Movie Review – The Miseducation of Cameron Post (Sydney Film Fest 2018)

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EXPECTATIONS: No clue, but considering the cast/crew, something noteworthy.

REVIEW: For those who have read my glowing review of American Honey, I praised the main actress Sasha Lane for being a natural on-screen and a talent to look out for. Flash-forward to almost two years later, we have her on-screen again in the comedy-drama The Miseducation of Cameron Post and that had me excited.

But fortunately, that’s not the only reason. The film is directed by Desiree Akhavan, who had directed the acclaimed romantic comedy Appropriate Behaviour, which dealt with its subject matters of gender roles and cultural perspectives very well. That point alone makes it highly appropriate that she is directing The Miseducation of Cameron Post.

And we have the lead actress Chloe Grace Moretz, whose recent work has been quite polarizing lately ever since starring in Olivier Assayas’ Clouds of Sils Maria. Starring in underwhelming films like If I Stay and films that barely got a theatrical release like November Criminals and Dark Places, the film seems to be the perfect opportunity to get out of that rut.

Will The Miseducation of Cameron Post succeed in making a film that is sensitive in its subject matter about queer people as well as succeed in being entertaining?

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Set in 1993, we follow the titular character Cameron Post (Chloe Grace Moretz). On the outside, she seems to fit the appearance of a normal teenage girl. But she has a secret that she hides from everyone, which is her being a lesbian. She is in a relationship with Coley (actress/director Quinn Shephard in a small role) and it takes a turn for the worst when the two are caught in the backseat of a car.

Cameron is sent away to a treatment center in a remote area called God’s Promise, run by Dr. Lydia Marsh (Jennifer Ehle). While she is being subjected to questionable gay conversion therapies, she bonds with some fellow residents like the commune-raised sardonic Jane Fonda (Sasha Lane) and the laid-back asexual Native American Adam Red Eagle (Forrest Goodluck). The three gradually become good friends as they pretend to go along with the process while waiting to be released.

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Like the best of coming-of-age films, they all provide an honest outlook in their storytelling. In the case of The Miseducation of Cameron Post is a very well-executed comedy-drama coming-of-age film, indeed. Major credit goes to director Desiree Akhavan, whose direction is never blatant, manipulative and most importantly, judgmental to the characters involved. There is always a human element to these characters that always makes them easy to empathize with, despite their questionable actions.

Even some of the big dramatic scenes of the film are surprisingly nuanced and the small moments in the scene stand out, like in a scene where Cameron makes a phone call, her face is distorted in darkness during the emotional moment and we hear her hand grip the phone.

Characters like that include Reverend Rick Marsh (played by John Gallagher Jr.), a man who is still struggling and refusing to come to terms with his sexuality; Cameron’s overly optimistic roommate Erin (Emily Skeggs), a teenager who is desperate to believe she’s straight and even Dr. Lydia Marsh (Jennifer Ehle) can’t be called a villain (or what she’s called in the film, a Disney villain). But the great thing Akhavan does is that she never gets into the backstories nor lets the audience why they are who they are; she only shows what makes them flawed and remarkably human.

Alongside that, the best choice that Akhavan does is to adapt the final act of the book for the entirety of the film, which is when the lead goes into the gay conversion camp. In terms of the film, it throws the audience at the breaking point (efficiently and emotionally) where the characters come to the realization of their identity and how it affects others; and a sense of claustrophobia i.e. being thrown into a place almost immediately with no clear way out.

Despite the downbeat subject matter of the story, Akhavan adds plenty of understated humour throughout, which shows how ridiculous outside points-of-view can be towards homosexuality or even religion eg. the Christian exercise program called Blessercise that Erin exercises on.

It helps that the cast all give fantastic performances. Sasha Lane proves that her performance in American Honey is no fluke, as she is so comfortable and charismatic on-screen, all of her acerbic line deliveries are right on target. Forrest Goodluck (best known for his role in Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu‘s The Revenant) gives a likable and laid-back performance. Jennifer Ehle is compellingly understated as the matriarch who is always stern with her approach, yet Ehle never portrays her as a cartoon. Emily Skeggs is great as Erin, who hides under her guileless facade to look like she’s straight and Owen Campbell has a fantastic moment in the third act that is just heartbreaking.

But the biggest standouts in the film are John Gallagher Jr. and Chloe Grace Moretz. Gallagher Jr. nails the internal conflict of the character, hiding under a facade of jubilation. The cracks of that facade that become more and more noticeable over time that and Gallagher Jr. makes the gradual character reveal a marvel to watch, especially in the final act.

Moretz has played impassive or taciturn characters before like in the horror films Let Me In and Carrie (2013), but her performances were always flawed due to her inexperience at the time or how the character was written in the script. But in the case of The Miseducation of Cameron Post, she really digs into the character, whether its the self-hatred for what she has done or her gradual realization of who she is. It’s a remarkably sensitive and nuanced performance that is the best in her career, hands down.

Overall, The Miseducation of Cameron Post is an understated and quite powerful film that is sensitive towards all of its characters, is remarkable in how inclusive it is, has great performances and has welcome acerbic humor that made me laugh out loud at times. Highly recommended.

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Quickie Review

PROS

Sensitive and passionate portrayals of the characters

Wonderful performances from the cast

Acerbic and observational humour hits its targets

CONS

Abrupt ending

SCORE: 8/10

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This review can be also seen at THE IRIS. Visit the site by pressing the picture above.

Cast: Chloe Grace Moretz, Sasha Lane, Forrest Goodluck, John Gallagher Jr., Jennifer Ehle, Emily Skeggs, Owen Campbell, Quinn Shephard
Director: Desiree Akhavan
Screenwriters: Desiree Akhavan, Cecilia Frugiuele, based on the novel by Emily M. Danforth.

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Movie Review – Tag (2018)

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EXPECTATIONS: A film that takes its cartoonish premise to hopefully hilarious heights.

REVIEW: Here’s a comedy premise for you. A bunch of childhood friends play the classic game of tag. Okay, simple enough so far. But the game of tag has gone on through every month of May for 30 years. Yep, you’ve read that right. 30 years.

And it’s based on a true story where that basically happened, but it was 23 years. Truth is stranger than fiction but you can imagine many film producers would flock to make this story into a movie and after 5 years since the article was published, we now have the simply-titled Tag, directed by first-timer Jeff Tomsic and starring an ensemble cast of comedic players. Will the film bring the goofy premise on-screen with hilarious results?

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The story goes with 5 childhood friends who have been playing the same game of Tag on every month of May for 30 years. All grown up now, we see Hoagie (Ed Helms), Bob (Jon Hamm), Chili (Jake Johnson) and Kevin (Hannibal Buress) reuniting to go after Jerry (Jeremy Renner), the lone wolf of the group that has never been tagged.

News has it that Jerry is about to get married to Susan (Leslie Bibb) and his wedding is his last hurrah of tag before he retires from the game. With the help of Anna (Isla Fisher), Hoagie’s wife and Rebecca (Annabelle Wallis), a journalist who wants to document this game, the race is on.

