Sir Ridley Scott’s sprawling, very expensive-looking, old-school epic throwback The Last Duel is a strange beast. Featuring masterfully designed and executed art direction (it’s set in France in the 1300s, with castles, horses, gates, bridges, lances, swords, ladies in waiting, armour, medieval Paris, and about sixty never-not-roaring fireplaces), a superb central performance from Jodie Comer, and three fruity turns from Adam Driver, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, it succeeds in being engaging and entertaining throughout its two-and-a-half-hour runtime despite an icky story.
Scott uses Rashomon’s structure: an alleged sexual assault, told three times from three different perspectives, including that of the victim (Comer, of course, with Driver the accused). It’s rather shocking, seeing a big-budget rape drama (with an A-List actor playing the alleged rapist); to see rape portrayed at all demands sensitivity and kid gloves, and this movie’s gloves are all made of heavy metal.
Frankly, the themes are too grave for the flamboyant treatment, yet it’s the treatment that’s entertaining. Filled with astonishing visuals, and perhaps saved by Comer’s precise performance, the film succeeds despite itself, a ravishing relic.
You have every right and reason not to go see Justin Kurzel’s new film Nitram, despite its impeccable craftsmanship and staggeringly effective performances. It chronicles events leading up to the worst mass shooting in Australia’s history, and it’s as bleak and depressing as cinema gets. Stay away, by all means. This is not for everybody.
Is it for anybody? And by that, what I really mean is, does it have a reason to exist? About halfway through I wasn’t so sure; by the end I was, absolutely. For Nitram is a thorough, methodical, detailed, unsensational and sincere examination of mental illness; it is also a quietly powerful anti-gun plea for common sense.
The film makes the effective case for the shooter’s mental health leading directly to his actions, and along the way reminds us that, often, warning signs of serious trouble are evident. It is not so much that it’s sympathetic to the shooter; rather, it tries to wrestle with how things like this could happen: not because of ‘evil’, but when certain very disturbed people get their hands on guns. Without blaming society, or any one person in particular, the film couldn’t be clearer that mentally ill people need help, and we shouldn’t have guns circulating in society. Both concepts sound self-evident, obvious, but the film delivers the message with great impact and fresh clarity.
Caleb Landry Jones won Best Actor at Cannes for his lead role, and it is truly an astonishing performance, the best I’ve seen this year. We have come far in the depiction of mental illness on film, and this surely sets the new benchmark. Everything he does rings true. He is supported by equally precise naturalistic performances from Judy Davis (as his mother), Anthony LaPaglia (his father) and particularly Essie Davis as Helen, a woman with whom he develops an unusual and impactful relationship.
This is clearly similar territory for Kurzel to Snowtown (2011), his terrifying examination of the events leading up to the Adelaide serial killings. There are great tonal and aesthetic similarities, and a similarly bleak sense of existential despair, but there are also crucial differences. Snowtown featured graphic scenes of horrific violence and essentially operated as a horror film, albeit one of impeccable integrity and craftsmanship. Nitram has no onscreen violence and operates as a cautionary, sad drama. They are easily Kurzel’s two best films, and Nitram is one of the best films of the year, but one I can only recommend with reservations. Put it this way: if you think it’s not for you, you’re probably right.
At select cinemas across Australia from 23 September, Diana’s Wedding, a decades-spanning tale of the marriage of two spiky Norwegians who get hitched the same day as Princess Diana,is warm, charming, observant, honest, with absolutely winning performances from the two leads. It’s the best Norwegian film I’ve seen in a few years. Delightful and absolutely worth your time. * * * 1/2
Kingsley Amis and Vladimir Nabokov, among others, wrote comedies of academic life, and the central conflict often involved a culture clash between ageing professors and the youthful progressive students. So it is with The Chair, a new Netflix half-hour comedy starring Sandra Oh as the newly-minted chair of an American University’s English department. Her professors are stuck in their ways; she’s stuck in the middle. It’s not the most biting satire and the more invested you are in woke politics the less authentic it will feel; instead, it’s light, charming, and very easily swallowed. You won’t be fighting over the dinner table about issues it raises so much as singing the praises of the older character actors populating the stuffy department, particularly Holland Taylor as a feisty boozy flirt. A central (romantic) entanglement between Oh’s character and one of her male professors is far less interesting than watching the shenanigans of the older thesps.
