Portrait of a Lady on Fire Review

* * * *

Forbidden or difficult love affairs have been with us since the birth of cinema, and period dramas of illicit same-sex romance have essentially become their own sub-genre. Céline Sciamma’s exquisitely realised Portrait of a Lady on Fire, which is set in the eighteenth century on an island off the coast of Brittany, doesn’t radically alter the story template we have come to expect from these films; it’s all about the execution, and the execution is pretty flawless.

The screenplay, for which Sciamma deservedly won a prize at Cannes, is so compelling not for how it radically alters the genre but for how it surprises and intrigues within it. Challenges come from unexpected – which is not to say dramatically unfair – places; supporting characters develop in interesting ways; the milieu acts as both agency and obstacle for the affair.

But it’s the credibility of any love story that pulls us in, the fact that we can believe in it and surrender to it, and Portrait’s gradual portrayal of the growing affection between Marianne (Noémie Merlant) and Héloïse (Adèle Haenel) is sublime. These actors, often framed in tight close-up, unaided by music, flashy camera moves or phoney narrative devices, proceed at their own individual paces toward a shared inevitable conclusion. The film is clearly framed as Marianne’s story, but each is as complex as the other. Any Awards ceremony worth their salt would have to split a leading acting prize between them; they are full collaborators with Sciamma, and all together they have made a triumphant love story that will resonate for decades.

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker Review

* * *

You don’t need a reason to see The Rise of Skywalker, but if you did, it would be Daisy Ridley. Her fierce commitment to playing Rey with integrity, intelligence and a total understanding of the kind of film she’s in lifts every scene she’s in; perhaps knowing that she was their best asset, the Star Wars gatekeepers and J.J. Abrams, this film’s director, have given her plenty. This is resolutely Rey’s film, and Ridley steers us through it, holding it together even as some of the other moving parts came very, very close to completely derailing it.

The first two acts particularly hold together and are pretty fun, as they present us with the best version of Star Wars, which is three people, a droid and a wookie in a cockpit or skulking around an alien landscape, bantering. Those three are Rey, Poe (Oscar Isaac) and Finn (John Boyega), and their scenes are fun, harking back to those moments on the Falcon between Luke, Leia and Han. And, again relying on proven players, C-3PO (Anthony Daniels, who’s now 73) is given a lot to say. As usual, he’s the funniest character.

But the third act is not good, getting into the worst elements of Star Wars: endless mumbo-jumbo about the force, family lineage, bloodlines, destiny and so many versions of The Empire it will make your head spin. The Big Final Conflict is a cinematic disaster; suffice to say that it all comes down to white lines spizzing out of the Emperor’s fingertips, and that, frankly, is bullshit.

Among the good and the bad, Adam Driver does his best with Kylo Ren, but the material is weak; unlike Rey, the screenwriters simply haven’t known what to do with poor Kylo, and his journey is muddy and ultimately inconsequential. And that’s the problem with the movie as a whole: except for Rey, no-one’s really got anything to do of any consequence. The script chases itself in circles trying to give us an ‘ending’ where the actual story – the story of Luke Skywalker – ended ages ago, among the Ewoks, at the conclusion of Return Of The Jedi. That film’s climax, by the way, is shamelessly ripped off (riffed on?) here, and badly.

Abrams, as he did with The Force Awakens, bends over backwards to service the fans (try that at home), resulting in some very awkward cameos. Besides the original triumvirate – Carrie Fisher here being played by, it seems, a digital version of her dead self – Billy Dee Williams’ Lando returns to actually play a part, but he’s terrible. While Ridley is in a Star Wars film, Williams acts like he’s at a Star Wars convention.

Ultimately the third act problems of this film are a big problem. They end the whole shebang on a bummer note. When the film gets replayed at home in years to come, I reckon it will more often than not get stopped at a particular point, leaving the cartoonish Emperor to endlessly await his destiny, stuck in a cosmic limbo of bad make-up and itchy fingers.

