Hampstead

The British film industry is much more diverse than Hollywood when it comes to making films for a broad audience demographic, which in turn provides greater opportunities for actors of all ages to secure substantial roles. Such is the case with Hampstead, a quaint romantic comedy set in the gentrified part of London from which the film takes its name. Directed by Joel Hopkins (Last Chance Harvey), who grew up in Hampstead, and inspired by the life of the late Harry Hallowes, this is certainly not the first film to feature the picturesque Hampstead Heath, although none have featured the inner-city nature reserve so prominently. Hallowes famously claimed squatter’s rights on a small parcel of land on the Heath and was awarded title to the site on which he lived in a ramshackle cabin after proving he had been residing there for more than 12 years. As is to be expected, the film takes some liberties in the telling of Hallowes’ battle to save his home from the scourge of developers, but it still emerges as an enjoyable underdog story.

Hampstead poster

In the film, Brendan Gleeson (The Guard, Calvary) is Donald Horner, an eccentric loner who, having lived harmoniously on Hampstead Heath for 17 years, is facing eviction from the property by developers looking to construct an apartment complex on the site. Diane Keaton is Emily Walters, an American widow (and a completely fictional character) who lives opposite the Heath and spies Donald from her attic window amid her own struggles to address the dire financial straits in which she finds herself following the death of her philandering husband 12 months earlier. Curiosity leads Emily to track down Donald who, of course, turns out to be a gentle man beneath his gruff exterior. Such a friendship never existed in real life, but this version of events sees Emily urging Donald to fight for the right to remain on the land, an alliance that puts her at odds with her snooty friends. The antagonism that Donald experiences from the local community is another aspect of the film that diverges from real life because Hallowes, by all reports, enjoyed a friendly relationship with the local residents, including filmmaker Terry Gilliam.

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Keaton imbues Emily with the nervous, awkward charm (and quirky style) that she has brought to so many great characters, although her apathy, lack of motivation and timid acceptance of the bullying dished out by neighbour and so-called friend Fiona (Lesley Manville) is infuriating at times, not to mention her willingness to suffer the lecherous overtures from creepy accountant James (Jason Watkins), a truly grotesque individual who seems out of place here. Whilst his character is obviously an oddity in the part of London that houses more millionaires than anywhere else in Britain, Gleeson never presents Donald as being somebody for whom we should feel sorry. He is quite a likeable guy who just prefers to be alone; until Emily comes along of course. The only other character of note is James Norton as Emily’s son Phillip, who pops up a couple of times to remind Emily how hopeless she is, while Hugh Skinner, Alistair Petrie and Simon Callow also feature in minor roles.

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An amiable, light-hearted comedy, Hampstead is a tale of two people who find each other in somewhat contrived circumstances and, even though Jenkins and scriptwriter Robert Festinger (who also penned the far superior and decidedly darker In the Bedroom) take a softly-softly approach with regard to the pressing issue of the gentrification blight that is engulfing cities around the world, there is a certain pleasure to be found in hanging with these two characters as they set forth on a path to self-realisation and a second chance at happiness. Sure, the ending is somewhat twee, but the two leads bring enough charm to compensate for any shortcomings.

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

Adapted from the comic book series Valerian and Laureline, the decision by writer/director Luc Besson to go with Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets as the film’s title is interesting because it fails to acknowledge the fact that the story is very much about a partnership in which both characters contribute equally to the narrative action. Furthermore, Besson is on record as declaring that one of the reasons the comics were so appealing to him when he discovered them in the 1970’s was the fact that “it was the first time we saw this modern girl kicking ass.” Perhaps it is fitting therefore that, given the less-than-inspired performance from Dane DeHann as Valerian, it is actually Cara Delevingne’s Laureline who is the saving grace in a film that becomes bogged down by the weight of its excesses. France’s most expensive film ever, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is brimming with elaborate costumes and effects, often to the detriment of the story and character development. While comparisons with other science-fiction films are inevitable given so much of what we see seems so familiar, the fact that the comic was first published in 1967 suggests that maybe it is Star Wars and Besson’s own The Fifth Element that have drawn their influence from the adventures of Valerian and Laureline, rather than the other way around.

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Valerian is very much of the Han Solo mould; cocky, careless and unable to admit when he is wrong. The problem is that DeHaan lacks the charisma that Harrison Ford imbued in Solo or which Chris Pratt brings to Star Lord in Guardians of the Galaxy. Both of these characters combine witty repartee and delusional self-confidence with deeds of derring-do that make them a hell of a lot of fun. DeHaan is dull in the lead role here, delivering a one-note performance; every line delivered with the same po-faced sincerity. As such, it is left to Delevingne to carry the load and she is remarkably assured in what is very much the co-lead. Whilst the story is essentially about the efforts of Valerian and Laureline to save a rat-like creature that poops pearls, there are, of course, an array of obstacles (human, technological and extra-terrestrial) that need to be overcome if they are to succeed in their mission and subsequently neutralise a threat to destroy the space-station metropolis of Alpha, which is home to species from a thousand different planets.

