About halfway through Disney’s latest epic animated adventure Moana (2016), Dwayne Johnson’s cocky demi-god Maui quips; “If you wear a dress and have an animal sidekick, you’re a princess.” The moment is unabashedly tongue-in-cheek for the house of mouse studio, who, ever since Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), have built a global juggernaut status around women being the homemaker, saved by the kiss of a beautiful man. Showing just how far they’ve come, the film’s stubborn and strong-willed protagonist is quick to set the record straight that she is not, in fact, a Polynesian princess, but rather Moana of Motunui, the daughter of the village chief. The distinction is an important one and something that defines the rest of the magical and moving 100-minute journey. As by reshaping their once stringent parameters rather than destroying them completely, the studio craftily creates what could easily be their best film to date.
Drawing on familiar notes of Disney princesses of old, Moana follows a young girl trapped on an island where nobody leaves, imbued with dreams of a bigger and better life. Longing to set sail on the sea, when her island begins to darken and die, Moana’s grandmother tasks her with finding the famed demi-god Maui to make him return the heart of Te Fiti, the mythical Mother Earth goddess. Like those before her, she finds it is no easy task, with the plucky protagonist forced to battle the cute coconut Kakamora pirates, a giant self-absorbed crab and a monster of volcanic proportions, all while plagued with a pretty big case of identity crisis. To offset some of this despair, Moana is aided in her quest by a comical animal companion, her somewhat stupid and clumsy chicken Hei Hei. While Disney-verse sidekicks usually provide help and assistance, Hei Hei bucks the trend with his continual near-death experiences, which would be rather alarming if they weren’t so hilarious, thus making for a refreshing and un-formulaic experience. Adding to the reinvigorated feel is the lack of romantic interests, instead providing us the selfish yet redeemable mentor Maui to assist Moana’s character progression.
With destiny at the film’s forefront and bravado in Moana’s soul, it is hard to argue that our hero’s journey bears significant difference to those that have come before. When looking at the smaller intricacies employed however, including the visuals utilised, it is well and truly in a league of its own. Whether it is the ultra-realistic glisten of the ocean or the trippy The Road to El Dorado (2000) nature of Maui’s solo song, the film frames itself as an incredible piece. Co-director’s Jon Musker and Ron Clements’ years of experience are clearly on show, as they enhance the familiar hand drawn imagery with the endless possibilities the latest CG technology presents. A film set almost entirely on the open ocean can easily become tedious, so it is a testament to the animators that even the smallest movements and motions ebb and flow rather than stagnate. Best of all, the briny deep becomes an entity all of its own here, saving Moana and her pet chicken countless times and reminding us there is a moral to be learned about respecting the climate we call home.
That respect translates to the Polynesian culture at the heart of the film too, from the lush tropical wilderness, to the coconuts and tribal tattoos that abound. Drawing on the teachings and traditions of her ancestors, as Mulan and Pocahontas did before her, Moana reminds us that we should be proud of our heritage no matter what that is. Stereotypes be damned, we are told to embrace and celebrate culture, not hide from it. Bearing curves to kill for and beautiful tanned skin, Moana is a strong-willed, stubborn and true leader, never afraid to give up. Best of all, such a role is treated like nothing out of the ordinary, represented in the moment her father Chief Tui speaks of their village’s patriarchic history, yet never blinks in mentioning her as the obvious successor. Newcomer Auli’i Cravalho imbues the character with her own Hawaiian history and effortlessly ensures her bumbling nature, innocent dreams and youth are instantly likable. With her maturity and kindness, I wouldn’t be surprised if there are big things in that kid’s future, be it in show business or not.
Turning to the music, Lin Manuel Miranda ups the ante once more here after his incredible run with the hit-musical Hamilton, alongside fellow composers and craftsmen Opetaia Foa’i and Mark Mancina. Their songs are fresh, summery and downright catchy, imbuing each line with the sea-breeze and a strong heart. From Dwayne Johnson’s jazzy show-tune You’re Welcome, to the more sombre moments of Know Who You Are, viewers will feel as natural an affinity with the melodies as Moana does with the sea. Then there’s the powerhouse piece How Far I’ll Go, which rolls and breaks into the resounding I am Moana, with both pieces bound to resound with anyone who has ever lived by the ocean. Music is the soul of such movies and ever since Let it Go became the pop-culture phenomenon it did, we have been waiting for a new film to challenge its stance. I’m proud to say, any of the pieces here provide just as strong a message and they do it in a far less annoying way.
While many viewers will likely expect to leave the theatre drawing comparisons between this and Disney’s other delights, the real joy is in how this addition never shies away from its forbear’s problems, but embraces them to become better. While no-one may remember how Brave (2012) paved the way for a more relaxed and independent Disney princess, there should be no doubt in the knowledge that Moana will go down in the history books as the one that helped such an idea become mainstream. A worthy addition to Disney’s ever-expanding gallery of magical movies, it reminds us to find our calling inside ourselves and trust that we are worthy of it. And maybe, just maybe, if you listen to that voice inside you, one day you’ll know, how far you’ll go.
Rating: 4 Clumsy Chickens out of 5
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them Review - Magic and mayhem ensues as a new series tries to claw its way to life
Just like the real world, magic must also mature over time. Childhood gives way to adulthood. Believing gives way to bureaucracy. School romances and bullying give way to lost-love, fear and hatred. Yet, like Dumbledore famously said – happiness can be found even in the darkest of times, if one only remembers to turn on the light. For such reasons alone, the wizarding world’s latest instalment, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016), is worth the watch, having grown along with its legion of fans to remind us that even in our changing and uncertain times, there is always hope. Unlike the first film in the Harry Potter universe though, which eased us into the magical and mythical universe, Fantastic Beasts’ throws us into the proverbial deep end. And whether it’s the darkness, pain, whimsy or fantasy the film jolts between, we just can’t help but feel it hasn’t quite embraced the true meaning of being an adult yet.
