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Warm, touching and funny Aussie dramedy

Posted : 5 years ago on 21 February 2018 01:50 (A review of The Dish)

Masterminded by the same quartet responsible for 1997's The Castle (Rob Sitch, Santo Cilauro, Tom Gleisner and Jane Kennedy), The Dish is another thoroughly delightful Australian drama-comedy, as well as a welcome history lesson that zeroes in on overlooked but important events from 1969. Devoid of big expensive special effects, the charms of The Dish are derived from its astute character work, the affable ensemble cast, and its dry, typically Aussie sense of humour. But above all of that, the film tells a simple yet amazing true-life story about dedication which will linger in your mind long after the end credits have expired. In short, The Dish is the perfect alternative to generic action blockbusters or dumb, crude American comedies, and it developed into something of an internationally beloved motion picture for good reason.

Before the launch of Apollo 11 in July of 1969, NASA reaches out to the small rural Australian town of Parkes, which is home to the largest radio telescope in the Southern Hemisphere. Situated in the middle of a sheep paddock, Houston seeks to use the dish to receive and relay transmissions from Apollo 11 in the Southern Hemisphere, including both communications and the images of the prestigious moon landing itself. The telescope is operated by pipe-smoking "dishmaster" Cliff Buxton (Sam Neill), along with Mitch (Kevin Harrington) and Glenn (Tom Long), while young Rudi (Taylor Kane) harbours great pride for his role as the dish's Head of Security. To supervise things, NASA sends along a representative in Al Burnett (Patrick Warburton). With the Apollo 11 mission getting underway, local Mayor Bob McIntyre (Roy Billing) could not be more excited or proud about his town's involvement with NASA, schmoozing a United States Ambassador (John McMartin) as he awaits the arrival of the Prime Minister (Billie Brown).

The story of the Apollo 11 astronauts and the 1969 moon landing is surely well-known enough, as it has been told many times before in motion pictures and documentaries. The Dish therefore relegates that story to the background, eschewing an American viewpoint to concentrate on an element of the Apollo 11 mission that's seldom written about. The Dish takes place entirely in the town of Parkes, and never cuts away to any dramatic recreations of the astronauts aboard Apollo 11. Naturally, the script does take certain liberties with history, such as somewhat minimising the role of NASA's Honeysuckle Creek Tracking Station near Canberra, but it's not a big deal - after all, most historical films are fictionalised to some extent. What matters is that The Dish is dramatically satisfying and well-rounded, framed around an aging Buxton who visits the radio telescope to gaze upon her again, which brings back memories.

The Dish is packed with subplots to add further colour to the story, as this is more than just another movie about the moon landing - it's primarily about a town gathering together, as well as the unsung courage of the individuals whose indispensible contributions are often overlooked. There is a sweet subplot involving the shy Glenn, who playfully flirts with pretty local girl Janine (Eliza Szonert), while the visitation of the American Ambassador at one stage forces the dish crew to fake a radio transmission with Apollo 11. The Dish is very funny, but it earns hearty belly-laughs through genuinely witty writing, as it's devoid of crude or mean-spirited content. Indeed, rest assured that even though it carries a PG-13 rating for a single use of the word "fuck," the movie is suitable for all audiences.

Sitch may be the only credited director on the project, but the closing credits make it clear that credit for The Dish belongs to the four-person team of Sitch, Cilauro, Gleisner and Kennedy, as they wrote, produced and conceived the movie together. Backed by a modest budget, The Dish may not carry the slick appearance of a big-budget Hollywood movie, but it's agreeably old-fashioned in its cinematic approach, demeanour and laid-back pacing. Miraculously, the movie never necessarily feels like a low-budget endeavour, as it does not look cheap or nasty. Shot on 35mm film by cinematographer Graeme Wood, the movie carries a warm appearance and is full of period details, effortlessly and subtly evoking the late 1960s. In addition, Sitch and co. make extensive use of archival video and audio clips at various points to amplify the illusion and further set the scene. The climactic moon landing itself is incredibly touching, and Sitch wisely lets the event speak for itself by relying on the archival material. The sequence drives home the real significance of the event, which could have ended in disaster at any point, and it's rewarding to see the main characters' hard work paying off. The accompanying original score by Edmund Choi (who also scored The Castle) is suitably majestic and full of flavour, while the movie also features an agreeable selection of memorable classic songs ("The Real Thing") and pieces of music ("Classical Gas").

The ensemble cast is filled out by a terrific selection of Aussie actors, from the always-reliable Billing as the Mayor, to The Castle's Charles 'Bud' Tingwell as a Reverend. Perhaps the most recognisable face in the cast is Neill (a New Zealand native), who brings his trademark gravitas and warmth to the role of Cliff Buxton. The acting is convincing and natural across the board, with spot-on comedic timing from everybody in the ensemble. Good-natured, funny, touching and warm, The Dish further verifies that the Working Dog team have a knack for creating films that manage to be dramatic and funny, whilst never taking themselves too seriously or talking down to the audience. And all on a meagre budget that would barely covering the catering of a major Hollywood production. The Dish is a genuine cinematic treat.


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An entertaining, goofy '80s horror

Posted : 5 years ago on 20 February 2018 02:57 (A review of Silver Bullet)

Produced and released in the shadow of successful werewolf flicks like An American Werewolf in London and The Howling, 1985's Silver Bullet represents an adaptation of the Stephen King novella (or "novelette," according to the opening credits) "Cycle of the Werewolf." King himself actually penned the screenplay, denoting the second of three occasions for which he adapted his own works for the big screen during the 1980s - Silver Bullet came a couple years after Cat's Eye in 1983, and just before 1986's Maximum Overdrive (for which King also made his directorial debut). Directed by Daniel Attias (who was fresh out of film school at the time), Silver Bullet has admittedly dated in a number of respects, but it has charm in spades and remains an entertaining watch thanks to its goofy sense of humour.

In the New England town of Tarker's Mill, Maine, a sudden series of violent murders leaves the locals on edge. Unbeknownst to the townspeople, the "serial killer" is actually a werewolf who is capable of ripping its victims to shreds and cannot be killed through conventional methods. After venturing out at night to set off fireworks in his wheelchair-cum-motorcycle known as the "Silver Bullet," paraplegic youth Marty Coslaw (Corey Haim) becomes convinced that a werewolf is killing the locals, but his suspicions are not shared by his sceptical sister Jane (Megan Follows) or their alcoholic uncle, Red (Gary Busey). With the townsfolk taking things into their own hands by assembling a vigilante justice group to the horror of Reverend Lowe (Everett McGill) and Sheriff Haller (Terry O'Quinn), Marty hopes to convince Jane and Red about the werewolf's existence, and is determined to stop it before they become lunchmeat.

The slim 126-page "Cycle of the Werewolf" novella was episodic, but Silver Bullet disposes of such a structure, tying everything together by concentrating primarily on Marty and his family. In a way, the resulting movie feels like a slasher in which the killer happens to be a lycanthrope as opposed to a more generic psychotic, and there is a mystery at the centre of the story in regards to who the werewolf is. King weaves themes into the fabric of the narrative relating to small-town Americana, while the central characters are nursing wounds of some sort - Red is an alcoholic, Marty is disabled, and so on. In addition, the idea is introduced that the victims are sinners who go against God, deepening the beast's motivation. The werewolf costume was designed by the legendary Carlo Rambaldi, who earned Oscars for his contributions to 1976's King Kong remake, as well as Alien and E.T. the Extra Terrestrial. Despite the pedigree involved, the rubbery werewolf looks mediocre at best - we've seen more menacing beasts in motion pictures before and since. Still, many of the special effects have held up surprisingly well, particularly the transformation sequences and some of the gore effects. In one standout dream scene, all of the locals begin to turn into werewolves, which is a terrific showcase for the sterling special effects.

