22 July

* * * 1/2 (Netflix)

Paul Greengrass’s ambitious portrait of Norway’s response to the attacks of Anders Breivik on 22 July, 2011 is not, possibly contrary to expectations, a provocative, kinetic terror simulacrum à la United 93 or Bloody Sunday. It does dramatize the horrific events, but only for the first 12 minutes or so of the film, and never in a way that feels sensationalistic, lurid or exploitative. The rest of the substantial – two and a half hour – running time is split between a very sober depiction of the struggles the court and political system went through trying to deal with Anders, and the story of one survivor’s rehabilitation.

The first element is brilliantly done, possibly Greengrass’s most subtle work, and holds up a model of how a civilized society can remain civilized even when an aberration of such magnitude occurs. The maturity shown by every level of Norwegian society – even by one of Anders’ alt-right heroes – seems to us, in the age of rage, simply staggering. While Trump calls for the death penalty for suspects via Twitter and the use of torture for suspected terrorists, here we can see a female police officer pausing her interrogation of a confessed mass-murderer to allow the application of a band-aid to his pinky for the tiny abrasion he claims he got “on the skull of a girl I shot.” It is the portrait of a nation in crisis but remaining calm, the opposite of mass hysteria.

The parallel story, of one of the teenage victims and their painstaking physical and psychological recovery, is, unfortunately, boring, however well staged and acted. It operates as a very obvious metaphor for Norway itself, and drags the whole show. Greengrass would be well advised to offer a 100 minute or so tight re-edit with far, far less of this easily disposable footage, and, given the Netflix platform, I see no reason he couldn’t. The result could stand alongside his best work, including the aforementioned films and Captain Phillips. Unfortunately, as it stands, 22 July is inspiring and informative but simply too padded out.

Wajib

* * * * (out of five)

My favourite film at the 2018 Sydney Film Festival was Annemarie Jacir’s Wajib, and I’m thrilled it’s getting a theatrical release. Go see it. How often do you see a film set in contemporary Nazareth? And a really good one, with heart, humour, dynamism, and politics served without pressure or pain?

Real-life father and son Mohammad and Saleh Bakri play Abu and Shadi, a mature man and his adult son hand-delivering, over the course of a long day, the wedding invitations for Abu’s daughter (and Shadi’s sister). Shadi’s been living in Italy as an architect, and his man-bun and purple pants are indicative of his modernity, which will end up clashing with not only his father’s traditionalism but also his appeasement.

There is a ton of humour at each of the stops these boisterous, at times cranky men make, and a lot of love as well. But the film really proves its mettle by doling out their political differences in perfectly modulated doses; by the end, we can see each of their points of view, and find empathy everywhere. This is in stark contrast to the flashier, far more didactic The Insult, which also featured Palestinian Christian Arab characters and addressed similar – though far from identical – issues. I saw that film the day after this one at the Festival, and while The Insult won the Fest’s Audience Award, Wajib won mine.

A Star Is Born

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* * * * 1/2

A star is born. I’ll say she is! The second time Lady Gaga sings in Bradley Cooper’s new take on the classic material is the moment her character, Ally, crosses over from amateur to professional, while Lady Gaga herself becomes a movie star (and, I am betting now, Academy Award Winner) and Bradley Cooper becomes a serious movie director (this is his debut). A whole lot of stars are being born, and it is something to see.

Gaga does everything possible with the moment. Ally is a mess of contradictions, an ocean of emotions, and it’s all there, in close-up, with a crowd, a band, a bustle of backstage action, and Lady Gaga does it, backwards and in heels. I teared up. You do, when you’re seeing a star being born.

Gaga is wonderful throughout this wonderful film. So is Cooper. This is a love story that is completely believable, featuring the kind of chemistry that makes it appear impossible the two leads weren’t actually falling head over heels in love. It is a believable story of an alcoholic life, of the elastic boundaries of enablement and justification; and it is a powerful story of art and the artist. While there are naturally occurring thematic ripples about fame and celebrity, those twin demons are not the headlines here. Cooper gives us an old-fashioned “big” movie (which deserves a big screen with a superior sound system) but a small story, one that sticks close to a small set of characters and their very real, relatable issues. This is not a Star is Born about the perils of fame; this is about the perils of booze and the challenges of love.

Cooper directs the hell out of the movie. He pays beautiful moments of homage to previous versions (wait until you see the title card); he plugs in multitudinous Easter eggs, references and in-jokes that never derail your engagement; and, as a co-scriptwriter, he brilliantly updates the gender terrain: this is not a Svengali story this time around, and Ally has plenty of agency. She makes many choices; one just happens to be to love a troubled man. 

