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**1/2

I wish I’d known The Fencer was a true story before it began (rather than being in the usually best position of knowing nothing at all about a film). It would have made its sentimental and seemingly formulaic story feel much less on the nose. As it turns out, this wasn’t a case of truth feeling stranger than fiction but rather truth feeling very much like traditionally plotted fiction.

A Finnish / Estonian / German co-production (!) set in Estonia and Russia in the early 1950s, the milieu is definitely the most intriguing element of this rather slow-burning drama. We’re in the small, chilly, put-upon town of Haapsalu, where Endel (a stoic Märt Avandi) shows up at the local school to teach. He’s overqualified but grudgingly accepted; as teaching the art of fencing to a batch of kids of various ages grows on him, so too does his past come nipping at his heels.

The story really does smell of Hollywood formula even though the film couldn’t have been made further from La La Land, but the portrait of dispirited, oppressed life under the Soviets after World War 2 is evocative and poignant, as are the kids. It’s gorgeously shot too, especially the snowy sequences which make up about half the film. Shame I was always two steps ahead, and often, I hate to say, glancing at my watch.

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****

My tears came at the exact one hour mark during I, Daniel Blake. I know because I checked my watch. And then I thought, goddamn you, Ken Loach, you know what you’re doing, don’t you?

The jury at this year’s Cannes Film Festival thought so too, awarding Loach’s 20th theatrically-released feature film the Palme D’Or in a controversial decision. I suppose it was controversial because nothing about I, Daniel Blake is groundbreaking, nor does it show any revolutionary thinking on Loach’s part. It’s a Ken Loach film through and through. But it’s a moving and very angry one, and it’s got something to scream out loud.

The scene that got me crying takes place in a food bank. Thankfully, I’ve never been in one. But thankfully, too, they exist. The scene is a masterpiece – a perfect confluence of script, direction and acting, particularly and specifically by Hayley Squires, who plays Katie, a young single mother of two befriended by Daniel Blake (UK stand-up Dave Johns), a carpenter who, after a heart attack, is finding it impossible to get out-of-work benefits from the Kafkaesque clutches of the bureacratic State. All this, of course, in a hardscrabble Northern (English) town.

Loach really rages against the machine here – emphatically, heroicly, stoicly – but the true heart of the film, the friendship between Daniel and Katie, is touching and sincere. There is also a lot of enormously good-hearted humour in the film’s first half. I saw it in a cinema full of mature citizens, and they lapped it up, laughing, cursing, and – in one small, triumphant moment – applauding.

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**** (out of five)

Tom Ford’s second feature after A Single Man (2009) is a seriously mature work, a terrifying thriller for adults that has staggering resonance in the wake of the US election results. At its heart, it is about two things: how choices we make can devastatingly affect the rest of our lives, and how violently divided the city and country dwellers of the United States are. Seeing it literally the morning after Trump got elected was surreal.

Amy Adams plays a total “cultural elite”, a Los Angeles art gallery owner married to some sort of high flying entrepreneur (Armie Hammer). She’s been divorced for nearly twenty years from a writing teacher / novelist (Jake Gyllenhaal). One day she receives his new novel, in proof form, in the mail, and it’s dedicated to her. As she reads it, we see it, and the affect it has on her, which is obviously intentional – perhaps maliciously so.

The two stories are very different in terms of content; the “real” events of the film are all about a woman facing a youngish mid-life crisis in her incredible Los Angeles mansion, while the story of the novel is a grim, indeed nightmarish, tale of a group of rednecks terrorising a young family in West Texas (also the setting of Hell or High Water, incidentally). But the tone and style of the film embraces both stories, linking and interweaving them extremely artfully to create a whole that is genuinely disturbing.

Ford is a rather incredible individual, having only two features to his credit and both of them excellent, and a massive design career to boot. The fact that Nocturnal Creatures is, at least on the surface, tremendously different to A Single Man is also creditable. There are similarities – both films deal intensely with the main character’s introspection over a very limited timeframe (and both in Los Angeles) and both are exquisitely crafted. Ford is no dilettante. His framing is distinctive, his use of music bold and exhilarating (the fantastic score is by Abel Korzeniowski, who also scored A Single Man) and the performances he gets are pitch perfect. Michael Shannon, as a cop in the “story within the story”, has never been better.

Intriguingly, this film opens in Australia the same day as Arrival, also starring Adams in the lead. There’s Oscar nomination buzz for her on that one, but I’d vote for her performance here, which carries far greater emotional depth, thanks in no small part to a far superior script (and film).

