Film Review – Coming Home In The Dark

Posted in Uncategorized on September 7, 2021 by Reel Review Roundup

Coming Home In The Dark (MA)

Directed by: James Ashcroft

Starring: Daniel Gillies, Erik Thomson, Miriama McDowell

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Review by: Julian Wright

A family outing turns into a living nightmare in this shocking and thought-provoking exercise in suspense with substance.

High school teacher Alan Hoaganraad (Erik Thomson) his wife Jill (Miriama McDowell) and their teenage twin sons Maika (Billy Paratene) and Jordan (Frankie Paratene) are enjoying a pleasant, scenic road trip along the coast of New Zealand, for a brief break from their lives back home.

But when they stop in a picnic area chosen for its isolation, they are confronted by a pair of sinister drifters, the gun carrying Mandrake (Daniel Gillies) and his hulking, mostly silent mate Tubs (Matthias Luafutu).

At first it seems the thugs are just keen to rob and intimidate, but the longer the group spend together, the clearer it becomes that this encounter may not be as random as it first appeared.

Eli Kent and James Ashcroft have adapted Owen Marshall’s short story into a tense, bleak and devastating feature film.

It suggests at first that it may be heading into Wolf Creek/The Hills Have Eyes territory, with the rural setting and a jolting moment of shocking and brutal violence, but the film slowly segues into more Hard Candy territory as deeply buried truths are dragged to the surface.

Kent and Ashcroft, who also directed, eventually reveal that they are interested in exploring something deeper, rather than just exposing disturbing acts of violence for cheap thrills. This is about unresolved trauma, and the ease at which some can move on from and deny a violent act while others who are impacted cannot and are scarred for life.

What does happen to those who are left to fester in their pain and rage?

The cast is impeccable, with Gillies and Luafutu simply chilling with their scruffy appearance but calm demeanor, and their complete emotional control even during their violent acts. But it is McDowell, who is given as much depth as her male counterparts, who delivers an astonishingly emotional and believable performance.

Coming Home In The Dark is more than just nightmare fuel for thrill seekers, but something that will haunt you long after its devastating revelations and conclusion.

Film Review – Respect

Posted in Uncategorized on August 19, 2021 by Reel Review Roundup

Respect (M)

Directed by: Liesl Tommy

Starring: Jennifer Hudson, Forest Whitaker

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

Review by: Julian Wright

Iconic singer Aretha Franklin’s life gets the big screen biopic treatment, but instead of a rousing tribute, this feels more like a middling Netflix production that would easily and immediately get lost in the algorithm.

Aretha Franklin had a noticeable vocal talent from an early age, singing in the choir for her father C. L. Franklin, who nurtured and exploited those talents.

She grows up to be a recording artist, but with nine albums and not a single hit, her career didnt go very far until she marries her husband slash manager Ted White (Marlon Wayans), whose connections and thug-like behaviour helped open doors.

Aretha eventually becomes a worldwide superstar dubbed the Queen of Soul.

It seems like a no-brainer of a cracking story – how a singer under the thumb of her preacher father and abusive husband and manager came to release an empowering hit like Respect, and yet the arc feels under developed.

Like most biopics, Respect likes to show us milestones and life highs and lows but fails to connect them. One minute Aretha wants to march with family friend Martin Luther King for civil rights, the next she just wants to “make hit records”. How her motivations and focus change remain a mystery.

And choosing to keep this a very audience friendly and respectful affair, we don’t even see how the abuse at the hands of a party guest resulting her giving birth at 12 years old shapes her. Such a significant moment in her life (albeit unpleasant) goes largely unexplored.

Jennifer Hudson has the vocal cords to pull off the singing however her performance feels stuck, which seems largely due to the script problems mentioned. How does one create a full character when so much is glossed over or omitted?

It is a handsome film to watch, but painfully long given that it ultimately treads similar paths of other musician biopics – abuse, alcohol, rags to riches etc. Points for depicting Franklin at one point as an alcoholic hitting rock bottom, turning nasty towards her family and later seeking redemption – but it is a long road to get to that point.

