Stan and Ollie

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* * * 1/2 (out of five)

Shame about the musical score, which is overbearing and makes the otherwise tastefully wrought and lovingly crafted Stan and Ollie seem schmaltzy. It’s not fair to the fine work of Steve Coogan as Stan Laurel, John C. Reilly as Oliver Hardy, and Shirley Henderson and Nina Arianda as their wives. They’re all splendid.

It’s 1953, and Laurel and Hardy are touring England in the hopes of stirring up producer interest in one more movie, a Robin Hood satire. Implied, too, is that they need the money. They’re ageing and no longer on the top of the Hollywood totem pole, but they’re also still in good humour and enjoying their work. The film is willing to avoid throwing artificial conflict at them; for the most part, this amiable, low-key dramedy is content to be a character piece, and a portrait of a long-standing working relationship. It also features Coogan and Reilly expertly pulling off some gorgeous and very funny Laurel and Hardy routines.

I suppose the overwhelming sentimentality may be appreciated in some quarters, but it does niggle me that, since the audience is (rightly) perceived to be “the grey dollar”, they must be in want of an overbearing orchestra-full of swelling strings. No-one needs to be spoon-fed their emotions in this day and age, even those old enough to have seen the real Stan and Ollie at their local. I’d love to see a cut of this film without the score; it would simply be better, perhaps even rather sublime.

If Beale Street Could Talk

* * * * (out of five)

I haven’t read James Baldwin’s 1974 novel If Beale Street Could Talk, but I have no doubt that writer / director Barry Jenkins’ (Moonlight) copy has twenty annotations per page. This is an adaptation that feels as authentic, respectful and committed to the source material as they come; Jenkins has not used the book as a starting point, he has done everything in his power to bring the book to the screen.

That included bringing the book’s emotional impact: how it makes Jenkins feel. His film version is awash with feeling; at times, it is as much about mood as anything, about how it stimulates the senses. It is about music and colour and framing and is so effective in those areas I swear that I could practically smell Riverside Park, in Harlem, in the early 1970s.

There, Tish and Fonny (KiKi Layne and Stephan James) are deeply in love. They’re been in love since they were children. Now, they’re sexually active dynamic people in their early twenties, and the world, for them (and thus, for us) is aglow with colour and passion and love. At times, there is nothing in the world for them but them, and Jenkins is not afraid, in this bustling city, to render them alone on a street, cocooned in the world of their love.

But this is backstory, flashback: in the present, Fonny is in jail for a crime he didn’t commit, and Tish is pregnant with their child. How their families help them with this bittersweet predicament forms the slight plot of this moving story. It is surprising, beautiful, heart-wrenching, and deeply, deeply compassionate.

It’s a world outside of my own experience and I felt a little like an outsider; Jenkins has said he makes films for black American audiences and anyone else can come if they like. How Australian audiences will relate, we’ll see. This is not a “universal story” but rather one that is highly specific to the African American experience. Except, of course, for that big, big presence of Love, which is in every frame of the film. That’s where everyone can relate; that’s (the outsiders’) “in”.

Nicholas Britell’s score is monumentally beautiful, moving and apt; it may be the first original motion picture soundtrack I’ve bought since last century. The craft in every department is similarly of the highest possible caliber. Layne and James, perversely, make the least impact (James, I find and found in Homecoming, is rather wooden) but the film’s supporting actors light up every scene around them. All are brilliant but Regina King and Colman Domingo as Tish’s loving parents are exceptional, as is Atlanta’s Brian Tyree Henry in an astonishing one-scene role.

This is a deeply felt, lovingly made movie that will stand the test of time. Push your boundaries.

Vox Lux

* * * * 1/2 (out of five)

I won’t soon forget the first time I saw Brady Corbet’s 2015 debut The Childhood of a Leader. Baroque, operatic, mesmerizing, intense, disorienting, moody and quietly terrifying, the film, which never ultimately got released in Australia and remains barely seen, deeply affected me. It gave me that intense thrill that a critic or film lover gets when they hear a powerful new directorial voice. It also gave me the chills. Here was a filmmaker who knew what got under my skin, through his idiosyncratic use of music, image, mood. The film really spoke to me.