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Denis Villeneuve has a pacing problem. The last act of the otherwise excellent Sicario (2015) slowed to a crawl; Prisoners (2013) dragged; and now Arrival, his dour, monotonal emo-sci-fi extravaganza, starring Amy Adams as a linguist trying to talk to the aliens, spends its long second act in a kind of suspended animation almost guaranteed to bring sleep to the weary. It’s laborious.

The film also feels deeply, cloyingly influenced by others. It’s the last act of Close Encounters of the Third Kind meets Contact meets Inception / Interstellar meets The Tree of Life. Scenes of Adams’ character, Dr. Louise Banks, and her daughter seem directly ripped from the latter, while Nolan’s influence is not just apparent but breathtakingly obvious – as though Villeneuve wanted to be Nolan and was trying to pull off some weird con by making a Nolan movie.

Aliens have arrived at twelve locations around the world; they’re hovering in big ships, and we the people of earth don’t know what to do. The US Army enlists Louise to try to talk to them. She tries and tries, along with scientist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), who really should have been played by Mark Ruffalo. But their language is complicated, it’s taking too much time, and, meanwhile, the Chinese want to nuke ‘em.

It may sound exciting but it’s not. For the most part, it grinds on in scenes that are repetitious not only in content but visually, the drab overcast Montana skies combining with the monotonous hues of an army camp to induce a sense of overwhelming Sunday afternoon melancholy. Forest Whitaker stands around and spits out quiet, intense exposition as an army Colonel, while Michael Stuhlbarg – bless him! – provides the film’s only lightness and wit as a CIA Agent along for the language lessons.

Like Interstellar, the film aims to be deeply emotionally compelling, but, while the complicated story structure definitely pays off as a sci-fi concept, it tries too hard to make you cry to actually make you cry. I appreciated the clever gimmickry of the conclusion and was glad the credits rolled.

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***1/2

There is an excellent series of YouTube videos about filmmaking called Every Frame a Painting. I kept thinking of that delicious phrase during The Handmaiden, Chan-wook Park’s exquisitely beautiful new potboiler. Every shot is stunning, and many are breathtaking. It’s the gorgeous movie of the year.

It’s also a lot of fun, a long-con melodrama concerning a rogue enlisting a pickpocket to apply for the position of handmaiden to a wealthy heiress in order to convince her to marry the rogue and defraud her of her fortune. That is, until serious sexual attraction gets in the way.

The book the film is based on, Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith, is set in Victorian London, but Park sets his film in 1930s Korea under Japanese occupation while adhering strictly to the book’s sneaky structure. It’s a bold move but pays off rather exquisitely, the two eras and places aligned by strict class structures with ploarised wealthy and poverty-stricken folk, the former blissfully unaware of the latter, the latter all too aware of the former.

Park’s style is not for everyone – he switches tone with abandon, and his sense of humour is very particular – but The Handmaiden with its twisty-turny plot, stunning visuals and lashings of explicit lady-on-lady sex is probably his most accessible film to date. Great fun and an experiential feast.

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****1/2

Like Ivan Sen’s Mystery Road and Goldstone, David Mackenzie’s Hell or High Water is an elegiac, meloancholic modern-day western in which the strongest element is the milieu. In this case, that is contemporary small-town West Texas, which seems as exotic and lonely to this Sydney-and-Los Angeles based critic as the red desert of Sen’s films.

This is not just a bank robbery movie but one of the subset of bank robbery movies where the robbers really hate the banks. The twist here is that everyone else does too, in a way that couldn’t be more 2016. It’s not that the leather-faced, unironically cowboy-hat wearing, armed-to-a-man denizens of this world are on the robbers’ side; they just hate the banks more.

Chris Pine and Ben Foster play the robbers with an axe to grind; they’re brothers, and one is calm and thoughtful, the other wild and dangerous (guess which is which and you’ll be right; these two have not been cast against type). Jeff Bridges, in a role I suspect will garner him a Best Supporting Actor nomination at the Oscars, plays the Ranger pursuing them alongside his deputy, played by the always entertaining Gil Birmingham, who has the dryest delivery in movies.

The sad, dusty towns against which this classically-oriented story play out are breathtakingly evocative, as are the bodies and faces of all the Texans we meet along the way. It’s its own universe. Details are tremendously revealed through an almost perfect union of character and dialogue: when questioned by Bridges, one old timer says that the brothers were “lean, like cowboys.” That’s enough of a concept for a movie of its own.

Mackenzie, working from a script by Taylor Sheridan (who also plays a lean cowboy), parses out the main characters on a fascinating slow-drip feed, keeping us in a perpetual state of languid suspense. The story is evocative of classic westerns but offers surprising twists and turns, all built on careful construction of character. There’s a spare but extremely apt original score by – yes! – Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, who are drawn to dust, obviously.

