Review: Sweet Country

Directed by: Warwick Thornton
Written by: David Tranter, Steven McGregor
Starring: Hamilton Morris, Sam Neill, Bryan Brown, Trevon Doolan, Matt Day, Ewen Leslie
Released: January 25, 2018
Grade: A-

Sweet Country
Currently held in Brisbane, the Asia Pacific Screen Awards honour the best films and performances from the Asia-Pacific region.  In their brief 11 year history, two movies from Australia have taken the honour for best feature film – Samson & Delilah in 2009 and Sweet Country in 2017.  It’s an amazing fact that both were directed by Indigenous filmmaker Warwick Thornton.  He’s not as widely known by the public as a George Miller, Baz Luhrmann or Gillian Armstrong but he will go down in history as one of Australia’s best directors.

Sweet Country has an interesting background.  David Tranter is an Australian sound recordist who has worked on a number of short films, TV movies and television shows over the past decade.  He’s known Thornton since they were kids growing up in Alice Springs and, drawing on stories passed down through his family, suggested the idea of the movie several years ago.  Despite having no experience as a screenwriter, he worked with Steven McGregor (Redfern Now) to put a script together.  Thornton loved the finished product and the film was put into production not long after.

Set in the 1920s, there’s no obvious protagonist in the film during the opening half hour.  We drift between characters and learn that the Australian outback was a rough, tough place.  There’s a quiet, lonely farmer (Neill) trying to make ends meet.  There’s an Indigenous man (Morris) and his wife who help tend the farm and are well compensated.  There’s a World War I veteran (Leslie) who has moved into the area and is quick to assert his authority.  There’s a young boy (Doolan) from a tough upbringing who yearns for a better life.   There’s a police sergeant (Brown) who enjoys a drink and tries to maintain law and order.

The narrative becomes clearer when someone is killed.  Without giving too much away, a “white fella is shot by a black fella”.  The racial tensions within the community explode and it forces some characters to flee whilst others go chasing after them.  For many in the town, the truth as to what actually took place is irrelevant.  A white man has been killed and they’re ready to dish out a violent brand of justice at any cost.

Described as Australian’s equivalent of an iconic American western, Sweet Country is a gripping, moving drama that pulls back the curtain on a darker chapter in our history.  The likes of Sam Neill and Bryan Brown give the film some star power but it’s the Indigenous cast members, all of whom are non-professional actors, who make the biggest impact.  It’s hard not to feel empathy for their plight.

Thornton shot the film just outside of Alice Springs and makes great use of the dry, desolate landscape.  There’s a scene involving Bryan Brown on a long, flat plain that exemplifies this most.  I also liked the use of quick “flash forwards” to give us a glimpse of what lies ahead.  It will keep audiences on their toes and is a pleasant breakaway from the traditional model where a film opens with the full ending and then takes us back to how we got there.

With a few unexpected twists, Sweet Country is a great slice of Aussie cinema.


Review: The Shape of Water

Directed by: Guillermo del Toro
Written by: Guillermo del Toro, Vanessa Taylor
Starring: Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Richards Jenkins, Doug Jones, Michael Stuhlbarg, Octavia Spencer
Released: January 18, 2018
Grade: B+

The Shape of Water
The Shape of Water is described on the Internet Movie Database as – “In a 1960s research facility, Elisa, a mute janitor, forms a relationship with a mysterious aquatic creature.”  I’ve provided this simple plot overview to friends and have received many puzzled looks in return.  It sounds bizarre on paper but it’s being pitched as an “adult fairy tale” so you don’t need to stress about everything making sense.

That’s probably a good thing because there are questions asked in The Shape of Water which are not answered.  To start out with, where did this human-like sea creature come from?  It’s clearly a major discovery but those at the top-secret military facility are unsure what to do with the “asset”.  Dr Robert Hoffstetler (Stuhlbarg) is a scientist who wants to study the creature but on the flip side, the security team headed by Richard Strickland (Shannon) thinks it best that it be killed.

It’s the actions of these two characters which are the most difficult to reconcile.  Strickland gets a surprisingly large amount of screen time as the film’s keynote villain.  We even follow him to his home and get a glimpse of his family.  Why he has no interest in the creature and its potential scientific value is odd.  That said, at least we know what he wants.  Dr Hoffstetler has a softer side but I never fully understood how he reached his position on certain issues (without giving too much away).

Where the film succeeds is the exploration of the relationship that develops between the creature and Elisa Esposito, a cleaner (Hawkins) who has been a mute all of her life.  She lives alone, has few friends and whilst she puts up a brave face, you get a clear sense that she’s frustrated by her disability.  It’s hard to make new friends and fall in love when you have no voice.

