Golden Voices is a charming little oddity from Belarusian filmmaker Evgeny Ruman, who clearly co-wrote the screenplay (with cinematographer and first-time screenwriter Ziv Berkovich) from experience. Ruman immigrated with his family to Israel in 1990, along with another 185,227 Soviets from the former USSR. (148,000 went the next year, capping a huge two-year mass migration). His film tells the story of two of them, a mature, childless couple leaving behind a career as ‘dubbers’ – voice actors skilled in speaking Russian dialogue for foreign films. Their arrival in Israel sets them on a new adventure but with new challenges that test their marriage.
The milieu is the most fascinating element here; Ruman paints a vivid picture of a unique expat community that he was clearly a part of. There’s a lot to learn about just how Israel works as it absorbs large immigrant bodies. The couple are able to live within a Russian-speaking community, but they are still strangers in a strange land. Their trials and tribulations are not particularly enthralling, but that land is interesting enough.
There’s every reason not a give a damn about the ‘College Admissions Scandal’ that, among other things, sent actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Laughlin to prison for eleven days and two months, respectively. But if you’re curious to know how it all worked – and the way it all worked is, in my book, inherently fascinating – then Operation Varsity Blues, now available on Netflix, will fill you in. Chris Smith’s zippy (99 minute) documentary hybrid casts Matthew Modine as Rick Singer, the odd mastermind behind the whole thing; we mainly see him on the phone as he negotiates his extremely expensive services – mainly bribery-broking and test-cheating – with extremely wealthy clients, all of whom don’t want their little darlings to know that mummy and daddy were breaking the law to buy their way into a fancy university. Along the way we meet all sorts of grifters, and one poor sailing instructor who just gets caught up in the morass. Grimy fun.
Norwegian documentary The Painter and The Thief is an almost uncomfortably intimate portrait of the strange vagaries of human need. When Barbora Kysilkova, a Czech painter living in Norway, has two of her paintings brazenly stolen from an Oslo gallery, and the thief is caught, rather than seek vengeance, she seeks to redeem him. Why she does so is no more cut and dried than why he stole her paintings in the first place, but both acts are born of pain. He is an addict; her wounds are less visible.
The film is striking enough as a very close portrait of two intriguing people, and interesting enough as a snapshot of young folk on the outskirts of convention in Oslo, but becomes quite powerful in the third act, when things get weirder, and director Benjamin Ree is not only there to capture them but to structure his narrative, in the edit, for optimum revelation. Like Kysilkova’s paintings, The Painter and the Thief is photo-realistic but artfully constructed for maximum pathos, darkness and surprise.
Collective is the fly-on-the-wall documentary about lethal Romanian corruption you didn’t know you needed. Alexander Nanau’s camera is in all of the right places as Catalin Tolontan, a middle-aged journalist for a sports-themed daily paper, and his small team of highly principled journalists uncover a scandal within the public health sector in the wake of a horrific fire. It is a tale of tragedy upon tragedy, and a hundred and nine of the most compelling minutes of the cinematic year.
Nanau uses no narration, no interviews, and, I think, two title cards. The rest of the story is covered by his cameras, and so thoroughly, Collective could pass itself off as a handheld, dogme-styled narrative feature. Indeed, like Honeyland from last year, Collective is nominated not only for the Best Feature Documentary Academy Award, but for Best International Film as well.
At its heart is ethical journalism. A real-life Spotlight playing out in a sort of real time, Collective is a constant reminder of how important good journalists are to every society. Without them, it seems, all those with access to any form of privilege would just pack it in for the dollar, and leave the damned to the worms.
Chloé Zhao‘s third feature, Nomadland, is an exercise in extreme compassion. What it lacks in narrative drive it makes up for in total empathy for its myriad characters. If it wins the Oscar this year for Best Film (it is currently the clear favourite) it will stand in stark contrast to last year’s winner, Parasite, which displayed masterful screenwriting and virtuosic filmmaking in every frame. Nomadland, by contrast, feels cobbled together on a wing and a prayer, written far more on set and in the edit suite than at the keyboard, and appealing entirely to the heart rather than the head.