This is a political film shot through with a quiet but deliberate anger. The banks in these old towns are brighter and cleaner than the wrecks surrounding them: after all, they’ve got all the people’s money. And guns – well, guns are everywhere. Every man in the film has one, mostly concealed. Dramatically, it ties the film to John Ford, John Wayne and the classic American West. Ideologically, it’s terrifying.

This is an excellent film and will probably feature in a few categories at the Oscars – besides Bridges for Supporting Actor, I’m thinking Screenplay and possibly Best Film. See it.

GUEST REVIEW BY JIM FLANAGAN!

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Recent documentaries about musical artists have increasingly followed a few well-worn paths. Out and out ‘we lost them too early’ tragedy (‘Amy,’ ‘Kurt Cobain, Montage of Heck’) the slow motion self-inflicted car crash (‘DIG,’), variations on the Lazarus theme (‘Anvil,’ ‘Searching For Sugarman,’ ‘Buena Vista Social Club’). To his credit, Mat Whitecross’s largely absorbing Oasis documentary ‘Oasis: Supersonic’ seemingly avoids these conventions as a badge of honour. No one dies, no one is institutionalised, and no one in sight succumbs to either mental illness or drug addiction. It is also arguably a film missing the intensely charismatic and prodigiously talented central figures usually seen as mandatory requirements of the genre. No salivating, starry eyed and obvious depictions of tortured genius found here.

Applying the now familiar audio commentary edited with stellar archival footage template of executive producer Asif Kapadia (‘Senna,’ ‘Amy’) the film covers a limited period in the band’s existence, from formation to their seemingly triumphant ‘height of their powers’ Knebworth concert in 1996.  It’s a good decision that (like Ron Howard’s recent and similarly structured ‘8 Days a Week’) allows a shorter, more easily digestible period to speak more broadly about the bizarre and overwhelmingly bonkers phenomenon that was Oasis. While at times straying a little too closely to well worn shaggy dog non fictional tropes, Kapadia and Whitcross largely succeed in revealing just how unlikely and contradictory Oasis always were.

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As we see early on (and hear through some quite remarkable audio almost as it unfolds) here was a band signed to a major label after their first gig, with an existing backlog of original material fitting comfortably on one hand. Immediately hailed as saviours of British rock, they were national icons within months, with an international following by the end of the year.

What is revealed are two characters (the film focuses almost exclusively on Noel and Liam) of quite immense contradictions. Imbued with an almost parodic sense of self-belief, there’s a certain unclassifiable verve, swagger and hypnotic energy about the young Gallaghers as they go about their early career. Whitecross’s approach to capturing this undefinable quality shared by both Gallagher brothers is to edit portions of Noel and Liam’s interview audio with surreal Terry Giliamesque cartoon sequences that accompany their more outlandish recollections. It’s a quite brilliant film making decision, with the sequences playing like a kind of Lancastrian Ralph Steadman comic, as the Gallagher’s stream of consciousness anecdotes ramble on, finishing each other’s sentences and almost behaving at times as one hybrid narrator.

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But we also regularly glimpse a quite different Noel and Liam. The film seemingly suggests an alternative, far darker explanation for the Gallagher’s now infamous career behaviour and success. One fuelled by an appallingly abusive father, a teenager finding escape and refuge in his bedroom and guitar and a deep rooted, trauma induced contempt for all forms of authority. It’s a revelation that places all the subsequent hyper masculine Manchunian bravado and often ludicrous affectations in a quite different context.

Unfortunately these revelations are largely revealed in the film’s first half, leaving a less engaging and more fawning final few reels. The final 35 minutes is perhaps struck by the same problems that were soon to plague the band themselves. As personalities it was possible, often within the confines of a single sentence to be hypnotised by their brutal honesty, energy and indifference to the expectations of the industry, then appalled by their self aggrandising posturing and cruelty. The public clearly tired of the latter, as the quality of their (always derivative) song writing dipped alarmingly.

Fittingly, the film succeeds in convincing us the Gallaghers were ultimately more aware of their own limitations than anyone. In one of the film’s most revealing moments, Noel confides that he doesn’t really believe anyone involved in Oasis were ‘…the best in the world at anything. When it all came together, we made people feel something that was undefinable. It caught fire and all these people got on board.’

Review (c) Jim Flanagan

Listen to Jim and CJ discuss the film on the MOVIELAND Podcast – click the big CJ avatar on the left.