Red Rocket is a Wonderful and Complicated Trip

Rating: 4 out of 5.

20 years after leaving his hometown of Texas City to make it as an adult film star in LA, Mikey washes up on the door of his ex/current wife Lexey’s house looking for money. You can practically smell the stale cigarette smoke on his clothes in the theatre. Red Rocket (2021), written and directed by Sean Baker, is a true antihero tale of a loathsome suitcase pimp that challenges its audiences throughout in uncomfortable and compelling ways.

We are introduced to Mikey on the bus ride home to the tune of NSYNC’s Bye Bye Bye, the film’s theme. The song is played multiple times throughout the film, gaining different contexts and meaning each time it is played, being chopped up and remixed differently throughout. There is something deeply strange but delightful in hearing the pop song in a movie theatre, but the longer it plays as we follow Mikey’s trip home, the more the connections to dated 2000’s culture become apparent.

The film unfolds itself to the audience slowly – yet still with a kinetic sense of momentum to Baker’s storytelling – as Mikey attempts to build some sort of life after returning home to the tiny Gulf Coast town of Texas City after 20 years in LA, through sheer charm and force of will. He is a hustler by nature. He knows if he can just talk long enough, he can get what he’s after. The film takes a deeply uncomfortable turn as Mikey becomes transfixed on the 17-year old donut shop waitress who goes by Strawberry (first-time actress Suzanna Son), which pushes the audience’s moral boundaries to its limit.

Baker has a better eye for casting than possibly any in the industry, as his neo-realist leaning of non-actor casting or inspired lead choices including Willem Dafoe and Simon Rex set his films apart in modern American filmmaking. The latter, a product of the early 2000s that has faded into obscurity in a similar way to Mikey where the subtext just feels like text.

Rex carries a nervous energy throughout the film, even when he’s bragging about his past life, or convincing someone to hire him, he seems aware that even at his “highest” moments of the film, he has still constructed a house of cards.

There are multiple instances in Red Rocket where Baker is showing the audience that even the film itself is checking out of Mikey’s motor-mouthed wheeling and dealing. Inspired by one of the best scenes in Taxi Driver (1976) where Scorsese shows the audience that even the film is embarrassed by its protagonist, Baker deployed similar tactics to tune out its loathsome protagonist in a subtle and effective way. The film achieves this either by drowning out Mikey with sound effects (having a train go past and obstruct Mikey pleading with Strawberry near the climax of the film) or by pulling the camera’s focus literally off of Mikey as he is explaining why he left LA to Lexey. Baker rarely flashes moments of commentary within his films, but it is so necessary here to undercut the more challenging aspects that may be interpreted as his values.

The peripheries of the film are littered with Trump-era politics, showing a MAGA billboard but obscuring the former president. The film is set in the run-up to the 2016 election, with the RNC broadcast on the TV throughout, gesturing to the audience heavily to compare Mikey’s slick and opportunistic motormouth to Trump.

Simon Rex and Suzanna Son as Mikey and Strawberry in Red Rocket

The charm of Baker’s previous films has been his ability to tell deeply empathetic stories of people on the fringes, but here the central figure of Mikey, the washed-up adult film star, is so unlikeable that he asks the audience more difficult questions throughout.

These questions Baker is asking the audience are challenging and deeply engaging, as the final shots ask the question of what we really want out of this story and out of Mikey. Are we just along for the ride, anticipating the inevitable car crash, or have we spent enough time with this motormouth charmer that we want him to succeed?

Baker is a deeply humanist filmmaker that always understands his characters in intimate ways, as well as having the awareness to know how an audience member will feel about his characters. That assignment is wildly different here in Red Rocket in comparison to Tangerine (2015), as Baker weaponises similar humanistic techniques to ask the audience how far are they willing to go down this path with Mikey? A simple focus pull in a kitchen can tell you everything about how Baker wants the audience to feel about Mikey’s yarn spinning, and who we should be empathising with within the scene. 

Red Rocket will not be for everyone with its difficult subject matter and protagonist, but Baker is such a tremendous filmmaker and tells such deeply human stories of people on the borders of society that it’s definitely worth your time.

Red Rocket is screening in cinemas nationwide from January 6th.

Jane Campion Returns with The Power of the Dog

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

After 12 long years away from the big screen, the extraordinary auteur Jane Campion has returned, backed by Netflix, with an adaptation of Thomas Savage’s 1967 American western psychodrama The Power of the Dog (2021). The film centres on two brothers, the charismatic but menacing Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch), and the meek and gentle George (Jesse Plemons), successful Montana ranchers whose lives are quickly changed as George decides to marry the widowed mother Rose (Kirsten Dunst), who brings her doctor-to-be son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee) to live with them on the ranch.

Phil sees this incursion by Rose and Peter as a personal affront to his ideal world and responds by setting out to torture Rose psychologically in a sequence of scenes that has Campion at her venomous best.

The Power of the Dog sits on a knife’s edge for the entire runtime, with Campion keeping her cards close to the chest as the drama unfolds with the patience of a long novel. There are four central characters to the film and the audience is unsure throughout who is gaining the upper hand in the family dynamic and the film as a whole.