So too does Vox Lux, Corbet’s far more commercial follow-up, which is not to say it’s commercial at all. Corbet has carried over his unnerving style to a straight up portrait of a modern pop singer, and the seeming clash of style to subject is part of what gives the film its unearthly pleasure. We’re watching an origin story of a Lady Gaga / Sia / Britney Spears, but it feels like a horror movie.

It’s all quite brilliant and unbelievably entertaining, while being thoroughly uncompromising. The first half of the film covers the younger years of pop singer Celeste, in this section played by Raffey Cassidy, as a traumatic childhood event gives birth to her talent as a performer. Corbet’s intense use of music and imagery here echo his work on Childhood of a Leader, keeping us unmoored and on edge, even as Celeste’s manager is introduced, and played by Jude Law, as essentially a comic character. The second half, featuring Natalie Portman as Celeste, all takes place in a single day, and shifts tonal gears, at times presenting as flat-out comedy, albeit in a gothic vein.

All the performances are sensational. Cassidy and Portman are superb versions of each other/Celeste, working in tandem to create the singer’s unique voice and particularly her physicality, which is deeply informed by events of the film. Portman’s use of her own body is exquisite, precise and alarming; her growing body of exceptional performances, including this, Black Swan and Jackie, really do place her in the very front ranks of working screen actors. She’s outrageously good. As for Cassidy, she and Corbet pull off a coup de theatre that made my jaw drop and which I will leave for you to discover; all I will say is that she deserves awards for her work here. They both do. They all do.

The songs, written by Sia herself, are superb, and Cassidy and Portman do their own singing. Celeste is a major talent and how these actresses live up to that expectation boggles the mind. Portman famously prepared for Black Swan by learning ballet, and she’s learned an entirely new universe of performance here. It all pays off, riotously, wonderfully, exuberantly, brilliantly, with integrity, grace and skill. If she toured as Celeste, I’d want to see it.

This is the first great film of 2019. Exceptional.

Eighth Grade

* * * *

Bo Burnham’s debut feature announces him as a fresh and talented auteur (he’s only 28 and comes from a comedy, YouTube background). It’s a mercilessly spot-on depiction of the trials and tribulations of being a female thirteen year-old in modern America, avoiding many high-school movie tropes and clichés along the way. It’s also sensationally acted by young Elsie Fisher as shy eighth-grader Kayla and super-indie stalwart Josh Hamilton as her kind single dad.

The film is absolutely a comedy, even as it touches raw nerves head-on: one startling sequence depicts the students training for a school shooting, while another, late in the film, reverberates mightily with the cultural conversations currently swirling around gender relations. In this sense, its artistic grandparent seems to be Amy Heckling’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982), which likewise confronted big teen issues with a respectful and tasteful comedic appreciation.

The biggest issue here, by far, is social media and smartphones, and the film could be appreciated simply as a furious, comic attack on both. While it’s got more up its sleeve, its depiction of the crippling effects of social media on young people is satisfyingly complete. This is a film I instantly wanted to share with many specific people, as a warning: look how bad these things actually are! Look what they do to our kids!

In targeting social media itself as the villain, Burnham avoids many high-school stereotypes, and while there are some mean girls, they’re portrayed as victims (of social media) too. Likewise, there’s a nerd, but he’s the most surprising and intriguing nerd you’ve seen in a long time, and his big scene is rather incredible.

There’s no schmaltz, no faux tragedy, no bullshit in Burnham’s movie. It’s got integrity, compassion and respect for its subjects and audience. Releasing on January 3rd in Australia, it will have to wait out 2019 to appear on Oz “Best of Year” lists, but I’ll be sure to remember it. It’s a new classic in the teen genre, joining The Edge of Seventeen and Diary of a Teenage Girl from recent years. Excellent, and if you’re a parent, unmissable.

