Film Review: Instant Family (2018)

Married couple, Pete and Ellie Wagner (Mark Wahlberg and Rose Byrne), are doing well, making money renovating and “flipping” houses. One day, they begin to wonder if something is missing in their life, because unlike their respective siblings, they don’t have children. Natural child-birth is problematical for the Wagners, so they look into adoption.

They meet Karen (Octavia Spencer) and Sharon (Tig Notaro), a pair of social workers who introduce them to the way the system works. They attend group meetings of prospective adoptive parents and they are introduced to potential adoptee kids. None of this is easy. Pete and Ellie find themselves on an emotional rollercoaster just having to deal with the process itself, way before any decisions have been finalised. Before they adopt, they first need to foster a child. Some children have been in the system for years because the life of their birth parents is unstable. They are moved from foster home to foster home. The more the Wagners investigate the world of fostering and adoption, the more neediness and deprivation they see.

The Wagners discover there are some older children who don’t expect to be adopted at all. Lizzie (Isabel Moner) is one such teen. Her mother is in jail on drug charges. They express interest in fostering Lizzie. She turns out to have two younger siblings, Juan (Gustavo Quiroz) and Lita (Julianna Gamiz). By taking on all three kids, Ellie and Pete have their life thoroughly disrupted and transformed. The kids present a number of behavioural challenges that their new foster parents are in no way prepared to deal with. The parental support group is some help, their own extended families are somehow less help.

INSTANT FAMILY is presented as a comedy in its trailers and this does the film a slight disservice. If you go to this expecting laughs in the mould of DADDY’S HOME 1 or 2, which were co-written and directed by Sean Anders, as this movie is, then this isn’t exactly what you will get. Anders has worked in this type of comedy for years. He also wrote HOT TUB TIME MACHINE (2010)SHE’S OUT OF MY LEAGUE (2010) and WE’RE THE MILLERS (2013). INSTANT FAMILY is funny, but it is more a dramedy because of  some of the issues it touches and moments it goes for. Within the shell of this comedy, there is material that rings true and can be quite emotionally affecting.

Sean Anders and his wife actually did foster, then adopt, three children. The reality of that experience informs this story and keeps it from being too schmaltzy or sentimental. Byrne and Wahlberg are great in the leads. Notaro and Spencer are entertaining as the social workers. The kids are all good; Isabel Moner as 15-year-old Lizzie, is the focus of the kids’ stories and she does a solid job here. Audiences might recall her excellent and very different performance in SICARIO: DAY OF THE SOLDADO (2018) where she played the kidnapped daughter of a drug lord.

INSTANT FAMILY is rated PG. It supplies decent laughs and takes the audience on a rewarding emotional journey.

USA | 1 hour and 58 minutes | (7/10)

Film Review: Aquaman (2018)

Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa) sometimes known as Aquaman, is a half-Atlantean and half-human who lives in a coastal town in Maine. He has certain powers which he uses when he performs heroic acts. Although he occasionally saves people at sea and battles teched-up underwater supervillains, he does so only on his terms. He does not seek the mantle of super-hero. The fact he is heir to the underwater kingdom of Atlantis, does not interest him either. As much as he performs good deeds using his marine super-powers, he is a land-dweller who doesn’t like being told what to do and prefers to continue his hard-drinking and partying ways.

The story starts a year after the Steppenwolf Invasion (as shown in 2017’s JUSTICE LEAGUE). Arthur fights pirates who attack a Russian nuclear submarine. This kicks off events that lead Atlantean princess Mera (Amber Heard), to the surface world to persuade Arthur to fulfill his destiny as the true king of Atlantis. She is betrothed to the current leader, Orm (Patrick Wilson), Arthur’s half-brother. Taking the throne is not a simple mission and involves finding the magical trident that once belonged to Atlan, the first king of Atlantis.

