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Focusing on the individual within the relationship, Netflix’s new comedy delivers not only a welcome progression of diversity on screen but exists as another ripple in the path that is the skipping stone of successful Netflix comedies. Featuring actualised female and male leads that regardless of the complications – owed in part to their sensical character flaws – nevertheless delight with humour and authenticity that speaks to the human existence.
Can they navigate the mysterious waters their relationship finds themselves without compromising who they represent as individuals? Can they make it work? Can they keep it cute?
I am of course talking about the delightful Netflix comedy Always Be My Maybe, which has in the weeks following its release mustered up the collective ‘awwws’ of the internet and spurred on the 2019 Keanu-sance.
And then there is Netflix’s other entry in the comedy genre: Murder Mystery, a film so content with taking the easy road that it seeps through to its unimaginative title.
Standard silly Sandler shenanigans (say that 5 times), Murder Mystery is the latest romp in the Adam Sandler arsenal of Netflix comedies; a lucrative arrangement for Sandler that allows him to churn out uninspired material. An evident pastiche on Agatha Christie mystery novels, Murder Mystery begs to question less of a whodunnit scenario and more of a ‘whydunnit’ on the part of the filmmakers who are as unengaged with the material as Sandler is with his tepid delivery.
Murder Mystery finds Sandlers mustache-laden Nick Spitz, a police officer who lies about being a detective to his wife Audrey (Jennifer Aniston), embroiled in the mystery of a billionaire (Terence Stamp) while on vacation in Europe. A game of Cluedo then follows as the Spitz’s investigate who is responsible amongst the list of suspects, many of which are presented by offensive caricatures who, going by Sandler’s body of work, were likely to be played by him.
Things happen for the sake of the plot chugging ahead like the Orient Express instead of events being grounded in any sort of well thought-out screenplay; a surprise considering scribe James Vanderbilt is responsible for weaving dark, suspenseful mysteries as evident in 2007 thriller Zodiac. Admittedly, the mystery element is not as central to the film as the relationship between Sandler and Aniston, with the mystery functioning as a ploy to rekindle the romance in their tired marriage (yep). Considering the script contains no semblance of any form of likeable character (Sandler’s insecure, crappy husband type renders him irredeemably unpleasant) it makes all of the Spitz’s interactions irritating, diffusing any instance of humour, causing any chance of a laugh to fizzle.
Loveless writing (Aniston’s character proclaiming to her husband of fifteen years that she has a love of reading, which seems surprising to him) is a bloodier mess than the actual murder scene. Further fuel is added to the frustration flame with Murder Mystery making no effort to disguise its mimicry in vibe to 2018 dark comedy Game Night – going down to the blue, noir vibe of the plane to the quick-cut shots that act as transitions.
There is clearly an audience that find great pleasure in watching Sandler and friends engage in light-hearted hijinx, and they’ll continue to find his work in their Netflix recommended watches.
But, the biggest frustration lies with Netflix who will continue to lose ground in its bid to be as respected as legacy studios are in Hollywood should it continue to double down on loveless filmmaking – the implications of which will impact important films like 2018 Oscar favourite Roma from heightened awareness.
Needless to say, Murder Mystery is a cold case not worth reopening.
Director: Kyle Newacheck
Cast: Adam Sandler, Jennifer Aniston, Terence Stamp
Writer: James Vanderbilt
There are not many comedies depicting people living with a disability. And for a good reason, with actors such as Ben Stiller and Johnny Knoxville playing to the lowest common denominator in their association in films with people with disabilities. Too easily bordering on parody or ridicule, the interactions had with characters that live with a disability often service the arcs of characters without disabilities so they can feel better about themselves.
While not entirely bucking this trend is Goya-winning sports-comedy Champions, a film screening as part of the Spanish Film Festival that follows forty-something-year-old professional basketball coach Marco (Javier Gutiérrez) who is court ordered to coach a team of basketball players (Los Amigos) living with disabilities so he may avoid jail time.
Frustrated with the cards he has been dealt both on and off the court, Marco is willing to deceive, sweet-talk and intimidate others to avoid the smallest inconvenience in his life, often to the dismay of those close to him. His competitive edge and desire to win (on occasion questioning whether opposing players do have a disability) contrasts the needs of the Los Amigos, who look to basketball as a way of feeling part of a team.
Director Javier Fesser leans into Marco’s frustration communicating with the team, using it as a drawcard for most of the humour, which is supported by a bellowing tuba score working as a laugh track to lighten the mood and let the audience know it is okay to laugh (but is it?). Fesser’s direction of the Los Amigos players edges more into There is Something About Mary territory than something that resembles Simple Jack in Tropic Thunder, presenting each team member as kind, even though they are often a cause of frustration for the impatient Marco.
