The Angels retain residual traces of earlier models. Kristen Stewart’s Sabina is the wisecracking wild card, Ella Balinska’s Jane is the straight-faced one – ex MI6 with a major in martial arts – and Naomi Scott is the new girl, co-opted to the cause after she becomes a corporate whistleblower outraged by her boss’ determination to market the product she invented while it’s still unsafe. Admittedly, Scott is not exactly typecasting for the role of a gifted scientist, but that becomes part of the theme – that it’s a mistake to assess women’s abilities according to their appearance.
While Banks gets her main characters arranged on the board, she’s by now introduced a preponderance of condescending males in need of re-educating and it’s already clear the Angels can’t wait to get started.
The regular eruptions of firepower are choreographed so smoothly you can just about forgive the implausibilities. There’s a jaunty feel to it all, together with a few well-placed plot twists, lots of good-humoured banter and the usual fun to be had from the Angels’ fondness for disguise.
Form-fitting outfits are still a big feature of the package, but the emphasis is on ‘activewear’ and the script leaves the team little time for flirting. Camaraderie is the thing and Banks is smart enough to find ways of sending up the original while displaying a nostalgic affection for it.”
The Report ★★★ ½
Adam Driver stars as US Senate investigator Daniel Jones, who is asked to look into the CIA’s use of torture following the September 11 attacks; a task he’s led to believe will take about a year. But Daniel and his small team of helpers soon run into obstacles, including the fact that no one from the CIA is willing to speak to them. Years later, the document they’ve compiled is longer than the Bible, with no end in sight – and even when their work is done, there’s no guarantee it will ever see the light of day. “The Report, which Scott Z. Burns wrote and directed, could belong to a lost Kafka novel”, says reviewer Jake Wilson.
“This is, of course, a true story, though it’s hard to judge the accuracy of certain details. Take the basement office supplied to Daniel and his team, an airless cage with initially, for security reasons, no printers. Is all this founded on fact, or has Burns allowed himself some poetic licence?
The same question applies to the mocking presentation of secondary characters, like the buffoonish ex-air-force psychologists who enthusiastically OK waterboarding and other torture methods. Still, the whole story is startling enough that once one element is accepted the rest isn’t too hard to swallow.
Burns has been lucky in his actors, starting with Driver, whose performance is one long slow burn. Daniel approaches his task as a sober pro, but gradually his outrage takes over his whole body: the adult man, in close-up, appears to give way to the solemn high school boy we can imagine once dreamed of a responsible position in government.
The foil to all this is the caution of Daniel’s boss Dianne Feinstein (Annette Bening), a Democratic senator but a conservative by temperament. As usual, Bening gives us a detailed portrait full of believable contradictions: a woman with principles who has learned how to work the system, carefully groomed yet faintly awkward.
With a mainstream American audience in his sights, Burns himself has to exercise some caution, especially when it comes to the question hanging over the film: how far were the CIA’s actions truly a betrayal of American principles, as opposed to an extension of business as usual?
But The Report doesn’t pull all of its punches. While the events Daniel is investigating took place on George W. Bush’s watch, we’re shown how the Obama administration likewise strove to keep them quiet.”
The Report is screening at selected cinemas before its release on Amazon Prime on November 29.
Ford v Ferrari ★★★★
Matt Damon plays Carroll Shelby, an ex-chicken farmer who turned champion racing driver before a heart condition forced him off the track, alongside Christian Bale as Shelby’s friend Ken Miles, a racing driver with World War II experience as a tank commander in the British Army and an unshakeable sense of his own worth. The two begin to tangle with big business in 1966 after Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts) and his chief lieutenants, Lee Iacocca (John Bernthal) and Leo Beebe (Josh Lucas), make Shelby an offer. They want him to design a racer that will win the 24 Hours of Le Mans, a brutal contest long dominated by Ferrari. Iacocca has persuaded the others that Ford can revive its fortunes by throwing off its reputation for stodginess and attracting younger customers. “Drawn from recent history, it’s a nostalgic celebration of gas-guzzling fast cars and the people who risked their lives racing them. This is certainly not a film for our times,” says reviewer Sandra Hall.
“Yet it’s wholly seductive. Cars may be its focus but its underlying theme dwells on the deadening effect of corporate conformity. Its villains are company men. Their adversaries are the mavericks who see the path ahead and are canny and courageous enough to forge through the politicking blocking the way. Maybe it is a film for our times, after all.
Director James Mangold has made a few false steps in his career but his Johnny Cash biopic, Walk the Line (2005), left you in no doubt of the empathy he has with working-class heroes of an ornery disposition. And it’s on show again here.
Mangold has firmly fixed the film in its time. His crew re-created the Ford’s Michigan plant in an old steel factory in Los Angeles, going so far as to buy a fleet of 1960s Ford Falcons on eBay and Craigslist to stock the assembly line, and the racing sequences are breathtaking.
But some of the most absorbing action takes place off the track as the film’s cast of insatiable egos goes to war. The most withering put-down comes from Enzo Ferrari (Remo Girone) after he rejects a merger offer from Ford with a torrent of invective directed at the company’s “big ugly factories and ugly little cars”.
Bale, at his most angular and hard-bodied, seems born for the role of hot-tempered perfectionist Miles. While Damon anchors the whole thing with his ‘everyman’ looks and adaptable amiability. He keeps us with him because his is the sanity of a character who never loses sight of the big picture.”
