Robert Connelly’s The Dry, based on Jane Harper’s novel, is a very professionally constructed example of a very trope-y genre. A Big City Cop is called back home to their small town because of a tragic event, and in doing so, must face dark secrets from their past. Sound familiar? Of course it does. There have been at least sixty TV series made in Europe over the past ten years – over forty of them in the Nordic nations – that hew to that exact formula. It’s become such a cliché that there was even an entire parody series, Fallet, made in Sweden in 2017, that hit every tired beat again and again, exposing the genre’s self-cannibalisation ruthlessly.
But Australia is not Norway, and it’s the milieu that gives The Dry what freshness it has. Eric Bana’s Aaron Falk is a Federal Police Officer living in Melbourne whose (fictional) hometown, Kiewerra, hasn’t seen rain in a year. It is the parched, incessantly dusty drought-stricken crisis that gives the film its striking and foreboding atmosphere, and separates it from all those similar stories set in snow and sleet rather than dirt and desert.
The plotting is tight and, of course, the town is full of dodgy dirtbags played by good actors with interesting faces. Bana’s Falk is quite a cipher at the centre, but that’s part of the genre, too: the cop is inherently the least interesting character. It’s all plot plot plot, red herrings and ominous music, until the Big Reveal(s) in the third act. For me, those concluding sequences were not as satisfying – nor as well constructed – as the investigation that came before, and had a nasty bite that seemed tonally distinct from the rest of the film. But I suspect fans of the genre will find this very solid film way more than acceptable. I have no doubt that there was talk of turning the novel into a series; that it’s all done and dusted (sorry) in two hours rather than stretched out to ten is commendable.
Happy holidays. Here’s my Top 15 of 2020, as published in FilmInk Magazine. All were released in Australia, either in cinemas, via streaming or VOD, during the calendar year. I suspect most if not all of them are now available for home viewing. Enjoy! Your comments are welcome. CJ
Among music documentarians, Julien Temple strides as a charming colossus, primarily because of The Great Rock And Roll Swindle, his incredible 1980 portrait of The Sex Pistols. He’s also one of the great – and prolific – music video directors, particularly of the British scene since 1977, when he got his start making videos for the Pistols. He’s got an eye, an ear, and a deep appreciation for his tribe, particularly the punks, the rebels and the misfits. Shane MacGowan, creative driving force and lead singer of The Pogues, is certainly all three of those and then some. In his life-long commitment to unhealthy living, he’s perhaps the most misfitting, rebellious punk of them all.
Temple’s two-hour documentary on MacGowan, Crock of Gold, is as energetic and meticulous as all of his work, astonishingly full of expertly curated archival material and found footage, narrated, stirringly and slurringly, by MacGowan, who may be slow and sloppy, but is still somewhat witty and somewhat wise. He’s in a wheelchair now, his feet and brain ravaged by drink, and his head lilts to the side, as though his neck was, too. To get him to tell us his story, Temple has him sit with his wife Siobhan (he got married last year), Gerry Adams (yes, that Gerry Adams, president of Sinn Féin until 2018) and Johnny Depp (yes, that Johnny Depp, who is one of the producers of the movie and seems to venerate men like MacGowan and the late Hunter S. Thompson, guys with real drinking problems). MacGowan talks to them, and Temple illustrates his oral history as he has in previous films with imagery from a vast array of sources and specifically created animation. It’s propulsive and vibrant. There’s a lot of footage of MacGowan from the late 70s during the birth of London punk, thrashing in the crowd at other band’s gigs, and it turns out that he was, weirdly, a kind of punk-scene celebrity before he even announced himself as a musician.
Beyond MacGowan’s own story (and that of The Pogues), Temple paints a bigger picture, of Ireland’s rich and rebellious history, of punk (of course), and (of course) of drink. You can’t tell MacGowan’s story without talking of booze, and the film is soaked in it, just like MacGowan. He’s simultaneously a sad figure and a weirdly heroic one, defiantly drinking even as he finds it hard to get the glass to his lips. Around him, his friends and family have long ago accepted that he’s a lifer, and they enable him. He’ll die of drink one day, but he hasn’t yet, and that keeps the film’s energy upbeat: MacGowan is a living musician, not a soaking corpse, and here is his worthy celebration.
