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Whit Stillman’s novelisation of his screenplay. Austen’s original was unfinished and published as Lady Susan after her death.

***1/2

Whit Stillman’s fifth feature film – and first adapting material – is an adaptation of a previously unfilmed Jane Austen novella, Lady Susan, which he has renamed Love and Friendship. It’s a jaunty, spiffy, upbeat and pacy movie, the kind where everyone is too busy being witty, flirtatious and tart to sit down.

Stillman’s previous films – the thematic trilogy Metropolitan (1990), Barcelona (1994), The Last Days of Disco (1998) and Damsels in Distress (2011) – are united by their sparkling, erudite, literary and witty dialogue and their concern with a particular class of American folk, being the upper, and often the upper of the Upper East Side. One can easily understand why the strict codes of behaviour of Austen’s world would appeal to Stillman; London was the Manhattan of her day, and the country estates outside it essentially stand-ins for those of Upstate New York, Connecticut or the Hamptons. It’s a perfect fit, and, happily, Stillman works it well.

He could have quite easily chosen to modernise the source material and fit the story more directly into his regular milieu (as films such as Clueless, From Prada To Nada and Bridget Jones’s Diary have successfully done) but has chosen to keep it in period, delightfully. The beautiful (if limited – supposedly he was working off a $3m budget) estates, costumes and interiors allow Stillman to deliver his most cinematically engaged film yet, and, given its provenance, I suspect it may also end up being by far his most economically successful.

He reunites Kate Beckinsale and Chloë Sevigny from The Last Days of Disco as Lady Susan and her friend Alicia Johnson, two friends who have been forbidden to see each other by Johnson’s domineering husband (played briefly but perfectly by Stephen Fry, who grows larger, and whose nose grows more gloriously crooked, with every film). Lady Susan is a widow with an iffy reputation and a troublesome daughter, and her nefarious attempts to rectify those problems send her careening from London, through two different estates, and back again, involving many a relative, suitor and footman along the way.

Beckinsale is terrific as a gorgeous devil who knows perfectly well how to handle herself in every situation, and Xavier Samuel, as a young man central to her plans, is (to use that critic’s cliché) a “revelation”: this young Aussie, who has been bouncing around Australian roles and Hollywood fare such as the Twilight saga, fits perfectly into waistcoat, breeches, clawhammer coats, cropped curls and sideburns. He is the very model of a modern Austen gentleman.

Love and Friendship is only laugh-out-loud funny sporadically, and there is far less emotional engagement available than in mature Austen works such as Pride and Prejudice, Emma and Sense and Sensibility. Nevertheless, the film is always sparkling fun, and a completely worthy addition to the Austen canon by someone who obviously cared very much to contribute.

If you live in Australia, you’re in movie-goers luck right now: the two best dramatic features thus far this year are currently in cinemas, and the best feature length documentary opens on 18 August.

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Sing Street and Goldstone are two very different propositions; I use that word as a deep cut reference to The Proposition, which, like Goldstone, is an Australian western. Goldstone is simultaneously full-genre and full-arthouse; it religiously revers The Western and The Detective Story while subverting both with its milieu and its staunch insistance on character development over plot tidiness. (Think less The Maltese Falcon, more The Big Sleep; less The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and way more The Searchers). Its stunning imagry rivals that of The Revenant of last year; its gaze is far more ordered than that film’s, though; the formal components of the shots are celebrated, and the shots themselves are magnificent. Like Mystery Road before it, Goldstone features another supurb turn from Aaron Pederson, who is one of Australia’s true movie stars: whatever it is, he’s got it.

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There is zero ambiguity to the plot of Sing Street; you could follow it with your eyes closed, and that’s part of its appeal. This is a movie that sounds. It sounds with the music, it sounds with the beautiful dialogue beautifully spoken by beautiful Dublin accents from gorgeous, generous performers, and it sounds with the romance of life. Straightforward yet poetic, tough yet hopelessly romantic, charming yet gritty, funny yet sad, Sing Street, after Once, is John Carney’s second masterpiece.

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Tickled, which opens on 18 August, is far too brilliant for me to say anything about it. It wouldn’t be fair, to audience member or filmmaker; this is one of those docs where the less you know, the better, becuase every single twist in the tale is surprising, and the best of them are head-spinning, jaw-dropping, and hysterical. Suffice to say that it’s a Pandora’s Box; a New Zealand entertainment reporter, rather innocently reseaching an audition notice for “Endurance Tickling”, gets drawn deeper and deeper into a dark, obsessive quest, with results both funny and deeply disturbing. Of these three movies, this was the one I was most completely taken with, and is my current “favourite” movie of 2016.

There have been some disappointments already this year: Money Monster, The Meddler, Everybody Wants Some!! and First Monday In May promised a lot more than they delivered. There have been some excellent surprises and gifts from nowhere: The Witch, The Invitation, Green Room, Hail Caesar!, Bad Neighbours 2, Warcraft. And there was How To Be Single, which was excreable.

