James is a Vietnam vet, an addict and an alcoholic. He’s also trying to be a good father, to instil some lessons in his son and protect him from the bad things he knows are out there. That’s something the movie never lets us forget, and it makes the story raw and powerful. Especially since the film begins with Otis as a young man, 10 or more years into the future, now played by Lucas Hedges. Otis has become a movie stuntman, an out-of-control alcoholic and drug user who’s sent to rehab to consider his mistakes. He begins writing as a way to exorcise his demons, which takes us back into his childhood, with scenes often running in parallel between the present and 2005.
LaBeouf may be familiar as the young lead in the first three Transformer movies, but his career began as a teenager in 1999, on a Disney comedy show called Even Stevens. He might also be familiar from the excesses and eccentricities of his rise – a number of arrests for alcohol and drug abuse and his wry performance art pieces, such as walking the red carpet at Berlin with a paper bag on his head that said “I am not famous any more”.
He started writing Honey Boy while in rehab in 2017, after his arrest in Savannah, Georgia, for being drunk and disorderly. He was diagnosed then as suffering from PTSD. The writing was therapy more than project and he has said he never intended to play his own father (who’s still alive and has seen the film). That was suggested by his friend Alma Har’el, an Israeli-born music clip director who makes her feature debut with this script. Both script and direction are impressive.
The script has a searing honesty but fractured time-frames, as the older, tormented Otis recalls his life. Har’el imposes her own dream-like poetic style but it’s rigorously controlled, so that these disparate scenes come together in a disjointed unity. The dream-state suits the material, which is confessional and reflective, a journey into memory through which Otis tries to understand and forgive his father.
It’s a high-wire act, a movie that could easily have crashed and burned. That it does not has something to do with the shared intensity of character and performance. All three main actors share the stage as equals and the level of commitment is remarkable.
Hedges is like a wounded animal here, always close to violence. This older Otis has become like his father, a loaded gun of emotions, without ever going to war. The 12-year-old Otis, “Honey Boy” to his father, is the embodiment of innocence between these two men, the site of a battle between experience and hope. Noah Jupe is heartbreaking as this kid who’s growing up too fast, both loving and hating his damaged, ravaged father, whom he supports with his acting.
Honey Boy explains a lot about LaBeouf, both the talent and the notorious behaviour. It’s a brave and beautiful film in that sense, an expiation and an explanation, but without rancour. It seems weird to call it a love story, but that is surely what it is. This is not to be missed.
The Invisible Man ★★★½
It so happens that H.G. Wells’ novel The Invisible Man was published in 1897, at almost the same moment as the invention of cinema. Over the years, a number of notable filmmakers have made movies clearly, if not always officially indebted to Wells’ novel, writes reviewer Jake Wilson. To a list that includes James Whale, John Carpenter and Paul Verhoeven we can now add Australia’s Leigh Whannell — best-known as the creator of the gruesome Saw series, which centred on the Mabuse-style villain Jigsaw (Tobin Bell), a specialist in deadly booby traps.
For Whannell, there’s something irresistible about this sort of enigmatic mastermind, who stays out of view while turning his victims into puppets to be manipulated. Whannell’s 2018 science-fiction thriller Upgrade was a variation on the theme and so, too, is his updated Invisible Man, where the title character – the entrepreneurial scientist Adrian Griffin (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) – is barely glimpsed for much of the running time.
Instead, we follow Adrian’s wife Cecilia (Elisabeth Moss), after she escapes their abusive marriage in the opening sequence – “escape” being the operative word, since their modernist beachside home resembles an upmarket version of a high-security prison. Even when she’s theoretically safe from her persecutor she can’t get him out of her head, nor does the news of his apparent death bring any lasting relief.
Where other thriller heroines gradually fall apart, Cecilia starts out petrified and descends into a state hard to distinguish from madness. Moss’ performance puts the emphasis on mental and physical abjection, making us feel Cecilia’s disgust with her own weakness to the point where we might fear identifying with her too closely.
Moss’ intensity is almost too much for the film, which otherwise has a self-conscious B-movie mode, with sparsely dressed sets, expressionistic sound design and few concessions to realism. Still, Whannell’s long apprenticeship as a screenwriter has paid off: while this is only his third feature as director, he is adept at using the stock moves of the thriller and horror genres, giving the sense that the mechanisms of popular cinema are being laid bare.
Sometimes we seem to be watching events from a distanced, third-person perspective, as if they were playing out on a stage. Other shots could be through Adrian’s eyes, yet it’s not always clear where he might be lurking, or if he’s present at all.
Thus we’re forced to share Cecilia’s paranoia: Adrian is everywhere and nowhere at once. Along with his invisibility, he seems to have acquired almost superhuman strength and agility, as well as the capacity to move without making a sound.
All this allows us to read him as a metaphor for patriarchal ideology – not just a single aberrant individual, but an omnipresent, intangible force that keeps women in their place. Whannell plays on the theme very knowingly, making us guess how far various male characters will prove to be versions of the one guy.
But is this Invisible Man a feminist statement, in any serious sense? Or are we more aligned with the villain, gloating over the heroine’s pain and terror? As in so many films about women in trouble, the question is impossible to answer, but the ambiguity fascinates in its own right.
Motherless Brooklyn ★★★★
Edward Norton wrote, directed, produced and starred in this smart, good-looking crime movie. These talents should put him on the way to becoming a Hollywood powerhouse but as a producer-director, Norton likes to dwell in the land of the moderately-priced feature with an emphasis on character rather than spectacle, and this makes him a member of an endangered species, writes reviewer Sandra Hall.
