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REVIEW: The Conjuring 2

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Talented Aussie director, James Wan (Saw, Insidious), gave horror fans a treat with 2013’s The Conjuring. Despite a somewhat familiar screenplay, Wan teased out a tense and engaging horror narrative that delivered bulk scares and creepy imagery. The good news about The Conjuring 2 is that Wan once again provides about 90 minutes’ worth of slick, memorable horror. The bad news, however, is that The Conjuring 2’s running time is 134 minutes.

The Conjuring 2, once again, opens with terminally square but good-hearted paranormal investigators, Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga), as they experience the horrors of The Amityville House in an effective opening sequence that admittedly feels like a rehash of a scene from Insidious. The action then switches to Enfield, a borough in North London, where the Hodgson family are being beset by what appears to be an evil force, and single mother-of-four, Peggy (Frances O’Connor), is at her breaking point. Daughter Janet (Madison Wolfe) is experiencing vivid visions and unusually mobile furniture, and could be suffering from demonic possession. Naturally few believe the Hodgsons, so it’s up to the Warrens to once again save the day. Eventually.

One of the problems with The Conjuring 2 is that it essentially repeats the same beats of the first film, but takes so much longer to do so. In taking on the “true story” of the so-called Enfield Poltergeist, we spend an unnecessary amount of time faffing around with the Hodgsons who, to be frank, are kind of dull. Madison Wolfe is effective as Janet, but Frances O’Connor’s take on the mum, Peggy, sounds like she’s about half a minute away from offering to “sweep your chimney for a ha’penny” or burst into a lesser known song from My Fair Lady. The rest of the family are pretty forgettable, and sections spent with them tend to drag.

The Warrens fare a little better, however, but again we know that they’re going to end up in Enfield, so every scene of them fighting against this inevitability feels like filler. That’s not to say that there aren’t creepy moments along the way – there are plenty. Wan fills the screen with evil nuns, creepy children’s toys, effective nightmare sequences, loud noises, and a “Crooked Man” monster that is oddly endearing albeit a little goofy.

The problem is that at 134 minutes, the film is outrageously overlong, and the third act climax, when it finally arrives, feels like more of a relief than the logical conclusion to the story. The Conjuring 2 has stellar moments of horror, and effectively homages numerous genre classics like The Exorcist and Evil Dead 2, but it’s simply too long to sustain the earnest and often silly ghost story at its core.

 
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A Perfect Day

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A Perfect Day begins “1995… Somewhere in the Balkans,” and that’s about as much as we know about the situation taking place. Being incredibly vague about the war is what writer/director, Fernando León de Aranoahas, does so cleverly. The particulars are irrelevant, as this film is about the lives of those people caught in the crossfire. In this case, it’s the relief workers who are trying to support innocent locals, along with the politics and violence that they encounter on a daily basis. But instead of making this a heavy affair, Aranoa uses humour and sharp dialogue to make his point – hence the ironically chirpy title. There are obvious comparisons with M*A*S*H and Catch-22 in the film’s approach to black humour in war, and similarly David O. Russel’s Three Kings, but with an indie twist.

This is achieved with the help of a likeable and off-kilter cast, in the form of Benicio Del Toro, Tim Robbins, Olga Kurylenko, Fedja Stukan and Mélanie Thierry. But it’s the two experienced male leads who steal the show, especially in their scenes together. Del Toro has fun playing the exhausted hero, and Robbins is fast becoming a thinking man’s Bill Murray as he continues to embrace these battier roles. The plot revolves the aid workers attempting to salvage a dead body from a well before it contaminates the water supply. This proves to be easier said than done, as they also need to comply with government protocol and avoid being killed – not to mention the fact that rope itself is extremely hard to obtain.

This isn’t really enough of a story to carry an entire film, and the many minor subplots are not given the time that they need to balance the film as a whole. For instance, the inclusion of a local boy waiting for his parents is where most of the emotion sits, yet the conclusion comes and goes before it’s allowed to properly sink in. Similarly, Del Toro’s relationship problems back in America just distract from the problems arising in the moment. Despite its faults, A Perfect Day makes a powerful statement on war by disregarding the violence and focusing solely on the strength of regular people in extreme circumstances.  

