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Viva The Underdogs

Australian, Documentary, Review, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

There’s something universally appealing about an underdog story. Of seeing a group of unlikely characters achieve goals far beyond their humble beginnings, or limited opportunities. It doesn’t get much more underdoggy than Parkway Drive, a band formed in 2003 by a bunch of self described “surf rats” from Byron Bay. The band, comprising Ben Gordon, Luke Kilpatrick, Jeff Ling, Winston McCall and Jia O’Connor, play a sort of hybrid of metal and hardcore – unashamedly designed for maximum mosh pit mayhem – that has taken them from some of Australia’s less salubrious venues to headling the biggest metal concert in the world, Wacken Open Air.

Viva the Underdogs is a feature-length hybrid of documentary and concert movie, showing glimpses of the unlikely journey as well as some of the trials and tribulations faced by this self-managed band on their way to international success. It’s a pleasing mix of triumph, adversity and even comedy, with the continuing failure of a molotov cocktail onstage gag feeling almost Spinal Tap-esque in its absurdity. Another moment, where all the power in the venue goes out during a Hollywood gig is utterly devastating, although the band do their best to rally and make the most of interacting with their fans. Sure, sometimes the boys in the band are farting, swearing gronks, but they genuinely give a shit about their fans and audience enjoyment, and that’s hard not to like.

Viva the Underdogs is a love letter to fans of Parkway Drive, and those folks will make up the bulk of the audience for the one night only cinema release on January 22. However there’s an undeniable appeal to the whole venture, even in its unashamedly earnest moments, and there’s something quite delightful about hearing Aussie accents ring out during a massive international concert, saying “danke, danke, danke” before ripping into another shredding number. Probably not for the unconverted, but for fans of Parkway and Aussie metal in general, Viva the Underdogs will be a noisy treat.

Find out where the film is playing near you, here:

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Arguments against our cinema being government supported should be immediately put to bed if you consider the impact of family films such as Go! In a marketplace dominated by corporate Hollywood franchises and US-based online platforms, it’s essential for our cultural identity that our children see themselves reflected on the screen. What’s more, it is these films that outperform at the box office – see Ride Like a Girl, Paper Planes, Red Dog, Babe, going all the way back to 1976’s Storm Boy.

Go!, originally titled ‘Go-Karts’, is from the writer of Paper Planes, Steve Worland, who announced himself back in 2000 with Bootmen and a Hollywood deal, before finding his groove with 2014’s Paper Planes and a sideline in thriller novels. His fiction is formulaic, but it’s also recognisable and entertaining. Here, he takes the against-all-odds family sports movie trope Mighty Ducks, Bad News Bears, etc) and applies it to small town Australia.

The story sees good natured teenager Jack (Lodder) and his single mum Christie (O’Connor) turning up in a small coastal town (shot in scenic Busselton in WA) to start afresh after the death of Jack’s dad. Jack soon turns up at a go-karting track, where he meets the awkward Colin (Darius Amarfio Jefferson), the world-weary track owner Patrick (Richard Roxburgh), arrogant golden boy Dean (Cooper Van Grootel) and his under-appreciated sister Mandy (Anastasia Bampos). Before you can say Mr Miyagi, Jack is cleaning the track with promises of time behind the wheel and training from ex pro with a dark past, Patrick.

On directing duties is Owen Trevor, who has taken a roundabout route to his first local feature. After making short films and moving into the commercial world, he directed multiple episodes of the original Top Gear TV phenomenon, and now returns home with Go!, adept at making crowd-pleasing entertainment. Trevor’s work here is highly commendable, all about keeping things simple and serving the material without bringing attention to himself or any of the potential visual trickery that could have been the downfall of a lesser filmmaker.

Key to Go!’s success is the casting, with charismatic first timers William Lodder and Anastasia Bampos able to carry the story’s emotional stakes. Supported by the experienced players, including Dan Wyllie’s comedic cop and Damian de Montemas’s cashed-up adversary, who all give the potentially cliched story and characters their full investment and surround the young cast with believable, three dimensional human beings.

