Controversial on its release in its depiction of the official treatment of indigenous and mixed race children in Australia, Rabbit Proof Fence has become something of a seminal Australian feature from director Philiip Noyce (Salt, The Quiet American) and the telling of a true 1931 story.
Teenage Molly Craig (Everlyn Sampi) along with younger sister Daisy and cousin Gracie are seized by authorities and sent to the Moore River Native Settlement, more than a thousand miles from their home in northern Western Australia. Destined to be trained for domestic service, they decide instead to walk home, following the rabbit proof fence that runs north/south from coast to coast, built to protect the pastoral areas from pests. The journey takes months, constantly confounding entrapment.
A classic chase story with a difference as a wily Molly keeps the girls hidden from the search yet, in bucking authority, wins support along the way with occasional contact with people. It’s ultimately the (heartrending) story of true courage and endurance across a harsh and unwelcome landscape, made the more shocking in the knowledge this really happened.
As Anthony Hopkins picks up the 2021 best actor Oscar, Capote emphasises the loss of Philip Seymour Hoffman, the late actor’s tour de force performance that saw him collect the corresponding Oscar in 2006. As the camp, acerbic writer and columnist, Hoffman inhabits Truman Capote as the writer researches what is to become a classic of true crime literature, In Cold Blood.
Learning of the violent murder of a Kansas farming family, Capote determines he will write about the case. But he sees it needs more than simply an in-depth article. Time spent finds him not only a constant visitor to rural Kansas but also develop a close relationship with Perry Smith (Clifton Collins Jnr – The Mule, Honey Boy), one of the killers. As appeal after appeal against the death penalty delays that inevitability, so Capote’s emotional and mental state suffer.
Hoffman is quite simply extraordinary in this dark tale that ultimately derailed a man who was, in the late 1950s and early 1960s, famous for being famous. He never wrote anything of substance after the publication of In Cold Blood.
Nominated for 5 Oscars in 2006 including best film, director (Bennett Miller in his debut feature), supporting actress (Catherine Keener), won 1 (Hoffman).
It’s somewhat dated, but on release back in 2002, Sweet Home Alabama was seen as a superior chick-flick.
Successful fashion designer Melanie Smooter (Reese Witherspoon – Walk the Line, Wild) is about to become engaged to be married to high-profile New England politician, Patrick Dempsey (TV’s Grey’s Anatomy). Only problem is she’s still married to Alabaman childhood sweetheart, Josh Lucas (Red Dog, Ford vs Ferrari). It’s Yankees vs the South as the battlefield shifts from New York to Hicksville Alabama: the New York sass of Melanie needs those divorce papers signed. But of course the bogan Alabaman southern belle sees that things do not go according to plan.
Directed by Andy Tennant (Hitch, Fool’s Gold), Sweet Home Alabama is a safe, rom-com entertainment.
Oscar hopeful Carey Mulligan (An Education, Suffragette) heads up a seemingly quirky take on a serious subject – that of predatorial behaviour and sexual abuse on vulnerable women in bars and clubs. But as the narrative unfolds, it proves to be anything but.
Having dropped out of medical school, scarred by events with the loss of childhood friend, Nina, an aimless yet vengeful Cassie looks to the men around her. But a name from the past, Al Monroe (Chris Lowell – The Help, Up in the Air) sends her down a much darker and determined path. Even new boyfriend, Ryan (Bo Burnham – The Big Sick, Rough Night) finds himself involved.
Highly stylised by writer/director Emerald Fennell (Camilla Shand/Parker-Bowles in The Crown!) in her feature film debut, Promising Young Woman may be a film of lollipop colours and soft pastels, but it is a sharp, clever, on-point narrative with a compelling central performance from Mulligan.
Nominated for 5 Oscars in 2021 including best film, actress, director – won 1 for original script.
Underdeveloped and clumsy dialogue and the many pregnant pauses are the main problems with The Sister, a four-part drama with more than a hint of the supernatural. But some questionable acting does not help – with Russell Tovey (surprisingly) the worst culprit.
Thankfully, it’s not a story of things that go thump in the night. This is more a psychological thriller of a disappearance of a young woman, Elise Fox (Simone Ashley), a decade earlier. A lack of closure has meant sister Holly (Amrita Acharia) has continued to grieve, even though she is now married to Nathan (Tovey) and has a successful career in real estate. But the past is not what is seems: Nathan knows a great deal more than he lets on. The sudden reappearance of Bob (Bertie Carvel) in Nathan’s life sends the couple’s world into a tailspin.
Created by Neil Cross (Luther, Hard Sun), The Sister is an overlong time traveller, weaving between the current day, the disappearance of Elise and a midway point between the two. It’s a fairly engaging narrative that keeps you guessing for the first two episodes but, filled with generally unsympathetic characters, it’s hard to warm to beyond wanting to know where the story goes.
Possibly one of the worst ‘superhero’ features made – a so-called satire as two oversized women become the heroines of the day as the supervillain Miscreants, lead by Bobby Canavale (Ant-Man, Blue Jasmine), cause havoc in Chicago.
Directed by husband Ben Falcone, Melissa McCarthy continues to plumb the depths of dire (The Happytime Murders, Life of the Party) as she reunites with estranged schoolfriend, Emily Stanton (Octavia Spencer – The Help, Hidden Figures). The head of Stanton Industries, it’s Emily who’s leading the way in developing a superhero serum. In error, the bumbling McCarthy (what else?) finds herself super strong, leaving Spencer to rely on invisibility to tackle the threat of the Miscreants.
