cool-as-hell cut scene.

But this is not a video game, and those "cut scenes" are where Baby Driver gets its heart and soul. The characters may seem thin but they're drawn with just enough detail to make them surprisingly well-rounded, despite being impossible people that couldn't exist outside of a crime caper. Ansel, in his Han Solo-referencing jacket, is quirk upon quirk with his ever-present headphones, insane driving skills, and laconic ways, but he's a loveable, cheerable hero. Collins is utterly believable as the love-at-first-sight ingenue, Hamm, González and Spacey get the cheesiest of lines and deliver them with ease, and with on-the-edge bankrobber Bats, Foxx has added another great character to an under-rated collection of interesting choices.

From its first two scenes - the Bellbottoms chase and a long, single-take introduction to Baby as he walks around Atlanta to the sounds of Bob & Earl's Harlem Shuffle - Baby Driver sets itself up in its own world. It's a world where crims have class, and crimes are planned with chalkboards by uber-crims, and everyone has code names, like a mix of Reservoir Dogs and Oceans 11. It's a world with meet cutes, love at first sight, and perfectly synchronised music/life interactions. If you're accepting of this world, if you buy into it, you're going to love Baby Driver. If you don't, well, I feel sorry for you, and maybe you should check your pulse before going out and finding a healthy dose of fun because maybe you have a deficiency. Or worse, some kind of fun intolerance.

The biggest criticism you could level at the film is that it's missing an extra level of depth that would have been nice. There are no grand themes or big ideas at play here, unlike Wright's other films (the Cornetto trilogy and Scott Pilgrim). If you scratch the surface below the car chases, quirky characters and killer soundtrack, and there's nothing much else there.

But sometimes that doesn't matter. Sometimes you just want to enjoy a really well-made film that is supremely fun, and that's what Baby Driver is. It sets out to be an immensely quotable car-chase movie with plenty of great tunes, and it is exactly that. It would be destined to become one of the great cult movies of all time, except that it's going to be too damned popular for that title.

And deservedly so. Bravo Edgar Wright.

The only downside is it makes a lot of people (like me) even more pissed off that we never got to see your Ant-Man movie.

Thursday, 6 July 2017

Spider-Man: Homecoming

(M) ★★★★

Director: Jon Watts.

Cast: Tom Holland, Michael Keaton, Jon Favreau, Jacob Batalon, Laura Harrier, Zendaya, Robert Downey Jr., Marisa Tomei.

Spider-Man ruled the jungle gym.

SO Spidey is back where he belongs - sitting in the Marvel Cinematic Universe alongside the likes of Iron Man and his fellow Avengers.

(Sony still own the film rights to Spider-Man and are desperate to keep their golden goose but can't figure out how to get it laying again, so technically Spidey's on loan to Marvel.)

We got a taster of what this meant in Captain America: Civil War, where Tom Holland's iteration of the wallcrawler debuted via some excellent cameos. But here he is hosting his own MCU movie, making this the third reboot of the character in 15 years. Is that too much Spider-Man? Can the MCU give us something new with a character that's been in five films already in the past decade and a half?

The answers are no and no. Hang on, hear me out.

Firstly, there can never be too much Spider-Man in my book. In terms of success, the Maguire years were two out of three, and I think the Garfield years got an unfair pasting, with the first film particularly good. Tell me how wrong I am in the comments.

Secondly, there isn't much that's really new in Homecoming. Marvel have made deft decisions about what to leave out and what to emphasise in the Spider-verse. It's a fresh, fun, and immensely enjoyable take on Ol' Webhead, but it's also a safe one. They're not reinventing the wheel here - in fact it's probably the most risk-free MCU movie since Iron Man 3.

That's not to say Spider-Man: Homecoming isn't great, because it most definitely is. It does everything it needs to do, and does it all really, really well. What's not to love? Just don't go expecting this to be a game-changer or a ground-breaker.

Ignoring the bitten-by-a-spider-and-discovers-his-powers first act (that's pretty much dealt with in one sentence), Homecoming sees Peter Parker/Spider-Man (Holland) re-adapting to normal life in the wake of having a taste of the big leagues in Civil War (again dealt with cleverly and succinctly).

While he eagerly awaits his next Avengers call-up, Parker goes about trying to be a Friendly Neighbourhood Spider-Man, where he stumbles on the illegal activities of Adrian Toomes/Vulture (Keaton).