The Two Popes Review

* * * *

I’ve never enjoyed Jonathan Pryce more than in The Two Popes; his powerfully warm charisma, coupled with a rosy-to-glowing depiction of Pope Francis, is the strongest reason to see this intriguing piece of speculative history. It seems that when Pope Benedict was privately considering renouncing his papacy, he sought out (and called in from Argentina) Francis to discuss the idea; the film – written by Anthony McCarten (The Theory of Everything, Darkest Hour) and directed by Fernando Meirelles (City of God, Blindness) imagines four lengthy conversations between the two.

Lest that sound boring to you, it should be noted that Benedict is played by Anthony Hopkins; the four conversations, which collectively probably make up about 70 percent of the film, are exquisite acting set-pieces of the absolute highest order: two of the world’s greatest actors with intelligent, thoughtful and often very funny words to say. The film also is much larger than two old men chatting about religion; flashbacks fill in the early life and (deeply problematic) career of Francis (not Benedict; it’s not that film), while the contemporary story includes fascinating, detailed depictions of the Vatican’s functionality, including a terrific sequence showing the papal elections from the inside.

My only interest in religion of any stripe is intellectual; The Two Popes, which is unashamedly pro-Francis and quite clearly pro-Pope, fascinated and delighted me, and Pryce is simply captivating.

Mandalorian, Queens of Mystery, The Good Liar

Two new streaming shows offer genre fans massive levels of fan service; each may seem to their respective prospective audiences like manna from heaven.

Acorn TV streams exclusively British content of the mostly cosy variety; it’s the kind of stuff you’ve traditionally found on ABC Australia, with a heavy emphasis on mystery and period drama. The new Acorn TV exclusive Queens of Mystery aims to be the mother of all cosy mysteries; it is so engineered to deliver what fans of the genre want that it’s easy to be cynical about it, but I suspect there will be plenty of eager fans ready to lap up every ripe moment.

A young female cop is transferred to her gorgeous (cosy) hometown, where pretty much immediately a murder is committed, not only to a writer of mystery novels, but at a mystery novel festival. But that’s not even the big hook; the cop’s three aunts all live in the town, are all mystery writers themselves, and all want to help solve the mystery. One of them is even a suspect!

This extreme high concept will either leave you dry or make you so excited you’ve already ordered Acorn in HD. It’s hard for me to judge, not really being a fan of the genre (sadly; I used to be); it’s ludicrously over-acted and over-stuffed, but also smells like fun.

Fun is the mega-operative word for The Mandalorian on Disney Plus; this Star Wars TV series is nothing but. Eschewing the deep family-drama ‘force’ mythology of the soon-to-be-completed nine-film franchise but embracing every stylistic element you love from episodes 4-8 (ie the ‘George Lucas 1977 A New Hope’ style), this action-packed and very funny bounty-hunter epic, grounded in the conventions of the classic Hollywood Western, is one hundred percent convinced of its own tone. It knows exactly what it wants to be, and with every bug-eyed monster, laser shoot-out and Mos Eisley Cantina-like cantina, it achieves it. I thought I was done with everything Star Wars, but The Mandalorian’s joyous charms are impossible to resist. For its every brief episode (they’re about 38 minutes apiece) I’m a kid again, grinning from ear to ear.

Ian McKellan and Helen Mirren are two great movie stars, and they account for the * * I can give The Good Liar, a ludicrous con-man thriller perfunctorily directed by Bill Condon, now in cinemas. Based on a novel by Nicholas Searle which I will never read, the film sells itself first on McKellen and Mirren and then on its “twisty” plot. The actors are great; the plot, not.

Jojo Rabbit

If the awards were won based purely on audacity, without regard for outcome, Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit would have the potential to win them all. This movie is a big swing in every direction: tonally, commercially, as subject matter, as career move. And when it works, it really works: there are some metaphorical visuals that are among the most powerful filmed images I’ve seen in a bountiful year of great moviegoing. But it doesn’t always work, and, unfortunately, some of the swings and misses really land with a thud: silence loud enough to make its presence known in the auditorium, silence that says, “Whoops, we all saw that.”

