“Mary Magdalene” Review


Mary-Magdalene-2018.jpgWhether one believes through religious faith or reads it as fiction, the story of Jesus Christ and the crucifixion is one of the best in all of history. It’s unsurprising that filmmakers from Martin Scorsese to Mel Gibson have made their own attempts to depict the last days of a figure as open to interpretation as the supposed Son of God. Garth Davis, fresh off the Oscar-nominated Lion, reunites with Rooney Mara to provide his own reimagining by focusing on the perspective of Mary Magdalene and her own relationship with Christ.

Joaquín Phoenix approaches the role of Jesus with an appropriate level of gravitas and commitment, with a presence that is both powerful and comforting without ever resorting to overacting. Mara does fine work exploring Magdalene’s sense of isolation and yearning for truth, justifying why she gravitates to Jesus as she does, but the script by Helen Edmundson and Philippa Goslett felt quite flat in justifying this new perspective on a familiar story. Rather than providing a fresh feminist view on the birth of Christianity, the narrative follows the same predictable moments that feature in nearly every story of the crucifixion. It wasn’t until the final scenes that I began to get a sense of why Edmundson and Goslett wanted to explore Magdalene’s understanding of Christ and his teachings, and the most interesting details about her had to be literally spelt out in title cards before the end credits. I did appreciate Tahar Rahim’s take of Judas, a fascinating and complex character in any interpretation, as a man whose adoration of a man turns to resentment due to a profound misunderstanding of his message, and Chiwetel Ejiofor offers a more morally ambiguous take on Peter than usually presented. There’s a diverse mix of races and nationalities playing the apostles, suggesting Davis had opted for colour-blind casting for these religious figures, but having both Mary and Jesus played by traditionally white Mara and Phoenix lets down what could have been an interesting opportunity.

Greig Fraser’s cinematography is easily the strongest part of Mary Magdalene, almost covering up the flatness of the script through exceptionally emotive landscape photography. Filmed in Rome and Southern Italy, Davis and Fraser combine wide-open shots of the Italian countryside and ancient structures to present environments that are both desolate in their emptiness and beautiful in their scope. Davis’ direction and creative editing further gets into the very human psychology of Jesus as he becomes increasingly unstable due to the pressure, fears, and frustrations of his influence and inevitable execution. Yet as strong as the quality of filmmaking is, I can’t really think of any reason to recommend seeing Mary Magdalene. The performances are strong, the cinematography is powerfully expressive, and Davis’s direction is capable, but it doesn’t change the fact that the story offers little surprises. The Easter release was certainly a deliberate move to make the tale feel relevant, but only serves to bury it within the countless other Passion plays. The story moves too slowly when we all know where it’s going, and it never justifies its alternative take on the material. There is definitely more that could be said about the life of Mary Magdalene, but Davis and his team keep things too focused on Jesus’s influence to enable her to speak with her own voice.

3 stars.

“Pitch Perfect 3” Review

Pitch Perfect

The original Pitch Perfect was a surprising delight from 2012, combining a clever script with a talented cast and poppy a cappella mash-ups of hit songs. A sequel was an obvious financial choice, but while Pitch Perfect 2 reunited the cast, gave them new songs to cover, and even an original number with Jessie J’s “Flashlight”, it played it safe by following the structure of the first film a little too closely. For the third and final outing of the Barden Bellas director Trish Sie enables the series to veer in new directions, poking fun at its own conventions even if it does stray a little too off-topic towards the end.

With most of the Bellas several years out of college (excluding Haylee Steinfeld as Emily) there’s no real excuse for them to sing together anymore, so as one last hurrah former group-leader Chloe (Brittany Snow) manages to get the group into a USO performance thanks to her Army Officer father’s connections. While it seems for a moment like Pitch Perfect 3 will avoid the traditional concert-competition structure of the first two films, it’s soon revealed that DJ Khaled is organising the USO tour and watching the various bands to find a new opening act. This prompts some refreshingly self-aware humour when the Bellas meet their completion, quickly forming a new rivalry against punk-rock girl band ‘Evermoist’ lead by Clamity (Ruby Rose), and realise that the methods they’ve used to distinguish themselves in previous performances fall flat against musicians who use actual instruments. The series staple of the ‘riff-off’ returns and provokes some of the best music and jokes in the film, with stylistic twists on hits such as Beyonce’s “If I were a boy” and Cranberries “Zombie” while the Bellas complain that the other bands aren’t playing according to their arbitrary rules. Scenes such as this and other self-referential moments suggest that Pitch Perfect 3 will provide a playful twist on the franchise’s formulas while staying true to the core themes of female friendship and artistic creativity, but unfortunately it veers wildly into another direction halfway through and loses focus.

