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.

Tuesday, 25 April 2017

FILM REVIEW: THINGS TO COME



Palace Films

Besides a complicated mother-daughter relationship and a ubiquitous feline, there is a world of difference between Isabelle Huppert's two critically-acclaimed films of 2016, Elle and Things To Come; Paul Verhoeven's rape-revenge thriller is as in-your-face as Mia Hansen-Love's study of female mid-life crises is meditative. Both films, of course, boast a stellar performance by Ms Huppert, as inscrutable in the former as she is transparent (yet somewhat elusive) in the latter.

A professor of philosophy at a Paris university, Nathalie Chazeaux (Huppert) is adored by her students and lives a comfortable bourgeois existence with her husband, and fellow professor, Heinz (Andre Marcon); their two children, Chloe (Sarah Le Picard) and Johann (Solal Forte), having already flown the family nest. Seemingly living in domestic and professional bliss, Nathalie is soon shaken from her bubble; first, her mother (Edith Scob) has to be moved to a nursing home, having threatened self harm and calling the fire department once too often (the aforementioned cat, a black and obese creature named Pandora, belonging to her but falling into Nathalie's care); and then Heinz reveals he has a lover, and he will be moving in with her.

Forced into a mid-life crisis, Nathalie doesn't rail against the world, or even her philandering husband. She seems to take it all on the chin with resolve if not good grace; the occasional cry her only concession to her lot. She doesn't seem to have any friends either (at least none Hansen-Love seems concerned with introducing), other than former student and self-professed anarchist, Fabien (Roman Kolinka). Nathalie -- and Pandora -- travelling to his country farm where like-minded radicals drink, smoke and debate the ways of the world. Or just go swimming, and drink and smoke some more.

Unlike a film about a man's mid-life crisis, there are no sports cars or sex-capades. And while Hansen-Love may tease at an obvious attraction between Nathalie and Fabien, she knows better than to deliver on cliche. On the other hand, when Nathalie scoffs at the suggestion of romance, declaring "I'm a grandmother", the audience just as easily scoffs at the suggestion that Huppert could be anything but desirable at any age.

The lack of action may bother those more conditioned to a Hollywood take on mid-life crises, but Hansen-Love's films aren't driven by, or are slaves to plot; things happen just as they would in life: there's no heightened emotions or contrived events in Things To Come, just her fifth feature (though you may need a degree in philosophy to obtain some deeper meaning). Life has handed Nathalie some lemons, and she's going to make the best tasting citron presse she possibly can.

Career woman and doting grandmother may seem at odds -- and not particularly heroic in a filmic sense -- but by the time Unchained Melody plays (performed not by The Righteous Brothers but by 1950s a capella group The Fleetwoods), you get the sense that Nathalie is going to be just fine.

Thursday, 30 March 2017

FILM REVIEW: THE LEGO BATMAN MOVIE



Roadshow Films

Not nearly as clever or as much fun as The LEGO Movie, the surprise animation hit of 2014 that boasted both laughs and smarts for all-ages, The LEGO Batman Movie arrives to take some much needed piss out of the super-serious superhero genre. If it's not the LEGO movie we deserve, it's the one need.

And even more so than its predecessor, the humour and themes of The LEGO Batman Movie are aimed at an older audience. Younger kids may be dazzled by the colour and movement that abounds in director Chris McKay's feature, but its core story of an isolated orphan-cum-hero vigilante who fears connection and commitment, familial or otherwise, will be of no interest to tykes who are here for the (yellow) man in black tights.

After Batman (Will Arnett) saves Gotham once more from The Joker (Zach Galifianakis) --steadfastly refusing to acknowledge that he and his nemesis have any kind of relationship -- the caped crusader inadvertently sets in motion a plan that sees The Joker banished to the Phantom Zone: a space prison which holds the universe's most evil villains: Godzilla and King Kong, the gremlins and Daleks, and the raptors from Jurassic Park. From here, The Joker will initiate a prison break, unleashing all manner of villainy on Gotham.

The plethora of villains, super and celluloid, who abound in this very silly caper are voiced by a name cast (Conan O'Brien, Jenny Slate, Eddie Izzard, Zoe Kravitz) to little or no effect which is disappointing; McKay and co. (there are five credited screenwriters) seemingly gathering more pieces than the instructions called for.

Meanwhile, Batman, a.k.a Bruce Wayne, accidentally adopts an orphan, Dick Grace (Michael Cera), whom Alfred (Ralph Fiennes), Bruce's long-suffering manservant, believes could be the making of the man; Bruce, however, sees him as a lackey who is only too eager to be at his beck and call. Bruce also falls for the new Police Commissioner, Barbara Gordon (Rosario Dawson), a no-nonsense woman who has no time for vigilantes, lone wolves -- or narcissists. Sorry Bruce.

But Batman will have to play nice if he wants to defeat The Joker. 'There's no 'I' in team' and 'family is what you make it' are the two messages children may be able to take away from this fizzy confection. But it's the adults who will have the most fun in this sporadically entertaining flick.

