Review: Custody

Directed by: Xavier Legrand
Written by: Xavier Legrand
Starring: Léa Drucker, Denis Ménochet, Thomas Gioria, Mathilde Auneveux, Mathieu Saikaly, Florence Janas
Released: September 27, 2018
Grade: A

Frenchman Xavier Legrand has been a theatre actor since the age of 10 but his career took a seismic shift in 2013 when he made a 30-minute short film, entitled Just Before Losing Everything, about a mother trying to escape from her abusive husband.  Legrand won a César Award and also picked up an Oscar nomination for best live action short.  Not a bad directorial debut for someone who never attended film school!

Custody marks Legrand’s first feature film and is an intriguing project choice given he uses the same characters as his successful short movie.  It opens with a legal hearing in a small meeting room.  Miriam (Drucker) and Antoine (Ménochet) are a separated couple who, with the help of their respective lawyers, are arguing in front of a judge about who should be granted custody of their 11-year-old son, Julien (Gioria).  Each puts forward a persuasive argument but given inconsistencies in their stories, it clear that at least one side (if not both) is not being truthful.  The judge wraps things up by stating she will review their claims and make a decision at a future date.

The film is structured in a way that we, as the audience, become the jury.  This is the first time we’ve met these characters and we have no idea about their history and time together.  Rather than provide superfluous flashback sequences, Legrand wants us to form our own opinion as we observe Miriam, Antoine and Julien in the days following the custody hearing.  There’s a widely-held belief that it takes just seven seconds to make a first impression but you’re likely to need a lot more time than that to size up these individuals and their motives.

There’s a lot to think about here.  It’s a movie that delves into the complexities of a relationship breakdown when children get caught in the middle.  The 11-year-old Julien, beautifully played by newcomer Thomas Gioria, finds himself the unwilling participant in a game of emotional tug-of-war.  He’s old enough to understand the situation and form a view about which parent he prefers.  However, he’s still too young to appreciate the way he is being manipulated in pursuit of other goals.

Xavier Legrand uses a number of techniques to create a tense, uneasy experience for the viewer.  First and foremost is the lack of a composer.  Music is often used to subliminally guide our emotions (e.g. an ominous score means something bad is imminent) but the absence of music here will keep you on edge and unsure what’s around the corner.  The lengthy, observational nature of key scenes also adds to anxiety levels.  There’s a particularly powerful moment involving two characters in a darkened bedroom that serves as a great example.

Custody took home the prize for best director at the 2017 Venice Film Festival and is one of 5 movies shortlisted by the French National Film Board as the country’s entry into next year’s Oscars race for best foreign language film.  The unrelenting narrative and flawless performances make this a powerful piece of cinema. 

Review: Smallfoot

Directed by: Karey Kirkpatrick
Written by: Karey Kirkpatrick, Clare Sera, John Requa, Glenn Ficarra
Starring: Channing Tatum, James Corden, Zendaya, Common, LeBron James, Danny DeVito
Released: September 20, 2018
Grade: A-

I love the concept of this film.  It’d be easy to make a movie about humans who go in search of the elusive “yeti” but director Karey Kirkpatrick flips that idea and views it from the other perspective.  What if there are a bunch of yetis who live in harmony but have their lives upended when they stumble across a human?  Of course, the human seems incredibly tiny to them and hence they refer to him as “Smallfoot”.

The opening scenes are used to explain the creative setting.  The yetis live high atop a mountain range and their society is dominated by faith and tradition.  They are guided by carvings in old stones that explain how their world was created and the rules they must follow to keep things in balance.  For example, they believe there’s nothing at the bottom of the mountains except for giant woolly mammoths.  They also bang a giant gong each morning to ensure that the sun rises.

Migo (voiced by Channing Tatum) is a young yeti who is starting to question the beliefs of his elders and has gone in search of facts over faith.  No one believes when he proclaims that he saw a Smallfoot and so he takes matters into his own hands.  He captures Percy Patterson (Corden), a struggling human TV presenter, and brings him back to the yeti tribe.  Migo just wants to prove a point but his actions have consequences and life for the yetis will not be the same again…

The messages in animated features tend to get repetitive but Smallfoot feels fresh with its exploration of power, truth, control and “fake news”.  It’s telling younger audiences to ask questions of adults and not be afraid to challenge authority.  The analogies in the film will be obvious to those who take an interest in politics and religion but it’s not as one-sided as you might expect with compelling arguments put forward for multiple viewpoints.