It wouldn’t be a sports movie without someone changing for the better, with Marco slowly chipping away once he learns the damage that his aggressive thoughts have and the positive impact he has on the lives of people in the team. The gentle nature of the Los Amigos draws you into the film, making you forget early on that Marco’s attendance is court ordered, however, divulges into tropes of manipulative fell-goodness that move at the same beat as a basketball bouncing down a court.
Champions travels with its excessive two-hour length, which despite a fine performance by Gutiérrez, complicates itself with multiple competing storylines (the inclusion of issues with his wife as an example) that are of detriment to the overall product. Perhaps the biggest fault of Champions is the consistency of its final act, elevating the stakes and absurdity of the film which feel incompatible with the first 75% of the movie.
If cheesy-feel-good flicks are your thing, Champions is the film for you. For others, the intentions of Champions to paint people with disability respectfully shoots for the three-pointer but misses.
Director: Javier Fesser
Cast: Javier Gutiérrez, Athenea Mata, Juan Margallo
Writers: David Marqués, Javier Fesser
There is no other director who could have done what Terry Gilliam has with The Man Who Killed Don Quixote (TMWKDQ), a story that combines the surreal with the real in a fantasy adventure which sees Toby (Adam Driver), a director who loses touch with his creative spirit, sent on an adventure with Javier (Jonathan Pryce), a delusional shoe-cobbler-turned-actor that believes he is Don Quixote.
The lunacy that follows the two as they navigate rural Spain is one part an observation at opposites, the other, a literary-inspired adventure much in the vein of Gilliams’ Monty Python work. This is where TMWKDQ will cause some divisiveness based on your response to this style of zany humour (one instance, Toby knocks away the subtitles that sit at the bottom of the screen, noting they are no longer needed).
All the humour is drawn from the two leads as they struggle with one another; Toby’s grounded-realism having to attest with Javier and his chivalrous idealism. While TMWKDQ is in large parts a comedy, there remains an emotional backbone to the film that explores identity, one that sees all characters fleshed out and explored throughout the film.
The lead roles are executed with commitment, with Pryce undeniably the star of the show delivering an obnoxiously valiant soldier with intentions of heroism. Javier’s unwillingness to bend on his motivation for chivalry causes many of the complications throughout the film and results in Javier being the butt of jokes for most of the movie, particularly by those in power who ridicule his fight for change.
Toby stands in as Gilliam as a director reflecting on his career, with his return to Spain following the ten-year gap where he completed his first adaptation of Don Quixote. Donning a white suit and new-found confidence that leaves him unbothered by the failure of his current production of a commercial, Toby is a shill of the Hollywood machine with TMWKDQ following Toby’s journey back from a corporate pariah to a passionate filmmaker.
The balancing of the absurd with the drama culminates into a semi-serious fantastical odyssey whose third act is unafraid to increase the stakes in a film that otherwise embraces the ridiculous. A willingness from the film to explore Toby, a man who loses a sense of respect in himself and the manner which his exploitative actions have impacted a culture largely uninterrupted by western interference, is brave in its tackling of cultural appropriation.
If you fall into the camp that finds Gilliam’s mix of lunacy with the literal silly, then you and this reviewer are in good company. Despite well-written characters and a charming score, the constant need for Toby to wrangle in Javier grows tiresome throughout the films two hour run time and feels about as foolish as Don Quixote repeatedly attacking a giant windmill.
Dad jokes on overdrive, those willing to come along for the ride and are fans of Terry Gilliam’s farcical humour will see The Man Who Killed Don Quixote as an epic odyssey that exists as a testament to the persistence of the Monty Python director.
Director: Terry Gilliam
Cast: Jonathan Pryce, Adam Driver, Will Keen
Writer: Terry Gilliam, Tony Grisoni
Where fictional literary adaptations risk little in terms of causing offense (hello Shakespeare), 2018 German-drama Transit walks the fine line between poetic licensing and insensitivity by transitioning the horrors of Nazi-occupied France into modern day.
The scope of Transit‘s narrative is equal parts circumstance as it is consequence, with German man Georg (Franz Rogowski) adopting the identity of a deceased writer who has permission for passage to Mexico. Georg’s survival is dependent on his ability to portray the writer when present at the immigration, however, his escape is compromised when Marie (Paula Beer), the widow of the deceased writer Georg claims to be, comes into contact with him.
Going in without prior knowledge of Anna Seghers’ 1942 novel of the same name, it is too quickly apparent the events within 2018 German-drama Transit parallel those from WWII. The experience of living in terror under constant fear of ethnic cleansing, is worn on the faces of each cast member as they navigate risky decisions that risk their capture, if not murder.
The manner which characters go about their survival is both complex and stimulating. Georg is continuously troubled by the effects his actions have on those caught in his lies, which is exacerbated as he becomes close to Marie. His life is dependent on this charade. The increasing possibility of Marie discovering his lie puts his plans (and life) into greater jeopardy than it was already in.
