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Jim Schembri’s movie reviews Thu 19 Dec Plus: 2019 Aus movies wrap.

Jim Schembri

STAR WARS: THE RISE OF SKYWALKER ****1/2(142 minutes) M

Whatever quibbles one may have over the erratic quality and lapses in storytelling logic of the Star Wars saga it’s something of a relief that The Force is strong indeed with this final chapter of the triple trilogy.

Directed again by JJ Abrams, who dutifully helmed 2015’s The Force Awakens (the first of the final trilogy), The Rise of Skywalker delivers on all fronts, combining  eye-boggling visuals with a meaty central storyline loaded with a series of resounding emotional thunder bolts. It’s quite a ride.

Sporting a slightly more streamlined narrative than 2017’s superbly entertaining The Last Jedi (written and directed by Rian Johnson), the core of the story involves the concerted attempt by Supreme Leader of the First Order Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) to seduce Jedi-in-training Rey (Daisy Ridley) to The Dark Side.

Parallel to this we’ve got the desperate search by The Resistance for the new battle fleet of the evil First Order, which is cleverly hiding in a shady quadrant of the galaxy known only in legend.

Each of these familiar-looking star destroyers is armed with a cannon that can crack open a planet like an over-ripe coconut, so the heroic team of Rey, Poe (Oscar Isaac), Finn (John Boyega), Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo), C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) and B-88 (the rolling droid) follow a trail of leads that involve a lot of chasing, shooting, exploding and story exposition that even the most focused of fans might have trouble following.

The journey is hot-wired with a quality assortment of revelations, twists and surprises as Kylo telepathically tortures Rey, who suffers from traumatic flashbacks from the time she became an orphan.

This is where the real juice of the story is and what lifts the film above the fray of most franchise tentpoles.

To his credit, Abrams has learnt the big lesson from 1980’s The Empire Strikes Back – still the best film of the franchise – that it’s possible with the chugging locomotive of a big bubblegum film to blow a whistle, stop everything and allow a poignant dramatic moment to sear into the minds of the audience.

He pulls this off several times during the film, often deploying close-ups Sergio Leone would have been proud of. It’s quite an achievement in a film with so much going on.

Visually, the film is a knockout. Given how almost every major film these days has an army of digital artists and a VFX budget in the tens of millions, it’s remarkable how this film continues the Star Wars tradition of conjuring visions that are genuinely ground-breaking.

The extensive use of real world locations, for instance, enhance the photo-realism of other-worldly vehicles and spaceships as they skim, bounce and crash across the landscape. Particularly impressive is Abrams’ use of focus and shallow depth of field.

In terms of sheer scale, the film’s most awesome highlight involves Rey’s visit to a gigantic technological wreck that sits in an angry ocean as massive waves break upon its creaking structure. Looking like the skeleton of a fallen Death Star it’s a strangely beautiful, Gothic sequence that hits a wow factor of 11.

It’s a cliche borne of the standard-setting work by Industrial Light & Magic – the effects outfit created by Star Wars maestro George Lucas (who has had nothing to do with the franchise since selling it to Disney back in 2012) – but it remains true that so much of the digital FX work looks so real, even though we know it can’t be real. Shots of massive star destroyers showing their intricate design and detail are especially intimidating, while tiny robots beep and squeak with personality.

Now, this being a Star Wars movie there are, of course, a host of glaring inconsistencies and clumsy plot holes. These have become such an intrinsic part of the Star Wars canon one wonders if they have become mandatory.

For instance, it’s a pity that we have reached the end of the Star Wars trail without once, in nine films, ever encountering a stormtrooper who can shoot straight. The dolts running about here are like bowling pins on legs, falling dead with a single laser blast from our heroes. This begs the question: what good does all that shiny white armour do?

Even more annoying, though, is that we once again have a scenario where the bad guys just can’t get their act together, defense-wise.

On the one hand they are capable of designing, building and deploying these incredible weapons of mass destruction.

Yet somewhere there is always a fatal design flaw in their planning that will allow a ragtag squadron of small rebel fighters to bring down the whole apparatus. Really, 1983’s Return of the Jedi should have been the last time we saw that cliche, yet here it is again 42 years after being introduced in the original Star Wars. It’s proved a real story-telling stain on the Star Wars legacy. It’s a basic rule: if you make things too easy for the good guys their victory over evil is sapped of any real tension.

Still, the pace, dazzle and emotional gravity of Rise of Skywalker earns enough credit to make you forgive these lapses. After all, it is Christmas, a time of forgiveness.

For big fans of the films there’s a large array of classic references to feast on, not the least being the use of old rebel fighters and the pedigree of Rey’s light sabres, which becomes a major, moving story point.

And while there is rapid cutting and crash zooms in some of the action (though much less than in the previous two films), the cinematography by Dan Mindel (Force Awakens; Star Trek) brandishes a strong sense of composition inspired by the original trilogy.

