The Dark Horse movie review

Featuring: Cliff Curtis, James Rolleston, Miriama McDowell, Kirk Torrance, Wayne Hapi, Te Ahorangi Retimana-Martin
Writer/Director: James Napier Robertson
Movie website: www.thedarkhorsefilm.com/

2014-15 Lotterywest Perth Film Festival season dates:
Joondalup Pines: 25-30 Nov, 8pm
Somerville: 1-7 Dec, 8pm

Reviewer: rolanstein
Verdict: A feel-good flick with edge that charms, shocks and packs an emotional wallop. The lead performance by Cliff Curtis is a tour de force.

Review:
Kiwi movie The Dark Horse kicks off the 2014-15 Lotterywest Perth Film Festival at Joondalup Pines on November 25, and what a superb opener it is!

Cliff Curtis (Whale Rider, Boy) is mesmerising in his portrayal of real-life bipolar chess champion Genesis (“Gen”) Potini. This is an instance of that ideal commonly cited but rarely realised of an actor “becoming” his character, and in the case of the complex, brilliant but burdened Gen, struggling under attack from demons of the mind, this is no mean feat. Curtis captures the dignity and inspirational courage of a deeply humane and sensitive man who rises above a debilitating and isolating mental illness in the service of empowering at-risk Maori youth, while finding personal meaning and purpose and a measure of stability through his mission.

Previously institutionalised and now homeless and heavily medicated, Gen becomes involved with a community chess club for local kids. There he finds acceptance that is denied him by the greater community, and soon emerges as an inspirational leader, reconnecting the kids with their cultural mythology in the course of mentoring them in chess, with the unlikely objective of having them compete in the coming national youth chess championship.

Gen fears for the welfare of his troubled nephew Mana (compellingly played by James Rolleston), who lives with a biker gang, The Vagrants, headed by his father – Gen’s brother, Ariki (Wayne Hapi). Mana is subjected to humiliating initiation abuses by the gang as he nears his 18th birthday, when he is due to be patched as a full-fledged Vagrants member. At Gen’s encouragement, he secretly begins attending the chess club. With the chess championship approaching and coinciding with Mana’s birthday, the course is set for a dramatic climax that will pitch Gen and his fearsome but ailing brother into direct conflict.

Beautifully filmed by Perth cinematographer Denson Baker, and featuring some impossibly cute kids, all of whom play their parts wonderfully, The Dark Horse charms, shocks and packs an emotional wallop. It’s a feel-good flick with real edge, and a must-see for the towering performance of Cliff Curtis alone, which is in itself an extraordinary cinema experience.

If this is any indication of the quality in store in this year’s film festival, Perthites are in for a treat.

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The Drop movie review

Featuring: Tom Hardy, James Gandolfini, Nooma Rapace, Matthias Schoenaerts
Director: Michaël R. Roskam
Screenwriter: Dennis Lehane
Movie website: www.thedrop-movie.com/
Australian release date: Thu 13 Nov

Reviewer: rolanstein
Verdict: A tough, unsentimental, classy crime drama, featuring a marvellous performance from Tom Hardy, and a fine swansong from James Gandolfini.


Review:
At the centre of this well-crafted and superbly performed crime drama is a riveting performance by Tom Hardy as the enigmatic lead character, Bob. Solitary apparently by choice, Bob is lonely nevertheless, but so unused to company at home that he agonises over whether to keep an abused dog he rescues from a rubbish bin. Through the dog, he meets a damaged woman (Nooma Rapace) recovering from a violent relationship. Turns out her sadistic ex (Matthias Schoenaerts) is also the owner of the dog.

Bob works as a bar-tender at a seamy New York backstreet bar run by his cousin Marv (James Gandolfini). Once a local community notable, Marv is in decline, having incurred gambling debts and forfeited ownership of his bar to Chechen mobsters. The joint operates as a pickup point for crims exchanging laundered money.

Bob is a man of few words, especially concerning the criminal milieu in which he works – he sees nuttin’, says nuttin’. However, when the bar is robbed during his shift and the ruthless Chechens demand the return of their money, he finds himself enmeshed in a combustible situation, along with the untrustworthy Marv.

In this murky corner of the New York underworld, Bob stands out as the only character who is not driven by brutish greed and power. As such, he is intriguing, as is his choice to work in a vipers’ pit. We are given no glimpses into his background, no clues as to why he is so taciturn and socially unengaged, but for all his oddness he is given great credibility as a character by Hardy, who somehow manages to convey a sense of depth beneath still waters.

Further, there is a trembling flicker of humanity and sensitivity about Bob, and a tentative but courageous willingness to expose himself to emotional risk that is endearing. The girl and his dog are all that matter to him, having given his life new meaning and purpose. The stakes are as high as can be, then, when both are threatened as criminal elements begin encroaching on his life privately as well as at work.