The film has a certain offbeat cadence in its storytelling. It will sit in quiet moments we are yet to understand the importance of, while other scenes quietly obscure that dramatic temporal shifts in the characters’ lives. A more traditional version of this film would climax with a violent confrontation between brothers, but the power of Campion’s writing and Savage’s prose comes from how we are being led through the fog into an illuminating, yet rather understated final act.

What’s always jumped out to me about Campion’s writing is her ability to complicate seemingly archetypal characters into three-dimensional figures. There are countless examples in fiction of the sorts of characters in The Power of the Dog, but it’s Campion’s masterful command of storytelling that blooms in the grey areas, not by reducing everyone down to their lowest moments, but by elevating the humanity of even the most abhorrent figures.

Set in Montana but shot in New Zealand, The Power of the Dog relishes in the rolling hillsides of Campion’s homeland that feel overwhelming and mythical all at once. You truly feel the seasons change over the course of the film, from the encroaching white snow on the mountains and the farm which forces the family inside, to the glaring sunlight that ratchets up the tension. 

Rose Gordon (Kirsten Dunst) with terror in her eye in The Power of the Dog

Ari Wegner’s cinematography powerfully contrasts this natural world that is shot during as much magic hour as could be achieved I’m sure, with the almost German expressionist lighting choices inside the family home, giving those scenes a nightmarish quality. These lighting decisions help emphasise Cumberbatch’s angular features into a figure that haunts every inch of the Montana estate.

The Power of the Dog deploys an extraordinary use of both diegetic and nondiegetic music that echoes Campion’s breakout feature The Piano (1993), with possibly the first use in cinema of a banjo as an instrument of menace. Phil is constantly heard whistling a melody that buries itself under Rose and the audience’s skin that feels unrelenting. This sadistic side of Phil is so well established early in the film that even in the later stages where Campion opens Phil up to the audience, we are still able to see him from Rose’s perspective, creating a murkier area for the audience to perceive Phil as a character.

Much has been made of Cumberbatch’s performance and it certainly feels like the actor is in career-best form, although I will admit to not being a big fan of his work to date. The power of his performance lies in how Phil works to be outwardly projecting his idea of masculinity, and how that projection changes depending on who he is surrounded by. Campion captures fleeting moments with Phil that illuminate the character in truly spectacular ways, from his attachment to his brother’s presence, to how he luxuriates in the brief moments he’s able to wash away his protective armour in the river.

The connections to There Will be Blood (2007) are boundless here, even to the point of Plemon’s character originally planned to be Paul Dano before scheduling issues intervened. Greenwood’s atonal score at times felt like There Will be Blood B-sides but they quickly took on their own shape within this story. There are also moments where Cumberbatch carries a similar menace to Daniel Day Lewis’s character, but they are deployed in different and unique ways that work in their respective films. The two films are in conversation with each other visually, sonically, and thematically, with differing views on male desire and its relationship with ambition and cruelty. Both films are also so overpowering on initial watch – for completely different reasons – that repeated viewings feel necessary to fully grasp what you’re witnessing.

This film is a classic slow build that is working and growing on you long after you leave the theatre – or your couch as almost all viewers will see it on Netflix – which is common for most Campion films. She has also created an adaptation that truly sucks you into the story to the point of feeling compelled to immediately read Savage’s novel. This is not a world I particularly want to linger any longer in but is a story I have a deep desire to see how it compares to Campion’s interpretation.

There is a meticulous method to Campion’s unfolding narrative that may leave audiences cool and detached as rarely do moments feel spontaneous, which can work wonderfully in some films but detract from others. The Power of the Dog is a film that may feel expanded upon rewatch, as it takes time to fall into its syncopated rhythms. You could reduce the film down to a psychodrama about toxic masculinity, but that feels ultimately reductive to the work Campion is doing here.

The Power of the Dog is in select theatres now and will be available on Netflix December 1st.

The Green Knight is a Brilliant and Unique Work of Adaptation

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

After 18 long months, Australian fans of filmmaker David Lowery were rewarded with the release of his critically-lauded feature The Green Knight (2021). The film has had a long Covid-delayed release, from a canceled SXSW debut in March 2020 – a date that feels weightier with each passing month – to theatres pulling the film from the calendar completely. US audiences were finally able to see the gorgeous and beguiling film in theatres in late July, but Australian audiences had to wait three more months before being able to see this wonderful film on Amazon Prime. 

Whether it was this long delay or the enveloping world Lowery has constructed here, but it felt so necessary to savour every moment on screen. Lowery has stated in interviews that this release delay allowed him to go back and edit large swathes of the film, not dissimilar to the eventual creation of Steven Soderbergh’s brilliant The Limey (1999) which involved the director re-editing the film after being dissatisfied after an early screening was shown. Whilst that film was recut with a focus on more experimental uses of editing, The Green Knight found its rhythm in its new cut, “allowing it to breathe” as Lowery describes. This is felt in the extended shots that have become the director’s signature, especially his use of a methodical 360° pan that never fails to draw the audience in (more on that later).

The Green Knight is a work of adaptation that keeps in the spirit of the original chivalric romance’s beguiling nature while also changing many details that are deceptively interesting that are sure to be picked over for years to come. There is a lot of meat on this bone that will propel you to return to the film often (a key bonus to having the film available on a streaming service.)