Despite his lies, Christian Petzold succeeds in not presenting Georg as despicable, with Georg’s arc in the film changing from being a man motivated by his own survival to someone weighed down by the pressure of his lies and how they affect those closest to him. This is further testament to the talent of Petzold and his ability to maintain a sense of dread and tension throughout Transit.
The literary feel of Transit is developed courtesy of in-depth storytelling, well-roundedness in character development, and the continued exploration of events having reactions on all involved. Narration accompanies the film throughout as a way for characters to internalise the trauma of those bound by injustices and the internal struggle they must battle with when deciding to act, or not, at the hands of life-threatening situations.
Rogowski is first class as a civilian doing what needs to be done to survive treacherous times and is balanced out by Beer whose optimistic belief her husband is alive, and the lengths she will go to risk her safety to find him, are sure to break your heart.
It is hard to ignore an experience indebted in Jewish culture is absconded in Transit, with the removal of the Jewish plight done-so to highlight how prejudice transcends into now yet by doing so inadvertently disassociates the film from the important history it is based on.
Director: Christian Petzold
Cast: Franz Rogowski, Paula Beer, Godehard Giese
Writer: Christian Petzold, (Based on the novel Transit by Anna Seghers)
I am like a donkey ready to kick when startled, so you can be assured that reviewing a VR installation like ‘Joan Ross: Did You Ask the River?’ (JRDYATR) is nerve-racking.
However, there was no screaming on my part in JRDYATR; an immersive 360 experience that requires the use of a headset to explore a pre-colonial coastal setting yet to be ravished by Western civilisation.
A commentary on the destructive nature of consumption and colonisation, JRDYATR bounds its participant, a woman adorned in a canary yellow dress, in a small rectangular space loaded with an array of Mad Hatter-esque items each of which prompting their own chain of reactions.
In the ten or so minutes I had in JRDYATR, I was able to destroy the forest, (poorly) apply lipstick, breed what looked like 100 rabbits, take a selfie, and find a drawer loaded with cake that would have Marie Antoinette drop her jaw. Otherwise, I spent a lot of time wandering and wondering what there was to do next in the installation, with technical issues prohibiting me from interacting with certain elements and ultimately left me with feelings of frustration over how jarring and incomplete the experience was.
The current state of virtual reality is at the same place where Nokia was before the smartphone, and unfortunately, this is evident in JRDYATR with the installation having the look of a 90’s Nintendo 64 game with all the functionality issues of an 80’s Atari game.
All this being said, there is much promise for VR based installations, and though the experience with JRDYATR was troublesome, it speaks to exciting opportunities for future pieces to take full effect of the medium.
Joan Ross: Did You Ask the River? screens at ACMI from March 7th through to March 31st 10am-5pm daily. This is a free event. Find out more on the website here.
Please take this opening sentence as an extension of my hand to shake yours.
I have always been interested in watching more Australian films, with my recent decision to start movie reviewing allowing me the opportunity to fulfil this desire. But then, there are films like Book Week, a movie which makes me reconsider my interest in watching more Australian films.
Book Week suffers from bouts of hysteria; a melodramatic and cliché bound story about an unlikeable teacher (Nicholas Cutler, played by Alan Dukes) who has visions of grandeur but is let down by his self-destructive tendencies. In the week leading up to the settlement of a publishing deal, Cutler must come to terms with all aspects of his life including relationships at school, the needs of his family, and mistakes from his past that continue to haunt him.
There is a contradiction of sorts in Book Week, a film which holds quality literature in such high regard yet features a story that feels like a first draft. A film which presents itself as profound but is undone by contrived dialogue that attempts dark comedy yet comes across as amateur.
Dukes is captain of the vessel but is let down entirely by a thematically convoluted narrative which, just when you thought had finished introducing half-baked complications to keep the film afloat, adds another chapter in the series that ultimately builds to a ridiculous payoff.
Characters are caricatures in Book Week with attempts from the film to feel current feeling five years behind (are vampires still hot?) and as though the screenplay was written by a parent who had just learnt what dabbing was. There is a level of conviction shown by other actors in the film, however, they appear to have been instructed by writer/director Heath Davis to project their lines as if they were auditioning for a government commercial.
Female representation is troublesome, with all supporting female characters shown as angry, bothered and begrudging of Cutler, particularly that of a young love interest that furthers the problematic old-man-young-girl trope.
Most likely not in the way the director had intended for, there is some enjoyment to be had with the absurdity of Book Week, which is also disappointing considering some interesting terrain such as Cutler’s frustration with complacency sidelined for soap opera storytelling.
All-in-all, Book Week is an overstuffed attempt at dark-comedy let down by the pathos of its subject, which had the film been a book itself, there’d be plenty of copies available at the library waiting to be checked out, but never will be.
Director: Heath Davis
Cast: Alan Dukes, Susan Prior, Bonnie Ferguson
Writer: Heath Davis