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Jim Schembri’s new release movie reviews and Pacific Rim Uprising interviews.

Jim Schembri

MARY MAGDALENE *1/2 (120 minutes) M

Given how Jesus Christ arguably had a more interesting life than anybody else in human history it’s something of an achievement that director Garth Davis has turned this story about Christ’s entourage and His relationship with Mary Magdeline into such a dirge.

A luminous, doe-eyed Rooney Mara plays Mary, one of the acolytes following Joaquin Phoenix’s Jesus around the biblical badlands. She watches lovingly as He delivers motivational speeches to the downtrodden and challenges the authority of the Roman state.

It’s a deliberately quiet, deliberately paced film with plenty of long shots, pauses and staring off into the middle distance, a la Visconti. World-renown Aussie cinematographer Greig Fraser makes beautiful the wind and the light and the rocks of the terrain Jesus and His growing flock trapse across.

Unfortunately, Davis struggles to bring life to the expedition. Intended, in part, to redress Mary’s reputation as a reformed prostitute, the story tends to skip over the most interesting bits of the Jesus saga, giving the film a choppy, episodic feel.

Fresh from his triumph with Lion, Davis might have over-estimated our craving for a Jesus film at Easter time. Still, slow films tend to play better at home so Mary Magdalene might find its followers yet. As far as being a cinema experience goes, though, it’s a beautiful bore.

 

PETER RABBIT ***1/2 (95 minutes) PG

Given how every beloved childhood character sooner or later gets laser-targeted by filmmakers eager to transform decades of affection and trans-generational brand recognition into mountains of box office cash – the two Paddington movies have so far made about half a billion, and that’s theatrical only – it was inevitable that Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit and his crew were going to get comprehensively zapped.

And they have been, but in the most glorious and loving way.

Created in 1902 and accompanied by sweetly innocent illustrations, Peter and his pals have been totally updated and digitised for sassy 21st century kids. For the nostalgic parents and legal guardians of such kids, there are, of course, respectful nods to the traditional vision of Peter Rabbit (including some trad-animation giving life to the old-style book illustrations), but for the most part he’s been duly madeover into a a cheeky, fast-talking, self-referential prankster who, along with sisters Flopsy, Mopsy and Cotton-tail and cousin Benjamin, wage war with the local farmer, whose garden produce they merrily steal.

The inciting incident occurs when the aged Farmer McGregor (Sam Neill) croaks and is replaced by his nephew Thomas (the formidably versatile Domnhall Gleeson). He only wants to sell the farm so he can return to London to start up a toy store to rival Harrods, from where he has just been fired.

His plans are derailed, however, when he encounters his lovely neighbour Bea (Rose Byrne), who is also a longtime friend of Peter and his posse.

It makes for a quite a sophisticated romantic triangle, especially for a childrens’ film, but director/co-writer Will Gluck – an American best known for teen sex comedies such as Fired Up, Friends With Benefits, About Last Night  and Easy A – presides over the conflicting interests with admirable clarity. It’s a tough sell, as Thomas must be seen as a threat who is also likeable, but it works nicely.

The combination of live-action and digital animation is of the high standard six year olds raised on Disney and Dreamwork films now demand, with Australian outfit Animal Logic, who did the Lego movies, rendering superb work.

There is a lot of comic violence in the film, which has been appropriately given a PG rating.

There’s been a small degree of controversy over one scene in which Peter & Co take advantage of the allergy Thomas has to blackberries by shooting some into his mouth. This makes Thomas go into anaphylactic shock, which he quells by stabbing himself with an Epipen.

This was deemed offensive by some people and Sony, stupidly, issued an apology for not being more sensitive to the allegy issue.

Yet the film is full of comic violence. Far more disturbing, surely, is the scene where Peter is being held by the neck and strangled. Peter really looks like he is facing death. The film also features the use of dynamite and electrocutions. None of these have raised objections.

A few quick points: (1) the film carries an appropriate rating of parental guidance; (2) film producers are not responsible for raising society’s children; (3) kids understand the abstractions of comic violence and that it is different from real life.

If they did not, and if it caused real harm, we would not have had nealy thirty years of The Simpsons. This pop-cultural monolith not only features Itchy & Scratchy (an ultra violent parody of Tom & Jerry), it has the signature image of Homer strangling Bart. Yet three generations have managed to grow up with the show without turning into maniacs.

In one key scene that foreshadows Thomas’s allergy, Peter Rabbit himself actually foresees the controversy by joking to the audience that they don’t want to get letters about it. Alas, even that wasn’t enough to make people relax, and it’s sad to see how the common sense of some people has been over-estimated by an animated bunny rabbit.

 

PACIFIC RIM UPRISING *** (111 minutes) M

One of the good things this zippy sequel has over the 2013 film is that Guillermo del Toro didn’t direct it.

Ably stepping into that seat is Stephen S DeNight, best-known as the show-runner on such huge fanboy hits as Spartacus and Daredevil, and who here proves himself adept with how to play with the lucrative big boy’s toys of a giant robot franchise.

Taking place a decade after the events of the last film, in which giant robots called “jaegers” piloted by humans fought giant monsters intent on destroying our cities, the basic premise follows a young former jaeger pilot called Jake (John Boyega, aka Finn from Star Wars) as he reteams with the force but finds trouble within the ranks. Seems the top brass want to replace piloted robots with ones that drive themselves.

Of course, everything that could possibly go wrong subsequently does. Large-scale mechanical mayhem reigns, with Scott Eastwood (son of Clint) thrown into the mix along with the city of Sydney, which is where a lot of the giant robotic body-slamming takes place.

Whichever way you cut it, these films owe a huge debt to Michael Bay and his critic-negating Transformer films. Indeed, many of the battle scenes in PCU look like they could be dropped into any of Bay’s city-set cage matches without anyone noticing.

Though the first Pacific Rim wasn’t a big hit in the US it did extremely well in China, which explains why this sequel got green-lit and why there is so much Chinese content and money in it.

So, in a way, PCU is a sign that the future has arrived. With China set to overtake the US as the world’s biggest movie market, Western films keen to tap it benefit hugely from Chinese actors on the screen and Chinese money in the production. So get ready for more of this sort of thing.

While in Sydney recently on a promotional visit, director Stephen S DeKnight and actor/producer John Boyega were kind enough to discuss the film, its legacy and what the future holds.

For DeKnight, the film marked his first time as a feature film director. For the 26 year-old Boyega, the film represents a big leap forward as he not only has to carry the film as one of its stars, but also as one of its producers.

Both gents were in very high spirits, with Boyega an especially responsive live wire. Please enjoy.

Here’s the John Boyega interview.

And here’s the Stephen S DeKnight interview.

 

 

 

 

 

Jim Schembri
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