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It goes without saying that there is an evil overlord whose actions have put Alpha in jeopardy, and in this instance it is Commander Arun Filitt (Clive Owen) who, having ordered the destruction of the planet Hui some 30 years earlier, wants to eliminate the few remaining former inhabitants of the planet who managed to escape and are now living on Alpha. Rihanna features as a shape shifting burlesque performer named Bubble, jazz legend Herbie Hancock is Alpha’s Defence Minister and Ethan Hawke looks like he is having fun as a flamboyant club proprietor. Rutger Hauer makes an all-too-brief appearance very early as President of the World State Organisation and, given the state of local and international politics at the moment, the idea of Rutger ruling the world holds considerable appeal.

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Besson has enjoyed an eclectic career as a director, delivering a diverse collection of films – in both quality and content – that range from the superb Leon: The Professional, to animated adventure Arthur and the Invisibles, the biographical drama The Lady, mafia misfire The Family and the somewhat silly Scarlett Johansson-starring Lucy – and it is unlikely there is anybody else brave (or crazy) enough to bring Valerian to the big screen. As a risk-taker, Besson is prone to stumble on occasion but his ambition and audacity as a filmmaker are something to admire. With Weta Digital, Rodeo FX and Industrial Light and Magic joining forces to create the visual effects that infiltrate every scene, the world that has been created is a kaleidoscope of colour, action and digital wizardry that, whilst very impressive, doesn’t compensate for the lack of substance in the narrative. Delevingne brings the right amount of sass, spunk and sarcasm to Laureline and Owen is actually pretty good in a role that, in the wrong hands, could have easily tipped into parody (and not in a good way). Ultimately, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets emerges as a spectacular-looking confection that is enjoyable enough at the time but unlikely to leave a lasting impression.

Atomic Blonde

It is easy to understand why director David Leitch and the studio boffins funding the project would want a performer with the talents and profile of Charlize Theron to headline this production, but what is difficult to comprehend is why the Oscar-winning actress would want to be a part of it. There is nothing on show here that is remotely original and the whole piece reeks of voyeurism and a distinct lack of imagination. The Germans and the Russians are the bad guys (of course), while the British and American agencies supposedly working together are undermining each other at every opportunity. Sure, Atomic Blonde may indeed pass the Bechdel Test but, as is so often the case, the female characters are sexualised in ways that are unnecessary in the advancement of the story and certainly more so than any of the male characters.

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Theron is Lorraine Broughton, an undercover MI6 agent sent to Berlin to investigate the murder of a fellow agent and recover a list that reveals the identities of intelligence operatives. Often, the mission at hand seems to be of minor consequence to Leitch who, rather than advancing the narrative in a way that makes any sense, prefers numerous leering shots of Theron in various states of undress. Teaming up with local agent David Percival (James McAvoy), Lorraine proceeds to kill, maim and mangle myriad bad guys in a series of action sequences that are executed well enough, which is perhaps to be expected given Leitch’s background as a stunt performer. However, with the exception of one scene where Lorraine throws herself off a balcony with a hose anchored by a hapless baddy she had lassoed earlier, Atomic Blonde doesn’t bring anything new to the genre and setting the action amidst the fall of the Berlin Wall seems a somewhat cynical attempt to lend credibility to the film as a spy thriller.

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The whole piece is presented as though Leitch has simply run through a checklist of action movie tropes, making sure to include each one before shoehorning a somewhat convoluted story in between the action scenes. The film is based on a graphic novel titled The Coldest City and being unfamiliar with the source text, it is difficult to know how much liberty Leitch and writer Kurt Johnstad have taken in adapting it for the big screen. The talents of John Goodman and Toby Jones are wasted as the respective representatives of the American and British spy agencies whose interrogation of Lorraine provides the narrative framework and while Eddie Marsan also features, it is McAvoy who seems to be the only one having any fun as the cocky, compromised Percival, a figure whose loyalties seem to fluctuate depending on what is in his, rather than his country’s, best interests. Algerian actress Sophie Boutella (Star Trek Beyond, The Mummy) features as a French operative whose only real purpose seems to be in providing further titillation for the male audience to whom the film is targeted; the lesbian sex scene adding nothing by way of narrative or character development.

