Review: Loving

Directed by: Jeff Nichols
Written by: Jeff Nichols
Starring: Joel Edgerton, Ruth Negga, Marton Csokas, Nick Kroll, Michael Shannon
Released: March 16, 2017
Grade: A-

While it’s not particularly creative, the title of Jeff Nichols’ new film does serve two purposes.  Most obviously, it signifies this is a love story.  It’s a drama about two people who want to spend the rest of their lives together.  Secondly, it is referring to the characters’ names.  It is based on the true tale of Richard and Mildred Loving – a couple who played a small but important part in America’s history.

Spread over several years, the film begins in 1958.  Richard (Edgerton) and Mildred (Negga) are a young couple from Caroline County, Virginia.  He works as a labourer and she is pregnant with their first child.  Not yet married, the two travel to Washington D.C, obtain a marriage licence and return back home.  Richard has found a nice piece of land and is keen to build a house for his wife and future children.

While it all may sound very simple and idyllic, there’s a catch.  Richard is a white man and Mildred is a black woman.  Virginia has laws which prevent inter-racial marriage.  Police storm into their bedroom one night and take them both into custody.  The authorities proclaim they have not just broken the written law but they’ve also acted against “God’s law” by sleeping together and bringing a mixed-race child into the world.

We’ve seen movies that recount true stories of the civil rights movement.  Examples include Mississippi Burning, Malcolm X, Ghosts of Mississippi, The Help, The Butler and Selma.  Those films are filled with heroic characters that have changed the world.  The same applies in Loving but what’s most striking is the reluctance of its two leading characters.  They didn’t like the law but they didn’t have the courage (and money) to retaliate.

They weren’t imprisoned for their marriage but the judge essentially banished them from the state for 25 years.  They had to say goodbye to their family, friends and colleagues and try to start a new life in Washington D.C.  It was hard but they did their best to make it work.  In 1964, Mildred wrote a letter to Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy pleading for assistance.  Her request was granted and she was allocated a free lawyer by the American Civil Liberties Union who would help appeal the original judge’s decision.

That’s all I’ll say on the plot so as not to spoil the ending for those unfamiliar with this famous legal case.  Ruth Negga (World War Z) picked up an Oscar nomination for her performance and she is wonderful as the quiet, reserved Mildred who slowly finds the nerve to fight back against the system that wronged her.  Australian Joel Edgerton (Warrior) brings similar personality traits to his character (he’s even more passive) and is also very good.  They’re not a talkative, laughable couple but get a clear sense of the love and affection they share.

38-year-old writer-director Jeff Nichols is quickly building an impressive resume with this following in the footsteps of Take Shelter, Mud and Midnight Special (all released in the past 5 years).  Rather than fill this movie with courtroom sequences, he takes the opposite approach and focuses largely on the relationship between Richard and Mildred.  Nichols rationale is logical – if you see how beautifully and simply these two love each other, how is their right to be married even worth arguing?  Why do we even need dramatic scenes involving judges and lawyers?

At a time when an increasingly level of fear is being generated by political leaders, Loving reminds us how much have things have changed over the past half-century and what we need to keep protecting.


Review: Kong: Skull Island

Directed by: Jordan Vogt-Roberts
Written by: Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein
Starring: Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson, John Goodman, Brie Larson, Jing Tian, Toby Kebbell, John Ortiz, Corey Hawkins, Thomas Mann
Released: March 9, 2017
Grade: C+

Kong: Skull Island
In case there was any confusion, this film has nothing to do with the King Kong released in late 2005.  That was directed by Peter Jackson (with Australian Naomi Watts in the lead role) and was fairly faithful remake of the 1933 original.  This is part of a new “monster” franchise that will culminate in 2020 with Godzilla v Kong.  I can only hope it’s better than Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus.

Given the reboot, time is needed to introduce a fresh group of characters.  Bill Randa (Goodman) leads a secret government organisation that wants to set foot on the last unexplored piece of land on the planet, Skull Island.  People laugh at his crazy conspiracy theories but he believes it is home to giant lifeforms that live below the surface.

The year is 1973 and events take place in the days following the end of United States involvement in the Vietnam War.  With Skull Island located in the South Pacific, Bill gets permission to the military’s resources to get his team there safely.  Lieutenant Colonel Preston Packard (Jackson) leads the helicopter squadron and is excited about one final mission before his tired men head back home to the States.

