‘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%

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‘The Miseducation of Cameron Post’

miseducationA modest, low-key Christian gay conversion therapy drama as Chloe Grace Moretz (Kick-Ass, Let Me In) is caught in the clutches of Bible Study classmate Coley at the School Prom.

Writer/director Desiree Akhavan (Appropriate Behaviour) elicits sensitive, nuanced performances from a cast of predominantly young adults as Moretz develops a close relationship with the dope-growing, resigned-to-their-fate Jane (Sasha Lane – American Honey, Hearts Beat Loud) and Adam (Forrest Goodluck – The Revenant, Indian Horse).

Whilst avoiding overt grandstanding, The Miseducation of Cameron Post, through its lightness of touch and wry humouris a damning indictment of institutional Christianity. It collected the Grand Jury Prize at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival.

Rating: 68%

‘4 3 2 1’ by Paul Auster

austerEpic in every way – a thousand plus pages, a grand sweep of American post-World War II history, Paul Auster’s 4 3 2 1 is a celebration of liberal ideology and a reflection on a generation that sexually, politically and culturally defined the end of the twentieth century.

It’s a glorious telling of the life of Archie Ferguson, the only child born to Stanley and Rose Ferguson in New Jersey on 3 March 1947. But it’s not told through one single narrative … the torment of being alive in a single body was that at any given moment you had to be on one road only, even though you could have been on another, travelling toward an altogether different place. Auster thus choses four separate roads and four different lives.

And those four lives are not told simply as separate entities. Instead, they are intertwined geographically and chronologically. The illusion of a single storyline is jettisoned when we become aware of Aunt Mildred having never married. A few pages earlier, in the preceding chapter, we are introduced to her new husband. And so it begins, a miasma of confusion and an introduction to a whole series of friends and family members who bear different relationships to Archie dependent on the narrative of a given chapter.

His parents are the only characters that remain constant and retain their professions – she a photographer, Stanley a businessman. Yet they too have four lives with financial success, career acclaim, divorce, early death, remarriage, near bankruptcy. Throughout, Archie is close to Rose but his relationship(s) with the father(s) varies wildly. The other single most important person to Archie is Amy Schneiderman – cousin/stepsister/lover/ friend/mentor/ confidant. She is, throughout, Ferguson’s soul mate and (mostly) ideal sexual partner, the indispensable other who dwelled inside his skin.

Together and separately, the two travel through the second half of an American twentieth century, each reacting differently according to circumstance. The Kennedy Brothers and Martin Luther King assassinations, Vietnam, the Rosenburg executions, Civil Rights and the Black Panther movement, student uprisings at Columbia University. But we must also deal with the disorienting family scenarios where Amy is Ferguson’s cousin (Rose has married her uncle) or his stepsister (a divorced Rose has married Amy’s widowed father).

Political activist, journalist, sportsman, novelist, translator of French poets: gay, straight, uncertain: living in New York, Rochester (New York State), Paris, Princeton. Take your pick – all are facets of the four Archibald Isaak Fergusons – the passionate lover of French new wave films of Godard and Truffaut, the adoring fan of the slapstick adventures of Laurel and Hardy, an excellent baseball player, a promising basketball student. The militant Amy in one anti-Vietnam narrative balances a disinterested or marginalised Archie whilst Archie 2 (or is it Archie 3?) is equally vocal in a second narrative whilst a third is living in Paris.

No question, 4 3 2 1 is a gargantuan novel (it can be argued it’s actually four books in one). It can also be very confusing in the attempt to recollect the history of the particular Archie of the section/chapter focus. And, like most books of a particular size, it does lose steam towards the end (whilst finding the 1968 Columbia University sit-ins informative, there’s an overzealous text-book feel to the detail – a positioning by Auster himself to his perspective and opinions to the situation). But those are minor caveats.

Auster’s 4 3 2 1 is a success because he chooses to place the four Archies together in a chronological state of relative sameness. Thus, all the early lives are essentially centred round the same/similar Jewish suburbs in Newark/New Jersey. Manhattan is writ large – as is Paris and the French language. Auster has not (thankfully) created four wholly different Archies but essentially four identical but different people with the same name Ferguson. As a result, we see the Fergusons grow up alongside each other and how events around them affect (or not) the pathway they choose to take.

It’s a remarkable yet challenging book with an extraordinary sense of detail determined by its importance to Archie (pages devoted the films of Laurel and Hardy, comparisons of contemporary French poets and Manhattan Beat literature, baseball averages, the speeches of Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement). And, whilst Auster does occasionally slip into academic pontificating (do we really need whole paragraphs of the names of Ancient Greek writers and philosophers on the Princeton syllabus?) and political jockeying that leaves no doubt as to where Auster himself stands on events of the 1960s and 70s, 4 3 2 1 is a multitudinous, wholly engrossing narrative.

One of three Americans shortlisted for the 2017 Booker Prize (Emily Fridlund and George Saunders being the other two), Paul Auster lost out to Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders.

‘The Harvesters’

the harvestersA stark, red-neck Christian Bible-belt story, Afrikaans-style.

In his directorial debut, Etienne Kallos’ powerful feature, set in the vast isolated open spaces of the Free State, looks to the threatened demise of an Afrikaan way of life. A quiet, brooding 15-year old Janno (Brent Vermeulen) and his position in his deeply religious farming family is threatened by the adoption of a troubled (Afrikaan) street boy (Alex van Dyk).

