Reviews

Review: Their Finest

Directed by: Lone Scherfig
Written by: Gaby Chiappe
Starring: Gemma Arterton, Sam Claflin, Bill Nighy, Jack Huston, Eddie Marsan, Helen McCrory, Jake Lacy, Richard E. Grant, Jeremy Irons
Released: April 20, 2017
Grade: B

Their Finest
It’s one of the most analysed events in movie history and World War II is back in the spotlight with Their Finest, the latest from Danish director Lone Scherfig (An Education).  The characters are fictitious but the screenplay taps into events that did take place during the war.  Don’t expect any major battle scenes though.  Based on the dramatic novel by British-born Lissa Evans, the film delves into a part of the war that many will be unfamiliar with.

To help get messages out to the wider public during WWII, the British Ministry of Information produced “informationals”.  They were short films that screened in cinemas (often in between a double feature) that helped lift spirits and educate the nation.  Some were about providing basic facts, like what to do when hearing air raid sirens, whilst others were more uplifting, such as a fictitious short story about a heroic Brit saving his fellow soldiers.

Catrin Cole (Arterton) is a young Welsh woman who has landed a job with the Ministry to help with these propaganda films.  Her main job is to write the “slop” – a harsh word referring to the dialogue uttered by the female characters.  Her views are often ignored and it’s clear she’s not respected by her male counterparts.  Sharing a theme with the recently released Hidden Figures, she’s a woman trying to break down barriers in a male dominated workplace.

The crux of Their Finest is spent following one film production in particular.  The Ministry has gone with a change of tact and has agreed to fund a full length feature.  It’s loosely based on an actual story and is about a soldier who helps rescue others during the Dunkirk evacuation in 1940.  The Ministry’s hope is that young Brits will be inspired by the tale and will enlist in the army.  They also hope it will provide comfort to the broader population that the war will indeed be won.

Catrin is at the centre of all the film’s key subplots.  We are provided insight into the fractured relationship she shares with her husband (Huston) who doesn’t react well to his wife being the sole breadwinner.  We see her argue and battle with her male co-writer (Claflin) as the propaganda films take shape.  We also watch her interact with a self-absorbed actor (Nighy) who isn’t too open to criticism.

Their Finest isn’t too heavy and I can see audiences reacting positively to the “lighter” touch.  The most interesting element is its setting.  We go behind the scenes on the production of a war propaganda film and see some the decisions, rightly or wrongly, that are made along the way.  They are described to Catrin as “real life with the boring bits left out.”

Some won’t be phased but I was a little disappointed by the final act.  Despite the intriguing setting, it becomes a fairly conventional love story.  Catrin’s great work, so much a focus during the first two-thirds, is pushed into the background.  There’s also a poorly written twist that doesn’t generate the emotional impact it should.

The performances are largely very good.  Gemma Arterton (Clash of the Titans) impresses as the film’s strong, opinionated leading lady.  You can see her character’s confidence build through each passing scene.  Bill Nighy (Love Actually) confirms his reputation as a scene stealer with his performance as the prickly actor with a softer interior.  Jake Lacy (Carol) also wins laughs as an American “actor” who been included in the Dunkirk film solely for political reasons.

Mixing a range of genres, Their Finest is a likeable crowd-pleaser that offers drama, comedy and romance. 

 

Review: The Fate of the Furious

Directed by: F. Gary Gray
Written by: Chris Morgan
Starring: Vin Diesel, Dwayne Johnson, Jason Statham, Michelle Rodriguez, Tyrese Gibson, Chris Bridges, Charlize Theron, Scott Eastwood, Helen Mirren, Kurt Russell
Released: April 13, 2017
Grade: B-

The Fate of the Furious
Just like the cars in these movies, The Fast and the Furious franchise is showing no signs of slowing down.  It’s been 16 years since the release of the original and the seven previous instalments have grossed just under $4 billion USD at the worldwide box-office.  One can only assume that these characters will still be pulling off daring robberies and elaborate escapes as 80-year-old pensioners.  I can’t see them stopping any time soon.

Directed by F. Gary Gray (Straight Outta Compton), the least interesting component of The Fate and the Furious is its plot.  To sum it up in a single sentence, the villain gets their hands on a nuclear weapon and works with some folk in Russia to help detonate it.  It’s reminiscent of so many other action films and I was surprised that writer Chris Morgan didn’t strive for something more original.

