‘Spotlight’

Spotlight-PosterEngrossingly procedural, Spotlight matter-of-factly follows investigative journalists of The Boston Globe uncover a decades-long cover-up by the Catholic Church of sexual abuse by priests on children. In doing so, they reveal the culpability of the police, local government and their own newspaper.

In choosing to avoid overt emotion on screen, director Tom McCarthy (The Station Agent, Win Win) manages to tell a tale succinctly and powerfully. As the level of cover-up slowly unfolds, so the revelations of the team leave you in disbelief: the ramifications of their discoveries were felt around the world.

Spotlight is a real ensemble piece, with quiet, nuanced performances by Mark Ruffalo (The Avengers, Foxcatcher) and Rachel McAdams (Sherlock Holmes, Midnight in Paris), both of whom received Oscar nominations. But Michael Keaton (Birdman, Batman) was inexplicably left out, with Stanley Tucci (The Devil Wears Prada, The Hunger Games), Liev Schreiber (Salt, X- Men Origins: Wolverine) and John Slattery (Mad Men, Ant-Man) all in fine form.

It’s not an enjoyable film in the true sense of the word, but, like films such as All the President’s Men and Network, it’s an important one. And it’ll leave you disgusted and mortified.

Rating: 80%

 

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‘Room’ by Emma Donoghue

room-iiTo five-year-old Jack, his entire world measures approximately 12 feet x 12 feet. To him, it’s home. To his Ma, it’s a prison, kidnapped as she was seven years earlier. Born in captivity, Jack knows no different as Ma teaches him to play, learn, eat and sleep within the confines of the ‘room’.

Ma (we never learn her real name), through ingenuity and the need to keep herself sane, has created an almost playful environment for her son. And it is Jack in a box who narrates the story – we see his world through his eyes and his perspective.

Constantly reading the same five books or playing the same games is generally fun for the boy, the make believe of the TV planet provides endless fascination (or at least would do if Ma did not restrict viewing to one hour a day). Even sleeping in the wardrobe when Old Nick (their captor) turns up provides a sense of adventure.

Room is written from Jack’s perspective and understanding. But what is also apparent is Ma’s slow disintegration. This may be the only thing Jack knows, but Ma was a 19 year-old student when she was abducted.

So, not long after he turns five, Ma plans their escape.

Room is a book that has polarised opinion. On first reading (and knowing nothing about it), the book had, initially, a fairly strong emotional punch that slowly faded away as the book progressed. Jack’s expressions and takes on the things around him start to become too cutesy and pat.

On second reading, there’s no emotional punch, with the second half of the book losing all sense of urgency. It becomes formulaic. Like the toy, wind it up and you know Jack pops out of the box – as long as the batteries aren’t dead.

Emma Donoghue’s novel was favourite to collect the Man Booker Prize in 2010 but instead lost out to Howard Jacobson and The Finkler Question (in my opinion, the right call).

 

‘The Danish Girl’

the-danish-girl-posterA captivating performance by Eddie Redmayne (The Theory of Everything, Les Miserables) fails to hide a somewhat saccharine-sweet treatment of transgender and the pioneering  Lili Elbe in Europe in the 1920s.

An important film in bringing such a subject to the mainstream – and director Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech, Les Miserables) brings integrity by the bucketload. But it all looks so clean and pretty (sumptuous costume and production designs) that the final result is a delicate piece of porcelain when a more earthy, gritty, emotional film was needed.

Rating: 60%

‘The Big Short’

7fad57927b8edee2b17272e0b820522bc5669c7aThe financial meltdown of the American banks a few years ago with the bursting of the mortgage bubble hardly sounds like a riveting subject for a feature film. But with its focus on key individuals who foresaw the looming crisis, The Big Short makes a surprisingly entertaining and enlightening drama.

Adapting Michael Lewis’ book for the screen, Charles Randolph (Love & Other Drugs, The Interpreter) and Adam McKay (who also directed) have created a readily-accessible, darkly funny, conspiracy-theory feature which sets out not only to infuriate (the culpability of the banks is a disgrace) but to explain financial terms that are bandied around to purposely obfuscate.

