Wednesday, 22 August 2018

August 23rd
Leave No Trace
Working Class Boy
Book Club
West of Sunshine

It's another week of strong releases, and I give one of my very rare "unmissable" scores. Good to see two Aussie films featuring. If you've got time for the movies to escape all the political shenanigans all of these are worthy offerings, and a couple are just great!!

Leave No Trace
Director: Debra Granik
Length: 110 min
Exclusive to Cinema Nova
© Nova/ Sony Pictures  -  Understated, heart-breakingly 
beautiful story of survival on many levels
Will (Ben Foster) is a Vietnam vet suffering post traumatic stress disorder. Because of his mental fragility, he feels compelled to live off the grid, isolated from society, and has done so for years with his teenage daughter Tom (Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie). Their rudimentary camp in the State Park near Portland Oregon is home for them, and neither needs any company but each other. When they are inadvertently discovered and hauled into the clutches of social services, they must try to adapt to a new way of living. To say any more about the plot would be to say too much. The story is inspired by a real-life case, and is about as compelling and moving as anything I've seen in a long time. It raises basic human questions of what is home, how important is it to fit in with societal norms, and whether nearly inseparable individuals can recognise when to let go. It's a long time since a film has been so suffused with humanist values; the characters are kind, and the only real adversaries are the conditions of a harsh nature, and the conflicting needs of the protagonists. Lead performances are heart-achingly sublime, and the northwest USA makes for a visually stunning setting.    
5 - unmissable!

Working Class Boy
Director: Mark Joffe
Length: 110 min
Limited release at various cinemas
© Universal Pictures  -  you don't need to be 
a Cold Chisel fan to love this doco. 
Hot from its world premiere at MIFF, and based upon Jimmy's autobiography, this film took me by surprise. A little boy named James Swan grew up in the rough and tough streets of Glasgow, emigrated to Oz and took his step-father's name - Barnes. He then joined a band named Cold Chisel. In this frank, painfully honest and ultimately touching doco Jimmy tells the story of his life, from his abusive and violent childhood to the life of sex, drugs and rock n roll, that has ended up with him now in a sweet spot in his life. The film is structured around a show he gives in Glasgow, mixing stories with songs, his lead backed up by his daughter Mahalia and an impressive band. Archival photos and footage are interspersed, as are interviews with family and friends. The man speaks so candidly about the dark times in his life, that it gives audiences a far greater insight into his music. Whether you are a die-hard Cold Chisel fan or not, I suspect you will be moved by Barnsie's story, and all the more impressed with the artistry and emotion behind the gravel voice.
4 - wholeheartedly recommended!

Book Club
Director: Erin Sims
Length: 104 min
© Transmission - gotta love these gals - still willing
to give love a go. 
Widow Dianne (Dianne Keaton), divorced judge Sharon (Candice Bergen), never married Vivian (Jane Fonda and "happily" married Carol (Mary Steenburgen) are lifelong friends. They meet regularly for Book Club, and this month's book is Fifty Shades of Gray. The book leads them to thinking about their lives, especially their love lives. This is the sort of film some critics love to hate. It employs many of the tried and true rom-com tropes, but hey - look at the cast! These veteran actors know how to inhabit their characters, and each one gives it their all. There are many funny lines that most women will relate to regarding the men in their lives, or even their own attitudes to love and sex, especially as they reach their more senior years. The male characters are also worthy of enjoying - especially Andy Garcia who only improves with age. Yes, confirmed feminists could argue no-one should allow men to take such an important role in their lives but what the hell - it's the sort of film to just sit back, have fun with and watch these women who know how to age well.
3 - recommended!

West of Sunshine
Director: Jason Raftopoulos
Length: 88 min
© Exile - a dad does it tough in this low-key
touching film

Jim (Damian Hill) has fallen foul of a loan shark. He is trying to juggle his job as a courier, along with having to mind his young son Alex (Ty Perham) who is on school holidays. Time is running out to repay the debt and Jim must resort to desperate measures. Director Raftopoulos's last film Pawno was a light comedy, but this one really hits hard with battlers doing it tough on the west side of Melbourne. The film focuses on one day in Jim's life, and as we get to know him we learn that he is very much the author of his own troubles. And yet his loving relationship with his son is evident (the two actors are father and step-son in real life). Despite the drama and growing tension regarding Jim's deadline, there is a gentleness to the film as the day unwinds, with unexpected outcomes and learning experiences for both father and son. Other characters such as Jim's ex-wife and his best friend Steve (Arthur Angel) are nicely drawn, while Melbourne scrubs up really well as a setting. I like this one - it doesn't over-reach, just hits the right tone with good insight into the harsher side of life. 
3.5 - well recommended!

