The Personal History of David Copperfield

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Armando Iannucci’s take on Charles Dickens’ novel immediately announces its intentions with its casting of Dev Patel as David: this will not be your BBC adaptation from 1990, because, for a start, we’re casting race blind. This is a simple notion that has been commonplace in the theatre for decades – how many black kings of England have you seen in Shakespeare productions, despite the fact that, you know, England’s kings haven’t been black – but is rare in movies. Iannucci embraces the concept, runs with it, doesn’t comment on it, and asks you to simply go along with it, and you do, simply, easily. See, Iannucci seems to be saying, how easy it is to be open, progressive, positive and free?

That’s the spirit he brings to the whole of this joyous, glorious production, a beautiful hybrid of Dickens’ and Iannucci’s own sensibilities. This is a warm, very funny, very fast and extremely energetic adaptation, faithful (as far as I can tell) in spirit and tone to its source, but clearly unshackled by obsequiousness. Often, it soars. The spectacular cast bring huge life to the beloved ensemble of characters; Peter Capaldi, Hugh Laurie, Tilda Swinton and Benedict Wong all clearly stamp theirs with definition, but special mention must be made of Ben Whishaw, whose take on Uriah Heep is quite creepily brilliant. As Copperfield, Patel brings his typical puppyish charm, and it works.

While there’s inherent political content in Copperfield, mainly to do with class, this marks a departure for Iannucci: it’s practically devoid of cynicism. Instead, it’s full of heart, perhaps not a quality much associated with Britain’s greatest satirist, until now. I loved it.

Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga Review

If you’re a Eurovision super fan – like me – you can rest easy: Will Ferrell’s ambling comedy about a pair of Icelandic entrants is not a piss-take. Indeed, it loves Eurovision: if anything, the film is a celebration.

When I heard, a few years back, that Ferrell was planning this film, I got surprisingly anxious, not just that Ferrell was going to mock my beloved contest, but also that the film itself would operate as a gateway drug for Americans to discover, pollute and ultimately destroy the annual event. Seemingly aware of such a response, Ferrell stages two scenes where his character, Lars, yells at a group of four young Americans to, essentially, fuck off out of Europe: “We don’t want you here!”

Putting his money where Lars’ mouth is, Ferrell and director David Dobkin cast all of Iceland’s actors, a batch of funny Brits, and Canadian Rachel McAdams as Sigrit, Lars’ bandmate and the true protagonist of the film. It goes out of its way to not be American, and ends up, to its great credit, as a film for the Eurovision community, possibly to the exclusion of everyone else. This was never meant for the mall cinemas of Idaho (it’s a Netflix original).

It’s hardly Ferrell’s best work – it’s not even in his top five – and if you’re not into Eurovision there’s probably no reason to give it a whirl. It’s too long – possibly by half an hour – and there are flat patches. But if you’re a Eurovision fan you kind of have to see it. There’s one extended sequence, a gift for Eurovision tragics, that gave me my longest prolonged smile in… well, let’s just say since February. Or maybe since I saw Think About Things for the first time. If you know what I mean, you’ll want to see this movie, shaggy as it is.

* * * for the Eurovision Fan

* * 1/2 for everyone else

Back To The Cinema (Safely)

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The cinemas in Australia are re-opening. In most parts of the country, some are already open. In NSW, July 2 will see the first batch open their doors.

I can’t wait to get back into the cinema, and I’m not alone. Australians love movies, and we’ve got some of the best cinemas in the world to watch them in. The technical capabilities in some of the big rooms around the country are extraordinary, the seats are generally generous and cushy, and, in most of the cinemas throughout the land now, you can buy, and take into the cinema, alcohol. Our cinema experience is thrilling and civilised.

It’s also constantly under threat – not just from the pandemic, but from home viewing options and real estate developers. A flagship cinema complex in Sydney looks like its days are numbered to make way for a tower that may include a series of more “intimate” screening rooms. Meanwhile, the streaming services have clearly, through no deviousness of their own, benefitted throughout the pandemic: we have become reliant on them, and they’re influencing our habits.