For those not looking to think too deeply and who simply want an enjoyable story, Smallfoot still delivers.  The yetis have been brought to life in a beautiful way by the talented animation team.  They come with jagged horns, crooked teeth, blue lips and look like a giant polar bear.  Without the benefit of clothes, they express themselves through fur colour and distinctive hairstyles.  They’re fun characters but the biggest laughs come from an unexpected source – a quiet, not-so-bright yak who pops up at the right time.

The cast is headlined by Channing Tatum and James Corden whose voices will be easy to recognise.  Corden is particularly good as the self-absorbed TV presenter who will sacrifice all morals in search of TV ratings.  Others include Zendaya, Common, Gina Rodriguez, Danny DeVito, and basketball star LeBron James.  Each gets the chance to impress when called upon.

There are a handful of unnecessary songs but Smallfoot is still one of the year’s best animated films.

Review: Searching

Directed by: Aneesh Chaganty
Written by: Aneesh Chaganty, Sev Ohanian
Starring: John Cho, Michelle La, Debra Messing, Sara Sohn, Joseph Lee, Steve Michael Eich
Released: September 13, 2018
Grade: B

It’s not an entirely original concept (see Unfriended back in 2015) but Searching still wins points for being a not-so-ordinary thriller.  The hook is that it’s set entirely on computer screens.  Every event that takes place is viewed through someone’s iPhone or home PC.  It sounds limiting but you may be surprised how much of your own communication and news consumption comes via the internet.

There’s a cute, nostalgic introduction that will warrant a smile from older audiences.  It follows the upbringing of 16-year-old Margot Kim (La) but only in the sense of her online activity.  It begins with her father, David (Cho), setting up a login account on their home computer (using a humorously old version of Windows).  We then see her upload photos of key events, book in calendar appointments, and create her first Facebook profile.

Now that we’ve brought up to speed, we watch a FaceTime conversation where David is told by his daughter that she’ll be pulling an “all-nighter” at a friend’s house as they study for an upcoming exam.  He wakes up the next morning to find several missed phone calls from Margot but on calling back, she fails to answer.  He’s slightly concerned but his assumption is that she’s gone straight from the friend’s house to school and they’ll see each other that night for dinner.

It’s not until later in the day that he realises something is wrong.  She didn’t attend school and she missed an afternoon piano lesson.  Even more alarming is the revelation from the piano teacher that Margot cancelled her lessons six months ago.  He gets in touch with several of his daughter’s school friends and learns other unexpected things.  Consumed with a mix of worry and shock, he calls on the assistance of his brother (Lee) and a renowned police detective (Messing) to put the pieces of the puzzle together and find Margot.

There is plenty to think about here.  There’s a part of the movie where David is able to hack into his daughter’s social media accounts and go through her list of friends and past conversations.  It’s amazing how much we reveal about ourselves through online mediums and it comes as a huge eye-opener to David.  Can you imagine your friends and family digging through your private emails and online conversations?  Would it portray you as a different person to the one they’re aware of?

The film is not without its flaws.  In keeping it all confined to the computer screen, there are some news stories watched by David that don’t feel authentic.  They are providing footage or giving up information that would not normally be televised.  That said, 27-year-old director Aneesh Chaganty deserves praise for his creative vision.  He made a name for himself in 2014 when he crafted a 2 ½ minute short film, shot entirely using smart glasses, that follows a person travelling from America to India to deliver an envelope.  It’s now attracted close to 3 million views on YouTube.

It’s amazing how Chaganty creates tension by simply watching people type on a screen (including the wait for a reply) and scrolling through old messages.  It’s easily to overlook the actors in a movie like this but John Cho (Star Trek) is terrific as the distressed father.  We may not have been in the same position before but you’ll still relate to his actions and emotions.

Things get a little too “twisty” during the climax but Searching is a cool concept with strong execution.