Orm has problems and challenges of his own. He despises his land-lubber half-brother and refers to him as a half-breed. He is power-hungry and wants to rule over the seven Kingdoms under the sea. And he wants them to combine their forces and attack the surface world who has disrespected the oceans through over-fishing and pollution. He wants more than anything to go to war. No wonder Mera is having second thoughts about their wedding day.

AQUAMAN is the sixth movie in the DC Extended Universe (DCEU). It is directed by Australian director and SAW franchise co-creator James Wan. The screenplay is by David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick and Will Beall. The movie is based on the well-known DC comic character who was first conceived in the 1940s, but came to greater prominence in the 1960s as a founder member of the Justice League. This third appearance and first solo outing for Aquaman is an origin story told in flash-back episodes as the current-day struggle against Orm intensifies.

Wan and team have elected to cover so much story material, that the movie feels packed with events and action. Like JUSTICE LEAGUE there is a tsunami of computer generated visual effects and green-screen sequences shot on sound stages. The look is less busy, but many of the action sequences reveal dazzling arrays of fish and under water craft swirling around impressively, but somewhat confusingly. The movie has gone for visual bigness and frames filled with super abundant fish people, underwater vehicles and dangerous crustaceans. At times, the visuals looked like the Tron and Avatar worlds colliding in a fish tank.

Momoa is funny and physically imposing as Arthur/Aquaman. Amber Heard does a nice line in regal self-righteousness undercut with humour. The pair work well together in what are essentially buddy scenes with a light romantic undertone. Veterans Willem Dafoe as Vulko, Patrick Wilson as Orm and Dolph Lungren as Xebel all deliver in thinly-drawn roles. Yahya Abdul-Mateen II is a suitably bad-ass Black Manta. Australasians will enjoy seeing Temuera Morrison playing Arthur’s father Thomas, the lighthouse keeper and Nicole Kidman playing Arthur and Orm’s mother, Atlantean queen, Atlanna. Although neither are given many scenes, they both do a great job carrying the film’s main emotional strand.

Overall, the film is an entertaining entry into the DCEU. The three-movie project to get the non-comic reading public to forget about clean-cut, 1970s TV cartoon, seahorse-riding, blonde Aquaman has been a success. We are all on board with ripped-biker-rock-god Momoa-Aquaman. He’s the aquatic Thor the DCEU movies need. Look out for the exciting rooftop chase sequence in Sicily. It’s like something from a modern Bond film. And SAW fans keep your eye out for that franchise’s co-creator Leigh Whannel, in a cameo as a pilot.

USA |  146 minutes | (7/10)

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Film Review: Spider-man: Into the Spider-verse (2018)

SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE is the latest incarnation of Marvel’s Spider-man on the big screen. Only this time, Spidey is Miles Morales…sort of. Movie fans currently see Tom Holland as Peter Parker/Spider-man as part of Marvel Cinematic Universe. Sony have put their talents into an animation that combines the latest in CG graphics and 2D animation with the popular Marvel Comics’ Spider-verse concept that was originally written by Dan Slott. The Morales character was conceived by Brian Bendis and designed by Sara Pichelli.

The Spider-verse is the collision of multiple universes that contain different Spideys. We begin the movie in the “real” world in which Peter Parker is a young, successful Spider-Man fighting supervillain Kingpin. Miles Morales is a teenager who lives in Brooklyn. His mother is Puerto Rican, his strict policeman father is African American. He pressures Miles to do well in his new charter school. While breaking curfew and spending time away on his own, Miles is bitten by a genetically-enhanced spider. Soon, he goes through physical changes and gains abilities similar to those of superhero Spider-man. Kingpin unleashes a criminal scheme that has literally world-shaking effects that put Peter Parker out of commission and causes the Spider-verse to come into existence bringing with it these alternate Spider-folk.

There’s an older, less successful Peter Parker; Spider-Gwen, a Gwen Stacey who, in her world, was bitten by the spider ; a 1930s Peter Parker, known as Spider-Man Noir; the youthful Peni Parker, a Japanese-American middle-schooler who has a cybernetic SP//dr suit; and an anthropomorphic cartoon pig, Spider-Ham. This team has to find its way back home. Miles feels he should become his world’s Spider-man, but as this team of Spider-alts show him, he hasn’t yet developed the skills and confidence for this new role.  Meanwhile, supervillain Kingpin’s scheme is wreaking further havoc on the safety of New York City.

