Truman (2015)

107 Truman

Movies are rarely about just one thing. Each person in a cinema is having a different experience and it is a subjective call for anyone to declare what that movie is really about. This is particularly so with the Spanish film Truman (2015). Described as a comedy drama, some will experience it as a humorous tale of deep male friendship; for others, it is about a man’s love for his dog; but many will feel it as an emotional study about choosing how and when to die when all hope is lost. It is all of the above which makes this film an unusually intense multi-layered story, and it is told with great warmth and honesty.

The linear plot spans a four-day unexpected visit by Tomas (Javier Camara) who has flown from Canada to Madrid to see his long-time friend Julian (Ricardo Darin). Both know it is the last time they will see each other and the time is spent helping Julian settle his affairs, sort out arrangements for the care of his dog Truman, and make a flying visit to his son in Amsterdam. However, what happens in this film is less important than how it happens. Many scenes are touching vignettes about small things that are overlooked when living at full pace. He bumps into a friend who does not know how to talk to a terminally ill man and another who does; there are wordless hugs between a father and son; and the meetings about Truman’s future seem sadder than taking leave from human friends. Throughout all this, the story remains focused on the friendship between two men as they ride the emotional roller-coaster of knowing that time is short. They share humour and tears as only two old friends can, and Julian’s portrayal of brave acceptance holds the story together.

Dramas about loss and grief too easily slip from melancholy to melodrama but there is little of it in Truman.  Camara and Darin are superb in their roles, each articulating an emotional language that is expressed through facial expression and voice tone. They reveal their inner selves using minimal dialogue and the free-flowing etched lines on their faces. The story easily gets under your skin with its open, tactile and gentle masculinity, aided by the way that Truman serves as a bitter-sweet metaphor for grief. Julian’s remark that “each person dies as best he can” will be confronting for many but this is one of several recent films that demand an honest conversation about dying.

4

Director: Cesc Gay

Stars: Javier Camara, Ricardo Darin

 

High Rise (2015)

106 High Rise

If you see High Rise (2015) and are not familiar with dystopian film you may be in for a shock. Utopia is all things good whereas dystopia is more about human transgression and social nihilism. As a cinematic device it explores the limits of normality by depicting the extremes of abnormality through breakdowns in social, political and moral systems. It is often linked with science fiction, fantasy or absurdist comedy and invites questioning of the taken-for-granted realities around us. This is exactly how High Rise works.

Based on the novel by JG Ballard, the film is set in a 1970s high-rise tower designed by eminent architect Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons). The floors are rigidly hierarchical like the train carriages in the film Snowpiercer (2013) where rich people have the best facilities and poor people endure the worst. The film’s protagonist is the newly-arrived Dr Robert Laing (Tom Huddleston) who has fled London city for self-contained high-rise living to avoid other people. He qualifies for the 25th level of the 40 floor building and his middle class status means he is sneered at from above and despised from below. His romantic interests cut across class boundaries and resident bully boys unleash havoc. The building’s water and power supply problems hit the lower-floors and when food runs out residents eat dog food and pets become victims. Class tensions flare into chaos with suicide, bashings, killings, drugs and public fornication in this insular world surrounded by desolate concrete car parks. Like in Lord of the Flies, without civilisation there is barbarism and without the apparatus of law and order the haves must defend their privileges from the have-nots. In the film’s closing minutes Margaret Thatcher’s voice proclaims that only capitalism can provide true political freedom.

Remaining faithful to a book imposes creative constraints but in this case less may have been more. Many scenes are so frenzied that it is impossible to make sense of who is doing what to whom. The bleakly dark filming palette adds to the disorientation with frequent flashbacks and scene merges leaving the viewer unsure of the boundaries between reality, dreams, hallucinations and fantasy. If that is the director’s intention, then it works well. The two main characters play strong roles, with Huddleston providing a nuanced fusion of intellect, curiosity and madness, while the legendary Jeremy Irons needs only to play himself in depicting the rattled brilliance of an upper-class landlord. Disturbingly provocative rather than enjoyable, it is an interesting film with a heavy-handed message.

3 half stars

Director: Ben Wheatley

Stars: Jeremy Irons, Tom Huddleston

Bad Moms (2016)

105 Bad Moms

The shaming of women is a global phenomenon that unfortunately is part of everyday life. Filmmakers, media and marketing industries prey on women’s anxieties about their bodies, and motherhood is another favourite target. While the documentary Embrace (2016) calls out body shaming, the comedy Bad Moms (2016) calls out the impossible standards to which modern mothers are expected to conform. Laughter carries this message more effectively than polemic but make no mistake: while this film is funny it also has serious things to say.

The plotline is all too familiar. Over-worked mom Amy (Mila Kunis) is always running between the needs of her spoilt two children, a lazy husband, a part-time job, homework, school rules, and endless extra-curricular activities. The kids are overscheduled, over-controlled and over-indulged, and like too many parents everywhere, the homework is for Amy. When she ditches the husband for having a cyber-sex affair her already chaotic world nears breaking point. That’s when the pushy cabal of PTA perfect moms and yummy mummies insist on ever-more elaborate cake-bakes. When she publicly quits the PTA, the snobby dominatrix president Gwendolyn (Christina Applegate) launches a vendetta against Amy and her kids. She retaliates by campaigning for president and the internecine warfare between mom camps escalate in hilarious ways. Deserted by the school, her nearest friends become her emotional anchors and all give themselves permission to party and carry on. While the story is predictable and at times corny, the underlying issues are totally real. The slapstick comedy softens the pointed message about just how powerless mothers are against the onslaught of unrealistic expectations. The bigger irony is that so many movies perpetuate the myth of the perfect mom without even questioning the existence of the perfect dad.

This film is obviously targeted directly at stressed-out moms but dads should watch too. If nothing else, it exposes the gender inequality that persists in parenting and the bigger injustice of ‘perfect moms’ shaming other moms for not meeting politically correct standards. When Amy gives her election speech and confesses all the ways she is a bad mom she starts a sisterhood chorus of bad moms all needing to offload their guilt about the things they have not done for their children. While it’s always possible to find aspects of a film that could have been made better, this film deserves praise for going in to bat for the most honourable profession on the planet.

3

Directors: Jon Lucas, Scott Moore

Stars: Mila Kunis, Kathyrn Hahn, Kristen Bell

Down Under (2016)

104 Down Under

Calling Down Under (2016) a black comedy signals an intention to make light of something serious or controversial. But movie labels are all too often disguised marketing spin rather than accurate genre descriptions. Far from comedy, this film is a dystopian parody of an episode of Australian history that needs balanced understanding and nuance rather than exaggerated ridicule. It could have applied humour to lighten the portraits of racial bigotry but instead it creates a quagmire of gratuitous violence and comically lame racial, sexual and impairment vilification.

The opening scenes is the only time Down Under speaks with honesty and authenticity. Using archival footage of the 2005 Cronulla race riots overlaid with Christmas jingles, the stage is set for a clash of cultures that was seen around the world. The riots resulted from years of escalating tension between white locals who claimed ‘ownership’ of beautiful Cronulla beach and Lebanese groups from neighbouring suburbs wanting to share beach access. From this factual base, the film weaves a fictionalised account of two gangs of young men on opposing sides of the racial divide. With testosterone-fuelled honour at stake, the gangs escalate their violent rantings towards each other and cruise the streets hunting for supremacy. Along the way, they vilify everything and everyone so indiscriminately that they become caricatures of aimless anger with no resemblance to real people. They are portrayed mostly as working class morons and hotheads whose constant screaming, swearing and physical abuse forms an endless spray of vitriol that makes this film an overcooked mess.

Down Under is a film that appears to have lost sight of its own purpose. If it was made to create humour out of violence then one-line cliches do little more than demonise stereotypes. If it was to offer insight into the cause of the riots then its fictional exagerations undermine its credibility. If it was to portray the racist undercurrent of Australian culture then the absence of Indigenous people leaves it staring indulgently at its own stereotypes. A wide chasm exists between the film’s inspiration and execution, and whatever messages were intended are obscured by pushing creative limits into the realm of the absurd. The film leads towards an incoherent and implausible finale that fuses slapstick and violence without redemptive merit. It is disappointing to see such a lost opportunity to inform or entertain. At least the film’s closing credits were a welcome sight.

2

Director: Abe Forsythe

Stars: Lincoln Younes, Rahel Romahn, Michael Denkha

 

99 Homes (2015)

103 99 Homes

The Global Financial Crisis inspired several chaos of capitalism movies each with a different spin on the same story. For example, Money Monster (2016) is a hostage thriller, The Big Short (2016) a comedy drama, and Inside Job (2010) a documentary. All try to make sense of financial fiasco but a standout amongst them is 99 Homes (2015). It is a tense hyper-realistic drama that literally barges inside the safe space of people’s homes, tosses them into streets, then points the finger at the moguls of real estate.

The opening scene graphically portrays the brutality of poverty when a mortgage defaulters’ blood-splattered body is quickly removed and the family thrown out so that a soul-less real estate agent can claim the property. The agent Rick Carver (Michael Shannon) is accompanied by local police for evictions and repossessions and they call him “Boss”. Unemployed builder Dennis Nash (Andrew Garfield) is next to go and when he seeks a stay of eviction the local court sides with Carver. Nash shows guts and Carver offers him work in his thriving repossessions business that buys defaulted homes at rock-bottom prices. It turns out that Nash is good at it and there are several dramatic evictions in which angry mortgage defaulters are given a few minutes to grab their personal belongings before Carver’s men legally empty the homes and force traumatised families onto what was their own footpath. Nash starts making big money from doing Carver’s dirty work which includes fraud, theft, and the forging of documents to secure eviction orders. This is the ugly side of capitalism and Nash sinks deeper and deeper into a world of human misery. The stakes are raised when Carver is offered a multimillion dollar real estate deal that forces Nash to choose between the devil’s wealth or moral redemption.

This is a modern take on the Faustian dilemma of an ordinary man selling his soul, not for greed or greatness but to support his mother and kid. The acting performances are strong and the filming powerful, especially the close-up hand-held camera scenes of evictions full of screaming, palpable anger against real estate vultures. At almost two hours, it could use more time in the editing suite but overall the pace and tension are tight. It is an unsettling film but one that stays on message about the greed that preys on homes.

4

Director: Ramin Bahrani

Stars: Andrew Garfield, Michael Shannon

Embrace (2016)

102 Embrace

Documentaries are a great platform for social and political enlightenment and there no limits to their educational power. The Australian-produced film Embrace (2016) is an outstanding example of documentary storytelling with potential to change attitudes towards the perception of women’s bodies. Its impact comes from the way it does not preach, it does not lecture, rather it reaches out to both men and women everywhere and asks why is the tyranny of body shaming continuing into the modern era?

Director Taryn Brumfitt created a social media firestorm when she posted ‘before and after’ images of herself but reversed the order in which people expect them to appear. In other words, the ‘before’ image represented the idealised female form posing in a bodybuilding contest while the ‘after’ image represented comfortable self-acceptance after having three children. Expressing pride in her ‘after’ shape was a simple gesture that shocked millions into thinking about the body image cultural prison that tyrannises women. It also flushed out large numbers of vitriolic trolls whose fantasies were threatened. The global reaction led her to crowdfund a film and travel across several continents interviewing prominent and ordinary women who speak openly about their bodies. Everywhere she goes, media-scapes are dominated by images of underweight women who dare not eat normally but whose images create unattainable role models. In the only scene dominated by a male, Brumfitt subjects herself to an assessment by a cosmetic surgeon who shames and prods her like bits of meat begging for a scalpel. The film records with warmth and sensitivity the views of women who reflect the diversity of the female form, and it is impossible to not be touched by their stories.

As a male, it was a shock to hear that over 90% of women dislike their body and the most common adjective used by women to describe their own is “disgusting”. To Brumfitt’s credit, she left the elephant in the room unnamed and there is no obvious finger pointing towards the media moguls and the captains of the shaming industries. The globalisation of media has accelerated the problem and even in cultures where once a fuller female form was greatly admired they are now dealing with the long-term emotional scars of shaming bodies into smaller shapes. If Embrace was shown in every high school it would lead to lasting cultural change and contribute towards a happier world. Women may learn little from this film, but men can learn a lot.

4 half stars

Director/Writer: Taryn Brumfitt

Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie (2016)

101 Absolutely Fabulous

It was Ladies Night and my cinema was packed with women laughing riotously as Absolutely Fabulous (2016) gave them absolute permission to say, think and feel things that respectable girls are never allowed in polite company. Just over a quarter of a century ago, Jennifer Saunders and Joanna Lumley fell upon a formula for entertainment that works even better as therapy today. It is pure hag-gag comedy based on two try-hards in constant battle with their demons and is now a global brand with legions of female followers who adore their irreverent slapstick and satire. For many, they are also a freedom trip.

