Long Shot

Cast: Seth Rogen, Charlize Theron, O’Shea Jackson Jr., Andy Serkis, June Diane Raphael, Bob Odenkirk, Alexander Skarsgård

Director: Jonathan Levine

Writers: Dan Sterling, Liz Hannah


The story of the low-status man who falls in love with the high-status woman and attempts to overcome the obstacles keeping them apart is at least as old as The Great Gatsby, but in that particular case the underdog hero has always been played by the dashing, desirable likes of Robert Redford and Leonardo DiCaprio. One could probably imagine that if Jay Gatsby happened to be a tubby, scruffy slob, then the beautiful, highborn Daisy would never have looked at him twice and the story would never have happened. That’s how Long Shot would appear to see it anyway as it presents us with the unlikely romance of the unkempt Seth Rogen and the glamorous Charlize Theron. He plays an overweight, unhygienic and unemployed journalist who gets dismissed by most as a loser with nothing of worth to offer the world while she plays an elegant, intelligent and successful politician whom the people revere. The whole film is built around the idea that a classy and stunning woman like Theron’s Madam Secretary falling for a schmuck like Rogen is so far beyond the realm of possibility as to be worthy of being both dramatized and made fun of. The truth of the matter is a subject of some debate considering how consistently Rogen has been playing appealing romantic leads since Knocked Up, but in any case Long Shot makes for a somewhat flawed and outdated if still charming and watchable film.

The movie follows Fred Flarsky (Rogen), a committedly left-leaning investigative reporter who quits his job in protest upon learning that his newspaper has been bought and absorbed into a corporate media empire run by the Rupert-Murdoch-ish Parker Wembley (Andy Serkis). Later the down on his luck Flarsky has a chance encounter with Secretary of State Charlotte Field (Theron), his former babysitter and first crush who even as a 16-year-old Sophomore was determined in her idealism and ambition. Having recently learnt that the inept President Chambers (Bob Odenkirk) has no intention of seeking re-election, she has begun laying the groundwork for her own presidential bid. Her polling data however indicates that much of the public views her as rather unapproachable and lacking in warmth and humour. After reading some of Fred’s articles and realising not only what a good writer he is but how deeply he cares about the same issues as she does, Charlotte brings him on board her campaign to punch up her speeches. As they work together for several nights on end and bond over shared values, adolescent memories and inside jokes, their friendship blossoms into a romance that gets put to the test by external prejudice, political pressure and sabotage.

The plot of Long Shot is pretty weak and worn and it goes about it for too long with a two-hour runtime where ninety minutes would have sufficed. What kept me going through it all was the wonderful chemistry between Rogen and Theron, who are thoroughly enjoyable in all of their interactions together. Playing the personas they’ve spent their whole careers cultivating, he as the awkward but lovable stoner nerd and she as the alluring and capable but still compassionately vulnerable lady, both fit naturally into their assigned roles and the comic energy between them endears you all the more to their coupledom. It helps that the film establishes the link between them as being founded on common interests and values and mutual respect for their talents and ambitions. Fred and Charlotte are quite simply two people who like each other in spite of their differences and the movie wastes absolutely no time on pitting them against each other and having them bicker in that Sam & Diane way in order to generate some cheap ‘will they, won’t they’ tension that rom-coms love so much. It’s obvious that these two are going to get together since that’s the premise of the whole movie and the tension arises from whether they’ll be able to make it work despite all the forces that threaten to keep them apart. Their relationship is all the more interesting and delightful for having not indulged in such needless pretence.

The spark that they share does wonders to enhance the comedy side of things, as does the work of much of the supporting cast, particularly June Diane Raphael as Charlotte’s snide and stuck-up campaign manager. As is to be expected whenever Rogen is on board, the movie partakes in gross-out humour and stoner comedy, including a scene where Charlotte is called upon to deal with an international crisis while high on molly and another in which a video of Fred masturbating is unearthed and employed in a blackmail scheme. The film however is at its best and funniest when Rogen and Theron are allowed to play off each other in verbal banter, which is why I wish the film could’ve been a little more Howard Hawks and a little less Judd Apatow. Such an approach however would probably have necessitated a deeper dive into the ideological differences between Charlotte and Fred and a more incisive commentary on the movie’s politics. The film opts to go silly and safe with its brand of humour instead, dropping inoffensively profane one-liners where it can and joking about pop culture and orgasms while paying only mild lip service to a brand of liberalism and gender politics through which they try to score points for progressivism without being so controversial so as to alienate certain audiences. That was where the film lost me the most.

