Wednesday, 28 March 2018

March 29
Early Man
The Death of Stalin
The Other Side of Hope
Young at Heart Seniors Film Festival

It's a big week of releases, and the start of another festival in some states. From claymation, to political satire, to intense drama - there is something for everyone. 

Early Man
Director: Nick Park
Length: 90 min
© StudioCanal - zany prehistoric folk take on the
soccer team of the Bronze age men. 
Lovers of films from Aardman (Wallace & Gromit; Saun the Sheep) should get a lot of fun from the studio's latest creation. A tribe of prehistoric folk have their lives disrupted when a mob from the Bronze Age invade, and forcibly remove them from their valley, where bronze has been found. Spirited caveman Dug discovers that the Bronzemen play football, a game invented by his ancestors. So the challenge is on, with the promise if the cavemen win, they can go home. Silliness abounds, from physical humour, through to not-so-subtle satire, and a lot of archetypically British puns. One can predict the story arc, but there is a lot of good fun to be had. The character of Hognob, Dug's trusty piggy companion (grunted by Park himself), is especially engaging, while other famous Brit thespians bring life to the endearing characters: Timothy Spall, Tom Hiddleston, Eddie Redmayne and Maisie Williams to name a few. Production values are terrific, and whenever I watch Aardman creations, I find myself in awe afresh at the hours that must go into making one of these films.
3 - recommended!

The Death of Stalin
Director: Armando Ianucci
Length: 107 min
© Madman - political satire and
In March 1953 Joseph Stalin had a stroke and died. Political machinations and  back-stabbing erupted to see who would take his place. This dark satirical film is based on the historical events, and is inspired by comic graphic novels that also dealt with that period of Soviet history. Perhaps the graphic novel connection helps give the film its weird juxtaposition of thuggery, humour and satire. Tyranny, terror and a despicable dictator are rich fodder for this sort of comedy, but there are plenty of old-fashioned situational laughs among the satire. All the loathsome, corrupt, ambitious Soviet apparatchiks are played superbly, with a variety of assorted accents (apparently deliberate) while Steve Buscemi is a stand-out with an eerily lifelike performance as Nikita Kruschev. Lovers of political shenanigans should get a lot out of this film.
3.5 - well recommended!

Director: Ferenc Torok
Length: 91 min
At ACMI and Elsternwick Classic (starting at Lido next week)

© JIFF Distribution - stunning black and white 
cinematography in a powerful film
Two black-clad men disembark from a train in a small Hungarian village just after the end of the war. The townsfolk are preparing for a wedding, and the arrival of the men, Orthodox Jews, sends them into a panic, as many of the villagers are living in Jewish homes, stolen from the rightful owners when the German deported the Jews to the death camps. This remarkable film is shot in black and white, giving it a melancholy and historical feel. The camera doggedly follows the two men with their mysterious crates loaded on a horse and cart, while concurrently the town's interpersonal dramas play out, all revealing what unpleasant people most of the villagers are. The twist at the film's end is something unexpected, and  packs a powerful wallop.
4 - highly recommended!

The Other Side of Hope
Director: Aki Karismaki
Length: 100 min
© Palace- Karismaki's trademark deadpan characters
Khaled (Sherwan Hadji) is a young Syrian refugee who finds his way to Helsinki, Finland. Wikstrom (Sakari Kuosmanen) is an ex-salesman who leaves his family, wins money in a poker game and buys a run-down restauarant. When he meets Khaled sleeping behind the resto, he gives the lad a job as a dishwasher. The lives of two men escaping their pasts are thrown together. Karismaki is an idiosyncratic film-maker who handles interesting social themes beneath his deadpan humour and occasional wackiness. He also loves to include musical vignettes in his films, and so it is with this one. The characters are all handled with great affection, as Karismaki hopes to change people's stereotyped attitudes to refugees. Humour, poignancy and a story about kindness in the face of bureaucracy make for good 
viewing in this much awarded film.
3.5 - well recommended!

Apia Young at Heart Seniors Film Festival
2-25 April - varying by State
Melbourne: 17-25 April 
Palace Como, Balwyn, Brighton Bay
Visit for all details

Again this year's festival features a terrific range of films, as well as a retrospective featuring leading ladies of cinema.  This includes Bette Davis in "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane", Judy Garland in "A Star is Born", and Maggie Smith in "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie".  I've already previewed a selection, and will bring you more as they come. 