Cold War

* * * *

A grand romantic drama, Pawel Pawlikowski’s Cold War won the Best Director award at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, and it’s easy to see why. There are many movies to get through at Cannes, and Pawlikowski’s superbly crafted film clocks in at only eighty-eight minutes, covering fifteen years and four nations. It’s a lot of movie, and represents tremendous value if your time is tight.

Should you be lucky enough to have oodles of time up your sleeve, Cold War’s brevity might count against it. It’s so good, and so engaging, that you feel a little cheated when it ends. It’s the kind of sweeping European love story that in the past has sustained epic cinema, and Pawlikowski’s decisions to keep it so tight – he also constrains the image, shooting in the boxy “Academy Ratio” and in black and white – seem like a defiant, almost petulant, flight of fancy. Obviously not a cheap production, Pawlikowski seems determined to not put all the money on the screen.

But that’s his aesthetic, and we should be grateful for it. Anyone can shoot a movie in black and white, or in Academy Ratio, but not everyone will do so with such purpose and rigor. He restrained himself similarly with his last film, Ida (2014), and the two films complement each other in other ways. They’re both concerned with post-war Europe, with devotion, with sacrifice, and, here especially, with love. Ida was austere, whereas Cold War is lush and highly populated, but the sharp contrast of the black and white cinematography – Lukasz Zal shot both films – keep the vibe forever wintry, the mood ever melancholy, like a meal for one in a quiet Paris bistro at twilight on Christmas Eve.

Cold War’s love story, of two musicians destined to continually be drawn together and pulled apart by the Iron Curtain and their own internal conflicts, is such a good one – such a blatantly effective story – that it verges on the preposterous. It’s not. It’s based on Pawlikowski’s own parents, and that tips it over into the miraculous. One of the films of the year.

Vice

* * * *

Adam McKay is an American treasure, a keenly intelligent, outrageously talented writer / producer / director whose last film, The Big Short (2015) and last television work, the pilot for Succession this year, were both phenomenal. His new film, Vice, a sweeping examination of Dick Cheney, will inevitably be seen in comparison to The Big Short; stylistically, they share similarities, together defining McKay’s new, mature “style” (as distinct from the major comedic chops he swung as writer / producer / director of such films as Anchorman, Talladega Nights and Step Brothers). Vice suffers in that comparison – such is the problem when one follows a masterwork -but it is still vital and urgent and demands to be seen.

Christian Bale plays Cheney, Amy Adams his wife and co-conspirator Lynne, Steve Carell his mentor Donald Rumsfeld, and Sam Rockwell his boss, George W. Bush. They’re all excellent; Bale once again proves himself a master of playing old white men under makeup and fat (I believe his own). Interestingly, in the scenes of Cheney as a younger man (the film, more of a traditional biopic than I was expecting, covers Cheney from college-age to the present), Bale seems hardly disguised at all, save for makeup to make him appear more youthful. Was Cheney ever that good looking?

As with The Big Short, McKay uses many techniques to tell his complicated story, including a non-linear structure, fragmented editing incorporating quick inserts of representative imagery (especially drawn from the world of fishing, Cheney’s hobby, which at least isn’t golf), and use of news, archival and other real-world footage. He also incorporates a narrator, mainly off-screen but sometimes on, played by Jesse Plemons, and sometimes relies too heavily upon him. There’s a lot of narration, and I felt a little spoon-fed, as though McKay had lost a little nerve, or a little trust in our own abilities to connect the dots. It felt like a surprising mis-step given the spectacular clarity with which McKay was able to tell the Big Short story, which was really complicated.

I have another quibble, and I’ll call spoiler alert, although of course this is a true story. McKay uses Cheney’s long support, and ultimate betrayal, of his daughter Mary’s homosexuality and her same-sex marriage as the emotional spine of the film and ultimate depiction of Cheney’s wickedness. But, as a title card at the end tells us, Cheney could be seen as responsible for well over 600,000 human deaths. Surely that is more powerful than his betrayal of his own daughter, as ghastly as that sounds? Again, it’s as though McKay worried that Cheney’s story was simply too cold to engage without a family hearth to shatter.