The plotline of the film is implausible and often incoherent, but that’s irrelevant for Ab Fab. In place of a plot there is a premise: supermodel Kate Moss is accidentally bumped off a balcony at a party and Eddy and Patsy flee to the French Riviera to avoid arrest. Along the way the story twists and turns in hilarious ways with a swathe of big name celebrities popping up all over the place. Most of the original ensemble make an appearance, and Patsy’s long-suffering over-responsible daughter continues the parent-child inversion that is the envy of many mothers. Along the way they do endless boozing and drugs (and a swig on a Chanel No 5), worry about being fat, old and loveless as they freeload off anyone foolish enough to let them. With the fridge empty of Bollinger, lack of money continues to drive the pair and, just like Jane Austen characters of a bygone era, using one’s sexuality to find an advantageous marriage is the holy grail. Do not expect subtlety as the jokes are blatantly bawdy and beautifully bitchy.

Like all movies that are spawned from books or television series, the litmus test is would the film work on someone who knew nothing about the Ab Fab legend. For most the answer is no, but that is not the intended audience. The humour is fast-paced and full of brilliant one-liners, while the acting is based on caricature rather than character. The original thirty-minute episodes were great comic relief, but a ninety-minute film struggles and feels like a binge too far. Many audiences will warmly greet Eddy and Patsy like old school friends at a reunion while muttering something under their breath about the ravages of time. For others there is pure nostalgia in watching two outrageous baby boomers who broke all the rules in the 1990s and are still getting away with pure anarchy. Would we could all be like them.

3

Director: Mandie Fletcher

Stars: Jennifer Saunders, Joanna Lumley

Weiner (2016)

APTOPIX Weiner Mayor

While watching Weiner (2016) it is easy to forget that this is a reality-based documentary not a fictional sit-com or tragi-drama. The film presents two possibilities: we either expect too much of politicians or the subject of this movie is a uniquely disturbed aberration of the political class. Either way, this compelling and well-produced documentary is essential viewing for anyone interested in professional politics and the impact it has on those who seek power.

Using ‘fly-on-the-wall’ documentary style and archival footage, the film tells the story of Anthony Weiner whose name is now laughed at around the world. As a Democrat Congressman from 1999 to 2011 he gained national attention for his vocal advocacy for working-class Americans. His career was shortened when he texted sexually suggestive images of himself that, in conservative America, was enough to finish him in politics forever. But Weiner’s charisma and boundless energy saw him re-emerge in 2013 to campaign for Mayor of New York under a banner of mea culpa for past errors. He was well ahead in the polls and just as his redemption appeared secure there were further revelations that showed he was still a serial ‘sexting’ offender. His popularity immediately plummeted. The film documents the impact on his wife and campaign staff and the sense of betrayal by a public that had been warming to his revival but had now lost all faith. He was stuck with a reputation as a pathological liar, a sexual transgressor and an unfaithful husband. While the film is mainly focused on Weiner, the silent heroine of the film is his extraordinarily talented wife Huma Abedin, a senior aide to Hillary Clinton. The words “spousal abuse” are heard in this film but left unexplored.

Why is it so fascinating to watch a psychological train-wreck in slow motion? Weiner represents a modern-day conundrum of public life. His transgressions are far less than those of former President Bill Clinton or many others and whatever he did wrong it involved him and his cell phone only. Being a noisy Jewish Democrat who fought tooth and nail for national health insurance made him an easy target for conservative media and the early success of his comeback campaign threatened many interests. Audiences will judge Weiner based on their own politics and sense of morality, but history is unlikely to be kind. This is a fascinating documentary that offers a unique glimpse into a dynamic but fatally flawed narcissist who is either a profoundly dishonest person or we, the people, need to be more forgiving about human weakness.

4

Directors: Josh Kriegman, Elyse Steinberg

The Shallows (2016)

99 The Shallows

One of the scariest movies ever produced, Jaws (1975) made sharks one of the most feared creatures on earth. Its director Steven Spielberg was inspired by Alfred Hitchcock, the master of terror himself, who understood that what is not seen can be far more terrifying than what is obvious. Like many shark thrillers, The Shallows (2016) continues the tradition of demonising sharks and goes one step further by adding a favourite sub-genre for the male gaze: the bikinied woman in danger. Lest anyone suggest there is misogyny or voyeurism in keeping a woman exposed to a marauding shark for almost an entire film, the story is marketed as a feminist triumph of survival.

It is a one-woman show with a simple plotline that spans two days. Medical student Nancy Adams (Blake Lively) travels alone to a tranquil but isolated beach looking for solace while she considers giving up medicine. The photography beautifully captures the tranquillity, the rolling waves, the glistening skin, and the menacing shadow of something big just beneath the surface. She catches a few waves, meets a couple of regular board riders who eventually go home, and she is then stalked aggressively by a massive great white shark. Thanks to med school, she is able to use a fish hook and earring wire to surgically stitch up a gaping thigh wound that was the shark’s entre, all while bonding with a lonely seagull in her existential struggle for survival. With no help possible, she must out-manoeuvre the beast or be served up for dinner only a hundred metres from the beach.

Digital effects have revolutionised movies and when done well they make the impossible seem real. But when not done well, it is hard to take a movie seriously. This great white shark resembles a blow-up toy and its repeated munching on the steel buoy defies even animal logic. The predictability of the story is forgivable; after all, you do not see a movie like this without sensing how it will end, but the repetitiveness of the attacks is wearying. Back to misogyny and voyeurism: when you take away the thin plotline and mediocre digital effects there is little left other than an attractive woman in a bikini swimming for her life. The real hero of the film, however, is the triumphant designer of Nancy’s bikini: no matter how much mauling she endures, the bikini stays in place. The title of the film describes its content perfectly.

 2 half stars copy

Director: Jaume Collet-Serra

Star: Blake Lively

Heaven on Earth (2016)

98 Heaven on Earth

The showbiz saying ‘always leave them wanting more’ has special relevance to movie sequels. The highly acclaimed Swedish film As it is in Heaven (2004) set an Australian record with the longest run of 103 weeks at Sydney’s Cremorne Orpheum. It is a funny, heart-warming, musically delightful, and well-directed story about a world-famous conductor who returns to his small village, finds romance, and helps the local amateur choir create beautiful music. The sequel Heaven on Earth (2015) continues the story after an eleven-year intermission. But while the first film left audiences wanting more, the sequel may be a case of ‘no more please’.

Heaven on Earth begins with the widowed Lena (Frida Hallgren) suddenly giving birth to a daughter in a snowstorm aided by a bumbling alcoholic priest. His church used to be full until his parish deserted him for Lena’s robust country music and dance hall concerts. To save his job, she agrees to bring music back to the house of god, re-form the choir, and teach them to sing Handel’s Messiah. This narrative arc mimics the 2004 film, with Lena following in the footsteps of her former conductor-lover. But where the original had a clear sense of direction, this film meanders through several diversionary subplots without knowing where it wants to go or what it wants to say. The small-minded idiosyncrasies and hidden secrets of rural village life is a dominant theme for both films. The first was played out with humorous understatement by a cast of funny odd characters, while the second is dominated by over-cooked melodrama: too many males punching and screaming at Lena, too many appearances in her underwear, and too many implausible scenarios that contribute little to what was originally a tightly scripted and authentic story.

An outstanding feature of both films is the superb cinematography. From the filming of a beautiful birth scene, to the wild dance hall scenes, to the wonderful Swedish landscapes, the camerawork is triumphant. While acting performances are generally over-done in this film, Frida Hallgren’s performance provides warmth and humour, as well as one of the widest smiles you will find in cinema. But at two hours and 24 minutes this film is far too long to sustain any narrative tension and ultimately fails to reward the viewer for their patience. Where the first film had a truly memorable ending, this one limps home completely exhausted as a tired parody of a once-great idea.

2 half stars copy

Director: Kay Pollack

Stars: Frida Hallgren, Axelle Axell, Bjorn Berngtsson, Eric Ericson

Love & Friendship (2016)

97 Love & Friendship

Whenever a new Jane Austen film appears the purists insist the novel was better. But Love and Friendship (2016) is based on a little-known epistolary novella first published in 1871, so director Whit Stillman had a free hand in interpreting the story his own way. He could have made a traditional comedy of manners that emphasised the airs and graces of the British upper class, but instead, or as well, it is a very funny tale of a conniving femme fatale who exploits her charm and beauty to secure advantageous marriage. Her unrivalled ability to out-manoeuvre and outsmart every male she encounters makes her the epitome of the pre-feminist heroine.

Like most Austen stories the plot is labyrinthine in a way that reflects the dense fabric of 19th Century British society. But plot is less relevant than intrigue in Austen adaptations. On-screen text introductions identify caricatures rather than characters and set up the plotlines using Austen’s original delicious words and phrases. The centrepiece is recently widowed Lady Susan (Kate Beckinsale) whose sole preoccupation is to marry wealth. Her husband left her a title without means but she survives happily through extended stays at the stately residences of family and friends. She leaves a trail of hushed scandal and both competes with and then helps her daughter marry for social advantage. With Lady Susan playing the imperious protagonist, her foils are two hapless males: one the handsome and serious young suitor Reginald DeCourcy (Xavier Samuel); the other the hilariously silly but very wealthy Sir James Martin (Tom Bennett). As the novella is based on letters the narrative feels episodic, like a series of comedic sketches, and each is performed beautifully with wry insight into the lives of the British elite. Predictably, Lady Susan is adept at exploiting gender vanities and overcoming male power using little more than her fluttering eyebrows and gorgeous smile.

While this is an impeccable period piece with the highest production values, it is Kate Beckinsdale’s performance that powers the film. She wickedly charms her way into and out of various social situations with natural grace, and so totally commands attention that her acting overshadows other excellent performances. But this is hardly criticism. For Austen fans, Love and Friendship has everything we love about her timeless classics; for others, it is a highly entertaining introduction to a body of work that is loved around the world. The only thing missing are any signs of love or friendship.

4

Director: Whit Stillman

Stars: Kate Beckinsdale, Chloe Sevigny, Xavier Samuel, Tom Bennett

Swiss Army Man (2016)

96 Swiss Army Man

We dont usually call a film defiant. After all, to defy audiences or cinema itself would be self-defeating. But there are many ways film can defy us. For example, it can ignore the basic logic of storytelling and blur the boundaries of reality and fantasy. Or it can boldly go into places where polite people do not tread and then step back and laugh at us for following. This is what Swiss Army Man (2016) does, and the best way to experience it is like an extended poem or a meditation, enjoy its rich metaphors and figurative layers of meaning, and savour its defiance of conventional logic.

If this sounds challenging, at least the plotline is simple. Marooned on a deserted island, Hank (Paul Dano) is about to hang himself when he notices a body washed up on the beach. He befriends the soon un-dead corpse he names Manny (Daniel Radcliffe) and uses its strange powers to navigate back to civilisation. Defying all logic, Manny is able to produce enough high-velocity flatulence to power a jet-ski and fire projectiles at marauding bears and other wildlife. This absurdist scatological comedy shows them navigating out of the wilderness guided by Manny’s penile compass while having ongoing conversations that dwell heavily on male sexual functions. Totally normal, you might say, for a film focused on two young men. The real substance of this film is not the crazy happenings but the dialogue and relationship between two lost souls. Like a deliberately ambivalent poem or painting, the film can be interpreted in so many ways and what you bring to it shapes its meaning. The more obvious themes relate to nature’s beauty compared to the artifice of civilisation, human-caused environmental degradation, the existential irrelevance of manners, and the value of love and friendship in sustaining life. Look closely and you will find a film that echoes the classic absurdism of Waiting for Godot and the rich fantasy of Prospero’s Books.

From a technical point of view, there is little to say about a film that defies logic and has multiple endings that make no more sense than the surreal journey. The acting is engaging and often touching (although caricatured) and the acapella soundtrack is eerie but effective in sustaining the film’s weirdness. It is not for everyone and those grossed-out enough to leave early are missing one of the most original films of the last decade. Ignore what you read. Just see it, feel it, and take time to think about what it means to you.

4

Directors:  Dan Kwan, Daniel Scheinert

Stars: Paul Dano, Daniel Radcliffe

Maggie’s Plan (2016)

95 Maggies Plan

The eternal triangle and the romantic comedy have been soulmates forever but how many ways you can tell the same old love story? The era of female empowerment and emotional recycling is upon us, so it is refreshing to see Maggie’s Plan (2016) take an old story formula and update it with offbeat humour centred on modern marriage. Contemporary lifestyle choices such as wanting a baby but not a man or handing a used lover back to a former owner are just some of the scenarios played out in this delightfully intelligent rom-rom.

The simple triangular plot pivots on independent-minded Maggie (Greta Gerwig), an over-controller who loves falling in love but cannot keep a relationship longer than six months. Wanting a baby without the strings, she arranges for a sperm donor just as she meets John (Ethan Hawke), an insecure academic who is emasculated by the stellar career of his imperious wife Georgette (Julianne Moore). John’s need for constant mothering is no longer fulfilled by the dynamic Georgette, so Maggie and John inevitably pair up and one corner of the triangle disappears. Three years later, Maggie is over the needy John and his permanently incomplete ‘great novel’ so she hatches a plan to reunite John with Georgette. A clever script laced with tangled textual barbs like “ficto-critical anthropology” (Google it) and one-liners like “nobody unpacks commodity fetishism like you do” are rapid-fire and hilarious send-ups of the pretentious world of academe. It is at this level that the film shines brightest: not with belly laughs or madcap comedy, but through a whimsical lens focused on the world of intelligent people who think they control the ebbs and flows of the uncontrollable.

