Echo In The Canyon

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“Tell Bob he owes me ten bucks.”

* * * 1/2

Ah, to live in LA’s Laurel Canyon between 1965 and 1967, hang out with The Byrds and Buffalo Springfield, smoke reefer, and make gorgeous, melodic folk rock that went on to become known as the “West Coast Sound.” Bliss.

Some people actually got to do that – notably, the musicians in The Byrds and Buffalo Springfield – and this extremely joyous jaunt through their memories is guided by Jakob Dylan (yes, son of Bob), whose extremely laid-back charisma suits the hazy, happy memories of these very wealthy hippies very well.

Less successful are the numerous cover versions of some of the era’s legendary songs, performed by Dylan and a ragtag band – including Beck, Regina Spektor, Cat Power and Fiona Apple – at the Hollywood Bowl in 2015. Even less successful are strange shots of Dylan, Beck, Spektor and Power hanging out at a house in Laurel Canyon simply chatting about the era (which was, of course, in so many ways, their parents’ era). Beck looks like a stunned mullet, but I think that’s how he always looks. Dylan lounges coolly and lets the others, particularly Spektor, sound a little immature in their appreciation of one of the singular moments and movements in modern musical history.

But the interviews with all the players – and Dylan’s clearly got a powerful rolodex – make the film. A whole lot of talent is cheerily on camera and delightfully frank. Michelle Philips, Roger McGuinn, Eric Clapton, David Crosby, Tom Petty, Jackson Browne, Ringo Starr, Brian Wilson (!), Graham Nash and Stephen Stills all let their hair down with the grace of those who know their impact is for the ages and have nothing left to prove nor hide. They’ve got great stories, and collectively, they’re just a great hang.

Available in Australia on digital and on-demand from August 5, 2020.

Relic, The Burnt Orange Heresy, House of Cardin

RELIC

* * *

Like The Babadook, Natalie Erika James’ debut feature is a modest Australian horror film about family trauma. While ostensibly a haunted house story, James’ ninety-minute slow-burner is actually a deeply felt drama about the almost universal fear of caring for our parents once they can longer care for themselves.

Kay is a fortysomething Melbourne mother whose own mother goes missing from her country home. With her daughter Sam, Kay goes to her mum’s property to aid the police in finding her, and confronts a distressing situation.

Relic is, more than a horror movie, a moving and heartfelt ode to the deep and often complicated relationship between mothers and daughters. It recognises that we’re afraid of age, of aged bodies, of responsibility, that looking after old people can give us the creeps. It’s not scary per se, but as a meditation on ageing, dementia and responsibility, it’s highly relatable.

THE BURNT ORANGE HERESY

* * *

I love watching Elizabeth Debecki’s career bloom! It’s not clear if there’s a common thread to her ever-growing gallery of characters, but she owns all of them, stamps her mark, so that you just can’t imagine anyone else having been there instead. She’s got all the right moves as a movie star, and increasingly proving to make all the right choices.

Claes Bang’s journey is also fascinating, for very different reasons. He emerged from The Square in 2017as the kind of relentlessly handsome dark-haired EuroDude who made you think not “Bond Villain” but “Bond himself!”, were it not for the fact that he was Danish and 50. The Danish thing has turned out not to be a problem – his British accent is wholly convincing – but nobody really knows what to do with a star being born at 50 who is also clearly a sexy traditional leading man.

They’re both terrific together in The Burnt Orange Heresy, whichis almost a two-hander. He plays an (assumedly) British art critic living in Milan; she plays an American teacher on sabbatical who comes to one of his lectures; they make sweet, sweet love and then go to the Lake Como palazzo of Mick Jagger (!) and get involved in a lovely old-fashioned adult romantic thriller plot involving art and Donald Sutherland.

Beautiful people scheming about art in Milan and Lake Como for a tight ninety minutes: what’s not to like? Jagger, by the way, is fabulous.

