Category: Film

Film Review: Knives Out

An unexpected twist on a familiar genre

By Narelle Wood

In a style very much like Agatha Christie, Knives Out has all the expected mystery and murder, along with an exceptional cast, but writer director Rian Johnson also delivers something unexpected, making her own mark on this genre and producing a film with some truly funny moments.

On the morning after his 85th Birthday Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) is found dead by his nurse Marta (Ana de Armas). Initially ruled a suicide, Private Investigator Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) is on the case. Suspecting foul play he embarks on investigating the whereabouts and motives of all the family members. All have motives, all are lying about something, and at least one of them knows more than they are letting on. Linda Drysdale, played by Jamie Lee Curtis is working the “don’t air the dirty laundry in public” angle, while her husband Richard, played by Don Johnson, is more than willing to spill the beans on everyone but himself. And their smug son Ransom (Chris Evans) seems to dramatically come and go as he pleases. Meanwhile Walt Thrombey (Michael Shannon), his wife Donna (Riki Lindhome) and their creepy, right-wing, anti-social son Jacob (Jaeden Martell) are ominously hovering around. And then there is Joni, an Insta-famous, lifestyle guru, hilariously portrayed by Toni Collette, and her daughter Meg (Katherine Langford). While they are perhaps the two most likeable characters from the selection of family members, their motives and behaviour is still nothing short of dubious. Even Harlan Thrombey’s mother Greatnana Wanetta (K Callan) and the maid Fran (Edi Patterson) are entangled in the mysterious web. 

Blanc sets off to investigate what may or may not be a suicide, enlisting the help of two police off-siders (LaKeith Stanfield and Noah Segan) and a fairly reluctant Marta. The family wait impatiently for Blanc’s findings, and more impatiently for the reading of the will by lawyer, Alan Stevens, played by the formidable Frank Oz. The plot thickens and twists, and just when you think you may have it figured out, like any good murder mystery, there’s another, sometimes small, twist.

In a time when so many films rely heavily on spectacle rather than narrative, Rian Johnson shows others exactly how it’s done, with a tight, cleverly written film. The sets are reminiscent of the old-world, manor-style estates of Agatha Christie films but also feel fresh and updated; the impeccable detail means that everything could quite possibly be a clue. The film is well paced, and while there are a lot of characters to follow and the narrative jumps backwards and forwards in time, it is not at all disjointed. No matter how briefly each character graces the screen, it feels as though you get to know each of them sufficiently enough to judge whether or not they are guilty of murder, amongst other things.

This film is the sort of murder mystery, that even if you have figured it out, you may not necessarily know how everything will tie back together. Knives Out is a breath of fresh air in a familiar genre, and manages to keep the murder mysterious as well as humorous right until the very end.

Opens in cinemas Thursday 28th November

Review: Promised

Navigating the promises made by others

By Narelle Wood

Written by Nick Conidi, Promised follows the story of Angela and Robert as they navigate a promise of marriage that their fathers made many years before.

The story spans 20 years, beginning with Angela’s (Antoniette Iesue) birth under difficult circumstances – her mother Rosalba (Tina Arena) is found in labour on the floor of the family’s pastry shop – in the early 1950’s, through to 1974 when Angela and Robert (Daniel Berini) are reunited after he returns home from studying in Oxford. While Angela has always known about the arranged marriage, she has found herself in a different world to that in which the promise was made. She is studying English Literature, longs to be a writer and is in love with an Australian boy. To complicate matters further, Rosalba and her husband Sal (Paul Mercurio) are indebted to Robert’s parents, Joe and Maria, for rescuing Rosalba during labour, and to complicate things even further, Joe is connected, in the Italian mobster sense of the word. The story is almost Shakespearean; part tragedy, part farce, but it is also reminiscent of The Godfather, minus, thankfully, the horses head.

The film is beautifully made, and made in Melbourne. The settings and costuming perfectly and authentically capture 1970’s Australia. Conidi, who also directs, has an uncanny knack for slowly unfolding a complex story, without it ever feeling like it is loosing pace. The performances are solid, especially from stalwarts Arena and Mercurio, though Iesue and Berini do more than hold their own portraying complex characters that are both likeable and frustrating in equal measure. And this was perhaps the reason why I found this film a little uncomfortable at times; there was no clear hero, and each outcome would possibly end up disappointing someone. However, this was also perhaps the reason why this film works. Promised is in many ways a manifestation of the tagline “Love like life is never perfectly arranged”. It is complex, heartfelt look at intergenerational, intercultural and family expectations, with a lovely dose of nostalgia.