Set in the 1920’s, seventy years before Harry’s story begins, Fantastic Beasts reveals a new protagonist in the titular book’s author and acclaimed magizoologist Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne). Trading the familiar London setting for prohibition-era New York, not a day after Newt passes through Ellis Island’s immigration he is already wreaking havoc, having sought to bring the majestic Thunderbird back into the wide and welcoming plains of Arizona, but instead unleashed his creatures on the already politically turbulent city. In steps Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), former Auror and Statue of Secrecy enforcer who tries to regain her position by turning Newt into the authorities. After a mix-up of suitcases lands no-maj Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler) with Newt’s animals however, the three must work together, along with Goldstein’s sister Queenie (Alison Sudol), to track down the beasts and work out what bigger, badder force is at play in the city. If that isn’t enough, there’s also a plot point about a fanatical anti-witch group called the Second Salemer’s tossed in for good measure too, as well as Gellert Grindelwald’s mysterious disappearance and a family of non-magical politicians whose presence there is just plain and simply dumbfounding.
The special effects are as dazzling and dynamic as they were five years ago, but even they struggle to pull the film into anything other than ordinary. One standout sequence though would have to be the inventive journey into Newt’s suitcase, where we marvel at miniaturised makeshift habitats designed for an array of critters big and small. It is a testament to screenwriter J.K. Rowling and director David Yates that this feels both fresh and fun. As for the beasts themselves, they burst to life with colour, beauty and ferocity, from the bird and snake hybrid Occamy to the rhinoceros-esque Erumpet. Australians in particular may find a close connection with the Niffler, a pilfering echidna cross platypus that causes considerable grief for Newt. Similarly, a shout-out must also be given to the glorious and majestic Thunderbird Frank, who possesses just as much heart and soul as our favourite hippogriff Buckbeak. But it is the tiniest among them that bears the biggest weight, with the sassy stick-insect Bowtruckle saving the day on more than a few occasions.
A cluttered film from the outset, Fantastic Beasts’ biggest struggle is in how it pays too much attention to future instalments, forgetting to make its current one shine. Unlike a gambler sitting at the tables, Rowling and Yates are fearful to go all in, frightened they will spoil films two, three, four and five. Why we will need that many sequels is never really explained, but with so many lines cast out and not enough answers delivered, you can bet fans are already salivating for new source material. And with the legacy of Severus Snape’s big reveal, most have faith something equally uplifting will come to fruition here. On a more positive note, Yates’ direction is outstanding in its consistency, revelling in the fights and battles and good versus evil nature of the sorcery setting. Challenging situations fall at the wayside under his control, as he weaves his own kind of movie magic. It’s just a pity he, the studio, Rowling and pretty much anyone involved in the film behind-the-scenes, can’t decide how to enchant both children and adults alike.
Fogler and Sudol are clear standouts when it comes to the acting, boasting a relaxed allure and comfortable chemistry. Redmayne, in contrast, brings an affable, mannered and boyish charm, that jumps between frustratingly wearisome and refreshingly heroic. He has no interesting scar, ‘chosen one’ label or elderly mentor to set him apart. He is instead every bit the average man, preferring animals to humans. Waterston holds a more reserved performance, likeable only in the fact we get to know more about her, through flashback, than we do Newt. Veteran actors Jon Voight and Samantha Morton however are criminally underused, in what will likely go down as their most thankless roles to date. Depth is, in fact, missing from most of the characters, including the whole MACUSA horde, better known as American’s magical counterparts to the Ministry of Magic, who are just plain unlikable. Even the most redeeming among them, a female mix-raced president, proves to be bland and basic.
Ultimately, no matter how hard Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them tries to catch the magic of the original, it slips away like a memory in a pensieve, the gaping hole instead filled with the reality of the film’s cash-grab nature. It’s predictable, it’s formulaic and it’s far from fantastic. But thinking back, what adventure series that wasn’t based on a carefully calculated novel, constructed over years, has turned out great first try around? So although like the encyclopaedic book it’s based on, there is lots of information but little soul, thankfully it teaches us that there’s no point worrying about whether future films will be handled the same way. If only because that means we’ll be suffering twice.
Rating: 3 Fantastic Beasts out of 5
Grace under pressure, courage under fire, call it what you will but the ability to keep a level head when bullets fly or hell rains down from the heavens is something that just can’t be taught. From Saving Private Ryan (1998) to American Sniper (2014), in the war genre bravery is almost always represented by a character that faces extreme loss and threatened principles, only to rise from the ashes in glorious fashion. While Hacksaw Ridge (2016) is no different in its determination, it takes the phrase to a whole new level, showing the steadfast resolve of a man who would not quit or compromise in his belief that raising a weapon was not the only way to win a war. When biology conditions us to freeze, fly or fight in the face of fear, one man proved that there is another option. An option we can only call faith.
A film more than 14 years in the making, Hacksaw Ridge tells the tale of Desmond T. Doss, a conscientious objector who after serving in World War II received the highest award that can be bestowed on a serviceman - the Congressional Medal of Honor – having singlehandedly saved approximately 75 men yet never raised a rifle in the process. A devout Seventh Day Adventist, when we first meet Doss he is a country kid from the Blue Ridge Mountains, already drawn to helping people after saving a young man crushed beneath a car. Wanting to do his part in the war and follow in the footsteps of his brother and father, he begins to read up on healing practices and enlists to become a medic. Refusing to carry a weapon based on his beliefs, when he is assigned to an infantry unit Doss is faced with overwhelming ridicule and persecution, not just from his company, but from the army itself. To them, it seems that he goes against the golden rule of American warfare; that of protecting your fellow soldier’s back, just as they protect yours. Steadfast in his stance, he is eventually sent to the battlefield at Okinawa, sans gun, where he is finally able to prove just what protection he can afford, going from believer to hero and ultimately, legend.
