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Marianne and Leonard: Words of Love

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The old idea of an artist having a ‘muse’, traditionally implies a male artist being inspired by a beautiful woman. The assumed gender politics of this might be even more ingrained if the artist is subject to all the temptations of a rock and roll lifestyle.

Nick Broomfield’s (Kurt and Courtney, Whitney: Can I Ne Me) gentle and celebratory documentary about Leonard Cohen and his sometime girlfriend Marianne Ihlen is subtitled words of love.

Broomfield has a personal connection of his own. As a young man in the hippyish 1960s, he travelled through Greece. In particular, he spent time on the idyllic island of Hydra where he met, and briefly fell for, Marianne. She was a sun-bleached blonde Norwegian whose round, welcoming face and easy manner attracted many men. The most famous of these was the young Canadian Jewish poet, Leonard Cohen.

It seemed that more or less everyone on the island was either taking drugs or sleeping with each other, or probably both. At least that is the way that those alive today remember it – and there are plenty of relations and old friends happy to be talking heads and provide telling little anecdotes.

Marianne and Leonard were a golden couple in that scene, and it is obvious from the early footage that they were having a lovely time. If that was all there was to it, then the film wouldn’t have much edge or narrative arc.

As many would already know, the initially shy poet was persuaded that he could sing and he went on to become, well, Leonard Cohen.

For several decades he was the rock poet of choice for so many, and ranks with Dylan, Paul Simon and Neil Young as one of the great greatest singer songwriters of the second half of the twentieth century.

The film doesn’t contain any sustained concert footage and it resists the temptation to play ‘So Long Marianne’ as an endless backdrop. Instead, the focus is very much on their love story. They both died fairly recently (their deaths being separated by only three months) and, though they split decades ago, many here testify that she was his greatest love.

There are darker or unresolved areas of course. Marianne’s son Axel (by another relationship) was a rock casualty by default in a way. Also, as already implied, the outcomes of the era of so-called ‘free love’ was structurally unequal.

Leonard resisted bourgeois conventions of marriage and family. Artists have done this for centuries, but the freewheeling promiscuity and no-strings lifestyle he was able to escape to were still built on the not-coincidental inequalities that served the rock gods so much more than the women in their lives.

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Danny is a young gymnast born with Down Syndrome. He regularly attends workshops run by RUCKUS, a real-life Sydney-based disability performance troupe, and he wants retired boxer and gym owner John to teach him how to fight.

On the surface, this feels like your everyday underdog boxing drama, albeit with the same casting ideas that went into Crispin Glover’s What Is It? Of course, directly comparing this to that is doing this film a serious disservice, as the diverse casting is not just an attempt to shock the audience, it also ends up adding to a film that outright demands a place among the year’s best efforts.

The nucleus of the story is Chris Bunton as Danny and Jerome Pride as John, whose protégé-mentor relationship reveals some unexpected chuckles early on. It’s not every day you see a working friendship build off the back of one knocking the other out cold. It taps into familiar sports tropes, but just under the surface, Kairos reveals something quite different. Over time, as the secret that ties them together gets closer and closer to breaking, their connection turns into an example of what life while disabled ultimately looks like.

With Audrey O’Connor as Danny’s on-again-off-again love interest and Digby Webster as Danny’s scene-stealing brother-in-tow, the film knows how to walk the walk in telling a story about disability with the right amount of empathy. To that end, the way it shows Danny’s reality, his interactions with others, and the alternating levels of condescension and sheer dicketry he puts up with day-to-day hit, really close to home.

Disability acceptance may have gotten better in leaps and bounds, to the point where the highest-grossing Aussie film of the year features a prominent character with Down Syndrome, but there is still a lot to be done.

But beyond the boxing drama, the domestic arguments, and the thankfully healthy sense of humour on offer, this film is at its best when it gets nice and cerebral. The depiction of Danny’s psychology is all kinds of heart-breaking, showing him emotionally distancing himself from others with Down’s, trying to fit into ‘normal’ society with disappointing results, and basically wishing that he wasn’t the way he is. And when even those around him, who are supposed to be in his corner, are also the ones letting him down the most, it can be hard not to get choked up at how much this promising young man has to deal with. “I’m surprised he’s so high-functioning” is a line that should strike a nerve with anyone out there with – or who helps take care of someone with – a disability.

Part sports drama, part domestic comedy, and all oneiric masterpiece, Kairos is the kind of film that needs to exist. It handles the basics of its genres very smoothly, and when it goes full visual storytelling, it manages to articulate a lot of the intricacies of the disabled experience, to the point where this has the potential to do a lot of good.

