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Rocketman (2019)
a swirling kaleidoscope of emotion and music
11 June 2019
The traditional musical is the oldest film genre and it still relies on magical fantasy for suspending audience disbelief. This allows characters to spontaneously break into song or dance, unlike musical bio-pics such as Bohemian Rhapsody (2018) that realistically integrate the music into their narrative flow. The epic-scaled Rocketman (2019) is a nostalgic reversion to the traditional musical form; knowing this beforehand helps to make sense of what is a swirling kaleidoscope of emotion and music.

Where bio-pics tend to look at a life story, the musical Rocketman is a selective biography that traces a musical icon's ascent to the starry heavens during the 70s. The opening minutes are bold, brash, and fantastical: Elton John (Taron Egerton) is resplendent in high-arch feathered sequins, storming toward camera after bailing out of a packed concert hall. He walks across a city and straight into an alcoholic rehab group, plonks into a chair and, staring through trademark crazy glasses, proceeds to unravel his journey as a lonely youth prodigy who became a substance abusing mega-star.

What follows is a series of loosely connected vignettes that use musical lyrics as narrative entry-points to explain his complex vulnerabilities. The young Reginald Dwight was raised by emotionally abusive parents who were incapable of loving him, a burden that intensified his desire to be whatever it took to please others. Encouraged by his grandmother, his musical talent grew as a self-defensive response to what he experienced as an uncaring world. The mature Elton John progressed to singing odes of pain, awe, and confused sexual identity, mostly delivered with flamboyance and electric energy. Much of it comes from an unhappy place and this makes the film more revelationery than celebratory.

Taron Egerton channels the icon with mesmerising brilliance; it is a performance made more astonishing by singing with astonishing authenticity a dozen songs from Elton John's enormous repertoire. The cinematography is as exuberant as the performances; many scenes verge on musical artworks as the human dynamo appears disconnected from the earth's gravity. The sets and costumes are fabulous, and the pace of the story is captivating.

What you take away from Rocketman depends on what you bring in terms of fan status and personal interest. Some will see it as a story of sex, drugs, and rock n' roll; others a musical hero's journey to mega-celebrity. Others may reflect on why there are so many music-inspired films in current cinema. The rise of anti-progressive forces in today's frenetic and fractured world means new generations lack heroes; the revival of heroic musicians might go some way to filling this gap.
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The Chaperone (2018)
a visually delightful but flawed period drama
6 May 2019
Fans of period drama will find much to enjoy in The Chaperone (2018). However, those who look for narrative coherence, nuanced characterisation, and casting authenticity, are likely to be disappointed by this film's unfulfilled potential.

Set in early 1920s America, the story is loosely framed around the life of dancer, movie star, and sex-symbol Louisa Brooks (Haley Lu Richardson). We meet her as a precocious 15-year old after she learns that she has been accepted into the avanté garde Denishawn School of Dance in New York. At a soiree performance, her mother expresses concern about securing a chaperone to accompany Louisa to New York, and the socially proper Norma (Elizabeth McGovern) steps forward to offer herself. In a long-term marriage of convenience and with grown-up sons, she wants to use the trip to find her biological mother. Louisa proves to be a handful, and the storyline digresses into her dalliances. Meanwhile Norma enlists the help of orphanage worker Joseph (Géza Rohrig) to search for her mother, and along the way she finds romance as well.

'Loosely framed' is the operative term for describing this film. Although told through the eyes of Norma within a 20-year flashback, the role of chaperone drifts into, then out of, the central narrative arc. It more closely resembles a cultural mosaic of early American society, scooping into one pile every public issue that might have been relevant at the time. This includes female suppression and emancipation, the vestiges of slavery and rise of the Klu Klux Klan, virulent homophobia, and the new-wave of modernisation reflected in the sexuality of bob-haired flappers. One of the film's strengths is how these themes are visually represented on screen, but the shallowness of their treatment and their lack of narrative connection means that the film is nice to look at but goes nowhere in particular.

Weak casting and characterisation are two major distractions that make this film less than satisfying to the critical eye. The 24-year old Haley Lu Richardson has difficulty pulling off the illusion of being 15-year old Louisa; when we meet her again 20 years later, she is even less persuasive. When Norma finds her mother, the reunion is emotionally barren and their apparent age difference implausible. It is difficult to understand why Géza Rohrig is dressed and made up as if he walked straight off the set of the extraordinary Son of Saul (2015), and his voice dubbing is so out of sync he looks like he is mumbling. Fans of Elizabeth McGovern will not forgive this comment, but her limited and imperious expressive range may have worked on Downton Abbey but it struggles here.

Beautiful cinematography and period sets are the film's redeeming features. Moderately entertaining, if at times melodramatic, it has ample visual pleasures despite a finalé devoid of climactic satisfaction when this too long film simply comes to a halt.
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a portrait of a family desperately unable to communicate
5 May 2019
A single delicious narrative conceit drives the delightful Sometimes. Always. Never. (2018). It takes its own sweet time getting there, but when it does, it hits home: you can be an expert in words and their rules but be incapable of meaningful expression. Add a Scrabble obsession, mix it with deep grief and guilt, and you have a portrait of a family desperately unable to communicate with each other.

The simplicity of the plotline stands in stark contrast to the complexity of its themes. Dapper rule-bound tailor Alan (Bill Nighy) is told that the body of his long-missing son Michael may have been found. He takes his younger estranged son Peter (Sam Riley) with him to identify the body, and at the morgue they meet other parents who are there for the same reason. It's a diversion that does little to advance the narrative, but it does provide comic respite from the pain of loss. Both relieved and disappointed with the outcome, Alan invites himself to stay with Peter and his family in the hope of reconciliation.

With a threadbare plot, the power of this film comes from its theatrical settings, intelligent banter, and Nighy's trademark whimsical mannerisms and stylised performance. The label 'fantasy drama' has been applied to this film but is mis-leading and manifestly inadequate. If there is an element of fantasy, it derives from the way many scenes are played out against backgrounds that are have a surreal, even an absurdist two-dimensional feel that resembles a theatre set. Like all absurdism, there is an artful space between the underlying emotional intensity and the futility of ever trying to understand it. The gravelly Nighy is a master of under-statement, with a unique talent for giving shallow dialogue depth and humour. It's all about contrasts: Alan's obsession with a missing son and neglect of the son he still has; his fastidious Dymo labelling of everything as a substitute for control in his world; and his ability to make light of the heaviest emotions.

If you are not a Nighy fan or prefer action-based stories, you may find little to appreciate in this film. In place of a forward-moving narrative it offers a portrait of a dysfunctional family torn apart over guilt and the inability to emotionally connect. The film's title is itself a parody of form over function, referring to the tailor's rule for how jacket buttons should be fastened: the top always, the middle sometimes, the bottom never. With no substantive relationship to the film's content, it's a rule as good as any on how to live one's life.
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The Aftermath (II) (2019)
a portrait of unresolvable grief
5 May 2019
There are many reasons a beautifully made film like The Aftermath (2019) ends up critically panned. Some describe it as slow, melodramatic, and predictable, but such labels often reflect unfulfilled viewer expectations rather than an ill-conceived or poorly executed film.

