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Ricard Cussó: Make a Wish

The director speaks about working with production company Like a Photon Creative on the first of their Sanctuary City animated trilogy, A Wishmas Tree.
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The Call of the Wild

family film, Review, Theatrical, This Week 1 Comment

Tell you what, everything else aside, a big budget adaptation of Jack London’s 1903 literary classic The Call of the Wild seems a weird fit for Disney. Under ordinary circumstances, the House of Mouse releases slick, homogenised animated films, slightly baffling ‘live action’ versions of earlier works and Star Wars flicks that make internet people apoplectically angry. Call of the Wild, while uniformly slick and very expensive-looking, hews a different path and does so in a mostly effective fashion.

The movie is the story of Buck, an enormous St. Bernard/Scotch Collie who is flogged from his home near the start and embarks on an involuntary, but exciting, adventure across the Yukon in the late 1800s. The first thing you’ll notice is that the dogs aren’t real, but motion-captured CGI and the idyllic surroundings aren’t shot on location, but also CGI. It’s a little distracting for the first fifteen minutes or so (although never as immersion breaking as the ill-advised Lion King remake), but you’ll soon find yourself engrossed in the appealing world of the film. Eventually, Buck runs into grizzled old bloke, John Thornton (Harrison Ford) and the pair form an unlikely bond and get into further adventures.

The Call of the Wild is essentially a series of lengthy vignettes, but the good news is, most of them are engaging. The turn of the century setting feels fresh in cinematic terms, even if most of the edges have been well and truly beveled off London’s original text, and the appeal of an old fashioned story about a good-hearted dog remains strong even in 2020. Harrison Ford actually seems to be having fun for a change, and a capable support cast includes Dan Stevens, Bradley Whitford, Karen Gillan and Cara Gee.

In many ways a slight, throwback to appealing family-oriented matinee movies and taken on that level, there’s quite a lot to like about The Call of the Wild. It’s unlikely to spawn an entire generation of outdoors people (particularly since most of the nature scenes are digitally rendered) but it’s an amiable flick about a very good boi indeed.

 
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H is for Happiness

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

Winner of the 2019 CinefestOZ prize ($100k, thank you very much), H is for Happiness is the feature debut of theatre director John Sheedy. Girl Asleep from 2015 also won the prize, and was the first feature from celebrated theatre maker, Rosemary Myers. Both films were about a girl going through puberty, the awkwardness, obsessing over appearance, and starting to be attracted to the opposite sex. The similarities go beyond this premise alone, and are uncanny in fact, though H is for Happiness is a superior film.

Girl Asleep started off with a bang, establishing a very strong style, which unfortunately went awry in its third act’s turn to the surreal. In H is for Happiness, the film’s style is initially clunky, as each scene is presented without enough connecting tissue or cinematic style, but thankfully, as the film progresses, and the characters build, so does the audience engagement.

Candice Phee (impressive newcomer Daisy Axon) is full of life, smart and nerdy. She’s happy in her skin, even though the cool kids look down on her. When new kid in school Douglas Benson (adorable Wesley Patton) turns up and sits next to Candice, sparks eventually fly, and the two become inseparable. The ever-chirpy Candice also has a challenging home environment, with a tragedy clouding over her dad Jim (Richard Roxburgh) and especially her mum Claire (Emma Booth). On top of all this, Rich Uncle Brian (Joel Jackson) loves Candice but has been ousted by the family for a deal gone wrong.

As per the title, an assignment has been set at school by eccentric Miss Bamford (Miriam Margolyes), in which students must take a letter of the alphabet and create a presentation around it. Candice makes it her mission to make her family happy again.

Sheedy’s inexperience in cinema (his only effort behind the camera is the 2017 short film Mrs McCutcheon) is evident, making the early scenes especially uncinematic, despite the premise’s potential, the beautiful locations (Albany, WA), cinematography (Bonnie Elliott – Slam, Palm Beach) and production design (Nicki Gardiner). However, the source material, Barry Jonsberg’s book My Life as an Alphabet adapted by Lisa Hoppe, means that the spine is strong enough to sustain your interest, and build your investment in the characters, performed expertly by the cast, including small turns from Deborah Mailman and WA legend George Shevtsov (Love Serenade).