Review: Ladies in Black

Directed by: Bruce Beresford
Written by: Bruce Beresford, Sue Milliken
Starring: Rachael Taylor, Julia Ormond, Angourie Rice, Susie Porter, Nicholas Hammond, Ryan Corr, Shane Jacobson, Noni Hazlehurst, Alison McGirr
Released: September 20, 2018
Grade: A-

Ladies in Black
There’s a Facebook page I follow which features old photos of Brisbane going back to the 19th Century.  I’m a sucker for nostalgia and it’s cool to see how much has changed (and not changed) in recent decades.  If that kind of thing is of interest to you, Ladies in Black is worth your money for its setting alone.  It takes place in Sydney, 1959 with the focus being the hard-working ladies who serve customers in a David Jones style department store known as “Goode’s”.  There are no EFTPOS machines, bar codes or high-tech sound systems.  This was a time when customers were greeted by a doorman and soothed by the beautiful music of an in-store pianist.

Based on the novel by Madeleine St. John and brought to the screen by director Bruce Beresford (Breaker Morant, Driving Miss Daisy), Ladies in Black spreads its time across a wide assortment of characters.  Lisa (Rice) is a 16-year-old who has accepted a summer job at Goode’s to help in the women’s clothes department over the busy Christmas period.  She has loftier goals of going to university and studying arts but this is her chance to put a few dollars in the bank before going down that path.

A group of women take the inexperienced Lisa under their wing and show her the ropes.  Miss Cartwright (Hazlehurst) is the wise elder stateswoman who is quick to defuse tricky situations – everything from vomit on the floor to an ill-fitting dress.  Fay (Taylor) and Patty (McGirr) are two close friends who love to gossip about customers and snarky staff members.  Madga (Ormond) is an immigrant from Slovenia who schmoozes clients with her European accent and extensive knowledge of fashion.

There’s not a lot of conflict in the movie but that’s not its intention.  This is a fun, easy-to-like drama about good things happening to good people.  Everyone has something to learn and something to share.  Fay is quick to share her wisdom when it comes to customer service and in return, Lisa teaches her about classic literary works including Anna Karenina.  Madga provides a crash course in expensive, high-end fashion and again, Lisa repays the favour by helping find a date for Magda’s migrant friend (Corr).

There are a lot of great individual scenes.  One of the best arrives early in the film when Lisa tries to convince her conservative father (Jacobson) that she should attend university.  Her mother suggests she wait until he’s in a good mood… and the perfect time arrives when he backs the winner of a horse race.  Another sequence takes us back to a long-forgotten time when school results were published in major newspapers and Lisa’s father is inundated with congratulatory words.  There’s no shortage of laughs either with Beresford including a running gag about the rivalry between Sydney and Melbourne.

The performances here are top-notch.  17-year-old Angourie Rice (The Nice Guys, The Beguiled) is one of the best teen actresses in the business and is immensely likeable as the sweet-smiling Lisa.  Her character has a charm and innocence that reels in friends like a magnet.  Julia Ormond (Legends of the Fall) brings a great accent and take-no-prisoners vibe to her role as Magda while Rachael Taylor (Red Dog) is terrific as she illustrates the insecurities of the doubting Fay.

There’s a deeper layer to the narrative which offers a 1950s perspective on issues such as women’s rights and immigration but it’s not pushed in a heavy-handed manner.  Bruce Beresford’s gets his message across by having us fall in love with these wonderful characters and for that reason, Ladies in Black is of the year’s best Australian flicks.

Review: Christopher Robin

Directed by: Marc Foster
Written by: Alex Ross Perry, Tom McCarthy, Allison Schroeder, Greg Brooker, Mark Steven Johnson
Starring: Ewan McGregor, Hayley Atwell, Jim Cummings, Brad Garrett, Peter Capaldi, Sophie Okonedo
Released: September 13, 2018
Grade: B+

Christopher Robin
Director Marc Foster has made some very good films (Monster’s Ball, Stranger than Fiction World War Z) but it was pressure from his 6-year-old daughter that lured him into different genre.  She was tired to him making movies for “grown-ups” and so when the script landed on his lap for a live-action Winne the Pooh film, he was quick to throw his hat in the ring and pitch his vision to Walt Disney Pictures.

Christopher Robin is based on the famous characters first created by author A.A. Milne in 1926 but this is an original story.  In this books, Christopher Robin was a young boy who was best friends an assortment of characters including Pooh, Tigger and Eeyore.  His narrative wrapped up the final chapter of Milne’s second book when he left the Hundred Acre Wood behind and headed off to boarding school.  The time had come to shred his innocence and learn about the real world.