What is virtuosic is Frances McDormand’s central performance as Fern, an itinerant American mid-western ‘nomad’, living out of her van and picking up seasonal blue-collar work. The Oscar race for Best Actress seems to be between her and Carey Mulligan for Promising Young Woman, giving voters a choice between apples and oranges. Mulligan’s work reflects her film’s heightened stylisation. McDormand’s is textbook naturalism. Indeed, given half of her scenes are with non-actors telling their own true stories, any deviation from a purely realistic approach would stand out like a Christmas tree on Mars and upset the film’s delicate, and rather unique, fabric.
Those non-actors are the film’s soul; around them, McDormand’s Fern is as empathetic and compassionate as Zhao. Against the professional actors, such as David Strathairn and Linda May, brought in to give the film at least some sense of narrative, she is allowed to be flintier, and ‘flinty’ may well be McDormand’s middle name. It is a perfect role for her unique essence, and, I dare say, may well end up her signature performance.
Although the film is about America’s mid-western (very white) dispossessed, it feels strangely apolitical. It’s not angry, per se, nor is it blatantly an origin story of Trump’s weirdly self-defeating voting base, although one cannot help make the connection as a viewer (a lot of the film takes place in South Dakota, now infamous for being one of the most mask-resistant, lockdown-resistant, Covid-blasé places on Earth, with infection numbers to match). What it is, relentlessly, is American. If you’re sick of hearing Americans talk about themselves, this film will be your poison. If you can stomach a few more twangy voices, they are presented here with grace, beauty, and, yes, compassion.
Eddie Murphy was my favourite contemporary movie star when I was a young teen. 48 Hours (1982), Trading Places (1983) and Beverly Hills Cop (1984) were movies I practically worshipped, and, like millions of others, I worshipped them for Murphy’s performances. They were displays of protean virtuosity, full of energy, wit, intelligence and profane belligerence.
Coming To America (1988) was a different story. As a naive African prince who goes to the United States to find a bride, Murphy was restrained, and restraint was not the quality one looked for in Murphy. His trademark hyperbolic energy was seriously muzzled, at least as Prince Akeem; luckily, he and co-star Arsenio Hall also played denizens of a Queen’s barbershop, under layers of makeup (Eddie played both the black owner and an old white Jewish customer), and those scenes, liberally scattered throughout the movie, helped salvage it.
Those characters re-appear in this very belated sequel, available on Amazon Prime, but only briefly, and the film suffers mightily from the same affliction as the first: not enough Eddie, and not the Eddie we want. Murphy is just too generous in both these movies: he gives so much screen time away to his co-stars, he himself barely registers, yet he’s the sole reason we’re there. Coming 2 America, Murphy’s second collaboration with director Craig Brewer after 2019’s terrific Dolemite Is My Name, is a mis-fire. Given how often it re-packages material from the first movie, it is also, sadly, redundant. * * 1/2
For a far better film with a nearly all-Black cast, check out Judas and the Black Messiah(in cinemas now). It’s the fascinating story of Bill O’Neal, who informed on Black Panther Chairman Fred Hampton to the FBI. O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield) remains an elusive figure, perhaps inevitably, but the film is beautifully crafted and a superb history lesson. The production design and cinematography are particularly rewarding, all the performances are solid (Daniel Kaluuya is picking up awards for his fiery portrayal of Hampton), and the score is phenomenal. It’s the second feature from director Shaka King; there will be many more. * * * *
There are many parallels between Saint Maud and Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook (2014). Both are supremely assured, concise and precise debut features featuring severely traumatised female protagonists whose tenuous grip on reality is made manifest for the viewer, so that the line between thriller (a suspense film set in the real world) and horror (a suspense film with supernatural elements) is blurred. Both can be read as entirely literal depictions of mental illness. Both are also scary AF.