Deliberate or otherwise, there is a healthy sense of humour which runs throughout Silver Bullet to keep it compulsively watchable and frequently enjoyable. It's doubtful that first-time viewers circa 2018 will necessarily find the picture scary, but there are a number of effective set-pieces scattered throughout nevertheless, with convincingly-executed graphic violence depicting each victim's grisly demise. Attias actually intended the film to be rated PG-13 and play out more as a teen-friendly adventure, but super-producer Dino De Laurentiis kept pushing for more gore and violence to heighten the horror. Some have criticised this decision, but the R-rating gives Silver Bullet more bite and raises the stakes, making us believe that the characters really are in danger. This was actually Attias' feature film debut (Phantasm director Don Coscarelli was originally attached before dropping out over the old "creative differences" chestnut), but the filmmaker never tackled another theatrical movie again (to date) - instead, he became a successful television director, helming episodes of The Sopranos, The Wire, Alias and many more. The original score by Jay Chattaway, meanwhile, is a real standout. The compositions do sound distinctively '80s, but the score also carries plenty of flavour and accentuates the horror when necessary.

Busey sinks his teeth the role of Uncle Red, helping to heighten the movie's sense of humour. Rather than slavishly sticking to the script, Busey actually improvised a fair bit (with King's blessing) to terrific effect - particularly amusing is his exclamation of "Holy jumped-up bald-headed Jesus palomino!" Busey is the definite standout in this ensemble, chewing the scenery at every opportunity, and fans of the actor (yes, they exist) should seek this one out. Other note-worthy actors fill out the cast, including the always-reliable Everett McGill (1989's Licence to Kill) as well as Corey Haim (The Lost Boys), and even Terry O'Quinn (perhaps best known for TV's Lost). Although the performances may not be anything to write home about for the most part, they are effective enough. Silver Bullet is predictable to a certain degree, and the ending is overly pat after a noticeably brief climactic showdown, but the picture nevertheless has a distinct charm. It will appeal to those who enjoy '80s horror movies like Fright Night and Evil Dead 2.


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An instant genre classic

Posted : 5 years, 1 month ago on 18 February 2018 12:47 (A review of It)

The literary works of celebrated author Stephen King have been adapted into dozens of feature films, but 2017's It represents one of the most successful page-to-screen translations to date. An adaptation of King's 1000-page novel of the same name published in 1986, this proficiently-constructed and riveting horror endeavour is also one of the best contemporary genre films of the decade, thanks to the laudable efforts of director Andy Muschietti and the three credited screenwriters. King's "It" novel was previously turned into a television miniseries all the way back in 1990, but Muschietti's update more than justifies its existence, bringing the source to life in extraordinary ways and finding its own voice. The picture is certainly frightening, but It primarily excels because the screenplay shows interest in dramatics and character development as opposed to just lazy jump scares. Indeed, viewers simply seeking fast-paced, undemanding instant gratification may be advised to look elsewhere.

In the small town of Derry, Maine, dozens of unsolved child disappearances occur once every generation. With school finished for the summer of 1989, a curfew is in place after a number of children vanish without a trace, including Georgie Denbrough (Jackson Robert Scott), who left home during a rainstorm to sail his paper boat but never returned. Thoughts about Georgie plague his older brother Bill (Jaeden Lieberher), the de-facto leader of a group of social outcasts branded as The Losers' Club. Refusing to accept that Georgie is gone for good, Bill seeks the assistance of his friends - Ritchie (Finn Wolfhard), Stanley (Wyatt Oleff), Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer), Beverly (Sophia Lillis), Mike (Chosen Jacobs), and Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor) - to investigate. The group, who are abused by psychotic town bully Henry (Nicholas Hamilton), are soon taunted by visions of Pennywise the Dancing Clown (Bill Skarsgård), a sinister shape-shifting demonic entity from which nightmares are made. Pennywise only awakens every 27 years to feed on the children of Derry before returning to hibernation, and the Losers refuse to become his next victims, banding together to confront their worst fears and overthrow the clown.

Whereas King's book was partially set in the late 1950s, this adaptation shifts the story to 1989, which will allow the second half (in the upcoming sequel) to unfold in present-day. Muschietti and his team manage to seamlessly weave '80s pop culture references into the picture to vividly evoke this particular time and place - for instance, a local cinema marquee advertises Lethal Weapon 2, Batman and A Nightmare on Elm Street: The Dream Child, while a poster for Gremlins is displayed on a bedroom wall, and Ben desperately tries to conceal his fandom for the boy band New Kids on the Block. A healthy sense of humour is evident throughout the film (the one-liners are almost endless) which keeps it enjoyable and watchable, on top of being frightening. There is a minor Stranger Things vibe due to the young characters and '80s setting, but one must bear in mind that It was in active development before the Netflix series initially dropped. (Interestingly, the Stranger Things masterminds - The Duffer Brothers - were actually in the running to direct It at one stage.)

Clocking in at a hefty 135 minutes (including credits), It's length may be daunting, and it does feel like a full meal, but Muschietti uses the generous length to deal with characterisations and drama. The town of Derry almost feels like the true villain of the story, as many of the elders are portrayed as predatory and uneasy, while Henry is a violent, deranged psychopath of a bully who does not balk from carving letters into Ben's stomach with a knife. Members of The Losers' Club have their own personal issues to contend with, and the material is exceedingly adult; Beverly is ostracised for false rumours of promiscuity and suffers sexual abuse at the hands of her father, for example, while Eddie has a domineering, obese mother who keeps him feeling paranoid about his health, and Mike is bullied due to the colour of his skin. However, certain fragments of the narrative appear to be missing, and some parts of King's book were reportedly excised. There are talks of an extended cut which could rectify this, even though the movie is certainly long in its current state and could probably stand to be a bit tighter - certain scenes or moments could be removed.

The original It miniseries was understandably held back by its budget as well as the constraints of network television and early 1990s televisual aesthetics, but this update had more freedom to truly explore King's macabre imagination and do justice to the literary source. Backed by a $35 million budget and with a hard R rating in place, It is gruesome and unsettling, with a violent opening attack to set the scene. Pennywise takes several other forms throughout the picture, with his antics being aided by digital trickery and visceral make-up to convey the breadth of the character's evilness. It may not be the scariest movie ever made, but it is unquestionably chilling and unnerving, and it has its terrifying moments. Muschietti belies his relative inexperience (he last oversaw 2013's underwhelming Mama) to orchestrate the horror here with the confidence of a genre veteran. Muschietti and his team generate scares using imagery, periods of silence, well-judged music and an intricately-designed sound mix, exhibiting more creativity than any number of more formulaic genre endeavours. The cinematography by Korean maestro Chung-hoon Chung (Oldboy, The Handmaiden) exhibits unending visual flair - compositions are strong and lighting is exceptional, making great use of shadows. Flawlessly complementing the visuals is Benjamin Wallfisch's spine-chilling original score, while there is also a selection of great '80s tunes to give the picture more flavour and emphasise the period setting. Admittedly, not all of the CGI-enhanced mayhem is entirely successful, but this is a minor quibble.

