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Jim Schembri’s new release movie reviews plus Richard Lowenstein interview. 12 Jul, 2019

Jim Schembri

BOOKSMART **** (103 minutes) MA

Studious, plain-looking teenage girls in movies have typically had the tougher, and therefore more interesting, character journeys in their quest for romance, fun times and self-esteem.

That’s the chief, and solitary, convention at the heart of actress Olivia Wilde’s wonderful directorial debut, a singularly unconventional, extremely funny, occasionally insightful tale of high school hijinx, girl talk and how reality can sometimes slap you in the face at the least convenient moment.

Heading a young ensemble cast of relative unknowns – Jason Sudeikis and Lisa Kudrow (remember her from Friends?) are the only real name actors here – are Kaitlyn Dever and Beanie Feldstein, two young actresses whose fizzy comic chemistry and natural air infuse the film with an infectious, upbeat vibe.

The set-up is delicious. Set on the very last day of high school before the big graduation ceremony, best friends and study buddies Amy (Dever) and Molly (Feldstein) discover a very unpleasant thing: that they forgot to play hard as well as study hard.

Their presumption was that sacrificing fun for the sake of study would put them ahead of their layabout classmates. However, in a hilariously memorable scene, it turns out the classmates they held in such contempt studied just as hard as they did. They just had the good sense to enjoy themselves, too.

Though it’s a buried story point, it is telling that as smart as these girls think they are, they never bothered researching the many benefits of mixing recreation with study. So, ironically, their “all work and no play” dictum not only made them dull and cost them a social life, it probably hurt their final scores.

Despairing at the realisation that they could have partied with everybody else during the year they resolve, on this final night of school,  to go party crazy.

This offers them the chance to prove to their classmates that they are not dullards, and to pursue their romantic interests, with Molly having her eyes on one of the school’s alpha males and Amy keen to explore the crush she has on a girl.

Wilde’s finely balanced direction hits the spot again and again as the girls go on a quest through their darkened, middle-American neighbourhood in search of the unauthorised house party everybody has been invited to. The increasing intensity of the night is matched by a growing tension between them.

They wrestle with each other over how far out of their comfort zones they should venture, an argument that leads to a blisteringly funny sequence involving dolls, which reveal some hard truths about teenage girls and body image.

Ultimately, all the mayhem circles back to the meaning and depth of their friendship, and of what the future holds for their bond once they hit college. Kudos to Wilde for making scenes of dramatic import work in the middle such a raucous journey.

As with most teen films over the past decade – and even since the 1980s, if you want to be fair – Booksmart does a good job playing with and subverting teen stereotypes. For instance, we see a school jock who isn’t a musclehead and a popular girl who isn’t stupid. Even teachers are given a fair go here.

As good as the film is – critics in the US loved it when it came out in June – it was met with a lukewarm reception at the box office, due in part to opening on way too many screens – 2500, which is crazy for a quality, low-budget word-of-mouth date film like this – and against the blockbuster Aladdin, which would have soaked up much of the date-night demo.

Still, the great thing about the 21st century movie market is that films that falter in theatres can go on to have long and strong second lives via digital media, where they hopefully connect with the audiences for which they were intended.

Back in the day, if you flopped at the box office that was pretty much it. There was no such thing as a home release or a back catalogue you could access from your exercise bike.

  

STUBER *** (93 minutes) MA

There’s plenty of fun and games in this enjoyable action comedy about a struggling Los Angeles uber driver Stu (Kumail Nanjiani from The Big Sick) who is forced, Collateral-style, by a revenge-seeking cop (Dave Bautista from Guardians of the Galaxy) to drive him around town as he hunts down the drug dealer who murdered his partner.

The adventure skips along at action-movie pace with the clever comic plotting involving Uber culture being just the latest example of how proficiently America hard wires the newest societal game-changer into its film culture. (That’s a fancy way of saying how good the Yanks are at exploiting the latest trend.)

