The French Dispatch

* * * *

Wes Anderson’s tribute to The New Yorker (dedicated to a swathe of its golden-era writers in the end credits) is a gloriously cheerful celebration of that magazine, France, erudition, intellectualism and writing. It’s as Wes Anderson-y as it gets, tripling down on the production design, cinematography, performance and sonic aesthetic that is often imitated but is his and his alone.

If you like his vibe, The New Yorker and France, you’ll almost certainly love this. It’s astonishingly crafted, full of exquisite detail, and very, very funny. Within his oeuvre I’d place it alongside The Grand Budapest Hotel, as an example of him working full-tilt within his own style, with clearly hefty resources.

There are so many sets, so many jokes, and so many movie stars, both American and French; a fun running gag is that some of the French ones play American and vice-versa. Narratively it’s a trifle, being composed of three stories enveloped in, essentially, a framing device (the founding editor of an English-language magazine based in France passes away); but who has ever come to Anderson for the story? You come for the style, and that’s never been better – or more pronounced – than it is here.

Dune

* * * *

Denis Villeneuve’s Dune Part 1 (aka Dune) instantly joins the ranks of the great, big-budget, mass-market sci-fi extravaganzas, including 2001, Star Wars, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Blade Runner, all of which it either references, pays homage to, or is clearly influenced by. In the case of Star Wars, the references become quite heady, because Star Wars is so clearly influenced by Dune, the novel, that Villeneuve’s imagery re-builds upon imagery influenced by his source material. Is this a sandcrawler that I see before me?

What Villeneuve does so well here is make all this familiar stuff feel so fresh, and a huge part of it involves Hans Zimmer’s score, which is ominous, threatening, suitably alien, and omnipresent. It really sets the tone, and it’s really unique. I’m no musician, but I reckon its singular arresting sonic motif combines (or is inspired by) the bagpipe and an Islamic prayer call. This ain’t Also sprach Zarathustra, nor – very definitely – is it John Williams.

No, this is darker all around; Zimmer’s intense, at times frightening score is clear about that. It’s dark and it’s serious: there is one clear joke, delivered by the one character who seems allowed to make jokes. Everywhere else, all is somber. In a way, it feels like Star Wars for grown-ups.

What took me by surprise was how much action there was. The first act is world-building but acts two and three are both pretty much relentless action set-pieces. It may be ‘hard’ sci-fi, but it’s totally accessible.

It’s also really fun, gorgeous to look at, vibrant, stimulating, and huge. It’s extremely gratifying to see this kind of massive entertainment being made with such inventiveness and intelligence (the adaptation of a notoriously challenging text is superb and deserves an Oscar nomination for Adapted Screenplay). It’s Villeneuve’s best film, and I greatly look forward to Part Two.

Get Back

* * * * *

I’m not going to be shy, coy or restrained, because there’s no reason to be: Peter Jackson’s Get Back is monumental, the Mona Lisa of rock documentaries, a staggering, towering technical and artistic achievement. Over eight hours and three episodes, drawing from sixty hours of footage and a hundred and twenty of audio, Jackson recreates the Beatles’ creation of Let It Be (and parts of Abbey Road) and in doing so, gives us not only the most intimate, revealing, comprehensive look at the Beatles ever, but one of the most incisive portraits of musical creation as well.

It’s all summed up in a jaw-dropping, spellbinding, you-wouldn’t-believe-it-if-you-weren’t-seeing-it moment when we watch, in real time, with no cuts, as Paul McCartney comes up with the main structure of the song Get Back. As he’s doing so, Ringo and George (John isn’t there yet) pick up on the vibe, then pick up their instruments. It’s not merely goosebump-inducing; your hair may stand on end, and you could very likely cry with the sheer magic of the moment.

Get Back is full of such incidents; we see and hear individual songs from their moment of birth and follow them as they’re refined and ultimately recorded. We see George play I Me Mine to the others for the very first time. We see John coming up with the ‘Everybody had a hard year’ riff for I’ve Got A Feeling – as it happens. Indeed, the greatest magic of all, among eight hours of pure magic, comes whenever Paul and John get into a groove with each other and create the songs we know and love.

But outside of the music, we see and hear the most private conversations (one of them recorded secretly, between John and Paul, by a microphone hidden in a vase of flowers) and get to know these guys as individuals like never before. It’s uncanny. The sound and vision has been elaborately restored: everything is audible, everything is vivid. You simply cannot believe (a) that all this material exists and (b) that we’ve never seen it before.

I don’t know how non-Beatles fans would go – eight hours of conversation and noodling is a lot – but this isn’t for them. This is for the fans; indeed, it is surely the greatest item of fan service ever made. Too much? Wait ‘till you see it.

The Power of the Dog / Bad Luck Banging

The Power of the Dog

Now playing in Australian cinemas.

