Movie Review – The Man Who Killed Don Quixote

Terry Gilliam’s latest release is a passion project twenty nine years in the making. The result? A jumbled mess…

⭐ ½
Elle Cahill

While filming his latest commercial in rural Spain, disillusioned advertising director Toby (Adam Driver) stumbles across his university film that he made ten years earlier. His commercial and his student film each feature the classic characters Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, with the latter filmed in a small village not far from Toby’s current location. 

Driven by nostalgia, Toby travels back to the town and bumps into Javier (Jonathan Pryce), a shoe cobbler who was cast in his film as Don Quixote. Javier now believes himself to be Don Quixote, and believing Toby to be Sancho Panza, the two embark on an adventure, mimicking the script of Toby’s student film. 

The Man Who Killed Don Quixote (TMWKDQ) took director Terry Gilliam twenty-nine years to make, and despite the numerous setbacks, he continued to persevere to produce a film that is both zany and peculiar. However, unlike other films of his, such as The Fisher King or The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, TMWKDQ falls too far down the rabbit hole, resulting in a film that is nonsensical to the end.

TMWKDQ covers a lot of topics, but never really delivers on any. At the beginning, the film feels like it’s heading down the path of a disenfranchised director rediscovering his passion for his work. Upon reconnecting with Javier, it then starts to study the impact of filmmaking on small communities. As the film progresses, it becomes difficult to tell what’s real and what’s not, with the lines between dreams and reality becoming increasingly blurred. 

More annoyingly, the characters beautifully thought out, and more importantly, human. I say annoying because without them it would be very easy to write this film off. Driver plays the egomaniac advertising director to a tee. His character arc is perfectly written, and it’s this evolution that nicely rounds out the film at the end.

Javier’s turn from simple shoe cobbler to completely embracing his ‘role’ as Don Quixote brings an element of black humour to the film, but also allows for a real look into mental illness. While the film doesn’t draw great attention to this issue, it does show the exact moment when Javier became convinced he is Don Quixote, and his confusion when others don’t take him seriously.

The Man Who Killed Don Quixote is ultimately a labour of love from Gilliam, but like any piece of art that takes twenty-nine years to complete, it’s easy for the project to lose its way.

I spent the entire film waiting for Toby to wake from a dream, and although this would have been a completely clichéd ending, I found myself disappointed when this wasn’t the case.

The Man Who Killed Don Quixote is available in Australian cinemas from April 11 

Image courtesy of Umbrella Entertainment and © Diego Lopez Calvi­n, Tornasol Films, Carisco Producciones. 

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Movie Review – Mid90s

Through teen trauma as a devastating rite of passage, Jonah Hill’s bold directing debut recaptures the extreme highs and lows of a decade in the shadow of a new century.

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Corey Hogan

Friendless and lacking direction, 13-year-old Stevie (Sunny Suljic) lives with his single mother (Katherine Waterston) and older brother Ian (Lucas Hedges) in a lower-class area of Los Angeles in the mid-1990’s. Tired of being a mercilessly bullied nobody, Stevie determinedly bonds with a rag-tag older group of teens through a shared passion for skateboarding. But his idolized friendship with these foul-mouthed and deeply troubled boys proves a bad influence on Stevie, and soon lack of discipline, morals and any regard for authority sends the group on a dangerous drug-and-alcohol-fueled descent that could ruin the rest of their lives.

Putting the dick jokes behind him (mostly), Jonah Hill paves the way for 90’s nostalgia to take over from the recent 80’s nostalgia craze in his impressive writer-director debut Mid90s. Hill brings the era vibrantly back to life through raw, grainy cinematography and 4:3 framing, perfectly capturing the aesthetic of a homemade skateboarding video tape. He wears the dysfunctional coming-of-age films of the time that have clearly influenced him on his sleeves here – namely Harmony Korine and Larry Clark’s seminal Kids, the definitive youth-behaving-very-badly shocker.

