On The Rocks

In Australian Palace Cinemas from October 2; Apple+ from October 23.

OTR_F0311F_f.jpg
Daddy daughter date.

Sofia Coppola re-teams with her Lost In Translation star Bill Murray, writing him a role he seems to play effortlessly, and his seeming effortlessness is our reward and the principle joy of On The Rocks, a New York upper-crust soufflé that goes down easy.

Rashida Jones plays Murray’s daughter, Laura, an author and mother of two girls who has vague suspicions her husband (Marlon Wayans) may be having an affair with a colleague. Murray’s Felix, a divorced, semi-retired art dealer of ways and means (he has a full-time driver and knows everyone in a certain circle of Manhattan), upon hearing of her suspicions, stokes them, leading the pair on a loosely-goose chase to uncover the truth. Along the way, they have cocktails, talk lovingly, and hash out a couple of things from the past.

It’s a charming, old-fashioned, innocent film, deliberately untethered from America’s problems (there is no hint at all that the country is in any kind of trouble: this is the Manhattan of Woody Allen, whose influence is clear in the film’s tone, style and plotting). It seems to aspire to no greater thematic reverberation than a delightful take on fathers and daughters – the actual dilemma at the heart of the film, the potential affair, is the dramatic weakest link – and that’s fine and dandy. The film’s timelessness, ease and modesty are most of its charms, but its greatest, irrefutably, is Murray, who is also its raison d’être. Delightfully calm.

OTR_S07034F_f.jpg
Coppola directs Murray. Like he needs it.

I May Destroy You

I May Destroy You.png

Michaela Coel came roaring out of the gate with her show Chewing Gum a few years back, but that show had nothing like the impact of I May Destroy You (HBO), which is almost revolutionary television. Using the 12 episode half hour format, it uses an ensemble of (mainly) Black millennial Londoners to ruthlessly examine sexual assault and the parameters of consent. It’s also, essentially, a comedy.

I wonder what Norman Lear, who famously pushed sitcom boundaries with his shows like All In The Family, would make of it. Well, I know. He’d love it. Humour is a powerful weapon, and Coel absolutely weaponises it here, slashing it like a blade against her gallery of rapists, predators and slime-balls.

Coel plays Arabella, a tweeter turned blogger turned actual about-to-be-published author, who goes for a big night out in London, wakes up with blackouts, and realises she was probably assaulted. Meanwhile, her posse of friends encounter similar issues. That conceit may sound a little engineered, but Coel isn’t messing around. She’s got an axe to grind and her plot mechanics are in service to that. It works. This is confident, compelling stuff, and if some of the plot developments seem contrived, perhaps contrivance is the key. She’s got an issue – and issues with the issue – and we’re here to hash it out. This is a conversation-starter, and it’s a big conversation.

Not that it’s a one-issue show. Over the course of the season, Coel piles on the concerns; two-thirds of the way through, Arabella takes a heel turn, quite shockingly, as she becomes, embraces being, and is made awful by becoming and being a social-media star. All these characters live their lives on their phones, but there seems to be a line, and Arabella crosses it, at least for an episode. Others of the close ensemble deal with sex addiction, urban loneliness and, ultimately, all manner of issues surrounding consent.

Coel also posits some provocative ideas around race, identity and politics that were new, and fascinating, to me. For instance: that among at least a significant segment of young / millennial Black Britons of African descent, climate change is not seen as a given but as a tool of oppression wielded by white people. Arabella buys into this argument and acts on it, perhaps implying that Coel, too, is similarly inclined. Less revelatory to me, but intriguing none the less, was the clear implication, told over a three-episode arc, that among young Black women, loyalty is to Blackness first, womanhood second, or, to put it another way, a Black man is to be believed over a white woman. Thoughtful stuff for people like me, and for anyone.

It’s the TV event of the year, no doubt. It’s angry, vibrant, exhilarating, surprising and funny. It’s not “perfect” – one of the supporting players, whose character is in three episodes, gives a performance so out-of-sync with the rest of the show that it should have been cut, and a late development in the arc of Arabella’s best friend Terry is just too contrived, but the production’s rough edges suit its definite edge, and also, in the end, its narrative raison d’être. It’s a story coming to Arabella and Coel, not easily, but with righteous passion and undeniable integrity, in blood, sweat and tears.

