The Last Duel

In Cinemas 21 October.

* * * 1/2

Sir Ridley Scott’s sprawling, very expensive-looking, old-school epic throwback The Last Duel is a strange beast. Featuring masterfully designed and executed art direction (it’s set in France in the 1300s, with castles, horses, gates, bridges, lances, swords, ladies in waiting, armour, medieval Paris, and about sixty never-not-roaring fireplaces), a superb central performance from Jodie Comer, and three fruity turns from Adam Driver, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, it succeeds in being engaging and entertaining throughout its two-and-a-half-hour runtime despite an icky story.

Scott uses Rashomon’s structure: an alleged sexual assault, told three times from three different perspectives, including that of the victim (Comer, of course, with Driver the accused). It’s rather shocking, seeing a big-budget rape drama (with an A-List actor playing the alleged rapist); to see rape portrayed at all demands sensitivity and kid gloves, and this movie’s gloves are all made of heavy metal.

Frankly, the themes are too grave for the flamboyant treatment, yet it’s the treatment that’s entertaining. Filled with astonishing visuals, and perhaps saved by Comer’s precise performance, the film succeeds despite itself, a ravishing relic.

Nitram

Now in Cinemas

* * * *

You have every right and reason not to go see Justin Kurzel’s new film Nitram, despite its impeccable craftsmanship and staggeringly effective performances. It chronicles events leading up to the worst mass shooting in Australia’s history, and it’s as bleak and depressing as cinema gets. Stay away, by all means. This is not for everybody.

Is it for anybody? And by that, what I really mean is, does it have a reason to exist? About halfway through I wasn’t so sure; by the end I was, absolutely. For Nitram is a thorough, methodical, detailed, unsensational and sincere examination of mental illness; it is also a quietly powerful anti-gun plea for common sense.

The film makes the effective case for the shooter’s mental health leading directly to his actions, and along the way reminds us that, often, warning signs of serious trouble are evident. It is not so much that it’s sympathetic to the shooter; rather, it tries to wrestle with how things like this could happen: not because of ‘evil’, but when certain very disturbed people get their hands on guns. Without blaming society, or any one person in particular, the film couldn’t be clearer that mentally ill people need help, and we shouldn’t have guns circulating in society. Both concepts sound self-evident, obvious, but the film delivers the message with great impact and fresh clarity.

Caleb Landry Jones won Best Actor at Cannes for his lead role, and it is truly an astonishing performance, the best I’ve seen this year. We have come far in the depiction of mental illness on film, and this surely sets the new benchmark. Everything he does rings true. He is supported by equally precise naturalistic performances from Judy Davis (as his mother), Anthony LaPaglia (his father) and particularly Essie Davis as Helen, a woman with whom he develops an unusual and impactful relationship.

This is clearly similar territory for Kurzel to Snowtown (2011), his terrifying examination of the events leading up to the Adelaide serial killings. There are great tonal and aesthetic similarities, and a similarly bleak sense of existential despair, but there are also crucial differences. Snowtown featured graphic scenes of horrific violence and essentially operated as a horror film, albeit one of impeccable integrity and craftsmanship. Nitram has no onscreen violence and operates as a cautionary, sad drama. They are easily Kurzel’s two best films, and Nitram is one of the best films of the year, but one I can only recommend with reservations. Put it this way: if you think it’s not for you, you’re probably right.

Only Murders In The Building, Hacks, Foundation

Milieu is everything in Only Murders In The Building (Disney+), a half-hour cosy mystery set in a gorgeous, sprawling, classic Manhattan apartment building. Steve Martin and Martin Short continue their forty year or so on-again off-again collaboration as two mature show-biz types whose prime days are way past; true-crime podcast obsessives, they hook up with a third, a young woman played by Selena Gomez, to solve a murder in the building. It’s warm, charming and sweet: total lockdown comfort food. It’s also underwritten, at times rather casually directed, and features a very weird, even off-putting, performance by Gomez. But watching Martin and Short together is a treat, and the milieu is delicious.

Sometimes the right actor just gets the right TV role, and hits the jackpot. That’s an intentional, albeit lame, pun, as Jean Smart’s role in Hacks (STAN), as Deborah Vance, a Joan Rivers-like stand-up comedian, sees her revelling in all things Las Vegas. Vance, as Rivers was, is a star of the Vegas Strip, performing a hundred shows a year, and making unimaginable amounts of money. But the guy who owns the casino she works in wants to slowly decrease her workload, so to give the appearance of sharpening up her act, she agrees to her agent’s request to hire a young joke-writer, Ava (Hannah Einbinder), who is at least 45 years younger than her and light years away in all sensibilities.