More than just a series of tormented encounters, It takes the time to delve into the trials of adolescence - it's more of a coming-of-age movie like Stand By Me as opposed to just another run-of-the-mill horror offering. Beverly becomes an object of desire for the boys - Ben acts as a secret admirer from a distance as he writes poetry, while Bill can only stare at her, struggling to find the courage to make a move. Characterisations are exceptional; each Loser is distinctly-drawn and they all have an individual handicap, be it social, physical or ethnic. They bond because they do not care that Ben is overweight or Bill has a stutter, and their camaraderie is instantly palpable - it's easy to believe that they're all friends, especially since the actors became fast friends in real life. This gives the movie genuine heart, as we grow to care about the people being victimised, and the horrific moments with Pennywise therefore carry an even bigger sting. From top to bottom, the acting is remarkable and naturalistic - there is not a single weak link in the ensemble. It can be hard to find talented child actors, but everybody here hits their mark. Even if you don't find the movie scary, it's still enjoyable to watch the kids interacting with one another, which is important since Pennywise remains out of the picture surprisingly often despite being the primary antagonist.

Filling Tim Curry's shoes would be a daunting task for any actor, but Swedish model Skarsgård (son of Stellan) excels all reasonable expectations to pull off arguably the definitive portrayal of Pennywise the Dancing Clown. Covered in astonishingly nuanced make-up, Skarsgård avoids a single-note performance, changing up his tone and mannerisms depending on the situation, and coming across as an intimidating presence. It also helps that the actor is so tall, towering over his young co-stars. It's truly a transformative performance, representing one of the production's biggest assets. Just see the much-publicised scene with Pennywise in the sewer talking to Georgie - Skarsgård is such a powerhouse that you hang off every word, and the scene is incredibly tense.

1990's It covered both parts of King's novel across its two episodes, but 2017's It only covers the first (it actually ends with a "Chapter One" title card) to give the story sufficient breathing room whilst still emerging as a satisfying standalone motion picture in its own right. Transcending its horror roots, this is an engaging and often terrifying coming-of-age fable, able to remain interesting between the scary set-pieces, and even bring out genuine emotion. This may be a long movie, but it stands up to repeat viewings and does not feel like a chore to get through. With the long-gestating The Dark Tower turning out to be a distilled, muddled disappointment, It is the year's superior Stephen King adaptation. To predict that this masterwork will go down in cinema history as an all-time horror classic (alongside the likes of The Shining, The Exorcist and The Thing) does not feel either hyperbolic or rash.


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Undemanding old-school pizza and beer flick

Posted : 5 years, 1 month ago on 14 February 2018 01:01 (A review of Security)

A modestly-budgeted, old-fashioned R-rated actioner with a Die Hard-esque narrative, Security gets enough right to justify a recommendation for movie-goers who enjoy genre flicks from the '80s and '90s. It's basically Die Hard meets Assault on Precinct 13 in a shopping mall (shades of Dawn of the Dead?), and it is overly predictable, but director Alain Desrochers compensates for the picture's formulaic construction by infusing the material with zest and verve. Created for a meagre $15 million, Security is more purely enjoyable than any number of blockbusters that cost three or four times as much - and it's a nice alternative in an age where big-budget superhero films rule the box office on a consistent basis. In addition, Security is more than just another cheap, nasty direct-to-video action flick; it's surprisingly well-made and deserves more fanfare than it received.

A U.S. Military veteran who attained the rank of Captain, Eddie Deacon (Antonio Banderas) is desperate for employment. Despite being overqualified for minimum wage jobs, Eddie eagerly accepts a lowly position as a mall security guard in a rough neighbourhood to pay the bills and potentially allow him to reunite with his wife and daughter. Meeting shift supervisor Vance (Liam McIntyre) and the three other guards on shift, the night soon takes a turn for the worst when a teenage girl named Jamie (Katherine Mary de la Rocha) pounds on the door, pleading for protection. Not far behind is a team of armed mercenaries led by Charlie (Ben Kingsley), who seek to eliminate Jamie before she can testify at trial. Choosing to put his life on the line to protect Jamie, Eddie takes charge, whipping his fellow security officers in shape as they set up makeshift defences with whatever supplies they can find.

The screenplay by Tony Mosher (Mechanic: Resurrection) and John Sullivan (Recoil) is almost defiantly uncomplicated, eschewing subplots and drama to focus on action and narrative velocity. The idea is introduced that one of the security guards might betray Eddie for the sake of money or wanting to save their own bacon, but it's not followed through, which does feel like a case of Chekov's Gun failing to go off. In addition, clichés fly thick and fast, with Eddie depicted as a salt-of-the-earth, hard-working veteran who was dealt a rough hand, while Charlie is out-and-out evil. Do not expect any emotional resonance or thematic underpinnings either, and of course the movie is silly at times - characters rarely reload or seem to run out of ammo, people do contrived things which gets them killed, certain timings are very convenient, and so on. Still, pacing is assured (Security runs a lean 88 minutes), and there are a few tense scenes, such as when Charlie first meets the security staff face-to-face and Eddie suspects that not everything is as it seems.

Director Desrochers does not have any substantial credits on his résumé, but he acquits himself commendably with the material, making the most of the reported $15 million budget. Without any noticeable or phoney-looking CGI to spoil the old-school vibe, Desrochers relies on stunt-work, actual fire, practical blood squibs and blank-firing weapons, making Security feel like a lost gem from the early '90s. (It is a bit of a shame that it was shot digitally, rather than on film.) Action scenes are brutal, visceral and taut, while Banderas proves that he is still an adept physical performer even though he's in his 50s. However, the central mall lacks visual appeal and creativity. Whereas the high-rise Nakatomi Plaza in Die Hard became its own distinctive character, the mall here simply looks like a soundstage, basic and generic, lacking its own identity. The security office is admittedly nicely-designed, but the rest looks hopelessly bland, which is the only aspect of the production where the restricted budget is apparent. However, Desrochers at least does a sufficient job of masking the fact that the flick was shot in Bulgaria.

Working to redeem himself after his atrociously cartoonish and grating performance in 2014's The Expendables 3, Banderas is down-to-earth as the John McClane type, coming across as human whilst also emerging as a believable action hero. Banderas has become somewhat of a low-budget action luminary - I mean, in 2017 alone he featured in Acts of Vengeance, Gun Shy, and Bullet Head, as well as Security - and he plays this type of role well. He certainly puts more effort into his movies than Steven Seagal. Meanwhile, Kingsley does what he can with what amounts to a bog-standard villain role, coming across as sinister enough even though he does overact. As young Jamie, the inexperienced Rocha noticeably struggles from time to time - she makes a fair few of her lines sound scripted, as if she was reading them from a cue card. It's not always a big issue, but she isn't as natural as the remainder of the cast. Luckily, Eddie's co-workers are believable and naturalistic for the most part, and ensure that they can be told apart from one another, though none of them exactly stand out.

Security doesn't reinvent the genre, nor does it try to do anything groundbreaking - the movie is content to be an entertaining if predictable collection of clichés. Perhaps mercifully, Desrochers never attempts any over-the-top set-pieces or moments that would be beyond the constraints of the budget - action scenes are athletic but grounded, and the climactic showdown amounts to a nail-biting mano a mano confrontation that's effective without being lathered in extensive digital effects. (Even if the moment itself is a blatant Die Hard rip-off.) Despite its silly moments and instances of shonky acting, Security delivers what it promises on the tin - it's an undemanding old-school pizza and beer flick, in the same vein as something like The Last Stand or The Expendables.


