Wednesday, 13 February 2019

Feb 14th
If Beale Street Could Talk
At Eternity's Gate
Arctic

Another week for films with Oscar nominations. These are amazingly diverse thematically, all strong in their own unique way, and once more testament to the art of independent non-mainstream film-making. 

If Beale Street Could Talk
Director: Barry Jenkins
Length: 119 min
© EOne - maximum romance - maximum anguish
when yet again, an Afro-american is falsely imprisoned
With three Oscar nominations to its name, plus another 67 wins and 133 nominations in other festivals, this is a much anticipated film. Based on a novel by James Baldwin, it is set in Harlem in the 1970s, and, like last week's The Hate U Giveit again highlights the injustices done to the Afro-American community. Tish (Kiki Lane) and Fonny (Stephan James) are young lovers with their lives ahead of them, that is until Fonny is framed for a rape he never committed. The film moves between Tish's visits to her lover, as she progressively swells with their baby, the increasingly futile attempts to get justice for him, and the past tracing the trajectory of their incredible over-the-top romantic love affair. Jenkins already won Best Picture for Moonlight in 2017, and he again proves what a fine director he is. The transcendent beauty of the intensely romantic love between Tish and Fonny is in stark contrast to the ugly reality of the prison world, and the corrupt justice system stacked against blacks. Here's yet another film still as relevant today as it was then.
4 - highly recommended!

At Eternity's Gate
Director: Julian Schnabel
Length: 111 min
© Transmission - Dafoe could almost be 
Vincent Van Gogh come back to life.
Quite simply, this film traces the life of painter Vincent Van Gogh (Willem Dafoe), during the time he lived in the southern French town of Arles near the end of his life. Schnabel is trying to get inside the artist's head - to use film as a medium for expressing the intensity of Van Gogh's need to paint, and his amazing perception of color. The camera work is remarkable, swirling around the subject matter in the way Vincent's thick paint swirled on the canvas. Scenes of natural beauty within the film are as beautiful as paintings themselves. It's really something that needs to be seen, as did Loving Vincent, the film that animated Van Gogh's paintings to tell a similar story. Dafoe virtually inhabits his character and is nominated for a Best Actor award. Some people judge films like this as too slow - I see them as something to be relished - almost frame by frame - a true celebration of the life of a misunderstood, somewhat unstable genius.
4 - highly recommended!


Arctic
Director: Joe Penna
Length: 97 min
Exclusive to Sun Yarraville, Lido Hawthorn, Classic Elsternwick, Cameo Belgrave
© Umbrella - survival in an unforgiving wilderness. 
Mads gives a great performance. 
For fans of the survival genre film, here's one for you. A man, Overgard,  (Mads Mikkelsen) becomes stranded in the Arctic after his plane crashes. Hopeful of being rescued, he is thrown further into crisis when he must be responsible for a woman (Maria Smaradottir), who has also met with an accident. This is survival at its most harsh, and strong visual film-making that must have cost the cast and crew many near frost-bitten moments. Shot in the deep north of Iceland in winter it looks fabulous, (a nominee for last year's Golden Camera award) but the action is at times painstakingly slow. I guess that's the point - to follow the gruelling journey of this man, and to feel his pain and steely determination. Self-preservation versus altruism is at the forefront of the story, and it is to Mikkelsen's credit that, with hardly any dialogue, he masters every nuanced look, so critical to getting the audience to engage with him. I like the fact that no backstory is given (it is not needed) and that the ends are not neatly tied up. 
3.5 - well recommended!

Friday, 8 February 2019

Feb 7th
Capharnaüm
On the Basis of Sex
The Hate U Give

It's another week where two of the three films reviewed have overwhelmed me with their power, their themes, their tackling of injustice, their compassion and their fine film-making. And just to reiterate, my scoring is often so high because I simply don't go to see those films I think will not be so good. Why waste two hours of one's life!?

