‘First Man’

first manIn spite of knowing the outcome of Apollo 11 and Neil Armstrong’s walk on the moon, director Damien Chazelle (La La Land, Whiplash) and his taut telling of the historic moment teases out every thrill, tension and suspense.

Somber, claustrophobic and with a focus on the men and their families (a controlled, nuanced Ryan Gosling – La La Land, Drive – as Armstrong, a riveting, scene-stealing Claire Foy – Unsane, TV’s The Crown – as his wife, Janet), First Man is intimate and deeply humane. But it is also a technical tour de force, with particular reference to the editing by Tom Cross (La La Land, Whiplash), and a likely swag of behind-the-scenes Oscar nominations.

Rating: 68%

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‘American Animals’

American-Animals-movie-posterAward-winning documentary filmmaker Bart Layton (The Imposter) takes on the true story of a daytime heist that goes wrong with mixed results.

Four clean-cut Kentucky university students attempt a multimillion-dollar art theft from their own library led by the incompetent Barry Keoghan (The Killing of a Sacred Deer, Dunkirk) and Evan Peters (X-Men Apocalypse, Kick-Ass).

It’s a preposterous idea of fantasy and fiction as the bored four make plans, the narrative interspersed with commentaries from the real-life, evidently traumatised, protagonists and parents. Sadly, the film fails to do the story full justice. A slow, ponderous first half is ultimately uninteresting, lacking any gripping immediacy or empathy. It’s the heist that grabs the attention, 20-30 minutes of action and wry, incompetent humour that highlights the dullness of the preceding first hour.

Rating: 56%

‘BlackkKlansman’

blackkkAn extraordinary story of two local detectives, one Black (John David Washington – Monster, Monsters & Men), one Jewish (Adam Driver – Paterson, Star Wars: The Last Jedi) infiltrating the Colorado Springs chapter of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1970s.

Director Spike Lee (Do the Right Thing, Malcolm X) has not gone uncriticised for his loose adaptation of the true events (‘that story points are fabricated in order to make a Black cop and his counterparts look like allies in the fight against racism’ at the time of Black Lives Matter). But his hybrid period piece/comedy/cop drama with more than a hint of polemic is a hugely entertaining yet angry film that deftly highlights racism within the establishment.

It’s not necessarily an easy-watch – the racist and abusive language, the shocking violence of news footage – but it is an important watch.

Rating: 81%

‘The Rider’

The_Rider-1A tender, poetic story and what is essentially a scripted, heightened documentary as real-life rodeo cowboy Brady Jandreau comes to terms with a life-threatening head injury. In a culture that lives and breathes horses, Brady and his family struggle with his displacement and loss of status.

The vast, wide-open South Dakota Badlands adds to Brady’s sense of isolation as writer/director Chloe Zhao (Songs My Brother Taught Me) patiently explores the meaning of masculinity in the physical world of rodeo and its backwater setting.

Rating: 79%

Screened as part of the Melbourne International Film Festival

‘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%

‘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%