HOUSE OF CARDIN

* * *

Pierre Cardin is 98 and – present pandemic aside – still working. As a designer, he’s monolithic, and fully deserving of this admittedly hagiographic portrait, which benefits most from having him to tell his own story.

Essentially, he tells it in two time frames: contemporarily, sitting for the filmmakers in his beloved Maxim’s (which he’s owned since 1981) and in archive footage from when he seemed to be about 48. Both versions of the man are warm, witty and serious: he was clearly set on this earth to work, and he never stops.

His words are supported by those of his extended universe, being mainly long-standing employees (some of whom are beloved family members) along with various models, rivals, industry analysts and superstars. Most of it is about the work, but the private life gets covered briefly. The endless archival footage of Cardin’s output is staggering and beautiful. But while you’ll come for the design, you’ll stay for the designer. He’s simply a superb subject, paradoxically able to come across as humble but in no way modest: a master who knows he’s a master, and knows we know it.

Shirley, Waves and A White, White Day

Three new films opening in Australian cinemas on July 9.

A WHITE, WHITE DAY

In Cinemas July 9th

* * * * 1/2

From Iceland comes the staggering A White, White Day, Hlynur Pálmason’s follow-up to his acclaimed and award-winning debut Winter Brother, featuring a once-in-a-lifetime role for the great Ingvar Sigurdsson, who nails every moment as a widowed grandfather and policeman building a house for his daughter and granddaughter while quietly losing his mind. Some of the technical attributes of the film are mind-blowing, and Pálmason is unafraid to stick his neck out with some extremely bold directorial choices.white white day.png

SHIRLEY

* * 1/2

You’ll have come for above-the-title star Elisabeth Moss, Madeline’s Madeline director Josephine Decker, or subject Shirley Jackson, the acclaimed author of The Haunting of Hill House, We Have Always Lived In The Castle and ground-breaking New Yorker short story The Lottery, but you’ll stay for Odessa Young, the magnificent young Australian actor here playing Rose, a young expectant mother in 1950s Vermont, who accompanies her academic young husband to a university position and an entanglement with the acclaimed author Jackson and her creepy academic husband Stanley Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg).

There’s more than a little Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf going on here, but played out over around a year rather than a night. None of it is even remotely pretending to be biographical; based on a novel by Susan Scarf Merrell, it’s a fantasia with a real person at its centre, in the style of that person’s own art. Decker’s previous films have all smelled gothic, and Jackson, a gothic modern author, would seem to suit her style (and it’s a very specific style), but Jackson’s work was far weirder and darker than Decker’s film. It’s not without its own dark, weird charm though, and Young’s performance is compelling enough to see you through.

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WAVES

In Cinemas July 9th

* * *

Trey Edward Shults follows up Krisha and It Comes At Night with a suburban epic of turbulent  trials within a black Miami family. Kelvin Harrison Jr. gives a raw, energetic performance as Tyler, a high school wrestling champ with pro-career potential who is hiding an injury and, ultimately, a pain-killer addiction, a set of secrets that spiral into all sorts of drama. Shults really goes to town stylistically, utilising a frenetic camera and outrageously saturated colours, and an overwhelming song score by contemporary R&B and rap artists such as Drake, Kanye West and Frank Ocean. It’s deliberately over the top, melodramatic, even gaudy, but those same big swings make it dynamic, vital and compelling. You can enjoy the whole, even if some moments can’t help but raise eyebrows and slacken jaws.

It’s the difficult third album. After the gem-like perfection of Krisha and the lean precision of It Comes At Night, Waves is beautiful but messy. It is so fantastically ambitious, and in being so, often rides a dangerous line between audacity and indulgence. But Shults is a true indie auteur, he’s got a voice, and if he’s got the guts to keep making things like this then who am I not to keep seeing them? He’s letting it all hang out here, letting the edges bleed, making a structural choice that knowingly forbids the film any chance of being considered formally perfect, and if some individual scenes miss the mark, the whole achieves nobility.