As the President of the Film Critics Circle of Australia, I recently sent a letter to our membership urging us all to support the cinema industry when it re-opens, and I hope the public will as well. But of course, doing so theoretically flies in the face of sensibility: how do you go to the cinema and be a responsible isolationist?

The cinemas will do their part to help. There will be seat and row spacing to follow a four-metre distancing rule; there will be limited ticketing. There will certainly be aggressive cleaning. Some cinemas will be running at maximum thirty percent capacity, some twenty percent.

For our part – to be socially responsible and for our own peace of mind – we can support the cinema experience and thoroughly enjoy ourselves to our heart’s content, and one way to do it is to take advantage of a simple little fact: cinemas, like cafés, stores, and many pubs, are (traditionally) open all day long, through the whole week. You can see a film at 10am on a Wednesday. And when you do, there will almost certainly, inherently, be plenty of seats between you and anyone else. Heck, you may even hit on the elusive joy of having a cinema to yourself.

This doesn’t happen often, but I have been in hundreds of screenings with less than three other patrons. And it is awesome. Going to the cinema on one’s own, at an “unconventional” hour, is a true pleasure. Besides the inherent “me time”, and the luxuriousness of the space around you, there is the thrill of delinquency. I’m a critic, and I’m meant to be seeing films in the middle of the business day, and I still feel like I’m getting away with something wicked.

One of the most enjoyable days I had at the cinema last year was on a Wednesday in October, at a 12:30pm screening of Casablanca at the Dendy Cinemas in Newtown. I believe the ticket was ten bucks. There were about nine other patrons – maybe 14, maybe 6, I didn’t actually count – and, as far as I remember, only two of them were there together. The rest, like me, were flying solo, scattered safely around the auditorium (no one chooses to sit near a stranger, even without a virus around), and loving the film. Claude Rains’ witty bon mots as Captain Renault brought the small house down, and I heard a massive sigh somewhere behind me as Bogie said, “We’ll always have Paris” – a line for our current time as much as ever. Casablanca is showing at the Lido, Classic and Cameo cinemas in Melbourne tomorrow, June 27.

Another of my favourite days at the cinema last year was a retro screening of Psycho – on a Tuesday at 1pm. There were multiple revelatory pleasures. One was that the film was projected from a 35mm print, and if you haven’t seen one of those for awhile, keep an eye out (there are 70mm screenings of 2001 happening at various independent cinemas around Australia in the coming weeks, for example). We’re so used to seeing digital now that the celluloid experience is even more pronounced: it’s immediately apparent, and somehow, in some alchemic way, immediately charming. Again, content-wise, the glory of seeing Psycho with (quite a large) audience was in discovering its humour: who knew Psycho was a black comedy as much as a horror picture? If you don’t believe me, see it with an audience at a retro screening. There’s one on August 9th and another on the 12th at the Ritz in Sydney.

Cinemas, distributors, producers and studios make their money – the bulk of it – on tentpole releases, weekend evenings, and concession sales (popcorn and, increasingly, booze). But every ten dollars at a retro screening is support, and represents enormous value for the punter. When their doors open, many cinemas in Australia will be screening not just the latest releases but will drawing from an almost infinite repertory, and charging flexible prices. Any movie is going to be more exciting in a cinema than at home, and, after what we’ve all been through, I would warrant that a lot of people would spend ten bucks to see almost anything in that cosy, dark palace of dreams. Among the films screening in Australian cinemas when they re-open are 2001, Casablanca, The Wizard of Oz, Singin’ In The Rain, Grease, A Clockwork Orange and To Catch A Thief, as well as films from the recent repertoire such as Parasite, Portrait of a Lady On Fire, Honeyland, Honey Boy and JoJo Rabbit. Pricing may vary from cinema to cinema, but all of these films are worth the price of a ticket, because besides the film, you’re going to the movies. Your JobKeeper cash is doing its work if you spend it at the cinema. Go when it’s safe, and it’s a win-win.

