‘Dial M For Murder’

Dial_M_For_MurderNot one of his best, but even then, Alfred Hitchcock (Rear Window, North By Northwest) still delivers a superior piece of filmmaking.

A former successful (amateur) tennis player (Ray Milland – The Lost Weekend, Love Story) plots to kill his unfaithful wife (Grace Kelly – The Country Girl, High Society). As one would expect, not everything goes to plan as Chief Inspector Hubbard (John Williams – Sabrina, To Catch a Thief) suspects there’s more to the dead body in the London apartment than the smooth-talking sportsman is letting on.

Adapted from his original BBC play by Frederick Knott (Wait Until Dark, The Last Page) that moved into the West End and on to Broadway, dialogue is sharp and pointed if a little stagey resulting in a lesser albeit engaging enough Hitchcock.

Rating: 61%

‘Athlete A’

athlete aLess sensationalist than the recent Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich docuseries, Athlete A retreads similar grounds of sexual abuse. Only the perpetrator here was the USA Gymnastics team doctor, Larry Nasser, and a system that gave cover to his abuse with its culture of winning at any cost.

Directors Bonni Cohen & Jon Shenk (An Incovenient Sequel, Audrie & Daisy) slowly unpick the trail as the Indianapolis Star reporters break the story in the lead up to the 2016 Olympics in Rio. The investigation reveals decades of abuse as Olympic-hopeful Maggie Nichols cries foul – only to fail to qualify for the team.

It’s a powerful investigative documentary as former gymnasts, parents, lawyers, detectives talk of the failure of the system to protect – in spite of years of reports and complaints. Until Nasser was finally charged and is currently serving multiple prison sentences in Michigan. But Athlete A does not make the story about Nassar: he’s not the focal point of the documentary. The directors are looking to and at USA Gymnastics itself.

Rating: 65%


RELIC movie poster CR: IFC Films

To be honest, a haunted house horror narrative with things that go bump in the night is not my schtick. A remote (naturally) country home where Edna (Robyn Nevin Ruben Guthrie, The Castle) hasn’t been seen for a few days brings daughter (Emily Mortimer – Mary Poppins Returns, The Bookshop) and granddaughter Bella Heathcote (Fifty Shades Darker, The Neon Demon) from Melbourne in a hurry.

A couple of days anxious waiting and suddenly, gran is back, standing in the kitchen making tea as if nothing had happened. But her behaviour and that of the house unbalances the two younger women.

It’s a brave attempt from newcomer Natalie Erika James as both co-writer and director. Virtually a three-hander,  dreary in the extreme, shot in winter and where the house itself fails to provide any illumination, Relic creates a claustrophobic manifestation of dementia. Add the lack of connection between the three women and what is essentially maternal failure, then there’s no more visceral way to unnerve than to take the home, the very place that’s supposed to be secure, and make it insecure.

A Stan original.

Rating: 38%


baliboAs Indonesia invades the newly independent Timor Leste, the world sits back and does nothing – and five young Australian journalists disappear.

Based on true events, director Robert Connelly (Paper Planes, The Bank) elects to tell the story through two separate but interlinked narratives. Filmed entirely on location, we follow the five themselves and, four weeks later, a sixth Australian, veteran war journalist, Robert East (Anthony LaPaglia – Lantana, Holding the Man), arrives in Dili just days before the invasion in search of the missing men. It’s East’s relationship with the newly appointed Foreign Minister, José Ramos-Horta (Oscar Isaac – Ex Machina, Inside Llewyn Davis), that is the core of the film as the war journalist looks for a trail whilst Ramos-Horta fears for his country.

The murder of all six journalists by the invading forces, something both Indonesian and Australian governments stubbornly refused to admit for more than 30 years, is superbly told, with both LaPaglia and Isaac excellent. Based on the book Cover-Up: The Inside Story of the Balibo Five by Jill Jolliffe, it’s a devastating, profoundly disturbing story.

Rating: 78%

(Timothy Mo’s Booker Prize shortlisted novel The Redundancy of Courage is an excellent accompaniment to the film, providing a wider insight into the Indonesian invasion).

‘The Apartment’

The_ApartmentAn Oscar-winning best film written and directed by Billy Wilder (Sunset Boulevard, Some Like It Hot) is always a good bet for a wet Sunday afternoon – and The Apartment certainly delivers.

Quick-witted repartee in the workplace has placed C.C.Baxter (Jack Lemmon – Some Like It Hot, The Odd Couple) on the lower wrungs of success and promotion – as long as he continues to supply the key to his apartment to his bosses for certain ‘trysts’. But Baxter’s neighbours, the Dreyfusses (true mensch), are concerned about his lifestyle. Then Shirley MacLaine (Terms of Endearment, Irma la Douce), a colleague at the office, comes along to upset the applecart.

It’s a fun comedy romance ride vacillating between light-hearted and serious as a typical Jack Lemmon struggles with his inadequacies and insecurities to great comic effect.