Hill’s kids are cut from a similar cloth, but do prove themselves more endearing through their deep flaws. Hedges, again playing an asshole teenager, is a portrait of an angry young man who takes this out by manipulating and beating up his younger brother, and yet still expresses concern when he sees the same brother coming home drunk and dishelmed. Suljic’s Stevie self-harms when he feels failure, but is infectious when he succeeds in being accepted by his new friends, a relatable experience that makes bad things he does for them all the more disconcerting.

What sets this apart from Kids, which set up some semblance of sympathy for its subjects before abandoning them to the horrible consequences of their actions, is their depth that leads room for the possibility of hope and redemption. Budding masculinity and insecurity are often mocked or frowned upon, but here we see the dangers of trying to cover it up and how the strides that can be made in an attempt to appear “cool” can hurt naïve young men. Hill captures the contrast of the outwards cockiness versus the inverted fragility each boy clings to, and the devastation of the latter bubbling to the surface in the most embarrassing situations, in everything from sexual inexperience to fighting with friends.

And friendship is ultimately what defines Hill’s debut, which poetically harkens back to his breakout in Superbad. There’s something sweet in the thematic link between the two, and that both promise a brighter future for their growing subjects. Mid90s proves Hill’s has been, and promises brighter things still to come.

Mid90s is available in Australian cinemas from April 4 2019

Image courtesy of Roadshow Films

Movie Review – Destroyer

Slow and messy, Destroyer only succeeds in destroying itself…

⭐ ½
Elle Cahill

When the body of a John Doe is found with a tattoo linked to a drug dealing gang, Detective Erin Bell (Nicole Kidman) soon learns that the gang leader, Silas (Toby Kebbell) has been released from prison. Having served undercover in the gang 15 years ago, Bell sets out on a mission to reconnect with the old members and find Silas’ location. She goes deeper and deeper down the rabbit hole, putting her family in jeopardy as she’s haunted by memories of the past…

The first major let down in Destroyer is the casting of Nicole Kidman in the lead role. She puts in a decent effort, but at the end of the day, she lacks the steeliness required to make the character truly come alive, and she’s far too attractive to be convincing. In the present-day scenes, the hair and makeup department have attempted to age her, but no amount of prosthetics can take away the natural beauty that makes Kidman stand out in a crowd.

Thankfully, her co-stars pull their weight. Sebastian Stan plays her former undercover partner turned lover with a quiet conviction, meanwhile Kebbell plays Silas as the ultimate bad guy, delivering a chilling and dangerous performance. In the end, however, its Tatiana Maslany who steals the film. Her turn as spoiled rich girl turned drug addict Petra is heartbreaking, and she easily would have been a better choice for the lead role.

Destroyer is shot with a gritty aesthetic that’s supposed to match the edginess of the story, but instead it ends up looking over-exposed and dirty. It forces you to squint through dimly-lit night-time scenes where you can barely see what’s happening, before abruptly transitioning to blindingly bright daytime scenes.

Director Karyn Kusama has attempted to deliver a strong female character with an interesting story, but much like some of her other work, including Aeon Flux and Jennifer’s Body, she fails to deliver. Her direction is strongest in the flashback scenes, where the actors are given permission to fully explore their characters, but Kusama fails to build any tension in the present-day scenes, which seem to be nothing more than a means to an end.

Destroyer is available in Australian cinemas from March 21

Image courtesy of Madman Entertainment

30th Alliance Francaise French Film Festival – The Sisters Brothers

Jacques Audiard dives into the deep end with his maiden English-language production, tackling an exclusive, treasured genre.

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ½
Zachary Cruz-Tan

It’s a curious thing that Jacques Audiard, whose directing credits include the great French films Rust and Bone (2012) and Dheepan (2015), would choose The Sisters Brothers as his first English-language project. The Western is a genre that couldn’t be more American, which makes it incredibly un-French, yet Audiard’s movie is convincing to the slightest detail, as if his consultant were John Ford.

