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.

Burning

Screen Shot 2019-04-04 at 10.42.15 am.png* * * * (out of five)

I haven’t seen any of the previous films of Chang-dong Lee, but on the basis of Burning, which arrives in Australia with huge global critical praise and thirty-four international awards, I’ll be seeking them out. Profound, mesmerising, threatening and beautiful, this slow-burn (sorry!) social thriller is evocative of the work of Asghar Farhadi; it’s got a mysterious and very suspenseful story to tell, but puts character first, along with strong thematic ideas.

Lee seems to have modern Korean youth on his mind; his lead character, Lee Jong-su (Ah-in Yoo) is a lost soul, a young man who can’t really find his place in Paju, a city close to North Korea and the Demilitarized Zone (used to eerie effect in the film). A farmer’s son with the desire, but not the drive, to write a novel, one day he bumps into an old high-school acquaintance, Shin (Jong-seo Jun) and his fortunes seem to change – until she meets the suave, urbane Ben (magnificently played by Steven Yeun). Then things grow darker.

There are so many reference points to this story, from myriad sources; specifically, it’s based on the short story Barn Burning by Japanese author Haruki Murakami, which itself was based on William Faulkner’s short story of the same name. You’ll feel a strong sense of neo-noir at work, tugging against, or alongside, a neorealist examination of class divide. There’s a lot going on, and the film takes its time, clocking in at two and a half hours, but it’s exceptionally satisfying. Absolutely worth your entire afternoon, and at the cinema: some of the sequences are ravishing.

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.

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

Leaving Neverland Film Mafia Glove.png

* * * * * (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.”