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Downton Abbey still charms with final show of pomp and sentiment

They managed it – more or less. A couple of Fellowes’ narrative contrivances are decidedly creaky and the story’s essential soapiness is more obvious on the big screen but its many charms still encourage your indulgence. The expanded scale has given director Michael Engler and his crew the opportunity to lay on the pageantry with a succession of set-pieces done with a fitting show of pomp.

Engler is in no hurry to get things under way. The film’s opening scenes are all about nostalgia. With a backward nod at the titles sequence of the first episode in the initial series, a train bearing news of the impending visit leaves a London station. Then, with volumes of steam billowing across the sky. it cleaves its way through an autumnal landscape as the series’ theme gradually rises to a crescendo. We’re back! it’s saying, and here’s hoping you’re as happy about it as we are.

The year is 1927. Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) is wearing a Louise Brooks bob and the costume department has excelled itself in ferreting out exquisitely beaded and embroidered fabrics of the period. Maggie Smith’s Violet Crawley, however, is still firmly attached to her hats and she and her fellow dowager, Isobel Merton (Penelope Wilton) are still trading barbs about their political and temperamental differences. They supply some of the film’s most pleasurable moments and there’s a brief but pivotal scene towards the end when Smith effortlessly elevates the tone and enriches the mood by showing what a great actor can do with just a few words.

Fellowes’ approach has grown more sentimental with age. It’s not a perfect film but it’s a fond and fine farewell to a popular classic in the art of romancing the past.”

Read Sandra Hall’s full review here.

The Angry Birds Movie 2 ★★

Based off Finnish company Rovio Entertainment’s mobile phone game that is now a decade old, Angry Birds the film has the simple premise of pitting birds against invading pigs, which are trying to destroy the birds’ island home and steal their eggs. Diving into murkier waters of symbolism around greed potentially leading to climate change, the animated characters are back. Protagonist Red, voiced by Jason Sudeikis, remains the angriest bird of them all, but his xenophobia is balanced by the more inclusive approach of his new sidekick Silver (Rachel Bloom). Moreover, this time round the supposedly evil pigs prove mostly harmless, and the actual villain is a purple eagle named Zeta (Leslie Jones), who schemes to eliminate birds and pigs with frozen projectiles filled with lava. But for reviewer Jake Wilson the idea has worn thin.

Bomb (Danny McBride), Chuck (Josh Gad), Leonard (Bill Hader) and Red (Jason Sudeikis) are hit and miss in Angry Birds 2.

Bomb (Danny McBride), Chuck (Josh Gad), Leonard (Bill Hader) and Red (Jason Sudeikis) are hit and miss in Angry Birds 2.

“Of course, what works in a computer game may not work so well in a feature film, especially if you’re hoping for a solidly imagined fictional world, fleshed-out characters and a plot that makes sense. Nonetheless, The Angry Birds Movie managed to overcome the stigma that clings to most video game adaptations, earning several hundred million dollars worldwide.

This brings us to Angry Birds 2, which again is a film based on a single straightforward idea: “Let’s make some more money.” At least director Thurop von Orman and his writers do their best to defuse the reactionary subtext of the first film, which was made by a different creative team.

The emphasis is on slapstick action, sometimes of an elaborate kind, as in the climactic raid on Zeta’s hideout inside a frozen volcano.

There’s also a good deal of toilet humour, including a rather graphic scene in a men’s room that must have obliged the writers and animators to hold lengthy discussions about how cartoon birds might be imagined to urinate.

The more sophisticated touches come in the dialogue, which has just enough wit to dissuade adults from climbing the walls. The voice cast is almost embarrassingly stacked with well-known comic actors, who have evidently been encouraged to ad lib, though few of them, aside from Jones, ever get out of second gear.

In most respects Angry Birds 2 hits its target, which is to say that the most oppressive thing about the film is its competence: not too offensive, quite well animated, just amusing enough to pass the time.

Children will sit through it happily enough, but they deserve better, don’t they?”

Read Jake Wilson’s full review here.

Animals ★★★★

Laura (Holliday Grainger), a 32-year-old struggling novelist, has been through a decade of hard partying with her best friend, expatriate American Tyler (Alia Shawkat), who has a secret crush on her. So when a classical musician called Jim (Fra Fee) enters the picture, Tyler tries to disrupt the romance. The original novel by English writer Emma Jane Unsworth was set in Manchester. This adaptation (also by Unsworth) moves to Dublin, with post-production in Adelaide and an Australian director, Sophie Hyde, “it’s a bit of a bastardy production”, according to reviewer Paul Byrnes.

“It’s a tribute to Sophie Hyde’s work that these two gals, with tinkling white wine glasses and cackling laughter, become fully engaging women on screen. I don’t remember any movie where two actors have had to perform so many scenes one-handed, but both Shawkat and Grainger give it their all.

Holliday Grainger and Alia Shawkat in Animals.

Holliday Grainger and Alia Shawkat in Animals. Credit:Sydney Film Festival

The friendship of Laura and Tyler is deep and soulful, even if their early scenes are burdened with over-written “witty” dialogue. Tyler, so lonely and needy, is achingly human. Laura’s warm and funny Irish family welcomes the sharp-tongued Tyler, who’s never as generous in return. She can’t be: for her, families are a curse from which you escape, like marriage and the suburbs.

