Deerskin

* * * 1/2

Quentin Dupieux is an acquired taste, and worth acquiring. He’s known for ‘weird’ subjects – Rubber, his breakthrough film, features a car tire as a protagonist – but deadpan humour is truly his stock in trade. Deerskin, in its very Dupieux way, is emblematic of his sense of humour and his willingness to embrace unorthodox subject matter. It also, like Rubber, embraces fetishism, in this case, rather than a tire, a cool deerskin jacket.

Here, though, the jacket is simply the object of desire; the protagonist, Georges (played beautifully by The Artist’s Jean Dujardin) buys it to seemingly fulfil the emptiness of his life, from which he’s on the run. He blows his savings on it, then settles into a provincial hotel to live with it, presumably aiming for Happily Ever After.

Instead, he meets barmaid Denise, and things get simultaneously hopeful and hopeless. Denise is played by French Treasure Adèle Haenel (Portrait of a Lady On Fire), and the two of them develop an engaging, twisted chemistry. To say more would be to spoil, except that the film is gorgeous to look at, and not actually about a jacket.

Never Rarely Sometimes Always

* * * *

Working within total realism, centred around a debut actor’s (perfectly) naturalistic performance, Eliza Hittman’s third feature Never Rarely Sometimes Always is rather sublime. Full of pure empathy and compassion throughout, it makes a thousand points well without any made didactically; it is simultaneously one of the angriest films I’ve seen this year while also being one of the quietest.

Brand-newcomer Sidney Flanigan plays Autumn, a teen in Pennsylvania who needs an abortion and travels to New York City, with her cousin Skylar (Talia Ryder), to get it. Along the way the girls encounter the things girls encounter, including some incredibly sharply observed male oppressive behaviours.

Captivating performances, hyper-real settings (some of this film had to be “stolen” / shot guerilla-style) and a central scene that’s among the best of the year add up to a must-see film that, like The Assistant, takes on Something Big with quiet and furious precision.

Echo In The Canyon

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“Tell Bob he owes me ten bucks.”

* * * 1/2

Ah, to live in LA’s Laurel Canyon between 1965 and 1967, hang out with The Byrds and Buffalo Springfield, smoke reefer, and make gorgeous, melodic folk rock that went on to become known as the “West Coast Sound.” Bliss.

Some people actually got to do that – notably, the musicians in The Byrds and Buffalo Springfield – and this extremely joyous jaunt through their memories is guided by Jakob Dylan (yes, son of Bob), whose extremely laid-back charisma suits the hazy, happy memories of these very wealthy hippies very well.

Less successful are the numerous cover versions of some of the era’s legendary songs, performed by Dylan and a ragtag band – including Beck, Regina Spektor, Cat Power and Fiona Apple – at the Hollywood Bowl in 2015. Even less successful are strange shots of Dylan, Beck, Spektor and Power hanging out at a house in Laurel Canyon simply chatting about the era (which was, of course, in so many ways, their parents’ era). Beck looks like a stunned mullet, but I think that’s how he always looks. Dylan lounges coolly and lets the others, particularly Spektor, sound a little immature in their appreciation of one of the singular moments and movements in modern musical history.

But the interviews with all the players – and Dylan’s clearly got a powerful rolodex – make the film. A whole lot of talent is cheerily on camera and delightfully frank. Michelle Philips, Roger McGuinn, Eric Clapton, David Crosby, Tom Petty, Jackson Browne, Ringo Starr, Brian Wilson (!), Graham Nash and Stephen Stills all let their hair down with the grace of those who know their impact is for the ages and have nothing left to prove nor hide. They’ve got great stories, and collectively, they’re just a great hang.

Available in Australia on digital and on-demand from August 5, 2020.

Relic, The Burnt Orange Heresy, House of Cardin

RELIC

* * *

Like The Babadook, Natalie Erika James’ debut feature is a modest Australian horror film about family trauma. While ostensibly a haunted house story, James’ ninety-minute slow-burner is actually a deeply felt drama about the almost universal fear of caring for our parents once they can longer care for themselves.

Kay is a fortysomething Melbourne mother whose own mother goes missing from her country home. With her daughter Sam, Kay goes to her mum’s property to aid the police in finding her, and confronts a distressing situation.

Relic is, more than a horror movie, a moving and heartfelt ode to the deep and often complicated relationship between mothers and daughters. It recognises that we’re afraid of age, of aged bodies, of responsibility, that looking after old people can give us the creeps. It’s not scary per se, but as a meditation on ageing, dementia and responsibility, it’s highly relatable.

THE BURNT ORANGE HERESY

* * *

I love watching Elizabeth Debecki’s career bloom! It’s not clear if there’s a common thread to her ever-growing gallery of characters, but she owns all of them, stamps her mark, so that you just can’t imagine anyone else having been there instead. She’s got all the right moves as a movie star, and increasingly proving to make all the right choices.