That’s not to say the film isn’t watchable.  There are some great action pieces that can be enjoyed.  My favourite was a car chase sequence involving driverless cars that had been “hacked”.  It’s amazing what pandemonium you can cause on the streets of New York when controlling thousands of cars at once.  Other highlights include another car chase across a frozen Russian lake and a gun fight where an ear-muff wearing infant is caught up in the mayhem.  They win points for creativity.

The villain is critical to the success of any action film and Charlize Theron earns praise for her performance as a cyber-terrorist looking to impart her views on the rest of the world.  She’s part genius, part psychopath and her cunning nature ensures she continually has the upper hand.  She blackmails the film’s protagonist, Dominic Toretto (Diesel), and uses him to help steal the aforementioned nuclear weapon.

The film’s other standout is Helen Mirren but her appearance is far too brief and fleeting.  It’s barely a cameo.  Her hilarious character makes you realise that other members of the cast aren’t all that interesting.  Tyrese Gibson is striving too hard for laughs, Kurt Russell and Scott Eastwood rabble on too much, and Michelle Rodriguez is given very little material to work with.  Hopefully we see more from Mirren next time around.

There’s not a great deal of tension in the film despite its heavy nature.  Those who have seen the earlier films will be familiar with the same themes being drummed home.  The word “family” is repeated so often that it feels like a TV commercial for a political party.  It’s about putting the lives of your friends and family ahead of your own.  It’s why Toretto is prepared to risk the lives of millions to save just one – a conclusion that doesn’t make a lot of sense in the real world.

The cast members will have been rewarded with nice pay checks but The Fate of the Furious is a few steps below the best in this franchise.

 

Review: Ghost in the Shell

Directed by: Rupert Sanders
Written by: Jamie Moss, William Wheeler, Ehren Kruger
Starring: Scarlett Johansson, Michael Pitt, Pilou Asbæk, Chin Han, Juliette Binoche, Takeshi Kitano
Released: March 30, 2017
Grade: B-

Ghost in the Shell
For those needing the background check, Ghost in the Shell was a Japanese comic that became an animated feature film that became a successful computer game that became a television series.  The next stage in its evolution is that of a live action Hollywood film with a sizeable budget.  The idea was tossed around for a while but it finally ended up in the “to do” basket of director Rupert Sanders (Snow White and Huntsman).

What I find most attractive is the world in which this film is set.  Society has reached a point where robotics is now a part of life.  As an example, those that have lost an arm in an accident can now have a new one built which can be attached with relative simplicity.  It’ll function better than the old one!

The latest creation of Hanka Robotics is to take a human brain and insert it into a full robotic body.  The first person to undergo such surgery is The Major (Johansson) but it wasn’t by choice.  Her last memory was of being on a refugee boat which had been sunk by terrorists.  Her parents were killed and she was badly injured.  She would have perished if not for the work of Dr. Ouélet (Binoche) who was able to save her brain and place it in a new, powerful robotic body.

The Major now works for a secretive organisation known as Section 9.  Their mantra isn’t well explained but they appear to be come kind of government approved authority who rid the streets of bad guys.  Their latest mission is track down Kuze (Pitt), a mysterious assailant who has been hacking into the “minds” of robots and using them for his own purposes.

I might have laughed at such a premise 50 years ago but as technology moves forward at a rapid rate this world may become a lot less fanciful.  There’s already talk of robot droids and soldiers.  What would happen if someone was able to hack into these and alter their programming?  When they’re controlled by changeable code as opposed to a rational, feeling mind, are the risks not higher?

Sanders has tried to give this film the look of a Japanese manga comment with its setting, costumes and colours.  The problem is that the script doesn’t amount to all that much.  The Major talks about the “thick fog” that blankets her old memories and we follow her search for answers.  The tone is heavy throughout and while Scarlett Johansson commands a strong presence in the leading role, the same can’t be said of the supporting characters.  They’re a little bit dull.

 

Review: Denial

Directed by: Mike Jackson
Written by: David Hare
Starring: Rachel Weisz, Tom Wilkinson, Timothy Spall, Andrew Scott, Jack Lowden, Caren Pistorius
Released: April 13, 2017
Grade: B+

Denial
“Fake news” has been a hot topic of conversation over the past year and so the release of Denial couldn’t be better timed.  It takes us behind the scenes of court case that became front page news in the United Kingdom in the late 1990s.

