Wednesday, 28 February 2018

March 1
The Square
Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool
Red Sparrow
Alliance Francaise French Film Festival

Another week of outstanding film releases, including a major festival (the French, always a winner) and another Oscar-nominated Foreign Language film. Plus two high profile actresses, Jennifer Lawrence and Annette Bening, in their latest releases. 

The Square
Director: Ruben Ostlund
Length: 142 min
© Sharmill - nominated for Best Foreign Language Film 
this year, The Square is unlike anything I've seen for 
a long time. 
Hot on the heels of Michael Haneke's Happy End, comes another vision of the upper classes,  this time set against poverty in the streets of Sweden. Christian (Claes Bang) is a respected curator of a modern art museum. He is about to launch an ambitious abstract installation project around the theme of altruism, when he is robbed on the street. His response to the theft, along with an ad campaign for the installation, creates a major crisis in his life. This is a remarkable film, with an occasional feel of documentary making, so realistic do the characters and the dialogue seem. At other times the concepts are so outlandishly weird that the film seems surreal. Humans owning apes and behaving as apes lend a near-comic element, yet every aspect that induces laughter also has a darker side. Christian seems the perfect guy, yet progressively shows his class prejudice, his careless attitude to women (Elizabeth Moss) and his lack of responsibility. Ostlund cleverly asks questions about modern art, in a way that is both funny, satirical and probing. Themes of how much we can trust others and whether we are prepared to help are alluded to, along with a biting commentary on impoverished people in a city of wealth. Overall, this film leaves me quite gob-smacked, although it's possible that there are so many intricately interwoven themes that my feeble brain can't get a handle on them all, especially in very long run-time. Also to enjoy is the exquisite soundtrack. 
4.5 - wholeheartedly recommended!

Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool
Director: Paul McGuigan
Length: 105 min
© Transmission - tender love story featuring the
fabulous Annette Bening 
Peter Turner (Jamie Bell) started acting in his teens, and wrote a memoir of an incredible affair he had with Hollywood screen siren Gloria Grahame (Annette Bening), many years his senior. Their true story is told here in this delicate film which focuses upon Grahame's later years when she has left Hollywood glitz and now acts in theatre. With ailing health she reaches out to her former lover and heads over to Liverpool for some recuperation with Peter's family. The emotional feel and quality of acting in this is a revelation. The leads are perfect together, and Bening shows again why she is one of today's top actors. Julie Walters is adorable as Peter's compassionate mum. As a glimpse into the terrible tyranny of aging, especially for someone once so beautiful, this is heartbreaking stuff, as is the tender romance which speaks of a love beyond mere sexual attraction. I loved this film!
4 - highly recommended!

Red Sparrow
Director: Francis Lawrence
Length: 139 min
© 20th Century Fox - sex, violence and subterfuge - 
a heady mixture!
When Bolshoi dancer Domenika (Jennifer Lawrence) is injured, her high-ranking Uncle forces her into "Sparrow School", a Russian training school for operatives whose art is to seduce in order to get information. Her first assignment, connecting with CIA agent Nash (Joel Edgerton), leads both their countries into a spy-vs spy war of monumentally mind-bending proportions. This is a mixed bag of a film: beautifully shot, overly long, excessively and sadistically violent. The twists, turns and double crosses come thick and fast, but Lawrence anchors it all with with a stand-out steely, sexy performance. Add Jeremy Irons and Ciaran Hinds for extra cast clout.
3 - recommended! 

Alliance Francaise French Film Festival
Melbourne 28 Feb - 27 March
Cinemas: Palace Como, Balwyn, Brighton Bay, Westgarth
For other states, synopses and timetabling visit: or

Mai oui!! It's on again with a splendid line-up of more than fifty films, including an inaugural  LGBT strand. The usual stellar line-up of guests, from actors, directors and screenwriters will also grace the Festival. Once more I'm lucky enough to have previewed several excellent offerings. 

Bloody Milk
90 mins
Compelling drama of young dairy farmer deeply attached to his herd. When they come down with a hemorrhagic illness he does anything to avoid reporting it to authorities. This is an authentic and fascinating glimpse into life in rural France, and the problems of small farms coming up against agribusiness mega-bureaucracy.  
See You Up There
117 mins
Written, directed and starred in by Albert Dupontel, this is a handsome period film about two men who survive WW1 and become friends. One has a ghastly jaw disfigurement, requiring him to create elaborate masks. Together they hatch a plan to sell phony monuments to French towns. A small girl who has an intuition for translating what the damaged man wants to say befriends them. This is moving story-telling, with an edge of surrealism, and a welcome guest appearance by Niels Arenstrup as an estranged father.   
77 mins
The French film maker travels to America to record his half-brother's gender transition from female to male. As part of the inaugural LGBTI thread, this is strong documentary making, with a fearless honesty from Coby. Intriguing, revealing and inspiring. 