To its credit the movie does make some timely observations about the position of women in today’s political sphere and the unique challenges they face. It rightly observes, for example, how ambivalent men still are about powerful and ambitious women, what regressively narrow parameters the public is willing to accept for their profiles, and how much higher they have to jump to hit the same targets as men. Charlotte, despite being hyper competent at her job, impeccably qualified, and boasting a bulletproof public record, still has to work harder to be accepted as a satisfactory presidential candidate than Chambers, whose one and only qualification was that he played a fictional president on a popular TV show. However, the film never provides any deeper insights into these issues because it’s ultimately only willing to go so far in reflecting the political realities of the world today. Instead the film glosses over how ugly and complicated the political minefield of moral compromise, partisan opposition, and sexist double standards can be, opting for an uncontroversial, centrist ideal with its false equivalencies and simplistic solutions. I could perhaps be a little more charitable and look at the movie as more of a Sorkin-esque political fantasy (the similarities with The American President are unmistakable), one where the strong independent woman gets to have her cake and eat it too. I think that’s a little disingenuous though considering how at the end of the day it’s the woman who has to learn the lesson and change her ways rather than the man.

With little of political substance to fuel the character dynamics and comedy, the quality of the film comes down mainly to the talents of its cast and the execution of certain gags that are often funny in the moment even if they don’t have any lasting consequence. One highlight is when Rogen is outfitted for a fancy banquet in Stockholm. He and Theron work wonders when they share the screen and I can only imagine what they might have accomplished with a smarter and more daring script. The two work so well together that the movie’s total fixation on its central gimmick, that being the comical unlikelihood of their relationship, soon loses its novelty. The way they keep returning to the idea that the gross, fat man and the beautiful, elegant woman have no business being together grows all the more monotonous the clearer it becomes what much more interesting and funnier things they could be doing and talking about if only the movie would let them. You become so convinced of the couple’s suitability that you start to wish the film would engage with them less as comedic archetypes and more as people. It is during the more human moments that Long Shot well and truly shines and that humanity, as determined by the main characters’ core political ideals and struggles in the face of adversity, is what the movie is sorely lacking.

★★★

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Tully

Cast: Charlize Theron, Mackenzie Davis, Mark Duplass, Ron Livingston

Director: Jason Reitman

Writer: Diablo Cody


There’s a joke by Jim Gaffigan about what it’s like to have a fourth child which goes, “Imagine you’re drowning, then someone hands you a baby”. Parenthood isn’t just difficult; it is a strenuous, laborious task that gets exponentially more challenging with each additional child. It isn’t just that each child needs constant care and attention, but that they need different kinds of care and attention at different ages and that their demands are both simultaneous and ceaseless. It is a struggle that Diablo Cody, who wrote this film shortly after having her third child, understands well and brings viscerally to life in Tully. This is a film that looks at motherhood with absolutely zero sentimentality. It shows the process of raising children as the exhausting, dirty, stressful task that it is and finds both uncomfortable truths and bittersweet poignancy in its depiction. It is a story that Cody tells with both wit and wisdom and with intimacy and subtlety, delivering an emotional punch that you don’t see coming but which feels entirely earned.

