Thursday, 23 February 2017

February 23 2017:  
The Family

By the time the next blog comes along the Oscars will have come and gone. Ultimately they are not the final arbiter of what's the best in movie-land. But it is a strong field this year, and I'll eagerly wait the outcome. Meantime a couple of non-Oscar contenders release this week, both worth seeing.  

The Family
Director: Rosie Jones
Length: 98 min

© Label Distribution -  beware cult leaders who think
they are the Messiah!

This chilling doco looks at the police investigation into a cult known as The Family, which operated strongly in Melbourne from the 1960s to the 90s (and still has a few members floating about!) A self-styled messiah called Anne Hamilton-Byrne formed the group, with support from Melburnians high up in politic and academia. She "acquired" children by various underhand means, bringing them up in shocking conditions, involving cruelty, deprivation and LSD. To the outside world they appeared as happy little home-schooled look-alikes, mostly with dyed white-blonde hair. The film unfolds layer by layer like a thriller, exposing the sordid details through interviews with surviving members of the cult, and the police officers who ran the case. This is a gripping and disturbing history, which makes for interesting viewing, but at times it becomes somewhat convoluted and confusing, due to the time shifts, the copious archival material and the great number of talking heads presenting their stories.

3 - recommended!
For a longer review from Bernard Hemingway go to:

Director: Kleber Mendonca Filho
Length: 142 min
Exclusive to Cinema Nova, Melbourne
© Rialto - Sonia Braga plays Clara, a strong woman
to be reckoned with
Sonia Braga is one of Brazil's foremost actors. Here she plays Clara, in an award-winning, remarkable but challenging film about a woman who refuses to sell her apartment to developers. I say challenging because it is the type of film that wows the critics, but may have less appeal to mainstream movie goers. The movie takes its time unhurriedly to establish aspects of Clara's life - a reprieve from early breast cancer, her love of music (both passion and career-wise), and her attachment to her apartment opposite the sea in Recife, Brazil, where she has always lived and raised her family. The film works on two levels - a personal one, in which a dwelling can be seen as a repository of a person's emotions and history, and the broader societal level in which progress steamrolls through, heedless of the damage it causes to people's lives. As the construction company ups the ante in its attempts to get Clara to sell, the movie takes on an almost thrilling aspect, while the picture of Clara's daily life in a vibrant city amongst her family and female friends is lovingly portrayed. I find the film a bit long, but there is something compelling about a story of an individual taking on the big guys, and of course this is yet another movie showcasing a strong and self-assured woman. Braga's fabulous performance manages to capture the anomaly of ageing - feeling still like a child inside but looking to the world like an old woman. As an added bonus, the soundtrack of Brazilian music is a winner for lovers of the genre.

4 - wholeheartedly recommended!
For a longer review from Bernard Hemingway go to:

Thursday, 16 February 2017

February 16 2017:  
Hidden Figures
The Great Wall

One more Oscar nominee releases this week and is my pick of the bunch - Hidden Figures. It probably borders on unmissable! The other two see me fence sitting a bit - lots to like and lots to pick fault with, but both will have an audience.

Hidden Figures
Director:Theodore Melfi
Length: 127 min
© 20th Century Fox - an inspiring and uplifting story
told with intelligence and  pizzazz!
Little did the world know that when those men at male-dominated NASA were in the space race with the Russians to get an astronaut into orbit, three Afro-American women were critical to getting the job done! When I saw the trailer for the film I feared it could be formulaic, BUT was I wrong! This is a story to uplift, inspire and put a smile on your face. The plot recalls a time when it was a double-negative to be a woman, and black, so the achievements of these three NASA employees are even more remarkable. Taraji P Henson plays Katherine Johnson, a maths prodigy, Octavia Spencer is Dorothy Vaughan, who helmed the computer programming team, and Janelle Monae is Mary Jackson, who fought a legal case to be allowed to study engineering. Their performances are uniformly wonderful, the story completely engaging, and an added plus is the impressive performance from Kevin Costner as Al Harrison, NASA head, and voice for equal rights within his organisation.  

4.5 - wholeheartedly recommended!

Director: Martin Scorsese
Length: 161 min
© Transmission - thought-provoking, long, visually stunning - 
the film asks are we praying to silence? 
Acclaimed director Scorsese is a staunch Catholic and has wanted to remake this Japanese film for nearly 30 years. Silence is based upon a Japanese novel about two Portugese priests (Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver)  who go to Japan searching for one of their number (Liam Neeson) who seems to have disappeared. It is 1633, Christianity is outlawed in the country, and the Japanese are mercilessly persecuting Christians with as much cruelty as they can muster. I am quite ambivalent about this film - on the one hand I feel Scorsese has over-indulged his penchant for religious navel-gazing, resulting in an overly long film that relies too much on its intellectual messages at the expense of allowing the audience to become emotionally involved. On the upside, Silence is a thought-provoking examination of faith, denial, martyrdom and missionary zeal, and is so exquisitely shot it's up for a Best Cinematography Oscar. It is very different from such similarly-themed films as Black Robe and The Mission, but for Scorsese fans and for those who enjoy exploring issues of faith, it should definitely be seen.  

