‘LBJ’

LBJ_(film)A worthy, slightly dull talkfest of events immediately prior to and following the assassination of John F Kennedy – with a focus on Texan Vice President Lyndon B Johnson.

Forthright and vulgar – and diametrically opposed to a number of Kennedy’s key policies, including the Civil Rights Bill – Johnson nevertheless stepped up to the mark on Kennedy’s death. Some, including Bobby Kennedy (a fresh-faced Michael Stahl-David – Cloverfield, In Your Eyes), believing callously too quickly.

LBJ is an informative biopic of the man who pushed through a great number of landmark social policies but who is ultimately judged as the president who escalated American involvement in Vietnam. But the film very much belongs to Woody Harrelson (The People Versus Larry Flint, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri) and his vibrant, convincing performance as the man carrying the weight of the free world on his shoulders.

Rating: 56%

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‘Gauguin’

gauguinA gaunt Vincent Cassel (Black Swan, Mesrine) perfectly captures the destitution of a man prepared to sacrifice everything for his art. But sadly, director Edouard Deluc (Welcome to Argentina) fails to instil any sense of magic into the film that focusses on the first visit (1891-93) to Tahiti by Paul Gauguin.

Neither a virtually unspoilt paradise nor (in the film, if not in real life) a marriage to a local woman allays the desperate poverty, with Gauguin eventually being repatriated to France on a state-provided free passage.

In spite of its restricted time span, a too broad a narrative is covered by Deluc. With its slow-pacing and too frequent insistence on capturing the moment of a famed work by the artist, the result is a somewhat dull film – ultimately not helped by the morosely beautiful soundtrack from Warren Ellis (sometime collaborator with Nick Cave).

Rating 44%

‘Chappaquiddick’

chappaquiddick_xlgA damning account of Senator Edward Kennedy’s role in the 1969 car accident that killed his potential presidential campaign secretary, Mary Jo Kopechne (Kate Mara).

Political corruption comes to the fore as the last surviving son of the Kennedy clan faces potential charges. Australian actor Jason Clarke (Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Mudbound) completely owns the role of the arrogant career politician who leaves the scene of the accident, failing to even report the event to the police.

Sadly, a fascinating story that essentially ended the presidential hopes of Kennedy lacks passion and vigour as director John Curran (Tracks, The Painted Veil) allows the narrative to simply plod along.

Rating: 52%

‘Winchester’

Winchester-new-poster-1More haunted house hokum as Dr Eric Price (Jason Clarke – Mudbound, Terminator Genisys) is hired to ascertain the sanity of heiress Sarah Winchester (Helen Mirren – The Queen, Red). Seems she is haunted by the spirits of those killed by the Winchester repeating rifle – and making decisions her board of directors are none too keen on.

With its pertinent anti-gun message, Winchester is timely in the telling of a story based on actual events as Sarah adds room after room to her already enormous home to house the spirits. And the Spierig Brothers’ (Predestination, Daybreaker) latest certainly looks good, with added gravitas provided by Helen Mirren. But sadly Clarke is not convincing as the laudanum-addicted psychiatrist and the chills are little more than lukewarm. All a little too familiar.

Rating: 44%

‘Molly’s Game’

v1.bTsxMjU1NTM5NztqOzE3NjUwOzEyMDA7MTk0NDsyODgxA superior piece of storytelling based on the true story of a former Olympic-hopeful skier running the most exclusive LA and New York high stakes poker game.

As one would expect from scribe Aaron Sorkin (writer of The Social Network, Moneyball alongside TV’s West Wing and The Newsroom), the dialogue drives the narrative. There’s little cinematic gymnastics as Jessica Chastain (Zero Dark Thirty, The Help) engages us from the off as she hires Idris Elba (Thor, Beasts of No Nation) as her lawyer to protect her from the FBI witch hunt to name names.

Rating: 64%

‘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%

‘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%

‘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%

‘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%

Best of Year (2017) – Film

moonlight-poster-lgA very good year but not quite vintage. There were quite a few films that fell into the 70-80% bracket (including the best Australian film, Lion, and best animated feature, Loving Vincent) but 12 films comfortably headed the list, with the top three significantly clear of the rest of the field.

My top 10 films of the year (God’s Own Country and the best documentary, I Am Not Your Negro, just missed out) are:

10: Detroit
9: The Salesman
8: The King’s Choice
7: Land of Mine
6: Baby Driver
5: Blade Runner 2049
4: Insyriated
3: Manchester by the Sea
2: Dunkirk
1: Moonlight

Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit was a distressing powerhouse, an immersive experience of police brutality and racism during the 1967 riots. The film boasted an excellent ensemble cast although I singled out Will Poulter as the police officer in charge in my top five male performances of the year.

The second film by director Asghar Fahardi to win the Best Film in a Foreign Language Oscar (the first was the magnificent A Separation), The Salesman is a surprisingly quiet narrative as a teacher looks to discover the identity of the person who assaulted his wife in their new home.

Based on historical fact, King Haakon VII of Norway is forced to make a decision that will impact on his country and millions of lives. It’s April 1940 and Nazi Germany has invaded under the pretext of protection from aggressive Allied Forces. The King’s Choice is whether to accept their protection – or declare war.

2017 was a good year for Scandinavian films – the Danish Land of Mine also features in the top 10 as young German POWs are forced to clear the land mines from the beaches immediately following the end of World War II.

An unexpectedly huge box-office hit, Baby Driver with Ansel Elgort as the ubercool getaway driver, is entertaining with a capital ‘e’ with a blast of a soundtrack. But following accusations of inappropriate sexual behaviour, Baby Driver could well be the last time we see Kevin Spacey on the big screen.

The original was one of the coolest sci-fi films of its generation. Thirty years later a sequel was finally released – and its one of the coolest sci-fi films of its generation. Blade Runner 2049 – thanks to its director Denis Villeneuve and the superb cinematography of veteran Roger Deakins – is a cerebral spectacle and makes my top five films of the year.

The shattering Lebanese/Belgian Insyriated is in fourth. My pick of films seen at the Melbourne International Film Festival, headed by Hiam Abbass (the female performance of the year), the claustrophobic drama finds a middle-class Syrian family (and a couple of neighbours) holed up in their Damascus apartment as civil war rages around the streets.

Casey Affleck may well have won all the awards (including my vote for best actor of the year), but the cast and creatives of Manchester by the Sea certainly picked up their own accolades. Emotionally destroyed by tragedy, Affleck returns to his hometown following the death of his older brother where he needs to face his demons to find closure.

Visually stunning, Dunkirk is a film of few words with its emotional sweep and visceral beauty and a jigsaw of narratives, separate but creating a cohesive whole as 300,000 British, French and Belgian soldiers are rescued from the beaches of northern France.

But top of my list – and Oscar winner for best film – is Moonlight. Yet another indie ensemble piece (it was a good year!), small in scale, ambitious in scope, Moonlight is a minor masterpiece, pure melancholic poetry. What a turn up for the books when it beat La La Land to best film!