The film’s art-style references multiple sources to render the multiverse; vintage comics, psychedelia, black and white cinema, 1960s television animation and computer gaming among many other things. Keen-eyed viewers are given much to see and enjoy, and all of it is beautifully designed, composed and animated. The story itself pulls off the equivalent of a series of triple somersaults along a highwire. It sources the comics and the live-action movies in a clever and coherent way that aims at bringing in a new audience and providing fan service simultaneously. This colourful, ever-shifting meeting of universes is where Spider-man lore and canon is subject to Olympian levels of retcon.

Co-writers Rodney Rothman and Phil Lord merrily mine and combine story material with the facility Rothman showed in 22 JUMP STREET and Lord in THE LEGO MOVIE. Their superior skills at pop culture references are greatly enhanced by the level of attention they put into emotional storyline of what is essentially Miles Morales’ Spider-man origin story. The directorial team of Rothman, Bob Persichetti and Peter Ramsey make sure all the heartfelt moments land, and it’s this part of the storytelling that takes this project from an effortlessly amusing movie to one that can connect with a wide audience.

The excellent voice talent includes Shameik Mooree as Miles Morales, Jake Johnson as Peter B. Parker, Hailee Steinfeld as Spider Gwen/Spider-Woman, Brian Tyree Henry as Jefferson Davis-Morales: Lily Tomlin as May Parker, Kimiko Glenn as Peni Parker and Nicolas Cage as Spider-Man Noir.

SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE is a funny and endlessly inventive take on our favourite web-slinger.

USA | 119 minutes | (9/10)

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Film Review: Fahrenheit 11/9 (2018)

Even if you don’t follow politics, we are obviously living in politically tumultuous times in democratic countries. UK’s Brexit and the Trump presidency in the United States show there are major shifts in who, and what, people will vote for. Notably, voters seem sick of the status quo and distrustful of the major parties. They are sick of the same old lies from politicians who then grab power and make their corporate donors richer. Filmmaker Michael Moore is back to provide an analysis of his country’s political scene since that fateful day in November, 2016, when it became clear that the predicted and expected future for America was, in fact, entirely wrong.

FAHRENHEIT 11/9 begins by taking us to the 2016 U.S. presidential elections. It’s a lengthy and detailed takedown of the small ‘l’ liberal (i.e. left-wingish) idea of the time, that Donald Trump could never become president. Practically no politician, no pundit, no journalist, thought that anyone but Hillary Clinton was going to be the nation’s next head of state and government. There were even a number of Republicans who had resigned themselves to the idea of President Hillary Clinton. Moore, unusually enough for someone on the left, had predicted Trump would win. He’s good enough not to brag about it in the film. He pushes the idea (which has some support from other sources) that Trump didn’t want the presidency, but rather was using the bid to promote himself and up his price as a reality TV show host. 

Trump’s unexpected and unplanned win, and what his ambitions have become in the subsequent two years, form the documentary’s framing device. Packed in the middle is a plethora of material, possibly too much to be properly appreciated in just one viewing. Moore looks into the student-led, anti-gun March for Our Lives movement; the way Democratic Party leadership is beholden to corporate interests and the rise of a more left-leaning brand of Democrats who want to bring power back to disenfranchised labour, such as auto workers and school teachers. However, it is his re-telling of the water crisis in his hometown of Flint, that is the most fully realised and focused of his story choices. The way in which Michigan’s Republican Governor, Rick Snyder, took apart state institutions and effectively poisoned thousands of Flint residents with lead-filled water, all to enrich his corporate donors, is truly shocking to hear. 