3.5 - Recommended!
For a full review from Bernard Hemingway go to:

The Great Wall
Director: Zhang Yimou
Length: 103 min
© Universal - William, archer extraordinaire, battles the
 fearsome dinosaur-like Taoties.
William (Matt Damon) and Tovar (Pedro Pascal) are mercenaries who travel to China in the late 1200s, searching for gunpowder. They end up at a military outpost atop the Great Wall of China, only to find themselves caught up in a battle to protect civilisation against an attack by monstrous creatures known as Taoties. For a director who made such stunning films as Raise the Red Lantern, Hero and House of Flying Daggers this is a bit of comedown. Like these early films, TGW has several scenes that are visually jaw-dropping and in which vibrant colour, frantic action and cool special effects marry perfectly. But underneath all this the plot is a bit of a hotch-potch - a morph between a monster movie, a Chinese martial arts film, with an overall Game of Thrones feel. The monsters are so totally horrific there is no way any humans would have been left alive, but what the hell - it's a movie! I must confess to being entertained (perhaps I was just in the mood for a true popcorn flick). Matt Damon is always a pleasant screen presence, and in this instance an excellent action hero to complement the strong female general. 

2.5 - maybe!

Thursday, 9 February 2017

February 9 2017:  
Toni Erdmann
Fifty shades Darker

We're on the countdown to the Oscars, and still the candidates keep coming. This week brings top-notch performances in Fences (4 nominations), nuanced but zany humour in Toni Erdmann (nominated for Best Foreign Film), and a lot of steamy eroticism in Fifty Shades Darker (no nominations!)

Toni Erdmann
Director: Maren Ade
Length: 162 min

© Madman - zany touching and quirky examination of 
father/daughter  relationship
Winning the prestigious Critics Prize at Cannes last year, this ultra-long, super entertaining and very quirky film about a practical joker father and his workaholic daughter is a delight. Winfried (Peter Simonischek), aka Toni Erdmann, can't see eye to eye with his daughter, Ines (Sandra Huller). He is always playing pranks, while she is an intense, serious career woman. When he visits her unexpectedly in Bucharest, where she works, they clash and he agrees to head home to Germany. However he reemerges in the guise of Toni Erdmann (complete with false teeth and ghastly wig), pretending to be the personal coach of Ines's boss. He shadows her life, and as things get zanier, we live in the hope that Ines may lighten up and make a move towards her father and take life less seriously. One doesn't know whether to be embarrassed by, laugh at, or fall in love with Winfried/Toni. He is a unique and wonderful character who is deeply human, despite his wackiness. The father/daughter story is not new, but the way writer/director Ade and her actors explore it is nothing less than inspired. 

4 - wholeheartedly recommended!

Director: Denzel Washington
Length: 139 min

© Paramount - Washington & Davis give soaring performances
This very long and extremely wordy film is based upon a Pulitzer Prize-winning play, and its theatrical roots show. In many ways it feels like a play has been filmed, with limited settings, and towering monologues that showcase the actors' talents. And some talents they are, with Denzel Washington and Viola Davis having already garnered the Golden Globes for their lead performances. Denzel plays Troy Maxson, a hardworking man in 1950s' Pittsburgh. He feels a strong sense of responsibility for his family, though he treats his children with more sternness than love. The Maxson household is filled to bursting with Troy's resentments - that he never got to play baseball as a kid, that his brother Gabe was injured in the war, that his kids don't pay him the respect he feels he's due. He rants and raves to whoever will listen, drinks too much, and professes that wife Rose is the best woman he's ever met. The early portion of the film feels too verbose and too theatrical, but when the second half kicks in, showcasing Davis as the wounded wife, and bringing more of the children's roles into the spotlight, the film really soars, and feels painfully truthful as a heartbreaking study of the travails of ordinary folks and the self-destructiveness of resentment. Despite my reservations, it is totally worth seeing for some of the best performances you'll watch this year! 