© FFF - in a Burgundy vineyard kids learn the subtleties 
of wine tasting young.
Back to Burgundy
113 mins
Renowned director Cedric Klapisch has made a gorgeous movie about three siblings who inherit their father's vineyard in Burgundy. Lovingly capturing the change of seasons and the grape cycle, as well as the bonds and conflicts between the siblings, this is the sort of French film-making I adore. Narrator Jean has returned from Australia to his family home, which gives the film an added frisson of familiarity. 
Numero Une
110 mins
In a brilliant performance Emmanuelle Davos plays Emmanuelle Blachey, a woman aiming to become CEO of a major energy company. With the help of a women's action group she takes on the male-dominated corporate world. Scripting is top-notch, all performances pitch-perfect, and the cut-throat gender war, so timely in today's world, gripping.
Catch the Wind
103 mins
The migrant experience is flipped on its head in this poignant story of a French woman (Sandrine Bonnaire) who volunteers to resettle in Morocco to work, rather than lose her job in the textile factory. Life in Tangiers is fascinating to observe, as are Edith's attempts to make friends and fit in with a dramatically different culture.

The Alliance Francaise French Film Festival is wholeheartedly recommended!

Thursday, 22 February 2018

Feb 22
Game Night
Finding Your Feet
A Fantastic Woman
Oscar Shorts @ Nova

My pick this week is a wholehearted recommendation to get yourselves along to Cinema Nova for a rare treat - the opportunity to catch the short films nominated in this year's Academy Awards. I loved them. It is equalled by the new Spanish film, A Fantastic Woman. There is also fun to be had with two light-hearted, fairly mainstream releases.  

Game Night
Director: John Francis Daley & Jonathan Goldstein
Length: 100 min
© Roadshow -  plenty of laughs with this whacky
take on a games night that runs off the rails.
A group of friends meets regularly for a bit of old-fashioned fun, playing charades and other parlour games. Max (Jason Bateman) and Annie (Rachel McAdam) are regular hosts, but have decided to exclude their neighbor, local cop Gary (Jesse Plemons), because they find him weird and boring. Max's rich and wild brother Brooks (Kyle Chandler) arrives for a visit and decides to host a special murder mystery game night, complete with thugs, guns and a kidnapping. Things soon turn crazy with the participants having no idea what is real, and what is part of the game. My regular comment is that comedy is such a personal taste. This particular piece of light-hearted lunacy amused me, with plenty of laugh-out-loud moments. Despite moments of unbelievability the plot is engaging, steadily ratcheting up the action, and credit to the script-writers that the twists, turns and surprises keep on coming until the very end. McAdams and Bateman are a terrific foil for each other, while Plemons's creepy cop is a memorable character.  
3 - recommended!

A Fantastic Woman
Director: Sebastian Lelio
Length: 104 min
© Sony - Daniela Vega's performance is a tour de force. 
Marina (Daniela Vega) is a waitress by day and nightclub singer by night. She is planning a future with her older boyfriend Orlando (Francisco Reyes), when he dies unexpectedly. Orlando's estranged wife and family add to Marina's grief by their cruel reactions. If ever a film can further the understanding of transgender people, this is it! Vega, a singer and trans woman in her real life in Chile, brings a strength and compassion to her performance, in a story that is at once heart-breaking and uplifting. The film is visually lovely, with a classical elegance interspersed with several surreal scenes. Lelio directs with total respect for his lead character, allowing her to sear her way into our hearts. This film is nominated for a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, and has already won a slew of other awards.
4.5 - wholeheartedly recommended!