ChappaquidickSenator Ted Kennedy (Jason Clarke) made headlines in 1969 when he drove his car off a bridge, killing a young campaign strategist Mary Joe Kopechne (Kate Mara). Even though the facts of the film are part of history, this is a gripping recreation of the events, and a timely look at the corruption and ambition that invariably goes with politics. Clarke's excellent portrayal of Kennedy swings the audience from sympathy, through to contempt. 
Desert Bride: This award-winning Argentinian film stars Paulina Garcia as Theresa, a woman who has worked as a maid for one family for 30 years of her life. While travelling to another post, she mislays her baggage. Kindly market vendor Gringo offers to drive her to hunt for it. This gentle film delicately looks at issues of love, change and aging, and somehow its short runtime still allows it to explore its themes in a way that resonates with you long after the film is over.
LBJ: Woody Harrelson delivers a strong performance as vice president Lyndon Johnson, who was dramatically swept into office when Kennedy was shot. The film examines Johnson's inner insecurities and the tasks he grappled with in healing the nation and moving forward with JFK's vision. 
Sea Dreaming Girls:  sweet and heart-warming Italian doco about a group of elderly ladies who live in a remote Italian mountain village and have never seen the sea. In honour of their social club's 20th anniversary, they decide to raise money for a seaside jaunt. This is a delightful story, showing it's never to late for new things in life.
4 - the festival is highly recommended!

Wednesday, 21 March 2018

March 22
Mary Magdalene
Divine Order
Pecking Order
The Endless

Easter is nearly here so what better time to bring out another Jesus story. This week sees the release of Mary Magdalene in the mainstream department, along with two excellent Nova exclusives and a film from a land that doesn't seem to send many films down under - Switzerland.  

Mary Magdalene
Director: Garth Davis
Length: 120 min
© Transmission - revisiting of the one of the world's
best known  stories from a feminist perspective
The ubiquitous Rooney Mara plays Mary Magdalene, in a new slant on the Jesus story. Mary leaves her family to join a group of disciples who follow Jesus (Joachim Phoenix), a charismatic rabbi who is preaching and fomenting uprising against the ruling Roman Empire. This is an intriguing perspective on how life may have been amongst the poor folk of the Jewish community as against the money-grabbing doyens of the Synagogue.  Cinematography is impressive, and nothing is made too glossy (except for Mary, who always looks too clean and freshly scrubbed). The story starts languidly in Mary's village, then moves along at a cracking pace, with big jumps in the timeline, making it occasionally feel fragmented.  Phoenix gives quite a different (but strong) take on the outspoken Jesus, but Mary, although almost an early feminist, indulges in too many longing looks. It's a mixed bag, but nevertheless I find it beautiful to look at, and engaging viewing, despite having no idea of its theological accuracy.
3 - recommended!

The Endless
Director: Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead
Length: 111 min
Exclusive to Cinema Nova

© Umbrella - eery, mind-bending and unusual. 
Brothers Justin and Aaron (played by the directors) live impoverished lives in LA after leaving Camp Arcadia, home to what Justin calls a "UFO death cult" where they spent their young years after their mother's death. After receiving a strange videotape, they decide to revisit the place, believing that all the members may have staged a mass suicide. But they find life going on much as they remembered it, with friendly welcoming people who seem not to have aged. But there is a pervasive edge of unease and soon things get creepy with happenings defying the natural laws of time and nature. The brothers realise they are at risk of getting caught up permanently in a strange time loop. Sound weird? Sure is!! This is low-budget but intense, disturbing and highly imaginative film-making. The Endless challenges the brain, captures the imagination and should especially appeal to fans of a genre that is somewhere between horror and sci-fi.
4 - highly recommended!

The Divine Order
Director: Petra Biondina Volpe
Length: 96 min
© Rialto - Nora goes in to bat for women 
getting the vote In Switzerland
Switzerland in the early 1970s: women still do not have voting rights - aghast!! Nora (Marie Leuenberger) is a wife and mother who gets involved with the burgeoning women's movement, fighting for a right that most women around the world already have. That this is based on truth is compelling, and the subject matter of oppression, women fighting for their rights, and ever-present misogyny is always relevant in today's world. But something about the film's uninspired directing style, large time leaps and bland characterisations takes away from its potential impact. The very subject matter should have given rise to a far more powerful film and the ending is too sudden and too neat. Leuenberger is fine as the timid Nora with a good balance between strength and self-effacement. The film HAS won quite a few awards at various festivals, including being Switzerland's entry for Best Foreign Film in this year's Oscars. Ultimately though it doesn't linger long in my memory.
2.5 - maybe!