Wednesday, 29 March 2017

FILM REVIEW: LAND OF MINE



Palace Films

If victors get to write history, they also get to mete out the punishment. Sometimes that punishment suits the crime committed; other times it may be excessive or especially cruel.

At the end of WWII, the Danes decided to have captured German soldiers defuse the 20,000-odd landmines the German forces had buried along the Danish coast. A precarious undertaking for sure, but on the bright side, if they were to stuff it up, well it's no skin -- or worse -- off the Danes' noses.

Sgt Carl Rasmussen (Roland Moller) is placed in command of a team of eight or so German POWs, none of whom can be a day over 20. "If they can go to war, they can clean up the mess", is the reasonable argument of Lt. Jensen (Mikkel Boe Folsgaard), Rasmussen's commanding officer, and initially, the Sargeant has no reason to object.

Rasmussen's just as tough on the men: locking them in their makeshift quarters of an evening and neglecting to feed them until they're soon too tired for work and are stealing scraps from a nearby barn. But gradually, a respect and then a fondness develops between Rasmussen and his charges: unofficial leader, Sebastian (Louis Hofmann), Helmut (Joel Basman), Ludwig (Oskar Bokelmann), Wilhelm (Leon Siedel), and twins Ernst (Emil Belton) and Werner (Oskar Belton).

Land of Mine, written and directed Martin Zandvliet, may not be a horror film but it doesn't shy away from the horrors of these men's task. Nor, in the case of the Danes, does it ignore that there is such a thing as sore losers. Like all war films, Land of Mine is anti-war. Tellingly, and no doubt deliberately, the term 'Nazi' is never used, nor is there any mention of the Holocaust: we are to view these young men first and foremost as boys, then prisoners, and at worst, German soldiers.

And, of course, like Rasmussen, we come to care for the fate of these young men. Every time we witness them on the beach, tentatively searching for and defusing the mines, you are on the edge of your seat, holding your breath or peeking through your fingers. And as this is not an American film with recognisable actors boasting marquee value, there is no way of knowing who will survive the task at hand and who will not.

At 100-minutes, Land of Mine, which was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at this year's Oscars, never overstays its welcome though ironically, it ends with a whimper rather than a bang. But in its best moments, it's gripping drama.

Wednesday, 22 March 2017

FILM REVIEW: BEAUTY AND THE BEAST



Walt Disney Studios Films

Putting aside the question as to why Disney would choose to remake one of its most acclaimed films -- 1991's Beauty and the Beast was the first animated film to be nominated for the Best Picture Oscar -- there is the question of relevancy: how can the story of a young woman, held captive by and eventually falling in love with a 'beast', be okay in a post-feminist world?

Perhaps that's why Disney, and director Bill Condon, chose Emma Watson to play Belle? The former star of the Harry Potter series is better known these days as an advocate for feminism, women's education and all-round equality. Her Belle doesn't have time for the trivial attentions of men, and certainly not local hero, Gaston (a vainglorious Luke Evans); she'd rather read books and study mechanics, like her clock-maker father, Maurice (Kevin Kline).

That's why Belle thinks nothing of trading her freedom for his when, after taking refuge in a secluded castle, Maurice is imprisoned by the Beast (Dan Stevens); a Prince who, along with his house staff, was punished for his vanity and cruelty with eternal "ugliness". The only way to break the spell: true love.

Of course, the issue of Stockholm Syndrome has always been present in the tale of Beauty and the Beast, even if the term was coined long after the story, by French novelist Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve, was first published almost 300-years ago. And Disney is certainly hoping the young ones, who've no doubt already watched and loved their animated version and know the lyrics to every song, won't have time for questions about women in captivity when they have a dancing candelabra and a singing teapot.

Perhaps that is why this version of Beauty and the Beast (and all the recent Disney animated-to-live action films) exists: because today's movie-making technology allows it to; CGI bringing to life all of the staff-turned-household objects that was once only possible in animation.

Not that Condon's Beauty and the Beast is terrible, far from it, it simply adds nothing to the 1991 classic other than real people. Watson, a limited actress though with a surprisingly good singing voice, makes for a headstrong Belle, while the make-up and CGI does most of the heavy lifting for Stevens' Beast (and yes, the Beast is far more attractive than the Prince in human form).

Evans' Gaston is a particularly despicable form of male entitlement, and Josh Gad as LeFou, Gaston's aide-de-camp, adds some comic touches (though the less said about the 'exclusively gay moment' the better). The voice cast, however, despite its star wattage (Ewan McGregor (Lumiere), Emma Thompson (Mrs. Potts), Stanley Tucci (Maestro Cadenza), Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Plumette), Ian McKellen (Cogsworth)), doesn't add all that much to proceedings. (Also, why do some characters speak with French accents and others English? Not even Belle and the Prince are French.)

The magic in this Beauty and the Beast exists solely within the world of the story and doesn't emanate from the screen. For true romance and movie magic, you'll have to revisit the 1991 animated film.

Thursday, 16 March 2017

FILM REVIEW: LOVING



eOne Films

Love is love. It's a simple sentiment, really, yet one that in practice continues to confound and confront the powers-that-be of Church and State. As Australia embarrassingly continues to stumble behind the rest of the Western world in recognising marriage equality, Jeff Nichols' Loving arrives not a moment too soon; reminding us of time when similar battles were being fought and, sadly, that the more things change . . .

