“A Fantastic Woman” Review

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Films like A Fantastic Woman, which are so centred on a specific character and their unique experience, just can’t work without the right actor in the part. Fortunately director Sebastian Lelio had the insight to give Daniela Vega, who was originally hired as a script consultant, the lead role – and it’s the performance of a lifetime. As a trans woman struggling to deal with both the unexpected death of her partner and the judgement of his family, Vega’s character Marina accepts the abuse thrown at her with an unflinching demeanour and quiet strength. It’s through Lelio’s direction and the cinematography of Benjamin Echazarreta that we see her frustration and the toll it’s taking on her. One brief moment features Marina walking down the street against the wind, the force getting stronger and stronger until it’s nearly blowing her off her feet. Throughout it all Marina holds strong and pushes through. It’s a wonderfully symbolic and understated moment that demonstrates A Fantastic Woman’s strength for drawing upon the audience’s empathy without feeling as though it had to force a message. It simply didn’t matter how different the life experience of a Chilean transgender woman may be from my own – we connect to her so deeply on a purely human-to-human level as an audience that all I wanted was for her to succeed.

As Marina’s partner, Orlando, Francisco Reyes makes the most of his limited screen-time to ensure that his presence is felt throughout the entire film. The relationship between the two is quickly and efficiently established as one of mutual love and acceptance, and I appreciated how Lelio depicts the opening scenes through Orlando’s perspective to create an immediate connection with the character before his sudden death. His presence or lack thereof is keenly felt throughout the rest of the film as Marina attempts to mourn him despite his family’s objections, occasionally appearing as either a memory or spectre to offer guidance and support. Unfortunately few of the other people Marina encounters are as accommodating, yet Lelio and Gonzalo Maza’s screenplay finely balances both the blatant aggression with more subtle forms of discrimination. Orlando’s ex-wife Sonia (Aline Küppenheim) weakly prefaces her insults with “no offence” as she refuses to accept Marina’s identity, and even a detective (Amparo Noguera) who claims to be an ally assumes that Orlando’s relationship with Marina must have involved abuse of some kind. It demonstrates how while general public awareness and acceptance of trans people has come a long way, there’s still a tremendous amount of work that needs to be done. Fortunately films like A Fantastic Woman are a good start, marking the first film lead by a transgender character to win “Best Foreign Film” at the recent Academy Awards as well as giving Daniela Vega the honour of being the first openly transgender woman to present.

Throughout A Fantastic Woman both Lelio and Vega are able to find moments of honesty and heart, no matter what trials Marina faces. Without giving anything away the film ends on a moment of serene beauty, with Marina in a state of almost serenity. It was a wonderful scene to leave this character on, demonstrating how this genuinely fantastic woman is strong enough to rise above all those who can’t understand her.

4 and a half stars.

“Annihilation” Review

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In an earlier review I praised the ingenuity behind The Cloverfield Paradox‘s surprise Netflix release and distribution as a clever and inventive way to promote a new blockbuster. Regrettably I don’t feel the same about Paramount Picture’s decision to sell the overseas release of Alex Garland’s Annihilation to the increasingly powerful streaming service, as the technicolour visuals and evocative soundscape beg to be experienced in a cinema setting. Having no other option but to watch it on a smaller screen does rob the creative and refreshing sci-fi of some of its power, but I’ll take the optimistic route and just be happy that it got released at all.