Finding Your Feet
Director: Richard Loncraine
Length: 111 min
© EOne -  Two stalwart Brit actors in a sweet
but formulaic story
Lady Sandra Abbott (Imelda Staunton) discovers  her husband of 40 years is having an affair with her best friend. She lobs up to her estranged sister Bif (Celia Imrie), who lives a bohemian life on a council estate. Is Sandra too snobby and old to recover and find her long-lost joie de vivre? How difficult it is to review a film of this nature. It sports an absolutely stellar cast with Timothy Spall rounding out the central three leads. The actors give their all, but are battling a script so riddled with cliches of ageing, it beggars belief. Think oldies' dance class, Alzheimers, cancer, death, sibling reconciliation, romance thwarted by lies of omission, not to mention the classic final shot which is a variation of a cliche done to death. Knowing that this is formulaic, predictable plotting and film-making, I nevertheless had pleasure in watching top Brit actors, while enjoying the soundtrack. I almost succumbed to warm fuzzies, which were inevitably squashed by the repeating recognition of  just how hackneyed a story this is, despite having its heart in a good spot.
2.5 - maybe!

Oscar nominated Shorts @ Nova
Length: 192 min
Exclusive to Cinema Nova
I was totally stoked to have the opportunity to see this year's Oscar-nominated offerings for Animated Short Film and Live Action Short Film. The lengthy, totally engrossing program is split in two with an intermission.

© Finch - hilarity in this increasingly convoluted session
of doctor and patient
Live action shorts
These deal with a broad range of pertinent topics, and I'm impressed at how much depth can be generated in such a short time. That's the true art of short film-making, and these are all top examples of the genre. 

Dekalb Elementary: a disturbed gun-toting man enters a school's office. 
The Silent Child: A little deaf girl is helped by a caring social worker who teaches her sign language. 
My Nephew Emmett: In America's south, an uncle tries to protect his young nephew from racist killers. Based on true events. 
The Eleven O'clock: A psychiatrist deals with a patient who thinks HE is the shrink. (Go Aussies!! This is Australia's nominated film, and it's both clever and funny.)
Watu Wote (All of Us): Based upon a terrorist bus attack in Kenya, in which Muslim passengers tried to protect their Christian co-travellers. 

© MOPA -  hard to believe he's animated!
Animated shorts
I'm in awe at the imagination and creativity of these film-makers. They pack visual fun and emotion into things only lateral-thinking minds can come up with.  
Dear Basketball: Glorious pencil sketching tells of a sporting legend's reflections upon what the sport has meant to him. 
Negative Space: A boy reflects upon learning the art of packing a suitcase from an oft-absent father.
Lou: A schoolyard bully is given a salutary lesson by the strange creature living in the Lost and Found box. It's a Pixar production so pretty slick. 
Garden Party: Extraordinarily imaginative story of frogs living in an abandoned wealthy home. A visual treat. 
Revolting Rhymes - this is a long short from a mainstream Hollywood production house. Roald Dahl's warped fairy tales come to animated life. 
Then there is a bonus of THREE non-nominated films, including a poignant Aussie one about a Lost Property Office.
4.5 - wholeheartedly recommended!

Wednesday, 14 February 2018

Feb 15
Lady Bird
The 15:17 to Paris

Another heavy-hitting Oscar contender releases this week, along with a new Clint Eastwood film. The two films are chalk and cheese, both coming with recommendations. And while on that topic, you may wonder why I mostly have recommendable films in my reviews - that's because I choose not to see many which I suspect may fall into the not-so-recommendable basket! 

Lady Bird
Director: Greta Gerwig
Length: 93 min
© Universal - Saiorse Ronan gives yet another
most worthy performance 
There's a style of American film-making that seems to capture a cool and authentic feeling, that nails the dialogue, and that recreates moments in characters' lives, to which we can all relate, no matter their ages or the era. Christine, aka Lady Bird (Saoirse Ronan), is your typical teen, navigating school, uni applications, friendships, first loves, parental conflict and simply growing up. A focal point of the film is her relationship with her mother (Laurie Metcalf) and father (Tracy Letts). This triangle is lovingly portrayed, with the two strong females endlessly clashing, and the father/daughter relationship softening Christine's woes. The characterisation of first love Danny (Lucas Hedge) has more depth than meets the eye, and the various female friendships all feel so real. Dialogue is smart (as one would expect from writer/director Gerwig), and an Oscar nomination is afoot for Ronan's flawless performance. 
4 - highly recommended!

