Boxing Day reviews

Palace power plays

THE FAVOURITE

Rated MA, 120 minutes

Olivia Colman plays the fickle Queen Anne in The Favourite.Credit:Atsushi Nishijima

Review by Sandra Hall

Yorgos Lanthimos' The Favourite is set in the early 18th century at the court of England's Queen Anne but don't expect any elaborate euphemisms and elegant circumlocutions.

Aquaman.Credit:Warner Bros / DC Comics

Lanthimos is really shaking up the conventions of the British costume drama with this film. The colours are muted and the sumptuousness of aristocratic life is underplayed in favour of the backstairs squalor and the grime that inevitably found its way into 18th-century palaces, no matter how grand.

And the dialogue, co-written by Australian playwright and scriptwriter Tony McNamara, cuts straight to the heart of things while frequently cutting to the quick, as well. This Queen's court is no place for tender feelings. At times, she herself suffers from the sharp tongues of those closest to her.

Lanthimos' cinematographer, Robbie Ryan, catches it all, seizing every opportunity to treat viewers to a new angle on the court's tangled politics and claustrophobic atmosphere. One of his fondest ploys involves a wide lens that gives you the illusion of peering into a fishbowl. He also likes to shoot from below, accentuating the weird looks of a cast already caricatured by the mask-like make-up and curly powdered wigs of the period. And that's just the men. The women, in contrast, are allowed little artifice. The Queen is seen mostly in her nightgown, debilitated by the gout that has put her in a wheelchair.

And in this story, it's the women who matter. It centres on the rivalry between the Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz), the Queen's childhood friend and chief lieutenant – a woman of imperious wit and ruthless candour – and the Duchess' less fortunate cousin, Abigail Hill (Emma Stone), who begins her career at the palace as a chambermaid and winds up as Keeper of the Privy Purse.

Ralph Breaks the Internet.

The original story is by British lawyer and writer Deborah Davis, who began work on it 20 years ago, using records of the correspondence between the three women. It was a bold move to hand it over to Lanthimos, a specialist in cerebral fantasies that are hard to fathom and tinged with horror. Yet his iconoclastic style really pays off. As well as being his biggest production yet, this is by far his most pleasurable, with three Oscar-worthy performances. Olivia Colman's Anne is poignant, exasperating and very funny – a child-woman trapped in a rapidly ageing body – while Weisz and Stone wage their tug-of-war over her affections with a sly cleverness that grows into something much more poisonous. Stone, with a flawless English accent, executes the most dramatic change in temperament and personality without taking one false step. It's one of the finest films of the year.

A dive into the depths of silliness

AQUAMAN

The Wild Pear Tree.

Rated M, 143 minutes

Review by Sandra Hall

Lovers Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) and Zula (Joanna Kulig) in Cold War.Credit:Palace Films

Aquaman dwells on the lighter side of the DC Comics universe – which is not the most enticing endorsement.

When it comes to extracting the fun to be had from the life of a superhero, DC has long lagged behind its rival, Marvel. The best known members of its stable are complicated with lots to worry about.

Kusama: Infinity doesn’t reveal what makes the Japanese artist tick.Credit:Madman Films

Aquaman breaks the mould. It's an authentically light-hearted brand of rubbish, taking a tongue-in-cheek delight in its own absurdity – a mood that can't have been easy to sustain while trying to convince your audience that much of what they're watching is occurring underwater.

Directed by Malaysian-born Australian James Wan, the horror franchise expert, it was shot mainly in Australia at Village Roadshow's studios. And it wasn't filmed underwater. "Dry-for-wet" is the term for the techniques that Wan and his crew used to simulate the oceanic world where much of the story takes place. Blue screens and CGI were a big feature and the actors were kitted out with wires and rigs to help them look as if they were floating.

Christian Bale as Dick Cheney and Amy Adams as Lynne Cheney in Vice.Credit:Matt Kennedy

Aquaman himself is half-human – the son of a personable lighthouse keeper (Temuera Morrison) and the Atlantean princess he rescues one night from the rocks below his cottage. Played by Nicole Kidman in a spangled bodysuit, she's fleeing an arranged marriage to an Atlantean lord she doesn't fancy and she and Tom, the lighthouse keeper, fall in love. All is fine until she's forced to return to Atlantis to protect Tom and their baby, Arthur.

