Newsflash: Rupert Murdoch is extremely powerful, and quite conservative. A series of hotly contested stories this week have done Australians a service by revealing private conversations between media moguls that may go some way to explaining the downfall of former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull. In doing so, these reports have confirmed what is in plain view. The Murdoch media is overwhelmingly sceptical about reducing greenhouse gas emissions, for example, the issue that, more than any other, brought Turnbull down.

Paul Feig’s sophisticated ‘A Simple Favour’
This camp study of sociopathy is far from simple

A Simple Favour

In the name of equality and the prospect of better box-office returns, Hollywood has in recent years been putting female protagonists at the centre of action films, that most reductive run-and-gun genre where leading men bloodily and invariably triumph. There’s a pulpy pleasure in watching the likes of Charlize Theron fight her way through Berlin’s Cold War doublecrosses in last year’s Atomic Blonde, but it exists mostly as a kind of substitute: the female action star too often replicates the male hero’s trajectory instead of remaking it. It renders the gender switch an act of negation.

Paul Feig’s A Simple Favour is a wholly different action film for women, a battle for supremacy that takes in the everyday language, lifestyle goals and consumer inducements of mainstream society and turns them into a sharply entertaining satire whose elegant surfaces cover recognisable truths. Towards the end it even has a showdown at a cemetery between the two main characters, stay-at-home mother Stephanie Smothers (Anna Kendrick) and exotic fashion publicist Emily Nelson (Blake Lively). But in this scenario, their weapons are style and sophistication: Emily makes a fiercely grand entrance dressed for catwalk control, while Stephanie displays her ease by serving martinis made to the recipe Emily once taught her. This shootout has gin, not guns.

Plainly a piece that operates at such an enjoyably exaggerated pitch must have a command of tone. Across the film, which is in turn a bonding drama, a hidden identity thriller and a bedroom paean to dopey but handsome husbands, the tone has an elastic quality: it stretches through tart humour, sudden revelations, and camp asides before snapping back into place with a sobering sting. It would be easy to misread A Simple Favour as a ludicrous contrivance, but there’s a dedication and even discipline to the way it pulls together such diverse strands with outrageous glee.

Like Stephanie, a widow who is so dedicated to mothering her young son that her fellow elementary school parents mock her and the meticulous how-to mummy blog videos she makes, the movie understands the power – and illusion – of being dazzled. When Emily first arrives for school pick-up to find that her son and Stephanie’s have bonded, the camera shoots her from the stiletto heel up. Seeing a playdate as a chance to keep her child occupied with a classmate, she invites Stephanie over for that martini. In between curtly informing her fashion designer boss to stop calling her, Emily reveals a scabrous sense of humour, and a designer kitchen that makes Stephanie’s domestic fantasies tingle, even if (as Emily confides) it’s left Emily and her husband in debt because they bought at the top of the market.

Such casual confessions are a form of deception for these two women – what they’re willing to tell in order to conceal what they want to keep hidden. The friendship between the prim and practical Stephanie and the imperiously hip Emily is unexpected and, at first glance, one-sided. Stephanie is starstruck, but her everyday equilibrium in the Connecticut suburbs reassures Emily, who in turn gives Stephanie a sense of connection by asking her for domestic help. That’s what happens when Emily asks Stephanie to pick up her son because she’s tied up at work and her husband, Sean (Henry Golding), is in London. When she hasn’t turned up several days later a worried Stephanie summons Sean and together they file a missing person’s report.

This all unfolds with quick precision in the film’s first act, and the picture is voracious in the turns it takes and the genres it folds in. It charges forward instead of pausing for breath, much like someone who is trying to present the perfect persona to the outside world might. But the storytelling, which visually shows a traumatic event while characters describe a less incriminating version, also serves to peel back layers of identity. There’s a moment where Emily, fresh from the office in a funky tuxedo typical of Renée Ehrlich Kalfus’ terrific costume design, peels off her dicky to reveal the woman beneath the armour. Stephanie has as many secrets as Emily, and one way of viewing her subsequent investigation into her friend’s shuttered past, which she posts videos about, is as a noble distraction.

Feig has cast the two lead roles exceptionally well. Neither actor has had a part so uniquely suited to her talents. Anna Kendrick, best known for the Pitch Perfect musical comedy franchise, has a comedienne’s timing and a fascinating feel for awkwardness. Every time Stephanie uses a term of female confederacy with Emily – “sis”, “lady” or “girlfriend” – there’s a flicker of nervous yearning to her delivery, as if she’s scared of being rebuffed. You can see their friendship give her confidence, but also how the look in Stephanie’s eyes as she gazes at Emily’s possessions goes from awe to acquisitiveness.