Beginning in late 1950s Virginia, Loving tells the story of Richard (Joel Edgerton) and Mildred (Ruth Negga), childhood sweethearts who, with the impending birth of their first child, drive to Washington from the still segregated Virginia to marry.

The Lovings are preparing to build a life together, however, the law in Virginia is not prepared to accept a white man and a black woman - or vice versa - living in holy matrimony. After several arrests, which include police raids in the middle of the night, the Lovings agree to a commuted sentence in return for leaving the state and the promise never to return. But in the city, away from her family and the country where she ran and played as a child, and envisioned her children doing the same, Mildred wilts.

A letter to the Civil Liberties Union catches the attention of Robert Kennedy, and before long the Loving's case for inter-racial marriage is being heard before the United States Supreme Court (comedian Nick Kroll plays one of the Lovings' lawyers to slightly distracting effect).

Nichols' film, just his fifth and his second in the past year after Midnight Special, is an understated and restrained piece of filmmaking that allows the emotions of the Lovings -- similarly restrained but no less palpable -- tell the story. Ruth Negga, who received a Best Actress Oscar nomination, and Joel Edgerton, who gives a career-best performance, convey the deep-rooted love of Mildred and Richard through looks, gestures and body language. There is no emoting or grand gestures by either actor.

The same goes for the drama. A typical Hollywood film would have us in that courtroom hearing the arguments and the history-making verdict handed down. Here, it's treated almost as second-hand news by way of a phone call. Nichols' approach is the opposite of Amma Asante's in last year's A United Kingdom; a similar story of inter-racial love overcoming prejudice which was old fashioned and far from subtle in its telling.

Richard and Mildred Loving had to wait almost a decade for that Supreme Court decision and legal confirmation of what they, their friends and family already knew: that love is love. Here's hoping Australia doesn't waste that much time in reaching the same conclusion.

Wednesday, 15 March 2017

FILM REVIEW: THE EAGLE HUNTRESS



Sony Pictures

It is not intended as a backhanded compliment or even a dismissal of Otto Bell's fine documentary, The Eagle Huntress, when I confess that for a lot of its brief 87-minute running time I found myself thinking, “This would be a great animated film”.

The story of Aisholpan Nurgaiv, a 13-year-old Mongolian girl to become not just the first eagle hunter in her family but in the country – defying tradition and patriarchy, as well as Mother Nature – is the kind of story Disney and Pixar often excel at. Even Laika, given their recent success with Kubo and the Two Strings, could work wonders with both the story and scenery.

Beautifully shot by Simon Niblett (and by drones, I would hazard to guess given some of the amazing aerial shots), The Eagle Huntress even looks like a fairy tale: the landscape of the Mongolian steppe, with its green expanses and snowy mountains, lending itself to the big screen.

For centuries, eagle hunting has been an integral part of Mongolian culture, both as sport and as a means of providing for one's family. As such, eagle hunting has always been a man's pursuit. Aisholpan, the eldest of three children, has grown up watching her father hunt and train with eagles and knows that she, too, will be an eagle hunter. Her father, Rys, has no issue with his daughter's dream, encouraging her every step of the way; whether stealing an eaglet from a rocky mountain ledge or training the bird to fly to her arm at her command, or teaching both she and her eagle to hunt for foxes in the winter snow.

Whether the male elders of Mongolia, who gather for regular eagle hunting contests, will be as accepting of Aisholpan's dream is another thing entirely, and is the thrust of Bell's film. Will she prove herself among her older, more practiced eagle hunters? Will her optimistic school girl spirit withstand the scrutiny and disapproval of the male elders?

Narrated by Daisy Ridley (who is also one of the executive producers, along with Morgan Spurlock), Aisholpan's fate is never really in doubt. But as the story of girl with a big dream and a big smile, Aisholpan's fairy tale come reality is an inspiring one - no matter what format it is told in.

Wednesday, 1 March 2017

FILM REVIEW: JASPER JONES



Madman Films

Australian cinema doesn't have a great tradition of adapting local literature for the big screen which seems odd given the number of yearly bestsellers by homegrown authors, as well as a back catalogue of classic novels and world renowned writers to plunder. Look at the recent success of The Dressmaker for one.

Jasper Jones, Craig Silvey's 2009 novel, was a bestseller as well as critically-acclaimed, so its adaptation for the big screen (by Silvey and Shaun Grant, and directed by Rachel Perkins) seems like a no-brainer. It also targets a Young Adult audience, a demographic and a genre often under-served by Australian film.

It's the summer of '69 in the small West Australian town of Corrigan, and a murderer walks among the town's folk. Not that the locals will ever be aware. As far as they, and the local police are concerned, the eldest daughter of the mayor has disappeared: at worst kidnapped, but most likely to have run-off to the 'big lights' of Perth. But 13-year-old Charlie Bucktin (Levi Miller) knows better.

