“Winchester” Review

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It’s always a shame when a movie based in reality ends up being less interesting than the actual events. Such is the case with Michael and Peter Spierig’s Winchester, a film that takes the bizarre true story of Sarah Winchester and the Winchester Mystery House and turns it into a run-of-the-mill haunted house picture that seems to only exist to cash-in on the success of better movies like The Conjuring or Insidious.

Dame Helen Mirren inexplicably plays the title role of Sarah Winchester, the widowed heiress to the fortune accrued by the sales of Winchester rifles. Convinced that her family is cursed by the spirits of all who have been killed by those guns, Lady Winchester now spends all her time constructing new rooms in her elaborate mansion to keep the more violent ghosts locked away. Construction on the house is occurring at all times, with new rooms being ordered based on the trance-like visions that come to Sarah each night. This means that Oscar-winner Helen Mirren spends a significant amount of the feature flailing around, rolling her eyes, and yelling into the air as she converses with the ghosts around her. I have to assume that Mirren either needed the money or just wanted an excuse to come to Australia to agree to this role, as while her sheer presence is almost enough to elevate some scenes beyond the flatness of the script I could almost see her stop trying as the supernatural elements overpower any sense of character. Fortunately she spends most of her time draped in a black veil so could presumably palm things off to her stand-in when she couldn’t be bothered.

The job of trying to add in an emotional story instead falls to psychiatrist Eric Price (Jason Clarke), who has resorted to poisoning himself with both alcohol and actual poison after being injured in an incident that also took the life of his wife. Doctor Price is bought in by the Winchester company to assess Sarah’s mental health and determine whether or not she should remain majority owner, and as a rationalist remains completely unconvinced of the presence of ghosts throughout the house. This scepticism is hard enough to accept when he sees a ghost after roughly half an hour in the house, and becomes frankly absurd after he brushes off the fourth decayed face screaming at him before vanishing into thin air. I’ll admit that one or two of these ghoulish jump-scares startled me, but in much the same way a carnival ghost-train is capable of making me jump. There was no lasting tension or suspense, and instead of feeling spooked on my walk home in the dark I was just frustrated by how inconsistent the spectres of Winchester are. They’re locked away in certain rooms – except for when they appear out of nowhere. They want revenge on Lady Winchester – except when they don’t. Certain characters can see them – except for when they turn invisible. At no point does it seem like the Spierig brothers actually knew what they wanted to do with this film, instead just relying on what they’d seen done before.

It’s infuriating as they had enough pieces to make something great; with an interesting real-life premise, stunning production design on the house from Matthew Putland, and an interesting role for their talented leading lady; but no idea of how to properly use any of them. The real Winchester Mystery House has over one hundred rooms yet here we only see about a dozen, possibly because the budget was too low to afford any more. I was surprised when Winchester got to its climax if only because I didn’t think anything had actually happened and assumed we still had about an hour to go, but was more than happy for things to wrap themselves up by that point.

1 and a half stars.

“Game Night” Review

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Max (Jason Bateman) and Annie (Rachel McAdams) are a very competitive couple. Everything about their relationship – from their meeting, engagement, and marriage – involves some sort of game or contest between the two, as established by an entertaining opening montage that quickly sets the tone of John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein’s Game Night. Part of Max’s competitive nature stems from constantly feeling inferior to his older brother Brooks (Kyle Chandler), a problem that isn’t helped when Brooks comes into town and suggests throwing Max and Annie’s weekly game night at his new place. The game suggested by Brooks involves a member of their group being suddenly kidnapped, with the winner being the first player to find them. Sure enough, armed men soon burst into the room and kidnap Brooks to the amusement of everyone in the room, who are completely oblivious of the fact that he’s really being kidnapped.