Pecking Order
Director: Slavko Martinov
Length: 90 min
Eggsclusive to Cinema Nova
© Vendetta - Brian shows off
a favourite Barred Plymouth
The Christchurch Poultry, Bantam and Pigeon Club is the subject matter for this unexpectedly delightful and quirky doco. In the lead-up to the National Championships we meet a variety of club members, all fanatical about their birds, but many with their own feathers ruffled as to the running of the club. We follow the battle for club president, with die-hard traditionalist Doug not wanting to cede power to the younger Rhys. Meantime chook fanciers of all ages  work tirelessly to get their birds ready for the big day. It's quite an eye-opener for the uninitiated to see how much love, washing, and blowdrying go into the preparations. Many of the characters border on the seriously eccentric, while the variety of breeds of feathered friends is impressive. All in all, the doco is great fun and  simply chookalicious!
3.5 - well recommended!

Wednesday, 14 March 2018

March 15
Human Flow
That's Not My Dog! (Limited season Mar 15-18)
Melbourne Queer Film Festival (15-26 March)
The Mercy

Wow - what a week of watching! New releases come thick and fast, I've caught up with one of last week's releases, and I've watched plenty for the fabulous Melbourne Queer Film Festival, which opens tonight. 
Director: Kate McIntyre Clere & Mick McIntyre
Length: 99 min
© IndieVillage -  warm and fuzzy, to protect at all
costs, or a pest to cull?
Many people would say they love our national animal, the kangaroo. Yet how many are aware of the brutality involved in the so-called kangaroo "cull" and its associated kanga meat industry? Be warned - this is a confronting film, which pulls no punches in depicting the cruel slaughter of these creatures. From carcasses gathering bacteria on the back of utes, to dismembered kangas, to orphaned joeys - it's all there. The film attempts some debate as to whether the creatures are actually a pest on farmland, or whether there are enough of them for a sustainable meat industry. However, the directors' hearts are firmly on their sleeves in maintaining the meat industry should be totally shut down. There is some fabulous drone-shot footage of the world's largest marsupial traversing the outback, and the revelations here should give much food for thought and public debate.
3.5 - well recommended!

Human Flow
Director: Ai WeiWei
Length: 140 min
© Roadshow - the face of human misery. Ai's film
explores the biggest refugee crisis since WW2
How lucky we are to live in Australia. How desperately unfortunate are the refugee communities explored in this important and sweeping documentary. Artist/activist/ filmmaker Ai WeiWei makes an epic journey to many of  the world's refugee communities, from Africa to Greece, Jordan to Germany - anywhere the 65 million currently displaced people are or have come from. (This is the greatest movement of displaced humanity since World War 2.) Ai moves from a broader overview, including shocking facts and figures, to the intensely personal, choosing to often focus upon the sad faces of his subjects. Ai uses a realistic style of shooting, often including himself in the scene. He talks to people of their experiences, bringing an intimacy and humanity to the overwhelming subject matter. Amidst the despair he finds laughing children, resilience and hope. The film is perhaps a touch long but the content is so confronting and sobering, that it becomes important viewing to bring some insight, compassion and rationality into one of today's most pressing and controversial situations.
4 - highly recommended!

That's Not My Dog!
Director: Dean Murphy
Length: 88 min
© Transmission - Shane, his Dad and top comics
schmooze the night away in a film starring . . . jokes!
I've got a soft spot for Shane "Kenny" Jacobson. He seems like an all-round amiable nice guy. He's just thrown a party, and asked people not to bring anything, except their favourite jokes. And that's the questionable premise of his latest film: 1.5 hours of joke telling and music. Shane and some of his close comedian buddies (Paul Hogan, Jimeoin, Fiona McLaughlin and plenty more) gather to drink, listen to music and tell jokes, ranging from clean to majorly ribald. Some top musos (The Black Sorrows, Russell Morris, Adam Brand, Dan Kelly and The Meltdown) entertain in the background, and occasionally the director cuts to feature them. The film feels like a homage to Shane's Dad, Ron, who is credited with having made Shane laugh all his life. Shane returns the favour, by bringing a laugh to Dad and audiences. You'd better not be a prude, because a lot of the jokes are majorly politically incorrect with sexism and dubious humour! The movie is well shot, but there's absolutely no plot, just  laughs (which isn't all bad).
2.5 - maybe!