BAIT and DEAD STILL reviews

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BAIT

In cinemas June 22nd (Victoria) / July 1st (elsewhere)

* * * *

Mark Jenkin has created the most visually memorable film so far this year with Bait, which he shot on 16mm B&W stock using a vintage wind-up Bolex, which meant he couldn’t record live sound, so the whole soundscape including all dialogue was added in post. Furthermore, Jenkin processed the film himself by hand, and used things like coffee grounds and vitamin powder in the process, giving the resulting image an honestly-achieved hand-made look. The story itself is also bold and original, the tale of Cornish gentrification seen through the eyes of a local fisherman struggling with economic survival in the new Cornwall tourist economy. The aesthetics of the film inevitably consign it to the arthouse, but for the right viewer, this film will be fresh, vibrant, exciting and extremely memorable. It certainly was for me.

DEAD STILL

Acorn TV

Everyone loves Michael Smiley, right? He’s on of those actors that, upon his entrance into a film, gives you a frisson of confident elevated expectation: “Oh, he’s in it. Well that’ll be good!” His role in Ben Wheatley’s Kill List, as one of the most quotable hit-men in cinema, remains his signature performance, but among his 96 credits are scene-or-movie-stealing turns in A Field In England, The Lobster, Burke and Hare, Down Terrace and Free Fire. His big face and beautiful Northern Irish speaking voice are the tools through which his sardonic, ironic line deliveries flow: he’s the guy who can make all his lines funny without actually steering a scene or film’s dramatic intentions into comedy.

He’s the kind of actor you can end up taking for granted, and who often never gets their one great leading role, let alone their own TV series, but here it is, a vehicle of Michael Smiley, and an Acorn TV Original no less. He plays Brock Blennerhasset (what a name!), a post-mortem photography expert in 1880s Ireland (what a concept!) He takes staged photographs of dead people before they’re buried – which apparently was a thing – who gets tangled up in a series of suspicious deaths. It’s a mystery, and there are detectives and suspects, but Blennerhasset is neither, while, dramatically, at times serving as both.

Smiley’s decades-crafted persona sets the tone of the show: the aforementioned sardonic irony pervades, resulting in gentle humour and a classically cosy mystery vibe. Fans of this kind of gentle period crime show should lap it up; fans of Smiley, likewise. It’s a surprisingly buttoned-up role for him – Blennerhasset is successful, a bit pompous, and Smiley has to affect a posh voice, softening his trademark brogue – but his essence shines through: the man can spin almost any line into a funny one. He’s a treasure.

The Vast Of Night

* * * 1/2

Sometimes something wonderful comes right out of left field. Andrew Patterson, an Oklahoma-based local commercials producer, self-financed and began shooting The Vast of Night, an homage to the kind of giddy, upbeat, weirdo tales you’d get on The Twilight Zone, in 2016. Supposedly rejected by eighteen film festivals before premiering at 2019’s Slamdance, winning the Audience Award, and now available on Amazon, his über-indie “look to the skies” fantasia is a precise little gem, exquisitely conceived.

It’s the 50s, in a small town in New Mexico, on a Friday night, and while the town-folk are all attending the basketball game at the high school, the local radio DJ (Jake Horowitz) and the town’s switchboard operator (Sierra McCormick) stumble upon the possibility that extraterrestrials are hovering in local skies.

Patterson makes big choices and commits to them whole-heartedly. His film is ingeniously paced and structured, alternating bustling whip-crack dialogue with quiet, expressive monologues, and long single close-ups with the film’s most thrilling and virtuosic stylistic gambit, pulsing sequences sending the camera zooming at knee-height throughout the town to the gorgeously evocative score. Essentially, Patterson is constantly alternating stillness with frenzy, and it makes his ninety minutes feel like fifty.

There’s an awful lot of Spielberg in Patterson’s tale (as there was in J.J. Abrams’ Super 8) and cynics may dismiss The Vast of Night as that 90s relic, the ‘calling-card film’. I don’t see it that way; rather, as one Oklahoman’s magnum opus, a pure work of passionate personal art made entirely outside the system, entirely to its creator’s tune, and entirely to their credit.

Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich

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Survivor Sarah Ransome.

Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich is another in an ever-growing line of excellent Netflix true-crime documentary series. Over four episodes, the show features moving interviews with many of Epstein’s survivors, law enforcement officials, journalists, lawyers and copious footage of Epstein’s world – the houses in particular – to paint a clear and vivid portrait of a monstrous predator and the system that enabled him. Many, many photos of Epstein with Donald Trump give the show an additional creepy edge. It’s very well done, tasteful and well-modulated, and a total binge. Even if you’ve read “all the articles”, as I felt I had, there is still great value in meeting the victims and seeing their provenance; Epstein preyed on the vulnerable, and Filthy Rich does a great job of contextualising the predator’s method of identifying and manipulating their prey.

The focus is on the subset of survivors from Epstein’s first wave of abuse, in Palm Beach in the 2000s, and the series is respectful of them, and thank goodness, because they’ve been exploited enough. Their lawyer, and the original Palm Beach Chief of Police, emerge as dogged, and humble, heroes. A few more survivors from later years emerge as the episodes progress, and by the end we’ve gotten to know them well. It’s their story, really, rather than Epstein’s.

We know how his story ends, and the show doesn’t attempt to push past that. Conspiracy theories are not the subject here, nor detailed accusations against a worldwide consortium of bad men (although Prince Andrew gets royally served), nor do we find out where in the world might Ghislaine Maxwell be. Those documentaries will inevitably follow. This one is probably all you really need.

Proxima

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* * * * 1/2

I can’t remember the last time I was as moved – nay, emotionally wrecked – by a film as I was by Alice Wincour’s Proxima (available on VOD in Australia from June 3rd, through Madman Entertainment). Clearly, we’re all a little tender right now, parents perhaps especially so, protective of our young, sitting ducks for the right thoughtful drama about parental responsibility to come along and rip open our hearts. I’m in the film’s demographic sweet spot, being a father of a young daughter, and I could’ve essentially wept through this beautiful film’s entire hundred and seven minutes.

Eva Green plays Sarah, a French astronaut, living and training at the European Space Agency in Cologne, and bringing up her eight year old daughter Stella. When she is selected for a one-year mission aboard the International Space Station, Sarah finds that, despite wanting to go to space since she herself was a little girl, she now feels deeply conflicted about leaving her child.

We follow Sarah through detailed and ultra-realistic scenes of an astronaut’s specific training. Sequences were shot at the European Space Agency in Cologne and at Star City near Moscow, on actual training equipment, in actual uniforms, according to actual protocols. Purely as a procedural about what modern astronauts do, Wincour’s film would have been fascinating. Much of the equipment looks decidedly un-futuristic, indeed evocative of imagery from the 60s and 70s; the astronauts accompanying Sarah on her mission, one Russian and one American, are worldly (the film’s characters freely talk in French, English, German and Russian) but the American, played by Matt Dillon, has some clear attitudes towards female astronauts that aren’t so.

But this is not a film about Sarah coming up against sexism, or about the sheer challenges she faces in her training, although both those elements are there. This is a film about parenthood, and the hugely emotional bond between a mother and her child when her child is still young and vulnerable (Stella is eight). Sarah’s excitement to fulfil her lifelong dream of venturing into space is immediately and overwhelmingly tempered by her grief and guilt for leaving her daughter, despite the girl’s father, an amiable astrophysicist who also works at the European Space Agency in Cologne, being a decent man who Stella loves and Sarah can trust. Sarah can train all day at the limits of human physical and mental ability, only to find her most challenging moment upon hearing, via Facetime, that her daughter’s not made any friends at her new school and is spending her lunchtimes in the playground alone. This news would be heartbreaking to any parent, and any parent can relate, astronaut or not. Wincour worked closely with Claudie Haignéré, the first female French astronaut, as she wrote the script, and her film hardly suggests that mothers feel the pain, and responsibility, of separation too much; rather, it demands of any parent, “How could you not?”

Eva Green’s naturalistic performance is superb, her eyes registering every minute repercussion her choices make on her child. As that child, a young French girl named Zélie Boulant, who was essentially discovered for the film, makes it. Her ability to register those indescribable emotional wounds that occur when a child is, say, denied an adult’s promise, and offer them in a brave yet ever-so-trembling voice, is astonishing and – here’s that word again – heartbreaking. The whole film is heartbreaking, never by trading in cheap dramatics (it’s the furthest thing from a manipulative “weepie”) but by simply recognising and dramatising fundamental truths: parenthood is impossible to perfect, we hurt our children even when we couldn’t love them more, there is nothing stronger than the bond of a parent and child, and that bond must inevitably sever.

