Another Round

Now playing in Australian cinemas.

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Conceptually, Another Round sounds like a high-concept early 2000s comedy starring Will Ferrell, Jack Black, Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson: four teachers decide, in order to raise their dynamism at work and in general life, to experiment with staying a little bit drunk pretty much all the time. Specifically, they intend to follow the hypothesis of a Norwegian psychiatrist named Finn Skårderud, who suggested that human beings would operate best with a consistent level of .05% blood alcohol. In the Ferrell / Black / Stiller / Wilson theoretical version, wacky inebriated hi-jinks would ensue, inevitably leading to some regretful actions and, in all likelihood, an ultimate repudiation of the experiment.

But this is not that movie; it is director Thomas Vinterberg’s (written with Tobias Lindholm, together one of the great screenwriting teams on the planet), and it stars Mads Mikkelsen, Thomas Bo Larsen, Magnus Millang and Lars Ranthe. While there are humorous moments, the style is naturalistic realism, and the tone is mournful and often dark. It takes a high-concept, somewhat ludicrous premise, and plays it straight: what would happen?

I think we all know what would happen, and Vinterberg knows we know, so whatever delights the film will offer, it will offer in execution, and they are many. The script, despite generally heading in an inevitable direction, is surprising and complex, with sublime dialogue and fascinating character detail; the cinematography is organic but touched constantly by magic (particularly involving some seriously beautiful twilights and sunsets) and the acting is spectacular, with Mikkelsen (who is very much the lead) giving a monumental performance (in a career full of them). Framed often in very tight close-up, Mikkelsen’s Martin has a face of bruised solitude, his eyes sad, lonely, desperate and needy until they are invigorated, in strange and intriguing ways, by the booze.

This is a wonderful movie, challenging, provocative, a little subversive, and totally engaging. It is Denmark’s entry for Best International Film at this year’s Oscars, and it could win.

The Nest

* * * * 1/2

Sean Durkin’s The Nest is the first great movie of 2021. A relationship drama anchored by incredible performances from Carrie Coon and Jude Law, it left me devastated, wrecked, and thoroughly sated. It puts you (and its characters) through the ringer; once the credits roll, a tight hundred and seven minutes after the evocative first shot, you’ve been through something. You’ve been through a lot.

That first shot is precise and revealing. It’s a slow zoom out from the window of a house. Combined with the ominous score and even the font of the title card, Durkin is using the cinematic language of horror, and specifically 70s horror. The cinematography has a grainy texture to it – it looks like film – and the mood is malevolent.

As it turns out, we’re in the 80s, although that is revealed gradually, and not, strictly, in a horror film. But Durkin returns to that zoom five or six times, almost always framing a window or house, and his intentions are very clear. Horror can reside in the house, and our own family can be the cause of our greatest pain.

Coon and Law play a married couple, with two kids, who move from a comfortable-seeming house somewhere in the US to a huge, rambling, spooky-yet-beautiful manor house in Surry, outside of London. Law’s character Rory is returning to his roots and to working with an old colleague (the awesome Michael Culkin) at his City trading firm; Coon’s Allison works with horses, and the intention is for her to set up her own professional stables on the grounds. It is a move prompted by Rory’s hyperactive ambition, and it will be the family’s curse.

I was in total, seat-gripping suspense for pretty much the whole third act of this superbly crafted film. It all gels: a perfect screenplay, incredibly evocative cinematography (the dull grey British afternoon skies evoke such a precise feeling), the period design, the sublime acting, and that superbly forbidding score (by Richard Reed Parry). Durkin showed huge promise with his debut feature, Martha Marcy May Marlene, back in 2011; that he now offers his second, a quiet masterpiece, in 2021, shows the value of taking your time and doing things right.

Sound Of Metal

Can Paul enter the Oscar ‘Raci’?

* * * 1/2

Paul Raci makes a massive impression in Sound of Metal, the debut directorial feature from screenwriter Darius Marder (The Place Beyond The Pines). The film is featuring heavily in ‘awards chatter’ for lead actor Riz Ahmed, who plays a heavy-metal drummer who rather suddenly loses his hearing, but mark my words, Raci is going to start – pardon the pun – making noise. His performance is an apt use of that critical cliché, a ‘revelation’.

The film itself mashes up two pretty conventional sub-genres – those of ‘dealing with sudden disability’ and ‘rehab’ – without subverting either nor adding anything fantastically new, except a highly specific sound design that strives mightily to give us a simulacrum of what Ahmed’s character, Ruben, is hearing and experiencing. That sound design is the other element of the film being talked about for big awards, but again, I’m laying my money on Raci to step forth and start scooping up Supporting Actor statues. He plays the cultish leader of a community for deaf addicts (Ruben’s a four-year clean junkie) with absolute authority, compassion, empathy and integrity. Since, despite having a true ‘character actor’ face, Raci is simply not that well known (and wasn’t to me), he comes across as one hundred percent the real deal, as though Marder had found this actual man and had him play himself. Raci was raised by deaf parents so his signing is unassailable, even as he himself is not deaf. It’s perfect casting resulting in a perfect performance.

