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Jim Schembri’s new release movie reviews. 27 Feb, 2020

Jim Schembri

THE INVISIBLE MAN ***1/2 (124 minutes) MA

It’s some testament to the imaginative genius of pioneering sci-fi author HG Wells that his 1897 novel about a bloke nobody could see is still spawning films, with this latest effort clocking in as a chilling, stylish update.

Written and directed with a cool eye and a love of old-school spookery by Melbourne-born director Leigh Whannell (Saw; Insidious; Upgrade), The Invisible Man offers a thoroughly modern makeover of Wells’ idea, with everything geared to generate armrest-clutching moments of suspense and to deliver a fistful of high-voltage shocks designed to jolt you in your seat – and possibly out of it.

Set present day, the deceptively straightforward premise involves a woman escaping from the clutches of her husband scientist.

In a terrific, tone-setting opening sequence that happens in the dead of night in near-silence, Cecilia Kass (Elisabeth Moss from Mad Men, The Handmaid’s Tale & Top of the Lake) takes flight from her designer home and, with the aid of her sister, only just manages to steal away.

Her safety seems assured when the shock news breaks of her husband’s suicide. He’s meant to be dead and gone, yet Cecilia senses a disturbing presence hovering near her. At first it’s nothing definitive, but her odd behaviour is just enough to make it seem to any casual observer that she’s slowly going a little crazy.

In one genuinely frightening scene the unsettling feeling that she’s being stalked by a ghost is confirmed. It’s a singularly shocking moment, one of many Whannell deftly engineers throughout the film.

His use of silence and negative space – that part of the frame where nothing seems to be happening – to generate tension is masterful, galvanizing your attention when nothing much seems to be happening, then delivering a piercing payoff.

Moss, who has been choosing her post-Mad Men projects with admirable discretion, is very good here as she not only does battle with a foe she can’t see, but tries convincing people she’s not nuts.

Whannell wisely adopts a minimalist approach to the film’s look, including his use of some exceptional visual effects that are deployed sparingly and with great impact.

One quibble: for all its craft, the film does sport a rather sizeable plot hole, which is quickly papered over. While some people might not spot it, those plot pedants who do will hopefully be too caught up in the film’s suspense and menacing atmosphere to let it bother them too much.

  

MISS FISHER AND THE CRYPT OF TEARS * (101 minutes) PG

Given how anticipated this long-awaited film version of the popular TV detective series Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries is, it comes as some surprise – and with a considerable sinking of the heart – that the enterprise has turned out to be such a shabby, sub-standard affair.

The loyal fans who have kept the Phryne Fisher franchise afloat since she first popped up on TV in all her 1920s splendour in 2012 are the presumed target market for this film and will likely be the most disposed to forgive the film’s dull plot, pedestrian direction and threadbare production values.

The complicated and increasingly dreary plot sees Miss Fisher (Essie Davis) helping out a Bedouin lass called Shirin Abbas (Izabella Yena), which leads her to getting embroiled with the case of a cherished object that must be returned so a dreaded curse can be lifted. There is also a mystery over the fate of Shirin’s people that must be uncovered.

Now, when a successful TV program proclaims that it is hitting the cinema there is a reasonable expectation that while its essential elements will be preserved, there will also be some appreciable upsizing to justify the upscaling to a bigger, brasher, bolder medium.

That simply doesn’t happen with Miss Fisher and the Crypt of Tears.

To invoke an old line often used in cases of TV shows attempting the jump to the big screen, the film feels like an average episode of the series stretched out over two hours. Diehard fans of Miss Fisher might very well shed a crypt of tears after seeing it.

The reported budget for the film (according to if.com.au) was $8 million, including about a million from a crowd-funding effort.

Now, to put it politely yet bluntly, that figure is something you would need to be told because you certainly couldn’t guess it from the mediocrity of what’s on the screen.

The first 20 minutes of this film are simply painful to watch, suggesting a hastily made low-budget effort.

Some examples: there’s a terrible chase sequence involving the embarrassing use of low-angle shots to mask the fact that nothing in the shot is, in fact, moving; Miss Fisher’s attempt to do something furtive in Morocco is rendered ridiculous by her garish dress; all the men she encounters are stupid; the editing is terrible, with one memorable scene showing a biplane appearing to land on the lawn of a mansion in the space of about a metre.