On a sweltering night, and days before the alarm is raised, there's a knock on Charlie's bedroom window. It's Jasper Jones (Aaron L. McGrath), Corrigan's half-caste outcast, and he's come seeking Charlie's help. Why exactly isn't made clear (though it is better explained in the book), but the bookish Charlie agrees to go with the older, bolder boy to see what he wants -- and he soon regrets it. For down by the river, in a secluded spot, a girl (the mayor's daughter) hangs lifeless from a tree.

The secluded spot is Jasper's hideaway and the girl, Laura Wishart, was his friend. But the good people of Corrigan aren't about to see it that way: a dead white girl, a guilty black boy. Case closed. Jasper wants Charlie's help in solving the murder, and Charlie -- having helped dispose of the only evidence that a murder has occurred -- reluctantly agrees.

Jasper Jones is a study of the insidious nature of small town Australia, of injustice and of barely concealed prejudice -- it may be Australia 1969 but it could just as easily be 2017, and not just in the rural towns -- with Silvey's nods to, and inspiration drawn from Harper Lee's To Kill A Mockingbird (those parallels made apparent in the book, but, wisely, less so in the adaptation; and any comparison between those films would be detrimental to what Perkins has produced).

Jasper Jones is also a coming of age story, where Charlie has his eyes opened to the harsh realities of the world and the fallibility of his parents (Toni Collette and Dan Wyllie). But its not all heavy going. There's Charlie's blush of first love with Eliza Wishart (Angourie Rice), although tainted somewhat given she is the younger sister of the dead girl. And then there's Charlie's friendship with the indomitable Jeffrey Lu (Kevin Long), a Vietnamese migrant and cricket tragic who refuses to let the bigoted, small minds of the small town bring him down.

Sadly, just as in the book, McGrath's Jasper is a supporting player. But all of the young actors acquit themselves well, while Collette, Wyllie, Matt Nable (Corrigan's police sergeant) and Hugo Weaving (the resident crazy man, Mad Jack Lionel) provide solid support even if plot-wise, Jasper Jones is a little wobbly at times. It's a faithful if not entirely successful adaptation.

On a positive note, high school English classes will no doubt be taken along to see Jasper Jones, not only boosting the box office but hopefully fostering an ongoing interest in Australian film and literature. And that can only be a good thing: perhaps inspiring a new wave of local filmmakers, one's keen to take Australian stories from the page to the screen.

Wednesday, 22 February 2017

FILM REVIEW: T2 TRAINSPOTTING



Sony Pictures

"Nostalgia!" one character says accusingly to another at one point in T2 Trainspotting. "You're a tourist in your youth." And that may very well sum up the reason for the existence of Danny Boyle's latest film, an intermittently entertaining but wholly unnecessary sequel to his 1996 breakthrough.

Like that film, which launched Boyle's filmmaking career, as well as that of leading man Ewan McGregor, T2 is an adaptation (again by John Hodge) of an Irvine Welsh novel (Porno). But this long-time-coming, though hardly highly-anticipated sequel only has flashes of both Boyle and Welsh's differing forms of brilliance.

Then again, maybe it's just too hard to shock and awe audiences in the 21st century? Trainspotting certainly had its share of memorable scenes of drug-induced horror and debauchery, and T2 is not without some squirm inducing violence, occasional vomit, and, of course, drug usage. But the emphasis this time around isn't on Edinburgh lowlifes looking for the next big high, rather a reconciling of the past and coming to terms with middle age.

Not that Mark Renton (McGregor) has aged badly. Having scarpered to Amsterdam to start life anew with the loot he stole along with Sickboy (Jonny Lee Miller), Spud (Ewen Bremner) and Begbie (Robert Carlyle) at the end of Trainspotting -- double-crossing and abandoning his friends in the process -- Mark has returned to Edinburgh to make amends. Or is he hoping to pick up where he left off all those years ago?

He's just in time to save Spud, the most vulnerable of the group, from a heroin-induced suicide but he may soon regret reacquainting himself with one-time BFF Sickboy, or Simon as he now prefers to be called. Simon, who has switched smack for coke, has aspirations of being a brothel operator, if only to keep his Bulgarian beauty Veronika (Anjela Nedyalkova) from leaving him, and he sees Mark as the perfect business partner and foil.

And then there's Begbie. The psychopath with a penchant for punching on has been incarcerated for most of the previous 20 years but as luck would have it, he masters a prison escape just as Mark returns. And if he wasn't already dangerous enough, Begbie's had two decades to plan his brutal revenge against the man who screwed him over.

Yep, the gangs all here. And while there's a couple of other ghosts from the past (Trainspotting alums Shirley Henderson and Kelly Macdonald making token appearances), this is very much a boy's own misadventure; Boyle and his principal cast getting back together for one more (last?) hurrah.

But just as you can't live in the past, and you can never really go home again, T2 Trainspotting relies too heavily on nostalgia for the first film to feel fully alive or its own creation. No matter how much energy and visual flair Boyle and cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle deploy, nor how game the quartet of actors are for reprising shithead shenanigans, T2 just doesn't provide the same buzz.

