Woman At War

* * * 1/2

Most movies feature a protagonist facing obstacles and challenges; any good movie shows their protagonist having to make tough choices to deal with them. But rare is the movie that routinely shows a protagonist making mistakes, miscalculations, errors both of judgement and simple dexterity. Benedikt Erlingsson’s Woman at War is such a movie, which is part of the reason it feels so bracingly original.

Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir plays Halla, a middle-edged Reykjavík single woman leading a double life as a friendly and maternal choir director and a somewhat fierce, solitary, edge-pushing activist. Her current guerrilla campaign against huge foreign interests taking control of Iceland’s energy production is jeopardised both by the forces against her and by a truly superb dramatic twist: the theoretical child she applied to adopt four years ago, and has forgotten about, has become a reality. In Ukraine there is a four year old girl that needs a mother; at home her natural environment – the majestic and magisterial landscapes of Iceland – need her radical efforts, which could easily see her imprisoned, and thus unable to become a mother.

It’s a superb conceit, supported by strong visuals (Scandiphiles will love the many sweeping environmental shots), terrific performances (Geirharðsdóttir does superb work, including playing Halla’s sister) and a script that marries a lot of humour to what, on paper, looks like a thriller. Best of all is the film’s moral and ethical complexity: Halla rides the edge of strident activism and dangerous extremism, and our support of her choices is never taken for granted, let alone assured.

Thunder Road

* * *

A rich, strange, tonally adventurous portrait of one man’s unraveling in the face of grief and hardship. To call it melancholy would be generous; some will find it simply too depressing to bear. But if you had to file it in the DVD store of your mind, it might have to go in Comedy, for this is comedy in the Chekovian sense, about the bleak absurdity of life, and how we in turn must be absurd to live. The fact that the protagonist is a policeman only adds to the texture: we’re used to seeing cops as their profession, not as human beings who weep at their lot. Officer Jim Arnaud, played by Jim Cummings, who also wrote and directed the film, weeps a lot at his lot; I daresay a male lead character has never burst into tears so many times in one film, with the possible exception of Jason Segel’s character Peter in Being Sarah Marshall. Arnaud has reason to weep; his mother has just died, his wife left him a year ago, and he may lose custody of his daughter. All of this is causing him to melt down, to lose it, and that’s the spine of the film. It’s a portrait of a man in crisis, and it is so original, so unformulaic, and so bold in its tonal shifts, you are honestly fearful that anything might happen. That’s good stuff, the stuff of dramatic suspense, but the journey can be tough going, if only because Cummings has drawn Arnaud’s pain so well. There is nothing to do with this movie but damn it with praise.

TV: This Time With Alan Partridge

Available now in Australia on ABC iView.

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Steve Coogan’s character “Alan Partridge” may not be the longest-running comic creation of all time, but I bet he’s up there for crossing the most genres. He was born on the BBC4 comedic radio program On The Hour, moved into the ensemble of television news spoof The Day Today, then took on his own (fake) chat show, Knowing Me Knowing You in 1995. In 1997, and again in 2002, he was the centre of a one-camera half-hour sitcom, I’m Alan Partridge. In 2010 he returned in a series of webisodes called Mid Morning Matters and in 2012 there was an hour-long mockumentary / travelogue called Welcome to the Places of My Life. In 2013 he made it to the big screen in Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa.

All of these are worth checking out. Indeed, they’re bloody hilarious, and Alan Partridge, for me and millions of others, is one of the great comic creations, played by one of the great comedic actors. He’s way too intricate to be described pithily, but it’s safe to say he’s now in his mid-fifties and remains parochial, conservative, extremely “British”, self-important but insecure, arrogant and occasionally aggressive. There are media personalities all over the world just like him, including more than a few in Australia.

His new six part series, This Time With Alan Partridge, sees him first be a guest host, then become a regular, on a British light infotainment show, This Time, essentially a spoof of the British staple The One Show. It doesn’t matter if you’ve never seen it. Australia has plenty like it. This is once again satire of the absolute highest standard. If you like Partridge you’ll already be watching. If you’re new to Alan’s hideous charms, dive in. It’s comic brilliance.