A lot has been said about the film’s director Mel Gibson in the last few years, but for all the anger and intolerance he has thrown around it cannot be denied that he does not bear at least some of the same courage and conviction of his lead character. His first film since 2006’s Apocalypto, it might be his best yet, if only for the fact he has dug through the proverbial dirt and grime of his own life to carry it to victory. The sentimentality is overwhelming at times, the score swelling with every emotional moment and slow motion camera shots lingering over our heroic angel-esque lead. But there is a distinct sincerity in the way Gibson handles this, crafting a slow burn build-up that helps us understand why Doss takes Pearl Harbour personally, but still wants to save lives instead of take them.
A scrawny Brit best known for his turn as The Amazing Spiderman, Andrew Garfield sinks his teeth into portraying a different kind of superhero here. Despite the sickeningly sweet nature of his character, one who sets his heart on marrying a nurse the first moment he meets her, Garfield is able to tread a miraculously fine line in proving that even the most pious among us can still have darkness within. For Doss, the real battle is rising above, ensuring his violence never bubbles to the surface like it did for his abusive and alcoholic father. Supporting him on that journey is an exemplary cast, each giving it their all to ensure our eyes never leave the screen. Vince Vaughn is reserved as Sergeant Howell, a man quiet in his ferocity yet instantly likeable in his devotion. Similarly, the bevy of Australian actors who round out the roles all manage solid performances, including Sam Worthington as Captain Glover and Luke Bracey as Smitty Ryker, elevating their angry and villainous stereotypes into well-rounded characters.
The visuals are incredible, roaring to life with a grim relentlessness that drums home the reality of war. It is bloody, it is violent and above all, it is not something to glorify as many directors often try to do. Instead, it is bodies lying broken in the mud, tourniquets that can’t save people and the rush of heat as flesh is set on fire. As an audience member it is such a spiritually draining experience we are left questioning just how the men were able to go through it themselves. Staged, choreographed and shot beyond precision, the camera never shies away from the nightmare, providing one of the most detailed and unflinching portrayals of war put to screen. Thankfully, buried beneath the bloodshed there is also an incredible humanity to the battle, with friendships forged in the bowels of the staggering violence and the ‘no man left behind’ mentality pushed to its extreme. Gibson’s propensity for gore in almost unrivalled in Hollywood, however here it never feels overdone or thrown in for the pure shock value. It would be a dishonour to those that fought in the Pacific theatre to depict it any other way.
Careful and calculated in its every move, Hacksaw Ridge is at its purest a look into the human soul. Even without the strong religious connotations it imbues, one can sense a power and poignancy to such sacrifice. It is, after all, an innately human thing to summon the courage to run back into the fray over and over, with only the mantra ‘help me get one more’ to keep you safe. This is perhaps best exemplified by video of the real Doss at the end of the film, recalling those same words in his American sprawl and looking like your average 87-year-old. For us audience members, we are just thankful he got there.
Rating: 5 Saved Lives out of 5
Let’s get one thing straight about Marvel’s latest superhero. It’s not Mister, it’s not Master, it’s Doctor. PhD and MD, at that. With such an arrogant statement there is more than a hint of Déjà vu about the studio’s latest caped crusader and his rather Stark-esque characteristics. So much so, in the coming months there is bound to be numerous similarities drawn between Doctor Strange (2016) and the studio’s first big hit Iron Man (2008). I mean, not only do we have a genius, millionaire, flirtatious, sort-of philanthropist, but Stephen Strange is also one to find his groove from pain and suffering, transformed from a self-centred coward, full of arrogance and ego, into a saviour. Thankfully, he also holds the same loveable and charming disposition to ensure audiences eat the film up. And that they should, with director Scott Derrickson weaving a magical and mind-bending work that makes a beautiful and important addition to the ongoing saga.
The fourteenth film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Doctor Strange begins with the talented and titular neurosurgeon proving his merit in the operating room, pulling bullets from brains as easily as he can recite the year obscure songs were released. On top of the world with an intellect matched only by his enormous ego, Strange is somewhat untouchable, charming his former flame and choosing only the cases that truly challenge him. That is until his life is up-ended, quite literally, when a horrendous car crash leaves his miracle-wielding hands torn up, bolted back together and with irreparable nerve damage. When Western medicine fails him, he takes the advice of a former physical therapy patient and heads to Nepal in search of the mysterious Kamar-Taj. From there things get mystical, as our protagonist is trained in everything from astral projection to gateway travel, thanks to a being known only as The Ancient One. When former sect student Kaecillius threatens reality with the dark realm of Dormammu though, it will take everything the newly transformed Strange has to turn time itself on its head.
It’s a different direction for the mad and masterful Marvel studios, venturing into worlds further afield than even those of James Gunn’s cosmic breakout hit Guardians of the Galaxy (2012). Here, magic and sorcery reign supreme, as we tread the fine line between unquantifiable science and pure faith. Psychedelic just doesn’t quite do it justice, the visuals taking us to numerous other dimensions and realities and opening up fantastic future film possibilities. The Ancient One describes it as spending your whole life looking through a keyhole and then having that keyhole widen. What they should have said though is it is like looking through a keyhole only to have the door swing open. Like an optical orgy, the special effects denote an exceptional attention to detail, building towards the final climactic moments. Interestingly, the denouement, while cumbersome, plays out in complete contrast to the destruction fuelled nightmares of the rest of 2016’s superhero films. It is hard to say whether it was intentional or coincidence, but either way it is both refreshing and optimistic for the future of the genre.
With one Academy Award winner and three more nominees among the cast, it is safe to say the acting hits the mark. Cumberbatch is of course the charismatic standout, with his New York accent, slick style and penchant for dry humour. His take on the character is as effortless a Downey Junior’s was with Iron Man, as if the role had been written specifically for him. For all the cries of whitewashing, Tilda Swinton also delivers a profound and solid turn as the wise old teacher, while Mads Mikkelsen once again channels his inner Hannibal Lecter as the main antagonist. Rachel McAdams is a wonderful addition too, walking the line between stereotypical and strong female representations. A qualified doctor who is able to hold power over our central protagonist, majority of her scenes involve hilarious jump scares that ground the film in reality. However it is the cloak of levitation that steals the show from everyone, garnering the most laughs in the film’s two-hour run. An inanimate object in the comics designed to help Doctor Strange fly, it takes on a sentient life here, pummelling baddies and looking cool, calm and collected as it goes.
