“The film is directed by the same team who did the original and once again, they have arrived at a judicious mixture of old and new. The action is punctuated with enough songs to fill an MGM musical and although the animation is computer-generated in 3D, its style owes a lot to the glory days of the studio’s hand-drawn animation era and its traditional Disney princesses with their wide eyes and doll-like faces. The script, however, is scrupulously up-to-date with great attention paid to the films’ feminist credentials and cultural correctness. After the writers decided to tap into Nordic folklore, Scandinavia’s Sami communities were consulted and the background artists, we’re told, were equally scrupulous, composing a landscape without a plant out of place.
“It turns out that the forest has gone into lockdown because of environmental damage sustained years earlier. Naturally, human beings were responsible and Elsa and her sister, Anna (Kristen Bell) suspect that the secret is buried in their own family’s history. But they can discover the truth only by risking a trip into the forest.
“When they get there and set about putting things to rights, the script isn’t exactly adroit in dreaming up obstacles to impede their progress. Its contrivances are decidedly creaky, the aim being to separate the group of friends so that they become small islands of desperation, each convinced that the others have left them to fend for themselves. The exception is Elsa, who charges off on her own quest, fighting fire, flood and cyclone by shooting out mini-ice floes at every turn. It’s impressive enough to suggest that she should be called upon to help in quenching the Californian –or our own – bushfires.
The film itself doesn’t hit that sweet spot that makes Pixar animations, for example, fun for adults as well as their children. Its pace is uneven and in the early scenes, the songs slow down the action so much that the younger kids at my screening were getting restless. But judging from those US box-office figures, there’s more than enough here to build on the goodwill generated by the original and create a besotted new audience.”
Knives Out ★★★★
With an ensemble cast including Daniel Craig, Chris Evans, Jamie Lee Curtis and Australians Toni Collette and Katherine Langford, Knives Out could get you to the cinema based on star power alone. But the story stands up, too: when wealthy crime novelist Harlan Thrombey invites his family over for a reconciliatory weekend together, but rather quickly winds up dead, the family has a classic whodunit on their hands. Mysterious… and challenging to review, says Jake Wilson.
“As a feat of narrative gymnastics, Knives Out sets the bar very high. Director Rian Johnson has to shift fluidly between past and present, juggle multiple perspectives, and scatter clues and red herrings, while ensuring we’re never bored by the endless exposition, and that the story, as it comes together, has some thematic and emotional resonance.
“Crucial to keeping us engaged is the outsider figure of Harlan’s Latina carer Marta Cabrera (Ana de Armas), who is literally allergic to falsehood: she can’t tell a lie without vomiting straight after. This handy device is typical of Johnson’s ingeniously fanciful plotting – though even here we can’t be sure he’s playing with all his cards face up.
“Reviewing Knives Out presents more than the usual challenges: it would be giving too much away to reveal which actors move to the foreground and which are underused, let alone which narrative possibilities are fully exploited and which set aside. Some things can be said without risking spoilers. Johnson’s fancy style remains as appealing as ever, though his signature stylistic moves – the rapid pans, the close-ups from low angles, the tricks with focus – are by now as recognisable as the line of a cartoonist.”
Mrs Lowry & Son ★★★
Set in the early 1930s, Mrs Lowry & Son chronicles the life of famous artist Laurence Stephen Lowry, better known as L. S. Lowry. The film explores the loving but strained relationship between Lowry (Timothy Spall) and his elderly, overbearing mother, Elizabeth (Vanessa Redgrave), who is bedridden but vocal, and can’t quite see the beauty in her beloved son’s paintings.
“It seems perverse to make a film about a painter and not show either his process or even much of his work, but the clue is in the title. When you’ve got Redgrave, you’re not going to make a film about watching paint dry. You’re going to make a film about the weird, spiteful mother and the timid, loving, self-subjugating son. And, of course, as in all English films, there is class. Mother has never forgiven her late husband for the financial failure that caused them to move from a genteel Manchester neighbourhood to this modest cottage in a grimy northern backwater.
“Both actors give this bed-bound script their all and their jousting is enjoyable if you like other people’s pain. It may help to explain Lowry’s work, but it’s hard to judge that when we don’t get to see much of it. She belittles his power of seeing, but it’s not clear that her attacks make his work better or more concentrated. He wants to please a woman who can’t be pleased. I kept wondering if his art would have been different if he had not had to look after this manipulative old biddy for the last 10 years of her life?”
By the Grace of God ★★★★
A French-Belgian drama with themes that will feel a little close to home, By the Grace of God tells the true story of three adult survivors of child sex abuse, who unite to bring the perpetrator, a Catholic priest, to account. As the three men grapple with their own wavering faith, and the impact of taking on the Catholic Church on their communities and families, the magnitude of their mission seems hard to grasp. Based on a true story, much of the script comes from court hearings, interviews and press conferences from the real-life case.
“Francois Ozon’s new film opens with a shot of the Archbishop of Lyon, as he steps out in full regalia on to the balcony of the city’s hilltop cathedral. Silently surveying the rooftops below, he presents an image which speaks eloquently of the grandiosity to be found in the upper reaches of the Catholic Church.
“Ozon is telling the story of a group of men sexually abused in childhood by the French priest Father Bernard Preynat, who was defrocked by the Catholic Church’s ecclesiastical court eight months ago.
“It comes as no surprise that he originally thought of doing it as a documentary. It has the features which so often distinguish reality from fiction. With an unwieldy cast of characters and shifting points of view, it skips about without regard to the rules of narrative shapeliness. Yet wherever it goes, it always circles back to the same point. The campaigners at the centre of the story are not victims. They’re heroes, brave and determined enough to disrupt their lives to expose a criminal and the Church, which allowed his crimes to go on for so long.”
Martha: A Picture Story ★★★★
An 82-minute documentary tracking the colourful life of American graffiti photojournalist Martha Cooper, Martha is the work of Australian filmmaker Selina Miles and had its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival earlier this year. Cooper, who worked for the New York Post through the ’70s and is widely credited with bringing street art to the world through her lens, is 76 now and remains an icon of the underground art world. The documentary studies Cooper’s work, yes, but also explores the people and stories behind the graffiti she’s capturing on camera.
“When she arrived in New York at the age of 32, Cooper realised a long-standing ambition and went to work at National Geographic only to discover that she and the magazine were not a good match. According to its editors, great photographs are ‘made, not taken’. Cooper, in contrast, relished vitality and spontaneity; shooting what she found on the streets. She was drawn to the ingenuity of the slum kids, who shaped their playthings out of abandoned cars and discarded furniture, and she was charmed by the gardens planted by the immigrant families in Queens and the Bronx – tiny green oases amid expanses of cement grey.
“She eventually found a home at the city’s tabloid, the New York Post, becoming the paper’s first female photographer. Like the gallery director, its editors didn’t particularly want smiles but they did give her a chance to explore the city’s rough edges. They sent her out to look for rioting youth gangs. Instead, she came back with pictures of the first breakdancers.
“By 1980 she had won the trust of the young graffiti artists who went down into the subway at night to spray the trains with their elaborate patterns and symbols. In the late ’70s she photographed New York graffiti artist Dondi over the two years it took him to complete Children of the Grave, a mural spread across three subway cars. And by 1984 she had enough for the first of the photographic books she’s published over the years.”
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.