Monos

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* * * 1/2

Alejandro Landes’ mesmerising, gorgeous and intriguing tale of child soldiers holding an American doctor captive in an unnamed South American country feels like the bastard child of Werner Herzog’s Aguirre: Wrath of God and Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto, with clear and deliberate references to Lord of the Flies and Apocalypse Now – among others – thrown in for good measure. It was clearly an adventure to shoot; indeed, Landes has said that “people were dropping like flies … everyone cried on this movie.” Principal photography was in the Andes, at heights of up to 4,300 metres (14,000 feet), and there is a constant dramatic tension between the natural beauty of the setting and the unnerving situation.

Mica Levi delivers another brilliant otherworldly score (she did Under the Skin and Jackie, too) and the hitherto unknown child actors are all astonishingly convincing, as may they well be: they kind of lived the experience, being put through a boot camp by a Colombian military consultant who had himself been a child soldier (from when he was 11 to his desertion at 24) and who plays their leader in the movie. The fact that he’s an astonishingly muscled dwarf is just par for the course in a film which defies expectations at every turn. The American hostage is played bravely and precisely by Julianne Nicholson, one of those non-star “oh her!” actresses with a massive set of TV, but few leading film, credits. No doubt she will consider this one of her most vital roles – and challenges – for years to come; she can be proud just for taking the job, let alone doing it so well.

Despite all the references, it’s bracingly original. That duality is also present as a travelogue: here are some of the most beautiful locations in the world, exquisitely shot, along with reason to never visit them.

Blow The Man Down (Amazon Streaming Movie Review)

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* * *

There’s a sub-genre of dark comedy that, dramatically, is a no-brainer: someone in a group, however small, of relatively innocent people, kind-of accidentally kills someone; the group agrees to cover up the crime (and, usually, help dispose of the body); and then all members of the group face three ever increasing pressures: the fear of being found out (and arrested), their own moral conscience, and the disintegration of the group’s resolve. It’s a superb dramatic engine: the structure is solid, the stakes are high, and the conflict is inherent. Some of the classic examples include Shallow Grave, Very Bad Things and I Know What You Did Last Summer.

Blow The Man Down’s point of difference is its milieu, which is wintry coastal Maine, on the North-Eastern US seaboard, in a fishing community. Assumedly touristy by summer, it’s fishermen and locals in the off-season, and the filmmakers, Bridget Savage Cole and Danielle Krudy, utilise a chorus of fishermen singing stunningly beautiful sea-shanties to comment on the action, to great effect. I heard an interview with them where they revealed that they were obsessed with watching The Wicker Man (1973) while shooting their film, and that movie’s sense of weird isolation and creepy local colour generously infuses their work.

It’s not nearly as well scripted, or ingeniously directed, as the examples above, but the milieu definitely offers its own rewards, as does the supporting cast of exemplary female character actors led by June Squibb and Margo Martindale. It’s borrowing from tropes you’ve seen before, but shuffles and deals them fresh.

Tiger King: Netflix Doco Series Review

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Instantly taking its place alongside The Staircase, Making a Murderer and OJ: Made In America as one of the great documentary mini-series, Tiger King, a jaw-dropping seven part Netflix tale of wild and criminal shenanigans among the big cat fraternity – that is, people who love (and exhibit) tigers, leopards and so forth – will also always be remembered as the first viral sensation of Covid 19. In a way, there couldn’t be a better moment for this show to drop, as only something this nuts could take our brains away from our current sensational concerns.

Among the series’ endless qualities, it is the astonishing vivacity of the characters that towers above all. Every one of these insanely idiosyncratic individuals feels like they’re being played by the world’s greatest character actor giving their career-best performance. It’s all lead by a truly charismatic freakshow named Joe Schreibvogel, who goes by Joe Exotic. Flamboyant, queer, tattooed, pierced, and, most distressingly, always armed (he openly carries a pistol in a holster on his right hip), Joe is as redneck as they come and yet also so oddly progressive. He absolutely defines himself by his gayness in a world where that may seem tricky. But nothing’s tricky to Joe, who has more confidence than anyone who routinely tickles tigers should.

His antagonist is Carol Baskin, who runs Big Cat Rescue, a rival organisation to Joe’s GW Zoo. She wants to shut him down; he wants to shut her up. Things get illegal, intense, and insane.

You will not believe your eyes, your ears, your brain. And you will love every minute of it. I binged it, I miss it. I even miss Joe, although I’d never, ever want to meet him, nor any of these deranged sociopaths, malcontents and freaks. They can stay where they are, in a world that seems like it’s on another planet, but is actually just more of Crazy, USA.