Blake Lively found stardom on the teen television soap Gossip Girl, but disappeared in what were meant to be breakthrough film roles, such as the anaemic comic book movie Green Lantern and Oliver Stone’s dismal Californian crime fantasy Savages. As Emily she leans into her movie-star glamour with such force that the cane she uses as an occasional accessory looks absolutely fitting; when she teases Stephanie with an expletive-based nickname, Emily’s husky voice has a seductive warmth.

Paul Feig has repeatedly had success exploring the bonds between women forced out of their element, directing the successive comedy hits Bridesmaids, The Heat, and Spy. But with A Simple Favour, working from Jessica Sharzer’s adaptation of Darcey Bell’s 2017 novel, he starts to pay attention to more than the comic interplay of his leads. When Stephanie soaks in the living space of Emily’s light-filled home, Feig cuts to a jarring front-on shot that breaks the spell and makes you look anew at the best friend who is supposedly just happy to help.

Emily’s tuxedo suggests Marlene Dietrich, and there are other nods to the leading ladies of Hollywood’s golden age, but Feig makes Stephanie and Emily the centre of their own world and gives them agency, albeit shaped by the film’s peculiar dynamic, free of men. Sean, a once-feted young novelist now making do as an academic, isn’t too bothered with who possesses him – when Emily disappears he’s receptive to Stephanie. In Hollywood thrillers commuter husbands used to get into trouble in the city and then hide it from their wives, but this buff husband is so pleasingly self-absorbed that he’s barely concerned with whom he comes home to.

The search for Emily, which naturally turns to the possibility of foul play, is led by a police detective, Summerville (Bashir Salahuddin), who blithely jokes his way through one encounter after another. He is bemused by these people and their incriminating flaws, and that is the same attitude the film takes. By the end, A Simple Favour has nodded to Brian De Palma and copped a fair chunk of the plot from Gone Girl, but it refuses to fold, and refuses to write off these women. The film flirts wildly with both high camp and sociopathy, but whatever the extreme, genuine insights linger, and it provides an ending befitting the intersection of desire and deceit: they lie happily ever after.

Craig Mathieson

Craig Mathieson is the film critic for the Sunday Age newspaper and the author of five books about popular music, including 2000’s The Sell-In and 2009’s Playlisted.

@CMscreens

Read on

Image of Vincent van Gogh’s ‘Portrait of Joseph Roulin’

‘MoMA at NGV: 130 Years of Modern and Contemporary Art’

An eye candy-laden, educational treasure hunt of an exhibition

Image of Malcolm Turnbull and Peter Dutton

Turnbull fires back

Unlike Tony Abbott, Malcolm Turnbull never promised ‘no wrecking’

Image from ‘In Fabric’

Toronto International Film Festival 2018 (part one)

A British outlier and a British newcomer are among the stand-outs in the first part of the festival

Image from ‘Patrick Melrose’

Benedict Cumberbatch is perfect as the imperfect Patrick Melrose

The actor brings together his trademark raffishness and sardonic superiority in this searing miniseries


The heavy thud from Canberra around 12.20pm today was the sound of ministerial standards dropping, even further. By a one-vote majority, 68–67, the Coalition plus Queenslander Bob Katter voted that it is okay, when politically expedient, for ministers to mislead parliament and to fail to correct the record. The vote had nothing to do with asylum seekers, and nothing to do with au pairs. It was all about whether Minister for Home Affairs Peter Dutton should be sanctioned in what was an open-and-shut case.

As a bona fide trade war between China and the United States hots up, minutes of Labor’s caucus debate on the over-hyped Trans-Pacific Partnership have been leaked [$] to the Herald Sun, and show the party trying hard to balance electability and perceived responsibility as it prepares to govern. The TPP-11 is hardly popular with voters.

‘MoMA at NGV: 130 Years of Modern and Contemporary Art’
An eye candy-laden, educational treasure hunt of an exhibition

Vincent van Gogh, Portrait of Joseph Roulin, 1889, oil on canvas, 64.4 x 55.2cm. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of Mr and Mrs William A.M. Burden, Mr and Mrs Paul Rosenberg, Nelson A. Rockefeller, Mr and Mrs Armand P. Bartos, The Sidney and Harriet Janis Collection, Mr and Mrs Werner E. Josten, and Loula D. Lasker Bequest (all by exchange), 1989. Digital Image © The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2018

Modernism has been as revolutionary an art movement as the early Renaissance was, and equally as entwined in the scientific, political, social and technological innovations of its day.

