On The Rocks

In Australian Palace Cinemas from October 2; Apple+ from October 23.

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Daddy daughter date.

Sofia Coppola re-teams with her Lost In Translation star Bill Murray, writing him a role he seems to play effortlessly, and his seeming effortlessness is our reward and the principle joy of On The Rocks, a New York upper-crust soufflé that goes down easy.

Rashida Jones plays Murray’s daughter, Laura, an author and mother of two girls who has vague suspicions her husband (Marlon Wayans) may be having an affair with a colleague. Murray’s Felix, a divorced, semi-retired art dealer of ways and means (he has a full-time driver and knows everyone in a certain circle of Manhattan), upon hearing of her suspicions, stokes them, leading the pair on a loosely-goose chase to uncover the truth. Along the way, they have cocktails, talk lovingly, and hash out a couple of things from the past.

It’s a charming, old-fashioned, innocent film, deliberately untethered from America’s problems (there is no hint at all that the country is in any kind of trouble: this is the Manhattan of Woody Allen, whose influence is clear in the film’s tone, style and plotting). It seems to aspire to no greater thematic reverberation than a delightful take on fathers and daughters – the actual dilemma at the heart of the film, the potential affair, is the dramatic weakest link – and that’s fine and dandy. The film’s timelessness, ease and modesty are most of its charms, but its greatest, irrefutably, is Murray, who is also its raison d’être. Delightfully calm.

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Coppola directs Murray. Like he needs it.

The Translators

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* * *

Like Knives Out last year, The Translators is essentially a take on the classic mystery format pioneered by Agatha Christie: introduce an ensemble of possible suspects, have a crime, toss in some red herrings and mysterious backstory, then reveal the criminal. Here, that format doubles down with the “locked room” mystery element, while removing a traditional detective character.

The set-up is ingenious: the final book in a global best-selling mystery trilogy has been written in French, and, in order to simultaneously release the book around the world without spoiling the contents, a group of translators have been employed to be locked away in a bunker and simultaneously translate the manuscript into their respective languages: Spanish, Mandarin, English, Danish, German, Greek. They have no internet or phone access and are absolutely under lock and key, even the supervision of guards, the conceit being that the world is waiting for this book, and any advance word on the contents would cause the loss of millions and millions in sales. Think the final Harry Potter crossed with the final Dragon-Tattooed Girl.

The thing is, pages do leak, and the mystery is, by whom, and how? The first act is great fun, but the film gets more ludicrous as it goes on. It’s always watchable – especially given the excellent global cast of familiar faces – and it comes to a definite resolution, but you can’t help wishing it adhered a little closer to credibility.

I May Destroy You

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Michaela Coel came roaring out of the gate with her show Chewing Gum a few years back, but that show had nothing like the impact of I May Destroy You (HBO), which is almost revolutionary television. Using the 12 episode half hour format, it uses an ensemble of (mainly) Black millennial Londoners to ruthlessly examine sexual assault and the parameters of consent. It’s also, essentially, a comedy.

I wonder what Norman Lear, who famously pushed sitcom boundaries with his shows like All In The Family, would make of it. Well, I know. He’d love it. Humour is a powerful weapon, and Coel absolutely weaponises it here, slashing it like a blade against her gallery of rapists, predators and slime-balls.

Coel plays Arabella, a tweeter turned blogger turned actual about-to-be-published author, who goes for a big night out in London, wakes up with blackouts, and realises she was probably assaulted. Meanwhile, her posse of friends encounter similar issues. That conceit may sound a little engineered, but Coel isn’t messing around. She’s got an axe to grind and her plot mechanics are in service to that. It works. This is confident, compelling stuff, and if some of the plot developments seem contrived, perhaps contrivance is the key. She’s got an issue – and issues with the issue – and we’re here to hash it out. This is a conversation-starter, and it’s a big conversation.

Not that it’s a one-issue show. Over the course of the season, Coel piles on the concerns; two-thirds of the way through, Arabella takes a heel turn, quite shockingly, as she becomes, embraces being, and is made awful by becoming and being a social-media star. All these characters live their lives on their phones, but there seems to be a line, and Arabella crosses it, at least for an episode. Others of the close ensemble deal with sex addiction, urban loneliness and, ultimately, all manner of issues surrounding consent.