The international settings for this film feature location shots in Melbourne and Morocco. There is also a long stretch of the film set in London, yet the only sense of the city we get are two very ordinary exterior shots that look as though they were cooked up against a key screen.

Most of the film’s other visual effects (such as the train sequence) also appear second rate. Thanks to American films, which often use VFX work by Australian artists, our eyes are conditioned to a much higher standard than what’s offered here. And, boy, does it show.

There’s no improvement after that.

Basically, Miss Fisher and the Crypt of Tears looks cheap. It’s not even shot in widescreen, which is a major letdown.

The bland production values might be less noticeable in the home market, where the film will ultimately end up and, presumably, make most of its money, but it sticks out like nobody’s business on the big screen.

Storywise, we have another Aussie mess on our hands. There’s not much wit in the dialogue, and Miss Fisher’s proto-feminist edge simply gets lost in all the blurry plotting. It also doesn’t help the cause much when your heroine has to actually say how she likes to triumph in the face of rules made by men.

And if there is a measure of how this attempt at a big-screen treatment of Miss Fisher flails and fails, it’s in the film’s big reveal, which is so bad it beggars belief.

Not only does it embrace one of the hoariest of all mystery movie cliches, it is heavily signalled throughout the film, thanks to some clunky direction and grave miscasting. Did screenwriter Deb Cox (also a producer, with Fiona Eagger) and director Tony Tilse just run out of ideas?

Even the central performance by Essie Davis as Miss Fisher simmers at the TV level. There’s nothing big or enlightening or surprising or especially cluey about it. There aren’t even any close-ups of that seductive, mischievous face. Glamour is meant to be as much a part of Miss Fisher’s character as smarts, yet neither quality get the emphasis she deserves.

Perhaps none of this matters to your hardcore Miss Fisher fan, especially if they’ve been faithfully following her since acclaimed author Kerry Greenwood created Phryne Fisher in the 1989 novel Cocaine Blues.

For with love comes forgiveness, so perhaps the film’s many flaws and shortcomings will get a free pass from Phryne’s followers.

And she’s going to need them, and a whole raft of new ones, if the planned trilogy of films is to go ahead. Certainly, the film’s first weekend is going to need all that support. Godspeed.

Otherwise, chalk up Miss Fisher and the Crypt of Tears as a candidate for biggest disappointment of the year.

  

MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN ** (144 minutes) M

Tedious and way too long, this patchy period crime drama directed by and starring the usually impressive Edward Norton unspools like a by-the-numbers tele-movie.

Lionel Essrog (Norton) is a lowly detective in 1950s New York who, after the murder of his boss,  stumbles into the world of corruption and corporate double-dealing of pushy, loud-mouthed city developer Moses Randolph (Alec Baldwin).

His plan is to rejuvenate parts of the city presently inhabited by poor black people and improve everybody’s lot. Essrog discovers otherwise, even though he suffers from Tourette Syndrome, an affliction one would have thought too loud and uncontrollable for the job of a detective.

Unfortunately, Norton’s direction is too flat, colourless and slow to bring life to the proceedings. He did show promise as a debut director with his 2000 romantic comedy Keeping the Faith, but the lack of engagement here suggests he might have been out of his depth. Even his own performance seems preoccupied with the character’s tics and blurtings.

In any event, Norton certainly relishes in presenting Randolph Moses as a thinly veiled critique of President Donald Trump, even though the character in the Jonathan Lethem novel (set in 1999, not the 1950s) is meant to shadow Robert Moses, a wily, Trump-like developer who was prominent in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s.

Regrettably, after three unrelenting years of Trump bashing, the practice has worn very thin and comes across in the movie as an opportunistic cheap shot at a teflon target.

In November, Norton told Vanity Fair that, having worked on the film since 1999 and weathering countless setbacks and delays, it was Trump’s 2016 victory that gave the project new vitality and purpose.

If only that passion, however partisan, had shown up in the film. And if Trump’s ascent did fire up the film’s content, well, wouldn’t it have made more sense to set it present day instead of back in the 1950s?

Though Motherless Brooklyn is being widely described as a “noir” thriller, there is very little evidence of that 1950s style on the screen.