Tying off the saga with what feels like a parting gift to the audience, the film ends with a final image that should put a lump in the throat of anyone who was struck by that fleeting shot in the first Star Wars of the double sunset on Tatooine as Luke looked out at the horizon wondering what the future had in store for him.

 

OPENING BOXING DAY

 

CATS ** (110 minutes) PG

To appropriate and paraphrase an old showbiz saying, Cats is the kind of modern movie musical that will have you humming the visual effects as you leave the cinema.

Based on the mega-hit Andrew Lloyd-Webber musical that began life in the early 1980s, director Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech; Les Miserables) presides over a cast costumed as felines who dance and sing and leap through oversized sets depicting the gutters, back alleys and cozy homes of nighttime London.

The decor and detail in this handsome, expensive production are remarkable, to be sure, even though the film’s meandering cinematography – as the camera goes ping-ponging about the place – tends to highlight the theatrical origins of the piece. Only one memorable sequence on a railroad track gives you any real sense of the city Cats is set in.

Storywise, the film suffers from investing a kitty litter load of solemnity into what is, in essence, a rather silly story.

Each year these cats hold a ritual talent contest, the winner of which gets to float away to their next life in a realm called the “Heaviside Layer”.

Stumbling into this community of preening moggies is a discarded kitty called Victoria (Francesca Hayward). Innocent and wide-eyed, she sees wonder and enchantment in her new surroundings as she encounters its various underworld characters, both nice and nasty.

There are a couple of notably bright and energized performances here as Rebel Wilson and James Corden chime in with some scene-stealing work and a few choice comic touches.

Apart from that, though, it’s hard to get a sense of performance from much of the cast, thanks largely to restless camera moves and choppy edits every three seconds or so.

For such a feather-weight musical the direction throughout is just too dour and the going gets pretty sluggish. It’s like trying to have a skip in your step while wearing moon boots.

Fans of the musical will no doubt rejoice in the renditions of hits from the soundtrack such as Jellicle Songs For Jellicle Cats (a singularly irritating ditty), Old Deuteronomy, Magical Gus and, of course, Memory, the show’s signature tune that has taken its place alongside My Heart Will Go On and I Will Always Love You as one of karaoke’s greatest victims.

The music also features a very nice new song Beautiful Ghosts written by Webber and Taylor Swift.

Still, the joys of Cats are spotty, and the film is unlikely to make non-fans understand what has so enchanted the millions who consider Cats the best modern musical of the past 60 years. Whatever magic was spun on the stage seems to have been lost in the translation to the screen.

 

JOJO RABBIT **** (108 minutes) M

When it comes to good taste in comedy, having fun with Nazis might not seem to be among the most refined ways to get a laugh, yet when done with skill, wit and very sharp satirical intent it can pay off in a big way.

And it does in JoJo Rabbit, one of the cleverest and funniest movie satires we’ve seen in ages. Refreshingly daring, it tears into the nature of prejudice and how the young can be socially conditioned to become rule-loving racists.

Taking several leaves out of the Mel Brooks Guide to Spoofing Nazis – and based on the book Caging Skies by Christine Leunens – New Zealand actor/writer/director Taika Waititi (Thor; Hunt for the Wilderpeople) wastes no time plunging us into the heart of darkness with light-footed gaiety.

He introduces us to Johannes Betzler (Roman Griffin Davis), a cherubic German kid who is part of the infamous Hitler Youth, portrayed here as being akin to the Boy Scouts, only with guns and grenades.

With only his mother (Scarlett Johansson) to look after him, Betzler is keen to prove himself as an upstanding and capable part of Hitler’s crusade.

Alas, he’s an awkward kid and an easy target for the Aryan bullies who make fun of his unwillingness to kill. Thankfully he has a supportive imaginary friend who offers him sage advice about how best to make it in life.

This figure comes in the well-dressed form of the Fuhrer himself (played by Waititi), an amalgam of Hitler as mediated through propaganda. He’s not so much a genocidal monster intent on ridding the world of Jews but an avuncular pal eager to help his naive charge fit into the New World Order.

Conflicted as he is between his duty to the Third Reich and his nagging reluctance to want to hurt people, Betzler then has to contend with a major mind-bending complication when he discovers a Jewish girl called Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie) hiding in his home. Worst still, he thinks he might like her.

The eye-opening he then undergoes as he faces his real feelings and discovers his mother’s true feelings for the Nazi regime is handled with great dexterity by Waititi.

Careful not to push the satire into the more perilous realm of black comedy – and this film is not a black comedy – Waititi keeps focus on the emotional growth of Betzler while pulling off some very funny moments, thanks largely to his a supporting cast that includes Rebel Wilson, Stephen Merchant and Sam Rothwell, very funny as a gung-ho soldier no longer allowed to fight on the front.