Cooper also, with his co-screenwriters and his editor, makes suburb use of dramatic ellipses. So much of this movie happens off-screen, and always to the dramatic benefit. Cooper trusts us to fill in narrative blanks and emotional ones, so we only need to watch one version of the big argument, one version of the big humiliation, and so on. Likewise, each individual scene is pared to the bone, getting in late and getting out early: the screenwriter’s holy grail.

The casting is also superb. Who knew Andrew Dice Clay had this performance in him (as Ally’s Dad, whose crew of limo-driver cronies could spin off into their own TV series)? Or Dave Chappelle? The biggest impact of all the supporting players, though, is made by Sam Elliot as Cooper’s brother. This rangy, dependable, cowboy of an actor has been memorable in 99 roles, according to IMDB: a fine moment to get an Oscar.

Am I gushing? So I should. This is a movie to gush over, to see again, to buy the soundtrack to, to urge others to see, to dream about. It’s classic material, but not all the versions have been classic. This one is. There are absolutely ways you could find fault with aspects of the film; you could pick apart elements of the plot, or have problems with the specificity of its music and how it relates to the modern market. Or, you could do as I did, which was to fall deeply for its charms, and let yourself get swept away. As another critic noted, “The way to like this film is to love it.” I love it.

Watch it sweep the Oscars, too. I’ll be fine with that.

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VENOM in 4DX

Film: * 1/2

Experience: * * *

Along with a cinema-full of other critics, I was hurled around, sprayed with water, and pelted with blasts of cool-air to accompany the Sony Pictures / Marvel Studios co-production Venom on a rainy morning last week. This physical experience, known as 4DX and newly introduced at (one assumes) significant expense to select Australian cinemas, and with a standard adult ticket price of $30, was for the most part good fun. Essentially, your seat rocks a lot to accompany significant action on the screen; it also sprays air-blasts (which are very effective accompanying bullets being shot at anyone on screen) either just brushing your ears or your ankles, and, when it rains or at other wet times, sprays water at you from hoses positioned in the seat in front of you. This last feature, uniquely, can be individually de-selected by a button on your arm-rest, but there’s no reason to turn it off: it’s one of the best bits.

The movement motion ascribed to your chair seeks to enhance your experience in one of two ways. The primary one is to try and “put you in the action” in action sequences; thus, when Tom Hardy, as Eddie Brock, a jovial San Francisco investigative reporter, rides a motor cycle under a truck, your seat simulates the angle of the bike and the jolt when it hits the road. Likewise, should Eddie run, jump and land, your seat will seem to propel you forward, lurch back, and then jostle with a thud. It’s very basic, mirror-the-action stuff, but effective in a roller-coasterish way.

Secondarily, but more intriguingly, occasionally your seat will echo a camera move (rather than the movements of the lead character or vehicle). Thus you’ll feel a director’s pan, tilt or dolly. While at first this seems just silly, it actually proves quite exciting when emphasising, for example, a move designed to peek around a door, over a counter, or otherwise to reveal hidden information. Your body, through your chair, is taking the same little physical risk as the camera move is tricking your brain into feeling. To watch, say, Crimes and Misdemeanours or Pickpocket this way could be quite the treat.

The air effect is super-effective. The guy next to me leant forward and felt around his ankles after they were strafed with bullets (air). I understood his vibe; it really feels like stuff’s happening down there. Likewise, when bullets whizz by your ear, it’s highly believable and a little freaky in the best way. And the water effects are terrific, especially, say, when a character or vehicle plows into a body of water, although watching, say, Blade Runner, Noah or Titanic might be deeply uncomfortable for everyone.

The audience I was with – and it must be said, we were an invited group to a first-feel and pretty primed – seemed to generally have a blast. The first few times the effects occur there was a lot of laughter, and occasionally throughout the film a particularly cleverly-conceived move or effect paid off with a giggle or a holler.

As for the film: it’s awful. Standard origin-story stuff: dude going about his business, which includes holding truth to power, gets infected with a thing, which first makes him ill; then he realizes he has new abilities; he plays with them; then he uses them to go after the Big Bad, and they have a Big Fight. Tom Hardy makes the film sit-throughable, but only just, and only because he plays what comedy there is for all it’s worth. “Venom” itself is a particularly ugly special effect and not in a good way; he / she / it is simply unpleasant to look at. The 4DX experience actually highlighted how lame the film’s non-action scenes were; whenever the chair stopped moving, the air stopped blowing and the water stopped spraying, you realised you were experiencing nothing at all.

First Man

* * 1/2

Technically, there is no faulting First Man, Damien Chazelle’s portrait of Neil Armstrong in the 1960s leading up to his landing on the moon. The production design and VFX are astonishing, the acting is proficient, and the musical score, from Chazelle’s Whiplash and La La Land collaborator Justin Hurwitz, is appropriately monumental and moving. Dramatically, however, things are a different story. Like the NASA program itself, First Man is punctuated by exciting moments of achievement, but vast swathes of time are spent on the kind of work that is simply unexciting. Ultimately, engineering took us to the moon.