Wednesday, 15 February 2017

FILM REVIEW: HIDDEN FIGURES



20th Century Fox Films

History, as they say, is written by the victors, and in the Western world those authors almost always tend to be white males. So it would be completely understandable if, like me, you were unaware that women were involved in the Space Race.

Not just involved, these women were integral and essential to the American space program. These women also happened to be black.

Man's desire to orbit the Earth and then walk on the Moon has been taught in schools for decades, with names like Armstrong, Aldrin, Gagarin and Sputnik synonymous with that pursuit. Chances are you even know the name of the Soviet dog (Laika) or the American chimpanzee (Ham) that went into space, but do you know the name Katherine Johnson? No? Well, without her mathematical expertise, Ham the Astrochimp may very well have been the last American man into orbit.

Hidden Figures, directed Theodre Melfi (St. Vincent) and adapted from Margot-Lee Shetterly's non-fiction book by Allison Schroeder, tells the remarkable true story of Katherine Johnson (nee Goble), as well as Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughan: three of the women who worked at NASA's Virginia operations in 1961. Dubbed 'computers', these women, black and white, but of course segregated, worked on the calculations for not only getting the astronauts into orbit and safely back down again, but also for preventing their fiery deaths in between.

Of those computers, Katherine Goble (played perfectly by Taraji P. Henson) was considered the best. And when the Russians got Yuri Gagarin into orbit before the Americans, Virginia's head of operations Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) wanted only the best, male or female, white or coloured, working on his team. "We get to the peak together, or we don't get there at all."

The rest of Harrison's team aren't as open-minded or open-armed, which sees Katherine, a single mother of three, battling racism, sexism and the fragile male ego just to keep up. But keep up she does.

Meanwhile, Mary (Janelle Monae), at the encouragement of her Polish-Jewish emigre engineer boss, opposes Virginia's segregated education system so she, too, can study to become a NASA engineer, while Dorothy (Octavia Spencer) struggles to get the recognition, and the pay, of a supervisor from her own boss (a mealy-mouthed Kirsten Dunst), whilst also recognising the threat -- and opportunity -- posed by NASA's latest purchase: an IBM mainframe.

Melfi and Schroeder's treatment of this story may not be as remarkable as the women themselves, but Hidden Figures succeeds as both feel good entertainment and entertaining history lesson.

It may not be subtle when it comes to its depiction of race relations, but just as there are people who were unaware that black women worked at NASA in the 1960s, there will be younger audiences who can't comprehend a world where a white man and a black woman can't drink from the same coffee pot. Or why a woman has to run more than a mile on a daily basis to use the bathroom because the nearest bathroom is off-limits to her simply for the colour of her skin.

The scene where Harrison confronts Katherine about her being MIA on a daily basis, and her retaliatory outburst for all the shit she's had to put up with is one of many moments, big and small, where this trio of women stand their ground - and gradually gain some -- and the audience gets to cheer. Yes, Hidden Figures is a crowd pleaser but there's no shame in that.

And no, overcoming racism wasn't this simple nor did institutional racism or sexism end at NASA, or in America, as a result of these women's achievements. But just as we've forgotten what an amazing achievement it was for humankind to first walk on the Moon, Hidden Figures is a wonderful celebration of women well overdue for recognition, providing them their long-awaited moment in the sun -- and a permanent place in the history books.

Tuesday, 14 February 2017

FILM REVIEW: SILENCE



Transmission Films

Like deities, some filmmakers inspire religious-like devotion. Martin Scorsese is one such director: in the eyes of many, fanboys and critics alike, he can do no wrong. He is God Almighty. Myself, I'm yet to be converted. It's not that I don't admire his talent or the oeuvre it's produced, but there's a machismo, a level of testosterone propelling most of his films which just does not appeal.

That said, I do love Scorsese's less masculine films: The Age of Innocence (1993), Kundun (1997), Hugo (2011). Even The Aviator (2004), despite its male protag, falls more into my wheelhouse: old Hollywood, a tortured soul, Cate Blanchett. What then to make of Silence?

Adapted from the novel by Shusaku Endo, Silence has been a passion project of Scorsese's for more than 30 years; the story of Portuguese Jesuit priests defying religious persecution in 16th century Japan, where Christianity has been outlawed and those who practice, or preach from the Bible are either forced to denounce their faith or face death.

And while it may be a more affecting film for the faithful, both Catholic and Scorsese devotees, there is much to admire in the director's labour of love: whether that be the cinematography by Rodrigo Prieto, capturing the cool beauty of the island terrain (Taiwan standing in for 16th century Japan); or Andrew Garfield's stoic performance (far less ingratiating than his other 'man of faith' role of 2016, in Mel Gibson's Hacksaw Ridge).

Garfield plays Father Rodrigues, who along with fellow Jesuit Father Garupe (Adam Driver), travels to Japan to find their former teacher, Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson, woefully miscast), who is rumoured to have apostasized; denouncing his faith and now living a life of compliant (non-Christian) domesticity.

The first half of the film (it clocks in at 160-minutes) sees Rodrigues and Garupe hiding out in the Japanese mountainside, secreted away by villagers who practice their Christian faith in private lest they be discovered and punished by authorties under the command of The Inquisitor.

