Swinging Safari

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* * * 1/2

Stephan Elliot’s love letter to his very ‘70s childhood Swinging Safari is constantly frenetic. There is perhaps more pure human energy in every frame than any film I saw in 2017, or in recent memory. Most frames contain at least three people – indeed, often it’s more than six – and they’re almost always all yelling, moving, gesticulating, agitating. In addition, there are design elements, including iconographic ‘70s props, practically filling every available space in the frame not filled by a wildly oscillating human or four. There’s a hell of a lot of stuff, everywhere, all the time, and the sheer energy of it all is undoubtedly contagious, propulsive, and fun.

Likewise, the performances are pitched substantially above the pace, energy and sheer commitment of real life. Those by some of the rather incredible ensemble cast – Guy Pearce, Rhada Mitchell, Julian McMahon – are allowed to spill heavily over into caricature. But the lead performances, by youngster Atticus Robb as Elliot stand-in Jeff Marsh, and Jeremy Sims as his dad Bob, are at least closer to reality, and somewhat touching.

According to Elliot, the film is an extremely autobiographical account of a defining month of his childhood, when he formed a life-long friendship with costume designer Lizzie Gardiner, played here (re-named Molly) by Darcy Wilson. The story is framed with a transposed version of the real-life beached whale incident from Florence, Oregon in 1970. As the beachside town Jeff lives in tries to deal with a huge rotting carcass lying on its greatest asset, Bob and his friends’ parents experiment with sexual ‘liberation’.

The energy, the design, the situation – everything about the film feels comedic, but it’s not actually a laugh-out loud kind of film. There aren’t a lot of ‘jokes’ that land, and the drama, such as it is, is underwhelming. But the sheer colorful brio of the direction, performances and design make for an engaging and relentlessly entertaining ninety-six minutes. If nothing else, it’ll certainly take you back.

You can listen to my interview with writer/director Stephan Elliot here.

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Darkest Hour

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* * * 1/2

Watching Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill in Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour is not a revelation, but a reminder – that Oldman is one of the greatest screen actors ever, and stands alongside Daniel Day-Lewis and Meryl Streep as one of the great technical chameleons. His Churchill, like Day-Lewis’ Lincoln and Streep’s Thatcher, may be cloaked in make-up, a voice, physical padding and a wig, but has total integrity of heart and soul.

As with watching Day-Lewis and Streep in Lincoln and The Iron Lady, you’ll probably spend the first scene with Oldman / Churchill marvelling at the make-up and being aware of it (indeed, I’ve no doubt the first scene for each of their characters, in each of their films, is designed to let you take this moment). Then, you simply forget about it – not just the make-up, but the actor within. As far as I was concerned, for the rest of Darkest Hour, I was watching Winston Churchill, and boy, was he fabulous.

The film itself is a little ponderous. Working uncannily well as a complementary narrative (or an unofficial prequel) to 2017’s Dunkirk, Wright’s parliamentary procedural shows none of that film’s verve and flair. It’s an older style of filmmaking, made for an older style of audience. If you’re a Churchill or World War Two buff, you’ll probably find some of the dialogue painfully expository, but enjoy seeing terrific actors playing some of your favourite mid-20th Century British politicians; if you don’t know much about Churchill’s wartime Prime Ministership, you’ll get a hearty lesson, because Wright and screenwriter Anthony McCarten have opted to give you a lot of detail.

But you come, and you stay, for Oldman. If you’re a performance buff, you can’t afford to miss this. It’s uncanny, it’s technically virtuosic, it’s mesmerising, it’s brilliant. Oldman gets the humour, the doubt, the drunkenness, the moods, the intelligence, the heart and soul of the man. It’s great screen acting at the very, very highest level, and must be seen to be believed, and admired.

Movie Chat!

Movie Chat!

Don’t feel like reading reviews? Have a listen to CJ chat about a bunch of awards contenders, taken from The Nightlife on ABC (Australia).

ALL THE MONEY IN THE WORLD and THE POST

COCO and THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI

THE FLORIDA PROJECT and CALL ME BY YOUR NAME

As always, your comments welcome. And please share Film Mafia with your friends who like movies.

The Post

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* * * 1/2

There is a term certain critics use that’s quite fun: “wiggy.” It’s generally applied to films that are set in another period, and often to films portraying real people. The ultimate wiggy films are, for example, films where most, if not all the main characters look kind of ridiculous via the efforts the hair and make-up people have gone to make them look like their real-life counterparts.

