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Jim Schembri’s new release movie reviews and Em Baker Interview. 21 Nov, 2019

Jim Schembri

CHARLIE’S ANGELS * (118 minutes) M

Oh, woe is us as we sit before Charlie’s Angels, the latest excruciating example from Hollywood of big-budget franchise filmmaking gone wrong.

Written, directed and starring Elizabeth Banks (she made Perfect Pitch 2; headlined in The Hunger Games; is a pretty funny actress) the movie is a glossy attempt to reboot the Charlie’s Angels brand, and it’s a bland, bloated, tedious, post-content mess with terrible plotting, poor action sequences and performances from its three leads that are barely there.

As part of the worldwide network of secret agents, three “angels” Sabina (Twilight’s Kristen Stewart, trying to be funny), Jane (Ella Balinska) and Elena (Naomi Scott) must stop the production of an energy conservation device that is capable of being re-purposed as a powerful weapon.

There are countless attempts to generate some chemistry between these three, but they all fall flat, save for a joke here or there.

Falling even flatter are the film’s drab, assembly-line action sequences, all of which look indistinguishable from the rapidly-edited, vehicle-twirling, fireball-studded mulch we see pumped out in every second action film.

The close-quarters fighting is terribly staged, a marked contrast to what director McG (Joseph McGinty Nichol) did two decades earlier in Charlie’s Angles (2000) and its sequel Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle (2003). Did Banks take note of these films, or even see them?

And, for some bizarre reason, when the action hits Banks places the camera about five paces too close, resulting in long sequences that resemble showreels of motion blur.

The film is also blessed with those wonderful movie security guards. You know, the ones who never hear a sound and who always happen to be looking the other way while our heroes sneak about. And, of course, when it comes to shooting at anything their aim is as bad as the stormtroopers in Rogue One.

For a measure of the degree of care put into the film, all you need do is take note of the scene where Kristen Stewart supposedly rides a horse. She hops on, but we never see her face and the galloping steed in the same shot. Couldn’t she take to the saddle properly? Or couldn’t they at least have digitally implanted her face onto the stunt woman? It’s just lazy.

All this is bad enough, but why did Banks feel the need to infect the film with a “woke” mentality? The final reel reeks of faddish misandry, robbing the film of any intended “girl power” message because the male villains so easy to subdue.

This is the third go at reviving the Charlie’s Angels brand, which began life with the beloved 1970s TV series about a boutique detective agency run by a mysterious man who, with his deputy Bosley (David Doyle), had a staff of three females.

It was a fun, progressive show that slipped in some neat feminist themes amidst all the eye candy, starring a revolving cast including Kate Jackson, Jacklyn Smith, the late Farrah Fawcett, Tanya Roberts, Cheryl Ladd and Shelley Hack.

Then came the two hit comedy films by McG starring Cameron Diaz, Lucy Liu and (producer) Drew Barrymore who blessed the rebooting with energetic performances, cheeky sexiness (remember the office meeting scene with Liu?) and first-class action delivering kick-ass films laced with giddy girl-power messaging.

There was a noble attempt by Barrymore in 2011 to revive Charlie’s Angels as a TV series. She teamed up with Leonard Goldberg – who, with Aaron Spelling, created the 1970s production powerhouse Spelling/Goldberg, with Charlie’s Angels one of its biggest hits – and cast Annie Ilonzeh, Minka Kelly and Australian Rachael Taylor.

The show rated so badly it was axed after the fourth episode aired. Thirteen were commissioned, but only eight were made, with the final one not making it to air in the US.

So here comes this junk, cynically riding on a much-loved brand hoping to convince its key audience – teens girls, presumably – that what they’re watching is a hip Gen Z film with some sort of empowerment message. Yet Banks’ synthetic direction imbues the film with that phony feel we got while squirming through Ocean’s 8.

This new Charlie’s Angels is not so much a reboot as an act of cinematic vandalism, its only real value being that it reminds us of just how cool, wild and fun those McG movies were.

Footnote: The movie’s poster contains a sapphic tease with two of the actresses holding hands. There ought to be a law against such misleading advertising.