Marriage Story ★★★½
While Marriage Story is no literal autobiography, its writer-director Noah Baumbach (While We’re Young) has acknowledged finding inspiration in his divorce from Jennifer Jason Leigh. Baumbach’s stand-in is stage director Charlie Barber, who runs a successful off-Broadway theatre company with his wife Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) as his leading lady. Charlie is content with the status quo but Nicole, who comes from a showbiz family, wants to give Hollywood one more shot. When she’s cast in a TV pilot she seizes the chance to make a break, taking along young son Henry (Azhy Robertson). “This week brings two new movies starring Adam Driver; in The Report he’s investigating the CIA’s use of torture, in Marriage Story his character embarks on the equally exhausting process of getting divorced,” finds reviewer Jake Wilson.
“Marriage Story is thus a tale of two cities, New York and Los Angeles – like several films by Woody Allen, whose influence is all over the film and Baumbach’s work in general. But Baumbach delivers what Allen only ever promised, a realistic picture of a specific class of well-off American sophisticates.
Baumbach is a filmmaker of two sides, both a humanist who understands that everyone has their reasons and a brittle satirist with a knack for lines that sound like cartoon captions. The funniest material here involves the lawyers, played by actors ideal for their roles: Ray Liotta as a heavy hitter who looks and talks like a mafioso, Laura Dern as a New-Agey but ruthless feminist, and Alan Alda as a gently seedy old-timer.
These are caricatures but nuanced ones; Baumbach is able to make them funny without cutting them down to size. You can feel the actors’ joy in playing these long, almost theatrical scenes – and the director’s joy in seeing them take the script to a new level.
The humour comes as a relief from the central drama, which is moving and gruelling by turns. The title Marriage Story is less incongruous than it sounds: following the divorce step by step is a means for Baumbach to analyse what came before, as an autopsy might reveal the condition of the living patient.
Baumbach tries to be even-handed and succeeds to a point: Johansson does some of the best acting of her career, especially in an early monologue where Nicole articulates some of the frustrations she’s held back. But finally Charlie is the dominant figure, if not necessarily the more sympathetic: much of the film’s impact springs from Driver’s peculiar definite quality, the conviction he brings to each gesture.”
Ailo’s Journey ★★★
Ailo is a baby reindeer, born too early in the wilderness of Lapland, on a patch of green amid the snowy thaw. His mother tries to leave him, her instinct telling her to rejoin the herd as soon as possible, but she can’t do it. She stops, she thinks, she snorts and grunts, then returns to the quivering, blinking calf, wobbling on his four spindly legs. “So begins Ailo’s Journey – a stunningly beautiful French nature film, filmed in live action,” finds reviewer Paul Byrnes.
“The words ‘French nature film’ make me tremble: that country has some of the world’s best wildlife photographers, but the editorial tradition in their films is generally for a heavy, poetic narration as sentimental as any Disney animation.
This time it is (Canadian) Donald Sutherland, giving an entirely eccentric vocal performance with little giggles and laughs as he tells the story of Ailo’s progress to adulthood. Sutherland adopts the tone of a kindly grandpa reindeer, or perhaps God himself, looking down from a drone’s eye view. For younger kids it might well work. For anyone over age 12 it will probably sound a little patronising.
The film is entirely scripted – images, as well as the words. When Ailo and his mother are alone in the wilderness, looking for the herd, dodging wolves or playing with rabbits and Arctic foxes, I suspect we are seeing actors – as in trained reindeer. That brings us to the question of veracity. In one sense this is not a nature documentary, but a very old-fashioned forced narrative about nature, in the style of Disney’s famous films of the 1950s.
All nature documentaries are an exercise in subterfuge, to an extent, but give me David Attenborough any day.”
I Am No Bird ★★
I Am No Bird, the new documentary by Melbourne filmmaker Em Baker, examines the struggle over defining marriage across many parts of the world. Is it a repressive institution or a basic human right – or, somehow, both? The title comes from Jane Eyre, in which the heroine uses the line to declare her independence from her would-be husband Mr Rochester. Jane’s resistance is short-lived but the question remains: does Rochester mean to trap her in a cage or give her a chance to fly free? In pursuit of a 21st-century take on such matters, reviewer Jake Wilson watched Baker follow the wedding preparations of four women in Australia, India, Mexico and Turkey respectively – all of them looking forward to the big day, however different their circumstances.
“Two story strands stand out. Anna, in Australia, is a Pentecostal Christian whose church insists on a traditional definition of marriage as well as chastity for the unwed. Before meeting her equally devout partner she had never even kissed anyone – and by her account, neither had he.
At the other end of the spectrum is Dalia in Mexico, who has gone against the wishes of her working-class Catholic family to marry her girlfriend, in the only same-sex wedding of the four.
But we’re encouraged to see parallels as well as differences, especially as the subjects have their own ways of placing themselves within a larger context. Anna is convinced that her notion of marriage is basically universal, while Dalia describes herself as an ordinary person like anyone else.
I Am No Bird contains much to mull over, but not always with a sense that Baker has been able to shape her material into a cohesive narrative or argument. It’s as if Baker herself is torn between a sceptical, analytical point of view and the feel-good high that springs from the dream of the perfect wedding. Still I Am No Bird is at least a conversation starter, even if the post-screening discussions may be more interesting than the film itself.”
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.