It may not have the budget or big stars of its Hollywood counterparts, but Go! has something that Dolittle, etc, could never achieve, believable and admirable Australian characteristics that local audiences will be able to identify with, be proud of, and truly worth rooting for. Warning: you’ll be seeking out the closest go-karting track for you and/or your family straight after the movie.

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Just Mercy

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The integrity of a society’s character is measured not by the praises of its highest citizens, but by the condemnation of its lowest. This includes the circumstances under which the label of ‘lowest’ is assigned and whether such a declaration is just.

Across racial and economic classes, this integrity has repeatedly been questioned in the United States legal system, and the latest from Destin Daniel Cretton (Short Term 12, The Glass Castle) takes a real-life example of this in action to deliver a potent and righteous offering.

For the most part, this is a production that knows the talent it has on offer and how to best highlight what they are capable of. Michael B. Jordan plays the central role of Bryan Stevenson, a young attorney and advocate for the appeal of the wrongly convicted whose memoir is the script’s source material. Jordan keeps the film’s potential for melodrama held back by how he embodies cautious but learned coolness as he weaves his legal tapestry. Opposite him, Jamie Foxx as death row inmate Walter McMillan is somewhat of a revelation, channelling so much sorrow and bubbling frustration at the system that he appears to tap into a whole new sector of his dramatic range.

O’Shea Jackson Jr. and Rob Morgan as two fellow inmates hit their respective notes nicely, Tim Blake Nelson in his pivotal witness role shows a lot of character strength, and Rafe Spall… well, that’s where the cast consistency begins to slip, as it could not be more evident that a Suh-vern accent isn’t his native tongue. Same goes for Brie Larson, who disappointingly turns in her weakest performance of late for largely the same reason, showing a low point in her and Cretton’s previously-airtight synergy.

As an examination of a biased system, one designed to kick the socially dejected while they’re down, Cretton and Andrew Lanham’s scripting benefits from how it primarily sticks to the facts, both the circumstances around McMillan’s conviction and the ulterior stratagems that inform them.

For the story presented here, told in a post-BLM era, its resistance to syrupy, A-Time-To-Kill-with-less-sweat emotional appeals is quite commendable, which makes its real shots at the heart feel that much more deserved.

From the spiritual-laced soundtrack to the depiction of intersectional classism, right down to a haunting scene where the death row population send off one of their own, this legal drama manages to balance hard truths with an unwaveringly empathetic eye. It makes a point of highlighting that raw ideals aren’t enough to fix the world, and between the precision of its performances (and even the weaker points don’t drag the production down too hard) and its clear-eyed approach to addressing injustice, those ideals are tempered with enough real-world urgency to make them stick. And for a story about racism, its grounded depiction of such behaviour earns it bonus points for not taking the easy route.

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True History Of The Kelly Gang

Review, Streaming, Theatrical, This Week 1 Comment

The story of Ned Kelly is so huge, so mythic, and so intrinsic to Australia’s national identity that it’s almost impossible to capture effectively in any medium. There have been several cinematic stabs (most notably 1970’s Ned Kelly starring Mick Jagger and 2003’s Ned Kelly starring Heath Ledger, both of which copped much criticism despite their obvious merits and sincerity) at the legend, but none stand as definitive. Director Justin Kurzel (Snowtown, Macbeth, Assassin’s Creed) doesn’t attempt it with True History Of The Kelly Gang either, but instead flips the Ned Kelly legend on its metal-plated head. Adapting (relatively faithfully) Peter Carey’s celebrated, award winning 2000 vernacular novel of the same name, Kurzel’s film is ripe with violence, vulgarity, homo-eroticism, and androgyny, and it departs wildly from what is considered “fact” when it comes to Ned Kelly.

