‘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%

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‘Cold War’

A sublimely shot monochrome homage to 1950s European film, Cold War is an impossible tragic love story – a sad ballad of time and place across (east/west) frontiers.

With music the setter of moods (from traditional Polish peasant music to freeform jazz), Oscar-winning writer/director Pawel Pawlikowski (Ida, Summer of Love) focusses on the intimate within the narrative as a magnificent Joanna Kulig (The Innocents, Elles) sings her way to fame in 1950s Poland. A product of a post-war communist youth organisation, it is there she meets Wiktor (Tomasz Kot – Bikini Blue, Gods), music conductor at the folk-music academy. A doomed love affair from Warsaw to Paris, Berlin to Belgrade unfolds over the next 20 years.

Like the story itself, Cold War is starkly beautiful, its intimacy cold, its emotions constrained, distant. An intimate epic.

Rating: 84%

‘Colette’

A somewhat dull, episodic telling of the story of Colette, the French La Belle Epoque novelist who challenged her husband, successful Parisian writer Henry Gauthier-Villars – known commonly as Willy – and by doing so revolutionised social constraints, fashion and gender expectations.

As Colette, Keira Knightly (Atonement, Pirates of the Caribbean) is spiritedly charming throughout, dealing with an arrogant, bombastic, misogynist husband (Dominic West (Pride, Tomb Raider). But as a film it’s all a little too clean and by rote, with no real emotion or impoverished struggle. Something of a disappointment as the directorial follow-up by Wash Westmoreland to Still Alice.

Rating: 54%

Best of Year (2018 – Film)

The final list of the year – the top 10 films, and, to my mind, it’s something of a stunner, with non-English language films dominant. And just failing to make the top 10 were a number of much praised indie films – including Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman, The Florida Project and Lean on Pete. Last year’s Oscar winner for best film, The Shape of Water, just missed out on the top 10, as did my only animation for the year, Isle of Dogs.

My top 10 films of the year:
10: The Rider
9: BPM (Beats Per Minute)
8: Loveless
7: 1945
6: The Favourite
5: Roma
4: Custody
3: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
2: Shoplifters
1: Foxtrot

The final film I saw at the 2018 Melbourne International Film Festival slipped into 10th spot – an intense indie film of bravura performances beautifully controlled by director Chloe Zhao.

The winner of the Grand Jury Prize at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival (essentially the runner up for the Palme d’Or), BPM is a powerful, lyrical, emotional narrative that resonates on a much wider political level than its ACT UP AIDS awareness setting.

In Loveless, director Andrey Zvyagintsev continues to comment on contemporary Russian society as a Leningrad couple look to divorce. Their 12 year-old son, caught in the vindictive and argumentative maelstrom, disappears in the stark yet rivetingly sincere feature from the director who is responsible for the equally devastating Leviathan.

In seventh spot, a film that was completely under the radar and barely received commercial distribution. But this black and white story of two Jews returning to a small Hungarian village days after the end of World War II is a picaresque narrative of startling beauty and powerful commentary.

One of the favourites in the current Oscar race, The Favourite is a ribald delight as the English court of Queen Anne is the setting for the locking of horns by three women in an attempt to win the royal favour.

Another Oscar favourite (and odds-on to win the foreign language film nod) is another black and white beauty. Roma by Alfonso Cuaron is the gorgeously shot year in the life of Cleo, a maid to a middle-class family living in Mexico City in the 1970s.

Devastating and disturbing, debut director Xavier Legrand’s claustrophobic tour de force is no easy watch, but with superb performances from a relatively small cast, Custody is heart-wrenching in its pain, fear and anger.

The runner-up for best film of the year is Shoplifters, the Palme d’Or winner at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival. It’s a deft, emotionally delicate feature from socially conscious filmmaker Hirokazu Kore-eda.

But my favourite film of 2018 is the Israeli film, Foxtrot, a sublime mix of intense drama interspersed with flashes of surreal brilliance. It’s bold, it’s imaginative, it’s powerful – an appropriate follow-up from director Samuel Maoz and his visceral debut feature film, Lebanon.

Best of Year (2018 – female Performance)

This particular list of five was much harder to draw up than the male performance category, with a number of performances vying to feature in the five.

Rachel Weisz gave two powerful performances in The Favourite and Disobedience (she may well find herself nominated for a best supporting actress Oscar nomination) and relative newcomer Jessie Buckley was fabulous in the little seen UK indie film, Beast. The youngest on the almost list is seven year-old Brooklyn Prince, who was a sensation in The Florida Project and the oldest is Glenn Close for The Wife – a performance that many are tipping for Oscar glory.

In previous years, non-English speaking roles have topped my list – but for 2018 there are none in the top five – Daniela Vega (A Fantastic Woman) and Diane Kruger (In the Fade) were the closest, both featuring in the top 10.