Hyde keeps us close to these two women, remaining clear-eyed even as she celebrates their bond and their sense of freedom. Jane and Tyler are so bound to each other that not taking a drink feels like a betrayal. Each is starkly aware of their dilemma. We get a number of scenes in which a fox prowls the streets at night – one of several wild animal references – and Laura sees herself in its eyes. The metaphor clangs a little, but we see her point. And Grainger’s performance is so good that we never doubt her connection to the fox: out of its natural place, fearful, somewhat lost, but free.

It’s a difficult film to sustain because there’s nothing immediately attractive about seeing two beautiful young things pissing their lives away. Hyde overcomes this by offering up two intense characters that grab and hold as they stumble towards self-awareness.”

Read Paul Byrnes full review here.

Angel of Mine ★★★

Inspired by a true story, Angel of Mine is an Australian adaptation of a 2008 French film called The Mark of an Angel (L’Empreinte de l’Ange). The premise is about how a mother’s maternal instincts leads her to question the death of her baby in a hospital fire seven years ago and whether her child had in fact been swapped by another mother. According to reviewer Paul Byrnes, that while the original had a superb cast, headed by Sandrine Bonnaire and Catherine Frot, some of the Australian adaptation’s weaknesses still came from the original script: “It is not quite a success, nor fully a failure.”

Noomi Rapace's character unravels in Angel of Mine.

Noomi Rapace’s character unravels in Angel of Mine.

“The update is set in Melbourne and it’s a tense, handsomely mounted, somewhat creepy film about maternal instincts and ‘a woman’s intuition’. Some will bridle right there: surely we’re past that kind of pre-feminist superstition? Apparently not. We’re not in the realm of the supernatural here, but not far off.

Noomi Rapace, the Swedish actor who leapt to prominence in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (the original version) plays a woman who sees a pretty seven-year-old girl at a children’s birthday party. Instantly she knows – not just thinks – this is the daughter she lost seven years earlier in a fire (the film takes more than 40 minutes to tell us that is what happened). Lizzie begins to stalk Lola, watching from afar with an expression that is meant to communicate her limitless pain – but which quickly becomes overused.

The script of the French film was adapted by Luke Davies (Lion), then by American screenwriter David Regal, before swinging back to Davies. I have not seen the French original but the plot description is largely the same. Both scripts are tricky – and I mean that literally. Both the original and the adaptation employ trickery to sustain the action – and that is a problem. Audiences will go a long way for sincerity; they rarely forgive its betrayal. Maybe trickery is too strong a word, but even if we call it misdirection it’s a risky strategy.

Director Kim Farrant is drawn to this kind of maternal material. Her last film was Strangerland, in which Nicole Kidman blazed as an outback mother trying to find a missing child. It’s another level of risk in dramatic terms to ask us to sympathise with a mother who seems about to snatch another woman’s child. That’s where Rapace’s performance becomes crucial – if we don’t feel the full force of her pain, that dragging weight of grief that makes her mad, then the film is lost. That’s an entirely personal thing, of course. There is no agreed yardstick for performance. Some will see Rapace’s performance as entirely successful. I saw it as largely skin-deep, although Rapace becomes more effective when she is in action, rather than repose. It’s hard to play pure sorrow.”

Read Paul Byrnes full review here.

Freaks ★★★½

Freaks is the low-budget but highly appealing work of upcoming talent Adam Stein and Zach Lipovsky. Launched at last year’s Toronto Film Festival, the festival named the film in its annual year-end Canada’s ‘Top Ten’ list. Stein and Lipovsky, who were finalists on filmmaking reality show On the Lot in 2007, clearly tip their hat to Steven Spielberg as “Freaks is a compendium of movie love, as much as it is a movie”, says reviewer Paul Byrnes.

Emile Hirsch and Lexy Kolker are a father and daughter in hiding in Freaks.

Emile Hirsch and Lexy Kolker are a father and daughter in hiding in Freaks.

Freaks is a pungent sci-fi horror flick with multiple layers of misdirection. It took me half its length to figure out what was going on and the other half to work out what it might mean.

The last bit is easier than it looks: not much, except the film demonstrates with flair and a certain flamboyance its two creators are ready for work of a more substantial, and remunerative, nature.

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Its success rests on an astonishing performance by Lexy Kolker, who was seven when the film was shot. Kolker is the spitting image of Drew Barrymore at the same age and she has a similar truth on screen: great vulnerability and emotional range and a blazing temper, which can unleash the character’s dark superpower. Chloe (Kolker) has no idea she has this power. Her father (Emile Hirsch) has kept her locked away in a house for seven years, filling her with dread about the outside world.

Their world has a certain screwy, fetid logic, but then the directors start to mess with our heads, via some neat visual effects. There appear to be a number of dimensions of time and space here – and we’re not quite sure which one is real.

There’s very little to improve on, except perhaps in the area of conviction.

Great performances do not automatically confer a sense that the ideas of the film matter to the people who made it. They have no shortage of ideas, just an inability to convince us they are questions of life and death. Kolker’s performance makes it clear that they are for her. For these two young directors, they’re more like a calling card, a stairway to the stars. That’s understandable, but it stops the film from becoming truly wrenching, and therefore great, rather than just good.”

Read Paul Byrnes full review here.

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