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Bumblebee

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For a little over a decade, Michael Bay built a billion-dollar empire on treating his audience like children. In his eyes, all the people want to see are boobs, explosions, and jokes about boobs and explosions. He has become, for many, a symbol for just how little Hollywood actually thinks of its customers, capable only of money-grubbing cynicism.

Enter Travis Knight, president of stop-motion animation studio Laika, director of the phenomenal Kubo And The Two Strings, and the human that this series has been needing for a very long time now. If there’s one thing Knight knows, it’s how to make inanimate objects feel like they are just as full of life as any flesh-and-blood human. And through Bumblebee and his interactions with the perpetually-on-the-edge-of-seventeen Hailee Steinfeld, we get a very tender and emotional display of that in action. Through sheer body language and sampled speech, Bumblebee becomes something worth caring about, worth crying with, and worth sharing victories with.

He’s also someone worth seeing in a fire fight, and this is another result of Knight’s involvement. Stop-motion animation is a gruelling and time-consuming process, one that requires a metric tonne of patience to see through. The kind of patience that, unlike Bay, allows Knight to give the audience time to breathe between action scenes so it doesn’t just blur together into a sprawling behemoth of incoherency. It maintains the CGI fidelity of the other films, one of the few consistent high points for the series, and applies it to fight scenes that may lack a certain bombastic punch but balances that out with plenty of emotional hutzpah. They work because we care about who’s involved.

But more than anything else, what Knight and writer Christina Hodson do that warrants the most praise is that they actually have an idea of who their audience is. The film is soaked in ‘80s nostalgia, showing a lot of reverence for the era that gave birth to Transformers and so many other toy-licensed cartoons, referencing everything from ALF to The Breakfast Club to make for cheesy but undeniably fun moments. These work nicely to counteract how sombre this film can get, with the relationship between Bumblebee and Steinfeld’s Charlie a surrogate for grief and adolescent woes and all those other things that most would wish to forget.

Much like with Kubo, Knight trusts that his audience, young and old, can accept the darker aspects of life and death, up to and including how it is perfectly fine to not feel fine. Then again, even without that context, being handed a book titled ‘Smile For A Change’ will never not be patronising, as happens to Charlie early on.

For the first time in over 10 years, we have a Transformers movie worth watching; a fun, well-acted, exciting and even emotional piece of popcorn action.

 
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Green Book

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Peter Farrelly isn’t a subtle creative. Building a reputation with his brother Bobby for a particularly crass brand of romantic comedy, he has had a hand in genuine classics (Dumb & Dumber), duds (The Three Stooges) and was a driving force behind Movie 43, one of the greatest examples of just how far Hollywood can sink.

Farrelly also has a subtle knack for championing minorities, primarily those with intellectual disabilities. In films like Dumb & Dumber and Me, Myself & Irene, it’s the supposedly ‘normal’ people made into fools, not those that they deem stupid for one reason or another.

With his latest feature, based on the real-life story of pianist Don Shirley and his driver/bodyguard Tony Lip’s ‘60s tour of the American South, Farrelly taps into a similar sentiment to create a remarkably subtle piece of race-centric cinema.

As we follow Don and Tony, played with uncanny chemistry by Mahershala Ali (Moonlight, House of Cards) and Viggo Mortensen respectively, their views on the race relations landscape hits all the major points: the necessity for the guide book that gives the film its name to find safe spaces for African-Americans, the double-standards towards Don as a performer unable to dine at the clubs he plays at, and the outright courage required to be shown great indignities and still resist the urge to deck people.

This is all aided by the sense of humour on display, which shows Farrelly and co-writers Brian Hayes Currie and Nick Vellelonga (son of the real-life Tony) taking a far less vulgar route to chuckles than the Farrelly norm. Relying just as much on wiseguy antics courtesy of Tony as it does the numerous Don’s fish out of water (too dark-toned to be accepted by white society, yet too well-off to be accepted by his fellow man), it makes for poignant humour that helps with the film’s main points regarding racial and classist tensions.

And yet, none of this feels like it exists solely to prove a point, as righteous as that point may be. It shows Don’s cultural anxieties, Tony’s attitudes that vary from well-meaning to outright ignorant, yet it avoids the pitfall of turning either of them into walking billboards for the film’s message.

Much like Don’s ability behind the piano, the film applies a light touch and precision to deliver a piece of art that, as is unfortunately the case with a lot of films dealing with racial prejudice, has sizeable relevance in today’s market.

