Lina Lamont

"What do you think I am, dumb or something?"

I’d like to thank the Academy…

After seven years writing as the principal film reviewer for New Zealand’s national Sunday newspaper, I have called it a day at the Sunday Star-Times. This decision (actually about a year in the ruminating) has brought with it a tinge of sadness – I’ve been likening it to breaking up with someone you’ve been with for a long time when you know the relationship isn’t quite right any more but it’s hard to let go and there are plenty of reasons to stay. But I’ve also found an immediate sense of peace about letting go. So it’s clearly time.

My film-related blog-post headline is actually quite true: I got into film reviewing at the suggestion of John Davies who was then running the independent Academy Cinemas in town, after I went by myself to see Synecdoche, New York one nondescript evening. John did what few cinema managers do, and introduced the film – albeit in a slightly negative “tell me if you think it’s a bit shit” way – and invited the audience to contact him with their views afterwards. I’d never written a review before, nor expressed my (considerable) opinions in anything more formal than a conversational setting. So it wasn’t until I was back home in bed that night, and thoughts started flooding into my mind in perfectly formed sentences, that I got the bug.

I remember sitting up in bed, putting the light on, and purging my brain of these thoughts via notepad and pen so I could go to sleep. Next morning, I did as John had suggested and sent him an email.

He replied something to the effect that I wrote with a nice energy, or style, or something – something enough to make me feel the warm glow of approval I’ve always craved since childhood and spark in me the notion that maybe thinking about film properly could be a fun thing to do.

So when I next popped into the Academy to watch something, I introduced myself and naively (because I had no idea then how these things work) offered to be “his” (as in the cinema’s) resident reviewer. He explained that’s not really how it’s done, but suggested I start a blog. I went home, hit upon the name Lina Lamont as my moniker, and the rest is history.

But paid reviewing was still a way off, and to be honest going professional didn’t occur to me for a second. I was in a period of my life where I was recently single (one of many such periods, TBH) and seeing a LOT of movies. So I simply started writing reviews of everything I saw when I got home from the cinema. In April 2010, my inaugural month, I published 13 blog posts about many more than 13 films.

I soon found I derived enormous pleasure from writing – the sort of all-immersive enjoyment that makes you forget about eating or drinking or going to bed (three of my usual preoccupations). I loved posting my reviews and occasionally getting comments from readers* (*mostly friends and my mum), but most of all I really enjoyed the process of opinion-writing.

If you’re thinking this is all a bit self-indulgent and who really cares how you got into a cushy job where you get paid to have an opinion, then I hear you – but hear me: now I’m a full-time high school teacher (previously of English, now English and Drama), I’m often asked how I scored such a dream job. And so I tell my kids: I had a passion (for film) and a burgeoning skill (writing my thoughts) and I worked at it for months. And then one day, literally out of the blue, an opportunity arose.

This brings me to the second person I have to thank in this already-over-long Oscar speech: Mark Broatch – then editor of the Culture section of the SST, and an innocent guest at some publisher’s Christmas party when he was accosted by my mother (who worked for years in book retail) and was told “My daughter writes film reviews on the computer”. Mark generously gave out his email address and my proud mother told me next day to send him the link to my blog, which I duly did. Mark was apparently sufficiently inveigled that he invited me for a coffee to chat about film, obviously “got” my energy, and then offered me my first ever publishing gig (if you don’t count my letter to the New Zealand Herald as a teenager lamenting the disparity between drinking and driving age), inviting me to watch several screeners for the Doc Edge festival and write a few hundred words about them.

I thought I’d hit the jackpot – to watch films (for free!) and have my opinions published! But before I could even file my copy on the agreed deadline, Mark offered me the permanent role – two reviews a week, c. 500 words all up (if I remember rightly) – and so it began.