At the centre of our story is Gawain, a knight played by the wonderful Dev Patel with a mixture of youthful eagerness and unassuredness that propels every moment of the story, accepting the challenge from the titular Green Knight (Ralph Ineson) during a Christmas day celebration in King Arthur’s round table court. Whether you’re familiar with the story or not, Lowery lays out the stakes with an assured pace, moving smoothly into Gawain’s quest for knightly honour, and to discover what that even means to him.

David Lowery is an auteur that works across genres and styles but is firmly rooted in the Del Toro camp of fairytale filmmakers. Whether it’s a grizzled career criminal, a lyrical film poem about the concept of haunting and death, or one of the best live-action Disney films of the 21st century about an orphan and a dragon, Lowery is able to breathe a sense of sincerity and beauty into his worlds, whilst never bogging down in the plots of his stories. The director’s assuredness throughout the film to be comfortable leaving the audience confused for stretches of Gawain’s quest, knowing the emotionality of the film work as a guide rope through the darkness, is wonderful and all too rare in modern American cinema.

The story unfolds patiently, following Gawain’s journey to understanding his own virtue and courage in the face of the inevitability of death. The Green Knight is a story about understanding and respecting the natural order of death and decay, themes that in less deft hands would become overbearing with a sense of mourning and sorrow. Lowery has said that he originally planned on the film to be under two hours but during his re-edit discovered it needed more time to breathe, but it feels necessary to the film’s ability to not be dragged down by its themes or become too oblique as to lose the momentum of the narrative that might’ve occurred if the film stretched into the 150-180 minute range that most period epics sit.

The titular Green Knight (Ralph Ineson) in The Green Knight

One of the most admirable and deeply compelling aspects of the film is Lowery’s use of visual storytelling and sound design in extended sequences that allow the audience to sit with and contemplate the themes and ideas being laid out, something that is quite unique to the cinematic form. In The Green Knight, this sequence arrives at the dead centre of the film as we find Gawain bound in a forest. We are shown this through a patient 360° pan as we see and hear the seasons change around the forest, as well as the growth of green moss consuming the forest, ultimately landing on the bones of a long-deceased Gawain. It invites the audience into being an active participant in the storytelling, asking you to put your own thoughts and emotions into the film that will develop and grow like moss on a forest bed over the duration of the film. Scenes like this can be seen throughout cinema, from the many films of Yasujirō Ozu, the procession scene in Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1957), and in the works of Apichatpong Weerasethakul that all allow the viewer to meditate on the ideas of the film while still very much experiencing it.

One of the best things in cinema is when a filmmaker, whether consciously or not, creates a double feature/trilogy in their filmography, thematically linking separate films that go deeper than just their aesthetic sensibilities. It’s impossible not to see the connections between Lowery’s previous two films A Ghost Story (2017) and The Old Man & The Gun (2018) with The Green Knight. All three features have a quest to find the meaning in death, not in trying to outwit it like a Bergman film, but in coming to terms with it and respecting it, both by meeting it head-on and from beyond the pale.

Crafting one of the best cake-and-eat-it ending sequences in recent memory, Lowery is able to convey a rich tapestry fit for the Arthurian legend with a sense of grace that is truly remarkable. While the author of the original chivalric romance is unknown, the author of this adaptation is firmly Lowery, an auteur that is building an extraordinary filmography. Lowery is one of the best American filmmakers to emerge in the last 10 years and is only a year away from the release of his return to Disney with an adaptation of Peter Pan, a dream pairing of storyteller and story that will not disappoint.

The Green Knight is on Amazon Prime now.

The Velvet Underground Found Their Scribe in Todd Haynes

Rating: 4 out of 5.

There are infinite ways to tell the story of The Velvet Underground. An infinite amount of people have been profoundly influenced and changed by the band, with every individual latching onto different elements from specific moments to the point where the famous Brian Eno quote about the band somehow understates their impact. So if you asked 10,000 filmmakers to capture The Velvet Underground and what makes them personally influential to them, you would be given 10,000 vastly different films. Luckily for us, Todd Haynes is a perfect scribe for the group in his debut documentary film.

In a similar way to Haynes’ extraordinary 2007 Bob Dylan film I’m Not There, many may be left wanting by this documentary if you come to it with your own expectations for what this film should be. If you are deeply versed in The Velvet Underground’s story and want this film to chronicle their entire arc from 1964 to their Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction in 1996, you will not find that here. If you are seeking a film stacked with unearthed concert footage, unfortunately you will be left disappointed (this would have taken the film to a truly transcendent place but alas, that footage barely exists). If you have only vaguely heard of the band, of the names Lou Reed and John Cale, and only recognise the Warhol banana through t-shirts and couch cushions, I genuinely don’t know how you would feel about this film but you may be left beguiled and full of questions, while also hopefully gaining an understanding of the reverie so many have for the group.

