The title referring to a Finnish concept of extreme courage that arises once all hope is lost, vengeful and relentless protagonist Aatami is like an alternate reality John Wick seen through a Tarantino-like lens of Western-inspired landscapes and indulgent violence complete with chapter headings. From Jalmari Helander, the writer/director of the wonderfully weird Christmas-themed Finnish horror Rare Exports, there is plenty of creativity as the grizzled soldier-turned-gold-prospector faces off against a group of murderous Nazis as World War II draws to a close. The use of Nazi enemies provides a safe justification for enjoying the violence, brutal enough to cause the viewer to flinch on multiple occasions. The scarred Aatami is like an undying revenant, his wartime exploits shrouded in myth, almost zombie-like in the injuries he ignores, stapling himself back together. The “hunters become the hunted” tale is flimsy at best, the Nazi convoy and captive women adding a touch of Fury Road but without Miller’s powerful excess. Tone is more important than story, Helander using arresting anachronistic juxtaposition like a prospector by a campfire under a sky of warplanes, or a horse rider confronting a tank. The cinematography cannot quite compete with its various inspirations but there is still beauty, like dusk shots as the light bleeds through the mist. Sisu is stylish if insubstantial, then, but its swift pace and lean running time make it easy to recommend to those seeking a fresh violent delight.
“I’m not fine and that’s a totally reasonable response!”
Precocious younger children in films have a tendency to be written as cloyingly sweet or unrealistically witty, a trap that Mike Mills largely avoids with Jesse — this is elevated by Woody Norman’s naturalistic performance, as infuriating as he is charming, and knowledgeable without undue wisdom. C’mon C’mon’s overarching theme is fear and hope for the future, explored most overtly through genuine interviews with American children who candidly articulate their concerns to radio journalists played by Joaquin Phoenix and Radiolab producer Molly Webster. This is crystallised in Jesse who has a general awareness that his neurodivergent father is troubled and fears the same fate will befall him. Whilst his mother tends to his father, Jesse is left in the care of his uncle Johnny, whom Phoenix portrays as unprepared but not unwilling. As an uncle to a fascinatingly intelligent nephew, I was immediately drawn into this relationship, presented not in idealised fashion but with insecurity and rage alongside the friendship blossoming between them. Set across LA, New York and New Orleans, the black and white cinematography renders the cities more orderly without the cacophony of colour, in a way that suits the focus on audio recording. Whilst there is a slight air of artificiality to its setup, C’mon C’mon is successful in highlighting children’s own oft-ignored anxiety for the future rather than merely using them as a mirror for adults’ apprehension.
“Imagine that you are a very small chicken. You just hatched. You just opened your eyes for the first time.”
A heartbreaking look at adolescence and masculinity, Lukas Dhont’s second feature explores the relationship between two 13-year-old boys in the Belgian countryside as their inseparable childhood friendship is disrupted by starting a new school. Léo and Rémi’s tactile relationship draws comments from their peers, causing Léo to pull away and divert his focus to rough-and-tumble ice hockey. This simple depiction of the destructive power of societal expectation has wider consequences as Close unfolds, but Dhont’s direction is restrained, at its best when the camera lingers on an actor’s expression as they watch someone. Eden Dambrine and Gustav De Waele are both impressive in their first feature, particularly Dambrine’s depiction of Léo’s guilt over the loss a friendship. What is more devastating is how isolating that pain becomes, reinforcing how early boys are denied the ability to expose vulnerability and seek support — one student claims only to cry through anger, not sadness. An explosive confrontation late in the film does not feel as natural as what came before, but nor does it detract from the film’s powerful effect. Indeed, Close ultimately provides a similar catharsis to the excellent Manchester By The Sea with its own character study in unresolved grief.
“It does not surprise me that the Devil is an Irishman, though I thought perhaps a little taller.”
A hallucinatory experience set during the English Civil War, realism waxes and wanes throughout A Field in England, its occult themes obtusely depicted through contemporaneous folklore imagery like mushroom circles whilst eschewing expository explanation. Throughout much of his directorial career, Ben Wheatley has surrounded himself with same creative cadre from film to film, including writer Amy Jump and cinematographer Laurie Rose. Shooting in black and white (which was experiencing a revival in the early 2010s) allows the audience to take in the texture of costumes and landscapes without the garish overload of colourful uniforms that would detract from the actors. It also no doubt helped a tight shooting schedule on a frugal budget of under £350,000. A Field in England is interspersed with tableaux vivants, awkwardly staged by the characters as a visual language pre-dating the dawn of cinema, a medium that would make sense to the characters if not the audience. Meanwhile disjointed depictions wrong-foot the viewer like diagetic singing around a campfire, accompanied by a lute from nowhere. The overall result is ethereal filmmaking, physically constrained to a single field yet broader in imaginative scope.
