To Dad With Love

A Tribute to a Beloved Father

Film review: The Killing of a Sacred Deer

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In an affecting opening scene of Yorgos Lanthimos’ mythical new film The Killing of a Sacred Deer a heart is pumping. The actual human organ. In full public view. It is pumping. And pumping. For however many minutes too long. And the movie seems to hold its breath until a pair of blood-stained gloves is dropped into the bin.

With clean hands, Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell), the cardiothoracic surgeon, walks down the hospital corridor with a colleague, talking about expensive watches. At the day’s close he goes home to an affluent neighbourhood in a mid-Western American town where he lives with his wife Anna (Nicole Kidman), an opthalmologist, and their teenage daughter, Kim (Raffey Cassidy) and younger son, Bob (Sunny Suljic).

Life seems successful, blissful, perfect. So, for a while, one wonders about the relationship between this sure-footed doctor and a boy, Martin (Barry Keoghan), whom he keeps clandestine contact.

Suspicions of any secret sexual arrangements are quickly dispelled when Steven invites the 16-year-old to lunch with his family whom the young man goes on to charm. Then, as Martin insinuates himself more and more into the Murphy household, exploiting especially Kim’s innocent infatuation, a mysterious illness descends without warning on the children.

From Lanthimos’ choice of title, we will no doubt be drawn to the Greek legend in which following Argamemnon’s slaying of a deer that belonged to Artemis, the price the goddess demanded to release her hold on the wind — needed for the King’s ships to sail out to war — was the life of his own daughter, Iphigenia.

The director and co-writer, in transposing this ancient tale to a modern-day scenario, clearly wants us to see the way responsibility and justice can be brought on perpetrators of crime by worldly (or other-worldly) forces.

Soon, we learn about a medical misadventure years ago in which Martin’s father died while undergoing open-heart surgery carried out by Steven, who has had on that occasion too much to drink. And the deed he must now perform to break the curse upon Bob and Kim, delivered by the deceased patient’s surviving son, is as absurd as it is inconceivable.

Using astonishingly quotidian conversations (about body hair and lemonade and periods), and a deft air of eeriness, with Martin seemingly lurking at the edge of your consciousness, Lanthimos presents a horror story steeped in dark humour and retribution, quid pro quo and grisliness.

While a psychological thriller built on a well-known Greek tragedy is a novel concept, you cannot help but struggle to reconcile with the idea that Martin, the creepy, stony-faced, awkward youngster, bent on destruction is by parallel the goddess of wilderness, childbirth, virginity, Artemis.

Often pushed far inside the screen by Thimios Bakatakis’ wide-angled lens, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, unlike the Hellenic lore that allows for different possible endings, is about terminal sentence by birth, when hands are soaked indelibly in blood.

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Film review: That Good Night

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Dramatic depictions of mortality tend to tell a story of perspective and redemption. While Eric Styles’ screen adaptation of NJ Crisp’s play offers no major exception, the fact that John Hurt assumes the lead-role following his own real-life terminal diagnosis adds a profound dimension and pathos to this affecting film.

Handed with the grim prognosis of six months to live, Ralph (Hurt), a famous writer, makes plans with his private estate, and summons the semi-estranged son, Michael (Max Brown), to his luxurious Portugal residence.

Hopes of reconciliation quickly peter out when the septuagenarian, annoyed by the unexpected presence of Michael’s girlfriend, Cassie (Erin Richards), sets out to antagonise her at every turn.

Although his much-younger wife, Anna (Sofia Helin), is a former nurse, Ralph hides his predicament from her. Instead, he contemplates assisted-suicide in quieter moments, a preoccupation that translates into encounters with a nameless visitor (Charles Dance) who declares himself an agent of a discreet society that helps smooth transitions to after-life.

But as the visitor appears only to Ralph, is heard only by him and, when he shows up, is shrouded in a dream-like milky mist, dressed in an all-white suit as if of the celestial, one begins to suspect he is the personification of death.