After spending three films with the Bellas the characters are pretty well established, and the cast slips back into their roles without a weak link. Even the members who have the defining trait of never being acknowledged by the main characters have their own comedic moments. Unfortunately, as is often the case with the popular supporting role, Rebel Wilson’s Fat Amy ends up dominating too much of the main plot’s focus. There was a real opportunity to explore the conflict between the Bellas and more professional bands as they struggle to move on from their origins as a University group, but Kay Cannon and Mike White’s screenplay quickly drops these elements and most of the new characters to instead explore Amy’s relationship with her criminal father. John Lithgow’s appalling attempt to do an Australian accent only demonstrates that Hollywood’s perception of us really hasn’t gone much further than 1986’s Crocodile Dundee, and the bizarre action-comedy climax this plotline provokes feels like a cheap attempt to set up a Fat Amy spin-off film. Even though Pitch Perfect 3 tries to give off the impression it’s in on the joke and aware of its own ridiculousness, the absurdity of the whole thing swallows up the rest of the film. Any adult drama that may have been built up as protagonist Becca struggles with what steps to make in her career is somewhat lost when her best friend is off attacking armed thugs with kielbasa, even if Anna Kendrick is as endearing as ever.

I got the sense that the team behind Pitch Perfect 3 knew how they wanted to end the series but not how to properly execute it. The Bellas are given an appropriately sentimental send-off that is quite sweet if you’ve stayed with these characters over three films, even if the script barely attempts to justify the return of John Michael Higgins and Elizabeth Banks’s commentator roles. The musical numbers are catchy and well performed but lack the creative simplicity of the first film’s famous ‘Cups’ number or the sequel’s emotional Championship Finale. For the third film of a trilogy that should have never been a franchise it’s more fun than it could have been, but hopefully this remains the final curtain call for the Barton Bellas.

3 stars.

“The Greatest Showman” Review


I’ve always unashamedly loved big, showy musicals, so I really wanted to love The Greatest Showman. It had all the makings of one – original songs from Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, fresh off La La Land and Dear Evan Hansen, a cast of established singers including Hugh Jackman, Zac Efron, and Zendya, and a circus setting for extravagant dance sequences and flashy visuals. At times I could even feel it winning me over, but ultimately director Michael Gracey’s attempts to create an inspiring story about truth and integrity can’t shake the uncomfortable feeling that The Greatest Showman is centred around a horrible man.

Hugh Jackman plays P.T. Barnum, the man responsible for founding the Barnum and Bailey circus. Throughout the film Barnum is presented as an American hero, with a rags-to-riches style story as he overcomes all expectations and criticism to find success and fame. Yet even Jackman’s nice-guy persona can’t hide the fact that every action Barnum undertakes within the story is selfish, manipulative, impulsive, and arrogant. Having nearly every other character praise him as a genius comes across as shameless shilling, especially when he is easily forgiven for prior slights, and one of his few ‘redemptive’ acts is so overblown and cinematic that it doesn’t so much stretch credibility as completely snap it. It’s a particularly baffling narrative decision given that audiences have demonstrated time and time again that we love a good story about the charming conman: From Speilberg’s Catch Me If You Can about real-life con artist Frank Abagnale Jr. to the animated Nick Wilde in Disney’s Zootopia, it’s always fun to watch an intelligent character outsmart those they come up against with a bit of style and panache. If they had embraced that aspect of Barnum’s character The Greatest Showman would be a completely different and possibly better film, but instead Jackman utilises every winning grin and cheeky wink at his disposable to try and convince us that Barnum is a true innovator chasing his goals. By having him repeatedly face off against a dour critic (Paul Sparks) who just can’t appreciate entertainment for entertainment’s sake it feels as though Michael Gracey is just dismissing any criticism of Barnum, and accusing anyone who doesn’t like The Greatest Showman of being snobbish.