The Renaissance taught us that the sun didn’t orbit the earth, and gave us the printing press, the blast furnace and firearms; modernity gave us particle physics, air travel and mass production. Renaissance art gave us perspective and figurative narratives of political power; modernist art gave us the world broken down into its molecular parts, and new expectations of political critique.

The Museum of Modern Art in New York has been the greatest repository of modernism for decades, first under the colourful and persuasive Alfred Barr, and most recently under the super-efficient Glenn Lowry. There has been considerable grumbling in recent years that MoMA has abandoned its modernist brief by dabbling in postmodernism, but Lowry disputes the very premise of the criticism.

The museum’s brief, he points out, is the contemporary, not what we have retrospectively come to call “modernist”. Its aim, he wrote in an essay, is to be “self-renewing, with each exhibition and installation presenting an argument rather than a definitive statement about the history of modern art – in effect, in perpetual state of disruption.”

The star-studded MoMA show at the National Gallery of Victoria at present gives us a chance to break down that call and response.

MoMA at NGV: 130 Years of Modern and Contemporary Art begins with a powerful first room, which shows four masterpieces from modernism’s early days in the late-19th century. These exemplify the kind of post-impressionist works that set modernism on its path: Georges Seurat’s Evening, Honfleur; Vincent van Gogh’s Portrait of Joseph Roulin; Paul Gauguin’s The Moon and the Earth and Paul Cézanne’s Still Life with Apples.

The Cézanne, in particular, is dazzling. Cézanne was best known, perhaps, for landscapes that challenged both form and perspective, but his still lifes did similar. Criticised at the time for looking like unfinished sketches, they are in fact meticulously studied, breaking down both materiality and colour. The combination of intensity and ephemerality in Still Life with Apples gave people the chance to really “see” what reality was made of, and the clear brushstrokes showed how the artist tackled it.

The next room that dazzled me was titled Art as Action. It contained the kinetic work of Jackson Pollock and the contemplative work of Mark Rothko. Polar opposites though they seem in mood, both artists were part of the American post-war Abstract Expressionism movement. Both Pollock’s Number 7, 1950 and Rothko’s No. 3/No. 13 are gestural, abstract, uneven in the application of paint and highly contrasted in colour; both reach from their opposite starting poles towards some kind of visual and emotional harmony.

There are more than 200 items in the exhibition, and they cover the gamut from the Seurat (produced in 1886) to examples from the early 2000s. Sculpture epitomising the early 20th-century excitement with technology includes examples from Peter Behrens’ A.E.G. (Allgemeine Elektricitäts Gesselshaft) Berlin – a fan painted black and gold, and a minimalist wall clock – and László Moholy-Nagy’s indeterminate post-World War One Nickel construction.

The show segues through Picasso’s cubism; Dali, Magritte and de Chirico’s surrealism; Malevich, Popova and Rodchenko’s constructivism; Balla’s Italian futurism; Ellsworth Kelly’s hard-edged minimalism; Edward Hopper’s suburban and rural realism; and much more. Toulouse-Lautrec, Kirchner, Delaunay, Léger, Grosz, Mondrian, Kahlo, Reinhardt: the rollcall is extraordinary.

MoMA has been generous with these loans, and the show offers eye candy and a celebrity treasure hunt, as well as a quick educational tour through the byways of 20th-century art.

It’s when we get to more recent works – postmodernism, if you will – that the sheer power of the art on display diminishes. Is this an art-historical judgement or personal taste?

We leave the realm of high art for a seemingly more desperate experimentation, as though neither the social nor the technical goals of art are clearly defined any longer. Andy Warhol’s suite of Marilyn Monroe screen prints is becoming hackneyed. Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s vertical cascade of light bulbs, Untitled, is, well, a vertical display of light bulbs.

Architect Zaha Hadid’s exterior view of a Hong Kong development project is an exciting illustration and, as art, is a curious mix of Giacomo Balla and Ellsworth Kelly, but I’m not sure what it tells us about art in the 1990s. Rineke Dijkstra’s portraits of girls and women sitting on chairs are more social history than art as such.