Moore suggests that Trump saw how Snyder gained tremendous power in Michigan and has essentially copied these moves. He argues that Trump has and will continue to destroy the organisations and institutions that check his power. Moore has fashioned a documentary that is a call to action, which isn’t new for him, his 2015 film WHERE TO INVADE NEXT was filled with activist suggestions about things that needed changing in America.  FAHRENHEIT 11/9  is a more solemn work with a larger theme. He is declaring that action is needed to save American democracy. 

FAHRENHEIT 11/9 is hampered with a too-similar title to Moore’s own FAHRENHEIT 9/11. The “office-invading” stunts he pulls, which were his stock-in-trade back in the ‘90s, come off as pointless. On the plus side, his researchers and editors do a sterling job of finding appropriate sound-bites and video-grabs to underline the various arguments.  His questioning the health of his nation’s democracy will seem over-the-top to some, but investigating this idea is part of maintaining a functioning democracy. When our elected representatives object to transparency, what is it that they’re afraid we will see? 

USA | 2 hours and 8 minutes | (6.5/10)

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Film Review: War Horse (2011)

USA | 146 minutes

Young Albert enlists to serve in WWI after his beloved horse, Joey, is sold to the cavalry. Albert’s hopeful journey takes him out of England and across Europe as the war rages on.

WAR HORSE is the second Steven Spielberg directed picture premiering in Australia on Boxing Day (December 26th to those of you not of the British Empire). Both are epic adventures aimed at a family audience, however the other film–THE ADVENTURES OF TIN TIN–feels like the horse to back if you want to pick a winner for the race to number one at the Box Office. (The horsey similes stop now, promise.)

Despite the official synopsis, WAR HORSE is about the journey of the horse, Joey, rather than that of his owner, Albert Narracott (Irvine). The tale begins in rural Devon, on the eve of the Great War.  Young Albert is a farmer’s son and he comes to own Joey through a series of miscalculations made by his proud father Ted Narracott (Mullan). Another bad decision by Ted leads to Joey’s being sold to the Cavalry. Albert is heartbroken and he determines that he will find a way to get his beloved horse back.

From here, we follow Joey from owner to owner, through the four years of the Great War. There are vivid characters and great set pieces. The war and its effects are presented in a way that is mindful of the younger members of the audience, but it doesn’t feel sanitised. There is no blood evident, but the trenches of the Western Front are shown as frightening, filthy and claustrophobic.

The movie is based on a children’s novel by Michael Morpurgo which was later adapted into an award winning stage play. The screenplay is written by Richard Curtis (LOVE ACTUALLY) and Lee Hall (BILLY ELLIOT). Spielberg has taken this material and created a curiously non-Spielbergian movie. Stylistically, it is reminiscent of golden age films like GONE WITH THE WIND (1939). Its treatment of the story harks back to classic movies like LASSIE COME HOME (1943), NATIONAL VELVET (1944) and THE YEARLING (1946). It is a consciously old-fashioned entertainment unfolding over more than two hours.

Although I wasn’t bored at any point, the 146 minute length may be too much for some younger viewers. This and the subject matter made me wonder whether WAR HORSE might be most suitable for horsey kids or your more thoughtful, bookish child. Hard to say. Certainly Abraham, the horse that plays Joey, is a beautiful and charismatic lead and he alone will keep plenty of audience members glued to their seats.

Human performances are as solid as expected. Jeremy Irvine and Peter Mullan are good as son and father Narracott respectively, but Emily Watson shines as Rose Narracott, wife of the headstrong Ted. We see too little of the excellent Tom Hiddleston as Captain Nicholls the officer who buys Joey for the Cavalry. David Kross who played the boy in THE READER (2008) is a welcome addition to the cast as a young German soldier called Gunther.

My slight reservation about WAR HORSE is that the essentially “batton-passing” nature of the story where we have to follow a succession of human characters makes it a little more challenging to get emotionally involved in the film – especially if you aren’t fully bonded with the character of Joey.

WAR HORSE is an intelligently made, high budget, beautifully shot film. It has a top-notch international cast and beautifully detailed production design. This is a quality picture that will satisfy audiences who want to immerse themselves in an historical tale.