The Rise of the Murdoch Dynasty

Rupert Murdoch.png

Depending on how much you know about the Murdochs, the 3-Part BBC documentary series The Rise of the Murdoch Dynastydebuting Sunday 20 September at 7:40pm on ABC TV, and simultaneously on ABC iView – will either remind you of the terrifying influence the family, and Rupert in particular, has wielded and continues to wield, particularly in relation to the national and international affairs of Australia, the UK and the USA; wake you up to some very frightening elements of their influence you may not have realised; or blow your mind.

I’m deeply into the Murdochs on a knowledge level – I’ve read Hack Attack, for example, which details some of the most brazen and criminal activities portrayed here – but I’m still finding the show thrilling (I’ve only been given the first episode for review). Beyond its careful and considered presentation of the facts, which are in themselves (terrifyingly) entertaining, the show features on-camera interviews with a lot of very senior players in the Murdoch company history. It’s flammable stuff, the kind of no-nonsense reporting that once could have ‘brought the family down’ but in our current age simply points a very strong finger, knowing full well that, at this level, the subjects have nothing to fear from anybody.

It’s BBC 2, and nothing about it is lurid or sensational. It does tip its hat, in its opening credits, to the TV show Succession, and fans of that show (I’m number one) will love the myriad connections.

A must-see, unless you’ve essentially given up all hope.

I’m Thinking of Ending Things (Netflix)

* * * 1/2

Some people love Charlie Kaufman, in the way that others love Christopher Nolan and others Quentin Tarantino. He has a distinctive voice: whether it’s solely as the screenwriter – Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine of The Spotless Mind, Adaptation – or as auteur – Synecdoche, New York, Anomalisa or now I’m Thinking of Ending Things – Kaufman is grappling with very particular themes in a very particular way. And, as Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood was for Tarantino and Tenet is for Nolan, so Ending Things is very, very much a Kaufman work, and will appeal greatly to those who love him while running the clear risk of alienating those who don’t. Or to put it another way: if you’ve previously not grooved with Kaufman’s vibe, you’ll probably hate this.

I like Kaufman and I liked this, but not in the way that same of his acolytes clearly loved it. It’s full of ideas, it wears its literary and intellectual curiosity with pride, and it’s borderline incomprehensible. Twice – in the first and third acts – it essentially pauses the dramatic action for an incredibly lengthy philosophical / pop cultural discussion that may drive you to tears. And the more you know the references – including the 2016 source novel by Iain Reid- the more the film will work for you. It’s a kind of cinematic club, with enjoyable membership being contingent on knowing and liking the stuff that Kaufman does.

On the surface, a young woman, played by Jessie Buckley, accompanies her boyfriend, played by Jesse Plemons, on a dark snowy drive to visit his parents, played by Toni Collette and David Thewlis, at their farmhouse in one of the United States. In voiceover, she contemplates “ending things”, presumably with him. But nothing is as it seems, and the film keeps opening up, shifting perspective, re-framing expectations and ultimately re-jigging the entire narrative voice. It is, deliberately, a puzzle-box. References abound: Thewlis played the lead voice in Anomalisa, while Plemens seems to be deliberately evoking the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, who played the lead in Synecdoche, New York, the film of Kaufman’s this one most clearly resembles. But is he, or is Plemens just evolving into a Hoffman ‘type’? It’s a mystery, and to enjoy this film, mystery must be embraced.

That said, I listened to a podcast afterwards hosted by a couple of people who had read the book, and once I heard what they had to say, not only did the whole film make sense, it became deeply satisfying. Movies probably shouldn’t require outside research to ‘work’, but that seems to be the deal Kaufman’s demanding of us to come into his world, and why not? He’s an idiosyncratic outsider, his films break the rules, and this one has its own. There is a great deal of rigour and substance here, but you’ve got to be willing to dig for it; otherwise you may scratch your head until you’re bleeding.

Mention should be made of Łukasz Żal’s cinematography, which is superb. As he proved with Ida and Cold War, nobody shoots snow like he does, nor uses the 4:3 ratio to heighten the tension of emotional space.