The film follows assassin brothers Eli (the seemingly omnipresent John C. Reilly) and Charlie Sisters (Joaquin Phoenix), as they are sent south from Oregon City in 1851 to interrogate a man who possesses a gold-mining secret. The man, played by Riz Ahmed, has developed a chemical compound that illuminates the precious metal in river water, eliminating weeks of arduous excavation. Naturally, about half the west coast wants a piece of his action. Couple that with Charlie’s alcoholism and erratic behaviour, and you’ve got a plot destined for chaos and sadness.

The Sisters Brothers is stretched by lengthy periods of introspection, punctuated by thunderous violence, and finds time to be authentically funny. The gold is only the McGuffin. The relationship between Reilly and Phoenix, who play off each other with endearing ease, is where the film’s at. The movie itself languishes at times, especially early on when it feels like it doesn’t know what to do with its two leads. As it treks forward, it works up a sweat and then comes together.

Like many westerns, the story gradually dissolves into tragedy, chiefly because Charlie is a disaster on legs and Eli is almost powerless to save him from himself. Audiard seeks and finds the nuance in his two would-be heroes, sending them across open country, into dispute after dispute, giving them the freedom to search for meaning in themselves. The movie he has crafted is slow and steady, sometimes a bit too slow, but it’s well worth the wait once you realise how easy it is to empathise with these two men who were born into in a wicked life and desire nothing more than a way out.

The Sisters Brothers screens in Perth as part of the 30th Alliance Francaise French Film Festival (13 March-10 April). 

Image (c) Universal Pictures 2019

Movie Review – Greta

Should we be gasping or laughing at Greta? It’s never clear, but it’s still worth the confoundingly wild ride.

⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Corey Hogan

In Greta, Frances (Chloë Grace Moretz), a 20-something New York waitress, comes across an expensive handbag left behind on the subway. In an act of good will, she tracks down its owner, an older French widow and piano teacher named Greta (Isabelle Huppert) who takes an immediate liking to Frances. The pair strike up a friendship, filling the void in each other’s lives, but Greta’s charm takes a turn into obsessive and stalkerish behavior, leading Frances to uncover the disturbing truths behind the lonely woman’s intentions.

The ‘single day time loop’ brand isn’t the only weirdly specific sub-sub-genre making a resurgence; the ‘new friend turned psycho-stalker and kidnapper’ (alright, there’s probably a simpler classification) is back with a vengeance. Though unlike the grittier, more realistic hostage thrillers we’ve seen recently (Berlin Syndrome, Hounds of Love), Neil Jordan’s (The Crying Game, Interview with the Vampire) Greta is firmly rooted in 80’s-90’s-style campiness, embracing everything ridiculous about the concept for better or worse.

Things begin promisingly, as Jordan avoids most traces of any thriller tropes and focuses on building both Frances and Greta as characters and crafting a believable relationship between the pair. Moretz and Huppert have good chemistry, and it becomes quite investing as Frances shifts from simply feeling sorry for Greta to becoming her good friend; it’s something that wouldn’t feel out of place in a heartwarming drama, no doubt Jordan’s intention.

Then of course the rug is pulled out and – surprise – Greta is actually a bit crazy, which is where everything falls into a bit of a mess. Suddenly, Huppert and Moretz are both acting as though they are in two separate films – Moretz still a self-serious drama, and Huppert a bonkers over-the-top B movie where the shocks are laughable. Unfortunately, it’s this clash of tones that becomes the film’s unravelling.

If this was intended to be a satirical take on the trope – which Jordan and especially Huppert both seem to be regularly leaning towards and knowingly winking at the camera – it’s never pushed quite enough that this was the objective. The emotional stakes set up in the film’s first half are extinguished as the twists become increasingly implausible and Greta goes nearly full cartoon villain, and yet it can’t shake that sense of self-seriousness in the air that just ends in confusion of whether we should be laughing or not.

Despite this failed experiment of tones, what could have been a straight-to-DVD (or Netflix) schlocker is a gas thanks mostly to its two leading ladies, particularly Huppert, who is clearly having a blast. Very silly, but entertaining nonetheless.