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A Big winner all-round

Posted : 5 years, 1 month ago on 11 February 2018 06:25 (A review of The Big Sick (2017) )

One of the most unexpected movie-going delights of 2017, The Big Sick is much more than just another fluffy Hollywood romantic comedy. Written by Kumail Nanjiani and his wife Emily V. Gordon, the movie is loosely based on the true story of their courtship and romance, eschewing forced sentiment and broad jokes to construct an effective dramedy with cross-cultural themes, an appealing cast, big laughs and heart aplenty. The movie was co-produced by the perpetually-busy Judd Apatow, who pushed Nanjiani to write the screenplay after hearing the real-life story on a podcast. And thank goodness it all worked out, as the autobiographical tale serves as the perfect basis for an affecting and amusing rom-com, one of the best that the genre has seen for some time.

An aspiring Pakistani-born comedian living in Chicago, Kumail (Nanjiani) hopes to earn a spot at a major upcoming comedy festival to further his career, while his traditional parents - Azmat (Anupam Kher) and Sharmeen (Zenobia Shroff) - frantically try to find a woman for him. But when Kumail meets a white, non-Muslim graduate student named Emily (Zoe Kazan), the pair find themselves entering a relationship, despite their mutual desire to remain unattached. Kumail is compelled to keep his relationship with Emily a secret, because his very strict family require him to enter an arranged marriage with a woman of the same race and religion. After a fight abruptly ends Kumail's romance with Emily, she winds up contracting a mysterious disease which compels the doctors to put her in a medically-induced coma. Kumail becomes Emily's temporary caretaker until her parents, Beth (Holly Hunter) and Terry (Ray Romano), fly in from North Carolina. However, even despite the break-up, Kumail finds himself unable to return to his everyday life, staying at the hospital and bonding with Beth and Terry as Emily's condition baffles the hospital staff.

Since the screenplay is based on real-life experiences, there is a heightened sense of realism and honesty to the movie, earning laughs through witty dialogue rather than dumb, broad slapstick. When Emily is put into a coma, the actions of Beth and Terry ring true, from spending hours on end waiting at the hospital for any sort of news, to taking notes when speaking to the doctors, and Googling every tiny fragment of information about Emily's condition. The relationship that Kumail forms with Terry and Beth is wholly unforced; they're understandably hesitant to warm up to him, but Kumail manages to earn their respect and affection. Nanjiani and his wife spent a number of years writing and perfecting the Oscar-nominated screenplay, which also has a few things to say about the intolerance of modern-day America. Indeed, The Big Sick does not shy away from showing the bias towards Muslims, and wisely uses astute humour to lighten the mood. In addition, the movie realistically examines the struggle that comes with being biologically tied to one culture whilst living in and trying to assimilate into another.

Slickly assembled and shrewdly paced by director Michael Showalter (who previously worked with Nanjiani on 2015's Hello, My Name Is Doris), The Big Sick makes the most of its meagre $5 million budget, with pleasing cinematography and agreeable soundtrack choices. Despite the weightiness of the story's subject matter, Showalter miraculously manages to negotiate effective tonal changes throughout, earning laughs when appropriate whilst also creating something very poignant. The Big Sick is certainly lengthy, coming in at a hair under two hours including credits, but it's rarely boring or meandering. With such a generous runtime in place, the movie has leeway for smaller moments, including a painfully realistic and touching scene during which Kumail listens to old voicemails from Emily. Little looks and pauses are also permitted, but Showalter keeps the proceedings on a tight leash more often than not. However, the stand-up comedian world has been explored quite a bit on-screen in the past (including in Apatow's own Funny People), and The Big Sick is admittedly at its weakest when focusing on Kumail's stand-up friends improvising on-stage to mixed results. These sequences should be a bit leaner, particularly since the jokes are not that funny.

Admittedly, Nanjiani does look his age, which may be slightly jarring since he was in his 20s when the events of the story took place, but his performance is so focused and charming that it hardly matters. Playing himself, Nanjiani's comedic timing is spot-on, and he also proves to be an adept dramatic performer to boot - he imbues the movie with genuine heart, which is one of the things that elevates The Big Sick above the ordinary. Happily, Nanjiani is surrounded by a winning supporting cast, with Zoe Kazan a particular standout as Emily. Although she's absent for the second act due to the nature of Emily's illness, Kazan is effortlessly disarming, and handles the emotional moments with impressive assurance. In addition, the chemistry between Nanjiani and Kazan seriously sparkles. Meanwhile, Hunter and Romano play a bit against type, with the normally comedic Romano asked to call upon his dramatic chops and predominantly play things straight. Nevertheless, both thespians truly shine in their respective roles, adding more heart and coming across as believable parents.

Yes, The Big Sick does incorporate a few standard rom-com clichés, but that's inevitable, and it hardly matters since the picture is otherwise full of heart, originality and honesty. Some aspects of the story are exaggerated or changed compared to the real story as well, but it all adds up to a dramatically satisfying and well-rounded movie with the potential to appeal to a wide audience. The Big Sick is fun and funny, telling a worthwhile story whilst providing an edifying look into the difficulties of upholding familial and cultural traditions in contemporary society. Plus, even though this is a true story with a foregone conclusion, it's still easy to become fully invested in the picture and worry about what's going to happen in terms of both Emily's health and the fate of the central coupling. The Big Sick is a big winner all-round.


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Highly flawed but watchable

Posted : 5 years, 1 month ago on 7 February 2018 03:19 (A review of Overdrive)

Overdrive is such a brazen, barefaced attempt to cash in on the success of the long-running Fast & Furious franchise that you almost have to admire the filmmakers for choosing to release it so soon after 2017's The Fate of the Furious. Written by Michael Brandt and Derek Haas - who actually penned 2 Fast 2 Furious - the flick is more or less Fast & Furious mixed with the 2003 remake of The Italian Job, and it's all set in France to boot. To state the obvious, there is not much in the way of originality to Overdrive, nor is there a great deal of wit or intelligence, but against all odds, this formulaic actioner does manage to pass the time easily enough. It's also admittedly nice to see a car-based action movie without Vin Diesel and his insufferable ego taking centre stage.

Veteran car thieves Andrew (Scott Eastwood) and his half-brother Garret (Freddie Thorp) pull off a risky robbery in Marseille, targeting a rare Bugatti which was recently sold at auction. But the theft brings the pair to the attention of local crime figure Jacomo Morier (Simon Abkarian), the owner of the Bugatti in question. Begging for their lives, Andrew and Garret offer to steal a rare Ferrari from Morier's rival, Max Klemp (Clemens Schick), which would boost his valuable car collection. Morier agrees, permitting the half-brothers a mere seven days to prep, plan and pull off the complex heist. With the odds stacked against them, Andrew begins building a team, bringing in his girlfriend Stephanie (Ana de Armas), career thief Devin (Gaia Weiss), demolitions expert Leon (Joshua Fitoussi), and a crew of expert drivers. To make matters more complicated, a pair of Interpol agents as well as Morier's cousin (Abraham Belaga) are keeping tabs on the operation.