4 - Wholeheartedly recommended!
For a longer review from Bernard Hemingway go to:

Fifty Shades Darker
Director: James Foley
Length: 118 min

© Universal - Dornan & Johnson  (Aka Christian Grey
& Anastasia Steele) work up a sweat in this steamy sequel
Mills & Porn? Lustful erotica? Good spanking fun? Or simply the best one can do with the film version of a ragingly successful trilogy of novels that serves a purpose, but is definitely not good literature. People love to demonise films and books that border on the trashy/sexy/forbidden territory boundaries. But their very success proves there is definitely a market for it. The trouble with the books is that they are simply about a young girl's fantasy fulfillment of falling in love/lust with a dashingly handsome billionaire who just happens to be a kinky SMBD freak (that's Sado-masochism - bondage-discipline for the uninitiated!). Not much happens other than the standard narrative of how they meet, break up, get back together, how all the  women in his past are ragingly jealous, and how one can spend gratuitous billions on yachts, jewellery, cars, helicopters and the like. Oh, and of course sex - plenty of it! Minor elements of plot tension are introduced with lurking threats to the couple's happiness. Within these limitations the film manages to look classy, and the sex is steamy and clever - not enough is shown to get it an R-rating, but enough for a high raunch experience. There is strong chemistry between the two leads, Jamie Dornan as billionaire Christian Grey and Dakota Johnson as sweet innocent Anastasia Steele (who rapidly discovers her own hidden pecadilloes). Both have stunning bodies worthy of gracing the big screen! If you're in the mood for a bit of self-indulgent titillation, this could be for you. 

2.5 - Maybe!
For your interest I link you to critic Jake Wilson's excellent review which ponders some  philosophical issues raised by this film:

Wednesday, 1 February 2017

February 2 2017:  
Manchester by the Sea
Patriot's Day

Two of this week's three films will no doubt end up in my top films for the year 2017. And with the year barely underway, that's a big call!  Both feel their subject matter deeply, and are brilliantly acted and directed. The third is also a terrific entertainment, with yet another great Matthew McConaughey performance.   

Manchester by the Sea
Director: Kenneth Lonergan
Length: 137 min

© Universal- deep emotion is generated by top performances
Taciturn and sad, Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) works as a janitor for an apartment block. When he gets news that his brother Joe has died he returns to his hometown of Manchester by the Sea to help support his beloved nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges). Lee is shocked to find he has been appointed guardian to Patrick, and struggles to come to terms with this. Gradually the tragic reasons Lee left his home town in the first place emerge. 
Lonergan is a writer/director who really gets to the nitty-gritty of human pain and love. This is an exquisite slow-burn film, that lets its plot, its emotional layers and the depths of each main character unfold gradually and gracefully. Affleck and Hedges work strongly together, their characters battling loss and fear of what the future holds, with top-notch support from Michelle Williams as Lee's ex-wife Randi. With umpteen well-deserved nominations, and a Golden Globe for Affleck as Best Actor, this is already one of 2017's finest films for me.     

5 - Unmissable!

Patriot's Day
Director: Peter Berg
Length: 133 min
© Roadshow  - Wahlberg really lifts the bar in his performance
Here is another film based on true events - too true and too terrible for comfort - the bombing of the Boston Marathon in 2013. Drawing upon real-life accounts from victims, police, FBI, and first responders, the film reconstructs for us the lead-up to the fateful event, the horrific incident in all its chaotic and bloody detail, and the week that followed as the local police and FBI try to identify then track the perpetrators. Audiences get a deep insight into how that crime affected an entire city, along with how the courage and communal selflessness of ordinary people helped others get through. Obviously the filmmakers have paid great attention to detail - the fine cast, including Kevin Bacon, JJ Abrams, and John Goodman, even look like the people they are playing, and who we see at the end. Police Officer Tommy Saunders is played by Mark Wahlberg, who plumbs his acting depths to give a strong emotional performance the likes of which I haven't seen from him. Michelle Monaghan as his wife is terrific, and the whole is a visceral, disturbing, but also uplifting account of how the good in humans comes to the fore when faced with the sort of fanatical crimes that keep recurring throughout today's world. 

4.5 - wholeheartedly recommended!

Director: Stephen Gaghan
Length: 11min
©StudioCanal - McConaughey and Ramirez play 
an amazing pair of characters, mining for gold in the 
wilds of Indonesia. 
"Inspired by true events", Gold is actually a fiction. The screenwriters, during the time of the GFC, read an article about a 1990s company which struck it rich, but after a period of exuberance on the stock market things went pear-shaped, for reasons which will be revealed. The resulting film is a roller coaster ride, and features Matthew McConaughey as Kenny Wills, a small-time prospector with a big dream. He partners with renowned geologist Mike Acosta (Edgar Ramirez), and together they form a company to mine gold in Indonesia. With promising results they take their company public, and then are faced with all manner of dramas from greedy bankers, to corrupt exploiters, and ultimately personal betrayal. I really enjoyed this film on many levels. It's a story rich with adventure and depicting a dangerous world we really don't know much about when we read of speculative mining companies. It is also a salutary global story reflecting the modern world of greed and over-indulgence, while at the same time being highly personal. A physically transformed McConaughey, who just gets better with the years, plays a sympathetic character with determination and vision, and I can't help but like Kenny. The film's final twist is a winner!

3.5 - recommended!