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The Personal History of David Copperfield

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Armando Iannucci’s take on Charles Dickens’ novel immediately announces its intentions with its casting of Dev Patel as David: this will not be your BBC adaptation from 1990, because, for a start, we’re casting race blind. This is a simple notion that has been commonplace in the theatre for decades – how many black kings of England have you seen in Shakespeare productions, despite the fact that, you know, England’s kings haven’t been black – but is rare in movies. Iannucci embraces the concept, runs with it, doesn’t comment on it, and asks you to simply go along with it, and you do, simply, easily. See, Iannucci seems to be saying, how easy it is to be open, progressive, positive and free?

That’s the spirit he brings to the whole of this joyous, glorious production, a beautiful hybrid of Dickens’ and Iannucci’s own sensibilities. This is a warm, very funny, very fast and extremely energetic adaptation, faithful (as far as I can tell) in spirit and tone to its source, but clearly unshackled by obsequiousness. Often, it soars. The spectacular cast bring huge life to the beloved ensemble of characters; Peter Capaldi, Hugh Laurie, Tilda Swinton and Benedict Wong all clearly stamp theirs with definition, but special mention must be made of Ben Whishaw, whose take on Uriah Heep is quite creepily brilliant. As Copperfield, Patel brings his typical puppyish charm, and it works.

While there’s inherent political content in Copperfield, mainly to do with class, this marks a departure for Iannucci: it’s practically devoid of cynicism. Instead, it’s full of heart, perhaps not a quality much associated with Britain’s greatest satirist, until now. I loved it.

Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga Review

If you’re a Eurovision super fan – like me – you can rest easy: Will Ferrell’s ambling comedy about a pair of Icelandic entrants is not a piss-take. Indeed, it loves Eurovision: if anything, the film is a celebration.

When I heard, a few years back, that Ferrell was planning this film, I got surprisingly anxious, not just that Ferrell was going to mock my beloved contest, but also that the film itself would operate as a gateway drug for Americans to discover, pollute and ultimately destroy the annual event. Seemingly aware of such a response, Ferrell stages two scenes where his character, Lars, yells at a group of four young Americans to, essentially, fuck off out of Europe: “We don’t want you here!”

Putting his money where Lars’ mouth is, Ferrell and director David Dobkin cast all of Iceland’s actors, a batch of funny Brits, and Canadian Rachel McAdams as Sigrit, Lars’ bandmate and the true protagonist of the film. It goes out of its way to not be American, and ends up, to its great credit, as a film for the Eurovision community, possibly to the exclusion of everyone else. This was never meant for the mall cinemas of Idaho (it’s a Netflix original).

It’s hardly Ferrell’s best work – it’s not even in his top five – and if you’re not into Eurovision there’s probably no reason to give it a whirl. It’s too long – possibly by half an hour – and there are flat patches. But if you’re a Eurovision fan you kind of have to see it. There’s one extended sequence, a gift for Eurovision tragics, that gave me my longest prolonged smile in… well, let’s just say since February. Or maybe since I saw Think About Things for the first time. If you know what I mean, you’ll want to see this movie, shaggy as it is.

* * * for the Eurovision Fan

* * 1/2 for everyone else

Back To The Cinema (Safely)

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The cinemas in Australia are re-opening. In most parts of the country, some are already open. In NSW, July 2 will see the first batch open their doors.

I can’t wait to get back into the cinema, and I’m not alone. Australians love movies, and we’ve got some of the best cinemas in the world to watch them in. The technical capabilities in some of the big rooms around the country are extraordinary, the seats are generally generous and cushy, and, in most of the cinemas throughout the land now, you can buy, and take into the cinema, alcohol. Our cinema experience is thrilling and civilised.