If there is one flaw about the film, it is that is suffers from the pains of future constraints. With Strange destined to appear in the upcoming Avengers films, he is never put in any true amount of peril and as such, is never tested to his limits. We are constantly left with the idea of more, but never the satisfaction of it. Bigger and better is the promise as we head into Phase 3 and in Marvel’s rush to get there the studio has forgotten to give it their all in their introductory pictures. Similarly weak is the lack of humour, which paints the picture of just how depressing bleak the screenplay must have been before the addition of Dan Harmon’s re-writes. The funny offbeat moments we are given have a way of twisting and pulling at the characters’ development, making the moments feel needy and desperate instead of smooth and slick. For all his trying, Cumberbatch is never quite as quippy as Stark is and after seeing him deliver in everything from Sherlock (2010) to The Imitation Game (2014) it’s safe to say it’s not thanks to his acting ability.
It wouldn’t be a Marvel movie though without some tie-ins to the greater shared universe, with names like the Avengers sprinkled about here and there and the classic cameo from Stan Lee hitting the mark if not blowing it out of the water excelsior style. There’s even a big nod to the Infinity Stone storyline, if only for a minute. For anything bigger though, viewers will have to wait until the post-credit scenes, once again teasing future instalments and reminding us that as much as we may love any one character, this is, in fact, a shared universe. The real question for the studio now though is exactly how they will get to their big Avenging moment, throwing together the old and the new and letting them hand off their respective batons. So open your mind to the film, surrender control and let the film shape a new reality around you. Because while not everything in Doctor Strange and the expanding Marvel Cinematic Universe will make sense, then again, not everything has to.
Rating: 4 Mind-Bending Universes out of 5
If it weren’t for the horrifying reality of the utter devastation the Deepwater Horizon disaster caused, the Hollywood restaging of the event could easily be called a work of art or a rollicking ride. But with 11 men dead, 4.9 million barrels of oil spilled into the open ocean and the tagline of the biggest ecological disaster in American history, it is not a film one can cheer on, without feeling like a horrible person. That being said, it is a moving and resounding film that boasts stunning visuals, top-notch acting and a script that never treats the audience like their idiots. It is, arguably, everything you could want in a movie but there is such a dark sadness in that, it is hard to put into words.
The film follows the real-life story of the infamous and titular Deepwater Horizon, an offshore oil-rig in the Gulf of Mexico that suffered a catastrophic tragedy in April 2010. As chief electrical engineer Mike Williams (Mark Wahlberg), navigational worker Andrea Fleytas (Gina Rodriquez) and general operation supervisor Jimmy Harrell (Kurt Russell) fly out to the rig to spend 21 days away from family and friends, trouble is already beginning to brew beneath the surface. Ominous underwater shots show us fissures in the giant concrete seal keeping the pipe’s contents in place and as the bubbles rise so do our heart rates. While the crew set about their technical and tedious trades, two visiting BP executives frustrated at the project’s long delays decide to make up for lost time by ordering some skewed system tests. When the pressure builds and the drill overflows, the structural flaws turn tragic and a full-scale blowout ensues. Cue one of the most impressive explosions ever put to film and the subsequent hour of gut-wrenching tension it brings with it, before the film finishes on the sombre note that even those who walked away were never quite the same again.
What makes Deepwater Horizon (2016) a standout, if not quite award-worthy, is the mesmerizing quality of its special effects. When the mud boils over and the fire rages, it feels like the hairs on the backs of your arms will singe with the sheer force and power of such catastrophe. Once the action starts it never grants us a moment to breathe either, as body’s slam into metal and quick cuts are choreographed in a complex dance of disarray. Backing up this frenetic feel is an incredible sound design, which provides the creaks and groans of mutilated metal, as well as the fear of a quiet, still moment. There is elegance amidst the chaos, no motion or music added simply for the sake of it and it’s great to see such control invoked. The acting too is exemplary, a credit to the real-life counterparts they convey. Where John Malkovich’s BP oil executive Donald Vidrine could easily have served as the stereotypical villain of the piece, he is humanised in his inability to understand the carnage around him. Similarly, Wahlberg is not your normal hero either, simply a man going about his business and lend a helping hand. Along with Russell and Rodriguez he proves that the real weight of sacrifice is a calm façade in the face of overwhelming terror.
The movie marks the second collaboration between Wahlberg and director Peter Berg after the atmospheric army piece Lone Survivor (2013), the duo bringing the same intelligent and visceral style this time round. This is best exemplified by their choice to bookend the film with video from the real-life deposition of a man who was never able to go to sea again. Working from a smart and slick script by Matthew Sand and Matthew Michael Carnahan, the two never let us forgot that beneath the awe-inspiring action there is a tragic realism to such calamities. Interestingly the film manages to hold back, for the most part, in demonizing parent company BP, instead focusing on the intrinsically human element amidst the overwhelming spectacle. There are no ‘heroes’ here, simply the believable behaviour of people who made the right decisions at the right time and shared in the payoff of sheer dumb luck. The script is not without its flaws though and this comes in its limited and fraught ending, which, while poignant, pays little attention to the ongoing aftermath. Having stayed with the characters throughout their ordeal, we are never granted the option to leave their side to look at the long-term problems that day caused and that is a tragedy in itself.
Like most disaster films there is a moral undercurrent that lurks beneath the surface of Deepwater Horizon. Thankfully though, Berg never really takes the cheap shot of throwing it in our face. Unlike The Day After Tomorrow (2004), which chastised us for ruining our planet, Deepwater Horizon uses an extended scene of an oil-covered bird thrashing about to do its talking for it. Its incredible visuals and storytelling provide the sheer force and destruction to humble us in ways you couldn’t imagine too. This was no hurricane, no typhoon, no cyclone, volcano, twister or earthquake. This was a man-made accident that permanently scarred the ecosystem and took lives. We seem to forget that in our constant effort for innovation and advancement we are as much our own destroyers as we are our saviours and Berg plays on this in the arresting image of the American flag surrounded by fire and smoke and death. Everything comes with a price.