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Portrait of A Lady on Fire

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In previous eras, women were not expected to become great painters and they were often systematically kept away from career opportunities in such fields. We will never know how many fine artists were lost through this exclusion. In this subtle and sensuous French art movie, the passions and the longings of an 18th Century woman painter are delicately explored. Director Celine Sciamma (Girlhood), who also wrote the screenplay, shows great skill and empathy in bringing out both the sensibility of the period and the complex nature of attachment and thwarted desire.

We open with the heroine, Marianne (Noemie Merlant) setting out in a boat destined for a remote island where she will receive a strange commission. When the box containing a precious blank canvas goes overboard, she dives after it neatly demonstrating her life and death commitment to her craft.

On the island, she meets a Comtesse (veteran Italian actor Valeria Golino) who is in the process of arranging a marriage for her daughter Heloise (Adele Haenel). The never-seen suitor requires a portrait of his intended bride and Marianne is there to paint it.

Immediately she realises that Heloise does not want to be painted, in fact she seems distinctly uneasy about the whole arranged/proposed marriage. Slowly Marianne coaxes her into posing.

As the portrait sittings progress, interspersed with long walks on the beach, Heloise goes from sullen to coquettish. We begin to wonder if there is something more between the two women.

Supporting their friendship is young maid Sophie (Luana Bajrami) who, in a different way, also suffers from isolation and a dissatisfaction with a woman’s lot. When the Comtesse goes away to further the marriage negotiations, she leaves Heloise and Marianne with an ultimatum that they must get the portrait finished by her return.

Sciamma approaches her main themes quietly, even obliquely. The film is slow, sometimes languorous, but this suits the slow-burning attraction that is kindled between the women. This is decidedly a women’s film, focusing almost exclusively on female feelings (the men are a distant source of demands or problems). The word smouldering is usually reserved for bodice-ripping romances, but here it is, le mot just.

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Finke: There & Back

Australian, Documentary, Review, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

Dylan River’s documentary chronicling the Finke Desert Race, an off road, multi terrain two-day race for bikes, cars, buggies and quads through desert country from Alice Springs to the small Aputula (Finke) community, is as awe-inspiring and endearing a tale of heartbreak and the bone-shattering quest for racing glory to come down the pike in quite a while.

The treacherous route on the bone-dry Finke river bed, that stretches hundreds of kilometres out of Alice Springs, is a two day event that comprises of two race sections, one day spent racing one direction, pitching tents, drinking (a lot), staying the night and then doing the race back to Alice the next day.

Four-wheeled vehicles race first, followed by the motor bikes. Hundreds compete for the sake of adventure and for the ability to tell the story that they completed the insane race, though there are professional bike riders in it for the win.

We’re introduced to the KTM team rider David Walsh, an Alice Springs local. Yamaha sponsored bike racer Daymon Stokie is something of the underdog in the event, though he’s also a local. There are a number of other riders who we follow in the gruelling race, one in particular is Isaac Elliott, who attempted the race some years earlier only to hit a tree and break his spine, leaving him a paraplegic.

Isaac’s intention is to finally finish the race, so he enlists a mechanic friend in Alice Springs who welds a frame onto the bike to cradle Isaac’s legs, so he can straddle and ride a bike and hopefully even finish. While he does this, he’ll be shadowed by two friends on motor bikes, who’ll ensure he’s helped whenever he needs it.

It’s the sheer lunacy of the venture and Isaac’s bloody-minded grit, to strap himself to a bike and potentially face further bodily damage in an effort to get closure, that haunts him daily, that is not just deeply aspirational but also extremely moving.

Bearing many similarities to the documentary TT3D: Closer to the Edge , which featured similarly obsessed, crazy-brave riders who compete in the Isle of Man TT motorcycle race, an equally treacherous race where the riders and their families understand that injury and loss of life is part of a competitive rider’s lot. Where the Isle of Man racers compete to be dubbed King of the Mountain, the Finke riders compete for the moniker King of the Desert.

The cinematography in Finke: There & Back is stunning, with aerial photography taking full advantage of the desert locations and the outback’s wide-open vistas. This is a documentary that deserves to be seen on the biggest screen available.

Narrated by renowned revhead Eric Bana, Finke: There & Back documents that most quintessential Australian trait: the ability to shrug-off the most crushing, soul-destroying and difficult tasks with a joke, a laugh and an ice cold beer.

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The Addams Family

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In a time where an opulent ice-Queen with a penchant for show-tunes threatens to dominate the holiday box-office, Universal Pictures’ modestly grim and surprisingly sweet reboot of The Addams Family stands out across a slew of family-friendly movies like a goth student in a school class photo.

Directors Conrad Vernon and Greg Tiernan, of Sausage Party fame, bring the Addams family and their twisted sense of humour out of the crypt and into the twenty-first century.

The film follows the Addams’ and their contact with a neighbouring town, known as Assimilation, who are hell-bent on removing the supernatural family from their perfectly manicured community. The figurehead of Assimilation is a ruthless interior designer named Margaux, portrayed with devilish moxie by Allison Janney. The ‘humans being bigger monsters than the actual monsters’ yada-yada is a trope as old as Dracula, but does not prove a downer on The Addams Family due to the film’s well-natured intentions.

Running in tandem to the central story are side-plots involving the Addams children; both Wednesday (a wonderfully macabre Chloë Grace Moretz) and Pugsley (no stranger to strange things Finn Wolfhard) tackling separate coming-of-age issues.

Wednesday’s desire to expand her horizons outside of her haunted residence disappoint her mother Morticia (Charlize Theron), who fears her daughter will be targeted by humans as a monster the same way she had been. On the other hand, Gomez (Oscar Isaac) helps Pugsley prepare for his upcoming Mazurka, a ceremony of sorts that will propel the boy into adulthood.

The film does a solid job converging all stories, though follows a trend from a studio that continues to develop episodic-like narratives in their family films (see A Secret Life of Pets 2). It is a trend that borders on becoming convoluted and perhaps better suited to an opt-out platform like Netflix. Vernon and Tiernan do fall guilty of introducing underdeveloped points, including the harmful effects of social media and bullying, and end up half-heartedly abandoning these notions in favour of balancing side-plots. The result skims from both stories so they may both co-exist in the film’s scant runtime.

The filmmakers are conscious of the adults in the room and pepper The Addams Family with a continuous stream of light-hearted quips that play to the family’s obliviousness. The film’s efforts to balance out deeper themes – concerning growing-up and celebrating individuality – with amusing gaffes, strikes the right tonal balance for a film with a family-friendly, finger-snapping sitcom history. This comedic responsibility extends to the tremendous cast of supporting actors, including Nick Kroll, Bette Midler, Jenifer Lewis and Tituss Burgess.

Despite a history of live-action film, sitcom and 2D animated adaptations, there is an inherent freshness with The Addams Family’s introduction into the CG world. Giant trees, a murderous house, a playful pet lion: all of which come to life with eerie thrill while remaining faithful in style to the source material.

Yes, the film does bear a striking resemblance to the work of Genndy Tartakovsky a la Hotel Transylvania. Not just in visual style but in themes regarding belonging and embracing difference. Regardless, The Addams Family upholds the legacy of an endearing property with distinction and ought to inspire a renaissance in CG adaptations of spooky IP (looking at you Casper).

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Where’s My Roy Cohn?

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The murkier American politics gets, the more we seek to discern conspiracy theories about men behind the scenes and secret skulduggery. Not to deny, of course, that each jaw-dropping revelation will make us tend toward this view even more. And they just keep coming. Impeachment hearings anyone?

In Matt Tyrnauer’s documentary about lawyer Roy Cohn we have the story of a quintessential fixer and man on the make. Cohn grew up in New York under the cruel-care of his mother Dora who seemed to combine the fatal mix of coldness and pushy Jewish mother syndrome. Roy never felt he was good enough, and yet he was obviously fiercely bright. By the time he was in his twenties he was cosying up to the bellicose Senator Joseph McCarthy. It was while cutting his teeth in those now-reviled HUAC hearings that Cohn learned the basic lesson. When you are in the wrong, re-double your attack.

Throughout his long career spanning law and politics-by-default, he was proud of never backing down. In what the film suggests is over-compensation, Cohn tries over and over to show that he is tougher than the toughest. The many talking heads in the film all testify to his inflated and boastful sense of being a kingmaker or puppeteer of the powerful.

Then there is the complexity of his sexual orientation which comes to feature heavily in the latter part of the film. Not content with being the classic “self-hating Jew” (as the film puts it), Cohn was also aggressively persecuting gays despite his own homosexuality. After all, it was a smokescreen tactic that worked for J. Edgar Hoover.

It can be dangerous to buy into the mythmaking of a man like this but Tyrnauer doesn’t have to strain the argument too much when it comes to listing who he sought out. Cohn saw how powerful the Mafia were and he thought they would make loyal and cashed-up clients. They did. He also saw a potential ally in the rise of a self-serving young tycoon called Donald Trump. Sure enough, he helped young Donald along the way. In fact, the film’s title comes from that connection. When running out of dodgy advisors and legal shysters, Trump is supposed to have complained/asked “where’s my Roy Cohn?”.