That helps explain her attraction to the sea creature.  She meets it while cleaning its laboratory and with both of them unable to speak, they communicate using expressions and hand gestures.  The creature shows remarkable intelligence and it’s not long before they form a close bond.  However, when she learns that her newfound love is to be killed, she calls in favours from a fellow cleaner (Spencer) and her next-door neighbour (Jenkins) to help save his life.

Writer-director Guillermo del Toro has never been a conventional filmmaker.  We’ve seen from the likes of Cronos, Pan’s Labyrinth and Crimson Peak that he has a rich, vivid imagination that creates beautiful cinematic worlds.  That’s again the case here.  The Shape of Water is a wild ride that provides many unexpected, eye-raising moments.  The opening scene with Sally Hawkins in the bathtub is a great example.  The film score of Alexandre Desplat (The Grand Budapest Hotel), which features both light and dark moments, is a perfect fit for the material.

Whilst I love what he’s trying to achieve, some of the subplots didn’t resonate.  There’s a storyline that involves the next-door neighbour, his work and unrequited love but it feels inferior to the main show.  The same applies for Dr Hoffstetler and his connection with others outside the laboratory.  These narratives didn’t hit me emotionally.

Given the film has been nominated for 7 Golden Globe nominations and a bunch of other critics prizes, I’ll admit to being in the minority with my lukewarm response.  Perhaps another viewing is in order.


Review: Darkest Hour

Directed by: Joe Wright
Written by: Anthony McCarten
Starring: Gary Oldman, Kristin Scott Thomas, Lily James, Stephen Dillane, Ronald Pickup, Ben Mendelsohn
Released: January 11, 2018
Grade: B+

Darkest Hour
Presidents, prime ministers and other world leaders have to make many difficult decisions as part of the job.  Their views on economic, social, environment and political issues will often shape society for many decades to come.  That said, perhaps the hardest decision for any leader to make is war.  Darkest Hour is a historical drama that spans only a few weeks in the year 1940 and looks at what went on behind closed doors before Prime Minister Winston Churchill (Oldman) declared war against Germany.

Churchill wasn’t held in high regard within his own party.  In fact, you could argue that he became Prime Minister by default following the resignation of Neville Chamberlain (Pickup) who had fallen out of favour with the public during the early days of World War II.  Lord Halifax (Dillane), serving as Foreign Secretary, had been tipped as Chamberlain’s successor but he wasn’t interested either.  Churchill ultimately took the mantle but given his country was at the brink of war, he describes it to his wife (Thomas) as “revenge” as opposed to a “gift”.  It’s as if his enemies within the party were setting him up to fail.

This film is timely given the release of Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk back in July.  That movie featured no politics whatsoever and was about a group of heroic soldiers and civilians who rescued more than 300,000 British troops from the French coast and returned them safely back to Britain.  Darkest Hour is set during the same time frame but from an entirely different perspective.  Aside from a handful of quick battle scenes (which are actually quite clunky), we see how Churchill sneakily organised the Dunkirk evacuation to take place from his underground bunker in London.  These two movies would make a cool double feature.

It’s the politics of the film which are most interesting.  Churchill believed the only way forward was to go to war with Germany.  British soldiers had already been killed fighting in France and he sensed that Hitler would never agree to a meaningful truce with Great Britain.  There’s a great line in the movie where he shouts “you cannot reason with a tiger when your head is in its mouth.”

Other members of Churchill’s personally selected War Cabinet had a different view.  Having been through the horrors of another great war two decades earlier, they felt that the public didn’t have the appetite to see another generation of young men killed in battle.  Their suggestion was that peace talks should be orchestrated with Germany through an intermediary in Italy.  If Churchill didn’t agree, they would resign and destabilise the government.

Gary Oldman (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) is favoured to win the Academy Award for best actor and he ticks many boxes with his stellar performance.  He’s unrecognisable thanks to the work of the gifted make-up artists who spent four hours every day in getting him ready.  Churchill was a confident man with a sly sense of humour but through Oldman’s performance, you also sense his doubts and weaknesses.  The best scenes in the film are those where he converses with King George VI (Mendelsohn) in the days and weeks after taking power.

The female characters in the film aren’t given as much to work with.  Kristin Scott Thomas (The English Patient) pops in and out of the story as Churchill’s wife but has little to offer except moral support.  Lilly James (Cinderella) plays Churchill’s personal secretary but spends most of her time sitting at a desk typing letters.  There’s a slight twist to her character which is obvious from the midway point and so doesn’t have the strong impact it should when fully revealed later.

There’s no argument that this is a polished production from director Joe Wright (Atonement).  There’s a bold film score from Oscar-winning Italian composer Dario Marianelli (Atonement) and the set decorators and costumers deserve praise in recreating key locations such as the inside of Buckingham Palace and the House of Commons.