The film follows Marlo (Charlize Theron), a mother of two who is pregnant with an unplanned third child. She has an eight-year-old daughter called Sarah (Lia Frankland), who is reaching that age where self esteem becomes a major issue, and a six-year-old son called Jonah (Asher Miles Fallica) who is somewhere on the autism spectrum (or “quirky” as his teachers put it) and is proving too much for the school to handle. Her well-meaning husband Drew (Ron Livingston) often travels for work and so he is unable to really appreciate the daily demands Marlo faces, never mind help her. Her smug and wealthy brother Craig offers to help out by paying for a night nanny, someone who would come round during the night-time hours and care for the newborn baby while Marlo sleeps, but Marlo turns him down. However whatever fragile workload balance she’d attained at this point is completely obliterated by the arrival of her daughter Mia and it isn’t long before Marlo finds herself drowning from sheer exhaustion and stress. There is a great sequence here that cross-cuts between feedings, diaper changes, breast milk pumping, cooking, cleaning, driving, and the hundreds of other things Marlo has to do as a mother and homemaker. It is a sequence that drives home the endlessly gruelling nature of her routine and the punishing, isolating effects of toil and sleep deprivation; it gets so bad that Marlo can no longer work out when one day ends and the next begins.

The final straw comes when Jonah’s principal suggests that he be moved to a different school, leading Marlo to erupt with a public meltdown. As Marlo breaks down with baby Mia relentlessly wailing beside her, principal Laurie (Gameela Wright) clumsily tries to calm her down and laments that she doesn’t want to see Marlo leave like this. Marlo retorts that she always leaves like this, Laurie just doesn’t see it. At this rock bottom moment, Marlo finally decides that she needs help and agrees to employ the night nanny. Enter Tully (Mackenzie Davis), a 26-year-old free spirit with short hair and a tank top. She’s wide-eyed and earnest, compassionate and nurturing, and wise far beyond her years. She’s not just an extra pair of hands, she’s a confidante and a therapist, there to support Marlo emotionally as well as maternally. “I thought you were taking care of the baby” says Marlo at one point. “Yeah, but you pretty much are the baby” answers Tully. Marlo is drawn to Tully and sees in her the youthful energy and passion for life that she used to have at that age. They spend more and more time together, bonding over sangria and SHOWTIME’s Gigolos, and form a friendship that grows deeper and more profound over time as they learn more about each other.

The chemistry between Theron and Davis is substantial and forms the emotional bedrock upon which the whole film rests. Tully at first appears to be a simple manic pixie dream girl but the more we discover how much she and Marlo have in common and how much they both have to learn from each other, the more complex she turns out to be. At first Marlo doesn’t know what to make of her. The film has so thoroughly shattered the notion that motherhood is in any way enjoyable or wondrous that we’re as baffled as she is to meet someone who not only wants to help out but does so with a spark in her eye and an infectious grin. As Marlo sees more of herself in that spark and smile, it dawns on her just how long it’s been since she saw herself in that way. She wonders whether her old self is gone for good and if becoming a mother has reduced her to little more than a shell. Through Tully’s eyes though she starts to see that there is some of that spark still left and how vital it is to preserve it. It’s not as corny and New Age-y as all that though; in trying to recapture some of her youth, Marlo finds that she must confront some old regrets and admit to some harsh truths.

Tully is ultimately about self-care and its importance to the role of the mother. It’s about how creating a life doesn’t mean sacrificing your own and forsaking the person you used to be. What Marlo ultimately learns is that in order to care for those who depend on her, she needs to be able to care for herself and that she must keep a part of who she truly is at heart alive so that her husband and her children have someone that they can love. It is a lesson that the film imparts in an unexpectedly poetic but still entirely appropriate way. The movie is every bit the fairy tale that Mary Poppins is but its depiction of motherhood is as candid and as unvarnished as anything Hollywood has produced due to the combined fearless honesty and down-to-earthness of Cody and Reitman in their third time working together. With the help of Theron’s authentic rage and weariness and Davis’ angel-like warmth and sincerity, they’ve crafted a funny and moving film about learning to love others by learning to love one’s self.

★★★★

Kubo and the Two Strings

Cast: (voiced by) Art Parkinson, Charlize Theron, Ralph Fiennes, Rooney Mara, George Takei, Matthew McConaughey

Director: Travis Knight

Writers: Marc Haimes, Chris Butler


American animated movies at their best can be smart, creative and enthralling, but they don’t often treat their audience with the maturity and seriousness that Studio Ghibli’s movies do. This is one of the qualities that I found to be the most impressive in Kubo and the Two Strings, a movie that is absolutely teeming with Ghibli’s influence. As well as being smart, creative and enthralling, Kubo is subtle, complex and poetic. It can be joyful and light-hearted in some moments and then dark and frightening in others. It is a grand, epic adventure but it is also an intimate, bittersweet story. This movie offers Western children an illuminating insight into an entirely different culture while still depicting a story that they can identify as being classically universal: the hero’s journey. I am always astounded when a film can accomplish so many different things at once and can appeal to a great variety of people. Kubo and the Two Strings astounded me.

