Everybody Knows

* * * * (out of five)

I’ve come to realise that A Separation (2011), Asghar Farhadi’s fifth feature film as writer / director, is one of my favourite movies, top five, ever. I think about it all the time; I show it to students whenever possible; it sparks joy in me to remember scenes from it, moments, ideas. It helped me realise my sweet-spot as a viewer: intelligent dramatic character films that skirt the edge of being thrillers. Indeed, for me at least, Farhadi created a sub-genre, what I call (if just to myself) the “social thriller”. Lives don’t need to be threatened, and there needn’t be villains per se, but tension runs high, with the metaphorical bomb beneath the desk actually being social norms and customs, bending and breaking along with the patience of the characters. A Separation remains a perfect, pure example of this type of cinema; everyone is in great conflict with everyone else, yet no-one is really right or wrong. The stakes are impeccably high but the situations reflect, at most, a heightened realism.

As Farhadi’s clout has risen, along with his ambitions and resources, he’s ever-so-subtly upped the genre alignment of his scripts. The Past (2013) and The Salesman (2016) were still about people before plot, character before crisis, but they toyed with tropes absolutely absent from A Separation or, say, About Elly. Now, with Everybody Knows, Farhadi for the first time delivers a film whose log-line could fool the uninitiated into thinking they were getting Friday night fare.

Of course, nothing could be further from the truth; Farhadi remains a humanist, a deep chronicler of human foible, and Everybody Knows, like his previous work, is a film of human beings in turmoil behaving realistically, understandably and with precise observation; they difference is, this time, the turmoil they face is more essentially and recognizably dramatic. They face a thriller trope, but they face it with the sensitivity of Farhadi characters.

I won’t reveal the trope; I saw this film knowing essentially nothing, and you should try for the same. Everything is surprising in a Farhadi film, and this one twists and turns like a frightened snake; there are secrets, lies, revelations and reveals, so much so that you could call this melodrama, but of the highest caliber, and performed, by brilliant actors, with straight faces and total integrity. Penelope Cruz, Javier Bardem, Ricardo Darin and an ensemble of excellent Spanish actors go through the emotional wringer for us; it can be painful to watch.

Therein lies my only rub: Farhadi and his cast twist the screws so tight, on a story that I could relate to on such a visceral, personal level, that my pleasure center wasn’t being so much lit as stabbed. Frankly, I was so tense I longed for the film to wrap up, and wrap up happily, so I could breathe again. A director, whose intention is to put you in suspense, should not be criticized for doing so. It’s simply a paradox that here, he’s applied tension so well, you want him to stop.

New TV: Flack and Losers

Flack.png
“I shoulda stayed with HBO.”

The pilot episode of Flack (Foxtel) is the worst I’ve seen for awhile; nothing will bring me back for any more. It’s a big disappointment, because there was promise, and I was excited: Anna Paquin as a London-based PR crisis manager in a zippy 40something-minute show dealing with public relations disasters in the #metoo era? I was in. But now I’m very much out.

Credibility is the biggest issue: nothing in the show rings true. Television doesn’t have to reflect the reality of the workplace – is any cop show realistic? – but the ways this show gets its own premise wrong beggar belief. I could pinpoint many examples – just from the pilot – but the overwhelming conceit – that tomorrow’s papers are still what everyone’s frightened about – just can’t cut it in the viral era. The dialogue is expositional, spoon-feedy and often cringe-worthily on the nose: a monologue halfway through, where Paquin’s character essentially explains #metoo to a Jaime Oliver-like celebrity chef facing exposure of his many affairs, will haunt her career for the rest of it. It’s terrible.

It must be hard for TV to keep pace with current world events and, particularly, technology, but if you’re going to try, in the words of one of Flack’s characters to a ludicrously-portrayed intern: must try harder. 

On Netflix, Losers is the kind of show the “play next episode” button was built for. These c. 24minute documentaries each look at a “losing” player or team in a different sport. The diversity of the sports and the players make super-addictive: the first three eps jump from boxing to English football to figure skating. As with any good doco or doc series, you don’t have to like the ostensible subject – “sport” – to like the show, because it’s not about sport, it’s about the people, and this charming, off-beat and often very funny little show – which often uses animation to illustrate the stories – has assembled a panoply. 

The Guilty

Screen Shot 2019-02-27 at 12.24.12 pm.png

* * * * (out of five)

Gustav Möller’s police thriller The Guilty is a must-see: an hour and twenty-five minutes of lean gripping cinematic heaven. The razor-tight, superbly plotted, intricate and surprising screenplay, by Möller and Emil Nygaard Albertsen, hurls us into a terrifically difficult situation, then challenges every aspect of our response. It’s very, very clever.