Above all though, Wright wanted to get break some of the longstanding myths surrounding Winston Churchill and show him as a “deeply flawed, profoundly complicated” man who, despite those misgivings, played a huge part in saving the world.  I like Wright’s quote that “our flaws and our virtues are kind of the same thing.”  It’s a message that resonates strongly throughout the film.


Review: The Commuter

Directed by: Jaume Collet-Serra
Written by: Byron Willinger, Philip de Blasi, Ryan Engle
Starring: Liam Neeson, Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, Jonathan Banks, Elizabeth McGovern, Sam Neill
Released: January 18, 2018
Grade: C

The Commuter
We’re only a few weeks into 2018 but I’m comfortable in saying that The Commuter is one of the worst action films of the year.  It marks the fourth collaboration between Spanish director Jaume Collet-Serra and actor Liam Neeson.  Unknown was about a guy with amnesia who had his identity stolen.  Non-Stop was about an alcoholic air marshal aboard a hijacked flight.  Run All Night was about a hitman called out of retirement to protect his son.

If you think those storylines are over-the-top, wait until you see what’s been manufactured with The Commuter.  Liam Neeson plays Michael – a successful, hardworking insurance salesman with a loving wife back home.  Scratch that.  He’s unexpectedly fired in one of the film’s opening scenes.  With his son is about to head off to an expensive college, he’s got no idea how he’ll be able to pay the tuition fees and all the other bills that will soon mount up.

It’s at this point where the mayhem begins.  Michael is on the same train he’s caught to work every day for the past ten years and is approached by a mysterious woman (Farmiga).  She cryptically tells him that “someone on this train does not belong” and if he can find out who the person is before the train reaches its final destination, he’ll be rewarded with $100,000.  If he tells anyone about the task or alerts the authorities, his family will be in jeopardy.  She provides no meaningful information aside from that.  We don’t even know what the person looks like or what they’re hiding.

After quietly walking around the train and narrowing the list of suspects (based on the ticket stubs protruding from their seats), he starts asking a few questions.  It’s not long before pandemonium breaks out with everyone looking at Michael as if he’s some kind of deranged lunatic (deservedly so) and the incompetent security being called in.  He finds a way to avoid being captured so as to continue with his investigative work.

I love a good action-thriller but the content of this film doesn’t make a lot of sense.  It’s hard to believe how those behind the assignment are smart enough to create this elaborate task (complete with a bizarre hit and run) and yet they can’t figure out the identity of the person themselves.  It’s also a struggle to comprehend how everyone on the train remains on board despite Michael’s actions.  They keep talking to him too!

I won’t spoil the finale but it’s best to lower your expectations with The Commuter.  There’s no cool, original twist that justifies the tiring opening hour.  There’s just more farce and more unrealistic plot developments.  Liam Neeson recently announced that he’s retiring from action movies and whilst it’s been a fun ride (some of his movies have been great), it’s sad that he’ll be finishing on such a lacklustre note.


Review: All the Money in the World

Directed by: Ridley Scott
Written by: David Scarpa
Starring: Michelle Williams, Christopher Plummer, Mark Wahlberg, Romain Duris, Charlie Plummer, Timothy Hutton
Released: January 4, 2018
Grade: B

All the Money in the World
A lot of films endure production issues but the story behind All the Money in the World rivals anything I’ve heard before.  The movie was shot in the middle of the year with director Ridley Scott (Gladiator) working hard to have it ready for a December release date and a crack at awards season.  A trailer was distributed in September that provided a first glimpse of the storyline and the performances of its three big stars – Michelle Williams, Mark Wahlberg and Kevin Spacey.

In late October, Spacey was accused of making sexual advances against a 14-year-old boy back in the 1980s.  That was followed by a slew of other serious allegations that left his reputation in taters (deservedly so).  It left Ridley Scott in a difficult situation.  If he released the film as is, it would be engulfed with negative publicity and audiences would avoid it like the plague.  On the flip side, it was hard to justify scrapping the film given it was already being promoted and $30 million had been spent in production costs.

Scott came up with a gutsy, ingenious solution that, in a warped way, created a wave of positive publicity that would not have been generated otherwise.  He ditched Spacey and brought in 88-year-old Oscar winner Christopher Plummer (Beginners) as a replacement.  The actors returned for free and over a 9 day period, every scene that had featured Spacey was reshot within Plummer.  Editor Claire Simpson (Platoon) inserted the new footage each night and the updated version of the movie was ready to be released on time.  Six weeks after the first public allegations were made against Spacey… Christopher Plummer found himself nominated for a Golden Globe award for best actor in a supporting role!  That is truly nuts.