Ned Kelly, however, has long since swaggered out of the history books and into the more verdant territory of myth. His story is Shakespearean, and Kurzel indeed treats Kelly’s story like many filmmakers have treated the work of Shakespeare (himself included with Macbeth), ripping it from its ancient moorings and re-dressing it and reinvigorating it for modern times. True History Of The Kelly Gang is stylistically anachronistic and overtly theatrical in tone; there is nothing even resembling “realism” here. Kurzel has crafted something big and crazy with this film, boasting not only a Ned Kelly with no beard, but one who rides around in a lacy dress with the intent of striking fear into his enemies by appearing to be stark, raving mad. It’s the sort of tampering with myth and legend that would make the purists rankle and moan, but True History Of The Kelly Gang is so wilfully off-the-rails that it doesn’t even invite such a conversation. This is Ned Kelly via punk rock, Derek Jarman and avant garde theatre, and fact-checking has no place in this inventively loopy psychodrama.

True History Of The Kelly Gang tracks the growth of Ned Kelly from boy (utterly brilliant debutante Orlando Schwerdt) to man (impressive UK import and 1917 star George Mackay, who brings a bruised, wild-eyed animalistic fury to the role), as he labours under the influence of his fierce, furious mother, Ellen Kelly (Kurzel’s off-screen wife, Essie Davis, is nothing short of extraordinary) and infamous outlaw and mentor Harry Power (Russell Crowe is fabulously Falstaff-like). While dealing with matters ferociously Freudian, Ned also has to contend with oppressive, exploitative cops (superbly embodied by Charlie Hunnam and Nicholas Hoult in fine performances) and his mother’s second, much younger husband, the Californian horse thief, George King (charismatic New Zealand songsmith Marlon Williams). Leaving his young lover, Mary Hearn (upcoming New Zealand actress Thomasin McKenzie, powerfully adding to her work in Leave No Trace, The King and Jojo Rabbit) and unborn child behind, Ned turns bank robber and ends up building an army of outlaws, including his best mate (though he seems like something more) Joe Byrne (Sean Keenan is excellent as the only male character in the film who doesn’t appear wholly deranged) and brother Dan Kelly (nicely played by Nick Cave’s lookalike son, Earl Cave).

Though occasionally jarring in its surrealism, True History Of The Kelly Gang is both seamless and fearless in its style, with Kurzel delivering an act of aggressive provocation that asks for no quarter. Any work on Ned Kelly will have its haters, so Kurzel seems to be screaming “Bring it on” at as many of them as possible. His intent is bold, and so is the filmmaking, with lucid lensing from Ari Wegner, a rambunctious score from Jed Kurzel, jazzy editing from Nick Fenton, and a ripping screenplay from Shaun Grant. Ingeniously questioning our idolatry of Ned Kelly while also celebrating it, True History Of The Kelly Gang rings with the outlaw’s very spirit: it’s a cinematic rebel yell all too ready to face a hail of bullets under the armour of its own nutty bravura confidence.

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Only Cloud Knows

Asian Cinema, Review, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

To term Only Cloud Knows as a wistful romantic drama, is to seriously underestimate the weapons-grade ‘twist’ contained therein. Directed by Chinese filmmaker Feng Xiaogang, whose predominantly been known for a spray of commercially successful comedies and period films (notably Back to 1942 as well as dramas like the box office blockbuster, Youth), his genre hopping efforts of late have also included romantic melodramas.

His latest New Zealand-set story deploys the slick, ‘forever magic hour’ tone of Nicholas Sparks stories (like The Lucky One or The Notebook)) though its sombre plot is firmly intended to hit audiences right in the ‘feels’. Just like those Sparks stories, Only Cloud Knows creates an aesthetically and emotionally pleasing cocktail of style with an authentic emotional charge that significantly increases the stakes in the longing, love and loss department.

It’s told in flashback, as a widower returns to his former home to scatter the ashes of his wife and reminisces about their lives there. Thus begins the tale of Simon, whose Chinese name is Dongfeng Sui (played by Xuan Huang) and his wife Jennifer, whose real name is Yun Luo (played by Caiyu Yang). The film’s title is from the pun in their names, with Yun meaning ‘cloud’ and DongFeng meaning ‘wind’.