* * * 1/2

During the end credits of Jane Campion’s new feature The Power of the Dog, she thanks a colleague who gave her the novel on which it is based. Her friend thought she’d like it; it’s easy to see why. I haven’t read the book but Campion’s screenplay and filmed version of it echoes repeatedly in all manner of ways with her acknowledged masterpiece, The Piano (1993).

That film, set in the mid-1800s in isolated New Zealand, placed a newly-married woman and her daughter into a psychosexual pressure-cooker involving two men, one rough as guts and one highly refined. This film, set in 1925 in isolated Montana, places a newly-married woman and her son into a psychosexual pressure-cooker involving two men, one rough as guts and one highly refined. There’s even, not only a piano for the woman to play, but a scene of rough-as-guts workers carrying it across rugged landscape into a refined house for her: a case of a director paying almost risibly direct homage to herself.

The film pans out differently, but thematically it’s of a piece with The Piano, and shares with that film plenty of top-tier craft, including a suite of excellent performances and an outstanding original score (this time by Jonny Greenwood). But the film hums frustratingly along on that single frequency of psychosexual tension without a huge amount of actual dramatic energy. The Piano swept you along: it was ecstatic cinema. The Power of the Dog is restrained for its entire two hours and six minutes, and we, the audience, unfortunately may feel as bound and suffocated by its reserve as the woman, Rose (Kirsten Dunst) does by her observed, isolated new life.

By all means see the film, and preferably on the big screen; it’s sure to feature heavily in awards – including Oscar – conversations, and it does have an eerie, enigmatic quality (and some great acting). But be prepared to settle calmly in your seat, as this film settles into its one very consistent tone.

Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn

Opens 25/11 in Australian cinemas.

* * *

Much has been made at various festivals, including the recent Sydney Film Festival, of the explicit opening of Radu Jude’s Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn. And it is indeed full of genitalia and explicit sexual acts – for about three minutes. After that the film settles into a story of how those acts, as featured in a sex tape privately filmed by a school teacher, gets her into hot water when they appear online. The film is a colourful, unsubtle attack on hypocrisy and conservatism, in Romania and beyond, in the time of Covid: there are masks, and attitudes to wearing them, all over the film. Jude is shrewd: his film won’t make Marvel Box Office, but it’s precisely engineered for maximum festival marketability. Hopefully if you come for the porn, you’ll stay for the social critique.

Titane

* * * *

Seemingly inspired by Boys Don’t Cry (1999), feature documentary The Imposter (2012) and David Cronenberg’s 1996 adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s Crash, Julia Ducournau’s Palme D’Or-winning follow-up to Raw (2016) – my favourite film of the past five years – is tender and raw, ferocious and funny, and, despite wearing its influences on its diesel-stained sleeve, a true original. While not as brilliant as Raw (and I should not spend Ducournau’s career seeking something that is; Welles never topped Kane, right?), Titane is a major work by a major filmmaker, and echoes in the mind long after its loud credits roll.

Ready for a bonkers one-line synopsis? A young female exotic dancer serial killer goes into hiding with a grief-stricken fireman after having sex with a car. Yep. And that’s kind of spoiler-free. There’s a lot more.

The fireman is played by Vincent Lindon and it’s in his performance, and the relationship he builds with the murderous dancer Alexia (Agathe Rousselle, making an astonishing feature debut), that tenderness resides. At its heart, outside of the crowd-freaking acts of violence and depravity (no greater, by the way, than any in Raw), this is that old chestnut: a tale of two lost, deeply damaged souls finding each other. The film becomes increasingly – yes, tender – as it goes on, culminating in an ending as perfect, and perfectly moving, as it is inevitable.

No Time To Die

Time to Love.

* * * *

Daniel Craig’s final James Bond film is a dark, emotional epic. Deliberately and consistently harking back – musically, thematically, and tonally – to the purist’s secret favourite Bond film, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, No Time To Die is a love story, and a successful one: the complicated chemistry between Daniel Craig and Léa Seydoux is supremely well played. Acting at this level was simply absent in the pre-Daniel Craig era, and this is probably the best acted entry in the entire series.

It’s also a team effort: Bond is rarely solo for this film’s two hours and forty-three minutes, and watching him and his crew – including Q and M, plus a new female agent and good ol’ Moneypenny – share the third act feels entirely appropriate. Earlier, Craig shares the film’s best action set-piece, in Havana, with Ana De Armas, who makes a spectacular impression with very little screen time. She is simply delightful, and her ability to make a fast strong impression is very much in keeping with the historical tradition of the First Act Bond Girl.

The film, directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga, looks sublime, at times rivalling the cinematography of Skyfall. Most of the action is gripping, and the locations, particularly Norway, are moody and evocative.

The plot itself, featuring a biological weapon, is creepily Covid-prescient (of course unwittingly, as the film was finished by the advent of the pandemic and its release delayed for two years because of it). But plot is not story, and the story – the love story – is heartily and admirably committed to.

This is mature Bond for a mature audience, even if the (main) villain could have stepped out of the 60s Connerys. Played in a hard-to-hear weird dialect by Rami Malek, he’s a fun throwback, but no Silva (Javier Bardem in Skyfall), let alone a Goldfinger, a Scaramanga, or Terry Savalas’ Blofeld.