The acting performances are all top-shelf. Julianne Moore plays the understated dominatrix with a hilarious deadpan Danish accent, and Ethan Hawke is perfect as the hapless male who is out-powered by the females in his life. The standout performance is Greta Gerwig whose big doe-eyed innocence and naivety about the ways of the world make her scheming utterly forgivable. While the story has a predictable narrative arc, the dialogue is richly satirical, funny and totally female-centred. It is also an entertaining post-feminist comedy about sex and marriage which imagines a future where males are only needed for sperm and are then recycled amongst whoever will tolerate their innate weaknesses.

 3 half stars

Director: Rebecca Miller

Stars: Greta Gerwig, Ethan Hawke, Julianne Moore

Sing Street (2016)

94 Sing Street

For many people, garage bands are synonymous with adolescence and its associated yearnings for identity, independence and fun. The Irish-produced Sing Street (2016) steps into this space with a more complex mixture of ingredients than is usual for such films. Described as a musical comedy, it is also a coming-of-age romance and a period film set against themes of economic recession, family discord and school bullying. Director/writer John Carney prefers to call it a ‘stealth musical’: one that sneaks up on audiences who otherwise might not choose to see a traditional musical. Whatever you call it, this in one of the most engaging and enjoyable films of the year so far.

Set in Dublin during the 1980s, this simple story is told through the eyes of 15 year-old Conor whose quarrelling cash-strapped parents move him from an expensive private school to a local parish school. It is a cultural shock and violence from schoolyard thugs and priests are standard fare for a community where drugs, alcohol and beatings are commonplace. He meets alluring but unattainable 16 year-old Raphina who has left school to become a London model and asks her to join his band (which does not exist). The rest of the film traces the formation of his band called Sing Street and its growth from hopeless wannabes to a credible group of musicians. Unlike traditional musicals where dialogue slips into song at the slightest provocation, the music works naturally both in and for the film to underscore the humour and pathos of growing up. The first-time romance runs parallel to the evolving music while Conor’s maturing outlook on life helps him rise above the limited opportunities that Dublin offers.

Sing Street has no pretensions to originality and it relies entirely on genre-familiar ingredients. But it soars well above its class because of outstanding casting and a brilliant soundtrack. Conor and Raphina are immensely attractive and likable personalities and their remarkable acting range lets them glide effortlessly from precocious youth through adolescent angst to unrestrained exuberance. They are the soul of the film and become as one with its music. The toe-tapping soundtrack includes Duran Duran, Joe Jackson, Hall & Oates, The Jam, The Cure, as well as performances by the Sing Street Band and others, making this is a joyful upbeat film that expresses youth’s unshakeable faith in the power of music. This is a great little gem from The Emerald Isle.

 4

Director: John Carney

Stars: Ferdia Walsh-Peelo, Lucy Boynton

The Measure of a Man (2016)

93 The Measure of a Man

The docu-drama is the genre that brings you up close and personal to real life. Its hyper-realism can make you feel like a witness to a real-time situation, often with jittery hand-held cameras, minimalist acting and cluttered sets that recreate the existential ordinariness of everyday living. We find all of this in The Measure of a Man (2016), an outstanding docu-drama that is excruciatingly realistic. It is also a grindingly slow story that compels us to witness the everyday indignities endured by ordinary people who struggle through harsh economic times.

Set in France, the story is told through the eyes of middle-aged and life-weary Thierry (Vincent Lindon) who lost his machinist job a year ago when his factory closed. The plotline is based on a series of vignettes where Thierry endures the indignities of a principled man who must work in an unprincipled world. Plot and technique converge as we are drawn into Thierry’s world to feel his suppressed anger and to see how far he can be pushed. The employment agency forces him to undergo training that proves useless; he must participate in self-improvement seminars and endure the sneering insults of less experienced people; and the condescending remarks by bank staff and job interviewers belittle him without offering hope. With a wife and special-needs son to support he must consider selling cherished assets, but then lands a job as a megastore security guard and things look brighter. The store wants to increase profits and lay off older workers so he must police petty pilfering by shoppers and staff. One by one, he sees human misery being multiplied by actions he is forced to take. Without saying a word, we feel his disgust and his moral entrapment.

This is an unusual film and one that many audiences will find difficult to watch. While all films try to reach us emotionally, this one deliberately makes the viewer feel uncomfortable and even agitated to the point where some may want to leave. The shaky camera often adopts a fixed viewpoint and stays there for what feels like a squirm-in-your-seat eternity. We are there alongside Thierry while he interrogates a youth, a pensioner and several staff, and are silent witnesses to their palpable fear. The film title speaks of the measure of a man, but this compelling film dramatically demonstrates that the measure of modern society is how it treats the dispossessed and disadvantaged.

4

Director: Stephanie Brize

Stars: Vincent Lindon, Karine de Mirbeck, Matthiew Schaller

Force Majeure (2014)

92 Force Majeure

Cinema is a fabricated world in which idealised images of femininity and masculinity flow like waterfalls from screens into popular culture. Most of it goes unchallenged but every now and then a film comes along to expose the fabricated nature of gender identity. This is the core premise of Force Majeure (2014), a film that works by shattering a father’s idealised image as head of family and then exploring the fallout. Far from psycho-babble, it is a highly engaging but unsettling story about the gender-based expectations that hold most human relationships together and a film that compels self-reflection.

The plot is simple: a Swedish family is on holiday in the Swiss Alps when something happens that transforms their lives in a matter of seconds. Businessman Tomas and wife Ebba are breakfasting with their two young children on a hotel balcony while enjoying the snowfield panorama. A controlled explosion triggers an unexpected avalanche and panicked guests flee but the family watch the spectacle in disbelief. Suddenly the avalanche towers threateningly over the balcony. The incident turns out to be harmless, but Ebba and the children are shaken by the event and especially by their father’s response to the apparent danger. The rest of the film is like a slow-motion train wreck as Tomas goes through processes of denial and disbelief followed by the disintegration of his self-image. Without the identity he has built up over a lifetime he is reduced to a blubbering wreck, totally confused about ‘the man’ he thought he was.

This is a beautifully filmed psychological drama with several comedic touches to ease the tension of watching Tomas’s meltdown and the effect on his family. Character-driven rather than action-based, many scenes feel overly long with the camera dwelling on minor detail or sub-plots to fill out the cinematic space. This is complex territory for a movie and the ‘superior force’ in the title is not just the avalanche. It explores the gap between who we really are and the roles we have learnt to play, and what happens when the role-playing falls apart. The story twists and turns towards an ambivalent climax that will leave you wondering how any marriage could survive such an unravelling of masculine identity.

3 half stars

Director: Ruben Ostlund

Stars: Johannes Kuhnke, Lisa Loven Kongsli, Clara Wettergren

Mustang (2015)

91 Mustang

Fairy tales are told again and again, reappearing through the ages under different names and in different places. The ‘innocent children held captive’ is a universal trope that varies only in the type of warden (like ugly stepmother, wicked witch or crazed family) and type of prison (like dungeon, tower or home). We find it in Mustang (2015), a film that modernises the tale with several layers of imprisonment that include the medieval moral codes of Turkish society and the disempowerment of women through arranged marriages. The irony of Mustang’s title is that this beautifully filmed story is not about captivity but about the wild spirit that cannot be tamed.

Set in a traditional Turkish village, five orphan sisters set home on the last day of school and stop to frolic innocently with some boys on a beach. They live with their grandmother who is panicked into thinking they have behaved immorally and that their marriage prospects are at stake. The girls argue their innocence but an uncle is enlisted to help discipline and control them. He brings strict male-dominated repression into the mix: the home is fortified with bars on windows, and phones and computers taken away. While Turkish women have been suppressed throughout the ages, these strong-willed and defiant sisters are bonded as one and tension escalates to the point of violence. Inside their prison we see several delightful scenes of five bodies loosely entwined, lying on a bed or the floor, laughing, chatting, tussling playfully: a fun-loving picture of sisterhood full of promise for the vibrant young women they have a right to be. The story unfolds through the eyes of the youngest who sees her sisters dragged one by one to their fates until the final pair of mustangs run for their lives.

The gentle realism and warm colour palette of the cinematography exudes sympathetic storytelling, with misty dream-like lighting portraying the intimate humanity of these girls in stark contrast to the cruel constraints of their lives. The existence of the girls’ computers hints at a current timeframe which makes the film a portrait that is contemporary and relevant everywhere. This film is both a profoundly political statement and a poetically beautiful story about femininity and feminism. Despite the gloom, it ends with measured optimism and hope for the future.

4

Director: Deniz Gamze Erguven

Stars: Gunes Sensoy, Doga Zeynep Doguslu, Tugba Sunguroglu, Elit Iscan

The Wait (L’attesa) (2016)

90 The Wait

Plot and character are the classic drivers of cinema but there are other forces of equal impact. Some films are driven more by what does not happen than what does, and photographic technique can transform inaction into deep meaning. This is the case in The Wait (2016), a film title that describes both the story’s narrative arc and how it will be experienced by most viewers. Long silent close-ups that record little more than an eyebrow muscle tightening or the strands of hair on a neck are used to convey emotional power of surprising intensity.

Based entirely on the interaction between two women and the inability of one to reveal a painful truth to the other, the plot and character range is unusually sparse. The story opens with a funeral and the palpable raw grief on the face of a mother who has lost a son. Anna (Juliette Binoche) is in a deep dark place when she takes a call from beautiful young Jeanne (Lou de Laage) who asks why her son Giuseppe did not meet her at the airport. Anna invites Jeanne to wait for him at the Sicilian family villa, knowing he will never come. The pair move from a strained and awkward start to a warm friendship, all the while with Jeanne confused and Anna struggling with suppressed emotional turmoil. Anna has Giuseppe’s cell phone and listens to Jeanne’s desperate calls to her son, but withholding the truth gives him a tangible presence that keeps him alive and eases Anna’s pain. For as long as she can gaze upon Jeanne, she can see through her dead son’s eyes and share his delight in her innocence and charm.

This story rests entirely on the extraordinary ability of its two stars to convey the full gamut of emotion with total authenticity. The face of Binoche in particular is like a canvas onto which she paints every colour of the rainbow, with subtle shifts of expression that span joyful laughter to the very edge of sanity. Many viewers will find this a difficult film to watch because of the gradually escalating tension created by Anna holding back the truth from Jeanne, and this transforms the drama into a psychological thriller. It is impossible not to judge Anna or not to consider how we would handle such a situation, and this self-reflective process only heightens tensions both inside the film and within ourselves. The performances could easily have slipped into a melodrama, but instead, the minimalist dialogue and slow pace creates an open space into which is hung a finely wrought portrait of parental grief.

4

Director: Piero Messina

Stars: Juliette Binoche, Lou de Laage, Giorgio Colangeli

 

Everybody Wants Some (2016)

89 Everybody Wants Some

The ‘nostalgia coming of age’ film portrays the times and events that define a person as they progress through life’s rites of passage. They share similarities with the historical bio-pic in trying to capture the look and mood of times gone by but without the historically important people. An example of one that works brilliantly is Richard Linklater’s widely acclaimed Boyhood (2014). If you are a fan of that film you will remember the lyrically tender and aesthetically poignant study of a small boy’s progression to a college-ready teenager. However, if you expect to find those qualities in Linklater’s latest film Everyone Wants Some (2016) you are in for a shock.

As far as plot goes, the film looks at a group of young baseball heroes in the three days before collage starts in 1980. The campus dorms are crowded and the city has donated two houses, so there are no real impediments to the boys being boys. The story unfolds through the eyes of ace-pitcher Jake (Blake Jenner) who arrives, settles in, and quickly becomes absorbed into non-stop male-bonding rituals of misogynistic drunken stupidity. The boys have puerile genital fixations and the girls are reduced to barely-covered primal flesh and exist only to yield to or thwart the male sex drive. Late in the film, Jake meets Beverly (Zoey Deutch) and takes tentative steps towards a mutually caring relationship, but this narrative capsule within the film appears only to seek redemption for everything else in it. Alchohol, drugs, and sexual bravado are the binding agents of this male tribe, and when class actually starts we see two of them fall asleep while their professor welcomes them to college.

Nostalgia films rely on authenticity, but this film is cast with little known actors around their 30’s in roles that require the innocent freshness of 19 year olds. The casting robs the film of authenticity, and in any case, the non-stop debauchery does not resemble anything like what most mature males have stored in their nostalgia files. Perhaps it all depends on where you were and who you mixed with in your formative years. If this is a nostalgic homage to the 1980s, stop and consider the scale of today’s sexual violence against women and the endemic sexual discrimination still embedded in our society. Then join the dots and ask exactly what is being celebrated in this film? As someone who loves the film artform, I try to find at least something to admire in every film but this time I cannot.