Pet Sematary

* *

The new version of one of Stephen King’s very best – and scariest – books, Pet Sematary, loses half a star for being redundant, and another half for muddying the waters. Simply put, Mary Lambert’s 1989 version of the story is an excellent film, one of the very best King adaptations; adoringly faithful to the events of the novel, it pulls off the much harder trick of capturing the creepy, freaky, icky feel of King’s weird tale of a cemetery that brings dead animals back to life. It feels bold and subversive and strange, and the performances are note perfect, in that they’re eerie and off-putting. By contrast, the new version feels schmick, professional, and soul-less. Jason Clarke, John Lithgow and (particularly) Amy Seimetz give authentic performances, especially in their scenes of grief, but that authenticity is part of the problem. The actors in Lambert’s film weren’t playing it “for real”, they were playing it as King wrote them, which was really screwed up. Whereas Lambert’s film felt dirty (and arty), this one feels polished and clean: a commercial product, which it is, and an unnecessary one.

Free Solo

* * * *

The 2018 Oscar winner for Best Documentary Feature, Free Solo, now still in some Australian cinemas while also available on Foxtel, charts the first “free solo” – rope-free – climb of the El Capitan cliff face in Yosemite National Park, California, by Alex Honnold, in 2017. While this feat is mind-boggling, extraordinary, almost inconceivable, and deserves a full-bodied documentation, the film is about a lot more. Covering three main strands – the climb, the filming of the climb, and Alex’s first romantic relationship of any true depth – it examines heroism, fear, obsession, the culpability of filming dangerous events, what it takes to love a reckless adventurer who may die “by the sword” on any given Wednesday, and the complex emotional makeup of climbers and in particular, free solo climbers, who live so far outside the mainstream that “free solo” describes their lifestyle as much as their sport.

Is it a spoiler to say Alex survives? I knew he did – I saw him on the Oscar stage with the filmmakers! – but that didn’t stop me feeling nauseous with anxiety as I watched him on his epic climb. Your brain knows he makes it, but your organs are in revolt. Rarely have I been so relieved to see an ending I knew was coming all along. His achievement is majestic, and so is this movie, which avoids any form of overt button-pushing. Like Alex himself, Free Solo is straightforward, honest, humble and confident, with a grip of steel.

Us

* * * 1/2

Jordan Peele’s follow-up to Get Out is jam packed full of (mainly other horror) movie references, superb visuals, and ideas. It also features a very long, generally wordless second act that is not particularly scary and not particularly thrilling. Where the film packs its punches are in its truly fascinating third act and in your brain afterwards (or in spirited discussion with others). It is, perhaps, more enjoyable to think about than watch.

A family at their vacation home finds their peace threatened; as they struggle to survive and understand the nature of the threat facing them, they, and we, learn of a significant evil. To say any more would not be fair; see it for yourself, if not because it’s so surprising, but because the whole thing is a big trick – a pretty good one – and Peele, not I nor any other critic you may read on this film, is the magician.

Peele’s going for a bigger target with this picture than he did with Get Out, and after sitting with the film a little, his audacity and ambition become clear, and admirable. But the experience of watching the film is frequently frustrating; as that long second act drags on, you’ve every right to wonder not only what is going on, but if this is all there is. It’s not, there’s more, but you’ve got to sit still and be patient to get there.

Transit

* * * * (out of five)

Thanks to the recommendation of a trusty friend, I recently went down the rabbit hole with German writer / director Christian Petzold, watching seven of his films in preparation for his latest, Transit, opening in Australia on April 11th. If you have the chance I’d recommend it; if you don’t have the luxury of a critic’s schedule, you would do well simply to watch Barbara (2012) and Phoenix (2014), which form a thematic trilogy with this new film.

Petzold’s films are rigorously intellectual social thrillers based around extremely well defined characters and relatable situations, even as they analyze, interpret and ruthlessly examine modern Germany in the shadow of its past. In this, he is devoutly part, and a leading figure of, the “Berlin School”. They are films of emotional suspense: no one is racing to defuse a bomb or capture a criminal, but life changing decisions are made, often in the literal final minute of screen time, giving his films a strange and powerful jolt where most films provide calm closure. The effect is, if not unique to Petzold, certainly a signature element of his style, and leave the viewer energized, a bit giddy with excitement, and eager to see his next film: his oeuvre is absolutely ready-to-binge, especially as their average running time is a tight ninety minutes.

I guess I’m urging holding your own Petzold Festival, of whatever scope, before seeing Transit, because it’s definitely his most intellectually daring film, and I strongly suspect the more you’re tuned into his vibe, the more powerful this one will be for you on first watch. It’s tremendous, but it’s challenging; it requires focus and thought, and it absolutely builds on themes and motifs from throughout his body of work. (If you’re already a fan, you’ll know what I mean, and this one will already be on your calendar in bold red letters.)

