The Climb

* * * *

The Climb, written by and starring Michael Angelo Covino and Kyle Marvin and directed by Covino, is very, very, very, very clever. Told over seven chapters, each containing only one or two extremely long and well-choreographed takes, it’s ambitious, witty and personal.

Mike (Covino) and Kyle (Marvin) are lifelong friends. Now (seemingly) in their late 20s / early 30s, they’re about to swap secrets, partners, and, in just one of the film’s many bold moves, physiques. We first meet them biking up a very long hill outside Nice, in France, where Kyle, it seems, is due to marry. Those plans are disrupted, and we follow the two men over the next decade or so, through many life changes and fascinating reversals.

The unbroken takes delightfully draw attention to themselves and become a big part of the fun: the camera weaves in and out of groups of people, houses, vehicles and even seasons. Elsewhere, other stylistic extravagances gleefully wave their hands for our attention: a sudden (albeit low-key) musical number, a lo-fi (albeit terrifying) action sequence. In every chapter, there is something stylistically exciting going on; likewise, the storytelling is giddily exuberant, revelling in dramatic ellipses, strange twists and well-shaped supporting characters.

This is a film that both harks back to an earlier age of American indies about male friendship (I was reminded of In The Company of Men, Neil LaBute’s 1997 debut) while also feeling fresh and unique. It seems to have been shot mainly in Colorado, itself a rare backdrop, and, here, a beautiful one. There is a strong French connectionbeyond the opening chapter in Nice; French music and references abound, and combined with the often snowy, woodsy locations, the film achieves an exoticism rarely found in American cinema. It is compelling, gently funny and constantly surprising. Highly recommended.

The Trial of the Chicago 7

* * *

Everyone’s in Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7 (now on Netflix). Well, all your favourite dudes, anyway. Sacha Baron Cohen and Succession’s Jeremy Strong are on trial, in the wake of the protests at the 1968 US Democratic Convention in Chicago, as Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin. Eddie Redmayne and John Carroll Lynch are on trial too, as the more level-headed Tom Hayden and David Dellinger. Mark Rylance and Ben Shenkman are there trying to defend them, while Joseph Gordan-Levitt is across the aisle for the prosecution. Meanwhile, glowering from his high bench, there’s Frank Langella as the odious Judge Julius Hoffman. When he walked into the courtroom, my partner blurted out, “Perfect.”

Indeed. Langella is, on the surface – on paper – perfectly cast, and emblematic of the kind of film this is: everyone’s playing to their strengths, to the gallery, and to the moment. Watching the dirty deeds hurled at the ‘7’ by the government makes you angry, both for then and for now: nothing’s changed. My anger came with a side of very weird comfort: Oh well, it’s not as though the current US administration is the first to be horribly corrupt, vengeful, and willing to unfairly prosecute their own citizens. There’s precedent!

It’s a wiggy movie – that is, there are a lot of wigs, a lot of beards, a lot of late-60s gear – and not a very subtle one. But it is a spectacular history lesson that also reverberates perfectly for this moment, while also becoming increasingly entertaining as it goes on. Each of the cast are given multiple moments to shine, and if Baron Cohen’s accent is (very) dodgy, his essence is not: he is a modern-day Hoffman, constantly speaking truth to corrupt power through subversive comedy. The least obvious casting may be Strong as Rubin, given his short-back-and-sides work on Succession, but he is actually the film’s greatest delight. And Redmayne is the best I’ve seen him.

Surprisingly, given the clear-cut case for his casting, the one who doesn’t work is Langella. He goes full-on Disney villain, Sorkin lets him, and together they come close to ruining the end of the film, Langella flailing about cartoonishly, a bully come-upped. It’s a pretty dreadful, intensely over-done, schmaltzy ending, and you come out whistling a familiar tune: Sorkin remains one of the great American screenwriters, but a fledgling director.

Kajillionaire

* * *

Miranda July’s third feature (after Me and You and Everyone We Know and The Future) is on-brand, continuing to combine her low-key, deadpan, minimalist humanism with a lo-fi, washed-out, street-level aesthetic. Her films rely on character and circumstance, because they certainly don’t look or sound great.