It’s also constantly under threat – not just from the pandemic, but from home viewing options and real estate developers. A flagship cinema complex in Sydney looks like its days are numbered to make way for a tower that may include a series of more “intimate” screening rooms. Meanwhile, the streaming services have clearly, through no deviousness of their own, benefitted throughout the pandemic: we have become reliant on them, and they’re influencing our habits.

As the President of the Film Critics Circle of Australia, I recently sent a letter to our membership urging us all to support the cinema industry when it re-opens, and I hope the public will as well. But of course, doing so theoretically flies in the face of sensibility: how do you go to the cinema and be a responsible isolationist?

The cinemas will do their part to help. There will be seat and row spacing to follow a four-metre distancing rule; there will be limited ticketing. There will certainly be aggressive cleaning. Some cinemas will be running at maximum thirty percent capacity, some twenty percent.

For our part – to be socially responsible and for our own peace of mind – we can support the cinema experience and thoroughly enjoy ourselves to our heart’s content, and one way to do it is to take advantage of a simple little fact: cinemas, like cafés, stores, and many pubs, are (traditionally) open all day long, through the whole week. You can see a film at 10am on a Wednesday. And when you do, there will almost certainly, inherently, be plenty of seats between you and anyone else. Heck, you may even hit on the elusive joy of having a cinema to yourself.

This doesn’t happen often, but I have been in hundreds of screenings with less than three other patrons. And it is awesome. Going to the cinema on one’s own, at an “unconventional” hour, is a true pleasure. Besides the inherent “me time”, and the luxuriousness of the space around you, there is the thrill of delinquency. I’m a critic, and I’m meant to be seeing films in the middle of the business day, and I still feel like I’m getting away with something wicked.

One of the most enjoyable days I had at the cinema last year was on a Wednesday in October, at a 12:30pm screening of Casablanca at the Dendy Cinemas in Newtown. I believe the ticket was ten bucks. There were about nine other patrons – maybe 14, maybe 6, I didn’t actually count – and, as far as I remember, only two of them were there together. The rest, like me, were flying solo, scattered safely around the auditorium (no one chooses to sit near a stranger, even without a virus around), and loving the film. Claude Rains’ witty bon mots as Captain Renault brought the small house down, and I heard a massive sigh somewhere behind me as Bogie said, “We’ll always have Paris” – a line for our current time as much as ever. Casablanca is showing at the Lido, Classic and Cameo cinemas in Melbourne tomorrow, June 27.

Another of my favourite days at the cinema last year was a retro screening of Psycho – on a Tuesday at 1pm. There were multiple revelatory pleasures. One was that the film was projected from a 35mm print, and if you haven’t seen one of those for awhile, keep an eye out (there are 70mm screenings of 2001 happening at various independent cinemas around Australia in the coming weeks, for example). We’re so used to seeing digital now that the celluloid experience is even more pronounced: it’s immediately apparent, and somehow, in some alchemic way, immediately charming. Again, content-wise, the glory of seeing Psycho with (quite a large) audience was in discovering its humour: who knew Psycho was a black comedy as much as a horror picture? If you don’t believe me, see it with an audience at a retro screening. There’s one on August 9th and another on the 12th at the Ritz in Sydney.

Cinemas, distributors, producers and studios make their money – the bulk of it – on tentpole releases, weekend evenings, and concession sales (popcorn and, increasingly, booze). But every ten dollars at a retro screening is support, and represents enormous value for the punter. When their doors open, many cinemas in Australia will be screening not just the latest releases but will drawing from an almost infinite repertory, and charging flexible prices. Any movie is going to be more exciting in a cinema than at home, and, after what we’ve all been through, I would warrant that a lot of people would spend ten bucks to see almost anything in that cosy, dark palace of dreams. Among the films screening in Australian cinemas when they re-open are 2001, Casablanca, The Wizard of Oz, Singin’ In The Rain, Grease, A Clockwork Orange and To Catch A Thief, as well as films from the recent repertoire such as Parasite, Portrait of a Lady On Fire, Honeyland, Honey Boy and JoJo Rabbit. Pricing may vary from cinema to cinema, but all of these films are worth the price of a ticket, because besides the film, you’re going to the movies. Your JobKeeper cash is doing its work if you spend it at the cinema. Go when it’s safe, and it’s a win-win.