 

SUZI Q ***1/2 (100 minutes) M

Fans of 1970s rock icon Suzi Quatro will no doubt deem this excellent, detailed, enjoyable biographical documentary as a long overdue tribute to the great, leather-clad, Elvis-inspired rock performer who helped kick open the doors for women in rock.

Quatro takes part in telling her own tale, which includes her relationship with her singing sisters, her bumpy rise to fame, her personal flaws and her no-nonsense approach to making it big in a world full of men.

Also featured are those who found her music and attitude formative such as Tina Weymouth (from Talking Heads), Debbie Harry (Blondie), Joan Jett and Lita Ford (both from The Runaways).

Non-fans will appreciate Quatro for the proto-feminist she was, her rise and influence running in parallel with the swelling tide of the women’s liberation movement. Oh, and there’s heaps of music, still catchy as heck after all these decades. The film is very well-directed by Melbourne filmmaker Liam Firmager.

  

FISHERMAN’S FRIENDS *** (111 minutes) M

During a bachelor party weekend down by the seaside, four millennial yuppies from the music business happen upon a local 10-strong singing group made up of Cornish fishermen.

The idea of turning them into a hit commercial novelty act is raised, but the notion turns out to be a practical joke played on the gullible Danny (Daniel Mays).

Out of a mixture of conviction and spite he takes on the challenge, a decision that draws him into the community where – you guessed it – big-city values don’t quite fit with the quaint, close-knit, coastal atmosphere of friendship and honesty.

The film unspools as both a semi-musical comedy and as a light-hearted revenge lark about the sport of one-upmanship.

Much better known in the UK than here, Mays (you might recall him from Mike Leigh’s Vera Drake as the laddish tailor) really holds the film together with a breezy, eminently likeable performance.

Based on a true story, the film was directed by Chris Foggin and also stars James Purefoy, David Hayman and Tuppence Middleton (Downton Abbey), who does a creditable job grounding the film.

 

JUDY & PUNCH *** (106 minutes) MA

If you like your black comedy as dark as the soul of a man who would condemn innocent people for his own ends, you’ll love this debut offering from writer/director Mirrah Foulkes, best known until now as an actress (Hawaii Five-O; Top of the Lake).

This twisted tale is set in a Tudor-era village where puppeteers Punch (David Merriman) and his wife Judy (Mia Wasikowska) are performing their ultra-violent, woman-bashing show to appreciative crowds who can’t get enough of it.

While Punch is hungry for fame, Judy is more concerned with the show’s rather monotonous content, suggesting more civility and gender-balance would make a nice change. Punch, ever the loving husband and father to their baby girl, dismisses the idea.

A rather bleak turn of events sees Punch living alone, accusing an elderly couple of witchcraft, while Judy inhabits the nearby forest trying to recover from a resounding bout of traumatic loss and domestic violence.

It’s no mean feat drawing comedy from the darkest of topics, yet Foulkes seems blessed with a sureness of touch when siphoning humour from tragedy. She elicits uncomfortable laughs from black moments as she slowly shapes her story into a feminist revenge fable as a woman seeks to exact the measure of her suffering from her selfish, black-hearted husband.

The film has some parallels with Jennifer Kent’s period revenge drama The Nightingale, to be sure, and if there’s one thing both films prove beyond any debate is that dark themes and horrific violence in cinema are not the preserve of men.

It’s arguable that Foulkes goes too far in the climax of the film, perpetrating something on screen that a  Charles Bronson character, even at its angriest, would probably refrain from. It might be a error of judgement or a refusal to compromise for the sake of compassion.

Whatever the case, it’s chilling, and a pretty punchy moment to sign off this most unusual and imaginative film.

Footnote: Judy and Punch is nominated for nine AACTA awards: best film, direction, screenplay, actor, actress, editing, music score, production design and costumes.

But no cinematography? How does that make any sense? Stefan Duscio (Jungle; Acute Misfortune; Galore) at least deserved a mention, surely.

  

OFFICIAL SECRETS **1/2 (112 minutes) MA

The stirring story of British whistleblower Katharine Gun and her lone wolf attempt to stop the 2003 Iraq war gets a fairly good, if partisan treatment by director/co-writer Gavin Hood (Tsotsi; Rendition; Eye in the Sky).