At a time when the term “Nazi” appears with disturbing regularity in media commentary, Waititi’s film arrives on point and with a point, showing how socialised hatred depends largely on misinformation, taking advantage of the naive and restricting dissent.

As for the supposedly touchy subject matter, Waititi shows here, as many before him have shown, that messing with Nazis in comedy sounds much more dubious and treacherous than it actually is.

We’ve seen that repeatedly with the work of Mel Brooks, who gave us the classic Springtime for Hitler ditty from The Producers (1967; 2005) as well as the memorable Hitler Rap, which he put out with the release of To Be Or Not To Be, a 1983 remake of the Nazi-spoofing 1942 Ernst Lubitsch film that still stands as one of Brooks’ best.

Jerry Lewis derided Nazis and turned Hitler into a comic figure in Which Way to the Front? (1970; admittedly, not one of his better films).

And, of course, there’s the indelible legacy of Hogan’s Heroes, the 1960s network buddy comedy that featured Jewish actors portraying Nazi caricatures.  

It simply proves, as Jojo Rabbit does with such potency, that there are no taboo topics in comedy provided the intent is morally sound, the execution is rife with irony and the result is funny.

  

JUMANJI: THE NEXT LEVEL *** (123 minutes) PG

The gang are back for more of the same as a gaggle of teenagers drop back into the Jumanji video game where they take on adventurous avatars in the form of Dwayne Johnson, Chris Rock, Jack Black and Karen Gillan.

Made promptly to ride the huge success of 2017’s Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (which took a neat $962 million), there’s nothing inherently wrong or bad with the sequel, apart from the fact that it doesn’t really have a story. The only characters of any real dramatic interest are two old friends seeking to reconnect after a long estrangement (nicely played by Danny DeVito and Danny Glover).

Everything else is a proficient retread of what we saw before, with newcomer Awkwafina adding a little spice and director Jake Kasdan (Bad Teacher) again doing a fine job channelling his inner Indiana Jones (his father, Lawrence Kasdan co-wrote Raiders of the Lost Ark, as well as The Empire Strikes Back).

There’s plenty of snappy, cartoonish action, the best being a battle with apes as our heroes attempt to cross a tangle of rickety footbridges. It’s a wild sequence and incorporates a wily reference to Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.

Amidst all the movement, screaming and joking – the Rock and Chris Rock are especially funny this time around – students of modern cinema will find Jumanji II a near-perfect expression of post-content cinema.

Set inside an old video game, the film often has the logic of a video game: characters die and come back to life; computer displays suddenly appear explaining each character’s strengths and weaknesses; plot hurdles appear then magically disappear.

Again, nothing wrong with that, especially in this era where so much leave is granted to franchise fantasy films that push colour, movement and comic over-acting over narrative.

On that score, This Jumanji is bound to please the legions who just saw the last Jumanji. How well it will serve fans of the original Jumanji is a more perilous bet.

 

SORRY WE MISSED YOU **** (101 minutes) MA

How is it that veteran British director Ken Loach can repeatedly make films about the struggles of the working class, yet make each film feel so fresh, vibrant and immediate?

It likely has much to do with his love of documentary style filming and his unparalleled skill at drawing authentic, semi-improvised performances from his cast.

On top of that, Loach’s films often point towards the hope of a happy ending for his beleaguered characters, only to deliver the hard life lesson that the good and the right do not always triumph.

His latest film, Sorry We Missed You, is easily one of his best.

Written by long-time collaborator Paul Laverty and set present-day, the story follows the increasingly tortured travails of Ricky and Abbie Turner (Kris Hitchen and Debbie Honeywood), a financially strapped working-class couple with a bright young daughter Liza Jane (Katie Proctor) and a delinquent teenage son Seb (Rhys Stone) to raise.

Up to their bottom lips in debt, Ricky’s plan is to become a commission-based courier driver, wherein he delivers parcels in his own van. He has a strict schedule to keep and a long list of responsibilities he must honour, lest he be hit with covering the expenses.

His work life is brutal, thanks chiefly to his unforgiving supervisor Maloney (Ross Brewster), an efficiency Nazi who defends his ultra-hardline approach by claiming that he is helping hard workers earn a good living.

Racing around the city with deadlines to meet and fines to pay for performance failures, the long hours and short rewards Ricky endures is intended to reflect the reality of this line of work. The end credits make brief mention of the many drivers who spoke with the filmmakers, their experiences highlighting the irony of supposedly being self-employed, yet having to work for an unyielding master.

Running parallel to Ricky’s turmoil are the ever-increasing pressures on his wife Abbie, a nurse who has had to make huge sacrifices to accommodate Ricky’s van purchase. Her devotion to her work comes under painful strain as their domestic situation deteriorates with Seb’s truancy and petty crime threatening his future.