Set in 1946, the plotline is straightforward with few surprises other than its final moments. It opens with British Colonel Lewis Morgan (Jason Clarke) and his wife Rachel (Keira Knightley) arriving in the devasted city of Hamburg to restore law and order, as well as to root out remaining Nazi sympathisers. The thoroughly middle-class Morgans have requisitioned a stately mansion owned by architect Stephan Lubert (Alexander Skarsgárd) and his rebellious daughter Freda (Flora Thiemann). Lewis is a compassionate man who cannot bear to send the Luberts to a squalid refugee camp and invites them to stay in the attic, setting the tension lines that drive the film. When someone remarks that more bombs were dropped on Hamburg in one week than were dropped on London in one year, we enter an inverted moral paradigm where the line between victory and vanquished turns grey.

The slow start has a purpose. Few films respectfully explore the humiliation of defeat and many viewers would ask 'why should they'? The Aftermath dwells on prolonged moments where the victor strolls in and takes over the home of the vanquished; where a population is deliberately starved to keep them compliant; where a once-proud culture must confront its inner demons. Deep unresolvable grief permeates the city as well as the lives of the Morgans and the Luberts. Both lost loved ones and the times are not sympathetic to healing. In the middle of this swirling emotional vortex, a classic 'Lady Chatterley's Lover' sub-plot becomes the narrative device for rebuilding lives.

This film stands out in the war-drama genre because of its nuanced portrait of the immediate aftermath of the Allied occupation of Germany. It reeks of period authenticity in ways that only British films can do. The stunning cinematography captures the horror of the immediate post-war period without the usual reliance on the tropes of military casuality and destruction. Knightley and Clarke's performances are outstanding, while Skarsgárd adequately fills the role of a grieving, if over-confident, romantic antagonist. As happens so often, Knightley's commanding presence and extraordinary range of emotional versatility stamps her ownership all over the film.

If history is only written by winners it will always only be half-true. The Aftermath is an essay about the other half, blending sufficient historical insight into a romantic drama to hold our interest without emotional sledgehammers. There are minor lapses of pace, maybe a narrative digression or two that dilutes momentum; but overall, this is a satisfying film that takes an uncommon view on unexplored cinematic territory.
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Woman at War (2018)
an intelligent heroine in an absurdist eco-thriller
14 April 2019
Recent movie offerings are over-full of fantasy super-heroines with powers way beyond mortal men: over-hyped and over-sexualised inventions for new-age feminists and the male gaze. In this context of tired cliché's, it is refreshing to find an original approach to the empowerment of women. The Icelandic absurdist eco-thriller Woman at War(2018) is such a film.

The opening scene is a classic Robin Hood trope: framed in profile with arrow fully drawn on a rugged landscape, a female huntress is about to rob the rich and give to the poor. The arrow short-circuits power lines and shuts down a smelter. Popular village choir-leader Halla (Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir) is an unlikely eco-terrorist who sees local industry expansion as environmental vandalism. She systematically takes down more power lines until the government mounts a full-scale investigation into what it believes is industrial sabotage by overseas interests. Narrowly avoiding detection, Halla is suddenly informed that her years of waiting to adopt a child from war-torn Ukraine is successful.

This unusual but uncomplicated plotline is not what makes Woman at Warstand out from other tree-hugging environmental awareness films. Beautifully photographed against magnificent landscapes, the film cleverly breaks through the 'fourth wall' of cinema by having a three-piece band and a choral folk trio incongruously provide the film's diegetic soundtrack. The concept of 'fourth wall' refers to the imaginary bubble that traditionally separates actors and audience. In this case, the musicians are not playing for Hella, they are playing directly to us. We are as much the subject as what we are observing on screen, and it is 'we' who are invited to take a stand on the existential threats posed by human-caused environmental degradation. If an ordinary woman like Halla can rise to the challenge, so can we.

Another way this film stands out is how it balances and integrates several competing femininity stereotypes. Halla teaches singing for the joy of music and is a ruthless industrial saboteur. She is passionately committed to saving the environment but must stay clear of the law if she is to satisfy her deep yearning for motherhood. Strong, defiant, politically aware, she is soft, vulnerable and loving. When the noose tightens on her eco-terrorism, her hippy identical twin sister steps in for a plot twist that takes the story to its ironic finale: a biblical allusion to humanity's march towards the promised land.

Both absurdism and intelligent humour seeps into every part of this film and the ever-present band and singers are constant counterpoints to the stark reality and danger in what Halla is doing. She is an androgynous heroine, totally devoid of feminine conceits, single-minded, yet quintessentially a woman. Viewers will walk out of this with a variety of lingering thoughts; that is the mark of a good film.
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Green Book (2018)
a witty comedy drama of 1960s US race relations
18 February 2019
One of the most cliché-filled movies of 2018 is also one of the most endearing. Loaded with road film tropes and framed as a 'journey of two unmatched souls', Green Book (2018)is a male-centric essay on 1960s American racism that resonates today.

Rough-neck Italian bouncer Tony Lip (Viggo Mortensen) is out of work at the same time that Black-American virtuoso pianist Dr Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) wants to hire a driver for a deep South tour. Tony's reputation precedes him, and Dr Shirley knows that the trip will encounter the sort of problems that a man like Tony can handle. Their first meeting is a parody of cultural difference: the haughty high-brow coloured man in a flowing African robe seated on a throne, meets an uncouth, uneducated, and racist Italian whose belligerence promises safety.

On-screen text provides city and state milestones for the trip, and the deeper south they drive, the more racial hostility they find. Along the way, Tony's lack of culture slowly responds to the sensitive aesthetic of the acclaimed pianist, while Dr Shirley's arrogance is softened by Tony's connection with what matters to ordinary people (like fried chicken and the music of Little Richard). The Green Book in the film's title actually existed and listed safe accommodation for Black American travellers. They are modest rooms compared with those the Carnegie Hall performer wants, but they are sanctuaries from racial vilification. At other times, the predictable scenarios of humiliation include being honoured for his playing while not being allowed to eat with white people or use their toilets. The narrative arc is tied to the tour and remains low on dramatic tension or plot twists. This is not an action-rich film, rather it's a two-hander character study that unfolds incrementally through the insightful banter between polar opposite personalities. Tony's regular letters to his wife become a recurring motif of mutual support; they start out with monosyllabic banalities and progress into lyrical prose, coached by the literate musician. They begin to care for each other and, when the tour is over, both are unsurprisingly better people for the experience.

