After a hiatus, my podcast Movieland is back up and running, with three episodes so far dropped in Season Two. I’m exicted that my friend and colleague Octavia Barron Martin will be joining me to discuss, on a weekly basis as the episodes drop, the new HBO series Irma Vep. To catch up and get into it, we discussed the big fizzle that was The Many Saints of Newark, a film Octavia, a huge Sopranos fan, was greatly looking forward to. Here’s the link on Spotify; otherwise search for Movieland within your favourite podcast app or service. Make sure you subscribe (to the podcast) too.
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Asghar Farhadi’s latest feature A Hero continues his trademark examination of the stresses of everyday life in Iranian society, constructed as suspenseful, captivating social thrillers. This one focuses on a twenty-something man who’s found himself in ‘debtor’s prison’; allowed out on two-day leave, he tries to take up an opportunity to rid himself of his debt, only – of course – to find himself getting deeper and deeper into trouble. Farhadi’s typical themes of responsibility, morality, personal ethics and the law all get a full workout here; once again his schematic script is tight as a drum. Involving, challenging, and a terrific after-movie conversation starter.
ANGELYNE and THE STAIRCASE
Two new shows dip into the ways we display ourselves in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Angelyne, a real Los Angeles ‘character’ played here in an astonishingly entertaining performance by Emmy Rossum, has displayed herself on billboards throughout Los Angeles for decades; her only product is herself. Meanwhile (in The Staircase), Michael Petersen (played beautifully by Colin Firth) allowed a documentary crew to follow him while he was on trial for his wife’s murder in 2001; the original resulting TV series of the same name essentially gave birth to the modern true-crime docuseries. Both shows are compelling; Angelyne is witty while The Staircase is thematically ambitious and very well directed by Antonio Campos.
THE OFFER (Paramount +)
When I heard about The Offer I couldn’t believe it: had someone made a TV show just for me? Of course, I’m not the only one obsessed with The Godfather, and not the only one who’s read many, many books and articles about its making. But the idea that someone would produce an entire TV show about the production of your favourite movie… well, wow.
Trouble is, the script feels directly lifted from those books and articles, giving rise to that dreaded ‘illustrated wikipedia entry’ feeling. But it’s fun to see spiritual heroes like Francis Ford Coppola and Robert Evans come to life (Dan Fogler and Matthew Goode, respectively) and the story itself, for those who haven’t obsessively read about it, is a good one. The show errs on spoon-feeding the mechanics of movie-making, but thats its nature and its flaw: it tries to serve the novice and the nerd.
THE INNOCENTS (Cinemas)
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Likewise, The Innocents, a Norwegian supernatural creeper about kids gradually becoming aware of their telekinetic powers, may scare the bejesus out of you, and I may have been less affected purely by having been exposed to so much of this kind of stuff before. Certainly to get performances like this from a cast this young is no small achievement. There are some pacing problems, and the autism of one of the main characters feels, unfortunately, exploitative at worst and misguided at best. But it’s strong on tone and vibe and features some genuinely creepy moments.
WE OWN THIS CITY (HBO / Foxtel)
David Simon and George Pelecanos, who created The Wire, return with a spiritual sequel, the real-life tale of police corruption, brutality and criminality in Baltimore in the 2000s. Featuring some returning cast members from The Wire (in different roles), and many more of those astonishingly authentic performances that made that show feel almost like a documentary, We Own This City is typically gritty, robust and never less than totally engaging. Exceptional.
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Like its title, The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent aspires to witty referential parodic clever meta-comedy, and falls flat. While Nicholas Cage and Pedro Pascal give amiable performances, the script consistently lets them down with references rather than honest jokes.
Cage plays a version of himself who gets caught up in the kind of action scenario a Nicholas Cage character might get himself caught up in; Pascal plays the buddy who may be the baddie. They certainly develop a chemistry – and Cage certainly shares the screen – but only to the extent you wish they were in a better film – perhaps a real Nicholas Cage film.
Highlights of this kind of thing are Being John Malkovich, JCVD and the Kate Winslet and Ben Stiller episodes of Extras. This laborious effort doesn’t come close to matching the wit displayed in any of those. It’s a shame, because everyone seems to be having a great time, and there is clearly a lot of affection for the subject, who plays along gamely and warmly. Maybe I’ll check out his other recent work; he seems surprisingly sane.
THE WARHOL DIARIES (Netflix Series)
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Netflix’s six-part extrapolation of Andy Warhol’s posthumously-published Diaries is superb and gripping. I was hugely into Warhol and read the Diaries twice, so I wasn’t necessarily expecting this to be revelatory to me. It was. It’s an interpretation of the diaries, a deep reading, and as such is informed, passionate and intelligent. It digs beyond the parties and the personalities into Andy’s love life, his response to the AIDS crisis, and even his faith. Fantastic.