Maybe I am just a snob, because on a technical level The Greatest Showman is a marvel. The production values are the highest and most extravagant for a cinematic musical since Moulin Rogue, and scenes within the circus perfectly capture that wonder and glamour Barnum’s shows were famous for. Ashley Allen’s choreography is precise and finely-tuned, as well as taking advantage of the cinematic medium in a way that many musical films don’t by having dance sequences blend in and out of different settings or simply involving stunts that couldn’t be replicated on stage. A duet between Zendaya and Zac Efron’s characters as they soar through the air on a trapeze while harmonizing was a beautiful, remarkable moment that demonstrated the potential Greatest Showman failed to maintain. Gracey wisely casts actors known for their singing abilities as well as their acting, with Efron embracing his musical background after trying to distance himself from the High School Musical franchise and Jackman displaying all of his considerable talents to suggest that he’s more worthy of the title ‘Greatest Showman’ than Barnum. Zendaya’s talent and screen-presence proves she’s due for leading film roles in the near future, and as the bearded lady Keala Settle steals every scene with her belting singing voice.

Everything works so well on paper, but when it’s all put together it ends up feeling overwhelming and artificial. Nowhere is this the case more than Pasek and Paul’s musical numbers. Individually they all have catchy melodies, clever lyrics, and immaculate production, but when they come one after another it feels like they’re fighting for attention. It was as though every song was trying to be the showstopper as the cast confidently sing out life-affirming messages to the audience, and too often the musical numbers are met with thunderous applause and standing ovations within the film itself. It stinks of a director telling the viewer how they’re meant to be feeling, but songs about truth and honesty fall flat when the main character is a serial liar.

Gracey and Jackman clearly knew they wanted to make an homage to Golden Age Hollywood musicals with The Greatest Showman, but the actual story of P.T. Barnum never seems to fit that genre so the lavish production just feels forced. It’s a step beyond style over substance – it winds up feeling as though the style of the film is in direct conflict with the actual substance of the story.

3 stars.

“Breathe” Review

Breathe poster.jpg

It’s always a gamble when famous actors try their hands at directing. For every Clint Eastwood and Ron Howard who are able to form respected careers off-screen there are countless others who fail with self-indulgent cinematic messes. With Breathe marking his directorial debut, Andy Serkis hasn’t quite joined the ranks of the greats but demonstrates genuine potential and a keen eye for sweeping spectacle.

Helping matters is that Serkis stays solely behind the camera, letting the magnificent performances of Andrew Garfield and Claire Foy form the foundations upon which the rest of the film is built. Based on real events, Garfield plays Robin Cavendish – a man who has his life taken away from him when he is paralysed by polio at the age of 28. Refusing to leave her husband to die, Diana (Foy) pushes and encourages him to leave the confines of the hospital as the two revolutionise public perception on what the disabled can do. Garfield has never been an actor to shy away from challenging performances and he does some of his finest work yet here, expressing Cavendish’s pain, joy, frustration, and loss with his facial tics while keeping his body still from the neck down. As Diana, Foy has to sell the idea of a woman who loves a man so completely that she’s willing to put her own life on hold to look after him, and thanks to the wonderful chemistry between her and Garfield as well as the actress’ innate strength she’s able to pull it off.

Breathe is a film centred around romance, and from the opening title cards seems to be paying homage to the 1950s melodramas of a director like Douglas Sirk. Robert Richardson’s cinematography alternates between the rich, vibrant landscape settings of Spain, Kenya, and Germany with plenty of soaring aerial shots complete with golden sunlight streaming through, and the confining interiors of the hospital or Robin’s bedroom. Serkis is clearly trying to get as much emotion out of his story as possible, but while certain individual scenes carry definite emotional weight they never really connect to one another as a film. The opening in particular rockets along in pace, and by trying to fit almost thirty years of one man’s life into two hours the film ends up feeling more like a highlight’s reel than a lifetime. These highlights were fine as I watched each one, but as Serkis moved onto the next I found myself quickly forgetting what came before so left Breathe with little of the film still on my mind.

