The Teacher (Učilełka)

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It’s always a delight to watch a superb lead performance from a mid-career actor you’ve never seen before. Czech-born actor Zuzana Mauréry is new to me, although she has a solid list of film and TV credits, and she delivers a doozy of a turn as The Teacher, utterly convincing, nuanced, funny and slightly terrifying.

We’re in the suburbs of Bratislava in 1983, when it was the capital of the Slovak Socialist Republic, Mauréry’s Maria is the relatively new teacher in town, and she’s utterly corrupt, first identifying her students’ parents’ vocations and then demanding free services in exchange for good grades and an easier school passage. It’s outrageous and something must be done, but will there be enough collective will to do it?

The astonishing period production design is both a help and hinderance to the film; it takes you there, but it’s not a happy place to be. The drabness of the school and the various apartments of the characters are oppressive dramatically and visually; what is authentic is also a little numbing. About a third of the action takes place in one of the school’s classrooms in the evening and these scenes drag repetitively; indeed, the whole film, which is only an hour and forty-two minutes, makes its point over and again, and could have been tighter.

That said, the milieu is intriguing, the metaphors at play are clear and enlightening, and Mauréry’s performance is absolutely worth catching. Like the film itself, her Maria has a sheen of humour; just one prick, though, and you’ll find nothing to laugh at underneath.

Borg McEnroe

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Hot on the heels of Battle of the Sexes, about the tennis match between Billie Jean King and  Bobby Riggs, comes a film about, arguably, the greatest, tensest tennis match of all time, the titanic, epic, gruelling – for players and spectators – Wimbledon Men’s Final of 1980 between four-time Wimbledon champ Björn Borg and first time finalist John McEnroe. Surprisingly sombre in tone, Janus Metz’s debut scripted feature film ambitiously delves into the psychology of these two men, and that of elite sportspeople in general, coming up with a surprising thesis, which I suppose demands a spoiler alert.

The fascinating – and myth-busting – argument of the film, convincingly put forward, is that these two tennis Goliaths, so noted for the perceived enormous chasm of their differences, were actually vastly more similar than anyone perceived. We all know McEnroe as the hothead and Borg as “ice-cool”, but the film posits that Borg was every bit as temperamental, brash, rude, disrespectful and argumentative as his flamboyant American rival, and that this behaviour was essentially trained out of him by his career-long mentor and coach Lennart Bergelin (played with typical specificity by Stellan Skarsgård).

Metz directed the Borg v McEnroe episode of a TV documentary series called Clash of the Titans in 1996, so he’s obviously been stewing on this material for awhile. His casting of Sverrir Gudnason and Shia LaBeouf as Borg and McEnroe is perfection (in LaBoeuf’s case, for meta as well as dramatic reasons) and the final match, given plenty of screen time, is masterfully staged (I was tense as hell and I knew the result). But the bulk of the film is surprisingly dry and bitter, with Borg’s crisis of confidence and McEnroe’s arrogance resulting in two unlikeable leads. Now that I’ve met this “real” Borg, I’m sad to have lost my idealised version, who was a hero. These guys aren’t heroes, just self-absorbed people with strange wiring, who must win things to be happy.

Murder On The Orient Express

Old Timey

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* * (out of five)

Agatha Christie adaptations are back in vogue. The recent television versions of And Then There Were None and Witness For The Prosecution were exciting and fresh, keeping the stories appropriately in period while engaging modern camera work, a lived-in aesthetic, and actors playing the high-falutin’ dialogue straight. Unfortunately director Kenneth Branagh goes the opposite direction with Murder On The Orient Express, producing an overblown, over designed, over acted snoozefest that manages to somehow be more old-fashioned than the 1974 version.

At least Branagh’s Hercule Poirot is fun and multi-layered, especially in the film’s somewhat buoyant opening scenes, but the rest of the – ALL STAR! – cast are hung out to dry, hammily looking off into the middle distance to imply that they might have done it. When things turn dark, Branagh the director goes overboard with gravitas, squandering what trust he may have earlier earned. The result is dull as dishwater.

Brad’s Status

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*1/2 (out of five)

The Dendy Cinema in Newtown, Sydney is a fine venue, serving mostly arthouse fare to one of the most diverse, progressive and colourful neighbourhoods in Australia. Given the artistic flair of the neighbourhood, and its proximity to universities, there are patrons for the cinema at all times, even morning sessions during the week. So there were enough members of the public around me yesterday, that I didn’t actually stand up and scream at Brad, Ben Stiller’s character in Mike White’s Brad’s Status, “Get over yourself, you self-absorbed wanker,” much as I desperately wanted to, many, many times throughout this turgid film.

A few weeks ago, Ingrid Goes West showed us how Instagram could seriously impair the emotional life of a young woman. We could sympathise. But here, the victim of social media’s depressive effects is a forty-seven year old man, who can’t get over being jealous of his college friends. It’s pathetic, juvenile behaviour, which is not played for laughs – this is a serious drama, or at least aspires to be – and with which we are meant to empathise, enforced – horrendously – by almost constant voice-over, which implies, perhaps, a non-existent source novel. A terrible one.

White wrote the recent, similarly annoying Beatriz at Dinner, which at least had some directorial flair from Miguel Arteta, but he directs his own material here, doubling down on its self-importance. He wrote School of Rock in 2003, but since then his work has seemed evermore like therapy. He can get the hell off my couch.