Hardy could have no finer support than James Gandolfini, who is a perfect fit for the role of Marv. Tough, treacherous, sly and servile when need be, he’s a failed version of Tony Soprano. Gandolfini’s range as an actor was narrow, but no one did these parts better. Sadly, this tough, unsentimental, classy crime drama is Gandolfini’s final film, concluding – in tribute, you’d fancy – with a scene that nods to the final frames of the last episode of The Sopranos.

One of the year’s best.

My Old Lady movie review

Featuring: Maggie Smith, Kevin Kline, Kristin Scott Thomas, Dominique Pinon
Director: Israel Horovitz
Screenwriter: Israel Horovitz
Movie website: cohenmedia.net/films/my-old-lady
Australian release date: Thu 13 Nov

Reviewer: rolanstein
Verdict: Melodramatic, stagey and plays safe, but is nevertheless charming and entertaining. Powered by good performances.


Review:
Impecunious middle-aged New Yorker Mathias (Kevin Kline) travels to Paris to sell a valuable apartment he has inherited from his estranged father, but gets more than he bargained for when he discovers that it is a viager – a property bought cheaply on condition that the purchaser does not sell until the resident dies, and in the meantime pays a set amount per month towards their living costs. In this case, the resident, Mathilde (Maggie Smith), is in her 90s, but to Mathias’s mounting alarm, is still going exceedingly strong! Adding to his woes is Mathilde’s openly hostile daughter Chloé (Kristin Scott Thomas), who lives with her. With no funds and nowhere to live, Mathias insists on moving in while he figures out what to do.

Initially shaping as a comedy, the piece darkens as the characters peel back their layers. Mathias presents as an irreverent and endearing loser who gets by through cynical wit. However, when it comes to light that Mathilde and his father were long-term lovers, he’s revealed as a tragic alcoholic clown struggling with deep hurt. Maggie Smith does the refined dowager as delightfully as always, but her character is cast in a very different light when her past finds its way into the present. Indeed, she is the source of much anguish – justifiably or otherwise – for embittered Chloé, as well as Mathias. Care is taken not to encumber the characters with directorial judgement. Mathias and Chloé are put to the psychological torch, but unfortunately, the heat is prematurely withdrawn.

The drama progresses towards a resolution that is satisfying to a point, but largely predictable and a little too neat and safe. The compensation is in the getting there, which is well managed, both in terms of the writing and performances. That said, although the dramatic fundamentals are solid, there is a theatrical feel about the set-up and a sense that stage, rather than film, might have been a more natural fit for the work. And as good as the actors are, the characters fail to elicit the sympathy required to ensure a level of emotional investment on the part of the viewer that might have made for a more memorable movie experience.


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The Young Prodigious TS Spivet movie review

Featuring: Kyle Catlett, Helena Bonham Carter, Judy Davis, Callum Keith Rennie, Jakob Davies, Niamh Wilson
Director: Jean-Pierre Jeunet
Screenwriters: Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Guillaume Laurant
Movie website: www.madman.com.au/catalogue/view/21948/the-young-and-prodigious-t-s-spivet
Australian release date: Thu 6 Nov (Cinema Paradiso)

Reviewer: rolanstein
Verdict: Off-kilter and intriguing, bittersweet, occasionally humorous, but somehow less engaging emotionally than it should have been.


Review:
Visually, the early stages of this French/Canadian collaboration are stylistically reminiscent of an idealised America of the past. On outward appearances, the Spivet family would not be out of place in an early 60s TV family sitcom, except for their geographical isolation. They live in a quintessentially American homestead (gorgeous, painted red) on a ranch in the middle of splendid farming country. There’s a classic barn, also painted red. But zoom in, and this vision loses its familiarity, warping into something other.

The characters are not run of the mill. Mom (Helena Bonham Carter) is an obsessive entomologist. Nerdy ten-year-old T.S. (Kyle Catlett) has inherited her genes, seeing and cataloguing the world through the eyes of a scientist gifted way beyond his years. In stark contrast, twin bro Layton (Jakob Davies) is an outdoorsy type who loves guns and hunting. He takes after his taciturn father (Callum Keith Rennie), a Wild West cowboy out of era who spends his leisure time watching westerns. Only teen daughter Gracie (Niamh Wilson) adheres to stereotype, rolling her eyes in disgust and derision at her kid brothers, and dreaming of a future urban life of stardom and sophistication.