“It’s human nature. We’ve been letting our imaginations draw faces on the noises in the dark since we were living in caves. And we always draw sharp teeth.”
Since 2010’s Monsters, I have been fascinated by the subset of indie monster movies that use the genre as a setting rather than a focus, instead using this backdrop to explore the human relationships which form the heart of the movie. After Midnight falls squarely into this category, as a bartender barricades his house from a creature which seemingly appears just as his long-term girlfriend leaves without explanation. The project is co-directed by Jeremy Gardner (who wrote the script and stars) and Christian Stella (also the cinematographer). For the first half of the film, the absent Abby is seen entirely through repeated flashbacks — the familiar, lazy Hollywood trope of a man remembering a sweet, smiling woman without any depth at all. Thankfully, that changes entirely in the second half, where Brea Grant is able to provide a far more nuanced performance that tackles the difficulties in the pair’s relationship, which becomes the crux of the film. Sidelining the monster aspect in this way will no doubt frustrate those hoping for standard genre fare, and the blending of disparate styles in romantic drama, psychological horror and a monster movie will alienate others. Due perhaps to its ambiguous target audience, After Midnight is an underrated indie horror that, whilst not successful in everything it tries, presents fresh ideas in a bold package and — clocking in at under 90 minutes — does so without the bloat that often results from mixing genres. If nothing else, its ending is guaranteed to provoke a reaction.
“Everyone’s got a story like this… it’s as old as the hills.”
Densely packed with interrelated characters tying together two families who harbour a number of secrets, The Daughter explores whether some secrets are best left concealed rather than forced destructively into the open. Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen’s The Wild Duck provides the relationships and the central theme (as well as Hedvig’s name, distractingly conspicuous in the modern Australian setting). A remote logging town in its death throes provides a precarious backdrop to intense drama and an illustrious Australian ensemble cast imbues even supporting roles with depth. Unfortunately The Daughter eventually veers from bubbling tension into overwrought melodrama, resulting in a less satisfying final act once secrets are revealed than the careful build-up which led there.
“Actors don’t become actors because they are brimming with self confidence. An actor’s burning ambition is to spend as much time as possible pretending to be somebody else.”
Michael J. Fox
I rarely read autobiographies — in part because I don’t believe that being famous automatically gives one a greater insight into the human condition — but one that has stayed with me is Michael J. Fox’s 2002 memoir Lucky Man, written a few years after he went public with his young onset Parkinson’s diagnosis. Twenty years later, Davis Guggenheim’s documentary is a very similar experience, allowing Fox to narrate his life story with the same incurable optimism whilst also showing more vulnerability — there is footage of him falling during physiotherapy, covering bruises with makeup (“Gravity is real, even if you only fall from my height”), whilst interview segments show him struggling at times to speak clearly as he balances the timing of his medication. Whilst Fox narrates, Guggenheim illustrates his rise to fame using thematically relevant scenes from Fox’s work — it is more effective than one might expect, particularly with his breakout sitcom Family Ties. Conversely, with hindsight it is is fascinating to see Fox visibly masking his symptoms in footage from Spin City. His positive tone is mirrored by a light and upbeat score that avoids saccharine sentimentalism. Though Still may hew closely to the stereotypical rise and fall documentary, there is a depth evident the multifaceted title which refers simultaneously to Fox’s inability to remain still as an energetic child, his concealment of his Parkinson’s tremors for seven years, how he has been forced to be still and present in his life, and the fact he is still here. Perhaps most moving is an unguarded moment in which Fox admits the strain he feels in needing to present a positive image as an advocate for those with Parkinson’s, to which his physiotherapist suggests he should not always be holding himself to that public role, “It’s okay not to be Michael J. Fox sometimes”. Still may not cover new ground as a documentary, but its autobiographical nature makes it more personal, elevated by Fox’s grace and good humour.
Disclosure: I know personally at least one person involved in the making of this film.
“The darkest dark is the dark beside the spotlight. You can do anything there and no one seems to notice.”