I rated WAR HORSE 7/10.

SIDENOTE: There is an excellent episode of ABC TV’s AUSTRALIAN STORY – “Under Her Spell” that documents the engrossing tale of Zellie Bullen the woman who trained Abraham for WAR HORSE.

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Film Review: End of Watch (2012)

END OF WATCH, the new feature by writer-director David Ayer, is an episodic adventure into the dark world of drugs and gangs in South Central Los Angeles. The story is told through the eyes of two young, but experienced, police officers Brian Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Mike Zavala (Michael Peña).

Taylor and Zavala patrol the streets in a black and white. Most of the crime they face is gang-related. They are on call for incidents raging from checking on whether elderly relatives are still alive, through to shoot-outs and other turf war violence. They are proud–almost swaggering–when they talk about how dangerous their job is compared with other LA cops.

Taylor is making a documentary for a filmmaking unit he is studying. He captures much of his and Zavala’s story on a handycam. Both cops also have a small camera clipped to the pocket of their uniform. In this way, we the audience, are given access to the officers when they are on patrol. Zavala and Taylor are tightly bonded brothers. They joke about their respective backgrounds: Taylor is single, white and book-smart; Zavala is Mexican, married and doesn’t like to over-think a situation, which is what he believes his partner is prone to do. They while away the long hours on patrol with in-jokes and more serious thoughts.

Ayer’s fly-on-the-wall approach to shooting the film doesn’t stand up to much analysis, not only do we see the ‘feeds’ from Taylor and Zavala’s lenses, but we are privy to footage from a camera wielded by a gang of street thugs and even an unnamed FBI agent who records the goings-on with a drug cartel in Mexico. For those who don’t enjoy the shaky-cam technique (we’re looking at you David Stratton) the director’s choice will make watching this movie, a challenge. I thought the cinematography worked well enough.

Gyllenhaal and Peña are very strong in their roles. Gyllenhaal reportedly did ride-alongs with various LAPD units for months. Peña went on forty of these with Gyllenhaal. So they got a clear idea of the type of men they were portraying. The success of this effort is on screen. Natalie Martinez plays Gabby, Mike Zavala’s wife of eight years. Anna Kendrick, this year’s “it” girl (PITCH PERFECT) , plays Taylor’s girlfriend Janet. In other movies, these roles would be insignificant. Although neither has much screen time, Ayer has made these parts more significant by giving Kendrick and Martinez a couple of nice moments to shine and also by having their characters be part of the conversational flow between the guys. These men talk to each other about their relationships. These women are important to their lives, not just a movie expedience.

The character development of Zavala and Taylor is the film’s ace-in-the-hole. The plot is functional at best. The string of events Taylor and Zavala experience is rather implausible. The movie has other strengths. Ayer is intent on showing the seamy side of Los Angeles. As we travel with our heroes through the neighbourhoods ruled by gangs, we feel the filth, decay and tension. Although the movie shares some of the same feel as COLOURS (1998), RAMPART (2011) and 2001’s TRAINING DAY (which Ayer also wrote), the LAPD shown in END OF WATCH is squeaky clean, not on the take and does not have a problem with race. Taylor and Zavala are hero cops and the department itself is engaged in a heroic struggle. As Taylor puts it in the opening of the movie: “We stand watch together. The thin blue line, protecting the prey from the predators, the good from the bad. We are the police.”

END OF WATCH is an entertaining, tense, violent two-hour movie with two great lead performances, a strong sense of place and a serviceable story. It runs for 1 hour and 49 minutes. I rated it (7/10).

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Film Review: Frank (2014)

How much you enjoy the movie FRANK will depend on how you feel about Indie movies, Indie music, ironic humour and stories about emotionally immature man-boys. Domhnall Gleeson plays Jon, a young Englishman with a dead-end job who lives with his parents. His mind is frequently stuck in a fervent internal monolog because his outer life is desperate and friendless. The music he writes and plays in his room is his only means of self-expression. The music scene is his connection to the world–the single living artery in a bloodless existence. Which is why he keeps an eye out for any new band passing through the small, unnamed seaside town where he lives.

