Saturday, 3 June 2017

FILM REVIEW: 20TH CENTURY WOMEN



eOne Films

It's 1979, and in a post-Vietnam, post-'summer of love', feminist-era Santa Barbara, Dorothea Fields (Annette Bening) is coming to terms with a brave new world.

The single mother is also coming to terms with an adolescent son, Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann), on the cusp of manhood and what exactly that means for the both of them. How does she raise him to be a good man? And how does he assert his independence away from her?

The former question sees Dorothea enlist Abbie (Greta Gerwig), her arty tenant, and Julie (Elle Fanning), a neighbour and slightly older friend and confidant of Jamie, in her cause. For Jamie, it means testing the waters and pushing the boundaries; breaking curfew, and occasionally Dorothea's heart, in a bid to see just what he can get away with whilst determining what kind of man he wants to be.

Written and directed by Mike Mills (Beginners, 2011), 20th Century Women celebrates the roles that women play in shaping the men we become, and more specifically, the mothers who sacrifice so much to give their children the best possible tools for making a positive mark on the world.

The performances (including Billy Crudup as a New Age handyman lodger) are uniformly good, with Bening and Gerwig the standouts.

It may not pack the emotional punch of Beginners – Mills' autobiographical tale of his father's late-in-life coming out and simultaneous battle with cancer, though it does boast some of the same stylistic flourishes – but 20th Century Women is affecting nonetheless.

Thursday, 1 June 2017

FILM REVIEW: WONDER WOMAN



Roadshow Films/Warner Bros.

About 14-months ago, I wrote about how awful Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice was. The second of Zack Snyder's DC Extended Universe films, after the disappointing Man of Steel (2014), BVS was a dimly-lit, over-long mess of a film with one saving grace: Wonder Woman.

But did Wonder Woman look impressive simply by virtue of being surrounded by shit? And how would Gal Gadot's Amazonian princess fare when forced to carry the weight of her own film on her muscular shoulders?

The good news: Wonder Woman is not terrible. In fact, it's quite good. And in terms of DCEU films, it's arguably the best so far. A low bar to hurdle, to be sure, but the film, director Patty Jenkins (2003's Monster), and Gadot do so with all the determined grace you'd expect of a warrior princess.

Jenkins, and screenwriter Allen Heinberg, have obviously used Captain America: The First Avenger (still one of Marvel's best efforts) as both inspiration and their template; its world war setting, unconsummated romance, and an at-first naive hero who fights for what they believe is right and not simply for what is ordered of them are all from that other film's playbook. (Even one character's sacrifice at the end of Wonder Woman is either an homage to, or a blatant rip-off of The First Avenger's final moments.)

But Wonder Woman is its own film, too. From Themyscrica, the secret island home of the Amazons ruled by Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) -- and where her daughter, Diana (WW's actual name), is trained for combat by her aunt, General Antiope (a fierce Robin Wright) -- to the muddy trenches of No Man's Land and the battlefields of World War I, Jenkins creates two very distinct but wholly believable worlds.

Those worlds collide when Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) crashes his plane off the Themyscrican coast and is rescued by Diana, who is given an immediate introduction to the dangers that mankind presents when German soldiers storm the beach. It's 1918 and Trevor, a US spy who, having gone undercover behind enemy lines, has escaped from the Germans with the notebook of so-called Dr Poison (Elena Anaya). She has been developing a biochemical weapon to win the war and help General Erich Ludendorff (Danny Huston) prevent the signing of the Armistice.

Tales of this great war, and the possibility that it is Ares, the god of war and sworn enemy of the Amazons, orchestrating it, ignites Diana's sense of justice and piques her adventurous spirit; accompanying Trevor back to London ("It's hideous!") and then on to the Front, where Diana witnesses firsthand man's cruelty towards his fellow man. It's also the film's best set piece: Wonder Woman rising from the trenches, going over the top and single-handedly taking down a German battalion. She then liberates a nearby village with equally impressive force.

But in spite of the superhuman heroics, in Wonder Woman we have an identifiable heroine. She may be a warrior princess and daughter of a god, but Diana also has a child-like wonder; a curious nature that has her thirsting for knowledge. She also has a very strong sense of what is right and what is wrong. And she's still learning. As much as Jenkins' film is a big screen coming out for Wonder Woman, it's also Diana's coming of age tale.