Explosive, intelligent and genuinely sobering, Deepwater Horizon may not a perfect film, but it is a profound one. It is almost cathartic in how it traverses the fine line between eliciting emotion and playing on our sentimentalities. Because with tragedy, so too is there human spirit, and that stays with us long after the credits role. It is a touching tribute, in its own way, to those who went to work and never made it home, never striving to label itself as heart-warming and heroic piece, but achieving it nonetheless, and for that Deepwater Horizon is well worth the watch.
Rating: 4 Destroyed Lives out of 5
The Western is a hard genre to conquer. Not only does it come with standards set by Eastwood, but today’s political correct society threatens its very core, reminding us that violence begets violence and that it is never the answer to life’s problems. That being said, it is also a genre that won’t die. From Joel and Ethan Coen’s atmospheric actioner True Grit (2010) to Tarantino’s grisly and comical Django Unchained (2012) the dry dirt and grime of the West continues to be front and centre in cinema even in the 21st Century. Antoine Fuqua’s latest attempt The Magnificent Seven (2016) is another such piece, paying homage to its predecessors as a loud, bullish and brutal remake of the 1960’s classic, which itself is a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (1954). Although it never quite lives up to its title, falling more under the banner of The Moderate Seven or The Meandering Seven, it does deliver some semblance of humanity, even if it amounts to nothing more than a stylish but forgetful posse piece.
Set in 1879, the film follows the trials and tribulations of Rose Creek, a small town situated nearby a literal goldmine run by the heavy-handed and egotistical industrialist Bartholomew Bogue. Looking to expand his business and take the townspeople’s land, Bogue murders and menaces his way to the top of the hierarchical chain, appearing as an unstoppable force to all but Emma Cullen, a proud widow seeking righteousness but willing to settle for revenge. Recruiting the brooding and mysterious Sam Chisolm, the duo go about securing a band of misfit mercenaries to fight for their just cause. From Joshua Faraday to Goodnight Robicheaux, normal names are as few and far between as the talent in the townspeople they set about training to fight. The story culminates, of course, with the big showdown, full of TNT, Gatling guns and sombre scores. The intense, bloody battle bears little weight though, with all the emotional investment sucked out in favour of pyrotechnics and a high body count.
The Western genre is bred deep in The Magnificent Seven, from the wide open spaces to the simple townsfolk and hardworking horses. We might never actually see a tumbleweed blow through town, but we never stop thinking that it might happen. Despite its numerous flaws, Fuqua cannot be punished for emulating the greats of old though, bringing a widescreen element to the western and invoking that old time feel through a series of saturated colours. It’s no Blazing Saddles (1974) or The Good, The Bad and The Ugly (1966), but dammit if it doesn’t work hard to ensure it lives up to their legacy. What lets it down is its dependence on violence. Where it was used to shock and silence audiences of yore, nowadays it is so ingrained in our filmic culture, most audience members don’t even bat an eyelid let alone wonder where all the blood is when so many lives are lost.
A blockbuster cast round out the title team, including Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, Ethan Hawke, Vincent D’Onofrio, Byung-hun Lee, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo and Martin Sensmeier. Entrusted with the seemingly impossible task of tackling characters once inhabited by Hollywood heavyweights like Yul Brynner and Steve McQueen, the most refreshing part of the new crew is that they meet the ethnic standards so often called upon in cinema. While Washington is a stoic and immovable force, his reason for joining the fight revealed in a standout monologue, it is Pratt who is the heart of the film, full of quips, one-liners and self-sacrificing notions that steal the show. The rest remain figures in the background however, defined by their killing skills and given little emotional depth. Similarly, Stellan Skarsgaard’s Bogue falls well flat of Eli Wallach’s terrifying and taut performance, full of selfish bravado and one-dimensional development.
The most touching moment in The Magnificent Seven though, comes not from what we see on screen, but what we hear behind the action. The film was the 158th and final soundtrack score from acclaimed composer James Horner, killed last year in a tragic plane crash and alongside the input from his long-time co-collaborator Simon Franglen, it is a resounding and momentous beat, echoing its predecessor even if not redefining it. Similarly, while the story may lose motivation and morality, the commitment to aesthetic saves it, cinematographer Mauro Fiore delivering some interesting and idealistic shots when not pounding the gunfire home. Perhaps the best example is the moment Chisolm is silhouetted on horseback against the blue-black sky, a frontiersman through and through.
Like any remake the real question regarding The Magnificent Seven is why. Why do we need it? Why is now the right time? Why should we spend our hard-earned money on it over everything else? Sadly, after slugging my way through its two-hour run-time, I still don’t quite have an answer. Despite its best efforts, The Magnificent Seven never quite gets its spurs spinning, instead a cumbersome cash-grab that leaves audiences feeling just a little empty. But thanks to its appealing performances and ability to stay true to its roots it’s not a complete write-off either. Revolutionary may not be in its vocabulary, but charismatic, clichéd and charming make the cut, ensuring that even if it doesn’t live up to its predecessors, it deserves to be mentioned among them.
Rating: 2.5 Cowboys out of 5
Superhero films are about a dime a dozen these days, the caped crusaders battling it out on the big screen and saving people like it’s simply an everyday occurrence. Amidst all the flashy CGI and awesome action though, we sometimes forget that it doesn’t always take idealised characters to pull off such extraordinary acts. That is where Clint Eastwood’s latest biopic Sully (2016) comes in, delivering us what could arguably be the seventh superhero film of 2016, detailing the complexities of the event the world dubbed the ‘Miracle on the Hudson’. Despite the obvious outcome of the titular character’s quick judgement, just like the heroes in Captain America: Civil War (2016) or Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016), our real-life protagonist was measured on how he executed his good deed, instead of simply the fact that he did. Like the line goes, he’s had forty years in the air, but in the end he’s going to be judged on 208 seconds. And judged he was.