After initially meeting in Auckland as new arrivals in New Zealand, the pair later relocate to an almost incomprehensibly beautiful central Otago south-island property, that is so stunningly green and rolling, it’s reasonable to expect a Hobbit to walk past at any moment.

The pair open a Chinese restaurant in the small town of Clyde, using the nearby snow-capped alps as an epic background to the intimacy the story is trying to engender. The almost storybook tone is obvious and plot events are heavily signposted, yet confoundingly, it’s utterly effective.

Through flashbacks, we’re introduced to Melinda (Lydia Peckham), a local Clyde girl looking to work in their newly opened restaurant who becomes a close friend to the couple; we meet their disgustingly adorable rescue dog Blue and we generally envy the idyllic life they enjoy.

Cinematographer Zhao Xiaoding’s honey-slicked visuals and Dong Gang’s relentlessly heartstring-tugging score are the coup de grâce to a triangulated filmic headshot. The sheer force of the emotional manipulation on display is so undeniably unassailable, there’s just no option but to submit to its syrupy, sweet sorrow and just have a quiet sob in the cinema toilet stall.

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Little Women

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Greta Gerwig’s Little Women, her follow up to Lady Bird, is a significantly different movie to its predecessor. The $42M literary adaptation, produced and distributed by Sony, is a substantially bigger scale proposition than Lady Bird – an original, contemporary independent movie made for $10M.

Saoirse Ronan plays the freethinking Jo March, the beloved heroine of Louisa May Alcott’s chronicle of sisterhood which has been a literary favourite for decades, receiving at least seven film adaptations and eight TV versions. A story that was a definitive text for generations of young girls growing up; a reflection of society and the pressures women faced to marry in order to achieve success.

Little Women is filled with an energy and zeal which recalls Gerwig’s 2003, Sacramento-set Lady Bird, with Ronan providing a welcome connecting thread to their previous collaboration. The actor-on-the-rise leads as one the four teenage March sisters growing up in 19th century Massachusetts, with mother Marmie March (Laura Dern), while their father (Bob Odenkirk) is away fighting in the Civil War. Alongside Ronan are Harry Potter actor Emma Watson as sibling Meg, and rising stars Florence Pugh (Midsommar) as Amy March and Eliza Scanlen (upcoming Babyteeth) as sister Beth.

Pursuing her literary ambitions, Jo is torn between her literary mentor Friedrich (French actor Louis Garrel – Jealousy, At Eternity’s Gate), and unreserved dreamboat Laurie, played by Timothée Chalamet – who acted with Ronan in Lady Bird. With her impending future uncertain and her father away, Jo turns to wise matriarch/book favourite Aunt March (Meryl Streep) for counsel. Rounding out the film’s all-star cast, Streep is joined by her Adaptation co-star Chris Cooper (in a terrific turn as Laurie’s generous grandfather Mr. Laurence, who takes the March sisters under his wing).

Concentrating on its protagonist’s struggles of choosing and navigating between societal expectations and career aspirations (Chalamet’s Laurie, who is adored by all the March sisters, or Garrel’s Friedrich); pressure to marry versus dreams of visiting abroad and becoming an author; Gerwig’s first studio feature puts a major spotlight on Ronan’s Jo March. Alcott’s most popular novel and its character’s struggles with the growing pains of independence reflect Lady Bird. Both are female coming-of-age tales.

 Little Women is largely successful in re-capturing the youthful enthusiasm of Gerwig’s preceding movie. However, the film is marred by muddling time jumps which will confuse audiences, its 2+ hour running time (which, paradoxically somehow feels truncated and missing key story details, yet is too long), plus sub-plots seem to be missing, glossed over – or greatly reduced.

