‘The Post’

the-post-0547279001515497618Interesting story solidly told and performed (you’d expect nothing else from Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks and director Spielberg) yet somewhat dramatically inert.

As secret documents of clandestine American involvement in Vietnamese politics from the 1940s onwards come to light, The Washington Post owner (Streep) and editor (Hanks) must decide whether to play safe or risk contempt of court and publish.

Pre-empting Watergate and All the President’s Men, arguably the best of the investigative political journalism genre, The Post comes across as a feature where Streep, Hanks and Spielberg, whilst engaging in lots of freedom of the press and women’s position in society conversations, hardly overstretched themselves.

Rating: 61%

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‘Phantom Thread’

Phantom_Thread_PosterLike the clothes produced at the House of Woodcock, Paul Thomas Anderson’s (There Will Be Blood, The Master) latest is distinguished, stylish and classy.

Set in 1950s London, Daniel Day Lewis (My Left Foot, There Will Be Blood) is designer to European royalty and the aristocracy. A lover of women but a confirmed bachelor set in his ways, his head is turned by Alma (Vicky Krieps – Das Zimmermaedchen Lynn, Hanna), a waitress working in a hotel in Yorkshire. Elevating Alma to a stylish beauty, the London home ruled over by sister Cyril (Lesley Manville – Another Year, Mr Turner), is soon challenged by a young woman determined to be more than merely decoration.

A gorgeous period drama that slips and slides into obscurity as intent is not always clear, Phantom Thread remains a beguiling character study of three determined personalities, as controlled and clipped as post-war English manners.

Rating: 74%

‘Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri’

3bb_KEY_1SHEET_101_F3_smA profane delight – a black comedy dark yet compassionate, violent yet profound, a  blistering yet deeply humane commentary on small town America.

Frances McDormand (Fargo, Burn After Reading) and her wry, foul-mouthed performance anchors writer/director Martin McDonagh’s (In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths) superb script. Mildred wants answers from the police for the rape and murder of her daughter more than 12 months earlier.

Head of the local police, Woody Harrelson (Natural Born Killers, Seven Psychopaths) and dumb, racist cop, Sam Rockwell (MoonSeven Psychopaths), are firmly in her sights as the darkly comic narrative unfolds. A real crowd pleaser.

Rating: 88%

‘I, Tonya’

i_tonya_xlgIt may be overlong – and ‘the incident’ forms only a small part of the whole – but director Craig Gillespie (Lars & the Real Girl, The Finest Hours) highlights the eccentricities in the life story of US competitive ice-skater, Tonya Harding.  Importantly, he choses to laugh more with the characters than at them.

From the wrong side of the tracks, Harding (a confident, Oscar-nominated Margot Robbie – The Suicide Squad, The Wolf of Wall Street) was abused by her mother (a magnificent out-of-character Alison Janney – Spy, The Girl on the Train) and husband (an almost unrecognisable Sebastian Stan, the Captain America trilogy). Yet she rose to number one in the world and represented the US at two winter Olympics. But Harding is best remembered for her involvement in the attack on fellow ice-skater, Nancy Kerrigan.

It’s a tragic story and this black comedy tells it well. How much Harding knew is left in the air as Gillespie explores the issues of class and the nature of truth in this entertaining sports movie.

Rating: 65%

‘Quarantine’ by Jim Crace

quarantineThe story of Christ in the wilderness for forty days is hardly an obvious subject for a known atheist. But that’s exactly what Quarantine is – award-winning Jim Crace’s fifth novel.

Only Christ is one of a handful of characters who have travelled to live, temporarily, on the edge, looking for guidance and to secure resolution and transcendence in what Crace is presenting as a godless universe. But they have the misfortune of stumbling across Musa. A successful nomadic merchant left for dead by his companions, with only his young pregnant wife to care for him until his last breath, Musa survives (much to the chagrin of Miri).