Arthur grows up to become Hawaiian-born Jason Momoa, an actor of such heft that he scored a role as a Dothraki warlord in Game of Thrones. He's big. His Arthur can also swim very fast, breathe underwater and establish telepathic contact with passing fish – talents that are of very little use to him until another Atlantean princess (Amber Heard) surfaces and persuades him to take the plunge with her.

Santa at the movies.Credit:Simon Schluter

It seems that Atlantis' new king, Orm, is planning to declare war on land dwellers because of the way they have polluted the oceans. And only Arthur can stop him.

The actors who survive best in this environment are those who have been licensed to banter. Momoa and Heard are fine. He wisecracks, she snaps back at him and they can happily drift above the surrounding ludicrousness without suffering too much damage.

Poor Patrick Wilson, who plays Orm, is not so lucky. Not only is he obliged to take things seriously, he's supposed to remain chronically angry. Willem Dafoe, as his court counsellor, has a similar problem – although he is able to stay calm.

Wan lays on an inventive array of action sequences above and below water, and the production designers ingeniously violate multiple scientific principles. But it's all in a good cause – proving that DC superheroes can be silly, after all.

Exhilarating and visually spectacular

RALPH BREAKS THE INTERNET

Rated PG, 112 minutes

Review by Jake Wilson

Movies don't get more timely than Ralph Breaks the Internet – an exhilarating yet dismaying sequel to 2012's Wreck It Ralph, for my money easily the smartest and most endearing Disney animated feature of recent years.

Ralph himself, voiced by John C. Reilly, was the hulking, dejected bad guy in a fictional 1980s arcade game. But you didn't have to be a Generation-X gamer to appreciate the imagination put into the contrasting fantasy realms he visited, or to sympathise with his conviction there must be more to life than smashing things up.

Ultimately Ralph was reconciled to his bad guy role, and this status quo remains intact at the outset of his new adventure,

co-directed by Simpsons veteran Rich Moore and screenwriter Phil Johnston. Intact, too, is Ralph's friendship with the "glitching" Princess Vanellope von Schweetz (Sarah Silverman), which resembles the father-daughter bond between Homer and Lisa Simpson, if Homer were less obnoxious and Lisa more of a handful.

When Vanellope's own arcade game breaks down, the pair are propelled into the brave new world of the internet, visualised as a gleaming mega-city along the lines of Fritz Lang's Metropolis.

Ralph Breaks The Internet is noticeably more up-to-date than Steven Spielberg's comparable digital extravaganza Ready Player One, and vastly more visually spectacular than its grotesque forerunner The Emoji Movie. But like these competitors it is dense with subtext, including the implication that the online universe might be preferable to the drab reality beyond.

The resulting sense of claustrophobia verges on nightmare in the most ambitious setpiece, a surreal exercise in metafictional cross-promotion in which Star Wars stormtroopers, Marvel superheroes and Disney princesses all cross paths. Strange things, too, start happening to Ralph, whose original menacing aura gradually and alarmingly reasserts itself, as if he were meant as an emblem of resentful men struggling to adjust to change.

Elsewhere online, the innocent go-kart game Sugar Rush from the first Ralph has been supplemented by a grittier multi-player equivalent known as Slaughter Race.

I won't reveal how this subplot plays out, but the name has an ominous ring, especially if taken as a description of where we all might be headed.

Turkish delights

THE WILD PEAR TREE

Rated M, 188 minutes

Review by Paul Byrnes

Nuri Bilge Ceylan's last three films add up to about nine hours of movie. It's lucky that he has a lot to say about Turkey, his homeland, because he takes his time to sayit.

Winter Sleep, the film before this, was a superb drama about a family, set against the backdrop of Cappadocia. It was intense, beautiful, mysterious but gripping through 196 minutes. This new one has all of those things in lesser proportions, which is not to say that it does not leave a mark. It's set in and around Canakkale, a small city on the Asian coast of the Dardanelles, opposite the Gallipoli peninsula. Sinan (Aydin Dogu Demirkol) fancies himself a writer after graduating from university. He returns to a home in disarray.

His father (Murat Cemcir) has sold the house to fund his gambling. His long-suffering mother (Bennu Yildirimlar) cannot curb him. A young woman that Sinan fancied marries someone else. His old friends have become shiftless and indolent. No one will publish his manuscript in this godforsaken town, he tells himself. Everyone he approaches confirms that.

