‘A Man of Integrity’

dregs_poster_goldposter_com_1.jpg@0o_0l_800w_80qAn honest yet downtrodden fish farmer (a quiet, nuanced performance by Reza Akhlaghirad in his film debut) fights corruption and injustice in rural Iran.

A Man of Integrity is a scathing critique of contemporary Iran (“you’re either oppressed or the oppressor”) as Reza looks for his family’s survival in the face of corporate expansion and control. Director Mohammad Rasoulof (Manuscripts Don’t Burn, Goodbye) teases out stoically naturalistic performances and a surprising tension from an age-old David and Goliath storyline.

Screened in the Melbourne International Film Festival.

Rating: 76%

‘Ellipsis’

ellipsisA Sydney-shot dramatic rom-com, with Emily Barclay (The Light Between Oceans, In My Father’s Den) finding herself without a phone after colliding with Benedict Samuel (The Walk, The Stanford Prison Experiment). A night of adventure unfolds before she must return to her fiance in London.

Like the unfolding night, Ellipsis is something of a meandering narrative as the two find themselves in various locations around Sydney. It’s pleasant enough – and debut director David Wenham pays homage to the city itself. But the real drama and human interest lies with the phone repairman (Ferdinand Hoang – Mao’s Last Dancer, The Quiet American) and his family.

Screened in the Melbourne International Film Festival.

Rating: 42%

‘The Road to Mandalay’

MV5BZGFiZjI5ZjAtNWZhMy00ZTQzLWIyNDUtMjM3MmU1MTM2MjE5XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMzY3MTQ1NTY@._V1_UX182_CR0,0,182,268_AL_A quiet, understated reflection on Burmese immigrants illegally working in Thailand as Lianqing (Ke-Xi Wu – Poor Folk, Ice Poison) escapes her impoverished rural home life. Sending money home and obtaining a work permit in any way possible is her focus, even at the cost of her relationship with Guo (Kai Ko – You Are the Apple of My Eye, When a Wolf Falls in Love with a Sheep).

Both are in search of a better life, but their contradictory personalities inevitably lead to conflict. Director Midi Z (Poor Folk, Ice Poison), a rising star of Asian cinema, focuses on the everyday events and hardships faced by the pair – making its denouement in the final seconds even more unexpected and shocking.

Screened in the Melbourne International Film Festival.

Rating: 69%

‘Don’t Tell’

Don't Tell Movie Poster 1Don’t Tell is based on the true story of the court case of Lyndal who, as an 11 year-old, was sexually abused by a teacher at a prestigious Queensland school. The outcome resulted in the change in laws in the way civil cases are tried.

Now a surly, rebellious 22 year old, Lyndal (an empathic Sara West – The Daughter, One-Eyed Girl) sues the Anglican church in 2001 for damages. Lawyer Stephen Roche (Aden Young – Killer Elite, Mao’s Last Dancer) and barrister Jack Thompson (Breaker Morant, Australia) support her through her court hearing.

Director Tori Garrett makes his feature film debut in this well told, authentic courtroom drama, focusing on the story rather than any cinematic gymnastics.

Rating: 62%

‘Berlin Syndrome’

5qBg9GxoCA8qu48iWp1obK5pBHsA sinister story of obsession, Australian director Cate Shortland’s (Somersault, Lore) latest is a tense thriller where backpacker Clare’s (Teresa Palmer – Hackshaw Ridge, Warm Bodies) one night stand sees her locked in the Berlin apartment of school teacher Andi (Max Riemelt – Free Fall, Before the Fall).

But Berlin Syndrome is no schlock bad guy/good guy shocker. Shortland’s skill, in building tension, is to create an element of sympathy for both characters. Andi’s grief at the death of his father is genuine, as is the continued terror felt by Clare as her imprisonment extends by weeks.

Shortland oozes confidence in (sadly) only her third feature film in 12 years in this stylish thriller/drama.

Rating: 66% 

‘The Salesman’

SalesmanThe best film in a foreign language Oscar winner, The Salesman is a confident, assured piece of cinema.

Surprisingly low key and minimal, to label it a revenge thriller would be doing Asghar Fahardi (A Separation, The Past) a disservice. Yet Shahab Hosseini (A Separation, About Elly) is determined to discover the identity of the man who assaulted his wife (a superbly resigned Taraneh Alidoosti – Modest Reception, About Elly) in their own home.

As with the magnificent A Separation, Fahardi builds the tension (without overly altering the pace) primarily through words, leaving you somewhat breathless as the narrative builds towards its compelling finale.

Rating: 81%

‘Jasper Jones’

mmt966-flatpackPublished in 2010, Jasper Jones the novel has established itself as one of the most loved of all local novels – an Australian Southern Gothic where the heat is real, the cicadas loud as the tension builds in the (fictional) West Australian town of Corrigan.

It’s a coming-of-age melodrama and something of a thriller mystery, touching upon the racism and narrow-mindedness of 1960s Australia.  The townsfolk are on high alert with the disappearance of schoolgirl Laura. But both indigenous teenager Jasper Jones and his confidant, Charlie, know where she is and think they know  what has happened to her.

Sadly, whereas the novel masterfully tells its tale and introduces a wonderful array  of characters, director Rachel Perkins (Bran Nue Dae, Radiance) has chosen to race through its telling. The result is a superficial hotchpotch of barely related scenes and events. Young actors Aaron L McGrath (Around the Block) as the barely seen Jasper and Levi Miller (Pan, Red Dog: True Blue) try hard but ultimately they, along with a stellar Australian cast including Hugo Weaving, Toni Collette and Dan Wylie, are wasted.