Nominated for 10 Oscars in 1961 (and won 5, including Best Film, Director and Writing, Story and Screenplay – Written Directly for the Screen. MacLaine and Lemmon both won Golden Globes for their performances).

Rating: 76%



Originally destined for wide commercial release and hoped-for massive box-office returns, Greyhound is an old-fashioned World War II film (even  to the point of one woman, one short scene early on. Elizabeth Shue – Leaving Las Vegas, Hollow Man – gets that honour) set on the high seas.

In his first command, Tom Hanks (Forrest Gump, Bridge of Spies) heads a convoy across the North Atlantic. At the midway point, out of range of air support, the numerous boats are sitting ducks for the wolf pack that is the German U-boat command. It’s a nervous 48 hours of tactics and luck as Hank’s escort carrier protects the much-needed supplies required in war-torn Britain.

Director Aaron Schneider (Get Low) skilfully marshalls and choreographs movement aboard the claustrophobic Greyhound with plenty of attention to authentic detail. But Hanks’ own adaptation of C.S.Forester’s novel The Good Shepherd fails to garner any real suspense or true grit to proceedings: there’s little in terms of personal emotional investment in the proceedings.

Nominated for best sound Oscar in 2021.

Rating: 52%

‘The Yield’ by Tara June Winch

the_yieldBeautifully crafted, Tara June Winch’s second novel (her much acclaimed debut, Swallow the Air, was published nearly 15 years ago in 2006) is a powerful story of language, culture and a people (the Wiradjuri of central New South Wales).

Ten years in the UK in self-exile, August Gondiwindi returns to Prosperous, a former mission that became the family home, on learning of her beloved grandfather’s death. Memories of childhood, missing sister Jedda, absent (locked up) parents and the now dead Albert ‘Poppy’ Gondiwindi clash with a present day: the 99 year lease on the property has run out and the land has been sold to a mining company.

In helping her grandmother pack and reconnecting with Family, August discovers Poppy has been writing a book. But it’s the story not just of his life spent on the banks of the Murrumby River at Prosperous House on Massacre Plains. So, because they say it is urgent, because I’ve got the church time against me – I’m taking pen to paper to pass on everything that was ever remembered. All the words I found on the wind. Poppy is looking to pass on the language of his people. It is through a series of dictionary-like entries that we hear snippets of the history of the local Wiradjuri clans:

yarran tree, spearwood tree, or hickory acacia  – yarrany The dictionary is not just words – there are little stories in those pages too. After years with the second great book I figured out the best way to read it. First time, I went in like reading the Bible, front to back. Aa words first … You could keep reading the dictionary that way  – front to back, straight as a dart – or you can get to aardvark and then skip to Africa, then skip to continent, then skip to nations, then skip to colonialism, then skip over to empire, then skip back to apartheid in the A section – that happened in South Africa.

Another story. When I was on the letter W in the Oxford English Dictionary, wiray would be in that section, it means ‘no’. Wiray wasn’t there though, but I thought I’d make it there. Wheat was there, but when I skipped ahead not our word for wheat – not yura. So I thought I’d make my own list of words. We don’t have a Z word in our alphabet, I reckon, so I thought I’d start backwards, a nod to the backwards whitefella world I grew up in, start at Y – yarrany. So that is the once upon a time for you. Say it – yarrany, it is our word for spearwood tree: and from it I once made a spear in order to kill a man.

Interspersed with the present day where August looks to make amends for the time apart  from her Country and help save their land and Poppy’s recollections is a third voice – that of Reverend Ferdinand Greenleaf. As a (German Lutheran) outsider himself, the Reverend Grunblatt writes a first-person account of the appalling treatment of the indigenous population by white settlers. Displaced, murdered and forced into slave labour, a traumatised people were lost, abused. It was Greenleaf who established Prosperous Mission to provide safety, education – and a good smattering of Christianity. But as he writes more (it’s 1915, he is now interned himself: with Britain at war with Germany, he is classified as an enemy), it’s apparent that the Reverend is torn. He questions (white) power leading to questions of faith and belief. Promised financial and practical support for the Mission never materialised – but the local townspeople continued with their abuse. The longer Greenleaf spent at the Mission, the more he grew to respect the culture and traditions of the Wiradjuri.

The three voices come together as a story of a culture dispossessed, a people displaced, a voice silenced. Interestingly, the somewhat breathless contemporary element of the narrative is its weakest link – an all-too-predictable unfolding of a plot that, extraordinarily, mirrors Melissa Lucashenko’s 2019 Miles Franklin Award winner, Too Much Lip (but without the humour). There are so many similarities that, having read both, I started to feel uncomfortable.

But there’s no denying the power and beauty of The Yield and, having collected three awards at the 2020 NSW Premier’s Awards (Fiction; Audience Award; Book of the Year), Tara June Winch was awarded the year’s Miles Franklin Award.

