Minari

In Australian cinemas now.

* * *

Currently in the mix amongst the plethora of critics awards being doled out in the US, Minari, Lee Isaac Chung’s directly autobiographical film, is a slog. The acting is superb (including from young kids and an older ‘grandmother’) and the integrity of the story is not in question. It is tasteful, detailed, well crafted and honest.  But it is glacially paced, without being so stylistically or technically fascinating to generate interest when the script does not.

Chung grew up on a farm in Arkansas, and it is his childhood experience represented in painstaking detail here. It may be close to your story and have huge resonance for you; I found the milieu uninspiring. Some in my audience were vocally delighted at everything the kids did, particularly Alan Kim, who plays a version of the young Chung. He is indeed terrific, as is everyone. If only the script gave them a little more dramatic dynamite.

Another Round

Now playing in Australian cinemas.

* * * *

Conceptually, Another Round sounds like a high-concept early 2000s comedy starring Will Ferrell, Jack Black, Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson: four teachers decide, in order to raise their dynamism at work and in general life, to experiment with staying a little bit drunk pretty much all the time. Specifically, they intend to follow the hypothesis of a Norwegian psychiatrist named Finn Skårderud, who suggested that human beings would operate best with a consistent level of .05% blood alcohol. In the Ferrell / Black / Stiller / Wilson theoretical version, wacky inebriated hi-jinks would ensue, inevitably leading to some regretful actions and, in all likelihood, an ultimate repudiation of the experiment.

But this is not that movie; it is director Thomas Vinterberg’s (written with Tobias Lindholm, together one of the great screenwriting teams on the planet), and it stars Mads Mikkelsen, Thomas Bo Larsen, Magnus Millang and Lars Ranthe. While there are humorous moments, the style is naturalistic realism, and the tone is mournful and often dark. It takes a high-concept, somewhat ludicrous premise, and plays it straight: what would happen?

I think we all know what would happen, and Vinterberg knows we know, so whatever delights the film will offer, it will offer in execution, and they are many. The script, despite generally heading in an inevitable direction, is surprising and complex, with sublime dialogue and fascinating character detail; the cinematography is organic but touched constantly by magic (particularly involving some seriously beautiful twilights and sunsets) and the acting is spectacular, with Mikkelsen (who is very much the lead) giving a monumental performance (in a career full of them). Framed often in very tight close-up, Mikkelsen’s Martin has a face of bruised solitude, his eyes sad, lonely, desperate and needy until they are invigorated, in strange and intriguing ways, by the booze.

This is a wonderful movie, challenging, provocative, a little subversive, and totally engaging. It is Denmark’s entry for Best International Film at this year’s Oscars, and it could win.

The Nest

* * * * 1/2

Sean Durkin’s The Nest is the first great movie of 2021. A relationship drama anchored by incredible performances from Carrie Coon and Jude Law, it left me devastated, wrecked, and thoroughly sated. It puts you (and its characters) through the ringer; once the credits roll, a tight hundred and seven minutes after the evocative first shot, you’ve been through something. You’ve been through a lot.

That first shot is precise and revealing. It’s a slow zoom out from the window of a house. Combined with the ominous score and even the font of the title card, Durkin is using the cinematic language of horror, and specifically 70s horror. The cinematography has a grainy texture to it – it looks like film – and the mood is malevolent.

As it turns out, we’re in the 80s, although that is revealed gradually, and not, strictly, in a horror film. But Durkin returns to that zoom five or six times, almost always framing a window or house, and his intentions are very clear. Horror can reside in the house, and our own family can be the cause of our greatest pain.

Coon and Law play a married couple, with two kids, who move from a comfortable-seeming house somewhere in the US to a huge, rambling, spooky-yet-beautiful manor house in Surry, outside of London. Law’s character Rory is returning to his roots and to working with an old colleague (the awesome Michael Culkin) at his City trading firm; Coon’s Allison works with horses, and the intention is for her to set up her own professional stables on the grounds. It is a move prompted by Rory’s hyperactive ambition, and it will be the family’s curse.

I was in total, seat-gripping suspense for pretty much the whole third act of this superbly crafted film. It all gels: a perfect screenplay, incredibly evocative cinematography (the dull grey British afternoon skies evoke such a precise feeling), the period design, the sublime acting, and that superbly forbidding score (by Richard Reed Parry). Durkin showed huge promise with his debut feature, Martha Marcy May Marlene, back in 2011; that he now offers his second, a quiet masterpiece, in 2021, shows the value of taking your time and doing things right.