Despite what feels like consistent producer meddling, the stamp of Gerwig comes through in spades. The jealousy and anguish conveyed by the trio of Ronan, Chalamet and Pugh. The chaos of sibling rivalry. The bravura and unconventional handheld camerawork of French cinematographer Yorick Le Saux (I Am Love, High Life), which captures the vigour of Jo – noticeably during a brief dance between Jo and Laurie.

Equally, the subversive and winking touch of March’s publisher Mr. Dashwood (playwright-actor Tracey Letts) addressing the camera and insisting the heroine of Little Women be married off – that no-one will “buy” the story otherwise.

A big-studio affair “holiday release”, this is a project Gerwig was “brought onto” to take over the reins. Though it comes full circle in its ending, Gerwig’s version of Little Women often seems altered, confused and simplified from original intention. As a result, the film suffers. Despite its imperfections and faults, this bright, sisterhood saga is full of joy, which audiences will no doubt embrace.


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Spies in Disguise

animation, Review, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

For all the bonkers tomfoolery endured by Ethan Hunt, transforming into a fast-talking pigeon with a bow tie imprint emblazoned upon his chest is perhaps too overwhelming of a mission for a spy who has successfully gone knuckle-to-knuckle with Superman [aka Henry Cavill’s August Walker in Mission Impossible – Fallout].

Paying homage to spy flicks with a stunning blend of geometric animation and a feverishly high-energy hip-hop soundtrack, Blue Sky Studios’ action-comedy Spies in Disguise sets out on a mission to reinvigorate with a refreshing message of pacifism.

When a mysterious bionic villain (Ben Mendelsohn delivering on the menace with an Australian accent like nobody’s business) with a legion of killer drones threatens to wreak widespread havoc, the world’s greatest super spy Lance Sterling (Will Smith) reluctantly enlists the help of Walter Beckett (Spider-Man himself, Tom Holland), a clumsy young scientist whose go-to is peaceful resolution to conflict over Sterling’s blow them up mentality.

Hijinks ensue, with Sterling and Beckett going on a globe-trotting adventure to nab their perp and prevent global destruction. All this occurs while Sterling, following an experiment turned fowl (sorry), must navigate the mission as a blue pigeon with almost 360-degree vision; taking Sterling from 007 to double-o-avian (not apologising for that one).

Not even James Bond could match Sterling in the suave department, let alone command the respect he does amongst his fellow spies; the delightful likes of which include Rashida Jones, Reba McEntire, Karen Gillan, DJ Khaled, and a scene-stealing supporting cast of colourful, peculiar pigeons.

Nick Bruno and Troy Quane, who make their directorial debut, deliver on the zany premise thanks to impressive visuals, high-octane action, humour, and strong performances from the voice cast – Holland being a standout – who are in tune with the themes of compassion and understanding at the core of the film.

Like a tailored jet-black tuxedo with an accompanying bow tie to match, the message of non-violent conflict resolution at the centre of Spies in Disguise proves a stylish fit for a new era of animated filmmaking.

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Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

Review, sci-fi, Theatrical, This Week 2 Comments

The Star Wars sequel trilogy, comprising The Force Awakens (2015), The Last Jedi (2017) and Rise of Skywalker (2019) has been a weird, disjointed game of push me, pull you. The Force Awakens, directed by J.J. Abrams, arrived on a frothy wave of nostalgia that was almost enough to make you ignore the fact that the story was essentially a soft reboot of A New Hope (1977), complete with a ‘what if Death Star but more?’ central conflict and an antagonist, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) who was a Sith stan, essentially lobbing about in Darth Vader cosplay!

Rian Johnson’s divisive The Last Jedi followed, and remains one of the most beautifully shot blockbusters in recent memory. It’s also saddled with a spectacularly cack-handed script that includes highlights such as: Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) – a bloke who was once willing to lay down his own life to save his dad – attempting to murder his best mate’s kid in his sleep, Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) fanging around the cold vacuum of space like Mary Poppins after a fat line of bathtub goey and the longest, dullest second act “chase” between two incredibly slow ships that defies even the low standard of logic and pacing set by previous Star Wars entries.