Asger Holm (Jakob Cedergren) is a Copenhagen cop assigned, not necessarily happily, to night duty on the alarm dispatch line. There are issues at play with Asger, not entirely understood by us, perhaps not even by him. After deftly setting up his precarious situation and state of mind, Möller lets the telephone ring and Asger take an emergency call. He then deals with it, in real time, as our jaws clench, our guts twist, and our fists grip ever tighter on our armrests.

Like Steven Knight’s masterful Locke (2014), this is almost a single-location, single-actor film; there are the voice actors on the phone (all excellent) and some minor other characters, but the bulk of the screen time is spent on Cedergren’s face. A lot is resting on his performance, but he’s magnificent. Möller moves the camera around the single police station location enough to dispel any “staginess” while adhering to a worthy self-imposed discipline. It’s an intense, thoroughly well constructed ride.

I saw this as my final film at the 2018 Sydney Film Festival, with an audience of 2,000. It felt like we were all at the end of a long slog of film-going, ready, frankly, for the festival to be over, and perhaps didn’t know too much about what we were about to see. As the film played, I could feel it grip this jaded audience with an iron fist; gasps at the script’s magnificent twists and turns were audible throughout the vast theatre. As the final credits rolled, we all sat, stunned and silent. A man on a telephone had faced a dilemma, and through him, so had we all.

King of Thieves

Screen Shot 2019-02-26 at 10.39.26 am.png

* * * 1/2

Come for the cast and you won’t be disappointed. Come for the heist and you will. That’s it in a nutshell for this dramatisation of a truly astonishing event in recent British history, when a gang of O.A.P.s – that’s Old Age Pensioners – robbed a famous vault in London’s jewel district, Hatton Garden, in 2015.

That cast is plum fruit with plenty of warm, rich texture: Michael Caine, Jim Broadbent, Ray Winstone, Tom Courtney and Paul Whitehouse play the gang along with young Charlie Cox, with Michael Gambon being fabulous on the side as their alcoholic, incontinent, practically incoherent fence. Their wicked interplay, featuring barbs and threats as much as banter and lingo, comprises most of the film, and every one of its best scenes. Intriguingly, they are cast just a tiny bit “against type”, so that Broadbent gets to be a little Winstone-y, Caine mellow and melancholic, and Winstone perhaps the funniest… except for Gambon, who is quite hysterical.

Unfortunately the heist – which must have been intricate and hard as hell, full of challenging and tense moments and, quite simply, a bit of a modern masterpiece as heists go – is presented almost as a fait accompli, under-explained, confusingly presented, very choppily shot and edited. Perhaps the actual criminals simply have not spilled enough details for a thorough and honest depiction to be portrayed. More likely, director James Marsh is simply far more interested in the dynamics between the thieves than their work.

Fair enough. These geezers won’t be around for ever – Caine particularly shows his age here, for the first time as far as I’m concerned – and if you’ve got ‘em, flaunt ‘em. This movie is absolutely worth your ten bob just to see them in a room together, slapping each other on the back before stabbing them there.

 

Oscars 2019: Thoughts and Wild Predictions

CJ Johnson and Danielle McGrane look at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ year of self-fouls, own goals and other idiotic mis-steps in anticipation of a train-wreck 2019 Oscars. In addition, they step outside of the boring conventional wisdom predictions for this year’s Oscars, and instead, take a few big swings. Don’t bet on these long shots!

 

 

Stan and Ollie

Screen Shot 2019-02-19 at 6.21.52 pm.png

* * * 1/2 (out of five)

Shame about the musical score, which is overbearing and makes the otherwise tastefully wrought and lovingly crafted Stan and Ollie seem schmaltzy. It’s not fair to the fine work of Steve Coogan as Stan Laurel, John C. Reilly as Oliver Hardy, and Shirley Henderson and Nina Arianda as their wives. They’re all splendid.

It’s 1953, and Laurel and Hardy are touring England in the hopes of stirring up producer interest in one more movie, a Robin Hood satire. Implied, too, is that they need the money. They’re ageing and no longer on the top of the Hollywood totem pole, but they’re also still in good humour and enjoying their work. The film is willing to avoid throwing artificial conflict at them; for the most part, this amiable, low-key dramedy is content to be a character piece, and a portrait of a long-standing working relationship. It also features Coogan and Reilly expertly pulling off some gorgeous and very funny Laurel and Hardy routines.

