Sunday, August 30, 2015

Gayby Baby (2015) film review

Year: 2015
Running Time: 85 minutes
Director and Writer: Maya Newell

Gayby Baby will open in limited release in Australian cinemas on September 3.

Maya Newell's debut feature length documentary Gayby Baby has been attracting an incredible amount of media attention of late and much of it for the wrong reasons by individuals who evidently have not seen the film, but are quick to judge what it is about. Gayby Baby has been labelled a "gay" film by certain media professionals, which is a label clearly based on the title of the film and not it's content.

Gayby Baby is a film that does not actively seek to promote a certain lifestyle or persuade anybody that gay marriage should be legalised in Australia. It is a film about children of same sex parents who are already here and exist in the world and in Australia, whether their parents right to marriage does or not. The unprecedented documentary takes one into the homes of four children to inform and educate about their different situations. Each story is different, just like the traditional family where no situation is truly the same. However, despite this notion of normalcy, there are some great challenges involved with a family comprising of same sex parents and their children. These challenges are what makes them different from the traditional family, but are the ones which truly show the innocence of the children in a situation which they have no control over...whether the situation is seen as right or wrong by the beholder.

This film is not a propaganda film, as it has also been described as. A "gayby" is a term coined for a child of same sex parents and is often used by these children so is not considered a derogatory term, especially as director Newell is herself a child with two mothers. It is a deeply emotional film that is close to Newell's heart as it is something she would have wanted to exist when she was growing up to help her understand that there were other's in her situation and to help other's who grew up in a mother/father household what her life was like. The question of same sex marriage remains background noise in the film and not something that is addressed openly. There is the example of Matt and his mothers who do meet with Julia Gillard to talk to her about legalising same sex marriage, but this is an issue that is talked about behind closed doors.

Gayby Baby is not about converting the public and gathering support for same sex marriage, it is about acceptance and understanding of the children who have grown up in a household with two mothers or two fathers. The children are the innocent party in this situation and have the right to be given a voice, which is what Newell truly does. The film does not sugar coat their living situations by painting a home life which is all happiness and rainbows, as no household is perfect in any situation. There are great challenges involved with being a "gayby", as is seen in the film. Some of the children experience bullying from their peers and criticism from those in their church parish for a situation which is out of their control and that they were often born into, while young Graham has to lie about his situation when he and his fathers move out of the country. There is also the personal dilemma of Gus, who is entering puberty and trying to understand more about who he is. Gus' favourite thing in the world is wrestling, a concept his two mothers cannot understand and call "stupid" and "macho". One feels for Gus, as he would benefit from having a male in the household who understood what he was going through, but also feel for his mothers trying to understand him as well and doing the best they can. The film opens one's mind to the inner thoughts and emotions of these children who are often forgotten and connects on an emotional level as an understanding emerges throughout the film that despite the challenges, the constant remains that same sex parents love their children just as much as their mother/father counterparts.

Filming for Gayby Baby took place over several years as Newell gathered the appropriate footage for the film. As a result, the editing is brilliant as it forms a complete picture of the world through the eyes of the chosen children over an extended period of time. The footage is pieced together so that it becomes easy to understand the normalcy versus the unique that Newell is trying to let the world see, as instances are shown which highlight both of these aspects. Each of these children has a story to tell and their story is told with clarity and the simplicity that even those their own age can understand when they view the film.

People are quick to judge what they don't know as it seems easier than taking the time to learn and understand. Gayby Baby is one current example of this. Those who haven't seen the film neglect to acknowledge that the film is about children growing up and doing so in what is presently still a unique situation, but they nevertheless have a right to be heard and understood as doing so would in turn lead to a more understanding and accepting society.


Note from Nicki: Before the media storm regarding Gayby Baby begun, I interviewed director, Maya Newell for Sydney Film School a few weeks ago. For a greater understanding of her personal journey with the film, please see here

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Call Me King (2015) film review


Year: 2015
Running Time: 118 minutes
Director and Writer: R.L. Scott
Cast: Amin Joseph, Maurice Whitfield, Sean Riggs, Jonathan McDaniel, Gabrielle Dennis, Bai Ling

Call Me King opens in cinemas in the United States on September 4 2015.

Action packed Call Me King captivates and transfixes from it's very opening scene with intriguing visuals and witty dialogue that is part of an explosive screenplay. Brothers, Rhyis (Amin Joseph) and Khalil (Maurice Whitfield) were as young boys ousted from Haiti under the dictatorship and as adults are now looking to return to their homeland with a great deal more power. Rhyis is the more ambitious of the two and head of their syndicate in the dangerous world of gun running. When the only man he looks up to and trusts, Angelo (Chris Mulkey) tells him that he is stepping down as leader of the Italian syndicate and placing control in the hands of Rhysis, it seems as though all of their life long ambitions will be fulfilled, until a terrible twist of fate takes place and leads to greater danger and violence to everyone in the syndicate and everyone they hold dear.