Greta is available in Australian cinemas from February 28 

Image (c) Universal Pictures 2019

Movie Review – At Eternity’s Gate

Director Julian Schnabel brings us an experience that’s like walking through an art gallery with a hangover – tiring and uneventful.

⭐ ⭐
Elle Cahill

At Eternity’s Gate is a whimsical film that reimagines the events leading up to Vincent van Gogh’s death. Based on real life letters van Gogh wrote to those closest to him, the film features Willem Dafoe as van Gogh, Rupert Friend as his brother Theo and Oscar Isaac as fellow artist and close confidante Paul Gaugin.

Dafoe brings us his usual charisma and quirkiness, managing to capture various complex emotions. It certainly helps that Dafoe has a naturally wild, somewhat unhinged look that suits van Gogh as he descends further and further into depression and physical illness. Friend is a calming presence who acts as a guardian angel to van Gogh, funding the pursuits of other artists like Gauguin so that they can keep an eye on his brother for him. Isaac owns every one of his scenes as the intellectual and sophisticated Gauguin who is acutely aware he is ahead of his time. It’s his arrogance and passion for art that drives the film forward, but at times it feels out of place as he steals the show away from van Gogh.

Despite this mix of talented actors, At Eternity’s Gate is a slow, lacklustre and self-indulgent film. Director Julian Schnabel (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Before Night Falls) refuses to acknowledge what we now know about mental illnesses and makes van Gogh out to be an insufferable mad man. Dafoe is nominated for Best Actor at the Academy Awards, but the role is by no means a stretch for him.

There’s no shortage of films about Vincent van Gogh and compared to the ground-breaking 2017 film Love Vincent, this one doesn’t bring anything new to the table.

At Eternity’s Gate is available in Australian cinemas from 14 February 2019

Image courtesy of Transmission Films

Movie Review – On The Basis Of Sex

Director Mimi Leder returns to the big screen after ten years with a movie that’s strong and sincere, and maybe a bit too sweet.

⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Zachary Cruz-Tan

I can’t remember the last time a movie was almost derailed by its musical score. On the Basis of Sex recounts the hard journey undertaken by Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a lawyer who tried to battle gender discrimination in the ’50s and ’60s. It was a tough task, but she persevered and was eventually appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1993. Doesn’t this sound like a story worthy of a great film, and not one that uses its soundtrack to distract us?

I won’t pretend to know all about Ginsburg, because apart from Fox News incorrectly announcing her death a few weeks ago, I don’t. As portrayed by Felicity Jones, she seemed like a woman of strong will, insecure, but aggressive in her belief in equal justice. She wanted to learn law during a time when it was common for nine women to share a classroom with five hundred men. She was once asked by her dean, “Why are you at Harvard Law School, taking the place of a man?”

Sadly, the film suffers from a screenplay that doesn’t stop to consider non-Americans. All sorts of legal jargon about the American justice system are thrown at us, while we are expected to smile and nod along. The screenplay is written by Daniel Stiepleman, who would’ve benefitted from studying The Social Network (2010). That, too, was a movie that could’ve made no sense, but it was told in flashback so that the hyper-complicated world of programming got broken down into simple English. On the Basis of Sex is good-hearted and well-made, but its screenplay needs a deeper point of entry.

The backbone of the movie is a case involving Charles Moritz (Chris Mulkey), a bachelor caregiver from Denver who is denied tax deductions because it is assumed all caregivers are female. Ruth jumps at the opportunity to represent a male client who has been discriminated against because of his gender, believing it will open the floodgates to more radical change. Here, On the Basis of Sex is quite compelling. It makes a convincing case for gender equality under the law, and some of the movie’s best scenes include Ruth and her lawyer husband, Martin (Armie Hammer), preparing to face the court.

But alas, I return to the distracting music. You know those family movies of the ’90s, like Flubber, where sweeping violins triggered a scene change, or menacing brass notes heralded the villain? The score of On the Basis of Sex is very much like them. It is composed by Mychael Danna, who seems a little out of ideas. Had there been no spunk in Jones’ performance, no real warmth in her relationship with Hammer, no depth to their story, Danna might’ve had to plead guilty.

