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.

Lovecraft Country, Les Miserables

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Lovecraft Country

HBO / Foxtel

As with the TV version of Watchmen, Lovecraft Country, on HBO, dramatises ugly truths about daily life as a black person in America amongst fantastical elements – in this case, monsters in the style of H.P. Lovecraft’s. It’s being doled out, an episode at a time, old school; the pilot, called Sundown, at a hundred and nine minutes, assumedly lays down a fair sense of the larger (eight-episode) framework.

Jonathan Majors, a Yale School of Drama graduate making a big play for big recognition after staking his claim with singular performances in The Last Black Man In San Francisco and Da 5 Bloods, plays Atticus, a 30-something Black American man in the 1950s whose alcoholic father has gone missing in ‘Lovecraft Country’, an area of New England in the United States lived in by the horror fantasist H.P. Lovecraft. Together with his uncle and a female friend, Atticus sets out on a road trip to find his father, facing the terror not only of Lovecraftian monsters but American racists.

As Watchmen did with its amazing pilot, revealing the neglected historical event of the ‘Massacre of Black Wall Street’ in Tulsa in 1921, Lovecraft Country shows us things Americans would rather forget. In the case of the pilot episode, it’s the concept of ‘Sundown Towns’ (and counties), places where, if black people were found after dark, they could be arrested – and worse – by the police. The very concept itself is more terrifying than anything that plays on screen, but the episode is visceral, exciting and polished, and the three leads – Majors is joined on the journey by Jurnee Smollett and Courtney B. Vance – display an easygoing and inviting chemistry. It’ll be intriguing to see how this very high concept plays out.

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Les Misérables

Cinemas

* * * 1/2

Not to be confused with Victor Hugo’s novel, Ladj Ly’s banlieue policier is deliberately named after it, and is set in the Paris commune – Montfermeil – in which the Thénardiers had their inn in the book. As with La Haine, made twenty-five years ago, Ly’s debut fiction feature is about the seeds of trouble in the Paris projects, and, like La Haine, tension is built from a situation which could be avoided but which inexorably grows out of control.

There’s a lot of very skilful filmmaking, suburb performances and a total grasp of milieu on display: Ly grew up here and he knows the turf, the tensions, the terroir. It’s compelling, sometimes gripping, but, to be honest, the basic plot mechanics here aren’t radically different to similar scenarios in Engrenages (Spiral), where they have been done just as well. But if you’ve missed the first seven seasons of that brilliant TV show, get a taste of what Ly’s offering here, and then do yourself a favour and dial up The Best TV Show Ever on SBS (Season 8 is coming later this year!)

La Belle Epoque, David Foster, Speed Cubers

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For a lot of (Non-French) people, French cinema is about romance, culture, gentle good humour, affairs of the heart, beautiful (and beautifully lit) locations, and nostalgia: the Amélie model. They’ll be well served by La Belle Époque, in cinemas now, one of those expensive, commercial French products that is geared to make big bucks outside of France. The pleasant surprise is that, while it delivers that Amélie package, it’s also rather clever, witty and gorgeously performed.

Daniel Auteuil, once my favourite actor, plays a sixty-something luddite cartoonist whose wife is having a mid-life crisis, and who finds solace in the arms of a tech/media/production company that allows him, via sets, actors and other production values, to go back to the night he met her, in a bistro, in 1974. It’s not quite science fiction, but is certainly adjacent: sort of Westworld meets The Truman Show meets… well, Amélie. It’s all very charming and delightful and will bring a smile to your dial. That makes it top entertainment for the current era. Auteuil is typically winning.

On Netflix are two new documentaries: David Foster Off The Record and The Speed Cubers. Both are pacy, surprising and fun. Foster is one of the most successful pop producers of all time – he’s produced Celine Dion, Michael Bublé, Chicago, Barbara Streisand, Josh Groban, Andrea Bocelli and so on, as well as Whitney Huston’s I Will Always Love You and the soundtrack to St. Elmo’s Fire – and most of his career-long collaborators weigh in, as well as his many daughters (from five wives). He’s a self-confessed problematic individual, which the film somewhat embraces, but it’s best enjoyed as a testament to an astonishing career. Meanwhile, The Speed Cubers follows the two fastest Rubik’s Cube solvers in the world as they head towards a showdown at the 2019 Speed Cubing World Championships. One of them is from Melbourne; the other is Californian, has autism, and hero-worships his rival. As with Foster, they are two of the most successful people in the world at what they do; neither, yet, have wives, let alone five, but who’s to say where success may lead them? Heartwarming, uplifting and surprising.

La Belle Époque                               * * * 1/2

David Foster Off The Record       * * *

The Speed Cubers                           * * * 1/2

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.