The King

The King (2019)

Directed by David Michod, written by Joel Edgerton and David Michod

Currently doing the rounds on Netflix, this ambitious and quite long film was the brainchild of Australian creatives, David Michod and Joel Edgerton, part of the Blue-Tongue Films collective – which also includes Michod’s partner, Mirrah Foulkes, director of Judy & Punch (2019). 

I love a good historical drama and this was based partly on real life events and the Shakespearean Henriad. After seeing Timothee Chalamet, who was so perfect as Laurie in Little Women earlier this week, I thought this would be a good vehicle for him. Sadly, I found it largely a disappointment. 

While the production design by Fiona Crombie (The Favourite) is stunning, the score by Nicholas Britell and the cinematography by Adam Arkapaw excellent, I found the colour palette a little too sombre – like being hit over the head constantly about how drab life was in the 15th century. But it was the  dialogue and delivery that lacked most for me. 

Having a long love affair with Shakespeare’s plays, I found the script and acting not up to the lofty standards set by Branagh’s epic Henry V (1989) and more recently, The Hollow Crown (2014) and overall, it seemed that this generation’s ‘bright young things’ were having a stab at something deeper than a teen drama. 

Having said that, it does have some good moments. The Battle of Agincourt is very well done, delivering all the mud and blood in a style obviously borrowed from Game of Thrones’ season 6 ‘Battle of the Bastards’ – which was itself, inspired by Agincourt. Ben Mendelsohn (who seems to be in everything at the moment) was great as Henry IV but didn’t have a lot of screen time, as did Thomasin McKenzie as Hal’s sister, Phillipa. Sean Harris who I first saw in The Borgias was excellent as Henry V’s advisor, William and could convey more with a glance than many with a page of dialogue. Unfortunately, Robert Pattinson’s Louis was more comical than lethal and Joel Edgerton reminded me more of a young Russell Crowe than Falstaff. Lily-Rose Depp, looking gorgeous as ever is suitably decorative as Catherine but above all, I felt Chalamet was out of his depth with this role, never really conveying the inner conflict that Hal undergoes in becoming Henry. In fairness, I don’t think the script served him particularly well in that quarter.

In conclusion, it’s okay and I’m sure with the added push of Brad Pitt’s Plan B production company and Netflix, it will get a lot of coverage and hopefully, bring younger audiences to this classic story. But overall, at nearly two and a half hours, The King made me pine for Tom Hiddleston’s version of Hal and especially, Simon Russell Beale’s Falstaff.

Little Women

Little Women (2019)

Written and directed by Greta Gerwig

I cannot overstate how much I love going to the movies. Even after six years of study and a double major in Creative Writing and Screen Studies, my fascination with visual storytelling and the moving image hasn’t waned. 

Narrative film still delights and moves me, and this adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s classic text is a great example of why. Last night I went with a girlfriend to a member’s pre-screening of Little Women at the State Cinema in North Hobart and we were thoroughly entertained. 

If anyone was in any doubt of Gerwig’s credentials as a director or screenwriter, this should put them to rest. Using multiple elements of fabulous casting, a great script, believable costuming, subtle lighting, excellent framing and editing, Gerwig offers a reimagined version of the March sisters that doesn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.

From the outset, the most notable difference is that Gerwig skews time and tells the story in a series of flashbacks, usually triggered by something Jo has seen or heard. Once I got into the rhythm of this, it gave a far more satisfying experience than a standard linear narrative remake, and offered a lot more depth to the character’s development from adolescent girls to young women. This is particularly relevant to the often maligned Amy, the youngest sister, who Florence Pugh masterfully takes from a mischievous girl trying to keep up with her older sisters to an accomplished and determined young woman. 

The cast are uniformly excellent and the magic between Timothee Chalomet’s Laurie and Saoirse Ronan’s Jo is delightful as ever, but the scenes between Jo and her mother, played by Laura Dern are truly powerful. Emma Watson is delightful as good-natured Meg (though I felt she wasn’t as well served in the script as Jo, Beth and especially Amy), and Australian actor Eliza Scanlen takes the difficult role of Beth and makes it believable rather than melodramatic and maudlin. Throw in Meryl Streep, Chris Cooper and Bob Odenkirk and it’s a killer line up! My only real casting criticism is James Norton and Louis Garrel are too young and far too good looking for John Brooke and Friedrich Bhaer respectively – but it’s minor! 

Overlaid with a beautifully balanced score from Alexandre Desplat, and period-appropriate costumes from Jacqueline Durran I think Gerwig’s adaptation is a triumph. Overall, this is a fine reworking of a much loved classic that captures much of the free spiritedness of Alcott’s book, bringing the March family squarely into the 21st century. Although the ending isn’t strictly true to the original text, it fits well in Gerwig’s reimagined world, bringing new life and empowerment to the sisters. 