Their culture clash forms the spine of this feted half-hour comedy, but the depiction of a ludicrously lavish Las Vegas lifestyle is more than half the fun. Rivers was famously loaded, as is Vance, and the wealth porn on display is magnificent and eye-opening. Why would you ever work Vegas? Well, this house is why, and this lifestyle. Much like Rivers herself was, Vance is simultaneously a fan of Vegas and a woman of some taste, and seeing that culture clash – how to be tastefully obscenely wealthy in an obscenely tasteless place – is fun indeed. Smart won the Emmy recently, and she’s the reason to watch: she’s fantastic, making the most of every single moment.

On Apple TV+, Isaac Asimov’s Foundation gets a very expensive outing. One of the first vehicles we see in the first episode is extremely close to Luke Skywalker’s landspeeder from Star Wars, and myriad other references – especially to ‘Empire’ – make it clear that Asimov’s novel was indeed, for George Lucas, a foundational text. But Star Wars is fantasy, and this is ‘hard’ sci-fi, so everyone is giving a stoic performance, and solemnity is the key tone. Sometimes the mood is deliberately lightened, clearly to aid accessibility, and when it is, the tone clashes jarringly. I’ve not read the Asimov, but I doubt there was such importance played to a shipboard romance as there is here. Thankfully, there’s an awful lot of science, or pseudo-science, and mathematics going on as well, which is, I gather, what the Asimov heads will want, along with spectacular VFX world-building (and there are a lot of worlds). It feels mostly respectful to Asimov’s tone and story, which may make it good for the fans and incomprehensible to the rest of us.

Diana’s Wedding, The Chair, Impeachment

At select cinemas across Australia from 23 September, Diana’s Wedding, a decades-spanning tale of the marriage of two spiky Norwegians who get hitched the same day as Princess Diana,is warm, charming, observant, honest, with absolutely winning performances from the two leads. It’s the best Norwegian film I’ve seen in a few years. Delightful and absolutely worth your time. * * * 1/2

Kingsley Amis and Vladimir Nabokov, among others, wrote comedies of academic life, and the central conflict often involved a culture clash between ageing professors and the youthful progressive students. So it is with The Chair, a new Netflix half-hour comedy starring Sandra Oh as the newly-minted chair of an American University’s English department. Her professors are stuck in their ways; she’s stuck in the middle. It’s not the most biting satire and the more invested you are in woke politics the less authentic it will feel; instead, it’s light, charming, and very easily swallowed. You won’t be fighting over the dinner table about issues it raises so much as singing the praises of the older character actors populating the stuffy department, particularly Holland Taylor as a feisty boozy flirt. A central (romantic) entanglement between Oh’s character and one of her male professors is far less interesting than watching the shenanigans of the older thesps.

American Crime Story: Impeachment on Foxtel, the latest Ryan Murphy extravaganza, sees his muse Sarah Paulson playing Linda Tripp, the ex-White House Counsel secretary who nudged Monica Lewinsky (Beanie Feldstein) into the world’s brightest spotlight. So far (one ep in) it’s typically Murphyesque: overblown and melodramatic yet compulsive storytelling. And it is the story itself that’s compelling, along with Paulson’s sharp, specific performance. Clive Owen’s Bill Clinton is in it for about a second and a half; this is Tripp and Lewinsky’s story.

Under The Volcano

* * * *

VOD from 1 September.

Australian director Gracie Otto follows her excellent 2013 feature documentary The Last Impresario, about producer Michael White, with another enormously entertaining and charmingly breezy entertainment feature doco, Under the Volcano, about Sir George Martin’s post-Beatles adventure building and running a music studio on the West Indian island of Montserrat.

Air Studios only operated from 1979 to 1989 on the small volcanic island, but in that time a rather incredible batch of your favourite childhood albums were recorded there, including Ghost In The Machine and Synchronicity by The Police, Too Low For Zero by Elton John, Steel Wheels by The Rolling Stones and Brothers In Arms by Dire Straits, along with seminal albums by Jimmy Buffet, Duran Duran, Ultravox and many others.

The Police are interviewed in full, along with members of Dire Straits, Duran Duran, Buffet and so forth; also included are staff and crew from the studios, Montserrat locals, and, in lieu of Martin himself, his son, who speaks with great insight into his dad’s dreams and methods. Since the gang’s all here and they did their two most important albums there, The Police get the most screen time, and while Sting remains incredibly charismatic and handsome, it is Stewart Copeland who provides the most energetic and amusing recollections. He’s a character, that Copeland.