The second half of Silence is a battle of wills between Rodrigues and The Inquisitor (Issei Ogata), the latter all forced smiles as he attempts to break the spirit of the young priest. The threat of torture, and witnessing other ingenious cruelties (the Japanese were adept at inflicting physical pain long before World War II), used as a means to induce the priest to apostasize.

But this section of Silence it also about Rodrigues's relationship with his God. Since his arrival in Japan, the priest feels that he has been unable to hear the Lord's voice; left to his own devices about how he should proceed. Is it right to allow others to die for him? Would the simple act of placing his foot on a religious icon -- The Inquisitor's preferred, public method of apostasy -- be viewed as a symbolic yet hollow act if Rodrigues still believes, in his heart of hearts, in the grace of his Christian god?

Meditative and contemplative, Silence is a 180 degree turnabout from Scorsese's previous film, the super-charged, substance-fuelled bacchanalia that was The Wolf of Wall Street (2013). But even those who are not religious, or necessarily disciples of Scorsese (or only his more violent fare), should find something here to praise. This heathen did.

Thursday, 9 February 2017

FILM REVIEW: TONI ERDMANN



Madman Films

Parents are embarrassing. It's a fact, and a universal law that if they can embarrass you, they will. That fear of embarrassment lessens as we grow into adults and our elders become our equals. Or better yet, we grow into adults and make a life for ourselves far, far away from their meddling. I mean, good intentions.

For Ines Conradi (Sandra Huller), her successful corporate consultancy career has taken her from her native Germany to Romania with the possibility of a future posting in Shanghai. Not that she necessarily took that role to avoid her father, Winfried (Peter Simonischek), but you could understand if she had.

We first meet Winfried doing what he does best: pulling practical jokes on unsuspecting people; in this instance, masquerading as twins, one of whom may have ordered a pipe bomb via courier. The jokes are never cruel -- sometimes it's as harmless as popping in the false teeth he constantly carries in his shirt pocket and giving a goofy grin -- but depending on one's sense of humour, the reactions can range from amusement to befuddlement.

When Winfried's dog, the divorcee's longtime friend and companion passes away, he makes an impulsive decision to visit Ines unannounced. What could possibly go wrong?

Naturally, it's the most important week of Ines's career: she's trying to impress her global mining client with a downsizing proposal. But Winfried manages to upstage her at every turn; while the magnate is charmed by Winfried's ruffled manner, he suggests Ines take his wife on a shopping tour of the Romanian capital.

Not that writer-director Maren Ade's film is about corporate sexism. That may be one of the strands gently plucked at in this 160-minute black comedy, but Toni Erdmann remains first and foremost a story about the ties that bind, and the bonds that break, between fathers and daughters.

Erdmann is the moniker Winfried adopts when, having believed by Ines to have returned to Germany, he reappears as a 'life coach'; sporting a black wig, carrying a cheese grater (nope, no idea!), and wearing those aforementioned dentures. He believes his daughter's sterile, all work-no play existence needs some spicing up. And for whatever reason, Ines goes along for the ride, leading them, and the audience, to some funny and dark places.

Thankfully, the performances of Huller and Simonischek guide us through this odd, uncomfortable but never-not-entertaining journey. They make for a perfect double act, by turns sparring and folding, as hackles are raised and defences are dropped; father and daughter making emotional headway, circling back and starting again as they renegotiate their relationship.

We may not get to choose our family but you could do worse than choosing to spend time with these two.

Thursday, 2 February 2017

FILM REVIEW: MANCHESTER BY THE SEA



Universal Pictures Australia

Although it is centred around grief -- past and present -- writer-director Kenneth Lonergan's latest film (and just his third after You Can Count On Me (2000) and Margaret (2011)) is by no means a downer. Leavened by an unassuming sense of humour, Manchester By The Sea is far funnier and not nearly as depressing as early word would have you believe. But it does begin with death.

Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck), an efficient but standoffish janitor in Boston, is called home upon the death of his older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler, seen in flashbacks). The death isn't a complete surprise to Lee: Joe had been diagnosed with a heart condition some years earlier. But the loss of his closest relative and strongest ally, not to mention a return to his home town of Manchester by the Sea, where his reputation is seemingly irredeemably tarnished, has the taciturn Lee even more cagey.

Lonergan doesn't reveal the reason for Lee's surly nature until the film's halfway point, which immediately explains his reticence to return home, and his further reluctance to become the legal guardian to his nephew, Patrick (an excellent Lucas Hedges).

It is the interplay between these two men that provides much of the humour in Lonergan's screenplay; Lee's reluctance to engage versus 16-year-old Patrick's 'it's all about me' attitude. Yes he's a self obsessed shit, but how much of that is par for the course adolescence and how much of it is grief? Like Lee, Patrick has also lost his best friend; his mother having abandoned the family some years ago.

There's an everyday-ness and a recognisable awkwardness to proceedings in Manchester By The Sea. Lonergan, who is also an esteemed playwright, captures perfectly the way people speak -- or don't -- and the humour, intentional or not, in the day-to-day minutiae and in the most unexpected of places.