I was initially cynical of Plummer’s nomination but having now seen All the Money in the World, I can acknowledge that he’s actually very good.  He plays John Paul Getty, an American businessman who founded the Getty Oil company and for a period of time in the 1960s was the richest individual in the world.  Some believe that “money makes you happy” but Getty’s reputation would put paid to that idea.  He was a miserably frugal man who had no intention of sharing his wealth with anyone (including the tax man).  What he thrived on was the “power” that his vast fortune provided.

The film isn’t intended to be a biography of Getty.  Rather, it centres on the event in his life of which he became infamous.  In July 1973, his 16-year-old grandson, Paul, was kidnapped whilst walking the streets of Rome.  A $17 million ransom was demanded but Getty refused to pay a cent.  He could easily afford it but he didn’t want to pay out of principle.  The case became headline news across the globe which the public forming their own views on Getty and his family.

There are two other key players in this ensemble.  The first is Michelle Williams (Brokeback Mountain) who plays Paul’s worried mother.  She married into the Getty family and is infuriated by the actions of husband and father-in-law in not paying the ransom.  The second is Mark Wahlberg (The Departed) who features as a former CIA operative brought in by John Paul Getty to help locate his kidnapped grandson.

The production values are strong but screenwriter David Scarpa doesn’t make the most of the 132 minute running time.  We are reminded again and again that Getty was a frugal monster and the mother was a nice person.  Mark Wahlberg’s character doesn’t have much of a backstory or a purpose.  French actor Romain Duris (The Spanish Apartment) offers the most intrigue as one of the conflicted kidnappers but he’s given very little screen time.

All the Money in the World can be enjoyed as a “truth is stranger than fiction” tale but it won’t leave you on the edge of your seat.


Review: The Post

Directed by: Steven Spielberg
Written by: Liz Hannah, Josh Singer
Starring: Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Sarah Paulson, Bob Odenkirk, Tracy Letts, Bradley Whitford
Released: January 11, 2018
Grade: B+

The Post
Steven Spielberg has made a bunch of movies that have covered a wide range of subject matters and genres.  He may not have known it when he signed up for it at the start of 2017 but The Post comes along at an important time given the pressure currently being applied on the media by President Donald Trump.  The term “fake news” is part of common vernacular.

Written by Liz Hannah and Josh Singer (Spotlight), the film is set over a few days in 1971 when those at The Washington Post had a big decision to make.  One of their major competitors, The New York Times, had been provided with classified military documents that showed the U.S. Government had been lying for decades about its involvement in the Vietnam War.  These documents became known as the Pentagon Papers.

After months of careful analysis, The New York Times went public in June 1971.  They published a series of front page articles that were highly critical of the government.  This infuriated President Richard Nixon who successfully sought a court injunction to prevent any further release of the leaked information until it could be settled in the Supreme Court.

It was at this time that The Washington Post, through the work of their own investigative journalists, came into possession of the same papers.  What followed was an intense debate about what to do next.  The role of a newspaper is to keep people informed and to hold people to account.  If they sat on this information and did nothing, were they really doing the right thing by the American people?  However, if they did go public, they ran the risk of a lawsuit or, even worse, imprisonment.

We see things from a number of perspectives in this huge ensemble.  Meryl Streep plays the head of the paper who is worried about her family’s legacy and the long-term future of the paper.  Tom Hanks plays an executive editor who is keen to make his mark and outsmart his competitors.  Bob Odenkirk plays a journalist who battles the clock in recovering the papers and writing a story.  Bradley Whitford plays a board member at The Washington Post who believes the recent listing of the company on the stock exchange could be in jeopardy.

There’s no arguing that this is a Steven Spielberg film.  As tends to be his style, he’s pushing an agenda quite forcefully on the audience.  This will work for some but will annoy others.  As an example, there’s a scene late in the movie where a young woman thanks Meryl Streep’s character for being a pioneer when it comes to women in senior workplace roles.  I don’t disagree with that message… but it didn’t need to be reiterated.  It’s obvious from everything that preceded it.  The film also has a few too many grand speeches and so the dialogue feels more forced than natural.

That’s not to say this isn’t an important movie.  It’s a fascinating tale that highlights the need for a strong media and how they should serve the people and not the government.  It touches on workplace dynamics and the additional challenges faced by a female CEO in the 1970s.  It looks at the difficulty of journalists being objective in their reporting when they’re good friends with their subject matter.  They’re all topics which have equal relevance today.  An added touch is we see how papers were typeset and printed each night without the benefit of digital technology.  It’s cool.

They’re two iconic American actors but The Post marks the first time that Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks have appeared opposite each other on screen.  Both give strong performances with illustrate the strengths and weaknesses of their respective characters.  Streep is particularly good as the vulnerable head of the paper who realises that she’s out of her depth but isn’t quite sure who’s advice she should be taking.

Likely to be mentioned several times when the Academy Award nominations are announced in two weeks, The Post is good (but perhaps not great) cinema.