Everybody Knows

* * * * (out of five)

I’ve come to realise that A Separation (2011), Asghar Farhadi’s fifth feature film as writer / director, is one of my favourite movies, top five, ever. I think about it all the time; I show it to students whenever possible; it sparks joy in me to remember scenes from it, moments, ideas. It helped me realise my sweet-spot as a viewer: intelligent dramatic character films that skirt the edge of being thrillers. Indeed, for me at least, Farhadi created a sub-genre, what I call (if just to myself) the “social thriller”. Lives don’t need to be threatened, and there needn’t be villains per se, but tension runs high, with the metaphorical bomb beneath the desk actually being social norms and customs, bending and breaking along with the patience of the characters. A Separation remains a perfect, pure example of this type of cinema; everyone is in great conflict with everyone else, yet no-one is really right or wrong. The stakes are impeccably high but the situations reflect, at most, a heightened realism.

As Farhadi’s clout has risen, along with his ambitions and resources, he’s ever-so-subtly upped the genre alignment of his scripts. The Past (2013) and The Salesman (2016) were still about people before plot, character before crisis, but they toyed with tropes absolutely absent from A Separation or, say, About Elly. Now, with Everybody Knows, Farhadi for the first time delivers a film whose log-line could fool the uninitiated into thinking they were getting Friday night fare.

Of course, nothing could be further from the truth; Farhadi remains a humanist, a deep chronicler of human foible, and Everybody Knows, like his previous work, is a film of human beings in turmoil behaving realistically, understandably and with precise observation; they difference is, this time, the turmoil they face is more essentially and recognizably dramatic. They face a thriller trope, but they face it with the sensitivity of Farhadi characters.

I won’t reveal the trope; I saw this film knowing essentially nothing, and you should try for the same. Everything is surprising in a Farhadi film, and this one twists and turns like a frightened snake; there are secrets, lies, revelations and reveals, so much so that you could call this melodrama, but of the highest caliber, and performed, by brilliant actors, with straight faces and total integrity. Penelope Cruz, Javier Bardem, Ricardo Darin and an ensemble of excellent Spanish actors go through the emotional wringer for us; it can be painful to watch.

Therein lies my only rub: Farhadi and his cast twist the screws so tight, on a story that I could relate to on such a visceral, personal level, that my pleasure center wasn’t being so much lit as stabbed. Frankly, I was so tense I longed for the film to wrap up, and wrap up happily, so I could breathe again. A director, whose intention is to put you in suspense, should not be criticized for doing so. It’s simply a paradox that here, he’s applied tension so well, you want him to stop.

The Guilty

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* * * * (out of five)

Gustav Möller’s police thriller The Guilty is a must-see: an hour and twenty-five minutes of lean gripping cinematic heaven. The razor-tight, superbly plotted, intricate and surprising screenplay, by Möller and Emil Nygaard Albertsen, hurls us into a terrifically difficult situation, then challenges every aspect of our response. It’s very, very clever.

Asger Holm (Jakob Cedergren) is a Copenhagen cop assigned, not necessarily happily, to night duty on the alarm dispatch line. There are issues at play with Asger, not entirely understood by us, perhaps not even by him. After deftly setting up his precarious situation and state of mind, Möller lets the telephone ring and Asger take an emergency call. He then deals with it, in real time, as our jaws clench, our guts twist, and our fists grip ever tighter on our armrests.

Like Steven Knight’s masterful Locke (2014), this is almost a single-location, single-actor film; there are the voice actors on the phone (all excellent) and some minor other characters, but the bulk of the screen time is spent on Cedergren’s face. A lot is resting on his performance, but he’s magnificent. Möller moves the camera around the single police station location enough to dispel any “staginess” while adhering to a worthy self-imposed discipline. It’s an intense, thoroughly well constructed ride.