Ceylan films this in his usual way: long, sweeping takes that root the characters firmly in the landscape. He uses occasional aerial shots to suggest a bird's eye view, and these give us both perspective and beauty. His films always show how gorgeous is his homeland. That adds to the sense of emotion, which is always tinged with sadness, because the human dramas reflect his sense of disappointment with the state of things.

The film is like a letter to the next generation, in which Ceylan lays out what amounts to a series of accusations and questions. As we follow this diffident, arrogant, somewhat pompous young man, Ceylan gets a few things off his chest. Some of this would be controversial in Turkey, like the long scene where Sinan interrogates two young imams in the village, one of whom is full of book learning, the other more like a corrupt town official.

Sinan is a compelling character, if far from likeable. He saunters through the film, sneering with superiority because of his education. He's too self-centred to become a perceptive writer, too isolated to find his future. He can no longer live as a peasant, nor can he escape. Dostoyevsky showed long ago that we don't have to like a protagonist, but we do have to understand his nightmare. That's the film's major achievement – a sense of completeness – not just about this young man, but his place within the landscape. Ceylan always rewards the patient viewer.

Music, the food of love

COLD WAR

Rated M, 88 minutes

Review by Paul Byrnes

Play it, Pawel. Cold War is like a Polish Casablanca – a beautiful, doomed love story between two people whose romance is both formed and deformed by the politics of post-war Europe.

It's a family story for Pawel Pawlikowski, one of the more gifted directors now working in Europe (he won best director at Cannes for this film). He dedicates it to his parents, who had a tempestuous relationship over many decades and across several countries. He has fictionalised them to allow more freedom and modernity, even as he looks back at earlier eras of cinema. Thus, Cold War has the epic feel that Hollywood romance once had, where great events take place in the background as two gorgeous people lock eyes in the foreground. And yet the form is more elliptical and less obvious than a contemporary American romance might be.

Pawlikowski as scriptwriter strips back, so that scenes are mere suggestions for the viewer; Pawlikowski as director is more lush, with a strong graphic sense. That makes the film seem both restrained and richly melodramatic.

Pawlikowski is 61. He learned his craft in British documentary of the 1990s, having moved to London with his mother at age 14. He returned to Poland six years ago. The first scene is pure imagined documentary, as we see a man with a lived-in face playing a Polish bagpipe, in a muddy village in 1946. It's shot in a gorgeous, contrasty black and white that suits this subject.

Two colleagues, Irena and Wiktor, are visiting remote areas to record folk songs, often in regional languages. Their driver, Kaczmarek (Borys Szyc), is a crude man, but he expresses the party line when he says it's a pity they don't sing in Polish. The times are complex. Many Poles hate both the Germans and the Russians for their recent crimes against Poland, but the Soviets are now their "friends". It's clear that Kaczmarek is an ideological policeman. His character is a clever way of showing how the state will have a hand in everything that happens to these characters.

Irena and Wiktor are selecting talent for a new state-run academy of folk arts. The recruits will train intensively in an old chateau, turning folk art into state culture. Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) is musical director; Irena (Agata Kulesza) teaches movement and dance. The outstanding new recruit Zula (Joanna Kulig) is also the most rebellious. Irena doesn't like her; she tells Wiktor that this beautiful blonde teen killed her own father. Zula explains that she didn't kill him, but she did take a knife to him "when he mistook me for my mother".

Zula and Wiktor become lovers. Their affair jumps forward several years with each sequence, then back. By the mid-1950s the folk troupe has become internationally famous, invited to perform across the Soviet bloc. On a trip to Berlin, Wiktor plans their escape, a simple walk from the Soviet sector into the British, but she doesn't show. We'll never have Paris, to paraphrase Bogart, but there's plenty more. A good melodrama can go a long way, even in a mere 88 minutes.

There's so much to like here. The brilliant music, ranging from eastern European folk to jazz in Paris, where Wiktor becomes a film composer; the performances of both lead actors, so well cast; the wisdom of the script in which love is never simply enough; the very "adultness" of the story, where the romance becomes more powerful because it's set against events that matter. As always, some of the best films of the year arrive late, jostling for attention in the American awards season, risking the noise of the festive season. Don't let this one slip by.

