Hereditary

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* * * * 1/2

Hereditary is the best American horror film since The Sixth Sense. The fact that Toni Collette is in both says a couple of things. That she can pick fantastic projects, and collaborators, absolutely. But also, that writer/director Ari Aster has impeccable taste along with a sense of history. To my mind, Aster knew, when he finished his screenplay, that he had written the best horror script since The Sixth Sense, and that – as when that film came out, revitalised the upmarket American horror film scene, and established M. Night Shyamalan as a “master of horror” – so too would all those things happen for him. They deserve to.

It remains to be seen whether his film will make it all the way to the Oscar race, as The Sixth Sense did (and as Get Out did last year); certainly, Collette should be in the running. Her performance here, as an artist, wife and mother dealing with the death of her own complicated, problematic mother, is one for the books. It’s got the lot: emotional complexity and integrity but also audacity and unwavering commitment to the essence of the film, what it’s trying to be. She understands the intention of every beat, and that while on the whole realism is the order of the day, sometimes something else, something for the sake of the moment and the mood, is necessary. She’s never afraid, or embarrassed, that she’s in a horror film.

Aster honours horror’s past beyond the casting of Collette, and one of the most admirable and effective things about the film is how many established horror tropes it uses in fresh, inventive ways. The whole film could have felt like a stale pastiche, but it is anything but; indeed, it’s the opposite, feeling like a rebirth or an awakening. And it is; this is the dawn of a new filmmaker of consummate skill whom we must notice and follow if we care about American horror cinema at all.

Aster’s judgement is confident, mature, unerring. The film’s casting is precise and evocative, and includes a striking find in young Milly Shapiro, playing Collette’s daughter. The cinematography is beautiful, unnerving and deliberate, emphasising shadows, moonlight and dusk (the film was shot in Utah) that evokes the feel of the great American horror cinema of the 1970s. The music is unobtrusive yet consistently effective, the production design immaculate and vital. Most satisfying of all is the pace, which is stately. Aster doesn’t rush a thing. He’s written a brilliant script and he’s brought it to the screen with the respect it deserves. One of the films of 2018, which is turning out to be a very, very good year for discerning, adult cinema.

I Kill Giants

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* * * 1/2

Set in New Jersey, shot in Belgium and Ireland, helmed by a Dane, starring a mix of Americans, Brits and Irishfolk, based on a graphic novel, and infused with a dark melancholic beauty, I Kill Giants feels nothing if not unique. Cooked in such a diverse pot, the result is strange and darkly beautiful, a slave to no master’s rhythms or rules other than its own. It should be perfect for teen girls who relate to its protagonist, Barbara (Madison Wolfe), a troubled outsider; this film is a troubled outsider, to be approached with appropriate caution. It’s not afraid, of giants, of upsetting you, of facing the dark.

Barbara lives with her brother Dave and older sister Karen (the always brilliant Imogen Poots, who is uncannily believable as Wolfe’s sister) in a wind-swept wooden house on the Jersey Shore. Karen looks after Dave and Barbara; there are no parents around. Barbara is a loner, a high-school outcast with no friends (until she makes one, Sophia, played by a young Brit named Sydney Wade who may very well become a massive star), but who has no time for such trivialities anyway: she must defend her small town against the oncoming invasion of giants from the stormy sea, and when we meet her she is deep in preparation, with traps, rituals and other mystical accoutrements that point to both a highly developed imagination and perhaps some mental health issues.

I’m not sure how old my daughter will need to be to see I Kill Giants – possibly in her early teens – but I’ll be happy to screen it for her when she’s ready, if it seems like her thing. It’s beautifully crafted, supremely well acted (except for the school bully – why, oh why, are bullies always so one dimensional, even in complex films like this?) and seriously moving. Reader, I cried. And not just a little. The tears streamed down my face, and it felt good. A rewarding experience for the right audience, be it teen girl loners or troubled outsiders of any age.