The entire weight of this film rests on an intelligently humorous script and sensitive delivery by Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali. With authenticity and emotional nuance, they have synergy that is rare between males from opposites worlds. The meta-message in Green Booklies in the sad necessity that films like this still need to be made to highlight America's tensions with coloured and culturally different people. The echoes are deafening, with films like BlacKkKlansman(2018)and If Beale Street Could Talk (2018) joining the chorus. Green Booksays more about today than the era it depicts.
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Free Solo (2018)
More about masculine emotional maturity than free solo climbing
18 February 2019
A documentary about climbing solo up sheer vertical cliffs without safety ropes sounds too crazy-masculine to contain a gentle story of emotional awakening. While Free Solo (2018) celebrates athletic triumph it is also a thoughtful essay on mortality, fear, and self-identity, as it probes into the heart and mind of an elite athlete in an extreme sport.

By his mid-30s, Alex Honnold had achieved a world-class reputation for solo climbing, but despite his achievements, he was taunted by the unconquered El Capitan cliff face of Yosemite National Park. Together with an expert team of photographer climbers, he sets about the rigorous physical and mental preparation for the 3000 feet ascent. For most of the film, we watch him planning and repeatedly climbing El Capitan with safety gear, while documenting every single step and manoeuvre needed for what would be an historic free solo to the top.

While this simple, linear narrative is predictable from the outset, the photography and character study are sublime. Panoptic drones capture close-ups of Alex on vertical granite walls, showing breathtaking toeholds in tiny recesses that barely grip. During the arduous preparation, Alex has an MRI scan that reveals an inert amygdala...a part of the brain that regulates emotion. Coming from a broken home and obsessed in his pursuit of climbing perfection, Alex has no fear and is emotionally closed. The only fear shown in the film is felt by his crew who must mentally rehearse the possibility that they will witness a close friend's death. The hitherto accident-free athlete enters a relationship with the emotionally warm, wise, and beautiful Sanni McCandless, and for the first time he experiences fall injuries.

With an easy broad smile, wide eyes, and vulnerable humility, Alex is a very likeable young man. His blossoming relationship with Sanni unfolds with childlike simplicity and growing emotional responsibility, while they are both aware that free soloing El Capitan means Alex will always be one slip from certain death. This fly-on-the-wall documentary eavesdrops on a few private moments to reveal a dilemma: Alex's dormant emotional self is being stirred, but he must overcome it to face what is a super-human challenge.

Some viewers will notice the unbounded selfishness required to put others through the stress of Alex's personal pursuit while he is relatively free from the constraints of human emotion. Others will see Alex as a heroic protagonist in his own tortured life journey, or maybe wonder what bravery means if one feels no fear. No doubt there are other viewpoints and readings of this film. Regardless of what message you take, this is a riveting story, brilliantly filmed amongst some of the most stunning mountain scenery you will ever see.
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An important but ultimately dull legal bio-pic
18 February 2019
History is what powerful white men have written over countless centuries. Contemporary cinema fills in the blanks, giving voice to the previously marginalised. This is the open space in which On the Basis of Sex (2018)has been made. The film, however, is also a reminder that an important film is not the same as a great one.

Any bio-pic about US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg (Felicity Jones) can only add to the history of feminism and jurisprudence. The story provides a broad-brush picture of her early personal life and focuses in particular on her first major courtroom victory. It opens with wide-eyed Ruth in her first year at Harvard Law School when her husband Martin (Arnie Hammer) learns he has cancer. Although she has an infant child and a sick husband to care for, Ruth covers his lectures as well as her own so both can progress in their degrees. A feisty feminist, she gains an early reputation for standing up to male authority.

The story flashes forward a few years to 1970: Martin is in remission and a successful lawyer, while Ruth is a Columbia Law School academic. She is a pioneer for teaching women in law and aspires to challenge the US Constitution's deeply entrenched discrimination on the basis of sex. She learns of an unusual case where the male appellant is the sole carer of his elderly mother. He has been denied a modest pension because the law presumes carers are female. Ruth rightly believes the case will become a landmark in anti-discrimination law reform.

As a biographic drama, most of the facts are drawn from history but the film itself struggles to tell the story with clarity and authenticity. Legally trained viewers may follow dense legal argument, but others might glaze over and rely on the usual narrative ploy that pitches a valiant female reformer against the dinosaur male establishment. The story glosses over some facts and overplays others. For example, Ruth was the first woman to achieve a full professorship in law and her role at Columbia influenced countless young women, yet when her academic role is mentioned it is as something of an aspirational let-down. The famous courtroom drama in which she co-presents alongside her charismatic husband depicts her in a prolonged stumbling of argument. Yet Justice Ginsberg insists to this day "I never stumbled": portraits of feminine weakness are never out of fashion.

A picky reviewer might wonder whether disjointed editing is meant to take the place of dramatic tension or ask if Ruth's #MeToo style assertiveness rings true for the '70s. Some may notice that her too worldly-wise daughter looks more like a sister, and others might ask where one can find such a saccharine sweet-smart husband who always says exactly what a poet-philosopher might imagine. Such trivial matters aside, this still isan important and worthwhile film, but maybe a good story that could have been told better.
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Vice (I) (2018)
a darkly comic portrait of unfettered power
31 January 2019
Political satires are designed to polarise, so it is not surprising that reviews of Vice (2018) range from accolades to scathing denouncements. Whether you agree with its message will depend largely on your politics and your recollection of the George W. Bush presidency. While there is wide agreement that this is a superbly acted comic bio-pic, many will recoil over the way the film's all-star ensemble lampoons the decline of a once-great democracy.

The film has a mischievous blend of genre styles that uses ridicule to ask: "how could someone become so powerful while avoiding democratic conventions and public accountability?". That someone was Dick Cheney (Christian Bale), originally a drunkard from humble origins. But Dick had two attributes that would come to serve him well: an intelligent and ambitious wife Lynne (Amy Adams), and his own capacity for ruthlessly getting whatever he wanted. When Lynne tells him to clean up his act or lose his marriage, he takes up an internship under Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell) in the Nixon Administration and soon discovers a talent for manipulating powerful people while skimming favour for himself.

Vice uses a bravely inelegant narrative structure based on flashbacks, mixed media, archival footage, and on-screen text. Continuity rests on a fictional omniscient narrator who has no role in the story other than to donate a major organ to the most powerful Vice-President in American history. While the story unfolds as a comic bio-pic, the humour does not always serve the narrative. For example, the opening credits use an F-bomb to assure us "this is a true story", setting up doubt about how seriously the film is meant to be taken. There is no shortage of light comedy, but this film is all about the questionable exercise of power at the very top. Against the satirical portrait of a shrewd manipulator who became Vice President, the film presents a child-like cartoon of the largely absent or inconsequential President George W. Bush (Sam Rockwell).

Aside from the entertaining insights into the Bush era and Christian Bale's commanding performance, what is the takeaway from this film? Much is made of legal opinion known as the 'unitary theory of executive power'. It is a controversial argument that the President has unfettered power over the institutions of government and Dick Cheney was quick to extend it to his office. Protected by this view, many presidential orders were driven by Cheney, like the Iraq War, the national response to 9/11, and the use of torture in Guantanamo Bay. So the message is both clear and relevant today: when the checks and balances of democracy are ignored, the world is a far more fragile place.
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a turning point for media and politics in America
31 January 2019
Real-world dramas in Britain and the US offer rich inspiration for today's political drama movies. The multi-award nominated Vice (2018)is an essay on how vulnerable to manipulation American democracy can be, and now The Front Runner (2018)takes a nostalgic look at a time when morality and integrity mattered for high office.