When the unpronounceable band, Soronprfbs, appears, he is excited. They seem to have an impressively underground reputation. They are the very definition of an act whose music you never heard of. Their electronically infused art-rock is deeply self-indulgent, but what sets them apart from any similar outfit is their lead singer Frank. Over his street clothes, he wears a large, almost spherical, fibreglass head with cartoony features sculpted into it. Before his voice hits the mic, it is audible via a speaker built into the cranial shell. Frank sings and speaks to the world through the head. He wears the alienating contraption 24/7. No one has ever seen his real face.

Through a series of coincidences, Jon is asked to replace the band’s keyboardist. Immediately, he finds himself plunged into the dark emotional funk that permeates this tense collection of misfit players. None of them appear to have functioning people skills. They are a gang of self-involved dreamers led by a man who is possibly living his life as performance art. Jon has trouble bonding with these damaged folk. Whether this is his lack or theirs is difficult to say.

Jon and the band travel to Ireland (Wicklow) to record an album in a ramshackle facility that consists of a run-down caravan, office and Bavarian-style chalets. He has no clear idea of what he should do, so he begins taking video footage of rehearsals and tweeting about their progress. YouTube and Twitter become an outlet for his sense of bewilderment. It’s also an opportunity to present some good gags about social media. We are privy to Jon tweets and the replies from Soronprfbs fans, haters and trolls.

The process of recording is exhausting thanks to Frank’s perfectionism. As Jon floats through his new circumstances, you sense he is looking for transformation. He has never been cool or valued in any way. He is seeking a kind of epiphany. Frank with his enigmatic world-view, not to mention his frozen, continually surprised expression, seems like a potential guru or mentor. He’s a man with a big empty head, who won’t judge others.

The first half of FRANK is littered with the stereotypes of life on the road. The second–stronger–half offers some answers to the enigma of a lead singer hidden in plain sight. As we learn more of Frank, the deadpan comedy recedes and we are given greater insight into the fragile personalities of the band members. Michael Fassbender is excellent in the title role. He let it be known he wanted the part and he does great things with it, despite having his voice and eyes obscured. Scoot McNairy (currently in David Michod’s Australian film THE ROVER) also makes a strong impression as the manager Don. Maggie Gyllenhaal is Clara, the aggressive theremin player who thinks she is the only one who truly understands Frank. Domhnall Gleeson does a solid job with the problematic lead role. His is the most relatable character and provides us with our way into the insular world of Soronprfbs, but Jon is struggling with his own demons. He is half-conscious at best and therefore something of an unreliable narrator.

Director Lenny Abrahamson has made his biggest film to date with this UK-Irish co-production. The film’s co-writers, playwright Peter Straughn and journalist Jon Ronson wrote their screenplay based on Ronson’s own experiences playing in a band led by a man in a papier-mâché head. In the 1980’s, the late Chris Sievey created the persona of Frank Sidebottom, an aspiring pop singer from Timperly, Manchester. Sievey’s Frank was comedic, whereas the movie’s Frank is a serious musician who hails from Kansas. The design of the movie head is very similar to the one Sievey wore. Ronson and Straughn have given their Frank some of the qualities of outsider musicians like Captain Beefheart and Daniel Johnston. In this way, their screenplay is something of a love letter to outsider music. Soronprfbs aren’t looking for mainstream success and Jon doesn’t understand why not.

FRANK is a slow starter and a little hard to crack into at first, however it has an entertainingly dry wit and is a poignant look at the sort of world that sensitive people build to protect themselves.

