**** (out of five)

My fingernails were being bitten down to the quick, by my teeth, because the young German soldier’s fingers were jittering. I was watching the Danish entry for Best Foreign Language Film at this year’s Oscars, Land Of Mine, and it was a white-knuckle ride.

Here’s the context for the story: at the end of World War 2, about two million land mines littered the Danish coast. The Germans, occupants of that small nation for nearly the entire war, figured the allies would storm the beaches, try and take it back. That didn’t happen. When the war ended, as part of the reparations treaty, Germany had to supply soldiers to Denmark to find, diffuse and dispose of all those land mines buried in the sand. They sent, effectively, 2,000 boys – the youngest possible soldiers, sixteen year olds with wispy whiskers and baby faces. The land mines, of course, were live and lethal. Boys blew up.

In terms of tension and suspense, who could possibly imagine a better set-up? Writer / director Martin Zandvliet, however, gives us much more than a bloody horrorshow. By focusing on the growing relationship between Danish Sgt. Carl Rasmussen (Roland Møller) and his squad of 14 young Germans tasked with clearing one particular beach over three months, Zandvliet forensically examines issues of vengeance, forgiveness, compassion and humanity – specifically, how different we really are, and how different we are willing to believe we are. Pretty relevant stuff for 2017, no?

We first see Rasmussen beating a German soldier as he walks out of Denmark with his colleagues. The German was trying to leave with a Danish flag, and the burley, very manly Rasmussen is livid. “This is my country!” he screams as he rains down blows. “Not yours! You are not welcome here!” And, despite his brutality, who can blame him? These were his oppressors, his home-invaders, the savage barbarian destroyers of his entire world – and everything was unequivocally their fault. Why shouldn’t they take a beating?

But should they get blown up on the beach? Well, why not? They bloody well put the bombs there in the first place, didn’t they? These are the moral, ethical and deeply humanistic value questions at play. Rasmussen – assumedly single and childless, living on a beachside farm with his dog – is a tough nut, but these are boys under his charge, and they’re getting their arms blown off. Is compassion inevitable, or are the wounds of the world’s worst crime impossible to bandage?

Møller is spectacular in the role of Rasmussen. His physique, his thin moustache, the way he wears his khaki uniform and his prominent insignias, the way he tends to the fist he injured beating the German at the film’s beginning, all point to a career soldier who still mostly has his shit together even as the world has gone insane – mostly. His character arc across the film is beautifully structured and he modulates it precisely and unsentimentally (as you imagine Rasmussen himself would). Møller got out of prison in 2002 after spending four and a half years inside for ten assault convictions; until now, he has almost exclusively played hard-core criminals, as he himself was. He justly won Denmark’s highest acting honour last year for his portrayal of Rasmussen.

The filmmakers shot at some of the actual beaches involved, and, during production, found a real mine. How perfect, and perfectly sad.

37768979a1cba1a83e162e13c6a6a44b8dc65591Sally Aitkin’s documentary David Stratton: A Cinematic Life is as charming, touching, erudite and opinionated as its subject. The veteran film critic’s life story (or at least, a bare-bones, greatest-hits version of it) is interspersed with about eight extremely interesting close examinations of Australian feature films that Stratton finds seminal, and, to a lesser but totally fun degree, a long lunch of seafood and white wine with Stratton’s long-time TV co-host Margaret Pomeranz (who deserves her own one of these!) I wished it were longer; the audience I was with applauded at the end. ****



359207_m1469233525DreamWorks Animation’s Boss Baby lacks the magic, charm and humour we so routinely get in films from Disney, Pixar and some younger French upstarts. Its central conceit, of a “little brother” baby who’s literally a suit-wearing boss voiced by Alec Baldwin, is a misfire; Baldwin is an adult entertainer and his persona crosses into the body of an infant very uncomfortably. **


The-FamilyThe Family, from writer/director Rosie Jones, recently won the Film Critics Circle of Australia Best Feature Documentary Award. It’s the disturbing story of the creepy cult, known as The Family, lead by Anne Hamilton-Byrne. The children within the cult – some illegally adopted – notoriously wore identical, freakishly blonde bobs, making them resemble the children from Village of the Damned. Jones interviews many of those children who are now scarred adults, as well as the chief investigator who essentially spent his career trying to bring Hamilton-Byrne to justice. Although the film relies too much on an uninspired score and unconvincing re-creations, the core material, and the interviews, are urgent, essential records of an astonishingly awful Australian story. ***

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Watch Miriam Capper and I discuss the two shows starring, collectively, five Major Movie Stars, that are intriguing, thrilling, and perhaps infuriating viewers around the world.

loving-1024.jpg**1/2 (out of five)

Unfortunately writer / director Jeff Nichols (Midnight Special, Mud, Take Shelter) seems so determined to avoid over-dramatising his wonderful source material – the story of Mildred and Richard Loving, whose inter-racial relationship had a profound effect on the United States legal system – that he under-dramatises it to the point of dilution, and, unfortunately, exasperation. His telling is slow and laboured, and, at some points, seemingly deliberately, provocatively obtuse; at one key moment, not only does he not point his camera at the action, he puts it in another State.

Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton are fine in the roles (Negga was nominated for the Oscar) but the camera dwells on their quiet moments excessively, especially on Edgerton, who sullenly occupies an enormous amount of inactive screen time. There’s only so much one can take staring at a man smoking and staring.

Nick Kroll (in a really surprising dramatic role) and John Bass do their best to liven things up as the two young lawyers taking the Lovings’ case all the way, but, once again, Nichols is miserly with their screentime. Perhaps he was afraid of portraying them in any way as “great white hopes” to the Lovings’ cause, but when their big moments are shown fleetingly and from behind, it all becomes too much. This dramatic true story could have used more than a little more drama.hero_loving_01.jpg

raw-2016-grave-julia-ducournau-cannibal-film**** (out of five)

Opens Friday US, April 20 Australia

Pound for pound, minute for minute, per capita or however you want to say it, I’d suggest the French are making the best horror films in the world at the moment and have been (on and off) for at least a decade. The US and Australian output, while sometimes great, is marred by an enormous amount of derivative drivel. The UK has some excellent years, and with Under The Shadow, Iran is in the game. But the French slate has consistently better production values, acting, and thematic depth. Even at its grisliest (and it can be brutally grisly), French horror often has something to say.

Grave (“Raw”), the debut feature from Julia Ducournau, certainly does. Within its perverse take on coming-of-age, it examines peer pressure, burgeoning sexuality, academic tradition, accepted modes of living and social acceptance, while also being a mesmerising, totally compelling – and, yes, grisley – thrill ride. It’s high-octane, thrilling, compelling stuff that had me transfixed and excited.

Justine (Garance Marillier) comes from a family of vegetarians who enrols in veterinary college and must endure, along with her fellow intake of students, a week of hazing. Her older sister Alexia (Ella Rumpf) is already at the college, and the difficult dynamic between them during this intense and nerve-wracking time forms the spine of the film. Alexia’s split allegiances – to her sister and to her status as a higher-classman – are difficult enough, but there are deeper and vastly more troubling secrets she is wary of sharing.

raw-movie-posterMarillier’s performance is totally enthralling; she’s in every scene and navigates Garance’s jagged carnal awakening with both nuance and a sense of heightened, grand guignol performance when called on by the script, which is not afraid of lurid grotesquery. Rumpf is no less committed and compelling, and there’s also an excellent performance from Rabah Nait Oufella as Justine’s dorm-mate.

Ducournau goes all-out with her imagery and use of a fantastically creepy score by Jim Williams, who scored Ben Wheatley’s Kill List, Sightseers and A Field in England. She creates visual moments that immediately brand themselves onto your psyche and sequences that are simply unforgettable. The story, as it unfurls, simultaneously bears a sense of inevitability but is also constantly surprising, and packs a supremely satisfying climax.

I am thrilled beyond measure to be witness to the cinematic birth of a new, young voice in articulate, emotionally rich, cinematically rigorous horror cinema. I am ravenous for whatever Ducournau does next – and to feast on Raw again.


thumb_5722_film_poster_big**** (out of five)

Iranian writer/director Asghar Farhadi just won the Foreign Language Feature Film Oscar for The Salesman, another of his particular brand of contemporary social thrillers – a term of my own devising for his specific style. His best film, A Separation, won the same award five years ago. Together with The Past (2013) and About Elly (2009), the four films constitute a staggeringly exciting recent body of work. He is unquestionably one of the finest, most dynamic, most urgent auteurs working in modern cinema.

All four of these films take place immediately. Things are happening, now, with no time to lose, and the stakes are high. Often told over two or three days, with a smallish cast (he has an ensemble of actors who re-appear throughout the quartet), the films are contemporary dramas but with the effect of thrillers: they are all highly suspenseful, tense and grippingly immersive. There is always mystery and misdirection; there are plentiful secrets and lies. And there are the cultural, political and religious constraints of contemporary Iran, pressing down on these characters and, for those of us non-Iranians, providing another layer of relative ambiguous tension.