It’s a great follow up to The Big Sick for Nanjiani, who has a very likeable, goofball presence. Bautista, too, shows some notable comic chops, getting some Mr Magoo-worthy laughs due to his poor eyesight.

The only quibble with the film – and it’s a major one – is why a light-hearted action-comedy like this feels the need to be so violent.

And it’s not comic violence, like you see in a Jackie Chan film, but Scorsese-level violence. The fight sequences are rough and unnecessarily realistic, especially when it comes to gunplay. Do we really need to see the blood spurt out of somebody’s head when they get capped?

That caveat aside, Stuber is a fun ride that thankfully takes the shortest route through an engaging, if byzantine plot.

  

YESTERDAY *** (116 minutes) M

The powerhouse duo of director Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire; Trainspotting) and rom-com screenwriting legend Richard Curtis (Love, Actually; Notting Hill; Four Weddings, etc) deliver unto the world an extremely likeable, feather-light fable about music, love and plagiarism.

While riding home from yet another unsuccessful music gig, struggling musician Jack Malik (Himesh Patel) has an accident during a global 12-second blackout and wakes to find he is the only person who knows of The Beatles.

A failure in life in every respect, he naturally suspects he is the subject of an elaborate practical joke. Once he’s sure he’s not, Jack taps into his primal opportunism and claims the work of The Beatles as his own. He becomes a global phenomenon, hastily ushered by his deliciously cold-blooded, aptly named manager Debra Hammer (the terrific Kate McKinnon).

But as Citizen Kane reminded us via the ever-quotable Biblical zinger: “For what shall it profit a man if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” Or even worse, in Jack’s case, the affections of Ellie (Lily James from Downton Abbey), his beautiful small-town manager and high-school crush?

An impressively adept Ed Sheeran adds his star wattage to the film’s central, oft-repeated message that any overdose of success, fame and wealth can be as toxic to life as any illicit drug.

As his popularity swells to arena-filling proportions, poor Jack is faced with the demons of conscience as to how long his lucrative, consequence-free charade can continue.

Along with its more obvious themes, Yesterday offers filmgoers a diverting – and very deliberate – head scratcher.

As well as The Beatles, a host of other globally popular things disappear, but for Jack’s memory of them. Presumably, there is some underlying logic that ties them all together, and good luck to anyone who dedicates themselves to figuring out what the key is to the mystery.

(If you’re after clues, here’s a tip: Google is not much help!)

 

SPIDER-MAN: FAR FROM HOME *** (129 minutes) M

The clever twist at the centre of the latest Spider-Man film – the eighth since the character was rebooted in 2002, and the 11th if you count his major appearances in Avengers: Infinity War, Avengers: Endgame and Captain America: Civil War – goes some way to justifying its existence.

With Jake Gyllenhaal appearing as the impressively caped, aptly named trans-dimensional Mysterio, Tom Holland returns to an upgraded spandex suit for a surprisingly original adventure where humour is as big a part of the proceedings as the swirls of visual effects. Director Jon Watts, who did the previous film Homecoming, has clearly taken a page from the Thor: Ragnarok guide about how to keep a franchise fresh.

Most impressive here is the use of a European school excursion to emphasize Peter Parker’s enduring appeal, that he is a mere teenager with raging hormones who is still learning about what it means to be a superhero.

Also hurrah-worthy is the abstract concept behind a lot of the action, which takes a big step away from the usual demolition marathons we typically see in these films. All in all, a very satisfying meal of a film.

But plot pedants take note: the concept of the five-year gap introduced in Endgame is part of the narrative here. Called “the Blip”, the people who vanished five years earlier reappear, looking as they did when they disappeared – that is, they look five years younger than those who did not vanish during “the blip”.

However, as well as looking five years younger they are also considered to be the same age as when they disappeared.

This is wonky logic – something not unfamiliar in the Marvel universe.

As the laws of movie time travel teaches us, if you move ahead on the same timeline your age technically increases because your date of birth is the same.