‘The Defiant Ones’

Defiant_Ones_posterShackled together, two escaped prisoners are pursued across remote countryside. They must work together to have a chance at escape. There’s no friendship between the two – one is white, one black.

Set in the south in the 1950s, issues of race and prejudice are very much at the forefront of director Stanley Kramer’s (On the Beach, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner) narrative. But there are no big speeches, moments of redemption or cries of innocence. The Defiant Ones is the story of two men thrown together and who learn to depend on each other: the success of the film is the restraint in developing their relationship and acceptance of each other.

Both Tony Curtis (Some Like It Hot, Sweet Smell of Success) and Sidney Poitier (Lilies of the Field, In the Heat of the Night) were Oscar-nominated for their roles. Curtis, with slightly more screen time, is emotive and passionate, perfectly juxtaposed with an angry, taciturn Poitier. Dialogue is dated and very much of its time, but The Defiant Ones has stood the test of time.

Nominated for 9 Oscars in 1959 – won 2 (Best Writing, Story and Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen – Nedrick Young & Harold Jacob Smith; best b/w cinematography – Sam Leavitt).

Rating: 62%

‘Such a Fun Age’ by Kiley Reid


such a fun ageWritten with a light, breezy touch, Kiley Reid’s debut novel explores the connection (or lack of it) across race, wealth and privilege divides whilst weaving into the narrative ideas of motherhood and friendship. It’s a fresh, occasionally funny take, yet somehow Such a Fun Age does not quite live up to the hype surrounding its publication.

Having recently (and reluctantly) returned to her home town of Philadelphia from New York, Alix Chamberlain is a woman who gets want she wants. A successful blogger and influencer, she is one half of a power couple, with her husband an anchor at the local TV channel. When Emira, her African-American babysitter, is confronted one night walking the aisles of their local high-end deli with 2 year-old Briar, Alix goes into hyperdrive.

Furious and humiliated, Emira wants to forget the whole thing. But the woke Alix has the bit between her teeth and is determined to make things right – even though 25 year-old Emira is now looking for a way out. Sassy and out for a good time with her girlfriends, Emira is nevertheless concerned about her immediate future. She’s about to lose her health insurance and needs a proper job with benefits. Those same girlfriends are finding professional success, leaving Emira financially embarrassed on too many occasions. Yet she loves what she does. Emira adores Briar and knows Alix, for all her wealth and words, has little time for her demanding daughter.

Meeting Kelley provides new support and encouragement, but there’s something not quite right about him. He appears to have only dated black women and to only have black friends. He’s like that one white guy at every black wedding who’s, like, super-hyped to do the Cupid Shuffle. It’s his racial tourism that threatens their relationship: like Alix, Kelley is all too ready to speak and act on Emira’s behalf.

It’s a clash of perspectives as Emira tries to navigate her future whilst dealing with Alix’s patronising actions. Increased hours (Alix fails to see the irony in that one!), half-finished bottles of expensive wine, food from the freezer are all plied onto Emira. It’s Alix’s fixated obsession to befriend her employee. But when she invites Emira to Thanksgiving (making it five African-Americans at her table), everything implodes. By arriving with Kelley, Emira has unwittingly set in motion a series of events that upend everything both women know and value.

Witty but at times uncomfortable and confronting, Such a Fun Age is nevertheless a charming and engaging narrative. It is marred, however, by some clunky dialogue and a little too much gloss: too much feel-good. Whilst Reid is obviously not wanting to overly politicise – she could have focussed so much more on the deli incident and the potential for it to go viral on Social Media – personally felt that a little more substance and depth would have been welcomed. Not too much – as a social satire, the lightness of touch differentiates the novel. But just a little more.

‘Many Beautiful Things’

many beautiful thingsLilias Trotter, potentially one of the world’s greatest 19th century artists – and one most have likely never heard her name.

Groomed by John Ruskin, the leading art critic and prominent social thinker of 19th century Victorian Britain, Trotter, with her delicate, contemplative watercolours, was destined to become a household name. But her faith lead her on a very different path. Lilias Trotter left for Algiers, where she spent more than 40 years of her life working with women and children.

It’s an incredible story, unearthed predominantly by the determination of one woman, American Miriam Rockness, who spent more than 30 years researching the artist. Sadly, from a personal and artist perspective, the documentary film by Laura Waters Hinson does her little credit. Many Beautiful Things is about faith, spirituality and religious calling.

Trotter’s determination made her a woman ahead of her time. She made a choice to pursue God’s work: her sketches and diaries, briefly glimpsed, are quite beautiful. But Many Beautiful Things leaves so many questions unanswered, with its agenda to celebrate Creation, using animated butterflies flitting through Trotter’s watercolours or extensive shots of the smelling of the roses with an overbearing, saccharine-sweet soundtrack from Sleeping At Last.

Rating: 30%