FILM REVIEW: THE DUFF

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“The Duff” is an acronym meaning “The Designated Ugly Fat Friend”. It’s used to describe the less attractive and more approachable member of a social group who has the job of making their friends look better. The Duff is also the name of a predictable and enjoyable teen rom-com that is redeemed by its quirky qualities and some clever writing.

The story is an adaptation of Kody Keplinger’s young adult novel that was written when she was just 17. Here, director Ari Sandel makes his feature film debut while Josh A. Cagan (Undergrads) is responsible for the screenplay. The story feels quite restrained and real in its portrayal of social media use amongst teens and cyberbullying, although the viral video from the main character is quite weird and in bad taste.

Mae Whitman (Parenthood, Arrested Development) stars as Bianca AKA “The Duff”. She is friends with a feisty, soccer-loving hacker named Casey (Bianca A. Santos) and the budding fashion designer, Jess (Skyler Samuels) who are both positively gorgeous. At a party, Bianca receives a rude awakening from her neighbour who is also the school football captain and a hunky jock called Wesley (Robbie Amell) who informs her that she is a Duff. Bianca is offended but agrees to be mentored and made over by Wesley in exchange for chemistry lessons as Mr. Handsome’s scholarship is in jeopardy thanks to poor grades.

The performances by all of the young actors here are excellent. Whitman in particular carries the film as the smart and sassy Bianca and the audience will relate to her and appreciate her other redeeming characteristics. Whitman also has a great chemistry with Amell, even if the two of them look slightly older than high school students. The cast also includes Allison Janney and Ken Jeong as Bianca’s well-meaning mother and teacher, respectively.

The Duff actually opens by name-checking the characters from The Breakfast Club but it has a lot more in common with John Hughes’ Pretty in Pink (think of a quirky, non-conformist outcast who also makes her own dress and is a winner at the school dance). This film also shares a few things in common with Ten Things I Hate about You in that it looks at labelling the teens and is a coming-of-age rom-com.

This adaptation is not perfect by any means and it is familiar and predictable. But what redeems it is its big heart, final message and the fact that it doesn’t take itself too seriously. The Duff is a tight, breezy and upbeat high school film that contains some superficial fluff but also manages to push lots of the right buttons in the process. And this is what prevents it from being not just another teen movie.

 

Originally published on 30 March 2015 at the following website: http://www.impulsegamer.com/the-duff-film-review/

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BLU-RAY REVIEW: THE NUT JOB

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It’s easy to not go nuts about the children’s animated flick, The Nut Job. While the film looks warm and appealing, it is let down by an unoriginal plot, an unlikeable lead character and lots of bad jokes. It’s ultimately a by-the-numbers kids’ action film that is predictable and easily forgotten.

The story was originally a short by veteran animator, Peter Lepeniotis. This may have contributed to the fact that the source material feels like it has been spread a little thin. The film marks Lepeniotis’ directorial debut and has a solid cast of voice talent including: Liam Neeson, Brendan Fraser, Katherine Heigl and Jeff Dunham. The special features on the Blu-ray version are rather average and just feature some deleted scenes.

Surly the Squirrel is the film’s ugly, anti-star and is voiced by Will Arnett. Surly is a lying, scheming character who likes to act selfishly and alone despite living in a collective of animals in Liberty Park. Surly and his bumbling and virtually mute best friend, Buddy the Rat inadvertently destroy the park’s meagre food supply. These stores were going to serve the park’s residents for the winter so lead raccoon (Neeson) steps in and banishes the mischievous pair from their homes.

But the duo’s luck changes when they stumble across a nut-shop and plan a heist. These two aren’t the only ones to hatch a hair-brained plan. The shop is also the headquarters for a clichéd group of bank robbers who are planning their own attack. Along the way Surly meets the thieves’ charming dog Precious (Maya Rudolph) and is given the choice of stealing the nuts for himself or for the greater good of the park community.

The overall tone of the film sits somewhere between a robbery caper and a Looney Tunes cartoon. The story is too detailed for younger kids to follow but not complex enough for the adults to enjoy. The jokes are made up of too many bad nut puns and slapstick that is neither clever nor witty (and the addition of the Psy novelty hit, “Gangnam Style” might feel like fingers down a chalk board for some viewers). The result is a film that lacks the sophistication of the Pixar classics or the recent family-friendly films, Paddington and Shaun the Sheep.

The Nut Job could have appealed to all ages with its fun style and mad-cap mayhem but it fails to hit the mark for both kids and adults. The plot and execution suffer from various maladies and Surly is unlikely to have a wide appeal. This means that this is at best a seemingly pleasant, animated film, which may have some good moments but it is hardly excellent. Ah nuts.