Happy New Year, Colin Burstead

* * * 1/2

Like his contemporary Peter Strickland, whose In Fabric was reviewed last week, is now in Australian cinemas, and boasts him as an executive producer, Ben Wheatley is the kind of British auteur whose existence is a testament to the British film industry and particularly BBC Films, who co-produced his latest, Happy New Year, Colin Burstead. Like Strickland, Wheatley is an uncompromising and highly skilled writer/director who has a relatively small but very dedicated following. Where he departs from Strickland – thus far in their careers, anyway – is that he’s more wide-ranging in his tastes; while Strickland’s films kind of occur in a Strickland universe, Wheatley has shifted genres, styles and methodology. He’s made a funny gun movie (Free Fire), a creepy folk-horror hitman thriller (Kill List), a formally daring adaptation of a staple of Brit Sci-Fi lit (High-Rise), a flat-out psychedelic folk tale (A Field in England) and a low-key black comedy (Sightseers). You cover a lot of ground playing around in his filmography.

Here, he not only takes on Dogme, he delivers a film that riffs on the first, and greatest, pure Dogme film, Festen (1998, Thomas Vinterberg). That film saw an extended group of family and friends converge on a gorgeous country estate for a patriarch’s birthday party; here, so do a similar group for New Year’s Eve. As with all family gatherings, let alone family gathering films, there will be tension, there will be arguments, there may even be blood.

Indeed, if we’re familiar with Wheatley, we may even be expecting some blood. Minor spoiler alert: it’s not that kind of film. This is a legitimate family gathering comedy drama: there are no ghosts, monsters or sneaky horror events, and no guns. As with Festen and Dogme,since the filmmaking apparatus is minimized (handheld cameras, no fancy lighting, minimal locations, minimal props, no VFX or extraneous sound design etc), the enjoyment falls to the cast and the story. Here the latter is tight enough to be compelling but the former is an absolute cracker. Every character seethes with life, brought there by such singular British actors as Hayley Squires (who is also in In Fabric), Charles Dance (as you’ve never seen him!), Bill Paterson, Neil Maskell, Sam Riley, and Doon Mackichan (and if their names don’t ring a bell with you, their faces might). The whole thing is co-ordinated beautifully by Wheatley, who makes filmmaking look easy. It’s not, of course, it’s bloody hard, and just because a film like this appears so modest, that doesn’t make it any easier. Indeed, Happy New Year, Colin Burstead has to hold our attention with no tricks, gimmicks or flim -flam; it’s all about storytelling, and Wheatley is terrific at that.

Dark Waters

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* * * *

Todd Haynes brings his virtuosic levels of craftsmanship to a lawyer-versus-corporation true story, with magnificent results. Dark Waters, a passion project for star and producer Mark Ruffalo, has everything the genre, and indeed many a good film, demands: high stakes, honest suspense, compassion, passion, righteous anger and more than a few goosebump moments. It’s a depressing film about a very depressing sustained act of corporate malfeasance, but it’s ruthlessly compelling and compulsively watchable.

Haynes brings a gothic, almost horror-film texture to the material, aided by Bill Camp’s intense performance as Wilbur Tennant, a West Virginia farmer whose cows are dying, sometimes after losing their minds and attacking him. He storms the Ohio law offices of Rob Bilott (Ruffalo) – because he knows Bilott’s grandmother! – demanding representation. None of the lawyers in Wilbur’s own state will take him on, because DuPont, the chemical company he’s convinced is behind his cattle’s poisoning, basically owns it.

I welled up three times over the course of the film, not because my emotions were being manipulated but because they were being addressed. Haynes may infuse his film with horror, but that is because it is a horror story, as all stories of inhuman abuse by corrupt monied corporations are. Every beat of this movie is told with integrity, and your tears are deserved.

In Fabric

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* * * 1/2

Peter Strickland is a living testament to the excellence of the British film industry and in particular the BFI Film Fund and BBC Films. He is an uncompromising iconoclastic auteur of the first order, making deeply weird, personal visions for a highly cine-literate audience… and he gets funded, distributed, and seen. Praise be.

His latest, In Fabric, continues his fascination (obsession?) with giallo cinema, fetishism, and the perfect reverberating note between comedy and horror. It stands perfectly on the shelf with his three previous features – Katalin Varga, Berberian Sound Studio and The Duke of Burgundy – while playing with the levels. Here, he pushes up the faders on camp and colour while lowering those on naturalism and emotional impact. Of the four, this is the most blatantly and intentionally ‘fun’.

