The Realm (El Reino)

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* * * 1/2

Playing a little like the last act of Goodfellas without the cocaine or the pasta, Spanish thriller The Realm is relentlessly propulsive. Manuel (Antonio de la Torre), a high ranking career politician, is about to get a big bump up the political career ladder, but the web of schemes he and basically every politician in the country has been involved in threatens to splinter, ruining everything. He’s on the run, trying to keep ahead of the story, the evidence, his allies, his enemies, everything and everyone, by car, train, foot. There’s no voiceover a la Ray Liotta, but you get the sweat.

The film’s glossy sheen is seductive, as is Manuel, who gives out an air of superficial goodness even as we know he’s part of the problem. He’s a family man, a decent man – right? Except he’s so not. It’s part of the film’s ingenuity that we’re able to simultaneously root for him and revel in his downfall. Slot in Michael Cohen from his congressional hearings; the fit is weirdly perfect.

The film’s final act is superb: very tense, very cynical and very very angry. Writer / co-director Rodrigo Sorogoyen ultimately pulls no punches; the final scene screams what we all want to at our corrupt politicians. It’s satisfying stuff, and truly on the dirty money for these deeply corrupt times.

Long Shot

* *

What a tragic disappointment. After a promising opening ten minutes featuring gags that, if not truly edgy, at least carry a little bite, the superficially progressive RomCom Long Shot proceeds inexorably towards complete mainstream commercial formulaic filmmaking. The first hint that things aren’t going to stay cool is the score, which blandly announces itself as cosy and familiar as your grandmother’s lap blanket; it’s awful. Next come the interior logic and character consistency casualties, indicative of a sloppy script and a slack edit or, worse, studio notes. Finally, the tropes, the tropes, the boring, predictable, endlessly clichéd tropes. It’s all the worse for watching the enormously gifted Charlize Theron, as the US secretary of state who falls for her speechwriting “gag man” (Seth Rogen), having to play these shopworn scenarios, while being shot like a fancy perfume bottle. For a film that begins with a couple of quick jabs that seem to establish the semblance of feminist credentials, it quickly succumbs to being its own idealogical enemy. The whole thing’s slide from hipness to commercial blandness is reflective of its director, Jonathan Levine’s, career, from indie-cred The Wackness (2008) and critical darling 50/50 (2011) through the dreadful Snatched (2017) and now this. What a shame.

Acute Misfortune

* * * 1/2

Rich, strange, smart and darkly off-centre – like its subject – Acute Misfortune is based on Erik Jensen’s book about the two or so years he spent researching Blue Mountains painter Adam Cullen for a proposed biography (the proposal coming from Cullen himself). Mostly but not entirely confined to Cullen’s spare, modest mountain house, and to the two main characters, the film examines Cullen’s troubled psyche with the detached observational eye the famously confrontational painter may have shown his subjects. Like a painter, director and co-writer (with Jensen himself) Thomas M. Wright produces a portrait that is somewhat oblique and extremely evocative; like Cullen himself, it is a portrait that brings out the subject’s darkest tones while not afraid of some bold, risk-taking strokes.

Daniel Henshall is magnetic and imposing as Cullen. Since he grabbed us all by the throat and forced us to reckon with his powerful talent as killer John Bunting in Snowtown (2011), Henshall has been in a lot of television, including having a major role in the long-running US series Turn, which is essentially unwatched in Australia. He deserves, and demands, the big screen, and it is thrilling to see him once more in such a dominant – indeed domineering – role. Indeed, it’s very, very much a role in kin with his Bunting; both were disturbed men who decided to aggressively, abusively “mentor” much younger men as some sort of outlet for their demons/diseases.

