Review: Mary Magdalene

Directed by: Garth Davis
Written by: Helen Edmundson, Philippa Goslett
Starring: Rooney Mara, Joaquin Phoenix, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Tahar Rahim, Ariane Labed, Ryan Corr
Released: March 22, 2018
Grade: C+

Mary Magdalene
In the most recent Australian census, 30% of the population identified themselves as having no religion.  This compares with a figure of just 13% from thirty years ago.  The major reason for this change has been a decline in those who consider themselves to be Christian.  A number of reasons could be cited when analysing the figures but one thing is clear – Australians are less religious than they’ve ever been.

For those unfamiliar with the story of Mary Magdalene, she is referred to in the New Testament as a person who travelled with Jesus, saw some of his miracles, and witnessed his crucifixion.  Over the past two millennia, Mary had developed the reputation of being a sinning prostitute.  However, such claims have not always been supported and a key goal of this film is to “set the record straight”.  My use of inverted commas is to show that when it comes to events that took place 2,000 years ago, can anyone be certain of anything?

Some may argue that a film like Mary Magdalene is a gamble.  With Christians representing only half of Australia’s population, it’s likely the film will have next-to-no appeal for the remaining half of the population.  Still, Mel Gibson proved in 2004 that religious movies can be successful.  Despite having subtitles throughout, The Passion of Christ grossed $612m USD at the international box-office (on a budget of just $30 million).  It was pushed strongly amongst the evangelical community in the United States.

I don’t believe Mary Magdalene will emulate those figures but with its release date in this country tying into Easter celebrations, I’m sure it will have its loyal supporters.  Australian director Garth Davis (Lion), has done his best to recreate the era by shooting in remote locations of southern Italy.  He’s also lured two Academy Award nominees to headline the cast – Rooney Mara (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) in the title role and a bearded Joaquin Phoenix (Gladiator) slipping into the sandals of Jesus.

From what we see during the opening half hour, one could argue that Mary’s story mirrors that of many in today’s age.  She’s a single woman who is under immense pressure from her family to get married and have children.  It’s at this point where things get little more spiritual.  She meets Jesus, has a quick-fire baptism, says good-bye to her furious family, and agrees to follow him across the lands.

It’s hard to explain Mary’s actions.  She is guided by a higher power that is difficult to put into words.  This is part of the reason why there’s not a lot of dialogue from Mary nor narration to help understand her psyche.  She develops a close bond with Jesus and, given most of his other followers are male, she does appear to have some role in shaping his views.  This is evident during a scene where Jesus visits a group of poor women and is asked who they should obey above all else – God or their husbands?

I’ll freely admit that I’m not a religious person and perhaps this influences my opinion… but I didn’t find Mary Magdalene to be an interesting character.  She’s a softly spoken bystander who wanders around contributing nothing more than her faith.  The supporting characters have more to offer as they are more conflicted with their views on Jesus and the role he will play in toppling the oppressive Roman leadership.  Unfortunately, these subplots play second fiddle to the main narrative.

I have no qualms with the production values and the two leading performances from Mara and Phoenix.  You get a sense of the non-romantic connection that develops between the two.  Unfortunately, I couldn’t be sold on the broader story.


Review: Tomb Raider

Directed by: Roar Uthaug
Written by: Evan Daugherty, Geneva Robertson-Dworet, Alastair Siddons
Starring: Alicia Vikander, Dominic West, Walton Goggins, Daniel Wu, Kristin Scott Thomas, Derek Jacobi
Released: March 15, 2018
Grade: B-

Tomb Raider
I have this mental image in my head of studio executives in Hollywood spinning a giant wheel to decide which old franchise should be dusted off and rebooted.  It seems that every big action series gets a second chance when the stars align and funds are available.  This time around, the winner is Tomb Raider.  Those old enough will remember the previous movies from 2001 and 2003 that were headlined by Angelina Jolie.  Whilst they were not revered by critics, they did just enough at the box-office to warrant their existence and satisfy fans of the video games.

Directed by Norwegian filmmaker Roar Uthaug (The Wave), this latest movie ticks off the character introductions during the opening act.  Lara Croft (Vikander) is a young woman who should be incredibly wealthy.  Her wealthy dad (West) was lost at sea 7 years ago and Lara was entitled to a substantial inheritance but she refused to sign the necessary paperwork to take control of her father’s assets believing that he would return one day.  The unusual life path Lara chose instead is a mix of boxing, cycling, and food delivery.

That changes when she discovers an underground bunker which contains information about her dad and his extensive research.  He was no ordinary individual.  At the time of his disappearance, he believed he had located the tomb of an ancient queen with supernatural powers.  A not-so-nice organisation, known as Trinity, have long been trying to get their hands on the tomb for villainous reasons which is why it needs to be located the protected by those with friendlier motives.