Ostensibly covering the scandal which engulfed the respected car designer John DeLorean which he tried to establish the DeLorean Motor Company, Driven is oddly written in a way that largely sidelines both the man and his iconic car. Instead, the focus is on the affable FBI informant who was involved in setting him up, a mustachioed Jason Sudeikis seemingly test running the performance that would later become Ted Lasso. This approach provides a light-hearted tone with a character easy to root for, but it robs the film of much of its real-world interest in favour of a by-the-numbers sting. The DeLorean’s futuristic design with its immediately-recognisable gull-wing doors, and the compromises that undermined its launch, are worth of centre-stage but are relegated almost to a McGuffin. Working with very little, Lee Pace impressively imbues John with determination and a quiet, tragic depth — there are similarities with his role in Halt and Catch Fire, a series which far better captured the entrepreneurial struggle and spirit of the 1980s. The period setting is effective, in the colour grading as much as the wide-collar constuming. Driven is a forgettable joyride, sufficiently enjoyable in the moment but derivative and ill-focused.
From its downbeat opening with no sudden reset following the Infinity War, there is a sense of finality to Guardians Vol. 3, a rarity in comic book movies that serves to heighten threats as characters are stripped of impenetrable plot armour. Where Vol. 2 explored Quill’s origins, Vol. 3 focuses on Rocket with flashbacks to the cruel animal experimentation that created him (featuring the sweetest otter committed to film). Unfortunately the conceit that makes this relevant leaves Rocket separated from the team for much of the film, negatively affecting their dynamic particularly during action sequences — the smashy action is a far cry from the creativity Gunn unleashed in The Suicide Squad, and it is only in a corridor fight near the end of the film that we finally see the musically choreographed teamwork that elevated previous Guardians volumes. The Guardians are in their element during rollicking galaxy-traversing adventure and there is plenty here, which allows them to avoid the malaise of mediocrity that has characterised Marvel’s recent output. There are visually inventive new locations like a bio-engineered space lab, but also disappointing choices like the mundane (and nonsensical) Counter-Earth. Uneven pacing arises from a combination of the long running time, the repetitive flashback structure and the introduction of two antagonists — the egomaniacal High Evolutionary is driven by a single obsession whilst Adam Warlock, whose introduction was teased at the end of the previous film, is relegated to a background presence repeatedly crashing through walls. Gunn’s greatest skill is allowing emotional beats to resonate even within a comedic framework and, as he leaves Marvel to become DC’s Kevin Feige, this is a fitting send-off to a team that is unlikely to be seen in the same form again (I could have done without the perfunctory post-credit sequences). The Guardians trilogy has always been about family and loss, Vol. 3 capitalising on long-running arcs that allow characters to grow and find acceptance through letting go of their respective pasts.
MCU Phase 5: Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania | Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 | The Marvels | Captain America: New World Order | Thunderbolts | Blade
“If Bach’s talent can be reduced to his gender, birth country, religion, sexuality, and so on, then so can yours.”
Todd Field’s third film, after 15 years of unrealised projects, is an astonishing work of psychological intrigue and majestic musical performance that never speaks down to its audience, instead trusting the viewer to engage and form an opinion. Blanchett is perfect as the troubled maestro, fictional conductor-composer Lydia Tár, internationally renowned yet manipulative and domineering. From the marketing, one would be forgiven for believing Tár is a biopic, and some female conductors have bemoaned the choice not to shine a light on the rare women at international-level conducting. From the interview that opens the film, it is clear that Field’s focus is not on Tár as a female conductor but on the dynamics of identity and power. She wants to be judged on her skills in isolation, berating a Juilliard student’s identity politics in expressing distaste for composers with problematic pasts, yet her hypocrisy emerges a few scenes later when she adopts the same approach in discussing Schopenhauer. The central use of Mahler’s work is deliberate, given his own abuse of power in restricting his wife’s work as a composer. By writing Tár as a lesbian, making both the perpetrator and potential victims female, Field forces the viewer to remove misogyny from the equation (notwithstanding the overtly masculine traits conveyed through Blanchett’s body language and her wardrobe). Field deliberately obscures the facts of Tár’s past indiscretions, and it is unclear whether her latest protégé is a matter of lust, an exercise of control over her orchestra, or powerlessness before the effect of her music. As allegations of impropriety undermine Tár’s position (some have reductively labelled Tár a film about “cancel culture”), Field examines the fragility of power in the current climate when pitted against the greater power of public perception. The final act subverts climactic expectations but leaves an indelible impression.