The reverberations with Snowtown are indicative of a film that is full of references, oblique and sometimes glaringly clear. Max Cullen plays his own cousin, Adam’s father Kevin Cullen; late in the film, Cullen asks Jensen a question that seems to be a direct quote from Snowtown. Since Cullen/Henshall is shown admiringly watching David Wenham in The Boys (1998) and seemingly basing his style of intimidatory rhetoric on Wenham’s character Brett Sprague, it’s entirely possible that filmmaker Wright is suggesting that Cullen also was a fan of Snowtown, and Henshall’s performance in it, ultimately meaning that Henshall is, to at least a degree, playing a character imitating his own performance as another character in another film.

If that’s too clever, or meta, for you, it’s totally in line with the philosophy of painters, who all “steal” from each other, reference each other, copy each other, honour each other and indeed simply paint in each other’s styles, all the time. As Cullen’s portraits captured their subjects with reference to his own dark drama, so too does Wright’s film ensnare a version of Cullen, while also obsessively presenting itself as its own artwork, endlessly reflecting and refracting the art of others.

The Hummingbird Project

* *

When your protagonist is motivated by greed, it’s hard to care about them; those days – of Gordon Gecko proclaiming “Greed is good!” – are gone. Sometimes, we’ll buy into greedy protagonists if there is humour and truth: The Big Short (2015) was excellent, but a lot of the enjoyment of that film was in knowing that it was, essentially, a true story. That film was adapted from Michael Lewis’ book, and Lewis knows how to make economic bandits seem interesting. His 2014 book Flash Boys even managed to make the arcane practice of front-running investor orders during high frequency trading by utilising ultra-low latency direct market access somewhat intriguing. But The Hummingbird Project, a completely fictional story about such traders (and seemingly using Lewis’ book not as source material but as material to rip off), lacking humour and truth, is just about greedy people, and we simply don’t care whether their cable makes their money travel faster or not.

Alexander Skarsgård manages, at least, to somehow deliver an interesting performance as a stereotypically odd, socially stunted savant coder. Not so Salma Hayek, left screeching and floundering in a role that, since it’s been written as a woman, by a man, seems pretty misogynistic. If this had been a film based on real people – which it kind of feels like it’s pretending to be – then Hayek’s shrill, vindictive Boss Lady would have had to be a woman. Here, in a fiction, the fact that the film’s least likeable character – by far – is its only major female one smells really bad. It’s a nasty role played ludicrously, but, really, could Hayek have played it well?

The film actually gets worse as it goes on, with a sickeningly misjudged development for the third act designed to jolt us into empathy for the lead Greed, played by Jesse Eisenberg with typical insouciance. It doesn’t work in the slightest, being the cheapest kind of screenwriting trick; instead it makes the film’s long final act one of the most punishing I’ve sat through in a while. By the end, I was truly rooting for these guys to fail spectacularly, like the movie they’re in.

Woman At War

* * * 1/2

Most movies feature a protagonist facing obstacles and challenges; any good movie shows their protagonist having to make tough choices to deal with them. But rare is the movie that routinely shows a protagonist making mistakes, miscalculations, errors both of judgement and simple dexterity. Benedikt Erlingsson’s Woman at War is such a movie, which is part of the reason it feels so bracingly original.

Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir plays Halla, a middle-edged Reykjavík single woman leading a double life as a friendly and maternal choir director and a somewhat fierce, solitary, edge-pushing activist. Her current guerrilla campaign against huge foreign interests taking control of Iceland’s energy production is jeopardised both by the forces against her and by a truly superb dramatic twist: the theoretical child she applied to adopt four years ago, and has forgotten about, has become a reality. In Ukraine there is a four year old girl that needs a mother; at home her natural environment – the majestic and magisterial landscapes of Iceland – need her radical efforts, which could easily see her imprisoned, and thus unable to become a mother.

It’s a superb conceit, supported by strong visuals (Scandiphiles will love the many sweeping environmental shots), terrific performances (Geirharðsdóttir does superb work, including playing Halla’s sister) and a script that marries a lot of humour to what, on paper, looks like a thriller. Best of all is the film’s moral and ethical complexity: Halla rides the edge of strident activism and dangerous extremism, and our support of her choices is never taken for granted, let alone assured.

Thunder Road

* * *

A rich, strange, tonally adventurous portrait of one man’s unraveling in the face of grief and hardship. To call it melancholy would be generous; some will find it simply too depressing to bear. But if you had to file it in the DVD store of your mind, it might have to go in Comedy, for this is comedy in the Chekovian sense, about the bleak absurdity of life, and how we in turn must be absurd to live. The fact that the protagonist is a policeman only adds to the texture: we’re used to seeing cops as their profession, not as human beings who weep at their lot. Officer Jim Arnaud, played by Jim Cummings, who also wrote and directed the film, weeps a lot at his lot; I daresay a male lead character has never burst into tears so many times in one film, with the possible exception of Jason Segel’s character Peter in Being Sarah Marshall. Arnaud has reason to weep; his mother has just died, his wife left him a year ago, and he may lose custody of his daughter. All of this is causing him to melt down, to lose it, and that’s the spine of the film. It’s a portrait of a man in crisis, and it is so original, so unformulaic, and so bold in its tonal shifts, you are honestly fearful that anything might happen. That’s good stuff, the stuff of dramatic suspense, but the journey can be tough going, if only because Cummings has drawn Arnaud’s pain so well. There is nothing to do with this movie but damn it with praise.

Pet Sematary

* *

The new version of one of Stephen King’s very best – and scariest – books, Pet Sematary, loses half a star for being redundant, and another half for muddying the waters. Simply put, Mary Lambert’s 1989 version of the story is an excellent film, one of the very best King adaptations; adoringly faithful to the events of the novel, it pulls off the much harder trick of capturing the creepy, freaky, icky feel of King’s weird tale of a cemetery that brings dead animals back to life. It feels bold and subversive and strange, and the performances are note perfect, in that they’re eerie and off-putting. By contrast, the new version feels schmick, professional, and soul-less. Jason Clarke, John Lithgow and (particularly) Amy Seimetz give authentic performances, especially in their scenes of grief, but that authenticity is part of the problem. The actors in Lambert’s film weren’t playing it “for real”, they were playing it as King wrote them, which was really screwed up. Whereas Lambert’s film felt dirty (and arty), this one feels polished and clean: a commercial product, which it is, and an unnecessary one.

Free Solo

* * * *

The 2018 Oscar winner for Best Documentary Feature, Free Solo, now still in some Australian cinemas while also available on Foxtel, charts the first “free solo” – rope-free – climb of the El Capitan cliff face in Yosemite National Park, California, by Alex Honnold, in 2017. While this feat is mind-boggling, extraordinary, almost inconceivable, and deserves a full-bodied documentation, the film is about a lot more. Covering three main strands – the climb, the filming of the climb, and Alex’s first romantic relationship of any true depth – it examines heroism, fear, obsession, the culpability of filming dangerous events, what it takes to love a reckless adventurer who may die “by the sword” on any given Wednesday, and the complex emotional makeup of climbers and in particular, free solo climbers, who live so far outside the mainstream that “free solo” describes their lifestyle as much as their sport.

Is it a spoiler to say Alex survives? I knew he did – I saw him on the Oscar stage with the filmmakers! – but that didn’t stop me feeling nauseous with anxiety as I watched him on his epic climb. Your brain knows he makes it, but your organs are in revolt. Rarely have I been so relieved to see an ending I knew was coming all along. His achievement is majestic, and so is this movie, which avoids any form of overt button-pushing. Like Alex himself, Free Solo is straightforward, honest, humble and confident, with a grip of steel.

Us

* * * 1/2

Jordan Peele’s follow-up to Get Out is jam packed full of (mainly other horror) movie references, superb visuals, and ideas. It also features a very long, generally wordless second act that is not particularly scary and not particularly thrilling. Where the film packs its punches are in its truly fascinating third act and in your brain afterwards (or in spirited discussion with others). It is, perhaps, more enjoyable to think about than watch.

