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Trailer: Space Jam – A New Legacy

In a nostalgia-fuelled pop cultural landscape that we live in, 1996's Michael Jordan-starring Space Jam is fondly remembered (even though it's a pretty dire film), so here's a reboot/sequel/whateveryouwanttocallit starring Lebron James, directed by Malcolm D. Lee (um, Night School) and produced by Ryan Coogler (co-written by his brother Keenan Coogler).
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Tom & Jerry: The Movie

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Perhaps the biggest challenge that exists when bringing the world’s favourite warring cat and mouse duo to screen is not an issue to do with legacy, but in understanding how to apply the hallmarks of age-old storytelling in an era of CGI and short-form video.

While efforts to bring Tom & Jerry into 2021 are made in director Tim Story’s Space-Jam-like adaptation of the Hanna-Barbera classic, they too, as in the function of a mouse trap, collapse under the weight of heavy cheese.

In Story’s Tom & Jerry, it is not the 2D-animated critters who chase their tail. Passengers of what should be their own adventure, the duty of story and dialogue belongs to Kayla (Chloë Grace Moretz): a down-on-her-luck New Yorker who takes up a position at the swanky Royal Gate Hotel under false pretences.

Here, Kayla is tasked with managing the wedding arrangements of affluent ‘it’ couple Preeta (Pallavi Sharda) and the desperate-to-impress (exactly who!) Ben (SNL’s Colin Jost). Kayla’s failure to provide Preeta and Ben the wedding of their dreams risks not only her job, but the reputation of the Hotel (her watchful bosses include GM Henry (Rob Delaney) and event manager Terence (the always affable Michael Peña)). Alas, the titular cat and mouse pairing, both vehemently out to get the other and now residing at the Royal Gate Hotel, become the bane of Kayla’s existence. Their presence throws the budding careerist into hijinks involving elaborate contraptions that make the board-game Mouse Trap feel like amateur hour.

Production elements work in favour of the film, with the hip-hop infused score and sharpness in animation, the effect of the latter giving added dimension to 2D characters, being some of ways Story brings T&J into 2021. The more clunky of these contemporary additions exist in the film’s incorporation of technology; particularly the inclusion of drones (an obligation nowadays) and electric skateboards. (Heck, there is probably a cut involving Tom & Jerry flossing.)

Where the film finds greatest success – and unfortunately to the detriment of the film’s titular cat and mouse – are the human characters; each of whom unabashedly playing up to the goofball comedy beats. For a film focused on the planning of a wedding, there is little love about Tom and Jerry; a result of their frantic energy coupled by the film’s often inappropriate humour (a gaffe involving one of the characters pretending to be blind leaves a bad taste early on).

While Story rightfully layers on the antics, it is the way the human and animal stories coalesce which strikes an off chord. Despite a sense of twee watching humans engage with 2D creations, the narrative itself is so animated that it has outlines. It is as though screenwriter Kevin Costello has reverse-engineered a ‘kids first Working Girl’ story into a Zemeckis-esque animated world, with Tom & Jerry haphazardly shoe-horned in on the action.

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Peter Rabbit 2

Australian, family film, Review, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

2018’s Peter Rabbit was a fast-moving and cheeky (need we discuss the controversial berry scene…) adaptation that delivered a sense of gall unseen in the whimsical pages of Beatrix Potter’s opus.

We last saw the mischievous Peter (voiced by late-night talk show host James Corden) mend ways with villain-turned-frenemy, Thomas McGregor (Domhnall Gleeson all in for the ride), but there remains some lingering animosity.

Forgive, maybe; forget, absolutely not.

While the bickering remains, there have also been big changes to the quaint countryside town that is home to Peter and his jacket-clad family (many Aussies trying on British accents, including Margot Robbie, Elizabeth Debicki, and Aimee Horne – replacing Daisy Ridley from the first film). The once gated farm that Peter and company stole fruit and vegetables from, is now a safe-haven to all anthropomorphic critters; the likes of which include an extravagantly posh pig (Ewen Leslie) and a spirited echidna (Sia).

Despite there no longer being a need to steal, our cheeky lead is disturbed by his reputation as a trouble-maker. It is a mantle our furry hero shakes off like a cat to water. Peter’s identity woes become exacerbated when Bea (Rose Byrne) and Thomas, now happily married and owners of a provincial toy-shop featuring the successful Peter Rabbit series, visit London to discuss the future of their IP with a prospective (and rather dubious) publisher, Nigel (newcomer to the series David Oyelowo).

Here in London, a downtrodden Peter (cue self-reflective pondering) meets Barnabas (Lennie James), a grizzled rabbit who is aware of Peter’s troubled history. The two rabbits form a relationship based on a shared sense of isolation, with Barnabas fulfilling for the fatherless Peter the role of a paternal figure. Together, Peter, Barnabas, and a band of street animals, engage in an array of mischief; the likes of which are conducted as a series of elaborate schemes and heists.