As stated, it's not so much that this is a new take on Spider-Man, but rather a well-crafted one. Director Watts and the five (!) other screenwriters have honed in on key parts of the Spider-mythos, ignored other parts, and dished up the filmic equivalent of mum's lasagne - it's comforting, tasty, nothing special, but exactly what you're looking for.

Gone is Uncle Ben (except maybe one oblique reference), as well as any attempts at rewording the line "With great power comes great responsibility". The latter is still a key theme, but here it's presented in a "show, don't tell" scenario via Tony Stark/Iron Man (Downey Jr.) and his mentoring of Parker. There's no J. Jonah Jameson or Norman Osborn, no photography skills, and no Gwen Stacy.

In their place is a greater focus on high school, which creates interesting new problems to test Parker. The much-spoke about "John Hughes" vibe of Homecoming is the freshest part of it, although it's a good example of the filmmakers emphasising and better-using existing Spider-themes (Parker was in high school in the first Maguire and Garfield films).

Parker is given a confidante named Ned (Batalon), who does an excellent job with the comic relief, and a more interesting backdrop - the world of Avengers - to play around in front of. For the first time, we get to see how a kid who grew up in the Post-Superhero Era reacts to that world, and it makes for an intriguing version of Parker. Tony Stark as the Iron Mentor is another spin-off of this, and a welcome one.

Of course, that "version" is largely thanks to Holland. Mindblowingly likeable in the role, he's everything Peter Parker needs to be. Perfect in Civil War, this is merely a double-check, and, yep, Marvel's casting department got it right.

In Vulture/Toomes as the villain, we get the best Marvel big bad since Ultron. He is sympathetic yet menacing, and comes off as believable and far from cartoonish. Toomes is a 99 per center with an axe to grind against the Tony Starks of the world, who were born with a silver spoon in his mouth, whereas Toomes had to salvage and sell the spoon to feed his family. Keaton (who's gone from Batman to Birdman to Vulture) is excellent in the role and ticks all the boxes to make Toomes a well-rounded baddie.

One criticism is that all the pre-film promo meant there were few surprises left when it came time to sit down and watch Homecoming (even though just about every shot in the trailers has been tweaked or an alternate take has been used in the finished film). There are one or two twists that remain unspoilt, but the majority of the key scenes had been summarised or quoted in the barrage of trailers and TV spots. It gives a feeling of over-familiarity on a first watch, which is far from ideal. Or maybe I just need to stop watching so many trailers.

This aside, Homecoming is Spider-Man done right. And after five films in 15 years, that's probably better than should be expected.


Wednesday, 5 July 2017

REWIND REVIEW: Tokyo Story (1953)

(PG) ★★★★★

Director: Yasujirō Ozu.

Cast: Chishū Ryū, Chieko Higashiyama, Setsuko Hara, Haruko Sugimura, So Yamamura, Kuniko Miyake, Kyōko Kagawa, Eijirō Tōno, Nobuo Nakamura, Shirō Ōsaka.

"I'm gonna whack that kid so good when he rides past again."
SOME films sneak up on you.

When talking about Tokyo Story, that's not just a summation of how the simplistic plot or deceptive pacing of Ozu's gentle examination of the widening generation gap in post-war Japan wins you over. It's also a description of the film's lot in critical terms over more than six decades.

Derided as "too Japanese" upon release in 1953, it finally found its way to the UK in 1957, winning the British Film Institute's inaugural Sutherland Trophy in 1958. It didn't make its way to American screens until 1964, by which time Ozu was dead.

In fact, it was only after screenings in the US in the early '70s that the film's reputation as one of the greatest of all time began to emerge. It took until 1992 for it to make the top 10 of esteemed film critics' Sight & Sound list, and 2012 for it to top the corresponding directors' list. That's 59 years of sneaking up on the world's greatest filmmakers.

As for the audience, Tokyo Story slinks its way under your skin, despite boasting one of the most basic set-ups in cinematic history - old parents visit their grown-up kids, then go home again.

Of course, it's far more than that. Tokyo Story tells of elderly couple Shūkichi (Chishū Ryū) and Tomi (Chieko Higashiyama), who make the lengthy journey from their home in Onomichi to Tokyo to visit their children and grandchildren, in the knowledge they may never get the opportunity to do so again.