I suppose the overwhelming sentimentality may be appreciated in some quarters, but it does niggle me that, since the audience is (rightly) perceived to be “the grey dollar”, they must be in want of an overbearing orchestra-full of swelling strings. No-one needs to be spoon-fed their emotions in this day and age, even those old enough to have seen the real Stan and Ollie at their local. I’d love to see a cut of this film without the score; it would simply be better, perhaps even rather sublime.

Black Monday (S1) and Corporate (S2)

Screen Shot 2019-02-16 at 7.58.01 am.png

Boy, has the American half-hour comedy come a long way since I was a kid. With the exception of MASH, most shows used to be safe, safe, safe. Now, you can watch a speculative explanation of the 1987 Wall Street crash as a broad comedy.

That’s the pitch behind Black Monday (STAN), which unfortunately doesn’t live up to its promise – and what promise! Don Cheadle, Regina Hall, Andrew Rannells, Paul Scheer and a directing team that includes Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen – what could’ve gone wrong?

My guess is they had too much fun on set. This is a loud show about loud people (Wall Street traders in the 1980s, usually on cocaine) and everyone is acting just too damn loud. Don Cheadle is a great, and very funny, actor, but the writers seem to think that just giving him long speeches and letting him off the leash will result in comic gold, and it doesn’t. He’s too much, the writing isn’t funny enough, and I found myself in the awful position of wishing he would shut up. He didn’t, and doesn’t. This is his show, and it’s indulgent of an actor’s worst impulses.

Much funnier is Corporate (FOXTEL), entering its second season. This is a truly subversive and edgy comedy that doesn’t need to yell; indeed, it’s as deadpan as it gets, and all the better for it. Creators Matt Ingebretson and Jake Weisman play sad office drones at a fictional massive corporation, Hampton Deville, that has its hands in everything; the underlying source company seems to be Halliburton. The sheer scope of the conglomerate allows the show to pierce many targets – Hampton Deville can make and sell anything – while gunning at all manner of workplace situations, especially the simple daily art of not getting shafted, shivved or shoved out. It’s not as brilliant as the original The Office, but it’s a workplace comedy with plenty of bite.

Screen Shot 2019-02-16 at 7.59.03 am.png

If Beale Street Could Talk

* * * * (out of five)

I haven’t read James Baldwin’s 1974 novel If Beale Street Could Talk, but I have no doubt that writer / director Barry Jenkins’ (Moonlight) copy has twenty annotations per page. This is an adaptation that feels as authentic, respectful and committed to the source material as they come; Jenkins has not used the book as a starting point, he has done everything in his power to bring the book to the screen.

That included bringing the book’s emotional impact: how it makes Jenkins feel. His film version is awash with feeling; at times, it is as much about mood as anything, about how it stimulates the senses. It is about music and colour and framing and is so effective in those areas I swear that I could practically smell Riverside Park, in Harlem, in the early 1970s.

There, Tish and Fonny (KiKi Layne and Stephan James) are deeply in love. They’re been in love since they were children. Now, they’re sexually active dynamic people in their early twenties, and the world, for them (and thus, for us) is aglow with colour and passion and love. At times, there is nothing in the world for them but them, and Jenkins is not afraid, in this bustling city, to render them alone on a street, cocooned in the world of their love.

But this is backstory, flashback: in the present, Fonny is in jail for a crime he didn’t commit, and Tish is pregnant with their child. How their families help them with this bittersweet predicament forms the slight plot of this moving story. It is surprising, beautiful, heart-wrenching, and deeply, deeply compassionate.

It’s a world outside of my own experience and I felt a little like an outsider; Jenkins has said he makes films for black American audiences and anyone else can come if they like. How Australian audiences will relate, we’ll see. This is not a “universal story” but rather one that is highly specific to the African American experience. Except, of course, for that big, big presence of Love, which is in every frame of the film. That’s where everyone can relate; that’s (the outsiders’) “in”.

Nicholas Britell’s score is monumentally beautiful, moving and apt; it may be the first original motion picture soundtrack I’ve bought since last century. The craft in every department is similarly of the highest possible caliber. Layne and James, perversely, make the least impact (James, I find and found in Homecoming, is rather wooden) but the film’s supporting actors light up every scene around them. All are brilliant but Regina King and Colman Domingo as Tish’s loving parents are exceptional, as is Atlanta’s Brian Tyree Henry in an astonishing one-scene role.

This is a deeply felt, lovingly made movie that will stand the test of time. Push your boundaries.