Playing out as if it was originally designed to be a minor Fast & Furious spinoff, the narrative is (perhaps mercifully) uncomplicated and lathers on the clichés, even introducing the "one last job before I go legit" routine for Andrew, who seeks to retire and live in peace with Stephanie. Of course the screenplay puts Stephanie in danger, and the boys manage to be one step ahead of their enemies, planning more than what meets the eye. (Traces of the Ocean's Eleven remake are apparent when the heist is being executed.) Devin also becomes a love interest for Garret, because apparently beautiful women can never remain unattached in these types of action flicks. Dialogue is tin-eared for the most part, not to mention eye-rollingly clichéd, while character names never stick because none of the roles are developed beyond the bare minimum of personality traits. Hell, the team of drivers are given such a quick introduction that their names are never said and most of them don't even have lines. The dramatics of the story never gain full traction since it's hard to get invested in the narrative or care about the characters - it just feels like the movie is going through the clichéd motions to get to the stunt driving.

Backed by a comparatively scant budget (approximately $30 million), there is not much leeway for the movie to go ridiculously over-the-top during the action sequences, and that's something of an asset - the primary set-pieces are welcomely grounded, relying on good old-fashioned stunt-work and stunt-driving as opposed to wall-to-wall digital effects (though there is still some shoddy CGI). The director, Antonio Negret, mostly works in television aside from a few minor feature films - he has overseen episodes of Lethal Weapon, Arrow, The Flash and DC's Legends of Tomorrow, just to name a few, while he also helmed 2012's Transit. Negret's camera fetishistically lingers on all of the beautiful multi-million dollar automobiles, making this a worthwhile watch for all car-lovers. At least the movie is given a boost by its gorgeous, eye-catching European locales, and there's sufficient excitement to be experienced whenever Negret gives over to the stunt-drivers. Indeed, the sequences of fast cars and burning rubber are entertaining enough for a film of this pedigree.

Eastwood - who was actually added to the ever-expanding Fast & Furious ensemble cast in The Fate of the Furious - is actually one of the better up-and-coming action stars of late, emanating sufficient charisma and with his father's looks to boot. However, it's a real shame that there isn't a stronger group dynamic like in The Italian Job or Ocean's Eleven - most of Andrew's team are completely interchangeable, and the cast is filled with bland actors who look like Calvin Klein models. Even de Armas is given little to do, reduced to a one-dimensional damsel in distress role which is all the more disheartening after her exceptional performance in Blade Runner 2049. However, at least she has some degree of charisma, and plays well alongside Eastwood.

As fluffy action movies go, Overdrive is middle-of-the-road - it's not offensively terrible and it's at least watchable, providing some surface-level pleasures with its visceral set-pieces and gorgeous location work. And with "family" melodrama being kept to a minimum, it's arguably more entertaining than some of the movies in the Fast & Furious franchise. Still, it is flawed, and it feels closer to a television pilot than a major feature film. It does appear that the filmmakers behind Overdrive were hoping to carve out a franchise, as there's a direct set-up for a sequel, but considering the movie's abysmal box office performance (it grossed less than $5 million worldwide), this is more than likely the last we'll see of these characters. And that's probably for the best.


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Enormously cheesy and at times incompetent

Posted : 5 years, 1 month ago on 7 February 2018 07:56 (A review of Orca: The Killer Whale)

Produced by Italian filmmaking luminary Dino De Laurentiis, 1977's Orca: The Killer Whale represents a brazen attempt to capitalize on the astonishing success of Steven Spielberg's 1975 blockbuster Jaws. In addition, this particular film goes one step further by ostensibly incorporating elements of "Moby Dick," as it pits a boat captain against a killer whale. From an ironic standpoint, a certain degree of entertainment value can be derived from the enormously cheesy and at times incompetent Orca, but it's borderline impossible to defend this cult curiosity as a serious motion picture. Despite the efforts of director Michael Anderson (Logan's Run), the movie is so far removed from the spine-tingling horror and enduring effectiveness of Jaws, even though it was created with a comparable budget. And whereas age has been kind to Jaws, the same cannot be said of Orca, as it looks seriously dated in 2018.

Irish-Canadian fisherman Captain Nolan (Richard Harris) makes his living by capturing marine animals for aquariums, and hopes to return to Ireland once the mortgage on his boat is paid off. Choosing to hunt for an orca, Nolan mistakenly harpoons and reels in a pregnant female killer whale, leading to its death as well as the demise of its unborn foetus. Unfortunately, the orca's male mate witnesses the slaughter, and becomes determined to get revenge on Nolan. Following him to a nearby coastal town, the orca starts to wreak havoc on the village, destroying its resources and sinking ships as it challenges Nolan to a showdown. Confiding in whale expert Dr. Rachel Bedford (Charlotte Rampling), Nolan is terrified of facing the orca since he knows the odds are not in his favour, but the livelihood of the village is in danger if the captain does not face up to his misdeeds.

Even though comparisons to Jaws from a narrative standpoint are justified, the story is actually closer to Jaws: The Revenge, which was released later, in 1987. Indeed, it certainly does appear that the producers of Jaws: The Revenge took inspiration from Orca. How ironic. The concept behind Orca admittedly has promise, with an intriguing moral dilemma at the centre of the film since Nolan did kill the orca's mate and should pay for his mistake. Unfortunately, it's clear that screenwriters Luciano Vincenzoni and Sergio Donati did not conduct much research before penning the script - leaving aside the unlikeliness that a killer whale would actually go to the trouble of terrorising a small seaside village, the mammals are not even monogamous, making the story look all the more ridiculous. In addition, scenes set on dry land during which Nolan contemplates the situation slows down the pacing dramatically, and there's even a pretentious voiceover delivered by Rampling which is intended to add some depth and gravitas, but instead comes off as laughable and cheesy.

To the film's credit, the authentic shark footage during the opening sequence is impressive, but it's extremely obvious when the mechanical shark takes over - said fake shark looks like a bathtub toy; stiff and unconvincing. It's something of a blessing when the orca is given centre stage, as the mechanical killer whale is not half-bad and at times it's difficult to distinguish between the fake orca and footage of the real things. In addition, there are a number of striking, brilliantly-composed shots thanks to credited cinematographers J. Barry Herron and Ted Moore. However, certain key sequences are undeniably hammy and campy, with overwrought sound effects and bizarre editing. There are a lot of close-ups of the orca's eyes, set to the mammal's high-pitched screeching. One vestige of the production which actually deserves respect is the original score, composed by Spaghetti Western veteran Ennio Morricone. Although it is a tad histrionic at times, the compositions are nevertheless proficient and full of flavour for the most part. Harris is another huge asset, as he actually takes the material seriously and looks wracked with guilt during more dramatic moments. It's just a shame that the filmmaking fails to properly serve him.

In amid the hit-and-miss ensemble cast, Bo Derek appears as a member of Nolan's crew, in her first motion picture appearance (though not the first movie she actually filmed). None of the other actors make much of an impression, though Will Sampson (One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest) is on hand as a wise Native American who tells stories about the orca. Even though Orca: The Killer Whale is not necessarily unwatchable, and it's entertaining and even compelling to a certain degree in a "so bad it's good" type of way, it is nevertheless a bit of a shame that it's not a better film overall. No doubt Orca will always hold a degree of cult appeal for the right audience, but it's unclear how more casual watchers will receive the movie as first-time viewers in 2018.