Upon arrival, they quickly find their kids' lives are busy and full, with little time for entertaining the oldies. As they are bundled from son to daughter to daughter-in-law (and off to a resort for a bit), Shūkichi and Tomi wonder where it all went wrong before heading for home.

In lieu of a decent trailer, here's an excellent montage of moments from the film, with some erudite comments by A.O. Scott, who nails it far better than I ever will:


Tokyo Story is a snapshot of the generation gap and ageing, not just in terms of 1950s Japan, but of any era. The kids don't have the time, or can't seem to find it, and the parents are too polite to question them. It's only when Shūkichi gets drunk with some old buddies (in an hilarious highlight of the film) that he voices his true feelings about his kids.

The inaccessibility of the children is made all the more painfully obvious by daughter-in-law Noriko (Ozu favourite and film stand-out Setsuko Hara), who is the only member of the family who makes an effort (beyond the monetary) with Shūkichi and Tomi. That Noriko's husband - Shūkichi and Tomi's son - died in the war makes their connection all the more poignant, leading to some beautifully sad scenes, none more so than the film's final moments.

It's not until that heartbreaking denouement that you realise how immersive Tokyo Story is, and how it's snuck up on you and worked its way into your heart (just to break it, the bastard).

With its contained and cluttered sets, and its static "tatami-mat" camera angles, Ozu puts you in the room, sitting on the floor, with the family. In between are the moments where you stretch your legs in Tokyo, seeing some of the sights and dip your toe into the era, but for the most part it's a shoes-off, grab-some-floor kind of vibe. And as a filmmaking trick it's incredibly effective. The slow pacing becomes lyrical and without even realising it, you're embroiled in and hooked on the familial melodramas, where everyone is smiling politely but secretly disappointed, and you're there quietly seething and cheering and laughing.

Ozu does some odd things with his edits (there are a couple of camera line-crosses and weird scene exits/entries by characters) but you'll get used to them (and there's a great explanation for them in this video). What matters more is that Ozu made a film that is both thematically timeless yet also a fascinating snapshot of life in a rebuilding and westernising Japan.

Tokyo Story took its time to get recognised, just as it takes its time to get its hooks into you, but in the end it's all worth it.

I watched Tokyo Story at a screening hosted by F Project Cinema in Warrnambool, Victoria, Australia. Here's what's coming up at future FPC screenings at the Mozart Hall (all screenings are at 7.30pm):


The Devil & Daniel Johnston - July 12

Cloud Atlas - July 26

Rubber - August 9

Marina Abramovic - August 23

Rashomon - September 13

I Am Bolt - September 27

The Bicycle Thief - October 11

Amy - October 25

Closed Circuit - November 8

The Queen Of Ireland - November 22

Metropolis - December 13

The Princess Bride - January 10

Waltz With Bashir - January 24





The House

(MA15+) ★★★

Director: Andrew Jay Cohen.

Cast: Will Ferrell, Amy Poehler, Jason Mantzoukas, Ryan Simpkins, Nick Kroll, Rob Huebel.


"I love it when we blow each other, honey."

POP quiz: What was the last genuinely funny live action comedy starring Will Ferrell?

It's probably The Campaign, back in 2012, which was under-rated. But if you were one of the many who missed that one, you'd have to go all the way back to Step Brothers, which was almost a decade ago (The Other Guys didn't do it for me, sorry). And Step Brothers was panned by critics, growing in esteem as an almost cult favourite over the past nine years.

Which brings the us to the next question: is it possible that, especially of late, Will Ferrell has been punching below his weight? Or, even worse, is he over-rated?

If nothing else, Ferrell has been under-performing and his latest venture The House doesn't exactly stop the rot, but it's a pause in the losing streak. It gives Ferrell the perfect foil in Poehler, who can match him joke for joke, and their combination elevates the whole film above its creaky moments and paper-thin plot.

Short version of that scant storyline - Poehler and Ferrell run an illegal casino.

Slightly longer version - Poehler and Ferrell team with their gambling addict buddy Frank (Mantzoukas) to run an illegal casino in Frank's house so they can afford to send their daughter to college.