The most powerful moment comes during the credits with a clip of the real Aretha singing (You Make Me Feel) Like A Natural Woman at 73 years old just three yeas before her death, as she peels off her over sized fur coat on stage as she belts out her classic just highlights that this film spent over two hours trying to capture her star power and failed.

Film Review – Annette

Posted in Uncategorized on August 19, 2021 by Reel Review Roundup

Annette (M)

Directed by: Leos Carax

Starring: Adam Driver, Marion Cotillard

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Review by Julian Wright

Be prepared to be put through the gamut of emotions and reactions with Annette.

Two successful entertainers, provocative stand-up comedian Henry (Adam Driver) and world renowned opera singer Ann (Marion Cotillard) experience a deeply passionate love affair together that suggests they will be bonded forever.

But when Henry’s star begins to dim due to some on-stage controversy while Ann’s continues to shine, attitudes and dynamics begin to shift, and when they have their first child, a gifted young girl, their lives take a dramatic turn.

This musical starts off as a dreamy romance built on tropes and cliches – it is in fact a tribute to classic musicals, just skewed to a modern audience. Had this been purely dialogue driven and in another director’s hands, it would have been a treacly bore to begin with.

But the way Leos Carax tells this story, which takes some surprising and unpredictable turns, is like nothing we have ever seen before; Annette is thrillingly originally packaged and yet at times frustratingly obscure. It is one of the most dream-like arthouse films that ever arthoused.

There are some truly baffling choices – Henry’s stand up is more like performance art that somehow sells out grand theatres and Ann is Hollywood royalty…and don’t even get me started on the marionette (which will make you weep!) And yet this is one of the most compelling cinematic experiences you will have this year, with the actors delivering some of the most committed performances you will see.

Annette is moving, baffling, distant, profound, tedious, exhilarating, confusing and enlightening – there is no emotion or reaction left unturned by the end. For those who crave something quirky and imaginative that will have you swooning in awe as you scratch your head, Annette is the perfect experience.

Film Review – Old

Posted in Uncategorized on July 24, 2021 by Reel Review Roundup

Old (M)

Directed by: M. Night Shyamalan

Starring: Gael Garcia Bernal, Vicky Krieps, Rufus Sewell

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Review by: Julian Wright

The king of the third act twist M. Night Shyamalan turns his attention to a graphic novel to explore how we react to the ageing process.

Guy (Gael Garcia Bernal) and Prisca (Vicky Krieps) have taken their two young children, 11 year old Maddox (Alexa Swinton) and six year old Trent (Nolan River), to a luxurious resort in a tropical location for a family holiday.

Vicky has just had a health scare and it could be the last holiday the family spends together with her marriage to Guy on the verge of falling apart completely.

But a day trip to the beach organised by the resort finds the family and a selection of other vacationers trapped by a mysterious and invisible force and they all begin to age rapidly.

After getting off to a shaky start with on the nose dialogue setting up the theme and some questionable performance choices by the cast – under Shyamalan’s guidance – Old, eventually settles into some terrifying territory, with a focus on body horror.

Because what is more terrifying than watching your own body age and deteriorate? It is a universal anxiety, facing a our mortality and experiencing our young, gorgeous bodies slowly malfunction and crumble throughout the years. But when it is sped up? Horrifying.

Working against the repetitive nature of the set-up (there is a lot of running back and forth on this short beach pointing out each character looks older), Shyamalan gets creative with his camera and sound design, always finding ways to keep the story developments fresh.

He manages to maintain a high level of tension throughout and despite the trailer suggesting there isn’t much else to discover, there certainly is, and it is difficult to tell where Shyamalan is heading with this story.

Old isn’t top tier Shyamalan like The Sixth Sense, but it isn’t lower tier either like The Happening – perhaps around the middle with The Village. And the third act twist? It is getting old.

Film Review – Space Jam: A New Legacy

Posted in Uncategorized on July 12, 2021 by Reel Review Roundup

Space Jam: A New Legacy (PG)

Directed by: Malcolm D. Lee

Starring: LeBron James, Don Cheadle, Cedric Joe

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Review by: Julian Wright

Another NBA superstar shares the big screen with a slew of classic animated characters in this sequel to the childhood favourite Space Jam.