Coel also posits some provocative ideas around race, identity and politics that were new, and fascinating, to me. For instance: that among at least a significant segment of young / millennial Black Britons of African descent, climate change is not seen as a given but as a tool of oppression wielded by white people. Arabella buys into this argument and acts on it, perhaps implying that Coel, too, is similarly inclined. Less revelatory to me, but intriguing none the less, was the clear implication, told over a three-episode arc, that among young Black women, loyalty is to Blackness first, womanhood second, or, to put it another way, a Black man is to be believed over a white woman. Thoughtful stuff for people like me, and for anyone.

It’s the TV event of the year, no doubt. It’s angry, vibrant, exhilarating, surprising and funny. It’s not “perfect” – one of the supporting players, whose character is in three episodes, gives a performance so out-of-sync with the rest of the show that it should have been cut, and a late development in the arc of Arabella’s best friend Terry is just too contrived, but the production’s rough edges suit its definite edge, and also, in the end, its narrative raison d’être. It’s a story coming to Arabella and Coel, not easily, but with righteous passion and undeniable integrity, in blood, sweat and tears.

The Rise of the Murdoch Dynasty

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Depending on how much you know about the Murdochs, the 3-Part BBC documentary series The Rise of the Murdoch Dynastydebuting Sunday 20 September at 7:40pm on ABC TV, and simultaneously on ABC iView – will either remind you of the terrifying influence the family, and Rupert in particular, has wielded and continues to wield, particularly in relation to the national and international affairs of Australia, the UK and the USA; wake you up to some very frightening elements of their influence you may not have realised; or blow your mind.

I’m deeply into the Murdochs on a knowledge level – I’ve read Hack Attack, for example, which details some of the most brazen and criminal activities portrayed here – but I’m still finding the show thrilling (I’ve only been given the first episode for review). Beyond its careful and considered presentation of the facts, which are in themselves (terrifyingly) entertaining, the show features on-camera interviews with a lot of very senior players in the Murdoch company history. It’s flammable stuff, the kind of no-nonsense reporting that once could have ‘brought the family down’ but in our current age simply points a very strong finger, knowing full well that, at this level, the subjects have nothing to fear from anybody.

It’s BBC 2, and nothing about it is lurid or sensational. It does tip its hat, in its opening credits, to the TV show Succession, and fans of that show (I’m number one) will love the myriad connections.

A must-see, unless you’ve essentially given up all hope.

I’m Thinking of Ending Things (Netflix)

* * * 1/2

Some people love Charlie Kaufman, in the way that others love Christopher Nolan and others Quentin Tarantino. He has a distinctive voice: whether it’s solely as the screenwriter – Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine of The Spotless Mind, Adaptation – or as auteur – Synecdoche, New York, Anomalisa or now I’m Thinking of Ending Things – Kaufman is grappling with very particular themes in a very particular way. And, as Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood was for Tarantino and Tenet is for Nolan, so Ending Things is very, very much a Kaufman work, and will appeal greatly to those who love him while running the clear risk of alienating those who don’t. Or to put it another way: if you’ve previously not grooved with Kaufman’s vibe, you’ll probably hate this.

I like Kaufman and I liked this, but not in the way that same of his acolytes clearly loved it. It’s full of ideas, it wears its literary and intellectual curiosity with pride, and it’s borderline incomprehensible. Twice – in the first and third acts – it essentially pauses the dramatic action for an incredibly lengthy philosophical / pop cultural discussion that may drive you to tears. And the more you know the references – including the 2016 source novel by Iain Reid- the more the film will work for you. It’s a kind of cinematic club, with enjoyable membership being contingent on knowing and liking the stuff that Kaufman does.