1 half stars

Director: Richard Linklater

Stars: Blake Jenner, Tyler Hoechlin, Ryan Guzman

The Music of Strangers (2015)

88 The Music of Strangers

Documentaries exist to document truths and a great documentary conveys a living journey where characters and events lead the story rather than the other way around. The final night of the 2016 Sydney Film Festival enjoyed The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble (2015), a truly great documentary of inspirational musical bravado, authenticity and humanity. What may appear to be a biographical film about one of the planet’s most famous cellists is actually a complex multi-layered conversation about the philosophy of music and its power to dissolve cultural boundaries.

Yo-Yo Ma was a child prodigy and has always been a cello superstar without ever actually deciding to be a musician. After almost half a century of immersion in a world of fame and musical accomplishment, Yo-Yo came to question who he was and what music meant. He reasoned that the answer lay beyond his existing cultural reach so he gathered outstanding musicians from different backgrounds to fuse musical styles and traditions in new harmonic synergies. In exploring his journey, the film enters diverse musical cultures through the eyes and words of different musicians, many having experienced homeland tragedy. A variety of unique traditional instruments are heard in both their countries of origin and in the melting pot of the Silk Road Ensemble with musical styles borrowed from genres as diverse as hard rock, folk, hip-hop, jazz and classical. The cinematography is brilliant and viscerally engaging. One of the more memorable scenes is a hip-hop ballet dancer in blue jeans and sneakers imitating an awakening swan with movement so fluid you’d swear he was skating on ice to the hauntingly beautiful sounds of Yo-Yo’s cello.

Unscripted narration by many voices provides a kind of freeform improvisation that harmonises with the joyful highs and mournful lows of exotic music. But words only add another layer of narrative to the images and sounds that are this film’s real voice. Filmed over four years and across eight countries, the Ensemble has progressed from experimentation to a semi-permanent consortium of 50 performers that has produced nine albums, won 16 Grammy awards and has been heard by millions across the globe. The film could have simply glorified Yo-Yo but it aims for higher ground. It’s about the role of music in self-discovery and its power to create meaning, incite emotion, and bridge cultural divides. It is a film that will leave you elated.

4

Director: Morgan Neville

Me Before You (2016)

87 Me Before You

In movies, as in life, appearances can be deceptive. The trailer for Me Before You (2016) promises a sweet romantic comedy but the film is an emotionally challenging confrontation with the moral dilemmas of assisted dying. It is a beautifully sugar-coated but tragic story with a deep message that increasingly demands a societal response. Full of fairy-tale allusions, including a castle with a fallen prince and a poor girl in strange clothes, together with brilliant casting and tear-inducing imagery, the film is one of a growing number that address euthanasia themes.

The storyline is simple. Working class girl Louisa Clark (Emilia Clarke) takes a six-month contract to be a carer for quadriplegic Will Traynor (Sam Claflin). He is under the guardianship of his wealthy parents who want a fresh bright face for Will, and Louisa is delightfully quirky, chatty and absolutely zany in her dress sense. Despite a fractious beginning, they soon become deeply attached as she learns of his plan to end his life in a Swiss euthanasia clinic within six months. In the time they have left and within the constraints of his condition, they do many of the things that young lovers do, including a tropical island holiday. The most painful part of this film is the absolute nature of its impending finale. Even Will’s parents are resigned to the finality of his decision, all of which has a transformative effect on Louisa.

Emilia Clarke’s performance is the beating heart of this film. As Louisa, she is simply beyond adorable. Her face can speak volumes without opening her mouth while her eyebrows alone have a vocabulary spanning all human emotion. Will is her perfect match, with an expressiveness that glides seamlessly from brooding stoicism to irascible charm. No doubt many audiences will be happy to enjoy a bitter sweet love story told well, without dwelling on the deeper message of assisted dying. Others, however, will be struck by the force of three words that are repeated several times in the film, “it’s his choice”. They will grapple with how a person can reach such an unbearable point in their existence where they find absolutely no reason to live. As a tear-jerker rom-com, this film is right up there with the best of them but it is so much more than that. Sure, the narrative arc is laid bare right from the start, but sometimes you just have to let a movie have its way with you, as this one did with me.

4

Director: Thea Sharrock

Stars: Emilia Clarke, Sam Claflin

Goldstone (2016)

86 Goldstone

Australian thrillers have a signature style as unique as the harsh and visually threatening landscapes that fill this ancient land. Outback colour palettes radiate red earth, golden deserts, and ochre gorges, and all is captured with majestic cinematography in Goldstone (2016) which opened this year’s Sydney Film Festival. As the sequel to the excellent Mystery Road (2013), it follows the same quest for redemption by an Indigenous detective who walks the thin blue line between his people and white folk, neither of whom want him. A blend of crime investigation and western-style adventure with quirky Aussie characters produces a hybrid thriller drama loaded with cultural messages as well as stylistic salutes to Mad Max and Priscilla Queen of the Desert.

The film is framed around three characters in an isolated outpost called Goldstone: Detective Jay Swan (Aaron Pedersen); recently appointed local cop Josh (Alex Russell); and crooked Mayor (Jackie Weaver). Jay is there on a missing person case that soon reveals a web of corruption involving the Mayor, a greedy environmentally hostile mining company, and a prostitution ring that traffics young Asian women. Overlaying the pursuit of legal justice is Jay’s deep need to find a place where he belongs and Josh’s need for self-respect. Appearances by David Gulpilil symbolise deep love of country, and a canoe ride into the viscerally pulsating heart of the nation is the visual highlight of the story. All the elements of a great film are on the table but it struggles with issues of narrative and character plausibility.

The acting and dialogue are more in the style of caricature than authentic characterisation and the film’s portrayal of police operations challenges popular belief. Sweet, dimpled-faced Josh makes an unlikely tough cop, the Mayor is a parody of a crook, and the angst-ridden alcoholic Jay would not make detective anywhere in this country. The film asks us to suspend our understanding of legal process and see it as OK for a cop to be in control of a vehicle while rotten drunk, use lethal force without authorisation, do reckless vehicle pursuits and smash ups, and race into hostage scenarios with shotguns blazing near inhabited dwellings. The addition of Mad Max-style action and Priscilla-style parody creates tension between the film’s inner logic with the outside world which acts against it being taken as serious drama. Whatever faults it may have, Goldstone is a brilliantly photographed and entertaining crime thriller that foregrounds the spectacular Australian outback and pays respect to its ancestral heritage.

3 half stars

Director: Ivan Sen

Stars: Aaron Pedersen, Alex Russell, Jackie Weaver

A Perfect Day (2015)

85 A Perfect Day

It is ironic that war is the biggest industry on the planet. Its wider industrial domain includes warrior politicians, arms manufacturers and military forces. Less acknowledged are those who perpetually seek amelioration of its consequences like the United Nations and various humanitarian aid agencies. Most of these groups regularly star in movies but aid workers get little cinematic glory. It is in this wider context that the Spanish-directed film A Perfect Day (2015) is an unusual and original addition to black comedy war dramas, least of all because the way it avoids typical war movie scenarios and narratives. It covers ‘one perfect day’ during the military wind-down in the Balkans crisis of mid 1990s and is a refreshing, entertaining and informative insight into the role of aid workers when the big guns go quiet.

The story begins and ends with the image of a big fat corpse in a well, dumped deliberately to pollute village water. In between we see frantic efforts by a small group of aid workers to find scarce rope that can haul him out, and rope becomes a metaphor to join several unconnected incidents that make up the narrative. There Is no sound of bombs or signs of fighting; we only see a beautiful country full of silent monuments to the devastation of war. Bombed-out ghosts of villages, homeless children, poverty and toxic hygiene are some of an aid worker’s challenges and black humour is the universal panacea for coping. On this day, the group must deal with the risk of hidden road mines in cattle carcasses, villager distrust and military animosity towards interfering aid workers, and a United Nations bureaucracy that shows little sensitivity towards dispossessed victims of war. Oh, and they must find a soccer ball for a young boy.

As with all character-driven films, this one is less about what happens and more about what it is like to be there. The characters are built with re-purposed M.A.S.H. traits that are likeable, funny and plausible, and the acting is top-class. There are no glory hounds in the group and each has their own coping strengths and emotional foibles. The director orchestrates the characters and sub-stories with perfect tempo to produce a story that is totally engaging if not gripping. You might wonder how a group of loosely disciplined and unaccountable workers can roam freely across a war-ravaged country, or whether the final scene is actually a political statement about their true value. If so, the film has made its mark on you.

3 half stars

Director: Fernando Leon de Aranoa

Stars:  Tim Robbins, Benicio Del Toro, Olga Kurylenko

(Preview courtesy of Andrew Urban of Movies Now)

Lilith’s Awakening (2016)

84 Lilith's Awakening

Most vampire movies are B-grade comedy horrors that feature supernatural bloodsuckers who live forever on their victim’s blood. But vampires are much more complex than you might think. Just as science fiction plays on our fears of technology, vampire stories go deep into our psyche and have a noble history in literature and film. Vampire themes have always mirrored society’s repressed anxieties and the early films were richly satanic with anti-Christ overtones.  Nowadays they ooze repressed romanticism and ambivalent sexuality that is expressed through a multi-gendered thirst for blood. The independent arthouse film Lilith’s Awakening (2016) retains all the classic vampire heritage with a modern exploration of repressed female sexuality and disempowerment under male domination.

The plotline is minimalist, but plots rarely matter for vampires. Lucy (Sophia Woodward) is a small-town nobody, works in a seedy garage, and is an uptight victim of bullying by her husband and father. She has a loveless life, without self-identity or purpose and is undoubtedly clinically depressed. Only in her dreams does she experience sexual passion, and it is with a hauntingly mysterious beautiful woman. At work, a mechanic makes sexual advances which awaken a sense of empowerment in her and she agrees to meet him one night. This becomes the trigger for a series of events that any rational person might think absurdly incoherent.  Vampire fans, however, know that the smallest transgression is enough to unleash the demonic forces that dwell between the world of the living and the world of the dead.

What makes this movie different is the photography and the atmospherics. Rendered in exquisitely lit black and white with occasional flashes of colour to isolate or contrast a subject, this is a visually stunning work. Many of the scenes would look brilliant if they were framed as monochrome artworks in a high-end gallery, and the musical score combines well with the eerie visuals. The story unfolds as if in a vague mist that distorts the boundaries between reality and dream or a disturbed mind and the supernatural. Many scenes are played out as if in slow motion to impart an aura of trance-like stream of consciousness, but some viewers will feel the need for tighter editing. If you look for action based vampire films, this one is not for you. There are no crucifixes and stakes through hearts and very little blood and gore. But if you follow the rich diversity of the continuously evolving vampire sub-genre, you will find Lilith’s Awakening full of haunting imagery and ambivalent possibilities.

3 half stars

Director: Monica Demes

Stars:  Sophia Woodward, Steve Kennevan, Sam Garles

(With thanks to ChicArt Public Relations, Montreal, for pre-release access. The film premiers at the Hollywood Dances with Films Festival on 11th June 2016. Track it via ChicArt-Public-Relations Facebook)

Queen of the Desert (2015)

83 Queen of the Desert

For many audiences, biographical period dramas are the most common medium for learning about the achievements of significant people in history. The bar for directors is not set high: just tell a true story, explain its significance and keep us engaged. It is for these reasons that the beautifully crafted Queen of the Desert (2015) is entertaining drama but a disappointing bio-pic. It commits the unpardonable sins of being repetitive, overly focused on its one shining star, and omitting to tell the story in ways that are useful for today.

Gertrude Bell (Nicole Kidman) was the female version of Lawrence of Arabia. High-born, well-educated and attractive, she was an adventure seeker who travelled widely across the Middle East and helped the British Empire negotiate lasting borders between desert warlords. The film traces her life from young adulthood to the many years she spent studying the literary and archaeological history of the region, culminating with her joining the British political class back home. The film focuses in particular on several camel-back expeditions into dangerous territories and each follows the same pattern: Bell and her local guides are intercepted by marauders to prevent her entry into anti-British territories and she charms her way out of danger. These episodes of confrontation are devoid of narrative urgency nor do they cohere into a bigger picture of historical importance. This makes the story feel superficial, while Kidman’s tendency towards melodrama undermines character development and insight into Bell’s persona.

Minute by minute, scene by scene, this film is visually beautiful. The camerawork often uses shallow depth of field to sharply separate shots of Bell from soft-focus panoramic desert backgrounds to give her an imperial or perhaps even saintly aura. Kidman repeatedly adopts classic poses with a mono-tonal benign smile reflecting love and knowledge of a region rich in harsh natural beauty. The two romances of Bell’s life are explored too briefly to explain their role in her real-life tragic ending, and frequent literary and poetic references feel overly melodramatic. This is far from a tautly directed or well-paced story. The movie never comes close to being a good bio-pic, thus losing the opportunity to enshrine Bell in the annals of feminist achievement. Despite its visual delights, the film feels strangely disconnected from the legend of its Queen.

3

Director: Werner Herzog

Stars: Nicole Kidman, James Franco, Robert Pattinson

Money Monster (2016)

82 Money Monster

Is it fair to criticise a movie for not being what it could have been? Some critics have pointed out that Money Monster (2016) does not go far enough in attacking the root causes of recent global financial meltdowns. But this is only one movie with one voice, and it was made for entertainment. If you want to see the shape of a movie-led subversive campaign you need to join the dots between recent films like 99 Homes (2014), The Big Short (2015), and believe it or not, Captain America: Civil War (2016). They all address issues of political and corporate accountability which have become the major cinematic themes of our time. All of them ask the same question: who guards the guardians in the bastions of capitalism and in the home of the free?

