Hustlers

Hustlers.png

Here’s my riddle:

This week I’ve seen

Four Martin Scorsese movies

But no movies

Directed by Martin Scorsese.

Ho ho ho. The answer, of course, is that I’ve seen Joker, thereby seeing Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy, and now Hustlers, thereby taking in GoodFellas and Casino.

Luckily, Lorene Scafaria’s adaptation of a fascinating New York magazine article, despite being astonishingly derivative on a directorial level, has some fresh vibes in the excellent chemistry between Constance Wu and Jennifer Lopez, as a young stripper and her mentor who turn to crime in the wake of the Global Financial Crisis. Their friendship is believable and enjoyable, and carries the movie through its otherwise unbearably repetitive (and long) second act into its pacy and legitimately compelling third. They’re supported by a terrific ensemble, including Keke Palmer, Lili Reinhart and Mette Towley; when they’re not required to laugh hysterically at each other’s sass like everything that everyone says is the funniest thing ever – seriously, spending three minutes in the strip club’s raucous dressing room is exhausting given the level of bonhomie – they exude a communal warmth that fuels the film’s buoyant spirit. Fun.

Joker

After its big surprise win in Venice, a big splash (and some backlash) in Toronto, a storm (in a teacup) of opinion on social media, self-generating fear of cinema violence and even incel insurrection, Joker, starring Joaquin Phoenix and directed by The Hangover’s Todd Phillips, arrives on our screens to a resounding, “hm.” It’s a fine enough film, extremely well crafted, but, in direct opposition to its buzz, there is no discernible need to see it. Indeed, if you’ve seen Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy both, there is truly nothing for you, as Joker, aping those films and setting itself in 1980 squat between them, doesn’t even update their concerns for our own troubled age.

Cinematography, art direction and Phoenix’s performance are the draws here; the story is so derivative, drawn out, empty and vapid that the film’s biggest fault is that it drags. Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy had wit and style; Joker has no wit and all its style is stolen. Its tale of a poor down-trodden wannabe urban comedian who descends into violence has been often told, with minor variations, and resonance to real-life events, most specifically to “subway vigilante” Bernhard Goetz, does not come with any insight. Ugliness is on display here purely for its own sake.

The best takeaway from this film is as a set-up for an upcoming Batman (like we need another). The final scenes are suitably baroque, befitting the Joker’s origin story as operatically linked to Bruce Wayne’s; try as Phillips, his marketing team, and everyone else at Warner Bros. may have to deny it, this is just another comic book movie, in a darker than usual key.

Judy

* * *

If subtlety – of storytelling or performance – is your thing, Judy, starring Renée Zellweger as Judy Garland in the tumultuous final stages of her career and life, will not be for you. Subtle it is not, nor is Zellweger’s performance, which, given its precision and grandiosity, will almost certainly win her the Oscar and many other statues along the way. She will have deserved it. Playing Judy seems like a feat of endurance, which is also the experience of watching the movie.

The first act is enjoyable, as mid-40s Judy, struggling to keep custody of her two children to her third husband Sidney Luft (Rufus Sewell, bringing some admirable restraint), takes a gig in London at a very posh dinner theatre for a five-week engagement, while teenage Judy, in flashback, learns the cold realities of child stardom on the set of The Wizard of Oz. The film neatly sets up a cause and effect scenario around Judy’s lifelong struggles, placing, essentially, a choice of applause and addiction over “normalcy” on her young shoulders. This long section culminates with Judy’s first London performance, which Zellweger does in a one-take wonder that will be all the Academy needs to give her the gold.

From there, though, it’s downhill; repetitive scenes of drunken and drug-addled anguish and dreadful decisions (wait until you see what she does on a winter’s day in a park with a young man) get very tiresome. No one wants to hang out with a delusional self-pitying, very messy drunk for an hour, but the movie makes you, until desperately reaching for your sympathy with one of the most laboured endings in recent memory. The film splits focus by serving up multiple antagonists for Judy and underserving all of them, most egregiously Jesse Buckley’s Rosalyn, the young woman assigned to, essentially, make sure Judy got to the theatre, and onto the stage, every night. Their relationship is the film’s most intriguing but is sadly undercooked.

Ultimately overstaying its welcome by being repetitive and dramatically frustrating, Judy is worth seeing by the right audience for the inherent interest of the historical story (although there’s a lot of made-up nonsense) and Zellweger’s performance, which, however grandiose, is legitimately worthy.

Working Woman

Working Woman.png

* * * 1/2

A young mother of three in Tel Aviv, happily married to a chef whose restaurant is struggling, gets an exciting, demanding and potentially highly rewarding job as the assistant to a very successful and powerfully connected real estate developer. But there’s trouble, and it’s him.