Ultimately I suspect McKay possibly could have developed a better version of this story given more development. As it is, it’s still totally worth your time. I hope it doesn’t just play to the converted.

THE BEST FILMS OF 2018

1

LOVELESS 

Loveless, from Russian director Andrey Zvyagintsev, is a masterpiece, a brutal, uncompromising, stunningly well crafted and extraordinarily observant depiction of modern life, relationships, parenting, and society. At every turn it is revealing and stunningly precise about the human condition. It offers the viewer a chance not only to reflect on their own life but to truly search their soul. Like the very, very best films, I believe that if I listen to it, I can be a slightly better person for it.

2

ROMA

The film is epic and intimate; in the seemingly simple story of Cleo (the stand- in for Libo) and her unusual year, we are driven to contemplate huge issues and major themes: class and ethnicity, the nature and dignity of work, what actually constitutes a family and parenting; what it means to love. It is a film of constant compassion and absolute humanity. It is totally, essentially personal to Cuarón, but it is also fundamentally universal. It is filmmaking of the highest order.

3

BPM

Deservedly taking out a swath of awards at this year’s Césars, including Best Film, Editing, Music, Screenplay, Supporting Actor and “Most Promising” Actor, Robin Campillo’s portrait of Act Up-Paris in the early 1990s is sweeping, compassionate, funny, angry, ambitious and full of the kind of detail and incident that can only be drawn from life. Campillo was a part of the movement at the time, and wrote his screenplay based on his own experiences, while allowing himself dramatic freedom.

4

HEREDITARY

Aster’s judgement is confident, mature, unerring. The film’s casting is precise and evocative, and includes a striking find in young Milly Shapiro, playing Collette’s daughter. The cinematography is beautiful, unnerving and deliberate, emphasising shadows, moonlight and dusk (the film was shot in Utah) that evokes the feel of the great American horror cinema of the 1970s. The music is unobtrusive yet consistently effective, the production design immaculate and vital. Most satisfying of all is the pace, which is stately. Aster doesn’t rush a thing. He’s written a brilliant script and he’s brought it to the screen with the respect it deserves.

5

THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS

The Coen Brothers’ supreme mastery of all elements of cinematic storytelling are on full display with their portmanteau of the old, wild west, The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs. Frequently hilarious, occasionally moving and always stunningly beautiful – every frame a painting, indeed – the six stories contained in this generous two and a bit hours of sublime entertainment can be enjoyed at one sitting or over a span of viewings; ether way, entertainment will be achieved.

6

THE DEATH OF STALIN

Armando Iannucci created three of the funniest television sitcoms of all time: I’m Alan Partridge, The Thick of It and Veep (which has one season to go, but whose reins he has let go). He is a master political satirist and my favourite screenwriter. The Death of Stalin, his first feature film as a director, is, as befits his leap from the smaller to bigger screen, an ambitious effort: Iannucci boldly gives us a whale of a time with enormously witty dialogue, but also the very violent history of the political infighting that occurred in the days and weeks after Josef Stalin’s death in 1953.

7

THE FAVOURITE

The dialogue is supremely witty, the design glorious, and the acting sublime. Colman, despite having such a distinctive look and vocal quality, is utterly convincing as every character she plays, and her Anne is one of her finest creations. This Queen is complicated, contradictory, confounding: childish at times, wracked with gout and sadness, she seems utterly malleable, yet the question of just how much she is aware of the intrigue around her is one of the film’s most compelling tensions. Colman owns the role; it’s a triumph for her.

8

AMERICAN ANIMALS

In 2012 British TV documentarian Bart Layton made the leap to the big screen with feature documentary The Imposter, and blew my, and a lot of other, minds. It stands as one of the great documentaries; if you’ve not seen it, don’t google it first. Like Tickled, the less you know, the more you’ll get. Now he’s back on the big screen with a docudrama about four well-off young Kentucky men who got together, in 2004, to commit a crime. He interviews the actual men, their parents, and some other connected parties, but the bulk of the running time is dramatization, which is to say, a proper scripted filmic take on the events. The result is wildly, gleefully entertaining and I can’t recommend it enough.

