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Where’d You Go, Bernadette

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On the whole, directors should be careful when making films from best sellers. The rush of enthusiasm in the reading community (think women’s book clubs and Oprah selections) doesn’t always flow through to a sensible or even enjoyable film. This one comes with lots of “I loved the book” anticipation and some strong first week business is probably guaranteed. The greater puzzle is why Richard Linklater should decide to add this to his eccentric but often brilliant oeuvre. Perhaps the thematic key is the stress of maintaining family for, after all, Linklater made one of the most remarkable films about growing up in America in Boyhood (2014).

A further thing that will get the film noticed is another big performance from Cate Blanchett in the lead. Despite an only half-committed accent, she is fully committed to the role. Here she is again playing an American eccentric on the borderline of being annoying. Her character is the eponymous Bernadette. She is an architect of ‘genius’ who was so original that she struggled against the constraints of her (mostly-male) profession, and she more or less dropped out at the height of her powers.

Now, she is an undiagnosed manic depressive who lives in a rundown mansion in Seattle (picking up on the joke that builders always have the worst houses). She is married to a geeky IT millionaire, Elgie (Billy Crudup) who worships her but still somehow ends up taking her for granted. He tries hard as a dad and a supporter but his ‘crime’ is not to provide enough opportunity for Bernadette to realise her great potential.

They have a precocious daughter called Bee (a nice perf from relative newcomer Emma Nelson) who is unhappy at her posh school and slightly embarrassed by her eccentric mother.

In a series of ridiculously implausible plot twists Bernadette ‘escapes’ her life and ends up on an Antarctic adventure. The film then contrives to make the place provide an opportunity for visionary architects.

The choice of the Antarctic is itself significant because in many ways it represents the ultimate positional good in travel one upmanship terms (one day this will be the moon). The very fact that we shouldn’t really be opening up this pristine place for tourism at all gives it unassailable snob value. If you have ‘everything’ then what is the next thing you must collect in your search for ‘experiences’?

The book has been hailed as a satire on the go-getting classes in Seattle (where the book’s author Maria Semple lives). If this is so, then it is true only in the sense that Bridget Jones’s Diary is a ‘satire’ on romance. In other words, the film pushes all the right buttons for the self-help generation trying to perfect their lives (and regretting the first world obstacles that fall in their way) without ever really questioning the need for the quest in the first place. Self-actualisation is an unquestioned good for the upper middle class in rich countries. Deep down though, it is quite conventional and takes the case of a safe white fantasy to be a paradigmatic search for meaning. If the tale had just a bit more grit, we could perhaps get some traction on its glassy surfaces.

 
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House of Cardin

Documentary, Review, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

In the prologue of new documentary, House of Cardin, it’s noted that the fashion designer, Pierre Cardin, is very particular about what he lets people know about him. Indeed, a more youthful Cardin, through archival footage, acknowledges that Pierre Cardin as a brand is completely separate from the person. And if you’re looking for an official biography to read, then apparently, good luck finding one. Perhaps then that’s what will make House of Cardin, directed by husbands Todd Hughes and P. David Ebersole (Mansfield 66/67), so special to some.

Given full access by the titular House, the documentary explores Cardin’s life from his family’s escape from fascism during the second world war in Italy, becoming a male model and of course, opening his own fashion house before essentially creating mod chic. Hughes and Ebersole interview Cardin, as well as his family and peers, in what essentially becomes a huge love-in. A fashionable love in, where everyone looks impeccable, but a love-in nonetheless. This is because House of Cardin’s biggest issue is that for all its gloss and glamour, it never really manages to get under the skin of a man who didn’t get to his late 90s by letting every Tom, Dick and Harry know his most intimate secrets.

