The Painter and the Thief

The Thief and the Painter.

Opens in Australian cinemas 25 March

* * * 1/2

Norwegian documentary The Painter and The Thief is an almost uncomfortably intimate portrait of the strange vagaries of human need. When Barbora Kysilkova, a Czech painter living in Norway, has two of her paintings brazenly stolen from an Oslo gallery, and the thief is caught, rather than seek vengeance, she seeks to redeem him. Why she does so is no more cut and dried than why he stole her paintings in the first place, but both acts are born of pain. He is an addict; her wounds are less visible.

The film is striking enough as a very close portrait of two intriguing people, and interesting enough as a snapshot of young folk on the outskirts of convention in Oslo, but becomes quite powerful in the third act, when things get weirder, and director Benjamin Ree is not only there to capture them but to structure his narrative, in the edit, for optimum revelation. Like Kysilkova’s paintings, The Painter and the Thief is photo-realistic but artfully constructed for maximum pathos, darkness and surprise.

Collective

Will Catalin Tolontan be played by Clive Owen in a narrative remake?

Opens in Australian Cinemas 8 April

* * * * 1/2

Collective is the fly-on-the-wall documentary about lethal Romanian corruption you didn’t know you needed. Alexander Nanau’s camera is in all of the right places as Catalin Tolontan, a middle-aged journalist for a sports-themed daily paper, and his small team of highly principled journalists uncover a scandal within the public health sector in the wake of a horrific fire. It is a tale of tragedy upon tragedy, and a hundred and nine of the most compelling minutes of the cinematic year.

Nanau uses no narration, no interviews, and, I think, two title cards. The rest of the story is covered by his cameras, and so thoroughly, Collective could pass itself off as a handheld, dogme-styled narrative feature. Indeed, like Honeyland from last year, Collective is nominated not only for the Best Feature Documentary Academy Award, but for Best International Film as well.

At its heart is ethical journalism. A real-life Spotlight playing out in a sort of real time, Collective is a constant reminder of how important good journalists are to every society. Without them, it seems, all those with access to any form of privilege would just pack it in for the dollar, and leave the damned to the worms.

Nomadland

She flinty.

* * * 1/2

Chloé Zhao‘s third feature, Nomadland, is an exercise in extreme compassion. What it lacks in narrative drive it makes up for in total empathy for its myriad characters. If it wins the Oscar this year for Best Film (it is currently the clear favourite) it will stand in stark contrast to last year’s winner, Parasite, which displayed masterful screenwriting and virtuosic filmmaking in every frame. Nomadland, by contrast, feels cobbled together on a wing and a prayer, written far more on set and in the edit suite than at the keyboard, and appealing entirely to the heart rather than the head.

What is virtuosic is Frances McDormand’s central performance as Fern, an itinerant American mid-western ‘nomad’, living out of her van and picking up seasonal blue-collar work. The Oscar race for Best Actress seems to be between her and Carey Mulligan for Promising Young Woman, giving voters a choice between apples and oranges. Mulligan’s work reflects her film’s heightened stylisation. McDormand’s is textbook naturalism. Indeed, given half of her scenes are with non-actors telling their own true stories, any deviation from a purely realistic approach would stand out like a Christmas tree on Mars and upset the film’s delicate, and rather unique, fabric.

Those non-actors are the film’s soul; around them, McDormand’s Fern is as empathetic and compassionate as Zhao. Against the professional actors, such as David Strathairn and Linda May, brought in to give the film at least some sense of narrative, she is allowed to be flintier, and ‘flinty’ may well be McDormand’s middle name. It is a perfect role for her unique essence, and, I dare say, may well end up her signature performance.

Although the film is about America’s mid-western (very white) dispossessed, it feels strangely apolitical. It’s not angry, per se, nor is it blatantly an origin story of Trump’s weirdly self-defeating voting base, although one cannot help make the connection as a viewer (a lot of the film takes place in South Dakota, now infamous for being one of the most mask-resistant, lockdown-resistant, Covid-blasé places on Earth, with infection numbers to match). What it is, relentlessly, is American. If you’re sick of hearing Americans talk about themselves, this film will be your poison. If you can stomach a few more twangy voices, they are presented here with grace, beauty, and, yes, compassion.

Minari

In Australian cinemas now.

* * *

Currently in the mix amongst the plethora of critics awards being doled out in the US, Minari, Lee Isaac Chung’s directly autobiographical film, is a slog. The acting is superb (including from young kids and an older ‘grandmother’) and the integrity of the story is not in question. It is tasteful, detailed, well crafted and honest.  But it is glacially paced, without being so stylistically or technically fascinating to generate interest when the script does not.

Chung grew up on a farm in Arkansas, and it is his childhood experience represented in painstaking detail here. It may be close to your story and have huge resonance for you; I found the milieu uninspiring. Some in my audience were vocally delighted at everything the kids did, particularly Alan Kim, who plays a version of the young Chung. He is indeed terrific, as is everyone. If only the script gave them a little more dramatic dynamite.

Another Round

Now playing in Australian cinemas.

* * * *

Conceptually, Another Round sounds like a high-concept early 2000s comedy starring Will Ferrell, Jack Black, Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson: four teachers decide, in order to raise their dynamism at work and in general life, to experiment with staying a little bit drunk pretty much all the time. Specifically, they intend to follow the hypothesis of a Norwegian psychiatrist named Finn Skårderud, who suggested that human beings would operate best with a consistent level of .05% blood alcohol. In the Ferrell / Black / Stiller / Wilson theoretical version, wacky inebriated hi-jinks would ensue, inevitably leading to some regretful actions and, in all likelihood, an ultimate repudiation of the experiment.

But this is not that movie; it is director Thomas Vinterberg’s (written with Tobias Lindholm, together one of the great screenwriting teams on the planet), and it stars Mads Mikkelsen, Thomas Bo Larsen, Magnus Millang and Lars Ranthe. While there are humorous moments, the style is naturalistic realism, and the tone is mournful and often dark. It takes a high-concept, somewhat ludicrous premise, and plays it straight: what would happen?

I think we all know what would happen, and Vinterberg knows we know, so whatever delights the film will offer, it will offer in execution, and they are many. The script, despite generally heading in an inevitable direction, is surprising and complex, with sublime dialogue and fascinating character detail; the cinematography is organic but touched constantly by magic (particularly involving some seriously beautiful twilights and sunsets) and the acting is spectacular, with Mikkelsen (who is very much the lead) giving a monumental performance (in a career full of them). Framed often in very tight close-up, Mikkelsen’s Martin has a face of bruised solitude, his eyes sad, lonely, desperate and needy until they are invigorated, in strange and intriguing ways, by the booze.

This is a wonderful movie, challenging, provocative, a little subversive, and totally engaging. It is Denmark’s entry for Best International Film at this year’s Oscars, and it could win.