The film suffers to some extent from having such an unsympathetic subject – and the attempts to humanise him only serve to make his actual behaviour seem venaler. It is, however, timely enough, and fascinating in a reptilian kind of way.

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A Boy Called Sailboat

Australian, family film, Review, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

Pay close enough attention to the soundtrack in American drama-comedy film A Boy Called Sailboat and you will be serenaded with the sounds of well-known tunes beautifully adapted into mariachi.

Powerful church anthems, blues-rock classics, Mexican folk; no genre escapes the Grigoryan brothers’ quaint and subdued score. But perhaps the most transportive of their covers is the adaption of children’s nursery rhyme ‘Row Row Row Your Boat’; its inclusion capturing the beauty of childhood wonder in a likeable film that embraces diversity.

Sailboat (Julian Atocani Sanchez), a seven-year-old boy of Hispanic background, resides in an unbearably hot desert town on the brink of desertion. His soul-stirring performance of ‘Row Row Row Your Boat’ for his hospital ridden ‘Abuela’ (grandmother in Spanish), succeeds in forging a relationship between the community and Sailboat’s otherwise marginalised family.

Sailboat’s determination to perform in-person for his Abuela sets in motion his quirky mission to learn the ins-and-outs of music. He does this while navigating the struggles of a disadvantaged, albeit loving, family whose house is literally held-up by an inward sticking beam.

Told with an offbeat sense of humour familiar to films based in small rural towns, the difficulties of Sailboat’s family – including his tough-looking but caring father (Noel Gugliemi) and reclusive mother (Elizabeth De Razzo) – talk to present-day racial tensions which threaten to divide America.

Australian director Cameron Nugent, who has worked predominantly as an actor in shows including Round the Twist, Blue Heelers and City Homicide, musters up an endearing tale carried off the back of Sanchez’s performance. The benevolent way Sailboat demystifies the complexities of life as a series of proverbs, expressed in the film’s narration, handed down to him by his Abuela, is where the film gathers its glowing charm.

It is not unusual for Sailboat and his friend Peeti (Keanu Wilson), a soccer-obsessed boy that never blinks, to wander through the town and engage with adults and strangers. The exchanges include conversations with JK Simmons (who despite featuring prevalently in the film’s marketing appears fleetingly), a deeply southern car salesman. It is quite confronting in 2019 to see such interactions, with Nugent taking necessary precautions to mitigate viewer worry. He, unfortunately, does not always succeed.

Nugent expresses optimism for the future through the unifying and prodigious talents of Sailboat – highlighting Hispanic excellence and the sweet grace of inclusion. Only when Nugent feels the need to flex his creative chops, complicating scenes to the point of exposing the film’s wires, does A Boy Called Sailboat lose steam.

Regardless, there is much to be admired about Nugent’s charming tale about family, culture, and inclusion. Just don’t expect a lot of JK Simmons.


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Mrs Lowry & Son

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L.S. Lowry, though little known internationally perhaps, was one of the most beloved British artists of the 20th century. He was effectively self-taught, and he never sought out fame or high society (he turned down a knighthood that the Crown offered). According to Adrian Noble’s (The Importance of Being Earnest) biopic, Lowry said that “I am just a man who paints, nothing more, nothing less”.

You might call Lowry (here brilliantly played by Timothy Spall) a naïve painter in some ways, but the public saw something of lasting value in his ordinary scenes of Lancashire workers trudging the streets. They saw an endearing quality to his ‘matchstick men’. No one ever called the work of his contemporaries Francis Bacon or Lucien Freud endearing.

Noble’s film is basically a two hander. Along with Martyn Hesford as scriptwriter, he explores the slightly suffocating relationship between the adult Lowry and his invalided and mercurial mother Elizabeth (Vanessa Redgrave).

Every day Lowry comes home from his lowly clerical job to look after his bedridden ma. She is obsessed with keeping up appearance and lives by the illusion that she is still ‘middle class’ despite having fallen on hard times. Laurie, as she calls him, cooks her sausages and listens to her snippy remarks about his art and her undermining observations on his lack of attractiveness.

Everything he does is designed to placate or please her, even if he occasionally tires of her constant crabbiness. The bond between them is indispensable to both of them and, indeed, when she passed, he apparently felt bereft. She didn’t live long enough to see his work hung in posh galleries in London, or a whole museum/gallery erected in his honour.

