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Jim Schembri’s new release movie reviews, 20 January

MML

NEW RELEASE MOVIE & STREAMING REVIEWS – 20 January

LION **** (120  minutes) PG

We always pine for a good Australian film to kick off each new year with the hope that it will serve as an omen of things to come, and the remarkable Lion certainly sets the bar high.

Unhurried in pace, subtle in tone and simple in structure, this moving, compassionate film (an Australian-American co-production) engages with the age-old theme of finding one’s place in the world, yet through uniquely 21st Century means.   

Based on the true story of Saroo Brierley, it tells of an impoverished Indian boy Saroo (Sunny Pawar) who becomes separated from his brother at a train station during their daily hunt for resellable coal.

Unable to find him, Saroo falls asleep on a train in a deserted station. Hours later he awakes to find the sun streaming into his face and the train speeding him away to parts unknown.

Full of fear and utterly lost, good fortune guides him into kind hands and ultimately into the loving embrace of adoptive parents from Australia (Nicole Kidman and David Wenham).

Growing into a fine, accomplished young man and happily living the comfortable life of the white middle-class in Tasmania, Saroo (Dev Patel from Slumdog Millionaire) seems content to accept that his early life essentially belongs to another person.

But as powerful as his denial is, the appearance of a sweet food he loved as a child triggers a course-changing rush of emotions that sweep away the cushion of comforts that have protected him.

It’s as though a long-dormant switch has been hit as he begins wondering more and more about the Indian family who still worry after him. After decades of unconditional love from his Australian parents and relative tranquility, his need to reconnect kicks in.

While this disrupts his relationship with Lucy (Rooney Mara) it draws his circle of friends in tighter as the try helping him on his quest. One of them has the idea of using this new thing on the internet called Google Earth.

Now, despite the wonders of digital animation, filmmakers have long struggled, and largely failed, to make the internet look interesting on film.

Thankfully, director Garth Davis (Top of the Lake) avoids all the usual traps by not suddenly making the film techno-centric. Rather, he uses Google Earth as the mere means by which Saroo transforms faint memories into useable information, with each revelation heightening the tension as his search for home progresses.

Working from a screenplay by Luke Davies, Davis, in his first feature, keeps the pace from accelerating too quickly, lest the story ferment into a melodrama. The film’s poignant themes about loss, friendship and extended families are roused with all the usual movie tricks, yet are never forced. It really will get your eyes misty.

Supported by richly nuanced performances – with a deglamourised Kidman being the standout – Patel shines as a man going through an unstoppable transformation that is driven more by compulsion and conscience than by outright desire.

He is the remarkable centrepiece of a remarkable, moving, lovingly rendered film, with world-renown Aussie cinematographer Greig Fraser (Zero Dark Thirty; Foxcatcher; Rogue One) providing images raw and beautiful.

 

XXX: THE RETURN OF XANDER CAGE ***1/2 (107 minutes) M

With all the requisite explosions, chases and gunfights you’d want, Vin Diesel returns to revive yet another action franchise in a highly entertaining, deliriously preposterous crash-bam adventure that will satisfy all those Diesel fans who are finding the wait for the next Fast & Furious movie just a little too testing.

With another ethnically mixed team in tow and under the icy command of Aussie veteran Toni Collette – you’ve come a long way, Muriel – Vin’s mission here is to retrieve a device capable of downing satellites and dropping them on specific targets. It’s a basic premise, but still better than the one dished up in the last Bond.

Alongside the standard action fare – car chases, machine-gun fights – Diesel’s noble and never-ending quest for unique action scenes produces a few treats, including a novel chase across the water on customised motorbikes and a sequence in zero gravity as a giant cargo plane plummets to earth.

Though we’re long past the point of regarding tough women in action films as anything special, it remains pleasing to see them in such fine form amidst all the over-pumped male muscle and stubble.

Aussie actress Ruby Rose, from Orange is the New Black, lends some zesty lesbian chic to the action as a trigger-happy sniper. She’s an attractive presence (aside from her surfeit of unsightly tattoos) alongside Indian megastar Deepika Padukone and Nina Dobrev (The Vampire Diaries), who does a nice turn as the film’s bespectacled tech nerd.

With Donnie Yen (Rogue One), Kris Wu and the legendary Tony Jaa (from the classic martial arts film Ong Bak) on board, the film is the latest to reflect its deep interest on the ever-expanding Asian film market through its casting.

There are neat nods to the first two xXx films aswell as a decent dollop of humour. And Diesel certainly proves his titanic appeal here. Having helped save the Riddick and Fast & Furious franchises from oblivion, he has shown for a third time that having him kick ass in a movie can also prove to be the kiss of life.

  

COLLATERAL BEAUTY *** (97 minutes) PG

From director David Frankel (Devil Wears Prada; One Chance; Marley & Me) comes a sweet-hearted fable in which Will Smith gets to show off his ability to whimper so convincingly you just have to whimper along in sympathy.

