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WATCH my review of 20th Century Women on Watch This

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**** (out of five)

There have been countless coming-of-age comedy/dramas about significant years in young men’s lives: the year they got laid, the year their father died, the year they lost their innocence. But never have I seen a film about the year a fifteen year-old became a feminist. Mike Mills’ autobiographical 20th Century Women is just that, and it is wonderful.

It’s interesting to review 20th Century Women in the wake of Mia Hansen-Løve’s Things To Come, which is also an autobiographical portrait of the filmmaker’s mother. While a young woman – obviously Hansen-Løve’s surrogate – only briefly appears in Things To Come, having very little impact on the story, in 20th Century Women the protagonist is obviously the “Mike Mills” character, 15-year-old Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann). So in Things To Come, Hansen-Løve shows you her mother; in 20th Century Women, Mills shows you his mother’s effect on him.

But not just hers – most definitely not! Mills grew up surrounded by women, and the fictionalised account he offers here makes them three: his / Jamie’s mother Dorothea (Annette Bening), his best friend, 17-year-old Julie (Elle Fanning), and lodger Abbie (Greta Gerwig). Dad’s nowhere to be seen, but there’s another lodger, William (Billy Crudup), supplying at least a version of mature(ish!) masculinity. (Incidentally, Mills’ last film Beginners (2010) was based on his father, who came out as a gay man in his mid-70s).

It’s 1979 in Santa Barbara and Dorothea, a graphic artist, runs her large, rambling, constantly-under-renovation house like a very laid-back boarding house. Her boarders William and Abbie are both, essentially, escaping their lives while trying to figure out new ones, while Julie escapes nightly from her own home into Jaime’s bedroom to sleep with him platonically, which is more than a little confusing to his roiling hormones. Sensing the changes exploding within him, his mother enlists the aid of Abbie and Julie in his emotional education, but Abbie’s determined feminism and Julie’s own confusing pubescence aren’t necessarily the life lessons Dorothea is hoping to offer. As a fifty-five year old professional woman with a slightly bohemian lifestyle, Dorothea is a little too late for the revolution, but also an embodiment of its basic ideals.

The film is punctuated with quotes from the feminist texts Jaime reads throughout the year along with clips from the punk bands he is listening to (both thanks to Abbie). This juxtaposition is original and thrilling. What an intense experience, to be listening to The Raincoats while reading Our Bodies, Ourselves while surrounded by three generations of women all trying to figure it out for themselves! Mills makes it personal, touching and true. It all smells very real, very honest, very heartfelt.

It’s also really funny. I laughed out loud – a lot – at some of the best lines this year. The humour flows organically, from the situation and from the truth of the characters. Nothing feels forced. No emotions are coerced. Everything feels genuine, artistic, pure.

And the performances are fantastic. Much has already been said about Bening’s excellent, multi-faceted portrayal (the film came out in the United States months ago) but Gerwig and Fanning both give career-bests. Zumann is always believable and crafty with a sly zinger, and Crudup’s performance is – here’s that horrible critic’s word – revelatory. Humble, odd, gentle, yet disarmingly sexual, William is an enigmatic, extremely rich character, completely realised. It’s a houseful ensemble of excellence, in a thoroughly entertaining, sophisticated, beautifully crafted film. Highly, highly recommended.

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*** (out of five)

Let’s just take a moment to recognise how marvellous a screen actor Woody Harrelson is. He’s tremendous. He knows how to build an indelible character, how to spin a line, how to fill the screen. His technique is impeccable. And, like many of the best screen actors, there is something about him that is uniquely him. His slate of roles is fantastically diverse, but he also also brings the Woody. Tall and leading-man handsome yet totally capable of playing “character” parts, he’s part of a circle that – for me at least – includes thespians like Stanley Tucci, the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman, and Billy Bob Thornton.

All those actors would have had a great crack at Wilson, but Woody got it, and he makes it his own. An eventful, melancholic character study based on Daniel Clowes’ graphic novel (Clowes also wrote the screenplay), it offers a hearty meal for an actor and Woody happily feasts. He’s terrific, and would probably be in Awards conversations next year if the film weren’t so modest.

Wilson’s a curmudgeon, a recluse, and perhaps a little imbalanced. He lives with his beloved dog and as few electronic devices as possible in a house in need of a good clean. When his dad dies, it sends Wilson off on a journey that sees him connect with his ex-wife and the two of them with their grown-up daughter.