So after long deliberation, my top five female performances for 2018 are:
5: Charlize Theron: Tully
4: Melissa McCarthy: Can You Ever Forgive Me?
3: Lady Gaga: A Star is Born
2: Frances McDormand: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
1: Olivia Colman: The Favourite

Charlize Theron was certainly helped by having Mackenzie Davis to play off against but with a script from back-to-form Diablo Cody (Juno, Young Adult) and subtle direction from Jason Reitman, the quirky humour of Tully was perfect material for Theron to shine.

As literary fraudster Lee Israel, Melissa McCarthy turned in a perfectly dowdy, deadpan performance that is completely against the grain for this larger than life comedic actress – and she nailed it.

It’s one of the behemoths of the year, a critical darling and yet somehow missed out on numerous Golden Globe awards – including Gaga losing to Glenn Close. Gaga is very, very good – but just occasionally I wanted her not to be so Gaga on screen.

Foul-mouthed Frances McDormand was pitch perfect in one of my favourite films of the year – and understandably picked up last year’s best actress Oscar. But she was pipped to the top of the pile by –

Olivia Colman, a British character actress who, quite bluntly, is magnificent as the English Queen Anne in The Favourite, a dark, ribald, period-piece entertainment.

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.

‘The Favourite’

Winner of a slew of international awards (with more undoubtedly to come, including Golden Globes and Oscars), The Favourite is a delicious ribald entertainment of power struggles at the 18th century English court of Queen Anne.

A petulant, gout-suffering Anne (a magnificent Olivia Colman – The Lobster, Hyde Park on Hudson) may be Queen but the real power lies in the hands of a suffer-no-fools Lady Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz – The Constant Gardener, The Lobster). But when a penniless distant cousin of Sarah’s (Emma Stone – La La Land, Birdman) arrives at the palace, a battle for the royal favour ensues.

The off-kilter humour is exactly what you’d expect from director Yorgos Lanthimos (The Killing of a Sacred Deer, The Lobster) as the three powerhouses lock horns – leaving the political power struggles of Whips and Tories and England’s war with France as some minor distraction.

Rating: 86%

‘Lean on Pete’

Quiet, sensitive, compassionate – director Andrew Haigh’s (45 Years, Weekend) latest is a wistful evocation of displacement and desperation.

A drifting lifestyle (from Wyoming to Portland) according to where contract work for his father is available, 15 year-old Charlie Plummer (All the Money in the World, King Jack) has no school and fills his days according to his whims. A chance meet with horse-trainer Steve Buscemi (Fargo, The Death of Stalin) leads to casual work and the befriending of the horse, Lean on Pete.

But when Pete is due to be sold off, Charlie has other ideas. And so begins an unfolding narrative that takes us to the heart of this hard-edged state-of-a-nation  observation with a raw, painfully honest performance from Plummer. 

Rating: 79%

‘Peterloo’

Award-winning director Mike Leigh (Mr Turner, Happy-Go-Lucky) makes a rare foray into period drama, choosing to focus on the 1819 Peterloo Massacre.

It begins in rhetoric, shifts from a drawn-out history lesson and ends in violence as the government of the day uses the troops against the people, a peaceful 100,000 strong pro-democracy rally in St Peter’s Field, Manchester. The result is the death of 18 demonstrators and hundreds more injured.

It’s an austere canvas, with talk the order of the day, both in the parlours and inns of the reformers and the offices of the ruling classes. But then, on the big day itself, Leigh releases the tight reins of dialogue and produces an immersive panic, claustrophobic in content as the yeomanry and cavalry run amok in the confinements of the rally.

A superb ensemble piece (with Maxine Peake – Funny Cow, The Theory of Everythinga standout ‘everywoman’) that is as current today as 1819 when austere taxation measures and policies were in place to keep power in the hands of the few.

Rating: 67%

‘Westwood: Punk, Icon, Activist’

Unassuming yet committed, Vivienne Westwood is an icon of rebellion over the last 40 years – and her fashion designs reflect her political leanings.

The face (along with former husband, Malcom McLaren) of 70s London punk, Westwood, at 77, continues to work, collaborating with her husband, Andreas Kronthaler. Along with her activism – climate change, civil rights, environment  – the main concern for Westwood is the integrity of brand: her label has become too big for her to control.

It’s a hotchpotch documentary – strong on the early history of punk and a fascinating insight into contemporary Westwood working closely with Kronthaler and the globally successful business. Sadly, the ‘activist’ aspect receives short shrift in Lorna Tucker’s film – to the point where Vivienne Westwood herself dismissed the film as ‘mediocre’. It’s more than that – but at a run time of only 80 minutes, Westwood: Punk, Icon, Activist, there could have been a great deal more said.

Rating: 60%