Little Women opens 1 January 2020 at the State Cinema and would make a perfect mother/daughter or sister’s date.

Joker

Joker (2019) 

Written and directed by Todd Phillips

There is something surreal about sitting in an empty cinema during the day, but I really like it if it’s the right film. Today I did just that, to see Joker, right at the end of its cinema run – and I’m really glad I did. 

From the outset, I have to admit I’m no fan of Todd Phillips’ work as either a writer or director. I found the Hangover movies (what I’ve seen of them) puerile and the less said about Starsky & Hutch (2004) the better. But I am a big fan of Joaquin Phoenix, particularly Walk the Line (2005) and more recently The Sisters Brothers (2018). You Were Never Really Here (2017) still sits atop my movie list of shame! 

There’s been a tremendous amount of discussion globally about Joker and it’s warranted. As an origin story it’s very good mainstream filmmaking and undoubtedly the best thing I’ve seen recently with an official DC affiliation. The diegetic or narrative space is beautifully realised, the never ending piles of garbage in Gotham City and the squalor of the apartment building Arthur Fleck lives in with his mother are beautifully crafted. Combined with the shot framing, lighting (production designer Mark Friedberg) and cinematography by Lawrence Sher, there is some excellent editing from Jeff Groth, building an all too real world for the story to play out. 

There are a few clear framing nods to Nolan’s The Dark Knight (2008) and some of The King of Comedy (1982) references/homage were a bit too fawning for my taste. (Just for the record, The King of Comedy remains my favourite Scorcese film ever.) But this is clearly Joaquin Phoenix’s film and with awards season looming, I predict he’ll clean up. It is a truly stunning performance!

Overlaid with a stunning soundtrack from the always wonderful Hildur Guðnadóttir and a script that cuts and bites through the banality of everyday life in Gotham, Phoenix makes what would otherwise be a very creepy, mentally unstable man into a very sympathetic character. Yes, it is very male narrative and at times, extremely violent. And I can see why this would make some people uncomfortable, particularly those who still insist that our cultural products – movies, music, video games – can incite us to violence, rather than looking at the society that underpins that cultural production.

As I emerged into the sunlight of a mild Australian December afternoon, I was full of sadness for Arthur, lost in his own mind. I’ve known people like him, those souls who don’t fit, discarded by a society and system that fails them utterly. The sad thing is, as services in Australia and elsewhere are cut back and worse, disappear altogether, there will be more like Arthur – hopefully not as outlandish and ultra-violent – but still falling between the cracks.

Judy & Punch

Judy & Punch (2019)

Written and directed by Mirrah Foulkes

I’ve come to this late in its cinema run (blame uni!) and I’m very glad I caught it on the big screen. I knew from the opening shot that Judy & Punch was going to be a very un-Australian Australian film. Rather than the archetypal bush or outback setting, this cleverly used an artist colony in Eltham and heavily forested areas in the Dandenongs, both less than an hour from the Melbourne CBD. Combined with some excellent lighting and cinematography by Stefan Duscio this brings a Gothic tone.

Set in the mythical town of Seaside, the film opens with Judy (played by the always excellent Mia Wasikowska) and Punch (an outstanding Damon Herriman) putting on their puppet show for the townsfolk. The grime amid the greasepaint is evident, giving the film a fairytale, magical feel – part Dickens, part Shakespeare with a terrified Gothic heart – something I’d expect from the best of Terry Gilliam’s work. There is comedy here too, and it’s black – especially the scene where Punch ‘loses the baby’ – not for the faint hearted! 

Seaside is a town that will not tolerate difference or deviance from the norm, and particularly suggested to me, a society in fear of women – which in 2019 Australia is disturbingly familiar. There are regular ‘stoning days’ and a colony of outcasts that takes Judy in after Punch leaves her for dead in the forest. Punch is always on the edge and Herriman plays him to perfection, with all the charm, anger and fear one expects from a character such as this, constantly dancing between extreme narcissism and self-loathing.  

The final act of the film is a revenge motif and, for the most part works quite well, though for me, it wasn’t as satisfying as the first two acts. I found the examination of domestic violence and the politics of difference a little heavy handed at times but maybe that’s just what we need right now. I live in a country where (on average) one in three women have experienced physical violence since the age of 15 and one woman a week is murdered by a current or former partner. As a survivor myself, I think this is an important shift in film narrative that is long overdue in Australia. 

Finally, I think it’s important to remember this is Mirrah Foulkes’ first feature length film – and what a stunning directorial debut! While it has gained accolades and awards overseas, I hope this film reaches an audience beyond the festival and arthouse circuit – especially here in Australia, where we need to have a serious conversation about Mr Punch.

Honeygiver Among the Dogs

Honeygiver Among the Dogs (2016)

Written and directed by Dechen Roder.