Oliver Sacks was one of those people who seemed beyond normal capabilities. We may call them geniuses, hyper-intelligent, or, simply, very good at their jobs. But Sacks was very, very good at two jobs: writing and neurology. And that combo made him, weirdly, a star.
As the title makes clear, this is his own story, which is as strange and compelling as many of his case studies. Who knew that beside his incredible talents, he achieved a California State Record in 1961 for squatting? That’s a bodybuilding term for a particular weightlifting manoeuvre, and Sacks won his record by doing it with two hundred and seventy-two kilos on his back. I don’t know about you, but when I read Oliver Sacks, I don’t picture a swole beast.
But this was Sacks: he was full of complications and contradictions, and this elegiac and beautiful movie touches on, I assume, all the biggies. His love and sex life was fascinating; there are addiction issues; he has his own – very Sacksian – neurological deviation; and he was surrounded by a team of Incredibly Smart People who are assembled with Oliver as he discusses his cancer prognosis, the ticking time bomb that frames the film. For this is a movie made about a dying man as he knows he is dying, yet rather than being mournful, it is joyous. Another amazing feat from the life of a truly astonishing individual. Highly recommended.
Made a couple of decades after the ground-breaking first two movies for financial rather than strictly artistic reasons, The Godfather Part Three (1990) was greeted appropriately: everyone acknowledged that it simply wasn’t as good as the first two (it’s not); that Coppola’s daughter Sofia, playing Michael Corleone’s daughter Mary, gave a bad performance (she did); and that the story was both over-complicated and rather unengaging (it was). Some critics went further and accused Coppola, and the film, of tarnishing The Godfather legacy.
A tinkerer – he’s put out multiple ‘director’s cuts’ of Apocalypse Now and recently a re-edited version of The Cotton Club – Coppola has sought to address some of these universally acknowledged issues with his re-cut, restored and re-named The Godfather Coda: The Death of Michael Corleone. He can’t take what’s there and make a silk purse, and the new version remains a pale companion to the glory of the first two masterpieces. But he does restore his daughter’s reputation somewhat, by cutting out a lot of her worst moments, and he definitely streamlines and clarifies the story, mainly by strengthening the structure around Vincent Corleone (Andy Garcia). In this version, Vincent’s introduced earlier, and comes this close to being the protagonist, almost putting Michael in the supporting seat.
Of course, no-one puts Al Pacino, in his greatest role (across the three films), in a corner, and he is superb as the ageing mobster who wants to go straight and find redemption in the eyes of God and his children. But the strengthened focus on Garcia works, driving the narrative more cleanly, and, frankly, Sofia doesn’t come off too badly (though there are still some cringe-worthy line readings). It’s a leaner, cleaner, more comprehensible and watchable version of itself – shorter by thirteen minutes – and worth your time for a re-visit. It looks and feels like The Godfather, and has some sublime moments and a couple of great set-pieces. Like Michael, it seeks redemption. Unlike Michael, it gets some.
Bold, ambitious, colourful, a big swing, Maziar Lahooti’s feature debut Below, now available on STAN, is full of ideas. Set in the daunting milieu of a migrant detention centre in a (very slightly) alternative-reality Australia, the film takes black-comedy aim at all manner of hot button issues swirling around our – Australian – sense of identity, as well as cancel culture, the dark web, gambling, corporate-speak, privatisation, and, inherently, the ethical and moral quagmire of migrant detention itself. It’s loaded to the brim, thrillingly, bracingly, at times almost gluttonously – the work of someone with a lot to say and only 93 minutes to say it.