The film has a small canvas (sorry), and it suffers from a certain determined ordinariness, but it is affecting in other ways. Redgrave, a mannered actor, plays Mrs Lowry without any intention of making us love her. But, by the same token, she isn’t just one dimensional. There are moments of grace in their relationship, which must have served both of them.

Spall (who recently played a much more famous artist in Mr Turner (2014)) shows, as always, his ability to hold our absolute attention without appearing to do very much. He is one of the great British film actors of his generation, though no doubt, like his character here, he would probably shrug off such grand compliments.

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Everybody’s Everything

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“I just wana be everybody’s everything I want too much from people but then I don’t want anything from them at the same time u feel me I don’t let people help me but I need help but not when I have my pills but that’s temporary one day maybe I won’t die young and I’ll be happy? What is happy I always have happiness for like 10 seconds and then it’s gone. I’m getting so tired of this.”

Those are the words of Lil Peep, who died a little over 2 years ago from a drug overdose a few days after his 21st birthday. He was on the brink of mainstream success, after starting off by uploading his music to SoundCloud and finding his tribe of fellow indie musicians online. As some of the interviewees acknowledge, Lil Peep was punk for the online generation.

The documentary Everybody’s Everything is exec produced by his mother, Liza Womack, who features in the film, and who is also in the midst of a lawsuit against his music management, some of whom are also featured in the film. The person at the centre of the trial, his tour manager at the time, who it is alleged supplied the lethal dose, unfortunately doesn’t get a start here. Regardless, the film really isn’t about the controversy surrounding his death, but about his far-too-short life, and all the better for it, especially if you’re a fan.

Notably, the documentary is also exec produced by Terrence Malick, a family friend, and also features the beautiful words of Lil Peep’s beloved grandfather John Womack Jr., a highly respected historian and academic.

For fans of the musician, who was also embraced by the fashion industry, Everybody’s Everything will allow them to get a bittersweet insight into their hero. Although Lil Peep famously shared his mental health and drug issues freely online, the footage here from his childhood, plus the thoughts of his family and peers will confirm why his music was embraced so much. But even newcomers will get a great deal out of the film, as it tells an all too familiar tale of a highly talented and sensitive individual, thrust into the spotlight that they crave, and unable to handle the meteoric excesses and adulation. It’s also an intriguing, reflectively complicated study of parental nurturing, on how much do you let your beloved children go to achieve their dreams.

Highly affecting, and the music is transcendent, it’s just such a shame that it also heralds the day the music died.

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Knives Out

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We don’t get many whodunnits at the cinema these days, the genre seems to have fallen out of favour. Perhaps the rather stagey, old fashioned nature of the stories means that they rarely work in a modern context and tend to fare better in period pieces like Kenneth Branagh’s Murder on the Orient Express (2017). Or maybe television has taken over as a place for these tales to play out in a more longform context. Either way, after the financially successful, audience dividing Star Wars: The Last Jedi, writer/director Rian Johnson has his sights set on a smaller target with the overcooked but fun whodunnit, Knives Out.

Knives Out focuses on the death of successful crime novelist Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer). The outside appearance of the death would suggest it’s suicide, but closer examination reveals this is likely a case of [ominious musical sting] murder. There are a shitload of suspects, too. The entire Thrombey clan are greedy, vain avatars of entitlement portrayed with delightful relish by the likes of Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon, Toni Collette, Don Johnson and a playing-against-type Chris Evans. Every single character has a motive to kill, so it’s up to efficient Detective Lieutenant Elliot (Lakeith Stanfield) and southern accented uber genius Detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) to solve the mystery, with the help of doe-eyed caretaker, Marta Cabrera (Ana de Armes).

Knives Out manages to entertain for most of the duration. At 130 minutes it’s a tad too long for the story it’s telling, and the second act is a bit of a slog (a recurring problem in Johnson’s work, looking at you The Last Jedi), however, the whole affair begins and ends beautifully, and showcases some wonderful performances. Christopher Plummer does his best work in years, Chris Evans is a camp delight as the bitchy, acerbic Ransom and Daniel Craig is clearly having a hoot with his Foghorn Leghorn accent and over-the-top mannerisms. Johnson’s direction is, yet again, very solid, taking full advantage of the grand Thrombey manner, although, yet again, his writing feels a little awkward. A bunch of references to “alt-right trolls” and “SJW university” feel dated today and will likely just read as cringe-worthy or simply confusing in six months’ time.

Still, Knives Out is here to give you a good time with a slightly subversive whodunnit mystery and it absolutely succeeds in that goal. Perhaps it’s not as sharp as it could have been, but Knives Out is nonetheless an engaging romp worth taking a stab at.