 
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Roma

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Roma is a throwback to what is truly wonderful about cinema. And ironically, there was a great deal of doubt around the possibility of audiences being able to see it in a cinema. Thankfully, Netflix – who came onto the project in a similar way to the recent Cargo, whereby the film was already in production when the streaming giant bought it outright for the world – has beckoned and the experience is sublime.

Although it is never said in the film, ‘Roma’ refers to the Mexico City neighbourhood in which the film takes place. It’s also a cinematic reference point, with the work of the Italian neorealists and films such as Rossellini’s Rome, Open City (1945) informing every frame. Photographed in black and white by Cuaron (his first film since his shorts where he took on DOP duties), the story centres on Cleo, an indigenous maid to a middle-class family in the early 1970s. Through Cleo’s wide, open eyes we see the drama unfold in the family’s lives, her own, and more broadly, the country and its people. There’s change coming, signaled by the regular planes going through the sky.

Another cinematic reference point for Cuaron is the ‘women’s picture’, with the story focusing on the lives of the women in this world, and their unjust treatment at the hands of men. The period detail, too, is truly convincing, with the use of mostly wide shots transporting you right into the heart of this vibrant culture. The period recreation is reminiscent of the recent Australian film Ladies in Black, except here it is wholly successful.  Aided by immersive sound design, and moments of relieving humour, you really are transported into this world, and go on the journey with Cleo throughout.

Cuaron has spoken about the film being highly biographical, but more than anything, this film is personal, and harks back to the work of great auteur filmmakers who, no matter what story they were telling, would include their identifiable concerns throughout. In the case of Roma, there are various references to his own previous films (Y Tu Mama Tambien, Children of Men and Gravity), to cinema and humanity which are also evident in his previous work.

At a time when the digital revolution has allowed filmmakers to iron out any true, subtle personality from their films (read: imperfection), and ironically here supported by a platform that is all about an algorithm, Roma arrives like a breath of fresh air, transporting the viewer to a land and a time that they would not ordinarily be privy to; through the lens of one of the world’s most gifted filmmakers, bringing empathy and a joie de vivre that is impossible to experience in the disposable world of the streaming age. It is ironic that this film will get less eyeballs on Netflix than junk such as The American Meme, however, we should be thankful that the continued dumbing down of the entertainment industry has somehow allowed a masterpiece such as Roma to be made as well.

 
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The School

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In one of the most intense, pedal-to-the-metal opening flourishes of any film you’re likely to see in the next few months, The School kicks off with a woman emerging from a bathtub filled with bracken water into a strange, inexplicable world filled with terrified children and ghoulish monsters. It’s a great statement of intent, and it gets The School off to an absolutely flying start. Surprisingly, this low budget Aussie belter then maintains the hectic pace, veering off in all directions, and ultimately playing out like a weird crash-together of Pan’s Labyrinth, Lord Of The Flies, The Babadook and The Others.

The woman in the bath is Dr. Amy Wintercraig (a committed and sensitive turn from Megan Drury), and the inexplicable world that she enters is some kind of strange place between worlds, where children have been abandoned to fend for themselves. The result is a harsh, cruel world populated by feral kids in face-paint, invading monsters (namely the creepy “weepers” and even creepier “hungries”), nightmare visions, and a dangerously inhumane leader in the form of brutal teenager, Zac (Will McDonald). This strange world also involves Dr. Amy Wintercraig’s son and her own personal demons, which are slowly revealed in the film’s equally edgy “real world” scenes featuring a welcome appearance from Bad Boy Bubby’s Nicholas Hope as a suspiciously benign doctor.

Belying an obviously tight budget, debut feature director, Storm Ashwood (who has a number of shorts to his credit), creates an impressively bravura dream-come-nightmare world here, making an ingenious use of interior sets and cannily employed CGI. The performances are strong (child actors, Jack Ruwald and Alexia Santosuosso, are great as Amy’s kindly but needy hosts in this strange new world), and a vivid sense of unease and controlled chaos are expertly maintained throughout. The crashing genres don’t always mesh, but The School remains an impressive piece of local low budget horror.

 
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Mortal Engines

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After finishing up with the works of JRR Tolkien (for the moment at least), the question on many fan’s mind is ‘what will Peter Jackson’s WingNut Films release next?’ The answer appears in the form of Mortal Engines, a young adult dystopian steampunk adventure that features one of the most delightfully bizarre premises in recent memory.

