Reviews

Kindness of Strangers (2020)

Written for RAF News May 2020

Against the frantic backdrop of New York City comes a story of implausible connection, as one woman tries eagerly to escape the clutches of an abusive relationship with her two boys in tow, seeking help wherever she can find it.

The Kindness of Strangers Review: Your Holiday Turkey - That Shelf

Zoe Kazan plays Clara, the mother quickly fleeing Upstate New York to Manhattan with such fearful haste that it gives you some idea of the threat that she has left behind. With no money or place to stay, the runaway family sleep in their car – until of course it is towed. Shuffling from place to place, desperate and paranoid, she must steal clothes to wear and canapés to keep her kids fed.

The film begins by introducing several characters and gradually overlapping their stories, but make no mistake, there is no Curtis cheeriness, but an improbably hopeful story about compassion and community. There is the angel-made-flesh Alice (Andrea Riseborough), who works as a nurse to pay the bills but also volunteers at a soup kitchen for the homeless and running a group for people seeking forgiveness. There is ex-convict Marc (Tahar Rahim) who runs a Russian restaurant with the faux-Russian Tim (the accent is good for business apparently), played by Bill Nighy with superb scene-stealing nonchalance.

What could have easily been more melodramatic, is given more weight by the committed performance by Kazan at the centre. There are a few details that have certain characters seeming to belong in their environment and dramatic moments that aren’t exploitative.

With a title that serves as a mission statement, Kindness of Strangers is so unrealistic that it is almost fantastical in its optimism. But like many of its characters, it’s heart is in the right place.

Astronaut (2020)

Written for RAF News May 2020

Elderly widower Angus Stewart (Richard Dreyfuss) dreams of being an astronaut, and now he may actually be afforded the opportunity when a lottery is opened to the public for the first ever commercial spaceflight.

Astronaut' Review: Richard Dreyfuss Makes an Endearing Space ...

About to be carted off to a care home though he clearly still has his wits about him, Angus is resigned to his position. Grief-stricken he spends his nights outside drinking with his telescope, looking to find where he belongs. That is until his grandson urges him to enter a competition that could see him join a team on a two week trip through space. They would need to lie about his age and heart condition, but other than that highly dangerous risk, he has the sense of wonder they’re looking for.

Marcus Brown (Colm Feore) is the entrepreneur behind it all, a Richard Branson come Willy Wonka, who has a passion for space travel that resonates with Stewart. But what at first seems to be an unlikely beating-of-the-odds for our stargazing Grandpa Joe, becomes a different story altogether as he spots an issue with the runway as he is cast out of the competition.

An ex-civil engineer, this is his area of expertise and so it becomes his mission to bring it to everyones attention, without appearing bitter from rejection. This becomes another one of those highly improbable situations like Armageddon in which a regular salt-of-the-earth guy notices a problem that teams of well trained experts overlook. Evidently, they’re going to need a bigger road. A tougher road. You get the idea.

Dreyfuss adds confidence to proceedings, with a believable sense of passion that could just bag him another close encounter in Astronaut. Unfortunately the wistful pace and lack of substance leave this performance floating out on its own.

Storm Boy (2019)

Storm Boy': Review | Reviews | Screen

Written for RAF News April 2020

Geoffrey Rush plays Michael Kingley, an ageing businessman who is about to vote on whether a mining company can exploit the land that he grew up on, the beautiful South Australian beaches of Coorong. This casts him back into memories of his childhood and in particular his relationship with Mr. Percival, a pelican.

Mostly told through flashbacks, Mike is played by Finn Little as a young boy, living out in a shack with his stoic but sweet father (Jai Courtney), reading Lord of the Flies together, apparently serving as a corporate manifesto in this context.

However it is when he meets a local Indigenous man by the name of Fingerbone Bill (Trevor Jamieson) that he starts to connect more with nature. The birds native to the island are being hunted for sport and whilst his own father is indifferent, he feels an urge to protect them. Discovering an orphaned nest of chicks with Bill, he takes them home to raise them himself.

Whilst his father is initially resistant, he sees the passion that has awoken his boy and so supports in designing contraptions to feed them until they can do it for themselves. Not quite the emotional turmoil of Casper and his Kes, young Michael still finds an escape in the rearing of the birds, opting to keep one as the family pet.