Promised is in cinemas now.

Review: Maiden

Tracy Edwards Whitbread Success Story

By Samuel Barson

The opening seconds of Maiden has the audience in the middle of a vast, raging ocean, rocking up and down with the waves as they breath in and out. It’s a thrilling start to a documentary, but unfortunately this same level of engagement doesn’t last.

Alex Holmes’ Maiden tells the story of Tracy Edwards, who at 24 rose the ranks from charter boat cook to skipper of the first ever all-female crew to enter the Whitbread Round the World Race.

The documentary accounts not only the Whitbread adventure itself, but also the rampant sexism that proved to be just as gruelling for Edwards and her crew. The film, at its core, is a story of women pitted against equal forces of nature and human nature. And unfortunately, this ground-breaking story succumbs to what I found to be director Alex Holme’s frustratingly simplistic approach to storytelling.

For 1.5 hours audiences are taken through Edward’s story from childhood, to up-and-coming skipper, to Whitbread success story, all the while battling all too eager chauvinism from male sports journalists and fellow sailors. It seems unlikely that there would be limited research material to draw upon with a story such as this, however the material that audiences are provided is incredibly scant.

The anecdotes from interviews are often recycled and the archival footage is regularly irrelevant to it’s corresponding voiceover section, and I found I became easily irritated that a story that is clear to be so rich in detail, is not being told in the way that it deserves.

It’s such a shame that director Alex Holmes missed an opportunity here to provide a louder voice to female unity as a statement against sexism in sport and evoke the same undeniable spirit of the story’s subjects.

Maiden is showing at limited cinemas from Thursday 17th October. 

Photography courtesy of the Toronto International Film Festival

Review: Amazing Grace

Just Franklin and the power of her voice

By Narelle Wood

Some 47 years after filming, the documentary capturing Aretha Franklin’s seminal gospel recording of Amazing Grace has finally made it to screen.

In 1972, over two nights, Franklin, along with James Cleveland and the Southern California Community Choir (directed by Alexander Hamilton), recorded live gospel songs such as Precious Memories, What a Friend We Have in Jesus, and, of course, Amazing Grace. Keen on making it an authentic experience, Franklin insisted that the recording take place inside the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church, in front of a congregation; a congregation including Mick Jagger, Charlie Watts and gospel singer Clara Ward.

In an attempt to capture what would become a landmark event – the album going on to be the biggest selling gospel album of all time – Warner Bros commissioned director Sydney Pollack to document the recording. Pollack, an experience director, was not however accustomed to making documentaries, and this is where the trouble with the film begins. The original delay in the film’s release were due to ‘technical difficulties’; Pollack hadn’t used clapboards to mark sections of the film, making the task of syncing the visuals and sound almost impossible. Eventually Alan Elliot would take on the project and work tirelessly to bring it together, even amidst threats of legal action from Franklin herself due to missing contracts and payment disputes.

What Elliot and editor Jeff Buchanan have created is an immersive experience, giving an all to brief glimpse into the immense talent of Aretha Franklin and her voice’s ability to literally move people. Pollack’s lack of experience as a documentary maker is evident; it feels like the cameras have been given to some random onlookers with the only mandate to ‘hit record and capture this’. The footage is sometimes blurry and often jerky as a camera man moves from one location to the next. Some of the close-ups are uncomfortably close, and some of the camera angles are really awkward. But Elliot and Buchanan capitalise on this lack of polish, reminding the audience that this was first and foremost a recording session, and a documentary last.

The film hits all the right notes, quite literally. The pacing is good and there are a few cutaways that provide momentary insights into the work behind the scenes to produce such an event. There are no experts or commentary on Franklin other than that which occurred during at the original taping. It focusses purely on the recording and Franklin’s performance, which does not disappoint. My favourite part was seeing just how excited the choir was to be a part of the two night event.