The ships are lining up for the second half of the year, the “classy half.” It’s almost a certainty that Goldstone, which pretty much only has an Australian market, and Sing Street, which has been underwhelming at the box office in the US, will not be in the running for, say, the Best Picture Oscar. Tickled should be in the running for Best Feature Documentary, but it faces a Goliath in O.J.: Made In America, which was shown in its 7.5 hour entirety in enough LA and NYC theatres to be eleigible (and I’m glad; it’s great). So see these films nowish, before you get caught up in the then.

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If you’ve seen the trailer to Swiss Army Man, you may want to save your money and skip the movie. The film has some deliriously beautiful moments, but unfortunately, they’re given away for free in that ad – beautifully, hugely, with full score, intact in the dark. All the best moments are shown – so what are you left plunking down twenty bucks to see?

As it turns out: not much. Every single trick is in that trailer. The reminder of the film is an often straining re-hash of Castaway via Weekend At Bernie’s, Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia and almost anything by Michel Gondry. It may be a call to arms for same-sex marriage, it may be a call to arms for mental health funding: it’s hard to tell, as the central metaphor of the film is very, very muddied. Outside of some brief but extremely engaging snatches of dynamic cinema (that are all in that trailer), the rest of the film is often boring, consisting of long stretches of pontificating on the nature of love, loneliness and longing, delivered by Paul Dano to a corpse played by Daniel Radcliffe. Dano’s shipwrecked; Radcliffe is a corpse who may be the key to Dano’s salvation – not just physical, but emotional. It’s not a stretch for Dano; it’s a huge stretch for Radcliffe, as it would be for any actor, playing a corpse that gets manipulated as, yes, a Swiss Army Knife.

There are about three amazing minutes in this film. The fact that they are almost entirely given away in the trailer is not only annoying, it’s perverse. Directors Daniel Scheinert and Dan Kwan have made some intriguing shorts and music videos; this feels like an awesome couple of those padded out to a very long 97 minutes.

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****1/2

John Carney’s Sing Street is a total delight from start to finish, and the best film about the pure joy of making music since We Are The Best! (2013), with which it shares similarities. Like that exuberant, inspiring film, Sing Street is about a group of kids forming a band in the 1980s. The girls in We Are The Best! were in Stockholm, and their aesthetic was punk. The boys of Sing Street – also the name of the band they form – are from Dublin; it is 1985, and they claim to be “futurists”, constantly being influenced by the likes of Duran Duran, Joe Jackson, A-Ha, The Clash, The Jam, M, The Style Council and The Cure.

It is also a completely engaging, hugely romantic love story. Sing Street’s lead singer (and Sing Street’s protagonist) is Conor, a fifteen year old who gets shifted from a private school to a free Christian Brothers school as his family – which includes an older brother and sister – decides to cut costs in the face of a very depressed Ireland. Across the road from the school sits an older girl – sixteen year old Raphina – who aspires to move to England and become a model. Conor offers to put her in the music video his band is making. Now all he needs to do is form the band.

Ferdia Walsh-Peelo, as Conor, and Lucy Boynton, as Raphina, are superb; Boynton in particular will be a massive star by next year, mark my words. Jack Reynor, who already is a bit of a star, is also terrific as Conor’s older brother, who guides his musical education while also tenderly guiding him through the obvious domestic upheaval going on around them. The rest of the band members, while adjacent characters dramatically, are all hugely engaging in their many rehearsal, performance and, in particular, music video production scenes (shot on a clunky VHS unit).

This completes a “music trilogy” of sorts for Carney, following Once (2007) and Begin Again (2013, which I have not seen). I adored Once; like that film, Carney shoots Sing Street in a rough-hewn, handmade style, aided by impeccable period detail and design. Also like Once, the film crackles with the excitement of discovery: Walsh-Peelo and Boynton, like Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová in the earlier film, will, quite simply, steal your heart.

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***

How do you solve a problem like Greta Gerwig? In almost every film she’s in, she begins by derailing your artistic sensibilities by drawing attention to the artifice of the activity you’re engaged in: you’re watching a movie, and she is an actress, standing in front of a camera, speaking lines that someone has written for the movie you’re watching. The dialogue sounds like dialogue, not like real life.

Then you realize that, while the actors around her may not seem as constructed as Miss Gerwig, they’re not as funny, either. She may seem like a vehicle of the writer, but she also seems like the perfect vehicle of the writer. She is hitting every beat, getting every intended joke, inflection, intended line reading. She is the writer’s advocate.

Finally, by the end, you’ve fallen in love with her all over again. This is Gerwig’s crazy, strange, unique skill: she challenges you to like her at the beginning of each film she’s in, and by the end you would do anything for her. She seduces you in every role, over and over, and she always wins.