 The film Money Monster is framed around a TV studio hostage scenario where a deranged bomb-laden amateur investor demands on-air answers about an $800 million IBIS stock-market crash. Lee Gates (George Clooney) has been targeted as the prancing celebrity Wall Street guru whose popularity rests on picking stock market winners. Crazed Kyle Budwell (Jack O’Connell) sneaks into the studio and demands to know why the system is rigged so that shmucks like him can lose everything they own. The drama unfolds live under the cool control of executive producer Patty Fenn (Julia Roberts) but panic escalates when Kyle’s pregnant girlfriend publicly abuses him as a loser. The siege moves to a street walk lined with police and hero-worshippers who also want answers, leading to Gates and Budwell confronting the IBIS CEO Walt Camby (Dominic West) in an online feed watched by millions.

 Money Monster is a tautly directed hostage thriller with an outstanding cast, a gripping real-time storyline, and enough probing insight into the greed industry to have some social value. Clooney’s performance anchors the film as he traverses emotions from arrogance to terror, to being a vigilante for the truth. If Clooney is the anchor then Roberts is the ship itself, playing steely calm balanced with enough glimpses of emotion to also make her the warm heart of the story. O’Connell plays escalating desperation so well that his performance sets the tension graph for the whole film. The camerawork feels like an on-air take and the story unfolds with edge-of-your-seat pacing and enough surprises to keep you guessing how this will turn out. The street walk could have been tightened by ten minutes, but otherwise it is outstanding entertainment that also asks important social questions.

4

Director: Jodie Foster

Stars:  George Clooney, Julia Roberts, Jack O’Connell

Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016)

81 Hunt for the Wilderpeople

Some movies make you wonder why they were made at all. Today’s crowded cinematic space suggests that if you are going to fund a feature film then surely you have a special story you want to share. Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016) has all the ingredients of a good film, including star drawcard Sam Neill, an extraordinary setting in one of the most beautiful places on earth (New Zealand) and a respected tradition of filmmaking that includes The Piano, Lord of the Rings and An Angel at My Table. But labelling Wilderpeople as “comic dynamite” and “pure genius” did not help produce as much as a single laugh in my cinema, although it would have been hard to find an honest label that gives the film any sense of purpose. But New Zealanders love it.

The main plotline consists of a “national manhunt” by bumbling police and reward-hungry bad guys in pursuit of grouchy old Hector (Sam Neill) and likeably obnoxious 11-year old Ricky (Julian Dennison). The weirdly funny Child Welfare Officer wants orphan Ricky back in State care and Hector is regarded as a possible ‘pervert’ so the duo head for the hills. They must deal with wild boar, crazy hermits, hunger, broken limbs and cold, but all of this is grist for the mill as Ricky loves living rough and playing a real gangster on the run. He has never known home or family so Hector is his salvation. Like in most runaway-chase films, the fugitives keep narrowly escaping the law but eventually come to rest and find redemption in each other.

This film would be ‘great family fun’ if you are a Kiwi. For everyone else however, even their closest Aussie cousins, this film is little more than a spectacular tourism advertisement for the rugged landscapes and mountainous lakes and gorges that are scattered across beautiful New Zealand. The cinematography is absolutely delightful and will undoubtedly encourage many to see it for themselves. Without Sam Neill’s capacity for gravitas, grouchiness and gruff sentimentality the film would struggle for audiences, and even with him it’s a niche market only. If you dig hard, some will find a heart-warming tale about family or its emotional variants, but there is little more to this film than a few quirky characters, a romp through the forest chased by silly people, and a script that probably read better as a book.

2 half stars copy

Director: Taika Waititi

Stars: Sam Neill, Julian Dennison, Rima Te Wiata

The Boy (2016)

80 The Boy

If you are looking for a horror movie with more originality than usual this may be your film. Most horrors are standard genre films that rely on cinema clichés to frighten us, even though audiences have become immune to plots with spooky dolls, isolated nannies and scary mansions. The Boy (2016) stands out by combining all of these horror tropes into a single story then overlays them with a plausible thriller about parental grief. It tries to be a serious film without the lame humour which so often sugar-coats horror movies into comedy-thrillers. But the downside is also typical of the genre: it runs out of ideas on how to finish the job.

Greta (Lauren Cohan) is fleeing a bad relationship and applies for a nanny job caring for an 8-year old. She arrives at an isolated mansion in the English countryside and the child turns out to be a life-size doll called Brahms. The older couple’s son died in mysterious circumstances twenty years earlier and Brahms is their way of dealing with unresolved grief. The creepy parents abruptly depart for an extended holiday, leaving Greta with strict instructions on how to care for Brahms. At first she ignores Brahms but soon weird things happen like the doll changes position and strange sounds echo through the house. Greta is alone and terrified until she befriends the local grocery guy Malcolm, but all hell breaks loose when the violent ex-boyfriend turns up unexpectedly. Poor Brahms becomes the unwanted child in some high-tension scenes but predictably the doll gets its revenge.

Although not a great fan of horrors, this one kept me engaged until the final quarter where a tired old stock-standard formula is used to tie the narrative ends together. Until then, the film maintains a menacing Gothic atmosphere and enough surprises to keep you guessing what will happen next. Lauren Cohan is well cast as Greta and the story moves along at a lively pace. You need to suspend disbelief and go along with the story premise otherwise you are unlikely to see it through and are probably not a horror fan anyway. A good test if it will work on you is to grab a toy doll and stare into its eyes; if you can imagine it staring back at you with malicious intent, you pass and should see The Boy.

3

Director: William Brent Bell

Stars:  Lauren Cohan, Rupert Evans, James Russell

God Willing (2015)

79 God Willing

It is easy to mis-read a movie. Many will watch God Willing (2016) on the promise of a “wildly entertaining smash-hit comedy”,  have a few laughs then be unsure why they are leaving the cinema in a non-comedic mood. It takes time and reflection to get some perspective on this film’s underlying message because it is well-hidden behind the narrative wall of an original and funny sit-com drama. Ignore the over-hyped labels attached to this film. It is actually a morally challenging debate between Catholicism and atheism fought out between a cool ex-con priest and an arrogant surgeon. This makes it a none-too-subtle appeal to the ‘god-less generation’.

The story traces the moral and emotional awakening of celebrated cardiac surgeon Tommaso (Marco Giallini). While he saves many lives, he is totally self-absorbed and insulting to everyone around him. His son announces he will forego medical studies to enter the priesthood and Tommaso believes he is under the spell of charismatic Father Don Pietro (Alessandro Gassman). Tommaso plots to expose Don Pietro as a fraudster in the hope that his son will change his mind and the scheme provides the big laughs of the film. When it all backfires his penance is to spend a month helping to restore a run-down chapel. Sub-stories revolving around patriarchal family tensions flesh out the narrative, but the deeper layer of the film is the changing relationship between the priest and the atheist. Much of the script and its humour is framed to isolate and then contrast Tommaso’s self-interest with practically everyone else in the film, all of whom appear sympathetic towards the Catholic faith.

The co-stars Giallini and Gassman are excellent in their roles and elevate the domestic farce to a humour-filled morality play that pits the secular against the divine. The directing and filming produces an engaging style of European realism and the story leverages some intelligent humour against more profound questions about faith in the modern world. The English sub-titles do not seem to keep pace with the rapid-fire Italian dialogue and inevitably miss nuances in the script. But this does not detract from the story nor its clever use of one-liner gags in the cause of moral awareness. The twists and turns make this a thoroughly entertaining film that will make many viewers think deeply about the nature of faith and the pathos of our mortality.

3 half stars

Director: Edoardo Maria Falcone

Stars: Marco Giallini, Alessandro Gassman, Laura Morante

The Meddler (2015)

78 The Meddler

A quarter of a century ago, Susan Sarandon co-starred in Thelma & Louise (1991), still ranked one of the best feminist movies of all time. It sits in the pantheon of cinema greats because of how it combined the finest traditions of storytelling and movie making with powerful messages about important social issues. Since then, Sarandon’s name has been associated with a string of high production-value movies and great entertainment. In this context of high expectations, The Meddler (2016) is a disappointingly mediocre story about an irritating mother who farcically acts-out suppressed grief trauma following her husband’s death three years earlier.

Marnie (Susan Sarandon) is a widow desperately wanting to be relevant in other people’s lives to avoid dealing with her own. Her husband left her financially comfortable and she likes spending money on others, whether it’s a bag of bagels or paying for the entire wedding of someone she barely knows. Her daughter Lori (Rose Byrne) has relationship issues of her own and welcomes her meddling mother like a blowfly on a summer day. If that sounds like a thin storyline, several comic sketches flesh it out: like Marnie’s serial visits to that helpful guy in the Apple Store; being “earth mother” for a lesbian couple’s wedding; deciding what to do with her husband’s ashes; and the teen-awkward steps towards starting a relationship with an ex-cop called Zipper. The ‘world’s most embarrassing mother’ theme is squeezed for all its worth, but the endless texting, unanswered messages, and unannounced drop-ins are more wearying for viewers than for this mother-daughter duo. While buried grief lies somewhere in the deeper layers of this film, it is largely ignored or at best explored with casual superficiality.

Sarandon’s acting repertoire means she can handle anything from slapstick to pathos, but she can only work with what she is given. It is a weak script, full of clichéd melodrama, tired gags, and feigned sentimentality. She is on-screen for most of the movie, staying in character as a constantly irritating person who is painfully lacking in self-awareness, or just not particularly bright. If it was directed as a serious drama, the central premise of the story might have led to a satisfying movie. But as a corny comedy, it denigrates the seriousness of its deeper themes and is more squirm-in-your-seat embarrassing than laugh-out-loud kind of funny. While this conclusion may rub against the critical grain, it comes from someone who still has Sarandon on a pedestal.

2 half stars copy

Director: Lorene Scafaria

Stars: Susan Sarandon, Rose Byrne, J. K. Simmons

The Wave (2015)

77 The Wave

Most tsunami disaster movies are entirely predictable and dependent on computer graphics. It is not a level playing field because big budget films can afford the latest digital effects wizardry and it is unusual to see a small budget film compete on bigger ground. The home-side advantage helps in The Wave (2015), a Norwegian film from one of the more landslide-prone parts of the world. Instead of relying on computer graphics, the film draws on natural scenery, environmental science, and a tightly scripted action thriller storyline to produce a movie that punches well above its weight.

Norway has a long history of massive rock-falls where large boulders fall into rivers, triggering tidal waves that can reach tsunami proportion and wipe out whole villages. In The Wave, Kristian is a detail-obsessed geologist who notices data indicating unusual subterranean movement and he calculates that if correct, a landslide could cause an 80 metre wave that would destroy the town in less than ten minutes. His concerns are dismissed by other geologists who do not want to panic the tourists who are filling the town’s hotel and restaurants. When flocks of birds migrate and seismic warnings get louder, the red button is pushed to evacuate the town. Kristian’s family are in different locations and he must struggle against the panicked exit from town to find them. For a modest scientist and family man, he rises heroically to the crisis and, with typical Scandinavian gender equality, his hotel-manager wife is a heroine to many survivors.

This is all familiar territory for disaster film fans. However, the directing, action pace, and camerawork keep the story moving with very limited reliance on computer graphics. Clever lighting and sound effects keep the terror just out of view, and several rescue scenes are case studies of how creativity can beat big budgets every time. The atmosphere of tension rises to terror in finely calibrated increments, and the few short scenes of the giant wave are terrifying and visually plausible. This is a highly engaging film that achieves much with little. It keep viewers riveted to the screen until the final credits say that Norway believes there is no question if such a disaster could happen, its more a matter of when.

3 half stars

Director: Roar Uthaug

Stars: Kristoffer Joner, Ane Dahl Torp, Jonas Hoff Oftebro

Mia Madre (My Mother) (2015)

76 Mia Madre

Melodrama is low in the genre pecking order because of its emotional exaggerations and use of stereotyped characters, most of whom are women. In this sense, Mia Madre (2016) is a purely melodramatic exploration of emotions associated with the dying of a parent as seen through the eyes of a loving daughter. This would be unoriginal on its own, so the film weaves multiple relationships into the narrative, all of which are stressed to breaking point, with a few comedic touches to make the story bearable. This matrix of emotional turbulence is standard fare in the dying parent narrative, but Mia Madre has a fine sense of balance in blending laughter and tears.

Margherita is a single-minded Italian director trying to complete a film when she learns that her mother Ada is dying. She is also dealing with a failed marriage, a teenage daughter who needs mothering, and the need to visit Ada every day. Her brother quits his job to care for Ada but Margherita tries to keep her world intact. As a perfectionist, she is demanding on the set where filming is not going well because the leading man is hopeless. Her film is about an economic downturn, a failing factory and workers facing bleak times, sub-plots that mirror her own fractured life. It is a moving study of how a professional woman accustomed to being in control must deal with helplessness in the face of impending tragedy. It could easily have been self-indulgent except for the almost unnerving grace and dignity with which Ada deals with dying while those around her become increasingly frayed. Audience response will depend to a large extent on their empathy for, or experience of, these stages in the life journey.