BAIT and DEAD STILL reviews

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BAIT

In cinemas June 22nd (Victoria) / July 1st (elsewhere)

* * * *

Mark Jenkin has created the most visually memorable film so far this year with Bait, which he shot on 16mm B&W stock using a vintage wind-up Bolex, which meant he couldn’t record live sound, so the whole soundscape including all dialogue was added in post. Furthermore, Jenkin processed the film himself by hand, and used things like coffee grounds and vitamin powder in the process, giving the resulting image an honestly-achieved hand-made look. The story itself is also bold and original, the tale of Cornish gentrification seen through the eyes of a local fisherman struggling with economic survival in the new Cornwall tourist economy. The aesthetics of the film inevitably consign it to the arthouse, but for the right viewer, this film will be fresh, vibrant, exciting and extremely memorable. It certainly was for me.

DEAD STILL

Acorn TV

Everyone loves Michael Smiley, right? He’s on of those actors that, upon his entrance into a film, gives you a frisson of confident elevated expectation: “Oh, he’s in it. Well that’ll be good!” His role in Ben Wheatley’s Kill List, as one of the most quotable hit-men in cinema, remains his signature performance, but among his 96 credits are scene-or-movie-stealing turns in A Field In England, The Lobster, Burke and Hare, Down Terrace and Free Fire. His big face and beautiful Northern Irish speaking voice are the tools through which his sardonic, ironic line deliveries flow: he’s the guy who can make all his lines funny without actually steering a scene or film’s dramatic intentions into comedy.

He’s the kind of actor you can end up taking for granted, and who often never gets their one great leading role, let alone their own TV series, but here it is, a vehicle of Michael Smiley, and an Acorn TV Original no less. He plays Brock Blennerhasset (what a name!), a post-mortem photography expert in 1880s Ireland (what a concept!) He takes staged photographs of dead people before they’re buried – which apparently was a thing – who gets tangled up in a series of suspicious deaths. It’s a mystery, and there are detectives and suspects, but Blennerhasset is neither, while, dramatically, at times serving as both.

Smiley’s decades-crafted persona sets the tone of the show: the aforementioned sardonic irony pervades, resulting in gentle humour and a classically cosy mystery vibe. Fans of this kind of gentle period crime show should lap it up; fans of Smiley, likewise. It’s a surprisingly buttoned-up role for him – Blennerhasset is successful, a bit pompous, and Smiley has to affect a posh voice, softening his trademark brogue – but his essence shines through: the man can spin almost any line into a funny one. He’s a treasure.

The Vast Of Night

* * * 1/2

Sometimes something wonderful comes right out of left field. Andrew Patterson, an Oklahoma-based local commercials producer, self-financed and began shooting The Vast of Night, an homage to the kind of giddy, upbeat, weirdo tales you’d get on The Twilight Zone, in 2016. Supposedly rejected by eighteen film festivals before premiering at 2019’s Slamdance, winning the Audience Award, and now available on Amazon, his über-indie “look to the skies” fantasia is a precise little gem, exquisitely conceived.

It’s the 50s, in a small town in New Mexico, on a Friday night, and while the town-folk are all attending the basketball game at the high school, the local radio DJ (Jake Horowitz) and the town’s switchboard operator (Sierra McCormick) stumble upon the possibility that extraterrestrials are hovering in local skies.