And yet there is art here that speaks to me (and I am conscious of the subjectivity at work here): Rauschenberg’s Surface series, Diane Arbus’s portraits. Robert Gober’s untitled leg – which I originally took to be a Maurizio Cattelan: it’s a bit hard to forget his headless horses – demanded closer attention. Even posters for British punk rockers The Clash – depicting American militarism, and the Statue of Liberty bound in rope – demanded attention.

How to explain the sense of softening towards the end? Do we always require some distance of time to deal with developments in art and to sort out the masterpieces from the also-rans? I have walked and walked unmoved through massive biennales like Venice’s before being stopped in my tracks by a fascinating work. Does the ever-present need for wall texts to explain what we are seeing diminish the visual impact? Is the subject matter so particular now, the opposite of the universalities that art once reached for, that only so many will interest any given viewer?

And yet the contemporary works that stand out really stand out, as anyone who visited the Gerhard Richter show at QAGOMA earlier in the year and the Chiharu Shiota at the Art Gallery of South Australia will have experienced viscerally.

And so, even the last part of the MoMA exhibition, where you can almost hear reactionaries grumbling, “Call that art?!”, provides us with an important overview of what is important to artists today. And don’t forget that the now-hallowed term “impressionism” started out as an insult delivered by a scoffing critic.

 

MoMA at NGV: 130 Years of Modern and Contemporary art finishes on October 7.

Miriam Cosic

Miriam Cosic is a Sydney-based journalist and author.

Read on

Paul Feig’s sophisticated ‘A Simple Favour’

This camp study of sociopathy is far from simple

Image of Malcolm Turnbull and Peter Dutton

Turnbull fires back

Unlike Tony Abbott, Malcolm Turnbull never promised ‘no wrecking’

Image from ‘In Fabric’

Toronto International Film Festival 2018 (part one)

A British outlier and a British newcomer are among the stand-outs in the first part of the festival

Image from ‘Patrick Melrose’

Benedict Cumberbatch is perfect as the imperfect Patrick Melrose

The actor brings together his trademark raffishness and sardonic superiority in this searing miniseries


Photos of soon-to-depart female MPs – or, if they’re recontesting, likely to depart at the next election, given the polls – are lined up in this morning’s Fairfax newspapers like endangered species. The pictures tell the story of a Liberal Party going backwards.

Even if he leaves no other legacy, Prime Minister Scott Morrison will be able to point to the long-overdue royal commission into the aged care sector. The inquiry, announced ahead of tonight’s landmark Four Corners investigation, follows years of shocking revelations of neglect and abuse of the elderly, and has been welcomed across the political spectrum.

Turnbull fires back
Unlike Tony Abbott, Malcolm Turnbull never promised ‘no wrecking’

Source

Unlike Tony Abbott, Malcolm Turnbull did not hang around in parliament, which must be a major relief for Scott Morrison – one baleful ex-prime minister glowering from the backbench is more than enough.

But also unlike Tony Abbott, Malcolm Turnbull did not promise “no wrecking, no undermining and no sniping”. And, particularly unlike Abbott, if he had, he almost certainly would have kept his word.

So, inevitably, it was on. Within a week, the tweeting began: Peter Dutton should be referred to the High Court in case – just in case – he is not eligible to sit in parliament.

Turnbull sent his message not only to Morrison, but more importantly to other Liberal Party colleagues. Last month when Labor moved to refer Dutton, the government troops held – just; Dutton’s own vote was needed to get his numbers across the line.

Turnbull obviously feels that, with a little persuasion, one or more could be cracked. Already his old friend and colleague Julie Bishop – who, to Morrison’s regret, remains in parliament – seems to be wavering.

It’s not over yet, and the pressure is finally getting to the previously adamantine home affairs minister. Dutton now has a big target on his back, and the shooters are taking aim from all directions. Turnbull supporters regard him as a traitor, pure and simple. Those in Morrison’s camp don’t trust him for a moment: once an insurgent, always an insurgent.

And we have even seen him find a feud with his old comrade in persecution, Roman Quaedvlieg. The spectacle of these relentless ex-coppers gouging at each other would be mildly amusing if it were not taking place in what used to be the sacred precincts of parliament.

And however Morrison might seek to deny it (and almost everything else to do with the coup), Dutton is in trouble. He can probably bluff his way out of the charges of looking after his mates over the various visa issues; his double standards about “humanitarianism” are par for the course for his brutal regime.

