Category: Uncategorized

DC League of Super-Pets

Verdict: A cheerful super-doggy flick that hasn’t learnt any new tricks.

Watching Superman take his dog for a walk seems as absurd as The Flash running on a hamster wheel. But that’s what you get from the nutty mind of writer/director Jared Stern (of The Lego Batman Movie fame).

DC League of Super-Pets peeks into the multiverse and imagines a superhero world where the Man of Steel has a pet dog named Krypto. The film begins by explaining how puppy Krypto snuck his way onto baby Superman’s escape pod just before the destruction of Krypton. Fast forward to today and we have the domesticated bliss of man and dog fighting crime in between playing fetch in the park with “squeezy Bruce” the Batman throw-toy.

However, as the pluralisation suggests Super-Pets isn’t just a story about Krypto. Rather, it’s also an origin story for a posse of other pets, all of who have been imbued with superpowers via a misplaced shard of anti-kryptonite (which giveth superpower rather than taketh). Along with Krypto (voiced by Dwayne Johnson), there’s Ace the invulnerable dog (Kevin Hart—yes, there’s plenty of Hollywood cross-pollination going on here), a multi-sizing pig (Vanessa Bayer), a lightning-handed squirrel (Diego Luna), and a super-speed tortoise (Natasha Lyonne). Even Keanu Reeves chimes in to voice the caped crusader.

No Superhero flick would exist without its baddie. Enter Lulu the Guinea “never call me a hamster” Pig (deliciously voiced by Kate McKinnon), a lackey of Lex Luther who manages to capture the human superheroes for nefarious reasons—of course. So, off trot the super-pets to be good pets and save the day.

As expected Super-Pets relies heavily on humour to carry its audience along—crucially so, because stripping Stern’s script back reveals a predictable story plump with overused superhero tropes and some fairly mundane animation. But what exists outside the doggy-poo-bag are Stern’s quick witticisms which keep things lively and make the most of its impressive cast.

No, it doesn’t have the teary depth of Inside Out, or the brilliant inventiveness of Spiderverse. Not even close. But sometimes a straightforward and cheerful family flick is enough to fill your bowl with doggy treats and this one will at least have the kid’s tails wagging. Who’s a good film then? Yessh yooou aaaare…

See my reviews for the NZ Herald here and for Witchdoctor here.

Ticket to Paradise

Verdict: More like a ticket to the Gold Coast than the Maldives.

Writer/director Ol Parker, known for syrupy treats such as Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again! and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, has now mixed a new cocktail of colourful delights: one part Kaitlyn Dever, one part tropical setting, and a generous twist of Julia Roberts liberally drizzled over a very dishy George Clooney. Parker certainly knows his romcom ingredients and with Ticket to Paradise, he’s perfected the recipe for mass consumption … perhaps too much, as this film occasionally tastes like a premixed RTD.

Set almost entirely in Indonesia (Bali to be specific), bickering divorcées David and Georgia (Clooney and Roberts) begrudgingly team up to chase after their daughter, Lily (Booksmart’s Kaitlyn Dever, unfortunately on autopilot) who has seemingly rushed into an engagement with a local seaweed farmer (Maxime Bouttier). Their attempts to derail the marriage lead to a number of farcical events that ultimately force them to re-evaluate their own lives and, unsurprisingly, their past relationship.

A few side characters chime in, most notably Georgia’s toy-boyfriend, a cloyingly handsome but clueless French pilot (Lucas Bravo) and Lily’s bestie, Wren (another Booksmart alumni, Billie Lourd) provide further comic relief and plot filler. But it’s Clooney and Roberts who do most of this film’s heavy lifting and offer a number of laugh-out-loud moments as they serve and volley salvos of shrewd semantics at each other. And although their squabbling does begin to feel like a vehicle solely for comedy rather than shifting along the narrative and character development it is their acting chops that elevate this film above the uneven tropical water.

