KNIVES OUT

Cert 12A Stars 4

James Bond does Agatha Christie in this highly polished whodunnit murder mystery of delicious, deceptive and devious fun, which sees an all-star cast investigated for murder in a gothic country mansion.

Let loose from the acting straitjacket of playing super spy 007, Daniel Craig gives a hugely entertaining and theatrical performance as a famous private detective.

Armed with nothing more than a large cigar and a name as over the top as his strong US drawl, Benoit Blanc is famed as the ‘the last of the gentleman sleuths’, but there’s more than a hint Blanc isn’t quite the figure of his reputation.

He’s been hired by a mystery employer to help the local police establish whether foul play in the apparent suicide of a wealthy and famous author, played by the typically brilliant Christopher Plummer.

There’s no shortage of suspects or motives among his grasping, unreliable and dishonest relatives who gather to hear the reading of his will, and are played with appropriate self-interest by accomplished veterans such as Jamie Lee Curtis and Don Johnson.

Also out of his usual screen uniform is Chris ‘Captain America’ Evans, who swaps his spandex for comfy knitwear as the arrogant foulmouthed black sheep of the family.

Ana de Armas is also in the frame as Marta, the former nurse to the deceased, a character which allows the film to explore the relationship between the US and it’s Central and South American neighbours.

It’s another great performance from Armas who re-teams with Craig in April next year the 007 adventure, No Time To Die.

Written by director Rian Johnson, it’s an impressive switch in direction after last year’s Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi, and his inventive high school noir thriller, Brick.

Toying with our expectations and generally twisting the rules, Knives Out smartly undermines the myth of the all-knowing detective, and like all great mysteries it keeps you guessing right until the end.

 

THE NIGHTINGALE

Cert 18 Stars 4

Easily the most cruel and harrowing experience of the year, this period Tasmanian revenge western is a bloodily violent condemnation of colonialism.

When an Irish convict hires an aborigine guide to take her across the wilderness so she can exact retribution on the British soldiers who casually murdered her family, their abrasive relationship finds common ground in a love of folk songs and a hatred of the English.

Aisling Franciosi gives an extraordinary performance in of trauma, anger and determination as Clare, balanced by the doleful humour of Baykali Ganambarr as Billy.

Meanwhile Sam Claflin’s murderous lieutenant is a magnificently evil combination of ambition, cunning and callousness, whose cross-country trek of rape and murder is a brutal microcosm of the British empire at its worst.

Crafted with a lyrical and furious integrity and economical purpose, it demonstrates director Jennifer ‘The Babadook’ Kent is one the foremost Australian talents with the potential to sit alongside Peter ‘Gallipoli’ Weir and George ‘Mad Max’ Miller.

LITTLE WOMEN (2019)

Cert U Stars 5

This joyous, moving and funny adaptation of the much loved literary classic bursts with wit, warmth, beauty and intelligence – and has a cast to match.

You don’t need to have read the book or seen one of the many previous cinema or TV versions to enjoy this one, as it’s thoroughly accessible, fresh and modern in its attitude, while being faithful and handsome in its period setting.

A sparkling coming-of-age period drama which explores the lives of the March sisters in the aftermath of the US Civil War, a fabulous cast sees Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson, Eliza Scanlen and Florence Pugh as the sisters, whose rapport rings remarkably true.

I’ve four sisters and have never before seen on screen a more honest and accurate depiction of sisterly love, camaraderie, rivalry and affection, while also maintaining their very distinct personalities.

Plus there’s wonderful support from Laura Dern as their mother, Meryl Streep as their Aunt, and the teen pin up, Timothee Chalamet as the local love interest and heir to a large fortune.

The casting is eye-opening considering how revered the novel is held in the US. Of the four sisters Ronan is Irish-American, Watson and Pugh are of course English, while Scanlen is Australian.

I don’t believe this reflects badly on American talent, but instead is a huge vote of confidence in the rest of the world, especially us Brits.

Ronan is very much the first among equals as the second sibling, she’s a consummate actress who’s incapable of a poor performance, and is exceptional here. While Scanlen is very affecting as the youngest and most timid and musical of the family.

Watson is the eldest sister and playing a mother is an interesting development in the career of the former Harry Potter star.

However it’s Pugh who gets the best lines and makes the absolute most of them without ever showboating. As the third sister, she has very clear eye for the economic and legal implications marriage has for women, which she points out to the audience in no uncertain terms.

Chamalet is great in a role where he is often required to  be unlikeable but is still able to generate a couple of big laughs.

Dern is soulful and quietly warm, wise and wonderful, and Streep as a wealthy widow and family authority is an imperious match even Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey might baulk from taking on.

It’s at least the fourth cinema version to sit alongside various TV films and mini-series of Louisa May Alcott’s famous 1868 semi-autobiographical novel.

Written and directed by Greta Gerwig with great authority, confidence and panache, this is a triumph which consolidates her position in the top rank of contemporary filmmakers.

While using her great cast to entertain us and the grand houses of the era to dazzle us, Gerwig deftly explores the ideas in the book which are still sadly relevant today, such as access to education, impulse buying, and glass ceilings in the workplace.

As such this is very much a companion piece to Gerwig’s 2017 directorial debut, Lady Bird, which also starred Saoirse Ronan. The actress earned a Best Actress Oscar nomination for her trouble, which was one of five Oscar nods the film received, which included a Best Director nod for Gerwig.

For now it should be Oscar nominations all round, not just for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actress for Ronan, but Streep, Dern and Pugh all deserve a Supporting actress nomination, and Chalamet may sneak in a Best Supporting actor nod. And the casting agent definitely deserves some kind of award.

Plus the production design, costumes, editing and cinematography are all worthy of recognition. Little Women is full of massive talent and they deserves to rule the Hollywood roost.