It’s about a haunted red dress, as it passes from a boutique department store to two different owners. Hayley Squires, who I adore, is one of them, and seeing her as a co-lead is enough justification for anyone to go to a cinema. It’s not the funniest comedy nor the scariest horror film, but is absolutely the most committed haunted-dress movie of the year. It’s Peter Strickland, it’s full of artistic integrity, and it’s fabulous.

Honey Boy and Honeyland

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Lucas Hedges plays a very lightly fictionalised version of the actor Shia LaBeouf, renamed Otis, as he has a car accident, gets nasty with the attending police officers, and winds up in a rehab facility, where it is made clear that if he doesn’t complete his treatment he will serve four years in prison. In treatment, he is encouraged to seek out the source of his pain and record the findings in a journal. That journal becomes the screenplay of the movie we’re watching, in which Hedges is joined by Noah Jupe as his young self and LaBeouf himself as his own dad.

That all sounds like a recipe for staggering indulgence, a feature film, charging us for a ticket, that is really simply part of a troubled thespian’s therapy. But, thanks to suburb direction from first-time feature director Alma Har’el, a satisfyingly unsentimental screenplay from LaBeouf, and excellent performances all around, the result is terrific, a thoroughly compelling addition to the “bad dad” sub-genre (The Great Santini, Swimming Upstream) anchored by LaBeouf’s uncanny performance as his own troubled father.

LaBeouf was a child actor who had a string of TV movie, movie and TV series roles in 1998-2000; Honey Boy (his father’s nickname for him) takes place during that curious phase as his career is taking off and possibilities seem exciting and slightly terrifying. Otis and his dad don’t live in Los Angeles, so while filming there, they live in a seedy motel; Otis’ dad is a veteran, four year’s sober, with a smorgasbord of problems, most perniciously one of intolerably low self-esteem; a chip on the shoulder, it seems, carries through the generations as relentlessly as alcoholism.

When the credits rolled, I found myself waiting to see who played Otis’s father, somehow convinced that LaBeouf had played himself; the film is that convincing, and also that strange. Therapy movies, as a genre, are hardly my wheelhouse, but this one is absolutely worth the price on the ticket. * * * 1/2

Don’t accidentally buy a ticket to Honeyland if you want your LaBeouf, but by all means buy a ticket, as it’s no less impactful. Nominated, fascinatingly, for both Best International Film and Best Feature Documentary at this year’s Oscars, Honeyland defies easy categorisation: if you were to simply walk in off the street knowing nothing, you would be forgiven for thinking you’d watched a narrative fiction feature film.

Eschewing any of documentary’s traditional signifiers – voice over, interviews, title cards – the film plunges us into the life of Hatidze Muratova, an indigenous Macedonian woman living a pre-industrial life in the Balkan mountains. She cares for her old and invalid mother and her bees; when the latter produce enough honey for a sackful of jars, she walks four hours to the nearest town to sell them at market. It’s a monotonous life but a sustainable one, until an outside force – a large itinerant family – sets up camp nearby. Then things change.

The film’s thematic resonance is huge: in Hatidze’s seemingly simple story, we can find a vast metaphor for the world’s struggle with environmental sustainability. As an anthropological artefact, it’s eye-opening: Hatidze’s existence seems not just of an alien place but a different century. And as filmmaking, it’s jaw-dropping. Spending three years with their subject, directors Ljubo Stefanov and Tamara Kotevska gathered enough material to give us all the trappings of narrative feature film: coverage, reaction shots, inserts, cutaways, reverse angles. We don’t just see an event, we see an event told using all the language of cinema. Whether the participants were ever asked to repeat things, to re-stage moments, is a valid question, but unnecessary to our enjoyment of this spectacularly humane story. * * * *

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EMMA and HORSE GIRL

EMMA (Cinemas)

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* * * 1/2

Why do we need a new Emma? You may ask the same of Hamlet. Emma is (controversial opinion here perhaps) Jane Austen’s most intriguing heroine, and it’s worth seeing what new generations of actresses may bring to the role (as it has proved worthwhile seeing a new ensemble take charge of a Little Women for the 21st Century).

This one – directed by feature debut director Autumn de Wilde – is heavy on a highly specific design choice, and will be known henceforth as “the pastel one”: every outfit, chair, curtain and wall is of a pastel shade, each contributing to the overwhelming – but very delightful – sense of the whole movie being constructed as a sweet slice of cake, which, when you think about it, is a perfectly fair approach and metaphor for how Austen’s stories can be enjoyed (which is not to say other directorial approaches cannot emphasise darker qualities).

