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*** (out of five)

Richard Gere continues his post-leading man career investigating the lives of New Yorkers and their relationships to money, power and ethics in the ludicrously over-titled Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer (let’s call it Norman for short), an intriguing and undeniably original little oddity from New York-born, Jerusalem-based director Joseph Cedar (Footnote, Beaufort).

Norman Oppenheimer (Gere) is a self-described “consultant”, President of “Oppenheimer Strategies”. While he has a high-falutin’ sense of purpose, his actual professional existence consists of desperately trying to connect people in order to curry their favour. He literally works the streets, loitering near places of power, worming his way into the rooms that may lead to the rooms adjacent to the rooms where it’s happening. The title describes him as a “fixer”; the Roman and Greek comedy theatre had a similar stock character type, the “Parasite” or “Flatterer”. He big-notes himself, is obnoxiously obsequious, and – worst of all – lies, all in the seemingly vain pursuit of feeling important.

Then, perhaps inevitably, one day one thing finally leads to another. He meets and performs his cringe-worthy sycophancy on a visiting Israeli Deputy Minister; three years later, that man is Israel’s Prime Minister, and not only hasn’t he forgotten Norman, his memories of him have softened into an overly generous affection. Norman finally becomes influential, without any skills or abilities, and his “moderate rise” must lead to a “tragic fall”.

As I’ve said, it’s an original story. The closest similar film I can recall is Being There (Hal Ashby, 1979) in which Peter Sellers played an uneducated, intellectually-challenged but beautifully spoken gardener whose horticultural tips are mistaken for wisdom and who ends up advising the President of the United States. But in that film, Sellers’ character Chance was an innocent; Gere’s Norman is absolutely complicit in his own rise, however unwarranted, and, unlike Chance, we are rooting for his fall.

At least, I was. I found Norman so deeply disagreeable that the first act of the film almost drove me from the theatre. However, once the story kicked in (and, particularly, once the excellent Israeli actor Lior Ashkenazi came onto the scene as Micha Eschel, the deputy minister) I found myself drawn in. Like Being There, Norman is constructed and presented as a bit of a fable, with simple, recurring visual motifs and warm, overtly romantic cinematography. And, with its conceit of a ludicrously under-skilled man assuming a position of unearned influence, it has acquired, between shooting and release, a depressing relevance.

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*** (out of five)

Petty Jenkins used Richard Donner’s Superman (1978) as her model for Wonder Woman, her first feature film since Monster (2003), and the influence is clear and astute. Like Donner’s film, Jenkins’ take on the Amazonian warrior is fuelled by goodness, romance, gentle humour and, well, wonder – specifically the wonder a 5,000 year old Amazonian finds when experiencing the “world of men” (and the greater human race) for the first time. Like those first, best adventures of a strong and well-minded alien from the planet Krypton growing up in the wheat belt of the United States, this is a fish-out-of-water story.

Or a princess in deep water. Diana, Princess of the Amazons, having completed her warrior training, finds herself propelled from her female-only island paradise into Europe during World War One. She’s at the side of American spy-soldier Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) and on a mission to end the war – and all wars – by killing the god of war, who may or may not be a German commander. Fighting ensues, but so does a more intriguing set of life lessons, such as learning how to flirt.

It’s all more superhero nonsense but Jenkins keeps the story-telling clean, light and buoyant. Most importantly, she has an incredible lead actor. As Diana, Gal Gadot makes the movie. Her staggering beauty is enough to compel you to keep watching the film, but her characterisation is also constantly engaging, full of warmth, delight, sly humour and grace. Her physical approach to expressing naivety and wonder is priceless – it’s to do with a cocking of her head and some big wide eyes, and it melted my heart every time – as is her physicality in her fighting scenes, which is refreshing in its femininity. Gadot has a tall, slender body – she is not buff like male superheroes have become – and her battles are fought with elegance, not anger.

The Amazonian scenes in the first act are naff and the Big Battle at the end is bog-standard, but the bulk of the picture has heart and soul. Gadot makes such an impression that I still felt the warmth of the movie hours later – much as I did after seeing Donner’s Superman for the first time, when I was a child. I’m amazed a “superhero” movie could have that effect on me now.

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Watch my interview with writer / director Ben Young here.