 
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Hello, My Name Is Doris

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It’s refreshing to see a unique American indie film, and more significantly, a leading role for the legendary and still brilliant Sally Field. She plays Doris, who has spent most of her adult life taking care of her mother, who has recently passed away. Alone in the family home filled with hoarded goods, Doris’ brother (comic actor, Stephen Root, in a deeply serious role), his wife, and a therapist put pressure on Doris to clean the place up and potentially sell. When a friendly young man (Max Greenfield from Veronica Mars, The Big Short, and TV’s New Girl) starts a job at her workplace, the frazzled and socially awkward Doris takes a fancy, and wangles her way into his life. It’s obvious to the viewer that he’s just being friendly, but Doris sees him through the imagination of a Mills & Boon novel, which leads to a resolution that is not going to end well…or will it?!

The film’s success hangs on the character of Doris, and whether you’re willing to go on a journey with this strangely naïve and anti-social human being. She’s a one-of-a-kind, though instantly recognisable, and credit goes to co-writers, Laura Terruso and Michael Showalter. Part of the fun is seeing Doris learn what young people are into in order to find common ground with her crush, including going to an electro gig in highly inappropriate fluoro gear and being embraced by the hipster crowd and the band as well!

The secret ingredient is Sally Field, who is still as cute as she was donning the religious habit in The Flying Nun all those years ago. She’s pure gold, and her charm should be bottled. It is just such a shame that this vastly talented actress doesn’t get the lead roles that she deserves due to the ageist industry that she is a part of. She is also offered great support in the film by Tyne Daly as her best friend, another ageing actress who should be cast more often in films of substance. Hello, My Name is Doris is not exactly a film that you should rush out to see at a cinema due to its no frills visual style and general design, and it will play equally well at home, but it is still very well done, and is worth watching for Sally Field alone.

 
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REVIEW: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out Of The Shadows

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The 2014 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles reboot courtesy of Michael Bay’s production company, Platinum Dunes, was a surprising success, both critically and financially. Ironically, maybe it had something to do with the fact that they didn’t have a finished script when production commenced, but Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles delivered an energetic and goofy enough set up for a whole new franchise. Alas, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out Of The Shadows follows the pattern of Bay’s own Transformers movies, with the first flick showing promise and the subsequent sequels sucking progressively harder.

Playing like an old school sequel (remember when these were automatically derided?!), Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out Of The Shadows dispenses with any sort of character development, replacing it with introductions of well-known characters, Casey Jones (wasn’t he originally a vigilante?! Not here…), Rocksteady (embodied by wrestler, Stephen Farrelly aka Sheamus, before the CGI kicks in), Bebop (Gary Anthony Williams), Dr. Baxter Stockman (Tyler Perry), and the disgusting neuro-monster, Krang (voiced by Brad Garrett). The strangest new addition to the cast, however, is highly respected thesp, Laura Linney, slumming it for the pay cheque as the head of police.

Megan Fox, meanwhile, returns as April O’Neil (although she has very little to do here outside of the first five minutes), as does Will Arnett as sarcastic news cameraman, Vernon Fenwick, who is now better known as hero, The Falcon, after taking credit for the work of the Turtles in the first film.

The plot revolves around a pact between Baxter Stockman and bad guy, Shredder (Brian Tee), to break the latter out of prison, and to open up some form of next dimension which then introduces Krang, who just wants to destroy the world by transporting some fuck-off spaceship to earth through a hole in the sky or something The Avengers-like. With so many characters involved, the turtles themselves are given less to do here, and the film suffers for it.

Incoming director, Dave Green (Earth To Echo), turns everything up to 11 here, especially the noise and dizzying camera work. The set pieces and fight sequences are not handled particularly well, with confusion-causing showiness replacing logic. To make things worse, an early scene featuring a Transformer cameo hints that a crossover Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles /Transformers movie might be on the cards. God help us!

 
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REVIEW: Now You See Me 2

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Following the original and not all together terrible Now You See Me, new cast members, Lizzy Caplan and Daniel Radcliffe, join Mark Ruffalo, Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Dave Franco, and Morgan Freeman for a second, stupidly entertaining adventure in Now You See Me 2. Set one year after they outwitted the FBI and won the public’s adulation, The Four Horsemen finally resurface for a comeback performance, where they find themselves on the receiving end of trickery. Now with their lives at risk in an international high-stakes game of cat and mouse, they’re determined to expose a ruthless tech magnate, Walter Mabry (Radcliffe), who has blackmailed the illusionists into pulling off their most impossible heist yet.

The success of the original, which took in a whopping $300 million worldwide, seemed incentive enough for The Horseman to return, with the sequel helmed by Jon M. Chu (Step Up, Justin Bieber: Believe), who takes over from original director, Louis Leterrier. Though his previous credits are nothing to write home about, Chu has solid expertise in directing movement, which he here fuses with technology and cutting-edge design to deliver on the big, bold, and innovative screen magic that the studio was undoubtedly looking for. Because of the intensely choreographed magical feats and stunts, Chu’s dance-direction history really works in his favour; it is, at times, a bit like watching a dance performance.