But beyond the intensity of the clear style choice, it is Anya Taylor-Joy who justifies this new adaptation’s existence. She is sublime, reason enough to mount a new film, as, say, Jude Law was enough for there to be a new Hamlet on the West End in 2009. Her Emma is as devious, misguided and occasionally sheerly unlikeable as Austen’s is on the page, but her underlying likability enables Emma’s redemption to not only be consumable, but go down as sweetly as the cupcake wallpaper. Taylor-Joy, blessed with one of those deployable cinematic faces that is almost all eyes, is perfect for period pictures; the straighter she stands, the more corseted she is, the more she can gain from a glance, a look, a stare, and in this Emma, it is stolen glances that carry more weight than, at times, even the sparkling words. A delight.

HORSE GIRL (Netflix original movie)

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* * *

Mental illness as the engine for a thriller is a cultural conceit whose days are numbered, but, as a last gasp, there’s no denying this entry is compelling and evocative. Alison Brie, who co-wrote the screenplay, is excellent as a young woman whose mental health begins to unravel toward the end of the first act. The second act is very strong, and Brie’s performance borders on sensational; overall, however, the film is rather shallow, entirely predictable on a story level but happily surprising on an execution one.

The Leunig Fragments

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* * *

Michael Leunig is literally an Australian National Living Treasure: it turns out, as revealed in The Leunig Fragments, an alternatively revealing and frustrating feature-length cinema-release documentary about the (generally) adored cartoonist, someone calls you up from the National Trust and asks if you’d like to be one. (There are currently 79; naturally, when you die, you drop off the list). In person – and this documentary features him a lot, sitting for the camera in his studio and occasionally his home, both in Melbourne – he is perhaps as you’d expect, which is to say philosophical, soft, and whimsical.

It is that dreaded but oh-so-precise word, whimsy, that will forever be associated with Leunig’s vast body of work; how much you can stomach the stuff will determine how much, perhaps, you’ll enjoy this edge-of-hagiography. I personally have always admired his work, but I found the man himself painful to listen to, literally: his voice drove me bananas, high and soft and never completing a thought with determination but letting every single sentence, phrase and utterance drift off into ellipsis…

Frankly, he sounds utterly mannered and affected, and the documentary is at its best when not pointing its camera at him. Hearing others talk about him is more revealing, but there’s more to his story than shown in these ninety-seven minutes worth of ‘fragments’. The most fascinating moment is a simple title card telling us that “only one member of [Leunig’s] family” was willing to appear in the film; that speaks volumes, but the film doesn’t read them beyond an introduction. Like the minute or so spent on Leunig’s pro-anti-vaccination stance or other controversies he’s found himself in, every time something comes along to trouble the nice narrative, the film takes a peek, then looks away, almost ashamed to denigrate its subject and, clearly, its hero.

The Lighthouse

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* * * *

A youngish drifter joins an old-timer to serve as his assistant running a lighthouse on an isolated, indeed god-forsaken, island. That’s all you need to know about the plot of The Lighthouse, because it’s not a film you see for the plot; it’s experiential, a sublime example of an ostensibly narrative feature film that compels you (and boy does The Lighthouse compel you) through its 109 minutes through virtuosic visual and aural stimulation. Call it ecstatic cinema.

Robert Eggers, the auteur of this absolutely auteurist work, previously made The VVitch, and The Lighthouse reverberates with that film’s early-times-in-New-England setting (The VVitch was set in the 1630s, The Lighthouse in the late 1800s), its hand-made wooden sets and props, and its spectacularly florid period language (wait’ll you hear Willem Dafoe, in an Oscar-nominated performance, get his mouth around it). But, like his contemporary, peer and possible artistic soulmate Ari Aster, Eggers’ sophomore effort is as much a black comedy as a horror film. As Aster’s Midsommar was to Hereditary, so too is The Lighthouse a wild trip compared to The VVitch’s mapped-out precision.

And what a trip! This is mesmerising, head-spinning stuff, full of shots, moments, scenes and sequences that are pretty indelible and pretty incredible. Shot in miserable conditions (and the dramatic weather’s all up there on the screen) in Nova Scotia, as essentially a two-hander (Robert Pattinson being the young gun up against Dafoe’s incredibly salty sea-dog), in striking 35mm B&W (the cinematography is nominated for an Oscar), there is nothing else like it. I was stunned to get to see it at Event Cinemas Bondi Junction – a mainstream Australian theatre chain and location – on their biggest screen (VMAX!) – as though it was the latest superhero movie. Whether they felt that Pattinson’s involvement meant this would pack in the young ‘uns, or they actually recognised a spectacle demanding their best possible facilities, they’re to be praised for playing a film this wonderfully nutty as though it’s mainstream. Unclassifiable, maybe it was pitched to them thus: Wake In Fright meets Ida meets Splash. That’ll sell some popcorn!