In spite of the threat, there is an understated intimacy between the two as separately and together they fight to find/retain their place in an environment where the mother follows God’s will and is fervent in her belief in salvation for the unsaveable.

Austere, shot with the muted colours of early winter, a minimal score and nuanced performances create a restrained yet simmering drama of quiet intensity.

Rating: 76%

Screened as part of the Melbourne International Film Festival

‘Hard Paint’

hardpaintThe turbulent double-life of a young Brazilian gay man (Shico Menegat) immerses the audience in a beautifully nuanced narrative that is simultaneously haunting, thrilling and erotic.

By day a lost, lonely soul whose sister, in moving to Salvador from Porto Alegre, leaves Pedro alone in their shared apartment. But at night, as NeonBoy, he has developed a unique adult entertainment for paying gay internet trawlers involving luminous paint. A copycat performer leads Pedro to unexpected love.

Deft telling of the story by directors Filipe Matzembacher and Marcio Reolon (Seashore) with several unexpected developments, muted tonality and a claustrophobic sense of place create an intimate character study of a vulnerable gay male and a commentary on wider issues of loneliness, homophobia and love.

Rating: 69%

Screened as part of Melbourne International Film Festival

‘BPM (Beats Per Minute)’

BPMAn important film exploring Parisian gay activism in the 1990s under the ACT UP banner and the shadow of AIDS, BPM (Beats Per Minute) delves deep into the motivational psyche of the young men and women involved.

It’s surprisingly gentle, weaving a love story between two members of ACT UP with the various interventions, campaigns and associated debates. The result is a powerful, lyrical, emotional narrative that resonates on a much wider political level.

Underpinned by the two leads, an energetic, driven Nahuel Perez Biscayart (All Yours, Tattoed) and the laid back Arnaud Valois (Charlie Says, Girl on the Train), writerdirector Robin Campillo (Eastern Boys, They Came Back) mixes intimate tenderness with a sense of desperate urgency.  BPM (Beats Per Minute) was awarded the 2017 Cannes Grand Jury Prize (effectively runner-up to the Palme d’Or winner, The Square).

Rating: 82%

‘A Fantastic Woman’

fantasticOscar-winner for Best Foreign Language Film, this timely Chilean drama, focussed around a stellar central performance by transgender actress Daniela Vega (The Guest), explores grief and prejudice in modern-day Santiago.

With the sudden death of her older partner, Orlando, Marina finds herself ostracised by his grieving family, including threats of violence from Orlando’s adult son. But what prevents the latest from Sebastian Leilo (Gloria, Disobedience) slipping into oversimplified or overtly emotional political melodrama is the multilayered performance from Vega. As Marina, she is as steady as a rock, a history of violence and prejudice hidden behind her knowing, fathomless gaze.

Rating: 71%

‘The Danish Girl’

the-danish-girl-posterA captivating performance by Eddie Redmayne (The Theory of Everything, Les Miserables) fails to hide a somewhat saccharine-sweet treatment of transgender and the pioneering  Lili Elbe in Europe in the 1920s.

An important film in bringing such a subject to the mainstream – and director Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech, Les Miserables) brings integrity by the bucketload. But it all looks so clean and pretty (sumptuous costume and production designs) that the final result is a delicate piece of porcelain when a more earthy, gritty, emotional film was needed.

Rating: 60%

Best of Year – Female Performance

STILL-ALICE-onesheetIt was a pretty good year for female leads (and a few outstanding supports), but, based on films seen in Australia in 2015, my top five are:-

5: Nina Hoss: Phoenix
4: Emily Blunt: Sicario
3: Charlize Theron: Mad Max: Fury Road
2: Cate Blanchett: Carol
1: Julianne Moore: Still Alice

Like the two foreign language male performances in my top five (Aleksey Serebryakov in Leviathan and Viggo Mortensen in Far From Men), there’s a quiet dignity in German actress Nina Hoss and her post-World War II drama Phoenix.

Emily Blunt is proving herself to be the actress of choice when it comes to tough action roles – Edge of Tomorrow, The Adjustment Bureau and the forthcoming The Huntsman’s Winter War. But it’s Emily as the confident yet vulnerable  FBI Agent Kate Macer that rockets her into my list.

Another action hero – and a performance that stole the film. Charlize Theron outshone Tom Hardy in Mad Max: Fury Road.

The film is loved by critics but I personally found Carol underwhelming. Not so Cate Blanchett’s performance as the calculating, predatory lesbian, Carol Aird in the adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s novel The Price of Salt. It could well deliver Cate her third Oscar.

But, like Eddie Redmayne in the male list, it’s last year’s Oscar winner who tops my Best of Year – Female Performance for 2015. Julianne Moore is devastating as university lecturer Alice Howland diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in Still Alice.

Top of the supporting actress list goes to Kristen Stewart for her performances as Alice’s daughter in Still Alice and her role in Clouds of Sils Maria.

‘Carol’

Carol-PosterLauded by critics, expected awards by the bagful, the exquisite Carol looks stunning and is superbly acted yet, as a film, is strangely uninvolving.

Helmed by Todd Haynes, it is an adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 novel The Price of Salt and very much a companion piece to Haynes’ earlier, similarly 1950s-set Far From Heaven.

A quiet yet incandescent Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine, The Aviator) heads an impressive cast, including Rooney Mara (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Side Effects) and Sarah Paulson (12 Years a Slave, Mud). But for all the intelligent poise, sophisticated art direction and costumes, impressive  soundtrack  and cinematography, the nuanced storytelling is a little too insular, a little too hidden.

Rating: 64%