‘The Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Pie Society’

guernsey_literary_and_potato_peel_pie_society_xlgIt may have an epic quality, so typical of British WWII period dramas, but the quirkily entitled The Guernsey & Potato Peel Pie Literary Society sadly fails to live up to expectations.

Overlong at 124 minutes, every passing moment is predictable – from the cloyingly annoying novelist Juliet Ashton (Lily James – Cinderella, Baby Driver) and her love affair with the fun but brash American, Glen Powell (Hidden Figures, The Expendables) through to her foray to Guernsey to find out more about the literary society and life under German occupation. And of course she meets her Heathcliff – the dark and broody Michiel Huisman (The Game of Thrones, The Age of Adaline).

It’s cosily well told (director Mike Newell – Four Weddings & a Funeral, Donnie Brasco) but a bit of passion and grubbiness would have been welcome (even the farm dirt looked as if it had been carefully applied).

Rating: 46%

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‘The Party’

The_Party_(2017_film)With its savage and mordant wit, this is a celebratory dinner party that goes terribly wrong – especially as the guests do not even get to sit down for the food!

Kristin Scott-Thomas (The English Patient, Darkest Hour) is celebrating a promotion – but she is more than upstaged by news from hubby Timothy Spall (Mr Turner, Harry Potter & the Prisoner of Azkaban). But there’s more to come – facilitating the splendid Patricia Clarkson (Pieces of April, The Maze Runner) to indulge in deep cynicism and a wonderful turn of phrase.

Claustrophobic and smart, director Sally Potter (Orlando, The Tango Lesson) instills a surprising sense of fun in this stagey chamber piece. And its short at just 70 minutes!

Rating: 68%

‘The Death of Stalin’

the-death-of-stalin-british-movie-posterThe humour may be sporadic and a little too often writer/director Armando Ianucci’s (In the Loop, TV’s Veep) irreverent political satire falls into slapstick. But The Death of Stalin is, at times, genuinely laugh-out-loud funny.

The individual members of the Secretariat position themselves to take control of the Soviet Union at the death of their leader. Politician Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi – Fargo, Armageddon) and Lavrenti Beria (Simon Russell Beale – The Deep Blue Sea, The Legend of Tarzan), head of the secret service, emerge as favourites. No stone is left unturned as the two jockey to gain the upper hand.

Events become more and more farcical as the two become more and more desperate – and Rupert Friend (The Young Victoria, Boy in the Striped Pyjamas) as Stalin’s alcoholic son, Vasily, is a complete misfire. But the savage comedy, when it works, works very, very well. Pity it wasn’t consistent.

Rating: 58%

‘Phantom Thread’

Phantom_Thread_PosterLike the clothes produced at the House of Woodcock, Paul Thomas Anderson’s (There Will Be Blood, The Master) latest is distinguished, stylish and classy.

Set in 1950s London, Daniel Day Lewis (My Left Foot, There Will Be Blood) is designer to European royalty and the aristocracy. A lover of women but a confirmed bachelor set in his ways, his head is turned by Alma (Vicky Krieps – Das Zimmermaedchen Lynn, Hanna), a waitress working in a hotel in Yorkshire. Elevating Alma to a stylish beauty, the London home ruled over by sister Cyril (Lesley Manville – Another Year, Mr Turner), is soon challenged by a young woman determined to be more than merely decoration.

A gorgeous period drama that slips and slides into obscurity as intent is not always clear, Phantom Thread remains a beguiling character study of three determined personalities, as controlled and clipped as post-war English manners.

Rating: 74%

‘Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri’

3bb_KEY_1SHEET_101_F3_smA profane delight – a black comedy dark yet compassionate, violent yet profound, a  blistering yet deeply humane commentary on small town America.

Frances McDormand (Fargo, Burn After Reading) and her wry, foul-mouthed performance anchors writer/director Martin McDonagh’s (In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths) superb script. Mildred wants answers from the police for the rape and murder of her daughter more than 12 months earlier.

Head of the local police, Woody Harrelson (Natural Born Killers, Seven Psychopaths) and dumb, racist cop, Sam Rockwell (MoonSeven Psychopaths), are firmly in her sights as the darkly comic narrative unfolds. A real crowd pleaser.

Rating: 88%

‘Darkest Hour’

darkest-hour-australian-movie-posterA provocative historical drama as Winston Churchill, in the early days of his prime ministership, is confronted with a possible invasion of Britain from Nazi forces. Virtually the entire British army is stranded on the beaches of Dunkirk.

Unpopular within his own Conservative party, a war-mongering Churchill (a career-defining performance from Gary Oldman – Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Harry Potter & the Prisoner of Azkaban) is at odds with his appeasement-seeking colleagues. War in the corridors of power and on the Continent forces Churchill to decide whether to sue for peace or fight on against incredible odds.

Director Joe Wright (Atonement, Anna Karenina) focuses on the claustrophobic machinations of parliament and underground war rooms. The result is the fiery determination and irascible wit of Churchill at the forefront of a wordy, manipulative  narrative that has no intention of being subtle in the telling of its stirring story.

Rating: 71%

(A perfect complement to Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk)

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!

Best of Year (2017) – Male Performance

mbts_27111-e14852560476521My review of films released in Australia continues with my top five male performances.

As with female performances, there were a limited number of stand-outs – and looking through films seen in the year made me aware that many of the highlights were ensemble pieces (Moonlight, Dunkirk, Danish film Land of Mine etc).

But my top five male performances for 2017 are:

5: Hugh Jackman: Logan
4: Josh O’Connor: God’s Own Country
3: Will Poulter: Detroit
2: James McAvoy: Split
1: Casey Affleck: Manchester by the Sea

Number five is something of a surprise – it was a toss up between Jackman and Joel Edgerton in Loving. But in his final appearance as Wolverine, Jackman introduced a level of humanity and vulnerability to a character who, in previous films, was something of a two-dimensional superhero.

Set in Yorkshire, God’s Own Country was described as an English Brokeback Mountain, and lonely, isolated Josh O’Connor was suitably dour and monosyllabic prior to the arrival of the Romanian casual labour, Gheorghe.

Whilst Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit was very much an ensemble piece, there was no ignoring that Will Poulter as the devastatingly sadistic white supremacist police officer and murderous psychopath was the stand-out.

A multiple personality disorder provides James McAvoy with a dream series of roles in Split – ranging from a nerdish nine year-old Hedwig, the reasoned Barry (a fashion designer) through to the menacing Patricia and disturbing Dennis. It’s a role McAvoy deserves to gain more accolades.

But it’s the quiet, nuanced Oscar-winning performance by Casey Affleck in Manchester by the Sea that gets my final vote.

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.

 

 

‘The Killing of a Sacred Deer’

4AsH9jqVsmbsc3RKWj3FwK6gG8dIf you thought director Yorgos Lanthimos’ last film The Lobster was odd and more than a little confronting, wait for this, his latest truly absurdist feature.

Surgeon Colin Farrell (In Bruges, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them) is forced to make an unthinkable sacrifice, the result of a mistake on the operating table. Looking for justice (or revenge), young Barry Keoghan (Dunkirk, ’71) inveigles his way into the doctor’s privileged family, where Nicole Kidman (The Hours, Lion) is more than a little suspicious.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer is magnificently and beguilingly uncomfortable, delivery of dialogue flat and emotionless (a Lanthimos trademark), pointed jet-black humour off-kilter, domestic horror and violence taken to an extreme. It’s a harrowing experience (the entire auditorium emptied in silence) yet strangely and unaccountably rewarding.

Rating: 70%

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