Yet the film does have a heavy heart, embodied in Affleck's Lee and held together by his quietly powerful performance. He is its bruised but still beating heart. If less is more, then Affleck is giving 110 per cent as a man, so broken by what has happened to him before the film begins, that anything bad that happens to him afterwards is deserved, and anything good is rebuffed. Lee is prepared to take life's body blows. Or invite them: deliberately provoking bar brawls just in case the Universe forgets to punish him.

And as for Lee's guardianship of Patrick, is it a test? Redemption and a second chance at fatherhood, or potential for further heartbreak down the road? You can see Lee's internal struggle as the possibility of happiness is weighed up against the fear of eventual loss.

But despite its themes and revelations, and the one big scene for Michelle Williams, who plays Lee's ex-wife, now remarried and pregnant, which finally allows for some on-screen emoting late in the film (Williams, as fine as she is, doesn't land an emotional gut punch), Manchester By The Sea doesn't put you through the emotional wringer.

Lonergan's film, however, will grip your heart. Just how tightly will depend on your own experiences of love and loss.

Monday, 23 January 2017

FILM REVIEW: SPLIT



Universal Pictures

One of James McAvoy's best film performances was in the 2013 film Filth. Based on an Irvine Welsh novel, McAvoy, who for once got to speak with his native Scottish accent, played a corrupt and unhinged police detective, as partial to illegal substances as he was outbreaks of violence.

It made for a refreshing change from his most famous (and recurring) role, that of the level-headed Charles Xavier: the bald-headed voice of reason to, and leader of the X-Men. McAvoy also sports a bald pate in his latest role, but thankfully he's bad -- Filth level bad, and pretty good at it -- in M. Night Shyamalan's Split.

He plays Barry. And Dennis. And Patricia. They're just three of the 23 alternate personalities who reside in the mind and body of Kevin Wendell Crumb. Unfortunately for Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy; unrecognisable from last year's The Witch), Claire (Haley Lu Richardson; recently seen in Edge of Seventeen), and Marcia (Jessica Sula), Dennis, in partnership with Patricia, has taken control of Kevin's body; abducting the three adolescents for part of a ritual which will supposedly bring forth The Beast.

But Kevin's concerned therapist, Doctor Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley), can't be sure if The Beast is a yet-to-be-introduced alternate residing within her patient, or a mythic delusion cooked up by Dennis and Patricia. Or something more sinister. Unaware of the abduction, the good doctor senses that something is off -- more so -- with Kevin (one of his alters keeps emailing her in the middle of the night).

And like Dr. Fletcher, the audience will be waiting -- more expectantly than patiently -- to discover the truth. As with all Shyamalan films, you are always waiting for the inevitable twist that will pull the rug out from under you; forcing the viewer to question and reconfigure everything that has come before.

That reveal when it does come won't seem all that surprising, and even less worth the wait. But your patience will be rewarded by McAvoy's impressive performance. Though we only get to see a handful of Kevin's alters -- the aforementioned Dennis, Barry and Patricia, as well as the impish pre-teen Hedwig -- McAvoy manages to make them distinctly different; altering his voice, posture and even his facial muscles so we know just who is in the driving seat of Kevin's psyche at any one time. He's scarily good.

Split is more intriguing than scary, but it may arguably be Shyamalan's best film for quite some time.

Thursday, 19 January 2017

FILM REVIEW: LION



Transmission Films

Just as the childhood song always insisted, it is indeed a small world - one made even smaller by the rise and reach of the internet and social media. You can survey the streets of a foreign town without ever leaving your home; make friends with people in other countries, talking face-to-face via your computer screen; reconnect with school chums you haven't seen since you graduated.

The world is a small and amazing place, but in the 1990s it was a little less of both. More so for a young boy from a small village in India.

With no phone and no internet, 5-year-old Saroo (Sunny Pawal) didn't even know his mother's name when he became separated from his family; accidentally whisked cross-country by train and forced to fend for himself.

A series of almost unfortunate events lead to Saroo being adopted by the Brierlies (Nicole Kidman and David Wenham), a couple from Tasmania: an island state of Australia and, for all intents and purposes, at the bottom of the world.

Growing into a fine young man (played by Dev Patel with a near-perfect Australian accent), and having enjoyed the privileges of a Western upbringing, including cricket, sail boating and college, Saroo still has an emptiness inside; a longing for home and family. Not that he was ungrateful to his adoptive parents but the heart wants what the heart wants. And thanks to the internet, he was able to go in search of the family he lost.

Adapted by Luke Davies from Saroo Brierly's autobiography, A Long Way Home, the major problem with Lion, an impressive debut feature from Garth Davis, is that the second half of the film -- where the adult Saroo searches for his family -- is less interesting, less involving than the first half. Alternatively, we're right there, emotionally invested as young Saroo tries desperately to return to his mother, brother and sister.

Perhaps that is because of the 'child in peril' dynamic (and the irresistable cuteness of Sunny Pawar) rather than any fault of Dev Patel's fine performance. Rooney Mara (as Saroo's girlfriend), Wenham, and especially Kidman are also good in the second half of the film. And any quibbles or misgivings are washed away by the film's emotional climax.