Based on the popular series of books by Philip Reeve, Mortal Engines tells the tale of a post-apocalyptic society where mobile wheeled cities prey on other, smaller mobile wheeled cities (and towns) with the city of London playing the part of vicious, hamlet-scoffing apex predator.

The story really kicks off when sixteen-year-old Tom (Robert Sheehan), a Londoner who has never left the rolling Pom factory, is forced to exit his home after accidentally becoming embroiled in a plot involving the gleefully wicked despot Thaddeus Valentine (Hugo Weaving) and masked would-be assassin Hester (Hera Hilmar). What follows is a rollicking adventure that manages to successfully balance world building and storytelling to a favourable degree, although the exposition at times can be a little dizzying and relentless.

Director Christian Rivers has worked with Peter Jackson as far back as Braindead (1992) and has a lot of history in visual effects despite this being his first full feature film. Consequently, Mortal Engines showcases Rivers’ ability to confidently film massive, complicated worlds and structures, without making the audience feel they’re staring at a bunch of weightless CGI. The sets and environments feel lived in and authentic, with a floating town being a particularly memorable location. Rivers is, however, slightly less assured with some of the actors, with Robert Sheehan never quite as charming or lovable as he’s written on the page. Hera Hilmar, however, is fabulous as the driven, conflicted Hester, as is Jihae whose character Anna Fang threatens to walk away with the rest of the film despite being essentially an extended cameo.

Mortal Engine’s world is massive and engaging, the concept of “municipal Darwinism” is deliciously silly and imaginative, and there’s much fun to be had drinking in the sheer gleeful absurdity of it all. That will, of course, rely on a certain amount of an audience member’s ability to suspend their disbelief, but for those young and/or young at heart enough to embrace it, Mortal Engines will hit that sweet spot of imaginative fun and escapist adventure.

 
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Mary Queen of Scots

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This is the kind of double-billing that makes for the stuff of cinematic history. On one side, you have Saoirse Ronan, who has had an unprecedentedly excellent track record these last handful of years, from Brooklyn to Lady Bird to On Chesil Beach. And on the other, Margot Robbie, star of one of the year’s finest efforts I, Tonya, and a rising force to be reckoned with in Hollywood. As Mary Stuart and Elizabeth R respectively, this shows them both at the peak of their respective powers.

Saoirse’s knack for strong-willed and wildly affecting character acting brings the Queen of Scots roaring to life, balancing almost superhuman poise and restraint with enough simmering power to reduce anyone else in the room to cinders. Robbie as the reclusive and aesthetically-obsessed Queen of England channels even quieter emotion at deafening levels, creating a solemn and even tragic depiction of a monarch who wears the crown on a very worrisome head.

These two could so very easily carry the entire film on their own, but thanks to great supporting performances – David Tennant as a fear-mongering cleric, Ismael Cruz Córdova as Mary’s private secretary David Rizzio (or sassy gay friend, as realised here) and James McArdle as Mary’s half-brother – they thankfully don’t have to.

Nor do they have to lift up the entire production around them as this film’s depiction of the turbulent and scandal-laden life of Mary Stuart does a capital job of highlighting the ruler who wanted to unite kingdoms and stop the fighting, yet was more than willing to take up arms herself when needed, either in the literal sense or in staring down those who wished to dethrone her.

It’s a depiction of Elizabethan sexual politics that shows remarkable progressivism from Mary, especially in her relationship with both Jack Lowden’s Lord Darnley and David Rizzio, yet it never feels anachronistic or even pandering.

Indeed, as captured by DOP John Mathieson and Alexandra Byrne’s impeccable costume design, it all fits in nicely.

While the film’s depiction of country matters certainly gives this period drama genuine sensuality, it ultimately serves as backing for the film’s bigger statements. Namely, how everything from physical love to emotional love become pawns in the dynastic game of chess, particularly with regards to female rulers in a largely patriarchal time. The need to show one’s own independence, removed from talk of lineage and marriages of convenience just to tie ruling families together, is given immense weight through both Mary and Elizabeth, both showing different sides of how the throne can affect both those in power and those who seek to take it.

Period costume dramas take a serious level of talent to make them work, let alone make interesting in the modern film market, but this manages to accomplish just that. It takes an upper-tier cast, a fascinating piece of historical drama, and truly burgeoning filmmaking talent in director Josie Rourke, and manages to bring the best out in all of them.