Non-parents may not get it; parents may find Proxima their film of the year. Astronauts too.

The Great (Hulu / STAN) TV review

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Tony McNamara is a prolific Australian playwright and TV writer who shifted to the big big leagues with his screenplay for Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Favourite, which garnered him an Oscar nomination. Now he’s the credited creator and principal writer on The Great, which plays, essentially, like the TV series of The Favourite – and that’s a good, good thing.

Instead of a royal castle in 18th Century England, we’re in a royal castle in 18th Century Russia, and instead of Queen Anne, we’ve got the young German woman, Sophie, who was to become Catherine The Great (Elle Fanning). At the beginning of the series, she is betrothed to Peter III, the Emperor of Russia (Nicholas Hoult), and quickly discovers that he is immature, volatile and ridiculous (among other undesirable traits). If you know your history you’ll know where this is headed; our fun is going on that journey, as Sophie/Catherine must very quickly learn how to navigate, survive, prosper and ultimately take control within Peter’s raucous court.

And fun it absolutely is! This show is a constant delight. As with The Favourite, McNamara’s primary comedic conceit is that these 18th Century courts were full of childish, drunken, asinine men, drinking, brawling, bickering and forever pandering. The women are portrayed as more mature but no less scheming: survival in court is by any means necessary. Catherine’s corresponding character in The Favourite is not Queen Anne, but the young servant Abigail, played by Emma Stone; each is smart enough to plot their moves through the madhouse with ever-evolving tactics, accumulating allies along the way, while always realising that the seat of power is unassailable, until it is not.

Fanning is superb and Hoult – with the flashier role – astounding. He’s been building up to this sort of comic extravagance for awhile now – he played a similar role in The Favourite – and everything he does here is gold, every line reading, every physical bit, every expression. His Peter is a precise, masterful comic creation.

If you loved The Favourite you’ll love this; I would go so far as to suggest the directors have even been told to ape, to some degree, Lanthimos’ style. The production design is similar, the set-up obviously so, but the biggest connective tissue is McNamara, whose obsession with this sort of material – The Great began as a sprawling two-part play at the Sydney Theatre Company in 2008 – has finally to come to roost, spectacularly. This is TV at its finest, boldest, and most thrillingly auteurist. It is McNamara’s vision, and it is indeed great.

The Trip To Greece

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PA Photo © Sky UK Limited

* * * * 

A franchise that began with as a rapid-fire cascade of gags to rival the Marx Brothers has evolved, profoundly, into a rich and somber elegiac meditation on middle age. And why not? The key thing about Michael Winterbottom’s The Trip movies has always been that they were making it up as they went along, and only now, at this fourth and supposedly final juncture, can we see the retrospective and rather monumental path they’ve struck.

Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon trade quips, barbs and, of course, impressions once again, always in glorious (and exceedingly expensive) locations over glorious (and exceedingly expensive) lunches, but that banter is now the side dish rather than the main meal. Indeed, the repartee is deliberately perfunctory, a sort of greatest hits, with quick reminders that the lads can do Roger Moore and Mick Jagger, Al Pacino and Rod Stewart (they refrain from re-mining Michael Caine). A brief foray into Ray Winstone is gut-bustingly funny, a reminder of the experience of pretty much the entire first two movies.

This is Winterbottom’s most cinematic, crafted, layered and storied of the four films, and by far the most moving. The tone is often melancholic, aided by a selection of sweeping, mournful music that represents a bold choice for an ostensibly silly comedy series (of course, it’s no longer that). At one point I cried. It’s a send-off to the boys for the fans; whatever you do, if you haven’t visited this series yet, don’t begin here. This is not the starter’s pistol, it’s the end of the race, and the runners are gasping for breath, fully aware of their own mortality and how heroic they really may or may not be.

Out Now On VOD Worldwide.