Famous Women, played brilliantly

THE EYES OF TAMMY FAYE

* * * *

Michael Showalter’s dramatic adaptation of Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato’s 2000 documentary about Tammy Faye Bakker and her entrepreneurial evangelistic husband Jim Bakker is fuelled by fantastic performances. Jessica Chastain declares her intentions (to be awesome!) in a single, long close-up that opens the film, and she doesn’t disappoint, giving one of the great turns of 2021. But Andrew Garfield’s portrayal of the deeply complicated Jim sneaks up on you; as Jim ages, Garfield’s interpretation grows more intriguing, sly and effective. This is a film that becomes more compelling as it goes, saving its best ammunition for acts two and three, and if you had pre-conceived notions of Tammy Faye – as I did – it’s an eye-opener.

SPENCER

* * * *

Pablo Larraín’s ‘fable inspired by a true tragedy’, fantastically and poetically imagining a version of three days over Christmas spent by Princess Diana at Sandringham, sits thematically comfortably (or uncomfortably) alongside his Jackie from 2016. Both films intimately examine the most famous women in the world at the peak moments of their fame, and how that intense glare affects them. In Diana’s case, played exquisitely by Kristen Stewart, we are on the edge of existential despair and mental illness.

The film is stunning to look at and, with Jonny Greenwood’s score, dreamy, evocative and haunting. Indeed, at times it feels like a horror movie, a Polanski-like mental descent. Don’t come for any kind of history lesson; come for the vibe.

Six Recent Films

THE LOST DAUGHTER (Netflix)

Olivia Colman plays an academic vacationing alone in Greece who is forced to consider her legacy as a mother of two daughters when she crosses paths with a large creepy family. Maggie Gyllenhaal’s feature directorial debut, adapting Elena Ferrante’s novel, is superb as both truly suspenseful thriller and intricate psychological portrait; the tone of menace and destabilisation is consistent and intense.

NIGHTMARE ALLEY (Cinemas from Thursday)

Guillermo del Toro’s 1941-set neo-noir about a hustler (Bradley Cooper) who learns how to become a ‘mentalist’ at a flea-ridden carnival is full of ideas (and astonishingly beautiful sets) but, at two and a half hours, is a bit of a plod. A ton of great actors, including Willem Defoe and Toni Collette, get to be colourful along the way.

THE TRAGEDY OF MACBETH (Apple+ and cinemas)

Joel Coen’s adaptation of The Tragedy of Macbeth is fun, lean, mean and gorgeously designed and shot, with clear, bold performances. Stripped to its essence in all regards, the play shines through, shot and spoken with care and love.

THE KING’S MAN (Cinemas)

Matthew Vaughn’s prequel to his two Kingman: The Secret Service movies may be the best of the three; it’s certainly better than the last one which was not good. Here Ralph Fiennes takes the heroic lead, showing us what his James Bond might have been. Guess what? It would have been sublime. The story, an alt-history fantasia set around WW1, is wooly, shaggy and ludicrous, but it has some moments of pathos, new to the series, that Fiennes absolutely nails. Acting of this caliber can raise a silly action movie like this to greater heights, and here, it does. I had fun.

THE HAND OF GOD (Netflix)

Paolo Sorrentino’s The Hand of God is full of magic moments; it’s funny, heartwarming and very wise, and restores to Naples what Gomorrah removed: beauty. It’s a sublime and moving account of his teenage years in that gritty city in the 1980s, and a late entry into the list for best films of 2021.

MR SATURDAY NIGHT (Foxtel)

This 90-minute documentary on Robert Stigwood and, in particular, his creation of Saturday Night Fever is slender, feeling like the magazine article rather than the proper biography. However, if you’re unfamiliar with the story, it’s a truly fascinating one.

The French Dispatch

* * * *

Wes Anderson’s tribute to The New Yorker (dedicated to a swathe of its golden-era writers in the end credits) is a gloriously cheerful celebration of that magazine, France, erudition, intellectualism and writing. It’s as Wes Anderson-y as it gets, tripling down on the production design, cinematography, performance and sonic aesthetic that is often imitated but is his and his alone.