Tuesday, 14 August 2018

August 16th
Keep the Change
C'est la Vie
The Living Universe

As MIFF moves towards the closing night denouement on the weekend, it's an exciting week of excellent releases for the mainstream cinema. A couple of these scored really highly with me. I decided to go live a day early so you can ponder your choices!

Director: Spike Lee
Length: 114 min
© Universal - these brave boys hatch a plan to
infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan. 
These unbelievable events, set in the 1970s, are based upon the incredible, but  true, exploits of Ron Stallworth, the first Afro-American policeman on the Colorado Springs force. Eager to make his mark, Ron (played by John David Washington, (Denzel's son), decides to go undercover and infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan. How can a black man do this, you may well ask. Playing a "twins"game, Ron co-opts fellow cop Flip (Adam Driver) to do the face-to-face bit while he talks on the phone. Together the guys get in way deeper than is safe or  comfortable. Washington and Driver are superb together. This is masterful film-making from Spike Lee, whose films I've always loved. Playing on the audacity and outrageousness of the mission alone, the motif of Afro hair and the stupidity of many of the Klansmen, a modicum of ongoing humour is injected. But this is ultimately a serious film. Lee bravely pulls no punches, opening with a vilely racist Alec Balwin spewing hate. The racism never lets up as Lee exposes in ignominious detail the Klansmen's evil pronouncements on anyone who is not white American. It's actually quite confronting to listen to. The politics of black power are also highlighted with a subplot of the rise of 1970s' student activism. The tension doesn't let up for a moment, as we fear for these brave policemen's lives. Supporting cast of Laura Harrier as Patrice Dumas, president of the Black Student Union, and Topher Grace as David Duke, Grand Klan Wizard are compelling, as are all the smaller roles. Pay careful attention to the final scenes pointing to the sobering reality of the mess of today's fraught world still battling race issues. 
4.5 - wholeheartedly recommended!

Director: Wim Wenders
Length: 112 min

© Backlot films - two fine acting performances in 
an odd but strangely compelling film
In a glorious Normandie hotel, two people meet. James (James McAvoy) is an MI6 agent, who will pose as a water engineer, to infiltrate terrorist organisations in Somalia. Dani (Alicia Vikander) is a bio-mathematician about to take a deep dive in a submersible to the bottom of the ocean floor, to research the building blocks of life. After a passionate liaison of only a few days, the pair must go their own ways, but they have fallen deeply for each other, with a promise to meet again. When Dani cannot contact James she doubts their love, but he has no way of telling her he is now a prisoner of brutal Jihadists. As each endures their own private challenges, it is as if they are linked in the mind by a spiritual connection. The time frame goes back and forth between the present and their first connections. Although the film is somewhat "airy-fairy" and waffles at times, there is something lovely, certainly visually beautiful, about it. I find myself believing their dramatically sudden love, and their philosophical ponderings feel real. Yes, the title is a fairly heavy-handed metaphor for many aspects of life and love, and despite the very uncertain ending, (isn't life uncertain?) I found it worth seeing, especially with such fine actors in the lead.
3 - recommended!

Keep the Change
Director: Rachael Israel
Length: 94 min
Exclusive to Classic Elsternwick, Belgrave Cameo and Lido Hawthorn
© JIFF Distribution - a delightful and very un-mainstream 
view of love in the Aspergers world
David (Brandon Polansky), the son of wealthy New York parents, has high functioning autism. When he falls foul of the police he is ordered to attend a support group which he deeply resents, defining himself as "normal". He is also desperate to fit into the mainstream, but endlessly alienates women he's met on the internet by telling inappropriate jokes. When he meets fellow group member Sarah (Samantha Elisofon), his life takes a different turn. Many  of us have preconceived ideas about people on the autism spectrum, and have possibly seen films like Rain Man and I am Sam (featuring non-autistic people in the lead roles). This film will blow all those ideas sky-high. For starters it uses people who actually are autistic/Asbergers in the lead roles. Polansky is a long-time friend of the director, and his insights and experiences are central to the film, making it truthful, endearing and  . . . well, simply amazing.  Aside from being a sweet and endearing rom-com, this film should go a long way to altering perceptions of people with differences, and really should be seen by as broad an audience as possible.
4.5 - wholeheartedly recommended!