Based on a true story,Front Runner traces Gary Hart's (Hugh Jackman) 1988 campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination. He was a charismatic media darling whose supporters believed he would be the next US President. So confident was he that an off-the-cuff comment made at a press conference invited journalists to step over the public-private line, daring them to find dirt on him. When they did, they found what today would barely raise a Twitter. Hart's private affair soon became a public scandal; his reputation was in tatters, his family devasted and political career abruptly terminated. That much we knew. The Front Runnergoes beyond the historical record to show what this train-wreck must have felt like during a frenetic three-week campaign. Cinematography and editing are key to what this film achieves. Rapid scene cuts and hand-held camerawork convey the frenzy of political campaigning, showing the close-up reactions of people as the winds of fortune swirled wildly. In a split second, arrogance turns to stunned disbelief when Hart and his team see their futures vanish before their eyes.

Some have questioned the depth of Jackman's performance and whether he was the most appropriate choice to play an American politician. Through a different lens, one can see that inauthenticity helps him pull off a convincing performance. Jackman's portrayal of Hart is one of shallow theatricality oozing with ambition, and these are essential tools of trade for any politician aspiring to high office. He is well supported by J. K. Simmons as campaign manager and backroom elder statesman, while Vera Farmiga is excellent as his disillusioned but loyal wife.

Jackman fills his brief well, but this is not a character study. The film's higher purpose is to remind us that it was not that long ago when scandals were terminal whereas today they are forgiven as indiscretions. The Hart campaign is also acknowledged as a turning point in media history, when the wall separating a politician's private and public life was breached forever. Political dramas like The Front Runner teach as well as entertain.
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a montage of hurt souls joyfully sharing their story
10 December 2018
It is now more than half a century since landmark gay rights crusader Harvey Milk became the first openly gay man elected to public office. Over that time, there have been many milestone films about the LGBTI journey, several earning Oscar glory. With seismic shifts to same-sex marriage equality across many parts of the world, what more can film say about the rights of the 'alphabet community' at this time? The joyful, sensitive, and illuminating Australian documentary The Coming Back Out Ball Movie (2018) shows there is still much to be done.

Based on research into isolation and loneliness endemic among elderly populations, social transformation artists Tristan Meecham and Bec Reid set about staging a spectacular ball for elders of the LGBTI community. The documentary records the project from inception to event, held in the grand Melbourne Town Hall in October 2017. It was a complex undertaking because so many elders 'came out' when younger but have since retreated into the closet as they encountered new forms of discrimination from the community and the aged services sector. The later stage of the project coincided with the national Plebiscite on Marriage Equality that intensified trauma within the wider gay community.

In the year leading to the Ball, various initiatives were launched to lure the elders out of hiding, such as a monthly LGBTI Elders Dance Club. A series of dance lesson scenes provide narrative continuity with flashbacks showing an elder's personal story of transition and retreat. The film explains the special cultural significance of dance within the LGBTI community and shows the project team investing a huge amount time and effort into engaging isolated elders.

This is a film of many strengths. Perhaps foremost is the humility and compassion that is shown by the project team towards a hidden group of Australians, and the total absence of a finger-wagging social change polemic. By focusing on the unique personal story of several individual elders, the film creates a montage of hurt souls joyfully welcoming the opportunity to share their story. As project leader Meecham explains, the event and its prequel are a gift to the elder community in recognition of their ground-breaking advocacy for human rights in the 60s and 70s.

This film is a reminder of what high-integrity documentaries can achieve. It is not alone in the current gay cinema space, with two other fine feature films putting the spotlight on still-legal church-inspired gay conversion camps (Boy Erasedand The Mis-Education of Cameron Post). The Coming Back Out Ball Movieis a heart-warming, uplifting film, full of humour and humanity. It is impossible to see it and not be moved.
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Boy Erased (2018)
Shining a light on the dark arts of gay conversion
23 November 2018
Boy Erased (2018) is one of those films that quickly make you angry because of the way it shows several evils converging simultaneously. It is disturbing to see a gay teenager manipulated by parents to alter his natural sexuality, but to see this presented as a direction from God then carried out in a commercially driven gender reassignment clinic is material for a horror movie. Worst of all, it is not only based on a true story, but a postscript informs us that 700,000 Americans have gone through this process and it remains legal in most states. We meet teenager Jared (Lucas Hedges) on his first day at the mis-named Love in Actiongay conversion camp. How he got there unfolds in a series of flashbacks, but they predictably include a hostile parental reaction when he is betrayed into disclosing his gayness. As the son of preacher and car salesman Marshal Eamons (Russell Crowe), and his compliant hairdresser wife Nancy (Nicole Kidman), Jared is told that God will never love him nor can he share a home with his parents until he is 'cured'. The rest of the film focuses on the camp's strategy for conversion and Jared's traumatic confinement of unknown duration. On day one, the director Victor Sykes (Joel Edgerton) informs participants that their 'condition' has been caused by poor parenting and he presses each of them to compile a "moral inventory" of people or events that caused their illness. The atmosphere turns sinister when the group is expressly forbidden from telling anyone, including parents, about what is discussed. Those who prove difficult to 'cure' face the possibility of doing the extended one-year program, and the camp's commercial interests ensures that the facility remains full. As the film is the memoir of a camp survivor we know that Jared will be OK so the narrative tension curve rarely rises. The link between conversion treatment, depression, and suicide is given a nod, and there is an assurance from a doctor that homosexuality is not a sickness. However, there are many unexplored human rights issues about extreme conservative religious efforts to brainwash young people into a life of shame and repression. These are left off-screen and the opportunity to expose advocates of the practice is lost. Gone also is the chance for an investigative 'follow the money' narrative. Jared mentions to his mother in barely a sentence that the longer he stays the more she pays, an issue that is surely worth more attention. With big-name actors, one might have expected a brave examination of this odious violation of human rights, but the film has instead chosen to step lightly. Despite these reservations, it is a well-made, important, and engaging film that shines some light in a very dark place.
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A thought-provoking docu-drama about who we are
13 November 2018
The word 'documentary' has traditionally signified a credible story, factually based, that served a higher social purpose. The definition of a documentary today is blurred; it exists on a continuum that includes elements of performative narration, fictional drama, reality TV, and news reporting. Whether the film 'Three Identical Strangers (2018) is a movie or a documentary is in the eye of the beholder, but it is the way that it blends both styles of film that make it both entertaining and thought provoking.

The story was widely sensationalised in the 1980s when identical 19-year old triplets were reunited after being adopted by three different families. The film incorporates contemporary interviews, archival footage, newspaper reportage, and dramatisations to create a seamless narrative focused on the injustice of the separation. In particular, the film questions the morality of separating babies at birth and then using them for in-depth longitudinal research.