Sure, Ticket to Paradise is about as predictable as a happy-hour piña colada from the Tiki Bar, but really, does anyone go into a romcom expecting a reinvention of the recipe?! This movie is a calculable beachside cocktail—a reliably formulaic, frothy, romantic sugar rush that’ll evaporate soon after leaving the theatre. Just don’t go in expecting anything fresh or nutritional and you’ll be fine.

See my reviews for the NZ Herald here and for Witchdoctor here.

The Railway Children Return

Verdict: An old-fashioned romp that doesn’t quite leave the station.

Britain’s wartime children being squirrelled out of harm’s way from Hitler’s bombs seems, on the surface, a quaint notion—one that this film awkwardly stows among its more pointed subject matter. Director Morgan Matthews’ (X+Y) latest film, which is a sequel to Lionel Jeffries’s 1970 original The Railway Children, is an Enid Blytonesque adventurous romp through wartime Briton where we are to forage among the lashings of larks and giggles to find a worthy wartime message.

Set in 1944 (some decades after when Nesbit’s original The Railway Children book is set) the film follows a group of children who have been evacuated to rural Yorkshire. Unsurprisingly, there are plenty of nostalgic nods, most notably Jenny Agutter, who played Bobby in the original film, reprises her role, now as a grandmother. There under her watchful eye the children squabble, have food fights, play in the mud, and other boisterous hijinks. When they skip away over the lush green fields towards a train yard the story finds its narrative purpose as they cross paths with Abe (Kenneth Aikens), an injured Black American GI hiding in an abandoned railway carriage.

While the screenplay is in tonal lockstep (superficially, at least) with the original, it seems clear that writers, Daniel Brocklehurst and Jemma Rodgers (both who write mainly for the small-screen) want this story to break free from the original’s naive charm. And although they do their best to make this story current, their over-pandering to contemporary mores feels shoe-horned and strangely anachronistic.

Among this awkward mix of buoyant charms and earnest weight is Morgan Matthews’ relatively uninspiring direction which is, thankfully, rescued by an enthusiastic young cast along with stalwarts Jenny Agutter and Tom Courtenay (The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society) who briefly deliver some worthy table-side soliloquies. Certainly, at surface level The Railway Children Return will delight fans of the original and if you can stomach the misplaced virtues that billow from this fluffy period piece, then all aboard.

See my reviews for the NZ Herald here and for Witchdoctor here.

House of the Dragon

A Timeout (special issue) essay

A little over a decade ago I was broadsided by a new series. It was a mythology of biblical proportions accessibly presented as popcorn tv with a blend of high-fantasy, gritty realism, and deeply dramatic cinematography. It was bloody, brutal, and the onslaught was undeniably thrilling. Yes, Game of Thrones was born and it operated as the small-screen diatribe of our time.

Early in the series, you were told, quite unequivocally, not to warm to your favourite character. Stupidly, I snuggled into Ned Starc (played by Sean Bean). He was compassionate and quietly assured—an easy character to side with. But his fatherly morals and warm authority were cruelly ripped from me. I should’ve known better—Sean Bean rarely plays characters who live. But Ned Starc’s death felt worse than most. In “that scene” where the boy-king Joffrey gleefully danced around Ned with giddy delight, ordering his beheading, I sat watching in disbelief. It was my Lady Di moment—a “where were you when Ned lost his Head” event.

And so with every new character that I invested myself in—and their subsequent death—it felt like the warm veneer of fantasy was crumbling away and exposing the cruel reality of the world around me. How could I feel this way? These were fictional characters. The water-cooler talk soon revealed that I wasn’t the only one who felt this way and it became apparent that despite its fantasy setting Game of Thrones was holding a mirror to society. Sure, there were other shows that made their viewership question the world they live in, some more insightful even, but none of them had this much universal clout. Game of Thrones was a cultural phenomenon—an immensely popular show screaming to its audience that the world you live in is not all peachy. It told us that people are flawed, often given to cruelty, power-hungry and with little moral compass.