Brush aside the repeated cries of genius – and no one is denying he is otherwise – and you get to the meat and potatoes of the piece. As well as his fashion, Cardin shattered the conceptions of how a model should look. He hung his clothes on models from all over the globe, in stark contrast to the uber white, skinny template of yore. To Cardin, it just made sense to make clothes for everyone and he is heard to comment on the fact that he doesn’t have a particular woman in mind when he makes his dresses.

Another narrative that stands out is Cardin’s keenness to put his name to everything. We’re told at the beginning that the Pierre Cardin name can be found on 800 different products, ranging from dominoes to planes. With such a potential dilution of brand, he is seen as both a socialist and a capitalist, even by the people who worked with him, but House of Cardin doesn’t waste much time tackling this. Again, this is not the in-depth doco you might be expecting, but rather a flag waving celebration of one man’s career.

Your mileage will certainly vary as a result, but even if your fashion sense currently extends to what trackies you’re going to wear in front of the TV, you are still liable to extract some nuggets of interest from the film.

 
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Waves

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As the world falteringly starts to return to normal, skittish as a rescue cat, so too does the humble cinema begin to show movies again, picking up where we left off before, you know, stuff. One of the first is the stylish drama flick, Waves, from Trey Edward Shults, who last gave us the solid, but oddly-marketed It Comes At Night (2017), and the result is impressively atmospheric, but lacking in certain areas.

Waves is essentially a drama about a family, The Williams, set in present day America. We begin the tale following popular jock, Tyler (Kevin Harrison Jr.), who seems to be absolutely winning at life. He has a gorgeous girlfriend, Alexis (Alexa Demie), a devoted-albeit-overbearing father, Ronald (Sterling K. Brown), and a step-mum who loves him, Catherine (Renee Elise Goldsberry), not to mention a sister who supports him from a distance, Emily (Taylor Russell). But scratch the surface and we see that what lies beneath the perfect facade is a different story, and soon the foundations of Tyler’s life begin to crack and crumble.

It’s not the freshest of premises for a drama – we’ve seen this kind of thing a thousand times before – but what Waves offers is absolutely stunning direction from Shults. The intense roaming camera, the vivid colour palette, the use of sound and music (from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, no less) make this a present and feverish experience. Combine that with genuinely stellar performances from every cast member and you’ve got the makings of a classic on your hands. However, around the halfway mark, Waves stumbles, choosing to use a narrative device that might have worked if it had been employed half an hour earlier.

In practical terms, Waves feels like two very good, but overlong, drama films smushed together. It’s also saddled with a rather blunt script, making the 135-minute opus play at times like the world’s most stylishly-directed after school special. There are shades of Requiem For A Dream in some moments, where everything that can go wrong does go wrong to an almost absurdly overwrought degree. That said, the performances alone make Waves worth a look, with Kevin Harrison Jr. and Taylor Russell delivering particularly superb work.

It’s not subtle, and it could have lost twenty minutes easily, but Waves is a stylish, moving film that’s more than worth a look, and a decent reason to return to the much missed picture house.

 
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Master Cheng

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Filmmaker Mika Kaurismaki (older brother to renowned director Aki Kaurismaki) exhibits the same interests in societal issues as his brother. Like his sibling, his particular tone and perspective is rooted in the commonplace; he also has his younger brother’s affinity for dry humour and sight gags.

Master Cheng tells the story of Cheng (Pak Hon Chu), who arrives at a quiet roadside diner in small-town Finland with his young son Nunjo (Lucas Hsuan), following the recent death of his wife back in Shanghai. Cheng is looking for a Finnish friend he met in China. Unable to locate the man, Cheng meets restaurant owner Sirkka (Anna-Maija Tuokko), whose hard-scrabble, hand-to-mouth existence running the restaurant provides Cheng with an opportunity to help.

