The bio-documentary The Queen of Ireland (2015) originally set out to focus on drag queen Rory O’Neill and the role he played in Ireland’s referendum to approve same-sex marriage equality. As sometimes happens with good documentary, the film ended up being more than that. It has become a tale about a nation’s rite of passage, a celebration of diversity, and an example of the power of words to overcome entrenched bigotry towards people who appear different.
O’Neill’s stage persona is Panti Bliss, a flamboyant and highly articulate communicator both as a stand-up drag queen comic and a gay rights activist. Filmmaker Conor Horgan is a long time close friend, so O’Neill is comfortable in front of the camera and in turn the camera is kind to O’Neill. The film delves into O’Neill’s background via flashbacks of childhood videos and interviews with people who knew him as a young gay man struggling under the weight of Ireland’s oppressive homophobic laws. O’Neill’s angst-ridden story about coming out as a gay person is a common narrative but in his case he had the talent and family support as his defensive shield against the Irish Catholic bigotry that suppressed the LGBT community. Two historic moments catapulted O’Neill to fame. He went from being just another ‘gay in the village’ to national attention when he was challenged on prime time television to name prominent homophobic figures…and he did. He skilfully channelled the inevitable media backlash to put gay rights on the national policy agenda, which then provided the platform for what became a globally viral landmark speech about gay rights. Even before the referendum, the public debate was won.
The film undoubtedly succeeds because O’Neill is a fascinating, dynamic and highly intelligent performer. It is skilfully crafted into a fast-moving bio-pic which has all the ingredients of a great ‘one man’s achievement’ story. That is also its greatest vulnerability. Hagiography is a documentary style which unduly reveres its subject. This is not to say that O’Neill is an undeserving hero, but rather one could be forgiven in thinking that he single-handedly changed a nation, without bigotry or insults being hurled by conservative opponents of equality. We know the world is not like that. In Australia we are gearing up for a national hate-fest of historic proportions and there are no inspirational leaders in sight. But lack of balance aside, Queen of Ireland is an important, enjoyable and engaging documentary.
Director: Conor Horgan
Star: Rory O’Neill
Director Oliver Stone took a risk in making Snowden (2016). Not because of America’s continuing legal vendetta against exiled Edward Snowden but because the definitive film about Snowden was already made in the multi-award winning documentary CitizenFour (2014). However, Stone’s film goes beyond the act of whistle-blowing to explore who Snowden is and why he leaked. To do this, he incorporates the making of the 2014 documentary into his bio-pic thriller and adds a romantic back story to humanise the computer geek.
The Snowden plotline consists of known facts and a liberal dose of creative dramatisation. It is focused on the several days during which Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) was holed up in a Singapore Hotel with journalists while legal clearances were obtained for media publication of his massive leak of classified NSA intelligence. During this time, there are several flashbacks to different points in Snowden’s career that trace his progression from a rising star in the intelligence industry to his disillusionment about America’s surveillance of enemies and ordinary citizens. While the Snowden story unfolds, the CitizenFour documentary is happening in the same hotel room, a clever device that adds authenticity. The flashbacks include scenes that could have been lifted from Eye in the Sky (2016) where American missiles zero-in on humans guided by cell phone signals. Surveillance technology has advanced to the point that almost anyone can be watched through common domestic devices, while agencies like the NSA publicly deny the scale of their spying operations. This is the hypocrisy that radicalised Snowden into blowing the whistle.
The clinical facts behind the Snowden story are alarming and their implications are so profound that most people cannot imagine, let alone articulate, what mass surveillance means for the future of democracies around the world. But we are talking cinema not politics, and Snowden tells a great story about an unusual individual. The back-story of his love life softens the narrative without melodrama and provides relief from the film’s density of forensic detail. The two and a quarter hour long film could have been trimmed without harming the narrative but the acting and directing sustains the thriller edge of the story. Whether Stone’s portrait appears too saintly or overly supportive of petitions to pardon Snowden is a matter of judgement. In any case, this is a well-made and engaging film that presents Snowden as a principled romantic and modest hero.
Director: Oliver Stone
Stars: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Shailene Woodley, Melissa Leo
There have been several recent films that warn or excite us about the dark side of the web. Finding the right genre label for some is a challenge. For example, Nerve (2016) includes standard rom-com themes like girlfriend rivalry, coming of age bravado, truth or dare gaming, plus sci-fi themes about the dominance of techno-wizardry and the virtual realities of the digital age. It also has strands of deadly thriller, but the label that fits best is satire drama about the herd mentality upon which social media thrives.
