Destroyer, Sometimes Always Never, The Family

Around the time The Family, from writer/director Rosie Jones, was released as a theatrical feature, it won the Film Critics Circle of Australia Best Feature Documentary Award. Now re-titled The Cult Of The Family, it’s being shown on the ABC (and available on ABC iView) as a three part documentary series. It’s the disturbing story of the creepy cult, known as The Family, lead by Anne Hamilton-Byrne. The children within the cult – some illegally adopted – notoriously wore identical, freakishly blonde bobs, making them resemble the children from Village of the Damned. Jones interviews many of those children who are now scarred adults, as well as the chief investigator who essentially spent his career trying to bring Hamilton-Byrne to justice. Although the film relies too much on an uninspired score and unconvincing re-creations, the essential story, and the interviews, are urgent, essential records of an astonishingly awful Australian story.

Bill Nighy plays a Scrabble-obsessed father of two boys, searching, up and down the English coast, for one of them, who walked out on a Scrabble game years ago and never returned. If that’s not intriguing enough for you, how about the fact that director Carl Hunter, making his feature debut, shoots Sometimes Always Never in the style of Aki Kaurismaki, with nods to Wes Anderson? The result is extremely stylized, melancholy and rippled with extremely dry humour (don’t believe the quote on the poster proclaiming it “Hilarious!”); play “WHIMSICAL” for twenty points. * * *

Karyn Kusama’s Destroyer, written by Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi, who previously wrote The Invitation for Kusama to direct, is gritty, uncompromising and vibrant. It is refreshingly specific in its intent, being to follow in the footsteps of such blue-sky LA noir as To Live And Die In LA, Heat and Point Break – films that are essentially downbeat, nihilistic and grim. Common tropes include the LA River; bank heists; machine guns; charismatic, almost supernaturally influential male gang leaders; and very damaged (anti)heroes. Destroyer has all that, plus Nicole Kidman doing her usual top-notch work. It’s all very stylish, very deliberate, very purposeful, and very enjoyable, if you like this kind of thing. I do and I did. * * * *

Leaving Neverland

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* * * * * (out of five)

Already a cultural disruptor, Dan Reed’s four hour documentary Leaving Neverland will come to be regarded as a milestone in films about child sexual abuse. I’ve certainly never seen a clearer deconstruction of the methodology of the serial groomer. If you’ve ever wondered to yourself, “how did they get away with it?” (until they didn’t) – how did Jerry Sandusky get away with it, how did Larry Nassar get away with it, how did Jimmy Saville and Rolf Harris and Ronald Brown and George Ormond and Barry Bennell and Ian Watkins get away with it? – it’s all here. The seduction of both victim and victim’s family; the (mis)use of trust, power, position and wealth; the training to lie; the gradual distancing of the victim and their family; the declarations of love; the incremental escalation of physical contact; the measured introduction of alcohol and pornography – it’s all here.

A lot of people will be helped by this superbly crafted, strikingly important film. Survivors will feel compassion, empathy and perhaps some level of catharsis. There may be parents who will immediately question their child’s relationship to a particular adult in their lives, or, indeed, immediately realise that their child is currently being groomed, which could lead to that child being saved. That is the power of this already widely-viewed documentary: it will save people.

Constructed entirely around interviews with two survivors, their families and staggering amounts of, at times, jaw-dropping corroborating material, the film is reservedly, unsensationally laid out. The revelations are of course upsetting, and the nature of the crimes is spoken precisely (which is to say, graphically), but that is the nature of this sad criminality. Reed’s careful and methodical style allow us not simply to learn (and learn to recognise) the pedophile’s methodology, but to begin to understand the staggering complexity of the relationship of perpetrator to victim. As one of the victims says of Michael Jackson, he was “my dad, my lover, and my mentor.”

Everybody Knows

* * * * (out of five)

I’ve come to realise that A Separation (2011), Asghar Farhadi’s fifth feature film as writer / director, is one of my favourite movies, top five, ever. I think about it all the time; I show it to students whenever possible; it sparks joy in me to remember scenes from it, moments, ideas. It helped me realise my sweet-spot as a viewer: intelligent dramatic character films that skirt the edge of being thrillers. Indeed, for me at least, Farhadi created a sub-genre, what I call (if just to myself) the “social thriller”. Lives don’t need to be threatened, and there needn’t be villains per se, but tension runs high, with the metaphorical bomb beneath the desk actually being social norms and customs, bending and breaking along with the patience of the characters. A Separation remains a perfect, pure example of this type of cinema; everyone is in great conflict with everyone else, yet no-one is really right or wrong. The stakes are impeccably high but the situations reflect, at most, a heightened realism.

As Farhadi’s clout has risen, along with his ambitions and resources, he’s ever-so-subtly upped the genre alignment of his scripts. The Past (2013) and The Salesman (2016) were still about people before plot, character before crisis, but they toyed with tropes absolutely absent from A Separation or, say, About Elly. Now, with Everybody Knows, Farhadi for the first time delivers a film whose log-line could fool the uninitiated into thinking they were getting Friday night fare.