So points indeed for bold ambition, and I’m glad the film exists, not least for introducing us to an extraordinary young male actor, Roman Griffin Davis, who plays Jojo, a ten-year old boy at the tail end of WW2 who longs to be a Nazi but instead befriends a Jew. She’s played by Thomasin McKenzie, who already had her big coming out party in the form of Leave No Trace last year; here, she’s burdened by a German accent which seems trickier for her than an American one (she’s from New Zealand) but there’s no denying that the two young actors, whose scenes together comprise at least a third of the film, make for one of the year’s best love stories.

Outside of their rather isolated story, Waititi stages a Mel Brooks-style comedic assault on the Nazis that is sporadically rather than consistently funny. His deep supporting cast, including Rebel Wilson, Sam Rockwell, Stephen Merchant and (in a weirdly brilliant role) Alfie Allen all have their moments, but they also all get dud gags that don’t work. Wilson in particular, perhaps limited by that German accent (she usually gets to keep her deep Aussie twang), struggles and often flails.

Scarlett Johansson is fine as Jojo’s mother – a kind of ‘straight man’ role amongst the satirical goofiness – and Waititi himself plays Jojo’s imaginary friend, Hitler. His performance is emblematic of the whole movie: it can be brilliant or really flat, often in the span of the same moment.

The Irishman Review

The Irishman Pacino and De Niro.png

* * * * 1/2

There’s simply no denying the awesome craftsmanship of Martin Scorsese’s überfilm The Irishman, which has finally arrived, after an enormous shoot and an unprecedented post-production process, on big and small screens (it’s a Netflix production). As monumental, and monumentally skilled, cinema, it’s breath-taking: the production design, the cinematography, the attention to detail at every level, the bold editing, the elegance of the compositions, all point to a team of masters working together on a masterpiece in the old-fashioned sense.

So how does it work on a storytelling level? For me, the biggest surprise, given that I went in with plenty of fair assumptions, was the amount of times the film made me laugh out loud. Once Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino) enters the story, presumably kicking off the second act (of a three and a half hour picture), The Irishman is not afraid to boldly make a joke. Pacino’s performance is funny in its own right, and as it goes on, it seems to give the movie permission to follow its lead; by the time we’re well ensconced in the second hour, Scorsese and lifelong editor Thelma Schoonmaker are making edit gags – “cuts” that humorously draw attention to themselves – and, presumably, yucking it up in the edit suite. Praise be to them; I loved the humour in the movie, and Pacino’s performance.

Robert De Niro, as Hoffa’s factotum Frank Sheeran, the Irishman of the title who also serves the Philly mob, and ultimately finds himself a troubled servant of two masters, has the film’s straightest role, allowing the enormous and enormously professional cast to dazzle in his reflection. He’s in every scene and a stable influence, which is not to say he’s not very, very good. But Frank’s major personality trait is his loyalty, which simply isn’t a very passionate attribute. His is a quiet confidence, most evident when he kills.

The film spent so long in post because it utilised digital de-ageing techniques to allow De Niro, Joe Pesci, Pacino and others the chance to play the younger versions of themselves. Facially, this looks a little ‘uncanny’, especially in the first act, when they’re meant to be at least thirty years younger than they really are (which is in their mid-70s). But it’s their bodies that don’t look right. The digital forty year-old Frank, featuring a smooth face with eerie computer eyes, walks as a 76 year old De Niro does, throws a gun into the river as an older man does, kicks a man with weak old man legs and joints. It’s strange looking – not in a good way – and distracting.

The third act, featuring the men in their actual dotage, is melancholic, mournful and quite magical. This is where Scorsese and his mob effectively bring their mafia trilogy – combining GoodFellas, Casino and this title – to its close, and in doing so, come to the mother of all crime movie conclusions: at the end of the day, crime really doesn’t pay. All those days these goombahs spent one-upping each other, they weren’t playing with their children, and that is their punishment. That, and, as the movie keeps telling us, very often five or six bullets to the head.

Frozen 2 Review (aka Frozen II)

* * * 1/2

Having, this year, both been to Norway and been mildly obsessed with Norway’s 2019 Eurovision entry Spirit In The Sky, I feel I can appreciate the true oddity that is Frozen 2, one of those strange sequels, like Babe: Pig In The City, that not only feels weirder and more free-wheeling than its predecessor, but that also feels like some of its offbeat charm is a happy accident.