The film begins in 1994 with Professor Deborah Lipstadt (Weiz) promoting the release of her new book, Denying the Holocaust: the Growing Assault on Truth and Memory.  As the title suggests, she takes aim at those who lie and distort the truth for their own personal benefit.  She criticises the writings of “historian” David Irving (Spall) who believes that Jews were not murdered at Auschwitz and that even if they were, Adolf Hitler had no knowledge of it.

Two years later, Irving filed a libel suit in the United Kingdom against Lipstadt and the publisher, Penguin Books.  It sounds rather farcical but Lipstadt soon realises that she faces a battle.  Under UK law, there’s no presumption of innocence and the burden of proof rests with the accused.  Lipstadt has to provide sufficient evidence that the Holocaust occurred and that Irving had knowingly twisted historical information to suit his political and ideological beliefs.

A significant chunk of the film is spent following the lead up to the trial.  Friends suggested that she settle out of court because such a trial would be giving Irving free, unjustified publicity to further spout his claims.  Lipstadt understood that logic but felt compelled to clear her name.  She engaged the services of renowned solicitor Anthony Julius (Scott) and barrister Richard Rampton (Wilkinson) to help as part of the defence.

These three didn’t always see eye-to-eye on strategy.  As an example, Julius wanted to keep Lipstadt off the witness stand and out of the media during the trial.  This was to keep the focus on Irving and his flawed writings.  Lipstadt strongly disagreed.  She wanted the chance to speak up against what she believed was a frivolous lawsuit that had impaired the reputation of herself and actual Holocaust survivors.

Those looking for insight into the inner workings of a major court case should find lots to take away from this.  Oscar-nominated screenwriter David Hare (The Hours, The Reader) shows that while truth is important in any trial, the strategy adopted by the solicitors and barristers can have just as much of an impact on the outcome.

There’s also a “greyness” to the characters with each having their strengths and weaknesses.  Rachel Weisz (The Constant Gardener) illustrates this through her performance as Lipstadt.  Her strong-willed nature and American view of the world clashes doesn’t always align with those of her UK defence team.  You want to see her win the case but you also understand that some of her actions aren’t helpful. 

As a good historical drama should, Denial is the kind of movie that makes you want to do more reading about the subject as you’ve left the cinema.

 

Review: Land of Mine

Directed by: Martin Zandvliet
Written by: Martin Zandvliet
Starring: Roland Møller, Mikkel Følsgaard, Laura Bro, Louis Hofmann, Joel Basman, Oskar Bökelmann
Released: March 30, 2017
Grade: A-

Land Of Mine
When it comes to filmmaking, something is thriving in the state of Denmark.  Over the past decade, we’ve seen a flurry of great films from Danish directors including Melancholia (Lars von Trier), An Education (Lone Scherfig), Drive (Nicolas Winding Refn), The Hunt (Thomas Vinterberg) and In a Better World (Susanne Bier).  At the Academy Awards, Danish movies have been nominated in the best foreign language film category for 5 of the last 7 years – more than any other country over the same period.

Land of Mine was nominated at this year’s Oscars and it’s a relief to see it receiving a release, albeit a limited one, in Australian cinemas.  The film premiered at the Toronto Film Festival more than 18 months ago and it’s been making its way around the world ever since.  As part of that journey, it was runner-up for the Audience Award at the 2016 Sydney Film Festival.  It clearly has appeal with both the critics and the broader public.

Directed by Martin Zandvliet, Land of Mine recounts a fascinating piece of post-World War II history that few people will be familiar with.  Denmark was an occupied territory under Germany during World War II.  Suspecting that the country would be attacked by sea, German soldiers laid roughly two million land mines beneath the sand on Denmark’s western coast.  As WWII came to a close, the issue of the land mines was a concern for the Danish soldiers who had helped reclaim the country.

In the opening scene of Zandvliet’s film, we are introduced to a Danish sergeant, Carl Rasmussen (Møller), who has been given custody of 10 young German prisoners of war.  He promises them freedom if they clear a section of beach which contains roughly 150,000 land mines.  It may sound like a barbaric, impossible act but Rasmussen has zero empathy.  Such is his rage towards the Nazis and their occupation of his country, he doesn’t even feed them for the first few days.  The Geneva Conventions carry no weight and he couldn’t care if they live or die.