On the surface, a young woman, played by Jessie Buckley, accompanies her boyfriend, played by Jesse Plemons, on a dark snowy drive to visit his parents, played by Toni Collette and David Thewlis, at their farmhouse in one of the United States. In voiceover, she contemplates “ending things”, presumably with him. But nothing is as it seems, and the film keeps opening up, shifting perspective, re-framing expectations and ultimately re-jigging the entire narrative voice. It is, deliberately, a puzzle-box. References abound: Thewlis played the lead voice in Anomalisa, while Plemens seems to be deliberately evoking the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, who played the lead in Synecdoche, New York, the film of Kaufman’s this one most clearly resembles. But is he, or is Plemens just evolving into a Hoffman ‘type’? It’s a mystery, and to enjoy this film, mystery must be embraced.

That said, I listened to a podcast afterwards hosted by a couple of people who had read the book, and once I heard what they had to say, not only did the whole film make sense, it became deeply satisfying. Movies probably shouldn’t require outside research to ‘work’, but that seems to be the deal Kaufman’s demanding of us to come into his world, and why not? He’s an idiosyncratic outsider, his films break the rules, and this one has its own. There is a great deal of rigour and substance here, but you’ve got to be willing to dig for it; otherwise you may scratch your head until you’re bleeding.

Mention should be made of Łukasz Żal’s cinematography, which is superb. As he proved with Ida and Cold War, nobody shoots snow like he does, nor uses the 4:3 ratio to heighten the tension of emotional space.

Bill and Ted Face The Music

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Lundy-Paine and Weaving channel Reeves and Winter.

* * * 1/2

It’s the season of Alex Winter! Recently I reviewed his HBO documentary, Showbiz Kids. Now, as an actor, he’s back on the big screen in his signature role: Bill, who, with his friend Ted, famously had an Excellent Adventure and a Bogus Journey. Now, in their fifties, Bill and Ted Face The Music.

Ted, of course, is played by Keanu Reeves, in the role that kind of made him a star, or at least made him an icon (something that’s happened to him multiple times: his roles in The Matrix and now John Wick can claim similar status). And here, the two music-obsessed, ever-pleasant, relentlessly-chill Californian dudes are joined by their late-teen / early adult (who’s to say?) daughters, Billie and Thea, played sublimely by Brigette Lundy-Paine and Samara Weaving. The apples have not fallen far from the trees, and two of the major delights of the film are Lundy-Paine and Weaving’s performances, as they perfectly reflect their Dads’ physical, vocal and emotional idiosyncrasies without ever lampooning them. Lundy-Paine in particular might as well be Keanu Reeves re-incarnated as a young woman. (Fun Fact: Samara Weaving is Hugo Weaving’s niece; Hugo Weaving played Agent Smith in The Matrix movies; here Samara’s playing Ted’s best friend’s daughter, who may as well be his niece.)

There are many, many other delights; indeed, the whole film is delightful, warm, upbeat and joyous. Every scene, and most every moment, is fun. Set in San Dimas, California, all blue skies and perfect lawns and Spielbergian suburban houses, across multiple time-frames (the thing about Bill and Ted is that they time travel), Bill and Ted Face The Music presents us with the United States of Movie Dreams, completely innocent, prosperous and at peace. This is a movie where every single one of the ‘bad guys’ turns out to be absolutely lovely after all, and everyone is constantly getting along.

Those (not-at-all) bad guys include Death, played again by William Sadler as a European bass-playing Herzog-adjacent dude-wannabe with a heart of gold; The Great Leader (Holland Taylor) who entrusts Bill and Ted with writing, or at least playing, a song to save the world; and a robot named Dennis, played beautifully by Anthony Carrigan, NoHo Hank from Barry. As Bill and Ted deal with each of these loveable villains, their daughters travel through time assembling the greatest band in history to play their song, picking up, among others, Mozart, Jimi Hendrix, Louis Armstrong and a drum-playing neanderthal, Grom, supposedly the greatest drummer to ever have lived.

It’s that kind of movie. It’s silly but never stupid, absurd but never ridiculous. It’s many shades of comfort and joy and it’s coming out in cinemas, so, if you’ve just had your nerves shredded by Tenet, have them healed by Bill and Ted and their excellent music.