In many respects the mother is the star of this film. While hers is the less demanding acting role, she is a portrait of what many of us want to imagine as the peaceful exit of a beloved parent. Margherita on the other hand traverses an emotional roller-coaster on which the shock of what is happening forces her to review the meaning of her life. The camera often dwells too long on moments of introspection but the performances of both principals are finely nuanced, emotionally rich and entirely believable. There are many reasons to praise this film, but in the main it is for audiences willing to vicariously experience a slow and dense melodrama about loss.

3 half stars

Director: Nanni Moretti

Stars: Margherita Buy, John Turturro, Giulia Lazzarini

Hello, My Name is Doris (2015)

75 Hello my name is Doris

Regardless of what people say, we all love romantic comedy. Since the dawn of theatre and cinema, the rom-com has been a constant box-office winner and the preferred heart-warmer around the world. But they come in cruel versions too, especially the ones that depict forbidden love across age or cultural barriers. The film Hello, My Name is Doris (2015) is one of the cruellest rom coms you will find because it ridicules a hopeless quest for love. An older man falling for a teenage girl is dignified with a name like ‘Lolita syndrome’ but its big laughs all round when a 60-ish plain woman falls head over heels for a 30-ish hipster man. Is there a gender issue here?

After her mother’s funeral, spinster Doris (Sally Field) is unencumbered for the first time in her life, except for an ageing cat. She yearns for excitement while there is still time and when she brushes up close to new boss John (Max Greenfield) it triggers a flush of fantasy that he feels something for her. From this central premise the script goes downhill, but it is Sally Field that saves the movie. All the ageist gags that litter the genre are dragged out: she enlists a granddaughter to help stalk him via Facebook; turns up at music gigs looking endearingly oddball; and is featured on an album cover because of her dorky eccentricity. John is too nice a guy to rebuff Doris, so there is an ambiguous possibility that the film might turn out to be an erotic thriller or romantic drama. The diversionary sub-plot of Doris’s brother plotting to sell mum’s house gives Sally a chance to display her dramatic skill in non-comedic ways, but otherwise it’s a simple plotline punctuated mainly by self-inflicted embarrassment and auto-erotic longings.

Sally Field is marvellous as Doris and her wide-eyed innocence still does the trick. Her acting is finely balanced between being certifiably insane and pathetically entrapped by her desperate need for love. The boss is so naively tolerant of her odd behaviour that it is entirely believable he has no idea what’s going on in her head. Younger audiences will belly laugh at the expense of the invisible generation, although those with compassion will feel for her and maybe get a glimmer of what the phrase ‘pathetically hopeless love’ means. Whichever way you look at it, this is a story about a pitiable lonely older woman who overreaches romantically, but in a very funny way.

3

Director: Michael Showalter

Stars: Sally Field, Max Greenfield, Tyne Daly

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot (2016)

74 Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

Most movies have several layers of meaning and sometimes a hidden layer will tell an unintended story. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot (2016) is described as a comedy, but it is not a laugh out loud kind of film. The iconic M.A.S.H. proved you can mix humour and war but WTF goes beyond wisecracks in a tent to make light of a superpower war that is waged against an ancient impoverished country. Based on a real war correspondent’s memoirs, this film adaptation ultimately casts a poor light on large numbers of non-combat personnel who are there for reasons that have little to do with altruism or professionalism.

At 40-ish, bored desk-bound copy writer Kim Baker (Tina Fey) is sick and tired of staring at the same carpet spot near her gym treadmill and is desperate for a change of life. She is drawn by the excitement of war reporting and ends up spending several years in Afganistan. There are several connected strands to the story, like Kim’s makeup-destroying experiences as an embedded reporter, exposing the persecution of Afgani women, and encountering a variety of characters including a love interest and some quirky Afganis who do things very differently in that part of the world. The attention of the global press has turned away from Afganistan to Iraq, and Kim and her reporter fraternity face reassignment. There are two standing gags that frame the film. The resident female stunner Tanya Vanderpoel (Margot Robie) tells Kim that girls who rate 6 in the States are a 9 or 10 in a war zone so her sex-life will be amazing. The more telling gag uses the boiling frog metaphor, where the water temperature rises so slowly that the frog does not realise it is about to die. The war zone press corps are depicted as adrenalin junkies and sex-crazed alcohol or drug addicts. The longer they stay the more humanity they lose.

This is a mixed but engaging film. It is well paced with filming that captures both excitement and danger. More importantly, it fills a gap in most people’s awareness of what it is like to be a female war correspondent. While some have panned Tina Fey as not comedic enough, this is war and she nailed her part. The comedy did not get many laughs in my cinema, just some sniggers over frat-house one liners. Although the film is not the comedy I expected, Whisky Tango Foxtrot is very entertaining.

3 half stars

Directors:  Glenn Ficarra, John Requa

Stars: Tina Fey, Margot Robbie, Martin Freeman

The Man Who Knew Infinity (2016)

73 The Man who knew Infinity

Without bio-pics so much history would go unnoticed. Movies like The Theory of Everything (2015) and The Imitation Game (2015) celebrate icons of knowledge and elevate brains to equal footing with sporting and other heroes. The Man Who Knew Infinity (2016) is another such story that needs to be told. The field of theoretical mathematics is not one that will excite many audiences and this film does little to convince us of its charms. Making sense of what was achieved in this field is an insurmountable challenge, so instead the film tells a tale of two cultures that collide in the hallowed halls of Cambridge in the early 1900s.

Gifted self-taught mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan (Bev Patel) was born into poverty in India and had no formal education. He absorbed mathematics intuitively and believed that ”a mathematical equation had no meaning unless it expressed a thought of God”. Having learnt all he could in India he connects with Professor GH Hardy (Jeremy Irons) of Cambridge, one of the leading mathematicians of the era and an avowed atheist. The rest of the story is a beautifully told narrative cliché of a dark skinned genius and his obstacle-course odyssey from poverty to a Fellow of Cambridge. Srinivasa’s belief in God’s will as the source of his gift clashed with musty academic traditions that required detailed proofs behind every mathematical breakthrough which initially led many academics to denounce him as a fraud. He found class, racial, religious and cultural barriers everywhere and Hardy’s patronage forced Srinivasa to work against what came naturally. Having left a wife behind in his beloved India, he was emotionally isolated and his health suffered.

Nobody does historical period films like the British and this one has impressively high production values for a novice director and modest budget. It portrays the mood and style of the era with authenticity, both in Madras and England. The filming favours Srinivasa’s viewpoint to show what it must have been like for a person of his humble origins to walk the grounds of Cambridge and encounter its academic aristocracy. The greatest strength of the story undoubtedly comes from its acting principals Jeremy Irons and Bev Patel. They play opposites in every way except in their love of pure maths, and Hardy’s patronage ensured that Srinivasa’s legacy continues into the modern era. This is a great story of a hitherto little-known Olympian of knowledge that will thrust his name into today’s mainstream film culture for some time to come.

3 half stars

Director: Matthew Brown

Stars: Jeremy Irons, Bev Patel, Malcolm Sinclair

Louder Than Bombs (2015)

72 Louder than Bombs

Most coming-of-age films lean on the romantic comedy or melodrama for shape and structure, usually with a linear storyline that leads to a metaphorical awakening or some other resolution. As you might expect from a Norwegian director, Louder than Bombs (2015) avoids this well-trodden approach by telling a multi-layered fractured tale that looks more like a thriller than a teen-drama. Adolescents who clam-up tightly to exclude the world while they catch up with its emotional challenges are common stories. The one in this film is like a bomb about to explode and his story forms the narrative spine along which several sub-plots radiate in all directions.

Conrad is an introspective young war-gamer who has closed off to the world since his famous war photographer mother Isabelle was killed three years ago.  He keeps to himself at school and defiantly ignores his well-meaning ex-TV star father. A photo exhibition is planned to commemorate Isabelle’s work and a former colleague plans an article that will reveal the secret truth of Isabelle’s suicide. Conrad has been shielded from this truth, as well as from the affairs of his father and brother. Over-protection has increasingly isolated him until he tries to connect with a girl in class. It’s a complex non-liner plotline with several flashbacks that shift across narrative lines to create the visual effect of a perfect storm of fractured people. Isabelle’s war images and her memory keep appearing but the battle we are seeing is raging in the minds of those she left behind who struggle to move on with their lives.

The film has an unsettling asymmetrical style about it. You find it in the withholding of truths, in the gender inversion of a war zone mother and a TV soapies father, and in hair-trigger Conrad lashing out in all directions. While the acting is often melodramatic, the filming is edgy with sharp editing cuts and sudden discordant images that feel out of context (like tumbling aerial schoolgirls). It has an uneven but reflective pace that disorients the viewer and leaves them uncertain how the story can hold together. But through the foggy mess of their lives appears hope for better times. More arthouse than spoon-fed, the film feels refreshingly free of cliches and leaves you thinking about the impact of distant memories on daily lives.

3 half stars

Director: Joachim Trier

Stars: Jesse Eisenberg, Gabriel Byrne, Isabelle Huppert, Devin Druid

(Preview courtesy of Andrew Urban of Movies Now)

A Month of Sundays (2016)

71 A Month of Sundays

Some films attract critical consensus while others trigger polar opposite opinions like A Month of Sundays (2016). Australian colloquial drama is not for everyone and it takes patience to engage with slow-paced laconic narratives that rely on insider humour for meaning. Aussie horrors and dystopian thrillers are well known but there are few films that stand tall for sensitively exploring the inner world of male emotion. In fact, we have culturally fortified ourselves with a style of Ocker farce to shield us from knowing too much about what lurks within the Australian male.

Lacklustre real estate agent Frank (Anthony LaPaglia) is the quintessential Aussie bloke. He is a poor salesman and has neither the verbal wit or emotional maturity to deal with the double-barrel grief of his recent divorce and mother’s death. By extraordinary coincidence he takes a misdirected call from Sarah (Julia Blake) who sounds just like his mother and the few minutes on the phone fills an emotional void. One thing leads to another, they become friends, and Frank learns to open up on the various emotional fronts of his life. The sub-plots include redeeming the relationship with his son, resolving feelings about his wife and mother, dealing with Sarah’s health issues, and experiencing the ordinary pleasure of being nice to people. It’s a simple narrative arc, but dense with emotional side-tracks and blockages that Frank cannot resolve alone. Themes of emotional estrangement, aging, death and grief are lightened by the deadpan humour exchanged between Frank and his boss (John Clarke) and the constant running commentary in real estate language, a clever device that mocks the Aussie obsession with property ownership.

The filming has many long fixed frames and scenes where nothing happens except what we can infer is going on inside Frank’s head. When he appears to be struggling emotionally, the recurring real estate babble kicks in to punctuate the silence while he retreats into his private world of make-believe sales talk with imaginary buyers. Some critics have panned the film’s central premise and slow-burn plot, but it stands out as a thoughtful and well-acted portrait of an emotionally convoluted archetypal Australian male who survives just this side of clinical depression. Frank is ordinariness personified and not likeable at all, but he is very recognisable in this country. This is an original funny-sad look at a type of Aussie male who should watch this film for their own good.

3 half stars

Director: Matthew Saville

Stars: Anthony LaPaglia, John Clarke, Julia Blake

Florence Foster Jenkins (2016)

70 Florence Foster Jenkins

Genre labels shape your expectations of a movie but they are also manipulated by promoters to influence audience response. Both Marguerite (2016) and Florence Foster Jenkins (2016) are being sold as “hilarious comedies” whereas in reality they both tell a sad story of self-deception and mental frailty, albeit in funny ways. Marguerite is a comedy of manners, while Florence is a tragi-comedy, the genre that shows the sad truth behind the apparently ridiculous. Both films are bio-pics, with one satirising vanity the other telling a tragic tale about a mental illness that is displayed on an operatically grand scale.

Unlike the fictitious Marguerite who is ‘loosely based’ on the real person, Florence is closely based on the wealthy and generous arts socialite Florence Foster Jenkins who came to public notoriety when she hired Carnegie Hall for her operatic recitals in 1944. Both films (and still available YouTube recordings) show the full force of how badly the real Florence sang, but that’s where the similarity ends. Early in the film we learn that Florence (Meryl Streep) has defied medical science by living well beyond the usual lifespan of a syphilis victim, a disease she contracted on marrying when 18 years old. She endured decades of archaic mercury and arsenic medication with progressive loss of mental functions and chronic exhaustion. Her second marriage remained celibate by mutual agreement and her husband (Hugh Grant) was free to have affairs but was devotedly protective of Florence. The cinematic impact of these facts change the film from a satire to a study of pathos and tragedy as Florence is seriously unwell and singing is the only thing keeping her alive.