Mark Perez’s screenplay offers a clever premise with plenty of potential for unique comedic moments, and like the best game nights keeps the rules fairly simple to instead let the players (or audience) just enjoy the company they’re in. Joining Max and Annie are Kevin and Michelle (Lamorne Morris and Kylie Bunbury), high-school sweethearts who realise over the course of the night that they haven’t been as faithful to each other as they thought, and Ryan and Sarah (Billy Magnussen and Sharon Horgan). Ryan is their moronic friend trying to defend his own intelligence by bringing an older, smarter woman than his usual game night dates with the witty and British Sarah. Admittedly I found Ryan’s stupidity a tiring character trait, stretching credibility and raising questions of why anyone in the group bothered to spend their time with him, but Sarah’s bemused acceptance of the night’s events does balance him well. Lurking in the shadows is Jesse Plemons as Officer Gary, a frighteningly intense man who used to attend the group’s game nights with his wife but is left out after their separation. Plemons plays his character more like the lead suspect in a Law and Order episode than a supporting role in a comedy, and the delightfully uncomfortable humour that comes from his interactions with the rest of the cast make for one of Game Night’s strongest selling points.

Game Night is largely built on the chemistry between Bateman and McAdams, with Bateman’s finely honed deadpan humour addressing some of the more absurd moments while McAdams, a captivating screen-presence in any genre, brings a joyousness to even the darkest situations. The scene when Annie has to remove a bullet from Max’s arm brings the biggest laughs as the two treat the task in front of them like a morbid round of ‘Operation’. Daley and Goldstein cleverly make much of the film feel like part of a game, employing clever CGI to make the establishing shots resemble figures on a board or turning serious moments into elaborate matches of keep-away or charades.

Unfortunately the rules do become a bit too complex as Perez’s screenplay tries to throw countless twists and turns into the final act, and it was around the point that Max and Annie are driving a car through the wheels of a moving plane that I started wondering what had happened to the simple premise I’d been enjoying so much for the first hour. The supporting cast are so strong that when they’re unceremoniously pushed to the side for the climax the film does lose the mix of camaraderie and competition that had moved things along so smoothly at first, even if Bateman and McAdams are strong enough performers to keep things relatively grounded as the stakes become increasingly overblown. Even if the plot does lose sight of itself towards the end, Game Night manages to stay as fun and entertaining at the name suggests. This is very much a film that should be watched with a group of friends on a night out, and I’d definitely be up for another night in these characters’ company if a sequel comes along.

3 and a half stars.

“Black Panther” Review

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Early on in Black Panther the title character’s resident tech genius and sassy younger sister Shuri (Letitia Wright) justifies improving his gear by saying “Just because something works doesn’t mean it can’t be improved.” This attitude seems to be the prevailing view behind the Marvel Cinematic Universe lately, as the blockbuster studio continues to demonstrate willingness to fit new voices and styles into their well-established franchise. For the eighteenth film in the series, director Ryan Coogler has brought together a primarily black cast and infused the fictional country of Wakanda with aspects of different African cultures to infuse Black Panther with a different energy while still retaining the action, special effects, and humour of its predecessors.

After making his debut in Captain America: Civil War Chadwick Boseman returns as Prince T’Challa, inheriting the title of King after the death of his father. T’Challa spent much of Civil War on a revenge-quest so his first solo outing gave Coogler and fellow screenwriter Joe Robert Cole an interesting opportunity to flesh his character out and expand his personality, but he still ends up feeling a bit flat. It’s nothing to do with Boseman’s performance, who brings ample amounts of charisma and power to the role, and more to do with how he keeps getting upstaged by his more interesting co-stars. Letitia Wright steals all the dialogue scenes as his teen-prodigy gadgeteer, bringing boundless enthusiasm to every creation she makes like a mix between James Bond’s Q and a YouTube star. Meanwhile the focus of the action scenes is quickly stolen by Danai Gurira as Okoye, the leader of T’Challa’s personal bodyguards and a fighter every bit as capable as the Black Panther himself without the need for the mystical herb that gives him super strength and agility. It’s noteworthy that both of these characters are women, as Black Panther is chock full of strong, intelligent, and badass women of colour without feeling the need to draw attention to it. It’s a welcome example of how times are changing, and we’re getting some fantastic characters out of it. Poor Martin Freeman ends up looking particularly out of place for much of the film as the Everett K. Ross, the required outsider who can have Wakandan customs explained to himself (and by extension the audience), but will surely help bring the characters of Black Panther into the superhero free-for-all that will be the upcoming Avengers: Infinity Wars.