As it turns out, it is during these blurrings of boundary between the different worlds of consciousness that perceptions are refracted, for truths to be revealed.

Some might say the ending of That Good Night is way too tidy, that resolutions in our quotidian existence are rarely as forthcoming. To me, though, the movie presents, through its sweeping landscapes and receding horizons in Richard Stoddard’s cinematography and Guy Farley’s pleasing score, what ultimately matters at the finish of our race on earth.

Anchoring these moving reflections is Hurt’s intense yet effortless performance. He holds the work together throughout this 92-minute production, sustained by an authenticity that is raw and relentless. In this, his last leading, act before passing on in January this year, Hurt only proves he shall most definitely “not go gentle into that good night”.

Film review: The Snowman

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More psychopathic cinema than coherent drama, The Snowman is a jumble of disjointed puzzle pieces, of which some do not even belong to the central picture.

At the centre is Harry Hole (Michael Fassbender), a brilliant but alcoholic police inspector in Oslo, who is now excluded from major cases. He maintains friendly relations with his ex-lover, Rakel (Charlotte Gainsburg), whose son still looks upon him as a de facto parent, despite the presence of another man, Mathias (Jonas Karlsson), in his mother’s life.

Recently, a new colleague, Katrine (Rebecca Ferguson), has joined the bureau. With her, Harry becomes embroiled in a missing-persons scenario that soon reveals itself part of an old and deepening serial-murder plot. The killer, seeming to be close on the pair’s heels, sends notes of or reports beforehand on impending crimes, then leaves a childish snowman at the scene after every event, like something of a signature.

Meanwhile, in what appears little more than a red herring, Katrine sets off on her own trail to a creepy industrialist whom she erroneously believes to be behind the entire operation which, we later learn, had led to her own father’s death.

And all the time that women are vanishing — women who all have chequered personal lives, Rakel, included — Harry’s rented apartment is (for totally obscure reasons) being de-moulded.

Fassbender is excellent as the brooding, intense problem-solver, but this latest feature, based on a novel by Jo Nesbo, from Tomas Alfredson casts so wide a net trapping superfluous flotsam and jetsam in the hoard that any propensity for emotional engagement has all but slipped away.

Fortunately, there is some saving grace to be found in the sweeping Norwegian ice-scape of Dion Beebe’s wonderful cinematography. When Harry staggers across powder-white plains in pursuit of his nemesis, thighs steeped in snow, we might for a moment forget the story surrounding him is that convoluted, unnatural, pathological.

Theatre review: Yerma

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An elemental feel pervades this radical revival of Federico Garcia Lorca’s 1934 tragedy. Simon Stone’s version uproots it from 20th-century rural Spain and transplants it in current-day London. His production is blunt, rather than poetic, focusing on the eponymous character, emphasising the physical. Yerma is barren-ness in Spanish. Despite conversations that suggest how the house she shares with her partner, John, is furnished, the set, enclosed within a glass-box — intimating, perhaps, the woman’s closeted, myopic view of her situation — is always nearly empty. It is a world in which lives and emotions are played out in full view to total strangers in our internet-age; here, Yerma’s anguish over her inability to fall pregnant is spilled across cyber-space through online confessions.

Played by Billie Piper, the protagonist is a senior lifestyle journalist who, trekking well into her 30s, is gripped by angst over the inexorable ticking of her biological clock. In contrast with Juan, the husband in the original script, who is a farmer, John is a frequent-travelling top-level executive. There is a fleeting allusion the trips may well be to disguise a paucity of desire for Yerma. But it remains, until the end, hard to discern whether John is selfish or sensitive. Either way, it becomes apparent, as time passes and no child appears, with Yerma moving increasingly towards breaking-point it is the absence of fecundity not fondling that despairs her.

This absence is made more potent when in one scene as Yerma and John are fussing soundlessly about a baby, the stage is decked out with actual couches and real tables. The infant belongs to Mary, Yerma’s sister, as it turns out. Things quickly return to the vacant normal after they leave. But the completeness has made the void more stark, and pronounced. The pain of childlessness is vividly conveyed.