Sound Of Metal

Can Paul enter the Oscar ‘Raci’?

* * * 1/2

Paul Raci makes a massive impression in Sound of Metal, the debut directorial feature from screenwriter Darius Marder (The Place Beyond The Pines). The film is featuring heavily in ‘awards chatter’ for lead actor Riz Ahmed, who plays a heavy-metal drummer who rather suddenly loses his hearing, but mark my words, Raci is going to start – pardon the pun – making noise. His performance is an apt use of that critical cliché, a ‘revelation’.

The film itself mashes up two pretty conventional sub-genres – those of ‘dealing with sudden disability’ and ‘rehab’ – without subverting either nor adding anything fantastically new, except a highly specific sound design that strives mightily to give us a simulacrum of what Ahmed’s character, Ruben, is hearing and experiencing. That sound design is the other element of the film being talked about for big awards, but again, I’m laying my money on Raci to step forth and start scooping up Supporting Actor statues. He plays the cultish leader of a community for deaf addicts (Ruben’s a four-year clean junkie) with absolute authority, compassion, empathy and integrity. Since, despite having a true ‘character actor’ face, Raci is simply not that well known (and wasn’t to me), he comes across as one hundred percent the real deal, as though Marder had found this actual man and had him play himself. Raci was raised by deaf parents so his signing is unassailable, even as he himself is not deaf. It’s perfect casting resulting in a perfect performance.

An indie film with wide appeal, Sound of Metal hardly re-invents the wheel, but it’s got a lot of integrity and heart, and is well worth your two hours. Ahmed is indeed very, very good, as is Olivia Cooke in an underwritten role as his girlfriend; late in the film, a major international star makes an appearance that’ll make your eyes pop wide open.

Only The Animals

* * *

Opens Thursday January 21 in Australia.

Dominik Moll’s Only The Animals is very pretty to look at, pretty fun and pretty ridiculous. If you approach it with the right attitude, it will deliver a solid couple of hours of entertainment.

An “everything-is-connected” film along the lines of Crash, Babel and Amores Perros, Moll’s wintry drama bends over backwards to make the connections. As such, it is contrived to the point of parody. But, despite the tone and performances being very straight-faced, the film works if you allow it in as a black comedy, a joke, or at least a shaggy-dog story. These films need contrivance; this one is more contrived than most; accept it and enjoy the ride. I did, even if a couple of the coincidences really did make me groan out loud.

Centered around the appearance of a dead body in a rural community, and spreading itself across a wide swathe of themes including the effects of isolation and grief, internet fraud, obsessive attraction and stalking, mental illness and – bien sûr – adultery, Only The Animals appears hugely ambitious, but it really comes down to a few central performances, most notably that of Denis Ménochet. Having menaced us in Custody (and other films), his deft portrayal here of a man obsessed with an online lover plays sneakily with his established persona. It’s the kind of trick the film needs to work, and, despite its clearly rickety narrative machinery, it does, just.

Dawn Raid

* * * 1/2

Dawn Raid is a relentlessly entertaining feature length documentary about the rise, fall and re-birth of Dawn Raid Entertainment, New Zealand’s first and, by far, most influential hip-hop label. Anchored by interviews with Dawn Raid founders Danny “Brotha D” Leaosavai’i and Andy Murnane, and featuring almost all of the label’s most important artists including Savage, Mareko, Deceptikonz, Adeaze and Aaradhna, the film has multiple moments of sheer fist-pumping joy.

Dawn Raid was always more than a label; it was a South Auckland cultural force, and the film is about culture and community as much as it is about music. But boy, the music is good; if nothing else, Dawn Raid may open your eyes to a whole area and era of hip-hop that bridges clear US rap influence with specifically NZ Polynesian concerns.

Murnane gets the most screen time, and he tells the Dawn Raid story with great energy, passion, humour and humility. He and Leaosavai’i met at ‘Business School’ – technical college – and the constant refrain of trying to marry a love of music with by-the-book business methodology culminates in a superb second-act comic, and cosmic, pay-off. This is a hip-hop movie with no guns nor gangsters, and the only drug on display is a reefer smoked by an American rapper. Instead, there is humour, joy and a whole lot of heart. It’s a delight from start to finish.