As they grow larger we some footage of these remarkably playful pelicans, creating a real connection between Michael and the birds. It is the unsubtle dialogue that treads on the tenderness of the story. The framing device with Rush doesn’t really add anything to the story, other than a heavy-handed morality.

Apparently a well known Australian novel that had been adapted into a beloved-to-some movie, this recent adaptation doesn’t do anything very interesting but the innocence of children and animals is a surefire way to get a dose of empathy.

The Rest of Us (2020)

The Rest of Us (2020) - Rotten Tomatoes

Written for RAF News April 2020

Cami (Heather Graham) and her teenage daughter Aster (Sophie Nélisse) live in a beautiful hill-top home isolated from the world, that is until some guests arrive in the shape of her ex-husband’s new wife and young daughter following his sudden accidental death.

When Cami finds out that Rachel (Jodi Balfour), the so-called ‘homewrecker’, has not only been widowed, but unravelling financial struggles have lead to her being evicted, she offers her slice of paradise as a place to stay. What was perhaps a sympathetic gesture, is initially refused but soon becomes the only option, much to the annoyance of everyone involved.

The Rest of Us looks at the relationships between these women, how they deal with grief over this absent male presence, and the ripples of his decisions that continue to affect them. Both mothers fail to connect with their own daughters, Cami professing to have a way with kids, where Rachel is closer in age with a rebellious mindset to get approval of the teenager. Together forming a yin-yang of roles, this of course does not account for jealousy, rivalry and social tensions – with some secrets threatening to divide the family up once more.

There is a maturity to the storytelling which is able to avoid over-explaining. A quick cutting style punctuates some funny moments and dramatic turns at the end of a scene, but it’s continued use makes it feel choppy. It has all the makings of an indie film but the editing style of an action movie. The fast pace moves the story along but also stops it from finding a rhythm or slowing down enough to connect with characters emotionally. Strange considering the film is centred around the grieving process.

What it does achieve though is showing a range of female voices, both in front of and behind the camera. Playing off stereotyped hostility, these characters exhibit solidarity without it being too clean and patronising, it is messy and complex but ultimately humanitarian.

The Lighthouse (2020)

Written for RAF News January 2020

A late-nineteenth century ghost story set in a lighthouse in New England. A weathered keeper and his freshly imported assistant divide the duties, with young Winslow (Robert Pattinson) taking the more gruelling and physically demanding jobs, whilst Wake (Willem Dafoe) looks after the light itself, guarding it with almost religious fervour. Stuck with only each other, as a storm prevents them from leaving, what begins as minor grievances will grow into cut-throat resentments as the isolation tares at their sanity.

Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson in The Lighthouse (2019)

There is a mythic energy expressed though stark and sometimes surreal imagery as well as ornate language straight from the writings of Melville and Milton. These two masculine figures, young and old, are left to stew in a steaming froth of bitterness and paranoia, bubbling out into Shakespearian soliloquies with biblical wrath. Dafoe delights in the extremes of his character, filled with both humour and fury. Pattinson’s anger will spill out also, squirming under the regime of the man who controls his pay.

Shot in black and white, through lenses a century old, the square aspect ratio is tall enough to capture the phallic lighthouse in all its glory, and creating mountains of Pattinson and Defoe’s faces: hairy, crusty and carved with age. With the image boxed in, the claustrophobia is transferred straight to the audience and you can almost smell the salt and damp.

This is no ordinary film, it is a fever dream of symbolism and dark poetry, of seagulls and sirens. It is both artistic and crass, exhibiting all manner of bodily fluids as the two keepers drunkenly spiral into madness. Cowritten and directed by Robbert Eggers, whose debut The Witch had a similar affection for period detail and dialogue, The Lighthouse is another plunge into the same waters, only deeper and darker with less to hold on to.

Jojo Rabbit (2020)

Written for RAF News January 2020

A coming of age story set in the waning years of rule in Nazi Germany, Jojo Rabbit follows young Johannes (Roman Griffin Davis) and the relationships with his rebellious mother, the young Jewish girl hiding in the attic and his invisible friend and motivating confidant, Adolf Hitler.

