In practice, however, it’s a little different. Hopkins, ham that he is, has had long practice in finding the pathos beneath emotional tone-deafness. On the other hand, Pryce’s smiling humility is insufferable – especially when he’s delivering homilies with no specific religious content, such as ‘You know, the world can be chaotic, and there’s beauty in that,’ or ‘Small pleasures are important’.
Fernando Meirelles (The Constant Gardener) directs in a tricky, eclectic style with occasional hints of irreverence: a glimpse of Bergoglio from behind a hedge so that only his red hat is visible, or the choice to introduce a conclave of cardinals with an instrumental version of Dancing Queen.
The scandals surrounding the church in recent years are duly touched on, and there are lengthy flashbacks to Bengoglio’s experiences during Argentina’s Dirty War – presumably a major reason why Meirelles, an Argentinean himself, embarked on the project.
But well before its end, the film has settled into the groove of a corny buddy comedy so unreal that little trace remains of the serious issues at stake.”
Koko: A Red Dog Story ★★
Many Australian moviegoers came to know and love Koko by another name: Red Dog. But the canine that played the main character in Red Dog and Red Dog: True Blue had a whole life of its own – a life that is now the subject of this film, which lies somewhere between a documentary and a mockumentary. Serving as a lasting tribute to Koko, who died of heart failure in 2012, Koko: A Red Dog Story is sweet – but not quite up to standard, according to Paul Byrnes.
“I can see how the story of Koko, born in 2005 in Victoria to a line of champion kelpies, might make a pleasing documentary. Kelpies are lovely animals and a straight telling of Koko’s story might have done him proud. That’s not this film: this is a misbegotten attempt at dramatised comedy, a weird hybrid in which the real participants tell their stories to camera, which are then recreated in parallel drama, where each is played by an actor (even Koko).
To confuse things more, the doco directors throw in real footage taken at the time of the original shoot, featuring the real Koko. Then they cast another dog to play Koko in the recreated scenes. Then they start cutting between the two until we have no idea whether we are watching the real Koko or his stand-in. Worse, the real participants are initially encouraged to “act” in their interviews, stretching their stories for comic effect.”
Where’s My Roy Cohn? ★★★
Another real-life story to add to your list, this documentary follows the traditional format of the genre as it looks at the life and turbulent times of late American lawyer Roy Cohn. With powerful clients such as high-level politicians and Donald Trump (in his early business days), Cohn became one of the most influential and controversial figures in America at the time. He was disbarred in the 1980s but his impact can still be felt across America today – in fact, Trump’s presidency is viewed by some as Cohn’s final triumph.
“In this new film, director Matt Tyrnauer’s technique is to move on from, rather than into, any given argument. We gloss and glide, forming an overall impression of Cohn’s dark soul along many fronts. I’m not saying that any of it is untrue; I am saying a character assassination of a dead man ought to have higher standards.
Cohn, at least in death, offers a fat target. He was a piece of work. As a New York lawyer, he was prosecuted several times for his cavalier approach to the law, and eventually disbarred in 1986 for trying to get a dying millionaire to change his will. He persecuted homosexuals as part of the McCarthy witch hunts, ensuring many were fired from government jobs, even as he was besotted with his handsome protege, G. David Schine. Cohn always insisted he was not gay, up to and including the moment that he succumbed to the AIDS virus in 1986.
One question arising is whether Cohn was truly powerful, or simply the tool of the powerful – a suggestion that might be inferred from the title. He never achieved his ambition of becoming governor of New York. He certainly wielded power, but some of his adversaries wielded more, as he found when he went up against the US Army in the 1950s.”
The Wild Goose Lake ★★★½
The follow-up film to Chinese director Diao Yi’nan’s critically-acclaimed Black Coal, Thin Ice, which won the highest honour at the 2014 Berlin International Film Festival, The Wild Goose Lake takes viewers back into the seedy underbelly of China’s gangland. Zhou (Hu Ge) is a gangster on the run, and the sex worker he becomes involved with is tasked with handing him over to those he’s running from. It’s dark and twisted, and shows off Yi’nan’s celebrated style. Is it good? Jake Wilson reviews.
“The film is an exercise in style, derivative in some ways and original in others. In action sequences, Diao’s panning camera movements can suggest a less austere version of the Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien: characters will drop out of sight before the camera catches up with them again, or we’ll see them skulking round corners, trying to glimpse others who then come into view.
Diao is fond, too, of the B-movie device of condensing key moments into a few emblematic shots. A murder, for instance, can be conveyed through a couple of close-ups — a knife flashing out, followed by a handful of banknotes disappearing into the water.