We understand, hence, Yerma’s growing panic and debilitating feelings of helplessness. Yet, in an extravagant departure from Lorca’s work, no part of her deteriorating mental state can be attributable to any social pressure that was present in the conservative and deeply religious agricultural community. As a matter of fact, in this incarnation, both her sister and mother are entirely unmotherly, and even Yerma had herself defied gender definitions. Still, to be fair, one must concede there is probably little distinction by way of the weight upon her mind.

The brilliant, flawless acting by Piper is supported by Brendan Cowell in his fine portrayal of John. There is also good work from John McMillan as Yerma’s ensorcelling ex-lover, and Thalissa Teixeira, her junior colleague.

Brought from the theatre at Young Vic, London, to a cinema in Melbourne, Victoria, Yerma is a vigorous staging, compellingly performed, even if the power of the play may have been somewhat curtailed, despite its modern-time resonance, and psychological insight.

 

 

Film review: Final Portrait

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The appeal of Final Portrait grows and grows. It is an episode in the life of Alberto Giacometti who is renown for his sculptures and paintings. Written and directed by Stanley Tucci, the film is based on a true account documented in a book by James Lord, an American writer and art critic, about an event of which he was involved.

It is Paris 1964. James (Armie Hammer) has changed his reservation to depart for New York following an invitation from Alberto (Geoffrey Rush) to sit as his subject for a portrait. After all, it is merely over an afternoon, the young man has been made to understand. But, when 63-year-old Alberto suggests later, in passing, that a work can indeed never been finished, it appears obvious the New Yorker is set to stay on for a few more afternoons, and a few afternoons more.

In the — what turns out to be — 18 days he winds up having to delay his flight at huge personal expense, never mind to contend with an agitated lover pining for his return, however, James (and the audience) come to experience the revered painter in intimate and extraordinary fashion.

Self-critical and fully given over to his art, Rush’s stooped and grizzled Alberto seems to enjoy being depressed. “He is happy only when he is desperate and uncomfortable, ” says Diego (Tony Shalhoub), his calm and unassuming brother.

James, exasperated at the eccentricity that drives the artist to repeatedly wipe out what has already been accomplished, exclaims, “He seems determined to be completely dissatisfied.”

Perfectly dissatisfied,” Diego corrects him.

So, to the anguish of his long-suffering wife, Annette (Sylvie Testud) — herself guilty of (or perhaps driven to) infidelity — Alberto obsesses with a prostitute called Caroline (Clemence Poesy). Altogether unpredictable and careless with money his profligacy toward the young  woman is matched only by his meanness toward his spouse.

And all this time, as he sits again and again for his picture to be done, nearly at the end of his tether, swimming between sessions to relieve the physical and psychological strain, James remains impeccably polite, patient, self-restrained, in Hammer’s fine performance.

A clever and unexpected close arrives finally to end the vibrating tension. Tucci, known both for his acting and directing skills, has proven to be himself no less an artist, oiling the portrait of Giacometti with fascinating texture and exquisite nuance.

Theatre review: Loves Me /Loves Me Not

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JC Clapham tells us quite a lot of stories in his new story-telling comedy, many of them funny, some of them poignant, all of them heartfelt. Loves Me/Loves Me Not is a self-deprecating, charming, bone-deep portrayal of falling in love, losing it, finding oneself, plus all the heartaches and joys snuggled up in between. It is a portrait of disappointments and loneliness, shrouded under the impenetrable cloud of depression, wonderfully performed by the 35-year-old on the back of his successful debut with Humpty Dumpty Daddy.

Joel first encountered his (now) ex-wife 12 years ago through a working colleague who encouraged her visiting niece to contact him. On meeting her, the young man found himself at once enamoured by the guest’s various idiosyncrasies.

