“Sweet Country” Review

Sweet Country

The Australian landscape is perfectly suited for the Western genre, with wide-open plains that suggest both exquisite beauty and dangerous inhospitality. Despite a string of bushranger films in the early years of Australian cinema, notably including The True History of the Kelly Gang (scenes of which are on display in Sweet Country), it’s less common to see Australian Westerns lately. Fortunately there have been two recent examples of films that utilises the outback to tell stories of crime, the police, and outlaws through the perspective of Indigenous Australians, demonstrating the rise of new voices to one of our oldest genres – first 2016’s excellent Goldstone (Ivan Sen) and now the poetic and artful Sweet Country, from Samson and Delilah director Warwick Thornton.

On paper the story of Sweet Country is remarkably simple, feeling frustratingly slow at times but nicely split into a clear three-act structure. We’re first introduced to Sam Kelly (Hamilton Morris), an Aboriginal man working on a farm in the 1920s under the care of preacher Fred Smith (Sam Neill). When he meets veteran Harry March (Ewen Lesie), Sam is immediately wary of the man due to his alcoholism, unstable mental state, and clear racial prejudice. When March attacks Smith’s house in search of an escaped Aboriginal boy who had been working on his land, Sam is forced to shoot and kill him in an act of self-defence. The second act follows him as he attempts to escape persecution by fleeing into the wilderness, pursued by Sergeant Fletcher (Bryan Brown), and the third act details his murder trial. Yet the simplicity of the story enables Thornton to put his audience into each moment by emphasising all the smaller, natural details of the world he presents.

Sweet Country is an extraordinarily sensorial experience, particularly through the soundscape Thornton and his team have constructed. With the exception of a single Johnny Cash song over the end credits there is no music throughout the picture, instead a soundtrack of harsh winds and the calls of nature permeate through every scene. It places the viewer firmly within each environment, with the camera emphasising the vastness of the outback. Acting as cinematographer as well as director, Thornton has created the best looking Australian film in years. He uses the natural beauty of his setting to contrast the rustic and dirty homes of the European settlers, demonstrating how they fail to tame and coexist with the land they’ve taken over. Sweet Country never fails to remind the audience how the white farmers are taking both the homes and culture of the Aboriginal people, and Thornton does it in a way that feels more like stating a fact than preaching a message. The indigenous characters seem sadly resigned to their situations, even as they struggle to understand the new rules that are being forced upon them. Morris’s performance as Sam demonstrates a weariness and ingrained understanding of the injustices facing him and his people, with his facial expression rarely changing from a look of profound sadness. For even if sympathetic characters like Fred Smith try to treat Sam as an equal, he is never able to forget the power imbalance between them.

By utilising classic elements of the Western genre and a simple story of a man fleeing persecution, Thornton is able to delve deeper into a powerful exploration of Australia’s darker past. At various points throughout Sweet Country there are flash-forwards to later moments in the film, ambiguous at first glance only to be given greater meaning later. I found that this works to remind viewers that these events, set in the 1920s, have already happened, and to suggest the importance of remembering our history even if we can’t change it.

4 and a half stars.

“I, Tonya” Review

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Since starting this website I’ve written reviews for a number of biopics, particularly with the rush of Oscar-bait pictures before the Academy Awards in March. I, Tonya sets a new standard against which they should all be judged, as director Craig Gillespie and screenwriter Steven Rogers strive to reinvent the public perception of controversial figure skater Tonya Harding through a fast-paced, comically tragic feature that uses the truth as a toy.