Of course, nothing could be further from the truth; Farhadi remains a humanist, a deep chronicler of human foible, and Everybody Knows, like his previous work, is a film of human beings in turmoil behaving realistically, understandably and with precise observation; they difference is, this time, the turmoil they face is more essentially and recognizably dramatic. They face a thriller trope, but they face it with the sensitivity of Farhadi characters.

I won’t reveal the trope; I saw this film knowing essentially nothing, and you should try for the same. Everything is surprising in a Farhadi film, and this one twists and turns like a frightened snake; there are secrets, lies, revelations and reveals, so much so that you could call this melodrama, but of the highest caliber, and performed, by brilliant actors, with straight faces and total integrity. Penelope Cruz, Javier Bardem, Ricardo Darin and an ensemble of excellent Spanish actors go through the emotional wringer for us; it can be painful to watch.

Therein lies my only rub: Farhadi and his cast twist the screws so tight, on a story that I could relate to on such a visceral, personal level, that my pleasure center wasn’t being so much lit as stabbed. Frankly, I was so tense I longed for the film to wrap up, and wrap up happily, so I could breathe again. A director, whose intention is to put you in suspense, should not be criticized for doing so. It’s simply a paradox that here, he’s applied tension so well, you want him to stop.

The Guilty

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* * * * (out of five)

Gustav Möller’s police thriller The Guilty is a must-see: an hour and twenty-five minutes of lean gripping cinematic heaven. The razor-tight, superbly plotted, intricate and surprising screenplay, by Möller and Emil Nygaard Albertsen, hurls us into a terrifically difficult situation, then challenges every aspect of our response. It’s very, very clever.

Asger Holm (Jakob Cedergren) is a Copenhagen cop assigned, not necessarily happily, to night duty on the alarm dispatch line. There are issues at play with Asger, not entirely understood by us, perhaps not even by him. After deftly setting up his precarious situation and state of mind, Möller lets the telephone ring and Asger take an emergency call. He then deals with it, in real time, as our jaws clench, our guts twist, and our fists grip ever tighter on our armrests.

Like Steven Knight’s masterful Locke (2014), this is almost a single-location, single-actor film; there are the voice actors on the phone (all excellent) and some minor other characters, but the bulk of the screen time is spent on Cedergren’s face. A lot is resting on his performance, but he’s magnificent. Möller moves the camera around the single police station location enough to dispel any “staginess” while adhering to a worthy self-imposed discipline. It’s an intense, thoroughly well constructed ride.

I saw this as my final film at the 2018 Sydney Film Festival, with an audience of 2,000. It felt like we were all at the end of a long slog of film-going, ready, frankly, for the festival to be over, and perhaps didn’t know too much about what we were about to see. As the film played, I could feel it grip this jaded audience with an iron fist; gasps at the script’s magnificent twists and turns were audible throughout the vast theatre. As the final credits rolled, we all sat, stunned and silent. A man on a telephone had faced a dilemma, and through him, so had we all.

King of Thieves

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* * * 1/2

Come for the cast and you won’t be disappointed. Come for the heist and you will. That’s it in a nutshell for this dramatisation of a truly astonishing event in recent British history, when a gang of O.A.P.s – that’s Old Age Pensioners – robbed a famous vault in London’s jewel district, Hatton Garden, in 2015.

That cast is plum fruit with plenty of warm, rich texture: Michael Caine, Jim Broadbent, Ray Winstone, Tom Courtney and Paul Whitehouse play the gang along with young Charlie Cox, with Michael Gambon being fabulous on the side as their alcoholic, incontinent, practically incoherent fence. Their wicked interplay, featuring barbs and threats as much as banter and lingo, comprises most of the film, and every one of its best scenes. Intriguingly, they are cast just a tiny bit “against type”, so that Broadbent gets to be a little Winstone-y, Caine mellow and melancholic, and Winstone perhaps the funniest… except for Gambon, who is quite hysterical.

Unfortunately the heist – which must have been intricate and hard as hell, full of challenging and tense moments and, quite simply, a bit of a modern masterpiece as heists go – is presented almost as a fait accompli, under-explained, confusingly presented, very choppily shot and edited. Perhaps the actual criminals simply have not spilled enough details for a thorough and honest depiction to be portrayed. More likely, director James Marsh is simply far more interested in the dynamics between the thieves than their work.

Fair enough. These geezers won’t be around for ever – Caine particularly shows his age here, for the first time as far as I’m concerned – and if you’ve got ‘em, flaunt ‘em. This movie is absolutely worth your ten bob just to see them in a room together, slapping each other on the back before stabbing them there.

 

Oscars 2019: Thoughts and Wild Predictions

CJ Johnson and Danielle McGrane look at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ year of self-fouls, own goals and other idiotic mis-steps in anticipation of a train-wreck 2019 Oscars. In addition, they step outside of the boring conventional wisdom predictions for this year’s Oscars, and instead, take a few big swings. Don’t bet on these long shots!

 

 

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.