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The premise for Tag itself is utterly ridiculous, so it’s quite obvious that the filmmakers are not aiming for any semblance of realism. And during the many moments of the game, the film earns its laughs due to their sheer audacity. Many tropes of the action genre get lampooned to hilariously cartoony effect.

One particular example is when Jerry uses his observational skills to attack or evade the others and it is shown in slow-motion, and it lampoons the action scenes in films like the Sherlock Holmes entries and Antoine Fuqua’s The Equalizer. Another example is when Jerry improvises weapons out of household items like a purse or a walker that is very reminiscent of the fight choreography of Jackie Chan. It helps that Jeremy Renner is a good sport and executes all the action scenes convincingly and gets in on the comedy quite well.

And the funniest of all is when Jerry lures the group into a trap in the forest and it makes fun of horror/thriller cliches like setting booby traps or psychological warfare. It’s pure lunacy but it serves the premise well and the physical comedy is a lot of fun to watch. Predator, The Evil Dead, The Blair Witch Project, First Blood, the references are all there. There are even moments where the characters disguise themselves as someone else, even an old lady, and it reaches a funny Looney Tunes vibe that one wishes it kept up throughout.

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Less so however is the verbal comedy. The cast do what they can with their roles and the script, but when you break it down (and there really isn’t much breaking down), the characters are just not worth caring about. They’re completely selfish, unhinged, chauvinistic people that you would never want any association with them. Which is why the jokes that involve laughing at them are funny, and yet most of the jokes that want us to laugh with them fail.

The script co-written by Rob McKittrick (who wrote the Waiting… [sic] films) is littered with jokes about fellatio, drug use, masturbation (an actual threat involves exactly that) and profane language can be executed with flair and sometimes, there are some laughs to be had, particularly from Hannibal Buress, whose oddly inflected line deliveries make rote material work well. But when the film goes on to make jokes about miscarriages and then repeats that joke ad nauseum, it becomes quite repulsive.

And once again, the talents of the actresses are all wasted (except for Annabelle Wallis, who’s character is such a waste of space that if she were removed, it would make no difference to the story), where they saunter into the background and let the boys play. Granted, the true story that it’s based on happened the same way, but seeing it on film done differently would’ve been nice, especially when you have the talents like Isla Fisher and Rashida Jones.

And worse of all, the film takes a sharp turn towards sentimentality that it becomes vomit-inducingly mawkish that you almost can’t believe that the film went toward that route. Jake Johnson’s character Chilli keeps asking everyone whether it was faked and the audience will no doubt ask the same question.

And that ends the game review of Tag, a slipshod comedy that could’ve been an entertainingly lunatic farce (and it sometimes is) but the unlikable characters, the unfunny script and the sharp turn into forced sentimentality will make you to tag out of the film.

Quickie Review

PROS

All scenes involving the titular game are fun

Cast do what they can with the problematic script

CONS

Verbal comedy is subpar

Female roles are wasted

Mawkish turn in third act

SCORE: 5/10

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This review can be also seen at IMPULSE GAMER. Visit the site by pressing the picture above.

Cast: Ed Helms, Jake Johnson, Annabelle Wallis, Rashida Jones, Isla Fisher, Leslie Bibb, Hannibal Buress, Jon Hamm, Jeremy Renner
Director: Jeff Tomsic
Screenwriters: Rob McKittrick, Mark Steilen

Movie Review – Piercing (Sydney Film Fest 2018)

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EXPECTATIONS: A film that has storytelling similar to a BDSM session, with sadistically funny results.

REVIEW: Before I start this review, it has to be said that this reviewer has a sick and depraved sense of humour. So stepping in to watch this sadistic horror/comedy film Piercing for Sydney Film Fest 2018, my expectations were sky-high.

Adapted from a novel by acclaimed author Ryu Murakami, who is famous for novels that get into the sinister nature of the human condition in the backdrop of Japan. With novels like Audition (which was later adapted by director Takashi Miike), In the Miso Soup and Coin Locker Babies (adapted in to a South Korean film, Coin Locker Girl, by director Han Jun-hee), we’re venturing into some very dark territory.

And we have the two talented leads. Christopher Abbott, who’s most well-known for his sweet, tame role in the TV series, Girls, and was most recently in the divisive horror film, Trey Edward Shult‘s It Comes At Night, steps into a role that is uncharted territory for him. Whereas fellow Australian actress Mia Wasikowska has played subtly unhinged roles before like in Park Chan-wook‘s Stoker, Jim Jarmusch‘s Only Lovers Left Alive and Gus Van Sant‘s Restless.

And the film is directed by Nicolas Pesce, who made the strikingly atmospheric monochrome horror film The Eyes of My Mother, and his next project is directing the reboot of The Grudge, starring personal favourite Andrea Riseborough. So with all this talent of riches and great source material to adapt, will Piercing be a worthwhile endeavour or will it be another example of the sophomore slump?

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The film starts off with a startling image of Reed (Christopher Abbott) staring at his newborn son, whilst gripping an ice-pick. With one of the many demented visions Reed has in the film, the newborn son speaks to him, saying “You know what we have to do, right?”

With the support of his unknowing wife, Mona (Laia Costa), he goes on a business trip. Reed checks into a swanky hotel and arranges for a call girl to come over for him to stage the perfect murder, in order to satiate his inner urges.

With the murder all planned out intricately in his mind, complete with miming out the actions with sound effects of limbs being mutilated and so on, it will be an event that is surely to succeed. Assuming that the call girl doesn’t go off the rails. Enter Jackie, played by Mia Wasikowska.

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What begins as a potentially grisly serial killer film becomes an increasingly demented macabre screwball comedy. With a mix of genres and tones, it takes very assured hands from the cast and crew to walk the tightrope with perfect balance and thankfully, they all pull it off with aplomb.

As expected, director Nicolas Pesce brings his stylistic aesthetic to the film and it brings an enjoyably surreal and dream-like atmosphere, reaching towards a neo-retro sensibility. It comes complete with lovingly art-directed interiors (the skyscrapers housing these rooms are miniatures), distinct visuals captured by cinematographer Zack Galler, sharp editing by Sofia Subercaseaux (whose work is on another SFF 2018 entry, Sebastian Silva‘s Tyrel) and great choices in the soundtrack (mostly compositions from past films by Bruno Nicolai and rock band Goblin) and they both add to the audience immersion of what they can handle when the film will comes up with its bonkers details.

And what the film comes up with is brutal violence, psychological mind-games and pitch-black macabre humour; all exceptionally well-executed, pun intended. One of those details include a spider that looks like it comes out of the mind of of 80’s David Cronenberg. And the humour is of the nature that is sure to elicit awkward fits of laughter, reminiscent of David Slade‘s Hard Candy or Mitchell Lichtenstein‘s Teeth, both horror films where women turn the tables on men. Major props must go to Daniel Sheppard and the sound department, as the sound mix adds punch to the violence, as well as the dark sense of humour i.e. the scene where Reed acts out his actions.