Gringo

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* * 1/2

Gringo, Nash Edgerton’s second feature film as director, desperately wants to be an Elmore Leonard adaptation, but it’s not. It’s from an original screenplay by Anthony Tambakis and Matthew Stone that is full of Elmore-isms: witty and relatively lovable criminals, nefarious schemes, heaps of ethnic diversity, rapid-fire dialogue, guns but not too much actual violence, exotic locations, and an essentially comic tone. But Leonard’s books – and the best adaptations of them, such as Get Shorty, Jackie Brown, Out of Sight and the TV series Justified – always have, amongst the wacky ensemble of rogues and ruffians, a central figure who commands respect, through their ingenuity, humanity and moral code (even if they’re a criminal themselves). Leonard’s lead characters don’t get lost in the shuffle, they command the ship.

Gringo’s lead character, by contrast, is passive, reactive, and an embarrassing stain on skillful actor David Oyelowo’s body of work. Why he agreed to take this role is a mystery, but how he plays it is almost an affront. His character Harold may be an executive working for a pharmaceutical company headquartered in Chicago, but he’s Nigerian, and, as he gets more and more scared by more and more Mexican thugs while doing shady pharma biz in Mexico City, his reactions become ever broader, his eyes bugging, his voice hitting falsetto, his teeth practically chattering. By the time he’s on his knees praying to God for his life, he’s truly become a caricature and a stereotype. It’s an uncomfortably bad performance, fueled by a terribly conceived character on the page and as directed.

Three of the ensemble come off well: Charlize Theron and Edgerton’s brother Joel make an entertainingly sleazy double-act as the crooked pharma head honchos, and infamous scene-stealer Sharlto Copley arrives late in the piece to rescue every scene he’s in. But there are heaps more poorly written characters lurking in the often very confusing story. What in the world are Harry Treadaway and Amanda Seyfried up to? Their threadbare characters and incoherent storyline could have been cleanly snipped from the film to its great benefit. As it is, Gringo has seemingly good intentions, and shows good taste in its inspirations, but keeps missing its own beat, scene after scene. It’s a happy-go-lucky, shaggy, odd, silly, and ultimately infuriating mess.

 

Gaugin

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* 1/2

Artistic creation is, naturally, a rich source for drama. Ballet companies, theatre troupes, orchestras and rock bands make good character ensembles. Filmmaking, despite the inherent self-reference, makes for great material: there are a lot of people engaged in a brutally challenging task, often bearing outrageous levels of ego, neuroses, ambition and wit. The solo arts are inherently more difficult; nothing can be duller than a film about a writer staring at a typewriter, or, even worse, a computer screen. At least painters have a canvas, and can literally create an image in front of our eyes, but a hundred minutes of staring at that, would be… well, like watching it dry.

Obviously, the artist needs to be dramatically engaged. Usually in this type of film, he or she is involved in an epic battle with the bottle, and often juggling multiple lovers. Pollack (2000) was good; so was Basquiat (1996). But Gaugin, or Gaugin Voyage De Tahiti as it is known in France, is not good. It is dramatically mort.

Gaugin gets sick of Paris; Gaugin goes to Tahiti; Gaugin paints. Except for a brief illness, he encounters such little drama in the tropics that the filmmakers have had to construct a love triangle for us to try and get excited by. It’s not exciting, not by anyone’s standards. There’s also a subplot – if it even qualifies for the word – involving a Tahitian student of Gaugin cheapening his talent by replicating statues to sell to white French colonialists, but it sounds more captivating than it is, which obviously isn’t saying much.

Gaugin is painted – boom tish – as unsympathetic, leaving, as he does, his large family to go cavorting in paradise (which makes the love triangle even more insufferable). Why Vincent Cassel agreed to play him, other than for a trip to Tahiti, is imponderable. It can’t have been the script, which must have had a lot of empty white space. This is a truly boring movie, in which barely anything happens. Gaugin’s actual paintings have more drama, and more life.

Solo: A Star Wars Story

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* * * 1/2

Since you’re going to see a movie about the young Han Solo – not a boy or teen, though, a young man, a little younger than Harrison Ford in A New Hope – you generate some expectations. You’d like to see him do that Kessel Run in under however many parsecs. You want to see him win that Millennium Falcon off Lando Calrissian in a card game. And you definitely want to see him get tangled up with Jabba The Hutt.

I won’t tell you how many of these vital questions get answered. What I will say, happily, is that Solo: A Star Wars Story actually tells you what you really wanted to know, and tells it very, very well: How Han Solo met Chewbacca, and how they become co-pilots, smugglers, and best friends.