Capharnaüm
Director: Nadine Labaki
Length: 126 min
© Madman - your heart will break for the lives
of the many poor and refugee people in this film.
This is Lebanon's entry for Best Foreign Language Film in the forthcoming Oscars. First the question on everyone's lips - why the title? Not to be completely confused with the Biblical town, (both may have similar derivations) - it means a confused disorderly jumble. When outlining her film's themes, director Labaki had so many that the title evolved. It is the lives of the characters that are in total disarray. This is the story of Zain, about 12 years old (no he has no birth papers) who lives in a slum area of Beirut with many siblings and abusive parents struggling to get by. When the father sells 11-year-old sister Sahar into marriage Zain runs away, and is given shelter by an illegal Ethiopian immigrant Rahil, who has a young baby Jonas. When Rahil suddenly disappears Zain is left to attempt to protect and care for the baby, stealing and working street jobs. This is a remarkable piece of film-making, straddling documentary and fiction. Most of the actors were pulled from the streets, their real lives mirroring those of the characters they play. The young lead boy (Zain al Rafeea) is simply mesmerising, as, with a doggedness and responsibility, he does whatever it takes to care for the baby, before ultimately going to court to sue his parents for ever bringing him into the world. Yordanos Shiferaw as Rahil similarly was an illegal immigrant when pulled in for the role, and as for the baby, the little girl Treasure playing the impish Jonas is beyond adorable. All these actors bring the truth of the pain of their lives to this wonderful film, that has already risen to my top 10 for the just-started year.
4.5 - wholeheartedly recommended!

On the Basis of Sex
Director: Mimi Leder
Length: 120 min
© EOne - fabulous subject matter - not totally
sure about the directorial approach
Here's a biopic where it becomes hard to separate strong subject matter from film-making technique. Last year we saw the excellent doco RBG about US Supreme court judge Ruth Bader Ginsberg, an inspirational woman who spearheaded the fight for gender equality and many other social inequities. Here's the feature film version starring British rose Felicity Jones as aforesaid Ruth, and the impossibly handsome Armie Hammer as her husband Martin. The film traces the early years of Ruth's getting into Harvard law school, in an era where women were expected to be wives and mothers, and mainly men were accepted to the bar. When Martin finds a taxation law case discriminating against a man, Ruth takers on the might of the legal patriarchy to mount a case of gender discrimination. It's a nicely acted film, with an extremely important historical theme, but it employs, especially in the early part, too many cliched film-making techniques. And the soundtrack, which I refer to as "jaunty choofing-along music", annoyed me immensely and detracted from the gravitas of the story. Nonetheless it's a good recreation of the era, and in the second half, where more silence is employed and legal thrust and parry get more intense, the film definitely lifts its game. Despite flaws, the film is worth a look, but I preferred the doco.
3 - recommended!

The Hate U Give
Director: George Tillman Jnr
Length: 133 min
© Fox - I haven't been so angry in a film for a 
long time - racial injustice yet again
This film has just blown me away. Based upon a young adult novel, it is the story of Starr (Amandla Stenberg), a black teen at a white private school, living almost a dual life with two distinct styles of presenting herself to the world, her schoolgirl "white" self, and her ghetto black self. All is going well until she is sole witness to her childhood pal Khalil (Algee Smith) killed by a white policeman. As tensions mount within the rival black gangs in her neighbourhood, and within the black community as a whole against white injustices, Starr must decide if she has the courage to stand up and speak out. There are simply too many issues and themes to enumerate in this important, gripping and moving story, but Tillman handles them deftly, never preaching, but never shying from the hard truths of what hatred means, both between the races and within a neighborhood. The title comes from a song by murdered rapper Tupac Shakur, THUGLIFE (The Hate U Give Little Infants F...s Everyone). How relevant is this in a world, regardless of color, that still hasn't learned that lesson. The performance by Stenberg moved me to tears, (and every other cast member is simply brilliant), the rampant ignorance and prejudice enraged me, the family connections inspired me, and overall this is one mighty fine movie, not just for young adults but all of us.
4.5 - wholeheartedly recommended!