This is a forensic examination of just how workplace sexual harassment can not only play out but ensnare its victims in deeply complicated, confusing, dehumanising emotional and psychological webs. Without ever resorting to lurid plot developments or any hint of sensationalism, nor directorial tricks (there isn’t even a score), the film anchors you deeply within the brutal turmoil of the protagonist’s dilemma.

No film, nor book nor play, has come close to demonstrating to me – an Australian man – the subtleties of how such behaviour can continue, escalate, evolve and keep the victim on the hook as well as this. The antagonist is Weinstein-esque without being on-the-nose; the effect is to enhance the empathy one already feels for everyone who ever worked for him, or men like him. Vital viewing for our sad age, and to help us move forward to the next.

Ride Like a Girl

Rachel Griffiths’ feature directorial debut is directly aimed at the younger female market, and, as an aspirational and inspirational true story with heart, good intentions, an excellent central performance and absolutely killer source material, Ride Like a Girl is a winner. Like the girl power pop anthems that litter the soundtrack, this is a pop confection that knows its audience. Far be it for me to churlishly point out too many deficiencies – some slack editing, some iffy dialogue and some far too glorious (CGI-infected) sunsets; this is a rousing crowd-pleaser that earns its box office success.

Teresa Palmer is engaging, credible and ultimately the film’s trump card as Michelle Payne, the youngest of ten children brought up in a horse training and racing family in Victoria, who dreams of riding in the Melbourne Cup. Her journey as told here, with significant dramatic ellipsis (there’s one particular time jump that conveniently skips arguably a movie’s worth of drama) is not so much one of fighting against racing’s patrimony as of jockeying for position (ho ho ho) within her family for her father’s blessing to ride. Her dad is played by Sam Neill, one of the screen’s consummate professionals and a master of exuding empathy, so there’s nothing to worry about there. This is a girl and horse and father and family story first; it is inherently feminist but never makes gender its central concern. Thankfully, there’s no romantic subplot; outside of her dad, Michelle’s central relationship is with her brother Stevie, winningly played by the actual Stevie Payne. Palmer and Payne’s chemistry is sublime, and the quiet scenes between them are the film’s best.

What will be concerning to some parents is the film’s long second act dealing with Michelle’s attempts to rapidly and recklessly bring her weight down to 50 kg to ride a particular race. We see Palmer starving herself, push herself physically, and even wrap herself in plastic and go driving in a car with the heat turned up through the night. This is not presented as dangerous but simply as par for the course and when she weighs in at 50kg, a triumph. It’s astonishing that the film goes there with this clearly unhealthy behaviour; TabCorp – the horse racing gambling establishment – and the Victorian Racing Authority were major supporters of the film, so make of that what you will. Needless to say, you don’t see any horses being mistreated, let alone fatally shot on the track; if, inherently, you cannot stomach the horse racing industry, clearly you are not going to want to see this film, which passionately adores the practice. I have put aside my own disagreements with the industry for the sake of this review.

The Eulogy

This consistently engrossing documentary is extremely elegantly structured as a mystery: why did Australia’s finest concert pianist die in destitution, alone, young? Framing the investigation is the eulogy given for the magnificently talented departed by the ex-Prime Minister Of Australia Paul Keating, who used the somber occasion to lambast the country’s two most prominent symphony orchestras for not employing the prodigy enough, and, in a way, blaming them for his death.

The pianist in question is Geoffrey Tozer, and if you don’t know much about him, or haven’t heard of him at all, that only goes to support the film’s thesis. You’ll certainly know him by the end of the movie, which reveals its many secrets with the expert timing of an Agatha Christie.

In lieu of Hercule Poirot, we have Richard Gill, a marvellous music teacher and conductor who looks like Jim Broadbent and investigates the mystery with the dogged determination of a classical Colombo. He gives this sometimes sad, sometimes joyous detective story a narrative spine and a lot of heart. Highly recommended.

Recent Film and Television

Amiable, very Jim Jarmuschian dead-pan zombie comedy The Dead Don’t Die is held together almost entirely by the warm interplay between Bill Murray and Adam Driver as a couple of small-town cops dealing with the undead rising. Tilda Swinton is also a delight in an almost entirely physical performance. Loads of other terrific indie-centric actors – Steve Buscemi, Tom Waits, Danny Glover, Caleb Landry Jones, Chloë Sevigny – play small parts (none smaller nor more perfect than Carol Kane’s), seem to be having a lark, and probably did it for one. There are clear but never on-the-nose reverberations with the Trump presidency and all the madness it entails, the zombie apocalypse being a manifestation of a world that is so upset, it’s “not going to end well” (as Driver’s character insists throughout the film). Fun. * * *