The actor playing Chewbacca, a six foot eleven inch Finn named Joonas Suotamo, is pretty remarkable, and the chemistry between him and Alden Ehrenreich (whom I’ve already declared rather brilliant in Hail Caesar and Rules Don’t Apply) is palpable, believable, and deeply satisfying. It’s easy to forget the wonder, all those years ago, of being introduced to a character who’s partner in crime was a wookie, but you get it all back here, and it makes sense.

The camaraderie and banter between the two is complemented well by a motley crew of bandits, vagabonds and nightcrawlers in what is essentially a heist movie. Actually, it’s a movie with three heists, each adding a character or two or taking some away. Solo’s there throughout, obviously. Chewie joins first, then we get a dodgy crim called, rather hilariously, Tobias Beckett, played, rather hilariously, by Woody Harrelson; cascading behind him come Thandie Newton, Jon Favreau, Phoebe Waller-Bridge and, of course and already famously, Donald Glover as Calrissian. Sneaking in sideways, not so much a partner in crime as – and I did not see this coming – a serious love interest, is Emilia Clarke. And she’s great. I have never rated her on Game of Thrones; she’s always been that show’s weak link for me. But here she’s tremendous, game, up for it, and displaying just the right lightness of touch. All up, the gang is a lot of fun.

As for Ehrenreich… he’s excellent. He was served a tough, and thankless, gig, but he’s proved the naysayers wrong, as far as I’m concerned, with a performance that honours Ford without slavishly copying him. By the time we met Han in A New Hope, he was already cool; Ehrenreich’s Han is not yet cool, but he’s learning, trying it on, and occasionally making an ass of himself. It’s a funny performance but it’s also nuanced and, dare I say it, really very brave. Seriously, talk about taking a risk when taking a role!

I laughed out loud half a dozen times during Solo, and to me, it’s most enjoyable as a romp. The action really never stops, there are heaps of witty references, one-liners and sight gags, and everyone’s fun is infectious. There’s no rebellion and no force, so you don’t have to keep track of who’s got the force and who’s strong with the force. There’s a good villain (Paul Bettany) and a surprisingly heartfelt romance. But when I think back on it, the heart of the film remains with the relationship between one man and his wookie. It’s the bromance of 2018.

Aurore

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* * * (out of five)

Spoiler alert: This review obliquely references the film’s tonal conclusion.

Pregnancy is a good given circumstance – a good hook – on which to hang a movie. It’s human and relatable, there are going to be emotions involved, and it’s inherently suspenseful. There’s going to be a result, an ending, a climax. Nine months or so is a pretty good length of time for a story. The seasons can change, things can happen. Structurally, a pregnancy is pretty impeccable. Like screenplays, they’re even divided into three acts (okay, trimesters).

Aurore, a bouncy, swift and genial comedy from Blandine Lenoir, cleverly has fun with this inherent dramatic arc by assigning the pregnancy neither to the protagonist, nor the antagonist, but to a supporting character. Aurore, warmly played by Agnès Jaoui (who co-wrote the film with Lenoir and, weirdly for a French film, four others) is the mother of the expectant, but the center of the story. At age fifty, she simply feels too young to be on the verge of  being a grandmother; accepting this inevitable status is her character arc, and the film’s journey.

Unfortunately, this clever construction allows the film to avoid dealing with its actual nemesis, which is menopause. The trials and tribulations of menopause are highlighted, I dare say, in every scene of this 89 minute film, but not dealt with, except comically. Rather, the film uses Aurore’s daughter’s pregnancy to dodge the issue, keep things light, airy and pleasant. The film is about society marginalising women once they hit middle-age, but fear not, it’s all played for laughs, and everything turns out okay.

The mature audience I saw it with laughed with every hot flash and mood swing, many obviously in recognition. They didn’t want their buzz killed and they were completely obliged. I enjoyed the witty dialogue, the warm performances, and the intriguing setting (a city somewhere in South-Western France, by the water, possibly La Rochelle), but, somewhere in the second trimester, I realised the film, like its heroine, was more concerned with being loved than asking questions, and, frankly, it lost me. Like many pregnancies, the beginning was surprising and exciting, but the end was entirely predictable.