The opening scenes show the first meetings between David Kellman, Bobby Shafran and Eddy Galland and their stunned reactions on learning that each had two mirror image brothers. They are similar in taste, habits and educational attainment, despite being raised by families of different class background. The narration turns dark as we are told about the Jewish adoption agency and research team that studied the triplets as if they were lab-rats. We learn of their unresolved psychological issues that in one case ends in tragedy. The narrator turns sleuth when confronted by the angry parents of the reunited triplets wanting to know how this could happen. A dramatisation shows the research team celebrating over glasses of champagne for having 'dodged a bullet' when the parents decide not to pursue the case.

It is not clear what is the purpose of this documentary: is it voyeuristic entertainment over the phenomenon of separated triplets or is it a thriller on the racially and class-loaded question of 'nature versus nurture'? Or is it an unashamed emotional exploitation of three biologically-close humans who are brought together again after two decades of separation? As the film offers little by way of coherent clues, we are left to read the film according to our own interests. As the stars are not actors, the usual performance appraisal is not relevant, but the narrator's increasingly ominous tone unmistakably joins the dots to create a sinister narrative arc.

The ethical issues raised in this film are somewhat dated as such separation studies would never be supported in today's research environment. Motives for the study and its secrecy are implied but not examined. While the film could have achieved more if it knew what it wanted to achieve, it does raise intriguing questions about what shapes our personality.

Director: Tim Wardle Stars: David Kellman, Bobby Shafran, Eddy Galland
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a modern classic of musical entertainment
29 October 2018
A universal trope that reappears in various cultural forms is drawn from the Ancient Greek mythology of a sculptor called Pygmalion. After falling in love with one of his statues he was granted a wish that she come to life and love him in return. In its modern form, the story is usually based on a successful male who nurtures the potential of a rising female and is rewarded with love. The unbroken lineage of this narrative can be seen in its latest and most spectacular version of A Star is Born (2018), updated with themes of substance abuse, mental illness, and the fickle perils of celebrity.

Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper) is a famous country music singer who regularly binges on drugs and booze. The film's opening scenes define the man: he holds a packed concert hall in the palm of his hands, then goes onto a night bender in a chauffeured limo. He stops to drink at an obscure drag bar where he is swept away by waitress-singer Ally Campana (Lady Gaga) who mesmerises with her rendition of Edith Piaf's La Vie En Rose. The rest is well known: they fall in love, he literally sweeps her onto the big stage with the simple words "Just trust me", and she is a knockout. It's a whirlwind romance that sees them bond emotionally and professionally. He fights his addiction and promises to stay clean, but as her celebrity star rises, his tragically falls.

Describing the storyline is easy but the powerhouse acting and musical performances of Cooper and Gaga are superlative. Both fill their roles with authenticity because that's who they are. Unlike her real-life persona, here Gaga is stripped bare and is the epitome of vulnerability. Words and melody take second place to the expressiveness in her vocal tones, and her simply divine finalé of "I'll Never Love Again" is unforgettable. Cooper channels every all-American country singer that ever existed: macho, hard-living, and impossible to listen to without tapping your feet. The chemistry between them is palpable; whether it's in the highs of romance or the lows of shattered lives, the synergy is electric. The cinematography never wavers in its intensity. It turns stage backlights into an organic canvas, and shapes big and small spaces into elements of narrative.

Much more could be said, but it's the performances and music that leave their mark. The film has things to say about the misery of addiction and it teases out high-art music against pop pulp. Depending on how you look at it, there is also gender power in play. But these are not what you will remember most. It is a standout musical and a modern classic of entertainment.
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Custody (2017)
A pulse-racing portrait of domestic terrorism
15 October 2018
Movies are best consumed without expectations but sometimes a warning is needed. The hyper-realistic French film Custody (2018) is less about child custody than it is a vehicle for depicting the most pulse-racing domestic terrorism you are likely to see in a long while. It is visceral and raw, as is the fact that one French woman is killed every three days by a partner. This film suggests why.

The opening scenes are clinically documentary in style. A magistrate takes submissions from lawyers for estranged couple Antoine (Denis Ménochet) and Miriam (Léa Drucker) over custody of their 12-year old son Julien (Thomas Gioria). It is impossible for us to gauge the merits of either litigant and easy to empathise with both. On the available evidence, the magistrate takes a routine middle path and awards custody, an outcome that will imperil mother and child.

If it were possible to plot the tension curve of this film, it would start just off the floor and work its way through the roof in its final seconds. Initially Antoine behaves like an aggrieved husband who loves his son. Step by step, we see him using custody rights to manipulate Julien into revealing information about his mother. The legally necessary contact between the slightly built Miriam and the towering hulk Antoine become increasingly ominous. His overbearing silence in key scenes drips with menace as she knows his capacity for violence and the law is no help.

This film stands out for the grounded way it depicts the escalation of threat. It keeps actual physical domestic violence out of the picture, and instead shows the psychological pressures of trying to separate from a violent man. The acting performances are extraordinary. Ménochet only has to raise an eyebrow and tensions rise, while Drucker is a portrait of frozen fear. The standout performance comes from young Gioria whose astonishing authenticity belies his tender years. The cinematography powers the narrative and shapes the claustrophobic atmosphere in which a mother and child are being given progressively less space to breathe. Many scenes are prolonged in length to create real-time voids into which is poured unimaginable suspense.

Be warned: this is not entertainment. It is more like stepping into the shoes of a defenceless mother and child who must fend for themselves against a raging beast. The indescribably frightening final scenes re-define the concept of 'toxic masculinity' and make you wonder about today's role models of manhood. Director: Xavier Legrand Stars: Denis Ménochet, Léa Drucker, Thomas Gioria
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The Seagull (I) (2018)
If Chekhov were here, it is unlikely he would rush to see it.
9 October 2018
Fidelity of adaptation is a thorny issue in film discourse because it relies on context, characters, setting and script. If any of these do not respect the original, it is unlikely to satisfy. The American-made adaptation of the classic Chekhov play The Seagull (2018) meets all these criteria except the first, and that is one reason it will disappoint many.

The storyline is a crafted labyrinth of personalities and their foibles. At its core is a self-absorbed former grand diva of the stage, Irina Arkadina (Annette Bening) who is visiting her brother's summer estate with her famous novelist lover, Boris Trigorin (Corey Stoll). Her son Konstantin (Billy Howle) is consumed by rage over his mother's affair, a rage that spirals into suicidal depression when his own girlfriend Nina (Saorise Ronan) falls madly in love with Boris. At the periphery, there are more asymmetrical romantic pairings and victims of unrequited love who appear to exist simply to complicate the matrix of relationships.

Rather than have a forward-moving narrative,The Seagullis a collection of dramatic vignettes, each comprising a pair of larger-than-life characters mis-matched with someone they love without being loved in return. The film is without a hero or heroine and ends up exactly where it starts via an unusual repetition of its prolonged opening scene. Although seamlessly executed, the repetition creates audience confusion as a prelude to the film's predetermined conclusion. Keeping track of the tangled mess of emotions is made possible by a stellar ensemble each playing a distinctly different caricature. There are a dozen lives on-stage yet each holds our attention, although Bening and Ronan dominate.