R.L. Scott's Call Me King is nothing short of nearly two hours of high paced, non-stop action. The film has a consistent atmosphere of dread and danger of which is addictive and craved as the story moves forward. While the physical aspect is at the forefront of the film and will undoubtedly be what is kept fresh in one's mind after a viewing, it is supported by a strong screenplay that maintains solid character development, intriguing dialogue and relatable underlying themes. Call Me King is not just a story about reclaiming ones birthright, but also about family. All of the family ties in the film are strained, particularly the father and son relationships. However, in times of need blood runs thicker than water. This may not be the case between Angelo and his son, but for Rhyis and Khalil this is absolutely how things are with the two of them and with their father. Their actions speak far louder than words as to how they all feel about each other, which is often how many families are.

Rapid camera movements during the well choreographed physical combat scenes gives further assistance to the tense and suspenseful atmosphere of the film. The locations chosen are gritty and perfectly suited to the story. The opening shots taken off the coast are particularly captivating and rather beautifully shot, which immediately captures one's undivided attention.

The cast of Call Me King do very well to bring to life the screenplay which has a vast amount of powerful dialogue. Amin Joseph is terrifying, but incredibly interesting as Rhyis. He is a man who is well and truly capable of anything due to his drive to succeed and the overpower and Joseph is cast perfectly. Maurice Whitfield is also very good, as is Sean Riggs. Call Me King is also highly respectful to women, as it features some extremely strong female characters who are every bit as formidable as the male. Gabrielle Dennis' Leena develops throughout the film from being a smart girl who allows herself to be walked over to a strong and dangerous protégé of fixer, Simone played by Monyque Thompson Scott. Leena is drawn to Simone for her strength and power, which is the same reason the viewer is intrigued by her. Bai Ling gives another powerful performance as Li Soo, a woman who never takes no for an answer and fiercely protects those she loves.

Call Me King is tense and controlled with many features which contribute to it's captivating success. It's high action levels do not take away from it's truthful representation of human relationships.


Saturday, August 22, 2015

Irrational Man (2015) film review

Year: 2015
Running Time: 95 minutes
Director and Writer: Woody Allen
Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Emma Stone, Parker Posey, Jamie Blackley, Tom Kemp

Irrational Man opens in Australian cinemas on August 20 and is distributed by Entertainment One. Now showing in the United States and opening in the United Kingdom September 11.

Irrational Man sees the return of Woody Allen's cynical and intriguingly morbid screenwriting that comes with a pinch of black humour and has divided audiences for decades, but with weak underlying themes which do not inspire nor provoke. Professor Abe Lucas (Joaquin Phoenix) arrives at his new Rhode Island college in a flurry of gossip, rumours and female admirers. Despite how many people welcome Abe with open arms, he remains dissatisfied with his life and struggles to find meaning or any sense of optimism in his daily activities. However, a chance encounter by he and his love and star struck pupil, Jill (Emma Stone) allows him to find the enjoyment in life that he has been missing by taking a stranger's matters into his own hands.

With Irrational Man returns Woody Allen's evil streak that comes hand in hand with his flair for black humour, which is often lost on many. Allen's film making style is often referred to by many as an acquired taste, but one does not feel the true extent of his talent in Irrational Man. The film seems to be Allen's take on sadism in his storytelling, where one feels pleasure because of another's pain, as well as imposing the moral question of whether inflicting pain or death on another is ever justified. While the lead character of Abe is obviously a damaged human being, the side of the argument he represents is not strong enough to make one contemplate this notion once they leave the cinema.  The story itself is intriguing and also unpredictable which makes for a film that is watchable, but with underlying themes that remain weak.

Despite the label of black humour being attached to Irrational Man, it is very hard to categorise the film as a comedy, yet it is too light-hearted to be seen as a drama. It relies more on situational humour rather than verbal humour, but this is still not overtly evident. The film could be categorised more as amusing rather than comical and it is this with it's quirky screenplay. Visually, it is rather a beautiful film with the Rhode Island scenery on show. Full use is made of the New England landscape as well as the towns architecture and gives the film a peaceful and serene front to it's evil narrative.

Joaquin Phoenix and Emma Stone work well together on screen and have a great deal of chemistry, despite some flimsy dialogue spoken between the two to each other. Phoenix is a chameleon by nature so he has the ability to switch from damaged and self-destructive to likable and charismatic in the film and be both characters wonderfully. Emma Stone is also very good as Jill and towards the end of the film her performance gets radically stronger. However, both Phoenix and Stone are given dialogue which is not particularly strong (but still remains Allen-esque) and makes their performances seem a little forced.