**** (out of five)

Six weeks ago the Australian film Berlin Syndrome gave us a pretty genre-standard version of the “girl in captivity” thriller. Now, Hounds of Love offers its own variation, but one with depth, complexity, emotional resonance and something to say. It is far superior.

Berlin Syndrome, like most similar films, focused on a young attractive woman held captive – for various reasons but mainly sexual ones – by a single, troubled (obviously) male. Hounds of Love gives us a young attractive female – indeed, a teenage schoolgirl – kidnapped and held as a sexual captive by a couple. And – here’s the rub – it is the woman within that couple who is the protagonist of the story. While her older, male partner runs the show, she is nonetheless complicit, and asking us to sympathise with her as a lead character is a delicate dance indeed. With awe-inspiring assurance, debut feature writer/director Ben Young and actor Emma Booth pull it off.

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Booth is astonishingly good as thirtysomething Evelyn, whose relationship with John (they’re both called “White” in the credits, so it can be assumed they’re married) is as toxic as it gets. Together they have kidnapped, sexually tortured and killed at least one schoolgirl; the film focuses on their abduction of Vicki (Ashleigh Cummings, last seen in Pork Pie in a significantly brighter role). It is Perth, Western Australia, in 1987, in December, and it is hot.

The heat pervades the film, adding to its dread and the specificity of its milieu. Late 80’s Perth is brilliantly evoked in all its isolation, casualness, and suburbanity. The Whites are as mundane and banal as their car and their street, but, like the palm trees and brilliant blue skies surrounding them, they are not unattractive; if they weren’t so fucked up they could probably make good swingers. But… they’re really fucked up.

hounds-of-love-cinema-australia-1John is the monster, and we never get to know him too deeply; he is not the point. Evelyn’s dependence on him, her need for his approval – masquerading as “love” – is the point. We get many glancing glimpses into her life before John – including having two children – that give us enough of a complex picture without ever tipping over into pseudo-Freud, pseudo-Jung or pseudo-domestic-abuse community service announcement. The script paints in enough, and (Perth-born) Booth exquisitely fills in the rest. Did I say she’s astonishing? She’s astonishing. May awards be heaped upon her.

Cummings is also always believable and commanding as Vicki. Lord knows what it must be like to play such roles, tied to beds, relentlessly abused, covered in bruises, frequently near-naked and more frequently in tears or screaming. I imagine you do it once, as a demented acting rite of passage, and never again. Then you wait for a role like Evelyn, which unfortunately comes along as often as that darned blue moon. As John, Stephen Curry’s performance is appropriately cold, manipulative and creepy, but doesn’t equate to the revelatory castings of predecessors Nicholas Hope in Bad Boy Bubby (1993), David Wenham in The Boys (1998) and Daniel Henshall in Snowtown (2011). He’s menacing, but your throat doesn’t tighten at his mere presence.

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As Justin Kurzel did with Snowtown, Young has taken a tired genre and given it enormous life by applying intelligence, depth of character and just a damned fine script. Hounds of Love is not as “everything” as Snowtown – not as disturbing, not as bloody, not as brilliant – but it is another inspired and noble entry in Australian cinema’s rich ledger of suburban nightmares. In films like these, the villains wear thongs, and people get hurt while the sun brilliantly shines.

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WATCH my review of 20th Century Women on Watch This

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**** (out of five)

There have been countless coming-of-age comedy/dramas about significant years in young men’s lives: the year they got laid, the year their father died, the year they lost their innocence. But never have I seen a film about the year a fifteen year-old became a feminist. Mike Mills’ autobiographical 20th Century Women is just that, and it is wonderful.

It’s interesting to review 20th Century Women in the wake of Mia Hansen-Løve’s Things To Come, which is also an autobiographical portrait of the filmmaker’s mother. While a young woman – obviously Hansen-Løve’s surrogate – only briefly appears in Things To Come, having very little impact on the story, in 20th Century Women the protagonist is obviously the “Mike Mills” character, 15-year-old Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann). So in Things To Come, Hansen-Løve shows you her mother; in 20th Century Women, Mills shows you his mother’s effect on him.

But not just hers – most definitely not! Mills grew up surrounded by women, and the fictionalised account he offers here makes them three: his / Jamie’s mother Dorothea (Annette Bening), his best friend, 17-year-old Julie (Elle Fanning), and lodger Abbie (Greta Gerwig). Dad’s nowhere to be seen, but there’s another lodger, William (Billy Crudup), supplying at least a version of mature(ish!) masculinity. (Incidentally, Mills’ last film Beginners (2010) was based on his father, who came out as a gay man in his mid-70s).

