Saturday, 28 January 2023

What I'm Watching: January 2023


A quick recap of my month in movies, media and streaming, including two acclaimed 2022 horror films, Baz Luhrmann's Elvis biopic and Julia Roberts' new romantic comedy, Ticket to Paradise

Elvis (Blu-ray)

Making its debut at Cannes last year, Baz Luhrmann's Elvis Presley biopic is one of the frontrunners in this year's Oscar race, with its leading man – Austin Butler – going toe-to-toe with Colin Farrell in the Best Actor category.

I'm not a huge Baz Luhrmann guy (I've never seen Moulin Rouge or Strictly Ballroom), or even much of an Elvis guy either; but the buzz around the one has been there from day one, so I caught up the weekend before the Oscar nominations dropped.

Rather than focusing in on a section of Elvis' life, Luhrmann's film follows The King from his humble childhood all the way through to his premature passing aged just 42. Even at two-and-a-half hours, the pace of this film is rapid, as Luhrmann zips through major milestones so that he can cram everything in. Around the midpoint, we meet his wife Priscilla while on tour in Germany; in the very next scene, they're married; not long after, they have a toddler.

Luhrmann skips over Presley's entire Hollywood career too; there's a big focus on his 'Christmas comeback special' as well as his Las Vegas residency, but too often it feels like Luhrmann is reciting from Presley's Wikipedia page rather than crafting a cohesive narrative.

Credit where it's due, Butler is great in the titular role; all swagger and charm and screen presence. At the other end of the spectrum is a strangely cartoonish and silly performance from Tom Hanks, who plays Presley's manipulative manager Colonel Tom Parker.

All in all, a pretty middle-of-the-road biopic that skates across the surface without ever saying anything new or profound about its subject. Three stars, and that's generous.

Barbarian (Disney+)

Slipped onto Disney+ in the dead of night with very little fanfare, Zach Cregger's Barbarian is a lot of things; very scary for one, sort of silly for another. It's a fascinating mishmash of horror and comedy that keeps you guessing throughout.

The film follows a young woman named Tess (Georgina Campbell), who rents an Airbnb in Detroit only to find the house has been double-booked by the owner.

Already staying there is Bill Skarsgard's Keith, and already we're starting to suspect that something fishy is afoot. The two soon learn there's a trapdoor in the basement, a creepy corridor and something monstrous lurking in the darkness. 

I'm not a diehard horror fan, so I needed a bit of a run-up to this one; to psych myself up so to speak. And I was surprised by how much I dug it! It's definitely not for everyone, and a couple of jarring tonal shifts will perplex people, but for me I quite liked how unpredictable and downright frightening it was. The first half is certainly stronger than the second, but it's a really solid four-star film.

X (Binge)

Another 2022 horror that I'm just catching up on now, Ti West's X is a schlocky spin on the 70s slasher.

Following a group of filmmakers as they head to a remote Texan farm to shoot a low-budget porno, X sees a pair of scream queens - Mia Goth and Jenna Ortega - shine alongside an ensemble cast that includes Brittany Snow and Kid Cudi. 

Naturally, with a plot that revolves around porn, expect plenty of skin here – as well as guts and gore when the bloodbath starts. As slashers go, this one is pretty gruesome – people get knifed in the neck, pitchforked in the face, shotgunned in the chest. There's even a Chekov's croc!

Both frightening and frightfully funny in places, X is gleefully gory and a little bit weird too – slapped with a R18+ rating here in Australia, you can expect plenty of nastiness after the slow first 45 minutes. 

Ticket to Paradise (Blu-ray)

George Clooney and Julia Roberts in a light, fluffy rom-com – have we stepped back into the nineties? Seriously though, where did all the good romantic comedies go, especially ones with actual A-list actors in – there has to market for them, or is that just me?

Anyway, Ticket to Paradise sees Clooney and Roberts play divorced parents of Lily (Kaitlyn Dever), who have to jet across the world to Bali at a moment's notice, when their daughter abandons a lucrative career as a lawyer in favour of a whirlwind Indonesian romance. As you might expect, they have to set aside their squabbles and work together to sabotage the wedding – but soon find that they may still harbour feelings for one another as well. 

If that all sounds quite formulaic, it's because it is – this film isn't pretending to be something that it's not. In fact, I suspect the filmmakers are leaning into the tropes so that the audience feels cosy and at home in its familiar trappings. Like a warm mug of cocoa or a comfy pair of slippers, it's nice to just slip into a film like Ticket to Paradise, which comes with zero baggage and oodles of chemistry from its famous stars. Three stars, really solid.

Call of Duty: Vanguard (PlayStation 5)

For someone who wouldn't call themselves a Call of Duty fan, I've certainly played more than my fair share over the years – stretching all the way back to the original Modern Warfare and probably even before that. But it's been four, maybe five years since I played one – but a return to the Second World War from this 2021 title was enough to entice me back in. 

The plot of Vanguard is mostly told in flashback; we follow each member of a crack squad through various theatres of war, from an Aussie offensive through the deserts of Libya in 1941, the fierce Soviet resistance in Stalingrad and the Battle of Midway in the Pacific in 1942 to an Allied paratrooper mission prior to D-Day in 1944. In the present, the squad is being held captive by the Nazis in 1945 Berlin, mere days before the fall of the Third Reich. 

This variety is Vanguard's biggest thrill; over 10 missions, each lasting roughly 45 minutes to an hour, you're skipping from the beaches of Normandy to the streets of Berlin and the jungles of Papua New Guinea. Sometimes you're a skilled Soviet sniper, other times you're a wisecracking Aussie with a thing for explosives. The story itself is nothing to write home about; this isn't Band of Brothers or Saving Private Ryan, but there is a genuine 'production quality' to Vanguard's storyline, which is largely told through detailed and lengthy cutscenes between the battles. 

Since I'm not into multiplayer, I'd been waiting for a significant price drop so that I could speed through the single-player campaign. It doesn't drag on and on (I could've done with maybe two or three more straightforward chapters, like the Tobruk mission), and all the classic Call of Duty hallmarks are still there. But on the evidence of this game, there's been very little evolution of the formula in the years since I last picked up a Call of Duty game. If you played one before, you've seen it all before.

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