Framed in a mockumentary style, Rogers’s script utilises interviews with Tonya, her ex-husband Jeff Gillooly, her mother LaVona Fay Golden, and her coach Diane Rawlinson as they all share very different perspective on the events leading up to and including the famous 1994 attack on Harding’s rival, Nancy Kerrigan. The contradictory narration from each character provides a refreshing twist on a narrative technique that’s often used to hide bad writing, as the main figures of the story will interrupt their own scenes to defend themselves from more outlandish accusations or assure the audience that yes – some of these things did really happen. At times Gillespie’s direction seems to be paying homage to classic Scorsese works, particularly the fourth-wall breaking of Goodfellas or the in-the-ring camera work of Raging Bull, but to accuse him of simple imitation would be a disservice. There’s a tremendous speed to this film, with cinematographer Nicolas Karakatsanis rarely keeping the camera still as it moves through the Harding household during one of Tonya and Jeff’s violent arguments or follows her through her routines. The camera work and Tatiana S. Riegel’s editing operate in tandem to join together various moments of Tonya’s life, with days depicted in single unbroken shots and Tanya’s past and future intercut to demonstrate her highs and lows. Similarly, the comic and the tragic are balanced brilliantly, as the hilariously colourful insults the characters throw at each other turn dark as they move into physical and psychological abuse, or moments of genuine vulnerability are met with audacious responses.

Unsurprisingly the characters in I, Tonya operate in a fairly dark moral plane, ranging from the abusive to the dangerously dumb. The entire cast don’t hold back from showcasing the worst traits of their characters as their performances suggest how they came to get that way – particularly Margot Robbie and Alison Janney as Tonya and LaVona. This is easily the best performance of Robbie’s career, presenting the hard edge Harding has had to build as well as the desperation she feels to prove herself. Her expressions often say more than Rogers’ script ever could, looking directly into the camera in moments of ecstatic triumph, deranged determination, and broken despair. Robbie makes a woman who has been vilified by the media remarkably sympathetic without portraying her as an innocent; she’s not America’s sweetheart and she’s not a monster, but a complicated woman who has been abused much of her life. As she herself states, “for a moment I was loved, then I was hated.” One notable moment has Robbie decrying the media while speaking directly at the camera, and it was as if I could feel the real Tonya Harding’s anger extending out from beyond the movie. Janney, who has been consistently excelling in supporting roles since The West Wing finished, is finally given another part to display her considerable talents and range as she hurls out curses and cutting remarks to anyone who challenges her. Janney displays a world-weariness and anger that she takes out on Tonya with a weak excuse that it makes her a better skater, performed in a way that suggests she doesn’t even believe her own lies but can’t connect to her daughter any other way. Rounding out the cast is Sebastian Stan as Jeff, who alternates between doting on Tonya and beating her, and Paul Walter Hauser as Shawn Eckhardt, Tonya’s deluded incompetent bodyguard who is so ridiculous that Gillespie has to show footage of the real man over the end credits to make it clear that they didn’t invent some of his more absurd claims.

I, Tonya does a remarkable job bringing together multiple perspectives and accounts of Harding’s life, presenting a multifaceted depiction of a woman who has been treated as a one-dimensional joke for much of her life, and yet there is a significant absence that can’t help but prevent the story from reaching its true potential. Nancy Kerrigan is barely featured at all, and spoken about by others rather than getting to speak for herself. It’s unclear whether this omission was due to a real-life refusal from Kerrigan to take part or simply a decision to keep the story centred around Harding, but a film that aims to redeem her can’t quite pull it off by brushing over a figure who is that important to her life. Admittedly I, Tonya never claims to be the absolute truth about Harding, and by presenting reality as the characters remember it Gillespie is able to make a biopic more entertaining and nuanced that most, but with so many voices being heard the absence of such a significant one is distractingly evident.

4 and a half stars.

“Paddington 2” Review

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There was some trepidation before the release of the first Paddington movie in 2014 from English audiences and those who grew up with the familiar bear in the red hat and blue duffle coat, as the character was so iconic and ingrained in British culture that there were concerns the film wouldn’t do him justice. Personally I never read Michael Bond’s original books growing up, but adored Paul King’s warm and charming film so much that my worries were instead reserved for the release of the sequel, which I was convinced would be inferior. To my utter delight and surprise King (and Paddington) have returned with a film that is just as witty, pleasant, and visually inventive as its predecessor – if not more so due to a wider array of outlandish characters and larger set pieces.