Despite being entertaining and unpredictable, Irrational Man is not one of the Woody Allen films that will be worth coming back to over time. It is a film that is trying to be a lesson in morality, but gets lost within itself too easily.


Saturday, August 15, 2015

The Man From U.N.C.L.E (2015) film review

Year: 2015
Running Time: 116 minutes
Director: Guy Ritchie
Writers: Sam Rolfe (based on the television series by), Jeff Kleeman and David C. Wilson (story), Guy Ritchie and Lionel Wigram (story and screenplay)
Cast: Henry Cavill, Armie Hammer, Alicia Vikander, Elizabeth Debicki, Hugh Grant, Sylvester Groth, Luca Calvani, Jared Harris

The Man From U.N.C.L.E is now showing in cinemas everywhere and is distributed in Australia by Roadshow Films.

Although it is entertaining and packed with the enjoyable high paced action scenes that you would expect it have, the creative choices in The Man From U.N.C.L.E can leave those who haven't seen the television series with a feeling of not knowing whether they are missing something or if it is just Guy Ritchie's style of storytelling. In the days post Cuban missile crisis in Berlin, CIA agent, Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) approaches Gaby (Alicia Vikander) with an opportunity for her to leave Berlin in exchange for knowing where her estranged father is. He soon finds that he is not the only one looking for her father, as the two are followed by KGB worker, Russian Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer). The two are soon shocked to find that they are to work together despite their mutual hatred for each other and work towards a common purpose.

The Man From U.N.C.L.E plays the part of an origins to the 1960's television series of the same name which it was inspired by. Rather than retell a storyline featured in the show, the film is set in the time before the television series begun and this is a great advantage to those who have not watched the television show as one comes to understand how Solo and Illya come to be partners with one another without missing anything story-wise from the show. However, some of the creative choices in the film made by director, Guy Ritchie become almost an enigma for those who haven't watched the television show and know very little about it, which considering there is a 50 year gap between the two is highly likely for many. This includes that of the lead roles. The lead characters of Solo and Illya border on over-the-top and before one can criticize the direction, script or acting, they accept that this may just be the way they are in the television series. Unfortunately because the television show is not as accessible as others (although it is available on DVD from Amazon), this is not a question that can be answered quickly or simply. It is said that Ritchie looked for a balance in the film between comedy and drama, which would indicate that this borderline of exaggeration was something he was intended out of respect to i's predecessor.

However, for all the confusion it's sense of self beholds, The Man From U.N.C.L.E is entertaining, incredibly action-packed and atmospheric. It feels along the lines of a Bond film crossed with The Italian Job with it's intelligent secret agent based, but witty screenplay. The unpredictability and clever twists make for an intriguing and desirable spy thriller screenplay. The action portion of the film is a constant throughout the film, but the story does not suffer nor does it feel that the frequent use of action is being used to compensate for a weak story. The special effects are not surprisingly very impressive.

Set after the Cuban missile crisis firstly in Berlin and then in Rome, the film is extremely atmospheric and nostalgic. The majority of the filming took place on location with some incredible sites being used for the film, including the Spanish Steps and the Roman Forum, but the filming that was done on a sound stage demonstrated the use of some marvellous production design. The costume design is exquisitely done by Joanna Johnston (especially Gaby's wardrobe) and a superb musical score by Daniel Pemberton. Much of the cinematography techniques are extremely recognisable as Ritchie's style, but work well for the film and the world it belongs in.

As previously remarked upon, the performances of Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer are somewhat problematic to one who is not familiar with the television series. They are both portraying characters who have very distinctive characteristics and if one compares them to the original Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin and if this is the way the originals also were, then they have presumably done a good job. Otherwise, they are at least both entertaining and work well together. Alicia Vikander does well, but it is Elizabeth Debicki who steals the limelight as Victoria. She is as cold, hard and terrifying as a traditional female villain and her icy demeanour makes her a truly scary character. On the other hand, Hugh Grant has very little screen time, but is still incredibly likable.

The Man From U.N.C.L.E is without a doubt entertaining and has some very good points, but also encourages one to find a copy of the television series to understand who it is a bit more and decide whether Guy Ritchie is putting his own ideas to the film or replicating the television series.


Note from Nicki: Being unfamiliar with the television series, I found this review rather difficult to write. I don't believe I am alone with this as I have never physically seen the DVD's for the 1960's television series "The Man From U.N.C.L.E" on sale here in Australia, nor have I ever seen it on television. As a stand alone film, I would find the development of the characters and some of the other creative decisions which I haven't mentioned here rather off-putting, but without seeing the series I would rather give Guy Ritchie the benefit of the doubt and say that he is being true to the memory of what it is inspired from.