NBA champion and Los Angeles Lakers player LeBron James raises his sons Darius (Ceyair J Wright) and Dom (Cedric Joe) to follow in his athletic footsteps, however, Dom is more technically minded and has designed and created his own video game.

When the two visit the Warner Bros studio and become trapped in a virtual world run by an A.I. named Al G Rhythm (Don Cheadle), they must play an epic game of basketball against each other.

LeBron’s team mates are a range of uncooperative, misfit Loony Tunes characters, including Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Tweetie and more, while Dom is on Al G Rhythm’s team of virtual players based on real life basketball champions – and Al G Rhythm will not allow it to be a fair game.

There is charm to spare in this sequel that has been gestating for 25 years, and it is a thrill to see Bugs Bunny and co back up on the big screen, getting into all sorts of mischief. Director Malcolm D. Lee and his voice cast manage to capture their spirit perfectly, as if these were the original versions.

Everything in pop culture, especially characters that WB have the rights to, gets a shout out in this cameo and reference heavy film that gives Ready Player One a run for its money. Why are child tormentor Pennywise the Clown and Conjuring universe demon The Nun cheering court-side in a Looney Tunes kids movie? Who knows! And it doesn’t add up to much at all, but it is fun for the grown ups to be able to play “Spot the Character”.

The biggest mystery though is how on Earth we got a two hour Space Jam movie in cinemas. There is a reason why the original Looney Tunes cartoons clocked in at 10 minutes maximum. They were short, sharp, fast paced and hugely entertaining in small doses. Space Jam: A New Legacy is often borderline excruciating with its inflated running time.

Film Review – Fast and Furious 9

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , on June 18, 2021 by Reel Review Roundup

Fast and Furious 9 (M)

Directed by: Justin Lin

Starring: Vin Diesel, Michelle Rodriguez, Tyrese Gibson

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Review by: Julian Wright

Something something family, car chases, explosions, logic defying stunts, something something family.

Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) and Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) are living off the grid in isolation on a rural property raising Toretto’s son Brian, when the pair are drawn back into action with Roman (Tyrese Gibson), Tej (Ludacris) and Ramsey (Nathalie Emmanuel).

Complicating this particular mission is the presence of Jakob (John Cenea), Dom and Mia’s (Jordana Brewster) long lost brother who disappeared in 1989 after their father – a race car driver – died.

Mr Nobody (Kurt Russell) has captured hacker Cipher (Charlize Theron), but his plane is intercepted and she has been extracted so it is up to the rev heads to track her down before two halves of a powerful machine can be put back together and used to hack into every weapons system worldwide.

Now billed a “saga”, this soap opera with cars and explosions continues to be a hoot and half, so long as you are willing to be on its wavelength.

The saga, now up to its ninth installment, post Hobbs and Shaw spin-off and now Paul Walker-less, certainly has its brand and formula down pat, leaning right into the family theme, which was always there, but now is used to spark motivations. Adding a long lost brother and dad killed by a fiery car wreck are both eye-rollingly obvious additions, but by this point, what were we even expecting?

But just when you think a series should be suffering from fatigue and it could not possibly thrill its audience any further, it goes ahead and adds in surprise after surprise. The first action sequence is so pulse poundingly exciting that it plays out as the climax and then still manages to top it later on. Having Justin Lin back in the directors seat is a genius move, he has a firm handle on this series.

The only thing the makers seem to struggle with is how to handle Paul Walker’s character Brian, who is alive and still part of the story despite the actor having died. This makes for some awkward scripting that the writers haven’t worked out yet. Where are everyone’s kids now when they are globe trotting, pulverising bad guys and flying cars over canyons? Oh, they get dropped off at Brian’s place now, as we learn in a throwaway line.

Apparently his conflict on deciding between crime fighter and family man were far easier to resolve than Torreto, who struggles with it for roughly 5 screen minutes.

We all giggle (ok, I cackled for 2.5 hours) at the family themed speeches and monologues, the melodramatic stare downs, chest puffing and Diesel squeezing out the occasional tear, but without these elements, which are actually part of the charm, there would be no heart or soul to any of the car carnage.