The following seven years has given me extraordinary privileges and opportunities: the film premieres, the several-times-a-week critics’ screenings (and the wonderful friendships I’ve made with my fellow critics), the ability to secure a press pass in order to attend the Cannes Film Festival (admittedly on my own dollar, but getting into those films at 8:30am every day with critics from around the globe is priceless – you can read about that heady 12 days on this blog). I’ve interviewed Andrew Dominik, Andrew Adamson, JJ Abrams. Some guy called Quentin Somethingorother. I travelled to Sydney to speak to Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto. Met the incredible Tahar Rahim at Cannes. Zoe Bell was charming. Brian Cox was affable and had great anecdotes. One film company flew critics from all over New Zealand to Wellington for two nights in a top hotel and the first Hobbit premiere, screened at Park Road Post. I have attended myriad film festivals, written “Must-Sees” and “Best of the Years” lists. I’ve spoken on the radio (notably RNZ, but also 3 smaller, local stations), done three heady stints on breakfast TV (my mum still has two of them saved on MySky). I have been blessed in recent years to work under a very supportive editor, James Croot, who put up with my periodic absences or complaints about Stuff’s typos. And every month I raised a few dollars which became especially important five years ago when I gave up a normal day job and went back to square one to train as a paltry-paid teacher.

Film reviewing has become a large chunk of my identity, and in past years provided me with a great sense of my personal value. Granted, there’s nothing like teaching to give you a real sense of purpose and fulfillment, but let’s be honest – it’s the film reviewing thing that captures strangers’ interest at parties, and it’s the dream job everybody thinks they want.

Sure, the inevitable trolls can get you down, and I’ve been guilty of stewing over ludicrous, anonymous insinuations that I don’t understand why a certain movie is actually good because I a) am a woman, b) don’t “get” sci-fi, or c) had the audacity to give The Last Jedi five stars. And increasingly one starts to believe the old “No one cares what critics think anyway” which usually emanates from the mouths of those I’m pretty sure would love to have my job.

But right til the end I’ve taken this public service seriously and strived to back up my opinions (something we always teach our students) with coherence, a dollop of context and not too much mud-slinging. It’s much more fun writing a bad review (oh boy, is it), but to be credible the 5-star movies have to be heralded without just gushing.

And of course, the opportunity to watch sometimes three movies a week has been a staple part of my relationship with my wonderful, film-loving husband. We’ve been writing our own and reading one another’s reviews for years (he has frequently given feedback on mine late on a filing night) and last week we recorded our first joint podcast, the inaugural episode (our Oscar nominations rant) which can be heard here. Since film makes up a large part of our home-life conversation, we’ll be doing more!

I’ll also continue the pleasurable task of meeting monthly with three fine teacherly minds to compare two films with a connection between on Cinema in Context. And I’ll still be watching, still writing, still reviewing in a more relaxed capacity for whomever asks.

But I’m grateful as anything for the gift of this dream job, just as I am that the time has now come to make space in my life to spend precious time with real, actual people and not just celluloid ones.

If you DO wish to keep up with my musings or pick my brain for advice, come follow me on

In the meantime, my final thanks go to YOU, dear reader – I literally couldn’t have done all this writing without knowing someone would read it. Thanks to you, it’s been a blast.


Wonder Woman – and yes, she is.

I’ll admit, when I first saw the Wonder Woman trailer, I was typically quick to judge and muttered (OK, I probably sneered) “Oh geez, hope I don’t have to review that”. Gal Gadot had been the underwhelming cherry on top of the underwhelming Batman v Superman debacle (which I actually hated less than most viewers), sucked into a tight dress and ridiculously eye-candyish for a supposed heroine who would go on to save superhero blockbusters from themselves.

Then I heard about the Women’s Only screenings in the States, and actually had a discussion with my feminist, cinephile husband about how I didn’t go in for that sort of thing, being the sort of woman who’d never really felt discrimination on the basis of my gender and all, and though that’s fine for some women if they want to be apart from men, we’d just go to a normal screening at our local multiplex and be done with it.

And so we went. And I settled into our perfectly-chosen, up-close-and-personal seats and relished not having to scribble notes/write a review/think about it afterwards, and began to let Wonder Woman wash over me.

And then, some time around the first major battle scene, I felt myself choke up, tears welling (although they did not fall) at the same time as I experienced a totally unexpected sense of elation. And I wished there were more women in the audience so I could “whoop!” at the top of my voice. Oh, the irony.