The plot is simple, and largely an excuse for Paddington to wind up in a variety of Chaplin-esque comedic situations. Paddington wants to buy his Aunt Lucy a rare pop-up book of London for her birthday, so has to find a job to afford it. Unfortunately the book has also caught the attention of eccentric washed-up actor Phoenix Buchanan (Hugh Grant), who steals the book and frames Paddington. Paddington winds up in jail, and the friendly Brown family have to attempt to clear his name while uncovering Buchanan’s plot. A fairly standard story for a summer holidays release, and inoffensive for the kids in the audience, but what makes Paddington 2 truly special is the amount of heart and genuine goodwill it brings to every element of the itself. Paddington is constantly quoting his Aunt’s belief that if you look for the good in a person you’ll usually find it, and it’s this attitude that prevails throughout King and Simon Farnaby’s screenplay. Early scenes demonstrate how Paddington’s selflessness has improved the lives of everyone around his home in Windsor Gardens, both returning and new characters, and even the grouchiest figures can’t maintain their tough and cruel exteriors against the bear’s relentless optimism and determination. When much of recent news and pop culture purveys a cynical outlook on the world it’s like a breath of fresh air to have something so unashamedly nice, with the film encouraging an innocence without feeling naïve or ironic.

After the success of the first Paddington movie it seems that British actors were clamouring over one another to be involved with the sequel as nearly every role is filled with a recognisable face, from Brendan Gleeson to Jessica Hynes with delightful cameos from Joanna Lumley and Richard Ayoade. Ultimately, though, it’s Hugh Grant’s film to steal. I’m unsure whether the part of Phoenix Buchanan was specially written for him or simply genius casting but it allows him to parody his own extensive career while demonstrating his considerable talents, and it helps that it looks like he’s having the most fun of his life doing so. Regularly holding conversations with himself as different characters in room decorated with his real-life headshots and wearing a new flamboyant costume in every scene, it’s a completely unabashed performance that he relishes in with all the energy of a classic vaudeville star. Rather than the other actors being overwhelmed by such a performance, he’s frequently balanced by Sally Hawkins’ somewhat floaty Mary Brown and Hugh Bonneville’s sternly exasperated Henry Brown. Throughout it all Ben Whitsaw’s calm and gentle vocal performances as the titular bear maintains the sweetness at the core of Paddington 2 no matter how crazy the story gets.

The term “children’s film” is often used dismissively, but Paul King blends the real and the imaginative to visually reflect that sense of wonder associated with the mind of a child. London is transformed into a living storybook, toy houses open up into real ones, and the soundtrack is often played on-screen by the returning street band from the first film. Despite being a big-budgeted summer release Paddington 2 feels as playful and intimate as a passion project, and is one of the most irresistibly charming films in a long while – whether for children or adults. Also the film opens with a flashback to Paddington as a cub and it was so cute I nearly burst into tears right then and there.

4 and a half stars.

“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” Review

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Almost as soon as the audience is introduced to Mildred Hayes, the protagonist of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, it’s clear that she is not a woman to be trifled with. Framed from behind as she strides into a room, taking charge immediately as Carter Burwell’s commanding and almost heroic theme plays, she almost resembles the lone gunslinger of a classic Western – the one who would stand up for their cause against anyone who got in their way. Yet the more I saw of Mildred Hayes the more I felt that Three Billboards is demonstrating the folly of such a figure, and how fighting against the world does more harm than good.

Hayes has a good reason to be angry, though – her teenage daughter was violently murdered not far from her own home and seven months later the police still haven’t made any arrests, prompting her to hire out the titular billboards to hold them accountable and remind them of her daughter’s case. She’s a harsh woman who swears up a storm and doesn’t care what anyone thinks, completely willing to ruin her own reputation and the reputation of anyone who gets in her way as long as it means her daughter’s killer can be found. It’s a dangerous role that verges on being unlikable, but Frances McDormand delivers a career-best performance to suggest that a lifetime of pain and loss has forced Mildred to never acknowledge her own vulnerability again. McDormand commands every scene she’s in, overpowering and single-minded in her determination to get someone to listen to her. Where Mildred is assured and uncompromising in her belief that she is in the right, Sam Rockwell’s performance as the racist and violent Office Jason Dixon is unbalanced and volatile – lashing out whenever someone accuses him of being wrong. They’re two completely different figures yet the actors compliment each other perfectly, with both finding moments of tenderness in characters that push the boundaries of how far one can go while still being sympathetic. Somewhere between the two is Woody Harrelson as Sheriff Bill Willoughby, the primary focus of Hayes’s ire despite being deeply respected in town. Willoughby opposes Hayes’s accusations while begrudgingly respecting her strength, with writer-director Martin McDonagh’s script critiquing aspects of the police institution while also acknowledging the difficulty of the job.