Transit is the story, Casablanca-style, of many people, three in particular, stuck in an occupied French city, waiting for Transit Papers so they may flee to safety before their situation becomes life-threatening. But there’s a significant stylistic flourish, and it comes with a minor spoiler warning, although qualified thus: I think it’s better if you know it going in.

Here it is: Petzold shoots his screenplay, which is based on a German novel from 1944, in modern Marseilles, and sets it, essentially, timelessly. As a story, it’s absolutely taking place in Marseilles in 1942; visually, we are amongst the architecture of 2016, with the cars and the ships and the police amour, but without the mobile phones and the computers and the piercings. Indeed, the clothing could be from the 1940s, but you could wear it now. We are, perhaps, in 1942, 1984, and 2016, or perhaps we’re in all at once, and every other one between.

The result is profound. The reverberations with today – particularly with Trump’s America and his “border emergency” – are powerful but never emphatic; the greater effect is of a continuum, and that is where the film really is ecstatically original. Stage adaptations of Shakespeare do this kind of thing all the time, but when, if ever, did you see such a conceit in a movie? It’s outrageously audacious, and it absolutely works.

Petzold does not utilize his muse, actor Nina Hoss, here, and goes further, uncharacteristically featuring a male protagonist. Whether or not this is the reason, the film is not as emotionally engaging nor moving as much of his work. But is is staggeringly thought-provoking, dealing with immigration, war, racism, alienation, sacrifice, love, regret, denial, delusion, Germany, France, collaboration, justifiable criminality… I could go on, and on, as this is such a rich, dense piece of thematic art. And of course, it has this spectacularly bold conceit, of taking place outside of time as we know it, and thus more than anything is about time, and how relative it truly is.

Destroyer, Sometimes Always Never, The Family

Around the time The Family, from writer/director Rosie Jones, was released as a theatrical feature, it won the Film Critics Circle of Australia Best Feature Documentary Award. Now re-titled The Cult Of The Family, it’s being shown on the ABC (and available on ABC iView) as a three part documentary series. It’s the disturbing story of the creepy cult, known as The Family, lead by Anne Hamilton-Byrne. The children within the cult – some illegally adopted – notoriously wore identical, freakishly blonde bobs, making them resemble the children from Village of the Damned. Jones interviews many of those children who are now scarred adults, as well as the chief investigator who essentially spent his career trying to bring Hamilton-Byrne to justice. Although the film relies too much on an uninspired score and unconvincing re-creations, the essential story, and the interviews, are urgent, essential records of an astonishingly awful Australian story.

Bill Nighy plays a Scrabble-obsessed father of two boys, searching, up and down the English coast, for one of them, who walked out on a Scrabble game years ago and never returned. If that’s not intriguing enough for you, how about the fact that director Carl Hunter, making his feature debut, shoots Sometimes Always Never in the style of Aki Kaurismaki, with nods to Wes Anderson? The result is extremely stylized, melancholy and rippled with extremely dry humour (don’t believe the quote on the poster proclaiming it “Hilarious!”); play “WHIMSICAL” for twenty points. * * *

Karyn Kusama’s Destroyer, written by Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi, who previously wrote The Invitation for Kusama to direct, is gritty, uncompromising and vibrant. It is refreshingly specific in its intent, being to follow in the footsteps of such blue-sky LA noir as To Live And Die In LA, Heat and Point Break – films that are essentially downbeat, nihilistic and grim. Common tropes include the LA River; bank heists; machine guns; charismatic, almost supernaturally influential male gang leaders; and very damaged (anti)heroes. Destroyer has all that, plus Nicole Kidman doing her usual top-notch work. It’s all very stylish, very deliberate, very purposeful, and very enjoyable, if you like this kind of thing. I do and I did. * * * *

New TV: FIVE New Shows!

Just when you thought he’d retired to Spain, Ricky Gervais is back, with a very British half-hour comedy fully paid for by Netflix. This has given him absolute creative freedom and total autonomy; this may not be the best thing in the world. His masterpieces, The Office and Extras, were created with Stephan Merchant. Left to his own devices – and I’m talking full solo album here, writing, directing and starring in each of the six episodes – he’s still wicked and at times wickedly funny, but prone to meandering, self-indulgence, repetition and a misguided love of soulful guitar.