C'est la Vie
Director: Olivier Nakache & Eric Toledano
Length: 115 min
© Madman - staff at an opulent wedding try to cope
with crazed costumes and unexpected dramas. 
Wedding planner Max (a wonderfully world-weary Jean Pierre Bacri) is near burnout and ready to sell his business. It doesn't help that this latest job is turning into the wedding from hell. First up, Max must contend with his argumentative assistant Adele (Eye Haidara), the wrong band, fronted by the arrogant James (Giles Lelouche), missing waiters and a tedious social climbing groom who has set the event in an 18th century chateau. As the evening progresses, things go increasingly wrong, while Max does the most incredible juggling act to try to pull it all together. I've never been a big fan of French comedy, but this one hit totally the right note for me, as well as having a depth to the characters not usual in this type of film. Each main character has some fatal, but very human flaw, and the revelation of these foibles, only enhances the plot. With the action confined to the stunningly photogenic chateau and taking place over one afternoon/evening, the film builds a magnificent momentum of unfortunate incidents, that never veer into farce, feel quite credible, yet had me chortling out loud. Best is that there is a truly warm sense of humanity and connectedness to the brilliant final scene that left me a very satisfied viewer.
4 - highly recommended! 

The Living Universe
Director: Alex Barry; Vincent Amouroux
Length: 90 min
Exclusive to Cinema Nova until 22nd August
© Nova - magnificent visuals and thought-provoking
discussion about what may one day be possible
Fans of space-based science fiction and science fact shouldn't miss this fabulous feature doco, exploring possibilities of finding life on exoplanets. These are planets way beyond our solar system, to which we can not yet travel, but are working on. Popular scientist Karl Kruszelnicki and Aussie astrophysicist Tamara Davis narrate a story of research, dreams and of possibilities, with additional commentary from some of the leading brain power in the field of space exploration. These interviews and insights are blended with a visual narrative of an imaginary spaceship, 150 years in the future, taking 50 years to travel to a planet four light years away. The machinery and technology required is discussed then digitally created, to make for a visually stunning viewing experience.
4 - highly recommended!  

The latest two docos I've managed to view have, unfortunately, come and gone. I mention them because, who knows, you may get a chance some other time to catch these bizarre films that make me question the sanity of the world.
People's Republic of Desire: In China online entertainment is huge, and young people flock to a social network site to perform, sing, chat - do anything to get zillions of fans who send "virtual gifts" which somehow translate in to real money. The tragedy is the people involved seem to have no real life beyond this compulsive, aimless desire for fame and fortune, and believe online connection is somehow a substitute for real human connection. Takes the Facebook phenomenon to new levels and is ultra-scary. 
Our New President: This Russian satirical doco is a bit of a crazed mish-mash using grabs from actual Russian TV shows, and clips from citizens who have something to say, all aimed at showing how the Clinton-Trump battle was seen through Soviet eyes. It's certainly very timely with the ongoing investigations into Russian involvement in the US election. The level of fake news and concocted lies is monumental, and when you think how many people believe it, it's gob-smacking. The film would have profited from an introductory narrative framework.
Footnote: some stunning films that have screened at MIFF will be heading to our cinemas over the next few months, so don't despair if you missed them.  

Tuesday, 7 August 2018

August 9th 

On Chesil Beach 

Mission Impossible: Fallout
MIFF: A Woman Captured

Not a lot to report this week, as film buffs are bum down/head up in cinemas watching the cornucopia of fine films that constitute MIFF. 

On Chesil Beach
Director: Dominic Cooke
Length: 110 min
© Transmission - love on the beach, or 
on the rocks?
In 1962, Florence (Saiorse Ronan) and Edward (Billy Howle) have just married and are spending their wedding night in a Dorset hotel near Chesil Beach. Both are young and nervous about the prospect of consummating their marriage (the sexual revolution hasn't quite hit yet). As things get more awkward between them, a flaming argument erupts. Things are said and decisions made that will affect their lives for ever. Writer Ian McKewan has adapted his acclaimed novel for the screen, but I find myself ambivalent about the film. The film looks lovely, the period is well evoked and  Ronan gives a nuanced  performance as the upper class classical musician, totally in charge in her musical world yet completely naive when it comes to love. The subject matter feels strangely anachronistic while the constant flashbacks from the wedding night to earlier times interrupt the dynamic of the unfolding drama. The hackneyed (though tear-jerking) denouement feels glib. Oddly, the awkwardness of the couple, rather than making for authenticity, lend an awkward feel to the film. Overall though, it probably is worth seeing. 
3 - recommended!