Melbourne Queer Film Festival (MQFF)
15-26 March 2018
Cinemas: ACMI, Nova and Kino
For synopses and timetables and ticketing, go to:

Lucky me - I again get to preview a whole assortment of the fab films that are part of this always splendid festival. There are so many stories to which everyone can relate, and some truly top-shelf film-making. No scoring, I've just ranked them in my order of enjoyment. 

Close Knit: Fresh from the Japanese Film Festival, this sublime film tells of 11-year-old Tomo who, after ongoing neglect by her mother, goes to live with her uncle, Makio. Makio lives with his transgender partner Rinko, and the three set up an unconventional family. The delicacy and warmth of the story-telling makes for a sure-fire winner, which is both poignant and heart-warming.

Steve Coogan and Paul Rudd in a quirky comedy
Ideal Home: You gotta love Paul Rudd and Steve Coogan playing long-term live-in lovers, who hold wonderful parties and bicker constantly. Paul (Rudd) is a TV director and Erasmus (Coogan) a flamboyant chef who hosts cooking shows. When Erasmus's hitherto unknown grandson, Bill, turns up on the doorstep, a new take on the idea of family is born. This is Coogan at his best, with Rudd a perfect foil as the long-suffering partner. The script is witty, touching and heaps of fun.  

Alaska is a Drag: Leo, who works at a fish cannery in Alaska, is the only gay for miles. His beloved sister has cancer, and he is picked on at work. When handsome Declan turns up, both men go into boxing coaching, while Leo also decides to enter the Miss Drag America contest. This is a heart-warming cute story, with much affection for its main characters, who manage to enjoy their lives despite everything. 

Queerama: A treat for all film lovers, this doco examines changing LGBTI life through the medium of British film over the past century. Opening with a voice-over expressing archaic attitudes, along with clips from old films, it moves through the changes in society, and filmic representation of those changes, featuring iconic moments from many seminal films dealing with queer life.  

The Cakemaker: Thomas is a top pastry cook in Berlin. Once a month he meets with his lover Oran, who works for an Israeli/German company. When Oran is killed in an accident Thomas goes to Jerusalem, and works in the cafe run by Oran's widow, who is unaware of Thomas's connection to her deceased husband. This is a gentle and moving film, beautifully shot, suffused with emotions of love and loss.

Paths: Paths tells a story to which so many can relate - the arc of a long-term relationship, from falling in love, bringing up a child together, then drifting apart, without really knowing why. The lead performances of Mike Hoffman as Andreas and Mathis Reinhardt as Martin are sensitive and utterly believable. A tender, sad story. 

Signature Move: Being lesbian, a Pakistani Muslim and living with your mother in Chicago ain't easy. Mother wants to marry off Zaynab but she has other ideas. Zaynab takes up wrestling and meets Alma, a gorgeous Spaniard. This is classic rom-com stuff - hearfelt, plenty of laughs, and culture-clash themes coming thick and fast. 

Mr Gay Syria: Shot in Turkey, this doco look at the lives of two Syrian gay refugees involved in the Mr Gay Syria pageant. One is leading a double life with wife and child in Istanbul. The "double-trouble" issues facing people who are not only fleeing warfare, but also sexual persecution, are highlighted. 

Rift: Touted as Scandi-noir, Rift feels more like a semi-horror film. Gunnar responds to a phone call from his ex boyfriend Einar, who is living in a remote summer house in Iceland. As the two attempt to reconcile their relationship, there seems to be a strange presence in the isolated house. Creepy at times, but not really memorable.

Mansfield 66/67: A look at the final years of Hollywood bombshell Jayne Mansfield. Framed within a theatrical presentation I could have done without, the film nevertheless sheds a fascinating light on Mansfield's bizarre and melodramatic life, culminating in her relationship with Satan worshippers, and her untimely death. 

The Melbourne Queer Film Festival  is wholeheartedly recommended!