But the section 44 problem is real and dangerous. Turnbull and the Commonwealth solicitor-general, Stephen Donaghue, were all but certain that Barnaby Joyce would be waved through the High Court, and were clearly wrong. This time, Donaghue thinks Dutton is alright, but admits he’s not sure.

Turnbull says that when in doubt, Morrison must refer. So far the only response from the attorney-general, Christian Porter, is that Labor should have raised the matter earlier; Morrison’s position is that he doesn’t want to pursue it, and he fervently hopes the voters don’t either. Whether this will wash with Bishop and the many others bruised and battered by Morrison’s Muppet Show is, to put it mildly, unlikely, especially if Turnbull perseveres, whether from Manhattan or Point Piper.

Morrison was at the ringside when the Abbott recalcitrants were at their most virulent. The last thing he needs is a similar campaign of sabotage and disruption from Turnbull’s troops. But that does not mean he won’t get one. Such is the state of the modern Liberal Party.

Mungo MacCallum

Mungo MacCallum is a political journalist and commentator. His books include Run Johnny Run, Poll Dancing, and Punch and Judy. Visit his blog, The View from Billinudgel.

Read on

Paul Feig’s sophisticated ‘A Simple Favour’

This camp study of sociopathy is far from simple

Image of Vincent van Gogh’s ‘Portrait of Joseph Roulin’

‘MoMA at NGV: 130 Years of Modern and Contemporary Art’

An eye candy-laden, educational treasure hunt of an exhibition

Image from ‘In Fabric’

Toronto International Film Festival 2018 (part one)

A British outlier and a British newcomer are among the stand-outs in the first part of the festival

Image from ‘Patrick Melrose’

Benedict Cumberbatch is perfect as the imperfect Patrick Melrose

The actor brings together his trademark raffishness and sardonic superiority in this searing miniseries


Don’t underestimate the strength of the Liberal Party in Wentworth. Don’t underestimate the anger of Wentworth’s Liberals. It’s a seething, frothing mess in the richest electorate in the country, and anything could happen, except a Greens win. This parliament must by now hold the record for the number of by-elections in a single term; surely no government has ever had to face three successive tests of a single-seat majority. Each time the government fights to retain a seat, the stakes seem to ratchet higher. In New England, Barnaby Joyce was a pretty sure bet.

Toronto International Film Festival 2018 (part one)
A British outlier and a British newcomer are among the stand-outs in the first part of the festival

In Fabric. Image courtesy of TIFF

Things move at a particular pace in Canada, even in Toronto, its largest metropolis (“You know, this isn’t New York,” someone admonished me as I crossed a street on a red), and even at the Toronto Film Festival, one of the world’s busiest. How else to explain the chap at the head of the queue for the concession stand on Saturday night, who, with about 15 people lined up behind him, and a dozen screenings about to begin, not only asked the server what varieties of wines were for sale (“I don’t like shiraz – do you have a cabernet merlot?”), but then enquired about their respective vintages.

Behind him, some exasperated soul (full disclosure: me) said loudly, “Mate, it’s a fucking multiplex. I’m pretty sure the ‘vintage’ is last week.” I assumed my fellow patrons would approve – after all, we were going to be late for our various movies. But instead came further admonishing glances and someone actually, audibly tut-tutting. I bowed my head and returned, soda-less, to my seat.

At least (some of) the films were great. Weirdly underrated on its premiere in Venice a few days earlier, László Nemes’s Sunset suffers only by comparison to his debut, the Oscar-winning Holocaust drama Son of Saul. And even then, not by very much: this is very much of a piece with that film, both in terms of technique and achievement. Once more, we’re plunged into a historical inferno – this time it’s Budapest in 1913, the tinderbox that was pre-World War One Europe. A young woman, Irisz (newcomer Juli Jakab, more than a little reminiscent of Emma Watson), arrives from Vienna and turns up at the city’s most prestigious milliner, Leiter’s, looking for a job. We soon discover that she’s actually a Leiter herself – the daughter of the family – and that some catastrophe befell them some years earlier. There was a fire, in which both her parents perished; the business was rebuilt and then sold, their fortune lost.

Taken in, somewhat reluctantly, by the store’s new manager, Irisz also learns that her long-lost brother is still alive and may be a murderer, a revolutionary, or both. She sets out to find him, but instead is drawn into a vast conspiracy that implicates hundreds of men, foreign and local, across all social classes, and which reveals the rot at the core of this grand, decaying culture.