Mission: Impossible - Fallout
Director: Christopher McQuarrie
Length: 147 min
© Paramount - Tom up to his old 
daredevil tricks
Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) is  on a heart-stopping mission to retrieve the stolen plutonium before disaster strikes. Sound familiar? Whether you love or hate blockbusters, this is certainly a full-on, breakneck, excitement packed addition to the genre and indeed the successful MI franchise. As you know, I am not a huge blockbuster fan, and I NEVER am able to follow the plot of these convoluted spy-vs spy movies, but perhaps it doesn't matter. It's never about plot: one goes to watch the daredevil Cruise perform his own mighty impressive stunts, and to enjoy the roller coaster of non-stop action. There's a strong supporting cast including Angela Bassett, Ving Rhames, Henry Cavill, Rebecca Ferguson, Michelle Monaghan and Alec Baldwin. Ultimately it's mindless but fun entertainment, which for die-hard fans (and according to Rottten Tomatoes) is the best yet of the series. What would I know!?
2.5 - maybe!

Happening now - until 19 August

Many of the strong feature films from MIFF will be getting mainstream releases, so I try to preview films that I think won't see the light of day outside of festivals, especially documentaries. Remember, I reviewed three last week. 
A Woman Captured: This Hungarian doco is so mind-boggling as to defy belief. 53-year-old Marish has been a slave for years to a callous and abusive woman, Eta. As the film-maker chronicles Marish's miserable daily life, the oppressed woman finally works up the courage to hatch an escape plan. This is excruciatingly slow, but bizarrely intriguing, focussing in on the ravaged toothless face and daily torment of the unfortunate woman. How she allowed this to happen I'll never know, but apparently this sort of modern slavery is alive and well, not only in third-world countries, but also in Europe. (9th Aug, 12th Aug)

Wednesday, 1 August 2018

August 2nd
The Wife
The Breaker Upperers
Dr Knock
The Last Suit
Melbourne International Film Festival - MIFF

Tonight's the big one - opening night of MIFF. While nothing I say would influence anyone, as the die-hards have already booked themselves out with countless films, I have been lucky to preview a few and will put my two bob's worth in. As well I've caught up with a number of latest releases for those eschewing festival mania and looking for an outing to their local cinema. 

The Wife
Director: Bjorn Runge
Length: 100 min
© Icon - a loving married couple hide a 
destructive secret
Joan (Glenn Close) and Joe (Jonathan Price) have been married for over 40 years. He is about to receive a major prize for literature, and she, ever the supportive wife, calm and elegant in his shadow, is obviously delighted. Or is she? This is yet another timely story in an era of increasing scrutiny of women's role and recognition in what still seems to be a man's world. The stand-out in this film is Close's performance, which is something to be relished. The nuances of her facial expressions, and the subtle portrayal of her well-disguised thoughts are simply brilliant.  Other fascinating themes emerge: Joe's masculine ego causing him to be critical of his son's literary aspirations; the role of a prying biographer (Christian Slater), hoping to unearth secrets, but most of all the unspoken dynamic between husband and wife - one in which she has been virtually complicit in a secret that she can no longer live comfortably with. Though there is little ground-breaking in the plot, Close could well be an early Oscar contender, and it's a definite watch to admire such a tour de force.
4 - highly recommended!

The Breaker Upperers
Director: Madeleine Sami & Jackie van Beek
Length: 85 min
© Madman - I mean, really? These two in a love affair!
Jen (van Beek)  and Mel (Sami) are thirty-something women, close friends and  running a business that is quite the opposite of a dating agency. The perform a service for people who want to break up but don't quite know how to go about it. Modus operandi vary - among them posing as police who  telling one partner the other has died; other times they play "the other woman", sealing the demise of the relationship. Being a fan of New Zealand comedy, I had high hopes for this one, but to be blunt it didn't really tickle my funny bone. The acting talent isn't the problem - for me it's the lack of really strong jokes in the story line. Chemistry between the two lead women is strong, and their droll patter and style of relating to each other works well. But Cecilia Pacquola as an aggrieved partner overplays her hand, while the affair between 17-year-old rugby player Jordan (James Rolleston of Boy and Pork Pie fame) and double-his-age Mel is not only tacky but unbelievable. But, as I always say, one gal's comedy is another's ho-hum, and critiquing material for laughs is a highly subjective matter.
2.5 - maybe!