For those that don’t know the story, on January 15, 2009, US Airways Flight 1459 left New York’s LaGuardia airport on its way to Charlotte Douglas International Airport, where it was set to stop over before flying on to Seattle Tacoma International Airport. Just three minutes into the flight and only 2,800 feet into its ascent, a flock of Canadian geese struck the plane causing critical engine loss. As the aircraft began to lose altitude Captain Chesley ‘Sully’ Sullenberger (Tom Hanks) and First Officer Jeffrey Skiles (Aaron Eckhart) considered their options to return to LaGuardia Airport, land at nearby Teterboro airport or make the difficult decision to ditch the airliner off Midtown Manhattan in the Hudson River. They chose the latter. All 155 souls on board, including 150 passengers, 3 crew and 2 pilots survived the forced water landing of the Airbus A320, evacuating the partially submerged plane as it began to sink into the river, before being rescued by a number of nearby watercraft. In the days after the crash however, the National Transportation Safety Board began to look for a scapegoat amidst claims a safe landing could indeed have been possible at either of the nearby landing strips, leaving everyone wondering whether the right choice was indeed the one made.
Sully is a complex tale that develops from a seemingly clear-cut event. While many would simply see the incident as the act of heroism it is, director Clint Eastwood takes the opposite approach, sowing the seeds of doubt as to whether a safer and more viable option was available and turning achievement into government persecution. Over 35 films as director Eastwood has developed a tendency to villainise one group to ensure the valour of another and in a film that sees one man almost singlehandedly save 154 others, it’s run its course as a petty payoff. Heroes do not always need to be torn down to rise to victory, sometimes their actions alone are triumph enough. Eastwood instead panders to the politics, with an extraordinary individual targeted by those in power simply for being himself. One is left to wonder just how much better the story could have been had it been anchored in the psychological trauma those involved were left to deal with.
While for the most part Sully launches well and lands strongly, that’s not to say there isn’t some turbulence along the way. For one, it suffers technical problems in the position of the highly anticipated crash scene. Opening with a clichéd ‘what if’ scenario to get us on edge, Eastwood saves his big reveal until halfway through the movie, making us wade through forty-five minutes of flashbacks and frenzied fame until we reach the inevitable climax. What’s worse though is that Eastwood recounts the scene again nearly cue for cue in the final moments of the film, taking away all the original impact and alienating the humanity he was trying so hard to invoke. That being said, considering audience members not only know the crash is coming but also its positive outcome, Eastwood works his magic to make it adrenaline pumping and heart-hammering, as we tense on the edge of our seats and pray we never have to go through similar events.
Incredible acting is arguably what holds the broken pieces of the film together, with both leading men doing an outstanding job and giving their utmost to honour their real-life counterparts with genuine emotion and charisma. While screen veteran Hanks boasts an effortless charm as the moustachioed, white haired hero, Eckhart manages an unshowy and unassuming turn as Sully’s support act, deserving just as much praise and acclaim. The remainder of the cast is solid too, rounded out by some acting greats, including Anna Gunn, Mike O’Malley and Laura Linney. Although their performances are relegated to burn in the background, they are nuanced and tempered, bringing understated warmth to the film. It’s a shame therefore that Eastwood isn’t as generous with their time as he could have been. I mean, there has never been a more apt phrasing for Linney’s role than that of ‘phoned in’.
The shortest film Eastwood has directed to date, Sully is a portrait of how important humanity is to some of society’s most devastating catastrophes and near-misses. From the cabin crew who remain calm and call out commands, to the air traffic controllers, ferry operators and pilots who made crucial, split-second decisions that saved lives. You don’t have to be a superhero to work together. You don’t have to be a superhero to care about one another. No line from the screenplay paints the film’s picture better though than when you are brought to the realisation that New York is so often devoid of good news, especially when it comes to planes. Despite its flaws, Sully pulls no punches in hitting home just how heroic one man can be. If only Eastwood had done as good a job as Captain of the film, maybe all the cinemagoers would walk away feeling it a miracle, instead of simply a moving tribute.
Rating: 3 Window Seats out of 5
Okay, someone needs to say it – Lionsgate’s latest picture Nerve (2016) should come with a disclaimer. A big ‘Do not attempt’ this at home style tagline. Because in a day and age where people are walking off cliffs in pursuit of pretend Pokémon, truth or dare has never been more dangerous a premise to turn into an online game. Layered with lush visuals and striking songs, it is easy to be lulled into the film’s hypnotic world, where people can meet and fall in love in one night and not worry about the consequences of their actions. In saying that though, it’s also a hell of a ride, so long as one can separate fact from fiction. It might not be a box office blockbuster, but neither is it a feature that rests on its laurels, reminding us that the danger of the internet is not in its invasiveness, but rather in our own deep-seated desires for such actions.
An adaptation of Jeanne Ryan’s young-adult novel of the same name, Nerve tells the story of Vee (Emma Roberts), an uncourageous girl living a world that only accepts those willing to take a risk. Unable to tell her mother she wants to move cross country for college and living in her best friend’s shadow, she takes up a challenge to play a new underground game called Nerve. Divided into watchers or players, participants must complete dares to win cash, filming their antics on mobile phones and streaming them online for the enjoyment of thousands of anonymous spectators. Starting off small, an innocent kiss here, a motor-bike joyride there, the dares soon begin to escalate, as Vee starts to fall for fellow player Ian (Dave Franco) and the two inch closer and closer to the grand prize. Soon, nothing becomes off limits, whether it be stealing, dodging trains, or hanging off cranes high above the city. What was once a bit of fun turns deadly as the lovers become prisoners of the game, manipulated by the competition’s anonymous overlords and forced into the ultimate showdown.