Such was the modus operandi of Game of Thrones. It was merciless yet honest, and I along with my water-cooler buddies were dragged through the muck and diseased-ridden scapes populated by notorious leaders and duplicitous people. Media commentator Matt Zoller Seitz once described Game of Thrones as the last water-cooler TV show. It was the last bastion of appointed television. He was right. We aren’t discussing other television at the same depth anymore, because we are all on a different page watching different shows within our fractured mediascape. Instead of Ned’s beheading, the Red Wedding, or the Battle of the Bastards we are now discussing something more complex and in some cases worse—the real world.

The correlation is clear to see. Where Game of Thrones gave us political back-stabbing, violence to women, and disease, the real world gave us Trump, racism, the #metoo movement, and covid. It’s a confusing time to be alive and there are plenty of labyrinthine issues to navigate.

It’s been over a decade since Game of Thrones’s initial release and a lot of cultural sewerage has flowed since. Now, as I write this from inside the burned-out carcass of our post-Trump, post-Charlottesville, post-Weinstein and post(ish)-covid world, we are left with the desolate scorched reality of what to do with ourselves. How do we, as a society, pick ourselves up? What direction do we go? Will we bury our heads in our current “binge and purge” media consumption culture or will we find solace next to the water-cooler again?

House of the Dragon suggests we head back in time to find answers. Perhaps from there we can garner an understanding of how it all went so wrong—Examine the story that formed the Iron Throne, like an Old Testament reading of the Ten Commandments. House of the Dragon, a more parred down story than its predecessor, might indeed give us a series to rally around, bring us back to the church of the water-cooler to discuss, rather than binge and purge in our siloed pods.

Stylistically, the Thrones DNA is still there with many key players from the original series still behind the camera. And certainly, if the first episode is any indication, the signature violence and bare-asses haven’t been scrubbed away either. But it’s what you do with your ass that counts and there are a few indicators that suggest House of the Dragon will be a significant production of our time. From its inclusive casting of non-white and non-binary actors to the recurring thematic struggle against misogyny, the important question is if these are box-ticking exercises by the producers, or as I would like to believe, simply a reflection of the time we live in.

Indeed, the relevance of House of the Dragon in today’s society is wholly apparent and may very well return us to Shakespearean-styled appointment tv where a grandiose subject is made fit for a common schlub like me. I really hope so, because it seems to have plenty of things to say about our world. Like a prophet of doom, House of the Dragon may hold a mirror to our face once more, but once bitten twice shy, I certainly will be wary of investing myself too much into any one character for fear of another beheading. Maybe I’ll just side with one of the dragons instead.

Nope

Verdict: An entertaining head-scratcher that sometimes over-extends its reach.

Writer/director, Jordan Peele, has once again created a provocative filmgoing experience from a seemingly random set of cultural commodities. He’s a filmmaker not afraid to throw a lot at the screen. Some of it sticks, but the stuff that doesn’t never feels wasted, although often requires stepping back for better perspective. With Nope, his third feature, Peele has expanded his canvas, both metaphorically and literally. Where his first film, Get Out, was modest in reach, his second, Us, widened its scope and went bonkers across America. Now with Nope, he has gone otherworldly and stitched together a curious mix of pop-culture artefacts into a chilling sci-fi thriller western. Yes, it’s a bunch of things.

Daniel Kaluuya, Peele’s Get Out star, returns as OJ Haywood, who along with his sister, Emerald (Keke Palmer) run a California ranch where the horses are trained to work in nearby Hollywood. Early in the film, Emerald says to a film crew “Since the moment pictures could move, we had skin in the game.”—referencing the Black rider atop the horse of Edward Muybridge’s famous 1878 photography experiment, considered the first motion picture ever made. This racially-charged comment hits on one of the many themes that this film appears to push.