Others along for the ride include James Conrad (Hiddleston), a British pilot who has been engaged for his “tracking” abilities, and Mason Weaver (Larson) a photojournalist who is curious about the mysterious mission and what they may find.  There are other scientists and military folk but given they are played by largely unknown actors, you can expect most to meet a quick demise.

Kong is the first creature they come across – a giant beast who wastes no time in defending his turf.  John C. Reilly, who plays a WWII pilot trapped on Skull Island for 28 years, sums it up best when saying “you don’t go into someone’s house and start dropping bombs unless you’re picking a fight.”  Packard and his crew attack Kong but it ends badly.  The helicopters are destroyed, the body count is high, and those that survive are unsure how to get to the agreed-upon rescue point.

It gets worse.  It turns out that Kong is one of the least dangerous creatures on the island.  There’s an assortment of giant spiders and lizards that will jolt many in the audience.  It’s here where the amazing work of cinematographer Larry Fong (Watchmen) and the visual effects artists is most evident.  They’ve created a claustrophobic world and put these characters in a situation where escape feels impossible.  It’s not for the squeamish.

The strong visuals are offset by a disappointingly dull screenplay.  There are far too many characters to develop fully and even the big names don’t seem to get enough attention.  Oscar winner Brie Larson (Room) just walks around taking photographs and Tom Hiddleston (Thor) just keeps pointing people in the right direction.  The only two who entertain are Samuel L. Jackson (Pulp Fiction) as the gun-loving colonel and John C. Reilly (Chicago) as the lost, semi-deranged pilot.

The contrived actions of these characters are also frustrating.  It brings back memories of goofy horror films where people do the exact opposite of what they should (so as to prolong the narrative).  Why do they agree to split up and head into hazardous territory for no logical reason?  There are also scenes where they narrowly escape a life-and-death situation and then, for whatever reason, shrug it off and forget the danger as if it’s a non-event.

Kong: Skull Island has big creatures.  A shame it can’t offer big thrills and big laughs.


Review: Logan

Directed by: James Mangold
Written by: James Mangold, Scott Frank, Michael Green
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart, Dafne Keen, Boyd Holbrook, Stephen Merchant, Richard E. Gramt
Released: March 2, 2017
Grade: B+

It was around this time last year that Deadpool took cinemas around the world by storm.  Expectations were slow but the film surprised most pundits buy reeling in more than $780 million at the international box-office – more than any other film in the X-Men franchise.  The reason for its appeal was clear.  With the increasing number of superhero films starting to feel more and more similar, Deadpool flipped the genre on its head and gave us something we weren’t expecting – a lightweight spoof with big laughs.

The analogy is relevant because this latest Marvel production is trying to do the same.  The key difference is that Logan takes us to the opposite end of the spectrum – giving us a violent, heavy, serious superhero flick that we haven’t really seen before.  If this were about a real-life person, it’s the kind movie that might be picking up awards season attention.

Logan marks the 9th time that Jackman has stepped into the shoes of this famous character.  Things are different from the outset.  Logan, more widely known as Wolverine, is a depressed, forlorn figure.  His days of saving the world are long past and he’s now an alcoholic who makes a living as a limo driver.  He has no intentions of returning to his glory days either.  Recognised at a cemetery by a strange woman, Logan is quick to brush her away.  He does not want to be found.

Through conversations he shares with his remaining two friends, Professor X (Stewart) and Caliban (Merchant), we’re brought up to speed with recent events.  No new mutants have been born over the past 25 years and the world now sees them as a small, unnecessary blimp on the evolutionary timeline.  It won’t be much longer until they’ve all died out and “normality” is restored.

It turns out that’s all FAKE NEWS!  A secretive government agency, led by Zander Rice (Grant), has been genetically creating new mutants and raising them from birth in a well-guarded facility.  The end goal is that they will used by the military as weapons.  His plans have gone awry however.  Nearing their teenage years, this fresh group of mutants has escaped from Rice’s clutches and gone into hiding.

It’s no coincidence that Logan crosses paths with Laura (Keen), one of the escaped mutants.  She doesn’t say much but her fighting skills are second-to-none.  When set upon by a group of battle-ready henchman from Rice’s facility, she’s quick to draw blood and sever heads.  This helps explain why the film has been rated MA in Australia (unusual for a superhero film) for its “strong bloody violence”.  It’s not one for younger crowds.