 

Originally published on 30 March 2015 at the following website: http://www.impulsegamer.com/the-nut-job-blu-ray-review/

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BOOK REVIEW: GILES WATERFIELD – THE IRON NECKLACE

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Giles Waterfield knows a lot about history. This is particularly evident in the independent curator and writer’s fourth novel and historic fiction book, The Iron Necklace. The author of The Long Afternoon has had some excellent ideas while developing this novel but the finished product is let-down by his method of execution as the chapters (while short) are slow, nuanced and occasionally boring.

 

The story is about a British family and a German family who are brought together by a marriage. After the First World War is declared this sends members of the two clans into a kind of disarray (like the rest of the world). English artist, Irene Benson is forced to grapple with being an enemy in her newly adopted home of Berlin while her brother Mark is a diplomat who is struggling to come to terms with his own sexuality.

 

Waterfield frequently switches between characters and periods with lots of short chapters but this often makes things rather confusing. A lot of the characters (especially the ancestors in the modern day) are not fully explained or realised. This then makes it hard for the reader to become engaged in the story or to genuinely warm to the storytellers.

 

Irene’s sister, Sophia is perhaps the most interesting individual but her narrative plays second fiddle to Irene and her husband, Thomas’ one. This is a shame because Sophia is an intriguing, independent woman who is working hard as a nurse on the Western front. Her relationship with her suitor and her parents is one of many to be tested in the chaos that is World War I.

 

The biggest problem with The Iron Necklace is the frequent use of German dialogue for the characters from this country. This shouldn’t be a problem except that absolutely no English translation is offered. So it’s then left up to the reader to either find their own translation (which means that we may not get the author’s true intentions) or we skip entire paragraphs (which could take important elements out of the story).

 

The Iron Necklace is a great idea that was letdown by too many characters, points in time and chapters. It means that this book is drowning in detail and fails to be the entertaining family drama or insightful historic narrative it could have been. In short, this is one for people who are fans of World War I and who don’t mind a novel that is presented in a challenging way.

 

***Please note: a free copy of this book was given to the writer through a The Reading Room giveaway. To read the original review on that website please visit: https://www.thereadingroom.com/book/iron-necklace-the/9141581/tab/reviews/section/all/sort/most-recent/page/1

FILM REVIEW: SEX, LOVE & THERAPY (TU VEUX…OU TU VEUX PAS?)

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Sex, Love & Therapy (Tu veux… ou tu veux pas?) contains about as much insight and laughs regarding love as a garden hose and a bread basket. This French rom-com is a superficial tale about a sex-obsessed man and woman who have to work together. It’s a complicated romantic situation but the script is simple and lightweight.

Lambert Levallois (Patrick Bruel (Paris Manhattan) is a disgraced former pilot and a recovering and celibate sex addict. He has also tried to reinvent himself as a marriage counsellor. He also requires an assistant and in walks Judith Chabrier (Sophie Marceau (The World Is Not Enough)). She is a siren, nymphomaniac who has just lost her job as a sales manager because she slept with all of her male clients. Despite an obvious lack of experience, Levallois hires the bombshell (who eventually proves to have a natural aptitude for the field). The logic Levallois used is that if he can reject his gorgeous colleague’s advances then he must be cured. Right? Wrong.

The story is a strange dance where the two fight large libidos and passion in a will they won’t they-type scenario. The film’s French title, Tu veux… ou tu veux pas? translates to “Do you want it or don’t you?” in English. The chemistry between the two leads is obvious and there are some quirky supporting characters but the script overall is full of clumsy dialogue, underdeveloped main characters and an overall lack of meat on the bones of this lightweight comedy.

This rom-com was written, produced and directed by Tonie Marshall and it shows a couple of well-dressed and cheeky people living in the land of love. But there is very little to save what is ultimately an underwhelming film. In short, this is a pleasant enough romp but audiences will leave feeling unsatisfied.

 

Originally published on 23 March 2015 at the following website: http://iris.theaureview.com/2015/03/23/alliance-french-film-festival-review-sex-love-and-therapy-tu-veux-ou-tu-veux-pas-france-2014/

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FILM REVIEW: SHAUN THE SHEEP

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Shaun the Sheep is a simple but smart story. It also marks the big screen debut for the Aardman Animations’ character who was spun-off from Wallace & Gromit’s A Close Shave before he got his own popular TV show. This little sheep that could is as charming and engaging as ever and along with his gang he makes the jokes look so effortlessly funny. In short, it’s a shear delight.