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Most wild, entertaining MCU blockbuster so far

Posted : 5 years, 3 months ago on 16 December 2017 07:53 (A review of Thor: Ragnarok (2017))

Movie-goers who believe Marvel blockbusters are too generic or feel factory-made really ought to watch 2017's Thor: Ragnarok, as it confidently defies those labels and feels like the work of a genuine auteur. Insanely fun and distinctively quirky, with gorgeously colourful visuals and wittiness aplenty, Ragnarok is the shot in the arm that the Marvel Cinematic Universe needed at this point to remind us why we fell in love with this ambitious franchise in the first place. Overseen by Kiwi filmmaker Taika Waititi (2016's Hunt for the Wilderpeople), this threequel manages to be both thrilling and gut-bustingly funny whilst adding serious scope to the series, and the material is infused with so much endearing energy that it's never a chore to sit through. Leave it to the director of What We Do in the Shadows to create the most wild, entertaining MCU blockbuster to date.

When Thor (Chris Hemsworth) defeats the fire demon Surtur (Clancy Brown) in the fiery realm of Muspelheim, he believes that his actions have prevented the prophesied world-destroying event known as Ragnarok. But upon his return to his home of Asgard, Thor realises that his father Odin (Anthony Hopkins) is missing, and his wayward brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) has claimed the throne. Setting out with Loki to find Odin, Thor is instead confronted with the return of Hela (Cate Blanchett), the Goddess of Death, who seeks to take the Asgardian throne that she was denied many years ago. With Thor's hammer Mjolnir destroyed and the brothers cast out, the God of Thunder finds himself on the garbage planet of Sakaar, which is ruled by the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum). In Sakaar's gladiatorial arena, Thor comes face to face with the reigning champion, The Incredible Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), while the planet is also home to a former Asgardian warrior, Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson). Assembling a team, Thor seeks to return to Asgard and overthrow Hela before she can destroy the Asgardian people.

Clocking in at a considerable 130 minutes, Ragnarok broadens the arcs of both Thor and Loki, and serves to re-introduce the Hulk back into the MCU by incorporating elements of the Planet Hulk comic book storyline. There is a lot of material to work through, but not a single moment feels dull or laboured under the careful eye of director Waititi, and the story elements are given sufficient breathing room to gain full traction. 2011's Thor in particular was Shakespearean in tone, but Ragnarok is an outright science fiction fantasy adventure, feeling closer to a road trip movie with shades of Big Trouble in Little China, which is a breath of fresh air after 2013's hit-and-miss Thor: The Dark World. This is also one of the funniest Marvel movies to date, and the humour almost seems effortless whilst never diminishing the very real stakes of the story. Although Ragnarok admittedly lacks the sheer emotional kick of something like Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, there is enough dramatic resonance to prevent the movie from feeling too empty.

Selecting independent filmmakers for these huge projects has worked out well for Marvel in the past, and Waititi proves to be yet another inspired choice. Rather than relinquishing his artistic integrity, Waititi thankfully retains his terrific sense of mirth and quirkiness, having loads of fun finding his own vision - a fiery portal to Asgard is named "The Devil's Anus," for instance, and Waititi even steps in to play a goofy rock monster named Korg (complete with a thick Kiwi accent), scoring a lot of laughs in the process. The original score by Mark Mothersbaugh is retro and synth-heavy, giving the movie even more flavour. Other soundtrack choices are pure ecstasy, particularly when Led Zeppelin's "The Immigrant Song" is put to great use to get the adrenaline pumping and bring life to Thor's badass throwdowns. So much personality is visible in every frame of Thor: Ragnarok, standing in stark contrast to the painfully generic disposition of such other MCU movies as Doctor Strange and Ant-Man. Waititi's Ragnarok feels like its own entity, and even though it's stylistically different to the first two Thor movies, it's easy to embrace this bold new vision.

As to be expected from a motion picture carrying a reported $180 million price-tag, Ragnarok is a lavish, handsomely-mounted blockbuster, benefitting from competent technical specs across the board. Very little time is spent on Earth, as Waititi is more interested in exploring new areas of the Nine Realms, with special focus on Sakaar and Asgard. It should go without saying at this point, but the vibrant special effects consistently impress. There is computer-generated imagery in abundance to bring the many different worlds and creatures to life, as well as intricate costumes and ornate sets, but it doesn't all look too artificial or phoney - instead, the visuals are convincing and tangible. And despite his inexperience with action, Waititi acquits himself commendably, orchestrating thrilling skirmishes with the confidence of a seasoned veteran. The much-publicised showdown between Thor and Hulk in the gladiatorial arena is a total gas, and we also get to see Hulk in a more laid-back environment, casually enjoying his luxurious apartment which includes a hot tub. It's a treat to watch Hulk - whose mental capacity is that of a toddler - interact with Thor, delivering comedic dialogue that's consistently on-point.

It was actually Hemsworth who wanted such a radical change for Thor; his hammer is destroyed and his blonde locks are cut, not to mention silliness is foregrounded, allowing for a fresh take on the established character. The Australian actor clearly has a ball, while Hiddleston superbly slips back into the role of Loki (for the first time since The Dark World) as if no time has passed. Blanchett can do this type of role in her sleep, and she's expectedly excellent, but the show undeniably belongs to Goldblum. Relishing the opportunity to play the ostentatiously debauched Grandmaster, Goldblum steals scenes all over the place, proving to be the movie's secret weapon. Also making a positive impression is Thompson as the hard-drinking, tough-as-nails Valkyrie. Natalie Portman is apparently done with Marvel, and therefore her character of Jane Foster is completely absent for Ragnarok (along with Kat Dennings, Stellan Skarsgård and Chris O'Dowd). It's a tad jarring, especially after the post-credits scene for The Dark World, but Jane would not have a logical place in this space-set story anyway, and she isn't missed amid such an insanely talented ensemble.

In the end, rather than feeling like a generic superhero movie, Thor: Ragnarok feels closer to an independently-produced cosmic odyssey with traces of Flash Gordon and the aforementioned Big Trouble in Little China, and it's an oddly appropriate addition to Waititi's budding filmography. It's clear that everybody had a great time making this third Thor, as there's so much energy and enthusiasm on full display, and it never feels like it's going through the motions. We may be a decade (and seventeen movies) into the MCU, but with its top-notch 2017 release slate, it shows no signs of fatigue.


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The "Empire Strikes Back" of this new trilogy

Posted : 5 years, 3 months ago on 15 December 2017 04:41 (A review of Star Wars: The Last Jedi)

Despite its critical and commercial success, certain vocal armchair critics felt that 2015's Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens played things too "safe," and merely rehashed 1977's Star Wars. Answering to that criticism is writer-director Rian Johnson's Star Wars: Episode VIII - The Last Jedi, which takes this new trilogy in fresh and bold directions, defying the smug expectations of those who assumed they were just in for a remake of The Empire Strikes Back. In addition, whereas The Force Awakens was a fast-paced, escapist blockbuster, Johnson slams on the brakes to deal with story development and drama, opting for epic storytelling over constant thrills, and requiring patience. Indeed, The Force Awakens was more purely enjoyable, but this follow-up is the superior movie. Exquisitely polished, appropriately rousing and emotionally rich, The Last Jedi is another stalwart Star Wars adventure which proves that there is still plenty of life left in this long-running film series.

The location of the Resistance base has been exposed, prompting General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) to evacuate as the First Order closes in under the leadership of Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis). But the Resistance fleet cannot escape the First Order and are critically short on fuel, not to mention their starfighter fleet has been obliterated. Unsure of their leadership, Finn (John Boyega) and ace pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) go rogue in an attempt to save what's left of the dwindling Resistance forces. To this end, Finn teams up with maintenance worker Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) to disable the tracking system of the First Order's main Star Destroyer. Meanwhile, Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Chewbacca have tracked down Jedi Master Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) who now lives like a hermit on the isolated planet of Ahch-To, the location of the First Jedi Temple. Rey begs Luke to leave his self-imposed exile and join the fight against the First Order, but he's haunted by his past failures. Even though Luke reluctantly agrees to teach Rey the ways of the Jedi, he fears that she will be seduced by the Dark Side, much like his nephew Kylo Ren/Ben Solo (Adam Driver).