In the same way that many of Ferrell's run of sports movies were largely plotless vehicles for him to be silly in (Ferrell plays basketball, Ferrell is an ice-skater, Ferrell drives NASCAR), this is all about wacky Ferrell running rampant through a high concept. The notion of Ferrell pretending to be De Niro in Casino works for a surprisingly decent amount of time.

What takes The House to a pass mark is Poehler, and the pairing of her and Ferrell as husband-and-wife team Scott and Kate. Poehler hits as many zingers as Ferrell, but they're better together. Their comedic chemistry elevates the material and keeps the gags coming for longer than logic would permit - when they're hapless suburbanites feeling their way into the underworld of illegal gambling, they're funny, and when they embrace their roles as casino mobsters, they're still funny. 

Further upping the ante is Mantzoukas as loose cannon catalyst Frank. He has as many aces up his sleeve as Ferrell and Poehler, in particular a golden moment (as seen in the trailer) when he attempts to deliver a tough guy line while fighting the urge to vomit.

The House doesn't have much else going on though. It introduces a cameo bad guy late in the piece that could have been set up better, its evil mayor villain (Kroll) is underdone, and there is a missed trick in the idea that the casino business alienates Scott and Kate from their daughter (Simpkins).

Pleasingly (although it may rub some people the wrong way) the film is utterly morally bankrupt. It revels in its dark side and doesn't try to Disney its way out of the darkness with a redeeming message. It just goes "fuck it, we did some bad shit", and is refreshingly accepting of its absurd irredeemability.

All in all, The House wins more than it loses. It's built on weak foundations, but it hosts a decent-enough good time before it all collapses in on itself.

Thursday, 22 June 2017

Cars 3

(G) ★★

Director: Brian Fee.

Cast: (voices of) Owen Wilson, Cristela Alonzo, Chris Cooper, Armie Hammer, Bonnie Hunt, Larry the Cable Guy, Nathan Fillion, Kerry Washington, Lea DeLaria.

On they drove, forever turning left.
PLEASE Pixar - let this be the last Cars film.

Prior to the release of Cars 3the only genuine lemon in the Pixar garage was Cars 2, an ill-judged spy spoof that gave way too much screen time to the most annoying character in the Pixar family, Larry the Cable Guy's hillbilly tow truck Mater.

(In case you need further proof, here's my definitive ranking of the Pixar films from best to worst.)

Cars 2 now has some company in that car-hole of disappointment. Cars 3 is as bad as Cars 2, but in whole new ways.

Returning its focus to the racetrack, Cars 3 centres on cocksure racing champion Lightning McQueen (Wilson), whose winning ways become a thing of the past thanks to the arrival of the next generation of automobiles, as personified by Jackson Storm (Hammer).

Despite everyone telling him he should call it a day, Lightning is convinced he still has what it takes to be a winner and sets about recapturing his past glories, with a little from personal trainer Cruz (Alonzo) and old-timer Smokey (Cooper).


Cars 3's biggest crime is it's boring. It feels overly long and uninteresting for huge stretches, particularly its opening 10 or 15 minutes. An horrific crash sequence is done well and livens things up momentarily before the film returns to being boring again.

With the second act largely dedicated to a protracted series of training montages - first the new way of race training, then the old-school way - it's not until the final act that the film goes up a gear. There is a nice reversal on expectation that helps make things interesting, even if it almost makes everything that preceded it redundant. But by then it's too little, too late, and your care factor will have already driven off into the sunset.

The strangest thing about Cars 3 is that its main theme is a bafflingly bad choice for a kids film. The whole story is about knowing when to retire, admitting that you're past it, accepting the limitations of age with good grace, and moving on to the next phase of your life with dignity. Its doubtful that theme would appeal to a single kid in their target demographic. Even the parents might struggle to empathise with that. For some weird reason, the Pixar brain trust has come up with a plot that specifically appeals to the grandparents who might be taking their grandchildren to the movies.

It's not that Pixar haven't delved into challenging themes before, but never with such exclusivity. It's perplexing how they could have got it so wrong. There is a subplot centring on Cruz, which is far more interesting and is more likely to connect with youngsters, but it only comes to the fore toward the film's end. Up until then, it feels like a movie a bunch of old men made to please themselves, not their audience.

As with Cars 2, Cars 3 is not funny, charming or quirky enough to make it worth its run time or to overcome its story defects. Only its ending and a demolition derby sequence bring the film to life.