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The storytelling is also noteworthy due to how Pesce tries to screw with his audience and their expectations. First of all, Wasikowska’s character is never depicted as a victim, which makes one question who has the real position of power, making the film a fun game of cat-and-mouse. Second of all, the film shows what its intent is from the very opening shot, mixing comedy with grisly details convincingly as well as providing a litmus test as to whether the audience can handle what is to come. And last of all is the ending, which is so off-kilter and yet so well-timed in how abrupt it is, it comes off as surprisingly chippy.

Yet none of these things would work without the talented leads to keep the story grounded. Laia Costa is likable in a small supporting role as Reed’s wife, who’s more supporting of Reed than one would think. Christopher Abbott does a great job with imbuing Reed with much-needed facets of humanity, making him a character that the audience can empathize with, however much that may be. Think Patrick Bateman, but with much lower self-esteem.

And there’s Mia Wasikowska, who is a captivating firecracker of a woman as Jackie. Usually, female characters in a film such as this (or in many film genres, for that matter) are there to make the male leading characters more enlightened; basically supporting them for what they are going through. Or how female characters in horror films are always in peril and never really any sense of agency or autonomy in the story. In the case of Piercing, that never happens, as Jackie not only has the same amount of oddities and quirks, but she may be more unhinged than Reed is. And on that level, Wasikowska delivers in what may be her most fun performance yet.

Overall, Piercing is a sadistically fun time at the movies with its violent proclivities, its macabre sense of humour, its increasingly insane storytelling chops and of course, director Nicolas Pesce and leads Christopher Abbott and Mia Wasikowska guiding the ship. Highly recommended to those with strong stomachs and those with sick and depraved minds, like yours truly.

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Quickie Review

PROS

Fantastic lead performances

Pesce’s delightfully vibrant and prodding direction

Cinematography, sound design and score are all well-executed

Balance between the grisly and comedic is well-maintained

CONS

Abrupt ending

SCORE: 8/10

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This review can be also seen at THE IRIS. Visit the site by pressing the picture above.

Cast: Christopher Abbott, Mia Wasikowska, Laia Costa
Director: Nicolas Pesce
Screenwriters: Nicolas Pesce, based on the novel by Ryu Murakami

Movie Review – Incredibles 2

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EXPECTATIONS: Something that doesn’t equal the original, but is a fun time nonetheless.

REVIEW: It has been a very, very long 14 years, but the long-awaited sequel that many were asking for is finally here. Toy Story 4 Incredibles 2 has finally arrived! The first film was branded as the Fantastic Four film that people deserved and it catapulted the career of director Brad Bird to new heights, including live-action ventures like Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol and Tomorrowland.

And with the vast amounts of superhero films we have today and many more on the horizon, it is clearly a no-brainer for Bird to make the sequel. Will Incredibles 2 succeed as a sequel that stands on its own as well as a great superhero film in its own right?

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Incredibles 2 starts off where the first film ended, where the Parr family encounter the villain, The Underminer. Although, as a family, they have foiled his plan to rob the major banks, he escapes, leaving the Incredibles with a worse reputation than they already have from government officials.

It only gets worse when Rick Dicker (Jonathan Banks, replacing Bud Luckey who sadly passed away) reports that the superhero relocation program is shut down, leading the family to dire straits. But hope comes into the picture when Frozone (Samuel L. Jackson) informs Helen (Holly Hunter) and Bob (Craig T. Nelson) about Winston Deavor (Bob Odenkirk), the CEO of a telecommunications company who’s also a superhero fanatic. Alongside her sister, Evelyn (Catherine Keener) who is a technological marvel, the two want to bring supers back into the spotlight by changing the public’s perception of them.

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Since Helen is chosen for her light approach to saving the day (in comparison to Bob’s sloppy approach), she is out, doing all the work, advocating superhero rights while Bob is at home, as the stay-at-home dad, taking care of the moody Violet (Sarah Vowell), the hyperactive Dash (Huck Milner, replacing Spencer Fox) and the increasingly troublesome Jack-Jack, who’s experiencing his own super phase.

As the two adjust to their new change in lifestyles and as superheroes come back into the spotlight, a new supervillain comes into the midst, called the Screenslaver, who has the ability to use any screen to hypnotize and control people who look at them.

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Was Incredibles 2 worth the 14-year wait? Thankfully, it is, as it provides younger children a very entertaining respite from the high-stakes storytelling of other superhero films like Avengers: Infinity War and Black Panther. And no, Deadpool 2 is not for young children!

One of the best factors of the first Incredibles film is the integration of the family dynamic into the superhero genre and thankfully, it is kept intact in the sequel; the much-needed grounded feel that audiences can relate to. But this time, focusing on how Bob takes care of the family.

And it is because of that, it ends up being surprisingly funnier than the original. Bob’s reactions to mundane tasks like helping Dash with his homework or trying to put Jack-Jack to sleep are hilarious. Jack-Jack in particular, is the funniest thing in the film. His interactions with the family and a certain creature pay off with the biggest laughs.

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The action sequences, while not emotionally thrilling like the airplane set-piece in the first film, are still a lot of fun to watch, especially when one of them is similar to a set-piece in an infamously maligned sequel. It helps a lot when Bird comes up with new superpowers for the Incredibles to fight against eg. teleportation or hypnosis; or when he gives something new for the Incredibles to do eg. when Helen (aka Elastigirl) rides her motorcycle to scale and jump on tall buildings by splitting apart, similar to parkour.

Like all of Pixar films, they always choose actors who are right for the parts, and not just choose people with massive star power. All the cast members assembled are on point with their characters, including Bird himself as the hoot-and-a-half Edna Mode. The newcomers including Catherine Keener, Sophia Bush and Isabella Rossellini (just her appearance alone makes me laugh) all commit with ease and sound like they are having fun while they’re doing it. Bob Odenkirk needs to do more voicework, that’s all this I’ll say. And the biggest laugh for me is when Samuel L. Jackson (as Frozone) almost does a trademark of his. Almost.

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As for its flaws, it basically comes down to expectations. Since the film came out 14 years after the original, there would be a build-up of audience anticipation that may affect how people would feel about the film. It could easily had come out 2 years later, it’s possible the film would have a better reception.

Back to actual flaws, the film isn’t as emotionally stirring as the original, as the film focuses more on fun and less on stakes. And the motivation for the villainous scheme for what he or she (or they?) isn’t as involving as it could’ve been, particularly in comparison to the motivation of Syndrome, the villain in the first Incredibles film.

Overall, Incredibles 2 is a hell of a fun time for the entire family, providing lots of superhero antics that rival films in the MCU and DCEU, loads more laughs than the original film and the cast and crew all back in the height of their game. Don’t ever get get old, Jack-Jack.

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Quickie Review

PROS

Fantastic action scenes

Many, many hilarious moments

Keeps the compelling family dynamic intact

Many memorable side characters, including the villain, the Screenslaver

CONS

Not quite emotionally stirring as the original

Could’ve easily came out much earlier and not have the pressures of the long waiting time

The motive of the villain isn’t as good in comparison to Syndrome from the first film

SCORE: 8/10

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This review can be also seen at THE IRIS. Visit the site by pressing the picture above.