I saw this as my final film at the 2018 Sydney Film Festival, with an audience of 2,000. It felt like we were all at the end of a long slog of film-going, ready, frankly, for the festival to be over, and perhaps didn’t know too much about what we were about to see. As the film played, I could feel it grip this jaded audience with an iron fist; gasps at the script’s magnificent twists and turns were audible throughout the vast theatre. As the final credits rolled, we all sat, stunned and silent. A man on a telephone had faced a dilemma, and through him, so had we all.

King of Thieves

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* * * 1/2

Come for the cast and you won’t be disappointed. Come for the heist and you will. That’s it in a nutshell for this dramatisation of a truly astonishing event in recent British history, when a gang of O.A.P.s – that’s Old Age Pensioners – robbed a famous vault in London’s jewel district, Hatton Garden, in 2015.

That cast is plum fruit with plenty of warm, rich texture: Michael Caine, Jim Broadbent, Ray Winstone, Tom Courtney and Paul Whitehouse play the gang along with young Charlie Cox, with Michael Gambon being fabulous on the side as their alcoholic, incontinent, practically incoherent fence. Their wicked interplay, featuring barbs and threats as much as banter and lingo, comprises most of the film, and every one of its best scenes. Intriguingly, they are cast just a tiny bit “against type”, so that Broadbent gets to be a little Winstone-y, Caine mellow and melancholic, and Winstone perhaps the funniest… except for Gambon, who is quite hysterical.

Unfortunately the heist – which must have been intricate and hard as hell, full of challenging and tense moments and, quite simply, a bit of a modern masterpiece as heists go – is presented almost as a fait accompli, under-explained, confusingly presented, very choppily shot and edited. Perhaps the actual criminals simply have not spilled enough details for a thorough and honest depiction to be portrayed. More likely, director James Marsh is simply far more interested in the dynamics between the thieves than their work.

Fair enough. These geezers won’t be around for ever – Caine particularly shows his age here, for the first time as far as I’m concerned – and if you’ve got ‘em, flaunt ‘em. This movie is absolutely worth your ten bob just to see them in a room together, slapping each other on the back before stabbing them there.

 

Oscars 2019: Thoughts and Wild Predictions

CJ Johnson and Danielle McGrane look at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ year of self-fouls, own goals and other idiotic mis-steps in anticipation of a train-wreck 2019 Oscars. In addition, they step outside of the boring conventional wisdom predictions for this year’s Oscars, and instead, take a few big swings. Don’t bet on these long shots!

 

 

Stan and Ollie

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* * * 1/2 (out of five)

Shame about the musical score, which is overbearing and makes the otherwise tastefully wrought and lovingly crafted Stan and Ollie seem schmaltzy. It’s not fair to the fine work of Steve Coogan as Stan Laurel, John C. Reilly as Oliver Hardy, and Shirley Henderson and Nina Arianda as their wives. They’re all splendid.

It’s 1953, and Laurel and Hardy are touring England in the hopes of stirring up producer interest in one more movie, a Robin Hood satire. Implied, too, is that they need the money. They’re ageing and no longer on the top of the Hollywood totem pole, but they’re also still in good humour and enjoying their work. The film is willing to avoid throwing artificial conflict at them; for the most part, this amiable, low-key dramedy is content to be a character piece, and a portrait of a long-standing working relationship. It also features Coogan and Reilly expertly pulling off some gorgeous and very funny Laurel and Hardy routines.

I suppose the overwhelming sentimentality may be appreciated in some quarters, but it does niggle me that, since the audience is (rightly) perceived to be “the grey dollar”, they must be in want of an overbearing orchestra-full of swelling strings. No-one needs to be spoon-fed their emotions in this day and age, even those old enough to have seen the real Stan and Ollie at their local. I’d love to see a cut of this film without the score; it would simply be better, perhaps even rather sublime.

If Beale Street Could Talk

* * * * (out of five)

I haven’t read James Baldwin’s 1974 novel If Beale Street Could Talk, but I have no doubt that writer / director Barry Jenkins’ (Moonlight) copy has twenty annotations per page. This is an adaptation that feels as authentic, respectful and committed to the source material as they come; Jenkins has not used the book as a starting point, he has done everything in his power to bring the book to the screen.