In ancient Japan Kubo, a one-eyed boy living in a cave with his ill mother, spends his days in the nearby village where he magically manipulates pieces of paper into origami shapes to tell stories. These stories he tells are those of his late father, the legendary samurai warrior Hanzo. Kubo must however leave as soon as the sun starts to set for if he ever stays outside at night, his grandfather the Moon King will find him and come to take his remaining eye. While attending a ceremony where he hopes to speak to his father’s spirit, Kubo stays outside for too long and is found and chased by his mother’s Sisters. Kubo’s mother uses her remaining magic to send Kubo away while she stays behind to fend off the Sisters. Kubo awakens in a desolate place where his only companions are Monkey, a wooden charm brought to life by his mother’s magic, and Beetle, Hanzo’s samurai apprentice. With their help Kubo must find his father’s lost weapon and armour and use them to defeat the Moon King.

The film throws a lot of weighty material at children but trusts that they are able to handle it and refrains from patronising them. There is on one level an epic quest taking place that takes Kubo to a great many places, both wonderful and scary. The threats he faces are both great (like the colossal skeleton) and menacing (like the chillingly designed Sisters), the obstacles he must overcome are immense and the lessons he must learn are difficult. Thus we also get a deep, profound story of love and loss. With his father gone and his mother slowly fading away, Kubo has never really known what it is to have a family. The loneliness he feels is heartrending in its melancholy, but that makes his strong resilience all the more admirable. He finds this strength not only through his companions but also through the stories of his mother and father. Kubo and the Two Strings is a testament to the power of stories and their capacity to move us, bind us and preserve us.

Laika has done much impressive work in stop-motion animation before in films like Coraline and The Boxtrolls, but Kubo outdoes them all. The beautiful colours, the incredible designs and the masterful craftsmanship, these are all employed to astonishing effect in this visually breathtaking film. Kubo warns us on the outset not to blink and I tried my hardest to comply for fear of missing a second of the spectacle. Complementing the visuals is Dario Marianelli’s stunning, expressive score, which truly shines in the sequences that accompany Kubo’s stories as he plucks his shamisen. The voicework in this film is also splendid. Parkinson turns in the right kind of childish determination as Kubo, Theron is sublime as his dedicated, no-nonsense guardian and Mara brings a cold detachment to her role as the Sisters. McConaughey also brings some welcome goofiness to the film but the light-hearted banter between Beetle and Monkey can sometimes be out of place and corny.

Kubo and the Two Strings is a marvellous achievement in modern animation. I can only imagine the number of hours it must have taken to create these visuals in all of their splendour and painstaking detail. The film’s merits are far more than technical though; Kubo boasts of incredible action, compelling characters and strong emotional resonance. The film will astonish the children just as much as it will move the adults. The story it tells is a bold one that shows how cruel and vicious the world can be as Kubo struggles with the pains of loss, loneliness, guilt, doubt and vulnerability. It is also a story that showcases the redemptive and commemorative powers of storytelling, leading to a deeply profound ending. After some of the stupendous works that have been produced over the past five or so years, the standard for children’s animation has never been higher. Kubo and the Two Strings triumphantly exceeds those standards is to be sure one of the finest films I’ve seen this year.