It doesn’t matter how young you look, your age is determined by your birthday – which occurred on the same timeline – not by how many years you skipped due to suspended animation, time travel or whatever.

That’s the theory, anyway.

 

ANNABELLE COMES HOME *** (106 minutes) M

Fans of the hyper-popular Conjuring horror franchise know how in the basement of the suburban house of supernatural investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson, Vera Farmiga) is a collection of items that are allegedly cursed and dangerous to get near.

Most perilous of all is Annabelle, the haunted, creepy-looking doll that sits in a locked cabinet, presumably to keep her evil from leaking out.

So, having already spawned two films, it makes sense that the third – and probably not the final – Annabelle film should be set primarily in the Warren’s cozy abode, and in the very room where Annabelle sits, waiting for some soon-to-be-sorry sod to open her door.

That sod comes in the inevitable form of an overly curious teenager. The teen providing the plot-propulsion here is Daniela (Katie Sarife), the friend of babysitter Mary Ellen (Madison Iseman) who is charged with taking care of the Warren’s daughter Judy (Mckenna Grace ) while the Warrens are out on a job.

Daniela hopes to use the room’s supernatural vibe to reconnect with her father, who died in a car crash. Yet as we all know by now, and as these kids – including local hunk Bob (Michael Cimino, no relation to the director) – soon learn, you disturb the spirits at your peril.

And the spirits unleashed do a splendid job, creating a lot of fun, B-grade spookery using in-camera effects – that is, effects that are done live before the camera without digital assistance. There is digital work in the film, of course, but all the trickery adheres to a wonderfully effective old-school aesthetic. Even Annabelle herself is untainted by digital magic.

In his first film as director Gary Dauberman, who wrote all the Annabelle films (as well as co-writing It and The Nun) shares with his Conjuring colleague James Wan (Aquaman) a love of low lighting and negative space, where much of the frame is kept deliberately empty, but full of the fear that something might suddenly step in to give you a jolt.

 

CHILD’S PLAY *** (90 minutes) MA

Here’s a terrific example of how to do a reboot: you take an existing concept, hold on to the central premise, then rethink everything from the ground up.

For the new version of the famous seven-film horror franchise about an evil doll called Chucky – which did not involve creator Don Mancini, though rest assured he’ll likely get a sweet taste of the film’s takings – Chucky is not a doll possessed by evil but an assembly-line toy that has been messed with by a disgruntled employee.

The trouble-seeking toy winds up in the apartment of a very young mother (Aubrey Plaza from Parks and Recreation) whose troubled, partially deaf son (Gabriel Bateman)  embraces.

Voiced by Mark Hamill from Star Wars (who on Earth doesn’t know that by now?), Chucky is a delightfully satirical symbol of 21st century technology gone bad. With his warped programming and learning protocols, he takes his behavioural cues from what he sees, including the entertainment consumed by couch potato kids.

A pretty potent biofeedback loop is created and fairly soon the murder and mayhem you’ve been hoping for begins to materialize, sometimes in startling fashion, reminding us of how totally creepy movie dolls have been since 1945’s Dead of Night.

And prepare for more, for as the original franchise taught us how there’s nothing much you can do to an evil movie doll that can’t be repaired so it can be sent back into service.

Coincidentally, there’s a cluster of films right now in which dolls are cast as figures of menace, with the latest Annabelle and Toy Story films also attesting to their dark appeal.


AFTER ** (106 minutes) M

Given the recent stream of high-quality teen romances we’ve seen, After unspools as a very cliched, by-the-numbers effort offering a very basic, very familiar story template.

Wholesome suburban girl Tessa (Josephine Langford, an Aussie from Perth) arrives at college, leaving behind her wimpy boyfriend (who is still at high school) and conservative mother (played by a miscast Selma Blair), who is freaked out to find her beloved daughter’s roomie is a Goth-lite naughty gal with an attitude that screams “bad influence”.

