Local cinemas this week

Stock up on the tissues, two lovely but emotionally potent little gems open this week in our arthouses

Movie of the week: 1985

Expanding his own 2016 short of the same name, Yen Tan’s emotional tearjerker follows HIV-positive New Yorker Adrian’s (Cory Michael Smith) visit to his conservative religious family in Texas during the Christmas holidays of 1985. This was around the beginning of the AIDS crisis, and though Adrian never says it out loud – he knows this visit could be the last time he sees his beloved mum (Virginia Madsen), solid-as-a-rock Vietnam-vet dad (Michael Chiklis) and troubled younger brother (Aidan Langford). Though loving and caring, it’s the sort of family where a lot goes unspoken, and long silences and evasive answers speak volumes about past tensions and misunderstandings. The family knows something is up, but even though the still closeted Adrian has come home all prepared to open up and be honest, when the crunch comes, the signals he gets make it all too hard.

Some of the best scenes are totally unexpected and have light, naturalistic touch, like his mum confessing that she defied his dad and didn’t vote for Reagan. “Mom!” You voted for Mondale!” Adrian can only splutter in amazement… Then running into an old acquaintance, a homophobic bully from school, Adrian braces for an awkward exchange. Instead the guy, now a thick-set supermarket manager, rushes into the shop to give him a pie and apologises for being a jerk. Later there are several lengthy exchanges with his teenage soul-mate Carly (Jamie Chung), a lively young Korean-American girl who was clearly in love with him once. Though deeply hurt and now defensively putting on a brittle “tough chick” facade, the candle still burns, and sadly, her hope is shared by Adrian’s mum. Her final rejection is played out in real time in one long awkward take, and its as punishing for us as viewers as it is to them. For Adrian though, it is pure agony – but at least leads to a more honest exchange, and later, a far deeper and loving understanding.

I985 is shot on a grainy black and white stock that seems (for once) to be a totally appropriate choice for the film’s grim and sombre tone. Though its small miracle is how it slices through the emotional baggage the comes with most AIDS stories, revealing a tender sweet spot where so often there is only maudlin sentiment. Adrian gets to have one big significant scene with each of his family, and they all risk bringing on the sniffles if not a sodden tissue or two. It’s the last one with his mother though that will inevitably open the floodgates. Sure, that’s what we expect this sort of story to do to us – maybe what we come for. But unlike other soapier dramas, 1985’s tears feel both scrupulously honest and thoroughly well-earned. And despite the fact that we know what will happen (it was the 80s), this is still a strangely hopeful film. Love is everything – just in case anyone needs reminding! M from April 25. Exclusive to Dendy Newtown ★★★★1/2

Highly recommended: Gloria Bell

A few years ago Sebastián Lelio earned himself a whole lot of love for a movie about a transgender woman (A Fantastic Woman) – which actually starred a transgendered woman. He followed it up with another zeitgeist-friendly choice, one about a beautiful, intelligent lesbian who broke all the rules (Disobedience). But now he’s taken on a far more problematic project – at least in terms of being distinctly “off trend”. For can there be any issue less fashionable now than the plight of an affluent, white, middle-aged woman whose main problem is she’s having trouble finding a suitable (wait for it) male partner? Even if Gloria Bell stars the always amazing Julianne Moore  (she’s also the executive producer) – isn’t the celebrated Chilean director is risking everything?

Maybe, but all he’s really doing is remaking (he calls it “re-working”) his own critical acclaimed and hugely successful arthouse hit Gloria. Moore, an actor who rarely puts a foot wrong, noticed the Chilean original back in 2013 and possibly also its 99% Rotten Tomatoes rating. Maybe she also read the top review which said, We don’t make movies like this in America – but we should” and rightly decided, “Well yes, we can!” And her decision that has paid off, big time, particularly as she insisted Lelio stay on board for the new Hollywood version.

Of course it helps that Moore herself is a beautiful woman, about as far from looking redundantly middle-aged as its possible to get. But more importantly, she’s a fearless actor, totally in command of her craft and completely at ease in front of the camera – even when naked. Check this astonishing scene  from 1993’s Short Cuts for example, which proves that she’s not also very, very game, but also a natural redhead. The 58-year-old actor is just as open and brave here, and not just with her body. She portrays Gloria’s loneliness and vulnerability achingly, but there isn’t a trace of self-pity to be seen. Her exuberant spirit – on the dance floor, belting out 80’s pop anthems in her car or just smoking a joint alone at home will almost certainly resonant and impress a huge section of the arthouse cinema-going audience – affluent, white middle-aged women. It certainly did me…

Then there those scenes with her adult children (Michael Cera and Karen Pistorius) who clearly don’t need her as much as she needs them, which pick away at the often silent pain of those so-called “golden years.”  It’s not all walking on the beach, grey hair flowing in the wind like those ads for superannuation and retirement investments promise – particularly if you’re still working in a dull office job, reduced to renting a noisy apartment which keeps being invaded by a neighbour’s ugly hairless cat and your life-partner has taken off with someone younger. It’s true that Gloria’s attempts to meet her emotional needs with the guy she meets at a seniors disco (John Turturro) don’t exactly work out, but as this lovely, complex and compassionate film reveals – there is a future for someone with a resilient spirit and love in her heart to give… Always another glorious day ahead. M from April 25. Local cinemas include Palace Norton St, Central and Dendy Newtown ★★★★

The Hummingbird Project

Outside of work-training videos, it’s not often we see films about project management. Writer-director Kim Nguyen’s The Hummingbird Project tries to inject the nerdy occupation of financing and planning major infrastructure with humour, drama and pathos, and does partially succeed… But despite the energetic efforts of its stars, the film suffers from a lumpiness in tone and focus, and the distinct unlikeability of its protagonist.

Jesse Eisenberg (The Social Network) gives us one his trademark nervy, fast-talking performances as Vincent, an ambitious Wall St trader with a plan to built a straight-line tunnel from Kansas to the East Coast burying a super fast fibre-optic cable that will provide financial markets information one millisecond faster than any competitor. It’s the kind of speed worth billions – and that’s a big problem with this story. Everyone involved, even Vincent’s on-the-spectrum geek genius cousin Anton (Alexander Skarsgård) who follows him into the dubious get-rich scheme is motivated solely by greed, which makes it hard to care about whether they succeed or fail. Their unpleasant ex-boss and competitor Eva (Salma Hayek) is even more of an asshole – but really, she’s no more ruthless and unscrupulous than Vincent. The pitfalls and obstacles they face along the way are presented in the now familiar fast-paced, facetious style last seen in the more successful The Big Short, but the comparison is unflattering. About half way in, a plot-turn attempts to steer our sympathies towards Vincent, and there’s even an epiphany in store towards the end. But it comes out of the blue, and feels hollow.

That said, project managers and engineers may well enjoy seeing their profession presented on screen – especially the ingenious way technical and physical problems are met and solved. And they’ll marvel at the fact that the tunnel only met one Nimby land owner on its entire cross-country route – an Amish farming family distrustful of technology and progress. One! In all that distance? Try building a tunnel in Sydney’s inner west and see how many Amish landowners you find. M from April 25. Local cinemas include Palace Norton St and Central ★★1/2

Also opening this week

Two films in one week centring on middle-aged women? What can our arthouse programmers be thinking – surely not Mothers Day? The Chaperone from the reliable Downtown Abbey crew and starring Elizabeth McGovern sounds like a safe bet for that all-important date. Unless of course your mum is an Avengers fan. Both un-previewed.

Reviews – Russell Edwards