When a bus load of Chinese tourists turn up requesting food, Cheng’s impromptu offer to cook reveals his considerable skills as a fine dining chef and soon, Chinese food is on the menu every day, attracting a steady stream of customers. When Sirkka invites Cheng and his son to stay for a spell, the tiny populace and idyllic, breathtaking countryside soothe Cheng and his son’s broken hearts. Converting the locals to vegetables, noodles and soup instead of sausages and mash sees a marked improvement in the health of the elderly clientele in the restaurant. Food as nourishment for the soul, or something to that effect.

There have been a few riffs on the concept of ‘food from the heart’, the most notable being Babette’s Feast and Like Water for Chocolate, though that said, Master Cheng is not even flogging the conceit with any degree of intensity. It’s simply highlighting the breaking down of cultural differences using food and showing the positive effects of Chinese herbal medicine.

Anna-Maija Tuokko and Pak Hon Chu’s sweet-natured and subtle performances help sell the premise, which on paper, threatens to assault the audience with weapons-grade mawkishness. Filtered through Mika Kaurismaki’s sensibility and low key approach, it’s something akin to the tone of Lasse Hallstrom’s output (Chocolat comes to mind), though the level of treacly emotional manipulation and twee is nowhere near as assaultive; it prefers instead to take the audience on a gentler ride. It’s overall message of human connection and empathy wins out, where food and nourishment are literal salves for the human malaise and where compassion and friendship can save lives.

 
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The Taverna

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If ever there was an unsung hero of Australian cinema, it’s Melbourne-based writer/director Alkinos Tsilimidos. Ever since his punch-to-the-face adaptation of Ray Mooney’s play with his 1994 debut Everynight…Everynight, Tsilimidos has been quietly plying his trade with an admirable and near extraordinary lack of compromise. His small but impressive body of work – Silent Partner, Tom White, Em 4 Jay, Blind Company – consists entirely of rough-cut gems, tough films about tough subjects that rarely see the light of day in local cinema. He is an auteur in every sense of the word, with every film a strong personal statement, made in collaboration with others but unmistakably the work of one filmmaker. The Taverna, however, sees Tsilimidos making a surprising left turn, and it’s an utter joy. Eschewing darkness (though a little still creeps in) in favour of warmth and light, this is a beautiful work about community, friendship, family, loyalty, and eccentricity, all set within the slightly shabby walls of a Greek restaurant in Melbourne’s suburbs.

Shambling, funny and charming, Kostas (veteran Greek actor, Vangelis Mourikis, who starred in the festival hit, Chevalier) runs his restaurant with anything but an iron fist, constantly exchanging friendly banter with his chef, Omer (Senol Mat), his waitresses Jamila (Rachel Kamath), Katerina (Emmanuela Costaras) and Sally (Emily O’Brien-Brown) and kitchen hand Samir (Salman Arif). But on one night, everything seems to go chaotically wrong. Jamila’s boorish ex-husband (Peter Paltos) turns up with his new flame (Tottie Goldsmith), prompting her to pull the pin on her belly-dancing duties for the night. Wannabe actress Sally dons the gear and learns the moves instead, which sets in course a chain of unfortunate but very funny events. Kostas’ drug-addled son (Christian Charisiou), meanwhile, hovers on the edges, always making trouble for his big-hearted father.

Evoking the same kind of feel as hospitality faves Big Night and (the under-appreciated) Dinner Rush, The Taverna hustles, bustles and bubbles with the unmistakable rhythms of real life. Like all of Tsilimidos’ films, there’s poetry here too, but these people – all loveable, but all flawed – look and feel like they could be working the pans or charming the customers at a suburban Greek restaurant. The performances are absolutely superb across the board, but the majestic Vangelis Mourikis rides above it all, literally oozing charisma as the establishment’s tarnished saint of a godfather. It’s a great, great performance, likely necessitating a satellite cross to Greece come AACTA Awards time.

Vangelis Mourikis might be the on-screen hero, but Alkinos Tsilimidos is the off-screen master, crafting a gorgeously characterised film rich with humour, humanity and warmth. The Taverna is a true delight, from beginning to end. As Kostas would say to his customers with a crumpled flourish, “Bravo!”