While Marguerite amplifies the ridiculous as seen from the other side of the Atlantic, Florence is an American-owned story and any ridicule is tempered with compassion. The combined acting virtuosity of icons Streep and Grant will most likely earn the film Academy nominations as these timeless stars are superb in their parts and their chemistry together is wonderful. Top production values are evident in the period set and costumes, and the whole film has an elegant authenticity that underscores the seriousness of mental degeneration, whether its on the stage of Carnegie Hall or elsewhere. Audiences might leave cinemas still chuckling at the singing of Marguerite and Florence, but many will leave Florence with sympathy for her desperate desire to be something that nature made impossible.

4

Director: Stephen Frears

Stars: Meryl Steep, Hugh Grant

Marguerite (2016)

69 Marguerite

The comedy of manners is the weapon of choice for satirising the wealthy and powerful. Its favourite target is vanity, like in the fairy tale Emperor’s New Clothes where a vain ruler is fooled into believing that beautiful garments have been made for him only to display his pompous nakedness for all to see. The narrative of Marguerite (2015) is framed around this theme, except that instead of clothes the hapless victim is encouraged to believe she has a beautiful voice. In her case, the self-deception is less about vanity and more about her love of singing and the inability to hear her own voice.

Marguerite is loosely based on the true story of American socialite Florence Foster Jenkins. This sumptuous art-house style French production portrays her as a wealthy and eccentric benefactor of the arts in 1920s Paris. She is easily manipulated by the flattery of others and obsessive about opera singing.  She also loves her unfaithful and financially dependent husband who is incapable of telling her the truth about her voice and who always has an excuse for missing her recitals. Her friends and house staff protect her from the knowledge of how badly she sings in gratitude for her kindness and because she is a ‘lovely lady’. The stakes are raised when Marguerite decides on a public recital where of course the audience cannot be stacked with grateful patrons. The resulting performance is a seat-squirming experience that fills both the on-screen theatre and your own cinema with painful laughter and vicarious embarrassment for someone who can be so cruel to music. The film itself becomes an operatic performance of pride’s folly.

This could have been an unbearable story made worse by intolerable singing, but it works well as a comically sad tale about a gullible woman who wants desperately to believe she can create beauty with her voice. The filming, sets and costumes evoke the era with authenticity and French actress Catherine Frot’s subtle performance balances the sublime with the ridiculous. Frot’s wide-eyed trust in others is both endearing and engaging as she draws us into her make-believe world that borders on madness. Some truly beautiful operatic voices create a haunting background score that only accentuates the appalling noise that comes from Marguerite’s voice box. Its an entertaining story but don’t be surprised if you catch yourself asking “what is so funny about bad singing?” and feeling embarrassed for laughing at another person’s delusions.

3 half stars

Director: Xavier Giannolli

Stars: Catherine Frot, Andre Marcon, Michel Fau

Eddie the Eagle (2016)

69 Eddie the Eagle

Rags-to-riches is the most overdone theme in cinema yet audiences love it as comfort food for the soul. It works particularly well in ‘heart-warming’ and ‘feel-good’ sporting bio-pics based on the ‘hare and tortoise’ tale where the slow plodder eventually wins. Eddie the Eagle (2016) is the plodding tortoise whose obstacles include childhood disability, being gawky and born into a working family at the lower end of the snotty-nosed British class system. But his soul yearns for Olympia, not a medal or glory, just the thrill of competing.

Inspired by the sight of skiers flying like birds, Eddie (Taron Egerton) decides to become Britain’s first-ever entrant in the notoriously dangerous sport of Olympic ski jumping. Undeterred by the fact that top jumpers start at five years old and are built like quilled arrows while Eddie trained for a year and looks like a British meat pie, Eddie puts heart and soul into his dream. He meets heavy-drinking but smart former top jumper Bronson (Hugh Jackman) who teaches Eddie how to fly and more importantly how to land. Of course its not only Eddie’s lack of talent that must be overcome as the pompous British Olympic Committee has no interest in helping a goofy working-class boy to join its proper-speaking elite ranks. To the Committee’s chagrin, the crowds at the 1988 Calgary Winter Olympics saw the tortoise jump (not very far) and loved him for trying. He became a media sensation and a National Hero. Both the true story and this film come closer to showing the beauty of dreams than podiums full of medal-winning super-athletes can ever do.

Egerton’s performance is both the charm and weak point of the film. Gawky single-mindedness is endearing but when it’s the only persona on view feels like a mask that hides someone unknown. Jackman is always drinking or smoking while brooding over his failed ambitions and similarly deprives the role of nuance. But such quibbles are minor in the big picture. The camerawork and special effects are undoubtedly the highpoint of the film (forgive the pun) and the slow-motion freeze-frames in Eddie’s final jump are heart-stoppingly beautiful. Never has winning been less important and never has trying been so heroic. The crowd leaving my cinema all had smiles on their faces and some had tears in their eyes. This is a wonderfully filmed ‘true story’ about the ennobling human values of perseverance and belief in one’s self.

3 half stars

Director: Dexter Fletcher

Stars: Taron Egerton, Hugh Jackman, Tom Costello

Burnt (2015)

65 Burnt

Stories about arrogant perfectionists always make great dramas. Add a few ingredients like coming from a broken home, seeking redemption for a stellar career that crashed, being a bad-tempered bully and you have the ideal flawed hero. But when the story is set amidst gastronomic food porn as in Burnt (2015) you have a recipe for instant interest. A particular draw-card of Burnt is seeing how the engine room of a top restaurant looks at full speed, and while we are there see some glorious close-ups of food-art being created, plated up and served. Little wonder that foodie shows are amongst the highest rated TV programs.

The storyline of Burnt has all the above ingredients, plus eye-candy Bradley Cooper playing chef Adam Jones. He was once the diva of London’s fine dining scene until drugs brought him down and now he’s back for redemption. Nothing less than winning the coveted Michelin three stars will calm him down for his destiny is to to be the “Yoda” of modern haute cuisine. No easy goal in a world where the distance between table cutlery is checked in millimetres. The photography is what makes this story work, with frenzied camera movement from kitchen-wide views to close-ups of plate after glorious plate, beads of sweat running down faces, violent temper outbursts and the melodramatic smashing of various things against walls. The narrative turns on the arrival of Helene (Sienna Miller), the new sous chef in this man’s world of high-stakes gastronomy, followed by the inevitable romantic humanizing of a demon chef. Two less significant sub-stories are thrown into the pot but these are more distractions than anything else, like chef being beaten up by thugs for an unpaid debt and the gay maître de whose love for Adam hangs off his sleeve.

If you are fascinated by fancy cooking there is much to enjoy in this film. The direction is fast-paced and the key acting performances are excellent. Bradly Cooper plays angry arrogance convincingly, Sienna Miller glides seamlessly from hyper-frustration to adoration, and Daniel Bruhl does the gay maître de with plausible restraint. There is an Olympic Games quality to the pursuit of Michelin gold and the elite chefs who are in the race are obviously a breed apart. This is an engaging and entertaining film that will leave you feeling well fed in a cinematic kind of way.

3

Director: John Wells

Stars: Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller, Daniel Bruhl

Infinite (2016) (Short)

66 INFINITE

Short films are the poetry of cinema. Their story arc must unfold in a quick compressed sweep to stir emotion, entertain and make you think. Most do it on a small budget, without diversionary sub-plots, in-depth characterisation or other artifices of cinematic technique. If that’s not enough, the good ones also tell us untold things with images not yet seen. Infinite (2016) does all of this and more.

The film is book-ended with scenes of five youths dancing in the dark around a roaring fire, looking like witches communing with the spirit world instead of an expression of deep friendship between men. Sid is terminally ill and he assembles his four closest friends, asking each to find one symbolic token of his life that will be ritually burnt to create a carbonised memory in the infinite universe. The story premise is implausible until you begin to absorb its emotional power. The friends agree of course, huddled like a supportive womb, holding back tears for his sake, trying to understand what it means for a close friend to die. The dialogue is often hesitant, reflecting the confusion of young men groping in the dark for how to express an inner turmoil that matey banter cannot handle. Sid’s bright-eyed acceptance of his impending fate is disarming and some may think it is underplayed or the scripting is awkward. But these are experienced young actors and their performances reflect reality with an uncommon honesty, depth and softness which we know exists in the male species but is rarely shown on film, let alone in a short.

The camerawork is unusually sensitive, enclosed and inclusive, often in pin-sharp focus with shallow depth of field to isolate grieving souls from harsh reality. The sets have an emotionally sombre yet warm colour palette that seems apt for depicting masculine pathways to manhood, as if a colour can do that. Most rom coms, teen flicks, coming of age and melodramas deal in emotional currency but this one looks at a painful subject in a poetically beautiful way. It may be that as a father of two young men, this film hit me more than it otherwise would: but I don’t think so. It has an arresting quality that demands engagement and whatever limitations exist seem unimportant against what is achieved in this 16-minute little gem of a film.

4

Director: Connor O’Hara

Stars: George MacKay, Rory Saper, Alex Esmail, Elliot Langridge, Alex Lincoln, Rose Williams

(With thanks to LowKey Films London for pre-release access. Readers can track the film via https://www.facebook.com/LOWKEYfilmsuk/?fref=ts )

Rams (2016)

65 RAMS

The family drama is an elastic genre label that is used when nothing else fits. It is an odd label for RAMS (2015), an endearing tale of an unconventional family consisting of two estranged brothers and their rams who live on adjacent farms in Iceland. They have not spoken for 40 years, are fiercely competitive with their prize-winning rams, and sometimes communicate via dog-carried notes or bullets through a window. They love their rams like kinfolk, pet them, kiss them and clearly are devoted shepherds. While the outside world buzzes with social and digital media innovation, life goes on for brothers Gummi and Kiddi as it has for generations amidst the harsh natural beauty of rural Iceland. Their fractious but largely peaceful co-existence is shattered when a highly contagious disease is discovered in the flock and local authorities decree that all must be destroyed.

The story itself is not the point of RAMS. Rather it is a lyrical and immersive insight into life on an Icelandic farm told through sensitive cinematography and understated storytelling. The vast space across rugged wind-swept landscapes have a brutal beauty and enter our viewing space with a chill you can feel. Long camera takes and even longer silences are expressions about the brothers lives in an environment untouched by modernity, with quirky Icelandic wit to brighten a muted colour palette of white and grey. The musical score erupts expressively to accentuate moments of humour, sadness and hope, often with just a few single dramatic piano chords. The scenes where beloved stock must be destroyed brought audible sniffles across my cinema. Through adversity, the brothers are forced to rely on each other and in the process renew something that should not have been lost so long ago.

As an independent film RAMS is free to roam wherever its directorial and storytelling intentions choose and this results in a refreshingly different movie experience. Many will wonder why it has been so highly lauded because the pace is glacially slow, the actors are more like cameo characters, and some will find the concept of loving animals like family a bit weird. But others will see the primal relationship of shepherd to land and flock, be touched by the love that surfaces from under decades of sibling discord, and enjoy an old fashioned story about farm life in a hostile place. The ending is poignant, ambivalent, and a metaphor for the triumph of love and family.

3 half stars

Director: Grimur Hakonarson

Stars: Sigurour Sigurjonsson, Theodor Juliusson

Sherpa (2015)

64 Sherpa

Everyone knows that documentaries tell the truth. Well, at least somebody’s version of the truth. On the one hand there are participative documentaries like Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004) starring its interventionist director Michael Moore, and on the other hand there are observational documentaries like Sherpa (2015) where the camera is the chief story-teller.  Unlike movies, the doco aims for a higher social purpose and in Sherpa it is to show the world how the real glory of climbing Mount Everest belongs to an exploited ethnic group in the mountains of Nepal. As historical gatekeepers for the Himalayas, their existence has depended on risking their lives so that Westerners and others can experience what it feels like “to conquer Everest”.

Australian filmmaker Jennifer Peedom starts out asking why the traditionally friendly Sherpa guides turned aggressive towards tourists in the 2013 climbing season. The widely reported brawl was triggered by a single swear word directed at a Sherpa, igniting tensions that were simmering since Hillary was Knighted for his 1953 ascent while Sherpa Tenzing received lesser credit. In the middle of filming the brawl story, a massive avalanche claimed 16 Sherpa lives. Suddenly it is about the politics of an ethnic group demanding respect, no longer prepared to risk lives for meagre wages from an industry hosting thousands of tourists each year and charging summit climbers $75,000 – $100,000 for the privilege. The camera becomes a witness to tragedy, then grief that turns to anger and political activism. Audiences become judge in a case involving ethnic discrimination and the commercial exploitation of people who have been used as cheap mules. It’s a complex dilemma with no easy solutions because the same commercial interests have done much to improve the lives of Sherpas.

The film shows political sensitivity in telling the story from the Sherpa viewpoint. Its great strengths lie in extraordinary cinematography and sound recording under the most chaotic high-altitude conditions a filmmaker can ever experience. The camera works skilfully across the visual pleasures of vast mountain-scapes to angry grief stricken Sherpa faces and frustrated tourist climbers, with a soundtrack of howling wind, crunching ice and hammering stakes that viscerally create a ‘being there’ feel. Peedom lets the story tell itself without manipulative editing, and it is highly engaging while being informative about a world that few of us will enter. It is beautifully filmed and teaches much about Sherpa life and their struggle for recognition.