Unlike Girl Asleep, H is for Happiness plays much younger, and should appeal to family audiences (lookie here, it’s not even the end of January and we have a second local family film to embrace), despite slightly dark themes. It is generous hearted, embracing the rich, the poor, the normal, the damaged, the eccentric, the full breadth of humanity. Life in Australia may look idyllic but it isn’t neat and tidy, and out of the optimistic hopes of its damaged young heroes emerges true happiness, and an ending that will have you sailing away to another world.

 
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Dolittle

family film, Review, Theatrical, This Week 1 Comment

With the world having just recovered from the disturbing hyper-sexualised feline imagery seen in Cats, there is a collective sigh of relief at the impressive visuals exhibited in CGI adventure-film Dolittle.

Unfortunately, that might be where the excitement stops for parents who endure this superficial retelling.

In an unexpected turn from director Stephen Gaghan, the filmmaker responsible for heavy dramas such as Traffic and Syriana, Dolittle offers a closer to the source material adaptation of Hugh Lofting’s beloved series of children’s novels.

Robert Downey Jr. takes the mantle of the titular physician who can walk, talk, grunt and squeak and squawk with the animals.

When first on-screen, the audience is greeted by a dishevelled Dolittle rocking a mop of hair and beard so intense that he looks somewhere between a prehistoric caveman and an inner city barista.

Turning his back on humankind following a great tragedy, Dolittle finds solace in isolation. He retreats from the world by locking the doors of Dolittle manor; a picturesque animal sanctuary filled with gadgets, gizmos and giraffes.

Through Dolittle’s eyes, people pose the greatest threat to animals, with the gifted doctor taking umbrage with hunting, sharing his indignation with reformed-hunter and newly appointed apprentice Stubbins (Harry Collett), and forming a close-knit bond with a slew of animals which he can communicate with.

Forced into solving the case of the poisoned Queen of England (Jessie Buckley in a lifeless role), Downey Jr. and the menagerie of animals must trail the high seas and rescue an antidote from the mysterious Eden Tree; an artefact located somewhere in the ocean.

The gang faces many threats during their swashbuckling ship-trip, the likes of which include facing a gold tooth tiger with familial issues (Ralph Fiennes), the return of a jealous rival (Michael Sheen), and a rugged pirate with a score to settle (Antonio Banderas). Dolittle’s adventure may take place on the ocean, but (wait for it) the real journey starts from within, as Dolittle begins to connect back to humanity.

The camera momentarily shivers when transitioning from animal to English, making for a modestly smooth, albeit absurd, language changeover. Downey Jr. goes all-in on the horseplay. He wobbles through the film displaying a range of emotions that verges on space-headed to bittersweet. The retired Iron Man does all this while attempting to impersonate a Scottish accent; aiming for Mrs Doubtfire but winds up being a shakier British accent than the one he displayed in Sherlock Holmes.

The film’s high concept approach to storytelling remains considerate to the families that will be spending their holidays in the cinema. Gaghan risks not over-stirring the pot and uses the antics of these peculiar creatures – the likes including an anxious gorilla (Rami Malek), a sock wearing ostrich (Kumail Nanjiani), a dude-bro polar bear (John Cena), a no-nonsense parrot (Emma Thompson), and a spectacles-wearing pooch (Tom Holland) – to create a stream of mild chuckles throughout the film’s 100-minute length.

Alas, the spectacle required to keep Dolittle afloat is never fully realised. Gaghan proves unwilling to go over-the-top in the stakes department; a sign of a studio lacking confidence in a product whose ongoing release pushbacks now finds it setting sail into the doldrums of January cinema-going. The message of compassion at the centre of the film never fully forms. Instead, RDJ channels sad eyes through his emotive baby-blues before being interrupted by an animal making an unimaginative joke about doing animal things.