 
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The Wretched

Home, Horror, Review, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

For some reason, witches never seem to get a fair shake in the realm of horror movies. There are about sixty trillion vampire flicks, a cool million werewolf joints and more zombie movies than you can shake a severed femur at, but witches? A scant few. Oh sure, there are some notable examples. The Blair Witch Project (1999), of course, although the titular witch never actually appears on screen. There’s Dario Argento’s Suspiria (1977) and Luca Guadagnino’s enthusiastic 2018 remake of the same. And, of course, there’s the best recent example, Robert Egger’s divisive, subversive The Witch (2015). The Wretched, from brothers Brett and Drew T. Pierce, attempts to add to that slender canon, and the result is… fitfully entertaining.

The Wretched is essentially the story of affable teen, Ben (John-Paul Howard) who comes to stay with his father, Liam (Jamison Jones) during the messy divorce of his parents. Life with dad isn’t so bad, and Ben meets the quirky Mallory (Piper Curda) with whom he is quite smitten. What puts a damper on the whole caper is that there seems to be a body-possessing witch crawling around the area, and it just might have taken over sexy neighbour lady, Abbie (Zarah Mahler). What follows is a cheerful, albeit derivative, mashup of the likes of Rear Window (1954), Fright Night (1985) and Supernatural, with loads of jump scares, decent creature effects and a gamely over-the-top third act.

The Wretched has the somewhat dubious distinction of being one of the few box office success stories during COVID-19, mainly because it played in drive-in theatres across the United States when there was bugger all else on. Taken as a trashy, fun-but-forgettable, drive-in flick The Wretched provides an amiable 95 minutes that, while unlikely to leave you with any lingering nightmares, or indeed vivid memories of the film at all, is a mostly entertaining, occasionally imaginative, bit of escapist genre fluff.

Younger audiences or those hard up for new genre offerings will likely appreciate the modest charms on display here. Witches, however, will probably be extremely unimpressed.

 
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A White, White Day

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This Icelandic domestic drama cum crime thriller deals in shades of grey, both climactically and morally. From the opening scenes, we see that the protagonists live in a remote landscape that is likely to disappear behind a blizzard or a fog at any moment. The hero, or perhaps we should say protagonist, is Ingimundur (Ingvar Sigurdsson), a not-quite-retired policeman whose younger wife has recently died in a car accident. He deals with his grief as best he can. Seemingly he is OK. He has a good relationship with his eight-year-old granddaughter Salka (a great child acting turn from Ida Mekkin Hlynsdottir). He knows he needs to stay strong for her. However, there is something eating away at Ingimundur and slowly he begins to see his memories of the marriage, and of his wife, in a different light.

The film is directed by Hlynur Palmason and it is perhaps relevant to note that he is a man, as in many ways this is a very male view of marriage, relationships and fidelity. The deceased wife (Sara Dogg Asgeirsdottir) is rarely brought into the picture. Although there are a couple of telling flashbacks, her motivations and desires are only relayed to us through her husband’s memories.

That said, the director does have the advantage, perhaps, of really understanding the questionable mixture of tenderness and possessiveness that characterises Ingimundur’s version of love. To say too much about where this takes the story would be to do the film a disservice. In some ways, it meanders a little in the middle – but that too, may be deliberate. The last act represents a real change of gear but one which, thinking back, has been set up all along in a subtle way. The elements of the film that work well are good enough for the film to stay with us after its images have faded to white.

 
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Romantic Road

Documentary, Review, Theatrical, This Week 1 Comment

England, 2011. A comfortable old world cottage bedded deep in the Sussex countryside. It’s the epitome of secure, settled living yet its owner, Rupert Grey, lawyer, traveller, photographer, carpenter, is preparing to embark on a risky adventure. Grey and Jan, his wife of 35 years, are about to drive across India in the family car, a 1936 Rolls Royce.

