mr_holmes_poster-900x1334***1/2 (out of five)

In 1998 director Bill Condon and actor Ian McKellen collaborated on Gods and Monsters, an intriguing tale of Bride of Frankenstein director James Whale. It won Condon a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar and McKellen a nomination for Best Actor. Now they offer us Mr. Holmes, again adapted from a novel (A Slight Trick of the Mind by Mitch Cullin) and again presenting an intriguing premise, but this time, come awards season, I think only McKellen will be in the running; his performance, rather than the screenplay (or direction) is the chief pleasure of this rather dour, melancholic film.

It’s 1947, Sherlock Holmes is 93, and his memory is starting to desert him. He’s been retired from the crime-solving game for thirty years and now tends bees in a country house in Sussex, attended to by a housekeeper (Laura Linney) and her son Roger (Milo Parker). Holmes is desperate to maintain – indeed, to stimulate – his memory just long enough, and with enough power, to remember and write down the particulars of his final case. He’s forgotten why he retired, he’s sure that it’s to do with that case, and he wants to remember.

The mystery that follows – told in flashback – is not nearly as fine as most “real” Holmes stories, and that’s a shame; if it had been a humdinger, this movie may have been very special indeed. Likewise, the meditation on ageing and memory loss is moving but not particularly illuminating; there are plenty of other movies that deal with it more interestingly. Most of the film takes place in the present, and the main relationship is between 93-year-old Holmes and young Roger, to whom Holmes is teaching the art of beekeeping. The dramatic conflict, such as it is, involves Holmes remembering his final case and the fear of his housekeeper leaving him (and taking Roger); neither is gripping.

But McKellen is playing Holmes, and McKellen is wonderful. He rises above the film’s singularly melancholic tone by simply bringing his astonishing palette. For one scene (and one scene only, which is a great shame) we see the sixty-something Holmes delivering a trademark deductive monologue with such brilliant wit, elegance, speed, precision and power that it shows Benedict Cumberbatch a thing or two. I would love to see another one of these, that dispenses with the old Mr. Holmes, and just lets McKellen play Sherlock at his own age, because he is obviously in the prime of life and the very height of his powers.

i-am-big-bird**** (out of five)

2011’s Being Elmo was a lovely portrait of Kevin Clash, Elmo’s puppeteer, but I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story is richer, grander and more emotionally resonant, because Spinney and Big Bird – and Oscar The Grouch, Spinney’s other character – have been with Sesame Street since its very first episode, in 1969.

Spinney, now 78 (that’s 46 years in the Big Bird suit!) is a truly delightful subject, and the portrait of him and his beloved wife Debbie creates a gorgeous love story that is the spine of the narrative. But, given the breadth of Spinney’s career, we also get an encompassing portrait of Sesame Street and what it was / is to be a part of Jim Henson’s extraordinary troupe of players.

There are hugely emotionally moving moments which could easily bring tears to your eyes – Big Bird dealing with death, Big Bird singing at Henson’s funeral, and more – but the whole thing is ultimately joyfully life-affirming and outrageously entertaining from start to finish. It is also a beautiful ode to longevity, creativity and the joy of work when work is enjoyed. Lovely.

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***1/2 (out of five)

If you’re into the history of Hollywood, and especially “old Hollywood”, you simply can’t afford to miss Gillian Armstrong’s Women He’s Undressed, which will forever be the definitive film biography of Orry-Kelly, whether or not it’s the perfect one. Australian Orry-Kelly won three Oscars for costume design, and was a major Hollywood studio player, who got away with a bit of grumpy behaviour and a lot of drinking along the way. He also seemed to get away with being brazenly gay during at least a part of his life when that wasn’t very cool by those around him.

The best parts of the movie make your jaw drop; this guy achieved major, major Hollywood success and yet – as the movie a little too aggressively claims – he’s not that celebrated. As the movie posits, this is probably due to the fact that, however powerful a presence he was within the studios – and on major films’ credits – he kept his private life very private indeed.

The movie makes a very large choice in having the actor Darren Gilshenan portray a version of Orry-Kelly in some extremely theatrical visual narration, which, I believe, has been taken from Orry-Kelly’s never-published memoir. I found these sections – despite respecting Gilshenan as a performer – at first very grating. However, as they lessened in relation to the film’s use of interviews and archival footage, they became more endearing.

The interviews are wildly inconsistent in their impact. Veteran designer Ann Roth, who is used a lot, is great fun and very present, because she and Orry-Kelly crossed paths and professions in a meaningful way. But a lot of the talking heads, such as Jane Fonda, speak as though they’d spent their lives thinking about Orry-Kelly, and as such ring very false notes. It just feels so convenient – read “contrived” – when someone like Jane Fonda effortlessly bridges a gap in the narrative with a perfect, one-sentence sound bite. You know, this sort of thing: “By 1949 Orry-Kelly’s feeling very lonely….”, as though every single subject each recounted Orry-Kelly’s life from go to woe in perfect prose.