This is one of those graphic novel adaptations (like Clowes’ own 2001 Ghost World) that kind of lives in its own hermetic universe. Not to say that there are superheroes or aliens (there certainly aren’t either) but that the houses are all colourful (it was shot in Twin Cities, MN but seems to be set in the Pacific Northwest of the US), the people are all quirky and everything is a little timeless. It’s stylised, but in a vague way – you just kind of know it as you’re seeing it.

The film has many, many gags that fall flat, but there are also some true zingers. Harrelson and co-stars Laura Dern and Judy Greer are excellent. And the plot is truly, refreshingly loose and unformulaic, rambling from one situation to another like a dim puppy. It’s almost instantly forgettable, but it’s never not engaging as it plays.

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*** (out of five)

I Am Heath Ledger is a cinematic portrait of Ledger the artist. Devoid of gossip and any hint of salaciousness, it will disappoint the TMZ crowd but should prove rich for film students, particularly those of the art of screen acting. It is so tasteful and craft-oriented that, even though Naomi Watts is one of the prominent interview subjects, no mention is made of her and Ledger’s love affair. Nor is any image shown of Ledger with an alcoholic beverage, a joint or in any state of mind other than alert and engaged. His death is dealt with quickly, at the end, after a single mention of “demons”, a reference to an “unravelling”, and a few nods to his insomnia.

So dispel thoughts of getting any “dirt” and revel instead in the actor, director, sometime visual artist and constant photographer and videographer. Ledger was obsessed with cameras and he shot massive volumes of footage, including enormous amounts of himself. While this may seem vainglorious, one of the most intriguing reveals of the film is footage of Ledger essentially using his camcorder to teach himself screen technique; he tries every angle, every facial expression, and, charmingly and amusingly, does so with generic genre movie lines – here’s a disaster face, a super-villain smirk, a panicked stare.

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Like the cellphone footage shot by Amy Winehouse’s friends that made Amy (2015) so revolutionary, this trove of Ledger’s own recordings gives us an intimacy that previous generations of film biographers could only dream of. In the future all bio-docs will look like this, and with Snapchat and Facebook posts and tweets galore (the camcorder grain of a lot of Ledger’s footage looks practically VHS-level, especially when shot at night or in dark rooms, which is often). It’s a little disconcerting, being this close to someone who you’ve known almost entirely through their actual silver screen performances (Ledger was not big on gossipy publicity), but the movie gives way, after the first act, to many more interviews with Ledger’s best friends, closest colleagues and immediate family (minus his daughter and ex-wife but including his parents and siblings). It proceeds methodically to work its way through his small but incredible filmography, only missing The Order (2003), The Brothers Grimm and Casanova (both 2005) and, disappointingly, Candy (2006). All his other important work is examined, with clips and discussion and, when possible, audio from Ledger himself, presumably culled from contemporaneous radio interviews.755mb105232_fr5.tif

The result is refreshing, insightful, and also devastatingly sad. I was tense and upset from the opening frames, knowing that the bright, sunny Perth boy on screen was destined to die before reaching his thirties (he died in early 2008 at 28). Later, in my car after the film, I cried, taking myself by total surprise. He was some kind of magic, and deserving of this respectful, if hagiographic, biography.

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UPDATE: WATCH THIS featuring Jim Flanagan and I on Alien: Covenant and all things Ridley Scott here

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And here’s our review of Alien: Covenant.

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***1/2 (out of five)

Ridley Scott doubles down on the mythology of the Alien cinematic universe in the latest instalment (and the third directed by him), Covenant, and in doing so somewhat rescues the bewildering Prometheus (2012) after the fact. Scott spends the extended second act of the new film expanding, explaining and ultimately answering the many questions that film raised; basically, if you want to know the backstory of H.R. Giger’s “perfect organism” (as described by Ash in Alien (1979)), it’s all here.

Not that you’ll understand it if you haven’t seen Prometheus. I didn’t bone up on that film before this one, but it’s fair to say that you’ll at least need to have seen it for this one to make any kind of sense (at least, during that long second act). I’m not going to reveal anything here about all the world-building, but I can happily report that the complicated plot machinations ultimately left me satisfied – and ready for another instalment, should Sir Ridley be so kind.

How many of the ensemble cast of this one would be in such a venture I obviously won’t say; as you may have guessed, some of their characters die in or around the Covenant (which is simply another name of another space vessel, like the Prometheus). You’ll have seen Katherine Waterston on the poster, so you’ve probably assumed she’s one of the major characters (spoiler alert: you’re right) but as for who else had the most days on set… well, I was surprised.