But the themes that follow are more esoteric and murky in their delivery. When OJ hears the howling wind in the sky above and the sound of terrified screams that spook the horses, he heads across the valley to investigate. There he finds the Western-themed tourist trap, run by Jupe (Minari’s Steven Yeun) and a horrific aftermath that shifts the film from straight-up sci-fi thriller into something deeper and more abstract.

While the plot is relatively straightforward, Nope’s meaning becomes increasingly muddled. It’s wholly apparent that Peele is trying to tell us something—but what exactly, remains cloudy and tantalisingly beyond reach. Commodification, exploitation, viewing and consumption are all themes explored by this film, but to what end, it’s difficult to tell given the vagueries laid down by Peele.

What is clear though is that Nope is an ambitious, vibrant, mix of genres and influences which, for the most part, is thrilling to experience even when it doesn’t hit the mark. But there is a heady, unquantifiable message buried deep within Nope’s dusty scape that renders it a chin-scratcher and might frustrate some viewers.

See my reviews for the NZ Herald here and for Witchdoctor here.

The Phantom of the Open

Verdict: Scores below par…which is a good thing.

Golf has never been my thing. The concept is simple but, as many know, in practice it’s a painfully frustrating game. Thankfully, the cinematic version is far more agreeable and The Phantom of the Open returns a solid scorecard.

Transferring his talents from the felt-hatted Paddington to the flannel-floppied golfer Maurice Flitcroft, screenwriter Simon Farnaby has teamed up with director Craig Roberts (Eternal Beauty) to tell the true story of Flitcroft who stunned the golfing world with the worst round in British Open history.

The perfectly cast Mark Rylance (Don’t Look Up, Dunkirk) tees off as Maurice Flitcroft, an amiable, quietly spoken, crane operator from the Northern English port town of Barrow-in-Furness. After taking a shine to golf (despite never having never before held a club) the determined and extremely naive Maurice finds himself fortuitously entered into the prestigious British Open.

Flitcroft sees the positive in every situation and despite his atrociously bad golf game he always manages to find the silver lining, telling anyone who will listen that he is improving with every stroke. And although he feverishly practices, his misplaced optimism becomes a runaway train heading for a washed-out bridge.

Also perfectly cast is Sally Hawkins (Happy Go Lucky, The Shape of Water), who gives a heartwarming turn as Maurice’s long-suffering but very supportive wife, Jean, who despite limited screen time, offers some of the film’s best moments.

Of course, this rags-to-rags folk-hero story is hardly breaking fresh cinematic territory— Eddie the Eagle and Cool Runnings are obvious examples of films that amusingly tell stories of sporting misfits who push back against the odds. But Phantom often breaks from that template with brief moments of magical realism that plug directly into Flitcroft’s MO as a dreamer. There is a fairytale-like quality to Robert’s direction, who keeps things inventive and manages to avoid cinema’s cliched water features and bunkers.

The result is a delightful film that is joyously warm and most definitely has its heart in the right place. Much like my golf game, Phantom will make you laugh … and unlike my golf game, Phantom easily makes par.

See my reviews for the NZ Herald here and for Witchdoctor here.

Elvis

Verdict: A vibrant spectacle to match the legend.

Baz Luhrmann’s brash in-your-face film-making style appears to be the perfect fit for this glittery biopic about Elvis. His is the kind of vibrant kinetic storytelling that made Moulin Rouge and The Great Gatsby such compelling films to experience. Similarly, Luhrmann has liberally splashed his trademark sensory bombast onto the sequinned canvas of the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll with confident ease.

Right from the outset this film is a blast, and Luhrmann (who also wrote the screenplay) seems to make no apologies for his film’s tenuous position on the facts. After all, this version of Elvis is described through the lens of an unreliable narrator (Elvis’s manager, Colonel Tom Parker, played by Tom Hanks)—which is either a genius move on Luhrmann’s part, paving the way for his outlandish cinematic style, or (as the cynically minded would have), a lazy cop-out. Either way, there is no denying that Luhrmann’s maximalist style is turned up to eleven—in fact, I think by the end of the film the dial had fallen off.