UK | 96 minutes | 6/10

This review first appeared in in June 2014

Film Review: Passengers (2016)

It is the future. Jim Preston (Chris Pratt), a passenger on the spaceship Avalon, wakes up from his sleep pod. The ship is on a 120 year journey to a colonisation planet called Homestead 2. The Avalon is a state-of-the-art sleep ship with 5000 passengers in a state of suspended animation. Jim’s pod has malfunctioned and he has woken 90 years early. The pod is constructed to keep Jim asleep, but not to put him back under if he wakes up. As the ship’s computer explains to him, it is impossible for a sleep pod to malfunction. There are no protocols for this eventuality. All the ship’s technicians are also in a hyper-sleep state and locked away in high security quarters. Everyone but Jim and a robot bartender (Michael Sheen) is asleep for the next 90 years. He is stranded in what amounts to a resort hotel in space. He has food, a pool, exercise equipment, entertainment; everything except human companionship.

PASSENGERS has a great premise. Does Jim just die alone on a ship with 5000 souls who are untouchable and unreachable as far as he is concerned? They have all paid their money to become a colonist 90 years in the future. They are as good as dead to Jim, as he is to them.

Eventually, Jim is joined by another passenger, Aurora (Jennifer Lawrence) And here, you might find the story engaging and be all-in with the growing relationship of these two attractive space colonists of the future or you might not be happy with the way the story turns. If you saw the trailer to PASSENGERS and thought of it as a romance and a sci-fi adventure, then it isn’t that straight forward.

PASSENGERS is shot on great sets and has seamless special effects. Pratt and Lawrence are solid. The screenplay by Jon Spaihts needed more development because the story sets up a moral dilemma and then never sufficiently deals with it. For viewers not concerned with this aspect of storytelling, PASSENGERS is a slickly made movie with A-list stars, preposterous action and an overly sentimental conclusion.

USA | 116 minutes (2.5/5)

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Film Review: Why Him? (2016)

Ned and Barb Fleming, and their 15-year-old-son Scott visit their eldest child, 22-year-old Stephanie in California, where she goes to college. The family live in Grand Rapids, Michigan where Ned runs a printing business. The Flemings expect to spend some family time with their daughter for Christmas, but from the moment they land, plans change. Stephanie introduces them to her new boyfriend Laird. He is immature, swears continuously and is a Silicon Valley multi-millionaire. Laird insists the Flemings stay in his hi-tech mansion and immediately he puts Ned off-side.

Father and daughter usually have a close relationship, but the more Ned discovers about Laird, the more he feels his relationship with Stephanie has changed for the worst. Laird is on a mission to win over the family, especially Ned.

WHY HIM? is a comedy directed by John Hamburg and co-written by him and Ian Helfer. The basic premise is familiar enough: over-protective father can’t accept his adult daughter making her own decisions.

Hamburg and Helfer make the new boyfriend superficially attractive and rich, but then make him a middle-class parents’ nightmare. He has no filter for normal conversation, so does not observe any of the niceties of day-to-day politeness. This is explained with the half-baked idea that Laird had no substantial parental figures. So most of the things that Laird says are about sex and everything he utters contains profanities. This is the movie’s go-to gag. A barrage of awkward sex talk in front of Stephanie’s parents and a never-ending stream of swearing. I found this immensely tiresome. Laird is played by James Franco and the movie relies entirely on his charm and his skill at playing a guileless man-child. The audience I saw this with seemed on board however, they laughed steadily throughout, but I was only intermittently amused.

The other comic idea was actually a two-for-one. #1:Those Wacky Californians and Their Zany Cutting Edge Ideas (Gourmet food as a gas! Paperless house!). This fits neatly into #2:Those Zany Millennials and Their Wacky Cutting Edge Ideas. Here the film shows more invention coming up with the kind of daft hipster concepts that might appeal to a young tech millionaire (Defensive parkour!). This kind of thing is as a modern as the 1962 Jimmy Stewart movie MR HOBBS TAKES A VACATION (Beatniks!). Most off the weird innovations in the house (Computerised Japanese toilet!) are under the care of Laird’s Estate Manager Gustav played by the reliably energetic Keegan-Michael Key.