While sitting in the cinema for Breathe I found myself wondering why exactly the film was made. Serkis’s direction is much more assured than one would expect from a first-time director, the performances were genuine and generous, and the story is one worth telling – but why now of all times? Cavendish died in the early 90s, polio rates have dropped drastically due to vaccinations, and there doesn’t seem to be any recent events to provoke a renewed interest in Cavendish’s impact on disabled rights. It wasn’t until a title card appeared at the end of the film revealing that Cavendish’s son, Jonathan, grew up to become a film producer that I had my answer. Breathe was made as a son’s tribute to his parents, which is heart-warming in its own right, but ultimately the average viewer is never going to have the same connection to the story as one directly impacted by it.

3 stars.

“Ferdinand” Review


Ferdinand is a bull. A big bull. A big strong muscular bull that would be perfect in the bullfighting ring, if only he actually wanted to fight. He’d actually much rather sniff flowers and play with his owner and best friend, Nina. This big strong gentle pacifist is voiced by big strong wrestler John Cena, who in real life seems as happy looking after sick kids while volunteering for the Make-a-Wish foundation, for which he has granted over five hundred wishes, as he does in the ring. Despite most of Cena’s acting roles so far taking advantage of his size in live-action roles he’s pretty perfectly cast here, delivering a vocal performance that’s filled with a childlike enthusiasm and heartfelt earnestness. Ferdinand has an important message to share with its young audience, particularly the boys, that bravery isn’t always displayed through fighting and it’s okay to find your own interests. It’s a message that’s simply told by director Carlos Saldanha, but told well – when rival bull Valiente (Bobby Cannavale) asks Ferdinand whether he should just go off and sniff flowers rather than fighting, Ferdinand responds “No, that’s my thing. You’ll find your own.”

While the kids seeing Ferdinand will hopefully respond to and learn from its moral of sensitivity, older audiences will find less about the film that they haven’t seen before. The overarching plot of Ferdinand being separated from his owner and struggling to get back home has been done in countless prior animated films, most notably the Toy Story series, and many of the colourful cartoon characters Ferdinand encounters along his journey feel like the usual band of characters required by a summer holidays kid’s film. The only real notable one is the eccentric and somewhat delusional goat, Lupa, who instantly decides Ferdinand is her new best friend and declares herself his coach. As the voice of Lupa Kate McKinnon proves the manic energy she often brings to her characters on Saturday Night Live works just as well in animation as she manipulates nearly every line she has for the maximum comedic potential – aided by an endearingly off-putting character design and some delightful sight gags.

Blue Sky Studios utilise the Spanish setting of Ferdinand to create a bright and colourful visual palette, particularly when Ferdinand explores a town’s annual flower festival, and John Powell’s soundtrack plays with this Spanish influence, but I found myself distracted by the bizarre mix of accents on display from the vocal cast. While the human characters are all Spanish the bulls speak with American accents, excepting David Tennant as a Scottish Highland bull, and they’re regularly taunted by three horses in the adjourning field that act like German stereotypes for some inexplicable reason. It feels like the studio wanted to fill Ferdinand with as many wacky characters and voices as possible without much of a real narrative reason to do so, and indeed two of the most entertaining scenes – Ferdinand as a literal bull in a china shop and a lengthy dance sequence between the bulls and the horses – seem to exist purely to drag the plot of Munro Leaf’s original children’s book out to a feature length runtime.

That’s not to say Ferdinand ever feels like a waste of time – it’s a fun enough cartoon with a valid message to tell and appealing visuals, but while animation continues to evolve as a meaningful art form capable of telling rich stories with distinctive characters, this one still feels like it’s just for the kids.

3 stars.

“Goodbye Christopher Robin” Review


It’s nearly summer, which means that studios are starting to release their ‘prestige’ films for Oscar season. It’s hard not to know one when you see one – they star A-list actors playing real life people in a story based on true historical events, and almost always end with on-screen title cards about what really happened after the events in the film. Bonus points if the credits include the actual version of a picture recreated in the film somewhere. One of the first of such films this year is Simon Curtis’s Goodbye Christopher Robin. Starring Domnhal Gleeson and Margot Robbie as A.A. Milne and his wife, Daphne, it’s based on the true story of Milne writing the original “Winnie-the-Pooh” stories and how their success affected his relationship with his son, Christopher Robin (Will Tilston).