Cast: Holly Hunter, Craig T. Nelson, Sarah Vowell, Huck Milner, Samuel L. Jackson, Brad Bird, Jonathan Banks, Bob Odenkirk, Catherine Keener, Sophia Bush, Isabella Rossellini, John Ratzenberger, LaTanya Richardson Jackson
Director: Brad Bird
Screenwriters: Brad Bird

Movie Review – Tully

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EXPECTATIONS: A film that is as good as Juno and Young Adult.

REVIEW: If there’s one creative collaboration that many were looking forward to, it’s the collaboration between director Jason Reitman and writer Diablo Cody. Their first collaboration was the 2007 comedy-drama Juno. With its hip dialogue, wonderful performances and a refreshing view of the coming-of-age genre (for that time), it was a critically-acclaimed hit that was a huge step for their careers.

And for their second collaboration, they overcome the sophomore slump and made the 2011 film Young Adult, an uncompromising and funny look at prolonged adolescence that despite never achieving the success of Juno, it still showed that Reitman and Cody were a force to be reckoned with.

But after that, their recent work in separate vocations have gotten mixed results. Reitman had gone along to director the execrable romantic-drama Labor Day, which was a carbon-copy of a terrible Nicholas Sparks film adaptation. And then he directed the incredibly misguided teenage drama Men, Women and Children, a film with an interesting premise explored with such sloppy and overbearing execution.

As for Cody, she’s gone on to write other scripts for middling films like the comedy-drama Ricki and the Flash and made her directorial debut, Paradise, which was a critical and financial flop. Now the two talents have reunited once again for Tully, a comedy/drama about the difficulties of motherhood with Charlize Theron coming back into the fray. Will the film get Reitman and Cody back on their feet?

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Theron stars as Marlo, a HR employee at a protein bar company who’s just about to give birth to her third child. Her husband, Ron (Ron Livingston, fitting), loves her very much and works hard, but unfortunately remains oblivious about the demands that motherhood puts on her.

After the baby is born, her wealthy brother Craig (Mark Duplass), offers a solution to hire a nighttime nanny to help handle the increasing workload. After a long consideration, she buckles down and decides to hire Tully (Mackenzie Davis). Performing miracles left and right, the two start to form a strong bond. But when Marlo starts to know more about Tully, things start to appear a little off…

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Does the film succeed as a commentary on motherhood as well as a worthwhile creative endeavour between Reitman, Cody and Theron? Reitman still goes for the retro-hip vibe with his use of music like Cyndi Lauper and Cody still goes for the cooler-than-real dialogue (although no “Honest to blog” lines happen) that made her popular in the first place but thankfully, it is a return to form to what they do best: showing empathy for deeply flawed characters with very little sugar-coating.

While the story sounds like a feel-good experience or something with flights of fancy, the execution is anything but. Uncompromising, acidic and funny, Tully brings a sense of duality to the story, making both the slightly fantastical and the gritty collide together at times where it might seem like a fault to the storytelling, but in retrospect, brings greater depth to the characters, particularly Marlo.

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Charlize Theron has always been a transformative actress who relies on physicality with her performances, with films like the serial-killer biopic Monster to the comedy-drama Young Adult to the action blockbuster Mad Max: Fury Road and the recent spy-thriller Atomic Blonde. In the case of Tully, she gives one of her best performances in her entire career. Nuanced, fierce, vulnerable, quirky and acerbic, sometimes all at once, Theron makes Marlo remarkably human.

Mackenzie Davis, whose talents show in acclaimed shows like Halt and Catch Fire and Black Mirror and films like the psychological thriller Always Shine, have been underutilized lately, especially in Blade Runner 2049. Here in the title role, she brightens up the screen the second she shows up. Charming, energetic, lively, it’s no wonder why Marlo would get along with Tully and both Theron and David share great chemistry, particularly when the relationship becomes more intimate.

Even the supporting and seemingly obligatory characters are brought to life by both Livingston and Duplass. Livingston in particular stands out because he makes his character relatable, which is surprising considering the actions (on inaction) his character does throughout most of the film.

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The story is told quite well, with some stumbles (the foreshadowing, involving a mermaid) but the film never flinches when dealing with motherhood. One moment involves Marlo carrying her child in a baby bassinet and accidentally hitting it against a filing cabinet, which brought gasps from the audience.

While there is nothing new or original in the story itself, the film does feature a major turn in the third act that brings a whole new perspective to what happened prior, contextualizing the film in a whole new way that lends depth to the characters’ actions. But undoubtedly, that major turn is bound to polarize audiences, making them feel that it just cheapens the film’s impact on such a turn.

Overall, Tully is a return to form for both director Jason Reitman and writer Diablo Cody. Featuring great performances (particularly Charlize Theron and Mackenzie Davis), an unflinching and engrossing look on motherhood and a witty, acerbic script from Cody, Tully is a film worth looking out for.

Quickie Review

PROS

Fantastic performances

Reitman’s direction and Cody’s writing capably empathizes with its flawed characters

Very funny and engrossing look into motherhood

CONS

The third act reveal is bound to polarize

SCORE: 8/10

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This review can be also seen at THE IRIS. Visit the site by pressing the picture above.

Cast: Charlize Theron, Mackenzie Davis, Mark Duplass, Ron Livingston, Emily Haine, Elaine Tan
Director: Jason Reitman
Screenwriters: Diablo Cody

Movie Review – Girls VS Gangsters

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EXPECTATIONS: The worst film of 2018.

REVIEW:

When one thinks of female filmmakers, you think of people like Ann Hui, who’s a fantastic filmmaker with films focusing on society in Hong Kong eg. Night and Fog, A Simple Life, Our Time Will Come and others. One could also think of Mabel Cheung, a wonderful filmmaker who makes passionate and graceful dramas like An Autumn’s Tale and Echoes of the Rainbow.

But if there’s one Hong Kong female filmmaker that people would like to forget, it’s Barbara Wong. Starting off promisingly with the hilariously open documentary Women’s Private Parts and the wholesome comedy/drama Truth or Dare: 6th Floor Rear Flat, she stumbles slightly with dopey comedies like Protege de la Rose Noire and Six Strong Guys. And then came Wonder Women, a film so bad that the egregious product placement actually comes across as a relief to the film itself.

She hasn’t really recovered since, although she’s found financial success in China with awfully manipulative melodramas like The Allure of Tears and The Stolen Years, the latter being so terrible that not only it plagiarizes better melodramas like A Moment to Remember, The Vow and Million Dollar Baby; it also plagiarized this YouTube video. No, that last one is not a joke.

Continuing on from catering the China rooster by petting and rubbing it in an abrasive fashion, we have the 2014 comedy/drama Girls (not to be confused with Kenneth Bi’s Girl$), a film about female relationships that is a rip-off of the Tiny Times franchise. In an interview promoting Girls, Wong says that “It’s difficult to make a film about female relationships. No matter if it’s a gossiping or fighting scene, you have to make it real.

Well, enter into Girls VS Gangsters, a sequel (no, really!) to the 2014 film. Originally meant for release in 2016 and delayed several times until it finally arrived (dumped?) onto cinemas in March of 2018. Will this film be a return to form for Barbara Wong? Will this film actually be empowering for women? Will this film be realistic in portraying female relationships?