Smith plays the partner in a successful New York advertising agency that is going great guns until he loses his daughter. Though his head is out of the game, he remains an active presense in the office for years, spending most of his time building domino structures before collapsing them. That he doesn’t video them and put them on YouTube where thet would no doubt go viral and earn big bucks is never explained, though it just goes to show how mentally unbalanced he has become. 

This behaviour doesn’t make his partners (Edward Norton, Michael Pena & Kate Winslet) very happy, especially given that he refuses to allow the purchase of the company by a white knight investor.

Deep in depression, Will writes letters to Love, Time and Death, telling them what he thinks of them. To his shock, they visit him, Christmas Carol-like, in person.

It’s a ruse, of course. They’re actors (Helen Mirren, Keira Knightly and Jacob Latimore) hired by Will’s partners to make him act crazy enough so that his corporate power can be legally rescinded.

With just the right touch of whimsy and magican realism, the A-list ensemble do a fine job dialling up the schmaltz, with Frankel dropping in a big hint about half-way through that a big twist is on the way.

Collateral Beauty really is a nice, innocuous little film designed for those in the mood for an undemanding weepie. All films demand a certain degree of surrender from audiences, and this one asks for no greater one than your average melodrama.

Yet, once again ladies and gentlemen, we have here an example of how an unpresuming, mid-range movie can mysteriously become a lightning rod of inexplicable online hatred. Read any sampling of the negative reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, with some hissing with the ferocity usually reserved for Nazi propaganda,  and one gets that weird, all-too-common sensation where you cannot connect the film you saw with the review you are reading.

Perhaps it’s the case that your humble reviewer is getting softer as the years advance. Or it might be that too much online blurting and not enough thinking is producing a generation of film critics that don’t understand movie narrative. It’s just a theory, but every time a new Transformers film is panned while making a billion dollars there seems to be more evidence for such a dire disconnect.

 

JACKIE **1/2 (99 minutes) M

The all-too-obvious challenge for any film daring to cover the days in the life of the wife of President John F Kennedy around the time he was assassinated on 22 November 1963 is how to make the enterprise not look like a glossed up horrorshow.

To that extent director Pablo Larrain – the Chilean director of No in his first English-language film – succeeds in showing how Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy – nicely channelled by Natalie Portman – fought to bring dignity, pride and pageantry to the occasion of her husband’s demise, even as she dealt with the immediate tragedy with his blood still on her dress.

A fine film boasting some notably detailed period recreation, Jackie is being widely and inaccurately referred to as a biopic. It’s simply too big a life to distill down to 100 minutes of drama. Yet as a historical drama about how a nation looked to a single person for its cue about how to react to the murder of its leader the film does make for a solid, if somewhat repetitive, journey.

Portman has rightly been receiving praise for replicating the affectations of Jackie, and she does sell her as the stalwart heroine who stood strong in America’s hour of need. There are moments of dramatic confrontation where the performance looks too much like a collection of closely copied tics, but by and large it’s convincing enough to invite speculation of a sequel that explores the international icon she became once she’d finished setting JFK’s legacy into the national psyche.

 

MIDDLE SCHOOL: THE WORST YEARS OF MY LIFE ***1/2 (92 minutes) PG

Downright funny kid-movie satire about the horrors of moving to a new school and dealing with a dictatorial principal who hates creativity and loves oppressing students.

The main character Rafe (Griffin Gluck) is the newbie fighting to fit in, with his love of drawing giving the film plenty of excuses to break out into playful animation.

He is also trying hard to keep good with his single mother (Lauren Graham, from Gilmore Girls) who is in a questionable  relationship with a kid-averse motorhead (Rob Riggle, providing very funny support).

Director Steve Carr (Paul Blart; Rebound; Next Friday) keeps things moving breezily, manages to work in an effective story twist and merrily allows many scenes to be stolen from his young cast by comedian Andy Daly, who plays the principal and bears an uncanny resemblance to former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd.

 

THE BENEFACTOR *** (93 minutes) M:

Well-etched character piece about a high-spirited philanthropist (Richard Gere) with no family who looses two of his closest friends shortly before opening a children’s hospital. Despite a descent into Howard Hughes-like isolation, he picks himself up by strengthening his relationship with his friends’ daughter (Dakota Fanning, in another impressive turn) and her new husband (Theo James, from the Divergent franchise), who is to work in his hospital.

But why is he always in such a good mood? Turns out his wealth has allowed him to indulge a liking for certain prescription medications, but when they run dry he becomes desperate and is forced to face the choice that confronts all addicts.

Writer/director Andrew Renzi keeps things straightforward and gets terrific performances out of Gere and especially James, who proves something of a revelation after walking through the Divergent films.

The Benefactor is available on DVD and is streaming on: Quickflix; iTunes; GooglePlay; Playstation and DendyDirect.