Because this movie is a mess. Nobly seeking to address the Sami indigenous people of northern Norway, and incorporate greater Norse mythology, while also maintaining the theme of sisterhood that made Frozen the ultimate girl-power success story, the scriptwriters deliver an incomprehensible plot dripping with mysterious mysticism – and that’s what’s fun. Going in, expecting a finely-tuned toy advertisement, and instead getting bonkers nonsense with some fine songs and Elsa ice-surfing, is unpredictable, and unpredictable in this case is to be celebrated.

The B plot, involving Kristof, is appalling, but includes a very funny 80s music video parody, and Olaf the snowman had my daughter in stitches. For me, it was all about the film’s joyous abandon: it makes no sense, it goes nowhere, and the Walt Disney Company signed off on it. It’s nutty!

Knives Out

* * * * 1/2

Rian Johnson is forging a cool career as a genre auteurist whose films are in different genres. Thus Brick was his noir, The Brothers Bloom his romantic con-artist romp, Looper his time travel brain-buster, The Last Jedi his space opera, and now Knives Out his whodunnit. In each case – even on his Star Wars gig – he simultaneously celebrates and subverts the genre, adhering to its conventions while spinning the material in a fresh way. He’s only 46, and he’s ludicrously talented.

And Knives Out is ludicrously fun. Johnson’s found the perfect old house in Massachusetts to set his murder mystery; he’s stacked it with props that directly reference, and may even be, the props from Sleuth (1972), which was also one of my favourite twisty movies as a kid; he’s engaged a fun-loving ensemble of glitterati; and then there’s his subversions, spins and extrapolations, none of which I’ll reveal, save one: the poster may imply a true ensemble, but this film has a protagonist and a star, and that’s Ana De Armas (who you hopefully remember fondly from Blade Runner 2049 as Ryan Gosling’s AI girlfriend). The second most prominent character here is played by Daniel Craig, and he shares a lot of scenes with De Armas, essentially supporting her, which is super fun, because she’ll soon be doing the same for him in No Time To Die, the next Bond film (and Craig’s last).

This film is super satisfying. It’s funny, the mystery plot really works, and it also has something to say, which it does with enjoyably righteous anger. Go for the production design and the plot, leave being blown away by De Armas and, once again, Johnson, one of America’s finest. This might be his best film; it’s one of 2019’s most entertaining.

Marriage Story Review

*****

Marriage Story is Noah Baumbach’s masterpiece, a tragicomedy of human relationships that gets everything right. Anchored by pitch perfect performances from Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver, this forensic study of a certain kind of divorce elegantly, faultlessly rides the bittersweet path: every scene, and practically every moment, is simultaneously deeply sad and very funny. That’s not just skilled filmmaking, it’s a kind of alchemy.

The stakes are high but accessible: there is a child, Henry, who is about six years old; the splitting couple each have work on either side of the United States (he in NYC, she in LA); both want Henry to live on their coast. Without money and property being foregrounded, the story remains deeply human and humane: Baumbach shows deep empathic compassion for both his leads, and for us as an audience. We are not forced to pick sides. Their professional world – of the grant-subsidised NYC theatre and uncertainties but big bucks of series TV – is rarefied and simply rare, but Baumbach’s script and direction is so incredibly specific, so full of rich and precisely observed detail, that the whole is entirely relatable; that old adage, find the universal in the specific, is entirely and successfully at play here.

If there is a villain, it’s lawyers and a legal system that reflects the misnomer of the “United” States: California and New York have rival systems, and god forbid you break up in both of them simultaneously.

The deep bench of supporting actors do superb work: Laura Dern, Ray Liotta and Alan Alda as the attorneys, Julie Hagerty and Merritt Wever as Johansson’s family, Wallace Shawn as a workmate and Azhy Robertson as Henry. Driver and Johansson deliver career-bests and will both be nominated for Oscars. Driver may win.

This may be the best film of 2019. It’s right up there. Unmissable.