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Continuing where Girls left off, Xiwen (Ivy Chen) announces that she’s finally getting married to Qiao Li (originally played by Shawn Yue, but is absent for some reason) and Kimmy (Fiona Sit) persuades her to take a fun bachelorette trip to Vietnam, where the third member of the group, the filmmaker Xiaomei (originally played by Yang Zishan, but is absent for some reason), is supposedly working on a project there.

The first obstacle for Kimmy’s plan arrives in the shape of Xiwen’s other best friend (and Kimmy’s mortal enemy), Jialan (Ning Chang) and her fiancé’s teenage sister, Jingjing (Wang Shuilin). Things quickly get worse on their first night in Vietnam, where Xiaomei has arranged for them to go to the extravagant house party of a wealthy mobster (Tran Bao Son).

After a wild night at the mansion that sees Kimmy eat a dead scorpion and end up in the bedroom of her host (with no prurience, because China), Xiwen, Kimmy and Jialan wake up the next morning to find themselves naked on a deserted beach, with Jingjing nowhere to be found. Worse still, Xiwen has an ugly new tattoo on her back, while the other two are handcuffed to a trunk full of gold bars that they’re soon told by a mysterious caller to spend.

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And it gets worse and worse and worse. Girls VS Gangsters is one of the worst films that his reviewer has ever seen. No joke. And yes, for those who are curious, this film is worse than Benny Chan’s Meow, which this reviewer has said was the cinematic equivalent of ultraviolent dysentery. Girls VS Gangsters is the cinematic equivalent of drowning in a cesspool of vomit WHILST having ultraviolent dysentery.

But as one that likes to live life optimistically, let’s begin with the positives. Yeah, there are none whatsoever. To put it mildly, let’s begin with the problems. Remember what director Barbara Wong said about female relationships having to be real? Well here in Girls VS Gangsters, the characters converse with each other while using gold bars as currency, they make rape “jokes” to each other, one being “if you can’t keep this secret, you’ll be raped 100 times”; the characters get attacked by Vietnamese gangsters; they all talk about men despite this being a female empowerment film; apparently all of this is real.

And then there’s the filmmaking. What filmmaking? The green-screen and CGI utilized in this film is grotesquely cheap; there is no story whatsoever, as it consists of nothing happening very loudly for two excruciating hours. And there are many filmmaking gaffes here that is so unbelievable that they are still on-screen. Some examples include the use of slow-motion so bad that it stutters; a case of bad ADR that is so noticeable that it comes from a character whose mouth is closed; action scenes where none of the actresses are even on-screen together or not on location at all; it just goes on and and on.

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The “comedy” is absolutely ear-piercingly terrible, even by China-market standards. The high point of the humour is apparently flatulence that not only happens three times throughout the film, but is actually a major plot point. Apparently, eating a deadly scorpion is funny. Vomiting on a corpse while it’s in the coffin is the height of hilarity and gay characters are downright hysterical because they’re gay. There’s even a God of Gamblers parody in the film that’s worse than anything in From Vegas to Macau III.

And speaking of China-market standards, there’s a cameo from boxer Mike Tyson. Yes, the Mike Tyson. The same one that was convicted of rape and is registered as a sex offender is starring in a film directed by and starring women. And he’s the best actor in this thing. If that’s not offensive enough, he’s portrayed as half African-American and half-Korean, who loves Korean dramas. No, really, that actually happens. It’s blatantly clear that the only reason his character is half-Korean is that no Chinese woman on film would ever like him unless he was. And it all leads to an embarrassing scene referencing the Korean drama, Descendants of the Sun. And there’s the racism that if you’re not Chinese, then all the races of Vietnam, Thailand and Laos are absolutely interchangeable, from the appearances, customs and even the geography.

And if they are interchangeable, so are the actresses. Fiona Sit, Ning Chang and Ivy Chen have all done good work in prior films. But in Girls VS Gangsters, they all play characters that are all narcissistic, petulant, sociopathic, manipulative, greedy, selfish and morally ugly shells of a human being that the audience will be begging for the usher to hand them barf bags and oxygen masks while seeing their performances.

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And let’s get into the stupid moments in the “plot” of the film. How does one of the characters take a dump without taking her pants off? How do the characters wear on Vietnamese clothing while they are handcuffed? If the characters were naked in the beach while being cuffed, where did they get their phones? Apparently, the characters can skydive without proper training and while consuming alcohol. For a character who wants to intentionally lose in blackjack, she clearly doesn’t know that nothing in blackjack can stop you from losing!

There’s so much more to gauge, criticize and rant about this film like the horrific musical number in the credits, but this review will never end. Many people say that excessive watching of films of the horror and action genre can lead to people turning into violent, psychopathic and angry beings. No, they don’t. Films like Girls VS Gangsters turn people into violent, psychopathic and angry beings because it is so tortuously poor, that you can feel your well-being and life force being sucked away seeing that humanity actually made a film like this and released it in cinemas.

It’s a film that’s so bad that Shawn Yue and Yang Zishan and even the constant cameo-appearing Barbara Wong decided not to appear in it, despite their characters making appearances. Everyone in this film should repeatedly smash themselves in the head with a gold bullion and be thoroughly ashamed.

P.S – Girls VS Gangsters was released in cinemas on International Women’s Day. If that’s not offensive, I don’t know what is.

Quickie Review

PROS

Really?

CONS

EVERYTHING!!!!!!

SCORE: ABSOLUTE ZERO!!

Cast: Fiona Sit, Ivy Chen, Ning Chang, Mike Tyson, Wang Shuilin, Fan Tiantian, Tran Bao Son, Elly Tran
Director: Barbara Wong
Screenwriters: Barbara Wong, Daryl Doo, Yingyan Hou, Zheng Shanyu

Movie Review – The Party

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EXPECTATIONS: A black comedy so barbed and sharp that I should see acid leaking off the cinema screen.

REVIEW: Black comedies can be a very hard genre to pull off. Since it dwells within serious issues that could potentially be seen as taboos in comedies, it requires a certain balance between empathy, humour and darkness. But like all films, they have to have a certain amount of humanity for the audience to cling on to.

Some comedies would have either have characters that can we can believe in and latch on to or the characters are so reprehensible that we can laugh at them as well as their predicaments. And this is where Sally Potter‘s latest film, The Party fits in.

With an embarrassment of riches ranging from the cast (including Kristin Scott Thomas, Patricia Clarkson, Timothy Spall, Cillian Murphy and others) to the crew (including editor Anders Refn) and an acclaimed director in Sally Potter, The Party looks like to be a great change of pace for Potter’s filmography. Will it be fun like a party should be or will it stink like a party pooper?

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Shot in monochrome widescreen, Janet (Kristin Scott Thomas) hosts an intimate gathering of friends in her London home to celebrate her ascension up the political ladder. After her passive-aggressive best friend (Patricia Clarkson) and other stand-out characters arrive (Cillian Murphy, Cherry Jones, Bruno Ganz, Emily Mortimer), some of them have dramatic news to share, which could end up showing them to be party poopers.