Too often music documentaries focus on either deconstructing the art to the point of banality, or mythologising to the point of absurdity. What makes Haynes’ film so refreshing is his ability to deconstruct individual moments of the Velvets history without removing the artistic mystery that made the band grow as a source of creative inspiration for generations, whilst never overstating that cultural weight. An entire documentary could be made about the bands that owe their entire musical identity to The Velvet Underground – or even just a single song – but that would not create a compelling film and is not something a filmmaker of Haynes’ calibre would create when given the opportunity. Instead, Haynes focuses on the birth of the band and the environment they were sculpting and being sculpted by.

By focusing on the polarity of John Cale’s avant-garde tendencies and Lou Reed’s lyricism and pop sensibilities, Haynes captures what makes the band’s early years so powerful and unique, while never shying away from how those tensions would inevitably divide the group. Haynes further illustrates this polarity through the film’s style. Heavily influenced from Andy Warhol and Paul Morrissey’s split-screen feature Chelsea Girls (1966), the documentary constantly shows us two images, sometimes to pair with the narrative of the sequence, but often in stark contrast, made most potent whenever Haynes shows Cale and Reed’s profile footage from The Factory side-by-side.

John Cale (left) and Lou Reed (right) in The Velvet Underground

A master of period filmmaking, Haynes captures the early 60s art moment in New York beautifully. By focusing on the visual and aesthetic elements of the film, Haynes has created a truly visceral project that is rare in documentary filmmaking, especially in the genre of retrospective music documentary. Haynes has curated a filmography out of deconstructing genres and movements from Douglas Sirk to Bob Dylan, while also being able to freeze a moment in amber. One would think a filmmaker that constantly goes back to previous era would fill their films with nostalgia and sentimentality, but what makes Haynes’ films so poignant and fresh is his ability to articulate the universality of stories. The magic trick Haynes is constantly able to pull off in his films is the ability to interrogate a moment heavily while never devaluing it. In a similar way he critiqued while also showing deep admiration to Douglas Sirk in Far From Heaven (2002), Haynes takes a similar approach to the 60s New York art movement, centred around Warhol’s Factory.

An absolute treat of the documentary is the interview with American avant-garde icon Jonas Mekas, who died in early 2019 which had to have been not long after the interview was conducted. Haynes pays great respect throughout the film to the underground and avant-garde movements that inspired him, as well as the icons that inspired Warhol and Cale like Mekas, John Cage, and La Monte Young. You can feel the deep connection Haynes has to this movement and how important it was to the establishment of The Velvet Underground and how it contrasted so heavily with Reed’s pop leanings that created the tension of the band. Tension that ignited into extraordinary music that ultimately drove Cale and Reed apart.

The spectre of Lou Reed is palpable through the documentary which culminates in a piece of fascinating final footage that shows even after everything they went through, he was still close to Cale. The documentary does not aim to dispel the mysteries of the band – an impossible task given the lack of concert footage as well as the ability to interview Reed for the film. A seemingly unknowable person, it is apparent throughout the film that people were hesitant to speak for Lou, making the audience constantly ponder what Reed would think about each moment in their storied history.

The visual splendour coupled with The Velvet’s music makes for a mesmerising experience that would’ve been greatly improved by being viewed in a theatre. The sequences and images of the band playing live at Warhol’s Studio 54 should be projected onto walls, and the slow crawl of the opening sequence set to “Venus in Furs” should be seen and heard in a loud, dark room. It is a sad reality that this opportunity is unavailable to us due to its production through Apple, but at least we got this treasure of a film at all.

The Velvet Underground is on Apple TV+ now.

Becoming Cousteau Documents Jacques Cousteau’s Lifelong Pursuit of the Sea

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Screener provided by Rialto Distribution

It feels somewhat reductive to call Jacques Cousteau an explorer. He was a pioneer, an inventor, a filmmaker, an author, and, at the later stages of his life, a conservationist to say the bare minimum. Sporting his unmistakeable red beanie, Cousteau set out on a lifelong journey to understand the depth of the ocean, which he and his team on the Calypso saw as an endeavour on the scale of space travel. People unfamiliar with his story may recognise his iconography through the Wes Anderson film The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004), where Cousteau was the main inspiration for Bill Murray’s titular character, albeit with vastly different personalities.

Helmed by Oscar-nominated documentary filmmaker Liz Garbus and a mountain of Cousteau’s own archival footage, this documentary is an honest and, at times, quite moving film about how an individual’s singular passion can be inspiring while also blinding them to the relationships to the people and world they inhabit. The film is neither a pure work of lionisation or exposé like many recent documentaries end up being. Garbus is able to toe that incredibly difficult and constantly shifting line that has made her one of the best in the business in working with subjects of immense cultural weight like Marilyn Monroe and Nina Simone.

From the outset, the film strikes you with a certain somber energy, constructed primarily through its voiceover interview delivery as well as the Desplat-esque score from workhorse film composers Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans, furthering the Wes Anderson connection. In a documentary that uses almost entirely archival footage (which is much more effective than a constant barrage of talking heads in hotels), audio is one of two crucial elements Garbus has to involve the audience (the other being the editing), and is where the films grounds itself wonderfully. This gives the film this off-beat energy that never holds your hand into feeling certain emotions while the extraordinary footage of the Calypso’s archival footage crashes over you in waves. This is best illustrated in an early sequence where we are shown actual footage of one of Cousteau’s closest friends, a fellow “musketeer of the sea” Maurice Fargues, which felt somehow both confronting and respectful to the depths they were willing to go to achieve their insatiable goal of exploration.

