Freaks

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Charmingly lo-fi (and obviously low budget) sci-fi thriller Freaks tells the story of a little suburban girl grappling with her and her father’s potential identities as somehow other / abnormal / alien. Set principally in a few key locations with a small cast, the script touches on themes of immigration, intolerance, migrant detention and even concepts like the creation of Israel as a haven for Jews (however obliquely). Bruce Dern has a big role bringing his crabby A game (and the occasional welcome laugh) and once-was-wonder-boy Emile Hirsch is solid as the Dad. As Chloe, the little girl with a lot on her plate, Lexy Kolker is generally credible, but some scenes just require too much of her, and directors Zach Lipovsky and Adam B. Stein seem to have had to occasionally edit around her less authentic moments. Not afraid to hit a few hard beats, this little DIY effort shows a lot of guts.

Succession Season Two

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Now halfway through its second season, Succession (HBO / Showcase on Foxtel) continues to overwhelm me with its brilliance; I feel that I am watching some of the greatest television ever made, on par with Deadwood, The Wire and Mad Men. The humour is razor-sharp, the satire sharper even than that, while the drama is intense (and at times quite moving, quite the achievement for a show about privileged brats) and the plotting unbelievably engaging. This show rocks.

This season seems to be slicing even closer to the actual shenanigans of the Murdoch family, while also creating strong facsimiles of Vice and Gawker, Fox News (including a female version of Roger Ailes), Bernie Sanders and the Sulzberger (New York Times) and Bancroft (ex-Wall Street Journal) media dynasties. The directorial craft is exceptional (there are multiple directors), the acting incredible (and never more so than from the three “kids”, played by Jeremy Strong, Kieran Culkin and Australia’s own Sarah Snook) and the design impeccable. But it’s the writing, from series creator and chief scribe Jesse Armstrong, that is always the mic drop. He joins his colleague Armando Ianucci (they did The Thick of It and its movie spin-off In The Loop together, among other projects) as a CJ-Certified genius. If you haven’t tasted Succession, you need to watch season one first. What are you waiting for?

Animals

* * *

Significantly hipper, more thoughtful and more nuanced than your typical RomCom, while being significantly tamer, more formulaic and more commercially-minded than her previous film 52 Tuesdays, Adelaide-born director Sophie Hyde’s Animals, an adaptation of Emma Jane Unsworth’s novel (Unsworth also wrote the screenplay), is a variant on a very well-worn trope: what happens to a friendship centered on partying when one of the friends decides to grow up.

In this case, it is Laura (Holliday Grainger) who’s leaving her drink-and-drug buddy Tyler (Alia Shawcat) behind by getting engaged to Jim (Fra Fee). The milieu is modern Dublin, so bars are everywhere, and the film spends a lot of time in them; these places and the city are rather beautifully shot, and the film’s sense of place is strong.

Grainger is superb, and never better than in the section of the film where she falls in love with Jim. Falling in love is a hard thing to show, but Grainger shows it, often silently in close-up, as, for example, she watches Jim play piano. She is the best thing about the film.

Unfortunately Shawkat, who has been excellent in the TV show Search Party, is burdened with the far worse written role, and she can’t make it work. Almost every one of her lines sounds like words on a page. Tyler is a self-styled dandy, deliberately speaking floridly, but the words just don’t come out either naturally or as stylistic self-expression. It’s a labored performance that weighs down the film’s essentially breezy tone.

As a modest female buddy film whose target audience will be female buddies who see themselves in the characters, Hyde’s sophomore effort is a modest achievement. I hope her next one sees her re-finding the bold risk-taking of 52 Tuesdays, a far more interesting film.

Recent Cinema

These films are currently screening in the UK; some or all are either now screening or are coming soon in the US, Australia and other regions.