And of course, the cherry on top could be an announcement by Janet’s husband (Timothy Spall), which could provoke a series of revelations. As the sophisticated shindig starts to peel away the layers, a night that began with champagne soon ends up with arguments, shouting and a pointed gun. Now it’s a party!

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The funniest part of the film, in this reviewer’s opinion, is the visual cue of a fox in the film, which was reminiscent of Lars Von Trier‘s horror film, Antichrist. Since The Party was edited by Anders Refn, who had worked on Antichrist as well as having both films being shot in monochrome, it seemed to be a sly poke on Antichrist, hinting that chaos would reign once the party starts.

The Party is only 71 minutes long, so this review is going to be short and concise like the film. Sally Potter and her cinematographer, Alexey Rodionov try really hard to make a small setting look well-drawn and distinct and The Party is really well shot, as the lustrous black and white accentuates the feelings and points of view of the characters: there is always a grey area.

The characters are all forward-thinkers and their cynical views could have been a drag to watch on-screen, even at 71 minutes, but thanks to director Sally Potter and the ensemble cast, it is great to see that them show empathy for the characters and that is what makes the audience stick through the film. Even if the titular party is meant to be a victory celebration.

Since the main trajectory of the film is politics, the humour itself could easily had aimed for easy targets like bigotry, Brexit, capitalism etc, but thankfully the humour is always grounded in character, and the seven characters assembled here are all wonderfully realized by the cast.

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On the female side, Kristen Scott Thomas is great as the repressed Janet, who is basically trying to remain composed with her many responsibilities as being a dutiful wife to her husband as well as her duties for her newly appointed position, and her many secrets. And we have Patricia Clarkson, who is entertainingly acerbic as April, delivering barbed lines of dialogue as if they were grenades; and of course the couple, Emily Mortimer and Cherry Jones, who are both endearingly grounded as the moody Jinny and the intellectual Martha.

On the male side, we have Timothy Spall, who’s facial expressions and seemingly monosyllabic deliveries are spot-on, being the so-called “patriarch” of the entire film. And we have Cillian Murphy, who is fantastic as the unstable member of the party and clearly doesn’t have the skills to stay composed as Janet. And last but definitely not least, we have Bruno Ganz, who is endearing as Gottfried, to the point of almost seeming delusional as he quotes lines upon lines of hippy New Age platitudes.

What weakens the impact of the film however is the ending. Although it does tie up most of the loose strands in the narrative, the impact of it all doesn’t really amount to much, in comparison to what had proceeded it.

Overall, The Party is a pitch-black, hilarious and satirical comedy with a fantastic cast and Potter’s assured filmmaking. Although the film may not have the impact that it could have, The Party was great while it lasted.

Quickie Review

PROS

Great performances from the ensemble cast

Humour is always grounded in character

Potter’s direction, Refn’s editing and Rodionov’s cinematography complement the story

CONS

Ending lacks impact

SCORE: 8/10

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This review can be also seen at THE IRIS. Visit the site by pressing the picture above.

Cast: Patricia Clarkson, Bruno Ganz, Cherry Jones, Emily Mortimer, Cillian Murphy, Kristin Scott Thomas, Timothy Spall
Director: Sally Potter
Screenwriters: Sally Potter

Movie Review – Love, Simon

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EXPECTATIONS: A light, honest, funny and heartwarming gay teenage romantic drama.

REVIEW:

Dear Blue,

Queer cinema has came through quite well back in 2017. We’ve had great examples like Call Me By Your Name, Battle of the Sexes and Moonlight; foreign entries like BPM (Beats Per Minute), Oscar-winning A Fantastic Woman and BAFTA-winning The Handmaiden and hidden indie gems like Princess Cyd, Beach Rats and God’s Own Country. All of these films have had critical acclaim and they are all arthouse darlings, but the majority of them were never meant for commercial appeal.

Enter 2018, where we have what is considered to be a genre milestone. The gay teen romantic comedy called Love, Simon. It is the first major studio film to focus on a gay teenage romance and by that alone, it has a lot to live up to. With a talented cast of young talent/veterans and director Greg Berlanti at the helm, (who’s directorial debut, The Broken Hearts Club: A Romantic Comedy, the perfect candidate), does Love, Simon live up to the hype?

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Based on the acclaimed book Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli, Nick Robinson stars as Simon Speer, an average teenager who has his three best friends (Katherine Langford, Alexandra Shipp, Jorge Lendeborg Jr.) and they stroll through high school with all the trimmings like secrets, crushes, discrimination, boring classes, exams, the usual.

But Simon keeps a huge secret from his family, his friends, and all of his classmates: he’s gay. And the only outlet he has is with a closeted gay student at their high school, known only by the pseudonym “Blue”. Simon then proceeds to reach out to him under his own alias, “Jacques”. They confide very personal details, and soon he and Blue form a genuine connection, to the point that Simon wants to discover the identity of Blue. When that secret is threatened, Simon must face everyone and come to terms with his own identity.

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Does the film live up to the hype? For the moNick Robinson, Katherine Langford, Jennifer Garner, Josh Duhamel, Jorge Lendeborg Jr., Alexandra Shipp, Logan Miller, Keiynan Lonsdale, Joey Pollari, Tony Halest part, it does, thanks to the humour and the wonderful cast. It must be said, it’s very encouraging to see such progress from a major film studio to make a gay character the lead protagonist of a film such as this. Though Love, Simon is much more of a coming-out story than a proper romantic comedy (or drama), it does lend a different perspective of the story, leading to something more gradual rather than just climactic.

Like the film itself, let’s begin with the complications. The characters, apart from Simon and Abby, do not really have much depth beyond the personas that they inhabit, despite the efforts of the cast. And there are script contrivances that hinder the impact of the film. One particular example is when two bullies come into the picture and it just felt forced, as if the script just needed to give the film more tension that it already had.

Speaking of tension, the film is a bit too squeaky-clean, considering the conflicts and complications in the story. With the use of social media, the current views of homophobia and bullying, the film could have used a bit more punch. Although the film does quite well in conveying the stress Simon with his friends and loved ones, especially the moments when his father would make comments that indirectly offend him, like calling someone “fruity”.

The musical score by Rob Simonsen becomes quite syrupy and overused as the film goes on, particularly in the third act. And there’s the character of Martin. The character is not really a flaw per se but he is a character (or a plot device) that can aggravate one to no end and it hindered the enjoyment of the film quite a bit. The intent of that character might be clearer in retrospect or on repeat viewings but one’s tolerance may vary.

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And now we can get into the positives. While the script may be flawed, it does a good job with subverting some cliches of commercial romantic comedies as well as commercial teenage films. And it deserve particular praise for not conforming to commercial tropes of gay films like flamboyant attitudes, constant abuse or tragic ends. Getting back into the Martin character, he is essentially the archetype for a romantic comedy, which is essentially the supposed lovable loser. But what Love, Simon does is to make Martin think he is the hero of the story, despite the fact that this is the story of Simon, and the filmmakers rip the archetype to shreds, which is a welcome sight to see.