The VFX team do an impeccable job bringing the animals to life; however, the film’s lowbrow sense of humour reduces the elegance of the visuals. Outside of the occasional crack of laughter, probably delivered through a cringe-inducing pun that will have every father in the cinema reciting it back to his kids at home, Dolittle will do little for the adults in the room. That said, littlies should take to the variety of bumbling creatures and their monkey-business.

 
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The Addams Family

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

In a time where an opulent ice-Queen with a penchant for show-tunes threatens to dominate the holiday box-office, Universal Pictures’ modestly grim and surprisingly sweet reboot of The Addams Family stands out across a slew of family-friendly movies like a goth student in a school class photo.

Directors Conrad Vernon and Greg Tiernan, of Sausage Party fame, bring the Addams family and their twisted sense of humour out of the crypt and into the twenty-first century.

The film follows the Addams’ and their contact with a neighbouring town, known as Assimilation, who are hell-bent on removing the supernatural family from their perfectly manicured community. The figurehead of Assimilation is a ruthless interior designer named Margaux, portrayed with devilish moxie by Allison Janney. The ‘humans being bigger monsters than the actual monsters’ yada-yada is a trope as old as Dracula, but does not prove a downer on The Addams Family due to the film’s well-natured intentions.

Running in tandem to the central story are side-plots involving the Addams children; both Wednesday (a wonderfully macabre Chloë Grace Moretz) and Pugsley (no stranger to strange things Finn Wolfhard) tackling separate coming-of-age issues.

Wednesday’s desire to expand her horizons outside of her haunted residence disappoint her mother Morticia (Charlize Theron), who fears her daughter will be targeted by humans as a monster the same way she had been. On the other hand, Gomez (Oscar Isaac) helps Pugsley prepare for his upcoming Mazurka, a ceremony of sorts that will propel the boy into adulthood.

The film does a solid job converging all stories, though follows a trend from a studio that continues to develop episodic-like narratives in their family films (see A Secret Life of Pets 2). It is a trend that borders on becoming convoluted and perhaps better suited to an opt-out platform like Netflix. Vernon and Tiernan do fall guilty of introducing underdeveloped points, including the harmful effects of social media and bullying, and end up half-heartedly abandoning these notions in favour of balancing side-plots. The result skims from both stories so they may both co-exist in the film’s scant runtime.

The filmmakers are conscious of the adults in the room and pepper The Addams Family with a continuous stream of light-hearted quips that play to the family’s obliviousness. The film’s efforts to balance out deeper themes – concerning growing-up and celebrating individuality – with amusing gaffes, strikes the right tonal balance for a film with a family-friendly, finger-snapping sitcom history. This comedic responsibility extends to the tremendous cast of supporting actors, including Nick Kroll, Bette Midler, Jenifer Lewis and Tituss Burgess.

Despite a history of live-action film, sitcom and 2D animated adaptations, there is an inherent freshness with The Addams Family’s introduction into the CG world. Giant trees, a murderous house, a playful pet lion: all of which come to life with eerie thrill while remaining faithful in style to the source material.

Yes, the film does bear a striking resemblance to the work of Genndy Tartakovsky a la Hotel Transylvania. Not just in visual style but in themes regarding belonging and embracing difference. Regardless, The Addams Family upholds the legacy of an endearing property with distinction and ought to inspire a renaissance in CG adaptations of spooky IP (looking at you Casper).

 
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A Boy Called Sailboat

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

Pay close enough attention to the soundtrack in American drama-comedy film A Boy Called Sailboat and you will be serenaded with the sounds of well-known tunes beautifully adapted into mariachi.

Powerful church anthems, blues-rock classics, Mexican folk; no genre escapes the Grigoryan brothers’ quaint and subdued score. But perhaps the most transportive of their covers is the adaption of children’s nursery rhyme ‘Row Row Row Your Boat’; its inclusion capturing the beauty of childhood wonder in a likeable film that embraces diversity.