Annihilation is shrouded with mystery from the very beginning. We see a comet crash into a lighthouse, and Natalie Portman’s character, Lena, being interviewed by a dour faced scientist in a full HAZMAT suit. Apparently Lena is the sole returning member of an exhibition to an unknown location, and she doesn’t quite remember what happened to her. Garland’s screenplay jumps back to Lena’s husband (Oscar Isaac) strangely reappearing in their home after a year on a military deployment within a zone known as the “shimmer” – a strange fluorescent field extending from the crashed comet and slowly expanding over the US coast. With Kane remembering nothing of his time within the shimmer, and his body rapidly breaking down now that he’s out of it, Lena joins a five-woman team making their own journey in to figure out what happened and how to stop it. Natalie Portman gives yet another committed and emotional performance as Nina, and it’s nice seeing Oscar Isaac and Garland reunite, but it was Gina Rodriguez as paramedic Anya who had the standout performance for me. Anya starts out as a strong, friendly member of the team who welcomes Nina to the unit, only to get more paranoid and unstable as the effects of the shimmer become more apparent. It all culminates in Annihilation’s tensest scene, and demonstrates Rodriguez’s range extends far beyond the sitcom setting of Jane the Virgin.

As with his debut film, Ex Machina, Garland builds his world on familiar and believable foundations before exploring the more fantastical sci-fi elements. The world within the shimmer is earthy and floral, filmed in England’s Windsor Great Park, and cinematographer Rob Hardy emphasises the liveliness of the environment. It’s only as the team gets further in that things start to appear unnatural, represented by different species of plants blending together and creating vibrant mixes of colours along the same roots. The landscape continues to get stranger as the exhibition gets deeper, and all along the danger is visualised through these bright colours and unique floral formations. Production designer Mark Digby and the entire art department have clearly relished in the opportunity to create a world that looks both beautiful and dangerous. Garland uses other filmic tricks to give the shimmer a sense of unease, such as making the film edits themselves part of the story – scenes will start mid-way through with the characters unsure as to how they got there. Even the soundtrack begins to distort as the film progresses, with Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow favouring an acoustic guitar to set the tone early on before switching to distorted electronica for the otherworldly climax. It all leaves Annihilation a feeling like a mix between Event Horizon and 2001: A Space Odyssey – raising the deep questions of the former while threatening the nightmarish dangers of the latter.

Garland, having previously written the screenplays for complex films such as Sunshine, 28 Days Later, and Never Let Me Go, has never shied away from exploring deep questions in his work. Annihilation has numerous interesting concepts to discuss, many of which are developed in surprising ways within the film, but the climax does lean more in favour of abstract ideas than an actual resolution. This is hardly unusual in science-fiction, and I’m sure many viewers will embrace the questions the ending provokes, but I confess to preferring the peculiar yet grounded world that had been established prior to that point. Regardless, Annihilation is a promising sign that the strengths Garland displayed in Ex Machina weren’t a fluke, as he continues to create fresh works of science-fiction that aren’t afraid to favour the viewer’s intelligence over special effects.

4 stars.

“Red Sparrow” Review

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I am so sick of films that consist of two hours of their female lead being subjected to horrific abuse yet have the gall to promote themselves as tales of feminist empowerment. Red Sparrow is the latest nauseating example, as Jennifer Lawrence’s character is beaten, raped, tortured, stripped, exploited, and prostituted but comes out the other end a stronger woman. Rather than making me any stronger, I only came out of Red Sparrow furious that what I had just seen could be considered entertainment.

Lawrence plays Dominika Egorova, a famous dancer in the Bolshoi ballet whose career is ended by a tragic accident. Left with no income to support her sick mother, she’s quickly recruited by her sinister uncle to the Sparrows – a team of sexy spies who specialise in seduction to gain access to their targets. The logic of using a famous dancer as a spy is never really addressed, even when multiple characters recognise her from her dance career, but that’s only scratching the surface of the problems with this premise. “The Cold War never ended”, notes Matron – the Headmistress of Sparrow School, and I’ll certainly concede that Francis Lawrence’s directs his Russian characters like they’re taking part in a propaganda video from the 1950s. United in their embarrassment of playing Russian caricatures are two British actors (Jeremy Irons and Charlotte Rampling), an Irish actor (Ciarán Hinds), a Belgian actor (Matthias Schoenaerts), and of course American sweetheart J-Law. When Australian Joel Edgerton shows up playing an American CIA agent I began to suspect the director was playing some sort of elaborate joke with his cross-cultural casting, but no – like everything else about Red Sparrow, the endless English-speaking Russians were played without any sense of humour or self-awareness.