THEM THAT FOLLOW

Cert 15 Stars 2

Rattlesnakes, guns and god are a poisonous mix in this soggy and leaden drama which is optimistically described as a thriller, but it lacks the necessary tension to keep us entertained.

In an Appalachian mountain redneck community the daughter of a local pastor is torn between marrying a suitor with a strong faith, or running away with the godless man she loves, a situation complicated by her secret pregnancy.

A great cast includes Brit Oscar queen Olivia Colman, regular Hollywood villain Walton Goggins, and upcoming star Alice Englert, who all give strong performances, but they’re weighed down by a pious script which seems to consider smiling, humour or levity to be a sin.

Plus there’s a lack of melodrama which would have made it more compelling, the pace is slow, the tone is one-note, and the film demands our sympathy for the characters without giving us any reason to like them.

21 BRIDGES

Cert 15 Stars 4

Black panther star Chadwick Boseman swaps the marvel superhero universe for the life of a New York police detective in this stylish, slick and violent crime thriller.

He forms an aggressive double act with Sienna Miller who gives the latest in a line of impressive performances as a narcotics officer with whom he’s unwillingly teamed.

They’re investigating the brutal slayings of seven New York police and a missing haul of cocaine.

Manhattan’s 21 bridges are sealed off to trap the suspects on the island, but the police only have until 5am to find them before the bridges must reopen for the morning rush hour.

This is the sort of hard-edged thriller Denzel Washington might have made in his action heyday with director Tony Scott, and Boseman carries himself with a similar magnificent brooding menace, intelligence and charisma.

A welcome willingness to address US social divisions gives depth to the drama and it’s never at the expense of the bullet-ripping action.

 

JUDY AND PUNCH

Cert 15 Stars 4

Traditional seaside entertainment is gloriously resurrected in this bawdy, boisterous and brutal medieval horror show which is not for the squeamish.

Best known as Alice in Tim Burton’s mega successful Alice in Wonderland, Australian actress Mia Wasikowska stars alongside fellow Aussie Damon Herriman as husband and wife puppeteers.

Their career has hit the skids due to his alcoholism and violence, and they’re now eking out a living in her provincial home town.

A shocking yet thoughtful and funny commentary on domestic violence, it’s a sadly contemporary tale of how powerful, famous and supposedly respectable men use their status to get away with the most horrific crimes.

Fiercely and inventively odd with a touch of Monty Python, it also shares the scabrous sensibility of Olivia Colman’s Oscar winning The Favourite which contributes hugely to this dark revenge drama.

It even cheekily sends up Russell Crowe in one of his most famous roles. Now that’s the way to do it.

 

FROZEN 2

Cert U Stars 4 

Warm your heart with Disney’s magical animated sequel which surpasses the first for fun and adventure and is guaranteed to enchant a new generation of young female fans.

Sticking rigidly to the formula which made the first film a billion dollar success back in 2013, it sees key members of the original cast and crew return on an action-packed sleigh ride of sisterly solidarity, gorgeous animation, comedy sidekicks and yes, inspirational, uplifting and impossible to ignore or forget power ballads.

Queen Elsa and Princesss Anna are living peacefully in happy kingdom of Arendelle, but when Elsa is troubled by a mystery strange siren call only she can hear, the country is attacked by dark magical elemental forces.

So in order to save their kingdom the sisters take their loyal companions, Olaf the snowman, Kristoff and Sven the reindeer, into the mysterious enchanted northern forest which their parents had always warned them to stay away from.

Directed again by Chris Buck & Jennifer Lee in the style of musical theatre on ice, the animation and design are as great as you’d expect, with astonishing textures and attention to detail right down to the smallest stitch or snowflake.

All the major characters get their chance to sing, including the reindeer. They’re composed by double Oscar winning couple Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez.

As the headstrong, inquisitive and impetuous Elsa, Broadway legend Idina Menzel expressing her remarkable range and power in a full-throated performance, especially with the show-stopping and beautifully staged self-empowerment ballad “Show Yourself”.

Kristen Bell as loyal and brave Anna sings the haunting lullaby “All Is Found”, Jonathan Groff as the Dim well meaning Kristoff is given the 1980s style soft rock parody “Lost in the Woods”.

And squeaky voiced Josh Gad as Olaf the snowman gets his own joyous song about embracing change and not being afraid of growing up called “When I Am Older”.

And yes, the inescapable song “Let It Go” is given a mischievous and mercifully brief airing.

Olaf the snowman is once again the film’s most valuable player, a chilly chatterbox of innocence and humour who will have the little kids giggling in the aisles.

Plus he gets to deliver a very funny whistle-stop refresher of the first film for those of us fortunate not to have had to watch it on a loop for half a decade. Thank the lord for my having a son not a daughter.

Recognised it’s the little girls which made the first a global phenomenon are now teenagers with a different set of priorities, we’re given a romantic subplot involving the lovelorn Kristoff, showing how difficult and confusing courtship can be for the inexperienced.

Among the shipwrecks, missing parents, and long-standing unresolved conflicts, there are tiny cute dragons, ferocious water steeds, fearsome rock giants and a loveable herd of reindeer.

Elements of Brigadoon and The Lords of the Rings are added to the original inspiration of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale The Snow Queen, and underneath all that there’s the unmistakeable DNA of smash Broadway show, Wicked, in which Menzel also starred.

Messages of seizing the day, reaching one’s potential, love triumphing over danger and the importance of building bridges not walls are added to a story which touches on the darkness of colonialism.

But Disney recognise the need to give the audience what they want and always put the entertainment first, and by allowing the characters to grow they keep the story fresh they leave the door firmly open for another sequel.