Which brings us to The Rise of Skywalker, a film that was handed back to J.J. Abrams after originally slated director Colin Treverrow got shitcanned for reasons that will no doubt become clear at some point in the future. And the result is… messy but okay? See, this is where the push me, pull you thing comes in. J.J. Abrams had his own plan, which Rian Johnson subverted and then J.J. had to come back and retcon a bunch of things to make his story fit, and the end result is a lumbering Frankenstein’s monster of a story that feels so micromanaged and inconsistent it’s almost avant garde.

The story revolves around our returning heroes, Rey (Daisy Ridley), Poe (Oscar Isaac), Finn (John Boyega) and a mostly-CGI Leia on their quest to find several McGuffins that are littered about in various expensive-looking locations. They’re doing this to help combat the return of Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid). Oh yeah, Palpatine’s back. This is revealed in a blunt, tension-free fashion in the opening minutes and never explained to any degree of satisfaction. In fact, that describes the film as a whole, full of action and call-backs and stuff occurring, but very little downtime to reflect on anything. That said, if you can channel your inner twelve-year-old there is enjoyment to be had. The design of Star Wars is, as usual, peerless. Iconic ships, soldiers, monsters and locations fill the screen with cheerful frequency, doing their best to mask the deep deficiencies of the script.

And by the way, despite sticking the boot into The Last Jedi (deservedly so, in all honesty), we’re genuinely not here to slag off Rian Johnson or even J.J. Abrams. No, the biggest problem with this Star Wars sequel trilogy is that they seem to be making it up as they go along; reactive writing is rarely good writing, which these movies illustrate all too clearly. The plan for this trilogy should have started with a killer premise, followed by three rock solid treatments, followed by three finished, polished and ready-to-shoot screenplays that were then adhered to. Writing is the cheapest part of the process and yet for some reason the powers that be spent the least amount of time on it. Well, this is what you hath wrought. A thin, inconsistent, occasionally baffling trilogy that captured nary but a fraction of the soul of the original films.

Star Wars is a hugely important cultural touchstone to many, but in all honesty this sequel trilogy is a bit of a mess. The Rise of Skywalker is just the latest example of the same, and while it has some fun moments, solid performances and striking imagery, it’s simply too procedural and soulless to be anything more than adequate. Kids, the actual intended audience for this, will likely have a decent time, but for the rest of us, maybe it’s time to accept that Star Wars’ time in the sun is over. At least until they hire some writers and belt out a decent script.

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Just when you thought an adaptation of a jazz-ballet musical showcasing a clowder of junkyard cats competing against one another to ascend into cat-heaven wasn’t absurd enough, Tom Hooper takes it one voyeuristic paw further into strange-dom with his live-action adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s polarising musical Cats.

The fact that these titular cats frolic in garbage becomes mildly symbolic of the film itself. Cats, a musical renowned for being largely story-less, relies on the extravagance of its performances to captivate (let alone justify its transition from stage to silver screen).

Had Hooper taken his approach from Les Misérables and focused on extended takes, Cats could have dazzled by the sheer prowess of its performers. Hooper offers a series of fast-moving and jarring dance sequences that are as fleeting in screen time as the litter of actors who occupy the ensemble cast. The heavy lifting here is actually handled by an impressive slew of dancers who linger in the background.

Like a Snapchat filter on acid, the news that Hooper would use innovative fur technology to bring the ‘Jellicle cats’ to life was met by a wave of hysteria from the internet. What exactly the filmmaker tries to achieve with this disturbing visual style is anyone’s guess, with the characters losing the humanity of their performances as a result of the bizarre visuals. (And don’t even get started on their curvaceous physiques or the obvious use of green screen.)

Based on his previous work, Academy Award-winning director Hooper (The King’s Speech, The Danish Girl) has an innate ability to illustrate a sense of space and to evoke emotion on the face of his cast, lingering that few seconds longer to gracefully studying their facial performances. However, the application of Hooper’s emotive direction in Cats, an attempt of speaking to characters’ sense of feeling like an outsider, becomes lost amongst a sea of expensive, yet sketchy, animation that negates the actors’ performances.