Going into this film, you would suspect that the writing is terrible – and it is, but in a really good way. Penned by Ed Solomon (who co-wrote the first film with Peter Chiarelli), Now You See Me 2 leans into the fact that the content overall is a little bit cringe-worthy, making a lot of jokes at their own expense throughout. It’s annoyingly endearing, and totally gets you on board. That being said, there are questionable reveals about the characters and their history together. No spoilers, but these insertions are just unnecessary and frustrating, and the film would have been better without them.

What really makes Now You See Me 2 worthwhile though is the cast. Eisenberg gives a layered and nuanced performance as the highly egotistical and slightly awkward Daniel Atlas. Eisenberg really knows how to use his body, gestures, and facial expressions to communicate things that his character isn’t actually saying. Franco and Harrelson are still the fall guys, used mainly for comic relief – though they are both given a chance this time around to add a bit of maturity to their characters. Harrelson is hilarious, and a welcomed tension-cutter to balance out the more intense figures. The real standouts, however, are Ruffalo and new kid on the block, Lizzy Caplan. Replacing original “girl Horseman”, Isla Fisher, Caplan oozes confidence from the very first frame as Lula, over-shadowing her skilled co-stars with her sassy and commanding screen presence. Ruffalo is always on point; his performance is critical to the film, as his penchant for subtle misdirection keeps you guessing against the otherwise predictable plot at every touch point.

Now You See Me 2 is every bit as larger-than-life and stupid as you would expect it to be – but it totally owns it, and that’s what a makes it clever. It asks you to suspend your disbelief way too much, but also makes fun of the fact that it does so. It has all the subtly of a rabid chimp, but it really is arrestingly entertaining from beginning to end. Now You See Me 2 is full of showmanship, charisma and a touch of heart. Not a bad way to spend 129 mins.

 

 

 
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REVIEW: Money Monster

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Hollywood used to make films like Money Monster quite a bit, but now they’re getting much farther and fewer between. “We were really lucky it got picked up,” director, Jodie Foster, said at Monday night’s Australian premiere in Sydney. “Why these mid-range movies are very rare now is because they aren’t franchises; they are original content, original stories, and they are really about characters and emotions.” And she’s right. The story is original, and more than that, it is refreshing to watch an action drama that’s not part of some six-installment production schedule.

Lee Gates (George Clooney) is a cheesy, bombastic TV personality whose popular financial network show has made him the money wiz of Wall Street. But after he hawks a high tech stock that mysteriously crashes, an irate investor (Jack O’Connell) takes Gates, his crew, and his ace director, Patty Fenn (Julia Roberts) hostage live on air. Unfolding in real time, Gates and Fenn must find a way to keep themselves alive while simultaneously uncovering the truth behind a tangle of big money lies.

Money Monster moves very quickly, so you really have to pay attention, and that might have something to do with the film being shot in real time. It’s rapid, even slightly schizophrenic in parts, where you’re having to shift gears as much as the characters to catch and respond to each character inflection; it’s a “blink and you’ll miss it” kind of scenario.

While the script is strong, the real strength of Money Monster is in the cast. Clooney is certainly predictable but no less lovable or charismatic, delivering a tight performance as a narcissistic hedonist forced to confront his choices in a very public pressure cooker. Roberts is simply stellar. It’s always great to see her in a non-romantically charged role, as she’s given open highway to really let rip in exploring more of her range. Her performance is even more impressive when you consider that for 90% of the film, she is acting in isolation. Her character, Patty, is mostly in the control room throughout the film, while Clooney is on set, and while most of her dialogue is with him, they are never actually in the same room; she’s in his ear as the director of the show. While Clooney and Roberts are a pretty safe bet, the real breakthrough of the film is emerging English talent, Jack O’Connell (Unbroken, 71), delivering an authentic portrayal of a working class Queens local, struggling to live in a rigged economy. His character, Kyle Budwell, is a nervous ball of rage, and is exhilarating to watch.

There are sticky moments, and some sub-plots that seem a bit hackneyed, but they are forgivable largely due to the success of the cast and the fact that Foster openly indulges in the fact that Money Monster is a mainstream genre film. And while that’s certainly true, it’s also an intelligent movie that is technically sophisticated, that demands something a bit more from the audience, and in fact, asks the audience to work a bit harder.

