‘A Kid Like Jake’

A Kid Like Jake is an affectionate, poignant story of parents Claire Danes (Stardust, TV’s Homeland) and Jim Parsons (Hidden Figures, TV’s The Big Bang Theory) coming to terms with the fact their son identifies as transgender.

In its dialogue heavy narrative, director Silas Howard’s film betrays its stage play origin – further emphasised by essentially a cast of five plus Jake. Adapted from his own play, Daniel Pearle chooses to focus on the parents and guidance from the Principal at Jake’s school (Olivia Spencer – The Help, Hidden Figures) about difference and diversity rather than the politics of transgender.

The result is sympathetic and humane but a little too light and feel-good fluffy considering the gravity of its subject: a palatable telling to a large audience. But important nevertheless.

Rating : 58%


‘The Seagull’

The_SeagullLively, enjoyable adaptation of Chekhov’s late 19th-century classic play with director Michael Mayer (A Home at the End of the World, Flicka) instilling a sense of urgency and energy into his terrific ensemble cast.

Failed hopes aplenty as vainglorious actress Arkadina (a splendidly stagey Annette Bening – American Beauty, Being Julia) dominates the country dacha of brother Sorin. An intimate portrayal of loves, losses and desires as Arkadina sees her lover Trigorin (Corey Stoll) become besotted by the much younger Nina (Saoirse Ronan – Lady Bird, On Chesil Beach) whilst Elisabeth Moss (High Rise, TV’s The Handmaid’s Tale) and her desires for Konstantin (Irina’s son) go unrequited.

Purists may feel shortchanged as Chekhov’s tale is reduced to 99 minutes running time, but with its sense of dramatic intimacy, this particular The Seagull is pacey and accessible.

Rating; 66%

Best of Year (2017) – Female Performance

artworks-000241909670-zi4ra4-t500x500It’s list time! A review of films released/screened in Australia in 2017. And first off is female performance.

The year is reportedly a strong one for female roles but that’s based on films released in the States in readiness for Oscar and/or Golden Globe glory. In Australia, it’s been a so-so year with only a handful of obvious performances to make the list. My main quandary was the order of the top two.

So my top five performances by a female in 2017 were:

5: Florence Pugh (Lady MacBeth)
4: Viola Davis (Fences)
3: Ruth Nega (Loving)
2: Sally Hawkins (Maudie)
1: Hiam Abbass (Insyriated)

Relative newcomer Florence Pugh was a revelation in the spare, minimalist Lady MacBeth, the tale of a young woman sold into an oppressive marriage in 19th century England. Initially (although reluctantly) accepting her lot in life, the story becomes progressively sinister, with Pugh firmly at the centre of the scheming.

Viola Davis is a powerhouse of an actress and her Oscar-winning performance in August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1950s set family drama, Fences, is a dream. It’s the performances that carry the day (Denzel Washington plays Davis’ husband) as the film cannot shake-off its stage origins.

Understated and nuanced, Ruth Nega is quietly impressive in Loving, based on the true story of Richard and Mildred Loving, the dirt poor couple whose mixed-race marriage broke all the rules on the statutes and led to changes in the law via the US Supreme Court.

My top two are potentially interchangeable. Both actresses were the central character in their respective films – and both were charismatic and beguiling in their own way.

Sally Hawkins is one of the most extraordinary actresses working today (and will likely feature in next year’s list with her acclaimed role in The Shape of Water): she was sensational in Maudie. If it wasn’t for The Shape of Water, Hawkins would likely be appearing in any number of ‘best of’ lists for the year, although the indie-feature, a fine character study with superb performances, loses its way as a narrative.

But year’s best performance belongs, to my mimd, to Hiam Abbass in the claustrophobic feature, Insyriated. Sadly unreleased commercially in Australia, the Belgian/Lebanese film was my personal highlight of the 2017 Melbourne International Film Festival.

A middle-class Syrian family is barricaded in their second-floor Damascus apartment as the civil war rages around them. A deeply impressive Hiam Abbass controls the household – and a film that is devastatingly direct in highlighting the impact of war.



‘Marjorie Prime’

lsjfeieSet in the near future, artificial intelligence comes to the home, allowing death to be not quite the final answer.