Then comes a jolting realisation that the setting has been in the past, before tragedy struck the family. The film shifts gear at this point. T.S. receives news from the Smithsonian Institution that he has won the prestigious Baird Prize for a perpetual motion machine he has invented. He keeps his triumph to himself, and steals off in the early morning, stowing away on a passing freight train bound for Washington DC, determined to be there for his prize presentation.

The bum’s freight train journey, a mythical staple of American literature and film, is rendered strange in Jeunet’s hands. Camaraderie is an intrinsic element of boxcar hopping, but apart from an encounter with an old, eccentric European hobo (Jeunet regular Dominique Pinon – who else?), T.S.’s journey is a lonely, solitary one aboard a dark carriage done out like an opulent hotel room stage set and peopled with smiling cut-outs seated at a table by a window that serve to highlight his loneliness as he forges blindly ahead into the unknown, at every stop dodging guards who have been alerted to watch out for a runaway boy.

If the cross-country odyssey is unsettling and alienating, the destination is more so. Judy Davis has some wicked fun in the role of Ms Jibsen, a Smithsonian staff member who takes the young prodigy under her wing, intending to propel him – and herself – to fame and fortune. However, something far more valuable awaits T.S.

The film is shot in 3-D, which enhances its hyper-real, dream-like quality. It’s an off-kilter, bittersweet, occasionally humorous little number, intriguing throughout, but somehow less engaging emotionally than it should have been. Lead Kyle Catlett is not particularly endearing, although this might be attributed less to his performance than his character, who operates on a cerebral rather than emotional level. All in all, this is a curiosity piece, an American dream dreamt by an eccentric and imaginative French director that translates to an unusual, visually accomplished, but not entirely filling movie experience.


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Kill The Messenger movie review

Featuring: Jeremy Renner, Robert Patrick, Rosemarie DeWitt, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Oliver Platt, Lucas Hedges
Director: Michael Cuesta
Screenwriter: Peter Landesman
Movie website: www.focusfeatures.com/kill_the_messenger
Australian release date: Thu 30 Oct

Reviewer: rolanstein
Verdict: A tense, generally well-executed thriller based on a true story, but formulaic in feel and black-and-white in its narrative and character presentation.


Review:
Conspiracy theorists will have no trouble accepting this depiction of the “true story” of Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journo Gary Webb (Jeremy Renner). More so, the rest of us. Webb, an investigative reporter with the San Jose Mercury News, came to spectacular national notice in the 90s when he wrote a series of articles implicating the CIA in flooding US Streets with crack cocaine via some favoured drug lords, purportedly using the profits to arm rebels fighting to overthrow the dictatorship in Nicaragua. Unfortunately, the filmmakers undercut the credibility of the tale by presenting it as a simplistic battle of truth vs lies, courage vs cowardice, and – dang it – Good vs Evil.

All OK as far as it goes: without conflicting opposing forces there ain’t no drama. The problem here is that no true story is this black and white, no real-life protagonist as clearly and unequivocally Good as Webb. Sure, he has his little personal flaws – a past affair, for example, to which he owns up to the great disillusionment of his teenage son, and which causes ongoing hurt for his otherwise stoic wife (a pale nothing of a character played as well as can be expected by Rosemarie DeWitt, who has little to do but stand by her man and be dutiful mom to the kids).

Webb has plenty of opportunity to redeem himself, and he duly does, fearlessly breaking the story of the CIA’s nefarious illicit drug trade involvement, refusing to heed the cautions of crims in the know and his newspaper colleagues that he is jeopardising his career, his personal safety and that of his family. As the pressure to back down from his claims builds, he emerges as a martyr willing to sacrifice everything on the altar of truth, justice and…well, you know. By contrast, his colleagues show up as lily-livered, self-interested Judases prepared to sell him out and compromise their own journalistic principles to protect themselves from the wrath of the dreaded CIA.

In fact, the real Gary Webb divided the journalist world. One camp assessed his research as flawed and his evidence weighted towards his own biases, while others saw him from the heroic angle adopted by the filmmakers. Exploration of the grey regions located between these extreme positions might have made for a less formulaic and more thought-provoking film.

That said, as thrillers go, and leaving aside notions of real event accuracy, Kill The Messenger works quite well. It’s a slow-burner rather than an edge-of-the-seat nailbiter, but tension is maintained throughout, and there are some well-handled moments of comic relief. Jeremy Renner sells his character convincingly in the context of the movie, which is just as well given the whack of screen time he is allotted (to the detriment of some other roles, and the actors who play them).

There’s a niggling sense, however, that the subject matter might have been better suited to a documentary treatment than a dramatization. The implications made about the CIA are clearly extremely serious, but perhaps the most meaningful comment in this film is at the very end, when we learn via text that Webb died of two gunshot wounds to the head in 2004, with the coroner’s verdict being suicide.


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