Wonder Woman

Here’s the thing. As a DC Comicbook adaptation, blockbuster, superhero movie, Wonder Woman is solid 4-star fare. Narratively, it droops just before the final act, as most over-long superhero movies do. But it has terrific performances from a varied cast headed by the aforementioned Israeli model-turned-actress, who effortlessly portrays her Amazonian ingenue as deliciously naive, yet feisty and principled, in a way that feels completely authentic and acceptable (to both female and male audiences). There’s the American Chris Pine (Star Trek) who suffers in real-life from being the least recognisable of all the Hollywood Chrises, but here proves he has at least as much comedy in him as “Thor” Hemsworth and “Captain America” Evans. We get a delightful cameo from Dawn-from-The-Office Lucy Davis, whose witty repartée with Gadot’s Diana Prince teases the age-old assumptions about women working under men. Scotsman Ewen Bremner puts his Trainspotting Spud to rest once and for all, while Moroccan Saïd Taghmaoui articulates what we’re all thinking – that Diana is the most beautiful woman you’ve ever seen – and for some reason that doesn’t feel offensive or clichéd – it just feels, well, true.

And that’s the other thing. There’s no denying Gadot is an exceptionally beautiful woman. Normally I would lament that Hollywood actresses had to be gorgeous; that strong female roles had also to be attractive to the male audience for which their movies were intended. That we were implicitly fat-shaming if we didn’t show women on screen who had actual thighs. (Go Amy Schumer! You may sport other dubious qualities in your efforts to show women as equal, but you have great, real-woman legs.)

But the other night, in my trance, I noticed, but didn’t object once as Diana would rear up from a fight with her lipstick still intact and mascara unsmudged. I let my female gaze caress her thigh gap (a feature I used to dream about, quite literally, and then wake up from that cruellest of nightmares to realise I was still denied). I ogled Robin Wright’s sinewy arms and evocative scar; I marvelled at the blonde body-waves and fishtail plaits that the Amazon women clearly still had time to perfect in between combat classes. I even started to wonder how I’d look in a Wonder Woman costume nowadays, remembering the paper cuffs Little Sarah made as a 5-year old, to run around the garden and force the neighbour’s boy to profess “I love you with all my heart”. (I rapidly decided the WW costume ship had sailed.)

So what of the overwhelming feeling of empowerment that surged through me as I watched all these women, but Diana in particular, kicking butt in a confident, accomplished manner? We’ve seen strong women before – The Bride in Kill Bill, Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games. Strong teenage girls who know how to handle themselves are two a penny in YA dystopian literature. What made Diana Prince different?

I’m still not sure, but I’ll tell you what I think. First off, the most surprising thing is apparently I’m not alone. Scarcely 12 hours ago this article was published online, and it would seem that Wonder Woman is not only making an impact due to its tangibly ground-breaking qualities (first female superheroine lead; in a film directed by a woman; not crap and forgettable like Catwoman or Elektra) but on an emotional level, too. And I think this has to do with how Wonder Woman has been written: in particular, her provenance, and her especially female world-view.

Unlike many of her admirable forebears, Diana Prince isn’t a strong woman who has to act like a man. She was raised in the absence of men, by confident women. She knows about the world (through being well-read) and she understands what matters, but she isn’t remotely jaded. Rather, she is open-eyed, open-minded, open-hearted. She goes into battle because it’s the right thing to do in order to stop the War and bring peace. She has no personal agenda. She never once sneers at anyone, not other women, not the baddest baddie. She cries. She cares. She coos over a baby. She enjoys trying on pretty dresses but she has to be able to do a high kick in them.

And she fights like a boss. I can’t remember what I felt watching Black Widow fight (probably very little, as I’m sure she received a sixteenth of the screen time in any of the Avengers movies) but when Diana and the other Amazonians slo-mo speed-ramp into a low-leg side-swipe or a bow-and-triple-arrow hit or Diana crosses a battlefield pinging bullets off her cuffs, Little Sarah’s heart leapt.

And Big Sarah’s going to go see it again.


Patriots’ Day

Patriots’ Day recreates the Boston Marathon bombing of 2013 and the real-life manhunt by law enforcement that ensued. It stars Mark Wahlberg as a composite character of several police officers who were instrumental in the case. These facts, and the film’s title which inevitably provokes caution in a non-American audience for whom “patriot” can feel like a dirty word, may have you shaking your head and rolling your eyes.