I was hoping for a little more from the story.  Richard E. Grant’s antics as the keynote villain don’t add much.  It feels strange to be saying this but Logan works as a character study.  It’s about a tied man who has “all but finished” with life who gets one last chance to perform a good deed.  It’s reminiscent of Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino except without the racist humour.

Contributing to the film’s allure is the behind-the-scenes work of writer-director James Mangold (Walk the Line, The Wolverine).  He’s crafted some strong action pieces including a brief, slow-motion scene where Logan kills 7 men without a single edit.  More impressive is the screenplay itself.  Drawing from the pages of comics written in 2008 and 2009, Mangold and his team have created a script that more about human connection than silly, over-the-top fighting.

Five other superhero films from Marvel and DC Comics are slated for release later in 2017.  The early benchmark has been set for them to beat.


Review: David Stratton: A Cinematic Life

Directed by: Sally Aitken
Released: March 9, 2017
Grade: B

David Stratton: A Cinematic Life
David Stratton is someone I have admired and respected for as long as I’ve been a film critic.  I can remember watching The Movie Show as a teenager where David and co-host Margaret Pomeranz sounded off about the week’s new release movies.  It was fun when they disagreed but there was also a sense of validation when they echoed my own thoughts.  Baz Lurhmann’s Romeo & Juliet was my favourite film of 1996 and both David and Margaret gave it 5 stars.

The ABC recently commissioned a three-part television series whereby David Stratton would reflect back on the history of Australian cinema and some of his favourite movies.  That will go to air later this year.  However, as part of that process, director Sally Aitken felt there was another great story to tell.  That’s how this film was born – a documentary chronicling the life of Australia’s most well-known film critic.

The most interesting attribute of Aitken’s film is the way it draws links between David’s life and the plots of iconic Australian films.  After growing up in the United Kingdom, Stratton moved here in 1963 to accept a position as Director of the Sydney Film Festival.  It was a huge cultural shift for David and a comparison is made with one of his all-time favourites, Wake in Fright (1971).  The same treatment is applied to the classic Muriel’s Wedding (1994).

David estimates that he’s seen roughly 25,000 movies across his 77 years.  That’s close to an average of one per day.  It shows that his love and passion for the craft has endured since being introduced into movies at a very young age.  He still has notes and scrapbooks from this first reviews he wrote as a kid.

Throughout this documentary, we hear from acclaimed actors and filmmakers as they weigh in with their own thoughts on David.  There’s George Miller, Nicole Kidman, Hugo Weaving, Bryan Brown, Judy Davis and Gillian Armstrong.  That’s just a small sample.  There’s also a great story about Geoffrey Wright’s Romper Stomper (1992) that sparked additional controversy after David refused to review it.

Many will be surprised to learn about David’s upbringing and emigration to Australia.  His parents were furious that he’d accepted the position at the Sydney Film Festival.  They didn’t see it as a career and they always expected him to stay at home to carry on the family business.  David realises that he was taking a big gamble and history shows that he was clearly rewarded.

If you’re a fan of Stratton or a lover of Australia cinema, this should keep you interested all the way through.

You can read my interview with David Stratton by clicking here.


Review: T2: Trainspotting

Directed by: Danny Boyle
Written by: John Hodge
Starring: Ewan McGregor, Ewen Bremner, Johnny Lee Miller, Robert Carlyle, Anjela Nedyalkova, Kelly Macdonald
Released: February 23, 2017
Grade: B-

T2: Trainspotting
If you find a list of the greatest British films of all time, it’s likely that you’ll come across Trainspotting.  Released in 1996 and directed by Danny Boyle, it was the tale of 4 young guys and their drug fuelled adventures across Edinburgh.  Mixing both hilarity and tragedy, this hard-hitting film has stuck in the minds of many.

There’s been no shortage of demand for a sequel but it’s been a long road to get to this point.  Director Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire) and star Ewan McGregor (Moulin Rouge!) has a public falling in out in 2000.  Boyle has promised McGregor the leading role in The Beach but had a change of heart and went with Leonardo DiCaprio instead.  It was more than a decade before the rift was healed.

The other struggle was coming up with a script.  Author Irvine Welsh published a follow up novel in 2002, Porno, but it didn’t have the same appeal as the original.  Early attempts at a script were ditched and it was Scottish screenwriter John Hodge who ultimately came up with something good enough for Boyle and the returning cast.