Claes Bang’s journey is also fascinating, for very different reasons. He emerged from The Square in 2017as the kind of relentlessly handsome dark-haired EuroDude who made you think not “Bond Villain” but “Bond himself!”, were it not for the fact that he was Danish and 50. The Danish thing has turned out not to be a problem – his British accent is wholly convincing – but nobody really knows what to do with a star being born at 50 who is also clearly a sexy traditional leading man.

They’re both terrific together in The Burnt Orange Heresy, whichis almost a two-hander. He plays an (assumedly) British art critic living in Milan; she plays an American teacher on sabbatical who comes to one of his lectures; they make sweet, sweet love and then go to the Lake Como palazzo of Mick Jagger (!) and get involved in a lovely old-fashioned adult romantic thriller plot involving art and Donald Sutherland.

Beautiful people scheming about art in Milan and Lake Como for a tight ninety minutes: what’s not to like? Jagger, by the way, is fabulous.

HOUSE OF CARDIN

* * *

Pierre Cardin is 98 and – present pandemic aside – still working. As a designer, he’s monolithic, and fully deserving of this admittedly hagiographic portrait, which benefits most from having him to tell his own story.

Essentially, he tells it in two time frames: contemporarily, sitting for the filmmakers in his beloved Maxim’s (which he’s owned since 1981) and in archive footage from when he seemed to be about 48. Both versions of the man are warm, witty and serious: he was clearly set on this earth to work, and he never stops.

His words are supported by those of his extended universe, being mainly long-standing employees (some of whom are beloved family members) along with various models, rivals, industry analysts and superstars. Most of it is about the work, but the private life gets covered briefly. The endless archival footage of Cardin’s output is staggering and beautiful. But while you’ll come for the design, you’ll stay for the designer. He’s simply a superb subject, paradoxically able to come across as humble but in no way modest: a master who knows he’s a master, and knows we know it.

Shirley, Waves and A White, White Day

Three new films opening in Australian cinemas on July 9.

A WHITE, WHITE DAY

In Cinemas July 9th

* * * * 1/2

From Iceland comes the staggering A White, White Day, Hlynur Pálmason’s follow-up to his acclaimed and award-winning debut Winter Brother, featuring a once-in-a-lifetime role for the great Ingvar Sigurdsson, who nails every moment as a widowed grandfather and policeman building a house for his daughter and granddaughter while quietly losing his mind. Some of the technical attributes of the film are mind-blowing, and Pálmason is unafraid to stick his neck out with some extremely bold directorial choices.white white day.png

SHIRLEY

* * 1/2

You’ll have come for above-the-title star Elisabeth Moss, Madeline’s Madeline director Josephine Decker, or subject Shirley Jackson, the acclaimed author of The Haunting of Hill House, We Have Always Lived In The Castle and ground-breaking New Yorker short story The Lottery, but you’ll stay for Odessa Young, the magnificent young Australian actor here playing Rose, a young expectant mother in 1950s Vermont, who accompanies her academic young husband to a university position and an entanglement with the acclaimed author Jackson and her creepy academic husband Stanley Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg).

There’s more than a little Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf going on here, but played out over around a year rather than a night. None of it is even remotely pretending to be biographical; based on a novel by Susan Scarf Merrell, it’s a fantasia with a real person at its centre, in the style of that person’s own art. Decker’s previous films have all smelled gothic, and Jackson, a gothic modern author, would seem to suit her style (and it’s a very specific style), but Jackson’s work was far weirder and darker than Decker’s film. It’s not without its own dark, weird charm though, and Young’s performance is compelling enough to see you through.

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WAVES

In Cinemas July 9th

* * *

Trey Edward Shults follows up Krisha and It Comes At Night with a suburban epic of turbulent  trials within a black Miami family. Kelvin Harrison Jr. gives a raw, energetic performance as Tyler, a high school wrestling champ with pro-career potential who is hiding an injury and, ultimately, a pain-killer addiction, a set of secrets that spiral into all sorts of drama. Shults really goes to town stylistically, utilising a frenetic camera and outrageously saturated colours, and an overwhelming song score by contemporary R&B and rap artists such as Drake, Kanye West and Frank Ocean. It’s deliberately over the top, melodramatic, even gaudy, but those same big swings make it dynamic, vital and compelling. You can enjoy the whole, even if some moments can’t help but raise eyebrows and slacken jaws.

It’s the difficult third album. After the gem-like perfection of Krisha and the lean precision of It Comes At Night, Waves is beautiful but messy. It is so fantastically ambitious, and in being so, often rides a dangerous line between audacity and indulgence. But Shults is a true indie auteur, he’s got a voice, and if he’s got the guts to keep making things like this then who am I not to keep seeing them? He’s letting it all hang out here, letting the edges bleed, making a structural choice that knowingly forbids the film any chance of being considered formally perfect, and if some individual scenes miss the mark, the whole achieves nobility.

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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

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.