But the film also evokes the nail-bitingly brilliant United 93 in its assiduous use of facts and its ability to create extraordinary tension around an event with which we are already familiar. It stars John Goodman, J. K. Simmons and Kevin Bacon who portray real players in the game of cat and mouse. And it manages to be desperately moving, respectful and exciting, all in one movie.

Director Peter Berg acted for many years before launching a career behind the camera which produced many of my lowest cinematic moments, notably Battleship and Deepwater Horizon. Remarkably, Patriots’ Day eschews the cheesy script, soaring horns traditional in patriotic American soundtracks and bland acting, and instead puts out a truly heart-pumping thriller which lacks judgement of its baddies and only shuffles a wee way over the line in terms of glorifying its heroes.

Like United 93, the front end of the film focuses on setting up the fateful day and introducing us to the key players: the terrorists and the civilians whose lives will be irreparably changed in the space of 12 seconds. This scene-setting is handled really nicely, particularly the private moments between newlyweds Patrick and Jessica, and the fascinating introduction of a young Chinese app developer Dun Meng (played by Silicon Valley‘s Jimmy O. Yang) whose pivotal role does not become clear until well into Act 2.

Of course, Wahlberg has to have his moments, and while I’m not the big fan of Marky Mark that I have been in the past, he acquits himself fine as a no-BS Bostonian cop who acts as the thread between what otherwise might have felt like a series of vignettes about the days. While some have objected to his composite character, the respect Berg has paid to all involved in the tragedy (including inviting survivors and law enforcement on-set and asking for advice and detail to preserve authenticity) more than makes up for a slice of artistic licence.

Principally, it’s a thrilling ride which seamlessly incorporates documentary footage into the fabrication as the day unfolds, tragedy occurs and justice is eventually served. Moreover, it’s an illuminating glimpse into how the investigation was handled, including a gripping sequence in a warehouse where the crime scene has been reconstructed in which Wahlberg’s cop uses his knowledge of the streets to predict which CCTV cameras may have captured the perpetrators’ moves. Similarly, the gunfight which halted the terrorists’ plans makes for a sensational scene worthy of any fictional Hollywood action movie, and all the more exciting because you know this one has (had) real stakes.

Simmons, Goodman and Bacon play real people whose photos and interviews appear, with those of some survivors, just before the closing credits role – an effect which some viewers may feel re-injects the saccharine into an otherwise admirably matter-of-fact telling. But this coda is indisputably moving, and a necessary conclusion to a harrowing story which delivers a message of indomitable spirit and community at a timely moment in American history.


Fifty Shades Darker

2 long, 2 dumb, 2 stars

I missed a social occasion to go watch the latest Fifty Shades movie, only to find out afterwards I didn’t need to officially review it. Of course, by then it was too late – already so full of aghastness and outrage, I feel compelled to purge myself of my predictably negative reaction, in the hope that either a) the producers will accidentally trip across this review on the internet and heed my comments for the inevitable third film, or b) I’ll at least be able to now forget I even saw it.

It’s easy to be derisory about the Fifty Shades series, not just because the books are (reportedly – I admit/am proud not to have read one) the worst written bestsellers since Dan Brown, but because the word “try-hard” keeps ringing in my ears whenever I think about the trilogy which shook up the publishing world by bringing risqué sex to a mainstream, largely female, audience.

The films have taken a similar bent; although a friend described it as “Mummy porn” (as in mother, not as in lie-there-and-play dead), there’s really nothing pornographic about Fifty Shades of Grey or Darker at all – at least, not in the sense that you might feel a frisson of erotic response while watching them. This is not only disappointing (because there is nowadays so much sex in films and particularly on telly that you’re hard-pressed not to see something titillating when you tune in) but surprising, given Fifty Shades tries so desperately to portray the tortured emotional relationship of two attractive young people whose main (if not only) connection revolves around carnal knowledge and ankle-cuffs.

Where are we at, story-wise? Ah yes. Christian Grey the trillionaire (Jamie Dornan) and Ana(stasia) Steele (Dakota Johnson) broke up in the last movie, when she figured out he was of dodgy mind and not going to be able to meet her emotional needs. Cue: Darker, Scene 1: He reappears out of the ether and buys all the portraits of her at an art exhibition because: “I don’t like strangers gawking at you.” Fair enough.