If you like his vibe, The New Yorker and France, you’ll almost certainly love this. It’s astonishingly crafted, full of exquisite detail, and very, very funny. Within his oeuvre I’d place it alongside The Grand Budapest Hotel, as an example of him working full-tilt within his own style, with clearly hefty resources.

There are so many sets, so many jokes, and so many movie stars, both American and French; a fun running gag is that some of the French ones play American and vice-versa. Narratively it’s a trifle, being composed of three stories enveloped in, essentially, a framing device (the founding editor of an English-language magazine based in France passes away); but who has ever come to Anderson for the story? You come for the style, and that’s never been better – or more pronounced – than it is here.

Dune

* * * *

Denis Villeneuve’s Dune Part 1 (aka Dune) instantly joins the ranks of the great, big-budget, mass-market sci-fi extravaganzas, including 2001, Star Wars, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Blade Runner, all of which it either references, pays homage to, or is clearly influenced by. In the case of Star Wars, the references become quite heady, because Star Wars is so clearly influenced by Dune, the novel, that Villeneuve’s imagery re-builds upon imagery influenced by his source material. Is this a sandcrawler that I see before me?

What Villeneuve does so well here is make all this familiar stuff feel so fresh, and a huge part of it involves Hans Zimmer’s score, which is ominous, threatening, suitably alien, and omnipresent. It really sets the tone, and it’s really unique. I’m no musician, but I reckon its singular arresting sonic motif combines (or is inspired by) the bagpipe and an Islamic prayer call. This ain’t Also sprach Zarathustra, nor – very definitely – is it John Williams.

No, this is darker all around; Zimmer’s intense, at times frightening score is clear about that. It’s dark and it’s serious: there is one clear joke, delivered by the one character who seems allowed to make jokes. Everywhere else, all is somber. In a way, it feels like Star Wars for grown-ups.

What took me by surprise was how much action there was. The first act is world-building but acts two and three are both pretty much relentless action set-pieces. It may be ‘hard’ sci-fi, but it’s totally accessible.

It’s also really fun, gorgeous to look at, vibrant, stimulating, and huge. It’s extremely gratifying to see this kind of massive entertainment being made with such inventiveness and intelligence (the adaptation of a notoriously challenging text is superb and deserves an Oscar nomination for Adapted Screenplay). It’s Villeneuve’s best film, and I greatly look forward to Part Two.

Get Back

* * * * *

I’m not going to be shy, coy or restrained, because there’s no reason to be: Peter Jackson’s Get Back is monumental, the Mona Lisa of rock documentaries, a staggering, towering technical and artistic achievement. Over eight hours and three episodes, drawing from sixty hours of footage and a hundred and twenty of audio, Jackson recreates the Beatles’ creation of Let It Be (and parts of Abbey Road) and in doing so, gives us not only the most intimate, revealing, comprehensive look at the Beatles ever, but one of the most incisive portraits of musical creation as well.

It’s all summed up in a jaw-dropping, spellbinding, you-wouldn’t-believe-it-if-you-weren’t-seeing-it moment when we watch, in real time, with no cuts, as Paul McCartney comes up with the main structure of the song Get Back. As he’s doing so, Ringo and George (John isn’t there yet) pick up on the vibe, then pick up their instruments. It’s not merely goosebump-inducing; your hair may stand on end, and you could very likely cry with the sheer magic of the moment.

Get Back is full of such incidents; we see and hear individual songs from their moment of birth and follow them as they’re refined and ultimately recorded. We see George play I Me Mine to the others for the very first time. We see John coming up with the ‘Everybody had a hard year’ riff for I’ve Got A Feeling – as it happens. Indeed, the greatest magic of all, among eight hours of pure magic, comes whenever Paul and John get into a groove with each other and create the songs we know and love.

But outside of the music, we see and hear the most private conversations (one of them recorded secretly, between John and Paul, by a microphone hidden in a vase of flowers) and get to know these guys as individuals like never before. It’s uncanny. The sound and vision has been elaborately restored: everything is audible, everything is vivid. You simply cannot believe (a) that all this material exists and (b) that we’ve never seen it before.