That included bringing the book’s emotional impact: how it makes Jenkins feel. His film version is awash with feeling; at times, it is as much about mood as anything, about how it stimulates the senses. It is about music and colour and framing and is so effective in those areas I swear that I could practically smell Riverside Park, in Harlem, in the early 1970s.

There, Tish and Fonny (KiKi Layne and Stephan James) are deeply in love. They’re been in love since they were children. Now, they’re sexually active dynamic people in their early twenties, and the world, for them (and thus, for us) is aglow with colour and passion and love. At times, there is nothing in the world for them but them, and Jenkins is not afraid, in this bustling city, to render them alone on a street, cocooned in the world of their love.

But this is backstory, flashback: in the present, Fonny is in jail for a crime he didn’t commit, and Tish is pregnant with their child. How their families help them with this bittersweet predicament forms the slight plot of this moving story. It is surprising, beautiful, heart-wrenching, and deeply, deeply compassionate.

It’s a world outside of my own experience and I felt a little like an outsider; Jenkins has said he makes films for black American audiences and anyone else can come if they like. How Australian audiences will relate, we’ll see. This is not a “universal story” but rather one that is highly specific to the African American experience. Except, of course, for that big, big presence of Love, which is in every frame of the film. That’s where everyone can relate; that’s (the outsiders’) “in”.

Nicholas Britell’s score is monumentally beautiful, moving and apt; it may be the first original motion picture soundtrack I’ve bought since last century. The craft in every department is similarly of the highest possible caliber. Layne and James, perversely, make the least impact (James, I find and found in Homecoming, is rather wooden) but the film’s supporting actors light up every scene around them. All are brilliant but Regina King and Colman Domingo as Tish’s loving parents are exceptional, as is Atlanta’s Brian Tyree Henry in an astonishing one-scene role.

This is a deeply felt, lovingly made movie that will stand the test of time. Push your boundaries.

Vox Lux

* * * * 1/2 (out of five)

I won’t soon forget the first time I saw Brady Corbet’s 2015 debut The Childhood of a Leader. Baroque, operatic, mesmerizing, intense, disorienting, moody and quietly terrifying, the film, which never ultimately got released in Australia and remains barely seen, deeply affected me. It gave me that intense thrill that a critic or film lover gets when they hear a powerful new directorial voice. It also gave me the chills. Here was a filmmaker who knew what got under my skin, through his idiosyncratic use of music, image, mood. The film really spoke to me.

So too does Vox Lux, Corbet’s far more commercial follow-up, which is not to say it’s commercial at all. Corbet has carried over his unnerving style to a straight up portrait of a modern pop singer, and the seeming clash of style to subject is part of what gives the film its unearthly pleasure. We’re watching an origin story of a Lady Gaga / Sia / Britney Spears, but it feels like a horror movie.

It’s all quite brilliant and unbelievably entertaining, while being thoroughly uncompromising. The first half of the film covers the younger years of pop singer Celeste, in this section played by Raffey Cassidy, as a traumatic childhood event gives birth to her talent as a performer. Corbet’s intense use of music and imagery here echo his work on Childhood of a Leader, keeping us unmoored and on edge, even as Celeste’s manager is introduced, and played by Jude Law, as essentially a comic character. The second half, featuring Natalie Portman as Celeste, all takes place in a single day, and shifts tonal gears, at times presenting as flat-out comedy, albeit in a gothic vein.

All the performances are sensational. Cassidy and Portman are superb versions of each other/Celeste, working in tandem to create the singer’s unique voice and particularly her physicality, which is deeply informed by events of the film. Portman’s use of her own body is exquisite, precise and alarming; her growing body of exceptional performances, including this, Black Swan and Jackie, really do place her in the very front ranks of working screen actors. She’s outrageously good. As for Cassidy, she and Corbet pull off a coup de theatre that made my jaw drop and which I will leave for you to discover; all I will say is that she deserves awards for her work here. They both do. They all do.

