Mary Magdalene

Joaquin Phoenix as Jesus

One of the reasons I wanted to see this is to get some idea of what Judaea might have been like back then – so, for historical reasons. And the opening scenes encouraged me to think that I might learn something – Greig Fraser’s photography is very good, and the landscape looked suitably unhospitable.

The only work that seems to be going on is herding and fishing, and Mary M seems to be a fisherman’s daughter. Everyone seems to be living in hand-to-mouth abject poverty. But as soon as ‘the Healer’ appears on the scene, everybody stops working. Mary literally drops the tool she’s using to mend a net and goes to join the merry band of disciples. Well, at least one of them seems to be inappropriately merry, as Jesus himself seems to be pretty miserable, and probably a bit deranged.

Joaquin Bottom (his birth name) is 43, but looks older – and much older than the 30-33 Jesus is supposed to have been, and not nearly as turn-the-other-cheek as the guy in the Bible. In fact, he does look quite like a rebellious insurgent – what we would now call a ‘terrorist’.

My main gripe about the film – as it was about Lion, Davis’s only other film – is that he clearly cannot direct actors, and has no global concept of the artwork (the film) as a whole (yes, I realise I can’t claim to know that – let’s say I intuit it). Phoenix is all over the place emotionally, and it’s hard to see that he has a lived-in core idea of what his version of Jesus is like.

Joaquin’s partner IRL is … Rooney Mara. It was probably contractual that if she took a role, so did he – or the other way around. Do they have sex in the film? … How dare I mention it! Of course they couldn’t. It would be something like sacrilege.

Redskin superhero?

There’s a bit of fuss atm about Black Panther (Ryan Coogler, 2018) the film which has given the American world its first Marvel Comic African-American superhero.

So that’s all good and fine, and as it should be. The descendants of former slaves are now proudly free and reclaiming their African-ness.

But what about the first people? Why is there no superhero arising out of the culture of the people who were there first?

Swinging Safari

Stephan Elliott has directed more, but let’s consider six films. He wrote Frauds (1993), and it’s a most remarkable first feature. It already displays the main characteristic of most of Elliott’s films: it’s hard to classify. I have, somewhat reluctantly, to get out the rather broad term ‘surrealism’ – because I can’t think of another word that goes some way towards capturing the way Elliott’s imagination takes a detour, a diversion away from psychological realism. Which makes it difficult  to empathise with characters or story.

Then, immediately, we come to his masterpiece (in both senses of the word). Priscilla (1994) is implausible and outrageous, but it’s also something with which anyone who has been the least bit marginalised can relate to. And it was a great success.

Elliott didn’t write Welcome to Woop Woop (1997) but one feels he might have. This is one is less surreal and more fantasy/scifi/speculative, but it is outrageous, both in terms of spectacle (another Elliott characteristic) and sexual explicitness. Anyone who’s seen it will first recall: Rod Taylor dancing on the pub bar with with his boots wired to a car battery; second, Barry Humphries in a blindman cameo; and third: Rogerson Hammerstein [sic]. But I suspect not enough people did see it, and it made a loss (tbc).

So Elliott had to pull his head in and make some conventional films, like Eye of the Beholder (1999) a ‘mystery thriller’ of which I don’t think anyone is proud.

Then it was back to Australian comedy with A Few Best Men (2012), not written by Elliott. I did see this, but don’t feel qualified to say much about it (I think it’s a bromance), as I can hardly remember it – and anyway the memory has been obscured by the sequel A Few Less Men – which is not an Elliott film. One thing I’m sure about is that Lamprell’s effort is much worse.

And finally – for now at least – Swinging Safari (2018) – and the reason for which I wanted to write this little piece starting with Frauds – because we’re back into the ambiguous territory of the unempathetic. In any else’s hands this would have been a farce and a satire. It’s about wife-swapping in a past recent enough for many people to remember with amusement rather than nostalgia. Bringing Guy Pearce (now a superb, mature actor) back together with Kylie Minogue could have caused a great wave of fun – and affection – to wash over cinemas. But it didn’t happen. The characters are all kept at a distance in Elliott’s museum of Believe it or Not.

It tries (too?) hard to be comical, and repeatedly misses the mark. Whereas in Welcome to Woop Woop, the hyperbole just becomes weird, in this we should be in the realm of satire, but Elliott doesn’t have enough the ability to maintain the charitable malice required for that.

Australian Cinema

I used to talk about Australian films with people because I’m enthusiastic about the films. I have had a very large website about Australasian films on the internet for twenty years now.

But it’s usually only a couple of minutes into any conversation when my interlocutor is moved to say something (usually derogatory) about the Australian film industry. By which he (it’s alway a man) means to refer the cinema’s ability to make money, which he implicitly or not compares to Hollywood, and he finds (surprise!) that an Australian film makes less money than an American one (he’s thinking of a ‘blockbuster’, and comparing them with the modest film we had been talking about). He then proceeds to identify the one thing that’s ‘wrong with the Australian industry’ – based on the two or three Australian films he’s seen or can recall.

I now avoid talking with people about Australian films.

The Shape of Love Serenade

Tales have been told for thousands of years about creatures which are part human and part water-creature. These hybrids are usually female in Graeco-Roman and European myth and legend, but British Islanders have also imagined male varieties.