4

Director:  Jennifer Peedom

Writer: Jennifer Peedom

Labyrinth of Lies (2014)

63 Labrynth of Lies

Holocaust stories from Schindler’s List (1993) to Son of Saul (2015) penetrate our emotional defences by dragging us right into the horror zone. In Labyrinth of Lies (2014) we are spared this entirely because the horror is of a different kind. The focus is on a nation in denial, desperate to block the collective memories of the generation responsible and prevent the following one from ever knowing. The historical timeframe depicted is critical to grasping the power of this story. Set in 1958 Germany, thirteen years after the war, the economy is booming but the nation’s older generation struggle with guilt and anger while the young have not even heard of Auschwitz. Produced in Germany, this film is an illuminating piece of the historical puzzle and part of a nation’s prolonged atonement.

The storyline is linear and uncomplicated. A journalist recognises a former Nazi commander of Auschwitz now working as a schoolteacher, but he cannot elicit any interest from public prosecutors. He befriends young lawyer Johann Radmann who processes parking fines but is desperate to take on serious cases. Despite ridicule from colleagues he is made lead investigator and gradually learns about the secret killing factories of Auschwitz. The labyrinth he encounters is one of silence and lies, as large numbers of public servants and others in positions of power were former members of the Nazi Party and many were morally complicit in Hitler’s Final Solution. Along the way, he becomes the obsessive hunter as the investigation keeps getting bigger until it is all-consuming. A romantic sub-story is awkwardly woven into the plot both to humanise Radmann and show the destructive impact that the investigation has on his life. The filming and sets convey the period with authenticity, and the directing is tight although the script is heavy. It takes almost the entire film to expose the full-scale truth, and the results of the investigations are dealt with swiftly as a cinematic necessity.

No doubt some people watch Holocaust films for entertainment, but many more do so searching for understanding of this extraordinary period of history. Labyrinth of Lies is important because it fills the gap between war’s end in 1945 and the world’s slow awakening to what happened at Auschwitz. In particular, it explains how the truth was kept from young Germans oblivious to what their parents did in the war and shows powerful hands on the blanket of silence. Like Spotlight (2015), the story starts by looking at the tip of an iceberg that grew until it overwhelmed a nation. It has an engaging thriller quality that is maintained to the very end.

3 half stars

Director: Giulio Ricciarelli

Stars: Andre Szymanski, Alexander Fehling, Friederike Becht

Salt (2010)

63 Salt

It is said that films are easy to understand and hard to explain but the concept of genre can help make sense of what we see. Salt (2010) is an excellent example of a film that is challenging to explain because it’s a complete mashup of several genres. For a start its an espionage thriller, a genre dating from the silent film era that peaked during the Space Race and Cold War when spying between superpowers reached epic proportions. They are usually stories about opposing core values like democracy versus totalitarianism with the two Goliaths in the background and spies doing the hard work. Salt mixes in two extra genre strands to spice things up: the fantasy superhero and the action adventure. These allow the film to not worry about things like narrative coherence and believability, thus allowing the director to freely range over time and space to create sound and motion for pure entertainment.

Evelyn Salt (Angeline Jolie) is a CIA officer devoted to protecting America and good guys everywhere in the world. During the interrogation of a Russian defector she is accused of being a Soviet sleeper agent. With limited presumption of innocence, she faces investigation and makes a run for freedom which appears to confirm the accusation. In the rest of the film she keeps on running, shooting, bombing, jumping from great heights and walking on walls like a spider. As the CIA is shooting to kill, she heads for the Soviet camp and has to do more killing to prove that she was really a double agent all the time. She wreaks havoc on the Soviets and escapes for home to save the world from nuclear destruction while the body count keeps rising. Was she a triple agent all the time? Or a quadruple?

Without the Jolie appeal this film would have no legs.  Despite the unspeakable things that happen to her, bruises and lacerations heal marvellously fast and the makeup is quickly fixed. The athletic and aesthetic action scenes are a delight for the male gaze and her triumph over hapless men is a plus for the feminist cause: its win-win all round. Fortunately, the filming is excellent, the pace unrelenting, and the special effects editing is tight enough to not ask much of audiences in suspending their disbelief. The narrative timeframes switch often and without warning, but if you can believe the things that Jolie does in this film, narrative is the least of your concerns in this very entertaining but logic-defying film.

3

Director: Phillip Noyce

Stars: Angelina Jolie, Liev Schrieber

Eye in the Sky (2015)

Eye in the Sky

The war film genre enables us to confront the realities of war by venting our inner fears and indulging our conceits of victory. But there are many kinds of war film.  Depending on theme and purpose, war films can be a hybrid of the adventure, history, drama, thriller, science fiction and even comedy genres. They have recently morphed from trench-and-tank settings to globally dispersed and armchair directed war rooms with real-time engagement resembling a video game with highly sophisticated and deadly accurate killing technology. Far from fantasy war, Eye in the Sky (2015) raises moral and political dilemmas that potentially touch every citizen. Can you imagine one day democratically sharing the decision to bomb a target via your iPhone?

The story unfolds over a few hours when Colonel Katherine Powell (Helen Mirren) and Lt. Col. Frank Benson (the late Alan Rickman) must convince their political masters to change a ‘capture’ to a ‘kill’ mission when they unexpectedly get the opportunity to wipe out several top ranking terrorists in Nairobi. After getting the necessary political and military approvals, a weak link opens up at the trigger pulling end of the chain of command when the soldier authorised to fire the missile sees a young girl near the kill zone. It’s a classic morality play: do you save the girl and risk losing the opportunity to eliminate several really bad people who are being fitted with suicide vests that could kill hundreds of innocents? The resulting drama appears fast-paced but is more notable for what does not happen rather than what does because buck-passing between decision-makers delays the critical moment. It’s a tense thriller matched by sharp camerawork in what feels like real-time, making the audience both witnesses and judges of the events as they happen.

Mirren and Rickman are superb in their roles. Both skilfully portray the stresses and frustrations of working between the world of the professional soldier and that of the politician. This is not your standard war film and is more about the political dynamics of how war will be waged in the future. While miniaturised beetle drones transmitting high definition video from inside Satan’s den looks more like fantasy than war science, remember that almost half a century ago similar things were said about the HAL 9000 computer in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).  The history of Sci-Fi shows that today’s imaginings is tomorrow’s reality. So the moral dilemmas in this film are very real. Eye in the Sky stands out as both a thoroughly gripping film and a consciousness raising experience.

4

Director: Gavin Hood

Stars: Helen Mirren, Alan Rickman, Aaron Paul

Crushed (2015)

Crushed copy

Australian filmmakers have strong form with thrillers, especially when set in our natural environment of wide red earth and rugged bushland as in the iconic Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) and Wolf Creek (2005). Novice writer-director Megan Riakos innovates in the genre by setting Crushed (2015) in a working vineyard in rural New South Wales.  This produces a picturesque stage for a gripping thriller that delivers far more than seems possible with a tiny production budget, dozen or so actors and handful of creatives. Particularly praiseworthy is the beautiful cinematography that captures the ambience of a vigneron’s life and its contrast with the lingering menace of an unexplained death. The crushing of grapes and a daughter’s quest for the truth become the binding metaphor for the story.

The plotline is based on estranged young Ellia returning to the family vineyard after learning of her father’s apparently accidental death. As she re-enters a world she fled because of family tensions, everyone becomes a possible murder suspect and the web of suspicion grows beyond the family to include police and neighbours. Several red-herrings are dangled in fine Hitchcockian form, like the obvious uncle with the lethal glare who appears well-settled in a relationship with her mother, and it eventually emerges that almost everyone disliked her father. She is increasingly isolated and vulnerable, and even her policeman boyfriend becomes a sinister threat. For a novice director to continue building tension and plot developments throughout most of the film is quite an achievement, and the off-the-shoulder camera work adds a nervy pace to balance the fine classical framing of vineyard landscapes with anxious close-ups.

At the film’s Sydney preview Q & A session, Riakos enthused that her team opted for independence rather than the usual professional funding and assistance pathways in making Crushed. In some respects it shows. The acting ensemble could have used an experienced star persona who might have lifted and evened out performances where needed. For example, in the film’s final moments when three characters are entangled in discussion with a knife against one throat and a rifle ready to fire at others, none plausibly show fear or emotional stress. There are also parts of the narrative arc that show signs of over-cooking. Hitchcock knew that less is more: one death can make a taut thriller and five can make a farce.  As with so many films, the ending does little justice to the effort but its high-points clearly hover above its limitations. Overall, its a gripping story in a beautiful place that shows great promise for its creator.

3

Writer-Director: Megan Riakos

Stars: Sarah Bishop, Les Hill, Roxanne Wilson

Dirty Grandpa (2016)

Dirty Grandpa

After watching Dirty Grandpa (2016) my first reaction was how quickly can I flush this movie from memory? Top critics around the globe have panned it as awful, crude and unfunny, despite it starring the venerable Robert De Niro and quickly earning $90 M (USD) in box office from a $11.5 M (USD) outlay (beating many other well-reviewed films). Have the critics been overly swayed by the film’s puerile humour, vulgar language and incongruous adolescent antics played out by a grandfather figure? And while we are talking ageism and gender equality, why has the foul-mouthed Grandma (2015) starring the also revered Lily Tomlin been reviewed so kindly when the story themes are not that different? With so many films featuring outrageous language, humour, and behaviour, could it be a bridge too far when a 73-year old cinema icon swansongs an illustrious career in such a subversive anti-establishment way?

In genre terms, this is a standard father and son road film where self-discovery, redemption and familial bonding are the destinations, similar to Nebraska (2013). Grandpa has literally just buried his wife after 40 years of marriage and uses the sympathy card to trick his estranged grandson Jason (Zac Efron) into driving the three-day road trip that was planned with his wife. Jason is an uptight conservative lawyer about to marry his boss’s snooty over-controlling daughter and his future as a corporate partner appears secure. With the wedding only a week away, the trip becomes an odyssey of booze, karaoke, a beach ‘flex-off’, girl chasing and other bawdy behaviour. Grandpa calling their pink convertible Mini Cooper the ‘giant labia’ sums up the tone of the journey. Along the way, Jason finds his undiscovered self, revisits his closet ambition to be a photo-journalist, and his tidy life plans look shaky. The rest you can guess.

Standard comedic stuff, you might say, sure to get a laugh. So what went wrong? This is another film that almost worked, but poor post-production decisions cost it dearly. Editing out excesses of gratuitous profanities, juvenile hip-thrusting and other genital and coital references might have appeased the baying hounds and lifted this comedy to another level. But then it would not have been Dirty Grandpa. Maybe when grandpa De Niro says the trip is “not about guilt but redemption” he is referring to the casting straitjacket he has worn in so many films with this one his last chance to break out. While this film will not do much for the De Niro legacy, if you can ignore the inane smut you will find some laughs. Anyway, why cant baby boomers let it out?

2 half stars copy

Director:  Dan Mazer

Stars:  Robert De Niro, Zac Efron, Zoey Deutch

The Witch (2015)

59 The Witch

The two most primal human emotions are love and fear which explains why ‘romance’ and ‘horror’ are two of the oldest genres in literature, theatre and film. The horror film The Witch (2015) belongs to an ancient line of storytelling about the unseen things that drive irrational fear. It’s a film with echoes of Arthur Miller’s iconic 1953 play and 1996 film The Crucible about the mass hysteria generated by religious zealotry in the 17th century Puritan colonies of America. The bigger history links to tens of thousands of invariably female ‘witches’ who were publicly executed from the 15th to the early 19th centuries across different parts of the world in the name of religion (see Malleus Maleficarum, the Papal decree authorizing the killings). There is the weight of history behind The Witch so sceptics should not dismiss the story as occultist fantasy.  This particular film is not your standard horror with floating sheets or flying broomstick-type special effects, but a tale based on what we know of the history of religion and its battle with satanic adversaries.

Set in the woods of New England, it’s a story of a devout God-fearing family that is excommunicated by the colony’s religious elders for “prideful conceit” and banished to the wilderness. Marital and spiritual tension is high and life is brutal on a farm that produces too little for two adults and five children to survive. The youngest, a baby, mysteriously disappears while being minded by the eldest daughter Thomasin. This inexplicable event is followed by a series of happenings that on their own might be explainable but as a pattern raise the question of whether evil forces are at work. Eerie appearances of menacing forms, staring animal eyes, and faint hints of erotic occultism create a gothic terror atmosphere, all without the use of ‘cheap’ digital effects. As the family slowly disintegrates, Thomasin’s coming of age becomes her entry into a world of fallen women whose faith could not protect them from the fearful unknown.

The power of this story lies in its ability to trace in small and believable steps the circumstances leading towards a young girl being accused of witchcraft and her actual progression into the dark world of the occult. The sets, costumes, and an old-English style script give the film authenticity and reflect production values beyond its modest budget. The brave mix of historical drama, horror and fantasy results in an engaging story with all the hallmarks of an independent production that stands out from the pack. Some will find the ending fanciful but whether you read it literally or metaphorically, this is a gem of a film and will be the best you will see in the horror genre for a long time.

3

Director: Robert Eggers

Stars: Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie