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.

Gurrumul

* * * 1/2

I didn’t know much about Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu, the astonishingly successful, blind, indigenous musician who died, age 46, in July of last year, before seeing Gurrumul, but I do remember being fascinated by his success. I was intensely curious as to just how a blind indigenous singer from a remote community (Elcho Island) could achieve worldwide acclaim, record sales and tour bookings. The feature length documentary absolutely answers many of my questions, and more besides, while finding it almost impossible to get inside the mind of the man himself.

The very elements that make Gurrumul an elusive subject are the elements that made me so fascinated by his success. As Michael Hohnen, his career-long producer, collaborator, handler, manager and best friend, says in the film (I have to paraphrase here), “If you imagine becoming a successful musician, Gurrumul has all the absolute opposite qualities: he is intensely shy, rarely speaks, doesn’t do promotion, and doesn’t particularly want to tour.” And, of course, he’s from a remote community, and blind.

Besides seeing the fascinating way in which Gurrumul’s collaboration with Hohnen led to his worldwide success, we’re also gifted with an almost unprecedented look at the life of any deceased Australian indigenous artist. This is because indigenous Australians have a cultural tradition of “avoidance” that restricts mentioning the name, or distributing the image, of deceased persons. For this film even to exist, filmmaker Paul Williams had to receive special permissions from Gurrumul’s family and community. Seeing Gurrumul on screen, you cannot help but think of all the amazing indigenous lives that do not exist as posthumous documentaries, lives that need to be recognised as they are, literally, being lived.

There are also extremely revelatory scenes of the creation of Gurrumul and Hohnen’s fourth and final studio album, Djarimirri, which was a truly unique, bold and risky venture. It is pure musical art, a collaboration born of real challenge, and, as such, truly inspiring. This section of the film is a genuine artifact of artistic creation.

Gurrumul as a subject is oblique, mainly because of that intense shyness, which at least appears to border on pathological. He is not interviewed directly for the film and you certainly don’t get the sense it would even be worth asking him. We see him through his work, his art, and the words and recollections of others. It is a portrait of the man not dissimilar to the famous Archibald-winning painting: a version, a vision, but not really the man himself.

Interestingly, the film we see was approved by Gurrumul three days before his sudden (if not entirely unexpected) death, and is unchanged since then. Therefore, it is actually constructed as a portrait of an artist that is still living rather than as a memorial to a dead one; it is told in the present, of one that has past.

Loveless

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* * * * *

Loveless, the new film from Russian director Andrey Zvyagintsev, is a masterpiece, a brutal, uncompromising, stunningly well crafted and extraordinarily observant depiction of modern life, relationships, parenting, and society. At every turn it is revealing and stunningly precise about the human condition. It offers the viewer a chance not only to reflect on their own life but to truly search their soul. Like the very, very best films, I believe that if I listen to it, I can be a slightly better person for it.

Simply put, it’s about the final days of a relationship that’s gone very, very sour. Zhenya and Boris are a thirty-something, professional-class, attractive couple living in one of the hundred and twenty-five administrative districts of Moscow, an area of grey skies, snowy woods, and scores of identical grey high-rises, which are reminiscent of “projects” in the West but here are obviously considered desirable housing. One night, having yet another of those final, horrendously savage arguments couples have before they finally move apart, they set in motion events that are terrifying, deeply sad, and all too common.

They say conflict is drama, and Loveless has it in spades. They also say characters need to be likeable. That’s not always true; what they need to be is relatable. Zhenya and Boris are the opposite of likeable – they are despicable, and Zvyagintsev’s disgust for them is palpable – but they are totally relatable. We can relate to, if not their actions, then their motivations, their frustrations, and their dreams. Despite their awfulness, we can only hold them in contempt by also examining ourselves, and that’s part of the genius of the script, and the amazing performances of Maryana Spivak and Aleksey Rozin.

Zvyagintsev backs up the superb script with exquisite direction. The wide-screen cinematography is the best I’ve seen so far this year, rendering the Yuzhnoye Tushino District, often seen through the windows of the brutalist concrete high-rises, simultaneously deeply depressing and achingly beautiful, all slate skies, grey lakes, skeletal trees and shimmering snow. The interior production design is cold, precise, and startling; keep an eye out for the bedsheets of Zhenya’s lover, the cars the characters drive, the workplace cafeteria. Everything is there for a reason, and everything has something to say, about the characters, the situation, about modern Russia. And the score is exquisite; like the visuals, it is simultaneously gorgeous and distressing. I can still feel the movie, days after seeing it.