There are high-level themes at play here: Wall Street corruption, our technology dependence and saturation, the dangers of info-tainment journalism, and the effect of all of the above on the larger global community. They’re heavy hitting ideas no doubt, but Foster handles them with the perfect level of insight. All things considered, Money Monster is a far more rewarding experience than your typical “things go bang” genre pic, and a credit to the killer cast and production team under Foster’s steady and playful direction.

 
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God Willing

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The premise here is that young Andrea (Enrico Oetiker) has something really important to tell his family. They all think that he’ll be saying he’s gay, but – oh, the irony – it’s that he has found Jesus and wants to become a priest. This goes down like a lead balloon with Andrea’s supposedly curmudgeonly father, Tommaso (Marco Giallini), who is a brilliant surgeon…and an atheist. Tommaso assumes that Don Pietro (Alessandro Gassman), the charismatic priest who converted Andrea, is a phony, and resolves to unmask him and thereby put the boy off religion. And that’s really what the film is all about, because while there are many further plot developments and complications, they all add up to an exercise in pathetic sustained farce and contrivance. The subplot about Tommaso’s unhappy and unfulfilled wife, Carla (Laura Morante) feels tacked on, Tommaso’s tactics are utterly ludicrous, he’s revealed to be a “big softie” at heart in about two minutes flat, and what we find out about Don Pietro is equally inane.

God Willing starts modestly, with a smattering of amusing lines, and then rapidly deteriorates into tedium and mawkishness. What might have been – and is being touted as – an intelligent entertainment, with sharp Woody Allen-style exchanges between believer and cynic, becomes at best a heavy-handed sermon (as it were) about the merits of open-mindedness. And then there is the horribly ill-advised “funny” bit about intellectual disability. Just to add to the groan factor, it’s burdened with irritatingly perky “this is a comedy” theme music, which alternates with a riff so close to Iggy Pop’s “Lust For Life” as to be almost actionable. Godawful.

 
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REVIEW: Queen Of The Desert

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Gertrude Bell (1868-1926) was an extraordinary figure by any standards. She was an intrepid English traveler, scholar, and orientalist, who traversed the deserts of The Middle East at huge personal risk – at a time when a woman’s place was supposedly in the home – and whose knowledge and shrewd insights exerted a major influence on English foreign policy. Throw in the fact that Queen Of The Desert was directed by Werner Herzog, one of the giants of world cinema, and expectations soar. So it’s a considerable disappointment that, while perfectly competently made, Queen Of The Desert is actually rather flat, wooden, and Mills & Boon schmaltzy.

Much of the focus here is on the romantic involvements or preoccupations of Bell (Nicole Kidman), which could have been dramatically engaging in themselves but simply aren’t. First, there’s the English diplomat, Henry Cadogan (James Franco), and later the British army major, Charles Doughty-Wylie (Damien Lewis). Inevitably, neither of these is anywhere near as interesting as T.E. Lawrence, who’s played well enough by Robert Pattinson. Unfortunately, it’s a very small role, while the central one of Bell – who was herself a sort of female Lawrence of Arabia – is never properly “unpacked” in a way that explains her intense motivation and drive. The story just meanders along without any propulsion, changing locations from Iran to Syria and Egypt, and covering different stages in the decline of The Ottoman Empire before, during, and after WW1. Tribal conflicts, tumultuous events, and the Arabs themselves are almost relegated to the level of incidental backdrops. The one substantial thing Queen Of The Desert has going for it is Peter Zeitlinger’s cinematography: it’s exquisitely beautiful. But it’s not enough.

 
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REVIEW: The Nice Guys

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For his third at-bat directing, Lethal Weapon scribe, Shane Black, returns to the buddy comedy formula that has served him so well for the ‘70s set actioner, The Nice Guys. Of course, Black employs a certain kind of comedy, and the best adjective for it is also his surname. In Shane’s world, everyone is venal, corrupt, broken, or just plain evil – although they do tend to keep up a constant stream of witty repartee in between the violence, the brooding, and the drinking. Even Black’s heroes are just a rung or two up the ladder from his villains – take alcoholic PI Holland March (Ryan Gosling), who keeps himself in booze and wide ties by taking missing person jobs from naively hopeful old ladies, or Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe), a big-gutted, rough-knuckled enforcer who keeps trying to improve his vocabulary when he’s not dismantling people for profit.

These two cross paths when March is hired to find a missing girl and Healy is hired to make him stop. Except the girl is not the girl that March was hired to find – she’s dead, and the reason has something to do with catalytic converters. And pornography. The point being, there is a girl, Amelia (Margaret Qualley), and some very bad men (Keith David and Beau Knapp) will kill her unless Healy and March find her first. Carnage and quips ensue.