Often, he seems bent on preventing us from seeing too much directly, while letting sounds — rain, gunfire, deliberately tinny music — convey what’s happening just out of sight. A crucial sexual encounter unfolds in this discreet yet unambiguous manner, in contrast to a rape scene where the presentation is deliberately jarring and blunt.
Diao is out to seduce us, but unlike the recent, somewhat comparable Long Day’s Journey Into Night — a first feature by Bi Gan, a younger Chinese stylist — this is not a film that lets you relax and enjoy the ride.”
The Addams Family ★★
The family Addams is back with a 2019 twist, as they defend their, uh, unique way of life to nosy neighbour and reality TV host Margaux Needler (voiced by Allison Janney). With some big-name actors lending their voices to the animation – Oscar Isaac, Charlize Theron, Chloë Grace Moretz and Finn Wolfhard are Gomez, Morticia, Wednesday and Pugsley Addams respectively – it’s got a certain superstar quality to it. What’s missing? The fear factor, says Sandra Hall.
“The film’s main problem lies in the script’s failure to come up with a plot to keep this high-powered group worth watching once you’ve taken in the decor. While the animation outdoes the animated TV series produced by Hanna-Barbera in the 1970s and 1990s, it’s not clever enough to persuade you that you haven’t seen it all before.
Once again, the family is up against the bigotry of so-called normal people. Margaux Needler, a real estate developer and reality TV star with a triple-tiered bouffant and the voice of Allison Janney, objects to their presence in her impeccably conformist neighbourhood and sets out to get rid of them. However, her plot takes an inordinate amount of time to come together, producing very few set-pieces to enliven things along the way.
Wednesday provides a brief burst of adrenalin when she takes on the school bullies, but this is nothing new. The details differ, but she did something similarly anarchic in one of the earlier films. It’s tedious but, worse, it’s wasteful. The wealth of talent that’s gone into its making has been frittered away in a vain attempt to pump new heart into a creation that ran out of puff long ago.”
This Australian drama has actor Chris Bunton starring as Danny, an aspiring boxer with Down syndrome. His trainer, John, soon takes on the role of mentor to Danny but things become complicated when there’s a violent altercation between the pair. The incident forces Danny to rethink everything, including the nature of his identity, and it makes for a compelling 93-minute film from actor-turned-director Paul Barakat.
“The film is a family affair done on a small budget. It was funded by Barakat and a group of close relatives with a little help from a crowdfunding initiative, but it’s been punching above its weight with a showing at the Melbourne Film Festival and a best picture award from the Tertio Millennio Festival, which was set up in Rome in 1997 by John Paul II for films with some spiritual component.
In Danny’s case, this centres on his reluctant moves towards a point where he can finally feel at ease in his own body. It’s a slow, painful business, but fortunately, Barakat has prevented it from being equally painful for us with the strength of his cast and his determination not to be po-faced in his treatment of Down syndrome.”
Ask Dr. Ruth ★★★
Ruth Westheimer, better know as Dr Ruth, is a German-born American sex therapist whose straight-shooting manner turned her into a bona fide celebrity when she first appeared on radio show Sexually Speaking in 1980. Since then, her career has gone from strength to strength and across many mediums – now, at 91, she reflects on her life and important work in the film Ask Dr. Ruth.
“Given she is not a household name here, the film would be of marginal interest if not for the fact Westheimer is an interesting enigma. Growing up Jewish near Frankfurt in the 1930s, her parents took the wrenching decision to send their 10-year-old daughter on a Kinder Transport train to Switzerland, where she lived in an orphanage. Her parents died in the death camps.
Karola Siegel, as she was then known, went to Israel just after the war, dumping the German-sounding first name for her middle name, Ruth. After studying at the Sorbonne, she emigrated to America in 1956 with her second husband. She worked for a dollar an hour while she learnt English. She qualified as a sex therapist, married a third time and began her rise to stardom from the mid-1980s, with a radio program.
The film is pedestrian, even if she is not. Westheimer has great reserves of humour and strength, which explains some of her success. She is unembarrassed by any question, in a country that blushes at the mention of the word ‘toilet’. She is forthright and outspoken, yet she refuses to call herself a feminist or talk politics, even when her grandchildren point out her commitment to feminist ideals and progressive causes.
The director never quite gets her to sit still and talk seriously about herself. She is good at deflecting those who want to pry and that’s a problem for the film. If we’re going to go 100 minutes with this remarkable old lady, a little depth is pretty much required. It turns out you can ask Dr Ruth about anything – except perhaps herself.”
Sandra Hall is a film critic for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.
Jake Wilson is a film critic for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.
Paul Byrnes is a film critic for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.