In a time where stylised and sleek recreations of the lives of musical legends’ have begun to grace our screen, Amazing Grace offers a refreshing contrast with its authentic 70’s hair and clothing, offering no narrative and no explanation. It’s just Franklin and the power of her voice.

Amazing Grace is now playing in cinemas such as the Classic, Lido and Palace. Check websites for listings and prices.

Review: Thunder Road

Rich, dark humour lifts tragic cop story

 By Samuel Barson

To fund the making of a film with a Kickstarter campaign is no mean feat. But when that film proves to be one of the highlights of 2018 cinema, amongst a myriad of Marvel blockbusters and the like, that is one superior feat.

Jim Cummings has been loitering the world of film all of his life. He has played a number of roles in the industry: cinematographer, on set photographer, light production assistant (on a Marvel film, coincidentally) and sound editor. He has worn numerous hats and it feels as though these eclectic experiences have all built up to Thunder Road, which Cummings has directed, written and starred in.

The film begins at police officer Jim Arnaud’s (played by Cummings) mother’s funeral.  He gives a eulogy that is painful to watch due to its awkwardness (it ends with an experimental dance to a Bruce Springsteen song) and heavy grief. After his mother passes, Jim is confronted with an extensive list of difficult events in his life: a divorce, the estrangement of his daughter, the loss of his job and another death.

This is a lot of trauma to put a character through, but Cummings’ incredible nuance and strong sense of realism as an actor leaves the audience believing every emotion and every heartbreak. His use of facial expressions to express the grief, shock and anger his character goes through is astounding. He also has an incredibly strong comedic grounding with a lot of the traumatic events in the film being lifted with a rich, dark humour.

The direction is simple, yet stunning and intimate for the audience to bear witness to. In particular, the repetitive use of a long shot that slowly transforms into a mid or close up makes audiences feel like they’re in the room with the characters, especially in moments of intimate dialogue or deep insight into a character’s current state. The writing almost appears effortless, but may also be a testament to the impressive ensemble cast Cummings has collected (most of whom appear to have very limited prior acting experience).

It’s incredible what Cummings and his team achieved here. Using a $200,000 budget, they have created a film which has, in box office sales, made more than its cost. Thunder Road deserves to be seen, so much more than many other films released last year.

A must-see for fans of simple storytelling, and for those who appreciate dark humour as much as they do a deeply touching, character-driven narrative.

Thunder Road screens in Nova Cinema, Carlton until 24 April as well as in select cinemas across Australia. Tickets can be purchased online

Photograph: supplied

Review: Girl

Masterful, heartwarming coming-of-age tale 

By Ross Larkin

One can generally always be assured that the Alliance Française French Film Festival will deliver an array of thought-provoking, innovative and entertaining flicks from a nation who arguably does art house better than any other.

If Lukas Dhont’s Girl is an indication of the calibre of this year’s selection, then 2019 will certainly live up to expectation.

Girl is a coming-of-age tale about a female teenager, Lara, trapped inside the body of a male and the struggles she faces while awaiting gender reassignment surgery.

Lara, played with incredible poignancy and sensitivity by newcomer Victor Polster, is training relentlessly as a ballerina at a top dance academy in an environment where her peers and teachers are all aware of her transitioning.

As is her single father, in a wonderfully touching portrayal by Arieh Worthalter, whose support is determined, passionate and full of love.

Save for the occasional upsetting moments of external bigotry, most of the demons Lara face are within herself, as she battles with a body she despises and feels all but foreign to.

Director Dhont manages to hit just the right chord with the tone and pace of the film, without labouring too indulgently on the darker aspects, and the performances he coaxes from his actors are exquisitely subtle, natural and endearing.

The subject matter is explored delicately, yet realistically, and while aspects of the story are at times harrowing, there is an equal measure of tenderness and joy as well as some beautiful symbols and metaphors the French are so renowned for.

One of very few films to include a transgendered protagonist, it is heartwarming to see such a masterful exploration by way of Girl, and I urge all film lovers to partake in the experience.

Girl screens 5 March – 10 April at selected Palace Cinemas across Australia as part of the 30th Alliance Française French Film Festival. Tickets can be purchased online.