An indie film with wide appeal, Sound of Metal hardly re-invents the wheel, but it’s got a lot of integrity and heart, and is well worth your two hours. Ahmed is indeed very, very good, as is Olivia Cooke in an underwritten role as his girlfriend; late in the film, a major international star makes an appearance that’ll make your eyes pop wide open.

The Assistant

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* * * * 1/2

Kitty Green’s debut fiction feature, The Assistant, is remarkably assured, bold and precise. With a preternaturally firm grasp of tone and style, backed up by immaculate – if low-key – craftsmanship, Green takes on one of the massive stories of our recent history – the systemic abuse of women by patriarchal systems as exemplified specifically by the actions of Harvey Weinstein – and turns them into ninety minutes of crystal drama, informing, enlightening and horrifying us.

Julia Garner plays a young woman who has been one of Weinstein’s personal assistants for about two months. (The Weinstein character is never named, nor is his face shown, but there is no doubt whatsoever who the character is meant to be). She’s in the inner sanctum, at a desk immediately outside his office, in a reception room with two other – male – assistants. In another part of the building, executives and other employees labour away at distribution, finance and artistic elements of his business (clearly The Weinstein Company) while more employees – including Human Resources – occupy a building next door. Los Angeles and London offices of the company are ingeniously represented by thick folders handed to a new employee.

The action takes place over a single – long – Monday, rarely leaving the offices, and part of the thematic genius of the script is that it’s, in many ways, ‘just another day’, with all the minor and major abuses – of trust and power, emotions and sex – that a single day in the life of Weinstein could involve. It’s gut-wrenching and evocative and atmospherically rich; at times the vibe is of a horror movie, the monster lurking just metres from the protagonist, separated by one door and a lifetime of acquired privilege.

All the excellent actors are on the same completely naturalistic page; the spare (and often incidental) dialogue is perfect in its concise precision; and the production design oozes authenticity, to the point that I suspect it reflects the actual Weinstein Company offices as leaked by an ex-employee. It all adds up to a stunning package, which also, more than any film I’ve seen in at least eighteen months, has something truly serious to say, and says it with breathtaking audacity. Brilliant.

Now available to rent via Foxtel On Demand. Available to Rent On Demand from 10 June on platforms including Google Play, iTunes, Fetch TV, Telstra Bigpond, Sony (Playstation Network), Microsoft & Quickflix.

Monos

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* * * 1/2

Alejandro Landes’ mesmerising, gorgeous and intriguing tale of child soldiers holding an American doctor captive in an unnamed South American country feels like the bastard child of Werner Herzog’s Aguirre: Wrath of God and Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto, with clear and deliberate references to Lord of the Flies and Apocalypse Now – among others – thrown in for good measure. It was clearly an adventure to shoot; indeed, Landes has said that “people were dropping like flies … everyone cried on this movie.” Principal photography was in the Andes, at heights of up to 4,300 metres (14,000 feet), and there is a constant dramatic tension between the natural beauty of the setting and the unnerving situation.

Mica Levi delivers another brilliant otherworldly score (she did Under the Skin and Jackie, too) and the hitherto unknown child actors are all astonishingly convincing, as may they well be: they kind of lived the experience, being put through a boot camp by a Colombian military consultant who had himself been a child soldier (from when he was 11 to his desertion at 24) and who plays their leader in the movie. The fact that he’s an astonishingly muscled dwarf is just par for the course in a film which defies expectations at every turn. The American hostage is played bravely and precisely by Julianne Nicholson, one of those non-star “oh her!” actresses with a massive set of TV, but few leading film, credits. No doubt she will consider this one of her most vital roles – and challenges – for years to come; she can be proud just for taking the job, let alone doing it so well.

Despite all the references, it’s bracingly original. That duality is also present as a travelogue: here are some of the most beautiful locations in the world, exquisitely shot, along with reason to never visit them.

Blow The Man Down (Amazon Streaming Movie Review)

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* * *

There’s a sub-genre of dark comedy that, dramatically, is a no-brainer: someone in a group, however small, of relatively innocent people, kind-of accidentally kills someone; the group agrees to cover up the crime (and, usually, help dispose of the body); and then all members of the group face three ever increasing pressures: the fear of being found out (and arrested), their own moral conscience, and the disintegration of the group’s resolve. It’s a superb dramatic engine: the structure is solid, the stakes are high, and the conflict is inherent. Some of the classic examples include Shallow Grave, Very Bad Things and I Know What You Did Last Summer.

Blow The Man Down’s point of difference is its milieu, which is wintry coastal Maine, on the North-Eastern US seaboard, in a fishing community. Assumedly touristy by summer, it’s fishermen and locals in the off-season, and the filmmakers, Bridget Savage Cole and Danielle Krudy, utilise a chorus of fishermen singing stunningly beautiful sea-shanties to comment on the action, to great effect. I heard an interview with them where they revealed that they were obsessed with watching The Wicker Man (1973) while shooting their film, and that movie’s sense of weird isolation and creepy local colour generously infuses their work.

It’s not nearly as well scripted, or ingeniously directed, as the examples above, but the milieu definitely offers its own rewards, as does the supporting cast of exemplary female character actors led by June Squibb and Margo Martindale. It’s borrowing from tropes you’ve seen before, but shuffles and deals them fresh.