The cast, including upcoming young talent and veterans, all do a wonderful job with inhabiting their characters. Nick Robinson is nuanced and sympathy as Simon. His character is meant to be one who experiences a lot of emotions and yet is trying very hard not to be noticed in doing so. While Robinson could have played the character as self-conscious or unlikable due to the actions of the character that occur in the second act, he easily engenders sympathy and becomes a winning lead.

Fellow Australian actress Katherine Langford gives an underplayed performance and lends a lot of needed depth to the role of Leah, Simon’s best friend. Alexandra Shipp is enjoyably spirited as Abby, who may or may not use her innate charisma as a cover for her discrepancies; while Jorge Lendeborg Jr. does what he can with his character, with his likable presence. Logan Miller aggravates to no end as Martin, although he does lend the role a sense of humanity, without turning the role into a complete cartoon.

As for the adult performances, Tony Hale and Natasha Rothwell are absolute hoots (Rothwell, more so) as the principal and school drama teacher, respectively. And we have Jennifer Garner and Josh Duhamel as Simon’s parents. Garner has always been a great actress (2007’s Juno is proof of that) and she delivers a great monologue in the third act that gets into the heart of what Simon is going through, as well as the hearts of the audience. While Duhamel gives one of his best performances as Simon’s father, lending good humour and pathos to the character.

Overall, Love, Simon is a sweet and likable comedy/drama with lovable characters, a truthful if flawed script, a gay protagonist worth cheering for and a huge stepping stone of inclusivity for the LGBT community on film.

Love, Harris.

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Quickie Review

PROS

Great performances from the cast

Honest, truthful storytelling

Some fun subversion of romance tropes

CONS

Very sappy at times

The Martin character

Story contrivances and lack of conviction

SCORE: 7/10

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This review can be also seen at THE IRIS. Visit the site by pressing the picture above.

Cast: Nick Robinson, Katherine Langford, Jennifer Garner, Josh Duhamel, Jorge Lendeborg Jr., Alexandra Shipp, Logan Miller, Keiynan Lonsdale, Joey Pollari, Tony Hale
Director: Greg Berlanti
Screenwriters: Elizabeth Berger and Isaac Aptaker, based on Becky Albertalli’s novel Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda

Movie Review – Blockers

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EXPECTATIONS: A lazy, raunch-filled comedy that panders to old stereotypes.

REVIEW: When you see a film of any genre that has FIVE credited writers and a first-time director at the helm, alarm bells might be ringing in your head and not in a good way. A crew like that would imply major turns in creative control, leading to a mess of a film that can be summarized as having too many cooks in the kitchen.

But the minds credited can be very talented and if its an effective collaboration, then it is quite possible that we might have a great film on people’s hands. Case in point, 2018’s teen comedy, Blockers.

Directed by scriptwriter Kay Cannon in her directorial debut, she is mainly known as a scriptwriter for the successful Pitch Perfect films. And then you have screenwriters Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg are most known for the Harold and Kumar films; Eben Russell, who is another collaborator of Cannon’s as well as being her former partner; producer Seth Rogen, an A-list star as well as screenwriter as well as newcomers/brothers Jim and Brian Kehoe, in their film screenwriting debut.

That’s a lot of cooks for a film like this. But does the film succeed because of the many cooks of the kitchen or does it signal what is an ineffective comedy that would be better off being blocked from audiences?

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Julie (Kathryn Newton), Kayla (Geraldine Viswanathan) and Sam (Gideon Adlon) are three high school seniors who are on the cusp of self-discovery and making their own paths through life. In other words, they are planning to go to prom and are making it a night to remember. And in order to do that, the three make a pact to lose their virginity on prom night.

When Lisa (Leslie Mann), Mitchell (John Cena) and Hunter (Ike Barinholtz), three helicopter parents inadvertently discover the pact, they chuck a hissy fit, thinking that this could be a loss of their children’s innocence. They then reluctantly join forces for a crazy quest to stop the girls from sealing the deal; whatever it takes to block the cock.

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First off, what I really like about recent film trailers for comedies is that they feature alternate takes of comedic bits that do not feature in the film, which retains the freshness and spontaneity of the story. And thankfully, that is what happens in Blockers, as it presents jokes of improv and setpieces that are not spoiled in the trailers; notably the scene involving the parents and their vehicle.

Now for the nitty-gritty. Does the film work besides the many cooks involved? The answer is a resounding yes. Blockers succeeds as a comedy not only because it executes the best tropes of the raunchy comedy genre with skill and verve, but it also subverts the tropes of said genre as well, in addition to lending the genre a woman’s touch that is seriously lacking.

While the film is advertised as a film about young characters losing their virginity, the film itself is much more than that. It can definitely be seen as a story about young girls exploring their sexuality and transitioning from childhood to womanhood.  It can also be seen as a story about parents coming to terms with this rocky transition.

Now both of these stories are likely to have many stereotypes like the hot babe, the helicopter parent, the buzzkill, the nerdy girl, the horny male and so on. But the greatness of Blockers show that all the female characters have a great sense of agency, in contrast of featuring in films, as roles of a decorative nature. And they are the lead characters in a genre that is usually predominant with men.

While some of these stereotypes are present, they are not only played out hilariously (all the masculine roles are flipped upside their heads, basically), but like all great comedies, retain a sense of humanity that makes the humour stand out that much more, making it much easier for audiences to relate to.

And Kay Cannon does quite well in her directorial debut. While there are scenes where the joke does drag quite a bit (a scene involving vomiting) and the dramatic scenes feel quite jarring in how they are transitioned, she does show definite skill in delivering jokes on screen convincingly, particularly with visual cues and physical comedy.

There’s one scene in the film that involves graphic nudity and homophobia that is played off brilliantly, especially with the use of subtitles. And in another sequence that involves a character hiding from their child, the physical comedy is a hoot to see, as it reminded me of the physical comedy in Stephen Chow‘s blockbuster, The Mermaid.

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And let’s not forget the wonderfully talented cast that glues it all together. Starting off with the parents, Leslie Mann, who’s already proven to be a professional in comedies, is great as Lisa, the single mother who just can’t let her daughter go. Ike Barinholtz, who’s damn funny in many comedies as well as standing out in duds like Suicide Squad, is acerbic and unruly as Hunter, whose line deliveries are on-point, particularly in relation to Mitchell’s size and demeanor. Both of them deliver on a dramatic standpoint as well, lending a sense of credibility of the character’s motivations, even with the hijinks in place.

And of course there’s John Cena, who has sheer commitment in the physical comedy as well as capably showing the obliviousness and naivety of Mitchell in such a hilarious fashion. He could have been the standout of the film if one were able to see him.

And let’s not forget the young talent involved. Kathryn Newton, who’s had a hell of a career breakthrough in 2017 due to being in acclaimed projects like Lady Bird, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Big Little Lies and Little Women, shows great potential to be a great actress, as she capably shows wide-eyed innocence with a sense of a go-for-broke mentality that is quite appealing. She shares many scenes with Mann and the two have great chemistry; showing both love and animosity convincingly.

