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: 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.


Review: The Great Wall

Directed by: Zhang Yimou
Written by: Carlo Bernard, Doug Miro, Tony Gilroy
Starring: Matt Damon, Jing Tian, Pedro Pascal, Willem Dafoe, Andy Lau
Released: February 16, 2017
Grade: B+

The Great Wall
With a price tag of $135 million USD, The Great Wall is the most expensive film ever shot in China.  That’s a significant milestone given the country is now one of cinema’s most important markets.  It comes to us from Zhang Yimou, the acclaimed Chinese director whose credits include Raise the Red Lantern, Hero and House of Flying Daggers.  He also directed the opening and closing ceremonies for the 2008 Summer Olympic Games in Beijing.

This is an epic creation and it’s not hard to see where the money was spent.  It may be set atop one of the world’s great landmarks but the film is anything but a history lesson.  It takes us back to ancient times not long after the Great Wall of China was constructed.  We learn that the wall was built to protect its people from invasion.  I guess that part is true.  The twist here is that the enemy are monsters (and I don’t mean that in the metaphorical sense) as opposed to other tribes.  As a medieval-style fantasy, it resembles Game of Thrones but with a Chinese flavour.

The hero who helps save the day is William Garin (Damon).  He’s a Westerner who is travelling with his close friend, Pero (Pascal), and is looking for the elusive “black powder” to take back home.  I’m not sure what country William is from but there’s a tinge of Irish in Damon’s accent.  They stumble across the Nameless Order – a huge collection of warriors who help guard the wall and stop the monsters from getting past.

It feels odd to be saying this but the weakest element of the film is Damon.  He and Pascal have fun with some light banter earlier but he’s not the most exciting of heroes.  Their plans to steal dynamite from with the help of another unnecessary European (Dafoe) don’t add up to much.  The real stars of this film are the Chinese actors.  28-year-old Jing Tian is wonderful as a female leader within the Order who commands a strong presence.  We’ll see more from her later this year in Kong: Skull Island and Pacific Rim: Uprising.

Kudos also must go to Yimou and the screenwriting team who have achieved something that’s quite difficult – creating original, creative action sequences.  Instead of the mindless, over-edited, over-the-top rubbish that has infested the action genre, we’re treated to some colourful, stylish scenes as the warriors use an array of tricks and weaponry to slay the monsters.  An example is the use of “whistling arrows” that help warn soldiers of an attacking enemy. 

The film had several naysayers in China after its release back in December.  The official newspaper of the Chinese Communist Party called the negative reviews a “vicious and irresponsible” attempt to “grab eyeballs”.  Some of these reviews then mysteriously disappeared from websites.  I’m happy to say that this is a fun, entertaining film that doesn’t overstay its welcome.  Oh, and to be clear, that’s my opinion and in no way was I influenced by an outside party!


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: Hidden Figures

Directed by: Theodore Melfi
Written by: Theodore Melfi, Allison Schroeder
Starring: Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe, Kevin Costner, Kirsten Dunst, Jim Parsons
Released: February 16, 2017
Grade: B+

Hidden Figures
If you pick up an aerospace history book, you can read about John Glenn becoming the first American astronaut to orbit the Earth in 1962.  What you’re unlikely to see are the names of the hundreds, if not thousands, of people who contributed to that milestone with their work behind the scenes.

Hidden Figures focuses on three individuals in particular.  They were all African American and they were all pioneers who overcame huge barriers at NASA because of their sex and race.  Katherine Johnson (Henson) was a mathematician who could perform calculations as fast as anyone.  Mary Jackson (Monáe) was a budding engineer who helped design the space capsule.  Dorothy Vaughan (Spencer) was a supervisor who learned to master one of the first IBM electronic computers.

Based on the non-fiction book by Margot Lee Shetterly, the screenwriting team have given it a light touch.  Don’t get me wrong – the discrimination these women endured was outrageous.  I’d like to hope that you couldn’t get away with it today.  Rather than make this too depressing, the screenwriting team have crafted a film that highlights and celebrates their achievements.  There are lots of laughs and these characters offer lots of personality.

The villains in this tale are the work colleagues who refused to acknowledge the efforts of Katherine, Mary and Dorothy in the workplace.  Jim Parsons plays the lead engineer who goes to great lengths to make simple tasks all the more difficult for them.  Kirsten Dunst is an administration supervisor who plays down their efforts and squashes their hopes at promotions and pay rises.  Kevin Costner fits somewhere in the middle – the director of the Space Task Group who realises there’s a problem but is too busy to act on it.

Given increasing number of sequels, reboots, remakes and spin-offs released in cinemas each year, I often worry that we’ve run out of good stories to tell.  This film refutes that concern.  Writer-director Theodore Melfi (St. Vincent) was in serious contention to direct the new Spider-Man reboot but when he read the draft script for Hidden Figures, he withdrew his name from consideration and took this on instead.  He, like so many others, realised this was a great yarn worth telling.

Audiences and critics have agreed.  The film has been nominated for 3 Academy Awards including best picture and recently won the lucrative Screen Actors Guild Award for the best ensemble.  It has pulled in $125 million at the box-office in the United States (a figure higher than any of the other best picture nominees) and spent its first three weeks in the #1 position.  Given the $25 million budget, it’s one of this year’s big success stories.

The film isn’t perfect.  It’s a simplistic, cheesy and repetitive in places.  There’s not much depth to the supporting players.  You can put most of those criticisms aside because it’s the wonderful lead performances that will win you over.  Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe are very, very hard to dislike.  They’ve created three distinctive personas for their respective characters and they serve as a fun, beautiful tribute for the real life counterparts.

If Hollywood can keep producing more films like this, I’ll be a happy individual.


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.