Jacques Cousteau in Becoming Cousteau

Becoming Cousteau is sequenced in an interesting and poignant way, tracking the transformation of Cousteau from a young passionate man driven to conquer the unknown depths of the ocean, to a seasoned traveller tasking himself with its protection. Garbus does an excellent job shaping Cousteau’s narrative in a cinematic way, from a visionary explorer ahead of his time that was all too often used for his passions by seperate interests (the revelation that the Calypso can be directly linked to the discovery of oil on the Qatari coast felt especially heartbreaking as the film went on), that had to eventually grapple with those earlier decisions.

In the era of the docuseries, it’s hard not to ponder the idea of Cousteau needing an extended runtime to dive deeper into each step of his journey. The films 90-minute runtime oftentimes felt to be moving at warp speed through many nuggets of narrative, from his Oscar and Palme d’Or winning documentary The Silent World (1956) that did The Abyss (1989) two years after James Cameron was born, to his struggles and achievements as a conservationist in his later years. While there is a certain charm to the quick burst documentary film, Becoming Cousteau definitely falters in its execution as a cradle-to-grave story, an issue with most single subject documentary and biopic features, but works well in creating an honest portrait of an inspirational figure that gave us the gift of his own journey on film.

Becoming Cousteau is coming to select national cinemas October 22nd.

The Guilty is a Stripped Back but Lacking Drama

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

Shot in just 11 days through strict Covid restrictions, Jake Gyllenhaal and director Antoine Fuqua once again collaborate on a remake of Gustav Möller’s 2018 debut feature Den skyldige, with mixed results. The script, adapted by crime drama maestro Nic Pizzolatto, maintains the same structure and narrative beats from the original, but lacks the propulsive energy that made Möller’s so gripping and entertaining.

The film centres around the LAPD officer Joe Baylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) who is benched to 911 response duty during a wildfire while he awaits trial for an incident while on duty, something that is giving him extreme anxiety. His night takes a turn when he receives a call from a kidnapped woman (Riley Keough) that he takes upon himself to save. While predominately a solo performance, the film is helped out greatly by quality voice acting performances from an ensemble of actors too long to mention that help ground the film that is limited in its ways to communicate the story.

The Guilty is all about limitations and the feeling of being trapped on the other side not being able to do enough to help, and in that regard, Fuqua largely succeeds by focusing on a more vulnerable lead performance than the original. This allows the audience to engage with Joe’s situation on a more emotional level which is Gyllenhaal’s bread and butter, and must’ve appealed to him about the role.

Unfortunately, too much of the film feels like a rushed first draft of a film, and not in the endearing two takes and that’s lunch Eastwood way. There is a serious lack of experimentation and innovation in a project that desperately calls for it, being handcuffed to one character on the phone for 90 minutes, that makes the 11-day shoot painfully apparent. Maybe it is unfair to ask for more than an average movie from that absurdly short turnaround from quality creators, but the work we’ve seen from Fuqua, Pizzolatto, and Gyllenhaal in the past warrants it.

Jake Gyllenhaal consumes every inch of the frame in The Guilty

Coming from the perspective of someone who has seen and enjoyed the original film which screened at MIFF in 2018, it is a more interesting exercise to dive into what is added in this work of adaptation. Firstly, thematically and narratively speaking, the story is actually improved by centring around an LAPD officer, as it adds an entire history for the audience that changes the context to many scenes, especially in comparison to the original story set in Denmark.

By setting the film in LA, the audience views the actions of Joe in a profoundly different way compared to Asger’s (the lead Jakob Cedergren in Den skyldige), as we immediately question his first response in situations of extreme pressure, namely leaping to violence as the only answer. Having this seed of doubt coupled with Gyllenhaal’s rapidly deteriorating mental state is where the film truly separates itself from the original, and if given more time, may have been where a more polished version of this movie would’ve put more consideration into.

The other aspect that centred the film’s setting is the California wildfire that is present throughout the film, but is never a true character that it needed to be. The roaring fire is only present in brief mentions by officers on the phone, as well as on the large monitors that bear down upon Joe’s desk, but add no actual weight to the story or emotionality Pizzolatto was going for and is another instance of the film greatly needing more time and care to expand its ideas.

While The Guilty is a commendable film and an interesting touch point in the recent history of US adaptations of European films, it is difficult to recommend this over the original film Den skyldige, even if it is only available to rent in Australia (it is currently streaming on Hulu). This is a film that may end up being merely a footnote in the collaborative journey between Gyllenhaal and Möller, as they adapt the graphic novel thriller Snow Blind, which will be Möller’s first English-language feature.

The Guilty is streaming on Netflix now.

The Mad Women’s Ball is a Deeply Compelling and Arresting French Period Drama

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Centred around the infamous Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital during the reign of Jean-Martin Charcot in the late 19th century, The Mad Women’s Ball (or Le Bal des folles in its native french, 2021), written, directed, and starring the terrific Mélanie Laurent (who audiences will recognise as Shoshanna from Inglorious Basterds or as Two from 6 Underground), is a compelling and gripping period drama, adapted from the critically acclaimed 2019 novel from Victoria Mas of the same name.