So, after a fairy-tale romance the love-birds tied the knot and went on to have three (premeditated) children. It was around the arrival of their third child, however, when things started unravelling, as familiar dark clouds began again to descend upon him. Arguments ensued, views diverged, and 18 months later with mutual agreement, the couple decided to part.

As anybody who has experienced break-ups will no doubt understand, the twilit liminal region between pair-bondedness and single-hood is probably one of the hardest to navigate. In his city bachelor’s pad Joel has turned to his pet-turtle for company. And, to find love again the handsome millennial has also returned to the dating scene, that invariably brings along new feelings of frustration and loss.

In this meditation on identity and reflection, delivered with delicate wit and humour, we relate with the intricate fabric of one talented man’s story, and witness his exceptional capacity for confidence and candour.

 

Film review: Mother!

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From the very first shots Darren Aronofsky’s Mother! unsettles, as an amorphous membrane heaves and pulsates, like some breathing organism. And, at the same time the walls of a house seem to be transmogrified, there are surreal impressions of fire and destruction. It will be a long time — a long time after we have left the cinema, perhaps — before we realise what they are, or at least represent. In the interim, more than enough horrors emerge with perverse ubiquity to keep us (reluctantly) occupied.

Bluntly hacked into two parts — one, about barren-ness, the other fecundity — and shot in crowded, intense colours, the film details the unravelling of a young woman (Jennifer Lawrence), and the life and home she has built around her poet husband (Javier Bardem).

The couple lives in a large isolated dwelling of countless rooms with cellars and hidden dungeons. We learn it had burnt down years ago, and Jennifer (for want of a character name) is trying to restore it to its early glory. Meanwhile, middle-aged Javier is suffering from writer’s block, and has been ignoring the needs of his youthful wife. And when a mysterious stranger (Ed Harris) arrives at the door, bringing along his sultry spouse (Michelle Pfeiffer), and their catalogue of troubles, Javier singularly welcomes them.

Unfolding with growing absurdity Mother! is the first movie at which I was on the very verge of walking out. Terror continues to mount when Jennifer falls pregnant and inspiration juices return for the self-centred Javier who, while basking in the runaway success of his latest publication, opens their house to a deluge of crushing, invading, looting fans.

With the use of hyperboles and tropes, Aronofsky shocks and disturbs us into recognising how some artists might do whatever it takes for the sake of celebrityhood or of their work. “Nothing is ever enough,” Javier says to a dying Jennifer. ” I would not be able to create if it was.” More than that, the writer-director through the relentless unspooling of gratuitous violence grills our minds into witnessing the damage wrought by humankind on mother Earth as they give in to endless excesses in pursuit of self-interests.

Amid all the untold chaos blood oozes out slowly and inexplicably from beneath a floor board, like our planet on a quiet haemorrhage. Yet, Javier will never notice this; his cares are invested in salvaging the (literal) stone of inspiration from among the ashes, and replaying the whole squalid chapter again (and maybe again).

 

Book review: The Childhood of Jesus

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JM Coetzee’s The Childhood of Jesus is a cryptic tale set in Novilla, a city populated by people who have accepted the chance to live. Upon arrival residents are given new names and washed of their memories. Life is sustained on an appetite of asceticism; and hunger, like desires and impulse, is regarded as “a dog in the belly” that must be starved. There is plenty of goodwill, and social welfare thinly lines everybody’s pockets.

Middle-aged man, Simon, fresh from the processing camp has tasked himself with tracking down the mother of David, a child he had met on the boat to this present life. The boy has no recollection of her and the letter in a pouch strung round his neck is lost. Ines — the woman whom Simon, guided by intuition, decides is David’s parent — dotes on her son with profligacy. But, the six-year-old turns out to be a handful at school, supposedly from ambiguity about his heritage. As the family flees from education authorities, David, while on the road, urges others to follow him.

Philosophical questions are a provocative motif in this complex and confounding novel that, written in taut, elegant prose, infuses an enigmatic country with symbolism and soul.