Love Fraud (Showtime / STAN)

Screen Shot 2020-09-04 at 3.19.26 pm.png

Another week, another well-built multi-part doco series about crime in America. In this case, Love Fraud (Showtime / STAN) is about a serial internet dater, Richard Scott Smith, who meets, woos, marries and ultimately fleeces an astonishing number of women in a surprisingly compact area (at least, in the first episode, where most of the women seem to be from Kansas). That he does it time and time again is eyebrow-raising; that what he’s doing is kind-of-legal is pretty astonishing. But the series isn’t really about Smith: it’s about his victims, and their quest for vengeance, as they find each other online, band together, and – with the filmmakers along for the ride – hunt him down. It is this immediacy, of the filmmakers being in the back seat, literally, as their subjects pursue their own story, that makes Love Fraud pretty gripping. What makes it most entertaining is the ally the women enlist: a tough-as-old-boots sixty-something “lady bounty hunter” named Carla who, if you encountered her in a fictional show, you wouldn’t believe. She’s a truly unique character, funny, wise and brave, and emblematically, undeniably American. Indeed, all these shows, from Making a Murderer on, aren’t really about the crimes: they’re about America, and the strange things taken for granted there that play like absurd fiction everywhere else.

Showbiz Kids and Saint Frances

Showbiz Kids.png

SHOWBIZ KIDS
HBO / Foxtel Showcase
* * * 1/2
 
Written and directed by Alex Winter – Bill from Bill and Ted’s excellent adventures, of which another is coming very soon – the HBO documentary Showbiz Kids lets level-headed survivors of child stardom speak with level heads, rather than revel in sordid and sad tragics and their tragedies.
 
Evan Rachel Wood, Milla Jovovich, Henry Thomas, Wil Wheaton, Mara Wilson and Cameron Boyce all get about equal screen time, while Todd Bridges, Jada Pinkett Smith and ‘Baby Peggy’ – hundred-year-old Diana Serra Cary – also speak their pieces.
 
It’s sober and sobering and not at all trashy. Essentially these adults aren’t moaning, seeking pity nor trying to scare us to death lest we let our kids go on the stage, but their overwhelming message is clear: kids should get to be kids.
Saint Frances.png
 
SAINT FRANCES
STAN
* * * 1/2

When Lars Von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg declared their Dogme 95 Manifesto in Paris at the centenary celebration of cinema, they were advocating for a digital democratisation of the filmmaking process: basically, they were saying, let’s let handheld digital movies about real people in real settings with tiny budgets and no tomfoolery get cinema releases and paying audiences. I think they’d admire Saint Frances, which adheres to most of the original 10 Rules to achieve Dogme certification, but which won’t be seen in cinemas in Australia because of the big bad virus; instead, it’s lurking quietly on STAN, where it deserves far more attention than it’s getting.
 
The feature directorial debut from Alex Thompson, surprisingly a man, Saint Frances is a compassionate, funny, warm and super-enjoyable slice-of-life about modern American female life. Bridget (Kelly O’Sullivan, who also wrote the script) is a thirty-four year old midwestern “server” – waitress – who becomes a nanny for the six-year-old daughter of a lesbian couple. Her relationship with the child, Frances (Ramona Edith Williams), grows alongside her consistent embarrassment as she deals with a particular physical irritation. The interweaving of themes of maternity, responsibility, maturity and sexuality is seamless and engrossing. But the film goes further, tackling – with rather exquisite tact and taste – the ongoing culture wars dividing even seemingly affluent, progressive American neighbourhoods in such theoretically neutral spaces as the playground. Unafraid to stand its ground, Saint Frances is also unafraid to engage the enemy with empathy. It’s a lovely movie, and lingers in the mind.

Lovecraft Country, Les Miserables

Screen Shot 2020-08-24 at 5.08.09 pm.png

Lovecraft Country

HBO / Foxtel

As with the TV version of Watchmen, Lovecraft Country, on HBO, dramatises ugly truths about daily life as a black person in America amongst fantastical elements – in this case, monsters in the style of H.P. Lovecraft’s. It’s being doled out, an episode at a time, old school; the pilot, called Sundown, at a hundred and nine minutes, assumedly lays down a fair sense of the larger (eight-episode) framework.