To help 85 year-old Marjorie (Lois Smith – The Nice Guys, Twister) deal with the last years of her life, daughter Geena Davis and son-in-law Tim Robbins arrange for a Prime, the fortysomething version of her late husband (Jon Hamm) to talk over their lives together. For Marjorie, ‘it’ offers comfort. For her daughter, it’s not quite right.

A Black Mirror-style storyline for the big screen, director Michael Almereyda’s (Cymbeline,  Twister) provocative adaptation of Jordan Harrison’s stage play is a quiet, reflective chamber drama.

Screened in the Melbourne International Film Festival.

Rating: 64%


Frantz_2016The latest from the prolific Francois Ozon (8 Women, Swimming Pool) is an elegiac narrative set in a small German town post World War I. A mysterious stranger places flowers on the grave of Frantz Hoffmeister, a young German soldier killed in battle.

Filmed in a mix of colour and black and white, Ozon’s film is a story of truths and non-truths, of similarities and opposites, of nationalism and love as Frantz’s fiancee, Anna (a quietly expressive Paula Beer – The Dark Valley, Ludwig II), comes to understand the stranger – a  shy, nervous French soldier, Pierre Niney (Yves Saint Laurent, Just Like Brothers).

Based on Ernst Lubitsch’s 1932 feature Broken Lullaby starring Lionel Barrymore and Phillips Holmes and itself based the stage play The Man I Killed by Maurice Rostand.

Rating: 58%

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%)


fencesAlthough a powerful cinematic adaptation of August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1950s set family drama, the Denzel Washington directed Fences cannot escape its stage origins.

Wilson’s film is centred around powerhouse performances by Denzel Washington (Training Day, American Gangster) as the troubled and tragic patriarch Troy Maxson and Viola Davis (The Help, Doubt) as his long-suffering wife, Rose.

As with the play, the action takes place in the confined, claustrophobic backyard of the Maxson Pittsburgh family home. As with the play, it’s about dialogue rather than ‘action’. As family members come and go, so marriage, love, poverty and Troy himself are all confronted.

It’s hard-hitting stuff – but at times also a little unwielding. Aggrandising on stage is very different to the less forgiving immediacy of screen.

Rating: 69%



moonlight-poster-lgThree chapters in the life of a young black male coming to terms with his sexuality and the rough Miami environment he lives in with his addict mother (a deceptively low-key Naomie Harris –Skyfall, Mandela: Long Road to Freedom).

Small in scale, ambitious in scope, writer/director Barry Jenkins (Medicine for Melancholy) has scored a minor ensemble masterpiece with this beautifully modulated, understated urban drama. Sitting as three short stories as 8 year-old Little grows into 16 year-old Chiron who becomes 20something Black, the deeply bullied sadness of adolescence turns into a poignant, palpable yearning.

Pure melancholic poetry.

Rating: 91%

‘Girl Asleep’

girl_asleep_film_poster_oct_2015As her 15th birthday approaches, Greta (Bethany Whitmore – Mental, Summer Coda) is reluctant to leave her childhood behind.

Betraying its stage origins, Girl Asleep struggles to adapt to the big screen. A mix of realism and surrealism, Where the Wild Things Are and Alice in Wonderland, the imaginative Australian indie film struggles to find cohesion. Shot in 4:3 ratio to reflect the daggy 70s setting, Girl Asleep is littered with contrived characters that fail to move the narrative forward in a convincing way.

As little as Girl Asleep did for me, it collected Best Australian Feature Film at the 2016 Melbourne International Film Festival.

Rating: 42%

‘The Daughter’

The_Daughter_(2015_film)_POSTERBased on Ibsen’s stage play, The Wild Duck, writer/director Simon Stone’s The Daughter is a brooding, authentic family drama littered with unpleasant personalities – the father/son duo of Geoffrey Rush (Shine, The King’s Speech) and Paul Schneider (Water For Elephants, Bright Star) in particular.

It’s a dour affair as Schneider returns to the rural New South Wales logging town from a self-imposed exile in the US following his mother’s suicide. Family secrets he reveals turn friendships upside down.

The Daughter is powerfully performed, with a bevy of local Australian actors at their best – but it’s Ewen Leslie (Jewboy, The Railway Man) who is mesmerising. It’ll undoubtedly feature in end-of-year award nominations.

Rating: 69%