Together with stunning visuals, one would expect this film to soar, but it never reaches potential. The first criterion of a great adaptation is that the film should connect to the historical and cultural context of the story. Undisguised American accents undermine authenticity, and the film is silent on the escalating class hatred that was about to erupt in Russia's violent revolution. It thus sanitises Chekhov's work into an ahistorical capsule disconnected from its context. Perhaps a European production with genuine connection to European history may have avoided this limitation.

There is still much to enjoy in this film. It reads equally as tragedy, romance, and comedy of manners, but falls away as Russian period drama. Richly melodramatic but without forward momentum, the pace feels ponderous and the repeated opening scene feels more like gimmickry than a functional structural device. If Chekhov were here, it is unlikely he would rush to see it.
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Foxtrot (II) (2017)
a riveting essay on the absurdism of war
4 October 2018
The theme 'war is absurd' has become a cliché that tests the creativity of many a filmmaker. How many ways can you represent the random chaos of shattered lives and senseless destruction? The emotional rollercoaster Foxtrot (2017) hits the high-watermark in originality for the way it deploys grief, social critique, and absurdism to show a different side of war.

The film's four acts defy the conventions of linear storytelling. In the opening seconds, a mother (Sara Adler) sees three soldiers at the door and before they can speak she collapses to the ground. With military precision, the doctor among them administers sedation and tells the father (Lior Askhkenazi) she will sleep for five hours; that's usual, they say. When a son has fallen in the line of duty they expect the father to cope. They leave; another comes to plan just another funeral; then alone, the father furiously paces like a caged beast, crushed by his own emotions. In five hours they return with totally different news.

That plotline alone could fill a movie, but it is merely the first step of an absurdist dance with chaos that goes forward, across, back, then returns to the beginning. In the second act we meet the very much alive son Jonathan (Yonaton Shiray) who is stationed on an isolated checkpoint where the only intruders are camels that have trained the guards to open the boom-gate to let them pass. Bored out of their minds, the four teenage warriors tell each other stories, punctuated by Jonathan's memorable foxtrot dance with his rifle as partner. The third and final acts complete this case study of random chaos; they include a scene one year later where the mother and father commiserate a tragedy and a dissolving marriage. The final seconds of the film match the opening in the way they erupt with the unexpected.

Undoubtedly, this film is anchored by the first 45 minutes in which Lior Askhkenazi gives a tour-de-force performance of going to hell and back. It is also a forensic satire that is beyond war clichés and that has infuriated the Israeli Military establishment. So much is being said in this film, with so few words spent. Small moments are jarring: like a father being told casually that his fallen son was promoted posthumously, as if he is worth more dead than alive, or the mechanically detailed way the military deals with death and bereavement. The camerawork and colour palette superbly set the mood of each act, and the asymmetry of the narrative reflects an alternative and absurdist universe in which war is normalised.

This is powerful cinema, the kind that can sweep you up with its characters, emotions, and story. Then, at the end of the film when the dance is done, you are left in disbelief at the banality of humanity. Watch for Foxtrotin Best Foreign Film award.
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Entertaining, heart-warming, and a visual feast of nostalgia.
25 September 2018
Capturing the swirling currents that shape national culture is a challenge for any film, but the coming-of-ageLadies in Black (2018 )meets this challenge. It is one of the best recent Australian films, compressing into one storyline what Sydney life was like in the late 1950s.

Based on Madeleine St. John's1994 novel, the film blends diverse themes like feminism, class and racial difference into a cultural mosaic. The focal point that holds the pieces together is the women's dress section in Sydney's leading department store. Wide-eyed ingénue Lesley (Angourie Rice) wins a summer job while waiting to learn if she can enter university. Her modest background is obvious: her adoring house-bound mother (Susie Porter) dutifully serves her benignly sexist father (Shane Jacobson) who loves his beer and dinner cooked on time. In case we miss the class and feminist themes, he grunts "no daughter of mine will ever go to a university".

As in all coming-of-age tales, Lesley's view on the world is profoundly altered by the people she meets. Miss Cartwright (Noni Hazlehurst) is the stern but kind supervisor who sees a better future for girls like Lesley: "there is nothing more wonderful than a girl who is clever" she swoons. Anglo-Saxon homogeneity is shattered by the presence of Serbian 'refo' Magda (Julia Ormond), whose sassy sense of European style helps sell the most expensive dresses. She introduces Lesley to a world of cultural refinement starkly different from what the teenager has known. Other sub-stories include a woman desperate to start a family but whose husband is sexually repressed, and another with a dark past who finds romance with a 'new Australian'.

Like any mosaic, the pieces are dwarfed by the overall pattern and purpose they serve. In different directorial hands the sub-stories could easily have been a melange, but instead they form a coherent portrait of Australia's maturing nationhood at the time. The sets, fashion and colour palette are wonderfully evocative of the period, while the scenes of high-street shops, domestic interiors, newspaper production and city tramways are among the most authentic-looking you will find. With an outstanding ensemble cast, the key production values are uniformly top-shelf although the performances of Angourie Rice and Julia Ormond are pivotal.

Ladies in Black triumphs in the way it represents our collective memories with emotional connection. As they are the memories of older Australians, overseas audiences or younger people may not recognise them or understand how they shaped modern Australia. Some may even raise eyebrows at the invisibility of Indigenous people, but this was the reality of the times. Despite such considerations, this film is entertaining, heart-warming, and a visual feast of nostalgia.
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Beast (III) (2017)
a tense portrait of unpredictable characters in a web of the unexpected.
19 September 2018
It is rare to hear an audience leaving a movie buzzing loudly about a film's finale. Was she, he, or both, killers? There are no spoon-fed answers, only ambiguity and doubt. The psychological thriller Beast (2017)has all the hallmarks of a fine British drama mixed with the Hitchcock tradition of never reveal all.

Set on the isolated and windswept island of Jersey, it is a tale of two people who battle the beast within themselves. Striking red-haired 27-year old Moll (Jessie Buckley) is a captive of both the island and her family. A single episode of schoolgirl violence and a vindictive mother are a prison and her future is bleak. She meets ruggedly handsome game poacher and social outsider Pascal (Johnny Flynn) who represents everything her life is not: excitement, freedom, and defiance. The lovers are shunned until Pascal becomes chief suspect in a violent killing.

Given its conventional plotline, what makes this film stand out? The answer is cinematography, script, and cast. While the location helps, the filming has a languid noir style that accentuates social claustrophobia in contrast to the island's untamed beauty. This is no place for wordy exchanges and the film's minimalist dialogue stays on point. One particular scene stand out as an example of how much can be compressed in so little. At an elegant golf club dinner, Moll observes the contempt heaped on Pascal and jumps up for a toast: "to my family and all they have done for me: I forgive you".