The film focuses on Eugénie Cléry (played by a mesmerising Lou de Laâge), a wealthy and defiant woman who is desperate to experience the world around her through books and exploration, a world that to her feels as tight and restricting as a corset (more on that later). We quickly come to learn that Eugénie has the ability to communicate with spirits, in several gripping sequences that would not feel out of place in Hereditary (2018), which keep the audience on edge for the entire first act, unsure of where the story is headed.

The film turns as Eugénie’s family discovers her abilities and, out of fear, admits her to the famous hospital, in the care of neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot (Grégoire Bonnet) and head nurse Geneviève Gleizes (Mélanie Laurent). Based on previous expectation of films and novels set in psychiatric wards, we assume Geneviève will be the antagonising presence of the film, but is quickly apparent that the relationship and bond between Geneviève and Eugénie will be the driving force of the film moving forward.

It is in this two-hander that the film truly excels, with Laurent and Cléry playing off each other tremendously with a quiet electricity only the best can achieve. Laurent has experience capturing Cléry’s intoxicating screen presence in her 2014 coming-of-age film Breathe and that familiarity is immediately apparent with a creative relationship that will hopefully continue into the future.

What separates a protagonist like Eugénie from those in similar films is her undying faith in her abilities. Even while under extreme duress inflicted upon her in barbaric fashion by the doctors in Salpêtrière, Eugénie never once backs down from her belief, all but guaranteeing her imprisonment but endearing her to those around her. Her lack of doubt in what she sees is truly refreshing, not bogging the narrative down in the swamp of a protagonist questioning themselves, as their resolve is the survival mechanism they require to withstand the world around them.

 Lou de Laâge and Mélanie Laurent are extrordinary together in The Mad Women’s Ball

The Salpêtrière is shown to us and Eugénie immediately as a monstrous place, with the howls of women echoing throughout the walls as she is dragged from her carriage – her father François (Cédric Kahn) and brother Théo (Benjamin Voisin) barely able look at her out of shame – unable to face the nightmare they have condemned her to. This is a famed hospital, the largest in Paris and known for its discoveries in neuroscience, but this film sets out to show us that within these hallowed walls, there is great pain and trauma being inflicted on the women inside, imprisoned here and experimented on in truly barbaric ways.

These acts of barbarism would weigh down most films, but Laurent is able to dull the blade of the men’s savagery through the close and careful attention given to the women Eugénie meets in the dormitory, who develop a wonderful camaraderie over the course of the film. A quietly moving moment happens after Eugénie returns from a horrific stay in hydrotherapy where we see her truly open up to the other inmates around her, embracing those she originally turned away from.

Whilst The Mad Women’s Ball is very much an actor’s showcase, there are some truly wonderful flourishes from Laurent and cinematographer Nicolas Karakatsanis. There is a beautiful use of natural lighting which was displaying throughout, highlighted in images echoing still life paintings of tea cups and hairbrushes that places the film firmly in the set period of the 19th century. It is common for actor-turned-director’s to focus on their actor to a fault, but Laurent is shown to have a clear vision for the story that is consistent and thoughtful throughout the film.

In a film full of thematic motifs and imagery, the corset stands out, climaxing in a gripping intercut sequence between Eugénie and Geneviève, removing the symbolic restrictions placed upon the two women by a patriarchal world that looks to dominate them. The scene is a climax of earned melodrama, which a lot of films fall short of achieving, but when it is captured it can be quite transcendent. The motif of the corset is established not just through the literal clothing item, but in the constant hounding from Eugénie’s father François, telling her to fix her posture in almost every scene they share, attempting to drill his ideas of appearance and respectability through societal pressures into his daughter.

This is Laurent’s largest production to date and is setup for big things next year with an adaptation of the bestselling novel The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah on the horizon next year, starring Dakota and Elle Fanning, that is sure to further launch her into the next level of her terrific filmmaking career.

The Mad Women’s Ball is streaming on Amazon Prime Video.

Worth Tackles Questions of Loss and Tragedy in 9/11 Drama

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Releasing onto Netflix in time for the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, Sara Colangelo’s Worth (2020) asks the daunting question of valuing a human life and the emotional turmoil of asking an individual to calculate that number in dollars and cents. That is the task of Ken Feinberg (Michael Keaton) and Camille Biros’s (Amy Ryan) law firm after the tragedy of the September 11th attacks, a task only Feinberg jumps at the opportunity to pursue. Just over a week after the attacks, the US Congress passed a bill to compensate the families of those that were lost, with the promise of not suing the airlines involved in the attacks, an act we are told would sink the economy, with Feinberg’s task to be to find the right number value for this compensation.

The film is setup well and has a high level of care given to the events that tell the audience immediately the sort of 9/11 drama this will be. Yes, there will be emotional scenes with grieving families breaking down in law offices, but the film will not confront you with the horrors of the events, that is not where its interests lie.