From then on, the game is afoot. Scene 2: “My mother was a crack addict. You fill in the blanks,” Christian says. Fair enough. Actually wait, no, not fair enough – I’m pretty sure they employ a script writer for this bit. But nevermind – that’s enough “opening up” for one day, and Ana lets them get back together.

Oh, but hold on – Scene 3: Let’s take it slow.

Scene 4: OK yeah, nah, let’s not.

And the sex is on. The talky opening up stuff takes a little longer, but eventually Christian grabs a lipstick and invites her to help him draw his “boundaries”, quite literally, by tracing a rectangle across his torso (helpfully excluding his nether regions, which are, of course, completely within bounds). But wait, she says: Are those cigarette burns? What happened to you?? Which is a completely ridiculous question given a) they starred in a movie this time last year and she would have noticed them then, and b) what do you think happened??

This relationship is clearly not about a meeting of intellectual minds.

So we still have a possessive guy, who doesn’t even bother to couch things in less creepy terms than “I want you here all the time” when he asks her to move in with him, and we still have a supposedly empowered woman who is a mere PA to some dickhead of a fiction editor at a swanky firm. Hmmm, I wonder if the dickhead (Eric Johnson, a man even less charismatic than Jamie Dornan) will try to hit on her?

No time to worry about that, though! Christian wants them to get married, but first he has to fly a helicopter and survive a crash so badly acted I was convinced it was a dream sequence about him feeling trapped in his relationship (which would have been a really clever metaphor, come on!). Unfortunately it turned out to be an actual crash, which happened in about 58 seconds of screen-time and served as nothing more than a catalyst for Ana to realise she did want to marry him and for Grey’s excruciating family (Marcia Gay Harden, Rita Ora et al) to extend a bit of their acting range (distress, shock, relief, etc).

The galling thing about Fifty Shades Darker (and its predecessor) is there is nothing subtle, clever or illuminating about a poor little damaged boy growing into a man who admits to his fiancée that he’s a sadist who enjoys causing women pain (textbook!). The bigger crime is that the impressionable young women who watch these movies are still being fed notions of wealth, skinniness and beauty as paramount (the camera spends more time “gawking” at Dakota Johnson’s corseted body than Dornan’s pleasure trail), and that consensual S&M is OK, years before they have the maturity to develop a relationship which can handle this philosophy safely. It also reinforces that age-old chestnut that women can change men through love, even if he “doesn’t want to talk about it”.

While Dornan is possibly the most earnestly banal actor in all of Hollywood, Johnson is actually pretty good, through genes (Melanie Griffith & Don Johnson) rather than any help from the script, which sounds like it was written by a dialogue-generating computer programme.

But perhaps the biggest outrage is how definitively unsexy the whole film is. And the fact that Fifty Shades Freed (no, really? Do you promise?) is already on the slate. I’ll definitely be washing my hair that night.

SPL 2: A Time for Consequences / Kill Zone 2

4 stars, R16, 115 mins

A brief word about this pan-Asian, MMA, kick-ass crime thriller which would probably have looked even more stunning on the big screen.

I hadn’t seen/wasn’t aware of the first SPL movie (and I haven’t looked into what SPL stands for) but A Time for Consequences is one hella blockbuster of an action flick. The complicated plot involves an evil, sick, rich man who is forcing his beloved brother to donate his heart so the misanthrope can live; a prison warden (Thai legend Tony Jaa of Ong-Bak fame) whose cute-as-a button daughter needs a bone marrow transplant from a hard-to-find donor; and an undercover cop imprisoned by corrupt officials who plays an integral part in the ensuing chaos.

Like I say, it was at times a little confusing, especially as the story moves so fast the subtitles often shoot off the screen before you’ve had a chance to read them (truly!) and it cuts madly from one scene to the next as the many threads unravel. But my goodness, what a blast. It’s vibrant, noisy, intense, and boasts stunning camerawork, often so breathtakingly clever your background brain is trying to unpack “How did they do that??” while you keep up with who’s fighting whom and why? and where did that mobile phone end up? and how does he know about him? and so on and so on.