Like the first film (also shot in Sydney), returning director Will Gluck surrounds Peter Rabbit in an air of twee and frivolity. Peter Rabbit 2 is a film that revels in being self-aware, offering a comical critique on the business of creative success in a time of blockbusters and IP. Humour ranges from observational to goofy, with Gluck and Patrick Burleigh’s screenplay empowering the film to be accessible to a broad audience. It is not just the littlies. This builds to a brazen third-act that feels inspired by the mind of Charlie Kaufman a la Adaptation.

The minor bugbear to be had is in the screenplay’s forgetful treatment of Peter’s development from the first film. While Peter no longer feels that his life is threatened, his surprise (re-)realisation that actions have consequences feels like a missed opportunity from the filmmakers to dig deeper. (Just look at Paddington; he went to prison!) Instead, the biggest arc is placed on McGregor, who having achieved his goals from the first film, becomes overwhelmed by a desire to have children; a desire not apparent to Bea who faces her own challenges regarding compromising her integrity for commercial success. Regardless, those captivated by Gluck’s sprightly direction should see this as a minor bleep on the radar.

By design, Peter Rabbit 2 is served as an energetic romp that contains all the moralistic trimmings akin to children’s literature. While guilty of traditionalism by way of thematic closure, there is ample modernity to the storytelling, particularly through the application of anthemic music, brisk pacing, punchy humour inspired by inner-truths, and earnest performances brought to life by impeccable animation. The culmination of these elements help Peter Rabbit 2 succeed in being both delightful and fabulously British (irrespective of all the Aussie talents involved).

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Unsung Auteurs: Stewart Raffill

FilmInk salutes the work of directors who have never received the credit that they deserve. In this installment: wilderness action adventure specialist, Stewart Raffill.
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Raya and the Last Dragon

animation, family film, Review, Streaming, Theatrical, This Week 1 Comment

After Disney-owned Pixar charged into the 2020s with the one-two punch of Onward and Soul, the mainline Walt Disney Animation has entered the fray with their latest jab at multicultural representation. Much as Moana focused on Polynesian culture, Raya And The Last Dragon seeks to be a platform for Southeast Asia, bolstered by a wealth of Asian-American voice talent ranging from Fandom Menace survivor Kelly Marie Tran as the warrior princess Raya to rising star Awkwafina as the water dragon Sisu, right down to Thalia Tran as Noi the littlest con artist and a brief appearance from Dumbfoundead as Chai the flower guy. Even the main writing credits follow suit, with Vietnamese-American playwright Qui Nguyen and Crazy Rich Asians co-writer Adele Lim.

Following Raya and Sisu on an adventure across the vibrant and splintered land of Kumandra as they track down the pieces of a mystical orb, the universe here feels like its own little world. The individual lands of Heart, Fang, Spine, Talon and Tail show great variety, and the graphic fidelity in all the little elements that comprise them, from light to rainfall to the textures on the characters themselves, is masterfully presented. Ditto for James Newton Howard’s soundtrack, which hasn’t sounded this splendorous in quite some time.

The story at large deals heavily in the concept of trust between people, with the fractured landscape serving as geographic representation of what happened to the nations within. While it adds certain facets to the characterisation of Raya, easily one of the most morally conflicted of the Disney Princesses, along with her connection to rival Namaari (Gemma Chan), the way this theme manifests in the narrative feels far too simplistic.

It gets to the point where adults with adventurous livers could make a drinking game out of how many times “trust” is brought up in dialogue, and the way that it’s treated as a part of human behaviour is equally as leaden. Trust here is presented as something that is vital for existence, but its exploration never goes further than ‘we must do this thing, just trust us’. With Disney’s last effort Frozen II, easily one of the most challenging animated features of the entire 2010s, Raya being so perfunctory feels beneath their abilities. And not just the studio’s either; co-director Carlos López Estrada going from the likes of Blindspotting to this is quite disheartening.

While there’s nothing inherently wrong with Raya And The Last Dragon, it’s merely serviceable.

In cinemas March 4 and on Disney+ with Premier Access from March 5.

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Earwig and the Witch

animation, Asian Cinema, family film, Review, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

The latest film from Studio Ghibli, their first since 2014’s When Marnie Was There, could be mistaken, from the title alone, as a riff on John Cameron Mitchell’s Hedwig and the Angry Inch. There’s even a rock band featured prominently that could have walked straight out of a drag club. However, Earwig and the Witch couldn’t really be any further from that 2001 cult film.

For the first time, Ghibli utilise computer animation, adapting Diana Wynne Jones’s 2011 book about Earwig, a wily young girl brought up in an orphanage until she is adopted by witch Bella Yagga and sorcerer The Mandrake. Now, you’d assume that witches and sorcerers living together would mean all sorts of bad news, however, these guys are all about coming up with spells to win dog showing contests and writing novels, rather than cursing their enemies – which they can also do, it’s just not their priority right now. Instead, they adopt Earwig to help them with chores, like picking out spell ingredients from the yard or crushing rat bones; but she is keen to know more… Things open up for her when she teams up with Thomas, Bella Yagga’s black cat.