Tensions erupt between high school senior Vee (Emma Roberts) and her best friend Syd (Emily Meade) because of boyfriend rivalry. Syd’s popularity is rising with her success in an online reality game called Nerve. It has a closed membership of players and watchers in a game of dares with increasing cash rewards as the game becomes more dangerous. Vee signs up to obey the three cardinal rules: dares must be filmed on a player’s phone so it can be watched live; money earned is forfeited if a player bails or fails; and the existence of the game must not be reported to anyone outside the game community. It turns out the Vee is good at the game and the money keeps rolling in but it gets seriously risky. She partners another nerve member and in one implausible but exciting scene a blindfolded rider takes a motorbike up to 60 miles per hour through traffic guided by Vee’s voice on the back. The game continues until the top two players are, like gladiators of old, pitted against each other in a deadly playoff for the approval of the masked watchers and a big cash prize.
As a satire about youth dependency on cyber-communities of anonymous likers, this film is far from subtle, nor is the portrayal of blood-thirsty trolls looking for human prey particularly original. Roberts and Meade are engaging as combatants but shallow in characterisation, something you would expect in a rom-com sci-fi anyway. The pace is lively and audiences will be kept alert just to see how life-threatening the game can be before some semblance of adult responsibility kicks in. But the prospects of moral reasoning are not bright. What the film does do well is in maintain a thin and fragile boundary between the actual world where real humans live and the strange world of digital consciousness that is shaping the cyber-morality of the future. At this level, it is a thought provoking film.
Directors: Henry Joost & Ariel Schulman
Stars: Emma Roberts, Emily Meade, Dave Franco
Australian filmmaking stands tall amongst the best in global cinema. We have so many iconic works across all genres that show our love of land and respect for its traditional owners, mock our idiosyncratic humour and explore the spirit of adventure that has driven the creation of this island nation. Disappointingly, there is not a hint of any of this in the coming of age rom-com called Spin Out (2016). It is difficult to even guess why this film was made and why it had to fall so short of our Aussie film traditions, given the resources at its disposal.
The story centres on the fading outback customs of the ute muster and the Bachelor and Spinsters ball, both of which are struggling for survival against insurance costs and the social disintegration of traditional life in remote rural areas. The ute muster is a competition between ute stunt drivers who perform a variety of high risk manoeuvres in a mechanised rodeo setting, and the B & S ball is the bacchanalian booze-up that happens after the show. Billy (Xavier Samuel) and Lucy (Morgan Griffin) are stunt-driver teammates and childhood friends. After another display of Billy’s immaturity, Lucy announces that she is heading for city life and leaving all of this behind. The rest of the story is about Billy’s realisation that his teammate has become the girl he loves and he needs to grow up fast, a theme that is echoed amongst several of Billy’s mates in their inept courting rituals. The dominant take-home memories from this film are the roaring dust storms of spinning utes and the inevitable consequences of non-stop drinking.
One can only hope that anyone seeing this film overseas realises that it is a grossly exaggerated caricature of rural stereotypes and not a portrait. The dialogue is so corn- starched that many scenes read like a high-school play with acting performances that scream inauthenticity. The only shining light comes from Morgan Griffin who, despite the script, fills each close-up scene with pleasing warmth and maturity. Xavier Samuel is wasted here, especially after his fine performance in Love and Friendship (2016). Otherwise, the cast is entirely young white adults without even a nod of respect for the Indigenous inhabitants of the land so ruthlessly being ripped up by white mans’ machines. The humour is puerile, fixated on stunted sexual development and a variety of bodily functions that could have been rendered funny but are not. The narrative theme of young people’s progression to adulthood in the harshness of outback Australia is entirely lost in a messy confusion of juvenile slapstick sketches.
Directors: Tim Ferguson, Marc Gracie
Stars: Xavier Samuel, Morgan Griffin, Travis Jeffrey
Films about primal love, hate or fear, are common, but the convincing depiction of complex emotion is the holy grail of cinema. When film tries to portray emotions that are balanced on the edge of sanity or in the battle with inner demons of self-loathing or lost purpose, it enters a space where few succeed. Birdman (2014) is a stunningly successful black comedy played in emotional quicksand. Its tour-de-force performances, dynamic cinematography and multi-layered storytelling make it a benchmark creative work that should be seen by anyone who loves film.
The story is told through the eyes of a has-been actor who was famous decades ago as the super-hero Birdman. In the opening scenes we find Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) levitating and moving objects by thought, unsubtle hints of his tenuous grip on reality. He is hoping against hope for just one more chance at stardom by directing and acting in a little known short story that is adapted for Broadway. The story timeline covers the rehearsals, previews and opening night, during which Riggan vacillates between fear of failure and belief that he has again created something that audiences will applaud. All is going chaotically well until a stage accident leads to a difficult but dynamic replacement being given the co-star role. Upstaged by the newcomer in front of his daughter and ex-wife, Riggan’s menacing alter-ego in the shape of a feathered Birdman incites his impotent rage and drags him to the brink of self-destruction.