Small Axe

How much do you know about West Indian life in London from the 60s to the 80s? If not much, not enough, or not at all, Steve McQueen (Hunger, Shame, 12 Years a Slave and Widows) is here to rectify that. He’s made five feature films for the BBC, all stories based on actual events, covering daily life for the London Caribbean community throughout those decades. It’s a monumental achievement that gives English Blackness its greatest popular entertainment exposure, I would suggest, ever. All five are now available on Foxtel in Australia.

The films have no recurring characters and are solely linked thematically, but McQueen hascurated them in a particular order and I suggest you follow it. The first two are the best, so if you only want to dip your toes, you can enjoy them and move on. But watching all five has a cumulative power; this is indeed a case of the whole adding up to more than the sum of its parts.

Mangrove: The first in the series and the second best. A relatively conventionally constructed courtroom drama, made unconventional by its dramatic ingredients: the Black London community that the whole series shines a light on. The proprietor of the Mangrove restaurant in Ladbroke Grove is continually harassed by the police; when he and his community demonstrate, they are brought up on charges which they fight in court. The most ‘historically educational’ of the series and a true eye-opener. Also the longest at a smudge over two hours. * * * 1/2

Lovers Rock: The best one. In a little over an hour McQueen offers a massive slice of young West Indian cultural life in London in the 1980s. Two people meet at a house party. That’s it. But it’s so much more: a film about music, mating, toxic masculinity and predator culture, Rastafarianism, sexuality and sensuality (this is the most sensual film of, say, the decade?), youth, food, dance, safe space and above all, community. The most artful of the five, bordering on experimental, it’s joyous, enthralling and magical. This is the one you’ll watch twice. * * * *

Red, White and Blue: The true story of a young man who joined the London police force and became the literal poster boy for minority recruitment, while dealing with the realities of racism within the force, this 80 minute entry features an excellent central performance from John Boyega.  My fourth favourite. * * *

Alex Wheatle: The least satisfying entry is a character study based on one of the writers McQueen engaged in a ‘writer’s room’ designed to generate material for the series. This is the one that suffers the most from Foxtel’s lack of having Closed Captions available for this series: the patois is dense and deep and I have to admit to being unable to follow a lot of it (and clearly missing a lot of nuance and humour). If you have Closed Captions available to you in your viewing region, and you aren’t up on your Caribbean patois, turn them on. * * *

Education: My third favourite is a charming hour-long depiction of a seminal year or so in McQueen’s own childhood, when he got shunted off to a school for “special needs” students. Touching, warm and possessing the most humour of the five. * * * 1/2

SERIES OVERALL:

* * * *

The Dry

* * * 1/2

Releasing across Australia on New Year’s Day.

Robert Connelly’s The Dry, based on Jane Harper’s novel, is a very professionally constructed example of a very trope-y genre. A Big City Cop is called back home to their small town because of a tragic event, and in doing so, must face dark secrets from their past. Sound familiar? Of course it does. There have been at least sixty TV series made in Europe over the past ten years – over forty of them in the Nordic nations – that hew to that exact formula. It’s become such a cliché that there was even an entire parody series, Fallet, made in Sweden in 2017, that hit every tired beat again and again, exposing the genre’s self-cannibalisation ruthlessly.

But Australia is not Norway, and it’s the milieu that gives The Dry what freshness it has. Eric Bana’s Aaron Falk is a Federal Police Officer living in Melbourne whose (fictional) hometown, Kiewerra, hasn’t seen rain in a year. It is the parched, incessantly dusty drought-stricken crisis that gives the film its striking and foreboding atmosphere, and separates it from all those similar stories set in snow and sleet rather than dirt and desert.

The plotting is tight and, of course, the town is full of dodgy dirtbags played by good actors with interesting faces. Bana’s Falk is quite a cipher at the centre, but that’s part of the genre, too: the cop is inherently the least interesting character. It’s all plot plot plot, red herrings and ominous music, until the Big Reveal(s) in the third act. For me, those concluding sequences were not as satisfying – nor as well constructed – as the investigation that came before, and had a nasty bite that seemed tonally distinct from the rest of the film. But I suspect fans of the genre will find this very solid film way more than acceptable. I have no doubt that there was talk of turning the novel into a series; that it’s all done and dusted (sorry) in two hours rather than stretched out to ten is commendable.