And there’s fellow Australian actress, Geraldine Viswanathan as Kayla, whose verbal dexterity and tomboyish attitude make her a force to be reckoned with. And then there’s Gideon Adlon, who makes her film debut as Sam and she does a good job of being endearingly awkward and shows flexible comedic chops due to how Sam tries cover up her secret. The supporting cast consisting of Sarayu Blue, Hannibal Buress and others do a great job, but there are two cameos in the film, which will remain unspoiled, that will stay with you after the film is over. The less you know, the better.

With the dearth of funny studio comedies recently and after the surprising success of Game Night, it is with great pleasure to say that Blockers is a great comedy with a a great script, subversive storytelling and genre execution and a fantastic cast that are sure to make you laugh and even make you feel a bit emotional.

Quickie Review

PROS

Fantastic cast, both established and new talent

Witty script that subverts tropes of teen comedies and is surprisingly heartfelt in its approach

CONS

Some flaws in Cannon’s direction

SCORE: 8/10

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This review can be also seen at THE IRIS. Visit the site by pressing the picture above.

Cast: Kathryn Newton, John Cena, Leslie Mann, Ike Barinholtz, Gideon Adlon, Geraldine Viswanathan, Graham Phillips, Miles Roberts, Jimmy Bellinger, Ramona Young
Director: Kay Cannon
Screenwriters: Brian Kehoe, Jim Kehoe, Jon Hurwitz, Hayden Schlossberg, Eben Russell, Seth Rogen

Movie Review – Game Night

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EXPECTATIONS: An unfunny comedy along the lines of the disastrous film, Vacation (2015).

REVIEW: Murder mysteries have been a long-time staple for many people in the world in terms of literature as well as films and it is a well-deserved staple. Whether it’s an old-fashioned detective story (Murder on the Orient Express), a children’s adventure (Young Sherlock Holmes), a romantic farce (Blind Detective) or a flat-out comedy (Clue), it’s the type of genre staple that can result in lots of fun, particularly if it involves audience participation. If 2018’s comedy, Game Night could live up to those examples, that would be great.

But the directors of Game Night are John Francis Daley & Jonathan Goldstein and as the Bard would say, “therein lies the rub”. Some of their contributions to film haven’t been well-regarded. In the case of their screenwriting efforts, Horrible Bosses was okay, if quite overrated, but the sequel was horrible; The Incredible Burt Wonderstone was an unfunny mess and Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2 was a disappointment, particularly in comparison to the first film.

But they did contribute to last year’s enjoyably frothy comic-book effort, Spider-Man Homecoming, which does give signs of hope. And yet we have their feature film directorial debut of theirs, which is Vacation, a reboot of John Hughes’ original comedy, which was horrid. With a mixed bag of a filmography, it is understandable that one would hesitate to watch Game Night, even with the talented cast assembled. Does the film exceed expectations and provide tons of fun or will it topple over like a Jenga tower?

GAME NIGHT

Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams star as Max and Annie, a happily married couple whose modus operandi is to plan weekly couples game nights, where they get their much-needed thrills in their lives.

It is only until one night when it gets kicked up a notch when Max’s charismatic wealthy-as brother, Brooks (Kyle Chandler), arranges a murder mystery party, complete with fake scenarios, props actors. But when Brooks gets beaten up and kidnapped (in front of the guests), it’s all part of the game. Is it?

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So does the film exceed expectations? Thankfully, it does and it is massive props to the cast, the fun premise and the improved direction from Daley and Goldstein. Although it helps that the filmmakers know their mysteries (references of David Fincher’s The Game and the TV series Murder, She Wrote are everywhere), it’s quite clear on the screen that Daley and Goldstein has upped their directing game between 2015’s Vacation to Game Night, as they adopt filmmaking techniques (especially the visual comedy of filmmaker Edgar Wright) to amp up the comedy and it works for the most part.

Fast editing, a propulsive score (from Cliff Martinez, of course) creative cinematography (used to visually convey the look of a miniature board game convincingly), long takes (involving a game of hot potato that’s quite funny) and funny visual cues like subjects appearing into frame or out of frame; all of these techniques add to the film.

They even apply some subtlety to the jokes (like not showing the bodily fluids) and that pays off beautifully in a scene that involves a bullet extraction that is reminiscent of Hong Kong director Stephen Chow‘s spy comedy, From Beijing With Love. Speaking of Chinese subjects, there’s a dialogue exchange in the climax that had me laughing so hard, that I literally had to look up IMDB to see if the film was a Chinese co-production.

Back on topic, unlike Edgar Wright, Daley and Goldstein don’t have the skills to foreshadow small moments to big payoffs. Pop culture jokes are repeatedly told almost to the point of ad nauseum that it becomes quite predictable that it will pay off the way it does later in the film. But overall, it is an improvement over their last film, and that deserves positive recognition.

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What also deserves positive recognition is the cast, and they are all on point, even if some are playing the same character types they did in prior projects. Jason Bateman does the straight-man performance that he does ever since he started the TV series, Arrested Development, and it still works well. And he’s paired well with Rachel McAdams, who looks like she’s having the time of her life, being animated and spirited with all the hijinks, and enjoyably so.

With a game supporting cast consisting of Kyle Chandler (making fun of his salt-of-the-earth image), Billy Magnussen (capably dorky and oblivious, as opposed to his scumbag-type role in Ingrid Goes West), Lamorne Morris and Kylie Bunbury (a likable double act, with the former doing a killer Denzel Washington impression) and Sharon Horgan (capably satirizing the token character), the best person in the film is Jesse Plemons.

Clearly making fun of his psychotic persona from the TV series, Breaking Bad, his creepy presence (including a scene where he slowly saunters off-screen) and deadpan delivery guarantee many laughs. He truly looks like a character that just wandered into the set of this film, but I mean that as a compliment. But what makes him a great character is that Plemons always retains a sense of humanity, making him believable as well as approachable. Kind of.

As for the flaws, aside from the direction, the third act does drag quite a bit due to the excessive amount of twists (despite the 100 minute runtime), some of the pop culture references are quite dated (Fight Club? The Green Mile?), some running jokes don’t really land (including a guess-the-celeb) and lastly, the cameos (which I won’t spoil) don’t really amount to much.

Overall, Game Night is nice surprise from the directors of Vacation, with a fun premise, a capably comedic cast and the improved direction of Daley and Goldstein. Their next project is the superhero film, Flashpoint and if Game Night is any indication, there is a chance that they might pull it off.

Quickie Review

PROS

A fantastic ensemble cast

A clever premise and sharp script

Improved filmmaking from co-directors Daley and Goldstein

Great score from Cliff Martinez

CONS

Too many twists

Ineffective cameos

Some running jokes don’t work

Dated references

SCORE: 7/10

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This review can be also seen at THE IRIS. Visit the site by pressing the picture above.

Cast: Jason Bateman, Rachel McAdams, Billy Magnussen, Sharon Horgan, Lamorne Morris, Kylie Bunbury, Jesse Plemons, Danny Huston, Chelsea Peretti, Michael C. Hall, Kyle Chandler
Director: John Francis Daley & Jonathan Goldstein
Screenwriters: Mark Perez