The story comes to us courtesy of writer/directors Mark Burton and Richard Starzak. This pair have put in an obvious amount of thought, care and detail into crafting the tale and this is before you consider the fine and laborious hand-crafted work that goes into the gorgeous, stop-motion animation. Shaun the Sheep has no discernible dialogue (although the voice actors include Justin Fletcher, Omid Djalilli and Sean Connolly, among others). Despite being a silent film, the characters are more expressive than the actors in your average movie thanks to some well-placed bleats and grunts as well as the meticulous level of detail that has been applied to the characters’ facial expressions.

The story goes that Shaun is a little bored with the humdrum drudgery of his daily life on the farm. So he concocts an idea to distract the farmer, thus allowing the group of sheep to have some fun. Unfortunately, this pack get a little more than they bargained for with the farmer sustaining an injury which results in memory loss. This leaves this big farm “family” to get up to lots of hijinks in the big city.

The jokes in this film are occasionally slapstick which should entertain the kids. But there are also some gags designed specifically for the adults, including lots of film and cultural references (look out for the cameo byWallace & Gromit and Shaun the Sheep creator, Nick Park as well as the Abbey Road-like crossing to name just two). There are also scenes where the sheep have to adjust to the human world like Paddington had to do in his recent film.

Shaun the Sheep has a big heart that matches its epic adventure. This film is like a cup of tea and a warm blanket in that it’s comforting and reinforces the idea of home. I shouldn’t bleat on about it but this cute film is an absolute joy where you can get in touch with your inner child and enjoy some good, clean, energetic fun. It’s sweet, not sickly and above all, is a timeless romp the family will love.

 

Originally published on 22 March 2015 at the following website: http://iris.theaureview.com/2015/03/22/film-review-shaun-the-sheep-uk-2015/

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DVD REVIEW: OLIVE KITTERIDGE

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Olive Kitteridge is part curmudgeon and all chameleon. The difficult high school teacher is caustic and thorny as a mother and wife living in a bleak town in Maine in the seventies and eighties. The mini-series is a slow, nuanced affair that contains as many layers as an onion. It’s something that will keep you on your toes and give you lots of food for thought thanks to its being a realistic study of some ordinary lives.

The series is an adaptation of Elizabeth Strout’s book who is also a co-writer of the series along with Jane Anderson. Olive Kitteridge is directed by Lisa Cholodenko (The Kids Are Alright) who dubbed the story a “traumedy”. It’s a serious drama peppered with dry humour and is often like a Lionel Shriver novel crossed with Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm. Olive Kitteridge was initially a set of short stories about tragedy, love, pain and loyalty but the episodes are surprisingly cohesive in their earthy tones and overall outlook.

Frances McDormand stars as the eponymous character and is absolutely brilliant (she also doubles as an executive producer along with Tom Hanks and Gary Goetzman). The story is told largely from Olive’s perspective and it shows her relationships primarily with her sappy and romantic pharmacist husband, Henry (Richard Jenkins) and the fractious association with her no-nonsense son, Christopher (John Gallagher Jr. plays the adult Christopher). There are other interesting characters here too, like the young widower, Denise Thibodeau (Zoe Kazan). Olive receives her with contempt after she goes to work in Henry’s pharmacy. There are also some great cameos from Bill Murray and musician, Martha Wainwright, who plays a lounge singer.

The series looks at 25 years in Olive’s life and is every bit as intelligent as it is real. This means the mundane and ordinary are often celebrated (just like the English TV series, The Office). These moments are combined with Olive’s one-liners, zingers and opinions as well as other anecdotes and events that colour and reveal a lot about the characters. The series is mature and full of intriguing people, not least Olive who believes she is depressed (the show begins with her contemplating suicide and holding a gun).

Olive Kitteridge has some flaws but it is well-meaning in its human exploration of small-town life. This social commentary may have some cynicism and misery but it is also entertaining. This understated show may prove a hard slog or challenge for some viewers but if you can see parallels between yourself and Olive or other people you know you should be pleasantly surprised.

 

Originally published on 22 March 2015 at the following website: http://iris.theaureview.com/2015/03/22/tv-dvd-review-olive-kitteridge-usa-2014/

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FILM REVIEW: THE CIRCLE (DER KREIS)

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The Circle (Der Kreis) was a gay magazine produced in Switzerland and distributed internationally between 1932 and 1967. It is also the name of a docudrama film by director, Stefan Haupt. The film tells the story of a couple who were members of this underground movement that went on to become Switzerland’s first legally-married couple in 2003. The story is an interesting one but it is let down by some problems with its execution.