Given the insane amounts of money Pixar made from merchandising on the other Cars films, its unlikely this will be the last we see of Lightning McQueen. But from a critical standpoint, it's definitely time to take this franchise to the wreckers.

Sunday, 18 June 2017

Tickled

(MA15+) ★★★★

Director: David Farrier & Dylan Reeve.

"It's not what it looks like, mum."
In the beginning, New Zealand journalist David Farrier hoped to do a story about "competitive endurance tickling". As a subject, it ticked a lot of boxes for Farrier - the inherent wackiness and absurdity was right up his lighthearted alley.

But his inquiries to the media company behind the competition drew a bizarre response, and so began Farrier's dark and disturbing journey down an internet rabbit hole that you have to see to believe. What he'd initially hoped to do as a two-minute bit for TV suddenly became a crowdfunded documentary with co-producer credit for Stephen Fry.

Tickled's subject matter is so incredible, unpredictable, and weird that it seems too good to be true, but it's also too incredible, unpredictable and weird to be a mockumentary. This is the doco's appeal - that you won't believe what you're seeing, but you have no other option.


The unusual story and the things Farrier and co-director Reeve uncover along the way help paper over any directorial, pacing, editing or structural issues. It's so gripping that its annoyances are easily ignored. To be fair, its practical flaws aren't deal-breakers, but Farrier and Reeve definitely benefit from their subject matter.

As a host, Farrier is like New Zealand's answer to Louis Theroux. They share the same pleasantly bewildered naivety, although it must be said Farrier comes across as more of a regular dude than Theroux.

The less you know about this doco going into it, the better. But rest assured this is a bizarrely gripping, oddly hilarious, and downright disturbing glimpse into a level of weird you didn't even know existed.

PS. There's a sequel of sorts to Tickled, because the weirdness didn't stop after the cameras stopped rolling. Here are some details about the HBO special The Tickle King.


I watched Tickled at a screening hosted by F Project Cinema in Warrnambool, Victoria, Australia. Here's what's coming up at future FPC screenings at the Mozart Hall (all screenings are at 7.30pm):

Tokyo Story - June 28

The Devil & Daniel Johnston - July 12

Cloud Atlas - July 26


Pixar - From Best To Worst



To coincide with the release of Cars 3, I've thrown together this list of Pixar movies, arranging them from best to worst. Why? Because it says here in my copy of The Film Reviewer's Guide To Being A Know-It-All Jerk that I'm supposed to do regular film lists, thus creating debate, disgust, and angry anonymous comments from people with poor grammar and their caps lock key stuck in the 'on' position.

In actual fact I love movie lists (and there's going to be a lot more of these happening on this site in the future because woooooo party time!).

But I really love Pixar. They get movie-making. They regularly make other animation studios look like a bunch of monkeys hurling faeces at a screen. I mean, have you seen the Ice Age movies?

Not pictured: faeces.
As a production house, Pixar are the pinnacle in any kind of film-making because their strike rate is incredible - in fact, I'd go so far as to say there is only one bad film on this list. The rest, from #14 up, range from good to perfect. In fact, I love Pixar so much that despite the one bad film being Cars 2, I'm still super-pumped for Cars 3 because, godsdammit, it's Pixar.

UPDATE: Cars 3 sucks.

Why are they so good? On top of the fact they have great characters doing interesting stuff and saying wonderful things, Pixar make films that are endlessly rewarding. Watch almost any of these films once every year from the age of 5 to 50 and you will get something new out of it every time. Plus you will be entertained. Even more importantly, you will be moved - just about all of these films have a tearjerker moment in them that hits you right in the feels (which I'm led to believe is somewhere near the large intestine).

Without further ado, I present to you the definitive ranking of Pixar movies from best to least best. Ready your caps lock key, internet.

1. Inside Out


Is this a controversial selection for #1? I'm not sure. I think you're supposed to have controversial selections when making "best movies of ever blah blah" lists. Either way, who cares, this is the best Pixar movie hands down. The script for this is one of the most remarkable I have ever seen. How they managed to set a film inside a young girl's brain and have her emotions be the main characters while simultaneously telling one of the ultimate coming-of-age stories ... well, that blows my mind. It's incredibly deep yet hilarious, realistic yet fantastic, thoughtful but told simply. It is as appealing to young uns (with its bright moving zaniness and wacky characters like Bing Bong) as it is to grown-ups - in fact, this is a grown-ups movie dressed up as a kiddie cartoon. Never has a film expressed the scariness and uncertainty of leaving childhood and entering young adulthood so poignantly or precisely.