This award winning film from Bhutan meanders between gorgeous rural landscapes and the relative bustle of town life. Its languid pace lulled me and drew me into its web of desire, corruption and ultimately, a strong environmental message. It is the story of a policeman, sent to a remote rural community to investigate the disappearance and possible murder of an abbess. He is warned about the local demoness, the key suspect in the case, who is young, very beautiful and (to my western eyes at least) evolves into a kind of spiritual femme fatale figure against the anti-hero detective when the action moves to town.

While it certainly falls into the Asian ‘slow cinema’ category, stylistically I felt Roder clearly had her eye on festival audiences, trying to bridge the gap between eastern and western cinema. This is particularly evident in the noir/city half of the film where the detective story takes over. It’s an inventive way to incorporate the exoticism of dakini stories from Buddhism into noir crime fiction and although the transitions are sometimes a little forced, for the most part, it pays off.

Personally, I preferred the rural scenes, where the landscape is a character and the power of Choden brings a dreamlike, magic realism quality to the screen. These sections are sublime in their beauty, with exceptional cinematography by Jigme T. Tenzing and enhanced by a wonderful soundtrack by Tashi Dorji.

It has its flaws but for a debut feature from Roder (who previously worked in advertising and music videos) it’s a pretty solid way to start. I’m keen to see what she comes up with next!

Viaje

Viaje (2015)

Written and directed by Paz Fabrega

I don’t think I’ve ever knowingly watched a film from Costa Rica before, but this is one of the joys of MUBI, the indie streaming site I wrote about a couple of days ago. Unless it’s something I’ve seen before, or a classic film, I can never quite be sure what I’m going to get. 

And I have to say, this little film caught me off-guard. 

At my age, I find it unusual to be taken aback by what is no more than a romantic drama, but this Central American B&W gem fed directly into memories from my own (mis)adventures from the 80s to the present here in Australia. And there was no sugary, saccharine aftertaste that I so often get with films in this genre. 

Paz Fabrega is a leading director in her native Costa Rica, having received some prestigious international awards for her work, and her eye is subtle and fine. Coupled with some luminous black and white cinematography from Fabrega and Estaban Chinchilla, this is a delight to look at. Edited by Sebastian Sepulveda and Fabrega, the pace is gentle but brings life and meaning to the images. Fernanado Bolanos and Kattia Gonzales bring Pedro and Luciana to playful life and their chemistry is delightful as they dance around each other.

As always, it won’t appeal to everyone but at 70 minutes, this doesn’t overstay its welcome. I found this a delight that transcended both time and language, whispering gently in my ear about my own life and choices over the years, making me smile.

Honestly, what more could I want from a film?

Ad Astra

Ad Astra (2019)

Directed by James Gray, screenplay by James Gray and Ethan Gross.

I’m in the midst of the madness that is my final undergraduate unit, a special screen studies research project that is quietly driving me to distraction at the moment. So, what better way to distract myself from writing about films than go to the movies!

Ad Astra was just the tonic I needed. Gorgeously shot by Hoyte Van Hoytema (Director of Photography for Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Interstellar and Dunkirk among his many credits), this is a stunningly beautiful film that, in terms of framing and colourisation, owes a tremendous debt to Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and narratively to Joseph Conrad’s novella ‘Heart of Darkness’. From the opening, gut turning sequence, this is a visual feast.

In essence, this is a story of men told from an extreme male perspective and women are ethereal and clearly seen through the male gaze (Liv Tyler’s Eve) or pointedly asexual (Ruth Negga’s quietly understated Helen Lantos). The essential conflict here is between fathers and sons, and within Roy. The idea of buttoned up masculinity he inherited from his father is on clear display, and Roy’s ability to compartmentalise his feelings does nothing to help him (or any man) engage with or process the inner demons of his emotional life. The story is narrated throughout by Roy and while it helps at times having that inner voice, I found it strayed into some very on the nose musings, particularly in the last act. This wasn’t helped by some pacing issues in the second act that drew me out of the film in a fairly abrupt way.

Brad Pitt has never been high on my list of preferred actors but I really liked him in this. The sulky restraint he shows here as Roy McBride is reminiscent of his taciturn Jesse James in Andrew Dominik’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the coward Robert Ford (2007), still far and away my favourite Pitt vehicle (if you haven’t seen it, just do it – you can thank me later!) But there is no room for Brad to be the grump when there’s the godfather of grouchiness, Tommy Lee Jones to contend with! As Roy’s father, H. Clifford McBride, he just has to glower at the camera and I’m sold.

Despite its fairly obvious flaws this is still an enjoyable watch, and overall, I found it to be a surprisingly immersive film, helped tremendously by the Max Richter score. However, for those of you with a passion for science and particularly physics, try and put your knowledge on hold – a lot of the science doesn’t hold up to scrutiny – but it’s a fun and at times, quite thrilling ride!

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