Excepting Ross’s role and a few scenes with Age of Ultron’s Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkins), Black Panther manages to keep its story fairly self-contained against the broader Marvel Universe. The villain, Michael B. Jordan as Killmonger, keeps his vendetta primarily to Wakanda and T’Challa himself, even if the conflict does naturally increase to something world threatening to justify an appropriately explosive final battle. Killmonger stands out against other Marvel villains for having a motive beyond simple “Take over/Destroy the World”, instead wanting to hold Wakanda accountable for its wealth and technological advances while other African countries languish in poverty and black people around the world are mistreated. In a rarity for superhero films I actually found myself agreeing with the villain at times, and I commend Black Panther for not being afraid to tackle uncomfortable questions and allowing both sides of the argument to make valid points. Obviously they still have to keep Killmonger clearly in the antagonist role to foster T’Challa’s growth and justify a final fight between the two, but thanks to Jordan’s committed performance and the writing of his character there is a genuine sense of pathos around him that hasn’t been seen in many other Marvel villains.

Ryan Coogler, fresh off the brilliant Rocky reinvention Creed, keeps Black Panther filled to the brim with both style and African influences. Ludwig Göransson’s soundtrack mixes tribal drums, hip-hop hooks, and the typical superhero fanfare, which along with Kendrick Lamar’s original songs had me enjoying the music so much I’d forget to pay attention to what was happening on screen. While the fight sequences may lack the same visceral punch the boxing matches in Creed had, cinematographer Rachel Morrison has the camera flowing around the characters in slow motion as they gracefully perform extravagant stunts like running up buildings and whirling through car wrecks. These stylistic touches serve to distinguish Black Panther from other Marvel pictures on the surface, but at its core it does still fit within the Marvel mould. I’d love to play all of the MCU films at the same time and see how many of them simultaneously hit certain emotional beats. Yes, it’s basic story structure, but Marvel has been following the classic three-act structure so religiously that you could basically set your watch by when the film hits its darkest moment. For all the Black Panther does different it’s clear there are some things Marvel is unwilling to change, especially the obligatory Stan Lee cameo and post-credits teasers.

Black Panther isn’t the first superhero movie to have a black lead, not even the first based on a character from Marvel comics (I haven’t forgotten you, Blade), but it’s undoubtedly a milestone in mainstream cinema to have a film that celebrates black culture so openly. It also demonstrates why these things are worth celebrating, as when you get different voices like Coogler or Thor: Ragnarok’s Taikia Waititi to handle blockbuster films you get different types of blockbusters. It may have taken Marvel a while to figure that out, but if they’re able to keep their films feeling this fresh after 10 years then it’s a lesson well learned.

4 stars.

“Lady Bird” Review

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Oh, the joys of being an Australian film fan. Getting to watch from afar as a film like Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird is released in American cinemas back in November, gathers up critical acclaim, Oscar nominations, and other awards, all while patiently waiting until mid-Feb for it to get wide release down under. It’s a relief to finally see it and realise that not only is Lady Bird not let down by the advance hype, but is an emotionally authentic film worth waiting for.