Read my full review here.

2. Wall-E


One of the fundamentals of screenwriting is the adage "Show, don't tell". Pixar take this idea to pre-talkie extremes in this tale of a robot with a heart of gold, giving us what is effectively a silent movie with a prescient, quasi-satirical view of humanity. It's Chaplin does CG-sci-fi. The layers in this are incredible. It's a love story, a ramshackle space-capade, and a chilling warning about where we're heading as a species. And, as with all Pixar films, it's abundantly hilarious and heartwarming. Like Inside Out, this is one of the key Pixar movies that unfurls new nuances as you get older, making it the gift that keeps on giving. Its charms are abundant, no matter what age you are. And at its centre lies Wall-E, the greatest robot ever committed to celluloid. He has more character in one worn-out track tread than most modern movie creations. He's adorable, witless and incredibly sympathetic as he goes about his soul-crushingly pointless job in between falling in love and re-watching his favourite movie ad infinitum. Wall-E is all of us.

3. Toy Story trilogy


I'm cheating here because I can't/don't wanna separate the Toy Story films. It's a line-call as to which is the best (it's Toy Story 3), because all of them are astoundingly good. As a whole, they comprise one of the greatest trilogies of all time. The original set the benchmark for Pixar's storytelling, and they haven't let up since. Again, it's that mixture of emotion and humour, but the understanding of character is at its peak here. Even the villains are well-rounded - Stinky Pete and Lots-o'-Huggin' are wonderful creations that in lesser hands would be, well, cartoonish. But check out the way Woody and Buzz grow across the series yet remain true to their roots. It's always perfect and honest for the character, and it makes them real and it makes us care about them, so when they appear to be sliding slowly towards their dooms and they hold hands, well, only some kind of inhuman monster would be devoid of tears. Each film is layered and thematically rich - case in point being part 3's letting-go-of-childhood substory. Pair it with Inside Out and it's almost as if Pixar is trying to help kids grow up, learn, and become well-rounded humans. What a bunch of swells.

4. The Incredibles


I've banged on a lot about character and emotion and all that crap in the first three entries of this list, so let's take them for granted for now, leave them to one side, and examine a couple of other film-making things that can make movies exemplary. Like say the score and the production design. Of all the Pixar films, The Incredibles has the best of both these things (which is saying something). Michael Giacchino's retro-futuristic soundtrack perfectly matches the retro-futurism of the costumes, sets and colour palette, which are also perfect, and, well, the whole damn thing is perfect. The Incredibles happens to be one of the greatest superhero movies of all time, bundling together a lot of great super-ideas into one super-film - the banning of superheros from Watchmen, the family's power set mirroring The Fantastic Four, a whole lot of early 007 vibes, in particular Syndrome's volcano lair. It's a loving tribute, silly send-up, and spot-on satire of superheroes, all rolled into one wonderful film about the importance of family, honesty, and not wearing capes.

5. Up


Have said before, will say again - the opening four-minute montage of Up, in which we see Carl and Ellie's marriage through the ages, is a minor miracle of film and one of the greatest sequences in the history of cinema. Like love itself, it is beautiful and bittersweet, empowering and disheartening, and it never fails to make me get something in both eyes simultaneously. It's so good, it almost overshadows the rest of the film, which is a wonderfully wacky and absurd adventure. I have no idea how this film was pitched - it has the feel of about a dozen half-baked ideas thrown into one pot, stirred and seasoned until holy-crap-this-actually-tastes-incredible. A balloon-house, a talking dog, a grumpy widower, an annoying bird, an overzealous boy scout, the golden age of adventuring, unfinished business, the power of grief, the need to let go .... it's all smooshed together into something that really shouldn't work. But it does. Up is the cinematic equivalent of the nightcap you make at the end of the party from the leftover bits of alcohol in every bottle that somehow hits the spot. And it's a remarkable thing to behold.