The characters themselves share, across the four films, specific qualities: they are urbane (from Tehran overwhelmingly), educated, smart, young (I would suggest most are around 30, as an aggregate) and for the most part very attractive. This is perhaps the one level of artificiality in his films, but then, it occurred to me – perhaps in Iran, to be an actor one must be attractive? It certainly helps in countries with far bigger film industries.

The subject of being an actor in Tehran is directly addressed in The Salesman, which stars Shahab Hosseini (A Separation and About Elly) and Taraneh Alidoosti (Elly in About Elly) as Emad and Rana Etesami, who are playing Willy and Linda Loman in what appears to be a professionally-mounted production of Arthur Miller’s Death Of A Salesman in Tehran. At the start of the film, while they’re in the final week or so of rehearsals, their apartment building suffers a semi-collapse, and they are forced to move, quickly and without the luxury of time to look around, into the first apartment they can grab, which happens to have a sordid history. That history cuts into their lives in a particular way, and, once it does, the film’s “thriller” aspects kick up a gear, and, as always with films by Farhadi, choices of monumental emotional and moral substance need to be made.

The stunningly handsome Hosseini (he reminds me of Colin Farrell, but better looking) won Best Actor at this year’s Cannes for his work here and he deserved it mightily, even if his volatile black hair is a little too awesome during the film’s gripping, real-time third act. Alidoosti, who necessarily held her cards as close as one can to one’s chest in About Elly, gets to be far freer with her emotions here, even if her character Rana can only let them out when she’s on stage as Linda Loman. The Death Of A Salesman scenes are like lightening in a bottle, and there is no doubt that the Etesamis are meant to be read as fantastic stage actors. This is less of an ensemble than Farhadi’s other Big Three, but the work of all the supporting cast is excellent. Farhadi demands realism and his actors inevitably deliver; there’s nary a false note in any of the performances in any of his films, even from the children, who feature less here than in the previous work.

Despite some story elements that push it even further than A Separation and The Past into the thriller realm, The Salesman is more contemplative and in many ways smaller, more contained. It’s probably most evocative of About Elly, even though it’s obviously a more mature work about more mature people with, well, more mature baggage. Of his four films, I rank it number three, but it still towers above eighty-eight percent of the films that reach our silver screens. Don’t miss it, and if you haven’t seen his other films, correct that error now.


*** (out of five)

Kong: Skull Island comes from a coalition of companies with a focus on large-scale, easy-to-digest big-screen entertainment designed to sell loads of cinema tickets in both China and The Rest Of The World. Legendary Entertainment, the primary company involved (who recently gave us The Great Wall), is based in Burbank, a subsidiary of Chinese mega-corp Wanda Group, and also controls the Godzilla (2014) franchise, with real plans to bring us a Kong Vs Godzilla very soon. Kong: Skull Island and 2014’s Godzilla reside in the same cinematic universe, which Legendary may or may not (officially) be calling its “Monsterverse”.

In line with all this – and unlike Peter Jackson’s very much A-List, romantic, highbrow, even Oscar-aiming King Kong (2005), a remake of the classic from 1933, this ripper yarn embraces its status as a big stupid B-movie and has no other pretensions. It eschews suspense for “cutting to the monkey” (we meet Kong, by my reckoning, almost immediately, and certainly by the twenty-minute mark); it replaces character development with character attributes (Tom Hiddleston’s Conrad can fight off dudes in a bar; Brie Larson’s Weaver can snap a mean photo; Samuel L. Jackson’s Packard is a mean motherfu**er); and it constantly gives us gags where we’re expecting grim violence. Yep – this film is funny, and its primary mode of (very deliberate) comedy is killing off the intrepid Skull Island explorers suddenly and risibly.

There’s also John C. Reilly, who gets plenty of laughs as a slightly whacked-out air-force pilot left over on the island from World War Two. Once he enters the show (about halfway through) the film gives up any pretence at being anything approaching scary and doubles down on the jokes. From then on it’s a lethal tight-forty at the Skull Island Club, two-drink minimum, try the veal. Or one of the cast.

It’s set in 1973 – which helps everything, from logic to design – and constantly references Apocalypse Now and its source, Heart of Darkness (look at those character names!) The second half is extremely choppy and feels very much like it was given a nastily rushed last-minute hack to bring it in under two hours. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. You wouldn’t want it any longer, and it’s constantly fun while it’s there, as silly as it is.