‘Mountain’

mountainA gloriously immersive and poetic documentary, director Jennifer Peedom (Sherpa, Miracle on Everest) takes us on a journey through our fascination in the stunning majesty that is the world’s highest peaks.

With a beautifully modulated commentary from Willem Defoe, spectacular cinematography from Renan Ozturk (Sherpa, Valley Uprising) and a truly soaring soundtrack from Richard Tognetti and the Australian Chamber Orchestra, Mountain literally leaves you gasping for air – whether it be at the clouds rolling into the Himalayan valleys, the intense close ups of rock climbers on sheer rock faces in Monument Valley or mountain bikers travelling hell for leather on narrow paths high in the Austrian Alps.

It’s simultaneously cerebral and emotive in the extreme – and Vivaldi’s Four Seasons and Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No 5 in E Flat Major have never sounded or ‘looked’ better.

Rating: 71%

Advertisements

‘Namatjira Project’

00001-002A meandering, unfocused documentary, the Namatjira Project explores the legacy of one of the earliest successful Australian aboriginal painters, Albert Namatjira. The first indigenous Australian to be granted citizenship back in the 50s, his extended family has battled to reclaim their heritage since his death in 1959.

The problem for Sera Davies’ film is its failure to determine its main subject. Is it Namatjira himself? His family? The battle to regain copyright? Or is it simply following the theatre production that is Albert’s life (a superb performance by Trevor Jamieson – Rabbit Proof Fence, Bran Nue Dae)? The result is a frustrating mishmash of unresolved questions.

Rating: 53%

‘Ali’s Wedding’

19983521_1884953185091404_3701407671146097916_oVoted as The Age newspaper’s best Australian film at the recent Melbourne International Film Festival, Ali’s Wedding is a dire rom-com that, based on true events, mistakenly plays everything for laughs.

The son of a popular cleric at the local mosque, Ali (Osamah Sami, writer of the film) lies his way through his exam results, inflating his score to the point he needs to study medicine at the prestigious University of Melbourne. A non-enrolled attendee at lectures, he falls in love with the Australian-Lebanese Dianne (Helana Siwares – Banana Boy), even though he, as an Iraqi, is due to marry to Yomna. How is he going to get out of this?

Squirm inducing humour that encourages laughter at points of difference, lack of character development that results in seeming stupidity (Ali’s mother in particular) and the occasional comedic moments that are poorly or overly developed in an (ill-conceived) attempt to maximise the humour: Ali’s Wedding is very disappointing.

Rating: 36%

‘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%

‘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% 

‘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%)

‘Lion’

lion-movie-poster-504x709A superior piece of (based-on-truth) storytelling, Lion avoids overly mawkish sentimentality as adopted 20-something Saroo Brierley searches for his birth mother somewhere in India.

Separated from his family as a young boy, Saroo finds himself in the Tasmanian home of Sue and John Brierley via an orphanage in Calcutta (a fine, Oscar-nominated performance from Nicole Kidman – The Others, Rabbit Hole). But as a young adult, Dev Patel (Slumdog Millionaire, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) needs closure.

With an immensely  respectful and immersive telling of the early stages of the story (some 40 subtitled minutes with 5 year old Saroo), director Garth Davis, in his feature film debut, builds the emotional arc beautifully as the notion of family, identity and home are explored in this thoroughly engrossing film.

Rating: 75%

‘Hacksaw Ridge’

hacksaw0001Hacksaw Ridge, the latest directorial outing by Mel Gibson (Braveheart, The Passion of the Christ) is a big, emotionally manipulative blockbuster of a war film. But, based on the true story of seventh day adventist, Desmond Doss, the first  conscientious objector to win the Medal of Valor, there’s an over reliance on faith and patriotism to fill in the slots between the battle scenes.

An endearing Andrew Garfield (The Amazing Spiderman, The Social Network) plays Doss straight down the line, overcoming the barrack-room bullying. But the real star of the US-Australian co-production that is Hacksaw Ridge is the stunningly filmed, gruesome battles. Cinematographer Simon Duggan (The Great Gatsby, I Robot) and editor John Gilbert (The Lord of the Rings, The World’s Fastest Indian) should be in the running for Oscars.

Rating: 63%