Other performers include Cedric the Entertainer, the disembodied voice of Big Bang Theory’s Kaley Cuoco, Griffin Gluck as Scott Fleming and Zoey Deutch as Stephanie. Bryan Cranston and Megan Mullally play Mom and Dad Fleming and they are great at coming up with comic double-takes and stilted reactions to the weirdness unfolding around them, but I still felt a little cheated that they weren’t really given the opportunity to let rip. Both have shown us what they can do comedically on television, Cranston as Hal in Malcolm in the Middle and Mullally as Karen in Will and Grace, so it seemed an opportunity was going begging.

WHY HIM? is an adequate comedy that will suit undemanding audiences wanting to have some laughs over the holidays. It gets as far as it does on the talents of Franco, Cranston and Mullally.

USA | 116 minutes (5/10)

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Film Review: Justice League (2017)

JUSTICE LEAGUE is the fifth movie of the D.C. Extended Universe (DCEU). It is preceded and informed by MAN OF STEEL (2013), BATMAN V SUPERMAN (2016), SUICIDE SQUAD (2016) and WONDER WOMAN (2017). The story begins in a world that is still coming to terms with the death of Superman. Massive black flags fly in tribute to the lost son of Krypton. There is a sense that Earth is now unguarded against alien threat and it has become a grief-stricken, doom-laden planet without hope. As a counter to the fear and as a defence against potential extraterrestrial dangers, Bruce Wayne/Batman (Ben Affleck) and Diana Prince /Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) work to bring together a team of heroes—a Justice League.

Top draft picks for the League are: the oceanic Arthur Curry/Aquaman (Jason Momoa); young and speedy Barry Allen/The Flash (Ezra Miller) and former college football star, with a newly acquired and still evolving cybernetic body, Victor Stone/Cyborg (Ray Fisher). Batman and Wonder Woman have some initial difficulties in locating these three and getting them to answer the call for the heroes’ journey but Aquaman, The Flash and Cyborg eventually cross the threshold and the Justice League is formed.

The timing is fortunate because it turns out that an ancient and all-powerful foe Steppenwolf (Ciarán Hinds) has returned to dominate and enslave the planet with his multitude of deadly, winged minions, the Parademons. Steppenwolf is on a quest to bring together three mysterious cubes known as the Mother Boxes; when joined they become the Unity which Steppenwolf will use to conquer Earth.
From here, the good guys have a number of obstacles to overcome in their mission to defeat Steppenwolf’s plan. The movie does a good job tying-up a major strand in the DCEU story. However, the good versus evil part of the tale is strictly by-the-numbers for the modern superhero movie. Steppenwolf, in his desire to conquer, is very similar to Apocalypse in X-MEN: APOCALYPSE, or Dark Elf Malekith in THOR: THE DARK WORLD, or many of other the power-hungry super-villains. In their original conception on the comic page, all these antagonists doubtless have stories of specific detail, but on screen, most of the bad guys seem similar.

The new League members are not shown in great depth, but Fisher, Miller and Momoa bring sufficient presence to make a solid impact in their roles. Seeing the five characters connect as a team, provides the movie with a number of highlights. Time is given to family moments with Cyborg’s father Silas (Joe Morton) and The Flash ‘s father Henry (Billy Crudup). Diana’s mother Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) makes a welcome return. There are blink-and-you’ll-miss-it appearances from Amber Heard as Mera, J.K. Simmons as Commissioner Gordon and Robin Wright as Antiope. The excellent Jeremy Irons is back as Alfred and is underused, but then this movie is packed tight with characters.

The physical action set pieces are good enough, but there is an over-reliance on visual effects. The computer-generated images are numerous and unremarkable. Sometimes the frame is busy and the visuals are confusing. A number of exteriors have the feel of being green-screened sound-stages.

Overall, JUSTICE LEAGUE is entertaining. The main story is average in its execution, but the new team have a number of amusing and heartfelt moments. This isn’t the blockbuster some were hoping for. WONDER WOMAN is a better movie, but JUSTICE LEAGUE is at least more coherent than the remaining three films of the current DCEU.

USA | 120 minutes (6.5/10)

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