Maud (Morfydd Clark, in one of the performances of the year thus far) is a young palliative care nurse-for-hire in a British seaside town that has seen better days. Having been through a traumatic event, she has turned – heavily – to God, and when she is assigned to care for a semi-famous choreographer (Jennifer Ehle) with stage four lymphoma, she sees it as an opportunity to redeem herself by saving a soul. Things don’t go according to plan.
To say more would be to spoil; if you’re into sophisticated horror that’s about the human condition rather than jump-scares (although there are a couple of wicked ones here), this is for you. It’s very well directed, the strangely melancholic milieu is rich, and the script is bold, taking on religious belief as a kind of self-destructive mania. Writer/director Rose Glass’ career is, effectively, made: this film is attention-grabbing for all the right reasons.
The whole schmozzle around Woody Allen, Mia Farrow and Dylan Farrow is tawdry and complicated, not least by Allen’s marriage to Soon-Yi Previn. Disturbing allegations about Allen’s relationship with Dylan Farrow, although cleared in a legal context, linger in the public mind, and Allen V. Farrow, through HBO and available on Foxtel over four hour-long episodes dropping weekly, makes the whole affair murkier. Resolutely on the ‘side’ of Dylan (and Mia, and Ronan), it adds to the conversation, but not to the clarity, because, one sadly suspects, the definitive history will never be written. If you’re fascinated by it all, by all means watch; if you’re sick of it all, no need to get back into it all here. I will be glued to every minute.
Nick Bilton has written, and podcasted, on technology, entertainingly, for Vanity Fair for a while. Now he’s made a breezy documentary about Instagram influencers called Fake Famousfor HBO (available on Foxtel On Demand in Australia). If you know a lot about them already, there may not be much here for you; if you know nothing, then there may be a lot; if, like me, you know about them but steer clear of them (and Instagram) at all costs, these eighty-three colourful minutes will confirm your worst fears. Bilton auditions and hires three pretty young people in LA, buys them 7,500 bots to get their Instagram accounts rolling, then proceeds to see if he can make any of them ‘famous’ using the fraudulent practices real influencers use. Along the way we get to see if the process has any positive sides along with the clear negatives (such as spending your precious time on Earth trying to amass little hearts on a small metal device rather than playing in the sunshine). It’s by no means as serious, intense or revelatory as similar tech docs such as The Social Dilemma, but Bilton’s light-hearted, easily watchable social experiment does offer some insight even to a NeverGrammer like me. It’s also a very sunny portrait of modern Los Angeles in all its fatuous glory.
On a podcast recently I heard the actor Sam Neill refer to the lifestyle he was enjoying in New Zealand at this stage of the pandemic as a ‘strange privilege.’ It was the perfect phrase, far better than ‘survivor guilt’, which is not in any way actually appropriate.
In Australia, we’re also enjoying this strange privilege, and it may have rubbed off on our cinema industry. For at least five weeks now, multiple Australian films have dominated the Australian box office; while each have many merits, there is no doubt that the enormous financial success of The Dry, Penguin Bloom and High Ground in cinemas around the country has been augmented by the lack of Hollywood blockbuster competition. Australians historically have a terrible habit of shunning their own movies at the box office, but, during this strange privilege, we seem to have enthusiastically embraced a suite of movies that have come along, paradoxically, at a very good time.
The Dry, the most successful of the three, has finally been knocked off its number one position at the Australian box office by the kind of Hollywood product that has been around forever: the serial killer thriller (it’s called The Little Things, and stars Denzel Washington, the kind of American movie star who can still drive people to the cinema). But The Dry dropped just 18% in its eighth weekend, which is pretty phenomenal; it is on track to make $20 million at the first-run domestic box office, and is already the 14th highest grossing Australian film of all time.
This is reason to be proud, and, of course, it’s hard to feel proud in a pandemic, because our privilege is strange. But hearing today that New Zealand is trialling digital vaccination passports that will be the prototypes for the world, and reading about the vaccine support Australia will be providing across the South Pacific, does make me kind of proud to live and work in Australasia. Our strange privilege comes partially from the societies we have built, and the current success of our movies comes from the industry of artists who have been allowed to develop within them.
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.