It may be a small world after all, but Lion has a big, big heart.

Wednesday, 11 January 2017

FILM REVIEW: JACKIE



eOne Films

Grief is a private affair, or ideally should be, and is experienced as individually as the number of mourners. One person may wail with tears while another may remain silent, seemingly unmoved.

How then to grieve when the eyes of a nation, and the world, are upon you?

Pablo Larrain's Jackie is a study in grief, both public and private, as the First Lady Jaqueline Bouvier Kennedy (Natalie Portman) mourns the loss of her husband, President John F. Kennedy. Set in the lead-up to, and immediate aftermath of the 1963 JFK assassination, and culminating in the president's funeral, Jackie, penned by Noah Oppenheim, is a mix of both fact and fiction as Mrs Kennedy conducts an interview just a week after those historic events.

Summoning a reporter (Billy Crudup) to her home, the First Lady is hoping to establish her husband's legacy and control the media narrative as it relates to her. And the interview, and its contents, are very much on her terms. As combative as the process may be, the reporter's text is at the mercy of Mrs Kennedy's red pen.

And Larrain and Oppenheim are as factual and fanciful as Jackie herself: everything that happens behind closed doors in this film may be fiction but it's no less compelling or believable for that. A mix of history, newsreel and 'what ifs', Jackie seems to be detail-perfect even if it isn't the real thing.

The same could be said of Portman's performance. She may not pass as the First Lady's doppelganger but Portman nails the woman. From the designer wardrobe to that distinct voice, the aesthetics -- and Mrs Kennedy was all about aesthetics -- are spot-on. But Portman also gives her an emotional depth: the histrionics of a grieving widow are leavened by a porcelain-like stillness and the ferocity of a lioness.

Portman's commitment and Larrain's outsider perspective (it's the Chilean director's first English language film) refute both imitation and hagiography. It's a warts-and-all biopic where emotional truth trumps historical fact.

Monday, 9 January 2017

MY 5 LEAST ANTICIPATED FILMS OF 2017



While it's easy to list all of the films we're excited for in 2017, I thought it would be fun to cast an eye over some films that, on paper, don't look all that promising. Of course, you never know how these things might turn out (though I'm pretty sure when it comes to #2), and I'm happy to be proven wrong (here's looking at you, #4!). Here then are just five films I'm not the least bit pumped for in 2017.

1. Baywatch - Out May 11

No, I don't know either why we have a film version of what was once the most watched TV show in the world but that's studio filmmaking for you in the 21st century. No David Hasselhoff (presumably there will be a cameo), instead we have Zac Efron doing his sexy doofus bit, and Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson doing whatever his bit is (it ain't sexy no matter what People magazine says). Notably, while the women in this film wear those tight one pieces, the guys are wearing baggy shorts: sorry peeps, no Speedos or visible penis lines on this beach. If it has some of the same self aware humour of the Jump Street films then it could work, but for now I'm more inclined to believe this reboot is drowning not waving, and I'm happy to turn a blind eye.

2. Transformers: The Last Knight - Out June 22

I have seen all four of Michael Bay's Transformers films and have hated all four with increasing fervor. These films are awful, and I have no reason to doubt this fifth installment -- featuring Nazis, and Anthony Hopkins cashing a cheque -- will be any different. Presumably the Nazis are on the side of the evil Decepticons? Or has Bay had time to re-edit in the wake of the US presidential results and the rise of Neo-Nazis? Don't want to disappoint those poor, overlooked middle Americans now, do we.

3. Cars 3 - Out June 22

Yes, I have dared to name a Pixar film. But we all know that Pixar's Cars franchise is all about selling merchandise and nothing to do with filmmaking. Even the Academy knows that this is Pixar spinning their wheels: Cars didn't win the Animated Feature Oscar in 2006, and its 2011 sequel wasn't even nominated. Hey, maybe I just don't like anything related to automobiles? I mean, I don't have a car, my license or even know how to drive. No, that's not it. The Cars (and Transformers) films just plain suck.

4. Murder on the Orient Express - Out November 23

When it was announced that Kenneth Branagh would direct an adaptation of perhaps Agathie Christie's most famous whodunit, my worst fear was that Branagh himself would play Hercule Poirot. That fear has since been proven correct. As a fan of David Suchet's incarnation of the Belgian detective, whom he portrayed on television for some three decades, it's going to take a lot of convincing to be won over by Branagh's (presumably hammy) interpretation. Like the 1974 Sidney Lumet directed version (which somehow received a lot of awards love; Albert Finney's turn as Poirot is particularly awful), Murder on the Orient Express boasts a prestige cast. Here's hoping like that film, this Orient Express isn't derailed by those big names hamming it up.

5. Jumanji - Out December 26

Psst! Come a little closer and I'll tell you a secret: I don't think The Rock is all that. And know, I don't believe, ironically or otherwise, that his inclusion makes any film better. So if that is the sole reason for this remake (or is it a reboot?) then count me out. No doubt the CGI animals will be far more convincing then in the original (though they were pretty impressive at the time), it's the humans who have me most doubtful: Kevin Hart and Jack Black are not my cup of jungle juice.