While the humour in McDonagh’s previous films was as black as comedy can get they were undoubtedly still comedies – even if they did explore topics such as hitmen, psychotic murders, and dog-nappers. With Three Billboards the writer-director employs the strengths that made his prior scripts so entertaining – vulgar wit, politically incorrect dialogue, and frequently absurd conversations and scenarios – while still telling a dramatic and morally conflicted story of a mother’s frustration and fury over her lost daughter. The film is often laugh-out-loud funny but never feels as though the situation at its core is being made light of, and it marks McDonagh’s most confident work as a filmmaker yet.

They say drama comes from conflict, and there’s a considerable amount of conflict between the characters in Three Billboards. A powerful sense of anger can be felt throughout much of the film, and nearly every player in it either yells curses, insults, or actual punches at one another before it’s all over. What surprised me, though, is how despite this the story promotes the message that hatred never really solves anything. There aren’t any easy answers to many of the questions on offer within Three Billboards, and some who may not deserve redemption still seek it before the credits roll, but it’s a film that demonstrates how anger can’t fix a problem – just start new ones.

4 and a half stars.

“Coco” Review

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The title of Pixar’s new animated delight refers not to the main character, but to his great-grandmother, Mamá Coco. It’s a fitting title to encapsulate the themes of family evident in Coco, and the importance of balancing ambition with familial connections. The protagonist is actually twelve-year-old Miguel Rivera, the youngest member of a close-nit family of Mexican shoemakers who have forbidden any sort of music due to Miguel’s great-great grandfather abandoning his wife and child to follow his dream of being a musician. Miguel, of course, is obsessed with music, playing his homemade guitar in a secret room dedicated to his idol, Ernesto de la Cruz – Mexico’s most famous musician, and possibly Miguel’s long lost great-grandfather. When Miguel attempts to steal…er, borrow, de la Cruz’s guitar to enter his village’s Day of the Dead talent show, he winds up cursed and trapped in the Land of the Dead. In order to return to the Land of the Living, he needs to get the blessing of a deceased ancestor – but one who will encourage his desire to play music.

Coco is a beautiful love letter to Mexican culture and the Day of the Dead holiday. While it’s not the first animated film to do so, with 2014’s The Book of Life even having a similar plot, director Lee Unkrich and co-director Adrian Molina have filled the feature with vivid neon colours, a lively soundtrack, imaginative set-pieces, and the usual array of inventive characters so that the film works as a respectful depiction and representation of foreign traditions while still fitting alongside other classic features in Pixar’s filmography. The Land of the Dead is filled with visual treats, with strong contrasting orange and blue tones across the buildings and the delightful multi-coloured designs of the alebrije – animalistic spirit guides who serve the dead. Fittingly for a movie where music plays such an important role, the story is often told through the soundtrack – with Michael Giacchino’s score alternating between a simple acoustic guitar and full mariachi bands. The original songs by Frozen composers Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez, with Adrian Molina and Germaine Franco, regularly mark Coco’s best scenes, with a musical battle towards the climax that was easily the standout moment from any animated picture I saw in 2017. The main song, “Remember Me”, is reprised and covered in so many different ways throughout the film that while I found it cheesy and bland when it first played I was fighting back tears during its final rendition.