The victims of this are a star-studded cast of actors including the likes of Judi Dench (serving mad bedroom eyes), magic glitter tornado Idris Elba, comedic oafs Rebel Wilson and James Corden, ballet superstar Francesca Hayward, a miscast Jason Derulo, a reliable Jennifer Hudson, a fully committed to being a cat Ian McKellen, and the only actor brave enough to endorse the movie, Taylor Swift.

Outside of stunning production design, bringing to life Hooper’s vision of a ‘90s inspired fantasia, Cats fails to be more than one-dimensional thanks to its incessant need to be freaky.

Aside from the Taylor Swift/Andrew Lloyd Webber penned new song, ‘Beautiful Ghosts’ and Jennifer Hudson’s powerhouse rendition of anthem ‘Memories’, the music in Cats lacks the charm of the original Broadway production, imbued with a sense of superficiality that will likely find the soundtrack unable to connect with audiences.

It is safe to say that 2019 has offered a tremendous learning curve for studios regarding what limits there are to CGI. From athletic looking hedgehogs, lions performing Shakespeare, the re-animation of the dead, and now unearthly feline-humanoid hybrids, studios are (slowly) realising that just because you can animate it, doesn’t mean you should. Cats, as a result, becomes unable to claw itself away from its detracting visuals.

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The Biggest Little Farm

Documentary, Review, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

Like with most stories, the moment that gets The Biggest Little Farm rolling is a deceptively simple one: husband and wife John and Molly Chester want to give their dog a good home, one where it won’t keep running into problems with the neighbours and their landlord. Seeing this as an opportunity to fulfill one of their dreams, they decide to pack it all up and start a farm. A very big, very diverse, very insanely-riddled-with-complications farm.

Built on the foundation of John’s experience in nature photography, the film is bursting with vibrant wildlife, making everything from the hardened dirt they first have to work with, to the eventual flourishing, to the numerous, numerous shots of animals crapping look quite appealing. This is aided by the occasional animated interjections, furthering this film as a real-life example of the Old McDonald nursery rhyme.

And it is an example forged out of forehead sweat and primeval clockwork, as John and Molly’s quest to make the land tenable gives an insightful look at biodiversity in action. From live birth to accidental death, from irksome predators to unlikely allies, the way that the farm’s ecosystem is shown puts emphasis on all the little pieces it consists of. The main livestock, their animal protectors, the various crops within ‘the Fruit Basket’, the outside forces of coyotes and freak weather, even the snails crawling up the fruit trees; it’s all part of a larger whole, with each obstacle faced serving as another chance to put the puzzle pieces together.

It’s also all kinds of adorable, to the point where post-film conversations will likely consist mainly of which animal is cutest. While making Pyrenees guardian dogs and a marching army of ducks look appealing isn’t exactly that hard, the centrepiece of Emma the pig shows the film’s empathy at full force. John has a mantra of observing nature to see what happens, and with Emma, he seems to have stumbled onto a genuine character arc. It’s rather surreal to think that Emma’s personality is better fleshed out here than far too many characters are in mainstream big-screen fiction.

Getting the audience onside and caring for the animals involved also adds to the film’s bigger picture, which boils down to two people wielding an almost-blinding level of idealism and putting in the work to make it manifest. With everything that gets thrown at them, even making John question his own ideals in the process, their want for a simpler and eco-friendly existence is what pushes them forward. In John’s own words, “intent alone is not a protector”, and he certainly backs that up so that his own loftiness doesn’t just amount to empty words.

What we get out of all this is a synecdoche of the world’s ecosystem, portrayed through the cyclical design of a singular farm, and imbued with enough sheer optimism that it proves quite infectious. Given current concerns regarding our own treatment of the environment, this offers some real compost for thought.