LADIES IN BLACK ***1/2 (109 minutes) PG
It’s turning out to be a pretty thin year for Australian films and though there have been some modest successes – Surfin’ Safari; Breath – it was starting to look as though there wasn’t going to be one major film to connect with mainstream audiences.
But now – whew! – along comes Ladies in Black, a warm, charming winning period piece from veteran Aussie pioneer Bruce Beresford (Breaker Morant; Driving Miss Daisy, etc), a film with such an uplifting, feel-good glow it’s hard to think that it harks from an industry still mired in its struggle to take its rightful place at the multiplex.
Based on the 1993 book by Madeleine St. John, Beresford and his crew have brought 1959 Sydney to vivid life, thanks to sumptuous widescreen cinematography by Peter James (a regular Beresford collaborator), some choice digital effects (the city gets its trams back; the skyline gets a sparkling retro makeover) and a fabulous ensemble cast that fuels an upbeat story with a positive energy that reflects the spirit of the young nation during one of its defining growth spurts.
Set mostly in the upmarket Goodes department store, we meet Lisa (Angourie Rice) a young, bookish working-class girl who has been brought in to work in the fashion department while she nervously awaits to see if she can get into the university of her choice. Doubling her anxiety is resistance from her father (Shane Jacobson) who doesn’t like the idea of his daughter mixing with all those Communists.
Alongside Lisa are three glamourous women, each with their own modest aspirations: Fay (Rachael Taylor) is in dire search of a decent man who can see beyond her beauty; Myra (Alison McGirr) is worried about her loving but distant husband; and Magda (Julia Ormond), is a glamourous, cultured, upper-class immigrant from Slovenia eager to set up shop on her own. She’s also dedicated to hooking up her suave, multi-lingual Hungarian friend Rudi (the ever-versatile Ryan Corr) with a nice Australian girl.
A simmering, never over-bearing comic verve drives much of the film, even in its most confrontational moments, and you often feel Beresford is teasing audiences to expect something heavy to develop in the lives of characters who only want their modest share of happiness.
As a light, lovely-looking entertainment, Ladies in Black is a superlative chick flick that, amidst the romancing and drama, celebrates femininity and independence as mutually supportive qualities in these women.
Scratch just a little deeper and you find the film also championing how Australia was built by generations made up of a rich mix of local and imported cultures. It’s not a message movie, but Ladies in Black has dropped at just the right time to serve a sound backhander to the current nonsense that Australia, whatever its faults, is anything other than an open-minded society.
And as if Shane Jacobson hasn’t already become a hallmark of lovable Australiana, his understated performance here as Lisa’s father is ultimately quite touching. Sensing the world around him shift beyond his limited vision, he sees the sense in adapting to it, neatly reflecting the broader truth that even the most ocker Aussie welcomes the promise of change so long as it feels and tastes as good as it does in this gorgeous film.
A SIMPLE FAVOUR *** (117 minutes) M
Following, quite unashamedly, in the wake of Gone Girl comes another enjoyably trashy femme-noir thriller that plays on the allure of transgressive naughtiness in supposedly wholesome suburbia.
Anna Kendrick is Stephanie, the daffy single mum to Blake Lively’s Emily, an overtly sexual alpha female whose marriage to a one-hit wonder author (Henry Golding from Crazy Rich Asians) is on shaky ground. Steph is readily seduced into Emily’s afternoon-cocktails-in-high-heels lifestyle before finding out that trading confidences comes with a cost.
Based on the book by Darcey Bell, the rights for which were snapped up before it was published – a very common practice in Hollywood – director Paul Fieg (Bridesmaids) brings an engaging degree of intrigue to the piece once Emily goes missing. The plot does deploy some decades-old cliches, but it’s all done with panache and a sense of cheekiness.
The leads, who both look great, play off each other with a sugar-and-spice chemistry that brings a tangy sexual edge to the shenanigans.
SEARCHING ***1/2 (102 minutes) M
The ripper 2014 film Unfriended introduced the idea of the online thriller, where the camera stares straight into a computer screen where all the action unfolds via browser searches, websites, webcams, YouTube videos, social media exchanges and such like. It was a very daring and very successful first step into a potential new genre.
Searching is the second step, and though it’s not quite as tight as Unfriended – which had a killer real-time element – it’s got the in-built tension of watching a plot develop in detailed steps as your gaze is fixed upon a computer screen.
