Archive for January, 2017


*** (out of five)

Perfect Strangers, from Paolo Genovese, is one of those European romps that all take place in a single contemporary location – mainly around a table – and involve a lot of dialogue being spoken by locally popular actors that is sort of witty, somewhat sexy and potentially ponderous. The French and Italians both make this kind of film and, if successful, it’s a great business model. If not, it’s stagey and cheap.

Perfect Strangers – set in Rome among the genre’s typically upper-middle-class, forward-thinking modern bourgeoisie – just sits on the right side of the equation. It pulls off its decidedly tricky and potentially gimmicky premise through a better-than-average script, fluid direction that keeps a single set visually interesting, and most importantly, an excellent ensemble who all play the rather ridiculous situation straight.

That situation is this: at a dinner party for seven old friends, one of them suggests, as a sort of truth game, that they all surrender their mobile phones to the centre of the table for the night, and that all of their text messages and emails are revealed and their phone conversations had on speaker-phone in front of the others. Naturally – this is hardly a spoiler – secrets are revealed and they all realise they didn’t know each other as well as they thought they did.

This is a ludicrous concept, of course, but what high-concept isn’t? It skates by on very professional performances and a smattering of revelations that manage to subvert our expectations by about ten percent. It worked massively on the large (quite mature) audience I saw it with, who gasped, giggled, ooooed and aaaahed at each new twist. It’s an amiable ninety-six minutes that won’t change your life, as much as it would love you to hurl your mobile device into traffic upon leaving the cinema.


*** (out of five)

What do you call the genre that encompasses American Hustle, The Wolf of Wall Street and Blow? I suppose you could go with “Rags To Riches” or even, more accurately and more often, “Rags to Riches to Rags”. But there’s a certain style and tone to these movies that links them besides their celebration / evisceration of the American Dream, and that tone is cribbed from Scorsese, making Wolf of Wall Street the natural leader of the pack, even if American Hustle may be more disciplined.

The other feature, I think, that audiences respond to is period. These wide-screen, semi-epic adventures tend to be set in the ‘70s, ‘80s and early ‘90s – sometimes all three. The production design – especially hair and make-up – is part of the fun.

Matthew McConaughey’s make-up and hairstylists went all out for Gold, Stephen Gagan’s change-the-names-for-legal-reasons adaptation of the true story of the Bre-X gold scandal, one of Canada’s great business stories. Gagan resets the tale to Reno but many of the true story’s outlandish details are there on screen, and they make for some excellent twists and turns.

McConaughey, fifty or so pounds overweight with a receding hairline and generally looking awful, delivers yet another earnest, endlessly entertaining, energetic and engaging performance, albeit one with too much mumbling (I think I lost a third of his lines). The storytelling is flabby too, but the many supporting actors are excellent, the design fine, and the source material absolutely deserving the movie. This could have been a great film; it’s a good enough


**** (out of five)

German Filmmaker Maren Ade (go ahead, say it out loud a couple of times, have a chuckle, and get it out of your system) takes her time with her dramatic comedy Toni Erdmann. It’s an enormously rewarding work, but, at two hours and forty-two minutes, it demands you surrender to its rhythm.

Ines – the incredible Sandra Hüller, who, in a more just world, would be waking up to an Oscar nomination tomorrow – is an overworked, overstressed young exec for a German international consulting firm currently posted in Bucharest. When her eccentric father Winfried’s dog dies, he pays her a surprise visit, and, worried about her, goes to odd lengths to cheer her up, including assuming an alternative persona.

The film is a superb and deeply-layered examination of the special relationship between fathers and daughters (to which, on that level, I could relate and surrender myself). However, it’s much more than that. In its extended scenes of the delicate dance of (somewhat dubious) business in Eastern Europe, it examines the ongoing misogyny inherent in corporate life, the use of corporate “fall guys” – in the guise of consultancy firms – that let mega-corporations walk away from abuses with a clean press record, and the blatant exploitation of Euro-struggling nations by wealthy ones. There’s a perfect moment when Ines, having just made an important presentation in an upscale hotel’s business centre, stares out the window at a household across the road that probably doesn’t have electricity.

Peter Simonischek, a prolific and revered TV star who normally presents as a handsome silverback, lets it all hang out as Winfried, a true eccentric whose empathetic wisdom is buried under layers of diffidence. He and Hüller play off each other superbly, often in extended moments of awkward silence. The entire film is full of awkward moments, awkward scenes, awkward lives. It won’t be for everyone – and please, don’t go expecting a gazillion yuks – but, by its end, it is thoroughly engaging, moving and meaningful, a major film with a lot on its mind. Highly recommended.


Posted: January 23, 2017 in movie, movie reviews, reviews
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The folk at Illumination Entertainment, a French animation house, have had a stellar run of late. They made Despicable Me and its sequels and Minions off-shoots, as well as The Secret Life of Pets. So they are in the Billion Club and then some.