 

Love Fraud (Showtime / STAN)

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Another week, another well-built multi-part doco series about crime in America. In this case, Love Fraud (Showtime / STAN) is about a serial internet dater, Richard Scott Smith, who meets, woos, marries and ultimately fleeces an astonishing number of women in a surprisingly compact area (at least, in the first episode, where most of the women seem to be from Kansas). That he does it time and time again is eyebrow-raising; that what he’s doing is kind-of-legal is pretty astonishing. But the series isn’t really about Smith: it’s about his victims, and their quest for vengeance, as they find each other online, band together, and – with the filmmakers along for the ride – hunt him down. It is this immediacy, of the filmmakers being in the back seat, literally, as their subjects pursue their own story, that makes Love Fraud pretty gripping. What makes it most entertaining is the ally the women enlist: a tough-as-old-boots sixty-something “lady bounty hunter” named Carla who, if you encountered her in a fictional show, you wouldn’t believe. She’s a truly unique character, funny, wise and brave, and emblematically, undeniably American. Indeed, all these shows, from Making a Murderer on, aren’t really about the crimes: they’re about America, and the strange things taken for granted there that play like absurd fiction everywhere else.

Showbiz Kids and Saint Frances

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SHOWBIZ KIDS
HBO / Foxtel Showcase
* * * 1/2
 
Written and directed by Alex Winter – Bill from Bill and Ted’s excellent adventures, of which another is coming very soon – the HBO documentary Showbiz Kids lets level-headed survivors of child stardom speak with level heads, rather than revel in sordid and sad tragics and their tragedies.
 
Evan Rachel Wood, Milla Jovovich, Henry Thomas, Wil Wheaton, Mara Wilson and Cameron Boyce all get about equal screen time, while Todd Bridges, Jada Pinkett Smith and ‘Baby Peggy’ – hundred-year-old Diana Serra Cary – also speak their pieces.
 
It’s sober and sobering and not at all trashy. Essentially these adults aren’t moaning, seeking pity nor trying to scare us to death lest we let our kids go on the stage, but their overwhelming message is clear: kids should get to be kids.
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SAINT FRANCES
STAN
* * * 1/2

When Lars Von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg declared their Dogme 95 Manifesto in Paris at the centenary celebration of cinema, they were advocating for a digital democratisation of the filmmaking process: basically, they were saying, let’s let handheld digital movies about real people in real settings with tiny budgets and no tomfoolery get cinema releases and paying audiences. I think they’d admire Saint Frances, which adheres to most of the original 10 Rules to achieve Dogme certification, but which won’t be seen in cinemas in Australia because of the big bad virus; instead, it’s lurking quietly on STAN, where it deserves far more attention than it’s getting.
 
The feature directorial debut from Alex Thompson, surprisingly a man, Saint Frances is a compassionate, funny, warm and super-enjoyable slice-of-life about modern American female life. Bridget (Kelly O’Sullivan, who also wrote the script) is a thirty-four year old midwestern “server” – waitress – who becomes a nanny for the six-year-old daughter of a lesbian couple. Her relationship with the child, Frances (Ramona Edith Williams), grows alongside her consistent embarrassment as she deals with a particular physical irritation. The interweaving of themes of maternity, responsibility, maturity and sexuality is seamless and engrossing. But the film goes further, tackling – with rather exquisite tact and taste – the ongoing culture wars dividing even seemingly affluent, progressive American neighbourhoods in such theoretically neutral spaces as the playground. Unafraid to stand its ground, Saint Frances is also unafraid to engage the enemy with empathy. It’s a lovely movie, and lingers in the mind.

Tenet

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* * * 1/2

Christopher Nolan’s new globetrotting espionage action epic may be the loudest movie I’ve ever seen; afterwards I craved silence, or at least birdsong. It’s also almost self-parodically convoluted. Most of the dialogue is rendered indecipherable by the seat-shaking score and sound design; the end result is essentially incomprehensible, such that I’m not going to attempt any plot summary, as, frankly, on a story level, I have no idea what I’ve just seen.

Which is not to say that Tenet is unenjoyable; it’s totally enjoyable, as a cinema spectacle and an aesthetic indulgence. It may sound (at times) uncomfortably overwhelming, but it looks great. Essentially Nolan’s take on a Bond film, Tenet hops all over the world – comically so in its first half, as characters continue dialogue from one scene to the next while seeming to leap continents. As with the best Bond, Europe is the film’s main playground, with Oslo at its centre. (I believe the next actual Bond, No Time To Die, also shot in Norway, so we’ll see how much actual overlap there may be when that opens in November). It really is the right film for those of us denied travel: it seems to go everywhere.