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With an Academy Award for her role as serial killer Aileen Wuornos in Monster, one can only assume that money is the motivation for Theron (and the rest of the cast for that matter) to take on this project. Sure there are moments of grim intensity, but the story is more convoluted than it needs to be and yet the dialogue is often clichéd and corny. Theron is suitably bad-ass in the lead role, but the script doesn‘t give her much to work with. In fact, Lorraine doesn’t really engage in too much espionage work at all, showing up at various locations impeccably dressed and dutifully dispatching anybody who gets in her way. The soundtrack is great, featuring the likes of David Bowie, New Order, ‘Til Tuesday, Nena and George Michael, but cool tunes cannot hide the fact that Atomic Blonde fails to distinguish itself from the innumerable other films that have covered the same territory.

BIFF is Back

After being cast aside to make way for the ill-fated Brisbane Asia Pacific Film Festival, the much-loved Brisbane International Film Festival (BIFF) makes a welcome return this year and kicks off later this month. Running over 18 days from August 17 to September 3, BIFF will feature more than 50 features and documentaries from Australia and around the world, along with a selection of short films and several special events.

BIFF

The opening night film will be the Cannes Film Festival Palme d’Or winner The Square, a satirical comedy from Swedish director  Ruben Ostlund that stars Elizabeth Moss and Dominic West. Other special events include a screening of 24 Frames, the final film from Iranian pioneer Abbas Kiarostami, which will include a post-screening discussion about Kiarostami’s work. The closing night film will be the Kriv Stenders-directed documentary Go-Betweens: Right Here, an examination of the enduring influence of the seminal Brisbane band.

Stenders will actually have two films in the festival,  with the Bryan Brown-starring Australia Day one of several Australian features on the program.  Other local films screening throughout the festival include Ali’s Wedding, Watch the Sunset and That’s Not Me, while local documentaries on the schedule include Life is a Very Strange ThingBlue and Namatjira Project.

The Square

The slate of international features includes the latest offerings from Terrence Malik (Song to Song), Todd Haynes (Wonderstruck), Michael Haneke (Happy End), Sally Potter (The Party) and actor/director Stanley Tucci, whose Final Portrait features Geoffrey Rush in the lead role as artist Alberto Giacometti. Another local in Cate Blanchett plays 12 different characters in Manifesto for German artist and  filmmaker Julian Rosefeldt, while Australian director Richard Gray’s low budget America-set drama Broken Ghost will also feature.

Highly anticipated titles include Sundance standout Patti Cakes, Academy Award-nominated animation My Life as a Zucchini and the Irish-Canadian co-production Maudie starring Ethan Hawke and Sally Hawkins. A retrospective of the work of Russian director Andrey Zvyagintsev will feature all five of his films – Return, The Banishment, Elena, Leviathan and Loveless all of which have won acclaim at international festivals such as Cannes and Berlin. Films from India, Canada, Romania, England, France, Japan, Poland, Ireland, Vietnam, The Philippines, Germany, New Zealand, Slovenia and Kazakhstan have been secured by festival organisers, along with a selection of local and international short films.

Go Betweens

The 2017 Brisbane International Film Festival kicks off on August 17, with all screenings at Palace Centro and/or Barracks cinemas. For more information, including the full screening schedule, visit the festival website or follow BIFF on Facebook.

A Ghost Story

Having been described as haunting, hypnotic, poetic and profound, A Ghost Story might be all of these to some, however there will be just as many who find it boring, silly and hopelessly pretentious. A haunted-house story but definitely not a horror film by any stretch of the imagination, this latest feature from writer-director David Lowery is a minimalist no-budget musing on love and longing in the afterlife. With no action, no special effects and very little dialogue, Lowery is asking his audience to join him on an artful, elegiac journey that traverses grief and loneliness; a journey that slows to a crawl for much of its duration and will prove a test of patience for anybody who finds a wordless 4-minute shot of Rooney Mara eating a pie to be a somewhat underwhelming experience. Of course, personal perspectives and belief systems regarding life after death will also influence how viewers respond, while the biggest hurdle the audience might need to overcome to embrace Lowery’s broader vision is accepting a wordless person with a sheet over them as the main character.

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That’s right, no digital trickery from Lowery to create the ghost that inhabits the house in which Rooney Mara’s character, identified only as M in the closing credits, lives alone following the death of her musician boyfriend C (Casey Affleck). Rising from a table at the morgue, C’s ghost walks through the hospital and then across the fields to the non-descript house where the couple lived, the sight of the happiest and most painful memories of his life. Draped in a sheet with cut-out holes for eyes, C watches over M who, of course, is unable to see him. Lowery has claimed that it was actually Affleck under the sheet for much of the filming, but it is hard to imagine that being the case. C watches M grieve – which includes the aforementioned scene in which M sits alone on the kitchen floor devouring a pie left by a friend before scurrying to the bathroom to vomit – but when he tries to embrace her, she can’t feel his touch. When another man enters her life, C demonstrates his displeasure by knocking books off shelves, an act that perhaps only serves to strengthen M’s resolve to move out of the house, an issue that they had argued about prior to C’s death.