Her set-up here is engaging off the bat: Old Dolio (Evan Rachel Wood) has two truly terrible parents, as evidenced by her ridiculous name (it’s explained in the film in a typically kind-of-funny gag). They’re bottom-of-the-barrel Los Angeles con artists, the kind of people who are never not scamming, albeit for chump change. As played by Richard Jenkins and Debra Winger, they’re clearly both depressed and a little off, as is Old Dolio, who’s been brought up to be part of their gang rather than family. Their world, as pathetic as it is, is original and funny, and the first act is compellingly weird.

The second act sees another young woman – Melanie, played exuberantly by Gina Rodriguez – become accidentally involved in this demented tiny universe, and, initially, go along for the ride, raising Old Dolio’s anxiety from mildly constant to urgently severe. Suddenly there seems to be a second daughter figure vying for the attention of parents who’ve never accepted the first.

As with July’s other films, Kajillionaire is after more than laughs, and reaches quite moving levels of resonance as it engages with the idea of a young adult dealing with a lifetime of parental neglect (and worse). July reaches often for ecstatic moments, where she cranks up a song and captures LA’s sun glaringly in-camera, but it’s Rachel Wood’s performance that will either sell you or send you. It’s a big one, with all the trimmings – a voice, a look, a physicality – to leave us in no uncertain mind of Old Dolio’s deep damage. It just worked for me, even as I was constantly aware of it, and thus did the movie, constantly skirting the threshold of my patience, but always staying just on the right side.

Briarpatch; Lucky Grandma

BRIARPATCH (SBS On-Demand)
 

On my father’s bookshelf, novels by Ross Thomas were never far from those of Elmore Leonard. I’ve read a lot of my father’s Leonard but none of his Thomas, and Thomas isn’t talked about in the same revered tones, but they’re clearly similar authors, writing about cops and crims and cons and creeps with dialect-driven humour, often in the more exotic and lawless areas of the US.

There have been many Leonard adaptations, some very good – Out of Sight, Get Shorty, Jackie Brown, Justified – and some, not so. I can’t recall seeing a Thomas adaptation before, but Briarpatch, on SBS On Demand, seems a perfect introduction to the man and his work. The characters and milieu are indeed colourful unsavoury types in one of the USA’s least savoury places: Texas. And the style suits the subject: colourful, bordering on cartoonish, neo-noir, wearing Coen Brothers, Steven Soderbergh and Tarantino influences proudly (and obviously). Heaps of very familiar, rough-hewn character faces support a fine central performance from Rosario Dawson. Fun, familiar, not violent, and comfortable: classic Dad-lit fare.

 
LUCKY GRANDMA (CINEMAS)
 

* * *

I’ll bet you haven’t seen anything else recently like Lucky Grandma (in cinemas now). Tsai Chin gives one of the performances of the year as Grandma Wong, a widow in Manhattan’s Chinatown who, through not particularly innocent means, ends up with a bag of cash belonging to a member of one of Chinatown’s gangs. She hires a massive young bodyguard, Big Pong (Hsiao-Yuan Ha), and the two strike up an unlikely friendship, even as they dig themselves into a deeper, messier hole with the local villains.

The film’s bouncy, neo-noir, jazzy, colourful aesthetic clearly demonstrates Coen Brothers, Soderbergh and Tarantino influences (in this respect, it’s not stylistically dissimilar, at all, to Briarpatch) but it’s the milieu, and Chin’s performance, that really sets the film apart. We’ve been to Chinatown (and Chinatowns) in many movies, but often accompanying an outsider (and often a white cop at that). Here, the whole story takes place within not only the place but the culture, and there are tremendously fascinating details in constant revelation, from how elders are addressed (everyone calls Grandma Grandma, even if she’s not, you know, their Grandma) to specific cultural rituals performed at the local bank branch. It’s fascinating and funny, and Chin – playing a very prickly person – will steal your heart.

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’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.

 

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.