On The Basis Of Sex is available in Australian cinemas from February 7

Image courtesy of eOne Films

Movie Review – Cold Pursuit

Liam Neeson returns to the big screen with yet another tale of vengeance, but this time it feels fresh under the direction of Hans Petter Moland.

⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Elle Cahill

Nels Coxman (Liam Neeson) is a quiet hard working snowplough driver in a skiing resort town. When his son is found dead from a heroin overdose, Nels is convinced its foul play, and he soon learns that his son was murdered by the drug cartel. A manhunt begins as Nels tracks down members of the cartel in the pursuit of the cartel boss, ‘Viking’ (Tom Bateman). All hell breaks loose as more and more members of the cartel go missing, prompting the cartel to launch their own attack.

Before you roll your eyes, hear me out. Cold Pursuit is a challenging film for director Hans Petter Moland to take on as it has the potential to be labelled as yet another Taken rip-off. Thankfully, Petter Molland manages to take an overused storyline and add enough quirk to it, making it feel fresh and new. Having directed 2016’s chilling thriller, A Conspiracy of Faith, Petter Moland can certainly handle heavy material and isolated environments, however it’s the injection of black humour and awkward moments that makes Cold Pursuit enjoyable and unique.

It feels like we’re finally getting Neeson back. He was great in last year’s Widows, and it seems he may be finally moving away from the same old crap he’s been doing since Taken (Taken 2, Taken 3, The Commuter and Non-Stop to name a few). While the role isn’t inherently different, Neeson appears more relaxed and at ease in his role in this film. He gives Nels an unforgiving ruthlessness, driven by his grief from losing his son and his duty to society. There’s a certain tragedy to his character that leaves you to wonder whether if his hunt for the Viking is going to bring him any peace in the end.

Neeson is supported by a strong cast who each deiver a unique take on familiar characters. Bateman’s turn as the control freak, overprotective-on-the-verge-of-abusive father and mob boss Viking, brings forth both a comical element when things don’t go his way, but interestingly an even more sadistic element in his pursuit of ensuring his son can reach his full potential (the child is about ten years old by the way). But its Domenick Lombardozzi’s turn as Viking’s right hand man Mustang that takes on a compelling turn as being a closeted gay. Mustang is the yin to the Viking’s yang, and helps to balance the two polar extremes of the characters.

Unfortunately the film does have a small problem of trying to balance too many supporting characters, so the interesting ones like Viking and Mustang can’t be explored to the depths that they need to be. There’s also a host of surprisingly good actors such as Laura Dern, Emmy Rossum and John Doman who play less than significant characters who don’t really bring anything to the overall film, which is disappointing.

The film is an interesting choice for Neeson, but one I’m grateful he pursued. Cold Pursuit is a surprising delight for those who enjoy a bit of Neeson and a bit of dark humour.

Cold Pursuit is available in Australian cinemas from February 7 

Image courtesy of StudioCanal

Movie Review – If Beale Street Could Talk

Barry Jenkins’ follow-up to Moonlight is a technical and emotional marvel.

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ½

Rhys Pascoe

Tish Rivers (KiKi Layne) and Alonzo ‘Fonny’ Hunt (Stephan James) are two young lovers thrust apart by forces beyond their control. Fonny, a young tradesman and artist, has been wrongfully accused of rape and thrown in jail by a corrupt justice system skewed towards prosecuting young African-Americas. Tish – only 19, living alone and trying to raise the money they need to pay Fonny’s legal bills – is expecting their first child. If things seem dire, that’s because they are, but cutting through the quagmire is a power that can’t be quashed or repressed.

If you guessed ‘love’, you’d be right. Much like his previous film Moonlight, director Barry Jenkins’ adaption of James Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk is all about love. Only this time, it’s an abundance of love rather than an absence of it.