Keaton is a standout here, having an impressive command of the film while never being flashy, maintaining a consistent and measured demeanour, never wanting the emotional weight of tragedy the job requires to cloud his judgement. There are no “they knew!” scenes of emotional release that Spotlight had here – which won’t help it come awards season – the emotion of the film instead was carried through the circumstances and the testimonies of the families, an aspect Colangelo never abused, peppering these scenes in to create a measured flow to the film.

But this was no one-man show. The whole cast was excellent and individualised, especially Amy Ryan and Shunori Ramanathan, who at times were given the task of grounding and transferring the emotional weight of the film from the families to the firm, something she did with a certain energy and grace that was quite remarkable. It did on occasion lean too heavily into the tropes of the grizzled boomer man needing to be taught empathy by the women in his life, but the performances of Keaton, Ryan, and Ramanathan ground it just enough to avoid falling over.

Colangelo and cinematographer Pepe Avila del Pino (who worked together on Colangelo’s complex previous film The Kindergarten Teacher) also created an engaging and compelling visual language to Worth that should be celebrated. There’s a heavy use of negative space throughout the film, emphasising the isolation the lawyers are feeling as they attempt to connect with different parties, as well as an interesting use of centre framing, something quite unique in this sort of biopic film that stylises it in a singular way. Too often movies of this nature focus too much on dialogue in dull fluorescent lit offices and ignore the infinite ways filmmaking techniques can communicate a theme and emotion that makes the best films so impactful.

Stanley Tucci and Michael Keaton’s pivotal confrontation in Worth

One area that didn’t feel as considered as the framing, however, was the haphazard score, with different styles being thrown around between very quiet and sterile scenes. Even with the musical connection of opera and classical music being formed between Keaton and Tucci’s characters, this bond is never felt on a filmic level, with some score choices feeling at odds with the nature of the scenes they are intended to accompany. Compare that to Spotlight, something impossible to ignore throughout the film, which has one of the best scores of the 2010s by legend Howard Shore. What makes that score transcendent isn’t the flashy, rousing orchestral moments we usually attribute to the best scores, but in how well it connects to the film it is contained within and elevates in its emotional weight, something Muhly’s score falls short on.

The Shore score is measured, inquisitive, and almost mourning, matching and amplifying the tone of the film. The Muhly score, however, feels disjointed with its use of different instruments and styles with no real sense of cohesion between pieces, and rarely matched the emotional stakes of the scenes they were in which limited the film’s ability to transcend the more cliche and typical aspects of the film. It may feel harsh to harp on just this one aspect of the film but it feels a microcosm for the issues of the film and what holds it back from being great.

Worth is an admirable film that is considered and thoughtful about an important time in our history that needs to be viewed more closely and has set Colangelo up for a potentially long career oscillating between indie and studio filmmaking. It’s worth your time. (I couldn’t help myself.)

Worth is currently streaming on Netflix.

MIFF ’21: All Light, Everywhere Conjures Deep and Thought-Provoking Questions on Surveillance

“The optic nerve receives no visual information. It’s a blind spot. At the exact point where the world meets the seeing of the world. We’re blind.”

This statement delivered by unspoken subtitles captures both the intent and tone of the cerebral documentary feature All Light, Everywhere by Baltimore-based filmmaker Theo Anthony. The film is a meditation on surveillance, observation, police technology, privacy, and the relationship between filmmaker – which in this case extends to police and their body cameras – and subject.

Over the course of its 109-minute run time, the documentary deeply explores unique and interesting areas that link thematically to the notion of surveillance and the role of the observer in the process, from a factory tour of Axon Technologies (formally Taser) who created the police body cameras used today, the history of the moving picture and how its conception ties in deeply with policing, and a Baltimore community meeting on the prospect of being surveilled by a drone in an attempt to reduce crime that delivers some of the most poignant moments of the film.

This is not a film with answers or any sort of declarative statement at the conclusion. This is a documentary whose primary goal is to provoke thought in a complicated but necessary subject, while also weaving in more philosophical questions about the purpose of surveillance and the questions of bias in all things, and on this front, the film succeeds.

A lot of credit should be given to Anthony and cinematographer Corey Hughes, as they are acutely aware of the power they hold scene to scene with their camera and wield it in a more contemplative and wandering way that really captures the tone of the documentary. 

This tone is further illuminated through the score of the terrific electronic artist and composer Dan Deacon, also from Baltimore. Deacon’s synth-heavy score is equally haunting and sweeping, accompanying the more poetic and cerebral aspects of the documentary in a humanistic way, albeit while occasionally overwhelming the scenes that could’ve used a softer hand.

The film uses narration and unspoken subtitles as a form of contemplative fact-checking, prompting the audience to ask questions about what they are seeing, reminding us of the biases that naturally occur in seemingly unnatural things like drone footage and security footage. In the example of police body cameras, something which is pitched to society as an unbiased recording of events as they occur, narrator Keaver Brenai asserts that “the wide-angle is used to document as much space as possible, but the angle also exaggerates motion.”

A small child stares at the approaching solar eclipse in All Light, Everywhere

As is the case with a growing number of modern documentaries, the filmmakers themselves are as much a focus as the subjects. While this is usually a grating aspect to non-fiction storytelling, here it is necessary and Anthony and Hughes understand that their film is centred on the relationship and biases the observer has with what is being observed.