The fight scenes rival those in both Raids for sheer panache, with Jaa’s legit, no-props prowess truly impressive up against other characters’ use of wire-work which delivers a sometimes Matrix-y quality. But that’s no problem – the whole film has a larger-than-life bombast which makes it cinematic in the extreme. As a bonus, the brilliantly choreographed set-pieces are soundtracked by Vivaldi’s Four Seasons and Mozart’s Requiem, a seminal fave of mine which is only slightly tarnished by filmmaking’s inevitable need to chop it to fit the action on screen. (Makes it harder to sing along.)

If you can keep up with what’s happening in the plot – or even if you can’t – SPL2 certainly delivers a rollicking ride.


This review first appeared in the Sunday Star-Times, 15th January 2017

4.5 stars, Rated M, 99 mins

The first thing that strikes you when watching Natalie Portman on screen as Jackie Kennedy is that the actress must have done her homework. Portman, an Oscar winner for Black Swan who has forged a reputable career since she debuted at age 12 in Leon: The Professional, took a break from Hollywood to complete a psychology degree at Harvard because she considers being smart more important than being famous. And so, if the strangely accented, halting drawl comes across as a bit mannered in her evocation of JFK’s First Lady, rest assured that Portman will have worked tirelessly for this role, and what we’re seeing is the real deal.


Jackie is a strange sort of biopic in many ways. Principally, it doesn’t seek to tell the tale from the beginning – we learn nothing of how the socialite met her prince and established the house of Camelot. Instead, the film focuses on the days surrounding JFK’s assassination in Dallas, skipping between Jackie’s interview with a dispassionate reporter (a steely and terrific Billy Crudup) as she conjures up recollections of that dreadful day, and a depiction of the actual event and its immediate aftermath.

With a great cast and evident dedication to accurately relaying history, it’s an often devastating watch. Portman’s superb performance as distraught widow is underscored by the tension between her right to privately grieve and a lack of time in which to do it. The brutal haste with which JFK is succeeded is galling: Vice President and Lady Johnson (a perfect John Carroll Lynch and Beth Grant) make excellent villains as Jackie witnesses his swearing in as President on Air Force One mere hours after the shooting, while she stands dazed in the background.

The other thing that marks Jackie out is director Pablo Larrain’s very particular style of filmmaking. Shot on 16mm film, every frame looks like archive footage from the period (excepting the small quibble that Portman is too beautiful to truly convince as the albeit stylish Jackie O), and several scenes are recreated shot for shot from clips you can view for yourself on YouTube. The production design of the White House and, of course, Jackie’s signature suits are spot-on, while her staffers (Greta Gerwig, Richard E. Grant, both terrific) and brother-in-law Bobby (Peter Sarsgaard) perfectly embody the 1960s in their speech and attitudes.

But above all, this is Portman’s film. With tangible pain, she portrays a woman preoccupied by her husband’s legacy and reputation, while clearly drowning in grief. There is nothing as lonely as the sight of the former First Lady wandering vacantly around the White House in a pink suit stained with her husband’s blood. Harrowing and fascinating, Jackie is a beautiful, painful throwback to a terrible moment in history.


This review first appeared in the Sunday Star-Times, 15th January 2017

4.5 stars, Rated PG, 118 mins

Readers who are familiar with the flow of the cinematic seasons will be rubbing their hands with glee as we enter a period traditionally dominated by 4 and 5-star reviews for films that will be turning up on Awards’ shortlists in January and February. (We call it “Oscar season”, but of course the Golden Globes and BAFTAs also make their judgements at this time of year.)

One strong contender is Lion, about an adopted Indian boy who leaves Australia to search for his long-lost family 25 years later. A well-acted true story which tugs at the heartstrings and co-stars Nicole Kidman, it’s very likely Oscar-bait, but that’s not without good cause.

The incredibly moving story sets off at pace, dousing us with an enchanting soundtrack and spectacular photography as we follow the doe-eyed Saroo (the first acting role for tiny Sunny Pawar, who is absolutely captivating) as he unintentionally boards a passengerless train and is whisked away far from his mother and brother, to bustling Calcutta. Unable to establish where he has come from, Saroo is shuttled from one inadequate situation to the next, encountering shady characters both in and outside the welfare system. It’s an engrossing first act, thanks to the film’s deeply authentic use of local places and people and the desperate storyline which finds relief only when Saroo is adopted by an Australian couple (played with compassion and considerable restraint by Kidman and David Wenham) and takes up a new life thousands of miles from home.


