In the small village of Magdala a young woman, Mary (Rooney Mara), rails against her narrow options. When she refuses an arranged marriage, her family deems her possessed by demons and attempts to have her purged. Then a strange, intense transient (Joaquin Phoenix) passes through town with a number of hangers-on, and Mary is swept up in his doctrine of peace and love. She joins his convoy, and together they head for Jerusalem. The rest of the story is quite well known.
This is Melbourne director Garth Davis’s follow-up to his smash-hit Oscar nominee Lion, and here he takes on a familiar story and gives it new life. There hasn’t been a film version of Mary Magdalene’s story for over a century, and this feels far more than a parable; it’s fresh and contemporary.
Despite having little agency in her role as a disciple (she goes from defying the men in her family to following another man), Mary commands the film from the start. Davis says Pakistani activist and the youngest Nobel Prize laureate Malala Yousafzai was an inspiration for the film, and Rooney’s performance uses that muse brilliantly.
Phoenix plays Jesus like a roaming cult leader with an otherworldly intensity and aloofness. His portrayal is far removed from the image of the clean, handsome saviour we have become accustomed to.
The Death of Stalin
No one does blistering political satire like Armando Iannucci, the writer of the film In the Loop, and TV series Veep and The Thick of It. He applies that same chaotic, farcical approach to Soviet Russia in his latest piece The Death of Stalin. And it’s some of his best work.
A power vacuum threatens the upper echelons of command after Joseph Stalin (here played like a cockney crime lord by Adrian McLoughlin) dies suddenly. (In the act he pisses himself on the floor of his office, but the guards are unwilling to assist because they’re not to disturb him on pain of death.) A stellar ensemble cast, including Steve Buscemi, Olga Kurylenko and Michael Palin, play the comrades fighting in the vacuum, scrambling for power in any way they can.
In the bizarre-but-largely-true Death of Stalin – made 65 years after the events depicted – the adage that comedy equals tragedy plus time seems correct. Huge laughs are drawn from the absurdity of Soviet propaganda and law, the ineptitude of the powerful, and the fact the whole country is in the grip of fear. A simple mistake or faux pas will likely lead to execution. This is more Dr Strangelove – the stakes are unbearably high and life is cheap. Which just makes it funnier.
The cast of British and American comedy royalty wear their Soviet garb with ridiculous aplomb, and play their roles with no regard for period accuracy. There are no comedy Russian accents here, thankfully, just a brilliant farce of politics and the self-serving idiocy that reigns behind the scenes.
The Death of Stalin is playing at Cinema Nova, Sun, Cameo, Lido, Classic, and Palace Cinemas Kino, Como, Westgarth, Balwyn and Brighton Bay. Watch the trailer and read our interview with director Armando Iannucci.
The Other Side of Hope
Syrian refugee Khaled (Sherwan Haji) has smuggled himself on a cargo ship bound for Helsinki to seek asylum. Meanwhile, small-time businessman Waldemar (Sakari Kuosmanen) buys a failing restaurant. Khaled has traversed borders, suffered racism and violence across Europe – Finnish bureaucracy is one last hurdle; one last insult. Waldemar offers him support, a bed and a job.
This witty, subtle and beautifully painted comedy-drama is supposedly the final work of Finland’s most well-known director Aki Kaurismäki. Visually, Kaurismäki’s Helsinki is like an Edward Hopper painting: richly coloured and stylised, but lonely and sparse. But these streets also harbour fascist gangs and overbearing police.
The experiences of the locals and the refugees are subtly contrasted in just a few snatches of dialogue. “I need some action after all this peace and quiet,” says a Finnish woman on the verge of retirement. “Dying is easy, but I want to live,” a fellow refugee tells Khaled while they await the state verdict on whether they’ll be sent home to Syria.
The Other Side of Hope is playing at Cinema Nova and Palace Cinemas Kino, Como, Westgarth, Balwyn and Brighton Bay. Watch the trailer.
Isle of Dogs
In a very Wes Anderson dystopian Japanese mega-city, a plague is spreading among the dog population. The cat-loving mayor exiles all dogs to Trash Island to fend for themselves. There, a scrappy bunch of mutts (voiced by Bryan Cranston, Edward Norton, Bob Balaban, Bill Murray and Jeff Goldblum) rescue a little boy, Atari (Koyu Rankin), who has travelled to Trash Island to rescue his own dog.
You either love Wes Anderson or you don’t. I like him a lot. Rich, poignant films like The Royal Tenenbaums, The Life Aquatic and The Darjeeling Limited go beyond their whimsical (but always beautiful) design and carry real depth and heart.
This is Anderson’s second foray into stop-motion animation (see also Fantastic Mr Fox, because it’s very good) and it’s visually as lavish as we’ve come to expect, but in a lot of other ways it’s Anderson’s slightest film.
With an ensemble also including Scarlett Johansson, Greta Gerwig, Harvey Keitel, Tilda Swinton and Yoko Ono, it’s so packed with cameos and side plots that nothing has much depth, and it’s hard to get a hold of exactly what Anderson is trying to say. Maybe he’s not trying to say anything – after all this is a family film about dogs and it doesn’t necessarily need to be anything more than 90 minutes of fun – but Anderson usually achieves all of these things at once. That said the jokes are very funny, and the animation and design are predictably gorgeous. If the rest of it leaves you a bit cold, you can at least look at the dogs.
Isle of Dogs opens on April 12. Watch the trailer.
Cruel Intentions (1999) and Wild Things (1998) double bill
In the nineties, sex thrillers were all the rage. Films with overheated names such as Basic Instinct, Indecent Proposal and Poison Ivy promised murder, double-crossing and seduction, pulling out old film noir tropes, dressing them up in high-powered ’90s fashion and dousing it all with wet-look hair gel. This month a double bill at the Astor looks back at two camp classics from the tail end of the trend. Your 2018 woke sensibilities might be scandalised.
In Cruel Intentions (1999), spoilt rich boy and occasional revenge-porn enthusiast Sebastian (Ryan Phillippe) takes on a bet to seduce virgin Annette (Reese Witherspoon). If he wins, his step sister Kathryn (Sarah Michelle Gellar) will “fuck his brains out” and let him “put it anywhere”. So the stakes are high. This skeezy farce is based on 18th century novel Les Liaisons dangereuses, and became the urtext for TV shows such as Gossip Girl and Pretty Little Liars, but it’s altogether sleazier. Cruel Intentions gestures towards some grand congress about sexual liberation, but largely settles for quick, coarse fumbles: all tongue and regret. But, you know, that can be fun sometimes. Expect dialogue and set-ups straight from porn and some bizarre, all-over-the-place performances, such as Selma Blair’s Lolita-esque Cecile (Blair was 25 at the time).
In Wild Things, a well-liked school guidance counsellor (Matt Dillon) is accused of sexual assault by two students. Are they lying? Spoiler: yes. Only a wily cop played by Kevin Bacon sees that the scam runs even deeper than that. Wild Things is mostly remembered for a scene involving Matt Dillon, Denise Richards, Neve Campbell and some champagne. Again, porn and stereotypical male fantasy are the main influences here. But the camp, twisty plot is worth revisiting. Bill Murray owns every scene he’s in, as if his Ghostbusters character retrained as a lawyer, and barely scraped his exam.