As the documentary format is explored and interrogated more deeply – especially post documentary boom thanks in large part to streaming – the ideas of bias and intent have been given more importance, and the form appears to be reacting to that interrogation by involving the filmmakers more often in front of and around the camera, as well as through moments of candidness where we are shown moments before or after scenes in an attempt to strip away the artifice of the film. These are techniques used often in All Light, Everywhere, even going to the lengths to show us the Adobe Premiere screen of the film’s edit, which is less capable hands may come off as a cheap and exploitative trick to create a sense of authenticity so that the audience can trust what is shown in front of the camera is coming from an honest place. 

Documentaries from others in recent years deploy these techniques to create an aura of authenticity, while Anthony here uses these same techniques to force the audience to question his own biases, something he clearly had to grapple with through the making of this film.

There are a thousand interesting threads to pull in this poignant, thought-provoking documentary, which is something the filmmakers clearly also found in the creation of this project, with an epilogue showing us footage of Anthony and Hughes documenting a filmmaking course at a Baltimore high school that was meant to feature prominently in the film but couldn’t find the thematic links to the rest of the piece. It is disappointing we were unable to view this film with a large audience as it absolutely deserved the sensation of walking out of a film into a packed foyer bustling with people wanting to discuss their thoughts and feelings on what they just saw.

All Light, Everywhere is streaming as part of the Melbourne International Film Festival on MIFF Play until August 22nd.

MIFF ’21: Riders of Justice Subverts the Revenge Thriller for a Truly Unique Experience

When tragedy strikes, our instinct is to seek out how something so monstrous could happen. We try to understand the actions that led to this point, a chain of causality that will answer what, or who, is responsible. This is at the heart of Anders Thomas Jensen’s new film Riders of Justice. Working with frequent collaborators Nikolaj Lie Kaas and the extraordinary Mads Mikkelson, this revenge thriller cleverly deconstructs the genre while weaving Jensen’s penchant for pitch-black humour that we’ve seen in his previous films Men & Chicken and Adam’s Apple.

After his wife is tragically killed, Mikkelson’s still deployed soldier Markus returns home to his daughter Mathilde (Andrea Heick Gadeberg), as they come to terms with their loss. Markus wants to move past the tragedy, seemingly accepting the freak nature of the accident, much to the dismay of his daughter who is in denial, wanting to believe it to be an of act of god. Markus’s mind is quickly changed however, when statistician Otto (Nikolaj Lie Kaas) shows up at his door and tells Markus exactly what he wants to hear; that there is a person responsible for his wife’s death.

In most revenge thrillers, the target of vengeance is almost always a gang leader or secret cabal that messed with the wrong man’s family, like notable revenge films Taken and Death Wish, and on the surface Riders of Justice is no different with the titular biker gang Riders of Justice. What separates this film from the others in the genre however, is the lack of focus given to the characters we should be viewing as villains, the targets of Markus’s vengeance. By focusing solely on Markus and his oddball group of friends, Jensen is telling us these villains are merely surrogates for these men as they deal with their grief, guilt, and loss of control. 

Riders of Justice also subverts the revenge genre by focusing heavily on the emotion toll of the central characters actions. A staple of the revenge thriller is to quickly establish why the only action the protagonist can take is to go on a no holds barred, guilt-free rampage through the city, as we revel in the carnage catharsis alongside our hero. What Riders of Justice achieves through grounding the narrative in Markus’ home life, especially his relationship with violence through his life as a soldier, as well as his daughter’s relationship with his violence, is that we have to decide for ourselves whether the feeling we are left with is one of catharsis or sadness at the path taken by our heroes as they tear through the Riders of Justice.

Nikolaj Lie Kaas (left to right), Lars Brygmann, and Mads Mikkelson in Riders of Justice

This is a difficult film to categorise and that is evident through the trailers and marketing of the film, which focuses around either the black humour or the Taken-esque plot, but what makes this film truly singular is its pathos and sadness, and how it attempts to balance all these elements while maintaining the humanity at its core.

None of this would be possible without the driving force of Mikkelson who, even in his most restrained moments, is a comet oftentimes at risk of overshadowing the rest of the cast and the film as a whole. Jensen’s crucial writing decision to give all of his dark humour dialogue to the characters surrounding Markus is an important one, as it allows him to simmer under the surface until he is ready to blow, without undercutting his character’s nature by joking at the situation they find themselves in.

It’s impossible not to compare the film to the Oscar-winning film Another Round with its connection to Mikkelson, Danish cinema, and their close releases. Both films are centred around a certain type of middle-aged male pathos and sadness, with unique but similar feelings of estrangement with the world around them. Both films are similar in their use of academic reasoning in an attempt to explain the feelings they are having. In Another Round, the high-school teachers seek to explain the emptiness they feel as being a result of their blood alcohol level not being high enough, while in Riders of Justice, Otto seeks to explain away the guilt he is feeling for this tragedy by proving the sheer impossibility of the events occurring purely through chance.

Mikkelson’s performances in both films are wildly different and truly displays his versatility as an actor and what separates him as one of the best in the business. He is a must-see in any project.

Riders of Justice is streaming on MIFF Play until August 22.