A.A. Milne had an interesting life, so it’s not surprising why screenwriters Frank Cottrell-Boyce and Simon Vaughan wanted to make a movie about him, but it feels like they couldn’t decide which aspect they wanted to focus on. Each act of the film feels like it’s telling a completely different story – his struggles adjusting to normal life after fighting in World War 1, the creation of “Winnie-the-Pooh”, and his relationship with Christopher Robin. These stories all explore interesting concepts but none of them are given the time needed to develop, and the last act has to rely on a jarring time-jump in order to wrap everything up in under two hours. I found this particularly frustrating as the story of Christopher Robin’s complex relationship with his father is easily the most interesting part, yet is rushed over with a tacked-on happy ending.

Although the story and it’s format feels conventional, Goodbye Christopher Robin does distinguish itself through some inventive creative flourishes. Milne’s PTSD is effectively represented by combining everyday sounds with the sounds of battle to demonstrate the psychological scars of war, with balloons and champagne corks popping mixing with gunfire and explosions. Ben Smithard’s cinematography captures the natural simplicity of Winnie-the-Pooh’s original illustrations, at times even turning into living drawings. Yet these two elements never quite work together – the film is too bright and warm to give the darker moments of Milne’s life justice, and the happier moments fall flat with a knowledge of how Milne and Robin’s real life relationship was fractured by his books.

This mismatch of styles carries into the performances, with Domhnall Gleeson underplaying his role while Margot Robbie overplays hers. Newcomer Will Tilston is cute as a button as young Christopher Robin but struggles with some of the more dramatic scenes. Kelly Macdonald delivers the most consistently strong performance as the sympathetic nanny yet gets little to actually do beyond delivering comforting words that sound great in a film trailer but hackneyed in real life. Ultimately that’s the biggest problem I found with Goodbye Christopher Robin – it always felt like I was watching a film based on real events, rather than watching anything real.

3 stars.

“Murder on the Orient Express” Review


The fourth screen adaptation of a novel over eighty years old, you’d think people would have figured out that the Orient Express isn’t the safest way to travel by now. Nonetheless, a man has once again been murdered on the passenger train speeding its way through Europe, and it’s up to the famed Belgian detective Hercule (not Hercules) Poirot to figure out which of the eccentric passengers committed the crime. Kenneth Branagh both directs and dons the ludicrous moustache of Poirot for this trip, and is joined by an impeccable A-list cast of suspects including Michelle Pfeiffer, Dame Judi Dench, Johnny Depp, and Daisy Ridley.

Having never read Agatha Christie’s novel or seen one of the previous adaptations I can’t say how well this version matches the tone or plot of the original, but Branagh seems to have opted for a similar style to Guy Richie’s Sherlock Holmes films. The production design is sleek and flashy, with stylised flashbacks and the camera smoothly flowing around the train and its inhabitants, and the story peppered with some action sequences to liven things up. Unfortunately Poirot is even less suited to be an action hero than Holmes is and these moments feel ludicrous and often comical. A good mystery requires the time to slowly and thoughtfully piece together all the clues to narrow down the list of suspects, which doesn’t quite fit with the detective fighting off attackers with his walking stick.

At times Murder on the Orient Express feels as though it was only made so that Branagh could be the hero of his own franchise, particularly with an overt reference to Death on the Nile to tease a sequel at the end. Most of the other train passengers are pushed to the side in favour of exploring Poirot’s own quirks and eccentricities and are reduced to the typical one-note characterisations of a murder mystery. There’s the gangster, the butler, the dame, and so on. Fortunately the supporting cast is strong enough to at least make these characters entertaining if nothing else. Pfeiffer is deliciously camp as the flirtatious widow Caroline Hubbard, and the usually comedic Josh Gad delivers a surprisingly sympathetic portrayal as the haggard accountant of Johnny Depp’s gangster character Ratchett. Fans of Depp can take comfort from knowing this is one of his most grounded and believable performances in years, echoing his Whitey Bulger from 2015’s Black Mass, while those who’ve gone off the actor since his domestic violence allegations will be pleased to see him killed off at the end of the first act. Apologies for spoiling an eighty-year-old story.

Yet the entertaining performances only carry so far, and when the mystery is solved none of the characters feel developed enough to give the final reveal much of an impact. That’s not to say Murder on the Orient Express isn’t a fun enough ride while it lasts, but it’s unlikely audiences will have as much fun as Branagh and the cast seem to be having.

3 stars.