It’s 1979 in Santa Barbara and Dorothea, a graphic artist, runs her large, rambling, constantly-under-renovation house like a very laid-back boarding house. Her boarders William and Abbie are both, essentially, escaping their lives while trying to figure out new ones, while Julie escapes nightly from her own home into Jaime’s bedroom to sleep with him platonically, which is more than a little confusing to his roiling hormones. Sensing the changes exploding within him, his mother enlists the aid of Abbie and Julie in his emotional education, but Abbie’s determined feminism and Julie’s own confusing pubescence aren’t necessarily the life lessons Dorothea is hoping to offer. As a fifty-five year old professional woman with a slightly bohemian lifestyle, Dorothea is a little too late for the revolution, but also an embodiment of its basic ideals.

The film is punctuated with quotes from the feminist texts Jaime reads throughout the year along with clips from the punk bands he is listening to (both thanks to Abbie). This juxtaposition is original and thrilling. What an intense experience, to be listening to The Raincoats while reading Our Bodies, Ourselves while surrounded by three generations of women all trying to figure it out for themselves! Mills makes it personal, touching and true. It all smells very real, very honest, very heartfelt.

It’s also really funny. I laughed out loud – a lot – at some of the best lines this year. The humour flows organically, from the situation and from the truth of the characters. Nothing feels forced. No emotions are coerced. Everything feels genuine, artistic, pure.

And the performances are fantastic. Much has already been said about Bening’s excellent, multi-faceted portrayal (the film came out in the United States months ago) but Gerwig and Fanning both give career-bests. Zumann is always believable and crafty with a sly zinger, and Crudup’s performance is – here’s that horrible critic’s word – revelatory. Humble, odd, gentle, yet disarmingly sexual, William is an enigmatic, extremely rich character, completely realised. It’s a houseful ensemble of excellence, in a thoroughly entertaining, sophisticated, beautifully crafted film. Highly, highly recommended.

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*** (out of five)

Let’s just take a moment to recognise how marvellous a screen actor Woody Harrelson is. He’s tremendous. He knows how to build an indelible character, how to spin a line, how to fill the screen. His technique is impeccable. And, like many of the best screen actors, there is something about him that is uniquely him. His slate of roles is fantastically diverse, but he also also brings the Woody. Tall and leading-man handsome yet totally capable of playing “character” parts, he’s part of a circle that – for me at least – includes thespians like Stanley Tucci, the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman, and Billy Bob Thornton.

All those actors would have had a great crack at Wilson, but Woody got it, and he makes it his own. An eventful, melancholic character study based on Daniel Clowes’ graphic novel (Clowes also wrote the screenplay), it offers a hearty meal for an actor and Woody happily feasts. He’s terrific, and would probably be in Awards conversations next year if the film weren’t so modest.

Wilson’s a curmudgeon, a recluse, and perhaps a little imbalanced. He lives with his beloved dog and as few electronic devices as possible in a house in need of a good clean. When his dad dies, it sends Wilson off on a journey that sees him connect with his ex-wife and the two of them with their grown-up daughter.

This is one of those graphic novel adaptations (like Clowes’ own 2001 Ghost World) that kind of lives in its own hermetic universe. Not to say that there are superheroes or aliens (there certainly aren’t either) but that the houses are all colourful (it was shot in Twin Cities, MN but seems to be set in the Pacific Northwest of the US), the people are all quirky and everything is a little timeless. It’s stylised, but in a vague way – you just kind of know it as you’re seeing it.

The film has many, many gags that fall flat, but there are also some true zingers. Harrelson and co-stars Laura Dern and Judy Greer are excellent. And the plot is truly, refreshingly loose and unformulaic, rambling from one situation to another like a dim puppy. It’s almost instantly forgettable, but it’s never not engaging as it plays.

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*** (out of five)

I Am Heath Ledger is a cinematic portrait of Ledger the artist. Devoid of gossip and any hint of salaciousness, it will disappoint the TMZ crowd but should prove rich for film students, particularly those of the art of screen acting. It is so tasteful and craft-oriented that, even though Naomi Watts is one of the prominent interview subjects, no mention is made of her and Ledger’s love affair. Nor is any image shown of Ledger with an alcoholic beverage, a joint or in any state of mind other than alert and engaged. His death is dealt with quickly, at the end, after a single mention of “demons”, a reference to an “unravelling”, and a few nods to his insomnia.