These structural choices aside, the subject matter is deserving and rewarding, and the portraits of Orry-Kelly’s professional relationships with Bette Davis and Marilyn Monroe are terrifically entertaining and revealing snapshots of how The Hollywood System worked and how designers and their leading ladies actually collaborated on what was created and worn. There’s also a delicious “secret” love story, which is actually a mini-history of gay Hollywood from the 20s to the 60s. And, of course, the frocks are fabulous.

Ant-Man

Posted: July 20, 2015 in Uncategorized
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***1/2 (out of five)

Relative to the overbearing gargantuism of The Avengers movies, and even those featuring Iron Man and Thor in their own franchises, Ant-Man, directed by Peyton Reed and starring Paul Rudd, feels like a fun little romp, a chamber piece. A heist movie at heart, where the safecracker can also shrink to the size of an ant, it’s got a true lightness of touch that makes it compelling and even heart-warming.

A lot of that’s due to Rudd, who can be relied on to bring the funny; he co-wrote the second draft of the script, and the first draft was co-written by Edgar Wright, so you can see how this is capable of favouring character over action. Contributing to the folksy, home-spun feel (how often can you say that about a movie costing 130 million dollars?) is the fact that probably half the running time is spent in the company of just three characters, played by Rudd, Evangeline Lilly and Michael Douglas. These three – playing subject of, daughter of and actual mad scientist – experiment and train with shrinkage and ant-control (yes, the actual process of controlling ants like soldier-minions) in a goofy house perched on a San Francisco hill. It’s whacky.

Contributing to the laid-back good times are Michael Peña (who gets the film’s two best comedic set-pieces, a couple of augmented monologues which are both quite brilliant); fun, Incredible Shrinking Man-referencing escapades with drains, rats, big human feet and the like; and the least menacing bad guy I’ve seen in a superhero movie, played by Corey Stoll as kind of a goofball. The special effects are quite cartoony (especially the ants, which are positively cuddleable) and the scenes where Rudd is ant-sized are achieved by keeping a deeply racked focus, making them trippy rather than at all “realistic”.

Closest in style and tone to a caper flick rather than an “adventure”, the level of buoyancy and self-deprecation Ant-Man achieves can best be recognised in its choice of a pink-walled little girl’s bedroom for one of its biggest action scenes. It’s charming and refreshing, and I liked it much more than any other superhero flick this year.

Ruben Guthrie

Posted: July 18, 2015 in Uncategorized

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***1/2 (out of five)

Brendan Cowell’s debut feature film as a director, based on his own play, sails breezily along with terrific dialogue, great performances and an extremely relatable story. It’s excellent contemporary entertainment, the kind of character and situation-based comedy the French do so well but Australian cinema, not so much.

The titular Guthrie is an extremely successful young advertising creative who likes the sauce a wee bit much. When his stunning Czech model girlfriend (a superb turn by Abbey Lee, who is not Czech but certainly has been a model) leaves, demanding that he needs to go sober for a year in order to even hope for a reconciliation, he heads to AA and tries to ditch the demon drink, at least for the requested 365 days.

Patrick Brammall is superb as Guthrie. The movie lives or dies on his performance and it absolutely lives. He spins Cowell’s wicked zingers with ease and aplomb, and completely dominates the darker moments as well (he has one monologue in AA that may have seemed unactable on the page, but he pulls it off). It’s a fully lived-in, totally believable and engaging performance, and a likeable one, which is important, as Ruben definitely does some terribly unchivalrous things.

Brammall is very ably supported by all around him. Robyn Nevin gives a wonderfully funny performance as his loveable but completely misguided mum; Jeremy Sims roars his way through the film’s least likely character (more on that in a moment) and makes it work; Alex Dimitriades brings his smarmy charm as Ruben’s best mate and worst nightmare; and Harriet Dyer is excellent as a fellow alcoholic who becomes Ruben’s “Step 13”.

The story has a couple of challenging leaps of faith that carry over from the play, namely that Ruben’s biggest obstacles to getting sober are his parents and his boss (Sims). We are meant to buy that Ruben is far more talented drunk than sober and that Sims’ character essentially insists that Ruben starts drinking again – despite being a sober alcoholic himself. It’s a convenient plotting device that rings (at least to my ears) unlikely, but at least it allows us Sims, who makes a hearty meal of the few scenes he’s in. Brendan Thwaites, as a rival within the ad agency, is slyly awesome as well.

The movie’s third act, constructed around two extremely long montages (which seem to be padded out to accommodate the music rather than the other way around, although that music is excellent) is less disciplined than the first two, but it contains a killer scene and an expertly appropriate ending. All in all, it’s a flashy and very funny ride with a big heart and, dare I say, an important message. Recommended.

Magic Mike XXL

Posted: July 3, 2015 in Uncategorized

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****

Any film that spends a sixth of its running time watching its lead characters take ecstasy and following the come-on, the high and the come-down is not playing by the rules. Magic Mike XXL plays by nobody’s rules. Practically plot-free (and, with the exception of a couple of moments in the beginning, totally conflict-free, thereby violating the first rule of drama), the film is a like a free-form experiment in jollity and humanity. It is also, easily, the feel-good movie of the year thus far, and the funniest. My goodness, is it the funniest.