“At some point I realised that driving a bloody Rolls Royce across India in the post-colonial era is kind of mad,” says Grey.

Now in his late 60s, Grey is a charismatic adventurer in the eccentric English upper class mould, a renaissance man who has been a cowboy, prospector, soldier, successful partner in a law firm and an addicted traveller. In 1981, four years after they married, he and Jan took a long journey through the Himalayas, publishing their articles and photographs in international magazines.

Back home and three daughters later, Grey built a library and a barn for their Sussex cottage – and a bathtub in the garden where he can bathe in the open air.

Interviews with daughters Rose and Carmody reveal they are accustomed to their parents’ adventurous ways, including family holidays on safari. “Most people would have a rationale for why they do something like driving across India in a Rolls Royce,” says Carmody. “It didn’t even occur to me to question it.”

The first part of the documentary sets up the romance and planning of the trip. Grey is adventurous but not entirely reckless. He did a lot of research, including packing plenty of medical supplies and strengthening the Rolls’ running boards in anticipation of the kids that would want to jump on to hitch a lift.

The cinematography in Oliver McGarvey’s feature debut, is beautiful throughout and the sensory details and research are reminiscent of that other great road trip movie, Walter Salles’ The Motorcycle Diaries. One of the most beautiful and moving scenes is of Grey and his wife setting off from the driveway of their rural Sussex cottage, a symbol of the settled life they leave behind to venture into a risky unknown.

Driving the Rolls starts in Mumbai, the first leg of the trail that will end in Dhaka and the Chobi Mela photo festival. Scenes on the crowded city roads are hair raising.

“You have to drive like an Indian,” Grey says. “It’s not true that Indians are bad drivers, you have to be very skilled to drive when there are no traffic lights and regulations.” He adds, “I feel completely at home, as if visiting an old familiar friend.”

Interview clips from family and friends explain that driving the ostentatious car would attract attention and social contact. Grey was concerned there might be hostility to this symbol of colonial wealth and elitism, but the overwhelming reaction was celebration and joy. Soon, the Rolls went viral on India’s social media as people photographed it everywhere.

There were problems that seem almost inevitable. The couple had a bout of ‘Delhi belly’ and the Rolls has more than one mechanical failure. There’s a bad moment at the Bangladesh border, with a tense stand-off with authorities and complicated paperwork, and a dangerous road through the bandit-infested Himalayas seems impossible to overcome.

A particular strength of the documentary, apart from the terrific camerawork and editing, is the deep layer of the story beneath the adventure, the relationship between Grey and his wife. There’s a quiet soulmate dynamic between them that is very nice to watch. Jan is described by her daughter as kind and gentle but the stronger person, who makes it possible for Grey to live out the dream. Grey himself points to the precious 6 months shared experience after being married for 35 years. Over 5000 miles, the road trip simply gave them time together.

This is a story, romantic in the true sense of the word, that you won’t want to miss.

 
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The King of Staten Island

Comedy, Review, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

Two of the best films of 2020 (so far), feel extremely relevant given the current environment. The timing of Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods amidst the BLM movement makes it all the more powerful, while the emphasis on general life movement within Judd Apatow’s latest is all-too familiar amidst COVID isolation.

The King of Staten Island tells the semi-autobiographical story of comedian Pete Davidson. Scott is a 20-something who lost his father at a young age and still lives with his mum (Tomei). With the arrival of his mum’s new boyfriend (Burr), seemingly everyone Scott knows is pushing him to do something with his life, besides getting stoned with his friends.

As an Apatow film, TKOSI is a return to form. It’s genuinely funny and shows a lot of heart, featuring sub plots and characters with enough depth to pull you deep into the universe they’ve created. This is largely thanks to Davidson’s involvement as co-writer and producer.