The Mercy
Director: James Marsh
Length: 102 min
© StudioCanal - a man not coping at sea - how much
 more stressful can things get!?
In the mid 60s, amateur sailor Donald Crowhurst (Colin Firth) decided to enter a round-the-world race to bolster his failing business. He heads out ill prepared, leaving wife (Rachel Weisz) and three loving kiddies behind. When trouble looms, rather than admit defeat, he goes into a major deception as to his whereabouts. Based upon a true story, this film depicts a man going slowly bonkers from the long months at sea, and the dilemma of being unable to go on, but unable to turn back. Firth does it very well, and the director eschews blockbuster style effects for a more measured and believable glimpse of what true fear (of failure and of the sea) means. This film sure stressed me out, as did my infuriation at Donald's rank stupidity to even think of attempting such a stunt. This is good, solid Brit film-making.
3.5 - well recommended!

Wednesday, 7 March 2018

March 8
In the Fade
12 Strong
The Space In Between: Marina Abramovic in Brazil 

With Oscar barely done and dusted, it's time to get down to business again. I was pretty pleased with the Oscar outcome, and what a splendid bunch of films they were this year. You can still catch up with many of them in our cinemas. This week a fine film from top German/Turkish director Fatih Akin hits the screens, along with something so unusual it could be good viewing for fans of faith healing and other questionable rituals. And another war film, on post 9/11 military actions in Afghanistan.  

In the Fade (Aus dem Nichts)
Director: Fatih Akin
Length: 106 min
© Madman - compelling and emotional stuff from
Diane Kruger in this powerful, thought-provoking film
Katja (Diane Kruger) suffers the ultimate loss when her husband Nuri and little son Rocco are killed in a bomb blast.  Nuri's friend and lawyer Danilo (Denis Moschitto) assures her the accused will pay, but after a gruelling trial things do not go as Katja hopes. All she wants is justice. Director/writer Akin knows too well the prejudice Turks in Germany have been subject to. Neo-Nazi attacks on immigrants inspired his latest film, for which Akin won the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film and Kruger Best Actress at Cannes. She is front and centre in a mesmerising performance that spans the emotional gamut from unfathomable grief, through to steely determination. The film deals in strong themes of redemption (Nuri was a drug dealer who goes straight), police attitudes, justice and the rising tide of far-right extremism in today's world. Powerful and layered film-making.   
4.5 - wholeheartedly recommended!

12 Strong
Director: Nicolai Fuglsig
Length: 130 min
© Roadshow - another take the early\days of the 
post 9/11 Afghan war
As my theatre seat vibrates and army helicopters sweep across the screen I think to myself, "This feels like a Jerry Bruckheimer film". Well, it is, and that legendary producer brings all the sound and fury for which he is known to this almost unbelievable true story, until now militarily classified. Following immediately upon the 9/11 attacks, America dropped the first forces behind enemy lines. These elite soldiers, Green Berets, were suddenly wrenched from their families and sent to northern Afghanistan. There they teamed up with General Dostum and the so-called Northern Alliance, a motley band of warlords who were fighting among themselves. While the US dropped bombs from above, combined US and Afghan fighters charged in on horseback to wreak devastation on the Taliban. I'm not one for watching the endless horrors of warfare, but this is well directed, so we feel (inasmuch as one can) the horrendous privations of fighting under such conditions, and the heroism of all involved. Chris Hemsworth shines as Cptn Mitch Nelson, with able support from the likes of Michael Shannon and Michael Pena. As expected there is a bit too much of the usual US jingoism, but it's a strong and gripping film.
3 - recommended!

The Space in Between: Marina Abramovic and Brazil
Director: Marco del Fiol
Length: 96 min
© Potential - Abramovic reveals her vulnerability
for her art. 
Marina Abramovic is a Serbian performance artist who is renowned for going to physical extremes in the name of her art. In this unusual doco she heads off to Brazil in search of spiritual healers. She starts with John of God, a faith healer who performs "operations" on conscious patients to remove their disease (I've seen other docos on him - I think he's a fraud!) She meets various locals who deal in all manner of spiritual and religious healing rituals - plant healing, mud healing, egg healing, and ayahuasca, which has a dramatic purgative effect!  Marina talks of faith and the link between ritual and her art as she subjects herself to all manner of indignities, while the practitioners explain their craft. I admire her openness, enthusiasm and willingness to experiment,  but I am not a good judge of this type of film. I am somewhat skeptical and ignorant of the fields of both performance art and spiritual healing, hence the subject matter gets in the way of my objectiveness.
2.5 or 3 - it's a maybe for me, but recommended for anyone with a strong interest in the field