If history, as James Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus said, is a nightmare from which we are trying to awake, this film pulls us further down into that bad dream, until unreality closes above our heads like dirty water. Questions go unanswered. Leads are explored and then abandoned. And everywhere, at every moment, is a sense of mounting insanity, as Irisz is propelled from one frightening and/or mysterious situation to the next. Ostensibly a requiem for the Austro-Hungarian Empire, indebted equally to Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent and Joseph Roth’s The Radetzky March, Sunset actually foreshadows the deadlier global conflict that would follow. A familiar enough theme – but few contemporary directors possess Nemes’s genius for staging action, or his ability to convey the sense of impending cataclysm. Aided by Mátyás Erdély’s roving camera, the drama plays out in a series of long, precisely choreographed takes, the action – as in Son of Saul – often occurring at the edges of the frame, almost lost in the shadows. The effect is haunting in the literal sense: you feel, by the end, like you’ve communed with the dead.

A slightly different kind of retail experience was on offer in the latest from English outlier Peter Strickland. Set in a fictional London department store that might also be a locus of Satanic activity, In Fabric is a horror-comedy about a possibly sentient, decidedly malevolent red dress, one that brings ill fortune to whoever puts it on.

Billed as a kind of giallo, it is actually something rather more British: from its fizzy analogue visuals, to its synth-heavy soundtrack (by Cavern of Anti-Matter, the new project from ex-Stereolab co-founder Tim Gane), it offers a rare cinematic example of Hauntology, the recent British arts movement whose aesthetic draws upon 1970s library music, public information films and commercial photography – all of which were referenced here. (If this sounds intriguing, I refer you to the late Mark Fisher’s excellent 2014 study Ghosts of My Life, and the artists on the UK’s Ghost Box record label.)

It is also extremely funny, peopled by an array of spooky eccentrics. There’s Miss Luckmoore (Strickland regular Fatma Mohamed), a witchy saleswoman who speaks only in enigmatic sort-of haikus (“A purchase on the horizon, a panoply of temptation, soon to be an echo in the recesses of the spheres of retail”), and who fiddles after-hours with the female mannequins until their vaginas discharge what looks like blood. And there’s the pair of gay middle-management types who communicate solely in bland corporate-speak. (One of whom is played by Julien Barratt, a fine and underrated actor, formerly of The Mighty Boosh and more recently seen in the remarkable Channel 4 series Flowers.)

The design is suitably retro – I kept being reminded, no doubt deliberately, of the set from Morecambe and Wise – and the casting unorthodox, mixing dependable veterans (the great Marianne Jean-Baptiste) with comparative neophytes (former Magazine bassist and occasional Bad Seed Barry Adamson). Was it a delight to watch? Or, as Miss Luckmoore would have it, “Did the transaction validate your paradigm of consumerism?” It was, and it did.

By contrast, Paolo Sorrentino’s Loro (“Them”) offered much but delivered very little – in this sense, at least, it is an appropriate representation of the Berlusconi era it aims to depict. I haven’t liked a Sorrentino film since Il Divo (2008), his baroque, playful takedown of former Italian prime minister Giulio Andreotti. The Great Beauty (2013) took almost three hours to bring us the mind-blowing revelation that Italians might be a tad superficial; Youth (2015) was a young man’s take on an old man’s fantasy, a pervy, unapologetic celebration of the Male Gaze. And this one, edited together from two separate features for international release, is even more insubstantial than those two, little more than a 150-minute music video.

As with Youth, there’s plenty of skin on display: acres of nubile, barely dressed female flesh. And while it’s meant to signify the currency of this sordid, everything-for-sale world, it’s also hard to respect a film about potency (and its opposite) that hasn’t the courage to show so much as a single dick. But even these party scenes – Sorrentino’s speciality – feel perfunctory; watching, you sense a growing weariness on the part of the filmmaker. Who, you know, just might also be a little superficial himself.

There’s a way he could have filmed these sequences and avoided repeating himself. He might have taken the point of view of the waiters – glimpsing the noisy, decadent action as the doors to the kitchen swing open and then closed; bringing these jaded, loathsome hedonists their drinks, or disposing of their used foils. But to do so would mean pausing for a moment to understand or at least contemplate the life of the underclass. Who are not always beautiful or elegantly dressed. Who don’t have time to dance to those club bangers (Sorrentino’s taste in music remains excellent), or the money to buy the best drugs. But theirs is entirely another world, one in which this director – secretly in love with what he purports to despise – clearly has no interest whatsoever.