Picking up immediately after The Force Awakens, the narrative of The Last Jedi is unexpected, and its ultimate trajectory and plot surprises cannot be spoiled. Happily, aside from sharing a few tiny surface details, this is truly the furthest thing possible from a remake of The Empire Strikes Back. (It's satisfying to see how confidently Johnson shuts down those who have spent the last two years arrogantly assuming they have "figured out" this new trilogy.) Johnson's vision is dark, and he unearths astonishing depth and thematic density to create a more adult motion picture, which is a welcome surprise given that this is a Disney production. Whereas George Lucas built the original Star Wars trilogy around concepts such as Joseph Campbell's hero's journey, Luke is now fully aware that happy endings never last, and that becoming a legend is not necessarily a good thing. The characters here debate the merits of holding onto the past, not to mention the Jedi religion and its hubris is brutally deconstructed. One of the movie's most powerful scenes involves the surprise return of an old character, who has much wisdom to impart. Other themes also crop up throughout The Last Jedi, including the business of war, as arms dealers sell to both sides of the conflict to earn their riches. The self-reflection is certainly welcome for a franchise that has just celebrated its 40th anniversary.

The Last Jedi is certainly long, clocking in at 150 minutes which is the most substantial runtime of the saga to date, and it does feel its length. This particular story doesn't exactly lend itself to a tidy three-act structure, and therefore what amounts to Act 2 feels incredibly beefy and is a bit too overcomplicated for its own good. Johnson also has a proclivity for defying expectations to surprise the audience, often stubbornly refusing to let the heroes win, but he pulls these types of tricks a bit too much, sacrificing a degree of narrative stability in the process. Working in the picture's favour, however, is a pronounced sense of humour amid the armrest-clenching action sequences, suffusing the material with some much-needed humanity and levity. There is even a dialogue exchange in the opening minutes of the film, played for laughs, that's unlike anything we have previously witnessed in the franchise's history. Plus, in the casino on Canto Bight, a drunk space-leprechaun mistakes BB-8 for a slot machine. For all of the hoo-ha about the Porgs - small seabird-esque creatures which inhabit the planet of Ahch-To - their presence is insignificant, and they don't immediately irritate in the same way as the Ewoks from 1983's Return of the Jedi.

In terms of tone, The Last Jedi is closer to something like Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk, and in many ways feels more like a proper war film than 2016's Rogue One. There are certain chaotic sequences in which the Resistance frantically scramble to survive, with a pervading sense of utter hopelessness, that we simply don't see in major motion pictures very often. When Johnson does cut loose to deliver the type of thrilling action that Star Wars fans yearn, he does not disappoint. Lightsaber skirmishes visibly take influence from samurai pictures, while large-scale battles evoke classic war movies. The jaw-dropping extended conflict to close out the second act would be an exceptional climax in any other movie, but Johnson has even more up his sleeve for the actual climax, which packs a real punch. Furthermore, Crait's distinctive red and white landscape makes the finale's striking visuals look like something from an art-house film. This is Johnson's biggest movie to date in terms of scope and budget, but it appears that his previous directorial endeavours properly prepared him for the world of Star Wars.

For a movie of such a large budget (and considering that it spent the best part of 18 months in post-production), it's disheartening that some of the digital effects are sloppy (particularly the crystal critters on Crait and the space horse stampede on Canto Bight), and a certain returning character in a surprise cameo looks slightly off. Outside of these slight imperfections, however, The Last Jedi is visually stunning, with rock-solid photography courtesy of Johnson's regular cinematographer Steve Yedlin (Brick, Looper), who predominantly captured the action with a combination of 35mm and 65mm film stock to generate an aesthetic reminiscent of the original trilogy. It looks as if practical model ships were photographed as opposed to wall-to-wall CGI, as the realism and immediacy of the outer space battles is magnificent. It's also a joy to behold real sets and locations. Meanwhile, the motion capture techniques used to bring Snoke to life are better than ever, looking astonishingly intricate and tangible. Perfectly complementing the visuals is the score by series veteran John Williams. His reliably majestic compositions actually have more presence than The Force Awakens, and recognisable beats from the original trilogy are incorporated during certain moments. Williams' work is simply invaluable.

Nobody back in 1977 could have predicted that Hamill would be capable of such a performance here, as he disappears into the role and submits the best acting work of his career. It's a treat to see Hamill taking a bigger role this time around, while Fisher is likewise a more significant presence, which is a huge deal since this is the last time we will see Princess Leia. (Outside of the odd occasional Rogue One moment, if any of the spinoffs go that way.) Fisher endows her performance with authority, gravitas, wisdom and warmth, and seeing her play this iconic character just once more is both poignant and bittersweet. Fisher's daughter Billie Lourd is also given a beefier role as an officer in the Resistance, and she's a delight, not to mention it's wonderful to see her acting alongside her mother. Out of the newcomers, Laura Dern is a notably brilliant addition as Vice Admiral Holdo, and Benicio Del Toro carves out a particularly memorable character. Meanwhile, after making such a positive impression in The Force Awakens, Ridley continues to impress, and is given the chance to really flex her acting muscles and show us what she's made of. It's a extraordinary performance, and of course she maintains her innate charisma throughout, making her easy to latch onto. Driver also has the chance to find more depth, and he's consistently excellent, portraying a layered, conflicted antagonist. Isaac shines yet again in his role as Poe (his dress now looking a bit similar to Han Solo), showing the same type of spunk and boyish charm exhibited by Harrison Ford in the original Star Wars trilogy. Unfortunately, Tran is less successful as Rose - she lacks spark and charisma. At least Boyega places forth another terrific performance, proving yet again that he was an ideal pick for the role of Finn. Long-time fans should be wary that outside of Luke and Leia, the veteran characters do not have a great deal to do - in particular, R2-D2 is barely glimpsed.

Spoiler Discussion: One point of contention with The Last Jedi involves the death of Luke Skywalker, who projects an avatar of himself across the galaxy to confront Kylo Ren on Crait. Admittedly, it is disappointing that Luke never engages in combat during this new trilogy, with Johnson denying a satisfying, action-laden payoff to the ostensible build-up throughout The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi. However, Luke's sacrifice is the purest Jedi act in the saga so far, reflecting their central philosophy of peace; after all, Yoda taught Luke "A Jedi uses the Force for knowledge and defence, never for attack." After years on Ahch-To, hiding in shame, Luke redeems his failures by sacrificing himself, in the process distracting the First Order for long enough for the Resistance to escape. It’s a fitting end for Luke's arc, with the Jedi Master fading from physical existence as he overlooks a sun-drenched horizon, evoking the image of the Tatooine sunset in 1977's Star Wars. It's also a more rewarding and significant ending than a fan service moment comprising Luke actually facing down the First Order with a lightsaber, a situation that he jokes about earlier in the film. As for Luke's controversial attempted murder of his nephew, Luke has always been impulsive; he is never in full control of his feelings or impulses. Just as he needed a contemplative moment to decide to spare Darth Vader in Return of the Jedi, Luke's recklessness led him to ignite his lightsaber over Ben, but a second of contemplation prevented him from committing the attempted murder. Again, this bold material is challenging in a saga typically characterised by colourful action. Arguably, if The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi were actually Episodes 10 and 11, which followed a trilogy comparable to Timothy Zahn's Thrawn trilogy - beset with action, fan service, and with lots of Han, Luke and Leia - these new movies would be better-received. But with the old characters returning for the first time in over thirty years, we wanted to see them in action together once more. End Spoilers.