Chappaquiddick

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Jason Clarke, an Australian actor with an eclectic CV straddling up-market Hollywood action and thriller fare (Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Zero Dark Thirty, Terminator Genesys), quiet American indies (Mudbound, All I See Is You) and intriguing, relatively large-scale international properties (Everest, The Man With The Iron Heart, Winchester, Child 44) has found his Hamlet, in the unlikely role of Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy. Working with the similarly eclectic director John Curran (Tracks, The Painted Veil, We Don’t Live Here Anymore), who made his first film, Praise, in Australia, Clarke presents a complex and believable Kennedy, full of contradictions, flaws, self-awareness, and weakness. As portrayed, Kennedy is a very strange lead character for a film, but the events depicted here were strange indeed, and the film is extremely compelling.

If you know “everything” about Kennedy’s mishap at Chappaquiddick, an island off the coast of Massachusetts, in 1969, then you’ll at least have the enjoyment of seeing very good actors bring the story to life. With the exception of Ed Helms as Kennedy’s fixer cousin Joe, and Bruce Dern as  Ol’ Joe Kennedy, the family patriarch, Curran has filled his North Eastern insular universe with a delightful smorgasbord of mostly unfamiliar character faces, all of whom look, feel and sound like 1969. Along with its other qualities, the film is a textbook example of good casting.

But the less you know, I suspect, the better. I knew of the incident vaguely; the film covers a few days, and I knew about the first one. As it went on, past the incident and into the aftermath, I grew increasingly enthralled. Curran had the great benefit of astonishingly rich source material – the truth here is very strange indeed – and to his credit he has brought it to the screen with great nuance. There are a million shades of grey here, a fascinating and disturbing look at the wheels of American power, and a finely calibrated insight into the truly bizarre Kennedy family dynamic, which seems to have honestly incorporated the belief that they were born to rule. There are many themes at play here, but the most surprising one is that of thwarted destiny, when that destiny is a myth spun out of gossamer and tragedy.

BPM (aka Beats Per Minute, 120 Battements Par Minute)

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* * * * 1/2

Deservedly taking out a swath of awards at this year’s Césars, including Best Film, Editing, Music, Screenplay, Supporting Actor and “Most Promising” Actor, Robin Campillo’s portrait of Act Up-Paris in the early 1990s is sweeping, compassionate, funny, angry, ambitious and full of the kind of detail and incident that can only be drawn from life. Campillo was a part of the movement at the time, and wrote his screenplay based on his own experiences, while allowing himself dramatic freedom. It joins Phantom Thread and Loveless as a monumentally good film of 2018.

Unlike those two masterpieces of precise formalism, BPM has a loose feel, aided by a documentary-like handheld camera style and performances that may contain certain degrees of improvisation. We start the film with an introduction for a few new members to a meeting of Act Up-Paris followed by the meeting itself, which is passionate, inflammatory, combative, a little chaotic and full of life. Throughout the film, which covers a couple of years, we keep returning to these meetings, which are always lively and often also sad; as the Act Up-Paris members debate how best to deal with the multiple challenges they face, they also must mourn their members who have fallen to AIDS.

France had a strange, complex, convoluted response to the epidemic, coloured by multiple factors, including, perhaps, an over-zealous and tragically self-defeating determination not to demonise homosexuals and drug abusers and, therefore, not adequately warning them of the danger they were in. It all added up to a catastrophic tardiness; France’s awareness campaign ran far behind that of nations such as Australia’s, and there is little doubt casualties were excessive as a result. The Act-Up Paris members had this leviathan to fight, as well as drug companies, represented in the film by Melton Pharm, who were tardy with the results of their tests, their research, and the availability of their drugs. It’s a massive, life-or-death race against a deadly ticking clock, the strictures of science versus the fierce reality of dead young men. One of the film’s mysterious qualities is how it parses this debate with respect to both sides, even as history seems to have declared a tragic winner.

Campillo directs the bulk of the satisfyingly meaty running time as energetic naturalism, but at times he deliberately and profoundly breaks with his established style to cleave off into highly constructed and stylised sequences that reflect on the world of the film in an astonishing, emotionally rich and supremely joyous way. And for the third act, he shifts gears again, telescoping his massive ensemble down to a more personal and intimate narrative strand; it’s like he’s suddenly frozen footage of a loud, frenetic car race, to show us the deadly impact of a crash in silent slow motion. This is bold filmmaking, and it works.