Ever the entrepreneur, the odious Musa convinces the travellers that they are on his land – and must therefore pay rent for the caves they look to fast and find some kind of spiritual guidance. And food, water, home comforts are all available – at a price.

The metaphoric satanic Musa is very much centre stage of Crace’s short novel. Jesus is an enigmatic, almost ethereal character – in choosing the most inaccessible and distant cave, he is as remote as the landscape they have all chosen to meditate and commune with God. Unlike the others, who meet as the sun sets to break their fast, Jesus stoically continues, plagued by hallucinations and teetering towards madness, devoid of water and food for forty days.

A retelling of a familiar story – or at least its humanising: the unendurable suffering of a fast in such inhospitable environs; the need by Marta, looking to become fertile, for some home comforts in her cave; the ever-opportunistic Musa turning everything to his advantage. And, hardly surprising for an atheist, a Jesus who seems to have no divine origin but is simply a craftsman who takes religious instruction a great deal more seriously than his contemporaries.

Quarantine is a beautifully told, spellbinding narrative, its hallucinatory realism interlaced with humour and menace. The wilderness rendered in almost obsessive poetic detail: the beguiling master of words, Musa, a lecherous bully who, we know, will always land on his feet: a secular telling of a biblical story.

Shortlisted for the 1997 Booker Prize, Quarantine was reportedly the runner-up to the winner, Arundhati Roy and The God of Small Things.

 

‘Darkest Hour’

darkest-hour-australian-movie-posterA provocative historical drama as Winston Churchill, in the early days of his prime ministership, is confronted with a possible invasion of Britain from Nazi forces. Virtually the entire British army is stranded on the beaches of Dunkirk.

Unpopular within his own Conservative party, a war-mongering Churchill (a career-defining performance from Gary Oldman – Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Harry Potter & the Prisoner of Azkaban) is at odds with his appeasement-seeking colleagues. War in the corridors of power and on the Continent forces Churchill to decide whether to sue for peace or fight on against incredible odds.

Director Joe Wright (Atonement, Anna Karenina) focuses on the claustrophobic machinations of parliament and underground war rooms. The result is the fiery determination and irascible wit of Churchill at the forefront of a wordy, manipulative  narrative that has no intention of being subtle in the telling of its stirring story.

Rating: 71%

(A perfect complement to Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk)

‘The Shape of Water’

the-shape-of-water-posterMagical, whimsical adult fairytale that is deeply romantic and touchingly moving.

A mute Elisa (Sally Hawkins – Blue Jasmine, Maudie), a night-time cleaner at a 1950s top secret US research facility, falls for a mysterious, recently captured Amazonian amphibian. With Russian secret agents closing in and American military prepared to kill off the creature rather than allow it to fall in their hands, Elisa needs to take drastic action.

A love story of those on the margins – Elisa, a mute orphan: gay neighbour Giles (Richard Jenkins – The Visitor, Let Me In): best friend and colleague Zelda (Octavia Spencer – The Help, Hidden Figures): the creature itself.

Deeply humane, director Guillermo Del Toro (Hellboy, Pan’s Labyrinth) takes you on a flight of fancy, a beautifully crafted meditative journey celebrating life itself, supported by a stunning ensemble cast and behind-the-scenes creatives.

13 Oscar nominations – no surprise there!

Rating: 87%

‘Call Me By Your Name’

CallMeByYourName2017Languid telling, during a 1980s Tuscan summer, of first love where 17 year-old Elio (a gentle,  nuanced performance by Timothée Chalamet – Interstellar, Ladybird) falls for his father’s archealogical assistant, the over-confident Oliver (Armie Hammer – The Social Network, The Lone Ranger).

It’s a bumpy ride for Elio – and for the audience. At times beautiful, at times stretching credulity as the all-American bumptious Jock purportedly falls for the skinny, bookish waif. Chalamet is pitch-perfect as Elio but a towering Hammer is less convincing.