After Life (Netflix) is Gervais’ take on grief. His character, Tony, has lost his wife – the only woman he’s ever been with, or ever needed to know – to cancer. Now he’s in his late forties in a small English village, working for the very local paper as a features writer, and utterly, suicidally miserable. The two things keeping him alive are his dog, and his newfound freedom to be as rude as he wants to people, knowing that if and when too much offence is finally taken he can simply, happily top himself.

It’s by design a miserable set-up and unfortunately the series is out of balance, focusing too much on the maudlin at the expense of the funny. There is very little forward momentum and a few basic situations – Tony’s boss (and brother-in-law) expressing frustration at Tony’s malaise, Tony watching his deceased beloved on his computer, Tony walking his dog through sunny British countryside to a soundtrack of truly dreadful soulful guitar – are simply repeated and repeated again. Like Tony himself, it’s a show at a dead end, with no impulse to forge ahead.

That said, when there are jokes, they’re great; Gervais is superb in his role; and the milieu is surprisingly enchanting. Whether or not this type of English idyll still survives with a working newsroom of at least six employees, it’s a pleasant place to hang, even with god-awful, grumpy Tony sitting in the middle of it.

Similarly, the best thing going for Turn Up Charlie (also Netflix) is the lead performance at its centre, that of Idris Elba, who also “created” the show but is not actually a credited writer nor director. He must have come up with the concept, and the concept is not good. Elba plays a past-his-prime London DJ who gets hired to be the nanny for his rich and famous friend’s little girl. So it’s big Idris and a precocious little girl getting to know each other, which, for many scenes, is precisely the hell it sounds.

Elba is such a strong, charismatic and talented actor that you need awesome performers to support him; he does not have them here. Most damningly, Frankie Hervey, as the little girl, isn’t up to the gig, looking like she’s remembering her lines and gestures rather than delivering them. This is her very first acting job, and boy, does it show. This is enough to sink the show right there, but unfortunately her mother is played by (second-billed) Piper Perabo who’s no good either.

Elba does his best – he’s always watchable – and London looks cool. But it’s embarrassing to watch this spectacular actor surrounded by amateurs in such a mummified premise. A true candidate for a “What were they thinking?” award. Watch the punters prove me wrong and this thing be a huge hit. That’s obviously what it’s going for, because high art this ain’t.

Nor, unfortunately, is Miracle Workers (Stan), although it’s certainly high concept. It’s damning with faint praise, I suppose, to say that the best thing about it is the casual diversity of its cast. All comers are represented (particularly actors from South Asia) and their background is not a story factor. This is good. This is woke.

But the show itself is absolutely mired in old-school sitcom tropes, the worst offender by far being “sitcom acting”. Most performers in this show are swinging for the back row in every single shot, let alone scene. It’s tiring to watch. The worst offender is the female lead, Geraldine Viswanathan. She plays Eliza, a worker bee in Heaven assigned to duty alongside Craig (Daniel Radcliffe) in the division that answers prayers. So far, so twee; at least God (Steve Buscemi) is kind of a bum, swilling beer and wasting time when he could be tending his work, and in particular, Earth.

The gags come fast but few stick. Despite the obvious charms of Buscemi and Radcliffe, I found the show hard to stomach. There’s just too much mugging.

It’s not so much over-acting as terrible acting that plagues Now Apocalypse, also on Stan. Greg Araki, the bad boy of the New Queer Cinema movement (The Living End, The Doom Generation, Mysterious Skin), jumps into the streaming fray with a show so monumentally amateurish that I’m frankly surprised it’s been put to air. The meandering plot involves a young LA man whose recurring dream of something nasty happening in a laneway reveals itself, at the end of the pilot, to be premonitions of a rapist alien beast, but the show’s true intent seems to be to parody young ‘uns and this tech, particularly dating apps and webcam sites. A, yawn, and B, satire needs to be witty. This is turgid. The actors are really good looking and routinely shot undressed and / or having graphic sex; one can’t help but feel Araki perving on the other end of the lens.

Slightly better, and certainly better crafted, sci-fi and satire are available in chunks ranging from six to seventeen minutes on Netflix’s Love Death + Robots, an animated anthology of eighteen self-contained sci-fi tales. The animation varies from modern video-game photo-realism to traditional 2D, and the quality from yawn to all right. There’s nothing brilliant here, but plenty to divert you over your cereal. Kids, hard-core sci-fi nerds and animation aficionados will almost certainly have more eager reactions.