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There are certainly moments of darkness in the film, the true horror of the situation can’t help but push through the playfully subversive tone, but for the most part it plays as a cross between Moonrise Kingdom and Drop Dead Fred. The comedy is constant, propelled with flare by writer director Taika Watiti himself as Jojo’s goofily imagined version of Hitler, offering encouragement when he has no-one else.

Living at home with his mother (Scarlett Johansson), Johannes wants to belong to something and so becomes a fervant fanboy of the Nazi party – Hitler and swastikas adorn his wall like band posters. A member of a Nazi youth camp, headed by a literally and figuratively resigned Captain Klenzendorf (excellently played by Sam Rockwell), here he will learn how to hunt Jews and use explosives. That is until an accident has him thrown out, reduced to a position that has him spending more time at home where he makes the ideology shattering discovery that his mother is hiding the enemy (Thomasin McKenzie).

Led by his ardent but naive enthusiasm, Jojo knows that he can’t risk endangering his mother, and so decides to interrogate the intruder and learn all that he can about the Jews, how they have tails and sleep upside down like bats.

Although there is a deep and truthful resonance with how Nazi propaganda dehumanised Jewish people, the film cleverly refocusses this mythology to be spouted by a prepubescent boy, mocking the absurdity of it all and usurping the power of these historical villains.

Waititi is continuing a precedent set by Charlie Chaplin almost a century ago when making The Great Dictator, stating that “Hitler must be laughed at”.

A Hidden Life (2020)

Written for RAF News December 2019

Terence Malick returns to the subject of the Second World War, this time using his philosophically meandering style to focus on one man’s resistance in a small mountain town in Austria.

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Malick’s films have become rather divisive since his foray into the more heady and artistic beginning with Tree of Life at the start of the decade. Using a combination of grand sweeping shots of stunning landscapes, and macro observations of intimate detail, he creates a poetic lament on lofty subjects such as the nature of existence, usually through the lens of Christian morality.

A Hidden Life fits perfectly into this mould, observing Franz Jägerstätter (August Diehl) with his family, the simple pleasures of harvesting crops and playing with his children. This mountain life will soon be disrupted by the growing Nazi invasion as it demands support and allegiance – requiring everyone in town to contribute toward the cause and swear an oath to Adolph Hitler.

Franz’s act of defiance will set him on course for execution, and so he must consider the morality of his actions, weighing the impact on his conscience against the consequences to his family. A question is being asked of the audience, not so subtly mind, of what it means to believe in something and to stand up for it at whatever cost.

The slow pace and long shots ground the characters, so that without dialogue you feel as though you understand the complex emotions. The reflective nature of the film works to have you contemplate the ideas that are being presented, but this pretty much instructed almost instructed by the whispered narration of characters thoughts, another Malick staple, that could be distractingly heavy handed if it weren’t the only element breaking the repetition.

There are moments of observed beauty and connection, but within a much longer and perhaps intentionally simple film, with a 3 hour running time, the point is somehow both lost and overstated.

Honey Boy (2019)

Written for RAF News November 2019

Loving affection overshadows the abusive relationship between a child actor and his father.

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Written by Shia LaBeouf as a ‘therapy project’, Honey Boy is set around the point in his life when he was the star of a Disney show, captured here as 12 year old Otis (Noah Jupe). Achieving success that would soon bloom into a film career the film focusses instead on the damage of these formative years, jumping back and forward through time to reveal the beginnings of what would later be diagnosed as PTSD.

Opening with a dizzingly assembled montage tracking the successes and exploits of Otis in his 20s (Lucas Hedges), the line is blurred between the person on and off screen. It appears that LaBeouf aims to explain his tabloid notoriety of being drunk and disorderly (arrested for such behaviour as late as July 2017 when shooting recent release Peanut Butter Falcon). The point of both trauma and inspiration appears to be Otis’ father James Lort, a hardened rodeo clown with a a chip from AA and a permanently blocked nose from cocaine abuse, played with phenomenal depth by LeBeouf himself. James is a performer who never made it, belittling his son’s achievements whilst being completely dependant on them, pocketing the per diem and leaving Otis to steal food from the catering on set.