Pixar continue their trend of believable animated characters with the cast of Coco. Anthony Gonzalez puts an astonishing amount of emotion into his performance as Miguel, speaking and singing, so that the heart of the story and Miguel’s desires is never swept away by the cartoonish setting and hijinks. The animation of Héctor Rivera – a dead conman who enlists Miguel to help him visit his family in the Land of the Living – is inspired, with different parts of his skeletal body acting separately from each other at times. Every member of Miguel’s family, living and dead, feels individual, and it’s refreshing to see how even when they disagree with Miguel they all want what’s best for him. The design of Grandma Coco is particularly heart wrenching, with a kindly withered face that makes even the slightest facial response a major emotional moment. But the real standout character of Coco has to be Dante – a hairless dog that is possibly the dumbest character to appear in a Pixar film, with bulging eyes and a floppy tongue that regularly ends up wrapped around Dante’s own face. From the moment this dog appeared on screen I was giggling like a mad man and continued to do so for every scene he appeared. If Pixar doesn’t make an animated short just for Dante they’re wasting one of their best ever characters.

Coco is a familiar story told well. It hits all the beats one would expect from a Pixar film, and many of the twists are predictable from the outset. I was disappointed by a villainous reveal towards the end, particularly as up until that point the characters all had valid reasons to oppose each other without feeling unnecessarily antagonistic, but ultimately a film about music needs a big final number. Familiar doesn’t mean bad, though, and due to the Mexican influences and the quality of filmmaking Coco demonstrates how effective traditional stories can be.

4 and a half stars.

“The Disaster Artist” Review

The Disaster Artist

There’s something incredibly endearing about terrible films. That’s not to say The Disaster Artist is a terrible film, in fact it’s a delightful one, but it’s about the making of a terrible film. More specifically Tommy Wiseau’s bizarrely awful The Room, which has a well-deserved reputation as one of the worst films ever made but a devoted cult following due to audience participation screenings and ridiculously quotable dialogue. The true story of how it was made is so absurd and hilarious that the filmmakers have even had to change moments from the book, written by one of the stars of The Room, seemingly because no one would believe it really happened.

James Franco directs and stars as Tommy Wiseau, the man who directed and stared in The Room. Hard to tell if that was a deliberate artistic choice by Franco to help him get in character, but if it was then it worked. Franco’s performance is hysterically funny at times and completely unrestrained, going so far as to perform one of the film’s most dramatic moments almost fully naked with just a pouch covering his, um, Franco. Yet he avoids making the man seem cartoonish, and anyone who’s seen footage of Wiseau himself will recognise how accurate Franco’s portrayal is. While a celebration of Wiseau’s film, The Disaster Artist also highlights his flaws, as he’s frequently seen to be insensitive, cruel, deluded, incompetent, and almost impossible to work with. The remarkable thing is how much sympathy I still had for him by the time the film is done, which is a testament to both Franco’s performance and directing.

Any character as absurd as Tommy Wiseau needs a Straight Man to balance them out, which Dave Franco does as the idealistic young actor Greg Sestero, who wrote the book the film is based on. The friendship between Sestero and Wiseau forms the crux of the film as the two encourage one another to pursue their dreams. The brother’s real life relationship works as one of The Disaster Artist’s biggest strengths, selling the idea that no matter how tense the relationship between Tommy and Greg may get they will still help and support each other. The younger Franco brings to the role the optimistic enthusiasm and idealism of a young man convinced they could do anything, but slowly comes to realise that they probably can’t. There are definite similarities to Tim Burton’s Ed Wood and Johnny Depp’s cheerful determination as the title character, once named the worst director of all time, though while Burton’s film ends as the premier of Plan 9 From Outer Space starts, Franco keeps the audience watching so we see Wiseau and Sestero’s very real pain and humiliation as their film is publicly ridiculed.

Despite this, The Disaster Artist isn’t a film about making something terrible. It’s instead a celebration of the act of making something at all. One of the things I found most pleasantly surprising about this film is that at no point does it feel mean or mocking towards Wiseau and The Room, opening with a montage of some of Hollywood’s biggest names expressing their genuine love and admiration for it. One of them even notes that the best directors in the world wouldn’t be able to recapture the mysterious magic that’s made The Room so endearingly awful.

Just before the end credits roll for The Disaster Artist we see footage from the real film, faithfully recreated by a professional crew and some of the most talented comedic actors in Hollywood. The recreations are lacking something about the original scenes that makes them so endlessly watchable and entertaining – Wiseau’s own brand of incompetent brilliance. Perhaps Franco and his team are just too good to be bad.

4 and a half stars.