 
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The House That Jack Built

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Movies about serial killers from the perspective of the killer seem to have fallen out of favour of late, but for a short time they were all the rage. There have been some legitimately great ones over the years, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, Maniac, American Psycho, I Stand Alone and bizarre 1992 Belgian entry Man Bites Dog, all offer compelling narratives from the point of view of a sociopath. They’re also, it has to be said, not exactly a good time. Joining this niche list is Lars Von Trier’s latest The House That Jack Built and, crikey, this one’s going to be divisive to say the least!

The story revolves around Jack (Matt Dillon) aka Mr. Sophistication (his serial killer name) who is describing his life in an offscreen narration to a mysterious second person, Verge (Bruno Ganz). Jack wants Verge to understand why he does what he does, and will illustrate his twisted philosophy in five incidents. And so, the film progresses, showing in sadistic and shocking detail how Jack killed his primarily female victims and how he managed to stay out of jail. The stories all run rather too long, as does the entire film at 155 minutes, but they’re undeniably effective. Animals are tortured, women are viciously butchered and even children fall afoul of Jack’s insatiable lust for murder. It’s extremely dark stuff, lightened somewhat by splashes of black humour, but likely to alienate all but the most hardy of audience members.

The problem with movies from a serial killer point of view is that serial killers are wankers. They’re always banging on about their half-baked personal philosophies, which are essentially masturbatory justifications for being murderous dickheads, and it becomes deeply tedious. Matt Dillon’s performance as a killer with OCD is effective, but he’s such a profoundly unpleasant and dull character that you’ll be praying for his death long before the fifth bloody incident.

Perhaps that’s the point that director Lars von Trier is making, that these empty vicious men are as vapid and shallow as they believe everyone else to be, but it doesn’t make for a good time at the pictures. Having said that, this is a well-made, well-constructed, mostly well-acted and extremely effective movie. It can happily sit among the ranks of extreme cinema like Cannibal Holocaust, Salo and A Serbian Film as movies very few people will be able to sit all the way through, much less enjoy. If that sounds like your jam, you’re in for a nihilistic treat, but everyone else is advised to stay well away from this house.

 
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Peppermint

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The worst thing an action movie can do is be unconvincing. By the divine law of artistic license, action heroes always win the day, something that’s easier to buy when the hero in question fits the bill. This is why Luc Besson and his galaxy of collaborators, including director Pierre Morel (Taken, The Gunman) are as much of a boon to the genre. More times than not, they manage to chisel leading bravado out of seemingly unlikely actors. And with this latest feature, Morel and writer Chad St. John (London Has Fallen) seem to be trying the same thing with Jennifer Garner. Even though she does have prior experience in the action arena, the results here are far from impressive.

To Garner’s credit, she definitely manages to sell the emotional pain of Riley, a mother who watched her husband and daughter get gunned down by cartel thugs. The obnoxious spasms of over-editing courtesy of Frédéric Thoraval may diminish the psychological anguish at times, but for the most part, she sells the role of a person wanting to seek retribution for a system that left her behind.

As a person actively delivering on that retribution, though, she falters to a production-halting degree. The one-liners, the near-Batman levels of world-travelling to perfect her murderous craft, being able to clean out swarms of criminals and still live to tell the tale; none of it holds up to scrutiny. It’s all informed by the writing, and done so with the subtlety of a tap-dancing rhino, but never comes across as being within the character’s means. She kills, she survives, she gets her “justice” mainly because the script says that she must.

But the far greater indictment of this feature is that, even with all that in mind, Garner is still the best thing here. John Gallagher Jr., an actor who has managed to highly impress of late in 10 Cloverfield Lane, Hush and The Belko Experiment, and John Ortiz as the police officers following Garner’s trail remain stuck in genre clichés, much like the story they occupy.

Whatever semblance of nuance could be wrung out of the trappings here, something required to take a modern vigilante thriller seriously, ring as hollow as Riley’s cries that she is seeking “justice”. It barely even qualifies as “vengeance” either, given her excursion to accost a random drunken father that has nothing to do with anything else she partakes in; it’s more like a perverse form of entitlement, going far beyond anything resembling reason.

That is the big differential between justice and vengeance: what we know must be done vs. what we feel must be done. It’s also the dichotomy that, when delved into, can make for the stuff of vigilante cinema legend, like with Dirty Harry or Death Sentence, and if this film had a proper head on its shoulders, it could’ve made for at least something watchable. But alas, all we get is a dull, tired and thoroughly unconvincing entry in the sub-genre.