Shining like a tiny LED light of hope through all this is their pre-teen daughter Liza Jane, a smart girl who watches the home-made mayhem with the silent intuition that they all deserve better.

The emotional push and pull of the story sees Loach (now 83) in his element as the couple try fending off misery and strive to build some sort of future for their children. Like so many of his contemporary films, it’s touching, heart-breaking and all too real.

A life-long union man, Loach has never hidden his allegiance to the Left. Most of his films are politically charged, implicitly or explicitly railing against the oppressors of the working class, the elites and opportunists who exploit without conscience.

Yet, film after film, it is the humanism of Loach’s work that hits home. Though driven by politics, what he delivers is pure, heartfelt drama that stings with authenticity.

This latest film is yet another example, showing that Loach is at the peak of his powers.

 

2019: A GREAT YEAR FOR AUSTRALIAN FILMS

As we merrily Morris-dance towards the New Year and all of the joys that it shall bring, we need to take pause and acknowledge what an absolute banner year it has been for Australian film, both aesthetically and commercially – though, not necessarily at the same time.

The year was graced by a heartening cluster of well-made, audience-oriented genre films that connected at the box office. They include:

 

Ride Like a Girl: Rachel Griffiths’ crowd-pleasing biographical drama about barrier-breaking jockey Michelle Payne was the biggest Aussie film of the year, taking a sweet $10.7 million (and counting). An uplifting, family-friendly, against-the-odds girl power film, it also achieved a rare feat for a local film by opening at #1, knocking off Downton Abbey. What a lovely sight that was.

 

Storm Boy: Shawn Seet’s noble remake/update of the classic 1976 film, starring Geoffrey Rush in one of his finest film performances. ($5m)

 

Hotel Mumbai: A searing, large-scale recreation of the horrific 2008 terrorist attacks on Mumbai, with Anthony Maras displaying a sureness of touch uncommon for a directorial debut. ($3.3m)

 

Palm Beach: Rachel Ward’s cheerfully sardonic look at the discontent of a cluster of wealthy retirees. Critics might not have been bowled over, but the audience ate it up. ($4.4m)

 

Danger Close: The Battle of Long Tan: With too few local films about the Vietnam war on the board, Kriv Stenders and his crew broke the drought with a valiant, long overdue film about one of our nation’s key engagements.($3m)

 

Top End Wedding: Miranda Tapsell lead this winning rom-com about a bride-to-be trying to reconnect with her mother who goes missing on the eve of her wedding. Another crowd-pleaser, it was notable for not making an issue of an indigenous girl marrying a white dude. Quite a big step forward and a triumph for Tapsell, who wrote the screenplay and also served as a producer. ($4.7m)

That’s quite a string of box office success. Still, you can’t have a year this good without one or two anomalies, and 2019 served up a beauty.

Easily the best film of the year was The Nightingale, written and directed by Jennifer Kent (The Babadook). Set in colonial Tasmania it served up a brutally effective revenge drama as a woman heads into the wilds with an indigenous tracker in hot-blooded pursuit of the English officer who killed her family.

Accomplished in every regard, lauded by critics and a big winner at the AACTA awards – best film, director, actress, supporting actress, screenplay – the film nonetheless struggled to find an audience, its box office straining to reach half a million.

In a similar vein, the clever dark comedy Judy & Punch got strong reviews and collected a swag of AACTA nominations. Written and directed by Mirrah Foulkes – and widely described, as was Nightingale, as a feminist revenge film – it was lavished with praise and took out best actor for Damian Herriman. Yet at the box office it barely managed $75,000.

It’s a real head scratcher. In a year in which so many Australian films hit big, how was it that the most acclaimed and award-winning film barely made a ripple, while another much-favoured film made no ripple at all. Go figure.

At the arthouses we were blessed by some top-notch fare with the minimalist slavery drama Buoyancy, Thomas M. Wright’s excellent Adam Cullen biopic Acute Misfortune and The Combination: Redemption, a tough, independently made sequel from actor/writer George Basha and  actor/director David Field. More proof here about how good films can be produced on tiny budgets.

Our love for quality documentaries was very well served. After That Sugar Film, writer/director Damon Gameau delivered the thought-provoking, optimistic enviro-doco 2040 while director Richard Lowenstein gave us the definitive Michael Hutchence documentary with the acclaimed Mystify. Each film took over a million at the box office.

Meanwhile, Stan Grant and director Daniel Gordon got everybody arguing with The Australian Dream, their level-headed look at controversial indigenous footballer Adam Goodes. Careful to incorporate all sides of the issue, the film ignited a million debates and took an impressive $800,000.

So, all up, 2019 was a banner year for Australian films. All we need is a few years in a row like this one and we’ll be laughing.

Jim Schembri
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