At its centre is relative newcomer, Austin Butler, who plays the titular role. Understandably, the bulk of the film hangs on his performance and thankfully (also relievingly), he nails it. From every hip shake and lip snarl to his deeply accented drawl, Butler captures the Elvis myth like lighting in a bottle. It seems heresy to say in one breath that the actor of the embarrassingly bad Shannara Chronicles outshines the multi-Oscar-winning Tom Hanks. But he does. The less impressive Hanks, as Elvis’s longtime manager who exploited Presley for every penny he could, instead appears for most of the movie to be struggling with the elephantine prosthetics he is buried beneath.

Ultimately though, the real elephant in the theatre remains Luhrmann’s delicate play between fact and myth. Sticklers for the truth might find Luhrmann’s artistic embellishments one hip-gyration too many—certainly, the film offers little insight into the lives of each character. But perhaps that’s the point, do we really get to know a legend? Whether you see Elvis as a superficially re-sequinned jumpsuit of a film, or a wonderfully unbridled love letter to an icon, will depend entirely on your tolerance for myth-making. I’m far from a Presley fan, but Luhrmann’s film left me all shook up, and in love, uh-huh.

See my reviews for the NZ Herald here and for Witchdoctor here.

Jurassic World: Dominion

Verdict: A formulaic and safe crowd pleaser.

There is a sweet smell of nostalgia currently wafting through the cinemas. From The Lost City which recently recaptured the Romancing the Stone romantic-adventure vibe to Tom Cruise’s Maverick reprisal, the big-flick studios are reaching back in time to tap the golden era of the blockbuster. Thankfully, these films seem to be very self-aware, blending frothy dollops of eye-winking nostalgia with light-hearted cliches. And certainly, if that’s your bag then Jurassic World Dominion will hit the spot.

Harkening back to the sunglasses-lowering spectacle of where it all began, Director Colin Trevorrow (who also helmed 2015’s Jurassic World) has brought back Park’s original cast—Sam Neill, Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum. They, along with World’s Chris Pratt and Bryce Dallas Howard are thrown into a stew of dino mayhem.

The sixth instalment in the Jurassic franchise, Dominion takes place four years after the island theme park ended in a fiery eruption causing dinosaurs to spread across the globe. Now a plague of prehistoric locusts threatens the world’s food supply. Of course, no Jurassic film is complete without a bad guy pulling the genetic strings. Enter Lewis Dodgson (Campbell Scott channelling, oddly, Apple’s CEO Tim Cook) who slips into frame as the locust DNA manipulating CEO of the shady company Biosyn.

Dominion’s well-worn plot progression offers plenty of room for the obligatory action sequences and tense set-pieces as the party attempt to infiltrate Biosyn and avoid dinosaurs in the process. However, as green-screen-sapiens are repeatedly pitted against dino-digitals you get the feeling that the overindulgence of digital-effects does a disservice to the original’s pioneering efforts rather than pay homage to it.

Nonetheless, the film remains engaging enough, if rather safe, and Director Trevorrow does little to bust out of Jurassic’s electrified boundary fence, choosing instead to unapologetically root the film in cliches and tropes championed by the original.

Viewers wanting a fresh direction to the franchise, such as the novel gothic horror treatment that Bayona achieved in Jurassic’s previous instalment, will find little satisfaction here. But if the warm blanket of a safe and formulaic tent-pole blockbuster is more your DNA, then go ahead, wrap yourself in amber.

See my reviews for the NZ Herald here and for Witchdoctor here.

The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent

It’s not the first time that the “actor-plays-himself” hook has got our attention. Most notably, Being John Malkovich revelled in its self-referential malaise as Malkovich played himself on the big screen to many plaudits. It was darkly humorous, devilishly clever and always had plenty to say. Here, like its ridiculous title, The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent, is absurdly stupid and has a whole lot less to say. But hoo boy it says a whole lotta nothing in an entertaining way.