Set over the last year of high school for Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson (Saoirse Ronan), Gerwig’s screenplay tackles many familiar topics of the coming-of-age drama. There’s the high and lows of high school relationships, the awkwardness of losing one’s virginity, arguments with parents who just don’t get it, the craving to have cooler friends, the inevitable high school prom, and throughout it all the constant desire to make your own name for yourself (literally in Lady Bird’s case). Films like Lady Bird remind us that the reason so many movies are able to revisit these moments is because even if we all experience these milestones differently, we can’t help but experience them. Despite having an entirely different background than Lady Bird herself I found myself revisiting my own memories of performing with the school theatre department, developing wildly passionate crushes on my classmates, and particularly all the times my careless actions had hurt my parents. Lady Bird’s complicated relationship with her mother (Laurie Metcalf) is at the heart of the film, with the two women too similar in the strength of their personalities to ever have a civil conversation for longer than five minutes. It’s a volatile and deeply passionate relationship that forms one of the most accurate depictions of the mother-daughter dynamic since Mike Nichols’ Postcards from the Edge.

Saoirse Ronan has been a phenomenon on screen since her breakthrough role in Atonement and she once again demonstrates a knack to lose herself in rounded complex characters. In lesser hands Lady Bird could have been a pretentious and unlikable protagonist, almost a parody of youth self-indulgence and righteousness, but Ronan and Gerwig present her best and worst qualities equally. Like all teenagers she’s insecure and vulnerable, with every emotion amplified and threatening to burst out. Through Metcalf’s performance I got the sense that Marion McPherson was once the same, but is now too proud to show how much she’s struggling to keep the family afloat financially after Lady Bird’s father loses his job. The arguments between the two are personal and devastating, but there’s a deep love underneath it all that makes Lady Bird emotional without being depressing. Tracy Letts’ understated performance as Larry McPherson helps, as he unobtrusively tries to bridge the relationship between the women in his life.

Located primarily within Sacramento in 2002, Lady Bird makes a powerful point towards the importance of setting within films. So much time is spent exploring the various ‘uncultured’ aspects of the town that frustrate Lady Bird that when we see brief scenes of New York towards the end it feels almost like a different country. Gerwig enhances this with minor details that help make Lady Bird’s world feel real and lived-in, such as when she steals and eats the communion wafers from her catholic school while gossiping with her best friend, or hangs out with the popular kids in the middle of a gravelled parking lot. Special mention must be made of April Napier’s costume design, as Lady Bird mixes various old and worn pieces of clothing purchased from thrift stores. It both expresses Lady Bird’s style and individuality while emphasising the financial strain burdening Marion, brilliantly evoking the personalities and motivations of both the film’s main characters.

Greta Gerwig demonstrated her ability to write believable people struggling to find their direction in life with her screenplays for Frances Ha and Mistress America, and with Lady Bird marking her first solo directing role she proves herself able to bring to life her stories as well as she writes them. It’s rare to find creators with voices as honest as hers, and it makes a film like Lady Bird feel like a gift I’m increasingly grateful to receive.

5 stars.

“Insidious: The Last Key” Review

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Why do ghosts always have to make things so difficult for the living? One would assume that if you were a spirit stuck in some sort of purgatory you’d be happy to find someone like parapsychologist Elise Rainier (Lin Shaye) to talk to, but even the helpful ghosts in Insidious: The Last Key can’t seem to communicate without popping up from the dark and screaming at her. If they just calmly explained themselves they’d be able to deal with their problems much easier. Much like the other films in the franchise, the fourth Insidious is very much a haunted house picture that reliably delivers everything that premise entails. Expect lots of wandering around in the dark, surprise appearances from spooky longhaired ghosts, and revelations of dark secrets, but most of all you can expect to comfortably forget most of the film after an enjoyable enough hour and a half.

Insidious 4 sits in an odd place in the series, serving as a sequel to Chapter 3 and a prequel to the first film. I guess this is what happens when you kill off the best character at the end of Insidious 1. Thankfully Shaye is willing to keep coming back, as her warm and comforting presence does lend an air of credibility to some (but not all) of the most ridiculous scenes. She is once again joined by her tech team, Tucker (Angus Sampson) and Specs (Leigh Whannell). The return of these comic-relief characters, who weren’t particularly funny in the original and aren’t particularly funny four films later, is less appreciated but somewhat inevitable when one of their actors, Whannell, is writing the screenplays and giving his own character self-serving heroic and romantic moments. This time round the team visit Rainier’s childhood home in order to deal with a demon that Elise inadvertently released into the world when she was a girl.