After World War II many gay people went to live in Switzerland because the country was one of the few places in Europe that had not outlawed homosexuality. Despite it being legal, it was merely tolerated and at times many homosexuals were closeted and repressed because they were scared about losing their jobs. Things worsened when an openly gay composer was murdered by a rent boy because this lead many members of the police to turn on the members of The Circle, who were used as scapegoats so the cops could justify being cruel and violent.

The story looks at the early days of gay rights, much like in the film, Milk. But the most important story told here is the romance that unfolds between the beautiful, cross-dressing cabaret performer, Röbi Rapp and the shy and closeted teacher, Ernst Ostertag. The film actually cuts between archive footage/photos and interviews with these two men and their acquaintances as well as recreations of various events from the past (the young men are played here by Sven Schelker and Matthias Hungerbühler, respectively). This means that the film has a stop-start feel and it is jarring to have so many disparate elements thrown in together. The Circle could have been one of about four different movies and these would’ve succeeded as separate entities far more than this whole.

The Circle is an important story that is told respectfully. It is one that was worth telling but it could have had a greater emotional impact if one of the plots and genres had been focused on, perhaps a biopic about just the couple’s love story. As it is, the plot is rushed but it’s an engaging chapter in history that remains timely, personal and resonant. In short, it’s a good but not great film.

 

Originally published on 22 March 2015 at the following website: http://iris.theaureview.com/2015/03/22/melbourne-queer-film-festival-review-the-circle-der-kreis-switzerland-2014/

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FILM REVIEW: BIG EYES

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They say the eyes are like a window to the soul. And the story of Big Eyes and specifically artist, Margaret Keane would show one sad and sinister tale. The latest film by director, Tim Burton (a Keane fan) throws his familiar clutch and styles away to instead present a biopic that is rich, honest and interesting.

In the 1950s Margaret Ulbrich (Amy Adams) was considered a sort of social pariah as a divorcee with a young daughter. But she soon met Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz) at an art fair where they embarked on a short courtship and she then married him. Keane was also an artist but he was known for producing staid, French landscapes while Margaret painted melancholy waifs with large eyes. What Walter lacked in artistic and creative skills he made up for as a fast-talking hustler and entrepreneur.

Walter Keane was the salesman responsible for having both his and his wife’s work displayed in the Hungry I Club. But his wife’s work proved more popular so he took credit for the paintings. From there the two became complicit in a huge lie which saw Walter dominating the dutiful Margaret and taking all of the credit for her work. This meant that Walter went on to become a rich, international celebrity while Margaret toiled away quietly in her isolated studio. She eventually left him in the seventies and revealed the truth about the artworks’ authorship, which saw the pair wind up in court.

This biopic deals with a lot of issues including the subjugation of women, the real worth of art (i.e. monetary gains vs. validation), relationship dysfunctions and the issue of the quality of art versus its popularity. The story builds slowly at first but it does lead to a dramatic trial. This film boasts a strong performance by Amy Adams (who won a Golden Globe award for this role) as the vulnerable painter who was trying to be an independent woman in a man’s world. The same cannot be said for Christoph Waltz’s acting because his slimy, dirty, rotten, scoundrel and villain seems more absurd and cartoonish by the film’s end.

This biopic is beautifully shot but it shifts in tone. There are some scenes where the mood is light and peppered with jokes (like when the naïve Margaret thinks espresso is reefer) to the downright haunting. Burton’s forcing of Margaret to walk through a supermarket where her mass-produced artworks sit alongside Campbell’s soup cans as she imagines customers having the enlarged eyes of her waifs is genius. The soundtrack also reflects this varied palette with Burton collaborator, Danny Elfman offering up a smoky, jazz soundtrack that fits the period, while Lana Del Rey sings a specially-written, eponymous song that is quite dark and haunting.

Big Eyes isn’t perfect but it does a good job at shining a light on an art scandal. The writing team behind Ed Wood(Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski) have written a visceral story that will have you shaking your head in disbelief and asking lots of questions. It makes for a complex and thought-provoking film that is unlike a lot of Burton’s other work.

The story of Margaret Keane is a true one that does seem stranger than fiction at times. This film does not set out to critique Keane’s artworks (the art world’s disdain for the quirky pictures is shown through Terence Stamp’s cameo as a scathing, New York art critic) but instead focuses on the more emotional aspects of the story. Keane had said that the artworks were like tiny pieces of her and it’s troubling that her former husband attempted to steal this all from her. It therefore makes for a really heart-wrenching account that is fascinating and one that will strike a chord with audiences that let this biopic in.