The Post is very wiggy. It’s far more wiggy than Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, which, on the surface, looked like a more likely candidate for top honours: crazy muttonchops, ludicrous sideburns, Lincoln’s beard (facial hair counts as “wig”). But Lincoln was a labour of love that Spielberg spent a very long time developing; it was long on the drawing boards and long in pre-production. I’m sure he had someone – paid, perhaps full-time – working on a bust of Daniel Day-Lewis from the moment the actor committed to the film, experimenting with wig.

By great contrast, The Post is Spielberg’s rapid response to Trump. It went from page to screen in nine months – an astonishingly quick process for a “Spielberg Film”, or any film. And so it’s quite wiggy, and rushed in other ways, because Mr. Spielberg – who knows what he’s doing, perhaps more than any other practitioner, of any industry, on the planet – made the decision early on that getting the film in theatres in order to reflect Trump’s War On The Press would – pardon me – trump the demands of perfectionism. Time was of the essence; perfect sideburns were not.

Working fast, Spielberg resorts to what he knows works; thus, at a moment of great decision, a camera slowly moves in on a Great Actor’s face. Would there be a more interesting way of doing the moment, something unexpected, understated, or even subversive? Undoubtedly. But Spielberg didn’t waste time. He captured a moment of Great Acting in a Spielbergian manner, and moved on.

The result, which plays like a prequel to All The President’s Men (1975), is spectacularly entertaining, in the way that Raiders of the Lost Ark and Jaws are spectacularly entertaining. Breathlessly paced, it’s a journalist-movie thrill ride. Spotlight, which won the Best Film Oscar two years ago, had far more nuance, character development and emotional heft. The Post has urgency, in spades. There is no reason not to see it. It is professional, angry, and fun.

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All The Money In The World

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Plummer as Getty: excellent.

* * * 1/2

Let’s clear the elephant from the room first. 88 year old Christopher Plummer is fantastic as an 80 year old J. Paul Getty in a way that a 57 year old Kevin Spacey and a ton of make-up simply could not have been. For what it’s worth, I think Plummer is the better actor, too, so there.

Now the film. Ridley Scott’s All The Money In The World is a dependable, lavish and thorough telling of a very intriguing true story; if you don’t know the details of John Paul Getty III’s kidnapping in 1973, and the strange response from his grandfather – the richest man in history (to that point) – they’re all here. That’s also the film’s fatal flaw; in cramming in all the details, Scott occasionally loses the story’s drive. At two hours and twelve minutes, it feels too long, and flabby. David Scarpa’s screenplay is based on the nonfiction book by John Pearson, and Scarpa’s instruction from Scott seems to have been “get it all in”, resulting in narrative details (the minotaur!) that could easily have been cut. I hesitate to use the current critical cliché, but this material, done this way, may have worked better as a work for television – say, a six hour series.

Nevertheless, we have the movie, and despite its woolliness, it’s worth seeing. Plummer is really good. In every way, his Getty Snr. is a huge character in the film (he’s second billed to Michelle Williams, which would accurately reflect their screen time) and his seamless integration makes my head spin (there’s only one shot, in Saudi Arabia, where some digital compositing is visibly obvious). Williams is also excellent, obviously drawing on the available research to offer a portrait of a woman in distress who is not constantly flipping out. Her restraint is admirable; she shows Gail Harris’ vulnerability in subtle moments of physicality, such as removing her shoes. Charlie Plummer – not Christopher’s actual grandson! – is good casting as poor JPG III, and everyone’s artsy heart-throb Romain Duris is terrific as JPG III’s kidnapper Cinquanta.

Unfortunately, Mark Wahlberg seems miscast as ex-CIA man turned JPG head of security Fletcher Chase (don’t forget, that’s a real name). I think Wahlberg is terrific in the right role – usually comedy – but he’s not at all terrific here (and not allowed to be funny). Something is off. It’s a tough role, demanding, perhaps, layers of self-doubt – Chase made some massive mistakes along the way – but Wahlberg only brings one note.

JPG is savaged in the film, to the point that Scott seems personally aggrieved at him. It seems like the old man was a real ass. The audience I was with gasped at some of his miserly comments. All The Money In The World finally works best, not as a true-crime kidnap thriller, but as yet another reminder – always timely, and particularly now, as billionaires buy political capital – that all the money in the world can’t make you happy, and will probably make you a dick.

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Spacey as Getty: ludicrous.