‘Hotel Mumbai’

The harrowing events of the coordinated terrorist attack on multiple targets across Mumbai in 2008 form the basis of Anthony Maras’ feature film debut.

The luxurious Taj Mahal Hotel, where terrorists controlled the corridors for four days killing more than 30 people, was the highest profile target. And it is here that Maras focuses his occasionally gripping, predominantly bland, factional telling. Like many disaster films of old with large casts, it’s the lack of characterisation that’s the problem. Dev Patel (Lion, Slumdog Millionaire) as staff member Arjun is the film’s mainstay but with Armie Hammer, Jason Isaacs, Nazanin Boniadi and Carmen Duncan as guests, their stories need to be told – along with time spent with the (admittedly gripping) rampaging terrorists stalking the hotel.

Hotel Mumbai certainly has its moments, but in terms of a tribute to victims and survivors, it falls somewhat short as excess of killings and violence outweigh any attempt at a message.

Rating: 53%

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‘On the Basis of Sex’

Ruth Bader Ginsburg is trending, an icon of our time. Last year came the acclaimed documentary, RBG, which introduced the fiery advocate for the advancement of gender equality and women’s rights to a wider audience.

Mimi Leder (Pay It Forward, Deep Impact) and her film introduces her to far more – although, inevitably, the biopic of only the second woman to be appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court, is sadly diluted for mass consumption. Felicity Jones (The Theory of Everything, Inferno) plays Ginsburg with steely aplomb, but in covering 30 years, the narrative skims across too much detail.

Rating: 56%

‘The Mule’

Clint Eastwood’s latest annual directorial feature is inspired by the true story of a 90 year-old Korean War veteran turning into a drug mule for the Mexican cartel, driving from Texas to Illinois on a monthly basis.

A chance meeting leads a strapped-for-cash Eastwood (Gran Torino, Million Dollar Baby) to drive millions of dollars of drugs across state lines as DEA special agent Bradley Cooper (A Star is Born, American Sniper) closes in.

It’s a repetitive storyline as we follow Eastwood through several road trips, with the back story of his broken family life occasionally taking centre stage. But it’s all a little hollow, lacking in any real substance or emotional resonance.

But there’s a great jazz soundtrack from Arturo Sandoval!

Rating: 58%

‘Stan & Ollie’

A flat, strangely uninvolving narrative as Laurel & Hardy, once the most successful comedy duo in the world, look to reignite their dwindling careers and strained friendship with a gruelling theatre tour of post-war Britain.

Seedy bed & breakfasts in the likes of Carlisle, Swansea, Plymouth are a far cry from their golden Hollywood days as the two struggle to attract audiences. The arrival of their respective wives adds to the pressure as Ollie’s health suffers and threatens the future of the tour.

In their impersonations of the duo, Steve Coogan (Night at the Museum, Philomena) and John C Reilly (Chicago, The Sisters Brothers) are excellent but its an uphill struggle with the uninspiring material (written by Jeff Pope – Philomena, Pierrepoint) and pedantic direction (Jon S. Baird – Filth).

Rating: 51%

‘Green Book’

A predictable and conventional crowd pleaser, Green Book is the commercial, liberal side of addressing racism – more Crash than any Spike Lee film.

An out-of-work nightclub bouncer in 1960s New York, Tony Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen – Captain Fantastic, Lord of the Rings) reluctantly accepts a two-month driver’s position. Based on a true story, he’s to drive renowned musician Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali – Moonlight, Hidden Figures) on a tour of the Deep South.

Diametric opposites clash – a physical, Bronx, racist Italian; a sophisticated, judgemental, academic Afro-American. But experiences in Mississippi, Georgia, Alabama et al slowly bring respect and friendship.

More known for comedies than issue-based dramas, director Peter Farrelly (There’s Something About Mary, Hall Pass) tells a good story but falls short on that extra punch the film so desperately needed. Surprisingly, Green Book won both best film and best original screenplay Oscars. Less surprising was best supporting actor for Mahershala Ali.

Rating: 64%

‘Vice’

More engrossing and informative than entertaining, director Adam McKay (The Big Short, The Other Guys) and his latest political exploration will leave you dumbfounded by the manipulation of power by former Vice President, Dick Cheney (a transformed Christian Bale – The Dark Knight, The Big Short).

From the Nixon years through to the George W Bush presidency 40 years later, Cheney and wife Lynne (Amy Adams – Arrival, Doubt) sought power as he became intern, analyst, chief-of-staff at the White House, senator, secretary of defence, VP. Arch conservative, Cheney is regarded as the eminence gris behind Bush and the tenuous reasonings in the invasion of Iraq and the US’s extreme policies of its war on terror.