Since the loss of his wife, David (John Cho) has become an increasingly anxious father to daughter Margo (Michelle La), whom he presides over with over-protective zeal.
When she refuses to answer her phone one day he exhausts all possibilities before contacting the police, which brings in a no-nonsense officer (Debra Messing) who follows all the online clues left by Margot’s digital thumbprints.
This really is tantalizing stuff that elicits old-school thrills from new-school technology, with first-time director Aneesh Chaganty only cheating slightly via a few select close-ups of the screen.
And while his name is invoked by reviewers too often without due cause, one does wonder how attractive 21st century digital detective work would have been to somebody like Alfred Hitchcock, a grand director who helped pioneer the power of the long shot, the device on which this and Unfriended relies.
The film also encourages you to chew over whether a bona fide genre could develop out of the concept and, if so, how far it can go. Hopefully it won’t splutter out after only two enjoyable outings. There’s lots of weird stuff happening out there on YouTube alone that cries to be turned into films.
THE NUN **1/2 (96 minutes) MA
It’s nuns amok in this bleak, deeply cliched yet effective supernatural spookster involving an official Roman Catholic investigation of the strange goings on at a Romanian monastary in 1952.
Draped in darkness with a suitably creepy locale surrounded by an ominous graveyard and inhabited by a chorus line of spectral sisters, the film is the latest in the Conjuring series and so dutifully deploys all the expected tropes as things jump out of shadows or suddenly appear in the negative space behind a character holding a candle.
Ably, if unadventurously, directed by Corin Hardy, the film was produced by Australian James Wan (Saw; Insidious; Conjuring; Furious 7; the upcoming Aquaman), a local who, like many Aussies, seems to have Hollywood in a headlock.
Apart from being reliable horror fodder, The Nun also serves as a prime example of the economics of the horror movie industry, where films are made for relatively low-budgets and targeted directly at a specific audience.
To wit, The Nun cost a measly $US22 million ($30m in Australian coin) and has thus far earned about $US235m globally at the box office. Comfortably double that number to cover the take of its post-theatrical life in the stream and on disk and you have about a half billion dollar return for a $22m outlay.
That’s pretty sweet, no matter what satanic tongue you speak. With figures like that you’re not likely to see the end of the horror genre any time soon. The Devil certainly pays dividends – and it’s usually God who collects because, odd as it might sound, the religious bent of so many horror movies see faith winning out over evil.
CHRISTOPHER ROBIN *1/2 (104 minutes) G
Kids films rarely come as dreary as Marc Foster’s fantasy mish-mash, a plodding movie that sees the creator of Winnie The Pooh and his gang return to the forest of his childhood so he can reunite with his characters and find his true self after having his soul crushed by his thankless job as an office drone in post-war London.
Ewan McGregor tried hard to breath life into his character but Foster’s lumbering direction renders the sluggish adventure a dirge. Only when Pooh & Co finally find their way to the city does some Disney magic ignite, but one senses this should have happened in the first reel, not the final one.
As for the digital recreation of the allegedly lovable woodland creatures, the film goes for photo-realism rather than cartoonish charm. The result is Pooh and his crew look singularly creepy, like critters from some Stephen King story. They’re enough to give grown-ups the jitters and little kids nightmares.
Still, the film has been a hit, with a $US155m global total. Here’s hoping any proposed sequels have a bit more energy.
JOHNNY ENGLISH STRIKES BACK *** (89 minutes) PG
As physically elastic as ever, Rowan Atkinson proves to be very funny in his third James Bond spoof, a nutty, picturesque adventure through Europe that easily out-jokes the previous two films combined.
In search of a super-hacker who has exposed Britain’s Secret Service, English goes old-school by deploying analogue methods to outsmart the villain and save his country.
Emma Thompson chimes in with terrific support as the besieged minister in charge of the mess while Olga Kurylenko, who played a legit Bond girl in Quantum of Solace, does well as the straight-faced eye candy.
Some of the comic set-pieces here are quite clever, a favourite being the restaurant scene where English channels Mr Bean as he pretends to be a waiter. Fun stuff, this, and judging from the laughter generated at the preview, the film seems to have special appeal to kids.
THE HOUSE WITH A CLOCK IN ITS WALLS ** (99 minutes) PG
This FX-driven fantasy wannabe could go under the title The Film With Movie References on Its Sleeve given how much it resembles other magic-tinged films such as Harry Potter, Nanny McPhee, Tim Burton, Lemony Snicket, etc.