From the spark of youthful passion to an unwavering familial love, If Beale Street Could Talk has a lot to say on the topic. How love makes us strong, sweet, stupid or sad. How misguided or misplaced love can tear us apart. And how love can cut through all obstacles and remain powerful in the presence of abject despair.

This film is achingly beautiful, like a Renaissance oil painting, with each shot painstakingly composed and framed by Jenkins and cinematographer James Laxton. The streets of New York are dripping with honeyed yellows and earnest oranges, almost as if Tish and Fonny emit a warm, smitten glow wherever they walk. Told in a non-linear fashion, the palette shifts to colder and harder colours when the film swaps back to the ‘present’. Nicholas Britell’s string-heavy score is both an ode to lovers and a mournful lament of the injustice that wrenched them apart – it’s brilliant.

A host of powerful supporting performances populate Beale Street; Regina King, frontrunner for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar, showcases the lengths a mother would go for her daughter. Brian Tyree Henry cameos, but makes a big impression, while brief but memorable appearances from Diego Luna, Dave Franco and Ed Skrein lend weight to the adage ‘there are no small parts’.

Though Jenkins’ film possesses a powerful undercurrent of commentary on black history, as well as the prejudice and harassment still faced in the present, this never overpowers the core theme of the story. Even when a pane of glass or a prison visiting room table separates our two protagonists, their love and tenderness for one another is palpable, radiating from the screen like a warm breeze. For that reason alone, you won’t find a better Valentine’s Day film this February.

If Beale Street Could Talk is available in Australian cinemas from February 14 

Image courtesy of eOne Films

Movie Review – Green Book

Essentially Driving Miss Daisy with a few tweaks and some jazz music, Green Book would have been the perfect Oscar contender about 25 years ago.

⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Corey Hogan

The no-nonsense attitude of Italian-American bouncer Tony Lip (Viggo Mortensen) catches the attention of acclaimed and world-famous black pianist Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali), who seeks a driver for his eight-week concert tour from Manhattan to the Deep South of America. Tony is hired and they embark, following the guidelines of the ‘Green Book’ in order to locate black-friendly travel stops and locations amidst the still-oppressive atmosphere in the South. Though they clash initially, Tony and Don begin to bond and have their views of the world challenged by both the racially heated and unexpectedly humane encounters along the way.

For all its class and finesse, it’s difficult not to admit that we’ve seen everything Green Book has to offer countless times before. Peter Farrelly’s (Dumb & Dumber, There’s Something About Mary) first-ever career shift from belligerent comedy to socially-conscious drama is Oscar bait in its most in-vogue tendency – race-baiting. Structured in the tried-and-true American road movie formula, you can bet there’s a mismatched buddy-pairing at its centre who aren’t just opposite races, they’re an odd couple in personality too. And you wouldn’t be wrong in guessing that while they’re no doubt going to clash amusingly along the way, they’re going to learn a lot from each other and a lot about tolerance and standing up to bigotry in a time of backwards segregation and racial tension. Cue the awards speeches. Hollywood pats itself on the back.

It can at least be said that this facelift of a well-worn success story bolsters a fine pair of performers with good chemistry as its said odd couple. Viggo Mortensen, fresh off a hot comeback with Captain Fantastic, plays essentially the opposite of that ultra-progressive character that earned him his last bout of nominations. He’s typically great, even if Tony is heavy on Italian stereotype. Mahershala Ali gives a quiet, calm and collected performance. Excellent as he is, it can’t help but feel Don is entirely the yang to Tony’s yin; a current of peace and wisdom as opposed to an actual character.

There’s really nothing inherently wrong with Green Book. It’s undoubtedly highly watchable and a nice enough tale of friendship, with great music. But that’s just the problem – it’s such a smooth, self-congratulatory and bump-free ride that it fails to feel genuine. Accusations of historical inaccuracies come as no surprise for something so heavily manufactured for the awards season. When just-fine films with faux-social issues are favoured by awards shows over actually creative ones that take risks, what worth are the awards to cinema, really?

Green Book is available in Australian cinemas from January 24

Image (c) Universal Pictures 2019