Even relative newcomers to all this ridiculous chaos, Helen Mirren and Charlize Theron (who is splendid in her best Hannibal Lecter impression), are in on the gag. If they get it, surely we can too.

Film Review – In The Heights

Posted in Uncategorized on June 18, 2021 by Reel Review Roundup

In The Heights (M)

Directed by: Jon M. Chu

Starring: Anthony Ramos, Leslie Grace, Jimmy Smits

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Review by: Julian Wright

Based on the hit Broadway show, In The Heights explores the lives of several Washington Heights residents who are trying to find their place in the world.

As gentrification threatens to change the character of Washington Heights forever, Bodega owner Usnavi (Anthony Raoms) prepares to leave to chase his dream of reviving his late father’s bar in the Dominican Republic.

Meanwhile, rising rent forces Daniela (Daphne Ruin-Vega) to relocate her salon to the Bronx, brainy Nina Rosario (Leslie Grace) is burdened with having to tell her hard working Dad Kevin (JImmy Smits) she has dropped out of Stanford University and Usnavi’s love interest, the talented fashion designer Vanessa (Melissa Berrera) faces discrimination when applying for her own apartment.

Their lives, and others, intertwine in the lead up to a power blackout that results in certain consequences and revelations.

This phenomenal production so beautifully captures a culturally rich pocket of Manhattan Island with so many loveable characters that even at 2 hours and 23 minutes, you cannot help but want more. It is so rare for a film to capture a sense of community so perfectly and eloquently.

It is a timely story, one that is far overdue on cinema screens, about those who work hard, contribute to an economy and a country and yet go unthanked, unacknowledged, unrecognised and unsupported. They have dreams and ambitions too, that are met with so many road blocks put in place by an outdated system.

And yet these are not presented as sob stories, nor are they portrayed as helpless victims in this narrative.

The positive representation of this nuanced community is a gift – there are no shady drug deals for dramatic effect and not a single gun or weapon to dial up tension. This is about as real as modern characters get in a musical production filled with eye popping sequences.

Those sequences are what make this cinematic – the aerial shots of synchronized choreography in a pool is dazzling, as is another sequence inspired by the golden era of musicals, in which two lovebirds dance on the side of an apartment , in and around the fire escapes, with gorgeous scenery behind them.

These moments are pure cinema magic.

Film Review – The Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard

Posted in Uncategorized on June 13, 2021 by Reel Review Roundup

The Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard (M)

Directed by: Patrick Hughes

Starring: Ryan Reynolds, Samuel L. Jackson, Salma Hayek

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Review by: Julian Wright

Bigger, louder, and more swearing is the plan of action for this sequel to the moderate 2017 hit The Hitman’s Bodyguard.

While on a strict gun-free sabbatical from bodyguarding in Italy, under his psychiatrist’s orders, highly strung Michael Bryce (Ryan Reynolds) is dragged back into a world of violence, body counts, kidnappings and villains with plans of destruction.

Feisty firecracker Sonia Kincaid (Salma Hayek) has tracked Michael down to help get her hitman husband Darius (Samuel L. Jackson) back from the mobsters who took him on the first night of their honeymoon.

The trio then get caught up in Interpol’s mission, led by agent Bobby O’Neill (Frank Grillo), to stop Aristotle Papadopolous (Antonio Banderas) from destroying the European power grid.

But Sonia and Aristotle have unresolved history.

In the grand tradition of action sequels, The Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard does things bigger and louder, with lines of dialogue that never have less than 12 F-words or variants of. A drinking game in which you take a shot every time someone swears would require a grave.

In many ways, the script does feel like it was written by a giddy 14 year old boy who just discovered swear words and a blank cheque for explosions, though admittedly Jackson’s first few “motherf*ckers” does hit the spot.

There is a lot of humour drawn from the foul mouthed, gun-toting Sonia leaving a trail of dead bodies while pining about being a mum and Michael getting through various violent situations without resorting to a firearm.