6. Monsters, Inc.


All Pixar movies are funny, but Monsters, Inc. is the funniest. Why is that? Two words - Billy fricking Crystal. No one could have voiced Mike Wazowki better, so we should be weirdly thankful for that fact Crystal turned down the role of Buzz Lightyear and instead took on the part of Sully's one-eyed tennis ball-shaped buddy in Pixar's fourth outing some six years later. Another thing Monsters, Inc. does better than its Pixar cohorts is worldbuild. All of the films exist in worlds that are fully realised, but none are as inventive as the Monsters, Inc. world. It's a simple mirror to our own in a lot of ways, and largely played for laughs, but it has such a natural flow and feel to it that you forget how wickedly clever it is. The doors, Boo, the scare energy, the toxicity of humans - all these things make sense in such a short period of time thanks to a sharp script, making it easier to relax into the humour and story. And once again, it has heart. Sully and Mike are great as a pair, but it's the connection between Boo and Sully that will have you getting something in both eyes simultaneously.

7. Finding Nemo


I know, I know - this is a long way down the list. But look at the quality above it. And we're still most definitely in five-star territory here - numbers 1-8 are bona fide five-star films in my book. So don't take Finding Nemo's appearance at #7 as any kind of slight. This is a great movie. It's damn near perfect. What's interesting about Nemo is that it feels deceptively simple when stacked up against its cohorts on this list - it's a straightforward road movie, except the road is actually an ocean and the travellers just happen to be fish. But, like I said, deceptively simple. In reality this is about ability (Nemo's special flipper), letting go (Marlin's neurosis), and a very powerful connection between father and son. Let's not forget this is a comedy though, coming close second to Monsters, Inc. in the laughter stakes, but for all its whale impersonations and hilarious recovering-addict sharks, once again, it's the emotion in Marlin's journey that makes this work. As much as it's called Finding Nemo, really it's about Marlin finding himself and who he needs to be as a dad. And that's deep. Like an ocean. Whoa.

8. Ratatouille


I gotta come clean - I didn't like Ratatouille the first time I saw it. Maybe it caught me on an off night. Maybe it was the sight of a kitchen teeming with rats. Maybe it was the fact a lot of the main characters have American accents despite it being set in France. Whatever it was, it didn't sit right with me. The second time I saw it though, I got it. It hit home in a big way and I berated myself for not appreciating this mini-masterpiece about dreaming the impossible dream. It's not quite Up-crazy but its oddball premise - a rat wants to be a chef and he marionettes a human to achieve his goal - is endearing, goofy and bizarrely inspiring. It's a strange film, but it works because of its humour and its passion and its precise tone. Remy (wonderfully voiced by funnyman Patton Oswalt) is an incredible character too - he's the perfect straight man (or rat as it were) in a funny world. He just ploughs through life as though he's running in mid-air and if he looks down, he'll fall, so he doesnt. Ratatouille also boasts one of the most amazing scenes in any Pixar film. It's the moment when the critic Ego tastes the make-or-break dish and is transported back to his youth. It speaks to the power of food, art, nostalgia and the innocence of childhood (and shows that critics aren't entirely inhuman monsters), and it all comes about via a scene in which a man eats a bowl of food. This is just one example of the Pixar brains trust's supreme gifts as master storytellers.

9. Finding Dory


The most mind-blowing aspect of this 13-years-later sequel is the way it re-examines Dory's memory problems, flipping them from being a running joke in the first film to the debilitating disability they would actually be in real life. And thus the title of Finding Dory becomes not just about Marlin and Nemo's quest to locate their lost friend, but representative of the film's attempt to understand Dory's character and how she finds her way in the world. She becomes a kind of tragic hero - the fish with a sad past and a disability, overcoming incredible odds to save the day and herself. It's not a new thing for Pixar - this is Nemo's special flipper all over again, but writ larger and with more gravitas. Much of the kudos for this must go to Ellen DeGeneres. Her voicing of Dory is nothing short of magnificent, wringing every possible bit of humour and pathos out of a character that blossoms from hilarious one-note gag to satisfying full-realisation in her own film. The only downside is the feelings of deja vu from first film to sequel, and an OTT ending that is fun but, well, OTT.

Read my full review here.