9

CUSTODY

Loveless was, in its quiet way, an epic, a scathing indictment of modern humanity. Custody examines the day to day affect of joint custody and is far more contained and seemingly modest. Yet by the end, it has achieved momentous power. It is meticulously constructed, building with painfully specific intent. Ultimately, it is shattering. This is a film where strangers (at a general public screening at the French Film Festival) and I all checked in with each other afterwards, because we were all so moved, and shaken. A spectacular debut.

10

A STAR IS BORN

This is a movie to gush over, to see again, to buy the soundtrack to, to urge others to see, to dream about. It’s classic material, but not all the versions have been classic. This one is. There are absolutely ways you could find fault with aspects of the film; you could pick apart elements of the plot, or have problems with the specificity of its music and how it relates to the modern market. Or, you could do as I did, which was to fall deeply for its charms, and let yourself get swept away. As another critic noted, “The way to like this film is to love it.” I love it.

11

BLACKKKLANSMAN

12

WAJIB

13

WILDLIFE

14

THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND

15

CLIMAX

The Favourite

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* * * *

Here’s what The Favourite is not: it is not two hours of Olivia Colman, Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz burping, spewing, pissing and farting while covered in sores, leeches, scabs and lesions. It isn’t ribald, outrageous or scatalogical. And it isn’t riddled with deliberate anachronisms; comparisons to Marie Antoinette are misguided.

Rather, let’s pitch it thus: Barry Lyndon meets All About Eve. Yorgos Lanthimos has absolutely and deliberately based his aesthetic for this compelling, intriguing and extremely funny film upon the former (just as he absolutely channelled The Shining for his last film The Killing of a Sacred Deer) while the latter, at least to my mind, informs the plot.

Emma Stone plays a young fallen woman, Abigail, who arrives, by luck of a minor family relationship, at the Court of Queen Anne. Given a job in the kitchen, she quickly figures out that the path to power (the Queen, played by Colman) requires the displacement of her best friend, Lady Sarah (Weisz). While the Court is involved with war with France, Abigail and Sarah wage war with each other for the Queen’s affection.

The dialogue is supremely witty, the design glorious, and the acting sublime. Colman, despite having such a distinctive look and vocal quality, is utterly convincing as every character she plays, and her Anne is one of her finest creations. This Queen is complicated, contradictory, confounding: childish at times, wracked with gout and sadness, she seems utterly malleable, yet the question of just how much she is aware of the intrigue around her is one of the film’s most compelling tensions. Colman owns the role; it’s a triumph for her.

Weisz and Stone play off each other (and Colman) beautifully; they are so dissimilar in every way – Weisz mature, court-savvy, restrained yet savage when necessary, Stone young, naïve (initially), and possessed of nothing but guile – but always on the same artistic page. Both Sarah and Abigail are fascinating, multi-faceted women; there is much more to both of them than might initially seem, and their actions, and our sympathies, move in surprising and disconcerting directions.

Lanthimos stages all this with a complex palette of tone and style; while the film is undeniably funny, he imbues it with levels of sadness, tragedy and horror. In particular, his use of an astonishingly wide lens, big fluid camera movement and multiple whip-pans complements his use of a musical palette steeped both in classicism and the kind of monotonous plunking that made Killing of a Sacred Deer so unnerving. These courtiers may all be playing a game, but the consequences are bloody serious.

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Can You Ever Forgive Me?

* * *

Melancholic, indeed dour, with a colour palette of (too much) brown and grey, Marielle Heller’s real-life tale of small(ish) time literary fraud is resolutely one-note, as is Melissa McCarthy’s central performance as Lee Israel, a biographical author who, jobless and desperate in early-90s Manhattan, began a small(ish) life of literary crime. Luckily, the film has a few joltingly interesting twists and turns, and Richard E. Grant, who is, has been and always will be joltingly interesting.

Heller’s direction is uninspired. She uses four montage sequences, each of which could have been replaced with a single, inventive scene. Voice-over narration has often been given a critical cold shoulder, but surely montage sequences are cinema’s ultimate lazy storytelling device. Here, they may as well signify potential toilet breaks.