Director Luca Guadagnino (I Am Love, A Bigger Splash) perfectly captures the nervousness of first love and its associated heartbreak but Elio’s relationship with his father, Michael Stuhlbarg (A Serious Man, The Shape of Water) and peers highlights the shortcomings of the love affair.

Rating: 68%

‘The Slap’ by Christos Tsiolkas

9781741758207When The Slap first came out a little under 10 years ago, it felt like everyone was reading it – and had an opinion. ‘Whose side are you on?’ was the question.

A hard-edged dissection of middle-class suburban Australian living, a man slaps a four year-old child who is not his own at a family barbecue. From that moment on, the lives of friends and family, witness to the event, irrevocably change.

Centring around eight main characters, The Slap explores divided loyalties, family feuds, friendships pushed to breaking point as values, histories, family ties, social and gender politics are all placed firmly under the uncompromising microscope.

There’s no question, an over-indulged four year-old Hugo is popular neither with the other kids at the barbecue nor the adults. He’s already caused several scenes with his tantrums, including the breaking of a present (given to someone else) barely 20 minutes old. Appeasement is the order of the day – there’s obviously a history with Hugo and parents who do not believe in intervention. But brandishing a cricket bat at his son is the breaking point for Harry.

That’s the end of the barbecue.

What follows is a state-of-the-nation narrative, an ambitious, fractious social document that is at times funny, at times infuriating and a little too often, incredibly smug.

Set in the Melbourne inner-northern suburb of Northcote, gentrification and multiculturalism has changed what was once an essentially Greek working-class area. Tsiolkas reflects this.

Both Hector (Chapter 1) and his cousin Harry (Chapter 3) are Greek, with Hector married to Aisha (Indian – Chapter 7) and Harry to Sandi (Serb). Both men are having affairs – Hector with 17 year-old Connie (Chapter 4) and assistant to Aisha at her vet surgery: Harry is in a long-term relationship with a Lebanese woman and who supplies his cocaine from a Vietnamese dealer. They’re both narcissistic and display misogynist traits – particularly Harry. Connie lives with her aunt, the result of her parents both dying from AIDS five years earlier: her father was a bisexual heroine addict. Connie’s best friend, Richie (Chapter 8) has recently declared his homosexuality to her.

Add Islamic conversion, indigenous and migrant assimilation, alcoholism, ageing, class and dysfunctional parenting and the result is a fluid narrative (if nothing, the story is engrossing) that is somehow overdone. It’s a little too diverse and representative, a little too shoehorned.

Interestingly, no character is entirely likeable – although neither are they totally unlikeable, with the obvious exception of Rosie (Chapter 5) and Gary – the parents of Hugo. Tsiolkas has painted a grim harridan in Rosie where even Gary finds some of her behaviour with Hugo hard to stomach (she still breastfeeds the four year-old). Her involving the police in the ‘bashing’ of her son by ‘that animal’ and the subsequent court case is a crusade too far for many.

The Slap is something of a page-turner – although, like all soap operas, it can outstay its welcome at times as it meanders around the lives of the eight characters and their associates.

Favourite to win the 2009 Miles Franklin Award (having already collected the Commonwealth Writers Prize, the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award and the ALSS Gold Medal), The Slap lost out to Tim Winton and Breath.

 

 

‘All the Money in the World’

All_the_Money_in_the_WorldSolid and somewhat imaginative telling of the kidnapping of 16 year-old Paul Getty in Rome in 1973: the downside of having a grandfather, John Paul Getty, who was the richest man in the world. He was also one of the tightest and refused to pay the $17 million ransom.

Director Ridley Scott (Gladiator, Alien) famously reshot scenes featuring the old man, replacing shamed Kevin Spacey with a superb Christopher Plummer (Beginners, A Beautiful Mind). His cold intransigence leaves Michelle Williams (Brokeback Mountain, Manchester by the Sea) as Paul’s desperate mother just that – constantly on the edge of desperation and frustration.

Scott certainly takes liberties in the telling of the story and its entertaining enough. But bottom line, as a whole its quite a minor achievement.

Rating: 56%