American Crime Story: Impeachmenton Foxtel, the latest Ryan Murphy extravaganza, sees his muse Sarah Paulson playing Linda Tripp, the ex-White House Counsel secretary who nudged Monica Lewinsky (Beanie Feldstein) into the world’s brightest spotlight. So far (one ep in) it’s typically Murphyesque: overblown and melodramatic yet compulsive storytelling. And it is the story itself that’s compelling, along with Paulson’s sharp, specific performance. Clive Owen’s Bill Clinton is in it for about a second and a half; this is Tripp and Lewinsky’s story.
Leos Carax’s Annette opened this year’s Cannes Film Festival and won him the prize for Best Director. It is undeniably and thrillingly ecstatic, passionate, vibrant and highly personal cinema. Possibly, it’s Carax’s best; it certainly makes you think that previous films of his, especially Les Amants Du Pont-Neuf, really should have been sung-through musicals (as Annette is). The form suits his style, which is huge, operatic, melodramatic, theatrical and resolutely obsessed with the nature of performance.
Indeed, here, Marion Cotillard plays an opera singer – an opera star, even an opera celebrity – who marries an ‘anticomedy’ LA comedian, played by Adam Driver. They have a child, Annette, played by a succession of incredibly endearing marionettes, and very, very dramatic events transpire, looping in the singer’s accompanist, the second played by the nimble Simon Helberg (the other was in Florence Foster Jenkins, for which he got a Golden Globe nomination).
This is cinema to evoke wonder and awe, propelled by an awesome suite of songs by Sparks, the pop/rock band fronted by brothers Ron and Russell Mael since 1966 (and recently the subject of a feature length documentary by Edgar Wright called The Sparks Brothers.) These two films give Ron and Russell a tremendous moment, tremendously deserved.
Carax draws intriguing inspiration from LA comedy culture; his reference points include not only Louis CK but, fascinatingly, the ‘Pearl’ videos of Will Ferrell (remember those)? His film, an opus, is full of ideas, but perhaps more importantly, it’s full of wonder.
Australian director Gracie Otto follows her excellent 2013 feature documentary The Last Impresario, about producer Michael White, with another enormously entertaining and charmingly breezy entertainment feature doco, Under the Volcano, about Sir George Martin’s post-Beatles adventure building and running a music studio on the West Indian island of Montserrat.
Air Studios only operated from 1979 to 1989 on the small volcanic island, but in that time a rather incredible batch of your favourite childhood albums were recorded there, including Ghost In The Machine and Synchronicity by The Police, Too Low For Zero by Elton John, Steel Wheels by The Rolling Stones and Brothers In Arms by Dire Straits, along with seminal albums by Jimmy Buffet, Duran Duran, Ultravox and many others.
The Police are interviewed in full, along with members of Dire Straits, Duran Duran, Buffet and so forth; also included are staff and crew from the studios, Montserrat locals, and, in lieu of Martin himself, his son, who speaks with great insight into his dad’s dreams and methods. Since the gang’s all here and they did their two most important albums there, The Police get the most screen time, and while Sting remains incredibly charismatic and handsome, it is Stewart Copeland who provides the most energetic and amusing recollections. He’s a character, that Copeland.
The eventual demise of the studio – and the island – gets short shrift. Under The Volcano is a celebration, not an elegy, and does everything it can to remain as upbeat as a track from side one of Brothers In Arms. I loved every minute.
Steven Soderbergh’s No Sudden Move is familiar territory for him, as cosy for those of us who love his work as a warm blanket. There are multiple echoes, homages, illusions and references to his previous work – especially in the casting, but also thematically, stylistically and tonally – wrapped up in a period piece, which is the most unusual aspect of the material for him.