After a great introduction that reflects on Milne’s writings, Foster’s film then introduces us to the grown up version of Christopher Robin (McGregor) who is living on London in the years following World War II.  He’s happily married with a young daughter but is work-life balance is completely out of kilter.  He recently had to cancel a family holiday to the country because his demanding boss asked that he work all weekend or an urgent report to cut costs from the company.

It’s at this point that Winne the Pooh re-enters his life unexpectedly and the pair go on a trip back to the Hundred Acre Wood to help Pooh find his lost friends.  The analogy here is obvious.  We often lose our sense of fun and adventure when we become adults and with Christopher’s life dominated by work, the time has come to tap back into his childhood and relook at things with a fresh perspective.

It’s heavy-handed in places but the writers could be forgiven given this is a family film targeted at people of all ages.  Children should engage with the cute, fluffy characters and will absorb the obvious messages.  There’s not as much for the adults but they should still get a laugh from the manically depressed Eeyore (voiced by Brad Garrett) who can’t catch a break.

When it comes to the work of the animation team, the level of detail is outstanding.  They’ve even included the stitching lines on these stuffed creatures to make them look and feel like they’ve been pulled from a toy box at home.  Many voices will be recognisable such as Toby Jones as Owl and Peter Capaldi as Rabbit.  Jim Cummings provides the voice of Pooh and you couldn’t ask for anyone more knowledgeable given he’s been voicing the character in Disney cartoons since the late 1980s.

Complete with fresh songs from 90-year-old Richard Sherman (Mary Poppins, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang), Christopher Robin is textbook family entertainment.

Review: The Predator

Directed by: Shane Black
Written by: Shane Black, Fred Dekker
Starring: Boyd Holbrook, Trevante Rhodes, Jacob Tremblay, Keegan-Michael Key, Olivia Munn, Sterling K. Brown
Released: September 13, 2018
Grade: C+

The Predator
In 1987, 25-year-old Shane Black landed his first significant role in Hollywood.  He played a U.S. mercenary who was brutally killed by an alien in the original Predator.  Since that time, Black has made a name for himself as both a writer (Lethal Weapon) and a director (The Nice Guys, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang).  It’s a cute touch that the now 56-year-old Black sits in the director’s chair for this new Predator flick.  It’s now his decision as to which characters will meet a grizzly, gruesome demise.

It comes with a completely fresh cast but The Predator is best described as a sequel (as opposed to a reboot) as it makes reference to events in the earlier movies.  It opens with a sequence that will sound familiar to fans of the series and the broader genre – an alien spaceship slips through a black hole and crashes in a secluded forest on Earth.  On board is a large, hideous creature who is almost impossible to kill due to his agility, strength, and cloaking powers.

There’s an amusing, Family Guy style gag in the movie about why scientists refer to the creatures as “Predators”.  That name isn’t fully appropriate as they only attack people who are armed and they don’t rely on humans as a source of food.  Alternative descriptors are suggested but for whatever reason, Predators is what we’re stuck with.  These scenes are relevant as they highlight that The Predator is as much of a comedy as it is a sci-fi thriller.

The characters are an eclectic bunch.  Boyd Holbrook (Logan) heads a group of military misfits who find themselves in the firing line of not just the Predators but also a secretive government agency, headed by the villainous Stirling K. Brown, looking to protect their alien research.  I’d humorously argue that these guys end up killing more humans (for good reason I might add) than they do aliens!

Other “good guys” include Olivia Munn (X-Men: Apocalypse) as a scientist who finds herself in the firing line and the adorable Jacob Tremblay (Room) as a young boy with autism who comes into contact with alien technology.  Australian Yvonne Strahovski (Chuck) also gets a few good one liners as a mother who finds her house overrun by the military folk as they hide from the approaching creatures.

This is mindless, harmless entertainment.  Aside from the laughs, it’s not offering much in terms of thrills and originality.  We’ve seen this movie before and, based on the climax, we’re likely to see it again.  I have no issue with the cast and their wide range of personalities.  My problem is that it’s such a familiar narrative and there’s nothing special about the major action pieces.

Box-office will determine whether there’s a 7th film (if we include the Alien v Predator movies) in this long running franchise.  If there is, I’ll be going in with lower expectations.