A great cast get to grips with real characters with Steve Carell (Foxcatcher, The 40 Year Old Virgin) and Christian Bale (The Dark Knight, The Fighter) stand outs. And with its five Oscar noms, including best film and best adapted screenplay, it could be something of a dark horse in the race for glory.

Rating: 72%

‘Never Let Me Go’ by Kazuo Ishiguro

i-3df039cc1e0f8a937014a2ff27de5ca6-NeverLetMeGoAs a carer, Kathy has plenty of time on her hands as she drives across the country to visit her clients. Ruth and Tommy have recently re-entered her world for the first time since they were students at the exclusive Hailsham (boarding) school: in looking back to their shared pasts, Kathy evaluates her life, past and future, and the nature of friendship and love.

It’s soon apparent that not everything is (or was) as it seems. Cast-off clothing, second hand toys – ‘out of sight, out of mind’ appears to be an appropriate motto for the school found in the deep recesses of the English countryside. Secrets – or a lack of clarity – abound.

There’s no question these children are being groomed for something – and it is not high-flying careers as politicians, diplomats or entrepreneurs more commonly associated with English private schools. It’s just they’re never told directly what the future holds for them. A hint here, a suggestion there (made more apparent in the recent film version), they’re destined for something ‘special’.

The spoiler, for anyone who knows anything about the book/film, is that they are clones and destined to be donors of organs, limbs etc for the general population. The establishment of Hailsham (and a few others) was the result of social and political pressure to create a more humane environment for the children’s upbringing.

Labelled ‘sci-fi’, Never Let Me Go is more mundane dystopian than fantastical: an allegory to life and its ephemeral nature along with ethical questions on ‘humanity’. But it is also a coming-of-age love story – a triangle between an overbearing, somewhat bossy Ruth, the quiet, contemplative Kathy and a socially awkward, unaware Tommy who is so obviously more suited to Kathy than Ruth.

It’s beautifully written – with, on my part, one major caveat. The ‘she said, he said…’ informality of Kathy’s narration occasionally undermines and grates. But her slow reveal of the horrors that await the Hailsham students is profound and deeply moving.

Never Let Me Go may not (to my mind) reach the lofty heights of Ishiguro’s masterpiece (The Remains of the Day) but it is nevertheless a startlingly original piece of literary fiction. In being shortlisted for the 2005 Booker Prize, it required the casting vote of the Chairman of the Panel of Judges, John Sutherland, to present the award to John Banville’s The Sea over Ishiguro.

‘The Revenant’

revenant-leoIt picked up three Golden Globes – best film, best actor (Leonardo DiCaprio) and best director (Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu). Add 12 Oscar nominations and 8 BAFTA noms and it’ll give you an indication of the Hollywood Royalty of The Revenant.

Stunning to look at thanks to cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (and a possible third successive Oscar following on from last year’s Birdman and Gravity in 2014), The Revenant is a sonerous, sweeping narrative; a brutal yet poetic survival tale of the utmost hardships.

Yet, in spite of an intense, believable performance by DiCaprio (possibly his first Oscar winning performance?) and excellent support from the likes of Tom Hardy (Mad Max: Fury Road, The Drop) and Domhnall Gleeson (Ex-Machina, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows), a visceral The Revenant is a bombardment of grim, grim and yet more grim.

Rating: 68% 

‘The Fifth Wave’

The-Fifth-Wave-War-PosterThe Fifth Wave is yet another adaptation of a YA post-apocalyptic novel in the desperate search by Hollywood studios to find the new Harry Potter/Everdeen Katniss teenage hero.

This one is so derivative half the film is spent identifying references from other sources – from the 1950s Invasion of the Bodysnatchers through to TV series, V: from District 9 to War of the Worlds: from Australian film Tomorrow When the War Began to Alien. The list goes on…

With its storyline and voice-over from lead Chloe Grace Moritz (Kick-Ass, Clouds of Sils Maria), The Fifth Wave is obviously set up for a sequel. Based on this somewhat weak, lacklustre rendition of the first novel in the series, the next may not see the light of day.