Thursday, 31 January 2019


January 31st
Ben is Back
Free Solo
Front Runner

With the Oscars coming up on 25th Feb, and nominations out, all eyes are on the movie world. Many of those films have already been released in Oz, and some are yet to come. A contender for Best Doco is among this week's reviews, in another week of strong films that I've really enjoyed. 

Ben is Back
Director: Peter Hedges
Length: 103 min
© Roadshow -Julia Roberts gives one of her best 
performances ever. 
This is the gut-wrenching story of Ben, who is in rehab for heroin addiction, but unexpectedly returns home for Christmas. Mum Holly (Julia Roberts) is seemingly delighted. She has two younger kids to second husband Neil (Courtney B Vance), and they are overjoyed to have their brother back but Ben's sister Ivy (Kathryn Newton) is more skeptical, having seen the destruction Ben can wreak on family life. This is a showcase for one of Roberts' best performances ever, as the mother whose unconditional love will be tested to the max over a 24-hour period. Rising star Lucas Hedges, (Manchester by the SeaBoy Erased) gives another powerful and convincing performance. (Yes, writer/director Hedges is the real-life father of Lucas.) Anyone with knowledge of drug addiction will no doubt feel quite uneasy at this understated, yet dauntingly accurate depiction of a tragic and vexatious situation. The film is careful not to demonise people (except maybe the money-hungry dealers), looking at all possible contributors to what is an increasingly common situation. It is further to the film's credit that it opts for no easy answers at the disturbing conclusion.

4 - highly recommended!

Free Solo
Director: Jimmy Chin, Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi
Length: 100 min
© Madman - heart-stopping tension as Alex attempts
a death-defying climb - without ropes!
Nominated for Best Doco at the upcoming Oscars, this is a heart-stopping, possibly life-threatening doco for viewers with vertigo. Fearless film-makers and cameramen follow Alex Honnold as he becomes the first person to "free solo" El Capitan in Yosemite National Park USA. The imposing rock formation is over 1000 m high, and free soloing means Alex does it without any safety gear. The technical challenges involved in making the film are remarkable, but more unbelievable is the fearlessness of this brave (or crazy?) young man, who must execute the climb perfectly - or plunge to his death! Alex's practice routine is painstakingly followed, his inner psyche explored, along with the newly found love interest that of necessity changes his outlook and the stakes. The visuals are sublime, the thrills and tension almost unbearable, and this is a worthy homage to an athlete who'd be among the most extraordinary in the world.
4.5 - wholeheartedly recommended (unless you fear heights)!

The Front Runner
Director: Jason Reitman
Length: 113 min
© Sony - Jackman is strong in this solid political 
tale of a man brought down by his wandering eye.
As a candidate for the 1988 US presidential elections, Senator Gary Hart was hands-down favourite. That was until the press got wind of an extra-marital affair. Rather than be hounded into the ground, Hart chose to withdraw from the race. This feature film version of the sad and sorry episode stars Hugh Jackman as the doomed candidate. I don't agree with the many ho-hum reviews - this is an excellently crafted film, which certainly resonates with today's US political scene, as does the ever-fraught issue of paparazzi and tabloid journalism vs ethical reporting. With the current focus on powerful men's sexual behaviour, it is also strongly relevant to today's world.  Jackman is powerfully good in this role, bringing a nuance to a man who obviously had good political ideas, but personal weaknesses. Vera Farmiga as Hart's wife is also a fine screen presence. The supporting cast is uniformly strong, especially JK Simmons as Hart's campaign manager. It's great to exit a film and be able chew over its many moral issues that still concern us today.
4 - highly recommended!


Thursday, 24 January 2019

January 24th
Green Book
Storm Boy
The Mule



Three excellent films are reviewed today - but I'm starting to think perhaps I'm scoring too highly! For Green Book my initial reaction is to say Unmissable, while the other two are an instinctive 4 rating for me (highly recommended). But maybe I should be a touch harsher and curb my enthusiasm, as none break any new film ground, but each of them is absolutely enjoyable and really well executed -  to the max. Regardless of arbitrary scores,  you won't go wrong seeing any of these films. 

