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
Mary Queen of Scots

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.  
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!

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:

Wednesday, 2 January 2019

January 1st - 2019
Eighth Grade

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! 

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!