The film is at its best as an entertaining, dramatic thriller when stressing the personal and legal risks whistleblowers take when they knowingly violate the terms of their employment for what they believe is a higher cause.

Deciding to leak an incriminating email showing how the US and Britain were maneuvering small countries to support the war, the naive Katharine Gun (Keira Knightley) sets in train a series of events that shake international relations and rattles the reputation of the conservative newspaper The Observer, which runs the story even though it vociferously supports the war.

The workings of the all-powerful Official Secrets act and the legal processes Gun found herself embroiled in are intriguing, and Knightly puts in one of her best performances of late as a righteous woman who is forced to wonder whether she’s done the right thing. Gun’s moral resolve grinds against her growing awareness that she bit off more than she could chew.

The film is full of fine performances. Matthew Goode is almost unrecognisable as the paper’s foreign editor, Matt Smith is earnest as the journo who is leaked the story and a sedate, buttoned-down Ralph Fiennes is smoothly convincing as Gun’s lawyer.

Especially good is Adam Bakri as Gun’s refugee husband Yasar. He does a top job giving voice to the instinct a lot of people would have in her situation, which is that she took a huge risk that didn’t pay off – the war went ahead on schedule – and to now shut up and protect herself.

The one big reservation about Official Secrets is that all mentions of the war are entirely left wing. Even the point that the paper backs the war is not backed up or used to generate drama that would have covered the case for the war, which is completely ignored.

There’s a lot of Bush-bashing, which comes across as tired and lazy, and the whole issue about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction is not challenged.

Referring to the subsequent war as a mess is perfectly accurate, but you need grist on both sides of a case in a film like this.

Why avoid all the flashpoints that would make for good drama? It would have served the film well had it dramatised the other aspects of the conflict, possibly through the pro-war editor or through Gun’s refugee husband, who was no friend of Saddam Hussein.

Speaking of whom, surely Official Secrets should have been duty-bound to mention that Saddam Hussein was a barbaric monster who ran an illegitimate regime, who delighted in torturing and murdering his people. He had a nuclear program and had a long history of using the type of weapons (of mass destruction) the Americans and Brits thought he still had.

It’s a bit rich how the film only mentions “war crimes” in relation to the conduct of the Allies, yet doesn’t mention the fact that Saddam Hussein was a psychopath who considered his use of mustard gas against the Kurds as his favourite act of genocide.

These omissions are simply too glaring. Political films are at their best when they see both sides of a contentious issue. Even with such a raft of good actors putting in such sterling work, Official Secrets falls short of that.

 

I AM NO BIRD *** (77 minutes) M

Given all the pain, suffering, arguing and horrific legal stoushes it causes, what accounts for the enduring appeal of marriage this far into the 21st century?

Melbourne director Em Baker takes a deep dive into that eternally curly question in I Am No Bird, a subdued, largely impressionistic musing about the meanings of marriage and how the demands of culture, faith and personal desire can often intersect.

Baker looks at four couples from very different cultural backgrounds: there’s a devoutly Christian Australian couple; a same-sex marriage between two women in Mexico; a marriage in India; and one in China.

Clearly keeping an open mind, Baker captures the joy and celebration of these couplings as the women explain the external forces and internal yearnings driving their need to be married.

If Baker had any sort of agenda going in – she describes herself as a feminist – it must have thankfully been shed during the editing process, which is garnished with animation and faux-home movie footage.

If the film does contain an implicit edict it is that the traditions and values of marriage maintain a central place in culture today and offer an emotional sustenance that can’t be met in any other way or by any other type of relationship.

How easy it would have been for Baker to default to a cynical viewpoint, highlighting the limitations and ruin marriage can inflict, and how out-of-date it supposedly is. The film delivers an understated backhander to such scoffing.

As an independent filmmaker, Baker toiled away for four years on the film, working as a school teacher to help fund her travels.

She kindly took some time out to sit down and discuss the motives and meaning of I Am No Bird.

Please enjoy.

 

Jim Schembri
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