 

MASTERMINDS **1/2 (110 minutes) M:

As a throwaway Friday night pizza time killer, this redneck comedy is a funny enough caper lark. Apparently based on a true story it features Zack Galifianakis doing his goofball turn as a low-IQ armoured car employee who is convinced by two slightly smarter ‘friends’ (KristenWiig and Owen Wilson) to help them steal $17 million. Needless to say, things don’t go quite to plan as stupidity and duplicity clash to produce a passable fun night in. Directed by Jared Hess, best known for Napoleon Dynamite and Nacho Libre.

Side note: The film also stars Leslie Jones, who we’ve just seen in the failed Ghostbusters reboot. Now, when notable conservative commentator Milo Yiannopolous, in reviewing Ghostbusters, quipped that Jones looked like a man she took great offense, and much controversy consequently blew up on Twitter. However, in Masterminds, jokes are openly made about how much her character looks like a ‘dude’, and even Jones chimes in on the gag. So how offended was she really, given that she made Masterminds long beforehand? 

Masterminds is out on DVD and is streaming on iTunes and DendyDirect.

 

 THE CROWN **** MA

Our ceaseless infatuation with Queen Elizabeth II is given yet more fuel by this sumptuous, superbly produced series, conceived by Peter Morgan, the British writer behind the Oscar-winning The Queen, Frost/Nixon and Hereafter.

Designed as an historical drama with the emphasis on the personal rather than the political, the first two episodes deals with the slow expiration of King George (Jared Harris) as the young Elizabeth (Claire Foy) and her new husband Phillip (Matt Smith) prepare for the mammoth responsibility that awaits them.

Even though Winston Churchill (John Lithgow) has just been re-elected prime minister, it’s the new Queen who will lead post-war Britain into the future. And never mind gender equality, the King explains to Phillip as he realises the naval career he is about to sacrifice: ‘She is the job,’ he is told without qualification.

Under the direction of Stephen Daldry (The Hours; Billy Elliot) Foy, who has just taken a Golden Globe for her performance, gives a nice, nervy edge to Elizabeth. At the altar she shows hints of uncertainty and as the change in her life looms, she hovers about her father’s desk, silently wondering if she is up to the task.

With 60 episodes planned as part of a production touted to cost around $165 million (that’s actually a good return for that budget given how many one-off Hollywood films cost more than that) the scale of the project certainly shows a robust faith and confidence in being able to sustain its audience.

The first two episodes, which were released as a feature in cinemas in the UK, bode well. Let’s just hope the real Queen, whose legacy the series is designed to capture for posterity, gets to see them all.

The Crown is available on Netflix.     

 

WESTWORLD ****

In an era crammed with more remakes and reboots than the average mind can stand, this splendid science fiction series provides a prime example of how to do it right.

The classic 1973 film by science fiction writer/producer/director/author Michael Crichton (Jurassic Park) on which the series is based had a killer premise. In the future, people pay to visit parks that recreate different eras in history. Populated by androids, customers are immersed into these worlds where they can behave however they please. The most popular of these worlds is the Old West, but things go awry when the robots start malfunctioning and begin acting on their own.

The great thing about this HBO series is how creators Lisa Joy (a producer on Burn Notice) and Jonathan Nolan (frequent collaborator with his director brother Chris) have preserved the bare bones of the original concept while reconceiving the whole thing from scratch and in absorbing detail, taking full advantage of all the digital tricks at their disposal. (For added heft, JJ Abrams and Bryan Burk, ala Star Wars, produced the series,)

We still have human ‘guests’ visiting a western town full of android ‘hosts’, all pre-programmed to participate in narratives written by the park’s managers.

There are all the things guests expect from their experience – gunfights, romances, hookers, horses and bars – but these dust-blown scenes (filmed on location in Utah) are cross cut with the cool interiors of the park’s control centre.

It’s here where ideas such as artificial intelligence, consciousness and the nature of robotics get an airing as the androids slowly start going off-script.

It makes for a compelling clash of genres, especially as the events are rewritten to be more bloody so the park’s security team can retrieve malfunctioning robots.

Westworld boasts a terrific cast – Thandie Newton; Ed Harris; Luke Hemsworth; Jeffrey Wright; James Marsden; Evan Rachel Wood; and Anthony Hopkins as the crusty creator of Westworld who likes speaking with first-generation androids who have been retired.

It is also not for kids. When it comes to sex, the park’s hookers are happy to walk around with their tops off, and when people get their face blown off they literally get their face blown off. Nothing is left to the imagination.

The first two episodes, directed by Nolan, then Richard J Lewis (a TV veteran) look great – especially as we see robots being created by giant 3D printers (has a horse’s skeleton ever looked so beautiful as here?) – and immerse you into the world as effectively and fully as the park’s guests.

With the slow loss of control kicking in about half way through episode one, Westworld shapes up as one heck of a thrill ride.

Westworld is streaming on iTunes; Dendy Direct; Google Play; and Playstation.

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