In a word, Thunder Force is dire. At her best, McCarthy is very good (Can You Ever Forgive Me? Spy) but this is not one of those occasions. Even Octavia Spencer struggles with the dreadful material. And why Jason Bateman (Juno, Identity Thief) felt it was a good idea to appear as The Crab, with crab claws as arms, is beyond me. A complete and utter disaster!
Buddy-buddy tale as likeable Peter Klaven (Paul Rudd – Ant-Man, Dinner For Schmucks) realises that he does not have any close male friends. And with his wedding to Zooey (Rashida Jones – Tag, TV’s Parks & Recreation) fast approaching, Klaven needs a best man.
His quest is not as easy as he hoped – until a bond with laid-back investment banker Sydney Fife (Jason Segel – Forgetting Sarah Marshall, The Five-Year Engagement). But how much can Zooey take of this new friendship/bromance?
It’s low brow and all something of a lark – and subverts the rom-com staple of meet-love-plan life together-break up-make up into a narrative of the highs and lows of friendship. It is occasionally very funny, but director John Hamburg (Why Him? Along Came Polly) simply goes with the flow with a formulaic comedy that, with a few too many cringeworthy moments, unfortunately outstays its welcome.
A subversive satire 1940s style, To Be Or Not To Be follows hot on the trail of Chaplin’s The Great Dictator. Only director Ernst Lubitsch (Ninotchka, The Shop Around the Corner) openly targets the Nazi occupation of Poland as a theatre company becomes embroiled in the tracking of a German spy armed with names of the Polish Resistance.
It’s quick-fire reparetee as Polish pilot-in-exile Robert Stack (Inherit the Wind, TV’s The Untouchables) is parachuted into Warsaw to prevent the exchange of information. A cancelled stage comedy on the rise of Hitler comes in use as leading man Joseph Tura (a puffed-up Jack Benny – Charley’s Aunt, Hollywood Canteen) dons the Führer’s uniform whilst his wife Maria Tura (Carole Lombard in sadly her last role), herself a star of the stage, charms the visiting professor and occupying Gestapo officers.
Scandalous on its release, what is now seen as brave film making for its time, To Be Or Not To Be is a mix of black humour, farce, laugh-out-loud comedy alongside more than a hint of pathos, made as it was before the true horrors of the Nazi regime were widely known.
Nominated for best music score Oscar (Werner R. Heymann) in 1943.
A paean to the natural world, narrated by David Attenborough, The Year Earth Changed is a charming yet timely celebration of nature adapting to the year of COVID and lockdown across the globe.
Lack of humans on beaches, a massive reduction in carbon dioxide emissions, less tourist cruises off the coast of Alaska or safaris in the Masai Mara are just a few examples where the natural world sees benefit. Camera crew capture the expected and unexpected – including a fully-grown male leopard colonising the deserted South African luxury safari resort, the lifting of smog above every major city around the world, penguins waddling through the streets of Cape Town. Without human interference, threatened species may well see a bumper baby boomer of a year!
Admittedly, there’s an element of social media content in the documentary, but this is a David Attenborough short film (48 minutes) for the BBC and AppleTV. There is substance to the commentary as well as some beautiful and surprising scenes. A pleasure.
A gripping, based-on truth drama, The Serpent is a dark, challenging exploration of French/Vietnamese serial killer Charles Sobhraj (an unnerving Tahar Rahim) who operated out of Bangkok in the 1970s. Spread over eight episodes, the Netflix original is an extraordinary product of time and place, the so-called hippie trail of peace and love of Thailand, Nepal, Afghanistan, India and the like. But accompanying the laidback, drug infused lifestyle is suspicion of these western tourists, contempt by authorities, an underlying corruption and continued colonialism.
Preying on these naive, idealistic backpackers, the charming, debonair Sobhraj, seemingly willing to help those in difficulty, defrauded, robbed and murdered, aided by his girlfriend Marie-Andrée Leclerc (Jenna Coleman) and so-called ‘brother’, Ajay (Amesh Edireweera). The trio lived in relative comfort in a Bangkok apartment, ostensibly trading in gems, constantly travelling in the region (and on the passports of their victims). Surrounded by people, Sobhraj and Marie-Andrée were the centre of seeming generosity as travellers stayed a few days before officially moving on.
And so it continued until a new, young Third Secretary arrived at the Dutch Embassy. Herman Knippenberg (Billy Howle) was determined to find out what happened to two missing Dutch travellers in spite of opposition to his Ambassador. With victims seen as low-life alternatives by many, disappearances were dismissed (border crossings were non-digitised for example and movement reliant on a paper trail of exit/entry forms). Knippenberg refused to drop the case and what became a total obsession forms the basis of the tracking down of evidence against Sobhraj.
It’s an extraordinary and engaging story, at times gripping. But it’s not without its flaws – including the casting of Knippenberg, Leclerc (a Quebecois) and a former Belgian diplomat with British actors. Reasoning is not clear. Spread over eight episodes, in spite of the thrill of the chase, the narrative palls in the middle as more of the same unfolds. It’s only when the action shifts from Bangkok to Paris and Nepal is The Serpent re-energised. But possibly most puzzling is the lack of depth in any exploration in the psychology of such a sociopath. It’s touched upon but merely surface, reflected by Tahar Rahim’s somewhat two-dimensional performance that varies little from the first to the last episode.