 

Review: Keep Going

Redemption and new beginnings in contemporary Western

By Lois Maskiell

In the dry and mountainous Kyrgyzstan countryside, a desperate mother takes her troubled son on a horseback journey. Her reasons for the trip are initially unknown, but slowly and purposefully director Joachim Lafosse invites us into their histories and into a web of trauma, redemption and new beginnings.

Keep Going (Continuer)
premieres in Australia as part of the 30th Alliance Française French Film Festival after its nomination for best film at Venice International Film Festival in 2018. Making a strong addition to Lafosse’s steadily growing filmography (Our Love, The White Knights, Our Children), this tightly knit two-hander allows the Belgian director-screenwriter to flex his skills in adaptation as it is based on Laurent Mauvignier’s French-language book of the same title.

Prompted by the death of Samuel’s (Kacey Mottet Klein) grandfather, Sybille (Virginie Efira) takes her son on a cross-country trek with high hopes. Absent throughout Samuel’s childhood, she has returned to find her teenage son drifting: from violent run-ins with school staff and the risk of being sentenced to a correctional facility.

Desperate to pierce through Samuel’s anger and build a connection, Sybille forges – with perseverance – through both the stark countryside and her son’s wild temperament. Kacey Mottet Klein (Sister, Being 17) plays the conflicted Samuel impressively, balancing fury and desire for love in a captivating and convincing performance.

The stunning location captured by the skilled hand of cinematographer Jean-François Hensgens is featured in an abundance of extreme long shots. The union of expansive landscapes and bouts of silence in the dialogue creates a lean sensory experience allowing the psychological events between Sybille and Samuel to strike harder.

The soundtrack choices sometimes worked, particularly the scene where Samuel is found dancing atop a mountain to a thumping EDM song, but the more emotional tracks seemed to force sentimentality rather than allow the plot and acting to do the heavy lifting.

Joachim Lafosse successfully depicts the complex bond between a mother and son who seek hope in their lives. Sophisticated in its simplicity, moving its psychology, Keep Going (Continuer) captivates and surprises.

Keep Going (Continuer) screens 5 March – 10 April at selected Palace Cinemas across Australia as part of the 30th Alliance Française French Film Festival. Tickets can be purchased online.

Review: Celebration Yves Saint Laurent

The man behind the iconic Parisian fashion house 

By Narelle Wood

Celebration: Yves Saint Laurent, directed and written by Olivier Meyrou, is a behind the scenes exploration of Yves Saint Laurent, the man and the Parisian fashion house.

There is no, one discernable narrative. Filmed over a period between 1998 and 2001, the documentary combines snippets of film from interviews with Saint Laurent, scenes from fashion shows, fittings, the workshops inside the fashion house and some more personal scenes of Saint Laurent at work and at home. There is some fascinating footage from the many vaults containing the vast array of collections spanning the 40-year career, as well as brief glimpses at the monumental YSL fashion show that preceded the 1998 World Cup soccer final, bringing Haute Couture to the television and millions of people.

Yves Saint Laurent is depicted as a fragile recluse, whose creativity and vision took both a personal and physical toll. Nevertheless, many he worked with comment that his contributions to fashion, his sharp eye and attention to detail never wavered. Pierre Bergé, carefully manages Saint Laurent and it’s perhaps not a surprise that he, until recently, suppressed the film’s release. At times almost tyrannical in his control, it is clear that Bergé was, and perhaps still is, fiercely protective of Saint Laurent and the brand they built.

The footage was taken nearly 20 years ago, and at permission to release the film in 2016, Meyrou revisited the film, to produce, what at times feels disjointed, documentary. However, like the couture the film is capturing, there are small threads that carefully and purposefully hang the overall narrative together. Black and white footage of Saint Laurent is juxtaposed with the more colourful and bustling world of the workshop and fashion shows. The soundtrack is at times disruptive and unsettling, but it calls your attention to what is happening on screen. There is no narration, only the conversations of the documentary’s subjects that are captured, often interrupted and unfinished. Meyrou’s documentary seems to be void of an agenda, except to immerse his audience in the everyday world of fashion designed and worn by very few.

I was left still not knowing very much about Yves Saint Laurent himself, perhaps with the exception of his penchant for French bulldogs. I was, however, left with a new appreciation for the work and accomplishments of Yves Saint Laurent and the people who brought his vision to life.