So dispel thoughts of getting any “dirt” and revel instead in the actor, director, sometime visual artist and constant photographer and videographer. Ledger was obsessed with cameras and he shot massive volumes of footage, including enormous amounts of himself. While this may seem vainglorious, one of the most intriguing reveals of the film is footage of Ledger essentially using his camcorder to teach himself screen technique; he tries every angle, every facial expression, and, charmingly and amusingly, does so with generic genre movie lines – here’s a disaster face, a super-villain smirk, a panicked stare.

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Like the cellphone footage shot by Amy Winehouse’s friends that made Amy (2015) so revolutionary, this trove of Ledger’s own recordings gives us an intimacy that previous generations of film biographers could only dream of. In the future all bio-docs will look like this, and with Snapchat and Facebook posts and tweets galore (the camcorder grain of a lot of Ledger’s footage looks practically VHS-level, especially when shot at night or in dark rooms, which is often). It’s a little disconcerting, being this close to someone who you’ve known almost entirely through their actual silver screen performances (Ledger was not big on gossipy publicity), but the movie gives way, after the first act, to many more interviews with Ledger’s best friends, closest colleagues and immediate family (minus his daughter and ex-wife but including his parents and siblings). It proceeds methodically to work its way through his small but incredible filmography, only missing The Order (2003), The Brothers Grimm and Casanova (both 2005) and, disappointingly, Candy (2006). All his other important work is examined, with clips and discussion and, when possible, audio from Ledger himself, presumably culled from contemporaneous radio interviews.755mb105232_fr5.tif

The result is refreshing, insightful, and also devastatingly sad. I was tense and upset from the opening frames, knowing that the bright, sunny Perth boy on screen was destined to die before reaching his thirties (he died in early 2008 at 28). Later, in my car after the film, I cried, taking myself by total surprise. He was some kind of magic, and deserving of this respectful, if hagiographic, biography.

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UPDATE: WATCH THIS featuring Jim Flanagan and I on Alien: Covenant and all things Ridley Scott here

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And here’s our review of Alien: Covenant.

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***1/2 (out of five)

Ridley Scott doubles down on the mythology of the Alien cinematic universe in the latest instalment (and the third directed by him), Covenant, and in doing so somewhat rescues the bewildering Prometheus (2012) after the fact. Scott spends the extended second act of the new film expanding, explaining and ultimately answering the many questions that film raised; basically, if you want to know the backstory of H.R. Giger’s “perfect organism” (as described by Ash in Alien (1979)), it’s all here.

Not that you’ll understand it if you haven’t seen Prometheus. I didn’t bone up on that film before this one, but it’s fair to say that you’ll at least need to have seen it for this one to make any kind of sense (at least, during that long second act). I’m not going to reveal anything here about all the world-building, but I can happily report that the complicated plot machinations ultimately left me satisfied – and ready for another instalment, should Sir Ridley be so kind.

How many of the ensemble cast of this one would be in such a venture I obviously won’t say; as you may have guessed, some of their characters die in or around the Covenant (which is simply another name of another space vessel, like the Prometheus). You’ll have seen Katherine Waterston on the poster, so you’ve probably assumed she’s one of the major characters (spoiler alert: you’re right) but as for who else had the most days on set… well, I was surprised.

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Sir Scott remains a true master of cinema. The filmmaking craft on show is astonishing. The visual and aural atmosphere is beautifully tied into the aesthetics of the original Alien, and the creatures, although almost certainly CGI, are stirringly evocative of the animatronic “practical” monsters from 1979. Likewise, there are many moments that evoke the first film without replicating it; whether Scott refers to these as “callbacks” or not, a lot of people will, and they’re good ones. There also seem to be about four or five in-jokes that perhaps I didn’t get (and might not have been supposed to); is the musical The Phantom of the Opera name-checked because, say, Scott and Sir Lloyd Webber are mates and Ridley thought it’d be good for a giggle at the premiere?

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I had a great time throughout this darkly enchanting adventure. And rather incredibly, while the grim, scary action of the first and third acts is impeccably done, it was that long, meditative second act that I enjoyed the most. I might just have to get back on board Prometheus after all.

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