Tina and Aalto

Untroubled by any scandals of her own making – she’s never been a boozer, a drug addict, or involved in any fraud, deception or even artistic complacency – Tina Turner is one of those great artists who can be celebrated unconditionally. A loving, comprehensive documentary such as Tina, an HBO feature documentary now airing on Foxtel in Australia, cannot be accused of hagiography, because it is a truth universally acknowledged that Turner is, indeed, universally beloved, admired and respected.

Not that she doesn’t have a story. Her story is well told, in her book I, Tina (1986) and the feature film What’s Love Got To Do With It (1993); it’s a story of pain and trauma, most prominently around her 16 year relationship with Ike Turner, who physically abused her. That stuff necessarily gets covered (again) in the first half of Tina, but as Turner escapes Ike, the film, like her life and career, takes off, with a huge sense of release, into the stratosphere. It’s thrilling stuff and an absolutely worthy testament to a truly deserving – indeed, iconic – artist. Turner herself, at 80, is interviewed throughout, and there’s no better teller of her story than she. * * * *

No less influential, if somewhat less dynamic, Finnish modernist architect Alvar Aalto also gets a definitive and highly entertaining documentary of his own in Aalto, now screening in Australian cinemas. He’s dead so doesn’t get to tell his story, but filmmaker Virpi Suutari uses a smorgasbord of architects and academics to tell it instead, using only their voices over ravishing images of Aalto’s buildings (often covered in snow) and furniture, along with spectacularly intriguing other imagery that metaphorically addresses the kind of work Aalto did. Suutari manages to present someone whose work was groundbreaking in a groundbreaking way, an essentially modernist way; his form follows Aalto’s, even into a different medium, and it works, very, very well. This is how you make a film about an architect, perhaps the best I’ve seen. The influence and importance of Aalto’s wife Aino is foregrounded, and their love affair forms the film’s emotional spine. The result is hugely informative and beautiful from first minute to last, with a gorgeous original score to boot. * * * *

Antoinette in the Cévennes

My ass.

Now playing around Australia as part of the Alliance Française French Film Festival

Opening in Australian cinemas April 8

* * *

From her very first scene in the very first episode of the French TV series Call My Agent, it was clear that Laure Calamy was a big comedic talent, destined for more than her supporting role in that very popular show. Bingo. She just won the César Award for Best Actress for her lead role in Caroline Vignal’s Antoinette in the Cévennes, a very slight, very light, very charming French countryside comedy whose success rests entirely on her shoulders. She’s not only in every scene, about half of them are with a donkey. She makes all of them work. Like Meg Ryan, Julia Roberts and Audrey Tatou, Calamy is a natural big-screen comedy star; like them, she has big dramatic chops in support.

The film itself is sunny and delightful (like Calamy). Antoinette is a Parisian teacher having an affair with a married man; when he goes on a trip with his family to the Cévennes, she follows, ill-advisedly, and ends up hiking with a donkey. Self-realisation follows.

Calamy nails every comedic beat but there are multiple moments of pathos and anguish which she also handles with seemingly effortless aplomb. She is a major screen presence. It is to the Césars’ credit that they’ve recognised this kind of performance, in this kind of film, for their Best Actress Award. Light comedy normally doesn’t get that kind of gong, unfairly. And talk about ‘backwards and in heels’: Calamy’s primary co-star is a donkey.

The Painter and the Thief

The Thief and the Painter.

Opens in Australian cinemas 25 March

* * * 1/2

Norwegian documentary The Painter and The Thief is an almost uncomfortably intimate portrait of the strange vagaries of human need. When Barbora Kysilkova, a Czech painter living in Norway, has two of her paintings brazenly stolen from an Oslo gallery, and the thief is caught, rather than seek vengeance, she seeks to redeem him. Why she does so is no more cut and dried than why he stole her paintings in the first place, but both acts are born of pain. He is an addict; her wounds are less visible.

The film is striking enough as a very close portrait of two intriguing people, and interesting enough as a snapshot of young folk on the outskirts of convention in Oslo, but becomes quite powerful in the third act, when things get weirder, and director Benjamin Ree is not only there to capture them but to structure his narrative, in the edit, for optimum revelation. Like Kysilkova’s paintings, The Painter and the Thief is photo-realistic but artfully constructed for maximum pathos, darkness and surprise.

Collective

Will Catalin Tolontan be played by Clive Owen in a narrative remake?

Opens in Australian Cinemas 8 April

* * * * 1/2

Collective is the fly-on-the-wall documentary about lethal Romanian corruption you didn’t know you needed. Alexander Nanau’s camera is in all of the right places as Catalin Tolontan, a middle-aged journalist for a sports-themed daily paper, and his small team of highly principled journalists uncover a scandal within the public health sector in the wake of a horrific fire. It is a tale of tragedy upon tragedy, and a hundred and nine of the most compelling minutes of the cinematic year.

Nanau uses no narration, no interviews, and, I think, two title cards. The rest of the story is covered by his cameras, and so thoroughly, Collective could pass itself off as a handheld, dogme-styled narrative feature. Indeed, like Honeyland from last year, Collective is nominated not only for the Best Feature Documentary Academy Award, but for Best International Film as well.

At its heart is ethical journalism. A real-life Spotlight playing out in a sort of real time, Collective is a constant reminder of how important good journalists are to every society. Without them, it seems, all those with access to any form of privilege would just pack it in for the dollar, and leave the damned to the worms.

Nomadland

She flinty.

* * * 1/2

Chloé Zhao‘s third feature, Nomadland, is an exercise in extreme compassion. What it lacks in narrative drive it makes up for in total empathy for its myriad characters. If it wins the Oscar this year for Best Film (it is currently the clear favourite) it will stand in stark contrast to last year’s winner, Parasite, which displayed masterful screenwriting and virtuosic filmmaking in every frame. Nomadland, by contrast, feels cobbled together on a wing and a prayer, written far more on set and in the edit suite than at the keyboard, and appealing entirely to the heart rather than the head.

What is virtuosic is Frances McDormand’s central performance as Fern, an itinerant American mid-western ‘nomad’, living out of her van and picking up seasonal blue-collar work. The Oscar race for Best Actress seems to be between her and Carey Mulligan for Promising Young Woman, giving voters a choice between apples and oranges. Mulligan’s work reflects her film’s heightened stylisation. McDormand’s is textbook naturalism. Indeed, given half of her scenes are with non-actors telling their own true stories, any deviation from a purely realistic approach would stand out like a Christmas tree on Mars and upset the film’s delicate, and rather unique, fabric.

Those non-actors are the film’s soul; around them, McDormand’s Fern is as empathetic and compassionate as Zhao. Against the professional actors, such as David Strathairn and Linda May, brought in to give the film at least some sense of narrative, she is allowed to be flintier, and ‘flinty’ may well be McDormand’s middle name. It is a perfect role for her unique essence, and, I dare say, may well end up her signature performance.

Although the film is about America’s mid-western (very white) dispossessed, it feels strangely apolitical. It’s not angry, per se, nor is it blatantly an origin story of Trump’s weirdly self-defeating voting base, although one cannot help make the connection as a viewer (a lot of the film takes place in South Dakota, now infamous for being one of the most mask-resistant, lockdown-resistant, Covid-blasé places on Earth, with infection numbers to match). What it is, relentlessly, is American. If you’re sick of hearing Americans talk about themselves, this film will be your poison. If you can stomach a few more twangy voices, they are presented here with grace, beauty, and, yes, compassion.