Patterson makes big choices and commits to them whole-heartedly. His film is ingeniously paced and structured, alternating bustling whip-crack dialogue with quiet, expressive monologues, and long single close-ups with the film’s most thrilling and virtuosic stylistic gambit, pulsing sequences sending the camera zooming at knee-height throughout the town to the gorgeously evocative score. Essentially, Patterson is constantly alternating stillness with frenzy, and it makes his ninety minutes feel like fifty.

There’s an awful lot of Spielberg in Patterson’s tale (as there was in J.J. Abrams’ Super 8) and cynics may dismiss The Vast of Night as that 90s relic, the ‘calling-card film’. I don’t see it that way; rather, as one Oklahoman’s magnum opus, a pure work of passionate personal art made entirely outside the system, entirely to its creator’s tune, and entirely to their credit.

Proxima

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* * * * 1/2

I can’t remember the last time I was as moved – nay, emotionally wrecked – by a film as I was by Alice Wincour’s Proxima (available on VOD in Australia from June 3rd, through Madman Entertainment). Clearly, we’re all a little tender right now, parents perhaps especially so, protective of our young, sitting ducks for the right thoughtful drama about parental responsibility to come along and rip open our hearts. I’m in the film’s demographic sweet spot, being a father of a young daughter, and I could’ve essentially wept through this beautiful film’s entire hundred and seven minutes.

Eva Green plays Sarah, a French astronaut, living and training at the European Space Agency in Cologne, and bringing up her eight year old daughter Stella. When she is selected for a one-year mission aboard the International Space Station, Sarah finds that, despite wanting to go to space since she herself was a little girl, she now feels deeply conflicted about leaving her child.

We follow Sarah through detailed and ultra-realistic scenes of an astronaut’s specific training. Sequences were shot at the European Space Agency in Cologne and at Star City near Moscow, on actual training equipment, in actual uniforms, according to actual protocols. Purely as a procedural about what modern astronauts do, Wincour’s film would have been fascinating. Much of the equipment looks decidedly un-futuristic, indeed evocative of imagery from the 60s and 70s; the astronauts accompanying Sarah on her mission, one Russian and one American, are worldly (the film’s characters freely talk in French, English, German and Russian) but the American, played by Matt Dillon, has some clear attitudes towards female astronauts that aren’t so.

But this is not a film about Sarah coming up against sexism, or about the sheer challenges she faces in her training, although both those elements are there. This is a film about parenthood, and the hugely emotional bond between a mother and her child when her child is still young and vulnerable (Stella is eight). Sarah’s excitement to fulfil her lifelong dream of venturing into space is immediately and overwhelmingly tempered by her grief and guilt for leaving her daughter, despite the girl’s father, an amiable astrophysicist who also works at the European Space Agency in Cologne, being a decent man who Stella loves and Sarah can trust. Sarah can train all day at the limits of human physical and mental ability, only to find her most challenging moment upon hearing, via Facetime, that her daughter’s not made any friends at her new school and is spending her lunchtimes in the playground alone. This news would be heartbreaking to any parent, and any parent can relate, astronaut or not. Wincour worked closely with Claudie Haignéré, the first female French astronaut, as she wrote the script, and her film hardly suggests that mothers feel the pain, and responsibility, of separation too much; rather, it demands of any parent, “How could you not?”

Eva Green’s naturalistic performance is superb, her eyes registering every minute repercussion her choices make on her child. As that child, a young French girl named Zélie Boulant, who was essentially discovered for the film, makes it. Her ability to register those indescribable emotional wounds that occur when a child is, say, denied an adult’s promise, and offer them in a brave yet ever-so-trembling voice, is astonishing and – here’s that word again – heartbreaking. The whole film is heartbreaking, never by trading in cheap dramatics (it’s the furthest thing from a manipulative “weepie”) but by simply recognising and dramatising fundamental truths: parenthood is impossible to perfect, we hurt our children even when we couldn’t love them more, there is nothing stronger than the bond of a parent and child, and that bond must inevitably sever.

Non-parents may not get it; parents may find Proxima their film of the year. Astronauts too.