Neil Armstrong was an engineer, and, stereotypical to that profession, was stoic, level-headed, un-emotive. Again, these are not attributes well suited to drama, and Ryan Gosling doubles down on them, giving us one of the blankest, driest, quietest lead performances since Steve McQueen in Le Mans. The resulting film has long stretches of deep tedium.

Claire Foy plays Armstrong’s wife Janet, but unfortunately their relationship boils down to a re-tread of the worried wife trope from both The Right Stuff and Apollo 13, and does not do well in the comparison. I loved those movies, and I adore 2001 and Gravity, which First Man nods to as well, but this astronaut drama left me very cold. Besides the story’s inherent wonkiness and Armstrong’s taciturn blankness, the film can’t avoid how well we know the ending. All the shaking camerawork in the world (and there’s a lot of camera shaking in this picture, as Chazelle keeps us inside the cabins for each of Armstrong’s atmospheric entries and exits) can’t fake suspense where there is none: Armstrong got to the moon, we all saw it, and he came home to see his wife again.

Thankfully – dramatically, that is – there was a deeply traumatic event in the Armstrongs’ lives that gives the film some emotional heft at the beginning and the end. But the long second act is a long second act, full of astronauts looking vaguely doubtful while keeping their chins solid. It’s hard to see what drew Chazelle, he of such musical exuberance, to such a dour subject, and such a dry film.

Wellington Paranormal

Wellington Paranormal.jpgLike all the greatest comedians, Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement have a strong and unique collective artistic voice, the core components of which are on display in their latest TV series, Wellington Paranormal. As with their hit film What We Do In The Shadows – which itself is becoming a TV show – they utilise the mocumentary format, naive characters, strong New Zealand idiom and the collision of the extremely mundane with the extraordinary to create very dry – and frequently brilliant – humour.

It is the naivety of the characters that is their greatest artistic gamble and pay-off. Throughout their work – including Flight of The Conchords, on which Waititi was not a creator but a contributing writer/director – most of the characters, and certainly the leads, are so unsophisticated as to credibly be called “dumb”. But this is not dumb comedy – not by a million miles – and these characters are never the butt of the jokes. Somehow – and it’s a kind of alchemy – characters like Rhys Darby’s Murray Hewitt on Conchords and his artistic descendants Officer O’Leary (Karen O’Leary), Officer Minogue (Mike Minogue) and Sergeant Maaka (Maaka Pohatu) are admirable in their honest attempts to overcome their own ignorance, noble in their own ignobility.

If you like their style, there’s a lot to love here, although for me the hook itself – that Wellington is beset by paranormal spooks and freaky creatures – is the least interesting element. The human characters are the thing here, just as they were on Conchords, which didn’t need a high concept. That masterpiece – I think it’s among the greatest TV comedies of all time – was simply about three knuckleheads trying to get by, which meant it was about, and for, us all.

American Animals

* * * * (out of five)

In 2012 British TV documentarian Bart Layton made the leap to the big screen with feature documentary The Imposter, and blew my, and a lot of other, minds. It stands as one of the great documentaries; if you’ve not seen it, don’t google it first. Like Tickled, the less you know, the more you’ll get.

Now he’s back on the big screen with a docudrama about four well-off young Kentucky men who got together, in 2004, to commit a crime. He interviews the actual men, their parents, and some other connected parties, but the bulk of the running time is dramatization, which is to say, a proper scripted filmic take on the events. The result is wildly, gleefully entertaining and I can’t recommend it enough.

Layton has cast the film impeccably, most notably with Evan Peters as the gang’s ringleader, Warren Lipka. If you don’t watch the American Horror Story TV franchise, or the X-Men cinema franchise, you may not know Peters’ work; he’s a fabulously charismatic and natural young actor in the lean, aquiline, blonde, erudite vein of (young) Christopher Walken and (young) James Spader. The real Lipka, whom we see often, is also deeply charismatic – he himself could be a movie star – and the casting of Peters is integral to our “getting” why three other seemingly smart young men, with futures for the taking, instead decided to roll their lives’ dice on a sketchy heist.

Our lead is Spencer Reinhard, played by the incredibly versatile Brit thesp Barry Keoghan (who was so brilliant in The Killing of a Sacred Deer); weirdly, Reinhard too is movie-star handsome, while Keoghan, by any measure, is not, but his performance is too strong for his looks to stand in the way. Layton has allowed Reinhard’s on-camera assertions that, during the lengthy (and seemingly thorough) planning of the heist, he often thought of walking away, to give we the audience an at least half-way sympathetic character.