That period is the 50s; the place, though, is Detroit, and seeing top-billed Don Cheadle in a mansion there – with a gun, no less – obviously evokes the incredible third act of Out of Sight. Indeed, Cheadle’s character here, Curt Goynes, is like an alternative version of Out of Sight’s Maurice Miller: there’s a stingingly direct reference to a prison stabbing that, in the right cinema with the right audience, would elicit howls of self-satisfaction.
Goynes is offered five Gs at the beginning of the film for a three hour (criminal) job; his partners in this crime will be played by Benicio Del Toro and Kieran Culkin, and along the way, as things get more and more and more and more complicated, he’ll encounter characters played by, among many others, Jon Hamm, Bill Duke, David Harbour, Brendan Fraser, Amy Seimetz, Julia Fox and Ray Liotta. Everyone has a great time playing various levels of scuzzbucket; so do we. This is Soderbergh very much en forme, working from a terrific script by Ed Solomon, and the film’s pleasures are constant and rich.
The Netflix true-crime docuseries may have jumped the shark a couple of times, but when they’re good they can be very, very good, and Room 2806, a four-parter about the very serious accusation of sexual assault against Dominique Strauss-Kahn (‘DSK’) when he was at the peak of his power, intellect and ability, is very, very good. Compellingly structured and movingly told, featuring interviews with Strauss-Kahn’s victim Nafissatou Diallo, other women accusing Strauss-Kahn of other crimes, investigating officers, attorneys and French officials of all stripes and statures who have known Strauss-Kahn over the years, it paints another brutal portrait of a man who could have done so much good if he hadn’t done such terrible bad, and the women whose lives were torpedoed by it. Massive in scope, encompassing not only the case but the media frenzy surrounding it both in the US and France, the political fall-out and its place in the historical timeline of #metoo, this is a superb, gripping and vital production. It also demonstrates – perhaps reinforces – a cultural attitude to sexual misbehaviour among a certain strata of French society that would be hilarious in its stereotypical self-ownership were it not so tragically misaligned in relation to DSK’s particular predilections.
When you’re done, see if you can find Abel Ferrara’s 2014 film Welcome to New York, which dramatises some of these events and stars – perfectly – Gérard Depardieu as (a renamed version of) DSK.
Quentin Tarantino has stated in interviews that his novelistic version of his own movie Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood is borne of an intriguing conceit: that, as a reader, you’re meant to imagine that the book came first, and the movie is the movie adapted from the book by a director called Quentin Tarantino. Depending on how much time you have for the man (and I have a lot), it’s either a delicious or a slightly twee conceit, but knowing it going in makes the book more fun.
For a start, there are differences. A good example is an early scene (in both the book and film) between Rick Dalton (played by Leonardo DiCaprio in the movie) and his potential new agent Marvin Schwarz (Al Pacino). In the book – which is meant to have been written first, remember – that scene occurs in Schwarz’s office. In the film, it’s at Musso and Frank, a fabled Hollywood restaurant, as though Tarantino as director (and adapter of the book) re-set the scene into a more lively, cinematically interesting location. It’s gamesmanship, and it’s fun.
More importantly for serious fans, there’s more information, such as a biggie: we find out explicitly whether Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) knowingly killed his wife. Indeed, we find out a lot more about Cliff, and it’s enough to raise Pitt’s eyebrows: he may not have knowingly been playing the character we find in these pages.
These are both entertaining and lively elements and make the book worth a read. There are about three chapters, however, that elaborate on the mythology and backstory of Lancer, the western TV show Dalton guest stars on. These sections see Tarantino writing in a pulp fiction western style for his own amusement, but – for me at least – they committed a sin found nowhere else in the entire body of the man’s work: they were boring. Fear not; they’re easily skipped, without disrupting the rest of the book.
It’s a fun experiment that will clearly appeal almost entirely to fans of the film. There are many of those – it was a massive hit, making three hundred and seventy-five million dollars worldwide – and they will likely be as entertained as I was. Plus, now they’ll know whether Cliff pulled that trigger deliberately.