To her credit, Jennifer Lawrence’s Russian accent sounds consistent and accurate without being distracting, and she brings her usual commitment and natural screen-presence to her role, but despite her accomplished filmography I never got the sense that she was cast for her acting ability. One of the first things we hear about the Sparrows is that they’re selected for their beauty, and the camera wastes no time drooling over Lawrence’s revealing costumes or bare skin. Yes, Dominika does object to her treatment at the hands of her superiors, but simply addressing it doesn’t make Justin Haythe’s screenplay any less guilty of subjecting the characters and the viewer to all the abuse that it decries. It was during a lengthy torture scene of Joel Edgerton’s character, coming shortly after a lengthy torture scene of Jennifer Lawrence’s character, that I gave up any hope of Red Sparrow having a point. It seems like Francis Lawrence was aiming to make a stylish and confronting espionage thriller, but like the grey and muted cinematography of the Russian landscape the whole thing just feels cold, cruel, and lifeless. The only relationship that feels warm and real is between Dominika and her mother, and we see maybe four minutes of them together. Every other interaction is muddled through twisting allegiances as Dominika starts to play both the Russian and American agencies off each other, but her plans only work because of such boundless stupidity from both sides that I frankly didn’t care who won as long as it meant the film would be over.

I’ve seen worst films than Red Sparrow but I can’t remember the last one I hated this much. I’ve sat through more sexually explicit movies with no objection, and I’ve delighted in works with much more extreme violence. I’ll even defend Mother!, which faced its own accusations of undeserved cruelty towards Jennifer Lawrence’s character, as at least there I felt that Darren Aronofsky had something to say. Red Sparrow just seems to want to see how much physical torture and sexual assault its audience can sit through, and by doing so reveals itself to be nothing more than a worthless piece of exploitative propaganda.

½ a star.

“The Square” Review

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I find it more than a little bit amusing that the winner of the Palme d’Or at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival, a festival that (deservedly or not) has a reputation for promoting subversive and confronting art films, was a picture satirising the attempts of a museum to create subversive and confronting pieces of art. Nearly every aspect of the art scene is skewered in Ruben Östlund’s The Square, from exhibitions that accidentally get swept up by the cleaning crew to performance art pieces to end in physical assault, and much like any good artwork seems more concerned with provoking discussion than providing a simple explanation. This is a film that asks questions that I don’t have the answers to, and I’m not even entirely certain I understood the question, but I’m still thinking about them long after leaving the theatre.

Despite marketing that emphasises the roles of American stars Elizabeth Moss and Dominic West, The Square largely follows the day-to-day life of Christian (Claes Bang) – the curator of Stockholm’s X-royal art museum. Despite his stylish and trendy appearance Christian is first seen passed out on the couch in his office before conducting an interview where he struggles to explain his own vague quote regarding a previous instillation. Things don’t get much better for him when his wallet and phone is stolen on the street through a con that qualifies as a rather clever piece of performance art in its own right, while the marketing team working on the titular exhibition bemoan the lack of any controversy that would cause it to go viral. What I found interesting is how throughout Christian’s problems Östlund takes the time to focus on various members of Stockholm’s homeless population, who are either ignored by Christian or used for his own purposes. It effectively demonstrates the gap between the lower class and the upper, particularly those in power who claim to be making art that speaks for the ignored and unrepresented without any idea of how to actually interact with them. This theme becomes more evident as The Square progresses and Christian engages in a spectacularly ill-conceived plan to retrieve his stolen goods, while the advertising for the new exhibition receives the controversy the marketing team was hoping for.