Gore-movie maestro Eli Roth (Hostel) tries changing his spots with this multiplex effort but struggles to conjure up a family film of any real distinction or character.
The basic story involves an orphaned kid called Lewis (Owen Vaccaro) who moves in with his lovably wacky uncle (Jack Black), who loves running his mouth with his snarky neighbour (Cate Blanchett). The mysterious ticking of the titular clock denotes the spirit of a former house owner who refuses to leave. For a film with an obviously big budget, the visual effects sequences are remarkably unimpressive.
Given the sameness of the film, it’s a rather cruel irony that the John Bellairs book the film is based on was written in 1973 and was the acclaimed first of a dozen novels. Had the book been adapted 20 years ago it likely would have been seen as a trail blazer rather than a copy cat.
THE PREDATOR *** (107 minutes) MA
Everybody’s favourite multi-jawed dreadlocked alien monster is back on earth for a fun, throwaway action splurge.
With a large dollop of humour helping to move things along, the film plays like the latest sequel in the Predator series rather than as any attempt to rethink or makeover the formula that has kept the character slicing and dicing his way through people since the near-brilliant original (with Arnie) in 1987. (And if you’ve not seen the sterling 1990 sequel with Danny Glover, check it out.)
This time around the predator, who has crashed to earth while being chased by other predators, is in search of a gizmo it needs. Problems start when said gizmo is sent via parcel post to a high school kid, the son of the special ops sniper who first encountered the predator. Involved in the hunt is a bus full of military convicts whose love of automatic weapons almost matches their love of one liners.
Thus far this is probably the silliest of all the Predator films – and that includes the computer-written Predator vs Aliens movies – and thankfully director Shane Black (Iron Man 3; The Nice Guys; Kiss Kiss Bang Bang), who also acted in the first Predator film, knows this.
Arguably the film could have done with a good 10-minute shave – the action finale does seem to go on and on – but the good thing is that fans of the franchise will be well served by all the slashing and heightened sci-fi violence. The predator pooches are also a nice treat.
GHOSTHUNTER *** (101 minutes) M
What begins as a profile of an eccentric Sydney character who explores supernatural phenomena in his spare time morphs into an increasingly disturbing examination of a tortured soul.
Director Ben Lawrence spent years filming Jason King, slowly peeling back the deep wounds in his life and revealing how memory triggers can rouse the ghosts of the past with real emotional force. Extremely well-made – special kudos the the film’s wily editing – Ghosthunter is a very unusual, unexpectedly powerful bio-doc about the life-long aftershocks of abuse and the search for a missing father.
JULIET, NAKED **** (97 minutes) M
Based on the Nick Hornsby best-seller, this distinctive and winning romantic comedy brings into glorious collision a mildly discontented young woman Annie (Rose Byrne), her mildly neglectful husband Duncan (Chris O’Dowd) and reclusive, once-famous folk singer Tucker Crowe (Ethan Hawke), with whom Duncan is obsessed.
Set mostly in one of those picturesque biscuit tin coastal villages that keep popping up in British TV dramas, this spirited film offers a surprisingly delicate, funny, occasionally barbed account of middle-age malaise.
The unforced direction by Jesse Peretz (Our Idiot Brother; Girls) allow the three main characters to grow beyond the two dimensions normally required by most rom-coms.
Dropping onto the movie schedule without much fanfare, Juliet, Naked is a real gem, and one of the most satisfying romances thus far this year.
McQUEEN ***1/2 (111 minutes) MA
The brilliant work and troubled soul of young British fashion titan Alexander McQueen is vividly captured in this extraordinary documentary. Sad and celebratory in equal measure, it examines his short life, interviewing many of his closest associates who remark on his cheeky character and sharp eye for design, yet they remain perplexed at why the fame and success he worked so hard for had to come with the abuse of drugs and his eventual suicide. It’s another heartbreaking tribute to a young artist whose enormous talent was overcome by self-destruction.
WAYNE *** (98 minutes) M
The largely charmed life of Australian motorcycle racing legend Wayne Gardner gets a detailed, chronological treatment in this valentine by Jeremy Sims (Last Cab to Darwin). With Gardner and all the main players in his life front and centre, the film presents him as a working-class hero recognised overseas for his talent before being embraced at home.
The film deftly touches on Australia’s cultural cringe as Gardner admits how his class made him feel unworthy of the accolades he had earned. The film is replete with archival footage and some nifty anime-style animation, a nod to the huge part Japan played in his life.