 

Originally published on 16 March 2015 at the following website: http://iris.theaureview.com/2015/03/16/film-review-big-eyes-usa-2014/

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FILM REVIEW: THE FOXY MERKINS

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The two main characters in The Foxy Merkins are not foxy ladies in the Jimi Hendrix sense. Smart? Yes. Sassy? Sure. But smouldering, not so much. The film is in fact, a fictional comedy based on the misadventures of two homeless, lesbian hookers.

The film was directed by Madeleine Olnek who doubles as a writer here along with the film’s two stars, Lisa Haas and Jackie Monahan. The trio had previously worked together on Co-dependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same, which was selected as part of the Sundance Film Festival. This time around they’ve fashioned an off-beat character study that is slow in its pacing but feels quite realistic at times.

Margaret (Haas) has moved to New York to find her mother (in a sub-plot that isn’t satisfactorily explored or resolved). She is a bumbling, sloppy and awkward woman who lacks employable skills. So she turns to lesbian prostitution even though she is stocky, bespectacled and frumpy. Luckily, this naïve girl meets the fast-talking, street smart, Jo (Monahan) who is a heterosexual that enjoys turning tricks with women.

The two ladies bond despite their obvious differences in personality and appearances (and a good chemistry is noticeable between the two actresses). They get up to strange sexploits and deal with it with a king of strange irreverence, from closeted socialites to homophobic republicans, there’s also wealthy housewives and even struggling arts students. It seems that most people are fair game which suits Jo as she is a grifter from way back, even though she was born with a silver spoon in her mouth.

The film does feature some interviews with the girls’ competition, which makes it appear quite real and like a documentary for a brief period. But this adds another layer of ambiguity to a film that was already rather incohesive. There is also an odd cameo from Girls’ Alex Karpovsky who plays a creepy merkin salesman (merkins are a kind of wig for your vagina). We originally meet him in a cemetery but he later resurfaces as a CNN executive who refuses to buy a sex tape because it features the fat Margaret and a homophobic republican politician.

The Foxy Merkins is a lo-fi film that was recorded with handheld cameras. It is well-meaning in satirising stereotypes and having two engaging female lead characters tackling the buddy, bromance film genre. But it fails overall in the storytelling department because some subplots are not explored properly, the ending feels rushed and at its worst it seems like a sketch that has been stretched out to feature length. The Foxy Merkins is also repetitive and simple but it does have heart and it shows two strong women’s close camaraderie and the good, bad and ugly aspects of their sexuality.

 

Originally published on 16 March 2015 at the following website: http://iris.theaureview.com/2015/03/16/melbourne-queer-film-festival-review-the-foxy-merkins-usa-2013/

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KIDNAPPING MR. HEINEKEN

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In 1983, Alfred ‘Freddy’ Heineken was kidnapped. The abduction of this prominent billionaire, the grandson of Gerard Adriaan Heineken (the founder of the Heineken beer company), resulted in the paying of the largest ever ransom at the time (35 million Dutch guilders, or about US$50 million today).

 

Kidnapping Mr. Heineken is based on the true crime book by journalist Peter R. de Vries.Both the book and film go into explicit detail about the abduction of the billionaire and his chauffeur, Ab Doderer (David Dencik).

 

The film is directed by Daniel Alfredson (The Girl Who Played With Fire)and is the second retelling of these events after the Dutch-language film, De Heineken Ontvoering. In Kidnapping Mr. Henieken, Anthony Hopkins stars as Heineken, shining while playing masterful power games (sound familiar?) with the five amateur kidnappers.

 

The criminals include the group’s mastermind, Cor van Hout(Across The Universe’s Jim Sturgess) and his underlings (Sam Worthington, Ryan Kwanten, Thomas Cocquerel and Mark van Eeuwen). The actors each put in decent enough performances (if you can forgive Australian accents being spoken by Dutch crooks).

 

But it is the execution of the film that ultimately lets it down. Shades of grey and subtle hues are frequently used, and when combined with long, dialogue-heavy scenes that mostly take place indoors, this takes a lot of the suspense out of the thriller. Events that could have been tense and gripping feel rather slow and flat.

 

Kidnapping Mr. Heineken is based on an interesting true story: the 21 days the beer mogul was held captive. It also shows the aftermath, in which some of the criminals were on the run from the law. But ultimately it depicts a perfect crime that isn’t so perfect, and is at best a bland drama.

 

Originally published on 11 March 2015 at the following website: http://thebrag.com/arts/kidnapping-mr-heineken

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