The 15:17 to Paris
Director: Clint Eastwood
Length: 94 min
© Universal -  the three heroes play themselves
in this underrated film. 
In August 2015 three lifelong friends were on a European holiday, travelling on a train bound for Paris, when a heavily armed terrorist attempted an attack. Thanks to the bravery of the three friends, the attacker was overcome and disarmed, and a massacre averted. This is a true story, and what'a amazing is that Eastwood gets the actual young men to play themselves in the film. Younger actors are used to play the boys in their early years, three outsiders who bond in school, always finding themselves in trouble and all attracted to war games and possible military careers (which two of the three went on to). Eastwood has directed some memorable films in his long career, but this one hasn't been treated so kindly by the critics. I however found it gripping, surprisingly well acted, and a fascinating glimpse into what inspires bravery in certain people. Sure, Eastwood often likes to overplay the gung-ho patriotic flag-waving card, but this is a film worth a look, and with some nice European scenery to boot. 
3 - recommended!

Thursday, 8 February 2018

February 8
The Wound
Happy End

All this week's films come with various awards and nominations, yet for me none of them is as strong and instantly appealing as some of the previous weeks' films. That said, they are all recommendable! Each requires careful contemplation of the issues and themes. Two are windows into seldom-seen cultures: from African initiation rites, to parenting issues within the Orthodox Jewish community. Finally the French bourgeoisie are up to their old tricks of hiding the rot under the surface.
The Wound
Director: John Trengove
Length: 88 min
© IC/OT Entertainment - tradition clashes with the 
modern world in an African initiation ceremony
In South Africa a group of teenage boys from the Xhosa background head into the bush for manhood initiation rituals, specifically circumcision. Mentors help the boys heal, and teach them the supposed meaning of manhood.  Xolani (Nakhane Toure) is a lonely factory worker who goes along as mentor to Kwanda, a rich city boy seen as "too soft" by his father. Kwanda not only questions the ritual, but uncovers some of Xolani's deepest secrets, while defending his own. The film's themes tackle the relevance of such brutal traditions, the changing meaning of traditional manhood in a modernised world, and what it's like to be an outsider in such a constrained community, especially if one is gay and pretending to be otherwise. This is challenging material, with incredibly authentic performances by many of the cast who are not professional actors. The film has won a slew of awards from various festivals worldwide, and for those wanting movie fare that is different, with a window into a little-seen world, this could be the go.  
3.5 - well recommended!

Director: Joshua Z Weinstein
Length: 82 min

© Rialto - a glimpse into a world seldom seen
or understood by outsiders
Menashe (Menashe Lustig) is a New Yorker, recently widowed. He's a low-income grocer shop worker, and a bit of a schlemiel (that's Yiddish for klutz!) The law of his Hassidic community (an Orthodox branch of Judaism) says if he can't find a new wife, his young son Rieven must leave his father and be brought up by his stern uncle, also allowing the child to get a better education. Menashe doesn't want a new wife, but loves his son dearly. He is given a week to be with his son while machinations to match-make are underway. The filmmaker brings a powerful authenticity to this movie, first by shooting in the part of New York where this group of Hassidim live. He chooses Lustig to play a character not only with the same name but also with not dissimilar life circumstances. This is a rare chance to see inside a community that eschews the outer world, and even though the setting may feel alien to many, there is a gentle humour, and a universal theme that most parents would relate to. Notable is that this is one of the rare recent films made entirely in Yiddish.
3 - recommended!

Happy End
Director: Michael Haneke
Length: 107 min

© Transmission - a bourgeois French family reveals
its dark side. 
Iron-fisted matriarch Anne Laurent (Isabelle Huppert) runs a family construction business in Calais. She soon shows her steely side when a worker is critically injured in an accident, and payoffs are arranged.  Her son Pierre seems to hate his mother. Her brother Thomas is a doctor, married for the second time. His 13-year-old daughter Eve comes to live with him after her mother falls into a sedative induced coma, and discovers a hidden side to her father via his text messages. She also has her secrets, as does Grandpa (the iconic Jean Louis Trintignant).  No-one is as they seem, and unpleasantness seems to be a family trait. Meantime, immigrants in Calais come into the plot, but as little other than servants for the privileged family, or gangs cruising the streets. I find the film admirable for its acting and its stark look, yet there is something alienating about it. Partly because the characters are cold and unlikable (except Anne's British fiance, played by Toby Jones), it makes for a challenging watch. However, there is something so austere and tense in Haneke's vision, giving the story the power to shock and repel. Scenes shot through Eve's mobile phone are especially powerful. However, had Haneke concentrated upon the family dynamic and not included the refugee issue, the film would feel more unified. Huppert is, as always, mesmerising, and watch for more from the talented Fantine Harduin playing Eve.
3 - recommended!