Rating: 36%

‘Youth’

youth-movie-posterFrustrating. At times, sublimely beautiful as the camera pans past half-submerged bathers perfectly lined up at the edge of the pool: other times completely art-house baffling – an airline stewardess standing in the middle of a Swiss Alpine meadow?

As with his Oscar-winning The Great Beauty, Paolo Sorrentino explores the bizarre and surreal, reminiscent of Fellini, but without the masters’s wit or observational finesse.

In Youth, there’s lots of ‘moments’ but precious little depth. But Sorrentino certainly knows how to use music both in his narrative and as pure artifice.

Rating: 48%

Best of Year – Film

Inside-Out-Movie-PosterAnd so to the final list relating to films released in Australia in 2015. And, to make life more interesting (and a little easier), my list is ten rather than five for the performances.

10: The Theory of Everything (dir: James Marsh w/Eddie Redmayne)
9: Still Alice (dir: Richard Glatzer & Wash Westmoreland w/Julianne Moore)
8: The Martian (dir: Ridley Scott w/Matt Damon)
7: The Imitation Game (dir: Morten Tyldum w/Benedict Cumberbatch)
6: Far From Men (dir: David Oelhoffen w/Viggo Mortensen)
5: Selma (dir: Ava DuVernay w/David Oyelowo)
4: Birdman (dir: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu w/Michael Keaton)
3: Sicario (dir: Denis Villeneuve w/Emily Blunt)
2: Leviathan (dir: Andrey Zvyagintsev w/Aleksey Serebryakov)
1: Inside Out (dir: Pete Docter & Ronnie Del Carmen)

Powerhouse performances were the order of the day for most of the films on the list, with no less than four biopics (The Theory of Everything, Still Alice, The Imitation Game and Selma) featuring

Films 6-10 are possibly interchangeable, with a couple of others on the periphery (most notably Southpaw, Black Mass and the German film Phoenix).

But for all my love of serious drama and powerful performances, I’ve surprised even myself in selecting the Pixar animation Inside Out as the best film of the year (sorry, Leviathan!). But with arguably the best script of the year and a fabulous concept that is extraordinarily entertaining, Inside Out is intelligent, imaginative, adventurous and very funny.

Best of Year – Female Performance

STILL-ALICE-onesheetIt was a pretty good year for female leads (and a few outstanding supports), but, based on films seen in Australia in 2015, my top five are:-

5: Nina Hoss: Phoenix
4: Emily Blunt: Sicario
3: Charlize Theron: Mad Max: Fury Road
2: Cate Blanchett: Carol
1: Julianne Moore: Still Alice

Like the two foreign language male performances in my top five (Aleksey Serebryakov in Leviathan and Viggo Mortensen in Far From Men), there’s a quiet dignity in German actress Nina Hoss and her post-World War II drama Phoenix.

Emily Blunt is proving herself to be the actress of choice when it comes to tough action roles – Edge of Tomorrow, The Adjustment Bureau and the forthcoming The Huntsman’s Winter War. But it’s Emily as the confident yet vulnerable  FBI Agent Kate Macer that rockets her into my list.

Another action hero – and a performance that stole the film. Charlize Theron outshone Tom Hardy in Mad Max: Fury Road.

The film is loved by critics but I personally found Carol underwhelming. Not so Cate Blanchett’s performance as the calculating, predatory lesbian, Carol Aird in the adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s novel The Price of Salt. It could well deliver Cate her third Oscar.

But, like Eddie Redmayne in the male list, it’s last year’s Oscar winner who tops my Best of Year – Female Performance for 2015. Julianne Moore is devastating as university lecturer Alice Howland diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in Still Alice.

Top of the supporting actress list goes to Kristen Stewart for her performances as Alice’s daughter in Still Alice and her role in Clouds of Sils Maria.