Cinematographer Dick Pope, best known for his work with British director Mike Leigh, certainly makes the film’s period recreation look convincing, but there’s no expressionist use of darkness, shadows and contrast that the noir term suggests. If Norton was really after a 1950s noir look, he surely should have shot the film in black and white.

 

 HONEY BOY *** (94 minutes) MA

Shia LaBeouf shines as a flawed father to a child actor in this intimate, thematically rich, small-scale father-son drama, strongly directed by newcomer Alma Har’el.

 

At the film’s core are the reflections and memories of a troubled actor Otis Lort (Lucas Hedges) who, in 2005, remembers back to the time a decade earlier when he was a child actor (played superbly by Noah Jupe) scraping together a living with his supportive but wildly imperfect and erratic father (LaBeouf).

The naturalistic, documentary-like direction here brings to mind the work of British veteran Ken Loach, with the camera flowing through scenes to catch the physical interactions and dialogue exchanges, many of which appear to have been improvised.

Against a slate of big films, this rough-edged gem has proven to be an arthouse hit in the US. It certainly deserves a discerning adult audience that appreciates the type of nuance American independent films thrive on.

 

THE WISHMAS TREE *** (86 minutes) PG

Out from nowhere, it seems, comes The Wishmas Tree, a wonderfully animated Australian film that plops onto our screens unheralded and without much of a profile, as is too often the case with local films.

The hero of the piece is Kerry (Miranda Tapsell), a spirited if selfish little possum. She lives in an animal commune called Sanctuary City, a secluded patch of well-tended greenery cut off from the rest of the natural world. Here animals of all types live in peaceful co-existence and by the guiding principle of co-operation and mutual respect.

At the centre of their idealised home – which includes mod cons such as stereos and television – is the Wishmas Tree, a supernatural piece of fantasy flora that grants one wish per year to a lucky Sanctuary City citizen. The tree radiates a sense of security among all those who live within the city’s natural walls resulting in a tranquility untroubled by animal instincts such as predation or the need for heirarchies.

All is fine and happy, yet Kerry wants more; she pines to see snow and to know what life is like beyond the walls in the foreboding place called “The Wild”. So, in an act of extreme arrogance, she violates a sacred rule and plunges the place into a bad state.

To restore things she sets out across the badlands of the Wild, accompanied by her sister Petra (Kate Murphy) and a frill-necked municipal officer known as Yarra (Ross Noble).

Though the film has a cuteness factor suitable for a family film, things do get a bit dark and heavy as the team head into the menacing mists towards their destination.

And while there is adventure and smatterings of action, there is also a lot of exposition and chatter, which tends to weigh things down about half way through.

Still, The Wishmas Tree is comparable to a lot of the family fare we get from overseas, with the added treat that it’s set in a fantasized version of the Australian outback.

And while the animation isn’t quite Dreamworks or Pixar, it certainly beams with character and style. Of particular note is the use of follow focus and of varying depth of field. These lend a nifty faux-3D effect to some scenes.

Directed by Ricard Cusso and written by Oddball screenwriter Peter Ivan (co-producer Ryan Greaves has an additional writing credit), there’s a case to be made that the film could have been shaved by five minutes or so.

Also, the film’s cute/scary ratio errs on the dark side, with snarling, sharp-toothed critters threatening our heroes and a giant cloud of evil hovering above them, complete with satanic red eyes of doom. Surely there was a way of incorporating these necessary elements of threat and maintain a G rating, just as Toy Story 3 did.

That said, there’s little doubt that the same film from America would have thumped into Australian muliplexes with far more noise.

Given its flaws and cliches – there’s always got to be a young tearaway to ignite the plot, hasn’t there? – The Wishmas Tree is as proficiently mounted and as technically accomplished as most of the family fare we get force-fed from the US.

Yet here we are again, folks: another quality Australian film sidles into cinemas for a brief run before inevitably sidling out again after a few weeks. If the syndrome continues much longer we’ll have to name it.

Here’s hoping, of course, that the prognosis is wrong and that The Wishmas Tree finds a big audience either in theatres, on disk or ultimately in the stream.

But the pattern has to end. Whatever the future of Australian cinema is, this can’t be it.

Jim Schembri
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