More than just a brainless fireworks reel, Star Wars: The Last Jedi emerges as one of the year's most intelligent and compelling blockbusters, with Johnson extracting superlative performances across the board and pushing the boundaries of the Star Wars franchise. It’s a compelling and often entertaining feature, the best in the franchise since The Empire Strikes Back. Of course, it does refuse to provide answers to all the burning questions that you may have (particularly in regards to the origins of Snoke, and Rey's lineage), and there are imperfections, but The Last Jedi gets far more right than wrong, setting the stage for what has the potential to be one hell of a closing chapter. Johnson also eschews pure fan service as he finds his bold new vision, and as a result your mileage with the finished movie may vary depending on your willingness to watch it with an open mind. It is worth noting that, like its immediate predecessor, The Last Jedi not only stands up to repeat viewings but actually improves a second time around.


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Despite intermittent pleasures, it's too ho-hum

Posted : 5 years, 3 months ago on 13 December 2017 04:14 (A review of Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales)

2017's Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales is probably the best instalment in this particular franchise since its initial entry, 2003's The Curse of the Black Pearl, but that's still damning with faint praise. Indeed, this fourth sequel is still studiously mediocre and in need of more editorial discipline (not to mention better screenwriting), but at least it provides intermittent charms, and won't leave you wanting to run screaming from the cinema. Nevertheless, with lengthy six-year break since the last sequel (Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides), it's disheartening that this is apparently the best that Disney could come up with. Even with a pair of new directors, Dead Men Tell No Tales (a subtitle not to be confused with 2006's Dead Man's Chest) lacks ambition and novelty, emerging as yet another lacklustre entry into the tired fourteen-year-old series.

Henry Turner (Brenton Thwaites), the adult son of Will Turner (Orlando Bloom), has grown up to become a sailor in the British Royal Navy, but is determined to free his father from the curse of the Flying Dutchman. Learning that the Trident of Poseidon holds the power to break any curse, Henry seeks to recruit Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) to help him in his quest, and also meets Carina (Kaya Scodelario), an astronomer who knows where the Trident might be. To complicate matters, Captain Salazar (Javier Bardem) and his ghostly crew are freed from their Devil's Triangle prison, and begin hunting for Jack who was responsible for taking away their corporeal freedom. In addition, Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) sets off to find the Trident of Poseidon for himself, while a British Royal Navy officer, Lt. John Scarfield (David Wenham), is also interested in the treasure.

The primary drawback of Dead Men Tell No Tales is that it feels flat overall, lacking a certain spark to truly bring it to life. The screenplay is replete with nonstop exposition, and endeavours to work through too many different subplots and tangents, with no less than six different parties seeking the Trident for themselves, taking away focus and prohibiting any sort of enlivening momentum. Exposition lacks snap, dialogue is largely humdrum, and the script is too cluttered and over-complicated, as if screenwriter Jeff Nathanson was operating on autopilot. It appears that those involved in this fifth Pirates of the Caribbean picture have lost sight of what made The Curse of the Black Pearl such a hit in the first place - it was an exciting, high-adventure swashbuckler with a hint of the supernatural, whereas Dead Men Tell No Tales meanders all over the place. Ultimately, the finished movie feels more like a workprint waiting for a tighter edit. And that's especially concerning given that this is the shortest instalment in the franchise to date.

Directors Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg (2012's Kon-Tiki) do what they can with the material, but the problems primarily stem from Nathanson's script which could have done with a few rewrites. Salazar and his undead crew have a longstanding grudge against Jack, of course, and they're only freed from the Devil's Triangle (right after Henry encounters them, coincidentally) because Jack gives up his magic compass, which is surely the flimsiest plot impetus in recent memory. Meanwhile, there's no justification for Barbossa's return other than to add another party to an already crowded narrative, and some of the cheap slapstick moments and silly jokes might honestly make you feel as if you're watching a dumb spoof like The Pirate Movie or Carry on Columbus, rather than an expensive blockbuster. Characterisations are strictly one-dimensional outside of the primary characters - of course all of the Royal Navy officers are snobby, and absolutely refuse to listen to Henry. Not to mention, the screenplay just rehashes several elements from previous Pirates of the Caribbean movies - Salazar and his undead pirates mirrors Barbossa's skeletal crew from the first movie, Salazar himself feels like a dull retread of Davy Jones, and the romantic angle between Henry and Carina is just reminiscent of Will and Elizabeth's relationship.

Despite predominantly filming in Queensland, Australia to save on production costs, Dead Men Tell No Tales was still reportedly produced for a staggering $230 million sum, a sizeable chunk of which was allocated to Depp. (At least the budget is less than the eye-watering $410 million price-tag of On Stranger Tides.) Digital effects are difficult to fault and visuals are frequently spectacular, with cinematographer Paul Cameron making terrific use of the beautiful Australian locations, and with sumptuous sets and costumes bringing this world to life. Plus, it's undeniably rousing to hear the franchise's recognisable soundtrack beats during the major set-pieces. (Despite a new composer, the score feels mostly recycled from the previous films.) Nevertheless, even though Disney brought in a couple of Norwegian directors who had the potential to create something truly daring, Dead Men Tell No Tales is content to colour inside the lines. The only real spark of inventiveness is a sequence involving zombie sharks that ultimately feels like it's over before it even begins.

With the return of Bloom, Rush and even Keira Knightley, it appears that the makers of Dead Men Tell No Tales were trying their hardest to bring back established fans of this franchise, but it doesn't add up to much. Depp, who was so endearingly offbeat in the original movie (he was even nominated for an Oscar), appears to be simply going through the motions yet again for the sake of a generous paycheque. The shtick has simply gotten old. Mercifully, the two completely forgettable young faces from On Stranger Tides are no more, but their replacements - Thwaites and Scodelario - are nothing to write home about. Scodelario (such a standout in TV's Skins) admittedly has spunk and charm, but the romantic angle is dead on arrival. Meanwhile, Rush happily chews the scenery as usual, but Bardem is the meatiest addition to the cast, sinking his teeth into this ghoulish role. Bardem is a reliably focused thespian, and he's the most sinister villain of the franchise so far, but it's a shame that most of his screen-time is wasted on exposition and minor threats while Sparrow engages in buffoonery around him. Nevertheless, Bardem manages to keep the material at least marginally compelling, which is welcome. And for eagle-eyed viewers, Paul McCartney makes a brief cameo, though the moment feels both contrived and unnecessary.

When Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales actually works, it is certainly fun, but the enterprise is too bloated on the whole, not to mention overloaded with CGI. Despite competent production values, it's all a bit ho-hum. Everything comes to a head for a climax that's exhausting rather than exhilarating, failing to replicate the raw thrills of the 2003 movie which started it all. Even though Dead Men Tell No Tales runs a mere 129 minutes, which is short for this franchise, it feels much longer, and it doesn't linger in the memory - you'll forget all about it in a matter of days, if not hours. It's just another rehash of the same Pirates of the Caribbean ingredients we've seen before. And unfortunately, as long as these movies make money, Disney will continue to churn them out regardless of whether or not we want them.


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