It’s a simple tale, easily understood by children of most ages, and the message around accepting difference, even when there are preconceptions, is something to savour. However, viewers expecting the usual flights of fancy of most Ghibli films, including the other Diana Wynne Jones adaptation, Howl’s Moving Castle, will most likely be disappointed by Earwig’s simplicity and episodic nature. Directed by Gorô Miyazaki (From Up on Poppy Hill) and supervised by his famous father Hayao, there’s a lot to admire here, but it’s also quite slight in the end.

You don’t get swept away by Earwig as much as appreciate the Ghiblian character design and world building, and the juxtaposition between the macabre and the cute. The Japanese twist on an English story is also refreshing, bringing a nice balance between the harsh and the soft, but it really doesn’t reach beyond the surface. It’s ultimately a welcome, if not outstanding, addition to the Studio Ghibli canon and nothing like John Cameron Mitchell’s groundbreaking Hedwig, but in the words of another classic movie, ‘you know, for kids.’

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Lupin the Third: The First

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Remember when an action-adventure film would actually deliver a fun, entertaining romp without the existential angst or deadpan violence? Well, thankfully Lupin the Third: The First has landed to remind us of what good old fashion action-adventure movies can be.

The latest big screen adventure of the titular Monkey Punch creation, Lupin the Third: The First marks the first time the franchise has received full CGI treatment, delivering a beautifully rendered world where its cast of rogues feel completely at home within some remarkable action sequences, exotic locales and an impressive English language dub.

For those unfamiliar with Lupin III, pronounced as a solid French Lu-Pon, the Japanese series has been running since 1967 across a number of mediums including print, animation and live action Japanese films. Created by manga artist Kazuhiko Kato aka Monkey Punch, the story follows the illegal machinations of the grandson of famed French gentleman thief Arsène Lupin, made famous in a series of French novels by Maurice Leblanc. And while the licensing rights, and subsequent lawsuits to the characters are something of legend in Japanese publishing, The First offers newcomers a relaxed, enjoyable introduction to the franchise’s key cast of characters while managing to pay reverence to long time fans, and the Parisian origins of the series.

Set during the 1960s, The First is at heart a heist film, setting our anti-hero Lupin III against his nemesis Detective Zenigata, a naive young officer with a hidden agenda named Laetitia, and a cult of Nazi zealots, all seeking to possess the fabled Bresson Diary; a heavily booby-trapped mechanical book thought to reveal the location of an ancient Aztec weapon known as The Eclipse.

Written and directed by Takashi Yamazaki, whose credits include the Always: Sunset of Third Street trilogy and Parasyte films, The First plays like an authentic ‘80s action-adventure film, offering fans of the genre a familiar cocktail of Indiana Jones, Connery era James Bond and Spielbergian adventure. All of which is complimented by a strong English dub helmed by professional voice actors Tony Oliver (Lupin III) and Laurie Hymes (Laetitia) who imbue their characters with charm, humour and when necessary a perfectly balanced sense of gravitas.

Visually, Lupin the Third: The First delivers a solid CGI experience; while not completely on par with the likes of The Adventures of Tintin, the final product is none-the-less entirely absorbing, crafting a fun urgency to the many raucous chase scenes while the cataclysmic effects of the film’s ultimate McGuffin, The Eclipse are brilliantly effective.

While it may not have the exposure that a Pixar or Disney film might attract, Lupin the Third: The First certainly deserves a look. It goes without saying that it’s been an exhausting year, and if you’re looking to indulge your nostalgia of more relaxed times, or simply looking to educate your kids on what movies use to feel like, then embrace a little cinematic self-love and take yourself, and the family, to the see Lupin the Third: The First in cinemas.

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The Elfkins – Baking a Difference

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Based on a German fable, The Elfkins: Baking a Difference is a positively upbeat story with brisk pacing that bursts at the seams with enthusiasm.

The film deploys a familiar plot structure seen in many animated films before it. It follows a community of Elfkins that have lived in fear of the humans for 200 years, residing quietly in the dim and confined spaces of the underground.

When a young, adventure-seeking Elfkin girl named Elfie struggles to congeal with the insular customs of her community, she bravely ventures out into the human world to prove her worth to the rest of the Elfkins.

The animation of the movie is almost entirely soft and rounded, decorated with poppy primary colours that makes easy viewing for children. The characters, too, further this, with easily identifiable traits that casts a clear contrast between them. For example, the overly optimistic and energetic Elfkins stumble into a down-on-his-luck baker named Theo whose face carries despair and misery. His bakery has been forced to close on account of ‘Bruno’s’ – a giant cake factory, owned by his brother, that is located directly adjacent to him and has been stealing his business for years.

Alas, given the selling point of the movie is adventure, it really fails to generate much excitement. The plot ostensibly takes place over two settings, both of which are so visually basic and similar, it seldom matches or reflects an appropriate mood for its characters. For instance, the building of the cake factory ‘Bruno’s’ is touted as a towering corporate machine that strips the soul away from smaller businesses. Yet, for such a seemingly important characteristic for the plot, the building itself is just a flat pink wall that rarely features in the movie.

As the Elfkins and humans make unlikely allies, the movie shows the power of helping a person in need and not judging a book by its cover.