One might hope that these characters have learned the errors of their ways and are now fully functioning members of society.  Sadly, that’s not the case.  Franco (Carlyle) has spent the last 20 years in prison and is back on the outside after a cunning escape.  Sick Boy (Miller) is still a drug addict who now runs a profit-less bar.  Spud (Bremner) has nothing left in his vapid life and is on the verge of suicide.  Renton (McGregor) moved to Amsterdam and got married but is reassessing his situation after a near-death experience.

Knowledge of the original film isn’t essential but it would be a helpful pre-requisite.  There are numerous references the past jokes and events such as a scene where Ewan McGregor creates an updated version of the infamous “choose life” monologue.  The narrative will also make more sense too.  Renton ran off with £16,000 at the end of Trainspotting and a major theme in this sequel is the revenge sought by those he wronged.

While it’s great to catch up with these eclectic characters, the screenplay is slight.  The first movie was 30 minutes shorter and yet it feels like it covered twice as much material.  The unusually titled T2: Trainspotting gives each of the characters their own key subplots but they don’t add up to a free flowing film.  As an example, Kelly Macdonald and Shirley Henderson reprise their roles from the original but their scenes are short and pointless.  They’re nothing more than glorified cameos.

Twenty years is a long time between drinks (and heroin shots) so it’ll be interesting to see how audiences react to this unexpected reunion.


Review: Jasper Jones

Directed by: Rachel Perkins
Written by: Shaun Grant, Craig Silvey
Starring: Levi Miller, Aaron McGrath, Angourie Rice, Dan Wyllie, Matt Nable, Toni Collette, Hugo Weaving
Released: March 2, 2017
Grade: B+

Jasper Jones
Perhaps I’m off the mark but it feels like family films to come out of Hollywood over the past decade have becoming increasingly conservative of their themes and sanitised in terms of their content.  It’s as if major studios are scared of material that may challenge or offend some viewers.  What we’re left with his garbage like Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life which bears no reflection on reality.

This is part of the reason why I was drawn to the opening scenes of Jasper Jones.  Based on the 2009 award-winning novel by Craig Silvey, which is now taught in many schools, the film begins with a series of confronting scenes.  14-year-old Charlie Bucktin (Miller), the film’s protagonist, is asked for help by Jasper Jones (McGrath), an Indigenous teenager who isn’t well liked within the small mining town.  Jasper takes Charlie into nearby woodland and shows him the dead body of Laura Wishart, Jasper’s secret girlfriend.  She is hanging from a tree and her bruised body suggests a struggle occurred beforehand.

Once Charlie overcomes the initial shock of the event, he and Jasper agree to work together to help identify the killer.  Jasper knows he’ll be the first suspect given his link to Laura and the town’s racial undertones and so he wants to clear his name.  His own suspicions are directed at Jack Lionel (Weaving), a mysterious man who lives alone and is rumoured to have a dark, troubled past.  He’s reminiscent of Boo Radley in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.

It’s not the only similarity with Lee’s famous work.  While it has the early appearance of a mystery, Jasper Jones is ultimately a coming-of-age story.  Charlie loses his innocence and naivety and realises the starts to appreciate the complexity of life.  He sees the family of his best friend, Jeffrey, discriminated against because of their Vietnamese background.  Things at home are similarly problematic.  There’s tension between his parents (played by Toni Collette and Dan Wyllie) and Charlie gets caught in the middle.

There’s a heart to this film that resonates strongly.  14-year-old Levi Miller (Peter Pan, Red Dog: True Blue) is terrific as the shy, awkward Charlie who is trying to come to grips with his quickly changing world.  On top of all the drama, he develops his first serious crush on a young girl (Rice) with a love for literature.  He also shares some meaningful conversations with those around him.  The most notable is a heart-to-heart with his father (wonderfully played by Wyllie) who is the calm, level-headed “voice of reason”.

As one of the film’s screenwriters, Silvey has tried to condense his lengthy novel into two hours but, as is often the case with adaptations, it was a struggle to give all the subplots the attention they deserve.  Scenes involving the Vietnamese family and the Wishart family are rushed.  There’s not enough time to comprehend each situation and let the emotions sink in.  Another sequence involving a cricket match also comes across as clumsy.

Films like Red Dog, Paper Planes and Oddball are helping create an audience in Australia for locally-made content pitched at families and younger crowds.  Director Rachel Perkins (Bran Nue Dae) has created a strong, eye-opening film that can now be added to that list.

You can read my chat with author-screenwriter Craig Silvey and director Rachel Perkins by clicking here.