It’s a portrait of modern, urban, professional domestic Russians we don’t often get, or at least, with this specificity. They’re cursed with phones, social media, selfies and all their attendant false aspirations just as we are in the west, and, as with us all, these things are destroying their family intimacies. The film’s title, like the film itself, is brutal, but it’s brutally accurate.

The Party

 

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“Do you really want me holding both glasses, Sally?”

* 1/2

Despite its very modest appearance – a single set, seven characters, black and white digital cinematography and, most modest of all, a running time of only seventy-one minutes, extraordinarily short for a theatrical release – The Party is a major disappointment. This is because, modest as it may be, it is the work of some very serious talent, betrayed by a sub-standard script and stumbling direction.

Those seven characters are played, literally, by an all-star cast, and I would dearly love to see them re-unite for a better movie. Kristen Scott Thomas plays a British politician who has just been appointed Shadow Minister for Health; Timothy Spall plays her husband with a secret or two; and Patricia Clarkson, Bruno Ganz, Cherry Jones, Emily Mortimer and Cillian Murphy play their party guests. Over the course of an afternoon, as those secrets spill, everyone’s lives get messy.

The writer (with story editor Walter Donohue) and director is Sally Potter, most famous for Orlando (1992), who takes an average of four years between films, and who has taken five since 2012’s Ginger and Rosa. She’s rusty, or disinterested, or complacent, because the script here blatantly needed more work, and the direction is clumsy. Unable to slot into a comedic or dramatic groove, the film skips between the two uncomfortably; it is not an example of balanced tone. Not seeming to know whether they’re in a comedy or a very serious drama, the actors are completely at sea, almost none of the performances gelling, even within two-hander scenes. Spall, Ganz and Clarkson give particularly grating, stilted performances; to their credit, it seems very much to be the fault of the script and the direction, or lack of it. At times Spall seems hamstrung, painfully inert, incapable of making any sort of reasonable acting choice.

It feels very much like Potter is attempting to emulate the work of playwright Harold Pinter, who indeed has a play called The Birthday Party, and whose televised adaptations have the black and white look Potter’s going for here. But Pinter is all about ambiguity, whereas Potter spells it all out, word by over-enunciated word. Clarkson’s character may as well be called ‘Elaine Exposition’, only existing to remind us again and again why we’re all here; until Cherry Jones finally steps on Emily Mortimer’s dialogue, late in the piece, the character’s lines – unwieldy to begin with – are all spoken in isolation (as opposed to overlapping). If that’s a highly deliberate choice, it’s a terrible one. This isn’t even adapted from a play, yet it’s more stagey and ‘theatrical’ than almost any new play you’ll see at the modern theatre. If it was on stage, directed as it is here, it would close in previews. Who could’ve thought seventy-one minutes could be so long?

 

The Other Side of Hope

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* * * 1/2

Fans of Finland’s pre-eminent auteur Aki Kaurismäki will be pleased to know that his latest, The Other Side Of Hope, offers all the elements they’ve come to expect of this über-stylist. If you’re unfamiliar with Kaurismäki’s work, it can be hard to describe, but I’ll have a crack: think Twin Peaks David Lynch interior compositions, Jim Jarmusch sound design and framing, and Derek Jarman production design, telling simple, human stories with the driest humour possible. Everything is shot on sets, with the walls behind the actors inevitably lit with long, threatening shadows that give every scene a sinister feel. The actors are placed just so, rarely move, and perform at a slightly tranquilised level (think Yorgos Lanthimos’ use of actors, such as in The Lobster). The results are absolutely unique to Kaurismäki, and his films all stylistically fit together; they form a universe.

Here, Kaurismäki – who often tells ‘foreign’ stories – is back in Helsinki, telling the story of two men re-inventing themselves, one perforce, one (sort of) by choice. Khaled is a Syrian refugee who has ended up in Helsinki seeking asylum; Waldemar is a middle-aged businessman, a totally establishment Helsinki figure, who leaves his wife and sells his rag trade business, re-inventing himself as a restauranteur. The film follows their trials and travails, first on their own, then together. It’s funny, warm, and full of compassion. Dare I say it: it’s a “feel-good refugee movie”, but with integrity and pathos.

If you’re a fan of Kaurismäki, you’re already there. If you’re a newbie and curious, this is a perfect opportunity to dip your toe in, as it’s representative of his finest work. He’s not for everyone, but if you like what you see, there’s a whole world of his to discover.