Add another. Their latest, Sing, has made a quarter bil and counting. DVDs, sequels and merch will push it into billion on its own in years to come. Sacre blue!

Their style is more ramshackle, eccentric and, well, French than Pixar or Dreamworks, and Sing is no exception. A Koala tries to save his foreclosed-upon theatre by hosting a singing competition. Various animals compete. Matthew McConaughey plays the Koala, which suits his hucksterish persona, and there are a lot of pop hits – across all decades – referenced, with a fair few sung in their entirety by hippos, lllamas, porcupines, pigs and others. It’s all incredibly colourful.

This was the first feature film I took my not-quite-yet three-year-old daughter to at the cinema. She made it through the whole thing and loved it. That’s rave enough. For my money, the middle act, lacking songs, dragged a bit, and the concept of not having enough money to save one’s property seemed to me to be a boring – and hopefully alien – concept for teeny kiddies (Princesses, you’ll notice, don’t carry wallets). But the animals are cute, the songs great, and… well, my daughter loved it, so yours probably will too.




**** (out of five)

There’s a sub-genre of the high-school flick, and it’s the female teen in high-school flick, of which there are three acknowledged classics, Clueless (1995), Mean Girls (2004) and Juno (2007); other  good ones include Easy A (2010), Bring It On (2000) and, of course, Pretty in Pink (1986). Each of these films combined comedy and pathos, and each featured a standout performance by its leading actress, each of whom either went on to become huge stars (Easy A’s Emma Stone will probably win the Best Actress Oscar next month for La La Land) or chose not to.

The Edge of Seventeen can hold its head very high in this exalted company, and Hailee Steinfeld (True Grit, Begin Again) gives a performance that should allow her the kind of career promised to Lindsay Lohan and Ellen Page (indeed, Ellen Page’s performance in Juno is kind of a touchstone for Steinfeld’s here). A total home run as a first feature for writer/director/producer Kelly Fremon Craig, it’s consistently funny, moving and emotionally honest.

Nadine is 17; her dad died when she was 13 and there are plenty of leftover emotional scars. Things are okay because she’s got a loyal bestie and a calm and dependable older brother, but when those two hook up, she over-reacts and spins out of control.

Closer in tone to Easy A and Juno than the others – it’s rooted in realism, avoids cheap laughs and cheap sentiment, and isn’t flashy with its use of music, colour or costume – The Edge of Seventeen starts strongly and then keeps getting better and better, drawing you in deeper as you get to know Nadine more intimately. Steinfeld has excellent support from Kyra Sedgwick as mom, Blake Jenner as bro, and, most significantly, Woody Harrelson as one of Nadine’s teachers. Harrelson is superb; his performance feels effortless, but that’s only because he’s so damned good at this sort of character – a damaged charmer with compassion and integrity.

The plot isn’t revolutionary; in fact, nothing here is. You don’t see a movie like this hoping it will re-invent the wheel. It’s all about the execution and the performances, and The Edge of Seventeen excels with both. I saw it with a cinema full of, I suppose, its essential demographic, being teenage girls, and they loved it, laughing throughout and fully engaged. I was right there with them.


**** (out of five)

The storytelling in Lion is a triumph of taste over temptation. The source material, the non-fiction 2014 book by Saroo Brierley A Long Way Home, was ripe for bombastic, sensational, sentimental treatment. Instead, director Garth Davis and screenwriter Luke Davies have delivered the tasteful version, one that avoids practically all the story’s potential landmines in lieu of honest emotion. It is a film of great integrity.

Brierley was brought up in Tasmania having been adopted from Calcutta at around five years old. He had been separated from his birth family in bizarre, practically tragicomic circumstances; twenty-five years later, he used Google Earth to attempt to find them again.

The film is structured in two halves. The first – and most successful – follows Saroo, at age five, in India. Saroo is played by Sunny Pawar, who is one of those kids – found after a massive casting process in India – who just nails it. He’s incredible, traversing a mostly dialogue-free hour without missing a single beat. Every shot he’s in contains emotional truth and credibility, but – like all great actors! – there’s a second, underlying layer going on, in which he deftly adds degrees of comic grace. It’s astonishing. There is one wordless close-up that took my breath away, before I practically started chanting, “Give him the Oscar, now!”

The second half sees a grown-up Saroo played by Dev Patel, who easily gives his finest performance to date. He’s completely believable as an Australian-raised Indian born fellow, Aussie accent and all, despite being a Brit. More importantly, the sometimes over-earnestness he’s delivered in many of his roles – the worst examples being in the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel franchise – is absent here. He gives a delicate performance of subtlety and grace.