The plot, as you can probably tell from the preceding paragraph, is a rambling mess, (barely) held together with coincidences and intuitive leaps. Still, so what? Plot didn’t matter much to Raymond Chandler, either. What is important is attitude and style, and The Nice Guys drips with it. For all that, there’s depth here, too. The film’s engine is in the constant verbal jab-and-parry between its two leads, but its heart lies in the way that it shows just how broken these two screw-ups are. March is a self-destructive drunk who fell apart after his wife either walked out or died on him, a man so non-functional that he gets his 13-year-old daughter, Holly (Angourie Rice), to chauffeur him around when he’s too messed up to drive. Healy, on the other hand, seems to be the loneliest man on earth, living in an apartment above the famous Comedy Store just so he doesn’t have to endure the crushing silence between doling out beatings. For both of them, saving Amelia means some kind of redemption.

That’s all deeper stuff, though – on a pure visceral level, The Nice Guys is a blast: violent, sleazy and sexy in that very specific late ‘70s way, and hysterically funny. It’s not just the crackling dialogue, either; Gosling shows considerable skill at physical comedy, and Crowe speaks volumes with his deadpan exasperation. Although the pace flags in places, you’re never bored, and it’s down to the chemistry between these two – plus Rice, who holds her own as the moral centre of the film. When the smoke has cleared and the last body has dropped, you’re left with a solution to a criminal conspiracy that doesn’t make a huge amount of sense, but you also know that you’ve had a real good time. The Nice Guys is not the instant classic that Kiss Kiss Bang Bang was, but it’s a whole heap of fun.

 

 
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REVIEW: Alice Through The Looking Glass

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The second instalment of the Alice In Wonderland franchise, Alice Through The Looking Glass has been a lightning rod for criticism from day one. Admittedly, the Tim Burton original left a lot to be desired, and so the announcement of a follow-up had many sceptics putting their judge hat on long before production even began. This time around, Burton has opted for the producer’s chair, handing the torch to director, James Bobin (The Muppets, Muppets Most Wanted). While Bobin does a stellar job with the source material, it’s unfortunately not quite enough to pull it from the wreckage of the first.

This time around, we see Alice kicking arse and taking names as a headstrong, self-assured sea captain, travelling to strange lands on her deceased father’s vessel, The Wonder. Alice has become confident and daring since her last trip to the Underland, which vexes her mother and the establishment of weak-chinned men that she must answer to in 1800s London. During a difficult financial situation between her mother and a powerful rival family, Alice returns to the whimsical world of Underland – this time through a looking glass – to find The Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp) in a horrible state. She must save her friends from Time (Sacha Baron Cohen), a half-clockwork, half-human, omnipotent demigod who has the ability to travel back and forth through different time periods with a special device secreted in a gold-coloured chromosphere. The chromosphere has the power to both save and destroy Underland, and Alice is faced with making emotionally difficult choices.

The plot is highly complex, and ultimately too complex. While screenwriter, Linda Woolverton, should be applauded for taking a risk here, the film ends up feeling shallow and unresolved. The characters, for example, arrive at their emotional breakthroughs far too easily and seemingly at random, which feels hackneyed and forced. This is, of course, all happening within the larger convoluted “time” plot line, where the characters are contending with very intricate ideas with little time to actually explore them.

Mia Wasikowska brings a fabulous level of maturity to Alice the second time around, giving her character a lot of depth, charisma, and humour despite the dourness of the plot. She also makes interesting choices in her role which – without giving anything away – really pay off. Depp’s Hatter is as alluringly zesty and mercury-poisoned as ever. His ability to add intense emotional mystery and unique physical inflections to his characters is never tiring to watch, but even he gets lost in the jumbled plot and overly-done green screen swampland. Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter steal the show though; their confident and commanding on-screen presence definitely gets them noticed, and Baron Cohen in particular is simply hilarious even when serious. Their characters, however, are sadly given little opportunity to really shine. And that’s the real problem with this film. There are just too many things going on, and as a result everything is skimmed over.

The look and feel of Alice Through The Looking Glass, however, is terrific. Bobin takes calculated risks and commands more meaningful, engaging performances from his ridiculously skilled cast. But the complexity and superficiality of the plot, along with the over-produced and cheesy fantasy world inherited from Burton (sorry, Tim), result in the whole thing feeling a bit like skim milk, or worse, soy.