Jonathan Majors, a Yale School of Drama graduate making a big play for big recognition after staking his claim with singular performances in The Last Black Man In San Francisco and Da 5 Bloods, plays Atticus, a 30-something Black American man in the 1950s whose alcoholic father has gone missing in ‘Lovecraft Country’, an area of New England in the United States lived in by the horror fantasist H.P. Lovecraft. Together with his uncle and a female friend, Atticus sets out on a road trip to find his father, facing the terror not only of Lovecraftian monsters but American racists.

As Watchmen did with its amazing pilot, revealing the neglected historical event of the ‘Massacre of Black Wall Street’ in Tulsa in 1921, Lovecraft Country shows us things Americans would rather forget. In the case of the pilot episode, it’s the concept of ‘Sundown Towns’ (and counties), places where, if black people were found after dark, they could be arrested – and worse – by the police. The very concept itself is more terrifying than anything that plays on screen, but the episode is visceral, exciting and polished, and the three leads – Majors is joined on the journey by Jurnee Smollett and Courtney B. Vance – display an easygoing and inviting chemistry. It’ll be intriguing to see how this very high concept plays out.

Screen Shot 2020-08-24 at 5.09.00 pm.png

Les Misérables

Cinemas

* * * 1/2

Not to be confused with Victor Hugo’s novel, Ladj Ly’s banlieue policier is deliberately named after it, and is set in the Paris commune – Montfermeil – in which the Thénardiers had their inn in the book. As with La Haine, made twenty-five years ago, Ly’s debut fiction feature is about the seeds of trouble in the Paris projects, and, like La Haine, tension is built from a situation which could be avoided but which inexorably grows out of control.

There’s a lot of very skilful filmmaking, suburb performances and a total grasp of milieu on display: Ly grew up here and he knows the turf, the tensions, the terroir. It’s compelling, sometimes gripping, but, to be honest, the basic plot mechanics here aren’t radically different to similar scenarios in Engrenages (Spiral), where they have been done just as well. But if you’ve missed the first seven seasons of that brilliant TV show, get a taste of what Ly’s offering here, and then do yourself a favour and dial up The Best TV Show Ever on SBS (Season 8 is coming later this year!)

La Belle Epoque, David Foster, Speed Cubers

Bellepoque.jpg

For a lot of (Non-French) people, French cinema is about romance, culture, gentle good humour, affairs of the heart, beautiful (and beautifully lit) locations, and nostalgia: the Amélie model. They’ll be well served by La Belle Époque, in cinemas now, one of those expensive, commercial French products that is geared to make big bucks outside of France. The pleasant surprise is that, while it delivers that Amélie package, it’s also rather clever, witty and gorgeously performed.

Daniel Auteuil, once my favourite actor, plays a sixty-something luddite cartoonist whose wife is having a mid-life crisis, and who finds solace in the arms of a tech/media/production company that allows him, via sets, actors and other production values, to go back to the night he met her, in a bistro, in 1974. It’s not quite science fiction, but is certainly adjacent: sort of Westworld meets The Truman Show meets… well, Amélie. It’s all very charming and delightful and will bring a smile to your dial. That makes it top entertainment for the current era. Auteuil is typically winning.

On Netflix are two new documentaries: David Foster Off The Record and The Speed Cubers. Both are pacy, surprising and fun. Foster is one of the most successful pop producers of all time – he’s produced Celine Dion, Michael Bublé, Chicago, Barbara Streisand, Josh Groban, Andrea Bocelli and so on, as well as Whitney Huston’s I Will Always Love You and the soundtrack to St. Elmo’s Fire – and most of his career-long collaborators weigh in, as well as his many daughters (from five wives). He’s a self-confessed problematic individual, which the film somewhat embraces, but it’s best enjoyed as a testament to an astonishing career. Meanwhile, The Speed Cubers follows the two fastest Rubik’s Cube solvers in the world as they head towards a showdown at the 2019 Speed Cubing World Championships. One of them is from Melbourne; the other is Californian, has autism, and hero-worships his rival. As with Foster, they are two of the most successful people in the world at what they do; neither, yet, have wives, let alone five, but who’s to say where success may lead them? Heartwarming, uplifting and surprising.

La Belle Époque                               * * * 1/2

David Foster Off The Record       * * *

The Speed Cubers                           * * * 1/2

Echo In The Canyon

Crosby and Dylan.jpg
“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.