But this Bond is not about the villain. This Bond is about love, Léa Seydoux is very much the second lead, and she’s terrific. Dame Diana Rigg would approve.

The Many Saints of Newark

WARNING: Minor Spoilers.

The US reviews for The Many Saints of Newark, the big-screen Sopranos prequel, were lukewarm, and I was reticent in seeing it. But bada bing, I enjoyed it, quite a lot. It’s full of richly evocative late 1960s / early 1970s US urban period ambiance, it’s nicely shot (looking great on the huge screen I saw it on at Event Cinemas in the Sydney CBD) and the acting is a lot of fun. I also found the story compelling. But here’s the thing (and the reason, I think, mild disappointment surrounds the film): it’s not really Tony Soprano’s ‘origin’ story. It’s the story of his uncle Dickie, played very well by Alessandro Nivola. Young Tony is in it, as a child and a teenager, but he really doesn’t do much of anything at all. He’s an observer in Dickie’s movie. And I enjoyed Dickie’s movie.

The story revolves around the tension between the established Italian crime bosses in Newark and the rising opposition of Black gangsters. It’s exciting and the dialogue is witty. Vera Farmiga, as Livia, is the standout among those playing established characters from the series; the most exciting new character is a young Italian woman brought over to Newark and into the family, played passionately and cleverly by Michela De Rossi. Ray Liotta also has a couple of delicious roles.

It’s a fun, well crafted period mob story. Enjoy it as such; but if you’re hoping to see Tony’s blooding, you may well be very disappointed.

The Last Duel

In Cinemas 21 October.

* * * 1/2

Sir Ridley Scott’s sprawling, very expensive-looking, old-school epic throwback The Last Duel is a strange beast. Featuring masterfully designed and executed art direction (it’s set in France in the 1300s, with castles, horses, gates, bridges, lances, swords, ladies in waiting, armour, medieval Paris, and about sixty never-not-roaring fireplaces), a superb central performance from Jodie Comer, and three fruity turns from Adam Driver, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, it succeeds in being engaging and entertaining throughout its two-and-a-half-hour runtime despite an icky story.

Scott uses Rashomon’s structure: an alleged sexual assault, told three times from three different perspectives, including that of the victim (Comer, of course, with Driver the accused). It’s rather shocking, seeing a big-budget rape drama (with an A-List actor playing the alleged rapist); to see rape portrayed at all demands sensitivity and kid gloves, and this movie’s gloves are all made of heavy metal.

Frankly, the themes are too grave for the flamboyant treatment, yet it’s the treatment that’s entertaining. Filled with astonishing visuals, and perhaps saved by Comer’s precise performance, the film succeeds despite itself, a ravishing relic.

Nitram

Now in Cinemas

* * * *

You have every right and reason not to go see Justin Kurzel’s new film Nitram, despite its impeccable craftsmanship and staggeringly effective performances. It chronicles events leading up to the worst mass shooting in Australia’s history, and it’s as bleak and depressing as cinema gets. Stay away, by all means. This is not for everybody.

Is it for anybody? And by that, what I really mean is, does it have a reason to exist? About halfway through I wasn’t so sure; by the end I was, absolutely. For Nitram is a thorough, methodical, detailed, unsensational and sincere examination of mental illness; it is also a quietly powerful anti-gun plea for common sense.

The film makes the effective case for the shooter’s mental health leading directly to his actions, and along the way reminds us that, often, warning signs of serious trouble are evident. It is not so much that it’s sympathetic to the shooter; rather, it tries to wrestle with how things like this could happen: not because of ‘evil’, but when certain very disturbed people get their hands on guns. Without blaming society, or any one person in particular, the film couldn’t be clearer that mentally ill people need help, and we shouldn’t have guns circulating in society. Both concepts sound self-evident, obvious, but the film delivers the message with great impact and fresh clarity.

Caleb Landry Jones won Best Actor at Cannes for his lead role, and it is truly an astonishing performance, the best I’ve seen this year. We have come far in the depiction of mental illness on film, and this surely sets the new benchmark. Everything he does rings true. He is supported by equally precise naturalistic performances from Judy Davis (as his mother), Anthony LaPaglia (his father) and particularly Essie Davis as Helen, a woman with whom he develops an unusual and impactful relationship.

This is clearly similar territory for Kurzel to Snowtown (2011), his terrifying examination of the events leading up to the Adelaide serial killings. There are great tonal and aesthetic similarities, and a similarly bleak sense of existential despair, but there are also crucial differences. Snowtown featured graphic scenes of horrific violence and essentially operated as a horror film, albeit one of impeccable integrity and craftsmanship. Nitram has no onscreen violence and operates as a cautionary, sad drama. They are easily Kurzel’s two best films, and Nitram is one of the best films of the year, but one I can only recommend with reservations. Put it this way: if you think it’s not for you, you’re probably right.