Unfortunately Jenkins can't avoid the third act curse of the superhero film: a GCI-heavy, low stakes showdown between heroine and villain. (Spoiler alert: Wonder Woman doesn't die.) But in spite of this bloat and wobble, Wonder Woman manages to stick the landing. And we won't have to wait an eternity to see her again: Diana will be back, alongside her fellow superheroes, in Justice League later this year.

Here's hoping we don't have to wait too long to see her front and centre of her own film again, now that we know Gadot and Jenkins are both well and truly up to the task.

Wednesday, 31 May 2017

FILM REVIEW: HOUNDS OF LOVE



Label Films

The most discomfiting Australian film since 2011's Snowtown, Hounds of Love doesn't achieve Justin Kurzel's level of excruciating brilliance but Ben Young's directorial debut is, for the most part, an excellent foray into the domestic horror genre.

Not based on actual events like Kurzel's debut, Hounds of Love is set during a sweltering December in the lead up to Christmas. It's 1987 and a simpler time in Australia, so much so that when teenage girls go missing with seeming regularity, police brush their parents off with assurances that they've simply run away. No one would suspect their sleepy little 'burb to be the hunting ground of a sex predator or, worse still, a serial killer. Make that two.

For John White (Stephen Curry, perfectly creepy) is ably assisted in his abduction, rape, torture and murder of these young women by Evie (Emma Booth), who shares John's passion for cruel sexual thrills. Or does she? Is Evie also a victim? Certainly of domestic abuse, both physical and psychological, but she's very much an accomplice. Her presence in John's car as he cruises for his prey is the honey in the trap: he can't possibly be a bad guy if he has a woman with him, right?

The opening scenes of Hounds reveals John and Evie's modus operandi, from pick up to disposal, so we know what's in store for Vicky (Ashleigh Cummings) when, after climbing out her bedroom window to attend a party after being grounded by her mother (Susie Porter), she's picked up by the predators with the promise of cheap pot, and then cheaper wine, back at their place.

Cue (not completely unwarranted) accusations of torture porn as we spend the next 36 or so hours inside an unassuming brick house on Malcolm Street as a series of humiliations and horrors unfold for Vicky, and also Evie. As Vicky takes every opportunity to escape -- from an encoded runaway letter forged at knife point, to attempting to get inside Evie's head -- Evie slowly becomes unhinged; suspecting that John may be taking more of an interest in their latest capture than he usually does.

For the first hour of Hounds of Love, the tension is palpable as we bear witness to two monsters at play and watch, helplessly, as their victim suffers at their hands (and the sex toys contained in a brown shoe box). It's a controlled study in the banality of evil.

But then Young seems to remember his film is also a thriller and, whether to hit certain beats or draw out the tension, his film begins to lose momentum. Young even gives a nod to Silence of the Lambs in the film's climactic moments, which are tense but also a little too drawn out. In its best moments, however, Hounds of Love is truly horrifying.

Wednesday, 3 May 2017

FILM REVIEW: THE ZOOKEEPER'S WIFE



Roadshow Films

The Zookeeper's Wife, directed Niki Caro (Whale Rider, 2002), is adapted from the 2007 Diane Ackerman novel by Angela Workman, and it is very much a workman-like effort. Solid and tasteful (and handsomely mounted for just $20 million) it's not the least bit remarkable: the film trades on cute animals and the horrors of the Holocaust to wring tears from the audience.

Jessica Chastain, who is also a producer on the film, is valiant in spite of her distractingly thick Polish accent. She plays Antonina Zabinski, the wife of the keeper at Warsaw Zoo, Jan Zabinski (Johan Heldenbergh), who together, when war arrives, decide to use their bombed out animal park to house, hide and aid in the escape of Jews from the Warsaw ghetto.

Although based on actual events – and end credit tells us that the Zabinskis saved some 300 lives, men, women and children – the film is more storybook than history book. That's not helped by Daniel Bruhl as Lutz Heck, a snarling Nazi villain and fellow zoologist with an eye for Antonina. (Ironically, among a cast who speak English with varying Polish accents, German actor Bruhl sounds the most English.)

You may get weepy during The Zookeeper's Wife but Caro's film boasts very few real emotions and only the occasional dose of suspense. Perhaps Ackerman's novel would be a better place to learn about the heroics of the Zabinskis; good people who risked their own lives to save others from a once unimaginable horror which is, sadly, all too believable today.