Acting as his son’s vicious cheerleader, there is a fascinating dual quality at play. Young Otis represents the vulnerable and rage-filled child who desperately wants his father’s love, trying and failing to hold his hand in public. Constantly confronted by his failures, LeBeouf, that same little boy grown up, captures the shameful but dedicated part of the father, closing the gap of understanding by putting himself in the role. Our awareness of the actor and the material adds such complexity that the catharsis is palpable.

The chemistry between Jupe and LaBeouf is incredible, at once reviled and idolised, theirs is a complicated relationship that requires much empathy. Filled with comedy and darkness, more often than not holding one within the other. It reminds of last years Ladybird, and perhaps it’s director Alma Har’el that lends a tenderness that creeps in and takes over.

Lying and Stealing (2019)

Written for RAF News November 2019

Beautiful people Ivan and Elyse combine their charm and guile in a con job that aims to get them both out of trouble.

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Symmetrically handsome art thief Ivan (Theo James, Divergent Series) owes mob boss Dimitri (Fred Melamed) for the debt of his deceased father. Apparently only two jobs away from his freedom, things seem too good to be true until a local murder and the appearance of the FBI parked outside his apartment.

Added to this, Ivan’s bi-polar brother (Ebon Moss-Bachrach) with the same genetic sticky fingers moves in from rehab, and there’s the addition of wily bombshell Elyse (Emily Ratajkowski), an actress disgraced from Hollywood for rejecting the approach of a lecherous producer, trading favours and taking an interest in our mumbly monotonous hero.

Lying and Stealing does not wait around, it’s a quick 100 minutes that establishes its stakes early on, telegraphs the good guys and the bad, and lets you enjoy the heisty action in short snappy scenes. It doesn’t set up the method of the job, or lean on tension whilst its playing out, you’re simply dropped into the moment to enjoy the satisfaction of someone stealthily applying their craft and using gadgets without detection.

Some way into the film the directorial style comes out of nowhere and it feels like its suddenly appealing to an older audience in both its language and violence. Largely though, it plays as a crime caper with the twists straightened and the style ironed out. It doesn’t get bogged down in the usual double-crosses and plays pretty straight for the most part.

The story is simple and the template shows itself in the details (the big bad known as ‘The Greek’), but there is something to be said for not trying to be too clever and having your grasp exceed your reach.

It could have been more complex or humorous, but it wasn’t, and that’s fine.

The King (2019)

Written for RAF News October 2019

Shakespeare’s Henriad plays become a modernised historical epic but pared down to a few characters and fewer battles. The King appears more as a toothless morality play about the compromise that comes with power and the inevitability of war.

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Timothée Chalamet is Prince Hal, the wayward son of King Henry, a drunken Lothario albeit with perfect curls. His reluctance to fight his father’s war loses him favour and the crown. But when his father (Ben Mendelsohn) is unable to keep peace within the country it seems rebellious young Hal might just be what England needs, as a series of events lead him to become King Henry V.

A self-proclaimed pacifist, the new King resists trivial provocations from France but with council in his ear speaking of politics and ‘the mood of the people’, he finds himself drawn in. Co-written and directed by David Michôd, you might expect harsh and unflinching violence, what with his debut Animal Factory. The King bides its time however, and for the most part consists of Henry trying to avoid battle, deliberating with his advisor (Sean Harris) and the Archbishop (Andrew Havill). When violence eventually creeps into the film, and war is waged against France, it appears at various stages to mark the compromise of Henry’s stance, it’s graphic depiction marking each lost foothold with gruesome impact.

This aspect of the film appears original, but serves only to highlight the larger parts of the film which are all too familiar and dramatically played out. The Battle of Agintcour interestingly begins messy and unclear, suffocating under the weight of clattering armour down in the mud, until King Henry’s right hand man Sir John Falstaff stands and takes off his helmet so we can follow along.

Joel Edgerton, who shares a writing credit, is Falstaff: bulky and burly with a Yorkshire affectation – one that stands up against Chalamet’s impressive but sometimes waining English and Robert Pattinson’s double-barrelled French accent, as the almost moustache twirling Dauphin.

It is entertaining at times, original in moments, but for the most part The King is just flat with some interesting performances thrown on top.