I’ve seen plenty of great WWII films that make an impact through bloody, gory, violent action sequences.  Land of Mine does the opposite.  The tension comes from moments that are eerily quiet.  You’re watching a young kid with shaky hands try to remove the detonation device from a buried land mine.  No dialogue is necessary and all you can hear is the sound of wind and crashing waves.  There were parts where I couldn’t look at the screen.  I closed my eyes, bowed my head, and hoped that an explosion would not follow.

While these characters are fictional, such events did take place across Denmark between 1945 and 1947.  Close to 1,000 German soldiers, many of them teenagers, lost their lives in trying to defuse the land mines.  Once a section had been cleared, they were forced to walk across the area, arm-in-arm, to make sure none had been missed.  It’s not shown in the film but these “death marches” were often attended by Danish villagers who watched them like a sporting event.

It’s no surprise that Land of Mine has sparked controversy and debate.  The Nazis were responsible for the death of millions of people between 1939 and 1945 but the film will leave many feeling sympathetic towards these German prisoners of war.  We learn more about their past and we see the effects of the painstaking exercise on their fragile psyche.  Rasmussen also softens as he gets to know the boys.  He starts asking the same question that is asked of the audience – do two wrongs make a right?

Shot on location at the same Danish beaches were the mines were buried 70 years ago, Land of Mine is a compelling, fascinating history lesson with a moral that is just as relevant today.

 

Review: Dance Academy: The Movie

Directed by: Jeffrey Walker
Written by: Samantha Strauss
Starring: Miranda Otto, Xenia Goodwin, Jordan Rodrigues, Alicia Banit, Julia Blake, Tara Morice
Released: April 6, 2017
Grade: B

Dance Academy: The Movie
Dance Academy was a fictional television drama that debuted on the ABC back in May 2010.  It was targeted at teenagers and followed the ups and downs of high school students who were part of the National Academy of Dance in Sydney.  A total of 65 episodes were produced and the show wrapped up in mid-2013.  It twice won the Logie Award for the best children’s program.

On hearing that this new movie was being made, the first question I asked was “why?”  It’s not often that an Australian television series makes the move to the big screen.  The answer to that question comes from beyond our shores.  The Dance Academy audience has grown over the past few years with the show sold to several international markets including the United States.  Creators Samantha Strauss and Joanna Werner felt there would be enough people interested in catching up with these characters once again.

As someone completely new to the show, I will look at this film differently to most paying customers.  I don’t know the backstory to these characters and their intricate connections.  A “newbie” can enjoy this as a standalone feature but it’s clear that fans of Dance Academy will pick up on a lot more.  Almost all of the featured actors from the later episodes of the television series have returned.

The opening to the film paints a gloomy picture.  The main protagonist, Tara Webster (Goodwin), has given up on a career in dance following a major injury.  She’s been speaking with a lawyer and is considering legal action against the National Academy of Dance for their poor training and unsafe workplace.  To help make ends meet, she now works as a barista in a small café located in the foyer of the Sydney Opera House.  Seeing the successful ballet dancers walk past each day only adds to her sullen disposition.

There is light at the end of the tunnel and with her injury showing signs of improvement, Tara will get another chance to follow her dreams.  She is approached by the head of the Academy, Madeline Moncur (Otto), and asked to re-audition.  That doesn’t work out but it sets in motion a series of events that will take her first to New York and then later to Texas (an obvious attempt to appeal to the American audience).  She catches up with old friends and is presented with new opportunities.

There’s a realness to these characters and their journey that makes this worth a look.  It’s not all “rainbows and sunshine” and the film highlights the difficulties one faces in trying to pursue a career in the arts.  You give up any chance of a social life and you have to practice all day, every day with the hope you will land one of the few great jobs on offer.  For every person that succeeds, there’s at least one hundred who fail.

The film also delves into other areas including the idea of “celebrity”.  One of Tara’s good friends, Kat (Banit), has become a quasi-icon in the U.S. but things become unstuck as a result of a social media scandal.  The narrative also touches on the way in which friendships become harder to maintain as careers move in different directions.

The screenplay does succumb to predictability in the final act.  Writer Samantha Strauss has made some safe, audience-friendly choices that aren’t as adventurous as the lead up.  Fans won’t be too perturbed.  With a wide mix of songs and an eclectic group of characters, Dance Academy: The Movie will appease the target crowd.

You can read my interview with director Jeffrey Walker by clicking here.