By far the film's strongest suit is the darkly enigmatic couple who are perfect in their roles. Moll is an unconventional, almost androgynous, beauty who exudes repressed defiance and potential for violence. Pascal is the piercing-eyed smiling commoner who could equally be a psychotic killer or a harmless charmer. Each has a latent beast, but neither reveal enough for us to judge the power of their urges. The support cast is excellent, although developed more as caricatures: the abusive mother, the simpering brother, and the fawning constable.

This independent film refreshingly avoids simple genre labels. It orchestrates elements of drama, romance, and crime thriller with continually rising tension notes played like a grand piano while we are kept unsure of the significance of new insights and events. That is perhaps the hardest thing in psychological thrillers: keeping the suspense on an upward curve and keeping you guessing. This is a tense portrait of unpredictable characters in a web of the unexpected.
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While we laugh at this film, it is laughing at us.
5 September 2018
Cinderella is a popular trope in romantic comedy despite its innate sexism. Mix it together with Western unease over the surging might of Chinese capitalism, add a level of excess that even Baz Luhrmann would envy, and you have the core ingredients for the lightweight entertainment that is Crazy Rich Asians(2018).

An ultra-simple plot and loads of visual opulence are the drawcards for this film. New York University academics Rachel Chu (Constance Wu) and Mick Young (Henry Golding) have been dating for a year when he invites her to meet his parents in Singapore. It is not until they board their business-class luxury lounge that Rachel suspects Mick and his family are very rich. When they arrive, she learns that Mick is from one of the wealthiest families in Asia. In every Cinderella story, there is a wicked witch: here it is Mick's imperious and disapproving mother Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh). The romance hits hurdles as Mick's family and friends do their best to send her packing. That's it.

With such a thin narrative, what makes this film so entertaining? Certainly not the all-Asian American cast. In particular, thirty-something Rachel is unconvincing as a top-tier Professor of Economics, and Mick's 'deer-in-the-headlight' naivety makes him a limp Prince Charming. The comedy is pitched at chuckle level rather than belly laughs, except for one ridiculous scene. At a friend's wedding, the bride and her entourage walk down a water-canal aisle to be married in soaking shoes and water-logged gown: as if any bride in the world would do that. It is the one scene that most reveals the latent satirical streak running through the film: crazy rich Asians mocking crazy rich Americans. With 'punch a Yankee nose' gags about American values and an over-the-top display of opulent fashion, jewellery, cars, and homes bordering on fantasy, the film taunts those who are discomforted by the rise of the world's newest economic powerhouse.

The cinematography takes teasing to another level. Close ups on glitzy trappings of extreme wealth; stunning travelogue shots of Singapore's hyper-modern architecture; close-frames on mouth-watering Asian cuisine in exciting marketplaces and grand mansions; all combine to make this film a visual treat. The messages are not only for Americans: the borderline gag calling Asian diaspora 'bananas' ('yellow outside, white inside') is a reminder that home beckons.

As with all films, what you see depends on where you look. Most will enjoy the sparkly entertainment and see Rachel's 'love conquers all' story standing tall for all women. But bear in mind: while we laugh at the film it is laughing at us.
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The Insult (2017)
An important film is not the same as a great one.
27 August 2018
It is never easy to review a film against the grain. With critical acclaim and awards piling up,The Insult (2017)is a well-timed film in a global context of disharmony over refugees and immigration. While if offers many insights into the nature of human conflict, it is also heavy-handed with its lessons on sectarian intolerance. Being an important film is not the same as being a great one.

The story trajectory is simple. Tony (Adel Karam) is a Lebanese Christian who lives with his pregnant wife in a small flat in Beirut. Working on the street below, Palestinian refugee Yasser (Kamel El Basha) is splashed by an illegal drainpipe from Tony's flat. An argument ensues, Yasser uses a coarse expletive, and an apology is sought. The company employing Yasser tries to negotiate an apology, but when they meet Tony declares "I wish Ariel Sharon had wiped you all out" and Yasser punches him. Soon they are in court, and media attention transforms the personal insult into an example of racial conflict between the majority Lebanese and the minority Palestinians.

This is really two different stories intertwined as one. Whilever the focus is on the actual insult and its attempted repair, the film has a strong forward narrative with many insights into the spiralling nature of human conflict. However, in the second half, the film leaps with disproportionately large steps into the endless conflict since the 1948 Arab-Israeli war and hate speeches by various leaders over several decades. The film presumes an audience that has some grounding in the historical complexities of the region. If they do not, it may be challenging to identify the "good guy" and the "bad buy" especially in light of their respective political baggage. The task of following the film is made more difficult by the speed with which the sub-titles must be read to keep pace with the anger-laced dialogue.

Despite these issues, The Insultleaves a strong impression. Authentic actors, a dramatic style of cinematography, and a shooting location that has natural ownership of the story, all combine to provoke thought about its subject matter. Although hardly entertainment, it is a voice for a cause even though many Westerners will be uncertain what that cause might be.

Film has always been an important carrier of socially significant messages. Where this occurs within a narrative framework it adds to a film's achievement. But when it occurs outside that frame it enters a didactic space which exploits the narrative to deliver polemic. By entering this domain, The Insultbecomes a lecture in sectarian politics and history. With a more subtle directorial touch, the film could have shown it's message instead of shouting it.
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A slow and awkward film that lacks soul
20 August 2018
Warning: Spoilers
Some argue it is improper to review a film adaptation without first reading the book; of course, others disagree. Without knowing the novel, this review of On Chesil Beach (2018) isbased solely on its filmic merits without regard or reference to Ian McEwan's 2007 acclaimed novella. And that's how it should be.

Set in 1960s England, the plotline is based on the honeymoon night of virgins Florence (Saorise Ronan) and Edward (Billie Howie) who attempt unsuccessfully to consummate their marriage. They are opposite personalities who come from different class backgrounds, and these are explored through several flashbacks that punctuate their almost farcical sexual ineptitude. When they give up in tears and frustration, Florence runs onto Chesil Beach with Edward in pursuit to exchange words that effectively end the marriage.

Without a strong forward narrative or well-developed characters that attract empathy, this film struggles to engage emotionally. Neither Florence nor Edward are portraits of subtlety or authenticity. Edward attempts his marital duty with an oafish absence of romantic sensitivity, and Florence is a model of repressed victimhood. We learn little from the flashbacks intended to explain their almost comical clumsiness and sexual inhibition. When Florence suggests that Edward take a lover and their future together be platonic, the words appears suddenly without social or psychological context and delivered as if they were a throwaway line. As the story will be known by many, it reveals little to say their separate lives carried the lingering regrets about how they mis-handled their disastrous wedding night. Fate then brings them together briefly, but only long enough to share some tears.

The story appears to have high potential for translation to the medium of film. However, Ronan is too worldly-wise to convincingly fill the role of an awkward virgin, while Howie overplays his version of the stumbling seducer. The over-reliance on flashbacks create too many fracture lines in the story and brush too lightly over the family and class factors that might have influenced the couple. The bedroom scenes vacillate between comedy and melodrama, while the dialogue on the beach plays more like a soap opera between two unrelated people rather than a newly married husband and wife. Stunning photography and a well selected musical score cannot alone carry the film.