Ryan Corr plays Dougie, a young man forced by circumstance to work in a private detention centre in an arid region that’s been effectively erased from Australia – a no-man’s land of no accountability. There, he encounters a punitive system of cage-fighting that’s been set up to keep the detainees in line, and sees an opportunity to profit.
A kind of unholy cross between Catch-22, Fight Club and The Road Warrior, Lahooti’s nihilistic, anti-heroic and at times ferociously angry film is visually energetic and excitingly paced, creating a vibrantly dangerous world with one foot in reality and the other in low-key science fiction. Corr is an entertaining – if amoral – guide, and Anthony LaPaglia is ridiculously enjoyable as Terry, Dougie’s step-father and head honcho at the detention centre who gets him into this mess. As black comedy it’s not the funniest, as political satire it’s not the sharpest, and as sci-fi it’s not the most rigorous, but part of its charm is how it resists trying too hard to excel as any of these. You might say that it’s tonally inconsistent; I would suggest it’s tonally bold. It’s its own thing, original and unique, not for everyone, and all the better for it.
Watched at the Ritz Cinema, Sydney, where it is now playing.
* * * *
I am the target audience for Mank, David Fincher’s Netflix-funded production of his dad Jack Fincher’s screenplay about Herman “Mank” Mankiewicz, a “screenwriter’s screenwriter” who won an Oscar for Citizen Kane. This film covers Mank (Gary Oldman) during the writing of that script, with flashbacks to his earlier Hollywood career and its intersection with Citizen Kane subjects William Randolph Hearst and Marion Davies.
I’m the target audience all right: earlier this year, I read Sydney Ladensohn Stern’s 480-page biography of Mank and his brother Joseph, The Brothers Mankiewicz; I’ve read more books about Orson Welles, Citizen Kane’s director (and a minor character in this film by screen time but a major one by impact) than about anyone else; I’ve even read John Houseman’s books about working with Welles, and Houseman is a major character in this film no matter how you gauge it. I love the golden age of Hollywood; I love these (real-life) characters; I love films about films. This film was meant for me, and I loved it.
Will you? Hard to say. But there’s more on Fincher and daddy Fincher’s minds than just a Hollywood story. Mank’s desire to write a classic film about the media mogul of his day – Hearst – reflects his growing realisation that realpolitik trumps idealism, and Mank is really a political film, striking out at propaganda, electioneering and fake news. Its vibe is old-timey – more on that in a moment – but it’s actually very timely.
Fincher has shot the film so that it looks, sounds, feels and smells like it was made at the time Citizen Kane was: the early 1940s. It’s a startling experience. From the contrast of the black and white images, to the (simulated, I suppose) grain of the film, to the period-appropriate fade-outs, to the fun inclusion of cue blips – those strange circles in the upper right corner of the screen that appear in old movies to alert the projectionist to a reel change – Fincher and his cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt nail the aesthetic of the period, and the sound design follows suit. But there’s more to the film’s 1941faux-verisimilitude: the screenplay itself is constructed as it might have been then, and thus is it acted. Every actor in the film is, essentially, giving the performance they would have given in 1941, before the naturalistic ‘method’ stormed in. The whole enterprise is highly stylised, and it totally works. Once you’re in – a process that took mere minutes for me – you’re in. The style remains but it’s never an obstacle, obstruction nor irritant: form follows function, beautifully.
All that clever acting is excellent acting, too. Gary Oldman makes Mank a gloriously happy alcoholic, steering clear of many of the type’s trappings. It’s not a flashy performance but a stable one, Mank as hero of his own story, which he was. This is not a take-down, and Oldman’s performance is not a grotesque: he, and the film, like Mank, and so do we. He’s talented, generous, idealistic and, most importantly, true to himself, something recognised in him by others.
Amanda Seyfried delivers a career-best performance as Davies, Hearst’s young mistress. Charles Dance plays Hearst not as a monster but simply a master – of his domain, of men, of his mistress – and subverts our sympathies in the process. There are fine performance from Arliss Howard as Louis B. Mayer, Sam Troughton as Houseman, and Tom Burke, from The Souvenir, as Welles. But the character sharing the most scenes with Mank is Rita, a young woman employed to attend to him – and keep an eye on him – as he writes Kane; she’s played by Lily Collins, superbly. She’s Emily in Paris, too, but I’ll take Rita in Victorville, where she and Mank co-exist.