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Sir Scott remains a true master of cinema. The filmmaking craft on show is astonishing. The visual and aural atmosphere is beautifully tied into the aesthetics of the original Alien, and the creatures, although almost certainly CGI, are stirringly evocative of the animatronic “practical” monsters from 1979. Likewise, there are many moments that evoke the first film without replicating it; whether Scott refers to these as “callbacks” or not, a lot of people will, and they’re good ones. There also seem to be about four or five in-jokes that perhaps I didn’t get (and might not have been supposed to); is the musical The Phantom of the Opera name-checked because, say, Scott and Sir Lloyd Webber are mates and Ridley thought it’d be good for a giggle at the premiere?

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I had a great time throughout this darkly enchanting adventure. And rather incredibly, while the grim, scary action of the first and third acts is impeccably done, it was that long, meditative second act that I enjoyed the most. I might just have to get back on board Prometheus after all.

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*** (out of five)

Remarkably remaking his own father’s feature film Goodbye Pork Pie (remarkable for its rarity – who gets to do that?), Matt Murphy honours Geoff Murphy’s 1980 original – a milestone in New Zealand cinema – with loving care, identifying its mass appeal, correctly, not so much as being hysterically funny as being absolutely stuffed full of heart.

As in the original, three misfits travel the length of New Zealand, North to South, in a yellow mini. Jon (Dean O’Gorman) is a self-pitying author desperate to win back his ex-girlfriend; Luke (James Rolleston, Boy from Boy but now a handsome young man) is a small time thief; and Keira (Ashleigh Cummings, an Aussie doing an impeccable Kiwi accent) is a fast-food worker and passionate green activist. The way they’re thrown together is as improbable as everything else in the film, which is simply part of its charm.

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There’s barely any tension or conflict; Luke is such an unthreatening “criminal” that cops are more likely to help him than arrest him, and the cops in pursuit are amazingly slow and unorganised anyway (how hard can it be to stop an identified speeding mini travelling NZ, sometimes on the only roads available?) There isn’t much of a love triangle given that Jon’s set on his ex, leaving the obvious pairing up to Luke and Keira; it’s not like anyone’s shooting at anyone (well, not with any serious intent). It’s all just… good fun, really, a rollicking romp, and mindful to include re-stagings of all the original’s most memorable set-pieces (which are seared on the brains of anyone with access to a television in New Zealand since the eighties).

But boy (no pun intended), the heart and charm are plentiful, and by the end you’ll be missing this immensely sweet threesome. About as deep as Smokey and the Bandit, and just as winning.

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** (out of five)

Denial, about the lawsuit lodged by British Holocaust denier David Irving against the American historian, author and Emory University professor Deborah Lipstadt, is a depressingly inadequate movie; three excellent performances and undeniably gripping – and important – subject matter just manage to support a dunderheaded script, ham-fisted direction and a lead performance from Rachel Weiss that borders on the unwatchable.

Irving sued Lipstadt in the British courts for libel after she published, through Penguin Books, her 1993 magnum opus, Denying The Holocaust, which took aim at deniers such as himself. She fought the lawsuit in London with the legal team of solicitor Anthony Julius (Andrew Scott) and barrister Richard Rampton (Tom Wilkinson). Irving (Timothy Spall) represented himself. Needless to say, the case attracted reams of attention and was considered of massive import: as the movie never fails to remind us, essentially the historical occurrence of the Holocaust was on trial.

Subtle the script isn’t – and it’s by David Hare (who actually has written very few produced feature films). On the nose dialogue bangs and clangs loudly and frequently, exposition is vomited forth rather than layered in, information is repeated. Director Mick Jackson joins in the spoon-feeding; he has a particular affinity for cutaways designed to make sure we got it; when someone mentions, at Auschwitz, history being beneath their feet, we cut to their feet. Rampton’s fondness for alcohol is hammered home with endless (and I mean endless) close-ups of him opening bottles, pouring from bottles, handing out glasses of wine and so forth, but literally nothing is made of this, not dramatic tension (is it going to affect him?) nor irony (wow, the guy is brilliant and an alcoholic!) And a particular statue in London is burdened with too much symbolism for any prop to bear. Almost needless to add, Jackson overuses Howard Shore’s mediocre score; hearing it well up with every dramatic moment – in a film full of them – made me titchy and cross.