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The apparition remains in the house after M’s departure, communicating silently (their dialogue presented via subtitles) with another ghost in the house next door, both seemingly waiting for something/somebody to return. As such, when a new family moves into the house, C freaks them out and sends them on their way in quick time. With neither Affleck nor Mara having much to say throughout the course of the 90 minutes, more than half of the dialogue in the film comes courtesy of Will Oldham when he holds court at a party being held in the house; C watching on as the carefully choreographed revelry ensures that none of the partygoers bump into him. When the house is ultimately demolished, C stands firm and continues to inhabit the high rise tower that is built on the site.

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Whilst Lowery’s approach with A Ghost Story could be seen as risky, particularly given that his last directorial effort was Pete’s Dragon for Disney, it is hard to imagine that he is expecting this to appeal to a wide audience. Certainly Mara and Affleck, who worked with Lowery previously on Ain’t Them Bodies Saints have shown a predilection for less mainstream projects and this is another example of their willingness to explore unconventional roles. The presentation in a square aspect ratio really only serves as a distraction, but it is another example of Lowery’s desire to do things differently. The director asks a lot of his audience and those who embrace this exploration of grief and loneliness may well find themselves transfixed by what transpires. However, for others, the whole experience might prove to be a somewhat perplexing experience.

 

The Big Sick

For every moment of hilarity in The Big Sick, there are almost as many moments that fall flat and keep the film from truly soaring. The nature of the events prevent the film from ever being a non-stop riot but, at more than two hours long, it certainly needed somebody to take charge of the editing process to trim the fat and delete those moments that just don’t work. Perhaps a result of the freedom afforded filmmakers by Amazon, one of the newest players on the feature film production landscape, it is only this lack of oversight that prevents this autobiographical tale from emerging as a bona fide comedy classic.

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In following the clichéd rom-com narrative trajectory – boy meets girl before encountering obstacles that must be overcome before true love can ultimately prevail – The Big Sick demonstrates just how clichés are, perhaps more often than not, reflect societal truths. After all, this is based on the real life story of Kumail Nanjiani, a comedian and actor perhaps best known for his television roles in Portlandia and Silicon Valley, and his wife Emily Gordon, who co-wrote the screenplay with Nanjiani and served as a producer alongside Judd Apatow. Whilst Nanjiani plays himself, Gordon is played by Zoe Kazan, who was an absolute delight in Ruby Sparks and is wonderful again here. Even though she spends a large portion of the movie in a coma, Kazan is the standout amongst the cast, which also includes Ray Romano and Holly Hunter as Zoe’s parents, Terry and Beth. In fact, like many stand-up comedians who make the transition to acting, Nanjiani demonstrates a limited emotional range; every line is delivered in the same deadpan style that makes his comedy club routines so funny but doesn’t necessarily work as well in moments of high tension or emotional upheaval. That is not to say Nanjiana isn’t funny though because he is hilarious at times and the sheer hopelessness of his life – the tiny apartment he shares with fellow comedian Chris (Kurt Braunohler), his sad sack one-man show, the never ending efforts of his parents to set him up in an arranged marriage – provides plenty of laughs. His romance with Emily also delivers some fun moments as both parties try to convince themselves they aren’t actually in a relationship.

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Of course, once Emily becomes aware of the expectations Kumail’s parents have with regard to him marrying within his Indian culture, the relationship falters and it is soon after splitsville that Emily is admitted to hospital and placed in a coma. Needless to say, there is a tonal shift at this point as Kumail finds himself undertaking a bedside vigil and trying to ingratiate himself with Beth and Terry amid concerns that Emily may never recover and, if she does, may have no interest in rekindling things. It is a challenge balancing the humour with the gravity of Emily’s situation, but the laughs are generally confined to the awkwardness of the interactions between Kumail and Zoe’s parental units, but with Kazan’s absence from the action quite palpable, this second act becomes somewhat laboured and certainly could have been condensed without losing any of the charm that permeates the best moments of this relationship borne from a mutual concern about someone they love.

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With regard to the portrayals of Kumail’s family, one can only assume that – exaggeration for comedic effect aside – the characteristics bestowed upon his mother Sharmeen (Zenobia Shroff), father Azmat (Anupam Kher) and brother Naveed (Adeel Akhtar) are reasonably accurate in their representations even though they might be seen as racist caricatures if presented by somebody for whom this wasn’t a lived experience. Given that we know our two lovebirds end up together, there are no surprises in how the story pans out and, as enjoyable as it is, some judicious cutting could/would have eliminated the bum notes and elevated The Big Sick to a truly memorable 90-minutes of comic gold.