Rating: 51%

Who’s going to win? Oscar thoughts.

academy_award_trophyWith the Oscars dished out this coming weekend, and, having seen all nine features up for best film, thought a little personal ruminating would not go amiss (there’s enough of others out there).

Naturally, it’s a personal take on those nine films. Some I do not think should even be on the list; others are noticeable by their absence (Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals in particular). But of those nine, my choice for best film falls unequivocally for Moonlight.

The Golden Globes got it right when the Hollywood Foreign Press Association voted it best film – drama. The two separate categories for best film – drama and comedy/musical – certainly helped the Barry Jenkins-helmed feature avoid competing against the critical behemoth that is La La Land. But it’s the better film (personally speaking). Resonant, poignant, performed by an ensemble cast with quiet dignity, it’s a quite extraordinary film.

La La Land, the odds-on favourite to win a swag of Oscars including best film, fell into that ‘it’s good but not that good’ category for me – and is only fifth of the nine on my list. But in its celebration of LA and Hollywoodland (and a quite haunting soundtrack), it will probably win the big one (at least).

Any other year, the indescribably sad Manchester by the Sea would have likely topped my favourite of the year. Like Moonlight, it’s another quiet drama with superb performances from all and sundry, although in her few scenes Michelle Williams is devastating (as is Casey Affleck).

It’s hardly original – and we’ve seen Jeff Bridges play laconic lawmen for what seem forever (partly because he’s so good at it!) – but Hell Or High Water is a particularly fine example of its genre but unlikely to cause any surprises (it’s a film that appears to be constantly finding itself second or third in all its categories).

Lion surprised me by the respect it gave to the early part of its narrative – almost half its running time is set in a subtitled India. It’s a true story very well told and it was good to see Dev Patel gain recognition at the BAFTAS for his performance (it would be a major surprise if he repeated the feat and picked up Best Supporting Actor over Mahershala Ali in Moonlight).

The rest of the nine films are likely to be also rans, although Fences is a powerhouse in terms of acting. August Wilson’s film betrays too much of its theatrical roots to be truly convincing as a feature film. Arrival is an intelligent sci-fi but, like Hell or High Water, features high on lists of five or ten without topping any of them. Hackshaw Ridge surprised by finding itself in the running for best film. Highlight of Mel Gibson’ war film is the superb editing and cinematography (sadly no recognition for Simon Duggan in the latter category). And then there’s Hidden Figures which was a great true story disappointingly told.

So I’d love it if Moonlight took home the best film award but it’s hard to see it beating out La La Land.

Personal ratings of the films nominated for the best film Oscar

Moonlight (91%)
Manchester by the Sea (88%)
Hell or High Water (80%)
Lion (75%)
La La Land (73%)
Fences (69%)
Arrival (67%)
Hackshaw Ridge (63%)
Hidden Figures (57%)

Best of Year (2016) – Female Performance

la_pazza_gioia_01_cpaolo-cirielli-0-2000-0-1125-cropHere we go – first of my 2016 ‘best of’ film lists, limited to the films I saw during the year.

It’s reported that 2016 was a particularly fine year for high-profile female performances. But sadly, many are in films yet to be released in Australia. So no Natalie Portman (Jackie), Ruth Negga (Loving), Annette Bening (20th Century Women), Taraji P Henson (Hidden Figures), Viola Wills (Fences), Sandra Hueller (Toni Erdmann) and any number of films never seeing the light of day Down Under.

But my top 5:

5: Emma Stone (La La Land)
4: Amy Adams (Nocturnal Animals/Arrival)
3: Charlotte Rampling (45 Years)
2: Isabelle Huppert (Elle)
1: Valeria Bruni Tedeschi (Like Crazy (La pazza gioia))

This list could have been made up from a number of performances featured in last year’s Oscars – yet Brie Larssen, winner of the 2016 Oscar for best actress for her performance in Room, failed to make my top five (I placed her sixth on the list). Of the nominations for last year’s Oscar, my vote would have been cast for the quiet, superbly nuanced performance by veteran actress Charlotte Rampling and 45 Years.

Other’s just outside the top five include Sally Field (Hello, My Name is Doris), Margot Robbie (Suicide Squad – even though I did not like the film) and  veteran Japanese actress Kirin Kiki for An (known as Sweet Bean in the States).

Three of the likely 2017 contenders are featured in my top 5 for the year. Emma Stone and La La Land slips into my list – the last film I saw in 2016 – and she (just) steals the acting accolades from Ryan Gosling. Amy Adams also makes my list – and a little unfairly in a way as there are two superb performances to take into account (and which I saw on the same day!). It’s Arrival that’s winning the attention but my personal preference (just) is for Tom Ford’s sublime Nocturnal Animals.

Isabelle Huppert pulls off the challenge of the rape victim who turns the tables on her attacker in Elle, a so-called taut mystery which I personally found loathsome and offensive as a film. But there was no denying Huppert’s performance and she may well gain her first Oscar nomination.

But its Valeria Bruni Tedeschi who gets my vote for 2017 and her fabulous bipolar performance in the Italian comedy drama Like Crazy (La pazza gioia). She completely owned that role!

‘The Age of Shadows’

the-age-of-shadows-posterOvertly stylised Korean film noir, The Age of Shadows is a beautifully filmed cloak-and-dagger twisting narrative as the Korean Resistance attempt to move explosives from Shanghai into Seoul to move against the 1930s Japanese occupation.

It’s a slow start (with the exception of the fabulously staged shoot-out that opens the film) as characters are introduced, with Kang-ho Song  (Snowpiercer, The Host) the Korean-born Japanese police officer heading the team trying to stop the Resistance. But director Jee-woon Kim (A Tale of Two Sisters, I Saw the Devil) ramps up the action as things become more and more desperate for all parties.

Rating: 62%