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Jennifer Kent’s follow-up to The Babadook continues elements of that film’s aesthetic – emphatic close-ups (using vintage lenses), jittery editing and a muted, anti-glamour palette and design structure – thus establishing, over the two films, a discernible voice. But whereas The Babadook was lean and mean, The Nightingale is a long walk in the woods – the Tasmanian woods, specifically, in Australia’s grimmest colonial times, as a war wages between white and black and a convict woman is treated as a sex slave by a truly repugnant local Sergeant. The film is brutal and relatively compelling but the length is a problem; some scenes seem, perhaps deliberately, repetitive or essentially redundant. Worse, though, where The Babadook had a clear and powerful thematic spine, The Nightingale’s messages are vague. Colonialism was brutal, and women and “blacks” were equally brutalized, but beyond that, what? I’m not sure. * * *

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Joanna Hogg’s fourth film, The Souvenir, is her best, and one of the best features so far this year. Telling her own story, of being a privileged and naive film student in London in the early 1980s who endures a challenging relationship with an older man, Hogg doubles down on her methodology – structured story but improvised dialogue, use of first-time actors, long static takes emphasising the awkwardness of everyday life, etc – while boosting her commitment to plot and, most importantly for those who’ve found her previous work (understandably) cold, heart. This is certainly Hoggian, but it demonstrates a compassion and depth of feeling unseen in her first three films. Wonderful and totally engaging, with superb central performances. * * * *

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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, Jenkins 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. * * * *

Better Than Us (NETFLIX)

Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics state: “A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm. A robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.”

Creating them, he laid a foundation for all robot stories to come. Indeed, he essentially gave writers a template for great drama: at some point, let the robot(s) obey the third law to the detriment of the first two, and start hurting humans.

Netflix’s Better Than Us goes so far as to open Ep 1 with the laws on-screen. Nothing wrong with that; we know where we are and what to expect. The tale’s in the telling. What’s fresh about the telling here is the milieu: modern (or near-future) Moscow. Better Than Us is a Russian series, with fresh, intriguing Russian faces and a sensibility that doesn’t necessarily reflect the politically correct nuances of more western fare. Our dangerous robot here, at least in the first couple of episodes, is a fembot fatale, a cheerful throwback to, say, Species.

The production design and VFX cleverly offer a Moscow, and Muscovites, with wrist-implanted phones but scuffed up shoes. This is the kind of futurism I particularly like, the kind that acknowledges that some things don’t change. Also, not having been to Moscow, and certainly not recently, it’s hard to know what’s real and what’s invented within the cityscape. It all adds up to a fresh vibe, even as (Russian-born) Asimov’s three rules again set the dramatic ones. The lead (human) characters – a morgue worker, a cop, a pregnant widow, an oily executive and a little girl – are all distinct, rounded and very well performed, and the story expands satisfyingly. This is a compelling and highly watchable sci-fi drama.

Dragged Across Concrete

* * * 1/2

Evoking the epic, character-driven, melancholic, detailed procedural structure and tone of Michael Mann’s Heat, the gritty urban racial dynamic of David Ayer’s End of Watch and Dark Blue (as writer), and the central political orientation of Don Siegel’s Dirty Harry, S. Craig Zahler’s massively ambitious crime drama Dragged Across Concrete is a supremely well crafted piece of genre auteurism. It’s thoroughly solid in the delivery of its very specific intentions; whether you want such a product – a two hour thirty-eight minute throwback to the aforementioned films, featuring a central role for Mel Gibson that seems designed to obliquely comment on his public fall from grace – is up to you.

Initially, the film dares you to like it. It’s slow in the beginning, and an early scene, involving Gibson as a 59 year old New Jersey cop, Vince Vaughn as his much younger partner, and Don Johnson as their superior, seems designed to provoke your PC best intentions; later – at the 52 minute mark – Gibson delivers a speech, essentially cribbed from Dirty Harry, that is so your grandfather’s idea of heroic identity, and quite Ayn Rand / libertarian / Dirty Harry-fascistic, seeming to put the film squarely on the dinosaur’s side. And maybe that’s where Zahler’s politics lie. But once that speech is done, the film locks into a spectacularly polished gear which is totally compelling. Magically, the rest of the film – the length of most ordinary films – is one incredible, nail-biting sequence.

There is plenty of dark humour that is a little overly self-aware, including one moment where Gibson’s character is goaded to say the “N” word and instead parries defiantly. That may be too on the nose for you; it was a little for me. But for all its John Wayne jingoism, there’s no denying the skill of Zahler’s filmmaking nor the immense entertainment value of his film.