Mank is one of the films of the year. It’s surprisingly gentle, loving, calm and graceful. It takes you to another world. Five hours after leaving the cinema, I’m still kind of there. It’s my happy place, and Mank is, for me, a feel-good movie, one made like they used to.
It is a truth somewhat universally acknowledged that Stop Making Sense, Jonathan Demme’s 1984 Talking Heads concert film, is the coolest movie ever made. It’s just perfect: energetic, joyous, polished yet spontaneous, cerebral yet earthily sweaty. It makes you think and dance, and David Byrne is just the nerdiest and the coolest.
He still is, and now Spike Lee documents him in concert again (with a different, purpose-built band) in a Broadway theatre. All the above adjectives still describe the new show, and once again, Byrne demonstrates his profound ability to turn a theatre full of strangers into a community. He creates a secular church, with his greatest hits as gospel, and his parishioners raise their arms. You will too. This is an hour and forty-five minutes of joyous energy. Created, performed and filmed before the US election, there’s a strong political edge, particularly urging the audience to vote. Now that they have, we can relax a little, and enjoy the music.
Austrian filmmaker Sandra Wollner’s challenging second feature is intelligent and thoughtful, legitimately subversive and transgressive, conceptually ambitious, but most of all, devastatingly sad. Straddling sci-fi, family drama and provocation, it operates as a darker B-Side to Steven Spielberg’s A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001).
In a world otherwise not markedly different from our own, realistic robots with advanced A.I. exist. In summer, in a suburban house in Austria, a man and his robot live together. He is middle-aged. The robot represents as female, around nine or so years old. Every facet of their relationship, and every facet of our response, is complicated.
This is one brave movie. It takes on massive thematic concerns unflinchingly. It will not be for everybody. It will not be for most. But it is guaranteed to make you think, and in particular, think about technology, grief, memory, and the conceptual link between them. It is a provocation only in that it dares to deal with possibilities we’d rather not think about, but it is not at all exploitative, grotesque or squalid. It is beautifully crafted along cool, formal lines, featuring exquisite naturalistic performances and sublime cinematography. It is rigorous, thoughtful and deeply heartfelt. One of the better films of the year, and almost certainly the most audacious.
In 1974 Hollywood, a bottom-feeding, low-rent, schlocky producer of B-grade exploitation movies finds himself in hock to a nasty gangster; to get square, he concocts an insurance-scam scheme to kill an already-suicidal ageing movie star by casting him in a cowboy flick and giving him a lethal stunt to perform.
So far, so great, right? Sublime black-comedy premise within a fantastic milieu. Now add this cast: Robert De Niro as the sleazy producer, Morgan Freeman as the gangster, and… Tommy Lee Jones as the washed-up movie star! On paper, this could have been one of the great Hollywood satires.
It’s not. The script is sloppy – repetitive, one-note, overwritten – and the direction, by George Gallo, who has a long credit list of straight-to-DVD titles, is pedestrian at best and tone-deaf at worst. But the stars, and, very particularly, De Niro, bring something. It’s weird, but it’s something. De Niro plays his grubby Hollywood also-ran, Max Barber, as though cast in the ‘Woody’ role in a Woody Allen movie, and performing the role as Woody would. It’s a really strange choice, and quite a spectacle, but it’s strangely watchable, and the engine of the film. Whatever it is, De Niro’s going for it.
Jones is cast pretty much directly to his strengths, and Freeman is so at ease in his (fewer) scenes that he may be reciting his lines for some other film in his head even as he speaks these ones. They’re pros being pros, which is something to see, but De Niro, at 77, is going out on a whacky limb, and makes this otherwise mediocre movie passably strange.