The demon, creatively named ‘Key Face’, is an admittedly interesting monster design and another creepy performance from horror regular Javier Botet (It, Mama, Alien: Covenant, The Conjuring 2) but is never really given any explanation by Whannell’s screenplay. While too much backstory can rob a monster of its scaring power, so little is ever revealed about The Last Key’s main antagonist that it has no real impact beyond jumping out and shouting ‘boo’. Instead the story focuses on numerous flashbacks to Elise’s past, which regularly repeat the same moments over and over to ensure no one has missed the important parts or blatant foreshadowing and guarantee the movie reaches its ninety minute runtime. Many of the scares are rehashes of scenes from the first film, and director Adam Robitel seems to be just leaning on the same tried-and-test filmic techniques James Wan established in the first two films and perfected with The Conjuring. Cameras pan slowly around corners, monsters are kept out-of-focus in the background, and faces appear unexpectedly over shoulders. It’s a good thing The Last Key finishes right where Elise’s story intersects with the first Insidious, as there doesn’t seem to be anywhere for this franchise left to go.

2 and a half stars.

 

 

“Molly’s Game” Review

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Aaron Sorkin has a remarkable knack for making complex topics seem accessible to audiences; whether it’s the politics of The West Wing, the coding language of The Social Network, or now the high-stakes poker of Molly’s Game. From the opening scene the viewer is bombarded with numbers, statistics, and facts rapidly delivered via Molly’s narration as she breaks down the freak accident that ruined her chance to ski at the winter Olympics, but all done so in a way that makes it both bitterly funny and easy to understand. As is often the case with Sorkin’s screenplays the amount of information being delivered at once can be overwhelming, but the story behind the arrest and investigation into Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain) and her underground poker games involves so many overlapping details and characters that it takes a writer like Sorkin to do it justice.

Molly’s Game follows a similar structure to Sorkin’s prior screenplay for The Social Network, alternating between Molly’s meetings with her lawyer Charles Jaffey (Idris Elba) as he attempts to understand her true motives, and flashbacks detailing the evolution of the poker games she runs. These games move from LA to New York and include movie stars, athletes, bankers, and members of the Russian Mob amongst their players. Over all of it looms Molly, maintaining control and earning thousands of dollars worth of tips each night as she keeps her games popular and (mostly) legal. Chastain is present within nearly every scene of the picture, and those that she’s not in contain her narration, and she flawlessly pulls off everything Sorkin throws at her. Her performance varies between charming, determined, vulnerable, confident, and sardonic, on top of reading out Sorkin’s notoriously difficult dialogue as she explains topics as varied as the rules of poker, legal jargon, skiing, and the backstories of many of her players. She’s matched by Elba, who’s struggled to lock down a good role lately with flops like Dark Tower and The Mountain Between Us but is yet again able to display his natural charisma and sense of cool professional intelligence. The scenes between them best showcase the typically quippy back-and-forth banter Sorkin is famous for, even if at times Elba seems to be struggling to make it sound as natural as Chastain does.

This is Sorkin’s first foray into directing, and while he’s clearly studied from the master directors he’s worked with before (including David Fincher and Danny Boyle) I got the sense that he’s definitely more comfortable with the dialogue sequences. Moments that relied more on action tended to be weaker, with Molly joyously skating on an ice rink towards the end feeling like something out of a Disney channel original rather than the dark and complex drama/thriller I’d been watching. The whole film starts to feel a touch too sentimental in the third act, with both Elba’s character and Molly’s estranged father (Kevin Costner) having moments where they spout her virtues and praises. I don’t know anything about the real Molly Bloom beyond what is presented in Molly’s Game, but while The Social Network may have exaggerated Mark Zuckerberg’s worst qualities this film presents an unfalteringly positive depiction of its protagonist. That’s not to say Chastain doesn’t make her believable, but when every other character is as despicable as the sort that Bloom deals with in her games I found myself siding with Jaffey when recommends selling them out to the police to protect herself. Her ultimate explanation as to why she doesn’t is so thin that Sorkin immediately has to follow it up with a joke in the hopes that we don’t question it any further.