A family at their vacation home finds their peace threatened; as they struggle to survive and understand the nature of the threat facing them, they, and we, learn of a significant evil. To say any more would not be fair; see it for yourself, if not because it’s so surprising, but because the whole thing is a big trick – a pretty good one – and Peele, not I nor any other critic you may read on this film, is the magician.

Peele’s going for a bigger target with this picture than he did with Get Out, and after sitting with the film a little, his audacity and ambition become clear, and admirable. But the experience of watching the film is frequently frustrating; as that long second act drags on, you’ve every right to wonder not only what is going on, but if this is all there is. It’s not, there’s more, but you’ve got to sit still and be patient to get there.

Transit

* * * * (out of five)

Thanks to the recommendation of a trusty friend, I recently went down the rabbit hole with German writer / director Christian Petzold, watching seven of his films in preparation for his latest, Transit, opening in Australia on April 11th. If you have the chance I’d recommend it; if you don’t have the luxury of a critic’s schedule, you would do well simply to watch Barbara (2012) and Phoenix (2014), which form a thematic trilogy with this new film.

Petzold’s films are rigorously intellectual social thrillers based around extremely well defined characters and relatable situations, even as they analyze, interpret and ruthlessly examine modern Germany in the shadow of its past. In this, he is devoutly part, and a leading figure of, the “Berlin School”. They are films of emotional suspense: no one is racing to defuse a bomb or capture a criminal, but life changing decisions are made, often in the literal final minute of screen time, giving his films a strange and powerful jolt where most films provide calm closure. The effect is, if not unique to Petzold, certainly a signature element of his style, and leave the viewer energized, a bit giddy with excitement, and eager to see his next film: his oeuvre is absolutely ready-to-binge, especially as their average running time is a tight ninety minutes.

I guess I’m urging holding your own Petzold Festival, of whatever scope, before seeing Transit, because it’s definitely his most intellectually daring film, and I strongly suspect the more you’re tuned into his vibe, the more powerful this one will be for you on first watch. It’s tremendous, but it’s challenging; it requires focus and thought, and it absolutely builds on themes and motifs from throughout his body of work. (If you’re already a fan, you’ll know what I mean, and this one will already be on your calendar in bold red letters.)

Transit is the story, Casablanca-style, of many people, three in particular, stuck in an occupied French city, waiting for Transit Papers so they may flee to safety before their situation becomes life-threatening. But there’s a significant stylistic flourish, and it comes with a minor spoiler warning, although qualified thus: I think it’s better if you know it going in.

Here it is: Petzold shoots his screenplay, which is based on a German novel from 1944, in modern Marseilles, and sets it, essentially, timelessly. As a story, it’s absolutely taking place in Marseilles in 1942; visually, we are amongst the architecture of 2016, with the cars and the ships and the police amour, but without the mobile phones and the computers and the piercings. Indeed, the clothing could be from the 1940s, but you could wear it now. We are, perhaps, in 1942, 1984, and 2016, or perhaps we’re in all at once, and every other one between.

The result is profound. The reverberations with today – particularly with Trump’s America and his “border emergency” – are powerful but never emphatic; the greater effect is of a continuum, and that is where the film really is ecstatically original. Stage adaptations of Shakespeare do this kind of thing all the time, but when, if ever, did you see such a conceit in a movie? It’s outrageously audacious, and it absolutely works.

Petzold does not utilize his muse, actor Nina Hoss, here, and goes further, uncharacteristically featuring a male protagonist. Whether or not this is the reason, the film is not as emotionally engaging nor moving as much of his work. But is is staggeringly thought-provoking, dealing with immigration, war, racism, alienation, sacrifice, love, regret, denial, delusion, Germany, France, collaboration, justifiable criminality… I could go on, and on, as this is such a rich, dense piece of thematic art. And of course, it has this spectacularly bold conceit, of taking place outside of time as we know it, and thus more than anything is about time, and how relative it truly is.