Green Book
Director: Peter Farrelly
Length: 130 min
© EOne - Mortenson and Ali may be an odd couple - 
but how well they connect
Funny, uplifting and relentlessly heartwarming, Green Book is already sure to make my Top 10 for 2019. Inspired by a true life friendship, it tells the story of African-American pianist Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali), who decides to tour the American south with his jazz trio. It's 1962 and Don feels in need of protection, so hires driver Tony Vallelonga (Viggo Mortenson), a tough Italian-American from the Bronx. The "Green Book for Negro Motorists"  will guide them to acceptable segregated hotel accommodation, but what will help them to understand each other? The film already has umpteen awards to its name, and rightly so. Ali's memorable performance as the Doc, not black enough for his people and too black for the white world, is simply breathtaking, while Mortenson is as brilliant as ever. The gradual friendship that develops between these two guys will melt your heart, while underlying themes of racism, belonging and compassion are subtly ever-present. The script feels never less than 100% authentic, peppered with poignant, witty and downright funny moments. The musical soundtrack is just too good, with blues, sixties rock and the Shirley trio's cutting edge jazz. As a homage to shared humanity, and an absolute entertainment, this is a total winner.  
4.5 - wholeheartedly recommended!

Storm Boy
Director: Shawn Seet
Length: 99 min
© Sony - prepare to get the tissues out - 
friendship and feathers feature in this delightful film
Colin Thiele's beloved book was first made into a film in 1976, and here it is again flapping its way back into our hearts. This time the story starts in the present day, where the boy Mike (aka Storm Boy) is now a Grandpa (Geoffrey Rush is the adult, Finn Little the boy). Mike's family company is about to sign a mining lease that will affect both the environment and the Aboriginal community. Mike's granddaughter Maddie earnestly opposes the deal, while her father (Mike's son) is ready to roll. Within this framework Gramps tells Maddie of his childhood years, living an isolated life with his dad, Hideaway Tom (Jai Courtney) in the Coorong wetlands of South Australia. There he adopted three baby pelicans whose mother was shot by hunters. One of those birds, Mr Percival, became a beloved pet. This is an interweaving of a heartfelt story of love, loss and environmental damage back in the old days, and love, loss and environmental damage in the present day. Some critics don't like the modern day interruption to the classic story - for me it's a reasonably smart way of getting an important message across, but the real power of the film is in the story of the boy and his feathered friend, and the boy and his father. The friendship developed between Mike, Tom and another loner, Fingerbone Bill (Trevor Jamieson), is sublimely handled. Despite the current Rush controversy, and the liberties taken with the original tale, I find this a simply beautiful film, with exquisite cinematography, a profoundly moving performance by Little, and a feel-good feathery tour-de-force from the bird department.
3.5- well recommended!

The Mule
Director: Clint Eastwood
Length: 116 min
© Roadshow - Clint is ever the master director and
a powerful screen presence
Another film "inspired" by a true story: Earl Stone is almost 90 and not popular with his family. He has spent a life more committed to his horticultural pursuits than to people. Now alone and broke he takes a driving job only to discover he has become a courier for a Mexican drug cartel. Meantime the Chicago Drug Enforcement Agency are mounting a huge drug bust campaign spearheaded by the chief (Laurence Fishburne), and his operatives Bates (Bradley Cooper) and sidekick (Michael Pena). This film is funny, poignant and, as always, a showcase for the directorial and acting talents of aging icon Eastwood, who anchors the film's plot, which could otherwise be just another drug trafficking story. The Mexican Cartel dudes vary from almost pleasant (Andy Garcia as Laton, the head honcho who lives an outrageously decadent lifestyle) to downright scary. The character of Earl, though he has done reprehensible things, is given plenty of likable idiosyncrasies by Eastwood. One could argue there's a modicum of predictability to the story, but it's terrifically entertaining, and hey - who can resist the wrinkly charm of Clint on the big screen. 
3.5 - well recommended!