Östlund’s previous film, Force Majeure, demonstrated the director’s knack for the uncomfortable that is again demonstrated here. The camera will linger on characters as they dig themselves deeper with pathetic acts of desperation or misunderstood interactions, and scenes extend well beyond the point where the viewer would expect them to finish. A post-coital argument between Christian and Elizabeth Moss’s character is possibly the funniest argument about condoms ever put on screen, and an excruciatingly long sequence of Terry Notary performing as an ape at a black-tie dinner could serve as a brilliantly provocative short film itself. As The Square progresses the gorgeous production design and elegant cinematography that is so striking at first seems to fall away to reveal the shallowness and emptiness of Christian’s life, with Claes Bang masterfully exposing more of his character’s vulnerabilities and insecurities as the film progresses.

Throughout its lengthy two hour twenty minute runtime The Square explores topics as ranged as homelessness, social media, the class divide, bystander syndrome, the role of art in society, freedom of speech, casual sex, and more. Not every scene relates to the overarching story, and indeed certain moments are never brought up again, and yet not a single moment seems wasted – throughout it all, The Square always feels like it has something to say.

4 Stars.

“Winchester” Review

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It’s always a shame when a movie based in reality ends up being less interesting than the actual events. Such is the case with Michael and Peter Spierig’s Winchester, a film that takes the bizarre true story of Sarah Winchester and the Winchester Mystery House and turns it into a run-of-the-mill haunted house picture that seems to only exist to cash-in on the success of better movies like The Conjuring or Insidious.

Dame Helen Mirren inexplicably plays the title role of Sarah Winchester, the widowed heiress to the fortune accrued by the sales of Winchester rifles. Convinced that her family is cursed by the spirits of all who have been killed by those guns, Lady Winchester now spends all her time constructing new rooms in her elaborate mansion to keep the more violent ghosts locked away. Construction on the house is occurring at all times, with new rooms being ordered based on the trance-like visions that come to Sarah each night. This means that Oscar-winner Helen Mirren spends a significant amount of the feature flailing around, rolling her eyes, and yelling into the air as she converses with the ghosts around her. I have to assume that Mirren either needed the money or just wanted an excuse to come to Australia to agree to this role, as while her sheer presence is almost enough to elevate some scenes beyond the flatness of the script I could almost see her stop trying as the supernatural elements overpower any sense of character. Fortunately she spends most of her time draped in a black veil so could presumably palm things off to her stand-in when she couldn’t be bothered.

The job of trying to add in an emotional story instead falls to psychiatrist Eric Price (Jason Clarke), who has resorted to poisoning himself with both alcohol and actual poison after being injured in an incident that also took the life of his wife. Doctor Price is bought in by the Winchester company to assess Sarah’s mental health and determine whether or not she should remain majority owner, and as a rationalist remains completely unconvinced of the presence of ghosts throughout the house. This scepticism is hard enough to accept when he sees a ghost after roughly half an hour in the house, and becomes frankly absurd after he brushes off the fourth decayed face screaming at him before vanishing into thin air. I’ll admit that one or two of these ghoulish jump-scares startled me, but in much the same way a carnival ghost-train is capable of making me jump. There was no lasting tension or suspense, and instead of feeling spooked on my walk home in the dark I was just frustrated by how inconsistent the spectres of Winchester are. They’re locked away in certain rooms – except for when they appear out of nowhere. They want revenge on Lady Winchester – except when they don’t. Certain characters can see them – except for when they turn invisible. At no point does it seem like the Spierig brothers actually knew what they wanted to do with this film, instead just relying on what they’d seen done before.

It’s infuriating as they had enough pieces to make something great; with an interesting real-life premise, stunning production design on the house from Matthew Putland, and an interesting role for their talented leading lady; but no idea of how to properly use any of them. The real Winchester Mystery House has over one hundred rooms yet here we only see about a dozen, possibly because the budget was too low to afford any more. I was surprised when Winchester got to its climax if only because I didn’t think anything had actually happened and assumed we still had about an hour to go, but was more than happy for things to wrap themselves up by that point.

1 and a half stars.