Perfumes is an escape: charming, light, almost care-free. Most of all, it showcases the enormously appealing talents of co-leads Emmanuelle Devos and Grégory Montel. She’s been a known quantity for decades and a full-fledged movie star since the turn of the century; he’s on the rapid ascent, fulled by his popular character on Call My Agent. She plays a perfumer – a fragrance creator – whose peak days in the industry are behind her, and who currently sells her olfactory skills for commercial uses, such as disguising industrial odours. He plays the chauffeur she hires and comes to rely on. It’s not a romance – it’s more surprising and slyer than that – but it is comfortably and happily a performance vehicle; the plot is completely secondary to the delight in seeing these extremely talented screen actors share that screen, which they do throughout the movie, in cars, on trains, in hotel rooms and restaurants, and in some delightful countryside. Smells like a nice time, non?
Australian Cinemas from 29 July (where open)
* * * 1/2
Krisha was my favourite movie of 2015, and I guess it’s now old enough to have influenced younger filmmakers. Emma Seligman, Shiva Baby’s writer and director, sure is young enough to have been heavily influenced by Trey Edward Shults’ debut masterwork: she was only twenty-four when she made Shiva Baby, wearing her influences on her sleeve. Her film is the same length as Schults’ (give or take a few minutes), the soundtrack – especially the plucked strings – is incredibly similar, the pacing is comparable, and there is a climactic moment clearly harking back to the famous ‘turkey drop’ in Krisha. But Krisha was a family drama dressed in horror clothes, whereas Seligman has made a family drama draped in comedy, even as it may be as terrifying as The Shining for anyone with any hint of social anxiety.
It’s not laugh-out-loud but it’s full of very witty lines, and culturally it’s all-in: this is a truly Jewish movie, taking place in close-to-real-time at an outer-borough or upstate New York shiva (baby!). We follow Danielle (an excellent Rachel Sennott) as she encounters her best friend and occasional sexual partner, her sugar daddy occasional sexual partner, and all the assorted family and friends who need to know why she’s so thin and what she’s doing with her life. It’s a slender premise but executed with great panache, so nimble, fluid and confident that it’ll be over before you know it. Recommended indeed.
Even if you missed the whole Boyz II Men and auto-tune manias, don’t skip the first two episodes of Netflix’s new 8 x 44 minute music doco series This is Pop, which uses that band and that band-aid as jumping-off points for a fascinating and enormously entertaining examination of movements in the history of modern pop music. (I nearly jumped to episode three, about Swedish pop dominance, which would have not only made me White Boy Extreme but denied me 88 incredibly fascinating minutes). Copious upbeat interviews with everyone concerned, most of them comfortably ensconced in their been-there-done-that-made-some-money-doing-it contemporary lives, mix joyously with plenty of clips but, most importantly, plenty of context. This is extremely well scripted stuff, put together with clear knowledge and passion. Fans of pop music podcasts will be delighted to finally see the faces of Jason King and Chris Molanphy, two of the show’s resident talking head experts. A total binge with fabulous music.
Can’t Get You Out Of My Head, available on YouTube for those of us who can’t watch it in the UK on BBC iPlayer, is the latest work by BBC video journalist Adam Curtis. Told over six episodes of one and a quarter hours each, it’s a political, philosophical and psychological history of the 20th century, a kind of “this is how we got here” thing where “here” is the seemingly insurmountable political polarisation now obvious in the populations of countries like the US and the UK. It looks at the roots of conspiracy theories, failures of various radical movements throughout the 20th century, the enduring trauma to British people over the fall of empire, and a million other things. What makes it mesmerising is the footage: Curtis has free access to the entire BBC archive, which is the world’s largest, and he constantly deploys amazing imagery you’ve actually never seen before, all used very skilfully to make an intriguing argument. This is a monumental work of documentary art, enthralling, enveloping, gripping and vital. Your brain will thank you for it.