If anyone has seen the television show and can compare it to the movie, I would love to hear from you because I have found it hard tracking down someone who has to answer the questions I have about it.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Descendants (2015) film review

Year: 2015
Running Time: 112 minutes
Director: Kenny Ortega
Writers: Josann McGibbon and Sara Parriott
Cast: Dove Cameron, Cameron Boyce, Booboo Stewart, Sofia Carson, Kristin Chenoworth, Kathy Najimy, Mitchell Hope, Brenna D'Amico, Melanie Paxson, Sarah Jeffery, Dan Payne, Keegan Connor Tracy, Dianne Doan

Descendants premiered on the Disney Channel on August 1 in Australia and July 31 in the United States. To be released on DVD October 21 in Australia and now available in the United States.

Original Disney Channel films tend to slip under the radar when one is not a hard core Disney fan these days. The last original Disney Channel film to break past this barrier was High School Musical back in 2006, which launched Zac Efron, Vanessa Hudgens and Ashley Tisdale into instant stardom. Descendants is the latest offering by the television division of the mouse empire which has drawn an incredible amount of excitement from Disney fanatics and interest from the outside as one and the reason for this is because it is Disney doing what Disney does well, which is making films reminiscent of their own work.  The result is something which is a whole lot of fun and shouldn't be taken too seriously, but will undoubtedly be enjoyed more by those who understand the Disney Channel's code of conduct.

When Happily Ever After took place in our beloved fairy tales, the villains of the stories were exiled to the Isle of the Lost to dwell for the rest of their lives with no escape for them or their families. Many years later when the son of Belle (Keegan Connor Tracy) and her Beast turned handsome prince (Dan Payne), Ben (Mitchell Hope) expresses his wish for the children of the Isle of the Lost to attend the same school as he and fellow fairy tale heroes' children in Auradon. Chosen for this task are Cruella De Vil's (Wendy Raquel Robinson) son, Carlos (Cameron Boyce), the Evil Queen's (Kathy Najimy) daughter, Evie (Sofia Carson), Jafar's (Maz Jobrani) son, Jay (Booboo Stewart) and Maleficent's (Kristin Chenoworth) daughter, Mal (Dove Cameron). Waves of tension rip through the school upon their arrival and the four struggle to fit in and what makes it even harder for them to do so is the fact that they really have no idea who they are without their parents.

When it comes to Disney and the Disney Channel, one cannot pretend they don't know what they are going to get. The Disney Channel in particular is all about a squeaky clean image with an uplifting message, lots of smiles and the odd (or frequent) song and dance number. To be disappointed with Descendants is to go into it thinking it is going to be anything else other than these things. Disney is very good at drawing on their past projects to pave way for a new film and here they build on the concept of society being obsessed with the children of celebrities. Of course, the celebrities in question here are the past Disney villains. What results is a film that is a lot of fun for the whole family with it's colourful characters and simple, but effective laughs.

Descendants is absolutely reminiscent of High School Musical with it's catchy tunes, cheesiness and the girl and boy from different worlds and it will come as no surprise to anyone that director, Kenny Ortega also directed all three of the High School Musical films. Again, the film is a Disney lover's paradise with plenty of references to their past films, including Mulan's daughter's Lonnie (Dianne Doan), the Fairy Godmother (Melanie Paxson) reciting "Bippity boppity boo" and Cruella De Vil's son, Carlos being brought up to believe that dogs are terrible creatures. However, much of the film is very over the top and predictable, but all expected considering the ethics and pattern of such Disney Channel productions. These aspects are not so much negatives in this respect, merely observations. Of course, there will still be audiences who have made the switch over to see Descendants and criticise it for being so, but original Disney Channel movies are to appeal to families and rely on what has worked for them for many, many years. The costume design by Kara Saun is superb as is the production design by Mark Hofeling.

Character is the main drawcard for Descendants and the casting of these characters is absolutely everything. Dove Cameron, who at the tender age of nineteen is no stranger to being a leading lady (she plays both of the lead roles in the Disney Channel series, "Liv and Maddie"), is undoubtedly the main character as Mal and has the most well developed character out of the children. Her inner struggle between good and evil and the constant need to impress her mother makes her an interesting character and Cameron portrays her wonderfully by being not quite evil but walking the tightrope between the two constantly. Cameron Boyce, Booboo Stewart and Sofia Carson all also give solid performances.

The absolute scene stealers are Kristin Chenoworth and Kathy Najimy. The two provide a comical side to the traditionally brutally evil villains, but it is a change that works and delights in the film. Chenoworth in particular has an incredible amount of presence as Maleficent and her song "Evil Like Me" is the best solo song in the film. Najimy is hilarious as the Evil Queen with brilliant one-liners and her and Chenoworth have superb on-screen chemistry as the two villains compete, but also laugh together like old friends.

If you let it be and accept it for what it is, Descendants is a great deal of fun in a clean and cheesy, but undeniably sweet way. Disney lovers will love it and anybody who switches over to the Disney Channel to have some fun should just go with it and enjoy it.