“Game Night” Review

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Max (Jason Bateman) and Annie (Rachel McAdams) are a very competitive couple. Everything about their relationship – from their meeting, engagement, and marriage – involves some sort of game or contest between the two, as established by an entertaining opening montage that quickly sets the tone of John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein’s Game Night. Part of Max’s competitive nature stems from constantly feeling inferior to his older brother Brooks (Kyle Chandler), a problem that isn’t helped when Brooks comes into town and suggests throwing Max and Annie’s weekly game night at his new place. The game suggested by Brooks involves a member of their group being suddenly kidnapped, with the winner being the first player to find them. Sure enough, armed men soon burst into the room and kidnap Brooks to the amusement of everyone in the room, who are completely oblivious of the fact that he’s really being kidnapped.

Mark Perez’s screenplay offers a clever premise with plenty of potential for unique comedic moments, and like the best game nights keeps the rules fairly simple to instead let the players (or audience) just enjoy the company they’re in. Joining Max and Annie are Kevin and Michelle (Lamorne Morris and Kylie Bunbury), high-school sweethearts who realise over the course of the night that they haven’t been as faithful to each other as they thought, and Ryan and Sarah (Billy Magnussen and Sharon Horgan). Ryan is their moronic friend trying to defend his own intelligence by bringing an older, smarter woman than his usual game night dates with the witty and British Sarah. Admittedly I found Ryan’s stupidity a tiring character trait, stretching credibility and raising questions of why anyone in the group bothered to spend their time with him, but Sarah’s bemused acceptance of the night’s events does balance him well. Lurking in the shadows is Jesse Plemons as Officer Gary, a frighteningly intense man who used to attend the group’s game nights with his wife but is left out after their separation. Plemons plays his character more like the lead suspect in a Law and Order episode than a supporting role in a comedy, and the delightfully uncomfortable humour that comes from his interactions with the rest of the cast make for one of Game Night’s strongest selling points.

Game Night is largely built on the chemistry between Bateman and McAdams, with Bateman’s finely honed deadpan humour addressing some of the more absurd moments while McAdams, a captivating screen-presence in any genre, brings a joyousness to even the darkest situations. The scene when Annie has to remove a bullet from Max’s arm brings the biggest laughs as the two treat the task in front of them like a morbid round of ‘Operation’. Daley and Goldstein cleverly make much of the film feel like part of a game, employing clever CGI to make the establishing shots resemble figures on a board or turning serious moments into elaborate matches of keep-away or charades.

Unfortunately the rules do become a bit too complex as Perez’s screenplay tries to throw countless twists and turns into the final act, and it was around the point that Max and Annie are driving a car through the wheels of a moving plane that I started wondering what had happened to the simple premise I’d been enjoying so much for the first hour. The supporting cast are so strong that when they’re unceremoniously pushed to the side for the climax the film does lose the mix of camaraderie and competition that had moved things along so smoothly at first, even if Bateman and McAdams are strong enough performers to keep things relatively grounded as the stakes become increasingly overblown. Even if the plot does lose sight of itself towards the end, Game Night manages to stay as fun and entertaining at the name suggests. This is very much a film that should be watched with a group of friends on a night out, and I’d definitely be up for another night in these characters’ company if a sequel comes along.

3 and a half stars.

“Black Panther” Review

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Early on in Black Panther the title character’s resident tech genius and sassy younger sister Shuri (Letitia Wright) justifies improving his gear by saying “Just because something works doesn’t mean it can’t be improved.” This attitude seems to be the prevailing view behind the Marvel Cinematic Universe lately, as the blockbuster studio continues to demonstrate willingness to fit new voices and styles into their well-established franchise. For the eighteenth film in the series, director Ryan Coogler has brought together a primarily black cast and infused the fictional country of Wakanda with aspects of different African cultures to infuse Black Panther with a different energy while still retaining the action, special effects, and humour of its predecessors.