All of this background information takes Lara to Yamatai, a small island off the coast of Japan which is hidden on most modern day maps.  She learns she’s not alone with seconds of setting foot on the sandy shoreline.  A group of slaves and Trinity henchman, led by a bossy archaeologist (Goggins), are using every means possible to find the tomb’s location.  To use a cliché – she needs to stop them before it’s too late.

Academy Award winner Alicia Vikander (Ex Machina, The Danish Girl) is the best thing in this.  She provides the leading character with the right balance of strength and vulnerability.  Lara is not a superhero who feels no pain and can do no wrong.  She’s “put through the ringer” during most action scenes with the bruises, scars and scratches adding up.  Her ability to dodge bullets whilst running in the opposite direction is a stretch but hey, this is an action movie so I won’t argue too much.

I only wish the other cast members had as much charisma.  As the dodgy archaeologist working for Trinity, Walton Goggins (Django Unchained) is an uninspiring bad guy.  He complains about not having seen his family for many years and, as we don’t get to see who’s pulling his strings, has no obvious motives aside from that.  He’s not too smart either.  It’s apparent that key details have been omitted to set up plots for possible sequels but I only hope they have more interesting villains.

There’s a great sequence where Lara needs to extricate herself from a rusty plane perched precariously above a massive waterfall.  Aside from that, none of the action pieces were particularly memorable.  The writing team have tried to go with an Indiana Jones type finale (complete with tricks and booby traps) but it’s not as exciting as it sounds.  It’s rushed in places with even Lara making odd decisions to prolong the narrative (such as entering the tomb itself).

Taking a very serious tone throughout (don’t expect many laughs), Tomb Raider may be in need of another reboot.


Review: Red Sparrow

Directed by: Francis Lawrence
Written by: Justin Haythe
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Joel Edgerton, Matthias Schoenaerts, Charlotte Rampling, Mary-Louise Parker, Jeremy Irons
Released: March 1, 2018
Grade: B-

Red Sparrow
Red Sparrow marks the fourth time that Oscar winner Jennifer Lawrence (Silver Linings Playbook) has worked with director Francis Lawrence (no relation) but it’s the first time that they’ve collaborated outside of the successful Hunger Games franchise.  It’s clear from the outset this is a different film and a different genre.  It’s based on a fictional spy novel written in 2013 by Jason Matthews, a former CIA operative himself.

While the film is set largely in Russian, the characters all speak English with heavy Eastern European accents.  It’s a compromise filmmakers often reach so as to create a believable setting but not alienate those who hate subtitles.  In the lead role, Lawrence plays Dominika – a successful ballet dancer who saw her career cut short after a sickening on-stage accident.

It’s at this point where we stumble to Bourne Identity type territory.  Desperate for work to care for her ailing mother, Dominika is guided by her powerful uncle (Schoenaerts) and enlists in a secretive spy school.  She is given a new identity and told by her emotionless teacher (Rampling) that she must forget her past and all her personal details.

The school trains its cadets to become “Red Sparrows”.  They aren’t trained to be ruthless assassins.  Rather, they have been selected for their beauty as much as their strength.  Their job is to seduce people, exploit their weaknesses and extract valuable information that can be used by the state.  Dominika aptly refers to it as “Whore School” but the big wigs who govern the school believe it will help Russia back on top when it comes to global espionage.

She seems rather underdone in terms of training but Dominika is soon given her first assignment.  An American CIA agent (Edgerton) has been working in the country and is known to the Russians.  That itself is not a huge issue.  The problem is that he’s receiving obtaining government secrets from a mole inside the Russian military.  Dominika’s job is to gain the trust of the CIA agent and get him to spill the beans.

Clocking in at a lengthy 2 hours and 20 minutes, Red Sparrow is pitching itself as a slick spy thriller where the audience isn’t quite sure who can be trusted.  It’s an intriguing screenplay with a few subplots lurking in the background but it never quite fulfils its promise.  Dominika’s character is the hardest to reconcile.  There are moments where she has a sixth sense and an IQ of 200 but other moments where she lacks the knowhow of a teenager.

The graphic nature of the material might also catch a few in the audience off guard.  The film snuck through with an MA rating here in Australia despite having “strong themes, violence, sexual violence, sex scenes and coarse language.”  I’ve no issue with the nudity but some scenes are particularly violent.  Francis Lawrence doesn’t let us off with soft camera angles or fast paced edits.  These characters dish out a very strong brand of “justice”.