THE GOOD BOSS (Cinemas)
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The Good Boss, about a, well, ‘good boss’ of a successful scale company (that is, it manufactures scales of all kinds) facing a week of increasing pressures and challenges, has one of those extremely well-structured screenplays that is almost too well crafted; the pieces are put into place so well that most of us will be able to predict the endgame before it comes, leaving it as a slight anti-climax. But the action along the way is extremely well modulated, gathering pace organically and exponentially, and Javier Bardem, the good boss himself, is superb. In almost every scene of the movie, he displays enormous range while also presenting a highly specific character. Place this performance alongside his Desi Arnaz in Being The Ricardos to be reminded that he’s one of the most versatile – and, simply, one of the best – screen actors working today.
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Gruelling but compelling, this early-1960s France-set abortion drama joins the other movies of its kind on the tougher side of the ledger: more 4 Months, Three Weeks and Two Days than Never Rarely Sometimes Always. Knowing going in that it’s based on a memoir will make it more meaningful.
THE SOUVENIR PART 2
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Joanna Hogg’s follow-up to her sublime autobiographical rendering of a troubled relationship she had in her early adulthood maintains an air of artful exquisiteness while shifting the focus from love to art. This time, her young self completes her film school training by working through the events of Part 1. It’s a glorious, intriguing film, thoroughly engrossing and deeply personal.
DJANGO AND DJANGO (Netflix)
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If you think nothing could be more entertaining than watching Quentin Tarantino celebrate the career of the “second Sergio of Spaghetti Westerns,” Sergio Corbucci, then this is the film for you. The kind of film you’d once only ever see at film festivals, now on Netflix!
THE DROPOUT (Disney+)
Extremely entertaining look at the rise and fall of Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes anchored by a career-best lead performance from Amanda Seyfried.
A SONG CALLED HATE
* * * 1/2
VOD Now through iwonder.com
Everyone loves a feature-length documentary about an Icelandic techno-heavy-BDSM band’s political coming-of-age during the Eurovision Song Contest, right? Ok, it sounds niche – and it is, of course, on the surface – but Anna Hildur Hildibrandsdottir’s film following the band Hatari as they navigate the complexities of Israeli / Palestinian politics and attempt to stage a protest while participating in the 2019 show in Tel Aviv is eye-opening, compelling and thoughtful. The band members are aggressively political at home in Iceland, but the situation in Israel clearly rattles them, and watching them try to maintain their position in the face of actual fear makes for honest, universal drama.
FRIENDS AND STRANGERS
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Opening 10 March in select cinemas
James Vaughn’s modest feature debut is a beguiling, entrancing, sunny Sydney jewel with a hum of strange menace. A bit Rohmer and a bit microbudget Lynch, it’s its own thing, an odd, and oddly magical, original.
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Valérie Lemercier’s wackadoodle ‘unauthorised’ biopic of Céline Dion stars the 57-year old auteur as a version of the Canadian superstar singer at about five years old, twelve, as a teenager, in her twenties and so forth. Bizarre in conception and often bonkers in execution, it’s also truly compelling, partly as train wreck and partly as an honest-to-goodness offbeat oddity.
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Nominated, unprecedented, for Best Animated Feature Film, Best International Film and Best Documentary Feature at the upcoming Academy Awards, Jonas Poher Rasmussen’s astonishingly creative telling of his friend’s refugee story – coming from Afghanistan to Copenhagen via Moscow and elsewhere – is beautiful, heartbreaking and eye-opening. This is the nuts and bolts of European human trafficking, finding the universal in the personal, and reminding you how lucky you have it.
Now on Foxtel
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Steven Soderbergh’s latest thriller is clean, efficient, timely and resonant until it becomes something… less. The prolific auteur is in full neo-Roger Corman mode here, riffing on our fears but delivering, in this instance, an elevated B-Movie, clearly intended, and enjoyable, as such.
Series on Apple+
Ben Stiller’s creepy, darkly funny workplace satire is artfully framed, spookily scored, and acted with deadpan wit by, among others, Adam Scott, Britt Lower, John Turturro, Patricia Arquette, Zach Cherry and Christopher Walken. The central conceit – that at a large tech corporation, certain employees working on sensitive material have a procedure ‘severing’ their work memories from those of their out-of-work lives – is intriguing and well thought-through, but it’s only the jumping-off point for an honestly compelling series of mysteries and corporate-conspiracy shenanigans. The production design is terrific.
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Virginie Efira is to French audiences what Meg Ryan was to American ones in the 90s: their National Sweetheart and Queen of the RomComs. So I was truly surprised when her name appeared before the title of Paul Verhoeven’s gloriously fruity, over-the-top, and blatantly provocative new lesbian nun epic Benedetta. This would kind of be, perhaps, like Ryan taking the title role in Lars Von Trier’s Nymphomaniac Parts 1 and 2.
As it turns out, not quite: Von Trier and Verhoeven are both provocateurs, but they provoke in different ways, the main one being that Verhoeven is always taking the piss, satirising something, where Von Trier can be very serious. But the casting of Efira is still a subversive move, in a film, and filmography, defined utterly by subversion.