25 years later, older Saroo (now played by Best Exotic Marigold’s Dev Patel) is living an Aussie life devoid of anything which relates to his cultural heritage, when he is prompted to try to retrace his 5-year old steps. Using Google Earth and a fallible memory, his ensuing quest occasionally loses narrative momentum, but since Lion already stole our heart in Act One, we are nonetheless gripped.

The whole thing may sound horrendously saccharine, but Australian director Garth Davis’ first feature is a stunning combination of smart writing (based on the real Saroo’s memoir), perfectly-pitched performances and brilliant use of his locations. While Pawar is a revelation, Kidman is also to be applauded for conveying the nuanced emotions of an adoptive mum while respecting her position as a supporting character in someone else’s film. Even so, she has moments which break your heart. The charismatic Patel does a fine Aussie accent, and Divian Ladwa (a little-known Jack of many filmmaking trades) is excellent as the wayward brother.

Lion is the sort of film you could easily go into feeling cynical, but every aspect of its production, from heart wrenching story to exotic spectacle, makes it a worthy adversary to its fellow nominees.


The Edge of Seventeen

This review first appeared in the Sunday Star-Times, 8th January 2017

3 stars, Rated M, 104 mins

When you’re a teenager, films about teenagers totally speak to you. You’re like “OMG, finally!” Someone who understands what it’s like dealing with raging hormones and being unpopular and the traumas of high school life is putting all that up on the big screen and showing you it’s all gonna be OK.


If you’re reading this as a child of the John Hughes era, you know what I’m talking about. Hughes was a grown-up filmmaker with an incredible memory of what it was like to be young. His films may have been all-American but his characters were universal. Or at least, aspirational. He gave us losers who became winners in their own way. That’s still an important message for the youth of today.

To this end, The Edge of Seventeen will speak to today’s teens and they should totally go see it. If, however, you find the whole teenage thing too angsty to take seriously, or too excruciating to revisit, you may want to give it a miss.

Written and directed by relative newcomer Kelly Fremon Craig, the film stars True Grit’s Hailee Steinfeld as the fraught Nadine, who lives in the shadow of her football-playing stud of an older brother (Blake Jenner from Everybody Wants Some!!) and therefore falls apart emotionally when her best friend Krista and brother fall in love. Nadine is the type of teen we all recognise (and since I work with hundreds of teens every day, I see her in many of them) – earnest about the state of the world and her place in it; anxious about fitting in socially; smart and perceptive; and she has a great wardrobe of hi-top sneakers. (Actually, the sneakers are my favourite thing about her.)

Steinfeld plays Nadine the only way she possibly can with such an on-the-nose script – slightly over-the-top, eye-rollingly dry, lots of “OMG!” moments that verge on slapstick. Woody Harrelson provides a nice counterpoint as the very still, ironic teacher to whom Nadine takes all her problems. Harrelson says all the things teachers cannot, but wish they could, say. (Cute as it appears in the script, no real-life male teacher would read aloud a sexually explicit text message or jokingly encourage suicide.) Their odd-couple tête-à-têtes provide some of the film’s highlights.

But the Best Thing Ever is Hayden Zseto’s unlikely romantic lead, Erwin – the nerdy, easily-flustered classmate who takes a shine to our heroine. Stealing every scene and putting the Adorable into the story, Zseto is going to be a big star.

Overall, the story gets rather tiresome. Don’t get me wrong! I spend all day with teens, and their concerns are real. Just sometimes tiresome. But hopefully watching The Edge of Seventeen will make them feel better.


This review first appeared in the Sunday Star-Times, 1st January 2017

3 stars, Rated M, 116 mins

The set-up for Passengers is pretty great, and the startling setting and gorgeous rendering of space travel initially suggest this is going to be a worthy blockbuster.