DENIALLuckily, Spall’s amazing performance manages to avoid such heavy-handedness, which is kind of a miracle. His smug, self-satisfied, creepy-lipped Irving is absolutely repellant, a lizard of a man, and can’t help but evoke the current American president. Spall is simply one of the best thespians in the world and Irving is one of his masterpieces. Playing the good guys, Wilkinson and Scott are both also excellent, which is particularly admirable in Wilkinson’s case as his character is the most interesting of the three and, in the world of this movie, therefore the worst written (see above, “endless shots of alcohol for no dramatic reason”).

But Weisz as Lipstadt… oof. For a start – but gratingly present throughout – there is her ear-torturing attempt at a Queens accent; it’s the aural equivalent of drinking cat piss. From there, two notes – pensive and screeching – attempt to convey a real person who, one can only hope, is far more complex and at least a teensy bit more likable. Weisz is in every sequence of the movie, and every time she speaks you wish she wouldn’t, which really works against some of the movie’s big ideas, including the defense team not calling survivors as witnesses.

Ultimately, this is a film about the law, not the Holocaust, with a despicable antagonist and, as portrayed here, an annoying protagonist. As such, despite the naturally intriguing nature of the material, it doesn’t feel justified, especially since many years have passed since the trial. Lipstadt herself has written, of Irving, “Let him fade from everyone’s radar screens.” So why is he on our big ones?

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***1/2 (out of five)

Warren Beatty’s fifth feature film as a director – and his first as an actor since Town and Country, sixteen years ago – is breezy, charming and fun fun fun. Like its auteur and its subject, it is simultaneously old-fashioned and au currant; its authentic retro-ness is also its badge of hip.

That subject is Howard Hughes, which is not to say that Hughes is the protagonist (as he was in Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator (2004).) That would be Hughes’ employee Frank (Alden Ehrenreich), a driver among Hughes’ stable of drivers hired to drive around Hughes’ stable of young female “starlets”, from the houses he put them up in to the ballet classes and beauty regimes he sent them to. The time is the 1960s, and Hughes’ ownership-like treatment of his young beauties – many of whom had yet to feature in a film during their incredibly weird apprenticeship – would be a throwback to a decades-ago studio contract system, if the studio contract system had been this strange.

Hughes himself was strange, and is portrayed as very much so by Beatty, who was 78 when he shot this but playing Hughes in his fifties. During the course of the film he develops a codeine addiction (the story spans six years) which seems to affect his judgement; he also had a raft of other mental difficulties, including pretty serious OCD, at least according to The Aviator. Being enormously wealthy, of course, he was called “eccentric” more often than “insane”, and “Mr. Hughes” by his multitude of employees even as he gave them ever more blatantly lunatic tasks.

As one of those employees, Frank has to abide by a raft of Hughes’ rules, one of which forbids assignations between the drivers and the “starlets”. The arrival of Marla Mabray (Lily Collins) throws a spanner in the works, as an attraction develops between her and Frank. Trouble is, she also has an intense fascination – a crush, really – on Hughes, setting the stage for a very tricky love triangle.

Collins is excellent, but Ehrenreich – who has been cast as the young Han Solo in the next Star Wars standalone – is sensational. He’s a Made Movie Star, as far as I’m concerned, purely on the basis of his performance here and in Hail, Caesar! He looks disarmingly like a young Leonardo DiCaprio (who played Hughes in The Aviator) but he looks smarter, and he’s funnier. He’s got it all, and I suspect he’s gonna get it all.

As for Beatty – he’s still got it, as an actor and a director. His Hughes is dynamic, funny and intriguing but refreshingly unsympathetic. The film is gorgeous – I mean, gorgeous – utilizing a heightened lighting style befitting a fable about Tinseltown. It’s generally zippy – the scenes are edited as leanly as is possible to imagine, giving new life to the adage “get in late, get out early”. But the third act lags and meanders, and its the screenplay’s fault. Beatty the writer was never as good as Beatty the actor, producer or director, and this effort shortchanges both the love story between Frank and Marla, and the character study of Hughes, by trying to do both at once. Still, it’s totally charming and absolutely worth two solid hours (and seven minutes, Hughes would be sure to add) of your time. Given his famously protracted deliberations, it is also almost certainly the last film we will ever get from Beatty the auteur. It’s a generous, warm, expansive and embraceable farewell.