Quirky artist preserves her mystery

KUSAMA: INFINITY

Rated M, 77 minutes

Review by Jake Wilson

​When American filmmaker Heather Lenz began work on her documentary Kusama: Infinity in the early 2000s, her subject, the Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama, was a relatively obscure cult figure.

But over the past two decades Kusama's reputation has flourished, like a garden growing into a forest. Despite having lived by choice in a mental institution for the past 40 years, she now ranks by some measures as the most popular living artist in the world.

Some of this newfound popularity could be attributed to her dramatic life story, including mysterious childhood trauma, conflict with her family's traditional expectations, and the struggle to make it big in the sexist and racist art world

of mid-20th-century New York. But her endurance testifies primarily to the immediate impact of her work, which has a force that could be described as decorative yet apocalyptic, spanning multiple media and making obsessive use of repeated shapes and forms, from polka dots to phalluses.

Some of Kusama's later work has a cloying, faux-naif quality, but none of the colleagues who remember her from the old days try to pretend she was the easiest person to deal with. Their accounts paint her as acutely sensitive, with a lifelong terror of sex, and equally as a ruthless, often abrasive self-promoter.

The film reflects this dual personality, incorporating striking black-and-white photographs (often self-portraits)in which Kusama sometimes stares unforgivingly at the camera and sometimes appears to be sheltering behind her long, black hair.

Kusama is not the most forthcoming interviewee, but Lenz has managed to coax some fascinating anecdotes out of her. We hear how she was ripped off by Andy Warhol, and how she dated the great, reclusive American surrealist Joseph Cornell, another celibate capable of making intense emotional demands.

As filmmaking, Kusama: Infinity has its weaknesses, including a score by Allyson Newman that can be heavy-handed or simply beside the point. Nor do we ever get the impression of finding out what makes Kusama tick.

But no doubt this is exactly what Kusama herself would wish: preserving her mystery isn't the worst way of doing her justice.

Another Boxing Day release, Holmes and Watson, was not available for preview.

The irresistible rise of Dick Cheney

VICE

Rated M, 132 minutes

Review by Paul Byrnes

In coming weeks, no doubt, US Republicans will rip this film to pieces for whatever inaccuracies they may find in its depiction of the life of Dick Cheney. There may be some, none or plenty, but they'll be missing the point. Adam McKay's film is fairer to Cheney than history itself may be, in the long run.

Christian Bale, barely recognisable, plays him as a man who is likeable, kinda-sorta. He comes across as larger than life, honest to himself, faithful to his family and unconcerned about being popular. That in itself is a description of a man of character, whether you like him or not.

The film is certainly a take-down, but far from a demolition. McKay argues that he may have done irreparable damage to American democracy – so it's worth trying to understand why and how he did that.

For many Democrats, Cheney is the Devil himself. McKay's view is more nuanced. Cheney may have traduced American democracy to become the most powerful vice-president in history; he may be the chief proponent of the torture and rendition program that followed the 9/11 attacks; he may be the guy who bent the (lack of) intelligence on weapons of mass destruction to justify the invasion of Iraq in 2003. McKay airs all these accusations, but the film goes much wider, trying to get at the nature of US politics. Heargues that Cheney is not an aberration, but the direct result of the way politics works in America.

Vice is the story of how a man who drank too much, studied too little, and thought about politics not at all could rise to become the second most powerful guy in Washington, simply because his wife Lynne (Amy Adams) wanted him to straighten up and be a man. It's a redemption story then, itself a kind of American dream.

In the first half, we follow the young Cheney from blind-drunk telephone lineman (for the county) in Wyoming to White House intern. He becomes a protege of Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell), who teaches him real-politik; he becomes White House chief of staff for President Gerald Ford; then Cheney gets elected to the House. Learning, absorbing, listening. Rumsfeld teaches him that politics is the pursuit of power, rather than ideology.

In the second half, student becomes teacher as Cheney exceeds his mentor, expanding his definition of power to mean whatever he says it means. Part of this is his promotion of the idea of "unitary executive theory" – the idea that anything the president does as president is legal. By extension, that theory would include the VP, which Cheney becomes via a deal with the young George Bush (Sam Rockwell).

The big surprise about the movie is how much fun it is. McKay takes an axe to the rulebook of what you can and can't do in a biopic about a living (and still powerful) public figure. It's irreverent, but not to the point of derision or parody. Reports of the death of all the Hollywood grown-ups may have been premature.

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