But the story, small as it is, is intriguing, and Grant, big as he is, is super watchable. He’s playing a very to-type role – sad and flamboyant – but that’s his stock in trade and he owns it. Also, the period set design – Manhattan in winter – is superb; the story evolves mostly in pubs, bookstores, libraries and antique shops, and all ring both true and poetically evocative. I lived in Manhattan then, and I’ve been in those places, with their cramped, wooden, dusty romance. That spirit is present, and helps the film stay alive amidst its strident sadness.

Succession

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HBO’s Succession, now airing (and available for full-season download) on Foxtel, is not only the best season of television of the year, it is one of the best debut seasons of television I’ve ever seen, up there with the first seasons of Deadwood, Spiral and The Wire. It’s entertainment on a grand scale, what you may call Shakespearean, dealing, as he did, with humanity’s foibles through the prism of the very rich and powerful. It is also incredibly funny, which may not be apparent from its signifiers: it’s an hour-long show, it’s got a cast of actors mainly known for dramatic roles, and it looks, from stills and trailers, like a drama. But its pedigree is not only very much comedic, its golden.

The creator is Jesse Armstrong, a very English comic author whose crowning work, before Succession, was fifteen episodes of The Thick of It and the screenplay for the movie that accompanied that incredible series, In The Loop (co-written with Thick of It co-conspirators Armando Iannucci, Tony Roche and Simon Blackwell). If you know those, you’ll recognise that Armstrong (along with his collaborative team) is a spectacular creator of character-based, intelligent humour, spectacular dialogue, and an uncanny knowledge of the workings of power. All those combine magnificently in this season of television, this magnum opus.

The writing is sweeping, kaleidoscopic, vibrant, sharp and all kinds of outrageous, as well as being remarkably empathetic given the base-line venality of the characters. That’s the thing about Succession that you really need to know in order to take the plunge, and ride out the first few episodes which are very important to building this incredible world’s foundations: even though you may hate these characters, you’re going to weirdly end up loving each and every one of them, because they may not be good human beings, but they’re ludicrously good characters.

From the top down, the acting bench is uncommonly deep. Brian Cox, as a Murdoch-styled patriarch, lords over the action in the role his entire illustrious career has prepared him for. Australia’s own Sarah Snook is fascinatingly complicated as his only daughter, Kieran Culkin weird, funny and tragic as his cheeky, woefully unfocused youngest son. Jeremy Strong, who worked with episode one director and series executive producer Adam McKay on The Big Short, is quite brilliant as Kendall, the son who is meant to inherit the empire but keeps screwing it up; it’s an ensemble show but at the end of the day – and season one – it’s Kendall’s story and Strong is the lead, his relatively “unknown” status as an actor contributing effectively to Kendall’s mercurial, slippery, unknowable nature: is he dumb as an ox, smart as a whip, spoiled, ruined, traumatised, or just a brat? He’s all; they’re all all; the writing is encyclopaedic and the playing fully committed.

Then there’s Matthew Macfadyen, an outsider playing an outsider, the love interest to Sarah Snook, a sycophant to Brian Cox’s Logan Roy, giving the funniest performance of the year. Strong may carry the show’s weightiest dramatic burdens but Macfadyen is given the responsibility of delivering some of the best lines Armstrong’s ever written, and he’s written a lot. If you know Macfadyen as the tall, incredibly British lead from Spooks or Pride and Prejudice then his wicked performance is all the funnier. It’s masterly work, worthy of a multiple awards. (Weirdly, the only Golden Globe nomination for this undeniably accomplished series is for Culkin, who is the only “American star” in the cast, which makes the Globes once again guilty of star-f***ing, of which the people in this series would probably approve).

What else can I say? That the season concludes so perfectly that I was shaking my head with wonder at Armstrong’s plotting genius? That Nicholas Britell’s magisterial score had me replaying the opening credits over and over? That we haven’t even mentioned “Cousin Greg?” This is some of the best television I’ve ever seen. Don’t miss it.

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