There are parts of the storyline to be admired such as the early interaction between Dominika and the CIA agent.  Both are using each other but can it be a win-win situation for them both?  The unusual training school also gets you thinking about the many ways in which spies can infiltrate their targets.  I guess it’s worth a look for fans of the genre.


Review: The Mercy

Directed by: James Marsh
Written by: Scott Z. Burns
Starring: Colin Firth, Rachel Weisz, David Thewlis, Ken Stott, Simon McBurney, Jonathan Bailey
Released: March 8, 2018
Grade: B

The Mercy
When talking about movies adapted from real life stories, I’m often cautious about how much to reveal about the plot.  We all know that the Titanic sunk in 1912, the Nazis were defeated during World War II in 1945 and two planes struck the World Trade Centre in New York in 2001.  Films have been made about these events and given the audience knows how things will pan out, the writer’s focus is more character development and filling in the gaps on smaller, lesser known details.

I’m in a slight pickle when it comes to The Mercy because this true story, which took place in 1968 and 1969, is very interesting.  However, to fully explain why it’s interesting would require me to spoil the ending.  That’s not my intention.  Those old enough might remember the coverage on TV and in newspapers.  Some might be familiar with documentaries and films which have previously analysed the subject.  Others, such as myself, may be introduced to Donald Crowhurst for the first time.

The stage is set fairly quickly.  As of the start of 1968, no person in human history had completed a single-handed, non-stop circumnavigation of the world by boat.  The British Sunday Times newspaper hoped to inspire budding yachtsman by instigating a competition.  Entrants could leave any time between 1 June and 31 October 1968 with the first person to complete the task winning a trophy and the fastest competitor earning at cash prize of £5,000 (a hefty sum for the time).  A total of nine sailors gave it a crack.

One of those was Donald Crowhurst (Firth), a recreational sailor who sold navigation equipment.  Despite never having attempted a journey of such length, he made the curious decision to enter the race.  He mortgaged his house and his business and constructed a boat which he believed could get the job done.  He left behind a wife and two children and set out from the town of Teignmouth, Devon on the last day possible – 31 October 1968.

It’s at this point where you may believe the film is a David and Goliath story where a complete unknown overcomes big odds to emerge the victory.  This is not that kind of story.  Things don’t go so well during the early stages.  Given the rush to complete the boat on time, there are construction issues which quickly become apparent.  Donald’s navigation skills also leave a lot to be desired.  It’s here where he makes an unexpected decision – to cheat.

I’ll leave it at that in terms of narrative.  There are shades of the Robert Redford film All is Lost in that we’re following a single man at sea with nothing but water around him.  As that runs the risk of being a bit boring, writer Scott Burns (The Bourne Ultimatum, Contagion) gives equal weighting to scenes back in the U.K. where we follow Crowhurst’s wife (Weisz) and publicist (Thewlis) along with friends, business partners, and a thirsty media.

There’s an element of repetition in some scenes that shows the struggle to take this material and stretch it into a full length feature.  As an example, we are continually provided with glimpses of journalists who have been asked to write longer and longer articles about Crowhurst and his family.  Aside from Crowhurst himself, the most interesting character is his wife but she isn’t given a lot to do except provide moral support before he leaves and look concerned after he departs.

Where The Mercy succeeds is in the exploration of Crowhurst and his warped mindset.  You’re not quite sure why he’s signed up for such a risky yachting race but we learn more about him and his rationale as the film progresses.  He’s dug himself into a hole but in trying to find a way out, he’s only made the hole deeper.  You can see the nervous, apprehensive look on Colin Firth’s face as he says good bye to his family and sets sail.

Directed by Academy Award winner James Marsh (Man on Wire, The Theory of Everything), this another quality “truth is stranger than fiction” tale.


Review: Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool

Directed by: Paul McGuigan
Written by: Matt Greenhalgh
Starring: Annette Bening, Jamie Bell, Vanessa Redgrave, Julie Walters, Kenneth Cranham, Stephen Graham
Released: March 1, 2018
Grade: B+

Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool
When asked about my favourite films of all time, one I always include is Billy Elliot.  Released in 2000, it was the story of an 11-year-old boy from England who, against his father’s wishes, takes ballet classes instead of boxing classes.  Infused with a narrative about the famous coal miners’ strike in the mid-1980s, it was beautifully written by Lee Hall and perfectly directed by Stephen Daldry.  Both earned Academy Award nominations for their impressive work.

The reason the movie springs to mind is that Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool marks the first time since Billy Elliot that Jamie Bell and Julie Walters, who both won BAFTA Awards for the earlier film, have appeared together on screen.  This is a very different film with very different characters but I still had a smile on my face watching them interact during one of the opening scenes.