Argentine writer-director Pablo Trapero followed up his 2015 crime drama The Clan with a melodrama, La Quietud, starring The Artist’s Bérénice Bejo, a resident of Paris but a native of Buenos Aires. Playing Eugenia, who returns home to Argentina from France after her father has suffered a stroke, Bejo struggles valiantly with the material but never quite gets a handle on it – mostly because the film never commits to the story it’s trying to tell. Instead, it flirts half-heartedly with various things: fascism, incest, logic …

Daddy, we discover, might have done some unpleasant things during the post-Péron dictatorship, but that information doesn’t seem to stop everyone from shagging everyone else, or masturbating. (Frankly, I prefer my alternate title: Junta Fuck House.) Neither the audience nor the actors seemed to quite know whether it was intended as a comedy or a drama. But about 40 minutes in, as erotic tensions sizzled during an open-casket funeral, a handful of spectators finally exploded in laughter, and a palpable sense of relief settled upon the theatre; thereafter, the film’s mounting absurdities seemed almost welcome – certainly preferable to the weightier historical concerns at which it was feinting. And while it’s too easy to saddle every story of wealthy Latin families with the telenovela tag, it’s hard to see how else this one could be understood. The insistent score, the passionate embraces, the tearful recriminations … all muy dramático.

Smaller and far better was Ray & Liz, the debut feature from acclaimed British artist Richard Billingham. Adapted from his reputation-making 1996 monograph “Ray’s a Laugh” – itself inspired by his own childhood, growing up on a council estate in the West Midlands – it offers a deep immersion in the squalid realities of working-class British life, circa 1980. A diffident, recessive presence, Ray is sliding further into alcoholism after being laid-off from work; his wife, Liz, meanwhile, fills her days with jigsaw puzzles and chain-smoking and not bothering much about their two children. Yet the couple, superbly played by Justin Sallinger and Ella Smith, are never allowed to become mere grotesques. Their affection for each other is apparent, making their nearly autistic lack of concern for their sons all the more inexplicable.

Wallpaper peels from walls stained with nicotine; cockroaches and flies swarm over piles of unwashed dishes in the sink. A neighbour drops by to get some fag-ends, scavenged from the street under the subway. (“There’s an inch of white left on that! Incredible, what some people throw away.”) And while their older boy, Richard, is already planning his escape, nine-year-old Jason is sliding unnoticed into neglect and depression. His plight, and its resolution, carry much of the film’s emotional payload, aided in no small part by Joshua Millard-Lloyd’s extraordinary performance.

Watching, the debt to Terence Davies’ early work is clear, from its three-part structure (reminiscent of Davies’ Trilogy) to its tactile, sensual qualities, the play of light and shadow across glass, fabric and skin – all superbly captured by cinematographer Daniel Landin in granular 16mm. (Kudos, too, to production designer Beck Rainford, who brilliantly recreates what a friend eloquently described as “the smeary, trinket-infested havoc of the family home”.) But even as Billingham is reckoning with his past, he takes care to inject occasional flashes of the surreal and irrational. Having taken refuge for two nights at a friend’s house (where, in the film’s most heartbreaking moment, he abruptly hugs the mother who has shown him kindness), Jason encounters his parents in the park on his way to school. “Oh, there you are,” Liz murmurs, almost distractedly. “Coppers been out looking for you.” She’s pushing a pram, and in it, we see, is a rabbit – a detail altogether too surreal to be anything but true.

Shane Danielsen

Shane Danielsen is a screenwriter and former artistic director of the Edinburgh International Film Festival.

Read on

Paul Feig’s sophisticated ‘A Simple Favour’

This camp study of sociopathy is far from simple

Image of Vincent van Gogh’s ‘Portrait of Joseph Roulin’

‘MoMA at NGV: 130 Years of Modern and Contemporary Art’

An eye candy-laden, educational treasure hunt of an exhibition

Image of Malcolm Turnbull and Peter Dutton

Turnbull fires back

Unlike Tony Abbott, Malcolm Turnbull never promised ‘no wrecking’

Image from ‘Patrick Melrose’

Benedict Cumberbatch is perfect as the imperfect Patrick Melrose

The actor brings together his trademark raffishness and sardonic superiority in this searing miniseries


Pages

×
×