Wednesday, 16 January 2019

January 17th
Loro
Mary Queen of Scots
Glass


Things are hotting up. More films are being released by the week, and now we've just had the Critics' Choice Awards with some strong films and performances getting the nod.  
Loro
Director: Paolo Sorrentino
Length: 150 min
Exclusive to ACMI, Lido Hawthorn, Nova
© Love him or hate him, Silvio Berlusconi
is a memorable character!
For anyone who saw The Great Beauty, you know what a marvellous visual directorial sense Sorrentino has. It's all here, leaping off the screen, in this glorious, over-the-top story of infamous Italian PM Silvio Berlusconi, impressively portrayed by Toni Servillo. The film follows two threads - Silvio and his decadent lifestyle, and Sergio (Riccardo Scamarcio), a vulgar pimp who'll stop at nothing to get himself noticed by the upper echelons of power. The film is at once satirical, an amazing portrayal of abuses of power and over-indulgence, and a fascinating look at a man who is both to be pitied and despised. There's a lot of flesh and non-PC stuff happening here, but whatever you think of the man and his shenanigans, you won't be bored in this over-the-top portrayal of politically incorrect politics.
4 - highly recommended!

Glass
Director: M Knight Shyamalan
Length: 150 min
© Disney - Superheroes, or ordinary folk with
special powers? 
Characters from Shyamalan's previous films Unbreakable and Split come together in this mind-bending finale to the trilogy. The plot features themes of split personality, superheroes, psychiatric institutions, comic books and faith in one's own abilities. A tall order indeed, and perhaps a little over-ambitious, with too many convoluted concepts. Security guard David Dunn (Bruce Willis) views himself as a saviour of those in distress, but after he rescues a quartet of captive girls from serial killer Kevin Crumb (James McAvoy) both he and Crumb end up in a psychiatric hospital where Elijah (Samuel L Jackson), known as Mr Glass, is also a patient. There they are treated by Dr Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson) who specialises in handling people who perceive themselves as superheroes. Best not to say too much more, for fear of spoilers. Things head in quite an unexpected direction, with a lot of philosophical prognosticating at the end. I'm not too keen on the casting of Paulson, but the three lead men are excellent, especially McAvoy, as he reprises his character who suffers from multiple personality disorder. The critics seem split, with a leaning towards the negative. Glass will never be as good as Shyamalan's first, The Sixth Sense, but it dished up plenty of thrills and entertainment for me (despite several troubling plot holes!).
3.5 - well recommended!

Mary Queen of Scots
Director: Josie Rourke
Length: 124min
© Universal - royal history brought to life
with a feminist perspective
The supposed lack of accuracy in this film's plotline has enraged some critics. Straight upfront - I'm no history buff so have no idea what is and isn't accurate about these depictions of two rival monarchs. Widowed at 18, Mary (Saiorse Ronan) returns to Scotland from a royal life in France, and claims her right to the Scottish throne. But Queen Elizabeth 1 (Margot Robbie)  rules both England and Scotland. This film examines the difficult role both women play, ruling among a sea of power-hungry men, and also the admiration and rivalry between them. There is a welcome modern feminist sensibility to the portrayals of these strong females and Robbie particularly is quite charismatic as Liz 1. The film toggles between the political machinations of both courts and at times it gets a bit bogged down and convoluted. At other moments baffling stylistic pretensions overwhelm (both set-wise and musically), but overall the period is brought to the screen in a way that makes the era believable. Guy Pearce as the wily Cecil is terrific, as are the various suitors sent from Liz to Mary to attempt to broker a controlled peace. For fans of period drama, a worthy watch.
3 - recommended!

Wednesday, 9 January 2019

January 10th
Pick of the Litter


Seems it's either feast or famine, and this week I've only got a mega-cutesy puppy film to review. 