Inevitably, the studious Tessa soon feels the dark allure of forbidden fruit that threatens to derail her noble ambitions to be a good student.

The fruit comes in the attractive form of Carlin (Hero Fiennes-Tiffin), a brooding, laconic James Dean clone who wears an old-school black leather jacket, brandishes a British accent (thus making him a touch exotic) and is a lover of classic romantic literature such as Pride & Prejudice, Wuthering Heights and The Great Gatsby (thus giving him depth).

Despite her veneer of contempt for this rebellious presence in her lecture hall, poor Tess must fight to keep herself from swooning over such a seductive cocktail, yet the battle between her better judgment and her hormones soon gives way to glorious surrender and her life is turned upside down.

The leads give it all they’ve got, and Langford is impressive given the limited range of her role. The film looks pretty and director Jenny Gage, to her credit, knows the rhythms of melodrama well.

But it is fluff, especially when compared to the great run of story-strong teen films we’ve had this decade, including Eighth Grade, Lady Bird, Paper Towns, The Fault in Our Stars, The Duff, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, The Diary of a Teenage Girl and The Spectacular Now (to name a few).

Still, if you’re in the mood for undemanding fluff, then this fluff will prove enough. It has certainly hit at the box office, with the cheap $14 million film taking a respectable $US70m. Seems the teen romance market is similar to the horror movie market: keep your production costs low, please your key demographic with copious amounts of what they want to see and you’ll have a hit. And sequels are already planned for After.

The genesis of this film is of particular note. The best-selling novel by Anna Todd grew out of fan fiction tract she wrote on Wattpad in adoration of Harry Styles from boy band One Direction.

So, as with 50 Shades author E.L James, it’s pretty clear how new media can give voice to authors who would probably wouldn’t have gotten much purchase through traditional publishing avenues, even if what they produce is largely pulp.

  

MYSTIFY: MICHAEL HUTCHENCE **** (102 minutes) MA

An outstanding, moving, disturbing documentary exploring the tumultuous life of late INXS lead singer Michael Hutchence, his formidable talents as a songwriter and performer, and the many demons that hounded him until his untimely death in 1997.

Veteran Melbourne director Richard Lowenstein, responsible for some of INXS’s most memorable music videos (Burn for You; Listen Like Thieves), presents the story without talking heads, instead using the frank voices of Hutchence’s relatives, colleagues, friends and lovers over archival films.

And what a treat those images are. With access to loads of private, freshly uncovered footage, much of which was sitting in his attic, Lowenstein constructs a vivid, immersive portrait of Hutchence, his rise and fall, his romances and his life-altering encounters with happenstance and road rage.

Based in St Kilda, Richard Lowenstein is one of Australia’s most distinguished film directors.

Among his feature credits are: Strikebound (1984); White City (1985, for Pete Townshend); Dogs in Space (1986, starring Hutchence); Say a Little Prayer (1993); He Died with a Felafel in His Hand (2001); and the documentary We’re Livin’ on Dog Food (2009), which captured the layabout lifestyle of work-averse bohemians of the late-1970s.

 Lowenstein also directed many of the INXS music videos, U2’s Angel of Harlem video, the U2 doco LoveTown and Pete Townshend’s Face the Face.

For television, Lowenstein produced John Safran’s Music Jamboree and John Safran vs God. He also produced the remarkable 2013 feature documentary In Bob We Trust, directed by long-time collaborator Lynn-Maree Milburn, co-director with him on U2’s Desire video and who served as a producer and editor on Mystify.

In the middle of a busy production schedule, Richard generously agreed to a sit down in his office to discuss Mystify.

An avid conversationalist at heart, he went into a lot of rich detail about the film. Thus, the interview is presented in a short version, with a link to the luxury long version. (Look for the “i” icon at the top right of the screen.)

Please note that the unsavory rumours about the nature of Michael Hutchence’s final moments are discussed at length in the long version only.

Jim Schembri
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