The problem with Apatow’s previous films, like This Is 40, was that he seemed so out of touch with the Average Joe, it became hard to feel sorry for or even relate to his lead characters. Similarly, with Trainwreck that Amy Schumer wrote and starred in, the characters and scenarios felt too animated and extreme, so it was hard to relate again.

With Davidson as inspiration, Apatow has found the perfect balance, largely because most of it’s based on real people and experiences – it’s what the film needed as an anchor, and is made all the more emotional given Apatow’s ability to find humour in the heavy stuff.

As a Davidson film, this is a huge feather in his cap. For anyone who hasn’t watched much Saturday Night Live, you may only know Davidson as the former boyfriend of singer Ariana Grande, or someone who occasionally pops up on Celebrity Roast. His gawky demeanour and awkward comedy style make him hard to like even in small doses, but here he gets a chance to unpack the baggage that’s driving him and eventually win you over.

At over 2 hours long, TKOSI definitely drags at times, which is even more annoying given that some character arcs aren’t closed off – for example the very opening scene, which is effective at grabbing attention, doesn’t really come back into play nor does it feel aligned with the character by the end. Similarly, some of Scott’s friends and particularly the relationship with his sister, fall by the wayside.

In terms of casting, in addition to Davidson’s debut as a lead, many of his co-stars get their deserving break. Standouts are Bel Powley as Scott’s friend and casual fling, and Maude Apatow (yes Judd’s daughter, previously seen in Knocked Up and This Is 40), as Scott’s concerned sister. Veterans Marisa Tomei, Bill Burr and Steve Buscemi are also solid as expected.

All in all, while it starts slow and seems long, the final half-hour is worth the wait. It’s where all the emotional build-ups hit home, topped off with one of the most fitting music needle drops just as the credits roll.

BONUS LIST

Seeing as we’ve already shared our opinion on two of Apatow’s previous films, we figured we’d go the whole nine yards and rank his full filmography. Here it is:

  1. The 40-Year-Old Virgin (2005)
  2. Knocked Up (2007)
  3. The King Of Staten Island (2020)
  4. Funny People (2009)
  5. Trainwreck (2015)
  6. This Is 40 (2012)
 
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It Must Be Heaven

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This is a film about looking, about looking afresh and perhaps about waiting. Given that it is made by a Palestinian, the idea of waiting (when will that country finally be a country again in the eyes of the world?) is perhaps the subtext of the whole thing. But the freedom here is the freedom not to be directly political in one sense. We should also add that it bills itself as a ‘comedy’ and even reflects – via very occasional bouts of dialogue – that this is an ironic term in the context of Palestine’s ongoing struggles.

The centre of the film (though he wouldn’t call himself its hero) is the director himself Elia Suleiman. He starts off in Palestine and then decides to hop on a plane and see what is happening in various cities. He spends time in Paris, and in New York before finally flying home.

There is no getting around the fact that the film, with minimal dialogue and no actual plot or drama, is more or less a series of sight gags and quirky situations. Some of these are fleeting – for example Suleiman sees a series of tanks incongruously rolling through the deserted dawn streets of Paris. Others are little skits touched with surrealism, such as when some latter-day Keystone Cops chase a female white-winged ‘angel’ through Central Park. The spirit of Buster Keaton and Chaplin and the great era of silent films also informs the work.

Some scenes, perhaps slightly reminiscent of Wes Anderson, make gentle comedy from the unlikely appearance of unintended symmetry. At other times, Suleiman is there mostly as a witness. He is a mildly engaging figure with his simple gestures and his benign blank stare. He is constantly surprised by the world, but he never seems to judge it.

Part Mr Bean and Part Monsieur Hulot (both references no doubt intentional) his is a kind of everyman lens through which we can have an affectionate view of the world attuned to both its absurdity and its poetry. The film does demand patience and a willingness to enter the director’s world view. The charm has to do all the work. As implied, given that there is really nothing else ‘going on’ except this slow-burn quirkiness, it is fair to say that you have to be in the mood to really enjoy it.