He’s had Motherless Brooklyn in the works for 20 years. It’s a controversially comprehensive re-working of a well-regarded 1999 novel by Jonathan Lethem, who raised no objections, we’re told, when Norton decided to roll back the book’s contemporary setting to Brooklyn in the 1950s. Some of the book’s fans have felt otherwise, becoming the film’s most vocal critics.
Nostalgia was not Norton’s only motive for the change. Nor was the fact that he thought Lethem’s hard-boiled dialogue was going to sound cheesy on screen in a modern context. A student of New York’s social history, he wanted to re-jig the story to explore the political double-dealing that shaped the city’s architecture and planning during a pivotal decade. His bad guys are developers and politicians with no time for kindly notions such as affordable housing and community spirit.
Norton’s hero, Lionel Essrog, a private eye with a small-time agency, is pitched into a labyrinthine political conspiracy when his boss, Frank Minna, is shot dead by mobsters in the course of a case in which he’s been involved. Played with admirable restraint by Bruce Willis, Frank has been Lionel’s father-figure, the only person who’s shown any interest in understanding the effects of the Tourette’s Syndrome that has plagued him since childhood.
For readers of the novel this was one of its most potent and unexpected attractions. It describes Lionel’s co-existence with his Tourette’s, which he nicknames Bailey, with mordant humour and a lot of insight into the sensations it produces. Norton’s translation contents itself with the broad outlines, although the film’s hard-edged jazz score, with its Wynton Marsalis trumpet solos, does make a direct connection with the tumult going on in Lionel’s head. As unlikely screen heroes go, he’s one of the most engaging to come along in a while.
And the film has a great villain in Alex Baldwin’s corrupt politician. Like Donald Trump, Baldwin’s Moses Randolph suffers from an acute case of monumentalism. He wants to build and re-build and never mind the people whose lives are left in the rubble.
Miss Fisher And The Crypt Of Tears ★★★
Even in her big-screen debut, television sleuth Phryne Fisher (Essie Davis) has never gone in for disguise. Detective work is merely her hobby. Being Phryne is her vocation, being the centre of attention is her modus operandi and her numberless costume changes are all part of her armoury, writes Sandra Hall.
This means that her star power has always thrown the rest of the series’ cast into shadow. This includes Nathan Page as her love interest, the country policeman Detective Jack Robinson. Yet he, too, has made the leap to the big screen in Miss Fisher and the Crypt of Tears, which takes them into the desert in 1929 on an Indiana Jones-type quest involving camels, scarabs, an emerald the size of an emu’s egg and corrupt British officials manipulating the politics of the region for their own nefarious purposes.
It’s an especially ambitious agenda, given the fact the film was partly financed by crowdfunding. Much of it was shot in Morocco, a favoured location for movie companies telling any story set in the Middle East, and its producers were lucky enough to be able to take advantage of a Jerusalem set that Ridley Scott left behind after shooting there in 2005.
The result is a tribute to the Australian film industry’s flair for making do but, sadly, that’s not enough to overcome a fundamental failure in tone.
Just when you’ve decided that the director, Tony Tilse, and screenwriter Deb Cox are going to embrace the film’s essential ridiculousness and turn on a bit of sharp-witted self-parody, they straighten their faces and revert to creaky melodrama.
It’s an odd effect. You feel as if you’re being treated to a series of jokes by someone who’s forgotten all the punchlines. The gags are there but they never realise their potential. And the can-do spirit does wax and wane.
This time, Cox didn’t adapt the script from one of the novels by Phryne’s creator Kerry Greenwood. It’s an original and if there is to be a sequel, as the producers clearly hope there will be, could somebody please polish up the pratfalls and punch up the dialogue.
Victorian filmmaker Miranda Nation’s Undertow puts you right inside the head of Claire (Laura Gordon) and it’s an excessively gloomy place to be, writes Sandra Hall. Claire’s grief over the loss of her stillborn baby has pitched her into a depression worsened by her belief that her husband, Dan (Rob Collins), is having an affair with a teenager. Is she right or is this particular obsession another result of the delusions produced by her despair?
It’s the kind of question that might have delighted Hitchcock but Nation isn’t much interested in turning her film into a psychological thriller in the Vertigo mode. She’s more preoccupied with the contrast between Claire’s state of extreme introspection and the hyper-masculine world where Dan finds his consolation for the death of their child. He’s an official with the local AFL club and there’s a lot to keep him busy. He is not involved with a teenager but Brett (Josh Helman), the club’s star player, is. She’s 16 and she’s pregnant, which means Dan is fully occupied trying to see if he can contain the damage from the impending scandal.
But it’s Claire’s story. She seeks out Angie, the teenager, and becomes fixated on her and her pregnancy, as if conflating it with her own. It’s hard to see exactly what’s going on because Claire doesn’t really know either. She’s a news photographer and she uses the camera to try to understand what’s happening to her, compulsively photographing everything and everybody, including Angie, who’s played brilliantly by Olivia Dejonge. She gives us a girl whose sexual precocity is undercut by the fact she’s way in over her depth. Flattered at first by Claire’s attention, she’s full of a foxy bravado but it’s melting away fast.
Gordon’s role is not easy to play. Claire’s acute, humourless and occasionally hysterical case of self-absorption means she’s not exactly engaging company, but Gordon succeeds in making sense of her. Collins does the same for Dan, whose saving grace is an ability to be sardonic at his own expense. It’s an intelligent film, but it’s relentless.
Paul Byrnes 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.
Sandra Hall is a film critic for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.