10. Brave


In a world severely lacking in bold and inspiring cinematic heroines, Brave was a breath of fresh air. It still is. Merida remains one of the most compelling characters in the Pixar catalogue. She's a bundle of contradictions, flaws and annoyances, but that's what makes her great - she's a real person, fully formed in all her frustrating and furiously driven glory. Ditto for her mother Queen Elinor, and together they make a great pairing as the film explores the trials and tribulations many mother-daughter combos can surely relate to. But beyond that, Brave is an exhilarating ride, despite its weird structure (it's more a film of two halves as opposed to three acts, which throws the pacing off, plus there is no villain because all Merida's problems are of her own creation, but hey, I can live with that). It's also strangely familiar, yet utterly fresh. It's not in the five-star league, but it's not far off.

Read my full review here.

11. A Bug’s Life


Pixar's second film feels like the forgotten puppy in the litter, but its one that deserves a re-examination. It's a simple, well-worn story - the pretend heroes save the village and become real heroes (see also Galaxy Quest and Three Amigos) - but it wears its tropes well, feeling like some subtle new variation on one of Aesop's fable (possibly called The Grasshopper and The Octopus or something, I don't know). Whatever - this is classic, if unambitious, storytelling done right. Flick is a solid hero, his sidekicks are great (it's hard to go past Heimlich the caterpillar for comedy value), and the film boasts one of Pixar's greatest villains in Kevin Spacey's Hopper. A Bug's Life is traditional, old-timey tale-telling, but it does everything right.

12. Cars


Unlike most of the rest of the Pixar catalogue, Cars feels like solid kids entertainment, as opposed to something for the whole family. Yes, there is a certain appeal in seeing Paul Newman as a car, and us old-timers can get a kick out of the "listen to the old-timers" subtext, but so much of Cars feels like good clean kiddie fun and not much else (except a licence to sell a truckload of merch). That's not to say Cars is bad - it's really quite good at what it does, and achieves what it sets out to do, which is to be entertaining in a fast, funny, and friendly way. Its layers are fewer and its story is somewhat simpler and unambitious, but there's nothing wrong with that.

13. The Good Dinosaur


There's nothing exactly wrong with The Good Dinosaur (expect for the fact the dinosaurs look weird and cartoonish against a photoreal world) it's just that like Cars and, to a certain extent, Finding Nemo, it's so damned simple. This is boy-and-dog (except it's dinosaur-and-boy) do Homeward Bound and it's funny and heartwarming and slightly offbeat, but it never feels like anything truly special. It labours its message about the need to be brave to make your mark in the world and flies perilously close to being cliched. The film still works and features a few killer scenes, but it's good without being Pixar good.

Read my full review here.


14. Monsters University


Pixar does a college movie, but who are they aiming it at? Sure, the kids that grew up on Monsters, Inc. were probably in university by the time this prequel rolled around, but this G-rated cliched college mash-up felt like a swing and miss. Little kids won't get half it, it's not edgy enough for the collegiate crew, and even the grown-ups might have been stretching to love it. Packed with tired tropes that it's never able to subvert or do anything other than "monsterise", Monsters University only gets a pass mark thanks to nostalgic goodwill, some pretty good gags, and surprisingly strong ending. 

Read my full review here.


15. Cars 3


A kids film about getting older and knowing when to retire? Who thought that was a good idea? In fact a lot of this film doesn't work - it just idles along being as boring as NASCAR racing. Except for the crash scene. So yeah, pretty much exactly like NASCAR racing. It finally finds the right gears by the third act, but its too late and no one cares. It's best character - Cruz - almost saves the film, and its throwbacks to the first movie are welcome, but Cars 3 is evidence its time to take this franchise to the wreckers.

16. Cars 2


Here we are. The bottom of the list. We all knew this was coming. Cars 2 is the only genuinely bad Pixar movie. A soulless spy movie spoof, its crimes are many. It's unfunny and uninspired, but worst of all, it takes one of the most annoying characters to ever grace a Pixar movie - Mater - and puts him front and centre in a dumb mistaken identity espionage plot. It's like North By Northwest, but with the automotive equivalent of Joe Dirt in the starring role. No one wants to see that. What few good ideas there are in the film are subsumed by a lack of laughs and heart.

Read my full review here.

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The plan is to update this list as new Pixar movies are released. Here's what's coming up:

November 22, 2017 - Coco

June 15, 2018 - The Incredibles 2

June 21, 2019 - Toy Story 4

March 13, 2020 - Untitled film

June 19, 2020 - Untitled film

June 18, 2021 - Untitled film