It’s a fascinating insight – biting satire and a true acting masterclass that, outside the Cheneys, includes Steve Carell, Sam Rockwell, Eddie Marsan, Tyler Perry – even an uncredited Naomi Watts. No surprise Bale won a Golden Globe and the film has received eight Oscar nominations.

Rating: 71%

‘Loro’

Bombastic, MTV-style telling of the life and times of scandal-plagued Italian PM, Silvio Berlusconi (Toni Servillo – The Great Beauty, Consequences of Love) or at least a period in his career as his marriage to second wife Veronica fractures.

Nudity, raucous poolside parties, coke-snorting bacchanalia is the order of the day as director Paolo Sorrentino (The Great Beauty, TV’s The Young Pope) controversially speculates on what may or may not have taken place behind both political and private closed doors as characters attempt to win the favour of the billionaire politician.

The Fellini-esque excess of debauchery, sex and depictions of unfettered wealth grate and ultimately bore – even if, unlike it’s two part release in Italy, the 150 minute international version switches at the halfway stage to a more in-depth, serious exploration of the corruption of power and money.

Sadly, too little too late – I’d switched off caring before then as Sorrentino delivers, once more, artifice rather than depth.

Rating: 34%

Best of Year (2018 – Male Performance)

To be honest, on a personal note, 2018 was not a vintage year for standout male performances – with a couple of significant exceptions. There were a lot of ‘good’ performances (Charlie Plummer – Lean on Pete; Brady Jandreau – The Rider; Timothy Spall – The Party; Richard E Grant – Can You Ever Forgive Me?; Aleksey Rozin – LovelessWillem Defoe: The Florida Project) that in a quiet way added to the impact or narrative of the film. But for this list of five, I was looking for something more memorable (Defoe, incidentally, came sixth on my list).

My personal top five male performances for films released in Australia in 2018:
5: Nahuel Perez Biscayart: BPM
4: Sam Rockwell: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
3: Timothée Chalamet: Call Me By Your Name
2: Denis Menochet: Custody
1: Gary Oldman: Darkest Hour

In spite of its politics, the gay activist film BPM, set in Paris in the 90s, evolved into a tender love story with Biscayart an AIDS patient determined to raise the awareness of the disease to an intransigent general population.

Winner of the 2018 Oscar for best supporting actor, Rockwell is a personal favourite and he finally gained critical and awards attention for his role as the way-off-kilter cop in Martin McDonagh’s dark comedy. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri also saw Frances McDormand collect her second best actress Oscar.

It was a good year for French-Canadian Timothée Chalamet. Already touted as one of the best of his generation, the year saw the 23 year-old star in the Oscar-nominated Lady Bird, gain a 2019 Golden Globe nomination for Beautiful Boy (and which may gain him an Oscar nomination in the supporting actor category) and found himself nominated at the 2018 Oscars for best actor in Call Me By Your Name, where, as Elio, Chalamet is pitch-perfect in capturing the nervousness of first love.

Custody is a devastating French film of domestic abuse and power – and as the estranged father, Denis Menochet is truly terrifying in this slow build of a feature by debut director, Xavier Legrand.

But it’s 2018 best actor Oscar winner Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour who carries the honours for me. A towering performance of a bigger-than-life man as the British prime minister bullies and cajoles colleagues and opponents alike at the onset of war with Nazi Germany.

‘Boy Erased’

Adapted for the screen by director Joel Edgerton (The Gift), Boy Erased is a poignant and heartfelt family drama as Lucas Hedges (Manchester by the SeaLady Bird), the son of a Baptist preacher, is forced to attend a church sponsored gay conversion therapy program.

Aided by superb performances from Hedges and Nicole Kidman (Lion, Moulin Rouge) and Russell Crowe (Gladiator, The Nice Guys) as his conflicted parents, Boy Erased is a confronting true story of a 19 year-old college student struggling to find himself whilst everything around him crumbles.

Respectful to his subject (including the parents), Edgerton treads possibly a little to cautiously in the telling of what is, essentially, abuse. But, like the recent The Miseducation of Cameron Post, Boy Erased remains a damning indictment of the program.

Rating: 70%

‘Can You Ever Forgive Me?’

In spite of acclaim for her celebrity biographies, the irascible Lee Israel is best known for her fraudulent writing of some 400 letters by dead writers and celebrities to help pay the rent on her New York dive. 

Director Marielle Heller (The Diary of a Teenage Girl) explores the psychology of loneliness as an impoverished and out-of-fashion Israel finds solace in rudeness and alcohol.

As Lee, a nuanced Melissa McCarthy (Spy, Bridesmaids) is a revelation – all bitterness, vulnerability and caustic wit. The chemistry between her and Richard E Grant (Withnail & I, Logan), user, partner-in-crime and drinking buddy, is sublime joy.

Rating: 78%