★★★★★

The Huntsman: Winter’s War

Cast: Chris Hemsworth, Charlize Theron, Emily Blunt, Nick Frost, Sam Claflin, Rob Brydon, Jessica Chastain

Director: Cedric Nicolas-Troyan

Writers: Evan Spiliotopoulos, Craig Mazin


Stop me if you think you’ve heard this one before. This is the tale of a princess who possesses magical powers that allow her to manipulate ice and snow. An accident involving these powers leads her to isolate herself from the world and from her sister in a self-imposed exile. She flees far away into the mountains where she creates her own kingdom with a palace made of ice an- No, really. This all happens in the first five minutes of the movie. I could probably spend all day highlighting the similarities with Frozen and even longer outlining the reasons why it is a far superior film to Winter’s War. The former has lovable characters, enjoyable comedy, a terrific soundtrack and a moving story about love and the bond between two sisters whereas the latter does not. It’s Frozen without any of the things that made it good. Those have all been replaced by a myriad of subplots and a dreary tone that serve to create a messy movie almost completely void of feeling and enjoyment.

Before the events of Snow White and the Huntsman, Ravenna (Charlize Theron) was the sister of Freya (Emily Blunt), a princess with ice powers who kills her love upon being betrayed by him. She flees into exile and creates her own kingdom with an army of huntsmen. Her two best warriors are Eric (Chris Hemsworth) and Sara (Jessica Chastain) who share a secret romance in violation of Freya’s laws. Freya learns of their affection and sees to it that it ends in tragedy. Seven years later (after the events of Snow White), King William (Sam Claflin) tracks down the Huntsman and informs him that Ravenna’s magic mirror has been stolen. Believing the mirror poses a threat to Queen Snow White (not Kristen Stewart) he requests Eric to find the mirror and recover it. Eric sets out on this quest with the two dwarves Nion (Nick Frost) and Gryff (Rob Brydon) and ends up on a path that brings him in direct conflict with his past.

This sorta-prequel, sorta-sequel that nobody really asked for and that does not even include the protagonist from the first movie is a mess. It features a dynamic relationship between two royal sisters both of whom are villains, a forbidden love between the two huntsmen, the threat of a war against Snow White’s kingdom (without Snow White), the dwarves who are each given their own romantic subplots and the various divergences that take place as Eric and his party attempt to find the magic mirror. Jumping between these stories might have been more tolerable had I been able to find one of them engaging, but I didn’t. I would have loved to have seen a film about two villainous sisters facing each other, especially with these two actresses playing them, but what this film did was just so dull and unenjoyable. Neither Blunt nor Theron were diabolical enough to be fun or menacing enough to be threatening. Whatever my issues with Maleficent, at least Jolie was clearly having fun with the character. The problem with this film is that it takes itself too seriously for any fun to be had without being either strong or compelling enough to be taken seriously.

Snow White and the Huntsman did receive two Oscar nominations for costume design and visual effects, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that they were the high points of the prequel/sequel. The film does feel like it takes place in a world of creatures and enchantment and manages to look pretty convincing for the most part. The action scenes however are wholly uninspired and utterly lacking in investment or tension. As a costume designer Colleen Atwood has excelled in this genre time and time again and this film is no exception. It is through her work that Blunt and Theron are both able to look the part, even if they don’t act it. The performances are pretty humdrum with the only real surprise being Sheridan Smith as a feisty, foul-mouthed dwarf. Chastain’s attempt at a Scottish accent is good for a few laughs but otherwise there isn’t much to enjoy.

I wasn’t a fan of Snow White and the Huntsman but at least that film kept its focus where it was needed and offered something that was a little different from what had come before. Winter’s War has no focus to speak of and has nothing new or original to offer. It is dull, clichéd, predictable, derivative, drab and lifeless. Although the visuals and costumes remain impressive, you won’t really get anything out of them that you cannot get from watching the first film. It’s just a prequel/sequel that had no reason to exist and no idea of what to do with itself, so it just decided to draw ideas from Disney’s most profitable product and hire a few bankable stars to sell it. I don’t know if the decision to leave Kristen Stewart out was the studio’s or her own but, either way, she’s better off. To anyone interested in seeing this film, my advice is to give it a miss and just rewatch Frozen instead.