Of all its other limitations, the one issue that most affects the film's overall impact is continuity editing. Flashbacks are effective in filling out a story if they serve the forward narrative. Here they disrupt the all-too-slow unfolding of an atypical wedding night. Nor do they adequately illuminate how two mature young adults could be so hopelessly ill-prepared for married life. As a film, On Chesil Beach disappoints expectations and loses itself somewhere between the coming-of-age, comedy of manners, and period drama genres. Without falling into any of these, the film lacks soul.
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Summer 1993 (2017)
A sweet film to be savoured on many different levels
12 August 2018
Many movies stand or fall on their final scenes because our memory retro-frames the film through its climax. Limp endings always disappoint but the last 20 seconds of the Spanish film Summer 1993 (2017) elevates what would have been just a sweetly lyrical tale of childhood loss into a powerhouse essay on the nature of grief.

In simple linear fashion it's an uncomplicated story of six-year old Frida (Laia Artigas) who is abruptly moved into her aunt's home when both parents die from AIDS-related illness. We are never actually told about the illness, rather we see the shame and hear the silence surrounding why they died, and there is unmistakable discomfort around blood as a recurring motif. While her adoptive parents were not exactly delighted to have Frida, they are dutiful, kind and loving; family always comes first in Catalonian tradition. On the surface, all appears to be settling down well, especially for their three-year old daughter Anna (Paula Robles) who is thrilled to suddenly have a sister and a constant playmate.

What makes this simple tale unique is how it is told entirely through Frida's point of view. The world of a six-year old moves slowly as the developing mind processes what is happening. The camera lingers on Frida's eyes and captures the shifting cycles of abandonment, painful loss, confusion, desire to belong, followed by laughter and child's play. Most scenes are languid in pace, framed at children's height looking up at an adult-controlled world. Scenes of backyard, bathtub and bedtime play show Frida initially on the fringe of belonging and gradually inching towards being part of her new home. It's normal family life and nothing untoward happens; even when Frida leaves Anna in the woods, you sense it is to gain attention rather than show malice towards the three-year old.

If you prefer stories with strong forward narrative you may find this one too slow, even though it's impossible not to enjoy the exquisite naturalness of Frida and Anna. Children of this age do not act; they just are who they are, and the director's artistry lies in channelling their performance into a gently nostalgic autobiographical film. The full impact of the tale erupts during a final scene of joyful family bedtime play. Just when Frida is feeling safe and loved, she bursts into uncontrollable and inconsolable tears. It is a sight we have not seen before.

This is a film to be savoured on many levels. The cinematography and settings are an obvious source of visual and emotional pleasure, but it is at a deeper level that this film delivers its greater impact. We will read it according to our life experience, but it says much about the importance of family and the way young children experience profound loss. At all levels, this is a film that leaves a deep imprint.
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Lost in Paris (2016)
A vaudeville-circus style romp across Paris
30 July 2018
Every now and then a film comes along that defies conventional genre labels. From its enticing title and zany opening scenes, the independent French-Belgium film Lost in Paris (2017)teases the senses with its mix of vaudeville/burlesque comedy and circus slapstick, all interleaved with a drama on ageing and, of course, a romance. Like all circus-style performance, any semblance of a story only serves to join the non-stop physical comedy into a narrative whole.

A timid librarian in Canada, Fiona (Fiona Gordon) has always dreamt of going to Paris. One day she learns that her 88-year old aunt Martha (Emmanuele Riva) has run away from her Paris home because the authorities want her in aged care. In Canadian Mountie style, she packs her knapsack and flies to France. Searching the streets of Paris, she meets Dom (Dominique Abel), a comic tramp keen to assist as well as help himself to whatever he can, The various adventure skits play out as if on a vaudeville stage but with Parisian scenery.

With a storyline as thin as this, you may wonder what holds the film together. Every scene contains a sight gag; some are downright corny, others whimsically cute. Like a door opens during a Canadian blizzard and everyone tilts forty-five degrees; Martha and her long-lost lover on a park bench dance only with their feet in a too-cute metaphor of synchronicity; and the top-heavy toppling into the Seine makes any cinema erupt in laughter. It's wonderful that anyone still makes films like this.

The three principals are more caricatures than people, both in appearance and performance. While this risks emotional disengagement from the cast, it also means comedy entertainment takes precedence over all else, unless you want to dig deeper. After all, life is offering the gawky-spinster Fiona a bigger purpose and a chance at love; fate calls on the vagabond Dom to rise above his lot; and Martha's mischief proves that age is just a number. But these are incidental messages to the film's unequivocal pursuit of laughter.

Comedy plays a serious role in absurdism by making us ask "why not?". Why shouldn't these three gentle misfits have some fun and why shouldn't a film resurrect the styles of Charlie Chaplin, The Three Stooges, or Laurel and Hardy? In these troubled times, we take life far too seriously.
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a portrait of perfect gender compljmentarity
16 July 2018
A question many viewers may have on leaving A Horrible Woman (2017)is whether the film's title is meant to be ironic or judgemental. Today's gender politics make such questions inescapably loaded but this film can also be read as a portrait of perfect complementarity between the sexes.

A simple plotline keeps the focus on its two principal characters. Likeable bachelor Rasmus (Anders Juul) envies his friends' long-term relationships yet values his freedom until he meets the beautiful, vivacious, and interested Marie (Amanda Collin). They are well matched: she is forward and assertive, he is quiet and compliant. Each time she advances into his emotional space, he yields ground. She moves into his apartment and changes everything, while he squirms but is powerless to act.

We observe the story through two frames: one is through the eyes of friends who envy Rasmus his good fortune; the other is through his own diminishing sense of self. The more she deploys femininity to manipulate him the more he meekly acquiesces. In two different scenes, asMarie reaches new thresholds of control, she makes eye contact with us, the viewer, in a "look at what I can do" moment. Chillingly, this conscious duplicity may also be a signal of mental illness and it leaves no doubt that Marie is conscious of her power. Rather than sympathise with her victim, his weakness tempts us to think he deserves what she dishes out. The story takes a few twists and turns through his attempts to stand up to her, but his efforts are not enough to alter the narrative arc of his emasculation.

What are we to make of this unusual film? The director has been attacked as a misogynist, but the recognisability of Rasmus and Marie and their complementary characteristics makes this a broader study of relationships, rather than just another gender battle. They could have swapped gender and the story would play out with as much veracity, but perhaps less entertainment. If this is a valid litmus test, then the film rises above gender discourse.

The performances of the two stars are exemplary. Amanda Collins excels across her repertoire of feminine wiles while Anders Juul is her perfect guileless pawn. The filming style is claustrophobic Nordic domestic drama, with enough black humour to lighten its load. This entertaining study of gender roles makes you wonder how the planet has survived so long.
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