While the plot is a formulaic exposé of an actor’s mid-life psychosis, its execution is extraordinary. The audience is teased with a complex montage of alternative realities where the actor’s art and real life become intertwined and confused. Vanity and ego are the lifeblood of theatre and cinema, and themes of mental illness and suicide bubble to the surface of this boiling cauldron. The casting is brilliant and Michael Keaton plays the role of his life. The pace of the film is almost neurotic and quickens until it races with a continuous-take style of photography that is fluid and immersive. The hand-held camera often appears to struggle in keeping up with what is happening, while an edgy percussive-heavy soundtrack creates a visceral sense of breathless engagement with the unfolding twists and turns of the story. It is hard to fault this film. Indeed, it is hard to think of any other contemporary film that can fill this space with such virtuoso acting, filming and directing.
Director: Alejandro G. Inarritu
Stars: Michael Keaton, Naomi Watts, Emma Stone, Edward Norton,
The word ‘documentary’ conveys both the gravitas of truth and the aspiration of a social purpose beyond mere entertainment. So when you see that label on Louis Theroux’s My Scientology Movie (2016) you have a right to expect a serious attempt to provide new information about this well-known fringe cult. In reality, however, it is more of a docu-drama comedy that satirises a paranoid organisation’s response to Theroux’s probing of its dark affairs.
Documentaries are not meant to have pre-conceived plotlines and the good ones are exploratory and open-ended. So when Theroux is blocked from information about one of the most guarded cults on the planet he simply invents a dramatisation of what access might have revealed if it in fact actually occurred. Much of the film is about auditioning for actors to play the cult’s arch-demon David Miscavige and celebrity high-priest Tom Cruise. The roles are filled and rehearsals take place under the watchful eye of subversive defector and former Scientology big-wig Mark Rathbun. The film remediates archival footage of Scientology recruitment videos and the rest is classic Michael Moore-style filmmaker provocation. Theroux is the star of his show and he exploits his freedom to say and do what he pleases provided it can be presented as evidence to support his premise, which is that the organisation behind Scientology actively discourages prying eyes. Inordinate attention is drawn to a section of razor wire fence around its compound that has cameras and lights triggered by movement on either side to prove the organisation has something to hide. Yes, Louis, we know.
While it is engaging, interesting and funny, this film miscalculates the sophistication of audiences who will see right through the artifice of its constructions. That does not mean that the film is a failure. It is a genuinely satirical exposé of ridiculously heavy-footed Scientology operatives attempting to intimidate and film the Theroux crew who in turn are filming them. While two cameras pointing at each other is good for a laugh, any claim to serious documentary status is disingenuous. On the other hand, humour and ridicule is a strong weapon for dealing with organisations that have form in the use of terror tactics over their members. In the age of transparency and accountability Scientology will need to get used to its intemperate responses being on the public record, and to that extent only, Theroux’s film makes a worthwhile contribution.
Director: Louis Theroux
Star: Louis Theroux
Movie makers do not admit it publicly, but there have always been ‘women’s films’ and ‘men’s films’. Historically, the film industry catered more to the male viewpoint by favouring action drama but in the post-feminist era the female perspective is prominent. The Bridget Jones franchise is part of the shifting cinema landscape where along with other sisterhood films like Absolutely Fabulous (2016), Maggie’s Plan (2016) and Embrace (2016), women’s uniqueness is celebrated while men are sidelined. Seeing Bridget still fighting her demons as a loveless and childless 43 year-old is an unlikely sounding plotline, but Renee Zellweger pulls it off with intelligent hilarity and ruthless tugs on heart-strings.
The story premise lies in the film title: Bridget Jones’ Baby. Now a successful television producer, Bridget is a lonely celibate still longing for her Mr Darcy (Colin Firth) who married someone else. Her inner-circle girl-talk is liberally peppered with phallic references and Bridget is told she needs to get laid to get real. At a camp-in music festival, which includes a hilarious cameo by Ed Sheeran, she ends up in the bed of a stranger called Jack (Patrick Dempsey). It is not long before she also ends up in Mr Darcy’s bed, so of course when the pregnancy kit shows positive she doesn’t know who is the dad. Muddle-headed before pregnancy, her antics while eating for two are borderline zany but always endearing. Bridget is torn between fantasy options: the romantic machismo and good humour of Jack versus the imperiously handsome Mr Darcy with eyes that make words redundant. Through it all, Bridget is still the lovable awky girl we met long ago, still stumbling through life like in a montage of slapstick sketches where her cute squinty smile wins every time.
There are not many laugh-out-loud romantic comedies that have storylines funny enough to hold your attention for two hours. This one works because it has the twin propulsion of being both personality-driven and plot-driven, liberally splashed with grown-up gags and plot twists. There is a strong cast of well-known actors and the filming across various London locations is sumptuous. The over-thinkers might wonder if we will ever move beyond Jane Austen’s “truth universally acknowledged” that a woman’s destiny is in the arms of a wealthy man. But this is not feminism; it is pure entertainment that is delivered in spades, and you can expect to leave the show cheering that Bridget got her man.
Director: Sharon Maquire
Stars: Renee Zellweger, Colin Firth, Patrick Dempsey