Mad Max: Fury Road

Cast: Tom Hardy, Charlize Theron, Nicholas Hoult, Hugh Keays-Byrne, Rosie Huntington-Whitley, Riley Keough, Zoë Kravitz, Abbey Lee, Courtney Eaton

Director: George Miller

Writers: George Miller, Brendan McCarthy, Nico Lathouris


A week ago I had never watched any of the Mad Max films. When I saw that this film was coming out it was my understanding that, as far as story and continuity goes, I wouldn’t really need to watch them. However when I decided to go and see it, I thought I’d watch them anyway because I wanted to get a sense of how a Mad Max film should (and shouldn’t) be done. My impression of the Mad Max films is that they are fun, violent, and over-the-top films that don’t take themselves too seriously and therefore shouldn’t be taken as such by the audience. The characters were badass, the post-apocalyptic atmosphere was brilliant and the incredibly thrilling car chases were always the best parts of the films. The first two films knew exactly what kind of films they wanted to be and they delivered themselves perfectly. I didn’t think the third one was a bad film per se, but it wasn’t a Mad Max film. The few actions scenes that were included were downplayed and softened to make it more accessible for a PG-13 audience, the story felt very out of place and out of character, and on the whole it was too light-hearted for the ruthless and desolate world of the Mad Max universe. It is often the case that when a director works on a franchise for too long, they often end up getting carried away with it and distorting it until they forget how they actually did it in the first place (George Lucas and Peter Jackson being primary examples). Thankfully this isn’t the case with George Miller this time around. With Fury Road Miller has created a film that embraces the new technology now available to him while still remaining true to the spirit of the original films.

In Fury Road Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy) is captured by the War Boys, a deranged cult led by the vicious Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne) and is consigned to being a ‘blood bag’ for War Boy Nux (Nicholas Hoult). Max sees his chance to escape when he commandeers the War Rig driven by Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) in her attempt to save the Wives, a group of beautiful and fertile young women who have been subjected as sex slaves, from the captivity of the cult. Max and Furiosa both grow to understand that their best chance of survival and escape is to work together to escape the wrath of Immortan Joe and his army as they determinedly pursue them. What ensues is effectively a two-hour chase scene as the crew of the War Rig struggle to evade and fight off the cohorts that hunt them, all the while dealing with the hostilities that arise between them.

This film delivers everything that an audience could ever want from a Mad Max film. Tom Hardy’s portrayal of the titular character is sufficiently callous, understated and intimidating. What makes Max an interesting character is that he was good man long before the nuclear war destroyed this world, but has been damaged and impaired by the harsh brutalities of this new world of anarchy and violence into a shell of a man who relies solely on his instinct to survive. His merciless and indifferent nature, coupled with the faint traces of his former self beneath it all, makes him a compelling figure and an overall badass protagonist. Furiosa is every bit as strong, as vicious and as resolute as Max is in her quest to save the Wives from a life of brutality and misery. For her the quest to survive extends to more than just staying alive. It is about retaining one’s humanity and creating a better world from the ashes of the old one. She serves as the film’s heart in her search for a glimmer of hope in this dark and barren world.

As well as compelling characters and an interesting yet unspoken discussion on the theme of survival Fury Road also delivers on mindless, over-the-top violence, another staple of the Mad Max universe. The tension in the chase scenes is palpable and provides an exhilarating experience for the viewer. The fact that the entire story is centred on a single chase means that the tension remains throughout the course of the film, even in the quieter scenes. The film is absolutely packed with blazing guns, roaring engines and fiery explosions, but never loses track nor gets carried away with them. The action is just as intense and just as ridiculous as it needs to be for an entertaining, adrenaline fuelling, and radical sci-fi film. Miller is also able to be creative with the action by employing practical effects whenever possible and allowing the characters and their devices to be as insane and ridiculous as possible. I have no idea why the War Boys have a car with them in which a guitar player shreds throughout the entire chase, but it is awesome nonetheless!

Like two of its three predecessors, Fury Road knows exactly what kind of film it wants to be and delivers exactly what it promises. It is packed with entertaining and memorable characters with strongly defined personalities; it boasts of excellent production that helps create a living, breathing world with an engrossing atmosphere; and it utilises awesome, exaggerated action sequences that make for an exciting, spine-tingling viewing experience. Fans of the original trilogy should be satisfied with Miller’s latest offering and newcomers to the Mad Max universe are in for a treat.

★★★★★