Midsommar

As US is to GET OUT, so MIDSOMMAR is to HEREDITARY: the difficult second feature, following an outrageously brilliant debut, from an obviously gifted horror auteur. And like US, MIDSOMMAR is nowhere near as scary as its predecessor, nor anywhere near as disciplined, but is terrific fun nonetheless, with plenty of its own charms. It is also – rare these days – one of those films that makes the whole world outside the cinema seem creepy and weird when you emerge. I had a great time, but it won’t be for everyone. It wears its influences on its sleeve, which makes it predictable for those that pick up on the (obvious) references. Aesthetically it’s very fresh, and all aspects of the craft are operating at the highest levels. Pugh is great. Fun!

Once Upon a Time In Hollywood

* * * * 1/2

Quentin Tarantino’s ninth movie is a superb time at the movies, a languid, fun, exquisitely crafted “movie movie” that is best appreciated in the context of the whole career of this quintessentially American auteur. It references, plays with and draws comparison to other films of his; it builds on narrative conceits and structures that he either created from whole cloth or has wielded more successfully than any other filmmaker; it reflects – deeply – on middle-age and late career. It truly is the ninth movie from a man who has said he only intends to make ten. Sure, if this is your first Tarantino, you’ll have a great time. But it needs to be your ninth for you to “get it.”

Brad Pitt is at his very, very best as an ageing – yet supremely physically capable – stuntman, who has transitioned to being the factotum to an ageing, and semi-alcoholic, TV star (Leonardo DiCaprio). They represent what they represent – including Tarantino – and they do it superbly. If Brad Pitt is run in the Best Supporting Actor category come Oscar time, he’ll win. (If both of them are run in Lead, they will certainly cancel each other out). Their camaraderie forms the spine of the film, which is set very, very deliberately in Hollywood in 1969.

The bright, shining star of the film, however, the objet d’art and fulcrum of the plot, is (real-life up and coming movie star) Sharon Tate, played exquisitely by Margot Robbie. Her tragic real-life murder by followers of Charles Manson’s “family” has become a seismic semiotic turning point across popular culture and academia – signifying America’s death of innocence, the end of the ‘60s, the end of personal safety, etc, etc – and Tarantino fully embraces her iconography and cultural importance while also taking the radical and incredibly humane step of treating her as a proper person, and specifically a good one, full of joy, generosity, talent and integrity. In one astonishingly well-conceived sequence, he shows Tate watching one of her movies with a general audience and joyfully appreciating their appreciation of her performance, not egotistically but artistically. She is there to make sure she got the beats right; she’s there as an artist entirely aware that she’s at the beginning of something great but that she has a lot to learn. If only, Tarantino is saying, she had been allowed to.

Perpetual Grace Ltd (STAN)

Damon Herriman is an uncommonly versatile actor with an intriguing, enviable and unique career. In Australia, he’s a star character actor – itself a rare position – and in the United States he’s cornered a strange market, of misfits and malcontents of sometimes limited intelligence and potential danger (he’s playing Manson in Tarantino’s upcoming film). He has a laser-like ability to hone in on any of his characters’ exact level of intelligence and worldliness, so that, for example, his character in Perpetual Grace Ltd, Paul, is smarter than Dewey, his character on Justified, but not as smart as Kim on Secret City, who’s much smarter than Buddy on Quarry, and so on and so on. The secret sauce is that all of them may be a little bit smarter than they let on, or a lot more dumb than they think they are.

This ability to be so specific is important for Perpetual Grace Ltd, because Paul kicks the whole thing rolling, setting up a drifter (Jimmi Simpson) to help him rob of his parents (Ben Kingsley and Jacki Weaver) of four million bucks. They’re corrupt preachers, and the universe of their operations is New Mexico, but really, it’s Coen Brothers World, even though those filmmakers have nothing to do with this show, except to leave their influence all over it.

Despite wearing that influence on its sleeve, Perpetual Grace Ltd delivers. It’s funny, sharp and funky. Kingsley brings his Sexy Beast, Simpson is a natural at roles like this, and Weaver… well, you can tell there’s something brewing. I’m in. This is fun TV made with seriously good ingredients, such as this sublime, highly intelligent cast; they’re all smart enough to know how to play dumb, and I’m guessing some of their characters are too.