The eventual demise of the studio – and the island – gets short shrift. Under The Volcano is a celebration, not an elegy, and does everything it can to remain as upbeat as a track from side one of Brothers In Arms. I loved every minute.

No Sudden Move

* * * *

Steven Soderbergh’s No Sudden Move is familiar territory for him, as cosy for those of us who love his work as a warm blanket. There are multiple echoes, homages, illusions and references to his previous work – especially in the casting, but also thematically, stylistically and tonally – wrapped up in a period piece, which is the most unusual aspect of the material for him.

That period is the 50s; the place, though, is Detroit, and seeing top-billed Don Cheadle in a mansion there – with a gun, no less – obviously evokes the incredible third act of Out of Sight. Indeed, Cheadle’s character here, Curt Goynes, is like an alternative version of Out of Sight’s Maurice Miller: there’s a stingingly direct reference to a prison stabbing that, in the right cinema with the right audience, would elicit howls of self-satisfaction.

Goynes is offered five Gs at the beginning of the film for a three hour (criminal) job; his partners in this crime will be played by Benicio Del Toro and Kieran Culkin, and along the way, as things get more and more and more and more complicated, he’ll encounter characters played by, among many others, Jon Hamm, Bill Duke, David Harbour, Brendan Fraser, Amy Seimetz, Julia Fox and Ray Liotta. Everyone has a great time playing various levels of scuzzbucket; so do we. This is Soderbergh very much en forme, working from a terrific script by Ed Solomon, and the film’s pleasures are constant and rich.

Room 2806

The Netflix true-crime docuseries may have jumped the shark a couple of times, but when they’re good they can be very, very good, and Room 2806, a four-parter about the very serious accusation of sexual assault against Dominique Strauss-Kahn (‘DSK’) when he was at the peak of his power, intellect and ability, is very, very good. Compellingly structured and movingly told, featuring interviews with Strauss-Kahn’s victim Nafissatou Diallo, other women accusing Strauss-Kahn of other crimes, investigating officers, attorneys and French officials of all stripes and statures who have known Strauss-Kahn over the years, it paints another brutal portrait of a man who could have done so much good if he hadn’t done such terrible bad, and the women whose lives were torpedoed by it. Massive in scope, encompassing not only the case but the media frenzy surrounding it both in the US and France, the political fall-out and its place in the historical timeline of #metoo, this is a superb, gripping and vital production. It also demonstrates – perhaps reinforces – a cultural attitude to sexual misbehaviour among a certain strata of French society that would be hilarious in its stereotypical self-ownership were it not so tragically misaligned in relation to DSK’s particular predilections.

When you’re done, see if you can find Abel Ferrara’s 2014 film Welcome to New York, which dramatises some of these events and stars – perfectly – Gérard Depardieu as (a renamed version of) DSK.

The White Lotus and This Way Up

Australian actor Murray Bartlett gets the kind of mid-career, middle-age role most jobbing TV actors dream of in Mike White’s pandemic-shot, Hawaii-based ensemble dramatic comedy The White Lotus (Foxtel, from HBO). Bartlett plays Armond, the manager of a luxe Hawaiian resort dealing with a contingent of needy guests. They’re not all bad people, but they’re all privileged, and different degrees of difficult. Watching Bartlett as Armond navigate their demands is often very, very funny; it’s a sublime performance, playing against an ensemble of famous and instantly recognisable faces including Connie Britton, Steve Zahn, Jennifer Coolidge, Alexandria Daddario and Sydney Sweeney. All of them are playing to type, well; Daddario and Sweeney are particularly good. But Bartlett steals the show: his Armond is the centre of the resort and the drama and he takes seemingly effortless control. Mike White’s writing is never subtle but unfailingly well observed and often very sharp, and his direction is moody and evocative. HBO (and hence Foxtel) are doling out the six episodes weekly; all three so far have been crackers.

On STAN, Aisling Bea’s half-hour comedy This Way Up has just dropped its second six-episode season. I’m just discovering it – halfway through Season One – and it’s a total delight. Bea plays Aine, a thritysomething Irish lass living in London and just trying to cope (at the beginning of ep one she’s being discharged from a facility after a nervous breakdown). Sharon Horgan (Catastrophe) plays her older sister who seems to have things a bit more together. The sisters’ relationship is the core of the show and the scenes between Bea and Horgan – they’ve played sisters before, on the BBC series Dead Boss – sparkle with natural affection and sharp wit. Lovely.