Clocking in at slightly more than 90 minutes, Nerve is a rush of blood to the head, with co-directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman turning New York into their own visual playground. While the cinematography doesn’t quite blend seamlessly with the technology, the city provides the perfect backdrop for some high stakes movie magic. Fluorescent lights stand stark against a colourfully saturated landscape and even cheap diners are lit in an enchanting and ethereal way. It helps that it is complemented by a superb soundtrack, gushing gems as diverse as the internet itself, from Roy Orbison’s ‘You Got It’, to Wu Tang Clan’s ‘C.R.E.A.M’. The best representation for the film comes from MØ’s ‘Kamikaze’ though, the lyrics revealing the ending before it has time to play out, while washing the film in the effervescent energy it strives so hard to achieve.
Teen thrillers can so often fall into the trap of relying on the technology to do its taunting and for a long while Nerve manages to avoid that. It’s a credit to the screenwriters that the players don’t even start doing dangerous dares until at least halfway in, instead building the suspense and imbuing genuine interplay between the leads. However, all its ingenuity unravels in the third act, stumbling on the last leg with a poorly-planned finale. A contrived crescendo leaves us a little empty and longing for more, turning what could have been a great film, into just a good one. As we head into the somewhat exciting, somewhat dreadful experience that is the fall film festival circuit and the lead-up to Awards season though, it’s inspiring to see that Hollywood is still eager to take risks with fresh, fun and frivolous films. It beats the hell out of a ‘found footage’ style documentary any day.
As for the acting, Franco recycles the same smart, stylish and suave persona he has come to be known by, albeit on a grander scale. No longer the sidekick when he so clearly should be the lead, he is everything his older brother is and more. Roberts too is refreshingly charismatic, starting to shed her doe-eyed roles for more mature fanfare. The supporting characters though are contrived creations, forced into blink and you’ll miss it moments. Even top tier talent like Orange is the New Black’s (2013) Kimiko Glenn and Samira Wiley can’t help but be washed away underneath the colourful undertow. Miles Heizer’s best-friend Tommy is almost entirely confined to a car, taking the ‘friend-zoned’ formula to a whole new level, while Juliette Lewis’ crazy-clingy mother could have been replaced by a potato and we would have seen more character growth.
In an age of viral sensations like Pokémon Go, Nerve plays out as a frighteningly realistic possibility. Hiding behind screens and anonymous accounts, people are all too willing to speak their mind, so long as they feel they can’t be held accountable. It’s a massive moral lesson to unload, but one that is both important and refreshingly novel. About the biggest gripe you can raise film the film, outside the derisive denouement, is the lingering question of how the hell the watchers and players phones manage to stay charged throughout their escapades. For the record, I never saw one goddamn charger in the whole film even though there was a hell of a lot of product placement for Apple, a brand whose biggest sellers average less than twelve hours of battery life. So while it’s not the smartest or slickest screenplay out there, sometimes we must just admit that with pleasure there comes pain. And life is about finding the nerve to choose it.
Rating: 3.5 Motorcycle Mates out of 5
Australian screen icon Mel Gibson is arguably at his best when embodying a protective and powerful father figure. We’ve seen it in his previous works The Patriot, Ransom and Braveheart and now we get the pleasure of a return to such roots in his latest comeback attempt Blood Father (2016). Having been caught up in a string of personal and public problems, the star’s atmospheric action-drama serves as redemptive piece for both character and actor, questioning just how far a man will go for forgiveness. Despite a number of flaws, including the monotony of treading the same beaten path as many before it, Blood Father is equal parts a hidden gem, full of charismatic central characters and amped up action.
An adaptation of Peter Craig’s novel of the same name, Blood Father is a stunning film stuck in the shell of a B-Grade movie, full of clever characterisation and dynamic dialogue. Its plot is simple enough, following the relationship between ex-con and recovering alcoholic John Link and his estranged daughter Lydia. Used to finding comfort at the bottom of a bottle, Link is struggling to stay sober and maintain a life on the straight and narrow, as a simple tattoo artist living in a beaten down trailer park alongside his sole friend and sponsor, Kirby. Just one year out of jail his world-weary life is upturned once again though, when he receives a call from his missing 17-year-old, who has got herself into a spot of trouble after shooting her drug-dealing boyfriend in the neck. When both cops and cartel come a-calling for her, Link must rely on his old friends and foes to find a way to protect her and prove that blood really is thicker than water.
The relationship between the two leads is clearly the standout of the film, as Gibson and Erin Moriarty share quips back and forth in a genuine and endearing interplay. Where there is blood, so too is there banter and heart-warming humour. A number of great supporting characters help fill-out the film too, from Diego Luna’s sleazy boyfriend Jonah, to Thomas Mann’s quirky motel clerk Jason. Out of the bunch the only gripe comes from the under-use of William H. Macy, whose character Kirby receives about as little growth as the weeds in the scenic desert setting. Gibson meanwhile is perfectly cast, with art imitating life for the man who struggled with drug and alcohol addiction for the better part of this century. The film is not just his redemption, but is a look at what happens to the bruised and broken men Hollywood discards. Just as Link is a tortured soul, a man who has misplaced his own purpose as easily as he has lost his daughter, so too is Gibson wandering and waiting for the chance to payback on his penance.
The humour in Blood Father is as off-beat as the film itself, with Link musing over the destruction of his old beat-up Chevy Nova, not minutes after he was berating it for not starting. Even when the characters are in peril, they still hang hard to such heart, laughing over something as simple as the colour of one’s hair. Gibson has always made his money from his ability to shrug off any situation with a sarcastic swipe and there is certainly no shortage of that here. While most of the humour hits home, the film does fall flat on some accounts. At times the stark transition between the style and themes is more jarring than poetic, leaving you wondering just how much of a hand the studio had in post-production editing. This is never more obvious than when dealing with the supporting cast, with both Thomas Mann and William H. Macy’s scenes seemingly slimmed down to better encompass a shorter and more succinct story. While it certainly alleviates the boredom, we never feel like it quite hits the heights it should have.