Odysseus’s dangerous Scylla is an ancient example of the former, while the part-seal creature in the Scottish legend of the Silkie of Sule Skerry (as in the folk song) is one of the latter. The Loreley on the Rhein started out as just a big rock, but came to have a malevolent presence and eventually a female form.

These creatures make their way into works of art, such as painting, but notably also opera, in the form of the Rhine Maidens in Wagner’s Ring. They occasionally also venture into feature films, a notable but ambiguous example being Neil Jordan’s Ondine (2009) in which it’s Colin Farrell who has the encounter.

And there is even an Australian example: Selkie (2000). Donald Crombie’s film is intended for a young audience, and more about coming-of-age than the supernatural. The alien transformation is a metaphor for the changes of adolescence.

I understand all these imaginations as stemming originally from an aspect of animism – which sees a soul in all things. It’s one more small step to imagining that these things with souls – such as rocks and water – look surprisingly like human beings, and then one more to making them part-human.

If the creature is completely alien, as in Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water (2017) then the opportunity presents itself to investigate another metaphor: to do with the problem of communication. One sub-text of the story is about cultural collision – shown here as the absence of a shared language, and the best thing about the film is the way it deals with that.

Does Love Serenade (Shirley Barrett, 1996) belong to the same family of narratives? In both stories the male is also a fish – or behaves like one: breathing under water. In both cases he successfully seduces the maiden. Is Ken Sherry a silkie?

I say, narratologically, no! The shapes of the stories differ.

Whereas in the ancient legends and in Ondine and The Shape of Water, the ambiguous creature emerges from its watery element at the beginning of the narrative, and the encounter takes place in that context, Shirley Barrett’s story begins in (bucolic) suburbia, and one of the points of the film is the depiction of the barrenness of the sisters’ existence in Sunray. When the new bloke turns up next door, he may appear to have an exotic charm to Dimity and Vicki-Ann, but we viewers can see that he is merely an old sleazebag.

So when the first fishy event occurs, it comes out of the blue, and the ending of the film lurches into another mode of being – which cannot be explained by anything in the narrative!

This kind of non sequitur is what happens in dreams – and therefore also in surrealism, which is the best hermeneutic to explain this film.

The brilliant charm of this unusual film comes from the fact that it so successfully situates its small group of characters in their ordinary houses in their tiny tawdry town – and then throws all that out of the window in the last scene, and says: Surprise!

Lady Bird

A pleasant domestic story, so in that sense not completely unlike Brooklyn, one difference being that Ronan does this one with a Californian accent, whereas in the other she drew on her genealogical background to play someone from Ireland. I didn’t believe for more than a moment that she was 17 (she was about 22), but it didn’t impede plausibility generally. This young lady has far to go. She won’t win the Oscar because Frances McDormand and Sally Hawkins are in the queue ahead of her, but she may if she gets the right part later.

I was amused to learn that Sacramento (the capital) is the ‘mid-west of California’. I guess that wherever you happen to grow up can seem tedious, even if it is Paris or Machu Pichu.

(When I first heard the title I wondered why anyone would make a biopic about Lyndon Johnson’s wife. They could have thought of a different name with a similar effect.)

Get Out

This is a genuine thriller. If you don’t know what’s going to happen, it can have a real effect: it did on me.
Get Out (Jordan Peele, 2017) prod. Sean McKittrick, Jason Blum, Edward H. Hamm, Jordan Peele; Daniel Kaluuya, Allison Williams, Catherine Keener; nominated for Best Film Actor; nominated for Best Actor Oscar: Daniel Kaluuya

Darkest Hour

If you’d told me in 1996 when Idiot Box was released, or in 2000 with Sample People, or 2001, with Mullet, and above all in 2010, when Animal Kingdom came out, with Ben Mendelsohn superb as a loser, small-time career criminal, that Mendo would get to play the King of England in 2017, I would have lolled. I think Ben would have too. But here he is doing quite a plausible representation of Geo VI – tho HRH his daughter would almost certainly disagree.

Oh, and there’s this other guy, a Londoner, in the part of the PM. Unfortunately for my estimation of Oldman, I happen to live three doors from an actor who has recently played Churchill in a stage play. I worked with James Hagan on my front verandah reading in lines for him as he prepared for the role, and I have to say that I could believe that I was in the presence of Churchill himself when James was six feet away, with no (four-hour) makeup on: just acting – mostly with his amazing voice.

That digression is my self-disqualification for commenting on Oldman’s performance – which is pretty much the point of the film’s existing. It’s one of those specific acting exercises – which has been carried out by Robert Hardy, Albert Finney, Michael Gambon, Timothy Spall, Brendan Gleeson, and so on. Churchill created himself to some extent: the V sign, the cigar, the elocution, and it’s not surprising that it’s a recurrent challenge to re-create him.

Call Me By Your Name

As a homosexual love story, this is not something to which I relate. However, that’s mostly relegated to the third act. I saw the film mainly in relation to its setting, in both social and geographical terms. It’s set in the Italian countryside (but could also be in France, as French is spoken as much as Italian), and in the bosom of a charming family, in whose company I felt like a welcome visitor.

I saw Chalamet in Lady Bird, where he comes across a spoilt American brat, unlike here, where he is sophisticated and charming. I’m not sure how much of this is his acting (he’s so young) and how much the effect of the design and direction  (Luca Guadagnino, 2017).