Thursday 20 September 2018

Cinema: You Were Never Really Here - Joaquin Phoenix is reliably mesmeric

Cert: 18; Now showing

Joaquin Phoenix stars in 'You Were Never really Here' as the rescuer of kidnapped children
Joaquin Phoenix stars in 'You Were Never really Here' as the rescuer of kidnapped children

It's been seven years since Scottish director Lynne Ramsay performed cinematic alchemy with her adaptation of Lionel Shriver's We Need To Talk About Kevin. While it might be the last film you'd recommend to an expectant mother, it confirmed what many had suspected about Ramsay's substantial powers, both as a screenwriter and filmmaker.

Since then, she has chopped and changed projects, a series of false starts and "artistic differences" getting in the way of any return to the omniplex. And then she blindsides us with this dark confection.

Based on a Jonathan Ames story, this is both a white-knuckle thriller and an intimate character portrait of a lone wolf who is capable of saving any life but his own.

Joaquin Phoenix is reliably mesmeric as Joe, an avenging angel for hire who specialises in rescuing kidnapped children, often from the vice industry.

Ruthlessly efficient and brutal at what he does, Joe remains heavily scarred from his time serving in the Middle East. Any control he had of his personal affairs is shaken to the core when he breaks open a paedophile ring with links to elite hallways of power.

A tug-of-war between Joe's demons and his heroic abilities begins to impose itself.

Phoenix - one of Hollywood's pickiest actors - and Ramsay duet with a hypnotic fizz from the film's epicentre. Joe is an indelible screen avenger, as striking and slippery as any Leon or Travis Bickle.

The plot mightn't seem revolutionary but it is in the soft touches and elliptical manoeuvres of Ramsay's screenplay - as Joe lurches between salvation and collapse - that the spells are cast. And Jonny Greenwood's throbbing score is the blood in the entire outing's veins.

★★★★★ Hilary A White

Gringo

Cert: 15A; Now showing

In his directorial debut Australian stuntman Nash Edgerton directs his brother Joel and others in a crime caper that hits some notes, misses others but should provide a happy, harmless couple of hours for fans of the genre.

Harold Soyinka (David Oyelowo) believes he is achieving the American dream. Somewhere on a corporate ladder in a pharmaceutical firm run by Richard Rusk (Joel Edgerton) and Elaine Markinson (Charlize Theron) he is surprised to discover his finances are not very healthy and horrified to learn that he might soon lose his job.

Assured by his bosses that this is not the case, Harold is dispatched to their plant in Mexico where things swiftly go from bad to worse.

Having committed the great pharma coup of creating cannabis pills and about to sell the company based on that, they're looking to cover the illegal tracks that led there.

Harold lives by his father's advice to always follow the rules and knew nothing of the dodgy dealings he was party to. The discovery is painful and compounded swiftly afterwards when his wife Bonnie (Thandie Newton) leaves him. And for some rather inexplicable reason Amanda Seyfried features in a subplot that complicates the already feverish plot.

The characters are fairly one note, as is the message such as it is. But it aims to be nothing other than entertainment and it is if your tastes run to brash, busy capers. ★★★ Aine O'Connor

Sweet Country

Cert: 15A; Selected cinemas

It's happening slowly but happening nonetheless. Films such as Walkabout (1971) and Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002) touch down every once in a while and force Australian society to look at its dark and difficult history with its indigenous compatriots, the Aborigines.

Cinematographer-turned-director Warwick Thornton weds the dizzy aesthetic of the former with the latter's powerful themes of injustice to stunning effect in this Venice Jury Prize-winner. Sam (Hamilton Morris) is a ranch-hand sent by Sam Neill's kindly outback preacher to assist on a neighbouring outpost in 1929. There, Sam kills the ranch's vicious incumbent in self-defence and goes on the run with his wife (Natassia Gorey-Furber). Tracking them is Bryan Brown's local sergeant. Sam, however, knows these lands better than any white fella and won't be coming in quietly.

The script stirs in modern parlance to ensure the racist bile directed at Sam and his family is never in doubt. Otherwise, Thornton's film feels fiercely authentic and has an arresting enigma all its own. ★★★★ Hilary A White

Wonder Wheel

Cert: 12A; Now showing

To Coney Island in the 1950s, where waitress Ginny (Kate Winslet) is at the end of her tether. Her acting dreams are slipping from her grasp and her young son is developing a fondness for pyromania. Things aren't helped when Carolina (Juno Temple), the estranged daughter of blue-collar husband Humpty (Jim Belushi) turns up at their door, needing a hiding place from the mob. Desperate for more from life, Ginny begins a secret affair with Mickey the lifeguard (Justin Timberlake) and falls hard for him. The problem is Mickey has also caught Carolina's eye.

With the world reassessing how it feels about "Woody Allen The Man", it'd be a shame for Wonder Wheel - quite possibly one of Allen's last ever films - to go unnoticed. Some wobbly camera direction aside, it is a very fine film that boasts a collective of talent surrounding its controversial writer-director.

Allen's stagey tendencies are ramped up a gear via monologues, choreographed lighting and long takes within a single action space, all melding with the story's old-school mannerisms to evoke Tennessee Williams and Eugene O'Neill. (O'Neill is name-checked often by aspiring playwright Mickey, a typically quixotic Allen male).

Winslet and Belushi are superb in a quality four-way cast. Another key player is the great cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, who bathes everything in a Titian colour scheme.

A victory for "Woody Allen The Filmmaker". ★★★★ Hilary A White

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