Marking his first English language film since his 2001 remake of Assault on Precinct 13, director Jean-Francois Richet paints a glorious picture with his choice of cinematography though, from the sprawling sun-splashed deserts through to the stark and sterile lights of the cities. It’s strangely other-worldly, with more than a decent nod to the nostalgia of times past. Sure there may be tumbleweeds blowing down the street, but it’s the sort of place where we would never laugh at such a thing. As the bodies begin to pile up and the adrenaline-fuelled action sequences splatter across the screen, Blood Father leaves us with a sad, sinking feeling, rather than the quiet optimism of mainstream box office blockbusters. And despite the darkness that slowly spreads over the film, there’s nothing more magical than a film brave enough to show that not every story has a happy ending.
Shockingly violent and undeniably brutal, Blood Father catches you off guard when you least suspect, with more than enough double-crosses and dramatic deaths to keep viewers entertained. Despite its obvious flaws, in its simplistic story and been-there-done-that attitude, there is a lot to like and even a little to love in this latest crime caper. For those sitting there on their pedestals, hiding behind their blinkers and ready to let the film fall of their radar thanks to Gibson’s antics, it’s a damn shame. Despite bearing the scars both mentally and physically, he is as willingly as ever to give it his all, for whoever is still patient enough to be watching. It might be a grimy and meandering action-drama that punches above its weight, but just like what Link says about Lydia, Blood Father is every loser’s lucky day.
Rating: 3 Grizzled Gibson's out of 5
One of the scariest statistics about shark attacks is how they most often occur in less than six feet of water. Not only that, but according to the International Shark Attack File from the Florida Museum of Natural History, of last year’s 164 recorded shark attacks 98 of them were unprovoked. The most frightening piece of information about sharks though, is the commonly overlooked statistic that there are at least 28 other animals more likely to bite you than these razor-toothed foes. It’s safe to say that this last tidbit was overlooked for Sony’s latest menacing monster flick The Shallows (2016). Thankfully too, with director Jaume Collet-Serra crafting a tense and taut thriller that plays on society's deepest and darkest fears. Although realism and common sense make way for picturesque landscapes and gut-wrenching glee, Collet-Serra’s strong cinematography and edge of your seat action provide audiences pure popcorn escapism.
The soft sound of the ocean swell lulls us into The Shallows, with the film opening as a young boy discovers a Go Pro in the surf of a seemingly deserted Mexican beach. An innocent and unnerving scene soon turns sour when he replays the footage, catching a glimpse of the man-eating shark who will menace our main protagonist Nancy for the next hour and a half. Reeling from the recent death of her mother, the med-school dropout is restless, lost and seeking to regain her fighting spirit. Visiting a secret beach Nancy soon finds she is not alone after she is tugged beneath the surface. Critically injured and stranded on a rock shelf as the tide begins to turn, Nancy must use her wits to outsmart the great white shark and make it to the nearby buoy. But when it becomes apparent that help may not arrive, survival of the fittest begins to take on a whole new meaning.
As an Australian the most annoying part of the film is the fact Nancy defies three of the most crucial rules about avoiding shark attacks. Number one – never swim at dawn or dusk. Warned about it when she first arrives at the beach, Nancy still tries to catch one last wave before the sun sets and that is arguably why she winds up in the predicament in the first place. Secondly, she swims right up to a whale carcass, which was not only visible, but swamped by birds and bite marks. Lastly, she defies the never swim alone mantra, when her friend bails on her at the last minute and her two surfing compadres decide to call it quits for the day. However, this is not a film making its money off the logical, as other survival thrillers like 127 Hours (2010) did. Instead it takes pleasure in the visual, with a number of stellar action and establishing scenes. Notably there is the first pull-back to Nancy mid-wave, a dark silhouette shrouded in the curl of the water behind her. It’s not the two-note soundtrack tactic that Jaws (1975) took, but it’s an interesting method all the same. Similarly, despite a limited script the acting is as visceral as the visuals, Lively proving to be breath of fresh air in comparison to her Gossip Girl (2007) days. Like her husband Ryan Reynolds in his flick Buried (2010), majority of the film rests on her shoulders alone and she carries herself well whether she be surfing, swimming or screaming.
Filmed in Australia, on the beautiful beaches of the Gold Coast, the movie is sure to hit closer to home for many Australians. Especially after the spate of shark killings that have occurred off our beaches in the last decade. But the cinematography is a visual monster all by itself and one that demands to be seen on the big screen. To say it is beautiful is an understatement, with stunning overhead shots that soar above crystal clear seas and smooth ethereal underwater scenes. There are a few moments where time drags, as the filmmakers set up the scene and amp up the anticipation for the inevitable attack. However creating contrasts are what survival stories are all about. Close ups of surf straps and rubbery wetsuits are all-important to understand just how versatile they can be down the track. Best of all, the camera itself acts like a shark, its leering gaze drifting towards Nancy’s legs to create a deliberate attempt at audience discomfort. There is a trade-off though in paying too much attention to the landscape, with the film sometimes losing the fear and ferocity of its main attraction.
On a serious note, one must acknowledge the potentially dangerous flaws with such a flick, considering its misrepresentation of sharks. Just as Jaws spawned an interest in popularizing the recreational killing of sharks and vilified the creatures of the deep, so too does this movie treat them with little respect. Despite being an endangered species and one that rarely interacts willingly with humans, the shark in The Shallows is represented as a revenge-fuelled predator, more intent on knocking women off whales than feeding on the plentiful bounty its blubber would provide. What the film does point out though is how overfishing can push these creatures closer to human territory. It’s a shame Hollywood can’t sell science instead of fear in their films.
The Shallows might not be in the same league as Jaws, but you can feel it chomping at the bits to honour it. It even has the same slightly corny humour, with the best part of the film a bird aptly called ‘Steven Seagull’. The faithful friend is easily interpretable as a sign of Nancy’s late mother and it’s a heart-warming touch considering the lack of real backstory provided. Although the film adds little to the already established shark genre, it’s a rollicking ride and a throwback to classic edge-of-your-seat thrillers, where you can smell the saltwater, taste the seaspray and feel the searing sun on your face. Just what we all need before summer rolls in and we wonder whether it’s safe to enter the water.
Rating: 3 Teeth out of 5
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