For a start, Efira is in her 40s, and Benedetta, the nun she plays, is in her twenties. This is Verhoeven, who is in his 80s, operating with complete impunity: to him, what difference does a couple of decades make? Benedetta is young and beautiful, and so is Efira, right? Who cares about age anyway? If you’re gonna nitpick about that, he may be saying, then there are almost certainly a few other issues you’re going to have with my movie.
And people will have issues: this is profane, flammable stuff. Or not; I couldn’t worry less about one young nun making a dildo for another out of a Virgin Mary statuette. Your experience may vary. If it doesn’t piss you off, though, Benedetta may seriously entertain you. It’s wild, over-the-top, hysterical (in all meanings of the word), and you simply can’t look away. You know what? They just tend not to make ‘em like this anymore; thank goodness Verhoeven does.
DRIVE MY CAR
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There’s big Awards talk for Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s three-hour humanistic drama about a grieving theatre director mounting a production of Uncle Vanya at a theatre festival in modern-day Hiroshima, and rightly so. It’s a beautifully crafted, moving, elegant and at times drily funny tale, superbly acted. Don’t let the runtime intimidate you; settle in and enjoy the drive.
THE EYES OF TAMMY FAYE
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Michael Showalter’s dramatic adaptation of Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato’s 2000 documentary about Tammy Faye Bakker and her entrepreneurial evangelistic husband Jim Bakker is fuelled by fantastic performances. Jessica Chastain declares her intentions (to be awesome!) in a single, long close-up that opens the film, and she doesn’t disappoint, giving one of the great turns of 2021. But Andrew Garfield’s portrayal of the deeply complicated Jim sneaks up on you; as Jim ages, Garfield’s interpretation grows more intriguing, sly and effective. This is a film that becomes more compelling as it goes, saving its best ammunition for acts two and three, and if you had pre-conceived notions of Tammy Faye – as I did – it’s an eye-opener.
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Pablo Larraín’s ‘fable inspired by a true tragedy’, fantastically and poetically imagining a version of three days over Christmas spent by Princess Diana at Sandringham, sits thematically comfortably (or uncomfortably) alongside his Jackie from 2016. Both films intimately examine the most famous women in the world at the peak moments of their fame, and how that intense glare affects them. In Diana’s case, played exquisitely by Kristen Stewart, we are on the edge of existential despair and mental illness.
The film is stunning to look at and, with Jonny Greenwood’s score, dreamy, evocative and haunting. Indeed, at times it feels like a horror movie, a Polanski-like mental descent. Don’t come for any kind of history lesson; come for the vibe.
THE LOST DAUGHTER (Netflix)
Olivia Colman plays an academic vacationing alone in Greece who is forced to consider her legacy as a mother of two daughters when she crosses paths with a large creepy family. Maggie Gyllenhaal’s feature directorial debut, adapting Elena Ferrante’s novel, is superb as both truly suspenseful thriller and intricate psychological portrait; the tone of menace and destabilisation is consistent and intense.
NIGHTMARE ALLEY (Cinemas from Thursday)
Guillermo del Toro’s 1941-set neo-noir about a hustler (Bradley Cooper) who learns how to become a ‘mentalist’ at a flea-ridden carnival is full of ideas (and astonishingly beautiful sets) but, at two and a half hours, is a bit of a plod. A ton of great actors, including Willem Defoe and Toni Collette, get to be colourful along the way.
THE TRAGEDY OF MACBETH (Apple+ and cinemas)
Joel Coen’s adaptation of The Tragedy of Macbeth is fun, lean, mean and gorgeously designed and shot, with clear, bold performances. Stripped to its essence in all regards, the play shines through, shot and spoken with care and love.
THE KING’S MAN (Cinemas)
Matthew Vaughn’s prequel to his two Kingman: The Secret Service movies may be the best of the three; it’s certainly better than the last one which was not good. Here Ralph Fiennes takes the heroic lead, showing us what his James Bond might have been. Guess what? It would have been sublime. The story, an alt-history fantasia set around WW1, is wooly, shaggy and ludicrous, but it has some moments of pathos, new to the series, that Fiennes absolutely nails. Acting of this caliber can raise a silly action movie like this to greater heights, and here, it does. I had fun.
THE HAND OF GOD (Netflix)
Paolo Sorrentino’s The Hand of God is full of magic moments; it’s funny, heartwarming and very wise, and restores to Naples what Gomorrah removed: beauty. It’s a sublime and moving account of his teenage years in that gritty city in the 1980s, and a late entry into the list for best films of 2021.
MR SATURDAY NIGHT (Foxtel)
This 90-minute documentary on Robert Stigwood and, in particular, his creation of Saturday Night Fever is slender, feeling like the magazine article rather than the proper biography. However, if you’re unfamiliar with the story, it’s a truly fascinating one.