Ultimately the film is riotously funny. Layton sets up and maintains a terrific, jovial tone, and even when things get heavy, we’re allowed to enjoy the ride. Don’t look for any great insight into the human condition; these guys have paid society’s price, but whether they’ve learned anything is up for debate. What I learned is that Layton’s incredible score with The Imposter was no fluke; now he’s on my short list of directors whom I must follow. Unlike these small-time crooks, he’s big league.

Mr. Inbetween and Maniac

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The banality of evil has been making good fodder for comedy for at least a couple of decades now. Tarantino’s the master of the criminal-as-everyman, and Guy Ritchie’s early work fits the bill, but you’ve also got Scorsese, famously, in Goodfellas, having our antihero as worried about the pasta as the cocaine. Australian larrikinism, and our laid-back lifestyle, has fit well with the trope; Chopper and Two Hands offer great examples of criminals who also have to walk the dog, feed the baby and take out the trash. Fifteen years ago Scott Ryan made his own fantastic feature-length take on the sub-genre, The Magician, about a laconic hit-man’s everyday working life. Now he’s teamed with director Nash Edgerton on a very low-key series about the same character. Each episode of Mr. Inbetween (Foxtel) couldn’t be drier, and the predominant tone is melancholy. Ryan remains as charismatic and captivating a screen presence as he was fifteen years ago, and at around twenty-three minutes each, the eps go down easy.

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Maniac, on Netflix, is fresh and hardly banal. Jonah Hill and Emma Stone play troubled souls participating in an experimental drug study in a world that is an alternative to our own, not quite futuristic, nor steam-punky, but recognisably sci-fi all the same. The first couple of episodes are magnificent, but then the series finds a groove that allows for limitless experimentation but very limited stakes (for we spend entire episodes inside the lead characters’ heads and not in reality). The world-building and direction (by Cary Joji Fukunaga, who will direct the next James Bond movie and who directed all of Season One of True Detective) is sublime; the story-telling a little free. Wild and certainly fun, at around forty-one minutes an ep, this is worth at least a visit and possibly a binge.

Custody

custody.poster.ws_.jpg* * * * (out of five)

Xavier Legrand’s debut feature film follows in the footsteps of last year’s Russian masterpiece of divorce and dismay, Loveless. This is a leaner take; if Loveless took a meat cleaver to marriage and its aftershocks, Custody is more like a shiv. Which is to say, still sharp and lethal.

Léa Drucker and Denis Ménochet play the separated couple waiting for their divorce; they have two children, but, as with Loveless, the focus here is on the impact their separation has on their eleven year old son, and it’s not good.

Loveless was, in its quiet way, an epic, a scathing indictment of modern humanity. Custody examines the day to day affect of joint custody and is far more contained and seemingly modest. Yet by the end, it has achieved momentous power. It is meticulously constructed, building with painfully specific intent. Ultimately, it is shattering. This is a film where strangers (at a general public screening at the French Film Festival) and I all checked in with each other afterwards, because we were all so moved, and shaken. A spectacular debut.

McKELLEN: PLAYING THE PART

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* * *

Sir Ian McKellen deserves a feature-length, theatrically released film about his life and career, and he’s got one: McKellen: Playing The Part. It features a sit-down interview with Sir Ian – looking very dapper in jacket and tie – interspersed with loads of footage, photos and other archival materials. Additionally, director Joe Stephenson has shot scenes of a boyhood Ian, played by first Milo Parker and then Scott Chambers, which have a similar affect to dramatic recreations in true-crime documentaries: they work, but you’re constantly wondering whether they’re really necessary.

I am the absolute target market for this film – I love Sir Ian – and find it a little hard to critique. For a novice interested in a general discovery of Sir Ian, I suppose the film – at 92 minutes – is a comprehensive and entertaining enough overview. It covers childhood, the early theatrical career, the mid-career of big theatre and some television, Sir Ian’s coming-out and politicisation, and ultimately the film career. And of course, there’s Sir Ian himself, in that charming jacket and tie, being ever so charming and dapper.

But is the novice really going to go to the cinema to see this film? And if not, why not give the film’s true audience – people who already love Sir Ian – something heftier? Sir Ian deserves at least two hours, more footage from the theatrical days (especially his incredible performances as Edward II and Richard II, both of which are teasingly included here), and more context. An example of the film’s lack of discipline and focus occurs around the Amadeus section, when Sir Ian won a Tony on Broadway. It is minutes into this chunk before the awning of the theatre finally reveals exactly which play Sir Ian was on Broadway with, and then the subsequent natural question – why wasn’t he in the film version? – goes both unasked and unanswered.

There is no discernible point of view here. It’s not the story of Sir Ian’s politicisation, nor his intriguing attitude to theatre versus film work, nor his “early years”; it’s a bit of everything in 92 minutes, and as such, it’s completely entertaining, charming and lovely while also being annoyingly unsatisfying. Now that this exists, it’s unlikely, given Sir Ian is 79, someone is going to make another version of his life, one which extends him, quite simply, a little more time.