The Starship Avalon is on a 120-year journey through space to Homestead II – a new colony to be inhabited by the ship’s 5000 civilians who are seeking a new life away from Earth. Viewers who have flown long-haul in ordinary aeroplanes will be wistful, since these travellers lie in induced hibernation for the duration, scheduled to awaken only at T minus four months in order to enjoy leisure activities such as you’d see on a 6-star cruise ship, and to prepare for their new, Utopian existence.

Unfortunately, something causes passenger Jim Preston (the popularly charismatic Chris Pratt) to wake too soon. Nine decades too soon. Facing a lonely life and certain death before the vessel reaches its destination, Jim’s future now turns on an ethical dilemma.

Passengers’ strong points include its aspirational, futuristic production design and the casting of Jennifer Lawrence against Pratt, which was surely predicted to be chemistry on tap. But better than these two put together is Michael Sheen as the cliché-spouting android bartender. And of course, the interstellar setting promises much, including Gravity-esque space walks and a terrific scene which aptly demonstrates the importance of actual gravity.


Sadly, despite these wonderful opportunities, the plot lets it down. The initially gripping “How could this happen?” is even tantalisingly dangled in the film’s tagline “There is a reason they woke up”. Well, yes there is – but it turns out it’s not something you can really build a film around. So screenwriter Jon Spaihts (who co-wrote the brilliant Doctor Strange and the disappointing Prometheus) relies heavily on Pratt and Lawrence’s romantic qualities instead. As a result, what could have been exciting like Total Recall or Sunshine (films that this one evokes) instead fails to even reach Titanic heights/depths (another movie alluded to in Passengers – Jim the engineer is a lower class of passenger than Lawrence’s Aurora, and his question “Do you trust me?” is a sure nod to the famous “I’m flying!” scene in the doomed boat drama).

Norwegian director Morten Tyldum made the multi-award nominated The Imitation Game and the terrific Scandi thriller Headhunters, so it was fair to assume he had the chops to handle a big-budget space adventure. Granted, purely as big-screen entertainment, Passengers does deliver some spectacle and engagement – but with a more developed conceit, it would have been great to see what a $110 million budget could really have bought.



This review first appeared in the Sunday Star-Times, 1st January 2017

5 stars, Rated M, 118 mins

I’m not the first to rave about Jim Jarmusch’s latest love story, but I’ll tell you why I think it’s sending critics into paroxysms of gratitude and appreciation. Paterson feels like just the antidote we need as 2016 draws the curtain on its decimation of beloved musicians and actors, and its worldwide natural disasters, and is a welcome respite from the cynicism induced by recent months of political absurdity (politicking so absurd that if they made a movie of it, people would accuse it of being unrealistic).

Paterson is named for the titular character as well as the city in New Jersey in which the story is set.  Played by Adam Driver (the indie darling who crossed over into the Star Wars universe to win plaudits as Kylo Ren), he is a gentle-natured chap who gets walked by his pet bulldog; the epitome of the working man, driving buses by day and enjoying a pint of an evening. Less typically, Paterson writes poetry in his lunch breaks, before returning to his sweetly kooky girlfriend (Golshifteh Farahani) whose unconditional support for his extra-curricular creative leanings is immensely touching.


Director Jarmusch is reportedly uncomfortable shooting sex scenes, so there’s a novel pleasure in watching an understated love affair on screen that eschews carnal simulation for companionable conversations and loving gestures like helping to pack freshly-baked cupcakes for market. Even if Jarmusch’s vampire drama Only Lovers Left Alive made romance more melodramatic (with captivating performances from Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston, how could it not?), he has a knack for making the audience care about his characters as much as they patently do each other.

The other joy in Jarmusch’s work is in the details. Amidst scenes of well-observed dialogue, the camera cuts away to sneakered feet dangling on a bus, and photo frames of a character’s past life. Our unlikely protagonist encounters ordinary people who bring his quotidian life unexpected meaning. A carload of street-talkin’, white homeboys warn Paterson unthreateningly about the dangers of getting “dog-jacked”. He takes inspiration from a 12-year old poet. Throughout, Jarmusch’s quiet observations entrance the eye and hook you into the world his characters inhabit. Even when Paterson’s best “work story” is about a bus breaking down, we hang on his every word.

Simultaneously making me want to cry without ever giving me cause, watching Paterson is as soothing as reading a great book while sipping a fine ale on a leisurely afternoon.

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