I don’t know how non-Beatles fans would go – eight hours of conversation and noodling is a lot – but this isn’t for them. This is for the fans; indeed, it is surely the greatest item of fan service ever made. Too much? Wait ‘till you see it.

The Power of the Dog / Bad Luck Banging

The Power of the Dog

Now playing in Australian cinemas.

* * * 1/2

During the end credits of Jane Campion’s new feature The Power of the Dog, she thanks a colleague who gave her the novel on which it is based. Her friend thought she’d like it; it’s easy to see why. I haven’t read the book but Campion’s screenplay and filmed version of it echoes repeatedly in all manner of ways with her acknowledged masterpiece, The Piano (1993).

That film, set in the mid-1800s in isolated New Zealand, placed a newly-married woman and her daughter into a psychosexual pressure-cooker involving two men, one rough as guts and one highly refined. This film, set in 1925 in isolated Montana, places a newly-married woman and her son into a psychosexual pressure-cooker involving two men, one rough as guts and one highly refined. There’s even, not only a piano for the woman to play, but a scene of rough-as-guts workers carrying it across rugged landscape into a refined house for her: a case of a director paying almost risibly direct homage to herself.

The film pans out differently, but thematically it’s of a piece with The Piano, and shares with that film plenty of top-tier craft, including a suite of excellent performances and an outstanding original score (this time by Jonny Greenwood). But the film hums frustratingly along on that single frequency of psychosexual tension without a huge amount of actual dramatic energy. The Piano swept you along: it was ecstatic cinema. The Power of the Dog is restrained for its entire two hours and six minutes, and we, the audience, unfortunately may feel as bound and suffocated by its reserve as the woman, Rose (Kirsten Dunst) does by her observed, isolated new life.

By all means see the film, and preferably on the big screen; it’s sure to feature heavily in awards – including Oscar – conversations, and it does have an eerie, enigmatic quality (and some great acting). But be prepared to settle calmly in your seat, as this film settles into its one very consistent tone.

Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn

Opens 25/11 in Australian cinemas.

* * *

Much has been made at various festivals, including the recent Sydney Film Festival, of the explicit opening of Radu Jude’s Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn. And it is indeed full of genitalia and explicit sexual acts – for about three minutes. After that the film settles into a story of how those acts, as featured in a sex tape privately filmed by a school teacher, gets her into hot water when they appear online. The film is a colourful, unsubtle attack on hypocrisy and conservatism, in Romania and beyond, in the time of Covid: there are masks, and attitudes to wearing them, all over the film. Jude is shrewd: his film won’t make Marvel Box Office, but it’s precisely engineered for maximum festival marketability. Hopefully if you come for the porn, you’ll stay for the social critique.

Titane

* * * *

Seemingly inspired by Boys Don’t Cry (1999), feature documentary The Imposter (2012) and David Cronenberg’s 1996 adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s Crash, Julia Ducournau’s Palme D’Or-winning follow-up to Raw (2016) – my favourite film of the past five years – is tender and raw, ferocious and funny, and, despite wearing its influences on its diesel-stained sleeve, a true original. While not as brilliant as Raw (and I should not spend Ducournau’s career seeking something that is; Welles never topped Kane, right?), Titane is a major work by a major filmmaker, and echoes in the mind long after its loud credits roll.

Ready for a bonkers one-line synopsis? A young female exotic dancer serial killer goes into hiding with a grief-stricken fireman after having sex with a car. Yep. And that’s kind of spoiler-free. There’s a lot more.

The fireman is played by Vincent Lindon and it’s in his performance, and the relationship he builds with the murderous dancer Alexia (Agathe Rousselle, making an astonishing feature debut), that tenderness resides. At its heart, outside of the crowd-freaking acts of violence and depravity (no greater, by the way, than any in Raw), this is that old chestnut: a tale of two lost, deeply damaged souls finding each other. The film becomes increasingly – yes, tender – as it goes on, culminating in an ending as perfect, and perfectly moving, as it is inevitable.