I wouldn’t have expected a film about poker and event management to be as exciting as this is, but Molly’s Game does pull it off. On-screen diagrams and Chastain’s narration ensures that those of us who know nothing about the game can still follow along, and even if I did get occasionally lost in the more specific details I was kept constantly engaged by both Chastain’s powerhouse performance and the quality of Sorkin’s dialogue. I’ll be interested to see what dry topic Sorkin is able to weave a screenplay out of next, as at this rate he’d be able to make something entertaining out of a terms and conditions agreement.

4 stars.

“Phantom Thread” Review

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The joy in watching an actor like Daniel Day-Lewis in a film like Phantom Thread is that you get to watch a master at his craft on two different levels – the character of dressmaker Reynolds Woodcock as he meticulously constructs extravagant works of fashion, and Day-Lewis himself in reportedly his final acting role. The story is a not-uncommon one of a perfectionist struggling to balance his relationship with his muse and his commitment to his work, but through the performance of Day-Lewis and the direction of Paul Thomas Anderson Phantom Thread becomes a film of sensuous beauty, tenderness, and fragility with touches of underlying darkness.

Reynolds Woodcock is a man of routine and order. He likes to work on his designs at breakfast, in silence, and does not like surprises of any kind. His sister, Cyril (Lesley Manville), works extensively with him and seems to be the only one who can understand his insistent quirks and demands. Woodcock has a habit of becoming infatuated with various beautiful women, using them as his muses, before disregarding them in favour of his work. Much of the story of Phantom Thread is told through the perspective of Alma (Vicky Krieps), a young waitress who begins a relationship with Woodcock and is determined to care for him and be a part of his life no matter what it takes. The chemistry between Alma and Woodcock forms the foundation that Phantom Thread is built upon, and the two actors give masterful performances in their roles. I found the dialogue in some scenes was almost incidental, particularly the early flirtatious moments between the two, as the looks they give one another and the way they hold their bodies is all that’s needed to demonstrate the complex feelings and changing moods of each moment. In a heated argument between the two later on each character ends up repeating the same lines two or three times as they struggle to get to the crux of their grievances at one another, but each new delivery brings new meanings and additional impact. Often positioned between the two is Cyril, bringing a cool sense of control over her temperamental brother and the romantically inclined Alma.

There have been plenty of films about the overbearing male genius, but while most actors use it as an excuse to dominate each scene Day-Lewis gives Woodcock tremendous gentleness and fragility. Anderson demonstrates how Reynolds’ passion for his work torments himself as much as those around him, becoming distraught when he feels his work isn’t good enough, and his complaints and demands to Cyril make him resemble a pouting child at times. When he does lash out at those around him, particularly Alma, he rarely raises his voice and simply expresses his displeasure with brutally matter-of-fact lines, some of which are cruelly humorous despite their cutting nature thanks to Anderson’s wonderful script. Woodcock’s attention to detail is represented through Phantom Thread’s often amplified soundscape, with simple noises like the ruffle of various fabrics or the scape of a bread knife against toast brought up to demonstrate the intensity of his focus.

Paul Thomas Anderson has long demonstrated his skill at creating timeless films, ones that honour the past while remaining modern in execution, and he’s done so again by making an intricate, sensitive masterpiece. Mark Bridge’s costume design allows each dress to feel like a new character, as the camera fawns over the care placed into each stitch and the love poured into each design, a love that is occasionally not respected by the models wearing them. Jonny Greenwood’s score is prevalent throughout almost every scene and mixes classical and romantic tones to give a story centred on the world of fashion an operatic quality by the end. For Phantom Thread often surprised me, taking a seemingly simple story about genius, romance, and fashion and bringing it to a much darker place without losing any of its elegance or grace.

5 stars.