Directed by Scotland-born Paul McGuigan (Wicker Park, The Wrong Man), Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool is based on the memoir of Peter Turner and chronicles his interactions with American film star Gloria Grahame during the final two years of her life between 1979 and 1981.  For those unfamiliar with Grahame, she was a Hollywood starlet who appeared in a number of big films in the 1950s including Sudden Fear, Human Desire and Oklahoma!  The high point of her career came in 1952 when, as a budding 29-year-old, she won an Oscar for her performance alongside Lana Turner and Kirk Douglas in The Bad and the Beautiful.

The years that followed weren’t as successful.  She struggled to land good roles on screen and on the stage.  McGuigan’s film picks things up in the late 1970s.  Grahame (Bening) is now in her mid-50s, living alone in London, and furiously searching for any kind of paying role in the theatre.  She’s recognised from time-to-time but it’s clear that the name Gloria Grahame has been all but forgotten.

It’s at her apartment building where she first meets Paul Turner (Bell), a young man who has lofty dreams himself of becoming an actor.  He knows very little of Grahame’s past but the two form a friendship which develops into something a little deeper.  Those close to them have differing views about the noticeable age gap between the pair.  His mother (Walters) offers loving support but her mother (Redgrave) is inherently sceptical.

The fact this is based on a true story creates an added layer of interest than what we’d normally expected from a romantic drama.  I knew nothing of these individuals beforehand and so it serves as an eye-opener and a fitting tribute.  Having done some subsequent research and looked at a few Gloria Grahame clips on YouTube, I have a stronger appreciation for Annette Bening’s superb leading performance.  Jamie Bell is also great in the subtler, less-showy role.

My attention waned ever so slightly during the middle stages but Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool is a warm, heartfelt drama about the dreams we chase and the people who shape them along the way.


Review: 12 Strong

Directed by: Nicolai Fuglsig
Written by: Ted Tally, Peter Craig
Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Michael Shannon, Michael Peña, Navid Negahban, Trevante Rhodes, Geoff Stults
Released: March 8, 2018
Grade: B-

12 Strong
During my 25 years as a critic, I’ve been lucky to see so many great fictional tales that fit into the genres of comedy, drama, action, horror, romance, thriller and/or sci-fi.  All of that said, one genre that seldom needs to delve into worlds of fiction is war.  That’s because there are countless stories of real life heroes that need to be heard and appreciated.  In the past 5 years alone, we’ve been treated to Dunkirk, Hacksaw Ridge, Land of Mine, Unbroken, American Sniper, Lone Survivor and 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi.

12 Strong continues in the same vein.  Based on the non-fiction book penned by Doug Stanton, the film takes to Afghanistan in the weeks following the terrorist attack that took place in the United States on September 11, 2001.  We follow a group of young soldiers who have teamed up with Afghan allies and are trying to reclaim critical cities and towns that have been claimed by the Taliban.

The U.S. side is led by Mitch Nelson (Hemsworth) – a confident but inexperienced Captain with limited experience in the field.  I’ll be blunt.  Part of me things he’s a courageous hero and another part thinks he’s a lucky fool.  He continually puts himself in harm’s way to complete the complex mission and protect his fellow soldiers.  Notable actors forming part of the ensemble include Michael Shannon, Michael Peña and Trevante Rhodes.

The most interesting part of the film is its exploration of the tactics adopted by the American military in Afghanistan.  They were outnumbered by the Taliban and had very limited knowledge of the terrain.  It may sound like a hopeless task but they had two key advantages over their enemies.  Firstly, they forged an alliance with General Dostum (Negahban), a respected leader in Afghanistan who had put together his own army to fight the Taliban.  Secondly, they had a number of American fighter planes at their disposal that could help bomb key targets once properly identified.

I don’t want to sound too disrespectful given this is actual events but screenwriters Ted Tally (The Silence of the Lambs) and Peter Craig (The Town) have diminished the material by using unnecessary clichés and plot devices.  There’s an early scene before Mitch heads to Afghanistan where he makes the firm promise to his wife that he’ll come home alive.  The film doubles down on that theme several times including a clunky scene where he refuses to write a letter to his family, despite other soldiers doing the same, before going into battle.  It’s borderline cringe-worthy.

The direction of Danish-born Nicolai Fuglsig is also rough around the edges.  He’s used a lot of different camera angles in crafting the key action sequences but editor Lisa Lassek has struggled to weave them into something suspenseful.  Shots from high above are mixed with shots from down low but it’s often hard to work out what’s going on and who’s attacking who.  Oh, and did we really need the footage of the stressed Taliban leader gazing across the battlefield and trying to look as villainous as possible?  It looks awfully fake.

12 Strong is a story worth telling but I’d have preferred that it ditched the clichés and replaced it with better dialogue.