Also kind of fun is Good Boys, which follows three twelve year old boys as they try and prepare to go to a “kissing party.” Terrified, they aim to self-educate by watching porn, using a drone to spy on older kids, and other methods, all of which comedically misfire (of course), sending them on further misadventures. The kids’ charm, the script’s inherent nostalgic value (it’s basically a remake of producer Seth Rogan and Evan Goldberg’s 2007 breakthrough Superbad, with younger kids) and a hefty dose of good will provide the film’s value, rather than any particularly brilliant gags. It’ll give you a smile and then you’ll forget you ever saw it. * * 1/2

Truly fun, and laugh-out loud funny on many occasions, is Netflix’s compact original movie Between so Ferns: The Movie. Zach Galifianakis’s strange, unsettling talk show Between Two Ferns produced 22 episodes on Funny Or Die Between 2008 and 2018; this hilarious mockumentary, directed by the show’s creator Scott Aukerman, offers us a glimpse “behind the scenes” of the show’s production and then sends Zach, his small crew, and us on a road trip to tape more episodes in order to appease his corporate overlord Will Ferrell (who really does own Funny Or Die). Hilarious, and you don’t need to be a fan of the original show, although Galifianakis is definitely an acquired taste. * * * 1/2

There is no reason to watch The Masked Singer (Network 10), a Korean competition format that has been replicated around the world and now arrives in Australia losing many, many things in translation, including any sense of integrity. Among the many disastrous elements of the show, perhaps the worst is the enforced and completely unbelievable pretence of gaiety, enthusiasm, passion and commitment emanating like childish playacting from the host and four “judges”. Watching them pretend that any of this is actually worthwhile is like watching starving puppies being forced to jump for a fake sausage dangling on a string.

Birds of Passage

Birds of Passage, from Ciro Guerra and Christina Gallego (Embrace of the Serpent, 2014), is a drug cartel story, encompassing many of the genre’s story tropes, but remarkably fresh thanks to its milieu and tone. Inspired by the historical record of two indigenous Columbian families embarking on selling marijuana to Americans from the late 60s until the early 80s, the film avoids sensationalism, humor, flashbacks, voice-over and all the other conventions laid out in GoodFellas and copied ever since, instead opting for stillness, gravitas and cultural integrity.

These families feel as protected by highly-prized necklaces, as well as a particular talisman, as they do by guns; debts are paid in goats and cows rather than cash. Dreams are given the weight of premonitory evidence, and “word messengers” carry the implicit protection of “made men” in Scorsese’s mafia. Against the dry desert landscapes and spoken in authentic indigenous languages by a range of professional actors and first-timers, the film, although absolutely cinematic, feels archival and authentic, as well as other worldly. Its themes and story arcs are simultaneously universal and thoroughly specific. This unique film will be easily appreciated not only by the Scarface completist, but the cultural tourist and art-house anthropologist as well.

Ad Astra

American auteur James Gray has combined the calm, grand spectacle of 2001, the essential plot structure of Apocalypse Now, and, possibly, the best bits of his therapy sessions to create Ad Astra, a slow-burn “hard” sci-fi thriller that is by turns captivating, mesmerizing and infuriating. The journey is rather awesome but the destination is unworthy.

Brad Pitt plays the coolest astronaut ever – literally; his BPM have never risen above 80, even during emergencies. That’s partly his legacy: his dad is the boldest astronaut ever, having travelled further from earth than any other. Now dad may be gone a little wonky out there in deep deep deep space, and his son needs to travel the solar river into his own heart of darkness, and convince Dad not to destroy humankind.

The effects, slow and quiet, are a wonder, and Pitt, quiet and introspective, holds the screen. Three truly unexpected action sequences provide intriguingly strange jolts to the action. The production design is inspired (Mars particularly). But the denouement is self-parodically on the nose. Go for the rockets, which are great, rather than the existentialism, which is contrived.

Freaks

Freaks 2019.png

Charmingly lo-fi (and obviously low budget) sci-fi thriller Freaks tells the story of a little suburban girl grappling with her and her father’s potential identities as somehow other / abnormal / alien. Set principally in a few key locations with a small cast, the script touches on themes of immigration, intolerance, migrant detention and even concepts like the creation of Israel as a haven for Jews (however obliquely). Bruce Dern has a big role bringing his crabby A game (and the occasional welcome laugh) and once-was-wonder-boy Emile Hirsch is solid as the Dad. As Chloe, the little girl with a lot on her plate, Lexy Kolker is generally credible, but some scenes just require too much of her, and directors Zach Lipovsky and Adam B. Stein seem to have had to occasionally edit around her less authentic moments. Not afraid to hit a few hard beats, this little DIY effort shows a lot of guts.