Dr Knock
Director: Lorraine Levy
Length: 113 min
© Umbrella  - Omar Sy's charm goes a long way in this
amiable but conflicted French comedy
Marseilles thug Knock (Omar Sy) flees petty crims pursuing him for a gambling debt by taking a shipboard job as a doctor, though he has no training. Five years later we meet him, fully qualified, taking up a position in an idyllic French village (cue gorgeous cinematography). The outgoing doctor has had few patients, but Knock sees an opportunity - offer free consultations, convince people they are ill, and split the proceeds with the local pharmacist. Things go swimmingly until the local priest gets suspicious, Knock falls in love, and someone from his dubious past turns up. Apparently this tale was written as a satirical theatre piece back in the 1920s, and has been adapted several times. Thematically it alludes to hypochondria and powers of suggestion, and this modern version (set in the 1950s) strongly foreshadows medicine and pharmaceuticals as business propositions. (Really? Who'd have thought!) Little or no satirical feel is evident, while the film sports large plot holes and employs many stereotyped characters.Despite criticisms it is an amiable and amusing story which I enjoyed more than my rating indicates. Sy is such a charismatic actor and his character so likeable (despite his roguery) that I've cut the film some slack.
2.5 - maybe!

The Last Suit
Director: Pablo Solarz
Length: 93 min
Exclusive to Elsternwick Classic, Belgrave Cameo and Lido Hawthorn
© JIFF Distribution -  moving tale of a
Holocaust survivor keeping his promise. 
Abraham Bursztein (Miguel Angel Sola)  is an 88-year old  Holocaust survivor who now lives in Argentina and works as a tailor. On the eve of his kids placing him in a nursing home he does a runner, heading to Europe to track down a man who helped him survive the war and to whom he made a promise so long ago. This is yet another excellent film from the Jewish International Film Festival that is getting a broader release, and rightly so. It is infused with gentle humour and deep emotion. Abraham's determination to never set foot on German soil again makes for some interesting narrative moments. Sola's award-winning performance is superb, capturing the ingrained pain, anger  and trauma so familiar in Holocaust films. And yet he is a man still with drive and zest for life. The film is beautiful, gentle yet powerful.
4 - highly recommended!

Melbourne International Film Festival
August 2-19

Devotees of MIFF don't need me to tell them what a fabulous array of films are on offer. As well as the usual headlining films, Australian premieres,  international feature, documentaries, galas and more, there is a special event worth mentioning at the Astor theatre. A 737-minute overnight marathon sees seven Nicolas Cage films being screened. The Cage-a-thon is unmissable for fans of the controversial actor. Meantime, a few I've caught so far, and well worth recommending are:
The Rape of Recy Taylor: In the era of #Black Lives Matter and #Me Too, this is a timely doco about a ghastly crime that took place in Alabama in 1944. As so often happened, white men got away with it, but the determination of Taylor and her family to fight for justice remains an inspiration in today's world. This is a wonderfully constructed doco with recollections, archival footage,  and current commentary on issues of equality and black rights. (Aug 13th, 16th) 
The Eyes of Orson Welles: This  latest doco is already considered a defining work about one of the greatest  film personalities of the 20th century. It has just won the Golden Eye documentary prize at Cannes. Director Mark Cousins is given access to a box of notes, letters, and sketches by Welles. In a fascinating filmic device, he speaks to Orson, commentating and asking questions about the great man's career, politics, love life and more - all interspersed with Welles' film clips. A must-see for fans. (Aug 6th & 19th)
Tigers are not Afraid: As part of MIFF's Night Shift (late night, scary, genre and weird stuff), this Mexican film tells the story of a group of kids, orphaned by the drug wars, and struggling to stay alive on the streets. The strong female protagonist, Estrella, has double trouble, as she flees a ruthless gang while the ghost of her mother haunts her. A rivetting combination of social realism, strong emotion, and supernatural elements, with compelling performances from the kids. (Aug 11th, 18th)
Strange Colors: For a look at the tough Aussie blokes who live out bush and mine opals, go no further than this unusual mood piece. Max's daughter Melina takes time from her studies to visit her dad, and discovers more about the outback blokes than she imagined. This is visually sumptuous, making use of breath-taking sunsets, and stark outback loneliness. Not a lot happens - it is definitely about atmosphere and unspoken feelings, but it certainly held my interest. (Aug 15th, 17th)
The festival is, as always, highly recommended!