Whereas the first film, directed by Steven Soderbergh and based on the early career of its star Channing Tatum, was a sexy melodrama, Magic Mike XXL, directed by Gregory Jacobs and who knows if it is based on anything, is a sexy comedy, and the comedy is unique. There is not a single line in this film that feels like a written gag, yet it has at least thirty laugh-out loud moments and a million more chuckles. My mouth ached after the screening, I’d been smiling so much.

Instead of jokes, there is simply repartee. Tatum, Joe Manganiello, Matt Bomer, Adam Rodriguez and the absurdly deadpan Kevin Nash play five male strippers travelling from Tampa, Florida to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina to participate in a male stripper convention. Along the way they have fun, and so do we. That’s it. That’s totally it.

But what fun we have! These guys are an incredible delight to hang out with, and the talent they represent is unbelievable. Each can spin a joke, a character, an outrageous dance move – and they all look like their bodies were sculpted by Michaelangelo in his ab period. It’s ludicrous how much ease they display, while obviously presenting such deep reserves of natural skill and immense rehearsal.

The film is full of throwaway moments – at one very moving point, Nash’s character Tarzan reveals that he’ll never have kids or a wife – that are never resolved, because the movie doesn’t play by screenwriting rules, and leaves endless questions, events and suggestions dangling. It’s all about character, and these characters are just absolutely freaking delightful.

See this movie. See it in a crowded cinema. It’s a riot.

Love_&_Mercy_(poster)****1/2

Paul Dano gives an astonishingly rich, award worthy performance as the younger, prime-of-creative-best Brian Wilson in Love and Mercy, a major film which easily takes a seat not only amongst the very best music biopics, but amongst those rare films that are able to dramatize the creative process. Essentially, the film boils down to the recording sessions for Wilson’s (with his Beach Boys) seminal Pet Sounds album, and the many scenes set inside that studio feel as authentic and inspiring as you could hope for.

Dano has been quietly achieving greatness for about a decade now. Completely invisible outside of his work (when was the last time you saw him in a gossip column, on a red carpet, or misbehaving on Twitter?), he has held his own with Daniel Day Lewis and Toni Colette, among others, and picks and chooses his roles carefully – so much so that they seem to pick him. Lord knows no-one casts him because he sells cinema tickets, so there’s something else afoot – he’s the real freakin’ deal. And despite his superb body of solid work, none of his previous roles compare to his Brian Wilson, a performance he has crafted so carefully that the real Brian Wilson, viewed on YouTube, may seem less authentic than Dano’s portrayal.

John Cusack plays Wilson later in life, during the period when he was shockingly imprisoned by a psychiatrist, Eugene Landy, who had assumed legal guardianship of him based on a dodgy diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia (Wilson certainly had / has serious mental illness, but not necessarily that diagnosed by Landy). Cusack is also excellent – perhaps at career best – but the older Wilson is a side story. The real juice is the portrait of an artist as a young man.

Bill Pohlad, an enormously tasteful producer (12 Years A Slave, The Tree Of Life, Into The Wild) directed one film in 1990, but Love and Mercy is really his announcement of intent, and man, he’s worth backing. The film was was made with limited resources but achieves epic emotional grandeur. Imagine a Paul McCartney or John Lennon biopic done right – that’s what this film is for Wilson. The fact that it’s done on an independent scale reflects the strange career and life arc of its subject. Wilson is McCartney and Lennon – but with a severe illness, which sidelined him from big budget, mainstream, red carpet acclaim. The casting of Dano – a true artist rather than a “movie star” – becomes ever more prescient.

Love and Mercy deeply investigates the relationship of creativity and mental illness, the obsessive need for artists to please their fathers (and father figures), and, indeed, what it means to be a creative person. Wilson’s father, Murry (excellently portrayed by Bill Camp) is reflected and refracted by his carer / imprisoner Dr. Landy, who employs the most basic methods of fatherly foolishness – tough love, a slap then a kiss – in an extremely deliberate methodology of control. Landy was a scam artist, an emotional bully who got his comeuppance, and is played to the hilt by Paul Giamatti, an actor who constantly goes to the edge of taste, and somehow never falls off into tastelessness. He and Dano deserve each other – they are both supremely brave artists.

Laboured with a supporting role – connecting tissue, really – Elizabeth Banks rules. As Melinda Ledbetter, who met and fell in love with Wilson while he was under Landy’s control, she is never less than fully believable. Banks’ extreme beauty almost works against her (hello Charlize Theron, who has shaved her eyebrows, her head and her limbs to adjust our perceptions) but here, as an ex-model come Cadillac dealer, she’s found her role. Her quiet dignity, and growing strength, is extremely well modulated. Late in the film, she has a silent moment with Giamatti that is breath-taking. She won’t win awards for this, but she’ll win respect.

The last time I was so moved by a music biopic, or by a film about the art of creation, was Ray, but Ray feels very conventional against Love and Mercy, and that feels appropriate. Wilson is anything other than conventional. His art was – is – that of true tortured genius. Make a film of that! Pohlad has, and it’s fantastic. I can’t get it out of my mind. Love and Mercy joins Mommy and Mad Max: Fury Road as one of the great films of the first half of 2015.