Grace is also the word for the remarkable screenplay, which should definitely be a front-runner for the Adapted Screenplay Oscar come late February. Australian novelist / screenwriter / poet / critic Davies (Candy, Life) skips the expository scenes lesser films would show and rewards our intelligence with unexpected moments that are so much more revealing. Thus the salacious and sensational perils young Saroo faces as an orphan in Calcutta – forced mutilation as part of a begging ring, sexual slavery – are dealt with glancingly, almost quietly, certainly – here’s that word again! – tastefully. In the second half, Saroo forms a relationship with a fellow student, Lucy (Rooney Mara), but Davies spares us any scenes of them flirting, kissing for the first time, falling in bed together; he knows we understand all that stuff, and that it’s not what this story is really about. His screenplay is a monument to narrative elision.

The film comes close to being an instant classic. It’s hampered by two things. The first is almost unavoidable – that the underlying story, and the film’s promotion, have given us the ending in advance, which really does sap the film of suspense. It’s got a lot of elements – especially heart – but suspense isn’t one of them. It must be said, it would have taken an almost superhuman effort of collective restraint on the hands of marketers, producers and media to avoid this.

The second is that the film drops its energy for a long stretch in the second half. There are scenes where Mara’s Lucy – already the least defined character in the script – is, essentially, inaudible (and I was seeing the film in the best possible circumstances, a critic’s screening room), and around her, other members of the cast are allowed to deliver their lines so quietly as to cause one to strain to hear (which affects tremendously Kidman’s big monologue, which also feels – weirdly for a film of such taste – like Oscar-bait). During this section, the storytelling loses specificity. I was honestly but not deliberately confused for a period as to whether Saroo was living in Hobart or Melbourne, for example.

Ultimately though, the film is a triumph. You will weep like a ninny (I did) and it will feel good. I suspect it’s going to be an enormous financial success in Australia, where the Indian sections may sit more comfortably than, say, for a mass-market, mainstream American audience. I also think it has a very good chance of destabilising some of the front-runners at the Oscars. It is a very fine film, and Davis and Davies have proved an exceptional collaboration. See it.

UPDATE: I was spot-on about its Aussie Box Office appeal —




**** (out of five)

Barry Jenkins’ tale of a young man’s early life in three parts is a cinematic work of uncommon intimacy and integrity. Like the recent Jackie and the spectacular, micro-budget Krisha, it tells a simple, straightforward story with big, bold cinematic choices, particularly in its use of music, framing and colour. It is experiential as much as propelling, poetic as much as engaging. Like those other films, it feels like it is re-discovering the simple joys of image and sound; all three movies feel unburdened by any sort of “rules”, and they highlight the pedestrian way most films actually use mise-en-scene.

The film is about Chiron, played in the film’s three chapters by three different actors. In the first chapter, Chiron is a young boy living with his drug-taking mother (Naomi Harris, excellent) in Miami – and, subtly but definitely, gay. He knows it and other people know it, and it’s causing him confusion. Luckily, a local drug dealer (Marhershala Ali, showing the kind of powerful charisma exuded by Michael Kenneth Williams in The Wire and The Night Of) takes him under his wing.

In the second chapter, Chiron is a teenager, and in the third, a young man. The film’s dramatic crucible is how the third version of Chiron is created by the first two. His “gayness”, which is apparent to all (and in an example of the film’s subtle integrity, not at all to us) is an internal and external challenge for him; at his high school, his lone, outsider status has rendered him shy, awkward and vulnerable. Meanwhile, his mother’s drug use has developed into full-scale addiction, and his powerful mentor has (mysteriously?) disappeared, leaving behind his girlfriend (Janelle Monae), who can feed Chiron and love him, but still can’t get him to talk.

Chiron is a tricky character to engage with because his inherent character traits are so deliberately unengaging. Head bowed, silent, slight, he is trying to fade into the background or even disappear from the world, and the other characters’ frustration at his introversion is occasionally felt by us. But Jenkins’ bold decision to use three different actors pays off. Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes obviously worked together to generate a set of physical and vocal characteristics for Chiron that provide a deep continuity for the character even as the film’s chosen narrative technique fractures him.

Miami is rendered exquisitely, as hot, colourful, exotic and edgy. We don’t often see Black American characters on beaches, staring at the ocean, and their stories are certainly rarely – if ever! – accompanied by the kind of score provided here by Nicholas Britell. Fuelled by big strings and piano, it’s evocative of classical European music – white man’s music. It’s another bold choice, almost of cultural appropriation (“reverse” cultural appropriation?) and it pays off gorgeously. Again, like Jackie and Krisha, the score here is integral to the experience of the film.

There’s a lot of hype around Moonlight; it won the Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture in the Drama category, and is a front-runner, with La La Land, for the Best Picture Oscar. It’s worth going in knowing that the story itself is simple, clear and hardly revolutionary; it’s the execution here that matters. It’s one of those rare films that actually hits you the hardest the moment it finishes, when, all of a sudden, you realise what it is that you’ve actually been watching.