After making his debut in Captain America: Civil War Chadwick Boseman returns as Prince T’Challa, inheriting the title of King after the death of his father. T’Challa spent much of Civil War on a revenge-quest so his first solo outing gave Coogler and fellow screenwriter Joe Robert Cole an interesting opportunity to flesh his character out and expand his personality, but he still ends up feeling a bit flat. It’s nothing to do with Boseman’s performance, who brings ample amounts of charisma and power to the role, and more to do with how he keeps getting upstaged by his more interesting co-stars. Letitia Wright steals all the dialogue scenes as his teen-prodigy gadgeteer, bringing boundless enthusiasm to every creation she makes like a mix between James Bond’s Q and a YouTube star. Meanwhile the focus of the action scenes is quickly stolen by Danai Gurira as Okoye, the leader of T’Challa’s personal bodyguards and a fighter every bit as capable as the Black Panther himself without the need for the mystical herb that gives him super strength and agility. It’s noteworthy that both of these characters are women, as Black Panther is chock full of strong, intelligent, and badass women of colour without feeling the need to draw attention to it. It’s a welcome example of how times are changing, and we’re getting some fantastic characters out of it. Poor Martin Freeman ends up looking particularly out of place for much of the film as the Everett K. Ross, the required outsider who can have Wakandan customs explained to himself (and by extension the audience), but will surely help bring the characters of Black Panther into the superhero free-for-all that will be the upcoming Avengers: Infinity Wars.

Excepting Ross’s role and a few scenes with Age of Ultron’s Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkins), Black Panther manages to keep its story fairly self-contained against the broader Marvel Universe. The villain, Michael B. Jordan as Killmonger, keeps his vendetta primarily to Wakanda and T’Challa himself, even if the conflict does naturally increase to something world threatening to justify an appropriately explosive final battle. Killmonger stands out against other Marvel villains for having a motive beyond simple “Take over/Destroy the World”, instead wanting to hold Wakanda accountable for its wealth and technological advances while other African countries languish in poverty and black people around the world are mistreated. In a rarity for superhero films I actually found myself agreeing with the villain at times, and I commend Black Panther for not being afraid to tackle uncomfortable questions and allowing both sides of the argument to make valid points. Obviously they still have to keep Killmonger clearly in the antagonist role to foster T’Challa’s growth and justify a final fight between the two, but thanks to Jordan’s committed performance and the writing of his character there is a genuine sense of pathos around him that hasn’t been seen in many other Marvel villains.

Ryan Coogler, fresh off the brilliant Rocky reinvention Creed, keeps Black Panther filled to the brim with both style and African influences. Ludwig Göransson’s soundtrack mixes tribal drums, hip-hop hooks, and the typical superhero fanfare, which along with Kendrick Lamar’s original songs had me enjoying the music so much I’d forget to pay attention to what was happening on screen. While the fight sequences may lack the same visceral punch the boxing matches in Creed had, cinematographer Rachel Morrison has the camera flowing around the characters in slow motion as they gracefully perform extravagant stunts like running up buildings and whirling through car wrecks. These stylistic touches serve to distinguish Black Panther from other Marvel pictures on the surface, but at its core it does still fit within the Marvel mould. I’d love to play all of the MCU films at the same time and see how many of them simultaneously hit certain emotional beats. Yes, it’s basic story structure, but Marvel has been following the classic three-act structure so religiously that you could basically set your watch by when the film hits its darkest moment. For all the Black Panther does different it’s clear there are some things Marvel is unwilling to change, especially the obligatory Stan Lee cameo and post-credits teasers.

Black Panther isn’t the first superhero movie to have a black lead, not even the first based on a character from Marvel comics (I haven’t forgotten you, Blade), but it’s undoubtedly a milestone in mainstream cinema to have a film that celebrates black culture so openly. It also demonstrates why these things are worth celebrating, as when you get different voices like Coogler or Thor: Ragnarok’s Taikia Waititi to handle blockbuster films you get different types of blockbusters. It may have taken Marvel a while to figure that out, but if they’re able to keep their films feeling this fresh after 10 years then it’s a lesson well learned.

4 stars.