Nicholas Cage plays a fictionalised version of himself called, yep, Nick Cage. Having been turned down for his dream acting role and seemingly at the end of his acting career, Cage, still clutching onto his fame accepts a lucrative job to attend a billionaire’s birthday party in Spain. His attendance fee alone will pay off a few bad debts, but what he doesn’t realise is that the party host, Javi (Pedro Pascal), is on the CIA wanted list. Drawing on his self-proclaimed Nouveau shamanic acting technique, Cage reluctantly becomes their man on the inside. Chaos ensues.

Cage, the man, the myth, the legend, has spanned the spectrum of cinema from the sublimely brilliant Adaptation to the woefully bad City of Angels and TUWOMT delights in running through his back-catalogue to comedic effect. The film also reveals Javi to be a Cage fan-boy who, when not gushing over Cage, is also a wannabe film writer and wants Cage to read his script.

The fresh-faced Pascal (Wonder Woman 1984, Game of Thrones) is the surprise package here. His sizeable comic chops riff off Cage’s goofiness and together they passionately walk the tightrope of friend and foe. It is in those moments where this film works best, and although their awkward bromance is laced with the obligatory explosions, car chases, and noisy plot cogs turning, TUWOMT still provides plenty of laugh-out-loud moments and a satisfying finale. As an action-adventure buddy-flick, it’s pretty good. As a vehicle for Cage’s jittery wild-eyed antics its friggiiiiiiiiiiiinnnnnnnWHOA! awesome.

See my reviews for the NZ Herald here and for Witchdoctor here.

Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore

Verdict: A fantastically overstuffed head scratcher.

Ask any Potter fan what makes the Potterverse so special and you’ll get a range of replies—but somewhere will be mention of authentic and engaging characters. This is why the previous two Fantastic Beasts prequels felt like a Potter betrayal, with an over-abundance of digital monotony and crispbread-like characters that made all the Potter goodness disappear in a puff of NYC smoke. Gone was the grounded heft that Hogwarts brought. Gone were the appealing characters such as Harry, Hermione, and Ron and their flawed complexities. Instead, we were left with an overly apologetic Eddie Redmayne and his menagerie of insufferably cute beasts and an inanimate Johnny Depp who looked like he had a broomstick stuck up his arse. Secrets of Dumbledore, the third instalment, could only be better, right?

Thankfully, yes. And some of that is due to the reintroduction of screenwriter Steve Kloves. While the previous two Fantastic Beasts films were solely scripted by Harry Potter creator J.K. Rowling, here Kloves (who also helped adapt the original Harry Potter books into films) lends a helping hand to breathe new life into the cast.

Rowling, who oddly decided to jump the ditch and shoe-horn period America into the mix of the previous two films, adds even more globe-hopping as we follow Dumbledore (Jude Law) and his team of wizards and witches from England to Germany to Bhutan and beyond. Dumbles, Newt (Redmayne), Kowalski (Dan Fogler) and the gang from the previous films, plus a few new faces, are tasked with stopping the newly exonerated Grindelwald (Depp this time replaced by the superb Mikkelsen) from seizing control of the wizarding world. It’s a simple enough premise that moves through the gears rather swiftly and before you know it, we are thrown into a heady mix of moving parts that operate like a wartime espionage thriller. Bag switching, spies, snitches, and covert surveillance among other tropes render this film a peculiar melange of Potterverse and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.

While Secrets of Dumbledore does have more moving parts than it knows what to do with, and may be a little too much to absorb for younger audiences, the cast manages to fumble their way through and deliver a convincing enough tale. It’s unarguably the best Fantastic Beasts prequel so far—but that’s not really saying much.

See my reviews for the NZ Herald here and for Witchdoctor here