 
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Colette

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By the 1890s, when this racy costume drama is set, the Belle Époque (or golden era) was in full swing. From the cancan of the Moulin Rouge to the bustling artistic Salons, Paris was enjoying a delirious rush to into modernity and new mores. It seems everyone was swept up in this enthusiasm. So, when we meet Colette (a perfectly-cast Kiera Knightley) languishing in her sleepy village we can see why she just has to make it to the metropole. Her ticket there is her handsome suitor Willy who sees her potential and soon introduces her to high society as his new young wife.

Willy (Dominic West) is already quite a player. He is an impresario/writer and general man about town. It turns out that he doesn’t so much write his works as employ a ‘creative team’ of ghost writers. It sort of works, the writers get published and Willy trawls for ideas and brings the work in.

Initially, shy young Colette colludes in this team effort and is flattered by the idea of being the power behind the throne. However, when she takes his suggestion of writing a frank account of her own journey from innocence to experience, things change.

‘Claudine’ – The character she creates – becomes the toast of Paris. The Sapphic and psychologically astute books fly off the shelves, a theatrical spin-off sells out, and she and Willy realise they have launched a city-wide phenomenon. (At one point the, mostly faultless, the script anachronistically refers to this as a ‘brand’. That is exactly what it has become but that is a very 21st century term for it.)

Willy continues to demonstrate his eclectic taste in amorous matters but when Colette decides to experiment a little herself, then the old double standard kicks in. Given that Colette is the real talent fuelling the whole enterprise, Willy has to tread very carefully in trying to assert his presumed masculine dominance.

Director Wash Westmoreland (who made the very different but utterly haunting Still Alice) is obviously having a lot of fun with this one and that exuberance warms the project. The script, co-written with his late partner Richard Glatzer, has some wonderful exchanges.

It’s Keira’s film though. She has blossomed into a fine actress in such period dramas (see for example her turn in the excellent Atonement). Here she once again grabs our attention and anchors the film with aplomb. The casting is perfect for a woman who is strikingly beautiful but so sharp that you underestimate her at your peril.  The highly versatile West is also a good foil, and he brings the right touch of pathos to the vain-but-not evil Willy. There are a couple of moments where the gender politics seem a bit unnecessarily didactic but, all in all, this is a delightful and finely-crafted piece of cinema.

 
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Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

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There have been six Spider-Man movies since 2002, seven if you include Venom – not to mention Spidey’s various smaller roles in the Marvel films Captain America: Civil War and Avengers: Infinity War – so it’s safe to say that the web-slinger has been well represented on the cinema screen. Taking that notion one step further, it’s perhaps fair to say your friendly neighbourhood arachnid chap is perilously close to becoming over-exposed. It’s something of a miracle, then, that the animated Sony film Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse feels like not only a decent addition to the spider-library, but one of the best flicks in the canon.

The plot focuses on young Miles Morales (Shameik Moore) who, through a plot contrivance that would be a little mean to spoil, finds himself saddled with a 40-something slacker Peter Parker/Spider-Man (Jake Johnson) from another dimension.

Dealing with his very new powers, a plot by Kingpin (Liev Schreiber) that may result in the destruction of reality and yet more alternate dimension spider-folk including, among others, Spider-Gwen (Hailee Steinfeld), Spider-Noir (Nicolas Cage!) and motherflipping Spider-Ham (John Mulaney) – not to mention his awkward relationship with overbearing father, Jefferson Davis (Bryan Tyree Henry) – it would be fair to say poor old Miles has a lot to deal with.

In lesser hands this embarrassment of plot riches would swiftly become confusing noise, but happily screenwriters Phil Lord and Rodney Rothman keep the tone light and breezy, with enough self-awareness to have you chuckling through some of the more absurd sections and enough heart to make you genuinely care about the massive cast of endearing misfits.

And all of the above is before we even talk about the animation! Put simply, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is quite possibly the best looking animated superhero film of all time. The juxtaposition of animation styles, comic book iconography and kaleidoscopic collages of vivid colour imbues every damn frame with a jaw-dropping level of detail and artistry that is impossible to look away from. This is the kind of creativity and effort a good animated movie should have and will hopefully raise the bar for some of the lesser entries out there (we’re looking pointedly at you, DC).

Ultimately Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is a two hour-long explosion of joy and colour, brimming with laughter and heart, and the kind of film even the most superhero agnostic will adore.