It’s lucky writer / director Rebecca Miller got Gerwig to centrally ground her film Maggie’s Plan, then, because without her it would lie charmless and flat. As a script – and, especially, as a piece of direction – it’s a copy of a copy of a copy of Woody Allen – a fourth generation Xerox. Extremely erudite, educated, very white New Yorkers navigate love while talking about each others’ writing. Ethan Hawke is the man; Julianne Moore is the other woman. “Maggie’s Plan” is the hinge the plot swings on, and, while slender, it has enough bolts to warrant not revealing it. (The trailer is not so respectful – avoid it if you don’t want most elements of Maggie’s plan revealed).

This is a movie of quiet smiles and the occasional laugh; it’s barely a comedy, and yet it’s only a comedy; the stakes, while genuine for the characters, are superficial for the audience, and hardly worthy of the lofty title of drama. Gerwig saves the day, the movie, and justifies your visit to the cinema. She works in a rarefied world of highly literate, literary, urban, independent cinema. Hollywood probably doesn’t want her and she probably doesn’t want Hollywood. Thank goodness. It means she makes movies like Maggie’s Plan, which is otherwise unremarkable, watchable. I guess there is no problem like Great Gerwig, or if there is, she solves it herself, one erudite, literate movie at a time.

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***

Dwayne Johnson is a big movie star, and that’s an intended pun: these days, his muscles must be acknowledged before a story can commence. Central Intelligence, a reasonably entertaining take on old-school buddy action movies, takes this acknowledgment to new heights: in the vernacular of the movie, it gets meta on our ass.

The gag is that Johnson’s character was the “fat kid” in high school, and everything he does now that he’s forty or so is colored by over-compensating for this. So he’s huuuuge (“I worked out six hours a day for twenty years”) and he’s also the CIA’s most deadly rogue agent – or something like that. Unlike The Nice Guys, the other recent buddy movie throwback, Central Intelligence does not have an important plot. Hell, it doesn’t really have a plot.

What is does have is chemistry between Johnson and Hart, which is the sole and entire reason to see the movie. Who cares what it’s about? They’re in practically every scene together and they play off each other well. There is a surprising amount of gunplay (and death, which I wasn’t expecting); there is a refreshing lack of sentimentality. There’s an anti-bullying message hidden in there somewhere, too, possibly between Johnson’s biceps brachial and scapula. But you can listen to Sia, Rihanna, Swift or Perry for that. See this movie for Da Boyz; they’ll be back soon, in a remake of Jumanji. And the inevitable sequel to Central Intelligence. 

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Like many, I went through a serious Miles Davis phase. When, a couple of years ago, I heard that Don Cheadle – one of current cinema’s most dynamic actors – was going to play Davis in a movie, I got excited. The match seemed perfect. Cheadle is an adaptable actor but through all his characters there is a sense of magnificent self-regard tempered by great intelligence. Perfect for Miles.

The good news is that Cheadle’s performance in Miles Ahead, which is also his debut feature film as a director (he also co-wrote the script), is sublime, everything you’d want it to be. He’s got the look, the poise, the voice, the hubris, the supreme arrogance, the wit, the smarts, the fear – the whole package. Davis wrote a rather unconventional and extremely intimate memoir, so the things going on inside his head are available, and Cheadle has obviously plundered like a pirate. His Davis feels like the man who not only wrote the book but played the horn. (Incidentally but crucially, Cheadle’s trumpet playing in the film always looks – to my unskilled eye at least – damn perfect). The film portrays Davis in the 50s, 60s and 70s, and Cheadle strikes perfect notes in them all.

The other good news is that the movie looks absolutely sensational. Cinematographer Roberto Schaefer shot all of the material that takes place in the 50s and 60s on Super 16mm, and the grain effect he achieves, combined with the immaculate period art direction of Korey Washington and production designer Hannah Beachler, not only makes the film feel as though it was shot in period but also routinely and eerily mimics the look of Davis’ album covers from the time. The effect is that those photographs, burned into the memories of those of us who revere Davis, spring to life as scenes. It’s very, very clever.

Unfortunately, all of this brilliant, top-notch work is undermined by a seriously misguided script. The scenes set in the 50s and 60s deal specifically with Davis’ doomed relationship with his wife Frances (Emayatzy Corinealdi, from The Invitation) while the “contemporary” action, the stuff set in the 70s – when Miles was long-haired, wild, and living in hibernation in his NYC Brownstone – is a silly and mostly invented buddy flick that sees Miles team up with a Rolling Stone reporter, Dave Brill (Ewan McGregor) to recover a stolen session reel. Because this section is so patently false, it has no gravity, no stakes, and its frustrating emptiness colours the truer, more emotionally engaging marriage story. Worse still is that both stories consistently undermine each other by butting in and ruining the momentum; neither ever gets up a fair head of steam, with the result that the film becomes drawn-out and, I hate to say, boring: something a film about Miles Davis really can’t afford to be.

There’s no rule, artistic or otherwise, to say we can’t speculate or have fun with a real person in the context of a fictional work, but the shenanigans that take up well over half of Cheadle’s film simply aren’t dramatically engaging. They’re not just an invention, they’re a bad invention. It’s a great shame, because so many of the elements of this film are truly wonderful – enough, actually, to just justify a trip to the cinema. Recommended with serious reservations.