Theatre review: The One

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A man (Mark Storen) and a woman (Georgia King) encounter each other following “a summer of break-ups” when after a long time they find themselves single again. They make conversation, make love, fall in love. Soon, it has been two years since the nameless couple lived together, and things seem to be going well. Then, news arrives of his younger brother’s upcoming wedding that, when combined with the pressure of turning 40, prompts the man to want to advance his life through tying the knot.

Jeffrey Jay Fowler’s sobering account, a multi-award winning work first seen in Western Australia that now comes to Melbourne as part of the Fringe Festival, is an unflinching examination of the impermanence of intimacy in a relationship, and the confusing role of marriage in reversing this inevitability.

The man believes only by being husband and wife he can be relieved of the constant anxiety of losing the woman; when challenged, he lashes out that formalising status alone will compel people who have fallen out of love to fall back into love.

Interspersing third-person narratives with first-person embodiments, as the characters seamlessly segue in and out of scenes, Fowler uses rap and action and songs to tell the (ubiquitous) story, presenting perspectives and counter-perspectives on this universal tradition whose relevance appears to be atrophying.

Despite feeling terrible for turning down his sincere, down-on-one-knee proposal, the woman remains impervious in her conviction the legal arrangement is a mere mechanism to confer ownership of her future to the man, like chattel. Defiantly, she insists she prefers to wake in the morning, and choose to be with him, rather than allow any government to make that choice.

The play is delivered with plenty of energy and finesse in an absorbing production that reverberates with poetry and humour and utter realness. While sometimes funny this 60-minute rarest of gems is ultimately a portrait of the way we instinctively try to protect ourselves from getting hurt, by avoiding or pursuing matrimony, whatever the gender.

King gives a wonderfully intense performance: assertive, vulnerable, panic-struck by turns. She is most memorable in her portrayal of the inebriated guest at the brother’s wedding party mocking the whole celebration. And deeply we feel for Storen’s romantic, idealistic man, his consummate skills as a musician — liquid, melodious voice riding on waves of strings — connecting one with our softer, often-buried, forgotten sides.

Under Fowler’s exceptional direction The One is erotic not only through the artfully graphic script: the enactment of the man’s nightmare, for example, in which he dreams of being a strong, lusty, wild cave-man on a quest to possess the sensual, wet, sultry cave-woman is breath-y and angry and (in the scorching lighting) hot.

Faultlessly, this is the kind of theatre that will send lovers and un-lovers into complex and confronting journeys as they study their own bedroom affairs.

Film review: Hampstead

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In Hampstead acting veteran Diane Keaton plays Emily, a recent-widow in late middle-age, whose only inheritance is a tower of debt and bitter memories of her husband’s infidelity. She has an adult-son, Philip (James Norton), who holds his deceased father in high-esteem, something Emily never tries to blemish.

Emily lives evasively: despite her financial woes, she maintains an infrugal lifestyle and continues to volunteer at a charity shop, hoping the accountant with a romantic agenda could pull her out of the mire. In the attic she stumbles upon a pair of binoculars that she uses to spy on Donald (Brendan Gleeson), a vagrant, in a shrubland across the road.

Having occupied the block of disused site for 17 years, the Irishman has set up a comfortable shack where he grows his own food, generates his power. But, because Hampstead Heath has become prime real estate, Donald finds himself served up with eviction notices and physical threats.

Based in part on a true story around Harry Hallowes, a homeless man, who in 2007 challenged squatter-removal orders in the courts and won, this new feature by Joel Hopkins is a feather-light love-comedy. Here, Donald is an endearing mixture of stubborn-gruff and vulnerability and tenderness, one who after succumbing to human weakness in the past is determined to keep his home and way of life.

Keaton gives Emily the idiosyncracies and flightiness of a woman longing to be swept off her feet in her silver-years. The broken heart she suffers when the man she loves resists her plans for their future is convincing.

Yet, while some may find Hampstead heart-warming — even cute — the serendipitous encounter feels too much like a plot mechanism, short on persuasion (and weight).

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