Pick of the Litter
Dir: Don Hardy Jnr, Dana Nachman
Length: 81 min 
© Madman - how cute can it get?
It's won many audience awards. How could something so full of cute puppies fail to be appealing, but the doco also tells an important story - how pups are trained to be guide dogs for the blind. We follow a litter of five for two years - the so-called "P" litter - Patriot, Potomac, Primrose, Poppet and Phil. Each is fostered out to a private family or individual, and then, depending on the dog's perceived strengths, it will go on to be a breeder, get further training, or have a "change of career". I'm not a huge "doggy person", but I found myself charmed, and barracking for certain dogs to make the grade. The film is also testament to the love and patience of the trainers, but one thing seemed lacking for me - the in-depth specifics of how the dogs are taught to respond to the various, and often very complex, commands. I got a level of insight, but not as much as I would have liked. Nevertheless, this is a must-see for dog-lovers, as well as an informative and delightful entertainment for all.
3.5 - well recommended! 

Awards season is off and running
With the 2019 Golden Globes done and dusted this week, it's the start of a frenetic awards season culminating in the Oscars on 22nd February.
As you know, I adored Bohemian Rhapsody and was delighted to see Rami Malek get his just reward for the amazing portrayal of Queen frontman, Freddie Mercury. Glenn Close is also a worthy recipient of Best Actress for her performance in The Wife.
Watching Jeff Bridges accept the Cecil B De Mille award made me want to watch all his films once more. 
And, reviewing my Top 10, which was really a top umpteen, I've added Vice and Roma into my "almost made the top 10" list.

If you missed it, you can revisit my top films for 2018 at:
http://hurstosfiveminutefilms.blogspot.com/2018/12/december-20th-colette-top-films-of-2018.html
     

Wednesday, 2 January 2019

January 1st - 2019
Eighth Grade
Aquaman

Happy New Year movie lovers! While I hear the films targeted at the kids are terrific (How To Train Your Dragon, Mary Poppins Returns), I'm not looking at them, but at one new comedy full of teen angst, and something not in my usual area - a superhero saga. 

Eighth Grade
Dir: Bo Burnham 
Length: 93 min 
© Sony - adolescence is stunningly portrayed in 
this winning film 
Kayla Day (Elsie Fisher) is, in many ways, a typical teen - insecure, obsessed with social media, and finding her way through a painful early adolescence. Her dad Mark (Josh Hamilton) is struggling as a single parent, making the usual parental faux pas, and struggling to keep the lines of communication open with his sometimes loving but mostly surly daughter. Kayla runs a video blog from her room, coaching other early teens on how to get on in life, even though she herself is battling with bullying, lack of confidence, and navigating the minefield that is boys and burgeoning sexuality. You don't have to be a teen to love this funny, charming and compassionate film - it has the power to take you back to all those mortifying memories. Everything about Kayla and the people in her life feels spot-on authentic, and the director never allows movie gloss to interfere with a real portrait of what growing up is like - pimples and all. Not yet 16, young Fisher blitzes the role and is nominated for this years' Golden Globes. 
4 - highly recommended! 

Aquaman
Dir: James Wan
Length: 143 min 
© Warner Bros -  born to be a legendary king -
he's sure got the physique for it
When Queen Atlanta (Nicole Kidman) is washed up on the shore from the underwater kingdom of Atlantis, she is rescued by lighthouse keeper Tom (Temuera Morrison). Their love results in a son, Arthur (Jason Momoa). The Queen is forced to return to the watery depths, while her young son grows up learning the ways of both land dwellers and sea creatures. When the watery realm finally threatens war on the land-lubbers, it is up to the now buffed superhero Arthur has become, to save, and maybe unite, the two worlds. This is an overly long bunch of soggy silliness . . . but I found myself enjoying it for what it is, not the least because the leading man is an absolutely hypnotic and very sexy screen presence. I counted about 8 films of which this one is derivative (among them Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Crouching Tiger . . . the list goes on), and it has way too much of the pow! kazoom! boom! comic book action, full of supersonic weaponry and repetitive battle scenes. But many of the digitally created scenes are quite beautiful to look at, stars like Willem Dafoe add some clout, and Kidman is good in her unusual role. At times the dialogue is cheesily awful and predictable, but for a bit of mindless fun (except for its overt messages about living in peace etc), this one should fit the bill.
3 - recommended!