The entire ensemble are brilliant, but mention must be made of Nahuel Pérez Biscayart – winner of that “Most Promising Actor” César – who plays Sean, a young activist but HIV-Positive “veteran”. His energetic, passionate, funny, live-wire performance is electrifying and exciting. It reminds me of seeing the young, wild-eyed Pacino in Dog Day Afternoon, with the attendant thrill of watching someone become a star in front of your eyes.

BPM is outstanding and should not be missed.

On Body And Soul

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* * * 1/2

Making her first feature film for eighteen years, having spent them on other failed feature projects, directing television, and teaching at the University of Theatre and Film Arts in Budapest, Ildikó Enyedi won last year’s Golden Bear at Berlin and the Sydney Film Festival Prize with On Body and Soul, her touching, delicate, original and warm abattoir romance. It was also nominated for the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film.

The Sydney Film Festival Prize awards “courageous, audacious and cutting-edge” cinema. I’m not sure if On Body And Soul deserved its award on those grounds; neither the story-telling nor the technique employed is particularly radical. But the film is undeniably fresh; if it’s a rom-com, it’s unlike any you’ve seen.

It is, indeed, mostly set in an abattoir, where Endre, the financial director of the facility, has moved past any further hopes of love, and settled into a seemingly content life of routine, work, and a solitary evening existence. That is, until a new employee arrives – Mária (Alexandra Borbély) – who is so shy and awkward that she is likely on the spectrum of autism. When a minor crime occurs at the slaughterhouse, Endre and Mária discover a most unlikely bond.

There are certainly bold filmmaking choices on display. Endre is played by a gentleman named Géza Morcsányi, a theatre dramaturg who made his acting debut in this film – in the lead role – at the age of sixty-four. That’s pretty audacious. The film’s palette, gleaming with whites and clean shiny surfaces, is ironic and comforting, given that it mainly takes place in an abattoir. And almost the entire propulsion of the film’s emotional spine takes place sub-textually, behind the formal, guarded walls of Endre and Mária’s fragile psyches. So perhaps the film is, indeed, courageous and a little cutting-edge. Whatever. It’s heart-warming, uplifting, funny and different. And that’s more than enough.

Unsane

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* * 1/2

It’s hard to know why Steven Soderbergh made Unsane, which is not to say it’s not worth seeing. It’s a lot of fun, a cheapie B-Movie exploitation asylum flick, a weird sub-genre that is constantly weakening but never fully dies – witness 2016’s strangely expensive flop A Cure For Wellness.

That film cost forty million bucks, which is really a lot for this type of fare. Unsane, shot by Soderbergh on an iPhone – dare I say shot by Soderbergh on his iPhone? – has the feel of a labor of love made on weekends, in sequence, edited in camera, for, basically, nothing. And maybe it was, and maybe that’s why Soderbergh made it. He loves to dabble.

If this was the debut from some unknown kid at a cool indie film festival, it would garner attention, possible distribution, and, in all likelihood, a modest deal for the filmmaker as an option on their next work. Coming from Soderbergh, who has directed thirty full-length feature films, including some masterpieces, this is minor work, to be shelved alongside Full Frontal and Bubble, although, as a psychiatric thriller, it is far and away closest in tone to Side Effects (2013). Indeed, having made that quirky little freakshow, it’s odd – again! – that he’s made this, which feels like that film’s poor, handmade cousin (and Side Effects was hardly a major cinematic event, despite its qualities).

Indeed, there’d be no reason to endorse this little oddity as anything other than seeing what good ol’ Steve is doing on weekends were it not for Claire Foy, who plays a woman who may or may not be going through a psychotic episode that may or may not stem from a stalking incident. She’s doing an American accent here, and the cynic in me wonders if that’s why Soderbergh made the film – to do her a solid and give her a platform to show a side of her that isn’t terribly British (she plays, on Netflix, for twenty hours, The Queen). It’s certainly an acting vehicle, and she’s good enough to get you through it. I hadn’t seen her work before; this enjoyably campy, lurid little ride was a fun introduction.