‘West of Sunshine’

west of sunshineDesperation rears its ugly head as Damian Hill (Pawno, The Death & Life of Otto Bloom) juggles work, a gambling addiction, a $15,000 debt payable to a loan-shark by close of business and a day to be spent with his adolescent son.

It’s a small, warm-hearted feature from first-time feature filmmaker, Jason Raftopoulos, shot in Melbourne’s inner suburbs, with the focus on Hill and real-life stepson Tyler Perham. Whilst West of Sunshine would have benefitted from a harder look at gambling addiction and the impact it has on family and friends, the film is ultimately an intimate exploration of fatherhood.

Rating: 59%

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‘On Chesil Beach’

On_Chesil_Beach_(film)They were young, educated, and both virgins on this, their wedding night, and they lived in a time when conversation about sexual difficulties was plainly impossible. So begins Ian McEwan’s 1960s-set novel, On Chesil Beach.

In adapting his own elliptical novel for the screen, McEwan emphasises that lack of meaningful communication between the young couple, neither of whom can talk to each  other or their respective families. Their lack of knowledge results in tragic and devastating consequences.

As the uptight Florence, Saoirse Ronan (Lady Bird, Brooklyn) beautifully portrays the terrified innocent, balanced perfectly with the awkward, bumbling Billy Howle (Dunkirk, The Sense of an Ending). Acclaimed theatre director Dominic Cooke is at the helm, resulting in a tender, dialogue-rich love story.

Rating: 66%

‘BlackkKlansman’

blackkkAn extraordinary story of two local detectives, one Black (John David Washington – Monster, Monsters & Men), one Jewish (Adam Driver – Paterson, Star Wars: The Last Jedi) infiltrating the Colorado Springs chapter of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1970s.

Director Spike Lee (Do the Right Thing, Malcolm X) has not gone uncriticised for his loose adaptation of the true events (‘that story points are fabricated in order to make a Black cop and his counterparts look like allies in the fight against racism’ at the time of Black Lives Matter). But his hybrid period piece/comedy/cop drama with more than a hint of polemic is a hugely entertaining yet angry film that deftly highlights racism within the establishment.

It’s not necessarily an easy-watch – the racist and abusive language, the shocking violence of news footage – but it is an important watch.

Rating: 81%

‘C’est la vie!’

cestlavieOccasionally funny, this overly laboured feel-good movie from the directors of the delightful The Intouchables, Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano, is a pleasant, disposable piece of fluff.

A wedding in a 17th century chateau. Jean-Pierre Bacri (The Taste of Others, Like an Image) as the owner of the events company has had enough and is looking to sell the business. But he’s dealing with a constantly interfering groom, unhappy staff and a bout of food poisoning.

It’s an undemanding two hours of general silliness, but the cast give it their all (Eye Haidara as Bacri’s number two in particular) in what is ultimately a mildly entertaining distraction. A glorious soundtrack from Avishai Cohen, however!

Rating: 52%

‘The Rider’

The_Rider-1A tender, poetic story and what is essentially a scripted, heightened documentary as real-life rodeo cowboy Brady Jandreau comes to terms with a life-threatening head injury. In a culture that lives and breathes horses, Brady and his family struggle with his displacement and loss of status.

The vast, wide-open South Dakota Badlands adds to Brady’s sense of isolation as writer/director Chloe Zhao (Songs My Brother Taught Me) patiently explores the meaning of masculinity in the physical world of rodeo and its backwater setting.

Rating: 79%

Screened as part of the Melbourne International Film Festival

‘Beast’

beastSmall in scope (a product of writer/director Michael Pearce’s television experience in his feature film debut), Beast flits between a (dysfunctional) middle-class family drama and psychosexual horror story.

Unquestionably flawed, a remarkable performance from Jessie Buckley (TV’s Taboo, The Last Post) as Moll is the highlight. Desperate to escape her cruel, oppressive family, she becomes involved with Johnny Flynn (Clouds of Sils Maria, Love is Thicker Than Water), a convicted poacher living on the margins and suspected of being a serial killer of teenage girls.

A cold, windswept Jersey – far from its halcyon summer tourism – is the setting for Pearce’s intriguing drama packed with (mostly) unpleasant characters.

Rating: 58%

Screened as part of the Melbourne International Film Festival

‘Woman at War’

womanatwarEntertaining enviro-political narrative as an eminently watchable Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir (Metalhead, The Seagull’s Laughter) takes on the aluminium industry polluting the beauty of the natural Icelandic countryside.

With the inadvertent help of a twin sister and a lonely farmer, Halla quietly gets things done, in spite of the establishment reacting in the belief it’s the actions of organised international terrorism.

Writer/director Benedikt Erlingsson (Of Horses and Men, Polite People) avoids overtly agitprop political speak, allowing wry humour and understated opinion speak for itself – along with the juxtaposing of the ruins of a Ukraine destroyed by over-industrialisation (a gentle subplot to the story).

Rating: 64%

Screened as part of the Melbourne International Film Festival

‘When the Trees Fall’

when treesAn odd, fractured, surreal rebellion of a feature, an angry, multifaceted narration of aimless, unstructured poverty in contemporary Ukraine.

Director Marysia Nikitiuk, in her feature film debut, mixes urban and rural poverty, violence and passion, eroticism and misery, realism and fantasy. Several interlinked stories evolve at the same time – a four year-old girl living with her nanna in a rural setting that descends into violence; a teenage Larysa (a powerful and convincing Anastasia Putovit) rebelling against her home life with her young lover on the run from the mob.

Sadly, Nikitiuk’s grim realism is too unfocussed in its storytelling, creating a confusion of intent – which is a pity, as the stunning, febrile opening scene and its lyrical eroticism created a high expectation.

Rating: 38%

Screened as part of the Melbourne International Film Festival

‘The Kindergarten Teacher’

the-kindergarten-teacherLacking the political pertinence of the original 2014 Israeli film from Nadav Lapid, the English-language remake is nevertheless an enthralling psychological thriller.

A superb central performance from Maggie Gyllenhaal (Crazy Heart, The Dark Knight), the kindergarten teacher recognises the precocious talents of cute five year-old Parker Sevak (a revelation) and sees it as a ticket out of mundane, privilged suburbia. But she goes more than a little too far.

Adapted and directed by Sara Colangelo (Little Accidents), The Kindergarten Teacher is an unhurried, slender drama that, whilst lacking that edginess of the original, remains a tense character-study of desperation and obsession.

Rating: 64%

Screened as part of the Melbourne International Film Festival

‘The Wife’

the-wifeA predictable relationship melodrama, it’s the performance of multiple Oscar-nominated Glenn Close (Dangerous Liaisons, Albert Nobbs) that’s the stand-out in director Bjorn Runge’s (Daybreak, Mouth to Mouth) latest.

As Jonathan Pryce (Pirates of the Caribbean, Tomorrow Never Dies) collects the Nobel Prize for Literature, the long-capped truth, at least behind closed doors, bubbles to the volatile surface.

Caustic rather than vicious, the unleashed storm is obviously brewing from very early on – with Close formidable as the too-oft ignored titular wife.

Rating: 64%