Of the Bonds, it riffs (and lifts) most from Thunderball, especially in the central relationship between Elizabeth Debicki and Kenneth Branagh; he’s a world-class Russian (or something) villain, she’s the trophy wife he won’t let go, and at one point, just like in Thunderball, it looks like he’s going to torture her in her cabin on his gorgeous motor yacht. Their relationship is the only ‘real’ one in the film, and for many people – myself included – Debicki will be the only interesting character. Thankfully, she’s in it a lot, and her performance, grounded in emotion denied the other characters, locates at least her scenes in a realm approaching conventional drama.

The rest – as incomprehensibly but enthusiastically declaimed by John David Washington and Robert Pattinson – is techno-babble mumbo-jumbo, but it’s written and delivered with integrity, even if we can’t decipher it. Even more so than Inception, Nolan’s original screenplay for Tenet seems designed to provoke after-movie discussion and repeated viewing to ‘crack it’. This style of story-telling has earned a modern moniker, ‘mystery box’, and it’s not for everyone, and certainly not for people who like clean narratives. I have little doubt the story pieces in Tenet add up to something amazing once you see it multiple times and put it together like a jigsaw puzzle, but there’s no way to ‘get it’ as it unspools: not at this volume, anyway. Tenet is the film that distributors around the world are counting on to get us back into cinemas, and it is wholly deserving of the biggest possible screen, if not the loudest possible sound system.

Lovecraft Country, Les Miserables

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Lovecraft Country

HBO / Foxtel

As with the TV version of Watchmen, Lovecraft Country, on HBO, dramatises ugly truths about daily life as a black person in America amongst fantastical elements – in this case, monsters in the style of H.P. Lovecraft’s. It’s being doled out, an episode at a time, old school; the pilot, called Sundown, at a hundred and nine minutes, assumedly lays down a fair sense of the larger (eight-episode) framework.

Jonathan Majors, a Yale School of Drama graduate making a big play for big recognition after staking his claim with singular performances in The Last Black Man In San Francisco and Da 5 Bloods, plays Atticus, a 30-something Black American man in the 1950s whose alcoholic father has gone missing in ‘Lovecraft Country’, an area of New England in the United States lived in by the horror fantasist H.P. Lovecraft. Together with his uncle and a female friend, Atticus sets out on a road trip to find his father, facing the terror not only of Lovecraftian monsters but American racists.

As Watchmen did with its amazing pilot, revealing the neglected historical event of the ‘Massacre of Black Wall Street’ in Tulsa in 1921, Lovecraft Country shows us things Americans would rather forget. In the case of the pilot episode, it’s the concept of ‘Sundown Towns’ (and counties), places where, if black people were found after dark, they could be arrested – and worse – by the police. The very concept itself is more terrifying than anything that plays on screen, but the episode is visceral, exciting and polished, and the three leads – Majors is joined on the journey by Jurnee Smollett and Courtney B. Vance – display an easygoing and inviting chemistry. It’ll be intriguing to see how this very high concept plays out.

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Les Misérables

Cinemas

* * * 1/2

Not to be confused with Victor Hugo’s novel, Ladj Ly’s banlieue policier is deliberately named after it, and is set in the Paris commune – Montfermeil – in which the Thénardiers had their inn in the book. As with La Haine, made twenty-five years ago, Ly’s debut fiction feature is about the seeds of trouble in the Paris projects, and, like La Haine, tension is built from a situation which could be avoided but which inexorably grows out of control.

There’s a lot of very skilful filmmaking, suburb performances and a total grasp of milieu on display: Ly grew up here and he knows the turf, the tensions, the terroir. It’s compelling, sometimes gripping, but, to be honest, the basic plot mechanics here aren’t radically different to similar scenarios in Engrenages (Spiral), where they have been done just as well. But if you’ve missed the first seven seasons of that brilliant TV show, get a taste of what Ly’s offering here, and then do yourself a favour and dial up The Best TV Show Ever on SBS (Season 8 is coming later this year!)