Celebration: Yves Saint Laurent screens 5 March – 10 April at selected Palace Cinemas across Australia as part of the 30th Alliance Française French Film Festival. Tickets can be purchased online. 

Review: Our Happy Holiday

From Tinder to the Bulgarian countryside

By Leeor Adar

Australian audiences will adore the quirky treasure of a film, Our Happy Holiday (Premières vacances). Somehow, French romantic comedies hit the spot that their American and British contemporaries can never quite tickle. You have your eccentric characters, and their eccentric situations, without a moment contrived from the rule book.

Like so many modern romances, Marion (Camille Chamoux) begins with enlightening her tinder date Ben (Jonathan Cohen) to the gamut of her Tinder dating experience. Things rapidly escalate into an impromptu holiday to Bulgaria, comfortably between Biarritz and Beirut where the characters are respectively intending to go prior to their quick night of passion.

Our Happy Holiday is a first-time direction from writer Patrick Cassir, and in the first half of the film it shows. The emphasis on the dialogue, particularly the first conversations between our lovers has a tendency to feel forced, despite excellent acting from the leads. It’s unsurprising that Cassir becomes hooked on the dialogue, but like magic, the writing and direction take flight in the second part of the film when we are very much in the depths of a Bulgarian sextopia of a retreat.

Frustrated with Marion’s excessively carefree ways in a dirty local’s home for a first stop, I am eventually enlightened to her way of thinking after watching Ben stand by for a dull afternoon shared with a repugnant six-year-old. There are some fantastically poignant moments as our characters learn to engage with each other despite their vastly different approaches to taking a break. For anyone else, this plot could have been a silly mess, but Our Happy Holiday is a shining benchmark for what we should expect of our romantic comedies.

Some standouts include the gorgeous Camille Cottin’s monologue whilst holding an iron, a James Bond style escape from a moving train, and a very French way of insulting someone and expecting that person to still pay for your goods.

Despite a shaky start, I absolutely loved this film, and it will certainly make for a memorable romantic comedy.

 

Our Happy Holiday screens 5 March – 10 April at selected Palace Cinemas across Australia as part of the 30th Alliance Française French Film Festival. Tickets can be purchased online. 

Review: Amanda

Loss and hope in the aftermath of Paris terrorist attack 

By Samuel Barson 

On 13th November 2015, Paris was hit by a series of coordinated terrorist attacks, completely devastating the peaceful city. In Amanda, writer-director Mikhaël Hers has invented a similar attack on the city and people of Paris, a tragic event to disrupt the lives of the film’s protagonists.

Killed in the attacks is Sandrine, who leaves behind her 7-year-old daughter, the titular Amanda. Sandrine’s brother David finds himself responsible for his little niece, and the film’s story is the journey of these two characters and the bond they create in the aftermath of such an horrendous event for their family.

As David, Vincent Lacoste is terrific. His ability to ascertain the emotions born from his character’s turbulent situation is striking: he balances stoicism for the sake of protecting his niece and expresses the explosive sadness that overcomes him in quiet moments. He also has the chance to explore a more charismatic side to his character in scenes with his love interest Léna, who was also injured during the terrorist attacks.

Isaure Multrier fittingly pulls the audience’s heartstrings in the titular role, with the majority of this film’s loss and devastation being seen through the eyes of this innocent, pure and sweet young girl.

Complimenting the cast’s powerful performances is Anton Sanko’s music composition. As the characters go through their respective roller coasters of grief, Sanko’s composition beautifully joins them and the audience on their ride.

Cinematographer Sébastien Buchmann plays a pivotal role in presenting audiences with a sense of hope and positivity that is desperately needed in a heavy narrative such as this one. He captures the beauty of Paris, despite the horrors that have occurred within and leaves us with a welcome feeling that this gorgeous city could never truly be destroyed, and neither could its people.

Despite some momentary weaknesses in the script, the exquisite performances and touching theme of loss make Amanda a very worthwhile contribution to this year’s Alliance Française French Film Festival.

 

Amanda screens 5 March – 10 April at Palace Cinemas across Australia as part of the 30th Alliance Française French Film Festival. Tickets can be purchased online.