The songs, written by Sia herself, are superb, and Cassidy and Portman do their own singing. Celeste is a major talent and how these actresses live up to that expectation boggles the mind. Portman famously prepared for Black Swan by learning ballet, and she’s learned an entirely new universe of performance here. It all pays off, riotously, wonderfully, exuberantly, brilliantly, with integrity, grace and skill. If she toured as Celeste, I’d want to see it.

This is the first great film of 2019. Exceptional.

Eighth Grade

* * * *

Bo Burnham’s debut feature announces him as a fresh and talented auteur (he’s only 28 and comes from a comedy, YouTube background). It’s a mercilessly spot-on depiction of the trials and tribulations of being a female thirteen year-old in modern America, avoiding many high-school movie tropes and clichés along the way. It’s also sensationally acted by young Elsie Fisher as shy eighth-grader Kayla and super-indie stalwart Josh Hamilton as her kind single dad.

The film is absolutely a comedy, even as it touches raw nerves head-on: one startling sequence depicts the students training for a school shooting, while another, late in the film, reverberates mightily with the cultural conversations currently swirling around gender relations. In this sense, its artistic grandparent seems to be Amy Heckling’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982), which likewise confronted big teen issues with a respectful and tasteful comedic appreciation.

The biggest issue here, by far, is social media and smartphones, and the film could be appreciated simply as a furious, comic attack on both. While it’s got more up its sleeve, its depiction of the crippling effects of social media on young people is satisfyingly complete. This is a film I instantly wanted to share with many specific people, as a warning: look how bad these things actually are! Look what they do to our kids!

In targeting social media itself as the villain, Burnham avoids many high-school stereotypes, and while there are some mean girls, they’re portrayed as victims (of social media) too. Likewise, there’s a nerd, but he’s the most surprising and intriguing nerd you’ve seen in a long time, and his big scene is rather incredible.

There’s no schmaltz, no faux tragedy, no bullshit in Burnham’s movie. It’s got integrity, compassion and respect for its subjects and audience. Releasing on January 3rd in Australia, it will have to wait out 2019 to appear on Oz “Best of Year” lists, but I’ll be sure to remember it. It’s a new classic in the teen genre, joining The Edge of Seventeen and Diary of a Teenage Girl from recent years. Excellent, and if you’re a parent, unmissable.

Cold War

* * * *

A grand romantic drama, Pawel Pawlikowski’s Cold War won the Best Director award at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, and it’s easy to see why. There are many movies to get through at Cannes, and Pawlikowski’s superbly crafted film clocks in at only eighty-eight minutes, covering fifteen years and four nations. It’s a lot of movie, and represents tremendous value if your time is tight.

Should you be lucky enough to have oodles of time up your sleeve, Cold War’s brevity might count against it. It’s so good, and so engaging, that you feel a little cheated when it ends. It’s the kind of sweeping European love story that in the past has sustained epic cinema, and Pawlikowski’s decisions to keep it so tight – he also constrains the image, shooting in the boxy “Academy Ratio” and in black and white – seem like a defiant, almost petulant, flight of fancy. Obviously not a cheap production, Pawlikowski seems determined to not put all the money on the screen.

But that’s his aesthetic, and we should be grateful for it. Anyone can shoot a movie in black and white, or in Academy Ratio, but not everyone will do so with such purpose and rigor. He restrained himself similarly with his last film, Ida (2014), and the two films complement each other in other ways. They’re both concerned with post-war Europe, with devotion, with sacrifice, and, here especially, with love. Ida was austere, whereas Cold War is lush and highly populated, but the sharp contrast of the black and white cinematography – Lukasz Zal shot both films – keep the vibe forever wintry, the mood ever melancholy, like a meal for one in a quiet Paris bistro at twilight on Christmas Eve.

Cold War’s love story, of two musicians destined to continually be drawn together and pulled apart by the Iron Curtain and their own internal conflicts, is such a good one – such a blatantly effective story – that it verges on the preposterous. It’s not. It’s based on Pawlikowski’s own parents, and that tips it over into the miraculous. One of the films of the year.