Sailboat (Julian Atocani Sanchez), a seven-year-old boy of Hispanic background, resides in an unbearably hot desert town on the brink of desertion. His soul-stirring performance of ‘Row Row Row Your Boat’ for his hospital ridden ‘Abuela’ (grandmother in Spanish), succeeds in forging a relationship between the community and Sailboat’s otherwise marginalised family.

Sailboat’s determination to perform in-person for his Abuela sets in motion his quirky mission to learn the ins-and-outs of music. He does this while navigating the struggles of a disadvantaged, albeit loving, family whose house is literally held-up by an inward sticking beam.

Told with an offbeat sense of humour familiar to films based in small rural towns, the difficulties of Sailboat’s family – including his tough-looking but caring father (Noel Gugliemi) and reclusive mother (Elizabeth De Razzo) – talk to present-day racial tensions which threaten to divide America.

Australian director Cameron Nugent, who has worked predominantly as an actor in shows including Round the Twist, Blue Heelers and City Homicide, musters up an endearing tale carried off the back of Sanchez’s performance. The benevolent way Sailboat demystifies the complexities of life as a series of proverbs, expressed in the film’s narration, handed down to him by his Abuela, is where the film gathers its glowing charm.

It is not unusual for Sailboat and his friend Peeti (Keanu Wilson), a soccer-obsessed boy that never blinks, to wander through the town and engage with adults and strangers. The exchanges include conversations with JK Simmons (who despite featuring prevalently in the film’s marketing appears fleetingly), a deeply southern car salesman. It is quite confronting in 2019 to see such interactions, with Nugent taking necessary precautions to mitigate viewer worry. He, unfortunately, does not always succeed.

Nugent expresses optimism for the future through the unifying and prodigious talents of Sailboat – highlighting Hispanic excellence and the sweet grace of inclusion. Only when Nugent feels the need to flex his creative chops, complicating scenes to the point of exposing the film’s wires, does A Boy Called Sailboat lose steam.

Regardless, there is much to be admired about Nugent’s charming tale about family, culture, and inclusion. Just don’t expect a lot of JK Simmons.

 

 
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Abominable

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

Abominable starts with our hero, Everest, the folkloric Yeti, escaping from a scientific facility and finding itself hiding out in downtown Shanghai. Everest soon bumps into Yi (Bennet), a grief stricken girl who dreams of travelling through China, and she gets her wish when along with two other kids they head across the vast and beautiful Chinese countryside to help Everest return home, all the while being pursued by an eccentric millionaire, scientists and commandos.

If you took a cynical reading of this latest Dreamworks animated feature, you could deduce that with the rapidly growing Chinese market for movies (it has the most cinemas of any nation, and growing, and is predicted to end 2019 as the biggest market in the world for theatrical releases, eclipsing the long-held US), that a Hollywood studio begins with an idea that will allow them to not only appeal to that market, but better still, engage their industry in working on the project for a fraction of the price that you would pay a Western crew.

Additionally, and most crucially, China limits the number of Western cinema releases seen on the big screen, so this co-production between Dreamworks and Pearl Studio guarantees that Abominable will be released to much fanfare.

But why be cynical, when this is showbusiness after all, and better still, some of the most creative and accomplished artworks throughout history have worked on a restricted canvas, be it censorship, budget or otherwise.

The computer animation in Abominable is what we’ve come to expect from Dreamworks (Croods, Trolls, Boss Baby, How to Train Your Dragon, etc), however, what is new here is the setting, with the streets of modern Shanghai and regional China, along with The Everest, offering something that we have not seen before in such a mainstream animated film, making the story in turns engrossing and wondrous. The same applies to the wholly Asian cast of characters, portrayed just like any Western character would have been, with little cultural stereotyping or clichés. The magical aspects in the film don’t quite match the transcendence of classics such as Kubo and the Two Strings – perhaps they should have considered less Coldplay and more class, but you can’t have everything.

Ultimately, the core message about leaving nature alone more than makes up for any shortcoming, and what you get is a film that reaches close to peak entertainment for kids and adults alike.