Hayek steals the show from her male counterparts with her outlandish and comedically over-the-top performance and thank goodness for her. She also brings some emotional depth (as much as one could possibly be allowed to in an otherwise testosterone-fuelled endeavor) to what would otherwise be simply a screeching harpy.

It is sequel film making for the lowest common denominator and darn it if I didn’t get sucked right into it, because while it doesn’t bother to reinvent the wheel, it has an energy and conviction about it that is infectious. It aims for fun and achieves it.

Film Review – Cruella

Posted in Uncategorized on June 7, 2021 by Reel Review Roundup

Cruella (M)

Directed by: Craig Gillespie

Starring: Emma Stone, Emma Thompson, Mark Strong

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Review by: Julian Wright

Emma Stone dons a British accent and glamorous outfits in this sumptuous live action Cruella de Vil origin story that doesn’t forget nuance among the spectacle.

When her mother is killed by the paws of three dalmatian guard dogs at a cliff-side mansion, feisty young creative with a dark streak Estella (Tipper Seifert-Cleveland) is orphaned and resorts to living on the streets of London.

She is taken in by fellow street wise orphans Jasper (Ziggy Gardner) and Horace (Joseph MacDonald) and throughout the years perfect their pick-pocketing plots as a team.

As young adults, Estella (Emma Stone) has dreams of a career in fashion and gets a job working for renowned haute couture designer The Baroness (Emma Thompson), but working for this contemptuous boss from hell prompts Estella’s alter-ego Cruella to surface.

Cruella is less about dogs and more about fashion, duality, loyalty, harmful secrets and identity – in fact, there is a lot going on in this 134 minute film. Not only is it interested in subtext, but it is a showcase for some of the most creative and stylish choices we are likely to see on screen this year. The production design is often jaw-dropping.

The outfits are dazzling, with a couple of costume reveals that elicited an audible gasp from me, the soundtrack is wall to wall classic bops and zippy editing that, for the most part, gives this a fun pace.

Pairing the two Emmas was casting genius, with both of them at the top of their giddy game making it hard to guess which is having the most fun disappearing into their devilish characters. And the moments where they go head-to-head as the rivalry intensifies is delightful to watch unfold.

There are some obvious parallels to The Devil Wears Prada, even down to the icy boss’ bald right hand man John (Mark Strong), and the length is not justified (is there a word for when you are enjoying something so much but at the same time wish it will end soon?) but Cruella is a case of so much joyfully wicked energy being channeled into something that this delicious concoction is hard to hate.

Film Review – The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It

Posted in Uncategorized on June 5, 2021 by Reel Review Roundup

The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It (M)

Director: Michael Chaves

Starring: Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, Ruairi O’Connor

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Review by: Julian Wright

Cinema’s favourite couple of real-life paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren are back to battle more spooky spectres with some true facts laying the groundwork for some fantastical storytelling.

In 1981, when young man Arne Johnson (Ruairi O’Connor) from small town Brookfield, Connecticut murders his landlord, his case becomes the first American murder trial to claim demonic possession as a defense.

The Warrens are brought on board to help prove his claim and begin investigating a link between Arne’s situation and a couple of other similar cases – a satanic curse.

Director Michael Chaves, whose initiation into the Conjuring universe was spin-off The Curse Of LA Llorona (2019), mounts some genuinely nail-biting sequences that are heavy on the suspense and dread rather than jolting sound effects – the funeral home scene is a definite highlight.

However, reliance on the charm of the main characters and the actors that play them is starting to run low on steam, and the connections to real life events seem increasingly weak.

By the time a possessed character starts levitating and windows blow out in front of prison staff, this has well and truly lost touch with reality.

Early on, this third Conjuring installment hints that it may take a different narrative approach, one more along the lines of the fascinating genre mash-up exorcism/court room drama The Exorcism Of Emily Rose, alas, it ditches the court room in favour of the more traditional investigating/mystery solving. But ultimately, once solved, it doesn’t leave much of an impact.

It may be time for the Warrens’ story to be locked up in a basement for some respite much like their collection of possessed dolls and various items before the fear factor is truly diminished.